Category Archives: activism

The power of silence

Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented. – Elie Wiesel

Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly. – Mahatma Gandhi

Your silence will not protect you. – Audre Lorde

To be an activist is to use your voice. To speak up. To take action. Silence, for an activist, is a death knell. It signals complicity with the aggressor. Silence equals death.

Right?

These last few weeks, I haven’t posted any blog articles, which marks the longest stretch of inactivity since I started blogging at The Active  Voice. I can cite lots of reasons for this. I’ve been incredibly busy at work. My daughter’s school and social calendar has taken on a life of its own. And lately, I’ve been driving all over the place – Fresno, San Francisco, Silicon Valley – for book signings and presentations. My gas tank was running on empty – and for weeks, when blog-writing time rolled around, I chose instead to rest, regroup, and refuel. I wanted to be still and quiet. And I wasn’t feeling good about it. You’ve got a blog article to write, the nagging voice said. Don’t slack off.

And then, last week, a friend sent me an article that changed my perspective.

That article was titled “10 Important Reasons to Start Making Time for Silence, Rest, and Solitude.” Oh great, I thought to myself. Another fluffy self-help piece. But the article resonated with me, on several levels – and I found myself realizing that silence is not only personally healing, it can be a powerful tool in a social justice activist’s toolkit. In fact, I probably need to utilize silence much more frequently than I do. I won’t talk about all ten reasons outlined in the article, but I’ll focus on a few.

Silence strengthens intention and action. Most of us think of “silence” and “action” as mutually exclusive and incompatible concepts. However, Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, says this in the article: “During silence, the mind is best able to cultivate a form of mindful intention that later motivates us to take action.” I might, for example, be dissatisfied with my job, to the point where it affects my work performance. However,  if I’m constantly in a flutter of activity, I’m not creating any space to process what that dissatisfaction is about – and that step needs to happen before I can identify what actions to take.

Here’s an example: Recently, my daughter came home from school singing a song that I thought had lyrics that were sexist. “Who taught you that song?” I asked her.

“My teacher,” she answered brightly, and then went back to singing it.

My initial reaction was anger. RAGE, really. I was ready to pick up my phone and fire off an e-mail to the teacher. Then I thought, No, it’s better to tell her my concerns after school. I started to write down what I wanted to say to her. Maybe I’ll text one of the other parents and see what they think, I thought. And then, somewhere in the depths of my soul, a tiny voice said, Wait.

I listened. And I’m glad I did. Later that day, after she had some after-school “quiet time,” my daughter was singing that song again. When she got to the offending lyric, she said, “I don’t like that part. I’m going to change it.” And she did – she created a totally different line that was positive and non-sexist. “From now on, I’m going to sing it this way at school,” she announced.

Had my daughter not been quiet, the idea might not have come to her. Had I not been quiet, I would have charged like a bull towards the teacher – and I would have denied my daughter the opportunity to take action. In hindsight, her way was far better than mine.

Silence gives us “a-ha” moments. In his memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about how he gets his ideas: “Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” But in order to recognize them, you need to slow down, be quiet, and pay attention. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have studied this very phenomenon. When we’re quiet, they say, we’re more likely to daydream, to let our minds wander. Mind-wandering and daydreaming give us what they call an “incubation period,” where we digest our thoughts and let our ideas percolate – and this is where we’re most likely to have that “eureka!” moment. Interestingly, studies indicate that people who are more prone to daydreaming are more likely to score higher on tests of creativity – an essential skill for an activist navigating the rocky terrain of social justice work.

Silence increases our tolerance for discomfort. Try this: Find a comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for five minutes. Close your eyes, sit, and do nothing until the alarm rings.

How was it?

If you’ve never meditated before, I bet it felt like the longest five minutes of your life.

So many people HATE silence. They’ll chatter incessantly just to fill space. They’ll crack a joke after a period of uncomfortable silence in order to break the tension. Even texting or Facebooking on our phones is a way to prevent silence. If I’m in the waiting room, or on the bus, or in line, just sitting quietly might be too much to bear  – so it’s iPhone to the rescue, to keep the mental chatter going.

Several years ago, I participated in the Day of Silence, an annual day of action organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network). Participants take a day-long vow of silence as a symbolic representation of the silencing of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. It’s a powerful experience, and for me, it was profoundly uncomfortable. Every time I nonverbally asserted my right to silence, I felt uncomfortable. Every time I watched other people’s uncomfortable reactions, I felt uncomfortable. The whole thing was just . . . uncomfortable. And that, actually, was the most illuminating part of the whole experience for me. I tolerated a tremendous amount of discomfort throughout the day, and to cope with it, I drew on internal resources I didn’t know I had. At the same time, I witnessed discomfort in others – lots of it. For me, it was an exercise that created a boundary between my discomfort and theirs – and that it’s not my job to rescue people from their feelings. Because the only way to do that, of course, would have been for me to break my silence.

Silence as a regular practice. Think about it.

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What counts as “history”?

A few days ago, I read an article on the Internet titled, “Learning That I Do Exist: Why LGBT History Matters.” It’s an excellent read, and it briefly covers a few LGBT historical events that many people don’t know about. However, that’s not what most struck me about the article: Reading it triggered a memory of an event I hadn’t thought about in years, an event that was shockingly similar to the college incident shared in the article.

In my 11th grade AP History class, one of our assignments was to write a paper about a 20th century historical figure. Mr. Reinhardt, my history teacher, rattled off a list of examples, most of which involved the usual suspects: John F. Kennedy. Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson. Boring, I thought to myself. The last thing I want to do is write another paper about a dead White president. I wanted to learn about someone who isn’t usually studied in a typical history class, but I couldn’t think of anyone. One night, I was watching a baseball game on TV with my father, and I asked his advice. “Who would you write about?”

My dad didn’t miss a beat. “Jackie Robinson,” he said. (Obviously he had baseball on his mind.)

“Who’s that?” I asked.

My dad snorted. “Write your paper about him,” he said, “and you’ll find out.”

The next day, I did some research at my high school library. (This was 1987. Google didn’t exist then.) Once I learned who Jackie Robinson was, I got so excited about writing that paper. History seemed like such a boring subject, probably because all we talked about were wars, dead White presidents, and military heroes. No wonder I had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. This paper opened a door for me, and made me realize that history could be about baseball players and the Brooklyn Dodgers – and that Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t the only Black man and civil rights activist of importance.

The day after our paper topics were due, Mr. Reinhardt asked me to stay after class. “You can’t write your paper on this topic,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it. “Why not?”

“Because Jackie Robinson isn’t a real historical figure.” (Yes, my teacher really did say that.)

I was a pretty good rule-follower in school, and I rarely challenged authority. But this time, my automatic knee-jerk reaction was to pick a fight with Mr. Reinhardt. “What do you mean, he isn’t a real historical figure?” I asked. Many years later, I still remember Mr. Reinhardt’s eyes narrowing when I said this.

“He was just a baseball player,” Mr. Reinhardt said. “There isn’t much else to say about him.”

I remember standing there in total disbelief as he said this. “If you let me write my paper about him,” I said, “I’ll prove you wrong.”

Mr. Reinhardt laughed. “Okay,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk your grade.”

I was willing to risk my grade.

In high school, “history” was about White men, for the most part. And that’s true in most academic disciplines, including psychology. (Read Even the Rat Was White for an expose of the history of racism in psychology). It wasn’t until I got to college that I took courses in women’s history and African-American history – neither of which were graduation requirements. In graduate school (which, by the way, is a program that’s lauded for its approach to multicultural education), we were required to take just one class that focused on a historically marginalized group. I took several – one on Mexican-American history, one on Asians in America, and one on the history of those indigenous to the Americas. I have never taken a class on LGBT history.

The point is this: It’s easy to spend years in higher education without ever really learning about women, people of color, or LGBT people. And invisibility is one of the most powerful forms of oppression. If you don’t see people like yourself represented, then people like yourself must not exist. Or people like yourself who are important must not exist. If, on the other hand, you only see people like yourself represented – well, nothing breeds privilege and ethnocentrism more strongly than that.

This isn’t just a theoretical issue – we’re seeing the real-world consequences of this. Many studies have documented a significant achievement gap between White students and students of color, particularly African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. Several of those studies show a link between poor academic performance and the lack of representation of these groups in their curricula. Several studies, including one recently conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, show that Black individuals who lack knowledge about their history are more likely to endorse negative Black stereotypes. Other studies, including classic work by psychologist Claude Steele, demonstrate that internalized stereotypes can have a negative impact on test performance – a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” And LGBT history is rarely taught in schools; most of my students have no knowledge of the Compton Cafeteria Riots or the Stonewall Riots, just to give two examples. In fact, very few of my millennial students have meaningful knowledge about the AIDS crisis.

Recently, our pastor at church gave a sermon about Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac. After she told the story, she asked, “And where was Sarah in all of this? How come her voice isn’t heard in this story?” I’d heard the story of the sacrificial lamb many times, but it had never occurred to me that Sarah’s voice had been silenced. But this happens all the time – the voices of those who lack power don’t make it into the history books. In elementary school, I learned that Christopher Columbus was a brave explorer who discovered the Americas. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that “bravery” from one point of view is “genocide” from another. Who gives voice to a particular historical event determines who gets seen and heard, who is deemed to be “important,” who appears on your AP History list of possible paper topics.

So I wrote my history paper about Jackie Robinson. And I worked my ass off. I visited multiple libraries (including a university library), searching for every shred of information I could find. I wrote and rewrote the paper with fierce determination until it was as good as it could be. Mr. Reinhardt decided that my efforts were worth a B+. And I got a tiny taste of what it’s like to have to convince an authority figure that something is worth learning about.

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What will it take for Facebook to change its policy?

Once upon a time, if you joined Facebook and wanted to select a gender option, the only options you could choose from were “male” and “female.” Several months ago, all of that changed when Facebook added 56 “custom” gender options. With that change, Facebook issued the following announcement:

When you come to Facebook to connect with the people, causes, and organizations you care about, we want you to feel comfortable being your true, authentic self. An important part of this is the expression of gender, especially when it extends beyond the definitions of just “male” or female.” So today, we’re proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook.

You could almost hear the collective “YAY!” from various queer and ally communities. With that change, Facebook became Cool. Hip. Progressive. The LGBTQ community had found a powerful ally in the corporate social media world. Or so we thought.

Now Facebook’s “real name” policy is rearing its ugly head.  If you go to the page titled, “What names are allowed on Facebook?”, you’ll see this:

Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.

The page goes on to describe what’s not allowed, including nicknames that bear no resemblance to your real name, titles, word or phrases in place of a middle name, characters from multiple languages, or anything deemed offensive or suggestive. This policy has been in place for quite some time, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced. That is, until a few days ago, when individuals using pseudonyms, stage names, or other names that don’t match their legal names began receiving messages saying, “Your account has been temporarily suspended because it looks like you’re not using your real name.” To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post reported that Facebook’s “real name” policy is disproportionately affecting the LGBT community, particularly drag queens, stage performers, and transgender people. After a meeting with Facebook officials organized by Sister Roma of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Facebook announced that they would reinstate profiles that had been suspended and give them a 2-week grace period: either they comply with the policy, or their profiles will be removed.

In one fell swoop, cool-hip-progressive Facebook became Public Enemy #1. When Facebook expanded its gender options, it offered a welcoming, validating space for queer people –  a space where you could be your “true, authentic self.” (Remember those words?) Now, there’s considerable debate about whether to jump ship entirely. A community boycott of Facebook called My Name is Me is asking people to deactivate their Facebook accounts and switch to Google+, a social media platform that allows pseudonyms and preferred names to be used.

So I did a little “research.” I went through all of my Facebook friends, and I counted how many of them use a pseudonym. And I came up with twenty-two. I have several friends who are Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. A handful of friends are transgender and in transition, choosing to use a name that fits their gender identity rather than their legal name. Some transgender friends maintain two accounts – one that uses their chosen name (for friends and supporters), the other that uses their legal name (for people who don’t know about their transgender status). I know a couple of people who are drag queens and who maintain pages using that name. Some friends use a pseudonym because they’re lesbian, gay, or bisexual and aren’t out to their families. Obviously, you can see how the LGBTQ community is impacted by this policy.

But not all of my friends (including the 22 with pseudonyms) are LGBTQ. I have at least one friend who uses a pseudonym because she escaped a violent relationship and doesn’t want her ex to find her. Another friend is a therapist and uses a pseudonym so clients won’t “friend” her. I know people in 12-step recovery programs who don’t use their legal names because they want to stay anonymous, in keeping with the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. And several friends use pseudonyms so they can keep their “friends” list small and generally stay under the radar.

I expanded my “research” to include a bit of statistical calculation. I have 465 Facebook friends. Twenty-two people out of 465 equals 4.7%. If all twenty-two of those people decided to quit Facebook and delete their accounts, that would be a tiny drop in the Facebook bucket. But if all of my Facebook friends jumped on board and deleted their accounts, that might get their attention. If all of my Facebook friends got all of their Facebook friends to delete their accounts (and so on), I think Facebook would seriously consider changing its policy.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. Maybe this analogy will explain my thinking. After my Introductory Psychology students take a multiple-choice exam, I do what’s called an item analysis. If there’s a test question that all (or most) students got wrong, I throw the question out and credit them with the points. My students love this – they can’t wait to hear how many “free points” they’re going to get. However, what they haven’t figured out is this: If all of them hatched a plot and collectively agreed to answer every single question incorrectly, then all of them would earn 100% on the exam. Simple as that.

Actually, I don’t think it’s that my students haven’t figured this out. I think many of them have – but they’re too scared to put it into action. If I answer each question wrong, and at least one student answers at least one question correctly, then I get a zero on the exam. That’s a risk that most students aren’t willing to take, because taking the risk involves trusting every single student completely. It’s the same thing with the Facebook issue: If I delete my account, and none of my friends delete their accounts, then I’m disconnected from my friends – and Facebook is still alive and thriving, oppressive policies still in place. And frankly, it’s one of the reasons why radical social change is so hard to achieve. People know that change will happen if a critical mass jumps in with both feet – but if you end up being the only one who takes the plunge, change doesn’t happen, and you fall SPLAT on the ground.

So if you’re on Facebook, what will you do? Will you jump in with both feet and delete your account entirely? Will you just dip your toe in by temporarily deactivating your account and seeing what happens? Or will you do nothing?

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Filed under activism, coming out, gender nonconformity, media, transgender, violence

Distorted

When I drive through the Central Valley on I-5 or Highway 99, there’s a stretch of freeway where I can’t get clear reception from either the Sacramento or the Fresno NPR stations. In fact, on my way back from Fresno this weekend, the clearest signal I could get on the dial was a conservative talk radio station. So I tuned in – just out of curiosity. (This isn’t the first time my curiosity has led me to conservative talk radio stations. Regular readers of The Active Voice probably know this.) This particular station was airing an interview with Chelsen Vicari, a young millennial who was talking about her new book, Distortion: How the New Christian Left Is Twisting the Gospel and Damaging the Faith. Her argument, in a nutshell, is that Christianity is being hijacked by leftist apologists and homosexual sympathizers, and that Christians need to reclaim their faith and take back the Gospel. Here are some examples of what Vicari had to say:

On the issue of the “evangelical left”: When I say “the evangelical left,” I’m really talking about those within the church who are pushing a political, leftist agenda cloaked in Christianity. And when I say “cloaked in Christianity,” I mean using the Bible and twisting it to justify a leftist political agenda that actually goes against what Scripture talks about in many ways, for example, marriage, and life, and liberty.

On the issue of homosexuality: It is arguably the biggest, most hostile issue millennial Christians are faced with. Whenever we talk about same-sex relationships, we are either labeled as bigoted or uncompassionate, or we’re dismissed if we hold a view of marriage that is between one man and one woman.

On challenging the evangelical left: I absolutely believe that we can have revival, not just in the evangelical community but the church at large. But to do that, it’s going to start within our homes. It’s going to start by teaching our children exactly what Scripture says and how to defend it. Oftentimes the millennials are willing to compromise because, honestly, they don’t know enough about their faith to speak up about it.

So I’m listening to this, and the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I wasn’t at all surprised by Vicari’s beliefs – listening to conservative talk radio is an exercise in redundancy. No, the thing that was getting me weirded out was that her arguments sound exactly the same as what you’d hear from an LGBTQ social justice activist. Except just a little different. Consider what Vicari was essentially saying in her interview:

1. People are taking our Scripture and twisting it around to satisfy a political agenda. (Just like people who fight for social justice argue that the religious right twists the Bible to fit their beliefs.)

2. If we “come out” as Christian, we face intense discrimination, especially if we state our true beliefs about marriage, homosexuality, and abortion. (Coming out and discrimination? Those terms have their roots in the LGBTQ community.)

3. If things are going to change, we have to stand up for what we believe in, and teach our children how to do the same. (We are a community of experts when it comes to teaching our LGBTQ children – or children growing up in LGBTQ families – to accept themselves unconditionally and to stand up for who they are.)

You listen to this stuff long enough, and you almost start to believe it.

This is an old manipulative tactic. A defense mechanism, really, if you want to use psychological language. Melanie Klein, a neo-Freudian whose work dates back to the early 1900s through the 1940s, described a complicated phenomenon called “projective identification.” Here’s how it works: First, a person (Person #1) engages in projection, which is the unconscious act of attributing a negative, distressing part of ourselves onto someone else (Person #2). In other words, we see in other people what we can’t see in ourselves. But then, it goes a step further – Person #1 manages to manipulate the situation so Person #2 actually feels what’s been projected onto them. They’re stuck holding the bag of feelings that wasn’t even theirs in the first place.

Here’s how Vicari does this in her book (and in her interview). Instead of seeing how she and other evangelicals are twisting the Bible for their own purposes, she attributes this behavior to the “evangelical left.” Instead of acknowledging how the religious right has engaged in systematic institutionalized oppression, she turns it around and frames the religious right as the oppressed and the “evangelical left” as the oppressors. And instead of making amends and practicing restitution, Vicari says that true evangelicals need to stand up and fight back against this appropriation of the Bible.

Crazy stuff. But believable, if you listen to it long enough. And that’s why projective identification is such a powerfully effective defense mechanism. You can get rid of your shadow self, throw it onto another person, and make that person believe that the shadow self was theirs all along. It’s ironic, really, that Vicari chose the word “distortion” for her title. While her readers may begin to believe that liberals, leftists, and social justice activists are distorting the truth, the truth is that Vicari is the one who’s the master distortionist.

For those of you who are college students taking an introductory psychology class (or thinking about taking it in the future), I have some advice for you. When you get to the Freudian stuff, listen up – even if you think he and his followers were complete whack jobs, snorting cocaine and talking about sex all day. (There’s some truth to that.) It will give you powerful tools to understand the dynamics of the oppressor. What I just described above is a perfect example.

 

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Filed under activism, coming out, homophobia, human rights, religion, same-sex marriage

My queer elevator pitch

It was lunchtime. I was at a day-long picture book workshop, and at the break a group of us sat down to eat together. I hadn’t met any of them before, so we introduced ourselves and started making small talk. Then, the inevitable question arose:

“What do you write?”

A logical question, considering we’re all attending a writing workshop. But a loaded one – for me, anyway. In my experience, if I say, “I write LGBT-themed books,” I get one of two responses. Usually, people are excited and interested. But sometimes the response is stark, uncomfortable silence. Picture book writers tend to be white, female, heterosexual, and middle-aged, a demographic that could swing either way in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. When I give that answer, I’m simultaneously preparing myself for any possible reaction – much like LGBTQ kids and young adults do when they’re coming out to their parents.

The other issue with the what-do-you-write question is this: Saying “I write LGBT-themed books” isn’t a complete answer. I’ve written lots of stories that have absolutely nothing to do with the LGBTQ community – and they don’t fit neatly into some category or genre. One story is about weaning from breastfeeding. Another is about Humpty Dumpty getting fixed. (That’s called a “fractured fairy tale,” where a traditional fairy tale is told in an entirely different way.) I’ve written stories about cats, dogs, roosters, seagulls, and toes. (The toes story is one of my favorites.) Sometimes I write stories because I want to infuse some deeper meaning into them. But often I write stories just because they’re fun to write.

So often people have to market themselves in order to be successful. If a person is looking for a job (or looking for a publisher), they’re told to develop a thirty-second “elevator pitch” that quickly summarizes who you are and what you’re all about. It’s part of a larger process commonly referred to as “personal branding,” which is how you package yourself as a marketable asset. The book Think and Grow Rich, originally published in 1937, first introduced this idea – later,  the 1980s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People  used the concept of “visioning” to modernize this idea. Hundreds of studies in business, marketing, communications, and psychology have been conducted on the power of personal branding. If I were to brand myself, I could say, “I am a community college professor and author who specializes in LGBTQ issues.” That’s a short, sweet elevator pitch.

But just like the what-d0-you-write question, that pitch doesn’t even come close to telling the full story. Labels and categories rarely do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I don’t have a quick, easy answer that is complete and honest. When people ask, “What do you do?”, my elevator pitch doesn’t tell people that I’m a licensed psychologist (who currently doesn’t practice), a mom, a crafter, a crazy cat lady and chicken keeper, a swimmer and lover of the ocean, an obsessive scrimper and saver – and lots of other things. If anything, my elevator pitch allows people to pigeonhole me into a category. It encourages stereotyping.

No wonder so many people in queer communities have resisted being labeled, categorized, pigeonholed, or elevator-pitched. Labels can help us find each other and form communities. Labels can also help others understand who we are – to a point. But they don’t tell the whole story. When I’m asked, “How do you identify your sexuality?”, I don’t have a quick, easy answer. If I say “bisexual,”  which is the most technically accurate term, I’m aware that a particular vision of bisexuality is likely to get conjured up – and that vision might not be who I am. If I say “lesbian,” that matches my long-term relationship status, but it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I’ve had relationships with men (and potentially could again in the future, although I’m quite happy with my partner).  The fact that I don’t look “bisexual” or “lesbian” (most people who know me will tell you this) complicates things even further. I don’t have an elevator pitch that conveys a “sexuality brand” – and frankly, I don’t think I want one.

Alison Hearn, a professor of Media and Information Studies at Western Canada University, has written many articles about self, identity, and branding – and essentially what she says is this: When we engage in self-branding, we’re constructing a “narrative of the self” (which may or may not accurately reflect the real self). This narrative comes from what she calls an “outer-directed” form of the self (giving people what they want, in the service of capitalism), rather than an inner-directed self. This is not a new idea – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D.W. Winnicott, talk about the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. If you think about it, this is the opposite of  what feminists, anti-racism activists, and social justice advocates have been working towards – creating space for our true, authentic voices and selves to be heard and seen. The idea of an outer-directed self is not new – many classic theorists, including Carl Rogers and D. W. Winnicott, have identified the “false self” as the society-conforming personality. It’s not something that people in radical social justice communities want to participate in, I’d say.

I’ll end with a funny story. During lunch at this picture book workshop, when I shared more details about the kinds of things I write about, someone said to me, “You write great stories! They just aren’t a good fit for what mainstream publishers are looking for.” I laughed and said, “Even my stories are queer!” And then I realized: That’s my elevator pitch. I write stories that speak to people, but they don’t fit neatly into a category or niche, which, ironically, is often how my queer identity plays out. If I’m going to have an elevator pitch for my writing, that is one that’s subversive enough for me to live with.

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