When People Don’t Want You to Live, Existence Becomes a Revolutionary Act

People want to kill me.

Sorry, that was too deliciously melodramatic not to open with. Now that it’s out of my system, let me back up.

I’m currently conscious that people want to kill me. It’s probably the first time that it’s been a conscious, active awareness.

I’ve known that people think I should die for being under the Queer umbrella—that they might passively pray for it, preach about it, maybe even deign to say it to my face.

But the Orlando shooting was the first time I had the icy realization that there are people who would actively take measures to end my life.

Some say it’s my generation—that we Millennials have been spared the active, moving-beyond-dislike-into-murder kind of hatred that other LGBT faced several generations ago.

To some extent that is true. It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that law enforcement will help hold space for a Pride parade instead of hauling people out of bars and beating the shit out of them for being gay.

It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that many teens and young adults can attend safe spaces on school campuses.

It’s a testament to how far we’ve come that religious institutions have begun the slow paradigm shift towards acceptance.

Yet, we haven’t come so far that Orlando is the first time that Queer people (especially Queer people of color or Queer people raised in fundamentalist homes) of my generation or younger have faced life-threatening prejudice. People are still beaten up, kicked out on the street, or murdered for their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Orlando is just the first time that many in my generation have seen that hatred directed at so many people in a single incident.

Then again, it’s the largest mass shooting for our nation in a long time, so millennials aren’t the only ones having a “first” in this sense (Contrary to popular opinion, it isn’t the largest in the history of the nation as this article points out).

Being forced to confront how deep someone’s hatred of you runs is a daunting feeling, but once the initial shock of it wore off, it reminded me of an idea that took root reading Shiri Eisner’s book Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution.

My very existence is a revolutionary act that undermines a prejudicial society.

Simply by living and refusing to be erased or cowed into submission, my life becomes a big “fuck you” to everyone who would try to control me. People can do a lot of things, but they can’t take away my self-awareness or my pride. They can try to oppress me or destroy me, but they cannot change who I am.

Ultimately, it’s the fact they can’t prevent my existence that makes them truly angry and bound for failure no matter how they might want to end my existence.

There’s something powerful and elegant in that realization.

What’s my gay—ahem—bi agenda?

To live my life like a declaration of independence, not like an apology.

To not let fear dictate who I love—or who I hate.

To live my life authentically and do all I can to support others doing the same.

P.S. As a political side-note, right now people want my “agenda” to be trying to strip people of their fifth amendment rights, but I refuse to let my radical existence be hijacked so that others can be oppressed. We’ve come a long way as a Queer community. We’ve made a lot of progress. But we’re not done. The fight for recognition of civil rights (for everyone, not just ourselves) and the protection of rights already recognized is an ever-present struggle. 

 

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Lincoln: the White Idol of Black History

Last year I had a ton of fun using Women’s History Month (March) to research and learn about some of the people and events that are often conveniently overlooked in conventional education. As a woman, it was incredibly inspiring to see how women had played a significant role in history, despite their relative invisibility.

This year, I decided that I needed to do a similar project for African American History Month. To my shame, I realized that when I thought of African American history, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Civil War, and Lincoln were the only people/events that came to mind because those were the only ones I ever heard emphasized. Even then, the Civil War and Lincoln held the forefront in my mind. Civil War books abound ad nauseum, and the number of biographies and novels written about Lincoln in the last few years would lead an archeologist to think that he single-handedly won the Civil War.

I wasn’t satisfied with that association of African American history because I knew that, like women’s history, there were many people who were invisible in the shadow of the white, male-dominated story that I had learned.

So I set out to rectify this gap in my knowledge (I know it will take me longer than a month to do that, but hell, I’m trying!). While I intended to learn about the history of a minority group, I found myself shocked to also be learning about my own White privilege.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Lincoln really wasn’t the hero of the Civil War.

Or of African American history in general.

On the one hand, that thought seems obvious now, but it was a huge epiphany a few weeks ago. Did signing a piece of paper that acknowledged what should have been evident from the beginning make him qualified to be the face of freedom?

Well, thinking about the other human rights fights, I would say no. I can’t even remember the name of the Presidents who was in office when women gained most of their rights, or whether various politicians were in favor or against those rights.

For that matter, if Obama signs an executive order declaring that marriage for same-sex couples is legal, he might get credit for being an inclusive President, but he’s certainly not going to be considered the key figure in the fight for gay rights.

African American History Month is supposed to be about bringing awareness to the invisible accomplishments of African Americans, from the man who started the first free black settlement to the first Black President of the United States. It’s about letting a disenfranchised group see what has been written out of history.

Yet the obsession is with a White guy who only came into contact with the plight of slaves when he allowed it to enter his Oval Office. He wasn’t the one risking his life creeping back onto plantations and physically leading hundreds of people through the Underground Railroad. He might have taught himself to read and write, but he certainly wasn’t breaking the law and risking the loss of everything he held dear by doing so.

Where are the bestsellers written by African Americans about their experiences? Where are the movies about those books? Where are the movies and biographies and “vampire hunter” novels about Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglas or Martin Luther King Jr.?

The reason I think Lincoln dominates the scene is because I think the U.S. is so entrenched in White privilege that, even when we’re talking about Black history, we have to somehow try to make White people look like the heroes.

The reality is too “uncomfortable.”

I know I feel discomfort in my readings! It’s nauseating to read the accounts of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth and realize the amount of pain that White people—my ancestors—caused. It’s painful to read about real-life discrimination from the perspective of those who experienced it. Fiction is so much easier to put out of mind as “just made up.” Up until now, White privilege buffered me from the horror of White history by downplaying the importance of Black history.

I didn’t choose that buffer. But then again, I didn’t choose any of the privileges I get because of my skin color. That’s what privilege is. I’m given it automatically. And since it doesn’t make me visibly suffer (I say visibly because I think privileged groups do suffer, just not as obviously as the non-privileged groups), I benefit from the privilege of not having to be aware of my privilege.

White privilege is not easy to recognize. Even though I had already gone through a painful awakening to the fact that I have White privilege, I still failed to see how far it extended—even into the very framework of my understanding of history. It’s not just that I don’t know about key African American people and events. I’ve been led to believe that White people, like Lincoln, were also the saviors and that the White account was the important line of history to follow.

White people can never be the saviors in this story though.

Just as straight people cannot be the saviors in the fight for gay rights or men the saviors in the fight for women’s rights.

It’s not heroic to give up power that isn’t yours to begin with. It’s humane.

That’s not saying they can’t be allies, but the heroes—the real heroes—are the ones who lived through the subjugation. In the case of African Americans, the heroes are the people who survived being ripped from their homelands, packed into boats like corpses, and sold on another continent to masters who would strip them of every human right—including the right to life—without repercussions, but who, nonetheless, refused to buy the bullshit that they were less than human.

As a White woman, I don’t even feel like I have that much that I can legitimately say about this topic—especially in my current state of ignorance.

But I’m sick of hearing Lincoln praised to high heaven while it is next to impossible to find a children’s book that features a Black protagonist on the front cover without being about Africa, Civil Rights, or slavery (Seriously, the next time you go into a bookstore, or even go online, see how many books you find with non-white protagonists that stray away from those three “acceptable” topics.) I’m sick of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day going by with barely a sound, but watching grown White men reenact the Civil War every year. I’m ashamed of the fact that a book written by a White woman fictionalizing the way she imagines Black servants were treated (through the eyes of a White protagonist, to boot) makes it onto the bestseller list for almost a year while a biographical book about the exact same topic is ignored. I’m fed up with the way my race still tries to erase Black History by trying to paint themselves as the good guys.

I’m not responsible for the education I received as a child, but I am responsible for my education now. It’s hard learning to admit that I’ve been taught to look down on Black history. Admitted ignorance is vulnerable. And publicly talking about my shame is anything but fun.

Normally when I rant, I rant about something someone else did to provoke my ire. Today, I’m ranting as much at myself as I am at others.

But humility often sets the stage for amazing journeys. By being willing to admit my ignorance and take the steps to be responsible for my adult education, I’m learning about some of the most amazing people I’ve ever read about—people I wish I could have known. I’m learning, for the first time, that Black history is for me too. It includes a history of White shame, but it also includes a history of incredible Americans who overcame staggering odds.

And while my privilege might have taught me that this omitted history wasn’t important but rather superfluous to the history in text books; I have actually learned just the opposite. These are people who, in fighting for their own freedom, fought for the freedom of all because the fight for freedom and equality is the same fight, whether fought over gender, race, religion, sexuality, or socio-economic status. These are heroes and role models that everyone should know about. These are my heroes.

I’m here. I’m a feminist. Get used to it.

I only just discovered feminism a few years ago. It may be an old movement, but it is entirely new to me.

Okay, that’s not entirely true. I “knew” about it, but only from the narrow perspective of fundamentalism, which basically taught that it was akin to homosexuality in its destruction of family values and ruination of marriages.

When I got a real does of feminism, the straw men—er women—fell easily away. I was a big fan of their early victories, such as getting the right to vote, establishing that wives are not property to their husbands, fighting for education, etc. I looked at real feminist’s lives and was impressed by how sane they seemed to be. They stood for things that I already felt were important. In my mind, once I was exposed to the truth, it was a no-brainer to be a feminist. I already was one!

Adopting the label of “feminist” was empowering and scary at the same time, kind of like adopting the label of “bisexual.” I knew there would be people who made false assumptions about me based on negative stereotypes. I knew that there might be a handful of people who would be turned off by the rhetoric and antagonistic towards the “agendas” of *gasp* equal rights.

But that was all part and parcel of taking a stand for something. By the time I decided I wanted to be a vocal feminist, I’d already faced so much backlash for my worldviews that the idea of yet one more person disliking me seemed like another no-brainer. It was worth it to stand for women’s rights.

I hadn’t even been a feminist for a year before I encountered a new enemy to feminism—feminists. I started hearing rumblings about former feminists who declared they were no longer feminists because they wanted to be more “inclusive” or who felt that feminism had become too vitriolic and had lived past its use.

All this while the GOP was doing everything in its power to take us back to the early 1800s, including some who thought women shouldn’t be allowed to vote!

I was confounded, to say the least, and horribly disappointed that feminists seemed to have started believing the anti-feminist propaganda. Seriously, this is the movement that has been demonized from the get-go. Perhaps we’ve forgotten, but there were printed cartoons trying to make feminists look like man-eating monsters to defame the women’s movement. This kind of antagonism is nothing new to feminism.

feminist ad

This past weekend, I overheard part of a conversation at a writer’s event. The New Feminist Agenda by Madeleine Kunin was being featured, so it was natural for feminism to come up in the conversation. Those who have met Madeleine know that she is an incredible feminist and an inspiring woman. Those who have read her book can tell you that the “new” agenda she proposes is one that focuses on family needs like childcare and job flexibility for both men and women—hardly anything “radical” or “family-hating.”

Although I did not have the pleasure of hearing Madeleine speak this time, I did hear a few women discussing a story she told—of a college girl who said she would rather be called a slut than a feminist. The women were saddened, understandably, by this young woman’s attitude towards feminism. While I agree that it’s disheartening that a woman who is benefiting from the hard word of so many feminists would consider it an insult to be associated with women’s rights, the sadder part was the discussion that followed.

One of the “feminists” wondered if the title of Madeleine’s book should have used a different word because “feminist” was just too . . .

I actually didn’t hear the end of that thought, but I can fill in the blank with any number of words that I’ve heard before. “Tainted,” “negative,” “off-putting.”

Oh my heart broke at that moment.

Let me make something clear, I don’t think everyone has to identify as a feminist. I’ve got friends who support equal rights but who do not consider it a big deal to identify as a feminist. That’s fine. If the label doesn’t feel right, don’t wear it.

But if you do identify strongly as a feminist, why the hell would you let someone scare you away from your own identity?

Yes, there are a handful of extremists who trumpet the feminist label while doing horrible things. Does the fact that feminism has some crazies—some truly horrible, mean, bigoted people—involved in it make it an illegitimate movement suddenly?

No!

Because that would mean that the Republican party, the Democratic party, the Catholic church, Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Atheism, Humanism, Agnosticism, and any other movement or philosophy you can think of are all illegitimate for the same reason.

Every group is going to have extremists within it.

Every group is going to have assholes.

But the majority of feminists don’t actually want to castrate men, take all the power, kill babies, dismantle all of society, destroy the family, force women to stop shaving their legs, or oppress other people based on race, gender, religion, etc.

Do people like that exist?

Yes.

You’ll find them wherever you go, including within feminism. But guess what? It’s not because they’re a feminist that they hold onto their own brand of bigotry. One jerk within a movement doesn’t make every other person in that movement a jerk as well. One flaw in the history of a movement doesn’t make it entirely flawed.

I’m more than willing to denounce anyone who is promoting their own brand of bigotry, but I refuse to let their stupidity take away my identity.

Today, I’m here to tell the world that I’m fucking proud to be a feminist.

If that means I’m called a “slut” because I refuse to conform to the sexual double-standards and taboos of society, then I’m proud to be called that too.

If that means I’m called a “bitch” because I don’t erase my individuality around other people, then I’m proud to be called that too.

If that means I’m called “radical” because I have a voice and use it, then I’m proud to be called that too.

The people who already hate what I stand for DO NOT get to define me. I am a feminist because I believe that women’s rights are as important as racial rights and gay rights—because they’re all part of human rights.

For the past two years, I claimed my identity as a bisexual and walked down the streets of my home town and of New York City with people holding signs that said “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” While there are certainly people within the Queer community who hold prejudices against others and against their own or who ascribe to ideas that I’m not comfortable with, I’m not ashamed to identify as LGBT.

Perhaps this is the year, then, that I need attend a  slutwalk topless screaming “No means no” or march on D.C. with a sign that says “My body, my choice.” The world can demonize feminism all it wants, but I’m not giving up.

And if you identify or used to identify as a feminist, I challenge you to claim your right to your own identity. Grab hold of it with both hands and don’t let anyone scare you away from it. There will probably continue to be a negative view of feminists for a long time because we’re nowhere near where we need to be yet. There will always be people who hate you for what you stand for. But that should be all the more reason to stand proudly.

The very fact that feminism is considered a dirty word is exactly why we still need feminists.

Killing the Messenger: A Closer Look at Anger

Last week in talking about forgiveness, anger and violence frequently came up. Even though I normally would do something lighter after such a heavy topic, I feel I need to cover my position on anger to try to clear up the misunderstandings. To be honest, I’m not even sure how much of this is original to me or to another psychotherapist because it’s a topic that we’ve covered in depth several times. Then again, how much of an idea is ever original to anyone? All ideas are formed based on our interactions with others. Therefore, here is my spin on what I’ve come to understand about anger through the exchange of ideas with very wise others.

I suppose if you weren’t shocked about my previous post, you won’t be shocked to learn that I’ve come to see anger as healthy. I lost count of how many times I said that last week. Anger really is the most demonized shadow emotion, and it’s unfortunate because anger can be such a powerful tool.

I think the aversion to anger lies in this myth that anger is the same as malice, violence, and abuse.

It’s not.

First, malice is an intent—wishing someone harm. While I could argue a relativistic approach about the neutrality of a “wish,” I do not believe that intending someone harm is either good or healthy. But anger doesn’t have to come accompanied with intent. I can be (and am) angry at my abusers without wanting to see them harmed.

Second, violence and abuse are behaviors—a certain way of expressing various attitudes and emotions. Anger can be part of that mix, but it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes violence and abuse can be about control, entitlement, sadistic pleasure or prejudice without anger ever entering the picture. Even if anger were always part of violence and abuse, it would be fallacious to assume that one is equal to the other. In order for anger to become violence, there must also be a script.

And by “script” I mean exactly what it sounds like. Shakespeare wasn’t too far off when he likened the world to a stage. Life is filled with little scripts that tell us what to do and say in various situations. Think about the majority of your interactions and how rote they can be in the beginning and end. There might be some variation, but for the most part we all follow a basic model of interaction.

Scripts aren’t instinctual from birth. They’re conditioned and taught through culture and, as a result, often vary from culture to culture. If someone tried to kiss me in greeting, I might duck and run, but if I grew up in Europe, that would not be an awkward way of saying hello.

Whereas our scripts are conditioned, emotions are universal across humanity—the one language that can be understood across cultures—and shared with other species. We tend to downplay the importance of emotion in science, but the fact is emotions serve a pretty significant evolutionary function. Our species could not survive without them. They’re one of the oldest surviving aspects of the mind because they are essential to group interaction.

As an emotion, anger has a purpose. It’s the warning light that goes off when something is wrong. By itself, that warning is neither good nor bad . . . actually, I could argue that it’s good because without that warning light we’d have a hard time knowing when something crossed an important boundary. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll call it neutral.

We are taught how we’re supposed to react to that warning, and that is where we get into problems. When we think of anger, the scripts that most often come to mind are suppression or rage—neither of which are healthy. In many ways, I also see them as the same response. Anger out of control is anger that can no longer be suppressed. And suppressed anger will eventually become out of control.

Let’s use the analogy of urination. It’s not something we consider all that pleasant, but it is a natural bodily function that we all have. If you can’t pee, there’s something wrong with your body. If you try to suppress your body’s need for too long, sooner or later you’re going to pee uncontrollably all over yourself. If you suppress your body’s need consistently over time, you’ll cause permanent damage.

Similarly, when anger is considered something we need to suppress or drive away from ourselves, the only time it ever finds its way out is when we get to the point that we can’t suppress it any longer. Then, yes, we’re going to get unhealthy and unwanted expressions.

If we consistently fail to give ourselves a healthy outlet for our natural emotions, it will also cause all of those nasty little health problems that everyone associates with “negative emotions.” And if the pee analogy isn’t enough to convince you that the health problems are a result of an unhealthy expression of anger, consider adrenaline. It’s common knowledge by now that too much adrenaline in the body can cause pretty significant damage, especially if adrenaline levels are kept elevated over time (aka stress). But no doctor would argue from that knowledge that we shouldn’t have an adrenaline response. We’re advanced enough in our understanding to recognize that adrenaline serves an important function in the fight/flight response. It gets our body ready to deal with an emergency. We need that ability. But if our adrenaline response is repeatedly triggered and our body isn’t given the proper outlet for releasing that energy, it causes problems.

Why should anger be any different? Go ahead and make note of the unhealthy approaches to anger, but don’t kill the messenger because you don’t know how to make use of the message! Instead, find the positive approaches to anger.

It’s an arousing emotion, meaning it creates energy. Like most people, I used to associate that energy with destruction, in a bad way. It’s true that anger can be destructive, but as a part of creation, destruction can actually be healthy. Sometimes it’s better to end a relationship because it’s toxic. Sometimes it’s better to cut some ties, pull down some walls, demolish some beliefs, and tear up some letters. Anger as a destructive force gives us the energy to bring to an end something that no longer contributes to our health and/or growth.

Kali--goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My "goddess" of anger.

Kali–goddess of time and change, often a symbol of destruction but also a symbol of creation. My “goddess” of anger.

But, I’ve discovered that anger can also be constructive. Some of my best art has been created during a period of intense anger. It’s been the force behind much of my healing and the impetus that prompted me to create a better life for myself. And I wouldn’t be learning how to build relational boundaries without the anger that tells me when someone has done something that violates my person.

Putting the destruction and construction together, I see anger as the catalyst for change, inspiring activism, social justice, and protests. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws—all of it involved some sort of anger at the injustice of the situation and a desire to see that change. Hell, the U.S. wouldn’t even be here without anger. Anger is a valuable stressor that pushes a system to make adjustments. Otherwise, the system has no reason to change.

Sometimes anger can just be an extra boost of energy. Some of my best workouts have been fueled by anger. I absolutely love running when I’m pissed. Yoga, with angry girl music blasting, is pure exhilaration. And let’s not forget that rumor about angry sex. I’ve been doing my own little experiments on that. I can’t reveal my results, but the gist of my post could probably tip you off. 😉

I’ve even come to see anger as an expression of love! By allowing myself to experience anger over my abuse, I am showing love to myself. By allowing myself to get angry over the injustice that I see against another, I am loving them enough to get upset at the way they are being treated. And I really can’t bring this point out enough—even Jesus (you know, the love your neighbor as yourself guy) got angry enough to build a freaking whip and overturn the tables of a bunch of swindlers.

So, to wrap up my exhausted ramblings, yes, anger can have significant problems associated with it–as can any emotion or natural function that has been demonized and pushed into the recesses of our psyche. And it’s true that living in a constant state of anger can be problematic . . . but to be fair, no emotion is healthy to experience as a constant state of being (not even happiness). So really, the constant state thing is a moot point.

When we no longer try to dictate to ourselves which emotions we’re allowed to feel, the body has its own way of finding balance. Our job is to listen to it (yes I said that last week, but I think it’s important) and sit with the process. We start by questioning the scripts we’ve been taught about our emotions and giving our emotions space to simply be–without judgment, without expectation. Just be.