on the idea of a “good christmas”

Every “holiday” season (that is, Christmas season) I feel overloaded by anxious posts from other psychosocially disabled — neurodivergent — etc. people. These posts all attend to a deep fear of “ruining Christmas.” I’ve felt for years now that the (I consciously avoid using the word “pathological” here) fixation on Christmas as a moment of terror and misery both for disabled people and for our family members is a subject worthy of investigation.

The “Christmas” holiday has, over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, been transformed from a mere religious holiday to an ideological orientation, an artists’ statement one might stamp on their own lifestyle. On a surface level, one might see this in the idea of a “war on Christmas” and particularly in those Starbucks cups. But the most dangerous expressions of this Christmas-ideology appear benign. I’m drawn to using the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story” as an example. The useful thing about analyzing this movie is that its plot and imagery are completely divorced from any pretense of Christian religion. It presents a wholly-commodified Christmas that does not match “american christian” culture but rather, specifically, the culturally christian middle-class whiteness which worshipped the buying and selling of commodities first and foremost. The life glorified in the film is socially and culturally contained, only addressing the existence of a world outside the town in which it’s set once. These two moments are reflective of a contradiction of u.s. capitalism: an inexhaustible desire to consume the other, while at the same time having to shun the other in order to maintain its fragile myth of exceptionalism. Ralphie and his family meet the outside through trips to the mall and mail-order prizes, as well as via “Santa” in the Christmas climax of the film. Conversely, Ralphie and his family also encounter the “other” in the infamously racist last scene of the film, in which they dine at a Chinese restaurant and are serenaded by a group of cringily caricatured, heavily-accented Chinese waitstaff. The presumable punchline of the scene is that the food Ralphie and his family are served and the way the waitstaff speak are both unpalatable in that they disrupt the white, midwest-american christmas narrative. The juxtaposition between the “all-american Christmas” and the “(perpetually-) foreign” waitstaff is meant to be the film’s closing gag (and reader, I did gag).

Now that I’ve established the role Christmas has in stabilizing normative american selfhood, let’s consider disability, and specifically, for this blog post, psychosocial disability / neurodivergence. Any narratives of non-normativity ruining Christmas must begin by presupposing a perfect Christmas. Presumably, this perfection can be found in the advertisements (on T.V., online, even still in catalogs –– consider the ubiquitous well-stocking’d, lit hearth which can be found in advertisements from L.L. Bean*, Land’s End, and other stores). Popular perfect-Christmas images circulate, at this point, from October through the beginning of January. Whether we truly believe that Christmas perfection can be achieved, we are still inculcated by a series of images that reify the idea of what Christmas should be. Again, Christmas turns from a holiday to an ideology –– if we merely purchase the correct products, engage in the correct “pro-social” and expected behaviors, listen to the correct songs, and engage in the discourses of “the holiday season,” we may too partake in the cult, as it were, of Christmas.

This can explain both why the anxiety of fellow psychosocially disabled / neurodivergent people reaches its peak at Christmastime, and why the impossible standards set by ableism reach their most bizarre at the same time. It’s not as though those two can be separated from each other –– to paraphrase Sartre, it is the abled bodymind that creates the disabled bodymind. Of course disability would be magnified at Christmas: this is a time in which norms of behavior and relation have been so heavily culturally codified that any “transgression” becomes more glaring than it would be otherwise. Psychosocial disability / neurodivergence can be understood as a failure or refusal to comply with the societal norms that keep the world predictable, safe, and “ordered.” One might also call this timeless sense of order “tradition,” and in doing so we can see its connections to Christmas as a social practice. Disability is suddenly thrown into stark relief against the thick outline of Christmas expectation.

I found an example of such a phenomenon in this 2015 blog post, titled “Don’t Let ADHD (or Autism)** Ruin Your Holiday.” The author, Penny Williams, recounts what could have been a disastrous Christmas, in which her son, who has ADHD, gets up early and begins to open his Christmas presents before his parents are there to watch. No explanation is given as to why, but she concludes that this early-gift-opening “would surely ruin Christmas.” She responds to her son’s enthusiasm with anger and disappointment. It appears that she’s personally offended that her son did not wait to open the gifts in front of she and her husband.

Curiously, her son’s forthcoming response to his mother’s misery is cited as a possible pull-quote. When Williams exclaims: “‘What are you doing!? You know you were not supposed to open anything without getting mommy and daddy! I am so very disappointed in you! What did we say would happen if you opened presents without us?”” her son responds, as would be expected, in shame. He responds by acknowledging what I assume was a pre-stated threat that she would take away his gifts if he opened them early, and then shouts “‘I am so stupid.’” The text of the suggested pull-quote is placed in brackets below. It suggests what one should tweet if linking the post:

[Tweet: "I am so stupid!"he shouted. A cautionary tale of letting #ADHD ruin Christmas."]

Though I’m not going to address it deeply here, we can see in the way Williams parceled out her pain in an easily-tweetable way an observance of a time-honored Christmas tradition: the commodification of family life. What I would like to point out is the way in which she frames her son’s outburst, and the way she “unframes” her own, so as to encourage the reader not to understand her’s as an “outburst” at all. From the start, Williams gives the audience the required cues to frame all of her son’s behavior in a pathologizable manner. “Namely,” she does this with the nickname she gives him for anonymity: “Ricochet.” Presumably, this is meant to convey the way in which he, imbued with an “excess” (compared to what?) of energy, appears to ricochet off the walls. Although it’s certainly proper form for her to anonymize the child whose disability she is exploiting for followers and possibly money (although I’d rather her not exploit him at all) this anonymization could just as easily have been done with a simple pseudonym or initial, or with the initialism I see used often among mothers who write about their families: “DS” (for “dear son,” the use of “D” is typically mirrored in regard to all other family members). And yet she chooses Ricochet. Why? I argue that this word and its chaotic connotation primes the reader to view her son in the way she wants him to be seen: a disruptive force in her family’s life***.

This brings us to the second curious aspect of the quotation. She describes her son’s (to keep with the clinicalizing theme) negative self-talk as a result of “#ADHD ruin[ing] Christmas”. Yet, it was not “the ADHD” (as though ADHD is an isolable entity that can be simply exorcised via “good parenting”!) that caused her son shame. It was her. The diagnosis becomes an easy label on which society -– in this case, parents –– can project their own faults; by ignoring the ultimately social nature of disability, they believe they can turn to biology to explain their child’s negative responses to their parenting decisions. So it was not her outburst (which would not be called an outburst, but rather a reprimand) that ruined Christmas, it was “the ADHD” she believes is located in some cubby inside her son, waiting to be removed in order to save the holiday.

Christmas is never what we want it to be, not precisely. If we are raised to believe the advertisement-Christmas and the Hallmark-Christmas are ideal, then naturally, our imperfect reality will never live up to it. Because of the prevalence of these idealized images, though, our “real” Christmas becomes “less real” than the idealized images we’re fed. What we categorize as disability, or Otherhood writ large, does not expose some fault within the person marked as such, but instead exposes the wide, gaping cracks in normative society that we refuse to see. In “A Christmas Story,” the snow-white Midwestern Christmas, in which not one person of color is shown, is diverted from its course in the Chinese restaurant. To compensate for the simmering fear of “invasion” white people experience at the sight of Asian people in america, this disruption of the idealized Christmas is played for laughs, and the fear is neutralized by cheap, racist attempts at humor.

In Williams’s post, on the other hand, the disruption is injected with decidedly negative emotion: Christmas has been “ruined” by a metaphorical “invader,”  the ADHD. Again, we have an invader –– that is, the real world –– disrupting an imaginary normscape****. The disabled bodymind is, to the (temporarily-) abled bodymind, a constant reminder that the seemingly-untainted lifestyle of the normal subject exists only in the shadow of disabling rupture. Normal life is the unsuspecting beach town which has yet to realize a cartoon-tsunami wave hovers above it, waiting to drop.

*Note the use of “heirloom” as a product-descriptor, too.

**Ironically, although this calls attention to the many similarities between autism and AD(H)D, its conclusion is not to question the validity of such discrete and charged diagnostic terms for what amounts to similar lived experiences, but instead to expand the number of “disability parents” that this article is meant to inform.

***Alternatively, some “disability parents” see “the autism” or “the AD(H)D” as an independent force that infects the brain of their child, that ideally should be exorcised for the good of the family.

**** Full disclosure: I just made this word up.



I awoke this morning to a Facebook notification: a friend had mentioned me in the comments of an article about Ned Lamont’s victory in the Connecticut midterms. It was, as the pros say, “a close one,” and by no means the only such election last night. I almost feel that the anxiety I felt last night was greater than the anxiety I felt in 2016, although I believe this is mostly due to my shock and horror at the presidential election results stopping me from truly feeling anything at all. This time I didn’t feel as though my self had left my body; I was firmly planted in my skin and thus able to feel all the terror that had two years ago been more closed off to me.

Another difference between this election and the last was that I was able to vote in this one. In 2016, despite being functionally no different from my eighteen-year-old peers, I was not permitted to vote due to my age. It’s horrifying to think about how many young people –– not just sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, but true children –– have been and will be impacted by the Trump administration and have no “democratic” way to express their grievances. Voting is by absolutely no means the pinnacle of political action (if anything, it’s a starting point, and even then its ultimate effectiveness is questionable at best) but the fact that the very same kids at risk of immediate death by school shooting, or prolonged death by starvation or lack of health care, have no official voice against such mortal threats is despicable. Not to mention the countless immigrants and refugees barred from having a say in things like, you know, whether or not they’re separated from the infants they’re still breastfeeding.

I’m no believer in the democratic process; u.s. elections are farcical given that neither major party will allow a candidate to enter the political arena to challenge the wider social order; no system that seeks self preservation will enable the population to dismantle it via “playing by the rules.” In fact, we’ve seen that the ruling class actively prefers clearly-illegal actions that preserve white supremacist, imperialist capitalism to legitimate democratic principles.

For a class, I’m examining fascism, and in particular the ways in which capitalist liberal democracy can so easily birth fascism once in crisis. Given that, I feel the need to point out that fascist governments have been and will continue to be democratically elected. I will note that a population subjugated under capitalism and deprived from the fruits of their labor has and will continue to unite based on false ideas of [racial; national] “unity” in order to recover the selfhood they have been forced to sell to their bosses. I will remind you that the “other” is a far more convenient figure to fear than the rich person who looks just like you. I’ll remind you that the violent divisions by race, gender, and nation that underpin the fascist state, whose goal is the eradication of “the other” by total war, were specifically created to delineate types of labor to different groups of people and to stymie groups’ effort to unify against the capitalist class.

Of course, none of this goes away when elections “go our way,” either. We should have been having this conversation if the democrats had won the senate, too; we should have been having this conversation if Hillary or even Bernie had won. With a more friendly-faced administration in power, less people would probably have read that paragraph with seriousness. It appears that the unignorable-even-by-wealthy-whites Trump administration has opened the privilege to more “radical” possibilities, even if those possibilities are permitted to applying for a protest permit, walking around with a sign, and thanking the cops for supervising your ‘protest’ once it’s over. I don’t think this administration was “worth” the pain it causes so many, but if nothing else, I’m glad people are actually responding with some teeth.

At the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of hot air blown from different news sources I follow. Some of those further to the left, usually more ideologically in line with me, seemed to tend toward the “I’m not voting because democracy is a sham” camp. Some people with similar political views with the former group, such as myself, continue to vote while simultaneously expressing our rage and disillusionment with a system designed to keep the ruling class in power. Others, unfortunately, go in the other direction, and valorize voting in a way entirely disproportionate to its real effects. As usual, I see a great grey in-between. I’m certainly not a “patriot”, nor am I a nihilist.

Now that I’ve voted in a primary and a major election, I feel I can say that I consider voting in elections to be a form of harm-reduction. I consider voting to be a responsibility for those who can, not because we’re going to vote ourselves into some imaginary “perfect america” but rather because what little we can control with the vote, we should, since those who are most impacted are also barred from voting. In the weeks leading up to the elections, I saw a bit of buzz among leftists online about the idea of donating one’s vote to an incarcerated or otherwise disenfranchised person if uncomfortable personally participating in the process. That would mean speaking to a prisoner and asking them how they would vote, and then voting in their stead at the polls. I would really recommend this method in the future to those who “didn’t want to get involved with” voting this time around.

We’ve seen some token improvements, some close saves, and we have breathed signs of relief at a re-won House even while disappointed by other races both local and national. I think I speak for many of us when I say we also breathe a sigh of relief that this election season is over, at least until the (oh, god) presidential election activities start up for 2020, which looms uncomfortably close.

critical disability spongebob (really)

This post was inspired by a riveting conversation I had with Claire Houston about a week ago. I first brought up a “critical disability analysis of Spongebob Squarepants” as a joke, but then quickly realized that one of the wildly popular show’s best episodes –– Tea at the Treedome (S1) –– is perhaps the best conveyance of the social model of disability and solutions to access barriers other than “cure” I have ever seen on childrens’ television.

If you’ve forgotten the plot to this iconic episode, I’d like to direct you to Spongepedia for a full description. The part of this episode I am going to focus on is that which occurs while and after Spongebob meets Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel and proud Texan who is fairly new to Bikini Bottom.

Sandy’s air helmet is a conspicuous reminder of the fact that Bikini Bottom exists under water –– something the show as a whole allows us to forget, as all of its characters can live safely below. Sandy, a native to land, not sea, throws into focus the basic condition of Bikini Bottom life, a condition that other characters have no need to acknowledge. To them, living surrounded by water is as normal as breathing air is to mammals. It is only the existence of people who are unable to breathe underwater without assistive tech (like a helmet) that reminds us that our everyday conditions are based on a limited, exclusionary definition of normalcy.

When encountering difference, our beloved sponge behaves better, I would say, than the average able-bodied (so-to-speak) person (also so-to-speak). He immediately understands that the fact that he’s not sure what to make of Sandy’s equipment is on him, not on Sandy. Although it may have been wiser for him to politely ask what “air” was instead of pretending to know what it was in order to impress the squirrel, young viewers of the show receive an important model for interaction with people who are different from oneself. That is, one of polite curiosity and openness to learning as opposed to studied ignorance.

The implicit “temporary” in Spongebob’s able-bodied status reveals itself once he enters the Treedome, Sandy’s air-filled home*. He is only “able” to move through his watery world as a normal, “healthy” individual when surrounded by water –– something he didn’t even notice before realizing Sandy needed to breathe air. As he slowly dries up, he feels an implicit pressure to “suck up” (he’s a sponge, so the pun is a little bit intended) his pain and fake normalcy. In our world and in Spongebob’s capitalism’s insatiable demands for productivity encourage this behavior both inside and outside of the work environment. Spongebob feels he has no other choice than to pretend to be okay –– even if that means suffering irreparable bodily harm, or even risking death –– as he’s never lived under social conditions in which it’s acceptable to admit to being not okay. This is only further suggested by his unflinching devotion to the Krusty Krabs, his place of employment.**

He is only “able” to move through his watery world as a normal, “healthy” individual when surrounded by water –– something he didn’t even notice before realizing Sandy needed to breathe air.

When Spongebob finally decides he can no longer take a moment without water, he drinks the water from a vase of flowers and calls himself a “quitter” for having done so. Like Spongebob, disabled people, especially those who have become disabled, feel compelled to understand themselves as “quitters” or “not trying hard enough.” Spongebob isn’t simply drinking the water because he isn’t trying hard enough to breathe air, though: he physically cannot, and no amount of effort will make him able to breathe oxygen like Sandy, a squirrel, can. Soon after, when Patrick enters the Treedome (thinking that Sandy’s physical differences from himself and Spongebob have scared Spongebob off) he begins to dry up as well: realizing that it was nothing inherent in Sandy that bothered Spongebob, but instead the fact that Spongebob had been rendered disabled by a change in physical environment as well as social environment (insofar as he was too embarrassed to ask Sandy for water and felt like a failure for drinking from her vase).

The resolution of this brief episode is a brilliant message for child and adult viewers alike: instead of Spongebob, Patrick, and Sandy letting their differences stop them from spending time with each other, they work together to develop more assistive devices to accommodate all of them. Sandy brings Spongebob and Patrick water-filled helmets so that they can safely spend time in the Treedome, without judging either of them for not being able to breathe air. Likewise, Sandy’s use of an oxygen helmet outside the Treedome is completely normalized after this episode, to the extent that, as a child and viewer of the show, I was rarely consciously reminded of how “weird” it was for a squirrel to live underwater.

Ultimately, this episode suggests that neither Sandy’s inability to breathe underwater nor Spongebob’s inability to live outside the water without drying up are problems inherent to their respective bodies. They’re simply evidence of the disabling conditions of inaccessible environments. The lesson provided in that short, eleven-minute episode could be applied to understanding dyslexic kids who use audio over the printed word, or hard-of-hearing kids who use transcripts of things other students listen to. By applying the logics of this episode to everyday situations, the opportunity is created to see differences normal, even essential parts of a happy life.

Furthermore, and most importantly, it provides disabled kids a medium through which to understand disability that neither fixates on its negative aspects nor pushes “treatment” as the only solution. If Spongebob and Sandy can solve access barriers without changing their bodies and minds, so too can disabled people as we move through the real world.

*This is a contested term, but useful for my purposes.

**Although outside the scope of this particular post, the way Spongebob’s religious devotion to his job as a fry cook is played for laughs is an example of the subtle and subversive possibilities that exist on children’s TV.

Recommended Reading: Beard hacks, finasteride hell, and 5 other things ‘trans masc’ folks might not know about.

This is an awesome perspective w/r/t doing transmasculinity. People don’t talk nearly enough about the physical challenges of top surgery, and instead focus on the pain and dysphoria of the “before” and the peace and ease of the “after”.

In conjunction with this, Finch does a great job of outlining the multiplicity of dysphoric experiences we may have as a way of rebutting truscum gender/diagnostic essentialisms. There is no pure, “prior” experience of dysphoria against which all other trans peoples’ feelings should be measured…instead, start thinking of dysphoria as a way to put words to your understanding of your body in the world as a tgnc person. There’s no “true trans” or “fake trans”, there’s just each one of us, and the limited language with which we need to (unfortunately) justify our lived experiences.

Let's Queer Things Up!

Every so often — especially in transitioning — I’ll have one of those “why didn’t someone tell me this sooner?” moments. Because we’re in the age of information, I think a lot of folks in the transgender community just assume we already have the information we need.

But in actuality? Many of us don’t.

I’ve found that when I share some of what’s surprised me, there’s always a decent number of trans people who are also hearing it for the first time. While transition is a process of discovery, I can’t help but feel that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we did a better job of sharing what we’ve learned with others.

This article, then, is a mishmash of some of the clever, enlightening, or flat-out surprising things that I would’ve appreciated being told at the beginning of my transition.

As someone who is genderqueer…

View original post 2,635 more words

what is *really* required to prevent suicide

Content Warning: though abstract and not graphic, this is a post about suicide. Proceed with caution. 

I fantasize about cutting the root of our feelings of ruthlessness and despair at the moment that they begin. This is not something I –– nor anyone else alone –– can possibly do without a radical, cultural shift to bolster it. I see your good-Samaritanism in the face of two high-profile suicides by much-loved figures, and I raise to you this question: why are you so ready, even delighted, to post the requisite hotline numbers, to say “seek [professional] help,” to say “you can talk to me” as though a conversation alone will lead to supposed recovery from thoughts of suicide. Each of these acts make non-suicidal people feel a semblance of control over the lives they see are in free-fall, when the true sources of these cases more often lie in larger structures, whose complicity goes unaddressed.

This adoption of the personal responsibility to save suicidal people by those around them is well-intentioned. However, it can, and often does, result for the suicidal person in encounters with the police, (ensuing) institutionalization, and intrusive surveillance practices. There are many things to be said about this under-discussed and frequently-excused form of ableism and institutional violence, namely that it is regarded as the only way to “deal with” The Suicidal Person. But that is not what I want to discuss right now.

Instead, I would like to address the concerning thread that runs through everyday reactions to publicized suicides, suicide awareness, and situations in which someone is perceived as “at risk”. This thread is the assumption that personal, individual interventions are sufficient in supporting people in crisis. The thought here is: if we normalize talking about suicide, and telling our friends and loved ones when we are struggling, we will solve what is obviously a/n inter/national crisis which takes the lives of many every year. Although I have no doubt that these individual interventions save lives, they do nothing to unstick the root(s) of suicidal ideation in society at large. Ignorance of these roots does a disservice to those who experience suicidal thoughts, to those who have or will commit suicide, and to humanity at large; the latter in its refusal to acknowledge that there is no “type” of person who experiences these thoughts but instead a type of social and material conditions that can lead to the desire to kill oneself.

Sometimes I get tired of my own anti-capitalist screeds, but I’m even more tired of the havoc that capitalism wreaks on all of our lives, and especially the lives of the (multiply-)marginalized. A primary goal of capitalism is to erase (and to consume and commodify) the personal identities of those who work under it. As such, if I work in retail, I am no longer Sarah-who-works-in-retail, I am a Sales-Associate. Those sorts of labels affix themselves to us, so much so that questions such as “what do you do?” do not provoke hobbies or leisure activities as responses, but instead, almost uniformly, information on where (or if) we work for a wage. If you are a student, you will likely also feel this regarding your educational life; as such, a low grade or missed academic opportunity has the potential to obliterate your self worth. By grafting our occupations onto the space where our composite selves used to be, we internalize any slight against us at school or work (a firing, a lay-off, a low wage or grade, a poor review) as a slight against us as people. When it comes to work, this is even more destructive, as these slights can result in abject poverty and its associated risks.

By grafting our occupations onto the space where our composite selves used to be, we internalize any slight against us at school or work (a firing, a lay-off, a low wage or grade, a poor review) as a slight against us as people.

Given these conditions, feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, hopelessness, and other -nesses come as little surprise. Some, including other psychosocially disabled people, lament the way in which “everyone” is claiming “depression and anxiety” these days. These complaints also seem to locate depression and anxiety in certain, pre-marked bodies and not in others, again obfuscating the root causes of these experiences. Under neoliberal capitalism, the loss of one’s self and purpose (especially in the face of poverty and unemployment) and the constant, debilitating anxiety of ever-mounting debt and implicit knowledge that one will never do or be enough is near-guaranteed. The same can be said, sometimes, for thoughts of ending one’s own life: too often, our lives under this system of slow violence do not feel worth living. As such, the problems associated with suicide; with the depression and anxiety that “everyone” supposedly has these days; are not going to be solved by psychiatry and its pathologizing, individualizing, money-making ways. Nor is it going to be solved by individual responses to individual cases, although these individual responses may be helpful on a small scale.

Under neoliberal capitalism, the loss of one’s self and purpose (especially in the face of poverty and unemployment) and the constant, debilitating anxiety of ever-mounting debt and implicit knowledge that one will never do or be enough is near-guaranteed.

There is no way to understate the danger that lies in the assumption of a “suicidal type.” The location of suicidal thoughts in only certain bodyminds implicitly blames the afflicted person for these thoughts –– that is, it assumes that these thoughts emerge from something “wrong with” that person’s brain. Think about the way the media digs desperately into the lives of those like Bourdain and Spade; they search for “signs” that may retroactively confirm that these were the types of people at risk for suicide. Regardless of what evidence toward this is or is not found, it is still an act of erasure against those who do not fit said type. Crucially, in the media today, suicidality is near-exclusively located in well-off, white Americans and Europeans. Racialized others, especially Black women, are ignored in conversations on mental health supports and needs, which can be attributed to the longstanding stereotype of Black women as strong and immune to the psychological impacts of (among other things) racialized misogyny itself**.  The disproportionate focus on individual white celebrities –– and white bodies as a whole –– as the face of the “suicide epidemic” very literally kills those bodies of color which it excludes*.

I encourage all of us to think of feelings associated with suicide not as special feelings reserved for particular, “depressed” people, but rather as emotional conditions of life lived at constant risk of violence, abuse, and financial devastation. Not only will this reframing allow us to pay especial attention to those whose experiences go undiscussed by the media in the wake of public suicides, but it will also “end the stigma” around suicide, as so many will cry on pop-media without taking steps to actually do anything about it. After all, the source of the stigma around suicide –– around disability at large –– come with the perception that they are individual afflictions which mark particular people as others; as abnormal and bad. It is only when we remove the blinders of individual pathology and understand psychological crisis as a part of our collective experience that we will begin to make steps toward healing from these tragedies. And this healing cannot start until we rethink the way we assign life-value to certain bodyminds (including our own) and which we do not, largely based on productivity and socioeconomic standing.

I propose that, as we grieve the deaths of Bourdain and Spade, we do not let conversations on suicide die so quickly. I propose that we do not halfheartedly attempt to “change the conversation on mental health” (if I hear that phrase one more time, I swear I’ll –– okay, bad joke, too soon, never mind) but rather change the structures that enable such high rates of psychosocial crisis. There will be no succinct list of risk factors nor list of hotlines or deferrals to the police or The Institution that will “cure” suicidality, because these feelings are endemic to our collective body and social conditions. For those who are experiencing thoughts of suicide, I say: don’t only seek help. Seek help and seek justice. Seek the basic rights to housing, food, water, healthcare, and human contact that you deserve but are not afforded under our present system; and seek out those who are aware that you deserve these things. It is only with the acknowledgment of this that we will make any headway against those murders committed by the ruthless hand of capitalism, with its friends, isolation and worthlessness.

*As we also know, applying our “standard” responses to suicide –– institutionalization, police, surveillance –– to suicidal people of color will in most cases prove more dangerous than they are to white people. Recognition of a plurality of suicidal experiences also requires a commitment to healing that does not involve exposure to state violence.

**See Salt’s brilliant prose-academic hybrid piece here for further information.

dangerous discourses and trans visibility

Content Note: this post contains references to misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, transphobic and especially transmisogynistic violence of all kinds, including murder, rape, and physical abuse on these bases. There is also discussion of sex and genitalia in this article, and the mention of misogynistic language. Proceed with caution.

I’m going to talk about discursive violence and material violence. I dread these sorts of discussions, namely because I’m trans, and sensitive, and tired. I dread Trans Day of Visibility (henceforth TDoV). Last week I saw the beginning of the inevitable parade of think pieces on dead trans people, especially dead trans women of color*. Tomorrow there will be vigils. Vigils, as long as they are accompanied by action and genuine long-term remembrance and commitment to liberatory action (especially on the behalf of the well-meaning cisgender people who decide to attend), are good. Performative grief and candle-holding and a polished, solemn expression of “solidarity” that is accompanied by silence in the face of everyday transphobia, especially transmisogyny? Meaningless. Worse than meaningless; it gives the illusion of solidarity while providing nothing of substance. It makes you an empty husk of an “ally”.

I’m in a mood. I’ve been in a mood for the last eight days or so. Not only have I been battling several voices within me –– one of which wants to let me “off the hook” and assure me that I am not obligated to talk about TDoV by mere virtue of being an out trans person who writes things. But the other voices have won out, and have only been amplified since I learned of the Mount Holyoke News article “Queer Sex Event Strikes a Heteronormative Tone.” Perhaps I’m beating a dead horse; unfortunately, the existence of this article is still fairly new to me, since I’m not physically present on Mount Holyoke’s campus (specifically the MHN newsroom). Either way, I’m going to talk about the article, and about discursive violence, and about real violence. Hopefully you can “remember” the connections between those things tomorrow, in between your performative social media posts and your candlelight vigil appointments. Let’s begin.

The author, Maddy Ritter, is correct in saying that most of the “queer” sex happening at Mount Holyoke is happening between people with vulvas. There is no acknowledgement, however, of the cultures of transmisogyny that lead to so few trans women and transfeminine people coming to historically women’s colleges in the first place. Given students’ (myself included) collective negative reaction to seeing (those who appear to be) men on campus, some of this should be obvious. If we consider the imagined sacredness and purity of the womens’ college (interestingly, “historically” is often dropped here) campus, free of “scary males,” we can come again to the conclusion that this is not a safe social space to be a trans woman. What of the “pre-op” or “pre-everything” trans woman? Given the regular erasure of AFAB trans students at Mount Holyoke (sure, our “cute” little “self-identities” and pronouns can be on our orientation stickers, but c’mon! We’re all basically women, right? Right?) I can only imagine the reaction to a trans woman who did not adhere to certain idea(l)s of femininity. Not to mention, the non-out trans woman would likely not even be able to apply to Mount Holyoke or other HWCs by mere virtue of her closetedness.

Unfortunately, Ritter’s subsequent associations between “vulva-havers-who-like-other-vulvas” and “queer women” are also incorrect in their myopia. There are plenty of people at Mount Holyoke who are not part of that demographic, but I’ll use myself as an example: I’m neither “queer” nor am I a “woman”. I’m a nonbinary butch lesbian. Although I find myself exclusively attracted to womxn**, I’m not about to locate the source of my attraction to them in a body part. To do this would be objectificatory. Women are more than the sum of their (body) parts, including (and especially) the ones most commonly associated with sex.

Furthermore, Ritter asserts that she will “never need to use that skill [of putting on a condom]” that was taught at the workshop, by virtue of her gay womanhood. Her implication that condom education is somehow as heteronormative as your average high school health class is not only transmisogynistic but also far too vague, as she does not distinguish between types of condoms in her critique. A condom for a penis is not the only type of condom to exist, and it is essential that more people with vulvas speak openly about internal condom usage. She also correlates condom lessons with what she terms “the same old penis-in-vagina sex,” and with the aforementioned health classes. This ignores not only that practitioners of “the same old PIV sex” entitled to information as to safe sexual practices in queer sex workshops, but also, that human beings of all genders have anuses that can be sexually useful, and that it’s likely that if a penis is entering one’s anus, that penis should wear a condom. This is a doubly poignant point within the larger “queer community,” still reeling from a HIV/AIDS crisis that fueled increased attention to the importance of protected sex. This is the same crisis that disproportionately struck and strikes not only men who have sex with men, but also trans women. Especially those of color.

If this sexual health workshop lacked lessons on the usage of dental dams and the like, that is an important critique to be noted. What could be useful, constructive criticism (both on the possible inaccuracy of the terminology used for internal/external genitalia and the possible lack of diversity in condom education) appear to be smokescreens for transmisogyny, namely through im/explicit statements of womanhood’s location in the vulva, and sex between “queer women” as inherently located in interaction between vulvas.

So, what does this have to do with violence, specifically? Material violence against trans women continues to exist not simply because humans are violent and trans women “happen” to be the targets of violence. It is because a long cultural, historical precedent of biological essentialism and the militant policing of womens’ bodies have made them a target. Much as with other standards of beauty women are expected to fulfill –– thinness, strictly-controlled sexual un/availability; pale, smooth skin enhanced by the requisite makeup regimen; “respectable and professional” clothing that still does not threaten the authority of the man –– the possession of a (hairless, “normal-looking”) vulva becomes another means by which some women can be deemed conditionally acceptable, and others can be punished. Many readers may have had the experience of being a “disobedient woman” and thus becoming a “whore” or a “[fat/ugly] bitch” or a “slut”. Sometimes, these labels come with immediate consequences, including social ostracism and physical / sexual violence. So too with women who are of marginalized sexualities, as we are all aware. There is an inherent ugliness (especially for gender-nonconforming women, especially those who are lesbians) or fakeness (toward those do not appear “queer enough”) or sexual availability (toward bisexual women in particular) projected upon those of marginalized sexualities which directly inform the degrees and types of violence these women face.

Trans women, of course, experience this, too. In a magnified way. It is not exclusive to the cis women who inevitably take center stage in discussions of lesbophobic and biphobic violence against women. In fact, many of these the “feminists” who claim to oppose violence against women paint trans women not as vulnerable to violence, but as pathologically predatory toward cisgender women. This is a stereotype that not only draws divisions between women (who could be acting in solidarity against the threat of rape and other forms of violence, most often by men) but also pushes trans women squarely into the “perpetrator” role of the perp/victim binary, and thus erases their disproportionate victimhood. In a world ruled by binaries, the assertion of the inherent “queerness” of sex between vulvas is a silent assertion of the inherent “straightness” of PIV sex.

The assertion that trans women may not be included within this category of “queer women” is a silent affirmation of the sexgender binary. The exclusion of trans women from the category of “[queer, if applicable] women” allows the continuation of a dangerous ignorance even/especially among so-called feminists, of the threats trans women (as WOMEN) face on a daily basis. It allows some supporters of anti-rape and anti-violence campaigns to ignore the social markedness of trans womens’ bodies and the subsequent higher rate of abuse directed at them, especially gender non-conforming trans women of color. In the case of a health course, it allows queer people to ignore the presence of trans women in our sexual and social communities and place less importance on both their sexual health and their experience of sexual pleasure.

As I hope I’ve indicated, violence against trans women occurs on a number of levels: there is the discursive violence of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism that appears at first to be nonviolent because it appears not in a punch or kick, but on the page of a newspaper. Then there are the murders and other acts that emerge and continue in that ideological atmosphere of erasure, cisnormativity, and biological essentialism. All expressions of ideology have consequences, and no article, no political or social position, no articulation of one’s own identity exists in a vacuum. I’d encourage all of us to remember this truth on TDoV, while we also remember (descriptions of graphic violence at the link):

Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien.
Viccky Gutierrez.
Tonya Harvey.
Celine Walker.
Phylicia Mitchell.
Zakaria Fry.
Amia Tyrae Berryman.

And the others who remain unknown, unnamed, unclaimed. Rest in power.

Words, articles, and “mere” statements by individuals may not feel as though they have an ideological ripple effect, but they do. Remember today, tomorrow, forever that any contribution to transmisogynistic discourses reifies social forces that get real human beings isolated, abused, and sometimes murdered. Truly seeing trans women requires an understanding of these forces and a commitment to dismantling them.

* Who benefit less than white / transmasculine people from mainstream trans activism, are more frequently exposed to graphic violence against people like themselves in the media, and also tend to contribute more intellectual, physical, and emotional labor to the cause than their counterparts.

**For lack of a better encompassing term.