Archives for September 2011

Nonviolence Isn’t About Feeling Good

This is the next in a series of posts about what nonviolence is not. Yesterday I wrote about how nonviolence is not passive.

Today I want to talk about how nonviolence is not about making everyone feel good about themselves. I spend a lot of time in religious circles on all sides of the political spectrum. One of the things I see and hear quite often is this idea that we have to make sure everyone is safe or has their beliefs respected. On the surface this is a really great sentiment, but how it usually plays out is the majority of people (the ones who hold privilege and power) seek to silence the people in the group who are calling out injustice. In my personal experience this happens a lot around queer issues. People who are still “struggling” with whether or not being queer is a sin want to claim that they are being oppressed by the mean “homosexuals” when they get called out. And so those mean gay people get told that they are being divisive, that they are being impatient and judgmental, that they are being oppressors. The idea is that if we want unity we have to overlook oppression. Or at least overlook oppression of people that make us feel “icky”.

Nonviolence isn’t about making sure that everyone feels good about themselves and their beliefs. On the contrary a lot of nonviolent action is about shaming people with the hope that in their shame they will see the damage they are causing.

Now this is tricky: shame can be a really powerful tool. When it is used by those with privilege and power it can be damaging. We see it at play in the way that it is used against young bullied queer kids and against gay families. But in those situations shame is being used about something that one should feel no shame over; shame is being perverted. In the case of nonviolence shame is used to bring to light actions that people should be ashamed of: violence against unarmed people, bullying tactics and unjust laws, oppression of all kinds. Those are things people should be ashamed of.

In talking about nonviolence not being passive I talk about how one of the keys to nonviolent resistance is creativity. It comes into play even more here: How do we creatively shame those who are being oppressors in such a way that it unmasks their violence and oppression and leads them to repentance and reconciliation? (Both of those ideas I want to unpack in a future post because I think they are just as misunderstood as nonviolence). This isn’t shaming for shaming’s sake, this is shaming to bring about repentance. When someone has publicly and frequently contributed to the harm of a people shaming them in an appropriate response. I think of the recent acts of glitterbombing Marcus Bachmann’s ex-gay clinic. Here is a man who has repeatedly told lies about the gay community and participates in an incredibly harmful (and invalidated) form of “treatment”. Calls for him to apologize have gone unanswered. And so a group of people glitterbombed his clinic to bring light to his actions and to attempt to shame him. I think this is a brilliant and creative response.

We also saw this response throughout the civil rights movement: Folks who sat down where they were told they weren’t allowed to sit. And when people violently attacked them for trying to each lunch it eventually brought shame upon the attackers and changed the course of the struggle.

We see it happening right now on Wall Street as police maced a young, unarmed woman. This behaviour bring shame to those perpetuating violence upon nonviolent people. It might not happen overnight, but people are seeing that video and responding.

When someone denies your humanity, when they strip away the power to respond (whether through unjust laws or through sheer brute force) sometimes the best (or only) response is to shame them. To stand up for your humanity with dignity and grace, in a nonviolent manner, shames those who would try to strip you of that humanity.

Nonviolence Is Not Passive

This is the first of a series teasing out some of the statements I made in a post called What Nonviolence Is Not.

Nonviolence doesn’t mean sitting back and doing nothing. It’s unfortunate that we have no real name for active nonviolent resistance. Instead we have only a negation. Mark Kurlansky in his book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea (Modern Library Chronicles) spends a lot of time teasing out what it means to have this concept spoken into existence only as a negation. Ghandi tried to solve the problem by naming the resistance that he took part in “satyagraha” or truth force but that word hasn’t really come into popular use. So we are left with this idea being “not violence”. Anything that we do that isn’t violence gets termed “nonviolence” and this is a shame because it does a disservice to what nonviolence really is.

Nonviolence doesn’t mean just sitting back and allowing things to happen. It doesn’t mean that you allow injustice to happen while you watch. What it does mean is that when the nonviolent action that you take forces a confrontation (which it should) you do not respond to that confrontation with violence. Instead you try to deescalate the situation with creativity. And if that doesn’t work, then you allow the violence to happen to you without retaliation and by so doing you unmask the immorality of those committing violence on someone who wasn’t being violent.

When you look at the things that were achieved by nonviolent means: sit ins during the civil rights movement, the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the work that Ghandi did in freeing India, all of these things were concentrated and creative campaigns designed to get a response and to force a confrontation. People went to places they weren’t supposed to go, they taught and worked in the face of threats, they fasted and protested. These are not passive activities.

Nonviolence is hard work. I would say that it’s even harder than being violent because it takes immense willpower to remain nonviolent in the face of violence. It also takes immense creativity to unmask the ways that power and violence operate in our world. But when it is done well it can bring to light the abuses of power (see Occupy Wall Street and the response of the NYPD as a very current example).

If one takes nonviolence seriously it is anything but passive.

What Nonviolence Is Not

There seems to be some misconceptions about what, exactly, nonviolence is and the purpose it serves. This is an age-old problem as I’ve seen the same misconceptions appearing in literature throughout the history of non-violent struggle. I’ve been hearing the same kinds of things come up a lot lately from people on both sides: Those who claim to be nonviolent and those who claim that nonviolence is useless. From my understanding of nonviolence, the following are some things that, to me, nonviolence is not:

* It is not passive. Nonviolence does not consist of doing nothing.
* It is not concerned with making everyone feel better about themselves.
* It is not making sure that no one gets offended.
* It does not preclude destruction of property.

In coming days I want to flesh out some of these statements a little more, but I want to close with one statement about what nonviolence is:

Nonviolence is powerful.

It has the ability to change the course of history if wielded with patience and creativity. My eyes are on the occupation of Wall Street happening currently and here we see nonviolence once again met with brutality. But I believe that a change can come and that it will come most effectively when it happens nonviolently.

Going Back Home

Sometimes I am amazed at how different people and things can seem when you revisit them. I had the opportunity to visit some people from a church that I used to work for while I was visiting my family. When I began working at this church I thought it was incredibly liberal/progressive. It was so different from the churches of my youth. They encouraged intellectual wondering, they supported women pastors, there were some in the church that supported gay and lesbian people, and I was amazed. I was shocked to see faithful people who were able to hold these progressive views. It seemed so new and radical.

Now, going back, I see how much my views have changed since then. Back then I was the conservative in their midst. Going back now I realize I am much more radical. It’s just really interesting to see my perspective about that experience shift as I revisit.

Obviously as my body has changed from transitioning, going back to places is always a bit of a gamble. At this point I have to reintroduce myself to people; even people I was very close to. It seems fitting that my body is so changed as my mind is so changed as well.

It was also interesting being in a place among people who don’t accept my gender identity; people who still use female pronouns, etc. It seems strange to hear people call me by the wrong pronouns. I know they don’t fit anymore. It’s also strange to realize that I’m at the point in my transition where if someone uses the wrong pronoun for me in public, they are the one that looks a bit nuts. There were definitely moments of awkwardness as people who don’t accept my gender interacted with people who see my gender correctly. Both pronouns were used, people talked around one another, and yet the people who see me can’t see anything other than the man that I am which is a very comforting thing. It is difficult, though, to navigate other people’s expectations. I found myself worrying about what other people saw when they saw me and I had to work to just let that go and be myself. To realize that if other people were feeling uncomfortable that it wasn’t my fault. I feel so at home in my skin these days and it was hard to feel anxiety again about my body. At the same time, there is nothing that helps my dysphoria quite as much as realizing that there is no part of my body that has gone unchanged by testosterone. I sometimes worry that my body hasn’t changed enough or that there are parts of my body that will somehow “give me away” (it also doesn’t help that some folks have said to me that certain parts of my body gave me away). But on this trip I realized how untrue those thoughts are. Being in a place where certain people still believe me to be female I realized how masculine my body is. From the way my hands and arms look to the hairiness of my legs, to the fact that I had to shave every morning to keep my face clear of hair (and even that didn’t really work). My body is a man’s body. There are parts that are maybe not “typical” (whatever that means), but this body is male now. Realizing that is a huge relief and does wonders to my own continuing sense of dysphoria.

The hardest part of this trip being a trans* person was navigating airport security and navigating restrooms while out with my family.

At the airport they wanted me to go through the full body scanner and I asked for a pat down instead. This was incredibly anxiety producing, but it turned out fine. The TSA agent was incredibly respectful, explained the whole process to me and explained everything before he did it. The most awkward parts were the searching of the waistband (basically he had his hands inside my pants) and the searching of the inner thigh and crotch area (because I wasn’t wearing my prosthesis). But it was fine and I was soon on my way.

Navigating restrooms was a different story. Clearly I cannot use a woman’s restroom. I wouldn’t dream of it. But how do you handle being out in public with people who don’t accept you as male and would expect you to use the women’s restroom? I didn’t want to get into a fight with them, nor did I think they would understand just how big of a safety concern this might be. Instead I managed to leave the group and use the restroom alone. But it was definitely stressful. I worried that I would be outed by the people I was with which could put me into an incredibly unsafe situation. I also worried that using the correct restroom would really strain relationships with the people I was with. Once again proving that restroom situations remain super, super stressful for me as a transgender person. Restrooms have been the site of some of the most acute situations of anxiety and fear. This thing that so many people take for granted and which has been something that I have had to think about so, so often. It was incredibly stressful but I am thankful that I was able to use the restroom safely.

In spite of some of my complaints in this post I am thankful and fortunate to have a family that loves me (even as they don’t understand this). They are making some progress and strides toward respecting me even as there is also a long way to go. But I am thankful to have such fierce love in my life. There were many beautiful moments on this trip that I am still trying to find words to express.

Holding Stories Close

When I write on this blog I tend to be a bit private about what’s going on with me personally. I definitely write personal stories relating to my transition but often only after I’ve had time to process them and get some clarity on the situations. And there are still stories that I haven’t told. I was moved by this post by Jen Lemen this morning; thinking about secrets and the stories that we hold close to the chest.

Lately I have been feeling the stories build up in me. But they are so personal. So I’ve been holding them close. While that leads to a silent blog it’s been necessary for me.

Honestly I’m feeling a lot of sadness and grief these days. My heart is breaking over Troy Davis. My heart is breaking over the travesty of our “justice” system and over the people who applaud it. My heart is heavy for CeCe. It is heavy for the way trans* people, people of color, and poor people are targeted by the prison industrial complex. I feel so helpless.

I am feeling hurt by the conversations around being queer; hurt by the continual reticence of people of faith to take a real stand for the humanity of myself and my community. I’m hurt and tired by the conversations that care more about the privileged people than the people who are affected by injustice. I have been silent on here because I am tired of the fighting. Tired of people who want easy answers but who aren’t willing to take risks. Tired of people still calling my humanity and my faith into question.

I just got back from spending time with my family. It was a powerful time. I got to see my youngest cousin get married, got to spend a lot of time with my siblings and my mom, and witnessed and was a part of the ordination of one of my best friends. There are so many stories and experiences that I am not quite ready to share but that are germinating within me. I am sad to be so far from my family. I miss them desperately and hate that I see them so infrequently.

And so I will continue to hold my stories close; to try to find the words to express them. I will pray for safe spaces to reveal my secrets. I will hope to be able to break my own silence and speak my truth. I will hope that for all of us.

Traveling While Trans*

It’s something cisgender folks often take for granted, I think, the ease with which they can travel. When you pack for vacation you grab whatever clothing seems the most comfortable or appropriate for what you’re planning on doing. You grab your documents and you’re good to go.

It’s a much different experience for me when I travel. Tomorrow I am heading out on a trip to visit my family. My family loves me, but they don’t support my transition. This makes packing difficult. I have to weed through my tshirts to make sure that whatever I am wearing isn’t “gay” or too political. I have to stress about our family beach trip because I know there will be issues with the fact that I don’t shave my legs. I can’t really wear shorts for the same reason so even though it’ll be kind of hot while I’m back east, I’m mostly packing jeans. And then there’s the wedding we’ll be attending. Fortunately it’s a bit casual so I can get away with a dress shirt and dress pants, but it’s a bit stressful.

And all of this doesn’t even begin to deal with the simple stress of traveling by airport. I am fortunate in that the gender on my documents matches my appearance, but for many folks this is a huge issue because of the barriers around people being able to (or being able to afford to) change their documentation. I have to travel with needles and medication which isn’t a huge deal but is still an extra hassle. I stress about full body scanners, about whether I can wear my prosthesis or whether I should put it in my luggage (and the stress that if I put it in my luggage or carry on it will be deemed suspicious and result in an embarrassing search). I worry about pat downs or about potential outings/humiliation.

I realize that I am also privileged. Because I look like a straight white male I can sometimes avoid further scrutiny. I don’t have to worry that I am going to be singled out for my race as well as my trans* status. I am very aware of the ways in which I hold privilege in this area.

It’s things like this that make a vacation stressful. Things that are above and beyond the usual hassles of traveling. Things that most people don’t even have to think about.