Unpopular opinions

As an activist, I am used to my opinions being unpopular. The amount that I talk about these opinions varies partly based on how directly I am affected by the issue at hand. But part of it also depends on how much I am confronted with the issue on a daily basis, whether or not I am a direct target of oppression.

Take atheism. I’ve been an unwavering atheist for nearly 30 years now. But I’ve never felt the need to become an activist for atheism. Part of the reason is that I’ve never felt coerced into participating in any religious practices, or pressured into lying about my (lack of) beliefs. Since middle school I’ve lived in and near major cities where atheists, agnostics, and skeptics were not only tolerated, but welcomed. I’ve had no trouble finding atheist and agnostic friends; few of my friends worship any deities.

That doesn’t mean I’ve been unaffected by theism, however. Churches are still supported by my taxes, “In God We Trust” is printed on my money, and theistic religion is omnipresent in countless other ways. I just haven’t felt angry enough to speak out about it much, yet.

Part of the reason I haven’t participated in atheist activism is that I’m not actually opposed to someone believing in one or more deities. I might think that the Christian conception of a supreme being is as realistic as a Flying Spaghetti Monster or Invisible Pink Unicorn, but just believing in any of these things is not, in and of itself, oppressive. What’s oppressive is making laws and justifying violence based on someone’s interpretations of a supreme being’s wishes. I support activism against religious institutions, but I don’t necessarily believe that theism itself must be dismantled.

In contrast, take speciesism: the belief that human animals are superior to non-human ones. As a human, I am not directly oppressed by this widespread belief. While many people do indeed think I am inferior based on my skin color, gender identity, and/or sexual orientation (hence my activism on those fronts), it is not currently legal in this country to keep me as property, forcibly impregnate me and take my babies away so that I can be milked, kill me for my flesh, or harvest my organs without my consent. All of these practices are legal and commonplace for non-human animals, because of speciesism.

While I have no fear of being killed by another human specifically for my flesh, I know that every sentient being – which includes every animal we raise for food – fears death. I can no longer look upon animals being eaten without having feelings of revulsion, sadness, or anger. I live surrounded by advertisements of smiling people eating dead bodies. I see animals’ bodies, eggs, and milk being shared at social justice events, and even at animal welfare events. The sentiment that humans are entitled to use our fellow animals is everywhere. It’s virtually inescapable in this culture of killing.

This is why I cannot be silent about speciesism, as unpopular as my opinion that animals are people, not property may be. The world will not change if people like me are afraid to speak out, or if we make anti-oppression more palatable, offering “Meatless Mondays” as if killing six days a week is acceptable. I recognize that some people face genuine obstacles to going vegan, but those obstacles will never be overcome if we continue to support the mindset that human needs and desires are superior to those of all other animals.

We share the Earth with our fellow animals; we do not own it. It’s time to stop acting like we do.

Gendering and subconscious sex

[Image: Pax runs in a road race, wearing a long-sleeved brown T-shirt, black shorts, white cap, orange shoes, and a purple jacket tied around their waist. Photo by myEPevents.]

This week, I finally got around to reading Whipping Girl by Julia Serano. This book is considered a classic in gender theory; I’d known about it for years. I put off reading it for a couple of reasons. First, given the topic in the subtitle – “A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” – I wasn’t sure how well I could relate as a transmasculine person. I was also concerned that there would be too much academic jargon.

Fortunately, I was delightfully wrong on both accounts. I devoured this book voraciously, highlighting many passages (using that Kindle feature for the first time), and will be discussing the topics of particular interest to me over several blog posts.

As anyone who’s been following my blog knows, I’ve had a lot of difficulty explaining my gender identity to people. I identify as both agender and a transsexual male, but to most people those terms seem contradictory. Serano’s book used the term “subconscious sex” to describe how she feels about being female: It’s a an intuitive feeling that is centered in the physical body, and not directly connected to gender expression. She wrote that it was very difficult to communicate in words, but she could best explain it as “on some level, my brain expects my body to be female.”

This is how I feel about my physical body. If I could wake up tomorrow with a cis-typical male body, without any of the expense and trauma of surgery, I would be delighted. I knew from the first injection of testosterone that I had made the right choice to begin hormone therapy. I still don’t mind having visible breasts, however, but that’s another topic.

Having a male subconscious sex describes my feelings about my physical body only, not my clothing, mannerisms, hobbies, or beliefs. Serano noted that “my female subconscious sex had nothing to do with gender roles, femininity, or sexual expression – it was about the personal relationship I had with my own body.” Serano did not dress or act in a particularly feminine way when she transitioned; she wore the same clothes and acted the same way as she always had. Aided by her relatively small stature, once she began hormone therapy she began to be read as female rather quickly and consistently, despite not having any conscious change in gender expression.

Serano identified as genderqueer and bigender before finally adopting the identifier of “woman.” She didn’t like the baggage associated with the word “woman,” which “seemed to be too weighed down with other people’s expectations.” She wrote, “At the time, I preferred the word ‘girl,’ which seemed more playful and open to interpretation.”

I feel very similar about the word “man.” I can easily and comfortably refer to myself as a “trans guy” in casual conversation when I don’t want to get into a lecture on gender theory.  But I still can’t bring myself to say that I’m a man, because there are too many assumptions built into that word that really don’t suit me.

Ultimately, Serano did come to identify as a woman, largely because of the dramatically different – and sexist – way she was treated by society after her hormonal transition. Here’s one place where our experiences differ. While I’m not out in public much nowadays, I’m probably getting “Sir’d” more than 75% of the time at this point. But the part of male privilege I’ve been most looking forward to gaining is invisibility when I’m out and about. People not remarking on my appearance or harassing me (not that I ever got cat-called much before) doesn’t make me feel more like a “man,” it just makes me feel more respected, which is something that people of all genders should be able to enjoy.

I’m still relatively early in my transition, and have already changed labels and preferred pronouns (currently they/their/them) once, so I can’t say for sure that I won’t change again. But for now, I still feel that “agender transsexual male” is the most accurate label for my identity, even if other people don’t understand or agree with it.

It’s really remarkable, if you think about it, that most of us assume we know a person’s gender just based on the barest of glances. Serano wrote, “I call this process of distinguishing between females and males gendering, to highlight the fact that we actively and compulsively assign genders to all people based on usually just a few visual and audio cues.”

Case in point: Today I went out for a rare pre-dawn run. While I enjoyed the solitude, I generally don’t like running in the dark, especially along paths away from the road. So I tensed up when I heard someone coming up behind me on a hill out of visual and shouting distance from the street. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a long, swinging ponytail, and in that instant gendered the person as female, and felt less threatened. I then questioned how I could make that assumption given such a small visual cue.

The runner passed me and said “Good morning,” thus giving me additional audio and visual cues to reinforce my initial guess that this was likely a woman. But without asking them, there was no way to be sure. They might have been non-binary or a trans man. The few seconds of contact told me virtually nothing about this person, other than the fact that they’re likely in better aerobic shape than I am as they easily passed me on that hill.

As I’ve posted before, I’m super-conscious of my appearance and how people will gender me whenever I’m out running. On today’s run, I wore the same clothes as pictured at the top of this post, minus the jacket and running bib. This photo was taken at the Kaiser Permanente Half Marathon this February, after I’d been on testosterone for approximately 13 months. (I was legally male by then, and registered as such.)

What can you tell about me from this photo? Is my gender (or lack thereof) obvious? Do me a favor: Show the photo to someone who doesn’t know anything about me and ask them “What gender is this person?” (Please don’t phrase the question as “Is this a man or a woman?”) Post a comment on what they say and how long it took them to respond. I’m genuinely curious.

Whatever the response is, unless they’re an experienced profiler, they’re not going to know much about me just from looking at this photo. And that’s my point: Transitioning to male did not change the most fundamental things about me, which are my values. While violence and aggression are usually associated with men, I don’t think of pacifism as a feminine trait. Nor do I associate atheism with masculinity, even though men dominate the atheist movement.  These aspects of my personality have been with me since my teenage years, when I was clueless about trans issues and only knew that I hated having a menstrual cycle and didn’t like wearing feminine clothing.

As Serano pointed out, “the sex we are assigned at birth plays almost no role whatsoever in day-to-day human interactions.” The fact that the letter next to “Sex” on my state ID now says “M” rather than “F” is entirely irrelevant when someone glances at me and makes an instant judgment about my gender. Getting a court-ordered change of gender put my legal sex in line with my subconscious sex, but it did not change or define who I am.

Monkey business

[Image: A howler monkey swings from a tree branch.]

Today’s Wikpedia Signpost newsletter featured an article that focused on my particular areas of interest enough that I wanted to blog about it immediately. The animal rights organization PETA has filed a lawsuit to grant the copyright for a selfie taken by a monkey, Naruto, to the monkey himself. This lawsuit follows an attempt by the human photographer, David Slater, to have the series of photos removed from Wikimedia, on the grounds that he owned the rights to them. The Wikimedia Foundation countered that the works were not covered by copyright law as they were not created by a human being; the U.S. Copyright Office agreed.

While most would be tempted to just laugh this all off as “ridiculous story of the week,” I’m both a photographer and animal rights activist, so I see several separate issues of interest here. I should begin by disclosing that I’m no fan of PETA; as I’ve blogged previously, I’ve found much of their messaging sexist, racist, and problematic in many other ways.

But what intrigues me about PETA’s lawsuit is the position that I’ve taken myself, that animals are people, not property. As I discussed in the linked post, however, being a person is not equivalent to being a citizen, with all the rights and privileges granted to a human resident of a particular political jurisdiction. Recognizing the personhood of non-human animals does not entail granting them equivalent legal status to humans in all areas, only in those which are meaningful in the context of living out their lives freely.

One would be hard-pressed to say that a wild animal taking a photograph, under highly-contrived circumstances arranged by a human, would have any legitimate interest in claiming legal ownership of their work. The original purpose of copyright, before greedy corporations like Disney and Warner/Chappell corrupted it, was to encourage artists to create new works by granting them exclusive rights for a limited period of time. Monkeys do not take photographs of their own accord, nor do they make income by selling prints or licenses.

While it doesn’t make much sense to grant Naruto this copyright, it’s questionable whether the human photographer should be profiting from what might amount to an act of exploitation, from a moral perspective. From a legal perspective, Slater claims he put a great amount of work into setting up the shots, so they should be considered his property.

A related issue came up a few years ago, when a friend posed a hypothetical question: If someone hands their camera to you and asks you to take a photo of them, and you do so, do you now own the rights to that photo? (This situation occurs quite frequently in tourism.) I posted this question to a photography forum, and quite a lively discussion ensued.

My position, as professional photographer (more actively so then than now), was that under United States copyright law, the photographer would own the photo, but it would be petty to try to actually enforce that claim. Others said that you would in essence be acting as a “meat tripod,” and thus had no claim to the work. I countered that as a professional, I would put some effort into framing, adjusting exposure, and the like, so I would actually be putting some work into the photo. (This was before smartphone snapshots became ubiquitous.) But I emphasized that I would never actually try to track down the photo and claim that I owned it.

As an aside, my frustration with the public’s ignorance of copyright law, coupled with my belief that capitalism should ultimately be dismantled, both led to the change in my photography business model. My Creative Commons-licensed photos are still under copyright another subject the general public doesn’t quite understand but that’s a topic for another post.

Regardless, we’re not talking about two humans here; we’re talking about a free-living animal who was cajoled by a human into helping create a product that no member of his species is capable of producing on their own, or even comprehending in full. I believe that trying to derive monetary profit from this endeavor is wrong on both PETA’s part and the photographer’s, even though PETA claims they would use 100% of the profits to benefit Naruto and other crested macaques. Animal rights efforts focus far too much on “personable” animals like monkeys and elephants, when the ones who most urgently need attention are the chickens, cows, pigs, and fishes that we slaughter by the tens of billions every year. Granting personhood means recognizing that no animal, regardless of species, should be the property of another.

Where I stand on DxE

[Image: Activists dressed in black stand in a grocery store behind a small coffin, holding flowers and signs reading “We Will Not Forget” and “It’s Not Food It’s Violence.”]

The recent controversy surrounding the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, with allegations of harassment and misconduct on both sides (none of which I’m going to link to here), has caused me enough stress to seriously question whether I want to continue with organized animal rights activism. I’m avoiding Facebook for the time being, but I do not want my absence or silence to be misinterpreted. I do not consent to being used as a token to be thrown into a pro- or anti-DxE bucket by anyone.

My thoughts on the situation are too nuanced to be condensed to a hashtag or blanket statement of either support or condemnation, so I’d really appreciate people reading this essay in full before making any judgments on where I stand. I’m not going to approve any comments on this post and I’m not sharing this post on Facebook, though it’s public so others are free to do so. I’d appreciate not being tagged on any shares or comments on Facebook or otherwise dragged into discussions on social media; people can e-mail me directly if they have any questions or concerns.

As I’ve posted before, I came to DxE last fall after Bob Linden kicked DxE co-founder Wayne Hsiung out of the World Vegan Summit. The first action I attended, a funeral for a chicken at Berkeley Bowl, is pictured at the top of this post. I was moved by the action, and happy to be part of a community of people that took speciesism seriously, even while being widely mocked by the general public and other vegans. I began spending more time at the DxE house, as I made friends in the group and felt it was a safe space where I could be free of speciesism and also respected as a queer black trans person.

As time went on, my depression worsened and I started spending less time in public and around other people in general, which meant less time at DxE events. I also no longer felt safe participating in disruptions, as I felt my skin color and trans status put me at greater risk of harassment by the police.

I continued to keep up with DxE on social media, and so was aware of the escalating conflict amidst allegations of sexual harassment by people formerly or currently affiliated with the group. As I was neither target of nor witness to any incidents, I only had the word of others to go by on what happened. Regardless, as a survivor of sexual abuse myself, if someone says they were abused or harassed, I am inclined to believe them.

Some screenshots and snippets of conversations from private messages and closed groups have since been published, which makes me very uncomfortable even if I understand why they were revealed. This is part of why I’m staying off of Facebook right now. I’ve found that regardless of visibility settings, nothing posted on social media is truly private, unfortunately.

Having been involved in online activism for over a year now, I am aware that there are some individuals who have wanted DxE dismantled for some time now, for a number of reasons. However, I am not going to assign all blame for the current situation to those people. Nor am I going to assume that any specific grievances they have are illegitimate based on prior animus toward DxE.

Nor do I suspect infiltrators from animal agriculture of trying to divide the movement. The “movement” is fractured because there is no common end goal. Some activists say that “all true vegans are abolitionists,” but there isn’t even any agreement on what the term “abolitionist” means, much less the term “vegan.” I could write another whole essay on that topic, but for now I’ll just say that I do not believe the current DxE situation came about due to industry infiltration (though I have no proof, admittedly, that it did not).

I also really don’t like any dismissal of this situation as a distraction from “saving animals.” As I’ve written before, I will not rank the oppression of non-human animals as more important than the oppression of humans. Claims of sexism and racism by anyone, in any movement, are very serious and need to be addressed. No one should feel that they must be silent about abuse or micro-aggressions in the interest of furthering the cause of a group.

Ultimately, I do not believe that individuals or organizations as a whole are “good” or “evil.” I especially don’t like the term “evil” as it has religious connotations. Rather, I believe that individual actions have the potential to cause more or less harm. And there’s no doubt that harm has been caused, whether intentional or not, by people on both sides of the current debate. And it’s clear that any efforts to remediate that harm have thus far not been entirely successful.

So where do I stand? For now, I’m going to continue as an independent activist, blogging but not participating in actions. As I’ve never held any official position with DxE, this really isn’t much of a change. I’m aware that some will not be satisfied that I’m serious about anti-oppression unless I sever all ties with friends in DxE, and I’m not going to do that. I’m also aware that some in DxE will be disappointed if I don’t come out with an unequivocal statement of solidarity, but I’m not going to do that either.

Some days I wish I could just rewind the clock to when I was blissfully ignorant of the vast amount of injustice in the world. But I can’t. So I don’t feel that I can give up on activism entirely. I just wish there were a lot more honesty and a lot less hostility in activist communities.

We the T

[Image: Banner reading “We the T! A Matter + Gender 2.0 Collaboration”]

I’m happy to announce that I am now an official contributor to the Gender 2.0 collaborative project on Medium. I wrote this week’s newsletter for the project, “Our lives, our stories,” highlighting some of the stories trans people have shared about our lives. Follow me on Medium and join in the conversation.

Exploring my roots

[Image: Blackberri, a man with long gray locs, white knit cap, and multiple pieces of jewelry, sings while playing the guitar.]

Yesterday I went on a field trip with Animal Liberationists of Color to the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. A docent and intern guided us through the exhibits, which were very educational to me. The docent began the tour by showing us a video graphic of the migration of humans from Africa to other parts of the Earth. She showed that as a result of the migration to South America, the most common language of black people is Portuguese, followed by Spanish, and then English.

We then went on to view the featured collection, Portraits and Other Likenesses. As a photographer, I had always thought of a portrait as a posed picture of one or more people, so it was interesting to see different interpretations of this idea. One was an artist’s depiction of her grandmother’s 1970s-era living room, with Soul Train playing on the TV, brightly colored furnishings, and a lipstick-stained cigarette sitting in an ashtray. Another was a series of pages printed in the style of antebellum newsletters about the life of the artist, Glenn Ligon, a gay black man born in 1960.

One of the most popular pieces in this exhibit, especially with children, is the Soundsuit, a creation by Nick Cave, a dancer and performance artist:

One of the reasons I wanted to visit this museum was that I’ve been concerned about a certain subset of black people who are promoting the mindset that homosexuality is destroying the black family, and that being gay or trans is a “white thing.” I felt that this cisheterosexism had no basis in pre-colonial African culture. I spoke with the docent and intern about this, and they agreed.

Our museum guides were also very interested in the purpose of our group. We explained that we are activists who seek to dismantle racism in the animal rights movement. The idea that veganism and animal rights are “white things” is not true, as Aph Ko discussed in a recent article for Everyday Feminism. I gave the intern links to Sistah Vegan Project, Aphro-ism, and my own blog, which she wrote down eagerly. She told me that her mother never allowed her to visit zoos when she was growing up, as she said that no one should be in a cage.

I look forward to learning more about African and African-American culture. As I’ve written previously, exploring my roots has been both difficult and rewarding. I’m fortunate to live in a place where I can be respected as a queer black trans person, and to have friends who support me and my desire to liberate all beings.

Rally to end homelessness

[Image: San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim speaks at a podium on the steps of City Hall. Two people next to her hold a banner reading “End Homelessness | Fund Affordable Housing | Tax Wall Street.”]

Continuing with my exploration of gentrification, yesterday I attended a rally at San Francisco City Hall for the stated purpose of “Ending homelessness, funding affordable housing, and passing the Robin Hood Tax.” Speakers included representatives from Jobs with Justice, Plaza 16 Coalition, AIDS Housing Alliance/SF, Coalition on Homelessness, South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Khafre Jay of Hip Hop for Change
[Image: Khafre Jay raps into a microphone. His shirt reads “Hip Hop for Change.”]

Khafre Jay of Hip Hop for Change
[Image: Khafre Jay raps into a microphone, left arm upraised.]

The rally began and ended with hip-hop performances by Khafre Jay, founder and executive director of Hip Hop for Change. I haven’t listened to this genre much, but I enjoyed the performance, and appreciate the group’s mission to end the stereotyping of this music and use it as a tool for grassroots activism.

Pastor Yul Dorn
[Image: Pastor Yul Dorn speaks at a podium outside San Francisco City Hall.]

One of the speakers at the rally was Yul Dorn, a pastor at Emmanuel Church who has been directly affected by gentrification in the Bayview. He said proudly and defiantly that he isn’t getting kicked out of his home.

Crowd at Robin Hood Rally
[Image: A crowd of people wearing green hats and holding green signs reading “RobinHoodTax.org | Our City is Not for Sale.”]

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos
[Image: San Francisco Supervisor David Campos speaks at a podium outside City Hall.]

Many at the rally wore green Robin Hood-style hats, including San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, who joked that as a gay man he appreciated the fashionable color. The other supervisor who attended was Jane Kim, pictured at the top of this post. During her speech, a black man at the periphery of the crowd yelled continuously and angrily. I couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying, as I was wearing earplugs (as I do at most amplified events) and was trying to concentrate on the speech.

But I was irritated when someone near me made a comment about needing more funding for mental health services. Aside from being somewhat ableist (even if well-intentioned), I didn’t get the sense that this man was mentally ill, just very angry and frustrated. I didn’t think he was directing his comments at Supervisor Kim in particular, but when I got home I remembered that a petition I’d signed that morning, protesting the proposed fencing off of a public space in the Mission, was addressed to her specifically.

Outlining body with chalk
[Image: A person lies spread-eagled on the sidewalk while another person outlines their body with chalk.]

Chalk body outline
[Image: The outline of a body chalked on the sidewalk, holding a sandwich and a cell phone, with the words “Don’t shoot me, bro,” “A sandwich not a gun,” and “Stop police brutality.”]

Toward the end of the rally I watched some sidewalk chalk activism happening. In addition to statements against gentrification, police brutality was highlighted.

Kung Feng, Jobs with Justice
[Image: Kung Feng of Jobs with Justice speaks at a podium outside San Francisco City Hall, both arms upraised.]

This rally was the only part I attended of a full day of actions, which included a protest outside the home of investor Ron Conway and the occupation of a Planning Commission meeting. As far as the Robin Hood Tax, I need to read more about it, but I’m certainly not opposed to taxing Wall Street. As I’ve said before, I don’t think we’ll have any true equality until and unless we abolish capitalism, but I recognize that I’m saying this from the comfort of my rent-controlled apartment. People sleeping on the streets need relief now, so I’m open to listening to ideas on how to improve the situation under our current system of government.

As usual, I’ve uploaded the full gallery of photos from the event to Flickr. I will continue to keep an eye out for more social justice-themed events to attend and photograph.

Finding my tribe

[Image: A young woman lights the first of a semi-circle of thirteen candles.]

I’ve just read a moving essay by Sherry F. Colb, a Jewish vegan professor, daughter of Holocaust survivors, and author of the book Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger? (which I recommend highly). As we’re currently in the season of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’m reflecting on my own Jewish history. As with my difficulty fitting into the black community, I’ve never felt truly at ease with this aspect of my heritage.

I was born in 1970 to a white Jewish father and a black mother who believed in God but did not profess any specific religious affiliation. My father was very secular, said he hated going to Hebrew school and so didn’t want to make me suffer through it. I did attend pre-school activities at a Jewish Community Center in Pittsburgh briefly when I was very young, before we moved to a WASP town in West Virginia in 1975.

We drove to Pittsburgh to attend a Passover seder at my grandparents’ house each year, and I lit Hanukkah candles (next to our Christmas tree), but that was about the extent of my Jewish upbringing. I never had a bat mitzvah (the one pictured above is from a hired photo shoot I did a few years ago), and did not attend any religious services.

We moved back to Pittsburgh in 1982, and in 1984 I enrolled in high school in a heavily Jewish community, with numerous synagogues. We often saw Orthodox families walking to shul, and some businesses were closed on Jewish holidays. But most of my Jewish friends were secular like my father, and agnostic or atheist in their beliefs even if they did observe various holidays and customs. I had already begun to doubt the existence of God by age 12, and by age 16 I was decidedly and openly atheist, a position I haven’t wavered from since.

In college at Northwestern, I became good friends with a couple of observant Jews (of the Reform variety), one of whom I began to date seriously.  He knew I was an atheist, and he hoped to become a rabbi. I tried to learn more about Judaism so that I might relate to him better, attending a few events with other students at Hillel.  But I simply could not reconcile my atheism with the direct, unmistakable presence of God in the Hebrew Bible. I did not feel that I could ignore this and simply celebrate Judaism in a secular way.

I tried once again some time after moving to California in 1992, reading books about Judaism and attending High Holy Days services at a synagogue in Berkeley. Once again, I was very uncomfortable with the theism inherent in the services. I could witness these events as a cultural phenomenon, but my perspective definitely felt  like that of an outsider, despite my Jewish heritage.

I knew many other atheist Jews felt strong connections to their heritage. I became quite enamored of monologist Josh Kornbluth, an atheist who spoke about Judaism frequently in his shows, and eventually traveled to the Holy Land for his bar mitzvah at the age of 52. But his upbringing – raised by Jewish Communists in New York City – was nothing like mine.

Along the way, I explored other religions. I discovered Buddhism in college, and identified as a Buddhist for a good 20 years. But I rarely practiced formal meditation, either alone or with others; Buddhism to me was (and still is, to some extent) primarily an ethical and philosophical stance. I’ve more recently read about Jainism, and have concluded that I agree with the fundamental ethics, but cannot relate to the metaphysics.

Starting in graduate school I also explored neo-paganism, doing a fair amount of reading (The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk was one of my favorite books) and briefly participating in a Church of All Worlds circle. But once again, the theism – even if there was more than one god/dess – turned me off to the practice. I felt that deifying nature by assigning human characteristics to nonhuman animals, plants, and natural phenomena diminished rather than enhanced these elements of our shared Earth. I also was a vegetarian moving toward veganism by this point, and felt a disconnect from people who practiced a nature-based religion while killing and eating farmed animals. (Many of the Buddhists I met ate animal flesh as well.)

Eventually, I decided I shouldn’t try to force a connection that just wasn’t there. When I realized two years ago that I was trans, part of the reason I changed my last name along with my first was that my original last name (which I never changed through two marriages) was very obviously Jewish. While there’s nothing more wrong with Judaism than with any other theistic religion (from my perspective), I felt strongly that I wanted to assert my own identity, not my father’s.

I took the name Gethen from The Left Hand of Darkness, a book by Ursula K. Le Guin about a planet with no gender roles, as all of the humanoids are literal hermaphrodites*. Being in the family of nonbinary people makes sense to me. And yet, I haven’t felt entirely comfortable in that “tribe” either. Nonbinary people, as with trans and other gender-variant people, have widely differing attitudes and life experiences. I attended a local genderqueer peer support group briefly, but felt it only highlighted how different my feelings about gender identity and expression are from most people.

Coming out as bisexual and, later, polyamorous, predated my coming out as trans by many years, and I did actively participate in bisexual and polyamory-focused events for awhile. But eventually I stopped going to these because I realized that sexual orientation and choice to have multiple partners were not enough of a common bond for me to spend time with others on just that basis. Changing my identity from bi to queer, and becoming much less sexually active, further distanced me from these communities.

Animal rights activists are another “tribe” I’ve tried to integrate with, but I’ve found that vegans and AR activists who are also staunchly against human oppression are seriously lacking. I’ve met some good friends through Direct Action Everywhere, but I haven’t been attending actions or meetups lately, for reasons I’ve written about previously. (Edit, August 2018: I left DxE in 2015.)

Musicians are the group I’ve had the most trouble with. While I have sung or played some kind of musical instrument since the age of three, I’ve never been able to maintain connections with other musicians outside of structured, paid settings, like the band workshops I took at the Blue Bear School of Music or my singing in the Lesbian/Gay Chorus of San Francisco. I’m in an uncomfortable middle area where I’m frustrated with casual, inexperienced musicians, but not skilled enough to join the ranks of serious amateurs or professionals. The effect of testosterone on my vocal chords has further limited my ability to make music with others, though private lessons are helping.

It’s possible that I simply don’t have a “tribe,” and I should be OK with that. Over the last few months, I’ve preferred to spend as much time alone as possible, so not having any regular commitments to meet with others helps me relax a bit. But I do feel isolated and lonely at times.

I keep returning to the idea that there’s some group out there that relates to the world in the same way that I do. A community of nonbinary vegan atheist anarchists or socialists would be close to ideal, I suppose. But for now, I’ll continue to write and read and learn about the world around me, and hope that I find the inner peace I need to become a more effective activist.

* While appropriate in this fictional setting, the term “hermaphrodite” should never be used to describe humans with variant sexual anatomy. “Intersex” is the preferred term.

Black queer voices rising

[Image: The four-piece band Afrofonix performs.]

On Friday night I attended an evening of song, spoken word, and fellowship with black people in the LGBTQIA community as part of the R/evolve Oakland Pride celebration. It was a moving, intimate experience, which made me feel closer to the black community than ever before.

[Image: Blackberri sings while playing the guitar.]

The evening began with an invitation to call out names of our ancestors. Blackberri, an elder whose work is in the Smithsonian, then led us in a deep breathing exercise (with which I was very familiar from singing lessons). We then watched a video of images from the Civil Rights era set to music. Blackberri started singing along, and we all joined in. Then he performed his own songs for us on guitar.

Performing spoken word
[Image: An author reads a selection for the audience from a smartphone.]

We watched a moving video monologue by a black trans woman. Then the next performer, whose name I didn’t catch unfortunately, did a entertaining reading of a piece.

Jay-Marie singing and playing the bass
[Image: Jay-Marie singing and playing the bass.]

Jay-Marie did a solo bass and vocal performance, which I loved and which reminded me that I need to practice bass more often.

Star Amerasu singing[Image: Star Amerasu singing.]

AH-Mer-AH-Su, aka Star Amerasu, gave a high-energy live-looping performance with vocals, percussion, and some sweet dance moves.

[Image: The lead singer and drummer from Afrofonix perform.]

[Image: The bass player from Afrofonix sings.]

The band Afrofonix closed out the night, with soulful and stirring music of solidarity and revolution.

Kin Folkz
[Image: Kin Folkz smiles while speaking into a microphone. Their T-shirt reads “Love is Love.”]

I’m grateful to Kin Folkz (who reached out to me when I posted on the Facebook event about taking photos), Spectrum Queer Media, and all others who put together this event. Part of why I’ve felt distant from the black community, aside from what I’ve posted about previously, is the perception that it’s not particularly LGBTQIA-friendly. I attributed a lot of this to conservative Christian values, but even more seemingly-progressive voices can be surprisingly hostile.

So to be in a room surrounded by queer and trans black people was amazing. There was a spiritual energy to the celebration, but it felt primal, not Christian. I also noticed that nearly all of the performers and organizers wore a natural hairstyle, which given my own hair-story made me feel even more at ease.

As usual, I’ve posted the full set of photos to Flickr. I’m looking forward to spending more time getting to know the local black LGBTQIA community.

What I wanted to wear: Performing masculinity

[Image: Side-by-side self-portraits of Pax. On the left they are wearing a V-necked shirt with cap sleeves and an ornate black-and-white pattern. On the right they are wearing a short-sleeved peach-colored button-down collared shirt.]

I’ve written a story on Medium to contribute to the experiences shared there by transgender and nonbinary people. Please check it out and join in the conversation!

filed by Pax Ahimsa Gethen