michael j. morris


remarks on grief, rage, and remembering
20 November, 2015, 10:47 pm
Filed under: culture | Tags: , , , ,

Tonight I was humbled to speak at the vigil for the Trans Day of Remembrance in Columbus, Ohio. The Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is held in November each year to memorialize those who were killed due to violence based on bias or prejudice against transgender people. The Transgender Day of Remembrance is intended to raise public awareness of hate crimes against transgender people, and to publicly mourn and honor the lives of transgender people who might otherwise be forgotten. Through the vigil, we express love and respect in the face of national indifference and hatred.

The text that I wrote and shared is below. These words do not feel adequate. Perhaps no words feel adequate when faced with extreme violence and loss, and yet in the face of such violence, silence is death, and so we must speak the words that we have, however inadequate:

Tonight I want to speak briefly about rage and grief. But before I do, I need to acknowledge the privilege from which I speak: I am white, and that affords me mobility and security that are actively denied to others. While I identify and present as non-binary, I grew up assigned male, which gave me basic social advantages that are regularly foreclosed for people who are not men. I am able-bodied in that the world regularly meets the needs of my body in ways that it does not meet the needs of others. I have been privileged with extensive education, which now gives me the opportunity—and the responsibility—to educate others, while there are many, many others who have not been given such education from whom we have much to learn. Speaking here is a privilege, especially when we are doing so precisely because there are others who can no longer speak. I do not—we must not—take this opportunity lightly; so thank you for allowing me this space.

When I am faced week after week with another headline reporting the murder of another trans person—very often another trans woman of color—I am swept up in grief and rage. Although I did not know the people whose names I now read, something of my world, of our world, the world that we share, is now broken because the world that we share has broken them.

These acts of extreme violence and loss are unbearable first because of the unjust deaths of individuals—individuals who we must grieve, who we will name, who we must not forget—and unbearable perhaps also because these extreme violations make our shared vulnerabilities evident, make palpable the countless ways that we are all exposed to others in ways we cannot control. We cannot control how we are seen or perceived by others, how we are named or called or addressed by those we do and do not know, the places in language and the law where there is or is not space for us, or the ways in which we take on available roles in order to survive. When we encounter another, our bodies are exposed and vulnerable to them, and we cannot control how they might approach us. Violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support; violence against trans people reminds us that such support and protection are often withheld from trans people, especially those who are pushed to the margins or off the page by the existing structures of power. Violence against trans people reminds us that we still live in a world in which narrow definitions of gender constrain how we might live and also determine who might die. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such violence, because we are harshly reminded that there are limits to self-determination: we each determine who we are and who we will become in the ways that we can, but we do so in a society of others that determine the limits and consequences for our self-determination. In the face of such reminders, first I must grieve for those who have been killed, and then I must rage because we are all embedded within systems of gender that continue to act on and through us in ways we do not choose. Even at our most self-actualized, we must navigate our own becomings within systems of restrictions on how we can appear, where we can go, what words we can use, and what support we can receive, as well as the risk and danger of defying such systems. I grieve and I rage. And then, in the midst of grief and rage, I must also celebrate those I know and those I do not know who are actualizing their genders in ways that do not conform to the genders they were assigned, those who are living at the limits of these systems, and through whom more ways of living are becoming possible. I celebrate each and every one of you, and my celebration does not negate my rage and it does not negate my grief. And from grief and rage and celebration, I must also remember that I am part of this world in which we are all vulnerable and exposed. Just as I am exposed and vulnerable to others, I in turn shape how others might live in ways both big and small. If violence reminds us that life is fragile and precarious, in need of protection and support, it also compels me to extend that support and protection whenever and however I can, to actively create space for difference and for others who are different from me, and to imagine livability for those lives we may not yet recognize, those perhaps I cannot even imagine.

So, as we remember together tonight, as we honor those who have been killed, I ask that we hold together our grief, our rage, our celebration, and our commitment to imagining a world made livable for more and more lives.

[Thank you to TransOhio, Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) and King Avenue United Methodist Church for hosting this event.]

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trans day of remembrance and other reflections

I am attempting to collect my thoughts on this week, and my thoughts seem to be resisting collection. I’m thinking about the vigil for the Transgender Day of Remembrance last night at King Avenue United Methodist Church. I’m thinking about my students and our discussion yesterday about gender as a performance that is performative. I’m thinking about a storytelling event in which I participated Wednesday night; I shared a piece of writing about my own gender and listened to the stories of a group of other people, all discussing their experiences with gender. I’m thinking about Beauties, a book of drawings by Micah Jones published by GODDESS Press, with a dazzling foreword Mehron Abdollmohammadi. I am thinking about grief and rage—and by saying that I am “thinking about” all of these things, of course I also mean feeling them.

1.
At Tea Time: A Queer Storytelling Event, the theme is “Gender Inflexibility,” and anyone who wants to tell a story puts their name on a slip of paper in a fishbowl. Harry draws the first name and it’s mine. I tell my story, and I realize that I don’t usually stand in front of a room full of people talking about myself. I teach, I present my research at conferences—once I gave a presentation about being a conjoined twin at a queer studies conference, but that was an exceptional moment of self-disclosure. I perform, I dance, I get naked on stage. But this feels vulnerable: talking about myself, my experiences of gender, in front of many people I don’t even know, and quite a few I do. I hardly look up from the page. I talk about playing dress-up with my grandmother’s clothes growing up, coming out to my parents and my mother calling me “gender confused,” spaces in which I have felt invisible and spaces in which I have felt recognized. I talk about love and relationships and fucking. I talk about Judith Butler.
I say that biological sex is itself an effect of gender.
I say that I worry that no one will be proud to be with me, that dissenting from the gender binary makes me unlovable and undesirable.
I say that sometimes where you feel the most loved becomes the place where you face the most jeopardy.
I say that maybe my body doesn’t mean what you think it means.
I listen to story after story; some make me smile, and during others I feel rage curling in my fingers. Almost every single person talks about religion. Sexuality and relationships and love come up in almost every story. It seems that all of us are describing processes, journeys, migrations of gender and bodies and feelings and perceptions, no fixed points. I feel very honored to share this space and to hear these stories.

2.
Once a semester in the writing course I teach, I have a class meeting specifically focused on gender. Gender is part of our conversations throughout the semester, but on this day we watch Joe Goode’s 29 Effeminate Gestures and read David Gere’s “29 Effeminate Gestures: Choreographer Joe Goode and the Heroism of Effeminacy.” I ask questions, offer provocations, but mostly let the students’ comments and contributions direct the flow of the conversation. There’s never enough time during this class meeting. Yesterday, the students talk about what it means for Gere to suggest that gender is a choreography: it is stylized, it is repeated and repeatable, it is received from elsewhere, it is about bodies. They talk about hierarchies and the unequal distribution of power. They talk about how threatening it is for men to wear women’s clothing when it’s “cute” or “fashionable” for a girl to wear her boyfriend’s clothes (and I note that we’re somehow talking about “men” and “girls,” and how curious that discrepancy is, not to mention how heterosexuality has worked its way into the conversation by way of the “boyfriend”). We talk about the fear that we might fail at performing our genders correctly, an anxiety that we all have or have had, and that if gender is something that we can fail, then it isn’t automatic, intrinsic, or natural, and that all of us—even my twenty-four self-identified cis-gendered undergraduate students—live with-and-in-and-as a system under duress. We all face the threat of failure. I ask what is at stake; what are we afraid will happen if we fail? The students talk about rejection—social, romantic, sexual; they talk about risks of unemployment; they talk about the threat of feeling called into question, unrecognizable to oneself; they talk about bullying and harassment; they talk about threats of violence, abuse, and murder. I remind them that today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, that while we all live under this threat, that there are people who suffer more exposure to violence. I remind us that this has always been a question of life and death.

3.
I’m sitting in a pew in a church for the vigil, and I am deeply uncomfortable. I don’t go to churches; I have a long, complicated, abusive history with churches, from childhood through college, and when I sit in a pew with a giant cross hanging above a stage and hymnals and bibles level with my knees on the back of the pew in front of me, that history becomes more present and potent. And yet this feels transgressive: this bold church is hosting a vigil for transgender people who have suffered violence, some who have survived and many others who have not, and so my abusive history with churches and the function of this event stand for me in radical juxtaposition.
The service is difficult for all kinds of reasons. It is both difficult and necessary to sit and listen to the reading of names, how old these people were, how they were murdered, and where they died. It is a violent litany for an ugly world. I feel sorrow and rage that this continues to be the world that we are living, in which people are murdered because they fail to conform to or approximate gender categories, in which gender polices life and death, propelling some people to kill and others to be killable. I am grateful to be sitting with Eileen and Noah and S. And I’m critical: why are vivid descriptions of violent murders more important for me to know than anything else beyond a name, age, and country? While we remember and commemorate, why do these violent acts receive more of our words and attention than anything these people did or gave to our world? Most of the names are trans women. Four were in Ohio; a staggering majority were in Brazil. What the fuck is happening in Brazil? Why aren’t we talking about this?
I take a deep breath and return to grief and rage and gratitude: I am grateful for this vigil, for the communal act of public memory, for creating a space to sit and recognize and feel together, and I decide that this event is doing something important even if there are other important things to be done.
As the crowd files past the table set up at the front of the sanctuary to light candles in remembrance, I am struck by what a beautiful crowd this is. There is so much difference here, different ages, different skin colors, more gender expressions than I can count, and I start to tear up because I think: the world could look like this. It doesn’t, but here we are and here, in this moment and place, it does. Whatever else this vigil is doing, it is also an opportunity to practice this kind of community, this kind of society, embracing this swell of difference. Trans people and genderqueer people and gender-non-conforming people and people who look very much like women and other who look very much like men and older people and younger people and people of many different colors: most meaningful to me is being able to sit here, a part of this, and see this glimpse of this world.

4.
GODDESS Press recently published a small book of drawings by Micah Jones entitled Beauties, with a foreword by Mehron Abdollmohammadi.
beauties
Every time I type “foreword,” I almost type “forward,” and Mehron’s text is both forward and backward, twisting to the side, bending over, and standing tall.
Writing with Narcissus and tarot and Jones’ drawing, Mehron’s text is both poetic and critical. It makes a splash, an exuberant cascade of sparkling droplets, each one a tiny curving mirror, each line glittering like a search light, somehow suspended in midair: where they will land and what they will show us when they do has not yet been determined.
I keep thinking about terms that Mehron introduces:
“Generous narcissism as I’ve terms it is a practice of mutual and excessive attention that worries the very notion of excess: an emotional carry, a carrying community. Extra, but never enough. Generous narcissism is what happens when Narcissus, reaching out to touch his image, soft and impossible, feels something, someone, touching back. Generous narcissism is what happens when one insists on finding substance in what we’re told is only shadow … Generous narcissism is a resistance to scrutiny, a reorientation of obsessive attention, from the Other that would threaten the full expression of one’s intuitive self, to the self toward the Self.”
“Intuitive self: she may not even be here now, but she is me and that is all you need to know. This is very important.”
“Backlove: the love I have for what you see of me, for what of me there is in you. ‘Me, in you, in me.’”

5.
“Mourning has to do with yielding to an unwanted transformation, when neither the full shape nor the full import of that alteration can be known in advance. This transformative effect of losing always risks becoming a deformative effect. Whatever it is, it cannot be willed; it is a kind of undoing. One is hit by waves in the middle of the day, in the midst of a task, and everything stops. One falters, even falls. What is that wave that suddenly withdraws your gravity and your forward motion, that something that takes hold of you and makes you stops and takes you down? Where does it come from? Does it have a name? What claims us at such moments when we are most emphatically not masters of ourselves and our motion, when we lose certain people or we are dispossessed from a place or a community? It may be that something about who we are suddenly flashes up, something that delineates the ties we have to others that shows us that we are bound to one another and that the bonds that compose us also do strand us, leave us uncomposed.
“If I lose you under the conditions in which who I am is bound up with you, then I not only mourn the loss but I become inscrutable to myself, and this life unbearable. Who am I without you? I was not just over here and you over there, but the ‘I’ was in the crossing, there with ‘you’ but also here. So, I was already decentered, one might say, and that was precious, and yet, when we lose, we lose our ground. We are suddenly at risk of taking our own lives or the lives of others. Perhaps what I have lost on those occasions is precisely that sense that I can live without you, even if it turns out that I can live without that specific ‘you’ that you happened to be. Even if I was surprised to find that I survived when survival was unthinkable. If I can and do live without you, it is only because I have not as it were lost the place of the ‘you,’ the one to whom I address myself, the generalized addressee with whom I am already bound up in language, in the scene of address that is the linguistic condition of our survivability. This apostrophic ‘you’ might be this you or that other one with another name, but maybe also some you I do not yet know at all, maybe even vast set of you’s largely nameless, who nevertheless support both my gravity and my motion. And without you—that indefinite, promiscuous and expansive pronoun—we are wrecked and we fall.
“If the life that is mine is not originally or finally separable from yours, then the we who we are is not just a composite of you and me and all the others, but a set of relations of interdependency and passion. And these we cannot deny or destroy without refuting something fundamental about the social conditions of our living. What follows is an ethical injunction to preserve those bonds—even the wretched ones—which means precisely guarding against those forms of destructiveness that take away our lives and those of other living beings and the ecological conditions of life. In other words, before ever losing, we are lost in the other, lost without the other, but we never knew it as well as we do when we do actually lose … we are already in the hands of the other, a thrilling and terrifying way to begin. We are from the start both done and undone by the other, and if we refuse this, we refuse passion, life, and loss. The lived form of that refusal is destruction. The lived form of its affirmation is nonviolence. Perhaps nonviolence is the difficult practice of letting rage collapse into grief, since then we stand the chance of knowing that we are bound up with others such that who I am or who you are is this living relation that we sometimes lose. With great speed we do sometimes drive away from the unbearable, or drive precisely into its clutches, or do both at once, not knowing how we move or with what consequence. It seems unbearable to be patient with unbearable loss, and yet that slowness, that impediment, can be the condition for showing what we value, and even perhaps what steps to take to preserve what is left of what we love.”
Judith Butler, “Speaking of Rage and Grief”

6.
“You know, in Judaism, there is this prayer, the Kaddish, which is said over the dead, and it’s actually an interesting prayer. It’s partly Aramaic, partly Hebrew…and I always thought that the Kaddish is the moment at which you remember the person who is gone, or you focus on who that person was to you, and you recover what that bond was. But actually, what the Kaddish does is celebrate—praise—celebrate and affirm the world. And I thought, ‘Well, why is that the mourner’s prayer?’ And it is the mourner’s prayer because there is an understanding that radical loss can take us with it. Right? So that the most important thing you can do for the person who is in grief is to affirm the world with them. And it’s a collective prayer. And the point is to sew the person back into community, to relationality, and affirmation. Now, it’s part of grieving, that affirmation, and that collectivity.”
-Judith Butler, “On This Occasion,” response to an audience question