Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

What to do When You are Skeptical of Someone’s Transition

Every trans person, when they start their transition, has to deal with at least one person who doesn’t quite buy it. Someone will think it’s a phase, or a plea for attention. This is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true. Less than one percent of people who transition go on to regret it; of that number, many don’t even regret it because they are not really trans, but because of the overwhelming prejudice trans people face. I once knew a trans woman who had tried to transition earlier and had to detransition because of how shitty people were. When I met her she was in her fifties and transitioning for the second time.

So it’s a bit surprising that during the year I began my transition, not one but two of my friends also began to identify as FtMs, and then changed their minds. This shaped a lot of my thoughts around this issue, so I thought I should share the story, and what I learned from it.

The first thing I think people should know is that who actually transitioned and who didn’t spectacularly failed to line up with the conventional trans narrative. Hailie and Madison (not their real names) were both significantly more masculine than me. Hailie was a classic butch lesbian, deep voiced, athletic, fond of beer and belching. She had her first crush on a girl back in kindergarten. Madison was bisexual and punkishly androgynous. I am sensitive, shy, artistic and exclusively attracted to other men. I had a lot more people shocked at my coming out as trans than either of them, yet I’m the only one who was really transgender.

Lesson one; you don’t know. There is no way to tell from the outside whether somebody is really transgender or not.

A consequence of the first point is that of the three of us, I received the most resistance to my transition. I was actually kicked out of my house, and stayed with Madison’s family until I could afford my own place. Madison’s family was a little nervous, because she was famous for identity crises, but they were still fully willing to feed, clothe, shelter and love her, as well as provide her access to gender therapy and transition services. Hailie’s family was much the same; nervous but willing to be supportive.

Lesson two; there is a school of thought that says the best way to help trans people is to be a gatekeeper. You need to put a lot of obstacles up to make sure they aren’t just confused or whatever. Insert something vague about tough love here to justify making people prove they are really transgender. That’s bull. People in a supportive environment can still figure that they aren’t really trans. People who are trans don’t need to be picked on.

So what did happen to make Madison and Hailie realize they weren’t trans? Well… mostly nothing. They experimented with gender for a little bit, and they figured it out.

Hailie had been assaulted and raped a short time before she came out as trans. Her sister was worried that this was some big unconscious fight to avoid thinking about the rape, rather than an honest transition. When Hailie insisted this wasn’t the case, her sister backed off.

For a few months, Hailie went by a boy’s name and male pronouns. Then she quietly told me that she was having second thoughts. Then, a while later, she said she wanted to go back to female pronouns. A little while after that she said her sister had been right. Hailie had felt dysphoric because of the physical trauma she had just been through. She had needed something other than the rape to worry about. She wasn’t trans. Honestly, I can think of worse ways to deal.

Madison’s story is a little more complicated. Have any of you ever had the experience of being accused of causing drama, or known people who were accused of it when they were trying to draw attention to legitimately awful stuff? Did that experience make you think that people need to just stop making that accusation, because it seems like it’s only ever used to silence people with real problems? And, after thinking this for a while, did you ever run into somebody who would milk every drop of sympathy to their own advantage, who always had to have the biggest crisis in the room, who was every “you’re just causing drama for your own ends” accusation made real? And you tried really hard to be compassionate, but inside you’re just screaming “you! It’s all because of you! We could just ban the word drama entirely and take everybody in the whole world seriously, if it wasn’t for asshats like you!”

Yeah, I didn’t realize it at first, but after living with her for several months, that was Madison. At first I was hopeful that gender dysphoria was the thing that was wrong with her all along, and being trans would solve all the things, but I did start to suspect something when the only thing she ever did to transition was talk about it. We picked out our new names and talked excitedly about them. I did the work of finding out how to legally change one’s name and print all the documents out. I printed out two copies and left one out for Madison. It stayed on the fridge with a magnet for months and was eventually thrown away. She got her letter from a therapist that would give her access to hormone therapy, and the name of a good clinic. I got my prescription filled as quickly as possible. She never did. Her transition only existed when she was coming out tearfully to somebody, at which point she could use their sympathy to control them, of course.

Her parents handled it perfectly. Instead of obstructing her transition, they gave her responsibility over it. She had a part-time job, and with her parent’s insurance she could afford to use pay for co-pays and fees to change her name herself. She had a driver’s license and could drive to doctor’s appointments herself. They gave her all those responsibilities.

Lesson three; if obstruction is the worst of both worlds, responsibility is the best of both worlds. A genuinely trans person will see responsibility as a wonderful gift and act of trust (provided you aren’t giving them so much “responsibility” they don’t have a chance to actually transition. This level will vary depending on the age of the trans person, but you know, use common sense). For a person who isn’t trans, realizing they like the idea of transitioning more than the work of it can help them figure it out.

And, piggybacking on that, lesson four; I think probably most people who think they are trans for a while, when they aren’t really, are in some way either a Hailie or a Madison. Either they are going through something else that is awful and need some understanding and respect, or they are that once-in-a-while asshole… in which case what they’re really after is for you to not understand them, so they can blow up and use that to control you. Show them understanding and respect from the start, and they’ll have nothing to work with. They’ll have to move on to something else.

I don’t know how people realize what their gender identity is, any more than I know how you know you’re in love, or that your new house feels like home. And I say that, having been through all those experiences. I just know that when you know, you know, except once in a while you think you know but you don’t. But hey, those moments of not knowing that you don’t know are just part of being human, and they don’t generally last as long as really knowing you know. You know?

Anyway…

I wonder at how afraid we are to let people experiment with their gender identities. There’s no harm in it. I think obstructing experimentation causes a lot more confusion than just letting people play around, not to mention pain for people who genuinely transgender.

So in case I wasn’t clear, if you aren’t sure whether or not someone’s transgender, just respectfully back off. You might be right, you might be wrong, but either way it’s their job to figure it out.

A voice and its uses

This has been a really great week. Last Friday, my first article on abuse in polyamory went up on Everyday Feminism, which got great responses and brought me a lot of new followers (a belated hi and welcome! to all of you.) On Wednesday, The Toast published my piece about my relationship with my best friend. I’ve been wanting a way to share this story for a long time, and I’ve been a huge fan of The Toast since they started (this was the first piece I read and it’s been pure and devoted love ever since), and I was BONKERS excited that they wanted to publish my piece.

And this morning, my brother (and co-blogger!) Lane and I presented at the Philadephia Trans-Health Conference about dealing with partially-supportive family in the process of coming out and transitioning. We had an astonishing turnout, especially since it was at 8:45 on a Friday morning, and it was awesome to get to stand up with him and share with a group about the experiences we’ve had. A lot of people said our talk was helpful to them, which always makes me happy. (We may write up some of our talking points here at a later time.)

So it’s been a great week for sharing my stories and using my experiences, some of them pretty awful at the time, in ways that are helpful to others. But life can’t be sunshine and rainbows all the time, and today a thing happened that I’ve been braced for since October… my ex-boyfriend, who was emotionally and sexually abusive, posted one of his many attacks on my ex-husband Shaun, and used the fact that I left Shaun after he hit me as part of his ammo.

He was able to do this because I mention that in the piece about my best friend. I thought long and hard about including that, but decided to go ahead because it is true, and that’s a part of my story that I have every right to tell when and where I want to. I don’t want to tiptoe around what happened, regardless of how it might make others uncomfortable or be used by people who hate me. I’ve been finding my voice this year and I’m not willing to throttle it back.

But I’ve always known that one consequence of doing this would be that my ex-boyfriend would immediately pick up on it and use Shaun’s treatment of me as another example of why Shaun is an evil person who should be shunned by everybody, while still shrugging off and making excuses for the abuses and assaults he perpetrated on me. And there’s no way I can effectively stop him from doing this, nor am I going to try. I’m just going to say, publicly and for the record, that I utterly repudiate this person’s use of my experiences, which I never shared or discussed with him, against my former husband. It is appallingly disrespectful to use (and distort) my voice and story when it suits him and ignore, minimize, and attack it when it doesn’t. It’s also exactly what I expected of him.

I’m not going to link to the post; in addition to the disrespect he shows me, what he writes is false and misleading in several respects, and continues his pattern of discussing sexual encounters without the consent of the other people he names as involved.

Also for the record, if I believed Shaun to be a danger to other women (in the way I do believe my ex-boyfriend to be a danger to women and communities), I would speak out about it; not because as a survivor I owe it to my community, but because I have found power and healing in speaking out, and because I do think it helps for those of us who are willing to share openly about our experiences. I don’t believe that, so I haven’t said anything. I don’t feel unsafe sharing a space with him or attending a conference he will also be at. I did and do feel unsafe sharing a space with my rapey abusive ex, and I will continue to avoid any conferences or social groups where he is welcome. If anybody wants to hear more from me, I am willing to be contacted with questions (except by the ex-boyfriend I’m discussing; any contact from him, I will continue to view as harassment.)

Anyway. I have, as I say, been finding my voice this year. And one thing I’m learning is that when I speak, other people may choose to use my words in ways I didn’t intend and don’t appreciate. That doesn’t erase the value or power of my voice — that’s not something they can take away from me. But it’s one more thing for me to speak about.

Permission to be Human?

Let’s imagine you had a friend who was really into learning things and making the world a better place. Let’s suppose that friend happened upon some people who seemed to have some really important things figured out. So, in the interest of gaining knowledge and doing good things, your friend decided to hang out with those people for a while. Later, they came to you with some misgivings.

“I like what these people are saying, but there’s this one person who everybody looks to as the leader, and frankly, he’s mean. Like, he won’t just tell people he disagrees with them and why, he will also tell them they are shit, worthless, terrible human beings and they need to go die. Sometimes he says this to people who are solidly against him, but he will also say it to people who are basically on his side but disagree with him on a few issues. He will even say it to people who are making accidental newbie mistakes.”

Your reaction to that would probably be, “wow, that’s not okay.” If your friend told you they decided to bail on the group based simply on that, you would probably support that completely. You care about your friend. You don’t want them to be treated badly. Those don’t sound like good people to be around.

But let’s suppose your friend doesn’t want to do this. Suppose your friend still really thinks there is awesome stuff in this group, and would rather move away from that  particular section of it, hopefully into a place that is kinder and less toxic. If the ideas are good, that is true regardless of the behavior of the people preaching them, right? Isn’t it better to try to leave aside the bad and accept the good?

It’s a tall and difficult order, but a good thing to do if you can pull it off, so you wish your friend luck. Later on, you check in about how this project is going.

“Um, so-so,” they say. “On the one hand, I’m still learning a lot of good stuff. Also, I’ve found a lot of people who think the way I do, who think that guy from before was unreasonable and petty and mean, and they don’t listen to him either.”

You sense a but, so you supply it. “But….?”

“But he’s really, really far from the only one out there. I mean, people who talk like him are everywhere. I always have to be really careful and watch what I’m saying, because I never know when somebody is going to pounce on something I’ve said, maybe something that I had no idea was wrong, and they make me feel like total shit. And sometimes I think I didn’t deserve it in the first place, like I’m being misunderstood or maybe what they are saying isn’t quite right. But usually when this happens I can’t talk to them and get some clarity, because any questions are seen as confirmation that I’m just a bad person to begin with. Sometimes I say, ‘okay, thanks for educating me’ even if I don’t quite get it, because I want to get out of the conversation.”

“That really sucks.”

“Yeah. But I still feel like this group has good stuff to offer, both to me and the world in general. And I’m realizing some of this is just an inevitable part of how the world works. There are trolls in every group.”

“So you still want to consider yourself part of the group?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Okay then. Based on the things your friend has said, this group does have some good stuff to offer, and you’ve met some of the nicer members. They really are fantastic people. But you still worry a bit about your friend.

Then the day comes that your friend comes to you in tears. “I posted something online. I just saw some people talking about the live action Mulan movie, and how important it was that the cast be Asian, not whitewashed like The Last Airbender. I agreed with that and didn’t really have anything to add. But then some people started talking about how the actors absolutely must be Chinese, how some people being considered are Korean or Filipino or Japanese and that’s just the worst bullshit ever. I thought, ‘it would be pretty cool if the cast was Chinese, but I think it’s also possible that the actors who give the best auditions happen to be of a different Asian ethnicity, and if that happens it won’t be the end of the world. It will still be a step forward for diversity and a great opportunity for under recognized Asian actors.’ So I said as much. I was so afraid of how people would respond, it took me thirty minutes to write even though it was just a few lines, and I’m still shaking.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing yet. Maybe nobody will notice it. But it could get spread far, and I’m scared I’ll get slammed, even though I’m pretty sure I’m right. And you know what drives me crazy? Let’s say I’m totally wrong. It’s possible. I’m not infallible. But even if I am wrong, I am wrong about an incredibly minor issue, yet I fully expect someone to rip me to shreds.”

You already pretty much know what’s coming next, because you’ve heard these rants before, but your friend is still really worked up, so you let them go on.

“And you know what else? I’m mad that I’m hoping nobody notices. Because I want to be somebody who expresses my opinion and gets to participate in the discussions, but I’ve been really quiet for so long. I’ve been quiet because I’m afraid if I make a single mistake, somebody is going to pounce on me and tell everyone else to ignore me because I’m total worthless shit. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind. I want to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. When I make them and somebody points it out, I want to feel free to thank them but maybe not agree that it’s a mistake right away. I want to mull it over for a while, explore a few different angles, and then when I finally say ‘I was wrong’ be saying it because I really believe I was wrong, not because I was scared to say otherwise. I’m never going to be perfect, and I’d like that to be okay.”

When they finally wind down, you say, “write about it. Write all that down, and share it.”

“But they’re just going to say I’m trying to shut them down, that I’m using their anger as an excuse to silence them. Which is a real problem, and I fully support anyone’s right to feel angry, I’m just sick of looking over my shoulders for fear that opening my mouth will get me attacked. I don’t know how to explain the difference between those two things.”

“If its wrong for you to silence them for their anger, is it right for their anger to silence others? If you have a duty to respectfully listen to their beliefs, do they not have a duty to respectfully listen to others?”

Here’s probably a good time to de-mysticize the metaphor. I am the friend. I am also mostly the person listening to the friend. I’ve been having these conversations inside my head for years. In the last part, though, where the person listening is actually my boyfriend (I’m sorry, I swear I won’t become one of those bloggers who mentions their significant other in every single post, he’s just the source of that last quote and I had to credit him). The group is the nebulous entity known as social justice activists; those fabulous people who really do battle every day to improve the lives of everyone, to educate people about important and under-recognized issues, and who often demonstrate the best of human kindness in their day to day lives. And also all those trolls, many of whom have extremely large followings and have somehow turned a message as positive and edifying as “go educate yourself” into an ugly putdown. Many of them have gone through phases of being one or the other. They are human beings, after all.

I feel like posts like these usually end with a call to action and a detailed battle plan that will lead us all to Utopia. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have a solution. I still think some of the problem is just human nature. Still, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from hanging out in social justice-y circles, its that if you assume a problem is just engrained in human nature, you will never fix it, but if you start a conversation you might find solutions that surpass your most optimistic expectations. I’m not the only person out there talking about this issue. I talked to another friend before posting this, and they later sent this to me. So I’m skeptical about this problem disappearing, but optimistic about it getting better.

In any case, solving the problem is not sole point of this post. The point of this post is quite selfish. The point is that I was scared to post the Mulan bit on Tumblr, and I’m scared to post this, and I don’t want to be someone who lets my own fear of others’ anger silence me.

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.