Alberta GSA Conference Keynote – Cooler Than Caitlyn Jenner: The Revolutionary Power of Queer and Trans* Youth

*Text of a keynote presentation at the 2015 Alberta GSA Conference on Nov 21, 2015.  Thanks to Sarah Atkinson at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre and all the youth organizers!GSA ConferencePoster 2015

Performance of poem “Body Art”

Good morning, everyone.  I am honored to be here today, and grateful to Sarah Atkinson, the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, the youth committee, and all of the other organizers for inviting me to share and hold this space with you.

I am grateful, also, to all of the people who make this space possible, including those who are not in the room today, and whose names I may never know:  The people who built this university, and the people who clean and maintain it; the people whose hands made the computers and the furniture and the food and all of amenities that we are enjoying now; the people in this country and the Global South, whose bodies and work is exploited every day for the comfort of a privileged few.

I am grateful to the Treaty Seven First Nations, upon whose land this city stands, and by whose ongoing oppression the nation of Canada is able to exist.

I am grateful to my blood ancestors: a long lineage of Chinese migrants, whose struggle and sacrifice brought me to this place and time, with all of the privileges and challenges it brings.

I am grateful to my queer ancestors: queer and trans people of color, a fierce and fabulous tradition of butches, femmes, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexual, trans men, trans women, and a host of individuals impossible to label in their brilliance, who led both riots and silent revolutions so that one day we might live in a freer world.

And I am grateful to you, queer and trans* students, educators, and allies, for all of the courage and strength you bring to this struggle that we share.

SO, all right, that’s enough poetry and mushy stuff for a minute. We’ll get back to that later. I know, who even likes that stuff, right? Let’s get down to this keynote business.   You know, the Important Stuff.  No big deal or pressure or anything.  Just the moment when I deliver to you a shimmering nugget of inspiration, accented with some seamless pop-culture references, cut with a few casually self-deprecating jokes, and all of it tied together by my flawless fashion sense.

You are relieved, no doubt, to see that I have, at the very least, the fashion part down.

And I want you to know that I take this all quite, quite seriously.  To be given a platform, an audience, and a speaking fee that would make any twenty-four year old working-class grad student’s head spin, in exchange for taking a shot at inspiring the next generation of Calgary’s LGBTT2IQA+ youth, is a very serious thing.  (I also got some of those awesome little hotel soaps.  That’s how you know you’ve hit the big time.)

And to be honest, when I first got the wonderful Sarah’s email asking me to speak, I wasn’t sure I was up to the task, or even that I wanted it (but the hotel soaps that got me).

For one thing, when I emailed her back asking just what Calgary’s finest youth (yes, that’s you) wanted from a keynote speaker at the provincial conference for gay-straight alliances, she sent me back a rather vague paragraph saying that you were interested in gender and in hearing from someone “cool.”

Femmes, butches, and gentle queers, now is the time to admit:  There must be some mistake.   I have been surprisingly many things in my twenty-four years of life – overachiever, piano prodigy, high school burnout, mathematics failure, comic book geek, about ten different university majors, slam poet, awkwardly adorable, and for some reason apparently entrusted with people’s mental health as a clinical social worker and family therapist – but never, in that time, have I ever considered myself “cool.”  (And if you ask my boyfriend, my sisters, my parents, and my closest friends, they’ll probably confirm this.)

Seriously, if you wanted a cool trans woman, my friends, you should have booked Caitlyn Jenner, whom I hear is now not only an Olympic gold medalist and ex-spouse of a Kardashian, but also the most famous trans person in history after coming out only a few short months ago.  She was on the cover of Vanity Fair, okay?  Now that’s cool.

Or maybe you should have gotten Laverne Cox, the first black trans woman actress to star on a hit TV show (if you haven’t seen Orange Is The New Black, you may wish to re-evaluate your priorities), Emmy-Award nominee, one of People Magazine’s 2015 Most Beautiful Women in the World, and LGBT advocate.  She was on the cover of Time.

Or, perhaps, you could have booked my personal trans woman idol: the writer and television reporter Janet Mock, the New York Times’ bestselling author of the incredible memoir Redefining Realness, and fashion icon.  She was on the cover of Marie-Claire.

So I’m not sure what happened, gentle queers, but somehow you bypassed all of the above – not to mention trans supermodels  Andreja Pejic and Valentijn von Hingh, trans actress Candis Cayne, trans lawyer and advocate Dean Spade, the non-binary trans activist-artist duo Darkmatter, asexual agender reality TV star Tyler Ford, and Buzzfeed’s first transgender staff writer Meredith Talusan – and got me: a slightly neurotic yet totally adorable psychology nerd who watches too much television and writes poetry in her spare time.  For the record, I have never been on a magazine cover.  (Yeah, I still hold out hope for someday.  I mean, have you seen this face?)

So I was freaking out about that until, oh, ten minutes ago.  Then, of course, I realized how freaking cool it is that I can even name ten transgender celebrities off the top of my head.  That, gentle queers, was not a thing when I was in high school – and this was only six years ago. So there’s at least one piece of inspiration I can offer you (whew).  Things are beginning to change.

And then I started thinking about how, despite the fact that we now live in a time when trans models can grace the covers of magazines, and gay actors can be stars on television, and same-sex couples can get married  – despite the fact that being gay and trans is, apparently the “cool” new thing these days, the truth is that the reality on the ground, as it were, is still incredibly hard for most of us who live outside the norms of sex and gender, and particularly for queer youth and young people.

I don’t, of course, need to explain this to most of you.  Looking across the room, into your eyes, I can see that you know, as I do, what it means to struggle.  What it means to fight.  What it means to be attacked and frightened and belittled and shamed, for as long as you can remember, for something that you couldn’t control.  To not be heard, or to be heard, but not believed.  To want to be invisible.  To long to be seen.  To be sexy, to be beautiful.  To be loved.  To be loved.  To be loved.

***

Despite queer and trans people being more visible in the media today than we’ve ever been before, the fact remains that most of us will not appear on magazine covers, particularly if we are not white and thin and non-disabled.   The fact remains over three in five trans and genderqueer students will experience bullying at some point between kindergarten and post-secondary education.  The fact remains that a progressive law that would have allowed trans people in Houston, Texas to use the public washroom that best suited their gender was recently repealed.  The fact remains that poor, ethnic minority queer and trans people are disproportionately subjected to discrimination and violence.

There are hard truths, but I think that some of you already know them, in one way or another.  I knew them as a high school student living in East Vancouver, and so did most of my best friends at the time.  We were all racialized, and many of us were working-class and immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and most of us were queer (even if we didn’t know it yet).  We didn’t need anyone to tell us that prejudice and discrimination were real – we lived through those things every day, just as I know many of you do.

But we didn’t talk about these things, or tell anyone.  We didn’t have the words.  No one told us what homophobia was, they just called us faggots or dykes like that was a bad thing, and we believed it was.  People told us that Asians were ugly nerds and that dark-skinned people were criminals, and we didn’t know that this was racism.  It was just what happened.

I once had a high school teacher whom I think hated students.  Looking back, I can see that she resented teaching a classroom full of Asian immigrants, most of whom spoke English as a second or third, or even fourth language.  She made fun of their accents and wrote these incredibly intricate insults on our assignments, like “this pile of canine fecal matter isn’t even worth the paper it’s written on,” or “Shakespeare would hath thee and thy vile abuse of the Queen’s tongue submit to the mercy of the flame!”

Being the loudmouth that I am, I wrote an essay for this teacher arguing that teenagers were disempowered members of society, and deserved more rights.  She told me that this was ridiculous, because teenagers could not be DIS empowered, since we never HAD any power to begin with.

I’ve always remembered that:  A teacher who believed that youth have no power.  That it didn’t matter how badly she treated us or how little she respected us, because we didn’t deserve respect in the first place, and had no way to stand up to her.

I wish I could tell you that since leaving high school, I never met anyone else who thought that way.  But I have two university degrees in social work now, am working on a third in family therapy, and I’ve worked in three hospital programs for queer children and youth, and I’ve met way too many teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, and counselors who cannot see the incredible strength and power of young people.

There are adults – some of them very compassionate and well-meaning – who think that queer and trans youth who are being bullied, who are exploring their gender in wondrous and unique ways, who are navigating the complicated worlds of school, family, friends, and work, have no idea what’s happening around them.  At best, they think that queer and trans youth are like endangered animals who need to be saved by “experts,” and at worst, they think of us as “crazy” delinquents who need to be whipped into shape.

The worst part of this is that many queer and trans youth come to believe in this same myth: that we have no power.  That we have no knowledge and no strength.  That we have nothing valuable, nothing to offer in the struggle for queer and trans rights. I believed that about myself for a very long time.

But like I said, I’ve worked in a bunch of programs for queer and trans* kids and youth, and I think that queer and trans young people are the most incredible, resilient people that I have ever met.

It takes courage to get up in the morning and decide to express your gender when other people bully you for it.

It takes strength to withstand discrimination, to go to school or work, day after day, without knowing when or if the injustice will end.

It takes intelligence, creativity, and compassion to live with family members who do not always understand you and cannot support you.

It is revolutionary – it changes society – when queer and trans youth decide that they will not let anyone else decide who or what they are.   And that, my friends, is what I think is cool – even more than being a supermodel or appearing on a magazine cover.

***

So basically what I’m saying is that it doesn’t even matter that I’m not as cool as Caitlyn Jenner, because all of you are even cooler.  Okay?   The other reason that I was a little unsure about giving this speech today was that I, for one, absolutely despise motivational or inspirational speeches.  I hate them.  I hate them with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

I hate them because, most of the time, so-called inspirational speeches can be boiled down to one easy answer.  Like, if we just think positively, then we’ll be fine.  Or if we can just be patient and wait a little longer, things will get better.

But thinking positively wouldn’t have stopped my therapy client, we’ll call her Andrea, from being kicked out of her family home for being a lesbian.  Positive thinking didn’t help my other client, whom we’ll call Shawn, a fifteen-year-old Black trans girl who lives with child protective services, from being housed in a facility for boys.

Being patient and waiting didn’t save the transgender lives that were lost this year.

So instead of being inspirational, I think the best that I can do is advise you to be suspicious of easy answers.  Be wary of people, well-intentioned or otherwise, who tell you that thinking happy thoughts and being optimistic will get you everything you want in life.  These are the easy answers that say, wait till you grow up.  Wait till you move out.  Wait till some old white rich guy politician in some distant Parliament decides that you can change your legal sex, use the bathroom you need to, have legal protection from discrimination.

I can’t be inspirational – I can only tell you what I hope to Goddess you already know, which is that you have power.  You prove that every day that you survive.  Society will try to hide it from you, because it is afraid of what you might accomplish.  Refuse to surrender your strength, and refuse to wait to use it.

What does that mean in concrete terms?  Well, here’s a piece of advice from some of my trans mothers – that is, older transgender women who have mentored and protected me as I went through my transition, who supported me as I built my professional life in a health care industry that is extremely dismissive of trans people – and that is, your greatest strength is each other.

What do I mean?  Well, a few years ago, when I first started transitioning, I lived on a very busy street in downtown Montreal.   I was just discovering what it meant to be trans in public, and felt very afraid on most days whenever I went out.  I was afraid of being harassed, and I was afraid of being hurt.  Most of all, I was afraid of speaking out, of using my voice, lest it bring down even more harassment and violence upon me.

Every day that summer, I would walk past a hotel on my way to work.  It wasn’t a very nice hotel – I bet there weren’t any nice little soaps there.  There was, however, a man who sat out front all the time, and every morning, as I walked past on my way to work, he would catcall after me in a way that let me know that he knew that I was trans.  And every day, I just kept walking, furious but afraid to say anything back.  You see, I was raised to be afraid of men.  To feel helpless and powerless.  To not see that the very act of walking out my front door as a visible trans woman was an act, as Laverne Cox says, of revolution.

Then one day, I was walking past that same hotel.  This time, something was different.  This time, I had a trans femme friend with me.  And this time, when that man called disgusting names after me, something felt very, very different.  With my friend by my side, I whirled around, full of righteous fury.  And with fire in my belly and ice in my spine, I said, “EXCUSE ME SIR HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO A WOMAN THAT WAY THINK OF YOUR MOTHER I BETTER NEVER HEAR YOU EVER SAY ANYTHING TO ME EVER AGAIN OR SO HELP ME GOD I WILL COME BACK HERE WITH AN ARMY OF TRANNIES AND BURN YOUR DIRTY HOTEL TO THE GROUND.

And you know, there never was a problem after that.  That was the moment I found my power.

This September, in the US state of Missouri, a high school student and trans girl named Lila Perry led a protest at her high school after being bullied for using the women’s washroom.  Over a hundred students walked out of class with her in support, and dozens of national and international mainstream media stations suddenly turned their cameras toward her.

This is what I mean by finding your power.  You are already doing it in this moment, at this conference: raising your voices and making connections with each other.  Alone, we can only think in terms of survival.  Together, we can make change happen.

***

Today more than ever, we live in the era of the celebrity: the media says that things are changing for queer and trans* people because there are more and more queer and trans stars.  And it’s true, this is a wonderful thing, and people like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Caitlyn Jenner really are blazing a trail and raising awareness.

But the thing about celebrities – the way that celebrity culture works – is that there can only ever be a few at a time, which means the rest of us are supposed to sit back and watch them do the work of transformation for us.   This takes the power away from us, and places all the responsibility for change on a few – which is actually why I hate it when people come up to me and call me inspiring, a voice for the trans community, or any of the other cliché things people say to highly active, visible trans folks.  Janet Mock once wrote that being called an exceptional member of an oppressed minority isn’t inspiring or exciting – it’s lonely, and I agree.   I don’t want to fight this fight alone.  I need all of you with me.

Celebrity culture, which is about a few individuals becoming stars, is the opposite of social movements, which are about everyone coming together to create revolutionary power.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying that the key to revolution isn’t and never will be me, no matter how many hotel soaps I steal or how pretty my dress is.   It isn’t this microphone, or the funding grants that no doubt paid for this conference and for me to be here, or even the university we sit and stand in now.  It isn’t Caitlyn Jenner, or any other trans celebrity.

Because the key to revolution is the people in this room, the words and ideas and energy that we share, the dreams that we dream together.  The key to revolution is connection and courage, is looking beyond isolated individuals or even isolated  issues like homophobia and transphobia and joining with as many other people from as many other movements as possible – people fighting against racism, and poverty, and climate change, because injustice for any one of us is an injustice to all of us.

So there you have it: all of you are strong, important, and yes, cool.  Beware of easy answers.  Find your power, and find each other.

The key to revolution is you.  And you, and you.  It’s community.  It’s us.

Close with performance of poem “Blessing”

Qouleur Festival 2015: Love and Rage Keynote Panel Presentation

QOULEUR

Presented at the Qouleur Festival 2015 Keynote Panel at the Montreal Arts Intercultural Centre on August 7, 2015

Good evening, everyone.  Thanks for coming and to the Qouleur Collective for inviting me here and for all their hard work, as volunteers no less, in putting this incredible festival together.  Thanks also to the MAI staff for their collaboration in this festival.  Community building like this would not be possible without the many kinds of labour, visible and invisible, that go into creating and sustaining spaces like this – that is a special kind of love all its own.

I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge and remember that this event takes place on unceded Kanienkehake territory.  that this land is one upon which blood has been shed and buried, but not forgotten.  there is love, as well as rage, in that.

I’d to remember, also, the women of colour from whom I am descended and whose love and anger I carry in my body, though not always with ease:

My mother.

My sisters.

My grandmothers.

My great-grandmothers.

And  the names of trans women of colour who have been killed this year:

Papi. Lamia.  Ty. Yazmin.  Taja. Penny.  Bri.  Kristina. Sumaya.  Keisha. Vanessa.  Mya.  London.  Mercedes.  India. KC. Amber.  Schade.

And the names of living transwomen of colour who inspire and sustain me:

Kama.  Alok.  Sebastian.  June.  Shahir. January.  Sophia. Betty.  Christina.  June.  Lily.  Meredith.

I was going to present something a bit more theoretical, and perhaps also a bit more coherent – a piece of persuasive writing about the devaluing of emotion in social justice organizing and why we need to centralize feelings of love and anger in our various movements.  For better or for worse, though, that piece didn’t get written.  I couldn’t get the words out.  So, instead, I’m going to share some tangentially related thoughts – better yet, some feelings – the most I can muster together this week on the thought of rage and love.

You see, the thing is, I can’t really seem to connect to me emotions these days, at least, not in a linear sense.  As a therapist, I often encourage clients to simplify their psychological realities by putting names to feelings – anger, desire, joy, sadness, despair, and so on.  The point of this exercise is to connect with one’s emotional state, and thus become engaged in the dynamic process of transforming that emotion into something positive or healing.

But there are some emotional realities, perhaps, that are too complex to name.  As I write this, the thought keep cycling through my mind that another trans woman of colour was found dead in the United States this week.  Her name was Kandis Capri.  She is the twelfth or sixteenth this year, depending on who is counting, though honestly, it seems likely that there are a great many more transwomen of colour dying whose names will never be known to us.

i reach for rage as i make this statement, but i cannot find any.   it has been perhaps a year since i felt the old rage that used to live just under my tongue.  rage, that powerful emotion that sits so uncomfortably close to love, that fuels so many of our political actions and demonstrations, that has become so fashionable these days in radical leftist social justice rhetoric.

i remember the first time i saw the anger of an oppressed person perfectly, beautifully articulated.  the words were bell hooks’ and they set me, an impressionable second-year university student, closeted asian trans woman, on fire:

It was these sequences of racialized incidents involving black women that intensified my rage against the white man sitting next to me. I felt a ‘killing rage.’ I wanted to stab him softly, to shoot him with the gun I wished I had in my purse. And as I watched his pain, I would say to him tenderly ‘racism hurts’.” – bell hooks, The Killing Rage

despite the vast difference between the my own lived experiences and that of bell hooks, i felt a powerful vindication in her words.  i, too, knew what it was like to wish for bloody vengeance against the people benefited from structures of power that casually and viciously oppressed me.  and all around me, young, queer people of colour seemed to be wishing the same.  as movements like Occupy, the Quebec Student Strike, and Idle No More were born over the past few years, it seemed to me that a community of us was awakening isolated slumber into a dazzling moment of shared anger.

at last, we had the words to declare who we and what we were: queer.  racialized.  diasporic. excluded. exploited.  hungry.  angry.  in the streets and on the internet we connected with each other, built solidarity, and shared our rage.  we searched for wisdom from the few mentors and elders that were available and willing to teach us.  we wrote viral articles and became famous on youtube and created trending hashtags, all about our craving for justice.  we became the social justice warriors that spoiled white millenials mock and fear in the same breath.

we did all that, with rage.  rage was the only fuel we had.

now we are living in the midst of an ever-intensifying race war in america, as economic disparity grows ever larger.  most of us will never have “secure” jobs or own our homes.  migrants are being shut out and deported from the Global North at increasing rates, and Black youth continue to be brutalized and murdered by the state.  it seems almost every day now that i glance at my facebook news feed and see an article declaring that another trans woman is dead. i think that i have run out of rage. what will i do now?

it is common, in leftist communities, for anger to be the centre of our organizing circles – how could it not be?  rage is, for so many of us, the only alternative we know to complete despair.  rage is the lens through which we are able to conceptualize both survival and justice. in a recent conversation i had at a QPOC femme consciousness-raising workshop, several young queer women of colour stated vehemently that they did not wish to stop being angry.  the world deserved their anger, and their anger had kept them alive when nothing else had.  on the one hand, i agreed.  on the other, i am no longer sure that a constant state of rage is a viable option.

when anger is all you know, anger becomes the only way through which we relate to one another.  we find kinship in our shared rage, and when the bonds kinship fail us, we react with rage redoubled.  one example of this is the much-critiqued “callout culture,” the practice of publicly denouncing one another for oppressive behavior – a practice that often strays from its  intended purpose of creating accountability into the realm of bullying and political grandstanding.   another is the intimate violence that occurs silently within our sexual and romantic relationships, the sexual assault and emotional/physical abuse that is so common yet so unacknowledged among  us on the radical left.

our anger may defend us, in some imperfect way, from the oppression that the white, straight mainstream enacts upon us.  but what happens when we turn that anger on each other?  in a community as traumatized as ours inevitably is, i am afraid that we forget what the difference between love and rage is.  i wonder, sometimes, if we ever knew.

i am tired of being angry.  i am too tired to be angry.  if you  want to know the truth, i suspect that my anger was never entirely about the oppressor, but at least partially directed at myself.  i am angry at the men who harass me on the street, and the men who raped me in my teens and early twenties, but i am also angry at myself for having been too weak to stop them.  i am angry that transwomen and Indigenous folks and Black folks are dying every day, but i am also angry that i can do nothing about it.

i have no answers, no political revelations to offer tonight.  i suspect that easy answers and revelations are false in any case.  all i know is, when i am too tired to be angry, all i can do is ask for love.  maybe this is the only activism that remains when we have nothing else  left:  offering and asking each other for love.

Monstrous Love: Mental Health and Intimate Partner Abuse Workshop Outline (Presented at Venus Envy in Halifax)

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by Kai Cheng Thom (modified from an earlier version prepared with Kota Harbron for Monster Academy Montreal)

Outline: 1 hr lecture, ½ hr scenarios, ½ hr community talkback

Introduction

  • Welcome to the space and acknowledgment of colonial history on this unceded Mi’kmaq land
  • Situating myself: personal, community, professional
  • Dangerous space/triggers – people will undoubtedly become triggered/feel very anxious in this workshop, because this is a very dangerous topic. This is not therapy.
  • you may start to realize that a partner is abusive. You may realize that you are abusive.  This is the point of the workshop.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Space agreement: we will take responsibility for what we do and say. We agree to: try and make each other safe.  Hold each other accountable.  State our own needs.  Own our stories.
  • I don’t work from a non-judgmental standpoint. This is because everyone is always making judgments, and as marginalized people, our judgments are often what enable our survival/liberation.  However, I believe that everyone is inherently valuable.
  • We can make mistakes! I will make mistakes.  Challenge me.  Challenge everything!
  • Brief history of workshop/monster academy: Monster Academy is a montreal-based collective made of myself and my dear friend Kota Harbron. we decided to create a rad mental health school for youth, because this is what we needed and didn’t have as teenagers.
  • This is a very difficult workshop to facilitate, and was created to be a series of intimate exercises between people who know each other. This is because growing into an understanding of abuse and love is a hands-on experience that is extremely contextual.  It must be learned in dialogue with our bodies, our relations, our community.  However, the circumstances of this workshop require that this be somewhat more didactic, as we do not have the space nor the time required.  I have therefore rewritten the workshop as a talk for youth and adults, with some interactive parts.  You will have to continue talking, reading, and thinking on your own to get the most benefit

 

On courage and fearlessness

  • I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge that this is a scary topic. Scary for you as participants, not knowing what you’re walking into, and scary for me, as a young transwoman racialized crazy facilitator who knows just how much people in community gossip!
  • It takes courage to be here right now, having this conversation
  • It takes courage to be in an abusive relationship, to survive an abusive relationship, to leave or stay in an abusive relationship
  • It takes courage to admit that you have been abusive
  • I want to encourage – courage! – because courage is the road to fearlessness: to a situation in which we can talk about and confront abuse in our communities, and in ourselves, without fear of losing our lives, our livelihoods, our love for one another
  • Fear is the fuel that feeds abuse, and to heal from abuse, we must confront our fear

Visualization exercise

  • Think of /imagine a person with whom you feel safe
  • Take some time to mentally “be” with that person
  • List some of the qualities of that relationship that feel safe
  • My own: when I feel safe with someone, I feel like I can always leave/be left by them without either of us being in emotional or physical danger

Anatomy of a healthy relationship

  • The anatomy of a healthy relationship is complex and very contextual, but in general: everyone involved should feel as though they are guaranteed a base level of physical, emotional, and spiritual safety.
  • There must be a base level of consent, sexual and otherwise.
  • What does consent mean? It means that each individual must be able to make informed decisions about what they will or will not do in any given situation.  Examples?  (Draw from participants)
  • In a healthy relationship, partners often feel good about themselves and each other on a regular basis, though I am not comfortable putting a value judgment on this


What is abuse?

  • Abuse is a part of every community, across identity and social class
  • However, abuse takes different forms and meanings according to context.
  • We can look at abuse as collective (the abuse of Indigenous/racialized communities by white supremacy) or intimate/individual (the abuse of one parter by another, or a child by a parent)
  • Writ large, I would say that abuse is the deliberate or unintentional use of power (physical, financial, ability-based, class-related, gendered, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, knowledge, etc) to violate or manipulate the boundaries of someone else’s consent
  • Some simple examples are: 1) the ways in which white colonizers used military and economic power to force indigenous communities from their lands and to warp the economic system in which racialized people lived so that they would be forced to work for white people’s benefit in order to survive. 2) the way that a man may use physical violence to coerce a female partner.  These are clear examples in which power and domination occur in a one-sided way.
  • However, things get much more complicated when we consider that people’s identities are often much more nuanced and that relationship dynamics are much more subtle than we usually discuss
  • Consider, for example a racialized queer cisgender woman dating a white transgender man – is one more capable of abuse than the other?
  • Consider: people are indeed capable of abusing each other at the same time, but the balance of power is also often skewed toward one individual
  • Things seem even more complicated when mental health and (dis)ability are brought into the picture

 

When does intimate abuse occur?

  • I am deeply interested in the question of intimate abuse in the context of oppression and mental health because of my own background as an abused queer, asian child who grew up to become a trans asian woman who has been both abused and abusive
  • i will discuss my own experience of having been abusive in order to investigate why abuse happens in a general sense
  • How was I abusive? Won’t go into specifics, but I was abusive in the sense that I was emotionally manipulative.  I would often distort the truth or outright lie to partners in an attempt to keep them with me and to disguise personality traits or behaviors that i considered undesirable about myself.  in moments of emotional panic (which is to say, depressive episodes), i would attempt to bully partners into caring for me in the ways that i demanded
  • Why was i abusive? i was abusive because i was traumatized, oppressed, terrified, isolated, and constantly invalidated by the people around me.  i was a teenage, racialized transwoman with severe and complex PTSD.  i felt that unless i tricked or forced someone into caring for me, i would never be loved, never get access to vital resources, and i would literally die
  • yet none of this was an excuse for having harmed people. despite all of the struggles in my life, i could always have chosen a different route. there are a great many teenage, racialized transwomen with PTSD who have never been abusive.
  • regardless of social position, i believe that a great deal of abusive behavior in intimate relationships is an expression of fear on the part of the abuser that they will not be able to get their needs met in any other way. these needs may be obvious, such as the need for physical care, or for love.  sometimes they may be the result of an internal logic, or not seem to “make sense” or “fit with reality” (let us be aware of the ableist nature of these terms).  however, they are always very real to the person who has them.
  • in the case of marginalized peoples, the fear that our needs will not be met is usually at least partially based in systemic oppression
  • there is also the kind of abuse that exists when someone exercises privilege in order to control someone else and does not know that what they are doing is wrong. this is because they have been conditioned not to see the way their privilege affects people.
  • there is never an excuse for abuse. the notion of mental health is very often brought up as a reason for ignoring or “giving a pass” to relationship dynamics that would otherwise be considered entirely unacceptable.  but if we return to the idea that abuse is the use of power to violate or manipulate someone else’s consent, then we can start to consistently recognize abuse for what it is

what does intimate abuse look like in the context of mental health?

  • i believe that the question of intimate abuse is almost totally inseparable from mental health, but this is my bias because of the personal history i have just discussed
  • consider this suggestion: if everyone had access to the resources they needed to be mentally, physically, and spiritually healthy, then abuse would not exist
  • this is, to me, a radical re-conception of mental health and abuse, because it implicates the larger social system for creating the conditions in which abuse occurs
  • but to get right down to the details: can anyone think of any examples they’d like to share of abusive behaviors/dynamics related to a specific mental health experience/condition/diagnosis? (i acknowledge that not everyone relates to the language of diagnosis and its related fucked-uppedness)
  • a common scenario that i have seen as a therapist is when one partner expresses certain needs around mental health that in some way cross the boundaries of another partner. here are some highly simplified examples:
  • coercion through self-harm: partner A is depressed and isolated and needs partner B to spend all their time with them. partner B feels trapped and overwhelmed, and eventually starts trying to negotiate distance from partner A.  partner A tells partner B that if partner B does not do exactly what they say, partner A will hurt themself/commit suicide out of despair (while partner A’s feelings of despair are valid in and of themselves, they should not be used to manipulate partner B)
  • gaslighting by expressing a different perspective of reality: partner A tells partner B that they cannot respect partner B’s thoughts, feelings, and/or needs, because partner A has a different perspective of reality. (partner A may indeed have a different perspective of reality which should be respected, but partner B is also entitled to respect.)
  • justifying violence as loss of mental control: partner A tells partner B that their mental health experience results in them being physically incapable of not committing acts of violence at certain times (while partner A may certainly feel out of control, there are always ways to negotiate this in the context of a relationship so that partner B is not on the receiving end of violence)

general guidelines

  • every relationship is unique, and everyone has the right to negotiate their own boundaries
  • in general, however, i would suggest:
  • everyone has the right to have their needs met
  • everyone has the right to state their needs.
  • no one has the right to force someone to meet their needs or use their feelings as a justification for abuse
  • no one person should ever be put in the position of needing to meet all the needs of another person
  • no one can be expected to anticipate all of the needs of another person. however, we have the responsibility to do our best to educate ourselves and care for our relationship partners (in all kinds of relationships) as best we can.
  • we must take responsibility for ourselves and accountability for our own actions

Community responsibility

  • abuse never occurs in a vacuum: it exists in relation to the community that necessitates and allows it
  • we must begin to understand abuse as something that grows from austerity, from isolation, from trauma
  • we must call out abuse where we see it, and put power in the hands of survivors to make their own decisions
  • we have to be there for individuals in abusive relationships: there to give care and to create justice
  • we have to teach each other how to be responsible and accountable, to identify our power and to use it in good ways

Embracing monstrosity

  • this workshop is called “Monstrous Love” in reference to my own experience of my capacity to love: as violent, strange, desperate, warped, too hungry. it reflects the notion that certain ways of relating to people is often stigmatized as evil or wrong, and also a reclamation of those feelings that seem too strong, those needs that are always invalidated as being too much
  • it is not my interest to categorize certain people as “abusers” or certain relationships as “unhealthy”
  • i do not wish to contribute to a mainstream mental health industrial-complex that shames us and our ways of loving while also denying our realities and exploiting our bodies for financial gain
  • i do not believe that there are any easy answers, or that anything is cut and dry
  • i want us to acknowledge and embrace the messiness and complexity of loving, the monstrosity of trying to touch and care for each other in this deeply traumatized world. to refuse to hide from the frightened, terrified, fucked-up, angry parts of ourselves and each other
  • when we cease to be afraid of what we are capable of doing and what we might lose in the process of loving, we are able to find our power to heal and to grow

Read the first scenario and answer the questions.  Then read the second one and answer the questions.

Scenario 1: Your friend Ari has been dating their partner Marika for about six months. In the past couple of months you have noticed a lot of changes in Ari. They have been cancelling hangouts and when they do hang with you they are constantly texting and leaving the room to take calls because Marika “gets really pissed” if Ari doesn’t respond right away. Ari seems anxious and sad and often talks about what a screwup they are. They spend most of their time with Marika and stopped doing a lot of the things they used to be passionate about. You’ve heard other friends mention that Marika “has control issues”. When she gets upset and demands that they leave a hangout early to talk on the phone or go meet up with her, they explain that Marika is going through a lot and they are the only one who can really support her. When you ask Ari about that relationship they say that they love Marika, that no one understands them like she does and that the two of them have something really special together that is hard to explain. You think something is going on in that relationship and you are worried about Ari. What do you do?

What do you think is happening here?

How do you know?

What is your responsibility?

What are some ways that you can support Ari while respecting their  boundaries?

 

 

Scenario 2: Your friend Marika has been dating her partner Ari for about 6 months. She had her eye on her much since they started dating and it seems like when they’re not together, Ari is all she ever wants to talk about. Marika struggles with anxiety, depression, and PTSD  stemming from childhood. She gets really jealous , often talking about how Ari looks at other girls and how she is sure they are cheating on her. She’s so afraid that they will break up with her and has told you she feels like she’ll never be good enough for them. She once told you about a time when they were fighting and she was hurt and angry because of something Ari did and she shoved them into a wall. When you asked her about it later she said that she had exaggerated and didn’t really mean “shoved”, it was more a tap on the chest – they stumbled backwards against the wall and they weren’t hurt and she apologized after. You have been friends for a long time, so you know how much she struggles and how anxious she feels and all the heavy shit she has had to deal with in her life. Lately you feel like there is something going on in her relationship with Ari and you feel worried about it. What do you do?

 

What do you think is happening?

How do you know?

What do you think is your responsibility?

How can you support Marika while respecting her boundaries?

 

Further Reading List (Feel free to help me add to this!)

Samarasinha, L., & Chen, C. (2009). The revolution starts at home. Oakland, CA: The editors.

Truong, Ashley.  “4 Ways to Find Out If Your Partner Is Using Their Depression as an Excuse for Controlling Behavior” http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/depression-and-partner-abuse/

http://freethoughtblogs.com/brutereason/2015/07/27/emotional-labor-what-it-is-and-how-to-do-it/

 

 

 

 

 

Asking For It: Moving Beyond the Sex-Positive/Negative Binary (conference presentation text)

images*I thought that I would repost the text of this presentation of two years ago here, because I have recently been rethinking about the topic of discussion.  I would still love to see more discussion of this sort of thing in radical leftist communities.

**first presented at the Study In Action Panel: Whose Body is It Anyway? A Panel on Access, Sexuality, and Self-determination on March 23 2013

Hello everyone.  I’d like to start with a warning that this presentation contains discussion of sexual assault.   Those of you for whom such stories are painful, traumatically resonant, or overwhelming, please be warned, and know that I honor your choices to listen, to leave, or otherwise take care of yourselves.   Know also that this is not a trigger warning per se – as a friend of mine likes to say, triggers are for guns, and I am not a gun.  My body is not a gun.  Our stories of truth are not weapons.  Rather, truth and the pain it sometimes causes are instruments of healing.  And just as bones that have broken and re-connected in the wrong way must be re-broken in order to heal once more, I believe we must use the truth of our painful stories to break open the silence in activist communities around sex, rape, trauma, and desire in order to find a greater, more connected way of being.  So let us begin:

Let us take a moment to breathe.  Let me hear the sound, the song, the swell of your lungs. Let us take a moment to remember our bodies, our beating hearts, and our ancestors.  Let’s remember all of those people who cannot be here today because of illness or work or barriers to access.  Remember those who worked and continue to work so hard, often in situations of exploitation, so that we can sit here in this university building with all its amenities.  So that I could sit and write this (scintillating, of course) presentation in the comfort of my home and present it to you here today, on unceded Kanienkahake territory.  Breathe and remember the bloodshed that created this city, the ongoing violence that maintain the university and nation-state.  Breathe and remember our spirit, our strength, our many different stories and experiences, our diverse and conflicting truths.

It is from the place of remembrance and conflicting truths that I would like to issue a challenge to you students and community members here in the room, to the organizers of this panel and QPIRG, to all of us who do radical, anti-oppressive work in the area of bodily sovereignty and sexuality: I think that we have failed.  We have failed to talk about sex and sexual assault within our circles, and we have failed to bring to light to the hypocrisy and violence that lies hidden in the difference between the ways we talk about sex, sexuality, and sexual violence; and the way we practice and experience (or don’t practice and experience) sex.  It is difficult for me to say this, but I think I must, because the truth is that when I first fled my Chinese-Canadian family home on traditional Musqueam land for what I imagined were the rainbow-paved streets of the gay and queer community, it was in the arms of that community – that so-called safer space, that sex-positive, feminist, leftist community – that my body was violated for the first time.  It is difficult for me to say this, because I love all of my communities, and especially the politically radical ones so deeply – but here I would like to share some words from that great poet and Black lesbian writer, Audre Lorde:

I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

My communities had not protected me.  The Chinese community in Vancouver did not protect me from internalized racism and shame, or from the homophobia and gender-based violence at school that left me unable to turn to anyone in my family or neighbourhood to talk about my burgeoning sexuality or gender dysphoria.  The gay and queer community did not protect me from being raped by our own people at seventeen –or nineteen, or twenty-one.  The radical leftist community in Montreal, who praised and benefited from my writing and performance art and the volunteer labour I did as an event organizer and support worker, did not protect me from sexual fetishism and exploitation from well-loved activists who were instrumental in organizing the student strike in 2012.  You did not protect me from seeing my rapists at the anarchist bookfair or at queer art vernissages or at Prisoner Correspondence Project fundraisers or events like this one.  And those of you for whom these words strike a chord that resonates to the tune of your own experiences – I did not protect you.

How could this happen?  How could it be that, for all our leftist rhetoric around consent, bodily sovereignty, anti-ableism, queer positivity, fat positivity, and sex-positivity, we have somehow managed to perpetuate a culture of rape, silence, and shame?  There is more than one answer, more than one truth, but one of them is, I think, that progressive rhetoric around sexuality itself is fundamentally flawed.  The popular frameworks used in community work: bodily sovereignty, the consent model, and sex-positivity, are insufficient to encompass the complexities that inform the lived experience of sexuality in a context also informed by racism, ableism, and colonization.

The concept of bodily sovereignty is often used in community dialogue around sexual assault and abortion – it is the notion that each individual has the right to decide what happens to their body and when.  That we are, or rather should be, sovereign over our physical experiences with other humans.  Yet bodily sovereignty cannot not be divorced from the current context of colonization and white supremacy.  The spirits and bodies of racialized and Indigenous peoples were colonized in concert with our lands – we have been subjugated to an ideal of sexual experience and physical beauty that locks us outside of our own ideals of beauty and pleasure.  Ideals which are, of course, white.  As the activist and writer Alok Vaid-Menon writes:

“How to explain to a body that it is Brown? How to explain white fetish in a country which has been fucked for years? To a city whose most famous landmarks are the cum stains left from the British? To a city with a commercial street where you can buy Adidas sneakers and watch Hollywood movies in 3D.”

 

How indeed?  How to conceptualize and speak to my own experience of assault when the boy who violently penetrated me until I bled in my own home was also the most “conventionally” attractive (read: white, non-disabled, masculine presenting) that I had slept with?  How to resolve my own sense of pride that at last one of those beautiful radical queer boys had chosen feminine, Asian me with the memory that he refused to stop when I told him it hurt, that he pinned down on the bed when I tried to get up, that he forced himself inside me from behind not once but six time over the course of the night?  How to claim my right to bodily sovereignty when I did not scream, did not tell, did not just leave when I had the chance?

The Fillipina poet/activist Ninotchka Rosca writes that “consent is only possible all things being equal.”  White supremacy renders bodies of colour less than equal in the colonized landscape of sexuality – silences us by creating an illusion for people of colour where the violation of our bodies is represented as identical to our liberation, promises that we might become beautiful if only we allow ourselves to fucked by, to be fucked into, whiteness.  The kinds of sexual assault, abuse, and rape that this allows for is most often invisible to the models of consent and bodily sovereignty invented by white feminism and used in community work and rad organizing – and allows whiteness, heteronormativity, and ableism to dominate sexuality in organizing spaces.

White feminist concepts – bodily sovereignty, and sex-positivity – are the tools that I used when I first began community work.  They are the foundation of my understanding of what happened to me.  And yet they left no room for an experience of violence outside of and between positive and negative, outside of and between the words yes and no.                     Worse, they are often employed in such a way that regulates the access of racialized and disabled bodies to the language of sexuality.

The rhetoric of bodily sovereignty and consent was first articulated to me during a sexual assault support centre volunteer training in the form of a catch phrase: “No one is entitled to sex.”  A white, able-bodied gay man told me this in all earnesty – told me that I was not entitled to sex!  As if I didn’t know that.  As if white gay men hadn’t made abundantly clear to me with and without words that I did not deserve desire, pleasure, beauty, or respect – but that I was, on the other hand, entitled to rape.  I continue to hear this phrase echoed in workshops and by community organizations in the Montreal context and abroad.

At the same time, the concept of sex-positivity is often employed in the understanding that “consensual sex is a pleasurable experience that takes place between two consenting adults.”  Where does that leave those of us for whom giving consent is rarely or never an option?  For whom sex is fraught with the implications of colonization and/or ableism?   For whom sex is rarely or never wholly pleasurable, yet still a deeply ingrained, socialized desire?  For those whose bodies, psyches, and experiences do not allow for pleasure without pain?  And for those who would rarely or never be chosen as sexual partners except for as objects of fetishism or rape?

I think that we must move away from a politic of safety for some bodies but not others, of comfort for some people at the expense of others; away from a middle-class and ableist and white supremacist understanding of which kinds of sexuality are appropriate and positive, and whose bodies are appropriate and positive.  Away from catch phrases such as “no one is entitled to sex” and toward embracing the terrible and magnificent complexity of bodies that survive neglect and violence and abuse in the most intimate places yet still find a way to burn like flames with a desire that will not yield.  Toward the understanding that we are, in fact, all entitled to sexuality – to feel and to want and to dream erotically – and also to respect and protection from violence.  I want to move outside of a sex-positive/negative binary to a place of sex affirmativity – a place of deep listening and belief in our truths and stories.  Toward an affirmation that sex and sexuality are complicated, ever-transforming processes that span a vast universe of pain, pleasure, and power that is so much more than simply positive or negative.

This is the challenge I present to you, to this community, today: I challenge us to break the silence.  I challenge us to believe and to affirm each other.  I challenge us to see our own hypocrisy.  I challenge us to protect each other.  I challenge us to speak, to listen, and to believe.

On Abundance and Scarcity: Renewal & Reflections from the Inkstorm/Sad Rad/Anchor Archive Residency

Hello from Halifax!  

Thanks to the INCREDIBLE residency that I am currently on, I have FINALLY had the chance to revitalize my sorely neglected artist page.  Here amidst the Atlantic sea air, in a beautiful apartment with a lushly planted and strawberried(!) garden, I feel, for the first time (in my life, maybe?) like my art is front and center in my life.  (All this thanks to the wonderful kindness of the folks at Inkstorm, Sad Rad, and Anchor Archive Collectives, who put on this residency every year!) Hence this very first post in my ”writer’s blog,” which will, ostensibly, document my artistic process and preserve it for queer/trans PoC posterity for years to come (at least, this is what the darling and dazzling Kama La Mackerel tells me).

moonlit

This is a photo from the performance night, Home Invasion (in honour of trans migrant activist Jenicet Gutierrez and her unceremonious ejection from the White House) Kama and I held at the Khyber Centre in Halifax – I am blown away by the talent, fierceness, and generosity of the Scotian PoC artists who performed alongside us. Whatever myths we might have internalized about scarcity and unworthiness, racialized queer artistry and femme magic are all around us, in every place.

Some Reflections on Scarcity and Success from a newly Resident Artist

In the midst of all this abundance, I think that now might be a good moment for some sober reflection on art, scarcity, and success (as a trans woman of colour under capitalism).  In the few days I’ve been in Halifax, I’ve caught myself almost frantically Facebook status-posting about how happy I am to be here (I am), how lovely everything has been (it has), and how great all of my projects have been going (I mean, more or less…).

This isn’t just narcissism (though it is some of that also), it’s standard artistic practice – social media is, for artists, how we promote and document ourselves.  The appearance of success is pretty much as important as artistic success itself, since one leads to the other in terms of landing bookings, contracts, etc.  This is particularly true for marginalized artists (read: racialized, trans, femme, disabled, etc), because even more than other artists (read: white, moneyed, MFA-holding) we live in a paradigm of scarcity.  We are always told there is no money in the arts, no room/interest/demand for our art, that only a select few us will become the chosen tokens who ‘make it’ as professionals.

And while all this social media-ing is necessary to our survival, it also breeds jealousy and feelings of inadequacy; commodification of the self; and – worst of all –  the illusion that making it is just out of our reach.  If only we could get that residency.  That book deal.  That big break.

And I just want to be honest and say, I know that I am a relatively successful emerging racialized, transwoman writer/performer with online and print publications, two residencies completed, and a bunch of performance credits and still, IT IS HARD.  ”Making it” is freakin’ HARD.  A friend of mine – also a PoC woman artist – recently said to me, ”You seem like the image of the perfect femme artist.  The kind of woman who just floats from success to success.”

Right. Image being the key word.

Because – and this is, in large part, my own damn Facebook status-posting fault – we never talk about the difficult parts.  The degrading parts.  The waiting-six-months-to-get-a-cheque-from-a-performance-and-Pride TM-mails-it-to-the-wrong-drag-queen parts.  We never talk about the fact it doesn’t matter if my article gets 10,000 shares, or 15,000, or 20,000, I still only get $50 for it.  We never talk about editors jerking you around, or working until 4AM on an application or a pitch so that maybe someone will deign to underpay you, or Established Artists (yes, queer and of colour) withholding information from you because they know that artistic institutions will only fund one marginalized token at a time.  About years of inbox folders full of one-line rejection emails while mediocre white straight poets are putting out their first, second, third book.  About taking shitty gigs with shitty organizers to pay the bills. To get exposure.  I could go on and on and on and on.  So could any of us.

To any QPOC artist who’s ever been jealous of me?  No worries. Chances are I’ve been jealous of you, as well.  I am jealous all the time.  I am constantly starving for more, more, more success.  Starving to make it, make money, make my big break.  Starving to prove something that should be self-evident: the fact that I am worthwhile, just like you.

I’ve noticed a trend among some of the better-paid, more established artists in the QPOC ”scene” to resist this paradigm of scarcity with a politic of abundance: reblogging and helping out other artists, particularly the young and still emerging.  The idea here is that we do not have to live in a scarcity culture – that all of us, instead of just one of us, can make it.

This is incredible and admirable, and I have benefited from this, but I also have to wonder – is it this true?  Can we all make it?  And make it as what?  Are we all trying to be artists-in-residence, living from grant to grant, only as good as our next book deal, gallery show, teaching position?  Constantly begging someone to tell us we’re good enough, over and over?

I wonder if we can dream differently about the world our art is born into.  If we need to start reconceptualizing what we mean by ”professional” art.  Because ”professional” in this moment means ”saleable” and that means there will always be competition, always those who make it and those who don’t.  I want to make art that is free of the constraint imposed upon it by capitalism, of the need to constantly market and self-promote…and I also want to make a living.  I want to believe that this is possible.  I need to believe that this is possible.

Because everyone deserves a garden, a beautiful apartment, a clean and well-lit and nourishing place to find their voice and create beauty.