21 February 2011

An Open Letter to Montana

Dear Montana –

Let me be clear: sometimes, I miss the state I grew up in. I miss having multiple lakes within a 15 minute driving distance of my home. I miss clean air and water, the chance to see endangered birds nested outside my parents’ house, and mountain hikes that took me higher than some people will ever be in their lives.

I miss the beauty of Montana. I’m not sure, however, that I can ever return.

What I don’t miss, and the reason why I let, is highlighted by Rep. Kristen Hansen (R-Havre)’s bill to ban access to basic human rights. Rep. Hansen’s bill, just passed through the MT House committee to be put to a full vote, prohibits local governments from enacting ordinances or other policies that protect groups that are not recognized under the Montana Human Rights Act.

Here’s the problem, Montana. I’m not protected under the Montana Human Rights Act. Not because of who I am or who I am not (though I’d be happy to tell you over a beer or a glass of wine), but because of who I am perceived to be. I am regularly perceived to be a lesbian – because I own a house with a woman, because I love her – and that, under the MHRA, is reason enough for someone to look at me and say “Dyke, I don’t like you. You’re fired.”

And it’s legal.

I left Montana running at full speed when I was 18 years old because of the fear, hatred, and bigotry that I knew would be coming into my life. 13 years later, I have never returned for more than a vacation, despite the assurances of my friends and family that I was mistaken, that people from Montana aren’t like that.

Well … prove it, Montana voters and Montana representatives. Prove it by rising up and telling YOUR representatives that you trust communities to define those who may be discriminated in their communities. Prove it by defying this actively hateful bill.

Prove it. Because I was a smart, passionate, motivated, good citizen who left to never return. How many more do you want to lose?

Krista Benson – previously of Kalispell, MT; now of Spokane, WA

26 January 2011

This ain't a tune up, it's a goddamn racket

This actually started as a reaction to a bullshit Yoplait ad I saw while watching TV online - something about how low-fat yogurt, cereal, and a fruit are acceptable for 2 meals a day. And then I started calculating calorie counts and then I realized that this is not what I do best.

Because I don't feel like I have to break down how few calories that suggested "2 week tune up" is. It's fucked. It's a horrible, insidious suggestion that reentreches how women's bodies are WRONG WRONG WRONG. Because this ad isn't oriented at men - though I'll acknowledge this might mess up some men at the same time - it is beyond a doubt aimed at women. Because we're wrong. We need a "tune up" that consists of too few calories combined with exercise. We need a bunch of other shit like fake eyelashes, 30 day "shred" plans, videotapes, DVDs, blahblahblah.

All of our lives are devoted to this wrongness.

Of course I believe in health. Of course I think it matters. But there is not a single goddamn thing about starvation-style diets combined with exercise with a goal of losing weight that will almost certainly come back immediately. Not to mention that the whole connection of a SPECIFIC BRAND of low-fat yogurt (as if it has the magical formula to make you look hot at your high school reunion, as suggested in the ad I saw) isn't some gross consumerist crap that just makes us believe that we can buy the happiness that will make up for us being WRONG.

And I'm just so tired of wrongness. Tired of all of these plans, deals, videos, weekends away, diets, shreds, fucked up rules. I'm tired of being wrong. I no longer have the energy to pretend that any of it works (hint: long term, it doesn't), to pretend that I believe that it matters. I'm tired of accepting that I'm wrong.

Because maybe a world that tells me who I am is wrong is wrong.

17 January 2011

Is it time yet?

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

18 December 2010

Discrediting Rape Survivors: The Same Old Story

Strong warnings for sexual assault triggers, especially those having to do with discrediting sexual assault survivors. Self-care is a radical act. Take care of yourselves.

If you haven't been following the accusations being leveled against Julian Assange (founder of WikiLeaks), here's a very quick breakdown:

  1. Julian Assange has been accused of raping two women in Sweden. You can see more detailed information (with double-plus trigger warning) here.

  2. The website that Assange has founded has also come under serious scrutiny and legal threat from a handful of countries

  3. Assange is being held on an extradition notice in London (NOT on the charges themselves) and was denied release on his own recognizance because he's a flight risk - which is obvious, since he fled Sweden to avoid having to come up on these charges.

  4. Progressive journalists, most notably Michal Moore and Keith Olbermann, spread incorrect information about the charges (including that it is a crime to "have consensual sex without a condom" in Sweden) and dismissed the charges as false and politically-motivated.

  5. Many people, largely consisting of feminists, sexual assault advocates, and activists, demaded an apology from Olbermann and from Michael Moore

Things that have been taken away from this:
  • Keith Olbermann blocked critics from his Twitter ... no! closed it down ... no! is using again, but only to talk to the people who aren't criticizing him.

  • The hashtag #Mooreandme continues to be an active topic on Twitter with many individuals demanding an apology from Michael Moore

  • An unestimatable number of people believe that Olbermann and Moore's statements were statements of fact and have moved ahead as if they were

I have little that's new to add to this, honestly. Certainly, it is assured that these charges are being pursued because of political motivations - most conservative estimates show that less than 6% of rapists will spend any time in jail and nearly all of those that are pursued for legal charges will in some way have to do with political motivations - whether it's the skin color of the rapist (men of color are disproportionately brought up on charges even though 52% of rapists are white) or the category the rape falls in.

So the claims that it is unusual for a man being charged with rape to be white, middle-to-upper class, and powerful? Not exactly fucking news to me.

I was trained as a rape advocate when I was 19 years old. However, I was 12 years old the first time that I advocated for a survivor of sexual assault, when a friend of mine told me about the guy who had raped her on a date two nights before. She was scared to tell anyone, even though she had three classes with him and was sick to her stomach at the idea of seeing him while she was trying to learn, because he was popular. He had power.

All rapists have power. That is, in fact, the motivation of rape - to leverage that power against another person.

I don't know that the charges of the two women in Sweden are true - I wasn't there. What I do know, however, is that the public vilification of these women - whether from some Gomer on Twitter, some asshole on the bus, or Michael Moore in public view - is hurting rape survivors. It is not only damaging to these two women, but to every single survivor who has ever had someone tell them that our story didn't matter, that nobody would believe us, that we didn't matter.

Yes. We. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I have been an advocate, a friend, a shoulder to cry on, a body between a survivor and a doctor who wants to take a rape kit without a medical advocate present.

I have heard more firsthand experiences of sexual assault than anyone should ever hear and spent more time at Take Back the Night, in hospitals, on the phone, on the internet, and simply making tea and saying "I believe you" than I can even recount.

Every single survivor I've ever spoken to has had someone tell them that they don't matter, that they're powerless, and that nobody will believe them. The last thing that we needed was for some of the most visible members of the American Left media to take on rape apologism like it's a new fad.

So, for what it's worth, I want to tell all of you: Your voices matter. Your stories are heard. And no matter how much someone tells you that the person who hurt you was too powerful to touch, know that we're listening.

And to these men on the left who can't find it in themselves to admit that you can like someone's political motivations and still have to take seriously charges of sexual assault: Shame on you.

You owe us an apology.

05 December 2010

Just call me shameless

I have had a hell of a long relationship with Ani DiFranco's music. I bought my first Ani CD in 1996 (new, in fact, to the CONCEPT of CD-buying, as I'd only had a CD player for 3 years and primarily listened to the Beatles and mix tapes).

I bought "Out of Range" on a whim - I was hanging out in a music store where a friend worked. He knew that I liked Tori Amos, Concrete Blonde, Nine Inch Nails, and Leonard Cohen. Basically, he knew I was pretty open to what I was listening to. He threw a used copy of "Out of Range" in my pile and offered to give me an extra $2 off if I'd give it a shot.

Weirdly, the first time I listened to the album, I wasn't really feeling it. I shrugged, figured I'd only spent $7 on it, and threw it in the pile. It wasn't until about six months later, that summer, when I was probably sulking in my room and trying to figure out what to do that night, that I put in the album and it just ... clicked.

Thank god I fell in love with Ani DiFranco's music when I was angry 16-year old with access to the internet, because I immediately fell as much in love with her politics and her story as I did with the music. When Ani DiFranco started making music at 18, she made the conscious decision to not play the major label game. As a teenager, she started Righteous Babe Records and released her own music, on her own terms. And, as the label grew and as her fame grew, she picked up other artists, spoken word artists, and old anarchists like Utah Phillips and released their albums, too.

Here she was, a young, openly-queer woman who had said "fuck it" and MADE IT WORK.

I think that was the primary draw for me, a young, not-openly-queer, feminist girl in Montana who just wanted people who understood.

Ani and I have had an off-and-on musical relationship since then - not because "her old stuff is better" or any nonsense like that, but because I have moments in my life where acoustic feminist alt-punk-folk-rock is more and less my thing.

Ani DiFranco will always be summers, driving the first car I'd ever owned with the windows down, singing along at the top of my lungs. Today is an Ani DiFranco day. I want to dig out my old CDs and spend the day listening to feminist music and build a little bubble around myself to remind myself what that feels like.

20 November 2010

Transgender Day of Rememberance

On November 28, 1998, Rita Hester was murdered in her home just outside of Boston. She was stabbed multiple times, likely by someone she knew. Her murder was horrible and affected an entire community of people who knew and loved her.

Murders happen all the time and, all the time, they affect friends and family members. The thing that sets Rita's murder apart from some is that she was a transsexual woman, someone whose identity, life, and mental health were all called into question after she was murdered. Rita's life was made invisible so that a tabloid-style news story could take its place.

This happens every day. People whose gender or sex presentation doesn't fall within acceptable social boundaries and those who are perceived as non-normative are regularly in danger. They may experience interpersonal violence, verbal violence, stalking, threats, snide comments, questions of the validity of their identity, and a range of treatment from strangers from confusion to rage.

This doesn't mean that it's a horrible life to be a transgender person - many life happy lives with friends, partners, gainful employment, and families. It does, however, mean that every person whose life dares to cross boundaries may be in danger.

If they are hurt in some way, their legal challenges generally go unanswered, their murders go unsolved, and their voices go unheard.

Today is the 12th Annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to remember those that were killed as a result of anti-transgender hatred and is held in November to remember Rita Hester.

This year, we remember Brenda of Rome, Italy; Wanchai Tongwijit of Phuket City, Thailand; Mariah Malina Qualls of San Francisco, California; Estrella (Jose Angel) Venegas of Mexicali, Mexico; Wong of Bernama, Malaysia; Myra Chanel Ical and Gypsy of Houston, Texas; Derya Y. of Antalya, Turkey; Fevzi Yener of Şehremin, Istanbul; Dino Curi Huansi of Parma, Italy; Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar of Queens, New York; Toni Alston of Charlotte, North Carolina; Ashley Santiago Ocasio of Corozal, Puerto Rico; Azra of Izmir, Turkey; Chanel (Dana A. Larkin) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Angie González Oquendo of Caguas, Puerto Rico; Sandy Woulard of Chicago, Illinois; Imperia Gamaniel Parson of San Pedro Sula, Honduras; Victoria Carmen White of Maplewood, New Jersey; Justo Luis González García of Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico; Irem of Bursa, Turkey; Stacey Lee of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Emanuelly Colaço Taborda of Parana, Brazi;, an unidentified trans woman in Jakarta, Indonesia; an unidentified trans woman in Chihuahua, Mexico; an unidentified trans woman in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic; an unidentified victim in Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico; two unidentified victims in Sheikhupura, Pakistan; and all the other trans women and men around the world who lost their lives to transphobia this year, whose faces we never saw, names we never knew, and voices we never heard because they were living in societies that did not value them as people.

Fear and hatred of trans people is not limited to violent action - often, in many ways, it is characterized by inaction. Because there are no federal employment protections for trans people and precious few state protections, they are more likely to be under- or un-employed and have a lack of access to health insurance. They have trouble finding doctors that will treat them with respect for their identity and presentation. They are at a higher risk, because of these factors, for later discovery of cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Robert Eads is one of the transsexual men who payed the price for our social and medical apathy - he died as a result of ovarian cancer after being refused treatment by two dozen doctors who refused out of fear that treating a transsexual man for ovarian cancer would damage their reputations.

Take a minute and think about that. Think about how many people find out they have ovarian cancer in a year. Now imagine any of those who are cisgendered or cissexual (1) women being refused treatment by two dozen doctors. Can't imagine it? It's because it doesn't happen, not to those of us whose gender or sexual identities match those expected by society. It doesn't happen to me because my ovaries are matched with a beardless face, a higher-octave voice, and presentation "appropriate" for females in my society.

And yet, Robert Eads died because he didn't have the privileges afforded to me.

Apathy, inaction, "jokes," hateful statements, and fists all can kill. Today is the day that we remember, but every day should be the day that we act to address and stop the fear and hatred of transgender people.

(1) Cisgender or cissexual refers to a class of gender or sex identities formed by a match between an individual's gender identity and the behavior or role considered appropriate for one's sex. Cisgender is a neologism that means "someone who is comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth", according to Calpernia Addams.

19 November 2010

It Gets Better ... IF

In the wake of the It Gets Better Project, a project that I participated in, there has been a groundswell of people telling LGBTQ kids that It Gets Better. Politicians such as Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Barak Obama have made videos. Public figures such as Cindy McCain and Laura Bush have weighed in. The NoH8 campaign, employees at Facebook and Google, celebrities, and everyday normal people like me have made videos. And over and over again, we tell kids that it gets better - that bullying ends, that many birth families will love you, that you will find a chosen family, that you can be happy.

And I think that matters. But I also think that it matters to acknowledge that those things don't happen automatically.

Conservative estimates suggest that between 20 and 40% of homeless teenagers are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer. In my time at the Local Youth Homeless Shelter, I saw a higher percentage than that. Queer kids' families are not always going to accept them. It's a shitty truth, but it's a truth. Queer kids' classmates and teachers will not always protect them. They will not always be able to attend dances with their partner of choice or have their photos in yearbooks wearing their clothing of choice.

They won't all graduate college and fall in love.

We can't promise them any of that. We want it for them. I got all of that and I am incredibly grateful and lucky and I KNOW that.

But I think that it's disingenuous for us to be promising a better world to queer youth without doing something to help make that world better. Whether that means that we participate in mentoring programs, become foster parents, volunteer at queer youth centers (or any youth centers - queer kids are everywhere), donate food or money, give time or money to suicide prevention hotlines like The Trevor Project, or give time to the agencies that serve homeless youth - we should all be doing something. I should be doing more and I damn well know it.

We don't have to stop telling queer kids that it gets better - I sincerely hope that it does for every one of them. But I do think that we need to do whatever we can to make it more likely that "better" actually happens for any of them.