There’s Nothing “Unfair” About Al Franken’s Resignation

Personal note: I’ve been mostly absent from blogging because I have cancer. Read all about it here.

[Content note: sexual violence]

Before I begin, I’d like to state for the record: it is Okay to have sad/upset/complicated feelings about the allegations against Al Franken and his subsequent decision to step down. That’s not what this is about. In fact, when it comes to me, it is Okay to have any feelings you want about anything. That’s my promise to you.

However, when we step outside of the realm of feelings and into the territory of attributions, ethical claims, moral reasoning, and outward behavior, it’s no longer anything-goes. Even if feelings underlie it.

I particularly disagree with claims that the political consequences Al Franken is now facing are “unfair.” It think this suggests some very skewed ideas about what fairness means, and under what conditions we can be expected to be our best selves.

In general, fairness means treating people and situations equally or equitably. If we would call upon a Republican with multiple credible allegations of sexual assault to resign, we should do the same to an equivalent Democrat. It would be unfair to call upon Roy Moore to resign, but not Al Franken. (Yes, the allegations against them differ in some significant ways, and sometimes this is important, but I don’t find it particularly important here. Assaulting adults is just as wrong as assaulting children.)

In some cases, fairness also means that if we have a contract with someone, spoken or unspoken, it would be unfair for one person to hold up their end of the contract and for the other to get out of having to do the same.

For instance, if it would be unfair to agree to a haircut at a salon and then refuse to pay even though the stylist has delivered the haircut promised. It would be unfair if you and your roommate have devised a chore schedule, but your roommate never does their share of the chores and you do. It would be unfair for a friend to expect me to listen to their problems, but when I have problems, they’re always mysteriously busy. (However, contrary to popular opinion, the way to make this situation fair is not to try to force the friend to listen to your problems. It’s to scale back or end the friendship until the situation feels fair to you. Consent is a thing.)

It’s weird to hear Al Franken’s resignation referred to as “unfair.” That implies that someone out there is not holding up their end of the bargain.

What people usually mean when they say this is that it’s unfair for Franken to “have” to resign when similar Republican politicians don’t. But rather than laying the blame for this unfairness solely onto Republicans and their constituents, they lay it much more directly onto the Democrats calling for Franken’s resignation even though his counterparts don’t “have” to resign.

To me, this is a backwards and morally bankrupt way of looking at things. It presumes that if Republicans had to resign when facing similar allegations, only then would it be fair for Democrats to have to do the same. Or, on the other hand, it would be fair if Franken’s resignation caused an equivalent Republican to resign as well.

But if you have used your position of power to take advantage of others, you deserve to lose that position—not in order to get anyone else to lose theirs too, and not as a goodwill concession towards those who already have, but because you have committed a crime, and you are not a fit or safe person to serve in this position. Sexual assault is a crime. Workplace sexual harassment is a crime. These things are also morally wrong. That’s why Franken should go. Republicans have nothing to do with it.

Sure, it admittedly does suck that Republicans rarely face consequences (or face them as seriously) as Democrats do in these situations. But that’s not “unfair.” There’s no “double standard.” The reason this pattern happens is because most Democratic voters don’t want to vote for confirmed sexual predators, whereas most Republicans are quite okay with this as long as he’s anti-choice and whatnot. That’s how you get Roy Moore.

I’ve heard folks say that they wouldn’t vote for Al Franken again because it would feel too icky, but they don’t want to see him “ousted.” But the fact that you wouldn’t vote for him again is exactly why he’s leaving.

So no, this isn’t a case of “they go low, we go high.” It’s not a double standard. It’s not “being better” than the Republicans. It’s not “eating our own.” It’s simply reading the fucking room, including the writing on the wall.

And if this is unfair, the only way for us as Democratic voters to make it fair is to commit to voting for candidates whose stance we support even if they are admitted/confirmed sexual predators. Then it would be “equal.”

So there’s no “unfairness” here, but there is an injustice—the injustice of conservative indifference to sexual violence and to human suffering in general. It’s the injustice of the just world fallacy, the injustice of harmful gendered thinking, the injustice of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and everything else in that deplorable bucket.

And while I’m on this topic, I also disagree that Al Franken handled this any differently/better than your average powerful man accused of something terrible. Aside from his decision to resign (presumably for the reasons I discussed above), his response is typical. His resignation announcement comes with no apology, and it comes only after numerous credible accusations (including photographs) have been made. It wasn’t proactive. I don’t sense any genuine regret, remorse, or understanding from him. And I wouldn’t expect it—these men know that what they’re doing is wrong. A child knows it’s wrong.

I believe it’s utterly wrong for us to heap praise on people who have kept their intentional acts of harm towards those less powerful than them hidden for years or decades, continually deny them, deny the first accusations, and finally relent when “proof” appears and everyone clamors for resignation. This isn’t remorse, it’s not “learning and growing,” and it’s not accountability. It is, again, reading the room.

And when you consider the immense risk and labor that the accusers have to take on every single time one of these powerful men is brought down (and especially when they’re not), it’s even more unfair. Aside from surviving multiple incidents of sexual harassment and/or assault, these accusers risk their careers, relationships, privacy, and whatever healing they’ve managed to do every time they speak out. Many of them face serious consequences, much more severe than Al Franken or any other powerful sexual predator. Job loss, death threats, lost friends, reliving what happened to them.

I have yet to see a powerful predator “apologize” or oh-so-graciously decide to step down before detailed accounts of their behavior are posted all over the internet and in major media outlets; before the people whose opinions and bodies they actually respect start to get uncomfortable; before the petitions circulate. That’s because they don’t want to. Al Franken didn’t want to. He doesn’t want to be accountable. He has to, because his base demands it.

I refuse to call this pathetic attempt at faking empathy “remorse.” I do not respect Al Franken. I do not thank him for his “apology.”

Call me when a predator removes himself from a powerful position without dozens of survivors having to cut themselves open and bleed for our satisfaction first. Until then, frankly, I don’t give a damn.


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There’s Nothing “Unfair” About Al Franken’s Resignation
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Social Workers Cannot Prevent Mass Shootings For You

It wouldn’t be a post-mass shooting news cycle without the renewed calls for social workers and therapists to do more to gently guide potential mass murderers off the path of murdering dozens of people.

This idea fails on a number of levels. It links murderous violence with mental illness in a way that countless mental health professionals and individuals with mental illness have identified as stigmatizing, empirically false, and unhelpful. It is legally and economically untenable, as there is no way to mandate people to counseling just for owning lots of guns and being angry, and there is insufficient funding for such a large expansion of social work services. (There is insufficient funding for the social work services we have now.)

It is not based on any research showing that mental healthcare can help prevent this type of violence. It is ethically preposterous, expecting untrained, underpaid social workers to place themselves in the literal line of fire. It neither addresses the root cause of the problem (toxic masculinity) nor provides the type of bandaid solution that actually stops the bleeding (effective gun control legislation).

It’s just a way for people to feel like Something Is Being Done. Except it isn’t.

There’s a reason why the National Association of Social Workers and the American Psychological Association consistently support effective gun control legislation. That’s because people who actually work in this field rather than armchair-quarterbacking it understand that there’s only so much we can do to prevent violence given that there will always be people who are determined to commit it. For starters, a social work-based mass shooting prevention program is practically impossible for three reasons:

1. Therapy cannot work if you do not want to change anything about yourself and do not have any internal motivation for doing so.

American mass shooters typically demonstrate what sociologists call “aggrieved entitlement“–they think they’re owed something and they think it’s the rest of the world that’s the problem. Even if you somehow forced such a person into therapy, all they’d do is talk about how everyone has wronged them, and any suggestion the therapist makes about changing their own behavior just makes the therapist part of the problem, too.

Olga Khazan sums up the research in The Atlantic:

While improving access to mental-health care might help lots of suffering Americans, researchers who study mass shootings doubt it would do much to curb tragedies like these. According to their work, the sorts of individuals who commit mass murder often are either not mentally ill or do not recognize themselves as such. Because they blame the outside world for their problems, mass murderers would likely resist therapies that ask them to look inside themselves or to change their behavior.

Even clients who are mandated to therapy by the courts or, less formally, by a partner or parent have some sort of internal motivation for change, even if it’s “to get my PO off my back” or “because my girlfriend said she’ll leave me if I don’t.” They may be resentful, especially at first, but they understand that they’ll need to change something about themselves to achieve their other goals. And in my professional experience, these clients will not stick to treatment or benefit from it if they don’t end up finding their own reasons for being there. Forcing someone into counseling is rarely effective. It’s mostly something our institutions do in order to be able to sign a form stating they did.

This is something I really wish more laypeople understood. Therapy is not surgery. It’s not shoving a pill down someone’s throat. You can force someone to come to a therapist’s office and sit in it, but you can’t force someone to receive therapy.

And I can tell most laypeople don’t understand this, because every time this topic comes up, I have to watch strangers on Twitter accuse licensed mental health professionals of being “incompetent.” It’s absurd. It’s like accusing a mechanic of being incompetent because they can’t fix a car you refuse to bring to their fucking shop.

2. You cannot mandate someone to counseling who hasn’t broken a law or endangered themselves or others.

Many of these commentators glibly waving away the idea of effective gun control legislation say that we should somehow “identify” these potential mass shooters and send them to counseling. I’ve already explained that they won’t go voluntarily (or use the time for anything other than complaining about the rest of the world if they do), so that only leaves court-ordered treatment.

This is a complicated legal area and I am emphatically Not A Lawyer, but speaking from my experience and professional knowledge, here are the types of mandated clients I’ve seen: 1) clients who are required to receive mental health treatment as a condition of probation; 2) clients who are required to receive mental health treatment in order to regain custody of their children after a case has been opened with child protective services; and 3) clients who are ordered into treatment by the courts when there is “substantial risk” to themselves or others because of an untreated mental health condition.

In practice, that “substantial risk” has to be extremely high for a white person to be forced into treatment. For a person of color, it is much lower. For clients who are truly mentally ill, this whole painful and drawn-out process tends to make them even more suspicious of everyone around them who claims to want to help, and rarely seems to lead to effective long-term care or recovery.

And what would be the red flags? An obsession with vengeful violence and amassing tons of weapons? Good luck proving to a court in this country that that qualifies as a “substantial risk” to anyone’s life. That’s what we expect of white men.

Even if it is legally possible to get someone like Stephen Paddock into treatment, I highly, highly doubt that treatment would’ve done anything to prevent that shooting. In fact, I can see many ways it could’ve made it worse.

3. Not all mental health conditions are treatable, let alone curable.

Even if we assume that mass shooters like Paddock have a diagnosable mental health condition–a tenuous claim at best–we cannot assume that mental health treatment would’ve been effective.

First, a little primer on diagnostic categories.

The previous version of the DSM, which was replaced by the DSM 5 in 2013, used five “axes” to categorize diagnoses. Axis I was basically “all psychological diagnoses besides personality disorders and intellectual disabilities.” Axis II was–you guessed it–“personality disorders and intellectual disabilities.” Broadly speaking, axis I disorders are treatable. Axis II disorders are not.

Personality disorders are different from other mental illnesses in that they are typically present from a very early age and continue for the rest of the person’s life. Until they’re diagnosed, people with personality disorders typically have no idea that they may be mentally ill and rarely think of themselves that way even after diagnosis. They may be distressed by the ways in which their disorder affects their lives, but they generally attribute this to the faults of others/society.

There are three personality disorders that most often come up in the media or in conversation: narcissistic, antisocial, and borderline. Of these, borderline is the only one that’s really treatable in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly the only personality disorder I was ever taught to treat, and I have many clients with it who make huge improvements–again, because they tend to want to change. They’re unhappy as they are.

Clients with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder are generally considered untreatable. When I attended a training on these disorders a few years ago, the presenter–a psychologist who worked for years in prisons and in private practice–emphasized that the only somewhat effective strategy is “behavior management.” You can probably imagine what that means, and it only really has any meaning inside an institution.

It’s important to remember that personality disorders are not, like, A Thing in the same way that diabetes and cancer are A Thing. They are categories that we created to help describe our social world. The idea of even having these categories at all is a pretty controversial one in the mental health treatment community despite their inclusion in the DSM, because many of us don’t believe that we should be in the business of designating certain personalities as disordered (or “normal”). While it’s clear that there’s something “wrong” with people who meet the criteria for diagnoses like antisocial personality disorder, it doesn’t really make sense to refer to these people as “mentally ill,” despite how much the public may want to.

So, we’re stuck. The men who fit the mass shooter profile are extremely unlikely to want therapy or benefit from it. There is probably no way to force them into it, and almost no chance it would be effective that way. And whether or not they are diagnosable with anything in the DSM, there are plenty of things that can be “wrong” with someone’s personality that may not be alterable at all.

So you can see why it’s extremely frustrating to hear, over and over again, that rather than enacting common-sense legislation or having an open conversation about the way we define masculinity in our culture, we should rely on social workers and other mental health workers to save us from this.

It’s not just that it’s impractical and not evidence-based. It’s the suggestion that we’re somehow not doing our jobs, or that our job descriptions should be expanded. Now, in addition to treating mental illness, reducing substance abuse, helping people with criminal backgrounds reintegrate into our society, assisting people with disabilities with squeezing themselves into our capitalist workplaces, teaching neglectful parents the skills they need to parent safely, finding safer homes for abused children, finding housing for the chronically homeless, advocating for people who have difficulty finding their way around institutions like courts and hospitals, educating the public about health and safety, deescalating situations involving people in crisis, supporting people through aging, illness, or hospice, conducting research, writing policy, lobbying lawmakers, organizing communities, and any number of other critically important tasks that get thrown our way because nobody else wants to do them–now we’re also expected to “personally disarm” potential mass shooters.

What, pray tell, the fuck?

I love my job, and my profession. Although I don’t personally do all of the things I listed above–no social worker does all of them–I think those are all crucial aspects of social work, and they all need to be done.

But more and more I feel that social workers are just the people we turn to when we’ve fucked up our society and want someone else to take the responsibility of fixing it.

We wouldn’t need to help people with disabilities force themselves into the workforce if our society had adequate support for them, or if workplaces were more flexible. People with criminal backgrounds wouldn’t need so much help if employers didn’t fucking refuse to give them a chance the vast majority of the time. There wouldn’t even be nearly as many people with criminal backgrounds if not for the so-called war on drugs and racist policing and sentencing practices. People wouldn’t need social workers to help them navigate the impossible thicket of Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, HEAP, and whatever if we would just fucking institute universal basic income. There wouldn’t be nearly as many homeless people to house if not for all of the above. Delete institutionalized racism from our country’s history entirely, and you’d be surprised how many so-called “social problems” would diminish right along with it.

Sure, we’d need social workers even in a pretty ideal society, and that’s fine and good. There will always be mental illness, substance abuse, child neglect, and so on. But what’s happening right now is that too few social workers are being paid too little to deal with problems that are way, way too big for our profession. That’s true of poverty, homelessness, and crime, and it’s especially true of mass shootings assisted by weapons that should never have been legally sold to anyone who isn’t defending themselves from a fucking zombie apocalypse.

Right now, the existence of the social work profession is just an excuse for almost everyone else to do diddly squat about social problems because don’t worry, a woman (88% of social workers are women; African Americans have about twice the representation in social work as they do in the general population) with no protection besides a cell phone and a crisis deescalation training certificate will handle this middle-aged white man with 20 semi-automatic weapons in his hotel room.

I know you’re going to ask what my solution is, if social work isn’t it. Look: I don’t have a solution. Because not only is my specialty mental health, not violent crime (the two have relatively little to do with each other), but I also don’t think that the solution is going to come from my profession, at least not single-handedly. This is a political problem, this is an economic problem, this is a cultural problem, this is a sociological problem.

Some smart people say that the research* on gun control shows it doesn’t work. Plenty of other smart people say that it shows that it does. Part of the problem is that you can’t fully research the impact of policy without instituting the policy, and looking at other countries or smaller political units isn’t going to help. Sure, Australia can’t tell us exactly how gun control will work here, but neither can Chicago.

What is absolutely certain is that violence has always been, and will always be, a feature of every human society. The meanings, conditions, and extent of the violence may differ, and certain factors may increase or reduce it, but it’s going to happen.

There was a time when it happened mainly with fists, knives, swords, or pistols. Lately it has been happening with rifles modified to be able to fire 90 shots in 10 seconds.

Back then, if a dude got mad and stabbed someone with a knife or challenged him to a duel, nobody called in social workers to solve the problem. (Not least of all because they didn’t exist.) Now when a dude gets mad and is able to murder 58 people and wound over 500 more almost instantly, we’re suddenly supposed to fix it.

I don’t know how to fix it, and I don’t think any of my colleagues do either, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to live long enough to see an end to this absurdity.


  • Also relevant is the fact that the 1996 Dickey Amendment to the federal omnibus spending bill bans the CDC from using its funds to “advocate or promote gun control,” which in practice has severely limited its ability to research whether or not gun control works at all. This amendment has been opposed for years by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Preventative Medicine, the American Psychological Association, and the National Association of Social Workers.

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Social Workers Cannot Prevent Mass Shootings For You

“Sure, a woman can be President–just not that one.”

Throughout my years of dating polyamorously, I’ve observed that there are two types of monogamous people.

One type is direct and upfront about it. They choose monogamous relationships, and if they’re with someone who wants an open relationship, they’re clear about the fact that that won’t work for them. Either the couple agrees to stay monogamous, or they break up.

The other type will agree to “try” an open relationship with someone they’re really invested in who really wants it. With varying levels of enthusiasm, they’ll say that “I just want you to be happy” and “I’m okay with it if it’s important to you” or even “I want to do this too.”

But then you actually start trying to date other people, and…they just seem to have a lot of issues with the specific person. “He doesn’t seem like a good guy and I don’t think you should date him.” “Look, I’m fine with an open relationship, but you’re spending way too much time with her and I don’t like where this is going.” “I don’t think he respects our primary relationship, so I’m uncomfortable with this.” “I know this date is really important to you, but I’m just having a really bad night. Do you think you could stay home?” “Could you just see them on the nights when I’m unavailable?” “I’m concerned that you’re choosing partners who aren’t going to treat you right.” “I don’t want you to have sex with them in our special position, or have dinner with them at our special restaurant, or watch our special TV show with them, or…”

Obviously, any of these things could actually be true in any given situation. But after a while you realize that your partner has a problem with every poly situation you find yourselves in, and that maybe the problem isn’t those new partners, or you, or even them. Maybe the problem is that they just don’t want to be in an open relationship, and don’t want to say so.

That’s the weird thing I kind of flashed back to when I was reading this article about Elizabeth Warren. It seems that there’s a certain sort of liberal, progressive, or moderate who says, “Sure, there’s no reason a woman couldn’t be President–it’s not about gender,” and yet, like a controlling partner in a poly relationship with way too many “rules,” they keep vetoing every potential female candidate without even necessarily realizing why. She’s not radical enough. She’s married to a creep. She’s too angry. She’s too robotic. She’s just not “presidential.” She opposed single-payer. She didn’t support same-sex marriage until others in the party did. Her views on sex work are regressive. She has too much money, and gets paid too much for speeches. She doesn’t actually care about what she claims to care about.

Sometimes I imagine doing a research study in which I take Bernie Sanders’ entire biography and political history and create a fictional female candidate out of it, and see how she polls.

Of course, she’d poll way worse than Clinton. She’d be a shrieking old biddy, a crotchety grandma who won’t cooperate with anyone and is probably approaching senility. A crazy cat lady who belongs in a nursing home with her collection of knitting needles and old magazines. I can’t even imagine a woman that old coming anywhere near a presidential primary. I can’t imagine people cheering at rallies for a woman that old and angry. It doesn’t happen in our culture. And in our culture, a female politician with Sanders’ temperament and political beliefs would never present herself or do her work the way Sanders does. She can’t afford it.

(Or, for fun, imagine Bernie Sanders as a Black man. How would his remarks about labor and inequality go over then?)

Like the unwillingly poly partner who won’t use their words except to say, “No, not this one” and “No, not that one either” every time their partner tries to date someone, these totally-not-sexist voters have us all believing that somewhere out there is a woman they think is qualified to occupy the Oval Office. But just not this one. And not that one either.

Of course, my opening analogy only goes so far. There’s nothing wrong with preferring monogamy–and being open about it. There’s a lot wrong with preferring male presidential candidates.

But if you do, you might as well be open about it. Then the rest of us can stop wasting our time trying to generate the platonic ideal of a female candidate to get you to finally vote for one.

The worst thing about it is that Republicans are really great at using progressives’ values against them to erode support for otherwise-popular candidates. As Rebecca Traister writes in the piece I linked to:

The playbook that the right is running against Warren — seeding early criticism designed to weaken her from the left — is pretty ballsy, given that Warren has been a standard-bearer, the crusading, righteous politician who by many measures activated the American left in the years before Bernie Sanders mounted his presidential campaign. Warren is the candidate who many cited in 2016 as the anti-Clinton: the outspoken, uncompromisingly progressive woman they would have supported unreservedly had she only run. Yet now, as many hope and speculate that she might run in 2020, the right is investing in a story line about Warren that is practically indistinguishable from the one they peddled for years about Clinton. And even in these early days, some of that narrative is finding its way into mainstream coverage of Warren, and in lefty reactions to it.

This is something that the left rarely does to right-wing candidates, and when anyone tries, we rightly condemn them for promoting values we all despise. For instance, I strongly criticize any so-called liberal who tries to attack a male right-wing politician by accusing him of being secretly gay, or a female one for having an abortion. We’d never denounce Republicans for being insufficiently Christian.

But the right is constantly trying to play a game of “Gotcha!” with Democratic candidates, pointing out that they’re actually totally racist or corporate or whatever. They love it when a prominent male Democrat gets caught in a sex scandal because then they get to accuse anyone who continues to support him politically of excusing sexual harassment. (Because you know Republicans care so much about sexual harassment, considering who’s in the Oval Office.)

And as Traister explains, these talking points end up embedded in mainstream media and all over our progressive friends’ social media feeds.

Obviously, I’m not saying don’t criticize Democrats when they’re racist or corporate or whatever. Please do. Please do.

But I really want some of these folks to name me even one female politician they would vote for in a Presidential election.

I mean, sure, they’d probably name quite a few of them, right now in the relative safety of 2017. But drag any of these presumably-qualified candidates through our typical election media cycle and suddenly we’d be hearing a different story.

So, personally, I’ll believe that you believe a woman can be President when you actually vote for one, and not just because the alternative is Donald Trump.


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“Sure, a woman can be President–just not that one.”

We Are Pretty Confident There is No Longer a Threat

I keep coming back to something Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo said yesterday morning, after Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, opened fire on a music festival in Las Vegas from a hotel room where he’d stashed at least 20 legally purchased rifles, killing 59 people and wounding at least 500.

He said: “Right now we believe it’s a solo act, a lone wolf attacker. We are pretty confident there is no longer a threat.”

Even if you take that first sentence in the most literal way–that Paddock was not part of any organized group and did not have any accomplices in this terrible crime–the second simply does not follow. Because the “threat” did not end with him killing himself in his hotel room, just as it didn’t begin with him arriving there in the first place.

Although quite a number of people have already called me a “cunt” on the internet since yesterday because I referred to this act as terrorism, I will continue to do so, and I’ll explain why. (By the way, you’re not going to get very far condescendingly suggesting that an Israeli citizen doesn’t know the definition of terrorism. I’ve lived the definition of terrorism.)

People who blame these shootings on mental illness are correct in one way, and that’s when they say that “no normal person would do this.” Although they’re wrong in their conclusions, it’s true that in a normal, healthy human society, individuals don’t suddenly commit mass acts of violence, stunning all of their loved ones and the world at large.

But the situation of men in our society is not normal, and the addition of easily available semi-automatic firearms is the spark to that particular tinder.

Toxic masculinity isn’t a mental illness, but it isn’t healthy or “normal,” either, except in the statistical sense. We raise men to ignore and suppress any emotion besides anger until they’re no longer even able to identify any other emotion. We encourage them in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways to act out that anger as violence. We teach them that if the world doesn’t provide them with what they want–despair, and then anger, and then even violence, is a reasonable response. We teach them that emotional attachment, remorse, and self-criticism are feminine, and that if you’re a man who is feminine, you’re better off dead.

And then we give them easy access to guns–and not only that, but we tell them that they deserve those guns. That they deserve them in the literal same way as they deserve the right to criticize their government or to practice their religion.

By “we,” I obviously don’t mean you and me, except that I do mean you and me. Nobody did this to men; we all did it to ourselves. Non-male people perpetuate toxic masculinity all the time. I did it when I turned away in discomfort from male partners who were crying; male friends of mine do it every time they bury their feelings rather than acknowledging them.

But women and trans folks aren’t going to be able to fix masculinity. Men, especially cis men, are going to have to either reclaim it or toss it aside.

Terrorism is the use of violence and intimidation against civilians for political aims. I suppose this is where people are going to disagree. We relegate these men’s issues, or whatever they are, into the private sphere. But toxic masculinity is a political issue, and the violence it sparks certainly has the effect of terrorizing large groups of people, especially women, queer/trans people, and people of color.

When white men go on shooting sprees, many of us feel like hostages. Whatever it is these men want–sex, love, respect, attention, a demographic majority–we’re being held at gunpoint until they get it.

Marc Lepine, who murdered 14 women in Montreal in 1989, wanted a spot in a university and a job, and he thought women had taken those things from him.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999, left copious written notes about their anger at specific people at school and at society in general.

James Eagan Holmes, who murdered 12 people at a movie theater in Colorado in 2012, was reportedly dissatisfied with his life and inability to find a job.

Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people in Isla Vista, California in 2014, felt that he was denied the sex and attention that he deserved.

Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African American churchgoers in Charleston in 2015, thought that African Americans are taking his country from him, and stated that “I have no choice” but to do something about it.

There are dozens more examples easily found. The common thread here isn’t mental illness, or illegally obtained firearms (many of them were legally purchased), or poverty. It’s white men who are angry, think the world owes them something, and have access to guns.

And even if all of these mass shooters were mentally ill, and even if their mental illness contributed to their actions, that’s still not a good explanation. A quarter of American adults experience mental illness at some point. Most don’t shoot anyone. Something else has to make the difference.

So, sure, I could Wait And See before calling this latest shooting an act of terrorism. And maybe we’ll learn something that makes me change my mind. Changing one’s mind is fine. But at this point, I’m going to go with the overwhelmingly most likely explanation, which is that Stephen Paddock is yet another white men who was angry about being denied something he thought he deserved, and decided to make that point with mass violence. (Imagine my immense shock when I read that local Starbucks employees recall Paddock constantly being a piece of shit to his girlfriend.)

Many terrorist acts contain a grain of validity in that they’re the desperate acts of people or groups of people who no longer know how else to get what they want–which, in some cases, is a valid aim. (In other cases, it isn’t.) The terrorism of white American men is unique in that they don’t see themselves as part of a political group. But, of course, they are–it’s just not an organized one.

What they’re seeking is relief from their anger and misery, and mass shootings are only the most extreme of their attempts to get it. You see the less dramatic, less immediately deadly of those attempts all the time: the bitter online trolls, the men who expect their girlfriends to fix all of their problems, the Trump voters, the hacky comedians with their tired sexist jokes, the corporate workaholics.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, toxic masculinity teaches men to see the causes of their problems as always outside of themselves, which is why talking to angry men about “toxic masculinity” goes over about as well as talking to them about about Andrea Dworkin.

There’s a reason bell hooks named her excellent book on this topic The Will to Change. We can’t force men to change or make these changes for them. Until they do that for themselves, we’re all hostages to toxic masculinity. And until then, Sheriff Lombardo is very much wrong, because there is very much still a threat.


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We Are Pretty Confident There is No Longer a Threat

How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”

While I’m on the topic of allies:

Something that comes up a lot when talking to allies about sticking up for their marginalized friends is accusations of “white-knighting.” Most commonly, this gets lobbed at men who speak up about sexism; other men accuse them of being “white knights” and trying to protect women who can very well protect themselves.

Obviously, it’s a disingenuous claim–if I, a woman, tried to ask you not to make those rape jokes around me, you’d just tell me that you hope I get raped. When a man asks you not to make them, you tell him he’s just trying to get laid, or whatever.

So most of the time it’s bullshit. The reason people with privilege need to speak up for those without is because those without are probably exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed with trying to speak up for themselves all the time.

They also face much greater consequences for doing so. No white athlete who has spoken up about police brutality has been quite so viciously excoriated for it as Colin Kaepernick, who literally simply sat the fuck down. The fact that he did so may be part (or all) of the reason he’s currently unsigned. (This did not stop me from putting him on my fantasy team, however.)

Of course, there is such a thing as speaking over marginalized people despite one’s good intentions. (I distinguish that from speaking over marginalized people with BAD intentions, i.e. you don’t care about them.) I do have to roll my eyes at the white men who write impassioned but derivative screeds against sexism or racism, screeds which get shared and retweeted and praised, screeds which earn them podcast interviews and paid speaking and writing gigs that remain elusive for many marginalized people, especially women of color and trans people.

I think that there’s very little a white man can say about sexism or racism that hasn’t already been said better by a woman, trans/NB person, or person of color, and I think that part of the whole “using your privilege for good” thing is elevating those folks’ voices and making sure that they’re the ones speaking on panels and getting Patreon subscribers.

That doesn’t mean shut up. That means, make sure your article is full of links and credits to the people whose shoulders you’re standing on. Don’t accept the invitation to speak on a panel about sexism and racism, unless everyone else on it is a woman or person of color. Don’t respond to the effusive praise with “Thanks! :)” when you know how those same people would’ve responded if you were a woman or a person of color. Respond with, “Thanks, but I could never have written this if I hadn’t read bell hooks/Janet Mock/that woman you called a feminazi last week.”

But where “white knighting” comes up most often is in interpersonal situations. Sometimes, allies call out their friends for making bigoted jokes/claims only to have those friends point to the marginalized folks in the room and say, “Well, they don’t mind, so why are you speaking over them?” Relatively few of us in that situation would be able or willing to say, “Um, actually, I do mind…”

It’s all too easy to end up in a never-ending spiral of an argument: “Why can’t I make that joke?” “Because it’s offensive and possibly triggering to women.” “Well, none of the women here said anything about it!” “Maybe they’re just uncomfortable…” And then sometimes a random woman says,”Well, I certainly don’t care about a bit of politically incorrect humor!” And that’s that.

So, my suggestion is this: don’t try to be altruistic. Don’t see yourself as the brave defender of the marginalized and voiceless. Don’t put yourself in the awkward situation of trying to round up marginalized people who agree with you so that you can speak up for them. Don’t risk speaking for them, either, in the event that none of them actually care.

Speak up for yourself. Does bigotry bother you? If so, why? And if not, why bother?

“Stop joking about rape. I find it offensive.”

“Holocaust jokes aren’t funny. Don’t make them in my house.”

“I don’t want to hear you refer to people that way.”

For me personally, my disapproval of racist jokes has gone far beyond “it hurts Black people’s feelings.” I detest what those jokes represent. I hate the society that those ideas created, much of which continues today. It’s not just that I don’t want my Black friends to live in that world. I don’t want to live in that world. And I think I can say that while still acknowledging that I’m not the one primarily harmed by it. I do have the privilege of looking away, but I don’t, because that would contradict my own personal ethical code.

If you haven’t articulated for yourself a reason to oppose bigotry other than that it hurts other people, you’ll find yourself struggling for words in those moments. What if there aren’t any women or people of color in the room? If you’re not personally harmed by bigotry, then bigotry in those spaces becomes a victimless crime.

You also won’t know how to respond when people inevitably drag out some marginalized person who agrees with them. CNN’s Don Lemon is a Black man who believes that Black men need to stop wearing sagging pants, saying the n-word, and so on in order to improve their situation. (So, textbook respectability politics.) Emily Yoffe and Katie Roiphe are white women who believe that women who claim to be victims of sexual assault sometimes just drank too much, made “bad decisions,” and regret the sex they consented to. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an ex-Muslim refugee from Somalia who wants to reduce immigration to Europe from majority-Muslim nations. Milo Yiannopoulos is a white gay man who…well, the less said about that, the better.

Other than Milo (and maybe Hirsi Ali? Who even knows), none of these are even reactionaries or conservatives; they’re exactly the sort of folks your Totally Enlightened white male friends are likely to come across and marshal to defend their own shitty views, hoping to trap you into defending yourself against charges of “white knighting” instead.

So don’t speak for marginalized people. Speak for yourself, a privileged person who finds bigotry appalling and intolerable.


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How to Stop Worrying About “White Knighting”

The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces

Why do LGBTQ groups, events, and spaces often explicitly welcome allies–heterosexual, cisgender people who support LGBTQ people and their rights?

If you ask most allies (and probably even some LGBTQ people), it’s probably some version of this: “We need allies and their support. Including them in these spaces helps them learn about LGBTQ issues and how they can help. Without allies, this group would just be a segregated bubble and we shouldn’t separate people like that.”

Fair. But actually, the more compelling reason to welcome allies has nothing to do with allies themselves, and everything to do with people who are closeted, questioning, or otherwise not able to be out as LGBTQ.

If your high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance welcomes allies, that means that you can attend even if you’re not sure what your orientation is or aren’t ready to share it.

If the local LGBTQ community band welcomes allies, you can join and make some queer and trans friends even if you’ve only just started questioning your gender and aren’t sure which–if any–steps you want to take towards transition.

If the Pride parade welcomes allies and your parents see photos of you at it on Facebook, you can tell them that you were there supporting your best friend who’s gay–and maybe they’re way more okay with that than they would be with finding out that you’re a lesbian.

And if LGBTQ community center welcomes allies, you can attend with your partner, knowing that the two of you may present as a straight couple, without worrying (as much) about proving to anyone that you’re actually bi. It doesn’t take away the pain of not being recognized for who you are, but at least you don’t have to worry that anyone will ask you what you’re doing there.

So here comes the difficult thing. The uncomfortable piece of this that’s so hard to talk about.

If the main purpose of including allies in certain LGBTQ spaces is actually to provide “cover” of sorts for closeted, questioning, or “passing” individuals, what about actual allies–people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis? What’s their role here?

It depends on the space. In groups focused on activism, having actual allies involved can be very important, since they can use their privilege to advocate for marginalized folks. Allies should keep themselves informed on what needs to be done–does your city lack anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ workers? Are city officials being held accountable for police violence against trans people of color? Do local healthcare providers offer competent care for LGBTQ patients? Allies absolutely have a place in all of these battles–although the agenda should be determined by LGBTQ folks, and marginalized groups within that spectrum should especially be included in that. (Yo, LGBTQ groups: you need people of color and trans people in leadership roles.)

But what about spaces focused more on community building or support? Again, it depends. I like the fact that my LGBTQ band welcomes allies because that means that I can encourage straight cis friends to join and play music with us. Although the space is very much queer, having allies present doesn’t detract from that at all.

The reason that works is because the band is primarily a place to make music and have fun, not to meet potential partners (though I’m sure that happens), have deep discussions about gender and sexuality (though that almost certainly also happens), or kvetch about straight allies (I don’t think that really happens).

But when allies show up in places that are more explicitly for emotional support and creating a safe space, it doesn’t sit right with me. It can keep us from having painful conversations that need to be had, because in my experience, most allies eventually fail to restrain themselves from making well-intentioned but cloying comments about “but I accept you for who you are!” and “you just have to be yourself and you’ll find your special person someday.” In fact, even having the conversation I’m having with you right now would be impossible, because allies feel personally attacked by it and jump in with “so I guess we should just avoid all spaces where LGBTQ people hang out, then?”

When allies are present, I’m much more likely to end up explaining exactly why I feel the way I do about a given situation rather than receiving support around it, or having others chime in with their own (relevant) experiences. For instance, when I’ve tried to discuss the issues I raised in this article with allies, they typically say stuff like, “But surely there are other queer women out there who want to date women” or “But if you’re attracted to all genders, what does it matter which gender your partner is?” Fellow queer women and nonbinary folks tend to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel and it’s so painful.” Guess which response is more helpful to me, and which leads to a more healing conversation.

But what bothers me even more about allies in queer support spaces is the reasons they give when asked why they’re there. The ally who says, “My queer friend asked me to join when I asked how I can better support them” is few and far between. Usually they say things like, “I just really care about supporting LGBTQ people” (despite the fact that we establish these spaces in order to seek support from people who share our experiences) or, worse, “I want to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people.”

So here we are, talking about our most painful and personal feelings, while “allies” gawk on silently so that they can “learn” about us. That doesn’t sound like a support group; it sounds like a zoo.

There is, in fact, an abundance of ways for people to learn about issues facing LGBTQ people. There are now hundreds, thousands of books and blogs like this one. There are LGBT centers in most cities that sponsor educational events open for everyone. There are public lectures, readings, open mics, museum exhibits, and other resources in most cities. Just in Columbus, just this past week, there have been so many things to do:

Looking forward, there’s even more stuff:

  • Thursday, September 21 is the monthly Columbus Queer Open Mic at Wild Goose Creative.
  • On September 23, the Ohio History Center and the Gay Ohio History Initiative (GOHI) will be hosting an LGBTQ Community Day, which will feature the museum’s collection of LGBTQ-related historical items. There will also be a screening of Kings, Queens, and In-Betweens, a documentary film about Columbus’ drag scene, followed by a panel discussion with some of the performers.
  • Also on September 23, Bi Local, a group supporting bi/pan/queer folks in Columbus, presents its annual Bi Visibility Celebration, featuring burlesque, comedy, and more.
  • On September 26, BQIC hosts an open mic night.
  • On October 1, the King Avenue United Methodist Church hosts Darren Calhoun, a Black Chicago-based activist, photographer, and worship leader who will discuss the intersections of racial and LGBTQ identity.
  • On October 4, the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO), an organization that works to eliminate violence against LGBTQ people, will host a training on that subject.
  • On October 19 and 20, the Equitas Health Institute hosts its annual conference, Transforming Care, which focuses on health disparities in the LGBTQ and HIV+ communities. Julia Serano will be speaking!
  • On November 4, the Capital Pride Concert Band, which I play in, performs at the Lincoln Theater.

So there you go. In about a month and a half in Columbus, which isn’t a particularly large or bustling city, you can learn about stopping homophobic/transphobic violence, health disparities affecting people with HIV, Ohio’s queer history, supporting your queer/trans child, how religious spaces can become more inclusive to queer folks, why drag is a haven for some LGBTQ people, how mainstream LGBTQ communities alienate and perpetuate racism against queer and trans people of color, and why Alison Bechdel is a fantastic human being. No need to insert yourself into queer support spaces.

But most of the time, this conversation gets shut down before it even really gets going. It happens in four stages:

  1. A queer person brings up the question of allies’ place in a given space/community and says that they’re not entirely comfortable with allies sticking around just to…ally themselves or whatever it is they’re doing.
  2. An ally points out that they’ve learned so much from being in this space, and that if everyone REALLY wants them to leave of course they’ll leave, but that would make them very sad because they’ve been very supportive and have learned a lot and the LGBTQ community can’t make progress if it shuts itself off from allies, and besides, they would NEVER demand excess emotional labor from queer people and expect them to explain everything and so on.

  3. Another queer person points out that we can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever, and also makes the (in my opinion) much more relevant point that you can’t “ban” allies from a space without also banning anyone who joins as an ally while actually being closeted/questioning/passing/etc.

  4. The conversation is over, nothing is clarified, and nothing changes.

The thing is, everything all of these hypothetical people just stated is true:

  • Many queer people are uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in certain spaces.
  • Many allies learn a lot from being in queer spaces.
  • Many allies do participate in queer spaces without demanding excess emotional labor (but of course, sometimes it’s just the fear of those demands that makes some queer people uncomfortable when allies are around, and/or you just don’t want people who can’t possibly GET IT listening to what you’re saying)
  • Many allies would indeed be sad if they were to be kicked out of queer spaces.
  • Many queer people are NOT uncomfortable with the presence/participation of allies in any of their spaces.
  • The LGBTQ community would not make much progress if it shut itself off from all allies (but that’s not what anyone suggested)
  • We really can’t just avoid everyone who isn’t like us forever (but that is also not what anyone suggested)
  • You cannot (enforceably) ban allies from a space without requiring everyone to out themselves, even if they aren’t ready to.

So what’s to be done with this set of conflicting truths?

For starters, these conversations always seem to leave out the obvious fact that there are many different LGBTQ spaces out there. Nobody ever advocated banning allies from all of them. It is okay for some spaces to be for LGBTQ folks only, and others to be open to everyone. It’s understandable that we disagree about exactly which spaces should be which, but that doesn’t mean that anyone is advocating banning allies from everything ever or cutting ourselves off from everyone ever.

Furthermore, while it’s true that enforcing an ally ban would mean making people out themselves, that’s not the only way to achieve an ally-free space. The other way is for allies to choose to stay out of that space.

And when I say “allies,” I don’t mean “people who might be perceived by others as allies.” I mean exactly what I described earlier: people who know with relative certainty that they are straight and cis. They’re not here because they’re questioning their identity. They’re not here because they’re thinking about starting hormones. They’re not here because they really want to have a same-sex partner someday but haven’t yet. They’re here because they are very aware that they are straight and cis and care about LGBTQ people.

Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I do believe that there are allies who are capable of reflecting on this critically, of thinking to themselves, “You know what? My support isn’t the support these folks want in this particular space, my voice isn’t the one that’s needed here, and these folks don’t necessarily want to be ‘learned from’ right now, right here.”

And I do believe it’s possible to create a space that rests gently in what seems to be a contradiction: we know that this space is not a space for allies, and yet we won’t make assumptions about anyone’s identities in this space, and a person who “appears” to be straight and cisgender isn’t necessarily an ally–but nor are we assigning them a queer or trans identity before they claim it for themselves.

In closing, I’m going to address something I hear from allies very frequently, which is that they’ve made the LGBTQ community their main social outlet because other cishet people are likely to be less progressive and respectful of left-wing politics and personal expression (i.e., the straight cis man who likes to wear nail polish or flowers in his hair sometimes).

Leaving aside the fact that the LGBTQ community has many of its own issues with inclusivity and that plenty of progressive people exist outside of that community, I get it. This does tend to be a relatively accepting space compared to the rest of society.

But the reason it got that way isn’t because queer people are somehow inherently, biologically better than anyone else. (Well, the jury’s still out on that.) It’s because we made it that way, and we had to make it that way because we didn’t have any other choice. Queer people are not intrinsically less judgmental or bigoted than anyone else, but we needed a space where we wouldn’t be automatically hated because of how we look or who we’re attracted to. Sometimes, like curb cuts on sidewalks, this benefits people who weren’t necessarily the target audience.

So, my gentle challenge to allies is this: rather than (only) benefitting from the safer spaces painstakingly carved out by others, build your own. Find men who are open to emotional vulnerability and who challenge toxic masculinity. Find women who are committed to platonic intimacy with other women rather than centering their entire lives around the men they date. Find people who shrug at gender roles. Shut down your friends’ transphobic jokes.

“But, Miri, it’s not that easy,” you’ll protest. Believe me, I know. It wasn’t easy for us either.


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The Role of Allies in Queer Spaces

I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

I get asked a lot about how I set boundaries or communicate my feelings or do anything else in that constellation of terrifying interpersonal tasks.

Sometimes people are looking for concrete suggestions or scripts because they’re simply unsure how to put their thoughts into words. But more often, especially these days, they already know how to do that. So there’s usually something tacked onto their request, almost as an afterthought, although it’s really the main thing on their minds: “How do you set boundaries…without hurting their feelings?” “How do you tell someone they’ve upset you…without having an anxious breakdown about it?”

These are the questions I can’t really answer. I guess there’s strategies, ways you can make it easier for yourself and the other person. But you can’t control how other people feel, and often you can’t control how you feel either.

So how do you make myself vulnerable and communicate what you really feel without being anxious about it?

Maybe you can’t.

Here’s a confession: despite the fact that many people identify me as a role model when it comes to communication skills, I am not free of anxiety when it comes to communication.

Sure, it’s better than it used to be. I find that the more I cultivate relationships in which everyone intentionally and honestly shares their inner experiences–so that it’s not just me blabbing about my feelings all the time–the easier it gets. As I build up histories with people who are gentle with my vulnerability and who let themselves be vulnerable too, I gain trust that that vulnerability won’t implode, and that eases the anxiety a bit.

But I can’t tell you how to set boundaries and share your feelings “without anxiety.” I don’t do it without anxiety. I do it with anxiety, every single time.

Every time I set a boundary, I feel afraid that the person will lash out or abandon me. Every time I share negative feelings, especially negative feelings about someone’s actions, I worry that this time it’ll be too much, it’ll be the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they’ll decide that dealing with me and my feelings isn’t worth it anymore. Every time I am honest about my depression and anxiety–which often means letting them out into the open rather than suppressing their symptoms–I fear that people will recoil and withdraw.

I hate telling people they’ve hurt me. There’s no satisfaction or schadenfreude in that for me. I hate knowing that they might feel like bad friends/partners and that their guilt will be painful. Every time, I wish I could keep it to myself and get over it so that we wouldn’t have to talk about it and I wouldn’t have to take that risk. But I have to, or else those relationships will rot from the inside out.

I hate telling people I can’t make time or space for them in the way they’d like. I hate knowing that they might worry that I dislike them, and I hate that, honestly, sometimes I DO dislike them because I can’t like everyone. I hate that a lot of the time, giving them a reason would turn this into the kind of honesty that’s no longer kind or helpful. What’s someone supposed to do with the knowledge that I think they talk about their trauma too much and it exhausts me, or that they talk too loud and fast, or I don’t find them interesting because we don’t really care about any of the same things?

In my communities, we tend to cheer people on in their boundary-setting and emoting, applauding dramatic demolitions and disclosures in the hopes of helping each other feel better about being vulnerable. I’ve been praised for it and heaped praise onto others, relishing someone’s crisp shut-down of an online troll or a thoughtful post about their emotional needs.

But for the most part, real communication isn’t an Upworthy moment. It isn’t You Wouldn’t BELIEVE What Miri Did When Her Partner Accidentally Made Her Feel Like A Piece Of Shit. It’s more like, I’m crying and I hate myself for crying and I hate myself for saying that I hate myself because I’m not supposed to say that anymore and I’m trying to tell you that I hurt.

I suppose I should feel somewhat hypocritical for advising people to be honest about their feelings even though I have panic breakdowns about being honest about my feelings, but I don’t, because it’s not hypocritical. I never said it was easy; I only said it had to be done if you want better relationships than your parents had, or at least ones that don’t look like a TV sitcom.

The good news is that your communication skills aren’t measured by whether or not you can implement them without panicking, crying, or stumbling over your words. They aren’t really measured by anything at all, but if they were, it would be by your willingness to approach that scary swamp and wade around in it, and maybe even get stuck in it sometimes.

Nobody ever said you have to feel good about it.

You just have to do it.

And I can promise that it’ll get easier, and I can also promise that it probably won’t get easy.

I’m coming around to the conclusion that those feelings I described–the fear of abandonment, the guilt, the panic–are, like their cousin awkwardness, just the price of admission to being human. They certainly make it a lot harder to communicate openly, but they don’t make it impossible.

Those feelings are there because they speak to real possibilities. Sometimes you ask someone to stop hurting you and they decide that they’d rather not bother with you at all. Sometimes you try to set a boundary and the person would rather argue about it than respect it and move on. Sometimes you express your feelings as kindly as you can and people still take it personally, feel attacked, and blame you.

The only way to not have any anxiety about communicating is to do it falsely, or to stop caring if you lose people you aren’t ready to lose. Neither of those options appeals to me at all.

So if you could know–and accept–that you’re going to feel anxious and uncomfortable about speaking your truth no matter what, and if you could release yourself from the responsibility of controlling or preventing those feelings, what would you do instead?


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I Still Feel Anxious About Communication Every Day

What’s the Appeal of Anonymous-Message Apps?

When the latest anonymous-message app, Sarahah, was hitting my newsfeed–everyone seemed to have an account–I initially felt that same mixture of revulsion and curiosity that I felt when its previous iterations trended—Ask.fm, Formspring, whatever that Facebook app was ten years ago when there were still Facebook apps. This time I decided to examine the feeling.

I used to say that I don’t participate in these apps because I know that I’d just get unrelenting sexist abuse and then have to wonder which of my alleged “friends” sent it, but this time I realized there’s more than that. There is that, true. You don’t get to be a female blogger for 14 years (that’s more than half my life) without realizing how much of the internet wants to make you feel worthless and small.

But when I’m honest with myself, the compliments feel kind of gross to me, too. All of it feels gross to me. All of it is appealing for some very human reasons–which is why I have no judgment for my friends who choose to take part–but none of it contributes to the type of social interaction I want to have in my life. Even at its friendliest, it impedes direct communication and honesty. It that way, it does the opposite of what it’s supposed to.

Something I’ve noticed during my awkward and at-times painful immersion into Western culture is that white Westerners often view people and relationships in a very acontextual way. They dislike the idea that some actions (such as lying or violence) might be unethical in one context but ethical in another. They dislike the idea that someone might seem one way in one social context, and another way in another. That, to them, feels like dishonesty or “not being true to yourself,” even though that person might experience all of their many facets as equally authentic (or inauthentic, for that matter).

In this view, others’ opinions of you aren’t really supposed to matter–sure, those opinions might hurt or feel good, and they might impede your social/professional/romantic life or enhance it, but the truth of who you are is who you know yourself to be. Others’ feedback can be helpful to you in understanding that, but the context of that feedback isn’t particularly important. That means that the identity of the person giving it isn’t particularly important, either.

I used to see it this way, or tried to, when I used these apps back in high school. If someone sent me an anonymous message saying that I’m ugly and need to change my hairstyle, I would seriously wonder if I should change it–even though that message might’ve come from someone I know to be a bigot. If someone said that I’m arrogant and full of myself, I thought, maybe I am–even though that message might’ve come from a sexist man who thinks that all women are arrogant if they aren’t simpering, apologetic damsels.

With these anonymous message apps, we’re meant to feel bad when someone insults us and to feel good when someone confesses they’ve had a crush on us for years–but for me, nowadays, those things mean absolutely nothing when divorced so entirely from any sort of social context.

Someone out there thinks I’m ugly. Someone thinks I’m their soulmate. Someone thinks I’m not nearly as smart as I apparently think I am. So what? I’m pretty sure I could go through the dictionary, find every adjective that could possibly be applied to a human being, and find someone, somewhere, out of all the thousands of people I’ve interacted with in some way throughout my life, who would describe me using that word.

So what?

I would feel positively gleeful if a sexist man I can’t stand thinks I’m ugly, and I would feel horrified if my boss has been in love with me for years. I would feel devastated if someone I’m interested in thinks I’m ugly, but delighted if they’ve been in love with me for years. (Well, maybe. That’s a bit much. But the point stands.) But when you take identity out of it, these anonymous messages are really just random blips of language floating in a void, totally context-free and mostly meaningless.

But besides the fact that it doesn’t really mean anything, I also think it’s harmful to healthy communication and relationships. To start with the obvious example, if you’re still hanging around on my friends list even though you can’t stand me, that’s not a healthy situation. You should unfriend me. If we are good friends and you’re upset or angry about something I did, and you don’t feel like you can tell me directly, then something’s very broken in our friendship. Either I haven’t created a safe space for my friends to hold me accountable for hurting them, or you have such a negatively distorted view of me that you don’t trust me to accept accountability.

Either way, something is fucked up and messaging me anonymously about it won’t fix it, not least of all because I won’t even know who it is that I’ve hurt!

Likewise, if you want to express that you have a crush on me but you don’t want me to know it’s you, something’s weird. What’s the point of anonymously telling someone you’re interested in them? Obviously nothing can actually happen. They can’t let you know that they’re interested too, and you can’t find out that they don’t think of you that way so that you can start moving on. Sending an anonymous message gives you the illusion of having “done something” about the feeling, except of course you really haven’t—even if you vented to a friend about it, you’d at least be getting some commiseration about it from them. This way, all you’re doing is inflicting some mildly frustrating curiosity on your recipient.

Most people who enjoy using apps like Sarahah enjoy them because of the thoughtful compliments they sometimes receive, often detailed explanations of how the person felt inspired or supported by whoever they’re complimenting. I find these messages really sweet, but I wonder–again–what the point is of sending them anonymously.

If my friends feel inspired or supported by me, of course I want to know, because it feels nice and because I want to keep doing what I’m doing right. But if they don’t tell me who they are, then I can’t connect their praise to any actions on my part. And if they don’t feel comfortable telling me directly, again, I have to wonder why that is.

When I found myself wanting to make a Sarahah account, I realized that what I really wanted was a social landscape in which I can trust people to say what they mean and mean what they say. A landscape in which people (compassionately, if possible) let me know if I’m harming them rather than seething silently about it, and tell me when I make their lives better rather than assuming that I’m confident enough not to care about compliments.

And, sure, it’d be nice if someone I like turned out to have a crush on me. (But in a totally O. Henry-esque twist, my conversations about this with a friend who has similar views about it as I do led us to tell each other that we’re both interested in each other. No anonymous apps needed.)

But Sarahah won’t bring about that kind of trust and openness. If anything, it’ll only harm it further.

The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable I was with the ways in which Sarahah weaved itself through my newsfeed. It was like the junior high cafeteria all over again, but digitally. Folks would post screenshots of anonymous crush confessions, inviting the sender to “let me know who you are! ;)” as friends tried to guess their identity in the comments. They’d post criticism, too—fair and unfair—and their friends would fill up the comments with furious denunciations of the anonymous critic and how they “have no idea what they’re talking about, you’re one of the kindest people I know.”

It seemed less about “feedback” and more about connecting with the (non-anonymous) people responding to it, which I suppose isn’t surprising—like I said, anonymous messages don’t really facilitate any actual connection.

After grappling for a while with the question of whether or not to make an account, I ended up sharing some of these thoughts on Facebook and inviting my friends to reach out directly if they had anything to say to me. A few did.

But the best thing—the only thing, really—that I can do to create the types of social interactions I want is to model them myself and to continue showing myself to be the type of person that others can safely give feedback to. And that is maddeningly difficult and slow-paced, and I don’t blame anyone for reaching for anything that seems like a shortcut.


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What’s the Appeal of Anonymous-Message Apps?

Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Ruby and Sapphire dance in "The Answer."
After two years of not liking Steven Universe, I recently gave it another shot and discovered that I suddenly really like it. (More on that in another post, probably.) My favorite episode was of course “The Answer,” because of its aesthetic and musical beauty and for its honestly profound portrayal of queer love.

Out of curiosity, I googled it to see what other (re)viewers thought. In doing so, I found this utterly bizarre AV Club article, which states that the episode “doesn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t have guessed, or anything that we really needed to know” and “feels like a nice little present to the fans.” The song, “Something Entirely New,” is about “normal relationship things (Ruby says Sapphire is different, she swears, and Sapphire has never fused before, she promises),” which is “deeply color-by-numbers for this kind of love story, but it’s still deeply earnest.” It’s “a standard ‘getting to know you’ montage.”

I hate to be snarky, but to be totally honest, this is what happens when you let straight people write reviews.

What “standard ‘getting to know you’ montage” is about two femme-of-center people abandoning their entire species and planet in order to be together, despite being threatened with death for it? How many fluffy romcoms have you seen where the couple doesn’t even realize that it’s physically or psychologically possible for them to be together, because they have been raised to consider it unthinkable?

(That’s not even getting into the fact that the show’s depiction of gem fusion is heavily based on consent, which is a concept apparently missing from most romcom filmmakers’ vocabularies.)

If you’re queer, on the other hand–especially if you’re a queer woman or nonbinary person–Ruby and Sapphire’s love story probably felt very familiar to you, but not from the media.

As queer representation in film and television is finally expanding (albeit glacially), there are still very few depictions that feel true to what our experience is actually like. Sure, sometimes there’s the religious homophobic parent or the bullying classmates or the angst about coming out, for whatever that’s worth. Usually it’s just two people falling randomly into bed together without any exploration of how they might’ve gotten there.

What “The Answer” does incredibly well is that it portrays that “unthinkableness” of it, really makes that come alive. It’s something I wrote about recently in my piece on Medium, “What It Feels Like for a Queer Girl“:

It doesn’t matter if the other person is openly queer themselves, even. It’s not just about fear of homophobic backlash or an especially cruel rejection. It’s the pervasive, gnawing, choking feeling that what you want is simply impossible. It feels like trying to make two parallel lines meet. Like climbing all the way to the top of one of M.C. Escher’s dizzying staircases. Every time I’ve expressed desire for another woman — and don’t misunderstand, there have been plenty of times, despite it all — I’ve felt like laughing at myself. Not funny ha-ha, but ridiculous ha-ha, like what the fuck am I doing ha-ha.

To me, being queer is living with this kind of cognitive dissonance forever — that something feels so natural to me, and yet I am convinced of its impossibility, and that conviction is firmer than almost anything else I believe.

With Garnet’s story, Steven Universe uses an allegory to show how difficult it can be to start imagining these new possibilities when you’ve never been allowed to. On the gems’ Homeworld, fusion is only for two or more gems of the same type (and only for a specific, time-limited purpose, like a battle). The first time Ruby and Sapphire fuse, it’s an accident–they didn’t even think that it was possible. They didn’t even think to wonder if it was possible. But as it turns out, it is, and they realize that they like it.

The song that AV Club calls “color-by-numbers” is actually a subtle exploration of that experience.

Where did we go?
What did we do?
I think it was something
Entirely new

And it wasn’t quite me
And it wasn’t quite you
I think it was someone
Entirely new

Trust me, the average hetero couple hooking up in your standard romcom knows exactly what they did.

Ruby: Oh, um, well–I just can’t stop thinking–
Sapphire: So, um, did you say I was different?
Ruby: –and you hadn’t before?
Sapphire: Of course not! When would I have ever?
Ruby: I’m so sorry–
Sapphire: No, no, don’t be!
Ruby: –and now you’re here forever!
Sapphire: What about you?
Ruby: What about me?
Sapphire: Well, you’re here too. We’re here together.

This isn’t about “I’m your first, right?” This is about two people trying to figure out what just happened and why it felt so different from anything they’ve ever experienced. Sapphire is “different” for Ruby because Ruby only ever got to fuse with other rubies. And she “hasn’t before” because sapphires don’t get to fuse at all. On Homeworld, everyone has their role, and they don’t step out of it–until now.

Cotton Candy Garnet explores her new form.
I love this adorable moment when Garnet figures out how her new body moves.

(Later, we find out what happens to Homeworld gems who “came out wrong” or who want to live in fusions–they hide away underground, under threat of capture and shattering.)

So unthinkable is Ruby and Sapphire’s fusion that Sapphire–who can see the future, and up until that moment saw her entire life laid out before her–literally didn’t see this coming. And when it does, it changes everything, costing Ruby and Sapphire their social positions, their home, their friends, their ideologies, and very nearly their lives.

Pretty relatable for anyone who’s ever come out and been rejected.

(Luckily for Sapphire and the lives of everyone she loves, her future vision eventually returns.)

I’m not surprised that lots of folks apparently missed the queer nuances of this 12-minute bit of children’s television, and I’m amazed at what it somehow managed to emcompass in those 12 minutes. I hope that it’s made a lot of other queer folks feel validated, and I hope that my perspective on it helps make our experiences more real to those who don’t share them.

Rose Quarts tells Garnet that Garnet herself is the answer to all of her own questions.


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Creating Something Entirely New: Queerness in Steven Universe’s “The Answer”

Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”

When it comes to relationships, I usually try to let myself rely on my gut feelings a little more than I do in other situations. They tend to be pretty spot-on when it comes to relationships, and ignoring them has usually been pretty regrettable.

One of the things I have a gut feeling about is ostensibly polyamorous people who say that they’d be “willing” to be monogamous…”for the right person.”

Recently I was listening to a new-ish podcast called Hannah and Matt Know It All, in which the titular polyamorous married couple reads advice columns from around the internet and adds their own perspective. Lately they’ve been getting their own listener questions, too. I love Hannah and Matt’s progressive, consent-aware takes on things. Polyamory doesn’t actually come up all that often on the podcast, but recently they did a whole episode on it since they’ve been getting more questions about it.

One question in the episode (at 9:38) was from a woman who prefers monogamy, but is giving polyamory a shot because she’s really into a guy who prefers it. He has another girlfriend too, but he’s also mentioned to her that he’d be “willing to be monogamous for the right person.” The letter-writer is asking for perspectives on polyamory to help her understand it so that she can make this relationship work, but Hannah and Matt (and their guest, Laurel, who happens to be Matt’s girlfriend [cute!]) focus in on that “monogamous for the right person” bit.

Laurel points out that by framing his preferences in this way, the guy in the letter is setting up a competitive situation between his two girlfriends–never a healthy thing–and not-so-subtly implying that if he doesn’t agree to be monogamous with the letter-writer, then…she’s not “the right person.” Ouch.

And there it is. I’d never thought about it in those terms before, but what really bothers me about these “monogamous for the right person” folks is that, intentionally or otherwise, they’re ensuring that any partner they have who may prefer monogamy feels like they have to prove themselves worthy of it.

I’ve met poly people who are okay with monogamy. That’s been many of my partners. But their framing was entirely different. They usually told me that they’d be totally fine just being with me, but that if I want to be polyamorous, that’s cool and maybe they’ll take the opportunity to date other people too. Sometimes they have, sometimes they haven’t.

And while I didn’t understand at first–it always seemed like polyamory versus monogamy is a divide you’d fall clearly on one side of–it eventually made more sense.

For these folks, unlike for me, monogamy doesn’t feel like a suffocating trap. And for these folks, unlike for many monogamous people, polyamory doesn’t feel like getting cheated on or left behind. So they’re happy to do either one, and if either one is particularly important to their current partner, that’s what they go with.

But it wasn’t a matter of “monogamous for the right person.” It was a matter of, “I don’t really care, so let’s do what you prefer.”

While I hate to play No True Poly, something reads a little weird about the idea of labeling yourself as polyamorous while searching for The One Partner To Rule Them All or whatever. Back when my parents were getting together, I think folks just called that “dating.”

In fact, I read a book about the history of dating recently and it turns out that this idea of being monogamous before you get engaged (or close to it) is actually fairly new. It used to be that people–especially young people who aren’t ready for marriage–commonly dated several people fairly casually until they felt a special connection with one of them and chose to invest all of their romantic energy into that.

When I was in high school and still dating monogamously, my parents thought it was totally bizarre and kind of unhealthy that teens took “exclusivity” so seriously. What, they asked, is the point of forcing yourself into a relationship that has all the trappings of engagement when you know you’re not even remotely likely to stay with this person after graduation? It’s like the worst parts of commitment and none of the best.

I didn’t get it then, but I see the point now.

Obviously, I don’t think that preparing for marriage is the only valid reason to be monogamous. Plenty of people like monogamous relationships whether or not they’re intending to take things up the escalator. But “monogamous for the right person” implies that your choice to be monogamous isn’t really about you and your comfort level or preferences; it’s about your partner and whether or not they’re “right” to bestow this great honor upon.

I don’t think there’s really a way to have a healthy committed relationship with someone who identifies as “monogamous for the right person.” If you prefer monogamy, and you’re hoping that you and this person will be “the right people” for each other, you still have to go through a waiting period while this person dates around and figures out which (if any) of their partners is “the right person” to be monogamous with. It’s literally The Bachelor with a faux-progressive veneer and probably not even on a beach.

And if you prefer polyamory, then there’s no point in wasting your time, because sooner or later this person will either want monogamy with you–and that’s a non-starter–or they’ll dump you for someone else.

The only way this really works is if you’re only interested in something casual, and it doesn’t bother you too much if the person ends up cutting things off to be monogamous with someone else. That’s not polyamory. That’s casual dating.

Regardless, waiting around for your partner to either dump you or to dump their other partners is not a healthy polyamorous situation. Polyamory is not about worrying that your partner will “pick” someone else, or trying to decide which of your partners to “pick.” It’s about being open to multiple loving relationships.

Sometimes that means that one day, for whatever reason, you find yourself committed to just one person, and they are committed only to you. But if you’re looking for a monogamous relationship, then you’re a monogamous person. Own it.

I can only imagine there’s a huge overlap between “monogamous for the right person” poly people and “wow my partners are just so jealous of each other all the time, I can’t deal with all this drama, why can’t you guys just get along” poly people. That’s because cultivating jealousy, like managing jealousy, is a skill, and it’s one that people deploy somewhat intentionally, even if they don’t realize exactly what they’re doing.

The way that we make polyamory work on an ethical and psychological level is by reminding ourselves and each other that being with multiple people does not mean that anyone is better or worse or enough or not enough. It means that, just as we may love more than one friend, child, parent, sibling, cat, or sourdough bread recipe, we can also love more than one partner—for whatever definition of “love” you’re using.

“Monogamous for the right person” blows that right up and destroys the sometimes-fragile trust that polyamory requires. These folks want you to laboriously prove to them that you’re The One. Forget it. As polyamory shows us, there are plenty of wonderful humans out there to love.

And cats. Also cats.


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Polyamory 201: “Monogamous for the Right Person”