‘Juliet Takes a Breath’ Breathes Lesbian of Color Life into the Coming of Age Genre

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[image description: The cover of Juliet Takes a Breath, an illustration of Juliet Palante’s head and shoulders from behind. She has medium brown skin and long black hair put up in a bun, with an undercut. The title of the book is shaved in her hair.]
I’ve always struggled with the coming-of-age genre. From my complete alienation from Holden Caulfield to my disappointing disconnects with lesbian and bi protagonists Molly Bolt (Rubyfruit Jungle), Sophie Winters (Far From You), and Cameron Post (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), coming-of-age has left me cold. Not so with Juliet Milagros Palante in Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. Juliet Takes a Breath is the vividly relatable coming-of-age novel I wish I could send to a younger version of myself.

The story bursts to life right from the preface, with a letter from Juliet to her idol Harlowe Brisbane. Juliet is a chubby, asthmatic Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx questioning what feminism means for her and on the cusp of coming out; Harlowe is the white feminist celebrity author of

Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. Juliet writes about her love for the book, her family, and her questions, and asks to come to Portland as a research assistant. Juliet quotes from Harlowe’s book in her letter, and it’s immediately apparent that Rivera excels at writing in different characters’ voices. From Juliet’s narration, to excerpts from Harlowe’s book, to snippets of other characters’ dialogue and letters here and there, each voice is distinct, which makes the large cast both manageable and memorable.

Seriously, the third quote we get from Raging Flower is, “You must walk in this world with the spirit of a ferocious cunt. Express your emotions. Believe that the universe came from your flesh. Own your power, own your connection to Mother Earth. Howl at the moon, bare your teeth, and be a goddamn wolf.” Do you feel like you’ve read this book? I feel like I’ve read this book.

Much of the tension in the book comes from conflicts within feminism (or between feminisms), including around trans issues, where Juliet is limited but not callous or mean cruel. When asked aggressively about her pronouns and her identity by a (presumably cis) guy, she narrates,

“I was surrounded by hippies and the only person in the world who knew my name on this bus was sitting across from me speaking another language. His judgment slid into my heart and carved out a space for itself. Trans? Ze? PGPs? These words weren’t a part of my vocabulary. No one in the Bronx or even in college asked me if I was a Ze or a trans. Was that even how they fit into sentences? I felt small, constricted, and stupid, very stupid. Phen dangled these phrases over my head. He was waiting for me to jump up and beg to be educated, beg for him to explain the world he inhabited.”

Instead of taking the bait, Juliet makes a note of topics to research for herself, along with questions about her own identity and a note to cry to her cousin a little. Later, Juliet gets a more caring and accessible explanation of the terms, and the book dodges a tone-policing, trans-demonizing by having a cis guy be the one to condescend about pronouns and by offering a better alternative.

Harlowe Brisbane’s well-meaning racism is a tension that simmers throughout the book, eventually coming out into full conflict and direct challenge. While the narrative doesn’t side with her cis-centric feminism, I wish it devoted more than a few paragraphs to confronting the transmisogyny implicit in her vagina feminism, especially because Juliet starts off so enamored. To the book’s credit, though, there is also a minor trans woman of color love interest.

I also wish one of the characters who are attracted to multiple genders identified as bi or another specific multigender-attracted label. One of Juliet’s aunts had a “lady friend” but refers to herself as “just [her name]” rather than any label, while Juliet’s cousin is doing the “no labels” thing or prefers “queer.” While these are valid choices for real-life people and a vital part of the world of queer sexuality, they feel limiting rather than freeing to me as a bi reader, because these sorts of depictions are much more common than explicitly bi+ characters.

I also had one small technical quibble: Juliet Takes a Breath is set in 2003, but there’s a moment when Juliet’s cousin checks her Facebook. In 2003, Facebook was on the verge of existing in a form current users might recognize, but it wasn’t as widespread or everyday as this line makes it seem. In the course of the book, it’s a small error that many readers might not even notice, but it did distract me and make me double-check the setting.

While Juliet Takes a Breath excels at exploring the tensions between Juliet’s developing feminism and Harlowe’s established “pussy lady” brand, where it really glows is in its explorations of more affirming queer and trans of color spaces. One would be a spoiler, but I have to point out that there’s a chapter titled, “Ain’t No Party Like an Octavia Butler Writer’s Workshop.”

I can’t recommend Juliet Takes a Breath enough. Its compelling voices, characters, relationships, and plot structures got my ADD self to read for three continuous hours, the longest in recent history. It’ll make the queer youth in you feel seen, whether you’re living your youth now or you had to get through your youth without this necessary book.

(And seriously, between Juliet Takes a Breath, The Revolution Starts at Home, and Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, I’m starting to think cover art by Cristy C. Road is the strongest predictor of a good book.)

Juliet Takes a Breath is available from Riverdale Avenue Books as an eBook for $10, and there are physical copies out there too. I got mine from Elliot Bay Book Company.

The Revolution Starts at Home Provides Stories, Strategies, and Hope for Confronting Intimate Violence at the Margins

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[Image description: The cover of The Revolution Starts at Home, an illustration by Cristy C. Road of two brown-skinned people holding hands and looking in each other’s eyes. One has long hair with loose curls in an up-do and the other has very short hair with a tighter curl pattern.] Image from AK Press’s website.
I first read The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (ed. Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) in 2015, not long out of an abusive relationship, and it helped me make sense of what I’d experienced. In it, I found people who had been in situations like mine, caught between oppression from society at large and abuse in their own relationships and communities. I returned to it this year for hope and guidance in dealing with violence and abuse in my own communities, and it continues to deliver.

The Revolution Starts at Home is an anthology of essays and a few poems about people surviving and resisting violence, seeking alternatives to the state’s dangerous and often inadequate interventions. It’s divided into four sections: “Safety at the Intersections of Intimate, Community, and State Violence,” “On Survivorship,” “(Re)claiming Body, (Re)claiming Space,” and “We Are Ready Now.” As in life, the boundaries between these sections are fluid and a little bit arbitrary.

My favorite section, in 2015 and now, is “On Survivorship.” Gina de Vries’ essay “Homewrecker” describes a relationship with a lesbian who endlessly criticized her and created an us-against-the-world dynamic in which boys were the enemy and bisexuality was both too queer and not queer enough. Biphobic abuse had been one of the hardest parts of my own relationship to talk about, because people who barely understand abuse in queer relationships are doubly unprepared for when lesbians weaponize biphobia against their partners. “Homewrecker” made me feel seen and understood in a way I desperately needed.

Right after “Homewrecker” is “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-Accountability as a Building Block for Change” by Shannon Perez-Darby. I remembered this essay as another for my favorites from 2015, but its title scared me when I returned to it. Accountability for survivors? That sounds dangerously like victim-blaming. But it’s not. “Accountability” continues to strike me as a peculiar word choice, but the essay is about the fact that survivors make choices, even when those choices are constrained by violence against them, and that survivors’ resistance can look like abuse if you’re focused on individual actions instead of patterns of power and control in the relationship. This is crucial for anti-violence activists to understand, and it helped me release fear and guilt from my own relationship, too. I knew I wasn’t the perfect, docile victim. There was a time I grabbed my girlfriend by the wrists and meant for it to hurt. The broader context was that she wouldn’t stop poking me, despite my repeated objections, which was just another instance of her objectifying me and violating my boundaries, and I told her I’d let go if she promised to stop. “The Secret Joy of Accountability” made me feel like I didn’t have to hide that incident to receive care, and moreover that I had made a choice that was unideal but appropriate to my circumstances.

The next essay, “Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence and Disability” by Peggy Munson, offers a crucial analysis of how unmet survival needs and the difficulty of accessing reliable caregiving makes disabled people susceptible to abuse and may even make sometimes-caring, sometimes-abusive partners more desirable than the alternative. It also discusses specific tactics abusers may use to maintain control over disabled victims, in connection with abusers’ more general strategies.

I won’t go over the rest of the book in such fine detail, but it contains reflections on survivors’ and community organizers’ guiding principles and language, their stories, and the specifics of their intervention strategies. The writers move smoothly and consciously between the general and the personal, so readers can observe practices that could be applied in other situations as well as how communities adapt those practices in their specific work. The Revolution Starts at Home is full of different organizations’ and communities’ step-by-step models for supporting survivors and holding abusers accountable. It helps me feel like there’s a way forward.

As co-editor Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha acknowledges in the preface to the second edition, The Revolution Starts at Home marginalizes sick and disabled people and trans women. Beyond Peggy Munson’s essay, disability rarely comes up in any way but survivors’ trauma. I long for resources about how to navigate situations of abuse in which two disabled people accuse each other of abuse and symptoms such as brainfog, memory problems, and dissociation complicate an already difficult situation. I want resources to help me distinguish between nonnormative but respectful disabled ways of being and relating in relationships and behavior that’s influenced by disability and crosses the line. This book can’t give me that.

The Revolution Starts at Home  includes an essay by a trans guy (“Freedom & Strategy/Trauma & Resistance” by Timothy Colm), but it’s largely a letdown on trans issues and occasionally a complete mistake. Several essays mention genderqueer people as a vulnerable population, but they don’t really dig into the specific ways transness influences abuse situations. One of the resources in the back refers to society privileging “males and the male-identified” and devaluing “female and the female-identified,” which raises some cis-as-default red flags, and “Without My Consent” by Bran Frenner invokes the incoherent and transmisogynistic concept of “male bodied privilege.”

Still, The Revolution Starts at Home is a vital and foundational text for anyone experiencing or healing from intimate violence and anyone looking for preventative or reactive solutions. Wherever you are in your understanding of these issues, this book will give you information, strategies, and the hope to carry on. I’m glad to have it in my collection and expect to return to it many more times.

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities is available from AK Press and is half off ($8) through February 2017.

 

Idealization/Imprinting

The following is a selection from my most recent zine, Blush, Blossom, Bloom: BPD, Imprinting, and Mad Queer Love — a duo of essays on the same topic, written before and after I learned a word that truly encompasses what I feel.

Idealization (July 2015)

Lots of people would say my love for people I idealize is unhealthy, but that’s not true. However strong my feelings, they’re not excessive. This love is healthy; this love is healing. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. It’s love, but more intense. The new-love thrill never fades a bit, even as the relationship gets more established and starts feeling more secure. As long as things are going well between us, I feel a surge of joy that such a wonderful person could exist and be in my life. I think of them often, and it always feels like this.

 

I don’t choose who I idealize, but it’s not arbitrary either. I seem to find people who are right for me, even on very little information. It took 17 days this time. It was fast, but now 10 months resoundingly prove I was right to love her.

My idealization isn’t like what the psychiatric materials about bpd describe. “Idealize” doesn’t even feel like quite the right word. It suggests foolishness, wrongness, or at least being underinformed. But I’m not oblivious to a person’s faults or ways they disappoint me, and I can adjust to new and unpleasant knowledge about them. (Swift reactions being another skill we borderlines are known/demonized for, actually.)

I’m sure some people would question whether what I experience is idealization at all. Sometimes I question myself too. But it’s such a powerful feeling, outside neurotypical experience, and I want a name to put to it. I relate to other borderline folx about the feeling, so “idealization” will do until something better comes along.

I don’t think idealization is “supposed” to be stable. If there’s one thing that characterizes bpd, it’s instability. Reading what psych people write, it sounds like I’m supposed to idealize and “devalue” everyone in my life, cycling at the drop of a hat. Mostly I don’t. Mostly I get this overwhelming love for a particular person and it lasts indefinitely until they stop being in my life. If they did or said something really terrible or were chronically kind of shitty, that’d end it too, but I haven’t had that experience so far.

I’m afraid that describing my idealization, or even just naming it, will scare people off. I’m afraid the word, more than my personalized descriptions, will stick with people and convince them my idealization is incompatible with relationships as equals. I’m afraid of being rejected as obsessive, too intense, irrational, and all-around too much.

I’ll own being obsessive, intense, and often irrational. I hope you’ll decide I’m not too much.

Imprinting (10/25/15)

 

The word “imprint,” in the borderline sense, is the granting of a wish I had thought was hopeless: to have a name for a kind of relationship that is profound to me, but which is totally beyond the neurotypical experience and lexicon. It has the soul and elegance that was missing from “person I stably ‘idealize.’”

It was amazing just to learn that other borderline people have this as a concept. I’d spent almost a year rationalizing to myself that I could have really strong, consistently positive feelings about someone and it could still be a borderline thing — not realizing other borderline people were talking about it and naming it.

I learned “imprint” from tumblr, but “favorite person” seems to be in broader use for the concept there, and it’s what I heard first. “Favorite person” is conceptually close enough that I could understand what people were talking about and know I wasn’t alone, but I’m not wild about it for myself.

It sounds hierarchical, and that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to rank the people who are important to me. I don’t like the thought of implying to everyone else in my life that they’re not my favorite, and I wouldn’t like to be positioned as someone’s not-favorite myself.

I like “imprint” over “favorite person” because it’s succinct. It’s unmediated. Imprinting is a relationship of its own, not something that can be expressed through any recombination or qualification of other relationship elements. I like having a word for it that’s so self-contained.

I like “imprint” because it’s familial. Familial in a way that’s beyond the narratives of family that have always been forced on me, that have betrayed me. Familial in a way that can still be pure, that’s intimate and undemanding.

I like “imprint” because it makes me feel like a duckling, not a burden or a monster.

I like “imprint” because it’s gentle, soft, inexorable, natural, like imprinting.


If you enjoyed this post and you want to read more about imprinting, check out Blush, Blossom, Bloom: A Zine About BPD, Imprinting, and Mad Queer Love. It’s got resources for Borderline and non-Borderline folx, the super-sweet story of telling my imprint she’s my imprint, and a love poem bursting with anti-ableist rage, along with quotes from my journal-blog to more vividly demonstrate the feelings I’ve written about.

Nic Masangkay’s “melancholia” holds history and longing with gentle strength

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[image description: The front cover of Nic Masangkay’s chapbook “melancholia,” drawn by Raychelle Duazo. A colored pencil, marker, and pen illustration in blues and grays of Nic holding their head in their hands above a Seattle skyline.]

I’ve been impressed with Nic Masangkay’s poetry since I first found slam poetry several years ago, and their first chapbook release, melancholia, delivers on everything I’ve come to expect from them. Nic brings together histories of colonialism and resistance with personal memory and present experience, and the result is immensely powerful.

Two of Nic’s older poems and slam favorites are “Jose Rizal and “My Gender Is For Mothers.” “Jose Rizal” tells the story of a Filipino national hero who was executed as a traitor for resisting Spanish colonization juxtaposed with the ways their mother upholds colonial beauty standards and the silence they’ve adopted to protect her from her pain at Nic’s gender. “My Gender is For Mothers” is a love poem that holds the tension between Nic’s mother’s wishes for them and their queer trans love. Nic’s poems balance strength and vulnerability tremendously.

This chapbook also explores disability through poems about muscle pain, eczema, and trauma. Nic represents chronic pain as a ghost in “This recent muscle pain is…,” and it’s both haunting and healing to hear poetry about the familiar story of wondering why pain returns again and again, only to realize it never quite left. The poem concludes in acceptance, without the common sacrifice of denying the pain.

Nic’s use of imagery and detail makes their poems evocative on the first read-through, but melancholia is also a rich and sometimes abstract collection that benefits from repeated over time. I’ve been hearing “My Gender is for Mothers” performed for years now and I still learn through each return to it and the interconnected stories throughout the collection.

melancholia also features beautiful front and back covers, drawn by queer femme Filipina-American artist Raychelle Duazo and attention to accessibility, with trigger warnings and printed image descriptions of the covers and the artist photos.

True to its title, melancholia brims with sadness both urgent and gentle, but also hope and tenderness. Nic is a master of complexity and a poet whose greatness I aspire to.

To get a copy of melancholia, email Nic at ngmasang@gmail.com. melancholia is available for $10 or on a pay-what-you-can basis.

“But You Don’t Look Sick: A Zine About Invisible Illnesses and Disabilities in the Workplace” Builds Community in the Face of Erasure

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Queer Anxiety Babiez Distro’s “But You Don’t Look Sick: A Zine About Invisible Illnesses and Disabilities in the Workplace” is a compilation zine about the difficulties of navigating workplaces as an invisibly ill or disabled person. It features personal essays, poetry, and visual art, along with a brief section of legal and informational resources.

Throughout the zine, there is a recurring theme of legal protections and considerations not translating smoothly into real-life coverage. The law may provide for confidential accommodations, but that won’t stop nosy coworkers from inquiring about what they perceive as unfair, or prevent them from making requests that are difficult to decline without disclosing more than you want to.

There is good variation in the disabilities and workplaces represented: various illnesses/disabilities/conditions on both sides of the traditional physical/mental division and jobs ranging from dishwashing and customer service, through college and office jobs. (I have an essay in this zine about the invisibility and erasure of my personal disability and ableism as a concept at my college social justice job.)

Personally, I would have prefered more personal narratives to the information about U.S. and Canadian disability law, which is easier to find in an internet search than the stories shared throughout the rest of the zine. But for someone who needs this information and is too nervous to search for it, stumbling across it in this zine could be just what they need. The page about ableist language is a useful starting point. For readers who want to know more on this topic, I recommend Nik Moreno’s zine This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language, which I previously reviewed.

I wish, especially for a zine about disability, that the print were larger and the images crisper. Much of the text is too small for me to read comfortably, and some of the text overlaid on Jacqueline Last’s collage “Mechanical Restraints” is too blurry to read, probably as a result of the photocopying process.

The embodied and interpersonal experiences shared in this zine will likely feel familiar to invisibly disabled people and can serve as a guide to abled coworkers and employers of how not to give us a hard-verging-on-illegal time. I’m grateful to Kristen and Maira for editing this collection, which builds community among people like me who can’t always easily find each other in the world — especially in the workplace.

You can buy But You Don’t Look Sick from Queer Anxiety Babiez Distro’s Etsy.

“All in Your Head” #3 Smoothly Navigates the Intersections and Ambiguities of Disabled Queer (A)sexuality and Intimacy

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[image description: The cover of All in Your Head #3, which features the title (as listed below) and many torn pieces of paper with different patterns.]
All in Your Head: Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Disability Zine Issue #3: (A)sexuality, Intimacy, and Identity has some of the most consistent quality I’ve seen in an edited zine. This is what an anthology should be. The content (poetry, prose, visual art) is all great, and each piece impresses me for different reasons. And there’s a lot in there! If I’m counting correctly, it’s 94 pages long, which in my zine collection is only rivaled by Hoax. From an editorial standpoint, I’m grateful that this issue is about “(a)sexualities,” for the inclusion, fluidity, and flexibility that wording encompasses. Bear with me — when I dug into the zine to review it, I wanted to give each artist individual attention, so this is gonna run long.

Full disclosure: I have an essay in here — the very first, actually, which I was super excited about when I opened the cover. I don’t make money off sales, though, so the conflict of interest is minimal. My essay is about my frustration with the politics of desirability and particularly the ways our cultural hatred of desperation harms me as an abuse victim/survivor and psychiatrically disabled person.

The next essay is by a friend and long-time zinester fave of mine, Olivia M. Olivia consistently writes what I most want to read: nuanced narratives and analyses of multiple marginalized identities. In the essay in this zine, “Am I Gray?: Gray Areas of Identity and Impairment,” she writes about the ambiguity of her most important identities: being a mixed Latina, gray-asexual and gray-panromantic, with anxiety and depression mostly under control and multiple sclerosis mostly in remission, and feeling “not autistic enough to be autistic.” I relate to many of her questions about belonging and what’s “enough,” and I think she puts words to many people’s feelings when she writes, “I feel content to be floating one second, stretched to splitting the next.”

(Follow her on Tumblr or buy her zines on Etsy.)

The next essay, “Isolation” by V, packs much vital, often-silenced political analysis into a few pages. V writes about the parallels between their erasure in the queer community as a mixed-race Asian and white person and as a bi person. By this point in the zine, I was getting really excited about all the nuanced, explicit bi and pan representation. Bi and pan representation is so difficult to find (even when I search it out) that it feels incredible to find it when I’m not specifically looking. V also writes about exotification, fetishization, and objectifcation, in relation to both their own experiences of mental illness and broader patterns. They end the piece with an empowering discussion of what they wish they’d been told.

The next essay to pleasantly surprise me with unexpected representation is also the very next thing in the zine. In “Disordered,” Liza Lauper writes about the excitement of getting a long-sought Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis and the frustration with the insulting label that quickly followed. Paralleling the lack of respectful diagnostic labels is a lack of precise orientation labels that accurately reflect Liza’s orientation. While I do accept the BPD label for myself (albeit in a reclamatory way) and am satisfied with “bi” for myself (in a way that conflicts with many people’s definitions), I relate deeply to Liza’s struggles for language. I’m also grateful any time I find politicized writing by Borderline people (or by people with similar neurotypes who make different decisions about labels) because we’re rarely treated as worthy of writing our own stories and analysis.

While the first several essays interested me because they felt familiar, the next, “Rare Myths for Rare Persons” by Mica McDonald, caught my attention because it’s far from my familiarity. Mica discusses the importance of mythology as sacred truth and shared story of humanity. Ze struggles to feel valued and significant as a transmasculine person with cystic fibrosis when there’s a lack of myths about people like zir. As a partial solution to this problem, Mica offers readings of three Greek and Irish myths in which ze can see elements of zirself. We discuss representation constantly in social justice circles, but mythology isn’t a topic I’ve heard much about from this angle. It expanded my thinking to hear about the importance of myth, specifically, and how Mica reads zir marginalized identities into existing myths.

Kelsie Kachel’s poems “Brain Horror” and “Gendered Construction Sites” use imagery beautifully both for the pain of negative self thoughts and the gender binary and for the hope found by emptying out those thoughts and being their own gender. Jacklyn Janeksela’s poems slide between clear imagery and deliberate ambiguity, leaving me unsure what to feel. Barbara Ruth’s poem “Attracted to Her” explores the transformation of sexual attraction from fun to terror, with the hope that after self examination and work, attraction will return. The poem is rich in its exploration of fear, loss, vulnerability, and the longing to regain longing. Barbara’s other poem in the zine, “What I’m Like,” combines simile and more direct language to tell the story of a sexist poet lover man (who feels uncomfortably familiar) and offer more affirming understandings of herself.

Sky Cubacub’s essay “Radical Visibility: A QueerCrip Dress Reform Movement Manifesto” is unlike anything I’ve read in a zine. Sky is the creator of a clothing company called Rebirth Garments, which makes each item of clothing custom to suit trans and disabled people’s needs and create what Sky calls “radical visibility.” It reads more like an academic essay than I’m used to seeing in zines, with footnotes, works cited, and references to theorists, but for the most part I think it’s accessible to an audience without an academic background. I knew about Rebirth Garments before reading the zine, and I enjoyed hearing more about the philosophy behind the line. If you don’t already know Rebirth Garments, I recommend visiting their website. The black and white photos in the zine show off the form and geometry of Rebirth Garments, but black and white can’t do justice to a line whose core principles incorporate use of vivid color.

Maira’s “I Think I Might Be…Gray Ace?” tells the story of coming into gray-asexuality through a relationship with a partner who, like much of society, framed sex as a necessary part of relationships. Their understanding of their sexuality is complicated by the realizations that in addition to being queer, they are agender and bipolar. Maira’s struggles to reconcile asexuality with trauma resonate with me, as I suspect they will with many ace-spectrum people. Maira contributes to an important, developing school of thought that while asexuality is not necessarily damage, it can be, and that damage is a valid history and way of being.

Finally, Raymond Luczak’s “My Line of Feeling” is a short story about a quadriplegic man named Steve watching an ASL interpreter and reflecting on his life. It weaves smoothly between his present experience, his frustration with forced desexualization, bitterness at abled people, and the reason this interpreter means so much to the speaker. The writing is rhythmic, poetic, and it carried me through the story with urgency, except when Steve brings up fatphobic misogyny in a way that feels like it could be his own.

Overall, I was blown away by the way this zine and each of the artists in it explore ambiguity and multiple marginalizations. I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in the intersections of disability and queerness, especially if personal essays are your thing. I look forward to future issues of All in Your Head (the next issue’s theme is “cure”) and to seeing more from each of the writers featured in this issue. (My apologies to the visual artists — I don’t think I have the understanding of visual art necessary to comment on your work.)

You can buy All in Your Head: Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Disability Zine Issue #3: (A)sexuality, Intimacy, and Identity from editor Sam GlitterWurst’s Etsy shop when it returns from hiatus and follow him on Tumblr.

Nik Moreno’s “This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language” backs up suggestions with context

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[image description: a photo of This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language, with a bright pink cover and “This, Not That” written on a banner illustration.] Photo by Nik.
Nik Moreno’s This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language delivers on its promise: it examines how some everyday words and phrases are ableist and offers suggestions of how to replace them. But what I appreciate most about it is that it provides context that is often missing from word substitution lists.

The zine opens with an introduction about the importance of language in culture and media, a brief glossary, and a reminder of the ways in which ableist language leads abled people to physically harm disabled people. In these components and throughout the rest of the zine, Nik highlights that ableism serves colonialism, white supremacy, and capitalism. These systems all reinforce each other, and it’s important to keep that in mind as we work to dismantle them.

Nik also provides a short note that for some disabled people, including him, it’s powerful and important to reclaim words like “crippled.” As someone who’s pretty into reclamation, I appreciate this acknowledgement and the way Nik’s joy radiates through these words.

Nik starts off the explanation of words to eliminate with “The Scrap Yard,” a collection of words and phrases he suggests eliminating entirely, rather than replacing. He explains how each of them does harm. This list includes slurs and phrases and dismissive, ableist questions like, “What are you deaf?” In this section, I especially appreciate Nik’s analysis of how “lazy” is used to criticize people instead of acknowledging the bodily and societal barriers that stop us.

Before transitioning into the words for which he suggests replacements, Nik cautions the reader that the alternatives he suggests can still be used in ableist ways and provides guidelines for examining the assumptions and values behind our use of language. This extra step of reflection can go a long way in checking our ableism.

The second set of words and phrases to eliminate works similarly to the first set, but in this section there are also clouds of alternatives to try. Nik offers many suggestions for each entry, covering a variety of situations in which people use the ableist language. This section includes words like “lame” and many diagnostic terms that are tossed around as metaphors.

In my mind, there’s not a stark real-life difference between the words in the “scrap yard” and the ones for which Nik suggests alternatives, but his distinction doesn’t detract from my reading experience. Nik’s definitions of terms, particularly around the distinctions between ableism and sanism, differs from mine, and I think these definitions would benefit from more precision, but these are ongoing and community-wide conversations.

Nik also offers opportunities to connect to other people’s writing about resisting ableism through relevant quotes throughout the zine and a “further reading” section at the end.

While much of this zine focuses on getting abled people to stop hurting us, it’s also valuable for disabled people who want to work through how our own language my uphold oppression, and there’s a beautiful and validating dedication at the end. I also recommend it to my fellow white disabled people because we have a lot to learn about how ableism intersects with racism and colonialism and how to support disabled people of color.

You can get This, Not That from Nik’s Etsy shop.

Nia King’s “#ArtLife: Musings and Advice from a Queer Art Activist of Color” provides vital suggestions and ethical considerations

 

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The cover of #ArtLife: Musings and Advice from a Queer Art Activist of Color features a comic about in-class critics giving invalidating feedback. Photo from Nia’s shop.

Nia King’s #ArtLife: Musings and Advice from a Queer Art Activist of Color is one of the most useful zines I’ve ever read. In this zine, Nia writes about quitting her full-time job to become a full-time freelancer and art activist, sharing both her personal experiences and advice for other emerging artists.

I bought #ArtLife at the Portland Zine Symposium in 2015, when I’d only been sharing my art with the world for a month, and it’s been a primary guide for me ever since. It’s hard to make a living as an artist, especially as one with multiple marginalized identities. Nia, a mixed-race queer artist with chronic pain and depression, gets it. Her advice is accessible for artists who are just starting out, and unlike much art-career advice, hers doesn’t make unjustified assumptions about readers having privilege and resources. Advice topics include networking, publishing, and interviewing people who are marginalized in ways you are not.

The essay “Media is Not a Dirty Word,” which suggests thinking of your work as media, the “merger of art and business” that simplifies gaining an audience by taking advantage of other people’s publishing platforms. Self-promotion as an artist is arduous, and this essay gave me realistic expectations of how difficult it is while acknowledging both the difficulties and the advantages of publishing work through someone else’s channels.

“On the Value of QPOC Art Activism” is a must-read for anyone who cares about financial and social justice for queer artists of color. Nia asks probing questions like, “Why is it the people who make this vital work have to sell their labor to someone else to pay the rent? Why isn’t it enough to add beauty to people’s lives and fuel to the fire for social justice?” Queer artists of color deserve much more financial and emotional love than they get. This essay sings their praises and can remind white and cishet artists and non-artists how vital queer artists of color are. We all need to remember.

#ArtLife also offers reflections and suggestions about ethical dilemmas that are often overlooked in art and journalism spaces. Nia uses feminist, Black, Chicana, indigenous, and disability justice-oriented research methodologies to challenge the journalistic ideal of limiting involvement with subjects. As someone who strives to be ethical in my own work, I really appreciate hearing about Nia’s experiences and thoughts.

#ArtLife holds a special place in my heart and in my room, because it’s so useful I never want to fully put it away. I treasure Nia’s work and hope to contribute to the vital project of advising marginalized artists by writing about my own experiences and advice as a white queer and trans disabled artist.

You can buy #ArtLife from Nia for $2, and it’s available to read for free through the New Paltz Zine Library Online. It may also be available through Brown Recluse Zine Distro when they re-open for the new year.

Nia is also the editor of Queer and Trans Artists of Color: Stories of Some of Our Lives, volumes 1 and 2, which collect many of her interviews with artists from her podcast We Want the Airwaves. If you’re looking for more of her work (and you really should be), visit her website. You can also support her on Patreon to help fund the QPOC art revolution.

M. Sabine Rear’s “Bending Spoons: A Field Guide to Ableist Microaggressions”Will Charm You and Make You a Better Ally to Blind People

Bending Spoons: A Field to Ableist Microaggressions by M. Sabine Rear is a beautiful, compact quarter-size zine of illustrations of people making everyday ableist comments about Sabine’s blindness, paired with explanations of how what they said was harmful.

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My favorite pair of pages in the zine, with the illustration described below. The facing page says, “Blindness is a marker of physical difference that is written on my body. It designates my body as especially vulnerable, perhaps unusual, not fit to be in public. This dude has identified and then immediately fetishized this marker of difference. He thinks he’s totally made my day.” Photo by Sabine.

It’s very elegant, in both visual style and writing style. Sabine’s illustrations of ableist jackasses and well-meaning but misguided commenters are simple but packed with character. My personal favorite is a dude with crosshatched hair and a beard protesting, “…but you have such beautiful eyes.” The last bit of his comment is written in cursive and the “i” is dotted with a heart, which is the kind of detail that makes me love this zine.

Sabine’s explains the assumptions she observes behind each ableist comment, as well as reflecting on her personal feelings about it and how the comment fits into broader ableist patterns. I recommend checking your own behavior and thoughts about blindness against the illustrated quotes and using Sabine’s analysis to learn how to do better if you notice any of your own anti-blind ableism. Even if you know better than the people who are being blatantly obnoxious, you may not recognize some of the subtler microaggressions as such. Personally, I’ve caught myself making a mistake similar to the person who tries to relate by telling her, “I’m pretty near-sighted too.”

Language like “internalized ableism” and “crip embodiment” may feel dense or confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with disabled and anti-ableist language, but part of unlearning ableism is familiarizing yourself with the language disabled people use to describe our experiences. This is a great place to start.

Bending Spoons inspires me to experiment with the power of simplicity. It’s a quick, short read packed with useful information.

Learn more about Sabine’s work at her website or order Bending Spoons from Powell’s Books for $4.

What ‘Pronoun Privilege’ gets wrong about supporting trans students (and how we can do better)

In September, the New York Times published a woefully irresponsible article by City University of New York gender studies professor Elizabeth Reis, entitled “Pronoun Privilege.” Reis’s short, 530-word article outlines her concern that by asking students to state their pronouns, well-meaning professors such as her are actually harming transgender and gender-nonconforming students. In publishing this article, Reis has resolidified her status as a well-meaning but dangerous professor.

I didn’t want to write this essay

I didn’t want to write about “Pronoun Privilege.” Since the day of its release, it has haunted me in my life as a transgender person who recently graduated college and has been on both sides of pronoun check-ins many times.

A few weeks before Reis’s article came out, I had emailed my former colleagues at my university social justice job to provide them with resources for supporting trans and gender-nonconforming students as the academic quarter began. Since I’d graduated out of my job, no one was paying me anymore. But I’d already written up the resources, I still had access to the all-staff mailing list, and I knew that if I didn’t bring up pronoun check-ins and other forms of support, no one likely would. It didn’t seem like so much free labor to send one email.

My decision reversed instantly when a professor replied to my email asking what I thought about Reis’s article. When I clicked through her link and read “Pronoun Privilege” for the first time, what I thought was that it felt like someone shouting at me out a car window as they drove past. It was a painful mess, and as much as I wanted to help trans students by replying, I wasn’t going to hurt myself by dissecting the article in detail for a college that was no longer paying me.

It’s now December, though, and this atrocious article still won’t leave me alone. I feel forced to confront it directly.

This publishing opportunity should have gone to a trans writer

My detailed breakdown of everything wrong with “Pronoun Privilege” hits a snag almost immediately: Reis does not adequately identify her positionality in relation to her article. If she’s trans, I still have many points to contend with her, but if she’s cis, both she and the New York Times are wildly out of line.

In the section of her article that most nearly addresses her own cis/trans status, she writes, “My appearance matches my preferred pronoun, so I don’t worry about anyone misstating it. But some of my students are transgender or gender nonconforming.” The first half of this seems likelier for cis people (particularly because she doesn’t even worry), and the latter part implies some contrast between her trans and gender-nonconforming students and her. This description and her casual transphobia throughout the article lead me to tentatively assume Reis is cis, but without her identifying herself, I can’t know for sure.

My most fundamental objection is that if Reis is cis, her article should not exist in the first place. Cis people cannot advance dialogue about how best to support trans people. To paraphrase and adapt a quote by Kelley Temple about men in feminism, cis people do not need to be given a space in trans advocacy; they need to take the space they have and make it more trans-friendly. Reis should work to make her classroom more trans-friendly, but if she is cis, she should not be cissplaining in the New York Times, nor should the New York Times have given her the platform. Trans people are the ones who innovate ways to balance visibility with safety for our communities. Give us, particularly trans women of color, the opportunity to write for money and a large audience about how to meet trans people’s needs. That being said, the rest of my complaints apply regardless of whether Reis is cis.

Pronoun check-ins aren’t as common as Reis suggests

Reis describes pronoun check-ins, the practice of asking everyone to state their pronouns at the beginning of group meetings, as common at some colleges and universities. Pronoun check-ins are common at liberal higher education institutions in the same sense as shooting stars are in the night sky: just because you’re unlikely to see them elsewhere doesn’t mean you should hold your breath for one.

Here, I suppose, is where I should give you more background about myself. I’m agender, meaning I have no identification with womanhood, manhood, or any other gender. I dress, behave, and speak in ways that are usually interpreted as feminine — not because of or in spite of my gender, but because those matters are what I genuinely prefer. My pronouns are they/them/theirs, xe/xyr/xyrs, and any others beside he, she, and it.

I have a round face and an hourglass figure. I’m consistently assumed to be a woman by all but the most committed trans radicals and allies. The accordance between my body and how people expect me to look, along with my whiteness, makes me an unlikely target for street violence but a very likely candidate for accidental misgendering.

I come out whenever space is made for me through practices such as pronoun check-ins and sometimes elbow my way out of more stubborn closets if I think there’s a chance I’ll be gendered correctly on the other side.

I went to a liberal university in a liberal city in a liberal state and planned my educational path around whose classrooms would likely have pronoun check-ins, and still pronoun check-ins weren’t common for me in classroom spaces. It’s hard for me to imagine that pronoun check-ins are “common” in classrooms for any trans student at any school.

The article itself is casually transmisogynistic

Reis explains that her fear that pronoun check-ins do as much harm as good is motivated particularly by a pronoun check-in she facilitated that brought scrutiny upon a student of hers, who would have preferred not to share her pronouns. Reis is right to be concerned for her trans students’ well-being and especially to listen to their individual concerns and preferences, but every conclusion she draws is flawed.

Reis writes that her student, who used a traditionally female name and uneasily shared her she/her pronouns, “looked like any other guy in the class.” The phrasing “other guy” implies that the student, too, is a guy. While someone who adopts a traditionally female name and she/her pronouns may be a guy, Reis being casually transmisogynistic seems more likely in this case. As a writer, she should know better, and as a respected publication, the New York Times should do better. This isn’t just a matter of grammar; it’s a matter of respecting people’s identities in an article about respecting people’s identities.

Asking students to opt into pronoun check-ins based on comfort can leave trans students uncomfortably exposed

After her experience making a student uncomfortable asking everyone to share their pronouns, Reis’s alternative approach was to share her concerns, asking students to share their pronouns only if they feel comfortable doing so, and saying that her class will refer to people by their first names or the gender-neutral “they.”

I don’t think this is an altogether bad approach, but I believe it gives cis students too much latitude to opt out rather than questioning their understandings of gender. Challenging preconceptions about how the world works — such as the existence of only two genders and only two sets of personal pronouns — can be uncomfortable, especially for those whose cis identities are decentered as a result. In my experience, many cis people will take every available opportunity to return to the status quo. This  means they will avoid sharing their own pronouns even though they would be safe to do so, and they will fall back on their gendered assumptions rather than following through on their names-or-”they” commitment.

I treat sharing pronouns as a practice to opt out of, more than a practice to opt into. I don’t want to force trans and gender-nonconforming students to out themselves, but I want to encourage everyone to participate. As a trans person, I felt hypervisible when cis people rely on the assumption that they will be gendered correctly, leaving me as one of few students who did share their pronouns. Similar to Reis, though, I tell participants that we will use names or “they” for anyone who doesn’t share pronouns.

My own method for facilitating pronoun check-ins

My approach is similar to Reis’s new one, but with more focus on long-term follow-through. During introductions, I explain that we will be doing a pronoun check-in, a process in which we share our pronouns with everyone to learn how to correctly refer to each other. I give a succinct explanation of the gender binary, how pronouns fit into it, and why it’s important to create new ways of handling gender and pronouns. I explain what pronouns are, because not everyone was taught or remembers. Discussing parts of speech and challenging how they work can be especially difficult for students who aren’t fluent in English, and I don’t want to marginalize them in the process of creating space for trans and gender-nonconforming students (particularly because these groups overlap). I’ve learned not to skimp on the background information to save time. Every omission increases the potential for misunderstanding and error. Explaining details of pronoun check-ins between introducing the concept and asking students to share their pronouns also gives them time to think about how to handle the situation.

Accidental misgendering is confoundingly persistent

Describing her mistaken thinking about how to create a welcoming space for students such as the one she accidentally harmed, Reis says, “Once she identified herself, no one would accidentally mis-gender her in class.” Only someone whose pronouns are always assumed correctly could be so naive. Throughout my years in college, nothing I tried ever resulted in a class consistently gendering me correctly, and I tried everything I could think of.

In one class, in which I’d had my pronouns on a nametag on my desk all quarter, explained trans and nonbinary identity every way I could (generally and personally, through outside resources and my own writing), and worked with groupmates to conduct archival research about a local trans organization, my groupmates misgendered me repeatedly while giving an earnest presentation about how to be allies to trans people.

I’m curious about what happened with pronouns and gendering in Reis’s class after their initial pronoun check-in. Based on all of my prior experience, I can only imagine they quietly slipped back into their familiar assumptions of gender for the most part. That’s what happens without ongoing intervention, and it’s easy for cis people not to notice.

Preventing misgendering requires ongoing intervention

Spoken pronoun check-ins work best when they’re repeated with the same group. Repetition not only helps with memorization, but also provides students opportunities to update each other and the instructor if their pronouns temporarily or permanently change. An alternative or supplemental option is to ask students to create name and pronoun tags for their desks. This makes their pronouns visible for reference, reducing the need to memorize, and you can invite students to update their names and pronouns if they change throughout the quarter. You’ll need to remind everyone to put them out at the start of each class session. Again, habit is a strong force to counter.

Expect and anticipate misgendering if anyone’s pronouns differ from what other people might assume. I recommend inviting students to you how they’d like you to respond if you hear someone misgendering them, because that’s not something you’ll want to guess at in the moment.

One last insulting mistake in a cissplaining mess of an article

In the transition from describing her new practice to concluding her article, Reis also jumps from being naive but reasonable to being outrageously damaging. She writes, “Divulging one’s gender through an announcement of pronouns at best contradicts the reality that our gender may be ambiguous, and at worst forces students to reveal a potentially vulnerable part of themselves.”

Sloppy writing makes this even worse than it might otherwise be. Here Reis places the blame not even on asking for disclosure, but on disclosure itself. By telling you my pronouns are they/them, ze/zir, and any others besides he, she, and it, and I prefer for people to vary them, I am actually cementing harmful ideas about gender. Who knew.

I know this all sounds bleak. There is a lot to be concerned about while trying to create safer, more inclusive spaces for trans and gender-nonconforming students. Before we can solve the problems of cissexism, we first must reveal them, and seeing them in their multitude can be alarming.

And yet, there’s hope

But for all my questionable experiences with pronoun check-ins, I believe they are a necessary part of creating more welcoming spaces. I take comfort in the knowledge that even when some people repeatedly get it wrong, others are learning. When my groupmates misgendered me to the class, several classmates and my professor corrected them because they knew that was what I wanted from them as allies. I’m frustrated at constantly having to be a gender educator just because I’m trans, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it through practice. If you want to know how to respect trans people, we’re the ones to learn from.

If you benefit from my writing (particularly as a cis person trying to do better) and want to support my work, please consider becoming my patron on Patreon.