The City in Her Flowers

Washington Square Park, spring.
Washington Square Park, spring. I walked this way to work from the subway every day.

At first I didn’t understand why New York has been on my mind so much lately, even more than usual.

It’s been almost seven months since that awful weekend I spent there, packing up my stuff to leave for good. It’s been ten months since I left it to spend the summer in Ohio with my family, expecting at the time that I’d soon be back.

Things here have been as good as they’ve ever been, and truly, they’ve always been good. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t paused at some point to think about how lovely my life in Columbus is. It’s not just the individual components that make up a good life–my friends, my partners, my family, a decent job, a nice place to live, interesting things to do, and so on–it’s the way my entire mental structure seems to have shifted shortly after moving here. I became less cautious, more optimistic, more able to connect with people, more willing to give to them, more willing to accept what they have to give. I’m able to treat challenges as learning opportunities. I’m genuinely curious about the future. I think I will generally succeed at things and accomplish what I set out to accomplish, and those are all very new abilities for me.

I never expected that leaving what I love most could be so good for me.

I think I know why I keep thinking about it. It’s undeniably spring now, and the warmth and sunlight and flowers naturally remind me of the last time it was spring, and where I was at that time. In a way I think I will always remember New York by its spring, same way you remember your ex in the dress she wore on your last night together.

My city’s dress was all flowers, and her hair was sunshine on skyscrapers.

Nothing about my feelings made any sense until I started thinking of New York as an ex. You might love an ex but leave them anyway. You might miss your ex but know it’s best for you to stay away. You might regret leaving them, but, what’s done is done and you’re with someone else now and living your own life and that’s good enough for you. I left New York out of necessity, but I’m staying away–I think–because I want to.

Since coming to Columbus, I’ve started my first Real Adult Job and kicked ass at it. I’ve started dating people who actually live locally and it’s been amazing. I’ve started performing burlesque. I’ve started biking regularly again. I’ve started making my own ice cream and subjecting my friends to it. I’ve (re)started hosting big dinner parties like I used to, before New York with its tiny kitchens. I’ve started getting involved in all sorts of local groups. I’ve started playing in a community band–a queer community band. (I can’t even express how excited I am to be marching in a Pride parade for the first time this summer.) I’ve started making peace with my own weird form of queerness. I’ve gotten over my anxiety about driving and making phone calls and going to events where I don’t know anyone (but, unfortunately, not about dating). I’ve met more people and gone to more events and seen more cool things than I could even try to list. My family, to whom saying goodbye used to completely break me every time, is now a mere hour down the highway and I see them all the time, and the fact that my little siblings no longer cry when I leave at the end of a visit feels like it means more to me than a thousand New Yorks. And yet.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

“New York it is not,” I say to myself, biting into a bagel with lox, eating a bowl of ramen, entering a used bookstore, walking down High Street, shopping for clothes, watching the skyline grow on the horizon. It’s kind of like everyone knows you’re not supposed to compare your partners to your exes and everyone does it anyway. This is not a city you fall in love with and do desperate things for; this is a city you learn to love because it’s the city that’s there.

And yet it’s precisely in its not-New-Yorkness that Columbus comforts, delights, and ultimately captures me. It’s the ten-minute drive home from work to my comfortable apartment with a kitchen big enough to actually cook in. It’s reading on the couch and hearing the rain through the open window. It’s the long bike rides through woods waking up from winter as if from a dream. It’s the way people here bring you into their circle, a phrase my mom uses in Russian that seems to mean not just including someone in your social group but letting them into your life. It’s falling asleep to the whistling of trains and waking up to the singing of birds. It’s 5 PM on Friday and all the promise that it brings. It’s Saturday night at a bar with a partner, running into people we know and catching up. It’s having a calendar so overflowing with burlesque shows and dinner plans and comedy nights and yoga classes and happy hours and band rehearsals and activist meetings that I barely have time to think about what I’ve lost.

Yet think about it I do, in those spaces between one thing and another, in the car, in the shower, in bed, in line. I’ve thought about it every single day since I left. I’ve thought about it so yearningly, so painfully, so viscerally, like I’ve never thought about any person, or really any thing, before.

In those moments, it’s like I’m still there. The metallic smell of the subway tracks, the screech of the train, the rush of wind around a corner, the architecture of all my favorite places, the exact taste of a proper slice or bagel or bowl of ramen, the softness of the Central Park lawn beneath my bare feet. The way I felt when I showed the city to my best friend and fell in love with them both all over again. The way I felt on New Year’s Eve. The way I felt sipping too-hot tea in my aunt’s apartment on a cold night, more times than I can count. The way I felt on my last night in the city, taking a few steps into that same apartment before collapsing, sobbing, in my aunt’s arms. The way I felt coming up the subway stairs into the light. The way I felt when I was so connected to the city that it was like its pulse was my pulse. The way I felt when it seemed like the city was all I had. The way I felt when I drove over the bridge into Manhattan for the first time, to stay. The way I felt when the bus emerged from the tunnel in New Jersey, the sun setting over the city for the last time.

At their best these memories are a nice distraction from daily life, but at their worst they haunt me. I even had a dream a few nights ago that I was still there, in a subway station, trying to find the downtown C and failing. I woke up angry. I always knew how to find the right train. I am terrified of coming back and finding that my mental geography of the city has faded and frayed so that I can’t do something so simple as finding the downtown C, let alone remembering how to get to Broadway from any given point.

Sometimes I think that New York is the closest thing to a romance I’ve ever had. I’m not given to thinking about other human beings in those terms; while I’ve loved many people, I’m not sure I’m capable of being in love with anyone for longer than a few days. People are wonderful but they’re indecisive and undependable. A city will always be waiting for me, which is probably exactly why I can’t seem to move on. How do you move on from something that can’t move?

I’m not so simplistic in my thinking as to assume that any of this means that I’m unhappy here, that this isn’t “the right thing,” that I should definitely go back, that whatever. I know I’ve never, ever been as happy as I am now and I’m not about to fuck with that because of a weird obsession with a city I ultimately only got to stay in for two years.

And maybe it’ll get better once spring is over and merely stepping outside stops reminding me of my last days there. Summer was always for Ohio, and I think it’ll help me feel more grounded in where I am rather than floating around in memories of where I once was.

But right now it’s particularly hard. I close my eyes and all I see is the city in her flowers, the city in her sunshine.

Central Park, spring--probably my last time there.
Central Park, spring–probably my last time there.
The City in Her Flowers
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The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

[Content note: depression and eating disorders]

I recently read Olivia’s excellent blog post, “I’m Tired Of Curating.” In it she describes her experiences as a mental health advocate and a person with mental illness(es), and it resonated a lot with me:

I’m not allowed to share these thoughts because they glorify an eating disorder, because I’m not actively telling people how awful it is to be sick, because I’m remembering how intertwined I am with the disease, the way it really is part of the way my mind works rather than something that needs to be kicked out of my life.

[…] I’m sick of trying to spin these thoughts into something useful or meaningful. Since I’ve started to write openly about treatment and recovery and mental illness, I feel as if I need to be a role model or someone that others can look to to see that mental illness does not destroy your life. And yet it’s consumed all of mine and I feel as if I’ve gained nothing except 50 pounds.

I don’t want to curate my words today. I don’t want to be careful not to trigger anyone or to mistakenly portray the ways I behave in a positive light. I want to be allowed the space to honestly portray my mental illness, including the way that it looks seductive when I’m anxious and overwhelmed. Right now restriction is the only thing that makes sense to me. I hate having to hedge that with the caveat that I know it’s not healthy and no other people shouldn’t do it and yes it will fuck up my life.

[…] As someone who has a mental illness and advocates for people with mental illnesses, sometimes I feel like I’m not actually allowed to have my mental illness. Sure, I get to talk about the experience and share inspiring stories or even stories about how nastybad it is and tips and tricks that I’ve picked up, but I don’t get to publicly have the thoughts and feelings that come with a jerkbrain. I don’t get to type “I think I’m a shitstain on the world” without people disregarding everything else I say. I don’t get to type “I truly would like to skip all upcoming meals indefinitely” without being accused of promoting unhealthy behaviors. Newsflash world: I have depression and an eating disorder. These are things that I think on the regular. If it’s too ugly to see it and you have to look away when I can’t be polished, then I don’t understand the point of my activism and advocacy. I don’t understand why I write anymore.

When I read this, it suddenly put my experiences into a context that made sense. Because I’ve been there.

Not only have I felt like I couldn’t share my negative experiences with mental illness, but I was also made to feel like I couldn’t share my victories, either. I once posted on my personal Facebook that I was proud of myself for having been (safely) off of medication for a year, and someone messaged me letting me know that I shouldn’t post things like that because it’ll make people who still need to be on medication feel bad, and that this might be helpful for me to know “considering [my] future career.” Except my personal Facebook page isn’t the same as my professional counseling website, and it’s not even the same as my blog. It’s my space to share my life with my friends. The purpose of my Facebook is to connect with my friends, not to affirm other people. Of course, I like to affirm other people and often try to, but that shouldn’t be an expectation placed on me. It shouldn’t have to be the primary goal of my self-expression.

So that’s a weird, narrow line we mental health advocates have to walk. We’re criticized for being honest about the ugly sides of mental illness (either because it means we’re “glorifying” mental illness or because we’re “confirming negative stereotypes” or [insert accusation here), and we’re criticized for “making others feel bad” when we’re honest about successful recovery. (And, yes, I get to simultaneously believe that there is nothing wrong with taking psychiatric medication and to be proud of myself for getting to a place where I am able to stop taking it. You can accept medical treatment as necessary and morally acceptable and you can be glad when you don’t need medical treatment anymore!)

As a result, we end up presenting a sanitized version of our actual struggles that’s neither overly negative nor inappropriately jealousy-inducing. “Jerkbrain’s really getting me down today, please send cute animal photos.” “Today sucked so I’m going to do some much-needed self-care.” And so on and so forth. Obviously, those can be completely valid and genuine expressions, but as Olivia pointed out, sometimes it’s a lot less pretty.

A while back, I wrote about a particular strain of criticism of people (generally teenage girls) who “glorify” or “enable” mental illness symptoms by presenting them in a romantic or sexy light. The argument goes that these blogs may discourage young people from seeing their mental illnesses as treatable (or seeing them as illnesses at all) and encourage them to do harmful behaviors associated with those illnesses–self-harm, restricting, purging, etc. In that post, I concluded: “It’s easy to say, ‘Don’t romanticize depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.’ It’s harder to say, ‘Don’t show symptoms of your depression! It encourages people to view depression as normal and healthy.'”

Unfortunately, as I’m learning, it’s not actually particularly difficult to say that at all; you just have to be a little more subtle. Certainly nobody in our communities would ever come right out and say that people with mental illnesses should hide all of their symptoms; heavens no, that would be ableist. Instead, they fill our Facebook threads with condescending reminders to “take better care of yourself” and “that’s just jerkbrain talking.” We can discuss our symptoms as long as we make it absolutely clear that we hate the symptoms and the illness and are completely dedicated to the project of making a full recovery. To admit that sometimes we don’t want to recover is to “glorify” mental illness and “enable” others. It’s to “confirm stereotypes” about people with mental illness, as if the problem is overlapping with a stereotype and not stereotyping people to begin with.

The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal is real and it’s a narrow ledge to squeeze yourself onto. Be honest, but don’t freak us out. Motivate those who are still struggling, but don’t give a rosy and unrealistic perspective. Hate your illness because it’s unhealthy and bad for you, but don’t hate your illness because that’s ableist and implies that there’s something wrong with having a mental illness. Recover, but not so much or so visibly that you make others feel bad. Accomplish because it’s inspirational for others and because people with mental illnesses can do anything neurotypical people can, but don’t accomplish too much, or else are you sure you’re really all that mentally ill? Maybe you just want attention.

I used to blame myself a lot for doing what Olivia calls “curating”–for only portraying my depression in a particular way, not too negative and not too positive. Now I’ve come to see it as a double-bind that everyone who discloses mental illness is placed in, one way or another. Why is it that we’re the ones constantly accused of “encouraging” mental illness when everything about the way our society is set up encourages it? Why is a teenage girl who posts a selfie of herself with mascara tears running down her face any more responsible for someone else’s mental illness than the neurotypical adults who tell each other to “calm down” and “just get over it,” or the boss who creates a stressful and anxiety-provoking work environment, or the primary care doctor who fails to spot the warning signs of depression and refer their patient to a therapist, or the parent who tells their teenager that they’ll “grow out of it”?

We all contribute to ableism and mental illness stigma in various ways, and those of us who actually have mental illness tend to be more aware of that than anyone.

As usual, I’ve got no solution to this except to pay attention to your automatic responses to folks with mental illnesses discussing their experiences. Watch what makes you go “Wow, that is So Real, that is So Brave of you to share” and what makes you go “Uh, are you sure you want to post that so publicly?” The answer might be instructive.

~~~

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The Mental Health Advocate Pedestal

A Boy and His Droid

[CN: apocalypse, starvation, mentions of violence and cannibalism]

Recently my friend Michael Nam posted this drawing he’d made in Other Worlds: A SF/F Community, a group we’re both in, as a writing prompt. After just a brief look at it, a story wrote itself in my head. Here it is.

A drawing of a boy with a large gorilla-shaped robot.

I was alone, completely alone, in the wasteland. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen a human being, but it must’ve been months ago. In the few years since the world fell apart, I had only met a few other people. Most had either tried to kill me for my body and my food, or they had been too weak and close to death to attempt it.

I didn’t have to fight them, though. Atlas, my droid bodyguard, took care of that for me. Atlas was built like the gorillas I had seen in my school texts–big, powerful animals that had lived long ago. He usually walked on his arms and legs, but could raise himself up to swing his massive arms at anyone who tried to hurt me or take my things. Yet his gaze, when he turned it towards me, was gentle and kind. His peaceful presence protected my spirit just as his strength and willingness to use it protected my body.

Before, anyone who could afford it had had a bodyguard like mine. It was the only way to stay alive and whole as our society had teetered, jerking and thrashing, towards its inevitable collapse.

Even though our homes were sealed and protected, hackers always found ways through our security systems. Children were kidnapped and ransomed, adults were more often robbed and killed outright. The smarter hackers figured out how to disable people’s bodyguards. The ones who weren’t so smart tried to fight and destroy them.

Sometimes, though, they succeeded. Desperation is what leads a frail, starving person to attack a 700-pound mass of steel programmed to defend its charge. It can also be what leads them to win.

I wasn’t much interested in other people back then. When I wasn’t attending my virtual classes or doing my homework, I was usually immersed in some game or novel on my headset. In those games I was always a loner, too, exploring a nuclear desert or fighting aliens on a spaceship with no crew. As bad as the world outside of virtual reality got, I never thought it would become so much like my games.

Besides reading and gaming, I spent a lot of time back then tinkering with Atlas. That’s probably what saved my life more than anything. I learned his code, made him smarter and more perceptive. I tried to teach him to think more like a human and less like a machine, to make choices that made rational sense rather than logical sense. I also gave him solar panels, which is how he gets his power now. That’s why he’s the only droid bodyguard left. The rest ran out of juice long ago. He scavenges their parts, now.

Most other children in our community didn’t care much about their bodyguards. They treated the droids as objects that were just there, like any other security system, like a locked door or a set of armor. I don’t think any of them ever learned how to program them. They all called the droids “it,” never gave them names.

The children in my virtual classes ridiculed me constantly for referring to Atlas as “they” rather than “it.” I didn’t understand what was so funny. “They” was the standard pronoun we used for someone who hadn’t told us their gender, and Atlas hadn’t told me his yet. So how else would I refer to him?

Later, one day not long after the collapse, I asked Atlas if he had preferred pronouns. It was evening. Like many evenings, we were spending it sitting quietly in the remains of a building we’d found, trying to conserve our limited and precious energy. Despite the darkness, it was warm. I didn’t know what season it was supposed to be, but it’s always warm now. Atlas and I sat face to face, me with legs crossed and him with legs folded underneath him so he could leap to his feet and defend us at a moment’s notice.

I said, “Do you have pronouns that you like to use for yourself?”

“I have never really thought about that,” he said in the calm, gentle voice he uses when addressing me.

“But aren’t you thinking about it now?”

“Yes, I am now.”

I paused, even though I know that he thinks faster than any human being and had probably finished thinking about it before I’d even asked the second question.

“I will use the pronoun he,” he said after a moment.

And so he became he, to me.

Before the collapse he was a benevolent protector that I valued; after the collapse he became a companion. Once I no longer had the option of talking to other people, I started to want to, desperately. I spoke to Atlas for hours on end about the books I’d read, about the classmates I’d envied, about my parents that I’d respected and feared but never really loved, and now missed wretchedly.

Atlas rarely responded, but he listened. He always looked at me when I spoke to him, his bright blue eyes deeper and more soulful than a piece of machinery should ever be. Although I knew his code well, I understood then that knowing how words translate from one language into another isn’t the same as truly knowing that other language. I couldn’t know what was actually going on inside his processor, what his experience was like, how he felt. I felt silly for even thinking of it in those terms, but I had little else to think about besides my own survival. It took my mind off of things.

The most fundamental piece of a droid bodyguard’s programming is that they will protect their charge and their charge’s belongings. A droid bodyguard will seek to protect the person they’ve been assigned to while causing minimal harm to others, but they will injure, maim, and kill when necessary. A droid bodyguard treats their charge’s belongings as an extension of their charge’s body; they would no more allow someone to take their charge’s belongings than they would allow them to amputate and steal a part of their charge’s body.

If that sounds like an odd analogy, believe me, these things have happened.

They were programmed that way because, as food and water became scarce, defending what belonged to you became equivalent to defending your own life. It’s even more true now than it was before the collapse. If Atlas allowed someone to steal even part of my food, that could make the difference between surviving long enough to find more food, or not.

That’s the part of his programming I’ve never been able to alter, not that I would want to. Humans are not like droids that way. I have seen humans abandon all of their beliefs, all of their most sacred values, when the situation called for it.

Atlas and I spent most of our time walking or resting. There was no sense in staying in the same place once we’d found all the preserved food we were going to find. Sometimes we hunted and killed whatever small rodents managed to survive on whatever limp grass still grew.

I knew that some survivors had scavenged human bodies. I had not done that, not yet. Not because I was disgusted at the thought; I’ve been hungry enough that my disgust had dried up like the last stuttering streams and rivers. I was afraid of the possibility of dying in agony of whatever had killed them.

But with the passing years we were finding less and less food. There wasn’t much to begin with, and what was still left after the collapse had probably been found and consumed by people who were long dead of the diseases and poisons–natural and humanmade–that had consumed them in turn.

I held on, though, and Atlas was still able to get some sunlight despite the smogs. It was always a tradeoff: save energy but go hungry, or spend energy and risk wasting it on a fruitless search.

Despite everything, I kept tinkering with Atlas. It helped me feel like I could still leave my mark on this broken world. Atlas would endure far longer than I would. He didn’t need food, he was immune to sickness, and he could repair himself most of the time. Maybe one day there would be people again, and maybe Atlas would be alive to teach them about us and our mistakes.

Would he miss me?

Over time, Atlas started to speak more, sometimes without my prompting. He often pointed out what he saw as beauty in the world: a surviving dragonfly, a jagged cliff, a pink and purple sunset. Before I had treated the landscape around me as my enemy, as something that I had to defeat anew each day in order to survive. Atlas taught me to see it differently.

He started to tell me stories, too–stories of his time in the factory before he came to me, stories of other droids he had known. I wondered how much of these stories and the emotions in them was something he invented for my benefit; I’d put the code in him, after all. Or maybe he had always held these thoughts, but had been unable to speak them until I gave him the language to do it. I couldn’t know.

But the day I truly knew he had changed into something different was the day we found the person.

It was hot, so hot, although that barely registered anymore. That day there were almost no smogs, and the sun beat down on us as we crossed a wide expanse of dry, dusty earth with the faltering hopes that we’d find something on the other side. We were almost out of food. I hadn’t eaten in three days.

The only reason I believed I might live was because we had found a small pond the day before, and gathered water in plastic bags that we sealed and carried with us now. With water, we might yet make it.

Then I saw something dark a few hundred feet before us. I might have written it off as a log, had there been any trees anywhere near. There weren’t.

I walked faster, Atlas matching my pace with little effort. For me it was excruciating, but I had to see.

As I approached, the shape resolved itself into a small person, no bigger than me, lying on their side on the cracked earth. They were probably about my age, 12 or 13, with dark skin. Their short hair and tattered clothing were dark, too, though the clothes had clearly once been another color. They lay still, but I could see them breathing slowly.

For so long I had dreamed of seeing another person, but now I felt rooted to the ground like a dead tree, unsure of what to do. Should I wake them? Were they sick? Could I help? Would they attack?

I wasn’t sure I could bear the sight of Atlas killing yet another person.

But then Atlas did something I will never forget, not for as long as I live–short as that may be. He reached into my backpack and took out a can of chicken noodle soup, one of our last. He peeled the top off of the can. He slowly extended the can to the crumpled form in front of us, nudging the person gently with the can.

The person on the ground shifted and groaned. They raised themselves up on their arms and looked up. Finally noticing the can, they moved with a speed I hadn’t known they had, snatching the can from Atlas and drinking the soup until it was gone.

I glanced at Atlas. He looked back at me, blue eyes searching, questioning. Did I do the right thing? he seemed to be asking, although he did not speak. How had he done it? How had he taken from me to give to another?

The person on the ground was sitting with the empty can, staring at the two of us. They slowly brought themselves to their feet and closed the small distance between us. They took my hands in theirs and looked down on them as if to reassure themselves that my hands are real, that I am real.

They finally spoke: “I can’t believe I found you. I’ve been looking for you for so long.”

I understood what they meant. I felt such a warmth, then; such relief, such love. I withdrew my hands from the person’s grasp to throw them around their neck in embrace. They wrapped their arms around my waist and we held each other.

How long we stood that way, I could not tell you. But the sun started to fade and fall, and we needed to find shelter from the windstorms that would come. And so we set off together, Atlas’ lumbering form shielding us from the back. I felt a hope that I knew could not be fully rational, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had found people.

Two of them.

A Boy and His Droid

Asking, Guessing, and Crowdfunding

Periodically the debates about crowdfunding start up in my online space again; right now is one such time. I noticed a disconnect between the two “sides” of the debate that I wanted to address.

To clarify, I’m talking about crowdfunding in terms of individuals who do it for personal reasons–to pay medical bills, to care for a sick pet, to provide for their needs while they search for work, to complete a project they need or want to complete, and so on. I’m not talking about this sort of crowdfunding.

These conversations inevitably get bogged down in arguments over who “deserves” money and who doesn’t, who “really needs” the money and who doesn’t, which things are “legitimate” to ask for money for and which aren’t, etc. I don’t really find that interesting or relevant. I think that people should be honest when stating their reasons for asking for donations. For some people that’s “My baby and I are going to become homeless unless we get money for rent” and for some people it’s “I want to try this cool new thing but don’t want to risk thousands of dollars of my own money on it.” From there, it is each individual’s own responsibility to decide if they think it’s worth donating to this person’s fundraiser or not.

What I do find very interesting is that many people’s objections to this type of fundraiser are couched in language like “imposing” and “being rude.” That suggests that a conflict between ask culture and guess culture may be at play.

A summary:

In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it’s OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t even have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you’re a Guess Culture person […] then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you’re likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you’re an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.

[Obligatory disclaimer that these two “Cultures” are simplifications and opposite ends of a spectrum; most people have some Askiness and some Guessiness to them, depending on context.]

Guessy people see [some] crowdfunding requests as inappropriate and invasive, especially given that many of that person’s friends probably have trouble with their finances as well. It is difficult for them to see a request for donations and not feel obligated to comply with it, and they assume that others are being similarly manipulated.

Asky people don’t understand what the issue is. Anyone is free to ignore the crowdfunding post and keep scrolling, or even unfriend the asker for good measure. Asky people try not to be overly concerned about other people’s finances; that’s their job to manage for themselves. To them, there’s no harm in asking as long as you aren’t manipulative about it and can take no for an answer.

I sympathize with Guessy people here because I know how that feels. When I did not trust myself to be able to set my own boundaries, I constantly saw others’ requests as impositions and wished they would stop making them. Even when I said no and had that no respected, I felt guilty for saying no and wished that others hadn’t put me in this awkward position. It seemed to me that the kind thing to do would be to not make your friends feel bad, and the way to do that would be to not ask them for things unless you’re pretty sure that they’re able and willing to say yes.

But while I sympathize, I don’t want Guess to be the norm, because I’ve also been on the other side. For instance, I went years without asking anyone out on a date because I was terrified that no matter how clear I was that no is an acceptable answer, I would make them feel bad and they would say yes out of guilt. I avoided asking people for help as much as possible. I didn’t pitch my writing to publications or offer myself as a conference speaker or ask anyone if they could listen to me vent for a while. (I still don’t really do the latter, but, I’m working on it.)

And, honestly, that sucked. You don’t get any awards for never making anyone feel even the slightest bit guilty. You also don’t go on a lot of dates, at least not with the people you really wish you were dating.

As important as it is to learn not to feel entitled to other people’s time, attention, help, money, etc., it’s equally important to learn how to see and acknowledge others’ needs without feeling obligated to fulfill them. It is really, really hard to be a person when you can’t do that; I know that from experience. And as this periodic shaming of people who request donations shows, it also sometimes makes it hard to be a person who treats others well. If we tell the people around us that they can’t ask for things because we find that too inconvenient, we perpetuate social norms in which people have to suffer alone.

What about people who ask for money they don’t really need? That’s where it comes back to honesty. People should be honest about why they’re asking for money; otherwise, it’s not a fair request and possibly even a scam. Lying and scamming is bad. But beyond that, I don’t really mind if someone decides that they’d really like a trip to Europe that they can’t afford but don’t exactly need; I will probably decide not to contribute to that fundraiser, then. Others may make a different choice. It’s their money.

In my experience, though, most requests for crowdfunding come from a place of need. Most people I’ve known who have had to ask for money online have thought about it very carefully, and often felt quite a bit of shame. It wasn’t a decision made lightly.

When I work with trauma survivors and people with mental illnesses, I’m struck by the fact that all of them, to a person, say that they feel ashamed of their feelings because others “have it worse.” Sometimes they name specific experiences others have had that are “worse,” and then, unbeknownst to them, a client with that exact “worse” problem tells me that they don’t have the right to be upset because–you guessed it–others have it worse.

I find that the same is true with many people who request money online. No matter how bad their situation is, they worry that others have it worse and maybe those are the people the money should be going to.

That’s why, if someone asked me for advice, I would say not to worry so much about who has it worse and ask for what you need. Someone who believes that solving poverty in Africa is the most/only important issue right now will probably not donate to your fundraiser, and that’s okay. We all have the right to ask, as long as we’re doing so in a way that allows people to say no.

And on the other side, those of us raised with Guessy norms should think critically when we feel that others are imposing. It’s a difficult balance, because boundaries are important, and those of us who have had boundaries crossed by askers in the past might find it especially difficult to find that balance. But the solution cannot be to expect people to never ask us for anything. I don’t think anyone actually wants to live with those social norms.

As someone who seems to straddle the boundary between Ask and Guess a lot, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of myself asking people for money. I do it with my Patreon, of course, but that feels more like giving people the option of paying me for work that I do that they benefit from, not “requesting donations.” But I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a GoFundMe to raise money to apply for American citizenship, which is extremely expensive and otherwise unaffordable for me. But it’s not food. It’s not shelter. I have permanent residency and will be fine without citizenship. Many people will not want to donate to that fundraiser. Others have specifically told me that the would, because they think that the country needs more citizens like me. That’s their choice, and they get to decide that that’s worth their money just like others get to decide that it’s not.

It seems overbearing and infantilizing to act like it’s my responsibility to make sure that others don’t spend money they don’t have. It’s true that not everyone is great at managing their money, but that doesn’t make it my responsibility (or my right) to try to manage it for them by assuming that they cannot handle seeing a request for donations in their Facebook feed.

~~~

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Asking, Guessing, and Crowdfunding

"That's not true, but even if it were…"

So many debunking-type conversations that we have go like this:

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!” “Actually, children of same-sex couples aren’t any more likely to be gay.”
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.” “Actually, many people take birth control for medical reasons.”
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!” “Actually, many feminists have male partners and happy relationships.”
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.” “Actually, lesbians are Born That Way.”
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.” “Actually, polyamory is about love, not sex; many poly people have lifelong partners and raise children with them.”
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.” “Actually, most people with mental illnesses have jobs, friends, and relationships just like everyone else.”
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.” “Actually, most gay men are Just Like Us; all they want is to marry their soulmate and raise children together.”
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.” “Actually, for many women, abortion is a difficult and painful decision.”
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” “Actually, gay people never chose to be gay.”

These are defensive narratives. They’re defensive because they accept the opposition’s terms and assumptions and then respond as though those terms and assumptions are acceptable, even preferable.

It’s not always obvious what you’re accepting when you take these statements at face value. So let’s unpack them.

  • “But gay parents will raise gay children!”: Raising gay children, and being gay, is a bad thing. The idea that same-sex parents might raise gay children is therefore a counterargument against letting them adopt.
  • “Women just want insurance to pay for their birth control so they don’t have to pay for all the sex they’re having.”: It’s bad for women to have sex, and women who cannot afford birth control shouldn’t have sex.
  • “Feminists are ugly and can’t find a man!”: Being unattractive by conventional standards and being unable to find a man to date is a bad way for a woman to be and it means I don’t have to take her opinions seriously.
  • “Lesbians just had a bad experience with a guy so they’ve decided to date women.”: If someone’s sexual identity stems from negative experiences that they’ve had, then that identity is invalid.
  • “Polyamorous people just want to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything.”: Wanting to have tons of casual sex without having to commit to anything is wrong.
  • “Mentally ill people are crazy and can’t act like normal people.”: Being unable to act like “normal people” is a bad thing and worthy of shame and stigma.
  • “Gay men have deviant, promiscuous lifestyles.”: Being “deviant” and “promiscuous” is bad.
  • “Women who get abortions are just casually throwing life away.”: It’s wrong to treat abortion like any other medical procedure; it’s only acceptable if the person getting the abortion suffers emotionally because of it.
  • “Homosexuality is a sin.” That one’s pretty obvious.

How do you know that you’re taking a defensive stance and accepting your opposition’s faulty assumptions? If you find yourself trying to claim that a stigmatized group is “just like everyone else,” or that your group or idea is really totally nonthreatening to the status quo, you may be agreeing with more of your opposition’s premises than you mean to.

Children raised by same-sex couples aren’t more likely than children of different-sex couples (or single parents) to be lesbian, gay, or bi. But so what if they were? Why is that a bad thing? How would that justify denying rights to same-sex couples?

Women with feminist views don’t generally come to those views by being “ugly” and rejected by men (if anything, some of us have had a little too much attention from men). But so what if they did? The ideas can be evaluated on their own merits, can they not?

Many or most lesbians have probably been lesbians for their whole lives, and didn’t have any particular experiences that “caused” them to be lesbians. But some did. Some women find that their patterns of attraction change after traumatic experiences with men. Aren’t their identities just as valid?

Most people with mental illnesses do have jobs and families and can generally “pass” as neurotypical. What about the ones who can’t? Don’t they deserve support rather than shame and stigma? Shouldn’t we fund programs that will provide much-needed services to these people, not just to the ones who “pass”?

Most LGBTQ people do not experience their identity as a choice that they got to make. But so what if they did? What’s the problem with choosing to be gay, supposing that’s even possible?

Progressive advocates don’t concede these points maliciously. Often, they understand what’s being left unsaid and disagree with it, but they believe that we need to go “one step at a time” or else we’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe that’s true. I don’t actually know. That’s an empirical question, but it’s very difficult to answer because studying attitude shifts is a process laden with variables that can’t be controlled. I obviously understand the reasoning–you can’t teach a child algebra until you teach them how to count–that doesn’t necessarily mean that the reasoning applies.

For instance, it’s also possible that this approach actually increases the length of time it takes to achieve equality or justice. When we accept the opponent’s faulty premise, we waste time that we could’ve spent challenging that premise. So we hear “Gay people are sinful deviants” and respond that actually gay people just want to get married and raise cute babies, why won’t you give them that chance? And the premise we accept is that being gay is only okay as long as you can look as much like a typical straight person as possible, and we choose our battles accordingly. If rather than battling homophobia, we battle the fact that two people of the same gender cannot get married, and next we battle the fact that in many states same-sex couples can’t adopt children, and so on, then when will we actually defeat homophobia?

Moreover, as plenty of people have pointed out plenty of times, this approach often ignores the most marginalized in a given group. If we’re always choosing the easiest, most press-friendly battle, then when are we going to address the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at really high rates? When do we address violence and discrimination against homeless queer youth, including the ones who do sex work and the ones who use or sell drugs?

I’m kinda wondering if the answer is “never.”

Accepting the opponent’s premise is not a neutral action; it causes actual harm to actual people. It marginalizes everyone whose narrative doesn’t fit into the tidy paths we’ve laid: the lesbian whose sexual trauma influenced her developing identity; the gay man who does want to have lots of random casual sex rather than finding a husband and raising children; the person who accidentally gets pregnant and immediately gets an abortion and feels nothing but relief; all the people who do want birth control specifically because they love sex and don’t want children. Which, by the way, is totally okay. That’s why birth control exists.

I won’t pretend to know what the way forward is, but I think we do have a responsibility to at least try to challenge faulty premises. It’s possible to say, “Actually, children of same-sex parents aren’t more likely to be gay or bi themselves, but so what if they were?” or “For many people, the decision to get an abortion is actually a really difficult and painful one, but for some it’s just another medical procedure. What’s the problem with that?” Throw that shit back in their face. Make them explain to you why they’re saying what they’re saying. Make them actually admit that they think that being gay is bad or that having non-procreative sex is wrong or that having occasionally smoked pot makes it okay for the police to murder you on the street. At least then you know where you stand.

~~~

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"That's not true, but even if it were…"

I'm not "offended," Julien Blanc. I'm terrified.

[Content note: sexual violence]

I wasn’t going to comment on this Julien Blanc thing because it wouldn’t be anything I haven’t already said many times. However, I was catching up on my saved articles and found this bit from a piece about Blanc being denied entry into Great Britain:

For now he has canceled the remainder of his tour. Describing himself as the “most-hated man in the world,” a nervous-looking Mr. Blanc apologized “for everything” on Monday in a CNN interview. He said he had not been choking the women in the photographs but merely had his hands around their throats. It was all “a horrible, horrible attempt at humor” that had been “taken out of context in a way,” he said.

“I just want to apologize, you know, to anybody I’ve offended in any way,” Mr. Blanc said.

This made me see red. This word “offense” gets thrown around whenever something like this happens and someone apologizes for it, as if “offense” was ever the problem. As though my desire to go about my day without having a strange man run up to me, put his hands around my neck, and force my face into his genitals has anything to do with “offense.”

Then I remembered a recent interaction I had on Facebook with a man who had made extremely inappropriate comments on my posts months ago and been roundly rebuked for it by me and my friends. Last week he sent me a message apologizing and asking if we could be friends. I responded very calmly and formally, accepted the apology, and said that I am not interested in being friends at this time. He wrote back, accepting my answer but adding, “I feel bad that I hurt you so much that you’d prefer not to be friends.”

This statement was the only part of all of this that made me feel any emotion at all–namely, anger. I had never been “hurt” by this man. I was not upset. I was not “offended.” I simply didn’t want anything to do with someone who would say and do the things he had proven himself to be willing to say and do. My choice not to interact with him further was informed by my knowledge of his willingness to cross boundaries, and even if he had changed significantly as a person since that incident, I wasn’t interested in taking that risk.

I was angry that he presumed my emotional state, as men so often do. I was angry that I was given no space to reject his offer of friendship except as a consequence of my feelings. I was angry that he thought that he, one of dozens of men who have disrespected me, crossed my boundaries, and hurled sexual harassment at me in the past year alone, actually thought that he had the power to substantially influence my emotions.

I am not comparing this particular man to Julien Blanc. Not even at all. Rather, I’m illustrating the belief that people (women) choose who to avoid or cut out of their lives or protest against solely on the basis of their feelings. I declined this man’s friendship because I was “upset.” Women protested against Blanc entering Great Britain because they were “offended.”

The NYT article echoed this in a different way in its lede: “This week, Julien Blanc became possibly the first man ever denied a visa on grounds of sexism.”

Attention-grabbing exaggerations aside, this is inaccurate. Blanc was not denied a visa because he holds sexist beliefs. He was denied a visa because he was threatening to assault people and encouraging others to do the same. Later in the article:

But as women’s rights and antiviolence campaigners point out, videos and photos of Mr. Blanc explicitly encourage men to harass women and lower their self-confidence in order to have sex with them. One tip suggests that men make derogatory comments about other women’s bodies to flatter their prey. Others recommend pretending to grieve over the recent death of a girlfriend or threatening suicide.

[…] The video clip that caused the most outrage was filmed in Tokyo and shows Mr. Blanc pulling women’s faces into his crotch on the street. In one scene, he harasses a visibly distressed Japanese cashier by kissing her neck and ear.

It is abundantly clear why Blanc presents a danger to women. Yet he, as many other men do, used language like “offended” to describe what he perceives as the backlash against him.

Pay attention to this. This is one of many ways people delegitimize our demands to be free from harassment, assault, and abuse. “Offense” is subjective. “Offense” can be caused by “thin skin,” “weakness,” “intolerance of dissenting views,” and so on. “Offense” is a reaction to a claim or idea with which you disagree.

I am, in fact, offended by Julien Blanc’s views on women, but that’s not why I want him to stay far away from me. I want him to stay far away from me because he has a record of harassing, assaulting, and abusing women, and I do not want to be harassed, assaulted, and abused. It is my right as a human being to be free from these things. It is reasonable for a country to deny a visa to a traveler who intends to enter that country in order to harass, assault, and abuse its citizens.

I have had strange men put their hands on me both in public and in private enough times to know the terror of not knowing–not knowing what will happen next, what someone who delights in making women uncomfortable will be willing to do. I no longer have the luxury of merely being “offended” at the idea that someone might do such a thing. It has happened enough times for the thought of sharing physical space with Julien Blanc to be terrifying, not offensive.

Julien Blanc imagines–or, more likely, pretends–that he is “the most-hated man in the world” because his ideas offend people. The only reason I care about the contents of his mind is because those seem to correlate quite strongly with violent, abusive behavior that harms me and people I care about.

And by the way, you cannot take sexual assault “out of context.” There is no context that makes it no longer assault, unless there was consent given and it was never assault in any context to begin with.

~~~

As a small sidenote, I’m annoyed by how many of the articles about Julien Blanc, including ones from writers I really respect, took space to insult his physical appearance. As someone who has written for publication before, I know that word limits are almost always in effect, and taking valuable space to make childish and irrelevant insults to someone’s looks means that much less space to use on actual points. It’s not just that insulting someone’s appearance is mean and pointless, though–it also makes you come across like you don’t have a better argument against them (even if you do). We should stop doing it. I say this not because I care about Julien Blanc’s feelings, but because I care about ethical consistency and good writing.

(Remember, too, that the problem with men like Blanc is not that they are “lonely” or “pathetic” or “desperate for female attention.” Many men are lonely and pathetic and desperate for female (or male) attention, and so are many women. That’s not what makes them creepy predators. Many people manage to be lonely and pathetic and desperate for sex without ever harassing or assaulting anyone.)

I'm not "offended," Julien Blanc. I'm terrified.

A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

[Content note: depression]

This is a personal post, not an advice post or a big societal problems post. But past experience has shown that some people appreciate and benefit from it when I describe how I try to think about things.

“Reframing” is a term we sometimes use in mental healthcare (and elsewhere) to basically refer to changing the way you think about something. While therapists sometimes suggest ways to reframe things to clients, it’s ultimately up to the individual to decide whether or not they want to reframe, and if so, how.

For some people this concept can hit a nerve because it can sound a lot like the well-meaning but ultimately useless (and even hurtful) advice we get to “look on the bright side” and “think about the positives.” But that’s not what reframing means to me. Here’s an example.

In one of my classes, we are required to meet in pairs for ten weeks to administer and receive counseling. Not as a roleplay exercise, but as an actual attempt to disclose one’s struggles or work with someone else on those struggles. Many students in the class expressed strong discomfort with being one of the “clients” in this exercise, but I’m already accustomed to sharing very personal and intimate details with thousands of strangers online, so I had no qualms about signing up to be counseled.

During our first session, my student-counselor asked me a question: “What, to you, would be an ideal or perfect day?”

It didn’t take me long to think about my answer, which turned out to be sort of a non-answer.

“There isn’t one,” I said. I explained that after eleven years of depression, there is no longer such a thing as an ideal or perfect day and it feels like there never was. That sort of thing is so far out of the realm of possibility for me that, in my view, there’s no point in sitting around hypothesizing about it*.

The reason is that hypothesizing won’t bring me any closer to experiencing it. The things that stop me from being able to have perfect days, those days you spend the rest of your life wishing you could relive, are not surmountable things.

As an example, I told them about the previous weekend, when my roommate and I had gone to visit friends in the suburbs of Philly and then went to a steampunk-themed dance in the city proper. I’d been looking forward to it for a while. It was supposed to be one of those awesome nights. We got all dressed up, and I was wearing my friend’s spectacular dress that I felt amazing and sexy in, and I was with my friends, and it was going to be awesome.

Until, of course, it wasn’t. Not long after we got there, I experienced one of the things I refer to as a depressive trigger, for lack of a better term. It’s whatever the depression version of getting triggered is–specifically, it brings on acute depression symptoms–and it happens to me periodically. I heard it and I felt every metaphorical gear that keeps my brain working properly grind to a halt. It was like driving down a beautiful country road in the sunshine and suddenly finding yourself in a thunderstorm.

After that I couldn’t make myself function. I felt an uncomfortable combination of numb and sad in a very “deep” sort of way. I was constantly on the verge of crying, and knew I would if I let myself think about the thing that had triggered me. I couldn’t talk to anyone, at least not in any socially appropriate way, and I couldn’t dance or pretend to be happy or do much of anything else.

So I left my friends, sat in a corner, and spent most of the rest of the night writing in my notebook (good thing I carry it everywhere) and messaging with one of my partners on my phone. (Situations like this, by the way, are one of the reasons I’m so adamant that it should be socially acceptable to be on your phone at social events. Because my options at this point were: cry in front of my friends, be on my phone, or leave and somehow find my own ride back from Philadelphia to New York at 10 PM on a Saturday night.) I was eventually more or less okay, but it took a long time, and I spent most of the night on the effort to make myself feel more or less okay.

This is not atypical for me; it’s been happening for almost as long as I can remember, and while the triggers have changed a little over the years–as has my ability to manage them–the fact that they happen in the first place has not.

I used to hate myself for it. I’d berate myself endlessly for “ruining” everything or “wasting” good times away, especially since the triggers were as predictable as they were unavoidable. Surely I could learn to stop doing this? (But I see nothing about “acute depression triggers” in any of the scholarly material I read and I don’t even know if this is a typical aspect of the experience of depression or if anyone has ever reported it at all. I just know that that’s how depression works for me.)

Now, I told my student-counselor, I think about it differently. Of this specific incident, I think: I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it.

And because I’ve learned to think about it that way, a lot of other things start standing out–the things that went right. I had a great, relaxing day with my friends before it happened. I got dressed up and felt good about how I looked. At the event itself, during the times when I was feeling more or less okay, I met some interesting new people and took some great photos that I’ll have to look at and reminisce. While I was feeling triggery, my friends noticed and checked in on me in ways that demonstrated their concern and care but did not step over any of my emotional or physical boundaries. (Most significantly, I don’t like to talk about the things that cause me to feel bad, and nobody asked or expected me to.) While I was feeling triggery, I managed to disclose a little bit of it to my partner online–not something I am often able to do–and my partner was supportive. I was able to stop it from getting any worse.

Reframing is not the same as its distant cousins, “looking on the bright side” and “finding the silver lining.” I didn’t choose to look on the bright side or find the silver lining. The silver lining found me, after I had reframed the situation in a way that didn’t make me look like a horrible wretched failure of a person. And when I reframe, I don’t attempt to dilute or ignore the reality of the situation. It is not preferable that things like this happen when I’m trying to have a good time with my friends. There is no “silver lining” to getting triggered. I’m not going to wax poetic about what this teaches me about myself or about the human condition. I’m not going to gush about how situations like this really bring out the wonderfulness of my friends and partners, because my friends and partners are wonderful a lot of the time, whether or not I’m currently feeling like crap.

When I think back to that night now, I don’t feel sad, because I’m remembering the good things along with the bad. Previously, the distortion that my brain engages in would’ve made that impossible. I’ve tried to somehow force myself to think about the good things before and failed. It could only happen once I found a way to look at the situation realistically.

I didn’t fail. I didn’t ruin anything. I didn’t choose for this to happen. I had a flare-up of a chronic illness, but I was able to manage it–with the help of some of my friends, but also by drawing on my own strengths and resources.

~~~

*That said, the question the student-counselor asked is typically a pretty good one to ask, as it helps the therapist understand what their client hopes to change about their life. But I already know that I want something impossible. I want to be cured. I won’t be, and that’s okay.

A Flare-up of a Chronic Illness

Occasional Link Roundup

Here, have some super-old but still-good links because I waited way too long to do another link roundup!

1. Greta posts a much-improved version of the creepy Christmas song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” along with some great commentary:

Yes, there probably are some women — and some men — who say No as part of a flirtatious game, to get their pursuers to pursue them. That is also part of rape culture. The idea that you really know someone wants you when they ignore your boundaries and keep pushing past your objections… this is also part of rape culture. (It’s also really sex-negative, reinforcing the idea that it’s bad and wrong to enthusiastically say Yes to sex when you want it.) I don’t like it when pop culture encourages, celebrates, and reinforces this idea.

When pop culture reinforces the idea that ignoring boundaries is part of a flirtatious game, it doesn’t just encourage the recipients of attention to say No when they really mean Yes, and to think that if someone takes No for an answer it means they really don’t like them. It encourages pursuers to think that No means Yes, or that it means Maybe, or that it means “I want you to keep trying.” And that makes them more likely to push past someone else’s boundaries.

2. Suey writes about being a student with anxiety and the unhelpful responses that people make.

There are some very warm-hearted and lovely people I know that have quit graduate school because it felt more like The Hunger Games than a collaborative learning environment. We need to stop applying a “survival of the fittest” mentality to academic success, wherein intelligence is linked to ability to endure rigor. I think it’s a huge loss of the academy that people I know to be brilliant and life changing have quit due to a lack of support.

3. The Feminist Griote writes about selfies in the wake of that one awful Jezebel post:

Fat people, queer people, trans* people, femmes, disabled people, POC need and deserve affirmation too! For many of us taking selfies is an exercise in putting our self-love into praxis. The act of loving, seeing, and accepting oneself in real time. Also, so what if people take pride in the likes and comments that their selfies garner?! There is nothing wrong or gross about freely accepting compliments. Folks need to stop pathologizing those who relish in the compliments that they receive. It takes lots of work and practice to be able to freely accept a compliment, especially when you struggle to see yourself as worthy and never was accustomed to receiving them!

4. Shanley writes about how misogyny in the tech industry is often attributed to autism or mental illness in a way that both stigmatizes autism and mental illness and excuses misogyny:

Importantly, these appeals do not represent any actual engagement with mental illness — something that is sorely needed in the technology and startup industry, where many of us suffer in shame and silence with undiagnosed or untreated conditions, where mental illness is incredibly stigmatized, and where very little community support is available.

Rather, it represents a dangerous armchair psychology — expressing no actual knowledge of, nor empathy towards, mental illness, just co-opting the ill-informed and stigmatizing representations of mass media to avoid actual engagement with behaviors and trends in the community.

5. Over at Social (In)Queery, a fascinating deconstruction of straight male displays of faux-homosexuality:

Public proclamations of support on the part of heterosexual men to end homophobia are significant and important in changing opinion about GLB identities. But, asking what these men are getting out of the performance complicates such an easy analysis. This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobic stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore and the Warwick Rowing Team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobic stance can’t call them into question.

6. Julia writes about the importance of communicating clearly as mental health professionals, which includes not using jargon when non-jargon will do:

Because social work occupies a weird non-medical niche in a medical world and we have a chip on our shoulders about the fact that we do real clinical work, our notes have to be more formal than the doctors’ notes. Specifically, social workers tend to refer to themselves as “this writer”, which drives me bananas. As in, “This writer attempted to meet with client, who was unavailable due to being in the shower.” I’m not sure why an awkward writing style proves our professionalism.

7. Remember those weird high-tech anti-rape panties? The Belle Jar Blog explains why they won’t work:

It also bears mentioning that idea behind this clothing operates off the assumption that most rapists are strangers, who attack women in dark alleys late at night, when actually the opposite is true – most rapists are acquaintances with, or even romantic partners of, the victim. So what would happen if a woman did have AR Wear’s Anti-Rape clothing on, removed said clothing of her own volition, and then was raped? It would be so unbelievably easy for a judge to rule that it couldn’t possibly have been rape, because the victim chose to take off her own protective clothing.

8. Tressie writes about the purchasing decisions poor people make, and why they’re not as “stupid” as many people make them out to be:

I do not know how much my mother spent on her camel colored cape or knee-high boots but I know that whatever she paid it returned in hard-to-measure dividends. How do you put a price on the double-take of a clerk at the welfare office who decides you might not be like those other trifling women in the waiting room and provides an extra bit of information about completing a form that you would not have known to ask about? What is the retail value of a school principal who defers a bit more to your child because your mother’s presentation of self signals that she might unleash the bureaucratic savvy of middle class parents to advocate for her child? I don’t know the price of these critical engagements with organizations and gatekeepers relative to our poverty when I was growing up. But, I am living proof of its investment yield.

9. Crommunist writes about the myth that feminist men are just pretending to be feminists in order to get laid:

Now far be it from me to say that being a cishet guy feminist doesn’t give you some kind of advantage in certain circles. I’ve had sexual partners who I’m sure wouldn’t have slept with me if I hadn’t lived my belief in equality among genders. I’ve had a couple outright tell me that they were attracted to me, at least in part, because of my feminist beliefs. That being said, I’m sure I have a bunch of sexual partners who wouldn’t have fucked me if I had reeked to high heaven of the previous week’s physical exertion because I couldn’t be arsed to work a faucet. I’d imagine… all of them would agree if you asked them.

So yeah, feminism might help some guys get laid. So does showering. And the reason feminist women don’t want to fuck anti-feminist cishet guys is the same reason that women with functioning olfactory faculties don’t fuck guys who don’t shower: it’s because y’all stink.

10. Ferrett’s post about evaluating your feelings based on evidence really hits me in the feels (TW: suicide):

Being a depressive is generally living in the Land of Suck, but you do have to learn one vital secret of life in order to survive: A thing can be emotionally true and factually a lie. Which is to say that I wake on certain mornings consumed by the idea that nobody in this world loves me, that everyone would be much happier if I drank the Drano, and that my funeral would be attended by no one. This is not how I feel; this is how things are, so much so that on three occasions I’ve actually tried to end my worthless life.

Then, slowly, I gather the facts around me: My wife is cuddled up next to me, evidently content. My phone contains texts from people who wanted to talk to me. My blog occasionally contains some nice comments.

And I think: Though I feel as though no one cares, the evidence around me suggests otherwise. And, gripping the facts like I would the rungs on a ladder, I haul myself back to reality.

11. At Shakesville, Kate writes about the ways in which trans* people are expected to self-harm and/or be suicidal as a condition for receiving the healthcare they need (TW):

See, if we can’t say with conviction that we’re going to off ourselves if we don’t get the healthcare we need in a timely fashion, insurers, providers, and governments are always going to be able to deny us on the grounds that our needs aren’t real. Don’t get me wrong. Trans* people who publicly confess to thoughts of self-harm aren’t lying. It’s just that they’re frequently going through an exercise for the benefit of cis people. It sure as hell isn’t for our benefit, people.

12. Also at Shakesville, Melissa writes about the harms of the trope that sex is “natural”:

Sometimes partners who want each other more than anything and have no other ostensible barriers just happen to have bodies that don’t line up right, that don’t fit together perfectly. When it can take experimentation just to achieve the basics, the “sex is natural” trope can make people feel like failures at the whole sex thing, which adds a whole other layer of unnecessary pressure. Virgins often expect sex to look like it does in the movies, instead of the fumblefucking that our first time looks like for many of us.

For lots of people, sex takes some planning, some creativity, some ingenuity. And it also takes communication.

13. Aoife on telling bi people to just come out already:

One of the profoundly annoying things about being out as a bi person, you see, is the way you keep on having to defend yourself. And not just in the ordinary way that all of us queer folks have to defend ourselves from the homophobes of the world who figure we’re all a bunch of filthy sinners (blah blah blah ad nauseum). As a bi person, you don’t just have to defend being queer and also a decent human being. You have to deal with the fact that, unless you give sufficient proof, nobody will believe you

14. A great slightly older post on what consent looks like in practice:

If your partner is consenting, you will see them meeting you halfway on stuff, responding to your touch, touching you back, making approving noises, positioning their body helpfully, making occasional eye contact, smiling, giggling, kissing you, smelling your skin.

If your partner pulls away, flinches, draws back, goes still, goes limp, freezes, is silent, looks unhappy, starts holding their breath, goes from meeting you halfway to merely allowing your touch: stop and check in with words. Maybe they’re ticklish? Maybe they want to stop.

What have you read or written lately?

Occasional Link Roundup

Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

Last post about Women in Secularism (for now), I promise!

I just wanted to give a quick overview of how things went since I couldn’t do much over the weekend but liveblog/-tweet obsessively.

First of all, I want to thank Marcus Ranum (and Stephanie) once again for getting me there. I’m still a little shocked that people would buy me plane/conference tickets just like that and it makes me really happy. So thank you, again. I hope there will someday be a way for me to repay all the various acts of kindness that have come my way simply because I joined this community.

Second, I want to thank Melody Hensley and the rest of the CFI-DC staff for organizing this. Even if I had paid my way to the conference, I think it would’ve felt like a small price to pay.

General logistics stuff. This was the first professional conference I’ve been to and I was really impressed by how well it was organized. The hotel was awesome, everything was easy to find, there were beverages in the tabling area, there was plenty of space for people to mingle, things generally started and ended on time, and so on.

The questions were handled differently than most conferences I’ve been to: rather than people raising their hands and asking, they wrote their questions down on cards that were provided beforehand, and the MC chose the best questions to ask the speakers. While some people felt that this made the experience feel less interactive and personal, I think it was a wise decision. First of all, it prevented long, irrelevant, not-really-a-question-but-more-of-a-chance-for-me-to-talk-too “questions.” Second, it made it possible for people who don’t feel comfortable speaking up in front of a huge room of people to ask questions too.

My one issue was that there wasn’t really any mention of the harassment policy. While I knew that WiS has one (I wouldn’t attend a con that doesn’t), I was surprised that the staff never mentioned it during any of the brief housekeeping comments at the beginning. I realized at the end that had something happened, I wouldn’t have really been sure who to go to or how to contact them. On the other hand, aside from a few awkward situations, I felt so safe and comfortable all weekend that this was never an issue.

The talks. Were amazing. My favorites were the panels, especially Faith-Based Pseudoscience and What The Secular Movement Can Learn From Other Social Movements. (Apparently there was also a fantastic panel on women leaving religion, but that was at 8:30 on Saturday and I slept through it oops.) I knew that Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, Amy, Debbie Goddard, Sarah Moglia, et al. would be awesome, but I also got to hear Carrie Poppy and Desiree Schell on the panels and thought they were great. I also enjoyed the solo talks, especially Rebecca Goldstein’s and Susan Jacoby’s.

My one gripe is that I felt that the talks kinda focused too much on history and philosophy, which–don’t get me wrong–are interesting and important subjects, but I would’ve loved to hear more about strategy and organizing and the issues facing non-white/queer/poor/etc. women in religion or in the secular movement. That said, the variety of talks seemed intentionally designed to appeal to as great a variety of people as possible, so I won’t kvetch about it too much.

The people. AHHH. The people are always my favorite part of going to conferences. I finally got to meet a ton of people I’ve been friends with online and also made a lot of new friends. On Saturday night, PZ graciously lent us his room for a 25-person Cards Against Humanity game, which later dissolved into a 4 AM rant session. And there were plenty of lunches and dinners and hanging out between talks.

The best thing, though, were all the compliments. All weekend I kept hearing people affirming each other and pulling each other up. It seemed like any conversation I participated in involved someone being like “I’ve really admired your writing for a long time” and “That piece you wrote about X meant a lot to me” or even just “Your fashion sense rocks.” While I obviously liked it when people did it to me, it also felt really nice to hear people complimenting others. It was a reminder that we really do have a community.

The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler
The FtB gang (well, most of it) at WiS2. Credit: Brian D. Engler

Diversity. It was pointed out several times by attendees that the audience at WiS2 was very, very white. I noticed this too. I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of the cost, the subjects of the talks, the marketing, or something else, but I hope that future WiS conferences make an extra effort to engage and welcome atheists of color.

In other ways, though, it was quite a diverse audience. There were folks of all ages, including a few really awesome kids and teens. There were plenty of men (so much for the claims of “separate but equal”). I got to talk to a bunch of queer/trans* people, which is always great. And although Elisabeth Cornwell mentioned in her talk that there weren’t any poor people in the audience, there were in fact quite a few, many of whom had benefited from Secular Woman’s, Surly Amy’s, or Marcus’s travel grants.

The Ronald Lindsay thing. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already heard all about this, but if not, here are some excellent observations on it from Rebecca, PZ, Stephanie, Adam, Ashley, Amanda, and even Cuttlefish.

I think that, completely regardless of Lindsay’s views on feminism and its tactics, the remarks and the aftermath were inappropriate. First of all, this was not the time and place. As the CEO of a major organization and a blogger, Lindsay has plenty of fora in which to air his ideas and concerns about feminism. The opening remarks of a conference created in response to vicious attacks on women in the movement just shouldn’t be one of those fora. Lindsay likewise could’ve discussed his concerns privately with influential feminists in the movement rather than posing them to a conference audience. Not to belabor the point, but it would be like opening a conference on mental illness by suggesting that some people with mental illnesses use their illnesses as an excuse to be lazy, or something.

I don’t think that Lindsay is a bad person or opposes women’s rights or anything like that. Although I disagree with the views he expressed about feminism and the concept of privilege, I don’t think that these views should never be expressed. This just wasn’t the appropriate place to express them.

Second, there’s the issue of Lindsay’s subsequent doubling down. While I was irritated by his opening remarks, I didn’t think it was a huge deal…until he responded to Rebecca Watson’s criticism by producing another blog post in which he attacked her and compared her to North Korea. Literally. Keep in mind that Rebecca was a speaker at this conference, and that, apparently, Lindsay wrote this post instead of attending a fundraising dinner for the conference.

Needless to say, this is unprofessional, petty, and inappropriate for the CEO of an organization. Lindsay made many of us feel as though he was supporting this conference under duress and in name only.

Lindsay’s talk was as notable for what it left out as what it included. While he addressed the use of religion to oppress women, he made absolutely no mention of the vicious abuse women, including many of the women in the audience this weekend, have faced in the secular movement. He made no mention of the bullying of Jen McCreight, of the posting of Surly Amy’s address online,  or of the continued impersonation, harassment, and threats toward Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, Greta, and others. He did not say that even if Jen, Amy, Stephanie, Ophelia, Rebecca, and Greta are completely wrong about every single thing they’ve ever said or written, this does not make it okay to threaten them with death and rape. He did not make a single comment about why this conference was organized in the first place. This omission was glaring and telling. It shows that he doesn’t understand what it is we’re fighting for.

Anyway, I deliberately left this till the end of my post because I think it’s unfortunate that the vast majority of what happened at this conference, which was fantastic, is getting overshadowed by this unprofessional incident. I think it’s important to talk about it, but I also want to emphasize that I thought that this conference was a huge success and I hope there will be a third one. (If you’d like to help make that happen, by the way, you should donate to CFI and earmark the money for Women in Secularism.)

In any case, I think it’s pretty clear why a conference like this needs to exist. Women and (male allies) need a space to discuss their place in the secular movement without being accused of trying to make men “shut up.” We don’t want men to shut up; we just want to be as heard as they are.

WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie's talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler
WiS2 attendees after Maryam Namazie’s talk. Credit: Brian D. Engler
Assorted Thoughts on Women in Secularism 2

Giving Thanks

This is a sappy personal post.

This is not your typical Thanksgiving post, so first of all, you should read this and understand what this day actually commemorates. Hint: it’s not a happy awesome feast with Pilgrims and Native Americans and all that.

However, I still celebrate it in my own way because I think it’s important to have a day set aside for giving thanks. And sure, I could do that any day of the year. But doing it on the same day as everyone else does it feels more meaningful.

It would be nice if someday we started a new tradition of giving thanks on a particular day without associating that day with genocide. However, for now we have this Thanksgiving Day, and I’m going to celebrate it.

First of all, I’m thankful for writing. I’m thankful for having had the privilege to learn how to do it well and to be able to make time for it. Writing has always been one of the few things that can lift me out of my own mind, if only for an hour or so. The urge to write is like a phoenix–it burns like a fire and just keeps resurrecting itself if extinguished.

Writing has always been a key part of my development as a person. I’ve kept journals since I was 11 or so–that’s more than a decade of constantly watching myself grow and reexperiencing my own life. Whenever I’m not sure if I’ve really gotten better at this whole life thing, I can reread my old writing and see that I have.

Writing for an audience is something I’m a bit newer to, but even that I’ve been doing since high school. First it was mostly poetry and fiction; then I switched to personal narratives (like the one that got me into college!) and fiery op-eds.

I’m thankful for the change I’ve already made with my writing. I’m thankful that others have benefitted from it. I’m thankful that this matters.

I’m thankful for the internet. Go ahead and laugh. I know, it’s terrible and keeps us from enjoying “Real Life” and spending time with our families and whatnot. For me, though, that hasn’t really been my experience of it. The Internet has brought most of the other good things in my life to me–friendship, love, knowledge, inspiration.

I’m thankful for feminism, skepticism, and the rest of the ideologies I subscribe to. The reason I’m thankful is because it’s a personal thing. Feminism showed me how to find fulfillment in my relationships and taught me that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. Skepticism taught me not to automatically accept everything my brain tries to tell me, which is very useful when you have depression. Both helped me find a world beyond my own self.

I’m thankful for Chipotle, Red Bull, Diet Coke, Milanos, and Cheez-Its. Because I thought it’d be good to take a moment to appreciate the things that, for the most part, have sustained me this quarter.

And now, here comes the rainbowvomit part. Watch out…

To all the fellow activists I have met–I can’t even begin to explain how important this has been for me. I’ve met people who sued their schools when they were teenagers. I’ve also met people who are in their 30s, 40s, and beyond, and are still fighting for the changes they want to see in the world.

It’s that latter group of people that has particularly impacted me. For most of my adolescence and my college years, adults–by which I generally mean, people more than a decade older than me–were the people I dreaded interacting with. They were the people who rolled their eyes at me, told me to just wait till I’m older and working a shitty job and hating my boss. They said I’d “grow out of it.” They said it’d be different once I have my own kids. They said I’d stop caring. They crushed my dreams to such an extent that there was a period of time when I actually wanted to be a housewife–I thought that that’s how awful the world of work would be.

Now, I get that many young people are too flighty and idealistic and could probably benefit from being gently brought back down to earth once in a while. But as everyone who actually knows me ought to know, I am not such a person. After living with depression for nearly a decade, I have to fight to be optimistic and to see a purpose in life other than just making enough money to get by and popping out some children so that I’m not lonely in my old age.

That’s where meeting older people who still have that passion has really helped. The grown-up activists I know are wiser and more experienced than me, but they still value my ideas. More importantly, they’ve shown me that there is a way to be an adult while still being youthful.

To my partner–it’s weird writing this knowing that you’re going to read it, so I’ll just speak directly to you: thank you. I won’t say that life would be miserable without you, because that would be unhealthy (not to mention false). I was happy before you, and I’ll be happy after you—if there even is an after. I hope there won’t be.

But I will say that life with you is richer, sweeter, and more colorful. Thank you for the hug at Union Station; thank you for the phone call after that terrible date; thank you for those summer nights when we stayed up talking till 5 AM. Thank you for making me read The Fault in Our Stars (remember, if you don’t say the honest thing, it never becomes true). Thank you for that ridiculous night with the crappy wine. Thank you for making plans for the future. Thank you for worrying while I was in Israel. Thank you for asking me what you can do if the depression comes back. Thank you for making me make the first move. Thank you for refusing to own me and for never expecting me to shrink myself so that you can look taller standing next to me. Thank you for letting me be as independent as I need to be. You are the epitome of that timeless bit of advice: “If you love somebody, set them free.”

Yes, I just quoted a Sting song at you.

Deal with it, sweetheart.

And, finally, to my friends–I just don’t know where I would be without you. You are my proofreaders, my confidantes, my debate partners, my cheerleaders, my support system, my chosen family. Everywhere I go, physically and mentally, you go with me.

Things I learned from my (mostly) new friends: you can say, “Please stop that, it’s hurting me.” Feelings don’t have to make sense. Sometimes you need to be confrontational. There are worse things in the world than being a bit snarky. Just because someone didn’t mean to offend you doesn’t mean you can’t be upset about it. You don’t have to pretend to be okay.

Thank you for that. Thank you also for the Sunday night Google hangouts, the typos, and the hugs. Thank you not only for helping me, but for accepting my help in turn. Thank you for telling the rest of your friends about my blog. Thank you for showing me that going out and drinking and doing Young People Things doesn’t have to be uncomfortable and coercive. Thank you for helping me see that the people who say things like “Calm down” and “It’s not such a big deal” and “Stop complaining” are wrong and I don’t have to listen to them or keep them around in my life. Thank you for talking about me behind my back, because with you, unlike with anyone I’ve known before, I know that it’s going to be positive. And thank you, of course, for all of the <2.

Few of my friends live near me. They’re mostly scattered all over the country. People make fun of those of us who spend a lot of time online, but here’s the thing–not everyone has the privilege of being physically near the people they love. I never really found that at Northwestern. I found it through writing and activism.

And so, in writing if not in person, I thank the people who help keep me strong and passionate.

Giving Thanks