Recognizing BPD Superpowers

Recognizing BPD Superpowers

The following is a slightly modified version of the text of a presentation given on August 24, 2019. The second part of this event was an interview with Kay and Sam, which will be shared next week. Both of these posts are shared in celebration of BPD Awareness Month. The image is a still from the presentation., with Kay on the left, Tiffany in the middle, and Sam on the right.

Introduction

Welcome to “Recognizing BPD Superpowers”, on the topic of sharing and celebrating the hopes, skills, insider knowledges, and experiences of folks who identify with Borderline Personality Disorder, or BPD. This includes people who have claimed the label for themselves, people who have had the label applied to them, and people for whom both are true.

I want to note up front that this presentation will include references to self-harm, suicidality, and to some of the stigmatizing and pathologizing language that is often applied to folks who are identified with BPD. This has the potential to be triggering. If, at any point, you need to take a break – that is a-okay! Also, it’s a long post! Sorry!

Before we get started, I’d like to introduce you to my co-facilitators.

Kay D’Odorico is a queer, neurodivergent human of Indigenous and European descent. They advocate for Sex Workers and own and operate their own perfuming business full-time here in Mohkinstsís.

Sam is just a human pursuing her best possible self. She is passionate about her recovery, her intersections, and wishes to hold space for others while creating it for herself.

Both of these humans have been phenomenal supports and collaborators, and I’m honoured to have shared this space with them. The narrative interview with these two lovely humans, which followed this presentation, will be shared next week on this blog.

My name is Tiffany Sostar. My pronouns are they/them. I’m a narrative therapist, community organizer, editor, writer, workshop facilitator, and tarot reader – I do a bunch of different things, and they all sort of orient around engaging with stories. The stories people tell about ourselves and others, the stories we’ve been told about ourselves and others, and, especially, how we can tell our stories in ways that make us stronger. That phrase – telling our stories in ways that make us stronger – comes from Auntie Barbara Wingard, an Australian Aboriginal narrative therapist who has done profoundly meaningful work on many topics, including creating ways for Indigenous communities to grieve together in ways that are consistent with their cultures.

My own work is significantly influenced by the work of Indigenous narrative therapists and community organizers, including Auntie Barb, Tileah Drahm-Butler who is another Australian narrative therapist, and Michelle Robinson, who is a community organizer and politician here in Calgary. (You can find one of Aunty Barb’s projects, a walking history tour here, and one of Tileah’s project, a presentation on decolonizing identity stories here, and Michelle Robinson’s Patreon and podcast here.)

Colonial Violence and BPD

As a white settler who works in the field of mental health, a field that has historically been incredibly harmful to marginalized communities, including Indigenous, Black, trans, queer, two-spirit, fat, unhoused, sex working, substance using, and so many other communities who have come to professionals for help and been met with stigma and harm, I think that recognizing how much I have benefitted from the work of marginalized communities is critical. Any good work that I do in communities that are more or differently marginalized than I am myself is entirely due to the generosity and wisdom of the people within those communities who have shared their insider knowledges.

This workshop happened on Indigenous land, and this blog post is being written on Indigenous land. All land is Indigenous land. Here, I am on Treaty 7 land. It is the land of the Blackfoot Confederacy, including the Kainai, Siksika, and Piikani First Nations, and the Stoney Nakoda, including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations, the Tsuut’ina, the Metis Nation of Alberta, Region 3, and all of the other Indigenous men, women, and two-spirit folks who are here as a result of child removals, forced relocations, economic pressures, or other reasons.

This work was inspired by Osden Nault, and we had been talking about getting this project underway for quite some time. We both noted the lack of BPD voices in resources and writing about BPD, and wanted to do something to address that. This presentation, and the resources that are currently under development, would not have happened without Osden. They also co-facilitated the first group discussion that created the foundation for this workshop. Osden is an artist of Michif and mixed European descent, whose art practice and research are both grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous world-views. Osden lives in Tkaronto on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations, under the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, which precedes colonial treaties on this land. Even though they weren’t at this workshop, their influence was present!

This presentation was, and is, part of a larger series of resources that the BPD Superpowers group is creating around BPD, some of which will be shared during BPD Awareness Month in May of 2020. If you live in a colonial country and don’t know whose land you’re on, it would be worth looking that up. The land you’re on is now part of this project, too.

Here in Canada, the Final Report on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people found that:

“The significant, persistent, and deliberate pattern of systemic racial and gendered human rights and Indigenous rights violations and abuses – perpetuated historically and maintained today by the Canadian state, designed to displace Indigenous Peoples from their land, social structures, and governance and to eradicate their existence as Nations, communities, families, and individuals – is the cause of the disappearances, murders, and violence experienced by Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people, and is genocide. This colonialism, discrimination, and genocide explains the high rates of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people.”

Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

We must talk about colonial violence when we are talking about trauma-related mental health experiences, which many people experience BPD as being, because otherwise we risk perpetuating harm. For example, the 2014 research paper “Characteristics of borderline personality disorder in a community sample,” published in the Journal of Personality Disorders, finds that Native American and African American communities are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with BPD, and with other conditions such as depression, anxiety, etc.

I think that, knowing this, we must look at racial trauma, and acknowledge how racial trauma impacts individuals if we are going to talk about these experiences and diagnoses. Otherwise, we are missing key context.

Rebecca Lester, in her paper, “Lessons from the Borderline” writes:

“Most people diagnosed with BPD grew up in situations where their very existence as a person with independent thoughts and feelings was invalidated (Minzenberg et al., 2003). Sometimes, this entailed chronic abuse, either physical or sexual. Sometimes it was more of a grinding parental indifference. People diagnosed with BPD overwhelmingly experienced their early lives as involving constant messages that they do not – and should not – fully exist.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

How can we separate this from the findings of the Final Report, which identify exactly this dynamic of abuse and identity invalidation as having been directed at Indigenous communities since the beginning of colonization? I don’t think that we can.

What even is a “personality disorder”?!

So, borderline personality disorder, like many “personality disorders” is a contested and controversial term and diagnosis. Heads up for some stigmatizing and pathologizing language in this next section. I want to give you a bit of context for the social location of BPD, and for my own positioning here.

I have never received a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Although there are many BPD characteristics that I do strongly identify with, and I share an experience of trauma that many BPD folks might recognize, I do not feel a strong attachment to the BPD label. In my own life, I am comfortable recognizing certain shared experiences without claiming a shared identity.

In my own work, I do not diagnose the community members who consult with me for narrative therapy, but I do respect and work with the diagnoses that people bring into our sessions. There are lots of reasons for this, but one important one for locating myself within this work is that as a narrative therapist, I am interested in externalizing problems – meaning, locating the problem outside of the person I am consulting with. I think that many contemporary ways of speaking about borderline personality disorder invite us to view BPD as a set of traits inherent to an individual.

BPD is often described as a volatility that can make people dangerous, an instability, a lack of cohesive identity – all of these ways of speaking about BPD locate it within the person, rather than within their context. I think that this obscures the many ways in which folks who have been identified with BPD respond to the problems in their lives. These ways of speaking, of telling a story about BPD, can end up having the consequence of giving BPD more agency than the person in front of us!

And I think that this is a problem.

I also think it’s a problem that can arise even when we’re not being malicious or trying to be stigmatizing – “You can’t help it, it’s the BPD” is a framing that invites neither accountability nor dignity and agency, even though it appears to be a compassionate approach.

Instead, I am interested in how people respond when BPD shows up in their lives. I’m interested in learning when this problem first showed up, what it wants, and how people have responded to it. What are they valuing when they pick up a DBT workbook and start developing their strategies for emotional regulation? What are they hoping for when they continue to show up in relationships despite the BPD voice telling them to bail? Who taught them that they could respond? Who in their lives knows what they cherish, and would not be surprised to learn that they are taking actions to respond to the problems in their lives?

Rebecca Lester writes:

“I understand BPD somewhat differently than my clinical colleagues who see it as a dysfunction of personality and my academic colleagues who see it as a mechanism of social regulation. In my view, BPD does not reside within the individual person; a person stranded alone on a desert island cannot have BPD. Nor does it reside within diagnostic taxa; if we eliminated BPD from the DSM, people would still struggle with the cluster of issues captured in the diagnosis. Rather, BPD resides – and only resides – in relationship. BPD is a disorder of relationship, not of personality. And it is only a ‘disorder’ because it extends an entirely adaptive skill set into contexts where those skills are less adaptive and may cause a great deal of difficulty. Yet due to the contexts in which the skills were developed, the person has a great deal of trouble amending them (Linehan, 1993). Since BPD resides in relationship, BPD can also be attenuated through relationship: it is not a life-sentence, and it is not even necessarily problematic if managed constructively.”

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the foundational beliefs of narrative therapy is that the person is not the problem, the problem is the problem, and the solution is rarely individual. I think that this is an important framing to bring to discussions of BPD.

So that’s where I stand.

Questioning the Discourse

How about the discourse around BPD?

In her fantasy book Borderline, author Mishell Baker, who identifies as BPD herself and has written a badass BPD heroine for the novel, writes, “Sometimes, the first thing people learn about borderlines is that you can’t trust them. And there’s not always much learning after that.”

That’s why it is so important to think critically about the stories we are telling about BPD, and about people who are identified with BPD. To keep learning. To interrogate what we have been taught or told about what it means to live with BPD experiences.

Does the story leave room for the dignity and agency of the person being described?

Does it position the person as the expert in their own experience?

Who does this story serve, and what are the potential outcomes of this story?

We need to ask these questions anytime we read an article, a post, a book, a webpage – what, and who, is being supported in this narrative?

What, and who, is being diminished?

Bring these questions with you anytime you engage with writing or speaking about BPD (or anything else!)

BPD is recognized as one of ten personality disorders in the DSM, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. In the ICD-10, the manual used by the World Health Organization, this diagnosis is named “emotionally unstable personality disorder.”  

The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as:

“A type of mental disorder in which you have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people. This causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.”

Mayo Clinic, Personality Disorders

We’re going to come back to this idea of “trouble perceiving and relating to situations and people” because, in fact, many participants in our BPD Superpowers group identified themselves as being uniquely and specifically skilled in observing their environments, relationships, and selves, and in building community and empathizing and connecting with other people. Although it is true that many folks experience BPD as getting in the way of their relationships at times, this does not mean that they cannot perceive and understand what is happening around them.

BPD and Abuse

This framing, this story of what a personality disorder is, can be weaponized against a person who is identified with BPD. It can actually leave them more vulnerable to abuse, because it frames them as being somehow inherently and perpetually incapable of accurate perception. Even if this is not what a clinician might mean when they use this language, this is what you get from a quick google search. Very little discussion of the social contexts within which these so-called “personality disorders” arise, and almost nothing that describes the skillful and intentional ways in which people respond to these problems.

Gaslighting refers to actions that cause someone to question their own memory, perception, or sanity. Gaslighting can happen intentionally – lying about, denying, or misrepresenting what has happened.

But it can also happen unintentionally when we treat someone’s perception as unreliable, when we default to the idea that they are lying or mistaken, when we refuse to position them as the experts in their own experiences. The discourse of personality disorders as meaning that a person “has trouble perceiving situations” can create a context within which a person with BPD is being constantly, and often unintentionally and non-maliciously but still harmfully!, gaslit. It can leave people who are identified with BPD in the position of not being believed if they are subjected to abuse. It is not a helpful framing.

How are we witnessing BPD?

As an alternative framing, it might be helpful to ask ourselves what is influencing how we are witnessing the people in our lives who are identified with BPD. Are we kind witnesses to their experiences? Are we holding space for them to share their insider knowledges into what they need, what they are experiencing, and what is helpful for them?

And on the topic of helpful or unhelpful, here is what Wikipedia has to say about BPD:

“BPD is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:

  • Markedly disturbed sense of identity
  • Frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment and extreme reactions
  • Splitting (“black-and-white” thinking)
  • Impulsivity and impulsive or dangerous behaviors (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating)
  • Intense or uncontrollable emotional reactions that often seem disproportionate to the event or situation
  • Unstable and chaotic interpersonal relationships
  • Self-damaging behavior
  • Distorted self-image
  • Dissociation
  • Frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, or rage

The most distinguishing symptoms of BPD are marked sensitivity to rejection or criticism, and intense fear of possible abandonment. Overall, the features of BPD include unusually intense sensitivity in relationships with others, difficulty regulating emotions, and impulsivity. Other symptoms may include feeling unsure of one’s personal identity, morals, and values; having paranoid thoughts when feeling stressed; depersonalization; and, in moderate to severe cases, stress-induced breaks with reality or psychotic episodes.”

Wikipedia

The wiki page also includes the Millon subtypes, which include Discouraged borderline, Petulant borderline, Impulsive borderline, and Self-destructive borderline. Fabulous.

So that’s Wikipedia, which is one of the first places that many folks look when they receive a diagnosis of BPD or when they are trusted with a disclosure from a friend or family member, or when they hear about someone having BPD.

If you are here as a friend, family member, or someone in community with folks who are identified with BPD, imagine what it might feel like to read that about yourself, and to have that be the dominant narrative of who you are. Imagine what it might feel like to know that people around you are reading this about you, and may be talking about you and people like you in these terms.

If you are here as a person who identifies with BPD, know that I and every one of the people involved in this project, and many people beyond this group, see you for more than these degrading and diminishing descriptors. We recognize your superpowers. We recognize your resilience. In one of the group discussions, a participant said, “Every single person with BPD who is still with us, and those that aren’t still with us, I think that we absolutely deserve to be acknowledged and that our hard work should be acknowledged. Not tokenized or pedestalized, but having that work acknowledged and witnessed.”

I agree.

And I agree with Rebecca Lester when she writes:

Through challenging embedded bias, honoring the testimonies of individuals, questioning of our own motivations, and renewing a commitment to reduce injustice, silencing, and suffering, our intellectual, clinical, and human potentialities are being stretched and, if we are fortunate, will continue to grow.

What I find most compelling about my clients with ‘borderline’ symptoms is that they are still struggling to exist despite the deep conviction that they do not deserve to do so. And they are still struggling to connect with others, despite being told again and again that they are manipulative and controlling and difficult. Far from being inauthentic, then, these individuals are reaching out into the world in the most honest, direct, vulnerable ways they possibly can, all the while bracing for the invalidation and hostility that they know is likely to follow. They cannot help but reach for connection, and to hold out faith, however dim, that they will find it. I find this incredibly inspiring; it puts front-and-center the impulse for growth and health that I believe exists in all of us, no matter how encrusted with despair, dysfunction, hopelessness, or defeat.

I learn from these clients every single day. Their struggles and their resilience humble me. They remind me that intellectual critique is but one piece of a much larger puzzle, and that they have experiences that deserve to be heard and validated, even when (perhaps especially when) they challenge our interpretations. They push me to become a better scholar, a better clinician, and, I hope, in the end, a better human being.

Lester, Rebecca J. (2013) “Lessons from the Borderline: Anthropology, Psychiatry, and the Risks of Being Human.” Feminism & Psychology, 23(1): 70-77.

One of the contributors to the BPD Superpowers project, Dottie Ayala, shared the following on her facebook page and has given us permission to use this quote in the resource.

with my bpd symptoms, I just can’t handle cbt or dbt thanks to fucked up experiences in the past. And I don’t trust any therapists bc they’re only getting my POV about what’s happening and I think they side with me more than is valid sometimes. And also trusting someone else’s judgement more than my own is so damaging as an abuse survivor.

but I notice my reactions getting less and less severe over the years and that’s just like a combination of introspection, community, and also others holding me accountable. Plus realizing I have bpd helped me be able to recognize when I’m having a flare and prepare accordingly.

basically, mental health care can look really different for different ppl. I feel like my doctors act like I’m resisting treatment when really I’m just resisting being harmed more.

Dottie Ayala, Facebook post

Difficulty in relationships is one of the most common traits associated with BPD, and yet our group has maintained such a strong focus on community and the role of cherished friends and community members. This group, and so many folks identified with BPD beyond this group, prove how thin and simplistic are the dominant narratives of BPD.

I’m going to end with the list of superpowers that were identified in our group conversations. These superpowers will be explored more fully in the collective document, which I hope to have ready to share by the end of this month!

THE SUPERPOWERS

  • The Superpower of Community (and community care)
  • The Superpower of Showing Up
  • Resilience
  • Endurance
  • Dialectics as a Superpower (holding multiple true stories)
  • Empathy and Compassion
  • The Superpower of Quick Turnaround of Emotions
  • The Superpower of Being Able to Get Out of a Bad Situation
  • The Ability to ‘Chameleon’

Check back next week for the next BPD Awareness Month post, which will be the video and transcript of the interview with Kay and Sam.

The Ally Bill of Responsibilities #1

(Cross-posting from Facebook – I’m going to be posting over the next couple weeks as I work through Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.)

If you are non-Indigenous and feeling overwhelmed and not sure what to do as you watch the ongoing colonial violence committed on Wet’suwet’en lands, consider this an invitation to find one specific and tangible action to take.

You can start with the Wet’suwet’en Supporter Toolkit 2020, which is full of resources and ideas. There are places to donate, articles to read, historical and contemporary information to learn.

If that feels daunting for you, and you’d like a single specific task, you can join me in spending some time with Dr. Lynn Gehl’s Ally Bill of Responsibilities.

There are 16 responsibilities listed in this bill, and I’m going to be working my way through these, focusing on one per day, for the next two weeks.

The first responsibility is –

“Do not act out of guilt, but rather out of a genuine interest in challenging the larger oppressive power structures.”

This requires us to examine our own hearts and find where guilt is our motivation. This is hard work, but it’s important.

What do you feel when you read stories and articles about what is happening on Wet’suwet’en land? When you read the racist and anti-Indigenous comments on articles and scattered throughout social media?

I think that many white settlers, like myself, are feeling guilt in these situations, and we know that we are implicated in the violence because we are part of the dominant group.

How can we recognize and validate those feelings of guilt, but NOT keep those as our motivation for being in solidarity with Indigenous communities?

Acting from guilt positions us as the ones with agency, the ones who can take actions to make things right. Acting from guilt can lead us to think that we’re the ones with the power to harm, and therefore the power to heal. It can lead us to think that our job is to “help” Indigenous communities. But this isn’t right. These larger oppressive power structures harm everyone, and challenging them is not an act of charity towards Indigenous communities, it is an act of mutual aid towards our mutual survival.

How can we shift our motivation so that we are acting from an awareness that these larger oppressive power structures must be challenged?

What will help us stay connected to an awareness of moving towards justice, rather than simply moving away from guilt?

Acting from guilt can also lead us into trying to gain absolution from our Indigenous friends and community members. Trying to be reassured that we’re not “bad”. Seeking out comfort for the uncomfortable feelings of guilt.

But acting from genuine interest in challenging oppressive power structures means that we can just do that work, without asking for reassurance and comfort from the people we are trying to be in solidarity with.

For myself, this responsibility feels more possible when I have other white settlers to discuss my feelings of guilt with, so that I’m not just ignoring or dismissing those feelings, but I’m also not allowing them to be the motivator of my actions. Accountability companions who share my white settler privilege and won’t be harmed when I talk about my guilt are important.

What helps you with this responsibility?

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day 2019

Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day 2019

Today is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. This is a topic that impacts so many different people, including trans and non-binary folks who experience gender erasure and harm in both medical contexts and support spaces around this loss; Black, Indigenous, and brown people who experience racism in medical contexts and support spaces; disabled folks; neurodivergent and mad folks; so many people who go through this experience (which can take so many different forms, and can be felt in so many different ways) undersupported, underserved, dismissed.

The You Are Not Alone project was first conceived in 2017 as a response to loss resources that are highly gendered, and that implicitly assume their readers are straight, white, and cisgender. It was also created to try and provide something free and easily accessible.

This resource is freely downloadable and shareable. You can find the 70-page PDF here.

From the Introduction

This is the third edition of You Are Not Alone, and we hope to reissue this document yearly with more and better information and resources. In 2019, we have added Aditi Loveridge’s personal story, and expanded the section on handling racism in medical contexts with Aditi’s help. We have also expanded the resources section to include information about Aditi’s Calgary and online-based charity, the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support Centre.

Although this resource attempts to be intentionally inclusive and anti-oppressive, the two primary collaborators – Tiffany Sostar and Flora – are both English-speaking white settler Canadians, with stable housing and strong social supports. Our privilege means that we are missing nuance, and we do not see what we’re not seeing. We are open to being corrected, and to hearing from people who do not see themselves represented in this document. You can reach Tiffany at sostarselfcare@gmail.com.

This document is designed to be a grief and loss resource, and we have included abortion stories and resources. However, we recognize that not every abortion is experienced as a loss or followed by grief. (This is true for miscarriages, too!) We also recognize that it is possible to feel grief without feeling regret, and this is true for any pregnancy loss, whether it’s abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or adoption.

We are so thankful to the individuals who contributed to this document. Our call for contributors was met with courage and generosity by people who shared their stories despite the pain that telling the story brought up for them.

We are also thankful to Andi Johnson and Randi van Wiltenburg, both full-spectrum doulas in Calgary, Alberta, who contributed not only their personal stories but also a wealth of knowledge and information. Their professional contact information is listed in the resources section.

Parents we want to honour:

  • Those who have lost a child to miscarriage
  • Those who have lost a child to abortion
  • Those who have lost a child to stillbirth
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to medical illness
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to adoption
  • Those who have lost a child after birth to structural violence

This affects:

  • People of any gender identity
  • People of any sexual orientation
  • People of any relationship status and structure
  • People of any race or culture
  • People of any state of mental or physical health
  • People of any religious belief
  • People of any socioeconomic status

This kind of work – creating resources that help serve the margins is exactly the goal of my Patreon, and it’s why I do what I do. I am thankful to be invited into this kind of work by people in the community who recognize a gap and want help filling it, which is what happened in 2017 when this resource was first created. I will continue to do this kind of work. If you would like to support me, you can find my Patreon here.

Letters of Support for the Trans Community Vol 1

Letters of Support for the Trans Community Vol 1

The Letters of Support for the Trans Community project has been running since October, and now we have the first volume of the zine complete! This volume includes letters from across Canada and Australia. The project is ongoing, so if you’d like to submit a letter either in physical or digital form, please let me know.

Download the Letters of Support for the Trans Community Vol. 1.

This link is freely shareable – there is no cost to download the PDF.

If you would like a physical copy of the zine, they are available for purchase directly from me, or from Shelf Life Books in Calgary, Alberta.

If you are a trans person wanting a letter of support, the zine, along with a physical card, will be mailed out to you at no charge. Just get in touch with me!

If you would like to support this project, consider backing my Patreon! You can also make a one-time donation by getting in touch with me.

Celebrating Transfeminist Activisms

Celebrating Transfeminist Activisms

Image text:

Celebrating Transfeminist Activisms

“My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” ~ Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices)
With Tiffany Sostar and Kimberly Williams

Friday, March 15th 5-8pm
MRU Pride Centre
Wyckham House, Z211

Join us for part or all of this FREE event to celebrate the continuing contributions of trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit people to Calgary’s feminist community.

5-6pm: Celebrating Resilience
A therapeutic conversation about the impact on trans folks of having our identities and safety considered debatable. We will center the insider knowledges and the lived experiences of trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit people.

6:30-8pm: Positive Impacts
We’ll identify and celebrate the numerous and necessary positive effects of trans visibility, trans theory, trans activism, and trans lives on our feminisms!

Dinner will be served!

Tiffany Sostar is a non-binary, bisexual, white settler living and working on Treaty 7 land. They work as a narrative therapist in individual, relationship, and group therapy, with a strong focus on working with
marginalized communities. Tiffany is the founder of Possibilities Calgary. Learn more: www.tiffanysostar.com.

Kimberly Williams is a queer, cisgender white settler. She directs MRU’s Women’s & Gender Studies
Program and is a long-time feminist theorist and activist. She tweets at @KWilliamsYYC.

Co-sponsored by: WGST: MRU and The Pride Centre

Here at Mount Royal University, we learn in Treaty 7 Territory, on the hereditary homelands of the Niitsitapi (the Blackfoot Confederacy: Siksika, Piikani, Kainai), the Îyârhe Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina Nations, and of the Métis Nation of Alberta.


Content note for referencing a transantagonistic event and rhetoric.

This event has been pulled together quite quickly, and I’m so proud to be involved.
It’s a two-part event celebrating transfeminist activisms, and it will be happening on March 15 from 5-8 at the SAMRU Pride Centre at Mount Royal University.
Although this event is a response to another event being hosted earlier in the day at MRU (which I’ll describe below), I think the event is important either way.
Trans lives, and the validity of trans existence, is considered a reasonable topic for debate. It’s considered reasonable and valid to debate whether trans folks are “really” their own gender, to debate whether trans kids exist and deserve gender affirming care, to medicalize, pathologize, and infantilize trans individuals, refusing to recognize our self-knowledge and the fact that we are experts in our own experiences.
There is also a dominant discourse that pits trans activism against feminist activism, ignoring and erasing the long history of trans activism that supports and has enhanced so much feminist activism!
In Transfeminist Persectives, author Anne Enke writes:

Just about everywhere, trans-literacy remains low. Transgender studies is all but absent in move university curricula, even in gender and women’s studies programs. For the most part, institutionalized versions of women’s and gender studies incorporate transgender as a shadowy interloper or as the most radical outlier within a constellation of identity categories (e.g., LGBT). Conversation is limited by a perception that transgender studies only or primarily concerns transgender-identified individuals – a small number of “marked” people whose gender navigations are magically believed to be separate from the cultural practices that constitute gender for everyone else. Such tokenizing invites the suggestion that too much time is spent on too few people; simultaneously it obscures or reinforces the possibility that transgender studies is about everyone in so far as it offers insight into and why we all “do” gender.

Bringing feminist studies and transgender studies into more explicit conversation pushes us toward better translation, better transliteracy, and deeper collaboration…

This event has a goal of inviting that explicit conversation from the foundational understanding that trans activism can enhance and support feminist goals, and that feminism can also enhance and support trans activism. This is a celebration of translation, transliteracy, and collaboration.
And it is in response to a debate.
As some folks in Calgary may have seen, on March 15 the Mount Royal University ‘Rational Space Network’ will be hosting a debate on the topic of “does trans activism negatively impact women’s rights.” Meghan Murphy, the founder of Feminist Current, will be arguing the “yes” side. For folks unfamiliar with Meghan Murphy, she is very vocal about her anti-trans, anti-sex worker views.
The fact that this debate is happening at all is part of the background radiation of trans lives – the knowledge that we are debatable. Our worth, our role, our nature – debatable.
This is actively harmful to the well-being of trans folks, especially trans women (who are Meghan Murphy and most TERFs preferred targets).
So, this event includes a one-hour therapeutic conversation where we can talk about these harms, followed by an hour-and-a-half conversation where we can celebrate the contributions of trans activism to our lives. Because, as Anne Enke notes, we all “do” gender, and trans folks have expanded what is possible for all of us, cisgender folks included.

As a note: I will also be attending the debate, which will be happening at 3 pm at Jenkins Theatre. I’ll be attending in support of the trans women arguing the “no” side of the debate. I’d love if anyone was able to join me for the debate, or for either part of the event following.

Intimate partner violence and the 10 of Swords

Intimate partner violence and the 10 of Swords

(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:

Dear 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.)