The Complexity of Representation

It’s been announced over the past couple of weeks that a few Marvel characters are undergoing some major renovations. Thor, bastardized Norse god turned multi-billion dollar Avenger franchise, is being reintroduced into the Marvel comic universe as a woman, and a black man is taking up the mantel—or shield—of Captain America. This is a great step in the realm of comic book diversity. More women and more people of color in comics is a really great thing. However, with greater diversity comes greater responsibility. 

Firstly, I think it’s very dangerous to introduce diversity by injecting them into well-established and well-loved characters. Sure, doing so will in some way ensure that the newly diversified characters have readership and will be well-distributed, as there are die-hard Thor and Captain America fans stretching back to their inception in the 1960s and 1940s, respectively, who will continue reading the series with the refreshed character paradigms. However, it’s somewhat belittling to the struggles of real members of marginalized groups. In life, we can’t insert ourselves into the narrative of a well-established person, can we? I can’t decide today that I’d like to be Bill Gates and become him and gain all of the things that he has at his disposal. If comic book characters were to really reflect struggles faced by marginalized groups, they wouldn’t have that easy pass either.  

A better way of constructing diverse characters is to create diverse, richly-colored, struggle-laden, realistic, and original characters. To arbitrarily stick in a gay, female, or person of color into an established character for the sake of representation minimizes the struggles those people would otherwise have to overcome to reach that position of success or power. Omitting those struggles—be it homophobia, sexism, racism, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, etc.—opens the door for a swath of colorful, diverse tokens. Token characters are not representation, they’re caricatures.

As a writer, I create characters regularly. I often struggle with creating characters with points of diversity that I don’t share and fear that I am marginalizing their struggles by creating a caricature of a race, gender, or socioeconomic class. I can’t just insert diversity for the sake of it, because that’s disrespectful and, quite frankly, irrelevant. The sum and substance of one’s character cannot and does not boil down to how many marginalization markers one has. There is more to me than being trans, bisexual, or mentally ill. I’m far more diverse and complex than the sum of my parts.

However, with that said, it is still important when developing characters to keep in mind what effect those markers have on someone. To write a queer cast of characters in which everyone is always happy and no one wants for anything is just as misleading as a cast with the opposite problem. The most important thing is to find a balance, the way real people do, between all of the facets of a personality and to not let any one of the traits envelop the whole.

Diversity for the sake of diversity is bullshit. All people, regardless of what kind of people they are, are complex. Life is a struggle for everyone; fiction should reflect that for any kind of representation to be meaningful.

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Dysphoria

Many people in my life have asked me what my dysphoria feels like. I’ve never been able to give any of them a halfway accurate answer. Here’s my most recent attempt. 

Dysphoria feels like drowning, like a power outage before object permanence. It feels like being gaslighted by the universe. Dysphoria is like an eating disorder, and in fact, mine manifested as such: a little voice in your ear telling you constantly, over and over, how wrong you are. How you’ll never be right. Dysphoria is like that marginally acceptable Lindsay Lohan movie Freaky Friday, except you’re not your mother; you’re someone else, a stranger. You’re stuck living in her world and being perceived and fulfilling the roles you assume she did before you landed here by some mystic Chinese curse. Dysphoria is like finding your dream home only after someone else has bought it—or burnt it down. Dysphoria is like being in a sailboat with no wind, stuck somewhere you don’t want to be. Dysphoria is like being buried alive, your body knows what’s happening is wrong, but there’s nothing you can do about it by yourself. Dysphoria is like being a vampire looking into a mirror, you’re nowhere to be found. Dysphoria is like being dropped into the middle of a country where no one speaks your language. Dysphoria is to be completely disconnected and alien from your body.

I’d love to hear how you describe your own dysphoria, if you’d like to share, leave a comment below.

Words are Powerful

We often take for granted just how powerful words can be. As children, we repeat the refrain of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” even though almost nothing could be further from the truth. We are taught to repeat it in the face of people who hurt us with our words, as a way of minimizing them and their thoughts.

We take for granted the fact that while words are not supposed to be able to hurt us, words have moved mountains in this world. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution for all intents and purposes created the country I live in today—sure, the Revolution and War of 1812 solidified it, but without the words there would have been no bloodshed and no United States of America. We fail to realize that in many religions, it was the word of a deity, not an action, that created the world. In my own religion, Odin sacrificed his body to learn the wisdom and poetry of words.

Words are expressive, words indicate thought and feeling that is unparalleled by any action. Words can set us free. The telling of a secret or expression of love can bring about a rush of comfort that nothing else can. We use words to tell of our deepest, darkest secrets; to gain trust; to tell lies; to tell stories and parables and teach others. Words are extraordinary. Words allow us to express the mazes and meadows of our own unique individuality.

However, we use them so often that it can be easy to forget just how powerful they are. We’re constantly talking, writing, and reading. I, for one, think in English written words. Words become inane, and become blocks of brevity and generalization. Sometimes, these generalizations begin innocuously enough, as modifiers used often in academia as a way to distinguish one group from another. Some begin maliciously, in the form of slurs, meant to marginalize and tear down their targets.

What’s interesting about these types of words is the fact that they can overcome their original intention. Slurs can be reclaimed, innocuous modifiers bastardized into slurs. Some would say that the latter is ‘invalid’ and claim the word’s original usage. Do not be swayed by this. Words are expressive, but they are also up for interpretation.

A few days ago, I witnessed and took part in a long Facebook-thread debate about the use of the word ‘cisgender.’ The conversation was prompted by an article recently posted on the Huffington Post’s Gay Voices section. The author, as well as the person who linked this to Facebook, rejects the idea of the trans-cis binary and claims ‘cis’ has become of itself a type of slur. 

When I initially read the article, I came away from it with some indifference. My personal usage of the word has always been purely neutral: for example, my father is a cis man, meaning only that he was born male, not saying anything about who he is as a person. The original poster on Facebook, though, claimed that the word had been used to belittle him, even though he is a staunch ally of the transgender community.

I let the conversation alone for a while and did some serious thinking. I scrolled through tumblr where cisphobia is rampant, and began to realize just how many people there were who did employ the term as a slur. Instead of meaning that a person was comfortable with their designated sex, ‘cis’ had begun to mean that such a person was an exaggerated stereotype of their assigned sex, wholly gender-static, gender conforming, aggressive to trans people, violent, and somehow less-evolved. I came away from my observation of frantic “die cis scum” and “I live on cishet tears” with more than a little confusion.

I returned to the Facebook conversation, where a few trans people were ganging up on the non-trans OP and asserting that he was not an ally of the trans community if he couldn’t handle their verbiage for him. I found this to be very upsetting because they were attempting to speak for the entirety of the trans community, painting us—however unintentionally—as unreasonable, overly sensitive bullies for lack of a better word.

There is a growing and disturbing trend of young trans people, especially those who populate tumblr, to believe that merely being trans is some kind of gift and that trans people are angelic creatures that are de facto good. That is not the case. There are plenty of trans people who are violent, self-centered, mentally ill, or mean-spirited. Trans people are pretty much exactly like everyone else with the exception that their assigned sex and gender are not in alignment. To say that all ‘cis’ people are transphobic and that all trans people can do no wrong is to demean and dehumanize both sides.

That Facebook conversation clearly showed that many non-trans people who are the biggest allies of the trans community are uncomfortable being called ‘cis,’ because it implies a whole host of things about their gender, expression, beliefs, and character. Cis, the formerly chemistry-based term employed by queer theorists within the last decade, has become a slur. Obviously, context is important and simply using the word is not offensive, but I would advise caution when employing it against others. 

The same could be said for a word with the opposite trajectory. The word queer has had many incarnations and definitions over the years. At first, it was an innocuous modifier, not for people, necessarily, but things and situations. Queer meant nothing more than strange or different. There wasn’t even a negative connotation. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that the word began being used as a pejorative against the LGBT community. The definition remained largely the same, but the connotation of wrongness, of sickness, of otherness was added. It was used to dehumanize LGBT folk, and contributed to the pathologization of gayness.

Flash forward to the 1980s. LGBT people were not only being discriminated against by the heteronormative world, but were dying in droves from AIDS. The world had evolved somewhat, considering LGBT people were no longer being thrown into mental institutions for being gay, but the reaction of society to AIDS was tepid at best. It was then that LGBT people began to reclaim the word queer. At that point, the word had a very strong, very radical political connotation. Any gender or sexual nonconforming person with strong political interest or activist streak could—and often did—label themselves queer. The word’s connotation now has mellowed to mean LGBT at this point, although some still attach a political meaning.

The word queer is a reclaimed slur, yes, and is seen as empowering to many queer people. However, because it is both a reclaimed slur and once a very potent political modifier, caution is still needed when using it in reference to specific other people.

These are just two words that took two entirely different trajectories over time. Language is fluid, and connotations and definitions can warp with usage. Both of these words have been used to marginalize and dehumanize groups of people—most often members of the LGBT community—by allowing some inference as to their moral and personal character. I advise against doing this whenever possible, because there are galaxies inside people that aren’t obvious on the surface.

Choose your words wisely.

Cultural Lobotomy

It often seems like general American society is lobotomized. Emotional outbursts of really any sort are largely looked down upon and discouraged. Ethnic groups known for their strong emotions are stereotyped and ridiculed. Stoicism and lack of emotion are considered prerequisites for masculinity; the perceived absence of stoicism and broader displays of emotion as signs of lower intellect are roots of misogynistic attitudes. We’re expected to be always comfortable, never too happy, or too sad, or too angry, or too frustrated.

A lot of what we’re dealing with in this lobotomized climate comes from classical philosophers. Stoicism appeared in philosophical writings and teachings around 300 BCE, and advocates for a “repression of emotion, indifference to pleasure and pain, and living by logic.” If that sounds vaguely familiar, Gene Roddenberry used the Stoics as a template for the Vulcan race in Star Trek.

How stoicism came to be attached more definitely to men probably has something to do with the fact that the vast majority of classical philosophers were themselves men. Now, over two millennia on, men are still expected to live up to the same so-called “enlightenment” that stoicism brings by living without the “hysterical” nature of emotions. Menses-induced ‘hysteria’ in some way gave women a pass from stoicism, but expressing emotion was—and largely remains—seen as being a less developed, less intellectual type of human.

Stoicism sounds like it makes some sense. Humans do tend to make more irrational—and perhaps regrettable—decisions when dealing with large amounts of emotional distress. On its face, it sounds like an efficient idea to remove emotions and make calculated, effective decisions regarding every aspect of life. There’s only one catch: emotions are an integral part of the human experience.

Even in the 1960s, when gender roles were at their strongest, Gene Roddenberry could see this, and attempted to show the world. In the original series of Star Trek, the two most easily recognized characters are those of Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Spock. Kirk is rash, reckless, and makes decisions based on intuition and heat-of-the-moment emotions. Spock, the shining example of the logical endpoint of stoicism, is cold, calculating, and makes decisions based purely on intellect and objectivity. The two are effective in different ways on their own, but never more so than when they are together. This pairing, this unlikely friendship between emotion and logic, is one of the most important—and largely underappreciated—social commentaries of the modern age. What Roddenberry was showing was the necessity of a balance between emotion and stoicism. That spontaneity and irrationality have an important role to play in what it means to be human.

As a man, I try as hard as I can to shake the mantle of stoicism. We should be allowed to show how we feel about the world around us. Being lulled into a superficial complacency is dangerous for the equality and fulfillment we all seek. When Tom Cruise is painted as crazy for jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch in an abundance of love for his then-wife, it is disheartening. When violent outbursts are automatically linked to mental illness in the eyes of society, it is disheartening. Humans still have emotions whether or not they learn to display them. 

Stoicism has caused us to be a race of emotionally constipated wo/man-children. We repress our intense feelings of love, of joy, of pleasure, of grief, of anger to maintain this useless composure in the eyes of our peers. We, as queer people, often have a lot of very intense emotions stemming from hate we’ve experienced, love, self-acceptance, or pain we’ve endured. However, we’re still not allowed to show it, especially if we want to be taken seriously—a task already much too hard. So, instead, we look for alternate releases of these feelings—through drugs, through alcohol, through anonymous sex, through violence, and we end up more emotionally stunted than we were before. 

I assert that it is time for a new world order. We must all slough off the social conditioning of stoicism and express our feelings. Our feelings are what make us human and not robots or Vulcans. Should we act irrationally always in the name of satiating our emotions, no, absolutely not. Like Kirk and Spock there must be a balance. Think of how many of our brothers, sisters, and siblings in queerdom may be alive today if feeling was an acceptable norm. That we weren’t made to feel crazy or worthless for being exuberant, or high-energy, or depressed. Would we have to choose between the stigma of mental health therapy or drugs? Would we be able to live fuller, happier lives? I believe we would.

Strangers in a Strange Land

Some people live their lives like novels; each aspect of their lives come together to form one long unified narrative. They hold on to details and mementos from places, loves, and friendships long past, to remember what each of those things added to their lives. I, on the other hand, live my life like a library or a book of short stories. Each incarnation of me, each phase of life through which I pass is an entirely new me, informed, but not defined, by the stories before.

I’ve always hated the analogy that a trans person’s pre-coming out self has died. I thought it crude, two-dimensional, slightly transphobic. I’m not sure I do now. In the wake of spending time with my mother, stepfather of eighteen years, and half-brothers in a city neither of us live in, that analogy has never felt truer. The girl, the daughter and sister, that they knew, is gone. Entirely. I’m not sure if she ever really existed, or if she was some kind of young-minded fabrication of a lost child; it is incontrovertible, though, that Allison is dead. Sadly, I don’t think they’d care to know the beautiful person that has taken her place.

The entire trip, they treated me as if I was the exact same person they said goodbye to three years ago. They asked no questions pertaining to life in the present. There are only inquiries of what high school friends I still speak with and “remember when’s.” They are stuck in a past that will never exist again. I’m not sure whether it is best to pity or envy them. Being around them is confusing, for who I am and who they see are totally incongruous.

In LGBT circles, tales of abandonment and parents who refuse to understand are common. Heartbreakingly so. Even though I’d never had a very close relationship with my family and was always quite securely in the closet when it came to them, I was considered one of the lucky ones for actually having a family. Now, though, I’m not so sure. I think Allison, the girl I was, was lucky. Christopher is an orphan. My family has made clear that they do not want to know what I have become, nor do they have any tolerance for gender or sexual minorities.

I guess it’s time to close the cover on that book and move on to the next one. It’s never easy to realize that one’s family genuinely dislikes them, but the pain can be mediated by lots of therapy and very supportive friends. I know that I cannot continue to live in the closet, especially if I want to begin my medical transition in the near future. I cannot live in fear that my family will abandon me. I must accept that Allison’s family cannot be Christopher’s, that I must seek to build a new family with people who love, accept, and appreciate all that I have to offer. I only wish for the strength to do so.

The World Mourns

There are entirely too many atrocious things happening in the world right now. On top of the unfortunately routine tragedies of suicide, addiction, illness, and death, there are wars all over the world and planes being shot out of the sky.

There are ongoing wars in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine that continue to kill, wound, disrupt, and terrify people every day. Ground war has broken out between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, and the death toll has been rising steadily. My heart weeps for all affected.

Perhaps the most shocking and heartbreaking development in the world in the last few days is the shooting down of commercial, civilian Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. The flight departed Amsterdam headed for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was apparently shot down by a land-to-air missile as it passed over Ukrainian airspace near the Russian border. It is unclear who perpetrated this unprovoked attack that killed two hundred and ninety-five men, women, and children. Sources in the United States seem to believe that Ukrainian separatists are to blame, but it is unclear whether or not this was an accident.

Most American televised news services are focusing on the ‘whodunits’ and the one American casualty, extending general sympathies to the families of all those onboard. However, there’s a piece of this story that’s been largely glossed over that has a profound impact on the LGBTQH community.

It’s been reported that nearly one-third—roughly one hundred people—of those onboard the flight were headed for this weekend’s 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Among them were Dutch governmental officials, delegates from the World Health Organization (WHO), and famous HIV researcher Joseph “Joep” Lange.

Dr. Lange had been working on developing HIV treatment and searching for a cure since 1983, nearly the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic. Among many other laudable things, he advocated for combination retroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV, founded non-profits who help distribute HIV medications to patients in developing countries, participated in research on how to prevent the transmission of HIV between mother and child, advocated the use of PrEP, and participated in HIV/AIDS symposiums and conferences all over the world.

The LGBT community mourns with all of the families who lost loved ones, with the countries most heavily affected by this tragedy—The Netherlands, Australia, and Malaysia—and with our HIV affected brothers and sisters who lost a great scientist and one hundred advocates in this senseless tragedy. As we mourn this loss of life, of intellect, and of advocacy, we must recognize that it is also a call to action. One hundred HIV advocates and researchers were killed; we must each, in our own way, step in to take their place. The world needs more microbiologists, immunologists, activists, and policy-makers to defend our HIV+ community as well as search steadfastly for a cure. We must advocate understanding and seek to put an end to all this death.

RIP.

 

 

 

BRIEF ASIDE—I am home from my purgatorial and closeted vacation with my family. I am okay, but still trying to work through the many thoughts and feelings that were borne from it. A post on this topic is forthcoming. 

A Brief Relapse Into the Closet

Growing up in the hyper-conservative place that I did, I was gifted at self-denial. I would not, under any circumstances accept that I was trans or pansexual. One of the major reasons I left home at seventeen was that I felt I was being held back by the conservatism, the religion, the culture, and the smallness of everything there. My family is largely small minded and would not be able to accept my gender or sexuality with any level of understanding, unfortunately.

Over the past few years of living in New York, I’ve become a tiny bit spoiled by the general, baseline level of acceptance and the amount of freedom I allowed myself. Remind me to never, ever take that for granted. However, right now, I’m on a train on my way to visit my family while they’re vacationing in D.C. Since I’m not out to them, I’ll have to shove my bright, fabulous, glorious self back into the closet. 

Wish me luck.