Reclaiming the Role of Woman-Identified Woman

As I was sitting in the conference room of APA yesterday, I remember that back at Convention in August in Toronto, I had heard, for the first time, the phrase, “woman-identified woman,” and I had not had a chance to understand its origin.

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The Woman Identified Woman, a pamphlet from 1970, is available archivally to read, at Duke University.

This short piece is worth reading.

It could easily be seen as not only the end of the “lavender menace” controversy within feminism but the beginning of exclusionary radical feminism. I do not think it should be seen that way. It does not translate, perfectly, more than 45 years later. But there is so much truth here.

I have always been a woman. I was not always woman-identified – at times, I still fail to be so. It is the awakening process of feminism that taught me to be a woman-identified woman. It is, in turn, being a woman-identified woman, that gives me any hope that my love, my sexuality, my beauty, or any other part of my self or my experience, may become tools of my liberation and not my oppression.

And yet, it is crucial that I am the only woman who identifies this woman. I am not a women-identified woman, any more than I can be a man- or male-identified woman. And this is where, almost fifty years later, we go farther. We recognize that no woman can define all womankind, and that womankind does not have a corner on marginalization, but rather, we lift women up in solidarity with and alliance with other marginalized groups, and we recognize that both women and people who are not women experience intersecting challenges, and search for a way to be self-identified, just as we Sisters do.

But we continue to recognize that autonomy to create and unmask our own identities, to pursue authenticity, is everything in our journey towards a world without cages.

And in this, I find it so easy to stand in solidarity with these Sisters who spoke before I was born.

A Brief Note on Self-Policing

This brief piece is a response to recent comments by Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, as can be seen here or here, for example. It builds on my call to build an inclusive feminism, as well as to create a culture of calling in, wherever possible (sometimes, it is admittedly not possible). 

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Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) was the source of recent controversy for blaming the loss of reproductive freedom on women born since Roe v. Wade.

In the spirit of calling Ms. Wasserman-Schultz in, rather than out, her statements really help reiterate the importance of teaching the powerful role of self-policing in patriarchy / kyriararchy processes. The system knows that no one will ever guard the cages in which women are held better than the women themselves. The “system” benefits by pitting women against women, because it frees up its resources to focus on robbing our rights from us.

When a woman lashes out at other women – young women in this case (even as young as me, since Roe v. Wade has been in place all my life) – it is not a random act of relational aggression. It is a design of the system. I should like to see Ms. Wasserman-Schultz learn this. I should like to see every woman learn this.

Self-policing is part of what makes these processes like patriarchy so insidious and so difficult to eradicate. A crucial thing for us all to understand is that, because we were born in cages, we do not know fully what the freedom we are creating looks like. None of us has ever seen a world in which women matter – a world truly free of misogyny. We have never seen a world without the cages we are trying to destroy, even when we have broken free temporarily from them. And far more powerful than the bars of the cage is the belief by many caged people – women in our case – that there is no cage, or worse, that the cage is where we belong.

When Ms. Wasserman-Shultz understands this, she will understand that, even when it is true that women are enforcing the patriarchy (which is not at all true of the entire class of women who are under 43 years of age, but in this case, is true of her, herself), we need to educate them, precisely because we believe that women (and every other marginalized group) deserve to be free. And irrespective of everything else (e.g., if she is asked or choses to step down), it is my hope that we all do exactly this for her, and for anyone else who makes these kinds of missteps.

My Evolving Attitudes to Rape (and Women)

One really hard thing to do, I think for a lot of writers, is to go back and see what one said years ago. I want to do just that. I wrote this piece…

Michigan Review Summer Issue Article

What was on my mind the Summer of 1996, which was my Junior year at Michigan.

…just a hair less than twenty years ago. Half my lifetime. I suppose I could wait until it actually turns 20 to critique it, but it’s on my mind tonight, because we finally have the time to watch The Hunting Ground, an important recent documentary about #RapeCulture. And this is what I was thinking about, just as I was old enough to legally drink, while I walked the streets of one of the college campuses discussed in the film, and if I was “lucky” not to have been a victim, this was the world I lived in, nonetheless.

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It needs to be watched. It needs to be shared.

A lot of things change in twenty years. I don’t want to put myself on trial. I just want to be honest with myself – and to get a better idea of how my thinking has evolved over time. So, I dug in and read what I had to say, back then.

Going back and reading something I wrote, particularly on a topic like sexual violence, sounded (and was, to some extent), cringeworthy. The backstory is that, at the time, I was briefly the Editor-in-Chief of a libertarian news magazine. Four years earlier, I had done one of my high school volunteering projects supporting Bill Clinton’s campaign. But my position was Libertarian, at that time.

I defend elsewhere, ironically the last time I went and found something I wrote twenty years ago, why I had and in some sense still have a relationship with libertarian philosophy. But I mentioned that I was briefly Editor-in-Chief. My tenure was very short, precisely because of the huge divide between classical liberals and social conservatives, and the fact that the paper was losing all its classical liberals, one by one, and all the replacements showing up were social conservatives. I have never – even in those days – liked social conservatism, although then and now, I am friends with social conservatives. Anyway, I continued to be liked and actually supported in not being a social conservative. I wasn’t kicked out. I stepped aside graciously in recognition that they had a groundswell and “we” did not.

I was actually relieved. I was not a total jackass in those days. Although I continue to emphasize my statement that men needed to be included in the movement to stop rape, I understand this in a much more nuanced way, today, and now I get the need both for safe spaces and that far from being an “anti-male” issue, men needed to be included precisely because we women need them to, well, clean their shit up. I will have to own some internalized misogyny – I was not then the female chauvinist I am now. I hadn’t been ready to acknowledge the obviousness of marriage equality. Although I was aware of the issue, and in a backhanded sort of way, I applauded them for talking about sexual violence inside the LGBT community, I wasn’t a supporter of marriage equality, yet, in those days. That did change, obviously. So I will have to admit to some internalized queerphobia, too. I am proud that I was beginning to understand intersectionally – I was paying particular attention to conversations on the intersections between race and poverty and sexual violence. And at a much more basic level, when sisters were saying that rape was a violent crime (in those days, there were a lot more people who thought about it in a primarily sexual way), I was paying attention. I am embarrassed, however, that I thought in those days that the Contract with America or any of the other GOP proposals to “reform welfare” had anything to do with addressing the issue of poverty.

And these days, although I am functionally somewhere in between Christian and “spiritual but not religious,” I probably would be way more likely to lead a prayer to Artemis than object to it. Because, you know, I love my female role models.

I will have to settle for not having been a total jerk.

Flash forward to today, and I am sure I am still fairly full of internalized misogyny. There is work, yet to be done. I hope that I am a better listener to women who’ve had experiences different than mine. I hope I advocate alongside them in a better, more trusting, and more supportive way.

And of course, twenty years later, rape on campus has not been addressed. Take Back the Night has emphatically not lost its relevance. And, in my imperfect way, I will continue to bear witness. I will help these stories get known, help these experiences get talked about, and help these changes get made.

Managing Conflicts Among Women

I wrote this piece, about eight months ago, and I gave this speech, about six months ago, as way stations in my progress towards articulating* my thoughts about how we respond to confrontation within feminism, and confrontation generally with other women. I’m still working on this line of thought. I probably will be forever. This is just another way station. A somewhat lengthy one.

I need to start with a couple of disclaimers, and everyone knows I hate disclaimers, because these things I am talking about are not sins at all, and I am deeply unrepentant of them**. The disclaimers do, though, lead to the heart of the matter.

The first is that I wish to talk to, with, and about other (moderately to very) feminine women. Yes, this is certainly a conversation more about femininity than about womanhood. Yes, there are butch and masculine women. Certainly I am their great fan (certainly, they make my heart go pitter-patter, although it turned out that it belongs to a man). Although I see guilt-voices from other feminists chiding me to then speak of “femininity,” and not “womanhood,” I respond that, here, I talk about feminine women, both because I do not entirely, yet, understand the entanglement of womanhood and femininity, and because I really do not presume to speak on behalf of feminine men. I am not of them, nor to have spent great time studying them. They might tell me I am describing them as well as myself. Feminine women, too, may tell me I am wrong. But this is a significant part of what feminism is about – it is discovery of the bounds of the invisibly gilded birdcage in which one is made to present both beauty of feather and of lilt. There are feminists who believe her freedom is found in casting off her femininity. I am not one of them. I wish to help her embrace her femininity and create a world in which she can be both free and authentic. So let me dispense with that, sisters.

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A whole bunch of women (and three men) who are not talking about feminist stuff. Source: Reddit

The other disclaimer is that, when I talk about confrontation among women (who may or may not be Sisters), of course, not everything every woman says*** is feminist. Obviously, right? I mean this isn’t news. Look, you, at the the women of Fox News (who occasionally might get it right, but frequently get it wrong). Look at Carly Fiorina. Extending this obvious point, though, is perhaps a more subtle one: there are disagreements between women that are not grounded in feminist principles, and for these disagreements, feminism may provide groundwork but not substantive resolution.

But in this, the sister is damned if she does, and damned if she does not, and now we are getting somewhere.

She is damned when the disagreement is feminist, damned in a million traps laid for her. She is hard pressed into forms of logical discourse that may or may not apply well, to feminist theory, and more particularly, which encapsulate sexism in that they favor strongly masculine thinking styles over feminine thinking styles and masculine knowledge over feminine knowledge. I’m not saying that women nor femininity are inherently illogical – they are not. My scientific credibility is not in conflict with my femininity – but these rules and processes are built by men and for men, to operate in a world of men, and I am saying this as a feminine woman who has spent great time and effort acquiring this knowledge, both from other women and directly from men. To this point, too, these processes also favor the knowledge of the enfranchised over the knowledge of the un- or disenfranchised, a thing we see over and over again in phenomena like mansplaining and whitesplaining. And thus she finds herself damned into conversation that amplifies all of the disparities she opposes in the most deeply moral ways imaginable to her kind, and as her adversary is likely pressed into the same type of conversation, she is double damned.

She is damned, too, and perhaps less overtly, if she does not. My observation is predicated firmly on observing myself (and learning, over decades, to not see this as a flaw in myself). It is necessarily generalizing, and it is not meant to invalidate the examples of sisters who differ in these particulars. But for a moment, I want to speak to what I suppose, are many woman besides myself. We have no love for fighting. In fact, we hate it. When we choose to use the didactical tools of the patriarchy, we, like men, are somewhat able, although I suspect far less completely than them, to depersonalize our conflict. Certainly, when we fight men, they will tell us to do so. And damn us, we try. But our fighting is inherently far more personal, I believe, than theirs. This can be seen in archetypes and stereotypes – particularly the archetype scene of the two men who pummel each other with fists, and running out of endurance, lying on the ground together, find healing. These men then arise and drink beer together. Because their fights, even, surreally, when they seek to physically hurt or even kill each other, are not very personal.

This is not how fighting among women seems to work, at least not in many of the scrapes into which I’ve gotten. No, our fighting is deeply personal, it is scarcely anything other than personal. Contrast against that example of the men in a fistfight a prototypical way that a woman has fought with violence: by throwing herself into the gears.

Probably not completely unique to women (and feminine people in general), but more pronounced, on average, among women, is a tendency that needs consideration here. Even if we do lash out, we also lash in, and this is important. The gears stop, but against our bodies are exacted a terrible price. In a funny way, my history with anorexia is a good example – I would get caught up in self-starvation, the mental health problem that could most double as a political statement!

My observation (and particularly my introspection) reveals that our anger almost always is deeply enmeshed with guilt, self-doubt, and self-loathing. This makes our fights very different from fist fights, and it makes our very notion of victory, in the best of cases, very different from what other kinds of victories look like. Think about this: when was the last time you felt good after conflict, and particularly when was the last time you felt good after conflict with another woman? If you’re having trouble finding even one example, think about all those times when you didn’t feel good. Perhaps you “won” the fight, but that victory was deeply pyrrhic for you. Inside the Sisterhood, “white feminism” demanding an erasing solidarity probably works entirely based on this subconscious or even conscious knowledge, for all of us, that there are no knockout punches in our fights, and we will never walk away unhurt, nor really even feel any strong sense of having won. Often times, sisters back down to other sisters, for this very reason, although this, too, is pyrrhic, in the self-loathing engendered by allowing (what we believe to be) wrong-minded views to flourish.

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Rose McGowan, whom I love, recently picked a fight that should be addressed (because she was right about almost everything, but what she was wrong about made all the difference), but not in a way that just hurts all the sisters involved. Source: Wikimedia

I am coming to believe, buried in this, and probably at a level at which we are rarely cognizant of it, there is some kind of fear that there is evil in us, evil that works in a morphology like dark magic, where once it is unleashed, it is not re-bottled, and it will consume us. Society is all too willing to reinforce this idea about us, from the witch trials, to the very idea of hysteria, to the celebrity-gone-mad storyline****. Although not uniquely told about women, these are all strongly gendered messages, and ones we internalize in our self-hatred as well as recast onto other women.

Thus, we find we scarcely know how to fight someone else without fighting ourselves, and although we may be mortally afraid of others, in ways, we are always more afraid of ourselves.

And that is why this message is so powerful.

And that is why this message is so powerful.

And thus, although our fighting is deeply personal, deeply sensual, focused not so much on weapons nor damage, but far more on tooth and on nail, it is powerfully violent in a whole new way that fists could never be.

This is interesting. If the prototype of men fighting is the fistfight (something I suspect very few women have ever done – I certainly have not, in any event), it is worth noting that this kind of fighting is optimized not to inflict severe injury. Think about our bodies and think about how fighting looks (the stereotype on television will work). There are certainly places on the body (such as the base of the skull) in which a relatively smaller force could be lethal. Men in the stereotypical fistfight do not hit each other in these places. In fact, this is seen throughout animals – rams head-butt each other in a way that involves a fight that results in a winner and a loser, but which relatively less frequently involves anyone killing anyone else. Now guns and knives change this, significantly. But the point is that the culture of fighting among men (and certainly, they have spent time creating such a culture, over many, many generations), is optimized in a very different way than the culture of fighting among woman has been. In primitive society, strong solidarity was far more crucial to the safety of women than men, and being cast out was likewise far more dangerous to women than to men.

Echoing this, over the millennia, although incarceration certainly primarily affects menfolk, broadly, there is a pronounced emphasis on casting out when it comes to the treatment of women – adulterers, sex workers, and other women of “ill repute,” single mothers and those not deemed appropriate for pregnancy, and many others.

We echo this, as well, in our discourse. It is a part of the reason why we argue about whether other women are feminists, in a way that men would not do (instead, typically arguing that he is wrong, or more broadly, stupid). We do not have old boys’ clubs, or really a direct equivalent, but we do have amorphous but pervasive networks of social power, and many of us rely on them in far-reaching ways. And they are networks from which women are far more commonly cast out, a thing for which the old boys’ network is not renowned.

So we have a different brand of fighting, often, among women, with different stakes. In some ways, these stakes are far more precarious, and rather than analyzing the ways we fight each other as women by comparing us to men, we should understand how these ways have evolved over time to be most damaging to most women.

Now what?

First, if we buy into this line of reasoning, which is admittedly here in a rough draft form, then, we should see that making fights among women more like fights among men will not solve anything. Certainly, most of us don’t have any real interest in throwing punches. But even when we consider fighting amongst men outside of throwing punches, it is optimized to serve priorities of men and masculinity. It will not be a good fit to our concerns. If there is any level on which we agree that the deeply personal, emotional realm is somewhat emphasized in us as women, we cannot simply shift our fights more into the realm of masculine logic, any more than our fights would be simply resolved just because we held them in Spanish instead of English (or vice versa). Rather, we must complement the development of masculine / agency – driven tools for confrontation with the development of more powerful, but unabashedly feminine / communion driven tools.

Second, such a line of reasoning changes how we understand escalation. Escalation to physical violence, in many of our arguments, makes no sense, and having come this far without using physical violence to solve any problem, like ever, it is not something we are going to accidentally use. Rather, the escalation types, of which we must be most wary, all involve some kind of outcasting process. So if we want feminism-informed conflict among women, we must seriously look for ways to take this, from exiling women from feminism, to exiling women from being recognized as part of what needs to be done in female representation in business or political spheres, to exiling women from our social networks, off the table. While recognizing that our arguments may be deeply personal, and that we may indeed fight tooth and nail, we need to recognize as well, the needs of our opponents to maintain community.

These are pretty lofty demands, and it is still hard for me to understand how I would use them practically when I am in confrontation. But there is power in knowing what needs to be done.

* The book I’m writing, when – not if – I finish it, is centrally about understanding what inclusion issues in feminism teach us about feminism, both as movement and as ideology, and resolving our struggles in-Sisterhood not through solidarity that means silencing those most vulnerable, nor through assisting privileged sisters in drowning themselves in self-hatred, but in a way that recognizes our plurality and focuses on the strength that plurality brings us and the opportunity it delivers to us to build better feminisms.

** I grieve sins, far too many do I grieve, but these are not the sins I grieve.

*** Nor even everything any one woman says, you know, like even if that woman were one we hold sacrosanct within our movement. But certainly not if they’re just some bitch like me. This now being the third blog post in which I’ve dabbled in the footnotes, talking about the idea of using bitch as a reclamation word, and not delivering on it. Who knows, you might have to wait for my book.

**** These stories are far older than Norma Desmond. They have been encapsulated in things like mad songs, almost always sung by women, from ancient times – in proto-operatic forms, the mad song was even a standard component of many compositions, and in my nature of impertinence, although it is, certainly pertinent, I am listening to my favorite collection of them as I write.

On Embracing My Fears

For living a joy filled life, for finding passion and excitement, making dreams come true, living stories that I will tell and retell, every single day, I want to make an admission that might surprise you.

I am afraid.

Always.

It is a constant current running through the back of my mind. I wake up every day to a day full of opportunities to disappoint everyone I care about, to fail everything in which I believe. To not make a good enough breakfast for Teri. To not be a good enough mother to Iago, a foreshadowing of my failures to come as a mother to a human child. To not be pretty enough or put-together enough. To not be a good enough entrepreneur or scientist – to let down my team, which is a family to me, and especially my two closest co-dreamers. To let down all the children and families we serve.

I am afraid, too, that we will not keep our house well enough to be good neighbors. That I am not doing enough for my community. That I am not doing enough with my voice to make our world better. That I do not give enough money, time, or attention, to all the causes that need me.

And always that I will let down my mother and father.

This isn’t something to be overcome.

Audre Lorde said this:

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

Lorde wrote this in the context of her Cancer Journals, understanding-through-writing about her experience with breast cancer. Although it is in part an ode to grappling with mortality, it is a paean of everyday life, too, for all of us as women especially, and given the statements about fear found stitched throughout Lorde’s powerful writing, for her, herself.

Lorde's many comments about fear and the role it plays in women's lives are a worthy reminder for all of us, whether we have embraced strength or are still striving to do so.

Lorde’s many comments about fear and the role it plays in women’s lives are a worthy reminder for all of us, whether we have embraced strength or are still striving to do so.

Like Lorde, when I say that I do not see overcoming my fear, I mean that I cannot stop being afraid, but I can learn to live in a way that makes my fear irrelevant. The reason I am joy-filled and adventure-filled today is, in great extent, because I have been learning to do this, and although I remain filled with fear, that I am also filled with joy and that my life is filled with adventure tells me validates my path for me.

One of my recent realizations is that I have come an immense distance in my authenticity. I feel I am true in nearly every moment, and when I display artifice, it is with reason. I’ve even learned to be authentically vulnerable. But the interesting thing I find is that, even when I am authentically vulnerable, I am channeling my fear into lessons for myself others. What is wonderful about this is that I have learned to be powerful even in the midst of embracing fear.

The revolution is not that I say, “I am not afraid anymore.” It is that I say, “I am strong.”

I find the latter so much harder to own than the former, even though it is truth and the former is lie.

When I say that I am strong, I am filled with fear.

To this there is only one antidote.

Whenever I am filled with fear, I will be strong, and fear shall become my kōan.

On Micro- and Macrofeminism

I have been confronting issues, for which macrofeminist and microfeminist issue alignment, or more precisely, the lack of a means to align these spheres, makes feminists miserable or saps our agency. A classic example of micro- and macro- misalignment is my gripe about feminist men who post anti-sexism memes on Facebook but let their girlfriends, fiancées, wives, or lovers, do all the chores, cook all the meals, and even serve them to them. This is not an example that I pull out of thin air, exactly*. Erm.

Something about this is not quite feminist.

Something about this is not quite feminist.

These terms may be new. Let me explain what I mean by them. I’m borrowing (obviously) the concept from economics, although there are important distinctions. By macrofeminism I mean our thought and discourse about, our belief in or prioritization of, and all the heartshare, that big, systemic issues take up. The hundreds of millions of girls and women who go without basic access to water, sanitation, and education are a macroscale issue to me – I don’t directly touch on their lives, at least right now. As an upper middle class Indian American in a safe neighborhood – for me, Black Lives Matter is also really a macroscale issue, although for another feminist, these issues may touch much closer to home.

In contrast, microfeminism includes, certainly, all the micro-aggressions that affect us personally, but more generally, the feminism of our daily lived experience – how we are disrespected, invalidated, or erased, how we are made recipients of misogyny (and frequently expected to say, “Thank you” in return), and how we are taught to hate and loathe ourselves or see ourselves as “less than.” These issues relate to macrofeminist issues in much the same way that economies are made up of many small transactions, the three dollars you paid the barista and the change you fed in the parking meter, and so on, which, when considered as a whole, become gargantuan. The big distinction from the economic use of microeconomics and macroeconomics is that, because of all the factors outside of sexism or patriarchy**, and because there is no unifying metric of feminism in the way that economists can at least try to convert all effects to some currency unit, what is microfeminist and what is macrofeminist may differ from person to person.

I choose these terms instead of saying something like, “walking the walk” and “talking the talk” for two reasons. First, there are actions associated with the macrofeminist issues – activated macrofeminists make voting decisions, educate and inform others, and sometimes even mobilize others for feminist movement. This is true in Teri’s case. He isn’t just lazily re-sharing memes on Facebook. His thoughts on this – including the ones that prompted this post – are deep and meaningful, and they are not lacking in sincerity. He is therefore walking and talking in alignment – what feels out of alignment is not his words and deeds, but his handling of the global and local applications of his beliefs.

The other reason I want to use these two terms, since I write every blog post I write, every speech or talk I give, not just to teach and share, but to, myself, try to learn, to learn, intersectionally, to not discount my personal experience wholly in favor of systemic issues that often have limited direct impact on me. See, as I share, particularly when I talk about anorexia and the personality traits I have that align with my anorexia experience, one of the most dominant hurtful themes*** of my childhood was learning that my hurt was always overruled by someone else’s hurt. As soon as I opened my mouth to speak my hurt, someone else would interrupt me, telling me theirs was worst. And I believed them / maybe it was. So I closed my mouth. And waited my turn. That never came. Like, ever. This is directly relevant because, all these years later, and through all my exposure to feminism, I know that I am not the only one of us – women, particularly, but also others – who experienced this. And when I look at feminist movement and women’s spaces, I see that they are filled with guilty women. And I get that. Because social butterfly that I am, I view every social interaction as an opportunity to let someone down – Teri, my friends, my team, my parents, acquaintances, strangers – my thoughts overflow, too, with guilt. I learned as I recovered from anorexia to be done with the idea that, because my hurt never measured up, it would never be my turn to hurt. I finally came to understand that this was the root of my lack of self-esteem, and overcoming this belief – allowing myself to hurt authentically – was central to how I came to have some small measure of self-respect****.

These daily micro- aggressions add up, and we should question expecting feminists to table them for the bigger systemic issues. Source: Wikipedia

These daily micro- aggressions add up, and we should question expecting feminists to table them for the bigger systemic issues. Source: Wikipedia

Back to my classic example. I would not be true to my feminism if I ignored this misogyny in my home because all my effort is on macrofeminist issues. I would not be truly feminist if I ignored it everywhere else I experienced it, like, all the time. But I admit that, sometimes, I do, precisely because of this fear that I will detract from my macrofeminist causes. These are trivial, although micro-aggression adds up. It isn’t all trivial. At its most serious extreme, and yet in this exact process, there have been times when women (not me) have been asked, “intersectionally” to overlook their own sexual assaults because their assaulter was perceived as an ally to feminist or progressive movement. Where this happened – the most flagrant, recent, example, was some of the early response to claims of sexual assault at the hands of Bill Cosby (where the intersection of race complicated the issue but did not warrant invalidating the claims of women reporting rape), but another prominent example from recent years was sexual assault at Occupy Wall Street and other similarly styled protest movements – we are not doing feminist movement, nor women either as a political entity nor as individual women, any favors when we whitewash these assaults.

In contrast, in my usage, say an affluent, ethnically non-marginalized feminist women can talk about black lives and the impacts of poverty and lack of access to education, or about curtailment of reproductive freedoms, for sisters who are affected by these issues in ways she is not (and in that way, is not “like her”), but also, on the microfeminist scale, not feel pushed to ignore or overlook all the times when men objectify or make unwanted sexual advances, making whatever-it-is cents on the dollar compared to men of her own ethnicity, or when she feels, say, like a sucker because all the responsibility in her relationships with men is placed on her shoulders*****. Rather than dismissing her feminism as “white” or “faux,” if she is engaged in discourse and movement both at the microfeminist and macrofeminist levels, we can recognize and celebrate this as a more integrative, and thus more intersectional, feminism.

When we do this, we make her stronger, and we make feminism stronger, rather than pitting feminist cause against feminist cause or feminist against feminist. We also empower her to learn to dynamically balance her commitment to discourse and movement on issues at both levels. I do mean dynamic. When she has just been catcalled, or something has just been mansplained to her, or when her microscale issue is something not so micro, we should understand and embrace her anger on her local issue. We should give her a moment, and not expect her to breathlessly return to advocating on a more systemic level without acknowledging her own mistreatment.

Apropos of the dynamic nature of this process, recognizing this as micro- and macrofeminist alignment has the further benefit that it offers us a robust platform on which we can engage in the kind of prioritizing we need to do, if we want our feminism to be intersectional. This prioritization would not work by denying sexism or misogyny, ever, or queuing up some experiences in dead end “slow lanes” like what was done to all my sorrows when I was younger. Rather, it would recognize that no feminist, even we who throw our bodies into the gears, should be sacrificing her own dignity or self-respect as a woman in order to support feminist movement. This is important because, as I’ve said before, it’s time to have some intersectional real talk and get beyond just saying we’re intersectional and then not thinking intersectionally.

So please give this some thought. It’s not so important that these terms take root – but the idea underlying them is different, and I believe it is one component of our pathway out of toxic, faux, and bullshit feminism, and back to empowering and fulfilling feminism.

* Meaning I’ve been calling Teri out on it. Teri is a good sport to let me publicly analyze these issues. Make no mistake, I not only love him with all my being, but I respect him – if I use him as an example it is because our relationship is a highly accessible example-base for me, because I push him to be better and I expect him to push me to be better, and also because this is entirely the point of microfeminism. I am particularly thankful for his willingness to embrace the discomfort my baring myself sometimes causes him, e.g., when I embrace the term “bitch” as a reclamation term for myself, and he cringes, still.

** Here, I use a simple operational definition of patriarchy as the system that sustains, reinforces, and expands the reach of sexism.

*** There were many positive themes, and I have lived a joy-filled life through it all.

**** This is a (life-) long journey. Much as I still see myself as fat, always, and as ugly, nearly always, even if I also am able to somewhat accept the fact that I am not fat by any sensible measure, and to understand that I am perceived as beautiful, and that all the people who use words like stunning, lovely, or gorgeous – words I receive probably somewhere or other every week – that all those people are not simultaneously lying to me.

***** All the way down, she gripes at the airport, to “annoying guy behavior,” like blocking the boarding lane at the airport gate when your number hasn’t been called yet, but you’re right directly in the line, so we have to ask you if you’re boarding (to which you always say no) to let us around you. Seriously, why do you do that?

Maybe It’s Time I Became an Openly Progressive Woman

I think it might be time I change my perspective on something. I have never affiliated myself directly with a political party – I’ve always been an independent. I’ve voted for many Democrats, especially at the national level, but I’ve cast votes for many Republicans, as well, often at the state and local levels*. I’ll always vote for the best person (ideally the best woman) for the job, but I think it’s time I sacrifice a little bit of my fiercely independent nature and pull in closer to the Sisterhood.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to the first Women’s Health & Economic Summit, hosted by the Michigan Women’s Progressive Caucus, and particularly Democratic women from the State House. I had been quietly getting to know progressive women here in West Michigan, over the past year, in part because I see very clearly the war on women, on black and Hispanic people, on the LGBT community, and, all too often, on common sense. I do not wish to roll the clock back even farther, and I am keenly aware of the risk the next few cycles of elections holds for all of us.

I walked in on the event, yesterday, with some concern, which was not entirely unfounded. I am a businesswoman who has a very strong sense of entrepreneur identity. I work at a mid-size non-profit (Hope Network, which has a financial size of more than $100M in revenues), and I innovate there. We’re doing things now that have never been done at Hope before, and we already have in our cache the next, next, and next levels of what we’re trying to do (and are prepping the old guard to be very, very afraid). Some people also call those of us who are entrepreneurs “in the big box” intrepreneurs, and I do like that, too, although my businesswoman identity is tied into pro-social innovation, not the big box, so social entrepreneur is probably what I like best. Anyways, as I walked in the door worried that I would not be welcome as a businesswoman, even though we know how many progressive women are small business owners.

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Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), a hometown sister, delivering her statements early in the day.

I was a little right. In the Q&A following a morning panel, two people used their opportunity to ask questions to attack entrepreneurs and providers and everyone else who serves in the healthcare industry. While there is some validity to their point, I felt personally attacked by this, because it’s what I do, and although there is a great need for structural reform (for which I myself advocate, in fact, I advocate unhesitatingly for a transition to a single payer system, to, in essence, doing what works in many other parts of the world, rather than practicing American Exceptionalism), I do not believe in an attacking dialog on this, and especially not one in which there is no room even for healthcare providers to have voices.

Intersectionalism runs deep – this is not a claim to my identity, just a statement of fact. It’s the whole point of intersectionalism. I cannot put away the fact of my Indianness. I cannot ignore the fact that, during my lifetime, although Mr. Obama is a noteworthy exception, every time there has been a Democrat in the White House, relationships with India have become jingoistic on the American side, leading to cooling of bilateral cooperation and adversely affecting the lives and livelihoods of my family. I have, nonetheless, supported all the Democrats who tried to get there, during my adult life, starting with hand-delivering get-out-the-vote information for Bill Clinton when I was a senior in high school. In this same sort of way, and perhaps more saliently to me, because my identity as a businesswoman is probably stronger than my identity as an Indian (for better and worse), I can’t put away my belief in economic empowerment through business development when I enter progressive spaces.

I want to back up a step, though. Before that happened, when I walked in the door, people immediately recognized and welcomed me (and I wasn’t really sure there would even be many people I knew). I didn’t have to give my name. My friend, Amber, at the check-in station, already knew it. Representatives and activists came and made me feel welcome. Right away. This is pretty much what happens, time and time again, when I enter the spaces of my feminist sisters. It is frequently not what happens when I enter LGBT spaces**. And it’s something I’ve been listening to, thinking more and more about how I need to embrace my feminist roots, and my feeling that there is some structural mis-alignment (as exemplified by my giving) that over-represents my LGBT identity and underrepresents my feminist identity, when the latter is one I have been clear is much stronger for me. That is, my strongest identity of all is that of being a woman, of being a Sister.

So I did not walk in the door feeling unwelcomed – I walked in the door feeling very welcomed, at home, where I belong. This is a thing I’ll come back to, please bear with me. If the moment I described above validated my fears, they were subsequently invalidated by the rest of the day. I attended two great panels that were about empowering women economically.

The morning session I attended was music to my ears, talking about the value women bring to workforce development, and the many shared goals women of all ages and millennials bring to the workplace. The things with which we will change the world. We talked about fighting sexism, recognizing implicit biases in the workplace that harm women (and minorities), and building a workspace that meets the changing needs of the workforce as women and millennials come to dominate.

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Rep. Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) speaking at a morning panel about women and the strength we bring to workforce development

One of my goals is to integrate my life even more – I want to live my career, whether my current role as Director of my Center for Autism, or future ones, in a deeply feminist way. So we’ve been tackling a lot of these issues at the Center. And it’s tricky. I find my millennial leadership team members, amazingly, afraid to ask me if they can bring their young children into work due to a sudden issue with childcare. At my Center where we grow the lives and dreams of young children. In part, they’re scared because, technically, this is against our corporate policy. I respond (and HR may deal with me as they wish) by reminding my leadership team, gently, that they set an example of how to work with the families we serve, who are dealing with the same exact problems, and that of course they should bring their children in, and of course I trust their judgment in the matter. They do not need to say that dedication to their jobs will not be adversely impacted by their children paying occasional visits to my Center. I knew that already.

Time to admit I have some work to do.

Time to admit I have some work to do.

The rest of the day was much like that. Rashida Tlaib, alongside whom I spoke last year at Lady Parts‘ V to Shining V, received an award at lunch and delivered an impassioned and remarkably funny speech. Particularly impactful to me was her story of breastfeeding at the State Legislature and something atrocious a man had said to her, emphasizing that no matter how high we climb, we are still sexualized and objectified and well, treated like women. It mirrored something in passing that another Representative had said, which emphasized how women who are running the State still find themselves running home to cook meals for their families, much like I do.

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Rashida Tlaib of Sugar Law Center being fierce. It’s kind of what she does.

One more thing that resonated with me is how many of the women in the House spoke about how influential women in their communities had told them to run for office time and time gain – sometimes more than ten different women had told them this – before they listened. This has actually happened to me more than a few times in the last year, and at least two women I respect immensely have told me to do it. I need to think much more carefully about this, as I learn about what it is that I don’t know (which is kind of a lot) about the business of running for office. I think I worry, too, that I may not be electable, and that if I ran, I would be taking up attention that another politician deserves – taking up too much space. I don’t know if the former is really founded, because I have so many people in my life who are willing to support me. And I got a good dose of reminder that the latter is how entirely too many of us women think, entirely too often.

This is where I want to leave this story. I think it’s time that I think much more critically about my sense of need for independence, and the extent to which that’s a show, pretend, vs. my really deep-seated sense of Sisterhood, loyalty, and alliance. I need to question the implicit assumptions I have that Progressives and Democrats are anti-business. I need to listen to my heart, that tells me when I’m among progressive women, I belong more than I have ever belonged. I need to listen to my brain, which tells me that women are in a perilous time right now, and solidarity is more important than ever. And I need to listen to my voice, which tells me, sister, you’re stronger than you think you are, and you have more to say than you give yourself credit for. And I will listen. To all three.

* I do own my regret that some of the Republicans for whom I voted did what I wanted as a businesswoman but turned around and sided away from business interests, with social conservatives, when politically convenient, to the detriment both of women and of the LGBT community. While I’m a dimensional, non-single-voter issue, this is a compromise I recognize that I made, in the past, without full appreciation of the consequences, and I am trying to learn better.

** Although even in that story, Christina Karhl and her wife waylaid us for a drink and were one of the shining spots in that awful night.

Changing the Conversation: Re-Defining LGBT Community Values

The following is a speech I gave at the Cadillac, MI Pride, yesterday (August 22, 2015). Cadillac is a town about two hours away from Grand Rapids by car. Its population is about 10,000, although it serves as a hub for rural, outlying communities. Thank you so much to Karen Prieur, David Roosa, Tiffany Robinson, and everyone at Cadillac Pride for having Teri and me out!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

The bandstand was actually right on Lake Cadillac, with the audience facing the water. Which was really pretty!

Good afternoon! My name is Mira Krishnan, and I’m so happy to be visiting with you today from Grand Rapids. I want to ask you to share a little bit of your time on this wonderful day with me, to talk about what Pride really means, and what it means to embrace and celebrate, instead of fear or loathe, diversity. To do that, I’d like to start by telling you just a little bit about my personal story. I could go on for this entire time about me, but I do that a lot. Rather than just talk about me, I want to tell you about me more briefly, to provide you context, and talk about some other things.

Probably some of you in the audience today know a trans person. But, I’m guessing, many of you have never met one of us before, or really gotten to know us. That’s important. We know that a majority of Americans who know a trans person – 66% – support trans rights, but that only 16-20% have met us*. That does make me an ambassador, because I want you to join the “know a trans person” group. Don’t worry, if you’re already there, I think I have a few things for you, too.

I represent one trans story. The story I represent has a simple moral: being trans can be a wonderful thing. Although, like most trans people, I “knew” since I was little, I didn’t come out to anyone until just a little less than two years ago. That first time, I was really aware of the risk that coming out entailed. I practiced what I would say. I didn’t sleep all night after that first time I came out. Similarly, coming out to my company was scary. Coming out to my parents was scary. But for me, what magically happened, is every single person of importance in my life, embraced me. Every single one. That really meant something.

I went fully public in July of last year – it’s just been 13 months, and it has continued to be like this – not only does no one object, but over and over and again, people tell me that they understand me better now, feel closer to me. I see in their faces that they take pride of ownership in my success. Good people – and I believe most people are  good, with some occasional help – they use the way they respond to new situations as a way to learn to be more good. That kind of unanimous, unambiguous support and love has really changed a lot of things for me. It’s been what some people call a virtuous circle: as their responses got better and better, my coming out experience got simpler and simpler, and more and more authentic. In the Bible, it’s written as, “Iron sharpens iron.”

Thanks to that kind of support, I don’t doubt if I’m a woman any more. I just am a woman. I don’t use apologetic or defensive language. This might be new to you. For me, I reject the notion that I am now or have ever been anything other than female (and nobody really argues with me). I’m not almost as good as anything; I’m amazing. I wasn’t born in the wrong body; I was born in just the right body. And I don’t apologize for being trans – I rejoice in it. That first night I came out, I planned and I planned, and I thought about all the details. Now, when I come out, it’s pretty much, “I’m trans. Get over it.” And people do! That comes from people not just accepting me, but embracing me.

And that means I get to focus on things that really matter, and say, maybe surprisingly, that being trans (in contrast) is actually kind of boring. Let me take a quick pause there. One theme that comes up, over and over again, is allies asking for education. I love that. You might feel, though, at this point, I’m not educating you, because I’m not talking about all the “stuff” – hormones and medications, gender marker changes, surgeries, clothes – that you think of, when you think of transness. This is not mistake nor oversight. You think you need to know the wrong things. Unless you’re trans, or a healthcare provider or close family member helping a trans person make decisions, this stuff really is not what you need to know. That’s like, when people want to get to know black people, my friends point out, we always want to, you know, touch their hair or know how they make their hair look like it looks. That’s really, seriously, don’t be touching people’s hair, it’s creepy, but it’s also wrong-headed, because what they’re telling you when they’re saying not to touch their hair, is that that’s not how you get to know them. Talking about this “stuff,” is not how you get to know us. I am telling you the important stuff. And it is kind of boring, because although there’s a richness in our trans experience, we are diverse creatures in a diverse world.

Let me tell you what's not boring!

Let me tell you what’s not boring!

So, you might ask, what isn’t boring? Let me tell you what isn’t boring. For me, personally, I’ve gotten to spend the last four years building a world-class Center for Autism, at Hope Network, my base camp for changing the world, back in Grand Rapids. We get to change kids lives, and we’ve been building life changing therapies at a quality level you just couldn’t get, and often still can’t get, around here. And I’ve gotten to help waves of young clinicians develop their skills – not just creating dozens of full time jobs with good wages and benefits but building and launching dozens of careers.

What else isn’t boring? Right in the beginning of my coming out process, wobbling still, as I walked in my true identity, I met Teri, my Prince Charming. I got to see that, at least once in a rare, rare while, love at first sight is real. And although everlasting love can take work, we’re up for it. Last summer, about this time of year, Teri came out to me, as a trans man. That makes us the strangest hetero couple maybe you’ve ever seen, but I say also the cutest. Two months ago, he proposed, and I look forward to spending happily ever after with him, although you know, that’ll be a lot of work, because happy ever after is something you’re not totally just given – it’s something for which you fight.

And finally, what else that isn’t boring, my advocacy life has blossomed. I don’t have to advocate for feminist movement while denying my own womanhood, any more. I’ve made so many friends in the women’s and LGBT movements. I’ve gotten to speak alongside amazing speakers, and like everything we do out in the community, feel like, when I get invited to talk to people, I learn so much that I’m the one getting away like a bandit.

That’s my trans experience. It’s not a lot of things. I don’t represent all trans people. I’m what we sometimes  call “binary” – meaning my identity fits much more closely to the male/female gender binary than some people’s do (I’m a feminist, radical down to my roots, so don’t worry, I rock the boat a little too, and I challenge for sure all the things people say girls and women can’t do). But, people tend to react to me with, “Well, if you’re trans, whatever that is, it doesn’t sound very interesting,” and I recognize that I evoke that response more than a lot of other trans people. But while non-binary identities, genderqueer or gender fluid people, may seem more “exotic” to you, they’re actually really cool, regular people, too, and I hope you get to meet them, and they’re not as different or other-worldly as you might fear. For all the things my trans experience is not, my trans experience shows one thing I need you to know. That one thing is: being trans, and loving a trans person (like my guy), can be delightful. Not just survivable, not just okay. It can be a privilege – I’m lucky to get to be who God made me, and I’m lucky to get to love who God gave me to love.

Trans people, before, during, and after they come out, can live joy filled lives, and when we embrace them, and give them room, sometimes they can really fly.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it's all about. Little kids get it.

Beautiful cinema vérité moment – performer dancing with two little children wearing Pride tees. This is actually what it’s all about. Little kids get it.

There’s a catch. What’s so important about this event is that what can happen is not what always happens. You knew that. You didn’t need me to say it. But I am saying it. This relates closely to the next thing I want to talk about: a much broader notion of diversity, within our LGBT community and allies, and also a much broader notion of what it means to advocate for a world that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and finally, a broader notion of Pride.

A big part of the reason my life has been so great, is something called privilege. Privilege is all the things that make my life easier, but I didn’t earn them. Privilege, for me, is coming from a middle class, highly educated family, which meant that I very naturally slid into being highly educated and affluent, myself. Privilege has always kept me in safe neighborhoods. Privilege means being able to access the best resources, easily, whether they’re anywhere here in Michigan, or anywhere else in the nation or the world.

Privilege is a big part – maybe the biggest, but not the only part – of what makes my life so easy and so wonderful. And I didn’t earn it. This is the first kind of diversity I want to talk about. Opposite privilege – that advantage I didn’t earn that makes life easy for me – is marginalization – the disadvantages that I didn’t ask for, and I don’t control, that make my voice less hearable and block my agency.

I started this by telling you about my privilege. If you’re familiar with this idea of privilege, and particularly if you’re, oh, I don’t know, white, straight, male, maybe you might be surprised that I’m the one talking about my privilege. And you should turn to the person next to you, who’s not straight, and get them to notice, too. That’s right. A lot of us the visible, hearable LGBT voices come from highly privileged gay people.

This is why you’ll hear more and more outspoken advocates in the community, like me, shift and balance so that we’re not just talking about, say, trans rights, but we’re also talking about how black lives matter (even if we’re not black). We’re talking about how, and to whom, and when they don’t matter. Which is precisely why we need the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This is a big change – you look around Pride events, and usually, there aren’t too many Latino or Black faces in the crowd. That’s what happens in Grand Rapids. That’s what happens, entirely too often, throughout LGBT community. And if we’re really talking about a world where gay people matter, then we need to be talking about gay people who are Latino or Black. To give you an example, you might have heard about the epidemic of violence against trans people. This year, we believe twenty hate murders in the US have occurred, already, and there’s a quarter of the year left. These are hate crimes, although the law doesn’t always recognize them that way (here in Michigan, it doesn’t). What you may or may not know, is that here in the US, the lives lost are almost always black and Latina trans women. So if we’re real about ending this, we have to be more cognizant about this. We have to realize, for instance, I’m not the one whose life is in danger – even if that statement isn’t always popular among my non-Black/Latina trans family members. You hear this same story again and again – the vast majority of all violence against LGBT people motivated by intolerance of their gender/sexual identities, is against black and Latino LGBT people, and we can’t fix that if we’re not honest about it.

The other major shift we need to make is talking about poverty and how it relates to the LGBT community. The visible image of us, all too often, is a limited image of a small segment of us – you know, the stereotypical young, pretty, toned, gay men on a yacht. They have a lot of disposable income. They know all the best places to get brunch**. They’re the kind of person your business wants as a customer, and the kind of person you want as your new gay best friend. Right? I mean, yes, I know people who actually fit that stereotype (and I fit too closely to that set, myself). But that’s not a representation of the whole LGBT community. While many of us have high earnings, many more are highly impoverished. They might have the education, the talent, the skills, but they can’t get the job. Or they might have had their chances cut off way before all of that, when they were just kids. And here in Michigan, where you can get married on Saturday and fired the next Monday for being LGBT, that’s a big deal.

Cadillac Pride, and Prides like it, are particularly important, because we’ve got to recognize that every queer person does’t live in San Francisco or Manhattan or London. Right? We’re everywhere. The Network brought Pride to Grand Rapids, from Washington, D.C., a little less than 30 years ago. Because it turned out that there were gay people in Grand Rapids, too, not just big cities. And that same message goes to the importance of not just the legacy they left us in Grand Rapids, but what you are building here in Cadillac, and also how we reach out to all those little communities up here, you know, the ones that think of Cadillac as the “big city,” and look at you like you’re city slickers? Yeah, it turns out, they can be gay just as easily as you or I can. But they can’t get resources as easily as we can. And we need to support them better.

The second kind of diversity I want to talk about is what it means to truly embrace and celebrate people who are different from “us.”

At the Network, in Grand Rapids, in partnership with MDCH and organizations throughout Michigan, one of the exciting things we’re working on is talking about LGBT wellness. We’re starting with smoking cessation. What? Well, smoking kills more LGBT people than hate does. And while there are still people out there who do hate us, the tobacco companies love us. They’ve been studying for decades how to get minorities and gay people to smoke and keep them as loyal customers. You know, like, to the grave. It’s time to remind them, we don’t die easy. And that’s just a start in a broader message that we have to take care of our own community in order to be able to take care of our towns and cities. At the Network, you’re going to hear us talk more and more about health and wellness for LGBT people. At the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, we launched Our LGBT Fund last year, with more than $350,000 committed so far. What are we going to do with it? Help support the most vulnerable LGBT people. 40% or more of homeless youth are LGBT or questioning, and it’s time to say NO MORE, and engage to help families of LGBT youth stay intact, help parents through their children’s coming out, end the practice of kicking kids out of the home because they’re different (this isn’t some hypothetical situation – it didn’t happen to me, but it did to my fiancé). And if LGBT youth do become homeless, these are kids who hold our society’s future in their hands, not refuse to be thrown away, and even though they’re more likely to be homeless, the system often doesn’t accept or help them, because they’re different. We’re going to put an end to that.

Those are two different takes on diversity. Here’s a third. Back to Pride. Be proud. Don’t come up to me and apologize – I don’t want to hear it, and I’d much rather be your friend than hear your apology. Yes, I, like a lot of LGBT people, I do struggle with being one of the “lucky” ones, survivor’s guilt. But I’m here. And you’re here, and you’ve made a choice to be a part of this family. Be proud of it. Whether you’re gay or straight, Pride belongs to you – it’s a birthright – if you are invested in a world that celebrates difference instead of fearing it. And although the sexual and gender diversity you straight people bring to the table may not be as visible as what we bring to the table, diversity belongs to you, too. Being heterosexual is a sexual orientation. Being cisgender is a gender identity. It’s okay to own yours, even if it isn’t like mine.

So thank you for giving me the opportunity, especially those of you who’ve never met a trans person before, to let you get to know me. And please, stay in touch. Come talk to me and to Teri. Connect with me, if you’d like, online – my blog is at miracharlotte.com and you can even hear Teri and I tell a part of our story in an audio excerpt I’ve got there from StoryCorps. You’re very welcome to find me on Facebook, etc., too, and stay connected that way. And please keep being a part of embracing pride in gender and sexual diversity, and making the world better for all of us, straight or queer, by making it more inclusive of all of us. Thank you.

* I said 61% from stage, sorry! Well, the numbers are approximate, anyways.

** Right now, it’s TerraGR, people. But that’s really not the point of this story.

Navigating “Us” vs. “Them” and the Role of Lived Experience in Regulating Ethical Healthcare Practice

A colleague shared this recent piece by a social advocate who chose to leave the practice of applied behavior analysis. The piece was noteworthy to me for a couple of reasons. First, she and I believe in a lot of the same things, broadly – inclusion, advocating across lines of lived experience for marginalized people, as allies and not as usurpers of their place in the conversation. More specifically, like her, from what I can gather from her blog, I believe in a world of co-advocacy and partnership with autistic and non-autistic people. Although I believe in the idea of the autistic cognitive architecture, I also think that, much like the idea of “white” obscures differences inside the majority culture and maintains the us vs. them system by creating a false appearance of homogeneity, recognizing that neurotypical brains vary greatly is important, as well. Like the author, I’m uninterested in curing autism – I simply want a world in which autistic people can recognize their dreams and have the means to chase them*. So, we’ve got some common basis from which to agree and disagree. Second, of course, although some time ago, I made clear that I am not an evangelist for ABA and not even a practitioner of it, myself, I did make the choice, really, and take full responsibility for it, to focus my own Center for Autism on early identification, treatment planning, and early intensive behavioral intervention, or ABA therapy, for autistic** preschoolers.

As an aside, watch this. We need to embrace and empower autistic voices.

Back to Steph’s viewpoint. I think it is an interesting viewpoint – I had not seen this particular article before, but I’m familiar with the perspective, and she has a lot of important things to say. Part of me wishes she would not have chosen to do what she did – walk away. I respect why she did it – and I could see making the same choice in her shoes. I also respect and embrace the anger. But the reality, too, is that there’s a groundswell of support behind the idea of ABA – 39 of 50 states, I think now, covering the vast majority of the population, individually passed coverage bills, most of which specifically apply to ABA (and not broadly to autism therapy). In all of these states, strong networks of the parents of autistic youth were involved in advocacy. I can’t speak for them all, but I was here, in Michigan, as a small part of this happening here, and I do know that I testified alongside autistic young adults who supported the legislation. But while the point that this did not happen over the dead bodies of autistic people, in the sense that there is disagreement amongst autistic people over the topic of early interventions, the point really is that it did happen.

Photo of one of my actual kids and one of my actual (past) therapists, both of whom I love (source: Hope Network)

Photo of one of my actual kids and one of my actual (past) therapists, both of whom I love (source: Hope Network)

Here in Michigan, we’ve added well over a thousand children to ABA therapy in the last three years. So this is a thing. And the reality is that most of the people trained in behavior analysis have no exposure, at all, to the debate on its morality – they are definitely taught ethics, but the ethics are unquestioning (or at least, they seem this way to me, based now on knowing many practicing behavior analysts) with respect to the basic tools they use, as well as the basic assumptions they make about the lives of the kids they serve***. So the result is a strong divide – hardly anyone inside the system is talking about this, and hardly anyone who is talking about this has any relationship to “the system,” which is a real barrier to positive change. This means that things even that shock the vast majority of us, about which there is little or no controversy, like the Judge Rotenberg Center, whose use of shock therapy to “treat” autism is internationally considered torture, but continues quietly in Boston, even right now****.

To me, there are two big issues we must somehow overcome, besides retaining people like Steph from the article in the conversation (if not as therapy providers, as participants in developing a more ethical range of services).

The first is addressing the lack of autistic people in the ranks of early autism service providers and developers – I think this is a real shame. It was a big deal to me to have an autistic staff member, and I finally accomplished this some three years into being at my Center, and more than two years after taking control of my Center. What I really want, but I will admit I don’t know how to do yet, is to have autistic therapists collaborating on the therapies or services for autistic kids. I really hope someday the universities who train in this area do more to get people who have lived experience to join the ranks of trainees and therapists. The problem is that none of us can ever really know exactly what it’s like to be an autistic person, and this will always be a limiting factor with respect to our ability to make ethical judgments. And given the amazing range of autistic people, unlike some other populations, this should be an addressable problem.

The second is that autistic self-advocacy is full of people who have voices – people who are not or not very “impaired” or “disabled” in the sense that society traditionally defines it, whether or not they identify themselves in that way, and who thus are able to participate in the traditional, unmodified discourse (that is ableist and assumes the kind of dialogues that neurotypical people have and use). I love these voices of autistic people, even if they are a subset of a larger whole, and I celebrate them even if they say things I don’t want to hear, but the danger implicit in this is the same kind of danger, say, that would occur if affluent black people who are isolated from deprivation, poverty, and violence, were the only advocate voices on behalf of all black people*****. Or it’s a danger I navigate, myself, when I advocate for trans people – suicidality, poverty, lack of family/community acceptance, and hate crime / violence are all real things, that happen entirely too often to “my kind,” and at the same time, I’ve never experienced any of them******. This is actually more relevant than it might seem – Ivar Lovaas, relatively later in his career, collaborated with John Money of Hopkins in developing LGBT conversion therapies, essentially applying ABA to the LGBT “problem” with disastrous consequences…. Now, many states are now in the process of making conversion therapy illegal (I hope Michigan joins, someday) and President Obama has joined this call, himself. I wasn’t taught this when I was first exposed to Lovaas’ work. I did become aware of it, shortly after I started at the Center, and ever since, I’ve always been conscious of it in trying to build and to understand.

The difference is that, although it can be hard to hear them, people marginalized for their race, their sexual/gender identities, and by poverty, deprivation, and violence – they do have voices, and more and more, they are taking their place in these advocacy frameworks. But, in the kind of neurodiversity view for which the author advocates, how exactly do voices of people who don’t have voices count? This isn’t rhetorical. It does sound entirely like the maddening conversation in which the majority always asks to be educated on the backs of the minority. At the same time, there is legitimacy in a question of how a conversation is shaped that is truly inclusive, if one believes this kind of broad neurodiversity model (and eschews the idea of any kind of therapy or special services that seek to help autistic children gain skills that neurotypical children gain and they don’t, or which NT kids gain more easily than autistic kids, whether or not they are based on a “curative” model).

And, I think there’s a complex question of how much relevance people who do have voices have to the welfare of people who don’t, although certainly, just as in the case of LGBT advocacy, lived experience should count for something, even if that lived experience necessarily has gaps with respect to the broad range of lived experiences.

Anyways, the big thing that I think, in response to this article, is that we have to learn to question the ethics and morality of everything we do – even the things we most believe in – more openly, and we have to be prepared for critical moments when it turns out we were doing the wrong thing, and be ready to change in those moments instead of doubling down. And just like we believe that our therapy can become technically better over time, we have to believe there may be ways to make it more moral and more ethical, too, and we have to set both of those goals, not just the goal for technical excellence.

I guess the problem with these none shall pass moments is that we’re always stuck in what we know today, and not what we will know, tomorrow. (source: Wikimedia)

For now, I’m trying to continue standing on the bridge and making sure that therapy is ethical and truly good for kids. I’m doing it for them, and for myself, and not for anyone else, because I don’t think they owe anyone anything. I respect Steph, the author, and her choice to advocate from the outside. I embrace the disagreements we likely have in our philosophy towards autism, and just the fact that our lived experiences are likely very different. I hope that we can both, together with actual autistic people (since that is neither of us) do something to make a world that is better for autistic kids, and autistic people generally, and I recognize that none of us knows precisely what that world will look like, because we haven’t lived there yet. But  I believe, together, I hope, with her, and with all my autistic friends, that it will be wonderful.

* And importantly, I feel I have no say in what those dreams are. That’s none of my business, unless / until someone chooses to share them with me. Certainly, I’m not in the business of telling anyone what their dream is. Although I suspect I’ll live to see my world changed in unimaginable and wonderful ways by them.

** Regarding the use of the phrase “autistic people” – this is something I encourage everybody to read. I’ve heard many people say (and probably said, at some point, myself) some kind of analogy like you wouldn’t say “cancer kids” (actually, people who’ve worked a lot with kids with cancer do, but that’s another conversation). For what it’s worth, autistic people who both use this language and recommend that others use this language recommend it precisely because they don’t think analogies like the one with cancer are appropriate. I used to more navigate the fence between parents, who preferred the “child with autism” language, and self-advocates, but I more and more give in and agree that the self advocates have it right.

*** This isn’t a criticism of Behavior Analysis. Certainly, right now, Psychology as a field (and the roots of Behavior Analysis came from within Psychology, and although many now identify their field as a different, separate field, many behavior analysts also studied psychology as undergraduates) is just visible dealing with the aftermath of a miserable ethical and moral failure. This came in the form of our field’s unwillingness to take a firm stance against torture and our allowing the American Psychological Association’s rules and ethics code to be twisted to condone and even torture. If you don’t know about it, read the Hoffman report.

**** Changes were made, albeit with a “grandfather clause” that allows some people receiving services here to still be treated with the skin shock aversive, although apparently new patients are not receiving this, any more. But that change did not come from organized rage within psychologists or behavior analysts, but from the outside.

***** Look no farther than Dr. Ben Carson, although, for all his many, many, many flaws, he is actually less racially ignorant than many of his rivals in the current Republican primaries.

****** The complex dynamics of survivor guilt play a big part in this discussion, as well, since I am, admittedly, primarily “lucky” (or privileged) to not have experienced these ills.

The Place of Female Chauvinism in Feminist and Women’s Movements

This is something I’ve been struggling with. So, I’m a female chauvinist. And I’m not really sorry.

Well, sort of. You know I’m sorry about everything, except for being sorry about everything. I should be clear about what I mean. Because I don’t hate men, at least not in the sense that you think of that term in the context of feminism (slash basically no feminists really do*). Sometimes I think I’m better than them (okay, kind of a lot, you guys make it too easy) and sometimes I think they’re better than me (okay, only occasionally). But saying I love being a person wouldn’t cover it – I love being a woman. And that’s on the short list of things for which I’m not at all sorry. I’m thankful to have been born born all kinds of other things – fast, smart, trans, pretty, occasionally funny but not when I tell dirty jokes** – but particularly, I’m thankful to have been born female.

So, chauvinist but not exactly a chauvinist pig.

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of ... I don't like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

Truth be told, calling people pigs has always sort of … I don’t like that. It really bothers me, for some reason. Source: Wikimedia

And I think there is room for restorative pride in the feminine experience, pride in womanhood, pride in girlhood, that recaptures the imbalance in society’s objectified, distorted, and sexist ways of patterning everyone’s thoughts about us (including us). The idea that pride is restorative is really bedrock to this. Pride in womanhood is fundamentally different than pride in manhood because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places manhood above womanhood. Pride in femininity is fundamentally different than pride in masculinity because of the hierarchical sexism inherent in our society that places the masculine above the feminine.

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women's health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

Seriously, so note how much makeup the inpatient in a hospital is wearing for her review with her attending. In an article about how sexism hurts women’s health, for the love of all that is good and holy! (Source: Role Reboot)

In this way, talking about pride in being a woman – female chauvinism – is not only a good and radical thing, but it is analogous to other pride in the context of other kinds of struggles. So white folk get uncomfortable at the idea of #BlackLivesMatter, wait wait wait, uh, you mean all lives matter, don’t you? And please don’t mug me – I listen to Beyoncé! And straight people can’t understand why gay people need a pride. Why don’t I get a flag? And when they do have a flag, they have distorted reasons about what it means within a system of oppression from which they benefit. 

But, while “good feminists” embrace the idea of black pride, they reject the idea of female pride. And I’m saying they shouldn’t.

I believe these phenomena arise from a really interesting side-effect of marginalization, which I want to be the focus of this piece. In many ways, the mechanism of marginalization – of all these isms – tends to attribute all the diversity to the dominant group. So we pay lots of attention to differences in hair color and eye color, because they vary a lot in white people, but we ignore all the things that are different about the billions of us black haired, brown eyed peoples. Guys are individual, identity-laden agents of change, but women are interchangeable hoes***. And there are a million and one straight love stories, every one of them different, but society-killing, Christ-denouncing, global-warming-causing same sex marriage can be simplified into a unitary construct, as if there’s no diversity among LGBT love stories.

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

We should be proud in our womanhood like Bree Newsome is proud of her blackness (incidentally, you go, sister!) Source: Inform!

Now you’re really going to think I’m crazy, but what I’m going to do here is say that the dominant culture – the white guys – also have a point. Don’t worry – it’s not the point they think they have. The interesting phenomenon is that, simultaneously, dominant group mechanics, while seemingly attributing all the diversity to the dominant group, actually whitewashes**** much of the really meaningful diversity in the dominant group. You can see this in white folk who cling to the 1/64th of their ancestry that is Chippewa or Cherokee – because they recognize that being “white” does not confer them a really meaningful racial/ethnic identity in the way that being Indian-American does me. This is why every white person wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s day. You can see it in how all the clothes all the straight guys wear looks exactly the same, but it’s really important to them to be distinctive by having those shoes in just that shade of brown – again, the process of marginalization makes the world all about men, but it whitewashes men in some special and perhaps hard to realize ways. And they don’t want to be whitewashed (and I’m glad of it!).

This isn’t just a case of the grass is greener, of all the straight haired girls want curly and all the curly girls want straight. This is a fundamental characteristic of that asymmetrical relationship.

To me, the solution to this is radical, and it comes from chauvinism. I actually think that straight people should have a Pride. It’s just that it’s the LGBT Pride we’ve already got. As we become a cultural force with which to reckon (oh, we will / we are), I think it’s right to think about making the centerpiece of Pride be about gender and sexual diversity, but to emphasize that not only LGBT people are diverse with their gender and sexuality. Of course, our diversity is the most obvious, but straight people are diverse, too. I’ve taken to pointing this out, every time I talk about the concept of gender expression. You take 100 straight girls who work in the same industry, and some of them don’t even own pants, and some of them wouldn’t be caught dead in a skirt. Some of them don’t wear makeup to interviews, and some of them wouldn’t be caught without false eyelashes at the gym. That’s diversity of gender expression. And you don’t even need to understand LGBT people to get that it exists. And if you really celebrate it, to me, you’re welcome at Pride, not as an ally, but as a full blooded sibling. Even if you’re straight.

So, my answer, radical as it is, is to not only embrace chauvinism in my womanhood (and the idea that I can be proud of being a woman but that pride does not bind me to a course of being sexist), but to embrace the idea that you can be proud of who you are. Even if you’re a straight white dude! But you’re going to need to re-capture who you are. Because you’ve been defined in this sexist way that makes you everything and makes us nothing, and surprisingly and unintentionally, also makes you nothing and makes us everything

This is a big part of the reason I really nudge Teri and his friends along in this idea of developing a robust, future-compatible concept of manhood, not just for themselves, but as a gift to all men. Sure, I benefit, because if men weren’t tools, feminist movement would be so much easier. Obvi. But the truth is I benefit directly, because Teri is a man, and moreover, he’s my fiancé, and the better man he is, the better my life will be – not because I need a man anymore than a fish needs a bicycle, but because my life and his are wound together. Just as the better woman I am, the better his life will be. That’s the shared destiny of our selecting each other as mates, and it’s the consequence of the commitment we make to each other, the one we will consecrate someday soon in marriage.

And finally, yes, I glossed over it so I could pack in a not very funny joke, but I did say born female. As a trans woman, I take some relatively strong views. One of them is that I am biologically female, irrespective of the sex to which I was designated, irrespective of anything, period. I don’t know what my karyotype is – I haven’t and don’t need genetic testing to know who I am. Moreover, that very concept is backwards – my genes have the potential to explain the diversity of sex, because they probably aren’t typical female genes, but they’re carried by a woman (me). I’m a woman irrespective of how they look – and I know this from years of trying to deny this simple truth. In embracing authenticity, I’m not living “as a” woman or or somehow changing to my gender identity – I’m simply accepting reality*****. For this reason, I reject terminology****** like male-to-female or female-to-male, for myself, anyways.

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy's. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don't know the word karyotype... Source: fineartamerica

This is a karyotype. Not mine. Some guy’s. Seriously, if you want to have a conversation about the biology of sex and you don’t know the word karyotype… Source: fineartamerica

The relevance of this strong view is that I reject the idea that I was a man, or even a boy. Which is important, because it allows me to be unabashedly a woman – I think everyone who knows me knows I don’t identify as anything, and I don’t prefer things, either.

So I’m proud to have been born female. And I’m proud to be a woman. And I’m not sorry. And I want you to be proud, too. I just want you to be proud in your identity, and I’m willing to help you find your identity. Because you can’t be proud in your privilege.

* I found this article while I was looking for another article, and it’s so amazing that I have to make sure I mention it, by creating a footnote to nothing (cue the bridge to nowhere hyperbole), and I’m going to have to figure out some way, before I publish this piece, to footnote something with this. Because this is amazing. The truth is that, although she uses aggressive language (very Dworkin-worthy), I pretty much actually agree with her. Except that I, unlike her, am kinda cutesy. Well, more than kinda. And I don’t fight, I play fight, and most likely, I don’t hate, I play hate. No, not player hate. Ahem. She explains by the end of the short piece (although apparently too long for the men’s rights folks to finish reading it) that she doesn’t actually hate men, which would also have been obvious from the rest of the piece if one were actually reading it (slash if one were a woman). Also, in solidarity with her, I hate refrigerator magnets. Ask Teri. Or better yet, ask me about the whole situation with having to clean rust off my stainless steal dishwasher that I hardly ever use because of the giant stupid refrigerator magnet someone put on it. Ahem. No, we’re cool, actually I totally love her, we’ve since become really good friends, that one and I.

** Okay, I told one dirty joke that was actually really, really funny, and totally on point. But it’s the only one I can think of. The punchline was “Let me introduce you to my Beaver Cleaver.” You kind of had to have been there. Erm.

*** Or, all too often, interchangeable holes. Oh, you thought I couldn’t be that radical? But seriously, this idea is rife in the “makeover” element of every movie where some mousey girl gets a makeover and looks like she came off the cover of a young woman’s magazine – it’s important, because the dominant culture messaging of men says that every woman could be that girl, if she just toed the line a little harder.

**** Only here to be funny to Teri: Well, that’s an unfortunate name.

***** Truth be told, I still use the term transition – the thing about having a reclaimed identity is not just that I didn’t make up the language, but that I must find a way to describe who I am in a language that wasn’t my choosing and that wasn’t designed to include me in the range of possibility. So, I still use transition, but I’m predicting that you’ll see it appear less and less, and although it’s been in many of my posts, and in this case, I’m relegating it to a footnote. Baby steps.

****** I kind of had a moment of annoyance at an event I did a few months ago – a local activist asked me to be on a panel to “speak about the transgender,” and she had an “MTF” and an “FTM” and a “non-binary” and anyways… I told her, sorry, I don’t do talks about the transgender, and I don’t share stages with MTFs or FTMs. Mostly being flippant, but I think, in the long term, you’ll like my language better, because you’ll like the identity-validating message underlying it. And also the simplicity. Because seriously, like, I can’t keep it straight, whether I’m an MTF or an FTM or an MTFTMTF. I’ve got a little pea-sized girl brain, give me a break.