Sunday, July 24, 2011

On insidiousness

"Stories go rancid inside you if you don't let them out." - Rachel Corrie

I've been thinking a lot about homophobia. My coming out experience has, for the most part, been very positive. But one thing in particular still gnaws at me. And I have to blog about it. I'll explain my reasons for doing so at the end of the post.

Anyway, my parents and friends have been overwhelmingly accepting of the fact that I'm gay; I'm very lucky. My grandparents, however, are blatantly homophobic. And I've realized that in some sick way, that's a blessing. Because others have been more insidious about it.

Like this one person I used to know. I still can't wrap my head around what she did or understand why she did it. I've tried to avoid her since October of 2009, when everything blew up in my face at a poetry reading she gave at a Saginaw coffee shop.

I met her in July of 2005 at a week-long seminar for young writers. She was an adjunct at the school hosting the seminar. Although she didn't teach a workshop that summer, she spent the week hanging out-- going to poetry readings and keynote speeches, that sort of thing. Her son was there as a student, and so was I.

She was thrilled that he and I hit it off. She liked me because I was a serious student, poet, and to top it all off, "really damn cute." I liked her at first, too. The closing lines of her poems made my breath catch. After the seminar ended, I devoured all of her poetry and modeled my own after it.

When I came out to her in October of 2009 (and I'll elaborate on that in a bit), she told me that she had first suspected I was gay two years prior, when I was eighteen. By that point in time, her son and I had broken up, but she was still holding out hope that we'd get back together. She thought that spending time with/money on me would increase the chances of that.

Obviously, it didn't work out that way. and, although I was unaware of it at the time, that's when she started trying to get me to come out to her. We got together several times; if she didn't say something blatantly homophobic, she'd at least talk incessantly about how much she wished that her son and I were still dating. She really seemed to take issue with the fact that someone as pretty as me didn't have a boyfriend.

Around that time, I realized just how conservative she was. She couldn't even differentiate between birth control and Plan B. Given the conservatism, homophobia, and the fact that she was my ex-boyfriend's mom, I told myself that if I could come out to her, then I could come out to anyone.

And on October 2, 2009, that finally happened, though not at all the way I would have wanted it to. She invited me over to her house for a few drinks before her poetry reading. I blacked out before I'd finished my second glass of wine. I can't help but suspect that she spiked it with something; I may only weigh 100 pounds, but I drink often enough to know how I feel after not even two glasses of wine. And blacked out certainly isn't it. I literally do not remember anything about the evening post wine consumption.

While we were drinking, she said all kinds of blatantly homophobic things, and I finally just blurted out, "I'm gay, so do me a favor and shut the fuck up." She grinned and said, "I knew it! I finally got you drunk enough to admit it!"

Well, that explains why she had brought me to Grand Rapids with her two months prior to visit a friend of hers who gave me lots of tequila and a makeover. "We tried to get you to admit it then," she told me. "But unfortunately, you just weren't drunk enough."

Yes, really. Oh, and the makeover? they chopped off my hair in an attempt to give me a more "butch" hairstyle.

And it gets worse.

After I came out to her, she brought me to the coffee shop where her poetry reading was to be held. (Never mind that I was already blacked out by that point.) According to what I saw on Facebook the next day, I stumbled through the door, announced to everyone that I was gay (because, as I mentioned, I'd told myself that if I could come out to her, I could come out to anyone), and spilled a cup of coffee on one of my best friends.

After an eventful ten minutes at the coffee shop, my ex-boyfriend's mom took me back to my apartment (but again, I have no memory of any of this), where, according to her, I threw up all over myself. She put me in the bathtub to wash me off. Her boyfriend, who was there with us, told me the next morning, "Obviously, you're a lesbian. While you two were in the bathroom, I looked through your bookshelf. Only lesbians own that many books on feminism."

It was an awful night.

I stayed in the closet for another year after that. Most of the people who were at the coffee shop that night didn't think I was really gay; they just assumed that I was sputtering randomness because I was drunk.

At the time, I was the editor-in-chief of the school art/literary magazine. And one of the people who happened to be at the coffee shop that night was my faculty adviser. He was furious because he felt responsible for me, and there I was, the head of a student organization, totally smashed and underage to boot. He cooled off quite a bit after he reminded himself that the reading wasn't an SVSU-sponsored event. But he still wasn't too pleased with me, and that didn't help me to feel any better about what had happened.

I wanted more than anything to forget about what had taken place that night. So I made a conscious decision to set my sexuality aside and instead focus my energy on what was happening at school. It was a terrible semester for reasons I don't want to get into right now, but suffice it to say that I often cite it as one of my main reasons for transferring schools. What most people don't know is that the incident I just described is another one of my biggest reasons for leaving. Even though my friends are all great people who didn't think any less of me after that night, it was still really hard to face everyone at school the following Monday.

My ex-boyfriend's mom thought the world of me until she realized that because of my sexual orientation, I'd never marry her son. And what's scary is that I didn't clue into that fact until a couple of months after that disastrous night at the coffee shop. I was too busy being angry with myself for saying something drunk that I really needed to say sober. So I failed to realize that what had happened that night wasn't my fault.

When the semester ended, she pulled the "I'm older than you" card, and lectured me about how irresponsible I'd been all semester (she, like anyone else who interacted with me at all that semester, knew that things hadn't gone well for me). She told me that if she could, she would ground me "until Jesus comes back." I don't remember how the conversation played out, exactly, but believe it or not, she somehow managed to convince me that I deserved to be punished. And after talking to her, I felt even worse about how the semester had gone (anyone who is aware of what I went through that semester knows that I already felt badly enough about things, and didn't need to feel any worse).

My friend Sarah sent me an email on New Year's Eve. It was two pages in length. (I know this because I printed it out-- it's one of the most beautiful/brave things I have ever read.) In it, she told me that although she didn't want to risk making me any angrier than I already was, she felt that, as someone who genuinely cared about my well-being, she had a responsibility to tell me something straight up. She told me that I wouldn't start to feel better about what had happened until I realized that although I had every right to be angry, I should not have directed my anger inward.

Only then did everything click into place.

Clearly, if my ex-boyfriend's mom is smart enough to get inside my head, know what makes me tick, and and figure out what makes me vulnerable/weak, then she's smart enough to know that she shouldn't have done that in the first place. And that's why I'm so furious with her. At least with my grandparents, I can chalk up their homophobia to ignorance and the way they were raised. But she knows better. And what hurts the most is that I have no idea why she did it.

What did she gain?

Even if writing this down won't get me any closer to understanding why it happened, I do hope that my sharing this will help others understand that it happened. And that this sort of thing happens all the time.

I've wanted to share this story for a long time. But I was afraid to. I'm still afraid of how people will react, honestly. Because certain people (namely those who were at the coffee shop that October night in 2009) will know exactly who I'm talking about.

But I didn't write this for them. It doesn't matter now why I suddenly felt as though I needed to move out of Saginaw ASAP. I left over a year ago-- it's long over. The last thing I want is pity; clearly, I've moved on. But what good will this experience do anyone if I bury it?

I wrote this for people who are facing discrimination, but like me, might not recognize it as such. I need to speak out about this, because what my ex-boyfriend's mom did was wrong; she got away with something that she shouldn't have. It took me a long time to realize that, though, because I never thought her capable of hurting me. What's so insidious about discrimination is that those who experience it are often tricked into thinking that it's their fault, or that it happens because something is "wrong" with them.

I was angry with myself for a long time. For what? Being myself? Drinking a glass and a half of wine before heading out to a poetry reading? What the hell did I do wrong?

And yet I live in a world where I'm still afraid of how people will react to this post. Which just tells me that I really ought to share it. Because I live in a world full of people who need to read it.

Last night, I was talking to my friend Victoria about this post. And she mentioned that the most important thing is to make sure that I do this entirely on my own terms. So, let's go back to that night in October of 2009 and do it my way: I'm sitting here with a six-pack of Bell's Oberon (I prefer beer to wine anyway). And I'm a little tipsy and definitely gay and quite comfortable with that and I own tons of books on feminism but so what and things are good.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Pro-choice is pro-life.

The other day I read an article in the Michigan Messenger about how Thaddeus McCotter--a Republican congressional representative running for president in 2012--signed a "Pro-life leadership pledge." This means that if elected, he'll "nominate pro-life judges, select pro-life cabinet members, de-fund Planned Parenthood and support legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy."

That news didn't exactly surprise me, but it still pissed me off, especially given the fresh batch of anti-choice news that has popped up in the US this week. The Executive Council in New Hampshire just voted to de-fund Planned Parenthood. And yesterday, a federal judge blocked a law that would have required Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, to disclose particular information about themselves, such as whether they employ licensed medical personnel.

CPCs pose as abortion clinics, but do not provide abortion or contraceptives (nor do they refer women to organizations that do). As the Ms. article points out, CPCs are notorious for providing false medical information about abortion in order to scare women out of considering it as an option that might work for them.

I'm really uncomfortable living in a country whose government damn near shut down over an argument about de-funding an organization as necessary as Planned Parenthood. And it hurts even more to learn that people are actively working to ensure that the nation's laws stay on the side of CPCs that flat-out lie to women who come to them for comprehensive information.

As someone who cares deeply about reproductive justice and people in general, I'd like to take a moment to explain--to Representative McCotter, Judge Pauley, and everyone else behind all of the legislation that has come up since the last election--that pro-choice is pro-life.

A lot of people will be surprised to hear this, but I didn't always identify as pro-choice.

Yeah, really. Because let's face it: the rhetoric sounds great. Don't kill babies. That's something I could totally get behind, you know?

Neither of my parents are US citizens, so they can't vote. Therefore, politics just weren't discussed in our house when I was growing up. I've read that statistically, parents have a great deal of influence over their children's political views. That wasn't really the case for me. I had a few opinions, but those were based shallowly on what I felt to be common sense.

So, when asked for my views on abortion, I would proudly declare that I was pro-life and thought abortion was wrong.

But once I got to high school, I noticed that a lot of people I respected were especially passionate about their pro-choice views. And important things were going on at the time that forced me to seriously reevaluate my stance. In 2006, when I was a junior, my school district considered adopting an abstinence only sex education program, to replace the comprehensive one that was in place.

People went apeshit. Friends of mine spoke out against the proposal at school board meetings. Medical professionals came in from out of town to voice their opinion, too. And in the end, we stuck with a comprehensive program.

I was pleased with the school board's decision not to adopt an abstinence only program (because even though I didn't believe in abortion, I wasn't quite that conservative; I've always fully supported birth control). But I still could not understand how or why my friends felt so strongly about the abortion issue in particular. And because I knew my friends to be intelligent, compassionate people, I wanted to understand their point of view. So I started researching the topic.

I don't remember a specific moment when I "became pro-choice." I do know, though, that I kept finding instances where I could concede that abortion was an acceptable option: rape, incest, poverty, etc.

But what won me over fully in the end were the personal anecdotes. By reading tons of stories about women's experiences with pregnancy, I discovered that it was impossible to put them into boxes marked with the aforementioned labels. It hit me that I couldn't call myself pro-life without taking women's lives and diverse experiences into consideration.

The Supreme Court's upholding of the "partial birth abortion" ban in 2007 is the event that both tested and solidified my new pro-choice views. I was furious with the decision, even though when GW Bush signed the bill four years prior, I hadn't had a problem with it. That's because on the surface, "partial birth abortion" sounds awful; it evokes images of selfish women who, after 35 weeks of pregnancy, suddenly freak out and realize that they don't want to have a baby. So instead, they decide to have an abortion.

But for one thing, "partial birth abortion" is not a medical term; it was coined by right-wing politicians. And secondly, come on, there have to be reasons for women to get an abortion that late in the game.

And damn good ones, at that.

One woman's story has really stuck with me over the years. It appears on page 14 of _The War on Choice_ by Gloria Feldt:

We were awaiting the arrival of a son. I'm diabetic, so I had more prenatal testing than most women. At twenty-five weeks I had an ultrasound and the doctor's exact words were, "Vick, you are disgustingly normal and so is the baby." At thirty-two weeks I went in for another ultrasound and my world came crashing down. They discovered that [the fetus] had not grown past twenty-five weeks, and further testing revealed that he had nine major anomalies, including a fluid-filled cranium with no brain tissue at all. He could never have survived outside my womb. My body was the only thing keeping him alive, and I chose to remove my son from life support. I'm a mom. I had three beautiful children, and in fact I have a new baby boy who's here with me now. Who are the people on the anti-choice side to judge me? They've never been in my shoes. I never in my wildest dreams thought something like this could happen, but it happened to me.

The abortion she had in 1996 was made illegal under the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. Her experience reminds me of the woman in NE who, earlier this year, was denied an abortion and forced to watch her baby die in her arms shortly after giving birth.

So this is why I feel so strongly that lawmakers should not get between a woman and her doctor. As NARAL's Speak Out for Choice Award recipient Katie Stack said earlier this year during her acceptance speech, "Women's experiences with abortion are nuanced and complicated. But... if [we are] given the opportunity to share these diverse realities, we can begin to challenge the stereotypes and falsehoods that are promoted by the anti-choice movement."

Pro-choice is pro-life. That's something I firmly believe and discovered simply by being curious and open. By reading. By trusting/caring about people, and respecting their personal opinions and choices.

I don't think that's too much to ask of humanity.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beer and a new book that you should read!

Earlier today, I went to Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI for the launch of Bonnie Jo Campbell's new novel, _Once Upon a River_. The book was released less than a week ago, so I haven't gotten around to reading it yet. But if it's anything like her earlier work, it's going to be excellent. And I have a signed copy now, so will be reading it soon. :)

I first met Bonnie Jo Campbell in April of last year. She came to SVSU to give a reading, and because I was the editor-in-chief of the student art/literary journal at the time, I was invited to have lunch with her. She also taught a fiction workshop at the Controlled Burn Seminar for Young Writers in 2009, which, because I'm a loser, was actually the first year I didn't attend. I know, I know, I missed out. I tried to make up for that today, however.

That's a picture of the two of us, taken this afternoon at the book launch. I lost my camera a few months ago and had to borrow my sister's, so wasn't aware that all of the photos were going to come out with a pink tint. But they did. Oh well.

For more photos, click here.

Suffice it to say that the experience was awesome. I've been looking for a good excuse to visit Bell's for a long time; Oberon is perhaps my favorite beer ever.

I also ran into a good friend of mine from the Controlled Burn Seminar, Patric. It was great to have a chance to catch up with him, but, going through my photos, I see that there aren't any photos of the two of us. Lame. :(

Anyway, go find yourself a copy of _Once Upon a River_. It's bound to be great. I wish I could say that I'm going to sign off now to go read it, but I should probably read about the Bolshevik Revolution instead, so I don't make an ass of myself in class tomorrow. I am a nerd so I do things like go to school in the middle of July. Don't hate.

See ya later, Internet, and happy reading!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Happy birthday to my self-indulgent blogging habit!

Nearly two years ago, on July 10, 2009, I was sitting in my bedroom in Saginaw, wasting time on the Internet. It was 4 in the morning, and Facebook was pretty dead. So, since I couldn't sleep and had no one to talk to but myself, I started a blog--this one, in fact.

I named it "Plenty of Otherwise," after a poem I'd written several years prior; I had no idea what the hell I wanted to write about.

To this day, I'm not quite sure what to do with this blog. I think that the best blogs focus on very specific issues, and mine does not. I've actually thought about retiring it and starting a brand new pro-choice blog or something, since that seems to be the feminist issue that gets my ire up the most. I've also considered just revamping this blog. I don't know. There are a lot of things I could do.

But wherever this blog winds up, I'm happy about the opportunities it has given me thus far. Last summer, I participated in the "This is what a young feminist looks like" blog carnival. Through that, I met a lot of other feminist bloggers, and found out about all kinds of other blog carnivals (badges from all of these can be found to the right of this post).

As anyone who knows me well is aware, I'm kind of a walking calendar. So I thought I should acknowledge the anniversary of my blog, but wasn't sure how.

And then I remembered the poem.

I wrote it six years ago at the Controlled Burn Seminar for Young Writers, which was actually something I wrote about here the day I created this blog. Things have changed a lot since then; I'm no longer pursuing a career as a writer/editor of literary magazines. And I think that this blog has reflected that, with its gradual shift toward feminism/politics.

So, here's something I wrote at the age of sixteen. It's a little embarrassing, but I think that's why you'll enjoy it.

Plenty of Otherwise
For Jenna

Sixteen years--technically seventeen, but I wasn't born 'til December. And it's only July. Friday, July 8, 2005, 11:01 p.m. You're twenty-six hours, nine minutes old.

I don't really know you (yet), I just
know the tears--

your first,
and mine too, I suppose.

Because these are my first, it seems
that aren't in the angst

of a teenaged
heart, soul, and blah, blah, blah.

I'd really rather not elaborate on my life--regrets and otherwise (and I'm happy to say that there's plenty of otherwise). In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter much who I am, who I've been, and inevitably, who I'll become (I know I seem old to you now, but I'm only sixteen). I've spent my time, and I'll spend my time writing poetry

for you,
and I think it's a great way

to spend my time,
don't you?

Don't waste yours, darling. I won't tell you how to keep from wasting your time. If I did, you probably wouldn't agree with me anyway. So, simply enough, two words: love yourself,

and find beauty
in little things:

cliches like that and
homemade gifts

for your parents,
the ones

that I hope you won't be embarrassed
to see on the refrigerator

in the next decade or so
to come.

My parents still hang my schoolwork on the fridge: a quiz I took on _A Farewell to Arms_ in American lit sophomore year, and the first math test I ever got an A on. I've learned to live with it, even though it's really the poetry I'm proud of. And there's never been a poem tacked to the fridge.

I have vegetarian leanings, and love cats; your dad hunts, and your mom likes dogs. So I'll leave my pretty little spin on animals out of it, except to say that you should always remember your first pet (Riley). Luckily, he's young. Like you. I had a dog when I was born, but he was pretty old by the time I showed up, so he was kind of grumpy, and I blame him for my fixed idea that cats are better.

That said,
you're lucky,

beautiful, alive (officially, finally), and
you amaze me, already

with your
way of being

not quite human, and yet
more genuine than any life fully lived.

Not that there really is such a thing,
but you could defy that--

and I know you will,
in growing.

Saturday, July 9, 2005, 12:14 a.m. You're twenty-seven hours, twenty-two minutes old.

I only hope
I've gotten the math right.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Good friends and good energy

Yesterday, I hung out with my friend Lisa, and this morning, I received a letter from Sarah in the mail. I've decided to write about both of these things because they've filled me with some much needed good energy. And I think that good energy should always be shared.

My mom has been driving me crazy lately. She's a lot more conservative than I am, and in the past few weeks, has been picking fights with me more than usual. I won't go into too much detail, but I get the feeling that she's disappointed in me for not graduating on time, and just wants me to grow up already. And by "grow up" she means "realize that being so freaking liberal isn't a good idea."

Which is ironic, because now that I've transferred to an urban university in one of the most liberal cities in America and picked up a major in women's studies, I've got even more fuel inside of me than usual. So we clash. And it's especially hard, because we live together.

So I've made a point of surrounding myself with people who are sources of good energy. Like Lisa and Sarah. They have done me a world of good. I'm so lucky.

Lisa and I met last year at SVSU, right before I transferred to Wayne State. She was working at Starbucks on campus, and I was hanging out there, doing homework or whatever. It was a Friday and the place was pretty dead, so she came over from behind the counter to tell me that she liked my shoes. Then she added that she'd seen me hanging out there a lot, and had actually admired a lot of my outfits. She told me that she found my creativity really refreshing, because she thought that Saginaw tended to drain the life out of people.

My response was something like, "Well, it's funny that you should say that, because I do feel like Saginaw's draining the life out of me, so I'm transferring."

We added each other on Facebook and surprisingly, kept in touch, mostly because as it turned out, we know a lot of the same people.

She's originally from Royal Oak, which is about half an hour from my hometown of Grosse Pointe. But she's seldom there. After she graduated from SVSU last year, she went to Korea and then Taiwan to teach. And now she's hanging out at home for a couple of weeks before she starts grad school in Arizona.

Given that we're so seldom in the same time zone, I decided that I was going to take advantage of her being in Royal Oak and spend a day with her before she moves. It could have been awkward; we haven't seen each other in well over a year, and have never hung out one on one. But whatever. When I see a good opportunity, I run with it.

I think that both of us were surprised at the extent to which we understood each other. We were really on the same wavelength with everything: namely our taste in weird healthy foods and habit of getting lost in bookstores for hours.

So that's what we did yesterday: We combed through bookshelves and ate dinner at an adorable smoothie/sandwich shop. Then she stopped at the health food store to pick up some falafel (MY FAVORITE THING), and we ended up trying to figure out whether there are any actual health benefits to steel cut oats, or if it's just a texture thing.

You can't have that kind of conversation with just anyone, you know?

Later that night, she told me that she likes hanging out with me because the fact that I'm good at going with the flow and am generally pretty chill about everything removes any anxiety she has about everything.

That surprised me, because I am super anxious about a lot of things much of the time; it's not really a secret. And that's also why it was one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.

I was in a really good mood when I got home last night, and was still in a good mood when I woke up this morning. But then my mom started spewing conservatism at me before I'd had any coffee. So my good mood disappeared. So I checked the mail, and found a really encouraging letter from Sarah.

In it, she said, "I love being out in the woods away from technology--I get so overwhelmed by all the screens in my life sometimes. That's why I admire your wanting to be an activist. I couldn't cope with the need to be connected and in touch and on top of various political happenings; the need to mobilize people, etc. I'd just shut down. But I am really epically proud of your decision to pursue feminism. It isn't easy. But you're brave and tenacious, even if you have to fake both of those things sometimes."

I don't think I need to explain why her note meant so much to me. Also, it was very nicely timed. I'm not going to lie and pretend that I never think about what my life would be like right now if I hadn't transferred and added another major to my degree program. I'd definitely be closer to graduation. I act like that doesn't bother me, but it's hard to watch so many of my friends graduate and not be there, too. If I hadn't left SVSU, though, I'd still be miserable. So it's really validating to hear that what I'm doing to keep myself sane isn't just selfish and ridiculous. I'm sure now more than ever that who I am and what I'm doing is right, even if it is hard sometimes.

Thanks, friends. I don't know what I ever did to deserve you, but I'm glad to have you around. And I hope you are as kind to yourselves as you have been to me.