michael j. morris

remarks on grief, rage, and remembering
20 November, 2015, 10:47 pm
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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.]

processes of self
17 January, 2015, 9:22 pm
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Several weeks ago, I attended a vigil in memory of Leelah Alcorn, a young trans woman who committed suicide in Ohio at the end of December 2014. The vigil was intended to do lots of things—as vigils usually are—but the intention that resonated most with me was to “show society that one life matters,” precisely when that life and others like her are so often made to not matter and rendered ungrievable in our society. I am grateful to those who organized the vigil and the many, many people who showed up to stand together in the cold, in the dark, to light candles and demonstrate that the suicide of a teenage trans woman in our state deserves our attention.

However, I left the vigil frustrated and conflicted about a lot of the language that was being used to discuss Alcorn, trans lives, and even personhood, as well as many of the narrative assumptions that were embedded in the language. Particularly frustrating to me was the reliance on what I will describe as “cliche,” “slogan,” or “meme” vocabularies for articulating collective outrage and grief—phrases like “not one more” or “she was only seventeen” or “trans lives matter” or even “you matter.” I am convinced that relying on familiar, widely-circulated, recognizable tropes like these has more to do with soliciting emotional response—invoking the collective recurrence and thus immense force of words that we’ve seen other places, in connection to other tragedies and other strong feelings—than actually facing the present situation or carefully articulating productive thinking about what has happened or what we might now do. Defaulting to cliches or slogans or memes or tropes, while charged with emotional force, may in fact be abdicating responsibility to think and speak critically about the circumstances we face, the world in which we are living, that we are making together.

Even more unnerving than the prevalence of these familiar tropes around social activism were the implicit and explicit narratives of “self” that were embedded in many of the comments made by speakers at the vigil. Speakers talked about how Leelah was never allowed to be “who she really was,” never able to share “her true self,” and the need to create a society in which people can be “who they really are.” These stories about “true selves” and “real selves” are familiar language in modern society (for all kinds of reasons that I won’t articulate here), particularly around trans and queer people. This is the “coming out” narrative, the story that we tell in which there is a story that we must tell: the story of who we really are. And in telling who we really are, we might finally be who we “really are.”

I think there’s a danger to these narratives. The words we use and the stories we tell always carry (or create) investments—ideological investments, political investments, personal and social investments, etc. Donna Haraway says, “It matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with … It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” When we tell stories about those who have lived and died, when we narrate our communities and our selves, with tales of selves that are “real” or “true,” I think we install and invest in an impossible ideal: the realization of a self who will finally be complete, recognized as true. The implication here, I think, is that the self is a (relatively) stable entity, a self that you are—perhaps even that you always have been—that is then gradually uncovered, revealed, made visible. The story is that each of us are on a journey of discovering who we “really are” and then sharing that “true self” with others.

I do not believe in this narrative of self.
I am suspicious of any story of the self that implies singularity, stability, self-identicality (not changing over time), or a more robust “reality.” My experience of the self—informed by both my lived experiences and a lot of philosophy that I will not explicate here, but which includes the writing of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and a great deal of psychoanalytic writing—is that the self is always an ongoing process, a creative duration that is always in-the-making, that is never entirely in our control or even within our conscious awareness. There is no single starting point or end point for the self, and no singular self that can be called more “real.” I am afraid that when we express our grief and, worse, our political investments for a better world in this language of a “real” or “true self,” we perpetuate the possibility of suffering, in which teenage girls or anyone else feel as if their “real self” will never be seen or understood, in which what it means to be a person is ascribed a possible conclusion in which the self that is most real is finally disclosed and actualized—a conclusion I am sure that none of us ever fully reach. If it matters what stories we use to tell stories with, as Haraway says, then it makes a difference what kinds of stories we use to narrate our own histories and possibilities of self. I believe the world would be different, for young trans people, for queer people, really for all people, if, rather than continuing to tell stories about a “real” or “true self,” we told stories about our selves (plural) as creative processes, and called for a world not in which people are free to “be who they really are,” but free to create who they are becoming.

And yet, in the wake of these convictions regarding shifting the language with which we articulate our grief and political desires, I am left wondering: what it is we mean by “real” and “true” in relation to the self? If I believe that there is no such entity, at least not in any singularity or persistence, to what then do these terms refer? It seems simple enough to say that by “real self” and “true self,” we are referring to the feeling of a self that is real, or the feeling of a self that is true.
What then is the situation of the self that registers itself as more “real” or “true”? Here I can speak only from personal experience, and from what I’ve deduced from other people’s discussions of their own experiences. I think the feeling of “being true to yourself” or “who you really are” or even “being authentic” is attesting to a sense of cohesion and consistency, a sense of self that is not turned against itself or undercutting itself. A sense of self with higher degrees of unison or resolution between its parts.

When I think back to my adolescent years as a queer kid living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, aware that I had [queer] sexual desires that I could not name or act out, fully devoted to the Christianity I had been taught, and in turn full of sadness, self-loathing, and even rage that what I felt and what I believed seemed positioned in irrevocable conflict: I did not feel like I could be who I “really was.” I felt my self turned against my self, a rupture that was replicated in my surroundings, the difference between who others knew me to be and the inner turmoil which I then experienced as “myself.” I wanted to be “true to who I was,” to share my “authentic self,” I longed to “come out,” to tell someone who I “really was,” because these were the narratives I had available for understanding my closeted queer experience.
But now I think I see that who I was then was no less real; that turmoil and self-loathing and rage and inner conflict was a “true” experience of myself, who I “really was.” There was no other actual self other than that self that I actually was; whatever the virtual potentials for who I might become, that me that I was was the real me.
And yet there came an experience of a self that felt somehow more true, more real, as I began to come to terms with my sexuality, and to share my own perceptions of myself with others. This is an experience that has continued throughout my adult life, in relation to sexuality, gender, beliefs, perspectives, and so on. That feeling that we call “real” or “true” is perhaps more about a sense of cohesion and consistency, where one’s various parts—both personal and social—align with or even support each other, rather than conflict or undermine each other. The more I resolve my various parts, and the more I resolve my perception of myself with my presentation of myself to others, the more self-actualized I feel. What I think I am trying to articulate is that this has not been a process of discovering and uncovering who I “always have been” or a “real me.” I very much was that young Christian kid, that closeted teenager without language or an escape route for my desires or gender dissension, that young gay dancer in Jackson, Mississippi, that queer grad student in Columbus, Ohio, that genderqueer PhD candidate, and so on. All of those selves were fully real, realized, and true; to narrate them otherwise would be to attempt to disavow the past, a past which not only will always be a part of me, but which comprises the foundation of who I have become. To narrate those selves as less “real” would then be actually to maintain a division, an inner conflict—between the “real self I am now” and “the old self who was not really me.”
The more interesting story—the narrative that I would like to perpetuate—is that who I am, my self, has been an ongoing creative process, continuing to craft who I am becoming in relation to who I have been and how I feel about who I am. There is no end point when I will have arrived, finally fully myself. I am already fully myself, and the self is already in motion; it has never not been true, it has always been real.

But that doesn’t seem to fully address the issue of feeling. One’s feeling about oneself. What shapes what does or does not feel resolved or resolvable? What creates frictions between my different parts, and what are the conditions that facilitate those parts coming into alignment, harmony, or degrees of unison and support? I am here thinking particularly of Leelah Alcorn and many other trans lives that are narrated with the language of who a person really is, being in “the wrong body,” or the conflict between one’s body and who they “really are.” I am certain that there are innumerable variations as to how and why a person comes to experience this degree of alienation between various parts of themselves, and I can’t speculate as to that range of possibilities here. What I do feel prepared to write is that I believe that feelings have histories that are personal, material, cultural, chemical, even evolutionary. There is a self who experiences itself through such feelings, and who then continues to create—in ways one does and does not control—the self in relation to those feelings, in relation to that history of how such feelings came to be. Such feelings and such selves are real and true all along the way, and I am extremely cautious of positing a self—presumably immaterial—who somehow precedes the experience of oneself. I am cautious of stories of a “real self” that precedes the experience of the self, to whom one then tries to be “true.” Rather, I am interested in giving people the agency to create a self with whom they can live, as whom they can thrive, addressing the frictions and misalignments and inner conflicts—whatever their histories, wherever they came from—in the formation of who they are becoming. This is true of trans people who adjust their gender presentations and sometimes their bodies to correspond with how they perceive themselves, but this is true of all of us in various degrees and in various ways: we are all in the process of creating bodies and lives that we want to live. I don’t make this generalization to diminish the unique circumstances of trans identity; rather, I do so in order to de-exoticize how it means to be trans, and to contextualize our many, multi-faceted, ongoing processes of creating our selves in relation to being/becoming trans, in order to narrate all of our lives differently.

I’m thinking a lot about how we might insist on including and accepting all of the past versions of ourselves as part of who we are, resisting the inclination to say, “That wasn’t really me,” or, “I wasn’t being true to myself,” and in doing so, editing, omitting, eliding, or disavowing who we have been. I think I will save this for another piece of writing, and for now merely reference both Sandy Stone’s “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” and Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage” as influential to my thinking. Stone and Stryker are both trans women and forerunners in the field of Transgender Studies, and both write very critically about the necessity of avowing one’s own history, about the problems with “passing,” and about insisting on more complex and nuanced accounts of the self than can be articulated within existing normative terms.

My last thoughts are about the problems with feelings and their histories. Lately I have been suspicious of “good feelings,” specifically the cultural apparatuses and histories through which we are conditioned to feel good. [I should say: this turn towards being critical of good feelings is not intended to reflect on or address transgender experiences per se. I support people feeling good about who they are and who they are becoming, especially trans people. This is a more general speculation.] This is partially in response to the vigil for Leelah Alcorn and partially in reflection of the good feelings that we recognize as a self that is resolved, without internal conflict, consistent and cohesive—in reflection on why which versions of oneself feel the ways they do.

At the vigil for Alcorn, I was really frustrated by the number of times people speaking to those gathered described what we were doing as something that “feels good.” “It feels good to do something,” “it feels so good to see so many of you here,” “don’t you feel better being out here together?” and so on. I did not feel better, and I was not attending a vigil to make myself feel better. In fact, I want to question both the desire to feel better and the good feelings we get from those kinds of actions. [I’m thinking here of both Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism here.] Might there be something insidious about pursuing public grieving as a mechanism for pleasuring oneself? In what are we investing ourselves and our feelings in order for a vigil for a trans woman who committed suicide to be a way to “make ourselves feel better”? How did this become about making ourselves feel better? To be clear, I’m not saying that we should throw ourselves into a pit of despair or lose ourselves in our grief, and I do think that finding ways to celebrate in grief is how we continue to go on living; however, I am asking that we be more critical of what “feels good” and why and how we are engineering those good feelings.

More broadly, I am interested in being more critical of how or why certain things “feel good,” or feel bad, and how we allow such feelings to shape our actions and our selves.
For instance, I might feel good when I look in the mirror and see myself as “skinnier than usual.” However, this is a “good feeling” that comes from a complex cultural apparatus that has conditioned me to believe that skinnier people are more beautiful, more valuable, and more lovable. For me to then act on this “good feeling,” to pursue it or shape myself in relation to it, will ultimately not only result in my own detriment, but will participate in the reproduction of this cultural apparatus that values bodies differentially based on size.
Similarly, there was a time—given the pervasive systemic racism in our country and the ways in which I had been conditioned by it—that I would have been uncomfortable in a context that was not predominantly populated by white people. If we recognize discomfort as a “bad feeling,” and if the version of self-actualization that I narrated above involves the resolution of different parts of oneself in ways that reduce friction and inner conflict, then the lesson of these “bad feelings” could have been, “I don’t like being a racial minority, I like being in the company of mostly white people; it’s just who I am.” However, in this case, the “bad feelings”—so obviously a result of racist socio-cultural conditioning—were actually an opportunity to stay with discomfort, to pursue settings in which I experienced more of these “bad feelings,” in order to un-learn the implicit racism by which they were being produced.

In the ongoing creative process of the self, we must remain critical of how and why we feel “good” or “bad.” Our feelings are not always transparent or forthcoming about their origins; we do not always know why we feel what we feel. Within that ambiguity, it is important to remember: “good feelings” are not automatically pathways to a more actualized, consistent, cohesive self, and “bad feelings” are not always a threat to becoming “who we really are.” As I reconsider these familiar terms of “real” or “true” as particular constellations of feelings in relation to the various parts of oneself-in-the-making, I need to also advocate for critical interrogation of why things feel the way they do: if something has felt true, why? What is the history, the culture, or the background of that feeling? If something feels good, are these social mechanisms that reward me for feeling that way, and are those mechanisms that I want to be a part of? If something feels bad, is it because I am accustomed to particular norms, and I am experiencing something outside of that normative comfort zone? Most importantly, is it possible that feeling the way I do plays into the reproduction of a culture that devalues, oppresses, or erases others, and how might I interrogate those feelings and the apparatuses in which they are complicit?
We may not be able to control or change what we feel, but I am convinced that risking critical consideration of ones own feelings is one way to give oneself the opportunity to learn to feel differently, particularly when those feelings are at their roots invested in systems that enforce the suffering of oneself or others.

This is by no means an exhaustive examination of “the self,” but it is the start of several ideas that have been simmering for a few weeks.