Tag Archives: Empathy

World Mental Health Day

CN: mental illness, police, suicide, abuse

Mental Health is something I’ve been mulling over a lot recently. My own, and other people’s. It’s particularly relevant to the trans community, not because being trans is actually a mental illness, they have proved it isn’t. But because incidence of mental ill health is common in the trans community for the obvious reasons that we have less social support, are more likely to be abused and traumatised, and experience homelessness and other life stresses that can cause or exacerbate mental health problems.

My own health has been shaky this past couple of years. The stress of myself and my partner going through transition; our changing relationships with a lesbian community we were very much involved with; the discovery that once trusted friends are deeply transphobic; the experience that coming out as trans has fundamentally altered how people view me professionally and severely derailed my career; the backing off people have done as they’ve seen my increased need for support and haven’t necessarily felt up to the job. All these have played their part.

Alongside this is complex trauma that goes way back: like many trans children, and other children who are obviously different, I had a really bad start in life. And I’m autistic, a difference I share with many trans people, and one that also tends to marginalise you and leave you prey to abusers.

Because my particular mental health issues do not have easy medical fixes and are poorly understood, I’ve tended to avoid doctors for my mental health and turned to therapists, who have substantially helped me. Being a therapist myself, I’ve had access to supportive environments most people can only dream of, but I’ve often had to keep the extent of my inner turmoil close to my chest in a world that sees mental health in very “us and them” terms.

Perhaps that’s why I felt a chill in the air when I came out as trans and found myself experiencing pretty blatant discrimination in multiple professional arenas. Because many associate trans people with mental illness, and because mental illness carries a stigma.

And here’s the thing; one of the biggest strains of all on mentally ill people is the effort it takes to hide our distress because the world refuses to accept, support and hold it.

Care in the community?

For the last few weeks I’ve been dealing with a young woman in my street becoming increasingly paranoid and psychotic.

A regular round of police and ambulances, both of which cost and neither of which help. I’ve had to intervene several times in midnight screaming matches at hapless and hopeless public servants or ill equipped friends and relatives.

I have a knack for calming her and she now sees me as a safe person so is knocking on the door regularly and popping notes through the door which are alarming and bizarre. There is a grain of sense in everything, of course, and a true sad story going back a long way. Like most ill people her mind isn’t disturbed simply from a chemical imbalance, faulty genes or poor personal choices but years of trauma for which she’s had no support.

While I am in no doubt that she currently needs medication and probably hospitalisation for her psychosis, kindness and listening work a kind of magic on her. If only she had been listened to and supported more during her traumatic childhood maybe things would be different now. But now, helping her is not so easy.

So often I find that people who show resilience to life’s trials actually had support from somewhere. It’s that which makes the difference. Humans really cannot function without other humans supporting them, whatever our individualistic society likes to think. But we withdraw support from others quite quickly when things get tricky, scared that people will “take too much” and oblivious to the fact that if we act generously, as if we have an abundance of time and care, people often feel resourced and find their own resilience again, whereas if we keep pushing them away, well they keep experiencing a deficit and their need will be never ending.

Of course, there are some for whom the deficit they have had from others over decades means we may never be able to make up for it. This neighbour, and many in the trans community who have turned to me for help are examples of the enormous social deficit some people experience.

In the absence of social structures designed to meet need with genuine care, we spend a fortune on substandard care and have the police standing as care in the community. An abundance of people whose job it is to listen could obliterate the loneliness, isolation and marginalisation that lead to people falling prey to harmful and abusive people or to self-soothing behaviours that in the end make things worse, such as substance misuse.

Meanwhile our prisons are full of mentally ill people, and a large proportion of trauma and deaths at the hands of police happen to mentally ill and disabled people. Police and prisons are an expensive and entirely unhelpful resource for what is a healthcare and social issue.

More support, early intervention and warm, person centred care for those who need it, would save us millions and more importantly make our communities happier places for all.

Understanding resilience comes through vulnerability, not strength

This requires a fundamental philosophical shift: Support makes people and communities more resilient. Shouldering too much without help can make you crumble. The idea that “mollycoddling” makes people weak is a popular but dangerous myth.

So often people think they’ve not had support and have “got through” on their own but some support is invisible – sometimes it’s generally socially supportive attitudes to your circumstance, a difficulty that’s understood or portrayed favourably in the media rather than one that’s taboo or dealt with badly.

As primates, we really do very badly on our own, we are so fundamentally social. And as social creatures, evolved to collaborate and work collectively, our capacity for mutual support is what makes us awesome. Crowning achievements like the NHS show just what we can be, and chipping away at the edges of this service until we have people who need inpatient care sleeping in police cells and police acting as expensive and untrained care workers, well this does not just affect the individuals who are suffering, it puts stresses on whole communities and increases the cost of police and prisons. In effect it is the very opposite of the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine”. Saving money on mental health can work out very expensive indeed.

Withholding our care does not toughen people up, in fact quite the reverse. Yes, many people with mental ill health need medicine, and many need walks in the woods and exercise as certain internet memes insist.

But what we all need most is human support and empathy, and there is no substitute for this. That cannot be found in a forest or a bottle, but it is nevertheless an abundant resource.


Clueless White People

CN: Orlando

I wrote this before Brexit happened. Now, more than ever, white LGBT people need to shape up and see how much we exclude people of colour from our communities. I’m done being patient with people who would rather devote their time to explaining why they aren’t racist than spend it showing up for PoC. I’m frustrated with my white friends who don’t challenge racism in their own communities. I’m impatient with the white LGBT organisations I work with who don’t even notice the unconscious biases that keep PoC excluded, and I’m tired of white people derailing every conversation and every action to focus on themselves or other white people.

It’s time we all took a stand and recognised we are either united in our differences or doomed to let the bigots win.

[Image: A statue plinth covered in candles. tealights spell out the words love and pride

Responding to Orlando

I am writing this as a clueless white person. I have worked very hard to be a less clueless white person. I think I have moved from a position of unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – i.e. unlike many of my peers, it seems, I know I am clueless.

I am learning to listen, but it turns out white people really aren’t great at listening to people of colour. I keep working on it. I accept I’ll never fully overcome the racist culture in which I was raised but that I should never stop trying. The point is not to become complacent, nor waste time on shame and defensiveness that does nobody any good. Just keep working.

So, Orlando happened, and I haven’t even begun to sort out the emotional tidal wave that’s washed over me from that. But I know one of my early thoughts:

My queer brown friends are going to be hurting.

Because the first thing we learned was the shooter was Muslim. And so suddenly it was given a political context – not a hate crime against LGBT people by a fellow American in what is still a very homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, but an “act of terror against America”.

“It could have been anyone” someone said on my timeline. “Apparently the shooter was casing out Disneyland but the security was too high”. “Don’t make this about gay people or push your gay agenda”, I hear elsewhere.

For those who are unaware, despite the fact that Muslim people are in the billions, when one Muslim does a bad thing the entire, diverse, religion is implicated. People I know who are Muslim suffer unjust prejudice and violence as a result. The word for this is Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, more queer lines of communication were letting us know that the victims were mostly PoC too – something that seemed to be getting missed/erased by a lot of people.

Which erasures matter?

Gay people started to get cross at the erasure of the homophobic element of the crime (we know the shooter was homophobic, as well as domestically violent and racist against other minorities). Owen Jones even walked off Sky News because of this erasure. My fellow white LGBT people cheered his anger and his political stance. It started to feel like this was being prematurely and inappropriately co-opted as terrorism against the US “way of life” and not viewed as LGBT hate. But of course, white gay people were just as guilty of their own erasures – they said “gay” instead of “LGBT”, as well as forgetting to think about the specific issues that may affect communities of colour dealing with such a tragedy in a majority white, racist culture.

We are so very aware of how it is to be LGBT in a majority straight, heterosexist culture, why so hard to understand the impact of a majority white culture on PoC?


So I was relieved when I heard that our local QTIPoC group were the first to organise a vigil for the whole community. For once, the right people were centred – queers of colour honouring queers of colour, what could be more appropriate? I planned to attend, but had no involvement in the organising.

A few hours before the vigil, I got a message from a friend saying she’d heard of another vigil – I thought this was a shame, another group organising a separate vigil one hour earlier in the same place, instead of supporting the QTIPoC one. It seemed to me to lack awareness of something really fundamental in all this; that queers of colour were the majority victims in this tragedy, and it would be respectful to consider the QTIPoC-organised vigil as the one to get behind.

I wondered what this other group might be thinking, but concluded that like many LGBT people, and perhaps myself once upon a time, they probably didn’t think much about how things are for PoC in our community, or perhaps don’t really even see PoC as part of our community, or feel the ethnicity of the victims was important. Our LGBT spaces are so very white, and people rarely ask themselves why. In Nottingham, a city with 33% BAME population, local LGBT leaders remain incredulous that that means around 33% of Nottingham LGBTs are BAME people too.

Then I saw this message on the QTIPoC vigil event page from the organiser of the other event:

"just to clear up any confusion... there are 2 events in the same location between 6/7 tonght that are being joined together - we hope to see everybody there that can attend x"

Curious, I thought – advertising their (so far unadvertised) vigil on the other vigil’s event page and also saying that it will be a joint event? Seemed a little bit like they were taking over. Not unheard of for white people to take over the enterprise of PoC. But nothing was said by QTIPoC group members, so I let it go.

The vigils

I didn’t plan to attend both vigils, but I’d bussed into town early so I went along to the earlier vigil. The vigil was mostly harmless – there were candles, which were lovely, and a fair few people came.

Unfortunately, someone had brought an American flag and hung it centrally, with the Pride flag to one side. I doubt they had considered what a strong, or inappropriate, political message this was. With so much erasure of this as an LGBT hate crime against people who have a marginalised status within America (on three counts – race, LGBT status, and undocumented status), pandering to the highly political notion that this was an attack on America was just not on. But I’m sure the person who did it did not think this through, so I said nothing. I know they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but they did. This was not a time for American nationalism, it was a time to focus on the victims of this tragedy. But so often that ultra-right wing nationalistic politics is seen as neutral and apolitical and the harm it does is ignored.

We observed a minute’s silence, and then a few people – all white, spoke. Lots of mention of homophobia and the hate all of us face every day – passionate, angry, emotional, political speeches, demanding an end to homophobia. One person even talked about how all LGBT people face “terrorism” every day due to hate. I wasn’t sure about them co-opting that terminology, but people have a right to be passionate and angry when stirred up by something like this, surely?

By 6.30, just 15 minutes later, it was winding up. At the end, I asked them to remind the crowd about the other vigil, as they had not even mentioned it. People milled around – quite a few went, but a lot more came. Heading up to 7 there was a much bigger crowd, a different, more diverse crowd that had mainly come for the QTIPoC vigil.

I became increasingly anxious about the presence of the American flag. As 7.00 came, I felt it was now becoming a space set aside for the QTIPoC group to lead their planned vigil in their own way. It was nice that the Pride group had brought candles for both vigils, but I and others felt the flag, whoever brought it, was problematic. I spoke to some people about it, and resolved to respectfully remove it. I took it down, folded it carefully. In its place we put a beautiful art quilt that housed a myriad of identity flags to reflect a diverse community. Later, a list of the names of the dead was placed there.


I hoped at this point someone would come up and claim the flag, and I would have an opportunity to explain why it had been taken down, but nobody spoke to me in the full 15 minutes between taking the flag down and the vigil starting. I placed the flag to one side of the plinth. Later, a couple of younger people picked it up and stood on the plinth with it. I explained to them that some of us felt it should come down, they said ok, we’ll just get a photo.

Blurred boundaries – whose space was it anyway?

I guess if it had been understood as a separate vigil, things would have been clearer, that the original QTIPoC organisers had every right to set things up the way they wanted. But the boundaries had been blurred by talk of it being a “joint vigil”. The PoC space had, in fact, been encroached upon.

The second vigil was powerful – a bigger crowd, passionate speeches, singing and readings.  It went on for about an hour. Speakers represented 3 religions – Christian, Jew and Muslim, as well as people of no faith. Women, NB folk and men, brown, black and white. A much more diverse space that went deeper into the issues and feelings that people were holding in their hearts. From the people who stayed for it, I have not heard a bad word spoken.

I felt much more represented and included as a non-binary trans person. The existence of my identity (bisexual and non-binary) was mentioned by more than one of the speakers, and when one cis lesbian spoke of the “lesbian and gay” community she got a good-natured heckle from a cis (I believe) member of the QTIPoC group: “and trans, non-binary, bisexual and intersex!”

Good-natured challenges like that go a long way to build better inclusion, and the atmosphere was such that it was safe for these challenges to happen. People were showing up for each other, making and holding space for each other. On the whole, it was a very unified crowd.

To me, this is the big difference between a Fascist vision of unity and genuine inclusivity – in an inclusive world, people are free to bring all their lived experiences, differences, disagreements, passions. A fascist vision has everyone singing from the same sheet – we will all be assimilated. Fascists talk about “divisiveness” when people don’t act or think the way they want them to, while inclusive communities are robust enough to cope with disagreement without falling to pieces.


It took a bit of time for the second vigil to get going. Maryam, the organiser, seemed slow to get up and speak – I could tell she was nervous. She had a loudhailer to try and send her quietish voice to the back of the now 200-strong crowd, but it wasn’t always enough to get her heard. I was close, so I heard her fully, but I wondered who else caught all of it. It didn’t help that quite quickly a small group of people not far from the centre started speaking while she was speaking – so disrespectful! I got the impression that as soon as she mentioned this is the holy month of Ramadan they just tuned out. They looked cross. At one point a couple of them came over to talk to me, and I told them not while Maryam was speaking and they strutted off looking grumpy. I don’t think it occurred to them what it means for a white person to speak over a person of colour. They were clearly forming an impression of events, but it was not through paying any real attention.

Oh how I wish they’d really heard what Maryam had to say! But she repeated the gist of it when she spoke to the Post, and I recommend watching this video. Despite a few sour faces, most of the huge crowd were with her, and gave her a huge cheer. I suspect the few that walked away angry had grasped very little of what was being said, their minds closed up that Maryam had dared to mention her religion at all, or dared to speak her worries about racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the attack with a similar level of passion that the earlier speakers had spoken of homophobia.

After a couple more speakers, I got up and spoke spontaneously. I was close to tears, although apparently I sounded angry. Perhaps loud hailers make you sound angry with their harsh sound. I spoke of my upset that the news and politicians were politicising these events, naming the ethnicity of the shooter, but ignoring the lives of the dead, both their ethnicity and LGBT status. I explained that I had taken down the flag as a mark of respect to the dead – at least I tried to say that! I was rather overcome, and I was brief, because I did not want to take up too much space.

A Statue plinth with the word pride written in candles. A list of the names of the Orlando victims is tied to the bottom of the statue.

A little later Angela Dy got us all roused with a beautiful Audre Lorde poem and a call and response: “Black and Brown, Trans and Queer, Our Lives Matter”.

At some point a white gay guy got angry and aggressive saying “all lives matter” as if he did not understand we were lifting up the kinds of lives that matter less to too many people and remembering them specifically. “All lives matter” is on a par with “heterosexual prideOther than that, there was no trouble. The crowd remained large, and there was convivial mingling in solidarity long after all the many speakers had finished. People continued to light candles way into the night. I think for the vast majority, it was a wonderful vigil, and I was very grateful for the chance to be in such a warm, inclusive space.

A bitter aftermath 

Sadly, we returned home to fallout, very angry people online who felt some of the principled words and actions in the QTIPoC vigil were out of place, and felt it necessary to loudhail their condemnation over social media. I have reflected a lot in the ensuing fortnight, but I still can’t find any validity in these attacks. A kneejerk feeling of unthinking anger is one thing, and I would not want to censor people’s feelings, however illbegotten, when they are grieving. But to take that onto social media and use it to whip up hate and anger is quite another.

There was nothing inherently more “political” about the later vigil than the earlier one, it’s just that it was a politics some did not understand as well – they were as clueless about issues of PoC erasure, marginalisation and Islamophobia as Sky news had been about homophobia. Same exact problem – lack of knowledge, lack of empathy.

It was a shock that people could stir up so much nastiness during a time of mourning, and create rifts so quickly. The silence of a lot of my white peers was equally depressing. They rallied round me for taking down the flag, but then I felt centred when all I’d wanted to do was take some of the heat. Nobody directly challenged the underlying stink of Islamophobia and racism in online posts about the QTIPoC speeches.

All of what was said was insinuation – an impressionistic portrayal of people being too political, politically correct, having a religious agenda – no mention of what had been said or how, or why it had offended, just a vague impression given of nasty people doing nasty things, not in the “Spirit of Pride”. All inference, and of course no substance, but it’s amazing the insidious power of allusion to make something seem bigger than it is. You only need really say the speaker was a Muslim who “pushed her religion” and enough people will get angry, just because they need someone to be angry at right now.

When the earlier vigil’s organiser launched an angry online attack on Maryam one responder said “I was on my way n had to turn way in disgust I wasn’t sure what was going on but now I know” – in other words, they were ready to be angry without having witnessed much of anything. I’d love to know what “disgusted” them if they hadn’t taken the time to listen. Another complained about the use of a loudhailer, not considering how hard it is for some women to get their voices to carry. A few people used the massively inappropriate word “hijacked” – they all spoke as if the QTIPoC group were outsiders, and many somewhat obliviously considered the earlier vigil more inclusive. Not one other person challenged the organiser’s post, which was public, and shared in groups I am in. Not one.

Let me spell out why. People are afraid of challenging racism, and that’s why it is taking a greater and greater hold. Plenty of people were condemning this oblivious racism, just not directly to the people concerned. What we don’t challenge, we enable. The silence of white LGBT people exactly mirrored the silence of cishet people in the wake of this atrocity.

vigil 6.jpg

People only need to say a Muslim did a bad thing and too many people will believe it without any evidence. Because similar is true for trans people. We are united in our marginalisation, the constant attack and condemnation, the prejudice and closed ears, the sufferance we receive in our communities if we are sufficiently well behaved and assimilated, and make no demands for change. The readiness people have to go against us if we put a foot wrong or make any kind of a fuss, or even dare to consider ourselves to have as much of a claim to the community as anyone else. Our experiences are not the same, and we should not co-opt each others struggles, but we should stand united in empathy for one another’s plight.

Well, a Muslim did a good thing here. Maryam was so incredibly brave and generous to stand up like she did. I will never forget her good work, and Angela’s, and all the others who brought together such a rainbow crowd on that powerful night. My gratitude is huge to them for holding a space that truly reflected the diversity of our community, and for empowering so many diverse people to speak. If that wasn’t a comfortable space for unconsciously racist, clueless white people, well I’m not really sorry – we pander to their comfort too much at the expense of others, and this level of discomfort and more is what QTIPoC people feel in LGBT spaces all the time.

We can accept our failures and focus on doing better

I don’t want a witch hunt like the one that came at the QTIPoC group. People need to learn from their screw-ups, not be hounded out and excluded. I know I’m a clueless white person too. I will continue to fuck up, but I will continue to make myself accountable to those more marginalised than me rather than letting those with less marginal positions always dictate terms. The reality is, prejudiced people will look for the flimsiest excuse to push marginalised people out, and claim they are doing it out of some sort of weakly justified self preservation.

We are all enraged about what happened in Orlando, we are all in grief. How this was expressed at the vigil (aside from the hostility towards the QTIPoC and trans speakers) was appropriate. All of those voices needed to be heard.

A community that cannot make space for the anger, needs, feelings, views and lived experiences of QTIPoC is not an inclusive community, and not my community.

Go listen to Maryam’s speech again. This time listen without prejudice and you will hear how we can be united.


The Capitalist Model of Activism and Why it Sucks

The recent flood of white people on my timeline vying for the position of “most intersectional activist of the year”, a competition I have felt myself compelled to join, has woken me up to a lot of uncomfortable realisations. The last thing the world needs is a white person blogging about racism and white supremacy, but I do have one observation that is far more universal, and applies not just to this one thing, but in general to activism today, particularly on the internet:

Activism has become competitive, capitalist, commodified. You can consume it, you can be entertained by it, you can raise your status in it, if you have sufficient education, means and leisure time you can become really good at it, even well known and endorsed for it, and then you get to crap all over the folks at the bottom of the ladder struggling to get on the bottom rung.

Capitalism is all about hierarchy. I reckon most of the bad stuff in the world happens under the influence of the competitive part of our nature – the bit that likes control, competition and dominance, the bit that counts beans and tries to make sure its own pile (or group’s pile) is bigger. We have a collaborative side, too, but it takes a different set of conditions to bring this out in us, conditions not prevalent in our capitalist, kyriarchal culture. Activism as a competitive process is doomed because it just continually re-orders the hierarchy (see Orwell’s Animal Farm, for the definitive satire on this phenomenon) – it will never dismantle it. It’s not designed to dismantle it, just re-allocate resources differently – a scramble for different types of privilege in an alternative structure that has become just as hierarchical.

The activist sphere has become a world where knights roam the landscape impaling as many people as possible on their swords of truth and justice, with onlookers cheering them on while they reach for the popcorn. Everyone has their own crusade, and it is just, and worth hurting people over. It’s an arms race where the weapons are the stacks of social justice pages we create that demonstrate the supremacy of our causes. Ideas triumph through popularity, measured in retweets, likes and shares that are assisted by none-too-socially aware algorithms. Controversy and attack attracts an audience, and so nuance and bridge-building become uneconomic activities.

Let’s not forget in all this that the spreading of fear and stress is in the interests of those who own the internet – because the less happy we are, the better consumers we are. And it’s also in the interests of those who want to rule us, because the more fearful we are, the more easy it is to divide us and control us. Fear is weakening us, impoverishing us, and strengthening the kyriarchs above us and among us.

Yes trans activism, I mean us. Yes feminism, radical and otherwise, I mean us too. Yes anarchism, green politics, left politics, animal rights and all the other groups from the Judean People’s Front to the People’s Front of Judea – I mean all of us. I mean me. I need to do better.

As someone who strives to build bridges, relationships, networks, understanding – love, even, I was seduced by social media to believe this was a perfect environment for this to happen, but now I wonder – is this a social media problem, is it my own deficiency, or is it just people being people? Whatever it is, I think I’m done with this capitalist model of activism; I want to grow something different – who’s with me?

Can we salvage the privilege debate?

Lately I have had my head spun round a few times on the subject of privilege. Quite a few people I respect have pointed out that the dominant narrative on privilege is toxic and shaming, and I have fought to rehabilitate it.

I have previously blogged about my own take on how we should handle the privilege debate with empathy and self-reflection. I do a lot of reflective work around privilege and I facilitate a unique take on difference and privilege training, which I speak about here:

In a recent discussion, someone made the statement that trans women always have less privilege than trans men and non-binary folks. This statement got me pondering. I am happy to own that I personally have a lot of privilege, but I felt uncertain that non-binary people are always and universally more privileged than trans women. The more I thought about it, the more my head started to spin.

I realised trans disprivilege, like gender disprivilege in general, is not one simple thing but many different individual circumstances that are hard to tally.

For instance, alongside all the other privileges I have (white, human, middle class, articulate and relatively able) I feel I have a certain amount of masculine privilege; I experience the world’s approval sometimes when I exhibit “masculine” traits. But something I experience the world’s disapproval that I am defying gender norms. However, I know that traditionally male qualities are valued more in society, and that if I was gender non-conforming in the opposite direction, that would be even harder – another advantage I have as long as I am read as female.

Of course, I also experience common-or-garden cis female disprivilege when I am read as cis female.

Being non-binary is another double-edged sword – on the one hand I currently do not feel the need to go through medical transition and for the most part I am cis-passing, because in my culture it is relatively acceptable for people assigned female to dress and express themselves in traditionally masculine ways. I appreciate someone who gets read as male displaying any kind of femininity is judged more harshly, because femininity is seen as inferior.

The other side of this is that my own experience being trans is invisible and little understood and therefore my individual needs are rarely met. My experience in the world is a unique and complex web of privileges and disadvantages.

It is far too easy to single out the area of disadvantage I have, and say “you don’t have this disadvantage therefore you hold privilege over me”. Lately, this has been extrapolated into “and therefore I can talk to you how I like and if anyone calls me on it they are “tone policing”. Although the “tone policing” trope has genuine validity, it has become an excuse to throw empathy out of the window and speak in a shitty way to people. Once we go to a place where we allow ourselves to be shitty with people based on their assumed privilege, we create a sense of entitlement from which all manner of abuse can then spring.

To illustrate my point, if I am having a discussion with a cis-het white man, I cannot assume he has more privilege than me, because these are not the only privileges that exist. I may have class, age, ability, and neurotypical privilege over him, and in the final tally I may be more advantaged in the world. I learned this lesson profoundly when working in schools in deprived areas with young white men who simply were not going to experience the advantages in life that I had – their glass ceiling was set even lower than mine, and that was hard for me to face up to.

Oppression is too complex a phenomenon for easy, lazy calculations. That does not mean we should ignore the overall effects of male, white, cis-het privilege but what it does mean is that it is dangerous to assume that a man, for instance, always has the advantage over a woman, even if he certainly does have male privilege. An elderly blind gay black African man living on a rubbish heap in Mumbai is probably not more advantaged than the Queen of England, but he does still have male privilege, it just doesn’t count for much amid all his disprivileges.

But what does all this mean? It means us owning that the need to set up a specific service or safe space might relate to our unique and individual needs but it can never legitimately be about creating a space for the “more oppressed people” because there will inevitably be people we are excluding who are individually more oppressed and disadvantaged.

Equally, I can never assume the person I am interacting with, especially on the internet, has more privilege than me. I can never assume I am entitled to exclude them based on their privilege. I can never assume I am entitled to yell at them based on their privilege. I can never assume anything, in fact, about their relative overall privilege.

Trying to work out the intricacies of who is more privileged than who, particularly within the intersecting oppressions of gender, gender identity and sexuality, is a road leading nowhere. We can call out sexism, cissexism, homophobia, biphobia and misogyny without the need for a hierarchy of oppression.

For me, reflecting on rather than dismissing my own privilege is key in all my activism and social justice work. By keeping my empathy switched on, and by inviting people to empathise with my concrete differences and disadvantages without drawing sweeping conclusions or jabbing my finger at them, I hope to communicate and understand the complexity of our lived experiences without competitiveness over who is the most oppressed.

Yuletide Peace and Empathy

I’m posting this video in which I am interviewed by Edwin Rutsch of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy because it works well as a Yuletide message – a reminder to myself, as much as anyone else, of how we can hold onto the best of aspirations for ourselves and each other – to be good at relating, to communicate our feelings in ways that can be heard, to listen to and fully meet the difference in others. Because if I want a happier world I have to start building it myself, and inevitably I am going to sometimes get that wrong, but hopefully if I am clear in my intentions I will help more than I hinder.

Because the video is long, I have picked out a few segments that say things that are particularly important to me.

Here I speak about my reasons for starting this blog:

Here I explain why I think empathy should be at the heart of any feminist revolution, an expansion of my earlier blog on empathy:

Here I give my take on the privilege debate, something I previously blogged about:

Here I speak about anger and empathy within feminism and activism:

Here I talk a bit more about why in my blog on empathy I said “diagnosing and theorising about people without their involvement is inherently paternalistic – the very essence of a patriarchal approach” in response to transcritical debate from non-trans feminists:

Wishing everyone who reads this a peaceful Yuletide and a New Year full of hopeful connections and increased understanding.

Fighting to keep my empathy

I spend a lot of time mulling over how best to respond to the hate of a particular, very stuck and insular branch of “radical feminism” that focuses the majority of its activism on undermining trans* folk. Recent skirmishes have thrown me off course – pulled me into the mire of someone else’s debate, someone else’s agenda. I need to re-focus on what I stand for – not just what I stand against. My brand of feminism provides alternatives to the oppressive power structures that we currently endure – it is radically relational, radically empathic, fundamentally anarchic.

I’ve felt hurt and afraid and angry, and I have not wanted to be premature in making a response to what I’ve recently experienced. I am still processing a lot of things and I’m still, overwhelmingly, sad that this institutional cissexism that goes by the name of “transcriticism” has taken a hold in places that should be safe, anti-oppressive spaces. I’m finding myself losing my empathy, and it troubles me.

My feminism is based on a relational ethic and I strive to build a relationship with my reader through this blog, by sharing both personal and theoretical ideas. It is a conscious, ethical choice not to be sensational, abstract, overly theoretical or antagonistic. I know that you cannot really change minds by using such instrumental (and patriarchal) techniques, you can only control minds. I also know that whatever minority we may belong to, our words have power; if we have an audience on the internet and are articulate enough to communicate with that audience that is a privilege and we have a responsibility not to abuse that privilege. If we are using our words to control rather than connect to people, well, whoever we are we are instruments of the patriarchy.

I’m being careful with my words, now, because I know the depth of my anger and hurt could make me desire to try and take control of the discourse, and that would go against everything I believe. But this feeling gives me insight into where oppressions starts – how it is almost always rooted in fear.

Before I came out as trans*, I spent a lot of time in radical feminist spaces, including, I am ashamed to say, ones that excluded transwomen. When in those spaces, I and other cis feminists, tried to overturn offensive “women born women only” policies. In all of those spaces, the individuals who wanted to exclude transwomen were actually a clear minority, but somehow their views still dominated the discourse. I believe this is partly because of the misleading belief that to be considered sufficiently radical, you have to embrace “transcriticism”, and so dissenters were seen as not radical enough, or not feminist enough, and were therefore marginalised.

The “transcritical” debate has currency because it is fear-based, it catches in a little bit of dry kindling and it spreads quickly with just one fabricated story of somebody once having heard about somebody else seeing a trans woman who did a bad thing one time. It is dangerously tempting to all humans who feel oppressed and marginalised to go down that route.

I can feel my history of trauma, my bubbling resentment, my hurt, my anger and underneath it all my fear making me want to lash right back at these people who are threatening ME and my existence and wellbeing. So tempting. And don’t get me wrong, I think anger has it’s place, anger is important. But anger without empathy? Where does that take us?

It’s a struggle to stay connected. It’s a struggle not to “other” some group of people or another. Learning that those sinister places exist just as strongly in myself is what keeps me connected.

This is what Crazy Looks Like

I wrote this post when I was at my most vulnerable, but ironically I felt too vulnerable to post it. Now I’m feeling back “in my power” it feels important to share it.

I can’t take credit for “pulling myself through”; there but for the grace of other people go I – it was other people’s ability simply to stay and listen without judgement that made the difference; my only skill was in seeking out those people and not focusing too much on the places where there were gaps in the net.

So here’s what I wrote . . .

Feeling Crazy

I’m feeling a little crazy right now. Hey, lucky I’m a mental health professional, theoretically I can talk myself down from that ledge.

So why am I feeling crazy? I feel suddenly, horribly alone. I’m a people person you see, and I did have a big old community all around me, but that community is lesbian and women-only and suddenly I’m not sure I fit there.

Because I’m transgender. There, I’ve said it. I’ve been fudging the issue for months, but it’s true; I’m trans. I had all these excuses, right – I don’t want to call myself trans cos I’m not transitioning and therefore I still have cis privilege.  I don’t want to look like I’m just trying to get attention or be special or something.

But all that’s bullshit – the truth is I’m worried about what people think, because by and large people just don’t get it; it’s kinda weird and out of their comfort zone and they don’t want me rubbing their faces in it.

So, back to the crazy thing. I feel crazy because I can feel people backing away from me, and that is just about the most crazy-making thing that can happen to a person. The reality is, for all we pretend that we’re an individualistic society where people are self-reliant and successful because of the affirmations they say to themselves, people thrive because of the constant bombardment of tiny little acceptances and “strokes” from other human beings – likes on Facebook, the easy smile of the petrol cashier, a zillion micro-interactions with other people that go okay and make you feel normal, part of the pack.

And then you realise you’re not what society might think of as “normal”. First, you try to hide it, but you realise that’s kind of killing you. Then you start to talk to people about it, or show the world who you are, and that’s when you feel them backing away from you – friends and strangers, not being cruel or saying anything bad (mostly) just backing away because they really don’t understand; you’re making a demand of them they don’t know if they can meet. And that’s when you realise what immense scaffolding the rest of the human race provides. Most people don’t get to discover this – they think they’re doing it all on their own, because they just don’t see the support humanity is giving them just for being them. Of course, I’m talking about privilege; I’m talking about your needs being met by default without you having to make any demands of people. I’m talking about people automatically using the right pronouns when they speak to you, of that simple recognition that what a stranger sees is actually something that vaguely resembles the human you actually are.

Making unusual demands of people just by being around them is exhausting for them and you. You’re asking for something exceptional, simply to get the same level of recognition everyone else gets automatically, and it sucks. They get fed up, feel like you’re getting too much attention, feel like you want special treatment, get tired of hearing about it. They back away.

And that’s how I started to feel crazy. Suddenly I’m alone and my scaffolding is gone and I’m babbling on about all this seemingly crazy stuff that nobody wants to hear.

So, next time you see someone acting a bit intense and crazy, please consider checking your instinct to back away and ask yourself if they might need a little extra effort from you just to feel like part of the human race again.

Empathy – a revolutionary act

If we want a radical feminist revolution that overturns our current ways of thinking and responding to the world, I believe, and I’m not alone, that this begins (and ends) with empathy.

The style of thinking that characterises patriarchy/kyriarchy is individualistic, self-orientated, and based on competition, control and domination. It comes from a false belief that these are the natural drivers of human nature, a belief that is unfortunately self-reinforcing.

In contrast to this, it is becoming increasingly clear that humans (men and women, that is – we are not separate species) have been so successful not because of some “kill or be killed” “survival of the fattest” instinct, but because of our relational nature; our ability to collaborate and cooperate. Relatively small, weak and vulnerable as we are, it was our ability to work together that got us through the last ice age and beyond.

Neuroscience has taught us that the formation of our brain happens as much after birth as before, and this development is entirely dependent on relationships (click here for a stark image of human brain development in the absence of relationships). We now also know that people heal from psychological problems and trauma through relationship – relationship quality has been shown to be the main component of successful psychotherapy, for instance, and in healthcare settings we now understand that relationships are important protective factors in things like dementia care.

The main driver of this essential human development tool is empathy; quite possibly the single most important survival technique we possess.

Let me come clean; as a Rogerian counsellor I’m thrilled that people are beginning to recognise the importance of empathy in human development. Empathy is pretty much the cause I am working towards in my personal and professional life. When I started my Facebook page, Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia my purpose was to build empathy between feminist, lesbian and trans* communities. Although this was intended to be a reciprocal process, and the empathy needs to be two-way, I was motivated by the institutional transphobia I had encountered within lesbian and feminist circles towards trans* people, a phenomenon entirely based in lack of empathy. This mattered to me because I witnessed the social exclusion of trans* people as having a profoundly detrimental effect on their psychological wellbeing.

Let’s go back to how much human relationships, driven by empathy, protect us from psychological distress and trauma. And then let’s think about the devastating social and personal impact of unhealed trauma. Now, let’s remember that trans* people are a considerable minority, vulnerable to trauma, and that inevitably many of the people surrounding them will be non-trans (cisgender) people. Therefore, while it’s less likely trans* people will contribute significantly to the emotional wellbeing of cisgender people in general, it is inevitable that people who are not trans*, being such an overwhelming majority, will significantly contribute to the wellbeing of trans* people, in much the same way heterosexual people have a disproportionate impact on LGB people, and able bodied people impact disabled people.

We may need to redefine our understanding of how we bring about social change in light of our better understanding of the importance of empathy. If people develop self-understanding and psychological coherence through being listened to and understood, we could question what use there is in developing opinions and theories about people in the absence of dialogue with the people themselves. Some might even suggest that diagnosing and theorising about people without their involvement is inherently paternalistic – the very essence of a patriarchal approach.

If we come to accept empathy as a necessary counterbalance to oppression, we should understand that a choice not to empathise with a vulnerable minority group will cause damage to people within that group. By excluding groups from our circle of empathy we share a responsibility for the psychological damage they experience. This may be hard to hear, but those of us who hold privilege in relation to trans* people (and despite my position under the trans* umbrella I include myself in this) share a responsibility for the unnecessarily high level of suicide within the trans* community.

We need to work on our empathy, because human lives are at stake. First and foremost, that means we need to improve how we listen.