orlando shooting victims

A Queer Latinx Mourning After The Orlando Shooting

I was back in my homeland of Puerto Rico—the first time in two years—for a professional conference when I heard the news about the Orlando shooting.

I sat around a table, ordering pancakes as big as my face, surrounded by fellow members of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network. We ate, talked shop, and decompressed after some difficult events that weekend. There was a TV on next to us—flashing lights and “ORLANDO SHOOTING” in big letters displayed on the bottom of the screen.

It’s too early for this. We’re already so weary.

Not until later did I actually pay attention to the news. I was in work mode, though, and nothing sunk in. Later that night, I hopped a plane back to Boston and came home to an empty bed. I craved human contact, craved my queer partners, craved community as I read the names of the dead late into the night, crying and unable to sleep. I wanted to light candles, whisper Spanish into the sky and honor the dead, but I could only witness the little information available and sob in the dark, thankful I only had a few clients to see the next day.

On Monday, I watched a mother recount the last words she exchanged with her son as they texted during the shooting. On Monday, I watched the last Snapchat videos various victims filmed that night, including one with gunshots in the background. On Monday, I couldn’t feel rage because my nerves were too tangled in sadness and exhaustion. On Monday, I told one of my partners that I was randomly crying throughout the day.

“It’s not random if you’re grieving, boo. They killed your *family*”

Their words settled in my chest. They killed my family. 

I’ve never been one to grieve over strangers, but this felt personal. They were fellow queers, fellow people of color, fellow Latinx, fellow people of complicated genders, out to have a good time. 

23 out of 49 victims were Puerto Ricans like me.

So I could try to speak of the rage at how many White queers have put themselves at the center of this grief like they were the center of the universe. I could try to speak of the disgust at how many have spun this into Islamophobic propaganda, speak of the frustration at how this has been turned into a detached debate about gun control.

I could try to speak to how I see this as part of a web of violence, threads connecting the ALMOST WEEKLY murders of trans people and especially the violence against trans women and femmes; the slaughter and erasure of Natives; African enslavement; police brutality targeting Black and brown bodies; harsh immigration policies; lynchings and gay-bashings; harmful legislation about where we can go to the bathroom, how we can dress, and how we can reproduce (or not); and the present-day colonization of Puerto Rico. 

And I could try to speak about the hope for the future and the ways we are strong and resilient, of how I see love as the long-term fuel we need for our movements.

But all I can speak to right now is holding sorrow in the same hands I try to hold hope, and how sometimes my hands don’t feel big enough.

All I can speak to right now is my fear that one day it will be me and my familia… and realizing that it already is.

All I can speak to right now is how intensely I want to protect my communities and how I want to care for my QT/POC lovers with such ferocity that the world trembles.

All I can speak to right now is the grief at those misgendered after death, those outed to families who would reject them, those whose undocumented status prevents families from reaching their bodies, those who survived and are wracked with guilt…all the ripples of pain spreading throughout Orlando and mi isla and the entire continent. 

The atom of the Latinx universe is the family, not the individual, and so the number of broken hearts balloons much larger than the 49 dead and 53 wounded. This is why community matters. This is why we gather together at places and times like these.

So I hold space for all those who grieve in secret, whose workplaces and families and surroundings don’t acknowledge how this has carved open their chest. I hold space for those who are in helping professions trying to keep their ish together in front of clients as their insides splinter. I hold space for you, for me, for us. For those who are confused about their grief, for those who are numb, for those whose rage rises like bile, for those who have lost so much already and feel this as another drop in the bucket that’s already overflowing. 

By being queer and trans we have inherited legacies of mourning, loss, and persecution. By being Latinx, we have inherited legacies of discrimination, colonization, and diaspora. And we must remember that we have also been passed down resistance, power, healing, life. 

Como dice el refrán: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds”

To all those who were taken too soon: descansen en poder, and may you never thirst. 


Part of this was originally published on Autostraddle’s roundtable of queer Latinxs, and the rest was crafted for a vigil in Boston focusing on Q/T/POC in the wake of the Orlando shooting. Header image via a Buzzfeed article on the Orlando Shooting victims

David Bowie: Time to Mourn or Call Out?

Every other week, I co-lead an all-gender process and support group. Last night, one of our topics of discussion was, of course, David Bowie. Some of the people in the room felt displaced, distraught by his death. In this intergenerational space we held those who grew up knowing David Bowie was a big deal already as well as those who grew up along with David Bowie and saw his career take off. In this space, we shared stories of the personal meanings of his life as well as the confusing feelings left in his wake as some of us discovered information about his abuses and problematic behaviors. Yesterday, all throughout social media, I saw countless stories shared of how David Bowie’s music touched a million queer and trans people of varying races, ages, and countries. I have seen my newsfeed inundated with people’s shock and memories, with the ways in which he inspired them in ways they did not even know until he passed, with the ways he changed music, science fiction, and gender.

And yesterday is also when I found out about the rape allegations against him (that were cleared by a jury, but I also know that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen) and the facts of his statutory rape of a 14/15-year-old. And so my feed has also been ripe with explosive anger as well as nuanced discomfort, frustration, and exhaustion.

David Bowie and J. C. in Labyrinth Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images

David Bowie and J. C. in Labyrinth Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection / Getty Images

So what am I, a gender/queer Latinx, supposed to feel and do about this cultural icon? As someone who has worked for years on preventing and dealing with sexual assault and abuse? As someone who teaches on consent and believes in the incredible power and knowledge of youth as well as the incredible vulnerability of the teen years? As someone who sees White stars get a pass for things that celebrities of color get crucified for? As someone who works with many people feeling intense things about David Bowie’s death? As someone who grew up watching Labyrinth way more than should’ve been allowed but still did not feel the connection to Bowie that so many others do?

And how should others feel? The survivors of sexual abuse and assault hearing the streams of praise for someone accused of rape? The queer and trans kids of yesteryear for whom David Bowie’s music became a lifeline, became a hope when they considered suicide? The people living at that intersection? I don’t ask this because I have the ultimate answers or get off on telling others what to do (I mean, maybe, but that’s another story), but because we need to have the discussion and figure out where we stand and what that means.

Help: Feelings Are Hard and Complicated!

Our reluctance to have an honest and open conversation about the flaws of celebrities we love stems from a simple fact: we see ourselves in them. If your favorite smart, talented, successful celebrity can be classist, sexist or racist then what does that say about you? Well, it says that you can be classist, sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic.

But you can and you are at least some of these things sometimes. So am I. Own it. Learn from it. It’s not an attack, it’s the truth. Nobody is a perfect example of civil rights virtue. If you aren’t screwing up, you aren’t trying.

– Ijeoma Oluo

For those who are not mourning David Bowie: We can and must critique deplorable actions regardless of who is committing them. We must also acknowledge space for people’s grief, and respect the very real pain felt by people when in mourning. This does not mean erase people’s problematic, terrifying, horrible, disgusting, whatever actions. It means respect the fact that many people are feeling sadness. Bowie is dead; the people we should hold in kindness are those that feel the loss. It does not mean we have to mourn, erect banners, engage in commentary that doesn’t feel authentic to us. It does not mean we shouldn’t feel our feelings and get enraged at the ways the media perpetuate rape culture and gloss over issues we care about. It does mean we should allow for space to exist where people who are sad and hurt can congregate and feel their feelings. It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and vent our rage at this situation and David Bowie’s actions but not at the expense of those who are mourning.

Are we critiquing Bowie or his fans? Are we centering the cultural object or the person? Are we critiquing the abuses he committed or the fact that people can have big, complex feelings about it and are mourning his death? Are we critiquing how certain stars get so much praise upon their death and get their sins wiped away, but certain stars don’t? Are we critiquing how, due to ignorance and White supremacy, many mourn the loss of a White star and ignore the losses of countless people of color at the hands of police brutality? Are we critiquing people’s sadness to get cool points for not feeling anything? Are we assuming people can’t feel multiple things at once?

We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

hunky-dory-sessions david bowie

For those who are mourning David Bowie: We have a right to time and space to grieve, to heal, to reminisce, to do whatever we have to do to feel whole. And we must not use our grief as a way to silence survivors of sexual abuse, even if we are survivors ourselves. We must remember that we do not have to immediately engage in a discussion of the problematic aspects of David Bowie with strangers (or even friends) if it feels too raw. We eventually must, however, engage with these and incorporate them into our understanding of Bowie because he was an icon but also a person. We should allow space for the pain of those who have experienced abuse and been repeatedly silenced, especially because so many have been abused by people like Bowie, by people in positions like his and with followings like his, and people have looked the other way “because they have done so much good for the community.” It means we should find those who are in a similar spot as us and air out our feelings in ways that feel helpful but not at the expense of acknowledging rape culture and abuse.

Are we conflating our mourning of Bowie the person with Bowie-what-the-icon-and-the-music-meant-to-us (and thus really mourning a piece of ourselves and our world)? Are we mourning in a way that erases all wrongdoing and promotes Bowie as a perfect cyborg of queer and trans visibility? Are we ignoring the impact of race, age, and money in these discussions? Are we mourning in a public forum and keeping eerily silent about the ways in which David Bowie abused his power? Are we mourning for David Bowie and ridiculing or ignoring the mourning for countless lives lost in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq?

We must think about our audience and the impact of our words on our communities. We must think about the intersections and how we highlight or erase them. We must ask ourselves why we are raising our voice and in service of what.

OUR FAV IS PROBLEMATIC (#SorryNotSorry, David Bowie)

We tend to hold the people of whom we are fans to the same moral standards we hold friends, often expecting them to echo our politics or sensibilities in the same way that their art, whatever it may be, speaks to us. By definition, fame requires those on the outside looking in to rely on imagination to prop up celebrity narratives; the public’s glimpses into the lives and personalities of the famous are so mediated that though we think we know, we have no idea. Fame encourages us to fill in the blank spaces around these people with what we want to see, with what reaffirms our pre-existing assumptions. It’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to art we like, and to the artists who make it, we expect to see reflections of ourselves in them, even on the simplest of levels.

– Rawiya Kameir

Understanding that “our faves are problematic“is not a carte-blanche to excuse people from their wrongdoing because “everyone is problematic” (and trust me, there are a lot of examples/receipts showing that most of the people we like have shoved their foot in their mouth pretty deeply). We still have a matter of degrees and impact. And we must also remember that a mentality of “kill all people who do anything wrong ever” won’t get us anywhere in the long run. We can both remember and forgive as a people. We can hold folks accountable and keep them with us. We can remember, not forgive, and still move forward. We have options.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

Most of us know of Bowie as an icon, as a rocker, an artist, an actor, a pioneer—a larger than life concept—rather than Bowie as a living, breathing individual. We have to contend with the fact that the human Bowie (not the persona he crafted or what he meant to us or what his music did for our souls and survival) abused his power and privilege.

It can be difficult and scary and destabilizing to hold the reality of loving someone and/or thinking they’ve done amazing things with the realities of those same people doing horrible things, but that’s how the world is. This is what intersectionality is all about—about understanding the ways our intersecting identities make up our privileges and oppressions, about the complex ways in which our experiences and pieces form our whole.

Just like the queer and trans people who aren’t survivors of sexual abuse/assault should acknowledge the pain coming from survivors, straight and cisgender survivors should acknowledge the pain coming from queer and trans people. And those at the intersections—the queer and trans survivors—who feel confused as hell and torn (or staunchly on one side of the fence!) need our holding too. In discussing David Bowie’s death, we need to eliminate the transphobia, homophobia, and rape culture apologism in many of these conversations. These are all toxic forces that hurt our world.

We should not simply dismiss David Bowie’s artistic legacy and the impact he had on many AND we should not dismiss the allegations of rape and the realities of how he had sex with a 14/15-year old when he was a powerful and revered adult.

We must also listen to the people who interacted with Bowie instead of putting words in their mouth while also recognizing that there are larger forces at play—that just because someone does not feel victimized, it does not mean David Bowie did not take actions that were predatory and could have victimized someone else in the same situation. We can say “it was the 70’s!” and “things were different back then with all the free-flowing drugs!” or whatever to give context, but not to justify abuse and harmful behaviors. Some of us may feel puzzlement, disbelief, discomfort, and a lot of other emotions toward Lori M.’s account of her relationships with David Bowie and Jimmy Page, but we must understand that it is her story and not ours. Just because some of us would have felt or acted differently does not erase her reality and her truth. And we must also pay attention to what this narrative does in the public sphere.

Marginalized people and experiences are usually not neatly categorized and picture-perfect for the consumption of social movements. And when they ARE, or seem to be, something fishy is probably going on.

Older David Bowie

Moving Through & Beyond “KILL ALL RAPISTS”

A carceral, punishment-based justice system where we value an eye for an eye will not save us. It may feel good in the moment and scratch that “revenge” itch, but it will not save us. Booting “bad people” off the island will leave us with an empty island. What will save us is compassion, understanding, accountability, transformation, and restoration of justice. This is not easy, but it is what we must do. And it is not SIMPLE, but it is what we must strive for if we truly want to live in a different, better world. It does not mean we ignore bad things or ~*~magically forgive people and hug them even when they threaten our existence~*~ (more on this in a second).

As far as David Bowie and his work, each of us has to figure out how these things connect in our lives. Some people may swear off his music, some will not. Some people may feel revulsion when they seem him in movies they used to love, some may not. We can figure out how we as a society may honor the great work and things he put out in the world while not erasing his wrongdoing. Bowie is neither the first nor the last celebrity we’ll have to think about in these ways. We better start practicing these trains of thought if we weren’t doing so already (and many of us have been thinking about this for a while, especially in POC communities).

It’s easy for me to have compassion for people I like and see eye-to-eye with, for people who haven’t harmed me. Seeing those people as valuable humans who have worth, who deserve kindness and safety and care from the world and from me personally – that’s easy. Extending the same compassion and open-heartedness to everyone – to the people that have hurt me, to the people I disagree with about everything, to the people who would never listen to me or extend any care or empathy or understanding to me, to the people who don’t think I deserve humanity or kindness or safety – that takes a little more doing. Giving that kind of love is hard and painful.

Now, to be realistic about this, having compassion for people that have harmed me or that mean me harm doesn’t mean I need to allow them to be near me. It doesn’t mean I need to put my own safety at risk. And it also doesn’t mean that this compassion can’t genuinely coexist with real and powerful rage. But my hurt and my rage don’t obviate a person’s right to exist, to feel compassion, to be loved.

– Andy Izenson

As for me? I feel as Andy does. I choose to come to this from a perspective of radical love. Not always and not easily, but with intention and complexity and imperfection.

http://subtlecluster.tumblr.com/post/134001552016/this-radical-love-fosters-community-and-emerges

On Facebook Silence Regarding Charleston Shooting

I usually post a lot about current events on Facebook, and I have no qualms about bringing POC struggles into White spaces, but my Facebook friends list has a lot of POC and I’m going to be limiting these posts for a while [or, if needed, put them under heavy content/trigger warnings]. It’s important to raise awareness, and White people shouldn’t use “I don’t wanna traumatize POC” as a cop-out to NOT talk about these issues, but right now I am taking a step back and hoping my wall can offer more healing for my communities, and especially the Black folks with whom I stand in solidarity because even in POC spaces we aren’t the same.

To my Black loved ones:

I see you, I witness you, and I stand with you.

So consider this my main post, and read this news roundup by Autostraddle. I’m not quiet and I will never be quiet about these issues, but right now, my wall will not be the place for them. That said, as someone on Twitter so eloquently put, if you’re calling 21 year-old Roof a “child” and had no issue calling 18 year-old Mike Brown a man, you need to check your internalized racism. If you call Roof “a lone wolf” and focus on “wow, he must have a mental illness” instead of on the fact that this was a hate crime against Black people in a country that wholesale devalues Black people while it appropriates their culture, you need to check yourself. You need to recognize that the narrative of White crime is always “lone wolf” and “mental illness” whereas any POC get immediately labeled thugs and terrorists. As someone IN the mental health field, discussing mental health and care is vital, but NOT when it’s a tactic to derail conversations about hate crimes and structural racism, or try to explain away actions like the shooting in Charleston.

Beyond our U.S. borders, we need to open our eyes to see the connections between the mass planned deportations of residents of the‪ #‎DominicanRepublic‬ who are of Haitian descent and the “social cleanses” in other countries. The Holocaust is not our “biggest and baddest” systematic extermination of people, and we need to stop pretending it is or was. We need to see the connections with mass deportations and ICE holds here in the U.S./Mexico border.

If you think that racist jokes are harmless, and that “it’s not like my friend Joe Schmo would actually hurt Black people or something,” remember that that’s the same exact thing Roof’s friends thought. Think of how many POC have been forced to leave spaces they once considered home because of racism, big and “small.” Think of how many POC on social media now are needing to take breaks from all their platforms because this is too much to bear—too much violence, too much hate, too much White silence and complicity. Think of how many POC feel an undercurrent of fear and anxiety every day due to White supremacy in this society. Think of how many POC are not even in a PLACE to avoid most racism in their lives even if they try. Microaggressions are violence, period, and we need to stop acting like the only “real racism” requires a massacre to qualify.

If all you see when you look at videos of police brutality—and especially of police beating up 12 year-old Black girls, of police arresting and dragging Black youth at pool parties—is “police in a tough situation making the best of it,” you need to crack open a newspaper, read a good history book, open up social media sites, look around, and see what’s actually going on and has been going on for years. If you reply with “All Lives Matter” to Black cries for justice, accountability, and visibility, you need to stop and understand that BLM exists because in our current society, all lives are NOT seen as mattering, and that’s what some of us are seeking to change. If you “don’t even see race, and didn’t even realize the races of the people in the videos,” it’s time that you bucked up and acknowledged you do see race unless you are LITERALLY VISUALLY IMPAIRED and you’re pretending it doesn’t matter in this world. Your “postracial, colorblind” rhetoric helps no one but White supremacy and those who benefit from it. If you think this post involves or implicates you, it certainly does.

If you know the name of ‪#‎RachelDolezal‬, but don’t know the names Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi [the founders of the‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ movement], learn them. If you know Roof’s name, but don’t know the names of the people he murdered, you better learn them today:

  • Cynthia Hurd, 54, branch manager for the Charleston County Library System
  • Susie Jackson, 87, longtime church member
  • Ethel Lance, 70, employee of Emanuel AME Church for 30 years
  • Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions counselor of Southern Wesleyan University
  • The Honorable Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, state senator, Reverend of Emanuel AME Church
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26, earned business administration degree from Allen University
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74, retired pastor (died at MUSC)
  • Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, track coach at Goose Creek High School
  • Myra Thompson, 59, church member

I try to channel as much empathy as I can muster, and I work hard to educate others, and I remember when I was a teenager who had no clue how racism was still so very real because I was consistently told “it was still there, but mostly a thing of the past,” and I try to be compassionate…but once you see the belly of this beast, it is the most tiring of endeavors to have to unearth it again and again for people who claim there’s not even a beast in the first place.

It is painful, and often even lethal, to have your humanity and the humanity of those you consider family denied. It is horrifying to have friends, family, siblings in fraternal bonds, co-workers, colleagues, deny these realities and try to explain away these inequities. If you don’t see this pain manifested, it’s probably because the POC around you don’t trust you to share their pain with you. Just because you don’t easily see it around you doesn’t mean it’s not there. How many POC friends do you even have, if you’re White? For a great majority of Americans, the answer is zero/few. Think about that.

If you do have POC around you, especially Black folks at a time like this, don’t ask them to explain racism to you. Don’t force them to discuss these issues. Ask them how you can help. Work to honor their feelings, their likely rage, and their inevitable sadness. Help them heal, or give them space if that’s what they need. Respect their words, as well as their silence. Stand in solidarity with them, with us, and ACTIVELY do something to make the world better and less racist. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY.


 

A version of this post was originally published on my personal FB account. Never fear: I will continue actively blogging on here and other platforms about these issues.

Header image source.

The REAL Origin of the African Birth Song: Surprise, It’s Racist

As many of you know, I spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr. Though it has a ton of problems (like refusing to shut down blogs being used to harass women, trans folks, and people of color), I’ve had an account since 2008 and it has accompanied me on my journey through college, years in the working world, and now—graduate school while I juggle staying in my field with expanding my horizons. I’ve found brilliant things on there, and while some posts only garner a tiny modicum of attention even if they’re wonderful, other posts can spread like WILDFIRE and go hugely viral. One such post is this one, about an “African birth song,” which almost has 150K notes:

[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.

In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.

The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.

And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.

You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well. You may feel a little warbly at the moment, but so have all the great singers. Just keep singing and you’ll find your way home.

Heartwarming. Much inspiration. Wow. So beautiful we could all cry a thousand tiny tears.

So what’s the problem, in a nutshell?

The “African birth song” is a half-baked invention of a White man that essentializes the “African experience” and does not event attempt to give any real details because it relies on collective ignorance about Africa that centers the world on a White axis. The text above does not provide any sources or even NAME this African tribe (though other versions do, but I’ll get into that later). The story uses exotification, the Noble Savage Myth, and people’s ignorance to make others feel warm n’ fuzzy and perpetuate incorrect narratives in the name of New Agey birth BS. This Tumblr post specifically, as many others have when they get reblogged, also uses the image/body of a RANDOM, unnamed indigenous woman from the Himba tribe. The list of problems goes on, because in the eyes of many non-African people, Africa is apparently just one huge jungle where everyone looks and acts the same, and all women run around topless feeling super connected to Mother Earth or something, giving birth in The Most Spiritual Ways We Should All Be Inspired By.

Himba woman who always remains nameless in reblogs of this stupid story.

Himba woman whose picture is used in reblogs of this story and always remains nameless.

Though this post focuses on Black and Indigenous folks, the same rule applies when discussing all other communities of color: we are not here to be your nameless, faceless inspirational memes. We want to be seen for who we are, and we want our own voices uplifted, not those of White folks who cannibalize our histories and profit off inaccuracies and tall tales.

Origins Of “THE AFRICAN BIRTH SONG” And Its Variations

While the story sounded cool and all at face-value, I knew there was more digging to be done because this smelled pretty fishy. What’s the real root of this “African Birth Song”? Beyond Tumblr and Facebook,  I found some other birth/parenting websites linking to this story, and that it has even been translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. It has been called “Your Song,” “The Song of Men,” “Remember Your Song,” “The Song of the Soul,” and more. The Birth Psychology website sources this book (“Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” by Sobonfu Somé) as the origin of the text but, SURPRISE, I looked at it and the book doesn’t actually make mention of this story—though it does describe other ritual birth practices in certain African tribes.

Some don’t even try to source it to a person, and say this tradition comes from Namibia as a whole. Others say it’s rooted in the Himba people (the picture above, and the “featured image” for this post by J. Gerrits, are Himba women), even though the location of that tribe is apparently in an arid area, so there wouldn’t be a “jungle” to go to as the story say. Meanwhile, other Internetters say the source is the “Ubuntu tribe” even though there is, uh, no such thing—Ubuntu is a philosophy. Again, we see a trend: folks ascribing things to peoples they do not know or understand because they sound “appropriate” or “distant enough” to be credible (and again, such credibility relies on assuming the audience is NOT from Africa or any of these communities).

Aminata Traore, not Tolba Phanem

This is actually Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali, NOT Tolba Phanem.

Those that try to credit an individual (aside from Sobonfu Somé) cite “Tolba Phanem (African poet), 2007” and use another image of a Himba woman to accompany the post. Some websites say that Tolba Phanem is a great women’s rights activist, and show off her “picture.” Except a reverse image-search on Google shows me that the picture they are using is actually of Aminata Traorè, the Ex-Minister of Culture from Mali.

It actually looks like Tolba Phanem doesn’t actually exist, and the person who truly originated this story is a dude named Alan Cohen*, who published it in Issue #33 of Pathways to Family Wellness—”a quarterly print and digital magazine whose non-profit mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.” (If someone does find that Phanem is a real person, do let me know. I found nothing on her that was accurate/unrelated to this “poem/story.” And even the websites that cite very specific sources for this story don’t seem to return any hits or information—AND they also show incorrect facts that I *can* verify easily which makes them less credible from the get-go.)

[*EDIT 4/19/16: Commenters have been kind enough to keep digging and sourcing further. There seems to be another thread to this story linked to a White, Jewish man named Jack Kornfield which you can read about in this comment thread. I reached out to him but never received a response. Seems like HE may have been the originator of this story before Alan Cohen, but there is still no information about legitimate connections to actual tribal practices.]

So there we go. This story is a load of crap being adorned with “exotic” origin stories in efforts to legitimize it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who was skeptical, but not everyone’s skepticism drew them to my same eyebrow-raising and frustration. For example, this person was also skeptical, but much to my facepalming, this was their conclusion:

I’m an artist. A spontaneous, story-singing artist.
I work in the abstract and unproven, the ethereal and profound.
I make up stories and songs all of the time.
And they’re true.
They are invented and (sometimes) nonsensical, and maybe they never happened, but at the heart and at the center, they are true.
Because when we hear them (or tell them), we can imagine and believe that they really happened.
Or wish that they had.
This is a true story.

On some level, I get it. I used to do a lot of art, and I am surrounded by artists, writers, and storytellers. I know not everything that gets written down has to be non-fiction, and that we can spin stories out of grains of truth and blah blah blah. I get it. But to use THAT as an excuse for writing racially busted stories, and especially those that go viral on social media? No. Your art is not an excuse. Your art does not exist in a vacuum. Your art is not separate from the systems of racism and oppression in which we live, and to be an artist is not to be exempt from cultural critique and social responsibility. If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.

Connections To Reality & Healing/Justice

So is this “African birth song” remotely related to actual tribal birth practices in Africa? Or indigenous work around healing? Sort of. Does the idea of being “in tune with our song” sound deep, and like it would be amazing to find ways of achieving justice that don’t just rely on punitive measures, but instead look beyond that and aim for reintegration and accountability? Heck yes. But none of that erases the racist mess I describe above. However, let’s leave that behind for a bit so we can look at what connection this actually has to reality.

Because I don’t know much about birthing practices in Africa, and I doubt I could do ANY sort of justice to an entire CONTINENT in a single blog-post, I’ll focus on the healing/justice portions.

Indigenous/ABORIGINAL/FIRST NATIONS healing circleS

  • Here’s a quick explanation of what healing circles are all about and where they come from. Though there are not a ton of studies about them as far as “evidence-based research” goes, there are some folks working on this kind of thing (example!), and I was honored to meet a group of them at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference.

Restorative justice, transformative justice, and community accountability

The line “The [group] recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity” encapsulates a big part of the RJ, TJ, and CA models. While different organizations may have different definitions of these concepts and how they relate to each other, at its core, the ideas behind these models and principles are that a) communities as a whole must be involved in eradicating violence, b) perpetrators of violence should not just be “passively responsible” for their actions, and c) healing must be directed by survivors and those impacted by the violence. Finally, a tenet of TJ (though not always RJ) is  the idea that we must transform—not merely slightly modify—our societal structures that currently enable violence and set up punishments for it.

  • Here’s a great resource that explains both TJ and CA with text, graphics, and a list of resources. It also gives credit where credit is due (read: to groups like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation Five for their work theorizing, writing, and operationalizing these concepts). This other resource also gives more historical background on it because our current police state wasn’t always what it is now, and this one discusses how the RJ model has been co-opted by the criminal justice system in certain ways (and thus how TJ can be an alternative to that).
  • Another slew of resources aggregated by Critical Resistance on addressing harm, accountability, and healing. It lists books, toolkits, zines, websites, articles, and more. While CR focuses on the prison industrial complex (PIC), this list of tools is about multiple forms of violence, including sexual assault, DV, state violence, and so on.
  • Here’s the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which “embracing the values of social justice and liberation, is a space to re/envision solutions to domestic or intimate partner, sexual, family and other forms of interpersonal violence.”
  • The Revolution Starts at Home is a fabulous book, and here’s an excerpt on these kind of strategies from a grassroots lens.
  • Here’s another CA wheel that focuses on domestic violence and explains what kind of actions should be taken by men, media, educational systems, the justice system, clergy, etc. (though it’s heteronormative and presents men as the only batterers).

SO IS THIS STORY WORTH IT OR NAH?

I think the ideas about healing and community-building in this story are awesome, but Mr. Cohen is not the originator of the concepts AND he’s using a racist, colonialist, tired ol’ lens to share his regurgitated opinion. Thus, I think that while this story has some good nuggets in it, there are WAY better resources and texts out there to illustrate these concepts in ways that are historically accurate, relevant, and non-oppressive. We ALL deserve better than this story.

[Added 2:15 pm EST] While this may seem small to some of you, this is part of a larger trend—this is a pattern, not a story in isolation. If you’re an educator, activist, teacher, parent, speaker, power-wielder of some sort, imagine incorporating this into a lesson about media literacy in a classroom, so students can find appropriate sources of information for projects. Imagine incorporating this into a workshop about birthing practices if you work with expecting parents. Imagine bringing this into a discussion about POC solidarity, or a lecture about art and social responsibility, or a class about international feminism.

The Neverending Story (A.K.A. The Ballad of Margaret Brooks and The CSPH)

I love open letters, especially humorous ones like those I used to read back when I was 13 years old and were aimed at celebrities like Tom Felton (who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series—don’t judge me). Coming in close second, my other favorite types of open letters are those that shed light on things that had previously been hidden in the shadows.

Today, an open letter went out—from Erin Basler-Francis, one of our champs at The Center for Sexual Pleasure & Health, to Margaret Brooks. (This is not the first time she gets an open letter like this, though the one I wrote years ago was much shorter and crankier). You should click over and read it, stat. Here’s some context:

The CSPH has faced a fair amount of adversity since its inception in 2009. Members of the Citizens Against Trafficking (an anti-rights, sex work abolitionist group) continue to harass staff and supporters of The Center, particularly regarding our outreach on college campuses. These bullies use both overt and hidden tactics in an attempt to delegitimize the importance of conversations about sexuality, pleasure, sex work, and sexual rights.

Most recently, Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks, director of the Economics Department at Bridgewater State University, sent a series of emails to the provost of Vanderbilt University using a series of red herring, slippery slope, and equivocation arguments as well as ad hominem attacks in an attempt to convince the school that it would be legally liable for sexual assaults that occurred on campus after the Study Sex College Tour workshop, “Brilliant in Bed.” While not the only protestation, Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks decision to use rhetoric causally linking pleasure focused sexuality education to sexual assault on campus is both inaccurate and insidious. 

We at The CSPH have chosen to address this issue publicly because the tactics used by Dr. Margaret Landman Brooks in this case are irresponsible and dangerous when the context of the climate at Vanderbilt University, as well as the current conversations around sexual assault, BDSM, and Intimate Partner Violence.

While part of me kind of wants to commend Margaret Brooks for her passion, it’s terribly saddening that it manifests in the ways it does and I cannot in good conscience do so. We shouldn’t stand for the bullying of youth, and we should also not stand for the bullying of adults at the hands of other adults. Obviously, if you’re working toward social justice and not ruffling feathers, you’re not making big enough waves (to, uh, mix some metaphors there), but man—the repercussions aren’t pretty, and we need to change that.

boston snow

Pictured here: the Snowpocalypse that’s as cold as the attitude from Donna Hughes.

It’s not like we haven’t reached out to Ms. Brooks, either. We’ve personally invited her and her crew to our events, and extended olive branches in the spirit of dialogue both online and in person, and none of them have been acknowledged or even accepted. In fact, we’ve been pretty straightforward and transparent in all our dealings. To her credit, I guess, she DID shake my hand once? This is when I was trying to show her I was a real person and not some nameless undergrad she could just bully without having to ever face. That is more than I can say for Donna Hughes (a professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island—how appropriate, right?), who very much did not shake my hand when I greeted her and gave me a cold shoulder of Boston weather proportions. It was pretty epic. But I digress.

Margaret Brooks is the same person who (along with Donna Hughes and Melanie Shapiro) tried to get a slew of events (including KFAPVD) I organized at Brown University canceled while I was an undergraduate. This is the cohort that misrepresented SO many things about the work the Sexual Health Education & Empowerment Council (SHEEC) at Brown and The CSPH were doing. This is the person that sent countless emails to Brown’s administration (including the President) warning them of the “dangers” of these events, blatantly spread inaccurate/misleading information, and wrote bulletins claiming that we were to blame for a spike in young RI men contracting HIV. This is one of the people that made my time at Brown tough for a while, and made me have to watch my back really carefully.

On some level, I’m glad it started early so I could protect myself before things got too serious, and I’m very fortunate to consistently work in spaces that respect my endeavors and where I can be open about who I am and what I do, but many people aren’t as fortunate

This is the person that sent my personal Twitter account to professors and deans before it was something I shared as publicly as I do now. This is the same person that sent critique-laden, alarmist emails to my supervisors at Sojourner House—about my personal life and affiliations to organizations that believe in kink/BDSM education and reproductive justice—trying to possibly get me fired, and definitely trying to put me in hot water and endanger a health fair I was coordinating. Fortunately, I was out about my identities at Sojourner House, because if I hadn’t been, she would have outed me to the director and my supervisor, as well as other colleagues. That is not okay.

I am eternally grateful to all the professors, deans, staff, friends, and colleagues who were and have been supportive, understanding and wonderful throughout all this and its multiple iterations. You know who you are. Thank you for believing in me and in sexuality education. While Brown is a deeply flawed institution, certainly, I am incredibly proud that they institutionally backed up my right to hold the events I did, and supported my health and dignity during that process. I firmly believe I didn’t bear a bigger burden while I was an undergrad because I was still a student and thus not as “fair game” as professionals in the working world.

You know who was the fairest game of them all, and the original target? Megan Andelloux—one of the best and most hardworking educators in the field today. megan andellouxMargaret Brooks is the person that time and time again contacts places where Megan Andelloux and her close friends/colleagues present with scare tactics in efforts to squash their/our attempts at education. This bullying not only harms the institutions and their populations who are sometimes deprived of accurate sexuality education, but it takes a huge emotional toll on honest, hardworking sexuality educators and advocates who are trying to make the world a better, more sexually literate place. The case with Vanderbilt is not the first time this happens.

This is the cohort of people that tried to stop The CSPH from opening back in 2009/2010. The same cohort of people that have accused my colleagues of pedophilia because they believe in giving kids accurate sexuality information and answering their questions at whatever age they start asking them. This is the cohort that, under the guise of “academic” and/or “professional” writing used blatant inaccuracies and decontextualizations (not to mention shoddy record-keeping and citations) to “make points” about how, basically, we are The Worst.

As far as ethics and academic integrity, I would expect better from a Brown alumna/Economics professor and a Women’s Studies professor.

This needs to stop, and we need people to listen. We will keep doing the work we do because we believe in it, and these things are not going to stop us, but we are not made of steel. We are committed to bringing these issues to light, but remember—all this takes a toll. How are you helping break down this misinformation? How are you supporting the victims of bullying and stalking and professional attacks? If you’re not already, imagine having to watch your back constantly for people like this. Where will they be next? What professional gig will they try to wreck soon? What kind of misinformation will they try to spread? This is why we need to speak up and support each other.

50 Shades of WTF: A Livetweeting Experience (Book 1 of Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy)

Love it or hate it, the ridiculously popular Fifty Shades trilogy has spread like wildfire so it’s crucial that we take a closer look at what this story is actually about. (I know I’m about a million years late in writing about this, but with the movies coming out, it finally felt like the right time.) Take the plunge with me and look forward to word-counts, memes, alternate universe versions of the story, and actual tips. Read my Storify [here]. This is just one piece in a larger series of posts I’m writing as a lead-up to Valentine’s day, so get ready for more!

50 shades doge

The Ferguson Masterpost: How To Argue Eloquently & Back Yourself Up With Facts

We encourage you to share the link to this rather than reblogging the entire post (since this is frequently updated and we want to minimize the spread of outdated info!): bit.ly/FergusonAEM. Also, comment volume is high enough that personal replies are not always possible anymore; browse through the comments & see if your issues/ideas have been addressed there.

As the folks from Sexplanations say: stay curious! Know that this is just one drop in the bucket. We encourage you to do your own research and follow the links so you can make your own informed opinion.


Introduction From The Curator

Updates & Notes After Initial Publication

Note (12/1/14 at 11:45 PM EST): Overall goal is to overhaul this post in the coming weeks so that it’s easier to read and further updated—taking into account the many, many comments flowing in. An “archive” GoogleDoc version will be made of its previous iteration for transparency and a new cleaned up version (with an extended introduction or a link to another post with such information, as well as a more cohesive author voice hopefully!) will be posted here in its place. Once it has reached an acceptable level/condition, we will probably close edits and comments.

Note (12/1/14 at 2:19 PM EST & 5:25 PM): For those of you asking, I am moderating posts, yes. If a comment is spam or hatemail w/ no points, it’s not going through. If it’s arguing against statements we’re linking to or things we’ve said, that can be posted [but if it’s clear you didn’t read or are willfully misinterpreting the post, nope]. For those of you leaving long refutations or additional details, thank you for taking the time to do so. I have some colleagues working to sort through those before approving the comments so we can fact-check and incorporate into the text as needed. It’s finals season in my world!

Note (11/30/14 at 12:35 PM EST): This was initially meant to be a smaller post, but I feel a duty to keep updating and fleshing it out. Still, I won’t be able to go past a certain point. That said, I hope it’s still helpful to y’all in whatever iteration is final & that you continue the conversation.

Note (11/29/14 at 8:00 PM EST): Holy moly, this got a ton of traction. Thanks to all the folks sharing, commenting, and helping us correct typos, inaccuracies, and so on! Keep it coming, but please note that comments are moderated & this is a one-woman-show from a busy bee, so responses and updates will not be immediate. We’d love to hear what you’re doing with this information, so definitely let us know of success stories in talking to family-members, using it in lesson-plans, and the like. You can say hi through my contact form &/or tweet at me @neuronbomb.

Note (11/29/14, don’t remember time): Consider this a living document! If you have things to add, put them in the comments! Because this is a collective work, there may be areas that need to be clarified, cleaned up, or entirely fixed. Further note: this article is not “Is Darren Wilson Guilty? Was Mike Brown innocent? We have the answer!” — this is a tool for discussions, compiling useful information to PRIMARILY speak about police brutality, racism, and the like.

Note (11/29/14 at 9:25 AM EST): To clarify, just because we link to something doesn’t mean it’s an endorsement or that the source is completely unproblematic. For example, while I personally have my issues with Tim Wise and how many institutions choose to bring him in to speak vs. the many POC who have been doing anti-racism for longer, we do include information about his documentary here.

Actual Introduction To Masterpost

The only kind of bombs I fully support are truth-bombs, and that’s why I’ve come together with a group of POC and select White allies to write this post. We feel it’s critical to have conversations about social justice loudly, noticeably, personally as well as systemically, and eloquently*—in this case, specifically around Ferguson, #stoptheparade, #BlackLivesMatter, #IndictAmerica, and all the myriad things happening right now around police brutality and the devaluing of Black lives. We need to connect our struggles and see where they intersect, while not pretending that we all face the same issues (today I’m lookin’ at you, non-Black POC). To do this, we need tools, scripts, data—means of having and supporting these conversations, as well as our communities.

That’s why we’re here.

We want to give you tools to support that work and that dialogue. If you’re facing tough questions from friends, family, colleagues, or even perfect strangers, we hope this will help you answer them. We need to collectively build support and awareness to build a better society, and part of that means challenging those who assume “we are already there,” exposing those who would further marginalize already disenfranchised communities, and educating those who do not see why any of these things are issues in the first place. Please contact me if you find any inaccuracies in this post; we’ve worked hard to dig things up, but sometimes new details come to light! You may also want to peruse other “master posts” that are out there (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). If you just want to read “what next, and how can I help?” you should scroll all the way to the bottom.

With Love and Solidarity, 

Aida

The fantastic team who helped out and suggested info included: Renee Cotton (who was a total rockstar), Luisa Ramírez-Lartigue, Sara David, Linda Hower Bates, Tamara Williams, Michael Becker, Katie Lamb, Dani Da Silva, Shanice Yarde, and G Starr Vidal.

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That Time My Uber Driver Spent The Entire Ride Hitting On Me (A.K.A. On Challenging the Urge to Minimize Predatory Behavior)

670px-Say-No-to-Sexual-Harassment-in-the-Workplace-Step-3Public transportation in Boston is infinitely better than in Providence, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, or that getting from Point A to B doesn’t sometimes take 1 hour when it could take 10 minutes by independent car. Fortunately, there are private-driver services to fill in the gap (for those who can afford it), especially if you don’t own a car or, like me, don’t even have a license. In short, you download one of the apps and request a ride, then someone comes to nab you and you can track their trajectory on your phone. Easy peasy. No cash needs to be exchanged because you enter your Paypal or card information into your phone.

I started out by trying Lyft in Providence and was charmed with their super friendly service. Now I regularly use services like Lyft or Uber to cut my transportation time or get me places public transportation doesn’t easily access. But this post isn’t about the wonders of getting to and from places. This post is about sexually predatory behavior, customer service that didn’t suck, and how victimized people often have an urge to minimize the actions taken toward them.

(So trigger-warning for descriptions of sexual harassment)

Update 7/8/15: TO BE CLEAR, I’m not trying to say Uber is a great company here. Their RESPONSE to me was really stellar, but there is a LOT wrong with Uber as a business. They have a bad track record of ignoring activists and denying sexual assault allegations, they have some senior executives that spout tons of sexist statements, and let’s not even get into their business model. As more information about those things has surfaced, I have worked to wean myself off supporting them.

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SFS14 Workshop Recap: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent”

Two-people-talking-logoMissed the Sexual Freedom Summit by @WoodhullSFA this past weekend? Fear not! I’ll be recapping some of the sessions I attended. First up: “Beyond Yes Means Yes: The Law, Activism, and Practice of Consent” by Andy Izenson (@andyeyeballs).

Overall, I want to commend Andy for a wonderful session. He managed to strike a good balance between hilariously personable and serious, all while providing useful information and having us directly practice some of the concepts through engaging activities (AND giving space to not participate for those who hate activities and/or may be triggered by ones specific around consent). I’m a pretty harsh critic when it comes to judging presentations, and I had a lovely time.

While I don’t think everyone left the session with the same delicious taste in their mouth (especially not the cisgender white man who probably felt attacked when he mentioned that a way for people, and particularly women, to stay safe was to do things like “not go into the dorm room of college guys if they’re drunk,” and there was a palpable sense of rage in the room), I’d venture to say 95% of folks felt good about the workshop. Curious to hear more? Check out the workshop description to start:

This workshop will take participants through an understanding of the current state of and conflicts around sexual consent in the law, within activist communities, and in their own practices. After last year’s workshop focused solely on personal practice, this workshop zooms out to take a wider view of what it means to commit to fighting rape culture on multiple fronts. Participants will have opportunities to learn and practice positive consent strategies in their interpersonal interactions, and takeaways enabling them to empower the members of their own activist subcommunities to speak up and connect against abuse and assault. The session’s goals are to allow participants to experience consensual empowerment in a safe environment and learn strategies for spreading that empowerment throughout their own work.

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Resources Mentioned at PlaygroundConf 2013 Closing Plenary

PGConf 2013

Stay in Touch!

Find Aida here:

Find Heather here:

Resources & Organizations Directly Mentioned in Presentation:

Additional Resources