One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Category: politics


Every year, for the first five years or so that I marched in Pride parades, this one counter protester was always there, screaming at us from the sidelines. I can’t remember exactly what his signs said, but it was something in the vein of “God Hates Fags.” He wasn’t explicitly aligned with Fred Phelps’s gang, but he’d clearly lifted some of their ideas. It felt awful to see him there, like all my worst fears about myself and the world confirmed,but it never felt surprising. We were less than a decade out from the gay-panic teen movies of the 80s, most of us had been met with hostility or disbelief when we came out. This guy, with his angry God and American flag, just confirmed a lot of what I already knew about the world.

These days, Pride is much more mainstream. I live in Boston now, and our parade is giant and corporate, not little and scrappy like the Vermont event. The last two years, the “counter protesters” have been from the left–#blacklivesmatter activists who call out corporate sponsors like Wells Fargo and TD Bank for their participation in global capitalism. The Dyke march feels more like Vermont Pride, with its political signs and Dykes on Bikes marshals,but even that is almost entirely met with support and cheers from the surrounding crowd.

So the Trans support rally just before the midterms felt alittle bit like I was moving back in time, even as it represented the newerface of the queer movement. As I made my way to City Hall Park, I was greetedby a small group of protesters, right on the corner, holding up signs topassing traffic that read “NO ON 3″ and “STOP TRANS INSANITY.” It had been solong since I’d seen homophobic counter-protesters that at first, I assumed theywere with the bigger rally, but no. Perhaps most heartbreakingly, one was inhis twenties (so much for the strategy of just waiting for the bigots to dieout). I went into a coffeeshop where I’d planned to meet my friend, but I couldfeel them throbbing in the back of my skull, like the beginnings of a day-long headache.

And, of course, even as these protesters felt like a throwback on one level, there was another, scarier element that was all too current. The rally was Sunday, the day after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. I’d spent the morning shell-shocked, catching myself staring off into the middle distance, unable to finish a complete thought. The sanctuary at our temple is probably my favorite physical space on earth. It’s warm, and full of music, and I have consistently felt loved and fully seen there. The thought of a place like that as a site of such violence makes me stop short, bile in my throat, cheeks hot, unable to think straight, frozen in grief and terror. What is a sanctuary if you’re not safe in it?

But maybe I’ve been thinking about it all wrong, linking thenotion of sanctuary to physical safety. After all, only a convert would feelsafer from violence in a synagogue, I think. When I made this joke to a goodfriend he pointed out that it seemed like I’d forgotten what every single Jewish holiday celebrates.And this is what appeals to me about Judaism: that it’s based on the idea ofwelcoming the stranger, that this is a group of people who come together tomake light because the darkness is just around the corner, that we needspiritual community in the face of oppression and danger.

Throughout the Yes on 3 rally, the anti-trans protesterskept yelling. One of them had brought a bullhorn, so there would be periodicoutbursts followed by spirited chanting from the activists around them. CityHall Park has notoriously terrible acoustics, so the fracas was impossible toignore, bouncing off the concrete and drowning out the speakers. But the transprotesters kept going, and there were so many beautiful moments. A young singercovering the Mountain Goats “This Year” on theirukulele; endless earnest performance poetry; call-and-response chants; political candidates. And two moments stood out that stood out the most,especially to the queer kid in me who seems never to be done licking herwounds. First, the mom of one of the organizers was on the docket to speak, andshe called all the parents who were present to support their trans andnon-binary kids to come up on stage with her. They led us in chants and praisedtheir kids, noting their bravery and commitment to this fight. My friend puther arm around me, noticing my tears. And the other was when the Mayor of Boston spoke, opening with this line: “I’m Marty Walsh, and my pronouns are heand his.” As if I didn’t know. But that gesture of respect, the fact that hewas there at all—it was so beautiful.

It wasn’t perfect, by any means, showing the seams and growing edges of the movement. While Marty Walsh was speaking, a passerby stopped and, noticing the racial makeup of the crowd, interrupted to yell into the crowd “where are the Black folks?” After a few minutes, a few of the Black and Brown protesters present, including my friend who I’d come with, gathered around him, listening to his complaints and explaining their support for the movement. As ever, I was struck by the emotional generosity of the queer community,but also left thinking about the greater emotional burden placed on our siblings of color to straddle these lines, to do all this explaining.

I have no idea which version of America will ultimately prevail in this struggle. Every day brings new horrors, and I certainly don’t feel safe most of the time. IlanaGlazer canceled a get-out-the vote event after the temple where she wasperforming was defaced with swastikas. My own beloved campus was coveredin white supremacist flyers the week before the election. Twopeople were shot dead at a Krogers for being black. Ferguson activists keepgettingkilled, and there’s no police follow up. A wildfire wiped a California townoff the map, and keepsraging. In this environment, sanctuary can’t mean physical safety. It’simpossible to guarantee, and our desire for it just leads us to build morewalls, name more people as Dangerous Others.

So I’m left with the challenge of figuring out what sanctuary means from a perspective of radical vulnerability. On the most basic level, we’re not safe right now—maybe we never were. So I think sanctuary has to be based in a different kind of safety. The thing I keep coming back to is community. At our temple (like many), we begin Shabbat services with the hymn Hine Ma Tov, which translates to “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when we dwell together in unity.” I’m almost always late, so I roll in to services as it’s being sung. It’s also written onthe front wall of the sanctuary, in both Hebrew and English. The space itself is beautiful, but I’ve been in many beautiful spaces of religious sanctuary and not felt safe at all, convinced that the most fundamental parts of myself are under siege. It’s perfect, then, that we orient the service around this idea of beloved community. The space, while beloved, isn’t the point—the point is the people. Maybe this is the greatest insight of a diasporic faith? That we come together whenever and wherever we can?

And this is the piece to remember: for me, sanctuary is about feeling seen and being inspired to meet others with love and acceptance. It’s the feeling I get at an AA meeting, at temple, at a protest—none of which are particularly physically safe spaces. Tomorrow, I’m heading to the Burlington MA ICE facility with our temple and some others for a Jericho Walk. We’ll walk around the building, praying silently, and then stop and pray out loud in front. This will by no means make the space physically safe, but my hope is that the people inside might feel a little safer, a little more seen.

In the end, sanctuary depends on radical vulnerability, which can have an inverse relationship to physical safety. It’s about establishing real human connection, even—especially—when physical safety is impossible. It’s about meeting danger with love and honesty. What it means to protect my beloved community is to ensure that they—that we—feel seen and accepted and whole, even as the world becomes more and more unsteady by the day. Sanctuary is carved out in the space of human interaction, not by hunkering down but by looking outward with love.


Buffy: Now and Forever

The ways my life has changed since the election are endless, it seems—the level of fear I walk around with (lots), the things I make space in my life and schedule for (a lot more protests and writing, fewer long runs and lazy afternoons), how much money I give away (wow a lot), the frequency with which I wear feminist t-shirts (minimum once a week) the number of fucks I have left (none). But one thing I didn’t see coming was the way that my relationship with fandom has shifted.

I’ve been writing about fandom forever, it seems. Star Trek fans were the topic of my senior thesis in college, and my dissertation (now being revised into a book) is also about fandom. So I guess I’m an expert? But (like most academics, I suppose), I’ve used that expertise as a shield. I went to Star Trek conventions, but as an observer, collecting funny stories. I creep on the comments section, but rarely add anything to the discussion. In college, I read a bunch of slash fiction, but for scholarly purposes.

And my own experience of fandom has always been surprisingly solitary, considering how much I have praised it as a collective experience in my academic work. For instance: in suburban Minneapolis in the 1990s you could watch a three-hour block of Nerd Heaven every night on channel 23 (the original home of MST3K!): back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation followed by back-to-back episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone. I loved it so much—and if my memory is anything to go on, I never ever did my homework, because my strongest memory of that period is smoking weed alone in the parking lot of our local Blockbuster video and going home to watch three hours of this sci-fi dream. These shows felt like a way out of adolescent loneliness, but even though I was excited when I found like-minded fans, that wasn’t the point. The point was the hyper-awareness that came with being high, the total immersion in a dys- or utopian futurescape, one that was as far from Minnetonka as possible. The experience of escaping into the fictional world itself was a solitary one.

I wrote my thesis about Star Trek jumping off my high-school love of the show, but Buffy was my real entrée into communal fandom. I became obsessed with the show in a more solitary manner, when I was living with my parents and getting sober immediately post-graduation. Real life was in this weird holding pattern—I hadn’t made many real friends in AA, and I didn’t really believe that sobriety could be any kind of long-term choice. Real life was listless and unreal, but Buffy felt honest, vibrant, true. I dreamt of Sunnydale almost every night. It was when I moved to Vermont that I finally did fandom right: I was living with my best gay boyfriend from college and Tuesday nights were sacrosanct TV time. When I finally moved out of his tiny apartment (kicking and screaming) a year later, I still came over every Tuesday, or he and his boyfriend taped the show and we’d watch it later that week. As I got deeper into recovery, my life kept changing, but Buffy with my best boys was a constant. I repeated this collective viewing practice with later friend groups as well. From Buffy to Lost to Battlestar Galactica, my twenties and early thirties were oriented around appointment television with my besties.

But even then, my experience of fandom was about my individual relationships. I’d watch collectively with friends, but I didn’t form new relationships based on the shared experience of fandom, I didn’t participate (except passively) in a fannish counterpublic. But since the election, I’ve been hungry for community. I’ve always been a “joiner,” but these days solidarity feels more important than ever. At the same time, the escape into fandom has also given me a kind of comfort I haven’t needed since my nightly dreams of Buffy and Angel back in the day. Buffy isn’t a perfect text, not by a long shot, but its basic premise—feminist demon fighter—resonates for me these days in a way that is bone-deep.

It was when I discovered what has become my favorite podcast in history that I truly went off the deep end. Buffering the Vampire Slayer is some seriously deep fandom. It’s hosted by a delightful couple of queer women, one a musician and the other an activist, riffing on each episode of Buffy in order, and then every episode ends with an original song that recaps the episode they just talked about. They started the show in September of 2016, but I wasn’t introduced to it until this summer. I was transfixed immediately, and tore through one or two episodes every day, listening as I biked to work, while I walked across campus to buy lunch—pretty much any time I had a free moment, I spent it with Jenny and Kristen. While my previous forays into fandom had led to me spending my free time with fictional characters in an imaginary universe, the reality I was projecting myself into this time was the cozy basement of two funny queer hipsters, whom I like to imagine I’d be friends with if we met in real life. When I knew I was really lost is when I started listening to the songs all the time, playing them for my kids through my phone’s speaker while I biked them to school because I couldn’t bear even that long away from the Buffy-verse.

I got to the episode they released the night of the election about a week into listening, and it was brutal. I heard these voices to which I’d become so attached sound deflated, small, frightened. By summer, I had clawed my way back from that place, but hearing it happen again reminded me how much the world—and I—had changed. I was biking home from work and had to pull over to weep, heartbroken again over lost hopes, shattered illusions.

But I was also able to hear my new imaginary friends—and by extension, a whole imagined community—slowly make their way back to the world. In the wake of the post-Trump world, their railing against the patriarchy, their refusal to let Xander off the hook for being a shitty, shitty guy, their insistence on calling out and rejecting the show’s racism while still holding on to its ability to rally people together felt like a game plan for building solidarity. I listened to the episode for the finale of Season 1 just as news of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer broke. The song was (and remains) my rallying cry:

What will come, what will come
If our world belongs to them?
What will come, what will come?
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
That’s what I’m supposed to do
Just keep fighting, just keep fighting
And maybe I’ll believe it too.

I listened to it on repeat as I went to join my friends for the counter-protest in Boston. I taught it to my daughter, and we sing it together. I sing it to myself when I’m scared walking by myself, a reminder that I’m never truly alone. There’s art and music that fuels resistance and that art and music makes more art and music, like an endless set of Russian nesting dolls, one that I can be part of too if I want to.

As an “expert,” I argued that fandom offered a model for community and for critical engagement, but I saw it as more metaphorical than anything else. “Real” fandom with all its excesses was a bit much—an object for study, a source of inspiration, but I couldn’t fully align myself with that much excess. In my dissertation, I wrote that “Fans have found a way to rally around an abject relationship, but still fully invest themselves in the experience of pleasure and love. … The shame of serial reading is, of course, that Dickens or Joss Whedon or Ron Moore never cared about you the way you cared about him, but the endlessly productive interpretive energy of fans helps us to see the possible pleasures of a love that is always unrequited.”

Typically, I’d focused all my attention on the voice at the top of the heap, obsessing over my relationship to the author, wondering how to wrest authority away from the text. But I’d missed the point—it was in the connection between the readers that mattered, and what we are able to create together. New models, new spaces, new songs. The strength and hope to just keep fighting.

Weaponizing Love

Since the election, maintaining my commitment to power bottoming has gotten harder. I really believe Shannon Sullivan that our task as white people is to learn to love the abject parts of our own communities: the only way we can combat white supremacy is to stop trying to convince ourselves that we are fundamentally, irrevocably different from “those” people, the Bad White People. But when Nazis are marching in the street, it’s hard not to want to do everything I can do disassociate myself from them: make them Something Else. At the same time, I’m scared to death: afraid my kids will grow up in a nuclear winter, that my beloved neighbors will be rounded into an internment camp, that I’ll get raped and murdered by some emboldened alt-right troll. It’s this static at the back of my mind all the time, making it hard for me to think straight: whataboutwhataboutwhataboutwhatabout… I’ll never be fully prepared so I just want to shut down completely and stay home forever.

Fuck that, though. Shutting down is not an option, and there’s plenty of time for sheet cake after I’ve occupied the streets. But I don’t have the resources to face this on my own—in order to show up, I have to remember my own strength, both spiritual and physical. So I’m praying my face off, putting myself in the middle of the community at both my temple and AA, and taking boxing classes. Boxing has been great: it’s an outlet for my anger, I’m getting stronger and more confident, and—best of all—most times I go, it’s all immigrants and women. I feel like I’m part of a secret anti-fascist army, and it’s beautiful.

But last week there was a new guy there who seriously disrupted my feeling of safety and community. He was gigantic: about 6’5”, maybe 240 pounds, and sporting a white guy haircut that was too close for comfort to the Richard Spencer as well as a tank top with the terrifying slogan, “They don’t want me on Spring Break.” Who is “they”? The women you plan to fucking roofie? Yikes. So instead of my usual fantasies of punching Jeff Sessions, I could feel my heart rate rising as I tried to plot out my escape if he attacked me. Is he enraged by my Planned Parenthood T-shirt? We’re in a basement, so all he’d have to do is block the stairs… I knew my fear wasn’t grounded in reality (my classmates were there, the gym owner was right upstairs and would hear me scream), but reality doesn’t help much in these moments of lizard-brained terror.

Because as much as I’m in that class to learn to defend myself, there’s no way I’d win a fight with this guy if he decided to pick one. Seriously, all he’d have to do is sit on me and I’d probably die. So I need another way.

I have this meditation I’ve been doing when I put my daughter to bed: I always lie down with her for about 20 minutes after reading books and singing songs, and as she’s drifting off, I imagine that I create a sphere of blue-white light that encircles us both. And I think: I have this light inside me and I share it with you so you can carry it with you forever. I want to protect her from the horrors of the world, but I know I can’t protect her from everything. What’s more, being a woman in this world is going to get harder before it gets easier, I fear. But what I can give her is this light.

So I tried the same thing at boxing: I stopped looking for a way out and instead pictured a circle of light extended around the whole gym. This calmed me down enough that I could shift my attention to the other woman in the room, challenging her to join me for jump squats and throw downs. Nothing changed in the room, but I felt my fear recede, and that made it possible for me to focus on getting stronger.

So this is what nonviolent resistance means to me. By shifting my attention away from fear, I create space for strength. I notice more, I become available to help the people around me. It’s not that I’m backing away from a fight—I’m changing the terms of the game.

To be clear, shifting my attention to love doesn’t mean shifting my attention to the scary guy in the tank top and finding a way to love him despite myself, despite my needs, despite my safety. I’m still on guard against him, but the bulk of my attention is going somewhere it will do more good: I’ll focus on my compatriots, and on loving and protecting them.

This radical act of refocusing attention is the logic behind Black Lives Matter, and it was on full display this weekend at the anti-fascist counter protest in Boston. Unsurprisingly, most media attention has focused on the unexpected no-show of the hate speech rally itself (only 50 people showed up to defend “free speech,” and police estimate 40,000 counter protesters) and the skirmishes between police and counter protesters. But for me, the real brilliance of the event was the decision to meet up in Roxbury and march two miles through the projects and POC-majority neighborhoods just south of the city. As I waved to the abuelas and grandkids watching from their windows and returned a raised fist to folks on their doorsteps as we chanted “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” I felt like: “I have this light inside me and I share it with you so you can carry it with you always.” This is the antidote I want to be a part of: a group of people putting ourselves on the line for the disenfranchised because your life matters.

Ideally, I’d like to follow in the rabble-rousing, arty steps of ACT UP, maintaining a kind of performative joy as well, because I think that’s key to my own long-term survival. I’m not sure joy is possible when counter protesters are getting gassed by cops—but love and attention for people who are suffering still are. So if you’re looking for me, I’ll be as close to the action as I can be, the terrifying mother who loves this country too much to let it stay this way.

The pleasure-pain of solidarity

“Queer pleasures are not just about the coming together of bodies in sexual intimacy. Queer bodies ‘gather’ in spaces, through the pleasure of opening up to others. These queer gatherings involve forms of activism; ways of claiming back the street, as well as the spaces of clubs, bars, parks, and homes. The hope of queer politics is that bringing us closer to others, from whom we have been barred, might also bring us to different ways of living outside the circuits of exchange within global capitalism.” –Sara Ahmed

Coming out immediately changed how I thought about kin—the first thing I said to the first adult I told was “What if I never have kids?” She assured me that I could still have a family, but the one I formed is very different from the one I’d been raised to envision, not least in that I’m a mom who was never pregnant. Not least in that the boundaries of that family are loose enough to include people I’m not related to in any state-sanctioned way (AA friends, beloved neighbors, former students and mentors, and on and on).

More than anything, the queer affiliations of my life have broadened how I think about kinship: whom I’m accountable to, and for what.

Maybe this is why I experience moments of great transition as an opening up—in ways that feel both good and bad, both pleasurable and painful (and have blurred the difference between the two in ways that might be queer, now that I come to think of it). The most intense of these moments have all hinged on questions of identity: when I left home and went to college and came into my own as queer; when I came to terms with my alcoholism and entered into a recovery community; and now, as I’ve come to understand my whole life as a bulwark pitched against a fascist wave.


When I came out in college, it was really clearly a choice I made in contradistinction to my family of origin—after all, it was only through coming out and coming into political consciousness (really profoundly the same processes for me) that I even understood “family of choice” to be a thing. With these new friends, I saw a possibility for long-term connection and love based on mutuality, not inheritance, where my weirdness was nourished and valued. It felt like a new world, one that we were creating every day, with every choice. My greatest hope was to one day buy a big house in Brooklyn where we could all live for free and make art and revolution all day. Totally possible, right? In my defense, anything seemed possible at that moment.


But there was one way that I wasn’t breaking with my family of origin, and that was in my relationship with alcohol. I identified as bi, and this was sort of true, but the way I conducted my relationships with men was anything but queer. Instead, it was like I had two selves: a feminist academic superstar who was unafraid to speak truth to power and to stage a sit-in at the President’s office, and then this insecure drunk girl who just wanted a boy to tell her she was pretty. I was drinking so much, and I found myself making the same kinds of choices that had decimated my family for generations: unwitting cruelty, infidelity, unchecked narcissism. One friend described me as “emotional dynamite,” and another said that when she thought about me sleeping in her house she “felt like she had a rash.”

The solidarity I’d pursued in college couldn’t survive my interpersonal shenanigans, and I found myself afloat, cut off from the relationships in which I’d invested so much meaning. It was at this emotional nadir that I was introduced to a new form of solidarity. After a particularly devastating weekend of bad behavior, I was at a queer organizing conference, attending a workshop called “Dyke Talk: an intergenerational dialogue among lesbian feminists.” (Did I mention that I lived in Vermont? Because I really did). My feeling that I didn’t deserve to be included in this conversation was only exacerbated by my hangover, which was so brutal I was hallucinating shimmering auras around the featured speakers.

The organizer, a tiny woman in a ratty t-shirt with the improbable name of Crow, talked about AA and described “the program” as a miracle of diversity. “All these people come together from such incredibly different walks of life,” she gushed, “but we share a primary spiritual purpose: to get sober.” How could we, as activists, take a lesson from AA and focus on our shared purpose?

I was, for lack of a better word, hooked. Up until that point, I’d always seen AA as too square for me. Not only was Dionysian excess central to my political perspective, but how would I talk to people at a party if I wasn’t drunk? But here was this aging dyke, whose hairy-legged legitimacy wasn’t to be questioned, making an argument for the radical politics of AA. I buttonholed her after the meeting and my misery came tumbling out of me: I’d alienated my friends, I couldn’t stop drinking, I was pretty sure no one would ever talk to me again. She was kind and understanding, and helped me believe there was a place for me in the world that didn’t depend on my drinking. That AA wasn’t just for rich suburbanites—or, more precisely, that I didn’t have to turn back into a rich suburbanite if I wanted to break free from the endless, boring cycle of addiction that my life had become.

And I found real solidarity in the rooms of AA. Again and again, I heard stories that could have been my own, I heard people voice feelings and fears I’d never been able to articulate but instantly recognized. As much as when I came out, I’d again found “my people.” This is one pleasure of solidarity: the sense of recognition by another, even someone you’d never met. It’s the joy I have at getting the sly grin of a fellow dyke walking down the street, the feeling of relief I have at walking into an AA meeting. I’m not alone, not anymore—around these facets of my identity which make me most vulnerable, someone has my back, someone knows me.

But there’s loss here too. Coming out meant breaking with the future I’d envisioned for myself, and I was certain it meant breaking with my family. My parents eventually came around, but it was too late for my grandmother: alcohol ate up her short-term memory, and she arrived at my wedding completely oblivious to the fact that I was marrying a woman. She wept through the whole ceremony, and at the reception got so wasted she had to be taken home after thirty minutes. In order to access the solidarity in the halls of AA, I had to let go of my vision of a punk rock future, not to mention relationships with many of my closest friends thanks to my terrible behavior. With every turning toward solidarity, we have to turn away from something or someone—or acknowledge how that person or group has long since turned away from us.

There’s another kind of solidarity, too—the one that turns away from power. As a white person coming to racial consciousness, I’ve thought a lot over the last months about what claims of solidarity I can make in this new political reality. In the days after the election, my racial identification shifted on a gut level almost immediately. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d always had the kind of immediate bias response Louis CK talks about: if I was walking down the street alone and saw a group of young black guys, I’d immediately going into an internal dialogue about how I didn’t need to be scared: “Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine! Everything’s fine!”

But after November 9, all my fear vanished overnight. How could I have been so stupid? If anything, I’m the one who poses a danger to them, with all my whitegirl anxiety. If the double whammy of electoral and judiciary power has taught me anything, it’s that nothing is more dangerous to people of color than white fear. So my own sense of solidarity did a quick 180, but I have no reason to assume that I’d be welcomed into nonwhite spaces—I certainly hadn’t earned it. What I need to do in order to try for this kind of solidarity is to decenter my own experience, to cede power and space to others, to listen to new voices. The grief here isn’t for the community I’ve lost, but for the one I’ve denied myself all these years through my unwillingness to look beyond my own unexamined impulses.

The best model I have for this is Crow’s insight from all those years ago: the real meaning of solidarity is to have a shared primary purpose. I’ve written elsewhere about how the community offered by AA has become more complicated for me since the election. But the basic philosophy of AA—the Program—still shapes most of my thinking, and is the main way I make meaning out of my life. More to the point, I’m stuck going to meetings, what with my fatal mental illness and everything, so I’d best find a way to get as much as I can out of it.

I’ve been thinking of Crow a ton lately. It’s been a year and a half since she died, and it would have been her birthday a few weeks ago. And, of course, I’ve been sorely missing her advice on how to find comfort and solidarity in the looming shadow of fascism. More than anyone I knew, Crow was able to find solidarity in unexpected places: with AA bikers, with discontented housewives, with angsty teenagers like my former self. Trust feels so hard to come by right now, and I desperately wish she was here to help me figure out who and how to trust again. But I come back to that first piece of advice that she gave me: I have the gift of a primary purpose. In AA, that purpose is twofold: to stay sober and to help another alcoholic. This divide is a good way to think about the affective reality of queer politics as well: staying sober day by day is difficult, and not always positive. It’s turning away from the escape of an instant fix, toward the truth of a broken world, looking in particular for the ways that I broke it. And helping another alcoholic is where the solidarity and the community comes from.

So what’s my primary purpose vis-à-vis intersectional liberation? I think it’s this: to tell the truth and to share what I have. Whether that’s money or emotional resources or artistic energy or just love—tell the truth and share.


Queer pleasure: academic and professional drag. Or, How getting screwed enabled me to screw with the system.

Queer identity is inherently tied up with performance–from Judith Butler‘s insights into gender as performance to the heady pleasures of camp and drag to the series of small choices we take so we ping someone’s gaydar (or don’t), the daily experience of early queerness often centers on the drama of gender and sexuality. Can my parents tell I’m gay? Can my friends at school? And, more excitingly, can She? It’s no surprise that queer and “theatrical” were functional synonyms for so long: the daily demands of queer life show us how identity is all a show, and each audience calls into being a different version of ourselves.

Now that I’m an adult (of sorts), this theatricality still informs my daily experience of life. Sometimes, as I explored in my last post, that performance can feel like inauthenticity, which elicits grief and a host of other negative emotions. But at the same time, our ongoing relationship with performance allows us to open up new possibilities for connection, disruption, and intervention in every part of our lives.

I’m most struck by how these opportunities open up in my professional life, especially in terms of my work wardrobe. It’s safe to say that I never mastered the art of professional dress. When I was temping in my 20s, I could never figure out the bland professional costume of the office drone. And when I got negative feedback about my wardrobe, FORGET IT. Take out my nose ring? Fine, I’ll show up in a skirt with a slit all the way up the side and a fur coat. Neckline too low? No problem, how’s this micromini? I was fast and focused, so I never had trouble getting a new position, but my placements were often pretty short. (Not as short as my skirts, but you get the idea)

Now that I have a Real Job, I’m still stymied by professional dress codes. My Beloved Bride has described my personal style as looking like I “have a day pass from the clown college at the nut ward.” A million colors, a zillion patterns, plus a unicorn or two. You know–the standard professional costume.


Why yes, I did wear this to work.

I suppose I could be worried that people won’t take me seriously, but I think the opposite might be true: in an academic setting at least, I’m convinced that dressing like a weirdo makes people take me more seriously, not less. Like: “I know she’s only staff, but maybe she’s an artist or something–still waters run deep!” And there’s something that’s deeply satisfying to me that my job is so closely associated with prestige (at many universities, my office is actually named the Office of Prestigious Awards), and I dress like–well, like a mentally ill lesbian.

In Queer Feelings, Ahmed argues that “the display of queer pleasure may generate discomfort in spaces that remain premised on the ‘pleasures’ of heterosexuality” (165). And I would argue that the endless variations of camp and drag which make up the performance of weirdness (which is what I’m talking about here, really) don’t just generate discomfort, but open up new possibilities for expression and liberation.

Case in point: my first year of my PhD program was also the first year that my Beloved Bride and I were dating, and I think the technical term for my mood during those first heady months is “fuck-addled.” Not only was I coming off a life-changing experience of catastrophic illness, but I was having frequent amazing sex for the first time in my life. So every day was this gauzy haze, just waiting until I could get home again. I may have started a graduate program in English Lit, but what I was really doing was majoring in Joan.

At the same time, I was taking a graduate seminar from the guy who would go on to serve as my advisor. He was teaching a course based on the book he was currently working on–always a tricky prospect–and the course was a mess. It was called “The Long 1950s” and was an examination of the effects of McCarthyism on 20th century American Literature. The issue was that he was so close to the material that the course ended up reproducing the dynamics that he meant to critique: rather than unpacking McCarthyism, the course became a shadow of it. My professor lorded over us all like McCarthy himself, waiting for us to echo back his ideas successfully; his favorite student filled the position of Roy Cohn, sniping at those of us who hadn’t yet mastered the lingo of my professor’s theory of abasement. The central ideas of the course (the S/M dynamics of political power) were really appealing to me, but the pedagogy was so fucked up. Everyone was jockeying for favor, so worried they’d lose his attention and approval.

A different semester might have found me participating in this depressing horse race, but like I said: fuck-addled. What I noticed instead was that a key figure of my advisor’s analysis of the psychoanalytic structure of mid-century America was missing: the terrifying mother. That, my friends, was a job I could pick up, easy peasy.

manchurian mommy

Bow down to the queen, bitches

So I started making small alterations to my wardrobe: more A-line skirts, lipstick every day, etc. And I was coating every comment, especially the brutal ones, in my sweetest tones. But the moment that won the day was when I did my in-class presentation. I was (natch) presenting on The Manchurian Candidate, focusing on the figure of the s/mother. I decided to give my presentation in full 1950s drag: a twin set, white gloves, pearls, kitten heels, the whole package. Unused to the benefits of a private institution, I still did all my copying at the library, and ended up being about 5 minutes late for class. I walked in just as my professor was saying “Where is she?” and I sauntered over and patted his arm as I assured him “It’s okay, honey, we can just start now.” I kept my gloves on the whole time.

I’m still not sure where I got the chutzpah, but I think there’s a connection between the way I was finally coming into my own (as it were) as a person with a decent queer sex life and my willingness to disrupt expectations in my class in this way. On the heels of my brush with death, my invigorated sex life made me feel impossibly, endlessly alive, like anything was possible. This is part of what I think Ahmed is getting at when she says “the hope of queer politics is that bringing us closer to others, from whom we have been barred, might also bring us to different ways of living outside the circuits of exchange within global capitalism.” Here was this woman, different from anyone I’d ever connected with before: instead of taking care of her, I was being cared for; instead of being the pursuer, I was pursued; instead of holding back, I was jumping in. If this could happen, then anything could. Maybe instead of currying favor, I could beat my professor at his own game. Maybe I could turn the scene of my abasement into something playful and sexy and feminist as fuck. This, to me, is the possibility of new connections.

Queer Grief: Queer in Public

So I’m working on a book manuscript these days, and I’m back in the world of queer theory for the first time in a long time. I’ve been blown away by Sara Ahmed’s work on queer affect, and especially (so far, anyway) by her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion. In it, she focuses on two feelings as being centrally transformative for queers: grief and pleasure. For Pride, I want to spend my next few entries thinking through these ideas as they’ve arisen in my own life.

In a way that’s unsurprising, given the recent focus on negativity within queer theory, she spends more time and energy thinking through grief than pleasure. She points out the invisibility of queer grief, and the difficulty that comes with publicly acknowledging queer loss—the temptation to change “I suffer” to “my suffering is just like yours.” She argues that “the failure to recognize queer loss as loss is also a failure to recognize queer relationships as significant bonds, or that queer lives are lives worth living, or that queers are more than failed heterosexuals, heterosexuals who have failed ‘to be.’” (156)

I think what she means here is that queer grief is for relationships or bodies that fall outside of the narratable framework of everyday life. And what it feels like to realize that you are the only one who recognizes your grief as such. I’m thinking of three moments from my own life that crystallize what she’s getting at, from the three central registers of queer life: the public sphere, romantic love, and beloved community. I’m going to do three entries on queer grief, and then close out the series with one on queer pleasure.

Queer in Public

On the day of the massacre in Orlando, Ariel and I had to go to a birthday party for one of the kids at Izzy’s bougie daycare. In general, we’d liked it there—there were a few other hipster families we’d connected with, and we even spied one of the dads marching with the bisexuals in the Pride parade. But she was the only kid with same-sex parents at the school, and it was an expensive place, so the majority of the families (including ours) were quite wealthy.

I got the news of the shooting early and spend most of the day shell-shocked. We watched a movie in the morning so we could keep our parenting as low-effort as possible, and all I could do was keep checking my Facebook feed, hoping for new information, taking comfort from my friends’ changing their profile pictures and sharing memories of clubbing in their youth. My heart hurt, thinking of all those beautiful young people moving together, and the loose embodied freedom of movement that comes in a club which had transformed so quickly into such a nightmare. And the fact that it was almost all black and brown people who had been killed made the whole thing even more awful—more in line with the endless parade of violence that has now taken over public discourse in this country.

I had received a few texts from concerned straight friends—I suspected they were reaching out because they’d been instructed to do so by some clickbaity article “5 things to do if you are feeling overwhelmed about the Orlando massacre—1: check in with your LBGT friends. They’re likely feeling lonely and frightened, and it will help them to know they are not alone.” But whatever—maybe I’m some functional token in their pursuit of relief, but I was grateful for the care and attention.

So my whole life felt focused in on this moment: me, my phone, my computer screen, and an unimaginable scene hundreds of miles away. As we drove up to the house in Winchester where the party was and I saw the houses get bigger and bigger as we snaked past the local golf course, I could feel my stomach tighten. Usually when I look at my life, it’s with a kind of baffled gratitude: how did I get here, to this beautiful house with this sweet family? But that day, my bafflement at how I ended up here, trudging up a steep driveway bearing Legos for twin boys, felt less grateful. The world was ending and everyone was just wandering around in their boaters and madras plaids, blinking into the sun and making small talk like it was any other day.

My impulse was to disrupt the party—to do something that couldn’t be looked away from. Take my clothes off and jump into the pool; start weeping and curl up in the cool darkness under the swing set. But all I remember was chatting blandly about kindergarten plans for the following year and praying in the bathroom for the ability to keep it together. At one point, the kids ganged up on one of the boys there and I did intervene, yelling for them to “shut it down” as they chanted his name in unison. So that’s something.

I should have said more, I think—if the event had happened now, post-Trump, I think I would have done. I’m more allergic to this kind of assimilation these days, and insist on airing my grief more often and more publicly. It’s this moment of decision that characterizes queer grief, I think: the knowledge that airing it will necessarily be disruptive, that you’re calling attention to something people would rather look away from. I suppose all grief is like this—that’s why it’s such a lonely emotion—but when your loss is unrecognized as such by the dominant framework, then finding the space to express it is often alienating and disruptive. So there are two ways to think about queer grief, then: the silence that we have to break through, and our responsibility to acknowledge and hold space for our own grief and others’.

In this way, I want think about ways to incorporate mourning into Pride this year. Pride is about joy, of course, but it’s also about loss—a response to a society that keeps telling us we don’t matter, a glorious “fuck you” to every bully who told us we were too butch, too nelly, too fat, too weird, too much. It’s an explosive celebration of that excess, but one that always comes with that knife’s edge of overcompensation. So this year, I’m pledging to celebrate my connection to all corners of this community—I’m not interested in a narrative of Pride that focuses on triumphant transcendence. I’m grateful for my beautiful bougie life, but what I need to do is remember (and teach my kids) that there’s loss at the center of it, and that it’s up to us to even things up.

After all, my refusal/inability to express my grief at the party was also a missed opportunity. It’s possible that I would have been met with the bland suburban “meh” I feared if I’d told the truth about how sad I was that day, but it’s just as likely that people would have responded with kindness. Not having taken the risk, I’ll never know. But I’ve made a different decision in the months since the election, and what I’ve found is that I don’t have to make my queerness as invisible as I think I do. There’s space for my weirdness, and I can use that space to open up more space for others. Not by folding them into the “us” of bougie Arlington, but by acknowledging how my communities are multiple, by making space for different voices of mourning, by refusing to sanitize my grief or to demand that others do the same.

The darkness of the womb/tomb

One of the few silver linings in this new world has been my relationships with my students. They’re. Just. So. Great. Especially since my job is helping them find ways to abandon the siren song of high-paying corporate work for academia or service, I get all the good ones. Right now, we’ve just wrapped up applications for the Truman Scholarship, a super-prestigious national service award, and these kids are fucking amazing. Like, delivering speeches on the floor of the UN while also organizing a #noDAPL rally on campus and getting straight As amazing. Like, rewriting the curriculum for a mentoring program so that it doesn’t assume that the Black girls need to be saved, and then teaching that curriculum to the white girls who are cluelessly, good-heartedly working as saviors mentors, all with an open heart. Seriously–they’re so fucking good.

So I guess I believe the children are our future? However you slice it, it’s amazing to get spend time with young people who are just at the brink of starting their adult lives–they see the world stretched out before them, and they have a lot of faith in their ability to change it (too much, sometimes, but even that is beautiful in its own way).

As with everything post-election, my conversations with my students have gotten way more intense and real. And I see them grappling with how to maintain the optimism and faith that has so far structured their approach to the world. Like so many of us Good Liberals, most of them bought into a narrative of progress, and–more dangerously–the inevitability of progress. How do they step into a world that seems so broken, perhaps irreparably?

One of them shared this speech with me that she said she watches whenever she needs a boost. It was at an event called “National Moral Revival,” which the student (meaningfully) misread as “National Morale Revival.” And as you can see at 4:30, her central metaphor works as a major morale booster. “What if?” she asks, “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” The crowd can’t take it, and explodes in applause.

It’s an incredibly powerful metaphor. But my response was unexpected–I felt inspired, but mostly had a resurgence of the grief that’s shadowing me all the time these days. Maybe part of this is because of the way the speaker frames her story as building toward a moment of revelation and improvement. The factual details of her story outline the relentlessness of American racism and fascism: her grandfather was incarcerated as a terrorist immediately upon arriving on U.S. soil; he watched his Japanese-American neighbors and friends get rounded up and sent to internment camps; her uncle was murdered in a post-9/11 hate crime. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and she’s terrified of what will happen for her son as he makes his way into this broken, violent world.

I feel this. I’m scared of how the world will meet my daughter, of the moment when she realizes that she’s seen as property because of her gender, of the way that toxic masculinity threatens to one day warp my infant son. And, more than that, even, I’m terrified that they’ll be seduced by the siren song of toxic whiteness (is there any other kind? I don’t know, I hope so): that they’ll see possibility of power without accountability and move toward it, that all my attempts to steer them otherwise will fail.

But when I got to the end of the video, to her idea that “our America is not dead but waiting to be born. What if this is our nation’s great transition?” I just couldn’t get on board. Maybe this is a failing on my part? A failure of hope, or of imagination? But this story: that the better times are coming, that we just have to push through and they’re right around the bend, feels dangerous to me. As we watch long-fought for advances getting thrown out the window, history seems to be shaped more like a wheel than an arc, and I’m worried that the next thing I’ll see is my loved ones getting run over.

Maybe it’s because I have a different relationship with her central metaphor. As a feminist with a non-functioning uterus, I find the symbol of the womb both powerful and fraught with grief. In my experience, the womb is a space of loss, of failure, of a confrontation with an inescapable truth: that my life wasn’t going to look the way I always thought it would.

But maybe grief is a kind of hope? Because one thing I’ve found is that grief is about honesty. I’m heartbroken because I’m forced to face a piece of truth that feels impossible: I will have to make it through the world without a loved one; this baby I’d felt so certain would come into our lives isn’t; my family loves me, but they also mistreated me terribly, usually both at the same time; America was built to sustain white supremacy and violence. The older I get, the more the world feels full of impossible truths. And so when Valerie Kuar compares the “magic we will show our children” with the magic of Santa, I have to pause. I don’t want to sell my kids a version of hope that depends on me constructing a world for them that is counter to reality.

Maybe this is the difference between hope and optimism, and why the former appeals to me so much more these days. Optimism is based on the assumption of a specific outcome: things will get better, everything will turn out okay. And since Nov. 9, we’ve had a powerful reckoning with optimism–those of us who believed that we were coming into the long-promised dawn (slowly, but making our way there) were baffled by the power of the forces pulling us back. Assuring ourselves anew that it is all moving toward a happy ending seems like another setup.

Throughout most of human history, after all, a womb has also been a tomb for women, in that most of us died in childbirth. And in some ways this still stands–having or being perceived to have a uterus marks you for a specific kind of violence. That’s an unacceptable truth.

Hope, though. Hope is a different thing from optimism. It lives in the moment, and while it holds the possibility of specific outcomes, it doesn’t depend on them. The focus isn’t on some wished-for future, but on the fact that we’re alive right now, in this moment. That my beautiful students and children and the things they do right now make me able to bear these unbearable truths. My son took his first steps yesterday. My daughter’s favorite movie is the one that is running all the time in her head–it’s called Black Bruise.

Maybe the simultaneity of the tomb and the womb is the way that grief and hope coexist? A womb is a way that we can bear things, now. Even if the bearing ultimately kills us, this moment–the bearing of it–is beautiful, sacred, and true.


Listen up

It’s late to talk about the Women’s March (after all, there’s already been another (amazing) march, the world is actively falling apart, Jeff Sessions is about to delegitimize my family), but I want to write about it, if only to keep the energy of the moment going.

Because it was beautiful.


Even the ride down felt exciting–as we got closer to the city, the rest stops started to feel like the parking lot of an Indigo Girls concert, with hipsters in pink hats and aging lesbians outnumbering the glassy-eyed families of four that usually people those way stations. I’d give these other women sly smiles, much like the nod I give when someone sets off my gaydar.

These moments of solidarity in transit were actually the highlight of the weekend. For instance, the whole experience of getting from our hotel in Beltsville, MD to downtown DC was beautiful from start to finish. We arrived at the train station (the end of the line) at 8 AM, and the line to get into the station was already hundreds of people deep. By the time we moved to the front, they’d closed the station for the day, and the line of fellow marchers stretched behind us for 10 city blocks, if not more. 2017-01-21-08-46-46

People had come from all over–our own hotel was full to capacity with protesters, including two busloads of people who had driven 35 hours from New Mexico to attend. The folks standing in line around us were from New York and Arizona. It took forever to get onto the train, of course, and even longer for the train to make it downtown, but every time we stopped to let on more people, we cheered as they boarded, despite finding ourselves crammed even more tightly into the limited space of the subway car. Even the Metro announcers sounded ecscatic as they announced the names of the approaching stations (a miracle if there ever was one).

My traveling companion/bestie and I were sitting near a mom who stood next to her teenaged daughter as she slept for the whole ride. The daughter’s lips were parted just enough to see her braces, and she was drooling a little. Maybe it was the presence of her doting mom, but this seemed more adorable than gross. We listened as the mom talked through college choices, explaining to the rest of their party why the daughter should go to Sarah Lawrence. They had brought one of those clear backpacks that the organizers recommended, and it was crammed with peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, and maxipads.

When we arrived at the National Archives stop, we were part of what felt like an ocean of people, and the Metro had stopped charging people for the day. Watching everyone stream out of the train and up from the station into the light as the station attendant welcomed us through a bullhorn calling “Walk on through! The Metro’s got you today!”, I couldn’t help but weep. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized how defeated I’d felt, but not anymore.


I had to quit Facebook a few weeks ago, in the interest of protecting my beleaguered little brain, and I don’t regret it one bit, but this means I have missed the critiques of the march, except as filtered through my students. The main critique–raised by my students on the train on the way back, as well as later in the press, is that the march was overwhelmingly white. The official message, which was reflected by the choices they made about speakers and their official mission, was deeply intersectional, but the people in attendance were largely white and the vibe of the crowd was even whiter. It was quieter than any protest I’ve ever attended, without the perfomativity, righteous anger, and grief that characterize a Dyke March or a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The signs were amazing, but the march itself was weirdly silent; we blocked the streets, but somehow still managed to seem obedient while doing so.

Case in point: Bestie and I were trying to make our way from the relative calm of Independence Ave., where we had been standing about 10 Jumbotrons back from the stage to the Mall where we could do yoga stretches and try to help our aching middle-aged backs. There was endless apologizing as we did our best to snake our way through the bottlenecked crowd to get through the tiny gate that divided one section from another. There was a woman near us with long brown hair and bangs doing a lot of the passive-aggressive complaining that is the mark of my ethnos. She’d declaim to the crowd: “If people would just let us out, there would be more room for them to get in” or “Does no one see that person carrying a baby? The baby needs to get through!” It’s in moments like these where I can see why solidarity with white women as a group is a tough nut to crack. We’re sort of the worst.

As we slowly edged forward, apologizing all the while, we heard someone calling out “security, coming through!” and a single-file line of four Black guys who looked to be in their fifties or sixties  cut purposefully through the crowd. The were dressed in natty suits and fedoras, and one of them had a yellow arm band on which he had Sharpie’d “SECURITY” in capital letters. Even my passive-aggressive line mate couldn’t find it in her to be snarky in the face of their gorgeous confidence and commitment to play.

It’s this kind of guerrilla performance art that has always characterized protests for me–and it was there in the content of people’s signs and the visual of solidarity that was a million pussyhats, but that energy–that commitment to playfulness as part of resistance–felt less present than I’m used to.

If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not (not really, anyway). One thing that struck me about the march was its insistence on officially centering the intersectionality of the movement. The majority of the speakers on stage were women of color, and one of the most moving I heard was a representative from the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women, talking about the challenges she faced after being released from a 27-year prison sentence These are stories I’d previously only heard second-hand, mediated by fiction or film, and I wanted to stay quiet, to hear what these women had to tell me about their experiences and their takes on the world. The signs, too, consistently pointed to the interrelated nature of oppression, including one that simply read “53% of white women voted for Trump.” A helpful–and necessary–reminder, always.

I got the impression from my Instagram feed that the national marches were a little rowdier, and I’m glad, since the fun of protest is part of what drew me to Left politics in the first place, but the silence of the Washington march itself felt (to me) mournful and attentive. That seems like the right position for white women in this historical moment. We’re standing still, letting others speak for once, trying our best to listen and learn.

From Flight to Fight

I’m on the plane, on my way to Texas. I’m not dreading the visit as much as I might, because I’m lucky that I can be honest with my immediate family. In the weeks since the election, I’ve gone what I like to call “full undergrad” in relation to them: as after my first Women’s Studies course at college, I’m meeting every conversation with an impassioned lecture about essentialism and intersectionality. “What time is it? TIME TO THINK ABOUT THE GENERATIONS-LONG LEGACY OF SLAVERY IN THIS COUNTRY. TIME TO PROTECT YOURSELF AGAINST THE COMING STORM, THAT’S WHAT FUCKING TIME IT IS.” So far, they’ve met this with equanimity and love, which I’m really, really grateful for.

But, of course, I’m still scared. It will be warm there, and I want to go running, but I’m worried I’ll get attacked. I don’t want to go to AA meetings, which have always felt like a safe space to me, because I fear the consequences of mentioning my fear and anxiety. There are all these family events, and I am convinced I’ll be met with this smug “you lost, get over it” attitude–which is perhaps ungenerous, but doesn’t seem unrealistic.

But one thing has changed. Immediately after the election, I started putting some small actions into place, and they’re starting to bear fruit now. I get a script every Wednesday to call my legislators, and I’m doing it. I’m participating in this dialogue group at my work about whiteness and racial identity, and I can see myself and the other women in the group taking actions all over campus–taking their own power to change institutions more seriously and following through on that potential. And, perhaps most powerfully, I organized a self-defense training for women at my work, and we had the first two classes last week.

The last time I took martial arts, I was at summer camp, and my partner in my judo class was my boyfriend who, when we weren’t sparring in class, was endlessly, relentlessly pressuring me to have sex with him. I was 14. This time, every time I do a punch or block, I yell “NO!”

It’s interesting, because the experience feels explicitly feminist to me–I’m getting stronger, I’m learning skills to defend myself against a world where women are seen as weak, as sexual property (look no further than the union response to the Rockettes being booked for the Inauguration), and the class itself is based on that premise. But the energy in the room is surprisingly apolitical–we’re all there, so we’re acknowledging the reality that we face as women, but even in this, we all seem surprised and a little disturbed by our reactions. Even here, as we’re learning how to kick an attacker in the groin, we want to be nice. So there’s a lot of nervous giggling, a lot of jokes.

So far, the best part has been these moments where our power sneaks through anyway. One of my favorite people in the class is a department administrator in her mid-fifties or early sixties who’s about five feet tall and told me she is taking the class because she has been scared during her daily walk, alone, to the commuter rail. I’ll call her Teresa, but that’s not her real name. When we’re doing drills, she’s been sort of awkward, seeming to pull back before landing a punch. Watching her, I felt nervous that her skills wouldn’t translate to a real-life scenario. On Wednesday, we had our first simulation, and it was a totally different story.

We were told to walk between the two instructors and one of them would grab our wrist, then we’d use the “hammer fist” to escape. It’s real but not–I felt an honest surge of adrenaline, and the “no!” was deeper than my rote (but still powerful) vocalization from practice. I felt excited, but when I noticed that each of us got exactly three punches in before we broke free, the victory felt a little hollow. But Teresa  got out with a single blow. She returned to line laughing nervously, and the cop made a joke about how maybe she should take over teaching. I’m holding on to an image of her in my mind, walking a little taller as she makes her way home from work, newly aware that she is not to be fucked with.

I had this thought after class the other day: so Trump and his cronies are trying to turn the clock back forty years. Okay. You know what happened forty years ago? A fucking revolution happened. You want to go back to the 1970s? I’ve spent my whole adult life training at the feet of braless Vermont radicals. Bring it.

Common Ground?

So there’s this idea going around right now, that it’s incumbent on white people to reach out to Trump supporters, take seriously their concerns, meet them on their own terms and try to find some kind of common ground–and hopefully in doing so, help them confront the fact of white supremacy and undo it. Derek Black, former scion of the White Power movement, is perhaps the best example of the dream of this effort. He was ostracized by his classmates when they realized who he was (the poster child of StormFront, a white power recruitment site), and then a group of Orthodox Jewish students reached out to him and were willing to engage him in conversation. Over the course of time, he woke up to the effects of his previous actions and is now, at great personal cost, testifying to the danger and seductive lure of white supremacy.

It’s inspiring stuff, and it appeals to my desire for emotional generosity. If people really understood the effects of their actions, the real impact of their commitments to certain beliefs, they’d change, right?

But here’s the thing: as with most things post-election, I have a sick feeling that I’ve been here before. In high school and college, all I did was chase down people who mistreated me. If I could just make it clear to them, if I could just use all the powers of my mind and my body to convince them to stop, of course they would. I’d be safe and the world would be better–I just had to find a way to convince them. And so I’d invite abuser after abuser into my heart and my bed, hoping that this time I’d find the trick. If I were kind enough, smart enough, sexy enough, good enough, they would see my value and treat me with respect. You can guess how successful I was.

Among my friends, I’m seeing this dynamic play out in family relationships over and over again. People who’ve spent their whole lives getting out from under the repressive, conformist, unforgiving atmosphere of their childhoods find out their parents voted for Trump, and then try to have one of these recommended “honest conversations” with them about it. But instead of being met with understanding, it’s just more of the same bullying and intolerance that they’ve been busy trying to undo the effects of for their whole adult lives. Maureen Dowd’s Thanksgiving column probably captures this the best. She’s with her rich, conservative family, and they’re positively gleeful at Trump’s victory, basically telling everyone who is terrified for their human rights to stop being such babies, with all the kindness and sensitivity of a lacrosse-playing douchebag giving you a swirlie. (Honestly, the only message I took away from that is that Maureen Dowd should break up with her terrible family, ASAP.)

Margaret Atwood, of course, nails it with a poem. In “Tricks with Mirrors,” she narrates a conversation between a couple in which the woman in the couple attempts the metaphor of a woman as a mirror in lots of different registers. I suppose “conversation” isn’t really the right word, since it’s just the woman talking, trying again and again to explain herself to the man, to show him the truth of their dynamic. In the final section, she changes gears: “You don’t like these metaphors./ All right:/ Perhaps I am not a mirror./ Perhaps I am a pool./ Think about pools.” As a reader, I get this sinking feeling of the endlessness of the exchange. There’s always another metaphor, another story, but none of them sink in. If she’s a mirror, then so is he, in that her words bounce back to her without ever making an impact. I spent so much of my life in these kinds of echo chambers–only by seeing that I was in a monologue, not a call-and-response structure, was I able to break free.

So my strategy is this: honestly assess my safety before I go into a conversation. Am I putting myself in physical or emotional danger? Has this person indicated that they’ll meet my honesty with love, even if they disagree? If so, then I’m honest and also willing to listen myself. So I start with a reminder of the truth of our relationship, talking to my loved ones like we were in a TV pilot, where people say things like “you’re my brother, and even though we’ve always fought, I love you and I appreciate the way you’ve stood by me and stood up for me” so the audience can understand the plot. It’s a reminder that this is just one act in an ongoing drama, that the relationship can continue past this point. Then I’m as honest as I can be, refusing to grant myself the easy out of pulling punches to protect them or myself. I am willing to explain things that I think should go without saying (people have different experiences of the world, actions have different consequences when they come from different positions), and take seriously the logic that motivates their thinking and behavior, even when I disagree. I ask questions. I admit when I’m being smug or rude and try to stop.

I’ve had a few of these conversations since the election, and they’ve felt powerful. I don’t know if I’ve changed anyone’s mind, but I feel better, and my relationships, while still sometimes difficult, feel more authentic. I have to be willing to risk a break, even if that seems unthinkable. Experience has shown me that if the relationship is one I’m meant to be in, then it will find its way back to me.

For instance, I never thought my parents would be okay with my being queer. And they weren’t, for a really long time. And it was even longer before they went from tooth-grittted “support” to being real allies. When I came out to my mom in high school, her response was “that’s ridiculous, you can’t be gay. You always played with dolls, you never played with trucks.” And her refusal of the possibility ran so deep that, to this day, she doesn’t remember the conversation. Twenty years later, though, the story has changed. When we were talking together about different ways to try to deal with this new world and all the scary shit in it, she told me that her daily action toward justice was to insist on telling her conservative friends about my lesbian sister and me, without closeting us. It’s a small thing, but it’s one she wasn’t willing to take not that long ago, and it’s because I refused to remain silent about the truth of my life and because we both refused to give up on the relationship.

But, of course, the other side is also true. Bullies don’t soften, rakes don’t reform. In those cases, I’m using the logic of nonviolent resistance. I’m boycotting holiday parties where I don’t feel safe–the ones where my wife and I are met with homophobic jokes or anti-Semitic ribbing every year. “What a fairy!””Are you sure you don’t want some ham? Just have some ham!” (Note: not all Jews keep Kosher. Also: you’re a dick.) I went in today to start the process of adopting my son–answering questions I was humiliated to answer, and even more humiliated by my relief that I had the “right” answer (How long have you been together? Were you married when your son was born? Do you own your own home? Would I deserve to be his mother less if we rented? If we weren’t married?).

But I’ll use the resources I have available to me to remind the world that I have a family, that we’ve put in time and energy to become one, that we respect ourselves even if that respect is unmet. I know the adoption won’t mean anything if Trump actually passes his First Amendment Defense Act. In that nightmare scenario, I can still be barred from seeing my wife or children if they are hospitalized while we travel. A born-again hotel clerk isn’t going to change their mind and give us a room after all if I produce Massachusetts adoption papers. But I’m taking the action, making the speech act, calling out into the darkness anyway. The difference is that I’m not doing it in the hopes of changing minds–except, perhaps my own.

Survival is a kind of resistance, in moments like these. I will protect my survival, and announce it, wherever I can, in solidarity with all those who are threatened.