Monday, June 10, 2019

Yes and No – Reflections on Love, Community, and Consent

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riot, which has become an enduring symbol of the persistent and insistent existence of folks with diverse sexual and gender identities. But the anniversary also reminds us of the profound need for continued progress, especially with regard to the most marginalized of us within the queer community. Beginning with this context, I then offer some reflections on relationships, especially regarding consent, that have enriched my life and made me a better person. These reflections were offered during a Pride event at Community Christian Church on June 9, 2019.  


CW: gender and sexuality antagonisms and violence, especially transantagonsim 

I’d like to take a few minutes this morning, before getting to the topic at hand, to remember and honor the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riot. A lot has changed, or begun to change, over these years. Queer folks are not generally considered to be mentally ill anymore.( and ) More people are acknowledging and embracing their sexuality and gender identity, both privately and publicly. ( ) There’s been progress in the general public’s understanding and acceptance of at least some of our identities and in at least some countries, ( ) and some progress in gaining basic rights and legal protections.(  ) I say ‘some,’ not because I’m ungrateful, but because I want to be honest. 

I will joyfully confess that, introvert that I am, I am thrilled to walk in the Pride parades, especially locally. It’s meaningful to me to see such a visible reminder that there are so many of us, and to affirm our humanity and insist on our right to live and love as human beings. But I can never forget that a lot of the progress we’ve seen has benefited folks who already had some measure of privilege and power, especially white folks, wealthy folks, and able-bodied and healthy folks. That equality hasn’t been evenly spread. ( ) 

To be clear, I’m not just talking about the assault on the queer community currently being conducted by the Trump administration. ( ) The painful truth is that folks who have suffered the most, and the most often, and who have been doing so much of the work for equality, are least likely to enjoy the gains. Now 50 years later, we tend to glamorize Stonewall, forgetting it was essentially a riot to protest ongoing police harassment and violence, and that it was black and brown transpeople leading the way and paying the price.( ) It was folks like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major. Without diminishing the courage that was shown at Stonewall, Miss Major has said: 
“The memory of that first night doesn’t come to me with anything like joy or happiness, because so many of the girls and the few guys that were there got really hurt … . After the city police barged into the bar — with numbers and attitude — the feeling that was so prevalent that night was fear. Looking at the riot squad was like watching Star Wars stormtroopers, but they were in black with riot gear, sticks, guns, mace, helmets, and shields.” ( )
Today, black, indigenous, transpeople of color are still leading the way and still paying the price; it is they who are usually at the greatest risk. As Tatiana Cozzarelli recently reported, “61 percent of transgender respondents in a 2015 survey in New York State reported that they had faced harassment by the cops. And a 2012 report of trans Latinas in LA revealed that 24% of respondents had been sexually assaulted by the police.” (  ) And this year’s pride month began tragically when Johana Medina Leon, a transwoman and migrant from El Salvador seeking asylum in the United States, died while in ICE custody. She died because ICE agents refused to give her the medical care she needed, despite weeks of asking for help. And she wasn't the first. (  )

 As a society, and for all of us in the queer community, we have to do a better job of centering the voices, lives, and leadership of trans, BIPOC, immigrant, disabled, and similarly marginalized folx. Corporate sponsorships may make for great parties in the streets, but they are no substitute for the work that must be done to make liberation a reality for every queer person. The best way to honor the 50th anniversary of Stonewall is to tirelessly work to build movements for justice that include and liberate us all. 

So as I reflect on relationships this morning, I want, as much as possible, to do so in the spirit of liberation. As I reflect on what we might learn from queer relationships, especially as it has to do with consent, I’d like us to remember the folks who, in facing a world that still demands submission to dehumanization and oppression, say “No!” I want us to remember the folks who still teach us to insist on our right to exist, and to reclaim our power. While my reflections this morning aren’t directly about them, my reflections are possible, in large part, because of them. 

Making Our Own Way(s) 

 When I say that we can learn a lot about relationships by looking through the lens of queer experience, I’m not saying that all queer relationships are uniquely healthy, because that’s clearly not the case. We are products of the same society as cisgender, heterosexual, allosexual, and alloromantic people, and we experience dysfunction, domestic violence, and painful breakups. (   )  Too often, our relationships are further complicated by the abuse and trauma that queer people are typically at higher risk to have suffered. (  ) I’m also not saying that relationships that follow common cisgender and heteronormative social expectations are somehow lesser or don’t have anything to teach us. But these types of relationships are almost universally assumed, and you usually have to go out of your way to find a different perspective. For example, when was the last time you saw a book for sale that focused on lessons on love from a transgender perspective? But we have something to add. 

As Rachel Davies put it, 
“It’s not the case that LGBT relationships mirror heterosexual relationships, where there are predefined gender roles that ... can influence how men and women live together, … . LGBT couples can make it up as they go along and play to their strengths rather than to a gender stereotype. / … What you do and how you live your lives can be decided on personality and abilities rather than gender.” ( )
This has certainly been my experience. Like many of us, I was raised with cisgender and heternormative expectations, and it made life confusing and stressful. Over time, we came to realize, sometimes immediately and sometimes gradually, that we didn’t fit those expectations and that much of the rule book did not apply. So we had to look deeply at society’s assumptions, assess what was healthy and helpful, and what was unhealthy and unhelpful. I come back to Davies’ words: we’ve learned that “What you do and how you live your lives can be decided on personality and abilities rather than gender.” 

Yes and No 

We’ve done so in the face of enormous pressure and backlash, carving out a space for ourselves. We do it imperfectly, and too often tragically, but our combined efforts have fashioned a beautiful tapestry of love, community, and acceptance. There is plenty to be proud about, to celebrate, and to remember with gratitude and hope. Our collective wisdom has a lot to offer about what it means to love and be loved, and how to translate all of that into healthy relationship habits. But I want to hone in on one particular lesson, and talk about from my personal perspective. It’s a lesson that I didn’t fully learn until I embraced my queer identity: consent. 

Consent is about shared respect and trust. A crucial reason we have, as a larger culture, such a difficult time with consent when it comes to sexual encounters, is because we don’t practice consent very well in everyday life. Think of how we often treat children. We spend their entire childhood telling them they have no control over their bodies: they have to hug this person against their will, eat this food against their will, spend time with this person against their will. As a society, we are not very good at listening, and, as a general rule, we fail to listen to children. Even when they are genuinely bothered by something, we often tell them to be quiet and not cause trouble. And then we are surprised when they grow up and struggle with consent when it comes to sex. As one important guide puts it, 
“A topic like consent should be explored in the context of learning about healthy relationships and should not be solely limited to consenting to sexual activity. All children and young people have a right to learn about bodily autonomy, their rights, and how to respect the rights of others. General concepts such as trust, respect, safety and communication can be adapted for a younger audience, and more concretely tied to an understanding of sexual consent for older students. Those who have learned about consent and boundaries will be better able to recognise abuse and to protect themselves and others from abuse and unhealthy relationships as they get older.” (
Of course, rampant prejudice makes things worse, including gender and sexuality antagonsims. One of the most powerful and terrifying cultural teachings about consent I learned during my own childhood came from the 1986 film, Crocodile Dundee. I was 10 years old when I first watched it, trying to make sense of my nonbinary gender identity in a very binary gender world. In one scene, Mick Dundee is getting drinks at a crowded New York City bar when he starts flirting with a woman named Gwendolyn. A friend takes Dundee aside and says, “I’ve been trying to tell you all night - that girl, she’s a guy!” Mick responds by sexually assaulting Gwendolyn, grabbing her groin. He then points at her and announces, “A guy dressed up like a sheila! Look at that!” And the crowd’s response is laughter, clapping, and high fives, even as Gwendolyn flees in obvious shame and terror.( ) 

This brief scene reinforced a lot that I had already learned: that trans folks were not allowed to exist, except as the butt of jokes; that sexually assaulting and humiliating us was socially acceptable, and may even earn some cheers; that it was not safe to be myself, but that I was expected to laugh with the others, as the price of trying to fit in. 

I grew up thinking about Gwendolyn, her face stuck in my memory as a symbol and reminder of what the world thought about gender nonconformity and what that meant if I wanted to survive. Years later, I also began to see what these types of lessons meant to others, and some of why we struggle as a society with what should be very basic lessons about consent. Because, if you grow up being taught that someone in a position of power, such as a parent or teacher, can give you a command, and you have to do it, even if you do not think you should do it, and even if you say no, guess what happens when you grow up and are in a position of authority? You believe that, when you give a command, another person has to do it, even if they do not think they should do it, even if they say no. And guess what happens if someone with authority tries to take advantage of you? You have already learned to let them do what they want. To fight back means to break the rules, and so we make people predisposed to be victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. As a society, we are confused about power and consent. So let us put it plainly: power is not permission. Your command is not someone else’s consent. 

Love Is Not a Limited Resource

Crocodile Dundee still makes me angry and sad, but the happy news is that humans evolved as social organisms. We can talk about these things, and we have the ability to be intentional about how we create and sustain relationships. Since our relationships can and do change over time, consent is not, and can not be, permanent. We have to pay attention to each person’s needs and to the ways the relationship can, or cannot, meet those needs. Instead of making a commitment to a static, unchanging ideal, we can make a mutual commitment to both our shared and individual well-being. 

At least from my perspective, one of the most damaging assumptions in our culture is the “I’ll die without you” myth. I’ve been in a committed relationship with Holly since 1995, and spending my life with her is the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t exaggerate how important she is to me. We have been through a lot together, and we have the photo albums to prove it. But one of the reasons our relationship has lasted so long and endured so many rather drastic life changes is that we respect each other’s boundaries and we value each other’s consent. We listen to each other and encourage each other to understand and meet our needs, so each of us can live full and wonderful human lives. We know that no one relationship can, or should, meet all our needs for connection. Humans can ruin a lot of relationships just by forcing them to conform to some ideal that exists only in our imaginations. So we pay attention, we look and listen deeply, and we adapt to what works best and supports our well-being. 

That kind of creativity, though, can feel threatening to our society's one-and-only worldview. Consent invites us to remember that love is not a limited resource. Humans have the capacity to love many people and express intimacy in many ways. We need robust connections; we can and should express love and affection to our families and friends. Unfortunately, our society has a tendency to sexualize every relationship. Combine this with all our insecurities and gender and sexuality antagonsims, and you hear people, catching themselves in a moment of tenderness, crying out, “No homo!” Alienated from ourselves, our desires, and our longing for human connection, is it any wonder so many of us spend our days in loneliness and despair? We surround each other, but cannot connect. We live by the well, but die from thirst, because we never learned to drink. 

Taking Care 

And this is another reason why consent can be so difficult. Healthy relationships require healthy individuals. It is true that there is a feedback loop here. A healthy relationship will make their individuals healthier, and healthier individuals make for a healthier relationship, and so on. But you can’t focus on a relationship to the neglect of the individuals. Each person needs to take care of themselves; otherwise, we don’t understand ourselves or know our needs. If we don’t know our needs, we can’t ask for those things that meet our needs. We are left with the bad habits we learned from a broken world or from our own traumas, going from unfulfillment to unfulfillment. We make guesses, we fail, we repress and suppress, we cobble together a collection of strategies that relieve the pain, and we stagnate in our chronically unmet needs. 

This society did not give me permission to be myself; instead, it demanded my consent to its repression and abuse. I had to learn how to resist, how to claim my identity and my voice. I had to learn that, contrary to everything I was taught as a child, I did not have to give my consent to harmful people or the harm they caused. I could say, “No.” I learned that forgiveness is about growth, not tolerating destructive patterns. Some relationships can be healed, while others are broken, at least for a while. It takes wisdom and openness to discern what can be healed and when, and what cannot. This is difficult, painful, and, sometimes and thankfully, beautiful work. 

That work is much more straight forward, the better we understand consent and respect. In 2015, a tumblr post by Autistic Abby put this into wonderfully simple terms: 
“Sometimes people use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like a person’ and sometimes they use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like an authority’ 
and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say ‘if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you’ and they mean ‘if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person’ 
and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.”( ) 
In the end, this is what all of this has been about: treating one another like people, like the incredible, amazing, unlikely humans that we are. Those fierce and fabulous trans women of color who threw the bricks and rocks at Stonewall were saying, “It’s not okay” to treat us like we are less than human beings! And it’s still not okay, it will never be okay, to dehumanize us with petty prejudices that reduce living, breathing beings to our genders and sexualities; the color of our skin; the age or health of our bodies; our religions, ancestries, classes, clothing, or piercings. 

It is really this simple: treat each other like human beings. Insist that we all treat each other like human beings. This is the heart of consent, and the heart of community. We each know the joy of love: loving a friend, partner, parent, or child. We know the pain of loss: being rejected, grieving, or saying goodbye. We know that relationships are often complicated, because humans are complicated, and that misunderstandings, jealousy, and betrayal are real, and really hurt. But we also know that love is not a limited resource, and that we have the capacity to create communities and homes where we can thrive. Beyond our society’s long traditions of oppression and exclusion, we can choose, again and again, to love. So listen to yourself; understand your needs and your boundaries. Listen to one another; respect one another’s needs and boundaries. Ask for permission. Recognize when we cause harm and fix it when we do. Don’t tolerate injustice, and don’t be afraid to change. Work together, live together, love together. 

We’ve made some progress in the last 50 years, but we have a long way to go. This is the time to learn both what we’ve done well and where we’ve failed, and keep moving forward. After all, the probability of any of us existing is mind-blowingly low, and I want to spend my few days on this planet filling my life, and the lives of those around me, with kindness, generosity, compassion, wisdom, and love. I’m hopeful and glad that you do, too.