Apr 292011

Last week, I wrote about my photo shoot in an abandoned hospital with Syd London. The shoot was amazing, triggering, inspiring, and liberating… and it resulted in some awesome photos.  As promised, I’m sharing some of my favorite shots here.  In today’s release, I’ve included photos from two rooms within the hospital. I’ll be posting my favorites from the other rooms over the next week.

All photos by the spectacular Syd London.  And now, for your viewing pleasure:

Want to see more?  Check out the full set on Flickr.

Apr 282011

I’ve never put much store in pronouns. Trans heresy, I know. Our pronouns are supposed to be near and dear to our hearts, defended with the same fervor as our chosen names.  They can be flags, or weapons, or mirrors to reflect our deeply felt senses of self.  They don’t always fit.

Maybe it was that I was due for my monthly haircut. Maybe it was that I was wearing more tailored clothes. Whatever it was, the cashier looked right at me and called me “she.”  It didn’t feel malicious, there was no gender policing in [pronoun's] tone.  It simply seemed that [pronoun] saw me, and saw me as a person that could be called “she.”

It felt novel, and while it didn’t fit– it also didn’t chafe the way I thought it would, the way “she” did when I was a teenager trying to figure out what the hell I was and what words existed to describe me.  I realized that now– when someone calls me “she”– they’re seeing a different part of the picture.

If someone can look at me–my body, my clothes, my haircut, my mannerisms, my swagger–and fit that into their concept of ‘she,’ well, more power to them.  Ivan Coyote wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about her own reasons for choosing “she,” and parts of it resonated with me.  I’m not ready to stake a personal claim in “she,” but I’m willing to answer to it.

I can’t name the precise moment that being called ‘he’ stopped feeling like a radical gender moment and started feeling like a social default. I thought of it as shorthand–not any more accurate than ‘she,’ and easy enough to go along with when people assumed.  Now, it feels unusual when someone DOESN’T just call me ‘he.’  It’s been a long time since someone asked me for my preferred gender pronoun.  Mostly, this doesn’t bug me.  Even in our queer and gender-aware communities, people tend to call it like they see it– and really, I don’t care what someone uses for me as long as they’re respectful.  I tend to stammer when someone asks my preference, before mumbling something along the lines of “well, um, I don’t really care, ‘ze’ and ‘hir’ are great but most people just call me ‘he’ and that works too.”

I learned a few days ago that a friend that I am just getting to know  uses gender neutral pronouns for me, every time.  This touched me, more than I (in my general pronoun ambivalence) would have ever expected.  ‘Ze’ and ‘hir’ are my preference, but I rarely hear people use them.  Gender neutral pronouns are a lot of work, and they’re inconvenient.  I don’t bother to correct people when they don’t use them for me.  I just don’t care enough, and it’s so much easier to default to the binary options that we learn in grammar school.  Sometimes, I’m just tired.  Still, a pronoun that even vaguely fits can feel like a gift.  Learning that someone was using mine felt like I’d received one.

Apr 242011

PsychOUT 2011 Flyer

I just confirmed that I will be performing 348 at the PsychOUT Conference! The free conference will be hosted by WE THE PEOPLE at CUNY Grad Center on June 20th and 21st.

I’m really thrilled that this conference exists. It’s an opportunity for psych survivors, activists, artists, scholars, and radical professionals to get together and share stories, strategies, and visions. I hope to see you there!

Apr 242011

Credit for the inspiration behind this post goes to my friend and unofficial ‘Kicked Out’ fan club president Kelli Dunham who commented on my facebook suggesting I make a blog post about reclaiming holidays and saying “You are an expert on that. Beyond an expert. You’ve made it a damn art form.” I don’t know about all that, but Kelli’s comment got my blogging gears in motion because I LOVE holidays and by all “logical” reasoning’s I shouldn’t.

Growing I had moments of enjoying various holidays but on the whole dreaded them. Holidays were filled with fighting (more than usual) drunken misbehavior, and usually violence. They were pretty consistently more stressful than joyous. When I was kicked out as a teenager holidays continued to be far from my favorite days of the year, and were (like they are for so many other homeless and formerly homeless queer folks) pretty depressing. Everyone from the cashier at the drugstore to the commercials on the radio seemed hell bent on reminding me that unlike seemingly everyone else I didn’t have a family that loved me, and would not be “going home” for any of the holidays.

I spent a couple years on my own struggling through holidays before reaching the realization that I was not willing to let my biological family take one more thing from me, and goddamn it all I was going to find a way to take the holidays back, and I was going to make them my own and have a damn good time in the process.

Here are my five tips for reclaiming holidays*

1. Caller ID- your cell phone likely has it built in, it’s there for a reason, use it. This is a little tip that in my experience can be applied to any day of the year but is especially useful on holidays of all kinds (birthdays absolutely included). Know whose calling, and decide if speaking with them (even briefly) has a chance of ruining your day. If it does? Well, that’s what voice mail is for. If you know your grandmother is going to call and lay on the guilt about how you are breaking her heart by not coming to spend thanksgiving with her and your abusive parents, don’t pick up the phone. If you know your mother’s number showing up means she’s drunk, don’t pick up. It’s your phone, your day, and you have the right to not subject yourself to abusive, or manipulative people or conversations.

2. Go Traditional- I know this sounds a little funny especially coming from me, but stay with me. One of the things I remember very clearly about growing up were these very classic things that my family was either too dysfunctional to do, or had no interest in. As I began reclaiming the holidays something important to me was looking at these things that hadn’t been possible growing up and recognizing that now they could be. For me as silly as it might sound this included things like sending holiday cards for just about every holiday imaginable, cooking a huge feast on Thanksgiving (although we do subvert this by making an unturkey and having everything be vegetarian), setting up and decorating a Christmas tree, nonstop Christmas music, baking and decorating cookies, dying easter eggs (something i’m getting to do this afternoon!!!) etc. etc. etc.

3. Invent your own traditions- I think one of the best or most empowering things about being queer is having the freedom to disregard expectations and build a life the way that works best for you. I think that this can be especially important around holidays which may be steeped in tradition and expectations that leave you feeling stifled, abused, or left out. For example one tradition my partner and I have is most years we go to the zoo on Christmas Eve day.

4. Share – I’ve found that the holidays are a lot more fun when you spend them with people that you like, people that respect you, and don’t put you down. I encourage spending holidays only with people who will think that you look handsome or beautiful in your outfit of choice, and who don’t spend belittle you across the dinner table. Invite other orphans to dinner, make silly gifts, send letters. For me it’s all about finding ways to reach out to folks who I like/love/adore and sharing a little bit of the sparkly magic that holidays can bring.

5. Feed your inner child – I saved this one for last, but for me this is perhaps the most important aspect of reclaiming the holidays. Don’t be afraid to let out your inner five year old. Go to the library and check out a huge stack of holiday themed picture books, make ornaments (the more glitter and glue the better), create a paper chain to count down to Christmas, write a letter to Santa, decorate cookies, dye easter eggs and hide them for yourself etc. I think this can be especially fun and freeing for those of us who grew up quickly, or for whom childhood was at times traumatic. I know this has made all the difference for me with reclaiming the holidays.

For me, more than anything the holidays are about home, family, and community – all of those things chosen, built, created and not connected to family of origin. They are about being unabashedly queer, about not apologizing for my life, how I dress, who I love, or what our life looks like. For me the holidays are a time of celebration, I spent 17 years in my mother’s home watching holidays be crime scenes, I spent another couple years with holidays being some of the most difficult days on the calendar and I flat out refuse to give my family of origin that kind of power anymore.

* I celebrate secular Christian holidays so my tips (some more than others) are based in those traditions. I know other folks are great experts at reclaiming holidays from other traditions and I would love to hear some of your suggestions in the comment section!

Apr 212011
High school ID photo, September 2000

High school ID photo, September 2000-- before the institution

It feels like it was yesterday. They opened the door and I walked out of the building. When I had entered the institution, it was under a grey autumn sky, overcast and foreboding.  Now, an April breeze caressed my lungs with my first breath of fresh air in seven months.

High school ID photo, September 2001

High school ID photo, September 2001-- after the institution

It’s been ten years, but it feels like it was yesterday.  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the months I spent as a teenager imprisoned against my will in a “therapeutic boarding school” for “troubled teens.” Ten years ago, I left the facility.  I’d say that I haven’t looked back, but to be completely honest with you, there are still times that I can’t look away.

Let me tell you a secret.  Sometimes I still wake up at 3:48 am, thinking that I’m there, thinking I need to wait with my hand raised in the hallway for permission to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Some nights I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about all of you who are still there.

I want you to know that you’re not alone. I want you to know that there are people out here now who know what you’re going through and are working to change it. It might not feel like much with everything you are enduring, but know that I am sending you strength and love and light to get you through.

I don’t know what you’re feeling. Maybe you’re playing tough, like I did. Maybe you’re resigned. Maybe you’re terrified. Maybe you don’t know how you’re going to make it through another night.

Don’t lose yourself there.  This is vital.  Keep yourself whole.  They will try to break you down, flatten, and destroy you.  Don’t let them. We need you in all of your vibrant passions and bright idiosyncrasies.  Do whatever you need to do to make it out of there, but keep your self close, wrapped tight in your ribcage between your lungs.  This is what kept me alive.

Breathe. Laugh whenever you can find the opportunity.  Even if you have to laugh silently, laugh.  This will keep you alive.

When you leave, you will shake off their punishments and structures, their shame and abuse, their taunts and bruises.  You will unfold yourself and stand tall and proud, surrounded by all of us who have walked these paths before you.  Stay strong.  We’re out here, and we can’t wait to meet you.

Photo by Syd London

Sometimes, all you can do is laugh. Photo by Syd London

Apr 212011

Photo by: Syd London

On Tuesday Kestryl and I spent the day with our good friend and incredible photographer Syd London with the focus of getting new publicity photos for our separate work as well as our joint PoMo Freakshow projects. My individual photos are coming soon – the weather was less than optimal that day and so we had to raincheck. We now have backup on top of backup rain days booked, so those pics should be here very soon.

Over the day we ricocheted from intensity to intensity starting with a road trip to an abandoned hospital for Kestryl’s photos – ze has written all about that here. Then back in Brooklyn the focus shifted to us as a couple and capturing the essence of our work together, and the dynamics of our relationship.

We’ve needed new publicity photographs for PoMo Freakshow but had been putting it off. Ok, to be honest I had been dragging my feet about the whole thing for the past few years.  I’ve not had that many experiences with professional photographers, but the ones I’ve had have ranged from downright traumatizing to highly uncomfortable.  Needless to say this was not an experience I was keen on repeating. I was pretty honest with Syd from the beginning that I was terrified of the process, everything from the needed makeup (I wear very little in real life) to just having the camera in my face.  In my head I knew it would be different with someone like Syd- a trusted friend, a dyke, a queer, a storyteller but I didn’t realize just how transformative the experience would be.

I didn’t expect that I would leave the day feeling not so much exposed, but profoundly seen in ways that I seldom am.

Kestryl and I have been together for seven incredible years. We have a relationship, which as corny as it sounds

Photo by: Syd London

leaves me waking up everyday feeling like I’m in my own biggest fantasy.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s work too- but it’s worth that for both of us is worth doing which always makes me think of this quote from Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Weight’ “ Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.”  All my life this was the sort of relationship I dreamed of, but never believed was even possible let alone that I would be lucky enough to have for myself.

We needed the photos of us together and I knew that whatever Syd came up with would be ideal professional photos, but it never actually occurred to me that she would be able to see and capture everything that makes us tick.  The intensity, and the playfulness that braids together into the life we share artistically and romantically.  She made me feel completely comfortable with the whole process, and despite myself I even had fun!  Never before now have I actually felt like I looked beautiful in a picture, or that I looked truly like myself perhaps even at home in my own skin. Seeing the previews of these pictures hit my inbox one by one has taken my breath away with the quality of her work, but also left me without words (something pretty uncommon for me) at the realization of just how much she had seen and been able to capture on film about who we are and the way that we relate to one another.

Apr 202011
Photo by Syd London.

Photo by Syd London.

Yesterday, Sassafras Lowrey, Syd London, and I went on an incredible adventure.  Sassafras and I were on a mission to get new publicity photos for PoMo Freakshow, as well as getting new shots for our individual work.  For my individual shoot, we visited a deserted old asylum.

I had envisioned some sort of abandoned hospital building as the location when I was first imagining the shots, but I didn’t think it was realistic.  I thought there would be too many barriers (physical, mental, and emotional) to that sort of space.  I was absolutely thrilled when our photographer, Syd London, told me that she had found an abandoned building outside the city that we could use.

We set out mid-morning to find the building.  Figuring out the location had been a challenge– not surprisingly, Google doesn’t always have the street addresses for buildings that have been deserted for decades.  To pinpoint the location, I used a map of the county from the early 1900s, back when the building was an active asylum.  I checked the nearby cross-streets on the old map, then used those to get directions.  We left Brooklyn with our fingers crossed that my cartographical sleuthing would lead us to the abandoned building of our dreams.

We found the building exactly where the old map had promised, decrepit and dilapidated and begging to be photographed. As we approached the building, a sudden scrambling noise alerted us that we were not alone– several squirrels raced out of one window and into another, disturbed from their privacy and apparently quite displeased with the interruption.  Their scurrying and the rustling of birds nesting in the upper floors echoed throughout the rooms, making an already eerie locale feel absolutely haunted.  I was glad to be there in broad daylight.

Syd London at work. Photo by Sassafras Lowrey.

Syd London at work. Photo by Sassafras Lowrey.

The door of the building was hanging open, and I didn’t know quite what to expect when we walked in.  We found an utterly abandoned interior, with hospital furniture haphazardly piled and overturned.  Fallen plaster, dry leaves, and other debris covered the floor.  Many of the windows were broken, as were several doors.  Some rooms were charred and burnt, suggesting a fire had once raged down the hallway.  Though my research suggested the building had only been deserted for a few decades, it felt as if it had been empty for much longer.

When I agreed to do the shoot in an abandoned hospital, I knew it would be an intense experience– 348 is all about how we abandon teenagers in the mental health system, so shooting in a former asylum felt particularly evocative.  I had not expected the decaying building to so strongly recall my own experience of being locked up.  The room for solitary confinement, the metal spring bed frames, the group showers.  As we set up the shots, I was rocketing between past and present, reminding myself that I was there on my own terms, now.

For the entire shoot, Syd London was a delight to work with.  She was extremely professional about getting the shots that we wanted, but also playful enough to keep our spirits up when the tension of the eerie location started to heavily weigh in.

Outside of the solitary confinement chamber

Photo by Syd London.

We shot in five different rooms before we decided it was time to head back to the city, leaving the abandoned building to memory and irritated squirrels.

I’ll be posting more of the results of the shoot over the next few days, but I’ve included a few as a teaser for now.  Getting these photos was simultaneously terrifying and liberating.  I never thought that I would willingly walk back into a mental hospital…. and even though it was abandoned, I still felt like I was escaping when we left.

Apr 162011

When I found femme, when I admitted the pull that butch/femme had on my heart I sought books. I wanted examples of people who had done this. Proof that this desire had history and community, that I was not alone. I found an old well loved used copy of Joan Nestle’s anthology ‘The Persistent Desire: A Femme Butch Reader” at my local bookstore, and immediately knew that I was home.  The stories in that book gave me an anchor.  With that history I’ve been waiting anxiously for my review copy of “Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme” the new anthology by Ivan Coyote and Zena Sharman.  It arrived in my mailbox much earlier than I was expecting it, and even though I was in the midst of reviewing a few other titles I could not resist cracking it open.  I was not disappointed.

In some ways,“Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme” is the update to “The Persistent Desire” that a lot of us (or at least I) have been looking for. From the introduction by Joan Nestle herself, this is a book that packs a punch.  It is unapologetically queer, in your face, and incredibly powerful. Even the dedication left a lump in my throat:

“We would like to dedicate this book to all the femmes and butches who came before us. WE want to thank you for your strength and your spirit, for your red fingernails and your fishnet stockings and your neckties and white button-down shirts. We want to thank you for your bravery and your broken hearts and busted-up knees and bad backs. WE want to thank you for keeping on, for rising above, for remembering, and for what you left behind.  We want to thank you for making us possible.  We want to thank you for being, for believing, and for persisting.”

This was a book not to be read quickly, but to savor. It was late night conversations with a good friend, and exciting discoveries at new ways others have seen and experienced butch and femme.  There is an obvious love and tenderness that Ivan, Zena, and all the contributors put into each page and I was blown away by the diversity and range of experience present.  For me, the strongest pieces were the ones that didn’t just talk about identity but sculpted a story about that identity.  Standout pieces were S. Bear Bergman’s ‘Brother Dog’ and Zoe Whittall’s ‘A Patch of Bright Flowers.’  My only disappointment with the text came in the only submissions from Ivan being her now iconic ‘A Butch Roadmap’ and ‘Hats Off.’  Don’t get me wrong, they are two of my favorite stories of hers, but I was secretly hoping for some new stories as well.

Without a doubt, ‘Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme”  is a community treasure.   I predict that this is a book that will be seen as a touchstone for years to come by those of us who have found home within butch/femme identities and community.  This book has earned itself a special place on my bookshelf right next to that old loved and battered copy of “The Persistent Desire.”


Don't miss the Persistence tumbler for interviews with contributors and updates on release events (I know i'm eagerly awaiting the one here in NYC) http://persistenceanthology.tumblr.com/

Apr 032011

I’m 30,000 feet up in the air somewhere between North Carolina and New York City, thinking about all the incredible experiences I just had in the South: the people I met, the events I was able to be part of over the last four days, and the communities I saw and was able to participate in.  I was in town, as part of the Queer Conference at University of North Carolina Asheville – this year themed ‘Queer is an Active Verb.”  I have a keynote “Nobody loves you, now what? Queer youth homelessness and creating chosen families” and facilitate “ghosts, transitions, and other past lives” a writing workshop. North Carolina is the last of my big out of town touring trips likely until the autumn, and what a way to close out this season!

The conference itself was great, and well-organized – huge thanks to all the staff and students who made the event possible! I’d never been to Asheville before, but always heard great things about it.  It was truly a lovely town and it was nice to catch a few days of spring in the clean mountain air! All the locals were apologizing for how cold it was- and it was a bit rainy my first day but as I told them we were expecting snow in NYC so it was quite lovely!

It was wonderful to get to spend time with Eli Claire, who was there as another keynote at the conference. Our paths have crossed over the past few years but we’d never had the chance to really connect.  We’d known that we both were from rural Oregon, but over the last few days we just found more and more ways our histories interrelated.  We even caused a little trouble —- getting chased out of the hotel hallway by a homophobic/transphobic man in boxers angry at our conversation about the queer writing/publishing!

The students I had the chance to meet were just outstanding, each and every person that I spoke with is in the midst of incredible work – academically, artistically and/or with community organizing.  I feel profoundly privileged to have been able to meet and work with each of them, and even still my mind is buzzing with all the wonderful work I witnessed and heard about.   After my keynote I was humbled by a standing ovation, and selling out of every single copy of Kicked Out I’d brought with me.  Even more meaningful to me,  were the connections that I made with students. The ones who spoke up in the Q&A, handed me zines, or came for quiet conversations after the event. We compared scars and found so many jagged connections. Someone told me they felt like they could feel their roots again— I’m not sure if I can think of a bigger compliment.