Imagining the strength of women, femmes, and non-binary folks

Imagining the strength of women, femmes, and non-binary folks

Image description: A cup that says “be strong”. Text block reads: What does strength look like for women, femmes, and non-binary folk when it is not centered on the endurance of pain?

This document is also available as a PDF, which can be downloaded and freely shared. This PDF will be updated with stories that are shared in response, and will eventually be available as a printed zine.


What does strength look like for women, femmes, and non-binary folk when it is not centered on the endurance of pain?

This question is not meant to erase the strength that is so heavily present in our need to endure, to survive, and to carry on from the violences in our lives, but it is meant to ask what else is there? What else do we have to offer? What forms of strength go unnoticed even to ourselves?

Strength

by Andrea Oakunsheyld

While processing a very impactful breakup, I talked to myself a lot. I listed all the things that I have already been through and come out the other side. I talked to myself about the things that I have already managed to endure because enduring those meant that, in my mind, I should be able to endure this.

I was so lucky to be thoroughly caught by my communities in this time, and to have many conversations about myself and my broken relationship. These conversations were centered largely on endurance and the ways in which my communities perceived me to be a strong individual.

After weeks of contemplation and conversations, I came to the realization that I was only seeing my strength through taking stock of past endurance of pain.

It occurred to me that this was a very feminized account of strength, and one that I was sure many women, femmes, and non-binary folk could identify with. It’s certainly not the definition of strength that I would instinctively ascribe to men or the masculine-identified, and I became distressed that I had such a narrow conception of my own strength, and by extension, the strength of women, femmes, and non-binary folk in my communities.

It makes sense for endurance and the endurance of pain to be an indicator of strength, but not the only indicator of strength that feminized folks perform. So, I was left to ask myself – what does strength look like for women, femmes, and non-binary folk when it is not centered on the endurance of pain?

This question is not meant to erase the strength that is so heavily present in our need to endure, to survive, and to carry on from the violences in our lives, but it is meant to ask what else is there? What else do we have to offer? What forms of strength go unnoticed even to ourselves?

My percolations on feminized or non-binary strength have led me to reassess many aspects of social life that I had already valued but never seemed to internalize as strength.

When interrogating this topic for myself, I found that strength comes in the very ordinary navigation of every day. It is in the empathy that we offer long before we are coerced. It is in the emotional labour that we offer up to ourselves to heal our traumas, and to our communities to create a network of support. It is in sensitivity. It is in community care because we know that to alienate one another is to bring destruction. It is in self-care, the other side of the coin, in which we offer ourselves the same care we offer to others. It is in caring for our bodies, minds, and spirits in the most intimate way because they are ours. It is in the contract with our network that states that we will give what we have to offer and will respect each other enough to say when we need recovery of our own. It is in boundary setting because setting our own boundaries better equips us to recognize and honour the boundaries of others.

Strength is in the feminized labour of the hearth and home. Maintaining basic needs and basic comforts. It is in the nurturing of the family that some of us provide (chosen and blood family alike). It is in activism where we rally around those in the margins and we demand better. It is in questioning of the fundamental systems of our everyday life and choosing an alternative path. It is in our differences. It is in the bravery we show when we must face the danger of being our non-normative selves and practicing our non-normative lives.

Strength is in every heart learning its own worth and it is also in those who are still discovering it. Strength is in the ability to be humbled and to admit to wrongdoing. It is in the commitment to do and be better. It is in the accountability we have to those around us. It is in being grounded in the earth and in community. It is in making a proper home in our own skin and being in our own bodies, in the ownership of our bodies and our sexuality. It is in sexual healing, however that looks. It is in showing ourselves self-compassion when we can’t quite manage self-love. It is in going out into the world every day to face down the very violences that have so far defined our strength.

Our strength is in the queer, the disabled, the racialized, the poor, and the further marginalized, but not merely because of what they, and we, have endured. Our strength is in us because of the unique things that we have to offer parallel to enduring pain and violence, the things that bring their own virtues.

After percolating on all of these things it seems a grim shame to me that these were not included in my original conceptualization of my strength. These other indicators of strength are important to conceptualize, at least in part, outside of the endurance of pain.


Stories of our strength: women, femmes, and non-binary folks respond to the question

Kassandra:

Your question reminded me a story from my family. The period of Junta in Greece, my mom and her brothers were chased and some of them exiled for their left-wing political action. In her 20’s my mom was the only woman in the family who decided to escape to another country in response to the daily interrogation and police abuse. Although she was coming from a working-class family with no educational background, while she was in a foreign country, being a woman and not being able to speak the language, she decided to be the first in the family who will try to study. However, she faced lots of racist attacks both for her race, her class and her gender. She was scared, and lonely, and in pain. One day after an incident when someone mocked her for being Greek, poor, incapable woman, she got truly devastated and she went to meet one of her brothers who was also staying in the country. Her brother told her a phrase that I’ve seen my mother return to whenever she is looking for her place of strengths to stand on. He said “whenever someone mocks you for your class or your race or your gender, remind yourself of Lernaean Hydra (from the Greek mythology). They might think that you are beheaded, but like Lernaean Hydra once a head is off, another one will grow and then you will still have voice to protest. Take your time to let your next head to grow and then protest!’ I don’t know if that answers your question, but I guess what I have learnt about what strengths look like for my mum is that it’s related to protest in its own pace and as an ongoing life process. I hope that make sense.

Anita:

I really love Kassandra’s contribution. It connects to how I relate to the idea of strength being social more than individual. There is a lot of pain and difficulties for marginalised peoples and the dominant discourse is to endure and especially endure alone. I take a different stance. Sometimes we have to find someone else we can share with. Even when family lets you down, work colleagues or fellow activists disappoint us there is someone, an exception who we can connect with, even if only in memory. Sharing strengthens us and undermines isolation. Sharing can promote organisation and often brings along laughter and solace. In my group of sisterfriends we practice sharing and thinking through actions, consequences etc. In other words, we get practical.

Laura:

For me strength can be a metaphor of structure (this could be organic and growing or built of materials or simply a metaphor of posture and position which allows us to hold ourselves strong) which makes other things possible – connection with others in the present, a centring of the ways we prefer to be ourselves, enough places to hold hope and joy, connection with our important histories, enough stability to be open to experience and change, creating spaces for others to grow, quiet places to reflect and reconsider, as well as endurance.

Marta:

Strength can be seen as not giving up on dreams. A metaphor can be like the little green plant raising from the snow and with time becoming a bush, a tree a flower. Follow our heart´s call. Birds gathering branches and things for a nest where they are going to put their eggs that will support babies someday.

Jessica:

My ability to set my ego / self aside to become wholly present to the experience of other life; my plants and heir happiness in new soil, my friend as they live their lives. It requires strength from me emotionally and psychologically to take a time out and allow myself to connect fully to another reality, immerse in it, ask myself IF in ways that aren’t about psyching myself out, but are about connecting within equally without. Also, physically, finding joy in the added effort of another 5lbs more. Am I understanding and getting it, or did I miss something?

Jacie:

Ease to explore & realize your priorities OR in other words, liberty of determination

My daughters would say it’s in my smile–perhaps it’s in acceptance?

Juliana:

Knowing your truth and priorities and being able to hold on to them even in the face of lies and distractions that society aims at you.

A Conversation

Shannon: It seems tied to power a lot in jobs and social power too. It’s not an easy question to answer though. The main places my brain is jumping to are enduring pain or else just professional type athletes. It’s like a brain-teaser. At first, I thought maybe there was a trick to it. Maybe there still is.

Tank: Challenging the status quo. Challenging dichotomy. Challenging the notion that we are not part of nature. Nurturing power-with instead of power-over/challenging hierarchies. Loving self, despite patriarchies constant attempts to tell us that we have no value.

Shannon: I interpreted this so differently than you and I’m pretty sure it’s because I feel completely powerless the vast majority of the time

Tiffany: That’s so valid, Shan. It kind of IS a trick question, except the trick isn’t in the question, it’s in the way so many of us have learned to view our strength only in terms of endurance and pain.

Tank: Well that is an important finding! Power is very relational, for example my white or class privilege makes it safer for me to challenge. The question helped me realize that I mostly frame this idea of ‘strength’ as endurance of pain. All interpretations help to understand a concept this big.

Shannon: Tiffany, no but it was that I didn’t think of it in terms of *my own* strength at all OR what *I* think of as being strong. Just other people. I missed the point so much that I didn’t even get tricked by the trick. I wasn’t even on the same page.

Shannon: Tank, yeah it was just surprising to me and everything makes me cry so that was not surprising to me at all.

Tank: Shannon, you pointed out how power works systemically = very useful. It is revolutionary to have this conversation about how we have noticed that pain endurance is the main definition of strength for non-men in this society. I found your thoughts very useful.

Tiffany: You noodles are making me tear up right now. I would add this moment of compassion and collaboration as one definition of strength – the strength we find together and share with each other.

Shannon: Tank, thank you

Tank: Oooooo it all makes me cry as well. Probably a strength, ha!

Shannon: Must be

Michelle:

i offer resistance in hope

i offer resistance in losing hope

i offer resistance through words

i offer resistance through silence

i offer resistance in my presence

i offer resistance in my absence

you can offer all your hate,

and still i will offer you my resistance

I don’t think I’ve ever really intentionally examined the multiple meanings of strength, particularly outside the idea of enduring pain. But of course, there are other definitions. This reflection has me thinking about ‘giving up’ and resignations as strength. I wrote this poem during a difficult time where I made the decision to resign from an organisation I had dedicated so much time and energy to. At the time, I felt like resigning meant that I was giving up on the struggle, abandoning the women and non-binary folk I was in solidarity with.

I stayed for so long because I felt that surely my cis-gendered, professional privilege and 9 years experience in the sector and dogged determination to create change would help transform the institution. Staying and therefore enduring pain was in part an act of bearing witness, part stubbornness, part hope for change, and part inflated responsibility.

Feminist work within institutions demands ongoing resistance and endurance, but as Sara Ahmed asks: ‘But what if we do this work and the walls stay up? What if we do this work and the same things keep coming up? What if our own work of exposing a problem is used as evidence there is no problem? Then you have to ask yourself: can I keep working here? What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?’

Staying was strength, but it also became complicity. My position as a woman of colour and public support for the gender diverse community was being used as evidence that there was no problem with racism or transphobia. In the final months of my employment, it had dawned on me that my presence was inadvertently upholding the walls of Colonial Patriarchal Feminism2 and trans exclusive radical feminism. The ongoing denial, gaslighting and attacks made me realise that I was being played.

So I quit, I resigned.

A couple of months later, I held a retirement party and invited all my friends join me in quitting with giving any more time and energy into systems that sustain the white cis-heteropatriarchy. So, with a baseball bat and some unwanted fruit, we took to the field and smashed all the symbolically toxic fruits from our lives. It was the best. I have since come to appreciate that resistance and strength comes in many forms, both in staying and leaving. But for now, I feel a great sense of freedom and pride that I can still do feminist work, and I would say more effectively and joyfully, outside of those systems.

[1] https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/08/27/resignation-is-a-feminist-issue/

2 Cheree Moreton coined the term Colonial Patriarchal Feminism or Colonial Patri-Fem for short, to describe how white feminists stigmatises and silences the one black voice in the organisation/environment

Miri:

Strength looks like self care, caring for friends and lovers, building family, resisting heteronormativity/racism/ableism/colonialism. Being out, embracing your identity whatever that may look like for you <3 <3 It doesn’t always have to look like enduring pain.

Suzanne:

I think strength for femmes is in prioritizing yourself and how much of your time and energy you offer to the outside world and why you offer it. So many femme folks feel like they can’t say no, or offer their time and energy to everyone who asks without prioritizing their own needs first, or evaluating whether they actually want to participate. The times I feel like I really identify strength in femmes is when I see someone identify an unreasonable ask and stand their ground, or prioritize their own well being over someone else’s. I think what makes it so magical when femme folks do this is that it usually isn’t done in an aggressive way, it’s the way many femmes can express themselves empathetically and not need to sacrifice vulnerability and emotionality in the process.

I can relate almost anything back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she has a line where she tells the other slayer Kendra that her emotions are what give her strength and that she is lucky to have them. For me, as someone who has struggled with mood issues and is definitely pretty sensitive and empathic, I totally identify with this. I feel EVERYTHING so deeply, and I have been told for so long that this is wrong or a burden to others, and frankly that’s BS. My emotions are a huge factor as to why I’m a bad ass and why I see myself as strong. Not just in enduring pain, but in being aware of how every little thing affects me, so I have learned to use this in the way that I take in new information and learn, and the ways I interact with the world. Masculine strength always seems to be tied to suppressing and ignoring emotions, and femme strength is emotional intelligence and awareness. Strength is seeing how emotionality and “rationality” are woven together, and using that intelligence to make the tough calls. It’s seeing the entire picture when the world tells you it’s not there.

Wow that all just came out of my head all at once, so thank you for that prompt and I hope it’s helpful!

Candice:

When I was first given this question, it was very difficult for me to think of feminine strength that didn’t involve any pain at all. After talking with my family, I realized one of the main strengths of a woman is their amazing willpower. It is one of the things that allows us to be able to function through unimaginable pain and discomfort.

I believe most of our best qualities comes from our ability to be resolute once we’ve made up our minds to do something.

The strength to be able to create art, relationships and solutions out of little to nothing.

The strength required to bear the worries and problems of those around us when we choose to take on a nurturing role.

The strength to persevere through mentally and emotionally challenging spots in our lives.

The strength it takes to search for who you are and to give yourself space for mistakes as well as growth.

I find often times we discredit some of our strength and power because we aren’t functioning at the levels we expect of ourselves. But I have discovered that sometimes our strength can come from saying no, or from recognizing our limitations and allowing ourselves to exist in respect to that limit instead of overdoing it.

Like with any strength, it takes time to mould and develop a strength of mind. I think that’s why some of the most admired women have had decades to grow in their wisdom and willpower. However, unlike other strengths, the power of our minds deepen with time and experience.

Kalista:

Strength is existence. Existing as ourselves, fully and completely, without being property or object. Strength exists in the wholeness of true friendships and loving relationships that create space for us to be unabashedly ourselves. Strength exists in every pore of our body when we defy societal expectations, when we research our issues, when we change patriarchal policies, and when we find ways to keep on existing even when the world tells us not to or that we can but just not here. Strength is existence.

Erin:

When I think of female* strength I think of the strengths and characteristics that distinguish females from males traditionally. I think of traits that if they were more celebrated in leadership roles and sought after we may have a world with less war and conflict. Obviously there are always exceptions to these norms.

The traits of female strength I think of are compassion and patience. An often natural nurturing ability that sympathizes and allows women to be great listeners. The ability to multi-task and compartmentalize. The tendency to be able to see the bigger picture, see a situation from another perspective or see the effects of a decision much later down the line.

I think these are the core ones at least!

* Traditional definitions of “female” and “male” often include cisnormative understandings of sex and gender. Talking about these traditional roles can be important, especially when we understand that these understandings are not situated in any objective reality. This resource is intentionally trans and non-binary inclusive.

Tiffany

Sometimes I know that I am strong. But so many times, I do think of this strength in terms of what I have endured. I think about it in terms of pain, and struggle, in terms of what I have survived. I think about making it out alive, through multiple serious depressions. I think about the hostile voice that I lived with for a period of time, and that occasionally returns. I think about my history of self-harm, and I think that I am so strong to have found ways to alchemize all of that into the work that I do now as a narrative therapist and community organizer. I think, good job, me.

But when Andrea shared this question with me, it resonated somewhere deep in my heart. I wanted to find answers for my own strength, beyond these ideas of pain, struggle, endurance, survival. I wondered if there was anyway to understand my relationship to strength outside of these ideas.

And when I sent the first draft of this project to Andrea, she said, “Are you not doing your own entry in the project though, dear?”

It was hard to find these stories in my own internal library. They were quiet.

I thought about when I have felt my strength come close to me while I am joyful. I thought – sometimes strength is laughter. A good strong laugh is something I have had since I was a child! That’s strength, too.

And I thought about strength in hope. I thought about spending time with small children. My niephlings, and other children in my life. I thought about the strength of holding space for their joy, and for their learning. The strength of imagining a world with space for them despite my own fears for the future. I thought – sometimes strength is choosing hope when despair is equally close at hand.

I also thought about how sometimes strength is easier to access when I’m rested, peaceful, and at ease. At first, this thought made me uncomfortable. I thought, does this mean that I’m not really strong when I’m struggling? Does this mean I’ve been wrong about everything about myself? But I don’t think that’s the case.

I think that there are many different ways to be strong, and that one way of being strong is by allowing myself some ease. Sometimes when I feel rested and supported and cared for, that’s when I feel strongest.

And then there’s that little piece. “When I feel supported and cared for.” That part challenges the internalizing narratives, the individualizing narratives about strength. What might happen if I didn’t need to be strong on my own? What if I could imagine strength in community, strength in connection?

It’s not always about what I endure alone. Sometimes it’s about what I co-create with my communities.


Exploring your own strength

These are some questions to help you explore your own ideas about strength beyond metaphors of enduring pain.

  • What does it mean to be strong? Are there definitions of strength accessible to you that go beyond enduring pain?
  • Can you share a story of a time when you been strong in these ways? What allowed you to access this strength?
  • Are there other ways to be strong?
  • Who taught you about strength?
  • Can you remember seeing strength in a woman, femme, or non-binary person in your life?
  • Do any of these women, femmes, or non-binary folks know that you see strength in them? What has seeing this strength in their lives made possible in your own life?
  • Who in your life, living or no longer living, real or fictional, knows that you are strong?
  • What would you want women, femmes, and non-binary folks to understand about strength? Are there insider knowledges that you would want to share?

We (Andrea and Tiffany) would love to hear your stories of strength, and to keep this conversation about the strength of women, femmes, and non-binary folks going.

We would also love to hear any response that you might have to the stories shared in this document.

If you would like to share your response, please email it to Tiffany at sostarselfcare@gmail.com.


Andrea Oakunsheyld is a student at UBC in a Masters of Community and Regional Planning with a concentration in Indigenous Community Planning, a Fieldworker with Amnesty International Canada, aspiring theorist, community organizer and activist, bigender pagan witch, and nerd living and learning on the traditional and ancestral territory of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her work includes grassroots activism, particularly in queer, women’s, and queer contexts; “calling in”; queer children’s literature and subversive literature; subversive cities; and community planning.

Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist, community organizer, writer, workshop facilitator, and tarot reader living and working on Treaty 7 land (Calgary, Alberta) where the traditional custodians are Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Siksika, Piikuni, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearpaw, and Wesley First Nations, as well as the Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. They work primarily with queer, trans, disabled, neuroqueer, polyamorous, and other marginalized communities. If you would like to work with Tiffany, you can find them at:

www.tiffanysostar.com | sostarselfcare@gmail.com | @sostarselfcare

You can support more of this kind of community-led, collective narrative practice work by backing Tiffany’s Patreon at www.patreon.com/sostarselfcare


This project was initiated by Andrea Oakunsheyld in late July, and is now ready to share! These kinds of collaborative, community-led projects are among my favourite parts of my narrative work, and although they often take months or years to complete, it is always incredibly rewarding. If there’s a topic like this that you want to talk about turning into a project like this, get in touch with me!

International Men’s Day 2018

International Men’s Day 2018

Image description: a wooden heart among greenery. Text reads, “celebrating international men’s day”

International Men’s Day is celebrated every year on November 19. That’s today! (In my part of the world, at least. Belated greetings to my colleagues across the international date line!)

Image description: Twitter user @Erinkyan “happy international mens day, especially to trans men, disabled men, men of colour, queer men, mentally ill men, feminine men, elderly men, poor men, male survivors, and other vulnerable men. and a big fuck you to MRAs that further isolate and harm men in the name of misogyny.”

This post a celebration of this day, and also the official launch of a new project! Keep reading to find information about the new project at the end of this post.

There are so many ways that men are harmed and vulnerable under patriarchy. Because it’s not just patriarchy. It’s also ableism. Transantagonism. Racism and white supremacy. Colonialism. Ageism. Heterosexism. Patriarchy is a critical hub in this web of oppressions and privileges, but it is not the only hub, and it is not the only intersection that we need to address.

Men are differentially vulnerable.

They become more vulnerable the more they deviate from the ideal of white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, English-speaking, educated, middle-and-upper class, young, fit, neurotypical manhood.

Men are vulnerable in different ways.

Black men and boys face police violence at disproportionately high rates in both the United States and in Canada. Indigenous men and boys also face disproportionately high rates of police violence and incarceration. (This post at The Conversation examines Canada’s shameful treatment of Indigenous folks within the ‘justice’ system.)

Men are more likely to die of suicide (as this British Columbia Medical Journal discusses), and men who are victims of domestic violence (regardless of the gender of their abuser) are less likely to find support either socially or structurally (as this article by the BBC discusses).

Men who are victims of sexual assault, either as youths or as adults, also face a lack of social and structural support. Although there have been important shifts in this cultural landscape, particularly by men responding to #MeToo (Terry Crews most publicly), there is still a significant cultural pressure to maintain an idea of masculinity as impervious to harm (as this Atlantic article discusses). This pressure comes both from proponents of patriarchal masculinity who are invested in maintaining these rigid gender systems, and from some advocates who are invested in the idea of men-as-perpetrators. Acknowledging the vulnerability of men is destabilizing to patriarchy, but it is also destabilizing to some of the gendered ways of understanding violence that have helped women and feminists frame the issue of violence against women. As this article by the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism notes, “The domestic violence movement historically framed its work on a gender binary of men as potential perpetrators and women as potential victims.” (link is to a PDF)

This article by Scientific American also talks about violence by women, and makes the important point that, “To thoroughly dismantle sexual victimization, we must grapple with its many complexities, which requires attention to all victims and perpetrators, regardless of their sex. This inclusive framing need not and should not come at the expense of gender-sensitive approaches, which take into account the ways in which gender norms influence women and men in different or disproportionate ways.”

And it is important to also recognize that there are men who have been both victims of violence and have also used violence against others. These men are often unable to access any supports that recognize and respond to both sides of their story, since many services for survivors of sexual or domestic violence do not work with people who have used violence against others, and services for men who have used violence against others often do not include support for survivors.

Toxic masculinity invites men into violence and dominance, which means that men are often cut off from emotional supports and connections, and it also means that people around men are vulnerable to violence and dominance. Not all men accept this invitation into a specific kind of masculinity, but all men receive the invitation – patriarchy is the air we breathe.

And, just like it is men, women, and people of all genders who are harmed by these norms of masculinity, it is also true that men, women, and people of all genders uphold and support these norms of masculinity.

As Vivek Shraya writes in her fantastic book, I’m Afraid of Men:

“And so, I’m also afraid of women. I’m afraid of women who’ve either emboldened or defended the men who have harmed me, or have watched in silence. I’m afraid of women who adopt masculine traits and then feel compelled to dominate or silence me at dinner parties. I’m afraid of women who see me as a predator and whose comfort I consequently put before my own by using male locker rooms. I’m afraid of women who have internalized their experiences of misogyny so deeply that they make me their punching bag. I’m afraid of the women who, like men, reject my pronouns and refuse to see my femininity, or who comment on or criticize my appearance, down to my chipped nail polish, to reiterate that I am not one of them. I’m afraid of women who, when I share my experiences of being trans, try to console me by announcing “welcome to being a woman,” refusing to recognize the ways in which our experiences fundamentally differ. But I’m especially afraid of women because my history has taught me that I can’t fully rely upon other women for sisterhood, or allyship, or protection from men.”

That’s important to note, too. (Vivek’s book also speaks about the problem with the idea of the “good man,” and makes a strong argument for not using the term “toxic masculinity.” You can read more about that in this article by Vice. I highly recommend reading her book.)

But this is International Men’s Day, so let’s turn the focus back to men. And to a definition of men that is much more broad and expansive than the thin description of dominant masculinity, with its demands of ability and class and race and the tight confines of The Man Box (this page offers an overview of “The Man Box” study in Australia, which looked at men’s views and experiences of masculinity, and also includes a link to the full report).

There is no single truth about masculinity. (I am thankful for narrative therapy and its focus on multistoried lives and experiences. And I am thankful for Chimamanda Adichie and this TEDtalk about the dangers of a single story!)

Gendered assumptions about emotions mean that men, regardless of any other intersection of identity, are often not supported in their emotional lives. This leaves men at risk in their own lives, and less equipped to support their community members.

These issues are complex, and talking about them requires care and a willingness to invite complexity to the table.

If I’m honest, I found this post challenging to write.

This is partly because I am not a man. I have never experienced being read as a man in this patriarchal world. When I try to empathize with the experiences of men, I do so from my position as a non-binary individual who was assigned female at birth, as someone who is read as a “woman” by anyone who doesn’t know me.

But there are men in my life who have helped me begin to understand the complexities of being a man under patriarchy.

I am thankful for these men, who advocate for men’s issues and also support social justice. They challenge toxic masculinity (by which I mean, the gendered assumptions that invite men into performances of gender that are hostile to other genders, that coerce men into rejecting anything deemed “feminine”, that limit the range of emotions and emotional responses available to men, that locate successful masculinity in a specific performance of heterosexuality, ability, and capitalist productivity), and they look at this issue with nuance – toxic masculinity harms men, and it also harms everyone else.

So, how do men unlearn these hostile lessons of patriarchy? How do they learn other ways of being men?

I’m in the early stages of a collaborative project exploring how men have discovered feminism and learned about social justice. My goal is to speak with a wide range of men about their experiences, and create a collective document and resource that other men can learn from. If you would like to be part of this project, get in touch!

Image description: two books stacked with purple flowers on top. Text reads: “Men! Let’s talk about how you learned about feminism and social justice. A collective documentation project. Contact sostarselfcare@gmail.com”


If you appreciate this work, you can support me on Patreon!

Bisexual Visibility Day 2018

Bisexual Visibility Day 2018

As part of the research for this blog post, I spoke with a few different people about their experiences of asexuality, bisexuality, and pansexuality. I’ve included those interviews in whole. I highly recommend reading these interviews – there was a lot there that I didn’t include in this post.

I also want to take this opportunity to highlight that Possibilities Youth is open to registrations! If you are, or know, a non-monosexual young person who would be interested in a six-week facilitated group, head over to the post and register!


It’s September 23. 2018. As I write this, I’m sitting at the kitchen table. Outside, the sky is still dark. The two dogs I’m looking after are snoozing, the furnace is on, the house is quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator and the warm air pushing up from the vents.

When I first started looking for bisexual community in Calgary, almost ten years ago, I couldn’t find what I needed. There were “LGBT” spaces (then, even more than now, Intersex, Asexual, Two spirit, and other queer identities were rarely acknowledged actively or meaningfully), but, as so many other bisexual folks have found, these tended to be “GL” spaces in practice. And even so, there weren’t many of those. A club. Some campus communities (which felt impossible to access as an adult who had never attended post-secondary at that point). Community discussion groups, but nothing that felt like it would be for me.

This is still the case for so many people in so many spaces.

The Bisexual Invisibility Report came out in the United States in 2011, and it was groundbreaking. Shiri Eisner, one of my bisexual heroes and someone I have learned a lot from (their book, Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution, changed my life. This is not hyperbole.), noted that the report should have been called The Bisexual Erasure Report. I agree. It’s not that our community is invisible, a framing that consistently leads to hostile demands that we all “just come out and be open” as though that will solve everything. No, it’s not that we’re invisible. It’s that we are erased. Again and again. In so many ways and in so many contexts. And this erasure has real impacts on our lives. The bisexual community, and I include all non-monosexual folks in this umbrella even though we do not have real data on how this works out, is at risk, and our needs are not being met.

To quote Shiri Eisner in their post from earlier today, “We are literally dying. We are the largest group within the LGBT community, and the most vulnerable one among LGBs, with the highest rates of exposure to violence, sexual violence, bullying, poor health and mental health, suicidality, and poverty. We are the also the least talked about and the group most perceived as privileged dispite being at the top of every depressing statistic.”

This is important. Visibility is important! And not just visibility, but also action. We need help. We need community. Dulcinea, a bisexual trans woman, said, “[We need to listen] to people who are excluded – trans people, people of colour, disabled people, both visibly and invisibly – we have to listen, and then we have to figure out a path to more forward together and then we have to be willing to stick to our guns. Because queer communities, just like any community, are willing to cut people off and we need to stop. The world is aligning more and more against us, and we need to become a community. An actual community. Not just a space where we get to feel good about ourselves, but a space that includes everyone. That means we have to change things. We have to be willing to. That sucks and it’s hard, but I don’t think being on the queer spectrum has ever been easy, so we just have to do it.”

We need to center the vulnerable and the marginalized. The non-monosexual community is vulnerable, and is marginalized, in both gay/lesbian and straight spaces. And within our community there are others who are multiply marginalized. Our responses to these challenges need to be robust, meaningful, intentional. Visibility is one part of the solution.

The Bisexual Report came out in the UK in 2012, and was similarly important to understanding issues of bisexuality (and included discussion of the intersections with bisexual community, including race, gender, class, relationship status, ability, and others.

Despite these two critical reports, and Eisner’s phenomenal book, and so many other powerful works of visibility, celebration, resistance, and advocacy from within the bisexual community, we remain marginalized even in many queer spaces. When we are visible, when there is queer representation, it often comes with a “but we don’t need a label” overlay, which serves to further invisibilize and marginalize us.

A glossary-of-terms post on Bisexual.org has this to say about “Anything But Bisexual”:

The ABB phenomenon is problematic for the bisexual community because its use creates a vicious cycle that makes bisexuality invisible, which leads to few role models, which leads to mental health problems, and in turn fewer people willing to embrace a bisexual identity. At the same time though, it is recognized that everyone has the right to self-identify, and the bisexual community, while recognizing that ABB terms are problematic, finds it abhorrent to shame or “police” others for their self-identification. The consensus is mainly to work hard to fight biphobia and promote bi-pride, so it’s easier for more people to embrace the term bisexual.

Stereotypes about the non-monosexual community are still prevalent, and many of these stereotypes have to do with our supposed confusion, or our predatory sexualities, or our untrustworthiness and unreliability.

Linds, a Chinese American/femme/bisexual, said, “I wish people knew that being bisexual means you get stereotyped a lot as being some deviant overly sexual creature.”

Dulcinea said, “I feel like any sort of non-monosexual identity isn’t something to be ashamed of, it isn’t a threat to anyone, it’s not dangerous or predatory, I think it’s really important that we, as hard as it is, continue to strive for visibility and acknowledgement.”

These stereotypes are painful, and they also invite the community into a kind of self-policing that can throw so many of us under the bus. The stereotype that all bisexual folks are “deviant” and “overly sexual” or “predatory” harms a lot of folks, but there are slutty bisexual folks, too! And that’s great! Being sexual is okay. The slut-shaming that can happen when we try to distance ourselves from harmful stereotypes is just passing the harm on down the line, and it often lands on people who are already more marginalized. For example, accessing a “sexually pure” image is something that has been denied to Black and Indigenous women for generations, and when this racist hypersexualization is compounded with biphobic views, it can leave queer Black and Indigenous women with no space to breathe, to just be themselves, to be sexual in the ways that feel right for them. And the image of the predatory bisexual compounds with racist stereotypes about the predatory sexuality of Black and Indigenous men, meaning that they, also, are at greater risk when bisexual communities try to distance ourselves from harmful stereotypes by disavowing the behaviour rather than challenging the belief. (What I mean by that is, when we try to be “pure” rather than challenging the idea of “purity” itself.)

There are kinky bisexuals, and vanilla ones. Bisexual folks who have a lot of sex, and those who don’t. When stereotypes are used to invalidate or marginalize us, it can be tempting to try and distance ourselves from any behaviour that fits within the stereotype, but that means cutting off so many parts of our communities. We need to do better than that.

The UK’s Bisexual Index offers this poem about bisexuality:

Some people say we are confused

Some people say we are confused, because they don’t understand us
But we’re not confused
Or confusing
Some people are only attracted to one gender, and assume everyone else is just like them. That’s a mistake – a lot of people may be like that
But not bisexuals!
We’re attracted to more than one gender
It doesn’t matter how attracted
It doesn’t matter how many more genders
It doesn’t matter who we’ve dated
Bisexuality isn’t about being indecisive, or cool, or greedy. It’s simply this: attraction to more than one gender

BISEXUALITY

This fits with the framing used by one of my role models for bisexual advocacy, Patrick Richards Fink, writer at Eponymous Fliponymous. He speaks about the label “Bisexuality” as a broad umbrella term for people who are attracted to multiple genders. Within this broad label of bisexuality there are infinite variations on what that attraction to multiple genders might mean. Bi is the umbrella, and all the other non-monosexual identities can be sheltered under it. This is similar to what happens with Gay as an umbrella term that includes Bears, for example. This makes sense to me, but because the sharp division between bisexuality and pansexuality has been enforced by so many people for so long, I use “Bi+.” I also use “Bi+” because I think that asexuality, since it is not about attraction to multiple genders, but rather attraction to no genders, is different enough to warrant noting, but similar enough (because they also do not fit the monosexual norm) to warrant including.

I launched Possibilities Calgary in 2010. It was the term project in a feminist praxis course in my undergrad (I did finally make it to post-secondary!), and I was so thankful to have the support of my professor in choosing that project. My goal was to create for myself and others what I had been searching for an not found previously. I wanted a space that could act as a small antidote to the poisonous self-doubt that can creep in over time for those of us who are constantly erased in other contexts.

Now, eight years later, Possibilities is still here, and still trying to accomplish this goal.

I am conscious now of other erasures.

I see how Indigenous queerness is also erased, ignored, dismissed. Black and brown queerness, too. Immigrant queerness. These erasures all intersect with racism and xenophobia, both of which are rampant in queer spaces. So is ableism. Transantagonism. Classism and sizeism. Ageism (where are our elders? Why don’t we see them at events?)

I see the way that the asexual community is erased, dismissed, their self-knowledge invalidated by hostile suggestions that they “just haven’t found the right person yet.”

I see the way the pansexual community is also both erased under monosexual normativity (that idea that attraction to a single gender is the norm and is preferred) and also how pansexuality is used to further erase bisexuality by promoting the idea that bisexuality is inherently trans-exclusionary. This wedge, constantly driven between two parts of our non-monosexual community, is painful to watch and to experience.

Speaking about this split, Dulcinea, a bisexual trans woman said:

I find the bisexual vs. pansexual debates incredibly alienating and very unsettling. Because fundamentally, I do not see what the problem is with someone choosing any of the labels within the subgroup. It doesn’t take away from anyone else, as long as we’re not trying to force anyone else to identify this way. My being bi doesn’t take away from my partner’s pansexuality. I love and celebrate him for all the ways he feels. It feels like nonsensical fighting… The metaphor I use when I am asked why I don’t identify as pan or what-have-you, is that it’s like trying on clothes, and you have a bunch of things that fit, but then you find the right pair of jeans for your body, and it’s like, I could wear these other ones and it’d been fine, but I’d just rather wear the pair of jeans that feel comfortable, and I know I’m going to wear them in really easy, and they make my butt look good.

Rhiannon, a pansexual trans woman, said:

I was struggling as a transgender woman in the bi community. I found a lot of bisexual people that I encountered preferred binary gendered people. I was feeling very frustrated so a friend told me about Pansexuality and how pansexual people are open to all gender varieties. There seems to be this misconception that Pansexual people are against the Bisexual community for not being open to non-binary genders. I obviously can’t speak for everyone but this is not the case with the Pansexual people that I know. I acknowledge that there are many Bisexual people who are attracted to Non-Binary or Transgender people, like myself, but I felt it removed any confusion if I identified as Pan rather than Bi. To me that is what is at the core of Pansexual Identity, it is a way of letting people know immediately that you are open to all Gender Variations. We love our Bisexual Brethren, we just choose a different identify for ourselves.

And it’s important to keep in mind that just because bisexuality doesn’t inherently erase non-binary folks, or imply a lack of interest in trans folks, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific bisexual people who do. I was speaking with someone recently about bisexuality, and that person’s definition of bisexuality does not include attraction to transgender people. There are also lots of folks who do still speak about “both” genders, and bisexuality as an experience of attraction to “same and opposite” genders, language that erases non-binary identities (like my own!)

That’s not how I experience my own bisexuality, and that’s not inherent to bisexuality as an identity, but it hightlights how Rhiannon’s experience is valid and real. The “jeans” that fit Rhiannon are not the same “jeans” that fit Dulcinea or myself, and that’s informed by her lived experiences. There has to be space for that within our community, or else we will just perpetuate more harm.

We can (and should) talk about how the idea that you can just “have a preference not to date trans people” is inherently transantagonistic, just like having racial dating preferences is inherently racist, and we also need to validate the experiences of folks who have been excluded in these ways. We can talk about the problem, but we need to make sure that we are centring the experiences of folks who are actually suffering because of it. As Latin-Australian sociologist Dr Zuleyka Zevallos says in the second link, says, “[T]he fact is, as soon as you start to exclude people, then you’re participating in the broader pattern of exclusion that people from minority backgrounds face. That’s what people from White backgrounds don’t understand – that “I don’t have a preference towards X, Y, and Z groups,” they are contributing to the daily experiences of racism that those groups already face at work, at school, when they’re walking down the street. So this is just another form of discrimination that minorities are facing that White people don’t have to deal with.” The same is true regarding cis and transgender experiences.

One thing I really appreciated about both of the comments from Rhiannon and Dulcinea is the intentional inclusion of other identities even while strongly identifying with a specific label.

I want more of that – inclusion that holds space for difference. And in order to get that, we need visibility. We need to be able to see ourselves and to see each other.

Rachel,  a cis biromantic asexual, speaking about ace-inclusion, highlighted that difference. She said:

Other than just the basic awareness that asexual people exist, the biggest mistake I encounter among people who are trying but not necessarily succeeding to be ace-friendly is that they don’t translate that into awareness that ace people’s experiences of attraction and romance are actually meaningfully different than non-ace people’s. Which sometimes leads to this usually well-intentioned but kind of awkward and inaccurate perception that aces are just their romantic orientation, but G-rated…  I find that people attempting to be welcoming of ace identities tend to over-emphasize language, while I’d rather people put their effort into not assuming that allosexual (non-asexual) experiences are universal. Ace experiences aren’t intuitive to most non-ace people, and I understand that – there’s plenty of non-ace experiences I find extremely counter-intuitive – so not making those assumptions takes a lot of work, and I understand that and it’s okay to be confused by things that are confusing. But I’ve had several experiences in spaces that claimed to be (and seemed to be making a good faith effort to be) ace-friendly where they’d use all the laboriously correct language and then have discussions where it was assumed that all primary relationships were inevitably sexual, or that consent to sex that isn’t driven by sexual attraction/desire in the moment couldn’t be genuine, because they were so focused on inclusive language they just hadn’t thought about anything else.

What Rachel highlights is how we need to think broadly about our efforts towards visibility. It can’t just be language. And it can’t just be “coming out”, either.  We need the kind of visibility that challenges systems of exclusion and marginalization, and we also need this visibility to happen in ways that don’t shame folks for “not being visible” – we need to take away this pressure that currently exists towards the non-monosexual community to “come out for the good of the community.”

I am not entirely sure how we will do this. I know that my own efforts exist within a rich history of bisexual activism and advocacy, and I hope that in this coming year, I can learn more about how to do this work.

Today, I’m hosting the Bi+ Visibility Event and putting up this blog post. Next year, who knows?! I have big dreams, and now that I’m dipping my toe back into event organizing (once I hit publish on this, I’m flying out the door to do final prep for the Bi+ Visibility Day panel, open-mic, and info-session today!), maybe we’ll come up with something spectacular.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your stories.

And if you’re struggling and need professional support, I would love to work with you in either my role as a narrative therapist, or as a community organizer.


Asexuality. (This interview was over email.)

There is so much variety within the non-monosexual community. How do you identify?

I identify as a cis biromantic asexual, but day-to-day I usually just say ace, because it’s the thing that comes up the most, and I very rarely see the need to give the full explanation. Usually I only bother to clarify my romantic orientation when I have a specific reason to. This is mostly internally driven, I’m fairly private by nature, it’s not that I’ve felt external pressure to do that.

How did you learn about your identity? Did you see representations of people like you?

This is a tremendously embarrassing story because I found a link to AVEN from TVtropes, and that was the first time I encountered asexuality as an identity term, which was in my early twenties. Prior to that there were a handful of characters I found which seemed to share the experiences of romance, and of lack of sexual interest that I had, but none of them were described specifically as asexual.

What do you wish more people knew about people who share your identity?

Other than just the basic awareness that asexual people exist, the biggest mistake I encounter among people who are trying but not necessarily succeeding to be ace-friendly is that they don’t translate that into awareness that ace people’s experiences of attraction and romance are actually meaningfully different than non-ace people’s. Which sometimes leads to this usually well-intentioned but kind of awkward and inaccurate perception that aces are just their romantic orientation, but G-rated. And there are people who identify strongly with their romantic orientations, but they’re a distinct minority. Romantic orientations are not even universally used.

What misconceptions do you encounter from people?

Mostly I encounter people who just have no idea that being asexual is even a possibility. Beyond that there’s also a degree of conflation of asexuality and aromanticism, which are of course, separate and orthogonal. And again there is a massive overemphasis on romantic orientation by non-ace people talking about ace people, as compared to how ace people, in my experience, talk about it, as more of a handy point of reference.

What can people do to be more inclusive of non-monosexual folks in general, and of people of your specific identity?

I find that people attempting to be welcoming of ace identities tend to over-emphasize language, while I’d rather people put their effort into not assuming that allosexual (non-asexual) experiences are universal. Ace experiences aren’t intuitive to most non-ace people, and I understand that – there’s plenty of non-ace experiences I find extremely counter-intuitive – so not making those assumptions takes a lot of work, and I understand that and it’s okay to be confused by things that are confusing. But I’ve had several experiences in spaces that claimed to be (and seemed to be making a good faith effort to be) ace-friendly where they’d use all the laboriously correct language and then have discussions where it was assumed that all primary relationships were inevitably sexual, or that consent to sex that isn’t driven by sexual attraction/desire in the moment couldn’t be genuine, because they were so focused on inclusive language they just hadn’t thought about anything else. And, also, being scrupulous about ace friendly language requires a lot of both moment to moment self-correction, and often longer more complex sentences, and that can be an accessibility issue for some disabilities or for people speaking in a second language. It’s nice when people remember to verbally acknowledge ace people (by saying for instance, things like “sexual attraction is important to those who experience it”, rather than just “sexual attraction is important”), but it’s much easier to correct and just be understanding of the occasional language slip-up, than it is to try and decide if it’s worth the energy to redirect a whole line of thought.

Are there any resources, books, articles, tv shows, movies, video games, or other pieces of representation that you would like to recommend?

If you’re looking for 101 level resources about asexuality the AVEN FAQs remain a good place to start. The online ace community has got a lot more distributed but if you’re looking for more complexity and detail than the basics I like the blog The Asexual Agenda. The book Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire is probably my go-to for being a nuanced, but also accessible, representation of an asexual character.

Is there anything else you want included in the blog post?

Not that I’ve been able to think of, although, knowing me, I’ll come up with something just after the post is published.

You were involved with Possibilities from very early on, and you brought a new perspective to the conversations. I really appreciated that, and I wonder what that experience was like for you, to be in a bisexual and pansexual space, bringing something else to the table?

Possibilities was one of the first specifically queer spaces I ever spent time in, which has now given me irreversibly high standards, because it was a fantastically well-moderated space. And at the time I’d only just come out to anyone about anything, and it meant a lot at the time to have that space. My experience of being in Possibilities was that I sort of brought my community-member hat and my ally hat and switched them out at high speeds, depending on the topic, and the direction of the conversation. At the time that took some doing, but I really think it’s a key skill for interacting well in queer spaces, especially when, like me, you’re fairly privileged, and in retrospect, Possibilities was a great place to learn it. Because it was very well managed, so people weren’t just allowed to go on making mistakes, but it was also forgiving enough, I wasn’t worried about being instantly banished when I put my foot in my mouth.

You were one of the volunteers who really headed up the original FAQ handout project. What is important to you about sharing good information about non-monosexual identities?

The unfortunate fact of the world we live in right now, is that you can’t necessarily assume most people know anything about non-monosexual identities. And its fundamentally not reasonable to expect people to spontaneously research and learn about identities that they may not even have heard of. But on the other hand doing the sort of basic 101 level education that the pamphlets were supposed to be able to sum up is just terrible. It’s boring, repetitive and emotionally fraught if not out right dangerous in some situations. But I’m also simultaneously aware that the people who do the educating set the curriculum, and there is a risk that if you decide that teaching someone the basics of what it means to be bi or ace or trans is just too much for you, the person who does do it might not have your best interests at heart. Which is a hard set of problems to balance.

So, the basic idea of the pamphlets was an attempt to separate the basic education process from the coming out process, something you could give to someone who needed educating and then just walk away. They’re short and their intended audience is someone who has basically no knowledge, so they’re not hugely nuanced. They were only ever going to be a starting point for people to either go and do their own follow up research, or to ask a slightly more informed class of question. But if they can at least remove having to do that initial hurdle of “before we continue I need to stop and give you a lot of basic information about myself and then hope you take it well” then they’ve done a pretty good job.

I’d happily come back to them and do more, or update them with a slightly wider contributor base at some point if there was interest.

What does your orientation mean to you? (This is intentionally vague, and you can answer however you want – what’s important to you about it? How did you discover it? What does it look like in your daily life? However you want to answer this is great.)

I think the most key part of my orientation to me is just, the way I perceive things. I might feel very different about this if I was actively dating, but because I’m not most of the ways I really experience being ace day to day in that I don’t default to thinking about things as sexual. I don’t necessarily notice sexual subtext. Things like that.


Bisexuality

Dulcinea, a bisexual trans woman with settler and educated privilege. She also deals with mental health issues and invisible disability. (This interview was in person, and these are my notes. Most of the quotes are direct quotes, but there is some paraphrasing.)

Why do you identify as bisexual?

Because I feel attraction to my gender, and other genders, and that is the term that feels right. And for a very long time, I didn’t have a term that felt like it fit.

Why is bisexuality important to you?

There are a few things, like just because I’m married to a woman doesn’t mean I’m not bisexual, or just because I’m bisexual doesn’t mean I don’t have need for women only spaces.

What’s important to you about your bisexual identity?

I feel like, in contrast to trying to live up to a monosexual ideal, which I have done for most of my life, I just like being free to feel attraction and feel how good that feels. Just how good it feels to be attracted to someone, and connect with that honestly and authentically rather than questioning it.

I came to bisexuality as an understanding of who I am and how I was already operating, rather than through seeking an identity or a marker.

The metaphor I use when I am asked why I don’t identify as pan or what-have-you, is that it’s like trying on clothes, and you have a bunch of things that fit, but then you find the right pair of jeans for your body, and it’s like, I could wear these other ones and it’d been fine, but I’d just rather wear the pair of jeans that feel comfortable, and I know I’m going to wear them in really easy, and they make my butt look good.

How do you feel about the perception that bisexuality enforces a gender binary of “man and woman”, and the debate about “bi vs. pan”? 

I think it really shows just how lacking education is, and how people just aren’t willing to listen. If anyone spends any time talking to bisexual people, or accessing any kind of resources, you’ll realize that this isn’t the definition used by the community, but people just don’t listen. And it’s exhausting.

It’s an added layer on top of a marginalized marginalized identity (trans and bisexual).

I find the bisexual vs. pansexual debates incredibly alienating and very unsettling. Because fundamentally, I do not see what the problem is with someone choosing any of the labels within the subgroup. It doesn’t take away from anyone else, as long as we’re not trying to force anyone else to identify this way.

My being bi doesn’t take away from my partner’s pansexuality. I love and celebrate him for all the ways he feels. It feels like nonsensical fighting. It feels illogical and petty, and it doesn’t make sense to be having this fight. Especially because all of these communities are marginalized as non-monosexual people.

I have seen it happen within communities, and I think it’s also egged on sometimes by people who are not in the communities. For example, there seems to be a trend of homosexual men sometimes really investing in these debates. The egging on ends up looking like soft critiques or questions, things like, “oh, so do you believe gender is binary then?”

In in-person spaces people seem more willing to listen and hear, and in online spaces people seem more willing to jump in and ignore what anyone else says.

There is also a kind of rejecting the elders that happens, seeing bisexuality as an older and outdated way of seeing or doing. It’s often not malicious, and part of it is just not having the tools to have that discussion effectively because they haven’t had to develop them in the same way.

Having queer spaces is so rewarding and affirming, which means that confronting the antagonism in those spaces is hard because it’s a space you love and care about and you get some kind of affirmation in, and having to be critical you love is something human beings aren’t good at. It’s easier to pick on a marginalized group, you just want an easy fight and you want a fight that you can win. I think that’s why we fight each other so often.

I feel like the most valuable thing I’ve learned throughout my entire life is a willingness to be wrong.

I think learning how to be in community together is a process, you have to listen and then follow up that listening with action.

Listening to people who are excluded – trans people, people of colour, disabled people, both visibly and invisibly – we have to listen, and then we have to figure out a path to more forward together and then we have to be willing to stick to our guns. Because queer communities, just like any community, are willing to cut people off and we need to stop. The world is aligning more and more against us, and we need to become a community. An actual community. Not just a space where we get to feel good about ourselves, but a space that includes everyone. That means we have to change things. We have to be willing to. That sucks and it’s hard, but I don’t think being on the queer spectrum has ever been easy, so we just have to do it.

I feel like any sort of non-monosexual identity isn’t something to be ashamed of, it isn’t a threat to anyone, it’s not dangerous or predatory, I think it’s really important that we, as hard as it is, continue to strive for visibility and acknowledgement.

***

Linds. This interview was over email.

First, how would you like to be identified in the blog post? 

I am a Chinese American/femme/bisexual

There is so much variety within the non-monosexual community. How do you identify? 

I identify as bisexual.

How did you learn about your identity? Did you see representations of people like you? 

I am still learning about bi-erasure from straight allies and the transgender community, to be honest I haven’t fully affirmed myself yet in regards to sexual orientation due to my emphasis on community for helping gay people (in formal and informal ways such as Gay-Straight Alliance leadership and my very best friend is a gay man), and supporting other cisgender women through their #Metoo experiences via emotional labor (friendship support).

What do you wish more people knew about people who share your identity? 

I wish people knew that being bisexual means you get stereotyped a lot as being some deviant overly sexual creature when you’re really just a person who has the capacity to love people of both genders.

What misconceptions do you encounter from people? 

People think I must have had a lot of sexual encounters and am lying when I tell them I’ve hardly dated.

What can people do to be more inclusive of non-monosexual folks in general, and of people of your specific identity? 

Please treat us as equals within the queer community.

Are there any resources, books, articles, tv shows, movies, video games, or other pieces of representation that you would like to recommend? 

Steven Universe 🙂


Pansexuality. (This email was over email.)

First, how do you identify? 

I’m Rhiannon, a Transgender Polyamorous Woman with Female Pronouns, I am also a proud Immigrant to Canada (twice now).

There is so much variety within the non-monosexual community. How do you identify?

I identify as Pansexual.

What does visibility mean to you?

Being open and honest with people about my identity and seeing myself represented in the media.

How did you learn about your identity? Did you see representations of people like you?

I was struggling as a Transgender Woman in the Bi community. I found a lot of Bisexual people that I encountered preferred Binary Gendered people. I was feeling very frustrated so a friend told me about Pansexuality and how Pansexual people are open to all gender varieties.

What do you wish more people knew about people who share your identity?

There seems to be this misconception that Pansexual people are against the Bisexual community for not being open to non-binary genders. I obviously can’t speak for everyone but this is not the case with the Pansexual people that I know. I acknowledge that there are many Bisexual people who are attracted to Non-Binary or Transgender people, like myself, but I felt it removed any confusion if I identified as Pan rather than Bi. To me that is what is at the core of Pansexual Identity, it is a way of letting people know immediately that you are open to all Gender Variations. We love our Bisexual Brethren, we just choose a different identify for ourselves.

What misconceptions do you encounter from people?

That Pansexual people have a fetish for Kitchen-ware. I cannot count the amount of times I have been asked that. Also, as mentioned above, we get a lot of anger from Bisexual people because they think that by choosing a new identity we are in some way saying that the Bi identity was not enough for us, when it is merely a different way for us to identify.

What can people do to be more inclusive of non-monosexual folks in general, and of people of your specific identity?

To not make rash judgments. Everyone is walking their own path and what is right for you, on your path, may not be what is right for me, on mine.

Is there anything else you want included in the blog post?

I’d like to thank the author for all of their hard work they have put into this blog and the Bi Visibility Day. (Noted, and appreciated!! <3)

 

Register for Possibilities Youth!

Register for Possibilities Youth!

Image description: A rainbow bubble against a black background. Possibilities Youth: Creating a bubble of community. six-week, trans-inclusive facilitated group for bi/pan/ace/2s youth. Contact Tiffany Sostar sostarselfcare@gmail.com. Noon-2 pm, Nov 10 – Dec 15, 2018.

On November 10, Possibilities Youth will officially launch. There will be fanfare. There will be snacks. There will be awkward silences and also possibly some references to Steven Universe.

Does that sound amazing? If so, register!

This group is open to registered attendees only, and is limited to 10 participants. There is no cost* to attend. We will be meeting on Saturdays from noon-2 in the East Village.

We will be meeting once a week for six weeks, and during the course of those six weeks we will talk about a whole bunch of things! (And we will eat quite a few snacks.)

Some of the topics we’ll touch on, and the kinds of questions we might ask are:

Self-Care

  • What does self-care mean to you?
  • What is your relationship with self-care?
  • Do mainstream ideas about self-care feel right for you?
  • How did you develop your own unique self-care skills, values, and ideas?
  • What insider knowledges have you developed that might help other bi/pan/ace/2s youth strengthen their self-care skills?

Community

  • Who is in your community? (‘Real’ and fictional communities both count!)
  • Who do you support?
  • Who supports you?
  • How have you learned to offer and receive support?
  • How have you responded to hard times in your community; times when you felt less supported, or when you felt alone or isolated, or when you saw other members of your community struggling?
  • What would you want other bi/pan/ace/2s youth to know about community?

Sexuality and Gender

  • What is important to you about your experience of sexuality and gender?
  • What do you wish other people knew about people like you?
  • What have you learned about your orientation and gender, and which parts of that teaching do you agree with or disagree with?
  • How have you resisted negative narratives about bi/pan/ace/2s youth?

There will also be opportunities for you to decide what you want to talk about, and to guide the conversation.

You might have noticed a theme of sharing knowledge in these questions, and that’s because one outcome of this group will be a Possibilities Youth Zine that collects and shares the skills and insider knowledges of the group with other queer youth – including a companion group in Adelaide, Australia, who will be responding to some of our work!

Contributions to the zine will be anonymous, unless you request otherwise. The zine will also only include those stories and insights that participants choose to include: the group discussions themselves will remain confidential, as will attendance in the group.

If you’re interested in participating, fill out the registration form!

* There are costs associated with running this group, and if you’re an adult or ally who wants to support this new initiative, I would love to have you join my Patreon or donate to support this work!

Narratives of Work – a tarot exploration

Narratives of Work – a tarot exploration

(This post was available a week early to my patrons. My Patreon helps support this work, and I appreciate my patrons more than I can say!)

Tarot is an important part of my life, and has been for quite a few years.

I use tarot as a way to think about what’s happening in my life, with tarot spreads acting as invitations to think about situations in specific and focused ways. I have also used tarot in narrative therapy in a similar way – inviting community members to engage with the cards as a visual way to explore their stories. I also use tarot as part of my slowly developing spiritual practice. I’ve written before about how I use tarot as self-care, in this post that introduced my tarot practice, and in this post about how to use tarot as a self-storying tool.

I participated in parts of the Owl and Bones August tarot challenge on Instagram. There was a prompt for each day, and it was an interesting process to notice was came up, what kept coming up, and how I responded to the cards. (I will admit that my participation was a bit more hit and miss while was away, mostly because I was so sick.)

On August 22nd, the prompt was “Where are things out of balance?”

I drew the Nine of Wands.

Image description: The Nine of Wands from The Wild Unknown tarot deck, against a black background.

This card is about stamina and inner strength – it’s about continuing on the long path.

Carrie Mallon, a tarot blogger who has written posts for each of the cards in the Wild Unknown deck (which I’m using here) writes about the Nine of Wands:

“The Nine of Wands shows that sometimes we need to draw on our inner reserves. We need to protect what is important to us, we need to protect our energy. We need to keep going, even though we may feel a little tired from being so on-guard. This kind of perseverance can be admirable, but can also lead to weariness.”

I thought, of course. Work is out of balance! I’m working too much. I’m always on the edge of burnout. I’m too busy, there’s too much going on, there’s too much pressure and stress. Work. This is about work.

But for some reason, I paused before posting the picture and that little response to it on Instagram. Instead, I sat with it for a few days.

I wondered why it was so easy to come to that interpretation.

I wondered about what the effect of having this story so prominently in my mind might be – how does it impact my days to always be framing myself in terms of “the edge of burnout” and “doing too much”?

I was a little uncomfortable with this line of inquiry, because I am always cautious when I feel myself edging towards “shift the narrative.” So often, this is used as a bludgeon against people who are legitimately struggling with injustice.

“Just shift your narrative!”

“Just focus on the positive!”

How about, just bite me.

However, this idea of shifting my own narrative is a theme that’s been coming up for me in a lot of areas lately. I have noticed that I’ve pushed so hard away from weaponized positivity that I sometimes feel like I’ve lost my connection to any kind of positivity at all. It’s easy, lately, to find myself feeling hopeless, trapped, powerless.

Even though it is unjust to demand that hurting people “focus on the positive,” that doesn’t mean there is never a time to re-frame.

In my narrative therapy training, I’ve been taught to “linger with intent” in the problem story – to invite community members to talk about their problems without shame or judgement, and to look for ways to strengthen their connection to preferred outcomes and preferred selves within those stories.

What this looks like in practice is that I listen to the stories that community members bring into narrative therapy sessions with an ear open to “double-storying” – what’s not being said here, but might be present anyway? In a story of anger, for example, there is sometimes a sense of justice that refuses to be silenced. In a story of hopelessness or exhaustion, there might be a cherished belief that things could be, and should be, different.

This means deepening stories of resistance and response, looking for those moments of choice and asking questions that connect people to their own acts of agency and to the ways in which they’ve responded to the problems in their lives. It also means looking for what people are valuing – what they hold to be precious or cherished, what they want for themselves and the world, what they hope for and dream – and working to strengthen their connections to the histories of those values.

This feels different than telling people to “shift their perspective” or to “think positive.”

It’s hard for me to write about this in clear and confident ways because I’m in the middle of the struggle myself.

What I do in a narrative therapy session is try to help people shift how they are oriented towards their problems and their own stories. I try to shift the narrative!

But outside of narrative therapy sessions and the respectful framing that I’m learning in my narrative therapy training, what I see in so much self-help writing is demands to “change your perspective and change your life,” with a subtext that seems to say that people have invited their own suffering, that they’re experiencing the consequences of their own “low vibrations” or “negative thoughts,” or that they have both the power and the responsibility to single-handedly and through the power of positive thinking change their external context. I hate these demands so much.

But what I’ve noticed in myself is that in rejecting the culture of “manifest your best life” positive thinking, I have also rejected a lot of helpful wisdom (wisdom that shows up in narrative therapy, too, and that I love in that context!) In rejecting the idea that individuals are responsible for changing social contexts that they can’t control, I have found myself also rejecting the hope for any change at all. I have focused so much on the harms of individualizing problems that I sometimes think I have forgotten the hope of collective action. I have focused on resisting narratives of “manifestation” and I think that I have sometimes lost sight of narratives of agency and choice.

I don’t know what to do about this.

But I do know this – when I pulled the Nine of Wands, my mind leapt to a very specific narrative of myself. It is the narrative of overwork. The narrative of “the edge of burnout.” It is a narrative I know very well, and anytime a narrative comes that easily, it’s worth questioning.

Because, even though it is a narrative that comes with my critique of capitalism and my feelings of powerlessness in the face of late stage capitalism, it’s also a thin narrative of myself. (“Thin description allows little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred.” – from What is Narrative Therapy on the Dulwich Centre’s excellent site.)

I started wondering, what if the thing that’s out of balance isn’t work, but my narrative about work?

(And, since it’s Sunday when I’m writing this, and Sunday in the Tender Year is when I pick a binary and challenge it, what if it isn’t either/or, but rather both?)

I started asking myself what is rendered invisible when I focus only on the part of my working self that is so tired and overwhelmed?

The answers came slowly, especially because I was sick. But they did come eventually.

What gets erased is the joy I take in my work.

What gets erased are the positive effects of my work.

What gets erased is the support I have in my work (including from my patrons!) and the growth that I am inviting into my life by continuing to do this work.

My choices get erased in this narrative, which is a narrative of work being foisted on me – work that I have to do in order to pay the rent, work that I have to do in order to get where I need to be.

But I do feel joy in my work.

There are positive effects that result from my work.

I have so much support for my work, and I do make choices.

After sitting with this idea of work / narratives of work, I laid out another tarot spread for myself.

Image description: A Wild Unknown tarot spread and a muffin on a wooden table. The spread includes the Nine of Wands, the Four of Cups, the Ace of Wands, the Four of Wands, and the Son of Pentacles. The Father of Cups is also visible on top of the deck.

I pulled out the Nine of Wands, and then laid out my favourite spread with that as the focus.

My favourite spread is the elements – a five card spread with a focus card (or a card that represents the situation or the whole), and then cards for air/mental self, water/emotional self, earth/physical or material self, and fire/creative, passionate, or spiritual self.

In the air position, I had the Four of Cups.

The Four of Cups in the Wild Unknown always strikes me as being a card about feelings of scarcity – that rat is trying so hard to keep control of all the cups, to make sure they don’t tip or get stolen. The Four of Cups is often about feeling like there isn’t enough, and in this deck (more than most others) it makes me think of the way scarcity can invite us into desperation and a desire to control our situation more tightly than we need to, more tightly than we actually can. This card says, “I can’t let go of anything, or I will lose everything.”

It landed like a hammer and I almost didn’t even flip the rest of the spread. This card speaks directly to what I had been thinking about over the four days since originally pulling the Nine of Wands.

Maybe I’m out of balance about this because I am so focused on scarcity. I am so terrified of scarcity. I am terrified of financial insecurity – I have experienced acute financial scarcity in the past, and I am chronically on the edge of it (and have been since my divorce), and those thoughts consume me sometimes. Especially when I think about work, and about throwing myself more fully into my narrative work.

I noticed the moon in both the Four of Cups and the Nine of Wands. That dark crescent in the Four is a rich golden colour in the Nine of Wands – two different narratives of the same moon. Am I working towards that bright sliver of light, or am I clutching what little I can in the shadows? It’s the same thing, but it’s a very different story of that same thing.

So that first position is air, how I’m thinking about the situation.

I moved on to the rest of the spread.

Water – how am I feeling about this situation? Where are my emotions here?

The Ace of Wands. This is a card about new beginnings, and about passion. When I think about work, I do think in terms of scarcity – a lack of time, a lack of money, a lack of resources, a lack of faith in myself. And a lot of that is justified, but it isn’t the whole story. Because when I feel about work, particularly about my narrative work, my community organizing work, my writing work – I feel passionate and excited. I feel like I’m building something! I feel like there’s value here, and the potential to do something new and needed. This card resonated for me, too.

Then across the spread to Fire – where is my passion and creativity here?

The Son of Pentacles. I see the same golden crescent moon as in the Nine of Wands, and notice the pentacle (a symbol of earth and grounding and materiality) centered in it – another narrative of this same story that adds stability to the potential and “enoughness” of that rich crescent.

Carrie Mallon writes about this card:

The Son of Pentacles leans into the card, pressing forward slowly but surely. An orange crescent moon frames a pentacle above him. The background is dark, but lightens where he gazes.

The Son of Pentacles is not one to act with great haste or passion. He is purposeful and careful in all that he does. Once he has decided to move in a given direction, that is simply where he goes. He sticks the course and slugs through the mud to reach his goals. He doesn’t always trust easily, but if someone does earn his trust, he stands by them without fail.

On the positive side, this attention to detail can be essential. The Son of Pentacles is thorough and has unparalleled determination to finish what he starts. On the negative side, he can fall prone to tunnel vision.

…[The] Son of Pentacles is looking down at his chosen path. He is so resolute in his endeavors that he may forget to look up and assess his current surroundings. He may have a difficult time with changes and flexibility.

That also resonates with what I’d been thinking about this whole work/narratives of work thing. I recognize my own determination, but I can also see how sometimes I get focused on a particular idea or narrative and it’s hard for me to deviate from that. I also find this interesting because this card is in the fire position – it’s all about passion. But the Son of Pentacles is not a passionate card. He’s determined, focused, attentive but not passionate. And I am passionate. I am passionate in general but I am especially passionate about my work.

Except, not so much lately.

Lately, I’ve been so tired. I’ve been so fixed on how hard it is, how hard I’m working, how hard I have to keep working, and I haven’t been feeling my fire. I’ve been feeling sad and hopeless lately – climate change, economics, politics. I’ve been doing my work, but I’ve been doing it more like the Son of Pentacles than I would like.

And the lovely thing about that is that I can make choices about whether I continue like this! The cards are not fixed, fatalistic. The cards are a conversation. And I can make choices, make changes. I can invite more fire into this part of my life.

Finally, Earth – where is my physical and material self in this?

The Four of Wands. Where the Four of Cups is about scarcity and lack, the Four of Wands is about celebration and reaching milestones.

I’m interpreting this card as an invitation to notice successes as they happen, rather than constantly watching for upcoming failures or challenges.

The fact is, some things have gone really well in the last while! I have First Class Honours in my first course of the Masters program. My birthday offer of $37 narrative therapy sessions has been popular, and I only have 25 of these sessions left. (If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, get in touch! I’d love to work with you.) I have a lot of ideas for posts and projects, and lots of people are interested in participating in these projects. The next zine is almost ready to be printed!

I’m going to try to notice those things when they happen, and to let myself linger in those stories of success and hope.

It’s really difficult looking at our narratives and allowing them to shift (or even acknowledging that a shift might be possible or desirable).

I appreciate the way that tarot invites me into these difficult and rich conversations with myself and with my stories.

Onward!

Caring What Other People Think

Caring What Other People Think

Image description: A notecard hanging from a string. Text reads: Do you like me?

(This is an edited and expanded version of a post that was shared with my patrons one week early. If you’d like early access to my posts, and the ability to suggest changes or make comments before they go up on my blog, consider backing my Patreon!)

On April 9, 2018, I wrote to Jonathan, who has been a patron since the beginning of the project (and a partner for 10 years!), “Your birthday is coming! What do you want me to write about this year?”

He wrote back almost immediately, “Caring what others think.”

I like decisiveness.

And I like this topic.

He continued:

Just to expand on the topic…

The shame I feel over caring what other people think is difficult to navigate. When I was a kid I was told, over and over again, that I was just supposed to be myself and not care what other people think.

That sentiment really oversimplifies things. On the one hand, I get it. Caring too much about what other people think can really paralyze you. It gives other people a lot of power over you. It creates a lot of pressure, sometimes, to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. It stunts your ability to develop your own ideas, your own interests and your own destiny.

Caring what others think is seen as a sign of weakness. It means you don’t have your own personality; you’re two-faced; you lack principle and your own moral compass. We don’t trust people who care what other people think because we think of those people as fake. Caring what others think “too much” can be inaccurately pathologized as mental disorders such as paranoia, bi-polar and attention seeking disorders.

On the other hand, all of the non-vocal messaging you get is that it’s actually really, really important to worry about what other people think. Your social networks depend on what other people think about you. Your job depends on what other people think about you. Your ability to access resources depends on what other’s think of you.

It’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other’s think. Corporations literally invest billions in controlling what other people think about them. Politicians direct a considerable amount of their power and capital towards carefully curating their public image. Many of our public institutions operate entirely based on people’s impression of the institution.

Clearly, it’s important to carefully balance the stock you place in what other’s think and your own self-confidence and commitment to be “true to yourself” despite social pressure. It’s complicated.

I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself. I’m struggling to find a way to bring that into balance. I think, over the years, I’ve developed real strengths because of my obsession with what other’s think. I’m very keen to non-verbal communication and a pretty empathetic person. I’ve learned a lot about social cues and can pick out social patterns better than most. Meeting expectations is important to me and, when I have proper balance in my life, I’m pretty good at exceeding expectations because I care what other people think. I think my compassion also stems from caring and that’s not something I care to lose.

So, I think the concept of caring what others think is one that could really benefit from some exploration. It’s one of those deceptively simple ideas that actually has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.

After this post was suggested, this topic kept coming up. And it kept coming up in ways that really supported Jonathan’s insight into the way this idea “has a lot of layers and a lot of depth to it.”

It showed up in narrative therapy sessions, where one of my community members identified “caring what others think” as something that is both a cherished characteristic that allows them to bring empathy and compassion into their relationships, and also something that keeps them from acting on their own desires and needs.

Then it showed up in that same way for another community member. They care a lot about what other people think of them, and it’s both something they value in themselves and also something that they experience as a block or obstacle when trying to care for their own needs.

Then it showed up in a similar was for a third community member, who also talked about this particular experience in work contexts, where caring about what coworkers think is a skill that keeps them from oversharing and allows them to maintain boundaries, but also has them feeling isolated sometimes.

This idea of “caring what others think” became the basis of the “too much of a good thing” project that I’m undertaking as part of my master of narrative therapy and community work program (Note: I am still looking for participants for the project, so if it sounds interesting to you, get in touch!) Because the idea was growing so much, it seemed impossible to come back to this original writing prompt. I felt that I needed to get the whole project done in order to present something worthwhile.

(Sounds a bit like I’m caring about what others think of my writing, right? This shows up frequently for me, and it means I generally publish work that I’m proud of, and I don’t share nearly as much as I would like to. For the next while, I’m working on challenging this urge towards perfection and I’ll be sharing things that are a little less intensely edited. We’ll see how it goes!)

In May, this idea of “caring what others think” showed up in my own life in a big way when I was suddenly thrown headfirst into a situation where “what people think about me” became something I had to care about intensely. I was feeling (and being) observed and critiqued in personal and impactful ways. Writing about this topic felt more and more impossible.

It was everywhere! Overwhelming!

I decided to come back to this post, even though the “too much of a good thing” project is still underway, because “caring what others think” seems critical on its own. Although this topic fits within a larger framework, it deserves its own examination and exploration. As Jonathan pointed out, “it’s a cruel myth that only the weak care what other people think.” But that myth is everywhere. It’s one that impacts most of us in one way or another.

Ask the Internet

If you google “caring what other people think,” you’re likely to get a whole bunch of results with instructions for how to stop, and often with language that pathologizes or shames people who do care what other people think.

In one post on Psychology Today, the author writes, “One of our more enduring social fallacies is the idea that what others think of us actually matters. While this notion clearly has primal evolutionary roots, its shift from survival instinct to social imperative has become one of our greatest obstacles to self-acceptance.”

I have questions about this.

Is it a fallacy that what others think of us actually matters?

What my boss thinks of me matters to my employment.

It matters what the community members who consult with me think of me. It impacts my efficacy as a narrative therapist. Some research suggests that the best indicator of success in the therapeutic relationship is the “therapeutic alliance” (meaning the positive relationship between the therapist and the person consulting them). One review of the literature found that multiple studies “indicated that the quality of the alliance was more predictive of positive outcome than the type of intervention.” If that’s the case, it matters a whole lot to my work as a narrative therapist what people think!

I also wonder about the “primal evolutionary roots” of caring what people think. I am skeptical of most evolutionary psychology, given its many problems. (For one view on these problems, this problematically hetero- and cisnormative Scientific American article is a good place to start.) I particularly question this “primal” nature of the issue given the very contemporary context within which so many of us do care what others think.

For marginalized individuals especially, caring what people think can keep us alive. Caring what others think means knowing, deeply and intimately, what the dominant expectations are so that we can do our best to adapt to them.

For neurodivergent folks on the autism spectrum, caring what others think is part of the training – look at the language used in the popular Social Thinking program. (Content note on this link at the Social Thinking site for unsettling language about autistic kids. If you just want to read critiques, many of them by autistic writers, this facebook thread is full of information, but also upsetting to read.) “Expected” and “unexpected” behaviours, where “unexpected” means that the child hasn’t responded to the “hidden rule” and could be making people “uncomfortable.” Talk about teaching kids to care what others think!

On a more positive note, caring what other people thinks can foster a sense of being “accountable to the whole,” to quote my friend and mentor Stasha. This accountability to the whole means that we maintain an awareness of how our actions impact each other, and when Stasha made this comment I wondered whether a more intentional and compassionate relationship with the idea of caring what people think might be one way to challenge the individualism and isolation that our current capitalist context enforces.

Another article, this time from Lifehack, quotes Lao Tzu, “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner” and concludes, “Once you give up catering to other people’s opinion and thoughts, you will find out who you truly are, and that freedom will be like taking a breath for the first time.”

Again, I have questions.

The Socially Constructed Self

Is “who I truly am” really something that happens entirely in isolation, entirely internal and apart from other people and what they think? I don’t think that it is.

I brought this question to one of the narrative therapy groups I’m part of, and I was very worried about what the group would think of me. I wrote, “This is an absolutely ridiculous question because I feel like I have read *at least* seven different version of this idea, but I’ve been searching and failing, so, halp?! I am looking for a good, comprehensive-ish, ideally readable-by-non-academic-audiences (but I’ll take an academic article also) resource on the idea of the self being shaped by context and relationships.”

I felt ashamed of the fact that I needed help, but the responses that I got were incredibly validating!

One person commented to say they were following, and I said, “You have no idea how relieving it is to realize I’m not alone in this.” They replied, “I think one of the most dangerous things a therapist can do is let their ego in the way of asking questions – well, that’s what I tell myself as I manage my “imposter syndrome” 😉”

Someone else said, “So glad you asked!! I need just the thing and didn’t think of asking here!”

So many of us caring so much what each other would think, and finding solidarity and companionship in realizing that we’re not alone in it. Although the way that anticipatory shame keeps us silent is a problem, I think that the shared experience is valuable. And normal. In that group, we are all either practicing therapists or students of narrative therapy or both, and we still care deeply about what other people will think of us. We can respond to the ways in which this caring becomes a problem without demanding that we suddenly cease caring entirely. And without accepting that we are somehow incomplete because of it!

One of the responses was from someone linking me to this resource by Ken Gergen.

Gergen’s “Orienting Principles” are here (from the link – I highly recommend following the link and listening to his talk!):

We live in world of meaning. We understand and value the world and ourselves in ways that emerge from our personal history and shared culture.

Worlds of meaning are intimately related to action. We act largely in terms of what we interpret to be real, rational, satisfying, and good. Without meaning there would be little worth doing.

Worlds of meaning are constructed within relationships. What we take to be real and rational is given birth in relationships. Without relationship there would be little of meaning.

New worlds of meaning are possible. We are not possessed or determined by the past. We may abandon or dissolve dysfunctional ways of life, and together create alternatives.

To sustain what is valuable, or to create new futures, requires participation in relationships. If we damage or destroy relations, we lose the capacity to sustain a way of life, and to create new futures.

When worlds of meaning intersect, creative outcomes may occur. New forms of relating, new realities, and new possibilities may all emerge.

When worlds of meaning conflict, they may lead to alienation and aggression, thus undermining relations and their creative potential.

Through creative care for relationships, the destructive potentials of conflict ma be reduced, or transformed.

Two things jump out at me particularly: that worlds of meaning are created within relationships (which I take as a direct contradiction of the idea that we “find out who we truly are” only outside of relationship and others influence), and that together we can create alternatives.

Individualism

On a similar note, I also have questions about why freedom is so individualized, if there is so much creative potential in relationships.

Of course, these articles that advise us on how to stop caring what others think of us aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t have relationships, and treating them as if they are would be setting up a straw man that isn’t there. However, I think that there is an individualist discourse present in these articles that suggests that we can have relationships without caring what the people in our relationships think of us, and I think that discourse invites a lack of accountability and collaboration, and suggests that there is a core self that exists apart from the self within relationships. I disagree with this idea.

Melanie Grier, another wise friend, said:

I think a good question to always ask yourself is *whose* approval you are seeking and how it serves you. I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve returned to school and have been working to let go of the desire for approval from my parents, understanding that as a practically impossible pursuit.

It feels good to be liked… and I think if that is your motive, just to be liked for the dopamine rush it provides, it can cause an issues once your self-worth can easily become interconnected with the external experience completely independent of you.

But the desire for approval from valued mentors, friends, partners, peers can serve us differently – it can help us build functional, healthy relationships where both parties are mutually invested in behaving in a way that results in approval or liking. It holds us accountable in a way, wanting to do right by a person. And I think we often grow by keeping expectations of each other reasonable. Working to feel validated, if consciously motivated, can help us do awesome things, I believe…

I find even knowing that people dislike me helps me self-reflect. It can again clarify values, sometimes discovering where you’re not willing to budge.

A lot of this resonates for me, because there are many elements of society that will never like or approve of me, because I am non-binary, I am bisexual, I am polyamorous, I am AFAB and often am read as femme. When I care what these people think of me (in the sense of wanting them to like or approve of me), I am caught in an impossible trap because the only way to gain that approval is to change who I am. However, even there I do care what they think because what they think points to systemic and structural injustices. I care what they think because I want to change the social context within which those thoughts of transantagonism, heterosexism, femmephobia, and all the rest (as well as all the injustices that I don’t face as a white settler with thin privilege, English language privilege, educational privilege, etc.)

Melanie also said, “I think we are too interconnected as a species and biosphere to be an island. We impact each other too much.”

I agree.

In yet another article, Tinybuddha suggests that, “Worrying about what other people think about you is a key indicator that you do not feel whole without the approval of others,” and, “When you are truly content with who you are, you stop being concerned with whether or not other people like you.”

The same types of questions come up.

Why does caring about the approval of others mean I don’t “feel whole”? Why can’t I “feel whole” while also caring about approval? Why is the approval of others automatically dismissed, when it is critical to having consensual and mutual relationships? What is active consent, other than enthusiastically and intentionally caring about getting the approval of the person you’re interacting with before taking an action?

This connects to Melanie’s points about whose approval we’re seeking, and to the idea of certain types of approval being entirely unavailable. Social isolation is recognized as a source of pain and distress, and social isolation is tied directly to what people think of us (whether we are likeable, friendable, loveable). And yet, the idea that we shouldn’t care what people think seems to greatly privilege individualism – being ourselves, being okay with being ourselves, even if that means being by ourselves.

My questions in writing this post kept coming back to why we valorize individualization. Why is it better to be an island? Why do we even believe we can be islands?! Isn’t there a whole song about how that doesn’t really work out? Sure, it may be true that the rock feels no pain, and the island never cries, and maybe that’s what we are hoping for when we distance ourselves from caring what others think. But that’s not the life that I want for myself.

Melissa Day points out that this valuing of individualization only happens within certain contexts. She writes:

[W]e fetishise individualism only within certain prescribed boundaries. Think of the hipster – I was into that before it was cool. Okay, great, you’re an individual. But someone who’s into completely different music/food/subjects and isn’t doing it to be “cool” or doesn’t have those become popular isn’t looked on as a heroic individual, but rather a weirdo or a freak (and yes, those words hurt and were chosen specifically). The sense I get is that there are two types of “don’t care what others think.” 1. They feel secure enough that who they are or what they like falls in society’s norms that they can be individual but still part of the whole 2. They like what they like and it falls so far outside society’s norms that caring about what others think really isn’t an option. This is written from the perspective of someone who had two choices growing up – change who you are and conform or stop caring about other people, be yourself, and take the lumps that followed.

I think… that it ties into this idea of everyone is special and unique. I would think the end goal of being different comes from a place of “If I am the same as everyone else, I will not be Special and Special is good.”

We are, collectively, put into a complex conundrum – we must care what other people think, and we must fit in, but we must do it in exactly the right way or we risk deviating too far from the norm and being punished for it.

As NoirLuna points out, “I feel like life would be way easier if blending in had been one of my options, but I figured out young it wasn’t, and managed to stop trying. (Which was for the good.)”

Wanting to Be Liked

Why is it a problem to care whether or not people like me?

I want my friends, my family, my lovers, my companions on this journey- I want them to like me!

I want them to like me because I know that I tend to spend time with people that I like. I am invested in relationships with people that I like. And I assume that other people are, if not exactly like me, then at least a little bit like me. So if my friends like me, they’ll want to spend time with me. They’ll want to be close to me. And I am invested in that outcome.

I have found that people are more likely to spend time with me when they like me.

And the reverse is also true. I have found that I don’t enjoy spending time with people that I don’t like, and I don’t enjoy spending time with people who don’t like me!

But then again…

There is a way of caring about what others think that can invite trouble. As Jonathan writes, “I’m out of balance over it. Caring what other’s think causes me anxiety. When I feel like someone is upset or angry with me I fixate on that. When I feel like someone thinks poorly of me or has a negative impression of my skill set it completely eats away at me. It makes conflict resolution very difficult for me to manage sometimes. It also means that I sometimes have a hard time being honest and authentic not only with the people around me but also with myself.”

Many folks can relate to that.

This topic has been challenging to write about because I, too, care “too much” about what other people think. I want people to like me. I want people to think that I am a good and worthy person. I want people to think that I am competent and capable.

The problem, as I have come to understand it in the process of sitting with this prompt, is not necessarily in caring what others think (I think I’ve been clear that I don’t consider that a problem!) but rather, when I create a totalizing narrative of myself based on what other people think. What I mean by that is, if I can only be “a good person” when everyone else agrees that I am so, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because no person is good all the time, no person can be.

Similarly, if I want to be a “worthy person” and I can only perceive myself to be that when everyone thinks I am, that’s a problem!

Ditto competency.

Ditto capableness.

The problem, in my mind, is when there is only room for a single story of the self. When that story is the one told by someone else’s opinion of us (including their opinion that we can only be “whole”, or “free”, or “authentic” when we don’t care what others think), it invites so much shame to the table. It invites us into so many feelings of personal failure. We need many stories of ourselves – stories of being good and stories of being less good, stories of being liked and stories of being less liked, stories of success and stories of growth. It is okay to care what other people think. It is okay to be conflicted about caring what other people think. It is okay to actively reject what other people think. There’s space. We need that space.

I struggled with this topic because, as much as I reject the idea that caring what other people think means I am somehow “not authentic” or “not whole” or “not free”, I have internalized the idea that I shouldn’t care what other people think. That it “isn’t any of my business” and that “the only thing I can control is myself.”

But this framing grates.

It feels wrong.

It feels far too individualizing.

Of course I care what people think of me! And so do the community members who consult me, and so does the patron who requested this topic, and so might you.

The idea that we should be fully autonomous, insulated individuals, small islands of personhood operating on our own, without caring or being moved by other people’s opinions… I think that’s a really harmful and hurtful idea.

That doesn’t mean that I am governed by other people’s thoughts, or that I am responsible for their thoughts, or that I am incomplete because I care about their thoughts. It means that, as Ken Gergen outlines, my reality (my worlds of meaning) is created through collaboration and context. When I engage meaningfully and intentionally with the people around me, including what they think of me and my actions, a lot of good in my life is made possible by this caring.