The Body Is Not An Apology

Fostering Radical Unapologetic Self Love, Body Empowerment and Healing Around the WORLD!

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Transgender Resources

by West Anderson, Content Writer


[Image description: A side view of a row of books leaning on each other. The books have blank jacket covers in different colors: blue, orange, green, red, yellow, and pink. The word “resources” is in black text above the books.]

As I learned when I was first examining my gender and looking for answers, the internet is filled with resources to help transgender people – with everything from naming their gender, finding pronouns, and swapping clothes - to information and advice about medically transitioning.

It can be difficult for a trans person to find that info, hidden as it is in poorly formatted sites, personal blogs, and under a mound of Google search results. I think it’s incredibly important, however, as it can help trans people find help and community. As a community that often grapples with inner dysphoria and messages of hatred from outer sources, coming together and sharing love, knowledge, and resources is important to help every trans person get the support they need.

So I thought I would compile a list of resources that I have seen floating around the internet for trans people and their families and allies. Some of these helped me when I was first coming out, some I haven’t used. But all are directed at helping trans people be themselves to the fullest, in whatever way is best for them. So, whether you’re a cisgender ally, a person looking for answers about their own gender, or a trans person who has known their gender for years, I hope this is helpful.

Some of the links I share use terminology that I don’t personally use, such as FTM (female-to-male) or MTF (male-to-female). The transgender community has generally moved away from these terms, and uses the terms CAFAB/CAMAB (coercively assigned female/male at birth) or AFAB/AMAB (assigned female/male at birth) or DFAB/DMAB (designated female/male at birth) to talk about what gender the doctors assigned us at birth. This terminology is more useful because many of us feel that we were not one gender and then became another, but rather that a gender was foisted upon us and aggressively enforced by families, peers, media, and so on. Some feel that although we were assigned a gender at birth, we have always been our true gender. Intersex people also use this terminology to talk about the coercive way their bodies have been forced into a binary gender and sex at birth.

I hope these resources will still be useful, and feel free to send a message if you have another resource I should add.

Finally, I try not to split up my resources into AFAB and AMAB. Being assigned a gender at birth tells one nothing about someone’s body or needs, so I have tried to leave things open for people of all genders to use as they need, rather than enforcing a harmful dichotomy. I also didn’t split things up into trans women and trans men, since there are many people who fall outside the binary, and I don’t want anyone to feel excluded.

Most of my resources do categorize themselves by birth assignment or gender. There is a split in the needs of AFAB and AMAB trans people, and I don’t want to pretend that there isn’t. But for my post I wanted to try to leave things as open as possible. The resources I link to will do differently.

On to the resources:

Read more …

Filed under trans resources trans resource masterpost transgender non binary the body is not an apology west anderson

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On Leaving Online Social Justice Spaces: There Is More Than One Road

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Content Manager and Writer


Source: Twitter

[Image description: In this drawing, two figures are standing on either side of a set of rods. Each figure is pointing at them. The person on the left is saying, “Four.” The person on the right is saying, “No Three.” Three or four rods appear in the middle, depending upon how you look at the picture.]

One of the most troubling things that I have found in social justice spaces is an over-reliance on binaries. This over-reliance manifests itself in an insistence that runs along the following lines: “You must do your activism in a particular way or you are useless / hurting the cause / part of the problem.” It becomes a choice between A and B, with very little outside that binary. Choosing A makes you a good activist, choosing B makes you a bad activist, and no other choices are on the table. Such binaries are very confining and they constantly pit people against each other, even when those people have the same ethical commitment.

I rarely push back against these binaries anymore in social justice spaces. I used to, but the pressure to not go outside established political and ideological boundaries can be so strong that it became psychologically and emotionally unsafe to go against the grain. Group cohesion is often built along these binaries, so when I question any of them, my questioning is often not welcome. My way is to look at things from a variety of angles and to ask a lot of questions — not to tear down, but to make sure that the baseline assumptions according to which we’re working are accurate, solid, and useful. It’s unusual to find that my questions are met with support, however.

I’ve had a very similar problem in religious settings. The reason, I think, is that I’m not really, at heart, an ideological thinker. I’ll use ideology as a tool, but at my core, I’m a problem solver. Give me a problem and let me go to work — knowing that going to work means thinking flexibly about what strategy works best in any given situation.

When I look at both activism and religion, I see a whole landscape of possibilities for how to proceed, and I want the spaciousness of knowing that there are many paths, that none of them is perfect, but that we’re committed to getting to the goal and should be supporting one another to reaching it. No one knows which path is right. No one. I can’t tolerate dogma about how to do or what to think from anyone, no matter how much I might agree in principle and no matter how on fire I am with the cause. When I see ideological or political rigidity of any kind, it always feels to me as though we’re replicating the source of the problem we’re trying to solve.

What I see taking place in online social justice spaces is a kind of proto-Christian insistence on One True Road to Justice that does not integrate competing perspectives. Coming out of Jewish culture, I find this approach utterly foreign. I come from a very multivocal culture; we let stand paradox, argument, disagreement, and opposition within our people. We are not unique in this regard; others have spoken to this issue as well. For example, in Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators, Cody Charles speaks to the need to entertain multiple perspectives when he writes, “How are we creating dynamic change if we do not allow ourselves to fully explore the pros and cons of ideas? How often are we weighing the greater good?… We have to be able to engage multiple truths in order to move forward strategically.”

But I don’t see that we’re very close to holding, in Charles’ words, “multiple truths.” Rather, I see more and more attempts to bring people onto the same page in ways that feel almost religious. For example, in Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable, Ngọc Loan Trần does a beautiful job of calling on people to be more forgiving, more tolerant of one another’s ignorance, and more constructive in the ways in which they engage disagreement. But the paradigm he uses is very troublesome to me:

I picture “calling in” as a practice of pulling folks back in who have strayed from us. It means extending to ourselves the reality that we will and do fuck up, we stray and there will always be a chance for us to return. Calling in as a practice of loving each other enough to allow each other to make mistakes; a practice of loving ourselves enough to know that what we’re trying to do here is a radical unlearning of everything we have been configured to believe is normal.

To my mind, in addition to deconstructing everything that is Normalcy, we need to deconstruct the Christian paradigm of “straying from the fold.” A great many of us do not come from a background in which this approach is operative; I come from a culture whose lifeblood is to hold multiple – and often contradictory – perspectives. As I’ve written in a response to the piece:

Is it necessary to think about a central ideology around which we must all constellate, or should there be more room for critique, for disagreement, for generative argument? Straying assumes that we must come back to center. But whose center? Mine? Yours? Any group that treats me as though I’ve “strayed” is likely a group that I will “stray” right out of, never to return.

And now, that is what I’ve done: I’ve strayed out. I don’t do well in situations in which uniformity is a value. At the hands of the larger culture, we suffer so much from a demand for uniformity. We suffer so much from being told that we have to have the “right” bodies, and talk in the “right” ways, and hold the “right” ideas, and think along the “right” lines, and it’s all very, very confining. In social justice spaces – and elsewhere – I’d like to see more spaciousness, more expansiveness, more tolerance for difference, more holding of disparate perspectives.

My associations with communities built on ideological binaries have always failed miserably. People get upset with me for “complicating” things too much, and I get upset with them for trying to shoehorn me into a paradigm that I resist with all my soul. Either way, I’m back in the wilderness.

I keep finding myself there over, and over, and over. I’m beginning to feel that, for me, it’s the only place to be, and that I need to serve people similarly situated. If others find online social justice spaces useful, interesting, generative places, then I support your presence there. I really do. I wish you well in all that you are working to do. But they are no longer for me.

Filed under rachel cohen-rottenberg social justice Christianity ideology binaries the body is not an apology

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On Leaving Online Social Justice Spaces: Looking for Solidarity

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Content Manager and Writer


Source: UFCW

[Image description: Inside a red circle, the text reads, in white capital letters, “Solidarity.”]

One of the reasons that I no longer frequent online social justice spaces is that truly intersectional spaces are few and far between. My mind works associatively; I am always seeing the ways in which different systems parallel and reinforce one another, and I find it very difficult to watch these systems discussed in isolation. We talk a lot about intersectionality, but putting it into practice has proven difficult. For the most part, I find that most social justice spaces concentrate on single issues, rather than seeing all oppression as interconnected.

I understand the need to focus on single issues, and I am not advocating against single-issue spaces. First and foremost, those of us in marginalized groups are very tired of being ignored. We deal with macro- and micro-aggressions all the time, we deal with a world that largely doesn’t care, and we need space to focus on our own issues, our own needs, and our own feelings. I certainly feel that way. Sometimes, when I find myself in a single-issue space, I want to say, “Okay, okay, okay. Enough about YOUR issue. Let’s talk about MY issue.” I don’t say it, however, because I recognize where it’s coming from: a feeling of my experience as a disabled person being so ignored by the society in which I live that I absolutely crave engagement on it. But I don’t attempt to broaden the lens in single-issue spaces because, if the group is focused on a single issue, and that focus is necessary to the people in the group, it feels disrespectful to try and turn the space to my issues. I just move on.

Second, while every kind of oppression is interconnected and works along similar lines, there are critical differences that affect everything from individual experience to public policy. For example, being a white queer woman with invisible disabilities, I have endured my share of exclusion and abuse; however, I do not get stopped and frisked, I do not find myself denied housing, and I do not experience being seen as a threat simply for taking up my share of public space. I have white friends with visible disabilities who experience some of those things – who have been denied housing, and who have been accosted, threatened, and assaulted. I have black friends with visible disabilities who experience all of those things. We need spaces in which these differing experiences are respected. I’m not on board with oversimplifying them with recourse to “Well, it’s all basically the same,” because no, it absolutely is not.

So I understand the need to focus on the issues that seem most pressing in any group. The problem, as many, many people before me have pointed out, is that many people live at the intersections of several identities. So if a black disabled man gets thrown out of his wheelchair by police, is that event fueled by racism or by ableism? I would argue that it’s fueled by both. And yet, when I have seen discussions of this case in social justice forums, it’s unusual to see it framed in an intersectional way. Instead, on a forum devoted to racism, it will be called out as racism; and in a forum devoted to ableism, it will be called out as ableism. This split is counter-productive, in a variety of ways. Multiple forces impinge upon our lives, and solving one issue on the ground will not solve the others. We can put an end to racism, and disabled people will still get thrown out of their wheelchairs; we can put an end to ableism, and black men will still be harassed by the police.

Given the complex ways in which these oppressions work together and reinforce one another, I don’t think that we can fight one without fighting them all. Ableism is constantly put into the service of racism; just look at the ways in which black men are represented in the media as inherently violent people who can’t control themselves, and then think about the ways in which mentally ill people are similarly positioned. Ableism is also put into the service of transantagonism; consider the ways in which transgender people are represented as “freaks,” as sick, as broken, and then consider the ways in which visibly disabled people are similarly positioned. I could fill a book with examples of the ways in which every identity group is pitted against every other.

So it pains me to see people in one group respond to these characterizations by distancing themselves from people in another group. I see nondisabled activists reply to racist and transantagonist characterizations with “We are not disabled!” instead of “Disabled people are neither frightening nor broken, and we are proud to be associated with them.” I see anti-racism activists distancing themselves from LGBT people, and LGBT people distancing themselves from anti-racism work. I see feminists distancing themselves from issues of race, class, disability, and gender variance. There are pockets of solidarity, and I am heartened by them, but on the whole, there is precious little unity and there are too many attempts to flee from any association with non-normalcy. I think this is a mistake.

My dream, always, is a dream of solidarity. I do not seek a solidarity that erases difference — no, never. I seek a solidarity that holds difference in power and unity.

My dream is that when a transgender person has their rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

My dream is that when a disabled person has their rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

My dream is that when a gay or bi person has their rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

My dream is that when a person of color has their rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

My dream is that when a woman has her rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

My dream is that when a person living in poverty has their rights violated or needs support, every disability rights group, every anti-racism group, every feminist group, every LGBT rights group, and every other group devoted to social change steps up.

People from all of these groups are being raped, assaulted, and killed as we speak, and we need to remember that it is all interconnected. All of it. It is all about marginalizing bodies that are not white, cis, straight, middle class, able-bodied, and male. We need to pay attention to single issues, because each group’s experiences are different, and those differences should never be muted. But the same time, we need to pay attention to solidarity, because we can place those differences into the service of mutual support and empowerment. Our differences need not divide us. We need not accede to the divide-and-conquer mentality of the larger culture. We need not use the oppressor’s tools and speak in the oppressor’s tongue. We can find a way out of the divisions that plague us.

Filed under rachel cohen-rottenberg the body is not an apology social justice solidarity racism LGBT ableism disability classism homophobia transphobia

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On Leaving Online Social Justice Spaces: The Power of Words

by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Content Manager and Writer



[Image description: Against a black background, the text reads, “The power of words.”]

I’m a white, queer, disabled, Jewish abuse survivor and the mom of a transgender kid. As a kid, I got my start in political activism by protesting the war in Viet Nam. My major influence in life came from my grandfather, who was a member of the Socialist Workers Party, and who taught me about socialism and solidarity. All of his brothers and sisters left Orthodox Judaism for socialism, and my people were union supporters on both sides of the family.

In college, I worked against apartheid in South Africa and nuclear power in the US, protested US involvement in Central America, volunteered at a battered women’s shelter, and marched for reproductive rights. As a working adult, I did interfaith work with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, and I introduced my homeschooled kid to the realities of imperialism, union-busting, the Transatlantic slave trade and the Native American genocide. In my 50s, I became a disability rights activist, and I currently work serving disabled, homeless, and hungry people.

For most of my life, I’ve worked against hatred and oppressive systems. And even with age coming up to greet me, I have never wavered in my outrage. If anything, I’m more outraged than I ever was, because I’ve lived through so much, and so much has become worse in the world around me. Yes, same-sex marriage is on the way to being legalized all across the US, and we’ve elected an African-American president, but the systems under which we live are just as entrenched as ever, the level of denial is higher than ever, and the hope that we felt for a brief moment in the 1960s seems to be long gone.

Despite my ongoing work and my continuing outrage, I can no longer participate in online social justice spaces. It’s not that I don’t want to. Given the level of inaccessibility out in the world for people with disabilities, online spaces are sometimes the only places in which I can participate in political discussions. So I want to remain, but I simply can’t. My body and spirit can’t sustain further participation. There are many reasons I’ve moved away from these spaces, and each of my posts this week will explore them.

One of the primary causes is the verbal violence that flows through nearly all of them – violence that replicates the violence in the larger American discourse.

When I use the term “verbal violence,” I want to be clear about what I don’t mean:

1. I’m not talking about anger or about expressions of anger. I love anger, and people have plenty of good goddamned reason to be angry. Anger, like all emotions, is very useful. It’s a signal that something is wrong and needs to be made right. It’s a signal to protect the boundaries of the self. It can be life saving. I owe my anger a great deal. It has saved me many times over. When I was assaulted as a child, the anger in me kept me from harming myself in the aftermath of my pain, because I knew I deserved better.

So I’m not one of those folks who sees anger as a negative emotion. To the contrary. You’ve got anger? Me too. Let’s talk.

2. I’m not talking about making people uncomfortable by challenging them on their bigotry or complicity in oppressive systems. People need to be challenged on a regular basis. In fact, they need to get woken up on a regular basis. A little discomfort is a small price to pay for waking up and working to keep people from being assaulted, excluded, and killed.

3. I’m not talking about the use of profanity. I swear like a fucking trucker. Unless we’re talking about slurs, I don’t believe in bad words. I just believe in words used badly.

4. I’m not talking about being nice and polite, because nice and polite people are not necessarily people who do good. Nice is a patina. Good is what you do. I will acknowledge that I’m a very polite person, but only in certain contexts. When I’m giving out food to homeless people, I’m polite out of respect. When I’m walk through a door in a public place, I hold it for the next person out of consideration. I say please, thank you, you’re welcome, and excuse me when it’s called for. When it’s not called for, I respond appropriately. (See #3, above.)

So what do I mean by verbal violence? I draw a very definite line between anger and violence. Anger is an emotion; it can be expressed in a myriad of ways. It need not take the form of violence. It often does, but that’s not inevitable. It’s a choice. Any emotion can be used for good or ill; people can hurt you out of love just as surely as they can hurt you out of anger, with results that are just as devastating.

So when I talk about verbal violence, I’m not talking about anger. I’m not talking about making people uncomfortable. I’m not talking about profanity. And I’m not talking about not being nice. I’m talking about verbal assaults. I’m talking about people launching ad hominem attacks, calling one another morons and assholes and other assorted epithets. I’m talking about people attempting to tear down one another’s dignity and cause one another pain.

Whenever I have made this critique, I’m generally told that I’m being oversensitive, that words are only words, and that they aren’t as important as systemic racism or ableism or misogyny or any other form of oppression. But this response is based on a false comparison. I am not saying that what happens on a social justice thread is comparable to being incarcerated, shot by the police, or rendered homeless. Certainly not. What I am saying is that words have impact, and that the impact can be destructive on the people who are present.

If words are only words, then there would be no reason for people to respond with upset to anything anyone says. If words are only words, and someone attempts to verbally provoke another person, those words will roll off that person like water off a duck’s back, and no one will respond in kind and escalate the situation. But I’ve seen the situation get escalated on a regular basis, because words have tremendous impact. They can either help or harm, build up or tear down. When people feel their dignity threatened, they most often respond in kind. They become aggressive, they defend themselves, or they just leave.

The idea that we should somehow be strong enough to bear up against verbal violence is not only, at its basis, deeply patriarchal and ableist, but it also replicates the hideous discourse in the larger culture. There is no reason that we should have to be strong at all times and absorb verbal abuse; there is no reason that we cannot be vulnerable, that we cannot say you’re hurting me, that we should not listen to one another, that we should not care about one another’s feelings and one another’s pain.

I find that feelings get a very bad rap in social justice spaces. To some extent, I understand why. People use their personal feelings to derail discussions all the time. How many times have I seen a majority person show up and say things like, “Hey, not ALL white people are like that!” And then they talk about how much the critique hurts them personally. I understand the frustration over these kinds of conversations; every time I see one, I feel the frustration rise in me. To my mind, the only variation on “Not all” that I want to see is, “Not all the people in my group are like me, so I have work to do in my own community.”

But the problem here is not feelings; the problem, once again, is that feelings are being used badly — in this case, to take the focus off of the issues of oppressed people and onto the issues of majority people. In these kinds of situations, there is an entitlement to speaking your feelings, in all times and in all places, that is altogether foreign to me. Who shows up in someone else’s house, refuses to abide by the terms of the household, and expects to get a warm welcome? A lot of people, apparently. The answer, though, isn’t to dismiss feelings as unimportant, especially in a highly emotional discussion. That only replicates the disrespect for human feelings in the larger culture. The answer is to speak to how badly feelings are being used.

Many people in social justice spaces have been traumatized outside these spaces – by someone they know, or by the larger systems that work to grind people down, or both. And when I see people retriggering one another’s trauma, I just want to run. I cannot be there, because watching people be attacked traumatizes me.

Have I always been perfect at any of what I’m talking about? Certainly not. No one ever will be. We are all works in progress. But I have spent a lot of time learning how to be angry and respect the dignity and the feelings of other people at the same time. I don’t want to give trauma to already traumatized people, and I don’t want any more trauma coming to my door.

The bottom line is this: We need to change oppressive systems because if we don’t, people will continue to die before their time. We need to do this work so that people can live. That truth is beyond critique; it is a fact. What I don’t see being addressed is how do we make life worth the living. Yes, we need to save people’s lives, but we need to do more than that. We need to create a world in which people are treated with love, with kindness, with concern, and with gentleness, because no matter how much we change oppressive systems, everyone needs to be treated with respect for their dignity. If we don’t get some control over how we talk to one another, we will have changed systems, but we won’t have created a world that is much more habitable for human beings than the one we’ve got.

For me, the dignity of every human being is non-negotiable. If my words are spoken without respect for the dignity of another person, then my words are working very much at cross purposes with my goal. It takes discipline and restraint to be able to speak my rage without letting loose with my words. It’s difficult. But I have found it necessary.

The world we are creating now is the one that we will have when all of our work is done. So let’s make sure it’s the one we want.

Filed under Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg violence verbal violence social justice the body is not an apology self-love words

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TW: Compassionate Community

by Megan Ryland



[Photo: Many tea lights are in various stages of burning on a single surface. Most are lit, but some have already burnt out. It is dark and the photo is only lit by these candles.]


I support trigger warnings because I think they are part of supporting an empathetic community in which people care for one another. Trigger warnings and content notes acknowledge the relationship between writer/speaker and their audience, and they reflect an awareness of the audience response. They ask for consideration, and I think any community could use a little more of that. Compassionate communities are built on just this kind of consideration.

In her fantastic piece “Beyond the Pros and Cons of Trigger Warnings,” Andrea Smith writes,

“…Trigger warnings cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather, they are part of a larger complex of practices designed to de-privatize and [support] collective healing. They came out of the recognition that we are not unaffected by the political and intellectual work that we do. These practices also recognized that the labor of healing has to be shared by all. Trigger warnings are one of many practices that insist that one does not have to be silent about one’s healing journey – that one’s healing can occupy public and collective spaces. And healing can only truly happen when we take collective responsibility for creating structures and practices that enable healing.” [emphasis mine]

Andrea Smith manages to talk about both the limitations of trigger warnings and the potential value that they still hold. In particular, she talks in her post about trigger warnings used in social justice spaces.  

If you have been active long in social justice communities, you may be familiar with the intensity of these spaces. This intensity can be incredibly invigorating and powerful, but it doesn’t take long talking to activists to hear about the difficulty of staying in these spaces. Aside from the problems of burnout, social justice spaces are not exempt from recreating the systems of oppression they fight, nor from the daily challenges of having ongoing relationships with people in politically charged situations. In addition, many people come to activism from an experience of trauma or violence. Andrea Smith speaks about how trigger warnings were meant to be used to acknowledge the reality that activist spaces are not neutral communities built on only healed people. Andrea Smith writes of her own experience, but it rings true:

“We built movements around an idealized image of who were supposed to be rather than the people we actually were. The result was that we created a gendered and capitalist split in how we organized. Healing was relegated to the “private” sphere and became unacknowledged labor that we had to do on our own with a therapist or a few friends. Once we were healed, then we were allowed to enter the public sphere of organizing. Of course, since we continued to have problems, we continued to destroy our own organizing efforts internally with no space to even talk about what was going on.”

You do not need to be healed to be here. You do not have to “have your shit together” to be part of a conversation. Ideally, trigger warnings make it easier to have these conversations because they acknowledge trauma as always already here, not something “out there” or “just in your head.” Trigger warnings may be requested by people who desperately want to engage in conversation, but not at the cost of their own mental/physical state/health. They may be requested by people who want to talk about sexual violence, but not at the cost of a panic attack for the sake of a blog entry. So, they are asking. A minority(?) is asking the majority(?) to understand their experience and make an effort to act compassionately, and to take responsibility for their place in a community that prioritizes collective healing. This intention of trigger warnings is ignored in many critiques. In fact, it seems to be almost deliberately misunderstood in the claims that trigger warnings are solely requested by those who don’t want to engage in conversation.

The urge to “privatize” or individualize the cost of healing is in direct opposition to seeing violence or trauma as part of a systemic or institutional problem. You are told that if you cannot engage the way that others can, you should go away (alone) to fix yourself. In this view, personal trauma is not tied up with the larger causes of this violence. This is false. They are always wrapped up in each other. We cannot ask survivors to unknot their experiences from the conversation, especially when that means uninviting them from shared space.

S.E. Smith points out that the trigger warning was not meant to be a total solution, but a tool —  something to grab when you needed it. She says,

“Trauma survivors and victims are accustomed to navigating the world with the understanding that they will encounter things that could be retraumatizing. Trigger warnings were originally intended as a form of harm reduction — not as a final solution, or an isolating bubble for people to hide inside so they wouldn’t have to deal with the world. And while some people found trigger warnings useful, others did not: and all knew that even if society completely accepted and implemented them, that didn’t mean that they’d be 100% safe from triggering experiences.”

In the wake of a renewed public conversation about mental health (at the high cost of a highly public death), it is worth talking about the collective responsibility for supporting mental health. Trigger warnings aren’t enough. Healing is hard work. Recovery is a process that may be more journey than destination. It is worth considering the trigger warning as an imperfect tool to use in the difficult task of making spaces safer for all of us — not just safe for people who see anti-violence work as theory instead of daily practice, for people who see PTSD as something to be studied instead of experienced, for people who have the privilege to not need to understand trigger warnings. We need more tools if we want to build compassionate communities that serve all their members.

Filed under The Body is Not An Apology tw trigger warnings why I support trigger warnings Andrea Smith S.E. Smith

19 notes

Disarming Discourse: The Case Against Trigger Warnings - Part 2

By Megan Ryland


I have heard good arguments from people who understand trigger warnings and object on the grounds that it doesn’t serve their needs, as people who are sometimes triggered by certain things. Why don’t I hear from someone like that in all the articles bemoaning censorship and citing freedom of speech, instead of from people with only an academic interest in the whole notion? (See here for oh so very many examples) The answer, in my opinion, is that many of these articles have missed the point of triggers warnings: to consider the people who need them. So, let’s forget about them as I address some of the more convincing statements I’ve heard about trigger warnings.


Argument: Triggers are Too Personal

This argument can be a straightforward critique that trigger warnings don’t do their job. Triggers are so personal that we cannot possibly, honestly anticipate them and it’s potentially disingenuous to pick some over others. However, you don’t have to do something perfectly or not at all. A warning for the obviously difficult subjects is a) not difficult and b) not going to hurt anyone.

A more interesting argument is that triggers focus attention on personal experiences of trauma and distract from the larger systems at play. This can be done by focusing on the moment of “triggering” someone and creating interpersonal challenges, or by spending more time talking about specific incidents of oppression and less on addressing the larger systems of oppression that drive it. In some ways, I understand this as an academic argument, but I think it leaves out the minute-by-minute lives of people who do have to live in systems that trod all over their trauma.

Jenny Jarvie gets at this argument a little when she says, “My sense is that by putting all the emphasis on individual feeling and sort of structuring public life around these fragile personal sensitivities, there’s very little room for coming together to negotiate and work things out. Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy and of compassion but, in fact, I think they lead only to greater solipsism. They encourage us to impose our personal feelings on the public discussion and claim offense when something disturbs us.”

Of course, I think she says it poorly, because I would hardly say that panic attacks are caused by “fragile personal sensitivities.” Plus, I think it is reasonable to structure public life around the notion that we are all surviving in an unjust world where many people have experienced trauma, and that dealing with the discomfort that this might create—even the minor inconvenience of a trigger warning—is the price we might just have to pay to live in a society where trauma is part of the system.

I would also add to this section the recent statement by Jack Halberstam regarding “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity.” He goes on at length and many people have found his piece worth a conversation.* Again, we do see this idea that individual pain isn’t the point; the system is the point. In my opinion, there must be a way to balance the immediate needs of an individual with the wider issues at play.


Argument: No Space is “Safe”

This is an important argument because it acknowledges that we cannot warn for everything and that, most of the time, people aren’t given any warning to prepare for something triggering them. Life is triggering, no space is safe, and words alone won’t fix that.

Writing as an educator, Brittney Cooper puts this well,

“…part of what we as educators, parents and students have to recognize is that classroom spaces in which difficult topics like trauma, rape, war, race and sexuality are discussed are already unsafe. When students of color who have endured racism have to hear racially insensitive comments from other students who are in the process of learning, the classroom is unsafe. The classroom is unsafe for trans students who are often referred to by the wrong gender pronoun by both students and teachers…”

It’s hard to argue with the truth of that.

She goes to say that “trigger warnings won’t solve or ameliorate the problems that open, frank, guided discussion by well-trained, competent instructors can. Every semester, I gird up my loins to address the range of defensive and uncomfortable reactions that students have to material they have been taught never to discuss in polite company.” There is something to be said about the hard spaces where uncomfortable conversations happen.

However, Angus Johnson puts it nicely when he says,
“As a professor, I have an obligation to my students to raise those difficult subjects, but I also have an obligation to raise them in a way that provokes a productive reckoning with the material. And that reckoning can only take place if my students know that I understand that this material is not merely academic, that they are coming to it as whole people with a wide range of experiences, and that the journey we’re going on together may at times be painful.”

I would also argue that there is a way to acknowledge that no space is ever safe without giving up on the notion that we can always do better. Some spaces are safer than others and intellectual debate, emotional growth, and general openness may benefit from this ‘safer’ space. If someone feels willing to be vulnerable, safe enough to be, then it is likely that more frank discussions can be had. A trigger warning is guarantee, but perhaps it’s better than nothing. You can’t promise a safe space, but you do what you can.


Argument: Trauma Doesn’t Need to be Stigmatized

They way I heard this argument first was, essentially, “This is my life. I’m not going to put a trigger warning on my experiences.” That is to say, the speaker was not going to say that other people could not handle what she could handle — what she had been forced to handle. I think it might feel like stigma to provide a warning, and it perhaps didn’t make her experiences feel any easier to articulate or live with. In addition, at the time, she was about to speak to a group of people who had come to hear about her experiences.

Here’s what I think makes this argument against trigger warnings so much more compelling:

  1. Survivors (of war, of sexual violence, of abuse) don’t need any more stigma.
  2. Trigger warnings should support conversations about traumatic experiences.
  3. Your life story is your life story and you have the right to speak about your own experience as you see fit, prioritizing your own sense of self.

I can understand the desire to avoid labeling something as inherently triggering, as it will inevitably create a hierarchy of experience where some things are considered worthy or unworthy of a warning. As triggers depend on individuals, telling someone that their experience is or is not triggering (via warning for it or not) may communicate what they should/shouldn’t be feeling about that event or experience. This is not helpful because allowing people to self-define their experiences is important.

Something that might be helpful in this circumstance is the trigger warning’s lesser publicized cousin, the “content note,” which loses the alarm of “warning” and merely serves as a polite heads up. There’s a great piece separating out the terms “trigger warning” and “content note” here. A content note will likely look almost identical to a trigger warning, but it is simply stating the potentially upsetting topics covered by the material/talk/show. It is informative without presuming the usage of the information it is providing. Put another way, it is just saying “Here are the topics” rather than “These things might trigger you, alert!” A little more neutral. It may avoid the feeling of stigma and it’s a little more natural.

I think that we do these content notes all the time, but usually informally. It might come up when we say that we’re about to tell a sad story or ask, “Do you want the good news first, or the bad news?” The social cues might even be more subtle. When you say, “I have something important to tell you,” your tone may be a heads up about where this conversation is headed. We also do this with television and movies, every time we see a warning for “Mature subject matter” or “Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief drug use.” It’s not new to warn people before you show graphic pictures. We’re just developing a language for it.



[Screenshot: Green background and white text that reads, “The following previous has been approved for appropriate audiences by the Motion Picture Association of America, Inc. The film advertised has been rated R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. Sexual content, crude humour, persuasive language and some drug material.]


Argument: Trigger warnings insulate people from things they find uncomfortable

Catherine Baker does a good job summarizing this concern, and responding to it, so I’ll leave it in her capable hands:

“There is a risk that trigger warnings reinforce the common cultural perception that we should avoid the situations that trigger us. There is a pretty compelling consensus, amongst researchers and practitioners, that fear and anxiety are generally exacerbated by avoidance, and ameliorated by engaging with them in some way (the ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ approach). There is certainly a real danger if we teach people that anything they find painful is to be avoided: this is a path to greater suffering, not less, as people’s worlds can end up constricting to smaller and smaller zones of perceived safety.


Advocates of trigger warnings, however, point out that the aim is not to avoid people confronting frightening or painful material, but rather to provide them with greater control over how and when they do this. No therapist I know would advocate randomly plunging a client into a situation they find highly traumatic without warning, rather most take a gradual approach, helping clients to learn to sit with their fear for brief periods at first (rather than trying to escape or avoid it) in a context where they can prepare themselves before it happens. Whilst obviously real life is sometimes going to confront us with unexpected triggers, it seems cruel to use that as justification to ignore the strong possibility of triggering somebody in the particularly exposing context of a lecture hall or other public venue if our material contains likely triggers.”

Again, I find this argument most compelling from the angle that we are trying to include people with traumatic experiences in as much of community conversation as possible, and if they are excluded by trigger warnings, we need another strategy. However, currently, giving someone a heads up that we’re about to talk about something rough is still better than letting someone stumble into that. In my opinion, this is something that the Internet has necessitated especially, because you can click a link and end up somewhere you’ve never been before and you don’t have the lead up or warning of tone. While you might be able to hear a more subtle warning if you’re able to pick up additional context, opening up a new blog might be walking into something extremely graphic. Giving someone a heads up before that happens—either as a trigger warning, a content note, or even a tag—seems like due diligence.

I think it’s clear that trigger warnings aren’t perfect. They don’t serve everyone, and they can be abused by those who might disregard their intended use. However, starting an important conversation about how we talk about trauma, online and off, is worthwhile. Meg Barker offers some great examples of where to go from here:

  • “Making clear that content/trigger warnings are about giving people the opportunity to consider when and how they engage with material, rather than encouraging them to avoid anything potentially painful or difficult.

  • Recognising that it is impossible to predict all possible triggers and perhaps engaging groups in also thinking about what individuals and communities can do when people are triggered.

  • Acknowledging both that everybody has triggers and traumas and that there are differences in experiences, particularly depending on how we are located within intersecting oppressions (not all trauma is equal)

  • Making trigger/content warnings part of a wider move towards cultures of consent, and acknowledgement of imperfection and vulnerability, rather than seeing them as any kind of singular quick fix solution.”

Dismissing trigger warnings is too easy. We have to keep doing the hard work of talking about trauma, the hurt that our culture doles out, and how to talk about it all. If you’re doing that work, then you’re probably doing it right.


*It may be worth noting that I may be aggrandizing what Jarvie was saying by drawing connections to Jack’s critique of trigger warnings via neoliberalism (see his
work for more details), but I think the basic argument is similar. It comes down to the fact that trigger warnings are personal and distracting and Not Social Justice Activism.

Filed under The Body is Not An Apology trigger warnings tw use of trigger warnings arguments against trigger warnings

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Disarming Discourse: The Case Against Trigger Warnings - Part 1

by Megan Ryland


There has been a rush to be offended by trigger warnings in the mainstream media lately. You can find articles exploring the topic (oh so very many examples) from Slate to the New Republic to Al Jazeera America, and that’s just the first page on Google. What I find most frustrating about the recent attention paid to trigger warnings is that there should be an ongoing conversation (among friends and communities and in mainstream media) about how to communicate difficult and potentially traumatizing information. Unfortunately, I’m not always seeing evidence of the kind of critical engagement that would actually be helpful.

I first heard about the backlash against trigger warnings on the NPR podcast On the Media, where they essentially dismissed the idea. You can listen here or read the transcript of the episode here (or do yourself a favour and skip it). It really captures the dismissiveness often seen in some of the recent criticism of trigger warnings.

The first bad sign was that the article employs the super cute and very common trick of opening with a ‘trigger warning.’ I put it in scare quotes because they aren’t using trigger warnings in the spirit of the concept; they are using it to try to demonstrate how pointless and overly sensitive trigger warning requests are. Can I take a piece seriously when it opens with a dismissively intoned, “The segment you’re about to hear contains fleeting references to disturbing topics, such as ageism, rape, homophobia, mental illness and colonialism. If the acknowledgement of the existence of any of these issues upsets you, please turn down your radio. Okay? Consider that your trigger warning.”

(I think it’s the “Okay?” that gets me.)

I viscerally reject the presumption that those people requesting a trigger warning are weak and silly - presumed here to not be able to ‘handle’ being upset by “fleeting references” - and therefore they are summarily dismissed from the conversation about trigger warnings. The point of trigger warnings isn’t to lock people out of conversations, but to let them know what kind of conversation they are entering. It allows someone to evaluate themselves and determine whether they would like to participate, with full knowledge of the topics at hand. But I digress. What has Jenny Jarvie got to say about trigger warnings?

“In my mind, there’s no rational basis for applying trigger warnings because there’s no objective measure of why it’s a potential harm. Of course, words can be powerful and they can inspire very intense reactions, but we react to these words in different ways…I think it really makes more sense to understand the trigger warning as part of a growing ritual of offense-taking.”

One of these “different ways” we react is flashbacks and panic attacks. Just saying. Although trigger warnings cannot be in place for each trigger, personalized for each listener, they can be implemented in a way that is reasonable and measured. Graphic depictions of violence, bigotry, abuse, suicide… these are common things to warn for, and they are not mysterious or difficult to anticipate. The easy dismissal of trigger warnings as irrational arguably sidesteps a much more nuanced discussion to be had about the utility of trigger warnings. To me, this kind of piece isn’t really addressing the issue of trigger warnings; it’s whining about the perceived whining of trigger warnings.

Let me be clear. Trigger warnings were not created to facilitate whining. Have they been implemented imperfectly? Yes. Can they be used to excuse someone from engaging in uncomfortable conversations, when a briefly uncomfortable conversation might benefit that person in some way? Certainly. However, personally, I don’t think that the misuse of something should be the sole measure of that tool.

My largest frustration with this piece, and the many like it, is that I’ve heard good reasons not to use trigger warnings. Do you know who those reasonable objections have come from? Mostly people who have experienced some of the things that often receive warnings (sexual assault, child abuse, eating disorders, racism, bigotry). Go figure, but some of these people have insights into this issue, not that you could tell from much of the mainstream coverage. It seems rare to ask those people who trigger warnings are trying to support whether they are successful; the media seem to be interested only in talking to people who don’t like trigger warnings, or occasionally someone who does like them—abstractly. Unfortunately, for some people triggers are more than abstract concepts.

See part 2 for exploration of criticism that deserves more thought.


Filed under The Body is Not An Apology trigger warnings tw Jenny Jarvie NPR On the Media

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Warning: Contents May… (Trigger)

by Megan Ryland


[Image: Yellow triangular sign with black lettering. It reads “! TW,” a common shortened form of the term “trigger warning.”]


Trigger warnings are becoming part of modern conversation. You’ve probably seen them around at the beginning of articles or in tags on Tumblr, sometimes shortened to “tw.” They seem to be having a ‘moment’ right now—something that reportedly started gathering steam in anti-violence and social justice spheres online has moved into general internet spaces and is now entering offline content and conversation. This trend is bringing renewed attention and scrutiny to the use of trigger warnings as a conversational alert system for content that people might find triggering.

You may be intimately familiar with the idea of trigger warnings, but this week I want to take a step back and take a second look at trigger warnings. Starting from the basics, moving to arguments against them, and then looking at the big picture, I hope that by the end of the week, it’s clear why writers at The Body is Not An Apology use trigger warnings, and why you might want to start using them too (if you don’t already).

The first important question to answer is, “What is a trigger?” Well, a trigger can theoretically be anything and people often have triggers that are unique to them. Some people are triggered by smells, or a familiar feature, or a certain phrase, all of which may be difficult to control or avoid.  That fact may make trigger warnings seem useless, as you cannot possibly warn for everything that could act as a trigger. But instead of throwing our hands up in the air, we can warn for certain items.

Kyriarchy and Privilege, a tumblr with a lot of social justice resources, has a pretty comprehensive list of common trigger warnings, to be found here. If you’re familiar with tumblr, you’re probably familiar with trigger warnings like those for rape, abuse, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide, drug use and many others. The Body is Not An Apology frequently makes use of them.

If you’ve never been triggered by something, you may not quite understand the purpose of the warnings. Being triggered isn’t something that people have come up with to force others to be politically correct or tiptoe around conversations. The term describes an actual, powerful experience for many people and is used by those who have experienced trauma, sexual assault, bigotry, child abuse, PTSD or other events. According to 1 in 6, being triggered brings your past trauma rapidly to the present, potentially causing intense stress, anxiety, flashbacks, sudden fear or anger. Shakesville features a more extensive definition:

A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.

Those of us who write about triggering topics (sexual assault, violence, detainee torture, war crimes, disordered eating, suicide, etc.) provide trigger warnings with such content because we don’t want to inadvertently cause someone who’s, say, sitting at her desk at work, a full-blown panic attack because she happened to read a triggering post the content of which she was unprepared for.”

As mentioned, you cannot always anticipate what might trigger someone. In my opinion, that’s not an excuse to dismiss the idea of anticipating the experiences of your listener or audience. We actually do this all the time in other ways, whether that’s gauging someone’s sense of humour or whether right now is the best time to ask for a favour. The reality is that in a room of ten people, someone has likely experienced violence first hand. Accepting that we are collectively responsible for caring for our community, even and especially those who might need support or accommodation to feel comfortable, is part of practicing social justice.

I cannot claim to have been triggered in the way that some people experience it, but I still appreciate trigger warnings, as they allow me to make an informed choice about the content I’m ready to dive into. It’s rare that a trigger warning dissuades me from reading a piece, but it does prepare me for what I’m about to read in a way that I appreciate. On days where I’m tired or I’m already down, I might bookmark the page and read it later.

This is the informed consent aspect of the trigger warning. The warning arguably offers readers, listeners or watchers an opportunity to opt into the material. Instead of demanding that someone participate in a conversation where you set the terms and catch them unawares, you are asking them to participate in a conversation of shared interest. With a trigger warning you’re putting a few more cards on the table so that someone knows a little more about what they’re getting into. It’s not asking a speaker to tiptoe or stay silent. It’s asking them to allow others to enter as informed participants, ready to engage with the material.

Words and images are not as harmless as some people would like to believe. New research suggests that some journalists exposed continually to violent images and stories may develop symptoms of PTSD without exposure to the violent events themselves. We all know from experience that some things can bring us back vividly to an intense memory—maybe that’s a smell reminding you of your grandma or a song bringing you back to prom night. Now imagine that this vivid memory was attached to something that you’d rather not re-live at the drop of a hat. It only seems considerate to give someone a heads up if that might happen.

For me, a trigger warning is a small gesture for those who may not understand what it’s like to be triggered but care about those who do. We are all a part of a culture that incorporates violence, and this violence has an impact on members of this culture; therefore, we are all implicated in that. Trigger warnings ask us to remember that we approach content differently and to care for one another. Used as an alert for content, trigger warnings don’t censor or shut down conversation; they open up conversation to those who need support to feel safe to engage, and they allow informed participation in topics that can be rough to discuss. By taking responsibility for your own content through trigger warnings, you don’t ask people to apologize for their experiences or their triggers. You anticipate what’s required to open the space to as many people as possible and do what little you can.

Filed under the body is not an apology trigger warnings tw compassionate community activism social justice online communication

97 notes

Sensory Overload and Self-Diagnosis

by West Anderson, Content Writer


Source: Vimeo

[Image description: A close up drawing of a young boy’s face, colored orange with swirls or yellow, pink, green and blue over it. His eyes are screwed shut in pain and his hands are pressed over his ears.]

I’ve always been an introvert – someone who recharges by being alone rather than drawing energy from spending time with others. But in the past year, I’ve noticed a worrisome pattern in my life that, for a while, I couldn’t find the cause of. If I pushed myself past my limits, even a little bit – by agreeing to a babysitting job, or an outing with friends, or just going outside and dealing with the busy world when I didn’t really feel able – it would lead to an emotional and physical meltdown. And my limits were really low. It was incredibly frustrating to feel that I couldn’t do the average amount of things I saw other people accomplishing in their day-to-day lives. When I pushed myself to try to do the “normal” amount of things other people accomplish without issue – working a part-time job, seeing friends more than twice a month, going out for drinks or to complete much-needed errands – I would exhaust my body to the point where I could, without fail, predict getting a cold.

I felt lost and scared about my own body. My low threshold for activity didn’t seem normal, but I couldn’t find any words to describe it that made it seem valid. I told myself I must just be lazy and avoiding expanding my comfort zones. Maybe I just needed to try harder to be around people and wash my hands constantly to avoid catching colds? Finally, I brought up what I was feeling with my mom, and she suggested I could be dealing with sensory sensitivity issues, something she was diagnosed with herself. I took the sensory processing test that she got from an occupational therapist, and found that I scored as “more sensitive than most people” and “much more sensitive than most people” in every category.

Once I realized that I am indeed more sensitive to sensory input than average, I started writing down everything I could think of that I have trouble with. Putting together a picture of my various sensory issues was helpful in letting me see what specific things were driving me to such painful meltdowns.

I found that visual and auditory input were the most tiring, with touch being a challenge too.

When it comes to touch, I pull myself inward when I am in public to keep a large bubble of personal space around myself at all times. I have, since a young age, become anxious when walking around in public, avoiding entering people’s personal space by walking on the edge of the curb or in the road, pulling myself inward, tensing, and speedwalking or weaving through groups of people on a sidewalk in order to get away from them and the anxiety being near them causes me.

Visually, I get overwhelmed when there is too much input for me to handle. Being in a crowd of people is tiring because of the constantly changing visual stream, in addition to the auditory input from many conversations and trying to maintain the “proper” personal distance from others. Large stores are exhausting because I feel the need to look at everything in a given aisle or section, which often means I spend a long time cataloging everything I see in three of four large sections in a store. I don’t avoid large stores because I like shopping and I like looking at all the things, but I am exhausted after I leave them. Grocery stores take me a long time, even when I have a list of what I’m getting. If I don’t have a list, it takes me much longer to find what I want.

With auditory input, if there is more than one conversation going on at once, I can’t focus on one well enough to hear and understand everything that is said. It takes a lot of mental energy to listen and understand people fully. Often if I’m in an environment with multiple sources of noise or overlapping conversations, I have to either leave for somewhere quieter, ask the sources to be quieter, or close myself off and not respond to any of them. If I’ve been doing a lot of work hearing, I have to leave and seek out a quieter space or be alone to recover.

The worst situation I was in recently was going to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on the Fourth of July. Five minutes after I got there, I had to leave. The crush of people, fireworks going off not a hundred feet away with no warning, the traffic, and the noise – I ended up tensed and crying and covering my ears all the way home in the car.



[Image description: An outline of a blue face in profile with a cloud where the brain would be. Tendrils are coming out to connect to pictures that surround the face of a hand for touch, an eye for sight, a mouth for sound, a nose for smelling, and an ear for hearing.]

Auditory and visual input are almost always occurring together, and depending on the amount of things going on visually (a group of people, items in a store, cars) and the accompanying audio (people talking all at once, me having to find the right words to say and appear focused and interested in the discussion with my eyes, a sudden bang from outside, road construction), it can quickly become exhausting and my ability to handle it all gets depleted.

If I have done too much in a given day or week, the result is often a meltdown that can sometimes feel like a panic attack. I have to rest and let my body recover by taking it easy and doing very little for the next few days. For a while this winter, if I did even one thing over my limit, I would get sick for a week.

I’m struggling to feel that these issues really do apply to me, and that it’s okay for me to take these terms and apply them to myself. I feel like I need a doctor to prove that I do indeed deserve to use these labels. But the process of being referred to a doctor who can help me is proving to be a very slow one. So until then, I feel trapped in a limbo between feeling that I shouldn’t apply these terms to myself until I get a professional diagnosis and needing these terms and ideas to help me get through my day-to-day life. It is a relief to find there is a way to describe what I am experiencing, and that it is okay to take care of myself and respect my limits. Searching for information about sensory overload led me to helpful information about how to deal with sensory meltdowns and avoid them. It also helped me to stop beating myself up about my different needs and limits and to start asking for support and accommodations when I needed them.

Recently, I was babysitting for a family. I was playing Monopoly with two eleven-year-old kids while a five-year-old tried to join in, while the mom was talking to a neighbor right next to us, while Spanish music was playing. Once the game was over, the kids headed outside to play tag. Knowing that I was about to push myself past my limits, I explained to the mom that I needed a break from all the input because I have problems with sensory overload. She was very understanding and gave me food and a quiet place to relax before I headed out to play with the kids again. It was one of the first times I didn’t push myself past my limits because of my desire to keep up with everyone else. And it was really amazing to have my needs heard and respected!

In addition to advocating for myself and resting when I need to, I also learned about joint traction and compression as ways to combat sensory overload. Now when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lift weights or have one of my partners pull on my arms and legs, which helps immensely. It’s a big relief to have concrete things I can do to lessen sensory overload.

I’m hoping that through therapy, I will be able to pinpoint what my limits are in my body so I can know when to stop doing something. It is difficult for me to know when I am past my limit for a given sense. I am getting better at it, but the pressure to push myself to go to a social event, to work, or to do an errand or chore is intense. Often, if I’m not already way past my limit, I think that it will be okay. But it never is, so I want to learn where my limits are better. I want to honor them and stop hurting my body.

Filed under sensory overload sensory processing disorder spd sensory sensitivity the body is not an apology west anderson

78 notes

Leaving the Land Called Girl: My Gender Journey

by West Anderson, Content Writer


[Image description: One of several symbols used to denote “transgender”. A solid black outline of the venus symbol for female, which is a circle with a cross coming out of the bottom. The arrow of the mars symbol for male is coming out of the top right of the circle, and an arrow with a perpendicular line running through it is coming out of the top left side of the circle.]

Hi. I’m West, and I’m non-binary. I also use the label transgender.

Transgender (trans): Identifying with a gender different than the one assigned to you at birth.

Cisgender (cis): Identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth.

Non-binary: Not identifying within the male/female gender binary.

I was introduced to the wide world of gender in my first year of college, thanks to my hallway’s Resident Assistant. Ze is bigender and uses ze/zir/zirs as pronouns. (So, instead of saying “I saw him,” or “I saw her,” I would say, “I saw zir.”) Meeting zir and learning about non-binary genders from zir was like a revelation. In the next few months, I learned all I could about the transgender community. I had always been very interested and involved in the LGBT community as an ally, but the more I learned, the more I started to wonder whether there was a reason I was so drawn to this community.

During that first year in college, I also began detoxing from high school, where I had been forcefully taught how to be properly feminine. By the end of high school, I had grown out my hair from the pixie cut I had loved as a fifteen-year-old, and I owned a wide array of women’s clothing I found incredibly uncomfortable to wear. After half a year at UC Santa Cruz, the hair was cut off. Clothes from the men’s section were bought, one T-shirt at a time. I very nervously began looking more androgynous, and when the world didn’t collapse – in fact, when no one seemed to mind at all – I started to realize how much better I felt presenting this way. And I began to wonder what it meant to be a girl.

Of course, shifting my presentation to be more masculine didn’t automatically mean I was transgender. There are many masculine women and feminine men and people in between who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Pink is not actually just for girls, and blue is not automatically only for boys. Breaking gender rules is a pretty common phenomenon, which goes to show how fake and malleable the categories we consider “boy” and “girl” really are.

But as I changed how I presented, I began to wonder what being a girl meant to me. I remember one conversation I had with my mom while we were walking around Berkeley. I’d been contemplating my gender for a month or so, and was talking about it with her. She asked me, “Do you feel like a boy?” Immediately I replied, “No. But I don’t know what it means to feel like a girl either.”

I didn’t know I was trans from a young age. I played with Barbies and wore dresses. I also played with plastic dinosaurs and toy cars. But I spent the majority of my life firmly believing I was a straight cis girl. (Look at me now, mom!) It’s only when I started poking my history with a stick that things began to fall out.

When I look back at my childhood self, I see a kid who wasn’t concerned at all with gender or clothing. I wore baggy tie-dye shirts and colorful band-aids. I played around with makeup when my friend’s sister gave us makeovers. I ran around with my shirt off for as long as I possibly could, because I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Then I hit high school, and switched from being homeschooled to going to a small private school. For the first couple of years, I wore what I pleased, and there were some pretty wonderfully weird outfits involved. I cut my hair short because I had been wanting to since I was ten or eleven.

Then I became close friends with someone who “taught” me how to stop doing all the things I was doing “wrong” with my presentation and my gender. It wasn’t just her – the pressure to be feminine, and especially to be feminine in order to attract the attention of boys, came from all directions. But the worst of it was from her.

Over and over, she picked at things about my body and my presentation: my short hair, my tiny chest, my boyish face. I looked like a man or a lesbian, she said, and she let me know it wasn’t a good thing. She drilled into me that I didn’t know how to dress myself properly or do makeup properly, and that I had better let her teach me if I ever wanted to look good. To look good was the most important thing there was. So I grew my hair out, wore skirts and shirts that were really uncomfortable to me, and did my makeup every day.

When I got to college, I was still following these rules, even though the friendship had broken up. I was so afraid that people wouldn’t think I was pretty, and therefore wouldn’t like me, unless I was feminine. The decision to cut my hair short again took months and a good long talk from my now-partner Sequoia. I can’t believe how frightened I was that people would think I was ugly or dislike me if I looked masculine. The first time I bought a pair of boxers, it took me twenty minutes to work up the courage to go to the cash register. I thought for sure the cashier would say something or look at me funny. I had a line about how they were for a friend planned out in my head. The person said nothing, and I walked away unscathed.

It’s really shocking to me to look back on the fears I had as I began to change my presentation from more feminine to more masculine. On the whole, masculine people who were assigned female at birth don’t face as much backlash as feminine people who were assigned male at birth. Trans women, and especially trans women of color, face incredible violence for being who they are. As a white AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) person, I encounter none of the violence and discrimination that I see trans women and AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) trans people facing. I’m very privileged to not face the harassment and violence that are directed at trans women daily.

Yet I kept expecting something bad to happen as I began to transition. The message that I had to be feminine to be likable had been so cemented into my head in high school that I kept waiting for people to abandon me, to not like me anymore, to not want to associate with me. Thankfully, starting college at a school 3,000 miles away from my high school, I discovered that the things I had been taught as a teenager were not how most people thought. I met incredible, wonderful people who liked me just as I was, however I chose to be. It surprised me for months that people liked the way I was changing. It was a huge confidence booster, and a lot of growth that was halted in high school happened in a huge burst in the new supportive environment I was in.

Despite this support, the decision to come out as non-binary was terrifying. So far, people hadn’t turned their backs on me as I broke the rules of Girlhood I had been taught, but what would they think when I started asking for strange new terms to be applied to me? For weird new pronouns that didn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “him” or “her”? I felt like I wasn’t really trans, that my feelings weren’t real, that the terms I wanted used for me were fake and silly.


Source: Storenvy

[Image description: A set of six pronoun stickers in the style of red “Hello my name is” stickers. These particular stickers read “Hello address me as,” then contain a blank spot for a name to be written on, and on the bottom have different pronouns on each sticker. The red one says “Please use: They, Them, Theirs,” the orange one says “Please use: He, Him, His,” the yellow one has a blank spot to fill in one’s own pronouns, the green one has “Please use: She, Her, Hers,” the blue one has “Please use: Ze, Hir, Hirs,” and the purple one has “Please use, Xe, Xem, Xyrs”.]

But the need to be referred to and seen in a way that made me comfortable was stronger than my fears of what people would think. So I came out to my hallway, to my Facebook friends, and to my family. I got a lot of support, which was wonderful, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was very difficult for my childhood friends to start referring to me by a different name and pronouns, and although most of them meant well, it felt like a punch to the gut every time they called me the wrong name or the wrong pronouns. Having to come out again and again is still something I struggle with. If I find the courage to tell someone new who I am, not knowing how they’ll react, I also have to find the courage to correct them every single time they get my pronouns wrong, which is usually many, many times per conversation. This was – and is – hugely anxiety inducing for me, and often the easiest route is to give up and let them misgender me. It makes it difficult to create new friendships or be myself in old ones.

After I came out, I began presenting as even more masculine. I knew then to some extent (and it’s obvious to me now) that it was an attempt to make my gender seem more valid to outsiders. It was hard for me to exist in a non-binary space that no one knew about, and so my solution was to at least try to get people to assume I was a boy, rather than a girl. But trying to pass as male was terribly stressful, and I didn’t enjoy it beyond the satisfaction that came from being a way that I had been taught I shouldn’t be. Being a boy was not my real desire, and it never fit well. I began to head towards a space that was neither boy or girl, but sometimes both masculine and feminine. However my presentation changes, I still find that I can’t connect my looks, my body, my brain, to a binary gender. So I live in an unnamed place, wearing what I like and looking good doing it.

My gender journey has not been a solid progression from a point A to a point B. It’s been a looping, curling journey with few sign posts and no GPS. If I had not heard of non-binary identities, I might still be comfortable in the land called Girl, although I probably would have moved towards a more butch girlness for my own mental health. Despite my moving away from the things I was taught I had to do in high school, I do still like being feminine, and I own a bunch of pretty dresses. But when I put them on and put makeup on, I do it the way I want to, for me. Not for anyone else’s approval or benefit. Not by anyone else’s definition of what I “must” do to be a certain gender. The great thing about learning about this stuff we call gender was that I found terms and identities and ways of being that made me feel more comfortable in my body. I’m a lot happier with myself today being non-binary then I ever was identifying as cisgender.

Filed under non binary transgender genderqueer the body is not an apology west anderson