Category Archives: Articles

Having no place to shit safely, a true story from a trans woman

[Editor’s note]

This post is from ages ago.  Every so often something happens that makes me remember, “Oh, I really need to get around to posting that,” but until now I just never got it done.

The government of North Carolina and its ilk have made this extremely topical, however it is important to remember that the post is old.

Trans* people hadn’t yet been turned into the bogey men of the day, after the fight against marriage equality failed, when it was written.  As such, when the post mentions legislation it’s not talking about the anti-trans* bathroom bills of today, it’s talking about then-current attempts to protect trans* people trying to use the bathroom.  Such attempts tended to be met with outrage and opposition, but I don’t have any stats on how prevalent that tendency was.

[/editor’s note]

(Written anonymously, edited and posted by chris the cynic)

A Place to Shit

This is an important matter so we shouldn’t mince words. It’s about shitting. Always and forever, beginning to end, it’s about shit. When people talk about who can use which bathrooms, they’re talking about shitting. They might also mention changing rooms or communal showers, just to throw you off, but it’s about shitting.

It isn’t about conservative family values or liberal human rights, it isn’t about traditional gender roles or celebrating diversity, it isn’t about protecting children, it isn’t about religion, it isn’t about equal protection, it isn’t about constitutional rights, or original intent, or what the founding fathers would say– it is about who should be required by law to take a dump in their clothes.

Some of the people who are on my side in this fight disagree with some of what I just said. They’ll claim, for example, that it is about equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. They’re wrong. It’s about shit.

In all but the most built up areas or most controlled environments, most people can usually find a place to pee.  It may be disgusting –it may be illegal– but you find a place where no one’s looking, squat, do the deed, and the problem is solved.  Pooping is different.

It generally takes longer, leaves behind more than a puddle or wet spot, smells worse, and leaves you in need of cleaning (wipe or wash, I won’t judge, but you’ve got to do something.)

Let me tell you a true story.

[Editor’s note] While some changes have been made to protect anonymity, none of the facts of the story have been changed. What follows is what happened to the author, just not always in the words she would normally use to describe the events in question. [/editor’s note]

I’m stopped at a McDonald’s near the beginning of my commute. I’m eating my regular and feeling kind of bad about the fact that I now have a regular even though I’m not a fast food fan and promised myself I wouldn’t get stuck in this rut again.

Then I notice that I’m feeling kind of bad in general. A slight twinge in my stomach. I’m just about done with my food and I consider using the McDonald’s restroom. Without thinking I touch my face. When did I last shave?

A woman like me was beaten in a McDonald’s restroom, dragged out of the restroom, publicly beaten again, and people cheered. It’s been on my mind since I first heard about it a few months before.

My face is kind of scratchy. My compact isn’t in my purse right now so I can’t actually get a look. Maybe I look normal. Maybe I have a five o’clock shadow. Last thing I want is for people to know what kind of a woman I am in a McDonald’s women’s restroom. Probably nothing will happen, but I risk being beaten and possibly killed.

I’m wearing jeans. Maybe I can pass as male. I look down at myself. My shirt isn’t that feminine and my breasts are pretty small, I could probably pull it off if I leave my purse in the booth.

But what if I can’t?

Probably nothing will happen, but I risk getting worse than a beating, and possibly being killed afterward.

Added by editor

(image added by editor)

It was only one twinge, and I don’t actually feel like I have to go to the restroom right now.

I finish my food and head home.

Soon the McDonald’s is but a memory and I’m on my way.

I feel another twinge.

I’m at the worst part of my commute for this. For an hour and a half there is nothing for me. Nowhere I can use a public restroom, no woods I can run into and squat, not even a ditch to duck into. I now know I should have used the restroom at the McDonald’s.

There’s nothing for me to do but keep going and hope I don’t get worse.

I get worse. The feeling isn’t just in my stomach anymore. It’s lower. One hand goes to my abdomen and tries to sooth it. It doesn’t help.

I’m definitely going to need to poop.

Soon I’m doing Lamaze breathing and bargaining with myself. I won’t even try to hold out until I get home. I’ll blast into the restroom at the gas station that marks the end of the nothing expanse so fast that no one at the gas station will know what hit the place. Then I’ll calmly walk out, feeling much better, and make some bullshit purchase so that they don’t bug me about the restroom being for customers only.

Pretty soon I realize I can’t even make it that far. I think I’m screwed.

Then I realize that there is a chance. There’s a bridge. I didn’t think about it before because it’s not like I can go to the bathroom on the bridge, but under the bridge . . .

Under the bridge is nothing and no one. There’s no way I can get under the bridge on the near side, but on the far side maybe there is a chance.

By the time I’m at the bridge I think I won’t even make it to the far side, but I surprise myself and do.

It’s only when I’m on foot, beside the road, trying to climb over a fence designed to prevent stupid people from going under the bridge that I realize maybe I could draw unwanted attention. I look at the cars passing, but only for a moment.

I almost kill myself getting over that fence. All that’s left is to go down the steep embankment the bridge is on, and I’ll be out of sight and able to poop.

The thought that I might have drawn attention is still on my mind. It’s probably illegal to be here. There was that damned fence after all.

An image of being arrested while squatting under the bridge pops into my head along with the word “indignity”. The image is fleeting. The word is not.

Two steps away from being out of sight and everything falls apart.

The first shit comes out like a fart. The word indignity is still in my head. I think, for the first time, “This is the worst indignity.”

It wasn’t that much shit, so maybe–

The next shit comes with the next step. It is nothing like a fart. It fills my panties, escapes into my jeans, and starts running down my leg. I think, “This is the worst indignity.”

I’m out of sight, there’s more shit in me, and it’s not going to wait any longer. I fiddle with the button and zipper, drop my pants and panties as quickly as I can, and then try to hold myself in a position where the shit coming out of me won’t land on or in my pants and panties. There’s no time to get them off, so this is my damage control.

Trying to keep the shit from getting on the outside of my jeans is all I have left. I think, “This is the worst indignity,” again.

It doesn’t take that long to be done.

That leaves me under a bridge my shit filled pants and panties around my ankles, and a pile of shit behind me.

I waddle away from the shit on the ground and then get to work on taking off my pants. It’s disgusting. Some of the shit reached my socks, none on my shoes, but taking off the pants. . .

Maybe if I’d used the belt loops removing them would have been less gross. I didn’t think of that.

Besides, there was stuff to do. My panties were obviously a complete loss. My jeans I needed. I couldn’t continue home half-naked. First I tried to dump the shit out of them. Then I tried to shake it out. Then I turned them inside out –there’s no good way to turn a full-of-shit pair of jeans inside out– and found a rock.

I used the rock to scrape as much shit as I could off of the inside of my jeans. I threw the rock into the water.

I returned to my discarded panties, and my socks, and used the non shit-stained parts of them to try to clean myself off.

I threw them into the water.

Many times I thought, “This is the worst indignity.” It was never true.

There was only one way things could end. Eventually I’d done all that I could, I turned my jeans right side out and put them back on.

As I felt the shit-smeared jeans going up my legs, and touching my naked butt, I thought again, “This is the worst indignity.” I didn’t like thinking that same sentence over and over again, but it was a relatively minor annoyance given what else I was putting up with.

I climbed back up the embankment and back over the fence with the shit that had stubbornly clung to my jeans rubbing against my butt and legs all the way. I never did stop thinking, “This is the worst indignity.” There always seemed to be something worse even as I got back to the road and continued my journey home.

It didn’t matter where the nearest restroom was anymore, of course, what I needed was a long shower and clean clothes to change into. Public restrooms don’t provide that.

As I went home, shit kept rubbing against me, the word “indignity” kept bouncing around in my head, and I wondered what sort of rashes might develop as a result of prolonged contact with human shit. Denim isn’t very forgiving when it comes to rubbing.

And that’s my restroom story.

* * *

I tell you that story because those are the options I face:

  • Use the Women’s Room and risk being beat up and possibly killed
  • Use the Men’s Room and risk being beat up or worse and possibly killed
  • Try to hold it and risk shitting my panties

When people talk about the which restrooms trans* people can use they’re trying to change those options, as well as the options non-female trans* people face.

Those who seek protections for trans* people are trying to make it so the first option doesn’t involve the risk of violence and thus I won’t even need to consider the other two. Those who seek restrictions for trans people are trying to take away the first option, forcing me to decide between the other two.

The restriction seekers want my options to be:

  • Risk being sexually assaulted, non-sexually assaulted, and/or killed.
  • Risk shitting my panties.

Any given time, deciding whether or not to use a restroom probably isn’t going to result in something bad, but once you do it enough times those small probabilities of bad things start to add up.  If a lot of people (like all trans* people) do it enough times those small probabilities become certainties.  Some people will end up shitting themselves if they stick to the safe route. Some people will end up assaulted (sexually or otherwise) if they don’t.  Some people will end up killed.

What all of this talk boils down to is where you can shit and how safe you will be when you do shit. As I said before: it is always and forever, beginning to end, about shit.

Perhaps things would be better if politicians and pundits just called this debate what it is, “The debate over who should, legally speaking, have to poop in their pants.” Of course, the most at risk people might not be wearing pants –I often don’t– but it’s at least honest about the core issue.

Talking about family values, traditional gender roles, human rights, constitutional rights, and so forth all misses the point. It’s about not taking a dump in your underwear. Anything else is distraction.

The right to shit in a toilet is not, in fact, enshrined in the US Constitution. Perhaps it should be. As it stands now, however, being able to avoid shitting yourself is a privilege that owners of certain public spaces (such as most restaurants and certain stores) extend to some of their patrons.

There are many possible reasons why an individual owner might choose to do this, but the constantly shot down bills about protecting trans* people using restrooms aren’t really about rights. They’re about making it so the people who choose not to shit themselves don’t risk violence by taking a dump in a toilet.

They’re also about making it so that men aren’t forced to use the women’s room (or shit themselves) out of fear and women aren’t forced to use the men’s room (or shit themselves) out of fear. Currently proposed protections for trans* people would also codify rules about who can be where. Right now anyone can use any restroom provided they can get away with it. If trans* protection bills pass, only men will be allowed to use the men’s room and only women will be allowed to use the women’s room.

This is not without problems (e.g. what about intersex people?) but those problems are extensions of the same question: who should be allowed to shit in a toilet, and who should be made, by threat of violence tacitly approved by the law of the land, to shit themselves.

I’d like to think that one day we can live in a society where everyone can safely take a dump in a toilet and thus no one is forced to endure the indignity of shit-filled jeans simply because they had a chance to use a toilet but were afraid of what might be done to them if they did.

But, for now, just remember that it’s all about shit.

Not the children, beyond the fact that they need to shit too, not gender roles, beyond the fact that all genders need to shit, not the founding fathers, not religion–  just shit.

[Editor’s postscript]

Ok, so, chris the cynic speaking again, a reminder about hosted articles since it’s been a while since we had one.  The above is not meant to be the end of discussion; it’s meant to be the beginning.

Above is what one person thinks (and an episode from her life that is relevant to those thoughts.) Now it’s time for other people to say what they think.  And, yes, that includes disagreements.  If you disagree with something she wrote, please say so.  Ditto for if you agree with any point in particular.  Make your voice heard.

That’s the idea at least.

[/editor’s postscript]

It’s not a cage or a prison, it’s a home

(By chris the cynic, a previous version of this appeared on her own site, Stealing Commas.)

Every so often something happens that causes me to mention that I’m trans.  The asterisk isn’t there because I’m talking about the very specific subset which I am.  I’m a trans woman.  Since I fit into that category, woman, quite neatly I’m not one of the people the asterisk is there to remind us about and I wouldn’t presume to speak for them.

Not that I presume to speak for all trans women and trans men.  I don’t.

But we go sideways.  Let us return to forward:

Every so often something happens that causes me to mention that I’m trans.  Most of the time I don’t talk about it and I don’t think I should have to talk about it.  That’s between me and my body and sometimes my doctors and, unfortunately, my official identification (fuck you things that say what you think my gender is and require my full legal name.)

But mostly between me and my body.

After Lonespark shared this with me, I decided that maybe it’s worth talking about the relationship between me and my body.

It’s kind of rocky at times.  There’s a long scabbed over cut near my left elbow and I have no idea how it got there.  Looks like it should have hurt.

Fail communication much body?  This after all of the times you felt the need to tell me every little thing that was going on in my intestines as if I’d forget I was sick if you gave me so much as one moment of respite?

Or how about when you don’t tell me I’m dehydrated and instead trick me into thinking I’m malnourished or sleep-deprived instead, thereby assuring that the steps I’m taking to fix the perceived problem don’t stand a chance in hell of addressing the actual problem?

What the fuck is up with that?

So, yeah, it can be rocky at times.

But I’m not trapped in it, and I never was.

I live in it.  I reside here.  I exist in the space behind these eyes, and tendrils of my being reach out to other parts like the fingers with which I type, the ankle I have sprained, a toe that rests against the couch, the intestines that have to get involved whenever I’m sick even if the illness is emphatically not intestinal.  This is me and mine.  (Yes, I just used “is” as a transitive verb.)

I was never a girl trapped in a boy’s body.  I was a sometimes confused, sometimes scarily certain, girl in a body that refused to change to fit how she wanted it to be or felt it should be.

I’d hoped to be taller.  I’m still horribly bereft of wings.  I watched with horror as the peach fuzz on my arms turned to thick dark coarse hair.

And had everyone look at me like some inhuman other when I decided to shave off that fucking hair off my arms in . . . high school I think it was.  Never did that in high school again, the reaction was too . . . I’m not sure there is a word.

My body doesn’t always do the things I want.  Note its tendency to get concussed.

But I’m not trapped here.  I don’t want out.  I want change.

At the moment I want to change my weight because I know the weight I feel best at and this is not it.  Once my ankle is 100% and I’m losing weight I’ll bet you that I get pissed off when by boobs get smaller with the rest of me.  Well, maybe not pissed off.  Probably annoyed.

Frustrating as all hell that I needed insurance and an endocrinologist for them to grow in the first place.

Most girls have bodies that will grow boobs without being bribed with estrogen pills.  Generally by the time they’re women.

The fact that mine doesn’t work that way, though, doesn’t suddenly make it a man’s body, and it didn’t make it a boy’s body when I was younger.  It’s my fucking body.  The male gender doesn’t get possession.  It doesn’t because maleness is over there and I’m over here and this body belongs to me.

There are people who dream of switching to a different body, there are people who feel trapped in the wrong one, but they are not everyone who is trans (or trans*) and I am not one of them.

If you start thinking, “I know what this is about, girl trapped in a boy’s body,” in response to hearing about trans girls please remember me and re-calibrate your fucking paradigm.  I exist.  People like unto me exist.  Don’t forget about people who feel trapped since they exist too, but do remember the people who don’t feel trapped.

I would say that all bodies are fixer-upper jobs to some degree or other, but I remind myself of the story of Balpreet Kaur.  If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s the short version: Balpreet Kaur is a cis woman who has facial hair –a dark mustache and a beard that’s thick and dark near the chin.  People on the internet were nasty when they saw her picture (a picture she didn’t know had been taken), but when she found out about it she responded beautifully.

Balpreet Kaur

The initial picture of Balpreet Kaur

What matters for our purposes at this precise moment is that her religion tells her that her body is the way it’s supposed to be, a gift from her God, and she believes it.

So I have to remind myself, some people do have bodies that are already perfect.

For a lot of us, though, that’s not the case.  Bodies aren’t perfect.  Mine isn’t (again, note the fucking lack of wings) and it never was.  It’s closer to perfect than it once was in some ways, and further in others.  But it was never the wrong body.  I never wanted to leave this body.  I never felt trapped.  I never yearned for a different one.  I wanted to change the body to match how I felt it should be (obviously feminine traits as defined by my culture, sprout wings, be svelte instead of bowling ball shaped …) but it’s mine and, no, maleness cannot have it.

It’s like my house.  My house is not in its ideal state.  Time, money, and mental state willing, I will make serious changes to it.  (Like figuring out how that fucking noisy as fuck mouse gets in, sealing that hole or those holes, and securing them better than the Cheyenne Mountain Complex.) But the fact that I want it to be different than it is doesn’t mean that I want to get out of it.  It means I want to bring it closer to perfection.

Sometimes people will try to understand by asking when I started feeling like I was a girl (or woman if they think I didn’t realize until adulthood) in a boy’s (or man’s) body.  I’ll tell them about how my sister says that when I was really little I said I wanted to grow up to be a woman, but I was too young to remember that so I have to take her word.  And I’ll tell them that the earliest memory that I can assign a time period to was on the playground in elementary school when I was thinking about how I’d like to be able to turn into a girl.

I don’t lecture them about how neither of these things is about being in the wrong body.  I don’t tell them that “turning into a girl” as envisioned in my young mind involved this body –this very one that I still have to this day and was in all those years ago– changing to become a more fitting one meaning that I wanted to keep the same damned body, thank you very much.

I usually leave a lot unsaid, and so I’m talking now.

Yes, as a child I probably would have conceded that I had a boy’s body.  I didn’t know anything about the difference between sex and gender.  I didn’t know trans* people existed.  I didn’t have the language to describe how I felt, and I didn’t have the conceptual framework to make sense of it to myself, much less communicate it to others.

But even then, when I would have said I was in a boy’s body, I never thought it was the wrong one.  It was always the right body in the wrong shape.  It was my body.  When I imagined turning into a girl, because I had been taught that I wasn’t one so there had to be some kind of transformation, it was always, always, always about my body –my body that was the right body for me and was so very much mine and the only body I’d ever want– changing.

And that’s not something that’s unique to my corner of the trans experience.

Plenty of kids want to grow up.  That desire, the desire to be a grown up, isn’t (well, I should hedge, infinite diversity after all, isn’t always) about the kids thinking that they’re trapped in the wrong body.  It’s about wanting their body, the one that they want to stay in, to change.

These days I have a doctor monitoring and adjusting my hormones instead of puberty.  Because why in fuck would anyone trust puberty to get things right?  How many people think, “Well I could get help from someone who has studied for years and is up to date on the latest science; nah, I’ll just ask puberty”?

Granted puberty does get things (within tolerance of) right for a lot of people, but I’m putting my faith in medical science these days instead of, “Well if I just wait I’m sure everything will turn out great on its own.”

And for me having my endocrine system working as it should and dealing with hair in places I don’t want it may be all that I need.  That and a new dentist (old one got carpal tunnel, or something like that, and had to retire.)  It might not.  The future is not known to me.

It’s definitely the case that a lot of people are obsessed with surgery when it comes to trans bodies.  Everyone wants to know if you’ve got gonads or not.  Well, actually, when it comes to trans women what nosy people are usually interested in is more gonad-adjacent.

I’m squeamish about genitalia in general, so discussion of surgery to them isn’t something that I really want to have, but I would like to point out that it is not common practice to walk up to the penis-havers of the world and ask, “Are you circumcised?” in spite of that being a much more common surgery.  (Though it still ranks far below joint replacement, C section, and the grand Poohbah of all surgeries in the United States: cataract removal.)

My point, insofar as I have one, with respect to surgery, is that people who surgically alter their bodies generally aren’t doing it because they feel trapped in the wrong one.  Maybe they’re just sick of of their vision being screwed up, because how many people want to have blurry vision that only shows them faded colors?  Nothing against people who do, but I’m betting that people who don’t aren’t usually getting surgery because they feel they’re trapped in the wrong bodies.

* * *

The post that led me to write this, linked to above and again here, begins:

I am not a woman trapped in a man’s body. This body is no man’s; it is mine, it is me, and there is no man in that equation. And I am not trapped in it. There are a million and one ways out of this body, and I have clung to it, tooth and claw, despite an endless line of people and institutions who would rather I vacate the premises, and have sometimes been willing to make me bleed to convince me they’re right.

This body is mine, and I claim it and its bruises, and it is not a man’s, and I am not trapped here. I have looked leaving my body in the eye and I have said, in the end, hell no. There is too much to do, too much to love, too many who need one more of us to say hell no and help them say the same.

I have a friend who has lost all joy.  When asked how he is he says, “I persist.”  I wish he had better, but I’m glad it’s not worse.  I’ve often pointed out that surviving is what I do.  It’s the only thing I’ve never failed at.  If one day my seemingly endless string of financial catastrophes should leave me homeless I don’t know what will happen, but I think I’ll survive.  It’s what I do.

I have a leg up over a lot of people because, even at its most fucked up, my brain never hits me with suicidal thoughts.  Still, keeping the body is hard work.

This body is mine and I guard it jealously.  I try very hard, though sometimes not hard enough, to keep it unbroken, to keep the blood on the inside, it’s a constant struggle to keep it fed and watered.

This body was my birthright, but I’ve had to keep on earning the right to use it day by day and year by year.  Sometimes parts of it are wrong, sometimes things are in the wrong shape, sometimes it doesn’t work remotely right, but it’s never the wrong body.  It’s never some man’s body, and when I was a kid it wasn’t some boy’s body.

It’s mine, and I am no man.


I’ve been told an Eowyn pic is essential here.

People not allowing that narrative can and do fuck over people like me.  Do you have any idea how long I was in mental anguish because everything inside was saying that I should be a girl but I “knew” that couldn’t be true because if it were I’d have to feel trapped in the wrong body and I didn’t have that fucking dysphoria?

I didn’t think that there was anything wrong with trans people (didn’t know about any of the asterisk groups at that point) but I’d been told that they felt trapped in the wrong body and I didn’t, ergo I couldn’t be trans.  I assumed that I was some kind of unclassified freak* who wasn’t a real trans person.

This shit is damaging.  Some trans* people feel that they’re an X trapped in a Y body.  Cut the “some” off the front of that sentence and you get a vicious fucking lie.**

I would have been sure of myself and ready to start transitioning before I finished high school if not for the “Trans people feel trapped in the wrong body” lie.  Instead, because I believed the lie, I thought that I couldn’t possibly be trans and couldn’t figure out what the fuck I was.  Trying to work it out hurt.  Eventually it hurt so much that I decided to ignore my body entirely.

Want to know how long I hid from trying to figure out my own identity because the damned lie that trans people all feel trapped in the wrong body made any attempt at finding myself result in mental torment?  I was ignoring my body; part of that included not shaving.  Check out the beard length.


My editor says I shouldn’t insert pictures instead of just links.

I note Lonespark’s comment “Your Before picture looks like you are hiding from the world.”

Yeah.  You have no idea.  Well, you (Lonespark) didn’t then, but you were the first to find out.  Or . . . I think I told my mother pretty early, so that would make you the second.

I think it was another year after that when I came out.  (Lonespark deserves a lot of credit for giving me much needed support.  It would have been a lot easier to keep pretending to be male.  I had a lot of practice.)

I think I came out in September 2013.  Over ten years after I graduated high school (just one summer over ten years, but over ten years nonetheless.)  If it weren’t for the lie that “trapped in the wrong body” is the only way trans people can be, then, as I noted, I’d have had my gender identity well and truly sorted out by the time I graduated high school.

An entire decade of needless confusion and pain.

Of course if they’d just told me that there was such a thing as trans people when I was a little kid (and left out the lie of course) then I probably would have had it fucking sorted by the time I reached middle-school. I spent so much damned time daydreaming about being able to be a girl and if I’d known that maybe it was because I was a girl I probably could have put it together.

Though there is an intriguing other possibility.  I’m a trans woman and the only hesitation I have in saying that is that I really, truly don’t like admitting to adulthood.  (I don’t wanna grow up.)  What was going on in my head when I was really little though . . . it was . . . I don’t know.

Maybe it’s just because everything was telling me that I was a boy and was supposed to be a boy so I had to incorporate that into my thinking.  Or maybe I really was different back then.  Because while I spent so, so much time wanting to be able to, and dreaming about being able to, turn into a girl, being able to turn back was always an element.  In the fantasy worlds kept safely hidden inside my own mind where no one else could see I was gender-fluid.

Maybe if I’d been allowed to be that then I would be now.  Maybe that’s something that got lost along the way.  Or maybe I never was, and I just had the desire to move between the two because I thought I was supposed to want the one I didn’t want and I was indeed a genderstatic trans girl back then.

I truly don’t know.

What I do know is that things would have been a lot better if I’d been given accurate information a lot earlier and not had the over generalization that made it seem like people like me were impossible.

And a big part of what I needed to know, but was told wasn’t true, was that it’s possible for a single person to be trans and attached to their body in a positive way.

It’s my body.  I am not trapped here.  I want to be here.  If I were taken out and put into some cis woman’s body I’d want my fucking body back because this one is mine, God damn it.

Random line from a cartoon:

It’s time we stopped trying to be so “perfect” and be who we really are.  We’re crazed, angry, sweaty animals!  We’re not unicorns; we’re women, and we take what we want!

Wendy Speech

It was suggested that I insert a picture of her being awesome in a unicorn brawl, but I prefer Wendy’s speech.

And me, I want this body.  I want this one right here to be the one that matches who I am.

I’m not trapped here; I’m ensconced.

It’s only natural to want your ensconcey-place to be in line with your own standards, so yeah, that’s involved some changes.  But they were improvements to a place that I was never trapped and never dysphoric about.***


* Please read the word “freak” with all possible negative connotations and not a single positive one.

** See “freak” in the previous paragraph and “anguish” two paragraphs prior.  It god damned hurt.

*** Except maybe the arm hair.  When that first turned dark and coarse it really did bother –a visceral sense of wrongness, even– but plenty of people dislike body hair without it being called dysphoria.

There are normal people, and then there’s you – A post about inequality in language

[By chris the cynic, who apologizes if this isn’t as polished as an article should be.  I’m dealing with serious tech problems that would make it difficult to go through the pre-posting beta reading and proofing that I’d normally prefer.]

Note that you can totally kip if you feel like it:

This previously appeared on Stealing Commas as two separate posts the first was a post of largely the same name (There are normal people and then there’s you.) the second was to clarify some points and described certain principles regarding the legitimacy of self identification outside of a group that definitionally includes you (Always punch up; never punch down.)  Combining the two in a coherent readable fashion is the reason that it’s taken two years to adapt this into a Slacktiverse post.  I kept on feeling like I wasn’t up to the task.

* * *

When I was little I was taught that there were two genders and that they were equal.  I believed this, I internalized it, and for the longest time the idea that sexism might still be a thing was beyond my consideration.  I didn’t reject the idea, because that would imply that I entertained the idea.

Instead I believed that boys and girls, and by extension males and females in general, were equal in everyone’s eyes.  One of the various things this did was cause me to completely misinterpret a feature of language.

Things such as “gods and goddesses”, “actors and actresses”, “[almost any pair in which one of the words has an -ess/-esses suffix]”, “gay and lesbian” (then the common term), “mankind and womankind”, “firemen and -women” and so forth all, by definition, double counted the female members of the group.  Even “he” and “she” the dictionary told me, was a pair of words where the first could include anyone and the second was “no boys allowed.”

This, at the time, seemed extremely unfair to me.  That’s not wrong.  But what I did get wrong was to whom it was being unfair.  Boys and girls were clearly entirely equal, I reasoned, so why did girls get a special word?  If two people are the same and you just randomly give one of them more, that’s not nice.

I didn’t think that boys should be able to be actresses, but I thought that if there were going to be a special word for “female actors” then there ought to be a special word for “male actors.”

With clothes, well… actually let me digress.

There’s a reason that I’m finally getting to revising this post and making it Slacktiverse-worthy now.

A friend of mine was looking for the original version of this post (then the only version of this post) because Lonespark had mentioned it (but not linked to it) when referring to an article that asked the question, “Why are ‘gender neutral’ clothes just boys’ clothes for girls?”

It’s a question I had as a child.  It seemed clear to me that everyone should be able to wear all the clothes but instead there were clothes for everyone and clothes reserved for girls only.  It didn’t matter that all of society was telling me that that was how things should be, I had a sense of justice that said everyone should be able to wear all the clothes and that keeping some of the people from wearing certain clothes was unfair.  Silly kids, Trix are for everyone.  At least I called that one right.

I missed the reason behind both it specifically and the larger pattern, but “everyone should be able to wear all the clothes” remains true.

And, in fact, in spite of completely missing who was being marginalized and who was being raised up with the language thing, my solution there would have worked too.  Just not for the reason I thought.

I had started from the assumption that boys and girls were equal, I assumed that everyone thought they were equal, I thought the culture as a whole considered them equal in all things (I was young and stupid) and more things involving fucking equality, and then the unequal treatment seemed like it was being mean to the group not getting the special word.

It never occurred to me that people would encounter a word like “actor” which means “fucking person –genderless word here you assholes– who acts” and assume it meant, “male actor” unless they were specifically told otherwise.  Because actor, without any adjectives, must mean (and does mean) normal actor.  That’s how language works.  And what’s not normal about a female actor?

Or, for that matter, a female god?  Hera, Demeter, Persephone, Athena, Artemis, and so forth are just as normal as Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Ares, and Apollo.

What I didn’t realize is that if you don’t start with the assumption that normal obviously includes female people just as much as it includes male people, then there must be something not normal about female gods because otherwise the term “gods and goddesses” would be redundant.  It says, “normal gods and female gods,” and the only reason that we need to make that distinction is if female gods aren’t normal.

The separation marks the female ones as abnormal.

Gods and goddesses is like saying, “people and women” except we’re talking about divine beings instead of human ones.  Professions are worse because they’re talking about the people who surround us.  “Actors and actresses” means “people who act and women who act” which literally leaves us with “people and women” as if the first somehow doesn’t include the second.

There’s a move away from the word “actress” because people can see that it’s bullshit.  It doesn’t have to be though, if it were paired with another word that meant “male person who acts” then it would be less egregious, for example.

A different kind of move has been seen regarding non-straight people.  The adjective pair of my youth (gay and lesbian) has been replaced by a noun pair that marks no one as abnormal (lesbians and gay men.)  The reason that gendered language is being abandoned in one area and refined to be non-fucked up in another has to do with an important thing that we’ll get to in greater depth later.

The quick three paragraph version is that sometimes the special word is created to keep the people considered abnormal or subnormal separate from the people considered normal.  A woman who acted was seen as something so strange, different, and weird that a word had to be invented for it while men who acted were so normal that they got to use the word that means “person who acts” without modification or limitation.

Sometimes, however, the people considered abnormal or subnormal are being excluded and the special word is created or adopted not to further that exclusion but instead as a way to explicitly say, “We’re including these people too.”

Also, being excluded can sour you on a term that technically includes you and leave you wanting a more specific term.  Thus the use of “lesbian” (adjective and noun alike) was in part a response to men who thought that “gay people” meant “gay men and gay men only.”

We’ll have more on when a word is part of a struggle for inclusion as opposed to a means of exclusion later, though.

Right now the important thing is that then there’s a word for people and another word for women, that marks women as being different, strange, abnormal, possibly even subhuman.  I didn’t understand this when I was little because I thought that women were obviously normal people (because they ARE normal people) and didn’t consider that separating them out said that they were not.

The extent of “normal people and women” wasn’t driven home until 2012.  I knew that there were products marketed to all kids and girls, I might have realized that there were products marketed to people and women, but it took a picture of two books to really drive home that even when we do have two equal words, one for male and one for female, we still don’t fucking use them.

The picture, which I saw on this post by Fred Clark but originally comes from this post at the Ms. Blog, is of two books.  One book is subtitled, “Just how big can a little girl dream?”  Next to it is a book that appears to be identical except for one thing: the main character is a boy instead of a girl.  Same author, same illustrator, same company, same style, same title except for the gendered name needing to be a boy’s name instead of a girl’s name.  Is it subtitled, “Just how big can a little boy dream?”  No.  It’s, “Just how big can a little kid dream?”  One for kids, one for girls.

The opening paragraphs of Fred’s post are a great summary of the phenomenon:

The Ms. Blog offers a collection of reader-submitted photos of products marketed to people and also to women.

Not to men and to women, but to people — normal, legitimate, regular people, and to women — abnormal, subordinate, irregular not-quite people.

And while that is horrible, that’s not even what this post is about.

* * *

The original iteration of this post was one that I decided to write after learning that “cis” is “social justice porn” and realizing that that was one of the nicer descriptions of the term I had heard.  It has also been labeled as hate speech by some.

For those who don’t know, “cis” and “trans” are Latin prefixes that form a complete set.  Anything that is not trans is by definition cis.  Anything that is not cis is by definition trans.  “Trans” is the more complicated of the two because trans means across while cis means not-across, and there are multiple ways to be across.

Cisalpine Gaul is the part of Gaul that is on the same side of the Alps (as the Romans.)  It is in one place and stays within the assigned borders.  Transalpine Gaul does much the same thing, but it’s across the Alps (from the Romans.)

A lot of people think that the definition of trans ends there.  The reason that “trans” is sometimes written as “trans*” is to remind people that the definition doesn’t end there and thus, hopefully, prevent people from being excluded.

Even without asterisk we know that there are other ways for things to be trans.

A transcontinental flight isn’t one that always stays across the continent from some fixed point of reference.  It’s one that starts in one continent and moves across at least one border (usually an ocean but sometimes an isthmus or, in one case, the Urals) to end up in another.

A transnational corporation refuses to stay on the designated side of the border in a different way entirely.  It exists on multiple sides of the border at once.

The same meanings of trans apply when talking about gender.  Anyone who isn’t strictly staying within the borders of the societally defined appropriate context of the gender they were assigned at birth is by definition trans.  But we have to remember why “trans*” exists.  In spite of some types of people being included, by definition, in “trans” they’ve been left out and some people those groups aren’t satisfied with just an asterisk to indicate that they count.

Also, “trans” isn’t the most descriptive term for them anyway.  Like the two parts of Gaul, people who are single gender conforming are easily understood with just the use of “trans” or “cis” but genderqueer, genderfluid, gender nonconforming, and indeed all trans people who are not trans men or trans women are not adequately described, in many contexts, by the accurate term “trans”.  Thus certain people who are definitionally included in “trans” don’t identify as such.  I’m going to have a big section on why that’s fine and how it in no way contradicts what I’m about to say regarding the term “cis” at the end of the post.

For now though, I want to talk about “cis”.

* * *

“Trans” and “cis” can be used as adjectives (thus full words) or word elements.  Cis woman and ciswoman are both acceptable, for example.  That however, isn’t the point.  The point goes back to definitions.  That which is not trans, using the complete definition as sometimes signified with the asterisk, is by definition cis.  If you’re not transgender you must be cisgender.  The same can be said of “transsexual” and “cissexual” except that there’s a lot of baggage there and this post is already on the heavier side of acceptable flying weights.  If you’re a woman who isn’t a trans woman you must therefore be a cis woman, and if you’re a man who is not a trans man you must therefore be a cis man.

It’s what the words mean.  Like I said, it’s a complete set so if you’ve got the trans and the cis you have all the things.  That doesn’t even have to do with gender, but the application to gender issues is really fucking important.  So, to make sure that we’ve beaten this into the ground enough to form a firm foundation, let me point out that: trans women + cis women = all women.  And if I replace “women” with “men” that still holds true.

We don’t always use both prefixes/adjectives because we don’t always care about things equally.  We don’t, for example, care about gressions in general.  It’s not even a word.  Regressions, progressions, aggressions, and transgression we care about.  Cisgressions not so much.

But when we’re talking about people there’s an important thing to note: if we don’t use both terms then we end up with the same problem seen above with “people and women”.  We end up, in our language, at the level of of either adjectives or prefixes, saying that we have normal, legitimate, regular people and abnormal, subordinate, irregular, not-quite people.

If, instead of “cis women and trans women,” we have, “women  and trans women” then we’re saying that there are normal, legitimate, regular women, and then there are trans women who are abnormal, subordinate, irregular, not-quite women.  Or, as some people would have it, not at all women.

That’s why we need the prefix cis to be there.  It doesn’t need to be there all the time of course because the fact of the matter is that most of the time when we talk about women it doesn’t fucking matter if they’re cis or trans so there will be no prefix.  It does need to be there when the two groups need to be separated for whatever reason because we can’t let the words be, “women and trans women” without saying that trans women don’t count as women.  It has to be “cis women and trans women” in such cases because otherwise our very language makes us assholes.  It hurts people.

There’s a reason I’m using women as the example, by the way.  There are people fighting to brand the use of “cis” as socially unacceptable and I mostly see it from women.  It’s possible that this is just because of my own limited knowledge of the world.

Maybe there are articles about how horrible it is that real true boys have to share restrooms with trans boys who, the articles insists, are really just “confused girls”.  Maybe there’s an entire movement out there saying we as a people need to protect our normal sons from trans boys who might use the same restrooms/changing rooms/locker rooms/and so forth if we have laws against discrimination.

Maybe there are “Men born Men” spaces and I just don’t know about them.

Maybe there are loud organised gay men who say that gay trans men are just straight women trying to pass as men so that they can have sex with the ever elusive and highly coveted gay men that straight women want so much.

Maybe all of this shit and more.  But I haven’t seen it.

Instead what I tend to see is cis women claiming that calling them cis women is a crime against their self determination and dignity and that “cis” is equivalent to a horrible slur.  When men weigh in, which they often do, they also seem to be concerned primarily with women on the grounds of protecting wives, sisters, and daughters from the scary trans women and/or trans girls.

A lot can be said about the bullshit of “Womyn born Womyn” spaces.  The entire concept is to keep out trans women, but it doesn’t say “Cis women only” and that “y” isn’t there to indicate that they’re a different group from “women” as a whole.

Discussion about those toxic spaces could even bring up interesting and important questions about the solidification of gender identity.  Not everyone who is trans knew from birth that they weren’t cis.  It makes a nice sound bite to talk about being born in the wrong body, but it only applies to certain trans* people.

That exploration of trans women who were clearly trans from birth and trans women who were born without a strong gender identity and only developed one later is something that needs to happen and needs to happen visibly because right now even people who are trying to be decent human beings are getting tricked by sound bites into being insensitive jerks sometimes.

But “Womyn born Womyn” doesn’t mean, “You’re only allowed in if you strongly identified with the concept of girl since birth.”  In fact, a lot of the time we can see people who say that gender identity is bullshit and we should strive to break free of the entire fucking concept of gender in these spaces and supporting their trans exclusionary policies.  Those are the ones that give us the term TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist.)

The reason that the spaces and the people who run them don’t say “cis women only” is because they don’t want to be labeled cis.  They don’t offer up some other term of their own invention that they prefer, they just want to be women, or womyn depending on context, which brings us back to the point.

If we don’t use the term “ciswomen/cis women” then we’re left with “women and transwomen/trans women” which marks trans women as strange, different, sub-women or we’re left never bringing up trans women at all which means they’re left out entirely as seen by things like the fact that they’re not even allowed to take a shit without laws that specifically say they do, in fact, count as women.

(On that subject, somewhere I have an anonymous guest post about the right to take a shit that I need to get around to posting here because I think it’s been languishing for a year or more at this point.)

When people fight against being labeled so that they have claim to the unmodified noun while another group is stuck with the modified noun, as with the people who don’t want to be “cis” thus leaving us with “people and trans people” what they’re actually fighting for, even if they’re not fully aware of it, is oppressing the other group at a linguistic level.

Sticking with “cis”, “trans”, and “women”, if we cut out cis and thus end up up with “women and trans women” and there’s only one thing that makes that construction make sense.  The only way to make it so what comes after the “and” isn’t a redundant repetition of a proper subset of what comes before the “and” is if we view “trans” as a negation.  It’s only if we see it as “women and fake women” that it really makes sense.

Women fighting against being labeled cis aren’t trying to make it so the word “women” means, “female people which obviously includes trans female people and would only ever not include them if specifically stated to not include them,” because they’re not fighting for people like them to be labeled “women who don’t happen to be trans” they’re fighting for people like them to be labeled “women” as opposed to those other people who are “trans women”.  Which makes “trans women” not “women”.

So, point stated five thousand times, is if cis women get to just be called “women” with no modifier regardless of context that means that we can’t talk about trans women without labeling them as strange, different, and somehow less than fully women.  And there are people who are fighting to make sure that’s the case.

And it’s not just that.

Remember what I said about trans including people other than trans women and trans men.  Remember also what, or rather who,  the asterisk in trans* is there to remind you not to forget about.

Genderqueer people exist, whether others like it or not.  Whether others admit it or not.  The alternative term is genderconforming.  But if you use that some people will think you’re evil or you’ve gone too far or you’re a bigot against them because “conforming” is a dirty word.  Why, liquid conforms to its container and this house conforms to the building codes and people generally conform to the laws.  See, it’s HIDEOUS!  Clearly the alternative to genderqueer is just plain NORMAL and there’s no need for any word for it.

Or so the argument goes.

Genderfluid people exist.  The alternative would be genderstable/genderstatic or something like that I suppose.  I’ve not heard it used.

Moving away from trans* we still have this problem in discussions of race even though it became unpopular to be an openly racist asshole well before it became unpopular to be an openly transphobic asshole (actually, see: TERFs, it’s still just fine, popularity-wise, to be an openly transphobic asshole.)

A lot of white people are quick to say that we don’t need labels and we should just all be people, which leaves us with people and people of color.  That, or we just don’t talk about the issues that specifically affect people of color.  Either way, people of color are getting screwed by the way the label rejecting white people try to frame discussion.

* * *

And now we come to this part.

This is, sort of, the part that’s really been keeping me in a state of intending to revise this post for inclusion on the Slacktiverse yet never actually getting around to it.

Because, as noted at the top, in the original go I needed two posts, and how to fit in that second post is … difficult.

First off, I guess, more from the original post, but it’ll be cut down so the new material isn’t overly redundant.

Again it’s worthwhile to return to genesis of special words.  Sometimes they’re created to linguistically enforce separation, and generally done by people outside the group being labeled in order to keep those people out of the normal category.  I’m guessing (though do not know for sure) that words like “actress” and “poetess” had their origins with men thinking that female actors and female poets were so strange and different and weird that there needed to be a special word to separated them from normal actors and poets.

Sometimes, however, special words are created for the purpose of inclusion.  In this case the label is usually created or adopted by the group it describes because it’s needed.

The term lesbian has been around for as long as there’s been an island of Lesbos, and has been associated with non-straight female sexuality since Sappho (who died circa 570 BC.)  But the reason that it sees its modern usage has little to do with that and loads to do with the fact that without the Sapphic term women were getting left the fuck out.

There were plenty of gay men who thought that gay people naturally meant “Gay male people” because misogyny is not the exclusive domain of heterosexual people.  Unless something for gay people specifically said it included lesbians there was a decent chance it was male only even if it wasn’t advertised as such.

There are similar problems with trans people who are neither men or women getting included in “trans”.  Yes, they are included in trans by definition, every bit as much as lesbians are included in “gay people”, but that didn’t mean they were being included in practice.  It still doesn’t, unfortunately.  Thus: agender, genderfluid, gender-nonconforming, genderqueer, and so forth.  Without a name that specifically pointed to them, they got left out.

And that’s a step beyond the title of the post.  Yes, “women and trans women” is a bad construction that says that trans women are set apart from women a some kind of strange, substandard, or outright fake women, but there is a step further.  If we remove labels altogether then we can’t even talk about trans women.  You can’t say, “This is supposed to be for all women but trans women are being left out,” if you don’t have a term for trans women.

You can’t talk about the challenges genderfluid people face if you don’t have the word “genderfluid”.

And for plenty of people that’s a feature, not a bug.  There are lots of people who would prefer never to think about people other than themselves.  At the time of the original post I didn’t even know “Black Lives Matter” was a thing since it wouldn’t break through my bubble until the death of Michael Brown in 2014.  But the response of “All Lives Matter” seems relevant here.  “All Lives Matter” isn’t about setting up a contrast between normal people’s lives and black people’s lives.  It’s worse.  It’s about ignoring the existence of black people entirely.

If every time you try to talk about the (lethal) problems facing black people you’re drowned out by people demanding that you think about all people, then you can never actually deal with the problems facing black people.   They become invisible and the things that affect predominantly them aren’t able to be raised as topics to be considered, addressed, and hopefully fucking solved.

And that’s the choice that the people who reject labels want everyone else to be faced with.  Either you can accept that there are normal people on the one hand and you on the other hand, or you can never ever talk about the shit you specifically have to deal.

Either accept that the construction of “normal people and you” or never talk about the problems you face as someone who isn’t male, who isn’t cis, who isn’t white, who isn’t gender conforming, who isn’t binary, who isn’t … whatever quality it is that allows privileged people to claim that they need no label.

And here’s the reason that the title includes “you”: it isn’t just one group.  Whoever you are, wherever you are, and and whatever you are, unless you sit at the intersection of all forms of privilege approved, socially and linguistically supported things (which no one does) then there’s some formulation in which there are normal people … and then there’s you.

If the language supports the idea that maybe you are normal after all, then there’s someone fighting against it saying that while it may be ok to label you (and only might, maybe you aren’t worthy of a label) it’s totally not ok for there to be a label that applies to people not like you because that would apply to them and that’s fucking hate speech or turning actual social justice into social justice porn or whatever it fucking takes to make sure that instead of there being a pair of words for “people like you” and “people not like you” the only two words are the ones for “normal people” and “people like you” thus demonstrating at a linguistic level that they’re normal and you’re a freak.

* * *

Twice I promised to get back to something, the reason it’s here at the end is because it wasn’t adequately covered in the original post, which is why a second post was needed for clarification, and also what little I did have covering it came at the end of the original post anyway, so sticking to the pattern would put it here.

This whole post was and is in response to the fact that there are cis people rejecting the label “cis” even though it includes them by definition.  My hope is that by looking mostly at that specific example I’ve created something that can be generalized to many other things, but it was and is in response to the rejection of “cis”.

I argue that that is bad and harmful.  I would say the same about straight people rejecting straight and heterosexual and all other labels that mean the same thing in favor of being label-free normal.  Ditto for white people who claim they’re just people, utterly colorblind and thus never, ever, under any circumstances should they be labeled as white.

Hopefully that came across above.

But there are people who reject “trans” in spite of it including them by definition and I generally don’t have the same argument.

So what’s up with that?

Well, there are two things.  The first is that what’s being done is, in fact, different regardless of context.  Genderqueer and genderfluid people, for example, who reject the identification as “trans” aren’t arguing that they shouldn’t have a label because they’re normal and cis people are strange and different.  Yes, like the “don’t call me ‘cis'” people they’re rejecting a label that includes them by definition, but unlike the “don’t call me ‘cis'” people they’re providing an alternative.

They aren’t marking themselves as the normal ones and everyone else as strange.  They are definitely not rejecting “trans” in such a way as to set up the construction, “people and cis people” and thus are not marking themselves as normal and all others as aberrations.

Or for a really short version: it’s not about keeping other people down.  It’s about being recognized with everyone else rather than being recognized over everyone else.

That’s sort of related to the other thing.  The second thing is about something I learned from Fred Clark:

Just follow this one rule: Always punch up; never punch down.

Note that both parts of that are an ethical obligation. Punching down is immoral. So is failing to punch up.

To sum up the entire post above this really quickly:

I brought up the fact that everyone is by definition trans or cis in response to the fact that a hell of a lot of privileged cis people are trying to kill off the term “cis”, sometimes going so far as to label it as hate speech.  If they succeed then rather than having people divided into cis people and trans people the division will be “people and trans people” which marks trans people as somehow subhuman.

Me using the definitions against those privileged people who are acting to oppress the already oppressed by twisting language to mark themselves as normal and those whom they seek to oppress as abnormal is me trying to stop the people above from hurting the people below.

It’s me trying to punch up.

However, using definitions against, for example, genderqueer or genderfluid people to claim that they’re not allowed to say they’re something other than trans would be different.  A big part of the reason that those two terms, and ones like them, exist is because there are assholes everywhere and some of those assholes were and are trans male and trans female people who either pretended that people who fit the genderqueer et al. labels didn’t exist at all or claimed that those people weren’t really trans but instead weirdo aberration freaks.

It’s not just that by giving themselves labels instead of rejecting labels they’re not trying to claim normal for themselves alone, though that’s part of it.  It’s not just that the labels in question are more descriptive of them and thus more useful when talking about them than the umbrella term trans*, though that too is part of it.  It is also that fighting them for not accepting “trans” as applying to them is punching down.

They’ve been oppressed by people who, in any decent world, would be their allies and insisting that they apply to themselves the same term to themselves as is used by their oppressors isn’t some blow for justice or linguistic purity.  It’s oppressing the oppressed, afflicting the afflicted, and generally kicking people who are already down.

That’s a no-no.  That’s immoral.

It’s almost certain, though always leave some wiggle room for hedging, that any technically trans person who doesn’t want to identify as trans but instead and exclusively something more specific is even more marginalized than the people who do identify as trans alone and that some of the people doing that marginalization to them are self-identified trans people.

This isn’t an Oppression Olympics thing though.  It’s possible that you have it way worse than such people, but if you’re not one of them then you almost certainly don’t have it way worse than them on this particular topic.  I definitely don’t.  So me attacking their decision to not call themselves trans but instead call themselves [insert whatever they do call themselves here] would be textbook punching down.

As a human being it is your job, mine too, to work to make it so that fewer and fewer groups are oppressed and any oppression that can’t be done away with by your actions (which, unfortunately, is most or all of them) is at least lessened.  It is, it should be noted, not your job to overwork yourself in this capacity.  Nor is it your job to get depressed if it doesn’t seem to be working.  It’s a massive group effort and shouldering all the burden yourself is just going to hurt you and help no one.

But the point here is that you’re supposed to be helping the marginalized, not hurting them.  Don’t punch down.

If you should find yourself lecturing a genderqueer person on how, regardless of what they prefer to identify as, they are in fact transgender then the definition is on your side but morality is not.  Put down the dictionary, recite rule number one (try not to be an asshole) to yourself 15 times and then, you know, apologize.  After that go and sin no more.

Language is important, and sometimes you need to bring definitions to bear, but if you’re bringing definitions to bear in a disagreement, remember which way you’re punching.  It can, in certain circumstances, be immoral not to use them to punch up.  It is immoral to use them to punch down.

Changing Names, Shifting Shapes, Blurring Boundaries (Part 1?)

(by Lonespark)

I’m working on a post about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, and in the course of thinking about the characters, liminality has come up a lot.

Liminal places are in-between: Thresholds, passages, borders… Places for departures, and arrivals.  Places, sometimes, for waiting.  Places for people who didn’t fit anywhere else.

Liminal characters are multifaceted, or in-between… They have more than one relevant identity, personality, name… More than one homeland, family, culture, shape…

A lot of queer and/or trans* characters are liminal in some ways… to the point where these kinds of liminal identities are often taken as, or intended to be, symbols of queerness.

A lot of bi- or multi-cultural, -lingual, -racial, -ethnic, etc. characters illustrate and interact with liminality.  Immigrants and refugees… Fugitives or spies… Traders, explorers, conquerors… Hostages… Those who leave the familiar for love, knowledge, freedom… Second- and third- generation immigrants, people with mixed ancestry, people with heritage in places that no longer exist… (That might describe the majority of people on Earth now or throughout history.  We are always leaving homes and making new ones, finding, building, claiming our new lives…)

Liminality can mean showing different faces, or speaking different tongues, as needed.  I don’t think characters who engage in code-switching are necessarily liminal figures, but they often seem to be.  Slaves who are warriors.  Gods who are slaves.  Heroes disgraced.  People rescued or repatriated, whether or not they wish to be.

What does liminality mean to you?  What is its importance in your life?  Who are your favorite liminal characters, in texts or works of any kind?

Minority religion is not a punchline (Part 1)

(By Lonespark)

So, today I entered a Twitter conversation for the first time that involved a very big name in my professional field.  I wasn’t talking to her, but she was part of the conversation.  The person I was talking to had been talking to her, and I was responding to him.  Twitter is very nifty like that, and I love it.

This could have been an awesome opportunity for me to expound on my brilliant thoughts about (professional field), but it wasn’t.  I was commenting to criticize him for using “voodoo” and “witchcraft” as synonyms for “bad magic” and more broadly “bad thing.”

Because that is bullshit.

It’s also very common, and the majority of people aren’t actively thinking, “People who practice Voodoo, Haitian Vodou, Puerto Rican/Dominican Vudu, Brazilian Vodum, etc., and Wicca, Druidry, Braucherei, Hexerai, Seidh, Conjure, Rootwork, Shamanism, etc. are bad/evil/etc,” when they do it.

But how is it different from “That’s so gay?”  Or from other negative terms associated with marginalized groups?

Grumpy Lonespark is grumpy.

The 12 Steps of Elementary

(By Silver Adept, Practitioner of the Dark Library Arts)

[Added] The “Elementary” in the post title refers to a CBS television program of that name starring Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes, Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, Sherlock’s assistant and singer companion, and contains characters including NYPD Captain Tobias Gregson, Detective Marcus Bell, Alfredo, Sherlock’s sponsor in his 12-Step program, and Randy, who has Sherlock as his sponsor in this same program. This post has nothing to do with the BBC show Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Apologies for any confusion. [/Added]

Sherlock is ostensibly working a twelve-step program to stay sober from his drug addictions of the past. The way the writers treat him, he can tell Marcus Bell and others that he is definitely an addict, the writers hint that some of the behaviors of an addict may not be under control (with the way he treated Detective Bell without apparent empathy during his recovery from being shot), but it’s not always clear, by what we see and hear from Sherlock, whether he thinks his program is effective, and whether we are supposed to believe his program is effective.

So, based on how the writers are writing Sherlock, I wanted to compare it to the listed steps of Narcotics Anonymous and see if Sherlock is working that program in a recognizable way. Given that addiction and recovery are unique to each addict and their circumstances, we can only guess by what we see about Sherlock and the steps. What goes on in his life off the camera is anyone’s guess. And what goes on in his mind that isn’t narrated aloud is also only speculation. With those limiting caveats in place, let’s look at the steps.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Season One and some of Two have shown us glimpses into what Sherlock was before becoming sober and having Joan, the sober companion, in his life. The apparent death of Irene Adler was a strong shock to Sherlock and started him on his path to sobriety. Before that, even as a detective, Sherlock would use, believing he was a lot more lucid than he actually was while on drugs.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This is where things get a little less… traditional. Sherlock clearly doesn’t believe in any conception of a deity as the people around him would define it, except perhaps to troll others, but I think he does believe in a power greater than himself. Reason, Logic, and Science are the things Sherlock always trusts, even when they lead him in strange-seeming directions. They anchor his insistence that he is and will remain sober.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

If we substitute Reason for God, Sherlock is still on track, as the consulting detective requires himself to be ruled by Reason and Science if he wants to solve cases. It takes Joan, however, to get Sherlock to start attending meetings, as Sherlock’s conception of God doesn’t include social components.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

*recordscratch* Here’s where things start to run off the rails. Captain Gregson, Joan, and Detective Bell regularly point out where Sherlock’s personality and his mehods result in physical consequences. There’s an entire Season Two episode devoted to Sherlock’s Protagonist Centered Morality soon after Detective Bell is shot, with a microcosm of that morality appearing in the episode – Sherlock has nothing but contempt for some police practices regarding warrants and searches, yet will not utilize his deduced knowledge that the prosecutor is an addict herself, because that would be unethical in his moral sense. Captain Gregson encourages this behavior in Season Two with an explicit declaration that he cares about results more than personality conflicts. When pushed, or when Holmes clearly crosses boundaries that can’t be handwaved, Gregson will rein Holmes in, but not before.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

And this is where things look like the train has jumped the rails and are headed for he nearby town. Sherlock may believe he has shortcomings, but those he will acknowledge he believes he can erase through the application of more reason, logic, knowledge, and science, no gods, capitalized or otherwise, necessary. If we take the tack that Reason is Sherlock’s Higher Power, it’s possible that Sherlock is working these steps exactly as he feels they should be worked – study, work, science, so that shortcomings will be removed. Although there’s very little of “humbly” involved in any of this. Season One Joan often acted as the working social compass to point out to Sherlock where his defects were and what he could do about them, but Season Two Joan seems to be slowly losing this ability and starting to see the world more as Sherlock does.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Sherlock does quite well here, although it can take significant prompting from Joan before Sherlock actually does anything about this. The storyline with Detective Bell’s injury shows Sherlock working these steps the most clearly so far – it takes a while for Sherlock to actually admit what he feels about Marcus and his injury, but once he becomes willing to make amends, he tries to do so directly. Being Sherlock, his attempts often don’t look very direct, and it takes Marcus a significant amount of time before he is willing to accept the amends. Forgiveness is a difficult and individual thing, and it would not be unrealistic if Marcus never fully accepted Sherlock’s attempts to make amends.

10. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Sherlock can admit when his theories of the crime, or his understanding of the motives, or his inquiries into the case have been wrong, but he does not admit his wrongs willingly or well when the are exposed. Joan, he says, is exceptional, and so he makes exceptional effort for her. For the rest of us, though, including the tribunal on his methods, there is no such admission. We are lesser beings, and so do not get the benefit of Sherlock admitting to mistakes.

11.We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Taking Reason as Sherlock’s Higher Power, he certainly has a line of work that improves his conscious contact, and would probably consider his uncovery of the truth of crimes to be both the knowledge of the will of Reason and the power to carry it out, a power which rests upon the privileges he has regarding wealth and free time, allowing him to choose which cases he works, And the liberties he takes regarding the proper procedure of the law and collection of evidence, which are backstopped by Captain Gregson willing to justify his means with his ends. Marcus Bell could not do what Sherlock does, nor could Joan Watson.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

And this is kind of a zigzag. As I think I’ve shown here, the “practice these principles in all our affairs” part isn’t necessarily being done by Sherlock, at least as we would probably understand it. Perhaps to Sherlock, he is doing these steps well. The “carry this message to addicts” part, on the other hand, seems to be working well for him. Of those he encounters, Sherlock usually makes a brief mention of the place he went for treatment (Season One) or a comment about being able to find meetings (Season Two).

The sponsorship episode should be a logical extension of the steps, a signifier that Sherlock has been working the steps well enough to understand them and help someone else stay sober. The way it actually plays out on screen, though, is to make it look like Alfredo is pushing Sherlock into sponsorship and trying to guilt him into doing it, while Sherlock, the only person who knows whether Sherlock is ready, is trying to tell Alfredo that he’s not prepared for this. It seems like a match made in hell, especially after the speech Sherlock gives about what kind of sponsor he is going to be.

Then, as of the end of “Dead Clade Walking”, we see how Sherlock is as a beginning sponsor. He’s starting to appear to understand the need for empathy in working with others, and leans heavily on Joan’s experience as a sober companion to try and provide a coherent way of being a sponsor to Randy. Sherlock still doesn’t want to be involved with Randy, in the terms of knowing things about his life that are unrelated to his sobriety, but he does show concern for Randy in a paternalistic way, and as a reflection on him (he’s aware of his vanity, but it doesn’t seem to change his approach). Sherlock is still choosing to express his empathetic responses though others, whether by taking to Joan or by suggesting going to meetings with Randy. While Sherlock continues to want to frame his relationship with Randy as strictly about his sobriety, the question that remains is whether Sherlock will be able to genuinely express his empathy to anyone not named Joan Watson.

Before opening up for comments, I want to mention again that addiction is a completely individual experience, and that we can only talk about the things that we explicitly see on the screen. The writers for the show for Season Two seem to be less interested in showing us the way the recovery and sobriety process are working for Sherlock and more interested in the mystery elements. In doing so, we think they’re missing out on a lot of things that made the first season interesting.

Who decides what the fundamentals are?

(By chris the cynic)

I’m not Christian.  I come from a largely Christian culture, my morality can largely be described as Christian, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual leader is Fred Clark at Slacktivist.  (I may not believe his religion is correct, but on contemporary matters I have a feeling he’s got a better idea of what God would want than I do.)  But I’m not Christian.

Depending on your personal views on religious commentary, that fact may be quite important to you so I figured I’d get it out of the way.

Ok, so, onto the point. We talk about “fundamentalists”, in part probably because the name has been used in the past (TRADITION!) and “fundies” is a fun word. “Fundamentalists” is a known word, it’s an understood word, it’s a word that we’re not likely to change any time in the future. But it is not some magical gateway to truth, and I think that sometimes we forget that.

The word is self chosen (more than 90 years ago) by a certain Christian group, allowing the group to claim that it was the one sticking true to the fundamentals of the faith while others were leaving them behind. It has since been applied to various other groups and taken on a very different meaning. However, the word still contains the original claim. Fundamentalist. They’re the ones with the Fundamentals.

Except… not.

I’ve never known a religious group that didn’t think it was sticking with the fundamentals of their faith. That’s where most religious disagreements take place: what is it that really matters? What is more fundamental? When things conflict or seem to conflict, what does one fall back on? What are, basically, the fundamentals?

Recently I saw someone online using a neat bit of casuistry* that basically went like this:

You’ve just said that these fundamentalists are bad. Fundamentalists follow the fundamentals. If the fundamentals of a thing are bad then the thing is bad. Therefore since these fundamentalists are bad the entire religion is bad.

It wasn’t laid out quite like that (it called back to other places and so forth) but that was basically the argument. Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals. People Who Follow Fundamentals are bad → Thing Itself is bad.

I don’t think many people would quibble with the idea that a thing is bad if its fundamentals are bad. But Fundamentalists → People Who Follow Fundamentals is unsound reasoning. “Fundamentalists” is just a name. It’s like assuming that everyone named Christopher has Jesus on their back (Christopher means Christ Bearer) and then concluding that Winnie the Pooh is a horrible deception because Christopher Robin isn’t bearing Jesus in it (and isn’t a Robin EITHER!)

Assuming that fundamentalists follow the fundamentals because their name indicates they do is like assuming that anyone with the name Christopher Robin is a Christ carrying bird (of what type varies depending on the type of Robin, but we can at least say a small bird) because that’s what the name Christopher Robin indicates.

Except that’s not what names indicate. Names are identifiers not definitions.

Having the name “Fundamentalist” no more gives you claim to the fundamentals than having the name “King” gives you claim to the throne.

Which brings us to the question of the post. Who determines what the fundamentals actually are? People tend to think they know. People tend to disagree.

Here’s a different question: Why are there so many non-Jewish Christians? Jesus stayed in the Jewish community. He was known to hang out with outsiders and pariahs and such, but they were all fellow Jews. How did all these gentiles get in the religion?

The Bible has an answer. It’s given in the Book of Acts. Jesus has returned to the home office, the disciples are left on earth to fend for themselves. Peter is about to get a request to preach the gospel because someone had a vision saying he should get more info on this new religion from Peter, but the person making the request for Peter to come is a gentile. Peter would say no.

Before the messenger arrives God sends a second vision, this time to Peter. A divine revelation.

And so Peter goes.

He acknowledges that it defies old law, “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” That’s New International Version. King James: “but God hath shewed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” The version that Fred links to (New Revised Standard Version, I think): “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Pick your favorite Bible and look it up: Acts 10:28.

Christianity was never going to get this many believers if it stayed a sub-sect of Judaism. Now the vast majority of Christians are gentiles.

From an outsider’s perspective a divine revelation to one of the apostles which resulted in almost, but not quite, all modern day Christians being Christians seems pretty damn fundamental.

I also get the impression that Fred Clark finds it quite fundamental. He’s got an insider’s perspective.

But I know that not all Christians find this verse fundamental because they do call people profane and unclean.

And so who gets final say? Who do we trust to say either, “This is a fundamental part of Christianity,” or, “Screw it, those people are totally abominations and that’s what’s fundamental”?

I’ve asked the question, but in truth I don’t think there is an answer. Unless all members of a group get together and determine what the fundamentals for membership are, I don’t think we get to say, “Well the fundamentals …”

If outsiders such as myself and the person who made the comment that inspired me to write this post decide what the fundamentals are, we are appointing ourselves more definitive speakers on the subject than –in the case of Christianity– almost, but not quite, 2000 years of both scholars and others who devoted themselves to the matter (including Jesus and those who knew him.)

If outsiders decide the fundamentals of Islam then it is a shorter period, but still about 1400 years and, more importantly, it’s still being an asshole.

For insiders I think it’s up to each person to determine for themselves what the most important parts are. And this goes for much more than just religion. The question of winning or losing vs. how you play the game is one that every sport (see: Chess) has to wrestle with.

* I know it’s not the most common word but sophists get a bad rap (2400 years of smear campaign will do that to a group) and I’d prefer not to be using the pejorative “sophistry”. Especially not while I’m thinking about how one shouldn’t judge a group (especially one whose membership is determined by self identification) by its worst members.

Invoking The Queen

(By Lonespark)

Lover…Warrior…Mother:  All Woman.  All Goddess.  All Queen.

Several months ago I read Shades of Faith: Minority Voices in Paganism.  It is amazing, and the experience of reading each chapter had and continues to have a profound effect on my spiritual development.  I recommend it highly, and recommend other works by the contributors as well.

One of the essays in this collection, “Invoking the Queen,” by Heaven Walker, deals with a subject that has come up a few times at the old Slacktiverse and at Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings: Goddess archetypes and the common practice of using a threefold division of same.

(That’s not the only theme of the essay.  The opening section powerfully discusses destructive stereotypes employed against African American women, and contrasts them against imagery of power, wisdom, and sovereignty drawn from history, myth, and contemporary culture.  Every paragraph rewards close study, rereading, and analysis on different levels.)

Walker discusses three orishas (Yoruba deities, female ones in this case) Oshun, Oya, and Yemaya as embodying different  aspects of/approaches to the Divine Queen.  She then identifies resonances of these different holy patterns/roles in two works of literature and in an activist life.

Walker first sketches the character of each orisha.  (I have a difficult time trying to summarize this.  I find it difficult and fruitless to succinctly describe gods.  For someone familiar with the deity in question, minimal description or epithets can point toward the complexity of their character, but without that familiarity I feel like the best I can do is link a bunch of sources and perspectives and discussions and artworks and let people absorb them slowly.  That goes double in this case because I am just beginning to know these deities on the most basic level.)

Oshun is the Priestess Queen and Lover, “deity of rivers, love, sensuality, and beauty…a woman who loves whom she pleases…and whose sexuality is sacred.”  She embodies generosity and healing, but also violence and ferocity.

Oya is the Warrior Queen, with the power of destruction, creation, transformation, catastrophe.   She is the “mistress of change and the bringer of wisdom… the death bringer and the life giver.”

And Yemaya, the Queen Mother, is the ocean and the waves, irresistible, mysterious, keeper of the deepest wisdom.  She is the “mother of dreams,” Her love “both benevolent and harsh,” Her nurture inexorable, Her embrace inescapable.

I like this way of looking at the roles of woman and goddess because it’s not tied to specific characteristics; instead it’s about your focus and your actions.  Any woman/all woman can be a warrior, a nurturer, a lover.  Any women/all women sometimes are, or must be, or wish to be, sensual, fierce, creative, protective, intuitive, iconoclastic… maybe not all at once, but at different times and in different circumstances.

Maybe you embody the Priestess Queen on Friday, the Warrior Queen on Wednesday, the Queen Mother on alternate weekends.  Maybe you grew up acting as the mother protector to younger siblings, and later had the chance to be the playful, free, self-knowing Queen of Love.  Maybe you’ve always been a warrior, a radical, a resister of stasis, stagnation, the oppressive Powers that Be.  Or maybe you focused all your energy on creating a family and being a parent, and now the children are grown and its time wield your wisdom and experience as a tool for change.  Maybe you follow one of countless other permutations for your Story.

And because these archetypes are all holy, there can never be only one right decision, nor a single correct way to experience womanhood.  At every turn of the road of life, with every pain and every joy, every action and thought, there are Powers to reach out to, seeking guidance and strength, and offering praise and communion.

Art as a Tool for Social Justice

[By Elizabeth Conall]

As presented to the Unitarian Universalists of Central Delaware on Oct 20 2013

Hiram Powers's The Greek Slave

This is a statue by American sculptor Hiram Powers, entitled “The Greek Slave”. He made it in 1844 in Florence, Italy, inspired by the Venus de Medici. Abolitionists and early women’s rights advocates saw in Powers’s statue a call to action, seeing her chains as representative of the literal chains worn by black slaves and the metaphorical chains worn by women. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, at some point between 1844 and her death in 1861, wrote a sonnet inspired by this statue:

They say Ideal beauty cannot enter

The house of anguish. On the threshold stands

An alien Image with enshackled hands,

Called the Greek Slave! as if the artist meant her

(That passionless perfection which he lent her,

Shadowed not darkened where the sill expands)

To so confront man’s crimes in different lands

With man’s ideal sense. Pierce to the centre,

Art’s fiery finger! and break up ere long

The serfdom of this world. Appeal, fair stone,

From God’s pure heights of beauty against man’s wrong!

Catch up in thy divine face, not alone

East griefs but west, and strike and shame the strong,

By thunders of white silence, overthrown.

Art has always been both inspired by and impetus to social justice. Barrett Browning’s poem on the Greek Slave is an explicit example. Famous examples include Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, said to have started the Civil War, and George Orwell’s novel 1984, a powerful warning against fascism. This tradition goes back at least as far as the writing of the Bible: for example, Psalm 15 is a song describing someone who behaves justly.

The first of the Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles is that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have to say that we do because so many people do not. We have to say that we do because our culture and our media do not. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Junot Diaz, who immigrated from the Dominican Republic at age six, has written a lot about immigration and how it feels to be different. Here are his words:

You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

Consider this: According to GLAAD—formerly the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—of the hundred and one films released by major motion picture studios in 2012, only fourteen contained characters identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Only six of those films contained characters so identified who were not predominantly defined by their sexual orientation and who were important to the plot. Not one film contained an identified transgender character. We can do better.

We’re doing somewhat better at representing people of color in media, but we’ve been doing that for forty years longer. When Star Trek first premiered, a nine-year-old Whoopi Goldberg took one look at Lieutenant Uhura and yelled for everyone to “come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” Goldberg says she knew right then she could be anything she wanted to be. Also inspired by Lieutenant Uhura was Mae Jemison, who became the first African-American woman in space. I am certain there are many less-famous examples. I think one of the greatest things Dr. Martin Luther King did in his lifetime was convince Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek as Lieutenant Uhura instead of quitting after the first season, so she could keep inspiring young black women.

Speaking of inspiring young black women, Janelle Monáe, an R&B artist with a science fiction bent to her music. In the music video for the first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.”, from her third album, The Electric Lady, she sets the scene in a time-travel museum, where the museum’s narrator describes Monáe and her compatriots as “legendary rebels” who “launched […] a musical weapons program” and “various freedom movements that [Monáe] disguised as songs, motion pictures, and works of art.” This is Janelle Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.

Art isn’t the only way to do social justice work, or even the first to mind. In 1961 a bus left Washington, DC heading for New Orleans with a multiracial collection of passengers pointedly ignoring the custom of segregating buses in order to test the enforcement of the Supreme Court cases that ruled against segregating buses. That was the first of many Freedom Rides. In 1962, Harry Belafonte, who is famous for his calypso music and who financed the Freedom Rides, released a version of a particular African-American spiritual—of course, spirituals have always, from “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, been about freedom. This is Harry Belafonte’s “Michael Row the Boat Ashore“.

Sometimes, art is simply a way for a marginalized person to say, “I am here, I exist,” or for a person who is not marginalized in a particular way to look at someone who is and say, “I see you. I acknowledge your existence.” Sometimes art is a way for a marginalized person to say, “This is what I experience.” Other people marginalized in the same way can consume that art—read the story, look at the painting, listen to the song—and say “Yes, I’ve been there”, and people who are not marginalized in that way can consume that art and say “I didn’t know it was like that. Now I know.” No two people have the same experience, of course, but often when both are female or both are East Asian or both are genderqueer, there are many points in common. You may recognize a great deal in this next poem, from someone whose username on ccMixter is ‘snowflake’. It’s entitled “Eve (Say Yes)“. (I can’t figure out how to embed it for the life of me, but lyrics and audio are embedded at the link.)

Making art is always a frightening prospect. What if it’s no good? What if people don’t like it? What if people say nasty things about it, about you? Deciding that yes, this piece of art is good enough to be seen, that’s always a courageous act. Even more so when the art has a social justice theme. Social justice, almost by definition, involves pushing society in ways society doesn’t want to be pushed. Of course there’s going to be pushback. Of course people aren’t going to like art that’s meant as social justice. Of course they’re going to say nasty things about the art and its creator. But like Janelle Monáe said, gotta keep singing, gotta keep writing songs. Nothing’s going to change if we don’t find some way to say that something needs changing. This is Sara Bareilles, “Brave“.

I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.

—Edward Everett Hale

How Not To Be A Privileged Ass (A Lazy Person’s Guide)

[Content Note: Discussion of Anti-Semitism ]
(A previous version of this was posted at Stealing Commas.  This version is cross-posted to Ana Mardoll’s Ramblings, which is why there’s a note from Ana at the end.)

Why this matters

There are activists out there to make the world a better place, this post is not for them.  A key component of being an activist is the whole “active” thing.  (What happened to the “e” when the ending was added is a story for another time.)  This is for the rest of us.

The rest of us is an important group.  Without the rest of us doing some small part activists find their work difficult at best.  If the rest of us are hideously wrong then activists have to devote their time to correcting the rest of us when it might better be used elsewhere.  But even more important than that, the rest of us make up the world in which everyone is forced to live.

Unless someone has got a way to hitch a lift on a passing flying saucer, the rest of us are who they’re stuck with.  We surround them like water surrounds a fish.  We make the world in which they live.  The background radiation of social reality is emitted by the rest of us.

That can be used for good or ill.  The rest of us can make the world (or at least our corner of it) a space that is safe for all.  Or we can make it a place where people are afraid to speak their minds or be themselves, a place where people feel constantly beset by incoming fire.  A place that one wouldn’t want to live but, again barring hitching a lift on flying saucers, everyone has to.

This post is about how to be a good part of the rest of us rather than a bad part of the rest of us while expending minimum effort.  There’s a reason it says, “lazy person’s guide.”

As it turns out there is nothing difficult or complex.  It requires only two things:
1 Listen.
2 Take into account what you hear when you listen.

That’s it.

Why you have to listen

You have to listen because you don’t know everything.  Fortunately human beings have adapted a way to deal with this: Language.  You may not know what it’s like to be a certain type of person, but they can tell you.  So, for example, I didn’t know that the word, “Lame,” was used as a way to describe and insult disabled people.  I knew it was used to describe injured horses, chess pieces that can’t jump, and uncool things, but I had no idea it was used on people.

There is a reason for that.  Not being disabled I don’t have to live my life with people constantly throwing insults at me that are based on being disabled.  In fact I don’t think I’ve ever been present when such insults were hurled.  That’s my world, a world where these things don’t even pop up on the radar.  If it weren’t for someone telling me that, yes, that word is used on people and, yes, it is incredibly hurtful to use it as a generic way to say uncool and, yes, it is used as a slur… I would not know these things.  I would be blissfully ignorant –which is nice, note the “blissful”– but leaves me in a position where I can end up hurting people.  Because maybe someone who’s just been called “lame” 85 times in a vitriol filled rant about how they’re an evil asshole mooching off the system to get good parking spaces just walked into the room and maybe, without knowing the varied connotations of the word, I say, “That’s so lame,” about something I think sucks and the word, “lame,” hits them like a punch to the gut.

Sometimes people do go too far, and sometimes the standard repository for all knowledge which contains much that is apocryphal or at least wildly inaccurate gets things wrong.  The example that comes to mind is, “Brouhaha.”  It’s impossible to be totally certain about anything in the past.  Maybe the dinosaurs all had iPads.  But insofar as we can be certain “brouhaha” did not originate in antisemitism.*

I bring this up mostly because I feel like if I didn’t, the perfectly reasonable objection would form in someone’s mind, “But other people can’t always be right.”  No, they can’t always.  This is a fact of life.  But what is true is that, for any slur, the people against whom it is used know a hell of a lot more about how the slur is often used than everyone else.

And it’s not just slurs.  I started with them for the reason that they’re an easy thing to understand.  When someone is using a racial, ethnic, misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, abilist, [any number of other things] slur it’s pretty easy to see that they’re in the wrong.

Most prejudice is more subtle and thus much easier to miss when you’re not the target.  Not being the target, by the way, is part of what privilege is.  You don’t have to be under fire, you don’t have to know anyone is under fire, you don’t have to live with the realization that we live in an extremely fucked up world where people are treated like shit just for being who they are.  You get to live with blinders and whatever problems may befall you, no matter how severe they might be, you never quite realize how other people have to deal with systemic hurtful bullshit on top of the ordinary problems of life.  Except that’s not even it, because that skips how ingrained it is.  For them systemic hurtful bullshit is part of the ordinary problems of life because it’s part of ordinary life period.

Listen to people, listen to what makes them feel safe and unsafe, welcome and unwelcome, so forth.

How to Listen

This might be hard, people might say things about you that you don’t want to hear.  You may feel yourself going on the defense.  You might want to argue, “No, I’m totally not doing X because…” or, “I’m not a Y, I’m insulted that you could even think to say I remind you of a Y.”  These impulses are perfectly natural, what matters is not that you have them, if you have them, but how you respond to them.

Don’t take the defense.  Don’t say, “I can’t possibly be alienating [so-and-so] people because I have a [so-and-so] friend.”  People who have been here before will instantly know that you have your head up your ass if you take that road.  Don’t try to argue that people are wrong to feel unsafe or unwelcome.  They’re not.  Their feelings are not yours to dictate.  Maybe you can’t make them feel safe and welcome, but then that comes down to you accepting that such people will not be safe and welcome in your area, be it your house, your school, your blog, your youtube channel, your club, your circle of friends, your church, your facebook page, your forum, your camping trips, your business, your…

Don’t try to argue that you doing X totally should not have produced response Y because [whatever].  The issue is not what it should have done, but what it did.  Y has happened, the question is what, if anything, you’re going to do about it.

Don’t try to argue that you’re not a [bad thing].  What you are is between you, yourself, your soul if such things exist, and your god if such things exist.  For the rest of us what matters isn’t what you are but what you do.  If the things you do are [bad thing] then it doesn’t matter that in your heart of hearts you’re not [bad thing], you’re still doing [bad thing] things.  This also leads us into another thing, by shifting from what you did to what you are you’re making it all about you.

Say someone says, “You did X and that makes me feel Y.”  If you then you make it all about you and how you feel, you’re ignoring the other person.  You’re cutting them out of a conversation about how they feel.  Or, in short, you’re being an asshole.

If someone says you hurt them the first thing to do is to apologize for hurting them.  Even if this is one of the rare cases where you didn’t do anything wrong, they still got hurt and you didn’t want that so you should have no problem whatsoever with giving a sincere apology.

Next comes asking them how you hurt them so that you won’t do it again.

And finally comes self reflection and priorities.  I’ll talk more about priorities later (I know this because I’m typing out of order right now) but the basic thing is how important it is to you not to hurt others.  If it isn’t important at all, congratulations: you’re an asshole.  But there are levels where it might not be your most important priority.  Maybe they were hurt because they thought brouhaha was an anti-Semitic slur and you think educating them about the origins of the word not being anti-Semitic is more important than stopping using the word.  Depending on the situation, though, this behavior, in itself, can still make you an asshole (even if you’re factually right).  We’ll get to priorities.

How to Respond

Sometimes people will give you suggestions, sometimes solicited and sometimes not.  Some suggestions you might think are already in force for everyone, if they’re being suggested that implies they are not for the group suggesting it.  Try harder.

Do not:
1 Take suggestions as personal attacks.  (“Go to Hell,” can be considered an exception.)
2 Say they won’t work without trying.

If you’re not going to follow a suggestion then say why, and realize that in so doing you’re stating your priorities.

This is where I talk about priorities.

Some people that I respect very much run a forum that is not a safe space because their rules are that anything that is neither spam nor a direct personal attack gets to stay up.  Usually this is fine and usually the space is safe.  When someone started comparing business tactics to rape it became very clear very fast why this leads to spaces that are not safe.

I talked directly to someone basically in charge of the forum and he made two things very clear.  The first was that he thought what rape metaphor guy was doing was horrible and he intended to oppose it in any way he could short of breaking the rules on which the forum was based.  The second was he was not going to oppose the rules on which the forum was based.  This was because the rules, to them, were not just arbitrary guideposts for how to deal with a given thing, they were the founding principles on which the entire place was based (I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.)

All speech short of direct personal attacks was sacrosanct there, which meant all other priorities (including making it a safer space by keeping it clear of callous rape metaphors) were secondary.

When you make a decision like that you’re ordering your priorities.  In that space free speech was a higher priority than avoiding triggering a rape victim who might be reading a thread about copyright and some shenanigans with a game and the company making it.  The people who made that determination never thought the question would come up, but when it did they stuck by their own rules and tried to shoot down the rape metaphor person as users rather than administrators.

If people triggered by mentions of rape say that they don’t feel safe there, there can be no argument.  In that space free speech is considered more important than making such people safe.  That’s the decision that was made.

I bring up this tangent to point something out, having your space not be safe does not make you evil.  Choosing a set of priorities that leaves the space unsafe is not a sign you’re demonic.  The people who made the forum I just described were good people.  If you want to be like them you can be, but you should take something else from it: they were honest about it.

They didn’t make any arguments saying, “No, this really is a safe space,” or that they were addressing to the needs of those who would be triggered.  They didn’t push back against those who pointed out it wasn’t a safe space.  They didn’t make a fight of it.  They simply said in straightforward terms that they had a certain set of priorities by which they governed and that meant it was not going to be an always safe space.  It was going to be an, “As safe as the commenters can make it without using any administrative powers save for direct personal attacks,” space which is decidedly not the same thing as a safe space.

If you decide that a space you have control over is going to be run by a set of rules that doesn’t result in a safe space, do not argue that it does.  Do not argue against those who say it isn’t safe.  Do not argue at all.  Be up front, you have some other guiding principle that’s more important to you than making the space safe.  Admit it, own it, and leave it at that.

Listening doesn’t mean that you have to incorporate everything everyone says, but if you’re going to go flatly against it you should at least acknowledge it, probably say why, and do it in such a way that you’re not presenting an argument why what the person said was wrong but instead simply stating why you will not be using it.

And that goes for anything, if someone says, “X would make me feel safer/more welcome,” and you want to say, “No way I’m doing X,” be honest about the fact that your reason for not doing X is more important to you than making the person feel safer/more welcome.  (If this should make you feel like you need a shower, reconsider your reason for not doing X.)

Listen and incorporate that into what you do, but sometimes you may incorporate it by saying, “Not gonna do it,” rather than incorporating it by doing it.  Be aware that this will keep some people away, be aware that (depending on what “it” is) this may make some people think you’re an asshole.  Do not argue with these people.  They’ve told you what it would take to make them come, they’ve told you what it would take to make them not think you’re an asshole, you’ve chosen not to do that.  Discussion ends there.  Leave them the fuck alone; it’s their right to leave/think you’re an asshole when you’re choosing not to meet their needs.

Only you can determine your own priorities, but everyone else gets to determine how they react to your priorities.  For whatever it’s worth, your priorities might make you an asshole.  They might make other people think you’re an asshole when you’re not.  They might do any number of things.  Many of those things are good but I’m going for warning here and thus sticking to the bad.



This is the single most active thing I will tell you to do in this article, but it’s important.

Say your group is mostly male, or mostly white, or mostly straight, or mostly straight white males, or mostly whatever and you think it should be more diverse.  Ask how you can get a more diverse following.  Again:
1 Listen.
2 Take into account what you hear when you listen.

And here’s a problem I haven’t gotten into before.  The people who speak up might take a lot of flack.  They might get shouted down.  You can’t listen to someone who has been shouted down.  If someone responds to your request for advice you had better be fucking ready to defend them.  You got them to stick their neck out, don’t you dare abandon them.

If you’re the reason someone is speaking, if they’re responding at your request, then you’ve just grabbed yourself the job of bodyguard until they’re no longer speaking at your request.  If they start getting personal attacks because of their response to your question it is your job to shoot those attacks down.

You can’t just ask and then watch the chaos ensue.  You drew these people out so they could say something you wanted to know, you have to protect them from the consequences of doing what you asked.  The bigotry that can come out of the woodwork at times like these is stunning and disheartening and you need to make sure it’s not silencing the very voices you asked to speak.

Some parting thoughts

There’s probably a lot more to that, but I note that for all the words it’s still very, very simple.  None of it is activism.  It’s not really very active at all.  It doesn’t require any more effort than you currently expend.

Listen.  If you listen you will learn.  If you learn you will be changed.  If you are changed that will change how you act.  It all starts with listening, which is a very passive thing to do.

If you don’t want to be a privileged ass then listen to those who do not share your privilege.  Don’t just make a show of listening, actually fucking listen.  Then, having listened, make use of what you learned.

* Because the belief that “brouhaha” has antisemitic origins is so ingrained it was suggested that I go into a little more detail here. My first try was three pages (or longer if you don’t single space), my next was shorter but still too long. This is attempt three to keep it short.

The word “brouhaha” does enter the historical record eventually and so we get things like Moliere’s play** including the term which premiered on November 18th, 1659.  There we find that “brouhaha” can be translated as “applause” because at the time it meant an uproar good or bad. But where it comes from has never been proven and barring time machines likely will never be proven. For the longest time it was just assumed to be a bit of onomatopoeia invented for French theater.

Then the antisemitic origin theory arose. The major problem with it is that it requires a phonetic change the likes of which have never been seen before, concurrently, or since. It would be the only time in the history of any language that such a change took place and fly in the face of everything we know about phonetics and linguistics. Compared to that, the fact there is absolutely no evidence to back up the antisemitic origin theory is minor at best.

The theory, in full, reads like someone saying, “Tell me, Muse, of the word of many twists and turns,” and as you might expect that leaves you with 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter which is why I’ve had such difficulty keeping this short, but I’m going to try. The theory, with details stripped away to save space, goes like this:

Someone who didn’t really know Hebrew overheard the words, “barukh habba,” and coined a new eight word phrase based on them (“Brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha,”) which entered into French theater of the farcical variety with a negative meaning. Then the meaning completely reversed itself into something of equal and opposite negativity. Then time passed and the words before the comma were thrown out (leaving “brou ha ha”.) Then time passed and the phrase was collapsed into a single word (brouhaha.) Then the meaning completely changed again, this time shedding all negative connotations and denotations and going from something a single person would say in a play to a simple description of the disposition of a crowd.

And at that point the theory ends because we’ve reached Moliere and that puts us into the realm of firm history rather than theory.

And that’s it, basically. With the details it goes on forever but the short version is:
barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha → brou ha ha → brouhaha
(While the meaning went through much more radical and unexplained changes.)

It’s the first step (barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha) where the theory really falls flat on its face. Words don’t change that way. They can change radically (e.g. Caseus → Cheese) but there are things that govern how those changes take place and unless aliens did it “barukh habba → brou brou brou ha ha, brou ha ha” does not track. What is the same and what is different between “barukh habba” and “brouhaha” doesn’t work from a linguistic standpoint if we’re saying the second came from the first. We’re in dinosaurs with iPads territory.

And that’s probably as short as I can make this. Hopefully viciously removing all context, detail, and supporting evidence in an effort for brevity hasn’t made it look like I’m talking out my ass.

** Ana’s Note: I’ve asked Chris to go into this detail here so that the comments on the post can be largely about the content of his excellent guide and not a huge derail on the etymology of brouhaha. (So if he has looked like an ass in the above, I take full blame for the assitude.)

I was able to dig up the specific Molière reference if anyone cares to research this further in their own spacetime. The play in question is Molière’s L’impromptu De Versailles. You can find the link to the “brouhaha” quote on Google Books here. A side-by-side French-to-English version can be found on Amazon Kindle here. The line in question is there rendered:

   Là, appuyez comme il faut le dernier vers. Voilà ce qui attire l’approbation, et fait faire le brouhaha.

There, lay the proper stress on the last line; that is what elicits approbation, and makes the public applaud you.

This translation (clapping, applause) is also viewable in the 1728 edition of “The Royal Dictionary” available on Google Books here. The scholar I spoke to believed the word to be onomatopoeia in reference to the sound of the clapping crowd, and noted that onomatopoeia can vary widely across languages. Thank you, and thanks to Chris for writing this wonderful post.