Nov 25, 2014 - Domestic Engineering    1 Comment

Each mother’s sons and daughters

I talk, write, and think a lot about structural racism in America and the wider world. I know that I’m still just an apprentice in this work, and a privileged one at that. Take as many grains of salt with that as you feel appropriate.

But I am the mother of two sons. We’re white, so that’s an undeserved and unearned shield that lets me sleep more easily than the mothers of black and brown sons. But I want my kids to grow up awake and aware of racism in their world, in age-appropriate ways, the same as I want them to grow up knowing that LGBT people deserve love and respect.

Why expose them to the brutal, hurtful truth about race when they’re as young as eight years old? Because their first friends included black and brown children, and already there were systems labeling and tracking them toward vastly different outcomes. By middle school, my son’s friends are encountering suspicion, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunities. And by high school, they’re nine times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than my white sons.

So here’s how I’ve talked about race with my kids. I hope other white mothers can find helpful thoughts here, too.

  • I’ve taught my boys to vocally oppose bullying whenever they encounter it, because we believe that every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
  • We try to teach them that we don’t call people by adjectives. No one is stupid or bad, but we all do stupid and bad things sometimes.
  • If you have to refer to someone in a crowd, point them out with neutral identifiers, like height, clothing color or pattern, etc.
  • If I hear my kid using language that would be hurtful, I pull them aside immediately and ask where they learned that word/phrase. I explain why that might be hurtful to someone, and ask them not to use it anymore.
  • Sometimes, that leads to bigger discussions about why anyone would hate someone for the color of their skin, or who their parents are, or who they love. Be clear and honest. I’ve said it’s because some people think there’s only so much goodness in the world, and they’re afraid of losing their share to people who are different from them. I’ve said it’s because, while some of us find new and different things and people exciting and interesting, some people find them scary and hard to understand. But everyone can learn to be welcoming, because that’s how we all start as kids.
  • Be honest about white privilege, too, starting when they ask questions about racism (this may come during or after the general existential crisis many 2nd graders experience). I’ve used metaphors like running a hurdles race, except that on both sides of the white runners’ hurdles, there are old, wooden steps built long ago by people we don’t know. Would you use them if they were right there? Would you use them if you saw that your black and brown friends not only don’t have stairs, but might even have big holes dug on both sides of the hurdle instead? How would you help your friends: stop running, move the stairs away, invite them into your lane?
  • Let your kids see you doing things in your community with black and brown folks, especially against racist structures. This may mean going way outside your comfort zone, but it’s never not brought me richer, deeper ties to the place I live. Start by attending a rally or march; they ARE safe places for kids. Other invitations and opportunities will certainly follow.
  • Make this learning journey intersectional. Talk about freedom and privilege, and the ways those things have been denied to women, Native Americans, immigrants, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, the homeless, people of other religious and political beliefs, and many other “Othered” groups. They’re not all the same struggle, but they have a lot of common lessons about humanity to teach us.
  • Encourage your children to read diverse books, play diverse games, watch diverse movies, and listen to diverse music (I know, I hate the way I’m using the word “diverse” here too, but it comes from the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Watch, play, read, and listen with them, always. Talk about how those things make you feel, and ask your kids how it makes them feel. Look for opportunities to encounter these things in person: in museums, art galleries, concerts, and libraries.

 

I hope someone finds something helpful here. I’m always on social media to talk, too. Don’t let the pain of these setbacks in our movement toward equity and justice keep you from engaging your children. Let it fuel you and yours to do better, now and in the future.

Update: The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers have posted a page with extensive links to materials for teachers on how to address Ferguson and racism in the classroom. Many of these resources are also filled with info that adults need to know, too. Read and learn together.

Oct 17, 2014 - Social Studies    2 Comments

Wade in the Water

Last Sunday, I attended a training for white folks who do racial equity work. The organizers called it “Solidarity Training,” and that’s as good as anything, but what it really meant was this: “How not to be a racist asshole as you try to improve things for people of color.”

You’d think that would be easy—every person in that room was there because they have the very best of intentions. We were all pretty far along our own personal journey from ignorance that white is even a race, toward leveraging our privilege to help dismantle systemic racism. Many of us had been doing that work for years, some even for decades.

But the hardest thing for people who are in the group in power is to realize that intention is not enough. Just because you *meant* it to be flattering when you tell a woman she’s sexy as she walks by doesn’t make it so to the women who experience unwanted street harassment every day. Just because you *meant* it to be a compliment when you tell a young black man that his speech was “so articulate and inspiring” doesn’t mean that won’t feel condescending to men who meet with surprise every day when they show that they’re educated. Intention does NOT get the job done.

But it can be surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between fighting the system and benefitting from the system. One of the trainers, the inspired and inspiring Ricardo Levins Morales, used an analogy out of the physics world to explain how we can be oblivious of something so pervasive. When you jump out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he says, you feel like you’re falling at first. But after a bit, the feeling changes to be something closer to floating, because you’re falling at the speed of gravity.

So it is with racism. White people are born onto a nice, big, comfy raft that floats atop the stream of racist oppression. Because we’re on the raft, we don’t feel the constant pressure of the water that wears down the hearts and souls of our brown and black siblings. We don’t feel the struggle. And even if we climb off that raft and join hands and weather the stream together for a bit, somehow—maybe it’s with a job referral from a friend, or a previewed house listing before it’s really “on the market”—we find ourselves back onboard, despite our best intentions.

The raft ride has been particularly bumpy at various points in history—now, since Ferguson, is one of them. It happens because some people in the water try to climb on the raft. At the same time, some of the raft’s riders are trying to dismantle the raft itself, or jump into the water in solidarity. And the people who never even knew they were on a raft of history and privilege get nervous and frightened at having why they thought was a solid, level surface become so unstable.

Naturally, this made me think of GamerGate.

See, sexism is another river, and patriarchy is another raft. Movements like GamerGate and the MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) exist in a moment where the rather splendid vehicle created by cisgendered, heterosexual, white patriarchy is under attack from all sides. Its riders didn’t notice that the river around them was rising, or that the ship’s own crew was changing. The new crew wants to park that vessel for good, and move everyone to a bigger ship with room for all the groups who’ve had to struggle upstream for centuries. That must feel terrifying to people who thought they were on solid ground, riding as they were at the combined speeds of so much privilege.

The fact is, though, that the river’s already flooded its banks. There are too many oppressed people, and allies who prefer to be in the water, to float along in ignorance anymore. Women have been in games for a long time, and all the yelling and threats in the world can’t make that river flow upstream.

Toward the end of the training, Ricardo announced that he would be distributing cards. I could see the little deck in his hand, but I had no idea what he meant to do with them. A surprising, somewhat unnatural ripple of excitement spread through the crowd, though; I wondered if they knew more about the cards than I did. When I got mine, it had a piece of art on one side, with a slogan from the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us.” On the other side were some check-in questions to help us stay grounded when we feel compelled to act in a racially charged situation: “Why do I feel an urge to act/not act?” and “Who will benefit from my action/inaction?”

The ripple quieted down as people examined their cards, and I wondered if the people who’d been a-flutter with excitement were disappointed by the card they got. I wondered if the one they’d wanted would’ve just said, “I’m one of the good ones.” That’s what white people doing racial equity work really want, after all—a card that credentials them as not racist, as a proven ally. The problem is, it doesn’t work like that at all. “Ally” isn’t a title you earn; it’s a status you have to prove over and over again, mainly by just continuing to show up for what matters to communities of color. And nobody’s going to give you a cookie for doing the right thing, just like nobody’s going to give you a free pass when you mess up (and you WILL mess up, over and over).

I know a lot of guys in the world of games who probably wish they had that a “One of the Good Ones” card too. If I had them to give out, I can think of dozens of people who deserve them for living and working and playing by the guiding principles of inclusion and equity.

But that’s not how it works. Nobody gets a free pass; nobody gets a laminated card that’s good forever after. We climb off the raft, and we join hands with the people in the water and weather the current for as long as we can. At the same time, we accidentally get back on, and sometimes even block others from climbing aboard with us.

Maybe the card we really need is the one that says, “Time to get in the water again.”

Aug 27, 2014 - Game Theory    2 Comments

Any Way She Wants

Social media is afire after the latest Anita Sarkeesian video resulted in renewed rape/death threats against her. Sarkeesian makes the seemingly uncontroversial statement that women’s bodies are abused and killed for little or no reason in video games. As a result, some men are so enraged that they’re driven to hurl sexist, violent abuse at the very idea of women who come within fifty feet of a game.

The problem with that is that I am a woman gamer. So are many of my women friends. Many of them run games for their friends, and a growing number are designing their very own games. I am wildly proud to be included in all this. Many of those friends have written wisely about the unfettered misogyny and racism that plagues the electronic and tabletop game industries at the same moment when we see more women and people of color entering the hobby than ever before.

So I don’t have much to add to their insightful commentary. But I do want to say this to my fellow women in games:

Play whatever games you want.

Yes, of course that means the button-mashing robot invasion game, or the minmaxed mecha pilot, or the Napoleonic cavalry officer trying to win Waterloo. War games and LARPs and Minecraft and Burning Wheel–all of it belongs to you as much as anyone else in the world, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise.

But you can also play the magical space princess romance game. You can play a game where the only measurable objective is to get the boy (or the girl). You can play a game that’s all about middle school gossip. You can play a game with no boys allowed.

You can play games with fluid, barely there rules, and super-crunchy tables of staggering detail.

You can play games of scientific discovery, and life in the military, and the pursuit of katana mastery, and young love.

You can play games of death-defying feats and fearless daring, where you do everything you can’t ever imagine doing in the real world.

You can play games with sex: grand, towering, chandelier-swinging heights of passion that include superhuman flexibility and magical potions of endurance.

You can play games where you get to hunt down and beat the shit out of your rapist.

You can play games that capture a perfect, impossible childhood with nothing scary at all.

Because games contain everything we are–right now, fragile, flawed, unfinished–and everything we could possibly be–brave, magnificent, powerful, unstoppable. So nothing is beyond the scope of games. If you use a game to tell your story, there’s a very good chance that it’s a story others want to play too.

Because these games exist in the dimensions of ourselves and our world, the dark things do creep in: racism, sexism, ableism, bullying, abuse. Some of that is unintentional, but we’re coming to grips with the reality that others don’t always see these things as a problem. Some even see it as a solution, a boundary fence to protect an imagined definition of games that’s confined only to their tiny vision.

Games are bigger than these people. Protecting our games from criticism smothers them until all the fire goes out. Improving games improves us all, and the world we play them in.

And nobody gets to say your game is less worthy because of what you want to play. You are participating in one of the oldest common human experiences in the world. Play it all, women. Play all the games, then make your own.

Aug 20, 2014 - Social Studies    1 Comment

Why We Fight

Gen Con is always hard work and outstanding fun. When I first started going over 20 years ago, my days were filled with back-to-back games. But over time, long hours with friends from all over the country overtook games. These days, work for Atlas Games and speaking engagements mean no games at all, and lots of friends mean bigger parties and shorter visits. All the same, I’ve got to say: it’s still a week with some of my favorite people, all in one place, and the love is bigger than our host city.

The mental dissonance was strong, though, for many of us. While we reunited with old friends and played new games, many of us were distracted and upset by news from Ferguson, Missouri. Conversations frequently went something like: “Hey, it’s great to see you! How have you been? Man, it’s messed up, what’s happening in Ferguson.” We felt outraged and helpless, and often uncomfortable at having to keep doing what we were at Gen Con to do.

There are other things I’ll probably write about as I process this year’s experience, but two things really stand out as unusual and fantastic (and they’re actually the same kind of thing). Two friends got engaged to smart, beautiful, graceful women in public proposals at Gen Con this year. One was a cool scene in the convention center’s hallway performing area; the other, a large, orchestrated affair at the ENnie Awards ceremony. Both women accepted enthusiastically, and in both cases, the onlooking crowd went wild. Here, don’t take my word for it: watch and (if you’re like me) cry-clap.

But almost immediately on Twitter, people began accusing the couple who got engaged at the ENnies of insensitivity, because they were happy while horrific events were happening in Ferguson. How dare they choose that moment to celebrate? How could they be so selfish as to think of their future, when the future of Mike Brown had been cut so terribly, unfairly short?

Here’s the answer, though: You celebrate when you can precisely because life is uncertain and short.

People in war zones know this. Love and babies and anniversaries all happen in places of oppression and violence. People go home from protests and watch dumb movies. People have sex in between airstrikes. Life keeps going on.

The people fighting for justice and racial equity in Ferguson probably know this better than those of us who haven’t had to fight systemic racism every day of their lives. We got the phrase “jumping the broom” because, even during slavery when families were torn apart everyday, African-Americans still fell in love and got married, defying the laws that said those marriages were illegal. To this day, some black couples choose to honor this tradition and jump a broom to seal their wedding vows.

Terrible, terrible things are happening in Ferguson, and Gaza, and Ukraine, and Syria, and Iraq, and other places too. If it would be even remotely helpful for me to go there and support the protesters fighting for immediate and lasting justice in their community, I’d be on the next Greyhound bus. I’ll keep turning out for those goals in my own community—no justice, no peace.

But everyday things are happening in those places, too, because the thing they’re fighting for is the right to live an ordinary life, unencumbered by oppression and strife. A lot of people are fighting that battle in other ways, every single day.

What the people who criticized my friends may not have known is that we almost lost one of them to suicide this year. As soon as I finished hugging and crying on him after the proposal, my first question was, “What’s today’s number?” He answered, “192,” and I replied, “Well, that’s your magic number now, isn’t it.” 192 is how many days it had been since he’d almost died. How many days he’d survived and kept fighting depression, in the hope of living himself into all the things that make life worthwhile.

His marriage proposal wasn’t in ignorance of the tragedy and brutality happening in Ferguson. It was in direct defiance of the despair and violence that almost cost him his own life. There’s not a thing wrong with celebrating the kind of progress that looks in every way like resurrection and restoration. We fight for hope, in many ways, everyday—on the streets of occupied American cities, and in the dark corners of our own minds. No, they’re not the same, but the goal is: to find love and meaning in peace.

Jun 22, 2014 - Physical Ed, Sex Ed    1 Comment

Au revoir, Aunt Flo

I have not had a menstrual period in 52 days. That’s almost a month late. No, I’m not pregnant. And this isn’t the first time in the last few months I’ve been late, though it’s certainly the longest delay.

I know what this means: I am beginning “The Change”.

But Jess, you’re thinking, you’re so young! And I am, though the pink hair is part of an illusion that obscures my real age to some extent. I can also, at long last, thank oily skin for something—I have very few wrinkles, despite a whole lot of worrying and laughing.

But early menopause is in my family. In fact, when the first irregularity appeared right before my 39th birthday, I called my mom and said, “Didn’t you start pre-menopause when you were 38?” She confirmed that fact, and I replied, “Well, like mother, like daughter,” much to her horror. My aunts began that phase of their life early as well.

I’m rapidly discovering that I know far less about what to expect than I did before I got my first period. There’s no health class with this information, however awkwardly delivered. To be sure, the inexplicable movie we were forced to watch in fifth grade, featuring the Broadway cast of “Annie” explaining menstruation, wasn’t what I’d call helpful. In fact, there are Internet discussions among people who left gym class the day they saw it, more confused and weirded-out by the random choice of message-bearers than the message delivered.

And even though I was well-informed in advance, you’re never really ready for that first period. I discovered mine when I took a bathroom break in the middle of a theater screening of the legendarily horrible movie Ishtar. It lasted a few days, then failed to return for an entire year. In fact, I’ve never been quite sure whether it really was my first period, or that the movie was so bad it caused me to spontaneously hemorrhage.

I took the absence of menstruation as one of the small graces during my pregnancies. Sure, I was puking my guts up all day, every day, for 5 and 7.5 months respectively, but at least I didn’t have to put in a tampon for almost a year.

So I definitely won’t miss having my periods. Nor will I miss my fertility, in all honesty. Even though I occasionally have baby urges that seem to come from a completely alien source outside my brain, I’ve resolved that I simply can’t do the pain and sickness again, let alone the sleep deprivation and potty training. Pregnancy was quite simply hell for me; labor and delivery were a breeze by comparison.

I’ll admit some concern about the physical discomfort, sleep loss, and mental changes that are common to menopause. None of those are things I’m going to deal well with more of—they would surely aggravate my already existing challenges with fibromyalgia and mental illness. And I’m already slightly annoyed at the unpredictability thing. Wearing panty liners and avoiding light-colored pants for the next ten years is going to be a pain.

But otherwise, I’m curious about the new club I’m joining. It doesn’t feel as momentous as the “now you are a woman” club, but I’m betting this one, with all its life experience and perspective, has a whole lot more fun.

May 26, 2014 - Ancient History, Sex Ed    No Comments

Playing Along

This post will be a jumble of thoughts because I can’t cope with the flood of memories too long held back. Strangely, it comes mainly from a place of gratitude because somehow I’ve escaped most of the everyday horrors that seem to be the price of admission for a woman living on this planet. And I say that in all honesty, despite the record of abuse, rape, and fear that mark my calendar of years.

Since my preschool years, most of my friends were boys because they wanted to play the games I wanted to play. Yeah, I wanted to be Princess Leia and Wilma Deering, but that’s because they shot the best. I also liked pretty dresses and fancy hair and Princess Diana and porcelain dolls. I was a girl who played with boys, and that has stayed true until this day.

When I was raped in high school, the camaraderie of boys became my refuge as well as my comfort zone. If I was surrounded by boys who thought of me as “one of them”, I didn’t have to fear that they would think of me sexually. I knew some of those friends would’ve liked to date me; I even kissed a few late in my high school career.

But to this day, I don’t know how many of them really thought of me as a girl. I do know that, if one of them got dumped by one of my girl friends, I was on the list of people who was invited over sometimes to witness the tribal mourning ritual they carried out. I didn’t understand why amateur piercings, and running in the snow in their boxer shorts was helpful; drinking bad liquor and listening to the Smiths were more understandable. I still hold my admission to those events in a special warm space in my heart. It felt like inclusion.

But that inclusion also took me to scary, awkward places sometimes. One night, walking on campus after a late play rehearsal, one of the guys led a pretend “campus tour”, pointing out the best places to rape a girl. Everyone joked about how to pick the right victim. A jogger with elastic pants, but not running tights because they’re too clingy and get tangled; a hippie girl with flowing skirts. Skirts like I wore. Everyone was laughing and tossing in ideas and playing along.

Including me.

See, I had ideas about where would be good places to drag a girl to hurt her on that campus. It’s because I walked home from that campus after play practice every night that spring. And the spring before. And the spring after. I walked as my knees shook and my teeth rattled. I walked fast, as fast as I could without sprinting.

And I made jokes, made suggestions, played along, as my heart clutched in my chest and bile rose in my throat. I blushed at the lavish praise and laughter the boys gave me for my witty cracks and horrible, horrible words.

Because it meant they didn’t know I’d been raped.

If they’d known, everything would’ve changed. I couldn’t have been one of the boys anymore. They would’ve had to think of me “That Way”. Not as one of the “safe girls”, but as a sexual body capable of being violated. Not as tall and strong and flexible, but as weak and vulnerable and overpowerable. Not as someone worth knowing, but someone worth avoiding. Shameful. Questionable. To be avoided.

So I played along. I thought of that walk many times when I was on my own campuses at night—as an undergrad, as a foreign student, as a teacher. I feel at home on college campuses; they’re home terrain to me. But when I see space between street lamps, or gauge the distance to a blue phone, or spy a particularly overgrown row of hedges, I think back to that game and wonder how many other boys have noticed those things, pointed them out to other boys with laughter.

And how many other girls have seen them too, and marked them bright in their mental maps: “Danger. Don’t go there.”

May 19, 2014 - Psychology    No Comments

The Slowest Spring

It’s May 19th, and it’s rainy with temperatures in the 50s. This is par for the course this spring—only the lightning and thunder suggests that it’s any different than March. The lilacs are only just beginning to bud; the haze of foliage on the trees is still more yellow than green.

Winter was brutally rough this year, setting records all over Minnesota for the longest stretch of below-zero days. Despite Vitamin D and a sunlight lamp, seasonal depression swept me under hard. I was home practically every night, going to bed early and waking up exhausted, only to sleepwalk through the day and do it all again. People asked me what would make it better; I replied, “The beginning of legislative session.”

1014038_832927833388313_1104830089_nAnd it did help, since I’m a wonky weirdo. Working to help pass the Safe and Supportive Minnesota Schools Act to provide strong anti-bullying legislation for our state’s kids was hard but familiar and empowering work, with some of my favorite people on the whole planet. I pitched in on the minimum wage increase and expungement reform too. I had places I was needed and appreciated, and my calendar was full and fulfilling.

But as those campaigns wound down, I felt myself begin to fray and flail again, instead of staying revived. At first, I told myself it was just my health that seemed to demand more naps and fewer commitments. But my temper grew as short as my endurance, and my motivation guttered like a bad candle that burned down too fast. Upsetting things that would’ve normally blown through like a storm wrecked me for hours and days. Things I’d looked forward to for months–like winning major legislative victories–only gave me a short burst of pleasure. The only pastime I engaged in was reading, and I recognized that I was using it for refuge more than relaxation.

So here I am, admitting the thing right as it’s happening to me: I have relapsed into depression. Yes, it’s been worse, but it’s not exactly good. Yes, I’m doing what I should be: taking meds, making appointments. No, I don’t have a talk therapist—my ability and tendency to talk over and around my feelings makes the exercise hardly worth the cost.

And yes, it’s improving with the weather. That is to say, so slowly as to be imperceptible. In the meantime, I’m planning, planting, dancing, and picking up my obligations again. The hardest thing right now is not to fall hard at the least little resistance I encounter. It’s also not easy to move out of the myopic fogbank I’ve steered into. I haven’t felt creative for months because I literally cannot see beyond my immediate circumstances, and even the smallest creative endeavor requires a bit of vision. I’m working hard to overcome that perspective, but support is always appreciated.

And in the meantime, I’m trying to remember that spring is coming, slowly but surely.

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I saw spring briefly in Washington DC, so I know it’s not a cruel hoax on Minnesotans.

Apr 2, 2014 - Uncategorized    3 Comments

The Abusive Cult of Autism Speaks

A brief note: I’m not someone who believes religion is inherently evil and damaging. However, it’s inarguable that religious institutions and self-serving people in them have done evil, damaging things to individuals, communities, and nations in the name of their religions throughout much of human history. If you don’t agree that there’s a difference between religions as philosophies, and the human-run institutions that gather temporal power in their names, you’re probably not going to get much out of this post.

I understand why people flock to Autism Speaks. Really, I do. Yes, as an autistic person and mother to one, I am furious, shocked, outraged, and exhausted by the hate speech this group produces, while still monopolizing the loyalty of millions of people and the attention of the media. But when people ask me how anyone who knows someone autistic could possibly support this organization, I’m forced to admit that it makes perfect sense. Religious institutions have been abusing the faithful for centuries with many of the same tactics.

It starts with a crisis. Autism is not a disease, nor is it a death sentence, but the current public opinion tells parents whose child is diagnosed with autism that they should be devastated. Give up the dreams you have for your child, they’re told. They will never give you those perfect moments that every parent imagines for nine months or longer. They won’t go to kindergarten, or play sports, or go to college, or marry. You may never hear them say “I love you.”* You didn’t get the child you expected; you’re the victim of a cruel bait-and-switch. Autism Speaks validates this fear and betrayal; autism is a thief that abducts children and leaves dolls and monsters in their place.

In the face of this decree, parents look for absolution. They confess to a parade of doctors that they ate linguine with white wine sauce or took an antidepressant during pregnancy, or broke down and asked for pain relief during labor, or followed the recommended vaccination schedule during the first years of their child’s life. Autism Speaks tells parents that they don’t deserve guilt or blame for their child’s condition; autism is cruel and whimsical like a natural disaster.

The only acceptable response to denial and despair is to follow the proscribed path to salvation, and parents are promised that, if they do enough, they can pull their child back from the brink of hopelessness and save their families. Given the choice, what could possibly be too radical a course? To save a child, is there ever too much money, too many doctors, too many hours of therapy? The community of the suffering lifts up parents who pursue the most extreme efforts of self-sacrifice and dedication, and the stories of these saints are shared like talismans of paradise. Autism Speaks leverages the language of battle; autism is an enemy that can only be defeated by militant means.

And someday, the war will be over. Someday, parents’ sacrifice will be unnecessary, but only if we raise more money, hand out more blue lightbulbs, and find a “cure”. A cure would bring back the changelings, the lost children we misplaced through our carelessness. Of course, there’s one thing that’s even better than a cure: a test. If we had a test, surely no compassionate person would inflict this pain on innocent children and those who love them.** Autism Speaks offers hope of redemption and salvation; autism can be escaped and wiped out.

Except that none of this is true. The lie is that autism is a disease, or a thief, or a disaster, or a war, or a thing that can or should be exterminated. If you believe any of those, then you must accept that you believe the same thing of autistic people themselves.

And if you can’t believe that anyone is a disaster or a war or a thing that should be exterminated, then you must reject Autism Speaks. Their rhetoric makes precisely these claims about autism, and they use up the public’s attention span on the subject of autism to raise money that almost never actually helps a single autistic person or their family with what they need right now.

The most important thing about abusive religious institutions AND Autism Speaks is that they cannot tolerate sunlight, and they cannot function without a silent object of devotion. When autistic people’s voices are heard, the lies and hate speech wither in the full force of the logic, empathy, power, and beauty of their real lived experiences.

Because autistic people and their families are fully alive, no matter what Autism Speaks says. And life is messy, chaotic, expensive, and exhausting. It’s also hilarious, and meaningful, and transcendent.

Whether or not you believe there’s something that comes after this life as we’re living it, surely it can’t be won by silencing and abusing others on the way.

 

* – It hasn’t been that long since the same things were said to parents of LGBT or Down’s Syndrome children. In some places, they still are.

** – This is not a new concept. Most people know it under another name: eugenics.

Mar 25, 2014 - Physical Ed    No Comments

This Dissenting Body

Every body I inhabit is a dissenting body.

Anxiety, anger, and disorientation emanate from my autistic sensory body. I can’t stop listening to other people’s noise through the walls, and each heavy footfall above me bruises my eardrums. A puff of my husband’s breath on my face is enough to wake me from a sound sleep. I adjust the blinds, the lights, the brightness of my screen in constant rotation. I seek refuge under the comforting weight of white noise and thick blankets, even when my heart longs for other people and open air.

My physical body protests in a language of chronic pain and sleeplessness. These disruptions occur arbitrarily; actions which give me joy now may trigger furious flares an hour, a day, a week later. And if physical penalties for disobeying my body’s limitations weren’t enough, it also inflicts its dissent on my psychological self by failing to administer the correct neurological chemicals to avoid the fogged-in abyss of depression. Sadness begets sleeplessness begets pain begets sadness, and so forth.

I often find my body unacceptable, and so does society. Every narrow seat, every cutting waistband, every judgmental voice tells me I don’t fit expectations. I brush, I tweeze, I shave, I wax, I drape, I shift, I cut, I hide. My shape is segregated into shrinking fabrics and diminishing retail spaces. It is targeted with advertisements and poisons. On the days when my body prevents me from doing meaningful work or feeling lovable, I am crushed under relentless waves of warfare.

And even if my body could fit into the definitions of worth, its very identity—as a woman, as a bisexual, as a disabled person—is constantly erased for others’ convenience. The conditions of my existence are subject to legitimized dismissal by the medical establishment, the justice system, the corporate structure that wants to suppress and exterminate that which cannot turn a profit. Reproductive control and healthcare are privileges I can check out with my skin color, only to be recalled by my economic status. If I wear my gender too openly, I’m asking for sexual assault. If I conceal my gender too well, I risk violent words and acts by those threatened by challenges to an artificial binary.

So because all my bodies are cause for dissent, I use my body as an instrument of dissent. I’m learning to seek pleasure, and to wear my rolls and creases, flagrantly and without apology. I’m walking into the halls of power to demand care for my body and others like it, through access to healthcare, economic security, an end to rape culture, and equal rights for LGBT and disabled people. I’m raising my voice in rhetorical flourishes and strident shouts to demand an end to systems of racist, sexist, and classist oppression, fueled by corporate and military powers seeking to buy or win what I am entitled to as a citizen and human being.

As long as I have a dissenting body to my name, I will use it to obstruct that which oppresses it.

Mar 20, 2014 - World Religions    No Comments

Quid Pro Quo

I went to college with Fred Phelps.

I went to the University of Kansas for school, and he went there with his congregation to protest the Big Gay Agenda. He held signs promising us a swift trip to Hell in front of the liberal arts building where my first out gay friend and I boywatched together on the broad, sunny plaza known as Wescoe “Beach”. He protested outside the Kansas Union where I got gouged on textbooks—believe me, I wished to protest those days too.

And to my everlasting mystery, he picketed and shouted outside every single one of my college choir concerts. Monteverdi’s Vespers. Tallis’ soaring, complex 40-part motet. Mendelssohn’s Elijah. Franz Biebl’s achingly beautiful “Ave Maria”, sung at every Christmas concert. The greatest music ever composed—most of it commissioned and performed for the greater glory of God—earned his scorn without fail. Not that he ever heard a note of it.

Obviously, this defies logic, as did his entire mission in life. Logic has little to do with fear and hate. To Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, all that mattered was the existence of LGBT people living happy, honest lives on and around the KU campus. Do liberal arts and the fine arts department have a particularly higher number of them? Who knows.

In any case, a kind tradition developed among the upper- and underclassmen at KU. The first time freshmen encountered the WBC was usually on Jayhawk Boulevard. The placards they held proudly weren’t the only statements they made; they said hateful, hurtful things to anyone who walked by. Many freshmen felt compelled to stop and try to reason with them, to ask them to reconsider their beliefs—especially if they had children with them (which they usually did). Reason turned to frustration as the students met their implacable, mile-high wall of bigotry and conviction.

Just as fury began to ignite, some upperclassman would approach and put a gentle arm around the freshman’s shoulders. “Come with me,” they’d say quietly as they guided them away. Out of earshot, the older student would say something compassionate and honest about futility and self-care, irrationality and good intentions. With a pat on the shoulder, they’d go their separate ways: one gratified at having done a good deed, the other sadder but wiser for the experience.

In a year or two, they’d be the older students, guiding another generation of freshmen away from Phelps.

I don’t hate Fred Phelps—he hated enough for a million people’s million lifetimes. I don’t believe he’s in Hell, because I don’t believe in Hell. But if God is Love in the Christian Gospel, he spent his whole life away from God, which is the very definition of Hell in many religions. And he died in a world that more lovingly and openly welcomes the whole selves of LGBT people than it did when he began his work, so he must have known that his mission was an abject failure. He was even abjured by his own flock on his deathbed, after watching many of his own children and grandchildren defect from his church (and even Christianity, in a few cases) over the years. When you pursue scorched earth policies, all you have left at the end is a whole lot of scorched earth.

I know the immeasurable psychological and spiritual harm his hate has caused people over the years, but I don’t rejoice in his death. I don’t want to dance on his grave. I think he would take it as a sign of his righteousness if hundreds of people picketed his funeral with profanity and disrespect. The silence of business-as-usual in Topeka that day would be the most effective punishment of all.

But he wished my friends and me dead at every one of my choir concerts. And I find I have the urge to sing towering works of glory and beauty where he lies dead.

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