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.

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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.

It’s worth saying…

Pretty much everything I said about acceptance in my previous post on autism acceptance applies pretty straight-fowardly to other ways that people can be different from each other.

You don’t need to understand why someone is trans or how transition-related medicine works or how people make decisions about gender presentation to accept that your trans friend is who they are and deserves to be treated with respect. You don’t need to know all about trans issues to learn to use the name and pronoun someone asks you to use because that’s how to treat a person with respect. To accept someone trans as who they are requires you to trust them to be the expert on their own experiences and believe that they feel how they say they feel. If your friend says he feels happier with a different name, believe him and get on with using his new name. It makes him feel happier and all people deserve to be happy.

You don’t need to understand why some people are only attracted to people of one gender, why some are attracted to people of many genders and why some are attracted to nobody at all, to accept your friend with a different orientation from yours. If she says she loves her girlfriend, believe her. Trust that she is the expert on how she feels and what she wants, you’re not.

You don’t have to know whether or not there is a G-d or know very much about different religions or about atheism to accept that your friend has a different belief system from you. Trust them to be the expert on their own experiences.

This doesn’t just apply to your friends, but to everybody. To everybody you must learn to believe that they know better than anyone else what it feels like to be them and that they deserve to be treated with respect.

 

An example: I have a lot of disabled friends. Most of them, I have no idea what their impairment is and those who I do know I often know very little about that condition. We get along by believing people when they say they need help and helping in the way that is asked for. We believe each other when we say “I can’t do that” without needing an explanation of why or arguing.

Basically:
Everyone is an expert on themselves. With very, very, very few exceptions you do not have a better idea of what a person needs than they do. Accept that people feel what they feel, want what they want and choose what they choose. Treat everyone with respect. We’re all only human.