The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.

Open Letter to an Unnamed Comedian

Dear Comedian,

I will not name you because, number one, I saw you at a late open mic night and your name was lost in the swirling rotation of participants, and number two, the odds that you actually see this are slim, and if you do, you will recognize yourself from the joke.

The joke was about a trans woman. Now, I do have a sense of humor about my transness. I like to joke about it, and I like to hear other people joke about it. There’s really only one transgender joke I don’t like. It goes like this; you expressed sexual interest in a trans woman. Haha. That’s it, that’s the whole joke. The precise wording and context varies, but the joke itself never changes. Its funny because… I don’t know. Because transgender people are inherently gross? Because being in contact with them makes you gay and gay people are inherently gross? Its simultaneously homophobic AND transphobic. Hilarious!

Unfortunately, that joke also accounts for 99.9% of the transgender related humor out there, which is a shame. There are so many other jokes that could be told. I loved the one on Orange is the New Black where the only woman in the whole prison block who knew how female genitalia worked was the trans woman. I love this webcomic. I love the penultimate episode of Freaks and Geeks (which is about an intersex girl, but much of the episode could have easily been about a trans woman).

But I’m getting away from myself. You didn’t actually tell that joke, or perhaps you did, but put the first truly original spin on it that I can recall seeing. You told it about yourself. You described a beautiful woman on television who you were very attracted to, and then revealed to the audience that she was trans, and that you knew that at the time you were attracted to her.

Is that offensive? I’m conflicted. On the one hand, its one thing to put someone else down for finding trans people attractive, and another thing to state it publicly about yourself. The latter suggests that there is something okay about it. At the very least you were okay enough with it to admit it to a room of strangers. On the other hand, that wouldn’t be funny or provocative if it wasn’t for the general knowledge that being attracted to trans people is stigmatized. The question is whether or not the joke reinforced that stigma. I wish you had gone on to criticize the stigma, to make some joke questioning why it is, exactly, that we treat attraction to trans people as something shocking and bizarre? Especially at a time when being gay is more acceptable, when many of your fellow comedians that night were themselves openly gay? You could have made us all laugh at the fact that we applaud Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, yet still mock a heterosexual man for being attracted to an adult woman whose breasts and vagina were relatively recent additions to her anatomy.

I also wonder if it ever occurred to you that a trans person could have been in the audience? I wonder if, to you, transness is something that happens on TV and in bad jokes, not in real life. Would you have told your joke differently if you knew that someone sitting in front of you had personally dealt with the issue of dating while being transgender?

Here’s what dealing with it looked like (for me, not for everyone who is trans). First of all, it meant being prepared for the fact that some people won’t want to sleep with me, on the basis of my transness. That’s okay. Everybody has the right to say “no” to someone they aren’t attracted to, whatever that reason. You don’t have to say “yes” to someone who is fat, thin, tall, short, possessing of a hair color you don’t love, possessing a fashion sense you don’t love, etc. Second, it meant being willing to answer a lot of questions to potential partners that I wouldn’t be willing to answer otherwise. I knew there were some people who wouldn’t be interested and some people who would be interested and also come pre-educated, but that most people who were interested would have some questions. Questions about my surgical history and what I can and can’t do in bed aren’t for the knowledge of the general public, but someone who is considering sleeping with me does have a right to know what will happen. Third, it meant being willing to shut people down and get away fast if their questions were not polite in tone, or if in any way they began acting predatory and disrespectful.

If all of that sounds scary to you, it was. It was exactly as intimidating as it sounds. And in the end, it was worth it, because you might notice I was using past tense in the paragraph above. I found someone online who seemed nice, we wrote, I answered some awkward questions because he asked them politely and reasonably. We met in person, we clicked, and we celebrated our one year anniversary last week. As it happened, we celebrated at the open mic night where you, dear comedian, told your joke.

And this brings me back to why I’m not sure whether I’m okay with it. I recall that at first my boyfriend wasn’t sure what to do, but then he talked to another gay man he respected who shared a story about hooking up with a trans man and how it went well. That gave my boyfriend the extra bit of confidence he needed to meet me in person. So maybe, by admitting that you found a trans woman attractive you made someone else feel like, despite what society says, they weren’t weird for finding some transfolk hot (cause seriously, tons of us are really, really hot).

Still, the joke didn’t make me feel good. It still made me feel like you were mocking yourself, like in the end you were affirming that there was something weird about your reaction. I didn’t laugh at your joke. I laughed at every other part of your set, because you are a very funny man, but I didn’t laugh at that one. It felt like, in order to laugh at it, I would have to laugh at myself, not in a good and healthfully self-deprecating way, but in a way that affirmed that yes, I am a filthy, strange and unlovable thing. I wasn’t really in the mood to do that. It was my anniversary.

Empowerment

Around last spring, I made a decision that kindness was going to be one of the primary ways I evaluated new friends or potential partners. In the past it had been fairly low on the list, with features like cleverness, shared beliefs, or shared lifestyle ranking higher. I followed through on that decision: my primary social circle now is one of deeply kind and compassionate people, and I’ve never been happier.

Recently it’s occurred to me that I want to add a second criterion to my Must Haves list for an intimate relationship: empowering. Does this person, in the way they interact with others, habitually empower others? And more particularly, do they interact with me in ways that are empowering to me?

When I talk about empowering others, I mean helping people to feel stronger, more capable, more worthy and able to be in charge of their own life. A person can be very kind and very, very disempowering: every “white knight” or “white savior” story is the story of someone kindly taking care of someone else in a way that reinforces that person’s dependence on the knight/savior.

Even the notion of empowerment can be a trap, because empowerment by definition has to come largely from within. Once you start thinking of empowerment as something you give them, you’re back in dependency territory. A lot of empowering others, then, is mostly in avoiding disempowering behaviors, although I think there are also ways one can be concretely empowering.

Empowerment has a lot of methods and a lot of facets. It can be simply telling someone, “I believe in you; you’ve got this.” It can be listening to someone talk through their thoughts until they’ve found their own solution. It can be assuring someone that you will love and be there for them no matter what decision they make.

To feel empowered in a relationship, I need my partners to believe these things, and demonstrate the beliefs through action:

– I am fully capable of deciding what is best for myself and my life.

– I am fully capable of learning and growing in areas where I am weak, flawed, or underdeveloped.

– The values and priorities I have set for myself are valid, and are more relevant to my decisions than any values or priorities any other person might wish to impose on me.

– Mistakes I make are not signs of fundamental character failings in me, but of habits and traits that I have not yet learned to overcome. They do not indicate that I need someone else to take charge of my life or my growth; they just indicate that I’m a person who has weak spots like any other person.

The essence of empowerment is respecting that the other person has the right and the ability to make decisions about their own life; to determine and pursue their own values; to live and star in their own story. While many of us would agree with these things on principle, we’re quick to draw the conclusion that we know better than the other person in THIS situation; that we have perfectly clear insight into what they need here, and if only we could just show them they’d be so much happier! Empowerment, on the other hand, persistently sets the other person up as the #1 expert on their life, their needs, and their feelings. They are the captain, you are first mate or crew member (when it comes to their problems and their life, of course. You get to be the captain of your own ship!)

It is possible to give advice and guidance in an empowering way, but it is tricky. First and foremost, the advice has to be welcome. Just jumping in with, “Well, here’s what I think/here’s what you should do” when the other person hasn’t asked for your opinion is a way of centering your own perspective, and carries the implication that the other person NEEDS your help whether they want it or not. Prefacing any kind of advice or input with “May I give you some advice?/Would you like to hear my thoughts?” reinforces to both of you that the other person is in charge here. My therapist, who I basically pay to help me figure my life out, makes a habit of asking, “Would you like feedback?” before sharing her advice and perspective.

Second, empowering advice honors the other person’s values and priorities, even when they differ from yours. For example, the importance of blood family and maintaining those ties is different for different people. Some will walk away from a family that consistently treats them badly, some will work hard to stay connected. Empowering advice honors the values of the person making the decision, even if the advice-giver would make a different choice based on their different values. (If your values are so different from the other’s that you have a hard time imagining why they’d make the choices they do, or if you believe their values to be objectively wrong, then you are not well-positioned to give them empowering advice. Better to stick to being the sympathetic, “I’m sorry this is so hard” voice.)

Third, empowering advice frames itself clearly as one option, which the other person gets to take or reject according to their best judgement. Advice that frames itself as, “I have solved your problem, this is what you need to do” is not empowering; it presumes that you know better than they do in this situation. Advice that comes with an unspoken “If you reject my advice, I’ll be hurt” is both disempowering and manipulative. Advice is a gift you give someone, and attaching emotional baggage to it is unfair.

This whole notion of empowerment is still something I’m rambling my way through, and figuring out as I think and write about it. Questions I’m still exploring (and may write about in future) include:

– What are some modes of conflict that are either empowering or disempowering?

– How much diversity is there in what empowers different people? (This might be one for Lane and I to talk through together, since our needs and preferences in intimate relationship power dynamics are very different.)

– If a relationship has had a strong dependency component, when and how do you move it toward a more mutually empowering dynamic?

I’d welcome thoughts on any of these as I continue to think this through.

Thoughts on Being a Bystander of Abuse

Abuse is a hot topic right now, in our culture generally, in the world of feminists and sexual minorities specifically, and in the lives of people I care about particularly. For these past few years I’ve been on the awkward sidelines of an abusive relationship. I saw some things that worried me, but I also liked some of the people who were exhibiting these worrying behaviors, and I was torn between my desire to support my sister’s family and my fears for her well-being. While there has been a lot of good information put out there on the topic of abuse, there isn’t much about what to do if you aren’t abused yourself, but think you might be witnessing it.
As it happens, my boyfriend Grant was in a similar situation a few years ago. He was living abroad and subletting rooms in his apartment, and one of his college friends (who will be given the fake name Dave) asked if he could rent a room and share it with his girlfriend (who we will call Selena). Grant was fine with this, but when they all started living together, he discovered Dave was a textbook abuser, complete with the abuse/gaslight/sugary aftermath/abuse cycle and the escalation of intensity. It was mostly emotional abuse, but as it escalated it began to include shoving, grabbing and other warning signs of impending physical abuse.
Grant and I have been comparing notes on how we handled our respective bystander experiences, and we agreed there’s still a lot that we don’t know. Still, we came to some similar conclusions, and I thought I’d share them, as a conversation starter if nothing else.
There is an ugly trilemma that goes along with abuse. First, people who are abused are, by definition, being hurt and need to get out. Second, abusers do things to keep their victims from escaping. This can be as overt as making threats to them and their loved ones, or as subtle as gaslighting them into believing they aren’t being abused at all, that their own hurt is a sign of mental illness or instability. Third, removing an abuse victim from their abuser without their consent is nigh impossible. Part of valuing consent is allowing people to take their own risks, to make their own assessments about their situation, and to be free to exercise their own judgment, even if you are afraid of the consequences of that self-determination. Furthermore, people who are abused but don’t want to leave their abusers, either because they don’t realize their situation or they don’t think the risks are worth it, will just go back when they have a chance. There are exceptions to the third part of the trilemma, child abuse for example, but often bystanders are stuck seeing that something bad is happening, seeing that help is needed, and yet being unable to directly remove their loved one from the situation.
This was in full play in my relationship with my sister. I knew that she was coming out of a fundamentalist religious culture that damaged her sense of her own autonomy, and her ability to make her own decisions. I also saw a lot of signs that she was unhappy, and that some of the people she was around were having a bad effect on her mental health, but she kept maintaining that she wanted to make her new family work. At the time we were pretty isolated from the rest of our family, and as I contemplated the situation I kept coming back to the conclusion that, in this case, the most important thing to do was support her ability to make her own decisions. So I was friendly to the family she had chosen, and even became fairly good friends with them. There were times when I even considered them extended family.
Grant, in contrast, knew that Selena had a history of abuse and having trouble recognizing it. Most of the people around him at the time advised him to leave it alone, to avoid getting involved for his own safety. Instead, he started gently bringing up the topic of their relationship. His first question was whether he had noticed that her voice gets higher when she’s around her boyfriend.
“Yes,” she said. “I talk like a little girl around him.”
He went on asking her if she had noticed this dynamic and that, and affirming the worries she had but was afraid to talk about. Unfortunately, she was very attached to Dave, and afraid of hurting him by leaving. In this case, the coercion was Dave’s ability to make her think she was in the wrong if she ever hurt him. Grant wasn’t able to change her mind about that, but he was able to give her someone to confide in. Where before he had been Dave’s friend, now he was Selena’s. This was especially important because they were all foreigners, and Selena in particular did not have many other contacts in the country to support her.
I was also someone my sister talked to when something happened that really worried her. Often these were delayed reactions; something happened that seemed right at the time, but in retrospect she felt wounded and manipulated, or the outcomes were bad. There were patterns of behavior that made it hard for her to confront anyone involved without being questioned, beaten down and gaslighted, whether she was confronting in the moment or in the aftermath. She was held to a high standard of honesty, yet her honesty was not respected. Sometimes I felt like I was a release valve for all that tension and drama. At times I got so angry, I wanted to completely cut off some of the people in her life, but I didn’t, because that wasn’t what she needed from me. She needed somebody to trust her enough to handle her own affairs, and so I had to keep on being friendly and supportive of the people in her life.
Without realizing it, I was training myself to walk a tricky balance between both affirming her feelings and affirming her family. There were times when I didn’t do a very good job of that. For example, I can remember some conversations where I did try to mitigate some of what had been done, because I was getting attached to the people involved, and in retrospect this embarrasses me deeply. Still, I think the general approach was right for the situation. She was hearing over and over again that the hurt she was feeling wasn’t valid. She needed somebody around who would affirm that no, actually, it was, and people who hurt you repeatedly and then invalidate that hurt when you approach them with it aren’t doing the right thing. In order to do that, I needed to make her feel like my presence and influence wasn’t incompatible with making her own choices about who to spend her time with. In order to do THAT, I needed to not pressure her to leave until she was ready to do so.
Grant, luckily, didn’t need to wait around until Selena decided to leave. As the fights got uglier and uglier, and they started keeping him and the other housemates up at night. This meant Grant had an excuse to kick Dave out. Furthermore, as Selena was a good tenant who, unlike the abusive boyfriend, paid her rent on time and cleaned up around the house, Grant was fully within his rights to let her stay, which is what he did. He offered himself as a scapegoat; she wasn’t hurting Dave’s feelings, Grant was. Of course, once they were physically separated and Dave had to devote his time to mooching off of others, Selena was eventually physically and emotionally able to end the relationship.
Our situations were very different and required very different approaches, but we both came to similar conclusions about the roles of friends and bystanders. It’s on the victim to choose when they are ready to leave the relationship, but it’s the job of the people around them to create a space where that is something that can reasonably happen. Victims need a safe place to land. They need condolences, affirmations, and in some cases physical protection or financial aide. If that place isn’t there, they probably won’t jump, because jumping doesn’t feel any safer than staying put. However, part of being that safe space means not pressuring them too hard to leave before they are ready. Doing that can actually endanger them; an abuser might realize you are a threat to their power and try to cut the victim off from you. How to manage that balance is tricky, and the right mixture will likely depend on the specific situation.
That is all I have on the topic, so I want to know the thoughts and experiences of the rest of you. What roles do bystanders have when they think they’re observing abuse? How can circumstances affect what action is appropriate to take? How can we look out for the people in our lives, and what boundaries do we need to respect when we do so? When is it time to step in?

My story of abuse

For years I’ve had a blog that was not secret, but not linked to any of my main blogs or social media accounts in an obvious way. I have now used that blog to write a detailed account of the abuse and sexual assault I experienced in a former relationship. I name names.

I did not write it on this blog because I don’t want some of those details to be part of the permanent history of this blog. I also don’t want this blog to be the center of the personal storm that’s brewing around my and others’ accusations of this person. But the story is there, now, for those who want to read it.

When your partner is accused of abuse — some additional thoughts

So, hey there! My last-post-but-one got a surprising amount of attention, and there are probably a lot of you here for the first time! Welcome.

As is inevitable, some questions have come up about nuances in the whole “what do you do when your partner is accused of abuse” question. By far the stickiest is the case where you, the partner, feel that your accused partner is themself being victimized by these accusations. Eve Rickert of More Than Two (and it is cool to admit that I squee’d like a fangirl when Eve and Franklin reblogged my post?) messaged me directly to discuss that point, and ask for some clarification. So here it is.

Situations where a person (or several people) is self-identifying as an abuse victim, while simultaneously being accused by others of perpetrating abuse… these are hard. And not uncommon. How can you support victims and hold abusers accountable when you don’t know who is which?

The thing I think that was sticky for people in my original post was that I suggested that if you believe your partner is being victimized by accusations of abuse, you should support them privately, while still sticking to the victim-supporting behavior I had named above of not attacking the victim publicly. In general I think this is a good principle, but I want to make a couple of clarifying points and perhaps note some exceptions.

1) My advice is absolutely only meant to apply to intimate partners of the accused person. I do not think that a community needs to default to believing and supporting the first person to come forward with abuse accusations — that would be disastrous. I do think that an intimate partner of the accused person is likely to have some pretty strong biases toward coming to the conclusion that attacks on their partner are themselves a form of abuse, and that having intimate partners come out swinging at their partner’s accusers is not usually going to be conducive to truth or healing for anybody.

2) There are things I think it is completely appropriate for a partner to do, when their partner is being accused of abuse and they feel that this is unjust. If there are any facts that they are a direct witness to, I think it is completely appropriate for them to give their account. “X said Y punched him on the night of August 4th. I was there the whole time, and I never saw any physical contact between them.” Other people can make their own judgements about the reliability of the partner’s testimony, but it is completely reasonable to speak to things that you have observed.

I also think it’s appropriate, as I said in the original post, for partners to speak about their own perceptions and beliefs, as long as they are careful to frame it in those terms. “Based on what I’ve seen between them, I feel that Y has been hurt and controlled by X at least as much as X has been hurt and controlled by Y… and honestly, I think a good bit more.” That’s a very different statement from “Y never abused X!” (Which, again, is not something you can really speak to of your own knowledge, no matter how close you were to their relationship.)

3) I’m still thinking on this one. When there is an overwhelming tide of community support toward person X, such that their social standing and ability to move and speak freely are pretty well unaffected, while person Y is functionally ostracized… I think maybe it’s fine for partners, or anybody, to be more aggressive in defending person Y. I’m thinking of situations like the one described here. When the tide of public opinion is strongly in favor of one side, the power differential has shifted such that having a couple of partners speak more loudly in defense of the accused is not going to do the damage it might otherwise do. If it’s a situation like Shea Emma Fett describes, where the abuser had successfully manipulated the community into viewing himself as the victim, then you’re standing up for an oppressed person where no one else will. If, on the other hand, the community opinion has accurately and rightly weighed the situation and come down against your partner, your words in their defense aren’t going to have the same detrimental impact that they would in a more open playing field.

I still think it’s inexcusable in any circumstance to attack a self-identified victim in ways that are dehumanizing, shaming, or devaluing. You can say a lot of words to the effect of, “I don’t think that person’s accusations are true” and “I have suspicions about their motives” and “I actually think they treated my partner really horribly” without undermining their personhood. Especially, I think it’s never acceptable to attack a self-identified victim on the basis of their sexuality or mental health — which are two of the ways abuse and assault victims are most often discredited.

The overall goal of my “advice to partners” post was to avoid creating situations where a community rallies unfairly around an abuser at the expense of their victim, or where a victim fears coming forward because their abuser has several partners who will participate in counter-attacking them. We are naturally prone to support and defend our intimate partners against negative accusations, and I wanted to think and talk about some ways we can balance that impulse of loyalty against the need to create whole communities that support victims. One unfortunate fact, whenever giving advice of this kind, is that people who are conscientious, self-critical, and primarily concerned with doing the right thing may follow the advice even to their own detriment, while people who are blind to their own biases and/or primarily concerned with serving their own interests will ignore it or distort it in order to cause further harm. I don’t have a solution for that problem.

I will say, though, that “good behavior guidelines” and advice are generally best self-applied. Reading, reflecting, and deciding to hold yourself to a certain standard, is all great. Pointing to someone else’s behavior and saying, “See? See how they failed to follow this guideline here? That proves they’re bad/wrong/certainly less good than me, anyway” — that is not, in my opinion, conducive to building a better world and better relationships. Doubly so if you’re waving them in the person’s face to prove to them how bad/wrong they are, which can get downright coercive. (I grew up in a moralistic religion. I know whereof I speak.)

The larger question of how communities can and should respond when there are accusations of abuse flying around in multiple directions is — well, it’s a larger question. It’s also very timely, and I may or may not try to tackle it in a future post. I am encouraged that the poly community is so concerned with these issues, and I’ve been pleased to see people trying hard to do the right thing, and self-correcting when they recognize they’ve made a mistake. I’m confident that, as we keep talking and listening to each other, we can make our communities safe and affirming.

A story of abuse

My previous post about best ways to respond if your partner is accused of abuse comes with a context. In brief, a former partner of mine has been working very hard to set himself up as a community leader and particularly an expert on abuse and consent issues. This is a problem for me, since I consider our past relationship to have been emotionally abusive, and since he violated me sexually on two occasions. The leaders of a particular organization recently asked me to share my story, which I did, as did several other women who had been abused or assaulted by him in the past. There’s quite a shitstorm brewing about all that right now, which surprised none of us.

One of the other women who came forward, who’s also a dear friend of mine, has posted publicly about her abuse at the hands of this partner and his household. She names names and holds no punches. She does this, in part, because two of the man in question’s partners specifically and publicly asked for details.

I’m undecided whether I want to do the same. I have made my own account privately available to people who asked for it, and may do the same publicly at some point. For the moment, though, I’m just signal-boosting her account, and undersigning that everything she writes is consistent with my experiences and observations of the people in question.