Friday, May 20, 2016



I drove Margo to the airport this morning; it was dark all over the place with a huge yellow-orange moon setting.  We drove into the fog’s long skirts and I was glad for the lack of traffic.  We listened to NPR until a clip featuring a particular politician came on; then I had to reach out and hit the power button. 

We pulled into the “Kiss and Fly Zone” at Roanoke Regional Airport, and opened our doors to the chilly air.  Margo put on her motion-sickness patch (“too late,” she worried, “you’re supposed to put it on 3 hours before the flight”) and I pulled her suitcase out of the back of the car.  We embraced and said goodbye.  I remember when I moved to Virginia in 2004, we still said our goodbyes inside the car.  Two women kissing like that were quite rare in our part of the world; we felt self-conscious and yes, a little fearful.  It’s still a big deal for us to hold hands on the street.  This morning, I waited for an airport employee to walk past before putting my arms around Margo.  Progress is all relative, right?  As Margo quips, “Well, it SAYS ‘kiss and fly,’ we’re just following directions.  It doesn’t say, ‘heterosexually kiss and fly.’”

Kind of like those t-shirts, bumper stickers and mugs that all say, “Virginia is for Lovers” with the big red heart.  What they really mean is “Virginia is for HETEROSEXUAL lovers.”  Before the Supreme Court decision that same-sex marriages must be viewed as legal in all states, I used to fantasize about using a big chisel-tipped Sharpie to draw an arrow on one of these shirts with the word “heterosexual” inserted between for and lovers.  Just to be clear that I knew MY love and I were not included, and I loved her in Virginia, anyway, as well as everywhere else.

So we kissed and told each other to take care, and she walked into the airport pulling the shiny blueberry rolling bag, her back pack on her shoulders. Once through security, I knew Margo would have to go into a restroom and put on all of her braces: a big back brace (it has to go under her jeans in order to work), wrists, maybe her neck brace, though that can wait until she’s actually on the plane.  I sat for a few minutes and checked my email on my phone, waiting – as I always do – to see if Margo came back for something she’d forgotten, or if there’s some complication ...  She never does, but I always wait.  Finally I put away my phone, belted up, checked my mirrors, and pulled out of the Kiss & Fly zone.  Headed home slowly in the fog as the sun rose and the darkness pulled back like a thick tide.  After about 20 minutes, the dashboard of our little car lit up with an incoming text from Margo.  I hit “listen” and a robotic voice said, “So far so good.  Boarding area without setting off any alarms.”  I had to smile to myself.  She knows I worry.

I’m not the only wife who worries about her wife going out into the world of gendered rest rooms.

Yesterday, Margo and I had “the talk.”  The talk that anyone who loves a transgender person or butch-identified woman must have with their beloved these days: please be careful when and where you pee; have Megan (Margo’s daughter) go with you if she’s there; look for unisex restrooms; prepare yourself emotionally so you won’t be taken by surprise if you ARE challenged; think about what you might say …

It was a talk about being realistic.  But it was also a talk about fear.

Even though restrooms have always been fraught with possible confrontations for anyone whose gendered appearance seems outside the norm, I have more reason to worry than ever.  Here in Virginia, we live next door to North Carolina and the unbelievable yet frighteningly real “Bathroom Bill” (H.B. 2), stating that everyone must pee in the bathroom that matches their original birth certificate.  Although she didn’t plan it that way, this time my wife’s connecting flight is through Philly; normally, she goes through Charlotte, North Carolina.  Also, due to her disability, we usually fly together, so I often serve as a kind of deflector in bathroom situations (we’ve gotten some dirty looks when people realize we’re ‘together,’ but we’ve never had anyone mistake Margo for a man when I’m at her side in a public restroom).  I’m really relieved that she’s avoiding Charlotte, even though Philly is NOT my favorite connecting hub.  Still, the stories I’m hearing and reading about come from all over the U.S.; North Carolina’s state law speaks quite clearly to those susceptible to mob mentality everywhere.

My wife is not trans, but she was born butch.  That means, she gets “sirred” at least once a week (this happened most of her life, even before she cut her waist-length straight black hair to a short and curly ‘do), wears dark Sauconeys, jeans and t-shirts or button-up shirts marketed as men’s clothing.  The only jewelry she wears is a pair of small silver hoops in her ears, and our wedding band – nothing particularly feminine.  Her voice is a little husky and deep.  She’s a small person, 5’2” (“AND A QUARTER”), slender, not threatening; she just has this butch vibe going on.  Friends and family (including myself) who buy her clothing as gifts often mistakenly get Large sizes because that’s how we think of Margo.  She jokes that she’s really 6’2” and 160 pounds; the truth is, she projects a big presence, one of the many things I love about her.  Still, it would take a big imagination to see Margo as a predator of anything more than a handful of delicious alfalfa sprouts.

She took her earrings out a month ago for an MRI and we never put them back in.  Now I’m sitting here worrying about that, wondering if that would prove a key part of someone else’s perceptions about her, if that little touch of bling might tip the scales in favor of seeing my wife as a biological woman if someone challenged her.  You just never know, and in the current climate about binary gender, now folks seem to feel they have permission to police gender in loud, aggressive, bullying ways.

As I see the stories about these kinds of bullying appear in my FB feed, or read news stories about straight women with short hair, lesbians with hats (?!), and actual trans people, all being harassed in or around restrooms, I see all too clearly how fragile the safe space around us has always been.  The transphobia around public bathrooms encourages the same phobic people to unleash their homophobia as well.  Now it can show itself under the guise of “protecting” women and children who appear heteronormative.  As Shannon Minter writes, “But while HB2’s attack on transgender people has attracted the lion’s share of attention, its negative impact on others is just as real. Among the many groups harmed by HB2, gender-nonconforming women, including many who are lesbian or bisexual, are especially at risk.  In the words of one butch blogger, ‘Bathrooms are spaces of extreme vulnerability for gender nonconforming folk.’”

I said earlier that “Margo and I had ‘the talk’.”  But the truth is, I was doing all the talking.  My wife didn’t have much to say.  She ducked her head and nodded a lot.  I hope I didn’t scare her.  I wonder what was going on in her head.  She has spent a lifetime being independent, mobile, and brave.  Now, in addition to her genetic disability slowing her down with loss of mobility and severe, chronic pain, there is the very real possibility of having to defend herself if she needs to adjust her brace, take a pain pill, or god forbid, actually pee.  Yet I couldn’t send her out into the world without warning her, could I?  We live in a small southeastern college town where most people have known my wife for years; it’s a safe little bubble in many ways.  Leaving it reminds us of that fact.

A suit against H.B. 2 asserts that the law is unconstitutional in that it allows discrimination on the basis of gender.  I’m glad that some North Carolinians have stepped up to fight the law, but that doesn’t protect my wife or other non-binary/trans folks from being harassed or even physically escorted out of a bathroom by security or police, being asked to “prove” their gender identity matches that of the bathroom in question, and all sorts of traumatizing and potentially explosive situations. 

And no, I’m not bashing ALL of North Carolina by association.  Many North Carolinians are taking stands as allies and compassionate human beings. 

(Interestingly, the FB page where the owners of that pizza parlor posted their sign has been made private since the sign appeared in January.  I’m pretty sure that harassment about the sign caused that to happen.  How many businesses have to make their FB site private?)  And on my own campus, the Hillel House bathrooms have recently been re-signed:

Hillel Restroom

All in all, I’m glad that once my wife arrives at her destination, she’ll be in the company of family for the remainder of the trip, until she flies out alone again to come home.  I mean, it helps a little.  She’d have back-up.  My anger and anxiety levels are exhausted by the tone and political climate that has made using a public restroom one more thing to keep me awake at night because of someone else’s whacked-out imagination. 

Because the truth of the matter is, if a woman or child is going to be harassed anywhere – bathroom, waiting room, dark hallway, parking deck, library, school, public transportation – sheer statistics point not at a transgender person, but the predictable straight, white male.  Demetrios Psichopaidas, a doctoral student at the University of Southern California, writes that “As of 2014, there has not been a reported incident of violence or peeping by trans men or women in bathrooms in the U.S., according to data from Media Matters. There is absolutely zero evidence of any violence ever committed in a restroom by such individuals. However,” – and this is an important point – “violence against these persons [transgender individuals] is quite commonplace,” (TakePart). 

That’s right.  In fact, Justice Department statistics show that 8 out of 10 of sexual assaults are committed by people already known to the victim, not strangers, while 64% of transgender people will experience sexual assault in their lifetime (study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality). 

I’m sure someday, some brilliant psychologist will connect the dots about this restroom rage in a way that helps us understand the psychosis behind it, similar to the way we know that the loudest homophobic voices typically belong to people who doubt their own heterosexuality.  In other words, those who are so vigorous about “defending” women and children in public bathrooms may quite likely be the very ones who fantasize about attacking women and children in public bathrooms. 

Fear, as always, is the monster here.  Not someone looking for a place to empty a bladder with a little dignity and comfort before simply going on with their lives. 

One of those someones is my wife. 

So I worry.  And write.  Oh yeah – and I vote. 

Take care, everyone.  Take care.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Find a Better Word

I snapped.  At a colleague, that is.  ‘Snapped’ as in, barked out an objection without pre-thinking, pre-phrasing, or otherwise considering how my comment might sound or be received by that colleague.  ‘Snapped’ as in, not stopping to carefully construct my objection in such a way as to avoid hurting this colleague’s feelings or making sure my remark didn’t make this colleague feel targeted or called out.  ‘Snapped’ as in, when you hit my kneecap with a little silver hammer, my foot is going to catch you in the crotch if you don’t move out of the way.

My colleague was fighting the good fight.  Making a case for not moving a very important program out of a primo piece of campus real estate and relocating it somewhere else difficult to access (both for able-bodied and disabled-bodied folks), and all the implications about devaluing that program that would come with such a move.  But what my colleague said was, “So the solution is not, hey, let’s move them out into a tipi.”

Now, I don’t teach at a tribal college.  In fact the most North American tribal things around my university are myself, one Native student about to graduate, and the land upon which the university sits.  So the use of ‘tipi’ was not a casual reference to a familiar Indigenous piece of culture used to house Indian families. 

‘Tipi’ was used, in this case, as a pejorative, the way we might say “out in the boonies” or “beyond civilization.”  Someplace where nobody wants to go, someplace where only savages live.  There be dragons.  That sort of thing.

My mouth popped open and my clever retort sang out like the proverbial arrow: “HEY! … find a better word.”

Damn!  Who said that?!  I guess it was me, because everyone turned and looked.  
Yes.  You see the problem, don’t you?  I wasn’t polite, or quiet; I didn’t even have the grace to frame my comment as a question (“could you please find a better word, please?”). 

“Well, whatever,” replied my colleague before he deflated back into his seat.

What just happened? I asked myself, feeling my heart accelerate, my face blush, and my body coming to full alert.  What the heck just happened here?

A.     I called out a senior colleague who is well-known for being liberal and progressive.

B.     I told this colleague to ‘find a better word.’  Demanded, in fact.

C.     I wasn’t nice.

During a discussion break, my colleague came over and said, “Deborah, I didn’t say that to be intentionally racist.”

That was not an apology.  I replied, “I know you didn’t say that to be intentionally racist.  But as the sole Native professor present, it’s my job to redirect language that perpetuates stereotypes about Indians.”

That was not an apology, either.

Others in the room began to chime in about why they supported my remark, and my colleague faded away.

This same colleague often wears a Redskins jacket.  I have never said anything about that to this professor.  I let it slide.  He does a lot of good work, you know?

Over the years, I have let slide joking requests that I go out on the front lawn and do a ‘rain dance’ during dry spells, being called ‘the Indian in the attic’ when my office was moved to the third floor, and comments that I ‘should wear your hair in braids more often, it makes you look really authentic.’

I have also, however, asked a colleague not to use the phrase, “circle the wagons,” pointed out the problematic nature of a student’s Chief Illini T-shirt, asked repeatedly why our university has a plaque dedicated to the first Black student but not the first Native American (Robert Latham Owens, look him up, he’s kind of a big deal), and a myriad of other microaggressions that frankly, I am too tired to repeat.

Is it too glib to just say in my own defense that I unexpectedly hit my overload point?  That my filter is so clogged with microaggressions that I no longer have control over what comes out of my mouth when confronted with yet another thoughtless comment negating Native lives?  That I backed up like a sewer and let it spew?

I feel bad that my colleague feels bad.  I feel bad that what I said came out so harshly.  Really?!  Yes, it’s true.  That’s how I’m conditioned.  Even now, as a full professor with tenure and a 3 year term endowed chair, I don’t actually want to hurt people to get my point across. 

IT JUST HAPPENED.  If by "just happened" you take into account 55 years of taking in similar kinds of references to Native people and culture as less than, as inferior, as examples of sub-human behaviorI’m not a saint.  I’m not an Earth Mother (although I grow rounder every year).  I’m just an Indian in the academy whose tolerance for crap has hit its limit. 

But am I sorry?  Complicated question.  In other situations, I have done the polite request.  What it usually gets me is a condescending “oh that’s so PC of you” attitude, or a “Come on, it’s just a saying, you know I’m not that kind of person” retort, as if I had insulted the person who used the stereotype. Rarely has anyone swallowed their pride, faced me, and said, “You are absolutely right, thank you for bringing that to my attention,” (Jim Warren, looking gratefully at you).  So I’m not sorry that I objected; it needed to be said, particularly in the context of our discussion. 

I do regret that my colleague feels hurt.  But I’m wondering if that hurt might not be a better lesson than anything else I could have said or done – for my colleague, not me.  I’m wondering if my colleague might not think about that choice of words, and all the years of ignoring or bypassing Indigenous issues and history that allowed the word “tipi” to come out, a little more than if I’d simply smiled tightly, taken him aside later, and said quietly, “Can you use a better word, please?”

Because I have felt hurt, marginalized, belittled, and targeted many more times than I have spoken up about it.  Because I’ve bitten my tongue enough times to know that my own blood tastes bitter.  Because, let’s be honest, my white male colleague has enough privilege to overcome this small moment and, if willing to do the work, come out a better person.

Decolonizing language is a painful process. 

Sometimes the hardest people to educate about race and class are people who define themselves as liberal and progressive. 

Sometimes we have to look closely at what comes out of our mouths ‘naturally’ or ‘unintentionally’ in order to see how deeply embedded racist language really is in our culture and our lives, and we must think about what that means for us as individuals committed to social justice.

And yes, sometimes a reflexive objection speaks more truthfully than pre-composed remarks.  

And now that I have spent three hours processing this brief interaction, I'm going to go reward myself with a mountain.  Where, by the way, I stay in a cabin.  Not a tipi in sight.