Where’ve I been? Getting ATOS-ed, that’s where

I realise I’ve not written here in about a month, quite possibly the longest pause in my blogging since YetAnotherLefty came into being a little over two years ago. I (perhaps vainly) imagine that my readers have been asking themselves where I am and when I’m going to get round to writing something again and while I don’t really owe you guys anything, I feel an explanation is due.

Quite entirely simply, the explanation is “I got Atos-ed”. Again. And it was humiliating and triggering and awful and it harmed my mental and physical health. Again.

I want to try to go into that and expose what it’s like to claim PIP and/or ESA (the two kinds of social security / benefits payments offered to disabled people in the UK). Every person I’ve described the process to in real life has been horrified. Sometimes I wonder if people just don’t know or just don’t WANT to know how their friends, family, neighbours who are disabled are being treated. I know people don’t want to think that it could happen to them – when the various changes to disability benefits in the UK started, I was CONVINCED that they were not relevant to me or to anyone I knew. I was very, very wrong. The illnesses that cause me constant pain and fatigue had already begun. The disabilities I’d lived with from infancy should have got me DLA/PIP if anyone had thought to apply.

For both PIP (a benefit that most disabled people qualify for and that is for people who can work as well as people who can’t) and ESA (basically a replacement income for those too ill or disabled to *seek employment*) you first have to obtain and fill in a paper form. On that form, you will be presented with lists of tasks and the option to tick that you either can or cannot do those tasks. And then you’re expected to write in minute detail exactly WHY you can’t do the things you can’t do and how much help you need and why you need that help and exactly which symptoms of exactly which condition(s) prevent you from doing the thing. For EVERY. SINGLE. THING that you can’t do. There’s about thirty pages to the form, and four or more tasks on each page, many of which have subheadings.
It’s a lot of writing, especially if this is your first such form. Oh, and the space to write in is tiny and they don’t actually tell you that you need to detail the whys and hows of every last thing you can’t do without help.

And then they make you back everything up with letters from doctors and carers and social workers and anyone with a title regardless of whether or not they’ve ever seen you at home.

And then they usually still insist on a face to face assessment. Which amounts to meeting a stranger who’s been given a Cliff Notes (think literal bullet points) version of what you wrote on the form in the first place and then questions you in detail about all your conditions and all the things you can’t do and precisely WHY you can’t do them, give examples of times you couldn’t do this, what would happen if you didn’t have the help you have, but WHY does X condition mean you can’t do Y task? how come you can do P but not Q?… the form all over again but with another person asking the questions and not especially caring about being sensitive or kind (in my last PIP assessment, I think we spent a whole ten minutes talking about my bowel and bladder problems and at least 20 on “But WHHHY does severe anxiety prevent you from mixing with people and going to new places on your own?”).
And then based on a report about the face-to-face (including, no joke, comments on whether or not you “looked anxious” in the waiting room) your medical evidence and the damn form, a complete stranger who you have never met, who has never observed you in person, decides whether or not you’re disabled/ill enough to be given a small but often life changing sum of money.

And I think readers of this blog are probably vaguely familiar with all of the above. I needed to spell out the background because what upsets me most about this whole charade, what explains why I become hazy and distant and slightly more mentally ill immediately before and a short while after a face-to-face assessment or a frantic couple of weeks writing the damn forms (every three to six months I have to do one or the other as I get both PIP and ESA)… is the effect this has on my (and likely others’) sense of self, my identity.
The forms and the system reduce me to a list of “I can’t x without y help because of p,q,r symptoms of z condition”. I experience my life – and my self – as a series of events caused or explained by my inability to do things. My brain processes experiences as potential examples for the damn forms and assessments. I feel like a fraud if I decide to take the pain and the consequences of doing something I really really ought not to do. I feel guilty about spending money because at any moment a brown envelope and a few strangers could take all my money away. I worry about that one picture of me on Instagram where I appear to be standing unaided with a baby in each arm – I know the reality is that I’m seated on a stool and there are two people just out of shot ready and waiting to take one or both babies from me as soon as the photo is done – I still worry about what it looks like.
The logic of the form – that one should be able to work and if you aren’t you better have a detailed explanation of precisely why – permeates my brain. I over-explain why I can’t or won’t do things to friends and strangers who would happily have accepted “I can’t” as its own reason. My depression latches onto things that I can’t do that someone my age “should” be able to do. I feel ashamed and scared to admit that I am “on benefits” and likely will be for the rest of my life.
On my “good days”, my depression and anxiety still interject to make me question if I even “deserve” to get paid to not-work (because anything even remotely like full time work would seriously harm me) and if my more expensive or frivolous purchases are justified given I don’t “earn” my money. On my bad days, lying in bed, my brain idly writes new paragraphs for the damn forms.
The system for getting these payments leaves me constantly thinking about what I CAN’T do and why. That can’t be good for me but I can’t stop it. A few more years of this and I imagine it will become a permanent subroutine in my brain, figuring out what I can’t do, what help I need, why I need help, how seriously I’d be harmed without help.. a huge portion of my brain forever ruminating on something that doesn’t help *me* at all. When I could be thinking about my writing or learning or having fun or…

So that’s where I’ve been and where I’m at. The DWP are basically inside my head and critiquing my every action. And it hurts.

And yet… until the system is fixed, I still advise disabled friends to consider putting themselves through it. Because the money maybe a modest sum but it’s LIFE-CHANGING. It means I don’t have to worry about affording a meal in a cafe or a takeaway when I can’t figure out all the steps to making my own lunch. It means I can get a taxi if I need to. It means I can pay bus fare for a friend to accompany me to a scary new place. It means I can afford food that isn’t beans. It helps but making it happen hurts. Possibly permanently. It’s a bind and I respect the choices people make about whether or not applying for PIP, ESA or both will be “worth it” for them.

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Who are we?

Below I will describe a group of people who are marginalised and live in Europe, America, Canada and Australia. Who are we?

We are part of a tradition stretching back centuries.
We can and do live in every part of the world.
We are sometimes considered to be a race or a nation yet we are of many races and have no particular leader, government or land.

We have no leader yet each of us is held responsible for the actions of others like us.
We are each made to explain over and over that we are peaceful and acts of violence committed in our names were wrong.

We suffer violence daily in the so-called “Western World”.
Our children hear racist taunts.
We are harassed by strangers in the streets.
Our religious clothing is openly mocked and derided.
We are attacked and even killed.
Our places of worship are frequently graffiti-ed and desecrated.
We are stereotyped, mocked or invisible on TV and in films.
Our symbols and art are appropriated.
We are pressured to conform to white christian national norms.
If we manage this, we are mocked. If we fail, we are still mocked.
We form communities of our own and are accused of not trying to integrate.
We try to integrate and find ourselves isolated.
We can feel the target on our backs whenever we are out of home.

People who even “look” like the racist stereotype of how we “look” face the same slurs, the same exclusion, the same violence.
We try not to “look” like ourselves.
We are told we are ugly.
We can never do enough to “fit in”. Our names, our clothes, our food, our bodies will betray us.
The target never quite disappears.

We make ourselves small.
We make ourselves quiet.
We try to be “moderate”.

We are told we “take over” spaces; we take too much space.
We are accused of having too much influence; we “control” too much.
And we are called radical even if all we ask is to live our lives in peace.

Our loyalties are always suspect.
We cannot claim loud enough to love the country we live in,
Sending money abroad is a sin if we do it.
If we cannot love this country, we are told repeatedly to “Go home” –
No matter how many generations it’s been since “home” meant anywhere else.

Who are we?

The answer isn’t: “Jews”
And it’s not “Muslims” either.

It’s “Muslims AND Jews”.

Islamophobia and Anti-semitism are two sides of one very racist coin.

And that constant feeling of being a target, being unwanted, being impermissible because we can’t or won’t live within white christian cultures? That pressure is hurting Muslims and Jews across Europe and I suspect across the US, Canada and Australia as well.

Religious Abuse

I’ve tried to write this post many,many times and I never manage it because there are parts of my past I still find too desperately painful to write about. But right now I’m seeing both atheists blaming Christianity (or more often “religion”) as a whole for the tragic and avoidable death of Leelah Alcorn and Christians insisting Leelah and others like her could be saved if they only found a different (but still Christian) church or community to be part of, that they ones they are in aren’t “real” Christians and real Christians will love and accept trans youth for who they are… And I need to say something.

I need to say something because I and other trans people, from children to old people and every age in between, have been subjected to religiously motivated abuse from people who “disagree” with our lived realities as trans people. I need to say something because responding to that abuse is NOT as simple as “find another Church” or “stop believing in God”. BOTH of those reactions – and others – can be good decisions for a particular person experiencing religiously-motivated abuse but neither is as easy or as likely to help as those suggesting them as a general solution appear to think.

To those suggesting to hurt and vulnerable people that they just stop going to church or find a different church or stop believing in God, I want you to know:

With very, very few exceptions, anyone who recognises that they are being harmed in the name of a religion is *already aware* that there are multiple branches of their religion. With even fewer exceptions, they are likely already aware that atheism/ agnosticism exists.

Telling someone to just leave an abusive community – whether or not you suggest an alternative community to leave to – is pretty much *exactly* like telling someone to leave an abusive relationship or family. The person in the abusive situation likely knows better than you what harmful consequences would occur if they tried to leave and what they would need to have in place in order to leave – if you’re not offering practical and *unconditional* support to leave saying “There are other options” is close to useless.

Going to reiterate that on UNCONDITIONAL support. If you only plan on being there for someone *after* they take the leap out of an abusive religious community and not while they are still in it and trying to figure out what to do, your support is not really support. Same goes if you only intend to support someone if they make the choice *you* think is best – that’s not support, it’s paternalism. If you want to help people in these kinds of situations, you have to show that you care about them no matter what and you trust them to try their best to do what’s best for them.

Religion often isn’t “just” a belief system – it can be a huge part of a person’s life and identity. It can be their main or only community and family. Leaving one particular Church could potentially mean never seeing almost all your friends and family again – it’s not up to you to decide whether or not that risk is “worth it” for someone else.

You can’t look at a person and see how strongly they feel about their religion or what it means to them or what parts are and aren’t important to them. Telling a Catholic that Unitarians exist and welcome LGBT people is not helpful if the Trinity is spiritually meaningful to that Catholic. Telling an agnostic Jew to give up Jewish rituals that are important to her because her family refuses to accept her gender wouldn’t be helpful either.

Don’t argue scripture with people uninvited. THIS IS IMPORTANT. Don’t argue about scriptural interpretation or different ways of looking at certain passages or practices without explicit consent to do so. More likely than not, they are getting plenty enough of this within their community / family. Make sure they know that YOU will respect their boundaries and won’t try to force them into discussion.

To those who find themselves experiencing a conflict between who they are and what their religious community teaches, I want you to know:

 

First, you’re not alone. Lots of people all over the world, of many different faiths (and occasionally atheists brought up within the moral codes of a religion) are in the same position as you. It’s difficult and there are tough choices to be made but whatever you choose, someone else is doing the same – and maybe with the help of the internet you can find them.

Second: it’s okay if you don’t want to call what’s happening to you “abuse” – and it’s okay if you do want to. Trying to rationalise what’s happening to you by telling yourself that people are just trying to help you or that they don’t know that what they’re doing / saying is harmful is okay too. If it helps you survive, think and feel anything about the people hurting you – they can’t control what you think or feel even if they want to.

The position you are in – seemingly forced to make a choice between your*self* and your religion – is an extremely difficult and complex situation to be in. It’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s NOT your fault this is happening to you. Anything you can do to keep your self safe and alive is an okay response to this situation.

Staying closeted or going back into the closet can hurt you but as a short to medium term response it can be a good choice.
Being out only with or around particular people and not in general or in specific places can be a good choice.
Keeping your own beliefs in your head and performing the religious practices of the community you are in until you can safely get out can be a good choice.
Losing your belief in God or changing religion can be very scary – it can also be the right thing for you to do.
Finding a way to stay in your religion and still be open about who you are is also likely an option. It might be the best option for you. It also might not.
Leaving and then going back is okay. Leaving and never going back is okay. Drifting in and out of belief in God is okay.
Griefing over losing a religion or belief in God is okay. Not feeling grief at all is okay.
Staying and trying to change things is okay. Burning bridges is also okay.
Wishing you could go back is okay. Being glad to never go back is okay.
There is NO one right way to deal with this.

You are going to need friends. Friends within *and* outside of your religion. Look for groups for people of your religion who are trans / LGBT, look for groups for people who *used to* belong to your religion but left. Make friends that have nothing to do with your religion. Make friends outside of your community so you know that if you do decide to leave, you won’t lose all your friends.

Find someone to talk to about your feelings. Get an outsider viewpoint if you can. Find someone sympathetic who won’t push their own solutions on you – a helpline for people in distress might be a good place to start.

If you are a child / teen, remember that you soon won’t be and you’ll be able to choose your own place to live, study, worship and your own therapists and support when you’re an adult. If your parents or school *aren’t* religious / are supportive of trans and LGB people, they might be able to help you find a supportive adult to listen to you now.

Talk scripture if you want to, don’t if you don’t. I can happily discuss why Judaism is a good religion for me but I still feel terrified and ashamed if people try to discuss Christian responses to trans and LGB issues with me because of stuff that happened to me when I thought I was Christian. You don’t owe ANYONE an explanation of why you do or don’t attend certain services or do or don’t believe certain things.

And finally:
Whatever you feel about and however you experience your gender and/or sexuality is real. Nothing and nobody can take it from you. I and thousands like me will believe you instantly and completely if you say “I am trans” or “I am a woman” or “I have no gender”. No one else can tell you how you feel about yourself, only you know and only you can say. Nobody can make you become someone you aren’t – not even you. Whether it will be easy or difficult for you to find a way to live as your self, there are thousands of us who want to help and support you to do it – whatever you think and feel about God or religion and whether you want to stay in a particular faith or not.

You deserve to be happy and to live your life authentically. Yes, you.

Write to YOUR MP about Gender Recognition

Here on YetAnotherLefty, I’ve written about the current state of gender recognition for trans people in the UK, it’s effects on Marriage and contrasts with other countries before. These posts have been widely shared as people came to learn, often for the first time, quite how awful, humiliating and blatantly transphobic the current set up is. People have contacted me to tell me how upset and angry this makes them as cis people and how terrified and overwhelmed they feel as trans people. After another case of someone apparently being denied recognition of her gender by the Gender Recognition Panel *because a magazine reported that she had got her wife pregnant within the last two years*, the messages I’ve been getting have changed from just “This is so wrong!” to “This is so wrong! WHAT CAN WE DO?”

Here is the start of my contribution towards doing something about this awful situation: A Guide for individuals and organisations on the how and why of writing to your MP to stop this awful situation continuing.

You read that right, I’m an anarchist asking you to write letters to MPs. It’s not the only tactic but I think for once it may be a useful place to start.

So: before we go any further, here is WHAT WE WANT
In quiet discussion with a large number of trans people and trans organisations, the following goals seem to be more or less agreed upon.

FIRST: The Gender Recognition Panel should be *immediately* instructed to APPROVE gender recognition for all those currently on its waiting list and to approve Gender Recognition for ALL SUBSEQUENT APPLICATIONS until…
SECOND: The Gender Recognition Panel is disbanded and replaced with a simple method of updating one’s gender based on self-definition rather than medical or social “evidence” of transition. A similar system to that already in place for updating one’s address or name or a single Statutory Declaration would be much preferable to the current system.

How to Write To An MP
1. Find your MP’s contact details here
2. Send a physical letter rather than an email if you can or email through something like Write To Them
3. Be polite! We want to get them onside so if you’re angry be angry but polite with it.
4. If you are going to publish a copy of your letter and/or their reply (such as on your blog) remember to say so in your letter.
5. If you have twitter / facebook / etc tell people when you have sent the letter.

Your letter should include:
– a brief description of the problem,
– how it affects / how it makes you feel and/or how it affects your MP’s constituents,
– what you want your MP in specific to do about it,
– your hopes of a swift but considered reply.

Below I’ll write some stuff to help you write each section. Try to use your own words as much as you can – MPs tend to ignore form letters.

What is the problem?

Problem 1: transphobic and patronising law
The Gender Recognition Act has been fundamentally flawed for the entire decade of its existence. It is built on the transphobic assumption that doctors and lawyers who have never even met a person are better placed than that (ADULT!) person to decide what that person’s gender is.
The process for getting your gender recognised in the UK if you are trans is lengthy, costly, invasive and humiliating. (Consider briefly describing the process in case your MP is not familiar with it).

Problem 2: Coercive sterilisation / invasive focus on medical treatment
There is also increasing evidence that, while no medical procedure, treatment or surgery is required per se, in actual fact the Panel is systematically biased *against* trans people (and especially trans women) who do not have genital surgeries and those who delay or forgo treatment in order to preserve their ability to procreate. This has led to an ongoing situation where people feel that they *must* undertake treatments and surgeries that they might otherwise have not had for several years or even might not have had at all out of fear of the Panel denying them Gender Recognition if they do not. The current situation is one of coerced medical treatment – especially medical treatment that results in irreversible sterilisation. The UN, the World Health Organisation and others condemn forced or coerced sterilisation and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez recognised forced or coerced medical treatment for trans people as torture. His report is here and a very detailed reflection on his report from The Anti-Torture Initiative is here. As both of these reports are on torture in health care settings, please read with caution and take breaks if you are triggered or otherwise harmed by reading about the actions mentioned in the reports.

If nothing else, the form’s insistence on knowing intimate details of all treatments for Gender Identity Disorder that an applicant has undergone or will undergo needs to be immediately removed from the form as this information is private and irrelevant.

Problem 3: Unnecessary and Unhelpful pathologization
A further problem with the current system is that it unfairly allows only those who have a medical diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder” or “Transsexulism” to have their gender recognised – despite the fact that being trans (ie considering oneself to belong to a gender other than that assigned at birth) is not in itself a medical problem or diagnosis. It is quite possible to be trans yet not be able to get that diagnosis if a person is not greatly distressed by being trans or if the person is intersex. The Liberal Democrats have active policy to remove this requirement – if your MP is a Lib Dem, ask them what the Lib Dems are doing towards this, if they aren’t ask them what their party’s policy on this issue is.

Problem 4: No gender recognition for under-18s or for people of nonbinary genders
The current system also denies gender recognition to children who may need it and provides no recognition at all for anyone who has a gender other than “man” or “woman”. Many people are neither men nor women and they have just as much right as anyone to have their identity legally validated and recorded correctly on any documentation including birth certificates.

Problem 5: No one can work out whether or not I can legally marry *anyone* as myself
Under the current system, it is unclear whether or not a trans person *without* a gender recognition certificate can legally marry any other person without committing perjury by gendering themself correctly during their wedding ceremony. (I’ve talked to several lawyers on this, they couldn’t agree). This essentially leaves every trans person in the UK with at least two years of their life in which they may neither marry nor reproduce and no certainty that those two years so constricted in their right to a family life will yield a usable birth certificate and recognised identity. It’s a high price to pay and thousands of trans people are being left with no option but to pay it.

Problem 6: the Spousal Veto
Another HUGE problem with the Gender Recognition Act as it is currently, is something UK trans people have named “the Spousal Veto”. I find it hard to explain but it essentially allows any person married to a trans person to delay their legal gender recognition *potentially indefinitely* by refusing to either consent to remaining married to the same person under their new gender or consent to a divorce. Sarah Brown explains the situation much better than I could and also goes into a fair amount of the social and legal history that led to UK-based trans people having such a bizarre and draconian set of legal hoops to jump through for basic recognition of who we are. Incidentally, the Lib Dems also have policy against the Veto.

Problem 7: Monetary Cost to individual trans people
The current process requires sums of money that many will simply not have access to (due to discrimination in the work place, trans people are disproportionately under- and un-employed). Two doctors notes (for which NHS doctors may charge up to £200) and a notarised statutory declaration (costing between £5 and £50) are needed in the case of a single trans person (two stat decs would be needed in the case of a married trans person), in addition to the (means-tested) admin costs and the costs of any treatment the trans person has been unable to get on the NHS… It’s an amount of money many will be completely unable to spare yet the cost of going without gender recognition is also high. Being unable to marry, unable to provide a birth certificate as ID and knowing that somewhere the wrong name and the wrong gender are recorded as your identity has a huge psychological and social impact on trans people both as individuals and as a community.

Problem 8: Cost to the state
The existence of the Gender Recognition Panel – a group of people literally employed by the UK government to judge and decide the gender of British and UK-residing trans people – is also costly and inefficient to the state. Trans people can and do legally update their gender details on absolutely everything else, including passports, medical records, the census, work records, school records, exam certificates, bank records etc etc perfectly well without a panel to decide whether or not they can. The panel is simply not necessary and needlessly adds distress and delay to the lives of trans people and their families.

Updating one’s name has always been straightforward in the UK, requiring no court or lawyer or external body to approve or disapprove. The UK trusts its citizens to choose their own names, why not also their own genders?

How it affects you / your friends / other people
Talk about the distress, the delays (at least two years before you can apply, under 18s cannot apply even with parent’s permission, exploding queue situation with applications) monetary costs and the rights to family and private life that trans people cannot exercise with a Gender Recognition Certificate.

Words I’ve heard used to describe the present system include: absurd, ridiculous, kafka-esque, draconian, evil, wrong, repugnant, invasive, degrading, dehumanising, pathologizing, transphobic and inhumane. It shows a complete lack of trust in trans people’s ability to know themselves (ourselves) and what they (we) need. Talk about how it does or would make you feel to have to submit to a Government panel to decide for you who you are. Perhaps ask your MP how they would feel if they had to go through this process.

Even by the most conservative of estimates, something like 1 in 100 people is some kind of trans. There will be dozens, even hundreds, of children in your MP’s constituency who are trans – what kind of gender recognition system would your MP like them to encounter if they ever need one? One based on the assumption that they are wrong about their identity until and unless several doctors and lawyers *most of whom they will never meet* decide it for them? Or one which assumes autonomy and gives them control over their own identities?

If you have gone through the Gender Recognition process, you might like to write about how distressing it was. If, like me, you haven’t gone through it because it would be terribly distressing, invasive and/or costly it is then consider writing to your MP about that. If you are cis (i.e. you are not any kind of trans and consider the gender assigned to you about birth to be more or less correct) please say so in this section and write about why this issue still matters to you because it is e.g. distressing to think of anyone and potentially friends, partners or family feeling forced to go through this awful system.
Mention that there is a general consensus among many trans people and organisations that the Gender Recognition Panel MUST GO – this includes people who have gone through the Gender Recognition Process and people who campaigned FOR the Gender recognition Act.

Mention that Argentina and Denmark now have Gender Recognition on demand and that this has been widely welcomed and celebrated by trans people and their communities.

Perhaps point out that the UK doesn’t tell people what name, race, sexuality or religion is theirs: why should gender be any different?

What Do You Want Your MP To DO About This
There are several things you might ask your MP to do.
-You could ask them to ask in Prime Minister’s Questions what the Government intends to do to solve the many, many problems with the Gender Recognition Act or even to ask specifically if the Prime Minister will agree that Gender is a personal matter that should be decided on by individual people rather than by the State.
-You could ask them to draft an Early Day Motion or (if someone already has) to support an existing EDM.
-You could ask them to arrange to meet with trans people to discuss these concerns.
-You could ask them to do all in their power to lobby for the Gender Recognition Panel to be abolished and replaced with a simpler system based on self-definition and to approve all applications in the mean time.
-You could ask them to publically acknowledge and support trans people’s rights to autonomy over our bodies and our identities.
-You can ask them what THEY plan to do to make sure this awful coercive dehumanising system does not continue as it is. Or what their party plans to do.

Conclusion

Use the concluding paragraph to wish them well, say you hope they will consider your letter carefully and reply within two to three weeks. Remind them again that this issue is very important to a lot of people and you hope they can agree to help in some way. Add a method or two for them to contact you if they need anything clarifying or explaining before they reply. And remember to state clearly whether or not you intend to publish your letter and/or any reply online. If you feel like it, you may want to remind them that the elections aren’t all that long off now and trans people and their (our) supporters will be watching what the various parties do to support trans rights between now and then.

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.

Questions Strangers Ask Me – Part 1, Religion

This post is intended to be revised, updated and added to as and when new questions are asked of me by strangers. UPDATE: I’ve decided to split this into parts. This post contains Part One. (Links to subsequent posts will be added here)

Intro

Lately, I’ve been roped into unsolicited conversations with strangers pretty much every time I leave the house. Everywhere I go, I am treated like public property, like something that *owes* strangers answers to questions that are none of their business, answerable by a quick look in a dictionary, library or search engine or frequently both. My time and energy and whatever I am trying to do are all treated as less important than some stranger’s question and yet I answer them politely and calmly.
I am afraid of Causing A Scene or Making A Fuss. I am afraid of being labelled Uppity, Selfish, Ungrateful… and of those labels being attached to whichever minority group my assailant has noticed that I am. The questions are usually about that – an acknowledgement that I have been seen to be Jewish / Disabled / LGBT / Neuro-atypical and therefore for the sake of “awareness” and “acceptance” and “understanding”, I am supposedly obliged to answer any and all questions put to me.

Due to the combined effects of my complex PTSD and the toxic influence of years of my life spent raised as though I were a girl living under patriarchy, I am not currently even *able* to refrain from answering all but the most personal of questions. My PTSD searches for the quickest escape route from strangers and often concludes within a couple of seconds that the safest, fastest way to get rid of them is to do whatever they want. I’m trying to reprogramme myself to respond “I do not answer questions about my religion / disability / financial circumstances / past / sexuality / etc” but right now I can’t really do that. I’ve also unfortunately discovered that saying “I’m not allowed to talk to strangers, please go away” repeatedly whilst backing away / closing the door *does not actually work at ending the conversation*. Yes, people will literally stand on the doorstep arguing with me about whether or not I’m allowed to talk to them.

So: that was an unexpectedly long intro leading up to the questions themselves. These are all things I’ve been asked by complete or near strangers on numerous occasions. Often they aren’t even precluded by a “Hello” and the conversation usually ends as soon as I’ve answered.

PART ONE: When people notice I am a Jew

“How do you keep that hat on your head?”
I get asked this a lot and I sort of understand it because my combination of several inches of wavy spikes of hair, buzzcut sides and a hat that maintains an improbable fixed position on the back of my head seems to defy explanation. The answer’s actually fairly simple. My yarmulke is clipped to my hair with hairclips. One on each side, one pointing forwards and the other pointing backwards can effectively keep my yarmulke firmly on my head even in strong winds.

“Do you wear that for fashion or for, er, religious reasons?”
I’m Jewish and Jewish men keep our heads covered when we pray. They easiest way to do this is to wear a hat all the time in case I’ll need to recite a blessing for seeing a rainbow, eating a sandwich or unexpectedly meeting an old friend. A yarmulke or kippah is a traditionally Jewish hat for this purpose but any hat (or hood or scarf or any other head covering) will do just as well. Sometimes round the house or even as far as the corner shop I’ll just put up the hood of my hoody. So why wear a yarmulke when I could just wear any hat or my hoody all the time? That *is* a choice – the choice to be publically visible as a Jew despite the harassment and anti-semitic abuse this gets me. Because being Jewish is, in a not-small part, about refusing to assimilate. I could blend in and pass for a white gentile probable-Christian… and I refuse to. I am a Jew and I am proud of who I am.

“What part of Israel / Germany / Poland / Russia are you from?” / “When did you / your parents move to the UK?” / “Where are you from? … No, where are you REALLY from?”
I am from the UK. So are my parents. And their parents. And their parents’ parents and so on for as long as anyone has bothered to check. I am not an immigrant and my race on the census is recorded as “White British”. Until fairly recently, no one ever questioned the assumption that I was white, British and born here, nor did anyone suggest my parents must be immigrants. But now I wear a kippah and sometimes speak in Hebrew and don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter – so my race, my nationality and my right to live here are called into doubt in the minds of strangers.

“Are you, y’know.. circumcised?”
In the politest possible terms: FUCK OFF. Whether or not I’m circumcised is between me, G-d, my Rabbi and my partners. If you’re not G-d, my Rabbi or dating me, you do not need to know. If you want to date me, asking me personal questions about my genitals is NOT how to flirt with me. This applies to other Jews who know I’m a convert too – you don’t need to know.

“Why do Jews do X?”
MyJewishLearning.com is your friend and I am not a walking, talking Encyclopaedia Judaica. Whilst I often do answer these questions if I know the answers, waiting to encounter a stranger who is Jewish and ask them all your questions is just laziness and entitlement in a world with internet and libraries.

“You should join our (evangelical Christian) Bible Studies group! We could learn so much from your Jewish perspective!”
Yes, this has been said to me several times by different people, none of whom were able to explain to me what I was supposed to gain from teaching Christians my “Jewish Perspective” on ancient Jewish texts that Christians also include in their canon of holy books. Again, I am not an Encyclopaedia Judaica nor am I a Rabbi – I am not in any way obliged to offer my time and knowledge for free in order to provide people with perspectives they could gain as I did by reading books written by Jewish scholars and/or they could actually contact a Rabbi and ask them to come and give a talk at their Bible Studies group instead as it would at least fall under the Rabbi’s job description.

“People can convert to Judaism! How / why?”
Yes they can and yes I am doing. The how mainly involves study, self-reflection, synagogue attendance and (this may surprise people) writing essays for Rabbis to read over. Then there’s answering questions for a panel of Rabbis and a ceremony involving prayers and a big pool of water and once you’re out of the pool you’re just as much of a Jew as any other Jew. Why? Because I feel this is the right choice for me and the kind of life I want to lead.

“You’re Jewish AND transgender?! How does that work?” / “You’re Jewish AND bisexual?! How does that work?”
Very well, thank you very much.  A lot of Jews are LGBTQA. A lot of synagogues (including some Orthodox ones) are very explicitly LGBTQA friendly. There are LGBTQA Rabbis, there are trans-friendly blessings and rituals, there are midrash about trans characters from the Tanakh. There are current and also historical trans Jews to serve as possibility models. Basically, this religion has been around and figuring out how to interpret our holy book for a few thousand years and very experienced in applying Torah to whatever new situations we may find ourselves in – trans people and LGBQA people? Really not a huge problem.

“Racist comment about Palestinians, Muslims or Arabs”
You are completely wrong, being racist and you should feel bad, learn about Palestine / Islam / Arabic culture and also fuck the fuck off.
Racists have an awful tendency to assume I’ll agree with anything bad they have to say about Muslims because I’m a Jew. Well, sorry not sorry, this Jew feels a deep love and kinship with Muslims everywhere and will stand up to racism and Islamophobia wherever he sees it.

“I pray for Israel and your people!”
Erm, okay? Do that if you must but: I’m not Israeli (see above) I’m Jewish. I pray for peace.

“Anti-Semitism isn’t really a problem any more, right?”
Well, actually…
“I mean it’s not as bad as it was. It’s basically over now. Right?”
I can describe several anti-semitic hate crimes that have happened to me in the last year…
“Like, no one’s really anti-semitic any more. Right? In Britain at least, yeah? I’m right, aren’t I right?”
And so on. I’ve had several versions of the this conversation where it becomes startlingly clear that the only answer they’re going to accept is “Anti-Semitism is not really a thing any more” and they’re likely prepared to go all the way back to the 1930’s or even earlier to find a time when anti-semitism was *definitely* a real problem by their standards in order to try to get me to say that, of course, compared to that time, anti-semitism is basically nonexistent now.
Here is my answer:
1. Anti-semitism NEVER stopped. If anything, it’s on the rise again.
2. Stop moving the fucking goalposts. Any anti-semitism at all is too much anti-semitism happening.
3. Anti-semitic hate crimes and microaggressions are part of every day life for me.
4. Fuck the fuck off, I’m not here to make you feel better about yourself because you personally haven’t said or done anything to me that you think counts as anti-semitic. Several times now, someone has had this conversation after saying something blatantly anti-semitic to me.

More “Look at me cos I have noticed that you are a Jew” questions I’ve got recently:
“Are you a Professor?” No “So, you’re training to be a Professor?” No. “Ah, so you’re an ACTOR?” Still no. “But you’re Jewish!” Yes, yes I am. Being Jewish doesn’t mean I am automatically intelligent, studious or successful.
“You must be very wealthy!” Erm, no. Again, Judaism doesn’t come with wealth, business, the ability to run businesses or even the ability to get and keep a job attached as part of the package. And before you ask, no my parents aren’t wealthy either and that has nothing at all to do with them not being Jewish.

And no, I can’t play a musical instrument. My talents are writing, public speaking, teaching and magic tricks – none of those are because I’m Jewish, they’re because I’m ME.
Even these “positive” stereotypes people assume about me are anti-semitic microagressions because they involve presuming to know lots of unrelated things about me just because of my religion and treat me as your own idea of “the Jew” rather than as an individual person.

No, I don’t know this other person you think might be Jewish. No, my penchant for finding the best food in the clearance sales has nothing to do with me being Jewish. No, I don’t know whether or not that guy who over-charged you that one time is Jewish and it says absolutely nothing about Jews as a whole if he is.

“What do think of Jesus?”
I am a stranger you just met on the street, why are you asking my opinion of a Jewish guy who may (or may not) have lived thousands of years ago and many miles away?

Part 2 will be about questions people ask me because they notice I’m disabled and/or neurodiverse. Part 3 will combine questions about gender and sexuality.

In-between

I’ve got a few spare minutes so I thought I’d write a quick post for Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014. There are other posts I want to write about disability, gender and fashion, about internalised disablism and about the questions strangers ask me when they notice that I am a disabled person. Those can wait.

Today I have only a few minutes and one very precise thing I want to write about. And that’s the difference between how people who aren’t disabled seem to conceive of disability and what being disabled is actually like.

Other people seem to think that for any and all “abilities” people can either do them or they can’t. So either you can walk perfectly well or you can’t walk at all. You can either talk or you can’t. You can either see properly or see nothing, you’re either hearing or profoundly Deaf. You’re permanently on the edge of seriously harming yourself or you’re completely fine. You can be easily sorted within seconds into “disabled and thus completely unable to do anything” or “perfectly capable of doing any kind of work without any real difficulty”.

A LOT of disablism seems to rest on this idea which looks very obviously absurd to anyone with any direct experience of being or living with a disabled person yet this idea seems to me to be widespread. Even the draconian implementation of the Work Capacity Assessment here in the UK seems based on this strange dichotomy of “you can either always do something or always not” and “you’re either fit for all kinds of work or none at all”. When people call the fraud hotline because they’ve seen a neighbour walk from their car to their door when they use a wheelchair or scooter to get to the corner shop, their disablism is based in the idea that people can either walk or they can’t and that anyone who can walk can work (btw, if you find me a job that literally only involves walking short distances a few times a day, message me :P).

The reality of disabled life is very different. There is no neat split between “Things I can always do” and “Things I can never do” – almost everything is inbetween. Almost everything is something I can do sometimes under some conditions. Some days I might be able to walk half a mile using a walking stick, other days I literally cannot get out of bed. Under the right conditions and with appropriate supervision, I can cook a meal for six people from scratch. Most days however, I need another person to come in and cook for me. I’m happy and confident and I love my life *and also I’m very mentally ill and in serious danger of neglecting and/or harming myself*. These are not contradictions. This is my reality and that of thousands of other people.

Disablism seeks to reduce me to a list of things that I always cannot do (and there are plenty) and proclaim me able to do many things on the basis of my ability to do them once or twice a year. The reality is more complex and diverse than that. I live in the space in between “can” and “can’t” and if non-disabled people ever really thought about it they’d realise that *they do too*.