It took me a long time to understand myself as femme because I’m a man, and to understand myself as a man, because of my femininity. Misogyny, being the fear or hatred of women or femininity, can manifest in many different ways. I can perpetuate sexism myself, and also I am the recipient of misogyny because I’m effeminate. I’m so grateful for fabulous femmes and women and their powerful resistance to misogyny and sexism. I hope to keep learning how to unpack sexism in my own behaviour and learning how to be ally to women and other femme folks, as well as increasingly unleash my effeminate fabulousness. Here are some great reads as well as some useful ally stuff.
I’ll add new things as I come across them – my website (Sunny Drake www.sunnydrake.com ) will the most up-to-date place.
This is a conversation starter (continuer?) on how to be ally and challenge misogyny/ sexism, aimed primarily at trans-masculine, trans-male and masculine of centre peoples. It is equally application to other cis men unpacking misogyny/ sexism and working on ally skills.
Sexual assault is a very real issue in our communities. Dominant narratives are that strangers are mostly responsible, but many of us also experience sexual assault, violence and other abusive acts from lovers, partners and family. The times I’ve been sexually assaulted, I felt like I was responsible for what happened to me and felt so much shame that I found it difficult to talk with people. It’s had a huge effect on my health, sex and life. I wished I’d at least had some things to read. So, here are links to resources I’ve found useful particularly for femme, queer and trans survivors (and ally articles too). Please take care of yourself when reading.
I’ve also included some ally resources for working with those who have abused others. I believe our communities need to work together to deal with each other in responsible ways to unlearn abusive patterns, rather than isolating and shaming people, whilst centering both survivors and the overall well-being of our communities.
I’ll add new things as I come across them –my website (Sunny Drake www.sunnydrake.com ) will the most up-to-date place for resources, as well as other resources such as trans, femme, sexuality, queer stuff, anti-racism etc.
Yup this is real. Many of us know on an intellectual level that we are not responsible for the acts of violence we receive, but how do we actually get ourselves to really shift that toxic self-blame and insidious internal dialogue? Some useful suggestions in this article. Authored by Sian Ferguson.
This link covers a lot of myths about violence and acts of abuse and how equally valid different survivor responses can be. This is essential in learning how to be a responsible ally too. Authored by Kai Cheng Thom, who’s writing I love.
A useful resource on gaslighting –when someone acts to manipulate another into questioning their own sanity. It can be used to make people who are experiencing abuse doubt their own experiences and often end up feeling responsible and blaming themselves or even thinking they are the ones being abusive. Good ally article as well in terms of skilling up on gaslighting. Authored by Shea Emma Fett.
The article also acknowledges the different ways that we can reclaim our sexuality. Particularly helpful for was the section on how we might act when we are triggered during sex – it doesn’t always look like disassociation or curling up in a ball. Sometimes I’ve struggled to understand when I’m triggered during sex because a big part of my coping with sexual assault has been to minimise my own experiences and try to pretend to myself (and others) that nothing was wrong. Knowing when I am triggered can help me take power back to be able to be responsible for creating my own healthy sexuality. There are so many ways we can reclaim sexuality and have awesome sex lives.
Looks at teenage sex and sexuality and how we don’t prepare young people for either staying safe or actually having fun. Many educational programs have finally started acknowledging that teenagers have sex, but an exclusive focus on STIs and birth control doesn’t prepare young people to enjoy their sexy times, have consensual sex and prevent sexual assault.
If you have any other resource suggestions, particularly ones that are femme, queer, sexuality and trans positive, please email me (Sunny Drake) at firstname.lastname@example.org
The sagging sagas of the boy tits continue… I’m on tour in the USA and it seems the new body scan machine has replaced the old metal detector Xray machine in most US airports. For the second time this week, my boy tits raised the alarm on the body scanner.
Security guy: “Sir, I’m going to need to pat down your chest. Arms up.” (Pat. Pat pat pat…. Pat pat pat… pat pat pat) Sir, what’s this at your chest? Are you wearing a jacket or something under your shirt?”
Security guy: “arms back up” (pat pat pat pat pat PAT PAT PAT PAAAAAAATTTTTTTTT).
Me: “look, I’m transgender (insert basic transgender 101 definition using cis-sexist language I would NEVER use to describe my body).
Security guy: “oh” (literally leaps back, says hurredly to security lady) “maybe you should get this one”
Security lady: “but….”
The security lady and guy do perfectly synchronised head movements as they stare first at my face, then at my chest, then back at my face, followed by matching drop of their jaws, then coordinated nudges, each trying to push the other one forward to deal with me. They really couldn’t have choreographed this better if they’d had months to train. Not since I told my male gym teacher in high school that I had my period have I seen such confusion and discomfort on the face of an authority figure.
Security lady mutters to security guy: “let’s just put… (mumbled pronoun)… back through the scanner”
Second time through the scanner, yup, these boy tits are still perilous. A scuffle ensues between the security guy and the security lady – clearly they are unsure who should give me the second pat down and finally the security guy turns to me, face bright red, and says “keep moving. Next!”.
Did I just find my new “get out of gym class” card?! “Mister, I have my period” doesn’t work any more since this cis-sexist world wouldn’t believe it possible that I could have or ever have had a period. It might be time for a change of tactics: “Mister, my boy tits are sore”. In that moment when the security guy asked the first time what was under my shirt, could I have just said “boy tits, I’m a transsexual”, rather than awkwardly let him go back in for the second pat down with my futile hopes that he’d decide my chest was just gorgeously chubby?
I’m curious how the body scanner machine works. I’m assuming the security guard must press a button to get it to either scan you as a “man” or “woman”. But many cisgendered (non-trans) men have man-boobs, so do they get pulled over and patted down too? I doubt it, or there’d be long hold-ups in the security line. So I guess the machine must look decide what proportion of your body should be chest vs stomach vs thighs etc. So who decides what the right proportions are? And how do we each participate in this, even without meaning to, buying into these ideas of what a “man’s body” or a “woman’s body” should look like?
After my first year on hormones when my body shape radically altered (my ass and hips flattened and I had to start wearing a belt like for reals) I was still a little insecure about the “love handles” on my waist, thinking that they would give away my trans-ness in situations where I didn’t want to be identified in public as trans. But when I started scrutinizing cisgendered (non-trans) men’s bodies, I began to notice such a massive variation in men’s body shapes. So many men have love handles, curvy hips, chunky asses and pear shapes. How many men actually have the “normal” man’s body? I’m gonna say probably not that many, particularly considering that the “normal” body is also seen as white. In the media and dominant racist cultural narratives in Canada, the USA and Australia (and beyond), white men’s bodies are just described as “bodies” compared to other men’s being described as “Black men’s bodies” or “Asian men’s bodies”, for example.
And in what different ways are different men treated for not having the “normal” man’s body? Well, it’s likely due to my whiteness that the airport scanner situation drew out the security guards reactions of confusion, embarrassment and awkward fear, rather than the racist hostility and violent fear that may have been dished out to Black or Arab trans men, for example, in the same situation. (See a beatuiful and harrowing poem by Amir Rabiyah – Transexual Militant).
I’d love to hear people’s ideas on how we can work, from the ground up, to transform our conceptions of bodies and make more space for a whole myriad of beautiful bodies. Because someone(s) clearly just made that shit up, so surely we can make up new ways of seeing bodies for all our glorious differences and our beautiful human fleshy similarities.
I was at a gathering a few weeks ago talking with two friends, one of whom I’d just met that evening. One of them mentioned that she had a zit on her face and our new friend offered a great home remedy, “just dab brandy on it”. After a moment’s awkward silence, me and my friend burst into laughter and proceeded to egg each other on with new rationales for getting brandy all over us, “well I think I have a zit right in my mouth, under my tongue”. We are both in recovery from drinking problems/ alcoholism.
Last month I celebrated my one year of sobriety. I’m grateful to finally be at the point where I can joke about it and talk freely with friends and family, instead of the crushing shame I used to feel. In fact, a little over a year ago, I woke up, half drowned in a pool of my own shame. I’m taking this opportunity to reflect on my journey to sobriety, look at community roles in drinking, harm minimisation and sobriety including challenging the ways that we fail each other and also the ways we are amazing.
Harm minimisation works for many people and I wholeheartedly support it as a great option. For me, it wasn’t working anymore. I’d made (and broken) every cut-back-on-drinking type of rule imaginable. Rules like “no drinking before 5pm” became “do you think it’d be ok to make that 4pm”? Rules like “no sending texts, emails or posting on facebook when I’m drunk” became “except when I’ve read it several times and I think it’s really a good idea”. Mornings were punctuated by scouring the sent folders in my phone and email to see what mayhem I’d been up to. The rules became increasingly ridiculous. “I can break one rule if I’m having a really shitty week or someone de-friends me on facebook”. (Ok, so that wasn’t actually a rule, but you get the point!)
I’d made bold declarations. I’d made threats to myself. I’d punished myself. I’d done sober “drinking break” periods to prove that I could, always falling straight back in to the deep end, noticing each time that the bottom was deeper than the last time. I even made a theatre show about it! I hoped that creating a show would lessen my drinking, help me get through it. In reality, initially my drinking got worse. Making the show was such a stressful process that my drinking escalated. I couldn’t wait to go home after each rehearsal to my beloved bourbon.
Eventually, I came to the realisation that harm minimisation wasn’t working for me anymore and I wanted quit long term. In my first attempt, I remember thinking “what do you do when you break up with a person? Break-up sex!” Perfect! So, I attempted a last romantic evening with alcohol. I turned my phone off. Wrote a love poem to my darling bourbon. Carefully selected a music playlist. Then luxuriated with my “last bottle” of bourbon. A week later, I was drinking again.
To be clear, I absolutely and adamantly support people’s right to use whatever coping strategy feels best to them at any given time. I also support the safety and happiness of the friends and family of people with substance challenges. Sometimes these can coexist well and other times people’s substance use can have great impacts on their loved ones. Conversely, the patronising and judgemental attitudes of the loved ones can be just as harmful to people struggling with alcohol or substances. There is a big difference between asking somebody to be accountable for their behaviour when it is affecting others, versus judgementally demonising a person’s choice to use alcohol or drugs to cope with (or enjoy) their life.
The clearest example I can give of this difference was in a conversation I had with a friend who came and saw my theatre show about drinking (and addiction to sex and work and cell phones…), X.
After the show, she confided in me that her partner had a drinking problem, which had crept in over the years. When she tried to bring it up with her partner, he was very defensive and irritated. I asked how his drinking was affecting my friend. There were certainly some things that he was doing that were not ideal, like spending their shared money on alcohol, but when we discussed it further, the real heart of the problem was that she felt ashamed about having a partner with a drinking problem. She went on to acknowledge that her partner was actually a lot more chilled out when drinking, and that it was a bunch of her own stigma around the alcohol that was the challenge. I encouraged her to unpack this further and take on doing the work of de-stigmatising alcohol and addiction, find ways to express support and keep an open mind and heart with her partner. Simultaneously, I encouraged her to stand strong (with my support if she wanted it) on asking for him to be accountable for his behaviour and make sure that her needs, safety and financial security was addressed. It turns out these things were not in significant competition.
So how do we support each other when our drinking gets out of hand?
Here’s my simplest declaration if you are want to be an ally, based on my experience: if we trust you won’t judge us, we will be more likely confide in you about our drinking problems. Let us feel your support, your open mindedness, and let us know that you have our backs. Let us feel your love. Then, and only then, can we begin to have conversations about whether we want to continue the same way, cut back, minimise harm or quit altogether, and figure out the strategies to get there.
As to what these strategies and approaches are: we need a myriad of approaches and tools and strategies at our disposal, because let’s remember that addiction happens with in the context of the stuff going on in people’s lives (like experiencing homophobia, racism, colonialism, transphobia, poverty, recovering from trauma or self medicating for stress and anxiety), so our approaches will look different depending on who we are and what’s going on. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from my experience.
>> Don’t Judge Us
I think the single most important thing is being truly non-judgemental. I could sniff out disapproval and judgementalness from a mile away! Anyone who I perceived was likely to judge me, or who I heard belittling (even subtly) people with drinking or drug problems, instantly went on a mental list of people to hide my drinking problem from. Saying that you’re not judgemental is not enough. ALL of us have unpacking to do of our internal attitudes towards people with alcohol and substance problems, particularly towards drug users. It is not possible to grow up in the world that we do and be immune to the intense stigma of “junkies” being pretty close to the bottom of pile of society, with alcoholics somewhere down there as well. The single greatest barrier I had to getting sober was the intense shame I felt about my drinking. I literally started to drown in my shame. My shame meant that I denied my problem to myself for a long time, then hid it from all of you for even longer.
>> Unpack Classist, Racist Ideas about Alcohol and Drug Use
The times when I finally started to speak about it, I had challenges even convincing some of my friends that I really and truly had an increasingly dangerous drinking problem. I don’t fit people’s racist, classist and colonial ideas of what an alcoholic looks like. I’m a white dude who managed to get a lot of “productive” shit done whilst desperately struggling with my alcohol problem. The fact that my friends didn’t really believe me was a shallow comfort to me (because I could stay in denial) but ultimately, not helpful.
Also, check your assumptions before making assessments about whether or not others are struggling with their alcohol or drug use. Remember how ideas about race, class, gender, disability and other identities play into how we view people. Many Black and Indigenous people and People of Colour get stereotyped as drunks and junkies. Did you know, for example, that more Aboriginal people in Australia abstain from alcohol than non-Aboriginal people? Yet if you listened to the media or the government’s racist intervention in the Northern Territory, you’d get a very different picture. I heard of an Indigenous friend saying, “my people don’t have a problem with alcohol. We have a problem with colonisation”. So, as a white person, if I actually want to be an ally, I should be challenging colonisation and supporting the autonomy and leadership of Indigenous communities, not trying to be the white savour swooping in “helping” with drinking problems.
There are many underlying issues which could be going on for someone when they are drinking. For me, it was a combination of things including dealing with sexual assaults and violence and covering/ uncovering being trans, as well as needing a tool to cope with stress.
Once I truly believed that someone was not judging me, offers of direct support were very useful. Not a carbon copy “one size fits all approach”, but actually genuinely enquiring what sort of support would be helpful. One of my friends recently asked me what I would like her to do if I started drinking again. She prefaced it by saying that she has a tendency to respect other people’s autonomy and under intervene. My partner asked the same thing. Because I trusted them both, I’ve been able to make a request which, whilst it felt humiliating and scary, also feels empowering. They’ve both agreed if they see me about to drink or with some alcohol in my hand, to physically take it away from me and do whatever they need to stop me from having access to the alcohol in that moment. Now that I made the request, and it actually wasn’t that big a deal, I’m reflecting on that feel so humiliating? Hello, internalised able-ism! So what if I can’t do it on my own? The idea that we can be self-sufficient is bullshit anyway. Even now, I just deleted this entire paragraph, because I was embarrassed for you to know that I need help and support. I put the paragraph back in because I’m committed to transforming that internalised able-ism and those feelings of humiliation, and changing the way I see myself and others. It’s ok to need help!
>> People who get it
Even though making my theatre show, X, initially escalated my drinking, ultimately it may have saved my life. It was the show that connected me to other people who struggle with addiction. My passion for my work and my community made me rise above the choppy waves of shame which were threatening to dunk me under for good. Whilst I’m clear that the actual theatre piece itself is very different to my own therapy, the process of researching and making the show was completely essential in me getting sober. I interviewed over 40 queer and trans people about addiction. Through performing X, a wide array of people have written me letters and talked to me about their struggles. They tell about the importance of having stories on stage in helping them to feel less isolated and ashamed. Well, my friends, your stories are just as important to me.
I will also be forever grateful to the generosity of the people I met at AA where I participated for the first three months of my sobriety. Whilst I have ultimately decided (for a variety of reasons) that AA is not a structure that works for me ongoingly, I don’t know if I could have gotten sober without the love and support I encountered in those dusty church basements and town halls.
The tips and tools were super useful, but the heart of what I got from connecting with other alcoholics was non-judgemental space to talk freely. I literally began to swim to the edge to the deep pool of shame that I’d been treading water in. I was finally able to climb onto the shore, soaked and gasping for air. Without fellow alcoholics, I would never have found my way to dry ground again. I got to see that sobriety wasn’t the boring, stagnant lifestyle that I’d feared. I was deeply inspired by the humility of my fellow alcoholics. What an awesome bunch of people we are! Like seriously. So many moving and beautiful stories.
>> Balancing Sober Space with User/Drinker Rights
So how do we create inclusive spaces that feel safe and welcoming for a whole myriad of people, both those who are in recovery and sober as well as those who can’t or choose not to function without alcohol and substances? I asked this question of a friend, Geoff, who is part of a Toronto-based sobriety collective, and he suggested taking a similar approach to many AA meetings- have more events that are designated sober space, no alcohol served, but that if somebody turns up drunk, they are not kicked out of the space and are still welcome.
I am horrified that some of my trans* heroes – those who have paved the way for many of us to be out as trans* and queer, were in fact banned and pushed out of spaces and movements because of their drug and alcohol use. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, both trans women of colour on the frontline of the 1969 Stonewall riots, were banned from various LGBTQ spaces including for their drinking and/or drug use. And these are people who we owe our lives to! These are women who fought, tooth and nail, for our rights. I’m ashamed to think that we fail so spectacularly as to push further to the margins our siblings and Elders who should have the warmest place by the fire. Let’s change this!
Dear People struggling with alcohol or drugs (whether still drinking/using or not),
I want to personally apologise for the times when I have not challenged my own judgmental attitudes about myself and you, because in truth, WE ARE AWESOME! We are living in some really shitty times, and I believe what we need the most to transform our world is creativity, strength and resilience – which you are the very embodiment of. You are necessary. You are loved. You are important. You are my heroes. You are part of the revolution. The revolution will not happen without you, because it can not, because you smart, fierce, awesome, and you are everywhere. THANKYOU!
All my love,
I’ve written a follow-up article to this, Wet >< Dry
 Harm minimization or harm reduction refers to a range of strategies to reduce or minimize some of the harmful affects of drinking or drug use. Lots of government and conservative agencies/groups refuse to support harm minimization and are only in favour of abstinence (not using at all, or alcoholics not drinking at all), and not only stigmatise but criminalise harm minimsation – for example, many places won’t allow safe injection sites. This “abstinence is the only way” model can be used as a justification for the war on drug users which is in reality turned into a war on Indigenous and Black people (who actually use less drugs than white people, but get thrown in jail WAY more than white folks for using or dealing). Thanks to Chanelle for schooling me on these politics of criminalisation and harm minimisation.
Over 35,000 people have read the article I posted about the need for myself and other white people to acknowledge and be responsible for our racism. Thank you to so many people for reading and sharing this. I asked my partner Chanelle to collaborate with me on responding to the most common responses.
From Chanelle & Sunny:
The responses have been very mixed. From Black people, people of colour and Indigenous folks, direct responses have been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Obviously some would not have felt comfortable or wanted to give critical feedback. It’s also racist to expect entire groups of people to agree with each other or share the same opinions. From white folks, the responses have been more mixed. Many white folks said “yes absolutely”, others that it was a challenging yet important thing for them to read and engaged in critical conversation from a genuine place of wanting to understand, discuss and learn. A smaller number of white people wrote Sunny abusive messages. This article is especially directed toward those white folks who felt challenged but also wished to understand and learn more. We want to talk to you because we care about supporting you to move you further toward liberation and because we need you in the movement to end racism. We want to be part of a movement of white folks taking responsibilty to educate each other and hold each other accountable, so that this labour doesn’t fall on the shoulders of BIPOC* (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities.
A few white people mentioned that they found the title of Sunny’s first piece depressing, because the suggestion that racism is inevitable in white people as long as we live in a white supremacy, makes it seem like we can’t do anything about it. Yes, it’s true that white people created racism and we enforce, defend and maintain it everyday- some of us intentionally and others of us through our denial or our inaction. However, the good news is the fact that we built it also means that we have the power to resist it everyday in hundreds of ways! We can learn to dismantle it and build mindblowingly beautiful things in its place, following the strong leadership of BIPOC communities and stepping up into leadership roles in transforming ourselves and other white people.
Firstly, we want to honor that what we have learned about racism, we have learned from Black people, Indigenous folks and people of color. These communities have explained and documented racism in every possible format and setting. Books, art, kitchen table storytelling, journalism, science, music, poetry, historical research, blogs, theatre, fashion. Entire libraries and schools–and critical viewing of the nightly news–exist for those wanting to understand racism. We have also learned a huge amount from other white anti-racist organisers and friends, like from workshops and training (e.g the Catalyst Project’s Ann Braden Program). We say this from a place of care: many of us white folks remain confused or willfully ignorant of some of the most basic structures of racism (and oppression more broadly). We are not trying to judge you. We make mistakes all the time–there will certainly be mistakes in this article too! We aim to be supportive and firm and this may mean we feel really uncomfortable sometimes.
“But people of colour are mean to me too – isn’t that reverse racism?”
Many of the comments regarding the original article fell into this category: “But people of color did this to me–so how come when I do it you call it racism and when they do it, it’s not?” The idea of “reverse racism” comes from a misunderstanding (intentional or not) of how racism and oppression work. White people created the idea that if us white folk experience discrimination, harassment or any kind of unpleasant thing by Black, Indigenous or people of color then we are experiencing “reverse racism”. This is a used by many white people as a justification for not having to be responsible for racism.
The concept stems from the misinformed idea that racism is just shitty behaviour from one individual to another, and that it’s about feelings and not power. Let’s talk about power and see how that informs our experiences of individuals.
Like all forms of oppression, racism has (at least) 3 layers:
Internalized. This is the ways that oppression lives inside of people’s hearts and minds, how people are being oppressed compare themselves negatively to those with power and hate themselves and their families and communities, sometimes being self-destructive or undermining or distancing ourselves from each other. Someone could be experiencing internalised racism, internalised homophobia, internalised sexism etc.
Inter-personal. This is what happens between individuals. So this would include a person with power (in this case white privilege) discriminating against someone, acting from prejudice based on stereotypes. This can be everything from micro-aggressions like avoiding eye contact all the way up to murder.
Institutional, Societal, Cultural. These are the larger structures that we usually didn’t create ourselves but that we inherit and that we either benefit from or are targeted and exploited by. Like schools, legal systems, workplaces, economic systems, religions, government etc. Almost all of these institutions are shaped and dominated by white people, specifically rich white men. This is the key to understanding why a power difference can’t just be “reversed”.
These institutions are a set up to punish some and benefit others and the impacts are so pervasive. Let’s look at how things are right now: a kid of color is born. Over her lifetime, she is more likely to die at childbirth, to not get the nutrition she needs, to go to poorer quality schools and drop out, to live in substandard housing or become homeless, to struggle with her self worth because she’s been told she’s not as valuable, to experience violence from state agents like the police and in her personal relationships, to be denied respectful and effective health-care, have her culture and spirituality disrespected, not be able to get a job and to earn less than white people in whatever work she does find. There is a lot of variation within this but each exception does not disprove the overwhelming evidence that there are structural forces creating these problems.
So if someone doesn’t give an individual white person a job because they are white, that may have an impact on that person. But it is likely an isolated incident and doesn’t have entire systems of power perpetuating it every single day. Discrimination against us white people might hurt our feelings or have some harmful impacts. That could be a real bummer. However, there are no institutions that harm white people because we are white (they may harm us because we are poor or trans etc, but that’s not based on our race).
Inter-personal racism–context is important
Another way to think about it, is that the context is important. It is the presence of not only shitty behaviour, but its combination with power that makes racism real. Let’s look at the example Sunny gave of how it’s racist for him to get the names confused of people of colour, even though he also frequently mixes up white people that he doesn’t know. A lot of white folks struggled to understand this. A friend, Tiara, responded very succinctly to this on their facebook page when questioned:
“there’s a lot more cultural history and baggage associated with POC (people of colour) being confused for each other – “oh all you Asians look the same” etc – sometimes to malicious means (WW2 propaganda about how to spot a “Jap” for example).”
We experience things based on how we’re treated in other spaces and at other times. It’s actually a very white thing to divorce ourselves from the context, to think that we can operate independently from our surroundings. So if a person of colour or another white person doesn’t remember who I am, it may just feel like a personal sting. Compared to, for a person of colour, it may jab into a painful spot that’s been jabbed over and over again. I hit you once, it hurts. I hit that spot 400 times, I’ve created a wound. And of course it’s more complicated than that – lots of white people feel dehumanised or have baggage around this for different reasons – like because they/we are trans or femme women etc. We’re not over-riding your experiences of being squashed for various parts of your identities – we’ve chosen to focus on unpacking white supremacy and racism in this article.
Respecting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour Only Space
Some white people took offense when they were asked to refrain from posting on some facebook walls and spaces in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict. Sometimes we simply don’t recognize the impact that just our presence can have. We are whole human beings and have many different impacts on the world, both wonderful and crappy. And being white automatically impacts a space. We bring our whiteness everywhere and our (unintentional or not) racism. It makes total sense that sometimes (or often) BIPOC communities would want spaces for their own healing, discussion, fun or organising, where they don’t have to deal with our racism. It also makes sense when a person of colour doesn’t want to be our friend. If we were being treated awfully by a racist world, I imagine many days we’d hate white people too. In fact, expecting people of colour and Indigneous people to like us can actually be a sign of being privileged – why should we feel entitled to other people’s respect, without it being earned? Between the two of us, some of the most exciting, powerful and transformative experiences we’ve ever had have been in spaces that were centred around a particular group of people facing oppression (e.g. femme or trans only spaces) and so we absolutely want to celebrate and support BIPOC folks doing the same and encourage white folks to step back.
What makes us white people so confident that we really understand racism?
Some white people also commented that Sunny had chosen “ridiculous” examples that weren’t really racism. White people – how would we know what is and isn’t racist?! The only way we can understand that is to listen to Black pepole, Indigenous folks and people of color (BIPOC). And not just one or two people–be tuned in to movements. The fact that we might not understand how some BIPOC may experience our actions, speaks further our racism. Consider this — in what ways is it essential to your everyday life, your job or your survival, to know about racism, or anything at all about BIPOC communities?
In an in an anti-oppression workshop, artist, activist and educator Kim Katrin Crosby pointed out that she has to know everything about white people. As a woman of colour, her survival is dependent on knowing exactly how to navigate a white system that’s designed to squash her (she said it way more eloquently than this). As white folks though, we could learn about various BIPOC communities if we wanted to, but our survival is not dependent on it. We can get by just fine remaining ignorant. And in fact, it’s not just a passive ignorance – many of our ancestors and our current white culture works very hard to actively erase the voices, histories and ideas of people of colour and Black and Indigenous people. Who gets to write the history books? Who controls the vast majority of mainstream media outlets? Who has the resources to put their ideas into action? Who gets their television shows produced? Yes, mostly white people. For every Oprah, there are 100 David Lettermans. So, in a culture of white supremecy, while it’s not a personal failing for a white person to not know much about communities of colour, it is, nonetheless, our responsibility to find out. And not in the way where we just culturally appropriate and exoticise and devour everything about others. Rather consensually valuing, respecting and learning how to treat people with dignity and respect. Another teaching Kim offered in her workshop, was instead of the saying “treat people how you’d like to be treated” to rather treat people how they want to be treated. If communities of colour are saying something is racist, if we don’t understand why, it’s our job to find out.
“But people of colour are racist to each other too”
What is called “lateral-racism” is real–and it is is based on racist white systems offering folks of colour and Indigenous folks some privileges by competing with each other for points in a system designed ultimately for white people’s benefit. When white people point this out though, it’s not usually to take responsibility, it’s to divert any attempt to be responsible for our own racism. Of course, folks of colour and Indigenous people have a lot of healing to do around racism. And there are a lot of people of colour doing powerful organising around building alliances together to do this.
“But what about mixed race people?”
Some people have pointed out that Sunny’s original article doesn’t acknowledge mixed race people. You’re absolutely right. That was a shortcoming of the article. These conversations are so much more complex than “black or white”. We’ve heard some mixed race people talk about complex experiences of sometimes passing as white (being read as white) and other times being read as from a non-white cultural background. Let’s remember to keep complicating our analysis and understandings.
“But what about me?”
We all experience intersections of power and privilege. Some of us are white–and also poor, trans, disabled, fat, femme and experiencing a lot of oppression based on that. Yes, transphobia, poverty, fatphobia, ableism and misogyny suck. And if you compare your experience with someone with the *same* identities and experiences–except they are not white–you can see that there is a dramatic difference. Some of us white folks cannot stand a conversation about our racial privilege without turning it into a conversation about our other experiences of oppression. This is called derailing or detouring. But our needs do not need to be in competition with each other. What made you think that by focusing an article on racism, it was detracting from your liberation?
There is a powerful saying from a Murri community (an Aboriginal community in Queensland, Australia), “If you’ve come to help me, you’re wasting your time, but if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Working on our racism will support our own and other’s liberation. In fact, it is NECESSARY for our liberation. Why? Because the people most impacted by our shitty systems often live at the intersections of multiple oppressions – like people who are dealing with poverty and racism and transphobia and sexism all at once, for example. And these people have seriously powerful stuff to offer social change movements. They don’t need to go to university to learn fancy words like “intersectional politics” – these concepts are obvious from their lived experience–and when the solutions that have been created by these communities have the power and resources to be implemented, they benefit us all.
Second, because it feels incredibly shitty to be a world where it is difficult to build genuine relationships with people because racism has divided you and to know that many of the good things in our life (our privileges) rely on other people being oppressed. If we want to see justice, peace and safety, and realise our true potential as communities and individuals, then we need to understand that we can’t achieve this while some people are dehumanized, robbed and victimized by systems of white supremacy. How are we going to have to transform to be a world where we all get a fair piece of the pie? That’s the amazing challenge ahead of us, that we have the power to embrace everyday in a million ways.
Working on our racism will unite us, not divide us
A few white people commented that they thought Sunny’s article would just divide white people from Black, Indigenous and communities of colour (BIPOC), by pointing out the awful things, rather than the things we have in common. Whether we talk about it explicitly or not, our racism gets in the way of our connections with BIPOC every day. We may not notice it because we’re not the ones who our racism most obviously hurts. But we are divided because we are NOT talking about racism and NOT actively transforming our racism. Denying the ways our racism keeps us separate from BIPOC is not going to bring us closer. Only actively working on our shit will.
This racist system our ancestors built (and that we perpetuate) was very intentionally built to keep us separate. Let’s take a quick trip down history lane with an illuminating example from the tobacco fields of Virginia. In the late 17th century, black and white workers on the farms were starting to organise together to fight for better working conditions and possibly overthrow the white bosses. There were so few white bosses, vastly outnumbered by the thousands of black and white workers. So, to increase their stability, the bosses used “divide and conquer” strategies. To break up the workers, they created the the concept of “white” (before this there was English people and German and French people etc), lumped most of the pale skinned people together, and gave them privileges like extra food rations and shorter working hours. Now the “white” people had something to lose. If they continued organising with their black comrades, they’d have these privileges taken away. This still happens today. Even though ultimately only 1% of the population (mostly white people) get the most massive benefits from the work of the rest of the world, because other middle class and working class white people get some benefits, comparative in general to people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, we fear that if we rock the boat, we’ll have it taken away.
It is this racist system of handing out privileges to white people and punishing people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, that divides us. And we will stay divided unless we work on our racist shit.
We’re not saying you’re the Ku Klux Klan
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Martin Luther King Jr. from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”
Sometimes those white people most opposed to racism are the most defensive (and therefore unaccountable) about our own racism. We can respond with rage, disbelief and denial because we believe that opposing racism means having erased it out of our hearts, lives and minds. For example, when Chanelle was about to undertake an anti-racist training program, a white person said to her “gee you must really have a big problem with racism”. It was unthinkable to him that continuing to do active work on racism was a part of being anti-racist. He saw himself as above that, as an anti-racist person who had it all worked out and was therefore just “not racist” anymore.
Aside from the pretty clear arrogance of believing that white people get to decide for ourselves when we’re “done” with our racism, we also see it differently because of our understanding of institutional racism. White folks are placed into racist institutions whether we want to be there or not. For example, for the most part, our schools reflect white realities, goals, histories and leadership. So no, you don’t need to be a part of the KKK to be a part of white supremacy. We’re all in it, it’s up to us how we respond. Some people feel so much shame about this that they give up (or use it as an excuse to give up). What if, just as an exercise, you removed any personal shame associated with the word racist? Would that change what you would consider racist? Just for this exercise, imagine you saw doing racist things with as little emotional weight or shame as say forgetting to take the garbage out on garbage day? This is not meant to trivialise racism, rather as a tool to assist white people to acknowledge our racism as the first step in being responsible for working on it.
Being in Love with Our Communities: why we take a stand against racism
A racist world tells us as white people that we will lose stuff if we challenge racism. That there’s not enough to go around. That it’s too much work. That we’re not responsible anyway. That racism is over. Or any number of other slippery ways to get out of being responsible. What we stand to lose by failing to address racism, is far greater than the comparatively small things we will have to give up like being right, being the centre of attention, being comfortable 100% of the time etc. Working on our racism, we risk looking silly or ignorant or being called out – for example, we will likely have made embarrasing mistakes in this article. Contrast this with what we risk by failing to work on our racism – friends, awesome communities, healing, justice, safety, peace, learning and living in a harmonious world. And we can do this work from a place of love for ourselves, our friends and our communities. It’s not about hating ourselves as white people, it’s about loving ourselves so much that we want to live in a awesome world and stand with our friends who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour.
I’ve recently started taking my shirt and binder/sports bra off in the men’s locker room. It didn’t begin from a desire to flash my boy tits around, rather that I was fed up with the incredibly awkward configurations I used to twist my clothes in to hide these bouncy little babies. Moreover, I was incredibly bored by transphobia and cis-sexism*.
I’ve also been thinking about appropriation of struggles – the ways that I have over-identified with and co-opted the struggles of trans people who are more marginalised than myself. There’s been lots of trans women who have written and spoken about the appropriation of the struggles of trans women of colour. They remind us that the vast bulk of violence faced by trans people is in fact faced by trans women, particularly those who are racialised, sex workers, poor and/or Indigenous. When I listen to my trans Elders, the people whom I owe my life to (literally – I couldn’t exist as trans without their AMAZING work in carving out space for us to be trans), it’s easy to assume that my experience with be the same as theirs. The reality is, it’s not. Firstly, things are already different. Their hard work has already transformed some things about the communities I live in (THANKYOU! I LOVE YOU! YOU’RE THE BEST!). Secondly, the very people who have been at the centre of the movements which I benefit from, also face trans-misogyny (the many ways transphobia and sexism are directed specifically toward trans women), racism, poverty, disable-ism etc. As a white, mostly-able-bodied, trans man who passes** as cisgendered, I don’t face these things.
So I’ve started unpacking the difference between when I’m actually unsafe verses when I’m really just uncomfortable. The locker room I’ve been flashing my boy tits around has a trans inclusion policy. It says right there on the wall that the space welcomes trans people in either of the locker rooms. Not that policies always translate into action, but the fact that someone has put it there, makes me feel like there’s some warning that my trans body might be in there and also that someone onsite might have my back (or my tits, as the case may be).
This will be an ongoing juggle to differentiate actually unsafe situations from uncomfortable ones. Locker room late at night at a mainstream non-trans-policy gym where there’s only one other dude or a football team? Probably not going to risk it. I’ve already got a bunch of practice of the safety versus self expression dance – as an effeminate trans man, I’m used to the “speed up my walk” moment or put my sort-of-butch-jacket on over my frilly pink shirt with matching frilly pocket square or turn my sparkly earring and rhinestone studded handbag away when passing men on the street late at night.
The more I watch and test the waters, the more I realise that for a relatively privileged trans person such as myself, probably the worst thing that’s going to happen in response to my boy tits wobbling around the men’s locker room, at a place that’s intentionally developed a trans inclusion policy, is some shocked stares and dropped jaws. A few years ago (actually even a few months ago), this would have devastated me. I would have spiraled into internalised transphobia, that nauseous feeling that there’s something wrong with me. That I’m weird. Broken. Yucky. Unloveable. Sick. I would have felt emotionally AND physically unsafe as well as uncomfortable. Like I was about to attacked. Like I had in fact, been attacked. It’s not that I’m suddenly immune to these bouts of fear and self loathing, particularly given that I am a survivor of sexual assault, but the more I practice, whilst finding it a little tedious, boring & uncomfortable, the more I see it as an opportunity to cultivate self love AND slowly transform the world, one boy tit at a time. So I want to see more space for a whole range of bodies? Well, sometimes my political essays and rants can be written in my body. All I need to do, is be there, boy tits and all, and I’m already changing shit.
I recognise that it is through my privileges that I can do this, and also that I’m creating space for a particular type of trans experience. I’m not saying that exposure to my white boy tits will necessarily carve out space for trans women’s bodies, or racilialised trans men’s bodies or genderqueer bodies. Nope, I’m not at the centre of transforming our world and neither should I be. I’m two buoyant tits, floating in an ocean of change. And for what it’s worth, these tits are gonna sail proudly above the waves whenever they can.
Cisgendered people (ie, people who are not trans) – please be mindful of your cis privilege before telling your trans friends “well my trans friend Sunny said you’re not actually unsafe, just uncomfortable” or “you should love your body” or any other well intentioned declarations about how trans people should or shouldn’t feel about our bodies or what steps we should and shouldn’t take to be safe. Let’s remember that the same situation can be experienced very differently by two different people, not to mention that two different people will be treated differently. Although I also get that it’s complex when we’re talking about intersecting struggles – like I think there’s a place for cisgendered women having their trans sisters’ backs by calling trans guys on appropriating the struggles of trans women.
I’d also ask cisgendered people to remember that it takes a lot of work to deal with transphobia and cis-sexism when they arise and battle through internalised transphobia. I have the capacity for that work right now. And I choose to take on that education work. I choose for my boy tits to be my curriculum, my wordless political essay in the locker room. Other trans people may be focused on other things, like battling the health care system, finding a roof under which to sleep or food to eat, dealing with their families, growing food, making art, surviving, throwing parties…
I’m not going to hide my beautiful trans body anymore, except when really and truly it would be physically unsafe. If it’s just uncomfortable, hell, so is trying to get changed balancing my bags off the floor in toilet stalls. So is the complex ballet of getting my clothes on and off without revealing my tits. So is living in a world that thinks my body is weird (or fetishizes it in unconsensual ways). So, frankly, I’d rather be uncomfortable WHILE creating more space for beautiful trans bodies through exposing more people to a myriad of ways men’s chests look. Besides, my boy tits deserve all the fresh air they can get, because as soon as I have surgery, I’m gonna start wearing a myriad of hot men’s bikini tops, because well, in addition to being tremendously transsexual, I’m also a fabulous flamer.
Until then, you have been warned: these boy tits will not be contained.
*Cis-sexism is the assumption that all people are or ought to be cisgendered (not trans) or that trans people’s identified genders are inferior to, less authentic than, or less natural than those of cisgendered people.
**Passing as cisgendered: unless my clothes are off, people don’t know I’m trans
Huge thanks to the love of my life, Chanelle, for editing and taking the photo!
About three weeks ago, I forgave EVERYONE who EVER did ANYTHING that hurt me! Including the small things, the big things, the betrayals, the manipulations, the sexual assaults, the back-stabbing, the neglect. EVERYTHING! I’m excited about who I’m going to have to be, to make that stay true.
Already things feel really different. A few times a tiny twang of non-forgiveness has begun to creep in to my behaviour or feelings, and I immediately thought “nope, I forgave them” and the bitterness dissipated and got replaced with space. It’s not even necessarily a relief, it just kind of feels like emptiness (a good sort of emptiness), like being in the moment I’m in, or looking forward, rather than being dragged back into the past. It doesn’t mean I necessarily want to be friends with the people who I forgave. Just that I’m not bogged down in resentment, bitterness, anger, upset or frustration. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to accept the same sort of behaviour from them as I did in the past. In fact, it means I am in a more powerful position to communicate and negotiate for things to be different, because I’m not spending all my energy just dealing with the hurt.
The forgiveness was inspired by watching someone, after a great internal battle, bring himself to a place of forgiving the people in an institution that hurt him horribly and repeatedly in the past. And I thought, if he can forgive them, hell, I can forgive so-and-so, and so-and-so and so-and-so… In the moment I watched him go through that transformation, the idea occurred to me “why not just forgive everyone then”? I neatly filed that idea away to digest later, then realised, if I left it to later, I’d probably never do it. I mean, what a mammoth thing to do! Is that even possible? So instead of letting these boring thoughts interfere, I took a deep breath and without thinking about it too much, I forgave everyone who ever did anything thing hurt me.
I never understood the power of forgiveness until recently. I know it’s a strong part of a lot of spiritual and religious traditions, but I never really “got it”. I’ve always struggled to be a forgiving person. I was someone who was actually pretty difficult to get on the wrong side of, but once someone ticked me off or did something that majorly or repeatedly hurt, I’d hang onto that for YEARS!
Through a personal development course that I did, I began to unpack some things behind my non-forgiveness. Firstly, there was a lot of things I was getting out of being non-forgiving. Power. Superiority. Holding things over people’s heads for a long time so they’d have to “make it up to me”. Of course, this was not what I told myself. My internal rationalisation was that I was protecting myself from getting further hurt. Ironically, the act of not forgiving WAS what was hurting me further. The effects of non-forgiveness in my life have been: physical unwellness (the stress, resentment and hard feelings that get stuck in my gut), not getting to have the relationships I want with people because I’ve been stuck in resenting them for the past and not having as much energy as I could because I’m spending it dwelling on the past.
My non-forgiveness has been shaped by the prison mentality of the society I’ve grown up in. My people punish each other. And not just once. We punish in ways that are never really done. Like when someone gets sent away to prison, even when they get out, they continue to be punished forever. For example, the fact that they have a criminal record limits them from getting work. Not to mention a lifetime of healing ahead from all the messed up things that prisons do to people and the broken relationships such large absences, sexual assualt, trauma and stigma causes. This punishment mentality has seeped it’s way into every area of my life. And forgiveness is one of the tangible ways I can start to undo those punishment oriented learnings.
One of the workshops I’ve offered to universities, youth centres and other groups is a Personal Accountability in Relationships workshop. In the workshop I integrate things inspired by many amazing groups like CUAV (Communities Unite Against Violence) as well as a theatre excerpt which we use as a tangible example to unpack the concepts. One of the things I love about doing this sort of work, is that it calls me to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk.
So, about six months ago, I forgave someone important in my life for a whole list of things that had been lingering unresolved between us. In doing this, I committed to her that I was also giving up the right to ever bring those things up again in a way that held non-forgiveness. I can bring them up if it’s about recognising patterns and negotiating for things to be different, but not in a way that just seeks to perpetually punish by constantly parading past “wrongs” (for which she’s already apologised) and the accompanying bitterness and resentment. This has been transformational in our relationship, creating a massive amount of space in our relationship for new things to grow.
I can’t wait to see what grows in the space I’ve just cleared by letting go of ALL that resentment and upset about the past!