Skip to content
May 22, 2014 / missmarymax

On the Principled Opposition to Trigger Warnings

Content note: This post discusses trigger warnings and reasons for opposing them. (Hence the uber-creative title). It also references trauma, anxiety, flooding, war, and gaslighting.


Warning: Do Not Read This Sign

Photo Credit: Nicolas Raymond.


It takes me 1.7 seconds to write the words “trigger warning.” I know, I timed it. And yet, people — people I know and respect, as well as the usual bevy of strangers and asshats — opt not to use them. They opt not to use them, despite the minimal effort such warnings require. They opt not to use them, actually, on principle.

For starters: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

There’s a general understanding that — if you can’t handle a conversation — you shouldn’t be in it. So, if we (as folks managing various kinds of trauma) are bothered by certain topics, images, or words, we should simply remove ourselves from the space where that topic, image, or word is present. And certainly, that is one tactic that people with triggers use to function. We can (and do) remove ourselves from spaces because they trigger traumatic memories, panic attacks, disassociation, etc. Opting-out is often a viable method when spaces are specific to certain content. (For example, if I have combat-related PTSD, it’s fairly simple for me to avoid playing war video games). But there are plenty of spaces — like this blog, for instance, or a Facebook mini-feed — where the range of topics is much broader. And when any topic can be brought into a space at any time, it’s very difficult to gauge whether triggering material will be present in a space.

Given this, the request by survivors* for content warnings is not a request that you be accountable in our place. (After all – my feels, my responsibility). On the contrary, it’s a request for the information we need to act responsibly, for the details that will allow each of us to make informed decisions about when, whether, and how we encounter certain content. Otherwise, what are our options? Are we to opt out of the entire Internet to avoid one potential image, phrase, or thread? (Because let’s be honest; that’s a little less “if you can’t stand the heat, get outta the kitchen” and a little more  “get outta the kitchen, the house, and the whole damn neighborhood.”)

Principle #2: Hey, we can’t make the whole world safe. So, you need to face your problems.

This is another alluring argument After all, there’s truth in it. Until we create a world without trauma, a trigger-free experience is, essentially, about as likely as a gravity-free one. In some cases, learning to manage triggers or working through treatment to minimize their intensity has been very useful to me, and – I’m sure – to other trauma survivors. But suggesting that we should encounter triggers “wherever, whenever” in order to “face our fears” misunderstands both triggers and their treatment.  Being “flooded” by triggers does not tend to toughen up trauma survivors or cure us of our “sensitivity.” Instead, flooding is linked to further trauma and to relapse, and — because of that — most treatment approaches are incredibly systemic, slow, and gradual.

Similarly, the idea that — if we wish to limit our exposure to certain triggering material in certain instances, we must be avoiding those materials at all times — seriously underestimates survivors. Many of us limit our exposure to triggering material as part of our healing process – because we have already seen enough of it on a particular day, because we have an especially low threshold in this moment, or because we are reserving our limited resources (stamina, energy, resilience) to face triggers in a therapeutic context.  You do not do survivors any favors by suggesting we deal with triggers on your terms. This is not a matter of our lagging toughness in the face of the Internet’s tough love. It’s a matter of our autonomy, our ability to make informed decisions about how we continue to exist and interact with our world, while managing the psychological and neurological differences that go along with trauma.

 Principle #3: Free speech! Censorship!

We have a whole lot of love, particularly here in the US, for the idea of free speech. Most of us can’t name the fifth or sixth amendment, but we will passionately invoke the first. The request that someone communicate differently triggers (ba dump bump swish) near-immediate “slippery slope” arguments about censorship and free discourse. It doesn’t much matter that the request (in this case) is for existing speech to follow a handful of extra words. It doesn’t much matter that free speech has yet to suffer any damage in spaces where trigger warnings are the norm. And it doesn’t much matter, apparently, that our dialogue suffers in their absence.

Yeah, you heard me. Dialogue suffers from the absence of these warnings.

It suffers because free speech — even in its simplest, least legal form – is not just about the right of any individual to say whatever they wish, whenever they wish to do so.  Such a simplification ignores the structure of the discussion, the ways it is — from the get-go — rigged. People with certain kinds of privilege (white folks, dudes, cis peeps, and yes — non-survivors) are given more space to state their side of things. Their communication needs are also granted the seal of social approval; the language they’re comfortable with, the amount of prior information they need about a conversation, the extent or types of debate they’re able to endure, and the amount of time they need to process and formulate a response are all considered norms. Standard and acceptable. Meanwhile, the needs of the non-privileged — here, of survivors — are considered alternately overly-sensitive, delicate, fascist, or entitled.

The goal of the trigger warning is not to take away anyone else’s right to speak as they do. The goal is to expand those standard practices of conversations so that others are equally able to contribute.

I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to ask of each other. Conversations benefit when as many different people as possible can choose (safely) to participate in them.

In the end, we each have the right to decide whether or not we use trigger warnings. But we do not have the right to dismiss those who ask for them. Claims that trigger warnings are unnecessary function, however unintentionally, as gaslighting. They refuse the survivor’s own articulated experience of trauma — of what it means to be triggered and what we need to survive that — and replace it with a faulty image drawn by those who have not lived these realities.

Our experiences are not yours. They are not even each other’s. And if you will not respect our needs, you can respect — at least — our ability to know them.

*This post uses the term “survivor” and “person who experiences triggers” interchangeably. While “survivor” is often exclusively applied to survivors of sexual trauma, it’s intended – in this use – to include all experiences of trauma and related anxiety disorders.

Recommended reading: this post owes a significant debt to Melissa McEwan’s posts on trigger warnings, especially this one, which I’ve repeatedly linked while this post sat in my folder o’ drafts, and which I cannot recommend enough.

April 4, 2014 / missmarymax

On Fagbug Firestorms, LGBT Campus Activism, & Administrative ‘Support’

Members of the CHS gay-straight alliance pose with the Fagbug.

Members of the CHS gay-straight alliance pose with the Fagbug.

On Wednesday, the (unrecognized) gay-straight alliance at Charleston High School in IL attempted to host a 30 minute chat with documentary filmmaker and pro-gay activist Erin Davies, before their first bell. Five minutes in, administrators asked Davies to move her car (the Fagbug pictured) off school property, stating that students (who’d previously pushed school officials to discipline the use of ‘fag’ as a slur) could not “have it both ways.”

Said CHS principal Diane Hutchins, “we can’t punish a student for calling someone that name and then allow a vehicle to park out there with that word on it.”

I remember this argument. In 2008, I was part of an effort to bring the Fagbug to my (now) alma mater, a small Catholic university two hours west of Charleston. As a sophomore I had helped to resurrect that school’s defunct GSA. I’d sat in the dorm lobby, with my handful of fellow members, and made buttons for National Coming Out Day and the Transgender Day of Remembrance, — one hand-cut circle, plastic dish, and pin-back at a time. My best friend heard about Erin on NPR and suggested we invite her to campus, to speak and to screen Fagbug, her then unfinished film. I doubted our $250 of start-up funding would come close to paying her bill. But we pursued it anyway. And I learned quickly how many more non-monetary barriers stood in our way.

Questions (always from unknown sources) started filtering our way: Was the event ‘right’ for our school? Was it against our Catholic identity? Did it “advocate or condone sexual activity between members of the same sex?”

That last question was one we had to ask of Erin herself, despite knowing it offended us and would likely offend her. Erin’s response was simple: her speech, film, and work were (and are) about opposing hate crimes and supporting justice; they are not (as a matter of fact) about sex. (To many folks’ surprise, our identities as LGB folks — even our relational identities — extend beyond sexual acts, into other areas of our existence. Likewise, discrimination based on sexual identity does not de facto end at the bedroom door. It infiltrates all aspects of life. Education, for instance. Or one’s right to drive and park a car.)

I remember being asked about the word ‘fag,’ to explain (to our unidentified detractors) why we needed to use it. In one of the many letters I wrote that semester, I explained what I should never have been expected to explain: that there is a strong history in social justice movements of reclaiming slurs, from the n-word to the sexist and ableist c-words, to terms like “fag.” That not everyone who identifies as a member of these oppressed groups will participate in (or support) this practice, but that — regardless — context matters. The word “fag” on a rainbow car, side-by-side with the GSA’s logo, carries a different meaning that it does when a homophobic classmate launches it across the dining hall. In our case, the dining hall scenario (and its brethren) had yet to be addressed. Policing our use of the word without taking issue with it in an explicitly homophobic context could not stand. Thankfully, things at CHS appear at least a degree or two further along; Principal Hutchins’ statement that the administration has received “direction from the GSA in the past” regarding the slur warrants some small optimism. Although the students (again) should not bear the responsibility of educating those in power, at least the powers-that-be are (apparently) receptive.

Yet Hutchins asked Erin to move her car. Our higher-ups asked us to promote the event but lose the word.

Their students rallied. We wrote another letter.

This kind of discrimination — the failure to recognize an LGBT club, the request that Erin move her car, etc — is often not malicious. It’s a subtler form of harm committed by “well-meaning” people. Hutchins, for instance, considers herself a supporter: “I have bent over backwards,” she says, “to make sure these kids had a safe place to be and a safe place to meet. I’m trying to protect my students — I’m not trying in any way to stop what they are trying to do.”

I’m not trying in any way to stop what they are trying to do. That’s not the statement of an opponent, but it’s also not the statement of a supporter. A supporter says We are doing this, together. A leader says the same.

Discrimination based in ignorance, rather than hatred, still does harm.

Well-meaning administrators like Hutchins see the potential firestorm in events like Fagbug and attempt to toe the line of compromise: Of course we support gay students, but we cannot make exceptions. Erin can stay, but her car cannot. You can host the event, but you can’t use that word. At my alma mater, they created a new piece of paperwork, requiring organizations hosting “controversial” events to spell out how they would allow space for dissenters. To my knowledge, only the GSA was ever required to complete that form.

These kinds of double standards are framed as compromises, as tolerance, acceptance, and support. Hutchins calls them  “bending over backwards.” But the decision not to oppose oppressed students on your campus does not constitute support. Protecting the safety of your students wins no medals; it’s basic, level one. Having a statement, like my university did, like CHS does, stating that students have a right to be on campus (and free from bullying) regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, is step one. The next step, the next thousand steps, is living up to that promise. When you welcome a group onto a campus, you do not invite them to sit silently in your space. You invite them to walk freely and to speak openly, using the words they choose, about the problems they face. You allow them to create change on that campus. And you join them in creating that change.

By far the best thing that came out of my own Fagbug firestorm was the wave of visible support from faculty, staff, and students. The event, which we did finally manage to hold, was easily our best-attended. Folks on campus went to the mat for our right to bring Erin in, and made it clear that they would continue to do so for future GSA offerings. Those alliances paved the way for the safer, more hospitable climate that’s developing there today. I have hope that yesterday’s events at CHS will likewise reveal their allies and lead to similar growth.

I hope they will lead to administrative support for gay, bi, and trans students on that campus and elsewhere. As importantly, I hope the administrators in question will not view that support as a favor to queer students. It isn’t a favor. It’s the fulfillment of an existing promise. It is the least they deserve.

Members of our GSA with Erin Davies, 2009.

Members of our GSA with Erin Davies, 2009.

March 22, 2014 / missmarymax

Scarleteen Blog: Anxiety Lies

I live with chronic anxiety.

I’m intimately acquainted with sweaty palms, flushed skin, and the positioning of heart in throat. I’ve experienced panic attacks, a specific brand of torture, which feel roughly like suffocating, hyperventilating, and having a heart attack, simultaneously. As a child, I spent years in doctor’s offices, trying to demystify the habitual stomachaches, which were – it turns out – this. Anxiety.

I remember, vividly, the first time I took an “as-needed” anti-anxiety med, the feeling of my muscles finally, truly relaxing. I remember thinking, “Oh. Is this what it feels like – to be… calm?”

You can read the full post on anxiety, its bullshit, and getting free of the noise over at Scarleteen.

Read more…

March 19, 2014 / missmarymax

On The Luxury of White Surprise

Content note: this post — and the links it includes — contain discussion of anti-black and anti-trans homicides, racism and cissexism in the prison industry, and domestic violence. Respect your spoons.

horrified but not surprisedPhoto Credit: Daniel Arauz.

The night the state murdered Troy Davis, the news hit me like a horse-hoof to the face. I couldn’t understand. …Just like I couldn’t understand the ongoing imprisonment of Marissa Alexander or CeCe McDonald; — surely, in another few days, they’d each be released. Surely, this couldn’t keep up. In another few days and another few days, they were both still in prison* and Renisha McBride had been shot dead for stumbling from her car to a doorstep. (Something I have done and survived.) In another few days, there were more names I didn’t know, to try and remember.

After Trayvon Martin was murdered, I shared everything I could — on his death and on George Zimmerman’s trial — everything short of the #WeAreAllTrayvon tags and the “I Am Trayvon” images. Those I left untouched. I am not Trayvon. I will never have to live with what he and millions of young people like him face daily.  I don’t know how I will die, but I know I do not live with the threat that killed them.

I can’t imagine that threat. Can’t imagine. The same way I couldn’t imagine that the state would execute Troy Davis, couldn’t fathom how charges were so slowly filed against Zimmerman and Wafer, couldn’t conceive how those charges might lead to acquittal. The night George Zimmerman was acquitted, I did not immediately hear the news. A few minutes after the devastated, angry, (and godhelpus, the triumphant) messages started to pour across my Twitter feed, my girlfriend Melissa and I were still reading an outdated article about the jury’s request for clarification on the manslaughter charge. It was a good sign, the report said. It suggested the charges were being considered, seriously, that a full acquittal was unlikely. I leaned back against the pillows, cushioned from the wall and said, with utter certainty, “I can’t imagine how they could acquit.”

I can’t imagine. I said this, to Melissa, who agreed with a nod, even as she was seeing the first – unfathomable – reports that they had.

As a white person, I experience these crimes in a context of Whiteness, so often considered irrelevant, so often unconsidered, full stop. I’m explicitly protected, personally, from these kinds of loss. This makes them difficult to imagine, which makes me lucky. It makes me lucky in a way that makes me sick.

Because, make no mistake, my response to each of these losses was a White response. My disgust and my sadness and my heartbreak may be human, but my shock, my overwhelming shock, is colored White. It’s the response of a person raised to expect that, more often than not, the ‘justice’ system will live up to its name. It’s rooted, not just in disappointment and fury and grief, but also in surprise. The surprise of someone unaccustomed to attending funerals for family members not yet 21. Not accustomed to seeing those she loves profiled, threatened, and shot to death. Not accustomed to seeing their murderers freed and given back their guns.

(This is not to say that Black people have some superhuman strength that makes this bearable. That, too, is a White image. It’s to say that, socially, we have long since stripped them of the luxury of this surprise).

Because I am White, these atrocities enter my life as news stories — devastating news stories — but news stories, nonetheless. They enter my life as trending topics and headlines. I have the option to close the browser window or turn the radio dial to ‘off.’ If I were not White, I would not have the same out. I could, perhaps, move onto the topic du jour next week. I would probably not have the luxury to let this deep-seated injustice — racism — consume me. But without Whiteness, my life would not be structured as it is, in a way that encourages me to forget.

As it is, I can change my blacked-out profile picture back to my face and move forward. Forget Trayvon Martin, this one particular miscarriage of justice. Forget Marissa Alexander (whose name I just Googled. So easy. So easy not to remember). I can forget these names and all the others — past, present, and future–I can simply never learn.

The night George Zimmerman was acquitted, I turned off my phone and drew Melissa close. I kissed a line down her freckles, as I have a thousand times before. For the first time, it occurred to me, with a wave of relief, how lucky I am to be in love with someone who’s white. The thought — and the fact that I’d never had it before — scared me further. I worry about losing Melissa — to disease, to car accidents, even (yes) to homophobic hate crimes. But I’m lucky. We’re both lucky. Yes, we’re careful about when we kiss, when we hold hands, when we stare lovey-dovey-style into each other’s eyes. No, it’s not fair that we have to be cautious. But it’s a choice we can make, to protect ourselves. It’s a choice queer people of color make as well, even as they’re putting their hands outside the car to show a police officer they have no weapon. Melissa and I, we keep our hands in the car. We wear hoodies, buy Skittles, and have car trouble with immunity.

When I choose not to see that, I’m complicit in it. When I choose not to remember, I’m complicit. When I choose not to learn, when I choose not to act, when I choose not to fund, when I choose not to argue, I’m complicit.

I am not likely to make all the right choices, all the just choices, every day for the rest of my life. I hope I will have the strength to do better when I’m called out on the wrong ones. I hope I will remember, that we will all remember, what a lucky, unfair thing it is to have this awareness and this burden be a choice.

*CeCe McDonald was released on January 13, after serving 19 month’s in a men’s prison. Laverne Cox is currently producing a documentary that highlights CeCe’s story and  similar experiences. You can help fund it here.

March 6, 2014 / missmarymax

Reaching Out to Save (And Sustain) Scarleteen

scarleteen: sex ed for the real world

Most of you know that — of all the spaces on the Internet — Scarleteen is among the dearest to my heart. The organization (with its forums and columns and live chats and direct services) provides compassionate, comprehensive sexual education and support to teens and twenty-somethings. They’ve been doing this, on a fraying shoestring of budget, for 15 years, for users who are not (and in many cases cannot be) getting these resources elsewhere. The space is queer-positive, trans-positive, body-positive, sex-positive…(that list just keeps going, you guys.) The “inclusive” qualifier in its header is actually an understatement. Scarleteen actively prioritizes the experiences and the needs of youth — specifically marginalized youth — and builds services that affirm and meet those needs.

I’m especially grateful to the folks at Scarleteen for the services they provide that I’ve never needed. I’m grateful for the live chats, referrals, and other direct support they offer to youth in crisis. Queer and questioning youth on their last leg. Youth recovering from assault or abuse, or currently embroiled in ‘relationships’ that meet those criteria. Youth who are alone and facing an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. I’m grateful these resources are available, somewhere, for the many, many individuals who need them. And I’m grateful for what the site has given me, personally, and to many other folks I know. For starters: a comprehensive, accurate education about sexuality. But even more importantly, a firm belief in the inalienable right to this body. The right to be here, to be bodily, to protect my physical autonomy, to experience pleasure, to act sexually or — in any given moment — to choose otherwise. Finding spaces — and Scarleteen is perhaps the epitome of them — that shout back at the constant social messaging about my body as damaged, inferior, dangerous, or about anyone else has been life-saving for me. It’s played a massive role in my recovery from an eating disorder and in the life I’ve built on that foundation. It’s paved the way for the fucking kickass relationship I currently share. It’s given me tools and support in the ongoing, messy, and vital process of self-care that includes (intrinsically) this body. This one. Here.

And if it does not receive some drastic financial support before May 1st, all of that will be in serious jeopardy.

According to executive director Heather Corinna:

With no radical change in giving and support immediately — and a change that is permanent, not just reactionary — Scarleteen as we know it, and as our users use it, may just be over.

Which is why we feel it may be time to strike. Come May Day – May 1st – unless something radically changes, Scarleteen will begin a strike.

The full details of why this is necessary (and what it would mean) are available at Heather’s post, which I seriously encourage you to read and consider. In the meantime, while you’re still here at my blog, I’d like to point out one of the many great things about the small-but-mighty Scarleteen crew: they understand (and expect) that the people they serve (namely youth — and marginalized youth, specifically) cannot pay for their services. Scarleteen has always been completely and utterly free. Their site structure, their annual donation ask, even this recent preparation to strike, has never focused on convincing users to pay for the “privilege” of accessing this space.  They flat-out do not expect payment from their user base. But that leaves unsolved the problem of who will fund this work, for these users. Who will keep it from falling prey to the triply-underfunded intersection of sex education, youth, and the Internet?

The answer, I hope, is us.

I would love to be a substantial donor to Scarleteen, to give in a way that could make a difference as real and as lasting as the one their work has made in  my life. It’s not something I can, personally, do — for reasons that are familiar to many of you and to most of the Scarleteen folks: I (too) work for a nonprofit, where I serve youth, as an educator. I’m unlikely to dive, Scrooge-McDuck-style, into a pool of money anytime soon. This is one of the reasons that, during Scarleteen’s recent annual ask — which netted zero dollars — I almost didn’t give, period. I assumed that others would and that I didn’t need to, that my nickels and dimes could not affect change of a more substantial sort. The tipping point for me was Heather’s announcement that, after nearly a week of asking, the site had received five donations. Five. At that moment, my “I can’t do much” made the slight but mighty transformation into “I can do a little.”

It was a similar moment, a couple of years ago, that led me to start giving — a very little bit — to Scarleteen each month. Like many of you, my financial history is short on money and long on insecurity, and it’s for those exact reasons that I give the way I do. I give a very little bit, very regularly. I give the amount I’d pay for a coffee or a cheap lunch, an amount I consistently have, and which I’ve learned, over the months, does not break me. An amount, frankly, that I don’t generally miss. I currently have the luxury of employment and of a joint income to put toward my bills. At times when I haven’t had those things, I haven’t always been able to give. Right now I can, so I do. I give $10, every month. I can count on that amount not to make a difference in my day-to-day life. And Scarleteen can count on that amount to be there, month after month, to help them make a difference in someone else’s.

You–reading this, right now, thinking I don’t really mean you–have that same power. You have the power to become a sustaining donor to Scarleteen: a person who gives, in any amount, to the site on a regular basis. I’m asking you to use that power. Before May 1st (the kickoff date for the potential strike), I’d like to join with friends, family, readers and other rad people, to find an additional $200 for Scarleteen each month. I want to turn my personal $10 into our collective $200.


The main gift here is not the cash itself, but its consistency, the dependability that comes with a recurring gift. There’s a thoroughly mind-boggling and yet somehow accurate statistic that came out last year, that Scarleteen serves one person for every penny donated. Literally every penny. For every $10 then, more than 1000 people benefit. For our collective $200, Scarleteen can serve twenty-thousand youth. Over the course of a year? Nearly half-a-million people served, in ways they flat-out cannot be (or are not being) helped elsewhere. That is some serious bang for one’s buck.

$200 of sustaining funding is 20 friends stepping up and donating $10 a month, to a cause that’s far more valuable. It’s 10 friends donating $20. If we pull that off, we’re $200 closer to the $3000 increase in funding that Scarleteen needs, each month, to function as it does. To give the resources it’s given to me to someone else. To give the resources I’ve never needed to someone they will benefit greatly.

I know you all, reading this, and I feel really lucky that I do. I feel incredibly lucky to have friends, family, and readers who truly value my call, when I say that a cause is worthwhile. More importantly, I feel lucky to have friends, family, and readers who value so many of the same things I do — education, sexual education, resources for queer and trans youth, resources for survivors of (and those currently embroiled in) abuse, better access to healthcare — and the countless other services that Scarleteen has provided for the past 15 years. Services we need to ensure they can keep providing. I hope, with the full power of the word, that you will join me in this.

If you can give — pleasepleaseplease set up a recurring donation. And (if you’re willing to suffer my overpowering gratitude), let me know you have, so I can count it toward this success. And please- spread the word about the need.

If you can’t consider making a one-time donation. I completely understand what it’s like for life to be too unpredictable to make a predictable gift, and I have nothing but respect for you taking care of your own needs (financial and otherwise), as best you can. Think about whether you can throw a few bucks toward Scarleteen, just this month, and (again) help to spread word about what they do and why we must save them. (Then see the above, regarding my gratitude.)

And if you can’t donate, period — pleasepleaseplease share about Scarleteen and the site’s current straits. Share widely and relentlessly, through your own networks. (I would love to post guest content here about what Scarleteen, specifically — or services like it — have meant for others. If you aren’t able to donate but would like to write a piece about why this work really, really matters, please contact me).

$200, between us. It’s not an impossible goal. It’s a lofty one.Which leaves the question:

What is our reach?

January 31, 2014 / missmarymax

It Doesn’t Just Happen: On “It Happened To Me” & The Grammar of Injustice

[Note: This piece was originally written in response to “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in My Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable,” a personal essay published on The issues with that piece have inspired significant outroar and are addressed (seriously and satirically) by Pia Glenn, CeCe Olisa, KazzleDaz, and others. The post below focuses more on broader, structural considerations in the “It Happened to Me” framework. For more detailed considerations of the yoga piece, specifically, I recommend the links above].


Most of us will probably never have strong feelings on passive (versus active) voice. Generally speaking, this is one of those issues we master for a specific English class and then quickly forget. We learn our professor’s preference (or our boss’), and – if we’re lucky – remember to quickly double-check our choices using Rebecca Johnson’s zombie trick. (If you can cleanly add “by zombies” after the verb in a sentence, it’s generally in passive voice. Consider “that terrible blog post was written [by zombies]” versus “zombies wrote [by zombies?] that terrible blog post.” I know. Life-changing.) But overall, understanding passive voice is little more than a grammarian’s cocktail party trick. It’s the equivalent of curling your tongue or patting your head while rubbing circles on your stomach. Passingly impressive, perhaps, but not game-changing in any grander scheme.

When it comes, however, to the ways we use language to represent ourselves and others, passivity becomes a deeper issue. We’re called to consider more nuanced concepts, such as the degrees of agency (the capacity to act) and interiority (internal thoughts and experiences) granted to the “characters” in a piece. Ultimately, the decision to feature or erase a specific perspective has far more significant ramifications than whether we choose “is” over “flourishes.” (Advance apologies to any English teachers who disagree).

I consider things like this, on occasion, as a direct result of my being a massive nerd. Today, I find myself thinking of it again, as I reflect on the viral uproar over a recent xoJane essay — “It Happened to Me: There Are No Black People in My Yoga Classes and I’m Suddenly Feeling Uncomfortable with It.”  xoJane dedicates an entire subforum to It Happened to Me (IHTM) pieces. In that subgenre, they exclusively feature personal essays, a decision that effectively reflects the feminist sensibility that the personal is political and uses narrative to address a range of experiences, minor and/ or marginalized, tawdry and/ or taboo.

…Except when it doesn’t.

The rhetorical framework of “It Happened To Me” (at xoJane and elsewhere) is, by nature, a passive one. The experience – infidelity, illness, injustice, etc – is enacted upon the writer. The writer is the recipient or the victim (or – if you want to get grammatical about it – the direct object) upon whom the experience acts. The ability to act, the agency, does not belong to the author. It belongs to the experience.

The essays in the IHTM section all share that heading (and its passive construction). Their subheadings, however, (which effectively title individual pieces), vary widely in their framework. Some reflect the structure of “It Happened to Me” — A Stranger Called Me A Chinese Bitch, A Woman Verbally Attacked Me For Tying Up My Dog, etc.  Some actively invert it, returning the author to the subject position:  I Was on the FBI Watchlist, I Was Sexually Harassed On-Stage. In some cases, the author even merges zir experience (the “it”) with zir identity (the “me”): I’m A Clothes Hoarder, I’m a Fat Porn Star. In this manner, the authors use “It Happened to Me” in a range of ways. They not only describe experiences that, yes, actually, technically happened to them, but also use IHTM as a template to reframe experiences in which they had little agency (such as the instance of sexual harassment), into narratives of personal power.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true as well: authors can (and do) use IHTM to describe experiences in which they had agency – even agency at the expense of other people – as experiences that happened to them. And therein lies the rub.

As writers, we can decide to write about an experience that happened to us (“IHTM: Someone Stole My Wallet.”) We can also decide to write about a choice we made – as if it is something that happened to us – (IHTM: I Stole Someone’s Wallet.) The resulting essays may be good, bad, moral, unjust, or a mix thereof. But a third application of the IHTM format does, inherently, harm.  That application frames someone else’s identity as something that “happened to” the author. (IHTM: A Black Person Had a Wallet In My Presence.)

We see this every time a cis partner writes an “It Happened To Me” piece about learning their lover is trans. Every time a straight friend writes about their crush coming out. And we see it here, the now-infamous xoJane piece, when a White woman writes about a Black woman’s entry into an all-white space, as an experience that “happened to her.”

In these instances, the author does – in spite of the rhetorical passivity of the title—have greater agency than the person they suggest has “happened to” them. They don’t have it because they take an active hand in what occurs. (After all, the situation still happens to them; they remain its object.) Rather, they have agency because – through the framework of the piece – they have taken the identity of another human being and reduced that person to an object, one that – rather than experiencing life – is experienced, as an event in it.

In this usage, the IHTM template is intensely dehumanizing. The author, centered by the first-person perspective of the piece, is granted interiority and agency at the direct expense of the other human(s) zie’s transformed into an “experience.” In the yoga piece, author Jen Caron goes a step further, presuming to speak for the Black woman and couching her racist (and sizeist) dehumanization of this woman in the language of social justice. (The identity of the unknown woman is degraded into Caron’s personal White-Privilege aha-moment, an ironic structure for a piece that – however accidentally – conceptually relies on that privilege.)

Grammatically speaking, Jen Caron’s title isn’t firmly active; the be-verb is weak and the verb precedes the subject. It’s not, grammatically speaking, clearly passive either: one cannot (ala Johnson) cleanly insert the zombies.   But the essay – and the plethora of essays like it – still relies on that spectre, that not-quite human being, (granted minimal brain or speech), who happens (as a plague) upon others. That monster about whom stories are told.

But the monstrous element here is not, ultimately, that inhuman spectre. It’s the (all-too human) act that creates it: the removal of someone else’s personhood to serve our narrative arc. And when we’re looking for a target to eradicate, our anti-apocolyptic weapon of choice should land there.

We should, in other words, consider the question: how does my voice actively “happen to” (or at the expense of) others?

January 25, 2014 / missmarymax

Aching For It All To Get Better: On Andrea Gibson, Mary Lambert, & Nicole Reynolds

Trigger warning: this post contains references (some brief, some not) to growing up gay in a homophobic world, living with mental illness, self-harm, and sexual assault.  Readers are encouraged to put themselves before reading.





So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin
don’t try to put me back in.
Just say, “Here we are” together at the window
aching for it to all get better
but knowing there is a chance
our hearts may have only just skinned their knees,
knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming

let me say right now for the record,
I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance,
even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet.

You, you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.

Andrea Gibson


Illinois, 1999. I can’t breathe unless I stay in bed and keep my eyes closed (please don’t make me), but they say it’s not that bad. At school, they show us pictures of car wrecks and I sway in my chair, dizzy and nauseous. And the man at the front of the auditorium — who speaks too loudly — says, “the kid comes running toward me, both wrists broken, looking like a fa– sorry — like someone sexually challenged” and he laughs when he says it because he’s not really sorry. Afterward we crowd around the teacher’s desk, my friends and me, outraged, (this cannot be ok). We crowd around her  desk and she says, “you’ll have to learn to deal with people like him; you’ll deal with people like that all your life.” I can’t answer; I can’t talk unless it’s typing (please don’t make me); I can’t go to school (aren’t you feeling better?); I feel like I’m on fire from the inside out. And they tell me, these are the best years of your life, you’re fine, you’ll be just fine, it will get better.

And I hold my breath, stay home again. I write poems. I turn the music up.


It’s 2013 and I’m in a dark bar/ cafe, twenty-five feet from the stage. Mary Lambert’s sitting at a piano; I’m wedged between the bar and someone’s booth. A crowd of lesbians and queers surrounds me. Us. Mary Lambert says, “I’ve spent the past year traveling the country telling everyone how gay I am. And instead of getting murdered, we went double platinum.”

Everyone laughs and cheers. My girlfriend and I included.

I wonder, Does this mean it’s gotten better?

My girlfriend, Melissa, and I lean together, surrounded by the standing-room only crowd, listening. Mary Lambert sits at the piano.  Her red hair and piano spark easy memories of Tori Amos, the constant companion of my adolescence. Like Tori, she sings about heartbreak and abuse and not knowing how to survive your own crazy brain. I hear my own teen years in between the chords, and I wonder — what would it have been like to have music like this at thirteen, fifteen, nineteen?

Maybe I did.

I remember Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, the raw dark ballads that I held like ski poles as I slalomed through my own development. How different would it have been, to have songs like these? Maybe not that different. Maybe I already had them.

Maybe. Still.

Mary Lambert sings about being gay, talks about being gay, writes about it. She uses female pronouns when she sings love songs. I listen and remember the first time t.A.T.u. came on our car radio, in Southern Illinois in 2002. I remember freezing in the passenger seat of my dad’s Saturn, remember how my breath caught in my throat, remember thinking, I can’t be hearing this right. I remember how my ears perked, even though I wasn’t out yet, wasn’t even questioning.

Not then. Later. Later I would question and later I would joke, tell people, my music collection knew I was gay before I did. And it’d be a stretch, maybe, but only a slight one. Unlike “this music is one reason I survived” which would be, if anything, an understatement.

I listen to Mary and remember the way my breath caught, listening to t.A.T.u., before those girls were the props of a straight porn director, when they were still — as far as I could tell — just like Mary at her piano: two girls singing love songs about girls.

I listen and feel the folks around me, and I remember my first concert — my first real concert — years ago: Ani DiFranco. (Of course). The concert just before I dyed my hair blue, before I’d (quite) come out. I remember the venue — the Pageant in St. Louis — and how in an hour, every lesbian in the city seemed to pour inside of it. An impossible number of us, present and accounted for. Spread across the city, we diluted; that night, concentrated that way, we were a massive force. That night, my parents sat five feet behind me, and I stood in the dancing crowd and let the music use me, like a metronome, to hold the beat.

The next day I went home and did what half-crazy introspective teen queers do: I wrote a slam poem to remember it. That night. That night I didn’t just see Ani DiFranco, I became her. There was some sort of cord between us, invisible but solid. When she looked into the crowd, her eyes rested on me, impossible but true, and yes, those were my callused fingers flying against the guitar strings; those were my vocal cords, vibrating in that throat.

A voice.

Years later, I would say music gave me a language when I didn’t know how to speak for myself. There’s a Dar Williams lyric, I would say, she gave me the language that keeps me alive. There’s a Winter Machine lyric, I’d say, learn to use the voice that gets you through this life the best. When I had no words of  my own, I had lyrics. I would try to explain. How that became mine, somehow. How the poetry of Tori Amos  was the best translation I had for the fog in my own head.

Years later, I would see Ani again, in Santa Cruz. She’d be older, singing new songs about marriage and motherhood. I’d stand again in the thick of the crowd, and all around me, couples – lesbian couples – would dance, twirl their kids around, stack them on their shoulders for a better view. We’d revisit “Shameless” with another generation, the music of our youth transforming into music we passed onto them. I’d look at those families and, for the first time, imagine a future for myself that included this. Crowded kitchens, dinner tables. Family.


I once touched a tree with charred limbs
The stump was still breathing
But the tops were just ashy remains
I wonder what it’s like to come back from that
Sometimes I feel a forest fire erupting from my wrists
And the smoke signals sent out are the most beautiful things
I’ve ever seen
Love your body the way your mother loved your baby feet
And brother, arm wrapping shoulders, and remember
This is important
You are worth more

Mary Lambert


The night I see Mary Lambert, I’ve been out nearly 10 years. She’s opening for a queer singer-songwriter I’ve never heard of, who walks on-stage, all sweet butch babydyke. Nicole Reynolds. I see her and I think how, lately, I haven’t found any new queer artists to love. I’m still playing the same Melissa Ferrick albums I was in 2003; I could use some new material. I flash on that cord between me and Ani DiFranco, at that performance years ago. I catch my breath and wait for Nicole to blow me away.

She waits.

Before her first song she tells a story. Says she saw a mother beating her kid in Walgreens that morning and she told the mom her kid’s will grow up to hate her. She says she does this now, when she sees kids with psycho parents, because she had a psycho parent and no one ever said a thing. Then she tells a story about abuse. It’s not the first story of abuse that’s told on stage that night. It’s not the last. I think how common this is, at events tied – by any thread – to the spoken-word world. How rare in general. The vulnerability is shocking, simultaneously impressive and uncomfortable. Nicole begins to sing.

Nicole Reynolds speaks like a child and writes like a crone. Her lyrics are layered, intricate, and heartbreaking. I think how much I would have loved this set as a teenager. How desperately I needed music just like this.

As a teenager. Which is to say … what, exactly? What is it I need now?

I listen and, gradually, I realize that I feel older than this woman. Protective. Her songs sound like my memories. They have no sense of current journals. She’s at the microphone and I’m in the crowd and her voice is vital but it’s not my voice.

And I wonder if that means it’s gotten better.

believe what you feel and question what they say
everyone’s really just guessing anyway

i thought that you should know this

[…] i love who i love who i love like the ocean

Nicole Reynolds


The finale: Andrea Gibson, slam poet laureate of the queers, takes the stage to thunderous applause. She has the hair of Tegan or Sara, the weathered look of Melissa Ferrick, the style of Joan Jett. She refers to the past few months as the ‘fuck shame’ tour and she performs accordingly, spinning lyrics about white privilege and queer love, heartbreak and hate crimes, murder and survival.

I think about the first time I saw spoken-word. I was a middle-schooler, watching PBS in our basement. Arthur had given way to the News Hour and I hadn’t changed the channel. Likely, I was multitasking – doing homework during the commercials. The segment was short – fifteen minutes in my imagination, three — maybe — in reality. It was a report on the national slam championships, featuring a few excerpts from winning poems, including one by a 10-year-old boy.  I listened to the roar of that kid’s voice, buzzing like its own applause, and the electricity powered me onto my feet; I flew up the stairs. This, I told my mom. This is what I want to do.

I started writing spoken-word immediately afterward, and I never attended a slam without that same feeling buzzing through me, the quickening heartbeat, the sense that I had to write, had to, now, now, go. Now, Andrea Gibson is performing, and the words are flying out of her mouth faster than I can run up stairs. And before she finishes, she performs the poem that has (I suddenly remember) become something more, some sort of mini-movement. I think, not for the first time, of the friend who first shared it with me, still so young and raw, still fighting so hard to survive on so little.  And this poem, this last poem sounds like a love letter to her, to all of us in our worst moments. A promise to somehow live through what is unlivable, and a plea to do the same: you, you – stay here with me. Chills curl across me. A gratitude stretches deep as the pit in my stomach. I listen. I remember. I think these words are beautiful, and I think, what a thing, to have more than this, to survive on.

Not for the first time, I think that it getting better is a matter of us getting away. That there’s a direct correlation between our autonomy and our survival. It gets better if and when we’re able to get the fuck out of dodge, to find these bars and cafes where girls with asymmetrical haircuts make out with girls in suspenders. It gets better every time we have the means to drive three hours across rural highways — fiending for street lights, wincing at Cuccinelli bumper stickers — to find that café tucked into a strip mall, where voices like this are heard. It gets better when and only when, we have places like this, where people like us can listen to artists like us speak and sing about living with the crazy, with the body, with the bullshit, and the desire.

In 2013, I stand in the Jammin’ Java in Northern Virginia, listening. My girlfriend kisses me, repeatedly, in public, and I wrap my arm around her waist. I rest my head on her chest, and don’t pull away. Don’t pull away. Don’t worry who will follow us to the car.

Mary Lambert sits at a piano and sings a cover of a Wheatus song that was popular when I was a teenager. She says, “When this came out, I thought it was a lesbian love song.” I think of “All The Things She Said.” She says, “Turns out it was just a guy with a really high voice.” But — nested in her breath — it becomes what she knew it as, originally. A lesbian love song. Haunting.

In 2013, it gets better and worse and better and worse, and for some more than others, and for some at others’ expense. I stand in a café and bar listening to queer lyrics, again, again, now, and I wonder, is this how it felt at Stonewall?  I don’t think it’s gotten better; I think, this – here — has always been. There has always been this space, carved out, secret, after dark. Heavy with all we bring into it and light with all we let down.

There has always been this space. Here. Here, where it never had to get better.  Which – sometimes, when we’re lucky – allows us to survive the rest of it.