If Your Plants Are Diseased, Check the Soil.

Content Note: This post is about sexual assault.

This is a field of buckwheat.

This is a field of buckwheat.

I think about culture the way my Dad thought about farming: if your plants are diseased, look to the health of the soil.

We are plants, and the culture we inhabit is the soil in which we grow.

When it comes to sexual assault, our soil is as rotten as it gets. This means our response, as a society and as individuals, is usually rotten too. Our soil teaches us to shame, blame, deny, and silence survivors of sexual assault who speak out about what happened to them. We are diseased plants sprouting from rotten soil and the cost to survivors is almost unimaginably high.

Our cultural conditioning is strong. Our “deny and shame” muscle has been injected with steroids for centuries, and our “believe and affirm” muscle has atrophied, withered to nothing. You need only look at the backlash against Dylan Farrow to know this is true. But she is not the first, nor will she be the last, survivor of sexual violence to be told she must be lying. This process just usually takes place off-stage.

I agree with Roxane Gay and Jessica Valenti that we disbelieve survivors because we are terrified of what it would mean, what it would require of us, how much would have to change, if survivors were telling us the truth.

But they are. And we cannot end that which we deny exists.

I wrote an article about Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen, and rape culture for Bitch Magazine in which I said this:

“One of the bright, glaring, non-negotiables I have learned is to believe survivors. Believe them, even if they don’t remember everything. Believe them, even if they remember almost nothing. Believe them, even if the person they say raped them seems like the nicest person in the world to you. Believe them, even if it shatters your whole world to do so. Believe them, even if they don’t want to share details, or press charges, or ever talk about it again. Believe them, even if their story sounds implausible to you. Believe them, even if you don’t want to, even if it breaks your heart.”

There were commenters, on both the Bitch website and on Facebook, who appreciated what I wrote but essentially wanted some wiggle room. My unequivocal “believe survivors” sans caveats is, as it turns out, fairly radical in our hostile culture of disbelief and shame.

Melissa McEwan of the great blog Shakesville wrote a devastating post that spells out why I will never say “believe survivors” and then add caveats:

“Being disbelieved is a secondary trauma, for many survivors a profound exacerbation of an already devastating act. I also mean the costs beyond what is taken from individual survivors, when they are disbelieved. I mean the cost of communicating to other survivors, when we publicly disbelieve one person, that they will be disbelieved. That there is no point to reporting the crimes done to them, because they will not find justice. And may instead find in its place an aggressive avalanche of hostility and suspicion and contempt. I mean the cost of empowering predators, who are grateful indeed to everyone who participates in the systemic disbelief of survivors. Even if their victims report the abuse they perpetuate, their chances of being charged and convicted are vanishingly small, because of our cultural investment in disbelief.”

The good news here is that plants, which will grow diseased from rotten soil, can also impact the soil in which they are planted. If you plant a crop of buckwheat in depleted soil, the plants will add nitrogen back into the soil upon decomposition – no Monsanto fertilizer necessary.

The same is true of our culture. We are powerfully shaped by it, and yet we have the collective power to change it. Our denial, our shame, our blame, our silencing – these are iron-strong dictates we’ve been conditioned to internalize but which we can also upend.

We start by believing survivors. No caveats.

Posted in Ally, Dad, Health | 2 Comments

The Patriarchy Is Dead, But I Wasn’t Invited to the Funeral

Trigger warning for multiple references to sexual violence.

ImageIn an essay on Slate published today, journalist and author Hanna Rosin declared that the patriarchy is dead and exhorted feminists to just accept it already. Rosin says a lot in her essay but my heart landed on one part early on where Rosin describes a “petty,” finger pointing strain of feminism that

“assumes an exquisite vulnerability, an image of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life,” as Joan Didion put it in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement.” (Is this why we now put “trigger warnings” on stories that mention rape or sexual harassment?)”

Here is what Rosin just said: the “abrasiveness of daily life” includes frequent references to rape and sexual harassment. We encounter these references so often, daily!, because they continue to occur in large numbers, despite the death knell tolling for the patriarchy.

The abrasiveness of daily life includes references to rape and sexual harassment. Rosin doesn’t take issue with that. She accepts it, and uses it as an example of how women are just too fragile for daily life in our postpatriarchal girl club.

How am I to respond to respond to Ms. Rosin choosing “rape and sexual harassment” as her casual parenthetical aside to rhetorically embellish a broader point about how PATRIARCHY IS DEAD AND FEMINISTS SHOULD JUST ACCEPT IT ALREADY?!

What does it say about our culture that we are expected to endure constant references to horrifically violent acts, that we are expected to endure the existence of those horrifically violent acts, as part of the abrasiveness of daily life?

Are we expected to endure, no matter what? Construct armor so thick and invulnerable that daily references to sexual violence cannot touch us? Accept that we must not be so tender in the face of a seemingly endless cycle of objectification and violence?

Has Hannah Rosin ever sat through the night with someone trembling and vomiting, triggered not even by a reference to sexual violence, but just because it lives on in their body after so many years?

If it is not a patriarchal system giving us these casual parenthetical references to rape and the exhortations to stop being so damn tender, I want Ms. Rosin to tell me what is.

Posted in Feminism | Leave a comment

What is the meaning of the word liberation?

This is what is playing on a loop in my brain:

Hell yes you are, Wendy!

Hell yes you are, Wendy!

  • Texas State Senator Wendy Davis is a courageous badass who gave me goosebumps about 4.5 million times in the span of 24 hours. At one point, I watched her read, through tears, the testimony of a woman who learned her baby would not live and she could choose to wait for it to die, or have an abortion. She chose an abortion and Senator Davis read to a roomful of bored, disinterested, male colleagues how this woman stopped leaving her house because people would inevitably comment on her pregnancy and she couldn’t bear it because her baby would not live no matter what. When I wasn’t watching Sen. Davis’ filibuster, every time I thought about what she was doing I either got goosebumps or teared up. I fought back tears on the train to work, in the office, waiting to get lunch, even while I was peeing.
Sen. Van de Putte had buried her father that day. The day I buried my father I could barely stand up.

Sen. Van de Putte had buried her father that day. The day I buried my father I could barely stand up.

  • Leticia Van de Putte spoke for millions (yes, I went there, millions. billions?) of fucking fed up women when she said, after being ignored by her male Republican colleague presiding over the proceedings in the Texas Senate, “Point of inquiry, at what point must a female Senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” At what point, indeed.
  • You know who else is a courageous badass? All the people in the gallery who, right after Sen. Van de Putte dropped the quote of the century, drowned out Texas’ Republican Senators for a good ten minutes with chants, cheering, yelling, and general ruckus. Every time the guy presiding over the mayhem banged the gavel, they just yelled louder. They made noise up to and past the critical midnight deadline to kill the anti choice bill Sen. Davis was filibustering on their behalf. I will never in my life forget the sound of the people directly and peacefully overpowering with noise the legislators trying to limit the choices and healthcare available to them.
  • I will also never forget the sight of Sen. Davis’ male colleagues picking up where she left off after she got the three strikes needed to end her filibuster. This, I thought to myself, is what being an ally looks like.
  • I will also never forget the number of men I saw in the thousands of people packing three stories of the state Capitol building. That, I thought to myself, is what being an ally looks like.

There were a lot of people at the Texas Capitol building until 3 a.m. and they were not all women.

  • That same day, a majority of Supreme Court justices told us that we’re pretty much set when it comes to voting and racism and we don’t need a major provision of landmark civil rights legislation that people fucking died for.
  • Several hours later, several states took the first step towards making it harder to vote.
  • When the very nice people at SCOTUSBlog told me about DOMA and Prop 8, I didn’t cry or shout or jump up and down. I felt like I was supposed to, but I didn’t. When I read a quote from the ruling about how you cannot make a law that prohibits some people from doing something that everyone else gets to do, I teared up.
  • Then I thought about the Voting Rights Act.
  • On Sunday, a “Who’s Who” of corporate America will march down Market St. in San Francisco’s Gay Pride Parade (my personal “favorites” are Wells Fargo & Bank of America). Throngs of people wearing rainbows and glitter and equal signs will cheer and wave flags as the corporate floats pass by. I wonder if anyone will turn their backs?
  • Bradley Manning, a queer whistleblower who had the gall to tell us that, Hey, your government is fucking lying to you about the war they’re waging in your name (COLOR ME SURPRISED) was briefly nominated to preside, in absentia (he’s currently on trial), over these Pride proceedings. But then Pride revoked the honor because, well, marriage + military = the gay agenda.
  • What is the meaning of the word liberation?
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Desperately Uprooting Succulents

Kirby loves her succulents. She lovingly rescues dying, broken succulents from the street, replants them in empty canisters at home, and tends them back to abundant, beautiful life. Her rescued succulent garden is three rows deep. She gives them as gifts to people she loves. She closely monitors each plant’s life, alerting me to any new growth or bloom.

Earlier today I yanked ten of her succulents out of their pots, plopped them on the patio, dumped all the soil back into the soil bag, and then calmly told her what I’d done. At the time, she was in bed, thrashing, writhing, and moaning from the physical torment of a panic attack.

I took a chance. I figured my succulent uprooting would do one of two things: 1) Jolt Kirby out of her panic loop by giving her an immediate and literally grounding task to focus on, since gardening is therapeutic for her, or 2) Kirby would be panicked even further at seeing her beloved succulents uprooted from their homes.

Panic attacks are by definition irrational so there’s really no talking her out of it. And Kirby during a panic attack does not really respond to gentle suggestion. I had already gently suggested a myriad of coping mechanisms, including gardening, which she is understandably unresponsive to while in the grip of panic. Nobody wants a fucking cup of tea when they feel like they are dying, and there are only so many breathing exercises one can do.

After informing her of my destruction, she jumped out of bed cursing me “You beast! If you killed my plants I’ll kill your face!” and I turned around and walked slowly to a different part of the yard

When I came back a few minutes later, Kirby was bent over the bag of potting soil, her blue monkey blanket dangling around her shoulders. She was clutching her stomach with one hand and scooping soil with the other. Her face was in a grimace of pain thanks to the intense nausea gripping her stomach. She looked absolutely miserable and totally pathetic. But she kept scooping dirt out of the soil bag, ferrying it to the pots, gently patting it around her beloved succulents. Hobbling and hunched, she desperately replanted all the little plants I’d hastily uprooted.

Kirby identifies strongly with broken, discarded things of all varieties: succulents, toys, children, animals. She was abused early and often as a child and the tender, damaged child inside her who did not get rescued like she should have reaches out to the dying succulents on the street, the abandoned animals, the abused and neglected children, the broken toys no one wants to play with. Her experience of being abused and unprotected has made her a bighearted, empathetic person who cannot turn away from others’ pain.

That’s how I knew uprooting her succulents that she’d so lovingly nurtured was the only thing that would get her out of bed and in the dirt, which might help interrupt her panic attack. There’s lots of advice about what to do for someone who is having a panic attack, and what that person can do for themselves. We’ve tried and done all of them and sometimes you just get desperate.

“Was it helpful or harmful?” I asked her later.

“I’m not sure,” she replied. “I think it was helpful, unless you killed them.”

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Barbara Brenner

I’m writing this in between chugging 8 oz doses of thick lemony saltwater, also known as Colyte, which is what they give you to clear out your insides before a colonoscopy.

I get a colonoscopy every year because, thanks to a genetic mutation I inherited from my Dad, I have an 80% chance of getting colon cancer in my lifetime (as well as high perentages for endometrial, kidney, ovarian, and other cancers). The point of getting a colonoscopy every year is to try to catch colon cancer at an early stage, which, unlike breast cancer, as Barbara would tell you, matters a great deal. Getting a camera inserted into my butt and wiggled around my intestines always causes me some anxiety because it’s always a possibility that they’ll find cancer there, and it reminds me that the chance of getting SOME kind of cancer in my lifetime is very high.

Barbara A. BrennerI’ve been thinking about Barbara Brenner all day. Barbara was the former Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, where I work. Her memorial service was this morning and I feel so incredibly sad that her physical life has ended. In grieving her, I also feel a strong sense of “now THAT is how to live.”

One of the common threads from all of the wonderful, funny, heartfelt, loving tributes at her memorial service today was that Barbara lived with intention and purpose, throughout her life and to the very end. You could write a book about Barbara’s lifetime of activism (and I hope someone will) but what I’m struck by most today is how she lived the end of her life.

Barbara was diagnosed with ALS around the time of her retirement from Breast Cancer Action, which changed her retirement plans and felt, to me and many others, like a tragic diagnosis for someone who had lived through two breast cancer diagnoses, spent her life advocating for social change, and had a happy retirement ahead of her. But she didn’t sit back and wait to die, nor did she get any quieter in the world. She started a blog, took the FDA to task about ALS, continued to teach us about health advocacy, reported closely on the SF Giants games, provided her characteristically honest, sharp political commentary via her blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

I remember very vividly the last time I saw Barbara. I went with my coworkers to visit her and we all used text to speech software to converse so that everyone could participate using the same method. She asked me how I was faring at work, how my partner was doing, and listened intently to my answers. She laughed at my bad jokes.

Her rabbi said at the memorial that in one of their last conversations, when she mentioned something about the soul, Barbara asked her, “What do you mean by “soul”?

As Barbara taught us so much about activism and seeking justice in this world, she also showed us how to live with intention and purpose until the very end.

I think about Barbara as I think about the unknown outcomes of my colonoscopies, and all of the unknowns in life. My dad was coming inside from gardening one day, tripped on a stair, hit his head, and two days later he was dead. He, too, lived a life of purpose and intention to the end, planning an antiwar protest from his hospital bed before heart surgery. Some of us have a lot of advance warning and some of us have none at all. I’m reminded of how little control we have over our lives and that all we can do is lean into whatever happens and love each other hugely.

And while we are here on this Earth, leaning into life and loving each other? One of Barbara’s friends read this beautiful quote at her memorial:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

Posted in Health | 2 Comments

I’m Gay! Why Don’t I Feel More Excited About Gay Marriage?

I’ve been ambivalent all day. I’m supposed to be totally stoked that gay marriage is literally getting its day in court, and that support for equality and fairness far, far outweighs the gay hatin’ discriminating. I’ve felt ashamed of my own ambivalence, wondering if I am ungrateful and ignorant of my relative privilege in comparison to the pain and hardship previous queer generations have experienced.

Supportive buses are real tear jerkers.

Supportive buses are real tear jerkers.

I was not unmoved by the Prop 8 hearings today. I teared up when I saw a photo of a San Francisco bus bearing the words “Equality for All.” My heart swelled when my Republican-leaning stepsister changed her Facebook profile photo to the ubiquitous red equal sign blowing up in my Facebook feed. I was moved by the statements of support for gay marriage from high school acquaintances I haven’t spoken to in years, who I’ve never come out to, and could have been conservative Republicans like a lot of my hometown, for all I knew. Normally I’m surrounded by reminders that the world is an unequal and unsafe place for me because I love and live with someone who identifies with the same gender as me. Today I was surrounded by reminders of love and support, and that was no small thing.

I appreciate the love. It's just...the HRC.

I appreciate the love. It’s just…the HRC.

And yet, I cannot divorce that ubiquitous red equal sign from the privilege and assimilation it represents: the Human Rights Campaign standing, for example, in support of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act that doesn’t extend to transgender people. I cannot forget that the push for gay marriage is part of a middle class, patriarchal, assimilationist agenda largely blind to race and class oppression, completely uncritical of global capitalism.

It was a “both of these things are true at the same time” kind of day.

Our laser sharp focus on marriage creates the narrowest of lenses and has us insisting we are no different, we want the same things straight people want, we want to settle down with our chosen person, start a family, sit by each other’s bedside in sickness and in death, inherit property. JUST LIKE YOU. We want to be included in the American dream. We deserve inclusion. But this laser sharp focus on marriage leaves us asking to be included in the status quo, not changing it.

I look at this society and I don’t see a status quo I want to be included in. I want to undermine, revamp, remake the status quo because I just can’t get excited about marrying into rampant income inequality, unchecked imperialist ambitions, racism permeating every aspect of our lives, unapologetic rape culture.

So I was feeling all jumbly inside and wondering what the fuck to do with all these thoughts so I picked up Amber Hollibaugh’s awesome book “My Dangerous Desires” to read the last chapter, the only chapter I hadn’t read. TALK ABOUT GOOD TIMING. Hollibaugh published this book in 2000 and this is what I read in the last chapter as she reflects on how the gay liberation movement has transformed over the decades:

“Some gay people began to represent normalcy, while some of us were left to stand at the outer edge of the homosexual circle. An internal hierarchy of deviance was instituted, by gay people, about each other. In the beginning, whether dressed as conservatively as possible or wearing drag, any gay person was queer in a collectively queer movement. But, through the years, radical sexual politics of that early movement became more and more tempered, and the kinds of gay people considered important or central to the movement began to shift. Nowadays, all gay people are not seen as the same, and we are not all considered equal threats to the body politic of the nation. Some gay people are perceived to be “normal homosexuals” while some of us continue to represent a dangerous otherness, an ongoing threat of queer meance and deviance.

In the last twenty five years of struggle, we have moved from gay liberation as a freedom struggle, a struggle for sexual, economic, and social justice, to a movement for gay legal rights. This struggle now parodies and duplicates a heterosexual middle class/upper class agenda based on recreating the rights of heterosexuals for gay people, with all the implicit and explicit pieces of class and race prejudice that go with it. The freedom struggle of our movement, once committed to sexual liberation, has become, instead, a movement for gay nuclear family rights and for serial monogamy. It represents the entire movement as a sort of tame civil rights challenge: one of judicial battles in the courts and referenda in the towns, cities, and states. The gains have been significant. But, looking at the bigger picture, we have gone from a movement that was full of sensibility and humor, powerful difference and sexual contrast, a world of camp and butch and femme, of leather communities, drag queens and kings, flamboyant girls and effeminate gay boys, a movement full of our sexual cultures and creative, erotic dreams, to a movement that chooses only those representatives who may sit politely in the president’s office, gender appropriate gay representatives who work for gay inclusion and try very hard to show everyone else that “we are just like them.”

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Power, obedience, and my Dad’s moral compass

My Dad was 24.5 when he wrote the letter below to President Nixon, announcing (but not apologizing for) his refusal to pay federal taxes. He refused to pay federal taxes because he had moral objections to the way his government was using that tax revenue.

I’ve read this letter several times, but as I was typing it out (the first time it will meet the Internet), several things in particular stood out to me: 1) the moral clarity of my Dad’s position 2) the peaceful but forceful steadfastness with which he defends that position and 3) the incredible relevance this letter has to how things are going in this country today. I mean that in regards to our upside-down priorities, but also with regard to who gets to decide what is legal and conscionable, and how they enforce those values.

At the moment (well OK for the past 3 weeks or so) I’m thinking of the vehemence with which park codes are being enforced against Occupy/Decolonize camps across the country (OH NO NOT TENTS!), and the incredible police violence protestors are faced with while peacefully assembling to announce their grievances against their government (and Wall Street, and many other things).

I am humbled by how, at a relatively young age, my Dad knew to ask these questions of himself: Who is compelling my obedience? How are they compelling it? Is my obedience to that power in line with my own conscience? And if not, why am I obeying that power?

I only know to ask these questions of myself because of my Dad. I’ve been thinking about him all weekend and how thankful I am for his wisdom, his leadership, and the humble, graceful way he exerted the power of his own conscience, without being self-righteous. I am also bolstered and inspired knowing that he was one of many people–most of whom, like him, are not in any history book–who have stood, and stand, for what they believe in, struggling for a better world for all of us.

Feb. 18, 1971

President Richard N. Nixon

Washington, D.C.

Dear President Nixon,

I am writing to inform you that I am beginning today to refuse payment of the federal income tax and the federal excise tax on the telephone.

The reasons for my actions are very simple. First of all, it is my belief that by the withholding of taxes from my pay, I am being forced to support and pay for the war in Vietnam to which I am morally opposed. In the matter of the draft I am registered as a conscientious objector and am opposed to all wars and violence against my fellow man. However, in the matter of war taxes, there is no allowance for conscientious objectors on the grounds of opposition to war. Since I cannot allow myself to be forced to act against my conscience, I am taking the action of refusing to pay war taxes. There is no “legal” way according to IRS rules to avoid paying the war tax, and therefore I must obey the higher law of conscience and morality and disregard the IRS code.

Even if there were no immoral war being waged at this time, we have been assured that the Pentagon has claim on any monies that might be saved by ending the war in Vietnam. Even if there were no immoral war being waged, the priorities in this country would still be upside-down. While millions upon millions of people in this country as well as around the world are neglected, hungry, ill, and poorly clothed and housed, our national budget shows that interests continue to lie mainly in the area of war making and military defense- life destroying rather than life preserving acts. Although I am working to change the the order of priorities, in the meantime I cannot continue to support with my tax dollars the insensitive and life destroying policies of my own government. The money I will now be refusing in taxes will be used to support persons and programs which have as their purpose the improvement of the human condition.

For the above reasons I can no longer pay the federal income tax or the federal excise tax on the telephone until that time when peace, justice and a concern for the welfare of all men become the priorities of the government.

I submit this statement as an explanation of and not an apology for my tax refusal. To all those who might read this letter, I would ask that they criticize my act of refusal and the ideas and motives behind it. But at the same time I would ask that they examine carefully their own motives in continuing to pay these taxes. In the words of St. Paul, “You belong to the power which you choose to obey.” In this matter of choice I have opted for the pro-life force.

In the Peace of Christ,

Joseph Carmody

Posted in Dad, Taxes | 3 Comments