Roman Historians: Unreliable Narrators? Part 2 of 2

Cheryl Morgan is a trans woman, a writer, publisher and broadcaster. She is co-chair of OutStories Bristol, an LGBT local history organisation. She has delivered papers on many aspects of trans history and trans characters in literature, and is a regular speaker at LGBT History Month events. She tweets from @CherylMorgan.

In Part 1 of this essay I looked at how historians, both Roman and modern, treat the suggestion that Emperor Elagabalus might have been a trans woman. In this section I will be focusing on another really interesting trans character from Rome. Sporus was a young person who, for one and a half years, was Nero’s wife and effectively Empress of Rome. Suetonius tells us (Suetonius Nero:28):

“He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife.”

Nero, in one of his periodic fits of rage, had viciously kicked his pregnant wife, Poppea. She had a miscarriage and died. Whether Nero intended to kill her or not is uncertain, and it is not clear whether he loved her, but he did miss having her around and he wanted to have her back. Sporus was the solution that his courtiers came up with, because of a physical resemblance to the dead Poppea.

To read Suetonius, and also Cassius Dio, tell the story, this is yet another of Nero’s depravities. Some poor lad is plucked from obscurity because of his resemblance to the dead empress, is forcibly castrated, and required to play the role of Nero’s wife.

Reading between the lines, however, Sporus appears to have taken to femininity like a duck to water. Nero named her Sabina, and I shall continue to use female pronouns for her because her actions, and her treatment by other Romans, demand them.

Here’s Cassius Dio (Dio 63:12):

Calvia had been entrusted with the care of the boy and with the oversight of the wardrobe, though a woman and of high rank;

And this (Dio 63:13):

“[Sporus], in addition to other forms of address, was termed “lady,” “queen,” and “mistress.”

Another contemporary historian, Dio Chrysostom, notes (Chrysostom 21:7)

“… that youth of Nero’s actually wore his hair parted, young women attended him whenever he went for a walk, he wore women’s clothes, and was forced to do everything else a woman does in the same way.”

Chysostom goes on to suggest that Nero, in anticipation of Elagabalus, offered a reward for anyone who could make Sabina fully female.

Because it was necessary to keep the senate happy, Nero married a noblewoman called Statilia Mesalina. The two don’t seem to have spent much time together, and knowing what happened to her predecessor she doubtless wanted to keep well clear of her husband. Nero and Sabina, in contrast, took themselves off to Greece, got married very publicly, and reportedly had a fabulous honeymoon together. Cassius Dio notes (Dio 63:13):

“All the Greeks held a celebration in honour of their marriage, uttering all the customary good wishes, even to the extent of praying that legitimate children might be born to them.”

When Nero’s behaviour finally became too much for the Romans and he had to flee for his life, Sabina was one of the few loyal courtiers to accompany him. Nero’s secretary, Epaphoroditus, was later executed for the crime of helping the emperor take his own life. One might have expected an eunuch to have just been quietly disposed of. Nothing of the sort happened.

Instead Sabina became a pawn in Rome’s dynastic struggles. This was the Year of the Four Emperors, and many more pretenders to the throne. One unsuccessful claimant was Nymphidius Sabinus who, according to Plutarch (Plutarch Galba:9), sought to solidify his claim by marrying Sabina. As it turned out, Galba took the throne, but Sabina survived.

Galba didn’t last long, and was succeeded by Otho. He too fell quickly, and Cassius Dio reports (Dio 64:8) that one of the causes of his unpopularity was, “his intimacy with Sporus.” It was not until the reign of the next emperor, Vitellius, that Sabina’s political career came unstuck (Dio 64:10). She took her own life rather than be forced to become an actress (and inevitably a sex worker). Any other noble Roman matron would have done the same.

What are we to make of all this? To a cisgender historian, cross-dressing men might seem all the same. To someone familiar with the trans community, however, differences are obvious. There is a critical difference between someone who cross-dresses occasionally, and someone who commits wholeheartedly to life as a woman.

Sabina’s actions do not appear to me to be those of someone who was being forced to play a role. Nor does she sound like what we would now call a gay or bi man[i], acting out femininity to attract male suitors. She might have been in it for the money, but how many men would do that just to get rich? Sabina went all-in on being a woman, and for two years did very well in difficult circumstances. Had she been assigned female at birth she might now be famed as a shrewd political operator.

But, of course, she was assigned male at birth, and modern historians therefore look no further than the surface story of a forcibly castrated boy. In his biography, Nero, Edward Champlin finds the whole story utterly incredible. He says (Champlin p146):

“Nero died within a year and a half of their marriage, but – astonishingly – Sporus was compelled to go on playing the role of Sabina.”

Compelled: that’s a loaded word right there, one he gets from taking the contemporary historians at face value. Champlin also can’t believe Sabina’s loyalty to Nero (Champlin p 147).

“Did he for his part grow to love the man who had castrated him, who forced him to dress and act like a woman, and who longed to transform him surgically from male to female, an operation which would undoubtedly have killed him? No one thought to record his feelings.”

There are a number of points to note here. Firstly, Champlin continues with the narrative that Sabina was an unwilling victim in all that occurred. After all, why would any man want to be made to play the role of a woman?

Secondly, there is the assumption that further surgery would have killed Sabina. This sort of statement tends to be made about ancient trans women by modern men who find the idea of having your genitals removed deeply disturbing. In fact, the Romans were very practiced at castration. Normally only the testicles were removed, and patients usually survived. For full castration, the survival rate was much lower, around 25%, but Sabina would have had the best surgeon and care available. It is only the construction of a vagina that the Romans didn’t know how to do.

And finally, Champlin says that no one thought to record Sabina’s feelings. Strangely, however, he is convinced that, at almost two millennia removed, he knows exactly how she must have felt. I have a rather different take on that.

The reason for Champlin’s attitude becomes very clear when he goes on to say (Champlin p149):

“When readers first encounter the story of Sporus, usually in the pages of Suetonius, they react with a mixture of emotions: shock, disgust, perhaps even horror, but inevitably, also, laughter – it is just too outrageous.”

It is pretty clear that the feelings of shock, disgust, horror and derision that Champlin reports are, in fact, his own. They are a product of his transphobic view of the world. To anyone who would have leapt at the opportunity to simply live as a woman, never mind becoming the wife of the emperor, the way you interpret the historical sources is very different.

What we have seen here are two opposite reactions to the ancient sources. Icks has elected to ignore suggestions of Elagabalus having a trans identity because he doesn’t think people really do that. Champlin, on the other hand, wants to point and laugh at Sabina because he finds trans women risible. On the one hand Icks chooses to dismiss his sources, and on the other, Champlin takes their disgust and doubles down on it.

If a narrator is unreliable, however, many interpretations are possible. All it takes to have a trans-positive reading is to believe that trans identities are real, and worthy of respect.

[i] The Romans had no concept of being gay or bi as we understand the terms. Powerful men were entirely comfortable slaking their lust on anyone they took a fancy to. Julius Caesar was celebrated by his troops as, “Every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.” A Roman wanting sex with men had no need to act overtly effeminate, and would be thought less of for doing so.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.”

Facebooktwitterby feather

Sacrificio

Lisette E. Torres is the Assistant Director of the Cooper Foundation Center for Academic Resources at Nebraska Wesleyan University as well as a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education at Iowa State University.  Her scholarly interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, knowledge production, critical visual and textual discourse studies, and the sociocultural context of science and higher education.  In honor of Fibromyalgia Awareness Day (May 12th), in this post, she reflects on what she calls the “narrative of sacrificio” and how it informs her experience as a Boricua mother-scholar living with fibromyalgia.

Sacrificio. Sacrifice. To give up something for the sake of someone else. To destroy, renounce, or lose something for a belief or an end.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican household full of women, I am quite familiar with sacrifice. My two sisters and I would be reminded almost daily about the sacrifices that family members have had to make for the love of family and country – my grandmother’s humble beginnings living in poverty on a farm on the island, my father and aunt having to walk to school (sometimes with no shoes), my grandmother coming to the mainland U.S. to work in a factory, my father fighting in Vietnam, my mother managing the household, my father having to travel 2 hours to and from New York City to provide for the family . . . the list goes on. These stories of sacrifice were meant not only as a way to demonstrate how resilient our family has been but also to remind us of the responsibility that the three of us had as Puerto Rican women. We learned that it was our obligation to always try our best and to give up our own wants and needs for the family. Social scientists often refer to this socialization as instilling the values of familismo, or one’s prioritizing family over one’s own needs, and marianismo, the notion of the assumed submissive female gender role of Latinas.

However, this narrative – the narrative of sacrificio – is one that I have also experienced as an academic. The “publish or perish” mantra, working more than 40 hours per week, and the unspoken expectation that scholars (particularly women) put off having families or give up having families all together encompass some form of sacrifice, whether it be time, money, or personal fulfillment. For women of color in the academy, this sacrifice is much deeper. It is the fragmentation of the mind, body, and spirit or the creation and acceptance of multiplicity (Ong, 2005). It is forgoing speaking the language of our ancestors to converse in the elitist, colonial jargon of the ivory tower. It is physically moving away from our families and communities in pursuit of job opportunities, which causes a multitude of additional challenges that come with relocation.

From my own personal experience as a Boricua mother-scholar, there is a great tension between having the racialized gendered identity of a Latina and an academic identity. I often feel pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I want to spend as much time with my son and husband as possible. I want to keep a clean house, provide healthy meals, and be present with my child, who is growing up so very fast that I do not want to miss a thing! Guilty about putting him in daycare, I forgo working on projects in the evenings and on weekends to try to get the most of my time with my family. I also tend to put aside some of my goals and needs in order for my son and husband to be happy; for example, I often have to take the day off to take care of my son when he is sick and have never expected my husband, who is also an academic, to do the same.

On the other hand, I am well-aware of the social and structural challenges of being a woman of color in the academy (Gutiérrez y Muhs, Niemann, Gonzàlez, & Harris, 2012). We often have to work harder and longer to receive the same recognition as our White, male colleagues. The purpose and content of our scholarship as well as our inherent intelligence is questioned, and heaven’s forbid that you have a family! The baby penalty is very real; mother scholars are often viewed as being less committed to their field and to the academy as compared to their male counterparts. They are less likely to find a tenure-track job, receive little to no assistance with childbirth support or childcare services, and do not receive the proper mentoring or career advice to help them manage family and work. Add stereotypes about women of color being fertile and emotional and you can see how women of color in the academy are in a double-bind (Malcom & Malcom, 2011) that is even tighter when you incorporate motherhood and the narrative of sacrificio.

As every academic knows, there is little time and energy to devote to research, teaching, service, and one’s personal life. Every hour is precious. We talk about “work-life balance,” though we know this is a complete myth. We try to remind everyone about self-care, exercise, and finding time to recharge (which we need to do, do not get me wrong!), all the while trying to ignore the culture shift necessary to change the neoliberal influence on productivity in higher education. Yet, we still judge others based on what we assume about them and the expectations of academia. If someone leaves campus before 5 p.m., then we think they are slacking off or cutting corners. Daily conversations revolve around “how tired” we are because we “stayed up until 2 a.m. working on a grant proposal/manuscript/course.” We complain about all the varied activities that we are engaged in while simultaneously looking down on others who may not be as involved on campus. We are complicit in perpetuating the culture of busy and the narrative of sacrificio among our colleagues. And we do this without considering the impact it has on women of color or on individuals with chronic illness/pain.

Personally, the narrative of sacrificio – from my Puerto Rican upbringing and from the academy – wears on me daily, both psychologically and physically. In the spring of 2015, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic syndrome with no known cure that is diagnosed by exclusion. The symptoms can vary among people, but they can include the following: widespread muscle and joint pain, fatigue, chronic headaches, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., cold, heat, light, sound, and touch), inability to concentrate (known in the community as “fibro fog”), stiffness, restless sleep, mood swings, and depression. These symptoms have made my career in academia difficult, aside from the structural challenges I also face as a woman of color who is also a mother. However, the words used to describe my lived experience with chronic pain are extremely limiting and cannot fully illustrate how it shapes the narrative of sacrificio in my life. Despite limitations in language, I will try to explain what it is like to have fibromyalgia. Having fibromyalgia is . . .

  • Sleeping a full 8 hours but getting up and feeling as if you only had 3 hours of sleep
  • Waking up in the middle of the night with non-stop thoughts or tingling arms/legs
  • Getting up in the morning and feeling like you worked out all night because your body is so sore and stiff
  • Like walking through really thick mud or walking around with weights around your ankles all day
  • Losing what you were going to say before you can even say it; the words get stuck and you have trouble with recall
  • Losing your train of thought in mid-sentence or forgetting the names of common things (i.e., you know what it is but you cannot get the word out)
  • Revisiting files, readings, emails, notes, etc. multiple times because you cannot concentrate long enough to remember what you read/saw
  • Feeling like a rag doll on a rack, limbs being pulled out of their sockets
  • Never feeling completely comfortable in a seated or resting position
  • Being hypersensitive to temperature changes; for me, I am almost always cold and cold temperatures cause deep pain in my bones
  • Being hypersensitive to touch; there are days when I literally cannot stand wearing socks!
  • Feeling like an open nerve
  • Feeling on edge, like you are ready to fight at any time
  • Feeling incredibly disappointed in a seeming lack of progress due to energy level
  • Feeling guilty and depressed that you cannot do all the things that other parents/academics can do

When a chronic condition like fibromyalgia intersects with the narrative of sacrificio found within Puerto Rican culture and the academy, it makes an already difficult journey as an academic almost impossible. As a mother-scholar of color, I am continuously trying to avoid the cultural taxation (Padilla, 1994) placed on faculty of color, balancing being an advocate for students of color on campus while also not participating on every single institutional diversity committee. Like most scholars of color and working moms, I work twice as hard to receive half the credit. I worry that I am not a good scholar or mother, knowing that I am being judged by others on both fronts. Stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and racial microaggressions are daily challenges for me that can wear on the mind, body, and soul. I know that I already have three strikes against me in a White patriarchal society – I am a woman, I am a person of color, and I am a mother. I am viewed as “less than” and “unworthy” of being in higher education. I am already presumed “lazy,” “inarticulate,” and “incompetent” by the mere fact that I am a woman of color, and I sometimes fear that my fibromyalgia adds to those assumptions.

In an effort to confront the narrative of sacrificio in my life, I have decided to accept that I have a finite amount of energy to give due to fibromyalgia and, since stress can exasperate my symptoms, I must embrace what Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman calls a radical reprioritizing of my life. As such, I have started practicing Taiji every week and taking time out for a massage every month, which helps with stress and pain management. I try to not to bring work home with me, accomplishing as much as I can in the office as possible and being okay with that. I also try to practice slowing down, with great reminders from my colleagues Dr. Riyad Shahjahan and Dr. Kimine Mayuzumi on their blog. While I am working on me, I want to share my lived experience with other women of color who suffer from chronic illness who may also be academics and mothers. You are not alone and the narrative of sacrificio does not define you! We do not have to sacrifice ourselves. As our sister in the struggle, Audre Lorde, wrote in a Burst of Light (1988), “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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.

Facebooktwitterby feather

There’s No Manual for This: Surviving Rape Apologists in the Classroom

The following anonymous guest post is by a sociology instructor at a public university in the United States. In this post, she reflects on experiences confronting trauma and rape apologists in the evaluation of student assignments.

When I began graduate training, I was inundated with advice about how to survive in my chosen profession. Specifically, I received tips on teaching – how to grade papers efficiently, how to foster a meaningful class discussion, how to have boundaries with students regarding grade contestations and office hours while also creating a safe space for learning. I was told to try and grade students’ work as uniformly and objectively as possible. I value all of this advice, yet I was left unprepared for what would happen in the future when I taught a gender class.

It was the middle of the semester and we were covering rape culture. As any Feminist instructor who has ever taught about rape culture probably knows, covering this topic is challenging for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes we encounter students who realize that they’ve been raped who come to office hours looking for resources. Other times, students learn that they’ve actually committed rape, and struggle to reconcile this with their images of themselves as “good people” and “not one of those (usually) guys.” And many Feminist instructors, especially those who are women, know all too well what it’s like to navigate the “mansplaining” of a few of the men in the class who would like to ardently deny that rape culture exists. Such students may make claims including but not limited to the following:

In response to discussions about the fact that what a woman is wearing does not give someone license to rape her, nor does the rate of rapes have anything to do with clothing choice: “but don’t you think what she was wearing is at least a little important?”

In response to conversations about the structural barriers to reporting rapes, and the estimated number of rapes that go unreported: “But why wouldn’t she report it? It’s kind of on her.”

In response to demonstrating the staggeringly low rates of “false reports” in contrast with the alarmingly high concern lawmakers, the media, and the general public seem to have with this artificial trend: “How do you know that it’s really rape?”

In response to pointing out that someone is incapable of consenting if they’re intoxicated:  “Well don’t you think she should have been more aware of her surroundings? Less drunk? It’s kind of her fault.”

In response to the fact that we live in a society that valorizes men’s violence against and dominance over women: “Boys will be boys.”

Every so often, however, male students may present a reasonable shortcoming of the prevailing rape culture rhetoric, such as “Why don’t we talk about when men experience rape? How can we make space for that dialogue without pushing aside women’s experiences with rape and systemic inequality.”

This is a valid question, and the inquiry is on point. We need to make space for men (as well as non-binary people) to share their experiences with rape since the foreclosure of such space stems from the very same mechanisms of inequality reproduction that facilitate rape culture in the first place.

When I encountered a paper that began with this question in my gender class, I hoped the student would take the paper in that direction.

He started by citing a media example of a case where a woman on a college campus raped a man, and how poorly the campus responded. However, I first felt a twinge in my spine when I looked up the source of his story and traced it back to a Men’s Rights Advocacy (MRA) group. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “students use terrible sources all the time, often because they might not have the skills to distinguish journalism from something like an MRA group. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here and make a note of it for the next paper.”

Unfortunately, his “argument” quickly devolved into a tirade claiming – since he presented ONE case where a man was raped by a woman – Feminism is pointless and women are complaining too much about “their problems.” He wrote that men and women experience rape culture in exactly the same way, and claimed talking about gender inequality was just an effort to make men look bad. He said that women brought these things upon themselves by making people, and specifically men, angry and annoyed via conversations about Feminism and rape culture. He did not even feign a presentation of data to back up his argument after the initial example, but rather, he simply ranted against Feminism, women, and open discussions about the sexual violence women regularly experience.

As I went over his paper, I realized that I was reading a paper that sounded word for word like something my rapist would say. And not only did this sound like something my rapist would say, this student fit the same demographic profile as the man who raped me – White, college male, between the ages of 18-22.

I got up from my desk and went for a walk. I couldn’t concentrate. I had plans to read a book later that afternoon, which were shattered by being thrown back into a pit of traumatic, fragmented memories by this student’s paper. I was furious at the fact that, as an instructor, I was expected to take his paper seriously, and scared of what he might do if he didn’t like his grade. Although I knew it was unlikely that this student would literally try to rape me, his words felt so familiar that I began having trouble distinguishing him from the man that did. Their words were so frighteningly similar that the “rational instructor” side of my brain could not overpower the “trauma survivor” part of my brain.

None of my training or experience prepared me for something like this, not even advice from the few Feminist scholars I have had the pleasure of knowing. I was in a position where I had to take this student’s words seriously, evaluate their merit, and provide a percentile score based on how well I thought they fit the parameters of the assignment.

“ZERO! YOU GET A FUCKING ZERO” I literally screamed at my computer screen. I decided that I wasn’t ready to return to grading papers yet so I got up and went for another walk.

I felt irritated that in two pages of (poorly written) ranting this student was able to undercut whatever authority I thought I had as an instructor. Authority that, especially as a female instructor, I worked hard to establish and maintain. I imagined him sitting on the other side of his computer screen laughing at my pain, joking about my distress. I imagined him being friends with my rapist (though the man who raped me is now significantly older than this student, he is frozen in the 18-22 age bracket in my mind). How, I wondered, could I possibly evaluate this student’s work in an “unbiased” fashion? Such a request would involve me living an entirely different life than the one that I’ve had.

I returned to my computer late that night. I pulled up his paper, took a deep breath, and began to read it again. No one ever advised me about how to grade a paper that sounds like something my rapist would say, so I suppose I will have to train myself. After all, I am certain that I am not the only instructor to have to navigate this dynamic, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I have to navigate it.

Facebooktwitterby feather

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

Facebooktwitterby feather