Category Archives: Ableism

Discrimination against people based on physical and/or mental abilities.

My identity is not up for debate

Content warning: Cissexist, trans-antagonistic, and ableist language ahead.

  • PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS A FICTION ARTICLE
  • NONE OF THIS IS TRUE!!
  • Genderqueer=Tomboy
  • also termed “autism”
  • a fake Tumblr made category for gender identities that are not real and stupid beyond belief
  • “genderqueer” can be seen as a synonym for the term “freak of nature”
  • Other people refer to this behaviour as “fuckery”, and this behaviour is symptomatic of dementia and mental disorders
  • mental illness
  • these definitions were [c]reated by pissy teenage girls who want attention and are by no means legitimate

These are some of the edits that have been made to the Genderqueer page on Wikipedia just over the last three months. All of them were reverted, but I read each one of these attempts at bullying, belittling, and erasing non-binary people.* After enduring this continued vandalism for many months, I finally reported the page to the the administrator noticeboard, and got it placed under protection (at least for now).

As a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT Studies task force, I monitor a number of gender-related pages, and am thus exposed to this kind of language on a daily basis. Occasionally I need to take a break from it, but I do feel a responsibility, especially since I’m rarely leaving home nowadays, to do something to help the queer community.

The most disturbing thing about this kind of vandalism is that it isn’t simply use of crude and obvious slurs (though one vandal about four months ago replaced the entire page’s content with “Trannies suck lol”). A fair amount of this pushback coming from within the community. As trans blogger and activist Sam Dylan Finch wrote recently, transmedicalists or “truscum” harass non-binary people quite a bit, as they don’t consider us to be legitimately trans.

The other troubling issue is the amount that non-binary identities are conflated with autism, mental illness, or other neurodivergence. Some non-binary people do have these conditions, of course, just as some binary trans and cis people do. But there’s no indication that being non-binary is itself an indication of autism or any other mental state, nor that being autistic or otherwise neurodivergent is a negative or shameful thing. As I posted previously, many non-binary people may feel safer speaking out online than in public, and this is likely true of autistic people as well. This can lead to the false impression that all or most non-binary people are autistic.

What it comes down to is that my identity is not up for debate. The only person who can define my gender is me. People can have their opinions on it, but that’s all they are: Opinions. And “free speech” does not guarantee the right to state one’s opinion anywhere one chooses. Wikipedia has rules for a reason.

For oppressed people, wanting to avoid triggering language isn’t a matter of wanting to be in an echo chamber; it’s a matter of survival. Words trigger action; words have impact. Choose your words carefully.

* I prefer non-binary as an umbrella term rather than genderqueer. This is an ongoing discussion I’m having with other Wikipedia editors on the Genderqueer talk page.

Vegans and health shaming

I’ve been quiet for the last week because I came down with the flu. This one hit me hard enough to keep me offline almost entirely for two days, which is very unusual for me. My temperature got above 103 before my fever broke. (I do have a history of high fevers.) I don’t get flu shots anymore because I’m not in a high-risk category, and two of the three times I did get a shot (when I worked at a health sciences university that strongly encouraged them and provided them for free) I got the flu anyway.

Some vegans are afraid to admit when they get sick because of the false idea spread by many health-oriented vegans that eating a plant-based diet prevents illness. I’ve frequently read people bragging that they haven’t had the slightest sniffle since giving up animal products. If others get sick, they must not be “pure” enough. They need to eat a whole-foods diet, or better yet, a raw diet, or have a juice cleanse, or otherwise purge their system of all pollutants, and then they’ll never get sick again.

Illness doesn’t work that way. It can strike anyone without warning, even those of us who lead very healthy lifestyles. The creator of the FatFree Vegan Kitchen web site wrote a moving piece about being diagnosed with cancer despite following a lowfat, whole-foods plant-based diet. Sometimes these kinds of confessionals end in the author tearfully saying goodbye to their vegan diet, but this was not one of those cases; she wrote, “So if you’re reading this and worrying that I’m going to be another vegan blogger who goes back to eating animals for her own health, don’t. No diagnosis in the world could convince me to eat another animal or animal product.” (Emphasis in original.)

Some vegans get very sick, and some non-vegans live long, robust, illness-free lives. This is why I do not use human health benefits to promote veganism. The only person whose health is guaranteed to be harmed by a non-vegan diet is the animal whose flesh, milk, or eggs are on the plate. When we realize that their desire to live is as strong as ours, we will stop eating them for their sake, not for ours.

Another form of vegan health shaming is criticizing those who use pharmaceuticals containing animal products or tested on animals. I am opposed to all forms of animal use, but I recognize that in a deeply speciesist world, animal products are so ubiquitous that in some cases their use is unavoidable. If a person can avoid death or serious health consequences by using animal-derived or tested products, I will not condemn them for it. It would be better for them to live and become activists for animal liberation, working toward a time when no animals are used as ingredients or imprisoned in laboratories. This is consistent with my stance on those who “fail to thrive” on a pure vegan diet.

Regardless of diet or philosophy, the number one thing that people who do get ill need is rest, and in the USA that commodity is in short supply. Employers don’t give adequate sick leave, and advertisements abound for over-the-counter medications to allow people to mask their symptoms and keep working, thus spreading their germs to everyone else in the office. Whether self-employed or working for an employer, working while sick is considered a virtue, and for many, unfortunately, is a financial necessity.

I’m fortunate that I always had enough sick leave during my fifteen years of full-time employment. Part of why doing hired photo gigs didn’t work out for me was that if I became ill I either had to work sick, find a replacement, or lose the gig. Replacements don’t work out so well when you’re doing a job that relies on your unique creative vision and process. I ended up shooting my first wedding with a stomach bug (which I’d determined was non-contagious, but did make for a miserable day.)

Our health is the most important asset we have. We should work to make nutritious food available and affordable to everyone, but recognize that even with the healthiest possible diet and exercise program, some will fall ill. Those who do need the time and support for true recovery. There’s no shame in being sick.

Stop ranking oppression

[Image: Section from a panel of a Robot Hugs comic. Words at the top read “No one benefits from being told that their pain is unimportant, or non existant!” Below the words is a scale with a lighter weight reading “Not Harm” and a heavier weight reading “Harm.”]

Today’s Robot Hugs comic in Everyday Feminism is one of the best I’ve seen all year. Please read it now before continuing.

Done? OK. This is what I’ve been dealing with in the year and a half or so that I’ve been involved in animal rights activism. I’ve written here numerous times about the racism, sexism, cissexism, and other human oppression that is either ignored or exacerbated by animal rights activists in the U.S. It’s driving people like me away from activism, and this is not OK.

Often the micro-aggressions faced by activists from oppressed groups (or by those speaking for other oppressed groups) are far more subtle than being told to “shut up.” It frequently takes the form of being told that non-human animals suffer far more than any human. Whether this is true or not, it is still a silencing tactic.

Silencing people who speak up for oppressed humans does not save more animals. It simply strengthens the perception that animal rights activists don’t care about humans. Some activists indeed proudly admit that they don’t care about humans, as they are misanthropists and hate everyone. Many of them deny their own privileges while saying this. Gary Yourofsky comes to mind.

Part of why I have not committed to taking on a more active or formal role with any animal rights group is that I’ve been continually disappointed by the ongoing oppressive language and tactics of other activists. (Coping with depression and fearing the police are my other reasons for being less active.) I do want to be a voice for the animals, and voices are stronger when raised together than alone. But I don’t like being associated with people whose views I find abhorrent, even if they don’t reflect the sentiments of others in the group.

So I will take this opportunity to remind people that while I occasionally participate in animal rights actions and share the writings of various activists, I am independent and speak only for myself. I do not support or condone any views or activities that are oppressive to other humans. I acknowledge my own privileges and mistakes, and ask to be called out if I make statements that are harmful to those in marginalized groups.

This does not mean that I pledge to never say anything that offends anyone. As a queer black trans person, my very existence is offensive to many. I make no apologies for moderating my own spaces as I see fit. Do not confuse calling out oppression with tone policing. I am a pacifist, but I am not passive.

As I’ve written before, a “vegan world” that continues to elevate the voices and needs of able-bodied cishet white men above all others is not a world I want to be a part of. While I will never go back to eating or otherwise exploiting animals – as to me they are people, not property – I will not continue with organized animal rights activism if that means setting aside the concerns of marginalized humans. I am not abandoning the animals, I am abandoning humans with toxic mindsets.

Victims and survivors

[Image: The spires of a wrought iron gate, with golden light in the background.]

Content warning: Rape, sexual assault, sexual violence.

When oppressed people speak out about the suffering we’ve endured, some like to accuse us of “playing the victim.” I thought about this when reading an article about sexual violence posted today in Everyday Feminism. In it, the author notes the trend of referring to people who have been raped or otherwise sexually violated as “survivors” rather than “victims.” She acknowledges the good intentions behind this language, but urges that “survival” status should not be forced upon others, as it can invalidate those who do see themselves as the victims of a crime.

I immediately connected with this sentiment. I’d been referring to myself and others who have endured sexual assault as survivors rather than victims, but I do feel strongly that I was a victim of a crime for which I can never receive justice. The man who sexually molested me for years when I was a young child never had to answer to his crime, and died a respected member of his community. The impact of this experience has been devastating, ultimately resulting in me cutting off all contact with my blood family (with the support of my therapist).

I am a survivor only in the literal sense that I am still alive. The cumulative impact of depression, gender dysphoria, and the daily micro-aggressions I experience as a queer black trans person make it difficult enough to get through each day. Being told that I’m “playing the victim” when speaking about my experiences, and being told that I need to forgive my abuser, just add insult to injury.

I’ve seen troubling examples of this attitude in the animal rights community (though I’m sure it exists in all activist communities, that’s the one I’m most involved with currently). Women who have been sexually harassed by other activists have been silenced, accused of exaggerating or outright lying, told they are being “divisive,” and otherwise shamed for bringing attention to abusive members of the community. Women have been told that their suffering is trivial compared to the oppression of non-human animals. Sexist messaging only amplifies the message that women’s bodies are more important than their words.

While I’m not a woman, I was living as a girl at the time I was molested, and many young boys are molested as well. Adult men are also sexually assaulted, of course, and their reports need to be taken seriously. Sexual violence is wrong regardless of the gender the victim – or survivor, if they choose that language – and that includes trans and nonbinary people. The Everyday Feminism infographic on “How Do I Know If I’ve Been Raped?” is informative. (The abuse I experienced did not meet the current legal definition of rape, as there was no penetration, but it was still sexual abuse.)

Telling people to “stop playing the victim” does nothing to abolish the rape culture that results in so many people becoming victims in the first place. Stop derailing and diminishing when people speak out about sexual assault. Thank them for trusting you with their stories, and ask if there’s anything you can do to help.

What people can do to help me is respect that I need a lot of solitude and personal space right now. Writing is my primary form of activism currently. Deriding people who post on social media as “armchair activists” is ableist and often unfair. I’m doing what I need to do to survive.

Depression, suicide, and white supremacy

[Image: Ground-level side view of a bus shelter casting a red reflection on the sidewalk.]

I’m having a lot of trouble coping this week, as the weight of oppression and violence in the world is really dragging me down. Living with the knowledge that having brown skin in the USA puts a target on your back, independent of any other factors, is a sobering reality for a biracial person who was raised with respectability politics.

The mainstream media upholds white supremacy to the extent that black folks are called “racist” and “pulling the race card” for even addressing these subjects. Black academics like A. Breeze Harper of Sistah Vegan Project worry that they’ll get killed in a sundown town while traveling to promote their work.

Meanwhile ten trans women of color have been killed in 2015. I don’t want to say “so far in 2015,” but it seems inevitable that there will be more.  I shared the news of the latest, India Clarke, on my Facebook wall two days ago. Only person has “liked” or commented on that post thus far.

The black victim of white supremacy who is, understandably, getting the most attention from my Facebook friends right now is Sandra Bland. Found dead in her cell after being arrested at a routine traffic stop, her story raised all kinds of alarm bells when the police claimed she died by suicide.

I have no trouble believing that the suicide story is a cover-up, but I want to share another perspective that highlights some problematic aspects of the “she would never commit suicide” narrative. This short article by Danielle Stevens cautions that we should not assume we know someone’s mental health state, nor reinforce the “strong black woman” stereotype, nor stigmatize those who attempt or die by suicide. She also emphasizes that the state is responsible for Sandra Bland’s death, regardless of whether it was suicide or not.

I use the phrase “die by suicide” rather than “commit suicide” on the advice of this resource guide, which is geared toward LGBT communities but generally applicable to discussion of this difficult topic. I’m no stranger to suicidal ideation, and I did make one near-attempt several years ago, so the dialogue regarding this topic is of concern to me personally. (Yes, I am in therapy, and no, I’m not seeking sympathy or advice.)

Regardless, I, for one, am not joining the “If I Die In Police Custody” hashtag, because I honestly cannot predict what I would do in that situation. As a black trans person, I’m scared to death, almost literally, to go to any prison. I do not belong in a women’s prison, and I can’t imagine I’d survive in a men’s prison. I’d likely be a prime target for rape in either case, if I weren’t put into solitary confinement “for my own protection.” As I’ve posted previously, this legitimate fear of arrest has limited my activism.

Waking up to the true reality of white supremacy, while simultaneously battling against cissexism and speciesism, has been nothing short of shattering. I could turn off the Internet to stop reading the stories of yet another black person being murdered by the police, but it won’t change the situation. And my skin color does not give me the luxury of ignoring racism. This post by Mikael on “Awakening and getting off the Kool-Aid” sums it up:

…And yet, through it all, I still believed. I believed that the color of my skin was just that—a color. I believed that my accomplishments would stand on their own…

And then there comes that moment, so important in the lives of all POC. That moment when the illusion you have built up your entire life shatters. That moment when you realize all of the lies you have been told… even by your own friends and family. That moment when you see the ugly of racism and oppression staring you in the face, and you realize how painfully real they are in your life, and how they stretch out far beyond your immediate surroundings and encircle the world, hurting so many other people both like and unlike you.

That moment when, for me, I finally realized that no matter how hard I worked, I’ll forever and always just be another nigger in the eyes of the world.

And that is the moment, so important in the lives of all POC, when we finally awaken. That moment when we finally “get” these issues and finally get off the kool-aid of white supremacy.

Privilege is not an on/off switch

[Image: A collage of people holding signs, with a question mark in the middle and the Direct Action Everywhere logo at the bottom.]

Edit, June 2016: Since publishing this post I have left Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), as have several others pictured in the above collage. My points about privilege and ranking oppression still stand.

A lot of people misunderstand the concept of privilege. White people and cis men in particular get very defensive when called out on speaking from a place of privilege. “I’m not privileged,” they cry, “I’m not [rich/straight/Christian/American/etc.]”

Here’s the thing. Privilege is not an on/off, yes/no switch. Nor is it something you can assess with an overall rank, despite what well-intentioned but misleading quiz memes might tell you. Privilege consists of many components, including but not limited to: Race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, physical and mental ability. Today’s article in Everyday Feminism addresses a lot of common misconceptions about this topic.

As a queer black trans atheist, I am a member of several oppressed groups. Despite this, I still enjoy many privileges. I am financially stable, college-educated, US-American, and English-speaking, for starters. I am also relatively able-bodied and slim.

But none of these privileges completely erase the disadvantages I have. My skin color makes me a greater target for police profiling and violence, independent of my class or education. Being a nonbinary trans person means that I experience social dysphoria on a daily basis, even though I have financial access to hormones that help with the physical dysphoria. Being queer means I face possible harassment and violence if I am affectionate with my male spouse in public, even though same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. And being an atheist means that I am in one of the most despised groups of all in this country, independent of anything else about me.

When it comes to privilege, I find it unhelpful to rank oppression. Many animal rights activists correctly point out that we all enjoy human privilege. But as I’ve argued in my post about veganism and white privilege, that in no way means that racism, sexism, or other human issues are trivial by comparison. Rather than telling women, people of color, and others in disadvantaged groups to stop “playing the victim” because they supposedly have it so much better than non-human animals, we should be recognizing and honoring their struggles alongside our fight to end speciesism.

We should all use what privileges we do have to amplify the voices of those who do not share our advantages. The montage at the top of this post shows some of my fellow animal liberationists from Direct Action Everywhere; I took these photos at our annual forum. As also seen in our most recent video (I can be seen briefly at approximately 3:13), we represent a wide variety of races, genders, and nationalities, in a movement that is dominated by cis white voices. We come together to speak for the non-human animals whose voices have been silenced. I will be joining my DxE friends in San Francisco this Saturday, as we light the path to liberation.

Follow your bliss?

[Image: Jonathan Mann plays guitar and sings into a microphone.]

Back when I was first contemplating transitioning, I attended a couple of peer support groups for transmasculine and genderqueer people at the Pacific Center in Berkeley. One group discussion rule that I really liked was: Use “I” statements. That is, don’t give other people advice, just say what has worked for you.

I am spectacularly unqualified to give personal advice on most issues. I am also quite cynical by nature. Hence the question mark in the title of this post. “Follow your bliss”* is advice I hear given to artists a lot. Do what you love, and the money will follow. But will it really?

Being a financially successful independent artist, writer, or musician takes a huge amount of work, along with a fair amount of luck. Most need another source of income, either from another job or a family member. I envy those who can work a full-time or part-time job and still have the energy to do creative work on the side.

Partly due to worsening clinical depression, I found it impossible to do many hired photography gigs while still working a day job. I was fortunate to have family support for my living expenses and health insurance while I tried to get my career off the ground. Ultimately I realized I could not make a living as a photographer. But at least I didn’t go bankrupt trying, and as I still have spousal support I can try to pull in a little income through crowdfunding, as detailed in my previous post.

Lately I’ve also begun to realize that most of the people I’ve seen give advice to “work for love, not for money” are able-bodied cis white men. These privileges can be so invisible that most people don’t even realize they have them. It’s a lot easier to rely on the good will of others, to say “the universe will provide”, when you are self-confident, full of energy, and your appearance doesn’t ring any alarm bells.

One white cis male artist who does recognize his privileges is Jonathan Mann, the first person I supported on Patreon. He’s frequently written songs and essays about social justice issues. His dream is to make a living entirely from user contributions, but for now he has to write corporate songs to make ends meet. I admire Jonathan, who I saw in person several times when he was living in the SF Bay Area; the photo at the top of this post is from his performance at Macworld Expo in 2011, where we first met. I also had the fun of collaborating with Jonathan and dozens of other people in a video last year:

Later this week I’ll write about some of the other artists and writers I’m supporting, on Patreon and other crowdfunding sites.

* Follow Your Bliss is also the title of one of my favorite songs, by the B-52’s.