roundup: classes, books, and even an event

Long time no blog. As it’s been longer-than-usual since I’ve written an update, I’m going to go right into a roundup. The fall is here; I’ve actually shivered several times in the last few days; school is finally becoming as rhythmic as sleeping or breathing, and fall break is (I know!) less than two weeks away.

Although I’m excited to return home for a few days (mostly for the easy access to free food and coffee, as well as the opportunity to do several loads of free laundry) I’m also buzzing with excitement at my thesis/CST focus plans. More on that later, I think, once I iron out more details and increase my confidence in the subject; today’s particular bout of excitement stems from my beginning the book “Black on Both Sides” by C. Riley Snorton. A professor whom I hope will help advise me in my thesis process highly recommended it to me, and now that I’ve recently finished an “academic-style” book, space has opened up in my brain and bookshelf to begin this one. I’m particularly taken with the idea of “double-transness,” or the idea of being TGNC while also embodying a critique of the cis vs. trans “binary” (or the hegemonic idea of proper transition/transness). Have you ever met a term that, when you see or hear it, it fills you up like a pot of soup? That’s how it felt for me, sitting in the dining hall last night. Like steam was coming out of my head, in a good way. It could also have been the vegan split pea soup I had, one of my favorite staples of Superblanch cuisine. I think it was the term, though, that really satisfied me that night.

As for other classes: I adore Political Ecology. I do. It’s nice to be in a class where I have the background knowledge; the advantage: it’s nice to see a class of predominantly STEM majors learning that the humanities and social sciences can be challenging and out of one’s depth. Too often I see a dismissal of the complexity of “soft” (read: feminized) disciplines among physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc. students. At a place like Mount Holyoke, which caters specifically to the needs of students of marginalized genders, we should really know better –– but the misogynistic attitudes that privilege STEM over other fields is everywhere. That’s my roundabout way of saying that understanding Marx and Hegel, and seeing that people with other specialties have something to learn feels really damn good. Especially after an entire childhood of feeling stupid and inferior to others because math has been difficult for me.

Onto Chinese: I think this image really sums up my recent experiences with the course!

Screen Shot 2018-09-24 at 10.16.51 PM.png

“always pourin one out for the int’l students and other english language learners but especially tonight….just finished a dinky little 2-page paper for my chinese 300 class and it was fucking exhausting (and it wasn’t even complex!). but you all are out here writing 20 pg papers in your second, third, fourth, etc. language. that’s fucking brilliant and i see you.”

Truly, I’m so grateful to be taking Chinese as I’m also working and learning as a SAW mentor. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be so heavily immersed in and required to meet certain expectations of my second language, both because I’ve never done a language immersion study abroad program, and because of u.s. imperialism and the global domination of English.

As I finish up this blog post, I’m sitting in Superblanch after having taken my skip day for a Walking for Fitness session because of the torrential rain. I hope to update this blog after the Northampton Print & Book Fair, happening this Sunday, which I’m extremely excited to attend. Last year was my first time going, and even though I was alone and had no idea what to expect, I had a wonderful time and picked up, among other things, a copy of jubilat, a screen-printed t-shirt, and a patch that now adorns one of my jackets. This year I anticipate to go with friends and now know enough to be more excited for the event –– perhaps even eyeing it as a possible space to distribute zines of my own one day!

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the first couple days

Hi all, this is my very first blog post from South Hadley and I am thrilled to be back. I’ve had numerous people ask me, “wouldn’t you rather be in Amsterdam?” Although when I listened to a podcast the other day on which a Dutch person was speaking, I felt a little empty ache where Amsterdam used to be in me (or I in it), I’m happier here than I was there. No shade to Amsterdam; I just prefer routine.

I moved back in on Saturday, 9/01, a day before most of the returning students at MHC, and I’m always extremely grateful for my early move-in accommodation with AccessAbility (AAS). I’m also happy to continue my tradition of speaking openly about being registered with AAS. Perhaps it does nothing, but I’d like to think it’s a reminder to all the ~normal~ people on campus that, surprise! The Disabled Are Just Like You!  Not to mention that it’s a reminder to the other registered students that there are tons of us registered, and that it’s nothing to hide.

On Sunday, while everyone else moved in, I spent an enjoyable morning at Thirsty Mind, the coffeeshop* across the street. So far, I’m feeling pretty good about meeting all my obligations this month, despite the ridiculous busyness of these next two weeks. Part of this, I think, has to do with my decision not to pursue registration in a course I originally wanted to get into: Critical Psychology. It seems perfectly suited to me, and it’s at another college in the consortium of which Mount Holyoke is a part. If I had gotten in already, I’m positive I’d keep the class, but it was full by the time I tried to register. Back then I was convinced I would do what I’ve done for several other classes: email the professor and act intelligent and put-together (which I did) and then come to the class looking extremely eager, ultimately stealing the spot of a less-eager counterpart (which I’m not doing).

I had reservations about Critical Psychology from the start, even when I was sure I wanted to be in it. The varieties of people one might find in a class like this can include Thomas Szasz-types and orthodox psych-majors who hope this class will be another place for them to study the fascinating crazies or talk authoritatively about biochemistry concepts they’ve never actually learned. I also trust very few professors to teach a class like this with fairness, compassion, and respect –– let alone a professor whose reputation I didn’t know.

Why, then, would I take a class whose material I, between lived experience and independent study, likely already know; when taking it necessitates more energy than the class’s substance likely deserves? I had no answer to this, four other classes, and several jobs. So, no Critical Psychology.

I’m extremely excited about my other classes, though. I’m taking third year Chinese this year, after initially signing up for it as a first-year, when I was woefully behind in the character-writing part of my study of Chinese. I feel a sense of pride now that I’ve dug up the textbooks I bought two years ago and cried over, now no longer insurmountable.

I am taking Political Ecology this semester, too. I spoke with a friend briefly about this; I assumed that it would be an anarchist-leaning class because of the relationship between the eco/philosophical concept of the rhizome and the spontaneous revolutionary acts that feature so heavily in some anarchist strands. My friend told me, though, that the professor of this course actually had more of a Marxist bent, so I’m hopeful that I’ll get to learn a Marxian perspective on political ecology that might help me develop my own argument and opinions for anarchism. Maybe I’ll even incorporate some of his beliefs into my own politics. I’m excited that I don’t know things. I’m excited to learn. I’m even excited to be corrected and “proven wrong.”

I’m also taking a course on Narrative Medicine, the first session of which is this evening. I’m not entirely sure what I’m getting into with this class, but it looks very promising. On a similar note, the other class that I’m taking this semester is creative writing –– like this past summer, it looks like my fall semester is going to be creative writing-heavy. Despite the amount of “creative writing” I do, I’ve never actually taken a formal class on it. Recently I’ve been craving outside perspectives on my work, and have been trying to become more comfortable with showing my work to others before it’s been published –– that is, approved by some outside “authority”. I liken this to the stress others feel about disclosing disability (or transness!) without “formal diagnosis”.

I return to the middle of this blog post after a day, as my writing time was abruptly cut short by the fact that I realized I lost my lanyard and needed to go on a wild, sweaty search for it. The search was relatively brief, because some kind stranger left it for me at the info desk in Blanchard. Later, a friend drove me to pick up my course pack and to drop me off for what I thought was my first session of Narrative Medicine: but as it turned out, I had misread the schedule. My seminar was actually only on Thursdays, not Tuesdays too: I was heartbroken when I found that out, not because I desperately wanted the class that day but because it felt like one more thing that had gone wrong on a warm and exhausting day.

I took the bus back to Mount Holyoke as the sky darkened and the air cooled, willing myself to cry as I listened to Against Me! (as I always do when I’m upset). I had dinner with my co-editor for the Mount Holyoke News, Kate, and together we went to see Christina Henriquez discuss her novel “The Book of Unknown Americans.” Between dinner and the talk, and some unexpected positivity from my friends (who always seem to know what I need, even when they had no idea at the time that I was in a bad mood!) my evening improved beyond what I could have imagined.

That leaves me here today, Wednesday, my first actual day of classes. On my agenda is not only classwork and my work-study jobs, but also my “What’s Your Story?” zine (the proof of which I finished this morning!) my wrap-up work with my internship at Not Dead Yet, and my personal creative writing pursuits, which I really hope won’t fall by the wayside as the year carries on. I think I have a good chance of continuing to work on those projects, especially because I’m taking creative writing this semester.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll continue to follow along with my posts –– and that I’ll have the wherewithal to keep posting in the first place –– now that I’m back at MHC!


*Actual coffeeshop, not the Amsterdam kind.

A white, strawberry-blonde toddler sits in a plastic toy red car beneath a Christmas Tree.

baking gender from scratch

There was a period of time in my life –– specifically, prior to my first contact with trans-supportive physical environments –– when I regarded gender creativity as such with suspicion. This was true even and especially once I myself was trans. I could not understand people my age and older whose genders were not so much documentable features of themselves but rather glitter-covered, purposefully obstructive, and necessarily defiant and even antagonistic toward gender-conformity and its observers. It was around this time that I found the blog Raising My Rainbow. Several years later, I found the blog of Martie Sirois, the mother of a gender-nonconforming child and all-around effective accomplice to trans people at large.

I read her blog with fascination, often fantasizing about what my life would have been like, had I been raised explicitly outside the gender binary. Of course, looking back today I realize that the hegemonic position of the gender binary means that merely having parents who disagreed with wouldn’t free me from its clutches. But back then, I didn’t know what “hegemony” meant and still held the entry-level view that there were two discrete things, “sex” (which is “real”) and “gender” (which is socially constructed), and that one was beholden to sex but could discover new possibilities with gender. The fact that I held this view –– as many did in 2013 and 2014 –– made me even more enchanted by this mother who gave birth to a child and then chose to ignore that child’s “sex” in favor of a degree of gender freedom.

Something I find interesting about Sirois’s blog is that it does not only use “gender creative child” but also “gender creative life” –– perhaps a swing at those medico-social systems that claim desperately that transness in kids is temporary; disregardable. Semantics notwithstanding, though, these were resources through which I could scroll for hours –– especially Raising My Rainbow, which existed back when, despite my emergent identity, I knew next to nothing about transness and was looking for answers.

Since then, I’ve simultaneously become more academic in my transness and more creative (although it should be noted that those two attributes neither must nor should be in opposition to each other). As the jargon I use to discuss my transness becomes more comfortable in my mouth, so do “creative” statements that my prior self would have dismissed as meaningless. For example, I remember telling my therapist last year, “My gender is vengeance.” There’s no way to articulate what precisely that statement means for me, but it’s a felt reality and I’m learning to speak it. Even in spaces in which being transgender was not deemed morally wrong, being trans is seen as just as concrete and “unfun” as being cis is: merely a fact of life rather than a creative pursuit. As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

As we know, gender is never “merely” a fact of life: it’s a mark, an action, a material position, a transgression, a recognition, and so much else. Why not an act of creativity, while we’re at it?

Much of what young-trans-me feared about gender-as-creation, I think, was the accompanying knowledge that gender was a weapon dealt to us that we can not shrug off under present conditions, however intensely I and others might identify with genderlessness. We can’t choose to wholly disidentify with gender, or live in a parallel universe to it: our options for living gender on a daily basis range from complacence to deviance, but no matter what we are in the belly of the beast. When I first learned about being nonbinary, I thought I had found some enlightened “middle road” wherein I wouldn’t be subject to gender’s vice-grip. In order to stay “respectable” and away from gender, then, I would have to be politely and quietly trans. If I was too, dare I say, “flamboyant,” my cover would be blown and I would be a girl once more. But no: I was still in the belly, still subject to cissexism, still misgendered, still forever seen as doing-girl-wrong, doing-boy-wrong, and never as doing [whatever this is]-right.

As I’ve grown and studied the myriad ways in which we dance and die with gender, I’ve come to realize what all marginalized people (hopefully) come to realize: that being respectable won’t soften the violence of oppression. All it might do is transfer that violence onto people more visibly de(v/f)iant than oneself, and even then, no one is left marked yet unscathed. It would be a contradictory statement; a contradictory way of being. If I saw something wrong with utter gender insanity in myself and others –– and I mean that with wholehearted solidarity and respect –– then I was simply seeing something wrong with the bogusness of gender itself, and was choosing to project my hatred of gender onto those who clearly resist it, including me.

I realized that this was a topic I wanted to discuss earlier this afternoon, when I was texting my friend, Leo. He’s been on testosterone for about two months now, and we were discussing are vastly different relationships with and uses of the hormone. While he injects a “standard” dose of T and views T as necessary for his survival in the way I view my mastectomy, I have periodically used and not used a low dose of T, in gel form. Although I’m coming to feel it as more of a natural and good part of my life, for a long time I felt little at all about it. I began with one pump of the gel, then two. I stopped for a time, went back on. In Amsterdam, I stopped using it entirely for several months, and then began again near the end of my trip, using three pumps a night instead of two so I could use up the bottle and not have to carry it home with me. Gender-creative. Hormone-creative.

There is something intoxicating about looking at that T every night and thinking, “I can do whatever I want with this.” I never have to use it again. I can ask for an increase in my prescription if I want it. I can stop using it for a year and begin using it again next year (this particular bottle expires in 2020, after all). Whatever choice I make won’t make me “more” or “less” of whatever gender-word I decide to align myself with, and my authenticity doesn’t ride upon my use or non-use of certain aspects of medical transition. Instead of feeling as I did in middle school art class –– forced under penalty of failure to make whatever drawing or painting Mrs. – decided I must make –– I feel today more like I’m writing in my journal and doodling in the margins. Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

Gender creativity never exists outside its social context, much as we wish it did, but to create one’s gender-body-self by doodling rather than by following classroom rules is liberating nonetheless.

There are groups of trans people who sincerely believe in (boring!) essentialist ideas about transness: these are the types who will spout “born in the wrong body” narratives and insist that everyone else must relate to those narratives, too. Some will go so far as to side with leading medico-psychiatric bodies (and siding with institutions in power is generally not a good sign) that transness (more precisely, dysphoria) is a disease which physical transition must “cure.” The very nature of these statements, which young-me came to internalize and current-me is unlearning, flies in the face of creativity. It traps you in precisely the same way that cisness traps you: by many of these logics, if I am not a woman, I never was and never will be, and thus must be a man. And to qualify as a trans man, I must go along with preconceived notions of manhood, and any evidence of vestigial femininity can and will be used against me as I transition.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is the same trap into which people of all genders, including cisgender people, fall. This is not only me, the nonbinary person whose increasing creativity is allowing them to reclaim femininities that I (was) denied in myself. This is the cis woman who questions her womanhood because she can’t give birth to children (notably, a struggle which many cis and trans women both share). These are men of all relationships to manhood who find themselves unable to access their emotions beneath the logics of patriarchy. It feels as though we as a society are trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to liberate ourselves from gender doctrine.* This requires a shared understanding of gender-creativity, as well as people willing to fuck (up) gender merely as a way of exposing its ridiculousness. Exposing gender requires being ridiculous ourselves. It requires gendering ourselves as vengeance, as punk, as a flower, as a piece of art or music, etc. It requires us to be glittery, obnoxious, boa-wearing queers…or whatever equivalent is desired.

To refuse the possibilities offered by gender creativity, as I did years ago, would be to forgo the frankness and wonder I projected onto the gender creative children a large part of me longed to be. I kept up with that blog so as to live vicariously through someone who was less afraid of making fun of gender than I was; who was more used to laying its issues bare. My time at Catholic school may not have made me a Catholic, but it did make me an agnostic who loves rules, and reading these blogs gave me an escape from the rules around gender non/-conformity that I felt I had to follow in order to gain respect.

When we understand that gender isn’t something we can simply dismiss or fold up and put away –– however rightfully we might hate it –– we might find a way of weaponizing gender against its own interests like the creative, colorful, and brilliant people we are. But first we need to find the child in ourselves and view (trans)gender norms with fresh eyes, letting go of the social expectations we so desperately cling to.

 


*Which is impossible while still using gender as a system of social management and classification, but that’s a different post.

the story of “what’s your story?”

I mentioned here that I was considering writing the history (and even future!) of “What’s Your Story?” on this blog, both for the edification of others and also as a keepsake & reminder for myself.

I, a first-year, entered the 300-level disability studies course already sharing something in common with the professor I did not yet know: both of us were unsure as to whether I was qualified to be there at all. Luckily, the class in question was a joy to work and “prove myself” in, and became a major factor in my final decision to take up critical disability studies as an informing area of my CST focus/specific course of study and research.

Although I gradually grew more comfortable in the class as the months passed,  I grew more anxious at the looming threat of our final projects. We were heavily encouraged not merely to write a paper (the required length of which was still longer than any academic work I had written in high school) but instead to transform our classroom knowledge into an action project of some sort. I did to some of the requisite research for a paper topic, in case possible action project plans fell through (as I feared they would). I ended up writing –– for a different class –– the paper whose topic I researched, and nervously proposed “some kind of open mic, speak-out sort of thing, that I am not calling a ‘support ‘group’ therapy session.”*

I had initially come upon the idea by considering my irritation with the traditional group-therapy model: patients sit in circles to publicly confess their sins to the all-knowing professional, who then –– instead of giving them Hail Mary’s –– imposes upon them pre-determined Coping Skills as though said respective skills are a magic bullet for all people who might share a common diagnosis. The name “What’s Your Story?” emerged from a similar sense of irritation at having to divulge my (mental health) history accurately, consistently, and with gradually-increasing (not too rapidly, lest I look like a faker) degrees of self-awareness that will eventually conclude with recovery; sanity.

I have heard the phrase “what’s your story?” in myriad forms, contexts, and tones. What each shares in common is that they are coming from the mouth of someone in power. These people –– in their quest to intimately Know you, the Other –– creates the very narratives about the “causes of mental illness” and the pictures of “what insanity looks like” that they believe they are searching us to discover!**

Given this, I quickly realized I had to take my story back and share it on my own terms.

I figured that a way to radically reinvent the “story” conversation was to bring into the open –– and dare I say, “fight the stigma!” (although I always hate sounding like a highway billboard or inspirational video) around existing-as-disabled. Although I did not have much access to the knowledge and experiences of people whose disabilities are marked as “physical,” I knew the questions of “what happened?” paralleled in many ways the demands for story-disclosure with which psychosocially disabled, mentally ill, etc. people are barraged.

I made posters, sent emails, created Facebook events as well as a distinct group for attendees/participants, and haphazardly coordinated the physical space in which the event would take place. I bought allergen-friendly food, created the transcript documents for peoples’ performances, and set/cleaned up the space. My professor had generously offered extra credit to any of my classmates who showed up at my event, which only slightly diminished my then-anxiety around low attendance.

The event turned out to be as successful as it was exhausting. It didn’t run as smoothly as more recent events have (obviously) nor was I brave enough to share something of my own at the time. I don’t remember precisely how long the first event lasted, but I remember it ran far longer than I had thought it would, mostly due to the group discussion that took place after the formal readings were over. It occurs to me in hindsight that this was the first time I had experienced such a well-attended, compassionate discussion on disability. I had set the parameters clearly beforehand: abled accomplices were welcome to listen & learn, and would become unwelcome upon any attempts to dominate the discussion or claim upheld expertise.

I don’t know who it was who suggested to pass around a paper, taking down emails of attendees who wanted more events like that one. If they’re reading this, they’re welcome to email me so I can give them the hug they are most certainly due come fall. The desire to speak for myself and with others like me, instead of speaking of myself and to those who erroneously claimed authority over my life experiences, was clearly shared.

So, the next semester, I planned another event. And then there was a zine. And another zine, accompanied by an event. And then there was Amsterdam, and I was very sad to have missed out on hosting what I’m sure would have been a great event with amazing people. I’m excited to move forward now that I will be back at Mount Holyoke for four more semesters.

There were a lot of unintended, useful things that came of “What’s Your Story?”: organizing experience, planning knowledge, on-the-ground knowledge of what event accessibility can look like, learning to edit aggregated content, learning to recruit contributors, learning to publicize events via word-of-mouth and social media. My resumé has thanked me 1,000 times over. This series of events has also brought me closer to innumerable peers who I may never have known well if it weren’t for “What’s Your Story?”.  Finally, having assisted in producing, and certainly seeing, the benefits of peer-based disability organizing and the sharing of feelings and knowledge as equals and not inferiors gives me a way to talk about alternatives to institutional medicine & psychiatry in the real world.

Unfortunately, there still exist the conditions that necessitate events like this. These are the conditions that lead people, when I first try to explain “What’s Your Story?” to them, to scratch their heads. The notion of unmediated wisdom coming from the mouth of a disabled person is unthinkable when the producers of knowledge we see all have Dr., or at the very least, LCSW, attached to their names. As someone who, relative to others like me, has an increased degree of autonomy over their life, I do feel a sense of responsibility to keep organizing these events simply because I’m able to. But also, every time I (re-)read a zine, attend an event, or even simply describe the event’s ethos to others (as I’m doing now) I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and fun. Yes, disability can be fun; we can commune to revel in each others’ brilliant imperfections (if you will) with no need, no desire for “fixing.”


* There exist far more overlapping terms that psych-professionals use to talk about professionally-mediated spaces in which disabled people come together, and almost all of these are shortened to “Group”, which tends to be used as though it’s a proper noun.

** Obviously, I was not thinking about this as a first-semester first-year, at least, not in those terms. As I reflect now, I’m able to use such concepts thanks mainly to theorist Sara Ahmed. I’m currently reading her (2000) work, “Strange Encounters,” in which she describes the way the ego’s desire for knowledge of “the strange(r)” produces the conditions that make people “strange(rs)” in the first place.

revelations, revolutions, resolutions

Note: I borrowed the title for this blog post from the song, “No Light, No Light,” from Florence + The Machine’s album, Ceremonials. I use this in hot anticipation of her coming album, High as Hope. Get excited: I definitely am! Starting to listen to her music was one of the few good decisions I made while in seventh grade.

Less than one week remains of my time in Amsterdam, and about a month remains until 2018 is halfway over. With this in mind,I’ve been considering the relationship I have to [my] New Year’s Resolutions*, and, on a larger scale, my relationship with the future goals I have set for myself.

This blog post was most specifically inspired by a delightful conversation I had a couple days ago with my friend Claire, my beloved disabled comrade, student, activist, and frequent Snapchat-correspondent. She briefly visited Amsterdam from her own study abroad location, Scotland. As our conversation led to a discussion of summer plans and internship excitement, I informed her of a goal of mine that’s become more serious in the last several weeks, especially as I’ve found more time and energy to devote to writing creatively. I hadn’t before told others about this, and have scarcely told myself yet!

I would like to have a book –– a chapbook, a short novel, a little something that is probably “experimental” in form –– at least in the publishing process by the time I graduate from Mount Holyoke. A lofty goal. Goals are meaningless if they’re easy to accomplish.

I am also holding space for the possibility that my current ideas around theming and content may change completely between now and the book’s hypothetical publication; that’s simply how writing works. I’m not going to speak more on this right now (I say as I touch the nazar necklace I got in Morocco, purchased from a vendor who also sold me a beautiful postcard featuring goats in a tree). Worries about tempting fate by publicly discussing this goal aside, many who know me know I want to release my voice into the world. Although that desire will (hopefully, fingers crossed) help me toward publishing a book someday, it also fuels a separate academic struggle I’ve long experienced, and have recently begun trying to overcome.

In the fall of 2017, I found myself putting my foot in my mouth even more than usual, especially during classes. I was speaking aloud the half-formed thoughts I should have internally processed first. I also found myself having immediate emotional reactions to topics of class discussion (fine), which I would then verbalize (only occasionally fine). These were poor substitutes for legitimate, constructive instances of class participation. These “contributions” benefitted no one but myself, and even I was tiring of hearing my own voice. Between these ill-timed outbursts and the standard, academic contributions I make during class, some of which are not entirely necessary to class discussion. I have lived under the false impression that speaking more often was inherently better than not speaking, and that speaking was the only valid contribution I could make within a classroom. What’s more, I felt no need to moderate what I said and how, when, and why I said it; I presumed that if I spoke as I pleased, others could and would do the same, uninhibited by other factors. This is patently false, and to believe that every person enters a classroom –– or any discussion, for that matter –– with identical abilities, amounts of social capital, and language with which to discuss a certain topic is nonsense.

My persistent internalization of the “equal, unmoderated classroom” in which I could speak uninhibited is the result of a wider cultural problem. It is influenced by the foolishmarketplace of ideas” rhetoric that some of the libertarian right-wing are so fond of spouting. Unfortunately, it is easy to internalize such notions in a social-academic climate that implicitly and explicitly glorifies free-market capitalism. I was assigning my spoken thoughts the same arbitrary value that the capitalist assigns to paper money: paper is paper, whether it “says” one or one-thousand dollars. The exchange value of paper money is wildly different from its use value: I can buy a lot with a thousand dollars, but the 1,000-dollar bill can’t really do anything by itself. Similarly, those who view academia as a mere marketplace might support the exchanging of any idea, regardless of how malformed and misinformed might be. It might be assigned a higher value because it was spoken (in my case) by a white, American, English-speaking person who is generally successful in academic settings. However, this has no bearing on how useful my (or anyone else’s) class contribution actually is.

Does this help people? I now try to ask myself before I speak up. Is my statement fueled by compassion, or do I merely want to be correct? Do I want to clarify some point for myself and others, or just hear myself speak? If the latter is true, why don’t I just write down my thought instead of uselessly sharing it? Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?

Are people listening to me because I’ve amassed a degree of social capital that forces them to, or because what I say is genuinely useful in this setting?

Writing more often has already helped me tremendously in learning when and how not to speak. However, I still find myself thinking actively about the aforementioned questions; silence is not second-nature to me. Last semester, in a Feminist Disability Studies class, our professor told us something that remains with me to this day: participation is not limited to speaking in class, and indeed, sometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often. This idea has informed the way I have behaved in my courses while here in Amsterdam, too. I don’t have to speak.** I can listen, and if I have something to say, I can write it down. Sometimes, a point I wanted to make several minutes prior ends up being addressed; sometimes a question I hope to ask ends up answered before I have the chance to ask it. In many ways, knowing that I can –– and often should –– listen and not speak has been freeing, although it’s an immense challenge as well.

[S]ometimes participation is precisely the act of letting someone else speak, especially someone who does not do so often.

Twinning this “real life” challenge is a recently-discovered writing goal, one that’s made itself especially apparent to me in the last several weeks. Now that I’ve published some work on outside platforms, I have found myself feeling an internal pressure to make everything I write somehow publishable. It feels like that capitalistic impulse to commodify every aspect of myself has infiltrated my relationship to words: I am unsatisfied leaving a poem in my notebook, even though I know writing for its own sake is a valuable pursuit. Along with pursuing the aforementioned goal of publishing a chapbook (or something) within the next several years, I have also committed myself to writing something everyday, something which will likely remain unpublished and unpublishable. I’ll never return to the way I wrote a decade ago, “untainted” by paying markets and calls for submissions. It’d be ludicrous to pretend as though those things didn’t exist, especially given that I am still engaging with them as a writer. But there is no way for me to understand the importance of silent listening without being able to “talk” to a blank document as much as I want; there’s no way for me to remain disciplined in my commitment to a chapbook theme unless I can release errant creative energies elsewhere.

My goals require a degree of dual consciousness in order to pursue at the same time: writing and marketing something for publication, while also consciously returning to the reason that writing is something I love and not merely something that I do. I must simultaneously cultivate my ability to listen to others and hear my own silence, but also prove to some outside source that my voice is worthy of being released to the public. In placing these goals together, I hope to somewhat detach my personal growth from my growth as a “professional.” Although the concept of “work-life balance” is a false one, it is unrealistic for me to frame each verse or sentence I write as publishable work or each word I say as worthy of flinging into an creative-academic arena. The differences between “flingable” and “unflingable” thoughts are clear.

If I were to unify all of my goals into one, perhaps it would be: my goal is to weaponize my voice without wholly commodifying it. I need to work to survive, but I also need something to live for. To an extent, the notion of turning my voice into something that can be sold is part of my present and future. But my ideas also exist absent some market, and it is possible –– even liberatory! –– to sit and be contained, to allow someone else the so-called glory of being the one to broach an idea or write an important story. To return briefly to my extended metaphor about capitalism: any perceived scarcity in stories to be written, ideas to be shared and explored, and contributions to be made…these scarcities are artificial.

At the risk of sounding clichéd*** there is absolutely no limit to the ideas that can be imagined and shared. Thus, sharing them is not and should not be a competition. I am working to divorce my goal to “publish a something” (“publish a book” is still a scary phrase to say!) from the imperative to write something that is worth a dollar amount. I will publish a something that I am proud to share, because it’s something that hasn’t been said before in quite the way I’m saying it, because I want to contribute to the canon occupied by [redacted creators who will for now remain nameless so I don’t give too much away], and because I want to reveal a possibility to readers that I can’t fully explore in the realm of academia. It will be good to be compensated; to be validated by the “Industry”. But it is my hope that learning to listen at the same time as I learn to speak my ideas into a…um…book will allow me both personal and professional growth.

 


* is that a proper noun? Who knows.

** I still talk a lot. Sometimes I say useful things, and some things may have been better unsaid. It’s a work in progress.

*** I think I’ve used that phrase enough on this blog that the phrase itself has become clichéd. Whoa!

hey, you!

I’ll be flying home exactly one month from today. At the moment, of course, I’m glad to be here and not there –– after all, it’s been in the 60ºs F in Amsterdam these past few days, whereas I hear it’s down in the 40ºs F back home. Spring is here; I’ve traded classes for independent research; I can sleep in and make my own schedule. I’ve explored several cafés, and as I sit in one now, podcast on, laptop out and iced coffee next to me, I feel a little like I’m in Thirsty Mind. If I squint. And if I ignore that, unlike an American café, the one I’m currently sitting in would be happy to serve me a completely legal glass of wine.

Most of this month will be devoted to my independent research project, with a significant portion of the remaining time going into my own reading and writing (and hopefully catching up on rapidly-building store of unaddressed social media notifications). Either way, I am looking forward to –– and already enjoying! –– my present situation of increased anonymity. All of a sudden, I’m not (always) the foolish American tourist, staring bug-eyed at my surroundings: this area, at least, has become a familiar neighborhood. I’m not a member of an obnoxious, English-speaking mass of college students following behind an apologetic pair of guides. I’m not the top-left corner of every assignment I type and submit, I’m not a hand raised in class, I’m not the object of someone’s address if I don’t want to be. It’s a great relief not to be trapped in the same rooms in the same office space on the same street, five days a week. Frankly, it’s liberating not to be spoken to so much.

I’m not sure how to cleanly segue from those opening paragraphs to my central topic, so I’ll just lead in with an anecdote. In one of our group’s last Dutch classes, the professor mistakenly called me “Charlie.” I looked at him for a moment after he said that, and in that moment he smacked his face and said, “Sarah!” The whole room laughed, including me. It was actually a pretty mundane experience: I forget or mix up peoples’ names all the time, and am especially understanding when others do it because I’m awful at remembering names. But the experience of having been accidentally called a name significantly more androgynous than my own was significant in that it was guilt-inducingly titillating. The laughter quieted and I asked a couple of times to the group at large, to no concrete response: “Charlie? Do I look like a Charlie? Do I look like someone whose name is Charlie? Does it suit me?”

After class, my friend asked me if I was “okay” and I was surprised at the question. Given that I hadn’t been misgendered (not in that instance, anyway) or deadnamed (I’m Sarah and always have been) I was confused as to why I wouldn’t have been okay. I’m not going to try to parrot the whole conversation we had (one that I hope continues, Mia, if you’re reading this!) but I did tell them this: “I mean, maybe if he would have called me a…a ‘girl name,’ (you know) I might have been hurt, but, you know…”

You know? I know. I know that, instead of speaking directly about gender and womanhood and once-girlhood and Sarahness*, I make so many euphemisms that I barely understand myself. Truthfully, whenever I am identified, I’m placed in the shadow of my name (and also with the girlhood I used to live). Sarah isn’t one of those “girly things” I can escape with hormones or surgery or a shaved head or boys’ clothes. I remember frustratedly covering up my name tag at my place of work last summer, not because my name itself caused me pain but rather because I did not want to be marked as a woman when I would otherwise have been seen as ambiguous.

And then there are the pressures and expectations placed upon me precisely because I move through trans and gender-nonconforming spaces. This has increased in the past year, since I began an on-and-off relationship with varying dosages of testosterone and since I began seriously pursuing a bilateral mastectomy with ultimate success. When I am insistently asked for my preferred name, I feel a sense of violation that it’s hard to articulate in words. It is as if I am being told that I could be trans, if only it weren’t for that pesky, girly name. What do they expect, “Sam”? It seems the most convenient. When I was in fourth grade, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my then-friend about what our names would be “if we were boys.” Her name was easily masculinizable. Mine was not. We both found that irritating.

Irritating, too, is having to think fast in the minutes before top surgery. I get up to pee one last time. A nurse asks, “Sarah? Have you thought about your new name yet?” I say, heart pounding, “Not yet.” I mean: I have been waiting so fucking long to get these things sawed off of my chest and you had better not see through this boldfaced lie and deny it to me now.

Unlike the breasts, my name is still attached to me, and I quite like it there. What I don’t like is, as I previously mentioned, the marking that comes with it. It is a reality that, under patriarchy, women are marked; men are the genderless “blank slate.” This is why we have both “astronauts” and “woman astronauts.” However, this marking is why I stubbornly cling to “Sarah” and don’t intend to quit. Charlie is a name that I think suits me (better than “Sam” does, anyway) and maybe I’ll even try it out at a Starbucks or two, plunging my chin deep into my high-buttoned flannel, widening my stance. Pulling the dude-ish affect. But to me, my name is a reverent acknowledgement of the womxn** who are both my personal and my political priority. It’s a token of my appreciation to my parents, who have named and nicknamed and loved me with “(Sar)ah”. When I say the name, the word, Sarah, I feel like the sun finding its place in the center of some landscape painting. I have never felt so attached to my name than I have since I “came out” as “openly” trans, whatever that means.

I’ll admit that I went through a brief identity crisis in the days following the Charlie incident –– do I want strangers to call me Charlie? Do I want to change my name altogether? Names are unique identifiers, as important to the people doing the addressing as those being addressed. Others’ investment in my supposed womanhood when I’m “Sarah” and in the supposed necessity of some name change when I’m “Trans Person” illustrate just how much more important my name is to everyone other than myself. If, at this moment, I were to relinquish my autonomy and take up “Sam” or “Charlie,” I would be violating my own personal desires and convictions. I might be (mis)interpellated as a Sarah-woman or as a non-Sarah-non-woman, but these are and will remain false ascriptions that are a result of an oppressive system of gender. My choices are not simply “be a girl with a girl name” or “be a trans with a trans name.”  After all, that’s a binary. We all know binaries are rigid and oppressive. C’mon, we’ve been over this!

Unfortunately, I’m not going to spew those preceding paragraphs at every person who makes some name-related false assumption about me. Plus, there is so much more I have yet to unpack regarding my name, gender, and personal identity that couldn’t possibly fit into one or many blog post(s). Luckily, this month, I can be a researcher. I might be anonymizing my subjects, but I am also becoming a bit more anonymous: suddenly, I’m a person behind a laptop, and not always a name on a roster or a person introducing themself to a stranger. I’m still here and I’m still Sarah, but this will hopefully be a month of increased alone-time, my last Amsterdam-hurrah, when I can be trans Sarah without contestation.


*Instead of that phrase, I initially wanted to write “this sort of thing” and then I came to my senses.

**Non-men? People of an oppressed class under patriarchy? The nebulously-gendered contingent of people who get nervous going out at night? There’s no good term to refer to the group of people I’m trying to refer to, but those who do fall into that category tend to know they (we) belong to it.

*** Interpellation / Misinterpellation are Louis Althusser’s terms. Here’s a good (and dense) reading about them.

vulnerable

My course of study for this semester abroad and beyond necessarily involve people and communities deemed “vulnerable”. Sometimes, deemed “too vulnerable” to work with. Sometimes, there is a possibility that I might be subsumed under this category –– when I use theory as a way to understand my experiences in therapy, in the hospital, in the midst of what we call a meltdown or a crisis –– is that marriage of theory and reality available for academic consumption?

Increasingly, organizations will say “no.” This is deeply ironic, given the long, storied history of exploitation experienced by vulnerable/vulnerablized subjects. Although exploitation might primarily be in service of entertainment, labor, or sex, it can also centrally benefit academia. Since being here and confronting the specter of the approval board which will judge the acceptability of my own proposed project, I find myself at an ideological impasse.

I guess I could say I am of two minds. I’ll lay out my dilemma here:

1) I know that amplifying the voices of unheard subjects requires those subjects to speak for themselves and often to identify themselves as they speak. When I want to write about a struggle that effects/affects (to use the insufferable academic tendency!) me, being forced to make my experience abstract denies me the agency to be honest….about the very ways in which I am and have been denied agency before. Disabled people are denied agency via infantilization: like infants, we are too vulnerable to be seen, too immature to be listened to, and too weak or untrustworthy to take control of our own narratives.

2) But any academic project on marginalized groups runs an inherent risk of exploitation: even when the academic themself is a member of one of those groups. Hell, there seems to be a growing trend within academia as well as the creative writing community writ large to exploit one’s own trauma in order to be original enough for publishing. These narratives and studies are important, for sure, but we have gotten into the habit of ripping out our hearts for publishers in the hopes of some meager compensation. I’m guilty of this, and for the past few days have been thinking particularly hard about the relationship between art, pain, vulnerability, and ~the academy~. With that in mind, as well as the historical context I cite at the bottom of this post, we always need to take extra care when representing ourselves and others when at its core, we are representing vulnerability. Don’t be white savior Barbie. Don’t dredge up every point of pain you have barely confronted yourself, either, and turn it into poetry or smooth critique.

Now, back to my situation. I hope to center the voices of self-identified disabled LGBTQ+ individuals (for lack of a better term) in my semester research project, and thus have experienced warnings as to the dangers of trying to interview disabled subjects ethically. This, I was told, would be particularly challenging when it came to subjects who were intellectually / psychosocially disabled. In tandem with this I was told I should definitely limit my subject-scope to people eighteen and over. Children were a similarly difficult group to obtain consent from. To this I nodded my head very sanely and considered all of the situations in which I would and would not be deemed a suitable subject for my own project.

Staying home from class yesterday allowed me to look at a paper I downloaded weeks ago but theretofore hadn’t read: Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorizing post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability by Kathryn Ecclestone and Daniel Goodley (2014). A real mouthful! It addresses the conflict between material/psychological vulnerability in subjects (and the need address these with radical compassion & work to change) and the tendency that psycho-medicine has when talk of such vulnerabilities rises to the surface: namely, the tendency to individualize and pathologize said vulnerabilities and try to “fix” them without challenging the system that creates them.

I, like many, am caught between a materialist acknowledgement of socially-enforced “precarity” (Judith Butler’s term, cited by Ecclestone & Goodley) and the knowledge that it would be dishonest to try to improve material conditions and not critique & deconstruct the system that creates them in the first place.

In synthesizing this blog post, I’ve been reminded of the dangers of conflating vulnerability (which colloquially implies some individual “weakness”) with precarity (which references the social conditions that lead to one’s vulnerablization). This distinction will be helpful in elaborating the challenges I experience as I attempt to conduct qualitative research, but will not fully solve this long-standing conflict within me. Amplification and exploitation do not exist in a binary, nor does anything else. They’re subject to judgement based on their context, interpretation, and ultimate implications. The impasse remains, although I’m more clear now on the exact details of my problem than I was prior to typing this out.

So, what am I supposed to do now? Do I seek a “legitimate” method to share the voices of intellectually and psychosocially disabled people, the latter of whom are commonly referred to as “mentally ill”? Do I abandon institutional academic paths to legitimacy and acknowledge that justice will only be served to us when structures like academia, medicine, psychiatry, and state are abolished entirely? In reality, the “solution” I find to this will likely be interviews with “good disabled people” accompanied by a scathing critique of the system that limits the radical potential of my work. I will both follow the “rules” and make clear that academia itself is culpable in the exploitation and vulnerablization of people like me. But there are only so many critiques and papers I will be able to write like this without also doing something more.

Alright, now that I’ve used far too many sets of scare quotes and now that “vulnerable” doesn’t even look like a word anymore, I’m going to end the post. Happy Friday and just a reminder: the next time I update this, I’ll be in Morocco!

 


Citations and further reading, complete with links!

Performativity, Precarity, and Sexual Politics by Judith Butler

Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorizing post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability by Kathryn Ecclestone and Daniel Goodley

I’m also indebted to disability scholar Margaret Price for the use of the term “psychosocial disability” in lieu of “mental illness” or “psychiatric disorder”.