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


[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 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

[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

[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


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 Help Sighted Readers Not Make Fools of Ourselves

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.

Seattle: Go see Anastacia Tolbert’s “9 Ounces” at Gay City, 12/15 to 12/18

[note: I wrote this review after attending an August performance of “9 Ounces.” Elements of the December show may vary from what is described here.]

Anastacia Tolbert’s one-woman show “9 Ounces” gives viewers a glimpse into the lives and inner monologues of three Black women and girls with an 84-year age range: Luna, Alice, and Seraphina. Their stories are linked through their shared co-op residence, their loving but sometimes strained relationships with each other, and the trauma of being Black in the face of constant racist police brutality — “It could happen to me” is a refrain throughout the show.

Tolbert’s writing and acting are superb; the characters vibrant, whole, and distinct while sharing an actress. Alice, coping with depression, loss, and addiction, addresses the audience as she talks to herself, a strategy suggested by her very cute therapist. Her thoughts wander through unsatisfying and racist moments on the bus, getting kicked out of Seraphina’s knitting club, trying to get back in touch with her sexuality, and more.

Seraphina, Alice’s 91-year-old neighbor, also talking to herself, recounts her own struggle on the bus: she’s fought for the right to sit at the front of the bus, but now young people won’t offer a seat. She approaches the situation with frustration, but also with humor.

Luna, a deeply spiritual 7-year-old, isn’t talking to the mirror — she’s putting on a show with her friend Lightbulb (who is a lightbulb). As her mommy has told her, sometimes she has to be her own audience. Luna wants people to stop making fun of her mommy, who works and goes to school and spends time with her when she can. Luna also likes to shout “vagina!” because it makes adults uncomfortable.

Although most of the show is composed of the characters talking to themselves, it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test (along with other feminist media tests) spectacularly. This Black woman’s representation of nuanced Black women and girls is a desperately needed gift when our media neglects and distorts Black women and girls.

The show’s title, “9 Ounces,” refers to the average weight of a (cis) woman’s heart, and “9 Ounces” is heavy, full of heart, and ultimately cathartic. It’s also deeply political and makes clear that non-Black viewers’ emotional journeys will not be sufficient; what’s needed from us is concrete action against systemic racism.

Use this outstanding show as an opportunity to educate yourself, bear witness, and start or continue thinking about how to support Black women in overthrowing racism and heteropatriarchy.

“9 Ounces” will be at Gay City from Thursday, December 15th to Sunday, December 18th, running from 7 to 10 p.m. each night. Tickets cost $12-20. For more details, see the Facebook event page.

Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” is an ableist dystopia in disguise

[image description: a screenshot of Kelly, a young Black woman portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, asking two other young people, “Have you seen a girl? Mid-20s, brown hair, glasses?”]
[image description: a screenshot from earlier in the episode of a crowded bar full of 20-somethings and no one else] I don’t know, Kelly, have you seen anyone who’s not 20-something?

[spoiler alert for all of Black Mirror S3E4, “San Junipero”; content warnings for death, eugenics, ableism, homophobia, and car crashes]

Since Black Mirror’s October 21 release, people have been going wild about it. In particular, lesbian, bi, and queer women have been rejoicing about the episode “San Junipero,” the story of a lesbian and a bi woman who meet, flirt, and fall in love.

There’s a lot to like. “San Junipero” shows us unambiguous bi and lesbian representation, a subversion of the Bury Your Gays trope, and queer women driving off into the sunset to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” as credits roll. The happy ending is all the more remarkable coming from a series that often closes on characters in abject horror at technological dystopias in which they’re sometimes complicit.

But to me, “San Junipero” is its own kind of dystopia: one in which elderly and disabled lives are considered not worth living.

The episode begins with “an outgoing party girl”, Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and “a shy young woman,” Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) meeting in a bar in 1987 as Kelly tells Yorkie to go along with whatever she says so Kelly can get away from a man who’s harassing her to have sex again. The two women hit it off and continue talking after the harasser leaves.

Yorkie is consummately inexperienced. It’s her first night in the beachside party town of San Junipero. When Kelly buys her a Jack and Coke, Yorkie sniffs it before taking a sip and winces at the taste. Kelly asks if she’s never had it before, and Yorkie is slow to lie that she hasn’t had one in a while. After more conversation, Kelly gets an uneasy Yorkie on the dance floor. Yorkie runs outside before revealing she’s also never been on a dance floor. Kelly invites Yorkie back to her place. Yorkie declines, saying she “never did anything like that.”

As the show reveals more about its world, we learn that San Junipero is actually a virtual reality to which people can have their consciousnesses uploaded when they die, and where living people can visit for five hours a week. The system was designed as “immersive nostalgia therapy” for Alzheimer’s, but it’s said that people who spend too much time in the virtual reality go crazy and dissociate from their bodies.

Keeping pace with revelations about the fictional universe, “San Junipero” unveils more about its characters’ lives and backstories. Neither Kelly nor Yorkie is actually a young woman. Kelly is an elderly woman with an unspecified disease who’s living on borrowed time; Yorkie is an elderly quadriplegic woman with a tracheostomy tube, waiting for her wedding of convenience to a man who will be the final signature she needs to be authorized for euthanasia. Her paralysis resulted from driving off the road after a fight with her homophobic parents when she was 21.

Generally, the government in “San Junipero” isn’t wild about euthanasia, which is on “triple lockdown” to “stop folks from passing over just because they prefer San Junipero flat out.” Yorkie has obtained the necessary signature from her doctor and has signed off for herself, but her disapproving parents won’t provide the requisite family signature.

For all the difference of this sci-fi universe from our own, its biopoliltics are strikingly similar. The government doesn’t want citizens electing en masse to die early for an afterlife of recreation. Although the episode doesn’t explore this aspect, it’s likely that workers’ lives are needed to maintain capitalism. We don’t see any labor outsourced to virtual reality, so presumably the loss of a worker’s life is a loss for business. Workers mustn’t die while they still have value to exploit, so family members and doctors are expected to keep healthy people from voluntarily dying.

In contrast, we’re supposed to see Yorkie’s right to die as straightforward and obvious. In the real world, we only see her lying in a hospital bed, able to hear but not to respond in any way. A passing line tells us that she’s talked to Greg (Raymond McAnally), her fiancé, on the comm box, a device that isn’t explained but seems to be part of the real world. But we don’t get any other information about how this works or see her having any other agency in the real world. Yorkie is meant to die because her disabled life is unlivable. Every sympathetic character wishes for her death, and the audience is meant to as well.

But even virtual reality doesn’t present a disabled life worth living: no one in San Junipero is discernibly disabled, elderly, or even middle-aged. “San Junipero” is full of crowd shots, but there’s not a disability or midlife signifier to be seen. This is a deliberate decision both by the show’s creators and by the residents of San Junipero, who can change their styles and cross distances instantaneously.

Kelly estimates that 80 to 85 percent of people in San Junipero are “full-timers,” people who have died and had their consciousnesses uploaded. Many of these people likely lived long enough to become disabled, and all of them have rejected both old age and their disability for their happily-ever-afters. (At one point, Kelly describes Yorkie to a stranger as “mid-20s,” which is comical in the endless sea of 20-somethings.)

It’s not surprising that Yorkie views her disability negatively. She acquired it in a traumatic series of events, and with her parents’ constant surveillance and scrutiny, she never got to explore the full possibilities of any embodiment. But seeing the choice to be able-bodied echoed by Kelly (who ditches her breathing tubes and use of a caregiver for support with walking) and by each of dozens of extras in San Junipero makes it clear that ableism in virtual reality is systemic.

Because the narrative and framing of “San Junipero” connect Yorkie’s able-bodiedness with her agency, it’s not enough for virtual reality and death to liberate her from homophobia and her oppressive parents; she must also be liberated from her disability. Lingering shots throughout the episode of Yorkie feeling the rain and sand on her feet further emphasize the already striking difference between her elderly disabled real-world self and her young able-bodied avatar.

The built environment of San Junipero discourages disabled existence. As Kelly jumps through time periods in search of Yorkie, we see 1980, 1987, and 1996 versions of Tucker’s, the bar where Kelly and Yorkie met, and each of these versions has stairs, as does the Quagmire, the bar with a “freakier” clientele. Even with instantaneous teleportation, it’s unclear how someone could navigate these crowded social environments with a wheelchair or a walker. What do you do when you need to poof up the stairs but there’s not enough space to poof into?

There’s also the unresolved issue of pity. Before Kelly and Yorkie meet in real life, Yorkie tells Kelly she knows her fiancé Greg pities her and it pisses her off. When Kelly visits Yorkie’s hospital, she pleads with Greg for five minutes of virtual reality time with Yorkie, which she uses to propose. The marriage and euthanasia happen the next day, as planned, but with Kelly instead of Greg as Yorkie’s spouse.

Yorkie and Kelly fight on their San Junipero honeymoon, Yorkie a new full-timer and Kelly still alive and on the five-hour time limit. Yorkie begs Kelly to reconsider her previous plan and stay with her in San Junipero, rather than passing away completely, when she dies. When Kelly objects, Yorkie cites their marriage. Kelly tells her that she married her “as a kindness, to help you  pass over.” Yorkie keeps insisting over Kelly’s further objections, overstepping so far as to insult her husband of 49 years, and Kelly responds by telling Yorkie twice that she pitied her.

Kelly drives off and into an intentional full-speed car crash, which in San Junipero has no consequences. Yorkie appears out of nowhere to offer a hand up. Kelly reaches for her hands, but her virtual reality time runs out before they touch. Soon Kelly tells her caregiver she’s ready “for the rest of it” and passes away.

When we next see Kelly and Yorkie together, it’s for their joyous seaside convertible ride into the sunset, with no discussion of Yorkie’s white entitlement or Kelly’s ableist pity. This couple is charming at times in their flirtation, and I want to believe in them, but ultimately I wouldn’t bet on them staying together a month, let alone for much of eternity.

Show creator and episode writer Charlie Brooker acknowledges that their future may be difficult but maintains that Yorkie and Kelly have “the happiest ending imaginable.”

Not to me. An inaccessible eternity where no one wants to be or is disabled is dystopia. It’s hell. I’d spend the rest of my existence mourning the loss of crip community, crip wisdom, crip magic,  and dedicate my afterlife to disability activism.

“San Junipero” suggests the possibility of representation for disabled elderly lesbian and bi women but ultimately buries them in permanent able-bodied youth. Kelly and Yorkie’s future stretches on potentially forever without futures for elderly and disabled queer women. Not even immortality can redeem the lifelessness of compulsory able-bodiedness.

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Emotional labor, internalized femmephobia, and this meme

[image description: an image of a baby seal with text over it that reads, “Have you ever considered getting a therapist instead of relying solely on the free emotional labor of your femme friends???” It’s attributed to @scariest_bug_ever.]
Hi, can we talk about this meme? Specifically, can we talk about the ways it resonates with me but mostly just hurts and isolates me, and also what you get from it if it resonates positively with you? Let’s also talk about better ways to navigate exchange of emotional labor.

I’ve been explicitly relying on community support instead of therapy for at least a couple years now. I don’t trust psychiatry. I don’t trust strangers. Mostly I trust my friends, and mostly I can vet my friends in a thousand ways most people don’t even understand are ways you’d need to vet a therapist. I don’t expect therapists to understand how deeply intra-bi-community misogyny and ableism hurt me, for example. I don’t expect online reviews about “gay-friendliness” or strangers from my local queer exchange group to be able to give me that kind of in-depth information.

My close, trusted (mostly femme) friends are close and trusted because we’ve had lots of personal and political talks that have established that they can validate, respect, and support me on really nuanced issues. There’s a reason I prefer them to a therapist, and that’s not to mention every other financial and bureaucratic access issue with getting and seeing a therapist.

I’m tired of being exploited for emotional labor. There are people I want to scream the text of this meme at because of the specific dynamics of our relationships. But this feels like poisonous internalized femmephobia when directed at everyone without more context about the politics of exploitation. When my femme friends share this meme, it makes me feel shut down, like there can’t even be a conversation between us about equitable exchanges and I’m wrong for just existing and wanting emotional labor from my friends (on terms that are good for us both. Look at me qualifying this. I should not have to qualify this. Thanks, meme OP).

Maybe I’m supposed to look at this meme and just go, “Yes, I have considered that, and there are reasons why until I recently got pretty desperate I had decided that a therapist wasn’t the thing for me” and shrug the whole thing off. But that’s not how it feels to me, and I think a lot of vulnerable femmes who need a lot of emotional labor feel similarly to me about it. UGH.

am working on getting a therapist now, actually, for these reasons: 1) I’m the kind of desperate that’s making me look for radically new strategies, 2) my friends are often burnt out and tired from all the labor they do for themselves and others, and they can’t always help even when they want to, and 3) a friend who shares some key identities with me personally recommended a therapist and could vouch for some of the nuanced stuff I worry about. Even if I get this therapist, it will be through my friend’s emotional labor. I wrote that as “friend’s,” singular, there, but actually, it’s “friends’,” plural. Another friend supported me and was physically present while I checked voicemail from the therapist-to-be, and I’m trying to help hir with hir own process of getting a therapist.

Getting a therapist is one potential, risky, sometimes inaccessible strategy for managing emotional labor needs. It’s valid, but not something anyone owes to their friends, and I don’t think it’s a surefire way to reduce the emotional labor you seek from your friends. A bad therapist, a helpful one with some frustrating aspects, or even an all-around great one could create new emotional labor needs, just like any other person in your life.

Let’s get out of the framework that accepting free labor is bad, and talk instead about unreciprocated or exploited labor.

As some alternative ways to work on balancing emotional labor, here are some ideas I have about how to do better, based on strategies I use in my own life:

– Educate yourself about emotional labor, especially the more privileges you have that allow you to opt out 0f emotional labor (including self-education) easily.

– Check in explicitly with people in your life about how you want to interact, what feels good, what feels bad, what’s off-limits. Have broad conversations about consent and boundaries.

– Consider balances of emotional and other labor throughout your groups and communities and with each of your friends. Examine what you do for people without them having to ask, what you do when asked, what they do for you without asking, what they do for you when you ask. consider how this relates to multiple axes of privilege without turning it into the oppression Olympics. Talk openly about this.

– Remember that equal isn’t necessarily equitable. Talk about it. Some people need more emotional labor, and some can give more of it more easily or at less personal expense. (But to be fair some people also refuse to develop the skills that would make it easier for them, which is part of the problem.)

How do you work to make emotional labor exchanges in your life equitable?

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