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Anti-Shakesville commenter claims to dislike men of NOMAS, but acts like one.

Date: February 18, 2014

So apparently, the person who submitted the hate-filled post,”The Great Kerfluffle,” is a user named Jimmybeamus, who seems to be contributing many other anti-Shakesville posts in the last couple of months.

Jimmybeamus says:

As the OP, I’d be happy to respond to Emi’s criticisms at any length. The basic point I’d make still stands- this is the essence of shakesville!Feminism. I pointed out that, at best, Emi’s statements were deeply controversial, at worst, actively wrong and harmful, based on the opinions of experts.* I pointed out that the reaction to a bunch of people saying “Um, we don’t want this going out under our name” was disproportionate, overwrought, and melodramatic. I’m no fan of NOMAS, nor do I like Brannon. He seems like a prick.

I’m glad to hear that Jimmybeamus, whoever that is, is willing to respond, but they do not seem to actually respond to anything I wrote.

Jimmybeamus wrote that my “thesis” was “that the men who pimp underage girls are not necessarily predators, but ‘often friends, partners, mentors, family members, photographers, drivers, bodyguards, and others who do not control the person trading sex in any way.” Based on this characterization, Jimmybeamus argues that my view was potentially “actively wrong and harmful.”

But that is not my thesis, as I made it clear over and over, in my original article that Brannon and Jimmybeamus misrepresented, my report that was published on Shakesville, and my initial response to Jimmybeamus’ attack.

What Jimmybeamus wrote is a demonstrably false mischaracterization of my work by NOMAS Robert Brannon, who used it to justify his censorship of my presentation and threat to physically disrupt it, as well as to publicly attack me during a panel in which NOMAS had promised to address women’s (all women participants except for the one woman who is on NOMAS board were protesting them) objections to their behaviors. Jimmybeamus claims to dislike Brannon, but they are participating in the proliferation of Brannon’s lies about me and my views.

What other aspect of my views are “controversial”? Here are the list of my claims that Jimmybeamus quoted:

  1. mainstream anti-trafficking discourse promotes further surveillance and criminalization of already marginalized communities as primary and often only solution to the problem of violence and exploitation experienced by youth and adults in the sex trade
  2. such approach ignores realities of people who are actually in the sex trade
  3. intersectional analysis would require us to start from the acknowledgement that the state is problematic institution, a source of violence against women of color and many others, that cannot be intrinsically relied on

I would welcome debate if Jimmybeamus can come up with actual criticisms or counter-arguments to any of the above.

Jimmybeamus writes that my views “directly contridicts” the “experts,” but their choice of experts reflects their obvious bias. It should be obvious to any reasonable person that Department of Justice should not be the go-to source for discussing harms of criminal justice systems on marginalized communities. Such uncritical reliance on the law enforcement (and non-profit organizations that align with them) is precisely what I am criticizing. Again, I welcome actual debate, if Jimmybeamus wishes to argue that DOJ should be intrinsically trusted.

Expertise does not rest exclusively with those who criminalize people in the sex trade, or organizations that align themselves with the law enforcement. There are many grass-roots organizations, activists, researchers, public health officials, and others who are themselves in the sex trade and/or working to advocate for people in the sex trade, who question the current mainstream anti-trafficking approach that prioritizes criminalization, including myself. Jimmybeamus is clearly unfamiliar with the landscape of this larger conversations and struggles, which resulted in their failure to recognize the expertise I bring to the feminist movement against violence.

Jimmybeamus repeatedly reduces what happened at the NOMAS conference as simply “livestream being cut,” and argues that I and other women are overreacting (and yes, it’s not just about me or Melissa; when you say that we are “melodramatic,” which by the way is a typical misogynistic label men use to silence and gaslight women, you are attacking all women who signed the demand to NOMAS). It was so much more than just that: denial of reality, blaming and scapegoating of HAVEN women, threats, physical aggression, stalking, etc. If it were just about “livestream being cut,” there would not have been a report or a list of demands.

Jimmybeamus argues that NOMAS’ decision to cut off the livestream was reasonable. But I was one of the main speakers NOMAS had (through HAVEN) invited to the conference, and they had months to evaluate my views. They have failed to do that, and because of that NOMAS co-chairs Allen Corben and Moshe Rozdzial ended up making their decision on Brannon’s lies about me. After everything, I asked Corben and Rozdial if I said anything that they thought was out of line, to which they responded “no.” The fact that they allowed the recording to be posted online with their name attached next day is a testament to how they had made the decision to censor irrationally.

Jimmybeamus wrote that I “flipped [my] shit” when I found out that NOMAS had cut the livestream. I do not recall “flipping shit,” especially at that point, before all the gaslighting and harassment. I suspect that Jimmybeamus simply made it up just to trash me. If not, I would like to know what they mean by that.

Jimmybeamus also wrote that I “tried to have [Brannon] ejected from the conference,” but as I’ve said before, I never requested such; I was informed after the decision was made. Again, Jimmybeamus made it up with no basis.

And Jimmybeamus says that I “packed up and left early” because I was “triggered” by Brannon’s presence. Once again, that is not what I wrote in my original report, so here is another instance where Jimmybeamus made things up to attack me and diminish the actual harm Brannon was causing at the conference, not just toward me, but also to other women including Lauren Chief Elk.

Jimmybeamus closes their comment by stating: “if Emi or Lizzie or anyone else wants to set themselves up as experts wielding the Pure Truth, they need to be able to answer criticism.” I would be happy to answer criticisms, and I have, but so far none of Jimmybeamus’ so-called “criticisms” are based in reality. On the other hand, Jimmybeamus has proven to be unable to respond to anything I wrote in my response to their “Great Kerfluffle” post.

Jimmybeamus, you clearly do not have enough background (personal, academic, or professional) to actually debate about public policies affecting sex trade or trafficking, and your entire “criticism” is about distorting, dismissing, and ridiculing me, solely because I had one article published by Shakesville. You continue to spread Brannon’s lies about me, minimizing and excusing his aggressive behaviors, and now you are calling women “melodramatic” for daring to resist male aggression. I have a feeling that your presence is going to be a liability even for the anti-Shakesville site sooner or later.

Anti-Shakesville site hates on me by association re NOMAS incident

Date: February 7, 2014

Last August, I was invited to be part of Forging Justice conference, which was co-organized by feminist anti-violence organization HAVEN and our supposed male ally group, National Organization for Men Against Sexism.

To be honest, I didn’t have a very high expectation of men of NOMAS based on my previous experiences dealing with male feminist “leaders” (as opposed to ordinary men who happened to be feminists), but what happened at the conference was much worse than I had imagined. Later, I wrote about all that transpired at the conference, and had it posted on Shakesville, a popular feminist blog. Here are related posts on Shakesville:

After these articles were posted, NOMAS did post a formal response on its website. Ever since, I have been thinking about writing about how the statement is very inadequate and disappointing, but I could not gather enough strength to once again focus my energy on bunch of (overwhelmingly) white men who just don’t get it.

It seemed like the whole incident had been forgotten after five months on inaction, but somehow it was picked up this past week by a Tumblr page “Drink the Shaker Kool-Aid” (shakesvillekoolaid), which appears to be an anti-Shakesville site. I don’t know (or even care) what issues the writer of the anti-Shakesville site has against Shakesville or Melissa. But what it says about me and my work seems completely off-base.

shakesvillekoolaid quotes part of my article that described my presentation at Forging Justice:

[it] focused on how the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse promotes further surveillance and criminalization of already marginalized communities as the primary and often only solution to the problem of violence and exploitation experienced by youth and adults in the sex trade. I argued how such an approach ignores realities of people who are actually in the sex trade (due to any combination of choice, circumstances, or coercion), and harm the very people they are intended to help. At minimum, I believe, an intersectional analysis would require us to start from the acknowledgement that the state is a problematic institution, a source of violence against women of color and many others, that cannot be intrinsically relied on.

To this, shakesvillekoolaid comments:

Now, here’s the first point that should be noted. This pretty much directly contradicts the findings of the DOJ, various organizations dedicated to helping sex workers, and other, you know….experts.

shakesvillekoolaid does not refute anything I state, or provide any counter-evidences; they simply state that my view “contradicts findings of the DOJ, various organizations dedicated to helping sex workers,” and others. Of course it does: I am criticizing them. It makes no sense to rely on DOJ’s words when the question is whether or not some actions of DOJ and others aligned with it are harmful to people in the sex trade. shakesvillekoolaid is, of course, free to side with the DOJ over grass-roots activists like myself if they choose to do so, but the evidence has to come from somewhere other than the DOJ itself.

At the very best, Koyama’s thesis, that the men who pimp underage girls are not necessarily predators, but “often friends, partners, mentors, family members, photographers, drivers, bodyguards, and others who do not control the person trading sex in any way” is….controversial.

This is a distortion of my actual thesis, and it is inexcusable for shakesvillekoolaid to interpret my writing this way, because in my Shakesville article I directly and specifically refuted this characterization. In response to NOMAS co-founder Robert Brannon’s comment that I claimed “pimps are not controlling abusers, but friends, mentors, partners, and protectors,” I wrote:

And Brannon clearly distorted my argument when he claimed that I consider pimps “friends, mentors, partners, and protectors”: what I have actually written was that friends and others close to people who trade sex are often targeted by the law enforcement as “pimps,” leading to further isolation, which of course make us more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

In other words, my argument is that people who are targeted by the law enforcement as “pimps” are not necessarily pimps or traffickers, but friends and others who are not doing any harm; I am NOT arguing that actual pimps and traffickers are doing no harm. Perhaps Brannon may have genuinely misunderstood my writing, but shakesvillekoolaid cannot claim honest misunderstanding after having the opportunity to read my refutation.

shakesvillekoolaid further writes:

So, first- this illustrates a huge problem with Lizzie-style feminism- just because Koyama had one type of experience in sex work does not mean that her experience is universal, or that she is an expert. She is an expert on the sex work done by Emi Koyama, not all sex work done by all women and men everywhere.

My experiences are obviously not universal, and nothing I wrote claims to speak for all sex workers. But I am not just one woman speaking about her experiences; I am an organizer, writer, and independent researcher who have worked with other people who have been in the sex trade as well as our allies. After all, that is why HAVEN chose me as the speaker–not just to talk about my own experiences in the sex trade, but to share what I have learned from all of my experiences. shakesvillekoolaid seems to accept DOJ and rescue organizations as “experts” while discounting the expertise of grass-roots activists, which is bizarre and offensive.

Second, I was always informed that comparing things that aren’t rape TO rape was a huge no-no. Apparently there is an exception when comparing, say, a livestream being cut to, you know- rape.

No. I’m not comparing cutting off livestream to rape; I am comparing NOMAS’ initial claim that I had wanted them to cut it off and consented to it with rapists’ typical defense. The analogy was specifically chosen because NOMAS was positioning itself as the “real” feminist fighting violence against women while falsely accusing me of being an apologist for systematic rape, when in reality NOMAS’ behavior is more in line with that of a rapist.

Apparently she tried to have him ejected from the conference but he came back, and the long and the short of it is she packed up and left early because she found his presence triggering.

I did not try to have him ejected; I made no such request, and was only told after the fact that he had been ejected. And his presence wasn’t just “triggering”; when he kept approaching me after he was ejected twice, sneaking around so that he could come near me undetected by HAVEN staff, I was afraid of actual, physical danger. I wrote in my article:

As a survivor, I experience triggers frequently. I know that, most of the time, I feel scared about the situation or people because of something that has happened in the past, and that there usually is not an actual danger to myself. So for the last two days, despite the fact I felt scared and could not stop feeling shaky or sleep for more than two or three hours each night, I kept trying to tell myself that nobody was going to actually harm me.

After the third time Brannon violated boundaries of women like me, Lauren, and others, however, I was no longer certain that my scared feelings were just feelings: women know that someone that angry and out of control is capable of doing the unthinkable. So I decided to pack up and leave the conference hours before I had originally planned to do so.

It should be clear to anyone reading this that I was not just merely “triggered”; I believe that many other women would feel the same way if the same man kept approaching them after being ejected by his peers multiple times. For shakesvillekoolaid to describe this incident as merely “triggering” minimizes Brannon’s abusive behavior and distorts what I clearly wrote.

I have no idea what shakesvillekoolaid’s grievances against Shakesville are, but it appears that they have chosen to hate on me and publicly distort and discredit my work, solely by association to Shakesville, rather than actually engaging with my work and offering honest critiques. That fact led me to lose any interest in finding out what those grievances are.

One more thing: let’s name historical revisionism of the plantation tourism.

Date: January 1, 2014

Some people do not seem to understand why holding a retreat at the “captivating” (Ani’s or her publicist’s word) Nottoway Plantation Resort is not just offensive, but particularly wrong and unjust. I explained the reasons in a previous post, but I want to expand on that further.

From my perspective, there are two main reasons that holding the retreat there is particularly wrong and unjust, beyond the problem of our own inherent and inevitable culpability in social and economic systems that are oppressive.

First, Nottoway Plantation is a symbolic site of the violence and cruelty of slavery in the United States, as it was the site of one of the largest plantations in the country.

But more importantly, it is a white supremacist institution that continues to actively distort the historical suffering of Black people who are enslaved (whom it refers to as “willing workforce”) and glamorizes, romanticizes, and glorifies American slavery and its defender, the white ruling class and the Confederates.

Some critics have compared Ani’s decision to hold the retreat at the plantation to holding a similar event at Auschwitz. But that comparison is inadequate: it needs be compared to planning the event at a facility at Auschwitz that is actively being used by neo-Nazis to promote historical revisionism and antisemitism. (Of course, that cannot actually happen in Auschwitz, because the plantation’s historical revisionism would be illegal if it were in Germany or in much of Europe.)

By planning the event at the venue (I understand that Ani did not pick the venue herself, but she did not do anything except thinking “whoa”), Ani participated in the relentless campaign of historical revisionism when she (or someone who works for her) described the plantation as a “captivating” resort, while failing to acknowledge the venue’s history as well as its current role in promoting white supremacy and historical revisionism.

Before the whole controversy, I was not aware that plantations were being used as tourist attractions. But it turned out, there are many former plantation sites that are now considered “historic” tourist destinations. But unlike other places around the world that are preserved for “dark tourism” such as Hiroshima, Auschewitz, and Chernobyl, the attraction of plantations as a tourist destination is not to learn about historical atrocities or tragedies, or to memorialize their victims: it is to promote historical revisionism through white supremacist nostalgia and erase the suffering and resistance that occurred there, whether explicitly or implicitly.

I assume that Ani had not, in her white obliviousness, realized the significance of Nottoway Plantation beyond the fact that it was once a plantation, or its current, active, and intentional role in promoting historical revisionism and white supremacy. If she had, I believe that she would have not allowed the retreat to be scheduled there.

But because she did not realize this, in her white obliviousness, she in effect endorsed and legitimized Nottoway Plantation’s effort to promote historical revisionism. For that, she needs to directly acknowledge that she has made a mistake (and not just that “I understand some people think I made a mistake and I know where they are coming from”). Only by publicly acknowledging the mistake, she can begin to undo the damage she inflicted, however unintentionally.

(Reblogged from my Tumblr page)

It’s not an apology. Not even a “bad” apology.

Date: January 1, 2014

In “A list of problems with Ani DiFranco’s statement on slave plentation retreat,” I explained what was wrong with the statement Ani released in which she announced the cancellation of her expensive four-day hangout at the plantation.

But everywhere else, I find that people are describing the statement as an “apology,” or perhaps “fauxpology” or “non apology” when they find the statement less than satisfactory, but I don’t really understand why anyone can possibly confuse the statement as an “apology” of any sort—even a “bad” apology.

Reading the statement, it is obvious that Ani does not understand why people are criticizing her retreat. Most of her statement is all about how she was not wrong, citing circumstances, intentions, and how we are all culpable in oppressions anyway.

The only place she admits that she may have been wrong is where she says that, maybe, as a white person, it is not her place to know what’s right or wrong when it comes to racism. But she does not even consistently commit to that stance, as she repeatedly states that white people can and should speak on the issue too.

At most, she concedes that, if someone thinks that she was wrong, she understands where they are coming from. Except, of course, she does not seem to really understand where they are coming from. She appears to understand only what other people think are wrong, but not why.

And while she understands that her action “triggered” “the pain of slavery” (that is, the pain is caused by slavery, and not by her actions), she condemns those she harmed for how they “have chosen to do with that pain.” In other words, she is giving permission for African Americans and other people to color to feel pain, but does not approve them criticizing her for causing it.

In short, Ani’s statement can be summarized as: I don’t think I was wrong, and here’s why I wasn’t. But because I’m white, you might think that I don’t get to decide what’s right or wrong about racism, and I understand that. Your pain is real but don’t criticize me because that’s “hatred.”

So… where’s the apology?

(Reblogged from my Tumblr page)

(Added 01/02/2013) Ani actually apologizes to her fans.

Service, rights, justice: Envisioning “justice” approach to empowering people in the sex trade

Date: December 30, 2013

Reproductive justice is a framework developed by women of color to expand and revolutionalize the mainstream “reproductive health/rights” movement that is too often preoccupied exclusively with individual women’s access to abortion and too reliant on the “pro-choice” rhetoric that does not resonate with many women of color. Reproductive justice framework, on the other hand, is rooted in the intersectional critiques of social, economic, and environmental structures (that is, much of the larger society beyond simply anti-abortion laws) that hinder the ability of women and girls to exercise full self-determination over their bodies and their reproductive and sexual lives.

In the 2005 publication “A New vision for Advancing Our Movement for Reproductive Health, Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Justice,” Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice (which has changed its name to Forward Together) formally articulated a three-dimensional approach to advancing the well-being of women and girls through reproductive health, reproductive rights, and reproductive justice frameworks. These three frameworks arise from different sets of problems and analyses. The chart below, developed from the above-mentioned publication, contrasts the three approaches.

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Reproductive Health lack of access to reproductive health services improving and expanding services, especially for women in underserved communities medical and public health professionals
Reproductive Rights legal barriers to accessing reproductive health services passing laws to enhance individual women’s reproductive rights legal experts, policymakers, elected officials
Reproductive Justice women’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized groups of women through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

I have been informed by radical women of color activists like Loretta Ross about the need to push for reproductive justice (rather than just “defending” legal right to abortion), but it was only after reading the work of Mia Mingus–herself an important activist in the reproductive justice movement in her previous leadership role at SPARK–on disability justice that I fully understood how relevant the three-dimensional analysis was for many other movements (which should have been obvious, but I was slow to catch on).

Mia proposes three dimensional approaches to disability politics: service, rights, and justice (she replaced the term “health” with “service,” because of the inescapable ableism in the “health” discourse). These three frameworks also arise from three different analyses, and lead to three different strategies as well as different groups of key players.

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Disability Service lack of access to disability-related services improving and expanding services, especially for disabled people in underserved communities medical professionals and care providers
Disability Rights discrimination against people with disabilities and lack of accessibility passing laws to enhance legal rights of disabled people legal experts, policymakers, elected officials
Disability Justice disabled people’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized groups of disabled people through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

The framework for advocating for disability justice is similar to that calling for reproductive justice because disability justice is reproductive justice and reproductive justice is disability justice. Ableism (along with racism, classism, etc.) has been a prominent component of controlling women’s reproductive choices, and the control of women’s reproduction has been a central component of marginalizing and erasing people with disabilities. While mainstream reproductive rights movement and mainstream disability rights movement do not often crossover (in fact, they sometimes come into direct conflict with each other in areas such as selective abortions), reproductive justice movement and disability justice movement are one and the same, only differing in relative focus.

I’ve been thinking about how I often feel alienated from the American “sex workers’ rights” movement even as I research and write extensively about the rights of sex workers and people in the sex trade. In “Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature,” I explained how sex worker rights framework that promotes legal reforms (legalization, decriminalization, etc.) prioritizes the concerns of sex workers who are white, adult, middle-class, citizen, cis women over those of us facing relentless criminalization that go far beyond the anti-prostitution law. I called for an “anti-criminalization” (as opposed to legalization or decriminalization) movement that seeks broad social and economic justice in order to fully achieve self-determination for people in (or considering) sex trade.

The anti-criminalization movement is a sex worker justice movement, that is also a reproductive, disability, environmental, etc. justice movement–and organizations such as Black Women for Wellness and Latinas for Reproductive Justice understood this when they came out in opposition to Prop. 35 back in November 2012.

Can we develop a three-dimensional analysis for envisioning sex worker justice? Here’s an attempt:

Approach Analysis of Problem Strategy Key Players
Sex Worker Service/Support lack of access to health and public services improving and expanding services, especially for people in underserved communities that trade sex medical professionals and social workers
Sex Worker Rights prohibition and regulation of sex trade that do not protect workers legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution legal experts, policy makers, elected officials
Sex Worker Justice people’s ability to exercise self-determination is hampered by systemic inequalities developing leadership and power of most marginalized group of people in the sex trade through grassroots organizing organizers facing multiple oppressions and working across multiple social justice movements

“Service/support” approach can be employed by sex worker-run organizations (peer support group, St. James Infirmary), harm reduction agencies, or even anti-prostitution groups that, regardless of how they view prostitution, sometimes offer goods and services people want. “Rights” approach is often invoked by people in the “sex worker’s rights movement” such as members of Sex Workers Outreach Project as well as many libertarian supporters of legalizing prostitution. “Justice” framework is the foundation of organizations such as Young Women’s Empowerment Project and Women With A Vision, and other organizations led by women of color. (Anti-prostitution camp can also claim to be working from “justice” framework when they call for “abolition” of prostitution–but their strategies often fail the test, not to mention the appropriative use of the term “abolition.”)

I do not actually feel that “sex worker justice” is actually the right phrase for this struggle, because “sex worker” is a term used mostly by the more privileged folks among those of us who trade sex, and also because we need to expand economic options for everyone rather than just for those of us already in the sex trade. Perhaps it needs to be subsumed into “reproductive justice” since it is about attaining self-determination in how we control our own bodies and sexualities free from social, economic, cultural, and environmental restraints, but existing literature on reproductive justice does not speak to this connection very much (it addresses more about human trafficking and forced prostitution, but not about prostitution as an economic option).

I am also attached to “anti-criminalization” as a framework to build coalition across communities that are targeted by pervasive policing and criminalization, especially because too often (relatively privileged) sex worker activists and their allies focus on legalization/decriminalization as if that would stop the criminalization of people of color, street youth, immigrants, transgender women, homeless people, people who use drugs, and others who trade sex under any combination of choice, circumstance, and coercion. So I am not proposing that we start calling our movement “sex worker justice” just yet–but I think there are insights we can gain from parallels to three-dimensional model from reproductive and disability politics.

I also want to caution how “justice” framework can be co-opted or backfire. A friend who was on the panel deciding how Trans Justice Funding Project distribute its funds told me about the difficulty the panel faced when reviewing grant applications from around the country. They were interested in prioritizing organizations and projects that operate from justice-based framework in advocating for trans people and communities, rather than those that simply provide services or lobby for trans rights. But it turned out that most of the “trans justice” organizations were located in coastal urban areas, while groups in non-coastal rural communities were desperate for funds to provide basic services and support. Fortunately, the panel was able to recognize the need for different approaches in different communities, as directed by members of the said communities.

If we romanticize “justice” framework and discount the importance of other approaches, particularly the “service/support” framework, we run the risk of leaving behind people who depend on services and support provided by organizations that may appear to lack analysis. I believe that a real “justice” approach requires both short-term and long-term strategies, and the short-term strategy might involve creating, improving, and expanding resources for “service/support” as needed.

A list of problems with Ani DiFranco’s statement on slave plantation retreat

Date: December 29, 2013

Singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco announced, and then canceled, an expensive four-day retreat for songwriters and performers at Nottoway Plantation and Resort after the internet erupted in outrage at her choice of the venue. Nottoway is not just the site of one of the largest slave plantations in the area, but is also preserved as an exclusive resort actively distorting and even glorifying brutal history of slavery in the United States.

I came into queer identity in a predominantly white rural lesbian (and bisexual women’s) community in the mid-90s, so Ani’s voice was a life support. I listened to her politically savvy and lyrically masterful music non-stop, traveled long distance to see her perform, and bought her merch from her mom who was working at her label, Righteous Babe Records. I collected and traded bootleg tapes of her shows with other fans (before Napster made it possible to share MP3 files online), and asked a friend who was a DJ at campus radio station to obtain her promo singles that were not commercially released. When I was in her home town of Buffalo back in 2006, I snuck into (with the permission of the friendly construction workers there) the historic building (which later became Babeville) that was undergoing restoration and renovation after Ani purchased it in order to save the gorgeous building from demolition.

So it was painful to me to witness how Ani somehow failed to recognize the offensiveness of holding the retreat at Nottoway Plantation, or to anticipate how people would react to the announcement, but I held on to the hope that, once confronted, she would immediately understand and acknowledge her mistake. Unfortunately, the statement she released in response to the criticism fell short of what I expected from someone who was so important to me at one point in my life.

Below is a list of problems (which is not to say that it is exhaustive) I find with the statement (all emphases are mine). Please also read “Things about Ani’s fauxpology I’m not okay with” by Jaya and “How Ani Should Have Apologized” by Mel Hartsell.

1. The statement treats criticisms as “pain of slavery” and “bitterness” misdirected at her, rather than acknowledging that her endorsement of a resort facility that glorifies chattel slavery was the problem. By doing so, Ani portrays herself as the victim of “hatred” directed at her.

i did not imagine or understand that the setting of a plantation would trigger such collective outrage or result in so much high velocity bitterness.

i know that the pain of slavery is real and runs very deep and wide. however, in this incident i think is very unfortunate what many have chosen to do with that pain.

i obviously underestimated the power of an evocatively symbolic place to trigger collective and individual pain.

but should hatred be spit at me over that mistake?

2. The statement fails to concretely acknowledge that the choice of venue was inappropriate and offensive. By using words like “if” and “maybe” and leaving the judgment to the community, Ani avoids taking responsibility for her mistake.

i have heard the feedback that it is not my place to go to former plantations and initiate such a dialogue.

again, maybe we should indeed have drawn a line in this case and said nottoway plantation is not a good place to go; maybe we should have vetted the place more thoroughly.

if nottoway is simply not an acceptable place for me to go and try to do my work in the eyes of many, then let me just concede before more divisive words are spilled.

She says that she is canceling the retreat, not because she realized that it was a mistake to plan it at the venue, but other people are being mean to her.

3. Ani claims that she had “imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were,” but it is extremely difficult to believe this, given her initial “invitation” to the retreat stated “We will be shacked up at the historic Nottoway Plantation and Resort in White Castle, LA, for 3 days and 4 nights exchanging ideas, making music, and otherwise getting suntans in the light of each other’s company. […] In the evenings we will perform for each other and enjoy great food in a captivating setting.” Really, how am I supposed to believe that the event was meant to be anti-racist? Ani wrote:

i imagined instead that the setting would become a participant in the event. this was doubtless to be a gathering of progressive and engaged people, so i imagined a dialogue would emerge organically over the four days about the issue of where we were. […] my intention of going ahead with the conference at the nottoway plantation was not to be a part of a great forgetting but it’s opposite. i know that pain is stored in places where great social ills have occurred. i believe that people must go to those places with awareness and with compassionate energy and meditate on what has happened and absorb some of the reverberating pain with their attention and their awareness. i believe that compassionate energy is transformative and necessary for healing the wounds of history.

If this was her true intention, she should have been transparent about it in the original “invitation,” and also considered how the venue would be experienced entirely differently by participants who are white, Black, indigenous, or other people of color. I personally cannot imagine that a white person working solo is capable of arranging such an event, but that’s beside the point here. I am not really convinced that Ani had in fact intended to use the venue as a place to “heal the wounds of history,” but if she really did, she did the worst job imaginable of how one could go about doing that–and the issue is not (just) that she is a white person overstepping her boundary. She is claiming to “heal” wounds of historical violence with more violence.

4. The statement invokes superficially anti-oppression rhetoric to diminish the particularities of criticisms against holding the retreat at Nottoway Plantation.

for myself, i believe that one cannot draw a line around the nottoway plantation and say “racism reached it’s depths of wrongness here” and then point to the other side of that line and say “but not here”. […] i know that indeed our whole country has had a history of invasion, oppression and exploitation as part of it’s very fabric of power and wealth. […] it is a very imperfect world we live in and i, like everyone else, am just trying to do my best to negotiate it.

let us not forget that the history of slavery and exploitation is at the foundation of much of our infrastructure in this country, not just at old plantation sites. let us not oversimplify to black and white a society that contains many many shades of grey.

Ani is of course correct to point out that every inch of this land (the United States) is a site of genocidal violence. But Nottoway is not just any site of any sort of violence; as one of the largest plantations in the United States, it is specifically a site that symbolizes the violence of slavery. And in addition to being a place with the symbolic significance, it is an institution whose owner continues to profit off of romanticizing and glamorizing the enslavement of Black people.

5. The statement objectifies youth of color as shield and source of inspiration.

i also planned to take the whole group on a field trip to Roots of Music, a free music school for underprivileged kids in New Orleans. Roots of Music is located at the Cabildo, a building in the French Quarter which was the seat of the former slaveholder government where all the laws of the slave state were first written and enacted. i believe that the existence of Roots of Music in this building is transcendent and it would have been a very inspiring place to visit. i also believe that Roots could have gained a few new supporters. in short, i think many positive and life-affirming connections would have been made at this conference, in its all of its complexity of design.

The existence of Roots of Music is transcendent, but transcendence does not rub off on folks paying $1000-4000 each to hang out with Ani and her friends. Youth of color (who I imagine to be mostly Black youth) do not exist to inspire (who I imagine to be) rich white folks, and that the organization might gain “a few new supporters” does not exonerate the poverty tourism. Worse, it appears that Ani is comparing her retreat being held at an actively white supremacist institution to the resilience of Black people building and strengthening their own communities after centuries of violence and oppression.

6. Empty call for unity and “dialogue” that is actually meant to close down the dialogue. Ani ends the statement with the following:

i ask only that as we attempt to continue to confront our country’s history together, […] let us not forget to be compassionate towards each other as we attempt to move forward and write the next pages in our history. our story is not over and, Citizens of the Internet, it is now ours to write.

She implies that critics have been less than compassionate toward her (“should hatred be spit at me”?), but many of us are critical because we are compassionate (“we have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say” as Ani used to sing). Further, this paragraph tells me that she still does not understand the gravity of the offense if she thinks she is in a position to demand “compassion” from those she directly harmed by her lack of compassion in the first place.

Nowhere in the statement does she acknowledge how she put Toshi Reagon, a Black female musician who agreed to be an instructor for the retreat before the venue was announced, in an extremely awkward and uncomfortable position, booking her to sing at the site where servants were required to sing in order to prove that they were not stealing food from their master, forcing her to be the first person to publicly explain herself even though she was not responsible for the controversy and her options were limited once the outrage ensued.

(Edited to add:)

I came across additional writings on the topic after posting this. Here are links to some of them:

Also, read my follow up:

There is no reasoning with “good” people with harmful delusions: Last Word on Transgasm and “Law of Attraction”

Date: December 12, 2013

Within days after launching Transgasm.org to “change the way surgeries are funded in the FTM and MTF communities forever,” Jody Rose and Buck Angel shut down the website amid criticisms that its scheme was untenable and illegal. The website now states: “We are disappointed that there are people who are spreading false rumors and slandering our names all over the internet. […] Because of this, we have chosen to remove ourselves from a project that is dear to our hearts.”

Rose and Angel repeatedly assert that their intentions were “good and genuine.” As I’ve pointed out in my previous posts, that their intentions may be “good and genuine”–as opposed to sinister and malicious–is precisely the problem.

In the now-deleted “Transgasm FAQ,” founders discussed how Transgasm was inspired by “law of attractions”:

The both of us have been corresponding for years and share a common interest: The law of attraction and thought science. We’ve always shared stories about how we’ve manifested what we wanted throughout the years, using thought science and the law of attraction.

One day we were talking about this again and realized that we could help empower the entire transsexual community (worldwide), its supporters, and anyone else who identifies the way they choose to identify, by sharing our success with thought science and the law of attraction. We worked hard to create a simple and easy to understand formula that went through many revisions.

The result?

An organization centered around knowing what you want, visualizing what you want, thinking positively, having gratitude, and seeing what you want come true, all with the spirit of reciprocity (a very important law of The Universe).

Popularized by Napoleon Hill and other authors of self-improvement books for upward-mobile businessmen, “law of attraction” is a magical belief that our thought can transform material reality. In particular, the law teaches that we can make positive material changes in our lives by simply having positive thoughts and attitudes, as positivity attracts positivity, and negativity attracts negativity.

In the “self-help” film “The Secret,” which is based on this theory, author Lisa Nichols explained:

Every time you look inside your mail expecting to see a bill, guess what? It will be there. You’re expecting debt, so debt must show up… Every day you confirm your thoughts. Debt is there because of the Law of Attraction. Do yourself a favor: Expect a check!

In other words, we receive bills because we of our thoughts, not because we have debt. By merely thinking positively, we can receive checks in the mail instead, according to the “law of attraction.”

This may sound absurd, but Rose and Angel actually believe in this. For example, they posted the following on their facebook page:

Transgasm on LOA

The poster (it’s not clear if it is Rose or Angel) was walking on sidewalk in Portland, thinking how he needed to buy a new hard drive that cost $159 for his computer. Suddenly, because he was being positive, he made $160 in cash to manifest in front of him with his thoughts alone. He happily picks it up, and buys a hard drive. (I’m not sure where the difference of $1 came from.)

Most of us in this situation would not think that we “manifested” the cash with our thoughts. We would assume that the cash fell out of someone’s pocket or wallet, which must have made them sad. Some of us might report the finding to a nearby business or to the police, hoping that whoever lost the money will come and claim it. Some of us might pocket the money. Regardless, most of us do not think that we “manifested” the cash with our own thoughts and therefore we deserve it.

Rose and Angel may have had “good and genuine” intentions to help trans people get what they want, but did not have a sound structure to actually do so. In fact, the structure they envisioned were completely untenable and likely illegal (though details of the scheme was unclear). But if you believe that you can “manifest” cash with mere thoughts, who needs a business plan? There is no reasoning with good-intentioned people with a harmful delusion.

And because Rose and Angel believe that positive thoughts make their project absolutely wonderful and beyond criticism, they perceive any criticism as expression of “hate” and “jealousy”–i.e. negativity. One might wonder why their project would attract so much negativity if “law of attraction” was true, but they purposefully ignore this fundamental contradiction: positivity must attract positivity, and therefore anyone who is negative toward them have to be worst kind of haters. They somehow do not seem to recognize their inconsistent and self-serving application of the principles of “law of attraction.”

I have described “law of attraction” as quintessentially American, because I view it as a variation of the more traditional national ideology of “American Dream.” “American Dream” suggests that anyone can become successful through hard, honest work, which functions to justify extreme income and class inequalities and blame the poor. “Law of attraction” does the same thing, except it doesn’t even require hard, honest work; you only need to think positively. Indeed, “law of attraction” is the “American Dream” for the lazy–and it is fundamentally a regressive, victim-blaming ideology.

Some critics of Transgasm have long criticized Angel for various reasons, but I am not one of them. The reason I become especially alarmed was because of Rose and Angel’s reliance on “law of attraction” in a financial scheme that appeared likely to harm many trans people. I was also alarmed because I know that people who promote pyramid schemes and other scams frequently use “law of attraction” to lure their victims and then blame them for their victimization when their scheme implodes. It has nothing to do with hating them, but I understand that they have difficulty recognizing my (and others’) concerns as long as they use “law of attraction” in a self-serving manner as a shield and weapon against anyone they perceive as “negative.” For now, I am glad that I helped to raise awareness of the danger of their scheme and its ideological foundation.

The trouble with Transgasm, part two: a speculation

Date: December 8, 2013

I wrote my previous post, “The trouble with Transgasm and its magical foundation,” based on how Transgasm claimed it functioned. But I suspect that the reality of its inner working is probably worse. This post, unlike the last one, is my speculation as to how Transgasm actually will operate. It is a speculation, but not a far-fetched “worse case scenario”: I believe that what I describe is not just possible, but probable.

In the last post, I summarized Transgasm’s claim:

According to Transgasm FAQ, Transgasm will teach trans people how to produce downloadable contents that can be sold via its website. Once the contents are sold, creators are paid 50% of the sale, plus 25% “paid forward” to pay for surgery for someone else on the “surgery list,” and the last 25% is withheld to keep the project itself going.

I explained how this scheme is already unworkable and illegal, but to be honest, I don’t believe that this is how it actually works.

My speculation is that vast majority of “downloadable contents” sold on Transgasm have little to no market value. My speculation is that Transgasm will sell them at an unreasonable and excessive markup.

Further, my speculation is that people will be able to move up on the “surgery list” on the basis of their sales, which will encourage them to buy their own contents multiple times to get closer to the coveted award. Transgasm earns $1 for every $1 “paid forward” for the surgery fund, which will be a lot if many people buy their own stuff in order to move up on the list.

Now, nobody know how much everyone is selling on Transgasm but its owners. That means that they could easily pick one of their close friends as the highest seller, or simply make up a fictitious “winner” and pocket the surgery money. This is not necessary what I speculate is going to happen, but it is something that is possible. Regardless, Transgasm owners will keep at least 25%, which is equal to the amount anyone might theoretically receive for the surgery.

Why do I speculate that this is how Transgasm works? For one thing, it is because that is how pyramid schemes often pass off themselves as “legitimate” multi-level marketing.

The main difference between so-called “legitimate” multi-level marketing and pyramid scheme is that legal ones like Amway sell actual products. Pyramid schemes often imitate this by “selling” otherwise worthless “products” among their participants to pretend that they are legitimate. But case histories are clear that they are nonetheless illegal pyramid schemes if the “products” are just pretense for transfer of cash, or de-facto entrance fee into the pyramid.

(Caution: “legitimate” multi-level marketing schemes are “legitimate” only in the sense that they are legal. In most “legitimate” multi-level marketing schemes, most people still lose money.)

Second reason I think Transgasm functions this way is the secrecy surrounding their “classes” in which they will teach people how to produce their products. If their goal is to help trans people access medical treatment they need, and they can actually help trans people learn to produce and sell marketable contents, why be so secretive? Why are they unable to publicize their superior knowledge so that everyone can benefit?

My speculation is that “contents” Transgasm will help people produce are only “marketable” within the scheme, and the primary “buyer” is the seller himself or herself.

If you are friends with Buck or Jody, please tell them that their scheme is both unworkable and illegal. It’s bad enough giving false hope to desperate trans people and then letting them down, but they can still turn back before they cause serious harm to their peers and possibly end up in jail themselves.

The trouble with Transgasm and its magical foundation

Date: December 7, 2013

Buck Angel and Jody Rose’s new project Transgasm that exists to “change the way surgeries are funded in the FTM and MTF communities” has received both praises and criticisms over the last day or so. We all like the goal of providing new way for trans people to receive the medical care that they want, but many of us in the trans and ally communities are calling it a “scam.”

The trouble with the Transgasm scam is that people running it probably do not even think of it as a scam: they probably think that they are doing good for the community. I believe that their purported commitment to “law of attraction”–the quintessentially American magical belief that claims that “positive” thoughts attract positive outcomes–is what permits such self-serving distortion, self-indulgence, and victim-blaming that will follow when things fall apart.

According to Transgasm FAQ, Transgasm will teach trans people how to produce downloadable contents that can be sold via its website. Once the contents are sold, creators are paid 50% of the sale, plus 25% “paid forward” to pay for surgery for someone else on the “surgery list,” and the last 25% is withheld to keep the project itself going.

Some people are criticizing the 25% margin the project keeps for itself, calling it an exploitation of poor trans people’s creative work for the project founders to get rich off of. But that is not necessarily the criticism I have for Transgasm: after all, 25% margin is not any more exploitative than Apple, Amazon, and many other distributors of downloadable contents, who usually withhold 30% of the sale.

The problem really is the idea of “paying forword”: that is what makes Transgasm a pyramid scheme. In order to pay for just one trans person to receive surgery, dozens of trans people need to “pay forward” their 25%. These dozens of people will need dozens more each to benefit themselves. For the scheme to function, it requires an unlimited and exponentially growing number of trans people to join, as well as the unlimited and exponentially growing market for their products–and that will simply not happen. Like all pyramid schemes, only the first few would benefit and everyone else loses.

What if their classes are so successful that it only takes two or three trans people to pay for one person’s surgery? This would slow down the need for the pyramid’s expansion, but in time it will collapse just the same. Besides, if the classes can make trans people so successful at producing downloadable contents, why do they need to pool the resource with people they’ve never met, someone chosen by Transgasm owners? They could either save up on their own, or maybe pool resources with two or three of their close friends so that each of them could get their turn.

We all know that money does not just appear just because we want it, but “law of attraction” teaches precisely that money comes to us if we want it bad enough. It is, essentially, a magical thinking. Napoleon Hill popularized this delusion in the United States by appealing to white American business elites’ sense of entitlement and victim-blaming disdain for the poor. Buck Angel and Jody Rose say that they want to “share” their “success with thought science and the law of attraction” through Transgasm, but we need to reject the pyramid scheme and its magical foundation before it hurts many more trans people.

[Added December 8, 2013]

Here is an example of magical thinking typical of followers of “law of attraction”:

transgasm_loa

The poor person who lost $160 on the sidewalk was probably to blame for their own misfortune for having some “negative” thought.

The Uses of Negativity: Survival and Coping Strategies for Those of Us Who Are Exasperated by the Empty Promise of “It” Getting “Better”

Date: October 26, 2013

[Speech given at Gallaudet University for the National Coming Out Day, October 11, 2013.]

Today I want to talk about negativity and its uses in our survival, which may seem like an odd topic for a presentation on the National Coming Out Day: most people perhaps associate National Coming Out Day with celebration, pride, hopefulness, and other positive emotions and activities, and not with negativity. I want to be clear that I am not here to promote negativity: if positivity works for you, that’s wonderful! What I really want to talk about is how positivity and hopefulness do not work for all of us, in fact it can exacerbate difficulties we are experiencing, and how we can cope with them and support each other better if we could build a greater tolerance and appreciation for negativity.

But before getting into my discussion, I want to give a heads up about the content of my talk. As you might imagine, I will be talking about many things that the audience might find triggering. I will not give graphic details of any violence, abuse, or self-harming behaviors in my own life as well as in many others’, but I will talk about them, in hope that some of what I say resonates with you. But if you find any part of my presentation “too much,” please do not feel obligated to stay in your seat; do take care of yourself in whatever ways you know, including leaving the room. I will be available after the presentation to talk privately if any of you wish to.

Okay, so what is negativity? It is our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to difficulties we face in our lives that are uncomfortable for us and those around us, or those that are inconvenient for the society. It is expressing emotions that the society considers inappropriate, such as anger, depression, desperation, numbness. It is behaviors that the society labels “unhealthy” or “maladaptive,” such as substance use, self-injury, eating “disorders,” promiscuity.

Sometimes, we react negatively to things and it harms us further. But often, the harm is not necessarily the direct result of our reactions, but the result of the society not understanding or supporting our negative reactions. New York-based performance artist Penny Arcade wrote:

Being a bad girl is not about wearing too much makeup, too short skirts, or fishnet stockings. It’s about being cut out, and left out of the society because you can’t handle the pain in your life in a way the society thinks is appropriate.

My struggle to make sense of my propensity for negativity began when I started talking to someone at a rape crisis center in a rural college town. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as the dysfunctional child welfare system and as a queer disabled fat Asian girl in and out of sex trade, my self-esteem was predictably low. Trying to be helpful, someone loaned me self-help cassette tapes (yes, this was in the mid-90s) that were supposed to help me heal myself and build self-esteem. I listened to them on repeat, but it did not work. And not only that, it made me feel like I failed once again.

I didn’t–and still don’t–know what healing was. Our common understanding of trauma–whether it is violence or war or accident or whatever–is that it is exceptional and disruptive rather than the norm. We as the society take for granted that everyone pretty much lives a normal life, and only occasionally experiences traumatic incidents that leave us with physical and emotional injuries that require healing and restoration of the normal. But when life is a constant stream of difficulties, as it often is for children and adults in abusive long-term relationships and for people who face multiple layers of oppressions such as racism, poverty, homophobia/transphobia, and ableism, trauma becomes the norm. I could not imagine a normal norm to which I would return to after healing, or the true self that I would become once trauma ceased to define who I was. Again, it felt like a failure on my part.

The society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term, as exemplified by the for-profit health insurance system that limit counseling to a certain number of sessions, if any. Even within survivor advocacy, we often hear about the linear progression from being a dreadful “victim” to empowered “survivor” as the idealized path toward healing. For example, a website for sexual abuse survivors states:

Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from. You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward! Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!! Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!

D.C. Rape Crisis Center disagrees with this progression model of healing, and yet it continues to uphold the victim/survivor dichotomy:

You have made it past the assault, and you have earned the title of “survivor” rather than the depressing identifier “victim.” It takes courage, bravery, and strength to tell your story […] Being a survivor […] means that you are not letting yourself or your life be defined by your assault. […] Identifying as a survivor is a major step in the healing process.

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I started to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover – limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities – and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.

This is the function of “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our assigned positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements in order to resume our productive and reproductive duties. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist anti-violence advocates have internalized.

On Mayo Clinic website, a physician wrote:

Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback. […] Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.

Note that this was written by an oncologist, so I assume that he was addressing to people who survived cancer rather than interpersonal violence. But there are striking similarities between societal attitudes toward sufferers and survivors of cancer and those experienced by abuse survivors, as I gather from Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on the former (she wrote an article titled “Smile! You’ve got cancer” criticizing the societal pressure people with cancer live under to be cheerful and positive).

Mayo Clinic physician’s article is a clear example of victim-blaming: victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own isolation and suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us to thrive. He pretends to offer “choices,” but he is clearly promoting the normative survivorship that whitewashes negativity over “unproductive” whining and complaining, suggesting that those of us who remain “victims” deserve what we get because of our failure to live up to the societal expectations.

Victim-blaming of course is a common occurrence against victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When activists decry that we live in a rape culture, it doesn’t just mean that rape is ubiquitous. More importantly, it means that we live in a culture that provides excuses and justifications for sexual violence under the premise that the perpetrator could not help the urge, and the victim deserved it because of how she or he conducted themselves. Unfortunately, survivor advocates end up replicating the victim-blaming pattern when they prescribe a particular way for victims to heal and deny survivors a room to whine and complain unproductively without losing support.

Blaming of people experiencing negative feelings is closely connected to the popular ideology of positive psychology. Positive psychology, or at least its popular versions, announces that we all “have the power” to change our lives through transforming our attitudes, neglecting how our power is constantly being weakened, undermined, and stolen by violence and societal injustices in our lives. If we all “have the power” to be happy simply by changing our minds rather than material reality of our everyday struggles, it reasons that those of us who are unhappy are to blame for our own misery.

The society prescribes “healthy” ways for us to cope with difficulties in our lives, and admonishes us for using “unhealthy” ones. “Healthy” coping strategies include exercise, consistent eating and sleeping schedule, accessing support (but not too much, or you will become a “whiner”), hot bath. “Unhealthy” ones involve substance use, eating “disorder,” self-injury, and other “negative” things that push away our support system. When we engage in these “unhealthy” coping strategies, we are blamed for causing more problems to ourselves.

The Icarus Project, which is a network of people living with experiences that are labeled “psychiatric illnesses” but reject the conventional medical model of “mental health” and “mental illness,” published a handbook specifically about people’s uses of self-injurious behaviors to cope with difficulties in our lives. In it, the authors provocatively provide a long list of activities that might be described as “self-injury,” but often not, which includes:

  • working very hard
  • dieting
  • exercising excessively, or not at all
  • piercing
  • walking on high heels
  • getting tattoos
  • playing football
  • mountaineering
  • skateboading
  • ballet
  • working in a job you hate
  • depilating/waxing

Each of these acts may cause pain, injury, and other undesirable consequences, but they are generally considered normal. What are the differences between socially appropriate and inappropriate self-injury? There may be many factors, but one of the tendencies I observe is that self-injurious behaviors that are compatible with capitalism and uphold societal hierarchies (sexism and classism in particular) are generally considered socially appropriate, while those that undermine our ability to be productive workers and happy consumers are considered inappropriate.

I believe that “unhealthy” or negative coping strategies that we use some or most of the time must be validated and supported. It does not necessarily mean that every coping strategy is equally valid all the time, but the validity and desirableness of coping strategies need to be evaluated by the person experiencing it, rather than externally imposed on her or him by the society or by the advocates.

This includes suicidal thoughts. I have long struggled with thoughts thoughts about suicide and self-harm, but I have since come to accept suicidal ideation as a coping strategy rather than merely a symptom or a warning sign. After all, every time I contemplated suicide, it helped me survive. The failure to recognize our resilience in suicidality makes it difficult to have honest conversations about how we truly feel.

That said, the Mayo Clinic physician does have a point about how negativity pushes away our support system. Negative survivorship often presents a challenge for our friends, family members, and other people in our lives. I feel that the blame we receive for engaging in “unhealthy” coping strategies or remaining a “victim” rather than “survivor” has more to do with how they make other people uncomfortable than with our well-being. The feeling of uncomfortableness is understandable and valid, but we need to own up our uncomfortableness and deal with it rather than blaming the victim for it.

I think I have the similar experience related to my physical disability. My body is weak (even though I am big and swim every other day) and I have bad balance, so occasionally I fall to the ground despite using crutches. People who see me fall often rush toward me and begin pulling my arms to get me up without bothering to ask me if I need any help or how they could help. I believe that they are genuinely trying to help, but at the same time I feel that they are also extremely uncomfortable seeing someone clearly in pain and distress, and can’t stop to think if what they are doing is actually helpful before rushing to make my reality of disability disappear from their sight.

Experts working with people who are dealing with major depression advise that friends, family members, and others to avoid attempting to “cheer up” their loved ones who are depressed. It almost always backfire because it leads the person to feel invalidated and misunderstood, and deepens the sense of isolation and alienation that she or he feels. It is often more helpful to simply be there for and with that person without getting too caught up about finding the solution.

I am often socially awkward, but one thing I feel I am good at socially is that I have a high tolerance for negativity of people around me who are having difficult times. I have developed the ability to tolerate negativity through my own negative survivorship, especially from finding peace in having low expectations of life and accepting insignificance of my existence. Having low expectation of life does not prevent me from being hurt, but it shields me from disappointments, at least some of the times; accepting insignificance of my existence helped me stop worrying about meaning or purpose of my life. This place of peace allows me to sit with my friends who are depressed or even suicidal and validate their feelings without judgment.

Seattle-based organization Northwest Network which advocates for LGBTQ survivors of relationship abuse started a program called Friends Are Reaching Out, or F.A.R. Out, about ten years ago. The purpose of F.A.R. Out is to “build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections” among friends in the queer/trans communities, especially queer/trans communities of color who are often left out by the mainstream anti-domestic violence programs.

The idea behind F.A.R. Out is that relationship abuse often first manifest in the isolation of the victim from her or his community outside of the intimate relationship with the abuser. This is allowed to occur because we often feel uncertain about what our friends are actually experiencing in their relationship with their intimate partner even when we see potential signs of abuse, and unsure as to how to talk about it or intervene. We feel too uncomfortable witnessing these signs and yet not knowing what to do, so we often withdraw, leaving our friends in potential danger.

F.A.R. Out is based on the idea that we might be able to prevent abusive patterns from developing if our communities and friendships were more resistant to the initial attempt to isolate the victim. To that end, it facilitates intentional dialogues about what healthy relationships would look like in our communities, how to tell when something is going wrong, and what we want each other to do if we notice something unusual, even if we are not 100% sure about what is going on. This program builds on existing friendship networks and makes them more resistant to abuse that can occur to any one of us (or that any of us might engage in without the help of our friends).

Relationships are key to our survival, and it is not just negativity itself that isolates and alienates us when we are in distress. It is the lack of resilient communities and friendship networks that have mechanisms to resist isolation; it is the inability for us to own and take care of uncomfortableness that we feel about the negativity that some of us–or many of us–employ in order to cope.

Since this is the Coming Out Day, I want to make some comments about the popular representations of what is promoted as “giving hope” to young people who are struggling with homophobia and transphobia, whether it is societal, familial, or internalized. Obviously, I welcome the fact that there are far more books, music, films, websites, resources, and organizations that are supportive of young people who are LGBTQ than I had access to when I graduated from high school in the mid-90s in rural southern Missouri, which was zero.

There is a stark contrast and contradiction in the popular discourse surrounding LGBTQ youth: the news media is filled with stories about bullying, harassment, and suicide of young people who are in fact or perceived to be queer or trans; the pop culture presents promotion and celebration of individuality, pride, and positivity, often as exemplified by successful mostly white gay men and lesbians (and straight celebrities) speaking on the behalf of all LGBTQ people.

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign combines the two, suggesting that the dreadful reality young people are experiencing now is only temporary, and with time things would get better, especially if they move to a big city and become middle-class professionals like themselves. I’m sure it works for some young people (especially if they are white and middle-class and can reasonably expect things to get better once they are on their own), but I find it alienating in the same way that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” backfires.

Things do sometimes get better. But in my experience they mostly shift and move and change shape, constantly, rather than taking the linear upward trajectory. The idea that things would just get better with time is unrealistic, invalidating, and alienating for those of us who have lived through a long stream of multiple trauma and oppressions in our lives. “It Gets Better” could have been an interesting project if it were promoted as a way for middle-class, middle-aged gays and lesbians to reflect on their own lives, for themselves, because that’s what it really is. But as it is, I worry that it is taking too much space, shifting attention away from media and creative projects by young people themselves that tell their own stories to cope with whatever “it” is, and possibly changing “it” at the structural level.

I want to end by reading a poem I wrote about how I hate survivor poems. I’m not saying that I dislike poems written by survivors, but I hate the cliche that are survivor narratives that we are expected to repeat.

i don’t write survivor poems
i don’t write about the journey
from a survivor to a thriver
from a wounded child to a
bad-ass feminist revolutionary
that is not me most of the time

i don’t write about healing
about forgiveness
about grief and letting go

i don’t write about strength
i don’t write about the courage to heal
and i never want to hear again
oh you are so courageous to speak out
about your story
that i haven’t even began to tell

i don’t write to inspire

i don’t write about finding purpose
about finding jesus
about finding self-love

i don’t write about the truth
because truth is too fragile
like a particle whose location and velocity
cannot be simultaneously observed

i write instead
about the lack of counseling
that is actually competent and affordable

i write about the fake sympathy
and the lynch mob that robs me of my rage
and repurposes it to build more prisons

i write about the need for validation
even if our survival involves slashing on the wrist
not eating overeating and purging alcohol drugs
avoiding sex having too much sex

i write, in fact, about survival
through not just the abuse from the past
but survival in the society that doesn’t give a fuck

i don’t write survivor poems
because my story is not for your consumption
i don’t write a coherent and compelling narrative
and i don’t exist to demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit

i write survival poems
i survive

Happy (or not so happy—and it’s okay!) Coming Out Day!

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