Creating Cigarettes & Wine – a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story

In this post, J. Sumerau reflects on the process of outlining, composing, and publishing Cigarettes & Wine, a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s and based on zir experiences as a bisexual non-binary person and researcher collecting stories of other sexual and gender minorities over the past couple decades. 

Yesterday, my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – was officially released.  The novel is a southern bisexual and non-binary coming of age story set in the 1990’s based on hundreds of formal and informal interviews with sexual and gender minorities throughout the southeast I’ve collected over the past couple decades as, first, a curious bisexual and non-binary kid and later, as a researcher focused on sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities.  In this post, I elaborate on the background and creation of the novel after many colleagues and friends have asked about its origins over the past few months.  For more information about the novel or to purchase it, see here.

Background

I was sitting in a hotel lobby with a colleague I deeply admire and appreciate.  We were talking about all kinds of things related to life, relationships, research, activism, teaching, and the world, and my colleague asked a question about the novels I completed in the preceding months.  The topic was especially relevant at the time since I had just submitted my first novel – Cigarettes & Wine – for consideration for the Social Fictions book series, and since my colleague had done me the favor of being the first person outside my little chosen family / inner circle to read the drafts of the first two novels I had composed.  My colleague’s interest and support and feedback on Cigarettes & Wine at the time was and remains invaluable, but I also enjoyed just how hard I laughed when my colleague asked, “So, this was so real, I gotta know, is this you, your life, it is, isn’t it?”

I laughed because though I had not thought much about it at the time, I understood the question.  The narrator of the novel is a non-binary, bisexual raised in a small town in South Carolina.  So am I.  The novel is set in the same geographic area where I grew up, and in a fictional town similar to the one that I grew up in.  The events in the novel are all things that – both from my personal experiences, from interviews I’ve done over the years, and from a lot of the people who read drafts along the way – have happened to people and / or are familiar to people, and thus, they are real events.  The novel is also written in first person more like a diary of sorts.  I laughed because it was a reasonable conclusion that I could understand, but not one I thought much about while writing the book.  I laughed because my colleague was incorrect, but not entirely incorrect.

My colleague was incorrect because the novel is entirely fictional – none of the characters in the novel are actual people and none of them are me.  Each one of them are composites of many people I have met, observed, interviewed, had relationships with, and otherwise encountered throughout my life.  Desperate for information on and experiences of bisexual (across the spectrum), transgender (across the spectrum), and poly (across the spectrum) people like me, and for even more information on lesbian, gay, asexual, intersex, kink, aromantic, and otherwise Queer people I admired, I began collecting the stories of everyone I could meet when I was a teenager.  Like the narrator, I would fill up journals with fictional versions of my own life (i.e., how it might be in other contexts) and fill journals up even further with all these stories of sexual and gender diverse experience, lives, and realities that were hidden just out of sight all around me.  Later in life, this actually ended up being incredibly useful training for life as an ethnographic, autoethnographic, content analysis, and interview-based researcher, and to this day, twenty years later, I still collect these stories every chance I get though now I do it both professionally and in my personal time.  My colleague was incorrect because the novel is not a retelling of my own story on its own, but rather, it’s more like a mix tape created by integrating the stories of hundreds of sexual and gender diverse / Queer people I have been lucky enough to meet, learn from, and become inspired by over the years.

At the same time, my colleague was not entirely incorrect.  While I do not exist in full in any of the characters or events, some of the events in the book are ones that I experienced as well.  Similarly, I remember very well living two distinct, separate lives as a younger person wherein almost all my straight friends and most of my family had no clue (to my knowledge, though I learned last year I was wrong in at least one case) about half of my life, and wherein my Queer friends knew more about the rest of my life but were never part of interactions I had with the straight, cis, mono world at the time (except secretly on rare occasions).  Further, there are little pieces of my personality, experience, and feelings as a teenager scattered throughout the book (i.e., a joke I like here, a place I hung out there, a conversation I had with someone here, emotions I felt in a tough or wonderful moment there, etc.), and in each of the main characters in the novel.  As someone very close to me put it after reading an early draft of the novel, “You’re everywhere and nowhere in this story.”  Put another way, the story is a mix tape of so many people’s stories, lives, experiences, and emotions, but I show up along the way as the curator of the collection hidden or embedded in this or that character or moment.

All these thoughts went running through my head as I sat in the hotel lobby with my colleague.  When I finished laughing, I simply said, “No, it’s not my story or the story of me, but it is one of what are likely millions of possible stories of people like me or like us.”  My colleague smiled, and asked what I meant.  I said, “Well, I basically took all the stories of people like us – mine and yours included – and put them together the best I could into a collective narrative illustrated through the lives of a group of kids in the 1990’s.”  My colleague laughed, and simply said, “How did you do that?”

Data and Methods

Integrating a wide variety of experiences is not easy, but luckily, it is what I do for a living as a researcher collecting and analyzing data sets of various sizes.  I began writing the stories that would become Cigarettes & Wine in my twenties, but I failed over and over again to accomplish whatever I wanted at the time (I’m still not sure).  I tried to write my own story, but I was never as good at that since I found other people more fascinating.  I tried to write it as a mix tape like I finally did last year, but I don’t think I had the skill set for that kind of writing before years of doing research for a living.  I tried to write it as a collection of disconnected journal entries from various people across the south, but it never seemed to work or flow well.  I gave up on it and pushed it aside when I got the chance to go to graduate school and try to develop a career as a scholar, researcher, activist, and teacher.  For eight years, while I published research, it sat there, a forgotten dream in the back of my mind.

When I decided to try it again last year with the support and encouragement of my life partner and best friend and after so many students suggested I should write a novel about all the stories I’d collected over the years, I approached the book as a research study and the stories I collected over the years – as well as my own experiences – as data for analysis.  Though I was only beginning to learn about it at the time, this approach is actually a rather common one in arts based research movements and traditions.  Despite the fact that, like the narrator in the story, I generally destroy my journals when I’m done with them because for some reason that feels good to me and they’re all made up fictional versions of life anyhow, I kept so many of the stories I collected from other people over the years and so I began to start reading back through them and thinking about remembering other ones and thinking about and making notes on my own experiences and those of other people.  Like I do with research papers, I began looking for patterns in the stories, and setting aside things that multiple people had experienced, dealt with, witnessed, or otherwise felt or known as part of their lives.  From this approach, I came up with a list of common events and experiences that appeared repeatedly in stories from people of varied sexualities, genders, locations in the south, religious backgrounds, family backgrounds, races, and other social characteristics.

Armed with these events as an outline for a narrative, I began creating characters based on integrating aspects of real people (say five or ten different people) into one whole character with thoughts, hopes, loves, fears, dreams, and personality quirks.  Although they changed a lot by the end of the composition process, these character profiles allowed me to start narrating the events that were common in the stories.  I initially tried telling the story from two other characters’ points of view before I finally got it to work with the narrator in the published version.  I also initially started telling a story that spanned from the 1990’s to now, but this proved to be way too much ground to cover so instead I broke it up into two and then three outlined novels (the second is now composed and the third is in progress of composition at present).  Once I had these raw materials (as I call them when I write research papers), I was ready to write the first rough draft of the story.

In the end, I wanted to accomplish three things with Cigarettes & Wine.  First, I wanted a bisexual and non-binary focused story after spending so many years wishing I could find one – much less one set in the world I grew up in – as a kid.  Second, I wanted a story where almost all of the character were Queer in one way or another and in different ways to illustrate the diversity of the amazing people I’ve met over the years who identify and live in so many different ways within the various umbrella terms we use.  Third and finally, I wanted a real story that captured experiences of Queerness in the south, and as a result, I only used events in the novel that showed up in multiple people’s lives over the years and explicitly sought to capture beautiful and ugly, wonderful and terrible things that Queer people experience in our world.

Results

Whether I’m thinking about my journalism, my blogging, my research publications, my short stories, or any other kinds of writing I have done over the years, I tend to agree with the perspective that only audiences can judge the results of a given work.  Personally, I feel like I accomplished the three things I set out to do with this novel, but now that it’s out, I believe that it will be up to readers to figure such things out.

Thinking about the responses and feedback of the people who were kind enough to do me the priceless favor of reading drafts of this work before now, I feel happy with the novel and I look forward to whatever comes next.  There were some that fully praised the work, and others who did not like it much at all.  There were some who thought it was too positive considering LGBTQIAP politics in America at present, and others who thought it was too negative in relation to the same.  There were some who thought the novel should have ended five chapters or so earlier, and others who thought it should have gone on for a few more chapters to offer more detail, resolution, or other bits of wrapping up.  For me, the fact that the reactions have spanned a diversity of opinions even among the relatively small pool of readers thus far suggests I may have got what I wanted – a real, complex portrait of the good, bad, and everywhere in between Queer people in the south experience.  I don’t know if this is correct or how others will interpret the work, but I’m happy with it and that counts for something in my mind.

Instead of trying to ascertain any concrete result or metric, when I think about Cigarettes & Wine as a now published work available for purchase by anyone, I think about the stories that have and continue to inspire me, that others have kindly shared with me so many times over the past couple decades, that resonate with me in cases of both similarity and difference, and that speak to a much wider, more complex, and more varied Queer existence then I can usually find in academic or mainstream media portraits and publications.

I think about talking with people in different states about things like burner phones, secret notes and mixtapes, and stolen kisses in the shadows where no one would see alongside so many other ways people found / find to live their Queerness in spaces that try to erase it from possible options.  I think about laughing with people of different races, ages, sexualities, and genders about awkward and sweet and sometimes scary moments when we first learned this term, that sexual practice, this type of toy or other material, or that type of intimacy.  I think about listening to stories about first loves who are still together – sometimes openly now and sometimes still secretive for many reasons – 30 years later, first loves that died way too soon, first loves that fizzled for any of a million reasons, first loves who were “such a mistake” and others who were “exactly what I needed.”  I think about violence that was explicitly directed at people for being sexual or gender diverse / Queer, violence that was simply tied to living in the south where guns and fights and poverty are often so visible and normal, violence that people heard about that shifted the ways they lived or felt in the moment, and violence that people were grateful for avoiding even when some felt guilty that they avoided it when others could not.  I think about discussions of accidents related to coming out or being outed by others, related to four wheelers, related to the friend who died when a gun went off or when the three wheeler flipped in the field, related to cars on highways and alcohol from plastic cups, related to lack of sexual education, and all kinds of other accidents that occurred as people tried to figure out who they were and tried to figure out how to manage rural and small town cultures.  I think about the conversations about the beauty of religion alongside the horror of religion alongside the fear and shame of religion alongside the liberation of religion depending on what religion, what location, and whether or not one’s Queerness was known to the religious.  I think about the conversations about hateful families alongside the conversations about supportive families alongside the conversations about chosen families.  I think about the conversations with so many more people who are out and open and relatively safe nowadays alongside the conversations with so many more who are still in hiding for one of a million understandable reasons who may or may not ever want to or be able to come out and live openly.

I think about all these stories and so many more, and for me, that’s what the book is about.  For me, Cigarettes & Wine is simply the first of a series of novels I am writing seeking to honor, celebrate, mourn, and embrace all the different forms and experiences of sexual and gender Queerness I’ve seen in my travels throughout the south.  For me, it is an attempt to share the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, and in short, the complex wonder of the many different ways sexual and gender diversity play out and survive and even thrive even in places – like the Deep South – where we don’t often expect it or see it as openly displayed.  For me, it is also an attempt to say to Queer people in the south – and especially the bi and trans and poly folk like me who rarely see ourselves in even LGBT academic and mainstream media coverage – that you are not alone, that there is at least as much beauty as however much pain you might be facing, that the pain you may face is real and not your fault, that the beauty and wonder you find in you and your friends and lovers is also real and worth celebrating and fighting for, and that in the both the best and worst moments of your life you are part of a much larger population, story, and tradition that has and will continue to survive and fight with and for you.

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    

 

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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Creating Queer Kinship in “Straight” Spaces

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores the importance of Queering Heterosexuality and “straight” as a heteroqueer (i.e., someone who identifies as primarily heterosexual and also Queer in other respects related to sexualities (i.e., kink, poly, mixed orientation relationships, etc.) and / or gender (i.e., trans, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, etc.) person existing between static notions of cisgender-monosexual-heterosexuality on the one hand and Queerness on the other.  Specifically, as an agender person primarily attracted to different sexes, they discuss using access to “straight” spaces to Queer such spaces and advocate for Queer Kinship and Justice in daily life.  

When I was in high school, my best friends and I were members of one of many “gay-straight alliance” groups formed throughout the US in the 1990s.  I always found the group’s name sort of odd, because it reduced sexuality to a binary and suggested that people of different sexualities supporting each other was a matter of formal “alliance” rather than basic human decency.  These days, I certainly feel glad to live in a society that is increasingly using inclusive language to craft and narrate queer spaces.  But I also realize the wisdom—if inadvertent at the time—in a name that illustrates the possibility of complex interplay between queer and straight identities.

Referring to myself as “straight” was also something I avoided before I could really give voice to why it made me so uncomfortable.  I was one of those kids who discovered at a pretty early age that they were interested in people with genitals different from their own.  But even though I never felt attracted to people with similar anatomy to my own, I never ruled out the possibility of that happening in the future either, nor did I feel any anxiety about that possibility.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents made clear that I would be loved equitably whether I were interested in males, females, intersex people, or all or none of the above.  Over time, the painful realization set in that many of my peers did not have that freedom.

I feel some of this pain now as I reflect on high school—a time I very much enjoyed that made me feel free to be myself both in the classroom and outside of it.  I did not realize at the time just how privileged I was.  I also had the wonderful privilege of a close friendship with an out gay male, and although I cringed at how he had been non-consensually outed by someone who was angry at him the previous year, I celebrated his self-assurance in enjoying an openly out life, as well as the degree to which the school community seemed to embrace him as a gay man.  It was only later, as my partners in more mature relationships gained a higher level of knowledge of their own sexuality and its social consequences, that I began to wonder if many of my peers had just ignored my friend, accepting him while at the same time erasing the core of who he was.

For reasons I have never really tried to unpack, I have generally felt most comfortable and happy in relationships with males who experience at least some degree of attraction to other male-looking people, even though I myself have never experienced attraction to a female-looking person.  And in terms of gender presentation, my partners have run the gamut from very rugged-looking to very delicate-looking, but all have embraced at least some degree of fluidity in relation to established gender norms.  Yet many did not understand what it meant to me to be agender, something I have known about myself with stunning clarity since long before I knew the technical term for it.  This growing sense of alienation made me reflect anew on my experiences in high school, and how differently I probably experienced the social environment surrounding my friend’s openness about his sexuality than he did.

I came to the uncomfortable and inexorable conclusion that although my high school was queer-friendly in many ways, it was fundamentally a straight space.  I would see this time and again in stories other friends told me about their own coming out—friends who had been so deeply closeted that not so much as a single rumor circulated about their sexuality when we were all in high school together.  These stories drove home just how much we were *not* “all in it together”, because togetherness and feelings of such were a privileged space for students whose sexuality did not deviate from those deeply entrenched norms.  Nobody questioned me for saying I did not feel threatened by the idea of one day being attracted to another female, because I was frequently seen in the company of males and it was well known that I had a history with several male students.  I rejected the term “straight” pretty vocally, but was that really enough?  Despite my openness about my gender identity, I also never considered the idea that I might myself be queer—that queer was more than just a double-edged term for “gay”.

In fact, the idea that I might be queer—and indeed, the very meaning of that term—did not register until I met my partner, the person I married just a few months ago.  In zer wedding vows, ze spoke softly about how I always *saw* who ze really was, in a world that often ignores zer entirely.  I could see my partner quite clearly—a bisexual, genderfluid person to whom I felt a pull like no other.  I celebrated zer sexuality and gender identity and thought about how nice it was to be with someone who really *got* it about my experience as an agender person, even though ze was not agender zerself.  But at the same time, I worried about not being “queer enough” to provide the kind of safe spaces that would truly nurture my partner.  This was a source of constant anxiety for me and frustration for my partner until one day, ze looked me in the eye and said, “Xan, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.  You’re queer too.  You just don’t see it because you’ve always been embraced in straight spaces as well as queer ones.”

That got my attention.  I was still living with DID at the time, and looking back I wonder if this discussion might have been one of the events that led to my reintegration a few months later.  I learned that I was something called “heteroqueer”—a person who is attracted only to members of other sex groups, but feels comfortable with the possibility they might one day feel attracted to members of their own sex group.  Many heteroqueer people also queer gender and sexuality norms in other ways.  For example, I have experienced attraction to transmasculine people after they have achieved their physical transition goals.  I also queer gender every moment of every day by reminding people that there is no empirical relationship between what my body looks like, how I dress, how I behave, and whom I choose to invite into the most intimate spaces of my world.

Yet this was the first time I had ever come close to an integrated concept of what it meant to be both a “heterosexual” person and an agender person, or to prioritize spending my time in and enriching spaces for openly queer people, or to feel more fulfilled in relationships with bisexual partners, or any of those other things my high school activism had not remotely prepared me to address.  I just knew that I was “doing me”, whatever that meant, and that I felt a constant sense of anger and frustration that was starting to boil over.  Every time someone would use “straight” language or norms to describe my relationship with my partner, I would cringe and then start to go on the offensive.  And when people asked me stupid questions about my relationship with J, I fought to hold on to my composure.

My favorite of these ridiculous questions was “So J is bi…does that mean you’re bi now too?”  Yes, and being with a person who has a penis means that I have also magically grown a penis.  No, I am not bi.  As far as I know—and I have a fair amount of data to back up my suspicions at this point—I will never be bi.  And that is incredibly important, because the very fact that I exist—and that in so doing I make people acknowledge the heretofore unexamined reality that people like my partner exist—is still, even in today’s world, an affront to heteronormative thinking about relationships.  I have learned, with progressively greater degrees of discomfort and anger, that “straight” people are not supposed to want to date bisexual people, let alone marry them.  We are supposed to feel threatened and overwhelmed by their rampant, teeming, uncontrollable sexuality.  We are supposed to expect them to fuck anything that moves.  We are supposed to expect them never to feel fully satisfied by us.

Of course, those of us who *do* have bisexual partners know none of that has anything to do with bisexuality.  Nymphomania, hypersexuality, infidelity, ennui…these things all exist as well, and are worthy of attention.  But what emerges from daring to love a bisexual person in a straight world is a deep and nuanced knowledge of what “queer kinship” really means—and the responsibility I have in creating it.  I probably did some of these things unconsciously back in high school by affirming my friend and never erasing parts of his experience that broader norms and narratives could not seem to find spaces for—an example being the little-known attractions he had also experienced toward females, but generally those who exhibited aggressive and traditionally masculine behavior.  I saw my friend back then the same way I see my partner now, but I could not give voice to that sight even with him, let alone with anyone else.

Those of us who identify as heteroqueer have a unique opportunity to create queer kinship in places where it is not usually found—and indeed, where such kinship can make a profound impact.  We have a privilege reserved for few in our society, one that simultaneously grants us affirmation in both straight and queer spaces.  We speak both languages, as it were, but often spend so long battling norms that suggest we need to “pick a side” that we become exhausted and tapped out.  It is only since building a life with my partner that I have realized how much more freedom I have now, as an openly heteroqueer person whose partner and other loved ones see me and embrace me exactly as I am.  I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life, and it makes me ache for all those who cannot experience that fulfillment because there are no safe spaces in which to do so outside of intentional ones that only other queer people can access.

For those of us who constantly straddle the boundaries between queer and straight spaces, queer kinship is a precious responsibility that too often goes unmet.  We need to be more than allies who demur with phrases like “I’m not *really* queer”.  We are absolutely queer, and we absolutely need to be here.  But we also need to be *there*.  We need to keep spending time in the straight spaces where we are privileged to be welcome, and we need to keep breaking down the walls that keep our fellow queer people out—or as is more often the case, electrocute them if they attempt to enter.  In having the ear of both queer and straight communities simultaneously, we can challenge destructive norms about sexuality and gender and still escape to fight another day.  The scars we receive in these battles are worth every knotted inch of flesh, every jagged piece of skin.  We drink deeply from the nourishing well of queer kinship every day while also enjoying the continued embrace of our straight peers.  We must now build those wells for others in places where they can be accessed safely, without navigating pit traps or minefields.

Heteroqueer identity is an important cornerstone of queer kinship because it dismantles the idea that queer kinship cannot exist and thrive within straight spaces.  Embracing this identity, and taking the time to educate others about how queerness and straightness can intersect without destroying one another, offers more than just a means of liberating ourselves.  Rather, this work is profoundly essential for the overall goal of queer liberation.  Cultivating and nurturing queer kinship in straight spaces is worth doing at every opportunity, and at any cost.  When we do so together, we build a world in which everyone can truly “do them” instead of parroting this empty mantra to avoid working for real change.  Queer kinship is the path to a world in which closets exist only to hold clothing—a world in which every space is a safe one.

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Sidelined: Contraception Side Effects and Gender Inequity

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores recent discussions arising from clinical trials for men’s contraception in relation to broader patterns of gender inequity in health and contraception and some of their own experiences navigating gender, contraception, health, and side effects.  

I’ve been seeing a lot of posts on social media lately making fun of men for dropping out of clinical trials of hormonal contraceptives due to terrible side effects. This isn’t remotely okay, and it needs to stop. Suggesting that men should martyr themselves on the same crosses other people have been involuntarily nailed to for centuries isn’t a solution, and frankly it’s terribly cruel. The issue here isn’t that men are speaking up about feeling terrible and prioritizing their health in choosing to drop out of the clinical trials for these drugs. The issue is that women reported the same exact side effects in trials of the same drugs that are currently on the market for people with ovaries and uteri. Rather than those trials being shut down as the one for contraceptive pills for people with penises and testicles was, the trials continued and the women’s concerns were dismissed as weakness or figments of imagination.

Reproductive autonomy is a fundamental human right, and people shouldn’t have to feel physically and/or mentally compromised to invoke that right in their daily lives. No one contraception option is right for every single person’s health needs, even within a given sex or gender group. We should have hormonal contraception options for everyone that work without making us feel like epic shit. And nobody–and I mean *nobody*–should ever be discredited for saying a medication is diminishing their quality of life.

The timing of the news about the clinical trial for male contraception couldn’t be more ironic or apt. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve taken regular-dose triphasic oral contraception since I was 17 years old, even though I was ready to get sterilized in my early 20s. Although my doctors would have approved sterilization surgery given my lifelong knowledge that I was childfree, I would still have needed estrogen therapy to combat some of the health problems caused by my autoimmune disease, most notably the threat to my bones.

I took the same two or three brands of generic triphasic pills for nearly two decades. Then when I moved to Orlando, the Publix around the corner from my house didn’t carry any of those and offered me a different generic. Within a few days, things began to go downhill.

My mental health spiraled quickly. I became extremely depressed, which is so completely unusual for me that at first I didn’t realize what was happening. I blamed myself for “fooling myself” about how much progress I’d made with my PTSD or thinking that I could actually make a go of things in my new role with FSU COM. The future became a sucking black hole in my mind, full of nothing but hopelessness and the prospect of being gradually betrayed more and more by my body. I cried all the time. I experienced terrible paranoia and started hearing voices. I found it difficult to trust anyone, including my spouse and my parents. I thought about suicide constantly.

None of this is remotely usual for me. Even during my worst experiences with the PTSD, I haven’t felt like that. I’ve always had hope. You don’t survive 32 years with a disease like mine if you don’t have hope.

I also experienced bizarre changes in my physical health, like my breasts suddenly swelling an entire cup size and becoming painful to touch even while putting on clothing. I was so exhausted every morning that my whole body felt as if it were made of lead. My kidneys hurt and my intestines felt as if someone had tied them in a knot. The flora in my entire pelvic region got completely out of whack and a terrible smell seemed to follow me everywhere. And for some reason, my symptoms always seemed to be worst in the morning and get a little bit better throughout the day, then worsen again in the night.

In the back of my mind, the possibility that this might be a bad reaction to the pills I was given swam around. I wasn’t thinking straight by the time I became seriously concerned. If I had, I would have stopped the pills immediately and called Publix to switch me back onto my old medication. But my mind went instead to blaming myself, to thinking I’d done something to make my body and mind act like that, that I just wasn’t strong enough, that now I was becoming as grotesque on the outside as I felt on the inside.

I tried to communicate with my spouse about it and kept failing horribly. I worried about being a “quitter”, or worse, a bad epidemiologist–blaming medication I’d taken for half my life for my own failings. But eventually, toward the end of the pack when the swelling in my chest had gotten so bad that I was in pain all day and couldn’t wear some of my bras, I blurted this out to J between spells of inscrutable tears.

J stopped in their tracks. “You’re on the wrong pills. Xan, this isn’t you. You’re on the wrong pills. None of this is your fault.” So I stopped taking the pills, which I usually would have done before going to bed at night. When the next morning came, I felt somewhat better rather than worse. By that night, I started to feel a lot better. My chest deflated like a pricked balloon, returning to its usual size within 48 hours. All of my mental symptoms also disappeared. I felt hope and joy coming back into my consciousness. I felt alive again.

My relief was offset by my desire to blame myself. As J pointed out, I couldn’t have been expected to put the pieces together clearly when my mind was betraying me at every turn and making me doubt myself so much. I still feel some of that doubt now, just minus the crushing hopelessness that accompanied it when I was still taking those pills. After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo with medication side effects. I’ve been on dozens of medications, some that I need to survive and others that could have killed me. Shouldn’t I have been “better” at dealing with this kind of stuff by age 32? Not entirely, and certainly not in a world where pharmaceutical companies aren’t expected to be “better” at not marginalizing and ridiculing the adverse experiences of millions of women.

In my mind I don’t see myself as a woman, but this is one of those times where the reality of that being how many others see me has been driven horribly and irrevocably home. I struggle daily now with the feeling that I became every awful stereotype of a “hormonal” woman. The feelings of violation run deep, along with those of disappointment in myself. I got thrown headfirst into a mess of gendered experiences and stigmas, and although I came out alive, I did so feeling horribly dirty and despoiled. Weeks later, the dirt still won’t wash off.

I’m proud of the men who are standing up for their right not to feel like utter garbage physically and mentally in seeking reproductive autonomy and sharing that burden with other gender groups in ways that are long overdue. I just hope that in doing so, they will stand up for all the women who’ve been getting hurt since long before male contraception ever came on the scene. The fact that the FDA has only now, after 50-some years, approved an in-depth study of linkages between depression and hormonal contraceptive use in women, is both telling and damning. The recent closure of male contraceptive pill clinical trials represents an opportunity for all of us to affirm the struggles and amplify the voices of millions of women who have been harmed by paternalistic practices in the testing and prescribing of hormonal contraceptives.

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Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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When the Personal Meets the Professional Meets the Personal: One Queer Trans Guy’s First Week of the Semester Processing Session

Jay Irwin, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He received his PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2009. He is heavily involved in activism and advocacy both on campus and in the larger community. His research and teaching involve LGBT health, trans identities, and sexualities.

I have just completed what has to be the most bizarre and emotionally draining first week of a semester – potentially in my entire academic career, both past and future. I had a rough summer to start. I had an invasive back surgery in July and was recuperating while teaching an online class from a rented hospital bed in my living room. I had a lot of time to think this summer and was excited for the Fall term to begin. I had modified my courses and was ready to engage students in new and exciting ways. My body wasn’t fully ready to go to work, but regardless, I had to go back to work and was intellectually charged to go engage with students. And then I had one of the most exhausting, bizarre, and hurtful first weeks ever.

THE PERSONAL MEETS THE PROFESSIONAL

Actually, this all started the Saturday before classes began. I teach an Intro to LGBTQ Studies course. To be more specific, I created the course, and I am the ONLY faculty member teaching this course. In this class we are conducting oral histories of LGBTQ people in the local community, part of a larger archive project my University just began this summer (http://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/). I was contacting people all summer to gather a list of people whose history NEEDS to be recorded, and in my class, I am specifically prioritizing people over 50 years old, QTPOC, and trans folx, as their histories get lost the quickest. One person in particular was very excited to participate, but was currently in hospice care. They[1] were an influential and important member of my University community as well, so the archivist and I conducted the interview ourselves, on a Saturday, in their home, while their daughter and granddaughter sat by their side, holding their hand and giving them emotional strength. It was both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. They spoke about things – aloud – to people they’d not met before, about topics they’d spoken to very few people about. I felt honored that they let me into their life. I met their generous and amazing children and partner, who fought back tears as we said our goodbyes after the interview. Two days later they passed away. I learned about their passing in an email 15 minutes before I was to go teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class, where I would detail the oral history project to the students. And their history was the first life story contributed to this project.

I completely broke down. Thankfully my partner was able to talk with me and get me ready to go to class. When going over the syllabus and the project, I was honest with my students about how important this project is both personally and to the community. Our history in the local community is LITERALLY disappearing and will be forgotten if it’s not captured soon, and my community is not unique in this respect. I managed to not cry in front of the students, but I did see a few students wipe away a tear for a person they had never met. In fact, I knew this person formally for all of an hour and a half, but I can’t begin to explain the impact they have had on my life. I have never been so committed to a project like I am now with this oral history project. I refuse to let my local LGBTQ history, and more specifically the people attached to that history, go unrecognized and unremembered. I have a small suspicion that the person we interviewed held on a bit longer to life to be able to tell their story. To tell us their life. To gift us with their experiences. And I am forever changed as both a person and an academic because of it.

THE PROFESSIONAL MEETS THE PERSONAL

In this same week, I’ve helped students navigate the typical starting back to school stresses – where are my classes, what classes are still open as I haven’t enrolled yet, where do I find parking? But, as the only out trans faculty member on my campus, and someone that our students know from the larger community, many LGBTQ students come to me for support and affirmation of their identities. For example, I had a student show up outside my classroom door as I came in to teach my Intro to LGBTQ Studies class that first day. This student, who uses they/them pronouns, said to me “I need to get into your class.” No problem I said, I can get you a permit code, come on in. They said, “No, I NEED your class. I just got out of a class that was terrible and I NEED your class to feel safe.” I again assured them, no problem, and let’s talk about that other class after our class. I met with them, and they told me their concerns, largely that they felt invisible as a queer non-binary trans person in a white, cis, heteronormative space, and that they felt they had to educate their classmates on their own identities in a class dedicated to gender studies. Later in the day, I met with the professor who had unintentionally excluded this student by not being purposeful in including non-binary or LGBT students. I had to be careful in this conversation as to not make the faculty member feel shamed, but also to advocate for my student and to educate the faculty member on topics I assumed they already knew based on their own disciplinary background. It was an incredibly draining conversation, navigating multiple political levels, on my first day back at work after months off due to surgery, and on a day that I would work 11 hours due to my teaching schedule.

Next, at the end of the first week of classes, I got a call from the director of our LGBTQ center on campus, telling me she may need my help. She had just received an email that a student was in a course where the professor used the word “fag” in reference to gay people. Just in passing. Not as in the historical context of the word or referring to cigarettes in the British usage of the term. Just calling gay people “fags.” I was livid, as was the student and the director. Thankfully, my institution has mechanisms in place to address these situations, and those wheels are turning. But I couldn’t fathom, in 2016, how anyone involved in teaching would think that was acceptable.

To top it all off, a social media flare-up happened during the weekend after my first week of classes, all having to do with they/them singular pronouns. Yes, we’ve come full circle. I had posted, on behalf of my research collaborative’s official Facebook page, a video about how they/them pronouns are not new, are appropriate, and should be used. A debate ensued in which I felt personally insulted and attacked as a trans person. But, being the perpetual educator, I tried to rationally and reasonably respond to rather childish behaviors on the part of other professors at other institutions. As Facebook threads go, the conversation was on-going for about 3 days before it all settled down, but I refuse to be silenced and marginalized by other academics, whose expertise does not fall in LGBTQ or trans studies. I refuse to allow them to tell me and others within my community that they are not valid. That their pronouns are not valid. This is not how academia should work, and I’m consistently saddened to see that this is still sometimes how academia works.

OUR BLURRY AREAS NEED SUPPORT STRUCTURES

Thankfully, I have a healthy community of queer and trans spectrum friends and chosen family, both locally and from all over the world. They have reached out to me when I, the eternal external processor on social media, have posted vulnerable and raw posts discussing each of these issues. With every post, I’ve received love, encouragement, and affirmation. On Sunday, the day when all of the events of the week were being personally processed, I posted regarding my absolute exhaustion, but also my refusal to give up. My continued commitment to fight for those who are invisible in our society – the queer man who “looks straight”, the non-binary student who uses they/them pronouns but “looks like a girl”. And because my LGBTQ friends and family are amazing, I got lots of love. And then, something amazing happened. An academic inspiration to my own career – Jennifer Finney Boylan, the first trans academic that I ever saw, who helped me know that I could be an out trans academic – commented on my post and gave me support and love. It was the first time I had cried happy tears all week, a week of lots of unhappy, sad, frustrated tears.

I’m also incredibly thankful to work at an institution that, while not perfect (nor ever claiming to be), is making real systemic steps to address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of bias campus wide. I have received so much support from administrators regarding the work that I do, which is not always the norm in academia. Support from my colleagues, department chair, dean, and upper administration has allowed me to continue to do the work that I do both inside the academy and outside in the advocacy world. I am grateful and lucky to work at such a university, a privilege I do not take lightly.

SUGGESTIONS FOR NAVIGATING THESE MURKY WATERS

I want to end my own, selfish processing session with some suggestions.

1.) We talk about self-care so much in academia and advocacy circles, but from my own experience, we are terrible about putting self-care into action for ourselves. Do not neglect self-care. Yes, advocate when and where you can, but know when you have to take a step back when your body, brain, and heart can’t go any farther without burning out. There’s a saying in activism circles about self-care: it’s like the safety instructions you get on an airplane – put on your own oxygen mask before you put on anyone else’s. You can’t be an effective advocate for others if you have suffocated yourself by working yourself to exhaustion.

2.) Surround yourself, as much as possible, with those that lift you up. You need those friends and family to keep going. Allow yourself to open up to them and be honest in those conversations. Tell them what you need. Ask for them to support you if they aren’t. And allow them to hug you (if you are one who’s into hugging, as I’m trying to become more comfortable with myself). Human contact can be so healing for us. If you are partnered, allow your partner(s) to comfort you. I can’t even begin to thank my partner for helping me so much this week, by holding me while I cried, by listening to me again complain and rage against injustice, and by just being an amazing human and loving me constantly. Find that one person you can tell anything to, who can be there to support you when you need it the most, whether it be a romantic partner or just a really close colleague.

3.) Find the balance that works for you. Not every academic who works with marginalized groups operates the same in terms of activism and rabble-rousing. I’m comfortable in that world (after slowly ramping up my work in advocacy over the last 10 years), but that’s not everyone’s sweet spot. Find how you are your best in regard to being a professionally engaged academic who is also fighting for social justice. There is no mold, and one size certainly does not fit all.

4.) To academics, just because we have a PhD does not make us experts in all of the human condition. Be open to learning more, and be willing to be challenged by your students. It is the height of academic elitism to assume we are the holders of all knowledge and that it is our job to impart it all to our students. My students teach me new things each and every day, and for that I am grateful. It does not make me less of an expert, but it does make me a better teacher.

In loving affirmation and solidarity, always.

Jay A. Irwin, PhD

Associate Professor of Sociology

University of Nebraska at Omaha

 

[1] I am using they/them pronouns to protect the anonymity of this person. These pronouns are not necessarily a direct reflection of their personal gender pronouns.

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“You Poor Thing”: New Article Out in The Qualitative Report!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on and shares a recent publication in Qualitative Report (available at the link at the end of the post free of charge as an open access document) concerning the embodiment and management of visible chronic illness in daily life.  

Hello again readers! It’s a new season and a new academic year, and I’m happy to report that I also have a new autoethnographic publication coming out this week. If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, you may remember that earlier this year Sociology of Health and Illness published a piece called “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management”. This article, which focuses on the day-to-day processes and experiences of living with chronic disease, is still available online along with a video abstract introducing the piece.

In the process of writing “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word” I realized there was another rich topic nested within that study, and wound up breaking this theme out into its own critical autoethnography. Specifically, I focused on the nuances of visibility and representation for people whose chronic conditions produce readily apparent changes in physical appearance. The title comes from a comment made to me many years ago as the symptoms of my autoimmune disease became more visible to outside observers.

In this new autoethnography, I compare and contrast my own experiences of living inside a visibly ill body with others’ stated and implicit perceptions of what my life must be like. In doing so, I explore and refine theories of illness as deviance to accommodate multiple intersecting levels of divergence from normative expectations. I use interactionist sociological theories as well as a variety of other scholarly literature to analyze and contextualize my own lived experiences of embodying chronic illness.

As with most of my work, this piece strongly emphasizes the complex and dynamic interplay of multiple domains of life. These include personality traits, social structure, cultural context, political climate, and many more. Likewise, I focus on concepts of health equity and use my own experiences to amplify attention to persistent systems of marginalization and the voices of those affected. Above all else, I encourage other scholars with chronic conditions to share their own experiences of negotiating visible disease, and to advocate for active incorporation of these narratives in both formal systems of health care and informal systems of social support.

Please feel free to download and read the article at no cost here.

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Limits of Doctoral Education – Hunting for Public Aid

Erika G Abad, PhD, received her American Studies PhD at Washington State University in 2012. Since then, she has worked as a customer service associate, a scheduler, Caddy Head Counselor, Field Director for a policy education campaign, Farmers’ Market team member and oral historian–in that order–since completing her degree. She is currently a regular writer for Women in Higher Education and will be starting teaching full-time this fall. 

Writing this as a PhD is hilarious, in the midst of so many narratives regarding PhD poverty. Unlike those, however, I approach the conversation cognizant of my choice, my white collar poverty’s flexibility of time and of the systemic issues at play.

When applying for affordable care act (ACA) mandated insurance last April, a friend walked me through process, as he was employed by a grant specified to educate new participants. I picked my insurance, made the consistent monthly payments. From April 2015 to January 2016, income has changed, creating the possibility to qualify for public aid. This is the amusement of millennial scholars, and the heartbreak of parents and families who hoped a quality education would keep their progeny from the ‘shame,’ and stigma of relying on ‘government handouts.’

Chasing Eligibility

The millennial scholar amusement, that despite being a generation removed from limited education, two generations removed from the ability to read and write, those skills and assets do not secure a better income. And, the varied jobs I have had outside of (higher) education, reinforce the freedom to choose to live this way. It’s a commitment to the dream issue, which I have often questioned, much like I struggled with believing in the democratic necessity of a liberal arts education. The experience both with ACA and most recently, public aid eligibility paperwork, has brought that to light.

I begin writing this reflection in the midst of trying to assess where my paperwork is. It’s January, nearing the deadline, and the last thing I need is to be penalized for something that I can’t control and something that I did. In other words, I have submitted the paperwork, waiting for a response could cost me eligibility and any assistance, so I stop working to primarily address this issue. I stop working to call the series of north side offices where I would presume my file could be. During the first call, I connect with an immigrant woman who, assuming I work for the office, begins to explain her case. In the middle of her narrative, I say, “I don’t work for the office, it seems they connected us.”

“I must have pressed the wrong number,” she says. I smile to myself and say, “it may just be a glitch, try calling again.” Here, my educational-based privilege starts to sink in and I say, ‘shit,’ if they connected two clients together, what’s it like in the office?

That Friday’s phone call was preceded by conversations on Wednesday, and, on Thursdays, finally learning how to log on to get my pay stubs. Working class income, not wages, nor time limitations as a result of being a community-based researcher. The catch-22, the irony of PhD’s trying to find a way to stay relevant and competitive in an incredibly tight market. Changing is not that easy, by the way, because those other jobs where we could easily transfer our skill sets, see the PhD doesn’t have to stay. Cynical, yes, and a reminder education-based privilege has its limits.

So, that Friday, I am reviewing the list of numbers to call. The one on the mailer, the one I was told to call because that office did not, supposedly, have my paper work. So who else has my paper. The woman at the second office said she would call me back. I cannot get an operator on the third number I call. This is a major deadline day, so I try the office. The crowded waiting room confirms what I expect from a public service office at the last minute of paper work. Research grant funding works in funny ways, which means I cannot afford to wait. My collard shirt, unfaded jeans, and comfortable shoes remind me that my frustration will be temporary. Middle class privilege rings again and yet, my paycheck is the reason I still search for an answer.

Why do I choose to write about this? And, while I am writing, I’m scared about it. Scared about airing dirty laundry like most folks in this circuit are, because, what established PhD’s with full-time jobs, are thinking about the next generation scrambling to make ends meet, produce quality work and stay relevant enough to get a full-time job? For those that are, what can they do about it with strained free speech, confused and disgruntled students, and the working class, undocumented youth who deserve a chance to be more than underfunded educational institutions and the state say they can or could be.

So, I talk about it because my white-collar poverty and my intellectual training gives me the tools to complicate the difficulty. Because, as I am praying to be eligible for public aid to have more income at my disposal, to live more than from paycheck to paycheck, I am reminded of the threats to layoffs and the continued cutting of funds from public offices in my city/state. What else is a city with a debt like Chicago’s, what else can a state unwilling to tax specific populations like Illinois do? So, despite how frustrated I am by being connected to another client, not being able to find an operator to answer the phone and crowded waiting rooms, I know I am not the only one stressed. Each office which I have dealt with this week is struggling because none of their jobs are secure. Their stress, their inability to answer last minute questions coupled with my own stress clearly articulate both the need for Affordable Care Act but also the financial and institutional hoops created to assure the best access to health care possible.

The ‘limits’ of education-based privilege

Dividing my time between doing my job as a researcher and looking for long-term positions, explain why I didn’t immediately address the needed documentation to complete my application for public aid. In other words, because my PhD entitlement thought I did everything I needed to do but didn’t, I am working at the last minute to solve a problem I could have addressed had I paid more attention.

And yet, I still have time and flexibility to solve the problem. I did solve the problem and, what’s more, had the question answered by the first office—the one that said they didn’t have my paperwork. I knew to call them back because, when I finally reached the final office, they gave me all the information I needed to speak to the rep assigned my case. The organizational mess this was speaks volumes to the effects of cut funding, strained/stressed employees and the greater work ACA supporters need to do in order to make sure those in more dire positions than I get their needs met.

At this point, it is important to clearly define how, despite how little I knew about the system, my entitlement informed a lack of action, what are the forms of privilege I exercised that allowed me to solve my problem by the end of the business day.

  • rearrange my schedule at a day’s notice—a day off did not affect pay
  • call each office and speak to someone to whom I can readily explain what courses of actions I took and ask what else needs to be done.
  • Fax required information to multiple numbers
  • drive to offices when phone calls don’t address my questions
  • work, if needed—revise a paper, read a book, review ethnography notes— while I wait in line to address office needs (I didn’t have to but it was a plan B I had lined up)
  • be patient with the person on the other end because I was not losing a day of work
  • document all courses of action and speak with a discourse, dress in attire that may inform how others will take me more seriously
  • prepare to argue with the office because of the institutional limitations regarding meeting deadlines because of documented calls, detailed articulation of systemic issues in calling each office and awareness of the letter

The dance of affordability

The affordable care act is not yet affordable not only because of the hoops of today, but, more specifically, because state, city and federal offices in charge of making sure we are all insured vary in institutional and professional stability. Their instability parallels and conflicts with the uncertainty that those of us applying for public aid or any insurance may have. That’s a research question I hope someone is tackling in economics or political science, or even law.

I know this is just a hiccup along the way to a prolific career that can still promise white collar 9-5 middle class, insured stability. I know I have greater possibility to choose that anytime I want, comparable to others in the room and on the phone that Friday. Knowing that, however, does not change the weighted responsibility of the errors this system still needs to address. How does the education of life translate—and, right now, it’s all about talking about this question of access and productivity.

We all need to be healthy to effectively contribute to the market; we need access to health care stabilized and, in the midst of this, we need to work to make sure that happens. The ‘we’s’ here vary because of where the power lies, because of what choice, opportunity and support inform about that power. As a PhD with options and opportunities that have arisen since that January, praying for public aid, that’s what has me scratching my head. How do we work in specific career paths completely codependent on the government for its existence, completely codependent on society’s imposed value on our work?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

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Queer Bowls: On Mothering as Failure, Healing and Survival.

Simone Kolysh is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, teaching in Women’s Studies and Sociology. Their work addresses intersections of gender, sexuality and race.  In this post, the second in our Queer Kinship Series, Simone reflects on experiences as a Queer parent. 

 

My mother, having caught me walking slowly by her couch, says ‘Can I ask you something?’ and I know that no good will come of it.

I hear ‘Why do you put a dress on him when he doesn’t know he shouldn’t wear it?’

I’m tired.

Rubbing my eyelids, I say, ‘Because he asks for it…because he’s happy in it.’

I leave.

Why does she even bother, I think, knowing full well that we won’t change each other’s minds? It is my three children, two marriages, and several gender and sexual developments in the ‘wrong direction’ too late for her to still attempt these conversations.

This time, the ‘he’ in question is my 2-year-old. He, and I use that pronoun tentatively, does not know gender for now or that most of the world will not understand that he should wear dresses just because. This child about whom my mother worries is not the one I want to talk about lately. I wish she’d talk to me about his sibling, the kid that’s 7 years old, the one using ‘she’ and ‘they’ pronouns as of last month. She wears dresses a lot more and says she’ll be a girl if my next child is not or that, you know, she is a girl but it’s complicated. I know that feeling. Gender is complicated for me too, as an agender lesbian person. Or, rather, it is very simple but the rest of the world makes it difficult.

She’s the daughter I was always scared to raise and a somewhat unexpected one at that, because while no one really thought this child would follow a straight path, pun intended, I did not know it would be now that she would say she’s trans. I whisper ‘I’m not ready’ and ‘But if anyone can raise her, it’ll be you’ back and forth in my head. My mother should ask me about what is going on but she won’t because she thinks of her as an already lost cause, the way she thinks of me. To her, there is still hope for my 2-year-old and maybe, if she starts her attacks on my parenting early enough, the way she did with my oldest, now 10, perhaps my youngest will grow up to be a boy.

So when I think of queer kinship, I think of my mother as its antithesis. My life will be forever marked by the enormous failure that is her lack of mothering. The space between her as a woman and me as a person is vast and monstrous-looking because of many traumas and I will always mourn the kind of acceptance and support that a mother should give her child. As part of the mourning process, I, like many others, have ripped out my roots and shred them swiftly and without regret. Yet, her actual physical being remains in my house and in my life and I just know that even when she dies, the many things she’s done and said will always haunt me until I die and perhaps bleed into my own parenting in ways unknown.

Sometimes, I wonder if my own fervent commitment to mothering my children and other people in my life is an act of rebellion against such haunting. I did not enter motherhood to rebel, quite the opposite, but I recommit to it time and again because, to me, it is now a clear political act. After all, mothers are treated like replaceable trinkets that are not worth much while others pay lip service to their important social location. In reality, many of us are sentenced to parenthood and find ourselves utterly full of despair and without support. Amazingly, we persevere and rarely abandon our young or each other. We thrive and make it work, despite many hardships and experiences of oppression. Further, the kind of mothering queer and trans folks are intimately involved in is a genuinely healing process without which there would be a lot more broken people.

Which is why my second thought regarding queer kinship goes to the Japanese art called Kintsugi, in which broken bowls are repaired with gold and other precious metals, so as to mark the history of the broken object instead of hiding that it’s been broken. Many of us that are queer and trans carry around deep mother wounds, even as if we see our own mothers broken before us. Many of us are now parents ourselves, trying to preserve our children and minimize their own shattering. All of us are queer bowls that have been repaired, sometimes carefully and sometimes without anyone noticing, by the numerous experiences, friendships and relationships we’ve had with others that are ‘deviants like us.’

What are the ways in which we are connected? In some ways, the making and sustaining of a queer kinship network defies a clear articulation. Sometimes, they are my friends from way back when; sometimes they are my students. Other times, they are strangers in the traditional sense but they are writing and living and surviving and providing all of us with models of being, of building families and of queer survival. In turn, they look to me for inspiration, for the kind of adult and parent they’d like to be, for ways to talk about sex, gender, and sexuality with kids or anyone else. Each of us thinks the other is brave and strong but each of us feels uncertain and precarious. We are the next generation or activists, scholars and elders. Our children, just like us, are growing up in an alternate dimension, a dimension that imagines a different future, while the general sense of reality is still a mainstay of a white hetero-patriarchy.

I find the constant fight to make a different future happen in my house and inside myself to be exhausting in profound ways but my final thought about queer kinship is that it is worth fighting for, because we cannot live a different life, a life without authenticity, and we must try to stick around so that others can do the same. Nevertheless, we must also speak to the wounds we bear on a daily basis because they build on our childhood wounds. As much as we mother each other, we cannot escape the fact that we have been failed by those who were supposed to do that work instead. When I think of my mother, I do not understand her bowl. She has not healed through me. Instead, she took the jagged pieces of her broken self and cut me constantly without hesitation, as if my tears and my pain are good enough results. When I think of my bowl, its earliest cracks have been the biggest and the gold with which they are now filled is very queer, the kind of queer people say is radical, as if that word has any definition. As for my trans daughter’s bowl, her childhood cracks will never be as bad as mine because the gold that is my queer kinship network is the kind of gold that alchemists chased through the ages, rare and powerful. That is the gold that will now coarse through her veins untamed and for that I will be eternally grateful to the many people that, by their existence alone, have made it easier for me to be this strong a mother, to be this strong a queer warrior.

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