the fear of being out

I can remember that it all started when the ringleader boy looked at my legs and commented on their hairiness. The ringleader was a tall kid who was one of the first to pubescence, new to school and had a lesbian mother – none of this seems accidental in retrospect.

After that, he was able to engage almost every boy in the class with the exception of a few in giving me sexual nicknames, commenting on my body, checking my back for a bra strap, and, most damagingly, chasing me around and touching all over my body nonconsensually.  This lasted for most of the school year and was targeted at me individually.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of organized sexual harassment by a gang of boys in my public school.  At the first peak of awkward transition to adolescence almost every boy I knew touched my body in unwanted ways and made fun of me. I was not protected by anybody. I was effectively terrorized for being a girl, for not being enough of a girl, for not being the right kind of a girl.

silenceisnotprotection

Silence ≠ Protection by Crista Facciolla, Print. Organize. Protest.

I would now call this experience sexual violence. And yes, as an adult I can see that these boys probably participated more out of their own fear of being singled out and having their masculinity questioned than for any other reason. None of that makes it ok, however, or frankly matters very much to me, because if we didn’t live in a rape culture shot through with toxic masculinity in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened. And it was traumatic.

I felt like I had to hide what the boys were doing to me. I was made complicit in their terrorism. I’m still not sure I’ve disentangled why I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. The simplest reason is shame. It was just so fucking embarrassing. If I was going to tell someone – an adult – I would have had to also tell them the insults and the things that the boys said. This would have meant discussing sex with that adult and relaying the insults that were said about me. I was way too embarrassed to do either thing.

If I told an adult what the boys were saying about me, I would have had to repeat the insults that were flung at me. In retrospect, it takes an awful lot of self-confidence to repeat the heinous thing someone else has said about you. Repeating it seems to just make it actually real.

After several months of this experience, something happened right in front of my teacher. I hoped that finally this would put a stop to the torment I was experiencing without me having to tattle, but the teacher did nothing. (There can also be no way he hadn’t observed anything before that because there were several incidents every single day.) It has taken me 25 years to tell this story to anyone, perhaps because when my teacher who I loved and trusted failed so completely to intervene, I decided that there was something wrong with me or that there would be no point in talking.

Instead I tried to find ways to resolve the problem myself.  Apparently I tried to fit into the kind of femininity that was suggested. If my back was going to be checked for bra straps, then I was going to wear a bra every day. No matter that I didn’t need one, that they were uncomfortable, that my mother was confused and that I was too embarrassed to even be seen looking at them in the store. I was going to be wearing one each time some boy checked my back and maybe they’d move along and not yell about it.

I went home and shaved my legs. I didn’t ask for any help with that either. I didn’t want to start a conversation or argue with my mom about whether I was too young, so I opted for stealing supplies in the shower and cutting the shit out of my legs instead. At least the cuts indicated that I had taken the hint and shaved. I was complying.

But something happened when I watched the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette. I wanted to tell this story for the first time. In the special, Gadsby tells the story of being beaten up by a man who thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, and the thought struck me like lightning: have I continued being just on the right side of feminine out of fear of exactly this kind of male violence?

Like Gadsby, I too was a raised in a household where there seemed to be anxiety about my sexuality and sometimes openly expressed fear about how difficult life would be if I turned out to be gay. It was clear that it would supposedly be ok but it would also make everyone somehow sad. Much of this fear was just that, fear, and it was well-meaning, but it transmitted to me as a message that only certain ways of being were OK. Simultaneously, no adults were protecting me from the risks at school of male violence and I was under constant pressure at home to be more feminine.

I don’t think I can draw a straight (hah) line to explain how or why anything happened, but as I grew up I adopted a style that would hide my feminine body to deflect attention and yet I think I made modifications to remain “female.” At least just female enough. I didn’t want to (re)create the possibility of violence by being too masculine, nor did I want to attract attention with my body.  I’ve never felt as if I “belonged” in most highly feminine clothes, but looking back now I see what has held me back from going full-on butch despite the attraction it has always held. I was receiving so many messages about the possibility of queer-bashing at home, in the media at large, and from my own experiences that it was much easier (but more damaging) to just pretend to be straight  in a heteronormative world.

It’s not just that women, or those of us assigned female at birth or gender non-conforming in various ways are subject to overwhelming rates of sexual harassment and violence. It’s also that we, along with our sisters, girlfriends, friends, cousins, and classmates, experience so much sexual harassment and sexual violence that the threat of male violence regulates us so completely, so thoroughly, that it actually creates who we are.

Unsurprisingly my silence did not, as Audre Lorde says, protect me. Not my silence about the sexual violence I experienced in sixth grade, nor my silence about my queer sexual and gender identities. Instead they left me with a legacy of confusion, pain, and fear.  I was, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, afraid that I would do “woman” wrong and that I would be found out. Living a non-normative life is not easy, just as my family and Hannah Gadsby’s family predicted. But neither is living a life full of silence and shame. Silence is fragile, and carries so much less power than I thought when I was only a small person. Coming out of our silence is terrifying, and it is very hard, and it subjects us to real risks. But it also allows us to write our own stories, to try to create our own lives, and most importantly, to find each other.

the first few days

On Thursday morning I was in my upstairs office, writing. My house shook around 10 am. I called downstairs to my partner, who ran upstairs. We both thought the other would know what had happened. Had I dropped something really big on the floor? Had a really giant truck passed by? Neither of these seemed to explain why our windows and doors would shake, but we didn’t hear any sirens and nothing else happened, so mildly unsettled, we went back about our business.

I keep thinking about the part of Wormwood where Eric Olson describes Seymour Hirsch walking into the family’s house and announcing, “You must be the most uncurious family in America.”

At 11:30 I received an email from campus with a link to a news story with the first description of the explosion that had taken place at 10 am. The first news reports listed 20 “casualties,” (later revised to 16 injuries), and I immediately noticed that no one on the hours of news coverage or during the press conferences, was using the word Enbridge or mentioning the pipelines which lead to the plant. In fact, like many other people in town, I thought right up until Thursday that Enbridge owned that refinery, based on my impression from driving on the road next to the site. Apparently, Enbridge owns the tanks right across the street which somehow did not appear in any of the coverage.

I got ready to head to campus for my afternoon classes, simultaneously watching TV and checking social media for updates. I was already seeing several people commenting on the good news that no one had died, which seemed far too early to me. There had not yet been a report that they had accounted for all the workers, people had been taken to the hospital with an unknown severity of injuries, and the fire was still going. Soon after there were more explosions, and it was clear the fire was not out.

I arrived to campus a little after 12:30 and the mood was surreal. Apparently on campus the buildings had not shook and most people I talked to had the sense that it was not that serious. At 11:43 AM, the campus alert system sent the following message: “Explosion at the Husky Refinery. Law enforcement has stated that the fire is out. Campus will resume under normal operations,” which must have contributed to this mood.

I found myself wondering how people in Chernobyl had behaved (and also worrying that I was overreacting). I wondered why we weren’t a little more prepared for what to do. I worried that people were so quick to move on and not at all cautious about the air quality. Walking to my 1 pm class I received a text from my partner indicating that talk of evacuations had begun.

When I got to class, I did my job as a professor of sociology and cautioned my students about some of the dangers of happy talk. We discussed the fact that the refinery disaster perhaps concerned us more than we thought. An athlete told us that they had been asked to go in from the soccer field earlier that morning. I tried to find the line between pretending everything was hunky dory, and creating panic. I trusted that if we were evacuated we would certainly know it. We had just been in that classroom during a tornado drill a few weeks earlier, after all, and every device in the room began making alerts, not to mention that human monitors went room to room to make sure everyone had left. I thought if the computer was on in the room it would show an alert, and we all turned our phones face up. I was sure an evacuation of this level would be announced over the loud speaker as well, and I assured my students of this fact.

I cannot now say whether or not I am ashamed of this rather minimal trust I had in the institution to inform us of what was happening. I feel like a fool who should have known better, but on the other hand, these situations for good reason cannot be left up to individual faculty members to decide. We do not have all the information and should not need to gather it. We were put in an awful position. I heard from several faculty who said they held class because they were worried that if they didn’t their students wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. That’s the problem when institutions do not provide the support we need in an appropriate time frame — they leave us all to make decisions on our own and none of them seem like the right one.

We went on with our class business until about 1:45. Someone noticed they had a lot of messages on their phone first, and then we all looked down and saw that we had a lot of messages from family members and from the university alert system. Our family members wanted us to evacuate or to know if we were OK. The university alert system messages we had received since our class began said:

1:10 PM Info UWS Office of Public Safety has received is that the UWS campus is NOT under an evacuation order. Continuing to monitor and update as needed.

1:41 PM SAFE ALERT: UW-Superior is NOT within the evacuation zone. There has been some misinformation in the media about the evacuation zone.

Authorities state the evacuation zone is 10 miles south of the refinery, 3 miles east and west of the refinery and 1 mile north of the refinery, which is 28th street. We are closely monitoring the situation. If you do choose to leave campus, please use caution and avoid the impacted area.

These strangely defensive alerts were our only source of information for what to do on campus. Several of my students live in a dorm which was .3 mi outside the evacuation zone at that time, and they wondered where they should go instead of home. No one knew. Another student confirmed that WITC, a campus located spatially within our campus, had closed for the day. Still another student who shares caregiving responsibilities for small children began to worry. She checked her phone, and found that the schools had indeed closed and evacuated, but the children’s mother wasn’t sure at that point exactly where the kids were because the school had not activated their alert system. This was the point where the class began to collectively panic and feel that we were not being told what we needed to know and where to go. A resourceful student made a few phone calls and determined that unofficially students who were unable to go home were gathering in the student union. Here’s what the view was like from campus at that point:

Husky refinery smoke in the distance

Picture taken from UW-Superior campus while classes were still taking place during the Husky Refinery disaster, April 26, 2018.

If the plan was not to cancel classes in order to stop a traffic jam and to complete a more orderly evacuation, why not send email with more guidance for faculty letting us know to bring people to the student union as things escalated? Why not give us a few resources to help us keep things calm? Leaving us with no plans and suggesting that we somehow hold class while students are not sure if they can return home and their children are being evacuated to unknown locations does not make any sense. This was at 1:45. The next set of classes on Thursdays begin at 2:30 and classes were not officially canceled until 3:10. By 4:13, UWS was declaring itself to be in the evacuation zone as well.

I had no idea what to do or where to tell anyone to go. I did not know how to help the students evacuate, although we practice tornado drills every year (tornadoes are exceedingly rare in our region). Our university is located under 3 miles from a refinery; this is a known quantity. There is no reason not to practice or disseminate information about what to do in the event of this kind of disaster other than perhaps the desire to make us feel safe about some things (like pipelines and oil production, who are large donors to the university) and direct our focus on worrying about other things.

After my class dissolved early, I canceled my next class. Then I went home, packed my things, and evacuated myself to Duluth. On the way out of town I received the notice that classes had finally been canceled. Once in Duluth, I went to some stores and tried to do something relaxing for a while. I took this picture from the malt shop, as a sad comparison to so many beautiful pictures I’ve taken of the most amazing lake in the world:

Refinery smoke over the water

Picture of the Husky Refinery disaster from the Duluth shore of Lake Superior on the afternoon of April 26, 2018.

I got to my friends’ house and ate dinner. We watched the news on and off, but tired of the coverage. The last we had heard, the fire might rage for days, even weeks. Around 7 pm, someone came home and said, “Didn’t you hear? The fire’s out.” We turned on the news, and sure enough, we saw that the fire had been declared out, and Superior residents were told we could come home as early as 9 pm. An information number was given out, which we wrote down. We turned off the coverage again, since we’d been watching it for hours at that point, and we spent time with our friends.

At about 11:30 pm Thursday night we headed out the door to come home to Superior. At the door our friend said, “Oh! we never thought to double check if it was OK to go back.” “It’s OK,” we said, “we’ll call or something in the car.” We listened for news in the car but couldn’t find any local coverage on the radio. On the bridge I called the information line that had been given out only 5 hours before. It rang a bunch of times, then someone picked it up and hung up on me.

I do not know if I was just tired, or if wishful thinking got the best of me. But we went ahead and continued on home to Superior, since the phone call was just a double check and the evacuation seemed like it had already been called off. Imagine my horror when I was already in my house, checked the internet, and realized that the evacuation had been more or less called back on. This is the real risk of rushing to give people good news. It puts people in danger. It put me in danger.

That night and the next day I found that for some reason between 6:30 pm and 11:30 pm, some of the most critical hours for sharing information during the evacuation, when people like me were away from our homes and our usual sources of information and routines, the city and county announced two numbers for residents to call and then quickly closed these numbers. Instead, they directed people to call a hotline run by the Husky Refinery itself. They also announced that “The fire is extinguished. Residents in the evacuation area are asked to remain away from homes for at least another 2 hours (21:00 CST)” then announced at 21:20 CST that the evacuation order was still in place. It’s true that it doesn’t exactly say you can go back at 9 pm. But common sense dictates that an update was needed before 9 pm, not after, so I imagine that was an oversight that encouraged others to return too quickly as well. A press conference and update was announced for 10 am Friday, then it was announced that everyone could return at 6 am. I couldn’t figure out where everyone was even getting this news from. It turned out I was out of the loop in part because I wasn’t following the correct Facebook account. I follow the City of Superior on Facebook, not “Jim Paine, Mayor of Superior.” I only wish I were joking.

I spent the next day feeling as if I was in a freefall. It makes you feel insane when everyone is telling you everything is fine but there are clearly chemical gases being spilled nearby. When you are supposed to hold class with a giant black cloud looming on the horizon and the hospital is being evacuated, it’s hard to know what’s real. When most of the talk you hear is about what a good job everyone did but your experience was terrible (and dangerous), it is literally maddening. I heard a terrible story about what happened to the patients at the VA in Superior. I know other people who came home on Thursday night only to find out belatedly they shouldn’t have. Other people’s homes shook so violently that pilot lights went out, and it took them a few days to notice the gas leak in their empty homes. The air of finality of the pronouncements from the mayor’s office and the lack of questions on all sides contribute to my fear that none of these problems will be dealt with in due course. The last updates were Friday at noon, stating that the “I am in Superior and returning to the refinery site now, breathing the air myself. We will continue monitoring the air but the source of the danger has passed,” indicating no future investigation toward any of the long term health and environmental problems we face.

We know now that the major risk was hydrofluoric acid. We did not know that in my classroom at 1 pm while that fire was raging in the distance. Perhaps it is wise public policy to keep people where they are since we cannot all get out of town on two bridges fast enough when a toxic gas explodes; most of us would have died in our cars in traffic no matter what. Does that mean though that we should have so little plan and so little training that most of us run to our windows when we hear an explosion? Does that mean we should call people back to town before the fire is really out? There were many risks to be managed on Thursday and Friday in addition to all of the health and environmental risks that remain to be managed. Some of those were handled well. The HF tank did not explode. No workers died. These are, in fact, very good things. But some things were handled poorly and they were in fact foreseeable things. There’s no reason the city of Superior can’t operate its own helpline, or at least have a voicemail message giving the most current update and directing people to the proper information and emergency numbers.  These things should not be handled by the company, who does not have our community best interest at heart.

There’s no reason we can’t speak critically about what did and didn’t go well and work to keep doing better. We need to know what happened in order to be better prepared for the future. Perhaps people would not panic in emergencies if we were not lulled into complacency in the first place. For me the first step is no more HF in my community. I don’t want to live in a “kill zone” any longer.

 

 

Saturday Rec: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”

This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.

Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?

A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.

lazy professor up at night

Last fall my university made the very sudden announcement to close the sociology program as well 24 others. Part of this experience as a faculty member is being told that it’s our fault, constantly. We are implicitly and explicitly blamed for not doing enough before this point. Chancellor Wachter has said over and over again that the “students voted with their feet,” which is just a way of saying if I/we had been offering worthwhile classes, I/we wouldn’t be in this situation (among other problematic implications of this phrase she loves so much). And yet here I am, literally awake at night, either still thinking (uselessly) about what I could do to try to stop these cuts from happening, or about what I could do make our program better, or about how I could recruit more students. The other night I lied in bed with a new idea for bringing back successful graduates (which is most) to meet our current students. I had pretty much fully developed the idea before I realized the entire thing is moot. There is no sociology program to recruit anybody in to. There is no reason to ease anybody’s fears about majoring or even minoring in sociology. In fact, perhaps students have good reason to be afraid of these majors and minors. Perhaps they should be afraid the administration will eliminate them, or the faculty time and resources need to sustain them. Working to recruit more students at this point would just be more time I’d spent on something that wouldn’t be valued, and if successful, I’m afraid it would ultimately place more students in the path of destruction.

But thinking about such solutions has become almost like a reflex for me, so that even six months later it’s still hard to stop. So I still haven’t been able to stop. And I don’t know when I will be able to, because ultimately I love(d) what I do. And I wasn’t coming up with ideas to recruit students to the major just to satisfy some bureaucrat or looking for ways to assuage student fears about what it would mean to major in sociology to bolster our numbers, but I was doing it because I wanted to teach. Because I thought that majoring in sociology would actually be meaningful for students, and because I know our graduates are actually out in the world happy with their work and I’d love to see more people doing that. It’s hard for me to turn that off, because it’s hard to accept the destruction of that possibility.

I see the same difficulty turning this impulse off in my colleagues too. We keep trying to do our jobs as if the old things mattered, although we have been pretty much told over and over again by our bosses that none of what we do matters, or at least not a lot of it. But old habits die hard, and it’s precisely because we believed passionately in those old habits. Because we weren’t and still aren’t the people we’re accused of being. And that’s one of the most painful bits. We’re accused of being these lazy arrogant out of touch people who don’t care at all for our students by people who actually seem to be all of those things.

Sheep alone awake in a field at night.

Cartoon by Graham Licence

I’m left with a few hanging sociological questions for another day about the myth of the lazy professor: Who does the myth connect with? Who believes it? Anyone? Our students’ parents? Do the administrators and politicians who deploy it, or is it used totally cynically? (I don’t think the administrators believe it; I suspect they know it’s untrue and that’s why it will offend us so much.) Why does it hurt me so much if I’m not sure who believes it?

Anger

I am angry. In fact, I am really fucking angry. And one of the things that continually fuels my anger is the way that anger is a prohibited emotion. Socially unacceptable. I feel that each time I am openly angry, people around me wait quietly for me to finish my tirade. Or worse, try to calm me by telling me to see things another way, or to try to have sympathy for the other person or something like that. All of this sends me the message over and over, constantly, that being angry about the world is not OK.

But Black people are being murdered in the streets by police in the United States.

But I am a queer person who has lived my entire life in the closet because I wasn’t sure what else to do because heterosexuality is still that normative.

But femicide is still the norm not only through Latin America where the women are marching and yelling “Ni Una Menos” (not one woman less) but here in the US too where domestic violence continues to be a raging problem and I do not believe there is a person assigned female at birth, woman, or femme who has not experienced some form of sexual assault/harassment.

But almost no one gives a real shit about poor people or understands exactly why there are still poor people who lack access to stable food, water, and housing.

But having a disability makes a person dramatically more likely to be subject to the above problems and eugenics is still our normal way of thinking about bodies with differences.

I could go on.

Stencil of a woman posed to throw a brick.

Image by Nicolas Lampert, Josh MacPhee, and Colin Matthes (Justseeds Collective).

This world is an enraging place and it’s probably not a stretch to say that most of these problems are caused or at least perpetuated by indifference.

And without even going that far, why aren’t the whole range of human emotions permissible? Why do we want, and enforce on each other, an impoverished society where people are not allowed to express sadness and anger and joy? I don’t want to live in that sad little range of emotions either. I’m not advocating throwing a chair and breaking into sobs, necessarily but we not express verbally the way things do actually make us feel? I am at a loss for a rational argument against that.

But although I am a sociologist, and although I am a nonconformist with a lot of training in not giving many fucks what anyone thinks, it gets to you after a while when people just seem to think you are being too angry all the time. Maybe it is too exhausting. Maybe you are overreacting and getting angry at things that aren’t there. Maybe I have lost my ability to “look for the other side” as we did in the movement where I found the most meaning, and try to find community. Maybe I am alienating those I want around me.

And then I realized there is a name for this behavior, and this treatment. I am behaving like an angry feminist. I am being treated as such. How boring. How frustrating. I am scary enough that no person in my life would ever dare to literally tell me to calm down, but tacitly that’s what’s happening.

But I’ve snapped. Sara Ahmed describes this experience beautifully in Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed describes how when a feminist or a twig snaps, it can seem sudden because the pressure leading to the snap (what the twig or the feminist experiences) can’t always be observed from the outside. She writes:

“You might experience that pressure only when you are under it, rather like you encounter the wall when you come up against it. The weightiest of experiences are often those that are hardest to convey to those who do not share the experience. If a snap seems sharp or sudden, it might be because we do not experience the slower time of bearing or of holding up; the time in which we can bear the pressure, the time it has taken for things not to break. If the twig was a stronger twig, if the twig was more resilient, it would take more pressure before it snapped. … And then: violence is assumed to originate with her. A feminist politics might insist on renaming actions as reactions; we need to show how her snap is not the starting point.” (2017: 189)

This passage resonates very much with the anger I’ve experienced lately. When I express anger, it is regarded (and sometimes I am told directly) that it’s “distracting” from whatever I’m trying to explain or call attention. No one is interested any more in what lead to the anger—the pressure that lead to the snap. As if I were in perfect control, as if I were perfectly able to not be angry, as if I could avoid snapping. Can you bend a twig all the way back and then blame the twig for its lack of flexibility?

I love how her metaphor also makes me question the concept of resilience as a good thing. It doesn’t seem good to accept more pressure, to work harder to hold things together, especially when “things” are dysfunctional or especially sexist and racist institutional cultures that are harming human beings. The image that comes to mind is a woman with two feet on two different icebergs floating in different directions. She too will snap, sooner or later. Why not call attention to the problem sooner?