Image description: On the left a paper heart hanging among many hearts, on the right a single torn paper heart. Text in the centre reads “it’s complicated.”
There is already so much good writing available on the topic of love, and I find myself hesitant and slow to write this post, which feels so important but feels so superfluous, redundant, pretentious. What can I say that hasn’t been said better by others?
I think that this, the stumble at the beginning of this post, is part of what and why I kept coming back to this text file again and again over the last month. Can anything new be said about love? Does it matter? Is what we want to say valuable even if it is not new? There are questions here about authenticity, originality, value and voice. Discourses of love.
So, first, I want to share some of the great writing that has inspired and moved me on the topic of love. I’m sharing these at the beginning of the post rather than the end, because within those questions of value and voice there is also the question of privilege. Whose voice am I lifting up? And many of these pieces of writing come from people who are more or differently marginalized than I am, whose voices need to be heard.
The entire seventh issue of Guts Magazine, on the topic of Love. Every piece of writing in this issue has something to offer, something liberatory and complicated. Read all of them, if you have the time. It’s worth it. From the editorial:
“Why look for The One, when what we want, what we need, is the many? The multiple? Not partners, but practices of love. Why is single (singular, alone) the opposite of the couple? Why is the alternative not an even greater plurality? Again, not only of lovers, but of life-sustaining arrangements of relations that we navigate without containment?
This issue is an attempt to locate and articulate ways of shoring up against the hurtful shape of love we’ve been handed by the state, by colonialism, by the family, by patriarchy. The artists and writers featured here are seeking a less deadly sort of love—forms of love that are not so easily weaponized against one another.
It’s about clearing and defending ground for new shapes to emerge when we see them struggling into life. This issue is looking for those nascent configurations about to come into view.”
Caleb Luna’s article, “Romantic love is killing us: Who takes care of us when we are single?” at The Body is Not An Apology.
“I don’t want to be loved. I want to be cared for and prioritized, and I want to build a world where romantic love is not a prerequisite for these investments—especially not under a current regime with such a limited potential for which bodies are lovable. Which bodies can be loved, cared for, and invested in.
It does not have to be this way. We can commit to keeping each other alive despite our sexual capital. We need to care for each other to keep each other alive. The myth of self-assurance is neoliberal victim-blaming in an attempt to obscure, neutralize and depoliticize our actions in the name of independent thoughts and actions and to skirt accountability.
Can we care for each other outside of love? Can we commit to keeping the unloved and unlovable alive? Is this a world that we have the potential to build?”
Shivani Seth’s article, “What’s next in the culture of care?” at Rest for Resistance.
“When we see our interactions and our strengths as ways to give to each other, as a flow back and forth, it’s easier to see how self-care and community care are naturally intertwined. We move the nexus of self-care to the community and spread our relative wealth out. Like a microloan or a community bank, we can take what is too small to support one individual and enlarge the potential impact by pooling our collective resources. We begin to work on trusting each other in slow, small ways.”
Samantha Marie Nock’s article, “Decrying desirability, demanding care” at Guts Magazine.
“This brings us back to the beginning: my anxiety about being abandoned. In reality, I should be calling this, my anxiety that all my friends are going to find romantic partners and leave me behind and I’m going to lose the world I’ve learned to live in. I cried recently, in a cab at 5am, because I had an anxiety attack at a party sparked by my friend showing interest in someone. I know this isn’t normal; I’m well aware, delete your comment right now. This was super embarrassing but my friend and I talked about it and I admitted why I had a melty. It has been a good and ongoing discussion and a growing opportunity. But it was the first time in my entire life that I have ever expressed this fear to someone, especially a close friend who is implicated in this anxiety. My friend is really supportive and didn’t run when I unloaded years of hurt and trauma onto the living room floor. Living in my body also means being terrified of telling anyone anything that might scare them because you don’t want to be “crazy” and fat. You already feel like you’re too difficult to love. So laying out my vulnerabilities shook me. I’m still shaken, and I’m still processing. It’s scary to straight up tell someone: “I’m scared that one day you’re not going to care for me like you do now because you’re going to do something that is completely normal and expected in our society that I can’t participate in on an equal level.” It’s scary to ask someone to rip apart the world we live in and help you create a new one where you feel safe.”
And there’s more. There’s so much amazing work being done on the topic of loving, and liberating love from oppressive discourses, demands, expectations, entitlements. People are telling their stories, and their stories are incredibly moving.
Unexpectedly persistent queer love.
Please share your favourite links in the comments – I would love to read more.
Languages and/of Love and/of Loneliness
I’ve been thinking about love languages a lot lately. And I’m always thinking about stories – the stories we tell and are told, about ourselves, about each other, about what’s real, what’s valid, what’s worthy. I’ve been thinking about loneliness and the language of loneliness, lately. I’ve been thinking about connection, and collective action. Community, and communities of care.
I’ve been thinking about silence and silencing and quietness.
I’ve been thinking about love.
(I’ve been thinking about leaving Facebook and starting an email newsletter.)
I’ve been thinking about the apocalypse, and about neo-liberal fatalism. (Articulated by Paolo Freire, this is “an almost casual acceptance of ongoing social inequalities as inevitable,” and a sense that just because the solution has not been discovered, it does not exist. This is particularly prevalent among privileged progressives, and I am absolutely guilty of it, of not seeing a way forward and feeling deeply fatalistic about this. Powerful antidotes exist within Indigenous feminism, Black feminism and Afrofuturism, and in the insider knowledges and transgenerational survivance of so many oppressed peoples.)
I have been thinking, especially, about how we speak our love, hear our love, receive and transmit our love within scarcity.
I have been thinking about the loneliness of “burn-out.” I agree entirely with Vikki Reynolds critiques of the discourse of burn-out (link is to a PDF of her article, “Resisting burnout with justice-doing”). Reynolds calls out the discourse that frames burnout as an internal rather than contextual problem, and suggests that one way to resist burnout is through solidarity and collective care.
I think, yes!
And I think, how?
From October 2017 to October 2018, I participated in the Tender Year project with two of my dearest loves. We each engaged with the project in our own ways, and our ability to participate actively ebbed and flowed over the course of the year, but in that year, I felt myself to be actively in solidarity with community. The project has been over for months now, and I still miss it. I have not managed to maintain that feeling of connection.
I am lonely.
I struggle to do the work of connection and cultivating community in ways that feel nurturing to me. I do the work. I can even say, and believe, that I do the work well (sometimes, in some ways). But do I do it in ways that feel nurturing to me? That is an important question. It feels critical, actually. How do we tell stories about ourselves in loving relationship, in community, in connection, in ways that honour the prickly static that surrounds so many of us who are living in pain and under financial pressure?
How do we tell stories that honour the complexities of our experiences, that resist reducing our experiences down to totalizing narratives of connection or disconnection, love or lovelessness, hope or hopelessness? How do we hold space for this complexity? How do we find language for these contradictory and still concurrently true stories?
Because it is true that I am lonely these days. I feel this truth so often, particularly in weeks (and there are many of them) when all of my interactions are somehow related to my work.
And it is also true that I am blessed with an abundance of love in my life.
I know that I am not the only person experiencing this complexity, and feeling guilty and overwhelmed at my own emotional responses.
I feel that if it is true that I am surrounded by loving community, including: loving partnerships, some of which have survived multiple major relationship structure transitions, one of which includes co-parenting, all of which are deliciously and actively and intentionally anti-oppressive; loving platonic friendships; loving family-of-origin relationships (shout out to my amazing sister, one of the foundational relationships in my life); loving chosen family relationships; and loving extended community relationships – if this is all true, and it is, then what right do I have to feel lonely? To feel isolated? To feel stretched too thin and with support that does not meet my needs? What kind of ungrateful, entitled wretch am I?!
And the companion narrative to this self-flagellation – when will everyone realize how ungrateful I am, and abandon me? And, even more profoundly present in my life – when will everyone in my life become tired of subsisting on the little I have to offer, and abandon me?
So I feel simultaneously overwhelmed with gratitude when I think about the people and the relationships in my life, and overwhelmed with guilt for the fact that I am still struggling and the fact that I feel I often have so little to offer outside of (and even sometimes within) my work.
I rarely see my people outside of work contexts, except the ones I live with. (And even there, do I do enough work around the house? Do I tidy up enough, do I cook enough, do I do enough childcare? The uncharitable answer I provide myself is no. Absolutely not.)
I am too busy, all the time. I am achy. I am tired. I am always, always (almost always) feeling overwhelmed. I don’t get enough done. I’m barely keeping up. Yesterday, I forgot to call someone who wanted to talk about working together. A referral! Of all the things to forget. I forgot to email someone potential dates for our next narrative session. I’m behind on everything, constantly. My editing work. My freelance writing work. My own writing work, which is precious to me, and yet constantly falls away. The blog posts and zines that seem to constantly be “getting there” but never actually get there.
There is a pervasive feeling of chaos in my life, and this feeling can obscure the concurrent truth that I do actually get a lot done.
When I reread Shivani Seth’s piece before writing this post, I felt the sharpness of my longing for just a little more time, more rest. More ease. More space for more care.
My pain has been unreal this last month. Every day, it hurts. My body hurts. My head hurts. This means my heart hurts. And I question myself constantly – who am I kidding, thinking I can be a narrative therapist, thinking I can make this my life? When that means that I need it to be financially sustainable… I can’t even finish these thoughts. They trail off into the abyss.
This impacts the experience and the language of love.
When I send a message to a partner or a beloved friend or to my sister or someone else, and I say, “I love you,” I mean this with such intensity and intentionality. And when they say it back, I believe it. And also, I struggle with it.
One of my community members recently described an experience of being “immune to niceness” and another described a type of “dissociating from affection.” These descriptions resonate for me. It’s like stress and contextual pressure and fear of failure and fear of abandonment create a buffer of static around me, and the feeling of being solid in the love ends up dissipated and repelled.
But this is complicated. This story of static and fear is not a true story that exists in an absence of other true stories. There is also the true story of receiving and knowing love. I am thankful for this complexity. I am thankful for stories that do not ouroboros into a tidy bow, stories that contradict themselves. Like this story of scarcity and fear, which contradicts itself constantly.
Earlier this week, I shared the following:
I often have considerable anxieties about my narrative therapy practice.
Like, I’m not accredited as a counselling therapist and I probably won’t be unless I do another degree.
And I don’t work with an organization.
And I have a ton of community organizing experience but does that count *really*?
And I have some pretty strong political views and they absolutely are present in my narrative sessions.
And sometimes I’m a bit of a “down the rabbit hole” kind of person, and often it works out but every so often it doesn’t.
Like, these concerns come up really often for me. There have been so many times when I’ve sat in front of my computer, or stood in the shower, or been driving, and my head is just *full* of thoughts like, “what do I think I’m doing? why should anyone trust me?”
Do I actually know what I’m doing?
Am I actually making a difference?
And the stresses of living under capitalism also come into play – am I ever going to have enough business to make this sustainable? How will I develop this business without cooperating with the overwhelming whiteness of the wellness industry (because I am not willing to do that)? A lot of folks have said that I need to find the folks who can pay my full rate to subsidize the folks who can’t, and I need to aim my marketing towards that, but… that implies I know anything about how to do marketing in the first place?
And I know that narrative therapy, narrative practice, explicitly and intentionally welcomes people like me – outside of institutions and organizations, working in community, noodling along without as much formal training (or the kind of training) that is expected. But still. That anxieties are there. A lot.
What I’m saying is!
I have these concerns pretty often and then other times I just feel so good about my practice, and I love what I do, and I love joining with my community members to co-research the problems in their lives. I just love it. And it feels like home for me. And there are times when I have a narrative conversation and I’m like, “damn. this is exactly what I want to do with my life. I am going to keep doing this, and just have some faith that it will work out.
My community showed up for me with such incredible words. Here is some of what they shared:
“As someone you have helped I want to say that you have made a difference in my life, and that what you do matters, and that you’re very good at it, and that I hope you continue doing what you do. Also, thank you.”
And someone else responded, “I couldn’t have said it better. Ditto!”
“I keep meaning to tell you that I got one of your fridge magnet in one of my event bags like last year and it’s still on my fridge so I can remind myself of the advice on it. In case you ever wonder if you are making a difference.”
“Our medical system is incredibly broken, especially when it comes to mental health and wellness. To do the amazing work you are doing, and want to keep doing, it’s probably actually part of your incredible strength and versatility that you _don’t_ go through the systems of control and conformity that characterize “accredited” mental health care. <3″
“You are a true gift to me and so many others like us.”
“Tiffany, I can confidently say that you have opened windows in my heart that I didn’t know were closed. I have referred many friends to your blog writing and Facebook page because what you say and how you say it is profoundly validating and stimulating. Keep going, you must!”
“Could some of what you frame as anxiety or self-doubts be part of your own process of self reflection? Is it a way of exploring your space/faith in yourself and shaping the balance between the more rigid spaces in healthcare and capitalism? I’m a part of the mainstream healthcare system, and I intentionally try to point out how little capitalism and the way it shapes the societal rituals and beliefs has anything to do with humanity and wellness. And part of how I measure success has to do with feeling uncomfortable in the space I’m in, and knowing that I simultaneously want to be of service to my community and also stay aware of the fundamental flaws in the system I’m a part of. When I read your words I feel like there’s a lot of similarities. I feel like your niche and your place of belonging is more focused than mine, and we’ve touched on the difference between narrative therapy and OT. I pretty much just want to give you a big hug and remind you that marketing is the word capitalism uses to frame networking and connection and building community capacity and recognizing skill and ability and specialization that doesn’t make someone better than another person. I love the scope and heart of what you do. I love your bravery and not compromising your ideals and values in order to ease your path.”
“I definitely see value in your narrative therapy practice! I could choose to go to a counselor who’s accreditation is acknowledged in Alberta and have part of the fee reimbursed by my insurance provider… But I find way more value in meeting with you. Your political stances create a space where I feel safer, as I know I am unlikely to experience queerphobia or fatphobia in that space. I could be wrong, but I’m also guessing that working outside of an organization might mean you are more accessible to people who are typically oppressed by organizations (especially health and mental health organizations). The sustainability piece I’m totally feeling right now. That might be the toughest one to figure out, but that also has little to do with your skills as a narrative therapist (cause you are amazing with that), and everything to do with capitalism and gatekeeping of access to mental health care.”
“I’ve often had these ideas and fears along the way…especially when starting out….it gets pretty scary at times…but not as scary as some other places I’ve been. There is a real accountability with the folks we meet when doing this work in these ways….not just accountability as an abstract idea. Keep going till you can’t I say!!”
“All of those concerns are exactly why you are going to be & are great… its the self awareness … please remember to use a great narrative mentor of your own … I’d certainly pay for your services as one.”
“I don’t have any words of wisdom, but want to say that I also experience these feels and impostor syndrome likes to push me around. I’m only just starting to get to know the way that ideas in social work/counselling like “competence” and “credibility” and “professionalism” bully me into thinking that I don’t know enough and don’t deserve to be paid the “big bucks” unless I meet the “qualifications” and become “registered”. (oh man, just putting all those words into quotations felt good and took some of their oppressive power away for a moment!) Anyway, from not knowing you very long and having never met in real life, you’ve already offered me emotional support and been thoughtful and kind when you witnessed something happening that you felt wasn’t right. You reaching out to me at that time was exactly what I needed. I am thankful that you exist and that you are able to be there for your community members.”
I’m going to put these into a book of reassurance for myself, and keep it in my office.
I’m going to keep doing my work.
I’m going to keep cultivating my loving relationships, across the wide range of their expression, and I’m going to continue to speak the language of scarcity and fear while I’m doing it.
I’m going to let this be complex.
I think that’s my primary love language – if I love you, I will step into complexity with you and for you. And that’s also how I want to be loved, with contradictions and complications.
That’s what I have to offer, and what I hope to receive.
(Maybe with a little bit of ease in there, too, sometimes. Just a bit. A bit more. More. A little more than that. Okay… maybe a lot. Someday, a lot.)
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: 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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @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!
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 email@example.com”
If you appreciate this work, you can support me on Patreon!
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.)