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.

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A white & brown hobbit house, in front of which a woman washes and hangs linens to dry. Trees surround it all.

et tu, cottagecore?

Recently, you’ve probably noticed cottagecore-related content, especially on Tumblr. As someone who already has a deep devotion to farm animals (especially sheep), mushrooms, and cabin-homes stuffed with knickknacks, the cottagecore aesthetic was and is one I gravitate toward. It’s easy to scroll mindlessly through blog after gentle, peaceful blog; reblogging jars of honey and golden sunlight and teddy bears and picnic baskets; right alongside assorted farm animals and wide, vast vegetable gardens. It’s impossible for me not to project myself onto their hazy, golden façades (literally!) and feel, for a moment, like that picture is my life. Unfortunately, I recently met with the reality undepicted in those images, and had to confront the practicality of my dreams, the genuineness of my desires.

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In the background, a blurry pastoral scene of grass, flowers, and weeds as well as a wire fence sit in the afternoon light. In the foreground, a sticky pot of honey is ladled, so as to keep some honey suspended in the air to reflect the sun’s light.

I’m already a person prone to planning for a future that could only exist several decades from now. Ever since I was a child, I knew I wanted children of my own, and spent much of my childhood paging through thousand-page baby name books, making lists that I was sure would turn to children. Soon, plans for my perfect home emerged, too: usually a tiny house on the beach or in the woods or in a field whose endpoints can’t be seen from my someday-home’s window. It was always a pastoral scene that never seemed to get so far as to ask, “how do I get my groceries?” I suppose I’d grow all of those, though I think veggie burgers and chewing gum would be difficult to grow on trees.

Aside from the limits of my hypothetical trees, there are numerous other flaws in my dreamy future plans. As someone whose hypersensitivity to noise and need for personal space gains them access to a single room in college, thanks to AccessAbility Services, I sincerely doubt I’d do well living with a wife and kids in a sub-1,000 sq. ft. space in the middle of nowhere. Just a hunch.

In addition, my dream almost always includes me helping to design and supervise the construction of my tiny home. Where will I get the money for this? On whose wide stretch of land will I be allowed to plant my home? These questions, too, remain unanswered. As someone in a relationship, and as a Capricorn Moon & Venus, thinking about and sharing my dreams for a future with the one I love feels like the ultimate sign of devotion. It’s not so much the content of the dream, it’s the idea that there is one. But ever since the beginning of this month, I’ve been wondering just how much real, practical thinking is required for the dreams I want (or do I?) to bear fruit, and how aesthetics seem to be altogether hijacking my dreams.

Of the many things I was excited to do with my partner, Kayla, I was perhaps most excited to visit a farm with them. The farm represented an aspect of our theoretical future that we loved and love to discuss: oh, the animals we’d care for! The love we’d have for them! The endless space in which they could run and play! The mass numbers of Instagram accounts catering so specifically to my dreams of animal-parenthood only furthered this desire. The reason I follow so many (almost 600) accounts on Instagram is that many of them are about certain animals and farms I’d like to keep up with. There’s nothing I love more than watching their latest videos with whomever will agree to watch them with me. I had never been to one of these sorts of farms in real life, and I have to say, I was ready for a relaxing time.

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A moodboard. (R-L, top to bottom:) houses with high-peaked roofs amongst high grass and shrubs, a forest ends in a hole opening into a blue-skyed clearing, chickens stride about on a house’s front lawn, a golden-brown pie sits on a wood block, a close-up of a bucket of red & green apples, a photo of a basket of fresh eggs, a dimly-lit bedroom featuring fairy lights and a skylight in its dormer ceiling, a better-lit loftlike bedroom featuring a bed with white sheets and a window revealing trees in the distance, another, this time large, bedroom whose bed faces a tall and wide window embedded into a dormer ceiling.

Farms –– I’m sure you never could have guessed this –– are, in fact, dirty! As in, there is a lot of dirt, and animal poop that is easily mistaken for dirt, all over the place. There are bugs, too; especially flies in the vicinity of the aforementioned poop. It didn’t fully register with me why Kayla and their mom were slathering themselves in bug spray before walking into the covered structure in which some bunnies and (separately) some small pigs lived. If you were to tell me, “There are bugs here,” I would have replied, “Of course there are!” But it isn’t until a several land on your legs as you attempt to replicate a pristine, loving Instagram video with your new pig friends that you fully accept it.

This situation was unsettling enough in the face of my romanticization of farm life, due both to my consumption of Instagram videos and from my love of cottagecore aesthetics. But it got worse: when we went to visit the goats (who were extremely pleased to see us!) we had the opportunity to spend time with them in their pen. We did. Goats, much like dogs, will get up on their hind legs and put their two fore legs on your thighs, hoping for pets and scratches. In their excitement, these goats managed to spread their poop not only into the ridges on the bottom of my Birkenstocks (and dangerously close to the synthetic straps) but also onto my thighs and the groin-area of my shorts. For all my excessive talk of wanting a farm, I booked it out of the pen after that, standing uncomfortably outside as Kayla and their mother continued to spend time with the goats, significantly less disturbed than I was. When they were done, we visited some kittens and cows. All that time, I was praying,  please let me transfer my consciousness out of this soiled body and into something cleaner. I can’t say I even really enjoyed the rest of the visit, as I was so distracted by the mess.

When it finally came time to clean ourselves off in the farm’s bathroom before driving back to their home for full showers, Kayla let me go in first* and I doused the entire lower half of my body in a mixture of soap, water, and hand sanitizer, all rubbed into my skin and clothing by a massive wad of paper towels. When we got back to their house, we had a delightful time hosing down our respective shoes. Then, finally, it was time for me to shower (first**).

And then I was clean. And mildly disturbed, because it didn’t simply feel like shit had gotten my my legs and shorts. It felt like it had gotten all over my “future,” simply by shoving its reality into my face. It has forced me to (re)consider whether or not I actually desire other things, like a garden (hard, hot work with unguaranteed results) or a tiny house (a truly limiting amount of space that would be more likely to drive me to a divorce than anything else). There has been much written on the potential harm that life lived through a camera lens or an Instagram account can be, especially now that people are using these as reasons to alter their physical forms. But significantly less has been said about the way that popular aesthetics have taken and run with our future plans, leading only to disappointment when we come up empty, frustrated, and unsatisfied.

…[S]ignificantly less has been said about the way that popular aesthetics have taken and run with our future plans, leading only to disappointment when we come up empty, frustrated, and unsatisfied.

A lot of people, especially fellow lesbians, have bought into the ideal-farm-future wholesale. It’s especially tempting because it offers an alternative to a society that is usually either hateful toward you or pretends you don’t exist. Perhaps also to help something or someone grow in ways we have been denied; to nurture other living things in the ways we wish we were nurtured. This is especially true, it seems, for lesbians who don’t want children –– but these dreams tempt us all.

I think I really had myself convinced that this was what I had always wanted, when in reality, what I wanted was the pristine version I had set out in my head. Visiting the farm animals with Kayla, I had assumed, would be a peak into my future: a partner; a farm; a sense of freedom derived from both. But as I stood, panicked in the bathroom, goat shit on my bare legs from eager goat feet, I realized that if this was living my future, I didn’t want it.

It’s impossible to tell the difference between a “real” dream (one that came “only” from inside one’s head) from a dream installed there by some outside source –– namely, because almost everything is a combination of those two. But it’s important to acknowledge outside and personal implications for those dreams, if realized, and to allow oneself to enjoy an ideal but know the reality is not for them. I’m still learning this.


*However lucky you think I am to have Kayla in my life, multiply that by a factor of ten.

**See above.

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.

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.

hot water is gezellig, right?

Let me know if you like this style of post. It’s a little more casual and less heady than the other ones I’ve made on here; more about a collection of experiences and reflections rather than a devoted essay-thing on a particular topic.


It has certainly been an eventful week-and-a-half, which is why you haven’t heard much from me despite my de facto weekly posting schedule of late. Right now I am ‘writing’ by speaking into my phone‘s microphone in front of a fully working heater, in my towel, wondering why the shower and sinks at my homestay apartment are mysteriously lacking in hot water.

[several minutes pass]

I took a break from dictating when I heard velvet’s keys in the door. They’re currently fixing the heat, and I’m sure I’ll finish this post once I’ve showered and changed. In the meantime, I’ll let you know how I’ve been settling into the apartment: it’s been, in a word, smooth. I’m comfortable enough around velvet to have just stood topless and wrapped only in my towel to ask them why the hot water wasn’t working, and although I believe they were a bit surprised by my lack of clothing and their full-frontal view of my mastectomy scars, nothing uncomfortable came of it. The heat is working now.

[twenty minutes pass]

Okay, I’m out for real this time and have just downed a rapidly-cooling mug of tea from before the recently-averted hot water crisis. This is me actually beginning my blog post / information round-up:

Last week we visited Rotterdam, and although brief, the visit was excellent. The nice weather certainly helped; it was sunny and mind enough for me to agree to a half-hour outdoor walking tour of the area we had come to and actually enjoy it. Our primary reason for being there was to visit a social space for LGBTQ+ youth in the city, especially migrant youth. The space was delightful and had in spades the much-coveted Dutch sense of gezelligheid, or coziness. Unfortunately, it was a laughably inaccessible space for a wide array of disabled people, who were thus excluded from the bonding and socialization that the space allegedly prioritized. Included among these glaring access violations were useless half-steps between “levels” of floor that did not need to be different heights at all. My question as to why there had not, at the very least, been ramps installed was responded to with the common excuse “finances,” although I was also told that there was funding potentially available for accessibility-based renovations if it was applied for. But that’s none of my business, eh?

We hit a number of iconic (read: tourist-full) Dutch areas last week, not only Rotterdam but also the Red Light District. My views on sex work, the commodification of bodies, and its relationship to capitalism writ large are complicated and will probably change in a month, change again in a year, and once more in five. For that reason, and because I have never done sex work nor have I ever experienced sex trafficking, I’m going to kindly shut the fuck up when it comes to detailed discourse on the subject. Either way, we visited a wonderful info-shop/café run by sex workers that sold, for example, academic texts, erotica, “political” pins and shirts, and a small assortment of fetish gear. I wish I could have come alone and had the opportunity to talk to more of the people who worked there, but unfortunately, we were required to participate in a group tour and Q&A session on a tight schedule.

With all that I’ve been doing, last week feels like a lifetime ago, but one of the things I remember from this tour in particular is our guide’s remarks on tourists and the windows* on main streets. Sex workers can book windows on certain days of the week and at certain times as a way to get clients, but the windows in the busiest parts of the area had, if I remember correctly, large advertisements in them imploring someone to purchase space. No one could use those windows to work because tourists, especially but not exclusively men from the U.S. and the U.K, would take pictures of them while working in the windows. This is not permitted. I don’t remember who mentioned offhand that Amsterdam (and specifically the Red Light District) was becoming a veritable playground for tourists interested in sex and drugs, but that statement has a lot of truth to it. I think many, including myself, always run the risk of forgetting that Amsterdam locals exist, and that workers in Amsterdam are people doing jobs and not the objects and playthings of tourists and so-called expats**.

Speaking of Amsterdam locals, the biking culture here is truly indescribable. I am positive that few American parents would allow their child(ren) to bike in a small space with so many larger bikes, alone, sometimes at the age of just seven or eight. As a peer brought up in class today, the normalization of this also leads to a certain stigma being associated with not biking. Perhaps I’ll update this observation as I spend more time as a non-biker in this city.

My most recent adventure-of-sorts was with friends to a café near the building in which we take classes. I really want to be used to the Dutch (lack of) customer service; I love the honest humanity and non-acquiescance of the people making my coffee. As someone who has spent the past nineteen years surrounded by excessively helpful, polite, and subservient people truly “serving” them, this will likely take a bit longer to get used to. It’s one of those things I’m excited to become accustomed to, and one of those things I’m sure I’ll complain about as a ~newly-cultured student back from their semester abroad who has learned many worldly things~. Or something. As is the case with many cafés, this one doubled as a bar, and I had to figure out how exactly my “tab” (which, after one coffee, amounted to a whopping 2 euro) worked. I now feel accomplished. It’s so nice to have finally settled into a potentially-comfortable café here, given that that was such a fixture of my life back at Mount Holyoke. We’ll see how many euros I’m wiling to spend on coffee for that familiar comfort!

Before I go, I do want to give a small update on my experience navigating the city with an abysmal sense of direction. This past weekend, my friend and I got to see Black Panther. As far as how it was, I have absolutely no idea how to review movies, so let me just say: I hate movies and know nothing about superhero comics, and this movie was incredible. I’d have sat through another few hours of it despite its relatively long runtime. Getting to the theater was blessedly simple, and I made the decision to further simplify it by walking instead of using the tram. This is not a feasible choice for every body and certainly not for every distance or set of weather conditions, but a sunny, thirty-minute walk in which I actually knew where I was going felt good after a few weeks of lostness. I haven’t “given up,” on the tram system per se, but am at peace with my decision to walk anywhere I can, as long as I can get there in approximately thirty minutes. Just two days ago, I again demonstrated my growing sense of comfort with walking through my area by heading home from class via a nearby market, buying a sweater at said market, and not looking at Google Maps on my way. Maybe there’s hope for my navigational abilities, after all!

I’m not sure when I will post again, or if I’ll make another post before our two-week group excursion to Morocco. Regardless, happy almost-month in the Netherlands to me and I hope you enjoyed this relatively informal experience round-up.


*The iconic illuminated red windows of the District, in which sex workers stand and signal for potential customers.

**Immigrants, usually white, from wealthy “western” nations.