A Day Late for Coming Out / Day of the Girl

(Same topic as / a follow-up to this post from a couple years back!)

In my tweens and teens, in the age of getting onto the Internet via AOL, I discovered that online anonymity meant I could be a girl in cyberspace. So I did, for a while! I had some lady personae I still think fondly of to this day. But the relentless scrutiny this invited burned me out, so I eventually abandoned the thought. It was not until much, much later that I realized this was unusual for a dude to want to do in the first place.

In those same high school years I wrote a poem that, reading it now, sounds like a transgender cry for help. It features a woman trapped in a cage that represents a male identity. But back then I didn’t even know the word “transgender”. If I had, it would have been taboo at best; I was at that point attending Catholic schools and 100% receptive to what they taught on such things.

If the Internet had continued to develop in the direction of anyonymity rather than that of personal exposure, maybe I’d still have the option of such experimentations, and I’d probably go for it! Instead I just roleplay female characters in games with some regularity.

Thing is, I don’t think it fair to consider myself transgender. I have 95% of cis privilege. I don’t experience dysphoria looking at my body. I just… think it’d be awesome to be Ranma Saotome? And would be in girlmode most of the time if I were? If gender transition were easy, I’d seriously consider it.

Is it possible to be “just a little bit transgender”?

Gently, subtly, wistfully genderqueer?

Is there a word for that?

I posted a version of the above first on toot.cat, and an insightful user there suggested “demigirl”. Per the Gender Wiki, the term “can… describe someone assigned male at birth who is transfeminine but not wholly binary-identified, so that they feel more strongly associated with ‘female’ than ‘male,’ socially or physically, but not strongly enough to want to identify as as [sic] a woman.” I’d say I teeter on the edge between that and the male counterpart, “demiboy“, which “can be used to describe someone assigned male at birth who feels barely connected or disconnected to that identification, but does not experience a significant enough dissociation to create real physical discomfort or dysphoria.

As an aside, I used to be one of those bewildered by and a bit skeptical of recent decades’ proliferation of gender terminology. But having gone through this bit of searching, I’ve come to understand the value of it. Genders are weird artificial things to begin with, but it’s comforting–and useful for dialogue–to be able to find a label and say “it me!” Funky genders are nothing more nor less than a quest to find or create a term concisely describing a complicated relationship with one’s body, feelings, and the expectations of society.

So yes! I’m demigender. This… probably doesn’t mean much to anyone but me! I don’t even know what it changes for me, on a day-to-day level. You don’t need to adjust your pronouns. I’m still a dudely-looking person. But if you do happen to refer to me with feminine language (“she,” “sister,” whatever), far from being insulted or offended, I’d actually be rather charmed!

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The Ones Who Walk Away

At some point in my schooling–high school or college, I can’t recall anymore–I received an assignment to read Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If you like thought-provoking short stories and don’t like spoilers, I suggest taking a moment aside to read it before proceeding further! (CW: child abuse.)

The story describes a utopian city. People there live in joyful leisure, their every need provided for, never suffering more than the slightest knocks of ill fortune. There is but one catch: to sustain this perfection, Omelas keeps an innocent child imprisoned in abject squalor, fed greasy gruel and sometimes kicked for good measure. Every citizen of Omelas knows that the prisoner is there, and that if they are ever released, Omelas’s prosperity will end. Some few members of the city decide that they can not live under such a cruel bargain, and depart for the unknown lands beyond the mountains: the titular ones who walk away.

In the class, we examined Le Guin’s story as a thought exercise about utilitarianism. Do you find Omelas’s arrangement acceptable, as a utilitarian calculation might suggest? Or would you leave the city, believing that no amount of bliss could justify brutalizing a child? Self-righteous as I was (am?), I wrote my little essay response saying of course I would walk away. I couldn’t bear participating in an injustice like that.

It was a thought experiment, a hypothetical, an abstract what-if. I didn’t apply it to my own life. I didn’t stop to think: this is Omelas. I’m living there right now.

Whatever my struggles with money or productivity or mental health, I have it pretty good. I have a house, and food, and the endless entertainments of the Internet. I live (for now?) in a representative democracy where I can freely choose my religion, my friends, my self-expression.

And every one of those privileges is built upon exploitation and injustice.

The land my house rests upon belonged to the First Nations before white settlers seized it. I own the house thanks to a system of city and suburb, mortgage and credit score, that segregates white from black and rich from poor. Beneath even that is the dollar itself, token in the grand lottery of circumstance that randomly decides some people should have more of the good things in life than others, while lying that they “earned” it. The Internet, for all that it was supposed to save us by making information available to all, thrives by turning people’s attention, dreams, and relationships into data to be mined for profit. Its algorithms will happily tell you the Holocaust never happened, and the creators of those algorithms are okay with this. Our ever-worshiped democracy deploys military force against unarmed people and has selected a xenophobic rapist for its highest office.

I’ve seen the prisoner in the cellar. And yet here I still am, enjoying the Festival of Summer.

From a very early age, when I was sharply punished for saying “bad words” I parroted from my parents, I have been a fastidious follower of rules. It was many years before I would so much as jaywalk. And yet I have also always had a churning transgressive streak. I grew up near the St. Louis Arena. For the years when it lay empty, I daydreamed of trespassing there, wandering its deserted corridors and locker rooms. In college I got to toy with this dream of urban exploration by hiking through a ruined brick factory and learning the basics of parkour. Later I became a proponent of free culture in defiance of copyright. Most recently, I have taken an interest in antifas and cop watchers who stand up to hatred and unjust power in ways that are not always polite, tidy, or legal.

It seems I’m more primed for this than I’d have realized. How, then, can I walk away?

Hardcore anarchism would counsel me to literally walk away–abandon my house, my job, my marriage, and live in free and open defiance of all systems of control. I don’t think that’s me either, though. I can’t embrace the kind of nihilistic relativism that would condone so viciously hurting the people I care most about, as a middle finger to systems they didn’t ask to be a part of any more than I did.

But there are other things I can walk away from. I think I’m done with voting as a means of social change; it’s useless when your vote will just be gerrymandered, machine-errored, and Electoral-Colleged into irrelevance. And even the best possible politicians, like beloved St. Bernard, are more than willing to bow to the incoming kleptocrat-in-chief if it might help get their pet projects accomplished. Better to clog the phone lines and block the streets to make one’s desires heard.

I’ve already observed that video games etc. conspire to dull the mind and keep us from reaching our full potential. What then if I walked away from that? I’m forming a plan to live 2017 free from social media (other than blogs like this) and video gaming. I spend hundreds of hours on those things; if I dedicated all that time to writing, design, and social action, what might I achieve? If my leisure were occupied with reading instead of matching sets of three colored gems, what might I learn?

Will you walk with me out of Omelas? How?

In Trump’s America

I realize I’ve been resharing and retweeting, but I haven’t spoken up with a clear picture of what I’m thinking or feeling in my own words. Here’s an attempt to amend that: where I am and how I got there.

In the Democratic primary, I voted for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. My dreams for the future of the United States include such things as guaranteed basic income, total reliance on sustainable energy sources, and universal healthcare. Sanders talked openly of moving the country in that direction, and thereby earned my vote. It pleased and excited me when he won the state in which I voted.

As the primary continued, however, I grew disillusioned. Sanders exhibited a broken-record tendency to reiterate his domestic economic agenda when questioned on other topics. He seemed not to have a clear idea of how he would implement the changes he espoused. He displayed a startling indifference to the particular concerns of women and people of color, for whom economic inequality is bound up in deeper systems of oppression. He enacted sexist microaggressions on camera during his speeches and failed to disavow the misogyny among his supporters. When he suffered a setback or loss, he grew petty and turned to conspiracy-theorizing. I came to the conclusion that while he made an admirable Senator, he would be a poor President.

Reluctantly, then, I turned my attention to the candidate I’d at first wanted Sanders to defeat: Hillary Clinton. I started reading the blogs of a few of Hillary’s supporters, wondering how they could be enthusiastic about her in the face of her corporate ties, her warmongering, etc. I discovered there that many of the hateful things my liberal friends said about her originated in Republican smear campaigns long since debunked. I learned about the numerous liberal causes Clinton had fought for in her long career. I watched as Clinton made missteps on the topic of race, but accepted criticism and corrected her course. Above all I read and listened to the advice of women and people of color, who exhorted an approach of voting for Clinton, but holding her accountable and supporting or opposing her on an issue-by-issue basis. My mind was changed!

Between the primaries and the general election, we had a summer of terrible violence inflicted on people of color by the police. Angry and despairing, I asked my Facebook feed what I could do to help the situation. Friendly advice directed me to a local Unitarian Universalist congregation active in social justice issues. I began attending meetings and services there, learning more about our culture of white supremacy and what I, as a white person, could do to combat it. As Donald Trump continued to gain support in a campaign with an openly racist agenda, the need for concrete action felt more intense than ever. On November 6, the Sunday before the election, I officially joined Unitarian Universalism.

Then the disaster we’re still reeling from occurred: Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Pundits, pollsters, and ordinary people alike have since put forth a hundred explanations for how this could have happened, laid blame at the feet of a hundred different scapegoats. But in the context of my growing understanding of racist America, I am thus far convinced that the overwhelming cause was white supremacy. And I mean that only in part as the white-hood-wearing, swastika-tattooed image that no doubt jumps to mind at the phrase—that was involved here, no doubt, but white supremacy is not always so cartoonishly villainous. White supremacy acts in the indifference of voters to the suffering women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, etc. etc. will face (indeed, are already experiencing) as the result of this election outcome. It acts in the Electoral College, subtly devised to ensure that Black votes weigh less than others. It acts in the 2013 rulings that gutted the Voting Rights Act, and the voter suppression laws that followed. We have been a country of racial hatred since we first pillaged Native lands to found it; that fact only took a new form this election week.

To my friends and family who voted for Trump: I am furious with you. The victory of your chosen candidate has already hurt me and people I care about, and will continue to have horrific repercussions for those same people and the rest of the world. I dare say you probably won’t come out the better for it either. If you want my trust again, if you care at all for my well-being and that of this nation, I hope you change course and stand in resistance against the totalitarian state that Donald Trump promises to found.

To my friends and family who voted third-party or refrained from voting despite being able: I am disappointed in you. I understand your reasons; I have heard your disaffection with the current system and your hope for a better option. I do not blame you for this terrible event, but I am deeply saddened that you chose not to help prevent it. I beg you, make good on your hopes and ideals by fighting tooth and nail to protect the freedoms of marginalized people in this regime of hate.

To my friends and family who voted for Clinton, whether affirmatively or reluctantly: I thank you. It may not have been the best possible option among imaginable worlds, but it was the right one when the time came. Let’s commit to driving this nation toward equality by means beyond the vote, and show Donald Trump that while his malicious vision may be the America we have now, it need not and will not be the America we live in for ever!

Tactical Fatalism

(Content notes: This post will cover some bleak stuff. Donald Trump, political apathy, plausible apocalyptic scenarios, existential dread, religious belief or the lack thereof, etc. It’s also got an Undertale spoiler. If that’s likely to bum you out beyond your spare cope, might best pass this on by.)

This strange and dramatic election season, combined with my spending a bit more time on social media sites than usual, has prompted me to think hard about my voting decisions. In particular, conversations with a friend of mine, who’s a diehard Bernie Sanders fan of the “Never Hillary” persuasion, have made me ponder justifications for choices that had previously been reflexive.

Back in my days of unflinching Catholicism, I obediently followed the Church’s voting recommendations: vote for whoever would protect the rights of the unborn. A single-issue voter, you’d call it. At first, I took this to mean supporting the head-of-the-pack Republican of the moment. Later, grappling with the fact that Republicans had a love of unjust war, I went with a third-party protest vote like “Average Joe” Schriner. Even then, I knew that such a vote would not put the tiny underdog in the White House–but it felt good to cast a vote whose target compromised as few of my values as possible.

Today, not only have I discarded the narrow “pro-life” agenda, but I’ve come to accept the inevitability, and to some extent value, of tactical voting. I’ve made my peace with choosing the lesser of evils, in other words. I would have loved to see Bernie Sanders attain the Presidency, but given how clear it is that’s not going to happen, I am quite content to support Hillary Clinton instead.

You fool! cry the Sandernauts; By capitulating, you shore up a corrupt and unjust system! If we consent to support a candidate who is merely less horrible than the alternative, we will never see a truly great candidate succeed. And if we are to right the course of the United States and the world, we need a truly great President! Turn back, and cast your vote for the best choice, even if you know it will fail–it will pave the way for the future!

Well. Here’s where it gets bleak.

I’m convinced we don’t even have time to play the long game.

Humanity has always been on a clock. All things are finite. It was only ever a question of how long we had, and what our doom would look like once it materialized. Over the last few centuries, we have chosen our apocalypse, and like Robert Frost, we have held with those who favor fire. Or, at least, slow cooking. I mean, of course, global warming.

There is too much momentum to the problem of greenhouse-gas-driven worldwide temperature increase for us to stop it. For that we would have needed to change course, dramatically, long before I was born. We can perhaps hope to slow the process unto the second or third derivative*, but no more. I may not believe in the worst-case projections that posit the collapse of human civilization within fifteen years; but I would be not at all surprised if at least some members of my generation live to see it happen.

Even if we elected the grandest unicorn ever to grace the political stage; even if, evidence to the contrary aside, that unicorn is Bernie Sanders; the magic horn would not erase countless billions of tons of carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. We are fucked no matter whom we put in charge of the United States executive branch.

I do admire the optimists. There is something beautiful about Papyrus, having refused to raise a hand against a genocidal player, saying with his dying words that he still believes in them. It’s one reason I still hold out hope that religious truth might exist, despite lacking the conviction to call myself a believer: I want to think we all have a second chance. For all that it’s hopeless, I support efforts to buy a little more time for Earth via green power, emissions reduction, etc. etc. Confronted with the dying of the light, I am pro-rage.

But for now, I cannot stomach choosing a path of short-term harm for long-term idealism, because I don’t think there’s much “long term” left for it to take fruition in. We may have only a few decades; I want my friends to be able to live with a little less hate, a little more freedom, a little more happiness in that period. I thus cannot cast my one vote, my infinitesimal scrap of democratic power, in such a way that would empower the likes of Donald Trump. Maybe Clinton won’t do as much as Sanders would to slow our inexorable descent into apocalypse, but that’s OK. She will, at least, not plunge us into an immediate maelstrom of xenophobic hatred, and that’s good enough for my conscience.


* That is to say, we can’t stop the world from getting hotter; but we may be able to help it get hotter slower or, failing that, reduce the acceleration of its getting hotter. I credit my older brother, a math professor, for my even having retained this concept from high school calculus.

Dogism

I wasn’t much of a dog person until I met my wife. I’m not the SabreDog, you know! Since becoming the owner of two lovely canines, though, I have endeavored to be a good dog-parent to the best of my abilities. I’ve learned basic training techniques, picked up quite a bit of knowledge about doggie health and nutrition, and can answer “what kind of dog is that?” regarding our breeds to at least the level of detail you’d find in a casual breed reference book. And I always, always clean up after my dogs when we’re out walking—I endeavor to leave places better than I found them, grabbing up cigarette butts or other trash while I’m at it.

But there’s a street in my neighborhood with several residents who are weirdly twitchy about dog poop. Twice I have had people shout at me to pick up after my dog, when there wasn’t anything to pick up; I’m guessing they saw our Menchi peeing and mistook her squat for something more substantial. And this past weekend, when I was in the very process of picking up after Watson, an older gent stopped his truck in the middle of the street to ask me why I couldn’t just walk my dogs in their own yard. Annoyed and nonplussed, I responded, “So they can get some exercise.” Which is self-evident to anyone who owns a non-sedentary dog in an urban setting, of course. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a dog park within walking distance of your house or apartment, it is unavoidable that your dogs eliminate in some public or private space not your own. Unless, of course, you are willing to sacrifice your dogs’ well-being for the sake of the local dogphobes’ sensibilities. Which is why city ordinances don’t forbid dogs pooping outside their home turf, they simply require that you clean up after them.

That wasn’t enough for truck guy, though. He pulled in down the street (I think he was doing some work on a sidewalk?), such that I ended up passing him again on my way back home. He called out at me again, requesting “a civil word,” which I declined. He proceeded to berate me from across the street, urging me to consider where I got the “entitlement” to take my dogs to do their business outside of my own property.

I didn’t say anything else at that point, but I felt the deepest anger I have in a very long time. Not even the rancorous Internet dramas I’ve occasionally (to my discredit) gotten into over the last couple of years rank up there.

I’m sure a more resilient soul would have shaken their head and thought little more of it, but the incident stuck with me for days afterward. Do I give in to the unpleasantness and avoid that street? Or stand firm, refusing to be bullied when I’ve done nothing wrong? I had a new source of nervousness whenever a vehicle passed me and the dogs: would it be another heckler, unable to mind their own business?

It makes me shudder to think, then, of what that’s like for folks facing deeper bigotry than dog-hate. Someone walking on the “wrong” street while a woman, or black, or trans, faces not just random censure for their law-abiding behavior, but challenges to their right to be there at all, or to so much as exist. As unpleasant as the situation was, I had no reason to fear for my life from this random crank; if I were marginalized in one of those ways, that could be a very real concern.

Self-righteousness never makes the world around it better. What then to do in the face of it? I don’t even know.

All That Sex I Could’ve Had

As might be common for folks who grew up Roman Catholic, my relationship with sexuality was rather twisted, for much of my life. I was preoccupied with obedience to Church teachings, likely more than most of my peers; the Church was preoccupied with teaching me how to approach sex, likely more than most other moral topics. And that approach was little more than “Just Don’t Do It,” at least until such time as you’re married to your lifelong partner (who, for me, would have to be a woman). The virtue of chastity as the Church defined it meant no masturbation, no pornography, no physical intimacy beyond the most platonic of hugs and hand-holds. So I became a horrible sort of chastity crusader, to the point where premarital hanky-panky on others’ parts filled me with righteous rage.

To my friends from those days whom I subjected to one rant or another on the topic: you have my sympathy and regret!

Surprising no one, I found these strictures difficult to obey, despite how fervently I believed in their value. Failures sent me into little spirals of shame. That was trouble enough when the “sin” was mine alone, like perusing some vault of erotica or other, but the impact on my romantic partners had to have been far worse. Whatever intimacy we engaged in beyond the previously-described chaste touches, I would revel in it in the moment, then backpedal with guilt later. I established boundaries, then broke them, then reestablished them, in a terrible cycle. (I can only claim the meager credit that I didn’t lash out at these women for “tempting” me or something, which I understand is not uncommon in some Christian circles. I assumed all the pointless blame, which is problematic enough.) I can only imagine how horrifically frustrating that must have been, from my partners’ perspectives.

To my girlfriends from those days, then: you, too, have my sympathy and regret. It was ultimately for the best that we parted ways, but I treated you badly, and for that I am sorry.

When eventually I fell away from the Church, the realization that I no longer had need to abide by those restrictions came in a slow and surreal awakening. Here I was, the door of adult sexuality open to me as it had been for years, but barely knowing what to expect should I choose to walk through. When I began dating again, I wrote a letter to my new girlfriend warning her of and apologizing in advance for my hangups in sexuality and my relative inexperience. We did all right, thankfully: we got married a little over a year ago, and continue to get along fine, in all respects!

I do wonder sometimes what my maturation would have been like, absent those dubious burnt-in lessons–if, perhaps, I’d grown up under the Liberal Catholic Church instead of the Roman one. A different set of awkward memories and little regrets, no doubt, but probably a healthier path overall. As I continue my search for abiding truths to fill the role that religion once served for me, the matter of sexual morality becomes a crucial criterion. Only those philosophies with a greater emphasis on concepts like consent, tolerance, joy, and exploration than shame and repression make the cut.

CDA 230, Feminism, and Provoking Thought

Earlier this week, freelance social justice writer Arthur Chu penned a piece for TechCrunch calling for the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. For those who aren’t tech law wonks, Section 230 establishes that platforms hosting user-created content are not liable for the things their users create. In other words, if somebody defames you on Facebook, you can sue the person who wrote whatever ugliness it was, but you can’t go after Facebook itself. According to Chu’s observations, the combination of Section 230’s protections plus the overall engagement economy of the Internet has created a cycle of perverse incentive for these platforms to turn a blind eye to abuse. They have no obligation to moderate their content, thanks to Section 230, and because hateful content generates clicks, shares, and ad revenue like any other kind of user content, they would cut into their own profits if they voluntarily shut such things down. So they let it all slide, making the Internet’s best-known content platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.) staging grounds for hate campaigns that ruin lives.

The piece was pretty widely panned. Ken Levine of Popehat argued that far from protecting the targets of abuse Chu intended this measure to help, it would put lots of fresh ammunition in the hands of their attackers. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick pointed out that the civil redress Chu enshrines in his post tends to be abused to shut down marginalized voices far more often than it allows them to score victories over the establishment. Both of those articles spell out several other sound arguments about the problems Section 230 repeal would bring on; hit the links for the full blow-by-blow.

What I find interesting, though, is Chu’s response to the claim that without CDA 230, the Internet as we know it would not exist. The massive surge in liability would make any user-content-hosting platform untenable as a business. To this Chu has said: good! Let those things burn. Chu pictures, it seems, a much quieter Internet: no Twitter, no comments sections, no user-submitted product reviews. Everyone who wanted to publish material would need to do so using their own resources, assuming all responsibility and risk for whatever they put forth. WordPress, for example, could not host people’s blogs for them; you could download and use their blog-creation software, perhaps, but on your own server only. Alternatively, content platforms might exist, but their pace of output and growth would be a crawl: every piece of user-added material would need exhaustive top-down review, to the point of paranoia, before seeing the light of day.

Would that be better for marginalized people than what we have now?

I’m not convinced it would be. Certainly, abominations like GamerGate wouldn’t take off, without liability-shielded havens from which to launch their bile. SWATting and doxing would take a great deal more effort and secrecy to accomplish. Those would be good things! But without Twitter, we also wouldn’t have Black Twitter. There would be no YouTube to host Feminist Frequency‘s videos. Activist groups couldn’t organize rallies using events on Facebook or Google Plus. Overall, the rapidity with which good ideas spread today would hit a brick wall. I for one would not have come around to my current progressive views on abortion, same-sex marriage, etc. at anywhere near the speed I did, were I not constantly exposed to content currently possible under CDA 230.

I do give Chu credit, though, for putting this bit of tech orthodoxy to the test. I have techno-libertarian leanings on a few topics myself, as my thoughts on copyright evince, but I rank my feminism as a greater ideal than those. If it could be more convincingly shown that the structure of the Internet today is more destructive to the marginalized than it is helpful, then I would reconcile the dissonance of my past pro-Internet stances by abandoning them. If copyright really does help the little guy against the big, rather than the other way around as I’m currently convinced it does, then by golly I will be a copyright goon. Chu’s thoughts as I’ve seen them articulated so far don’t come anywhere close to prompting such a paradigm shift, but props to him for getting me to consider the possibility!