Legos

Legos

(The names of the individuals in this post have been changed to protect their identity)

Consent is a very important and very tricky concept to build for a child.

In a society where rape culture is sickeningly prevalent, I’m relieved to see more of the parents I work with practicing consent with their child.

“Did you ask before you took it?”

“If they said ‘no,’ you have to listen.”

I work with kids and parents on a daily basis, and have for the past year. While at college, I studied and took trainings on sexual assault and consent. I learned that concepts like the importance of “no” and asking permission can and should be introduced at a very early age. I started looking at my interactions with my kids in terms of consent.

Almost every interaction I have with my kids is flavored by something I have learned. I make hundreds of choices every day, at each turn. I try to make the best choices based off of what I know.

I’ve been trying to teach consent with my kids in all the various groups I work with. Some of them love giving hugs. I love getting hugs. But I try to remember to say, each time, “Thank you for the hug! Let’s make sure we always ask before we touch, though.”

When one kid is getting unwanted attention, I remind the other, “Make sure we ask before we touch.”

If one kid is playing with something, or has a personal item with them, I remind the other kids if they try to play with it–“That’s not yours; make sure you ask before you touch it.”

I bring up the reminder every chance I get. Many of the kids I work with are young, so it takes consistent reminders before things start to sink in. It’s become part of my daily vocabulary, something that slips out as easily and naturally as “Thank you for listening,” “Make sure our voices are quiet,” “Please use kind words,” and “Thank you for helping me.”

I believe that the more they hear it, the more natural it will seem to them too–so that at some point, I won’t have to be around for them to remember that I say it, and hopefully that reminder is what helps them make a safe, kind choice later down the line.

I see almost every moment as a learning moment and every interaction as an opportunity. After years of working with a variety of youth in a variety of settings and capacities, I’ve gotten to a place where I feel confident navigating most situations, even if I’m jumping from one group to another within the week. I’ve learned that the way I say things has an enormous impact on how the day goes, and that it’s often the kids themselves who drive the most important twists and turns of the day. And sometimes small things will reveal big issues.

In one of my youth groups, it happened over Legos. Five kids sat at a table, each with their respective pile of Legos. Some of the piles were bigger than others–some of the kids had been playing for longer.

One of the kids was trying to get a Lego piece from another. I didn’t see the interaction, the cause and effect; I was looking at something else, and when I turned around, all I saw was Alan lifting his arm about his head to keep a piece away from Sam, and heard Alan yelling “Stop it already!

“Sam keeps trying to take my piece!” Alan called to me.

I approached calmly and asked Sam the question I always did in this instance: “Did you ask if you could touch it?”

It was twofold; it’s not good to touch something someone else has if they said no. But its also important to share–none of the Legos belonged to the kids; they all belonged to the facility. While I want to emphasize each kid’s right to what belongs to them, I also have a responsibility to make sure our community materials are being shared.

So when I asked the question, I was trying to figure out which scenario this interaction fell into.

“Did you ask if you could touch it?”

It was pretty simply answered when Sam replied, “No.”

“Okay.” I stepped closer so I could see better. Each kids had a pile of Legos. Alan had a few more than Sam did.

“I want the hat,” Sam said.

“And I said no. I said he can’t have it,” Alan relayed to me.

“So, Sam,” I said, “Alan’s got the hat right now. It’s not okay to take something from someone if they said no.”

Sam contested this. He tried to backpedal, tell me the whole story, of how he’d had the piece first, even though that had been a few hours ago, how no one ever let him play, though he’d been playing with them for the past twenty minutes. I tried to get back to the point, which was that “No means no.”

I realized pretty quickly that this was about more than a Lego piece.

Sam felt entitled to the piece, even though it wasn’t his, even though Alan had it, even though Alan said no.

Sam kept contesting this, no matter how simply I tried to put it. Eventually, some of the other kids butted in. Usually I don’t like it when other kids get in on a discussion between me and one other, but this time I backed off a bit. When I heard what they were saying, I realized this was an important interaction between not campers and counselors, but campers and campers. If they figured this out between themselves, it would have that much more meaning.

“Alan didn’t even say you could have it,” Jordan said.

“Alan told me I could. I should get it.”

“I didn’t say yes,” Alan said. “I said maybe.”

“No, you didn’t,” Sam said. “You said you would give it to me.”

“He said maybe,” Evan interjected.

“No. He said will.

“I heard. Alan said maybe,” Jordan put in.

“I said maybe,” Alan insisted.

“No, you said you would.

“Either way,” I put in, “you can’t just take it if he changed his mind and said no.”

“Yes I can!” Sam insisted. “You can’t say yes and then turn around and say no.”

“He didn’t say yes, he said maybe,” Evan said.

“I said maybe. And then I said no. So no!”

“You said yes! You can’t just take it back!” Sam said.

Some of the others tried to stop things and just keep playing; normally I would agree and cut things off after we hit stalemates like this, just to keep the peace. But I found this point too important to just let go. My belief was confirmed when Jordan spoke up again.

“You know what, Sam?” he said. “If you ask, and he says maybe, he can take it back. Even if he says yes, he can still take it back. So just leave him alone already!”

Jordan had uttered a crucial statement that I hope he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. Consent is verbal and voluntary, and can be withdrawn at any time. Something grown-ass adults have a hard time grasping.

I was relieved when the other kids at the table agreed with Jordan. They stood up for Alan and reinforced the point that his “No” was important and needed to be respected. But Sam stared back steadily and said, “No. He can’t.” I broke a little inside.

It took a lot more fighting among them, a lot more stern talk and persuading from me, and Sam was still staunchly convinced that he had a right to take what he wanted, regardless of the other person’s feelings or needs.

Sam left that day still convinced that he had been the one wronged, that everyone was ganging up on him. He walked out with a skewed sense of what consent looked like. I worried for him; I worried for his home life, his future; what he might do to others–what he may let others do to him–if he continued life with this conviction.

I cried because I was so proud of Jordan for understanding what grown men refuse to. I was proud of the others for standing up for Alan when they saw him being intimidated and taken advantage of. I was scared, both of and for, Sam. I was shaken by the power in those minutes at the Lego table, and how much they said about my world and theirs.

I wanted to say something to Jordan’s mom when she came to pick him up, to let her know how proud I was of Jordan for understanding the importance of consent. But I wasn’t sure what would be effective and appropriate.

I have many, many hours to teach my kids about consent and the other lessons I try to weave into each day. Still, it often seems like every second is precious, and I need to squeeze every drop of significance from it. We live in a world where things can happen in a millisecond. Kids absorb what they see and experience. They internalize what authority figures convince them to believe. Those things can be positive or negative, or just things; but if I see each day as a series of choices flavored by the lessons I’ve learned, each day is at least one lesson that will shape a child’s perceptions, feelings, mindset, actions, reactions, and eventually their world.

As the adults–authority figures–in their lives, we need to make sure the lessons we teach are positive ones, that lead to positive growth.

If a 9 year old kid can use Legos to teach us about consent, why can’t the grown-ups of the world do something before our kids become rapists or raped?

The Dream

The Dream

The other night I had a dream about my abuser. It was different from any other dream I’ve had about her. Up until now, all of my dreams about her have involved her showing up unexpectedly and demanding my attention, and for one reason or another I’m powerless to refuse. They often involve her telling me how I was the one that screwed up and how bad a person I am. They leave me with anxiety, sometimes panic. I dread seeing her in the waking world; I illogically expect her to appear wherever I am.

The last interaction we had was over text message. Last summer she texted me, wishing me a happy birthday a month after the fact. She reminded me that we’d agreed to talk once she got back into America, which happened months ago. My reply was that, while I had agreed to talk once she got back, I no longer wanted to, as I had nothing to say to her.

She tried to reel me back in, saying that she would not be returning to college in the fall.

I knew she wanted me to ask why. To get me talking. To feel sorry for her. To win me back.

I replied simply, Okay, good luck.

When I put down the phone I laughed and cried with relief. I no longer had to worry about what I would do when I saw her at school. I wasn’t going to. She wouldn’t be there at all. The next time she texted me, I pretended she had the wrong number.

Though I exerted power in those instances, I still had nightmares about her finding me, and worried during the day that I would somehow bump into her.

Then I had this dream.

This time, I was the one who stumbled upon her. She was working at Walgreens or something, somewhere I needed to go for an errand. The dream was incredibly vivid. I don’t dream very often and when I do the dreams are often murky and hard to remember. But occasionally I have dreams like this—they feel very real, they cut close to home, and I remember many of the details.

In the dream, I approached the counter. She looked up, recognized me, and smiled. She made some comment about how long it had been since we talked. Asked if I was still sure I did not have anything to say to her.

I expected to panic, but instead I felt calm and in control. Even seeing her face and remembering everything about it, her voice, her hair, that smile—and I didn’t panic or freeze, like I always did in my dreams and expect to in real life.

I didn’t feel powerless. It was remarkable, liberating. I had control over myself, and maybe even her.

In the dream I calmly replied that I still had no interest in talking with her. I just wanted to run my errand. She persisted, bringing up incidents from the past. This time, she was reminding me of positive things. The good moments we’d had together. She was trying to reel me back in.

Again, I was surprised by my own composure, my sense of strength. I refused to let her win me over. I admitted that things had been good at times, but I was not going to give in and go back. I was short, cold almost. I could sense her wilting. This time it was she who was at a loss.

I remember distinctly this line from her—“I may have deserved my time in jail, but I don’t deserve this.”

In the dream I laughed inside. I’ve wondered since I cut off contact what she’s been up to—what trouble she’s gotten herself in. I imagined her boyfriend breaking up with her; I imagined her getting pregnant and hating the baby; I imagined her living in a hotel for months, as I saw she was doing when, in a moment of weakness, I checked her Tumblr. None of these scenarios gave me joy; but I speculated what kinds of situations karma, or her own reckless naivety, would get her into.

So hearing that she’d been in jail for a short time since we parted ways did not surprise me in this dream.

I knew she wanted me to relent, apologize, ask why she’d been in jail. I did none of those things. I continued on my errand. I didn’t falter or feel weak. She continued to follow me around. Once I had what I needed, I told her I was leaving, and had no desire to talk to her anymore.

She said something along the lines of, “Alright then, I’ll let you go. But I can see us being friends again, like we were. We had something really good and I don’t want it to be gone forever.”

Her dream self was very sincere, to the point where I almost relented, almost agreed that it was a possibility. Once again, my dream self surprised me by thinking, No. I’m not falling into this trap again. She hurt me, abused me, and I’m not letting them happen again. I’m not letting her back in, no matter how sad and sincere she seems now.

I left with no goodbyes, no promises. She could only stay behind, powerless to stop me or bring me back.

In the dream, I walked away feeling elated by my own power. I never expected myself to be so calm in her presence and so confident in my refusal to listen to anything she said. In all of my dreams, and all of my imaginings of what I would do if I saw her again, I was weak, I slipped up, I let her back in or let her hurt me.

Of course, it was just a dream. But the sheer possibility of my being so powerful in that situation gives me a hope I’ve never felt before.

And something even better—apathy.

I don’t care about her anymore, and I’m not afraid if I happen to see her someday. I can handle myself. I can show her my power.

What’s Broken Breaks Free

What’s Broken Breaks Free

On the day after my graduation, my mother sent me a text message.

How did graduation go?

Last August they’d asked me if I was going to graduate that spring. I said I didn’t know, and that was true. The last they’d heard, I wasn’t graduating until 2018.

I figured out I could graduate in May. I wasn’t going to tell them, though.

To be perfectly honest, I did not want them to know.

I did not want them to be at commencement. It had been bad enough dealing with them at my brother’s. Me dressed in my suit and tie and the spare (that’s what I called my second-oldest brother) running up to me smirking. “Who are you and what did you do with our sister?”

I’d almost hoped they wouldn’t recognize me.

**

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Things had only gotten worse since then. That last Christmas in a house full of animosity where I texted my brother get me out of here. The following Christmas they didn’t even ask if I was coming to visit. They sent me safe gifts, most of which I donated. I didn’t even eat the chocolate they sent me, instead giving it to my roommate’s boyfriend.

That Spring Break I planned a visit, mostly because I wanted to see the cats and my younger brother. I asked one of my best friends to come with me; he was excited to see the cats. Once the day rolled around, though, I panicked, and shamefacedly told him I was not able to try and see the cats, after all. We went to a park instead, and then walked around town; my fear was such that we had him walk between me and the window of the bookstore where the spare worked.

A year before my graduation I made the mistake of visiting them on Mother’s Day. I was only there to see my little brother in a show; I had no desire to see the others. I’d hoped to pick a day they would not be coming. But of course the only day we could go was they day they were going.

My mother wouldn’t even let me talk alone with my little brother, instead encroaching on us every time we tried to separate from the family. The older brother and I managed to get the younger one into the car with us when we drove to Old Mexico for lunch. We talked freely then, but the whole time feared the subversive backlash. Anything we said during that short trip could, if repeated, be used against us. The mere fact that it was the three rebel children riding together was enough to earn us cold shoulders, snide comments, and another log in the fire of suspicion that built and built, steadily smothering possibilities of future times spent together.

We met up at the restaurant, miraculously receiving only a few sharp glares as we rejoined the group. At the table, my little brother sat next to the oldest one. I let them have that; they didn’t talk as much as we did. But of course, then, I was sitting across from the mother.

She would not stop talking. I would not look at her. She mocked me openly when I did not respond submissively and sweetly. I was far from submissive. She asked me how my cat was doing.

I showed her pictures of Callie, but let out some remark that I was surprised she cared enough to ask about her.

“She’s your cat, of course I want to see her.”

“You didn’t seem very interested in helping me get her,” I said.

The mother became defensive. “Well, you have her, so does it matter?”

“It matters to me. I want to know why you didn’t help me.” I’d asked her to be my reference for the adoption application; I was loathe to ask favors, but she knew how good I was with the animals. She’d refused, saying she felt she would be betraying the cats that lived at the house.

“I didn’t want to hurt Kitty’s feelings,” the mother said. “She loves you so much.”

“She won’t have any idea I have another cat. You wouldn’t let me take Kitty. Of course I had to get another cat.”

“But you got one without my help,” she said. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”

“I’m upset because you didn’t care about helping me. You decided not to do something that was really important to me. You decided it was more important for you to say no to me than it was for you to help me.”

She sputtered for a few seconds. “Why are you so upset about this?”

“Why was it more important to say no than to help me?” I shot back.

The entire family was watching us. Staring. I was afraid my father was going to interject angrily, but no one said a word.

They were too afraid.

I don’t quite remember but I’m pretty sure no one hugged me before we left. Except maybe the younger brother. We stayed in the garage playing with the cats and talking about the play. I was so anxious I was shaking the entire time. As much as I wanted to see my cats, I wanted to get out of there more. I wanted the older brother to stop chilling with the fam and get me out of there.

Originally, my then-girlfriend was going to come with us. A few days before, however, she’d gently broken up with me. In the end, it was better. I couldn’t imagine the shitshow that may have resulted from me bringing a girl as my date. When I’d emailed them to let them know she was coming, there had been no reply. No one asked why she wasn’t there until halfway into lunch.

That was the last time I set foot on their property.

**

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The last time I entered that vicinity I stayed in the car. My roommate was taking me to see my little brother, and we were going to visit a park in the area and hang out. It had taken weeks just to plan the visit and get the parents to agree to it. The emotional distress that went into bargaining with an abusive family through my guiltless younger brother felt like torture. Some days I just cried over the fact that it shouldn’t have been like this. It shouldn’t be so hard just to see my brother. He was 18; he shouldn’t be controlled by his parents so severely, even if he did live in their house.

Families shouldn’t be so fucked up that it takes subversion and flat-out lying to get them to agree to a visit between two legal, adult siblings.

The night before the visit I slept on the couch, something I did when I was really stressed and anxious. I had nightmares about being trapped in that house. I’d been having a lot of them lately. There was panic at the thought of once again being trapped under their control. Often the dreams involved me staring out my old bedroom window, wondering how hard it would be to climb down or how quickly one of my friends would be able to come rescue me.

That morning I woke up crying and texted my roommate I can’t do this. I was terrified of going back there. My panic was such that I illogically believed simply driving to that house was enough for it to suck me in and never let me go.

My roommate came into the living room to talk me down. She told me that if I really didn’t want to go, she wouldn’t make me. But she didn’t want my brother to be disappointed, and she didn’t want me to regret not going after putting so much work into making this happen.

“I’m not going to let them do anything to you. I’ll face them off myself if I have to. But I promise nothing bad is going to happen.”

I listened, and we took the trip. I texted my brother when we were five minutes away telling him to wait for us in the driveway, not wanting to spend any more time by that house than we needed to. I didn’t even want to step out of the car. I was hoping we could grab him and drive off before either of the parents saw us and came over. As we pulled in I saw my brother with his shoulder bag, standing by the front steps. I motioned him to come over. I saw the mother coming, seemingly out of nowhere. I felt the panic rising again and willed my brother to walk faster. As he got in the car, my mother knocked on the window. My roommate cast me an apologetic glance as she rolled the window down.

“Hi,” the mother said.

I think I may have nodded, or said the word back.

She asked me how I was. I responded vaguely. I said something about the garden. I can’t remember. All I remember is making sure I cut it off as soon as possible and my brother telling me that one of my comments would make her happy. That helped me relax, just a little bit.

The visit was great; I hadn’t seen him since the performance. We went hiking, took pictures, shared stories, and went out to eat. The ending was marred with him mentioning that he felt it necessary to come up with proof that he was not blindly following in my footsteps. To come home commenting that something about the visit was off, so the parents could walk away assured that he was not too attached to me. He’d already lied to them about not talking to me. Apparently, the mother hawked over his shoulder sometimes when he was on the computer. Most of the time he had to message me from his tablet in his bedroom with the door closed. When he wanted to call me, he usually went into the garage.

When we went out to eat with him I ordered a frozen margarita. We decided to tell them that I’d asked him to take a drink of the margarita and he refused. Make it as if I pressured him and he warded me off, because it was that important for the parents to see him pushing me away. They would never stop considering me a bad influence. There was no redeeming me in their minds. We had long since given up on that. The only thing to do was fabricate scenarios that would make them feel better about him.

There was little contact for a while after that. Occasionally my mother sent me texts. The only time I responded was when she mentioned Fannie Flagg had a new book out. The two of us had had something of a book club while we both read Fannie Flagg’s books; I couldn’t help but ask more about it. All of a sudden, I missed our friendship so much I felt willing to try again.

I kept my distance, though, and continued my silence. Going back was too painful. I had such little faith that anything was going to repair what was left of our relationship.

I didn’t tell them about the name change. I was waiting until it happened, until most of my documents were switched over and they couldn’t do anything about it. The night before my hearing, my mother texted me How’s it going? I felt exposed, as if she somehow knew everything. I didn’t reply. I panicked, hyperventilating and considering self-harm. I managed to stave myself. I slept on the couch that night, too.

**

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My name change was successfully legalized. I was talking to my counselor about when and how I should tell them about the change. She recommended I wait until things were relatively smooth between us before breaking it to them.

“Are you going to tell them about your gender, too?” she asked. “They’re kind of intertwined, and they may ask why you changed it.”

“I don’t know.” Part of me wanted to come out; maybe the huge reveal would give me a bridge back in, or maybe they would be so outraged they would disown me entirely. The most likely reaction was that they would pass it off as nonsense, not replying and assuming I was once again looking for attention. To be a special snowflake, like I was trying to when I told them I had depression and anxiety, or that I was gay.

Part of me wanted to just get it out and over with. The other part felt they did not even deserve to know.

I steeled myself and waited for that moment we’d talked about in counseling. Around the time I was preparing myself to come out to them, I became embroiled in a fierce argument with my father about how I was going to file my taxes. On top of his refusal to let me file my own exemption, they’d neglected to tell me that I’d been taken off the family insurance. Thanks to that, my prescription had been delayed almost two weeks, causing me to miss days of medication. Then for three months I was not insured, and had to dish out more than 80 dollars to pay for my pills. I could barely afford it; I ended up skipping an entire script to avoid the charge. Even though I tried to phase myself off slowly, the withdrawal symptoms left me constantly exhausted and even more disorientated than usual. Just as the withdrawals reached their peak, my new insurance finally kicked in. As I phased myself back into the medication, withdrawal symptoms mixed with reuptake symptoms, leaving me miserable for several weeks.

If I’d known about the insurance earlier, the whole ordeal would have been avoided.

In addition to the medication problems, I now had to spend hours battling my father about the taxes. It very nearly turned into a legal altercation, as my father insisted on claiming me as a dependent. I stressed to him that it simply was not legal for him to claim me. He denied this; his oppressive insistence, along with intimidating voicemails I refused to return, caused me to question myself again and again. I spent hours on the phone with the IRS, and hours on hold; I filled out pages of paperwork to reconcile my father’s fuckups. I was frequently in tears. I skipped classes to do the work or have nervous breakdowns.

This went on for months.

I did not tell them about my name.

**

Even as I told my friends, professors, and counselor these stories, they continued to question my decision not to invite my parents to my graduation. Once again I questioned myself; once again I spent hours deliberating over my choices.

My older brother and I tried to plot to get my little brother to my graduation without letting the parents know that’s where he was. We crafted an elaborate pretense that fell apart when the parents simply were not interested in letting him go. To top it off, they refused to pick up my brother at the train station when he’d planned to visit.

My older brother was at my graduation, though I didn’t want to see him. My little brother was not. My parents were not.

But the day after my graduation, I received a text from my mother.

How did graduation go?

They’d known the entire time. They wouldn’t have come if I asked them. They simply did not care.

The emotional turmoil I’d gone through on their account had almost killed me, as I once again visited the treatment center when I was planning suicide during these altercations. And they hadn’t even wanted to come.

**

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Out of all this, though, came my freedom. I’m on my own health care plan; I’m independent from them on my taxes. They have no access to any of my legal accounts and documents, as the name they have me under no longer exists. They don’t know where I live or work. They don’t know my role in my community or my status as a queer person. They no longer hold power over me. The only thing I need to do is protect myself emotionally.

But they have no power over me, and it finally feels like I can breathe.

breathe

I Felt it Once, and Sometimes it Comes Back

I Felt it Once, and Sometimes it Comes Back

There are those days where I desperately miss my hometown.

Maybe it’s not that I miss the town itself—I miss what it felt like to enjoy living there.

I miss the few true friends I actually had.

I miss my first boss—one of the best and most understanding ladies I’ll ever have the privilege of knowing.

I miss my co-workers—such caring, thoughtful, and fun individuals are hard to find.

I miss working at the boutique—remembering how I learned to interact with people, learned that I could be confident and competent.

I miss working on Jefferson Street with all the local shop owners, the ones who weren’t just in it for the tourists but who actively participated in community functions and gave back.

I miss the small-town events that were tailored towards residents and not just tourists. I miss running up and down the street on errands; that wonderful day where I made and delivered huge bouquets of balloons.

I miss rainy days at work listening to Frank Sinatra Leonard Cohen. I miss sunny days in the garden. I miss admiring the clothes that were too expensive and that beautiful pair of earrings I almost bought. I miss the pride in knowing that all of our products were either made in America or certified fair trade.

I miss my boss’s stories and tales of inspiration, the adventurous life she led. I almost went to New York with her; if I’d stayed, I probably would have.

I miss the routine of setting up in the morning and taking down at night. I miss packing my lunches and finding moments to snack on my trail mix and bean sprout sandwiches. I miss running down to the bakery to buy the homemade baked goods and bring them back to share.

The excitement of filling out my first time card, of my first paycheck.

I miss the theaters. The shady nights volunteering in the open-air theater, the paper tickets, watching the actors roam around the growing night before the show started.

I miss my first internship, where I learned all the nooks and crannies of the theater, and could still find my way to the third floor if I went back there today.

I miss folding programs and answering phones, filling out the ticket orders every Thursday morning. I miss chatting with my friends there, delivering mail, sweeping under the theater seats. I miss standing on the stage as I helped move props or held book.

I miss the smell of the theater. To this day I can’t describe it, but I’ll never forget it.

I miss stocking concessions, those awful trips up and down the basement stairs. I miss the Door County Cherry trail mix and Ben & Jerry’s single serve I occasionally treated myself to, as a benefit of being a volunteer.

I miss the feeling of sitting in that dark cool theater and watching people I knew acting on the stage, so close it never failed to send tingles down my spine. I miss memorizing the lines with the actors as I eavesdropped on rehearsals over and over.

I miss seeing shows for free and becoming a familiar face with the other workers and volunteers.

I miss co-directing the acting workshops for first graders, filling in the roles no one else wanted and reading Roald Dahl’s Vile Verses with the ecstatic kids.

I miss the feeling I got when working and volunteering, that the people around me genuinely cared about me. They were happy to see me. They were interested in my life. They enjoyed sharing these moments with me.

I miss those people; they were the first ones who made me feel like I had somewhere I belonged.

I miss my shop, I miss my theaters—my first real homes.

I miss feeling like that small town mattered to me.

 

Never Forget

Never Forget

One year ago today, forty nine queer lives were lost in the Orlando Pulse night club shooting. Many of them were young. Most of them were Latinx. All of them just wanted to go out and have a good time.

Being queer has always been dangerous. Whether you’re out or not. In many places it’s still a crime. Sometimes punishable by death. Even in America we’re seeing backlash against our fight for equal rights. The new administration has and still plans to reverse what little progress we’ve made, and has encouraged an increase in hate crimes against the queer community.

Since Marsha Johnson threw the first high heel through the window of the Stonewall Inn, June has been a time of pride and action for the LGBTQ community. Even so, the month is marked with the anniversary of the tragedy in Orlando, Florida.

Thanks to America’s anti-Islam agenda, many innocent people were blamed and targeted after the attack. Because of course one American man isn’t capable of committing a hate crime.

He wasn’t alone. His accomplices were hate, bigotry, stereotyping, and queerphobia.

It was not because he was mentally ill. It was not because he was Muslim. It was not because he himself was gay. Even if any of these are true, they are not what caused him to take his gun into a gay night club on Latin Night.

It was a hate crime. That’s it.

I can’t even comprehend why people would then want to counter hate with more hate. Why use this massive tragedy against one group to fuel your own hatred of another group?

There’s a lot of hate in this world right now. Across the earth lives are being lost in unimaginable numbers. It seems every day brings on a new tragedy. It’s heartbreaking knowing that while some of us eat and work and sleep, others are dying and being killed.

Love is not a cliche but it’s treated like one. Existence is not mundane but it’s taken for granted.

Take care of each day as it comes. And take care of each other. Be aware. Learn. Love.

Be an active part of the solution.

Today we remember the 49 lives lost to an act of hate. We gather to remember. We light candles to remember. We walk to remember. But don’t walk away and forget. It’s painful, but we need to keep the memories as long as we can. So we can continue the fight.

Never stop fighting.

Shame

Shame

Earlier this February I visited Chicago for the Midwestern Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Asexual/Ally College Conference (MBGLTACC). During the weekend we were there, the Alphawood Gallery housed an exhibit—Art-AIDS-America. The travelling exhibit displayed pieces of art created primarily by HIV+ gay men in the 1960s-80s.

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Peter Staley, an active member in the fight against AIDS and a leader of the organization ACT UP New York, was a keynote speaker at the conference. Myself and a small group took the bus to the exhibit after witnessing Staley speak. Seeing the man I’d learned about in person was shocking for me. The exhibit was even more visceral.

We walked through the museum with a grim sense of kindred. Everyone in my group was queer; we all felt a strong connection with the history behind the AIDS epidemic. Each of us is an advocate. We have all worked with a variety of queer students, as well as others; we have heard stories and seen things that others outside of the community rarely have to witness. With this in mind, we felt we might have a small idea of what it was like during this time. And when we walked out, we walked out with stark images in our minds of the suffering experienced by those with AIDS and their loved ones.

There were many pieces that drew my attention. A bloody band aid taped to a piece of paper. Words and silhouettes projected on a wall moving through each other and sharing almost indecipherable poetry expressing the pain of the unknown. A newspaper printed with the words if he were alive today, if she were alive today, if they were alive today…

The one that struck me most: a metal fence with thousands of ribbons tied to its posts.

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It’s cliché to say, but this piece stopped me in my tracks. It was so stark and accessible. I stared at it, tilting my head back and forth, taking it in.

I noticed a basket off to the side. It was full of ribbons and strips of fabric. All in faded, dusty colors that were once vibrant. I stepped closer and read the sign next to it—if you have lost a loved one to AIDS, please take a ribbon and tie it to the gate in their memory.

I looked back at the fence and its many posts completely covered in ribbons. I thought of this piece of art travelling from city to city, each time gaining hundreds of ribbons from shaking fingers.

I walked around the fence and took in the rows upon rows of ribbons, tied tightly and loosely, overlapping, crushing into each other, gently intertwined, long, short, fraying, stiff. I wondered what it must feel like—so many years ago, or today—to lose someone you love to the terrifying, stigmatized virus.

And for the first time in years, I remembered Chris.

Chris was my dad’s gay best friend. His story was about as cliché as it got, and either despite or because of this, it rang true with a passion. Though not the way my dad told it. He cited his memories in mocking tones the day he forced me to come out, sitting forward in my desk chair, eyes fixed on me. It was March of 2013. He used the story to prove how gross and yet insignificant it was to be gay. He used the story of someone close to him to disrespect my community and my identity.

Listening in the moment, I was struck with fear and shame. I was terrified of being mocked, being spoken of the way my father now spoke of his friend. I was ashamed of being part of a culture so clearly ridiculed. I was ashamed to be the person that I was and always had been. I was ashamed to have discovered myself.

Staring at ribbons upon ribbons on the second floor of the gallery in Chicago, Illinois, on February 18th, 2017, I conjured up an image of the man I’d never met.

I now stood unashamed of who I am. I pieced together what I knew of the queer experience combined with what I knew about my father’s lifespan.

It would have been in the 80’s. Kansas City, Missouri. “Small-town,” southern-Midwest queer life.

Chris. Isolated. Maybe thinking there was no one like him. Did he have any gay friends? A partner?

I imagined a young man, maybe in college, whose friends knew he was gay. In the 80s—no small feat. My dad described the job they both had in a fast food place. How Chris loved the ice cream machine and wanted to make all the shakes. How that was considered the girl’s job. I imagined the young man with an apron and a silly server hat, grinning at the cold metal spinning and pouring. I imagined his “gay hands,” with the signature quirk of the wrist, as he handed over the frosted class.

“And then Chris got AIDS. And Chris died.”

My dad didn’t even know the weight of the history behind those words, but tossed them out with a flippancy that should have shamed him, if only because he was talking about someone who used to be his friend, who had died.

Chris. Did he know anyone else who had died? Was he the first of his community to go? Or was he trapped watching his friends dying around him, knowing that he would join them—slowly, agonizingly, disgustingly. I thought of the pictures around me. There was no hiding the blood and pus and mucus and skin lesions and the wasting and drooling and haunted eyes and pain.

I imagined him lying in bed shaking and sweating. I imagined him in the doctor’s office naked with black spots on his skin. I imagined his bones sticking out at the joints and his face drawing longer and longer lines below his eyes. I imagined him alone or with friends despairing at his side. I imagined him crying with pain and anguish as he watched himself and others around him succumbing to what would have been an unavoidable fate.

How long was Chris dying? Who took him to the doctor? Who cleaned his sheets? Who brought him food? Who stood by his bed? Or was he alone?

Did my dad ever visit Chris? Did he talk to him? Did they write? At what point did they part ways? My father spoke of the death and the funeral as if it came up unexpectedly, as if he’d had no idea his friend was sick and dying until it was over.

“His mom called me, and invited me to the funeral. And I went, not because he was gay, but because he was Chris.”

Because Chris was something worth appreciating but his queer identity was not.

My father was loving half a person. He was appreciating the pretty parts. The funny images of him at the ice cream machine. His apron. His hat. His gay smile. But my dad didn’t want anything to do with the rest of it. The needles. The sex. The blood and pus and band aids and sweat and night terrors. What about the pride and fear and isolation of being gay?

My father told the story of his friend’s death as some kind of cautionary tale. Almost like the sex ed teacher in the movie Mean Girls—“If you are gay, you will get AIDS, and you will die.”

Using his dead friend’s suffering to convince me that being gay was as gross as a disease.

As if being Chris was somehow separate from being gay, as if dying from AIDS was the inevitable outcome, and no one would mourn the half of you they didn’t want to see.

In Chicago that night, I picked a ribbon from the basket and found a place, low on the fence, in one of the few small spaces left over, and tied my tiny piece among the many others, one sad story among many, one aching cry among the millions of half-mourned lives.

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Why did my dad tell me the story of his dead gay friend the night he piled words together to gut the integrity of the community I’d just gotten a hold on?

Why did he use the story of his friend’s suffering to throw spite in my face, as if the suffering itself didn’t matter, but the aftermath was some kind of triumph on his end, the noble straight friend ignoring the deceased’s identity and avoiding the stories of the pain?

My fingers left the ribbon on the metal pole and I walked to stand inside the circle the fence was making, turning and staring again and again at the faded colors, the faded lives around me, gone but not forgotten.

I thought of Chris’s death and who took him to the mortuary, who collected his ashes or who threw him in a black trash bag and left him with the other bodies of the other dead gay men?

And my mind turned to ashes and the images of a crowd of people singing and screaming outside the White House, throwing the ashes of their loved ones through the gate and chanting, shame shame shame shame shame shame shame shame

My father made me feel ashamed for something five years later I was proud of. I wanted him to feel the shame he should have felt when all he felt was pride in what he saw as altruistic pity for his dead gay friend.

I keep the pictures in my head and the voices I’ve never heard, say his name. And a shame that should be felt by those who permit the suffering when they turn the other cheek.

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Theater Seats

I’m always particular about where I sit in a movie theater. It’s different from watching movies at home—at home you can move around if you need to, get up to use the restroom and find a better spot when you get back if the first one didn’t work out. But at a movie theater, it’s not like there’s a bunch of couches and chairs and rug space in a natural formation. The seats are all smashed together and in a line, making moving around inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once you pick your spot, you’re stuck there the whole time unless there’s an intermission, which happens less and less lately.

Who you sit with can define your movie watching experience. Despite this, when groups go to see movies, they don’t seem to care as much who they sit next to as they do at home.  It’s just a mad scramble in a half-lit room trying to find a row with enough empty chairs to fit us all. It’s an intense bundle of seconds for me as I try to predict where each person will sit in relation to everyone else, timing my movements to make sure I claim the spot I need before things shuffle around again.

I need to sit with someone I know on at least one side. That is, someone I like. I’m not always in a group filled entirely with people I like. It might not even be that I don’t like them, but sometimes I want to share this particular movie experience with someone specific. Plus, I need to sit next to someone who won’t judge my leg twitches and constant fidgeting. Ideally, it will be someone who appreciates my side comments and adds their own, who lets me hide by them when things get intense. I want to be able to cast a significant glance their way and see knowing eyes looking back, rather than just awkwardly look at the side of their head and to see them still staring at the screen.

If I see a movie in a house and the experience is disappointing—if people don’t engage with me or I get embarrassed—it still sucks, but at least I didn’t pay for it and drive across town for it. And there’s usually something to do or somewhere to go after. Or I can get up in the middle if I know the house well enough and spend some time in another room. Or pretend to fall asleep. But in a theater there’s not much of an escape unless I want to squish past everyone to spend awkward extra minutes in the public restroom. And movie theater chairs aren’t comfortable enough to even pretend to fall asleep in.

Seeing a movie in a theater is extra fun and extra stress. For someone who overanalyzes everything, those few seconds it takes for everyone to take a seat define priorities. In my experience people tend not to make an effort to sit with me on purpose, so if I feel a need to claim someone’s periphery, I need to act quickly. The stress of making sure I sit where I need to is enough for me to consider declining every invitation I get, or relieved when I rarely get any invitations in the first place.

 

 

Witch

Witch

Every year at Halloween I would go as a witch. I’m not sure exactly how the tradition started—it was probably just something cute my mom came up with. Or maybe it was because even then they all secretly thought of me as a bitch. Maybe it was some prediction for how I was supposed to turn out later in life. Or maybe it was just because they finally had a girl—“girl”—and wanted to latch onto gender roles as soon as possible. While my brothers ran around in bedsheets and Ninja Turtle masks and the dragon costumes that I occasionally stole to wear as pajamas, every Halloween I eagerly donned my black dress, striped tights and floppy fake-satin hat. I clutched my purple broom in one hand and my bag of candy in the other and skipped through town, confident that I was the cutest girl anyone had seen that night.

After I while I wised up and realized the only one who cared how I looked was my mother.

When the youngest of us turned twelve we stopped going trick-or-treating, my family still made a pretty big production of dressing up to have dinner on Halloween. I got older too. Wiser even. One year I went as a witch with jeans. That happened to be the year I didn’t give a shit about making anyone happy on Halloween. I really was a witch that night, if you believe my mom. I let myself be snarky and didn’t monitor every single little thing that came out of my mouth. I played the games my little brother invented for us that were supposed to be Halloween themed and let myself be a sore loser and say out loud if I thought my brothers were cheating. I sat sprawled on the floor and threw my hat on one of the chairs. I didn’t even bring out the broom that night but left it hanging, draped in fake cobwebs, by the fireplace.

My family was apparently scandalized at my newfound autonomy. They were shocked that I was not letting everyone walk all over me, as I had done for the past, what was it then, eighteen years?

That winter was the winter my Dad said without hesitation in front of my little brother that I was the most self-centered person he knew.

I did not want to spend another Halloween at that man’s house.

Counselling told me to try again. To make an effort (as if I hadn’t for the past two years I’d been at college). So I tried. I faked happy. I put away the witch costume but that doesn’t mean I changed their perceptions. To them this was a costume. This person. This face. This suddenly-okay sibling. Suddenly interested in what the others were doing. Suddenly not getting into arguments with the father figure every meal.

When that didn’t work I put on another kind of costume. I was as gay as I felt like I could be. I dressed in loose baggy clothes and didn’t take my hat or shoes off inside. I wore rainbow bracelets and scarves. Some days I amped up the jewelry and other days I went around in jeans and a hoodie. I sat on tables and yakked about myself. If they didn’t want to talk to me, I’d talk to them. I chattered nonstop. I made gay jokes. I made romantic, very non-heteronormative comments about female celebrities. I corrected pronoun usage and added endless strings of what-ifs to discussions.

They really hated that.

So I went back to being quiet. Put on the costume of the broody twenty-something. It wasn’t that hard as it was right around my first breakup so I told myself that was my excuse. But less and less I considered that place home. Less and less I wanted to go back. More and more I looked for reasons to not be there on Halloween, which was coming up, and which was normally the only occasion I felt okay spending with my family.

But my little brother was so excited about his costume, and all of his cool ideas for our family-only party. I thought maybe it was worth a shot. Maybe I’d have fun. Maybe it would turn out okay in the end.

He wanted to dye his hair blue, since mine was purple. I wanted us to be hair dye buddies. He was working through his own identity crisis at the time, so maybe sharing a piece of a costume would strengthen our bond.

But of course any similarity to the rebel older sibling was a symptom of my negative influence. My mom quickly intervened and temporary hair chalk was used instead. They did it before I came. I brought a bottle of blue Manic Panic I’d purchased especially for the occasion, excited at the idea of a bonding experience with my favorite sibling. My mom flipped shit, yelling at me about cosmetics and cancer, how could I be so insensitive after Uncle John’s three golf-ball-sized brain tumors, she didn’t care if I’d been dying my hair for months, I could get cancer if I wanted—she didn’t care about that—but how dare I bring it into her house—how dare I threaten her family.

Once again I avoided my little brother’s eyes bulging in astonishment, mumbling at him not to retaliate as I bent my head to my mother’s verbal abuse. With my mother acting as a gargoyle over my shoulder I looked up each individual ingredient to see if they were cancer-causing. After finding them all to be FDA approved my mother sniffed and walked away without a word. I looked to my brother, who shrugged, and said his costume would be okay with just the chalk. Besides, he had rehearsal in the morning. He wasn’t sure how his director would feel about a blue-haired news reporter.

I steadied myself and turned my attention to my own costume. I was going to be Watson. Dr. John Watson, from Doyle’s classics, moustache and all. I blew up snapchat with costume selfies. The hat. The coat. My parents didn’t even flinch at the fake moustache. I was pretty proud of myself.

I never wanted to be a witch again.

Dr. Watson lived for maybe an hour before I had to take him off to cook. My beloved doctor demolished by gender roles. So much for my newfound freedom; so much for sticking the finger to everything Halloween had stood for until this point.

I was a girl again and had to do what girls are supposed to do. I may as well have been wearing the floppy hat and clutching the broom, red-faced and chubby-cheeked, following my mother like a clueless duckling waiting to fall into the water.

Disturbed

Disturbed

I think I was ten when I learned what “disturbed” meant. It held such serious connotations. For me it described a feeling I couldn’t shake, something I didn’t like, didn’t understand, but couldn’t escape.

I noticed that when my brothers told me disturbing things, though, they did so with what appeared to be glee. As if they were not disturbed at all.

Maybe they were mocking me. But at the time it lead me to believe that by sharing the disturbing thought, it would become less real and less troubling for me.

I read a lot. I watched a lot of movies. I watched the news. I saw a lot of things I didn’t like, didn’t understand, but couldn’t escape.

If I told someone about them, it would make it less scary and less real.

I lived in a house with five other people. We never got out. I didn’t have friends. It took less than a day for everything one person knew to be common knowledge. there was no escape in my own home.

So I found other ways. I kept a journal. I wrote twisted fiction. I wrote stories about experiences I’d never had and places I’d never been. I wrote about people years older than me. I wrote about feelings I’d never had, feelings so intense I couldn’t find the right words.

I hated not having the right words. So I read more. I got a thesaurus. I read my dictionary. Trying to find the words I didn’t know that would click into the puzzle of the misery I was trying to portray in my stories.

I wanted to describe a misery too intense to be endured by a single human. Because I needed to get it out of my head.

I created characters so I could destroy them. But not completely. Tear them down then wait just long enough for them to rebuild only to be rendered into wreckage once again.

I wanted my words to tear my flesh in a way that I felt my hands never could.

I was trapped in the same way I trapped my characters. Maybe they had an island, or a fence, or a river keeping them in place. I had four walls and five family members who never let me ask the questions they didn’t want to hear answered.

I wrote with a darkness that shamed me. My writing lay stacked in drawers. When I read my works, laughter lashed back. My handwriting became smaller. The stacks grew higher.

As I condemn my characters to thicker and thicker layers of despair, I try to free myself from the sticky strings that life winds around me and sticks to the walls that closed in on my childhood. One time my brothers and I were playing we were trapped in a spiderweb but when the screams became too real I yelled at them to stop and ran out of the room. Then in my head I repeated the screams over and over until they sounded less real and felt less awful. I see the way my words struggle across the pages and the strings stick tighter but there are fewer. I’m still just a ten year old trying to run away from the meaning of a word I didn’t know, I didn’t understand, but that I can’t escape.

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

To Anyone Who’s Ever Told me I can’t Do It

You’re wrong.

I buy my own food. I take the bus to work. I have 4 jobs, 2 internships, class, bills to pay, a cat to feed, medication to keep track of, and a family that was loathe to send me $100 for groceries for the whole year, who fucked up my financial aid, and who refuse to give me physical or emotional support and who actively criticize and invalidate me.

On top of this I live with 3 diagnosed mental illnesses, struggle with emotional PTSD after a childhood and adolescence of abuse and neglect, and I’m a queer person in a Trump world, where not only students but also professors have gone out of their way to sensationalize or invalidate me.

And yet I still somehow find the time and energy to fund raise $113 in a day for a cause I care about, lend several hours of my time to volunteer for efforts that are important to me, reach out to help and support those around me, communicate with faculty and staff for projects outside of work or school, fight to make my university a better place, stand up to people who are fucking things up, support my successful friends and colleagues, and help my school outside of my work hours.

I have succeeded in all of my classes. I have done well enough on assignments to get praise from my professors. Sometimes my professors ask me to work with them. I seek out academic challenges and they readily send them my way. Many of them have pointed me towards volunteer and work opportunities, and have offered to be references for jobs or write letters of recommendation for scholarships.

I have been successful in all of my jobs. I have received praise from supervisors on doing a good job, being a role model, going above and beyond. I have had productive and enlightening conversations with them. I have worked to better myself and seen my progress. I have formed lasting relationships with my co-workers and in many cases have been a part of a cohesive and amazing team. I have seen the impact my work has on those around me–whether it’s them beaming over their improved writing skills, finding their own passions, gaining valuable life skills, seeking out challenges of their own, growing as people, learning about diversity, becoming a better ally, becoming a better friend, finding joy in everyday things, opening up to themselves and others,  finding their safe places, making connections, gaining experience.

I have forged amazing friendships. I have encountered incredible people and worked to keep them in my life. We’ve had life-changing experiences and supported each other through thick and thin. I’ve been through breakups and lost friends to misunderstandings and abuse. I’ve become incredibly close to people who end up leaving. I have found comfort in unlikely people. I’ve worked through an intense fear of being loved. I’ve taken dramatic steps in relationships. I’ve fallen in and out of love. I’ve created a support system for myself that has been there for me during my darkest times and has shared with me some of my greatest successes. I’ve helped friends through depression and anxiety and even suicide.

I’ve lived amazing experiences. I’ve traveled to places that 15 year old me never would have dreamed about. I flew on a plane by myself and navigated my way through a foreign city on my own. I have friends in other states and other countries.

I’ve battled with my inner demons and, in some cases, won. I have scars that will stay with me my entire life, but I refuse to let them take me down.

I’ve three times tried to kill myself, but guess what, I’m still here.

So yes please get mad at me for saying things that don’t appeal to you, for questioning your authority, for taking things into my own hands, for going out of my way to do things that distract me from my ultimate goal (get an education). Please do blame me for things outside of my control. Please do take advantage of me and freeload off my efforts. Please mock my experiences and make light of my struggles. Please discredit what I tell you because I can’t possibly know anything. And while you’re at it, go ahead and say I’m not doing anything with my life. Go ahead and make fun of me for trying. Go ahead and mock my passions. You won’t be the first or the last.

And you’ll never know how I’ll keep fighting. How I’ll move on from your verbal bashing. How I’ll protect myself. How I’ll stop asking you for help because I rarely get the help I need from people like you.

And I guess I should thank you–for reminding me that the close friends I have are extraordinary, that most people I will encounter in life will be more like you. People I will learn to fight because for once in my life, I know I’m right about something.

That it’s never wrong to keep working for what you see needed around you.