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

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[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?”]
20-something-crowd
[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

bad-seal
[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?

If you like my writing and want to support my work, please consider becoming my Patron on Patreon.

 

Writing Through Depression

11/18/16:

I’m flat-on-my-back depressed right now. The election’s disheartening and terrifying, yeah, but at the end of the day, this isn’t even the kind of depression that’s about anything. It’s less sad, more empty. Maybe it’s because I took my meds inconsistently. Maybe it’s just a bad phase of a cycle.

I sleep til noon, or at least stay in bed until then. I can’t get out of bed because being in the waking world makes me extra conscious of how little I’m doing. But I stay up late at night because it feels wrong to go to sleep unfulfilled and unaccomplished. Or I’m up late because I can’t physically manage to sleep.

I feel unproductive and like I’m already wasting my day if I wake up much past 10, but I’ve been in this uncomfortable rhythm for weeks now. It resists correction. I was up all night before Short Run, but that wasn’t enough to get me to sleep any earlier the next night.

Even with my extensive experience with depression, it took me weeks to remember that dysfunctional sleep is a symptom of depression, not just my personal failure. I can blame myself a little less knowing it’s not just my lack of self-control, but there are still so many things that feel like my fault.

I know my sleep habits are bad. Like, all of them. I don’t drink coffee at times that are absolutely over the line, but I drink probably too much at dubious times. I use electronics before bed. I don’t use my bed just for sleep. I use my bed for as many tasks and as much of the time as I can. With lots of supportive but soft pillows, a foam mattress topper, sheets, blankets, comforters, it’s by far the most comfortable spot in the house. That matters for my chronically ill body.

I’ve tried to adjust, mainly by getting up earlier and by spending less time in bed, but I just can’t. I’m not in a position to make things any harder for myself, even if it might make other things easier. Shorting myself sleep makes my head and body achier and my digestive system more unsettled. Most time spent out of bed is spent slouching and wondering why I’m not in bed.

I’ve been reading more lately. I finally figured out a way to make that work. At 4:00 this morning, I was reading another writer’s work and envying their effective use of metaphor. Metaphor feels so beyond me right now. Literature, art, feels beyond me right now. I don’t have the energy for abstraction or craft.

I simultaneously feel like I have more to say than I’ll ever have time to write and like I can’t say anything in a way worth saying. This is what I have to remember: I can’t write like abled writers. I can’t write like disabled writers who are doing better than or even just differently from me. I can’t write like I can when I’m less depressed.

But I can write. I can write like my depressed self, and it’s ok if my depression colors my writing. Actually, hearing this in my head, I think I sound like my usual self. Still, it’s ok that my writing process is depressed. It’s ok that I’m writing this on 6 a.m. insomnia, sitting up in bed after hours of trying to fall asleep to old episodes of Good Eats, hours of anxiety about how much I’m not doing. It’s better than forcing myself to write somewhere other than bed, and it’s certainly better than lying in bed but not ever writing.

I’m waiting to be so tired I can’t help but fall asleep. I’m waiting for this episode to pass. But I can’t wait until this is over to write. I’m enough in my depression, and so is my writing as a process and a product.

If you like my writing and want to support my work, please consider becoming my Patron on Patreon.

Columbia and Magenta are gal pals in Fox’s ‘Rocky Horror’ remake

touch-me-original
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): A still from near the end of “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me.” Columbia is on top of Magenta; both look delighted.
touch-me-fox
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do The Time Warp Again (2016): A still from near the end of “Touch Me.” Columbia and Magenta stand on a bed, applauding.

[content warning: critical discussion of rape culture in Rocky Horror, discussion of sexuality generally]

Like many queer youth, I had a time when I was really into the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Unlike some queer youth, I hadn’t yet realized I was queer. But Rocky Horror, in all its mess and glory, didn’t demand queerness of me. It was there in all its bisexual genderfuck debauchery whether I was fully along for the ride or not.

When I went to the Neptune Theatre’s anniversary shadowcast showing of Rocky Horror, I made a pretty fabulous Magenta. I ratted out my already-big Jewish hair, sprayed it red and made my own “domestic” costume from a black velvet wrap dress and towel scraps.

I went with two friends, both of them dressed as Columbia. Our Columbia-at-night, in her Mickey Mouse ears and striped pajamas, was my first girl crush, but I didn’t know it yet. I just thought it was really fascinating that she was bi and I wanted to listen to all her favorite music and buy her the zebra-striped bra she wanted.

It’s been a while now since I went to a shadowcast production of Rocky Horror, but I’ve kept the maid outfit and the red hairspray around in case I ever suddenly needed to be Magenta.

With my affection for Rocky Horror dormant but still in my heart, I had hopes for the remake. Specifically, I hoped that it would keep the queer and sexual awakening for Janet and Brad while writing out the original’s rapeyness and replacing it with informed consent. Instead, the remake keeps all of the original’s rapeyness while censoring out some of the only (implied) consensual sex in “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me.”

Let’s get one thing queer: Columbia and Magenta are femmes, they are friends, and they are fucking. In the original, they start the “Touch Me” scene having fun together while watching Janet singing in her underwear and seducing Rocky (who is at best questionably capable of consent). While their voyeurism isn’t consensual, their intimacy with each other is a rare scene in the movie in which two people fully understand the circumstances in which they’re consenting.

The two are touching from the beginning of the scene, Columbia painting Magenta’s toes and Magenta blow-drying her hair and gossiping about Janet’s virginity. When Janet hits the first chorus, Columbia clutches, then strokes, Magenta’s leg.

After the second chorus, the scene cuts from Rocky massaging Janet’s breast to Columbia holding Magenta’s leg and shoulder, bringing their faces together as she sings, “Touch-a touch-a touch me.” Magenta laughs, grabbing Columbia’s boob then pulling her in by the unbuttoned pajama top as she echoes, “I wanna be dirty” in reply. Columbia leans her whole body over Magenta’s, her face briefly dipping into Magenta’s neck.

Magenta points her blow-dryer at Columbia’s chest and Columbia cries out just as the visual cuts to Janet’s moan at the beginning of the third-chorus climax. As Rocky and Janet switch positions so Rocky’s on top, we see Columbia get directly on top of Magenta again, her body between Magenta’s spread, fishnetted legs, both of them laughing and writhing in ecstasy. It’s a sweet moment and also one that the parallels between couplings mark as undeniably sexual.

If there was any doubt left that this was multisexual, promiscuous, and a sex scene, the “creature of the night” montage gives us Janet on bottom, arching her back and grasping at the air, and everyone else on top.

Fox’s remake opens with femme friend fucking potential that quickly evaporates. Columbia and Magenta share a bed, Columbia again in pajamas and mouse ears, Magenta in a short dress and fishnets. They both suck blue lollipops while watching Janet and Rocky on the monitor and exchange a glance as the song begins. Magenta and Columbia aren’t facing each other, but Magenta’s legs are wrapped around Columbia’s waist. When they gossip about Janet’s virginity, they’re lying side by side, touching only incidentally.

The remake gives most of their screen time during the song to Janet and Rocky, even during Magenta and Columbia’s brief echo of the “touch me” line. There is a moment of Magenta and Columbia standing in bed, Magenta sliding her body down Columbia’s, but the shot quickly cuts back to Janet and Rocky. Lest anyone find too much woman-on-woman sensuality in this, our final view of Columbia and Magenta is of them standing up applauding for Janet and Rocky, not touching each other at all, with Magenta fist-pumping and whooping. This version of the song has no montage; Janet and Rocky are the only creatures of the night here.

Where the original built the enthusiasm and intimacy between Columbia and Magenta throughout the song, the remake gradually reduces it to nothing.

Even the Glee rendition of “Touch Me,” with its substitution of “heavy sweating” for “heavy petting” and complete lack of a bed for anyone, gives its lesbian and bi couple more sexuality and intimacy than the Fox remake does. Brittany and Santana have all of the screen time for their own lines as they watch Emma the guidance counselor seduce Mr. Schuester the choir director in a classroom. They clutch each other’s arms and shoulders throughout the scene and each get a moan just before the second chorus. For their echo of the “touch me” line, we see them joyously dancing through the halls, Santana twirling Brittany around. They’re clearly into each other and clearly aroused. The contrast between Glee and the Fox remake is all the more baffling because Glee also aired on Fox.

To be fair, the Fox remake also gives Janet and Rocky a pretty de-sexed “Touch Me.” With Rocky flexing, bicep curling Janet, and thrusting her into the air rather than thrusting on or into her, it looks like his muscles are the only thing that might grow while he poses.

Still, if Fox chose to keep Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s sexual violation of Brad and Janet in the new version of Rocky Horror, it certainly could’ve kept Magenta and Columbia’s playful, enthusiastic sex.

The gal pals version of “Touch Me” chills me a little, but it won’t thrill or fulfill anyone.

 

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Performances

I have performed at venues throughout Seattle, including Seattle Parks & Recreation’s “Sparkle in the Park” queer youth performance showcase (2015 & 2016), the University of Washington, and featuring at Seattle SPIT at the Wild Rose bar. I am available to perform poetry and/or read prose. Please email me at kaylarosenzines@gmail.com to discuss details and rates.

Workshops

I have experience facilitating dialogues and workshops about social justice and the arts. I am available to lead these workshops or to plan a custom workshop for your organization. Please email me at kaylarosenzines@gmail.com to discuss details and rates.

Past workshops:

  • “LGBTQ+ Allyship”: Being a meaningful ally to LGBTQ+ community members takes commitment, effort, and ongoing education. In this workshop, we will explore what each of these identities means and how you can interrupt heterosexism, biphobia, and transphobia in our campus community. Learn the difference between sex and gender, what a pronoun check-in is and how to do one, and more.Whether you’re an aspiring ally who is new to these topics or an experienced advocate already, we will support you in expanding your understanding.

 

  • “A Page From Our Books Zine Workshop”: Join us to learn about zines: small, do-it-yourself publications that often focus on identity, oppression, and liberation.We will discuss the history and social context of zines, demonstrate examples of some zine-making techniques, and provide time and materials to make your own zine pages. Zine pages can be submitted to us for publication.

    We’ll provide materials for all sorts of fun and meaningful pages: printer paper, scissors, glue sticks, tape, scrapbook paper, magazine scraps for collaging, stickers, pens, and more. We will not have typewriters or printing, so please come prepared with any typed materials you want to include in your creation. Feel free to bring any other supplies you’d like to use as well.

 

  • “Accessible Event-Planning”: A discussion of what accessibility means in a broad sense, why you should plan more accessible events, some potential access needs, and strategies for meeting them. Participants practice writing image descriptions and access information. We will also discuss anti-ableism and how to go beyond access in including disabled people.

 

  • “Disability and Zines”: There are lots of disabled, d/Deaf, sick, neurodivergent, mad, crip, etc. folks making great zines! Let’s hang out and talk about it. We’ll discuss the politics of disabled art, how zine culture and disabled culture intersect, how we make and share zines to create access. Disabled zinesters will have an opportunity to share work they’ve made and how they produce, distribute, and take in zines. Abled people are welcome to attend and are asked to respect the space by prioritizing disabled attendees.

 

  • “Bisexual Inclusion: Beyond Mythbusting”: Bisexuality is frequently misunderstood, resulting in harm to bi people both in dominant straight society and in “LGBT” communities. Stereotypes contribute to biphobic oppression, but simply denying stereotypes can further marginalize bi people who, for example, are promiscuous. In this workshop, we will use small- and large-group discussion to deconstruct biphobia in ways that are more inclusive and supportive of all bisexuals.

 

  • “Dine and Dialogue: Queering Valentine’s Day”: Join us for a free lunch and a discussion of how heteronormativity and other systems of power shape whose identities and relationships are valued on Valentine’s Day and whose are left on the margins. We’ll also explore how to make more affirming spaces for ourselves and each other in all our relationships.

My Zines

Today’s Identity of the Day Is…

#1: (no subtitle/unthemed) My first zine, a collection of poetry and visual art. It’s mainly about disability and abuse, with a side of (a)gender and (bi/pan/a)sexuality. Each copy has little individual touches.

Etsy: physical | digital

#2: Transitions: an ode to autumn and a discussion of all the changes in my life in the last year, including finding incredible community, changing my pronouns, realizing new things about my dis/ability, and taking on a femme identity.

Etsy: physical | digital

#3: Man-Hating Bisexual: Equal parts political statement and misandrist gossip, Man-Hating Bisexual is the story of how my sexuality has gradually shifted away from men, told through stories about the guys I’ve dated or almost dated (and one girl I didn’t realize I wanted to date).

Man-Hating Bisexual includes helpful material such as a thorough breakdown of my definitions of bisexuality and pansexuality and statements of why claiming bi matters to me and how my man-hating bisexuality works.

Etsy: physical | digital

Dirty Laundry

[tw: r*pe and abuse mention]

Prose, poetry, prosetry, a lot of drawings of clothes, and some miscellaneous other visual art. It’s destruction, transformation, and humor. You can think of it as a Today’s Identity of the Day Is…#1.5

From the intro: “This one is for the poor, disabled, femme victim/survivors of abuse, because we know dirty laundry in all its forms. Dirty Laundry is about the nasty, messy, grimy shit that won’t come clean. When it’s not terrifying and gut-wrenching, it’s tedious and tiresome.

Sometimes it’s the big concepts – abuse, rape – that really get to me, and sometimes it’s the little things, the obscenely mundane. It’s not fun, but I know hearing other people’s gritty details would’ve helped me with my own. So I’ll stake my claim and wave my dirty laundry like a flag. Let’s find each other.”

Etsy: physical | digital

Empty Gender, Full Bladder

A zine about the difficulties of using all-gender bathrooms on a campus that has far too few, in a cissexist world where people don’t really see what the point is anyway. This zine uses documentary photography, prose, poetry, paper cutouts, collage, humor, and wordplay to weave together a narrative about my daily struggles.

Etsy: physical | digital

Disabled Artist Affirmations

From the introduction: “While these affirmations are meant to be encouraging, they’re not entirely “positive” in the sense that many mainstream affirmations are. In my experience, affirmations are most powerful when they also acknowledge how unpleasant reality can be. I want affirmations that can meet me in the pit of hopelessness and despair to lift me up a little, not ones that ask me to wish or believe my way out.

There are also some recommendations of other artists and media because they’re relevant and important to me and I couldn’t resist.

I love you, disabled artists. Your art and your solidarity are vital to my well-being. I hope my affirmations can help you feel more secure in your beauty and your value.”

Etsy: physical | digital

About

About me

I’m Kayla (they/them), a 24-year-old disabled white agender bi femme from Seattle. I make zines, blog, and lead workshops about queerness, allyship within and beyond the LGBTQIA+ community, and art. My cane looks like a candy cane.

About my art

I’m a multidisciplinary writer and artist, focusing most on prose, poetry, and nonbinary prosetry. I’ve also worked in drawings, rubbings, documentary photography, and simple manipulations of signs and maps that resist conventional interpretations.

I make zines because moving fluidly between media allows me to tell my each of my stories in the most meaningful way.

My zines explore themes of (a)gender, sexuality (both in terms of orientation and more broadly), disability, trauma, and healing from a radical perspective. I use personal experiences of oppression and identity to resist the limited and limiting representations of people like me in the media.

My main series is called “Today’s Identity of the Day Is…” and looks at how my identities change, both rapidly and long-term, which is a big part of my experience with Borderline Personality Disorder.

I’m also finding ways to make art more accessible, from font choice to image descriptions to access statements and transcription.

Today’s Identity of the Day Is…

  • (AFAB) transgender/nonbinary/agender
  • bi/queer/demisexual
  • white
  • femme
  • Ashkenazi Jew
  • polyamorous
  • chronically ill/crip/physically disabled
  • neurodivergent
  • emotionally/psychiatrically disabled/mad/BPD/bipolar/depressed/etc etc etc
  • autistic
  • raised upper-middle-class; low-income/tenuously class-privileged
  • abuse victim/survivor
  • college dropout and graduate

Other websites