A Book Review that is Mostly Questions

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Thomas Hardy
400 pages; literary fiction

Quick Summary: Tess Durbeyfield and her family are poor, so her parents decide to send her to Alec d’Urberville to claim kinship and therefore receive some financial aid. The plan is disastrous; Tess comes home, but finding her home life unbearable, she decides to move and work at a farm. Years pass, and Tess falls in love with another man, Angel Clare. However, she is unable to marry him due to the secret she is keeping.

Discussion (Spoilers ahead):

So I read this book because I am teaching it to my AP classes in October. Otherwise, I probably would have thrown the book across the room halfway through. Alec is terrible person, and ends up raping Tess after drugging her. Because this is England and because it’s the 1800’s, Tess is suddenly not pure and hates herself. When she falls in love with Angel, she doesn’t want to marry him because she is not a virgin and this will reflect bad on her/him for marrying her. Still, they get married and on their first night as husband and wife, he tells her he’s not a virgin, she tells him the exact same thing, and he flips his shit. He goes to Brazil to try farming and basically is a terrible husband who never talks to his wife. The ending is even weirder, but I’ll save that for those who want to read it.

So the first thing I was angry about was that a white man was writing about a woman getting raped. Is he writing to help women gain sympathy? Is it trauma porn? One time in a college class of mine, my professor asked us this: “If you write about an experience, are you automatically aestheticizing it?” Unfortunately, we didn’t get to talk about it in class, but the question lingers.

I think this reminds me the most of slam poetry. I remember Andrea Gibson saying something along the lines of “No girl grows up dreaming about writing poems about sexism,” but she said it had to be done. But the question is still valid: if we write about sexism, if we perform our poetry about it, are we trying to make an ugly thing beautiful? Obviously this applies to other types of art as well, and no clear lines have been drawn. Obvious, too, is the fact that writing can be healing.

I’m going to sidetrack here to a story from a friend.

So a teacher is starting his first year teaching history. He’s super woke, so he plans an entire curriculum talking about racism and sexism and how all these terrible things happened in the past. He thinks it’s going great. Then, one day, a few weeks into the semester, two young black girls approach him after class. “Mr. ______, we appreciate what you’re doing here, but do you always have to be so negative?” Why, they were asking, couldn’t he also focus on the achievements of people of color, and not just the trauma they experienced?

Another side note: the podcast Another Round discusses the idea of coming of age movies. What they found was that the white characters get to have a life-changing event (think Stranger Things where the girl is sacrificed) but come out ultimately okay, whereas the black characters and black girls in particular have stories focused around trauma, stories where they don’t get to be teenagers or adolescents at all, but rather skip from children to adults.

I wonder that about poetry, about stories, about writing. If young women grow up only hearing stories and poems about rape, sexism, and fear, how much will they think is available to them? How does one strike a balance between acknowledging victim-status and also acknowledging autonomy, power, and pride? 

Is it okay for Hardy to write about rape, even though he’s a man? If it’s to inspire empathy? Is it just voyeurism? If we write about an experience, are we automatically aestheticizing it? How do we write stories that are both true to life and uplifting? Or rather, how do we write stories in which all paths are available to all people? Where minorities are not defined by their traumas, but neither are those traumas ignored?

We Need to Stop Using Cishet as an Insult

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 4.19.36 PMSomewhat frequently on my twitter or tumblr, I’ll see someone call out “cishet dudes” or complain about “cishets” and the problematic things they say. There are a few issues I have with this.

A. Not everyone we think is cis is actually cis
This should be self-explanatory, but it’s important to note that just because someone is saying something problematic, does not mean they are cis. Assuming that people who look masculine are men and those who look feminine are women reinforces the gender binary and erases genderqueer identities. Unless you know someone identifies as cis, don’t assume they are.

B. Not everyone we think is het is actually heterosexual
This especially annoys me because I “pass” as straight all the time. Not many people automatically assume I’m bisexual–a side effect of heteronormativity. Again, calling someone “cishet” in a derogatory way assumes heterosexuality, and we should never assume that. Just because someone says something problematic, doesn’t mean they are automatically heterosexual.

C. We should listen to where people’s ideas are coming from
If someone says something problematic, we should examine perhaps the experiences of the person that led them to believe this. Again, if someone is saying something rude or outright misogynistic, by all means don’t respond to them. But also don’t automatically resort to calling them a cishet dude. If they are genuinely confused, calling them a cishet dude and ignoring them will not help open conversation.

D. Don’t assume everyone has access to educational resources
I think this is something I, for one, have taken for granted in the past. I went to a four-year liberal arts college. I had access to professors who were liberal and able to address a variety of cross-cultural issues. I learned to find resources written by and for queer people. I have educational privilege. Yes, I agree, sometimes educating people who have more power than you is reinforcing those power dynamics. But we need to take into account this educational privilege.

Here’s an example: I was sitting with my cis, heterosexual friend and they were looking at my blog. They asked me what genderqueer was. I shouldn’t and didn’t just say, “you’re a cishet dude, go research it yourself” because I’m not sure if he would be able to find the appropriate resource. We all know that google can lead you to some problematic websites, for all we know, and our peers may not scrutinize the sources they find as much as more woke people would.

In sum: Yes, maybe ignore the trolls. But if someone is genuinely confused, don’t just call them a cisdude and tell them to go educate themselves. If you have any interest in a relationship, platonic, workplace, etc, provide them with a resource. And don’t resort to calling people cishet dudes because that is a cissexist, heteronormative insult that reinforces what we are trying to avoid.

We Need to Talk about the IUD

IUD-istock

I went on the pill when I was 17. I got my period for the second time in one month, went downstairs, and said, “Mom, I’m going on the pill.” My mother, being the wonderful parent that she is, just said, “Okay.” And that was that. I went to a doctor and got my prescription. I was on the pill for 4 wonderful years: my skin cleared up, my weight stayed the same, and I didn’t get pregnant.

Fast forward to 2015. My best friend is talking about her IUD and how much she loves it. Now, at this point, I only vaguely know what an IUD is. IntraUterine-Device. Sure. My friend explains it a little more and walks me through her process. It is, she says, as effective as sterilization. Her periods are shorter, and she had no pain after insertion. It lasts three years. Based on her rave reviews, I decide to get one.

I got the Skyla IUD in late October. The insertion was, in a word, hellish. I remained on the floor of the doctor’s office for 25 minutes, holding my stomach. I finally called an Uber, and the uterus gods gave me a lady driver. I came home, put a heating pad on my stomach, ordered Thai food, and curled up into a ball of pain.

The IUD never settled in me. It was painful beyond what is normal. I was student teaching, and there were days I was in so much pain that I would have to take 3 advil, and even then remain very still in front of the class; otherwise a sharp pain would start in my stomach and travel anywhere it saw fit to go. I taught half the day; the days I subbed for the entire schedule were terrible. I had to walk around with knives in my uterus, and pretend to my juniors that everything was normal as we talked about their college essays.

Everything was not normal. I told my doctors this in December, and they sent me to get an ultrasound. Based on the results, there was apparently nothing was wrong with the IUD placement. A doctor on call told me to take magnesium and drink a lot of milk. That was it.

The pain continued. I decided I wanted to take it out many, many times. But I was always, time and again, convinced to keep it. Two months in I was told:

“You see, once it settles, you’re done for three years. You need to give it time.”
“Give it three months. It should settle by then.”
“Once you get through this month, you’ll be fine.”
“You should really keep it. It’s as good as sterilization, and you don’t want to go back on the pill, which isn’t as effective.”

One morning four months in, I woke up with so much pain I thought I would pass out. Still, over the phone, in the middle of the night, the doctors told me, “It’s only been 4 months. Give it 6. Some pain is still normal. Just get through the pain, and you’ll be happy with it afterwards.”

I cried. A lot. I worried and fretted and one day, in early March, I met with a nurse.

Five months later, and she was the first person who said we would work to find a birth control that I liked. Let me say that again: she was the first person in the medical field who accepted that I no longer wanted this.

We talked things through, and I still wasn’t sure. As I left the appointment, deciding to wait again, she said, “You know, if you decide two weeks from now you don’t want it, that’s fine. You can get back on the pill whenever you want.”

I didn’t wait two weeks. 3 days later I went back; my doctor took it out, there was a sharp, quick pain, and it was done.

I was so relieved. It took about five seconds for my body to realize what had happened, and the signal I got was, “Thank god!” I felt better immediately. Why didn’t I do this sooner?

Well, a lot of reasons. But mostly because trained professionals were working actively to convince me I should keep the IUD, and since they were professionals, I believed them.

The Skyla IUD is the same type of device as the Dalkon Shield, a device that caused pelvic inflammatory disease, internal scarring, and infertility in the 1970’s. It was also used as a way to prevent native women from reproducing,often being inserted without consent or full disclosure of its effects.

I wonder, sometimes, if my body was harmed in a way that my doctors failed to realize, simply because the Skyla IUD is “more advanced” than the Dalkon was. I wonder if my body suffered harm unnecessarily, simply the IUD had been said to be safer (but may not be). And in the end, I think the stress of having it, and not wanting it, and being told over and over again to keep it, was more stressful than the pain. My body was no longer under my control. My reproductive choices were scrutinized by doctors and peers alike. My stomach ached, and I was being told to power through.

I don’t believe any of this was my fault. I also don’t believe that the IUD is the villain here. IUD’s are great. For some people. The problem is the doctors that won’t listen, that can’t listen, that don’t know how. It’s the society that teaches women to believe other people more than themselves.

Every woman needs to be believed about what is happening to her body. What happened to me is just the tip of the iceberg, which causes women not to recognize female-specific heart attack symptoms and be ignored or misdiagnosed when they have Endometriosis pain. We need better training across the board, and more careful listeners.

On Discourse, Part 2

Last week, I discussed the importance of having discourse, of using your privilege, and of listening. This week, I was going to post the second half of the story: what happened when, recently, while hanging out with only other men, I called out a white man for using the n-word. Long story short, it didn’t go well. But, in the end, the guy got why he couldn’t use that word. Not by my doing, but because one of my friends explained it to him, after I went for a drive.

Why did I randomly go for a drive?

Well, for the same reason that I want to drive to Canada right now. I’m incredibly angry and frustrated and, quite honestly, scared. Last night in Portland, Maine, police officers pushed through white protestors to arrest women of color. (Just listening to the video frightened me, if I’m being honest). A few days prior, Donald Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate, who’s been vehemently anti-choice and anti-LGBT rights. After the shootings in Orlando, I am occasionally visited by these thoughts: what if someone shoots up a school I end up working in? What if someone terrible comes to queeraoke? What if I am shot because of who I am?

None of those questions are new to any people of color, but I know a lot of white people read my blog, so please be aware. I have those questions, and I am worried but not in danger; I can dismiss these thoughts because I recognize them for what they are: worst case scenarios, anxieties, my imagination getting out of hand. People of color don’t have that privilege, don’t have the ability to dismiss those questions. They are in so much danger and most of the time I just feel helpless.

A while ago, I saw this post on tumblr:

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There’s a debate that follows, and ultimately blames LGBT+ kids for their own oppression, saying they are “unwilling to engage in a debate”…about their own rights.

I guess where I end up is, can we stop pretending that this a debate? Can we stop pretending that people who disagree with the BLM are anything but what they are, (racist)? Can we stop pretending that there are two sides to this?

The answer, I’m aware, is no. At least I don’t think so, because people who disagree with racism, with BLM, will always fight for their side. People like Mike Pence who actively work against people like me will continue to hold power, continue to have people behind him. Donald Trump will always have supporters.

And I’m scared. I don’t know what else to say except for that. I am writing, and posting, and reading, and trying to be an ally. I know it’s not enough. I know I need to show up for more events in Boston, go to protests, teach better, learn better, call my senators. But right now I want to curl into a ball and not look out the window.

I think Roxane Gay put it best: “I don’t know where we go from here because those of us who recognize the injustice are not the problem. Law enforcement, militarized and indifferent to black lives, is the problem. Law enforcement that sees black people as criminals rather than human beings with full and deserving lives is the problem. A justice system that rarely prosecutes or convicts police officers who kill innocent people in the line of duty is the problem.” And I think, as Shannon Houston writes, “Why Shouldn’t Black American Revolt?” and I think that neither of us really has a good answer to that.

Roxane Gay goes on to write in her article that “this [violence] happens so often that resignation or apathy are reasonable responses is the problem.” And I guess that’s what I’m feeling right now: not exactly an apathy, but the sense that I am powerless. That I can only do so much by writing, teaching, being a person.

But we can’t have that attitude. I know we can’t. We all need to be better. So, I’m going to end this with the small little moment, with a sense of my own failure, but also with the sense that things can change, even if incrementally, even if by the slowest, smallest degrees.

It was Saturday night and I was hanging out with my long time friend Tim* and his friends, David and Mitchell. I was tired and a little hungry. David had been making sex jokes, and then at one point he said the N word (-a ending). I was immediately angry, as I had not been entirely comfortable with this friend to begin with. So here’s how the conversation went:

Me (close to yelling): You know you can’t say that, right?
David: Well I was just making fun of Mitchell, he used to say it–
Me: So you’re telling me that Mitchell has learned better, but you still want to use it?
Tim and Mitchell: Okay, so moving on. Did you see that meme…

I stayed for a few minutes, then decided to go for a drive. In my mind, I had already come off as the “hysterical female” to Tim’s friends. I felt that anything I said would continue that stereotype so I removed myself from the situation. After I left, Tim told David that I was right, and him and Mitchell explained why the n word shouldn’t be used by white people, with the -a or -er ending, in any context. They used an example, saying, “you wouldn’t use it in front of our [black friend], right? How would he feel if he heard you say it, even casually?” At the end of their conversation, David understood and apologized for the awkward situation.

I talked to my friend Tim afterwards, about why he didn’t stand up for me when I was in the room. “Well,” he told me, “You put David in a situation where he couldn’t speak, where he was going to be wrong no matter what.” Yes, I did do that. And yes, even though I was on the right side, I needed to give this person room to speak. Room to have a dialogue. Room to be wrong, but have that be okay. 

“I’m sorry I wasn’t quicker to support you,” he told me. And I’m sorry I am quick to anger. I’m sorry that I can’t stand when men don’t see me and I end up leaving the situation.

There’s a right side and a wrong side. Let’s not pretend there isn’t. But even so, we have to have hope that those on the wrong side will make their way over. David learned something small that day because I decided to get angry. If we are going to believe in the movement, we also need to believe that people can learn, and change.

*Names changed for privacy

Book Review Friday: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution

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Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution
Shiri Eisner
352 pages; Non-fiction/Queer Theory

Quick Summary:
Shiri Eisner, a bisexual genderqueer person, writes about how bisexuality can be subversive, and how it can combine with other movements to destroy monosexism and the patriarchy. She calls not for assimilation into the straight, hetero, white world, but a re-thinking of the very ideas that make us want to assimilate in the first place. Throughout the course of this book, she includes many other writings, theories, and references to history, to provide a wide-scope picture of the issues at hand.

Pros: Fantastic writing, and yet still easy to read
I first want to point out that I feel a lot of people don’t read non-fiction/theory books because they’re afraid it will be dense or too complicated. Eisner’s book is neither; it’s ridiculously well written and easy to read, yet challenging enough to make you think. I was surprised at how fast I got through this book.

Pros: Relatable
In the first couple chapters, Eisner discusses biphobia and stereotypes, and the process of “coming out to oneself” that can be incredibly difficult. I related to a lot of this, and it was nice to have language to put to my experiences.

Pros: Theory!
There’s a lot of theory and research behind this book, but it’s incredibly well-integrated and never overwhelming.

Pros: Intersectionality
Not a lot to explain here: The book really delves into intersectional identities and how they play out.

Cons: Literally None
I have absolutely nothing to complain about!

Verdict:
110% recommend. I loved this book, and it’s something I’ll be thinking about and writing about long after I finished it. Good for: People who want to learn some theory but don’t know where to start, people who want to learn about bisexual politics.

Has anyone else read this book? What pieces stuck out to you? Did you agree/disagree with any of Eisner’s connections or theories?

Ways to Fight Biphobia and Bierasure

“Many of the items on this list are things I’ve been guilty of. Fighting biphobia means fighting our own internalized prejudices, and then making sure to use our knowledge to call out other people’s biphobia. You never know who’s in the closet; by calling out these remarks, you could easily be creating a safe space for queer friends. Even if no one around you is queer, these call-outs reverberate. Use your voice.”

On Appropriating Queerness

When I was in 6th grade, I came out to a friend and later, to my parents, as bisexual. I had a crush on a girl who I’ll call Kay, but had liked boys in the past. I never asked Kay out, because, as are 6th grade crushes, it was old news soon enough. In high school, I dated only boys, but discussed celebrity women crushes often. In college, I hooked up with a girl, and had a crush on another, who I’ll call C*, but I was never sure how to proceed. I wanted to ask C* out but was too nervous that I wasn’t “queer enough”: in other words, I had never dated girls and I didn’t want C* to feel like she was being used for my “experimenting.” I know how I felt, but I remained too nervous, and the friendship faded. I still think of her sometimes, and how different yet similar we were, and think of it as a missed opportunity on many levels.

About a year has passed, or maybe two. I’ve been dating a guy for the past 8 months, and unless I mention it in conversation, my sexuality doesn’t come up. I don’t “look queer.” What’s more: most of the time, I don’t feel very queer. I feel like myself. Someone who is dating a guy but is also into women, someone who is questioning their sexuality, and probably always will be.

I want to make straight spaces, and queer spaces eventually, more open to the “Q” in LGBTQIA. Q as in questioning. I want it to be okay for people to ask “are you gay?” or “are you straight?” and have “I don’t know/I’m not sure” be an acceptable answer.

I think oftentimes those Q’s are afraid to label themselves anything–afraid to come out, or be wrong, or afraid to “appropriate queerness.” To say something belongs to you and have people say you’re not queer enough, or not gay enough to be discriminated against–and therefore you can’t enter queer spaces. I shouldn’t have a problem identifying as queer–but pervasive and internalized ideas of “queer enough” make it hard for me to do that, even now.

It’s taken me years to write this. It’s taken me years to pinpoint that I don’t feel comfortable in queer spaces because I appear too straight–years to accept that that is okay. I don’t have to belong to queer communities–maybe some day I would like too, but I’m not quite there. What I can do, or hope to do, is make straight spaces more queer, and queer spaces more open to questioning people.

And it’s hard. Just last night, my boyfriend and his friends and I were all in the office of a summer camp he runs, and one of the guys made a gay joke. I didn’t know what to do, or say, and since I wasn’t close with anyone but my boyfriend, I kept my mouth shut. But that is something, overtime, I am learning to do less.