content note: climate existential dread, mention of suicidality
An earlier version of this post was available last week to supporters of my Patreon.
The other day, I made a really delicious salad for dinner, and as I sat there eating it, and enjoying it, and thinking about all of its components, I was, again, overcome with dread about the future of food security as climate change worsens.
This is a post about how fears about climate change are showing up in my life these days, and about how I hope to use narrative practices to respond to these fears in my own life and in the lives of community members who consult me. Many people in my communities, myself included, are experiencing a pervasive sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.
Narrative therapy suggests that we are never passive recipients of hardship or trauma. That people are always responding to the problems in their lives. I believe this is true, even when the response is not outwardly (or sometimes inwardly) visible. I want to find ways to speak about climate grief, climate fear, climate anger, in ways that honour our values, our skills, and our legacies of response. This post is one effort in this direction. I hope that there will be more. I hope that you will join me on the journey.
I think about climate change, and about how it will impact food security and the necessities of life, so often.
I think about the wealth gap that already exists and is worsening globally, and I think about how so many of my communities are already living with financial precarity. I think about what the salad I made should cost if we paid what we need to for carbon, and I think about how drastically my diet would need to change. I think about self-sustainability and I feel my aching body and I know that I will not be able to grow food to feed my family.
And this line of thought draws me into thinking about sustainability and self-sustainability. Self-sufficiency. Independence. I think that “self-sustainability,” expressed as individualism, is just another tentacle of violent neoliberalism and I reject it. Community care forever. But still. How? And so, bumping up against another problem (the influence of individualism on our dominant narratives), I encounter again The Dread.
I have nightmares about the next generation starving. My stepkids, my neiphlings, the children in my extended community, and in the vulnerable communities I witness from a distance.
Starvation is the most frequent recurring nightmare I have when it comes to climate change. It haunts me at least once a week.
It also makes me think about how environmental racism and environmental violence are not new; how Indigenous children and Black children have already been facing the kind of food scarcity that I have nightmares about. How the Black Panthers instituted school meal programs to try and address these issues long before climate change became such an urgent issue. But even though environmental racism and violence are not new, the people who have already been facing these harms will also mostly likely face the escalating harms more quickly and more directly. We can’t look at the past through idealistic lenses and pretend that children haven’t already been starving, but we also can’t use that as an excuse to ignore how much worse it will likely get.
Again, the dread.
But also threads of hope, and delight. The Black Panthers have descendants in Black Lives Matter, and food justice efforts exist in projects like Food Not Bombs, and in the Health At Every Size movement, and in Black urban growers (some of whom you can read about here) and Indigenous communities who understand how to care for the Earth in ways that capitalism and colonialism have tried (and failed) to erase.
I just bought adrienne maree brown’s new book, Pleasure Activism, and I am starting to read it. I think that pleasure is necessary, joy is necessary. How will we resist oppression and injustice, and respond to the challenges in front of us, without pleasure, without joy, without hope?
I want both: the fear that tells me what is at stake, and the hope that allows me to keep moving forward.
Right now I have a disproportionate amount of fear, and not a lot of hope.
There are reasons for this, and I refuse to disavow or invalidate my own fear and distress, or the fear and distress of my community members. But as much as I resist the pressure towards “positive thinking” that says feeling fear is the “real” problem, the fact is that I want pleasure and hope, too. I want joy. I want the full range of my emotions, and I want to be able to imagine a future for myself, for my communities, for the children coming after us. I want that for all of us.
Lately I have noticed my thoughts sliding sideways over into, “it would be good if I just died right now,” more often than I am happy about.
Last week I sent a message to Nathan Fawaz, one of my beloved humans, and said:
“Do you have a spoon for a big but short vent? I don’t need a solution but it is just sitting in my chest.
I just really struggle when I think about climate change. I don’t want to live through what is coming. I feel so hopeless and sometimes even suicidal. I won’t, because I think there is a role for people with my skill set in getting through what’s coming and I want to help, and I also think about the impact of that on my communities, but my desire to live does not coexist with my awareness of climate crisis. They do not overlap. When I think about climate change, my desire to live is gone.”
They replied, generously offering me the same kind of response that I would hope to offer someone who brought that vulnerability to me:
I am seeing such a strong value for supportive environments and our roles in cocreating them.
And such an affinity between environment and lifeforce/vitality.
Such a keen and important sensitivity.
I am sorry you are sad and that this is so hard.
I am sorry that there is so much detritus — both human and human-made.
I am sorry for all the disequilibrium.
Every word you wrote resonates so strongly.
They shared an idea that part of what is happening is akin to “ecoableism” – not being able to imagine any future without some expectation of wholeness or perfection on the part of the planet. An inability to see value or hope in an injured and ill planet. As people who are both in “painbodies,” we have faced this kind of ableism and have valuable insider knowledges into how to resist it. We have both felt the pressure of ableist narratives that frame bodies like ours (trans bodies, pain bodies, ill bodies) as less vital, less worthy. We have both resisting those narratives. We resist those narratives on behalf of our communities and other groups, too. (In fact, we talked about this in episode two of Nathan’s podcast, which you can listen to here.)
We cannot deny that we are causing harm and destruction to the Earth through our actions, that we are making a painbody for the Earth, but maybe we can find ways forward from within the crip and disability communities. What becomes possible if we could, as Nathan suggests, “think about my painbody. Your painbody. And all the painbodied people I know. The shimmering that is there. The incandescent connections. The community. The care. The skills that are exclusive to us.”
What becomes possible if we imagine ourselves in relationship with this struggling and suffering and overheating planet, as collaborators as well as defenders and protectors and destroyers. What if we imagine that there is something unique that we can offer, some gift of care or presence.
What if we imagine the unique insider knowledges that each marginalized community brings; the knowledges of persistence, resistance, healing, nurturing, tending, defending, adapting, restoring, remembering?
I am still figuring out what to do with this conversation and with these feelings. I suspect that in practice, this will mean that I keep tending my house plants and thinking about climate change. I’ll keep reading and talking about it. I’ll keep reaching for hope. And now, with this new language, I’ll start watching for where my insider knowledges into ableism might offer me new paths forward, new life-affirming and life-sustaining choices.
Imagining myself into a story of relationship with this planet, even this planet in a new painbody of our thoughtless design, feels hopeful in a way I had not previously had access to. Maybe it will also feel hopeful for you.
Here is another hopeful thing – this article by George Monbiot, “The Earth is in a death spiral: It will take radical action to save us.” Despite the title, this is one of the most hopeful articles I’ve read recently.
I also wanted to share some narrative questions that you can answer on your own. These are some of the questions I might ask someone who is consulting me for narrative therapy and expressing the kinds of experiences and feelings I’ve been describing here.
- What is it about this situation that is causing you so much distress? Is there something that you hold to be precious or sacred that is at stake?
- How did you learn to cherish whatever it is that is at stake?
- What is your relationship with this cherished idea, location, person, or planet? What is one story that comes to your mind when you think about your relationship?
- Have you ever felt hopelessness or distress like this before? How did you get through that time?
- Is there a legacy of responding to hardships like the one you’re in right now, that you can join? Have other people also felt what you are feeling, or something like it?
- Do you have friends or family members or role models who know what you are experiencing, and may be experiencing similar?
- What is it that keeps you in this situation? What are you holding onto, what are you valuing, that has prevented you from ‘checking out’?
- Is there anyone in your life who knows how much you are struggling with this? Do you think it makes a difference to this person that you continue to resist the problem?
- What does your distress say about what you cherish or consider valuable?
I ask myself these questions, and they are not easy to answer.
But I also know that I have strong values of justice and access and collective action. I know that these values can sustain me. And I know that you, too, have strong values and that connecting to these values is possible.
And I know that we can choose to welcome our despair as much as we welcome our actions of resistance and resilience. We can bring curiosity to The Dread, and ask what matters, what’s at stake, and remind ourselves of why we care so deeply. We can honour the depth of our fear and our grief and our anger.
Our despair is as valid as our resistance and resilience. The two can coexist.
We are multi-storied people, with many equally true and sometimes contradictory stories. And this is a multi-storied time. There is no need to flatten it down to a single narrative. Hope and fear. Pleasure and despair.
There is space for all of it.
The whole complex salad of it.
At the end of last month I finished up the audiobook of The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, for the category of “a cozy mystery.”
February was exceptionally busy (and high pain) for me, so I was pretty distracted through many parts of the book, but I listened while I was doing admin work and laundry and dishes and driving. I’m pretty excited about having finished a third book in the month of February!
So, first impressions:
I loved this book.
I would not have identified myself as a fan of the mystery genre when I started the Read Harder challenge. It’s not a genre that I seek out, but this book inspired such a strong sense of nostalgia in me – I remembered many hours spent watching Sherlock Holmes and Poirot and Inspector Morse and Cadfael and Lovejoy with my family, and I connected to that sense of delight and curiosity that accompanies a mystery. It had been years since I thought about any of those shows. (With the obvious exception that I squealed delightedly at seeing Ian McShane as Odin in American Gods.)
This experience of realizing that I do enjoy a genre was really interesting to me, because one of the core principles of narrative therapy is the idea that lives are “multi-storied” – that there are many true stories of a single life, and they might contradict each other but they can still coexist. I would have not identified myself as a mystery lover, but I discovered (rediscovered) that I do actually love mysteries, and I have loved mysteries for a long time! I love Elementary, but I had considered my love to be more about the gender politics and my epic crush on both Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller.
This was such a lovely invitation to become close to parts of my history that I had grown distant from, and it was really cool to see some of the principles I’ve learned about in the process of becoming a narrative practitioner become so clear in my own life.
Even beyond this little narrative adventure, the book itself is delightful.
Perveen Mistry, a Parsi and the first woman lawyer in 1920s Bombay, is fierce and feminist, and her character was inspired by Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to pass the Bachelor of Civil Laws exam at Oxford.
One of my favourite things about the book was the focus on cultural context. Perveen is critical of British colonial rule, and her politics are woven throughout the book. She also talks about the different cultural groups present in Bombay and Calcutta (the two cities where the book takes place).
One thing that I felt was missing was a robust class analysis. There’s not much of it, and like many books and movies and shows, taking the economic mostly out of the picture makes it easier to bring forward other issues. I understand the benefits of locating all of the main characters in the upper class, and I did appreciate that despite the setting, there were moments of class analysis. Most notably, I appreciated when Perveen responds to a British woman’s question about safety, based on the fact that most major crimes in Bombay were committed by servants, by noting how many of India’s people live in poverty (meaning, most of the people in the country are poor, so of course most of the people committing crimes are poor), and how they are more likely to be arrested and convicted than a wealthier person who did the same thing. I am always here for a call-out of carceral injustice.
The gender politics in the book were central. A significant portion of the book takes place in the Farid zenana, where the Muslim widows (of the title) observe purdah (separation of the sexes). There are moments when Perveen (and by extension the author, and by invitation the reader) expresses sadness and concern for the purdahnashin, for their lack of freedom and access. However, the book resists leaning too hard into this perspective, challenging both Perveen and the reader by revealing the widows to each have more agency and more insight than anticipated. And the Muslim women are not singled out as uniquely vulnerable to exploitation – the Parsi tradition of secluding menstruating women is also prominent, and critiqued.
(Reading this book as a white, 21st century Canadian, there is an easy invitation to locate myself in a position of moral judgement when it comes to these cultural practices, but I tried as a reader, and will try as a reviewer, to refuse that position. Christianity, which is my own cultural background, has its own long and ongoing history of violent misogyny. I do think that there is a real risk of readers in my social context engaging in judgmental voyeurship, but that’s a problem with white supremacy and ongoing colonialism, rather than a problem with the book itself.)
Although British colonial power is evident throughout the narrative (Indian Independence Day wasn’t until 1947, and the book takes place between 1916 and 1921), the focus is not on either British control or British customs. Sujata Massey consistently brings a focus to the long cultural traditions of the Indian communities, particularly the Parsi communities (Perveen talks about her ancestors arriving hundreds of years prior from Persia) and the Muslim communities. This pushes the British out of the center of the narrative, and creates a sense of complex and ongoing Indian culture.
I really enjoyed this book. February was a difficult and emotionally draining month, and The Widows of Malabar Hill was a welcome lightness threaded through the background. (And the narrator was great. Very highly recommended.)
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”
(This post was originally written for my tarot blog.)
I am tired of watching the people in my life suffer at the hands and words of people who claim to love them.
And it does not escape my notice that it is more often the femmes, the women, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the vulnerable who are experiencing violence and abuse from their partners.
I am overwhelmed with listening to people who consult me for narrative therapy, and who consult me as a friend, talk about what has been done to them, talk about what has been said to them, talk about what has been said about them, and to hear them questioning themselves with the oppressive voices of our culture.
Was it really so bad?
He didn’t mean it.
Am I too needy?
He was drinking.
They were having a panic attack.
Everything I say makes her angry.
He really tries.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Of course they doubt themselves! Our culture chronically gaslights marginalized communities. Marginalized communities are often operating within transgenerational trauma, poverty, scarcity (if not in our families, then in our communities). Marginalized communities may also have to contend with other structural and systemic issues that make naming abuse and violence more challenging – Black and Indigenous communities are at such increased risk of violence from any system. Seeking help often means finding more violence.
There is so much normalization of violence in our culture. And although it is not an issue that only impacts women, or is only perpetuated by men, there are patterns. They are painful patterns to witness.
One of my friends recently posted this open letter to men:
Just wanted to let you know I am so over it. I talk to your partners every day. I see their tears and listen to their self flagellation in the effort to make you happy. I watch them cram themselves in tiny boxes so they don’t threaten you. I fume as they suggest, gently, kindly, if it’s not too much trouble, that you consider their needs, but your wants are more important. Men, I watch you casually ask for sacrifice as if it were your due. I seethe as your partners ask for the simplest things of you, and you just don’t even bother. I see you go through the motions and call it love, when it doesn’t even pass the bar for respect. And then, as it all falls apart you claim you need a chance, as if you haven’t been given dozens, that you didn’t know, as if you hadn’t been told relentlessly, and that you can change, as long as you won’t be held accountable.
Men, I am so over watching your partners unilaterally trying to fix relationship problems that are yours. I am tired of knowing your partners better than you. I am exhausted having to buoy them through the hard times because you cannot be bothered. I am tired of you cheapening what love means by buying the first box of chocolates you see (not even their favourite) and calling it an apology but changing nothing.
Don’t hurt my people. Men, do better or go home.
And still, the questioning. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Because each incident on its own might not be so bad. Might be a bad day, a bad choice. Might be a bad moment. It’s not the whole story. Maybe it’s not so bad.
And on its own, maybe it isn’t.
Image description: The Ten of Swords from the Next World Tarot.
From the guidebook by Cristy C. Road:
This is the final straw, and the 10 of Swords is exhausted from counting. They have lost themselves, over and over, in the name of love, self-worth, trauma, post-traumatic stress, healing the body from abuse, healing the mind from manipulation, and unwarranted, non-stop loss. The 10 knows healing, they studies it and have been offered power, candles, bracelets, and messages from their ancestors through local prophets who run their favorite Botanica. They are listening, but they are stuck. Proving to their community that while they have known power, they have known pain they don’t deserve.
The 10 of Swords asks you to trust your pain, own your suffering, and don’t deny yourself of the care you deserve from self, and the validation from your community. That validation is the root of safety. The 10 of Swords believes now is the time to ask your people for safety.
I pulled this card after another conversation with a beloved member of my community about an incident of misogyny in an intimate relationship.
I had brought this question to the deck – “How do we invite accountability into our intimate relationships?”
I wanted to know –
How do we create the context for change without putting the burden of emotional labour onto the person already experiencing trauma from the choices and behaviours of their partner?
How do we deepen the connection to values of justice, compassion, and ethical action, for people who have been recruited into acts of violence and abuse?
How do we resist creating totalizing narratives about people who use violence and abuse? How do we resist casting them as monsters? How do we invite accountability while also sustaining dignity?
How do we, to use a quote by one of my fellow narrative therapists, “thwart shame”? (Go watch Kylie Dowse’s video here!)
In moments of distress, I often turn to the tarot. When I don’t know how to ask the right questions, and I don’t know what to say or do, I turn to the tarot. Tarot cards are excellent narrative therapists.
I flipped this card over and the image moved me immediately. These acts of intimate partner violence and abuse do not occur in a vacuum. It is not just one sword in the back.
A misogynist comment from a partner, directed towards a woman or femme, joins the crowd of similar comments she, they, or he has received their entire life.
A racist comment from a partner, directed towards a racialized person, joins the pain of living an entire life surrounded by white supremacy and racism.
An ableist comment from a partner, a transantagonistic comment, a sanist or healthist or fatphobic or classist comment – these comments join the crowd.
And so, how do we invite accountability while preserving dignity? How do we resist totalizing narratives of either victims or perpetrators, resist recreating systems of harm in our responses to harm?
See the whole picture.
Even though it is so painful to look at, see the whole thing.
Rather than locating violence and abuse as problems that are localized to a relationship, individualized and internalized to a single person making choices, recognize that these things happen in context. And for many folks, these contexts are incredibly painful.
It will take time, and patience, and compassion, and gentleness, and a willingness to do the hard work of both validation and accountability. It will take community to find safety.
We need each other to say, “it is that bad, even if this incident might not be.”
When the victim-blaming, isolating, individualizing voices start clamoring, we need each other to say, “this is not your fault.”
We need something more nuanced than “leave,” “report.”
We need to show up for each other, with each other. We need safety. We need validation.
Can we do this by asking questions like:
How did you learn what it means to be in relationship?
What examples of making choices in relationships have you seen around you? What was being valued in those choices?
Does what you’ve learned about being in relationship align with what you want for yourself, and what you value for yourself?
Do the actions you’re choosing in your own relationship align with your values or hopes?
Who has supported you in your values and hopes?
Do you share any hopes or values with your partner(s)?
What have you learned about violence and abuse in relationships? About who experiences violence and abuse? About who enacts violence and abuse?
When did you learn this?
Does this learning align with what you’ve experienced in your own relationship?
What insider knowledges would you add to this learning, from your own experience?
Have you ever taken a stand against violence and abuse in your relationship?
What enabled you to take this stand?
When violence or abuse shows up in your relationship, are you able to name it? Have you ever been able to name it? What supports this ability?
What have you learned about what it means to be accountable in relationship?
Do you have supports available to you that invite accountability while sustaining dignity?
Who can support you in being accountable for the actions you’ve taken when you’ve been recruited into violence or abuse? Who can support you in asking for accountability from a partner who has been recruited into violence or abuse?
Here are some resources if you’re looking for ways to respond to intimate partner violence:
The Stop Violence Everyday project.
Critical Resistance’s The Revolution Starts at Home zine.
The Creative Interventions toolkit.
(This post was originally posted on my tarot blog. You can find it here.)
Image description: On a deep blue cosmos background. Text reads: Surviving Creating Contributing Connecting Sharing Building Healing Growing Learning Unlearning Resisting Persisting
What is this document all about?
This document is the result of a ten-day narrative therapy group project that ran from December 21 to the end of the year in 2018. The purpose of this group was to counteract the pressure of New Year’s resolutions and shift the focus onto celebrating the many actions, choices, skills, values, and hopes that we had kept close in the last year, and to connect ourselves to legacies of action in our communities.
Celebrating our values, actions, and choices may seem trivial, but we consider it part of our deep commitment to anti-oppressive work and to justice.
We hope that this project will stand against the idea that only certain kinds of “progress” or “accomplishment” are worth celebrating.
We want to invite you to join us in celebrating all of the ways in which you have stayed connected to your values, joined together with your communities, stood against injustice and harm. We want to celebrate all of the actions that you have taken in the last year that were rooted in love and justice.
Although this project was focused on the end of the calendar year, we hope that you find this helpful at any time when you are invited to compare your “progress” to other people or to some societal expectation. We think this might be particularly helpful around birthdays, anniversaries, major life transitions like graduations, relocations, retirements, gender or sexuality journeys, new experiences of diagnosis, and, of course, if you’re feeling the pressure that often comes with New Year celebrations!
This project is informed by narrative therapy practices.
Narrative therapy holds a core belief that people are not problems, problems are problems, and solutions are rarely individual. This means that although we experience problems, the problems are not internal to us. We are not bad or broken people; we are people existing in challenging and sometimes actively hostile contexts. We recognize capitalism, ableism, racism, transantagonism, classism, heterosexism, and other systems of harm and injustice, and we locate problems in these and other contexts. We recognize that people are always resisting the hardships in their lives. This project is meant to invite stories of resistance and stories of celebration.
Narrative therapy also holds a core belief that lives are multi-storied. What this means is that even when capitalism, white supremacy, and other systems of oppression are present in a person’s life, that life also has many other stories which are equally true. A person’s story is never just one thing; never just the struggle, never just the problems. This project hopes to invite a multi-storied telling of the year – one that honours hardship and resistance but recognizes that there are also stories of joy, companionship, connection, and play. We know that you are more than your problems.
When we are reflecting on our past year, shame and a sense of personal failing can be invited in – we might feel like we haven’t done enough, and that our reasons for this “not enoughness” are internal. This project hopes to stand against these hurtful ideas, and instead offer an invitation to tell the stories of your year in ways that are complex and compassionate.
Perfectionism and comparison can show up at the New Year, at birthdays, at anniversaries and graduations. But you are already skilled in responding to and resisting hardships. We know that you can respond to any hurtful narratives that show up and try to push you around. We are standing with you as you find the storylines in your year that are worth celebrating.
We know that it is a radical act of resistance to celebrate your life when the culture around you says you are not worth celebrating. If you are fat, poor, queer, Black, brown, Indigenous, trans, disabled, neurodivergent, a sex worker, homeless, living with addiction, or in any other way pushed to the margins and rarely celebrated, this project is especially for you. Your life is worth celebrating.
David Denborough and the Dulwich Centre have outlined a Narrative Justice Charter of Storytelling Rights and this charter guides this project.
My hope is that each of you feels able to tell your stories in ways that feel strong. I hope that you each feel like you have storytelling rights in your own life.
Here is the charter (link is to the Dulwich Centre post):
Article 1 – Everyone has the right to define their experiences and problems in their own words and terms.
Article 2 – Everyone has the right for their life to be understood in the context of what they have been through and in the context of their relationships with others.
Article 3 – Everyone has the right to invite others who are important to them to be involved in the process of reclaiming their life from the effects of trauma.
Article 4 – Everyone has the right to be free from having problems caused by trauma and injustice located inside them, internally, as if there is some deficit in them. The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem.
Article 5 – Everyone has the right for their responses to trauma to be acknowledged. No one is a passive recipient of trauma. People always respond. People always protest injustice.
Article 6 – Everyone has the right to have their skills and knowledges of survival respected, honoured and acknowledged.
Article 7 – Everyone has the right to know and experience that what they have learnt through hardship can make a contribution to others in similar situations.
However you end up using this resource, we would love to hear about it.
You can send your responses to Tiffany at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Tiffany will forward these responses on as appropriate.
Access the full 58-page PDF here.
Image description: A blue and pink image of a gem. Text reads, “No matter where you are in your journey, no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.”
Dearest tender trans friend,
This letter is the collective effort of part of the Possibilities Calgary Bi+ Community, who met on November 20, 2018, Trans Day of Remembrance and Resilience. Some of us are transgender and some of us are cisgender. We met on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta (Calgary), which includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
We recognize and honour the Indigenous people whose land we live and work and organize on, and we are interested in knowing what land you are on, too.
We don’t know who you are, but we do know that we care about you. We know that the world is hard and scary, especially for trans women, and especially for trans women of colour. We know that it can be hard and scary for anyone who is trans or gender non-conforming.
We care about you, whoever you are.
We care about you, no matter what your gender is.
We care about you, even if the only place you’re “out” is in the mirror.
We know that you are responding with skill and resourcefulness to the problems and hardships that you face.
We wonder, what kinds of problems are you facing? We’re curious about this, because we know that sometimes people assume that the only problems trans folks have are to do with gender. But we have some experience with being queer and/or trans, and we realize that sometimes the problems in our lives have nothing to do with that! We are more than just our gender. We know that some trans folks are disabled, some are neurodivergent, some are Black or brown or Indigenous, some are poor, or unhomed, or working through school. We support trans folks no matter what else is going on in your life! And we know that sometimes problems have nothing to do with identity. Sometimes it’s about our jobs, or our art, or a fight with our best friend. Whatever is happening in your life, we know that it’s probably a lot more rich and nuanced than trans stereotypes.
We know that you are the expert in your own life; you know more than anyone else who you are and what you need. We also know that sometimes that means all you know is that you’re searching for answers. That’s okay, too! You still know more than anyone else about your own experience and your own values, hopes, and dreams. It’s still your story even if you don’t know who you are.
We trust you.
You are bringing skill and insider knowledge to your life, and you are getting through. The reason we know this is because you’re reading this letter!
We wonder, how did you get here? What would you call the skills and insider knowledges that allowed you to get to this point, to where you are reading a letter from a small group of strangers? Were you looking for support? Did someone send this to you?
We all, regardless of our own gender and journey, love you. We want you to know that.
We wonder, is there anyone else in your life who loves and supports you in your journey? This person, or people, could be either living or no longer living, or fictional, imaginary, or pop culture figures that you feel supported and encouraged by. Who is on your team?
If you feel alone, we would like to let you know that we would like to be on your team.
Ivy shared that for her, the biggest obstacle has been the experience of being rejected by family members that she thought would welcome her, particularly family members she had welcomed when they came out as gay, but who rejected her when she came out as trans. Sometimes finding your team can be challenging.
This kind of rejection can happen in communities, as well as families. There can be heteronormativity even within the trans community, and if you are visibly queer and also visibly trans, this can be hard. But it’s okay. As one of us said, “You don’t have to fit into a box! It’s fluid and a spectrum and that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s also okay to set boundaries within the queer community, within your friend community, or within your family. If a space doesn’t feel welcoming to you because of one or more parts of your identity, it’s okay to decide that’s not the space for you or to decide you’re going to advocate for that space to become more inclusive. It’s also okay to decide that you’re still going to be in that space despite its flaws. It is never your job to make those spaces welcoming, but it is always okay if you want to take on that work. You can make the choices that are best for you. It’s okay to fight, and it’s also okay to rest.
As a group, we came up with this list of skills and strategies, in case you find yourself in a situations of rejection or isolation:
- Remember that you can make your own family. Quite a few of us shared experiences of defining family in creative and preferred ways.
- There is no obligation to keep in contact with people who do not accept you.
- It can help to find a community of people who have shared similar experiences.
- Community can be in person, but it can also be online. This is especially true if you, like some of us, experience a lot of anxiety or if you’re in a more rural location.
Are there skills or strategies that you would add to this list? We would love to hear about them.
Another thing we talked about was how finding representation can be challenging, but when you find it, it makes a huge difference. This is especially true for identities that are on the margins of the margins; non-binary folks, like some of us, and also asexual folks and folks who don’t fit into recognizable boxes. One of us is on the screening committee for the Fairytales Queer Film Festival, and last year (2017) she watched 100s of hours of content with no asexual representation. We know that asexual trans folks exist! Possibilities is an explicitly ace-inclusive (and trans inclusive) space.
Not seeing representation can make you feel so alone. Where have you found representation? Do you imagine yourself into your favourite books and shows, even when the creators haven’t explicitly written characters like you? Who is your favourite character, or instance of representation?
Representation is important because of how it shows us possible stories, or maps, for our own lives. And the lack of trans representation hurts because it offers so few maps. We wanted to offer you some affirmation when it comes to your trans journey. There is often just a single story of trans realization, and it includes a specific experience of dysphoria. This does not reflect the diversity of experiences in the trans community, or even in the small group of us who met to write this letter! If you have not yet seen representation of a journey like yours, know that your journey is still valid. The problem is in the lack of available stories, not in your own story.
We want to validate that gender euphoria exists, just like gender dysphoria does, and that sometimes we come to our trans identities through an experience of validation rather than through an experience of pain. We also recognize that sometimes dysphoria doesn’t feel like dysphoria – sometimes it feels like depression, sometimes it feels like being flat for a long time – and that sometimes we only recognize that we were feeling dysphoria when we start to feel something different.
There are many paths available, even though there’s not a lot of representation of this diversity yet. Each of these paths are valid! Some folks transition medically, others socially, others surgically, others only internally – these are all valid paths.
We also wanted to share a bit about internalized transphobia, because this experience has been so challenging for some of us, and we want you to know that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing this.
One of us shared that internalized transphobia is not about hating trans people. It’s about being surrounded by negative stories about trans people and not having other stories to counter them with.
The shame you might be feeling if you are experiencing internalized transphobia is not because you are bad, it is because you’ve been surrounded by bad ideas. So many of our cultural contexts – in our families, our friend groups, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosques, in the media and in books and movies and even music – so many of these contexts are full of dominant stories that are not kind or just in their representation of trans people. These stories are not the truth about transness. There is so much more complexity, nuance, and richness to transness. Transness is so much more than the thin and dehumanizing stereotypes available to us.
But those stereotypes are powerful. Sometimes trans folks have to pretend to conform to stereotypes in order to access necessary medical care. This is gatekeeping, and, as one of us said, “gatekeeping is garbage!”
It is not right that you have to jump through so many hoops in order to get gender affirming healthcare, and it’s also not right that so many medical professionals (even when they aren’t directly dealing with anything to do with transness!) are not aware or accepting. That’s an injustice.
How have you been getting through those experiences so far? How did you learn the skills that are helping you get through?
We wanted to make sure you know that just because someone has been labeled an “expert” does not mean they know better than you. You might find yourself having to educate healthcare providers, or searching for non-judgmental and appropriate healthcare. We want to name this an injustice. And it’s okay if you need help navigating this!
We also recognize that so many queer and trans folks have been told that our identities are mental illnesses. We have been pathologized and medicalized, and this can make it challenging to trust or feel safe accessing therapy. We want to let you know that this fear is valid, and also that it’s okay if you want to work with a therapist. We know that you are already skillfully navigating your care needs, and we want to validate that working with a therapist does not mean you are “broken” or any of the other hostile narratives that are told about people like you. Also, if you do work with a therapist, you are still the expert in your own experience! You know more than your therapist about what you need and who you are, and it’s okay for you to be choosy about the therapist you work with.
Not all of us at this event are trans. Some of us are cis allies. Those of us who are allies want you to know that we recognize our role is to listen, not to talk over or speak for you.
All of us have different privileges and marginalizations, and we are committed to using the privilege that we have (any money, influence, or power available to us) to create space for you in the queer community and elsewhere. Some of us are white settlers, some of us are employed, some of us are neurotypical or abled. Others are not. We are a group that bridges many privileges and experiences, and we are each committed to making space for each other and for you.
Some of us didn’t say much at the event. For some us, there are no words available that can overcome the great horribleness of the current political climate and the ongoing violence against transgender communities and individuals. This event was part of a larger project collecting letters of support for the transgender community, and some of us at the event were there because we wanted to write a letter but we didn’t know how to do it on our own.
It’s okay to not know how to do something on your own. Maybe you feel that way sometimes, too. If you do, we want you to know – it’s okay. Sometimes we can be part of a community even when we don’t have many words or much energy. You do not need to earn a place in the community.
There are two final things we want to share.
The first is that we write this letter as a group of people who love, and are friends with, and work with, and are partners and lovers with, trans people. We know, because we have insider knowledge into this, that trans people are loveable and desirable in all the ways that a person can be loved and desired. There are not a lot of stories of these friendships, partnerships, and other relationships, and so it can be hard to know that it’s possible.
We want you to know that it’s possible.
And lastly, this:
Even if you’re feeling completely alone, there is a small group of people in Calgary who know you are complete, and worthy of love. You don’t have to feel complete, and we have no expectations of you. Our hopes for you, and our acceptance of you, does not require that you also feel hope or acceptance. No matter where you are in your journey, and no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.
With so much warmth and respect,
The Possibilities Group, including
(This letter is part of an ongoing collective project of support. You can find the album of letters on Facebook here, and I am working on migrating it into an album on my website. There are also physical letters available – if you are a trans person, or know a trans person, who is struggling, get in touch and I will mail out a letter of support. You can also contribute to the project by sending either email or physical letters.)
Image description: An addressed envelope to Dr. Ford, c/o Palo Alto University.
The following is the collective letter to Dr. Ford, the result of October’s Witness and Respond event in Calgary, Alberta, and the contributions of people elsewhere. It has been mailed to Dr. Ford, who is, as of yesterday, still receiving threats. We hope that she will also continue receiving support.
Dear Dr. Ford,
This letter is the collective work of a group of people who met in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in October to watch your testimony and talk about what it meant to us and made possible in our lives. It also includes the contributions of people in Calgary and in Adelaide, Australia who watched your testimony on their own and sent in their thoughts. This letter represents the responses of almost a dozen people, each of whom was moved by your actions.
We want to express our appreciation for your actions. We were inspired to do this by Anita Hill’s sharing that receiving support was helpful to her following her own experience, and also by the work of narrative therapists at the Dulwich Centre using letter-writing as a way of showing support.
As we watched your testimony, we were curious about what it was that allowed you to take these actions; to say the name of your assaulter after so many years, to write the letter to your representative, to meet with political aides, to describe the assault again and again despite the fact that it was so difficult for you, to come forward publicly with your story, and to stand in front of a Senate committee and, as you said it, “relive this trauma in front of the world.”
We saw each of these actions as a choice that you made, and we wondered, how did you make those choices? What values were you holding onto? Who supported you in these actions?
We heard you say that “sexual assault victims should be able to decide when and where their private details are shared”, and that it was important to you to describe the assault in your own words. It was clear to us watching that you have held this value close, and that despite the intrusion of reporters into your life, forcing you to tell the story in ways you may not have chosen otherwise, you kept this value centered in your opening statements. For those of us watching who have felt pressured into disclosure or ashamed of our stories, your strong assertion of our right to tell our story in our own time, in our own way, in our own words, was powerful.
Witnessing you tell your story allowed one person in our group to identify an incident from her own high school years and enabled her to speak about this incident with people in her life.
Another person said, “The courage to speak up is significant to me, when so many people don’t. When I myself have not. At the time it was a fear of the mocking, and the being pulled apart and condemned. I did not have the strength to endure that process at the time on top of what I experienced. Now I would maybe feel differently. Maybe because I am stronger now and maybe because of these stories. Dr Ford’s testimony in shaking voice made me want to cry with pride that she did speak up.”
Your shaky voice was something that many of us noted. Some of us also speak with a shaky voice, and have felt worried that we will be dismissed because of it. Hearing you speak in a voice that shakes like our own was a moment of validation that some of us had never experienced before. We saw that it is possible to speak in a shaking voice and still speak with confidence and calmness. Some of us also recognized within ourselves that hearing your shaking voice did not make us doubt you or dismiss you. We had feared that if we spoke in a shaky voice, nobody would hear us or believe us. But you did, and we did hear you, and we do believe you. Rather than seeing weakness, we saw the strength it took for you to speak. We feel closer to our own shaky-voice strength, having witnessed yours.
We also saw you adding to the community knowledge of what trauma is, and how it can operate in the brain. Your references to norepinephrine, to the hypocampus and amygdala, and to other scientific knowledge was validating for some of us. We wondered if this indicated a way that you were “re-valuing” yourself, and claiming space for science as a celebration. One of us wanted you to know that she, too, is a scientist and that seeing you use “science as a safe place” was validating for her.
We also saw that you spoke even though you didn’t know what the outcome of your speaking would be, and this is important. One of us said, “Just because you’re good, doesn’t mean you’ll be rewarded. But she did whatever she could to stop [the confirmation] from happening.” This makes it possible for us to also take action even when we may not see the outcome that we want.
We also heard you say, “It is not my responsibility to determine whether Mr. Kavanaugh deserves to sit on the Supreme Court. It is my responsibility to tell the truth.” In this, we saw you valuing integrity over outcome, and as we each move into what promises to be a difficult time for marginalized communities in the United States, in Canada, in Australia, and elsewhere, we are better able to hold onto our own integrity even when it seems that we might not get the result we are looking for.
We saw you acknowledge your fear without expressing any shame for it. Throughout the testimony, we saw you declining to engage with any invitations to shame. So many of us have felt afraid to share our own stories, and have felt ashamed of that fear. Your actions make it possible for us to shift our relationship to fear, and to see it as something that we do not need to be ashamed of. It is okay for us to be afraid, just like it is okay for you to be afraid. You described your fear so clearly, and also described the very real outcomes of your actions – even worse than you had feared! In your testimony, some of us felt for the first time that fear does not have to be accompanied by shame.
We also saw that your actions are part of a collective, and you are part of a community of women speaking up. Anita Hill also spoke despite not knowing the outcome of her speaking, and although it took many years, her actions are part of the legacy of speaking that you are now part of, and that we are invited to join. Tarana Burke founded the Me Too movement a decade ago, and we see her as another part of this long legacy of speaking the truth even without knowing the outcome. This helps us locate ourselves within a collective, and as part of a long history of resisting injustice. Your actions have helped us find each other, to find the history of this resistance, and have helped us open up conversations that otherwise might not have occurred.
We are actively searching for each other now, looking for other people who want to take similar actions, who want to speak out. As one person put it, we hope that “speaking the truth will be contagious over time.”
Dr. Ford, we watched your testimony together after your assaulter had been confirmed to the Supreme Court, and so we knew what the outcome of your actions would be.
Rather than diminishing the impact of your work, this allowed us to see that what you have made possible through your actions extends far beyond one unsuitable man’s appointment to a position of power. You have mapped out actions that will allow more of us to speak, and to keep acting in alignment with integrity despite the actions of people in power.
With warmth, respect, and appreciation,
Tiffany and many others
(Although there were many names signed to the physical letter, I didn’t want to expose anyone online, even by first name.)