Category Archives: Society

You Can Keep Thanksgiving, I’m Taking Channukah

Of all the holidays that I don’t like Thanksgiving has got to be one of my least favorites. This year I’m grateful that my least favorite holiday overlaps with my favorite- Channukah. Now when everyone is happy and wishing each other a happy holiday I can join in all the fun, plus I get to do it for eight days so that’s nifty.

When it comes down to it I’m a traditionalist. I like like ceremony and repetition and ties to my history and so while I’m a firm agnostic you can still find me singing hymns and lighting menorahs and doing all the other stuff that my religiously polyglot family has been doing for centuries. My issue with Thanksgiving is that all of its traditions seem to come back to the same place- the fact that we committed genocide and then turned the start of this genocide into a lovely myth about how self-reliant and hardy and inherently good our ancestors were.

Maybe I’m cynical horrible person who takes joy in being miserable but I’m also not a fan of current attempts to focus Thanksgiving away from whitewashing our national history towards a day that we focus on being grateful for the blessings in our life. Rather than actually addressing the blood that our flag covers we’d rather direct our attention to nice things that don’t make us think of the violence our nation sits up. I’m all for a holiday when we share our love and count our blessings and give thanks to those that bring us joy but I’d rather not have that holiday come at the expense of forgetting about, you know, fucking genocide. If we’re going to have a holiday to give thanks let’s pick a day that doesn’t erase our blood soaked history (I’d like to put forward January 25th as a nice option.)

Let’s burn down “Native American” holiday decorations. Let’s yell at people who try to use today to propagate a history that makes white cishet landowning men look good. Let’s actively try to make today a day of solemn remembrance.

But I realize that this isn’t something that’s going to happen over night. I’m still going to sit down tonight and eat turkey because I do it for a family that loves me. I’m going to practice self-care and try to avoid getting myself into situations that could ruin the holiday for others sitting around my table.

What I will do is politely speak up and remember that I have 364 other days to be rude and angry about Thanksgiving because these are the compromises we make for our immediate loved ones. And I’m going to regularly look at the menorah and take strength from the three lights I’ll see glowing at the dark window.

So I wish you a Happy Channukah with a reminder to remember our dark history that America so happily tries to forget.

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No, I Haven’t Read “The Ethical Slut” Yet.

One of the many things that I enjoy about my new college is that when I come out as poly the response I get is rarely one of discomfort or a blank lost stare. Instead I’m far more likely to receive a blase “That’s cool” and then them asking if I’ve read The Ethical Slut. The answer I give is that I haven’t read it yet at which point it’s assumed that I have some major moral/philosophical/ideological beef with its authors. In all honesty I have nothing against Dossie Easton or Catherine A. Liszt, I just don’t have a strong desire to read it.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Here’s a quick overview. (For you queer and/or poly people who hang with other queer and/or poly people you probably know plenty about this book and you should feel free to skip this paragraph.) The Ethical Slut has kinda become the de facto bible for poly communities since it was published in 1997. Billing itself as “a guide for infinite sexual possibilities” it is the main how-to book for poly/open/non-traditional/etc. relationships. Its cultural weight is so big that even when I was a teenager up in rural, no where, isolated northern Vermont I was familiar that this book existed. (I didn’t really know what “polyamory” was but I did know about this relationship book for open relationships.) In short it’s the book that every poly seems to expect every other poly has read.

Like I said earlier, I’ve got nothing in particular against T.E.Sbut reading it just isn’t high on my list of things to-do.

The big thing is that if I want to know what the book says I can just ask one of my fifty billion friends who has read it. Seriously I’ve got friends who can probably quote from that thing like a nun can quote from the Holy Scripture or I can quote from The Uncommon Reader (the number of times I’ve read and re-read that novella is actually so high that I’m embarrassed to share.) What’s the point in reading it when I could read something I know nothing about?

For all my glibness in this post there is a kinda serious reason I’ve delayed picking up T.E.S. For better or for worse I’ve kinda connected it in my mind to a particular form of polyamory that I’m just not a fan of.

Over the past year I’ve begun to feel that there’s a dominant type of polyamory that I’m just not into. Do I have a clear example of this? Well no but I can give my impressions. It feels white; queer but the sort of queer that doesn’t view transwomen as, you know, women; privileged and like it’s actively trying to show the monogamous world that we’re just like them! I guess it feels like Dan Savage…

This dominant type of polyamory is the one that seems to be putting pressure on me for my polyamorous relationships to be a certain type of polyamorous relationships. I feel as though I’m expected to have a “primary” and then date on the side. There’s also the nice cozy triad model with optional dating on the side but I’m not allowed to form long term relationships with the people outside of my triad. Hey monogamous people, we’re not that different after all! Accept us!

My relationships need to be nice and clean and something that the New York Times can easily write a piece on. My relationships need to be stable and it would be great if I could live in Brooklyn or in the Bay Area and eat organic produce because I can totally afford it. Whenever I enter into any sort of new relationship it needs to start with a formal meeting about limits and boundaries and we need to have this written up in contracts and also it would be great if this took place in a carbon-neutral, vegan, free-trade coffee shop. Also I need to talk about the T.E.S. whenever I talk about being poly.

So yeah, I’ve got nothing against T.E.S. but in my head I’ve linked it to the poly communities that I am actively trying to avoid. I’m sure that it’s a lovely book but I spend enough of my polylife trying to push back against expectations put on me by a dominant poly narrative that in my free time I try to avoid any contact with anything I associate with this narrative. At some point I’m going to read The Ethical Slut and when I do I bet there will be parts I agree with and parts I strongly disagree with in how they relate to my own poly identity. Until that time comes I’m just gonna keep answering,”Have you read The Ethical Slut?” with a smile, a shrug and a vague “It’s on my to-read list but you know how long that it is!”

Stop Being So Fucking Condescending (Polyamory edition)

I identify as polyamorous (check Wikipedia if you’re confused) and there are few things that I find more irritating or upsetting in my personal life than having to tell someone that I’m poly. Actually it’s not the “coming out” that I hate it’s the follow-up conversation that I hate because almost without fair I am immediately told some condescending things that make me want to scream.

In an effort to make my life just a bit more bearable I’m going to give a “typical” response that I get to saying, “So I’m poly.” and then I’m going to follow with my own response.

“You haven’t met the right person to settle down with.”

Oh my god, stop. Please just stop right now. Stop it. Before you go any farther I want you to think about polyamory. Think about the idea of being in a poly relationship. You know that emotion you feel when you try to picture yourself being in a poly (or even open) relationship? That feeling of confusion and discomfort? It probably feels like you’re trying to jam a square peg into a circular hole. Well that’s how I feel when I think about being in a closed monogamous relationship. Trying to imagine myself being in a monog relationship is just like you imagining yourself in a poly relationship but the difference is that your relationship has been declared “normal” by your society.

Furthermore this has nothing to do with me “settling down” with anyone. I can settle down with two people or six people or HOW EVER MANY PEOPLE I END UP BEING IN A LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIP WITH.  This is not swinging or cheating or whoring it up or about “shallow” relationships. This is me having sincere and real and true emotions/attractions to people and being honest about it.

And let’s  talk about the fact that you’re telling me this is a phase. Ultimately this is one of the most painful things for me to be told. At it’s most basic level you are stripping me of my legitimacy to say that I know who I am by telling me that I am incorrect. So let’s just leave this bullshit in another room.

I will not deny that there is a possibility that I will end up in a long-term, committed and monogamous relationship. As a matter of fact I am open to this potential future, I just don’t think it’s likely at all. Like most aspects of human emotion/attraction/sex/romance/life I do believe that there is a spectrum between polyamory and monogamy and I think it’s possible for us to travel along the spectrum throughout our life.  Consider this for your own life. When you ask me to be open to a potential future in monogamy I will ask you to be open to a potential future in polyamory. Just as I might meet a person who I will end up being monogamous with you might end up meeting people with whom you share a deep love with and you need in your life as romantic partners.

So next time I or someone else brings up the fact that we’re poly please don’t be a condescending dick about it. Accept it as that’s who this person is then do research if you’re confused (I’m making a list of resources that I’ll link to when it’s done.) The important thing is that as a poly person we’re frequently told that our relationships are wrong or not valid/legitimate or creepy or abusive and we have enough shit to deal with besides yours.

A Letter To My Allies

(Use of word “faggot”.)

Dear Allies,

Thank you for supporting me being honest about my sexual orientation (pansexual) and gender presentation (nonconforming to the expected male presentation). For me your support seems like a no brainer (I mean, come on, why should you care if I enjoy giving blowjobs and wearing velvet dresses?) but I recognize that some of you have had to overcome a lifetime’s worth of teachings about how homosexual sex is gross and men wearing dresses can only be viewed in terms of comedy so that’s pretty nice of you. Good job on being nice to me about issues that do not actually impact you.

With all this being said there is something I think we should go over.

Allies, sometimes y’all are really irritating. Sometimes I’m tempted to throw up my hands and say, “Enough! I’m done with straight people and done with people whose sex and gender and gender presentation all match society’s expectations! You can all go fuck yourselves for all I care because I am done interacting with you lot.” However not only is this impractical it’s also unproductive. I’d much rather change society than moving to an isolated mountain where you all can’t get to me; which means that I need to teach you what I makes someone a real ally to me.

Here are the ground rules that I expect from my allies:

  1. Don’t Tell Me How I “Should” or “Really” Identify: The labels I use are ones that I feel most at home in, that I feel best represent me. If you’re Straighty McStraight-Straight from Straight St. then I don’t want to hear your opinions on what labels I should be using. You could have a degree in Gender or Queer Studies but if you’re straight I’m not going to let you tell me my identity. Once you know how it feels to live my life that’s when you get to talk to me about my identity/labels.
  2. I Get To Reclaim Slurs, You Don’t: I have a friend that calls me a faggot and I call him faggot as well. If almost any other person called me a faggot I’d probably punch them. My friend and I use such language to each other not only because we know that we both feel safe but because our use of it becomes a “Fuck You” to anyone who has used it as a slur. If you want to use the word faggot around me then talk to me about it first. It may be that I’m comfortable with you using it but I’d rather have you ask then assume. Furthermore if your friend uses a slur as a label that still doesn’t give you permission to use it casually around me or to apply it to me. I respect your friend’s identity but we are two different people.
  3. When I Say “Stop” You Stop: This really should be a given but from my own experiences it isn’t. When we’re talking about gender or sexuality and I get uncomfortable I can shut this motherfucker down. It doesn’t matter if we’re joking around or having a serious conversation, I retain my right to unilaterally stop a situation that makes me feel triggered or unsafe or hurt. Frequently it will have nothing to do with you and everything to do with my own psychological discomfort so know that it’s not personal.
  4. Don’t You Dare Come Into My Safe-Spaces: When it comes to sexual orientations and gender presentations the majority of the world is probably a physical and emotional safe-space for you. In response to this I need to go to spaces that are intentionally created to be safe for people like me. These spaces are safe because people like you aren’t in them. Again, it’s nothing personal but I need the opportunity to be with people like me. You know, like how almost anywhere you go you’ll find other straight and gender-conforming people just like you.
  5. I Am Not Your Punch line: Please, for the love of all that is holy stop trying to make jokes about my identity. Society is full of these jokes and not only do I find them not funny but I find them actually painful. Throughout our relationship I’ll let you know what I’m comfortable with you joking about but unless I say it’s ok please shut your mouth.

Got it? Good.

I know, I know, these four rules seem so utterly basic that it seems almost silly for me to write them down like this but that’s the sad part. This sad part, this utterly tragic part, is that these seemingly obvious rules are violated in my life on a regular basis. On a regular basis I find my identity questioned or my safe-space violated by people who are trying to be my allies and that’s just not cool.

If you read this list and thought, “Oh good! I’m an ally of Samuel and I’ve done none of these things!” then I need you to think long and hard about all of our past interactions. I’m surrounded by wonderful allies but I’m hard pressed to think of a single one who hasn’t broken at least one of these rules at least once. Now that I’ve shared this with you please be mindful. Please remember that sometimes I’m too afraid or too hurt to speak up so you need to take a level of responsibility for your words.

Of course we all make slip-ups. Sometimes we don’t even know that we’re hurting one another but it’s important that we have these conversations to make sure that there’s as little hurt going on as possible. Allies, be aware of what those you support tell you they need or want. Be mindful that sometimes it’s painful or embarrassing or frightening for some of us to tell you that you’re being a shitty ally so don’t assume silence is approval. When you feel that you need to ask questions then ask them (Try to be respectful about this part.) and honor the answers you get.

Thanks a bunch.

Yours,

Samuel A. Zaber

Growing Up Femme: Role-Models

It’s weird developing role-models when you’re different from society norms. I’m not talking about a general teenage angsty feeling of being different (which is totally valid, it’s just not what I’m talking about), but rather the effect of being a minority in the eyes of society. Straight white dudes get to look out into the world and see a world of role-models reflected back at them but for those of us who aren’t as privileged (Full Disclosure: I’m white and am male, though I usually need to butch up before my male-ness is entirely recognized) finding role-models can be tricky. I’d like to talk about my experience  as a femme boy in the world of searching for role-models.

First I want to acknowledge that it’s completely possible to have role-models who don’t reflect your exact identity. Straights can have role-models who aren’t straight and female identified people can have genderqueer identified role-models and so on and so on but there’s something comforting in finding role-models who share at least part of your identity. Particularly when you’re already ‘different’ finding a role-model who shares your differences can be really nice.

The trouble with growing up as a femme boy in rural Vermont is that you don’t really have a lot of femme role-models in general. Carhartts are standard dress for men and women in the town that I come from (and I don’t just mean Carhartt pants but Carhartt shirts and boots and hats and if it has the Carhartt label you can bet people in my hometown are wearing it), and heels really aren’t practical. From the moment I began expressing my own opinions I was leaning towards a femme aesthetic, an early indication that I was going to be different from my fairly butch community.

Before I could verbalize my emotions I was hunting down femme role-models in history books and the pages of magazines. Finding other men who presented as femme was basically impossible. I picked up a few male role-models (Benjamin Franklin and Captain Picard and, well, that was basically it…), but I ended up getting drawn into the world of women who behaved badly and ended up making history. I became fascinated by women who were femme but also were loud and took stands and were sometimes even abrasive. They proved that it was possible to be a soldier in a petticoat (name the Disney reference), that femininity didn’t mean weakness.

The likes of Nellie Bly, Abigail Adams, Virginia Woolf, Coco Chanel, Minerva McGonagall, Queen Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton and others filled my head. (You’ll notice that all the women I listed are white and cisgender. At the time I thought nothing of it but looking back at it I’m almost horrified at how white and cis my exposure to history and current affairs was.) When I looked at them I didn’t just see people who had done great things but who also looked like I wanted to look like. If this idea, the idea that there is immense power in finding a role-model who looks or acts like you, is strange then I humbly suggest that perhaps you’ve always been exposed to role-models who you can relate to.

As I got older I began to find a few more femme male role-models but these were far and few between. Quentin Crisp was practically heaven-sent for me and watching The Naked Civil Servant and An Englishman in New York warmed my soul but these moments are far and few between. It’s easy to suggest to me that I might take inspiration from drag queens and while I do love a good drag show I can’t really relate to drag queens. As a general rule the drag queens I’ve seen take on characters that are so outrageous that they’re almost comedic portrayals of femininity. Drag is great, I’ve even performed in a drag show, but it’s not who I am in my daily existence.

An arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst

There are some who challenge my femme presentation and say that it makes me a less effective activist. They will say that my lipstick and pencil skirts make me appear too weak. In response I would like to remind them of Ms. Emmeline Pankhurst, a woman who wore skirts and big hats and make-up (possibly, I don’t actually know this for certain but looking at photos of her makes me suspect she had at least a smudge of makeup on her face), and heeled shoes and was most definitely not weak.

Some suggest that my clothing and make-up are the product of a society dominated by the patriarchy and that I’m buying into beauty standards of a backwards and sexist age. The fact that I’m a man makes my daily fashion radical but even if we put this aside all I can say is, “Shove off.” I am consciously choosing my presentation based on how wonderful it makes me feel and not because I’m being pressured into it. (This being said I do have strong issues with the European centered standards of beauty that our society is so fond of and would like to see us begin dismantling these standards.)

I take strength from my femme identity. Being able to express myself gives me strength. Being able to go about my day feeling attractive gives me strength. It’s a wonderful, wonderful strength that helps sustain me when shadows draw near and I know that I’m where I am today because I was able to find my role-models. The fact that I can look at my role-models and see that I’m not alone gives me more joy and strength than I can express. That’s the power of role-models.

So for all of you who will ever interact with a femme boy:Please, please let him have his role-models, it’s damn important.

After Boston

On Monday morning I was pressed up against the bodies of strangers as we gathered to watch marathoners preform feats of physical and emotional strength that I marvel at. Moments earlier as we joined the crowds my friend commented on how much she loved Marathon Day. This day was more than a celebration of athletic prowess, it was also a celebration of community and the way in which we come together. Four hours later our joy became horror.

I learned of the news as I was leaving my sister’s dorm, just over half a mile from Copley Square. Once again I was in a crowd of strangers. Now we were joined together in silence with our attention focused on the televisions in the dorm lobby. My desire to get out of Boston pushed me out of the dorm and onto Boylston Street in an attempt to reach my bus at South Station. The crowd I joined on the streets was louder than the one I’d just left. All previous feeling of joy and community and kinship and unity felt fractured as every stranger became a potential assailant.

Hearing the stories of the courageous acts that followed the explosions has helped to remind me of the kindness that exists in humanity. In my area of Boston there were no great acts that could make the headlines. The streets that I hurried down were filled with people who had been evacuated from the local metro lines, marathoners wrapped in their foil blankets, folk hearing the news on their cellphones. We were in the middle-ground, too far away to have been immediate victims but too close to be pure observers.

9/11 happened when I was in third grade and of all the days from elementary school that one is one of the, if not the, clearest day in my memory. My memory starts with our teacher telling us that a plane had crashed in New York City and until I could speak with my parents all I thought about was my family just across the river in Brooklyn. That was the closest I ever came to being personally affected by a violent tragedy of any sort. Until Boston.

Even when I was out of the city and on my bus back to quiet Amherst I thought of my friends and family in and around the city. As I scanned through The Huffington Post every few hours over the past week I was looking for streets, towns, places that I was familiar with. It turns out that I was lucky in that no one I knew was hurt. On Friday night a relative could hear gunfire from the direction of Watertown and it seems that this was the closest my loved ones came to the truly sad events that began Monday afternoon.

I will never presume to say that I was intimately impacted by what happened in Boston. I’m not  a resident, I didn’t know anyone racing, I wasn’t near the finish line, etc. However this was the closest I’ve been to terror, to violence, since September 11th. I may play myself off as a curmudgeon who has a Vulcan attitude towards emotions but the truth is that I’m an empathetic person and I’ve always assumed that because of my empathy I’ve been able to empathize for the victims of acts like this one. Now I don’t believe that. What I felt as I walked down Boylston Street, the fear, the anger, the desire to sit down and sob, was like nothing I’ve ever imagined, let alone experienced, in my life. When I think of the people who were more intimately connected to the bombings and the manhunt I find myself entirely incapable of understanding their emotions.

There’s been a lot of good writing over the past few days and one of my favorite pieces was written by a close friend of mine on the importance of empathy. In a slightly similar note several people have taken this opportunity to remind us that in some areas of the world bombs are a daily fact of life. In response some of said that these people need to wait, need to step back and let people heal before saying things like this. While I think that there’s a place for kindness and healing I think that using what happened to remind us of the frequent acts of violence in foreign parts of the world is appropriate.

I’m still dealing with my emotional aftereffects from Monday but what I can’t let go of is the idea that for some people the emotions that I experienced are commonplace. For me this could easily be a once in a my lifetime event but the fact that there are people out there who will be, have been, are being exposed to such events regularly is a fact that I cannot bare. I cannot bare that what I experienced as an atypical, unusual, truly frightening day could be just another day for some.

There’s a need for self-care and for healing. Sometimes we need to turn off the news and drink tea while reading a thick book. Sometimes we just can’t read another article about children dying in explosions. Sometimes for the sake of our mental health we have to go a day without acknowledging the fear that exists in our world. The thing is that we shouldn’t hide behind self-care and ignore the brutalities forever. I am entirely guilty of turning off the radio when another report comes on about bombings in distant cities and then soothing myself by saying that it’s for my own mental self-care when in reality it’s because I want to live in bliss.

Not any more.

Yes, when my depression is bringing me to new lows I will refuse to open my daily New York Times e-mail but I will not let myself pretend that my depression is an excuse to be blind.

What happened to me was a reminder. It was a reminder of my safety and of my privilege. It was a reminder that children and adults face bombs, violence, terror on a regular basis and that such a thing is abhorrent. My peaceful life was rattled on Monday and it was a reminder I can’t allow myself to hide in ignorance.

What happened to me was a reminder that there is work to be done.

Why I Really Intensely Want to Talk About My Depression

Since starting this blog I’ve written three posts that specifically address my depression, referenced it a few times and Tweeted about it quite a lot. The truth is that for every time I’ve mentioned my depression on my blog or Twitter there have been been like fifty other times I’ve wanted to bring it up. Almost every time I’ve wanted to bring it up I’ve quickly shut myself down. Quite honestly I was afraid of being seen as a whiner or a complainer who was trying to get sympathy for myself. (There’s a very strong part of my identity that’s pure Vermont Yankee who would rather suffer with a stiff face then admit to any turmoil or pain.)

But there are times when I’ve let my Yankee facade down and talked about my depression online and I’m a bit confused as to why. Rather, I was a bit confused because after a few days of contemplation (read: several hours on public transit between Northern Vermont and Amherst, Massachusetts) I think I’ve discovered a new knowledge about my relationship with depression and why I’ve felt strange urges to publicly talk about.

I grew up hearing that depression was natural, that it wasn’t taboo or strange. At home and at school I was told that mental illness wasn’t supposed to be stigmatized and that with support depressed people could work through their pain. Nice but not very useful since I was given very one dimensional descriptions of what depression actually was. Oh sure, it was feeling sad and whatnot but when examples were given they were so extreme and tended to follow the same linear pattern. First a person had some sort of traumatic event (Death of loved one, extreme bullying, shark biting off arm) and then they were very depressed (Self-harming, hospitalized, basically catatonic) and then someone (Friend, professional, fairy godparent) helped them and they were fine. A to B to C and home in time for supper.

When I began to experience depression (A time that I date to around age 12, if not earlier) my depression wasn’t caused by one specific event. On the whole my childhood was quite nice and if I had a slightly different brain chemistry or something I wouldn’t have become depressed. My depression also didn’t look like the depression that I heard about. There were no books I could find or class talks held that described feeling general self-hatred, anxiety, pain, the ability to go from happy to crushingly sad in the same time that it takes a Kobayashi to eat a hotdog. When my depression started I simply couldn’t recognize it. And that really, really sucks.

It wasn’t until I was around sixteen that I realized that I had something going on that needed a professional’s help. Even then I didn’t want to admit that I was depressed. I had accidentally learned that depression had to be caused by trauma and to claim I was depressed when there was no obvious cause felt like weakness or asking for attention. I’ve been through three kick-ass counselors and one amazing psychiatrist in the past four years and with each of them I’ve said something along the lines of, “But I’m not depressed. I’m just being a whiny little baby.” Their replies were supportive and made a point of telling me that I was wrong (Though in therapy speak. They didn’t just go, “You’re WRONG, Samuel.”) All of their help was wonderful but we were trying to overcome more than a decade of me telling myself that I couldn’t have depression because it didn’t fit with my model of what depression was.

I wish I had been exposed to a greater representation of how depression can manifest itself and what can cause it. I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m blaming the adults in my life for teaching me a limited version of depression because I hold no ill will towards them. The issue is that there isn’t a varied representation of depression out there. That’s why I want to share my personal experiences with depression.

Depression is awful no matter the form it takes but not being able to recognize your depression because your mind has only one model makes it all the harder to begin to treat it. This is why I get so excited when I see people with depression taking their stories to a public forum. It’s damned important for these stories to be shared and I beg all people with a history of depression who are at a place where they can talk about their experiences to please do so. We need to make the public aware of all the various types of depression that exist (I suspect that this is something that would be useful to many other mental illnesses or disorders but I only feel comfortable talking from the point of view as someone with depression.)

I wish, I truly wish that I had been exposed to more people’s stories when I was growing up. The trouble is that I can’t go back in time and teach pre-teen Samuel that his depression is valid and real. What I can do is share my own stories in an effort to help the pre-teen Samuels who are here now and who will come in the future.