On Privilege and Luck

[Content Note: rape, abuse, physical and emotional violence, homophobia, fatphobia]

Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a right to talk about certain things. The intersection of identities where I live (bisexual/pansexual/queer, fat, cisgender, female, white, upper-middle class, spiritual atheist, and so on) gives me certain insights into those identities. But I sometimes feel like I shouldn’t talk about certain things.

For the purpose of this post, I want to define what I mean by luck. A lot of people see luck as a positive force in the world, some even see it as some divine gift. When I use the word “luck” in this essay, I’m talking about statistical probability. It’s statistically improbable for certain things to happen, and when those things happen, they’re usually labeled as luck, either good or bad. When I say I’m lucky, I mean that I’ve been the recipient of statistically improbable things or statuses. I don’t mean that I have a gift, or that some invisible being has favored me, or that I’ve done anything worthy of praise. I simply mean that the odds have been in my favor.

So I’m one of the lucky women who’s made it to 30 years old without experiencing sexual assault. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a right to talk about sexual assault, because I don’t know what it’s like. I have a pretty good imagination, and reading the accounts of survivors or seeing graphic depictions of it in the media gives me some idea, but I don’t really know. And it’s not like I’ve done anything to prevent it, really. I’ve just been lucky. I never went out of my way to avoid being assaulted, I never worried about what I was wearing or whether I should walk alone at night (although walking alone at night does make me a teeny bit nervous, because I’m a woman). I’ve never worried about the men I’ve dated trying to force me. Some of this is probably a result of my physical size, but since large and powerful women have also been raped, I don’t want to say that’s the reason because that discounts their experiences. It isn’t because I’m fat, because fat women have been raped. The simple fact is, I’ve been lucky. And sometimes I feel guilty about it.

How fucked up is that, that I feel guilty about not being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted? I know that no rape survivor would ever want me to feel guilty. What does it say about our culture, that when I was younger I actually thought the reason no one had tried to rape me was because I wasn’t attractive enough (I know that’s not true now, but younger me was a product of our culture, as much as anyone else is)? What does it say about our society that I actually wished men would give me negative attention, because it was better than no attention? Once I actually encountered verbal abuse and catcalling, I was disabused of those ideas pretty damn quickly, but as a young woman who’d never experienced any of it, I bought into the idea that a man verbally assaulting me was a compliment, and envied girls who dealt with it! And that’s just proof of how immensely fucked up rape culture is.

I feel guilty about past me’s thoughts too. I know it isn’t her fault, because she was raised to believe she was undesirable, and that catcalling and other forms of verbal abuse were compliments. But I feel like I can’t talk about other women’s sexual abuse because of that, because I felt that way. Isn’t it great how many modes of silencing are built into this fucked-up culture of ours?

Today on another blog I follow, I encountered the term “invisible queer” and it was exactly what I am, too. I identify as bisexual or pansexual (depending on the audience and whether they know that there aren’t just two genders), but I’ve only dated a very few people in my life, and all of them were cisgender and male. Despite the fact that I’ve never dated a woman, trans* person, or genderqueer person, I know I’m attracted to people of all sexualities and gender identities, so bi or pan fits me. But I often feel like I don’t fit into the queer community, because I didn’t deal with a lot of pain or stigma related to coming out. I’ve never dealt with someone giving me a death glare because I held hands with or kissed a same-sex partner. The worst I’ve had to deal with was some clueless questions (like “but which gender do you like better” or “if you had to choose just one gender, which one would it be” or “do you have twice as much sex”). When I came out at 16, my best friends said “is that all? We thought maybe you were sick or moving away, when you told us you had something big to tell us!” My mom said “as long as you’re happy” and my dad said “I think you’re too young to know that yet” (not an ideal response, but not openly hateful, and he’s never said anything homophobic to me before or since). Even in queer settings, most people just assume I’m a straight ally (which is frustrating when I’m looking to meet people t0 date). So I often feel like I don’t have a right to talk about issues facing the LGBTQIA+ community, because have I really dealt with most of those issues? I remember a group of LGBT classmates and I talking in college, telling our coming-out stories. One person said their parents acted like they’d died. One said their father threatened to kick them out, and their mother cried for days. Another person’s family did kick them out, but they luckily had a friend whose family took them in. I just sat there, listening, feeling grossly out of place with my accepting family who acted like it was no big deal.

I’ve dealt with casual homophobia a few times, like when I got a super short faux-hawk haircut and a coworker asked me if I was a lesbian (she acted so suspicious about it too, like “I thought you were a decent person but now you look like that”). I vaguely recall saying something like “why would it matter?” and then she never talked to me again (she was in another department so I didn’t talk to her normally, we just walked by each other sometimes in the building). But I’ve never been physically threatened for being bi. I’ve never felt afraid of violence in a real sense, just mildly nervous because the possibility exists. I have straight-passing privilege, after all, so I’ve rarely been made to feel afraid.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve the privilege and luck I’ve had in my life. I feel like there are so many people who are braver, smarter, kinder, more loving, more deserving, who’ve had horrible things happen to them. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Violence doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t bypass people who are better, it doesn’t leave the brave and kind and smart people alone just because they’re brave and kind and smart. Sometimes violence even seeks out the people who are kindest, bravest, smartest, because it wants them to suffer.

I don’t think I had a specific point to make with this post. I just needed to say something, because I feel so sad and angry about what happened in Orlando, and I feel guilty that I’m alive and physically unharmed when over 100 people are dead or injured. I’ve been so, so lucky in my life, when so many other people haven’t been. And somehow that feels wrong. I wish it didn’t. I wish that my state of being was the statistically probable one, that only a few people ever dealt with violence and abuse and rape (or none at all).

I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the chest, but I can’t pull the knife out. It hurts. It hurts.

It Could Be Me

Last night, there was a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida. Today, my friends are sharing their stunned responses to this tragedy. A lot of people don’t know what to say, and I can’t blame them. But I do have a few things to say.

Not. One. More.

I am 3o years old. I remember Columbine. I remember Sandy Hook. I remember Virginia Tech, and Fort Hood, and so many, many others. I remember last year when a young man killed several people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. I remember the horror, the helplessness. I remember the anger, so much anger, at all the lives lost. And I remember the frustration, every goddamn time, when people would try to start a dialogue about gun control, and they would be shouted down. Even though the crimes just keep getting worse and worse. Even though more and more people die from guns. Even though the very simple things that are called for (harder background checks, licensing, closing manufacturing loopholes) are things that most sensible gun owners agree should happen.

I am shaking with rage and sorrow as I write this. I may not have known anyone who was killed in Orlando, but I know the LGBT community. I’m part of it, I have many friends who are part of it, and we are all full of rage and sorrow because we live every day knowing that our lives are less valued, our chances of rape and death are much higher, because of who we are.

And I have something in particular to say to my family and friends, the ones who might be saddened by this, but will forget in a week or so, move on with their lives, because thank goodness, it wasn’t anyone they knew.

I’m someone you know. And I could be next. I’m a bisexual woman who believes in equality and has friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer, so on. I could have been in that club. I could’ve been there for a fun night with my friends, for dancing and drinks, and I could’ve walked in and never walked out again. It could be me whose phone keeps ringing and ringing as the rescue workers walk through the club through the cacophony of desperate people trying to reach their loved ones. It could be me whose voice you never hear again. It could be me who’s lying in a morgue, marked as “Jane Doe” because in all the chaos I dropped my wallet and they haven’t had time to figure out who I am yet.

Don’t turn away. Don’t stop reading. You need to know this. Those of you who might not have known my sexuality, who might not have thought about it, who might not have considered that it could be me. I want you to think very, very hard about that. About what it would feel like, to not know if I was okay, to wait hours in agony, trying to tell yourself that maybe I’m out of town, or maybe I lost my phone, or maybe this or maybe that because you don’t want to believe that I could be dead. To find out from my mom or brothers that I was killed, violently. I want you to think about how you’d feel. I want you to think about it. Because it could be me. Because of who I am, because of what I do, because I’m a bisexual woman living in the United States, I could be killed. It could be me.

We can’t let this continue. We can’t.

Throwing the Rope

Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a canyon. The canyon is very wide, and deep, but you can make out the other side, and you can see the bottom. You really want to cross the canyon, but there’s no bridge. You can see someone across the way, and you know that if you could get something to them, a rope, that you’d be able to cross it. You’ve yelled at them your plan, you’ve thrown the rope across many times, but they don’t see it, or they can’t catch it, or they let it slip through their fingers. You keep dragging it back and throwing it across the canyon, hoping that they’ll catch it, so the two of you can try to build a bridge, even a simple one, so you can cross over and meet them, and they you. But no matter how many times you throw the rope, they can’t catch it. Sometimes it feels like they let it go on purpose, and sometimes it seems like there’s something or someone else deflecting the rope, but you don’t know. You just know that you’re getting tired of throwing the rope when they never catch it. You can see the broken remains of a bridge at the bottom of the canyon, and you remember a time when you used to be able to cross it, but that doesn’t help you now. You have people on your side of the canyon, who try to help, who sometimes throw the rope when you’re tired, who pull you back from the edge when you get too desperate or careless and almost fall. But you still want to get across the canyon, so you keep throwing the rope, over and over, hoping that this time, they’ll catch it.

This is the analogy I used this morning to talk to my therapist about my relationship with my father. It started simply, with me talking about the canyon between us and trying to throw the rope, and fleshed out quickly, every aspect of my relationship becoming part of it, the broken bridge as the remains of what our relationship was when I was a child, my feeling like I was always trying to reach him but he wouldn’t or couldn’t catch the rope, my mom and brothers on my side of the canyon, helping me. I talked about how if he’d just catch the rope, that then we could both start building a bridge. I took responsibility for my part of the bridge, saying I knew I’d have to meet him halfway. My therapist asked if I felt I could trust him to build his part. I said I don’t know, since he still won’t or can’t catch the rope. We talked about people in his life who might not want him to catch the rope, and how tired I was of trying to throw it when he wouldn’t catch it, and who might be across the canyon with him. I compared it to my relationship with my mother, a tiny but sturdy wooden footbridge over a small creak, where even if the bridge broke, I wouldn’t fall far, and it wouldn’t take much effort to fix it. She asked if my brothers ever threw the rope, and I said sometimes, although it didn’t seem that they did it as often as me. My mother couldn’t throw the rope, because he would never accept it from her, although she had tried a few times in the past. Mostly they were there to pull me back from the edge when I needed them, and to commiserate about the width and depth of the canyon. I talked about how I felt like it got wider and deeper every year, and sometimes I was just resigned to it, but other times I would start throwing the rope again, harder than ever.

The fact is, I love my father. I want to have a relationship with him. I call him regularly, far more often than he calls me. I try to visit, although the visits aren’t particularly pleasant. I invite him to come visit me, but he never has time, or never has money, or something. I want him to be part of my life, and to be part of his, even though I’m far away. But my arm gets tired, and I get discouraged. Sometimes I wish I could just stop throwing the rope. I look down at that broken bridge and remember how easy it seemed when I was a kid, how effortlessly we played, how happy I was to see him. I remember him being gone a lot and often being tired when he was home, and I remembered him yelling at me sometimes when I did something dangerous, because I’d scared him and he didn’t know how to show it except to yell. I remember playing with him and how happy we both were. I remember the nicknames he gave me.

I know that I can’t go back to my childhood. That bridge is broken, and it’s beyond repair. But I still want to build a new one. I still want to try to have a relationship with my father, because I love him. If I didn’t love him, it wouldn’t hurt so much that the canyon was between us. If I didn’t love him, it would be a lot easier to turn and walk away from the canyon. And sometimes, very briefly, when I see him or talk to him, I feel like he’s caught the rope for just a moment, things are like they were when I was a kid, and I think “maybe this time, we can build the bridge.” But then he lets it go, or it slips through his fingers, and I have to pull it back again, and every time, it seems to get a little heavier, a little harder to throw. But I haven’t given up yet. Maybe someday, he’ll be able to catch it. Maybe someday, we’ll start building the bridge, slowly. Maybe, someday, I’ll get to cross it again, and everything will be good.

All I can do is keep throwing the rope.

On Reading

I became really sick on Sunday night with what was likely food poisoning (possibly the stomach flu, but after talking to my dad, who is a doctor, he said food poisoning was more likely), and I’ve spent every day since then lying in bed, feeling like crap. My normal amusement is usually video games (handheld or console) or app games (on my phone), but trying to do anything that required any movement made me feel more nauseous, so I ended up reading books instead, which is something I don’t often have much time for.

When I was a kid, reading was like breathing. My mom taught me to read before I was in kindergarten, and I read books as fast as I could get my hands on them. I was always way above the average reading level for my age, and my mom had to limit the number of library books I was allowed to bring home, because I’d try to check out huge stacks and then not read them all before they were due. I got lost in books, too. My older brothers and I all had the ability to tune out the world when we were reading, to the point that sometimes our mother had to come tap us on the shoulder or practically shout in our ears to get our attention. I read everything, but I especially loved fantasy, and sci-fi once my older brothers introduced me to it. I read the first Harry Potter book when I was 11, the same age as Harry (just a year or so after it was published). I remember reading the Dragonriders of Pern books around 12. Every time we went on road trips, my parents would buy or rent books on tape from the library, and they almost always got Star Trek or Star Wars novelizations, so I remember listening to a lot of those. Neither of my parents had much time for reading, with three kids and their jobs, but they loved reading too, so they encouraged us with pride.

When I reached middle school and got into English classes, I was often frustrated by how slowly other kids read. When we had to read aloud, I would cringe at how halting they were, and always volunteered so I could show them how to do it right. When we were supposed to read quietly, I’d get finished way before most everyone else, so I’d read other stories in our textbook. When I got to high school and we started reading whole books as a class, I’d usually finish the book in the first week, and then frustrate the teacher when they asked where we thought the story was going, because I already knew how it ended.

Before I got really involved in choir and theater, I sometimes felt like English class was the only place I could be myself. I distinctly remember reading “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe in 10th grade, and our teacher gave us an assignment to represent our soul, as a physical representation of the soul was a part of the culture in the book, and an important plot point. Everyone in the class made cute little panoramas with pictures of themselves and their family and friends, maybe them doing a hobby they liked, things they saw as being “them”. I brought in my childhood teddy bear, with his mouth and eyes taped shut, and his arms and legs bound, and told everyone that I often felt that way, that no one would allow me to be myself, that society wanted me to be quiet and polite instead of who I was. The whole classroom was silent as I sat down, shaking slightly, and the teacher (who disliked me for constantly questioning his authority) gave me an A.

It was after college that I stopped reading. It wasn’t a conscious choice, I didn’t sit down one day and say “I’m going to stop doing this thing that I love.” It just happened, gradually. During college, I’d gotten used to functioning without much sleep, and I would usually read before bed, which ended up with me staying up very late most nights, especially when the book was good. Once I’d graduated and was working a crappy retail job, and even later when I got a desk job, I was usually too tired to think much, let alone enjoy a book, and I definitely didn’t have time to stay up super late reading. So my reading went from “seldom” to “none”, and even though I missed it, I didn’t see how I could make time for it. When I wanted down time, I’d knit and watch TV, or play video games. I was often too “ramped up” to just sit and read, usually feeling like I wasn’t doing something else that I should be doing, or missing something else I could be doing. Rarely, when I had a really quiet vacation or weekend, I’d manage to read a book or two (I still read pretty quickly), but the rest of the time I’d mostly just read things online, blogs, news sites, and so on.

Things are pretty much the same now, unfortunately. In grad school I read a lot, but it was academic reading, rarely pleasurable (although sometimes it was). I don’t like the “academic tone” very much, it reads as insufferably stuffy and self-important to me, so even when I’m reading about things I’d normally be interested in, I get bored of it easily. So having a few days where the only thing I could do was read or sleep was a nice vacation. I hope I can manage to do more of that, going forward. Maybe I’ll make it a goal to read one book a week. We’ll see. 😉

The books I read this week are (in no particular order):

Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones (re-read) – Love this book and its sequels, highly recommend them. It’s very different from the Miyazaki film, though, if you’ve seen that. I also love the film, it’s just very different.

Castle in the Air, Diana Wynne Jones (re-read)

House of Many Ways, Diana Wynne Jones (re-read)

Bloodchild: And Other Stories, Octavia E. Butler (re-read) – I love Octavia E. Butler. Bloodchild is her famous “male pregnancy” short story, which is really fascinating, but not for the squeamish, like most of her work.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl (re-read) – Roald Dahl was a particular favorite of mine as a child, although this one wasn’t my favorite. My favorite was Fantastic Mr. Fox, followed closely by The BFG.

The Giver, Lois Lowry (first time) – I had never read this before, I was prompted because I was intrigued by the movie trailer, but wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. I liked it, although I felt it ended too soon. I know there are sequels, not sure when I’ll have time to read them.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins (first time) – I’d seen the first two movies but hadn’t read the books, so I figured I’d read them before I see the rest of the movies. I felt that the first two movies were a very faithful and strikingly good adaptation. I’ve heard that a lot of people really dislike how the trilogy ended, but I actually thought it was a good ending. Not a happy ending, but a good one.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs (first time) – I read this because a friend of mine was losing his mind over this trilogy a few weeks ago. It’s decent, but it didn’t grab me the way it grabbed him. I’m not sure when I’ll read the other two.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, J.K. Rowling (first time) – Despite having read the entire Harry Potter series, I hadn’t read these (other than the tale of the three brothers, of course). They were okay, nothing to write home about. I would’ve liked a longer book.

The Family Tree, Sheri S. Tepper (re-read) – Sheri S. Tepper is a starkly feminist and environmentalist fiction writer, and this is one of her best books, in my humble opinion. In some of her books she can be militantly anti-man (and I don’t say that lightly, as a feminist myself), basically writing every single male character except the female main character’s love interest as an inhuman monster. In other books she just portrays most men as idiots. This book is thankfully a bit more balanced, and has a strongly environmental message.

The Margarets, Sheri S. Tepper (re-read) – This is my favorite of all her books, I’ve read it several times already, and I really love it. The premise is unique and the execution is complex and beautiful. I recommend it for anyone who likes science fiction with a spiritual or magical twist. 🙂