But It’s Heavy: Friendships, Expectations, and Illness

In this post, Xan reflects on the weight of chronic illness, and role of emotions, expectations, and caregiving in the experience of chronic illness and emotion management.  

In my last post I wrote about the fallacy of people thinking I cannot carry things because like many people with cystic fibrosis (CF), I am very thin. “But it’s heavy!” strangers will say. “You can’t possibly carry it all by yourself.” If only they knew. I manage just fine with heavy material objects, provided they aren’t especially large or unwieldy. No, the heaviest burdens I carry are those unseen to others.

Knowing the data, knowing people with your condition have an average life expectancy in the high 30s range, constantly explaining “well it’s really a bimodal distribution differentiated by access to care and a bunch of contextual factors” to wide-eyed people whose eyes well up with tears because it’s too hard for *them* to handle to know you are sick. Now *that’s* heavy. I spend so much time explaining things that people could Google, so much time bending over my phone responding to messages asking if I’m okay when what people really want is for me to make *them* feel okay. My neck has begun to hurt from the weight of my head literally dragging me down.

So now I’m holding my phone at 90 degrees to my face, stretching my neck and thoracic muscles, asking myself tough questions about why I’ve always swallowed whole the assumption that it’s my responsibility to do the emotional labor of coddling people in my life under the guise of helping them get educated. It’s never the people closest to me who ask for this. They know better, or they wouldn’t have gotten so close to me in the first place. Asking how I am is kind and affirming. Using that question to spend the next 30 minutes gobbling up all the emotional support you can from me about how hard my diagnosis is for you and how much it scares you…is not. It literally weighs me down.

Being open about your fears is a tremendously good thing in and of itself. It’s where you seek support in coping with those fears that matters. This isn’t black and white; it’s a question of nuances. Ring Theory offers a good way to understand socially affirming flows of emotional support, using a simple algorithm of “comfort in, dump out”. The basic idea here works like an earthquake. The person dealing directly with the challenges at hand (terminal illness, loss of a loved one, sexual assault, etc.) dwells at the epicenter. Then shock waves radiate around the epicenter with progressively lower intensity as distance increases. A life partner feels them most intensely, followed closely by other family members who are close to the person. Then come very close friends, then other friends and colleagues in a much bigger ring, and then casual acquaintances.

I’m a pretty textbook long-surviving CF patient in many ways, including both all the issues I do experience and what has heretofore been more minimal involvement of the pancreas. Whether I have any pancreatic involvement remains unknown, because I definitely have some bizarre endocrine symptoms these days. I just keep coming back to the fact that I had low-positive results on a sweat test *and* so many of the core clinical signs of the disease and nobody gave a damn. Why was my case dismissed when my parents kept fighting so hard to get me medical care? Why did I have to be treated in fragmented little pieces by specialists focused on this or that organ? Why did I have to undergo surgery to rebuild mucous membranes that could have been reasonably well protected by drugs that were already on the market? These questions pull me down like heavy stones.

I see a CF specialist tomorrow for the first time in my entire 33 years of life and these questions spin through my mind constantly. And I feel the lingering fear that this doctor won’t believe me either, that I’ll now be caught in a terrible limbo of knowing I need a specific type of care yet being just as unable to get it as when I had more questions than answers. Maybe I still have more questions than answers. I spend most of my time trying to answer other people’s questions, though. And it has exhausted me so thoroughly that I feel empty inside, as if my disease consists more of the need to justify it and reassure others than of its terrible physical mechanics, which I wind up with little cognitive space to consider. I go to bed each night feeling as if the day has drained all the life from me, questions racing through my mind in the darkness that surrounds.

I don’t have any real answers. I wish desperately that I did, but I don’t, and I often feel as if I’ve failed the people in my life because of that. All I have is a lot of lost time and an opportunity to do things differently with a doctor who stands a chance of understanding my case and my needs. So…to be continued. I’m excited about meeting with the specialist. I try to Be Positive in all things. But there’s so much beneath the surface, and it feels exceptionally heavy today. So I strive to grow more proficient and comfortable in asking others to shoulder a piece of that burden, not my grocery bags or guitar equipment. For it’s the invisible weights that bring us down the hardest.

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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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Have you seen me lately? A reflection on Queer Kinship

In this week’s post, the first in our Queer Kinship series, J reflects on the meaning of Queer Kinship in their life.

Earlier this year, a student of mine interested in content analysis and the structure of science sought to do an independent research study. I had recently been asked an interesting question at a conference, and so I selected twenty-five years of publications by five prominent sociology journals and had my student use these journals to try to answer the question. The question was simple – how often does sociology include the study of Bi and Trans people? While there are more details in the work in progress stemming from the analysis, the simple answer to the question was that between the late 1980’s and 2013 sociology, rather than the study of society as a whole, was almost entirely monosexual and cisgender based in these five prominent publication outlets. Even counting articles that only mentioned BT existence, there was only about 1 piece per year on average throughout the time period and within the vast majority of pieces published focused on mostly heterosexual and cisgender populations.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aforementioned project fits in well with my experiences as a bisexual (on the pansexual end of the spectrum) and transgender (formerly transsexual, currently genderqueer/non-binary/crossdresser identified as I continue considering transition) person in sociology as well as academia more broadly. Even though I have been lucky enough to land a stable position in a department full of (often impressively) supportive, accepting, and accountable colleagues, and to develop a network of fellow BTLG scholars at other places over the years, I generally experience an occupational world wherein people like me don’t exist in the assumptions of the monosexual (mostly on the heterosexual side of this binary) and cisgender people who dominate the field or in their published works. Most surveys, as colleagues and I have noted elsewhere, provide the bulk of generalized information from the field, and yet they rarely have any way to admit the existence – much less capture the experiences – of people like me. As noted by other BT writers, this is part of long term patterns of BT erasure within and beyond academic settings.

At the same time my student was analyzing sociological literature, I was analyzing daily life – my own especially but other BT peoples as well – as part of another project. In so doing, I was cataloguing the multitude of times and ways people like me – wholly or in part – are cisgendered or monosexualized by others in their everyday lives (i.e., assumed to fit binary notions of gender and sexuality predicated upon binary notions of biological sex as a determining force in the composition of human desire and self identification). I catalogued disparities in public when I did or did not wear skirts with a visible beard, the vastly different ways people acted in monosexual minority (i.e., lesbian and gay) spaces when I said ‘I like men’ versus when I said ‘I’m bi’ and when I said ‘I’m into drag’ versus when I said ‘I’m trans,” and the countless ways monosexual and cisgender people misgender and missexualize myself and others based on their own assumptions and stereotypes both when they expressed support for BT others and when they did not. Similar to the analysis of sociological literature and previous observations about academic life, the message was the same – the existence of people like me was at best problematic or confusing for most monosexual and cisgender people I encountered regardless of their personal positions within these binaries.

I could give many more examples like the ones above from my own life, from interviews – formal and personal – with other BT people, and from our-storical records related to BT existence and experience. Instead of seeking to catalogue such a list, I use the aforementioned examples to explain what Queer Kinship means to me.

In its simplest formulation, I see Queer Kinship as the relationships wherein I am allowed and even encouraged to exist and be seen by others. For me, Queer Kinship means places and groups and relationships where people like me are not unexpected or problematic. Queer Kinship, for me, refers to the very few spaces, relationships, and situations wherein people move past monosexist and cissexist assumptions and norms to not only accept or tolerate BT people of varied types, forms and experiences, but actively embrace, expect, and look for us in their daily engagement with the world. Queer Kinship, again for me, refers to the efforts some people make to learn about and support BT people of varied types and experiences before they are forced to by activism, tragedies that actually get some news coverage, or an awkward encounter demonstrating our existence in their world. Queer Kinship refers to the interactions with others where I don’t have to wonder if they see me or if they will cause me harm because they actually see me. In my own experience, and that of many other BT people (as well as many of our lesbian, gay, asexual, and otherwise Queer cousins), such spaces and audiences are incredibly rare, precious, and necessary for well being in a monosexist (as well as heterosexist), cissexist (as well as patriarchal) society.

For me, Queer Kinship and the visibility and break from the rest of society it gives me shows itself in differential reactions to the same stimuli. I think about the store clerk who spots me in the makeup aisle and proceeds to stare at me, follow me, and even ask if I’m in the right place as a result versus my life partner seeing me in the same place on another night and offering to get me some new eyeliner. I think about people looking at the fact that I’m in a committed relationship and asking if I’m heterosexual, monogamous or done with the “gender stuff” now versus my life partner and I talking about men we both find cute over drinks; about the ways we decide as a unit how monogamous, polyamorous or anywhere in between we decide to be at a given time; and about plans and details we would need to work out together if I do transition later in life. I think about people awkwardly shifting between cisgender pronouns and terms depending on how I appear in a given moment versus my best friends and life partner treating me equally well no matter how I’m dressed or appearing in a given moment. Because I’m lucky enough to have a kinship group that I can rely on and be there for every day, I can actually come up with far more examples of such discrepancies than I have room for here. In fact, I was actually saddened when I was working on this piece by how easy it was to make a list of such examples that was far too long for comfort.

In the end, for me, Queer Kinship matters because the people closest to me provide me with most of (and some weeks the only) times when I know I’m seen without it hurting in some way. In my profession, the literature my profession creates, and my daily life, I get by like so many others worried about any time my differences are noticed while also wishing I could be seen in a safe manner by the rest of the world. But in the eyes, arms, and moments spent with my own little Queer family and network, I get to be seen and I get to experience this without the fear of danger that accompanies such visibility in other spaces. That, for me, is the importance of Queer Kinship in the forms that show up in my own life, and the forms that show up in other ways for many other people I have come across over the years.

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My Work Starts at Home

Ashley Josleyn French was an educational consultant in New York City for over ten years before moving with her family to Winter Park, FL. In addition to chasing three children under seven, she is a PhD student and a lecturer in Sociology and Women’s Studies. She writes about the madness of it all at www.thestayathomesociologist.com

Toward the end of the school year, my son began talking about a student who visited his class for science twice a week named Freddie. The first time he mentioned Freddie, he said that Freddie had recently joined his science group. He said, “Mom, Freddie writes and talks like my sister. He has a teacher who sits with him all during class. Sometimes he has BIG tantrums!” I could tell by his tone that he felt that Freddie deserved some graciousness and love, but also that he didn’t understand why a kid his age was on a social and academic level of that of his three-year-old sister. I asked him, “Does Freddie like to do science as much as you do?” He said, “Oh, yes! He loves the projects!” I followed up, “Are you enjoying being with him?” “Yes,” he said enthusiastically, “He’s a part of our group!” I finished up with, “That’s great. Freddie learns differently than you, but he loves to learn just as much as you do. It’s important to always include new kids and make sure that they feel welcome. Freddie learns in a different way and might struggle with some of the typical first grade work, so its important to make sure that he is still comfortable and that everyone is kind to him.” “OK,” my biggest little one said.

The family is the first agent of socialization. In sociology, we talk about agents of socialization—social institutions that greatly influence us over the course of our lives, such as family, schooling, work, religious bodies, etc. The earliest and often most influential because of that early influence is the family. Our children learn from parents. They learn rather or not to say please and thank you either because we enforce the practice with punitive measures or because we ourselves say please and thank you in kindness to others. They learn to brush their teeth because we require it of them, or because they see us do it and join us in the practice each morning and evening in the intimate space of our bathrooms of our homes, where one would only do something like brush teeth with someone with whom they are tightly knit. They also learn how to respond to people who are different than us. Are we kind and inclusive with people who look different than us? Do they have a physical difference or disability? Are they too thick or too thin? Are they a different nationality or speak a different language? Are their clothes dirty? Is their car rusted out and old? Are they educated or uneducated? Are they progressive or conservative? The first agent of socialization is the family. Do we want our children to be kind and accepting and loving to other children and people, or cold and insensitive to differences? Will our children be helpful or hurtful? Are we helpful or hurtful?

As I was reading Sojourner Truth’s famous speech recently, I was reminded of this interaction with my oldest child and the crucial role that parents play in changing our society to be an inclusive, just and loving one. Exiting a life of slavery and entering a role as an activist, Sojourner Truth spoke to a group of women’s rights activists in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. Her famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” resonates today regarding our continuing issues in this country with race, gender and poverty. She suggests that that she is not treated like a real citizen or “woman” by society because of her role as a former slave and because of her race.

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Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner Truth:

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I could have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man- when I could get it- and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [Intellect, somebody whispers] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negro’s rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure-full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”

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Her words foreshadow what social theorists in the 1990s began referring to as intersectionality. Intersectionality is a concept that suggests that social hierarchies such as race, gender, class, nationality should not be examined simply individually, but in the ways they mutually construct one another and how those layers of oppression interact. Patricia Hill Collins argues that very early on within families children are socialized into systems of power and hierarchy, making a transition to a life in a society of hierarchies based on social categories feel natural despite the fact that they are very much socially constructed. As we see these intersections of oppression in the lives and faces of our children’s classmates and friends, neighbors, colleagues, service people, etc., how can we speak to these, give them voice and teach our children to hear their stories, especially if our children function from a space of privilege?

As the most influential person in a child’s life, when parents are dismissive or unkind to people who are different for whatever reason, they are teaching their children, subtly and sometimes not so subtly, to participate in systems of hierarchy and oppression. Even in the seemingly most minor interactions with a salesperson or someone on the street to how I teach my children to interact and socialize with kids on the playground or at school, I find it to be my job to live what I learn and teach through the discipline of sociology. I want, I need to take this work home with me, to implement it. As an academic and a thoughtful parent, if I don’t use these tools at home, my writing and teaching make no sense. It is hard to be thoughtful each moment with children. It would be easier to put them in front of a screen or send them outside so I can finish my work. But this is my work. Molding minds to view life through a fresh lens, and so for me, as for all parents, my work in socialization with my children starts at home.

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Of Children Born: The Journey of an Agender Lesbian Mother

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, Simone reflects on being an agender, lesbian mother of three children that parents against dominant narratives of gender and sexuality in their queer household. 

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a young body with smooth lines from the thighs to the small of the back. Mine is a body of valleys, soft and reminiscent of uterine battles and pain. It is a jagged, unshaven landscape full of stretch marks and cowardly veins that collapsed under pregnancy weight. Mine is a body that managed a labor without contractions and the darkness of postpartum depression, as the light of my first child was brought into the world on a hot July day. I rocked this body around the bed unable to loosen it free of panic but kept it close to my child so that no matter what was breaking inside me, I’d keep him whole.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a dancer’s body with perfect posture and well-shaped legs. Mine is a body that knows what an obsession dance can be but that movement no longer comes first. Though it responds to an inviting embrace of the Argentine Tango, it does so with a reluctant and bothered ankle, broken weeks before the light of my second child was brought into the world on the day I, too, was born just twenty-five years prior. I crumbled under my own pressure, onto a mailbox at the corner of Kings Highway and West 8th street. Cursing, I hopped home thinking that to labor with a broken limb is just what I needed.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not my mother’s body with frail shoulders and cheeks full of Botox. Mine is a body of risks, piercings and tattoo ink. When the light is right and the mirror is bribed, I can see what my lover finds gorgeous. And though I claw at my body because it does not always make sense to me, I remember how bravely it got me through my only labor without pain meds, as the light of my third child was rushed into the world at the Brooklyn Birthing Center. When I now feel my three children collapse onto my breasts that have struggled to breastfeed, I know that my body is a mother’s body and it is well worth the worship.

______ ~ ______

There is nothing like a slurred ‘You’re so sexy, baby’ from some guy on the street to remind me that I am seen as a woman despite holding an agender identity. Even men that aren’t strangers have said that I am ‘so obviously a woman’ because I turn them on. Such experiences of sexism, laced with homophobia and racism when I am with my Black female partner, make it obvious that my struggle around gender takes a backseat to our collective struggle as people of marginalized gender and sexual identities, trying to navigate a world where white, cisgender, and heterosexual men hold a significant amount of power.

Yet white, cisgender and heterosexual men may be the future demographic of my three children, ages eight, six and one. Therein lies the paradox of an agender lesbian mother trying to raise feminist kids in a society that teaches boys to put down women and people that don’t conform to mainstream ideas of gender and sexuality. As a scholar of gender and sexuality, a sociologist and a Women’s Studies professor, I have given my kids a critical eye towards gender, sexual and racial hierarchies. It also happens that my middle child has taken a gender non-conforming path, linking once more our gender journey as mother and child.

Shortly before he was born, I began to struggle with the category of ‘woman’ into which I was born and raised. Once I admitted to myself that I could not finish the sentence, ‘I’m a woman because,’ and explored identities beyond the gender binary, I was able to more fiercely carve out a safe space for my children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first battles took place between me and my biological family that not only rejects and erases my gender and sexual identities but also believes I am causing my children great psychological harm. So before I can think through my gender identity and how it has evolved through my motherhood, I must face how my own mother shaped my ideas of womanhood.

My mother’s main lesson was that one’s power as a woman comes from seducing men and appealing to the heterosexual male gaze, in addition to becoming a mother and a wife. Whether it was because our family is Russian-Armenian or that the prevailing attitude across most cultures is one of patriarchy does not matter now. When I showed interest in taking charge of my pleasure or being with women, she took me to see a psychiatrist. When, at twelve, I came out as bisexual, the closest word I knew at the time to describe being attracted to more than just men, she cried. When I married at twenty, she was glad, hoping it was all a phase.

Rather immediately, I became obsessed with getting pregnant since that meant ‘having it all.’ Three years later, I was a mother of an eight-month-old child, banished from my house for breaking up with my husband. I was in love with another man, someone who was my equal. He helped me come into my motherhood by taking over my child’s care from my mother who tried her hardest to teach my son traditional gender norms. To this day, my first child is more aligned with ‘boy things’ because at the time I did not feel strong enough to stand up to my family.

My new partner supported my being queer, the label I took up during college, and my exploration of gender. When we married, I was pregnant and determined to raise this child differently. As I became more involved in LGBTQ scholarship and activism, I struggled with my gender identity and it took about three years to publicly come out as gender non-conforming, during a panel on transgender identities. It was a fleeting moment of being true to myself in a public setting since, without constant coming out, no one can ‘tell’ I am not a woman.

I have to come out again and again because it never quite sinks in and some people simply forget that I am agender or that my pronouns are ‘they/them.’ Generally, I never correct people if they use ‘she/hers’ because I am glad to align myself with women and do, to a large extent, experience the world as women do. Though I would like to not be perceived as any gender, changing my physical appearance was never essential – I do not want to change my body, just the way others link it to womanhood. Not making a physical transition makes it difficult for people to see me as agender.

Even though mothering, to me, does not mean I’m a woman, it adds to my invisibility as an agender person because of the assumption that if one has been pregnant and birthed three children, that they are even more of a woman. It certainly made my biological family like me more, because I gave them ‘three healthy boys,’ a marker of status within a sexist community. It is as if the assumed gender of my children helped solidify my womanhood. And, as a mother, I was now responsible for raising them properly, to become grown men able to provide for their families through upward mobility.

Which is why I am glad that my oldest child’s first Barbie was the Halloween Barbie, scary not only for its lack of realistic measurements. Growing up in Russia, having a Barbie meant you were better off than other families. When naked ‘pupsiki,’ which happened to be gender-neutral dolls, were all we could afford, Barbie symbolized a ‘better life,’ a life sought in the United States. Now I am raising my own children in Brooklyn, New York, but there is little place for the Russian-Armenian values of my past. After all, it was not in my parent’s dreams to have their grandsons play with dolls.

Instead of being groomed to be ‘real men,’ my kids are raised free of gender norms, which allows them to develop their identities safely as they learn more and more about the world. And, prior to learning about gender, each of them gives me a gift. As an agender person, moments when I am not gendered are essential to my wellbeing and how I see myself but they are rare. When my children are young, they are able to see me as Simone or Mommy without gendering me or seeing me as different from them. Even when they have noticed physical differences between their bodies and mine, I have explained everything from menstruation to genital shape without attaching biology to gender.

So when my kids look at me during those early years, their eyes are a place of freedom. In a way, motherhood has given me a way to find moments of validation for my agender identity, even if they are short-lived. I cannot say enough of these transformative experiences because I know what it feels like when a person with no pre-conceived notions of gender is able to see me. The intrusion that takes place when the outside world teaches them their mother is a woman is always disturbing and requires significant re-education. Long ago, I made a blog called Gender/Detki – Rearing Logical Children. In it, I had hoped to provide concrete examples of how I addressed gender and sexuality with my children.

Looking over the blog now, it is clear that my children knew little of gender until they interacted with their maternal grandparents, who live downstairs, or their Russian preschool environment. Their father and I never called them boys and they were allowed to play with any toy and wear any article of clothing, including dresses, tutus and fairy wings. Their hair was never cut and they never heard a single thing about their behavior not ‘being appropriate for boys.’ Naturally, what they learned from us, their chosen family made up of multiple parents and family friends, clashed with what they learned from others.

It was quite a surprise for my children to learn that boys and girls are often separated in preschool throughout the day, that boys and girls have to go to different bathrooms and that specific recital roles, of gnomes or princesses, are reserved by gender. The length of their hair became an issue, because other kids would say they look like girls and their ‘girly shirts’ got laughs. When I dealt with the administrators, I did not disclose my agender identity or any additional details about my family. I argued that if girls were getting their hair styled on a daily basis, the same can be done with my children’s hair and reminded them of the fact that we paid generously for tuition.

Once my kids got attached to their teachers, they wondered whether gender was good or bad. I taught them that people have different opinions and that nobody has the right to police how their gender is expressed. Sadly, because of their encounters with other adults and children, they have learned to expect harassment based on their choice of clothing, toys or behavior. Some of the time, they would give in to the pressure and, for example, ask me to cut their hair. Because it is their body and their choice, I have done so but with tears in my eyes. The pain and the anger I feel on behalf of my children exacerbates my own trauma.

Now older and in public school, my kids manage a lot more backlash, which is hard for me to watch. As an adult, I have not yet figured how to freely express my agender identity without having to constantly educate uninformed cisgender people. Why should children as young as five have to face a similar struggle? Because knowledge is power, I have taught my kids about the construction of the sex and gender binaries, the link to sexuality and how gender and sexuality are affected by one’s race, class and any number of other social factors. These topics are hard enough for my college students to grasp but the way people react to my kids’ gender ‘deviance’ makes such discussions necessary.

I am proud to say that the more I learn about gender and sexuality and about myself, the more my children are able to benefit and feel supported in their own exploration. They have shown resilience and courage by resisting harassment and trying to live truthfully. Here, I would like to return to my middle child’s gender non-conforming path. Most recently, he has become quite interested in wearing a ‘girl’s bathing suit,’ which is not going to go over well at his swim classes, summer day camp or with my biological family. Part of my motherhood journey is to be an advocate for my child and so I am gearing up to have several conversations so that he may be able to wear his turquoise bathing suit full of ruffles. When I caution him, I am sad to say that he may not be allowed to wear it and that his grandmother and others will continue to make comments. He nods and answers, ‘I will ignore them, Mama, I will just ignore them.’

When I speak to others on his behalf, part of me wants to say that I am also like him, weird and proud of my ‘deviance,’ and that I would love for my kids to be part of the LGBTQ community. But their mother’s deviance makes it hard for others to accept my children. Now that I am firmly at peace with my lesbian identity, there are new definitions to go over since their peers are throwing around casually homophobic remarks. To me it is not difficult to reconcile being agender and a lesbian but trying to explain to my kids why the label ‘lesbian’ still applies even if I am not a woman is a bit of a challenge. What I say is that others perceive me as a woman which means having to face sexism and homophobia.

If I did not have to explain to my kids why much of the world thinks our family is ‘wrong,’ they wouldn’t need an explanation because they have been raised to embrace difference. Regardless of divorce, changes in family structure, new gender and sexual identities, like their mother’s lesbianism or future children, they are surrounded by loving adults who will help them usher in a new world. Along the way, they will offer acceptance in return. Want to see an example? I recently asked my middle child about his feelings on my not wanting a gender, on being agender. Not looking up from his video game, he replied, “I feel fine because it’s your choice and gender doesn’t matter at all.”

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“Hope” Springs Forth: New Article Out in Sociology of Health and Illness!

In this post, Xan Nowakowski reflects on a recent publication in Sociology of Health and Illness concerning the personal, political, and structural experience of managing chronic conditions in everyday life.

Hello readers! If you’ve been following WWIH for a while, or just know any of us editors outside of the blog, you may have heard a bit about my new article in Sociology of Health and Illness. It’s a critical analysis of my experiences with a prescription drug that has excellent benefits and a lot of potential side effects, and the many sociological lessons learned from trying to find the right balance between the two.

A lot of the illness management literature deconstructs major changes in health status, and the impacts of these events on identity formation and performance. This literature doesn’t yet contain as diverse an array of information and analysis on the day-to-day nuances of living with chronic conditions. I’m hoping to inspire other scholars to delve more into that area, and to do so with a richly intersectional perspective on relationships between health and social life.

To have this article published in Sociology of Health and Illness is a dream come true, and the product of about two years’ worth of work. So I’m thrilled to report that “Hope Is a Four-Letter Word: Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster of Illness Management” is now available online, along with an accompanying video abstract introducing the piece. The print version of the article will appear later this year. In the meantime, if you want to read the article and are having trouble getting access to the online version, just drop me an email.

I also encourage everyone to share the link to the online version with others who may be interested in this topic. I quite deliberately constructed this article as a narrative with theoretical commentary, not a research methods piece. It’s accessible for a wide variety of audiences, not just academics. I wrote the paper with patients, families, clinicians, advocates, and caregivers all well in mind. WWIH readers will recognize a lot of our key themes here: intersectionality of multiple social positions and roles, gender performances and violations of norms, racial and ethnic inequality, symbolic interactionism as a tool for understanding health experience, and of course a hefty dose of storytelling!

An essential contribution of this piece is detailed insight into the interplay between personality and social structure in the experience of chronic illness and the management thereof. By using my own voice to explore the complexities of different theories of social inequality, I hope to help build new ground for dialogue about what chronic illness feels like day-to-day that can inspire improvements in both community support and clinical care. I also hope to open doors for other scholars who occupy one or more marginalized social locations to share and critically analyze their own stories of illness management in everyday life.

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On not Writing

Erika Gisela Abad has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and works at Center for Puerto Rican Studies investigating intersectionality, cultural experience, and oral history among Puerto Rican communities and families.  In this post, Erika reflects on how her research in Puerto Rican Chicago sparks tension and memory in dialogues and debates with her mother.  

I struggle with not writing. Sitting with my mom after a long day’s work watching ridiculous TV shows on streaming media. I do this in the midst of professional uncertainty when my conscious tells me it is important to, well, send out applications. A woman struggling with the invisibility of her work, of her motherhood, closing the computer allows me to make her visible in the mundanity of the everyday to which we’ve arrived.

A mixed class Latina the second to finish college, the first PhD, I got this degree because making a living as a writer a mentor once told me, was going to be difficult. In the place many predicted the MFA would land me, I sit with my mom because of the reasons I write:

To heal, to release anger, to get to truths neither speaking nor working reveal. Drafting and talking through to forgive what moments trauma doesn’t want to let go. As I once wrote a mentor, it’s about getting to the table and trying to write what the other person coming to the table could or would look like. It’s about practicing with characters and metaphors how to listen through the trauma, whether the trauma be colonial, patriarchal or material – whether the trauma be that which has been named or that which must be kept invisible. Sometimes the struggle to survive demands struggles be kept silent. Human suffering, as inevitable as it is, often gets lost in the pursuit of fantasy as well as forgetting. Coming to the table is also about assessing whether the wheel turning revolution can be rebuilt or if the pieces of memory missing – memory missing because of what can’t yet be named – requires so many of us to rebuild it.

And sitting with my mom is about waiting, waiting for memory to reappear. And her memories awaken in the memories of others I record as an oral historian. Memories of parking lots turned into playgrounds, memories of late buses to colleges she never imagined. Memories of drinking Dr. Pepper for the first time, her comfort food, the comfort of being able to know more, taste more than poverty and patriarchy permitted to a young woman growing up where Puerto Ricans were trying to make place. These memories give her life beyond the college she never finished for no other reason than being by herself. Her stories lifting up from computer screens in a voice still weary of helping and reaching, come to life beyond the place of making meaning of leaving that requires returning, overwhelmed by isolation.

And I sit with that, when our skin color differences do not write away the sameness of racism we experience. A paleness that encourages forgetting that my brownness writes on the page, for the stage in ways that have her admit—not to me—that the fight continues. Responses to racism are coded in the traumas we share. Retorts and resistance colored by the adverse childhood experiences that divide us. Sitting is all she wants at the end of the day, at the end of days running, at the end of years climbing to find stable ground in which to root, in which to lift me, among her other children higher. My hands race and wring, legs twitch because work, all the kinds, exige movement.

And I struggle to not write in those moments: moments where the cogs in my head turn too fast for her to keep up; when the questions she asks receive huffs and stomps out looking for roads bigger than the rooms we occupy. In those moments where the grumbles she makes about the car driver who works when she doesn’t, because the car that is freedom to her and is more work to me in ways that put her back on the bus, on the train to move because her fixed time challenges the time that, for me, remains in constant question. The need for work fuels us in speeds and codes the other doesn’t understand.

It takes seconds to remember a woman speaking of a girl ashamed and strained by the laundry she carries on the bus. And I see my mom there, then, aching and taking days off to not have to, again cross the street with bags and baskets. She bought to own to never again walk or rent or borrow. She works to have the luxury, luxuries she couldn’t have back then, then when Puerto Ricans were beginning to make meaning, Puerto Ricans who form the history I collect. Her life fills up in the margins of those stories, of those whose mark on Puerto Rican Chicago get printed in newspapers, shine in their awards, appear on screens to see. Those Puerto Ricans now, in between arguments and questions, spark her to remember her story. Histories she lived differently, differently for reasons the more I learn from others, the more she reveals.

So I stretch and listen and sit still, waiting, waiting till she’s asleep to pull out the books, to open the pc, to take out the pen and paper to write. Because writing is still needed to heal, to move, to forgive, to let go, to uncover, to remember. But not writing—not writing in those moments I steal from reason, from economy—allows me to say thank you, thank you the only way a struggling writer knows how. By counting the wrinkles in her face, the sighs in her stories, knowing that, in between them, remain moments and movements to keep me writing.

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Ripped Pages, Erased words – lessons from the unintended audience

A writer across genres and disciplines, this anonymous contributor is playing the professional field. She is debating whether to continue tenure track pursuits or focus on a career that lets her write what she chooses while pursuing advocacy work. She is grateful for the conversation/reflection that inspired this essay. 

There were two times in my life – once as a child, another as a young adult – where I was asked to destroy my words. In both situations, men asked me to get rid of my words – a journal and a blog. As a survivor of sexual assault and a feminist scholar aware of gendered language and silence, it was important for my own journey as a writer to fully name and forgive how I had responded to write as a result of those moments. I write this to remind myself why I write, for whom I write and to face the fears that have emerged in what I could/want to write and publish.

First, the journal writing I was doing as a 10-11 year old was framed by divorce, moving, death of a childhood friend and grandparents’ return to Puerto Rico. In that time period, abstract thought developing in my brain along with a great deal of loss in my environment creo un sentido de rencor, angustia y resentimiento. I was angry at everyone before I was a teenager. I had been lost, confused and I felt worthless given how much consistency I had lost. That anger was private until an elder read it. After reading it, he demanded I throw my words away because of how disrespectful and hurtful they were to the people I was framing in a negative manner. My words, my private thoughts were not protected because the journal was neither locked nor stored in a secret place. As a child I internalized the idea that my words did not belong to me. Once I ripped out the pages, I started writing fiction. Fiction as escape, as release, as an optimism I would not allow myself to find in an environment until I grew to live comfortably as a lesbian in a city located in the Western United States.

Ten or eleven years later, I was still acting and writing ‘straight’. I was writing straight fantasies, very PG, I thought, and the object of my affection demanded I take down the blog. Written without ever thinking he’d see it, I grew mortified that someone would share it, especially given the greater social context in which my ‘feelings’ for him were shared with him and how long it took him to tell me that someone told him. The person I was writing about yelled at me for how I felt, for writing it down and for publicizing it the way I had. Again, my words no longer belonged to me and I had to get rid of them. I did. Within months, I stopped associating with all involved. The wounds of being uncovered, of leaving and all that neither of us understand of each other’s life lay as an ever-increasing gap between us. Not just for the manner in which something public-private had been shared, but, more specifically, for what I understood that to represent at the time.

In both of these instances, I took for granted where I was writing. As a child, I needed locks and I needed hiding to keep my words mine. The uninvited and unintended audiences wanted to alter/erase my words because of what those words meant to them. Those words were not direct weapons against them. For me, in either instance, the words attempted to explore hurt, frustration, loneliness. The losses and change were overwhelming with minimal outlets available compared to the extent so many were suffering. I wrote as a means to escape, to let go of feelings. To have that taken from me, literally ripped out, informed fantasy writing that would sustain me until high school gave me access to password protected writing.

As a college student teetering on living in truth/coming out and trying to find smaller ways to be different, blogging was a way to connect with a handful of friends who had online journals and remained as invisible as I intended to be. Like in my childhood, I wanted a way to have a journal go with me wherever I was, operating on the belief that I was insignificant enough not to be distributed. It served as a way to explore curiosities, questions, internalized hetero-romantic idealism and other ideas that are of little significance to me now. In those moments, they were growing pains on paper/on screen. Growing pains that were mine. A question emerged that I will address after explaining how I viewed those two moments.

Those writings were a necessary process in my journey. Tremendous loss shaped how I perceived family because of how little control we had over our lives and over the affects of others’ choices on my ability to have, what I thought, was a normative childhood. No one wants to lose so much so quickly. Divorce and death shake foundations. Those I grew to rely on dispersed, and, in that, the grief of various communities – blood and peer – overwhelmed me. Grief transformed to hate because I could not bring my friend back. I could not go back to the house I had lived in for ten years. I did not have childhood friends I played with living next to me. I had more than my uncle had at my age, but that more was not something I would understand or forgive until others’ affluence taught me the power and resilience I had gained in that year of intense loss and change.

As for the online journal I kept in undergrad, I wanted to rewrite ownership of my sexuality. I didn’t think I owned it because – whether a gender or a community – I had spent a lifetime internalizing that my sexuality was not my own. Women grapple with this as much as those who struggle with being queer. I only allowed myself to understand that I had to hide, negotiate and perform resistance to the factors that informed the lack of ownership regarding my sexuality. Because of how new I had been to that community, because of the struggle I had relating to and working with cismen (of color), I was terrified of sharing the complex emotions I had around my body. When I did, I felt I was giving up too much too quickly. It has taken me years of poetry, therapy, and journaling to forgive myself and those young men for how naive we were about bodies, power, sexuality and desire.

The ownership others take over words based on their age/gender internalized authority remains a struggle in many communities. As writers, we each contend with the implications of ownership and measurement exercised by those who use social media to factor into whether one will be hired, published in the future, or deemed socially appropriate because of how in/visible we hope to be and because there are members of our audience we do not know. Reflecting over reactions remains key because there is a great deal we learn from ourselves in the process. Those lessons can, when we allow them to, spur our creative, intellectual and spiritual growth. Neither silence nor censorship will control the audience that thieves itself into the words to which we do not invite them. Neither silence/self-censorship will adequately erase the effects of our experiences. Writing is a choice, a demand for those of us who have born witness to suffering brought on by silence.

The quality of our writing can improve with awareness of how we control what we choose. As scholars, we control that which we are most informed. I take this out of my journal to share on this blog out of a need to forgive myself for who I couldn’t be for myself in moments I needed to express myself while protecting the integrity of my right to feel. As I grow as a writer, protection remains key, which is why I choose for this to remain anonymous for now. I want to control where my writing goes next. I want it to go to a place where, in the future, attaching my names to these words will not cause me nor any of the people in this narrative harm.

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Systemic Racism & Why I don’t want kids

In this guest post, David Springer reflects on the ways experiencing and studying systemic racism influence preferences for having or not having children.  David Springer is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago who studies race, ethnicity & gender and African American experience. 

At this point in my life, I’ve ended many different friendships and relationships because of racism. It’s a normal part of my life. Often, these incidents begin with comments like “You’re really ________ for a black guy” or “I like you, you’re not like other black people!” I turn 30 in about 2 months, and I don’t have the energy to explain to people why that’s offensive. I certainly don’t have time to explain why I or other black people are upset over Trayvon Martin’s death or his murderer’s acquittal, the Ferguson protests and the Baltimore uprisings. Over the past few years, I’ve come to learn that a big part of experiencing racism is about experiencing loss. It can involve losing access to resources (if you even had access in the first place), losing your humanity, losing your life (literally), and losing relationships. I thought I knew how to handle the latter until this past week.

I ended a completely functional, stable, 2-year relationship with a woman I loved because of racism. She is Asian-American and I’m black, but it wasn’t because of a microaggression. It wasn’t because she thought #BlackLivesMatter protesters were just rabble rousers or because she thought black people would be fine if we just pulled our pants up and stopped “acting ghetto.” In fact, in 2 years, we argued about something race related exactly one time. We ended our relationship because I came to the realization that I don’t want children, and she does. That, in and of itself, is not explicitly related to race. People end relationships all the time because they disagree on whether or not to have children. However, I’d venture to guess that most people who say they don’t want kids don’t cite racism as the reason. For me, racism has everything to do with why I don’t want to bring children into this world.

With the #BlackLivesMatter Movement in full swing and the seemingly endless stream of stories of violence against black people, racism continues to permeate our daily lives. On a personal level, I’m confronted with racism in my everyday life in ways I’ve written about before. I’m also a race scholar, so systemic racial inequality also shapes my worldview. My own research focuses on the ways race shapes the lives of even the most successful, middle class blacks in this “post-racial” society. Between my own personal experiences, an understanding of institutional inequality, and an awareness of how that inequality literally kills black men, women and children every day, you get what scholars refer to as “racial battle fatigue.”

Racial battle fatigue refers to the stress people of color experience when exposed to discrimination. This stress can be psychological (frustration, defensiveness, apathy, anxiety, hopelessness), physiological (headaches, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, sleep disturbances, etc.), or emotional-behavioral (stereotype threat, impatience, increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use, and poor job or school performance). For me, chronic exposure to racism tends to manifest itself though a deep sense of anxiety and hopelessness. Though I know that progress has been made since the Civil Rights Movement and that my own success is a symbol of that progress, I’m also aware of how much that progress has stalled or regressed. On one hand, Census data suggests that black folks are generally less poor than they were before that era. That data also suggests that more of us are going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees, and that the black middle class has grown. Black success, at least on an individual level, is highly visible in our society. President Obama, as many have discussed before, is the most obvious example of this progress.

On the other hand, this racial progress coexists with racial disparities in income, wealth, poverty, unemployment, incarceration rates, housing and education. If black America were a country to itself, it would trail behind white America in virtually every measure of social mobility and life chances. It would have a worse infant mortality rate than many “3rd World” countries, a lower life expectancy than Mexico, a higher homicide rate (per-100,000) than the Ivory Coast, Sudan, or Haiti, and the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. While legally sanctioned discrimination has subsided over time, even successful blacks deal with racism in their neighborhoods, public spaces, stores, and the workplaces. Every day there is a new story of a black person being verbally harassed, followed in stores, harassed by security personnel, or killed by police and vigilantes. At this point, these kinds of stories are expected. I go through a range of emotions when I see these stories – anger, disgust, sadness, etc. But I’m never surprised by any of it. And from where I sit, I don’t have much evidence that it will stop. If Dr. King and the Civil Rights Generation could not stop it, what hope do we have?

I understand that this isn’t a 100% rational reaction. There are many people who are fighting for black lives. And that fight is not always for naught, as the students of Mizzou showed us this past week. Things like this provide some hope, but that hope is quickly tempered by how people reacted to those protests – death threats, terrorism, and general hostility. Which brings me back to having children. When I’m aware of the many ways racism hurts and kills black folks in this country, how can I justify bringing a child into this world? How do I handle the inevitable day when my child gets called a nigger or some other epithet? We live in a world where that’s a virtually a guarantee. So how do I explain that to them? And do I try to give them hope that it will get better, even when I know that probably isn’t true? Do I just “keep it real,” and shatter their innocence? These are the kinds of things my ex-girlfriend and I had to think about. How were we supposed to explain to a child that the police, who they will be taught to see as the good guys and heroes, are often hostile and hateful towards black people? I didn’t really interact much with the police outside of a D.A.R.E. talk here and there, but I can remember knowing very early in life that police didn’t like black people. And when kids are taught that people who hurt people go to jail, how do we explain that when white people hurt us, they’re more likely to avoid punishment? How do I help that child avoid the pain I felt the first time a girl’s parents rejected me because I was black?

These questions are what drive my preference to not have children. Since I was in an interracial relationship, I had to think long and hard about how race might affect a child’s life. And since my ex wasn’t black, many of the child’s experiences would be tied directly to me, especially if that child looked more like me than her. Of course being/looking Asian comes with many of the same problems and discrimination, as well as some unique experiences (“Where are you really from?”). But anti-black racism is, as critical race theorists often argue, a cornerstone of American society. And black people are often viewed as inferior to Asians on cultural grounds. And since I’m the darker one in the relationship, I am aware that the more the child looks like me, the more likely they are to experience discrimination in their neighborhoods, in stores, at school, and at the hands of police officers. Again, I know that isn’t a 100% rational thought. And it wouldn’t be my fault if my child experienced racism. But it would feel like it was, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to deal with that as a parent, let alone how to talk to a child about it.

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What “team”? Some thoughts on navigating monosexism

In this post, Lain Mathers reflects on zir experiences navigating monosexism in contemporary society.  Lain Mathers is a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Illinois Chicago and the Assistant Editor here at Write Where It Hurts, this is zir first blog.

Earlier this week, Dr. J Sumerau posted on Conditionally Accepted and this blog about the disjuncture between lived experiences and academic definitions of bisexuality. Specifically, ze wrote about how the definitions generated by academics, often with little or no experience interacting with bisexual people (that they know of) or living bisexual lives, are then used to enforce and regulate what is “really” considered bisexual. In this post, I am going to reflect on what it is like for me to move through the monosexual world (i.e., a world defined by sexual binaries) as a bisexual person and bourgeoning sexualities scholar.

Some of my earliest memories about bisexuality came from high school. I often heard my classmates joking about bisexuality (or “bicuriosity” as it was often reduced to). In the hallways, at the lunch tables, in the parking lot after school, such pejorative comments ended up reducing bisexuality to some “true” gay or lesbian “nature” (often in far less neutral language) and were always followed by hysterical laughter. In addition to these comments, my male heterosexual peers often leered at groups of teenage girls, audibly fantasizing about how “hot” it would be if one of them were bisexual so that she would presumably engage in a threesome with one of them and another “hot chick”.

I observed this trope of the “hot bisexual girl” (never a “hot bisexual woman,” only ever a “hot bisexual girl,” reducing adult bisexual women to an infantilized position) expand into my college years, as many of the teenage and young adult heterosexual men I met mused over the possibilities of finding the “right bisexual girl” that would be “down” for a threesome with him and another woman. At one point, I witnessed one of my female college peers follow up this statement with the question, “Well, why don’t you engage in a threesome with a bisexual guy? Maybe your girlfriend would prefer that!” This particular guy responded with, “Fuck no. I’m not having sex with a homo.” Following his blatantly homophobic, biphobic, and monosexist remark I asked, “Would you ever want to date a bisexual girl that you theoretically would have this threesome with?” He paused for a second, “Nah, I don’t date sluts.”

It was at this point that the messages about bisexuality I heard up to that point (from heterosexual people) congealed into a clear dichotomy – the hot, sexually available bisexual girl that you only have threesomes with, but never date contrasted with the always-already “truly homosexual” male who can never actually be bisexual because of the “one act rule” that is particularly pervasive in dominant heterosexual paranoia around males who sleep with other males. I even remember this theme coming up in interactions with some of my early heterosexually-identified boyfriends when they begged me to watch “bisexual girl porn” with them to “get in the mood”. This always made me uncomfortable, a feeling I attributed at the time solely to my discomfort with the sexist objectification in much of mainstream porn. While this was surely a large component of the equation, the fact that I also experienced bisexual desires (that I had yet to acknowledge) was likely another.

Despite the overwhelmingly derogatory lens through which I learned to view bisexuality from my heterosexual peers, I began to openly identify as bisexual during my last year of college. During this time, I did a great deal of research on the Internet and managed to find more positive messages about bisexuality in the form of online conversations among self-identified bisexuals. Additionally, after the negative experiences I had talking to heterosexual people about bisexuality in the past, I was encouraged by the presence of what I understood to be a fairly radical scene of activists and lesbian, gay, and “queer” individuals in the community where I resided at the time. I eagerly hoped that shifting my peer circle from a predominantly heterosexual and sexist scene to a supposedly “queer” scene would be a refreshing start to fully embracing my bisexuality in a positive and supportive environment.

You can imagine the disappointment, then, when a conversation like the following ensued:

At a coffee shop I frequented, some people that I knew were discussing the Occupy movement (this was in the early days of its existence, and many of the activists and “queers” in the place where I lived were planning a similar demonstration locally). The issue of sexuality came up and the conversation slowly veered away from Occupy and towards a conversation of sexual politics. At one point in the conversation I identified myself as bisexual, still a relatively new phenomenon for me, so much so that speaking it out loud felt disingenuous even though it wasn’t. The conversation lulled, some people’s lips pursed, one person pulled out his phone, another took a deep inhale of their cigarette. Finally, the quiet broke when one of the women sitting near me who I was accustomed to seeing rotating in this circle took a large gulp of coffee and then ardently informed me that:

“It’s actually pretty offensive that you use that language. After all, you’re limiting the existence of everyone to either men or women and there’s a lot more gender identities that exist beyond that. Just, like, politically try to be more aware.”

I was stunned, particularly because (unbeknownst to her) I was also reconciling my own non-binary gender queer existence at the time and did not at all see my bisexuality as an invalidating force in that regard. I was perplexed at how she arrived at the conclusion that the “bi” in “bisexuality” only meant “men and women.” From the hours of research that I did on the Internet, on bisexual community pages and Facebook groups, this was not at all the consensus. In fact, I read through a multitude of conversations of self-identified bisexual people reflecting on the beautifully multifaceted fact that “bisexual” can mean one’s own sex and other sexes, men and women, cisgender and transgender, intersex and non-intersex, or no preference for bodies and/or gender identities whatsoever!

I was beside myself trying to sort out why a college-educated supposedly “radical lesbian queer” individual would assert such a myopic view on the meaning of bisexuality. Yet, this was a circle I was fairly new to, so I did my best to disappear from the rest of the conversation (unsuccessfully based on the condescending looks of disapproval directed at me for the next half hour, what are also referred to as “microaggressions”).

In the midst of all this, I could not shake the questions running through my head: if the implication of bisexual attraction and desire supposedly means that I am saying only “men and women” exist, then why is it that no one interrupted the self identified gay male to my left when he discussed his sexuality? Wasn’t he suggesting that only men existed and that there was some “essential” type of being called “man”? Why was bisexuality the sexual identity and set of (extremely diverse) practices solely responsible for reinforcing the problematic and essentialist gender binary? Also, how did these people, a group of supposedly “radical activists, and members of a lesbian, gay, and queer community” not see that they were engaging in a kind of erasure that was not so dissimilar than what they experienced from heterosexuals? I was crushed and disappointed to learn that not only did I not belong in this space either, but also that my existence was offensive.

Be “hot” or be “offensive.” As a bisexual, what I first learned from heterosexual and lesbian/gay people was that I could not be considered fully human with ideas and desires of my own.

A few months after this interaction, I moved to a large city for school and hoped that I would find a more welcoming space for bisexuals in a big city (unlike where I previously lived). I started going on dates, primarily with self-identified lesbian women, in hopes of getting a chance to meaningfully engage this component of my desire and attractions (and also because I had no clue where to find other bisexuals). After the interaction I had with the woman at the coffee shop, I was apprehensive to disclose my bisexuality to anyone – straight, lesbian, or gay – and attempted to avoid talking about my sexual desires other than the ones that would be immediately relevant in that situation (while, ironically, cultivating an interest in studying sexualities). On these dates, I became acutely aware that not only was I offensive (as the woman at the coffee shop had informed me), but that I was also not to be trusted, since, as one woman put it, “bisexual girls can’t make up their minds,” (here, again, bisexual girls can’t make up their minds, reducing bisexuality to childhood not unlike the heterosexual males at my high school).

Eventually, I began to meet other bisexuals and became entirely frustrated with the notion that I was just not “gay” enough, and I began openly identifying as bisexual again (sometimes). Yet even when I did this, I found myself sitting around tables and making sure that those near me knew the story that I fashioned to shield myself from any potential judgment – that I was “like 85-90% gay, though,” generally followed by a laugh and a sip of whatever I was drinking at the time with the hope of concealing my profound discomfort and disdain for this practice of “quantifying” just how bisexual I really was just to avoid negativity from straight, but predominantly gay and lesbian people. In time this did not prove to be much better of an approach than entirely obscuring my desires altogether.

This dissonance was buttressed by the fact that, despite the multitude of ways I tried to present myself while navigating the changes in/with/to my gender, others most commonly read me as a lesbian woman. This was most clearly relayed to me in an interaction I had with a man one day while purchasing a pack of cigarettes at a corner store in the city.

“Congratulations!” The man behind the counter exclaimed as I walked through the door.

I looked around, unsure of whether he was addressing me, or someone familiar that he knew who happened to enter right behind me. I quickly realized there was no one else in the store and since all I had done that morning was get out of bed and walk to the corner, I inquired about the reason for his congratulations.

“Oh, well now you can get married!”

Setting aside the reality that I did not, in fact, have a partner at this time, I quickly realized that, in this man’s eyes, I was a lesbian woman and the day before our interaction the former governor of our state signed gay marriage into law in the state where we lived. Not only was I apparently a lesbian woman, but one who would, of course, automatically want to marry. His assumptions not only erased the fact that I, actually, could have been married to some of my partners long before this date, but that perhaps marriage was not something I had any intention of engaging in regardless of my partner choice. Alas, this man not only reflected his limited familiarity with only the most “respectable” of “LGbt” issues for many straight people, but also the erasure of bisexuality completely from potential “intelligible” forms of existence.

All of these encounters are just a sampler of my experiences navigating bisexuality in a monosexual/monosexist social world. In my adolescence and college years I primarily confronted the dynamics of heteronormativity (and still do). Yet, heteronormative regulations are only one side of a monosexist coin, the other side of which involves navigating the imperatives of homonormativity. For many bisexuals this is a phenomenon all too familiar. We are either too straight, or not straight enough. We are not gay enough either, or we’re really just gay and waiting to “pick a side already.” We’re hot, offensive, untrustworthy, a specter of danger, and volatile. Yes, we are destabilizing for homo and hetero normative assumptions in the most fluid of ways. This is a reality I continually have to work to embrace while navigating hostility from lesbian, gay, and straight others.

While I have often heard – from straight, gay, and lesbian people alike – that bisexuals have it easier because we can “just choose to be closeted” I want to stop and interrogate this assumption –especially since recent reports reveal that bisexuals suffer from more severe health complications than straight, lesbian, or gay people, and because the same assertion was made against lesbian and gay people not so long ago. Additionally, one of the most cited difficulties that bisexuals report is lack of community support. Monosexism is not just inconvenient for bisexual people, it is a form of violence, and it is quite real in its consequences, particularly for bisexual people who already occupy other marginalized structural positions.

My hope in sharing this information is to continue dialogue concerning how we define “bisexuality” in our own communities compared to the academy. I am hoping that perhaps we might opt to challenge where we see monosexism in our own classrooms, writing and research agendas, and community engagement projects.

Lain Mathers

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