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Thursday, 3 June 2010

On Suffering and Bravery


Back when I was an undergrad, in my 3rd of 4th year, I grew a benign tumor in the bone of the index finger of my dominant hand. It didn't hurt as it grew, but it made my finger swell up, so I went to a doctor, who figured out what it was. He told me I should get it fixed within the next 6 months. For the next 5.5 months, it continued to swell and got kind of bendy - in a bad way. Finally, during the winter break, I went to see a hand surgeon. He told me that he would take bone from either my wrist or my hip to repair the bone in my finger. So I went in for an operation, not knowing if I was going to be able to walk properly at the end of it.

Fortunately, my wrist had enough extra bone. Although I couldn't move my hand at all and my finger had shattered during the operation. It hurt like a mofo. I couldn't write for the first few weeks of the spring term. And I had to switch to playing the trombone, because I couldn't push a valve or actuate a string. I was also off my head on pain killers for a few weeks, and behaving in an odd way, and I had a gigantic bandage. When people asked me what happened, I would invent stories about heroics or accidents involving heavy machinery. People called me a lot of things during that time, some of which I was not pleased with.

Nobody called me brave. In fact, nobody called my dad brave when, after 50 years of wearing glasses, he got his eyeballs lasered. He had laser beams shot at his eyeballs, people! And when some of my well-endowed friends decided that their backs would hurt a lot less if they got breast reductions, I never heard anybody call them brave.

People have me called me brave, however, when I came out as queer at a Catholic high school. Well, not at first. First there was harassment. Then there was just being sort of a mini-celebrity whose friends got harassed. (Alas for them.) Then, suddenly, about the time I turned 18, the same people who had been giving me grief for the last four years wanted to tell me about how they respected me. As if I still cared what they thought!


Life is suffering. - according to the first of the four noble truths of Buddhism. I find that a bit dark (at least without any context). I mean, life is also joyous and fascinating and boring and everything else. Suffering is certainly unavoidable, though. It's like death and taxes. Everybody's life has rough spots.

There are some social groups that are widely perceived as having extra suffering. For example, in America, biracial people, especially those with one black parent and one white parent. There's a whole genre of fictional representation of this - called the tragic mulato. Writers imagined this person would feel at home in neither race and live a life of misery and sorrow, accepted by nobody and unable to achieve anything of note. Shockingly, this mythology still persists and is believed as truth. You'd think the president of the US would be a good enough counter-argument, but people believe what they want to believe.

Then, gay people were also perceived to suffer terribly. Again, all that 'outside of society,' 'accepted by nobody' crap. And, I mean, life probably does suck a lot for Ted Haggard and George Reekers. But it doesn't suck because they're gay. It sucks because they're too cowardly to come out of the closet and so they build a giant web of lies and denial around themselves, that ultimately doesn't just hurt them, it also harms their wives, children and, in the case of those two, society as a whole. Because it's not brave to come out. Even in Catholic school. It's a survival strategy. Life in the closet is too hard; it makes you act in strange ways.

Note that in both examples of suffering, there's nothing fundamentally painful about either state, it's just that some other people are bigots and might conspire to make your life difficult. And the whole social propaganda model of suffering was not to discourage bigotry, but in fact, to shore it up. None of this was ever framed as, "they suffer so, because of us. We should pack it in." It was always framed as pity, which is just a hair away from hatred. And also as a warning to try to prevent people from turning gay in the first place or from biracial people from ever being born. This notion of suffering then, served the purpose of strengthening a binary opposition in terms of race and re-enforcing compulsory heterosexuality.

People who advocate for you to get a bunch of pity are not your allies. They deny your agency. They erase anything positive about your experiences. The prescribe social abuse even as they pretend to abhor it. Anybody who describes you as "brave" for existing is tapping in to this same idea. It's as if they're saying: "It's so exceptional that you dare to let us know who you are and where you live, because some of us *wink* *wink* might come after you!" It seems like the more fruitful conversation should be with their peers in privilege, reminding people that sexual orientation or mixed race parentage is a natural occurring human event.

What's worse is that people who use words like "brave" really do mean well. They don't stop to think about what they're saying, because who wants to think about their privilege? If you tell a mixed-race couple that they're brave for having kids, you're certainly expressing racism, even as you think you're fighting it. It's tough out there for well-meaning, but ignorant would-be allies. Alas, they're not brave for charging forth and putting their foot in it.

Trans People

Much like it's uncomfortable and awful pretending to be the wrong sexual orientation, it is similarly unfun pretending to be a gender that doesn't work for you. Discrimination and violence also suck a lot, and there's an unfortunate amount of that about. Fortunately, at least, dysphoria is something that can be dealt with. The process of transition is something of a journey, but it's towards a happier goal. I feel good about it and I don't think I'm alone in that. When I see trans people talk about the steps their taking along this path, they mostly are happy and excited, if sometimes also nervous.

Some of us have had a rough time getting to where we are now. Some haven't. Some phrases about suffering do get repeated a lot, though, even by trans people. This could be because the speaker did have a hard journey. It could be out of a misguided confusion where they imagine the road to acceptance has pity as a way point. In some cases, it's gotten in to the public discourse because shrinks mandated it in the script that trans people had to recite to get access to treatment. Everybody learned their lines. We say what they want us to say, they give us our HRT. It's annoying and unhelpful, but you do what you have to do.

Some trans activism really is brave. People who fought the police at Stonewall, for example. But just going to the clinic? It could be a personal milestone in the life of that person. You know, and you could congratulate them, like you would a gay person coming out. Or like you would somebody at a baby shower. Give them support appropriate to the amount of closeness you have with them. But don't assume we suffer. Don't call going to the doctor brave.


steph said...

Thanks for the post. Lots of food for thought (and procrastination)

As a member of a "minority", ie. being a woman in physics, I think I do suffer, but I don't want pity. I want to be in a world where it doesn't matter that I'm a woman, where woman and men can succeed equally given equal talent. Unfortunately, the way things are now, I don't have the patience for it. Oh well, maybe in another 50 years things will be better for my future daughters and granddaughters.

I can't help but think it is brave to come out as gay or trans. (do you still use that term for trans? I'm not sure). For you it was the right choice, but many might have rather continued to live a lie than deal with what you have had to deal with. Give yourself a bit of credit. I am choosing to leave research and a big part of that is because I can't stand being who I am in the culture of physics. So I respect your ability to fight the powers that be, if only in being yourself in our f-ed up culture.

Hope that came out right :)

Have you ever read female science professor? She is interesting. Some of your comments made me think of some of her posts.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

People usually just do whatever is easier for them. Like, pretending to be straight is really hard if you're not. It's not more or less brave to decide it's too much trouble.

Back when I was a visibly genderqueer crossdresser (aka, before I transitioned), every day was another battle. Would I get hassled walking around? If I needed to wee, would I be able to find a loo that was going to let me in? I used to have a mental map of all the disabled / single access loos around places I used to go, since I got thrown out of both the ladies and the gents. If I wanted to get my hair cut or buy clothes, either of those things could go very badly. I once had somebody refuse to sell me shoes! It was a real pain in the ass.

But trying to conform to female stereotypes caused me tremendous amounts of personal distress. So I was nonconformist - not to make a point about gender, but just trying to survive.

In the San Francisco area, I had a supportive community and a lot of friends and maybe I'd have stayed how I was. But I moved away and just got tired of fighting all the time. It's not brave for me to transition. A lot of my lesbian friends thought it was a cop-out actually. They weren't entirely wrong. I mean, I just couldn't keep fighting all the time.

Pretending to be a straight woman was never an option for me. Even if I could have passed for that - which ha ha, no way - I couldn't have handled the stress. Which is so moot because there's no way I could have fooled anyone. I might as well have tried to pass myself off as a cat.