Mitzvah In Woodstock:
Rachel Pollack's Bat Mitzvah
Death and Gender:
Kate Bornstein in New Paltz
|List announcement: TransVictim||Stealing Babies|
-- And Over, And Over, And Over
|The Bridge From Selfishness||Queer Kids|
|Without Authority||Without My Permission||Dyke Failure|
Mitzvah In Woodstock
Callan Williams Copyright © 8/17/98
When, as you walk into the big, open space, log cabin building on the outskirts of Woodstock, you see, under the clippings from the New York times about this congregation and it's folk-singing rabbi, a four page article in Hebrew from an Israeli paper with a full page picture, you know this isn't going to be any ordinary Bat Mitzvah.
It was Rachel Pollack's Bat Mitzvah, exactly 40 years after her bar mitzvah, that caused the media attention, even comparing Rachel to Dana International, the transsexual superstar who won the big Eurovision song contest for Israel this spring. Rachel, now 53 years old, dressed in a flowing purple dress befitting an aging hippie, an earth mother, may not look like Dana, but they share a history. Both were born male and chose to change the gender of their lives, living as women, and also choosing to have surgery to change their bodies into a more female function.
Rachel's surgery was in the 1970s. She recalls that after it, she gave the Jewish prayer "Blessed is God, who has not made me a woman," and then added her own twist "Double blessed is Dr. Lamaker, who has." Rachel has walked far from her roots in those years, from New York to Amsterdam, from Judaism to a Mythical based spirituality, but that circle has brought her back to here, back to her roots, in "the great spiral of life" as she says.
The Woodstock Jewish Congregation is as open and embracing as this hippie enclave can be. Their leader, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, has his own CD for sale, a picture of him, looking like nothing more than a smiling dentist with a an open face and a guitar on the cover. Jonathan, as everyone calls him, welcomes the crowd with a call for them to find and celebrate their "uid" during worship, the gifts that God has given them that make them special. "We are blessed when special people come to join us, bringing their unique gifts, because we gain and grow from those gifts."
The gathering today, perched on folding metal chairs arrayed in a semi circle around the ark, covers a lot of ground. There are the regular worshippers from the congregation, people who came on this August Saturday morning just to worship their God. There is the family of Rachel, bothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, here to celebrate a special day in a life. There are Rachel's friends from her life in the Hudson Valley, artists and friends, who are here to wish her well.
And there are the tall women, scattered here and there, some of whom have driven from as far as Baltimore to be here today. These are Rachel's sisters, women who have started their life as males, made gender changes in their life. There is even a man here who started his life as female, here with his beautiful girlfriend. They are accepted here by the people who have accepted Rachel into their life, thinking today about the challenges faced in the return of the gifts they have found on their quests, and if they will ever come to a day when they will be full circle, back in a place where they again find a feeling of home.
In the blessing over the Torah, Rachel invites three groups up. The first is a woman raised in an Orthodox Jewish home who has never got to say the blessing over the torah, even though all her brothers have, and Rachel tells us that to her, this woman represents all of those who have felt left out, dissociated from the traditions of life.
Her family cames up next, a great gathering of people, some who knew Rachel as a boy child and an adult woman, but more children, who have only known Aunt Rachel. Later, they will speak of the role Rachel has played in their family, how she has been there as a catalyst and supporter, being a key part of the structure as she brings a bit of unconventional wisdom, magic and deep caring that has enriched all of their lives.
The last up are Chelsea Godwin and Kate Bornstein, two transgendered women both over 6 feet tall, who come up to stand with Rachel, donning prayer shawls, to read the blessing over the Torah. They stand, tall and proud, back in a tradition that they have both left, and yet is sewn deep into their hearts. "The last time I read Hebrew was when I was 20," says Chelsea later, "and I don't want to tell you how long ago that was." Chelsea today, her close cropped red hair sporting a ridge that stands straight up over dramatically penciled in arched eyebrows.
For Kate, this is the first Jewish service that she has been to since the funeral of her mother, a tale she wrote of for the New York Times Magazine. She jokes when Rachel announces that these women represent an ancient tradition of gynemimetic shamans who walk between worlds and speak for the power of connection and transformation -- "I'm not that ancient!" she quips. These two women, who might have been priestesses in some other place and time, are full of a transfomative spirit, one that Rachel also manifests in the world, and the image of the three of them standing together, reading the words that are deep in the traditions of their childhood, so far from home and so close, is very powerful.
As the Bat Mitzvah girl, Rachel spoke of what the lessons of the Torah reading meant to her. She talked of her journey and how it was both the presence of this embracing congregation and the understanding that it was not only acceptable, but good to argue over the meaning of the word contained in the Torah that brought her back. She told stories of Jewish teachers in the great tradition of questioning, journeying and debating to find the true meaning of God in an individuals life.
Rachel spoke of love, the key of the golden rule that encourages us to love our neighbors as we would be loved, of the call to hospitality towards strangers, and the call to love God. It was the spiral of love that bought Rachel back here, back to a tradition she had walked away from, to give the gifts of her journey, her "uid" and it was the community that accepted those gifts that she was becoming a member of today.
As the gathering sang and danced, shaking the maracas, banging the drums and tapping the tambourines that had been passed out, it was a celebration of life, of community, and of a homecoming that demanded both the journey of a lifetime and the embrace of home. The great crowd overwhelmed the caterer, but people ate with energy and joy, sharing music and delight.
It was this service, so simple and so common, so unique and so groundbreaking, that had triggered newspaper features halfway around the world. It was little different than any other bat mitzvah at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, which often welcomes adults coming into the faith, but it was very special and powerful, marked by the presence of the tall women who have journey far, but often been unable to find a home.
A mitzvah is a good deed, a gift, often to a stranger. By accepting the gifts of Rachel, embracing her mitzvahs, a mitzvah is done, one more step in healing the world that simply requires, as Rachel said, the opening of the heart to give love, and the opening of the heart to accept it, and in that moment, the world changes. Sometimes, that change is enough to be noticed around the world.
Sex Death & Gender
Kate Bornstein & Barbara Carrellas
SUNY New Paltz 3/18/98
Sex, Death & Gender, three of the big tectonic plates of life, collided at SUNY New Paltz on Friday night, March 26, when Kate Bornstein and Barbara Carrellas performed for an audience of over 500 people. Sponsored as part of Women's History Month, the Too Tall Blondes stood to tell stories about their own quest to embody the ecstasy they felt called to express.
Kate and Barbara offered tales of their own separate journeys -- Kate's journey beyond the expectations of gender, and Barbara's journey into sexual healing -- and then came together to join voices in an example of the power of transformation, presenting a chat-room session where identities slid away to reveal rich humanity, and a bit of advice about trusting your capacity to make good choices, to drive fast beyond expectations and into a bliss which resonates in harmony with the universe.
The mantra for the evening was "giving yourself permission to feel" -- to feel sexy, to feel empowered, to feel intense, to feel passionate. It was a call for breaking the bounds of convention to ask the questions and make the choices that reveal what brings us joy, to reveal the jewel we have been given and asked to shine in the world.
Watching them on stage was like watching Terminator II, done with special effects of the soul, all liquid metal forming and reforming in a heartbeat. Kate flashed between her cute persona to a writer who is not a writer, to Mr. Blunt, an 8th grade English teacher explaining the principles of gender. The audience roared as Blunt tried to explain the complexities of gendered language in an excerpt from Kate's play "Hidden A Gender," which is included in her "Gender Outlaw" book. She then passed out blue books with a test from her new "My Gender Workbook," and invited the diverse audience to question their own gender, how much they created themselves as unique and how much they followed the rules.
Barbara told tales of her walk from her home in Broadway theater to a life filled with explorations of the healing power of sexuality. From confronting a producer on the corner of 8th and 42d, to directing Post-Post Porn Modernist Annie Sprinkle in her Australian tour, to leading sex workshops all over the world, and then coming back to Broadway, her journey took her beyond limits. "Because I was in the theater, my friends were dying of AIDS," she tells us, "and I knew in one flash that my work was to open the way to talking about sex so we could find ways that sex would heal rather than kill."
After talking about sex and gender, they came together to talk about death -- death as a prelude to rebirth, reinvention and recreation. This is a world where change is the only constant, and, as they ended the evening discussing, "sometimes it's safer just to speed up when you see obstacles in your path, rather than to brake, because by speeding up your own inertia and reflexes come into play, but while breaking you can be slammed by people behind you."
This message of the courage of conviction to face sex, death and gender and be reborn was loudly applauded. From Barbara's story of facing her greatest fears to Kate's living example of the power of transformation, the audience took away the courage to speed up and face their own questions, their own challenges.
Kate & Barbara continue to take their message to colleges and universities, of which more than 130 worldwide use "Gender Outlaw" as a text to look at the collision of sex, death and gender. They both are also involved in their own projects, Barbara working in Broadway theater and Kate writing, appearing in video's like HBO's "American Undercover: Men Exposed" and "Zenpussy."
After the show, a long line of people waited to spend a moment with Barbara & Kate, and to tell them how much their stories meant. "Two-thirds of help is to give courage," goes an Irish proverb, and though queer lives that break boundaries to claim their own inner song, Carrellas & Bornstein came together to give the courage of anarchy, the courage of change to one more audience on one more night. They then slipped away to follow their own explorations into Sex, Death and Gender, their own quest to find the fourth corner of that quadrangle which we all are searching for: Life.
List Announcement: TRANS-VICTIM
Mailing List Announcement: TRANS-VICTIM
The world is divided into two groups: those who have been victimized and those who are victimizers. Trans-Victim, a new mailing list, is a place for people who identify as both transgender and as a victim to share their tales of victimhood, including how the victimization they suffered continues to affect their life in negative ways and to talk about the justifiable anger & range we feel against all those who victimize us and others.
Trans-Victim is a welcoming and supportive place to be open about how we have been crippled physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually by those who have victimized us. It is a safe space to express the pain, trauma and continuing effects of victimization. Together, we will reinforce each other in telling tales of oppression and focusing our energies into rage against a system and individuals that have hurt us.
To join, send an essay to firstname.lastname@example.org with a full and detailed story about how you have been victimized and how this victimization has destroyed your life. Include details of self-destructive behaviors that are traceable to the victimization, giving special attention to what you could have been doing if this victimization had not occurred to you. We also ask that you include your opinions on who and/or what are the worst victimizers today and what should be done to these victimizers in an ideal world.
Your essay will be circulated to list members who will rank your level of victimization and attitude towards the agents that victimized them. If you are identified as truly a victim, you will be invited to join the list and given a victim ranking based on a point system which tallies victimization events and results that identifies where your suffering lies in the range of the list members. This ranking may be increased or decreased over time as list-members choose to reevaluate their ranking of you as a true victim.
Because this lists exists to ennoble victims, list-members are reminded that they must honor the victimization of others on the list. If someone who is more victimized than you are (based on the interactive rankings) is uncomfortable with your point of view, you have an obligation to change or rescind your views to honor their suffering. Your actions will result in ranking changes. If you come from a place of true victimization, you may become rated as more victimized, but if you try to victimize another person, you may lose victim rating and be removed from the list.
Trans-Victim members are generally caring and sympathetic, with high demands on others to help survive a victim's life. We have a co-operative relationship with the CodependantPartner list, who do much of our routine maintenance, offering sympathy and full catering of the Trans-Victim Annual Picnic.
If you are truly a victim and can prove it by lifelong stories of victimhood, from being bullied, raped, abused, stigmatized, or any other form of victimization, we invite you to join.
One word of warning though: If you are a victimizer, seeing to hurt and oppress us by being uncompassionate and demanding, stay away! We deal harshly with those who seek to victimize us, even if they do claim to be victims themselves! Lying is a trick of the enemy, and we will not hesitate to punish those who lie about being victims and later turn out to not have proper respect for the pain and trauma of being victims!
NOTE: This list is NOT connected with the TRANS-VICTIM-VICTIM list of people who claim to be victimized by people on the TRANS-VICTIM list. The T-V-V list is full of people who have internalized oppression and have shown themselves by acting out against the most fragile and damaged of us. As proven liars, no one on the T-V-V list is to be trusted because they are the proven victimizers. (THAT MEANS YOU, CAROLYN!)
Callan Williams Copyright © 1999
What are kids harassed, shamed and humiliated about? It's not about their sexuality, about whom they love or what they fantasize about when they touch themselves.
Kids are shamed not for whom they love, or what they desire, but rather they are harassed for how they express themselves. It's not about kids and sexuality, it's about kids and deviance, kids and transgression. It's about how the pressure to be one of the gang affects teens whose head and heart don't fit in, or worse, about how the pressure to be one of the gang allows kids to scapegoat, taunt, and even attack other kids who are challenging.
It's not about sexuality, it's about queerness. The good looking gay athlete may feel scared to express who they are because they might be seen as queer, but the oddball kid whose sexuality isn't as clear, or may even be heterosexual, is the one who gets pounded. "Fag" may be an all purpose slur, but it's applied not based on sexuality, rather on queerness, applied to youths who transgress the norms.
There are two kinds of tragedies in high schools. One is the abuse of the kids who look and act differently, and the second is the self-abuse of the kids who fear that abuse. Until kids feel safe showing their own difference, in the classroom, in the family, in the church and in the world, they will continue to be hurt, or to hurt themselves though the pain of denial.
In this world, the expressions of our sexuality in our everyday life are called gender. Our gender expression is strictly policed, and youths who appear deviant -- males who appear effeminate, females who appear masculine -- are the focus for much humiliation and abuse. It doesn't matter what their sexuality is. People's sexual desires are not simply determinable from their gender expression -- not all femme males are gay, not all butch females are lesbian. This is especially true for young people whose sexual behaviors are not yet set in stone, youths who are still in a stage of exploring and questioning their own desires. Experimenting with sexual expression is experimenting with gender, be that Goth presentation or business drag.
It is important to provide young people with queer role models, with people who they want to emulate. It is also important to provide them with "odd fellows and peculiar women," as James Hillman discusses in his book "The Soul's Code." By allowing room for unique and eccentric human expression, pushing the edges, we move the center. Kids who may feel like an outsider because they are a 3 on the queer scale can feel safer when they run into someone who is an 8, because they see themselves not on the edges but in the center of human expression.
That so few now dare to be eccentric
marks the chief danger of the time.
John Stuart Mill
Callan Williams Copyright © 12/2/98
It's the ultimate myth about a suspect class: "They steal babies." Gypsies, fairies, even Roman Catholics have all been accused of stealing babies at some time or other. The Hejira in India, for example, a traditional communal collective of transpeople born male, have been accused of stealing babies and forcing them into their "lifestyle," though the evidence shows that the only babies the Hejira raise are children who are given up to them because the children have shown a clear transgender nature.
Today, the myth is slightly different: "They recruit." People are afraid that their children -- or at least the gendered expectations they have projected on them -- will be stolen. I know of one FTM who says his mother really believes that her daughter's body was taken over by aliens, the only explanation she believes makes sense of his FTM transition.
The key fear of the radical right is that somehow, if the stigma is taken off of queer behaviors, their children will be stolen from them by the immoral "lifestyle" of queers -- homosexuals, transgendered, whatever. Their code phrase is not that queers "steal babies," but rather that they "destroy families" -- exactly the same archetype.
It's true, of course. The less stigma there is on a behavior, the more that behavior will be exhibited. Stigma may not change the nature of their children, but it will change the behaviors. If you make children fear expressing themselves enough, they won't express themselves until the pressure to be who they are becomes so great that they cannot stand hiding and decide to risk the stigma.
The Kinsey Report designated sexual orientation on a scale from 0-6, where 0 is absolutely heterosexual is 6 was absolutely homosexual. The assumption is that 0 would never engage in homosexual behavior, even if they were in a situation where it was the norm (e.g., prison) and a 6 would never engage in heterosexual behavior. Kinsey 6s would always find a place and way to be homosexual.
The battle, though, is not over Kinsey 0 or Kinsey 6. It's over Kinsey 3 and 4 and even 5 who can be compelled to heterosexual normativity with enough stigma. It's a bisexual battleground, where the issue is demanding people declare their sides. This is true even for homosexual people, who want to justify their choices by eliminating the possibility of bisexuality so they have no possibility of being content in a heterosexual relationship. Bisexuality undercuts the "no-choice" argument.
If it's true that babies can be prevented from being stolen -- that children can be coerced into normative behavior if non-normative behavior is stigmatized enough -- then don't parents have some obligation to compel normative behavior? They do have the obligation to shape behavior, certainly, in many kinds of moral behavior, like theft, violence, and hate speech. In this, they need to strongly stigmatize the "bad" or "negative" behavior to pressure kids to "do the right thing."
Parents see many good reasons to deliver pressure for their kids to become normative. It's what the parents want and expect, sure, but more than that, they believe that helping kids become normative is a good thing. They are rated as parents by the actions of their children, so the behavior of the children reflects upon their status, and many people think that is a good thing, that parents must take responsibility. Imagine the anguish and humiliation of a parent who loses their child, allows them to be stolen.
For parents who want to bring up good and moral children, the notion that evil is erased or at least heavily stigmatized often seems like the best plan. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It seems so much easier to help the other side lose than to actually have to win. It's a classic model, this keeping kids pure by keeping kids ignorant, so that even if they have transgressive callings in their heart, they have no way to express them. We teach our children to fear what they do not know, fear what we disapprove of, and the children respond from fear of what might happen if they embrace the transgressive.
In an information age, though, this model fails. We cannot have kids grow up in isolation, far from temptation. The world is on their screens, television and computer, and it can't be hidden easily, if at all.
In this world, we have to approach children differently: we have to let them sample the world and convince them of the rightness of the choices we have made, rather than just of the wrongness of the choices of others. We need to give them benefits and rewards for following choices, not just stigma and punishment for following the choices of others. We have to lead them with love and not with fear.
"The best political weapon is the weapon of terror.
Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us.
But, we don't ask for their love; only for their fear."
"Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear."
There have been many people who have said that being forced to make their own choices from a wide range has been the most positive and strengthening thing they have done in their life. They realize that they are responsible for the results of their choices, and quickly learn to make good and authentic choices that they can live with. This is different from children who never learn to make their own choices, to live with the results of those choices, who often get boggled when they leave the nest and indulge their own sense of childhood depravation by making bad choices. (My personal vision of this is the difference between city kids and country kids, though country kids are any kids who grow up in a very proscribed environment, even black children who never leave their neighborhood.)
I don't think anything will ever change the basic fear of parents, that of losing their children. Today they may not fear their babies being stolen, but they do fear that their kids will be recruited into some odd lifestyle that will be bad for the child, reflect badly on the parent, and result in the child being lost to the world.
"If you love something, let it go.
If it comes back, it's yours.
If it doesn't, it never was."
To love is to let go. It's a hard lesson for any of us, most of all parents who want to hold their babies close and keep them safe. To learn to trust a child in a world that seems dangerous is a terrifying thing, though to not trust the child is even more terrifying, because a child who cannot live without you micromanaging their life is a child who is doomed to failure and tragedy.
Do we grow up with a trust that the bonds we have to our children can never be broken, that letting them be their own people is the best way to keep them close, or do we grow up with the idea that children must be isolated and protected, that forcing them into what we consider the straight and narrow is the best thing we can do for them?
Do we worry about people who will steal our babies and strike out against them, or do we know that our bond to our children is enduring and everlasting as long as it is a bond of love and trust?
It's a primal fear, the fear of someone stealing our baby -- ask any actress who has starred in a made-for-TV movie, many of which have the basic theme of "they stole my baby!" It's also a fear that we have to let go of to raise children in an information age -- and that isn't easy.
Wicked men obey from fear; good men from love.
In the long run, wouldn't we rather our babies be good people coming from love, rather than wicked people obeying only because of fear?
Starting Over -- And Over, And Over, And
Over. . .
Callan Williams Copyright © 1998
Life begins again in every moment.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
It's common wisdom, and for transgendered people, it is crucial wisdom. We reinvent ourselves over and over again, searching for that mysterious balance, trying to find that magic combination that lets us both be effective in the world and true to our hearts. We start over in a new mode, and then adjust and start over again. For us, life is a series of chapters, a range of approaches, a series of rebirths, a continuous change, new in every moment.
People, however, like to try to predict the future from the past. "Well, it didn't work last time, so why should it work now?" Worse, we believe "I was hurt when I tried something last time, so why should I try it again?" This is the voice of the ego, trying to protect us from discomfort and pain by extrapolating the future from the past, and keeping us guarded, limited and avoiding trying again.
As any successful person will tell you, it's persistence that pays off in creating the changes we want to see in the world. Kate Bornstein says one of her favourite quotes is from Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination are omnipotent.
The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race
As transgendered people, we are faced with this challenge of starting over and over again until we find a mode that works for us. This means seeing failure not as defeat but as learning, seeing failure as a gift that, if we accept it, can teach us how to better win in the future. The difference between pessimists and optimists, says Martin Seligman in "Learned Optimism," is that optimists learn from failure and risk again and pessimists recoil at failure and quit trying, give up and just whine.
In the transgendered community we are faced not only with our own pessimism, the fear and expectation of failure that we carry, but we are also faced with the pessimism of others. Many people want to point to our failures as defeats, to use failures to prove the inherent impossibility of what we are attempting to do. They want to use our failures not as events to learn from, but as signposts of defeat and disaster.
People highlight the failures of others, reading them as defeats, to further their own ends, whatever they may be. They may need to convince themselves that their own dreams are impossible to achieve; they may need to put people down in order to put themselves up; or they may just be frustrated because they aren't doing their own work and feel the need to criticize the work of others. It's always easier to help other people fail than to help ourselves to win.
To succeed though, we must accept failure as a friend, and use it well to learn how to do better in the future. We cannot allow failure to daunt our persistence, cannot give into pessimism and defeat or we are doomed to lose. Failure is only a chance to learn. As Thomas Alva Edison said after many sleepless nights, "I have not failed in making a lightbulb. I have simply learned 1000 ways that it will not work." Persistance paid off for him.
When, as transgendered people, we are faced with naysayers, face people who trumpet failures as harbingers of doom rather than as the natural result of risk, growth and learning, face people who are determined to project the future from the past and see every misstep we take as a personal pain to them, then we have to think carefully about how to respond. Do we buy into their pessimistic predictions, or do we leave open the possibility that change is possible, that the learning of today may bring a better result tomorrow? Do we give people the chance to start over, or do we close off the possibility of success, declaring doom and betrayal?
The only thing that we can judge is how people learn from their mistakes, how they honor and accept them, and then how they go on to learn from them, doing better everyday. The learning curve for being a human is often steep, but it is only when we dive in, make the mistakes and learn what we need to focus on that we end up learning to swim, to become powerful and strong. Natural swimmers are only natural because they have immersed themselves in the water and learned to act with strength and grace, not because the first time they swam they were perfect.
We accept that learning curve in children, seeing in them the honest determination to learn and do better in every moment. We know that they have to fall down some to learn to walk, and we accept their failures as a natural and beautiful way of learning to manage their own strength, power and grace.
Today, many transgendered people and organizations are learning to reinvent themselves, to do better and better everyday and in every way. We have to make a choice how we deal with stories of the daily failures that these people face. Do we see them as a sign of defeat or a sign of growth? Do we honor the inevitability of failure, or the possibility of change, rebirth and renewal? Do we come down hard or give them the benefit of the doubt?
Anyone who is ready to declare failure "defeat" is someone who is mired in their own sense of defeat. As long as people and organizations show a willingness and intent to learn from failure and grow into success, having a defeatist attitude is to call for defeat, and that call is a call that must be rejected by all who have a positive and powerful hope for a new and bright future, where change can occur.
For me, seeing someone starting over, and over and over and over is the sign of someone who needs to be supported in creating the future self. Calling for the defeat of those who are trying to learn and grow is the sign of someone who has to go and do their own work in finding a positive hope for tomorrow.
Bridge From Selfishness
Callan Williams Copyright © 06/18/98
Is the world all about you? Have you paid your dues, taken the hits, felt the oppression long enough that you deserve to be self-centered? Are you in a space where you feel it's not appropriate for you to focus on anyone or anything but yourself? Do you have a hands-off attitude -- you keep your hands off me, I'll keep my hands off you? Is it simply, your time for you?
Do you sometimes bemoan the lack of a community, the lack of a network of connections, of shared organizations and institutions? Do you think there should be more advocacy for people like you, in political, legal, financial and even social ways? Do you wish that there was some sort of support system, some group or place where you could find the space to be yourself, some place where people are treated with respect and dignity, where social order means you have the freedom just to be yourself?
We want the right to be self-focused -- maybe even selfish -- and we also want a community. It's just that many of us want a community that is about "me" and not about "us" and that's not the way communities work. Communities demand a cost from the individual to give a reward back, like any other structure on earth. The cost may be time, money, freedom, tolerance, compromise, but it always involves some loss of freedom of self in order to gain the benefits of a group.
Sometimes, I fear that for all the talk of "gender freedom" and individual power, we tend to miss the real work and costs required in building a community. We become inwardly focused, away from social order and consideration, and then suffer greatly from the loss of that compassionate support.
With all the costs that a community demands, what is the most important one? To me, it's very obvious and very difficult. The first cost we have to pay is the price of forgiveness. That's right, forgiveness. We need to forgive all the people who have hurt us in the past, who have wounded and scarred us, need to drop our fear and isolation from them and work together with people, even those who have terrified us in the past.
I know why I don't connect with other people in the way that I crave -- I fear they will hurt me in the ways I have been hurt in the past. My wounds are still very fresh, and if they start to heal, I often end up picking at the scabs, just to keep them open. I have been the victim of the ritual abuse we drive bright, queer kids into in this society, driven into the closet, and refusing to come out until I get what I deserve, get the love that was denied me, get an apology, get someone to prove that they care about me. I relish my victimhood, using it like a crutch.
"Self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable."
The problem is, of course, that the abuse we suffered, the abuse that queer people still suffer is very real. To think about forgiving and opening up is to expose us to even more crap. We want to keep the walls up to defend ourselves, not an unreasonable choice, but every day that we keep the walls up we also keep out the connection, compassion and community we crave, we need. The brilliance of the strategy of casting someone as a victim, as every school-yard bully knows, is that victimhood is a hole that can never be escaped with more victimhood, so victims fall farther and farther from social power, until they choose to take their own power back.
Caroline Myss talks of forgiveness, as do most spiritual healers, calling it the greatest gift we can give ourselves, because it is the gift of being centered in our own power rather than our own pain. Of course, the problem with being centered in our own power is that we also centered in our own responsibility, taking the weight of all those choices we have made in the past.
"You did then what you knew how to do.
When you knew better, you did better.
You are spirit who did what you had to do, but you are not that thing."
We are not our closets, or our suicide attempts, or our stuffing ourselves with drugs, or our failure to perfectly control our world/perfectly conceal whom we are, not our mistakes or failures, not our neglect or our acting out. That's why forgiveness always starts with you, starts with forgiving yourself.
Community demands leadership. Someone has to create a vision, find consensus, enforce the agreements, and resolve the conflicts. There are no perfect ways to do any of these things, but there are lots and lots of good ways to do it. Of course, that means that leaders will always be making mistakes, and that also means they depend on the forgiveness of the people around them. To lead a pack of raw nerves is impossible, so many of us who have attempted to be leaders have fallen back to just doing our own thing, burnt out by the anger, wrath and hypersensitivity of others who cannot forgive -- forgive us, forgive their pasts, forgive themselves.
As hard as it is to do, to let go of the pain and move on, to come out of the wounds and be a hero, I really do believe that forgiveness is at the heart of community. That doesn't mean forgetfulness -- we do need to be prudent in the choices that we make, not getting in the path of rogue elephants charging in pain, terror and some sort of acting out. It does, mean, however, that we have to be able to make up, drop the walls and move on, without hostility, anger and oozing pain.
We need to not let other people's issues make us crazy, make us go back into our own wounded place and act from shame, fear and pain. That means that we have to be centered in our own healing, which can be very hard when every one around us wants to honor pain & suffering more than health & success. In that case, we can be attacked just because we say that it is possible to forgive, to make compromises, to find common ground, to connect with people who have hurt us in the past.
How do we find the connection we need? It seems clear that we do that my moving away from selfishness, moving from a "me-me-me" attitude to one that includes both "me and we" -- in other words moving from dependency to independence to interdependence, where we both have a strong sense of self, a strong confidence in our own choices, and a strong sense of community, a willingness to forgive and compromise to connect.
To me, this all starts with forgiveness. Forgiveness is the bridge from selfishness, moving from blaming them for what they did and demanding that they make it up to us, to a position where we focus not on blame, but on possibilities, solutions, where we go from here.
We were each the victims of some really nasty stuff growing up in this culture, no doubt about that. Yet ranking oppressions, figuring out who deserves what, doesn't seem a good way to get past that pain. Creating structures that support each other in demands that "they" do the right thing seems to me to keep us victims.
I really believe that forgiveness is the only choice, moving past the pain and opening to people again, learning to trust in my ability to take the hits and still open enough to bloom. Forgiveness is the most selfish act I can make, freeing myself from the burden of what others did to me, and moving that responsibility to them. Forgiveness is the strength of trusting that I am not what they did to me, I am something more.
But, yes, I'll admit, the pain of that child, the fear of being hurt still cripples me sometimes, cripples me more often than I would like. I just know that for her to get the community she needs -- the love she needs -- then I have to forgive and let people in.
So hard. So important.
Callan Williams Copyright © 06/12/98
I often hear people speaking about who they are, what they believe, and the response they get from people around is "Under what authority do you say that? You don't have that authority! Authority is bad, because when authority exists, people can become authoritative, and we don't want that!"
Do we really want a world where authority is denied to all?
Rebellion is rebellion against authority, no doubt. We rebel against the authorities on gender, on responsibility, on sexual matters. We become sick and tired of people who have authority and we begin to fight them, to tear down and destroy their authority over us. We rage against authority, throwing bricks, attacking the barricades to overthrow the authorities. We are revolutionaries, declaring our independence, demanding our freedom, freedom from all authority.
It's easy to strike out against authorities we feel demand too much of our freedom. Freedom is scared, the power to make our own decisions, to live without fetters.
The question, though, is what is the best way to protect that freedom. Does anarchy, the absence of government, really deliver freedom? I suspect that it does not, because without shared authority, the authority of the people, of the community, authority only comes from strength, and often that means at the point of a gun. The role of governmental authority, for example, is to keep things in balance, to care about community issues over personal freedoms, for example, the freedom to kill, or the freedom to not give back to shared concerns, like roads, police and taking care of the less fortunate. This is the essence of virtually every debate in government, how best to preserve freedom while caring about social order.
Order can protect freedom. Traffic laws protect our freedom of transportation, or example -- if people just did what they felt on the roads, the ones who had the best guns and the best armored cars would win.
Do we really want a world without authority? For many of us, when we argue political issues, we argue for more authority, for a Marxist style system where the communal good is held higher than the individual good, especially in economic areas. How can that be achieved without the community having authority over at least areas of economic interest?
Yet, many people who argue for a Marxist approach, where the authority of the community, the group, takes precedence over the individual, also argue strongly for freedom of individual expression, where the individual takes precedence over the group. We seem to crave authority, just authority that always agrees with us, which seems to be an impossible dream, because the needs of the group and the needs of the individual will always be in conflict in some way or another.
Personally, I don't want a world without authority, and I know that when I say that, I have to accept a world where individual rights and authority are always in conflict. I think that's OK, because conflict is the way that we have found in this finite world to get a balance, to discover the circle.
I like people who come from their own moral authority, who clearly and effectively speak up for their beliefs, as long as they understand that compromise is the only possibility in this world. When they call for the silencing of other people, be that right-wingers who want to erase queers, or anarchists who want to erase authority (often even as they say they want Marxist authority) then I have problems with them, because they are not working to build a community but become zealots.
I do understand the roots of this zealous pursuit, the polarization that comes from feeling threatened and even attacked, but I believe that a zealous anger only divides rather than connecting, driving the possibilities apart.
How do we attack authority, fighting the authority we see in others, and also demand authority, wanting the world to represent our own views? Do we argue against authority or for authority?
To me, I don't think authority is a for or against issue. Authority can be authoritarian and oppressive sure, but authority also makes changes and makes the world a safer and more free place. The elimination of the authority is no guarantee of freedom, any more than the existence of authority is a guarantee of freedom.
The process of being under the authority of parents, dependant on them, then declaring independence from that authority is very important. But the next step, the step of becoming the authority by becoming parents is also important, because as much as out job as children is to fight authority, we also know that the job of parents is to enforce authority with compassion and balance. We end up becoming the authorities, and sometimes I wonder if that is what we really fight, the demand that we have to take authority and take all the scorn and anger we have seen heaped on authority.
Do we really want a world without authority? Do we fight to end authority, or just fight to make sure that we are represented?
Or is what we really want to avoid having to take our own authority?
If you don't trust authority, then how can you ever trust your own authority, the power you have to change things in the world, the social responsibility that you are empowered with?
Everything does boil down to human faces, human decisions, it's true. Lee Iaccoca said "If you work at Chrysler, you better be good at working with people, because that's all we have around here." There is no perfect authority as long as everyone is human. We have to accept that decisions will always be wrong because there are no perfect decisions, and when we have authority -- like when we become the parent -- we have to accept that we will always be wrong.
Personal responsibility is the key, no doubt. But don't we also have a responsibility to the culture, to society? And doesn't that require us to embrace our own authority?
The challenge, for me at least, is how even as we embrace our authority, we can question it, learn to contain apparent contradictions or opposites. If doubt keeps open to people who have other opinions, other views, then it's great, healthy and balanced.
If doubt, on the other hand, incapacitates us and keeps us from acting because we fear we may be wrong, then we are crippled by doubt, and cannot play our part in the world.
I am a cynic from way back, and understand how important it is to stay open to the possibility you haven't got it right and you need to change your approach, but I also understand how easy it is to fall into "analysis paralysis" and not act on our authority because we are too steeped in doubt.
At some point, we have to step up and take our swing, do our work, and if we come from a place where all people who announce their presence with authority are not only suspect but are shouted down, then it becomes very hard to be the change we wish to see in the world -- or at least, that's my experience.
Callan Williams Copyright © 06/22/98
Does the world really require your permission, your consent, to do things that affect you?
As a queer kid in the closet, the child of a narcissistic mother who believes that everything is about her, control was my goal. I really believed that somehow, if I could just control myself and everything around me, life would be better. I really was a manipulative little shit, as people who knew me then have reminded me as late as last year.
I really believed that if I could just keep control of as much as possible, my world would be better. I was wrong, of course -- it wasn't until I gave control back to the universe, began to trust that I didn't have the capacity to decide what is best in every situation, for everyone, that my life started to come together. I couldn't invent myself as a better, more likable, or more perfect person than the person who was in my heart.
It was when I started to forgive, started to heal and accept the nature of things rather than fight it all the time, that I began to get some peace. I began to accept the nature of my soul, and with that I was able to start accepting the nature of other people's souls. In embracing my queerness, the unique individual story that was me, I was more able to embrace the queerness of others, to trust that I didn't have to control other people's worldviews in order to stay on top. I didn't have to work to break all the mirrors, silencing the voices of others, in order that people not see what I didn't want them to see -- in order that I not see what I didn't want to see.
Like it or not, the world is going to do whatever it pleases without your consent, without your control. From the weather to what mood your boss is in, your permission is not required for things you don't like to happen. Society may protect your body and your property, but it sure doesn't protect your comfort, give you veto power over everything that makes you uncomfortable.
For me, I have found that my own discomfort always indicates a place where healing is needed. I usually become upset when I see something reflected that I have not yet come to peace with in my own life, and today, that is a sign that I have work to do to unwire that hot-button, which was installed in a period when I was afraid of my truths, afraid of who I am.
"None of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves."
I do have consent, it's true. I have consent over what happens with my body and with my property, and if that consent is violated, I have legal remedies.
I do have control, it's true. I have control over my own choices. I don't have control over the reactions or responses to those choices, though. I can only put out the best I can and get back what I get back, then make another decision about what I want to do.
Recently, I heard a transperson angry about someone telling stories about hir that she considered proprietary. -- "This person is taking power over me!" I responded "Aren't you saying you want to take power over them by silencing them?" It's so easy to think that the proper response to someone you feel is taking "power over" is to want to take "power over" them. I'm just not sure that either kind of power over is spiritually sound.
The philosophers seem to have a pretty good consensus on this: humans have little choice over the cards they are dealt in life, they only have a choice as to how they play them. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent," because it our hotbuttons that get pushed, responses under our control.
I have had to ask myself the question "Do I really have the power to control the things that challenge me, that squick me, or can I really only control my reaction to them?" For me, the answer is simple -- if I don't want other people to have the power to control me, then I don't have the power to control them.
Lots of things in life happen without my permission, without my consent, and now that I am at peace with a sense that things happen as they should, that I need to trust the patterns of the universe rather than fight them, I believe that's a good thing.
"One can never consent to creep when
one feels the impulse to soar."
Callan Williams Copyright © 08/12/98
I admit it. I tried to be a dyke and failed. I really worked at it, but there were three issues I couldn't wrap my mind and heart around.
1) I couldn't define myself by who I slept with.
Is sex the most important thing in life? I believe that there are many other things that define a good life, not the least of which is knowing who we are, following our own heart, rather than just making oneself attractive to partners. I believe in relationships that build to sex, rather than sex that might build into a relationship.
I don't feel comfortable in meat markets, comparing notes, or building networks by fornication. I don't want people to judge my sexual attractiveness as the first thing they know about me, and if that doesn't cut it, often the only thing they know about me. I also believe that a world where sexual behavior is seen as the highest expression, where the world appears as one big mattress, is a world that cannot build healthy boundaries and relationships.
2) I couldn't define my life in terms of shared oppressions.
I believe that I need to be responsible for my own choices. Everybody in this world gets dealt a hand and we need to play it. Deciding that someone got a better hand is therefore oppressing us is ranking oppressions, deciding who suffers more.
I believe that shared oppression chat and it's close relative, bashing the patriarchy, set up a victim mentality that may be good for solidarity, but is bad for lives and creating change. It creates an us/them dichotomy that maintains walls of separation rather than eroding them, keeps us fragmented, separated and oppressed.
3) I couldn't comply with the obligation to surrender my voice to the group.
When all are at the table, each has a voice, and the pressure to keep one's voice down to the weakest voice at the table, the person who has suffered the most, allows the most wounded to set the agenda. The pressure of process can remove individual power in favor of group think that loses the power of the group.
I want to be able to have my own individual space and voice, not to be saddled with obligations, expectations and pressures to drop my boundaries without respect for my ideas and my space. I like my boundaries, and the technique of invalidating and yanking status from people unless they comply with the mentality of the mob erases boundaries.
For these three reasons, I have had dyke failure, and now search for a post-gay identity where sexual orientation is not the most important thing in my life. I know that because of this walking away, people will try to invalidate my feelings, calling me not one of them, a patriarchal oppressor, a dupe of the system, who just is angry because they can't get laid.
My answer to them is this: If I wanted someone to fuck with my mind, I would just hang out with my mother, not with the dykes who scream they are not turning into their mothers, and in the process, act just like them.