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 Recommendation: When They Call You a Terrorist

When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

I do not think I have ever met anyone who could not somehow benefit by reading this book. White people, middle class people, and anyone who experiences the privilege of not being Black in the US will find a lot illuminating in Khan-Cullors powerfully told story of growing up in a culture which simply does not value your life or those of your loved ones. The honesty and vulnerability with which this contemporary story is told means that there is a lot to be learned even for those who feel that they have done a lot of listening, learning, and studying; there are new nuances here that are important. This same emotional heft means that the book has value (at least, I imagine so) for those who do share her experiences because it is validating. Its intersectional dimensionality – careful attention is paid here not only to gender but to sexuality, trans visibility, and more, including how communities and movements have succeeded and failed in organizing at certain moments because it is always a struggle—mean that there are opportunities for everyone to learn. Organizers and activists will also find Khan-Cullors’ words inspiring , validating, and simply nourishing. Those who are not activists will find the book helpful for understanding why others, such as the three women who founded Black Lives Matter, do what they do.

Two short passages that occur near the end of the book:

 “…now it was late, maybe 1:00 in the morning, and I was heading back to my cottage where Mark Anthony was supposed to be sleeping but instead was standing outside our home, barefoot, in pajamas and with his hands cuffed behind his back. … They were able to gain entry to our home because in St. Elmo’s, before this, we never locked the doors. But on this night, the police entered through the back door. They said he fit the description of a guy who’d done some robberies in the area. They offered no further explanation. … Later when I hear others dismissing our voices, our protest for equity, by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many brown-haired white men were snatched out of bed when Bundy was killing women for sport? … Mark Anthony’s cuffs are finally removed, but the police do not leave my home for another two hours, taking down all kinds of information about him, running his license, hoping to find any reason to take him away, this man they yanked out of his own bed in the middle of the night in the house where he lives in a community where he is loved” (pp. 193-195).

And then, a discussion about the formation of the BLM:

“We agree that there is something that happens inside of a person, a people, a community when you think you will not live, that the people around you will not live. We talk about how you develop an attitude, one that dismisses hope, that discards dreams” (p 199).

This book is a record of life in Van Nuys. This book is a record of a movement. This book is a record of state terrorism. This book is a record of a dream.

stop apologizing for other people

Recently I’ve noticed a disturbing trend so I’m going to suggest a simple rule: stop apologizing for other people.

Stop making excuses for power, for whiteness, for masculinity, for heterosexism, for ableism, for colonialism. When you apologize for someone else you become part of the problem. You are working to maintain those systems instead of actively working to dismantle them as you should always be trying to figure out ways to do.

If people were sorry for their behavior, they would apologize for themselves. If you want to change a system, support those who are challenging power. Always. When you jump in to make excuses for someone else, a few things happen:

  1. The person perpetrating the micro aggression or oppressive behavior does not have to account for their own behavior.
  2. The person who has actually been harmed is silenced and shamed by seeing that you and others stand against them, regardless of what you actually say as you are making excuses. You may think that you are seeking a compromise, harmony or some kind of middle ground, but the effect of what you are doing is actually further alienating a person who has actually been harmed by sending the message that you (and others in the group) will stand with power and make excuses for it.
  3. You cut off the ability for anyone to learn and grow from their mistakes. Learning is a painful struggle. We could all work on not letting our own fears get in the way of others’ learning process.

Race, gender, sexuality, social class, ability, and nationality are all attributes that exist within systems of power. They are not individual characteristics that we possess in a vacuum and it’s impossible for any of us to be unaffected by the larger unjust systematic power imbalances around us. Working to decolonize ourselves, dismantle patriarchy, unlearn racism, and just not enact bullshit on each other in activist and other daily spaces is an ongoing process, and we are all going to make mistakes. But it is essential in that process to not only allow people to make mistakes but to point them out and even more so to support the person who is brave enough to point out the mistake since likely they are the one who has been harmed by it. It is not piling on to simply agree with or support a marginalized person pointing out a problem. All you have to remember is this: do not make excuses for power.

a brick wall with a graffito that says just "sorry about your wall"

a spell to breathe through it collectively

I feel a familiar pit of anxiety rise up in my stomach. Nausea threatens to overwhelm me. I try to remember to breathe deeply. I remind myself that I can do this. I can do this, because I have already survived worse. I can do this, because so many have already survived so much worse than I can even imagine, and some of those people are my friends. If my friends can face threats of their own deaths and continue on every day, without losing their senses of humor, without giving up, then I can do this.

I let the feelings come, I let the fear in, but I try not to let it control me. I try instead to control it with my breath. And with my memories and thoughts of everyone I know who is braver than me. I’m afraid of the unknown, of the future, of what will hurt, but usually, it’s just about going through and then it will be over. I can do this. Breathe. I want to be able to do this, I can’t control it, but I can decide to do it. I can do this.

And with each repetition, it gets easier. And with each story we tell ourselves and each other, we get stronger. We get more resilient. We can do this. We don’t have to pretend not to be anxious, not to be scared. We just have to remember to breathe. And to do it anyway.

Dandelion growing out of concrete with words that say "Cultivate Resistance"

Graphic by Luke Thomas available at https://justseeds.org/graphic/cultivate-resistance/

Saturday Rec: Even the Rain

Even the Rain – También la Lluvia

Pairs well with: all the other movies starring Gael García Bernal, a copy of the Open Veins of Latin America, a willingness to reflect on your own positionality in the world

This is a movie about colonialism and a movie about the Cochabamba water war. In fact, it’s a movie about some people who purport to make a movie about colonialism and in doing so perpetuate some really colonialist behaviors, which is the movie about colonialism that those of us who grew up benefiting from colonialism really need to see. And, somehow, as if that wasn’t a clever enough trope (and trust me, it really is), it’s also the best movie out there about the water war.

two men stare at each other. One man is in costume as an indigenous Taino man in the time of Columbus while the other wears a t-shirt.

Juan Carlos Aduviri and Gael Garcia Bernal in Even the Rain

And then, as if all of that wasn’t enough to make you go watch it now (but it should be), it’s also a movie starring Gael García Bernal!

Here are some other excellent movies starring Gael García Bernal:

  • No (and bring your cynical sense of humor – don’t be too North American while watching)
  • Neruda
  • Y Tu Mamá También
  • The Science of Sleep

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: I Am Not Your Negro

(On Saturdays, I’ll be posting recommendations for movies and books and other stuff. Here’s my first.)

I Am Not Your Negro

Best paired with: cigarettes and a typewriter

Not an incredibly unique documentary recommendation,  but if you haven’t yet seen it, see it now. Even if you already know a lot about race and racism, you will probably see something in a different way or appreciate something differently. The film is beautiful and well-made. The argument, which belongs almost entirely to James Baldwin, is interesting and deep. I re-watched it this week and was again amazed at how ahead of his time Baldwin was. Not because he’s saying things that have relevance in 2018 (although that’s true too), but because he seems to have anticipated the late 1960s and the 1970s well in advance: Notes of a Native Son was published in 1955.

Director Raoul Peck highlights the contemporary resonance in Baldwin’s words beautifully and devastatingly through images.

The flaws: the film is an intersectionality fail. There are almost no Black women in the movie, although Black women played an extremely large and critical role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This is a problematic reflection of how history is told rather than how it was. And although Baldwin is well known to have been queer, it’s downplayed in the film.

But even so, see it. See it.

Here’s a teaser of Baldwin’s brilliance:

Photograph of James Baldwin

Click for video of Baldwin. (Photo by Allan Warren)

 

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.

 

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.”