The President, The Actor, My Father and Me

A little over one year ago, there was an election race in the United States of America. In this race, the nominee for the Republican Party spent more time in the news for his hateful rhetoric than he did for public policy. Most people assumed that there was a comment – some comment – that would sway the public away from him. I live in Toronto and I watched the mayoral stumblings of Rob Ford. I was less certain.

Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610),_Artemisia_Gentileschi“I moved on her like a bitch.”

“Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

“I did try and fuck her. She was married.”

And that was just one conversation. One recorded conversation. One recorded conversation that was proof that a man running for president thought men could do anything to women. Then he was elected – and he was proven right.

The repercussion of his win are hard to explain, but it proved something to victims. It proved that every excuse we’d heard for why justice had not been meted out was a lie. It proved that a recorded confession was not enough. It proved that a dozen people with corroborating stories was not enough. It proved that overt and predatory lechery was not enough.

Nothing is enough.

That was it. That and Cosby and Ghomeshi and every other powerful person who hurts people without consequence. That was the moment we realized exactly how little we mattered. How little our pain mattered.

That realization was paired with a new ability to connect to each other and to count ourselves. When my first abuse happened in the 80s and 90s, there was no connective tissue like the one we have now. Our isolation was both a tool of our abusers and a symptom of our abuse. My father told me not to tell. He said things that I assumed were unique. He said I was special for being mature. He said I should never tell anyone or they would put him in jail. He said he would get me.

It lived in me. It lived there as others, spotting a pre-trained victim, repeated the abuse in new flavours and colours. Saltier tears or louder screams. Different ceilings and darker nights. Churches and workplaces and bus stations. My living room couch and a theatre and a restaurant. In each instance, I collapsed further inward. I wrote about my experience and tried to support others dealing with theirs, but the isolation persisted.

So did the hope.

I hoped that the people who were supposed to have protected me would come around. Sometimes, in a moment of sincere naivety, I even hoped my abuser would come around. He’s dying now, I’ve heard. A part of me still wants to ask him why. A part of me wants him just to admit it.

Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Mary_Magalene_as_Melancholy_1621-22

Seeing a man win an election who was so overtly cool with sexual assault killed that tender hope. It told me that a huge swath of folks didn’t actually think victims were liars – they just didn’t care. We were unimportant. And that fucking hurt. I cut off the world, the way I was trained. I didn’t read the news. I didn’t call friends. I was okay, alone. I was alone, okay? Friends let me be. Friends reached out. Friends sent me coded messages that may not have been for me.

A year later and a story comes out that an actor attacked a 14 year old kid. I know his story wasn’t the first one, but it’s the one that hit me the hardest. Maybe it was the similarity in ages or the physical similarities between our assailants. Maybe it was because that survivor’s voice, on a CD, kept me going in the group home I ended up in after I told the truth and found myself disposed of.

I don’t know him either. He was just a voice. I don’t believe in heroes. They are always too human in real life. But it shook it all up again. It’s been shaken so much I’m like a Bond martini of anxiety.

There seems to be a movement toward believing people. That’s good. It is. But it also means that survivors have to see a dozen conversations about things they hold in to get through a day. It means that I have to stop myself a hundred times over from explaining, AGAIN, why 96% of survivors who see no justice is more shocking than the 2% possibility of false accusations. It means that I have to do my job and live my life and ignore the panic and the pain in my stomach and the nightmares so bad I bruise my face in my sleep.

So here it is. Conversations I’m tired of having.

I think some people are just crying wolf.
Perhaps. But we live in a place and time where one in six have been mauled by said wolves so maybe we have a fucking problem with wolves and we should listen.

A false accusation can ruin a career.
Even a confession can’t ruin a career (see above re: President.) But let’s also consider the amazing deleted careers of folks who were assaulted when they were first starting out. Let’s consider the people who chose speaking out over their careers. Let’s value the artistic contributions that survivors make, even when they’ve been turned inside out. Let me mourn for those lost and altered voices.

If these folks had spoken out earlier, they might have saved someone else.
*BUZZER* Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. No one gets to judge folks for the way they reacted to assault, unless they chose to hurt others.

Damn – side-tracked again.

That’s why I wanted to include the actor. That’s reason number two why this story hit me so hard. He was, if you believe his brother, also a victim of an abuser. He was hurt. Then he hurt. I know that’s true of my abuser. I know it’s true of more than one of the people who didn’t keep me safe. It’s a huge, messy, fucking loop. Time is not a line.

Susanna_e_i_vecchioni_di_Artemisia_Gentileschi,_Museo_Civico_di_Bassano_del_GrappaThe person who hurt me was the boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt by a man who was a boy who was hurt…and on it goes. I am the kid I was and the person I have grown to be. That kid isn’t gone and in my dreams, my abuser/the child he was/the dying man is young and his polyester work pants scratch my skin. And I am soft skinned and thin skinned and I still can feel it now and maybe he can still feel his abuser now.

So there it is, in all its non-linear, time-looping glory. Presidents and paupers, parents and children, actors and survivors and me.

Tending an almost extinguished hope, one breath at a time.

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Due Process

I un-followed a Canadian author who helped shape my identity as a human and as a creator. I un-followed her because of a letter she signed. To be clear (because no small statement is ever clear) I did not un-follow her forever. My feed is an ebb and flow of the things I enjoy, the things that give me hope and the things I hope to know. My feed serves me. That’s why it’s mine. I may find, in the near future, that reading her small, instant words feeds me. For now, I’m choking on it. I also did not un-follow her simply because she took a political or personal action I disagree with. She has built up enough good faith as a creator that I see no need to view the world through a lens identical to hers. I un-followed her because it hurt.

Two words she threw out like a casual sprinkling of flavour on a massive meal: Due process.

I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a multiple sexual assault survivor. In almost every case, it was a man who held cross-sections of power attempting to or succeeding at misusing my physical and emotional form because they could.

When I started to realize – well into my teens – that what had happened to me was, indeed, against our presumed social contract, I began the process of seeking my due.

Due process simply means fair treatment in the judicial system. Not only fair treatment for the person who stands accused, but for the person who stands destroyed. Too visceral? Too emotional? Probably.

Here is due process to a person who has been raped, sexually abused or sexually assaulted:

1

Tell someone. This person may be yourself. Often that’s the first person you tell. If you are young, you may tell yourself after a book or a flyer in your school or an episode of Degrassi confirms that the tearing and ripping inside you is not an anomaly, but a reaction. There’s an overt message that you are not alone in numbers, but 1000 subtle messages that you are probably alone regardless. If you are an adult, telling yourself can happen during, or just after or years later. It can happen when you do that math inside your head that says if I scream he will kill me or if I just make it to the end it will be over and she will leave. Math is a process. Math figures out how much more they have to weigh than you to hold you down. Turns out, it’s not that much. It is not fair that this is how you must talk to yourself, but neither is it judicial, so we will pass this step.

2

Tell another someone. Maybe a friend. Maybe using code words. In my case, it was a guidance counselor. She was not the first person I told, but she was the first to break the code. There is a good chance that the person you tell will not believe you. They may try to find a way to show that it was your fault. This is about you, but it’s also not about you. It’s about constructing a safe cocoon of control that says I would not have made those choices so it would not happen to me or I did something similar once and I am not a villain. Sometimes they will believe you, but since they have spent a same lifetime watching dashing men on film win women over by hands-over-ears ignoring their nos and stops and I mean stops, they will wonder if it isn’t just the way things are. This is also not fair. Now that you have told someone, we may be drifting into the judicial. After all, everyone you tell, even your diary or your mother, can be called up later to testify. That’s the process. Maybe it’s better to say nothing at all, and to smile in pictures at picnics, but then, those pictures may also be called to testify. Anyone/thing you tell is likely to come back at you. This blog could come back at me. Every time we speak, we give a piece of ourselves to that process that we cannot take back with honest words. Words are not proof.

3

Tell the police. Go to the police. We use ‘the’ with police because everyone knows what you mean. No need to give qualifiers, adjectives. They are the police. The police with candies at parades and dirty looks when you walk in groups with other people from school. The police who, perhaps, look more like your assailant than you. Here the process comes due. If you have made it to this part in the process, you are one of only 6 out of 100. 94 out of 100 people chose to stop at step 1 or step 2. You sit in a room or curl up in a ball in a room or pretend you are not in a room and try to take something that is bigger than any part of you and break it down small enough that it will fit on a piece of paper that can go in a file in a drawer or on a computer and maybe turn into fair treatment in the judicial system. If this outcome were common, there would be more than 6 of you. It is not common. Numbers show that. Stories show that. Rooms full of women secure that no one is listening show that. Our arms and our medications and our nervous ticks show that.

4

There are two ways this step in the process can go. You may find, like I did, like a fall from a high height that lands you square on your back, that the last step takes all the wind out of you. It is okay if your process ends here. The next step involves lawyers. Lawyers are people who went to school for a very long time to study a system created before most folks could vote or own property or avoid being property. An apple tree can grow a thousand ways, but it’s still an apple tree. Until we plant something new, this is our only apple tree. This apple tree sucks. People will tell you to have faith in it. They may point to new branches that have grown since you were considered a person. They may say that the roots are strong enough to maintain us through change. That is bullshit. Only 1 out of 65 of us will see fruit from this tree and that fruit is often small and full of worms. Have I lost you? Anyone who tells you that you should not have feelings until due process is served is choosing not to see that no matter how nobly an idea may grow, it is only by its fruit that we can truly judge it. There is no fucking fruit.

5

Some people may think that the previous step is the last one in the process, but there is another. This is a step we take when we’ve exhausted one of the previous steps and found that, no matter what the promise of fairness is, the social contract we have signed has crap clauses. It has the clause that wealthy people and famous people and popular people and really any people can still succeed, no matter what they do to us. They can be free. They can be loved. They can be president. It has a clause that says we are to stay very, very silent no matter what happens, unless the tree gives us grand, ripe fruit. They do not point out the very small text that says it rarely does – and then usually when very pretty and convincing humans with pristine pasts and no scars point at very mean looking humans and say, “it was them!” So what do we do? We hold our hand to our mouth and with a theater aside, we whisper our stories in quiet spaces. We write maudlin poetry and carve lyrics on our bellies. We cry when we masturbate and flinch at gentle touches. We sometimes throw the contract out and shout and shout and shout, only to be met, finally, by a two words that I can no longer bear:

Due process.

Existing in the Disaster’s Wake

Content warning: Assault and abuse.

Yesterday I saw my assailant on the subway, for the second time in as many months. Previous to that, it had been years since I’d shared a space with him. I don’t believe in a higher power. I don’t believe in fate. Still, my mind is trying to make order out of the disorder that seeing him twice in so short a time has caused in my body.

Here is where I have landed:

He is real and he is out there, in my city and in my world. He goes home to what was my family. Every day they share a space with him, when, for me, those seconds were repugnant.

I think about this like a small, personal epicenter of a bigger reality: we, as a society, are okay with sexual assault. Our conviction rates are so low as to make the crime tacitly legal. Of the reported 460,000 Canadians assaulted every year, only around 7000 will see a conviction. When convictions do happen, people do more time for stealing a car than sexually assaulting a human. When someone is convicted, it’s often discovered that they had previous complaints that were dismissed by police. Most who speak to police report being unsatisfied with the process. The most common feeling selected by those surveyed? Devastated. It’s a word we use when a disaster destroys a city and leaves it rubble.

And after that devastation, comes the attempt to rebuild. In the case of a disaster, most can assume that the danger has passed. That the hurricane is over. That the wildfire has gone out. No one pities the disaster. No one brings the earthquake in to their home. We don’t fault the city for daring to exist in the disaster’s wake. My disaster walks around my city. He joins Ghomeshi and Cosby and Turner and all the other disasters that are given succor while we rebuild.

I wonder what it would mean if they turned the disaster away. I wonder what it would mean if I did not have to, in my casual daily travels, brace for the storm. I can’t know. I’ll never know. I can just rebuild again, stronger this time – like every time – and hope that what I’ve built survives.

Boys on Bikes

(Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault)

There is a habit we, as a culture, have of reframing experiences via the male perspective. When a she-identified human is assaulted by a he-identified human, we are trained to ask about her past and his future. What did she do to deserve it? What will it take from him is he’s convicted? We’ve seen this played out vividly in the case of convicted rapist Brock Turner. I’ve never met the fellow, but thanks to the tone employed by some media coverage, I’m now aware of the scholarships he’s lost, the times of his most successful swims and how very, very hard it will be for him to enjoy his life after he was convicted of the crime he committed. His future is the window through which we were allowed to watch this story.

We have also been given the story of the two men who interrupted the assault and held convicted rapist Brock Turner until police arrived.

Despite the fact that, again, this means I’m seeing the story from the male perspective, I want to dwell on this for a bit.

When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted. For the most part, it was just the two of us in the room. But once.

Once someone walked in.

There was a moment. It was dark, my memory tells me. It was dark and maybe she didn’t see my nightgown up around my armpits. Maybe her brain hiccuped, swallowed the whole memory. Maybe there was shock. Shock can do that, right? Shock can make you delete the things that frighten you. I remember that she backed out of the room. She backed out and he left and it was never mentioned. It was dark. It was dark. Of course she didn’t see. She didn’t feel the fear radiating off me like heat from a fire. She didn’t ask why he was in my room late at night. It was dark.

Doing nothing is, like the male perspective, often our default. Anyone whose been on a bus when someone starts loudly and verbally attacking a stranger knows what I mean. We see heads drop. Earbuds go in. Books raised higher against the call to interfere. It’s a weird instinct, but it’s one our species clearly has.

So two men on bikes stopped and halted a crime in progress. A crime that, statistics tell us, isn’t treated like a crime. We wink it away. We rarely test rape kits. We rarely press charges. We rarely see convictions. It’s barely treated like a crime at all. But they stopped despite the overwhelming casual message that what was happening wasn’t a real crime.

There was a moment. It was in church. The head pastor – a man who had, once, in a sermon on forgiveness, talked about how he could imagine no worse crime than rape – told me that I needed to forgive the youth leader who had sexually harassed me while offering me a ride home from church. It was about forgiveness. He had repented and now it was on me to let it go. He didn’t feel the shame radiating off me like heat from a fire. He didn’t ask me what I wanted. It was about forgiveness.

So, you see, we are a bystander species. Doing nothing is our default. We strive for homeostasis and our norm is to close our eyes to sexual assault. I sometimes try to suss out why. I come up with a thousand explanations and reasons. In the end, I land back at: It happens because we let it. It happens because we back out of rooms, we offer forgiveness instead of justice, we mourn for the lost future of rapists.

Two men on bikes did not back away.

I’ll hold on to that.

Nowhere: The Places We Are Safe

When I am in public spaces and I have to use the washroom…

I do. I am privileged in that.

I line up behind other people who chose to use the washroom with the skirt person on it and hem and haw, waiting for a stall to be open. When I’m at queer-friendly places, I use whatever bathroom suits my fancy.

When I was a teen, I attended a dance party at Buddies In Bad Times. It was the first time I had used a public, open, gender non-specific bathroom. It was – for me in that moment – a safer space (I don’t use safe space because, as you will see, no space is truly safe.) It was Pride week and there was an air of celebration. This was before Pride had entered the common cultural lexicon. Our celebration was enhanced by our mutual need to be seen, to be safe and to belong. We giggled and danced, waiting our turn. People of all genders, slightly to very tipsy, waited to empty our bladders and get back to the party.

So yeah, I’m queer. I’m bisexual (although I reject the idea of a binary, I’m old enough that this was the only word we had, and I’m attached to it.) I’m cis-appearing, though I don’t feel overly attached to female, as a gender. I’m probably closer to agender or, as a friend once put it, post-gender. I’m a feminist, because I’d have to be deeply detached from my own experience and that of the humans around me not to be. I’ve also been homeless. Because of this, I know what it feels like to need to use a washroom and to be refused. For all of these reasons, I have been following the so-called bathroom debate with keen interest.

First, let me clarify: There should be no debate. It is not on me, you or anyone else to tell someone they cannot pee. Our bodies require it. It is not a choice.

While there is a lengthy blog to be written about the many, many reasons people should be allowed to pee wherever they feel most comfortable, this is not that entry. I am here to talk about one specific outcry that is being used to quash the rights of trans and gender-varied people when it comes to washroom usage: the idea that women and children will not be safe if trans women are allowed in women’s washrooms. The fear they are preying on? Sexual assault. One of the most common crimes with one of the lowest conviction rates. It was my good friend Keiren who suggested we consider how ubiquitous sexual assault is, in contrast to how specific this concern around washrooms is.

Here’s the deal – people of all genders are assaulted in every possible space, because we, as a society, haven’t dealt with the root causes of sexual assault or created an adequate system of redress for when it happens. Washrooms, shared or otherwise, are no more or less safe than any other space we find ourselves in. Keiren suggested we consider a hashtag similar to #whatiwaswearing to discuss our experiences. Because in the end, this bullshit around gendered washrooms is using victims of sexual assault to oppress trans and gender-varied people and that is NOT okay. Sexual assault cannot be stopped by oppressing our trans family, because sexual assault isn’t about a space, it’s about a culture.

So here it is – #WhereIWas

#WhereIWas
In my own bedroom, waiting to be tucked in. It went on for years.

#WhereIWas
In Communications class in high school, while the boys made a game out of touching me from all sides. The teacher laughed.

#WhereIWas
Doing a shared project with a class partner at their place. I escaped by going out on the balcony and shouting for a neighbour.

#WhereIWas
In the stock room of the McDonalds I worked in. A co-worker started mimicking masturbating with a large, soft-plastic container of mustard. He asked me if I liked it, backing me into a corner. I complained. He was promoted. He looked up my address and made sure I knew that he knew where I lived.

#WhereIWas
On the dance floor with my best friend. We had a deal to come between each other when things got dangerous.

#WhereIWas
Getting a ride home from a church youth group with a youth leader.

#WhereIWas
Walking home after a late shift. I was followed and harassed more than once. One time, I was rescued by a compassionate cabbie.

#WhereIWas
In my room. A person stole my sister’s phone book and called all the women in it. He asked me to rub the phone on my legs.

#WhereIWas
In a movie theatre on a first date. When I called him on it, he abandoned me at the mall with no way to get home. Later, he stalked me.

#WhereIWas
In my home, watching TV with a friend.

#WhereIWas
In my cubicle at work, and on work related car trips. He was three times my age and liked to make jokes about being my “daddy.” He constantly commented on my body.

Admittedly, I was a very vulnerable human. I was homeless and in unstable housing as a teenager and I came from an abusive living situation. These factors were certainly considered by some of my assailants. The disrespect the system had for me meant I would not be taken seriously, should I report. I’m aware that I may have more than the average number of experiences. Still, it is of note that the places where assault occurred were varied. No one factor unites them. They were in public and in private, indoors and out, with trusted friends and family and with strangers. To imply that keeping my trans sisters from using the washroom is an effort to keep me safe is laughable. I know that my safety is not the true motivation behind this proposed prejudicial ban. Trans woman are far, far, far more likely to be victims than assailants. They are, like I was, part of a demographic that is not respected by those in authority. Their assaults, like mine, are not taken seriously.

You want to protect me? Teach consent. Involve social workers and victim support services in sexual assault cases. Improve the systems in place to convict and rehabilitate sexual offenders.

Where were we when it happened? Everywhere. What’s a safe space? Nowhere. Don’t use me and people like me to move forward a hateful agenda. Not surprisingly, I have a distaste for being used without my consent.

Please feel free to use the #WhereIWas hashtag to continue this discussion. Segregating bathrooms will not keep us safer. Celebrating consent will.

The Gift of Gravitas

I frequent geeky circles. I appreciate comics and films set in space and stories in which young heroes defy the odds. Because of this, I follow geeky news. I am also a human with a mental illness. Or two. Or three. Because of this, I follow news of madness.

These worlds stumbled over each other when a young actor, Jake Lloyd, was diagnosed with the ever shifting condition of schizophrenia. Predictably, some of the commentary around this has been low-brow, ableist and cruel. This is the internet, the wild west of communications. However the overwhelming commentary has been sympathetic – even empathetic. I’ve seen people voice regret for the way he was treated. I’ve seen well wishes. I’ve seen writing that blames his parents, his early work experiences and, yes, the geeky public. Overall, the discourse has tended toward a respectful gravitas, appropriate to finding out a fellow human is suffering.

I’ve found a similar response to recent reports of Ronald Savage‘s abuse at the hands of one of HipHop’s more respected creators, Afrika Bambaataa. Here we see some cruder content, usually homophobic in nature. Still, very few sources reporting on it, or even users commenting on it, call into question the veracity of Savage’s statements. No comments are made on his looks, few on his honesty and still fewer defending his alleged abuser.

While I am grateful that  both of these men are being believed, I wish we could extend the same courtesy to women in the public eye who experience mental illness or abuse.

I think of Britney Spears, whose symptoms are still the punchline of jokes decades after her mental illness emerged. I think of Anne Heche and Mariah Carey, whose stories were told by smirking entertainment reporters complete with hilarious “cuckoo” sound effects. What strikes me most is that neither the women nor their illnesses are granted the same gravitas and respect as Lloyd is receiving in the public discourse.

The same is true of the women who spoke out about their victimization by comedian Bill Cosby. Artists like Damon Wayans took to the air to call them “un-rape-able“. In the recent Ghomeshi case, women who couldn’t recall emails they’d sent ten years prior were called liars, rather than what they are – human beings who, just like me, cannot recall every word penned in the last decade. Heck, I’ve forgotten swaths of what I’ve written on this blog. That said, I remember with clarity the smell of the detergent of the man who assaulted me. Memory is funny that way.

Gendered words make up much of the commentary in both cases, reminding us that lying, being crazy or being a gold-digger are innately tied to being a woman, being seen as a woman or identifying as a woman.

When we say we want equality, what some of us are saying is we want that same weight of gravitas applied to our more serious experiences – illness and assault among them – that we see offered to our male-identified cohorts. We want the language used to describe our experiences to match the experiences themselves, especially while wading through all of the complications that come with surviving them. We, of course, expect this same courtesy to be offered to male survivors, along with a curbing of the gendered narrative that tells men to buck up and be strong through these experiences.

All of this requires a dismantling of the idea that our gender should determine how our victimization is perceived, how our assailants are treated and how and if we are able to move on in our lives afterward. We should all be offered respect, care and gentility when the world rolls over us. We should all be offered the gift of gravitas.

 

Smile

I usually don’t post two poems, one after another. I try to write something of substance in between. But I am tired after the verdict today and so I am sharing a poem I wrote about our smiles, by way of proxy for our whole bodies. It speaks to how we are trained to behave in specific ways, then punished for those same actions. This poem owes a debt to the song Smile, by Charlie Chaplin. The way he treated women is not lost on me, and also informs this poem. this poem is meant to be read aloud. I was planning to save it for a slam. Instead I am sharing it here. It was tonally designed to be performed, so please forgive it’s visual clunkiness.


Smile

xb7tg8nmcdx57zxprll0.jpgSmile though your heart is aching

“Hey
Hey you
With the hair
What you got
Under there?
Come on
Baby girl
You like when I stare

Smile for me
The kind of sort
Who likes ’em round
And likes ’em short
But only if they
Smile nice
You know I’m not
Gonna ask you twice”

Smile even though it’s breaking

Breaking
This autonomy
Lost to men
Who don’t know me

“No”
I’m blunt

“Fuck you, you cunt”
He moves in close
Like nose to nose

My smile is not a gift I give
My toll to live
Unscathed
It says
I’m ready to erase
Replace
You paint the canvas of my face

“Smile”

When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by

Smile
Little girl
Smile when he stands
Smile when it lands
Smile at his hands
Smile for your man

If you smile through your pain and sorrow

“Ma’am?”
She shows a picture
Shows a fiction
Shows a fixture
When somebody shouted cheese
When you did the thing we all do
And you smiled
Just to please

“If he hurt you like you say
How’d you smile the next day?
Is this a game you like to play?”

Smile and maybe tomorrow

So you leave
The camera clicks
You duck your head
You count to six
You call it up
The memory
Muscles trained since puberty

You flash a smile
On your lips
It doesn’t reach your eyes

“Smile”
Someone cries

You’ll find that life is still worthwhile, if you just –


 

To read all the #verseday poems, click here. To read my twitter poems, click here.