Against a mustard-yellow background is a raised black fist with an infinity sign on its wrist, accompanied by the words "black disabled lives matter."

[reading list] BLACK MAD LIVES MATTER

Last Updated 6/13/20

[If you’re in need, find a comprehensive list of mental health resources here.]

Black people stim. Black people have intrusive thoughts — including violent ones. Black people hear and see things others do not hear or see. Black people have panic attacks. Black people have meltdowns. Black people are hyperactive. Black people live in dissociative/multiple systems. Black people yell and otherwise “act out” in public.

Black people attempt and complete suicide. Often.

Black people are unable to comply with heightened demands of “compliance” under a system of white supremacy and psychiatric hegemony.

Black disabled people, particularly Black Mad people, are routinely overlooked both within Disability/Mad studies activism and scholarship as well as in larger conversations about prison and police-abolition. This is perhaps most evident in discourses of police replacement with social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists, and the replacement of prisons with group homes and other psychiatric/”therapeutic” institutions.

Those we typically call “cops” and those we might deem “brain cops” serve identical purposes: not to alleviate suffering but to maintain social order. Vitale’s (2017) claims in the incredibly-relevant, yet deeply flawed, book, The End of Policingreflect sane/abled presumptions about the role of medico-psychiatric professionals in civilian lives. Vitale contrasts these a priori “benevolent” and “healing” professions with the police, whose endgame is social control. This is a, dare I say, “criminal” obfuscation of the realities of psychiatric violence.

In bodyminds marked in perpetual opposition to (white) rationalist idea(l)s and deemed both cause and result of their own inherent dis-order(s), Mad Black people face what Abdillahi et al (2016) call “anti-Black Sanism.” The inherent violence of diagnostic pathologization and institutionalization increases exponentially in severity, too. And psychiatric institutionalization — I cannot over-emphasize this — is carceral in nature.

Psychological professionals police (in the definitional sense of maintaining order or curing dis-order(s)) affective realities in all patients, but it is Black patients for whom requisite “social skills,” “emotion-regulation” techniques, “self-discipline,” and other therapeutic, coded language for self-surveillance remains least attainable. Not only are the so-called “social [survival] skills” demanded of Black people impossible to fulfill, but for as long as Blackness symbolizes disorder itself, the white supremacist psychiatric industry will never overcome its centuries-old compulsion to white supremacy. Perhaps it needs to see someone!

Below is a list of resources regarding the unique violences faced at the intersection of Madness/neurodivergence/psychiatrization and Blackness. By no means does this frame every person whose areas of specialization include psychiatry — indeed, Frantz Fanon (read here) himself was a psychiatrist who utilized his knowledge to disturb the hegemonic “commonsense” other psychiatrists seek, in “treatment”, to preserve. That said, the profession of psychiatry remains committed to the normalization of “aberrant” individuals, and under a white supremacist social order, the system itself remains entrenched in racism.

This is by no means a complete list — just the result of a week of searching and reading. If you have more resources, message me, and I’ll add them. Read. Share. And critically reconsider your calls to replace prisons with prisons of another name.

Racialized In/Sanities; Eugenics; Mad Black Studies

Black Medico-Psychiatric Trauma/Abuse

Depression & Anxiety

Neurodivergence:

Schizophrenia, Bipolar, PDs:

Disordered Eating, OCD, Addiction, Trauma:

Fiction, Poetry, Poetics:

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Bird-Eyes, Madelyn Arnold
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Bull-Jean Stories, Sharon Bridgeforth
  • Citizen, An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
  • Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  • Just Another Dead Black Girl, Michelle Evans
  • Mosquito, Gayl Jones
  • The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
  • Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler
  • The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
Mel Baggs, wearing glasses and a brown button-down shirt, faces the camera with a knitting project balanced on their chest. A grey and white cat sits perched on their shoulder.

A hearty hand-flap for Mel Baggs

I can’t tell you all of my wishes, because they are all in code. I can’t tell you what I can’t do anymore. It’s just one more room in the building, left blank and unexplored. I wish I was known for who I was and not for what I did. I can’t tell you what I’ve lost or what I’ve gained.

I can still see more than people want for me to see. I can still feel things deeper than people expect. What I can’t understand, I still can’t understand, only more. I still want things that can’t be named. I still can’t tell you any other way than this here, right now. What stays, what shifts, what’s changed.

–– Mel Baggs, 2014 [x]

It feels as if death creeps but never captures. This is especially the case with disability, a condition that appears always-already approaching death, pulling death by the hair into the abled, healthy world. Making the whole world see its unsightly face. Disability says, “kill me if you must but I will fill the space I left with brutal evidence too loud to ignore.”

Yet death occurs, even as healthy bodies attempt to disappear it alongside the bodyminds they warehouse and abandon. A pandemic such as this one is a prolonged encounter with this reality, pressing and pressing against the trappings of normal, healthy life until life cannot contain it. And then it takes. We will all, inevitably, lose someone, if we ourselves are not lost.

About two weeks ago, it was Mel Baggs, 40: blogger, activist, writer, role model par excellence. I didn’t know hir personally, though I felt as if I did. I wish more than anything that I might have told hir how much sie meant to me. This is a universal wish, I know, and it’s completely unfulfillable. I could have spoken to hir ten thousand times. Grief knows no enough. There is always the once-more and its shame.

Mel lived every day in direct defiance of death. As in, laughing heartily and heavily in the face of death, all between poems and blog posts and crochet patterns. At the nexus of multiple forms of oppression, sie was surrounded by unceasing mutters of unworthiness, currents of ableism, saneism, (cis)sexism, classism, and fatphobia. These continuously threatened, and even actively attempted to take hir life. Sie refused to be silent in the face of such injustice.

Sie was unique in hir situation, but unfortunately, not alone. It was from hir that I learned what twenty-first century eugenics looks like, first through hir insightful discussions of violent medical ableism and later through their wanton affirmation: in 2013 Mel faced widely-publicized medical pressures –– ah, suggestions –– to forgo a life-saving feeding tube. Citations of “quality of life” –– grounded in a “commonsensical” understanding that “severely disabled”* people are better off dead ––  were frequent. Mel refused to give hir life up, and medical dominance by consent quickly turned to dominance by coercion: only through a flurry of phone calls, publicity efforts, and multi-state on-the-ground efforts did the disabled community save Mel’s life.

It was experiences like these that directly informed Mel’s analysis of power, shrunk to bite-sized chunks the size of a single hospital, a single room. Disability, sie argued, was something of a “ground zero” for epistemic violence: all other forms of oppression are grounded in an a priori assumption of sickness, incompetence, madness, or other form of bio/psychological inferiority made legible under an ableist system.

As such, the doctor-patient relationship and the aide-client relationship proved a fruitful basis for Baggs’s social commentary, especially on the epistemic imbalance between the sick person and their all-powerful “caregiver”. Again and again, sie also resisted not only the belief that no good scholarship comes from outside academia and from within the life of a mentally disabled person, but also provided pre- and non-academics the language through which to know ourselves. Including me.

I discovered Mel through hir Tumblr blog, which at the time had the username “youneedacat” but has since changed to withasmoothroundstone. It must have been around 2011, and I was new to the disabled Internet, having just seen Julia Bascom’s seminal essay Quiet Hands and since embarked on a reverse-bibliographic adventure through a massive network of autistic and otherwise disabled bloggers. I knew I was autistic but no doctor had named me. I knew with increasing certainty that womanhood was, for me, an untenable future. I did not know how to shape this awareness into something readable, nor was I sure I was an author who deserved to be read.

It was through Mel, among others, that I learned the devastating beauty of disabled, neurodivergent, and Mad lives. In delicious, long-winded yet plain paragraphs sie attributed to hir hyperlexia (and which I equally attribute to hir passion) Mel gave me my truths with such humility it was as though I had known them all along. Not only this, but (I am somewhat ashamed to admit) Mel taught me who and where my disabled comrades truly were. They were not the self-described “aspies” whose collective masturbation to their own superior intelligence and high-functionality perpetuated a eugenics of its own. My comrades, I learned, refused intelligence and functionality as forms of measurement. They enacted this refusal by producing vital knowledge through “illegitimate” digital means. We form alliances not based on what we are able to do but instead on the grounds that each of us has an infinite capacity to dream of a better wor(l)d.

Mel was the first person I had seen use the word “genderless” to self-describe, gesturing not to a bureaucratically-imposed “Other” option in addition to “Male” and “Female,” but a present absence. When asked to “pick from a list of genders” Mel refused the grounds of the question. Sie modeled a path to the gender I am (not) today: a gender-agnostic, a post-gender, a gender against gender and especially against the cold probe of medicine. Hir relationship to gender, to pronouns, and to other signifiers was ambivalent and deeply informed by hir disabled bodymind. Hir greatest material ties and the image to which sie returned in both prose and verse, were trees:

Listen

And you can hear the redwood sorrel talking to each other. They are tiny plants. They look almost like clovers, but they are red on the bottom. They taste citrusy. But what is important is they live in big clumps, they can carpet the entire floor of a forest if given half the chance. And if you are really really quiet, and really really listen… listen with your whole body, not just your ears… then you can hear the way they talk to each other. They whisper. The wind whispers through them, even a slight breeze. Nobody pays them much notice, because they are on the ground, and everyone comes to see the redwoods. But next time you’re in the redwoods, listen to the redwood sorrel. It knows the secrets of the forest floor, of the soil it is so close to. Those are secrets worth learning. 

–– Mel Baggs, 2014 [x].

I do not have enough words in me to describe how important Mel was in making me the person I am. Nor do I have enough to describe the sheer impact Mel had, and will continue to have, on generations of disabled people –– including other idols of mine, like Julia Bascom herself. Mel helped to awaken in me and countless others the unstoppable urge to seize the discourses that make us in two balled fists and shake, and shake, and shake, and stim loudly into the forever they have left me with.


* Queer disability scolar Robert McRuer explores the radical possibilities of “critical queerness” and “severe disability” in “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness and Queer/Disabled Existence.” You can find it in The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed. (link is a direct PDF download).

Mount holyoke seniors parade past Safford Hall holding a blue and white "2020" banner.

oh glorious routine

All day it’s felt like winter break. No, all day it’s felt like an interminable scene posing as winter break, not doing particularly well at it, because rather than leaving me warm it’s leaving me hollow. I did my usual routine today, the one I’ve grown intimately familiar with in this week that’s felt both like a year and an hour. I wake up late, make my coffee. Check my email. Write and/or read until the mid-afternoon. After eating something, I retreat to the outdoors –– not today, of course, but most days –– and walk my familiar street, grimace-smiling at the other isolators on the road, from whom I keep a safe, six-foot-plus distance.

(I met one fellow youth-who-should-be-on-campus on the sidewalk near a deserted neighborhood park. It was around 60º and a bit cloudy, with no young children in sight. When it became clear we were going to cross paths, I trespassed on several peoples’ lawns as he took to the road. I nodded at him. He raised his Monster energy drink to my nod.)

When I come home I take a shower. I return to my work: researching, writing, reading, editing. I keep up my daily practice of writing part of my novel manuscript. I keep my DuoLingo streak. I journal. I listen to a curated selection of podcasts, scrolling through the news-related pods in my feed and deleting them, delete everything to do with COVID, which is everything. Read a novel. Take trazodone and wait until I can’t stay awake anymore, and sleep, knowing I will perform the same motions the following day.

Many have commented that this should be an introvert’s paradise. The whole introvert/extrovert paradigm is a gross oversimplification of human behavior, a sort of “soft pathology” that allows us to participate in the act of diagnosis, removed from medico-psychiatric [author]ization; still, the label of “introvert” fits me well, and is a convenient shorthand for explaining my need to retreat from social life without resorting to the “hard” pathologization I’ve also experienced. Regardless, I strongly disagree with the idea that self-isolation of this kind is good for the introvert. Firstly, self-isolation in close quarters with excessively-social family members can be its own kind of hell, and I’m thankful not to have particularly social parents. Secondly, and more meaningfully, being quarantined by state compulsion is very, very different than choosing to “recharge.”

Perhaps a better metaphor for introversion in the face of pandemic is the laptop that’s been left on the charger at 100% for days.

Perhaps a better metaphor for introversion in the face of pandemic is the laptop that’s been left on the charger at 100% for days. I’m also guilty of doing this (right now, as I type). It’s overkill. It’s so much solace that you forget the solace around you, and thus it turns from solace to uncomfortable silence. Introversion makes itself known in the face of an inherently-social world, and without that world, such distinctions become a mockery of the former freedom they suggested. I no longer have what I now know is the luxury of retreating to a quiet space, able to emerge and move as I choose to when I’m ready. I no longer have the privilege of choosing not to attend a social gathering, of choosing not to visit my friends’ rooms. This relentless adherence to routine has been a replacement for that social time that all of us, “introvert” and “extrovert” alike, need in order to feel human.

The fact that I should be living in a dorm right now, and not in my comparatively-comfortable, quiet childhood bedroom, comes as a further blow. I am not sure how to write about this aspect of these past few weeks, but I am going to do the best I can, because it’s something worth addressing. I considered writing a post on my final semester of undergrad coming to an abrupt end, on my feelings about it and my heartbreak at being ripped from the college I called my home before I could say a proper goodbye. I think it’s an important story to tell, especially given that I got to see and participate in the sense of camaraderie that characterizes Mount Holyoke at its best in those final days of panic and uncertainty. Many tears were shed, many hugs given, and ultimately –– beautifully –– the student body, as well as professors and alumni, came together in an astounding act of compassion.

[W]e recognized ourselves not as a collection of individuals but a dynamic organism whose collective health transcended yet remained contingent upon the well-being of each component-member.

It was a beautiful, special thing. I was working with other students to plan what became the master spreadsheet for those in need of money, storage, and alternative housing as campus closure seemed assured. It worked. Students and alumni and friends inconvenienced them/ourselves for each other, as a community ought to in times of crisis –– we recognized ourselves not as a collection of individuals but a dynamic organism whose collective health transcended yet remained contingent upon the well-being of each component-member. Similar things have happened around the world and across social media, with the anarchist principle of mutual aid entering normative political discourse and the once-mocked notion of UBI being given serious airtime. Where institutions fail (and they always do, and their failure is the most severe in times of crisis which require selfless humanity at the expense of profit) we are able to come together.

More than just compiling spreadsheets, students and alumni at Mount Holyoke pulled together a Laurel Parade –– an annual tradition in which graduating seniors walk across campus in white to much fanfare –– and faux-commencement ceremony complete with live musical numbers, all within 72 hours. It couldn’t totally replace the traditions we as seniors deserve/d. We will never get that experience, even if we do get a make-up ceremony “once this all blows over.” But the scrappy imitation-ceremony we did get was something special, a real thing all its own, and I treasure it: I have grown to treasure it even more as my days now begin to melt into one another, as I look ahead to what feels more like a long summer than a senior spring.

What were these final, large-scale rituals preceding our isolated routines actually like? The Laurel Parade carried an atmosphere of frenetic joy and great, great sadness. I could not cry. I was numb. But I was also happy, and I marched with my friends and everyone seemed to walk with an attitude I can only describe as “fuck it.” We had an incredible turnout, despite already-existing suggestions to restrict group meeting numbers. I wore the white shirt I had bought to wear in May. Alumni –– notified hardly two or three days prior –– arrived at the event with blue accessories to distribute to the class of 2020. Underclassmen, professors, and parents cheered for us. It was all meaningful and meaningless at the same time. For the entirety of the event, I felt like I was screaming down an empty hole, as if making enough sound would finally fill it.

The commencement ceremony, apparently, was not supposed to happen. We did it anyway. I almost cried several times, laughed several more. That was my last day on campus, and I knew that after that day nothing would be the same –– it wasn’t, it hasn’t been. Even what would be my final week of undergrad was not the same as all the weeks before: Most of my classes were either cancelled or skipped. I watched my peers sobbing into their phones en masse. We sat around waiting for too-late administrative emails, assembling support in the face of institutional failure. Many struggled to get work done; I clung to mine like a lifeline.

I still do. I will continue to. Just like I will cling to my routine, and clung to these simulated graduation traditions as a way of reminding myself that these 3.75 years have led to something. Something, that is, other than the potential of months stuck at home, staring out at the senior spring and joyful summer I could have had. Sitting here, feeling the curl of the monkey’s paw as I remember how I wished for spring break, for relief from the relentless noise of communal living, the pressure to be “on” more than I could handle. From shared traditions we turn to the daily patterns that keep us from snapping, and from the delights of solitude we get social isolation.

There is joy here and there is humanity doing its best, and there are the comforts of what we know. But it is all against an incredibly cold backdrop. I had my graduation, but summer seems like a lifetime away.

considering neuro-accountability

I really like email lists. They feel more personal than blog readers, and it seems that an update –– however infrequent they tend to be, as a whole –– will inevitably come at just the time we (I) need it. That happened yesterday, when I received an email from the only email-exclusive blog-list-thing I subscribe to, written by nina la poubelle/b. binaohan, author behind the now-inactive blog mxbees as well as several books and zines, including “decolonizing trans/gender 101” (highly recommended). la poubelle is autistic and multiply-disabled, and writes frequently about navigating interpersonal relationships as an autistic person.

This latest update discussed what it meant to do a social skill “wrong” both with and without a diagnostic label attached to it –– that is, what kind of sorcery turns a “weird kid” into an “autistic” with the mere invocation of the word? The way in which diagnosis manifests entirely new, frightening realities –– the way utterance makes truth and permanently transforms concrete conditions –– is endlessly fascinating to me. However, what fascinates me most about this particular update is not the theoretical implications but the very everyday conclusion la poubelle comes to about the relationship between autism, diagnosis, and their own relational behavior.

la poubelle describes what has now become pathologizable as, prior to diagnosis, “personality quirks” –– people simply knew that they were “weird.” With this as a self-evident truth, la poubelle was able to imagine others’ rejection of them as a friend and lover as the problem of the other person. If not that, then it was an issue of timing, circumstance or chemistry. Now, however, every failure was necessarily internal, necessarily the result of this condition named “autism,” which irrevocably, for lack of a better term, fucked up their social skills so badly doctors needed a special name for it. Now, they lament, the blame rests not only on them, but on an aspect of them that they can do nothing about –– this, they write makes them perpetually wrong, like a single human social gaffe that is impossible to correct.

This weekend sort of felt like that for me. Some of my most cherished personal relationships faced difficulties that were, in large part, caused by me; as such, I’ve spent the bulk of the weekend on my thesis, repressing critically reconsidering my role in these relationships, and more specifically, what genres of strangeness (benign or not) are things to be accepted from me, and what I’ve got to change. What behavior can be positively, or neutrally, attributed to neurodivergence, and what (regardless of attribution) is neither positive nor neutral, and must be improved in order to live in good faith with other human beings? Given the deeply-binary and fundamentally useless perspective most commonly taken when someone [x] makes a mistake –– either pretend [x] did nothing wrong or turn [x] into a cartoon villain –– this is no easy question to answer. Further, the deeply binary perspective with which we view “im/permissible disabled behavior” (it’s either okay because the pathetic disabled person “has no choice,” or not okay because the lazy disabled person has not taken “personal responsibility”) turns my neurodivergence-influenced life into either a willfully obnoxious one or, even worse, the result of a pathological freakishness.

On an ideological level, I clearly take the middle road, or choose no road at all. I don’t believe anything about me is inherently “weird,” nor that ” weird” is a thing divorcable from cultural conditions. But I also don’t think that any person has complete control over their situation or behavior, given that very same cultural influence. This is sufficient, in my view, until it comes time to approach harms we’ve done: in that case, despite having seen interesting writings to the contrary, I do believe in the value of establishing a primary perpetrator and receiver interpersonal pain. This becomes significantly more difficult when we’re surrounded by claims that either a wrongdoer cannot be helped due to their neurotype, or conversely, is using their neurotype as an excuse to cause pain with impunity.

As I’ve said before, this interests me greatly, and I think about it a lot. It’s particularly important to think about in light of a new wave of what can loosely be called neurodivergent activism: that is, the normalization and uplifting of we who have, for our whole lives, been marked as neurologically irreconcilable with “normal people” (a category which itself can stretch and shrink depending on the needs of medico-psychiatric, legal, and other authorities. Many of us have spent our lives in the implicit or explicit shadow of cure; those around us deem our ways of relating to the world inherently inferior and even objectively wrong, compared to the ways that they do. Covering my ears with my hands and retreating in the face of loud noises becomes rude and even humiliating when saddled with the baggage of ableism and saneism, by mere virtue of its association with people marked as disabled.

But there are other elements of neurodivergent social experience that cause genuine interpersonal issues, not discomforts rooted in compulsory able-bodied(/minded)ness. To use myself as an example (and to cite the reason I chose to write this post) my own tendency to avoid social interactions, including those to which I’ve already committed, can hurt the people who care about seeing me. They’ve made time for me in their lives, and my sudden panic feels like a devaluation of their care. My difficulty breaking out of my schoolwork-space leads to a dismissiveness on my part that’s felt as cruelty by others, even if I don’t “intend” to be so. And, as is the quintessential autistic struggle (further compounded by my incorrigible Sagittarianism) my honesty and openness is always a half-step from revealing something unnecessary, unhelpful, or unwarranted to someone who really neither wants nor needs to hear it. It’s not my being autistic that hurts someone’s feelings, in that case. It’s a particular comment or behavior which may be, in part, attributable to this thing called autism, but whose felt impacts actually evade the comforting explanatory power of diagnosis.

It’s not my being autistic that hurts someone’s feelings, in that case. It’s a particular comment or behavior which may be, in part, attributable to this thing called autism, but whose felt impacts actually evade the comforting explanatory power of diagnosis.

We need to make allowances for each other, and especially for people whose ways of being in the world have been treated with cruelty and disrespect, deemed worthy only of total eradication. At the same time, though, I’m unwilling to go through life with exactly the sometimes-bumbling emotional intelligence I come by on my own. While I’ll probably always be a bit ignorant of others’ respective interiorities, I’m also comfortable placing the resulting behavior among my bad qualities. In these cases, maybe I am “always [or, often] the one at fault”. I certainly felt that way this past weekend, when a series of such missteps, and the resulting fallout, broke my heart. Nothing happened that wasn’t able to be discussed with compassion and maturity, but it was incredibly difficult to confront my own capacity to cause hurt. That capacity is not limited by the diagnostic labels assigned to me.

la poubelle laments the feeling that, in the wake of their formal psychiatric diagnoses, they “should be the one bending or understanding or accommodating people or behaviours that make no sense”. They gesture at what has caused increasingly-heated debates among neurodivergent communities: what is the responsibility of the disabled (in this case, neurodivergent) perpetrator of any harm to the person they’ve wronged? What is the responsibility of the neurodivergent person for their (our) own wrongdoing? Is it actually the undergirding social norms that are wrongly defined? Or, does there come a point at which causing hurt is not excusable, perceived brain-wiring notwithstanding?

When I do something that for me feels normal, and another person tells me it is uncomfortable, rude, hurtful, or infuriating, I feel a combination of righteous indignation, deep shame, and rational understanding. The indignation is the result of the aforementioned activism: for so long told that my strangeness was my fault –– that no one would love or accept me until I learned to adapt (that is, assimilate) –– I feel a natural pull to those who claim that embracing our difference grants us immunity from the level of self-reflection neurotypical people* must perform. “We’ve been struggling to fit into a world not made for us,” they say. “Why must we continue apologizing for who we are –– how we naturally act?” (The essentialism in this statement is kind of a doozy, but that’s another post). I feel indignant, in short, because I don’t believe that certain bodyminds are inherently wrong, nor that social skills are a stable category of abilities one can have or not have.

Neurodivergence is, in part, all that confusion stripped bare, a hard look in the mirror for those who use social skills to mask the brutal reality of their own awkwardness.

Yet, I also feel rational understanding, because hurt –– while influenced by social norms and circumstances –– also has an ineffable element that I don’t pretend to understand. Like most other aspects of human relationships, I don’t only feel in the dark because I’m autistic –– because I don’t always pick up things like sarcasm, understand when a tone is joking or serious, or when bluntness becomes “rudeness” –– but because I’m a person. Social conventions are a distraction from how confusing we are to ourselves and each other, and neurodivergence is, in part, all that confusion stripped bare, a hard look in the mirror for those who use social skills to mask the brutal reality of their own awkwardness.

Given this universal awkwardness, not differentially experienced but differentially covered-up by social rules, the “line” between neurotypical and neurodivergent is blurry at best and likely nonexistent. This is a good thing, and draws attention to the violence and arbitrariness of pathologizing “noncompliant” ways of living. I want to live in a world in which I can leave a loud space, ask for the volume to be turned down, accidentally infodump, and communicate in other ways that are safe for me without being ostracized or bullied. But this also confers upon those of us marked as neurodivergent an increased responsibility for our own ability to cause the very hurt we feel from others; that a genuine depathologization of non-normative traits necessitates an embrace of accountability. My trouble with cognitive empathy –– the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person and imagine their emotional process –– doesn’t make me deviant or sick, but it also isn’t something I can leave unaddressed if I want to have positive, mutually-beneficial relationships with others.

I understand –– and, dare I say, “empathize”–– with la poubelle’s and others’ frustration at being told they cause hurt, because we as neurodivergent people have faced arbitrary, punitive social demands starting in early childhood. That said, I feel a genuine sense of responsibility toward those I love who I harm by my words or actions, even if they are not the result of malice but only a different way of interacting with the world. I will continue to struggle with a complex mixture of emotions around behavior-modification for others’ sakes, and push back against demands I feel are grounded in a normalizing impulse and not genuine hurt. But I recognize the need for nuance in discussions of appropriate behavior toward each other, and a more honest consideration of what compassion, attentiveness, and respect mean for neuropluralistic, anti-ableist communities.

I wish I could end this blog post in a “conclusive” way, with strict guidelines as to when accountability means asking that a harm be addressed, rectified, and not repeated, and which simply suggest the need for a reframing of societal expectations. I expect that, even if I were to do so, such guidelines would be useless across some national border, within a decade, or among a group to whom I don’t belong. This post was inspired by my own hurt and confusion at wanting my unique experience of the world to be acknowledged, without using it as a means of writing off my capacity to harm others. Rather than a summation (or even sketch) of my full “position” on negotiating relationships among different brains,** I consider this 1) a means of writing-through the difficult and important conversations I had over the weekend, and, more importantly, 2) an interstice through which I can publicly address an issue I’ve long toyed with.


*Also an ever-changing group without firm borders or criteria. In this case, I mean people whose everyday habits and styles of communication are not marked as medical or psychiatric problems.

**As referenced above, I’m not convinced that the oft-used cliché “brain wiring” explains what’s been called neurodivergence, but I also couldn’t think of a better shorthand to use in this post.

 

New Year, New Me(ans of resisting linear time and essentialism)

I’ve started and stopped several End of/Beginning of Year posts in the last week. First, I was going to do one of those decade-end roundups, the first one I’ve been cognitively-aware enough to engage with. Something about those lists, though, leaves a strange taste in my mouth, so I decided against it. Then, I was going to talk about how this Christmas was one of my calmest ever, and realized in beginning to write about it that I wanted to write about narrative (like I always do) and about the stories we tell about our consistency and our progress as people. We are so desperate not only for a story about growing up but growing into ourselves. These are the stories we tell on decade recaps, especially in this decade of tumult and crisis.

We are so desperate not only for a story about growing up but growing into ourselves.

So, my Christmas. It might have been the calmest I’d ever had. This is the case for many reasons, one of which was particularly bittersweet. I am no longer a child, and my Christmas joy is no longer the axle around which the dreaded seasonal wheel turns. Staged gift-openings and tree-trimming and stomaching miserable sips of eggnog because holy shit there are raw eggs in there are no longer required of me. At the same time, I fret less about “ruining Christmas,” by being insufficiently happy, a worry which inevitably resulted in me being –– you guessed it –– terribly unhappy. Every year, the festivities would yank me by the neck and lock me into a joy I wasn’t ready for, performed both for myself and for others. It has only been since coming to college and becoming an adult that I have stopped going to my grandparents’ house to trim their tree. Even at sixteen, my participation in the ritual was mostly for their benefit, not my own.

(And that’s what’s exhausting about Christmas, isn’t it? That it’s all for someone else?)* That’s how it’s been for me. When I was little, one year, I had a piercing headache, and told no one for what felt like an eternity. I had an unreasonable number of gifts to open and didn’t want to disappoint my family members –– all oriented around me, watching my progress –– by asking for a break.

This year, however, was its own kind of break. On the 25th I went with my parents to my grandparents’ house, and we drank water or coffee and my grandfather mutedly crunched a soft, spherical mint and we gave each other gifts, from each other and not from Santa. We were like adults. We are. And that’s why it’s all so bittersweet –– because I’m twenty-one now, and all my birthdays from here on out are supposed to make me sad, not happy. I’m supposed to be growing up and away, leaving pieces of myself behind as I progress to what’s being called my “next chapter.” But who’s writing?

When I first came home for winter break, my nightlight was dying. This is not a metaphor. My ceramic sheep nightlight shoots white light from five holes on either side of its fluffy-looking body, glow far softer and more limited than the night lights I grew up using. All my life I’ve been either afraid of the dark or uncomfortable enough in it to warrant letting light in while I sleep. This is still somewhat true. But in the last week, the bulb has burnt out and I haven’t replaced it. My shades are partly up, letting in the moonlight, and I’m finding it’s all I need.

In 2010, I was either just about to get, or had just recently gotten, the white furniture set I still use today. I thought I might be “bicurious,” a word I knew from Glee, and was terrified of my own interest in girls. I myself was a girl, inasmuch as anyone can ever “be” a gender, which is to say I felt like I was a girl because/and important people like doctors and the government agreed with me. I had just turned eleven and was in the seventh grade. In 2012, in a wild confluence of events, I took the entrance exam for my private high school while sitting beside the girl who would become a close friend of mine for years to come. That summer I had written a “manuscript” whose length I was incredibly proud of: a story in vignettes about my OCs and the first single project I had ever written to reach over one-hundred pages. I had for years been deep into research on Asperger Syndrome, which was a disorder until 2013, and then magically evaporated because medico-psychiatric discourse said so. I found all that hysterically funny. In another novel, we’d call this foreshadowing, and the author a bit heavy-handed.

In another novel, we’d call this foreshadowing, and the author a bit heavy-handed.

There were other things, too. There was my reckless promise at age fifteen that I would never live at college, said by phone from China, my first overseas travel destination. There was my second “long” manuscript, longer than the first, this time relentlessly fixated on body horror. It was in my high school years that I cultivated an increasingly-knowledgable hatred of gender, medicine, psychiatry, and the state, through both academic inquiry and daily experience. I discuss in my thesis the same painful politics I observed with fascinated confusion ten years ago, falsely assuming that truscum were an “internet thing” and that all the trans people magically got along. I became an adult in these years, in a way totally separate from age. I was fourteen when I realized I could only speak about myself in someone else’s language, that a stranger or strangers could bruise me without touching at the mere utterance of a diagnosis, a pronoun, a word. More a set of realizations, these were sometimes embodied and sometimes thought, though I suppose everything is a little of both.

It’s easy for me to look at all of the factors in my life, many of which were governed only by circumstance and chance, and locate there some essential part of me. I could point to my young-self and say, there’s a proto-queer and proto-writer and budding academic that hates the very structures/strictures that make the institution of academia hum. It’s not that saying these things is wrong, exactly, but it is turning my life into something it isn’t: a linear narrative, something that fills its imagined promises. Everywhere I look I see people marking out the decade as if having fulfilled some existential quest that 2010, by its nature, brought forth. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last month, it’s that we all want a coherent story of self, but also a glow-up story, one of magical and radical transformation into who we truly are.

We want to make up (for) lost stories about ourselves.

Narrative guides like astrology (sag/cap/cancer) and personality tests (enneagram type 1; INTJ) are some of the worst culprits of this. Astrology perhaps combines it best: your exact spacetime of birth suggests your personality and predicts your future. In a world in which truth feels –– and is –– an unstable thing, and without irrefutable proof of why we are the way we are, why we want what we want and do what we do, we look to the stars or to online quizzes. We want to make up (for) lost stories about ourselves.

Adorno criticizes this brutally, likening the use of astrology and similar practices to fascism. I don’t think that fascism is any more inherent to astrology than writing is to me, and I’m suspicious his anti-essentialist critique doesn’t account for its own reductionism. Still, however, astrology and other shorthand narratives do tend to take the disparate pieces that invent ourselves and homogenize them, and more than that, claim to have birthed them. Suddenly I am curious and long-winded because I am a Sagittarius, because I somehow contain a Sagittarian essence that made me so. Suddenly, I have always been a writer, and my stretch back through the decade is in fact an act of mining for proof. Likewise, when my nightlight dies and I finally do not replace the bulb, I am suddenly fulfilling a story of growing-up that I have been told is inevitable: this is the same logic that undergirds fears of “regression” when adults sleep with stuffed animals.

In reality, I’m a lineage of people who perceive themselves to have experienced the same thing. I’m not the same person, glowed-up. I’m a whole new set of cells that shares a memory and little else with the old set.

Linear narratives of my life would have me “growing out of” my nightlight and my homesickness, tacking gender, sexuality, neurotype, and course of study as movements toward a truer self and as progress away from childhood during this decade, in which I have been a child, a teenager, and an adult. In truth, though, I’ve just been me, which is to say, I’ve been no “one” at all. I’ve been a bunch of disparate people whose only stable likeness is a shared memory (flawed as it is) and who, in the absence of anything else to hold me together, feels inclined to make those decade-wrap posts in which I talk about myself like we’re one person. In reality, I’m a lineage of people who perceive themselves to have experienced the same thing. I’m not the same person, glowed-up. I’m a whole new set of cells that shares a memory and little else with the old set.

I still think Adorno was a bit too hard on astrology. I still use it as a way to make (sense of) myself in the shadow of an anti-essentialist politic. Without an essence, quasi-spiritual, nonsensical approaches to what makes me “me” are all we’ve got. Perhaps I’m also being too hard on year-end lists, or even the framing of one’s life from an author’s eye view. After all, the latter is what I’m doing now. At the same time, I’ll be glad when December turns to January, and January to February, and we will stop inundating each other with lists about the pasts we lay claim to, decades we’ve passed through but still attempt to hold.

Happy New Year!


*That was not intended to be a reference to Jesus, Christianity, or any other spiritual/cultural “reason for the season,” but if the Santa boot fits?

where have you been?

Busy. I’ve been busy. I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy in my life before –– between thesis-writing, grad-school applying, and the perhaps-irresponsible number of commitments (zine included!) I’ve thrown myself into full-force this semester, I’ve struggled to find the time for extensive personal writing. Honestly, I’ve struggled to find the mental space for it sometimes. The same goes for personal reading –– long gone are the chilly Amsterdam days of 2018, in which I had so little work I could devour almost as many books as I can in the summer. Now, all my tired eyes want to do before bed is online window-shop, all as I listen to podcasts blessedly-unrelated to my field of study. That said, I do find that reading a few pages of the novel I’m working through (currently Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer) usually assuages my anxieties over work, and my goal is to have that book finished by the time I go home for thanksgiving, just over a week from now!

By the time that comes around, I’ll definitely have a lot to be thankful for –– one round of graduate school applications will have been sent, will (though still a cause of stress) be truly out of my hands. Additionally, I will likely continue to ride the high of having presented at Hampshire College’s Trans__Symposium. My ability to receive funding from Mount Holyoke for the research I conducted this summer –– whose resulting paper remains in progress! –– was contingent on a presentation of some sort. When I saw that the Symposium was happening for the first time in several years, I happily applied to talk about my work studying self-diagnosis and gender self-determination. You can find the loose script I typed, as well as a link to the slideshow, here. I got really positive feedback from the sizable group of people who decided to come listen to me; even better, I had multiple attendees either stay after my presentation or email later on to ask follow-up questions.

I was a bit concerned at first, given the topic I was presenting on. My research looks specifically at neogenders and neopronouns, the most well-known of which (genderfae and fae/faer pronouns are one reasonably-popular example) can be traced to roughly 2012-2014. The majority of people coining these pronouns were young, queer, trans, and disabled, especially autistic. The arguments I’m making about the genesis and circulation of these terms –– alongside/in conversation with self- and community- diagnosis –– are multiple, but all center on the relationship between their users and their mockery. I’m studying experiences that (both because they are digital and because they are described by trans, disabled people) are considered “unreal”, even laughable. Even many trans and disabled people who have access to formal medical or psychiatric diagnosis regularly find reason to mock such people (often more cruelly than their cis counterparts; self-proclaimed “true trans” people have a lot more to lose).

While I didn’t expect people who hated my ideas to pack the room, wasting both of our time in the process, I did feel a sense of paranoia that wasn’t entirely unfounded. What if some right-wing blowhard decided to come in undercover, threaten me online, claim that I was singlehandedly responsible for the stupidity attributed to my generation(s)*? Even worse, I knew that plenty of people have been doxxed for far less than inciting academic gender-trouble, and the specter of doxxing looms large in the wake of past attacks on marginalized Mount Holyoke students and others. I knew the threat wasn’t such that it would stop me from presenting, and in the hour I spent talking, I (too busy trying to sound coherent) didn’t think about it at all.

What did end up being on my mind, given the room’s all-LGBTQ+ and almost-all-trans composition, was the possibility that some audience members would take issue with my stances on self-diagnosis and the legitimacy of DIY-genders. As it turns out, there were no issues, and I was thrilled to see that several attendees admitted to having been skeptical, even to retaining some skepticism, around the subject. It’s so important to be open about the ongoing learning process we are all engaged in, understanding none of us have been forever-perfect or ideologically-pure. It seemed like everyone came to the table with a genuine openness to learn, and when it comes to learning new things, I find that curiosity goes a lot further than simple tolerant-support in predicting how people are going to respond to ideas that challenge their worldview. Curiosity certainly can’t cure a material and symbolic investment in oppression, but for some it suggests a path forward.

I’ve been thinking a lot about paths “forward” between the not-coincidentally-timed Symposium and this ongoing Trans Awareness Week (TAW). I honestly have very little to say on the subject, and am generally dissatisfied with this annual performance of collective grief for trans people, especially trans women of color, who are conveniently forgotten about for the rest of the year. Rather than simply asking readers to check in on their trans friends or, worse yet, decide that making a pronoun button for their backpack constitutes “activism,” I think we should focus on combatting oppressive acts and attitudes within our communities, “friend” groups, families, and elsewhere. I’m thinking about cis people, especially cis LBPQ+ people, combatting cissexism amongst themselves, as well as trans people –– white transmisogyny-exempt people in particular –– actively fighting racism and transmsogyny among those around us. Vigils are important and impactful, especially to the friends and families of victims of cissexist murder. That said, it’s even more important to give all we can to trans people who are still alive, so as many of us as possible can stay that way.

Before I end this post, I want to draw your attention back to my digital cotheorizers of transness and disability, on whom I have focused the majority of my awareness-raising this TAW**. I can’t overstate the degree of wanton cruelty I’ve witnessed directed at teenagers with unconventional genders, both online and off. It’s my hope that those who attended my presentation, as well as all of you who have put up with my constant infodumping about this project, can think more flexibly than you did before about experiences that neither you nor, in some cases, I understand. To think beyond understanding and into acceptance without condition. This model can be applied to all trans people, and extrapolated to all people whose experiences we will never personally have. This process of discovery and learning is better for everyone wen accomplices can speak intelligently about some aspects of marginalized experience, lessening the educative burden for those directly impacted by oppression.

That’s part of the reason I’ve taken on this project –– I’m genderless, and the notion of genderlessness is something most people can understand, even if they don’t like it. Hell, it isn’t even red-underlined in this document! I figure as someone who, on the scale of “weird genders”, is pretty normal/”respectable” (especially given my racial, economic, and academic subject position) I can do this critical work while absorbing some of the pushback. Also, gender and disability and epistemology? Some of my favorite things to pontificate on, so we’re all kind of winning here. Tired as I am, I’m glad I can at least frame what I’m doing as having worthwhile impacts on others, even if those impacts are fairly light and few. Especially as we sprint toward…everything-season, the thought that all this stuff I’m devoting my time to has some sort of impact is a good one. And –– despite my notable lack of blogging on the subject! –– I think it has.


*Although it really shouldn’t matter, I do spend an awful lot of time wondering whether I –– born at the tail-end of 1998; old enough to remember VHS tapes but just-too-young to remember 9/11; old enough to vaguely remember bush’s reelection but young enough to be oblivious to his litany of bullshit –– “count” as a Millennial or Gen. Z. That said, I did submit a photo and brief bio to a New York Times that got published among a collection of others from Gen. Z, perhaps solidifying my belonging to the generation of high school vaping (which I have never seen) and Tik Tok (which I have never used).

** A really weird initialism I really don’t like. It sounds like something a bird might cough up. Which is not something I want to be “aware” of in relation to trans justice.

gender//mad, edited by sarah cavar

gender//mad zine is here!

Long time no talk! It’s been an incredibly busy month, with thesis work, coursework, independent writing projects, organization commitments, and my on-campus job combined producing absolute schedule chaos. Luckily, I’ve managed to find time to release the zine I’ve been working so hard on since the beginning of the summer!

Gender//mad is a zine exploring the relationship between madness, disability, neurodivergence, gender, queerness, transness, and more, through a mixed-media and multi-perspective lens.

Check it out! In 2020, it’ll also be free on Issuu. For now, please support trans, disabled creators and buy on Gumroad!

Bronze-gold colored plaque embedded in a New York sidewalk. Its inscription reads: "Library Walk. A celebration of the world's great literature, brought to you by the Grand Central Partnership and the New York Public Library. Sculptor: Gregg LeFevre. 1998.

NYC adventures: an end-of-summer recap

August was and is a busy month for me, and a large portion of that busyness was completely self-imposed. Fortunately, it’s also been an exciting month, and a productive one –– I finished the “summer portion” of my research on trans, disabled digital identity, the draft of what I hope will become a published article. Along with other writerly-pursuits, I’ve been continuously paring down my wardrobe, both in anticipation of school starting, and in order to make space for new-to-me clothes. I am absurdly attached to old clothes, some of which are the age of a fourth grader by now, even if I never wear them. Sometimes, it’s about the memories I have associated with an article, but more often it’s the what if that haunts the back of my head. What if, someday, I want to wear this? What if (and this is often the case for old clothes, especially from small, now-defunct indie shops) I can never find this again? So, I continue saving-up clothing I haven’t put on in years, afraid to regret getting rid of something in the future.

This summer, I’ve gotten quite a bit better at putting clothes in consignment bags and setting them free. I’ve started moving things first from my closet to a bag in a different closet, to test if there’s anything there I miss. Probably 75% of time time, I forget about the bag, and once I happen to remember its existence I usually can’t recall what’s in it. That’s how I know I’m ready to donate the bag’s contents, and I force myself not to peek inside before I bid the clothes farewell. Cleaning, organizing, curating, these constitute journey whose cost is always a degree of loss and fear. That feels so melodramatic to say, but given how many times I’ve stood in front of my closet, arguing with myself, it seems appropriate.

Cleaning, organizing, curating, these constitute journey whose cost is always a degree of loss and fear.

In the middle of the month, my mom and I went to New York City. This was another journey that required us to sit with fear; though from Connecticut, I had never been to the city before and she had only been once, decades ago. I had been pushing to go for a while, frustrated that despite my proximity to NYC (all told less than four hours away) I seem to have been the only person never to have gone. I found the perfect reason to go when I decided to book a tattoo appointment by an artist in Brooklyn*. We planned our long-weekend trip around that date.

We arrived at Grand Central Station on a Sunday, and stayed at a hotel a less-than-ten-minute walk from the station. Self-conscious about looking like a tourist, which I was, I took no pictures in Grand Central. The sheer size of the station was unexpected, as was the beauty of its ceiling, as was the sheer variety of stores and restaurants / food shops located inside it. It was a massive mall with trains in it. The mall is dead, but this hybrid megamall-airport thing catapulted me into, like, an alternate-reality version of 2005. (Except, with painfully-contemporary presidential memorabilia on full display.)

Rife as it is with trump-toupée toilet brushes, Grand Central is also home to at least one excellent restaurant, which I’ve spent the past twenty minutes Googling in order to find. It’s called Tartinery, and my mom and I spent the entirety of our meal there speaking animatedly about how good said meal was.

Here’s what I got, except I made the bold and delicious choice to substitute tofu instead of the vastly-inferior almonds:quinoa bowl -- $14.00. with broccoli rabe, avocado, baby spinach, edamame, crushed almond, cilantro & mint. vegan

[We both shared a powerfully delicious fruit salad, the freshness of which was a huge surprise to both of us. Kiwi! Sweet, and in the Northeast!]

Smashed avocado toast –– $9.00. on 7 grain with radish, red pepper flakes, & cilantro. vegan. 

Here’s what my mom got, which she also highly recommends. (And for those of you wondering, while she eats a very low-meat diet, she isn’t a vegan or even a vegetarian. Just a fan of avocado.)

On the same day, we also visited the U.N., whose bizarre security check process was essentially a poor man’s TSA search, but with fewer signs explaining where exactly we were supposed to go. Inside, I was impressed by its capacity to simultaneously document unspeakable suffering and actively promote capitalism, praising the potential for u.s. empire as a force of liberation. That said, given that I usually prefer to experience fiction textually, I may not be the best judge of the place.

The following day took us to the New York Public Library and left both of us sorely disappointed. First, though, was the profound pleasure of breakfast at the hotel, which we took while looking (through a window) over a balcony. Afterward, when seats were empty outside, we walked onto the balcony to beyond-perfect weather. The food was good, and much of it was served on slabs instead of plates. I don’t remember if there were actually mason jars, but they were there in spirit; it was that kind of place.

Anyway, the library! It was a maze of open-mouthed tourists. There was no reason not to have expected this, given its lobby, complete with a gift shop that literally spilled out from its original location. Not to mention, the library has an initialism –– NYPL –– that can be said and in and of itself be understood. My expectations, and I think my mother’s too, were far too high. The areas that I wanted to see were fenced off exclusively for students and scholars, understandable when the world wants to tour your home base.

The need to prohibit public access to particular areas became even more apparent as I watched fellow visitors’ behavior in ostensibly “quiet” spaces. It’s a shame that a library so rich with information, opportunity, and the commitment all libraries share: to manifest the fundamental right to knowledge and the right to read, for free, regardless of social status, that every person has. Although the library did sell attractive “Knowledge is Power” tote bags (one of which I, a [self-aware] hypocrite, purchased) it was very clearly an attraction, an exhibit, far less of a library than my naïve brain anticipated.

A pale, slightly-pink forearm. On it is a modestly-colored tattoo of a two headed lamb mid run, in black ink with white and pink accents. Surrounding it grow green vines with leaves and pink tips.

Later that day was my tattoo. I was to get a custom piece with Julia (official site here) of Moonrise Tattoo. The studio was teeny, incredibly cozy, and well-decorated. I fell head-over-heels with my design the minute Julia showed it to me: as I requested, she made me a two-headed lamb inspired by the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary myth, which told of sheep that grew from flora. Not only does the myth refuse the line between “flora” and “fauna,” it also fuses the strange and the gentle. I amplified this by giving my lamb(s) two heads: reflecting, too, the rhizomatic growth of the plant the myth may be based upon. There is no singular root, no singular route; only connection.

A pale upper arm, containing a rainbow-colored tattoo emulating a stained glass window. A circle whose left side is a moon and whose right is a sun sits at the window's upper center. Around the window stretch olive green leaves on branches also sporting small red berries.

Julia integrated the branches of my lamb’s plant beautifully with the branches surrounding my stained glass half-sleeve, done by Amanda. She worked quickly, too, so although some parts (those closest to the bone, such as the leaves that reached near my elbow) were painful enough for me to grit my teeth, I was fortunate not to have to sit in it for too long!

By our third and final day in NYC, I was ready to leave, and also ready to strike a CUNY off of my list of potential-graduate-schools. We rolled back into Grand Central and took a fairly early train back to Connecticut; by the time we got here, it was raining and we were more than ready to be home. I had a wonderful time, but I’m just not suited to live in the city long-term, especially one as chaotic as this one. Now, though, I’m not so scared of going, of the looming specter of “New York City” as something I must be unprepared for. To cheesily tie us back into the intro to this post, it functioned as a way to shed old discomforts, to make way for the new, and to give me a fixed point in time at which I can mark the start of summer’s closing.

This was initially going to be an ill-advised one-day trip to the city, to the tattoo studio, and back home, which, like capitalism, would have been miserable in theory and in practice. It turned into a lovely weekend event that also managed to stir up my desire to return to MHC, which has grown ever since. And, after the hectic six days ahead of me, I’ll be back!


*Which, incidentally, shares a name with my hometown, from which I’m now typing this post!

Recommended Reading: Toni Morrison and the Power of Language

“‘Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world,’ [Morrison] said in a 1981 conversation with New Republic. ‘That’s what I wish to do. … [There’s a] suggestion that to write for Black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only Black people. When I say “people,” that’s what I mean.’”

Radical Copyeditor

Toni Morrison

In the days since Toni Morrison became an ancestor, the outpouring of feeling has served as a testament to her greatness and her impact on the world. Thousands—perhaps millions—of people have shared quotes by her and about her, striving yet inevitably failing to express the fullness of what she meant and what she did here on Earth.

The story that white culture has long told about her is that she is a great novelist. (A great, Black, female novelist, of course.) But her greatness could never be contained in such a limited frame, and the millions of people whose lives she changed won’t allow it. For Toni Morrison, being a writer, an editor, a critic, and a teacher were inseparable from one another. She was all of these at once, and more. The power of language demanded no less. 

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Painted rocks lined up to spell "uwu" and "trans rights"

returning & releasing

Ever since coming back from my visit to Elliot’s house in Virginia, I’ve been thinking about family even more than usual. Elliot, my –– my? Elliot, my Elliot, not my “_” but just Elliot whose relation I am. In between some absolutely delightful adventures with Elliot, as well as his mother and sister (both of whom I also consider to be my family). Depending on how long you’ve known me, you’ll know that he was my first love, first “real” kiss, first person I ever called my partner. We have a special, abiding connection that has brought us from friends, to partners, to friends, to partners, etc. Before I went to visit them most recently, we “broke up”, as it were, for what might be the final time.

Elliot poses in a shirt that reads "protect trans kids," pointing at a pair of stylish brown cowboy boots.

Elliot, fashion icon.

We spoke about the breakup frankly and extensively during the visit. We have always struggled with what to call each other, on the surface because there is no reliable, well-known word for otherwise-gendered “boy/girlfriend”, and also because the love we have for each other is incredibly hard to pin to one or even to several discrete categories. Recently, I floated to them that we’re simply family. I feel no need to delineate “chosen” family, because I think that term reifies the notion that there is such a thing as “real, unchosen family.” That would mean that adopted family, fostered family, married family, and yes, “queer chosen family™” are somehow lesser. It’s like saying there are “men and trans men” and “women and trans women” –– completely delegitimizing under the guise of progressivism.

Anyway, about us being family. He agreed with the statement. While we’ve been suited to a familial relationship for as long as we’ve known each other, as we’ve grown into and out of our selves, we’ve grown into people who don’t make sense as partners. In a common-for-me case of life imitating academia, this has to do with the issue of the so-called “trans/butch border wars” (which is not an entirely accurate term and certainly not a comprehensive one, but to learn my reasoning as to why you’ll have to wait for my full thesis next May).

Put simply, Elliot needed to explore their boyhood; his boyhood. While unaware of his transness when we first met and first began dating, they have since embraced and explored it. I understand my sexuality, as a lesbian, in an expansive rather than restrictive way, but the time came that I realized that holding onto this relationship, in its current form, was simply illogical (and painful!) for Elliot and me. As a lesbian, I was no longer comfortable dating the gender he needed to explore in order to be happy. Equally, he wasn’t comfortable being that gender with the knowledge that I, a lesbian, was with him. In a much-needed heart-to-heart, I sort of “gave him permission” to boy the way they needed to. Permission backed by love –– not even “permission,” but perhaps “my blessing.” He began accepting “he” as well as “they” pronouns, both of which I use in this post. We feel able to give each other increased, unqualified support in our gender and sexual identities, now that neither calls the other’s into question.*

As a lesbian, I was no longer comfortable dating the gender he needed to explore in order to be happy. Equally, he wasn’t comfortable being that gender with the knowledge that I, a lesbian, was with him.

And that’s what family is, at least to me. Being what we need to for each other, with each other, even if elements of it hurt. The breakup hurt, knowing we weren’t right for each other in the way I had anticipated hurt, but it has provided me an incredible opportunity to learn more about Elliot. I will always be happy to retain a modified (ultimately strengthened) connection with someone I love, rather than leaving it to fray.

I’ve also been working to at least begin the mending process for other fraying familial connections. When my aunt and uncle went on vacation last week, I was tasked with checking in, once a day, on my little cousin. By “tasked with,” I mean that my mom offered me the opportunity and I jumped at it. Since I began high school, I have been steadily detaching from my extended family. The same thing I, as a child, made snide remarks about in reference to my then-new-adult older cousins, I myself am now practicing. Now am the spectral older cousin who never shows up on Christmas, who exists more in reference than in body. Now, I am unsure as to whether all of my cousins would recognize me by looks alone (even if it weren’t for the “transitioning”) much as I had, and have, no idea what my older adult cousins look like.

Now that it’s been more than half a decade, I am finally feeling the negative consequences of this detachment. This detachment, which I longed for as a young child and which I jumped at the chance to experience as a teenager! There is guilt involved, but there’s also personal regret. More than anything, there is regret that now it’s been “too long” since I last came to a holiday, and any possibility of reconnecting is at this point a foregone conclusion. All this to say, when my mom offered me the chance (excuse?) to text a cousin who I haven’t spoken a word to since before she could read, I took it.

Sarah, in a blue baseball cap and khaki shorts, shows off a neon-pink duct tape vest while looking over their shoulder.

An incredible thrift store find. The vest is made of duct-tape. (Unfortunately, I lacked the guts to buy it).

The cousin is in middle school now. She asks me about college and about high school. Frankly, I’m mystified and humbled that there are people experiencing age eleven, twelve, thirteen, and so on right now. There are people in whose stories I’m no more than a side character; my own coming-of-age was by absolutely no means The coming of age. Lives at every year and stage and point are happening just as mine is, and my only-recently-patched disconnection from my cousins’ lives also prevented me from observing this fascinating, frightening process.**

None of my extended family, as far as I know, are aware of my gender and sexuality. I haven’t mentioned it explicitly, although they could easily Google me and find out, just as they could find this post. I’m not concerned about them knowing, but it’s another hurdle to jump over, especially for gender, and another set of explanations and 101’s to go through. I have a feeling this is applicable to a lot of trans people, no matter how accepting we know or expect our families to be.*** Sometimes, it’s easier to let yourself drift away from people who care about you, rather than jump into an impromptu gender studies lesson when you come out. This is exponentially true when it comes to explaining the lesbianism and the non-womanhood. Even though we’re supposedly post-“trans tipping point,” and the likelihood that they’ll at least know the word “nonbinary” has increased dramatically even in the last two years, I have low expectations as to their ability to reconcile “lesbian” and “nonwoman”. I wish I could say that it’s because they’re cis, but I’ve been scoffed at and/or dragged nonconsensually into a “debate” about my own labels by just as many trans people (of all genders and sexualities!) as cis people.

None of this has, as of yet, stopped me from building a relationship with the cousin I’m texting now, although it’s been on my mind in terms of going to family holidays in the future. For now I’m going to continue my daily text exchanges with the little cousin and hope to build a decent report with her! The thought that it’s “too late to go back” and rebuild severed or neglected connections with that part of my family still bothers me, of course. At the same time, though, I’ve never understood simply sitting inside a bother or frustration when you could do something to, at the very least, figure out whether or not it’s fixable.

I don’t know what will come of my relationship(s) to my extended family, but at least I’m actually putting my energy into something other than hand-wringing now. I don’t know what Elliot and I will be up to in the future, but I’m excited for whatever it is. On all counts, I have more numerous and closer familial connections than I did several months ago, even if these connections make life more complicated, and I’m ready to spend some of my final month at home exploring them.

 


* It doesn’t always work out this way, though –– Maggie Nelson and her husband, Harry, are a fascinating counterexample in Nelson’s brilliant autotheoretical work The Argonauts. 

** This is probably a far less ~ exciting ~ experience for people with siblings, who see it everyday.

*** I get frustrated when I write things like this, berating myself for letting everything come back to gender. But it really does.