What It’s Like to Live in a Queer Southern Body
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
A New Queer Year
It probably says something that I’m doing a New Year’s post two weeks into the year, but as John and Sherlock would tell you on the BBC, it is what it is.
This post isn’t about the clusterfuck that was 2016 in the world, or the Trump presidency, but rather a short collection of personal thoughts about what 2017 might mean for me and what 2016 did. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been quieter in public in recent months. A large part of this has to do with wrestling with what actual accountability means as a white person trying to be involved in countering white supremacy. I’m less comfortable with public activism than I used to be, because I don’t want my voice to be one of the loudest. But I expect that I’ll continue to write, albeit at this slow pace I’ve settled into, for many years to come.
While I do less public speaking and writing about general queerness, wanting to make space for QTPOC voices, I have been still thinking about areas where my contribution might be more appropriate. So I’ve done a few talks on trans-inclusivity in data, melding my day job with my side hustle, and I’m excited that B Cordelia Yu and I will be presenting together at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March on that topic. I’ve also toyed with a podcast idea, but it burned bright for a few weeks and then energy drained away, much as it’s been with wanting to learn to draw comics, designing games, etc. And that brings me to the real point of this post, which is figuring out how to make contributions when your mental health just doesn’t want to let you.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Queer Femme
I saw a femme on the metro the other day, and for whatever reason, this person’s gender presentation got me thinking. They were dressed relatively simply, their clothing all sharp black lines, but the combination of hairstyle, eyeliner, and a bold red lip pushed them into the femme box in my perception. They also had this challenging stare that made me blush and look at my lap, and for some reason, start thinking about the way I do femme in contrast.
Femme is one of the few identities that totally speaks to me—no doubt in part because, as an identity, it’s so fluid and can be so many very distinct things all at once. FemmeCon 2012 was one of the few events where I really felt community. One of the best things about it was that, as an entire conference for femmes, there were so many varieties of femme representing, and your femme was taken as given by virtue of being present there. There was no femme bar to entry, and so I saw femmes like me (“lazy femme” or “blah femme”) alongside a million other different expressions. I didn’t need to prove myself, or think too hard about the difference between what I’m able to show the world physically, who I am, and what I might want to be.
To clarify a bit: my gender exists somewhere between squishy shy alien creature and calm, helpy robot. It’s not really something I can represent in physical space. I am drawn to things coded feminine and to queering them, so I experience delight in the color pink, in spoonie communities of care, in fannish frivolity. Many of the things I love can most easily be interpreted through a femme lens—except, I sometimes fear, for me.
An Update with Some Honesty About Spoons
Fact: this blogging thing never does get easier.
I keep hoping that consistent posting will one day become natural, that I’ll be able to write and schedule posts every weekend, but that is just not a thing. I’m being honest with myself about emotional and mental labor, and the fact that this world we live in doesn’t give us enough time to heal and just be present outside of our paid working hours. I’m also realizing that as an ADD adult, my attention span will never stick with a particular project for more than a month or two, and that’s okay.
This blog isn’t going anywhere, though. I have a post scheduled for this coming week, in fact, about a really fantastic book I want you to read. I’m just acknowledging that I’ll probably never follow the best practices of posting regularly and self-promoting, that there will be spurts of activity and then months-long gaps as there have always been. But I’ve also been blogging for more than ten years in some form, so I think that’s likely to stay.
There’s another fact in here, which is that I’m not totally comfortable being “a voice” in activist spaces when we don’t as a community acknowledge the labor of people of color who are doing most of the work here. I recently wrestled with the question of whether to write a book about non-binary gender and ultimately decided that I am not the person to write that book right now–because I don’t have the time and energy to do a full, comprehensive survey of non-binary people, focused on the voices of people of color, and the world just doesn’t need a white centered 101 to non-binary identity. I also think that if I do write that book in the future, I likely can’t in good conscience do it without a co-author of color. Since I don’t have collaboration/social spoons right now, I’m instead stepping back. If you’re hungry for queer voices, I recommend you start with checking out black girl dangerous and proceed from there.
Mental Health Is Messy and Variable, But Still Important
Greetings. It’s time for a somewhat odd end-of-year post, but bear with me. As anyone sticking around here can tell, I’ve been struggling for years to update this blog regularly. I’ve considered writing about the process many times, because I think it’s important to talk about mental health and capacity in activist communities, but it’s also tough to put myself out there and be vulnerable about my own mental health. I wanted to speak up today, though, while I’m in a particularly introspective place with regard to my mental health, have a good support structure to back me up, and have been reading some really thought-provoking work that’s made me think about how we rate our own “issues” as serious, or not serious, “enough.”
The posts I’ll reference here have very little to do with one another, at first glance. One is about executive function, another about sex-negative feminism, and the third about strategizing when to “call in.” The common thread, though, is that all three got me thinking about things in my life that often seem too “mild” or trivial to focus on or use as justification for behavior. And this is a thread that’s been incredibly prevalent and challenging for me in my attempts to practice self-care.
Attention White Queers: The As in Anti-Racism Don’t Stand for Ally, Either
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
Equity in Non-Hierarchical Polyamory
This post is part one of a four-part series on poly in practice. Look for part two next week.
Inspiration comes in odd places sometimes. I’d hardly expect the kind of mandatory culture-building sessions I take part in from time to time at work to have an effect of how I think about practicing polyamory, but I’m finding an interesting parallel. We talk a lot in my organization about equity versus equality: how the goals of social movement work aren’t grounded so much in a straight-up definition of equality (i.e., everyone is “the same”) but rather in a desire for equity (solutions that make sense for the actual humans and communities involved in a problem). I’m finding this framework to be equally useful in addressing the challenges of practicing non-hierarchical polyamory.
My knee-jerk tendency, I’ve realized, is to look for equality in relationships. Particularly when I find myself in what I would consider a similar position to a metamour’s (we started dating a partner around the same time, we have similar relationship desires and needs, etc.) I have a hard time not drawing comparisons and setting the bar down on a level playing field. The problem with this approach, which may be obvious, is that the level playing field isn’t really something you can see when it comes to relationships. So this approach has a tendency to create a couple of different problems—when I’m with a partner who does practice hierarchical poly and has a primary, it leads to the feeling of not being treated “equally” because of that prioritization, and eventually to resentment. Even when my partner also practices non-hierarchical poly, this approach can lead to insecurity or a fear that my partner is starting to lean towards the hierarchical when some relationship “milestone” happens: i.e., “you don’t feel that thing or aren’t at that milestone with me, and therefore we’re unequal and your other partner is really first.” Though I know those feelings don’t make sense in the non-hierarchical poly model, it’s still hard to get past them.
And so I’d like to start thinking about relationships in a slightly different way: thinking about whether I’m getting my needs met in non-hierarchical poly should actually be about equity, not equality.
On Being Non-Consensually Categorized
I find it funny, sometimes, how folks on the Internet perceive me, for better or for worse. So much of the writing I do is about identity and assumptions–about labels and the importance of not labelling others without permission, on the risk of misgendering someone you don’t know by assuming their gender in advance. I’m pretty heavily “out” online and in the world in general, so it’s easy enough to find out the words I use to describe myself. Every few months, it seems, I tweak my bio for a new gig or article, but some of the core words remain the same: non-binary, trans, queer, geek, femme, poly. Most of the time, when someone ignores these descriptors they’re just responding to one thing I’ve said and making an assumption about who I am, or they’re accusing me of “lying” about one of these words. “Lying” is funny in this realm: for example, it’s hard to list all the things that are wrong with assuming what others assume is in a non-binary person’s pants, and then accusing them of lying about their “birth sex” when they haven’t said much about it at all. Huh?
But then there are other ways of categorizing, used by trolls and serious critics alike, that are interesting in that they’re both wrong and make an important point about privilege, that I can take as a useful way to grow even if I disagree with the label. For example, the idea that I’m a “social justice warrior” or a career activist or one of those people who makes a lot of money to give talks and write books is a common thread. Full disclosure, I do sometimes make a bit of money to write an article or speak on a campus, and I’m highly privileged in that way. I can earn that money because I’m white, educated, and have connections in certain circles. A lot of activists do a hell of a lot more than I do and probably have a hell of a lot more to say (or at least things to say that really need to be heard by those in power), but aren’t invited to paid gigs because of systemic oppression and the discomfort people in power tend to have with radical people of color telling them that they’re wrong. I try to use the platform I have to point to voices of people of color and other marginalized folks, and to encourage white privileged people to do better. But I do accept some money for these gigs: in a given year, the equivalent of about a month’s salary. I want to own and acknowledge that.
I don’t belong to much of an “establishment,” as far as I know, in a formal sense, other than the establishment of privileged folks who need to spend more time educating ourselves and listening down the vertical hierarchy of power. I don’t currently work in an activist movement, though I have previously. I’m not so much a part of social communities (BDSM communities, poly communities, queer communities, trans communities) mainly because I don’t have the time. I miss having more involvement in trans communities online, and if there’s any community I might claim it would be those. But I can understand how I might represent something of a “radical establishment” position to some, and so I’ll take the criticism in a constructive way and focus in 2015 on exploring viewpoints that do not command much of a spotlight, particularly voices of color, and on examining my own privileged position and how I can make difficult decisions towards the ultimate goal of tearing down institutions systemic oppression. Sometimes, the best way to do this may be staying silent and making space. Other times, I will lend my voice to the fray because I do think it has some value–no more or no less value than any other single voice.
Progressive Women’s Voices
Just a note to let you know that I’ll be out and about for the weekend with the Progressive Women’s Voices program through the Women’s Media Center in New York. This year’s class is a phenomenal bunch of activists, performers, and opinionmakers, and I’m happy to be a part of it. I’ll be Tweeting when I can @queerscholar, but otherwise offline. Have a great weekend!