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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Animal Liberation and the Need for Healing

Included in the zine "Zoophil Psychosis" released March, 14, 2016

Content notes: descriptions of animal suffering, activist trauma, mention of abuse and sexual assault.
The intersection of animal liberation and disability has overshadowed almost everything else in my realm of experience. It overshadows my queer and trans identities, my poverty and class struggle, my anti-racist and consent activism, and the mass action black blocs and tiny street marches I’ve participated in. Animal liberation opened the gates to my radical worldview, despite its hostile reception in local radical circles. The horrors of animal exploitation coupled with the massive- often intentional- ignorance of how vast it is have exacerbated my lifelong chronic health struggles and have caused new health struggles to emerge. When I saw the call for this zine, I felt an electric rush through my entire body, some mixture of triggered despair and absolute happiness of feeling met by its existence.
An anti-authoritarian proponent of animal liberation, I’m torn between worlds: the non-radical white middle-to-upper class cis gender hetero vegans who use racism, classism, and misogyny to promote animal campaigns, and radicals and anarchists willing to put their bodies on the line to combat (some) human oppression, but often dismiss or even ridicule struggles for nonhuman animals. I have undoubtedly made mistakes in trying to bridge these divides. Daily, I watch both sides ignore crucial intersections, knowing in my heart that our treatment of nonhuman animals is deeply connected to our human oppressions.
PTSD ranks among my other physical and mental health conditions. I developed chronic pain and fibromyalgia early in life, no doubt related to a lifelong parade of trauma: PTSD from rape, intimate partner abuse, a life of former drug addiction and everything that entails, and experiences with animal liberation activism. There is a difference between my PTSD from events happening directly to me and my body vs. my PTSD from witnessing damage to the bodies of others. I’ve cradled animals in my hands, who were dying from human cruelty and neglect, and I have held animals in my hands who experienced safety and love through rescue. Unfortunately, the latter has been less frequent than the former.
The decline in my health rendered me incapable of contributing much to anything. I know a huge factor is that I couldn’t stop. I used to torture myself. Every time I wanted to quit or take a break I reminded myself that “animals never get a break,” so I had to keep going. I watched every undercover video, followed every story. I had no social life. Dealing with bipolar disorder and traumatic disorders since I was a kid shaped how I handled these experiences and how I reacted to them. I worked, organized, sometimes ate, rarely slept. That was my life. Two experiences stick out as precipitating my downfall.
I participated in a rescue that came out of a massive animal hoarding “shelter” situation paired with multi-state corruption. An undercover investigator had gone to several state and private shelters asking for help to shut this place down. No one would. I was on the steering committee of a small animal rights group (doing the work of a large one) and when we tried to discover why, we found many of these shelters had been sending animals to this hoarding facility. We found falsified veterinary and intake records, “inspections” that showed no problems, evidence of rescues in other states shipping animals to this facility, and we even had the head of a non-local animal rights group come out in support of the place because it was “no kill,” despite an investigator from his own organization warning about the place years earlier. It was even rumored this facility sold animals to laboratories. Finally, we found an in-state organization willing to take the case, but they only sent enough people for the original rescue and understaffed the aftermath. I was working full time at my day job while pulling 12 hour shifts plus 2 hour drives on the weekends while other volunteers worked around the clock trying to help the hundreds of surviving animals. Animals’ eyes were falling out of their heads and sometimes their skin would tear off when you picked them up. Hundreds cried out in pain around me but I could only get to one at a time. Many died in their own filth before I could get to them, no matter how fast I tried to go. The stench alone was unbearable. I would come home and strip down in the basement, terrified I would carry the systemic calicivirus home with me on my clothes and infect my own animals. I would hear and see cats running through the house who weren’t there. I would obsessively check my own rescue animals for signs of the virus. I couldn’t get the smell out of my nostrils. I couldn’t get the memories of their cries out of my mind. All the while a media campaign vilified the evil “animal rights activists” for shutting down a sweet lady’s nice cat “rescue.” Half of the animals survived, miraculous considering the illnesses they suffered. I stopped pulling volunteer shifts when my health wouldn’t allow it any longer and hated myself every day for it. How could I abandon them? I split off from the organization entirely when it became more about prison than about the animals. While I understand the impulse to imprison animal abusers, I couldn’t support using a system profiting off slavery and oppression to “solve” animal slavery and oppression.
Later, I co-founded an anti-authoritarian and anti-animal testing organization, where I ended up doing the vast majority of the work. Not because the others involved were lazy, but because they had a healthier set of boundaries and less of an obsession than I did. I lost sleep doing research and organizing and was barraged with nightmares about animals when I did sleep. Some radicals supported our work as non-single-issue while other radicals shunned and ridiculed mentions of veganism or including nonhuman animals in our fight against oppression. I worked at a local university (doing human research) and used my position to access information about nonhuman animal research being conducted there. I was constantly on edge, living in fear of getting caught. FBI agents and private security surveilled our protests and events right out in the open, in suits with wires hanging out of their ears, behind tinted windows with surveillance equipment on the dashboards. I’d assumed they would try to be sneakier, but I guess not. Researchers at the university were studying pain by putting rats on hot plates, addicting macaques to cocaine and depriving them of water, measuring the progression of untreated HIV/SIV in nonhuman primates, and many other horrific things. I wanted it to stop. I needed it to stop. It didn’t stop. The organization disbanded when it didn’t have the resources to continue. Emotionally or financially. The labs still stand tall around the city, but I know we started much-needed conversations. That was something.
Having endured these experiences and more, I can’t say I blame people for shying away from this work. It is hard hard work. It comes with huge cost and small reward. The cost is even greater when you are chronically ill. Every time I see a new undercover video, my thoughts are not only with the animals depicted, but also the investigator(s). Are they ok? What are they doing to take care of themselves? If I had any advice to the new activist with mental health struggles it would be this: You can’t do it all. It’s ok not to do it all. It’s ok to sleep and eat and take care of yourself. It will never be enough and you will always be enough. And that’s ok, because it all matters. Every life you touch and save matters.
When I try to talk about these things, I can often see and feel just how much they are not taken seriously by radical and nonradical communities alike. I believe healing is lacking in both communities. In one, because people fight and fight and fight oppression until they burn out and in the other because they ignore and ignore and ignore it. But it still exists. It will always exist. And while I (try to) know now that I am safe in this moment and what people have done to me is not who I am, what I have watched and experienced humans doing to other animals has left a vast cavern of pain and loneliness inside me. I do not know how to heal this pain. I do not know how to confront this trauma in a world that can’t even acknowledge the massive exploitation and suffering of nonhuman animals, let alone the trauma of witnessing said exploitation.
I have been hyper-sensitive since birth. I have a degree in psychology and worked in the field of research for 5 years and clinical for 3 before my health issues took over and left me completely unable to work. I know full well why people do what they do to animals and why people ignore what happens to them. I know the farm workers beating animals while making minimum wage do so because, in order to endure the exposure to such cruelty, they must reduce the animal to an object of vilification in order to survive the job psychologically and survive financially. I understand scientists who abuse and exploit animals for their research went through several years of school where every objection they may have held against harming animals was met with ridicule and threat of expulsion, while also being told it is a necessary evil to save lives. I understand well why people ignore animal liberation as part of radical thought or a day-to-day thing we must fight for. People have their own struggles and can’t imagine adding another thing to care about. People cannot handle the reality that while they are fighting oppression on the surface, underneath there is a vast and horrific level of exploitation which they contribute to directly. When we grow up accepting something for so long, it becomes difficult to change. The Milgram experiments on authoritarianism (where people willingly delivered (perceived) punishing shocks to another participant because the experimenter told them to), the bystander effect (where the more people are around during an incident, the less likely someone is to help the victim), the just-world fallacy (the world is good, so anything bad that happens to someone must be the victim’s fault), and so on.
The guilt one must feel and overcome in order to confront animal liberation (or any other systemic oppression perpetuated by one’s demographic, like my journey as a white person confronting white supremacy) is overbearing and heavy. It takes a lot of energy to acknowledge what we have done and still do to nonhuman animals and even more energy to understand how that informs how we have harmed and still harm our fellow humans. Many people at the intersections struggle so much with oppression directed against them that they can’t bear acknowledging they may also be oppressing someone else. And of course, class-privileged vegan campaigners urge that we vote with our dollars, rather than change our hearts and minds and interactions with nonhuman animals. I say this as a vegan, but also as someone who believes veganism is only one of many steps we must take towards seeing other animals as deserving and equal.
These understandings of human nature frustrate me. They remind me of every single atrocity in the world allowed to happen that we all look back on horrified and think “I would NEVER do a thing like that,” when in reality, most people would have. I can only hope that one day, we will look back on the factory farms, fur sheds, laboratories, breeding facilities, and so on and think the same. Even though we would be wrong about our ability to take part in socially accepted atrocities, I hope one day, someone looks back and says, “Remember when people used to torture nonhuman animals under the guise of understanding humans better? Yeah, and they did that to other marginalized groups of humans, too.” And of course we’ll be learning our lessons forever, because intersectionality means that systemic oppression cannot end if only one facet of our unjust world is addressed. But, I do hope that one day, all of this trauma will mean something more than the pain, frustration, and burnout I feel today.

I would like to thank Adrienne and Noah for their help in proof-reading and editing this piece.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Diagnosably Credible and Credibly Diagnosed

Submission for "Dx" zine, not accepted yet

I remember the day I opened the letter from the Social Security Administration, knowing that I very likely would be one of the 80-90% of applicants who is denied benefits on their first attempt. This is the way the system works, to “weed out” the people who put all of the time, effort, money, car rides, appointments, prescriptions, referrals, tests, scans, and so on to “fake” illness- to “get over on the system.” Note that this is a system that we pay into with every paycheck. It is also a system that places the vast majority of people, who do receive benefits, under the poverty line.

I laughed out loud at the line in which they detailed that I was not disabled by Chronic Pain, Costochondritis, Osteoarthritis, Fibromyalgia, Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, Endometriosis, Chronic Migraine, Bipolar Disorder, and PTSD. They also did not obtain records from my rheumatologist who was one of the most important doctors on the list. I assume that this was due to the fact that talking to two different people on the phone as well as mailing in the information was not enough for someone to remember to add it to my file. Add to all of this that I am only 33 years old. People my age aren’t “supposed to” stop working yet.

It was not the Social Security Administration that brought me to tears despite their wait for an appeal hearing being 1-2 years (which I am still waiting for). My Long-Term Disability claim from my last job, through one of the largest and lowest rated insurance companies in the country, was set up for complete failure. Not only did I have to travel to all of my doctors to sign releases to have them send records- which is extremely difficult when you have no income and it hurts to walk, talk, and breathe- I also had to deal with being interrogated like a prisoner of my own struggling mind and body. The hospitals, of course, all charged records fees. Fees for my medical records for appointments paid for by my health insurance I paid almost $140 a month for plus thousands in copays and deductibles- more than my disposable income (At this time, Obamacare forced you to take whatever plan your work offered, even if it was far worse than what you would have received from the marketplace.) Those records never made it to the insurance company in time.

The small amount of records that did were picked apart bit by bit. “It says here you had a full cardiac workup which was normal.” Not only was this bit of information completely false (I have a genetic heart condition) and written by a doctor who didn’t pay attention, it is not relevant to how much pain I’m in and if I am able to work. “It says here that you felt slightly better on the Medrol dose pack.” Leaving out the part where I became worse shortly after the toxic dose of steroids was finished. “Everyone feels better on steroids,” my rheumatologist told me, “but we can’t give them in those high doses because you will get very sick.” So, because all but one set of records never arrived, and the one that did included a mistake that was irrelevant to my claim, and because a toxic dose of drugs that is impossible to prescribe for longer than a week made me feel a little better, I was told to go back to work.

I, of course, could not. And, if I ever would have been able to find recovery during that time in order to return to work, it would not have been possible with the level of stress I was being put through. I did end up winning my Long Term Disability claim with the help of a lawyer whose firm now takes 1/3 of my income every month. But, I can’t complain after surviving on nothing but the kindness of friends and state benefits for over a year during the appeal.

This is what applying for disability is like in a world of diagnoses. We aren’t allowed to focus on what is wrong and how to feel better. We need a single label that fits perfectly. This label must be tested and true and agreed upon by multiple physicians. Then, the fact that the label is disabling must be agreed upon by more physicians and by multiple institutions. Then, those institutions must decide that you deserve benefits for how disabled you are. During this time you cannot have good days, as one good day in a sea of 50 bad ones can still mean you might be able to work. Some doctors believe that applying for disability inhibits recovery in people. I disagree. Being denied disability inhibits recovery in people. When one must spend years proving that their pain is real to a variety of people whose main intention is to prove them wrong, of course people do not get better.

In one way, I completely support and understand the need for diagnoses. Of course we need to be able to put things in categories in order to properly treat and understand them. The problem comes with things we do not yet understand being combined with the belief that we know everything there is to know. Anything that does not fit into our current framework is very often labeled as being “in the patient’s head” or “just stress.” Ironically, stress is connected to 95% of illness, but is usually used as a tool of dismissal of medical concerns rather than a tool of understanding. This is compounded greatly if the patient is female, trans, or of color. Furthermore, the insistence that the only valid diagnoses are those which show up neatly on scans or blood tests also comes from a place of arrogance- assuming we know all there is to know medically- and dismissal of mental health and some physical health struggles.

I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia when I was 16. As soon as I type that diagnosis, I cringe at my own internalized stigma against it. I ignored this diagnoses because 17 years ago it was even more controversial than it is now. I was told my suffering was not real because people believed the diagnosis was not real. Many still do today. We now know that catching and treating fibromyalgia early is critical to living a good life with it. It was 16 more years- most of those years involving avoiding doctors entirely- before I received the diagnosis again from 3 different medical doctors, along with several other chronic pain conditions. It was the chronic tearing and stabbing chest pain that landed me in the emergency room and started my ascent into regular medical care for anything other than seeking hormones due to being transgender.

This long history of being silenced dates back to childhood where I had mono (as well as endometriosis and other conditions diagnosed later) and my mother was told it was all in my head. This happened several times until my tonsils swelled to the point of being unable to swallow and a severe fever unresponsive to medication led to a spinal tap (which was severely botched by an emergency room doctor.) After I spent several days in the hospital healing from the 16 holes the doctor put in my lower back, draining too much of my necessary cerebrospinal fluid, I tested positive for mono. They never fully figured out the infection that caused the fever, only that it was thankfully not meningitis. My distrust of doctors grew every single year from this point on where I was repeatedly silenced and ignored by most people I saw. Chalk it up to me being female, a goth kid, and having severe mental health struggles. The very ignorant splitting of mental health and physical health into two distinctly separate camps led to (and still leads to) the assumption that people who struggle with mental health cannot be trusted when they become physically ill.

I became my own doctor and pharmacist in my teens. Prescription pain killers eventually led to heroin amongst the other drugs and alcohol I took to self medicate. The only times I interacted with doctors were through hospitals when I overdosed (both intentionally and unintentionally) or when I was detoxing and in rehab. Many of these experiences were terrible and further reinforced the idea that not only were doctors all untrustworthy, but that there must be something very wrong with me if I kept having such terrible experiences. I’ve chosen not to detail these experiences here, but will say that they spanned multiple kinds of misconduct. After about 8 years of this hell, getting clean at 22 meant continuing to be my own doctor, but without the drugs.

In some ways, being my own doctor was a great blessing- I learned to heal in some of the most difficult but often most effective ways. I learned how eating, exercising, sleep hygiene, herbal and otc medications, stress management, self talk, and other things could play large roles in my health. I learned coping skills for mental health struggles that I still use today. But, despite having friends and attending 12 step meetings, I still learned to sit alone with my struggles as much as possible. I was still wearing a mask that said I was fine when nothing could have been further from the truth. As a result, many aspects of my health continued to decline. When one thing got better, other things would get worse. It took abusive relationships, several plans for suicide, accidental but luckily mild otc painkiller overdoses, and a complete decline in my physical health before I was forced to seek out the medical industry again for support. This time I got lucky.

I came to find that while I was making big changes on my own, there were big changes in medicine happening as well. There of course is still massive corruption and authoritarianism in medicine. Conversely, I had the opportunity to be connected with practitioners who got into the field to do good. Almost every doctor I currently have is the type that educates medical facilities about trans issues, writes articles in the paper about being a proud abortion provider, or calls herself a “feminist therapist.” I still run into some terrible human beings here and there and I surely will continue to. In an odd way, getting this sick reconnected me with not being alone. My PCP listens to me every time I have a complaint and assigns a diagnostic label if necessary. But, the diagnosis is not what he bases my treatment on. He bases it on what I need.

Through this process, I also let my close friends in to help. I learned to accept help. I admit, getting diagnoses helped me with that. I was no longer a lazy, weak, individual who just couldn’t get their shit together. There were reasons why I felt the way I did and do. Those reasons have causes. Some of the reasons are not curable. Most of the reasons are treatable. So, here, I contradict myself. In life, two seemingly conflicting things can both be right at the same time. In one way, adherence to diagnostic models, especially of mental health, by medical industries and social security is limiting, reductive, and messy. In another way, diagnoses can give someone a reason for why they are suffering, and may lead to an effective treatment that worked for others suffering for similar reasons. Diagnoses are human-created, meaningless, and sometimes detrimental labels for clusters of symptoms that differ greatly from person to person. Diagnoses also put things into perspective and help guide us toward a path. I can only hope that the type of growth that occurred in the medical industry will continue and will also occur in the disability system.

The Daily Escape from Animal Exploitation and Toxic Transmasculinity

Originally Guest Posted at Earthling Liberation Kollective (ELK)

Disclaimer: I am transmasculine and identify mostly as a transgender butch or simply transgender. I do not identify as a binary trans man, nor do I have the internal or psychological experience of many binary trans men. Whiteness shapes my experiences, which may not resonate with people of color from otherwise similar gender/class/ability demographics. I do not speak for any group of people.

Content Note: While it does not make up the majority of the article, I do mention sexual and other abuses of humans and other animals in this writing.
Please take care reading it.

Because I, like many trans people, lack the gatekeeper-prescribed narrative of, “I knew I was really a boy when I was 3 years old,” it took me a long time to figure out my gender and sexuality. I loved unicorns and wearing tights and princess outfits just as much as I loved playing rough and tumble and getting muddy with the boys. I honestly think most kids probably like princess outfits and getting muddy, it’s just that half of them aren’t allowed to.

I noticed binary gender differences at a young age. Children in my elementary school divided lunch tables between girls and boys sides. My best friend Nathan and I would always sit on the boys or girls side together and people would make fun of us. We did not do this because we were trans, we did this because the side did not matter to us. I also liked playing sports and the boys usually wanted to play hard. I would compete with them, even though I just wanted to play, not compete. However, when I wanted to play with dolls or toy horses or dress up, that was something I had to find other girls for. I was a both a “tomboy” and a “princess” which speaks volumes about me today, despite my masculine appearance.

One thing always transcended my mishmash of gendered behaviors: a fascination with and love for other animals.  Disney’s portrayals of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in the woods surrounded by and talking to all the creatures were images I wanted to experience as reality. This reality involved villains doping these same princesses into death-like states, whereupon the true hero- a man- would save them. Of course I did not see boys or men interacting with animals in Disney movies, except to ride, possess, or kill them, about which, more later.

My mother tells me I didn’t want to eat animals as a child, but she told me I had to because the pediatrician told her I would fall ill if I did not consume their bodies. So I did. I mostly ate the bodies of birds, but I often shied away from eating other animals. It was not because I had made the connection to who they were yet, but simply because I did not like the taste. As a very sensitive child, I liked very plain things- which is odd today given my preference for a 7 or 8 on the spice scale. Despite eating the bodies of animals killed in hidden places, every nonhuman animal I met in person was someone I wanted to know. I spent a lot of my childhood in southern California where there were tarantulas in the morning paper, pheasants in the backyard, giant snails slithering around after the rain, and lizards running all over the place. As a child, still stuck in the egocentric mindset, I wanted all animals to be my friends, and I wanted them all to come live with me. This led to some of them, particularly snails, losing their lives in captivity. I had to learn ways to enjoy animals that also allowed them to be free. My mother taught me that collecting snails after letting them crawl all over me was actually harming them. I never trapped a snail again.

Caring or love for nonhuman animals did not seem to acquire gendered connotations until I was older. Girls and boys are allowed to like nonhuman animals. But when boys grow into “real men,” they learn hardline rules about how to treat nonhuman animals, women and girls, and gender nonconforming people. At this time, boys may learn to hunt or fish, they may be exposed to pornography, they may graduate from kids foods to men’s food which, of course, must be the dead bodies of nonhuman animals in as large quantities as possible.

As I matured, both my gender and my relationship to animals became more and more shaped by influences around me. I like to think of myself as an independent person with decent critical thinking capabilities, but the truth is I, like all other humans, was and am susceptible to my environment. In line with the focus of this writing, gender norms affected my relationship to nonhuman animals and vice versa.

Once my single mother’s multiple jobs paid off, I could stop wearing hand-me-downs and start exerting more influence over my clothing. I initially selected very androgynous options. I looked at what boys were wearing and often wanted to wear that, too. Since female-designated children are allowed to experiment with gendered clothing far more than male-designated children, this did not cause me too much strife, though the bullying did move more in the direction of me being a dyke than me simply being a nerd. There was some freedom in this androgyny, but at the same time I wanted the bullying to stop. So with the help of a controlling and abusive best friend (a whole other writing), I learned to toughen up. I started fighting back against boys who attacked me and called me names. Violence became an option. As I grew tougher, my relationship to other animals changed. I did not realize this until later, because it was mostly my relationship to whose body I was eating and whose skin I was wearing that changed.

Toughness demanded “authenticity.” “Genuine” cow skin adorned many of my garments.  Toughness meant eating flesh. Not just any flesh. Red flesh. Bleeding flesh. I recall a time I ordered a medium burger at a restaurant on a school trip, glorifying the way the cow’s flesh bled onto the bun and how delicious it was. The truth is, when I saw blood I instinctively felt something was wrong. But I spent many years going against my instincts.

Complicating factors arose throughout my life governing the choices I made to stay safe, for example, maintaining a jarring aesthetic. I’m still a goth kid, and I still wear mostly black to this day, but when I started being seen as a scary satan worshiping vampire devil dyke in school, people were more afraid to attack me, though sporadic bullying often grew worse. Simultaneously, I feminized my appearance and clothing. Two impulses pulled on me- to be undesirable and feared and to be desirable and hyper-sexually feminine.

As I feminized my looks, my actions became more and more toxically masculine. I became emotionless as much as possible in public, and if I showed emotion, it was anger. Privately I was dying inside and losing my mind, but publicly I was promiscuous, loud, and aggressive. My severe drug addiction further detached me from self-awareness. I dissociated completely through more and more negative experiences. My relationship to humans and other animals became more and more detached. I made myself into someone who could be one of the guys while also whetting their desires. I stopped eating. I constantly tried to fit my presentation and gender into what I thought it was supposed to be. I’d pair the shortest skirt I could find in the juniors section with men’s leather jackets and boots. I’d constantly look at what men and boys wore and envy them, yet a wall remained between me and the men’s section of clothing stores. I desperately wanted to appear more like those men and boys, but didn’t know how. My resulting version of femininity was therefore always flawed enough to mock, abuse, and hate. But, of course, it was still good enough to fuck or abuse.
Navigating those years, more and more fell apart. I couldn’t focus on much of anything other than myself, satisfying only the bare minimums of survival. Horrendous things happened during this period that I still work on healing today. It was not until I got clean and started stripping off the toxic armor I created that my relationship to myself, my gender, nonhuman animals, and radical politics began to properly develop. I try to remember who I was when I carry radical messages to other people. Many people are scrambling to survive like I was.

In 2005, about a year after gaining some real freedom from the hold drugs had on me, I was exposed to an undercover video at a fur farm. Somewhere around then I was also exposed to the realities of nonhuman animals on whom cosmetics are tested. For some reason, these two issues, both associated with the social expectations on wealth and femininity sickened me beyond belief. I didn’t connect until later how our culture exploits nonhuman animals to achieve and enforce its gender norms. In order to create and market products telling women they are withered, dark, and ugly,[1] cosmetic companies subject captive nonhuman animals (and impoverished human volunteers) through toxicity testings, covering their asses for corporate gain. They turn profits telling women they must be prettier, younger, lighter skinned, expending the flesh and lives of nonhuman animals. Fur, stripped and stolen from the bodies of nonhuman animals, markets itself as the ultimate capitalist accomplishment in clothing, usually for women. Connections did not yet register between misogyny, classism, speciesism, capitalism, but knowing what happened to animals made me violently ill.
The only vegan I knew, I sought information from books and the internet. I stacked my shelves with Animal Liberation, The Case for Animal Rights, Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, and other well known single issue texts about animal rights and exploitation, but it was not until I read Carol Adams’ The Sexual Politics of Meat,[2] and countless vegan feminist bloggers, that I truly began to understand the intersectional and parallel oppressions occurring within and between gender, bodily autonomy, and nonhuman animal liberation. Initially, I was still so unaware of the gravity of my own experiences with oppression and abuse based on my gender and sexuality, that nonhuman animals were my focus. It was an easy way to allow myself to continue ignoring my internal turmoil and my recent traumatic past. Throwing my entire focus into other animals’ suffering was a way to acknowledge abuses I suffered in my own life. I empathized with them and still do.

Through a healthy and respectful heterosexual partnership of all things, with a man who remains my friend, I found a safe enough space to tune into my own gender and sexuality. Meanwhile I met radical and queer people who revealed queer and trans identities outside the gay cisgender man narrative to which I was previously limited- especially radical dykes, fem* women and trans guys, stone butches, and anarcho-feminist queers. When I finally came out and traded the heterosexual partnership for a friendship, it was the first time in my life I honestly felt I was discovering my true self.

I grappled with this difficult gift and the necessity of navigating both my internalized toxic masculinity and the toxic masculinity and femme-phobia in queer spaces, anarchist spaces, and nonhuman animal rights movements. The more time I spent clean from drugs and alcohol and amongst feminist queers, the more my vast stores of trauma confronted me. I could interpret, but never excuse, my toxic behaviors as a result of surviving traumas which continue to shape me. As someone who did not start physical transition until I was 30, and who has spent most of my life being read as a nonnormative or very butch woman, my experiences with toxic masculinity are nothing like those of cis men. I view toxic transmasculine misogyny differently from its counterpart perpetuated by cis men; my own behaviors grew from experiences of rape, abuse, neglect, and other products of patriarchy and cis male violence directed against women. This is not to say cis men are never abused, but power relationships ensure it’s a different experience from what trans people endure. Neither do I defend toxic behavior. Contrariwise, I believe we must find and empathize with the roots of someone’s toxic behavior to dismantle it and stop it from harming others. Unlearning toxic masculinity and relearning to be vulnerable and sensitive is an ongoing project. Ironically, the development of several concurrent disabilities taught me how to seek and receive help from others, rather than keeping up the charade of being too tough to need anyone.

It was also difficult in these spaces to see the lack of care for nonhuman animals. Dyke communities boasted more vegetarians than others, but I met precious few queer and trans people who saw and cared about nonhuman animal suffering. Sometimes I saw masculinity behind this- pretty much anywhere outside veg contexts, people shoved the bodies of nonhuman animals into their mouths or joked about their their deaths. Animals are, as Carol Adams says, the absent referent. Sometimes even vegans would play along, especially women. Masculinity glorifies flesh-eating as a symbol of strength, and femininity urges women not to make a fuss. Hence a profusion of vegan women who continue to cook the bodies of dead animals for their male partners. Like many other groups, queer and trans people loved their dogs and cats, held fundraisers for their medical care, and treated them as parts of the family, while they piled their plates with slaughtered pigs, cows, chickens, turkeys, and others.

Have you ever watched a video on how to “pass” as male? Or tips for trans men? Even though I do not identify or see myself as a man, I have sought out videos like this to figure out how to survive. I believe it is a huge mistake to lump trans men and transmasculine people into the same category as cis men when we examine toxic masculinity. Even though there are a variety of ways masculine of center people identify (e.g. some trans men do see themselves as equivalent to cis men), the way masculinity is performed by trans people comes from different roots, is performed in different ways, and is sometimes done for different reasons (survival instead of power). Assimilation for reasons of survival cannot be placed in the same category as assimilation for reasons of power and control. I am not saying transmasculine people always fit into the former and that cis men always fit into the latter, but survival needs are different between the two.  Once I began to spend more time around trans men and trans masculine-of-center people, again I had to resist the influences of toxic transmasculinity.
When transmasculine people, especially straight trans men who want to move through the world the same way straight cis men do, seek out resources to achieve the goal of being read as who they truly are, tips frequently recommend misogyny and speciesism. The prescribed goal is not to change the world to make it less dangerous and more respectful of trans people, but to change yourself to fit more into the toxic ways this world defines masculinity. This means being louder, taking up more space, being more aggressive, not acting, walking, dressing, or talking “like a woman,” and so on. It means that if you dare do something that might be considered feminine like going vegan, calling yourself a feminist, painting your nails, or dating men, that you do so in the manliest way possible.
Queer and radical spaces absolutely offer a safer alternative than the rest of the world at times, but we all harbor the ability to act out from internalized oppression. We must work daily to eradicate our internalized misogyny, homophobia, trans antagonism, white supremacy/racism, classism, colorism, sizeism, ableism, and yes, speciesism. Much writing exists on how misogyny and speciesism intersect and feed each other. We also need to look more specifically at how transgender struggles intersect with and feed into speciesism.

Nonhuman animals are oppressed first on the level of species, but an animal’s sex, age, ability, and other factors will govern their outcome. Their human overlords feminize or emasculate them, using and abusing their bodies to best suit their palates and other whims. While reproductive oppression in humans predominantly affects women and female designated people in the realm of childbearing, childrearing, pregnancy, abortion, and more, in nonhuman animals, reproductive oppression affects all sexes in different ways based on species and sex. One of the most traumatic and horrific undercover videos I ever witnessed was that of a male macaque in a research laboratory being electrocuted to ejaculation so the lab could force pregnancy on a female macaque. Sex and reproductive capabilities determine what happens to the dairy cow who can no longer produce enough milk and the male calf who will never produce milk, the egg-laying hen whose egg count diminishes and the male chicks thrown in the grinder because they will never lay eggs, and so forth. Regarding age, most farmed animals are killed before they reach full adulthood. Laboratory animals are allowed to live based on their cost- rats are cheap and primates are expensive. Rats will be tortured in higher numbers and primates will be tortured for longer lifetimes.
What does non-toxic masculinity look like? Does it exist? It is beyond the scope of this writing to delve into value judgments of various aspects of masculine expression, but neither do I want to leave the reader with extensive criticism and no solutions.

This will sound trite, but be yourself. Many toxic masculine traits are learned or forced on us. They may be second nature now, but they probably took effort at one point. Trans and gender nonconforming people have unique experiences moving through the world being read as multiple genders and being treated differently based on how we are read. We who are masculine of center must not let the expectations of a masculinity-glorifying society guide us in how we perform or exist in our gender identities. There are countless ways to be trans and/or masculine of center.
Masculinity without toxicity means sensitivity, empathy, kindness, and supporting both humans and other animals. It means refusing to trade liberation for oppression to be read as the correct gender. It means refusing to use someone’s body without their consent. It means seeking enthusiastic consent, not just in our sexual relationships, but in all interactions in our lives. It means interacting with other masculine of center folks in loving, rather than aggressive ways, without allowing internalized homophobia and patriarchy stand in the way. It means defending nonhuman animals aside from masculinity-affirming dogs without fear of being perceived as feminine. It means self-aware distinctions between dysphoria when misgendered and the misogyny inherent in the fear of being associated with women or femininity. There will be times when we must do what we need to do to survive (like broing it up when trapped in the men’s room of a straight bar if we aren’t always read as men). But non-toxic masculinity means holding each other accountable and being accountable. It means challenging masculine of center people on misogynistic, femmephobic, homophobic, and patriarchal behaviors. It means talking less and making space for women and femmes to speak more. It means listening when they speak. It means making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and giving good apologies (“I’m sorry, I am learning, I will do better, thank you for telling me”). Masculinity is about nurturance of strength that comes from being confident in who we are without needing to harm someone else to prove that confidence. Healthy masculinity is about love, humility, self care, and care for others.

Having kind, respectful, consensual, supportive, nurturing, and humble interactions with all species, including our own, dismantles toxic masculinity and strengthens all of our abilities to interact in healthy ways. We cannot sustain movements, be they for humans or nonhuman animals, without sustaining our own health and our relationships.

[1]N.b., this is a critique of predatory messaging from cosmetic companies, not a criticism of people who wear make up for whatever reasons.
[2] To this day, The Sexual Politics of Meat and pattrice jones’ more recently published Oxen at the Intersection are the books I lend out when people want to read about animal liberation as so much more than single issue.

I want to thank Adrienne for proof reading and editing this piece.