Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On weeds and keystones

Las Vegas is an optical illusion. At first it looks poor; the city eye is drawn to cracks in the pavement and boarded up businesses, and one expects to feel poverty. Once an ornate and grand city, larger than Albuquerque, the town now shows age and depleting resources with fewer people. But then nothing bears out the expected feeling, and over time the eye learns to see different things – the beauty that is still there.

From my one window I see weeds, graffiti, and a muddy puddle in an empty lot. And I also see hand-set bricks in arches with stone sills, keystones, quatrefoils, with elms and aspens. Out the other window there’s a quintessential abandoned factory with sawtooth shaped roof, a highway bridge, and a stone hotel with a belfry and artistic parapet. With so much variation there is choice – what do I choose to see?

It reminds me of Pisa, Italy. I still have a picture I took of a goat eating weeds in a neglected brick-strewn lot, next to a crumbling plaster wall, in bleating distance from the throngs of leaning-tower photographers.

On a dumpster diving errand today I found nothing, and everything was surprisingly clean. Investment in the big city is equated with wealth, safety and the standard of living. But in reality, the distribution of money does not entirely control the use of time. New cities in the west exist because of greed, not because of natural necessity in the way port cities exist. Subdividing land, the innumerable rules, and smooth new concrete all make someone rich and define the city. Homelessness is illegal, and those who can’t meet the wealth standard congregate only where enforcement of all the rules is lacking, where there is less safety. So the city is an engine of separating haves from have-nots to its very core. And it fogs ones brain with the urgency of the struggle to have.

Politics in the west is the art of profiting from subdivision and controlling public utilities. The desert is almost free, but the value of a residential zoned quarter-acre with water and electricity is enormous. We don’t all share in that value. The winners are the ones who approved the subdivision plat on their own land.

On my errand the thing I realized is that if I myself owned things like sidewalks and too many buildings, and didn’t have enough money to make it all nice, I’d choose to spend it the way Las Vegas does. It would not be a priority to fix all the pavement. We have choices about equity and we can choose between concrete and education.

The growing city as an engine of segregation and uniformity gives a person that city eye that believes it sees education when it sees nice concrete. Nice and safe and pretty and educated are supposed to go together, and dirty, crumbling, dangerous and desperate are supposed to go together. But those are false choices; if the money is tight, we can choose education over concrete without having to have both.

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On being myself, and other animal traps

This collection of pieces forms a whole essay, but only loosely. I’m trying to find the principles behind being (a) engaged, happy, moving versus being (b) alienated, traumatized, stuck, at least for me. Each piece is a bite out of that puzzle.

1. Being “myself” is a trap


Image description: Comic panel – person says “Just be yourself”, “Not like that”.

I’ve really tried to follow the advice to be myself, but it feels unreal. Any attempt to be Something counteracts my natural tendency to avoid fixing on that thing, even if that thing is “myself”. Not-being, or the absence of attempts to be, could leave more room for me as an animal to use my built-in facilities to meet my needs. Any conscious attempt to “be” could get in the way of my nature and make me stuck. Trying to be forces identity to be made into static words. I could say to myself, “well I should just accept that I’m an introverted autistic lesbian” (or whatever string of adjectives feels like an “identity”), so I should just “be” that openly. I could even be overtly proud of it and do things like make a blog with that string of adjectives as the subtitle, thus claiming that particular identity. But those are just very partial and inaccurate words, and by following them, I’m trying to become a dead concept from my mind, rather than be all of me, always unfolding.

The cartoon feels like the advice I’ve gotten all my life.

2. Being someone else is a trap too

Some parts of the therapy industry, especially the autism part of it, are based on the notion of becoming a better person by being indistinguishable: that is, by copying, conforming, and not being at all “yourself”. This idea is also prevalent in how we treat lower and middle class children generally, from the moment of conception through school. There are “developmental milestones” that everyone is supposed to meet. If the weight gain in pregnancy isn’t “right” (meaning average) then it’s “wrong”. It’s wrong even if that weight gain is right for that particular baby. Then you’re “behind” if you can’t read when you’re six, and so on and so on. The more wrong you are, the greater is the pressure to become normal. Read the rest of this entry »

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Moving along

This piece is simply letters to people I visited on my recent driving trip as far as Maine, with a letter to me at the end.

Dear Mother,

joanneI don’t know what to do. Most adults either eventually make peace with their mothers or cut them out entirely. Making that choice frees a person to go forward in her own life. But with me, I’m walking a complex line of trying to keep going between those two poles, not knowing why, and it is so sad and tiresome after all these decades of cold war. I know how to communicate in at least two ways: the polite verbal way I use for strangers, and the quieter emotional way with friends. But within this family I’ve only been able to communicate as with strangers. Everything I’ve ever done is wrong. I can’t imagine the ice melting, not ever; even when you are dying, years from now, I can only imagine you will use your last breath to remind me how wrong I am.

On this short visit, your judgments went to a new level and became an embarassing self-parody. When a six year old asked you (referring to me) “why do you call her a ‘him’?” your answer placed the shame on me instead of admitting to a mistake. Invalidating your own child’s life at every turn is the norm, but this time you made it a project of yours to convince an impressionable young person that my experience of my life is invalid, and only your judgment matters. It should not be a mystery why the visit was so short.

On this trip I saw many people moving forward, even while working out their childhood trauma. They all have their issues, but none seem to be as unable as I am to make the mother inside let go. None have lived so long as I have without picking one way or the other. You actually matter – way too much.

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On recognizing me in “them”

I’ve heard teachers say they notice some traits of their diagnosed students in themselves, pretty commonly now, and it makes me feel like there is a shift happening away from the industrial mindset of disability towards a more connected notion, perhaps a narrower gap being constructed between normal and disabled? I hear it as if the person is revealing a weakness, and that connection is starting to be ok where it wasn’t before. This possibly goes hand in hand with the greater number of diagnoses in the fuzzier disability categories, now given to people who previously didn’t qualify.

recognizing me in them

Description of graphic: Three panels. (1) Adult icon shown separate from a group of children, reading ‘Phase 1: Those are “special needs” children [completely separate]’; (2) Adult smaller and connected to the group of children, reading ‘Phase 2: Actually, I have some of those same traits, lol”; (3) Adult in same circle with children, reading: ‘Phase 3: My limitations are expressions of the same underlying diversity that causes the apparent disability of others.’

There are specific people I know who I’d like to encourage to see themselves inside the group that they say they want to help – that is, going all the way to the third phase. They may really be similar to the people in their target help group, but there may be just enough shame lingering that they can’t feel completely inside it. I think if we see the people we want to help as “us” rather than “them”, the help will be more relevant. If we can see ourselves as broken (imperfect, limited), then we can see others as no more or less broken than ourselves.

It’s easy for me to be in phase 3 in relation to kids in a classroom, and I’m getting faster in recognizing if someone is one of me. But I’m probably in phase 1 when it comes to the teachers: they feel like they are in the “completely different” box. Some days I’m overcome with oneness and some days I’m overcome with separateness. There is just one fabric with infinite diversity, and it makes big differences between people. And maybe as importantly as any possibly intrinsic difference, we face different levels of opportunity and accommodation, and get different amounts of shame and time, so we go in all different directions. Even as the one feeling like the functional helper, I might have started out in about the same place internally as the one getting my help.


on faceblindness and recognition

I think that most people recognize someone through their appearance, then they immediately call to mind everything they know about the person, and that this process is probably common and automatic enough that people don’t talk about it except when it has glitches – such as not recognizing them at all or confusing them with another. But with people with so-called faceblindness I suspect there’s a lot of variation in a number of ways. How do we recognize people at all – through which features? Do we recognize all of a person or only those aspects that are connected to the trigger feature? Is there a gradual recognition that has a patterned sequence?

As my contribution to the field, here’s some case notes on me.

  1. Taking an on-line faceblindness test I recognized only two of the twenty or so famous people, and one of those was by his iconic glasses (Ghandi).
  2. I’ve forgotten whether people who I care about a lot have moved or gotten married or divorced. I’m talking about people who really matter to me. It’s usually in cases where I felt I could have foreseen the change but can’t remember if it happened yet.
  3. Frequently I’ve forgotten whether people are alive or dead, mainly my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and others such as elders in quaker meeting. I’ve been in doubt because I knew they were of an age where dying would be unsurprising, and I had too slight of a personal connection with them to feel the loss personally. I just can’t remember if the death is in the past or future.
  4. At a school where I worked I heard some of the other teachers saying they had a heck of a time telling two of the students apart, and before hearing that I had not known they were related at all, but it turned out they were identical twins. I never confused them before because they didn’t feel alike, but then after knowing they were twins, it got harder to tell them apart; I started trying to tell them apart by sight more.
  5. In a large school I was apparently in an accelerated program, and I did not know that all of the kids in all of my classes were the same kids until I overheard someone talking about it. In experiences like this, I’ve sometimes been able to piece together a number of different fuzzy people that I’d seen for months or years repeatedly into the same person. One time I remember being very excited about realizing that two people I knew were the same person, and then over a couple hours realizing that a third and fourth “person” were also her, as she coalesced from unknowable into a singularity.

When people do things a wholly different way than the norm, it could be that some atypical part of the brain is doing the work, or that some extrasensitivity has arisen to cover for some other deficit, or just that the person’s capabilities are uneven compared to the norm – some high, some low – which is an autistic thing in general. In my case, being faceblind, I don’t use the “normal” data such as facial features, and hair and eye color, but I can still identify people often. In the case of the twins, I just knew what they felt like, so an aura comes into the room centered on a person, the aura makes me feel a certain way, and bingo, I know that’s ____. I’m writing this as a blank because the aura has no words; it isn’t the person’s name, it’s just their whole being. If I don’t think about it, it happens. If I’m self conscious, the ability goes away. As I get older and try to fit in more, it goes away more.

The aura may be timeless and maybe that’s why life and death changes don’t seem to affect my recognition and recall.

Something that came to my attention recently when someone approached me was the sequence of recognition. I could identify in this case a distinct set of steps, and my mind went something like this:

  • 1 second: There’s someone I know. I can feel her willingness to listen, her acceptance of me; she’s safe; she’s in my second circle.
  • 2 seconds: I recall her diagnosis and sorrows, the tension with her husband; her kids are not with her and why?
  • 5 seconds: OK, she’s looking at me as if something is not normal… maybe I haven’t seen her in a long time?
  • 10 seconds: Well I know she’s from Altoona Pennsylvania and has three daughters, and I remember the depth of the middle one.
  • 20 seconds: I think she moved either back to or away to Pennsylvania a long time ago.
  • 10 minutes: I think her name is Tineen.
  • only after looking because of being self conscious of the process: She has dark short hair.

In this sequence, I first recognize the feeling of being othered or not, and the connection through children. So when I say “aura” it’s relational, not something isolated to them, and not something I can see in pictures or video, but often requires them to project the aura onto me. The particular way that I’m less than or equal to them can be important, as is their safety level and their overall moral stance about their place in the universe. I believe I probably then expand to intuit their emotional state at the time and their life story’s emotional pattern. All these steps occur whether I’ve ever seen the person before or not.

In a few seconds I can usually bring up geographic memory and more cues about joys & sorrows. One of the memory points in my favor is geographic – I can remember fairly precise locations of objects and can use this to differentiate people by their origin.

It can take longer to remember her name, and then minutes to days can pass before I recall or memorize her basic appearance and past experiences. It seems interesting that common experiences that we had can be the last thing to come back to memory, or they can be forgotten completely. Facial features to not come “back”: I have to look to ascertain them each time.

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newsflash: women are more relational

Circles of protection

The Little House on the Prairie enlightened me as to why women and men are different and what the difference is. In the book, the threat of not surviving the winters means that they must each do what they are best at. For example they can’t afford to divide the childcare equally, because it is more important that the father’s strength is used more productively on things that require strength; otherwise they may all perish. Likewise, if you imagine being in a modern precarious situation with your baby and its opposite sex parent (say, your car broke down in a storm), then the three of you would naturally divide up what needs to be done based on the best outcome (what you are each best suited for), not based on your preferences or sense of fairness.

The division of tasks in those situations can often follow the traditional circles of protection: the mother is the inner circle around the baby so she can nurse it, and the father is the outer circle so he can protect against external threats. In discussions on what makes the sexes different, the circles of protection theory seems to be the most natural and timeless to me. Even if you are coming from a position of fairness and equality and – like me – you resist believing in any difference at all, you can’t argue things like who has the milk and who’s usually bigger.

Whether by selection or culture, the circles idea seems to explain other differences. For example in Little House, the mother handles immediate daily needs of children and home, while the father does projects with a more singular long term focus – by necessity. Or the simple way to look at it is that her role is to put dinner on the table today, and his role is to put dinner on the table next winter. This can explain why women are usually more able to multitask about present-moment tasks and men are more able to plan the future, in the sense of architecting real changes from an abstract idea. In other words, differences like these are not necessarily just a product of cultural expectations. So in both time and space, the shortcut way of thinking about the difference is “inner vs outer.”

There’s more genetic variation among men because, at least in part, some of their genes are unpaired, while all female genes are in pairs. A mutation in an unpaired gene is more consequential, so more variation is expressed in the male genome. Males are a lot less viable as fetuses – perhaps because of more expressed mutations. Also males have a wider variation in height and other physical features than females. We can observe that the most extreme people are men, and women tend to be a bit more similar to each other. For example the cruelest despots and criminals are nearly all men, and the most brilliant scientists and composer are also nearly all men. There’s some idea that an equal number of women would have risen to fame and success if they had been allowed, but I think that is only partly true, because the genetic spread would predict a wider spread in men’s abilities. So if you look at the way people vary, you get the same inner/outer idea from a different angle: women are collectively more on the inner circle of variance (more alike) and men on the outer.

All versus each

The inner/outer split also extends to what it feels like for me to be around women and men. I can’t prove anything here, but it always feels like women have the shared feeling that we’re all in it together, while men are more “every man for himself”. It’s not necessarily a difference in independence or being more/less controlling, but just a recognition that there’s all women and then there’s each man. In crowds, women inch toward each other like grazing animals, in a way that is protective, but if men did the same thing, it would feel predatory. (Not always, just a general pattern.) Since I present ambiguous gender, one of the ways that I can tell how I’m being gendered is feeling how other women occupy space around me: if the tension in their aura goes down as they get closer, then I know I’m being femaled and we’re in that inner circle. If I have the inclination to do the same thing back but I’m being gendered as male, then I become aware of the predatory vibe being reflected back and I stop doing it.

That kind of nonverbal social control is part of maintaining that box of shame that I’ve spent my life living in. When a chick breaks free of its shell, people are overcome with with how darn cute the thing is and they get very encouraging, but when I’ve tentatively tried to peck my way out of my shell, it feels like the reception I get is more like “get that hideous thing back in its shell!”. So as a young transgender child, when I felt that a fundamental aspect of me was not acceptable, I learned to live in the closet, and I didn’t really know that people can safely be themselves in public.

A very short shortcut way of naming the inner/outer concept is by saying women are more relational. This is easily misunderstood, as I don’t think women want relationships more or that they are better at it; it is just another way of saying we are in that inner circle, or saying we feel the all over the each.

Emulating models

I took a voice class recently. I had been wanting to do this for years because when I talk, unlike E.F. Hutton, people too often either don’t hear me or assume I’m wrong, so I wanted to project more confidence. I found a class that was geared toward finding your feminine voice, so part of the class was about enumerating differences in speech between women and men at all different levels.

There are cheap and easy ways to talk about the differences, and in the class, the conversations could easily drift toward saying men are insensitive jerks or going along with the “men are always wrong” idea, although that kind of judgment was veiled in less direct (more feminine) language. Yes, we’ve probably all experienced men doing really dumb things when no woman was around to stop them, but I think and hope that’s a product of cultural conditioning and isn’t really the root of the differences. So I found myself trying to consciously lock in on a mental image of enlightened strong men. This particular mental task doesn’t come naturally to me, and I found my images to be mainly either tending to the jerks, or the churchy “nice” men who act like women but without the strengths of women. So the image of Laura Ingalls’s father was a nice third way to break that false duality of weakness – a man putting dinner on the table next winter, and being strong from a center of love.

I also had the opposite trouble during that class of being unable to lock in on the image of a woman worth emulating. She would not be that hopelessly weak woman who infringes her own movement with skirts too tight around the knees and who raises her voice at the end of every sentence to alleviate any threat by signaling universal incompetence. There’s a lot of easily observed differences in patterns of speech and manners along these lines that are related to submission. It helped to notice that other strong feminists, other autistic women – and in general people that I would want to be more like – do not tend to follow those submission patterns.

In the process of trying to tease apart what is a real difference and what is a self-imposed limitation from the culture, I practiced things in a theatrical way, and through that, discovered tendencies that had been buried. One difference is that women gesture during speech with the forearm and hands only, while men use their whole arms more – they control a bigger piece of space. When this was brought to my attention (I had not thought about it like that before), I realized that I went through phases in life of changing the way I do this one thing. I didn’t think about how I gestured until Junior High, when people would tell me that if I continued to gesture certain ways, I would get beaten up or teased. I adopted a strategy of consciously suppressing movements and walking and carrying things certain ways. People didn’t have backpacks then: boys carried books at their sides while girls carried them protectively cradled in front. I carried them the girl way until I was told it was wrong, and then I made myself remember to carry them the boy way. This and many other unnatural things were forced on me and have been stuck there for so long, that it feels like it will take a long time to release them.

Coming out should never be about imitating, but doing some practice acting can loosen up things and help a person to be more free to be themselves. In the long list of behavioral differences discussed in that class, I considered where I fall in each one. Few individual people, whether trans or not, fall naturally completely on one side for all the differences. They are general patterns, and people usually have some of both. Yet a lot of people seem to put a lot of energy into conforming themselves, like those Junior High gender enforcers I encountered. They want to purge any aspect of themselves that doesn’t match their concept of their gender. That same thing seems to go on with trans people, and a person can get too caught up with imitation.


Now I’m going to change focus a little to the actual ways of analyzing speech, and what the male/female differences are. The core reason why all these things are different seems to be the way women are more relational (understanding the limitation on what I mean by that word), which ultimately comes from the circles of protection. In the list below, I’m mostly listing differences that have been observed by academics, so these are real (averages not absolutes!), and not just my own generalizations.

(1) Choice of topic. Men talk about things, and particularly things that may be abstracted away from themselves in space and time, while women talk more about experiences and current feelings. I think this is a direct fallout of the roles that we end up in, as Little House explains. To get dinner served today, you have to stay focused on current needs of the people present – relational! To get dinner served next winter, you have to stay focused on future needs.

(2) Motivation to communicate. Men like to demonstrate competence, which highlights the difference between themselves and others (the each), while women like to feel bonded and protected, thus highlight similarities (the all – relational!).

(3) Conversational shape. Women take turns and confirm each other’s statements with continuous feedback (relational!) while men are more likely to interrupt and not provide listening feedback. Women connect the topic with the other person much more (relational!) – such as if I say I’m tired, I would also comment on whether the other person looked tired too, or relate it in some way.

(4) Choice of sentences. Men make more objective, judging statements (something is or does something) and give advice more. Women ask questions, make more empathic or emotional remarks, give compliments, expose their own weakness, and apologize more – relational! Appearing uninformed is a no-no for men but is more ok for women.

(5) Sentence construction. Women more often join phrases into longer sentences, use more words, more pauses, and append more indirect tags such as disclaimers and other softeners. (“So… I’m afraid we might be running a bit late, do you think?”) Men don’t. (“We are late.”) I think what’s going on here is that women are padding out the ideas to make it a two-way communication (relational!) even while the other person is not talking – they are watching and listening for vibes while talking.

(6) Word choice. Women use inclusive pronouns (“we”) more (relational!), a larger variety of descriptive adjectives, and more terms of affection (relational!). Men swear a lot more often, speak in the first person more, and have a smaller descriptive vocabulary.

(7) Phoneme voicing. Women rest longer on vowels than men (soooo, instead of so) particularly as stress. Men use volume or staccato as a form of stress punctuation. I think this is extremely relevant to the idea of being relational because women are being receptive during the voicing of the vowel so it has to take more time. It’s not so much a higher thought process but not exactly unconscious either. Imagine a woman saying “soooo?” when she really means “what happened last night?” and think of all the expressions on the other person’s face she can read if she draws it out long enough. She could get a vibe and change the way the sound is intoned a couple times during the same vowel.

(8) Intonation and pitch. Intonation is the change in pitch over a word or words, beyond what is necessary to distinguish the words themselves. Women have higher pitch and intone (or sing) sentences more – a bigger range of pitch. Men have a greater physical pitch range (including falsetto) but use less of that range in speech. Interestingly, women use a higher pitch when speaking to men than they do when speaking to other women – the submissive aspect perhaps. I don’t have a great idea why the up-and-down pattern is feminine, but perhaps women are communicating more relational layers and thus need more aspects to inflect to get those layers across.

(9) Resonance. Resonance is the wave shape, influenced by which body cavities the sound travels through – like how the resonating chamber of different instruments produces different sounds. An identical pitch sung by a man and woman sound different enough to usually identify the sex of the singer because the shape of the instrument is different.

Grazing while female

In all of these 9 layers, a person could just use the information to adopt techniques like an actor learning to express a new role. But to me it is more powerful to use this to discover the real me whether it conforms or not. The idea that women are more relational may be obvious to anyone reading this but it was a newsflash to me, and here’s the flash part: People are out in public. What I mean by that is: my natural inclination to act relationally, which is a source of fear for me, is the same inclination that other people express shamelessly. I have PTSD symptoms from simply acting and speaking according to my natural inclinations and getting threats in return. It feels like there is a prohibition against grazing while female, but learning that other people routinely express themselves in that relational way shows me that other people are not subject to that law.

I would like to get a radio signal from my home planet saying “permission to be self granted” and have this permission be magically authoritative. But self-imposed laws don’t melt away so easily.

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Staying at 6%

I was the second lowest ranking person pretty much throughout childhood and in many other situations. Sometimes I’m the very lowest or third lowest, but generally if a group is large enough I can find someone who ranks lower, someone who’s blatantly offensive or more visibly disabled for example. I feel like this information of who ranks where basically floats there visibly and no special glasses are needed to see it, although I’m aware that a lot of people, the further up they are, can’t see it. A form of privilege blindness – we can only see up and not down.

If I take a lot of situations from memory I can say that for groups of size 12 and under, I’m usually the least, and for groups of about 25, I’m most often the second. So it seems to always come out to about 6% – my consistent place in this world.

The other day a few things happened that brought that ranking out in the open.

The first event of the day was a quaker gathering. By chance I had got an invitation to introduce quakerism to a high school class, and at first I just forwarded the request to others. There was some interest but no offer of leadership coming forward, and then I realized that the task was meant for me and it got exciting. The quakers have a concept of “oversight” which is supposed to temper and draw out energy, and I asked for oversight and collaboration. The quakers do not officially have a concept of rank, but social rank still exists, and what happened is that the education committee took over in a passive-aggressive way. One of them refused to collaborate and stonewalled for weeks until the other was back from travels, and then the latter decided to run the whole thing with just himself and his ego. Because I technically have to submit to “oversight” by a committee, there was nothing to do about it, although it was extremely distasteful to watch so-called oversight play out in that way (actually so unpalatable that it pushes me significantly away from being a part of that group).

The ranking played out with the guy on top of course (probably not seeing the rank levels yet verbalizing and enforcing them), then the other committee member, then me third (surprising) then 3 others who had volunteered to collaborate originally. On the one hand I experienced a sense of pride and false success, as if I was moving up, because I wasn’t near the bottom of the ladder. But on the other hand it felt like a slap in the face too, to be so out of line. It was strange and uncomfortable to be that far from the bottom, and it was also false, because advancing in social rank is spiritual death for me; I wasn’t centered in myself when I was flirting with pride like that. I felt a need to cleanse myself of seeing too much dirt from the experience.

The second event was attending a team meeting for a friend who gets a variety of social services. She was lowest ranking followed by me so I was in my familiar #2 position. The meeting was spent listening to social workers controlling her life and pressuring her into things. It was stressful; she even left the meeting for a while. I said it should be quicker and stick to the agenda, because she said she wanted that. They said “great idea” and proceed to not do that at all. I was the one who was specifically not asked if I had anything to bring up. If I had more rank I could have explained the bit about managing sensory overload, and I could have helped them see her as a whole person and not a partial person since I think I was the only one who could see that. But I barely said anything; I stayed in my place.

The third event in the same day was finding out the department of health wasn’t even going to read the proposal that I’d spent 20 hours writing because they had already cuddled up to a different vendor and they had gotten permission from someone in purchasing to blatantly reclassify the project under a false heading, so that they weren’t bound by the rules of the original (true) heading, the rules which would have required them to read my proposal. Again, same story of rank, but played out with corrupt officials and lots of money.

One of the ways to see the ranking is to hear where the we/other gap is languaged. For example, in one group where I had a false sense of belonging, someone shattered it when they said “we appreciate you”. Meaning I’m the other, and he was part of the “we”. It should have been obvious, but I succumb to the pride and push the evidence away. Being “appreciated” doesn’t matter if I’m othered. Then I was kicked out of that group, so it turns out the appreciation wasn’t even shared or real.

It made me wonder again: Do I keep myself at 6% through some kind of psychological self-limitation? I can imagine someone reading this and saying I’m hung up on the rank thing, and if I just had more confidence etc I wouldn’t let it bother me, and not everyone is like that and so on. But there is a mass delusion or taboo concerning rank, along with the enormously widespread yet magical belief in a meritocracy; ignoring those forces don’t make them go away. In each of the three things that happened that day, the people made it pretty clear (and via related experiences) they were wiling to escalate as much as necessary to make sure I didn’t get any of the money or contribution or control. I only gave up because they had power backed by reinforcements. I’m not making up those threats. It’s not just my lack of confidence that keeps me at the lower level.

Then you might wonder if maybe my ideas were just not so good, and the better ideas won out (the meritocracy). I would say the ideas that don’t threaten those with incumbent power won, so they were “better” by that measure. Then you might say I should learn to have more popular ideas, and that’s very hard for me. If I had the skills to win in these situations that I described above, I would feel so manipulative and prideful that I’d hate myself. So I don’t seem to want to go past 6%. On the other hand being down here keeps me from being able to do things. It bars me from sharing what I can do, engaging and contributing, in all kinds of environments. So part of me does want to advance. Then when I start to advance, get that false pride feeling and dare to engage as an equal, I start hearing the we/other language putting back at my 6% level. “We feel you should…”, “We are concerned about…” If I don’t back down, they escalate. They have special intimidation meetings with me or kick me out of organizations. The quaker described above threw in something suggesting quakers shouldn’t be represented by an out trans lesbian, or something vaguely connected to that – I guess an intimidation technique to keep me in line. I’ve also gotten death threats. All of which is to say I’m not very good at staying in line, and wander pretty often.


In which the political is personal

The story of the friend

This is the story of a short term friend and my thoughts about our interpersonal drama, justice, pain and oppression. This friend could be triggered by almost anything related to intimacy and sexuality. The topic evoked memories of abuse and maybe boundaries got unglued, and there was fear and anxiety. The unexpected thing is when he got triggered, his response was to talk about the subject even more. He sent email on the subject, and took the initiative to change the topic to tell me all the bad stuff, but also asked me not to talk about it. When someone confides all that personal trauma to me, it makes me feel that I’m safe to them, and that I’m not a triggery person for them. I was not careful enough about those topic boundaries. One time, probably only our second meeting, I said what I thought was interesting about the kink scene (that power relationships are codified instead of coercive as with the culture at large) (not a good topic choice!) and he said he “would like to try that”. That surprised me to hear. I later learned the under stress he might say the opposite of what he believed, because he had been conditioned to never go against anyone. His response to a thing so terrifying was to put on the most convincing act to cover it up, sending the most intensely mixed messages I’ve ever experienced.

Our demons keep hurting us from the inside and they are attention seeking. When boundaries are broken, maybe we can’t tell if we’re looking at our demons in a mirror or if we’re seeing the outside world. It’s not like burning your hand and pulling it away; it’s more like burning your hand and leaving it there. The ongoing pain must have a source, and we’re always looking for it, and we see the demons in other people while feeling the pain.

Meanwhile I was fine with personal topics; it is easy for me to go there when someone feels safe to me, which he did. So we had a landmine of a friendship waiting for someone to set it off. Post-detonation, the narrative was that I was supposed to admit that I was wrong, wrong for doing something aggressive against him. The exact crime is a mystery but is possibly in the neighborhood of luring someone into a false friendship with bad intent, manipulating them to become vulnerable. (Now that I wrote that idea, it does seem likely that very thing happened to him in the past.)

Being elusive

I wonder about my role in relationship messes of course – sometimes it feels like I have no role, but nothing like this is manufactured entirely on one side. I was a simplistic and passive observer, didn’t take a stand, didn’t characterize our friendship any way, put no limits or expectations on it. If he said something I just took it at face value and didn’t consider much that he may have meant something else. I can’t usually see the build up of interpersonal problems, so unless you say otherwise, I assume that nothing is hidden and everything is fine. I didn’t have him in a “friendzone” or any other zone, just open. Some people hate about me that I can be so reflective and so much like an insubstantial breeze, not even quite there.

I’m the sort of person who tends to take the least comfortable chair in a room, because anyone else who comes in will automatically deserve the better chair. I have no business being pretty or having pretty things. I can’t possibly need anything special. “Don’t mind me.” It’s a struggle to believe I deserve the same as others or to put my needs or boundaries into language.

When there’s conflicts involving me, I usually don’t participate directly (I don’t even feel conflicts) but the person having the issue puts energy into pinning me down, labeling, characterizing me. It’s hard to strike at the breeze; the wind is like those inner demons, not really there; you can’t strike until you pin it down. My feelings are never a thing to talk about; I’m just the invisible force acting on their feelings.

Being superpowered

My triggers are hard to put into language, but there are many things that give me anxiety spikes and make me shut down and feel sick, and they shorten my life. So yes I have feelings. Some things that trigger me are being told who I am or what I am, being told I’m worthy or unworthy, being put on a pedestal, and judgments of my intent. It’s all about being defined and pinned down when I’m not that way. I get to define myself, or choose not to define myself (who needs an identity after all?). Other triggers are hearing about sexual promiscuity or seduction (power imbalance!), indirect small talk, empty social gestures, and being told I’m responsible for magical destruction. That last one is what I think of as being superpowered – by which I mean people overestimate my actual power; they project magic abilities on me. My aunt would treat me as if I could ruin something by looking at it and my touch would infect an object permanently. When something goes sour, it must have been my fault or I must be the ringleader. When someone superpowers me, it’s a big anxiety trigger even now.

Here’s how I think about the superpower: Let’s say there was an aggression – I might have tripped you or struck you or insulted you, but could I have hurted you? Saying it like makes “hurt” an action, as if it is a specific intentional thing distinct from other actions. But really, hurting is an effect of doing actual things, so saying that someone “hurted me” is superpowering the aggressor. A real action is something the aggressor could either continue doing or stop doing; they have the power. Realizing that a hurt is an effect and not an action empowers the person who is hurt: it isn’t just up to the aggressor whether hurt happens. We all participate in our own oppression.

One of the arguments with my friend went something like this: “You hurt me / I didn’t mean to / It doesn’t matter what the intent was, only the fact that it happened matters.” Deconstruction: In law, intent does matter but also negligence without intent matters. If someone’s actions were legal and they had good intent and they were not responsible for others (such as a child), then any hurt that ensues is considered the victim’s own fault, for good reason. It’s the difference between blaming the victim and empowering the victim. Blaming the victim is when responsibility for an actual bad action is assigned to the victim, such as “if she wasn’t wearing ___, that wouldn’t have happened to her”. But if the action is magical (no crime was committed) then assigning responsibility to the victim is empowering. If I’m hurt by magic (by superpowering someone else), then I can say “If I can stop being triggered (or otherwise strengthen my thoughts), I will stop being hurt” and that gives me a way out that doesn’t rely on anyone else.

But in the interpersonal sphere, we can’t normally make the choice to stop being triggered (we can’t heal instantly) and so we rely on others to not only not hurt us, but to protect us. When we are vulnerable we give away that power.

Dominance and submission

When there is an interpersonal conflict, the dominant person’s feelings are at stake and the submissive person’s actions are at stake. The conversation between the mob boss and the underlings is about whether the underlings’ actions were in service of the boss’s feelings; no one expects the boss to do anything but sit there, and no one cares what the underling is feeling. Married people seem to get into this kind of debate – “you didn’t do the right thing to serve my feelings” and we forget that there’s my actions and your feelings too. To get back to my parenthetical remark about the kink scene, that’s exactly what they claim to do better: they make the dom/sub roles explicit and purposeful, while the rest of us pretend we’re being equal when we’re not.

I often feel I’m submissive, but at the same time I don’t like relationships with dominant people, so I also think of myself as thriving on equality. If I can’t have equality I go vacant. It is hard to take a different role. With my ex friend, he lost communication once while we were ordering food (he’s autistic too) and things were really lagging with the restaurant people until I finally came to terms with the fact that I had to decide for him what kind of salad to get, or else we weren’t going to get a salad. That’s terrifying for me to control people, even about a salad.

It’s also hard for me to find anger. My friend recounted my abuse of him as if some stranger had done that same thing to my child, thinking that might “bring it home” and make me feel the anger. But it felt like the same story since I have as much compassion for him as for my child. I get that he was terribly hurt, but I don’t link that to anger or the existence of an enemy.

Working for justice

I thought of our friendship as political, as if we were allies with each other in a larger struggle. I’ve never been part of a movement although I’ve spent decades wanting to be a person who heroically works for justice. In truth my life is utterly gray and has been filled with desperation. I have the disability without inspiring any of the pity, no one lowers the bar a little or accommodates. I’m neither pitiful enough nor radical enough. I’m not anything enough, not a cute kid or an amazing artist, so ignorable, so inherently noncompetitive.

I’ve always been in a valley between worlds of people who have coalesced into an oppressed-group identity on one side, and the elite of the dominant culture on the other side (my family). From the oppressed side, I don’t get to be included because I’m not perceived to be disadvantaged enough, but from the other side I don’t get many of the alleged privileges. I have some – for example, my father got me a summer job once just by talking to a business owner and appearing erudite and established and valid, in a way that likely would not have worked for a black family (for example); but I can’t do those things myself.

The quakers can get so self-aware about privilege that it spills into a learned helplessness, and people will overly defer to anyone who appears oppressed. I might have a lot to say about the economy, but if some brown woman named Estrella walks in the room, she’s automatically more qualified to speak, and I feel queasy because the quakers are still using we/they language and Estrella is never really seen as one of them, while Star is. I’m always jealous of those Estrellas – they have more oppression points. It’s the “weaker person is automatically right” syndrome.

I’m actually part of more than one oppressed group, but I don’t feel I have a lot of oppression points – ironically it is the act of buying in to ones own oppression that can make one feel unworthy of it. Remembering that the Christians colonized my Celtic ancestor’s land puts me in a better place to work for justice than if I think of my ancestors as those Christians who later colonized North America. Both stories are true but the first gives me more points and more energy. We get into our oppressed space to be powerful.

Despite being gray, marginal, submissive, and lacking in points, I can be threatening and destabilizing. Sometimes I can tell when I am doing something right because people start to get defensive, and they start counseling me to not do what I’m doing, or they start insulting me or using words like “prudent”. For example when I say I should be accepted as an equal or have an equal voice as others, and that angers them, then I know I’m out of line and I should keep going in that direction. If a vulnerable person gives protective power to a breeze like me, I might blow a door open somewhere.

Personal politics of oppression

I believe fighting from the base of solidarity against all oppression is the true way, but it’s easily twisted. I have more disability so I win. It makes it an incentive to be weak and say “look at all my oppression.” Anyone with a privilege is “blind” to everything. I think all the twisting is a side effect of trying to be genuine and overcome our oppressions, but we’re not always clear where the demons are. Then we’re back to the saying oppressors hurted us, they did something magical, and they have all the power.

When we make politics interpersonal, a fight between friends, I think it can really twist it more. We might try to classify some interpersonal hurt as an instance of a global oppression, then we’re building walls instead of alliances. When I say I thought of my friendship as political, I think maybe it went to the level of playing out a bigger battle between us. Because the politics of oppression is inherently about internal psychological growth, specifically overcoming false narratives, it’s more important that in these struggles we hit barriers and learn from friends, than it is that we win. Winning doesn’t necessarily free us from our existing narrative if that’s the narrative that oppresses us. Winning doesn’t keep friendships intact.

Going irl

I think it is easy to stay black and white and do your justice work on line and not get into trouble. By that I mean you can avoid growth. I worry that the whole realm of “active listening” and all sorts of community building and conflict resolution techniques that I’ve been exposed to a lot has been lost in today’s on line justice scene. When we talk to people off line, hurt happens but there is not a clear line between the good and bad people. I had this thought in relation to my friend who probably found it easier to fight in more clearly delineated camps on line, and maybe didn’t have much experience working through an actual conflict experience in person.

In person you can’t be perfect; you have much less control over how you appear and the energy you send out. You may think you’re being genuine on line but it’s too easy to craft an image. You can fabricate your membership in disadvantaged groups and award yourself all kinds of oppression points.

There’s an idea I keep seeing lately: We didn’t win rights in the past by being nice, so if someone tells me to “be nice”, that’s in itself an oppressive act. If being nice means being marginalized, then yes – telling people to be nice can be a way of ignoring their message. But there’s a related aspect that is critical to working together which is listening and working through conflict. Ultimately when we win the “fight” for universal justice, it won’t be a fight against anyone; everyone will have won.

I don’t expect to hear from my friend again but I’m pretty sure he will bounce back and do great things.

A random link

Today’s thoughts remind me of this stream of consciousness story I wrote 21 years ago, also about being triggered an about being “not there”.

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In which queer is clarified

After I posted some things about coming out, some people took that post as the Big Announcement, and thought that making that announcement is Doing Something Weird and OMG what will the children think and etcetera. Other people went into a “supportive” mode and I feel like they are a cheering audience and now I am supposed to perform a miraculous transition.

A few problems there.

First of all, one does not simply “step out of the closet”. Coming out is a long process of finding ways out, little by little; it is not like flipping a switch. Telling people about it is just one piece. I have the impression that most people are not fully aware of their surrounding walls, and don’t really know how in the closet they are. That’s how closets are, they mess with your mind, and you can’t find the way out. Since I still don’t know how to be myself in public or what kind of person I really am, it feels to me like I haven’t come out very much yet.

Second, coming out is the end of something, not the beginning of something. As it appears to some other people, I’m just going along normally tra la la, then one day I say I’m transgender and start dressing shockingly, so they think I started a new Thing which is totally out of character. The reality is that I was transgender all along but was putting a lot of energy into dressing and acting falsely. What I’m doing now is just not performing that act as much, so I’m not Doing Something new at all. I’m moving on to other things, it’s not a big deal any more. There are certain follow up tasks like getting clothes I like, but for the most part the show is over.

Third, the change is not as much in me as it is in those people who are surprised by it. Gender is at least two things: part of our inner identity and a projection we throw onto other people. Every time someone genders me and uses that to control or assume something, it’s a little assault. If they feel they have to change their projected gender of me in their mind, it could be a lot of reprogramming for them, and maybe they resist it or it feels like a big change and it feels like I’m requesting or forcing the change. But all their past gender assaulting wasn’t my fault and I’m not asking them to change any more than I asked to be judged in the first place; the reprogramming work is in their mind and is their problem. (The desire to control other people and make them fit your image comes from hatred, the seeds of violence. Let it go.)

And finally, just because someone is transgender does not mean they are doing a “transition”. I don’t like that word because it implies intentionality and depth, and a definite beginning and end, as if making a choice to switch sides whole-hog, leave one camp, traverse the desert and set up in the other camp. For me it is only changing the surface, and possibly manipulating other people into gendering me differently; it is superficial by definition. A person can be into female clothes for a while then be into male clothes later, and they aren’t going “backwards”. A person doesn’t have to do anything medical (for which the word “transition” makes more sense), or anything at all.


In which queer

I had three periods of life that I was more out as a girl, while I spent the in between times hiding. The first of those out times was from birth through early elementary school. I could see gender in others but didn’t feel that any rules about it applied to me. I knew that girls were my people and boys were inexplicable. I didn’t know I was being dressed “as a boy” because I didn’t really notice clothing (except those godforsaken sailor suits which were just effervescing with boy and I still hate them). My parents made assumptions but didn’t force it too much (like, they didn’t make me live in a room with football wallpaper); generally I was allowed to be me.

Then, gradually any female expression was extinguished through a conspiracy of peers and adults. If you wear that again, you will be beaten up. If you walk like that, you will be beaten up. You can’t go there. And so on. So that’s how I learned how to carry books, to cut my nails short, to avoid drawing certain things, and all the hundreds of other ways that I was supposed to show gender. I did it to escape being beaten. It was only fear, and I hated doing it. The problem with that technique is that they extinguished most of me, not just a few isolated girlish traits. If I loved anyone, it was dangerous. Adults thought that my efforts to connect to other girls in first grade was prototype romantic behavior, and they teased me, so I learned to keep feelings hidden. It wasn’t just the other kids doing the damage.

The rest of my school years, I was a stiff person who hardly ever talked and couldn’t make friends. If I was asked what I was (like how when someone has a baby, they tragically ask what is it?) I would close up and not be able to talk at all and I’d eventually squeak out that I was a boy, hoping no one else would hear my lie, not knowing any other escape. I’d come home on hot days and run to change out of conformity clothing into something nice, sometimes dresses until that was teased out of me. The rigidity at school was so oppressive and I was lucky to be able to decompress at home.

Bathrooms. After an accident in first grade, they showed me the bathroom designated for me, which I had not known about before. I was actually observant but had probably dismissed bathroom related information because the teachers likely tied it up with gender which didn’t make sense to me. Then for the next nine years, I didn’t use a bathroom at school, not even once – too dangerous. I didn’t ride a bus or go on the playground after third grade, because I could be beaten and no one would see. I developed a radar for where safe adults were at all times, and what my escape routes were. This took up a big chunk of my mental energy all those years and I never relaxed. There were danger zones though, such as the first 30 feet out the back door of the middle school, which was unpatrolled, and I had to cross that to get to a street to the gas station where I parked my bike.

Although I got the occasional kick or punch, and was harassed a lot, I never was full-out beaten up, and I attribute this to my unerring vigilance, and also to some ironic privileges of being trans. Boys target other boys to establish rank, but I was spared that because – as I guess – that kind of bully tends to have a lot of social intuition and they never took me for a boy. Adolescent boys then start attacking girls for different reasons, but I wasn’t seen as a sex object so I escaped that too.

When it came to checkboxes and other gender binary features of adult life, I had been so crushed that I didn’t feel there was any way out. I didn’t know a single other lesbian, trans, or queer person; I had no words for any of it. So I’d check male and then I got put in an all male dorm at college. That was the closest I came to not surviving.

The thing about having a female kind of sexuality while looking like a boy… well, the result was no action on the dating front. My inclination in high school was to wait and hope someone would ask me out, but I had no clue about making myself pretty or locating anyone like me or being assertive. Everyone I wanted to be with was looking for a boyfriend, so all those attempts got nowhere. My only two relationships that worked didn’t happen until age 33.

The second period of being more out was around ages 20-24. I found places to live with all women and was a little less isolated, and even had friends sometimes and some almost-romantic relationships that failed before they really started. My attempt to be out was really pretty weak compared to the first time, but I got some clothes I liked and was optimistic about the idea of being free outside of institutions.

Then this period ended because people would throw bottles and things out of car windows at me, and yell threats, and I was unwelcome to wear certain clothes at Quaker meeting, and perhaps most importantly, money. Work places did not seem OK with people like me, so I felt I had to act like someone else to survive. So I spent 20 years doing that. The stress of it kept going up and my income kept going down as the economy changed and required more conformity. I only recently realized that the fear of losing income was overpowering everything else in life. People might say just be yourself, saying there are openly gay people who manage to keep jobs, but they account for 10% of the population and we aren’t even on the map.

The third period of being out is now. Being somewhat part of an autistic community has given me vocabulary and the opportunity to meet other queer and trans people. That gives me some basic psychic permission to be out. I’m feeling that showing some surface things outwards (like clothes) could get me over some barrier to also be out in spirit. Finding the way out is still a fight against all those hiding tricks that I adopted when I was little out of the fear of being beaten, and a fight against those who go ballistic about any trans person anywhere because it threatens their gender scheme. Even some autistic-run internet groups for women still don’t allow trans women, so getting support is not always so easy.

One main reason I can even think about this now is that I’m in a program for disabled people to work on contracts for state government, and I think they would not find me guilty of working while trans. Therefore for the first time I have a sense that I would not lose all income by coming out. I might lose some of the other clients though. Also there is a lot more acceptance now than when I was 20 and it has been a really long time to be in hiding.

All this has been just a plot line of what’s happened to me, but now I want to say more about what it means to be a gender.

People say “why do you want to change”, and the question shows a misunderstanding of what it really is. It is not about changing me. It is a change of how people see me. It is more a question of acceptance by others than a question self-acceptance.

People also say “why do you want to be a woman”, and the short answer is that I didn’t sign up for either side; it is not about my preferences. The identification with gender is part of a psychic structure formed early, that probably has a nature side and a nurture side, and may be affected by the rigidity of the society that one is in, but it isn’t a choice. The main choice is whether and how to come out or suppress it. Not coming out would be an option too, but regardless of what choice is made on the surface, the inner me is still the same.

I have some traits that are traditionally masculine (like an engineering way of thinking, and liking wood tools), and some that are feminine (homemaking type things); and most people have some duality at that level, which is not the significant thing. It is about a deeper level of identity. For example, in my college house, having a man visiting was very different than a woman visiting; our private space would recede so he could be in the house but not in our psychic space, whereas a woman would be more admitted into the fold. There’s a deep way that females and males set up opposite camps and have certain barriers and openings to each other, and that’s the level that I’m talking about. Another way to look at it is on the level of the dream life and developmental stages.

I also have a point to make about intersectionality (the phenomenon of being part of multiple minority groups). I’m autistic, trans, and lesbian. The autistic interaction here is very interesting, because it makes it appear that I don’t fit the more usual trans pattern. Some transwomen seem to get more into the makeup and other feminine trappings than most women do. Some might even believe that gender duality is real in a scientific sense and that they are changing themselves by changing their appearance. As autistic people can more easily avoid that kind of fallacy, I don’t really believe that gender exists in that way, and therefore when I say I’m female, I’m mainly saying I fit certain archetypes, not that I’m a thing that actually exists or that the whole topic is black and white. Since I don’t really care about clothes and make up that much (an autism-related trait, at least for me), being trans doesn’t make me pretend to care about it more. I could never project much of any intentional appearance about anything; projecting in general just isn’t one of my skills (a lot of people totally misinterpret me as conservative or some other kind of enemy of progress because of that). Therefore it could happen that I will never figure out how to reliably project. But I don’t owe anyone that in the first place. Like I said, it isn’t about change.