Children and consent

[Image: The author at age 10, wearing a one-piece bathing suit and lying on a beach.]

Content warning: Rape and explicit details of sexual abuse.

After posting yesterday’s blog entry, I edited it to add a brief mention of David Bowie’s death. I did so because of his gender presentation, not because I’m a fan, though I have enjoyed some of his music; here’s a (pre-transition) video of me playing bass on an amateur performance of Moonage Daydream.

As touched on in the blog post I linked to, Bowie’s legacy is controversial; the author suggested reading a great piece called “How to be a fan of problematic things.” The problematic thing that’s the focus of my post today is Bowie’s encounter with a 13-year-old* girl, which, depending on who you ask, was either consensual sex or rape.

As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I have strong feelings on this subject. (Please read my post on victims and survivors, which also discusses some details of what I experienced, if you’re tempted to criticize my choice of terms or accuse me of “playing the victim.”) My opinion is that in modern Western civilization – and I’m including Bowie’s entire lifespan in this definition of “modern” – a thirteen-year-old is a child, and a child cannot consent to having sex with an adult. A child is not capable of making adult decisions.

My sexual abuse occurred before that age. I did not consent – enthusiastically or otherwise – but I did not resist, either. I was annoyed by my abuser repeatedly waking me in the middle of the night, exposing himself, and putting my hand on his genitals. But I did not cry out or tell him to stop. I was a child. He was an adult member of my extended family. I did not know this was wrong.

The one time I did cry out was when – in the middle of the day, with no one else around – he lifted me in his arms to carry me into the bedroom. He quickly reassured me that he “wouldn’t hurt me for the world.” I believed him. I was a child. I did not know any better.

By the time I reached the age of Bowie’s victim, I had told another family member about the abuse, and was no longer allowed to be alone with my abuser. I was encouraged to get therapy. But I did not want to talk to a therapist about that subject, because I had a lot of other problems that I thought were more pressing, and did not want all my sessions to focus on something I didn’t consider important. My refusal to take the abuse seriously was later thrown back in my face as an adult, when I experienced delayed trauma from what happened to me. But at the time I resisted the therapy, I was a child. I did not know any better.

Even more importantly, my abuser never faced any consequences. At the very least, he should have been required to publicly admit that he sexually molested a child, and have mandatory reparative therapy to decrease the chances of him hurting others. But he – an educated, financially comfortable, successful white man –  was considered a “good person,” independent of what he did to me, and went to his grave without accounting for his actions (other than a half-hearted “sorry if I bothered you” excuse he made to me as a teen, which I accepted, because again, I was a child).

When I call for public accountability, it really angers me to know that people are often more concerned about an abuser’s life or reputation being ruined than about the well-being of their victim. I seek justice and prevention of further abuse, not revenge. But I don’t need to express sympathy for abusers or oppressors, no matter how many others consider them to be “good people.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe people are good or evil. We are all flawed. Each of our individual acts has the potential to cause more or less harm, and ignoring harmful acts just because a person also did beneficial acts is inexcusable. I don’t care if someone sells a million record albums or discovers a cure for cancer; if they harm a child, they need to be held accountable for it.

I also don’t believe in unconditional love. With the possible exceptions of therapists and spiritual advisors, telling a victim to love their abuser is itself an abusive act. I say “possible” exception because advisors are still humans, and some of them have been known to take advantage of vulnerable people in their charge. Regardless, the only person who can forgive an abuser – or oppressor –  is the person who was abused. No one else.

I’m posting this not to seek sympathy or advice. I specifically and emphatically do not want to hear from anyone in my immediate birth family in response to this essay (or in any other form). I simply want adults to stop taking advantage of children, no matter what the social circumstances are. We need to dismantle rape culture with honesty and transparency.

* Addendum: I’ve seen various articles state that the girl was 14 or 15, not 13. My opinion stands regardless.

Men in skirts

[Image: Ziggy reclines on a sculpture in a park, wearing a purple shirt and blue -and-purple tie-dyed skirt. The Seattle skyline is in the background.]

There’s a great piece in Black Girl Dangerous today about femme clothing, gender expression and identity. In their article, non-binary femme author Jack Qu’emi Gutiérrez talks about Jaden Smith’s appearance in a womenswear campaign making the news, and explains that unless he states otherwise, Jaden is still a young cisgender man. He should be celebrated for showing that it’s OK for men – especially black men – to express femininity, but he’s not a “non-binary icon,” and he’s not mocking or taking anything away from trans people.

I’ve posted about this subject before, and agree with the author’s assessment. People of all genders – as well as agender people like myself – should be free to present themselves in whatever way feels comfortable and appropriate for them, without being hemmed in by binary gender assumptions. A male-assigned person wearing a skirt is not necessarily making a statement about their gender identity or sexual orientation. It is only because of our patriarchal society that casts masculinity and heterosexuality as the default that a man wearing a skirt is a more transgressive act than a woman wearing pants.

When I met my partner Ziggy, pictured at the top of this post, we were in those roles; I was living (pre-transition) as a woman, fairly ignorant about gender issues, who strongly preferred wearing pants, and he was living as a man who strongly preferred wearing skirts. I’ll admit that his skirt-wearing really bothered me at first, as I was prejudiced against femme presentations. But love conquers all, as they say, and soon his clothing was no more remarkable to me than any other man’s, even though I hardly ever saw another man wearing a skirt (even in the San Francisco Bay Area).

I’ve since transitioned to male, and Ziggy now identifies as genderqueer but cissexual; he has no desire to go through a physical gender transition. Our subconscious sexes are both male, independent of the clothes we wear or the pronouns we prefer (Ziggy still uses he/him/his; I prefer they/them/their for myself).

While Ziggy has been fortunate not to experience much harassment for his clothing choices, others have not been so lucky. Agender teen Sasha Fleischman had their skirt set on fire by another teenager who thought Sasha was a gay man. Other trans and non-binary people have told stories of what they wanted to wear but did not for fear of violence.

If anyone can wear skirts, what are the implications for male-assigned, femme-presenting people who actually are women? Trans women get the worst of gender policing; if they present as femme, they’re accused of parodying women, but if they present as masculine or androgynous (which in our patriarchal society is basically masculine), they are seen as men and treated accordingly.

My advice is to always assume that an individual knows their own gender better than you do. In other words, if someone is walking into a women’s restroom, assume that they belong there. If you misgender someone and they correct you, apologize and move on. Use gender-neutral language whenever possible. And stop using biological essentialism to justify bigotry.

Skirts are just fabric. Clothing has no gender. Celebrate diversity.

Addendum: Just after publishing this article, I read about the death of David Bowie, another gender “transgressor”. Check out this article by another non-binary blogger on Bowie’s legacy.

Note on my AR affiliations

I see that Gary Francione has linked to one of my posts on abolitionist veganism, though he didn’t bother mentioning me by name. I had made a silent New Year’s resolution to stop devoting any space in my blog to this man, but I’m posting to point out a specific factual inaccuracy.

In his essay, Francione described me being a “prominent figure” in Direct Action Everywhere (DxE). It is true that I once spent a lot of time with that group, but for the reasons I posted about in September, I have not been active with DxE for several months, and have never held any official position with that group. And as I posted then, I am still not interested in either dismantling or recruiting for DxE.

As to the rest of Francione’s essay, which criticizes (amongst other people) A. Breeze Harper aka Sistah Vegan (again), Black Vegans Rock (misstating that we are willing to feature vegetarians), and the Intersectional Justice Conference I’ll be speaking at in March… I’ll just say that this man really likes the sound of his own (typed) voice. I’m going back to ignoring him.

Downplaying human oppression: Excuses and responses

I’ve written frequently in this blog about the necessity for vegans and animal rights activists to pay attention to human oppression, including (but not limited to) racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and ableism. Unfortunately, whenever the topic of intersectionality* is raised, some activists fire back with excuses. I’ve collected some of those excuses here, with responses. (Please note that this article is focused on animal rights activism in the USA, and may not apply to other countries.)

“Non-human animals suffer more than any humans, so their needs must come first.”

Stop ranking oppression. It does not save any more animals to tell oppressed humans that their problems must take a backseat, especially when that message is coming from people who are not mindful of their own privileges. Acknowledging the struggles of oppressed humans does not take anything away from non-human animals.

“Non-human animals suffer more than any humans, so talking about human oppression is speciesist.”

(Variation on the above.) Every human – vegan or otherwise – is speciesist to some degree. Calling out speciesism can be helpful in cases such as dog and cat adoption events that serve food made from the flesh of other animals, as this points out the hypocrisy of valuing the lives of some animals above others. The same goes for other single-issue events where animals are already the focus.

Calling out speciesism when vegan activists want to promote, for example, Black Lives Matter events is not helpful, especially when coming from white people or non-black people of color. The same goes for feminist events, especially when the criticism is coming from men. These events are focused on humans, and the awareness that animals are people, not property, is not yet widespread in anti-racist and anti-sexist organizations. To raise that awareness requires work from within.

“Animal rights groups shouldn’t have to talk about human oppression since human rights groups don’t talk about the oppression of animals.”

See above. To most humans at this point in time, most animals aren’t much different from pencils or paper clips; objects to be owned and used at will. Thus, the idea that a piece of property is being oppressed is nonsensical and offensive to them. Changing this mindset must come from within. Showing solidarity with oppressed groups can help bring more activists to the animal rights movement.

“Addressing human oppression takes time and resources away from the animals.

No activist can be expected to devote an equal amount of time to every cause. But when news headlines and social media feature humans being targeted and killed for their skin color or gender presentation, vegans should join the chorus of condemnation against these acts. Silence is complicity.

“All this talk about human oppression is just political correctness.”

The charge of “political correctness” is to my ears a synonym for “I want to be free to use whatever language I see fit and not suffer any consequences for it.” The same applies to most people talking about free speech and echo chambers. Oppressive language, whether read on a computer screen or heard in person, causes real harm to marginalized people, and drives us away from the animal rights movement.

“Calling out oppression divides the movement. We need to all work together for the animals.”

Silencing concerns about oppressive language or tactics does not save more animals. It simply drives marginalized humans away from animal rights activism.

Some say that rather than “calling out” we should “call in,” and give offenders a chance to reflect on the harm they’ve caused rather than immediately shunning them. I agree only up to a point. If an activist has repeatedly harmed marginalized people through their statements and/or actions, they need to be publicly called out, and removed from any leadership position if applicable. This applies to micro-aggressions (such as gaslighting and tone policing) as well as overt acts like sexual harassment. To do otherwise puts the safety of vulnerable people in jeopardy.

“Talking about race is racist.”

Racism is the oppression of people of color by whites. Talking about racism is how white supremacy gets dismantled. Ignoring or downplaying racism ensures its continuance.

“I don’t see color.”

Not true or possible. I said the same myself once. I know better now.

“All lives matter.”

Appropriating a slogan created by queer black women to highlight violence against black people does nothing to save more animals. It only drives black people away from the animal rights movement. For more of what’s wrong with saying “All Lives Matter” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, see this video (text transcript included).

“There is no (racism/sexism/other human oppression) in the animal rights movement.”

According to whom? Anyone stating this seriously needs to examine their own privileges.

“There is no (racism/sexism/heterosexism/ableism) in the animal rights movement, according to (this one black/gay/female/disabled activist I know).”

Variation on the above. Folks of all backgrounds have different opinions. But if anyone speaks out about being oppressed, they should be taken seriously, and not dismissed just because another member of their gender or ethnic group had a different experience.

“There is no (racism/sexism/other human oppression) in my particular vegan/animal rights group.”

Again, according to whom? Every group in the USA, regardless of size, is operating under a patriarchal, hetero- and cissexist, white supremacist culture. To counteract this requires deliberate work, which includes having marginalized people in active leadership roles. Simply stating that a group is intersectional is an empty promise.

“No true vegan is (racist/sexist/otherwise oppressive).”

Who gets to decide what a “true” vegan is, or who can rightfully display that label? Veganism is currently seen as merely a dietary choice by the majority of US-Americans, who know nothing about the internal debates in the animal rights movement. Focusing on the “vegan” label as a badge of anti-oppression does not help save more animals or humans.

For more essays on human oppression in the animal rights movement (and what to do about it), I recommend the following sites: Aphro-ism, Sistah Vegan Project, Striving with Systems, and Vegan Feminist Network. More sites about related topics are on my links page.

* As I’ve written previously, intersectionality has become something of a buzzword. Putting anti-oppression into practice is more important than using that specific term.

Black Vegans Rock is live!

[Image: Banner with images of black folks and the words: “Black Vegans Rock website is now live! Check us out at” Image by EastRand Studios.]

Black Vegans Rock is now live! I’m excited about this new project for all the reasons I mentioned in my earlier posts. If you’re wondering what being black has to do with veganism or vice-versa, please read the site FAQ. Aph and Syl Ko of Aphro-ism have done a great job showing how black veganism can help dismantle both white supremacy and human supremacy, and how animal rights activism can help rather than hinder the Black Lives Matter movement.

The first black vegan featured on BVR is Seba Johnson, an Olympic athlete and animal rights activist who has been vegan since birth. That feature links to an earlier post by Johnson which I found a wonderful statement against oppression of all animals, human and non-human, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Highlighting the work of people like Johnson is exactly what Black Vegans Rock is about.

Black Vegans Rock will be accepting submissions continuously; see this page for details on how to be featured.

Milestones and hairy thoughts

[Image: Side by side self-portraits of Pax, at one and 24 months on testosterone.]

Today marks two full years since I began my physical transition with testosterone therapy. Looking at the above photo, contrasting how I looked after one month on T with how I look today, I can definitely see some changes. (My receding hairline might not be evident if you’re viewing this on my blog; here’s the full photo on Flickr.) But the pace of change has been frustrating, as I still haven’t been able to grow a full beard, and am still getting misgendered on a regular basis.

The most recent misgendering was this morning, when I went to compete in a 5K race. I was dressed nearly the same way as in last month’s race, and as with that event, was again misread as female. The mistake was just as quickly corrected as it was last time, but it still stung, especially considering this milestone date.

I’m well aware that there are ways that I can present myself to increase the odds of being read as male. But to craft an artificially hypermasculine appearance would not be living as my authentic self, which was the whole point of this transition. I’m not aiming for the middle of some (nonexistent, in my opinion) spectrum between “M” and “F.” Nor am I seeking  to embody a stereotypical “androgyny”, which to most modern US-Americans means thin, hairless, and usually white. I’m simply dressing in a way I feel comfortable, and accepting whatever changes come with my (second) puberty, just as a typical cisgender male would.

I do have more control over my hormone levels than a typical cis man would, however, and I plan to talk with my doctor about that this week. Increasing my dosage might end up making the hair on my back and shoulders grow faster than the hair on my face and chest (as has already been happening to some extent), but I knew that was a possibility well before I started on T. I don’t mind if the hair on my scalp recedes or thins out more quickly, either; if anything, I welcome baldness as an additional signifier of maleness. I usually wear hats when I’m out in public, however, so my disappearing hair might not be apparent enough to get me gendered correctly.

I hate that I feel I need to grow a beard to be read as male – as beards should not be linked with maleness in the first place – but since I don’t mind having facial hair, it seems like my best option. Since I can never realistically expect strangers to recognize that I’m agender, having my transitioned sex read correctly is the most I can hope for.