Factors Used by Individuals to Determine Their Own Genders


I conducted this research in 2015 as an undergraduate student in a sociology program. I had come out as agender the year prior. After several years of thinking carefully about how other people feel and experience gender, I had come to the conclusion that I must not have any gender to feel, but I was still curious about what exactly people with genders were feeling.

“How do you know your own gender?” is an unusual question but one that I know from my own experience is worth asking. In my survey, I tried to break down the feeling of a gender into more specific potential feelings of gender, while still respecting that feelings of gender might not be fully explainable.

In addition to contributing to our collective knowledge of gender, the survey responses made me feel more confident in my own agender identity. Most of the write-in responses by people with genders were unrelatable to me, while some agender responses felt more familiar.  My own identity and experiences are woven into this paper because I believe that no research is truly objective and that one’s own positionality can be a valuable source of insight.

I received my B.A. and do not plan to continue my academic education in gender studies or continue this research in any institutional capacity, but I still believe my findings and methodology as a trans researcher can be important contributions to our body of knowledge. I thought about trying to get published through an undergraduate research journal to make this paper more “legitimate” and citable, but that’s a long, arduous process, and frankly I’d rather spend my limited time on my artistic writing. I hope that academics will still be able to find and learn from this paper, but it’s most important to me that the broader trans community can access it. On that note, the paper is written in academic language that may be difficult or inaccessible to people without a formal educational background in research or gender studies, but I want everyone to be able to understand it. Please contact me at kaylarosenzines@gmail.com if you have questions about the language or anything else.

One more thing about language: In the survey and throughout this paper, I used the term “gender identity,” a term that is controversial within the trans community. Cisgender (non-trans) people often use the phrase “gender identity” in ways that imply trans people’s genders are just “identities,” while cis people’s genders are somehow more real. I chose to use “gender identities” for the sake of including people like me, who may have identities in relation to gender that are not, themselves, genders. If I were to do this over, I would likely phrase things in terms of “gender” rather than “gender identity,” as that choice seems less harmful for the majority of trans people. However, I have preserved the language of “gender identity” in my paper because that is how the questions were phrased to participants and therefore what the findings address.

Thank you for reading.
Kayla Rosen (they/them)

Continue reading “Factors Used by Individuals to Determine Their Own Genders”

I want to be a sex writer. I’m terrified of writing about sex.

[This post contains discussion of sexual trauma and mentions of harassment and assault.]

As recently as February of this year, my only ways of relating to my own sexuality were dissociation and panic. I mostly didn’t recognize the dissociation for what it was, but my sex drive was unnaturally low for me and my attraction to other people was shut off almost entirely. Masturbating was making me cry and freak out every time, so I wasn’t doing it much. I tried what felt like everything to make the crying stop. I touched myself different ways. I prepared distractions for just after orgasm, or even before. (Watching entirely nonsexual content was a welcome distraction when I was using my vibrator.) I talked to my therapist about the crying and my past sexual traumas and the attitudes about sexuality with which I was raised. I wrote. Nothing worked. The crying persisted.

I began writing what started as a zine but has evolved into a memoir about trauma, (a)sexuality, and sexual dysfunction, on the assumption that my relationship to these experiences would remain static and that the narrative would have an end but no true resolution.

Then my friend Sabine made a passing comment by Twitter message about reading smutty fanfiction, which opened a door for me and changed everything. I’d been reading smutty fanfic on and off for almost a decade, but I’d barely ever talked with anyone about it. I realized I had some very strong pent-up feelings about patterns in sexual fanfiction (for example, the lack of compelling writing about sex between women), and I poured those opinions out into the safe space Sabine provided. Over the course of several days, I opened up a little at a time, telling her about general dynamics I enjoyed reading about in fic, then about specific fics I recommended, and finally about some of my personal struggles with sexuality.

In the beginning, I checked in obsessively and apologized constantly. I was torn between my significant trust in her and the fear that sooner or later, I would inevitably become Too Much and damage our relationship. But every time, she met my revelations with enthusiasm rather than rejection or hesitation, and every time, my sense of security deepened a little.

And with that, the bouts of crying and panic stopped decisively. After so much time and so many failed interventions, it felt too good to be true. But it’s lasted 4 months and counting, and it keeps getting better.

Masturbating became a lot more fun once I could be present in body and with my desires without fearing the aftermath. Over the couple of months after I healed my relationship with masturbation, sexual attraction and desire for other people returned in full force — fuller than ever, actually. For the first time in my life, I can say with confidence that I’m not currently anywhere on the asexual spectrum. For the first time in my life, I’m having casual sex and living my slutty dreams (which go surprisingly far back, considering I’d always been demisexual, at most, until recently). Some of the sex I’ve had has been hot and healing and affirming; some of it has been bad and just barely avoided overt violation; all of it has been a lot to adjust to and process.

And so I’ve been writing, because writing is how I process. I tried to journal about a one-night stand so I’d be able to write prose about it later, and instead it turned into a sexually graphic poem that also touched on complex issues of identity. I sat down in the park and freewrote a poem that turned out to wind through being harassed in the park, being publicly groped by a boyfriend without consent, and learning how to ask for what I want. I’ve kept writing the memoir, although it’s taken a drastic turn for the happier and I no longer have any idea where, when, or how it will end.

I almost always write with the intention of publishing. I like my writing to become part of a conversation. I know I can address complexities that I haven’t seen written enough about. There’s not enough nonbinary bi sex writing. There’s not enough discussion of the messy intersections of arousal and fear, especially for multiply marginalized people. There’s not enough writing that celebrates open expression of sexuality and holds asexuality as valid.

I’ve been creating some of that content — as much of it as I can eke out time to write. I’ve written some prosetry that perfectly captures my former terror at sexuality, and I’ve penned some phrases I’m really proud of about the worry that I’m not hot enough as a trans person. I want to share what I write so that other people can learn from it, so that my stories can be heard and honored. I want other people to read my writing and be inspired to write about their own sexualities and to share that writing if they want to be heard too. I want to learn from them in turn.

But I can barely bring myself to share anything. I have successfully pushed myself to talk regularly about sexuality with a few more friends, and in February I made a comic about starting to think it could be okay to talk about my desires. I managed to share it on Patreon, but never to a general audience, because it still felt like Too Much. Since getting (back?) in touch with my sexuality, my life has been one transformative experience after another, but despite my general openness about everything, the most I’ve done to publicly acknowledge this shift is to quietly delete “asexual” from online lists of my identities.

Writing about partnered sex is especially challenging because it combines the hardest parts of writing about myself with the hardest parts of writing about other people. My sexuality feels robust now, but also somehow still new and fragile. It feels dizzyingly vulnerable to open it up to scrutiny. But at least when it was just my own sexuality I was writing about, it was unambiguously mine to reveal.

What is my ethical duty now that I’m writing about sex I’ve had with other people? How should I manage the fact that those stories are not only mine but also my partners’? Is keeping my partners anonymous enough to balance my desire to tell with their potential desire for privacy? What if I misremember things? Do I owe it to the ones I’m still in contact with to clear my narratives with them? What if I try to and the way they want it told differs significantly from how I want to tell it?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, and it will likely take me more time and many conversations to find them, if they can be satisfyingly settled at all.

In the meantime, consider this both an update and a first step. I want to be a sex writer. I’m terrified of writing about sex. I’ll try anyway.

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You can read more of my writing about gender, sexuality, trauma, and healing in my zines.

On Turning 25 with BPD

[content warning: general mentions of abuse, self harm, and suicidality]


I was fresh out of an abusive relationship when I realized I probably had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I was 21 and I’d just moved out of the house where I’d been living with my girlfriend, back across the Puget Sound, back into the house where I’d lived with my family since I was 12.

I found myself standing in my old room, in a state I’d now recognize as dissociation, feeling more connected to my room as a physical space — the recessed window that looks out under the deck, the strangely textured walls, the mirror angled uselessly up at the ceiling because the bolts would never quite tighten enough — than to the person I’d been when I lived there before.

In terms of characteristically Borderline moments, it was pretty gentle and subdued, but that was when it became clear to me. I’d been following some people on Tumblr who frequently posted about BPD in their own lives, and suddenly I realized that my experience aligned with theirs.

In the DSM-IV, my distance from my past selves would fall under the BPD diagnostic criterion of “Identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self.” (Unstable self-image remains one of the defining characteristics of BPD in the DSM-5, but the DSM-IV wording resonated more with me.) I think everyone feels disconnected from their past selves at times, but for people with BPD, these divisions are often more extreme. I can easily cut the timeline of my life into smaller segments that feel almost entirely separate from each other, and it’s been long, hard work trying to reintegrate these selves into a single narrative, a single stream of memory that I can freely access.

That moment of disconnect from my past selves and connection with the personal BPD narratives I’d read spurred me to look further into BPD as an explanation for my own patterns of behavior and thought. The diagnostic criteria explained so much of my life, tied it together more effectively than my previous explanations of “I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder” or “I’m just really excitable.” BPD explained my constant fear of abandonment, my trail of burnt bridges, my sudden diametric mood swings, my frequent feelings of emptiness — everything I hadn’t quite been able to put words to.


This isn’t an article about diagnosis and ableism within the medical system, so I’ll just briefly say that the medical professionals I’ve tried to discuss BPD with have written me off as too morally good, too self-aware for it. They see that I’m managing, that I’m somewhat stable, and they ignore how much painstaking work it’s taken to get to this point. I’ve been working from self-diagnosis, based on the diagnostic criteria and the personal accounts of other people with BPD, because that’s what’s been accessible to me and it improves my quality of life.

Once I realized how well BPD fit me, I started more actively seeking out Borderline community on Tumblr, which had become my main social outlet in the upheaval of my recent breakup and move. I started reading through what was posted in BPD-related tags to continue learning and connecting with other people, and I frequently posted to the BPD tags myself as I processed my feelings, identities, and experiences with going back to school. In the depths of my isolation, Borderline blogging made me feel witnessed and connected. I met one of my best friends — at the time, my only friend — at the intersection of Borderline and Jewish Tumblr. I learned more BPD-related words, like “mirroring” and “imprint,” that further helped me make sense of my world.


As I was rejoicing in my new community and understanding of myself, some anon came along to tell me that I couldn’t really have BPD, because they don’t diagnose it in anyone younger than 25. That isn’t true. It isn’t true now, and it wasn’t true when I was 21. I knew it wasn’t, and a few other people online jumped in to say so too, but here I am still thinking about it 4 years later anyway.


Clinicians do consider age and development in deciding whether to make a diagnosis, but 25 isn’t a magical or policy-dictated number. The idea behind waiting to diagnose BPD is that all adolescents have unstable relationships, emotions, and senses of self, and so on — in short, that all teenagers are a little bit crazy, and no one can tell which ones are really crazy until they all mature a little more. And sure, adolescents probably have more mood swings and general turmoil than somewhat older adults. But it’s wrong to flatten together the BPD experience and the teenage experience. Having BPD as an adult doesn’t make me a perpetual teen, and I’m sure that my trauma and BPD-like symptoms would have been distinguishable even when I was a teenager, had anyone taken a close, compassionate look.

The other major reason that clinicians worry about making a hasty BPD diagnosis is the stigma (read: ableism) that comes with the label. Our culture reviles traits associated with BPD (e.g., attention-seeking, neediness, fear of abandonment) as annoying, and when those traits are clustered together under a diagnosis, ableism heaps on the fear that, additionally, we are dangerous. In ableist fiction and psychological writing about people with BPD, we’re the abusive mother, stalker, murderer — you name it.

(For more on BPD in the media, I recommend Katie Meadows’ “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die: Borderline Personality Disorder and Representation in Film”)

No one wants to see that in themself. It’s a risky thing to introduce to someone’s self-image, especially if that person’s perception of themself is already volatile and that person is prone to self-harm, as many people with BPD are. A stigmatized diagnosis can spur fresh anxieties (“Am I destined to be an abuser? Am I already an abuser? Have I been abusing everybody without trying or knowing? Am I like my abuser? Is anything I think I know about myself real?”) that could easily outweigh potential benefits, especially if the diagnosis is given without proper consideration and explanation.

A BPD diagnosis also comes with risk from the outside world: risk that, on the basis of that diagnosis alone, some therapists will refuse to work with a patient; risk that doctors of all sorts will see that label in a file and conclude that a patient is making everything — mental health-related or not — up.

Clearly, diagnosis is fraught. I don’t believe in telling young people they can’t possibly understand their own minds until they’re 25, but I don’t believe that the best thing for them is to make more and earlier BPD diagnoses, either.

The Better World that Isn’t Yet

I dream of a future without ableism. I dream of a future with more flexible understandings of health, wellness, and happiness. I dream of a future without abuse culture, which would mean a future with less abuse, which would mean a future with less trauma, which would mean a future with fewer people with BPD. I do not dream of a future with fewer people with BPD for its own sake. I dream of a world with a vastly different medical and psychiatric system, in which diagnosis likely works quite differently from its current process and in which the available labels are different, if we have them at all. But I cannot live full-time in this imaginary future.

Until that future, as we work toward it, I believe we can remake what it means to have a BPD diagnosis, to have a Borderline identity. We can erode ableism. We can create and promote Borderline culture. We can make a BPD diagnosis less like a sentencing and more like an invitation to community.

The Work

Here’s the truth about turning 25 with BPD: I have stabilized over the last four years, and sometimes I do wonder if BPD is even mine to claim anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I am Borderline, if I was Borderline, if it’s time I made some big announcement about a shift in myself. Can I be happy and secure in myself and my relationships and still be Borderline?

Then I remember how much work it’s taken to get here, how much work it takes to stay here — the hours of therapy, the years of writing, the constant filing and interpretation of evidence. I have stable, healthy relationships, AND those relationships are built on catalogs of evidence — sometimes actually written down — that the other person likes me, doesn’t think I’m boring, is getting something out of our relationship, and so on. On top of that, I’ve developed strategies for assessing the reliability of my evidence and of my analysis themselves.

I write not just because I enjoy it, or for the benefit of an audience, but because I need to write to keep track of my life. It’s the best way I know to understand my loved ones and myself, to reintegrate the pieces of my past, and to maintain a sense of continuity through the shifts in my life.

I’ve been shouldering the weight of BPD for so long that it feels like a part of me. It is a part of me. I’ve gotten used to lifting its heft; I can maneuver nimbly with it. Sometimes I forget it’s there. Often I forget that not everyone has to do this much work to have fulfilling relationships and a sense of self. Being Borderline, to me, means doing this work.

The Way Through

And here’s the crux: I wouldn’t know what load I was carrying, wouldn’t know what work to do, if I hadn’t realized I was Borderline. Without this diagnosis, this identity, this community, this culture, I would likely have remained confused, isolated, desperate, lost.

For most of my life, my survival has felt precarious. If I hadn’t figured out, when I was 21, that I was Borderline, I’m not sure I would have made it to 25. But thanks to the people I’ve been able to connect with through disabled/crazy community and art, I’m not only alive but thriving. My survival feels as wondrous as ever, but after several years of secure relationships and building an integrated identity that feels true, survival is also starting to feel natural, dependable, expected.

I’m 25. I’m still crazy. And I love my life and I look forward to my future.


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Read more of my writing about BPD:


Mishell Baker’s ‘Borderline’ Enchants with Urban Fantasy and Borderline Bi Crip Representation

I may be the worst possible person to review Mishell Baker’s Borderline. Any hope of objectivity vanished the instant I heard there was a novel whose protagonist, like me, is a bi crip with Borderline Personality Disorder. I’ve dedicated myself to carving out a space for myself and others like me in my writing, but I never would’ve dreamt that this particular representation already existed, published by Simon & Schuster and recommended by NPR. I might also be one of the best possible people to review Borderline, because I understand what’s at stake in this representation.

As the possible fulfillment of my undreamt literary dreams, Borderline also tripped my “too good to be true” alarm. Sure, it was about someone with BPD, but so are the self-help books that represent Borderline people as time bombs of abuse. Maybe this was nothing, just our turn to be the gritty element to make the fairy book more tragically appealing to a neurotypical reader.

But when I did my research, it continued to check out. Not only is Mishell Baker Borderline herself, but she also wrote a guest post for Uncanny Magazine about how BPD could be useful to a fantasy protagonist and even in real life. So Borderline passed my background check. Now I knew I really had to read it.

Millie Roper, the protagonist and narrator, immediately drew me in. Borderline opens on the end of her stay at an inpatient psychiatric facility where she’s been living since the suicide attempt that led to her double leg amputation. Her therapist is uneasy when, after six months of refusing medication and avoiding major topics in therapy, Millie decides to leave to join the mysterious Arcadia Project.

The Arcadia Project turns out to be an organization of mentally ill people tasked with managing immigration between the fairy world and ours. Due to the timing of her arrival and her clever, impulsive rule-breaking, Millie quickly discovers the disappearance of a fey noble — a mystery that’s way above her clearance as a newbie, not that that stops her.

Millie’s physical disability also turns out to be an asset in her work. Reconstructive surgery filled her body with iron, which happens to disrupt spellwork, giving Millie distinctive powers and limitations in working with the fey. In addition to its arcane applications, Millie’s physical disability is present as part of her everyday life. Her prosthetic legs, cane, crutches, and wheelchair are aspects of how she navigates the world, and they’re fittingly integrated into the narrative.

Millie is neither a Good Borderline nor a Good Bisexual, which allows her to be a great character. She hits my sweet spot of feeling like an authentic representation while also slapping respectability politics in the face. She’s messy. Her emotions and sometimes her behavior are out of control, she uses sexuality as a coping mechanism, and sometimes she’s solidly in the wrong. She’s a sympathetic character not because she reflects the perfection that straight neurotypicals want to see from us, but because she’s complex and responds to past trauma and current circumstances in believable ways.

Millie’s limitations also come through in her narrative voice. She makes frequent, usually generalized, statements about Borderlines to the reader. While her descriptions are often relatable and the Borderline ways of thinking she describes are common, readers (especially non-Borderline ones) would do well to remember that Millie is not an all-knowing authority, but instead a single Borderline person speaking from her own experience and prone to black-and-white thinking.

While Millie is my favorite part of Borderline, its main limitations are a result of her narrow perspective. Borderline has a large cast, many of whom are live-in employees of the Arcadia Project, and first-person narration by a character who knows very little about her coworkers makes some of them feel one-dimensional. I struggled slightly to keep them straight on my first read through.

Borderline‘s plot kept me reading, and its fairy lore is interesting, but most of all, Millie is so compelling a character that I’d gladly read about her adventures in any plot and setting.

Borderline lived up to my wildly high hopes, and I’m grateful its world continues in its sequel, Phantom Pains, and in the final installment in the Arcadia Project trilogy, Imposter Syndrome, in which I’m currently delighting. Millie may disrupt fey magic, but she’s got me enchanted.

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Reflections on 2017

A few days ago I tried to look back on my intentions for 2017, only to realize I’d forgotten to ever set any. Oops. Well, I’m pretty happy with how I lived it. Here are some things I’ve done this year:
  • Co-facilitated an introductory workshop about ableism and audism at the D Center
  •  Published “Blush, Blossom, Bloom: A Zine about BPD, Imprinting, and Mad Queer Love,” my longest zine so far and a personal favorite: https://www.etsy.com/…/506450403/blush-blossom-bloom-a-zine…
  • Competed in my first poetry slam at the Queer Resurgence festival
  • Had my article “Bi+ Community Supported Me When No One Else Did” published by the Bisexual Resource Center: https://biresource.org/bi-community-supported-me-when-no-o…/
  • Had “Borderline Survival Beyond Recovery and Cure Narratives” published in the “Cure” issue of “All in Your Head: Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Disability”
  • Had a poem and some zines shown in Lion’s Main Art Collective’s “From the Foundation” installation
  • Adopted a delightful cat who’s equally delighted with me
  • Tabled at Portland Zine Symposium, Olympia Zine Fest, and Short Run
  • Traveled internationally by myself for the first time, to Vancouver, BC, for CanZine Vancouver (the day after Short Run!!)
  • Directed and hosted (and performed in) my first show, a four-night production at Gay City Arts called Get Mad!, celebrating Mad/crazy/psychiatrically disabled LGBTQIA+ survival and resistance
  • Performed in A Certain Type of Brilliance, a femme showcase, directed by Liz Cruz
  • Performed in Denounce Domination, an anti-oppression show at UW, planned by student organizers
  • Spoke on several panels with queer youth and sometimes folks from other organizations (Outspoken Speakers Bureau is holding a training for new panelists this month if you want in! https://www.facebook.com/events/130381051013690/)
  • Finished my first year of therapy and did a lot of personal work on being assertive, especially asking for what I want
  • Apparently developed the ability to self-validate in a way that I actually feel??
In 2018, I want to keep performing, creating, and developing my skills as an artist. I want to get further into the college performance and workshop scene, and maybe even touring.
I’ll also be searching for a new balance of time spent alone and with people, because not needing constant external validation is radically new to me and I kind of don’t know what to do with myself.
I look forward to continuing to grow and creating more space for happiness and relaxation in my life.
Thanks always for your support, and happy new year!

Continue reading “Reflections on 2017”

Reflections on a Year in Therapy

I started seeing a therapist early last December, which means I’ve been in therapy for about a year now, and I want to take some time to reflect on my progress with my therapist.

The therapist I’m seeing now is the only one I’ve ever had. Before I started therapy, I had lots of conversations with people who knew me well in which they assumed I’d been to therapy and then were surprised when I told them I hadn’t. For as long as I can remember, my life has depended on being my own therapist, on cobbling together techniques from CBT and DBT, relaxation gifs, ASMR videos, harm reduction, and strategies from friends and strangers on the internet to make myself a path to survival. I don’t know what assuming I’d had professional support says about those people or about me, but I’m proud of myself for managing as well as I did for as long as I did without therapy.

I had a really difficult childhood, and I’ve wanted therapy since I was a kid. I remember my mom threatening me with it as punishment once. Inside I was begging for it, but she never followed through. I asked her directly for therapy a few times when I was a teenager. She always found some way to brush me off or drop the subject, usually saying something about money or insurance. She obfuscates our family’s finances, but we’re pretty well-off and I suspect it was always a lie.

During my first attempt at college and the time I spent as a dropout, I grew into some complexities that made it harder to trust any hypothetical therapist. I was bi, agender, chronically ill, a survivor of parental abuse and child-on-child sexual abuse. My problems included getting into internet fights with mansplainers in the bi activist community and other niche conflicts of politics and identity. It was a lot to explain to anyone, let alone a stranger, a medical professional whose background I barely knew at all.

When I finally did start therapy, it was because I’d hit a wall in trying to get by on community-based support alone. The people I consider my friends and community are mostly trans, disabled, and otherwise marginalized. The struggles we go through with oppression and sometimes our own bodies mean we’re often stretched thin trying to care for ourselves and each other. Thankfully one of my friends was able to recommend a therapist, with more nuance than a basic “gay-friendly.” I started seeing that therapist, and I’ve been happy enough (and in the beginning, search-averse enough) to stick with her.

I liked her intake paperwork, which asked about identities, including gender and pronouns, in open-ended ways, but the first couple of months of therapy were rough. My therapist kept forgetting things I’d told her about myself and my life, and forgetting she’d already told me her story about a Buddhist with progressing Alzheimer’s. I shrunk, as I usually do with even friendly and respectful authority figures, and went through those conversations again and again without saying anything.

My therapist’s attitudes about diagnosis often frustrated me as well. She was pleasantly indifferent to diagnostic labels at first, saying they were often arbitrary and just a box to fill in on the insurance paperwork, but other times she’d use diagnostic labels to pathologize people. We wouldn’t dream of being Facebook friends with each other, but I happened to see her comment on a mutual friend’s post, giving Trump the usual armchair diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I didn’t identify as having Borderline Personality Disorder in my intake paperwork because I know how medical and psychiatric ableism goes. My therapist never seems to have thought about BPD as a diagnosis for me, maybe because she sees me as too well-adjusted or morally good for it, but she asked me if I thought my abusive mother was Borderline. In reality, I think it’s possible but mostly an ableist, anti-Borderline moot point. To my therapist, I responded with less politically charged apathy.

While my therapist understands that I’m agender and identify as trans, she’s also made a lot of common cis slips. She fumbles with other trans people’s pronouns sometimes, and I’m sure she does with mine if she ever talks about me. She sometimes refers to me as female, a woman, my mother’s daughter, and so forth, then struggles to frame more accurate and sensitive statements in terms of socialization or how other people see me. Early on, she asked me what I think therapists should know about serving trans people. I was frustrated that she was asking to be educated while she was supposed to be helping me, but I didn’t want to say so. Instead I stared out the window for a long time before answering, which was an admittedly unclear communication strategy. I eventually said that dysphoria and other trans-related problems won’t always be what we’re in therapy for, which her other interactions with me showed she already understood anyway.

I’ve been open with her about being a writer, but not about my pen name or all the specifics of what I write about. She expressed interest in seeing some of my writing early on, and my deep-seated fears about snooping clashed with my hesitation to deny any request. If I showed her any of my writing, she’d be able to google and find more of it, so I’d have to just trust her not to. Rationally, I did trust her, but my trauma-brain was just not having it.

I spent those first couple of months comparing therapy to the therapeutic value of other things in my life, and therapy usually lost. I wished insurance and/or my mom would pay for other kinds of professional support, like artistic mentorship, or compensate my friends for all they ways they’ve helped me.

I’m not sure when my opinion shifted and I started to look forward to therapy more, so I guess it must have been gradual. I still have to repeat myself to my therapist sometimes, and she still unknowingly repeats herself to me sometimes, but it’s gotten less frequent. In a recent session, she got out a clipboard and prepared to take notes as I told her about my family’s intergenerational trauma. It made me feel like she was really listening and engaged.

I’ve been more assertive with her recently, if only in small ways. One time, on the way into her office, she asked me how I was, and I said, “I’ve been better.” She said, “That’s good,” misunderstanding how I meant it. I was using it in the negative way, like “I’ve been better at other times in my life than I am now,” but she took it as “I’ve been better recently.” I hate correcting people, so my impulse was to just go along with it, but instead I clarified.

I’m still not confident enough to tell her directly when something she’s doing isn’t helping me much, but I’ve learned to recognize and communicate when something is working especially well. I come out of therapy feeling best when we address old, deep pain or a current acute crisis. Even if I’m seriously chronically frustrated about something (like housing, employment, or my career as an artist), spinning those wheels doesn’t make me feel better. I’m learning that on days when I come into the office feeling pretty good, the best thing for me is to pick a situation that hurt me long ago and discuss it with my therapist. Even when I can self-validate, it’s still healing to have someone else acknowledge violations that everyone in my life wanted to ignore when they occured.

I’ve come to trust my therapist more to respect my privacy with regard to my art life. Some of my trust developed through familiarity, and some developed because I didn’t want to bother to obscure identifying details about things like my performances and employment. My therapist has enough information about me to easily find my pen name and everything that’s associated with it, but I trust her to respect my boundaries. I still haven’t shown her any of my writing, though, because I don’t think she needs to read it to understand me.

As for the things she gets wrong about transness or disability, I’ve decided to only correct and educate her if she needs to understand better in order to support me. As important as it is to educate people about social justice, she’s paid to help me, not the other way around. If I can brush off her mistakes and still get the support I need, that’s what I do.

As much as I’ve struggled with some aspects of navigating therapy, I like my therapist and look forward to our sessions. Therapy fulfills my lifelong fantasy of having an older adult who cares what happens to me and is a reliable presence in my life. I know she’s paid for that, but that doesn’t negate it, and she also shows me that she cares through specific compliments and, once, coming into the office on a day she usually takes off because that was all my schedule would allow for. She also offers me a hug at the end of each session, which I appreciate as a reliable and predictable way of receiving touch. Knowing that whatever happens to me, there will be someone waiting to hear about it and give me a hug helps me get through tough times.

While I still value and need support from my friends and communities, I feel better about not needing to ask quite as much of them since I started therapy. I think therapy has also helped to ease my overall desperation, which is a relief.

It’s work and a process of growth to get what I want out of therapy, but I’m gradually working towards knowing what I want and asking for it. As I come to understand and assert myself, my therapist is becoming the supportive presence that I’ve longed for all my life.


(I’m still struggling to integrate class dynamics and privilege smoothly in my writing. I’m happy and privileged that my mom and her insurance are able to pay for me to see the therapist I want to see, even though my mom’s financial and other abuse kept me from accessing therapy for most of my life. I suspect she finally became willing to pay for therapy because I’m too old for the government to take me away from her and because she knows it would be financially difficult for me to cut ties with her.)

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Trans Inaccessibility is Disabled Inaccessibility

My trans, disabled body doesn’t know the line between disability-related access and trans-related access, if the line exists at all.

I’ve been resting for the last 30 hours or so. I napped yesterday evening, got 10 more hours of sleep, and woke up feeling floaty, dizzy, and sleepy. It hasn’t stopped. I spent the whole day lying on the couch, watching TV or playing video games in short bursts while my energy lasted, but mostly doing nothing at all. I’m writing now only because it seemed too bleak to move from the couch to my bed just to extend my streak of sleeping.

It wasn’t this bad yesterday, but I was exhausted and in more pain than usual. The day before, I ran out of energy an hour or two into my work day, got so sensitive I had to turn off the lights, and maintained a piercing headache regardless.

I’m chronically ill; this isn’t new to me. But what set off this flare was transphobia. A couple of my cis coworkers gave mediocre definitions of “cisgender” while I was facilitating a workshop and no one corrected them. I felt trapped, and when it was time for small-group conversation, I froze, giving a hasty explanation before running away to cry in a small, dark meeting room. With support from my boss, I was able to pull it together and work for the rest of the day. But really, I was gone before I even left the room, and to my extreme frustration, I’m not back from this dissociation yet.

It’s an effort not to fault myself for being so weak. Emotional breakdowns and their physical aftermath are tedious, and I wish I could just opt out. My impulse is to minimize the microaggression. I know my coworkers were well-intended, and their errors were relatively subtle. I try to use this knowledge to make myself feel less deeply about it. It wasn’t that bad, I try to tell myself, so I shouldn’t feel this bad.

It doesn’t work. Deeper down, I know it was that bad. My pain tells me so. I feel unlovable and invalid in my agender, and my body breaks down in accordance with my emotions. When I try to erase my reasons for being hurt, it’s not the pain that goes away — just the explanation.

This is what inaccessibility looks like: being made to leave, disengage, cut back, shut down — and suffer anyway. Trans inaccessibility is emotional inaccessibility is physical inaccessibility is disabled inaccessibility. Casual transphobia wreaks horrors on my bodymind, giving me disability that this space and this work refuse to hold.

I’m frustrated at my own weakness. I want to be an unstoppable force of justice, not someone who runs away, cries and disappears for three days.

Capitalism is ableist, and it teaches us that fatigue is apolitical. If you’re permissibly tired, it’s natural, everyone gets tired, you need some rest, take care of yourself! If you’re tired in a way or to an extent that interrupts production or inconveniences others, then you’re lazy, not trying hard enough, and maybe just innately inferior. How pitiful that your body is just so bad and useless — guess it’s time for you to disappear until you’re fixed!

For people who aren’t tired all the time, it’s easier not to question where else exhaustion might come from. It’s easier to condemn fatigued people to a biological fate of exclusion than to resist cissexism, environmental racism, capitalism, and all the other forms of oppression that leave us so frequently burnt out.

But I am exhausted all the time, and I’m sick of self care. I’m sick of having to spend time healing my wounds instead of mounting a resistance. I’m sick of fighting transphobia with tea and baths and sleep. Self care might help conserve my life and energy, but it won’t stop the onslaught.

I need care from my community. I can’t support myself when I’m so tired already. I need solidarity from people who will understand, and the less I have to explain, the better, because talking takes energy too. I need validation in my transness and reassurance that I have a right to be honored in my agender, even if it’s so frequently violated. I need physical intimacy with people I trust.

My needs are barely being met. My friends and community members love me, but love alone can’t sustain us. We need resources. We need time and energy left over after work, school, moving apartments, transphobia, ableism and everything else that demands our labor. We need affordable housing in decent proximity to each other and affordable, accessible transportation.

Hurting more myself makes me hurt more for my community. I’m tired of us so often being targeted, ignored, made to insulate our oppressors from the grief they cause us. I’m tired of us being denied support by those with more power, being forced to draw from our own insufficient resources or, at best, the limited resources of our communities.

I need cis people to do better, to care more, and to stop creating such huge demand for caring labor from people who are already overtaxed. Stop hurting us. Call us by our pronouns, on the first attempt, every time. Quit projecting your assumptions on our bodies. Learn from trans-produced narratives and guides, but do your own research. Pay us for our labor to teach you. Take your collectively vast resources and use them to educate yourselves and each other. Do the prep work to keep from pushing us out of our shared spaces.

Start helping us. Care about us. Care for us. Make yourselves safe for us to trust. Hold us in our pain and our anger, if we will be held. Let us flee if we need to and ease our way back in when we can.

I need care; I demand access. I will not leave my fatigue at home or my transness at the door.


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

juliet takes a breath.jpg
[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 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 avoids demonizing trans people 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.

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

[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 could address the stories of sick and disabled people and trans women more effectively than it does. 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 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.