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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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.

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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.

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

Update on the stabbing of two DC trans women

News 8 reports that the victim of yesterday’s stabbing was Tyli’a “Nana Boo” Mack1, aged 21. The stabbing of her and her unnamed friend may be investigated as a hate crime, DC police say.

According to Tyli’a’s friend Patria Dickerson,

Nana Boo did not take verbal abuse on the street silently. “Me and her [were] together an hour before she got murdered. She’s outspoken and she’s not going to let anybody say what they want to say to her,” she said.

Right on, Nana. It will be sad if your exercising your right to defend yourself from the bullshit trans women, especially those who are of color (as Nana was), are often asked to put up with is played as “contributing” to you murder. According to the Washingtom Blade, Nana was involved with Transgender Health Empowerment. According to a witness who spoke to the second stabbing victim, Nana was introducing her friend to the services offered by THE. If her friend is early in her transition, it likely explains why we have not yet heard her name.

There will be a vigil Friday at 6:30 at 209 Q street, the site of the stabbing.

The reward for information on Nana’s murder and her friend’s stabbing have been raised to $25,000.

Beverly Mack, Nana’s mother, puts it simply:

“[m]y child was born just like everyone else — through a mother’s womb,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s fair for other people to take other people’s lives.”

Disagreeing with how someone lives her live doesn’t give you license to kill her. My thoughts are with the Mack family. May they find peace and receive justice.

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1. Reports refer to the victim by several names. Most seem to generally refer to her by as Nana (well, the ones that aren’t calling her by her male name), but I wanted to provide all the names she may have been known as. It is, of course, especially common for trans people to have several names or nicknames throughout their transitions.

Filed under: Gender, sex, and sexuality, Race, ethnicity, and color, , , , , , ,

There are times when we are absolutely nowhere 1

I just saw this clip via The Angry Black Woman:


(embed is fickle. If it’s not showing up, click here.2)

This is just the latest of videos of truly violent3, jaw-droppingly appalling, often racially- or ethnically-charged4 conduct at town halls on health care reform. But sometimes, I see stuff like this and it is just too much.

Because are you fucking kidding me with this? To say “heil Hitler” to an Israeli Jew, as an accusation, as an insult because you disagree with him on how large the government should be, and whether it should provide health care for its citizens. There is still so much work to do and there are times when I am not up to any of it. I understand anger-baiting, but I also understand cruelty, malice, bad faith, and evil. And there is something evil in this. Rabbi Menachem Mendel said:

Intolerance lies at the core of evil. Not the intolerance that results from any threat or danger. But intolerance of another being who dares to exist. Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us, because every human being secretly desires the entire universe to himself. Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simply because that ‘other’ exists.”

Several protesters hold signs against health care reform. One man holds a sign that says 'we have not idea what they we are talking about.' On the sign, several arrows point at the people around him. In front of him, a girl holds a sign reading 'sorry, we thought reading the bill was ur job.'

This quote always brings up another for me. In “Mother Night,” a book about a playwright-turned Nazi propagandist, Kurt Vonnegut writes

There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that G-d Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with G-d on his side.

I watched the above video with a good friend of mine, who is not Jewish, but whose gay great uncle was killed in the Holocaust. He, too felt flabbergasted, but a short while later we were trying to light a fire which kept dying. He called the efforts lame and I told him that was an ableist term. He gave me such a look of annoyance, though occasionally he will apologize when I call him on “retarded,” and has learnt the term “hipster racism.” Where do you go with this? What do you do in a world that wants to hate without limit? I can understand wanting a small government. I can understand not trusting politicians. To disagree what sorts of programs a government should provide. To get upset when you see people stand in opposition to your ideals, even to lash out occationally.

But I cannot understand the baseless, monstrous comparisons to Adolf G-ddamned Hitler; strapping on guns and publicly, proudly threatening the president; I cannot understand a willful abandonment of humanity for inhumanity, the hatred of the other who dares to exist.

So. Where do you go with this?5 Where do you find that compassion without cause? How do you care for the other when the other is against (health) care? Where do you find love to combat intolerance so visceral?

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1. “The West Wing,” “Take This Sabbath Day.” Sam Seaborn to Leo McGarry on the President’s refusal to take a stand against capital punishment.
2. For those unable to view or hear the video, the title tells you the long and short of it. An Israeli man is talking about how in Israel, they care for people, particularly soldiers, and provide everyone with health care. As he speaks, a woman off camera shouts “Heil Hitler.” He says to the reporter “did you hear that? She said to a Jew ‘Heil Hitler’.” He then confronts her: “I’m a Jew, you’re telling me ‘Heil Hitler?’ Shame of you! Shame of you!” Full transcript when I have headphones.
3. Hate crime-tracking groups report upswing in activity against President Obama, a health care protester uses Twitter to encourage people to carry and even use guns at town meetings, a Tampa town hall turns violent and is cancelled
4. Black Rep. David Scott (D-Georgia)’s offices are vandalized with a four-foot swastika following a town hall meeting, a woman has her poster of Rosa Parks ripped out of her hands. If you’re not quite sure about this racial undercurrent, I invite you to take a look at the comment section of virtually any piece about health care reform.
5. Me? I intellectualize.

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