The Incredible Shrinking Phallus

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Meditations on privilege

The mental illness system

This post on the Canadian mental illness and justice systems, a long with talks we have been having in one of my classes about prisons, stirred a lot up for me.

When I was in the hospital when I was eighteen, a man in this thirties or forties arrived who said that he had agreed to check-in while having a panic attack and hadn’t fully understood that he was going to be held for seventy-two hours. He’d constantly demand to talk to doctors and social workers and to be let out. When his partner visited, they’d sit in the corner with their heads together, plotting how to get him out. I was, as I said, eighteen, and full of world-weary bravado and told him that the more he ranted and raved, the longer they would try to keep him.

He did not appreciate this comment.

But this was a scene that I have often returned to. My own institutionalization was also voluntary– until I finished signing my name. Then it didn’t matter what I wanted any longer. I was checking in for PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, suicidal ideation, stress, and above all, self-harm. My social worker at my out-patient program had sat me down at the end of my first week and said that they couldn’t keep me, for what I’m sure would be the insurance complications of me killing myself in their building.

So they loaded me into an ambulance (which my insurance later tried to tell me I didn’t need, asking if I couldn’t have taken a taxi). And they strip-searched me. And they put me, an eighteen-year-old girl with trauma issues, on a ward with men taking Haldol, who threw chairs and endlessly paced the hallway in front of my room, the only stretch of open space on the ward. We got fresh air only on cigarette breaks. I smoked more so I could go outside more.

I, too, felt trapped, but I had seen enough movies to know that pleading to your captors in the loony bin only makes you look more crazy. I didn’t believe him about not needing to be there; I barely believed myself. I played by the rules. I wore my own clothes. I came out of my room. I participated in check-ins. I was thankful for things. My panic attacks decreased from five or six a day to three, then two, then I just wandered around in a numb haze called progress.

I suppose I must have met with a social worker once (to whom else could I calmly communicate my desire to leave?), but the only one I remember is the one as I signed the papers to be released again, who ran down a check-list, asking if I thought I might be hospitalized again. I told her that next time I needed a break, I’d just unplug my phone. I didn’t add that I would make sure it was some place where there was food other than peanut butter with too much jelly and where I was not afraid to sleep.

Though I have fortunately never been in the prison system, I see echoes of my own psych ward in so many of the accounts I read. No help, no rehabilitation. The threat of violence. The isolation that works its way into your bones. The isolation from the very society they are supposed to be preparing you to reenter. The shame. The knowledge that they want to keep you there because you are more profitable to them inside than out. I was fortunate that they only held me a further three days after I asked (calmly, politely, like the good little girl I was), if I could please go home, please. But I do wonder still about that man. How long did they find it convenient to keep him? Did they find it worth it to go to a judge and have him ordered to stay? What does it feel like to have that kind of power?

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On things that need to be said

If you are an ally wearing purple today in support and solidarity with those who have taken their own lives because of anti-queer bullying, good for you. What else are you doing? If you are supporting the It Gets Better project, what are you doing to make it better?

Because I have spent too much of my life repressing who I am, trying to kill myself for who I am, tenuously striking a bargain with myself to be okay with who I am, to put much faith in the idea of some undefined “tomorrow.” It is not enough for me. It should not be enough for you.

People should not have to wait until later for it to get better. People should not have to wait for “better,” period, if “better” means “well, people aren’t giving you wedgies, drowning out your words with derision and exaggerated lisping, conveniently ignoring your raised hand in class, disseminating videos of you without your consent, trying to rape you straight, jumping you in the bathroom, or whispering in your ear that you should do everyone a favor and kill yourself anymore, but you can’t get married, put your partner on your health insurance, be visited by hir in the hospital, or even have your partner join you in this country if ze was born abroad, be out at your job if you want to keep it, be treated by the government or random dudes on the street with any semblance of respect or dignity, or turn on the TV without hearing some red-faced pundit blame you for the wrongs of the modern world.”

That is not better. That is a gross violation of civil rights for which people should not be reduced to begging, or lied to about it being the carrot that keeps them moving forward. It is a vision of the world in which being queer is only okay if you can still squeeze yourself into a white heterosexual ideal.

If you have been surprised by the six suicides we’ve heard about in the past few weeks, you should be driven to tears when I tell you that 34,598 killed themselves in 2007 in this nation and more than a quarter of them were queer. Queer children kill themselves (and plot to kill themselves, and attempt to kill themselves) in droves. For queer children, self-hatred and self-harm come to feel like the necessary steps to a productive adulthood. Messages that it “gets better” are tacit approvals of how horrible it feels and is now, and vague promises of a future that feels like it will never come.

Wear purple, if you want. But do not do it an then pat yourself on the back for it, feeling that the message has been delivered. Because until you have written your congress person, refused to laugh at jokes made at the expense of trans women, had a meeting with your school principal about why the GSA can’t seem to find a meeting room, spoken at your place of worship, thanked someone for coming out to you, asked your health clinic why they don’t provide sliding-scale therapy to make mental health care more accessible, gotten up from the table when your cousin wouldn’t stop describing things as gay, pushed for immigration reform, demanded that your school district provide sensitivity training for all school personnel, stopped assuming you know someone’s gender history (or future!) just by looking at them, expressed love for your friends without quickly qualifying that you’re “not like that,” served meals at soup kitchens, held actual discussions with your child about difference, read books by people who look and love differently than you, not jerked your hand away when it is accidentally brushed by someone of the same sex on the T, and rallied your peers against the climate of death with which we surround difference in this country– until we have taken steps to make queer lives with living now— there is still an impossible amount of work to be undertaken and your self-congratulation is a disservice to the millions of queers who have killed themselves or been killed by others for who they are.

I end with an address to queer people in the words of Audre Lorde, who has said anything I might ever want to say more eloquently already:

[T]hat visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. We can sit in our corners mute forever while our sisters and our selves are wasted, while our children are distorted and destroyed, while our earth is poisoned; we can sit in our safe corners mute as bottles, and we will still be no less afraid. […]

The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.

–“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

You have the duty to know these things and the power to change them.

Please donate to a worthy organization, and ask them what more you can do to help them. If you know an organization that could use some help, please feel free to leave a comment with their contact info.

The Trevor Project (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/)
866-4-U-TREVOR National listening line for queer youths contemplating suicide

Fenway Community Health Peer Listening Line (http://www.fenwayhealth.com)
800-399-PEER A national, Boston-based listening line for queer people

Hopeline (http://www.hopeline.com/)
1-800-SUICIDE A national listening line.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Counselling Center (BARCC) (http://www.barcc.org)
800.841.8371 A Boston-based rape crisis center

Boston-Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, (Bisexual, Transgender) Youth (BAGLY) (http://www.BAGLY.com)
A Boston institution nurturing the next generation of queer leaders

The Home for Little Wanderers (http://www.thehome.org/)
A Boston non-profit that helps and houses at-risk kids (including a house for queer kids who have been kicked out of home or foster placements due to their sexuality or gender)

The Audre Lorde Project (http://www.alp.org/)
Brooklyn-based organization for queer people of color concentrating on community organizing and radical nonviolent activism around progressive issues.

Camp Aranutiq (http://www.camparanutiq.org/)
A summer camp for gender-variant kids aged 8-15.

Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) (http://www.glsn.org)
A national organization supporting kids through schools. Especially notable for their work with GSAs and their school climate studies

Soulforce (http://www.soulforce.org/)

“Guided by the spirit of truth and empowered by the principles of relentless nonviolent resistance, works to end the religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning people.”

Filed under: Gender, sex, and sexuality, , , , , , , ,

What I wish I had said

I got a promotion at my work and tonight was my final night of training. My trainer, whom I really like, is a young Puerto Rican guy who closes the store five nights a week. I’ll close it a night or two a week but during that time I have no real power but am the person who will get yelled at if it burns down.

We were in the office going over the absurdly thick packets corporate wants me to master, information on each department. Two people from produce came down and we were trying to stump them on questions about the department. One of them, a young White guy, goes “I’ve got a question for you: what do you do when a tranny wants to know where to go to the bathroom?”

My first thought was “oh shit.” And then, I kind of didn’t understand the question, because I thought “point her or him to the bathroom.”

I said, “well, you start by not calling her a tranny.”

“Yeah, I know,” the guy brushed it off, “but I’m asking ’cause one came in today and his hands were as big as my head and he said [in a dramatic voice, with a dramatic, sweeping gesture] ‘where is the bathroom?'”

And then I understood what was being asked was “how do I effectively police someone? Isn’t it funny that trans people think they have the right to go out in public when I’m going to read them wrong? Isn’t it absurd that they think they get to pee like you or I do? Aren’t I funny, and also smart for seeing through that?”

I said (while my trainer and the second produce clerk, a White woman in her late thirties/early forties) guffawed, “then you tell her where the bathroom is.”

He kept going, trying to dig himself out. “I know, I mean, here, the bathrooms are together, but what if one was here [pointing to one end of the store] and the other was there [pointing to the other].”

I said, “whatever that person is dressed as, that’s the one you direct her or him to.” The woman chimed in, “yeah, but what if I’m in the bathroom? I mean, hello?”

I said something like “then you are just going to have to deal with it for two minutes.”

They kept going, so, now that I understood that they were also asking “can I call the police on that person? I know what the right thing to do is, but what’s the legal thing to do? Is there some kind of loophole so that I can still make her life harder?”

I said that the law in Massachusetts is that whatever gender someone is dressed as, that’s the bathroom they use. (To my knowledge, this isn’t true; As far as I know, neither Massachusetts nor our city hasn’t passed a gender identity-inclusive non-discrimination law.) And finally they were satisfied. Because now they knew what The Man says.

But there was so much more I wanted to say.

As soon as I understood1 the word “tranny” coming out of his mouth, I wanted to say “I’m transsexual.” I wanted to say “‘tranny’ is what people shout when they kick our heads in; you shut your mouth.” I wanted to say “I spent years afraid to piss in public because of questions like that.” I wanted to say, “I still try not to pee at work because of questions like that.”

I wanted to say “as the manager here, [trainer], would you like to fill them in on our non-discrimination policy?” I wanted to say, “how dare you, [trainer], laugh at this, or you, [produce woman], laugh when I like you both and thought I could trust you.” I wanted to say,”Thank G-d I haven’t come out to anyone at work but instead go through my shifts with a weird, vice-like silence and with a higher-than-usual wall I maintain after a year and a series of promotions?”

I wanted to say, “You’re asking questions that don’t even apply in this store, and you know it; thank G-d our bathrooms are right next to one another and neither you nor anybody else gets to tell someone what side of the store to go to.” I wanted to say, “where do you get the sense of entitlement and privilege to think you get to think these things about other people? I wanted to say, “what makes you think you can ask these questions in the manager’s office, to me, whom you don’t even know?”

I wanted to say, “it makes me angry to hear you talk like that.” I wanted to say “it makes me feel small and sad to hear you talk like that.” I wanted to say, “it makes me feel guilty to know I am passing well enough for you to think you can say this to me.” I wanted to say, “it makes me feel sick that I’m using my passing privilege not to call you out.” I wanted to say, “It makes me feel invisible to hear you say these things to me.” I wanted to say, “I wish I had an ally here, someone to tell you to shut the fuck up so that I didn’t have to.”

I wanted to say, “it takes so much fucking guts for that woman to walk through her day to day life, how dare a person so small try to insult her after she has gone.”

I wanted to say, “what you do in that situation is treat another human being with a little fucking respect.”

I wanted to say, “you’ll have forgotten this by the time you leave this room, but for me it will be a pit in my stomach, and tension, another brick in my wall of self-protection for weeks and weeks. For me, it will be more shit I have agreed to swallow, it will be more punches I have pulled. You say these things casually because you don’t understand. And you don’t understand because you don’t care to. You make me feel sick inside, and you won’t even know it because telling you that you’re wrong costs me too much– will it cost me my job? Will this promotion disappear? I can stand up for her, but I cannot stand up for myself here. I’ll be wandering around for days feeling this weird distance from myself. And why? Because you wanted to make a funny joke.”

I wanted to say so many things.

___
1. I have an auditory processing problem. It’s hard for me to decode sounds into words, so I didn’t immediately understand what he said until I heard the context of the sentence.

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