Here is a sampling of some of my published and unpublished essays. All rights reserved.
Emerald City Queer
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“These kids, they don’t even want to get married,” Exclaimed James Lecesne with surprise as we met for coffee last January in Seattle, WA. Lecesne is the founder of the nations first lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) suicide prevention hotline, the Trevor Project. As is often the case when two queers get together these days, the topic of gay marriage had inevitably come up. With the recent passage of Referendum 74, legalizing gay marriage in Washington State, this topic seemed particularly relevant. Over the previous months, Lecesne had traveled around the country talking with many LGBTQ people and was astonished to discover that not everyone shares his belief that the expansion of marriage equality laws around the country is a historic victory for the LGTBTQ movement.
What Lecesne, and many LGBTQ folks are discovering is a new subculture that has emerged here in Seattle and across the country challenging many of the basic assumptions, practices, and goals of the mainstream LGBTQ movement. Nowhere is the divide more prevalent than in the opposing views on gay marriage. Questioning the narrative of gay marriage as the natural next step for LGBTQ rights, this new subculture suggests that marriage equality is at best a distraction and at worst a step backwards for the gay liberation movement. Calling themselves “Queer”, they are the latest manifestation of a struggle that has been waging within the LGBTQ civil rights movement from its inception.
(Note: in this essay I will use the capitalized “Queer” to refer to this particular subculture and will use a lowercase queer [or LGBTQ] as a catch-all phrase referring to anyone who is either not straight or not cis-gendered, meaning someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.)
The history of modern queer politics in the US, can be viewed as a struggle between two political strategies and correlating cultural values. The first was assimilation, which Simon Moritz described in a recent Huffington Post article, What I Learned From Gay Sex: Misogyny and Homophobia:
…60 years ago queer role models fought for the right to exist in public or private. To gain those rights, they used an effective strategy called assimilation, which dictated that queer people look and act as much as possible like straight people.
Although this was, in part, a survival tactic, it was also based on a moral belief of many gays and lesbians. It was argued that LGBTQ cultural and political institutions should fit within straight, mainstream values. The only difference, assimilations contended, between gay folks and heterosexuals was whom they sleep with. (Early lesbian and gay politics did not account for transgender people, many of whom are straight.) We can see how this logic would lead to the modern marriage equality movement, which proposes, like straight folks, the highest forms of LGBTQ love should be expressed through the institution of marriage.
In late June 1969, assimilationist politics were challenged in several nights of violent protest, known as the Stonewall Riots. This event, and the organizing that followed, marked a drastic divergence from the politics of sameness characteristic of assimilationism. In part, this was a result of the leaders of the uprising. The Stonewall Riots were led predominantly by drag queens, sex workers, and butch lesbians, many of who were people of color and who would not have been welcome at early gay or lesbian protests.
One major shift, was the understanding that distinctly queer cultural practices and spaces existed, were important, and worth fighting for. LGBTQ people were not just straight people who slept with someone of the same gender, but had distinct ideas about community, gender, culture, and politics. Furthermore, it was believed that the new gay liberation movement should seek to address many of the social ills that plagued mainstream straight and LGBTQ society a like, such as racism and sexism.
In Seattle, On the third Thursday of ever month, you can find the inheritors of this tradition taking their clothes off for money and a new sense of beauty. Debauchery, a project of Lily Devine Productions, describes itself as “queers stripping for queers in hot, anti-oppressive space, raising money for organizations that serve the queer community.”
A roommate first brought me to Debauchery a year ago and I was amazed at the diversity of bodies and body parts I saw. Founded in Oakland in 2005 and started up in Seattle 2 years ago, Debauchery presents sexy performances by queer bodies not commonly describe as beautiful in mainstream LGBTQ or straight culture.
That all people should be seen as sexy, however their bodies look, is a radical departure from mainstream gay and straight restrictive notions of beauty. Generally these boil down to being as thin as possible, as white as possible, and as able bodied (lacking any physical disability) as possible. In keeping with assimilationist politics that queer people who be and be attracted to the same this straight be are, most LGBTQ people and media has promoted this idea of sexy. Shows like Queer as Folk, The L Word, even Will and Grace all feature characters who fit this description. In opposition to this, Debauchery declares that fat, people of color, and disabled folks can be sexy on their own terms.
Expanding on this, Queer culture goes further, rejecting all gender, sexual, and relationship hierarchies common among LGBTQ and straight mainstream cultures. There are as many genders, sexualities, and desired relationship structures as there are people, believe most Queers, and each one is as legit, loving, and real as any other. The only valid criteria for judging other’s choices within Queer culture are: does someone freely choose it and does it hurt another person?
Within these cultural values, the fight to legalize gay marriage takes a problematic light. Many Queers argue that the legal institution of marriage is coercive, forcing people into a particular kind of relationship in order to gain necessary benefits and privileges. For example, people might feel forced to marry someone for medical benefits or hospital visitation rights, without any desire to actually marry that person.
In March 2011, the City of Seattle gave $100,000 grant supporting the formation of Queer Youth Space (QYS). A year and a half later, the space on 911 E Pike opened it doors. As a youth-led arts and activist space, QYS seeks to provide a place where young LGBTQ people can empower themselves.
Although QYS takes the more expansive definition of the word “queer,” referring to anyone either not straight or cis-gendered, it holds many of the same values as the specific Queer subculture. “Liberation from racism, classism, seixsm… ; breaking down norms that define our behavior; (and) breaking down hierarchy (sic),” are all stated values and all reflect an alignment of QYS with the basic Queer tenant that people should be supported in living the lives they want.
However, like Debaucher, QYS recognizes that it is not enough to just say or believe it. There are institutions and systems that actively prevent people from fully being able to realize the freedom of Queerness. Racism, classism, and sexism are all examples of systems that restrict people and which QYS challenges through conscientious hiring practices and spaces for specific marginalized populations. Furthermore, QYS provides a safe space for youth to explore their various identities, normalizing the changeability of gender and sexuality.
This understanding of fluidity is a central tenant of most Queers’ understanding of sex, gender, and relationship structures and a key criticism of gay marriage. For, through its coercive use of legal rights and privileges, many of which can only be accessed through marriage (for example, married people are taxed at a significantly lower rate than single folks), it forces people into a relationship structure that is limited in its ability to change overtime. Marriage is legally between only 2 people and yet there are many straight and queer people who practice some form of polyamory (having multiple sex and/or romantic partners.) Thus marriage restricts their ability to freely choose the life they want to live.
Queer poetry blew my mind. In November 2010, I was beginning to come out as trans when another housemate brought me to the Bent Mentor Showcase. On stage, I watched a procession of the most fabulously fierce LGBTQ people read poems and stories about what it means to survive and thrive outside of the great straight dream. We all know this fantasy, it is the one where everyone gets married, has two point five kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. There were tales of hiking the Appalachian Trail in a skirt; accounts of gay bashings and gays bashing back; and poems of love and sex on hot Paris nights when the boys, like the statues, were wet with dew. Not everyone’s idea of a good night, but I was entranced. It was all I had ever hoped for for my community and myself. It was Queer through and through and I loved it. (Full disclosure, I previously worked for Bent Arts.)
Bent Arts is the nation’s first queer writing school. Founded in 2000, by a local Seattle poet, Tara Hardy, Bent seeks to empower all LGBTQ people and to celebrate queer writing. Taking an expansive view of queerness, Bent is a school for anyone who chooses to identify as “queer.” In recent years this has come to include straight people who are interested in viewing their sexuality and gender as something more than set in stone.
One of the interesting things about Queerness, is its effort to redefine what belongs within the identity and what does not. Traditionally, in LGBTQ communities, belonging has been based on strict sexual and gender identities. Men who had sex with men were gay. Women who had sex with women were lesbian. Even in older notions of queerness, having sex with someone of the same gender identity was a requirement. Straights were not welcome. (Again we must recognize the invisibilizing of trans people in much of mainstream queer culture.)
In Queer communities, these restrictions are being redefined. Values and political beliefs are much more the criteria for acceptance within Queerness. Straight people who respect the Queer notions of fluid, non-hierarchical sexuality, gender, and relationship structures are welcome.
Like many Seattle Queer institutions, Bent seeks to wrestle with power and privilege in society at large and within LGBTQ communities. In their mission, Bent states a desire:
…(To) create a safe space for all artists and encourage underrepresented voices by incorporating social justice and anti-oppression values into our curricula and organizational policies.
The openness of Bent’s definition of “queerness” is, in part, a result of this goal. Historically, because of restrictive definitions of what it meant to be gay or lesbian, many people did not fit into either straight, lesbian or gay community and were forced to fend for themselves or find like mind misfits. Through using the word “queer”, and endowing it with an expansive definition, “you are if you say you are”, Bent seeks to dismantle much of what has come to be known as “identity policing.” This is when a person or group attempts to say who can or can’t identify as a particular identity and is generally regarded as poor form in many Queer communities that seek to support all people’s ability to identify as they see fit.
Queer folks are attempting to reimagine what it means to be LGBTQ and straight, for that matter, by recognizing the ways current social norms and legal policies restrict people’s freedom. Instead, Queers propose a politics and culture that supports people’s ability to choose from the unlimited possibilities of gender, sexuality, and relationship status without fear of prejudice. The need to assimilate for safety or privileges is understood as antithetical to Queerness. Legal marriage, with its vast web of legal and economic rights, makes it hard for people to choose other forms of relationship status. Instead of forcing people fit themselves into mainstream norms and laws, Queers attempt to build politics, cultures, and spaces which leave room for a wide range of identities, while recognizing systems of oppression at play in our society.
Trigger Warning: In this piece I will be discussing experiences of sexual and physical violence. Please be warned and take care of yourself.
None of us start from neutral. We are products of our families and communities. They can give us love and help us learn to be healthy adults and they can expose us to scaring, traumatic events or neglect our basic needs. For most of us, I imagine, our families fall somewhere in the middle. Mine does.
However, through all their imperfections and mistakes, my parents have always worked hard to become ever more loving people by prioritizing their psychological and spiritual practices. They knew the healing work they did, their efforts to understand and grow as caring, compassionate humans, would benefit their children. This is multi-generational healing. My family has practiced it for over half a century and my development as an emotionally healthy person has been built on the healing my parents have done.
A couple of months ago, I came face-to-face with the impact of my parents’ healing on my life. Within a matter of weeks I saw a triggering movie while on a date and was mugged. These events left me feeling shaken and vulnerable, but also grateful. As I processed the deep emotions of fear and shame, it came to me that all my emotional skills and resiliencies would not be possible, or at least would have been harder to achieve, without the efforts my parents put into their psychological and spiritual efforts.
To my parents, healing has always been an act of service to their children. Throughout my childhood, I can remember both my parents engaging in some form of psychological counseling and/or spirituality. I’m not sure if they ever said it, but I have always known that a large part of their motivation was to be better parents than their own.
Although my mother and father grew up in very different homes, both of them felt the burden of distant parents incapable of demonstrating love or affection for their children. Forced to learn the skills of emotional maturity and to challenge the destructive aspects of their gender-socializations on their own, my parents were determined that their children grow up knowing themselves worthy of love and capable of creating it.
Central to my families understanding of healthy living is connection to others. Healing is fundamentally about expanding our capacity to relate and belong with other humans by addressing the wounds and histories that keep us isolated. Research has shown that a key element of deep human relationships is vulnerability, which Dr. Brene Brown has defined as authenticity, the willingness to let go of who we think we should be to be who we are.
To be who we are, we must come to terms with who we have been told to be. One area in which we are constantly being instructed how to behave is gender. Gender-socialization is about whom society says we should be and interferes with authentic vulnerability. Furthermore, as male-socialized people, my father, my three brothers and I were all taught that vulnerability was dangerous. When we were vulnerable we were susceptible to attack or exploitation and were failing our responsibilities to protect our families and ourselves.
Born in the late 30s and early 40s, both my parents grew up in the age of strong, protective men and nurturing, care-taking women. Yet, the cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s resonated with their sense that things were wrong in our society. Participating in many of the political and cultural struggles of that era (including organizing with the Free-Speech Movement, building women’s consciousness groups and collectives, as well as participating in Anti-Vietnam War protests) they formed feminist identities in opposition to roles they were taught to play and, through this, began more than a half-century of healing work.
This is not to say they were perfect parents or completely interrupted the cycles of violence they were raised in. I can still remember the storms of rage my father would fly into, often times for ridiculous things. I was once thrown out of our car in the dead of winter for farting. My parents were also unable to shield their children from similar cycles of sexual violence they had spent so much of their lives working to undue.
Sometime in the summer of 1988, my next older brother, Ben, and I followed an older boy from our religious community, who we will call Nathan, to a nearby park where he molested us. Nathan was only 13, while Ben and I were six and four respectfully. Some days later, I told my second-oldest brother, who was a teenager at the time, about the incident, a clever end-around Nathan’s threat that if we told “our parents” he would beat us up.
What ensued was the hot-mess of sexual violence within tight-knit religious communities. My Second-oldest brother told my parents, who told our religious leader, who believed Nathan needed to “learn responsibility.” Nathan was put in charge of all the other children during the weekly prayers that my brother and I continued to attend. This was the situation until my family finally moved across the country, some two or three years later.
Like my mother before me, I have spent many years in therapy working to understand, cope with, and undo where possible, the negative impacts this incident has had on my life. My mother and I have had many conversations about the molest and the incredibly imperfect ways my parents handled it. Instead of denial or blame, as would have been her parents typical response, she has been able to admit fault where appropriate and honor the myriad of emotions that come up for me. She has read letters of blame and pain from me with grace and humility and offered acknowledgement, compassion, and love to me in exchange. This is an incredibly hard thing to do and has been possible only because of the psychological healing work she has done throughout her life.
Recently, I felt the positive impact of both our efforts to heal from sexual violence. While watching the Perks of Being a Wallflower, a couple of months ago with a date, I was triggered back into the emotional and physical distress of being molested. Towards the end of the movie, the main character, Charlie, is making out with his good friend and secret love, Sam. During this first-kiss experience for Charlie, Sam rubs his inner thigh triggering memories of molestation that Charlie had not remembered until that moment. In Charlie’s ensuing breakdown and recovery we learn that his deceased and beloved aunt, molested him as a young boy.
As a survivor of childhood sexual violence, watching this was a deeply triggering experience for me. I felt my stomach clench, my consciousness pull up out of my body, and my eyes began to water as my muscles tightened. I felt like I not only knew what Charlie was feeling, but was living it with him. As someone who does not remember my molestation, I am often triggered by physically intimate moments without forewarning and usually have trouble interrupting the ensuing cycling of emotional pain.
Getting triggered is never fun, being triggered on a date with a new romantic interest is really quite distressing. However, because of the multi-generational healing work my family and I have done, I was able to recognize these feelings for what they were, a trigger response, practice self-grounding exercises, and seek supportive physical contact from my date. After the movie I was even able to name that I had been triggered, a very vulnerable thing to admit. All this allowed me to continue the date in an engaged and emotionally present state, instead of burying my emotions and pretending to feel something I did not. Being willing to be vulnerable was key to moving through this experience.
This is not to say that the triggered state disappeared, in fact, the next morning I woke still feeling the emotional effects of being triggered. In response, I continued to practice healthy behavior made possible by generational healing. I called my mom, again engaging someone from a place of vulnerability. She was able to emotionally comfort me, while being reminded of her inability to protect me from sexual violence and the harmful effects it has had on my life. This is not an easy thing for a mother to do. However, because of the psychological and spiritual work she has done, she was able to provide this supportive and healing function for me.
After our conversation, I wrote in my journal, exploring the pain and vulnerability of being so easily knocked off my game. Journaling about our emotions and our lives has been in my family at least since my father’s 20’s. When I was 9 years old, my mother helped me start my first journal, writing down my dreams and discussing their meanings with me.
Although none of this “cured” me of my emotions, nor does it mean I will not be triggered by similar events in the future, they did allow me to get on with my life in an emotionally grounded state.
All these practices are predicated on my ability to be and admit vulnerability. Being “intense” with a new date, seeking comfort from someone who has failed you in the past, and admitting to yourself that you are not always in control of your emotions requires being ok with your imperfections, drawing boundaries, and willingly trusting people whether or not they have earned it. This willingness to be vulnerable is both necessary and hard to achieve. It requires work over many years, more years than I have been alive. It requires our parents to engage their own healing practices, so that ours can start already equipped with many of the emotional tools they created for themselves.
Vulnerability was made important and ok through the hard work of my parents who have been going to therapy and/or engaged in spiritual practice since the 1960’s. This is not trivial, nor is it work that is generally accepted and promoted in mainstream society and culture. In fact, due to the challenges to traditional power structures and cycles of violence that therapy can offer, these practices are often much maligned and stigmatized. Only in the last 10-20 years has going to therapy become a relatively socially accepted practice, which is still often a sign of “something wrong with you.” My ability to even admit my feelings much less have the emotional maturity to dialogue with others and myself enough to transition from a place of distress to catharsis is a direct result of my parents’ self-healing efforts.
As a male-socialized person, learning to be vulnerable has required me to challenge many of the ways society says I should interact with the word. This is work my father began for all his sons. Throughout his life, my father engaged with other men around questions of masculinity and vulnerability. He taught himself to understand the gender dynamics that had been at play in his home growing up. Acknowledging his father’s inability to express love or caring was, in large part, because of the way my grandfather had been taught men should behave. My grandmother both fit within and challenged many of the gender stereotypes of her day. She raised two boys mostly on her own while holding down a full-time job and never shirked from challenging authorities that threatened the health of her family. She was both caretaker and breadwinner, nurturer and defender. From her, my father began to understand his own male-socialization and its many harmful characteristics, which he hoped not to pass on to his children.
My father sought to understand the power of vulnerability. Throughout his life, my father longed for the close nit friends he saw my mother create “so easily” and worked hard to try to build that for himself. He learned that his anger was destructive to his family and sought out counseling and support to begin to control it. My father loved his family and wanted to be so much more to us than a good guard dog. He wanted to be a confidant, a support, a teacher, and most of all, he wanted to be a model of a deeply loving man.
All this healing work came in hand one morning a few weeks after seeing the movie. I was on my way to a strategic-planning meeting for the organization I was working for, when a man approached me to borrow my cell-phone. I gave it to him. He used it to make a call and then a short time later began to walk away. I followed him, asking for my phone back, at which point the man attempted to run away. After a brief chase, in which it became clear he was not going to out run me, he turned around to confront me, asking me, “what are you going to do about it,” clearly challenging me to fight him. My masculine socialization screamed for me to do just that. However, having just heard of a friend who was stabbed and nearly died after fighting with a mugger over a phone, I made the choice not to.
Clearly masculinity was not the only dynamic at play and my decision reflects the class privilege I have for I knew I could afford another phone. However, I do not believe that my father could have made a similar choice at my age, or at the very least it would have been considerably harder and fraught with much more self-shaming than it was for me. For my father, it would have been very difficult for him not to see this as a challenge to his sense of worth as a man socialized to protect himself and his loved ones with violence. However, because of the work my father and I have done, I was able to see this as a self-affirming experience that, although traumatic and charged with self-shaming, was a sign of my families efforts to undo the cycles of violence inherent in US mainstream definitions of manhood.
Through acknowledging and addressing traumatic and triggering events, I experience not only the psychological work I have done, but also the efforts my parents have put into healing from the cycles of violence they were raised in. I was able to resist the normative responses called for by my male-socialization, find support from loved ones, and deal with my emotions so as to be able to continue to live my life without the need to suppress or self-medicate. These represent powerful changes in how people in my family experience healthy living and I am grateful to my parents for making it possible.