Thursday, 17 July 2014

special and unique snowflake, level 8

You've probably seen this beautiful letter sent by a headmaster to his pupils after taking their Key Stage 2 SATs. It's flipping heartbreaking, the fact that this guy can see through the league table box-ticking bollocks that pervades English schools, and the fact that he cared enough to send letters reminding everyone of that.

The endless grind of academic pressure was one of the things that sent me mad in the first place: SATs, mocks, coursework, GCSEs, A levels; there wasn't a single moment from 1999 to 2007 that I didn't have a constant, low-level anxiety running alongside whatever else was going on: have you revised enough maybe you should get started on the reading coursework needs to be handed in next week why haven't you written that fucking essay you are going to fail everything and if you don't get top marks you are a worthless human being learn facts remember facts spew facts get marks repeat forever.

(That and the fact that five sixths of my A-level History course was about fascism, which is just ridiculously depressing.)

Sadly, my headteacher was not quite as lovely as the chap at Barrowford Primary School. Instead, she sent a letter saying:
I understand that Hannah has been feeling the pressure somewhat.
Which is a nice way of saying "Hannah is mad as a bag of mad things, had to be artfully arranged in the school photo to cover up her gaping wounds, and was given detention for writing 'I hate myself and want to die' in her Biology workbook". I mean, detention, for fuck's sake. If it had been detention for the deeply embarrassing decision to quote that Nirvana song with no ironic distance, I'd applaud their decision, but you'd think at least one of them would have thought, "Gee, if she tops herself, we're gonna get sued - let's  send her to counselling or something".
However, wouldn't it be wonderful if she could be the first person at Heartless Bastards Secondary School to achieve all A*s in her GCSEs!
My point - and yes, I do have one, this isn't just a Prozac Nation pity party - is that this league table box-ticking soul-sucking individual-ignoring education culture isn't just annoying. It doesn't just churn out students who have only been taught how to absorb facts rather than think for themselves. It has the potential to kill people really, really dead.

So. More Barrowfords, please.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Piper Chapman: a walking lesson in privilege navigation

Once again, Piper Chapman gives us all an object lesson in how not to navigate your own privilege.

When I finally succeeded in getting my Gentleman Admirer to watch Orange is the New Black, I explained that you just have to suffer through the scenes with awful Piper and her awful pie-fucking boyfriend, via the Trojan Horse principle, in order to get to the good stuff.

Quite often, on my first view of an episode, I'll drift off a little during Piper and/or Larry scenes: they're a good opportunity to deal with the dropped stitch, put the kettle on, check my phone. I'll keep half an ear open so I get what's going on, but neither Piper or Larry are what I'm watching for.

There are times, though, when Piper's incessant, inexorable Piperness is used to tell an actually interesting story: a story that isn't "rich white girl goes to prison, meets people who aren't rich or white, Hilarity Ensues", but more like "rich white girl meets people whose lives break through her nigh-impenetrable self-obsession to bring a tiny glimmer of awareness of just how privileged she is in every way". Life throws you these little tests every now and again. And Piper fails them, every time.

So. Spoilers! Piper's grandmother is ill, possibly dying. She applies for furlough - a temporary leave of absence from prison, granted so rarely as to be basically mythical - explaining to her counsellor that she has no real hope of getting it, but wouldn't be able to live with herself if she didn't try.

She gets it. Sister Ingalls describes this as "a miracle".

So here is how Piper deals with this boon she has been granted, in no small part, because of her unearned privilege as a well-off white lady:

1. She tries to give it back. After hearing other inmates' stories of being denied furlough - for the deaths of their mothers, children, husbands; for the birth of grandchildren; Sophia has a particularly heartbreaking story about her father hoping to reconcile with her before he died - Piper realises that she does not deserve this good fortune. (In the words of Aleida, "Tell me how it's dark at night and cold in the snow.") So the most humane thing to do is, obviously, to give the grand prize back.

Except that this solves exactly fucking nothing. Piper giving up her prize doesn't mean anyone else gets to have it. It doesn't let Anita DeMarco hold her first grandchild. It doesn't give Poussey the chance to "say the things you're supposed to say to your moms before she pass". It doesn't give Sophia the chance to hear her father say he's sorry for being a dick when she transitioned. All it would achieve is making Piper feel better about herself, which is, ultimately, the only thing Piper cares about.

2. She tells everyone to stop being mean to her. Tiring of her fellow inmates muttering about her everywhere she goes, suggesting she only got furlough because she's white and middle class, or because she sucked off her counsellor, she flips out. Stands up in the dining hall and shouts that even if she's getting special treatment because of her white privilege, SHE LOVES HER GRANDMOTHER AND EVERYONE SHOULD LEAVE HER ALONE.

I mean, jesus fuck.

"My feelings! This is all about my feelings! Your feelings about entrenched, systemic racism, about the innumerable ways, from the microscopic to the life-defining, that life is made easier for white middle class people, are completely irrelevant, because you expressing your feelings about that is hurting MY FEELINGS, which, lest we ever forget this for a second, is THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IN THE WORLD EVER. PS you can't call me a racist because I know the phrase 'white privilege'."

Thank you, Piper Chapman, for giving us all a shining example, in every situation you find yourself in, of what not to do.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Haircuts and big ears: learning to STFU

This year, on Pride weekend, I celebrated my love of the Elgybeeties by having the world's most righteous haircut.

They are explicitly LGBT-friendly. They have a sliding price scale where you pay what you can afford, so that even the impoverished can have queer hairdos. They have an option for you to indicate your preferred pronoun on the booking form.

They are Open Barbers, and they are awesome.

You know that awkward hairdresser conversation which rarely strays beyond the officially ratified safe topics of work, holidays, and split ends? Not here. We chatted about mutual friends, sordid pasts, Orange Is The New Black (which, thinking about it, is possibly the feminist/trans/ladygay equivalent of Nice Weather We've Been Having), Irish abortion law, Belgium's haircutting equality law, and, well, my haircut, obviously.

At the beginning of your appointment, you are also given the option not to chat at all.

I'd been thinking a lot about counselling training and empathic listening, about how, when talking to the women who call the Abortion Support Network hotline, your politics and beliefs are instantly sidelined: they're probably what brought you to the work in the first place, but they could hardly be less relevant to the woman on the other end of the phone. Like, if the woman you're talking to refers to Londonderry, that's what you call it for the rest of the conversation. If she says she lives in Northern Ireland, or Ulster, or The Unlawfully Occuppied Six Counties And By The Way I'm Still Pissed Off About The Treaty Of 1921 - well, you'd probably shorten the latter, but you don't, ever, correct her. She has the right to define her own life. When so much agency has been stripped away from her, the last thing she needs is you taking that little bit more. Similarly, you follow her lead in referring to The Pregnancy, or The Baby, or This Fucking Alien Parasite Squatting In My Uterus. If she tells you flat out, "I am going to hell for killing this baby," this is not the time to convince her of the righteousness of the pro-choice cause. You're there for the practicalities: first and foremost, to listen to her.

So during my revolutionary haircut, we were talking about the unexpected similarities between righteous barbering and volunteering for an abortion fund. Of the importance of listening to what people are actually telling you, leaving a blank slate inside yourself rather than a series of tick boxes. Monitoring your own responses so you're not giving people cues as to the "right" response, whether the question is "how long do you want your sideburns?" or "does anyone else know you're pregnant?".

It's something I try to do in life, as well; while there are some non-negotiables - like, if someone starts revving up the Men Are Just More Visually Stimulated Than Women bandwagon, I'm not going to respect their right to define the world as they see fit, because they're talking untrammeled bullshit and also disrespecting my right to define my own reality, so fuck them - when people are talking about stuff that matters, I make a conscious effort to leave a space around what they say rather than mentally shoehorning it into the most appropriate pigeonhole and racing to give them my own interpretation of what they've just said.

One of the most common ways I've screwed up around social justice stuff is in trying desperately to show how cool I am about someone's gender identity or ethnicity or whatever. "LOOK," I shout, metaphorically speaking, "I AM SO COOL ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU ARE NOT A STRAIGHT WHITE MIDDLE CLASS CIS DUDE, LET ME SHOW YOU HOW COOL I AM." I'm learning that, sometimes, just not responding - leaving that space open for them to say more - is infinitely more valuable. Chilling the fuck out, basically. Not leaping in with what you think they mean to show how read up on The Issues you are.

It's also a lot less tiring.

So back to Open Barbers.

They give you the haircut you actually want, rather than the one they think you should have. They give you the option to face away from the mirror while they're working. They create a sense of endless time, never making you feel like you should just cut your losses and accept a do you don't actually want rather than boring them any longer.

They are awesome, and you can book your very own righteous haircut here.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The bark on your very own crazy tree: queerness and mental illness

Content note: self harm, suicide, homophobia, fun shit like that. Also, if you are my mother, I would consider it a great favour if you didn't read this. Thanks!

LGBT people are ten times as likely to try to commit suicide as cis straight people.
LGBT people are three times as likely to experience anxiety disorders, and six times as likely to experience depression.

Up to 50% of LGBT youth will try to kill themselves.

(Source: The Polarised Project)

I'm never sure how to think about these statistics. When I think about my colourful psychiatric history, the fact that I like to fuck girls doesn't seem particularly salient, you know? Queerness is about sex and love and life and joy; throwing 100 painkillers down your gullet in your empty teenage bedroom is about the opposite of all of those things.

When I was digging holes in my left arm back in the heady days of 2002, I wasn't thinking, "Gee, I am so sad because the kids in year 8 called me a dyke outside Maths, also because I do not see positive representations of queers on TV and because people who are into sleeping with people of the same gender face workplace discrimination".

But getting to the point where you want to throw 100 painkillers down your gullet in the first place is, in part, about having been treated like a freak your entire life; about never fitting in and losing your ability to hope for a future which will let you breathe.

(Yeah. I know. Whiny teenager alert. This shit was over a decade ago, but I can think myself back there like it was yesterday.)

My comparatively easy ride is unsurprising given that I grew up in a nice white middle class home with parents who were pretty much unfazed at having produced two queer daughters. Any oppression is easier to deal with in isolation: this is the basic point of that impenetrable academe-speak "intersectionality", yes? No one told me I was going to hell for wanking over Chloƫ Sevigny; I wasn't thrown out of the family home for "losing" my "virginity"* with a girl long before I met my first boner. The abuse I got was from people I hated anyway: it still takes a toll, but it doesn't gut you like abuse from people who are supposed to love you.

* Just because I hate that phrase and the entire worldview it encompasses

I think I just get nervous when people attribute mental illness to social discrimination because it seems so pat, so easy: pump stigma in, mental illness comes out. I've lived through both, and I know it is never that simple.

But then, when you take a step back, stop minutely examining the bark on your own particular crazy tree, and get a look at the whole gigantic New Forest of not-straight people who are so miserable they want to die: yeah, maybe there's a link. Not being straight doesn't inexorably lead to discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, drug use, survival sex work, but there is a correlation; these life experiences don't cause mental illness, because mental illness is a lot more fucking complicated than that, but they can be part of the oh-so-fabulous cocktail that sends someone down their own, very specific, rabbit hole.

In 2004, maybe, or 2005, a 15 year old boy came to stay with us for a week because his parents had kicked him out when they found out he was gay. I made him dinner, baked a cake, watched shit tv with him. It was one of those houses where there's always someone new on the sofa, impromtu parties starting on Friday night and ending a few days later when the drugs run out or the last person has to go to a lecture or sign on. So it wasn't a big deal to give him a roof over his head for a while, but I think back now and wonder what he would have done if he hadn't happened to have bumped into my housemate in Heaven that night; how many other kids end up sleeping rough because they didn't have a friend who could offer.

I took myself on a date to see Kate Bornstein Is A Queer and Pleasant Danger at the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival a few months back. I arrived early, sat in the foyer, and watched people stream through; I couldn't put my finger on what it was - I still can't define it, really - but it felt so fucking good, after living in an increasingly straight milieu for longer than I want to think about, to be around the homo multitudes again.

Because being queer isn't just about fucking at all. I was going to say "How nice it would be if it was" - if it didn't come with a massively increased chance of depression and anxiety and trying to make yourself dead - but there is a positive side. That part of the "community" that actually acts like a community, that cares at least as much about homeless kids as marriage equality, that reminds us that the Q can stand for Questioning and prods us not to stop at questioning the reductive maths of boy + girl.

Heteronormativity may well have played its part in dragging me down, but it's my eccentrically, brilliantly unheteronormative friends who help me back up again every time.