On Being Undiminished

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Last night an anonymous man sent me a message comprised solely of hateful, demeaning comments about my body. The message came about, it seems, because he recognized me from my presence in my local Pride parade and wanted to wound me. I believe, though I am not certain, that it is someone who made a pass at me once and whom I turned down. The comments were designed to make me feel insecure and small. And I will not lie: they had this effect. The comments haunted my sleep and they have haunted my day today, not only because of what they said but because of the reality that someone I don’t even know would reach out to me with such cruelty and hatred.

But I think this sort of experience is all too common. It is the reality of being a woman with any kind of presence on the internet. No, let me amend that: it is the reality of being a woman with any kind of presence in the world. People (usually straight cis men, but not always) feel entitled to map, assess, characterize, and legitimize women’s bodies.

I am writing this because I want to own this experience and transform it. I will not let a stranger take my joy away from me. My presence in the Pride parade this year meant the world to me. I danced through the whole parade. Joyfully, blissfully. I danced because I was surrounded by people who mean a lot to me and because am in a place in my life where I am genuinely happy. I have a job that I adore, I write songs that fill my mind with beautiful electricity when I play them, I love the people in my life, and I love my presence in the world. All of the things are possible because of my body. My body is my voice, my movement, my heart, my hands, my bliss, all I am, and all I create.

I am 34 years old. It is probably only in the last couple of years that I have come to love my body. In my younger years, I struggled with, and overcame, an eating disorder. I internalized the message that my body would only be ‘right’ if I changed it in some way, reshaped it, cut away at its contours. I believe that I would have the right my place in the world only if I occupied less space in the world. And so I reshaped my body. I participated in a long, soft process of self-diminishment, of slowly disappearing like a shadow that slips under the door as the day moves on its axis.

But I am done with disappearing. I love my strong leg muscles, the curves of my stomach, and the feeling of the wind in my hair when I am dancing. I may never be completely free from the inner voices that tell me that I am not good enough, but I am finished with disappearing. I will dance in every parade that means something to me. I will occupy space, I will create, I will make change. I will not be silenced: neither my voice nor my footfalls as I move through the world with joy and presence. I am a formidable human being.

And to all the women (or people of any gender) who have been made to feel like your bodies are not good enough, who have been subject to cruel words and glances that cut you to pieces, I want to say this: I send you all my warm thoughts and love in solidarity that, if you wish, you can wrap around yourself and hold for a while. Come dancing with me, if you want to. In the streets, by the ocean, in songs sometimes, and sometimes in silence. We can undisappear, we can be whole, we can be undiminished.

On Bisexuality, Three Fears, and, Ultimately, Love

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One of the realities that I deal with as a bisexual person (yes, I said that word, because silence is good for sleep and stargazing but not so much for changing minds) is that I live with three particular fears. These three fears come alive most vividly when I am dating someone new. They wind around me, bind me tightly, and ask me to choose one of two directions. Fears do not beseech with gentle words; sometimes they speak without words at all, or they shout loudly in the most hidden places, but they always seem to convey their meaning.

One of these fears is that, if I am dating a man, friends from my queer community will reject me (as sometimes has happened in one way or another) for not being or acting queer enough.

Another fear is that, if I am dating a woman, other folks in my life will see it as an experimental whim (as has happened, even from those who are dear to me). Being bi is so often assumed to be just a phase. This is hurtful because to me it is a vital element of my identity.

I am someone who is capable of being romantically and sexually drawn to people of more than one gender. I’ve known this since I was 14-ish, though for many years I seldom spoke of it. I have spoken about it lot more frequently of late. I’ve written about it too, and probably will so more – partly because a dear friend (someone whom I love ferociously and devotedly) recently referred to me as a ‘bisexual activist.’ Coming from this person, these words made me infinitely proud and made me want to shake up the world with words and dancing.

If I am going through a phase, realistically it’s a twenty-year-long phase because I’ll be 34 in less than two weeks. Happy birthday, me, let’s have a party and eat some delicious cake! But oh goodness, that brings me to another assumption: the assumption that as a bi person I want to have my cake and also eat another cake too. That, if I really like more than one gender, then I will never be satisfied. And there it is – there’s the third fear that nestles itself gently between the other aforementioned two.

This third fear is that the person I fall for will believe that someone like me can never love one person fully and completely. That this person will be wary of me because of that notion that bi folks can’t settle down and be satisfied with one love. I can’t speak for everyone, but I for one just want one that person to write songs about forever (as realistic or unrealistic as that hopeless and yet hopeful romanticism of mine may be).

Some people who read this will think to themselves, why can’t she just be more confident? Why focus on fear? Let the fears fall away. Don’t give them your breath, and they will just die naturally on their own.

But the thing is, I am confident. This post was born of fears, but just as much it was born from love. It is about whom I choose to love, but it also comes from a very deep place of self-love. Despite the fears and stereotypes that have haunted me, I am proud of who I am.

And I’ve come to realize that the problem is not that I have these fears. It is that I have good reason to have these fears. I have twenty years’ worth of interactions with friends, lovers, family members, and strangers to confirm to me that these fears are neither irrational nor benign. The problem is not me, but the biphobic stereotypes and myths that still thrive. These stereotypes and myths are often silent but they are still brazen. And their brazen silence is the reason I feel that I need to speak – because people like me have sometimes chosen a long, intricately woven hush rather than bare our authentic selves. Because fear has told us that love and acceptance cannot exist for us without compromise and erasure. This is not a reality I want to endorse; I’m rather fond of love.

I don’t claim to speak for all bi folks. Everybody’s lived experiences are their own. I only have one voice and one heart, but I am at the point in my life where I find value in using both of these instruments unyieldingly. Love is worth the risk. It always is.

On Biphobia, and the Cozy Nature of Closets

On Biphobia, and the Cozy Nature of Closets

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I’ve been posting a lot of content about Pride on my facebook this week. And that has made me reflect on the fact that I am probably confusing people, and that maybe friends and acquaintances are making assumptions about me.

I know these assumptions. I’ve heard them spoken out loud, whispered softly, and now I can hear them in my head. I can hear them breathing beside me, walking behind me, following me home from the bus stop, tapping me softly on the shoulder. The assumptions go like this: it’s just a phase, you’re only trying to get attention, you want too much, you’re just a stowaway on someone else’s ship, you’re confused, you need to choose a side. And these: you’re a straight lady if I ever did see one with your long hair and your pretty dresses, and oh wait a second girl didn’t you get all straight-married once when you were 24? Yep. I guess so. I did, sorta kinda.

But no. No, I didn’t. Because I am not a straight person. I never have been straight, though I am often read as straight because I am feminine in presentation and because two of the long-term relationships I’ve had have been with cisgender men (and then there’s that one I refuse to acknowledge – hah). I loved those people (some of them, and oh so profoundly), but I have loved people across the gender spectrum. I have loved other women. Very deeply, completely, with all of myself. That love, that part of me, is there in the songs and stories I’ve written. But that love has not often been spoken out loud.

I went to a Pride Week lecture yesterday about bisexual invisibility. The content of the lecture is covered here by a writer I very much respect. She does it justice in a way that I could not, so you should go read her piece.

Yesterday’s lecture was amazing, and made me realize some important things. It made me realize that I don’t tend to speak about my sexual orientation because of fear. This fear derives from the very real reality that when I’ve called myself bi or queer, there are times when I’ve very much been shut down, erased, disbelieved, or judged. And that hurts, particularly when it’s from people you trust and love.

The lecture also made me realize that I don’t want to be invisible anymore.

People like me who are drawn to more than one gender have to come out again and again in a way. Part of this is because we might appear straight for a while to the world because of our choice of who to love. For me, I really never wanted to come out in the first place. I’ve always been a shadow-creature of sorts, an observer who wants to watch the world and then create things from pieces of reality when I find moments of silence. I didn’t want the world to watch me back, scrutinize me, assess me. I wanted to just be who I am, without a cumbersome label or a box to fit inside. So I just moved about in the world, avoiding both spotlights and search beacons, telling people who I am only when I felt they needed to know.

But then something someone I admire said yesterday made me reflect on the reality that coming out can carve out a space for others to be who they are without so much fear. And that is something I would like to do: to make the world a little safer for others, even if it makes it a little less safe for me. I am able to overcome my fear of heights when I remember that I love the sky. Being high above the ground means being surrounded by the sky. And so I can overcome this fear too, this fear of being known, when I remember that I love how in so many ways the world has embraced me, gently encircling around me, because of the very things that make me strange and different.

Closets are cozy, comfortable places. Mine has been a shelter in a world full of colliding storms. My closet is full of all of my nice dresses. But it has also been full of complacency. My closet is a small, contained space, and in that manner has acted like a cast around fractured parts of me, holding these pieces together. But, I remind myself, a closet is not a place to dance wildly. Nor is it a place from which to launch a revolution, write songs, tell stories, and love other human beings. And I want to do all of those things. Very much so.

So, after the talk yesterday, I went away and reflected for a while on how afraid I’ve been to let people know my authentic self because I thought it would cost me love.

I’ve had women in the queer community disbelieve and de-legitimize me because I’m ‘not really gay’ (I paraphrase, but I’ve felt your tone and seen your eyes). I’ve had straight people think that I just haven’t reached a decision yet, that I’m a deftly balanced fence-sitter. I’ve had strangers on the internet think that I just identify as queer or bi to make straight cisgender men like me more. I’ve had queer women not want to date me because of the fear that I will go off and want to be with a man (oh good god I won’t; when I am in love, my heart is so completely full of a particular person that it seeps out into my songs, my mind, my steps, my every moment, and it feels like love has become a beautiful ocean of light around me).

Love is always part of my world. And I think that words concerning love should not ever need to be tucked away in shame. So, this week, I have found a voice that might tremble sometimes like ripples in a pool but that, as a force of its own distinct from the water, will not evaporate.

Though I am very much an introvert, I’ve been out (pun intended) at events a lot this week. This particular Pride Week is infinitely important to me, because this year I’ve vowed to put more of myself out there into the world. So that is what I am doing. And if people keep loving me, great. If you want to love me even more, I’ll love you back just as ferociously because I’m like that. And if someone wants to erase me or make who I am invisible, they can certainly try, and maybe to some extent they will succeed. But I think now they’ll be less able to. Because for the first time in my life, I feel like I am genuinely part of a community of people like me who, in a myriad of both similar and dissimilar ways, are also beautifully strange and different. And that fills up my heart to the point that it just can’t help but spill into the spaces around me.

Transphobia and the Bathroom Question

Transphobia and the Bathroom Question:
Or, What’s Really Lurking in Your Public Washroom

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I am writing this piece because lately a few self-identified progressive folks I know have brought up the bathroom question with me. I suppose it is because I’m doing a project at work with a strong LGBTQ-inclusivity component. This project makes me really, really happy. It fills my heart. And so I talk about these issues a lot when I’m out with friends.

The notorious bathroom question, if you don’t know of it, asks whether trans folks should get to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity. In other words, should a trans man be entitled to use the men’s washroom? And should a trans woman be entitled to use the women’s washroom?

The answer I always want to give is this:

“Who are we to question someone’s gender? They’ve undoubtedly spent years thinking about it, feeling it, and, regardless of to what extent they’ve felt comfortable expressing it, living it as well. And so they probably know a hell of a lot more about it than we do.”

But I don’t say these words. Because honestly, I am still consistently surprised when the bathroom question comes up among my peer group. It shocks me, and this shock silences me. And, much as I love all-encompassing moments of silence, these are not the silences I want to curl up inside.

I want to note that I’m writing this piece from a position of privilege. I’m a cisgender woman. What this means, if you’re not familiar with the language, is that the sex I was assigned at birth matches the gender with which I identify. In addition to being a cisgender woman, I’m also quite feminine-presenting. And so I’ve never had anyone question my choice of bathroom. I’ve never been threatened with hateful words or subject to violence because someone in a public washroom is uncomfortable with my gender expression. But this violence and these threats happen.

The bathroom question is often brought up by opponents of trans rights who claim that allowing trans women to use women’s washrooms would create danger for cisgender women. One example of the many iterations of this logic was in 2012 when Calgary Member of Parliament Rob Anders adamantly opposed Bill C279, a private member’s bill which would add gender identity and gender expression as protected grounds in the Canadian Human Rights Act and hate crime section of the Canadian Criminal Code. Anders described the bill as the “bathroom bill” and suggested that its purpose was to give trans women (whom he purposely misgendered as men) access to women’s washrooms.

I am quite familiar with the bathroom question as raised by people like Anders. In reality, in such a context it tends to be posited as more of a statement or as a moral truth rather than as a question.

But of late, the bathroom question has been expressed to me by friends over casual coffee through this sort of sentiment: “I don’t mind trans women. In fact, I support their right to express themselves and dress as they like. But I wouldn’t want one in a bathroom with me.” Or, “Trans rights are great, but won’t this mean that a man could sneak into the ladies’ room?”

To which I want to reply:

Seriously, my friend? That logic has all of the beauty, strength, and resilience of that wad of toilet paper that got stuck to the heel of my shoe when I was out on a date that time. Please. Let’s step back and think this one over. If a creepy man really gets his kicks from creeping on women doing their private ladybusiness and is willing to dress himself as a woman just to sneak into the ladies’ loo to do so, one has to wonder about his sense of efficiency because he really hasn’t done a good cost-benefit analysis. There are far simpler, much less involved ways to be creepy to women, such as yelling at them from the comfort of one’s truck window. And there will always be conveniently placed dark alleyways and the shadowed corners in bars for him to make use of. Letting trans women use women’s restrooms is not going to suddenly unleash a deluge of creepers being creepers. They already do this quite well and in locations better suited to their convenience.

So instead let’s do a cost-benefit analysis of our own. If there really are men out there who are willing to go to the lengths of misrepresenting themselves and dressing in drag just to sneak into bathrooms and be menacing to women, is this vague possibility worth the cost of discarding the basic right of trans people to go out in public and feel safe when they need to pee?

Are we as a culture really going to let the spectre of a hypothetical boogeyman guide us? Are we really going to let it justify our fear of and cruelty toward a group of people who have been overwhelmingly marginalized, debased, degraded, and even murdered just for being who they are? Have you seen the stats about murder and suicide rates in the trans community? There are some here and here.

I will never understand why we as feminists, as progressives, and as supposed allies, would ever present the bathroom question as if it has any answer other than this answer:

“You know. You, whoever you are, you know your gender. You know, or maybe you are discovering it as you go, which is great too. But you – YOU – know who you are better than I do. So please use the bathroom that makes you comfortable and that best suits your needs. And I, for my part, will do whatever I should do to make that space comfortable for you. By which I mean this: I will not perpetuate transphobia. By which I mean, I will not ogle you while you’re just trying to do your business, I will not objectify you by judging your body, I will not inappropriately ponder the body parts you have under your clothes, I will not yell at you or say hurtful words, I will not act in such a way so as to make you feel small and vulnerable. In other words, I will not be that predator that we as a culture say we are so afraid of.”

Because maybe, just maybe, that predator has been living among us all along – we who are so averse to compassion, we who are so afraid of the Other, we who are so afraid of disrupting the status quo that, through both our actions and inaction, we participate in the suffering of other human beings.

Transphobia is the real predator that we should fear and that we should want out of our public restrooms. But let me tell you, it’s a serious goddamn lurker. Sometimes it hides in the shadows, and sometimes it presents itself in broad daylight. It’s at our windows, in our schools, in our laws, in our statements, in our silence, and also in the stall next to us. It’s in our minds and in our hearts. It’s in my heart. Because we are all immersed in a sea of transphobic tropes and assumptions that do not loosen their hold easily.

I dislike toilet paper on my shoe when I’m a date. I dislike human suffering even more.

I’ve seen the wounds of transphobia in the eyes of people I love and it makes me ache.

I try to be a good ally, but I have made presumptions that I regret. I have said things I never should have said. And I’ve been quiet at moments when there is so much that needs to be said.

So, this is my vow that I will speak up from now on in those moments of shocked silence when someone brings up the bathroom question. I promise I will do this. I will speak back to those who want to present transphobia as a safety measure instead of the injustice that it is. I will keeping writing things, making art, and fostering kindness in my own way. I will keep my heart and mind open, because I still have so much to learn from the world. And, because there is so much to learn, I will never stop asking questions.

But not that question. That one about the bathroom. I’m going to do my part to flush that one out to sea.


I’ve written about transphobia before in the context of Canadian law and prison policy. You can read my article “Stories of 0s: Transgender Women, Monstrous Bodies, and the Canadian Prison System” here.

“Asking for It”: some thoughts on conquest, discipline, and girls’ bodies following the Steubenville rape verdict

I have been thinking a lot about the recent Steubenville rape decision and its coverage in the media. The one phrase that has been stuck in my mind all day today is this one: “asking for it.”

I have spent much of my life playing with words, sometimes building them, sometimes dismantling them. To study language and to love writing: both involve no less than this. So when I think about words and phrases, I want to break them down and look at them. And with some phrases, I want to break them apart, to crumble them into small pieces of sand. I want to look at the pieces in my hand, then scatter them into the wind.

If you don’t know the extent that the sentiment of “asking for it” has been invoked following the Steubenville verdict, you can visit here. Countless twitter users, not to mention the mainstream media, have articulated sympathy for the Steubenville rapists while simultaneously chastising the victim. The chief basis for this victim blaming is that the victim was drunk when she was raped. The logic of victim blaming will tell you that this young woman should have been aware of her surroundings. It will tell you that she invited dehumanization and violence on her body. That she implicitly requested to be raped. That she asked for it.

But, as a phrase, what does “asking for it” really mean? What has it come to mean? Through use and repetition in media and subcultures, words and phrases take on particular, honed meanings and connotations beyond their literal structure and origin. At this point in time, “asking for it” does not actually mean to ask. It does not mean to vocalize consent. It does not signify an articulation of desire. When you think about it, it is actually not used to suggest that a young, unconscious woman literally or implicitly said, “Do this to me.”

Instead, what it says is that she deserved it.

“Asking for it” has come to be used in reference to perceived weakness and the perceived necessity of punishment. This is clear in uses of the phrase outside the context of sexual assault.

“Asking for it” is used by the tired parent whose child won’t stop yelling in the middle of a busy mall. The parent slaps or spanks the child. The child cries even more. But that’s okay, right? She, the child, was asking for it. Her misbehaviour, the parent believes, warrants such stern reprimand.

“Asking for it” is used in military strategy games when your opponent is distracted and lets down his guard for that crucial moment. His defences are down. So you take action, because you are playing a game and the purpose of this game is to win. As a consequence, you make major ground. Your opponent is upset at your success, of course. But he let it happen. He displayed his own weakness. He let his guard down. He was asking for it.

I could think of many more similar scenarios, but I think these two are enough to make my point. “Asking for it” is used when someone has acted in a way that reveals a weakness. It is used in situations when someone is seen to deserve violence in order to discipline them for bad behaviour.

It does not really mean to ask. And yet, strangely enough, it is conflated with the concept of consent, as if consent could be implicitly given by being drunk or unconscious.

All day, I have asked myself how it could be that so many people have expressed the sentiment that a young woman who was unconscious was “asking for it”? But as I think more about it, I think my two examples above are oddly appropriate. We live in a culture that so often sees young women as small children who need steering and discipline so as to protect them from themselves. And we also see young women as military-esque targets that are the objects of battles and conquests. We tell women not to wear certain clothes because we believe men cannot help themselves. We tell them men only want to conquer. We tell them don’t walk in certain areas. Watch your drink. Don’t wear that skirt. And if you don’t behave as we say, you are responsible for the punishment that others allot to you. You should have better guarded your fortress.

But, as a culture, we don’t tell men not to rape.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I have never been raped. I know so many people, all across the gender spectrum, who have been subject to sexual violence. I am humbled by their strength and their resilience in overcoming what they have been through and speaking out about it.

Statistically speaking, you know these people too, whether or not you have heard their stories. This kind of violence is all too common.

I haven’t been raped, but I have been beaten up. I think of the Steubenville victim, who was only sixteen when she was raped. When I was sixteen, one night I was at my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He and I were drinking wine. He picked a fight with me. I told him that I wanted to go home. It was after midnight, and I was tired of being called names. I told him I wanted to see my dad. I reached toward the doorknob of his room. This was the first time he hit me. It didn’t leave a visible bruise, but for a week after, I had a small red blot that seemed to hover just on the surface of my left eyeball. Like a tiny red planet in motionless orbit around my iris. No one else noticed.

When I started to be vocal about him hitting me, I was keenly aware of how many people within my group of friends (who were also his group of friends) started to change in how they acted toward me. I knew what was said behind my back. I knew that some people sympathized with me. But I knew that others expressed in so many words behind my back that I had asked for what had been happening to me, because I was a strange, awkward girl who wore particular clothes and flirted too much and should have been more sensible about where she went and who she spent time with.

I have no idea what it is like to be raped. I have no idea what it is like to know that there are images of your rape around the internet. I have no idea what it is like to be revictimized at trial and then once again in the trial of public opinion. But I do remember a little bit about what it is like to be a drunk sixteen year old girl, even though I’m almost twice that age now. And what I know about that is that no matter how drunk you were, you did not ask to be mistreated. More likely than not, you believed in the goodness of other people. You did not ask to be treated as a thing. You did not ask to be someone’s object of conquest. You did not ask to be punished, dehumanized, and humiliated. Your body did not ask for discipline.

I know that you were never asking for it.

Because asking for it, if you really, really take a moment and think about what that phrase should mean, would involve a girl opening her mouth and speaking consent. Or writing it down. Or making some kind of meaningful communication. It would involve an action: to ask. Not lying down limp and unconscious or saying nothing. We all deserve, and we must demand, a better world than the one that exists now. And part of demanding this better world is refusing to accept the idea that others have some kind of implicit right to articulate their rage on girls’ bodies.

No one ever asks for this.

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