Hanukkah, The Closet and the Assimilation Trap

It’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. My candles have burned themselves out and I’ve not yet started another DVD to aid my continued attempts at hiding from the ever-present Christmas that has taken over the supposedly multicultural country and definitely multicultural city in which I live. I worry from time to time that my friends might get the impression that I hate Christmas… I don’t. But the apparent compulsoriness and seeming inescapability of the celebration is hurting extra hard this year and I feel like I am drowning in Other-ness and alienation.

And so I thank God for Hanukkah and its timely message about what to do in the face of overt and covert pressure to conform and to be something I’m not: hold fast to who you are, to what you are and the truths you hold dearest. Yes, you’re different and that’s okay.
I take Hanukkah every year as a challenge to re-dedicate myself to living my truth as a bisexual, transgender, disabled Jewish man and insisting on being all those things at once no matter how many people tell me I can’t be. I accept the challenge to be who I am as openly as possible; refusing closets and refusing the false comfort of assimilation into the surrounding norms.

Hanukkah reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people still existing after thousands of years and hundreds of attempts to stop us. And I think also of the miracle that is every LGBTQ person and community surviving and thriving despite the oppression we have and do face. The miracle of Autistic communities and people insisting that we do not have to pretend to be non-Autistic to be acceptable, Disabled communities and people insisting the world change to accommodate us rather than expecting us to change to fit into it. And this year especially I think of Muslim people and communities and of Black communities and People of Colour communities continuing to exist in a world that is increasingly hostile.

I light each flame and watch as they light up the darkness and are not consumed by it. I remember the times I have felt pressured to hide my “light”; times I have been pushed to be less visible, to stand out less, to be more like what surrounds me. I try to picture myself as a flame, burning bright amidst dark surroundings.

I have never “fit in”. Sometimes I have wanted to. Sometimes I have suffered for my inability to stop being “different” from others or Other than what I was expected to be.
Sometimes I have tried to blend in. Let people assume that I’m straight or let them assume that I’m gay. Deliberately suppressed my Autistic body language or desperately attempted to hide my difficulties with numbers and writing. Taken off my yarmulke when it would have been safe but uncomfortable to be recognised as Jewish. I spent years trying desperately to be a girl out of fear of the consequences of admitting that I’m a transgender man.

The message of Hanukkah, for me, right now, is this: Be yourself. Assimilation is a tempting option but don’t let it trick you into being someone you aren’t.

As I’ve explored frequently on this blog, not feeling like I could be openly who I am and trying to at least appear to be something else has caused massive mental harm to me and right this second this same harm is happening to thousands of people. Hanukkah reminds me that one way I can help bring about a world in which no one has to hide the truth of themself away for fear of the consequences of living openly is for me to insist, as much as I can, on living openly now in this imperfect world, letting my light shine to banish just a bit of the darkness.

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Words

When I look back on my childhood as a trans, queer, autistic, mentally ill and disabled little boy, I often see the things that were missing. The problem with hindsight, always, is that it can only occur late, very late or far, far too late.

What was overwhelmingly absent, what I desperately needed was WORDS. I lacked the words to articulate my trans, queer, disabled reality. And that makes me angry, even now. Because in many cases those words existed but were kept from me. In other cases, people like me are still working to cobble together words for who and how we are, in order to communicate in a language that wasn’t built with lives like ours in mind.

If you aren’t already nodding your head in familiarity and remembering the times when you couldn’t or can’t articulate who and how you are, then please try to imagine what it’s like. To exist in a world where there is no word you’ve ever heard of for you, where what you are or how you feel or how you experience the world is so unthinkable, so unimaginable, so (it seems) impossible that there are no words for it. You are unspeakable. You exist but… the never-ceasing feeling that maybe you ought not to, maybe what you are is never spoken about because it’s bad. Wrong. Not allowed. Not okay.
Nobody knows that you are how you are. You feel like you should tell someone… and at the same time that you definitely shouldn’t. You don’t have the words for it, anyway. Nobody seems to have the words. You can’t exist.. and yet somehow you do.

I have felt this way about being trans. I also felt this way about being bisexual. And having developmental disabilities. And experiencing mental illness as a child. Even as an adult, I am still not always sure that who I am is “allowed” or “okay”.
From my teens and into the present, I found myself tinkering with words to try to get a handle on who and how I am. To try to communicate it. To try to validate it.

Sometimes that means grasping tight onto existing words like “man” and “love” and “sex” and “independent” and forcefully insisting that my life can validly form part of the meaning of those words. My gender is man, love and sex are part of my relationships with my partners no matter what their gender, I am independent because I see that my own needs are met by ensuring the provision of carers and equipment.

Sometimes I need vocabulary I didn’t have before. Concepts like “trans and cis”, “neurodiversity”, “the social model of disability”, “intersectionality”, “heteronormativity”, “structural oppression”, “sensory overload”, “stims”, “meltdowns” “selective mutism”… become necessary to my continued understanding of myself, my life, the world and my place in it.

As a child, words to describe my own disability were few. Words to describe relationships and feelings other than heteronormative boy-meets-girl were even scarcer. Words to articulate mental distress were not available to me. Words to even begin to understand my gender as a trans little boy? I had none.
Lacking these words did not prevent me from experiencing myself as a disabled and autistic, proto-bisexual, transgender little boy in increasing mental distress.

All it did was make my life more frightening and unpredictable as things happened to me that I could not explain, I had feelings I did not know how to express and I did not know how to get any help or guidance from the adults in my life because I had no words to explain what was wrong.

I scoured fiction and nonfiction books and TV shows for validation, looking for someone, anyone, who was “like me”. I found the occasional gay person or mention of the possibility of same sex relationships. I found a few fictional characters whose mental distress echoed my own (though they never had anything that was canonically acknowledged as mental illness). The fictional wizards, demi-gods, cyborgs, mutants, faeries, changelings, aliens, rebels and rejects of my childhood reading felt more like me than anyone real I ever saw on TV or heard about in school. Erasure of trans and bisexual realities left me feeling alone and alienated. The sparsity of realistic representations of autistic people kept me feeling broken and unreal. I’m scared of over-stating this but also when I look back at my teenage years I mainly see a child who didn’t know how to be because he lacked the words to express himself and no way of knowing that being someone like him (like me) was an okay thing to be.

When adults won’t talk about same sex relationships or LGBQ people or trans people to and around children, this is what it does to LGBT children. When disability is a taboo topic and disabled people are rarely the heroes of their own stories, this is what it does to disabled children. When autism isn’t identified and autistic reality isn’t treated as valid, this is what it does to autistic children.

When children are living in a world of structural oppressions, some of which they are themselves facing, and the adults around them do not acknowledge that this is happening; this is what it does to those children.
Not telling children that LGBT and disabled people exist will not stop them from being LGB or trans or disabled. It will only make things harder for them if they are and harder for their LGBT and disabled peers if they aren’t.

This is a structural problem, built into what we teach in our schools, read in our books, watch on TV, who we hang out with and a million tiny-huge other things as well as what we each say (and don’t say) to the children in our lives. It can’t be fixed with a conversation here and there or a special book or Special Episode. But we have to try.

To be entirely clear:
This isn’t about my parents or my teachers (though it is a bit about Section 28). It’s about the society I grew up in and the resources that were and were not available to me as a child. If you’re reading this as a personal attack, I’m very sorry to have upset you but it really isn’t one. This blogpost describes what it was like to grow up trans and bisexual and disabled in 90s and 00s Britain. I hope it doesn’t describe growing up in 2010’s Britain as well.

You’re Not Homophobic But… Actually, Yes You Are

About a week and a half ago, the Supreme court of the United States of America declared that all States had to have marriage available to same gender couples as well as mixed gender couples. And this is probably a good move even though I think a lot of other things would have been much more important to secure for LGBTQ people… but that can always be a different post.

This post is about the rise in online homophobia I’ve seen since the court ruling. Not just the people literally resigning their jobs, threatening to get divorced and crying on camera over how unfair it is to them that people like me have a chance to do something that they have enjoyed relatively freely for decades. Not just them but also the people likely to start a sentence with “I’m not homophobic but..”
But “I don’t accept gay “marriage””
But “Homosexuality is wrong”
But “marriage is between a man and a woman”
But “I don’t think same sex couples should be allowed to marry”
But “Same sex relationships aren’t, like, REAL relationships so why do you need to marry?”
But “I don’t want to explain this to my children”
But “Gay couples can’t have kids so they don’t need marriage like straight couples do”
But “I believe homosexuality is sinful but we can still be friends”

But but but but but…

All these and more have been thrown at me and mine recently online. Often while those same people insist that they believe all humans are equal and bullying and attacking LGBT people is wrong and something they would never, ever do…

But. These people are being homophobic – and often seeking out their gay and bi friends in order to explain to us that while they think *who and what we are* and *who and how we love* are wrong, false, immoral or lesser but we should know that they still love *us*. Just not, y’know, a major facet of who we are and a huge portion of our life.

To spell out clearly why this is homophobic, let’s put it this way:
If you believe that
a) Marriage exists and people should be able to get married
and b) Marriage affords social protections and advantages to married couples and their family
and/or c) Marriage is a way of celebrating the love shared between a couple
and you also believe d) Marriage is only for couples containing one man and one woman

then it follows that you must also believe either that same gender couples don’t need those social protections and advantages or that the love between members of a same sex couple doesn’t deserve celebrating (or worse, isn’t love).

Why would I want to be friends with someone who likely thinks my love for another man doesn’t deserve to recognised and celebrated as love but my love for a woman would? Or who thought my love for a woman should grant me and her advantages over other couples who weren’t man-woman pairs? This question isn’t rhetorical, I really want to know.

I love and have loved other men. I love and have loved women. I love and have loved nonbinary people. My love for current and ex partners who are women doesn’t feel to me to be of any different, special or unusual character compared to my love for current and ex partners who were not women. Society is/was less disgusted and less intrigued by my relationships with women than it is/was by my relationships with men, yes but the actual love and the actual relationships I don’t experience as substantially different by gender.
And when people tell me that loving men as a man is wrong or it’s okay but I shouldn’t be able to marry or it’s okay but not in public… I feel like they are telling me that my love for other men is different, somehow lesser, less real, less important, less worthy; just LESS than my love for women. And it’s not.

My love for women doesn’t need a pedestal to celebrate its social acceptability. My love for other men doesn’t need to be kept behind closed closet doors.

I’m not all that keen on the idea of marriage itself but when you tell me that the gender of the people I fall in love with should determine whether or not we can marry, what I hear you say is “I’m not homophobic but I think your relationships with other men just aren’t love”

World AIDS Day 2014

It’s World AIDS Day and I’m struggling to find the words to describe quite what that means.

What it means that I left compulsory schooling without learning about the AIDS crisis.
What it means that I was 20 before I understood how to protect myself from HIV if I had sex with other men.
What it means that the LGBT community is still at high risk of contracting HIV.
What it means that so many of my LGBT ancestors died of AIDS.
What it means knowing as many as 50% of trans women of colour will get HIV.
What it means knowing some of my friends are HIV positive and facing discrimination daily.
What it means that I have sat with terrified people in clinics and held their hands as they wait for the test result.
What it means that I have learnt all my sex ed as an adult and learnt it all from community resources.
What it means to know my own HIV status and know that most people have no idea what theirs is.
What it means to know enough history to know that the wider community didn’t care about HIV AIDS until it started killing straight cis people too.
What it means that the LGBT community was brought together by the tragedy of the AIDS crisis and yet LGBT people my age and younger barely even know it happened.
What it means that bisexual men like myself are stigmatised by many because they blame us for spreading HIV.
What it means that even CHILDREN with HIV are discriminated against because the world still thinks HIV only happens to people who have lots of sex.
What it means to know that others believe God created AIDS as a punishment to my community for daring to exist out of the shadows.

What it means to know all that and also know that HIV is no longer a sentence of certain death. With appropriate medical care, HIV positive people can live just as long as anyone else.

Today is World AIDS Day. And I don’t have the words to explain quite what that means.

Born This Way?

I’ve written and deleted four drafts of this post already because this is difficult to say and because I don’t want to keep sounding exactly like a philosophy graduate here. There’s some complicated stuff to unpack and I want to keep this blog as clear and accessible as I possibly can – especially on this because I think this is really very important.

So. It seems to be quite popular these days to assert that LGBTQ people deserve equality because we were “born this way” and can’t help or change how we are. I really hate this line of argument, I would like it to go away and I think it’s bullshit.

I happen to believe that was, in fact, born trans. I think there is something about my brain structure that caused me to regard myself as the same sort of a person as the boys and men around me and as a different sort of person from the girls, women and androgynous people around me. Whilst I believe as I have touched on in previous posts (here and here) that I had a choice about when and how and whether to come out as trans and transition, I believe that I had no choice but to be trans. My brain, my body and the society around me determined that from the very beginning of my life I would regard myself as a kind of person others did not think I was.

Similarly, I was born autistic, dyspraxic and dyslexic in that I was born with a brain and body that deviates from the “typical” human brain and body into a society that is built on the flawed assumption that everyone is or can become typical. I did not choose my brain any more than I chose my eye colour. G-d or nature or chance or evolution gave me that brain – a brain which differs significantly from the norm in ways that the society that I live in often cannot accommodate.

I was not born mentally ill (though I may have been born predisposed to mental illness). I was not born with fibromyalgia. I was not born Jewish – I chose it. And regardless of whether or not I was born innately bisexual, I actively choose to maintain a proud bisexual identity (even though it’s hard).

What I’m trying to say is: some parts of who I am have always been there, some have not, some parts I actively chose, some I had no choice in.
All should be respected.

Not because “he can’t help being that way”. Not because “he was born like that”. Not because “he has no choice”.

Because I am a human being like any other and I deserve to be treated with respect, justice and compassion. I am a person, whether I am “just like you” or not and whether or not I choose to be different.

Whatever my gender, sexuality or disability was caused by, whenever it first came into my life, whether or not it has ever or will ever change, whether or not I could change it if I wanted to… none of that matters if the question is “Do I deserve just and equal treatment?” The only thing that matters is that I am a person and therefore deserve to be equal with every other person. We all deserve liberation. We all deserve not to have to beg for it.
It doesn’t matter WHY I’m autistic or WHY I’m bi or WHY I’m a man. I just am.

I am a person. I am your equal. “Born this way” or not.

Why counter-protesting Fascists isn’t “feeding the trolls”

In the last couple of weeks, fascists have been meeting and demonstrating across the UK, using a senseless tragedy to fan the flames of racism and Islamophobia and to collect more people into their hateful ranks. This terrifies me.

I will say it. I am scared. I am scared not just for my Muslim friends and acquaintances currently living under the very real threat of senseless violence against their homes, work places and mosques and the very real possibility of being attacked in the street. I’m scared not just for my friends who aren’t white, who face much the same threats as my Muslim friends. I’m scared for me and for everyone who lives in the UK, scared of a potential future of a fascist UK. I don’t want that future to ever become reality, not in my lifetime and not even in my great great grandchildren’s lifetimes. Fascism has to be stopped, here and now, while it is still small.

Yet people have been trying to argue that the best response to fascist and far right groups like the EDL is to ignore them. To pretend they aren’t there. Someone I know said last night about an EDL rally planned for the city in which I live, “Don’t feed the trolls, they only want attention”.

THIS IS LIKELY THE WORST POSSIBLE RESPONSE TO THE GROWTH OF FASCISM. Possibly even a worse response than trying to “rationally debate” with fascists. I’m all for refusing fascists a platform, but when they are mobilising we should not look away and pretend they aren’t there.

Why?

Firstly, because it’s not true that they “only want attention”. What fascists want is a fascist state, which by its very nature is a place where many people could not safely live – people who can’t live up to some kind of nationalist ideal. In the past, this has meant anyone who isn’t sufficiently white, able-bodied, Christian, heterosexual and normatively gendered and I fear that if groups like the EDL, the BNP, the British Freedom Party and UKIP gain more support in the UK then it is these people again who will find themselves faced with living in a country that doesn’t want them, that may try to expel, punish or kill them for being who they are or will encourage or ignore violence against them. This has happened before and it’s not a great stretch of the imagination to see it happening again. It’s not attention the fascists are after, they have goals and those goals should be vehemently opposed by anyone who believes in freedom and human worth.

The second reason that fascists should be meet with resistance from antifascists is that they commonly believe they are (and in the UK at least will often present themselves as) representatives of the “silent majority”. That is, they believe that most people secretly agree with them but are too afraid of the consequences to say so. This is not true. When counter-protests draw more people than the fascists can, it shows them that their views are not widespread and certainly not shared by everyone. Ignoring their protests allows them to continue to assume that everyone is quietly agreeing with them.

Relatedly, opposing fascist actions shows those involved who are not wholly committed to fascism that there are other views and other ways to think about and solve the problems they turned towards fascism to solve. I accept that some people end up involved in fascist, neofascist and far right groups in response to very real and important problems – I can’t accept the proposed solutions they found (which usually involve people like me assimilating away our differences or facing persecution, punishment, expulsion or death for failing to do so). Showing those people that there are other ways to solve their problems (like, say, pushing for better pay and working conditions and affordable housing rather than complaining that the Muslim family down the road get a council house and benefits to look after their disabled daughter) might help them come to see that their energy would be better expended elsewhere.

Perhaps the most important reason why fascism has to be publically, openly opposed to to show those people who would suffer under a fascist state that we are not alone. We need to see that there are people around us who will speak out, who will not allow fascist far right groups to decide for everyone else who is and isn’t sufficiently “British” to live here, who will not look away and pretend it’s not happening when our homes and lives and cultures are under threat. We are scared and it’s all too easy and understandable to see potential fascists in every unfamiliar face, to worry that quiet racism, islamophobia, anti-semitism, homophobia, disablism and transphobia hides behind the smiles of our friends and acquaintances. The lie of the “silent majority” is a disguised threat, inviting us to believe that the people around us could turn on us at any moment if we are not “British” enough, not apologetic enough for daring to be here and still be culturally different from the mainstream. Any public demonstration against fascists is a public demonstration of solidarity with us, a public declaration of the belief that people who are very different from each other can live together in peace. By countering fascist demos, we can send a message of hope to the people who live or work nearby and the people who hear that the demo was countered by an anti-fascist one and that message is “We want you here, we want people like you”.

SO:
Do whatever you have to do to keep safe when fascists are nearby – even if that means staying home. But do whatever you can do to show both the fascists and those they threaten that fascism is not wanted, needed or accepted here. Show solidarity with those who are threatened and make clear that you want to live in a place where people are different from each other and still get along peacefully, not somewhere where a fragile peace is kept by forcing everyone to try to be the same.

Don’t ignore the fascists, don’t pretend they aren’t there. Work against their ideals and for a world where no one is punished for being different.

Update on NUSLGBT13 and Religion

I reckoned the dozens of people who read my previous post on LGBTQ People and Relgion might want to know how things went at conference.

So, to the best of my recollection, the motion which contained the text of the original motion *and* Emma’s amendment and another amendment  passed with all its parts intact. Correction: with CR1 removed.

What was strange was that students who had been abused in religious contexts said that conference resolves 1 and conference resolves 5 were actions that would make them and people like them feel unsafe and asked for those parts to be removed but conference voted to keep them anyway.

Conference resolves 1 was “To condemn anti-religious sentiments found within LGBT communities and the LGBT rights movement”. The argument to remove this was that condemning “sentiments” seems an awful lot like condemning the people who feel that way or at the very least suggesting that the way they are feeling is wrong. There are many reasons, some of them very understandable to have and express negative feelings toward religion or religions, the argument went, and this is totally different from having / expressing negative feelings about a person because of their religion. Condemning peoples feelings seems t=like telling them how they should feel and is erasing of the experiences of people who have very understandable reasons to feel negatively toward religion – it’s simply incompatible with affirming in Conference Further Believes 8 “Rejection of any and all religious practice is a legitimate response to abuse experienced in that context”
The argument for keeping Conference Resolves 1 was that condemning sentiments was not the same as condemning people who have those sentiments, that whilst it may be very understandable why someone might feel that way those sentiments are still harmful and they should be encouraged to change how they feel about religion and that it is necessary to condemn these sentiments in order to properly work with students of faith and faith-based organisations.

Conference voted to keep Conference Resolves 1. CORRECTION: Conference voted to remove Conference resolves 1.

Conference Resolves 5 states “To commend and promote religious organisations supportive of their LGBT members.”

The argument to remove this was from Emma. She argued that there was no point commending groups for doing the “pastoral bare minimum” of supporting their members – all religious groups should be doing this anyway or they’re failing people they committed to supporting and nurturing. She further argued that “promoting” religious groups is inherently unsafe for those who’ve needed to leave religion because of abuse.
The argument to keep Conference Resolves 5 I couldn’t hear very well but seemed to be essentially “if we don’t promote LGBT-friendly religious groups, how will people find them?” and that commending groups for being inclusive was somehow essential to working together with people of faith.
Conference voted to keep Conference Resolves 5.

So now the NUS LGBT Campaign has active policy to be mindful of the needs of survivors of faith-based abuse and in the same motion active policy to condemn any anti-religious sentiments those students may have and to commend and promote religious organisations that abused students may struggle to see as any different to those who hurt them. Right.

Comments very welcome from people who heard / remember the debate better than I did. I have further thoughts about these arguments and about what the NUS LGBT campaign as a whole and your local LGBTQ group or faith group can do to follow the best possible understanding of this policy but those thoughts can wait.