This is what a white feminist looks like

“What’s the difference between feminism and white feminism?” My friend asked me in a text message. She had been looking at the Women’s March website, and she didn’t fully understand the distinction. I sat there for a while, staring at my phone, trying to figure out whether it was possible to hazard an explanation the length of a text message. I decided it was too complicated, something we needed to discuss in person.

Several days later, I found myself in a sea of pink hats, in the middle of our nation’s capital, trying to find my way to Independence Ave. When I arrived at the Women’s March on Washington, I had no idea where to go. Every street in every direction was flooded with demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds of thousands. I had to stand on my tip-toes to see the mega screen projecting live videos of the rally’s speakers—at times barely audible over the noise of chatting marchers. As I stood there, I was struck by the celebratory atmosphere of the event. All around me were women laughing and hugging and screaming like they were in the audience of a live broadcast of Rachael Ray. We deserve to celebrate ourselves, I coached myself, trying not to be cynical.

I tried to focus on the dizzying display of badass intersectional feminists leading the rally. Black, brown, Latina, native, disabled, formerly incarcerated, undocumented, queer, and trans women took to the stage to proclaim their truths, representing social justice organizations and movements that have been doing the good work for a long time, and will continue to do so in the years to come. When they announced that Angela Davis was about to take the stage, I nearly lost my shit.

“At a challenging moment in our history,” Angela began, “let us remind ourselves that we the hundreds of thousands, the millions of women, trans-people, men and youth who are here at the Women’s March, we represent the powerful forces of change that are determined to prevent the dying cultures of racism and hetero-patriarchy from rising again.”

March, march, march, the white demonstrators around me began chanting, drowning out the rest of Angela Davis’s speech.

March, march, march, march, they screamed, waving their pink “Pussy Grabs Back” signs and performing various renditions of the white woman two-step.

If these women had quieted down for a moment, they might have heard Angela when she explained that “This is a country anchored in slavery and colonialism, which means for better or for worse the very history of the United States is a history of immigration and enslavement.”

They might have stopped to wonder what progress has and has not been made for women of color since that day in 1970 when Angela Davis was arrested by the FBI for crimes she did not commit.

They might have considered, for a moment, who and what deserved celebrating. Was it really their pink pussies? Their privileged white daughters decked out in North Face jackets? Their collective, and questionably phrased, “girl power”? Or was it the fact that up on that stage, women of all colors, genders, sexual orientations, and creeds were bravely sharing their stories and fighting for a world where justice and equality were not only ideals, but realities for all women?

I am a cis, white woman, a lesbian, and an intersectional feminist. As a liberal-progressive woman, I am not automatically entitled to the feminist label. It is something I fight for, challenge, question, and talk about on a daily basis. And the more I consider the weight of that label, the more I believe that feminism without a radical basis of anti-racist, anti-oppression work is not actually feminism at all.

Feminism is not just “the radical idea that women are people,” it is the radical idea that all people—especially women—deserve justice.

Or, to put it another way, white feminism is not truly feminism.

I am proud of what we accomplished this Saturday. I am proud that people showed up in the smallest towns and the biggest cities, in the snow and rain, wearing their rainbow flag capes and their purple lipstick, bringing their partners, their children, their parents, and their radical politics. I am proud that the organizers of the Women’s March espoused a truly intersectional platform. I am proud that people chanted Black Lives Matter and wore American Flag hijabs.

But for all feminists, new and old, this is only the beginning of a long fight. As a white feminist, I am humbled by all the work I haven’t been doing, and energized to begin showing up—in the streets, in meetings, in my community—to make justice a reality. I hope that all those two-stepping, pussy-hat-wearing white feminists who showed up at the Women’s March will do the same.

*Cover photo courtesy of Flyah Angelou

 

 

When writing isn’t enough

Ever since I can remember, I have taken to my notebook in times of despair. I remember the night of March 20, 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, because after sitting in the living room with my parents, watching a foreign sky lit up in shades of alien green, I locked myself in my room and pulled out my notebook. I was ten years old at the time. There were tears in my eyes, and fears lodged deep in my belly. I didn’t know exactly what to say, so I just began writing. What came out was a fictional story about a young Iraqi girl, running from her home as bombs fell around her. I don’t remember much else about the story. All I remember is that it mattered to me more than anything else I had ever written. And somehow, it helped me to get through the night.

Writing has always been the place where I feel like my truest self. The place where my tender heart can be at its most tender, and not fall apart. The place where I can watch it breaking, and still feel, somehow, whole.

I have notebooks full of letters to people who never knew I wrote them. There were things I needed to say, so I said them to the page. Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if those words had ever been spoken, or shared. But the truth is, they weren’t meant to be spoken, or shared. They were meant to be honored.

My friend sent me a picture the other day. It was a plaque from an art exhibit she had visited, and the theme of the piece was solitude. “To transit a moment of solitude,” it said, “is to tarnish the ascetic soul. But to let it burrow in and remain private can allow you to learn and unlearn the lessons as dictated only by the self.”

I have done plenty of burrowing, I thought to myself. And my ascetic soul is very much in tact.

But it is also lonely.

What were the lessons? I wondered. The lessons I learned and unlearned, alone with myself?

What was the lesson I learned from writing that story about the young Iraqi girl? Was it empathy? Was it pity? Was it compassion?

What was the lesson I learned from all those unsent letters? How much I had been hurt? How I could have protected myself? How I had failed to protect, and to truly seek, those whom I had so desperately loved?

And what was the lesson I learned when there came a time to stop writing? When there were no longer any words to be put on the page? When I woke up on Wednesday morning and went to my people instead of my pen? When I took to the streets instead of my study? When I sent out donations instead of words?

The lesson I learned was that some lessons can’t be learned alone. Some wounds can’t be fixed by bedrest. Some heartaches can’t be solved by ink.

Our nation is aching, and there are so many lesson we have still to learn. So many lessons I have still to learn.

But when the time comes for me to open my notebook again, it will not be to hide. It will not be to dodge hurt, or quarantine pain. It will be to look within myself for the achings of the world. To look within myself for hatred, greed, and anger. To see these qualities for what they are: human, and eradicable. And by seeing them for what they are, to understand how love is the strongest weapon we have. Not love in the sense of affection, or sacrifice, or possession, but love in the sense of liberation.

Love as all the ways our freedom is bound up with one another’s.

Love as the courage to speak, and the courage to hear.

Love as tenderness.

Love as light.

Intentional Communities and Why We Need Them

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes Howard University, the historically black college he attended, as “The Mecca.” This sacred place, Coates tells us, was the “crossroads of the black diaspora.”

I first witnessed [its] power out on the Yard, he writes, that communal green space in the center of the campus where the students gathered and I saw everything I knew of my black self multiplied out into seemingly endless variations. There were the scions of Nigerian aristocrats in their business suits giving dap to bald-headed Qs in purple windbreakers and tan Timbs. There were high-yellow progeny of AME preachers debating the clerics of Ausar-Set… It was like listening to a hundred different renditions of “Redemption Song,” each in a different color and key.

What interests me about Coates’ description of the Mecca is not so much what it says about Howard University, in particular, but rather, what it says about the continued need for intentional communities, built around shared identities that are, and have been for centuries, under siege.

I say under siege because I don’t want anyone to confuse my argument with a general apology for narrow-mindedness, at best, and xenophobia, at worst. White Lives Matter and Men’s Rights Activists have nothing to do with what I’m saying, and everything to do with what I’m trying to say. There is nothing simple about the intentional communities of which I speak, but there is something sacred about them, and it is to this sacredness that I wish to speak.

I went to a women’s college. The usual response when I shared this news with my fellow high school students was “I’m soooo sorry!” or “But how will you meet boys?” or “Are you religious?” or just plain “Why?” At the time, my answers to their questions were evasive. Living under the false impression that I was straight, I took their concern about meeting boys as well-intentioned, answered that there were men at the other colleges in the area, told them that I was not, in fact, religious, and explained that I had chosen the school for its academic merits.

I was not lying, not exactly, but what I said to them was untrue.

I went to a women’s college because women had been at the center of my existence for as long as I could remember, because the company of women was the only place I felt like I could truly be myself, because the night I visited Mount Holyoke College for the first time, I sat around a table with women from all walks of life, with long curly hair and shaved heads, a knack for chemistry and a love of Latin, crosses around their necks and hijabs on their heads, talking about their girlfriends, boyfriends, partners, lovers, and everything in between, about their latest lacrosse game, or an interview with a corporate bank, or a new DNA pattern they had just discovered, or the way it felt to look at the stars in wintertime. I went to a women’s college because I needed women plural to understand how I, a woman singular, was actually just myself, and could choose the words to name this self with no regard for other’s projects or prejudices. I went to a women’s college to find out that there was no one way to be a woman, that it was alright not to be a “woman” at all, that this word was both the most important and most contested word I would ever use to describe myself, and that this contestation was perfectly alright—that it was, in fact, encouraged.

I am reticent to draw the connection between Coates’ description of Howard University and my own experiences at Mount Holyoke College, knowing full well that white feminists have too long appropriated the work of black activists and thinkers for their own ends, without giving credit where credit is due. I am also weary of establishing false equivalency—the need for historically black colleges is different in tenor and volume than the need for women’s colleges. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor is one a more important endeavor than the other. Rather, I believe that both spaces offer a lens for understanding the limits of mere inclusion as a catch-all solution for past (and present) oppressions.

We don’t join communities like Howard University and Mount Holyoke College to be with people who are just like us. We join these communities because under the umbrella of a shared identity, we are free to explore our differences. When I entered the gates of Mount Holyoke College, I was free to be more than just “the smart girl.” We were all “the smart girl.” Instead, I could be the eccentric translator. The friend who never forgets your birthday. The figure you see walking around the lake every evening at sunset. The girl who wears her grandmother’s ring and her grandfather’s sport coat. The lover. The joker. The dreamer. Myself.

In the past few weeks, I have been privileged enough to witness the birth of an intentional community here at my place of work. As co-facilitator of an LGBTQ meditation group, I have been deeply moved by the willingness of my peers to explore spirituality in a queer-centered space. For so many of us who identify as queer, religion and spirituality have been sites of oppression and injustice, especially in our childhoods. Though there are numerous spiritual leaders at the front lines of this battle, fighting for the inclusion and full acceptance of queer folks into spiritual communities across the country, there is something particularly sacred about a space where we can explore our spirituality and our sexuality in tandem, without being the only lesbian, or trans woman, or gender non-conforming person in the room. To be able to speak about the pains of missing my ex-girlfriend without secretly worrying that someone is thinking “but she doesn’t look like a lesbian” is more powerful than you might think. To be able to share our stories of tragedy, discovery, and triumph is not only affirming to each of us as individuals, but essential to our continued survival as a community.

We are who we choose to be. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere if I didn’t believe this to be true. And though, too often, choices are made for us in which we have no say, there is ultimately a deeper place where we have the right, and the freedom, to curate our hearts. Whether others recognize or cultivate this freedom is another story. Whether our bodies are safe enough to worry about our hearts is something else entirely. But the hope is that by carving out spaces for fellowship with those who share our identities, we can remember what it feels like to just be ourselves. 

Radical healing, or a room with no doors

Reposted from the Global Spiritual Life tumblr.

The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.

I remember the first time I ever read these words in my tattered library copy of Sister Outsider, by Audre Lorde. It was the summer of 2015, and I had just graduated from college. I was back home in Colorado, going through a break-up, counting the days until I boarded a plane and moved to New York City. On my bedside table were two stacks of books. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, their fat and thin bindings creating a tapestry of colors, embroidered with words.

I feel, therefore I can be free, I said aloud to myself, over and over again. I feel, therefore I can be free.

I carried these words around like a mantra, thinking that maybe if I said them enough, I could make them come true. I certainly had no shortage of feelings. I woke up crying, went to bed crying, walked around my neighborhood crying, sat in my room crying. Later, sadness would be joined by anger, resentment, shame, and fear.

“Acceptance,” writes author Cheryl Strayed, “is a small, quiet room.”

But after a few months, I began to see that mine was not the only room. Peeking out of the door that I had closed on myself, I began to see a whole world of doors, a whole world of rooms where people wept, and prayed, and screamed, and wrote secret notes on the corners of the wall. Rooms that I could not enter, rooms that had long been empty, rooms with their doors left ajar, rooms full of light.

I came to discover these rooms because of meditation. That summer, books weren’t the only thing that kept me afloat. It was also the summer that I came to the practice of meditation. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I knew that my cushion was one of the only places where I felt truly safe. In the months that followed, as I began sitting in the community and reading work by teachers near and far, I felt the same way about the practice of meditation that I had felt reading the words of Audre Lorde. I knew that I had discovered something true, but I also knew that there was still so much more to learn.

This past Wednesday, as I sat down for an LGBTQ meditation sit at my school, I felt nervous and excited about the opportunity to practice in community. Though I meditate on a daily basis, I have struggled to find a steady sangha, and I hoped that I had finally found a place I could come home to. When our teacher, Danielle Saint-Louis, pulled out her own copy of Sister Outsider, I knew I had found what I was looking for. When she opened the book to the very same passage that had touched me one year before, I knew that I could finally hear these words as more than just an affirmation of my own particular sorrow. I could hear them as a call for radical love, the kind of healing that can never be contained in a single room. The kind of healing that opens doors.

It was the dharma that taught me how to sit with my feelings, with my fears, with my suffering, and with my pain. But it was also the dharma that taught me how to rise, how to seek, how to listen, and how to love.

Friends, this is no small lesson. In a world that teaches me my whiteness needs protection at the cost of other lives, it is a radical act to practice healing in community. It is a radical act to practice metta – or loving-kindness – not only on the cushion, but in our everyday lives. Not just to say that we value the lived stories of those who experience oppression, including our own, but to listen deeply to these stories, to investigate honestly the content of our own biases and fears, and to love against the forces that tell us we should hate. Love not as sympathy, or courtesy, or empty words of encouragement. Love as the messy business of accepting that our liberation is tied up in the liberation of others–that liberation cannot exist in a room with no doors.

Audre Lorde was a feminist, a lesbian, a woman of color, a writer, a poet, and an activist. To read her work without recognizing each of these intersecting identities is to undervalue the complexities of her lived story, and to hide away from the complexities of my own. Buddhist meditation is a practice developed and cultivated by people of color. To practice meditation without recognizing this history is to take possession of something that is not mine to take.

Healing is a practice. It is a practice of recognizing and tending to pain, of giving and receiving care, of offering and building strength.

To heal without feeling is to stumble in the dark.

In metta meditation, we offer loving-kindness first to ourselves, then to our loved ones, and then to the world.

May all beings be happy, we say. May all beings be healthy. May all beings be free from harm and suffering. May all beings be at peace.

Healing may start in a small, quiet room. But it does not end there.

Living Through a Heat Wave

Let me preface this by saying: I am not someone who enjoys the summer.  Sure, having a break from school is great.  Ice cream is tasty.  Sangria is to-die-for.  But of all the seasons, summer has to be my least favorite.  This has been true ever since I can remember.  For example, I distinctly remember the last day of third grade, packing up my desk in Mrs. White’s classroom and weeping because the school year was over and I just didn’t know what to do with myself.  Two years later, I had a mini-existential crisis as fifth grade came to a close and I convinced myself that this meant “saying goodbye to my childhood.”  In high school, things were looking up.  I busied myself with dance classes and camping trips with my best friends, learned how to bake bread and sew, and became a thoroughly skilled domesticated feminist.  But even that couldn’t save me.  

There was just something about the sun that I couldn’t handle.  I felt stuck in my house, like the world was against me.  When I went outside, I felt like my whole body was under siege.  I felt how weak it was, how susceptible to the elements, how fragile.

In France, they call this kind of heat la canicule.  I remember the first time I ever came across this word.  I was in a translation class my sophomore year of college, and I needed to find a poem to translate for my final project.  Late one night I sat in the empty common room of my dorm, flipping through an anthology of Algerian poetry.  I came upon a short poem by Malek Alloula, a native Algerian poet who had been living in exile in France for most of his life.  Something about the poem struck me, and I tried my hand at a translation.

poem 3The translation was clumsy and inaccurate, especially my rendition of la canicule.  What I loved about this word was that it sounded to me like “canopy”.  I could picture the heat hanging over the city like a large piece of suffocating cloth.  A force that lorded over you, drying you up like a relic of petrified wood.  Of course, the speaker’s primary concern in this poem is not the literal heat of summer.  Instead, he uses the heat (and the “sarcasms of winter”) as a metaphor for the intensity of war—the way it cuts off the past, breaks lineage, destroys families.

And then there’s Albert Camus, probably the most well-known French author to write about la canicule.  You could say that Meursault, the main character in The Stranger, is more than a little bit obsessed with the heat of the sun.  As he follows his mother’s funeral procession, a nurse gives him some sage advice: “She said, ‘If you go slowly, you risk getting sunstroke. But if you go too fast, you work up a sweat and then catch a chill inside the church.’ She was right. There was no way out.”

If we look more closely at la canicule, we begin to see that it really does bring out the worst in people. For Camus’ Meursault, it’s cold-blooded murder.  For the speaker in Alloula’s poem, it’s colonial violence and civil war. Outside of the realms of fiction and poetry, the effects of the heat are no less severe.  In August of 2003, over 15,000 people died in the span of one month during a deadly heat wave in metropolitan France.

So what do these three incidents have in common, besides being related to France?  In all three cases, the fatal effects of the heat (whether direct or circumstantial) disproportionately targeted marginalized populations.  In The Stranger, Meursault (a white man of French origin) shoots an an unnamed “Arab” to death on an Algerian beach.  In Alloula’s poem, he alludes to the Algerian War, fought between 1954 and 1962, which scholars estimate to have resulted in the deaths of nearly 1 million native Algerians.  During the heat wave of 2003, the vast majority of heat-related deaths affected France’s most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the homeless, and those living in poverty.  

This summer, the heat has intensified.  Violent act after violent act, senseless death after senseless death.  And not surprisingly, this violence takes a disproportionate toll on marginalized populations: people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, trans women, people living at the intersections of these and other identities.  As news broke of the shooting in Orlando, and of the murders of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling, I felt as though as though mass shootings and police brutality were increasing at a dizzying rate, rushing towards some kind of horrific climax.  

Crime rates have evolved and changed over the past fifty years in complicated ways, just like the weather.  Hot summers, cold winters, unexpected floods.  One hot day in the middle of April is probably not going to hurt anyone.  Three hot days in May might be a bit of a bother.  It’s when the hottest days pile one on top of the other, day after day, that you enter la canicule.  

What’s different about this summer is not that the heat is any hotter, it’s that we’ve had to live through so much of it in such a short span of time.  We’ve reached a threshold, a tipping point between passively waiting for the heat to pass, and actively working to alleviate its deadly effects.  Many of us reached this threshold long ago.  As a white American, the seemingly sudden horror I felt this summer after the deaths of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling showed me just how passive I had been about the deaths that have been happening for years, for decades, for centuries.  It was as though I had been sitting in an air-conditioned penthouse, and somebody broke the window to let in the ferocious heat that had always been outside.

The violence of this summer, like the heat of the sun, cannot be solved by short-term solutions alone.  Refusing to leave the house, to walk around in public places, to drive your car—in the long run, these changes are not sustainable.  They fix nothing.  Just look at climate change: inventing better sunscreen won’t fix a hole in the ozone layer.  So why do we think that carrying more guns will fix the epidemic of violence that is taking over our country?

As we work towards long-term systemic solutions to this epidemic, we must also deal with the fact that we are still in the heat of the fire. We are still in la canicule.

But here’s the thing about a heat wave: it doesn’t have to kill. One of the primary reasons why so many elderly, impoverished, and homeless French citizens died in the 2003 heat wave was because they did not receive the care they needed. Many died alone in their apartments, when all that was needed was for a neighbor to walk up the stairs with a cold washcloth and a bottle of water, and make sure their neighbor was okay.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the long-term solutions to the problems we face are… well, long-term.  In the short-term, we need to take care of ourselves and of each other.  Allies need to step up and start carrying water, providing support, checking in on the ones they love. The heat does not affect everyone in an equal manner.  The death of yet another person of color in our country at the hands of police will break some, and pass over the heads of others. It doesn’t matter who you are, or how immediately you feel affected by this violence.  It is your job, it is my job, it is our job, to support and care for anyone who is.  It is our job to go into the heat that some of us can’t escape, and do what we can to keep each other safe.

Further reading:

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. 1946.

Kaouah, Abdelmadjid, ed. Poésie Algérienne Francophone Contemporaine. Autre Temps: 2004.

Keller, Richard C. Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003University of Chicago Press: 2015.

Gladwell, Malcolm.  “Why mass shootings, like Orlando’s club attack, keep happening.” CNBC: June 14, 2016.

 

 

To be happy

It’s noon on a Monday. I’m in my quiet Paris apartment, sprawled out on my belly in the first queen bed I’ve ever called my own. It’s cloudy again, like it has been almost every day since I arrived. I slept in until 11 this morning, because there was really no good reason not to. I made the poor decision of flipping onto my belly around 10, which always gives me confusing dreams about people I would rather not dream about. But when I awoke, there was hot coffee, and the breeze coming in through my window, and a stack of good books to get me through the morning.

So, life is pretty damn good. Like, maybe the best. For the first time in a long time, I have been able to do all the things I love most—writing, cooking, walking, spending quality time with friends—without feeling like I have to sacrifice any one of those things for another. For the first time since I got my heart broken one year ago, I feel like I can actually be happy—simple, carefree happiness, the kind where you sit around for hours laughing and dancing and you never have to leave the room to cry because you’re so painfully aware of how fleeting it all is. Today, it doesn’t feel fleeting, though of course it is. Today happiness is forgetting. Forgetting that happiness could ever end in pain. Forgetting that people leave you, and that you leave people, and that we all leave each other in the end. Forgetting the space between numbers on the clock and the way it goes on ticking. Forgetting that it ticks at all.

Friends, I am telling you all of this because one year ago today was the worst night of my life. It’s a night I have never really told anyone about, a night that only one person in the whole world is able to testify to, someone I no longer talk to and who I still miss like hell. It’s a night I can’t even talk to myself about most days, or my therapist, or my best friend. It was the night when something very deep and essential broke in me, and I saw the thin veil spread over everything I loved, and how quickly it could be pulled away to reveal darkness, nothingness, disappearance. An endless and dizzying abyss.

One year ago today, I literally did not know how I could go on living. Today, I am alive.

To anyone who has ever seen the darkness you think no one else can see, I am with you. I want you to know that you can never unsee what you have seen. But I also want you to know that with time, you can learn, you can choose to forget. Not forever, and not completely, but enough to go on living, and find your way to happiness again.

Today I am proud of the work I have done to take care of myself in the wake of that worst night. Today I am profoundly grateful to the people who hugged me, and cried with me, and made me laugh, and made me coffee. Today I am grateful for my family, those who raised me and those who chose me. Today I am grateful for a room to call my own, and a fridge full of food, and the knowledge that none of this will disappear by sundown.

Today, I am happy.

One Year Out

It’s a Friday night.  I’m sitting at a dining room table in a charming brownstone in Brooklyn, drinking wine and snacking on French cheese, surrounded by a circle of my peers.  My professor has invited us to her home for an end-of-semester celebration.  We’re adults now, we can sit around drinking and talking about literature. The world of academia is a world I’ve chosen to spend the next five years in, a world I will probably spend most of my life in, and it’s important to me that I feel at home here.

For me, an essential part of feeling at home is being out.  It’s something I’ve had to work on ever since I graduated from Mount Holyoke, where by the time I was a senior you were pretty much queer until proven straight.  That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately, and when I moved to New York City, I had to decide whether, and how, I would come out.

It didn’t happen all at once.  It started first with friends, and then with fellow students, and then with a not-so-subtle comment about lesbians in my history class, and then with a heart-to-heart with my boss at work, and by the time the spring semester hit, there was no going back.  I was out to my professors, colleagues, and co-workers, and I felt lucky to be in a place where that was possible.

I joke sometimes that I’m the “token queer” in my department, always talking about the social construction of gender and writing papers about lesbians.  I’m proud to be “that feminist,” the one who never lets you get away with a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment, the one who always brings it back to the patriarchy, the one who talks about periods when there are men in the room (the bloodier, the better).

By now, people have more or less gotten used to it.  They laugh at my raunchy jokes, they ask me about my date with the cute girl I’ve been gushing about, they nod politely when I go on a feminist rant in the middle of class.  

And then, they start asking questions.

“When did you know you were gay?” they’ll begin, and then, “How did your parents react?” and before you know it, “How do you have sex?” (or even, in one instance, “Who plays the man?”)

I used to think it was my duty to educate: These poor straight people, I reasoned, they just don’t even know what they’re talking about.  They’ve never talked to a real live queer person.  They just want to understand.  They mean well.

It would be easier if I could just make a blanket statement about these scenarios, say which questions a straight person can ask and which they can’t, what responses to offer and when to offer them. But the truth is, it’s different every time.  It’s different being asked about my coming out story by a new friend when we’re bonding over coffee than it is being asked by a professor who barely knows me in a classroom full of fellow students.

This is what happened last week, as we sat around drinking wine and talking about literature in my professor’s adorable Brooklyn brownstone.  Somehow, we got onto the topic of college.  With tears in my eyes, I told the story of the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke, the way I fell in love with the college as my parents and I drove past the clock tower on that crisp April evening, the way I felt at home the minute I stepped foot on the campus.

“Were they cool?”  My professor asked, referring to my parents, who I had mentioned only in passing.

“Cool?”  I replied, caught of guard.

“With you being gay?”

I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me.  We hadn’t even been talking about my coming out, and the story I was in the process of telling really had nothing to do with my journey into queerness.  But instead of letting on that my professor’s question–asked completely out of context–had made me feel like the smallest version of myself, I mumbled some kind of a vague response, and changed the subject.

As the evening went on, this continued happening: questions thrown at me as if I were a walking encyclopedia of queerness, eyes turned to me every time anyone mentioned anything that was even remotely “gay,” homophobic jokes veiled as clever jibes.

Don’t get me wrong, I admire and respect my professor, and I appreciate my peers (all straight women, I should add) and the work we’ve done together over the course of the semester, but as the night went on, I began to realize that while everyone else was beginning to feel more and more and home, I was beginning to feel more and more like a stranger, or worse, like nothing more than the search box on google.gay.  

It’s hard for me to write about this night for several reasons.  First of all, I am mortified to think that my professor or peers might someday read this post, and tell me that I was overreacting.  “It was all in good fun,” they might say.  Or worse, “I never said that!”

The second reason why it’s difficult to write this is because it’s about more than just one evening of uncomfortable questioning.  It’s about the fact that coming out can be as terrifying as it is liberating, and that some nights, it’s more of a burden than it is a relief.  

But at the heart of all of this is a deeper question: when you live with an identity that has historically been invisibilized, misunderstood, and antagonized, how do you fight for visibility, understanding, and empathy without losing yourself in the process?  

The reason why it bothered me so much to have my professor ask about my coming out was not because I am ashamed of the story, or because it is too painful to tell.  It bothered me because that story matters to me.  There is no simple answer to the question “how did you come out?”  It is a story that needs time.  It is a story that needs a dedicated listener.  It is a story full of pregnant pauses, colorful details, and vulnerable confessions.  It is a story that I cherish.  It is a story that is profoundly and uniquely my own.

Part of the reason why Marnie and I started this blog in the first place was because we both longed for a space where we could share these stories with readers who cared, with people we trusted, in a space where we had the time and freedom to craft these stories in an intentional and meaningful way.

One of the main reasons why we longed for this kind of space is because we had already experienced it.  For four wonderful years, we had lived at Mount Holyoke, a place where coming out felt more like coming in.  

Thinking back on it now, it’s not so surprising that I teared up while telling my classmates about the first time I ever visited Mount Holyoke.  Because here’s the thing, it wasn’t just the way the clock tower looked that April evening, lit up by the vibrant colors of a New England sunset. It was the fact that, on the first night I ever spent on campus, I found myself sitting at a dining room table in the Rockies, surrounded by a group of friendly, intelligent, beautiful young women, welcomed into a space where storytelling was not just a momentary distraction, but a way of life.  The stories we shared that night, and every night since, were the colorful threads that formed the fabric of community.  What I knew that evening, more than anything else, was that I was already home.

It’s been one year since I left Mount Holyoke, and one year since I started coming out to the wider world.  If I’ve learned anything in that year, it’s that home is a story only you can tell.

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Image courtesy of MHC Archives

Who It’s For

It’s a Saturday night.  I’m all dressed up: high heels, polka-dot tights, red lipstick, the works.  I could be going to The Cubby Hole, or Hot Rabbit, or a house party in the Village.  Instead, I’m in an auditorium full of scholars, holding a shiny silver trophy in my hand.

I’m not usually a huge fan of competitions, but this time around, I thought I’d give it a try. The Threesis Competition is a chance for master’s students to share their work with people outside of their fields.  Three minutes, one Powerpoint slide, eighty competitors, one winner.

Apparently, that winner is me.

My cheeks hurt from smiling so much.  I’m trembling.  I’m shocked.  I’m nervous.  I’m excited.  I can’t wait to have a big glass of wine in my hand.

I’m on my way to the reception, and just as I’m about to walk over to my group of friends and give them all big hugs, an older man approaches me, and takes my hand.

Not shakes.  Takes.

He’s holding it there, in his sweaty palm, like a scene from one of those crime dramas where somebody is making an illicit deal in a public place and they have to keep smiling even though they’re about to kill each other.

“I’d love to get coffee with you sometime,” he says, before asking me my name, or congratulating me, or asking me how I feel about winning.

“I’d like to talk to you about the fact that men can be feminists too,” he says, “the boundaries are porous, it’s not just about women…” blah blah blah blah blah

He goes on like this, holding my hand hostage, mansplaining man feminism to me for about five minutes.  Once he’s finished, he looks up at me as if he’s forgotten that the hand he’s holding belongs to a person, and says, “What’s your name again?”

This, after I had just given a presentation on radical lesbian feminists and their fight to smash the patriarchy. Oh, the irony.

If this had happened to me a few years ago, I probably would have smiled, and nodded politely, and thanked the man for his thoughtful feedback, and explained that of course men can be feminists too, that everyone should be a feminist, that we were so happy to have him join our ranks, that I was just so grateful to be here in the first place, so lucky to have the support of men like him.

But instead, I took my hand back where it rightfully belonged and explained that there’s a difference between being a feminist and being an ally, and that if he had more questions on that topic, he could consult any number of resources on allyship, and that I really needed to be going.

Thirty minutes later, I was happily holding a big glass of wine in my hand, discussing intersectionality, workplace discrimination, and astrological signs with a group of fellow queer feminist scholars, grinning from ear to ear.

Dear mansplaining faux-feminist, I want you to know that my research, my life choices, my red lipstick, and my activism have nothing to do with you.  I don’t do it for you, and I don’t give a shit about your approval.

I do it for my mother, I do it for my best friend and the baby she’s carrying in her belly, I do it for the friends who cheered me on from the front row, I do it for every girl who walks down the street with her eyes down and her keys between her fingers, I do it for every queer kid who’s ever thought they were the only one, I do it for all the women who could never have stood on a stage and announced to the world that they loved women, I do it for my friends, I do it for my lovers, I do for my family, I do it for myself.

And if you, mansplaining faux-feminist, happen to be in the audience while I’m speaking, rest assured I won’t be paying any attention to you.

Reading is Sexy #3: Women

I read Women in one sitting.

I had been waiting months to read it.  My aunt passed the title my way sometime in October.  I had just moved to the city, and books were already piling up next to my bed, forming a kind of barrier against the window. I started therapy, and developed a new ritual: I would walk out of my therapist’s office (in tears, of course) and make my way to The Strand. I’d pick a book, smell it, read the first few sentences, caress its cover, decide it had to be mine.  I’d buy it, walk across the street to the coffee shop, sit with a cup of coffee, and begin reading.

I kept looking at Women, every time I went into the store.  It was so small, so bare.  I liked the way it didn’t try too hard to be anything, to grab my attention.  Beige cover, brown title, one word.  It reminded me of French bookstores, those lovely, perfect stacks filled with white and beige spines, consistent to the point of madness, differing only in name.

full_women-web-front-cover

When I saw it again, walking through the stacks last Saturday, I knew it was time.  I remembered reading the review, something about a woman falling in love with a woman for the first time, a lesbian coming-of-age story, or something like that.  Oh yes I better read that, I thought.

It’s Saturday night.  My parents have just left after their first time visiting me in the city.  Off they go with their suitcases and bags and photographs of the city.  Once they leave, the illusion of living in a family again (coffee handed to me when I wake up in the morning, how was your day? when I return from school, what should we watch? cramped in the queen bed at night falling asleep together like we always used to do) has left with them.  I am alone in my apartment and we have been walking all day and my feet hurt and it is so quiet here, how is it so quiet here? How could my apartment feel so different, and yet so familiar, as if the months I’ve lived here were my whole life and none of it.

I get annoyed at the sunlight, stubbornly sticking around longer than it has in months.  I make tea, because I’m trying this new thing where I give my body what it needs to teach it what it wants and then I learn that it can want what it needs and right now I really really want a cup of very hot jasmine tea.

I sit on my bed, propped up against the headboard, and I’m holding my tea, and it’s so quiet I wish I could scream just to test it, but that only makes me want to cry, so I grab the book and start reading.

“Girls are cruelest to themselves. — Anne Carson, The Glass Essay”

I am not sure whether to be annoyed or curious by this epigraph.  Any book that begins with “girls are” or “women are” is immediately dubious, in my opinion.

I choose to be curious.

The first few pages sweep me away.  They are beautifully written, tangling past present and future around a central figure, the narrator’s lover, a “her” that goes, at first, unnamed.  It is immediately clear that the narrator will speak of love, try to untangle the meaning of the words tattooed on her lover’s back: “Love, the poet said, is a woman’s whole existence.”

A Virginia Woolf quotation on the first page: this looks promising.

“I am trying to decide what you need to know about Finn before we start,” the narrator explains.  “I don’t know if I will be able to get you to see her the way I saw her.  I worry that if I cannot make you fall in love with her inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, the way I did, then you will not be experiencing the book in the way I hope you will.”

I should have known, after reading this passage, that I wouldn’t be able to put the book down.  I had to know how the narrator “saw” Finn, what made them fall in love, why she’s talking about their love in the past tense, what went wrong.

“Isn’t it sad to talk about ex-lovers in the past tense,” she says on the next page, “as though they are dead?”

It doesn’t take long before I’m crying.  Page 15, to be exact.  I suppose every person who’s been in love has that list of things that set them off, make them ache.

On page 15, the narrator sleeps over at Finn’s apartment for the first time.  Finn offers her pants to sleep in, they get into bed together, Finn holds her, they can’t fall asleep, they tell each other stories.

I’m aching.

(Dyke Aching was the original title of the book.  Seems fitting.)

It goes on like this, and they fall in love. Or at least, that’s what the narrator calls it.  Love as in: a woman’s whole existence.

The narrator becomes obsessed, unable to hold back even though she knows that Finn is in a relationship with a long-time girlfriend. After sleeping with Finn for several weeks, the narrator begins to wonder if she herself is queer, though she never thought she was.  

I wanted so badly for this book to be revelatory, for the feeling of those first few pages to last. I was so hungry for an honest, tender portrayal of a woman’s first queer relationship, and the heartbreak that follows.

But by the end, I was disappointed.  I got the feeling that the narrator wanted me to be on her side, hating Finn for for breaking her heart.  But I wasn’t on her side. In fact, if anything, I was on Finn’s.

Here’s why:

Reading this book was kind of like falling for a straight girl: she is beautiful and charming at first, but in the end you have to accept that she just isn’t playing for your team.

As I got further and further into the meat of the novel, I felt more and more uncomfortable with the narrator’s depiction of queer women.  Finn is your stereotypical butch character: always wearing men’s clothes, always the one doing the fucking, emotionally unavailable, attracted to “girly” women.  The narrator constantly makes comments about how much more “dramatic” her life has become since dating a woman, an observation that Finn affirms, saying that’s just how women are.

And then there’s the endless pathologizing of the narrator’s own sexuality.  She’s a substance abuser, and Finn is like a drug to her.  She misses her mother, and being with a woman fills that roll… On and on and on.

And then there’s the passage where the narrator, fed up with Finn, decides to brave a dating website.  Her description of the women she goes on dates with would be funny if it weren’t so offensive: the first is a “bike dyke,” the second a U-Hauler, another a vegan.  This was supposed to be funny.  It wasn’t.

And then there’s the fact that being in a relationship with Finn makes the narrator literally lose her mind (episodes of mania, drug abuse, depression).

Finn is left heartbroken and depressed, ruined by her relationship with the narrator.  “I can’t be in a relationship with anyone,” she says, if you have to grieve something, grieve that.”  

It goes on like this, depressing trope after depressing trope, until it finally comes to an end.  

I close the book.  

I’m full of disappointment, and frustration, and judgement.  I wanted you to be everything!  I feel like screaming at the book.  I wanted you to be something else!

The next morning, I sit down to write this post.  I think to myself: yes, here it is, my chance to have revenge.

I start writing.  I pick up the book from time to time, flipping through to remind myself what it was that made me so angry.  I find myself rereading the first few pages.  I find myself unable to stop.  What a beautiful sentence, I think to myself, what a great moment.

And then I realize: this is exactly what it feels like.  To fall in love with someone like Finn.  Looking for a certain reflection of yourself in the other person.  Looking to be affirmed, understood.  Seeing only the beautiful things at first, ignoring the flaws, until they grow in size and soon they are everything, and you are left wondering what exactly it was that you saw in that person in the first place, what it exactly it was that made you think you loved her.

So I guess, in some ways, this book accomplished exactly what it set out to do.

I fell for Women inexplicably, inexorably, and immediately, and it broke my heart.

Not Two, Not One

It is a sunny day in early March, and I take a moment to sit in my body.

The first thing I notice is a tightness in my throat.  I’ve been speaking the name of someone I loved, and I can feel the way the sound of it lingers, lodged neatly between my lips and my lungs.  I let it stay just as it is, heavy in the path of my breath.  I acknowledge all the joy and pain that made it so, and I travel down.

My shoulders are a paradox of strong and weak, resistant to the gravity of my arms, steadfast in support of my head, but weak: always ready to cave in, towards the heart.

And then there’s that one spot of pain I’ve always had, at the bottom of my left shoulder blade.  The same place where I imagine a wing might attach to the bone.  I don’t have wings, but sometimes it hurts as if I had lost them.

Lowering my attention, I circle around the ribcage.  It’s a place I’ve always trusted, a place I always wished I could be closer to.  I spent years fighting with my very skin, thinking that if I could make my body smaller, bring it closer to the outline of my bones, I might find a life more solid, a self more sure.  Today the battle calms, and I try to soothe the scars.

I move gently down, into the dip beneath my lowest rib.

This is the place where I like most to linger.  A place I have only recently come to love.  The place where I am most myself.  My waist, which exists somewhere in the space between breast and hip, is a pliable place where bones meet but never stay, where I bend close to the ones I love, and hold myself when they go away.

The folds of my hips and knees and ankles are the strength at the base of all this longing.  I make angles with my body to meet the weight and lightness of each day, to stand and sit and move through the world.  My feet, folded to meet the ground, know the world as a continually solid thing.

I breathe.  I breathe from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.  I breathe from the follicles of my skin to the marrow of my bones.  

My body is a map.  My body is a destination.

*

I remember the first time I ever meditated.  I was visiting my Aunt, and she invited me to join her in her morning meditation.  “If your thoughts start getting the better of you,” she told me, “just focus on the sounds around you.  Softly name them as they come and go.”  I followed her instructions, viciously shutting down any thoughts that came to mind, so focused on the sounds in the room that I forgot to breathe.  By the time the twenty minutes were over, I felt dizzy.

Almost a year would pass before I meditated again.  So much would happen in those ten months.  I would fall in love for the first time, have my first relationship, graduate college.  And I would do all of this while coming out.

I say “coming out” because it didn’t just happen once.  In fact, it’s still happening.  It’s a decision I make on a daily basis.  It’s a decision I make when I get dressed in the morning, when I get a new haircut, when I shake hands with a stranger.  It’s a decision I made when I decided to write this post.

But in order for any of those decisions to be made, I had to come out to myself.  And to do this, I had to sit with my body, and listen.

For twenty years, I had been telling my body a story.  “Listen,” I said to it, night after night, “this is who you are meant to love, and this is how you are meant to love him.  This is how you are meant to look, and this is what you are meant to wear, and this is how you are meant to walk.  This is how you are meant to be.”  

Until one day, my body revolted.  

I remember the day.  I was standing at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the south of France, embracing a woman I couldn’t seem to let go of.  I remember the feeling of a million tiny magnets sewn into my skin, pulling me to her.  I remember the feeling of her arms around my waist, the way they fit into the pliable space between breast and hip.  And I remember the feeling of my shoulders caving in, towards the heart.

It was only when I listened to my body that I learned to call this love.

*

But what does it mean, to listen to the body?  What does it really mean, to sit?

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki offers the following wisdom:

“Now I would like to talk about our zazen posture.  When you sit in the full lotus position, your left foot is on your right thigh, and your right foot is on your left thigh.  When we cross our legs like this, even though we have a right leg and a left leg, they have become one.  The position expresses the oneness of duality: not two, and not one.  This is the most important teaching: not two, and not one.  Our body and mind are not two and not one.  If you think your body and mind are two, that is wrong; if you think that they are one, that is also wrong.  Our body and mind are both two and one.  We usually think that if something is not one, it is more than one; if it is not singular, it is plural.  But in actual experience, our life is not only plural, but also singular.  Each one of us is both dependent and independent.”

I have returned to this teaching again and again.  I have sat with it, walked with it, listened for its echoes in my body.  And part of the reason why it has meant so much to me, this idea of not two and not one, is because it has deepened not only my understanding of meditation, but also my understanding of what it means to be queer.

Just as everyone who practices meditation defines their “practice” in different ways, “queer” means something different to every person who uses it.  I identify as “queer” for this very reason: it is a word that allows for endless definitions, redefinitions, expansions and transformations, a word that is both personal and universal, both singular and plural.  

For me, being queer is not just an identity I hold in my body (as in: I am biologically attracted to women), and it is also not purely an intellectual choice (as in: I choose to be in romantic relationships exclusively with women).  When I say that I listened to my body at the foot of that spiral staircase, the first time I ever had feelings for a woman, I don’t mean that I did so at the expense of my mind.  In that moment, my body and my mind were not two, and not one.  I was not who I thought I was, and exactly who I hoped I would be.  I was new, and I was old. I was confused, and absolutely certain.  

As my meditation practice has deepened and I have sat, day after day, in the “oneness of duality,” a space has opened for my body to be not only object, but also subject, not merely possessed, but also possessing.  Coming out has also meant coming in: facing myself in the stillness, and letting myself simply be.

One of my favorite queer poets, Mary Oliver, says it best:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.