spreading our fear of the dark

A few nights ago, I took a ride on my bike. Alone. In the dark. Through a wooded path.

In case this fact doesn’t upset or scare you, I will remind you: I am not a man.

 And guess what? Nothing happened.

Well, something happened.

Before that, every woman I work with offered me a ride home on my way out the door from work. They were all afraid for me to ride my bike home. I don’t mean to suggest that this was not nice (it definitely was), but primarily it was discouraging.

As I walked out and got on my bike, I did feel trepidation. Sometimes I think it is hard to make sure that modes of caring for each other do not to turn in to echo chambers that amplify our fears and hurts from the wider world. After everyone tells you to be scared, it is hard not to be scared.

Picture of a bicycle with a light showing a wooded area, leaves on the ground, and darkness beyond.
Picture taken by my male friend Dan Winchester of his night biking. No one responded to his picture with any concerns.

Once on my bike, the path was empty, and after a certain distance, I entered a wooded area that was dark and it was hard to see. My light was not working and I had to practically stop. I started to breathe too hard. I started to feel afraid in the dark. I started to feel afraid of the dark itself. I worried about what was in the bushes. But then I started to control my fear and I knew that it was only small animals in the bushes being disturbed by my bike in the bushes. I knew that without a light my eyes would adjust to the dark place and I would see different things. Moving at a snail’s pace, I could smell the leaves and hear the trees, in addition to the nearby traffic. I could hear the river. I could focus on feeling my cold breath. If I could control my fear, I could have a wonderful bike ride on a wooded path, no more likely to be attacked by the “crazies” (or just men)–my coworkers’ fear–than anywhere else in this beautiful and terrible world. If I could control my fear, I would be free to enjoy the world as it is.

Because the reality is, I am vulnerable to harassment by men in daylight or in darkness, in the woods or in my workplace, whether strangers or men I know. I am not denying this reality, yet I do not want to overstate it either. And if I refuse to overstate and let it control me, I can be free to enjoy a quiet solo winter bike ride home in the evening. And wow, that freedom felt as good! and as complicated as any other.

Even as I began to really enjoy my ride, I knew that almost no one in my life would approve of this ride. They would want me to turn back, they would want me to make “safer” choices; they would want to come rescue me from the woods. But what do we sacrifice when we continually choose safety over wildness? What do we lose when we share our fear with each other but never our courage? How will we teach each other to be free?

Just Call Me They

The work of being trans is constant. It is tiring. It is exhausting. And it doesn’t really have to be that way. Is it too much to ask people to pay attention to me as a human being when they interact? To use my pronouns, use my name, and to do both correctly a majority of the time? It is not too much to ask, because how can I keep going in a world where that is too much to ask of the fellow human beings with whom I interact?

Taking people seriously as human beings starts with recognizing and learning how we are referred to in speech. This is not a preference. This is not a special request. This is a normal request for being treated with dignity like a human being and let me tell you, it is hurtful and embarrassing and offensive and infuriating and disempowering all rolled into one when it almost never happens. It is dehumanizing.

Let’s start with the name. I am a white person born in the US; unlike a great many people who must never even hear their names said correctly let alone spelled accurately, I belong to the dominant culture. Even so, my very white Irish German name, Meghan Krausch, is apparently not white bread enough and so I have spent my entire life checking every program, table of contents, and website in which it has ever appeared to see if they got it right. It has not gone well. For this and other reasons, I tried dropping the second half of my first name. But no, people cannot just call me Meg either. They want to try to call me Meghan anyway, usually failing.

Why am I going on about my name? Because I think this is related to people’s issues respecting each others’ pronouns. We insist in imposing our own cognitive schemas on other peoples’ selves. We do not take the time to copy down someone’s name as it is given to us, or to listen when they say it, or look at how they sign their own name. Instead, we are in a rush to fit people into a pre-existing box (in my example: ‘oh! I know that name: Megan’).

So as my name is violated in print, as others’ names are violated even more often and viciously, I am misgendered constantly. In situations where I might expect it, in situations where it was an honest mistake, and in situations where there is no excuse.

I get that there is a social transition. I get that this requires resocialization. And I do in fact understand how deep that socialization goes. I really, really do. In fact, I understand more than most people how early we are socialized to believe in the gender binary; I would argue that we are introduced to the binary before we even leave the womb. I am not sure I even believe that anyone can be perfect at using nonbinary pronouns in a society which is still cissexist.

But it is devastatingly apparent to me that most of y’all don’t even try.

In researching this post, I found this story about nonbinary or genderqueer K-12 teachers who use the honorific Mx. There was a lot that resonated, but thing I identified with most was the teacher who said this:

“I had moments where I thought: I’m too much work, I’m asking too much of my colleagues and students, and that as a teacher I’m there to serve, and part of serving others is not always putting yourself first.”

I fight this impulse every day. Of course “they/them/theirs” is a political choice, just like not eating meat or riding my bike instead of driving. But it also feels like home. It feels comfortable. It feels like not faking being a girl and being worried that I would be caught as a fake. And it’s no more of a political choice than using “he” or “she” or eating meat or driving a car, which are also all political choices.

The work of being trans is constant and exhausting only because other people make it that way. It doesn’t have to be anything other than just being.

Here are some resources for those who have questions about trans pronouns, being good accomplices, and what to do when you screw up:

transsaurus-rex

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.

Saturday Rec: Jane the Virgin

Jane the Virgin

Pairs well with: summer, popcorn, resting up before and after organizing around migration issues

Photo with four characters from show walking in Target store: Xo looks determined, Jane is smiling, Rafael seems unhappy and has baby Mateo strapped to him, and Alba is smiling and playing with the baby.

This is a light-hearted show with shockingly good feminist and racial politics. I never feel guilty after watching it (although one downside is that there is a cop  who is a “good guy” character). The show actually has amazing immigration politics, including a plotline that basically showcased Lisa Sun-Hee Park’s research.  Some of the other things I appreciate about it are that one character never speaks English; Jane’s mom is unapologetically sex positive although Jane has a more conservative (titular) approach; the family and show is based in Miami but they are Venezuelan, not Cuban; feminism is sometimes an explicit topic of the show; and it is simply very nice to watch a show that is led by a POC cast and not full of white people. Plus, it’s a very funny show with some smart jokes.

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.

a meditation on tools

In the United States, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.

Audre Lorde famously admonished white feminists at a conference in 1979 that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Black and white line image of a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench.

If you are neither the wheel or the nail, you might start to wonder about your commitments to justice.

It might not be an honor to be the last one standing.

Does that make you a tool?

 

memorializing the thankless work of revolution

Winnie_Mandela_190814

Last weekend, just days before she died, I watched a documentary about Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. I wrote these words: “totally inspiring woman and many lessons to learn about how thankless the work of continuing the struggle and holding the line can really be, especially when done by women and women of color, or marginalized members of the group more generally. This woman was really sold out. One random key thing to remember: Nobel Peace Prize was also given to de Klerk when it was given to Nelson Mandela, in case you needed a reason to feel that prize was discredited.”

I am no expert on the South African freedom struggle, but the obituaries published in mainstream newspapers (to say nothing of the comment section! yikes!) only deepened my horror at how Winnie was treated. The NYT lead with a photo of this incredible woman with her ex-husband Nelson Mandela and the Washington Post was little better leading with the phrase, “Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela and for decades one of South Africa’s most prominent and polarizing figures, died April 2 at a hospital in Johannesburg.”  She struggled to be her own person even in death.

Her story resonated with so many other Black women’s stories I’ve read and learned about over the years in particular. RIP Winnie, may we listen and learn something important from what you were here to tell us.

 

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?

Stop Telling Me I’m Brave: On Courage and Being Set Apart

As feminists we know it’s important for us to have each other’s backs in a shitty heterosexist world. We have often done this by reassuring each other that we are strong and brave people. The thing is, after the year I’ve had, I’m not sure telling our friends over and over that they’re brave works the way it’s supposed to.

When you call someone brave you pretty much mean to say that they’re doing something that you’re not sure you would do in their situation. And that’s a compliment, but it also pushes that person away from you by making them different. When I spoke out openly about my experience as a stalking survivor and the incredible failures of the institutions that were supposed to protect me, it started to feel less like “brave” was about having my back and more like no one else was “brave” enough to have my back.

It started when I was doing things that did not feel like they even involved a choice, let alone courage. What I learned in surviving stalking is that even if you think you don’t want to go on, you pretty much do because there just aren’t that many other choices available. With the exception of suicidal depression (which I’m not minimizing, but I didn’t have), you will have to get out of bed sometime. I missed more days of work than ever before, but still I couldn’t just stop going altogether. I wasn’t so out of it that I couldn’t calculate those risks. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and showing up. Surviving.

My acts are not what I would characterize as “brave” necessarily. They are acts of resilience, like the acts that human beings who have survived worse things before me like intimate partner stalking, colonial wars, and daily racist police violence. Human beings are, at the end of the day, apparently pretty good at surviving some pretty terrible things, but that doesn’t make us all brave, and being called brave, when I was busy just surviving stalking, was almost like salt in the wound. Because all I felt, all the time, was fear.

I advocated, loudly, for my safety in my campus workplace. And, because I am a feminist activist, I did this in a way that I hoped would benefit future stalking victims and tried to point out how inevitable it is that this problem would happen again. I published my story with a major web outlet clarifying why I thought we needed better procedures on our campus not just for myself but for all of us, and called out my campus for their shameful disregard of the safety of my body and their refusal to “set a precedent.” I went forward with this story publicly even after I was issued an ultimatum insisting that it needed to be published anonymously or it could not be published. In each case, I was told by my friends and colleagues that my actions were very brave but in each case, I felt like I was simply doing the only right thing.

When my friends were calling me brave, it really felt like they were just letting themselves off the hook for not taking actions that were similar to mine or, worse, for not joining me in solidarity in the ways that they might have been implicated. I do not think my friends consciously meant anything negative when they told me I was brave. I think they really meant it. But what it usually means to say someone is brave is – what I heard–was, “oh wow, you have so much courage. I could never dare to do that.” What I needed to hear was: “man that situation sucks! Let me join you in this struggle.”

As a feminist method of support, bravery seems to work okay when we assign the label to ourselves. The women who wrote the groundbreaking All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave obviously got a lot out of it. There were times when I liked the idea too, but only when I decided on my own to do something that I felt was brave. When the idea of bravery backfired, it was when someone else called me brave. Like a lot of terms, there’s a big difference between applying it to yourself and having it applied to you by someone else.

The concept of bravery though is one that always sets people apart. It’s an idea that’s usually associated with extraordinary individuals. Extra-ordinary. And maybe that’s why it hurt me so much, because I was already feeling so isolated. Bravery just seemed to set me even further apart from the pack.

But there are other reasons to avoid setting people apart, even when they haven’t necessarily survived something traumatic. If we want to build social movements that will change the world, we will need groups of people, not a few extraordinary individuals. I don’t dispute that to do this work we will have to be brave, but maybe we need to stop calling each other brave. Instead we have to find ways to be brave together. The first step to doing this will mean not holding each other up on pedestals too tall to reach but alternatively trying to learn how we can better support and understand each other’s necessary and chosen risks. Here in the United States the cliché is that one person can change the world but the reality is that it takes many people to change the world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., did not boycott those buses on his own. Assata Shakur didn’t break herself out of jail. Although in the course of history we’ve exalted only these single individuals, their names would mean little without the movements full of other people around them. If they had been set apart in their own time as singularly brave individuals, as merely exceptional people, we wouldn’t even know who they were today because nothing would have been accomplished.

I know by telling me how brave my actions were that my feminist friends were trying to be nice and supportive. I can see that I was moving from surviving to advocating and that people wanted to pat me on the back for that forward movement. But what I want is to change the world, and for that I need my friends to join me, not laud me. I want my acts, just like my feminist ideals, to become ordinary, not extraordinary.

solidarity is our weapon

“Solidarity Is Our Weapon. International Women’s Strike.”