Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: How We Get Free- Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective

[Image: The cover of the book which is a cream colored background with a large black dot stamped in the center of the book. Inside the dot, it says "how we get free" in capital letters, followed by a white line underneath, and under the line "black feminism and the combahee river collective" in smaller white letters. The bottom of the cover says "edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor" in black capital letters.]
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective is a set of interviews with Black feminist women, many of whom are queer or lesbian, that spans multiple generations. The book includes an introduction from the editor- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the original Combahee River Collective Statement, interviews by Taylor with Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, and Alicia Garza, and is closed out with comments by Barbara Ransby from a 2017 socialism conference.

One of the more interesting things in this book that surprised me was that, as far as the contributors know, the Combahee River Collective Statement is the first time the phrase "identity politics" was used. However, in this statement, "identity politics" did not mean what many have reduced it to today- as some form of oppression olympics or single-issue privilege dynamics. What CRC meant by "identity politics" was much closer to what Kimberle Crenshaw later coined as "intersectionality." They were discussing the worlds of Black women, including queer Black women, and how Black feminism represents lived experiences that cannot be placed into boxes of Black or woman or Black plus woman. Also, back when the statement was written, the phrase "women of color" was not in play and CRC referred to themselves as "third world women" in global solidarity. This book made me think a lot about how these words and descriptions being changed has changed how we look at things. It almost seems as if these descriptors have become pacified over time in some ways.

Another interesting thing I found was the critique of modern day [what some people are mis-naming identity politics] where people are taught or believe they don't have a place or purpose in the struggle if they are not a member of the oppressed group being centered in that struggle. Barbara Smith (and others) emphasized the critical need to "[cross] boundaries and [work] across differences." Do not mistake this for ignoring differences are refusing to focus on certain things- Alicia Garza speaks frequently of the problem with people constantly trying to change "Black Lives Matter" into "All Lives Matter," "Brown Lives Matter," and "Black and Brown Lives Matter:" "I know your shit is fucked up, too, but can we just talk about Black people?" Crossing boundaries and working across differences is critical and still allows the complete freedom to focus on Black people or whoever else is centered at the moment.

All of the interviews catalogue interesting and important struggles in Black feminist history that are required reading for anyone who considers themself a feminist. They also showed struggles that repeat over time such as Black women being forced to do most of the organizing labor while getting little to none of the recognition, Black queer and trans people being excluded and/or erased, and the constant push-back against Black feminist ideals and organizing despite the reality that fighting for the most marginalized will always help everyone.

My only criticism of this book is that the interviews read as if they are a direct paste of full transcriptions from an audio recording which made settling into the book distracting and difficult at times. Taylor's introduction, writing, and interview questions were all excellent. However, I believe these interviews should have been edited to both flow better and perhaps reduce some of the text. I think that a lot of someone's thought or what they are saying can be lost when it is written with sentences repeatedly broken in half with "Mmhm... yeah.... uh huh... [laughs]" over and over. I think the interviews could have kept their conversational flair and still represented the speaking styles and personalities of the interviewees without including every interruption to what they were saying.

This book is definitely a must read for anyone interested in the history of feminism- as we all should be- especially the center and roots so often ignored that so often lead the way for many of the things we have today. How We Get Free is a great catalogue of stories by the powerful women who have lead and continue to lead the way for social justice. It is a great celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book Review: The Body is Not an Apology - The Power of Radical Self Love

[Image: The cover of the book has a glittering purple background with Sonya Renee Taylor (the author) laying on her back in the center on a bed of blue, yellow-orange, and red flowers. She has a bald head, dark brown skin, purple eyeshadow, red lipstick, and a monroe piercing (which is a stud abuve her upper lip.) She is staring at the camera with one hand draped above her head and her nipples and pubic area are covered with purple flowers. A white Band across the center of the cover says "THE BODY IS NOT AN APOLOGY" in black capitalized letters and "THE POWER OF RADICAL SELF LOVE" underneath in smaller, orange capitalized letters.]

Also posted to my goodreads

This little book manages to be quite an inclusive guide and radical self love manifesto, especially for its size.  Sonya Renee Taylor wrote her book with all kinds of people in mind- especially those predominantly left out of many self-love conversations- and she makes this clear regularly throughout the text. She catalogues a bit about her journey towards creating The Body Is Not An Apology website, and then delves into tackling radical self love as an attainable concept and lifelong journey.

Taylor differentiates between radical self love and concepts such as self-esteem or self-acceptance, seeing the latter two as a "cease fire" with one's body. She invites us to seek out something more rewarding than a "truce" and that is radical self love. This involves things like tackling shame and guilt as well as creating a world that is supportive of all bodies- including those often pushed into the margins such as disabled people, trans people, people of color, and others.

Taylor also explains much of the indoctrination and abuse against us and our bodies in this world as all part of a system of "body terrorism," which I believe is a term coined by the author and her organization (correct me if I am wrong.)  I believe she did an excellent job of explaining just how entrenched toxic default societal expectations of how to have a body are in our culture. We are taught our entire lives that the "right" body is white, thin (but not too thin,) healthy, young, non-disabled, cis, heterosexual, and so on. Radical self love is for everyone- even including those who meet all of those characteristics, as this "ideal" is never attainable. Taylor teaches us that we must stand up for all bodies targeted by body terrorism- even if they are not our own- because, "When our personal value is dependent on the lesser value of other bodies, radical self-love is unachievable."

Where I found Taylor going above and beyond many "body positive" thinkers do was the way she talked about health: "Equally damaging is our insistence that all bodies should be healthy. Health is not a state we owe the world. We are not less valuable, worthy, or lovable because we are not healthy. Lastly, there is no standard of health that is achievable for all bodies." This was a nice and more radical break from the "but fat/disabled/trans/etc people are normal and healthy!" trope that I often see that- while very well-intentioned and existing for obvious reasons as a response to oppressive pathologizing- tend to leave out those of us who aren't healthy. It was nice to see someone acknowledge that people dealing with chronic illness or other health issues fit into the equation of radical self-love.

Even though this book is super radical and comprehensive, it is also exceedingly kind, patient, and loving. It continuously encourages the reader to keep going, to allow for and recover from mistakes, and to continue growing. It is a short read and a great companion to anyone interested in existing more comfortably in this world and especially at one with their body.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Book Review: When They Call You A Terrorist - A Black Lives Matter Memoir

[Image: The book cover which is an abstract painting of reds, orange, pink, and a little blue smeared all over. The title is written in in white lowercase letters, "when they call you a terrorist a black lives matter memoir." Below that in black lowercase letters the authors are listed "patrisse khan-cullors & asha bandele with a foreward by angela davis."]

Also posted to my goodreads

It is only February, but I can say without a doubt that "When They Call You a Terrorist" is one of the best and most important books of 2018. In fact, I woulld stretch that out to say this entire century. The book lists both Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele as authors, but the memoir itself is Khan-Cullors's story and life. I do not know how the process of writing went, but I can say that the writing in this book is phenomenal. It allows the reader to seamlessly enter the story and understand the pain caused by white supremacy, poverty, addiction, mental illness, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, and many other attacks on the lives of Black and other marginalized people. It also captures the love, comradery, forgiveness, and resilience shown by many who are facing down the worst odds. The beginning of all chapters are peppered with appropriately corresponding quotes from some of the greatest writers and thinkers such as James Baldwin and Octavia Butler.

I could see this book benefiting someone with a similar life to Khan-Cullors or someone as different as an ignorant white republican who says "all lives matter" when someone says Black lives do. Perhaps I am being too idealistic, but I can't imagine how anyone could willingly read this book and not close it out with a visceral support for and better understanding of Black Lives Matter and other related movements and the atrocities that inspired them.

 "Twelve... was the year I learned that being Black and poor definied me more than being bright and hopeful and ready."

The prose in this book comes from writers with a multifaceted passion, able to build vivid worlds out of words. Memoirs aren't usually my thing, but this one definitely is. This book is not only an exquisitely written life and love-of-Black-life story, but also a manifesto for a better world. Skillfully woven throughout Khan-Cullors's story are statements about the world at large, statistics about these statements, and clear reasoning for actions taken and those that need to be taken. The book conveys the specific life experiences of Khan-Cullors which include poverty, abuse, a sibling who struggles with psychosis, multiple family members serving long prison sentences for mild nonviolent offenses (or not offense at all,) midnight raids while she and a partner lie asleep in bed, near constant police harrassment and severe police violence against multiple people in her life, loss of friends due to queerantagonism and misogyny, as well as huge and successful anti-racist and prison abolition organizing efforts, love and loss and love again, building new family and community, and a great many other successes against all odds. At the same time, the book captures the big picture of how all of these experiences fit into larger systems in a larger world and offers a variety of ways to understand and combat these systems.

"...there are no stats to track collateral deaths (as a result of police violence,) the ones that unfold over months and years spent in mourning and grief: the depression that becomes addiction to alcohol that become cirrhosis; or else addiction to food that becomes diabetes that becomes a stroke. Slow deaths. Undocumented deaths. Deaths with a common root: the hatred that tells a person daily that their life and the life of those they love ain't worth shit, a truth made ever more real when the people who harm you are never held accountable."

Khan-Cullors and Bandele also do well to make clear how Queer Black women were at the center of these organizing efforts- particularly BLM but also many others. Men have remained centered in much reporting Black Lives Matter. There is a long history of (often but not always straight cis) men silencing Queer women at the center of movements like these. This book is a clear antidote to that.  I hope that people will read this book as it is such an incredibly important and informative relic of our time. I believe it tells the past, present, and future. I hope it is a book we look back upon one day as an example of a critically important time in our history. If I hadn't already experienced the white supremacist patriarchal travesty that is public school system history class curriculums, I would say that I hope this book ends up being taught in high school. But, according to this book, maybe I deserve that hope:

"We say we deserve another knowing, the knowing that comes when you assume your life will be long, will be vibrant, will be healthy. We deserve to imagine a world without prisons and punishment, a world where they are not needed, a world rooted in mutuality. We deserve to at least aim for that."

Black Lives Matter.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Book Review: The Fearless Benjamin Lay: The Quaker Dwarf Who Became the First Revolutionary Abolitionist

Image: The cover of the book. The title THE FEARLESS BENJAMIN LAY is in large white letters and THE QUAKER DWARF WHO BECAME THE FIRST REVOLUTIONARY ABOLITIONIST in smaller cream letters underneath. The cover shows a painting of Benjamin Lay standing on a dirt path in a green landscape with a fruit basket in the foreground and trees and a blue clouded sky in the background. He is a light-skinned white person with a light gray beard, brown cloak, shirt, pants, and hat. Lay is a little person who also has kyphosis. He is holding a cane and an open book in his right hand with his other facing the reader. He is also looking at the reader.

I became aware of The Fearless Benjamin Lay when I caught wind of an event with the author in my city. The event highlighted Benjamin as a Quaker, Dwarf, and abolitionist, so my interest was already piqued. When I sought out a description of the book and found that Lay was also an animal liberation proponent, it intrigued me even further. Benjamin Lay is someone that reactionaries would consider a dangerous, uber-radical, mega-snowflake by today's standards. It is truly remarkable that he held so strongly to so many radical convictions centuries ago- especially in a climate where he had few to no allies.

I want to note something before I get to deep into this review. I enjoyed this book and my review is mostly positive. But, the author makes a mistake that many white people make when writing about slavery. He centers whiteness. I do not mean that it is bad to talk about white people- obviously it is not in a biography about a white person. What I mean is that he makes statements- including in the title- that Lay was "the first revolutionary abolitionist." Two words are missing from that sentence: "documented" and "white." It may leave the sentence seeming not as exciting or sexy, but the way it is currently constructed plays into white histories of slavery that completely erase how enslaved and free Africans and Black people in general resisted slavery from the very beginning, but their efforts were violently oppressed and not documented. White abolitionists were absolutely critical to the struggle, no doubt. But, they were never the first. 

I considered knocking off two stars for this, but Rediker's "Conclusion" and "Author's Note" sections won me back over to 4 stars. He is not ignorant of these issues. He simply didn't express them well. The conclusion and author's note are the best part of this book. I assume Rediker kept them separate so that he could be objective in his biographical account of Lay's life. I would have preferred more of the analysis in the conclusion placed throughout the rest of the book to help offset what may come off to some as a lack of understanding of the bigger picture.
Rediker undoubtedly did extensive research for this book, digging into histories that I am sure were not easy to access. One of the more surprising things for me about the book was how much Quakers were into slavery at one point. In many radical and anarchist circles, we learn that we got consensus-based and some other kinds of egalitarian organizing methods from Quakers. The fact that so many of them went out of their way to not only defend slavery, but to silence all opposition to it, was new knowledge for me.

Benjamin Lay was little person with kyphosis of the spine and as a result, already dealt with disability based discrimination. This and his working class status absolutely informed much of his behavior and values, which Rediker aptly points out, exemplify a more accurate picture of abolitionism than what some historians portray. Abolitionists tended more to be people of lesser means rather than rich academics that are often highlighted today. Rediker also notes Lay's disability, class, and passion being part of the reason he is not remembered as an important abolitionist or American hero. Our country idolizes racist slavers like Thomas Jefferson and forgets abolitionist, animal rights promoting, disabled, poor, law breaking, Quakers like Benjamin Lay.

Lay was a deeply religious man and this definitely informed much of his thinking, but not in the usual way we are used to hearing about it doing so. Benjamin not only opposed enslaving people, but also opposed men holding high religious positions who used those positions to accumulate power and wealth. He opposed the exploitation of nonhuman animals, choosing to walk everywhere rather than travel by horse and choosing to eat a mostly vegan diet where he grew most of his food. The only animal products he consumed were honey from the bees in his apiary and some animal dairy.  Benjamin wore modest clothing and refused to partake in products that were produced through slave labor such as sugar. Lay did all of these things- that many people in the developed world with internet access and a credit card find difficult to do today (self included)- in the 17-1800s. 

I will not give away everything told in the book that Benjamin Lay does in his long struggle against pro-slavery Quakers and other slavery proponents. But, I will mention my favorite story, that is nestled in the end of the book as it is a good example of his determination and creativity in his mostly nonviolent activism. Lay attempts to speak to a white couple about their enslavement of a young Black girl. He tries to explain to them how slavery rips families apart and destroys lives. Theyrefuse to listen. Lay eventually sees their child alone and invites the child to his dwelling. He spends time entertaining the happy child for the entirety of the day until finally the parents come running to him, crying that their child is missing. He listens to their story and then tells them that he has had their child all along and now perhaps they understand a tiny fraction of what their enslaved girl's parents must feel at the loss of their daughter.

Benjamin's antics are relentless, unapologetic, and unwavering in the face of extreme resistance, excommunication, loss of community, and ridicule on top of what he already dealt with as a dwarf. His ideas influenced generations after him- including the children of men who would stop at nothing to stop him. Two sons of one such enemy of Lay's both grew up to be abolitionists and ethical vegetarians through inspiration from Lay. The Quakers eventually came around and acknowledged the horrors of slavery- yet they still held through respectability politics that Lay deserved what he got. Lay was the passionate, relentless voice that made many others seem reasonable. He paid the price and really never got credit or redemption he deserved. He made space for white folks that came after him to criticize slavery in real and serious ways- not just the welfarist terms they used previously (treating slaves "well" but supporting slavery.) As Rediker states, we cannot know due to lack of documentation how far Lay went in his hands-on liberation activities with enslaved Africans. Yet, this book offers part of a much larger picture and Rediker definitely does Benjamin Lay's life and work justice.

Also posted to my goodreads.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Book Review: Fat Gay Vegan - Eat, Drink and Live Like You Give a Sh!t

Image: The cover of the book which is lime green, white, and hot pink. Fat Gay Vegan is in a green box as white and pink lettering, the rest of the title in a pink box as white lettering, and Sean O'Callaghan's name at the bottom in a green box as pink lettering.

I would characterize Fat Gay Vegan as a self help book and tutorial that is written mostly for new vegans, single-issue vegans (meaning vegans focused solely on animal rights who haven't branched out to supporting other social justice issues,) or the veg-curious out there. I've been vegan over 12 years myself so I know going into reading books like this that there may not be much new information for me. However, I always like to keep an eye out for those working in the intersections between animal rights and other struggles for justice. I also just like to be open to books I may have as an option to pass on to a new vegan. This book fit both of those bills well.

One of Sean O'Callaghan's strengths in writing this book is something I would call a genuine and gentle preachiness. He offers the firm grasp of the importance of animals' lives that I want from a book on veganism, but he is kind and understanding of his audience. While the book is indeed trying to sway the reader towards intersectionality-based veganism, it also is light-hearted at times and holds the reader's hand throughout.

O'Callaghan shares about his personal life and journey which was a great way to put the reader at ease. Very few of us are raised vegan and I think it helps people to remember that. Hearing O'Callaghan's history as a once working class, gay, fat person also dispells a lot of the myths that all vegans are one type of person (usually pictured as thin, abled, upper middle class or wealthy, straight, and otherwise normative.)
  O'Callaghan also did well to include brief interludes of voices from other perspectives in veganism so he was not just, "a white man telling you why you shouldn't be sexist, racist, ableist, and transphobic." It was clear that he analyzed extensively his place in the world, where he was coming from, and how that affected his ability to process things. Since I am coming at this book with over a decade of experience with making (and hopefully learning from) mistakes, reading books, and doing my best to practice intersectional vegan feminism, I cannot say for sure how a brand new vegan or veg-curious person reading this book would process it. But, I did find the way that O'Callaghan eased the reader into these complex ideas of oppression, and why they were critical to abolish along with animal expoitation, to be accessible to a wider audience than many such discussions.

O'Callaghan includes a section on vegan travel. He both understands how class plays into travel's inaccessibility and also offers tips on making travel more affordable and vegan travel easier. There are some opinions O'Callaghan has that differ amongst some vegans (what counts as vegan, consumer activism, etc) but he offers well reasoned arguments for his. He finally ends each chapter with a little recipe that he sees as a staple of his own vegan diet which is a really nice touch. I haven't made the raw vegan ceviche yet but it's definitely bookmarked for my next grocery store trip.

Overall, this book would be a great primer for some people who are newer to veganism and social justice or for seasoned vegans who want to read an under-represented voice. It is firm but kind, direct but understanding. It is definitely one I would hand to a variety of people on a variety of journeys.

(Also posted to my goodreads.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Book Review: To My Trans Sisters

Image: The cover of "To My Trans Sisters" which is a pale pink with black letters including the title in the center between two black bars, "Edited by Charlie Craggs" on top in small letters, and "A love letter to our community from the women who understand' -Jennifer Finney Boylan" on the bottom.

To my knowledge, To My Trans Sisters is the first book of its kind: An anthology of letters written by trans women, and a few other trans identified AMAB people, written for the same demographic. I will begin this review saying that I am not the target audience of this book. I am a trans person, but of the AFAB, butch/genderqueer/transmasculine persuasion. That said, I was still inspired by the advice many women in this book gave. Many of their stories are unique to trans women and femmes, but many are those that all kinds of trans and gender nonconforming people can relate to. Cisgender people (non-trans people) will gain insight into the lives and experiences of many women who share their stories in this book. Most people will recognize at least a few of the names in the book and people who have been part of LGBTQ communities and who follow LGBTQ Western media may recognize many of the names. It was lovely to see women from so many different backgrounds come together to send a message to other women and trans femmes out there.

One of the main strengths of this book is the sheer range of diverse experiences expressed by the women whose stories were included. From what I could tell, ages ranged from teenage to eighties. There were voices from countries from most continents on Earth (though it is very heavy on English (UK) representation because that's where the editor is from.) There are women who are activists, physicists, athletes, programmers, artists, military personnel, celebrity reality show participants, musicians, politicians, doctors, dancers, and many others. There are women of many different racial backgrounds and many different ages of transition. Disability is underrepresented, but Emily Brothers' letter- along with her acknowledgement about how disability and illness compound struggles to obtain medical transition- was very nice to see as a disabled trans person. While the book does heavily highlight the voices of famous and wealthy trans people, there is still a wide range of experiences among them and other voices included as well.

Another one of the book's strengths is the vast range of opinions expressed on gender, womanhood, transition, gender expression, passing, sexuality, and so on. Due to generational, geographical, cultural, and other differences, there is a wide range of terms people use for themselves and their experiences. But, there are also a wide range of tips allowing the reader to take what they need and leave the rest. Some women say to tone down your look in order to pass, others say to look however extravagantly you like and ignore the haters. Some women say they were very supported when they came out, others say they lost everything. Some women have very traditional trans narratives, others have more fluid experiences of gender.

Regardless of these differences between entries though, there is a common thread that runs through all of them: Sisterhood, an insistence on the great value of the women and other trans people who are their target audience, and a message that being who they are is right no matter what anyone else says. Regardless of their differences, all of the writers in this book express a love for and solidarity with their target audience. Other more common pieces of advice that ran through many writings were making sure being transgender doesn't become everything in your life, to still hold on to things you enjoy, to never settle for an abusive partner because you are trans, and also not to assume that everyone in the world is ridiculing- or even paying attention to- you. It was nice to see these messages of hope tie together such a wide range of peoples experiences.

I thought hard about whether or not I wanted to critique the voices of trans women in a book that I was not the target audience for. I decided that I would tread cautiously. So, what I will say is this: There are quite a few women in high ranking military positions in this book who have very pro-military messages that do not line up with many messages I have heard from LGBTQ people (and women in general) in military or related fields who were out or outed. These type of messages, as well as messages coming from women who successfully feigned hyper-masculinity, amassed great wealth and rose to the top of a male-only or male-dominated fields before coming out or transitioning may upset or simply not apply to trans women/girls and other trans people reading this who are poor, of color, who were always clocked as femme/gay/gender nonconforming, or who have otherwise not had the same privileges or access. That said, I realize that there is a place for these voices as there are women right now who are in the same position, waiting to come out, who need that last little push from someone who is in the same position as them. I also realize that privilege and even a neoliberal or conservative political bent does not mean a woman's experience is not valid. Furthermore, women in these positions tended to address and be well aware of the difference between themselves and a poor girl who began transition at 15 or something. I will limit my criticism to that paragraph.

Another thing I noted while reading the book is that a few of the entries mention that they were asked by Charlie Craggs (the editor) to write a letter to their younger selves. However, only a few of the 85 letters included in the book followed this model. I really wish that more of the letters would have followed this model as some are very short and I really wanted to hear more from those people. I am not sure if it was lack of resources, organization, or just being able to get what she got from people. I would have liked to read a book with fewer entries if it was a little more cohesive in this way and a bit better edited, and that is why I am giving it 4 stars out of 5.

Overall, I am happy this book exists and happy to have read it. I believe it could bring some joy and companionship in the sea of loneliness one can sometimes feel living as a trans person in the world. I am very grateful to all of the women and other trans people who shared their letters in the book and to Craggs for taking on this project.

Also posted to my goodreads.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Book Review: Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock's Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace

Image: The cover of Laura Jane Grace's book "Tranny" which is all white with black stenciled words and Laura's eyes lined with thick black eyeliner, nose, and mouth in the center of the cover.

I read this book as someone who became interested in Laura Jane Grace after she came out. That definitely shaped how I approached reading this book and what my interest in Grace is centered around. The first time I heard about Against Me! was when several of my friends in anarchist communities were hurt and saddened by "I was a teenage anarchist" being released. Their anthem, "Baby, I'm an anarchist" meant a lot to them and they felt betrayed. This book put so much more context into that entire event that I wonder if any of them would still feel angry having read Grace's side of the story. When she came out, many people did seem to wake up a little and embrace her more, but then again, my circles were mainly queer people. I am not sure if the cishet anarcho punk world ever came around.

I want to comment on the title and design of this book. I really loved the illustrations and overall graphic work put into designing the print copy of this book. I often don't comment on these type of things but, for this book, it is a definite part of the experience. I very much enjoy the unapologetic, self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek title. However, I put black electrical tape over the word "Tranny" when I took the book to read in the doctor's office. As a trans person, I didn't want to have to discuss it if someone asked what I was reading. There's something about that word being on the lips of cishet people that really bothers me. Can cishet people speak this title? Will it make them think they can start saying that word otherwise? I sure hope not. And, I don't think that's Grace's responsibility anyways.

Grace is honest and brutally self-critical in this memoir. Anyone within punk scenes that saw her as a thoughtless sellout will be challenged in reading this. There was great struggle going on through every step of the way and even at her most "mainstream" moments in music, she and the rest of Against Me! were facing regular social and financial ruin. The struggles of any kind of fame, regular drug and alcohol issues, and the great struggle of discovering herself and her gender are apparent throughout the book. Mixed in with Grace's present day writings are excerpts from her past journals which are edited in nicely throughout the book. I noticed regularly how well written Grace's journal entries were.

Throughout the book, there are a lot of critiques of punk and/or radical cultures that are sound and also extend out to various other countercultures.

"Initially I had been attracted to punk and anarchism because I saw them as a means to make a positive change, where everyone was equal. While there were some people in the scene who upheld those values, the more punks I dealt with, the more I realized that most of them were privileged white kids taking advantage of this idealism."

Even if we don't agree that "most of them" are, there is a great, stinging truth to this and I think anyone over 30 (or probably younger) can agree with this sort of assessment of punk and/or anarchist movements. It doesn't mean we stop believing in the causes, but we have become jaded.

As Against Me! began to make any sort of living through their music, they faced backlash and attacks from parts of punk scenes, including violence and having their van tires slashed among other things. Grace's 2005 journal remarks, "Where are you supposed to go when you no longer feel welcome in the places you turned to because you didn't feel welcome anywhere else?" Grace does not merely dismiss these criticisms, though. While expressing her upset with ostracism and attacks from some punks, she also acknowledges other critiques that she believes were correct.

Grace's teenage anarchist song takes on a new meaning when you read this memoir, realizing that she was dealing with a regular fear that she would lose everything if she were to be out about who she was. She already lacked support and was in a very rigid, macho environment. When she did come out, she did lose a lot in part because of stigma but also because many things simply had to change. She struggled to adapt and, like many of us, doubted herself and her transition. She tells an accurate account of her struggle to access basic trans medical care- all too familiar to many trans people. All the barriers standing in the way of trans people are a recipe for self doubt, shame, and regret. But, it wasn't all bad, she states:

"There was also a new community of trans and gender-queer fans that I'd picked up in the year and a half since I came out. Some of them weren't even interested in punk; they just came out to support me... Many told me that my visibility helped them to understand their own gender identity, and meeting them often did the same for me."

The only thing I would have liked more of in the book is more about Laura Jane Grace's beliefs, politics, etc. Perhaps this book is written for the person who has listened to every Against Me! song and not someone like me, thus it centers almost entirely on Grace's day to day interpersonal experiences. Since Grace and I are almost the same age, I was able to put all of her experiences in context with my own and what was going on in the world at the time. But, I would have liked to hear more of her thoughts and beliefs about the larger world- what does anarchism mean to her and how has that changed throughout her life? I understand that many people want memoirs to be short, though I would have been happy to read more of her story.

Laura Jane Grace brings the book to a close in a lovely way, full circle again referencing a music icon that inspired her as a child- Madonna- and sharing a similar moment with her own daughter. Even though the book is full of lots of struggle, depression, and defeat, she leaves us believing it all might be ok. Afterall, this journey is still in its infancy in comparison to how long she had to wait to come out. She doesn't have to hide anymore. That's a great start to a new life.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Book Review: APHRO-ISM Essays on Pop Culture, Feminism, and Black Veganism from Two Sisters by Aph Ko and Syl Ko

[Image: The cover of Aphro-ism is a brown-gold background with three vertically aligned geometric symbols leading down to the heads of Aph and Syl Ko. Aph and Syl are shown from the side, shoulder to shoulder, and facing opposite directions towards the left and right of the image. They are each dressed in bright, multi-colored astronaut uniforms and the images have a watercolor paint effect filter. Below them is a purple bar with the book's title in pink and white letters.]
Also available on my goodreads.

I have been reading the writings of Aph and Syl Ko since the beginnings of APHRO-ISM and Black Vegans Rock as blog sites. Back then it was already very exciting to see people coming out with ideas that were not only tackling topics at the root of huge fighting and divisions between vegan, animal lib, and social justice communities, but doing so in fresh new ways. Aph and Syl both have brilliant minds and ways of combining their powers together through conversation then reproducing them beautifully on the screen (and now page.) When they put the word out about their book, a lot of us were extremely excited. Many of us have been learning from their wisdom and/or feeling validated by their work.

The essays in APHRO-ISM explore critical theory in ways I find somewhat more accessible than a lot of critical theory out there. Many of the arguments made against academia and critical theory include the reality that some people are trying to tangibly survive while academics sit writing think pieces. But, what Aph and Syl do in this book is show the importance of thinking through things to liberation. There is a call for the defense of thought and culture- of "Black LIFE" not just Black lives and bodies.

Many of the essays are speaking directly to Black people- both vegan and nonvegan. This stays with the consistent theme of the need to decenter whiteness in movements for justice and liberation. Many arguments are well made that white supremacy teaches Black and other people of color to spend most of their time calling out and educating white people rather than decentering them and creating futures without them. The book does a good job creating this literary space in practice. I had the honor of seeing Aph give a presentation similar to the last writing in the book, "Creating New Conceptual Architechture: On Afrofuturism, Animality, and Unlearning/Rewriting Ourselves" at a conference and was incredibly motivated and moved by it. There Aph uses models of the solar system to construct a model of a reality we are not seeing: that the "social solar system" does not revolve around white folks or the most privileged of society, even if it appears that way, just as everything appeared to be orbiting the Earth upon early observation of the night sky. The reality is that the marginalized and oppressed- those seen as subhuman- are the Sun at the center of the solar system, and without them, the most privileged could not survive or exist.

Aph and Syl also focus in multiple ways on how animality is used to oppress people. Even though humans belong biologically to the kingdom Animalia with other animals, and even though marginalized and oppressed human beings are biologically homo sapiens along with ruling class white abled cis male humans, oppressed humans and animals all are forced into a space of "subhuman" that is created by white supremacist patriarchy. As Syl states, "The human-animal divide is the ideological bedrock underlying the framework of white supremacy. The negative notion of 'the animal' is the anchor of this system." As a result, animality must be reclaimed and factored into our analyses of oppression. This is a genius argument that is made well throughout several essays in the book.

The book is not limited to topics of Black veganism or animality and also goes into discussions of social media, tactics in activism and critical thinking, and others. It is at the forefront of new and needed systems of thinking, moving on from intersectionality as a technique to afrofuturism as a practice and model for the future. APHRO-ISM is a satellite that helps us see who is really at the center of our social solar system. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Book Review: Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement

[Image: The cover of the book is black jagged angular lines making boxes that spiral in towards the center of the cover. In the center is a white space with a drawing of a person curled into the fetal position. They have black hair, brown skin, and are wearing an orange prison uniform. Above them is the title of the book in white hand drawn letters and below them is the byline in the same letters. The bottom of the image has both corners blacked out where one side says "edited by..." and the other lists "Jean Casella, James Rdgeway, Sarah Shourd."]
Also posted to goodreads.

Hell is a Very Small Place is partially a collection of essays of people who are or were in solitary confinement telling stories about their experiences. It is also composed of essays from lawyers, professors, psychologists, and journalists about why solitary confinement is unethical and illogical.

The essays telling the stories of peoples experiences are diverse in demographics and eerily similar as far as the abuses and torture suffered in each place. All of the essays tell stories of the descent into madness that occurs when one is deprived of human contact (physically, verbally, and otherwise,) natural light, medical care, food, and other basic necessities. Solitary confinement always causes lasting damage- especially when prisoners are held in it for extended periods of time. The essays by a trans woman and a gay cis man show how being LGBTQ and/or gender nonconforming is a punishable offense in prisons while being couched in the idea of "safety" and "protection" for LGBTQ people in prison. The essays also show how prisons lie to insist there is a need for solitary confinement based on ill-defined parameters such as gang affiliation, mild infarctions such as talking back to guards, or to quell any organized resistance such as hunger striking to improve the conditions in prisons. Once one is placed in solitary, a cyclic nature of getting stuck there for these reasons created by the oppressive institutions that are prisons begins.

I have had prison pen pals who have spent time in solitary, including one for extended amount of time due to an accusation of gang affiliation and the other for perceived homosexual activity (which would also garner you a sex offense and placement on a registry for something like two women consensually hugging.) I can say that the stories in this book are not unique. My friend in solitary for the longer time slowly lost his mind in permanent ways and has had a very difficult time readjusting to general population despite wanting to be out of solitary.

Even if one is heartless enough not to care about prisoners and their torture in solitary, it makes no sense as a punitive or rehabilitative measure. When people leave solitary, they are always worse off whether they are in the prison population or back out in the world. They struggle with relationships, open space, authority, and other things far worse than those never placed in solitary confinement.

The essays in the latter part of the book range from descriptions of the researched psychological effects of solitary by outside clinicians and/or researchers, the laws in place to keep solitary confinement going, or stories of those held there as they are perceived by someone on the outside. These essays are mostly good, but I found one topic to be lacking and that was the discussion of LGBTQ prisoners in solitary confinement. Given that multiple stories told by these people existed in the first part of the book, I would have liked to see at least one essay in the latter part focused on homophobia and transphobia in prisons and why such large percentages of LGBTQ people in prisons end up in solitary without even disobeying any written rules. LGBTQ prisoners are some of the most ill treated in prisons, especially when their identities intersect with other oppression such as racism and misogyny. That is why this book gets 4 stars instead of 5.

Overall this book does a good job showing how solitary confinement is literal torture that some prisoners describe as a sentence worse than death and one essay describes as "a living death sentence." It is an important read for anyone interested in prisons and could be handed to any person who is ignorant of how prisons are hellish places that do not rehabilitate or stop future crime.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Book Review: An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

[Image: The cover of the book has a watercolor painting effect. It is shade of blue and yellow-tinted white making up an outer-space sky with stars. A Black woman's face is centered taking up most of the image. She is seen from the left side looking towards the viewer. In hand-written text, the title of the book is written in white across her forehead with "ghosts" in all capital letters. Below her chin, the author's name is written in the same font.]
Also posted to goodreads.

When I read the blurb for this book, "a worthy successor to Octavia Butler" stuck out as quite a claim. I wondered if the book would reach the expectations set by that sentence and honestly felt like that sentence might be too much for any writer to live up to. After reading this book, I can say very confidently that the claim is true. Rivers Solomon is a fantastic writer whose prose an ideas have marks of influence from science fiction greats like Butler, but which also stand out beautifully on their own.

An Unkindness of Ghosts takes place on a large space vessel called The Matilda. The ship is basically a fascist hereditary dictatorship and theocracy. It is intensely stratified by race, class, gender, and other measures with the lower decks occupied by enslaved women and others and the upper decks occupied by the rich, predominantly white, privileged classes. Each deck has it's own culture, accents, and sometimes languages. Enforcement of these divisions is often defended as the will of God as the ship careens at near light-speed towards a promised land that has been promised now for centuries. The story is told mostly through a third person narrative centering Aster and her experiences, but also has a brilliant touch of interspersed first-person journal-like entries from other characters in the story. This allows the reader to see the story from multiple perspectives, adding to its richness. The story is part dystopian/apocalyptic science fiction, part afrofuturism, part mystery, a little bit coming of age, and a dash of romantic and platonic love.

Solomon did her research regarding the medical and scientific aspects of relativity, medicine, psychology, and other tools used to propel the story forward. A story like this could have easily become boringly structured around blatant hierarchy, or a cheesy space saga, but it does not. The story is rich with believable and interesting characters, honest understanding of the daily affects of and reactions to complex trauma, nuanced expressions of hierarchical interactions and identities- including when oppressed groups can be pinned against one another, and captures what it truly feels like to be powerless and powerful at the same time.

Topics tackled in the book include slavery and indentured servitude, Mammy archetypes, gender nonconformity, female masculinity, male femininity, androgyny, intersexuality, queerness, consent, racism, fascism, sexual abuse, suicide, authoritarianism, and many others. The presence of all of these themes makes the story complex and more believable rather than bogging it down. In my opinion, this story shows the reality of places like the United States- and some other areas of the "West"- through the use of science fiction and allegory. This is my favorite kind of scifi when done well as I believe it can change the world. Rivers Solomon does it amazingly well.

I hope that this book takes off and is seen for just how great a feat it is. I would be completely interested in a series that continues or expands upon the story told in this novel as well as completely new stories from this author. I look forward to seeing much more from Rivers Solomon in the future.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Body: The Secret Lives of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Nigerians

[Image: The cover of "Blessed Body" is black and gray with striped crossing vertically and diagonally. In the center is the silouhette of an African person's head. To the left is a cut out of a face with jagged teeth. In the center is the title of the book in large, light green letters with the byline in smaller white letters below it. The author's name is in white letters at the bottom of the image.]
This review can also be found on my goodreads.

Blessed Body is a book of stories from a variety of LGBT Nigerians. In Nigeria, LGBT rights are not only unrecognized, but any homosexual activity can be punishable by 14 years imprisonment. It is even illegal to hide one's knowledge of an LGBT person even if oneself is not gay. Learning these facts at a reading I attended by Unoma Azuah gave me an even greater appreciation for the level of courage it took for all of the people in this book to risk telling their stories.

This review has taken me longer to write than most. It is difficult to know the best way to discuss a book about such an important and delicate topic- as a queer, transgender, and white resident of the United States from birth- and give it the description it truly deserves.

Content note: the rest of this review contains discussion of sexual assault, physical violence, and other abuses. Proceed with care.

The stories in this book highlight well just how many barriers there are for someone in Nigeria to understand their own identity let alone express it out in the world. Due to British colonialism, the homophobia of many Christian churches was forced upon people in Nigeria. In many areas of pre-colonial Africa, including Nigeria, gender and sexual expression were allowed to be much more fluid. At times it was even seen as special and/or celebratory. In post-colonial Nigeria, many people's idea of love and acceptance for LGBT people involves taking them to church for "deliverance" which often involves physical punishments. More horrific mistreatment of LGBT people commonly includes corrective rape (where men rape perceived lesbians in feigned attempt to turn them straight) and "jungle justice" (where mobs of vigilantes take anti-homosexuality laws into their own hands, resulting in severe beatings or death of suspected LGBT people.) The stories in this book include many of these experiences.

Many people discuss not even having words for the romantic, sexual, and gendered feelings they were having at young ages since some religious Nigerians believe that there are no LGBT people in Africa. Others believe it is a manifestation of illness. And those who are accepting or are LGBT themselves must keep everything hidden. These barriers not only keep children from discovering who they are, but it also causes them to be silent when they are abused out of fear that they will be punished. Many of the stories include abuse of children and adults by others in which they blame themselves.

The book is broken into sections with different topics pertaining to the group of stories. My favorite section, and also the section with most (but not all) of the best writing, was called "Unapologetic." It is an excellent ending to a book full of very difficult stories. While it does not contain only happy stories, it does contain ways that people found acceptance of themselves and escape from self hatred, even when they were in danger. As Gamal Turawa shares in their story about their journey:

"I learnt... that being true to yourself is a powerful force that can surprise and protect you if you trust it fully. A lot of us look for that acceptance in others when we should first find it in ourselves."

My constructive criticism of this book for future editions: I wish many of the writings, especially in the beginning, were longer. It took me a little while to settle into the book because each time I began to be immersed in someone's story, it would end and move on to the next person. I wanted to know more of many of the peoples stories. I also think it could be advantageous to have an edition of the book for people around the world like myself who are ignorant of some of the laws and practices in Nigeria. Some of the specifics I discuss in this review I had learned at Azuah's talk or from research online. I think having an introduction and/or epilogue that calls attention to the differences between homosexuality and gender nonconformity in pre and post-colonial Africa and gives some extra information would put this important text in better context for many readers. These things would have pushed the book to 5 stars for me.

Blessed Body is a telling. It is a necessary sharing of experiences that are hidden and silenced boht in Nigeria and elsewhere. I am very grateful that these people took the risk of telling their stories and am grateful to Unoma Azuah for contributing and editing the text.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Book Review: Sunaura Taylor's "Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation"

Also posted to goodreads

Image: The cover of Sunaura Taylor's book Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation. The cover is a greyish blue with blue, yellow, and white lettering for the title and author's name. There are two figures silhouetted in white against the blue back drop. One is a cow and one is a human. Both appear to be using wheelchairs as you can see the wheels and spokes beneath each of them.
This book is spectacular. Carol Adams told me about this book about a year before it came out when I was talking to her at a conference. I mentioned that I don't know a lot of people who write about the intersection of disability and animal liberation and she told me that "Beasts of Burden" was in the works. I also read Sunaura Taylor's contribution to the Ecofeminism anthology which completely rocked my world. From that point forward, I eagerly awaited the release date of Sunaura Taylor's book. So, I went into this with very high expectations that were difficult to meet. This book surpassed them.

Sunaura tackles topics of disability and animal liberation without separating them from each other or many of the other oppressions that are intertwined with them like race, class, gender, and so on. At the same time, she give the topics and members of these groups the individualized attention they deserve. One of the best parts about this book is that Taylor does not shy away from the difficult conversations such as forced nonhuman animal research for human health issues, abolitionist rhetoric of rewilding animals and the extinction of domestication (and in turn- the maligning of (inter)dependence), some animal rights activists seeing themselves as "voices for the voiceless," the barriers to accessing vegan food for some people with severe health struggles, and so on. She tackles these topics head on, having discussions about issues where nonhuman animal liberation and disabled human liberation seem to collide- and often shows that they are connected rather than at odds with each other. Taylor also does not shy away from directly and honestly addressing the works of people like Peter Singer and Temple Grandin who represent famous and damaging representations of animal liberation in relation to disability and disability in relation to animal liberation. She is able to parse out the things that have merit while effectively calling attention to the things that do not.

I really hope this book becomes one of the staples of animal liberation discourse and disability discourse. Sunaura Taylor argues quite well that the two and intertwined and that ableism is at the center of nonhuman animal oppression and that speciesism is part of the ammo used to demean people with disabilities. It is an invaluable contribution that will hopefully help us create more connections between our movements.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Exploitation of the Marginalized Gets the Green Light

IMAGE: Two hooded Rats named Thelma and Louise sitting on their hind legs eating lentils and rice. They have brown heads and shoulders and white bodies. I chose an image of two rats who had names and personalities, different likes and dislikes, to remind us that the animals I discuss here are more than subjects of study.

Some of you may know that I suffer from multiple chronic pain conditions that leave me unable to work. There is a lack of viable treatments out there for chronic pain conditions- especially those that cannot be aided by manual fixes like surgeries, braces, physical therapy, and so on. Combine that with the war on drugs making more and more medications (both narcotic and non) more difficult to obtain (despite these measures doing nothing to help people with addiction struggles), insurance companies refusing to cover effective preventative and helpful treatments, and the general state of the world that does not make room for people with disabilities to function with in it, and you have a recipe for frustration.

Recently and article was sent my way in which a man named Mohab Ibraham tortures rats in order to research the effects of green light on neuropathic pain. All articles on the subject that I can find refer to "rats with neuropathic pain" as if the rats are being done a service by the study. Anyone with knowledge about pain research involving nonhuman animals knows that they are deliberately caused injury and pain in these types of studies- most of the time by exposing them to a painful stimulus like injecting them with acid, placing them on a hot plate, electrified floors, and so on. In this video, Ibraham says flat out that the animals "developed a better capacity to handle uncomfortable stimulus." Videos linked later in this post mention "paw withdrawal latency" which means that Ibraham and colleagues likely injected the rats feet with something painful. In other research, Ibraham and colleagues have induced spinal injuries in rats.

Putting the ethics aside for a moment, this study is ridiculous for a multiple reasons. 1) Rats have different visual perception of color than humans do- they can see green but they see it differently and see other colors differently. 2) Injecting rats feet with inflammatory agents in a box is not the same as dealing with chronic pain caused by a variety of neurodegenerative or myalgia conditions. 3) This study could have easily been effectively done in humans (as can be seen in the aforementioned video) and there aren't any regulations that would prevent exposing humans to green light. In fact, studies on humans using green light existed before Ibraham was torturing rats to study it.  Regardless, Ibraham and his crew have presented it as a novel discovery (as well as referred to people who use narcotic pain relievers generally as being drug addicts- blaming them for the "epidemic" of addiction)

It should be noted that there is no recent epidemic of drug addiction- drug addiction has been an epidemic for centuries, but since the face of the addict in the mainstream has become white, middle class, and addicted to prescription pills rather than of color and addicted to crack (despite white people doing more drugs on the whole)- this "epidemic" has received more attention. But, that is for another post. 

Ethically, if you have read anything else on this blog, you may guess that I oppose confining and abusing anyone against their will for research- human or nonhuman animal. This harms both humans and other animals. I am sure the big old grant that Ibraham was given was a good amount of wasted dollars that could have been used on a far more accurate, ethical, and sound study using human volunteers.

But, there is another intersection here- disabled people are used as pawns by researchers like this in order to get grants for future studies. I do not believe that all researchers are bad people who don't care. However, I do come from a background in cognitive neuroscience and I know how research communities value detachment and "objectivity" to the point that it allows for neglect and cruelty. There is a long history of disabled people, people of color, poor people, and so on being forcefully and/or coercively experimented upon, sterilized by, and studied by usually white male doctors and researchers who always defend their mistreatment by saying they learned something. Harriet Washington's book Medical Apartheid details the ways in which enslaved black people and black Americans have been experimented on against their will from gruesome gynecological studies on enslaved women to decades long studies of the effects of syphilis infection to faulty studies on predispositions to violence done on black boys. Eli Clare and Sunaura Taylor both detail in their writings the ways that disabled and other marginalized people have been exploited in research. Sunaura Taylor specifically explores how nonhuman animal exploitation is used as a vehicle for the exploitation of humans.

Our culture likes to uphold sciences as pinnacles of all that is good and right with the world. But, Institutional Review Boards exist as a result great abuses committed by doctors and scientists. And still, IRBs can only protect so much and often fail to do what they were intended to do. Marginalized people and species of nonhuman animals- especially those not covered under the animal welfare act like rats and some birds- are always at high risk of being victimized by people who are part of an industry of grants, sexy science, and a quest for knowledge that is willing to conquer anyone they need to to get an answer.

Unethical research is never worth the knowledge gained. Unethical research on humans and nonhuman animals is never excusable due to knowledge gained. With those two things said, this pain research on rats gained no knowledge and simply repeated something that can already be safely done in humans. As a result it is doubly inexcusable.

When you see articles heralding "advances" in medicine via the exploitation and torture of nonhuman animals, question what you are reading. Look past the "rats with neuropathic pain" to see the "rats confined to a box who are repeatedly injected into their paws with acid in order to study something that is already safe and effective in humans." See the truth.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On Harambe and Nonhuman Animal Resistance

Image: a male adult orangutan with wide cheeks and slightly matted red fur staring downward. Text at the top of the image reads: "An orangutan named Fu Manchu repeatedly escaped from his cage at the zoo using a key he had fashioned from a piece of wire. Every time his zookeepers inspected him, he hid the key in his mouth." (source)

(Adapted slightly from a facebook post)

CN: animal cruelty, racism

I know that animals are dying in unbelievable numbers in unbelievably cruel ways every day. Usually I don't get very caught up when a story goes viral of one losing their life. Yet, this story of Harambe being shot has made me incredibly depressed because almost everyone talking about it (except some of you on my list) is missing part of the equation. There are other pieces covering the racism aspect which should be read first if you read anything. I should also note that when MOVE was protesting the Philadelphia zoo one of many times (before their home was firebombed by the state and many of them died inside,) the police attacked one of their members and beat her so severely that she had a miscarriage. There are black folks fighting animal exploitation who don't need white folks to educate them, shame black mothers, or dig up criminal records of black fathers to displace blame from the zoo onto a child's parents.

A species that is almost gone forever was shot because of a place that held him captive for entertainment. Nonhuman animals have been resisting captivity forever. I am not saying Harambe was resisting in this moment. I am saying that Harambe and every other animal in the prisons we call zoos have a desire to be free. Those desires are always punished by death and/or reduced to the idea that animals are mindlessly responding to stimuli rather than a desire to communicate or fight back. Many years ago I had a blog where I kept track of news stories of animals fighting against their exploiters. I found multiple stories a day every day.

I think of Tyke the elephant who was shot to death in the street after being fed up with forced performances.

I think of Tatiana the tiger who was taunted by zoo patrons and killed for not taking it anymore.

I think of Kasatka, Nookta, and Tilikum the whales who resisted a life of captivity and reproductive exploitation.

I think of Fu Manchu (don't blame the animals for their appropriative names) who fashioned a key to escape his cage multiple times. 

I think of every mother dairy cow who has attacked the farmer for stealing her calves.

I think of every young bull who escaped the slaughterhouse to be hit by police cars and recaptured, and sometimes, just sometimes, made it to a sanctuary. 

I think of the performing monkeys taught taekwondo who used their skills against their captor.

I also think of the birds and fish whose bodies make resistance of human enclosures more difficult, but who have the same desires to be free of exploitation and imprisonment.

There are countless stories like this, yet exploiters continue to call them isolated incidents of confused animals. They do fight. They do plan. They do resist. They do escape.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

In Defense of Accountability, Making Mistakes, and Carol Adams

The inspiration from this post came from discovering that a friend of mine is being banned from events today for allegedly* being transphobic. This friend, Carol Adams, does extremely important work in feminism and nonhuman animal liberation. I have had the pleasure of seeing her speak about 6 years ago and again this year. Those talks differed. The talks grow and become more inclusive. I'm pretty sure Carol and I would not agree 100% on everything if we detailed every one of our beliefs to one another. I am absolutely sure, however, that she would believe me and listen to me if I shared my thoughts and experiences with her. 

Let me first say that this is not some "because this person is my friend, I am going to defend her and ignore anything she could have done wrong." Anyone who knows me in person knows I would rather have no friends than have to defend terrible behavior of many friends. What this is is a call for us to believe in mistakes, evolution, vulnerability, disagreements, and accountability. If we are going to hold people to every mistake they have ever made, regardless of if they have changed, then that makes all of the work and effort we put into "calling in" and accountability processes useless. Yes, useless. It also sets a standard for us to be constantly perfect. It creates a fear of doing work and becoming better because why try when you might make a mistake that will destroy the rest of your life? I also want to note that we all have internalized transphobia and transmisogyny (and every other facet of oppression)- including trans people like me- that inevitably comes out at times.

I am currently a queer transgender butch, feminist, anti-authoritarian, clean/sober 11 years, disability justice advocate, anti-racist, and many many other things. However, what I really want you to know is what I was 16 years ago. Content note: the next paragraph includes some words that may be triggering or difficult to read.

16 years ago- in the year 2000- I was 17 years old, graduating high school, and had no radical analysis. I was also severely addicted to drugs and alcohol and was 1-2 years shy of of graduating from prescription pain killers to heroin daily. I had no concept of consent, feminism, racism, etc. In fact, I often used oppressive insults (faggot, bitch, retard, etc) and intentionally made terrible and oppressive jokes that were hurtful and made people feel uncomfortable I am sure (these included rape jokes, misogynistic jokes, homophobic jokes, racist jokes, etc.) Sometimes I try to think of this as me defending myself using off-putting humor. By this time in my life, I had suffered a lot of abuse. But, really, there is no excuse for my former behaviors. In my addiction, I also treated people like garbage- I was manipulative and even violent at times. Again, the healing part of me wants to excuse my behaviors as being part of trauma, addiction, and constant ongoing victimization, but that doesn't mean I am not accountable for them today. I don't excuse them in myself or others. At this time in my life, the internet was not really part of my existence and smart phones were definitely not. If anyone would have filmed me or posted anything about me on the internet from this time in my life, I am absolutely sure that there would be terrible things about me immortalized in the internet world. If I was held to these things today by people on the internet, I guarantee you that I would not have the privilege of being friends and acquaintances with so many wonderful radical people today.

Interestingly, today, and for years now, I have had people tell me I am intimidatingly radical. People have told me they thought they weren't radical enough to be around me. They told me that I was creating fearfulness of making mistakes. I have tried to mend this over time and understand how call-out culture teaches us to slaughter others while forgetting our own pasts. I like to hope I am better today than I was then. Still, today, people see me as a fairly radical person. I have worked on and cofounded several nonhuman animal liberation groups, cofounded an anti-racist group that assisted white folks in unlearning their internalized racism among other things, organized many actions against rape culture, misogyny, homophobia and transantagonism, classism, capitalism, etc. I have grown a lot.

That growth does not change the fact that I was not always this way. It does not change the fact that I will continue to make mistakes for which I will need to be accountable. It does not change the fact that I will never be a perfect radical. It does not change the fact that I and other radicals will undoubtedly disagree on things, even when both of our opinions have truths in them. We are all growing at all times. If we refuse to allow people the ability to change, then all of the work we do in social justice, animal liberation, and so on is literally POINTLESS. If we only allow speakers who have been perfect their whole lives and have evolved perfectly with the times at every moment, we will have absolutely NO speakers. If we do not allow others the right to make mistakes, then we do not allow ourselves that right. If we do not allow ourselves that right, then we do not allow ourselves to exist.

I purposely did not make this entire post about Carol Adams for a few reasons: 1. I had the idea of writing this post without any urging from her and I do not want it to appear as if it is her idea not mine (though I did ask her consent before I began writing.) I take responsibility for my words. 2. Call out culture and refusal to allow mistakes is something that is virulent in all radical circles. It is something I have been guilty of countless times, however hypocritically. I want to mention my inspiration while also addressing that culture. 3. I am only one person with one set of experiences and cannot be the authority on all other peoples experiences.**

That said, I am going to devote part of this to her for the following reasons: 1. Carol is humble and easy to be around. I want people to know that in my experience and many others, she is approachable and kind. I want to inspire people to talk TO her rather than ABOUT her if they have issues. 2. Carol does extremely important feminism and animal liberation work even if you don't agree with every single thing she says. Her presentations and books have changed the world for the better. As have many others' work you may not agree with 100%. 3. It's personal. There were times I wish someone would have defended me. I have told myself I would do the same when I saw things happening I disagreed with.

I digitally met Carol Adams years ago. I had read her books and really enjoyed her work, but had also ran into dialogue online suggesting she had made transphobic comments. I felt conflicted as a trans person who loved her work and I wanted to talk to her about it. I sent her an email and she swiftly replied to me and we had several conversations. None of the conversations I have had, nor what I have read online, have completely helped me to understand what had gone down 16 years ago. What I did understand is this is a person who is kind, humble, and truly loves humans and other animals and wants to be accountable and do the right thing. She had also taken some steps to do the right thing. This may seem like something that should not be rare, but of all of the people in feminism and animal rights movements that I have written to about comments they have made, I can count on one hand how many responded with humility, kindness, and a desire to make things right, if they bothered to respond at all.

Over the years, Carol Adams started asking my opinion on things she wrote. She wanted to be inclusive, to get things right. She did not tokenize me or assume I speak for all queer people or all trans people. She asked me to proof read a response to some of the accusations which I did (though it was difficult because I was not present at the conversation between Adams and Mirha-Soleil Ross, I still do not understand what occurred, and everything I find online are vague accusations of guilty-by-association with another radical feminism who is terfy, disagreements between second and third wave feminism about porn/sex work that I do not believe are grounds for banning, or disagreements about talking about women and nonhuman animals' oppression as connected- which I disagree with.) I came into feminism around a lot of "3rd wavers" and I had wonderful interactions with this radical feminist from the "2nd wave." She has swung me in her direction on some things as I am sure I have swung her in mine. I'm telling you, as a transgender, kinky person, with some sex work history, who used to be pro-porn and is not anymore, I have had great, loving discussions with Carol Adams. I am not saying my experience is or would be everyone's. I am saying that when we don't talk to people, we can't know who they are. I am also saying that I really wish that second wave feminists, third wave feminists, and now transfeminists (some are calling this the 4th wave) would hold each other's humanity more.

I had not met Carol Adams in person until this past weekend. I was nervous because people who have any fame often are treated in weird inhuman ways and I didn't want to bother her too much. I walked in the door of the room she was in and she stood up and said hello and we hugged each other. I immediately felt safe and secure in her presence. I mean it when I say she is easy to be around. She seems to love interacting with people and she seems not to see herself as an authority on anything. She shared stories of feminist history and also stories of people trying to ban her from events for being transphobic. This was so hard for me to hear because her work has been so important and because conversations are not had when we ban people, especially over things that occurred 16 years prior.

In my conversations with Carol Adams, I have discovered work she is involved with that is greatly helpful to trans people. To detail this work would cause outing and lack of safety for the trans people being benefited by said work. I am being intentionally vague, so you will simply have to take my word for it (or not.) I have also watched her deliberately make her presentations, writings, and speech more inclusive of trans people and have seen her listen and be present to learn more things about trans issues. Lastly, I mentioned in a workshop we were in that there are both TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and TIRFs (trans-inclusive radical feminists.) She lit up and came to me after the workshop, so happy to hear that there was something radical feminists could call themselves to separate themselves from TERFs. She mentioned a great love and dedication to radical feminism while also being hurt by the seemingly constant association of all radical feminism with TERFs. I am not saying that these things mean that Carol is perfect or that I am perfect. As I have already said, we all carry transphobia and transmisogyny within us. I am sharing this narrative in hopes to ad humanity to this dialogue.

I often find in radical circles that, the people that can say the biggest baddest things in speeches or on the internet without any missteps are held up as heroes, while the people without that privilege of academia or access to our constantly evolving language and/or the people doing the hard work on the ground are torn apart. We need to be having more conversations and less dog piling of attacks. We need to allow ourselves and each other to be flawed.

I disagree on many things with other people. I also respect the work that I do not disagree with that they do. For me, the work of always trying to be accountable and grow is far more rewarding than the feeling of power when I point the finger at someone else's mistakes. This took me a long time to learn. I believe there are some things we absolutely cannot let slide that other radicals do. I believe in calling in, challenging each other to grow, and accountability. I even believe in banning people when they become dangerous and hurtful in ways that cannot be solved. I do not believe in refusing to allow people to grow or to have differences. I definitely do not believe in erasing all of the work they do that is good and beneficial because of disagreements or viral attacks.

The tl;dr version of this post and the main message I want you to gather from it is: Let's fucking talk to each other more and rely on tumblr and comments-section arguments less.

I welcome criticism and conversation on this post. I moderated all comments before and will continue to do so on this writing. Emotional and passionate responses are fine. Nastiness is not.

*I say allegedly because I was not there and have heard several stories about this that all differ.
**Please do not use this piece as a "token trans person says this is ok." I do not experience what trans women do, I do not understand proud sex work because for me, it was never proud or fun, I do not understand glorifying porn as liberatory when I have participated in and seen that which is absolutely the opposite, I only experience what I experience as a transgender butch and maybe I am totally wrong in this writing. I am right smack dab in the middle of waves and both sides in all their diversity will find something to disagree with me about. That's ok. Let's talk.