Depression, work, and self-worth

Whenever I meet someone new, one of the questions I dread answering is “What do you do for a living?” It’s been over seven years since I could give a confident answer to that question.

In the weeks leading up to leaving full-time employment in October 2008, I was literally breaking down in tears at my desk. I had been paying into supplemental disability for the entire 15 years I’d worked at the University of California, but I was too proud to take it. Surely my depression didn’t count as as an “illness”; I was just weak and lazy. Maybe I just needed a change after doing M-F, 8-5 office work for so long, having taken no more than two consecutive weeks off that whole time. (Though thanks to UC’s generous – by USA standards – benefits, I was earning 14 hours vacation leave per month by the time I left.)

I quit my web development job, and formally launched my event photography business. I never expected to make a good living at it, but I hoped to at least pay my living expenses. It turned out that I was utterly unprepared for dealing with the competitiveness of the industry and the demands of self-employment, while coping with my own mental health issues. Without support from my family I wouldn’t have even been able to pay my rent.

I was frustrated and defeated. I’d been in the role of provider for so long that it was humiliating to be supported by others. Having internalized respectability politics, I’d prided myself on being a black woman (pre-transition) who made more money than either her first or second (current) white husbands. Now my white husband (Ziggy) was paying most of my living expenses. At one point when we had a financial crisis, I came very close to making a suicide attempt. I felt worthless and trapped.

I gave up on the business in 2012; I continued to license and shoot photos occasionally, but stopped taking on new gigs. I asked Ziggy if I could just do volunteer work, as by this time he had a high enough salary to support us both comfortably (as long as we retained our rent-controlled apartment). I’d already been volunteering for some time with Food Not Bombs, an organization that was right in line with my ethics, and started growing and distributing free produce with the Free Farm, Free Farm Stand , and Alemany Farm as well after my local FNB serving went on hiatus. Ziggy was concerned that I’d have a lack of self-esteem if I didn’t have a paying job, but agreed that I could try increasing my volunteer work for awhile.

So I volunteered with these organizations, up to around 15 hours a week on-site plus various web and social media duties. I felt good about doing work that helped the community and was in line with my values, but I also felt incompetent. I’ve never had a “green thumb”, and after months of gardening still required guidance to do even the simplest tasks.

Then in 2013 I began experiencing significant gender dysphoria, resulting in a name and gender change and, soon after, hormone therapy. It became increasingly difficult to work in public when I was constantly being misgendered. I was often working outdoors in the sun and heat, but was constantly self-conscious about my breasts showing, which hampered my ability to wear comfortable clothing. I also had to deal with fear every time I wanted to use a public restroom.

I ultimately stopped doing the volunteer work, and again felt worthless and defeated. Meanwhile my photography business name registration had come up for renewal, and since I needed to update my own name on the license, I had to decide whether or not to just shut the business down completely. I’d been funding a few independent artists on Patreon, and thought that maybe if I could make a little money that way, I could keep the business going. The idea of being supported directly by patrons rather than by ad revenue or affiliate links appealed to me.

So I relaunched Funcrunch Photo with my new funding model in the summer of 2015. I explained that supporters of my Patreon account would be funding me as both a writer and a photographer, though the money would go to covering my photography expenses. I wanted to emphasize that I cannot separate my work from my life and values; I’m not just a photographer, I’m a queer black trans vegan atheist, and unapologetic about it.

So here’s where I am now. I’m spending most of my time at home because the depression and dysphoria have worsened to the point that I really don’t want to be around anyone most of the time. My therapist and I amicably parted ways a few months ago, as he felt he could not help me any further unless I were willing to take medication or try other interventions that were not appealing to me. The last of three anti-depressants I tried face-planted me on the sidewalk with a grand mal seizure, so I’m not willing to get on that merry-go-round again. I am looking at non-pharmaceutical alternatives.

My therapist did convince me that I have a real illness and am not just lazy, but I still have feelings of worthlessness every single day. I know that my words have helped people, but I also know that many people don’t take blogging seriously. I feel that I can make a difference with my words and photos, but in the back of my mind I still can’t help feeling that if I’m not financially self-sufficient, I’m a failure.

I try to remember my own work situation when I meet someone. Instead of asking what they do for a living, I might ask “What do you do when you’re not [doing whatever we’re here doing at the moment]?” I’m not “funemployed” and I’m not on disability (though maybe I should be). I’m just trying to get through each day at this point.

Vegan simplicity

[Image: Red tomatoes growing on a vine.]

Tonight for dinner I made a one pot meal, pasta e fagioli, consisting of three packaged ingredients: Pasta, beans, and sauce. The normal recipe I use for this dish calls for a lot more ingredients, cookware, steps, and time, and ideally I would use beans I’d cooked myself. But this simpler, faster version was perfectly tasty and satisfying.

I think both vegans and non-vegans sometimes overthink what it takes to make a good home-cooked meal. I realize that most people would not be satisfied having a meal consisting entirely of yams or bananas as I was experimenting with for a month, but there’s no need to combine proteins or to count and track calories or grams of anything, unless you have special health needs.

What about greens? Ideally I would have made a salad to go with the pasta, but I didn’t feel like it. Most health professionals agree that eating green vegetables is very good for us, but doing so actually has nothing to do with being vegan. Being vegan doesn’t mean choosing between a steak and a salad, it means choosing between a steak (with optional salad) or a bowl of vegetable chili (with optional salad). Some vegans do choose to just eat the salad, but most people can’t get full enough on green vegetables alone, as they’re very low in calories. And non-vegans who eat nothing but steak are going to suffer from nutritional deficiencies sooner or later.

As I’ve posted before, it’s a serious problem that many people in the USA do not have access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. And even the simple meal I made tonight, consisting entirely of packaged ingredients from Trader Joe’s, would be out of reach for those who have very low incomes, lack access to a kitchen, or work so hard that they simply have no time to cook. But not being able to afford nutritious food is a problem for non-vegans as well as vegans. We must address income disparities, rather than just blithely repeating how easy it is for everyone to be vegan.

Veganism is more than a plant-based diet; it is an ethical stance against violence. But eating is an activity most humans participate in multiple times a day, every day, often in the company of others. So our food choices have a significant impact, not only on ourselves, but on those around us. Those who do have the money and access to shop and cook would do well to investigate simple vegan meals. I like the Happy Herbivore cookbooks (tonight’s pasta recipe came from Happy Herbivore Abroad) and Simply Vegan, but there are also thousands of vegan recipes on the Internet.

Don’t let fear of malnutrition or complicated meal planning stop you from going vegan. Keep it simple, and always remember the lives at stake.

We’re not asking your permission

Among the many ReclaimMLK actions last weekend was an Anti Police-Terror Project protest at the San Francisco International Airport. There’s a great moment caught on video where a white man tells the assembled group that he will allow them to speak if they stand in a certain place. Protest leader Cat Brooks calmly responds, “We’re not asking your permission.”

Since the weekend’s protests, especially with the Bay Bridge shutdown, there have been a lot of whitesplainers on social media saying that these disruptions were not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Many people seem to think that the accomplishments of the civil rights movement happened via polite protesters standing in designated areas with signs and leaflets.

Leafleting has its place, but so does civil disobedience. White supremacy is too firmly entrenched to be dismantled without inconveniencing people. We cannot let white people dictate the terms of our protests. Black Lives Matter is not about white people.

When Monday’s march from Oakland to Emeryville was about to get underway, the announcer stated that only black and brown folks, children, and those who had lost loved ones to police violence should go to the front. Everyone else should march behind the truck. I appreciated this, though I did see a bunch of white folks walking in front. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt that some of them didn’t hear the announcement.

This weekend of direct action made me think about the animal rights actions I participated in when I was active with DxE, which sometimes involved going inside stores and restaurants. Some have challenged these disruptions on the basis that unlike in human rights demonstrations, the oppressed are not able to organize protests themselves. I think this is a fair criticism, not because non-human animals are less worthy of protection than humans, but because activists sometimes forget that we are only their allies and proxies, and shouldn’t be held up as heroes or martyrs.

I’m not now opposed to direct action for animals, but I think such demonstrations need to be planned and framed very carefully to center the animals and make the message of liberation clear. And as I’ve written repeatedly, all animal rights activists also need to pay attention to human oppression, both in their messaging and their choice of venues to disrupt.

Regardless of the cause, I’m currently unwilling to participate in any protest that might get me arrested, owing to my trans status among other reasons. But I support others who disrupt, as long as they allow the oppressed to take the lead.

Trans athletes and challenging biological essentialism

This week, news spread of new guidelines that would allow trans athletes to compete in the Olympics without needing to have surgery. Trans men would have no restrictions on competition, while trans women would need to reduce their serum testosterone levels to below 10 nmol/L for a year before competition.

This development (which, as of this writing, has not yet been confirmed by the Olympic committee) is welcome progress. For trans men, I doubt whether anyone has challenged their inclusion in men’s events based on anything other than bigotry. Genuine concerns about unfair physical advantage have been levied almost exclusively at trans women, due primarily to the higher testosterone levels that male-assigned people generally have. But surgery is unnecessary to address this imbalance; hormone therapy is sufficient.

Some have questioned whether testosterone levels are actually a useful predictor of athletic advantage. This article on that subject was written with intersex and cis female athletes in mind, not trans women. Intersex athletes have endured invasive gender checks for decades; see this article for some history of Olympic sex testing (note: contains cissexist language). Regardless, the question of whether hormone levels should determine eligibility to compete applies to trans athletes as well.

What about other physical differences, like height? While in the general population, male-assigned people are generally taller,  elite athletes do not represent the general population. Many cis female athletes benefit from being taller or more muscular than the average woman.

Where does this all leave non-binary people like myself? Is truly gender-neutral athletic competition possible? If athletic events all became gender-neutral today, there’s no question that cis men would dominate. But how much of this is due to biology, and how much to conditioning? If we had several generations of female-assigned children taught that they are every bit as physically capable as their male-assigned friends and siblings, and male-assigned children were taught to truly respect them as equals, I predict we’d see a huge narrowing of the supposedly hard-wired gender gap.

While I can say with confidence that I will never compete at the elite level, I sure would like to run in my local club races without being misgendered. (My annual checkup this month revealed that my testosterone levels are currently much higher than the average cis male’s*, but no one in my running club has anything to worry about; I’m solidly back-of-the-pack.)  We should continue to challenge biological essentialism that exaggerates or invents differences between sexes.

* Overly high testosterone in trans males doesn’t help speed masculinization, as too much testosterone converts to estrogen. I’ll be seeking the advice of a specialist.

Squirrel appreciation day

I was all set to write a post about the latest oppressive tactics employed by a so-called animal rights organization, when I learned of very important news that must take precedence:

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day!

Central Park squirrel[Image: A cute gray squirrel.]

The above photo – taken in New York City’s Central Park during a 2004 vacation – is the only squirrel photo I could find in my collection. I must rectify this by taking more photos of squirrels immediately. They are one of my favorite animals.

Related fun fact: I went to high school in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA.

It’s good to be reminded that our fellow animals share the Earth with us. No matter what species they are or what they look like, all animals want to live.

Wikipedia 15

[Image: Lila Tretikov, executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, speaks into a microphone in front of a screen displaying the words “Share. Inspire.”]

This January 15 marked the 15th birthday of Wikipedia, one of the most popular web sites on the Internet. I’ve been a volunteer editor on that site for over seven years, and have been increasingly active lately, especially on the LGBT Studies project. I’ve also donated a small amount of money to their annual fundraising drive in recent years, as I read Wikipedia pages on a daily basis. So when I saw a banner on my list of watched pages announcing a birthday celebration here in San Francisco, I signed up to attend.

Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight at Wikipedia 15[Image: Event emcee Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, presenting on the content gender gap, holds a microphone while standing in front of a laptop.]

One of the presentations was on the “content gender gap“: The lack of Wikipedia articles on women and issues of concern to them. I’ve been dealing with similar frustrations regarding accurate coverage of trans people and non-binary gender identities, as non-binary erasure* is a significant concern of mine. One of the presenters, Emily Temple-Wood, mentioned that coverage of trans health issues on Wikipedia is a disaster, which I agree with.

Britta Gustafson and Stuart Geiger at Wikipedia 15[Image: Britta Gustafson and Stuart Geiger share a laugh while presenting in front of a projection screen.]

The event had more lighthearted moments, including a nostalgic and humorous look at the early days of Wikipedia, 2001-2003. While I wasn’t an editor on Wikipedia at that time, I’ve been active on the Internet since the days of Gopher and I launched my first web site in 1994, so I could appreciate the humor.

Panel of speakers at Wikipedia 15[Image: Five panelists sit on chairs; one speaks into a microphone.]

Uncle Bobby at Wikipedia 15[Image: Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson speaks into a microphone.]

The event concluded with a panel of speakers, moderated by Pete Forsyth, discussing the impact of 15 years of Wikipedia. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the MLK march, one of the panelists was Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, who was killed by the BART police in 2009. He urged Wikipedia editors to consider the impact of their words on people reading their articles, as while reading the article about his nephew, he felt like Oscar was murdered all over again.

I spoke with Uncle Bobby after the event, and shared my frustrations on dealing with cisgender editors who don’t understand how to write about trans people accurately, which I felt was analogous to white editors dominating coverage of events concerning anti-black racism. I explained that Wikipedia’s policy of requiring reliable sources to be cited is in place for good reasons, but has the effect of shutting out marginalized people who don’t have equal access to be featured in such publications.

Our lived experiences often do not reflect what is published in mainstream sources, but lived experience is considered “original research”, and not allowed on Wikipedia. Again, there are good reasons for this policy, but it makes it harder to convey our truths when we share our own experiences and are accused of having an “agenda”. Wikipedia requires editors to write from a neutral point of view, but in the USA, what is currently considered “neutral” is unavoidably skewed toward a white, male, heterosexual, cisgender perspective.

Attending this event made me want to learn more about the inner workings of Wikipedia, which led me to several articles in the most recent Signpost that expressed serious concerns about the Wikimedia Foundation. I’ll be keeping a closer eye on these developments. Despite the flaws, I find Wikipedia to be an invaluable resource, and am glad I have the time and ability to help make it better.

I’ve posted my full set of photos from Wikipedia 15 to Flickr, as well as to the Wikimedia Commons (the commons gallery contains photos and videos from other attendees as well).

* As noted in my year-end gender post, I was pleased that after I sent feedback, both the MTV account creation page and the most recent Wikipedia annual survey added an “Other” option to their gender question.

Marching in Oakland to ReclaimMLK

[Image: Marchers hold a banner with an image of Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Reclaim King’s Radical Legacy.”]

Yesterday I joined hundreds of Bay Area activists in a march from downtown Oakland to Emeryville, for the conclusion of 96 hours of direct action to reclaim the radical legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. As with Friday’s action in San Francisco, I witnessed many inspiring sights and speeches, and once again helped hold space while activists shut down a major intersection.

Queers for black resistance[Image: A crowd of people, two holding signs reading “Iranian queers for black resistance” and “White queers for black resistance”.]

Lao queers for black resistance[Image: A marcher holds a sign reading “Lao queers for black resistance”.]

Queers overthrowing white supremacy[Image: Marchers hold a banner reading “We’re here we’re queer we’re overthrowing white supremacy – Quagmire”. ]

BlackTransLives Matter[Image: Two marchers share a laugh. One wears a shirt reading #BlackTransLivesMatter on the back.]

I was impressed and empowered by the turnout of queer and trans people of all backgrounds. The message was clear: Black Lives Matter is for all black people, not just straight cisgender men.

Pancho practicing silence[Image: Pancho smiles at children, showing them a message reading “On Mondays I practice silence, but I’d like you to know that I love you.”]

I saw a few familiar faces at the event, including Pancho who I volunteered with at the (now closed, sadly) Free Farm. My friend and fellow animal liberation activist Saryta marched with me the whole way; I’ll be blogging soon about her great book, Until Every Animal is Free.

Marchers singing and clapping[Image: Two marchers sing and clap their hands.]

Dancing at the march[Image: A crowd cheers on a dancer at a stop during the march.]

While the theme of black resistance was serious, the mood along the march route was often festive, with singing and dancing on multiple occasions.

Mothers speaking out against police violence[Image: A woman looks distraught as she speaks into a microphone. Another consoles her, while a third holds a photo of the speaker’s son, reading “James Rivera, Jr – Killed by Stockton, CA Police Dept July 22, 2010 – #RiseUpOctober”]

The march ended in Emeryville, a city of concrete and shopping malls. The truck stopped near the Shellmound, where marchers blocked traffic and held space at this sacred burial site for the Ohlone people. Here, mothers who had lost their children and husbands to police violence spoke out. One of them pointed to members of the crowd, saying “You could be next.”

Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson speaks[Image: Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson speaks out about the police killing of Oscar Grant.]

One of the final speakers was Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson, uncle of Oscar Grant, whose 2009 killing by the BART police was the subject of the movie Fruitvale Station. I’d just met Uncle Bobby two days earlier at the celebration of Wikipedia’s 15th birthday, where he stated that the initial Wikipedia coverage of his nephew’s shooting “murdered him all over again.” (I’ll write more about the Wikipedia event later this week.)

While we were gathered at the Shellmound, we learned that the black queer liberation collective Black.Seed had successfully shut down the Bay Bridge. When I saw photos posted on Facebook, I realized that I’d met one of their activists, Thea, at Black Queer Voices Rising last year; I was happy to hear of more queer black people speaking truth to power.

I’ve posted my full set of photos from the march to Flickr. Please credit Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of them. Glad to witness and document some of this weekend’s efforts to dismantle white supremacy.

ReclaimMLK in the Fillmore

[Image: Activists march in the street carrying a banner reading “Dear Ed Lee, We Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. Sincerely, Bayview, Mission & Fillmore”]

This weekend, activists throughout the country are holding events to reclaim the radical legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., with 96 hours of direct action. I attended one such event on Friday in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, one of our rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods where black folks are being displaced from their homes. Though when I arrived I was only expecting speakouts and music, the event turned into a march that took over the streets.

Music at Coltrane Church[Image: Musicians perform at Saint John Coltrane Church.]

Archbishop King playing sax[Image: Archbishop King plays the saxophone at Saint John Coltrane Church.]

We gathered at Saint John Coltrane Church. I’m a jazz lover, and I think it’s awesome to have a church where the archbishop plays the saxophone. (This is no gimmick; the legendary musician John Coltrane is actually a saint.) While I’m an atheist, I’m not an anti-theist; I’ll happily cooperate with religious organizations and individuals as long as they’re not trying to convert me or tell me I’m going to hell.

Etecia Brown of Last 3% of Black SF[Image: Etecia Brown of Last 3 Percent of Black SF speaks into a microphone.]

ReclaimMLK speakers[Image: Activists at ReclaimMLK event, wearing shirts reading “The Movement for Black Lives” and “Justice for Alex Nieto”]

Speakers at the event included representatives from the Anti Police-Terror Project, Last 3 Percent of Black SF, and the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition. Cause Justa :: Just Cause was also there, providing Spanish translation. While anyone who doesn’t look white (or straight, or cisgender) is a potential target for police violence and housing discrimination, this night’s action focused on the impact on black and brown lives.

Homes for people, not for profit[Image: Activists in the street hold signs reading “Evict Ed Lee” and “Homes for people, not for profit. ACCE: Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment“]

Last 3 percent[Image: An activist in the street wearing a shirt reading “Stay Black” holds a sign reading “Last 3 Percent.”]

ReclaimMLK street action[Image: Activists holding signs and raised fists block traffic at the intersection of Webster and Geary Blvd, San Francisco.]

Following the speakers and music, attendees took to the streets, eventually holding space during rush hour at the busy intersection of Webster and Geary Blvd. One angry white man asked “Do you people even have a permit?” San Franciscans expect their marches to be scheduled and orderly. But social change requires inconvenience.

Activist at ReclaimMLK march[Image: An activist at the ReclaimMLK action raises their fist in the air.]

I was nervous about police harassment once I realized we’d be taking over the intersection, but I did not personally witness any incidents. The police escorted us as we marched back to the church. I spoke with one of the organizers then, thanking him for mentioning transgender and gender non-conforming people in his talk at the start of the event.

My full set of photos from the event is available on Flickr. Please credit Pax Ahimsa Gethen if you use any of them. A videographer I met at the church made a video of the event; I can be seen in the background (wearing a purple jacket and black beret) of several shots:

I’m very glad I attended this action. Tomorrow, I’ll be marching in Oakland for the culmination of the 96 hours of direct action. I was pleased to learn that the march will have a transgender contingent, hosted by the TGI Justice Project and TAJA’s Coalition. I hope many of my fellow activists are able to attend.


[Image: Kin Folkz speaks into a microphone at a queer black liberation event. Their T-shirt reads “Love is Love.”]

Tomorrow is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. The official holiday in the USA is this coming Monday, and many events are planned for the long weekend. I plan to attend and take photos at one or two myself, which is why I’m writing about MLK Day now,  in case I don’t have a chance to blog again before next week. Black activists are using hashtags including #ReclaimMLK and #96Hours, so you can search on social media for actions in your area.

VINE Sanctuary posted the MLK Day Vegan Challenge to their blog this week, with the following summary:

VINE Sanctuary challenges vegans to spend MLK Day educating themselves about past and ongoing anti-racist struggles, and we challenge vegan and animal liberation organizations to encourage their own followers to do the same.

I encourage other vegans, white vegans in particular, to read the full blog entry. I left the following comment:

I also encourage vegans to stop sharing memes of MLK saying things that he never actually said, assuring people that King would be vegan if he were alive today, or using MLK memes to tone-police frustrated black activists who speak out against racism. There are plenty of living black vegan activists to celebrate. Check out Black Vegans Rock for some of them.

Let’s honor King’s legacy by letting black activists – of every gender, sexual orientation, class, and ability – take the lead in dismantling anti-black racism.

Some positive gender news

[Image: A transgender symbol with the word “they” underneath.]

Maintaining a social justice blog entails writing about a lot of heavy, painful topics on a regular basis. So it’s nice to acknowledge positive progress from time to time, even if the victories are small. Here’s some good news for trans and non-binary* people regarding “singular they” and all-gender restrooms.

Singular they

Last week, “singular they” was named the “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society. I’m often cynical about these kinds of announcements, but this is a positive development, as it will bring more attention to the growing acceptance of this preferred pronoun for (some) non-binary people (including myself).

Singular they has been in standard usage since Shakespeare’s time, but telling people that hasn’t stopped them from insisting that it’s not grammatical to use when speaking about a single known person. Hopefully these people will eventually stop complaining and start accepting our choice of pronouns.

Restroom equality

This week, the Transgender Law Center and San Francisco Board of Supervisors announced legislation to require that city businesses and buildings designate all single-stall restrooms as all-gender. This development is long overdue. Having gendered signs on single-occupancy restrooms makes absolutely no sense.

I’ve written frequently about the harassment trans people face when using gendered restrooms, even in places like SF where we already have the right to use facilities corresponding with our gender identities. And many of us non-binary people misgender ourselves whenever we go into either a “Mens” or “Womens” restroom. Opening up access will improve safety and quality of life for trans and non-binary people.

Other cities that have enacted similar legislation include Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Austin, West Hollywood, Berkeley, and New York. I hope that more cities soon follow suit, and I look forward to a time when gender policing becomes a thing of the past.

* I state these terms separately because not all non-binary people identify as trans.