The Menu

Not so long ago, if you considered yourself trans, there was a transition process you were basically had to go through: first therapy, then hormones, then surgery, and somewhere in there  legal process of changing names, gender, etc.

Now, it’s more like a menu. You can pick and choose what you might want to do. Some do surgery only, some do just hormones, some do the entire package.

So far, I’ve only chosen one item on the menu: top surgery. I don’t know whether I’ll choose other items on the menu – I don’t know whether I’ll take testosterone yet. I don’t know whether I want to change my legal name and/or gender. I’m just not sure.  I’m taking it one step at a time – letting it all sink in, because each menu item has it’s own set of ramifications for my life.

And that feels OK, mostly, but here’s what Maxwell has to say:

I’m impatient. I’ve been in the background for years, and I want to be front and center. I want to learn what kind of man I might become. I want to experience the world from male eyes.

Sometimes, it feels like I have a bit of a split personality.  And that’s OK – I’m learning to live with that.

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The Gym

At varied times in my life, I’ve been a gym rat. I’ve always enjoyed lifting weights – I would say it’s my favorite exercise. I spent a number of years away from the gym, but I’m back now. I don’t just lift weights – one of the other things I happen to enjoy is aquaerobics.

One of the things I’m doing as I go through this process is notice things.  I’m noticing what’s out there, what people say and do, and what my internal responses are.

First, of course, there is the locker room. Every time I go to the locker room now, I’m so aware of the fact that it doesn’t feel totally right (it never has.) And after I get top surgery (even if I don’t take T), it’s going to feel even less right.

Then there’s the aquaerobics group. 95% of the time, it’s all women. That was true today.  Every once in a while, one (other?) guy joins. As we were doing our thing in the pool, someone said something I didn’t catch (I’m thinking it was slightly salacious) and another person said, “we’re all girls here.”  And all I could think of was “no, actually, we’re not.”

One of the things that I’ve always hated is being called one of the “ladies” or “ma’am.” Ugh. I hate that. I’ve never, ever been a lady, and I never will be. Some aspects of my being are female, although I’d not say they were “feminine.” No part of me is “lady-like.”

The locker room, and public bathrooms that aren’t gender neutral are going to be a challenge for me, especially if I stay in a sort of in-between state after top surgery.

I remember starkly one day I was in an airport, in line in the women’s bathroom, and I heard someone behind me loudly talking about how there was a man in line, and why was there a man in line. It didn’t occur to me for a while that she was talking about me – but she was.  (I’m tall, have a short afro, and wear men’s clothes – I don’t fault her.)  Then, I turned around fully, and she looked at me sheepishly (I have large, visible breasts.) But once I don’t have those anymore, what will I do? I don’t have an answer for that yet, except if I do choose the men’s room, at least I will never have to wait.

 

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Coming Out As Trans

I’m still not sure I identify as “trans”, although I’ve slowly but surely begun to realize that perhaps I’ve been avoiding that identity because it scares me. I’ve identified as genderqueer pretty much the moment I heard that term, in the mid-late 90s. Before people began to talk about gender fluidity and multiple gender identities, I didn’t really have language to talk about what was going on inside of myself.

As I said before, I don’t have the narrative of “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” I’ve never quite felt that, even as I’ve felt, for a very long time (as long as I can remember) a boy, and then a man, somewhere buried inside there.

I have had gender dysphoria for as long as I can remember. In all of my years of working on getting to be friends with my body, the dysphoria has only gotten worse, not better.

And fully accepting my dysphoria is what has allowed me to come to the place of wanting to do something about it – wanting to present differently in the world. And presenting differently to the world, in this world, at this time, means, basically, that I am trans.

And perhaps that’s the problem. That’s the rub. Because our society is so divided by gender, I can’t just choose to present another part of myself that’s so present for me without changing my relationship with the world.

I’m getting used to that – used to this idea if I want Maxwell to have his time in this world, the world will not see him in the same way as it sees Pearl (not my real given first name). Max can’t live in exactly the same way as Pearl has lived in the world. The same spaces will not feel safe to Max as they did to Pearl . And, more importantly, in many ways, Max will not feel as safe to some people as Pearl does.

 

 

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Top Surgery

On Friday, I’m going to see a surgeon. I’m one of the lucky ones, living in California. My insurance will pay entirely for gender surgery. A few weeks ago (was it only that long ago?) I called Kaiser, that has a specialized transgender clinic in the East Bay. I spent a very nice time with a mental health specialist, who was I guess going through the varied things needed to make sure that I was OK for starting this process.

I’m excited and petrified. Going to doctors isn’t really all that fun for me (I don’t know that it is for most people.) But I have a fairly long history with them, having had a number of medical ailments in my life. I’ve had mostly great doctors, and a few horrible doctors, and some in between.

But there is something really vulnerable about going to a surgeon (a *plastic* surgeon at that) about this thing that has been so tender for me for a long time.

I’ve never liked my breasts, since the beginning moment they began to grow. I started puberty really late (more on that later) and it happened fast. One minute, I had a body that I liked enough. The next minute (or so it seemed), I had a body I hated. I have gotten much, much better at loving this body, but knowing that I can get rid of my breasts is a relief. I know for many of you that might seem harsh. If you love your breasts, I’m happy for you. If you don’t have any, but want some, I can’t really understand, but I can hold a space for that for you. But the idea of not having them feels so freeing.

Right now, this feels like it’s the right step for me to take. Are there other steps? I don’t know yet. Possibly, probably, maybe, who knows. One halting step at a time.

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Beginnings

I have to start somewhere – although I don’t really know where. Do I start at the point where I hated wearing girl’s clothes when I was a kid? Do I start with the running battles I had with my mother about what I was going to wear? I’m wanting to lay it all out – explain it all, even though at some point it’s unexplainable.

First, I’ll give you a little background to get you oriented. I’m 57 (I’ll be 58 in about a week.) I’ve lived for 35 of those years as a lesbian, and lived what I might say was “to be determined” before that. I never considered myself straight, really. I grew up in a different age. Straight was the default, you didn’t think about it much, until you had to.

Gender has always been complex for me – ever since the beginning, but it has gotten more and more complex as I’ve gotten older. No, let me revise that. I have gotten clearer and clearer about the complexities of gender inside of me. I’ve never had the narrative that I was a “man stuck in a woman’s body.” That said, there is a man in my body, and has been since the beginning. He’s not alone in there, but he’s there. And he’s been in the background of my life for a long time.

And not. I’ve dressed in men’s clothing (including underwear) since I could buy my own clothes. I haven’t bought an item of women’s clothing in over 30 years. There are other ways that I express male gender, and I’ll dive into that later.

This blog is meant to be a chronicle of a big change I’m going through. After living as a woman for my entire adult life, I’m considering living as a man. It’s a scary process, as well as a damned exciting one.

Where am I now? In some ways, I’m at the very beginning. In other ways, I’m toward the end of a lifetime arc. And I’ll be here, writing about it.

For now, this is anonymous. The name of this blog, Maxwell Pearl, is the name I’ve chosen for myself as a man. I don’t know that I’ll legally change my name, but if I do, that’s the name I’ve chosen. Maxwell B. Pearl, to be exact. The ‘B’ is still to be determined.

So if you happen across this blog, who I am besides a 50-something-person, and a few other details I’ve shared, will be a mystery.  I want to have a chance to write about this publicly, but not personally. When I’m ready, I will attach this blog to my own online presence.

If you know me, and are here because I’ve pointed you here, feel totally free to share this with others if you are so moved, but please don’t tell anyone who I am. I appreciate the space and time to talk about this process without it being connected to me.

[UPDATE: As I have now come out as Trans, this is totally public. Feel free to share it with attribution.]

I’ll probably be weaving between the past and the present, and perhaps the future. I don’t know how this is going to unfold, in the same way as I don’t know how my own process is going to unfold.

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I Read Tuvel’s Article, So You Don’t Have To.

There has been quite the uproar about an article in the journal Hypatia on “transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel. It’s creating a real controversy in feminist academia and philosophy.

So first off, I’m not a philosopher. I took one philosophy course in college. I did teach feminist studies of varied sorts in my academic career, so I guess I have a few creds, but really,  one could say I’m not all that equipped to critique an article written by a philosopher in a peer-reviewed journal. Except I am. It’s hard to believe this article actually got published.

An amazing quote I got from an article written by Kelly Oliver, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt is this:

As one academic wrote to me in a private message, “sorry I’m not saying this publicly (I have no interest in battling the mean girls on Facebook) but fwiw it’s totally obvious to me that you haven’t been committing acts of violence against marginalized scholars.” Later, this same scholar wrote, again in private, saying Tuvel’s article is “a tight piece of philosophy” that makes clear that the position that “transgender is totally legit, [and] transracial is not—can only be justified using convoluted essentialist metaphysics.

And given that quote, I just had to write this post. If this is a “tight piece of philosophy”, I’ll eat my hat.

Let’s get one thing done first. The whole premise of this article is to debunk varied arguments that suggest that you can change gender, but you can’t change your race. And I have absolutely nothing against talking about, and thinking about what that means – what it means to decide you are of a different race than you’ve grown up with and society perceives that you are. And because both gender and race are social constructs, and do often define one’s position in the social hierarchy, it might be easy to think they are, in some ways, similar, so I can see that one might be tempted to argue that being transracial = being transgender.  (Insert sound of squealing brakes.)

Part of the uproar about the critiques of this article is that those critiques have called the article “epistemic violence,” and defenders of Tuvel are outraged by the use of that term. What is “epistemic violence”? Epistemic violence is a term I hadn’t known about, so I googled around. It’s a term by Foucault (of course.) Here’s a quote from Wikipedia from their article on post-colonialism:

Spivak developed and applied Foucault’s term epistemic violence to describe the destruction of non–Western ways of perceiving the world, and the resultant dominance of the Western ways of perceiving the world. Conceptually, epistemic violence specifically relates to women, whereby the “Subaltern [woman] must always be caught in translation, never [allowed to be] truly expressing herself”, because the colonial power’s destruction of her culture pushed to the social margins her non–Western ways of perceiving, understanding, and knowing the world.

At first, before I researched this, I thought that the idea that Tuvel’s article is “violence” was hyperbolic. But, actually, in reading a bunch of things, based on my reading of Tuvel’s article, I actually have to agree with this. Tuvel’s article does indeed meet the standard of the term epistemic violence as applied by Spivak and others. I do think that the term includes the word “violence” is not great, because using it amps up the controversy in a way that’s unfortunate. But I do think the article fits that definition.

So why is this article epistemic violence? Or to rephrase, using some of the language in the quote above, how does it destroy black and transgender ways of perceiving the world?

The first way that it does that is by basing the entire argument on the foundation of two particular lives and experiences, neither of which is representative. That is, Rachel Dolezal is no more a representative of transracialism than Caitlyn Jenner is representative of transgender lives. Tuvel spends a bit of time not prosecuting Dolezal’s case, but her concern is “more with the arguments for and against transracialism.” OK, if your arguments are for and against transracialism you have to spend some time defining what you are actually talking about, and not leaning too hard on the example of one particular person, with some very serious personal issues.

Tuvel says:

Is it even possible to feel like a member of another race similar to the way one can feel like a member of another sex? I do not know whether it is possible to feel like you belong to a different race. Indeed Dolezal’s claim that she saw herself as black as a child and drew self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon do strike me as decidedly odd. But I cannot say whether they seem odd because they are false, or because we are not routinely confronted with such claims. Indeed, I imagine it was once just as odd to hear people say they felt like they belonged to a sex other than the one they were assigned to at birth.

In any case, it’s not clear how one can affirm that it is possible to feel like the member of another sex, but deny it is possible to feel like a member of another race. How can one hold such a position?

Oy. This is a philosophy article? In a peer-reviewed journal? To first, reduce the transgender experience to “feeling like the member of another sex” is problematic (at best, at worst, it’s epistemic violence.) Second, to equate transracialism with the experience of Rachel Dolezal erases years of history of *actual* transracialism – that is, the experience of people of color who can pass as white.

She then goes on to talk about “identity categories” and what might appear “to limit to the status quo the possibilities for changing one’s membership in an identity category.” But she doesn’t talk about he pivotal difference between race and gender, which is the ways in which our brains process appearance, and the what that means in terms of the social situation of people who wish to change identity categories.

There’s a great article about the neuroscience of prejudice. Our brains process who is “us” and who is “them” before we can make a conscious thought. It also processes information about gender quickly, but that’s based largely on changeable characteristics. That is, it is very possible to change your appearance so that most (or all) people will read you as the gender you want them to read you as, but that is virtually impossible for with race, unless you are multi-racial and can pass as white.

Ijeoma Oluo interviewed Rachel Dolezal recently:

I‘m sitting across from Rachel Dolezal, and she looks… white. Not a little white, not racially ambiguous. Dolezal looks really, really white. She looks like a white woman with a mild suntan, in box braids—like perhaps she’d just gotten back from a Caribbean vacation and decided to keep the hairstyle for a few days “for fun.”

So then, Tuvel spends some time discounting the idea that white people identifying as black is different than the long tradition of blackface. Which, of course, it is. Except that this whole argument is tottering on the threads of one woman’s mind. It’s not like there are thousands, or hundreds, or even tens of white people who identify as black. And most people would agree that the white people who identify as Native American are doing cultural appropriation.

Then, there is this:

…to point out that a white-born person could always exercise white privilege by returning to being white, I note that the same argument would problematically apply to a male-to-female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege, perhaps especially if this individual has not undergone gender confirmation surgery. But the fact that a person could potentially return to male privilege does and should not preclude their transition.

Her point is to debunk the idea that privilege or lack thereof shouldn’t preclude transition, and I concede that point, except it’s not that simple. Many feminists have the idea that women who were born as men had male privilege. Which is, on it’s face, true, but it’s much, much more complicated than that. If you spend your boyhood wanting not to be what you are, it’s a very different experience of privilege than if you’re happy being a boy. It’s just not the same. And the millisecond you express your gender in a way that is not completely male, *poof*, male privilege is gone.

She then goes on to talk about Michael Jackson and Lil’ Kim, but completely erases the history of “passing.” How is it that she doesn’t even mention it in an article supposedly about transracialism?

Then, there’s this:

Recall my earlier point that for a successful self-identification to receive uptake from members of one’s society, at least two components are necessary. First, one has to self-identify as a member of the relevant category. Second, members of a society have to be willing to accept one’s entry into the relevant identity category. At this stage, I think it’s reasonable for a society to accept someone’s decision to enter another identity category only if it is possible for that person to know what it’s like to be treated as a member of category X. Absent the possibility for access to what it’s like to exist and be treated as a black person … there will be too little commonality to make the group designation meaningful. For example, if a cisgender white man fights for his rights not to be subject to anti-black police violence or to misogyny, yet never faces the possibility of having his rights so violated, we can reasonably expect allyship, not identification from him.

This is really an odd statement. But in a way, it destroys her argument. Rachel Dolezal is rarely, if ever, seen as black (even if she thinks otherwise.) Therefore, she is kinda like the cis white dude, because her personal experience is going to be one of white privilege.

She describes a specific theory of social construction (that of Sally Haslanger):

According to Haslanger, then, the presumption of one’s biological role in reproduction or the presumption of ancestral link, coupled with the relevant social treatment, is sufficient for one’s membership in a gender or race. Insofar as a transracial individual is presumed to have black ancestral ties and is treated accordingly by society, then such an individual could qualify as black on Haslinger’s account.

Cough, sputter. presumed? Presumed??? Um, upon what basis is that presumption, pray tell? I’ll tell ya: specific physical characteristics, skin color, hair, nose, lips. So yeah, if you have black ancestry, and you look black, and are treated like you’re black, you’re black. Duh.  She then goes on to say:

The advantages of Haslinger’s account are clear: it helps us identify groups that formed, and continue to exist, due to oppression… In the same way that Haslinger’s account accommodates transgender individuals, I think it could similarly account for transracial individuals.

Really?

She goes on to describe a couple of examples that are, frankly beside the point: a black couple adopting a South Asian child and raising them as black, and a theoretical Rachel Dolezal with some African ancestry. But again, these are straw people – she’s building a whole argument on one woman.

Then she wraps up with this hum-dinger:

Haslanger writes, “rather than worrying, ‘what is gender really?’ or ‘what is race really?’ I think we should begin by asking (both in the theoretical and political sense) what, if anything we want them to be.” I have taken it as my task in this article to argue that a just society should reconsider what we owe individuals who claim a strongly felt sense of identification with another race, and accordingly what we want race to be. I hope to have shown that, insofar as similar arguments that render transgenderism acceptable extend to transracialism, we have reason to allow racial self-identification, coupled with racial social treatment, to play a role in the determination of race than has previously been recognized. I conclude that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex.

So this is where we get into some more epistemic violence. It’s as if she (and it seems Haslanger, but I can’t be sure) completely forgets that race is a social construct that white people created. It’s not natural. It’s not real. It’s not random. It’s a construct that was purposely built, and purposely continued, to oppress and exploit certain people. I could tomorrow decide that I’m white, but no one is going to agree with that self-definition, and it’s not going to change my day-to-day life.

The whole of this article, besides the completely unstable basis it is written upon, also completely ignores years of critical race theory and intersection theory and trans theory.  You’d hardly know that there were tons of people who have been working and writing and talking about race and gender and their intersection for a long time. And I don’t know how you get away with writing and publishing an article comparing transracialism and transgenderism (I don’t like the way that term is generally used) without diving into that literature.

A lot of people are suggesting that this controversy is going to end Rebecca Tuvel’s academic career. That’s unfortunate. But if that’s so, I place the blame more on Hypatia for letting this through, and for her mentors for letting her down (after reading this, somebody should have sat her down with a stack of critical race theory books.) And if it was more that she didn’t listen to her mentors, then it’s all on her.

 

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I’m a Primitive Christian (among other things)

I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting lately (off and on for about 2 years, regularly for 6 months now.) In particular, Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA. I’ve been struck by a number of things about it, which I’ll be writing more about, for sure. I’ve been reading about George Fox, and early Quakerism, as well as current manifestations. And I’ve been amazed to learn how many different strains of Quakerism exist.

I knew that in some ways, modern Quakers in unprogrammed meetings were, in some regards, a fair bit like UUs in the breadth of their beliefs. And I do find this to be largely true, at least in what I’ve experienced locally, and what I’ve read lately. But that breadth developed a little differently. For Quakers, it seems, some of that breadth comes from the core concept the priesthood of all believers, and the central importance of the direct individual experience of God, present in each one of us.

I’ve been reading the Faith and Practice of the Pacific Yearly Meeting (the Yearly Meeting that my local meeting belongs to.) I came across this quote:

Early Friends considered themselves Christians; they interpreted and justified their unique vision in Biblical and traditional Christian terms. However, from its inception the Quaker movement has offered critiques of many accepted manifestations of Christianity while at the same time empathizing with people of other faiths. We might use the phrase “primitive Christianity” to describe more closely where Friends fit across the Christian spectrum. Primitive Christianity usually refers to those teachings that pre-date Fourth Century Christians, who had been embraced by Constantine and were becoming “established.” These earliest followers of Jesus were radical revolutionaries, representing a “new order” of faithful who lived communally, eschewed violence of all kinds, and practiced simplicity.

I left seminary before I could take Christian History, but I did grab the textbooks of the class, and read them, so I learned a lot. And ever since then, I’ve been of the belief that of all of the many mistakes of Christianity, it’s biggest mistake was letting itself get adopted as a state religion. And next to that is Augustine’s christology of substitutionary atonement.

I don’t know what the world would look like (one of my possible future projects is an alt-history of that scenario) if those things hadn’t happened, and the more radical, communal, anarchistic strain of Christianity had dominated (we’d sure have a different New Testament, perhaps more like this one.) But it’s nice to know and connect to one community of people who are working on it.

 

 

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Three Communities, Right Now

I am likely one of a very few people who has nosebleed seats to the goings on in three different communities right now. I say nosebleed because I’m not closely involved in any one of these controversies, but because of my spiritual, avocational, and professional histories, I remain connected to these communities.

So in no particular order, here we go:

Drupal.

Drupal is an open source CMS that I used to build websites with. It has a large vibrant community of developers (of which I used to be a part) who contribute to it, and advance it, and just basically make it run well, and build cool stuff with it. Like many open-source communities, it has a “Benevolent Dictator for Life,” generally the person who started the whole thing in the first place. Over the past few weeks, a very long-time contributor to the project, named Larry Garfield (also known as crell) was asked to leave his leadership position by Dries Buytaert, Drupal’s BDFL. In the beginning, it seemed that the issue had to do with Larry’s particular BDSM lifestyle, but later, after the unveiling of DrupalConfessions, it has appeared that there may well be more to it than that. Again, I can’t really say, because, nosebleed. But it has left the Drupal community in disarray.

Unitarian Universalist Association.

A few weeks ago, the UUA President, Peter Morales, resigned just ahead of the end of his term, because of a controversy relating to the hiring of yet another white guy to lead the Southern District, when there was (at least) one woman of color who was eminently qualified for the post. There has been a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth, as well as three amazing people stepping up to lead the UUA at this time, and, of course, some backlash about the co-presidents (and some wonderful responses to the backlash.)

OdysseyCon and the science fiction writing community.

One of the guests of honor to OdysseyCon emailed the organizers to express that the guest liaison is someone who is a known sexual harasser, and she didn’t feel safe. And the OdysseyCon concom (convention committee) poured salt on the wound by not listening, then she, and finally all of the guests of honor pulled out. And now everyone is talking about it. I would not say that the SF community is roiling in the same way.

What’s interesting to me in my nosebleed perspective is how similar these are to each other, even though they are completely different. They certainly are eliciting similar emotions on both sides of the controversies. There are definitely conversations about safety, who feels safe, who is safe. One could say that all of these are just about white men acting badly. But, on top there are issues of who has power and why. It’s more dimensional than that, of course, but power, whether it be the power to hire and fire, the power to make big decisions for a community, or the power to allow certain voices and disallow others is something few want to give up when they have it, and, predominantly, white men have it.

We’re in for a rough patch, I think. We are “led” by a group of basically unabashed white male heterosexual supremacists, and having to deal with that and then deal with it in the communities we might be involved with is a double whammy. And the problem is, this is not likely to get better. Because of the current administration, some people now believe that they don’t have to worry about their behavior. They can complain about people who are being “PC.” Be careful out there.

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Contemplating the Questions

I don’t have much in me right now, except for questions. So I’ll ask them, sit with them, and perhaps you can sit with them with me.

First, How can I balance my regular life with the effort, work, actions needed at this time?

These are not normal times, and this is not a normal, garden variety conservative president. I remember what life was like under Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. My life went on, pretty much as normal. I was an activist, so I did activism, but it didn’t feel like an emergency – urgent, but not life-threatening. Most of us have to work to eat, keep the roof over our heads, keep our cats in kibble, so there has to be some modicum of a normal working life. But sometimes it feels like even that is problematic now. How can I plan courses or events, or launch new products, or write new code, when all this stuff is happening? But I have to, at the same time.

What effort, work, actions are really needed?

This is the tough one. On one hand, sure, writing our congresspeople, marching in the streets, doing other kinds of activism, is important – but what is really going to make a difference? We have someone in office who actually seems not to care at all about the rule of law, nor does he respect the balance of powers. So what is really going to make the biggest difference? Those of us against Trump might be in the majority, but there are an awful lot of people who like authoritarians, and are fine with what he’s doing. So what actions can I take that are going to have the biggest effect?

How to reach those people?

Ultimately, white working-class people who are authoritarian Trump supporters are going to eventually be hurt too, since Trump actually doesn’t care about them. In fact, they’ve already been hurt when he took away the interest discount for home buyers. But one of the hallmarks of Trump’s campaign has been that facts don’t actually matter to many people. Telling someone who says of the new ban on immigrants and refugees from the selected countries that none of them were responsible for a terrorist attack in the US isn’t actually going to make a difference to them. In general, humans are really hard to convince with facts when those facts don’t align with their pre-existing beliefs, but some humans have spent time and effort disciplining themselves to critical thinking approaches. But unless both sides of a conversation have that same approach, there can’t actually be a conversation. So how do we talk with people like this? How do we show them that they will be hurt too? Or maybe, ultimately, as long as they aren’t hurt all that much, they won’t care – they’ll be the “good Americans.”

What’s the endgame?

I’ll be very happy to see information that suggests that I am wrong about this, but I’m not seeing a way back to normal democratic process here in the United States. Dick Cheney actually said of the recent immigration ban that it “goes against everything we stand for and believe in…” That’s all well and good, but he’s one of the few men responsible for the process that led us to the mess we’re in right now. I just re-watched the movie “Lincoln” which shows how brilliantly Lincoln managed to end the Civil War, and bring the nation back together… sort of. The sad fact of the matter is that we have at least two different countries (actually 11, if you talk with Colin Woodard.) And I’m not sure that these countries are really compatible anymore.

And even if somehow, we manage to get rid of Trump, there is still Pence. And the Democratic Party holds a minority of everything except mayors – minority of congress, state legislatures and governors. How are we going to turn that around, and can we? And I’d also love to see information that suggest otherwise, but the toxic combination of the inevitable  exacerbation of income inequality and inaction on global climate change that comes with GOP leadership means disintegration, if not in the short term, in the medium term. So what do I do with all of that?

And what about practice?

I keep feeling called to a deeper engagement with spiritual practice. I’ve felt that over the past few years, but the tug is even stronger now. How do I live into that while all this is going on?What does that look like?

As I said, all I have are questions, now.

 

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The Way Forward

This post is primarily written for my queer/trans/POC community, as well as allies actively engaged in anti-oppression work. And the context of this article is the assumption that people you are talking with, or in connection to, are allies – this is not about talking to Trump supporters, or people who aren’t working to be allies. Please share widely as you see fit.

Some of us were shocked, and some of us were not shocked by this election, and the events afterwards. For some of us, there is a new load of fear over the one we’ve been carrying for most or all of our lives. A lot of us are really scared, not knowing whether the casual interaction at the bus station, or the street is going to be harassment or worse. We’ve been scared for a long time of police, but now we’re scared of everyone who is white or straight, or cis, or all of those things. And we’re angry – with righteous anger for all of what has happened, and is still happening, and, perhaps, also what we know will happen. And there is deep sadness, too, for all of the suffering. All of this is understandable, and OK – that is, we should not feel bad to have these feelings, or to express them to others.

Over the past few days, there has been a raging conversation (and in some places, argument) about whether or not it’s right for allies to wear safety pins. And I have noticed patterns of communication that have meant that people stay mired, instead of being able to move forward in solidarity. The sheer fact that we have been spending several days on this should suggest to us that there is a problem.

One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is teaching queer women how to have happy relationships. And one of the things I see over and over again is that how we act in unhealthy ways in relationships are exactly the same as how we act in unhealthy ways in communities – except that in communities the damage is magnified. And from my perspective, there are things to learn here. So I’m going to outline four principles for healthy community communication – principles that will help us move forward. If we don’t practice these principles, we and our allies will remain mired and paralyzed.

Four Principles

These principles are based on science, and on what we know about how people can successfully relate to one another. These are also informed by Buddhist principles.

First, don’t speak or act when you are triggered. There is real science here. When we are triggered, a part of our brain called the Amygdala is activated. And when it is activated, a process called “Amygdala Hijack” happens, and it literally hijacks signals that are going to your pre-frontal cortex – your smart brain.  You literally cannot think, even when you think you are thinking. Remember the litany from Dune, that starts with “Fear is the mind killer.” It is, literally.

So often in activist communities and conversations, we’re triggered, and speaking and acting from that triggered place. In relationships, this means fights, or processing that gets nowhere, and resolves nothing. You know what this means in conversations in community and activist circles.

Second, speak and act with self-responsibility. Our emotions, whether they be fear, sadness, or anger are OURS. They were perhaps triggered by something someone said or did, or things that have happened, but our emotions are still ours, and we need to take responsibility for them. No one else can create those emotions, and no one can take them away. Only we can deal with them.

Third, speak and listen cleanly. By speak cleanly, I mean speak without blame (or self-blame,) shaming, criticism or defensiveness.  At some point in the culture of the left it became de rigeur to shame people who you didn’t agree with. I don’t know when or where it started (the 80s?) but it has become the way we talk to each other when we don’t agree. And, I think as pretty much everyone has witnessed, it is completely unhelpful, and generally results in alienation. (And, in the relationship context, not speaking cleanly ends relationships.)

Listening cleanly means a couple of things. It means not making assumptions about actions and words, and also noticing our own habitual triggers. One really helpful tool that we teach a lot is to use a set of questions developed by Byron Katie. If someone says or does something, and we think, for instance, that they had an intent to obstruct, we might ask, 1) Is it true that they were trying to obstruct? 2) Do we absolutely know that this is true? 3) What does believing this bring up for us emotionally? and 4) Who would we be (or how would it be) without believing that they meant to obstruct? It can also mean assuming good intent.

Give actionable, specific requests. When an ally does something, often times the response is something like “that’s not enough” or “that’s just perpetuating the problem,” or what have you. But it actually doesn’t help an ally figure out what to do – it generally alienates them. Instead, if in response, you gave a specific actionable request, that’s much more likely to have a useful result.

For example, if you really don’t think that wearing a safety pin means anything, you could say something like, “I appreciate that you are trying to make a statement of solidarity with that pin. What I would really like it if alongside that, you’ll come to our meeting on Monday where we discuss specific actions we’ll be taking.” Or something of that nature.

Now I can already hear the objections to all of this. I will be accused of tone policing, for one. And I also know that many people feel that it is not our job to educate allies on what to do. And I’m sure I’ll hear many others. You’ve heard the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  If we can’t figure out how to come together as allies wanting the same kind of inclusive, equitable society infused with compassion and love, we are going to get mowed down by the right, and I refuse to watch that happen.

Using these four principles in our conversations about what to do and where to go from here takes learning some skills, but they aren’t hard to learn, and there are many teachers, me among them.

 

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