over the past month, I’ve provided temporary housing to four people against the wisdom of those close to me. my therapist said to me, “I agree with you that everyone should have housing, but that’s capitalism, and you can’t control that.” it was our first session, so I don’t blame her for not knowing me better. I know that I have to work harder to learn to set boundaries. I also know that there were people who set boundaries around allowing me to sleep in their homes when I wasn’t housed, and I was sexually assaulted on the street instead. If we’re serious about building safety, if we’re serious about collective responsibility for safety, if we’re serious about intervening to prevent sexual violence, why can’t we get serious about opening up our homes when people need our help?
As many folks now know, I lost my little brother Jason to HLH on Friday, June 22nd after a long hospital stay. I anticipate that I’ll be grieving for the rest of my life. My village has been incredibly supportive through this difficult time. Many of my loved ones have asked me how they can help me, and so I wanted to create a list of ways that I’m channeling my grief to honor Jason’s life and invite my community to join me:
- Register to run a 5K to raise awareness about HLH and raise dollars for research into this extremely aggressive & fucking mean autoimmune disease. After checking in with a close friend who works in medical research, and telling him how helpless I felt, he told me that one of the things that’s really needed is greater awareness into rare diseases so that we can better understand them and better treat them. Almost no one has heard of HLH. I’d never heard of it. It stands for hemaphagocytic lymphohistiocytosis — and it’s essentially an autoimmune disease that sends the immune system on overdrive. It attacked my brother’s organs — shutting down his kidneys, then his lungs in a matter of days. It’s currently treated with a protocol that starts with chemotherapy to suppress the immune system while the trigger must simultaneously be treated. In my brother’s case, he had mono and a terrible cold, and one or both of these had been the suspected trigger. However, if the trigger is misidentified, the treatment won’t be enough, and there isn’t enough research into what triggers HLH. In my brother’s case, it turned out to be a dental infectionethat hadn’t been identified. On July 22nd, exactly one month after my brother’s death, there will be a 5K to Fight Histio in NYC, and I’m running to raise awareness, to raise dollars, and to find a cure. Join me, or support me!
- 2. Join the bone marrow registry. Had my brother Jason survived, he would have likely needed a bone marrow transplant. As his sister, I had hoped I could be his match, and so I tried to mostly abstain from drinking and eat semi-healthy foods (this was a really stressful and traumatic fucking month, so let’s be real, some alcohol and candy also happened). It’s fairly simple to join the registry. Go to BeTheMatch.org, and request a swab kit. Then, just swab your cheek, place the samples back into the prepaid envelope, and send it back! Full disclosure, from what I’ve read, the actual process of donating bone marrow seems invasive and can be painful, but it can also be life-saving. It’s especially important for nonwhite folks to become donors: Right now, 2 out of 3 white people will likely find a match, and only 1 in 4 nonwhite folks will find a match. Register here!
3. Donate blood or platelets. I used to donate blood often in college, and I even organized a couple of blood drives, because UCLA very conveniently had a blood and platelet center right on campus, and they’d give you orange juice and cookies for your blood. I haven’t given blood in many years. You get older, and you forget that your 15 minutes of time and single pint of blood can save three lives. My brother relied heavily on blood and platelet donations to sustain him for nearly one month in the hospital. If you aren’t affected by the extremely homophobic ban on gay blood, schedule an appointment!
I’ll be giving *platelets* on July 9th to coincide with the blood drive that Stepinac High School is organizing in honor of Jason.
4. Look into becoming a volunteer firefighter, and then recognize when that may be too far outside your purview, so instead finally contact your landlord about replacing fire alarms. My little brother wanted to be a firefighter, and the test results that arrived the week he died showed that he scored very high on the most recent firefighter exam. I’ve heard rumblings before about volunteer fire departments and so I spent some time investigating this as a possibility before realizing that this was likely not something I’d be able to do. HOWEVER, like six months ago, my fire alarms were completely out of whack and ringing/buzzing/making fire alarm sounds in the middle of the night, so I disengaged them and went back to sleep and never thought about them again. In retrospect, this is an extreme fire hazard. So I finally wrote my landlord an email and asked him to fix them. Thank you for the reminder, Jay.
5. Because no matter how many times you burn me, I just can’t quit you, DC politics: Donate to the campaign of at-large DC Council candidate Elissa Silverman, a local champion for paid family leave. Without paid family leave, I would not have been able to be at my little brother’s bedside during his final weeks of life. When Jason was unconscious, he needed family to be his advocates in the hospital. Nurses changed over every two days, and anything that hadn’t been documented didn’t get communicated to the next set of nurses. With advice from a friend, and because I yearned to feel less helpless, I appointed myself hospital note-taker and worked to fill in the gaps during some of these transitions. Not only was it important for Jason to be surrounded by love during the end of his life, he also needed advocates and people who could make informed, potentially life-saving medical decisions while he was unconscious. This shouldn’t be a luxury for the few; it’s a basic necessity. I read this WaPo article over the weekend about this horrendous attack on paid family leave by former local legislators who hope to prevent one of our most progressive Council members from being re-elected, and if that article doesn’t make you want to support her campaign, well then maybe you have other good reasons, but I’ll be giving what I can. Give here! You can also directly support the campaign for paid family leave in DC. Give to the DC Paid Family leave campaign, or sign the petition!
- 6. Play “Somewhere” from West Side Story on repeat for an indefinite amount of days. This actually does nothing for anyone, but it helps me cry, which I assume helps me heal and healing may help me be less irritable toward others, I assume. Jason loved this song, and his high school’s choir sang it at his funeral service, and it’s been in my head and on my heart ever since.
Also, on my playlist on repeat is the song “You’ll Be in my Heart” by Phil Collins, because Tarzan was Jason’s favorite movie when he was little, and he loved the song so much back then. And Jay, you’ll be in my heart for as long as I live.
7. Last, as many of you are mobilizing to #KeepFamiliesTogether, remember that families are separated in the U.S. all the time — through all forms of state violence against parents and children of color, whether these are immigrant families who are separated, detained, and criminalized or youth in the foster system like me and my siblings who were separated for years when we were young. State violence isn’t new, and family separation isn’t new, and we have work to do in our our own backyards to build safe and accountable communities where we all take responsibility for each other’s well-being, without involving institutions that frequently cause more harm. The ask here is: Be a good neighbor, be a good village. Be like Jason, and wake your sister up and make her French toast for no reason at all.
For those who may be reading this who may be grieving Jason with me, I invite you to come cry with me on this playlist, and share with me memories you may have of Jay.
And, while I sadly couldn’t put this on a Spotify playlist, you can listen to my brother singing Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” below.
Every year, I struggle to come up with a theme that seems to connect the events of the year. It’s the way I’ve found to make sense of my experiences and reflect with clarity. This year’s theme seemed so clear and present from the very beginning — from the barriers I faced in my work to the forms of resistance I’ve seen. As more people have mobilized than ever before, our movements have struggled within themselves to be accountable to those at the margins. Women of color, especially those who are trans and queer, spoke out against the pink pussy hats and the original all-white organizers of the Women’s March. Trans and queer people of color disrupted Capital Pride, and Pride parades across the country. Black women spoke out in Ward 8 after organizers of a food table attacked a 16-year-old girl who had been sexually harassed, sending the message that we all deserve access to food, housing, and our basic necessities and to be safe from gendered violence, all at the same time. I was hopeful again briefly when I saw the hashtag #MeToo, and felt let down again when I saw a movement that overwhelmingly left out sex workers, incarcerated survivors, and people of color as a whole. I have followed and participated in movements for resistance from state violence — movements that at times seem to center the “most innocent” — and I have struggled with the ways that even in the most radical spaces I know, we can’t get away from messages like “protesting is not a crime,” playing into this idea that some people’s actions are deserving of state violence, perhaps because they killed someone while trying to survive like Cyntoia Brown or GiGi Thomas. How could we be playing into respectability politics in even the movement against state violence?
In all of these movements, I have heard the justification that organizers must ask for what we think we can win, rather than fighting for what we want. If we can make progress in the feminist movement by centering white cisgender heterosexual women, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress in the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights by centering white cisgender gay men, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress in the movement against state violence by centering the most innocent victims, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress toward housing everyone by centering a community that it’s easiest to make the case to house, then let us make small wins for some. What ends up happening is that we never get around to helping those at the margins, or even trying to truly solve the problems at their roots.
Our movements are fighting to take what they can get; our activist communities are operating with a scarcity mindset, and we are propping up individuals within these movements as our leaders, as our heroes, and in many ways we are replicating the same abusive systems we’re working to dismantle.
But I am of the belief that we need radical change to make progress for anyone, and for everyone. I want our movements to do better: to ask for what we want, and to fight for it. One of my closest friends tells me yes, but how will we appeal to conservatives? How will we achieve any progress at all if we can’t talk to people who don’t agree with some of these most basic principles? Thing is, I was once upon a time a vocal part of the right, and I see the contradictions in movements now just like I saw the contradictions then. When I was a queer homeless teen in need of housing and distrusting of state systems, I saw Democrats working to better support those in the middle, and leaving the most vulnerable behind, and I heard the message from Republicans that I could lift myself up by my bootstraps without any support from state systems that were built to fail me. Believing that I could beat the odds was a much more appealing message to 15-year-old Faith Skye. Back then, if I had seen a movement for LGBTQIA+ rights that centered the needs of trans and queer homeless youth then I would have been fully on board, and I’ve spoken to hundreds of conservatives that felt similarly — people who wanted to see movements that uplifted those at the margins, rather than providing extra help to those in the middle while leaving behind the people who needed the most help. And queer people in Harlem’s Lincoln Projects didn’t care much about marriage equality; we wanted safe and affordable housing. When I identified as a conservative, I wanted limited state power because I distrusted the state and didn’t see myself represented among liberal messages. I still distrust the state, and yet I see it now as an instrument to ensure that communities’ most basic needs are met.
So if we are searching for common ground, I believe we can find it by acknowledging that so many people in this country are struggling to survive, and that we all need and deserve access to our basic necessities: food, housing, and safety.
I recognize the contradictions in my own work, too. Last November, I was celebrating new ads on the Metro that featured marginalized women. I now see this campaign as an indicator of just a surface-level shift in the work, a sign that we remembered to put the faces of women of color out on front while simultaneously erasing their experiences by telling people to report sexual harassment to police. It represents the internal need at CASS for reconciliation of our work with our values, a need to define our values, a need to update our mission statement to one that reflects the needs of the communities that we seek to prioritize with leadership and input coming directly from those communities. We have come a long way, and that work still isn’t done.
And in this year of accountability, I have experienced my own personal struggles with people who I’d admired for their leadership in our local movements. I experienced their abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation, and I struggled to find ways to repair the harm they’d caused in a way that was compassionate, that was understanding of the experiences that had led them to engage in abusive behaviors toward me, while learning a lesson I’ve learned a thousand times but can’t quite internalize in a way that makes me change my behavior: I can’t heal your wounds with my love alone; it is your work to do, and I can support you in that work, and I can love you through that work, but I can’t do it for you. I must learn to love in a way that is firm and protects my boundaries. I must know in my heart that love is not the same as tolerating abuse. And I have struggled with this because I have, for so much of my life, been in search of unconditional love, and I don’t know yet how to give and receive unconditional love with. healthy. boundaries.
I have been burned, again and again, trying to put out deadly fires for people who are lighting fires within themselves and will never be able to stop and change their behaviors as long as people like me try so desperately to save them from themselves.
And so I’ve needed to hold myself accountable, too: I am not living my values if I keep intervening to protect people from the consequences of their actions. I am not living my values if I can’t communicate expectations and follow through on delivering consequences when those expectations aren’t met. In my work, I teach people to use their words and actions to set boundaries to stop everyday violence and change the culture that tolerates it, and in my personal life, I am telling my abusers that I will love them and I will be here regardless of what they do to me. Through my words and my actions, I have shown abusers that I will tolerate their everyday violence, and I have justified my own behavior by telling myself that I must be patient, that I must be compassionate, that I must remember that everyone who causes harm has experienced harm. But I can be patient, compassionate, understanding, and safe.
I know that this internal struggle isn’t over, just like the larger internal struggle within our movements isn’t yet over, but I feel great progress in the ability to name the contradictions, to know that I have a community of people I trust who will hold me accountable in a compassionate way, and to have started to work to reconcile the inconsistencies within myself, within my work, and within a larger struggle for justice.
In the first month of the year, I went into overdrive. I facilitated workshops for hundreds of people on how to effectively keep each other safe using bystander intervention strategies to de-escalate conflicts at protests, to respond to harassment, and to prevent gendered & hate violence. In sharing stories with each other during these workshops, people learned from each other about how their identities affected their experiences with violence, and their responses to it. The best workshops I’ve facilitated have been with diverse groups of people, because the lessons really come from the group itself. The most important facilitation skill I’ve learned is listening.
There was one day in January that I facilitated three bystander intervention workshops in a single day — first for 100 bar and restaurant owners, then at a yoga studio in Petworth, then I traveled all the way to Northern Virginia to teach a group of ~30 people skills for intervening to stop hate violence. This work was even covered by WAMU!
January was also the month of the Women’s March. I’d debated about going, and then at the last minute I wrote an Audre Lorde quote on a piece of posterboard, and Max & I showed up to march.
There were so many people at the Women’s March that I felt extremely overwhelmed. But Max had a great time. Then we got tf out of America and went to Punta Cana.
In February, I joined the small but mighty fight to #FreeGiGi — GiGi Thomas is a Black trans human rights advocate who has been in jail since October 2015 for actions she took to survive. I joined with a few others to organize letter-writing and turnout to her sentencing trial in February. The prosecutor misgendered her repeatedly during the trial and played on the transphobia of the jury, and she was charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 30 years. The judge, however, said that support for GiGi was different from normal support, and she suspended 10 years of the sentence. She’s expected to be out in 8 years, and we are continuing to organize for her freedom.
Max and I flew to Austin for 24 hours in March so I could present on a panel at SXSW called “Safe Spaces to Rock” — discussing steps that can be taken in nightlife and music venues to address sexual harassment and assault.
This was also the month that my ~ extremely unique ~ expertise on the topic of youth homelessness came in handy as the city, and the country, suddenly became aware of the crisis of runaway, homeless youth in DC. Organizers from the Women’s March, which had by then evolved into an organization, contacted me to use their Facebook Live to dispel the myths associated with the #MissingDCgirls crisis. Folks from HIPS connected me to Ramina Davidson who worked specifically on this issue here in DC, and I shared both my personal experience and national data to explain why there were so many Black and Latinx missing girls in our city.
In the same month, I was able to testify before the DC Council to advocate for increased funding for youth shelters in the city. I hadn’t even been aware that, at that point, DC didn’t even have a legal definition for the term “homeless youth” and there’s still a limited understanding of the problem and of the ways that youth experiencing homelessness get involved in survival sex work, legally defined as child sex trafficking regardless of whether or not a “trafficker” or a pimp is involved. While I’ve played an active role in work to end youth homelessness in LA and on a national level, I am still learning about the landscape in DC, and I’ve been lucky to have Ramina to educate me about the gaps in our city and what we need to do to close them.
Max led his first chant at a rally. And it was a good one.
I also met Chantal in April. Little did I know all the ways in which she’d change my life and revolutionize our work at CASS. I approached her with big ideas that Nona and I had brainstormed, and she was in so many ways the missing piece to our puzzle. She is organized, thoughtful, passionate, and somehow magically not scared off by me.
The Safe Bars program had been started with patrons in mind — we knew that women & queer & trans people were being harassed in nightlife when they went out to bars, and we were missing this larger piece about harassment experienced by bartending and restaurant workers. We were missing the huge piece about racial equity in restaurants and bars, and it’s the kind of work & research that had been happening at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) for a decade. Chantal talked to me about COLORS, ROC’s training course for restaurant and bartending staff meant to help people of color transition from lower-paid back of house positions to front-of-house positions.
In so many of the workshops I taught to front-of-house staff, the groups were all-white. The race factor became increasingly apparent as I was experiencing microaggressions from my white co-facilitator: she’d speak over me, stand in front of me, cut me off, make me feel small or box me out completely, and when I repeatedly asked her to sit down with me to find ways to improve our working relationship, she refused. I tiptoed around her, and she started to accuse me of doing the things that she’d been doing to me. I started by apologizing, until she pushed further and further and I realized I was being gaslighted. I had trusted this person. I opened up to her and felt safe being vulnerable, and she used my weaknesses against me until I felt the need to walk away from a brand that I had built and a program that I had worked so hard to make successful.
Meeting Chantal, learning about this data, seeing a great need for a conversation about race and other layers of oppression in our workshops about sexual & gendered violence was a way out of the Safe Bars program for me. And Nona, Chantal, and I had ideas to make it so much greater and more impactful — to leverage our partnerships with bars and restaurants to create opportunities for those at the margins.
Even if it meant that, in some ways, we were starting from scratch.
In April, CASS worked with the End Street Harassment Coalition to organize a rally against street harassment in Farragut Square and raise awareness about the Street Harassment Prevention Act. At the time, this small but mighty crew was wholly responsible for building support for SHPA — Jayni Rasmussen had been there since the beginning and played an enormous role in organizing the roundtable that led to the bill’s introduction; Brianne Nadeau has championed the issue from the Council and introduced the legislation, following the lead of issue experts — and especially queer and trans women of color — every step of the way; Dave Chandrasekaran drafted the bill itself and helped organize our lobbying strategy; and my biggest shout out of all goes to Sarah Doyel who did so much of the day-to-day invisible labor of regularly convening the Coalition, incorporating the feedback of partners into our advocacy and messaging, ensuring that community members and organizational representatives showed up to the hearing to testify, and just managing all of the moving parts and moving people to carry forward this campaign. I am so grateful for all of the work that this team has done this year to make sure sexual and hate-based harassment is taken seriously in our city — to collect the first ever citywide data on harassment, to ensure that people know where to turn if they experience harassment or discrimination, and to hold our local government accountable in keeping our community safe.
I was honored with the 2017 Be the Change Activist Award at the Washington Peace Center’s annual gala.
I also took the leap into a relationship — my first serious, committed relationship since surviving domestic violence. It was a big, scary decision for me, and I am proud of myself for allowing myself to be vulnerable and for loving with my whole heart in a way that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do again. That’s all I’ll say for now, but I know that I’ll want to share more about this experience when I’m ready.
Nona, Chantal, and I launched the Safe Bar Collective — a collective of bars, restaurants, and organizations working collaboratively to end sexual violence and hate in nightlife. As we were launching the Safe Bar Collective to expand the conversation on microaggressions and discrimination within our training, I came to know Preston Mitchum, an amazing Black queer activist who has called for accountability to queer people of color in LGBTQIA+ (but really white gay) nightlife spaces. Some spaces, and especially number nine and TRADE, were very receptive to Preston’s message and went above and beyond to address the problem. Other spaces required a bit more work.
My greatest joy this year has been participating in WERK for Peace dance party protests — a form of resistance that is also a form of healing and practicing joy. As Saidiya Hartman says, care is the antidote to violence. With these dance rallies, we’re caring for ourselves and we’re resisting in a way that builds rather than destroys. I am so appreciative of Firas Nasr for the work he’s done to create this space to revive the fire in people like me who were coming close to burning out.
In July, Richard, Max, and I went on what’s become our annual camping trip to Cunningham Falls State Park. We hiked and made s’mores and swam in a lake.
This year, we were joined by someone who has become one of my closest friends, Al Basile, who listens with endless patience, gives care to those around her with boundless love, & consistently shows up for me and for Max in ways that will leave me eternally grateful.
While we were in the woods, I received the awful news that one of the Safe Bar Collective’s program participants, Desiree Copeland, had been attacked and hospitalized. Desiree demonstrated great strength and resilience through the whole experience, and in this moment she needed support. I was away & only able to help in a limited capacity. It made me so thankful for a team, and especially Chantal Coudoux and Sarah Doyel who both quickly responded — Chantal supported Desiree in exploring options for healing, and then, when she chose to pursue justice through the criminal legal system, Chantal was by her side. Sarah immediately set up a fundraiser to cover Desiree’s expenses, and most importantly to get her into safe housing where she could recover from the attack. While DC has a Crime Victims’ Compensation fund SPECIFICALLY for this purpose, all they offered her was a placement in a shelter right next to the place where she was attacked. She didn’t feel safe.
We raised more than $5,000 to support Desiree and delivered the money (and everyone’s kind notes) directly to her as soon as it came in. In response to Desiree’s attack, and the spike in violence this past summer, the inspiring humans that have led the organizing of #NoJusticeNoPride, and specifically Emmelia Talarico and Drew Ambrogi, organized a rally to end violence against trans women.
Around this time, I received a call that a 16-year-old girl who had testified at the roundtable on street harassment in 2015 had been threatened and attacked at a food table in Ward 8. After an attempt at transformative justice failed, I worked with and specifically under the leadership of local Black women and girls to organize a speakout against street harassment in the same place as the food table, recognizing that our speakout needed to have a food table, too, to send the message that people shouldn’t have to choose between safety from sexual violence and access to basic needs like food.
But of course, on the day of the actual speakout, I ended up getting stuck in South Carolina, where I’d flown out for just a 24-hour period to speak at BevCon with my fearless co-conspirator in nightlife safety (and co-owner of Drink Company), Angie Fetherston.
Over the course of the year, I was excited to be part of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), which worked with Councilmember Grosso’s office to introduce legislation that will make DC the first U.S. city to decriminalize sex work! Shout out to HIPS for convening SWAC, CM Robert White for co-sponsoring the bill, and all of the amazing community groups and human beings putting in the work to educate the public about the need for decriminalization and get this bill passed.
Most of all, I’m grateful to the amazing activist Shareese Mone who has been firm & consistent in her message that decriminalization is not the end goal; sex workers experiencing homelessness are those most severely impacted by criminalization, and often they’re not being arrested for sex work but for loitering or littering — in other words, criminalized for being homeless. Sex workers experiencing homelessness need housing.
This is also the month that I got myself the best 28th birthday gift of all: an office! (OK, let’s be real — you all, the humans that have supported my work with donations large & small, got this amazing birthday gift for me.)
And in this year of accountability, I’ve felt this great need to reconcile who I am with who I’ve been. I am the queen of erasing my past and starting over, and I want to be able to honor my past experiences, heal from those experiences, and find a way to keep some of the good pieces. Though I’ll be honest in saying that’s probably not what I had in mind when I organized an impromptu high school reunion at Richard’s place in November.
This month, I’ve been closing loose ends. Chantal started work as CASS’s Deputy Director, and we’ve been planning for 2018. The latest ReThinking Masculinity cohort graduated, and our team held a day-long retreat to figure out what we needed to keep, what we needed to formalize, and what we needed to change to build a strong foundation for this program. RM has been intentional from the beginning about seeking to center those at the margins, and we have tried — and in some ways failed — to do this in our curriculum, in the diverse space we worked to curate, in our decisions to uplift people of color and queer people into leadership roles as facilitators. The program is still not quite there, but I am hopeful about our progress and about incorporating the feedback we’ve received to create something that can be replicated nationwide.
I wrapped up the year with friendship, creme brulee French toast and gluten-free snacks. I also closed out the year with heartbreak and loss. I feel hopeful when I look back at the progress I’ve made and the community I’ve built, and I am glad that I am learning my limits, recognizing the need to set boundaries, and trusting my gut to make exceptions to these limits and boundaries.
Thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with me, to those who have been patient with me while I have poured my energy into a thousand different directions, to those who have trusted me to do the work I do and to those who have invested in me. 2017 has been hard. It has been exhausting and challenging, and it has hurt. But with this community, with this team, I’ve been able to build infrastructure this year that will make our movements stronger in 2018, and I am so optimistic.
Here are some of the things I’m setting out to do in 2018:
I read about a study once involving three rats and food pellets. In each cage, the rat would be able to pull a lever to get their food pellets. In the first, a food pellet would reliably come out every time the rat pulled the lever. In the second cage, there was no food. In the last cage, a food pellet would sometimes come out when the rat pulled the lever, sometimes multiple food pellets, and sometimes none.
The first rat would only pull the lever when he was hungry. The second rat gave up quickly after pulling the lever a few times and finding no food. The third rat became addicted, hoping for food each time and never knowing if and when it would come.
Emotionally abusive relationships are similarly addicting. If you showed no affection any of the time, I’d lose interest. I’d walk away. I’d know that there is no love here. If you showed me affection reliably, if I knew that I could come to you when I need you, I’d feel safe being away and feel safe being with you. But when you show me affection unpredictably, I will pull the lever over and over and over again, hooked on the variable rewards, trying to get back the thing I know is in there somewhere.
As it turns out, understanding emotional abuse doesn’t protect you from it.
The only thing I have control over is whether I’m providing a healthy, reliable, safe foundation for Max. When he falls and cries, am I responding supportively and lovingly to his needs? I can tell him, “You’ll be fine” and “You’re a tough guy,” or alternatively, I can ask him where it hurts and what would help him feel better. As he’s been transitioning to his own bed, I’ve tried to find ways and teach him words to use to make sure he’s feeling safe in his own room. Sometimes he wants to keep the light on and the door open. Sometimes he wants me to lie down with him until he falls asleep. Before I leave the room, I tell him, “I’m going to my bed now, and I’ll be here if you need me.” Sometimes before I leave the room, he says, “Mommy, I need you,” and I stay. It seems simple, and yet too often we tell parents, “No, children need to be independent,” and “No, you’ll spoil him that way,” and we ignore our gut as parents to provide loving support to our very young children. But you can’t spoil a child by being responsive to their needs. And in fact, it’s the only way to create a healthy attachment.
We can’t build consent culture without changing the way we, as caregivers and as communities, treat children.
i know that this probably comes as a surprise to a lot of people, but my job is actually not easy, and also i don’t think i do it perfectly. i think i mess up A LOT. i think i sometimes do that human thing of reacting to situations that upset me, except sometimes my reactions end up in the news.
i try as hard as i can to do everything well, and i can’t, and i’m sorry, and the best thing that you can do is give me feedback, and encourage me when i’m making changes that are in kind of the right direction, and keep giving me feedback, and be honest, and sometimes help me out.
my intentions are good. i’m still a human being trying to navigate a lot of new, complicated, confusing things. and i need help. and i need support. and i need to be trusted sometimes. and i need to have freedom sometimes. and i need to be called out. and i need to be held accountable. and i need to know that i have a few people who will be in my corner regardless of how badly i mess things up.
For years, I felt like I was not myself. My life had become consumed with taking care of other people. I guess that’s what I always do. I haven’t known how to be a person outside of caring for others; I’m incomplete without someone to look after, and while Max does still need me to take care of his basic needs, he’s become very independent over the past year and I’ve been able to get back into the advocacy work that was such an important part of my life before I moved to DC.
If you’d met me in 2011, I was usually out late at night, phone banking or canvassing. I’d wake up early and read to kids at local schools in the morning, or I’d cook and serve food at the Ocean Park Community Center. I had something scheduled for every hour of every day – through CALPIRG, or the Los Angeles Homeless Services Coalition, or the Downtown Women’s Center, or UNICEF, or some other activity. And things changed when I moved to DC. I left my life behind, and for years, it seemed as though I’d never be able to rebuild it.
But here I am: back at it & better than ever.
I’ve had too many incredible moments and experiences this year that it’s hard to sum them up in a single post as I have in past years, so I’m going to choose a single memory from each month that was most significant to me.
It was also March when Nona moved into my apartment, and I had no idea how that experience would change my life as well, though not in the ways that I expected. I saw her becoming a part of our family, and I didn’t see the ways that we were different, or I ignored them. My experience with Nona, and specifically my experience hiring Nona to work for CASS, taught me a lot about myself: things i like about myself, like the fact that I don’t pass judgment on others until I’ve gotten to know them and that no matter how many times I’ve been burned, I trust without question; and things I don’t like about myself, like my reluctance to set boundaries to keep myself safe.
April was a total blur. I was tired, but there was no way for me to take a break because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I don’t know how I got through Anti-Street Harassment Week and CASS’s annual gala and the grant application for anti-street harassment art that we didn’t even win. I’d also managed to take on a babysitting job a few days a week, which was fun and forced me to dedicate time to play with Max and another little girl who he & I both adored. But it was too much. I was exhausted. I had pushed myself too far through the winter, and there was no end in sight. But Lemonade came out around this time, and it was the first time I’d gotten to spend quality time with my friends in awhile. Then the night of the gala I awkwardly ran into PJ, who demonstrated all the signs of aggression at a bar that I’d been teaching people to recognize. Leering. Coming over and giving me an unwanted hug. Not getting the hint from all of my body language that I didn’t want him to come over and try to introduce himself to my friends, that I just wanted him to pretend he didn’t see me. That even if we were on okay terms, I could only interact with him on my terms.
I closed my tab abruptly, the way that bar staff I’ve trained have told me they’ve noticed women often do when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It’s funny to think now about how bar staff could have came to the rescue in that situation, and with the success of Safe Bars this year, that’s where local bar culture is headed.
We marched in Capital Pride! By this point in the year, I was burned out again. I was discouraged. I was exhausted. And I didn’t know where to turn for help. I wanted to show up for my team and for my kid and for everyone. I didn’t want anyone to know how much of a toll life and work was taking on me. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and I know that, but I always push myself to the point at which I’m running on empty, and I feel guilty when I can’t perform. The most important lesson that I want to take into 2017 is to take breaks. Even when something feels very urgent, it’s not more important than keeping myself alive & healthy.
In June, I appeared in the Washington Post not once, not twice, but three times. I organized a rapid response to an incident in which a group of trans women of color, including Nona, were harassed by Banneker Pool staff, and I was able to organize a training on trans sensitivity and bystander intervention for all of DC DPR’s frontline staff.
I was exhausted, but I just kept going.
also, I breastfed my toddler in the presence of President Barack Obama. So that happened.
In September, I co-emceed a rally for paid leave – a campaign that we ultimately won! but things got hard in September, in ways that I didn’t feel comfortable admitting to most people. I’ve learned the lesson a thousand times that strength means knowing when to ask for help, and yet I always find myself taking on the hardest battles on my own, when I have a community who I know would support me if I’d only speak up.
This was the month that Lucy ran away, and she still hasn’t returned home. She’s such a friendly cat that I feel confident that she found a new loving home in the neighborhood, but it makes me sad not to have her at home anymore.
In September, my upstairs neighbor, a woman who has a history of giving me dirty looks and leaving rude notes in my mailbox/inbox, went further than she’s ever gone before. And I barely told a soul, because of the way that it made me feel and because of my own fears of being insufficient. She called children’s protective services and made a false report of child abuse against me because Max had bug bites on his legs, bug bites that she knew were bug bites because I’d complained to her about them. Bug bites that I’d taken Max to the doctor to treat, that we were prescribed medication to treat, that I used calamine lotion and aloe vera gel and avon’s skin so soft to comfort. I won’t make the case here that this report was unfounded and racist, because I think that anyone reading probably knows me well enough to know that it’s absurd that I’d ever abuse or neglect my child. But it hurt. The experience was brief but horrifying. I went through a home assessment, and I felt like I was being treated like a criminal.
A few weeks later, I saw a kid from Max’s daycare covered in bandaids, all over her arms and legs. I asked what happened, and her grandmother said they were bug bites. And I swear I shivered because I knew that they were bug bites, and I knew that no one would ever accuse her lovely white parents of child abuse because of them.
I’m a very good mom. I consistently go above and beyond to keep Max safe, and healthy, and happy. and I know that. and I know that this report, which came after we hadn’t interacted with her for over a week because we’d been out of town, was rooted in racism.
But fear of not being supported or believed kept me mostly silent about it. Which is how institutional racism works. And if it had happened to me even a year ago, I don’t know how I would’ve processed it.
I fought back, in the best way. And I have my experience at CASS to thank. I wanted to get angry and yell and throw things, but instead I chalked. I wrote messages like, “Treat your neighbors of color with respect,” and “Kids deserve to grow up happy, healthy, safe, and free from racism.” And it drove my upstairs neighbors nuts. Which was hilarious.
She continued to provoke me. I told her to leave me alone one day when she approached me on the sidewalk, and she put her hand to her mouth while looking around and walking away, as though I’d just attacked her. Then as we were walking down the street, five minutes later, she bent down to say, “Hiiii, Max!” Literally five minutes after I’d told her to leave us alone, just because she wanted me to get angry and to yell, so that people on the street could see that I was angry and I’d seem so unreasonable. The most insidious kind of bullying, and I couldn’t respond. Except with chalk.
And in doing so, and in standing my ground, I haven’t had to deal with any of it since then. And she knows that, if it starts up again, I will happily go back to chalking posi messages against racism and bullying.
I will no longer tolerate everyday racism.
October was probably the best month of this year, or maybe my life. I traveled to Colorado and to Canada – all expenses paid. I helped paint the town purple with the dc coalition against domestic violence and got my posters all over community centers, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, council members’ offices, libraries, literally everywhere. Max and I went trick-or-treating at the White House. I turned twenty-seven and celebrated with so many of my wonderful friends who have lifted me up and supported me this year
I have never had a stable family, and that has always hurt, but this year more than ever before, I’ve felt the support of a community that’s had my back and made me feel like I didn’t need to turn back to abusive partners or patterns, because I’m okay. because I’m safe. because I have people who love and support and care about me.
it made me think a lot about my past abusive relationships and the void that they filled and about the primary reason I stayed: I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t trust that, if I walked away and fell apart, anyone would be around to help me pick up the pieces. and so I never did fall apart. I went straight from celebrating my freedom to toting my survivorship & asking my Facebook friends to acknowledge my strength, because I needed to believe that I was too strong to let him break me. but what ended up happening was that I never truly recovered, or tried to recover, because I never let anyone know, or even acknowledged to myself, that I was hurt. I denied the feeling until eventually it went away.
even though I clearly have some work to do when it comes to asking for help, I’ve never felt more supported than I do now.
I’ve walked away from a number of romantic almost-relationships this year, and for awhile I thought there was something wrong with me (and some people probably still would say that this is true), but I look back and feel like I’ve made so much progress, even from last year when I couldn’t walk away from someone who was emotionally manipulative. I’ve walked away from people this year because of little things — feeling smothered, feeling undervalued, feeling pressured, or just having a bad feeling. And half of those feelings were probably in my head, but it doesn’t matter because what that means is that I’m learning to trust myself, to trust my gut, and to take care of myself. And I’m imperfect at it, and probably walked away from some very lovely people. But that’s okay, because some of the loveliest among them are still my friends, and that’s what I need right now more than anything else.
influenced by experiences I’d had earlier in the year, I worked with stop street harassment to develop WMATA’s latest anti-harassment campaign that launched across DC’s public transit system in November:
and then, to cap off an amazing year, the washington city paper people called me interesting:
And this is the part where I come up with resolutions for 2017. I wasn’t looking forward to this year the way that I’d looked forward to 2016. I’m terrified of what’s to come. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up this level of productivity, or if I even should. I tell myself all the time to slow down, but I’m only happy when I’m pushing myself to the brink.
I entered the year vomiting all through the night because I had friends and neighborhood kids over when I knew that I was too sick to celebrate. I showered and put on make-up and pretended I wasn’t sick, told myself I’d let myself be sick some other time, like I could just reschedule the need to take care of my health. I think that’s a sign that, no matter how many times I’ve been burnt out, I haven’t learned my lesson, and I tell myself that I’m going to slow down, but I haven’t been able to follow through.
I will keep trying. I will keep messing up. I will get up and try again. And the worst that can happen is that I’ll live life a little too fully, and that’s okay, too.
here’s my list of things to do in 2017:
- see more of the world.
- read more fiction.
- build more authentic friendships.
onwards & upwards to a brand new year.
it’s fun and weird and i have fears about failing to live up to the hype, not being able to be interesting all the time, disappointing people by being so incredibly average.
this is what we do, as capitalists. we fixate on a single person who can be the hero or be the villain. of course i’ll participate, and of course i love the press. i found it incredibly exciting and feel very honored to be included; i see it as an amazing opportunity to bring attention to my vision for safe public spaces, one that elevates the needs of those who are most marginalized and has a trickle up effect for everyone. but i worry about being, or continuing to be, the “face” of the local movement against street harassment.
it’s similar to what we’re doing with donald trump: as much as i despise him, i don’t think that trump on his own is the problem that we need to address. we blame patriarchy and misogyny on trump rather than viewing him as part of a larger context of rape culture. we fail to acknowledge the small things that we say and do to perpetuate the culture that created trump and others like him, the culture that tolerates and even promotes violence against women. i talked about this more on eugene puryear’s radio show a few weeks ago, and then shortly after, i participated in a planned parenthood video project to stop trump.
on one hand, of course i hate trump and want to see him go down, and i’m terrified about the prospect that someone so blatantly racist and misogynistic might become president. at the same time, i recognize that just about every president before him was a racist and a rapist, so these behaviors aren’t new and trump, on his own, is not the problem. we’re the society that’s tolerating his blatant racism & sexism on a national platform; we have to look at ourselves, too.
i participated in this video to say fuck trump and to bring homeless survivors of sexual assault into the mainstream conversation about sexual violence. i also participated because, as much as i recognize the problems with villainizing an individual rather than a systemic problem, i also see that it’s an effective recruitment tool. when we organized a sit-in for safe spaces in february in response to roosh’s men’s rights activist meet-up, people came out and a number of those people have stayed involved in the movement against rape culture. telling the story about the bad guy who’s perpetuating rape culture demonstrates urgency and brings people into the fold.
so it’s weird. i don’t love the process, but i see that it’s effective, and in a way i suppose that brings us closer to reaching our goals.
anyway i’ve been doing lots of cool stuff lately and tomorrow i’m going trick or treating at the white house when did my life become this fun