Some thoughts on Non-Americans commenting on US politics

Tl;dr There’s a strange sense of superiority that comes from Western Europeans when they discuss US politics. It’s frustrating, misleading, and unproductive.

 

Ok, folks. This is a hard one. And it has nothing to do with my usual themes. But it’s something I’ve been struggling with for a while, so, strap in, prepare to be a little uncomfortable, be ready to challenge me, and read on.

 

I’m American. I grew up in the Boston area and then went and spent five years in London, England. As a language student, I’ve also spent a decent amount of time in France and Finland and have a couple of slightly-more-than-acquaintances from that communal experience of spending too much time in a hostel. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that, even though I’m American, my contact with the world has, most recently, been through Western Europe and Western Europeans, including England/the English.

 

I was in London when Obama was re-elected. I made a pie to celebrate, with a happy face, for one of my new London friends. I argued politics with my flatmate, an American exchange student who had cluelessly voted for Romney. And kind of forgave her? I argued politics with basically anyone in my vicinity. I tried to explain the electoral college (I’m not sure if it’s possible to succeed at that). It was a good time to be an American in London.

 

The general sentiment I got from the people around me, my fellow Londoners was, “Your country sucks, but hey, glad to see it’s not a huge disaster and will probably not come eat us up anytime soon” and “Your country is not as good as ours in terms of XYZ issue, but it’s going ok at the moment.”

 

And it was this particular moral superiority that I would get from almost any European when we discussed politics. No matter what, Europe was always slightly better than the US on all issues. I was fine with it, as long as the US was vaguely salvageable, and I was young and overzealous and hated my country, but there were also signs of how this was a problem.

 

The one moment that still sticks in my mind is a planning meeting for a trans discussion. The trans rep at my school proposed a number of issues to be considered. Young, overzealous me, thinking about two trans women’s hunger strikes in prison that I had been reading about right as I left the US, looked at the list and went “well, what about prisons?” I was assured by everyone present that that was a purely American issue, things like that didn’t happen in the UK. And then, a few years later, names like Vikki Thompson  were being uttered around the London trans community, and my heart ached in horror and confusion because I had wanted so much to believe that the UK was better, not just different. I mentioned the original discussion to one of my now trans friends in London recently, and they looked at me in bafflement and more or less said  that those people had no idea what they were talking about.

 

It’s a cover. When someone is too busy going “oh, well, we’re better than over there”, it becomes so much harder to see that the same things are happening around them, just in different ways.

 

Once it became clear that France’s reaction to terrorism was to increase racism, once political figures in Finland were making openly anti-immigrant comments, once Scotland remained stuck to the UK (poor thing) and the UK itself started hurtling down the path to Brexit, I started to notice how much more this superiority was grating on me.

 

See, it’s not just that the US is a mess (it is) and a really scary country to have around when you’re not protected by it (because, well, we’re allowed to have nuclear weapons, it’s everyone else that’s not, *sigh*), it’s this sense of “well, at least we’re not that bad” coupled with, “well, you’re American, so you have to be on and prepared to care about this at all times of the day” while they studiously ignore whatever their own country is up to.

 

The way Europeans talk about the US, it  makes their country sound like a utopia. I had someone explain to me once that there was no racism in their country. At all. I found myself (and still find myself) regretting not saving all the articles I had read over the years that told me the exact opposite. And this person then found it completely acceptable to send me pointed facebook messages about American politics in the middle of the night and then be insulted when I didn’t respond.

 

Some of this, I know, comes from just not understanding the way the US works. States’ rights? The electoral college? The fact that the driving age is different in Every Fucking State? That’s completely baffling for even the best US politics hobbyist. And hell, not even a lot of Americans understand (I wouldn’t claim to understand the whole thing myself).

 

And news of the US is publicized a lot more readily in Europe than European news is publicized in the US. It’s easy to look at the big, dramatic news coming out of the US and go “yup, it’s a bunch of clueless heathens over there.” Everything looks like a giant disaster when you have oceans and time zones and knowledge gaps in the way, even when it’s the same thing happening in different ways right next door.

 

Some of this is the Americans’ fault. In particular, liberal Americans that like Europe have a habit of looking towards Western Europe (especially Norda/Scandinavia) and going “oh! They have everything figured out, it’s so much better over there!” (think of how one of Bernie Sanders’ big selling points was Scandinavian-style socialism, or how obsessed we are with Finnish education, when, in fact, some discussions I’ve had with Finnish parents have shown me it might be a good system, but it’s far from perfect). We look at our medical bills and then look at the UK’s National Health Service and go “oh my! Free healthcare! That’s amazing”,  completely disregarding the way the NHS has been failing due to lack of funding. So, it’s easy for a European to look at whatever particular thing is not quite working out at the moment, take a look at the Americans talking about how great it is, and go, “well, the Americans are still amazed by XYZ thing, so we might not be doing amazing, but at least we’re doing better than them.”

 

And it’s hard to fight that. Even now, the first facebook commentary I usually see on American news is from a European, making a pointed, generalized comment about how all Americans aren’t aware enough of their own current events.

 

Here’s the thing: The US is hard right now. So is Europe. It takes a lot less energy to look at the politics happening an ocean away, process the emotions, make jokes, and have commentary. It was easier for me to process all news when I lived in London because I had physical distance from the US and distance from the UK in terms of not being a citizen. But, especially for any of us that fit one of the groups being targeted by our current “administration”, living this is sometimes enough.

 

No. The US isn’t perfect. It’s currently a shitshow. But so are a lot of other countries, regardless of amount of shitshow. We all have our own shit to live and deal with and it’s hard. We need to learn from each other’s countries and support each other, especially when things are so hairy. We can’t do that if there’s some kind of unspoken competition to not be the worst.

 

(I end this by quietly side-eyeing myself and my fellow Bostonians for turning quite similar attitudes towards other states. We’re really not as great as we like to think…I mean, I still like to think it sometimes…)

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The aroace in dance

tl;dr There are strong links between sexuality and dance, which makes it very difficult for the sex-repulsed aroace dancer, but I’ll figure out the complexities of it somehow. 

So, I am going to hold on the usual trans-person-has-opinions post and change it up slightly. Today, the most prominent hat I’m going to wear is the aroace hat (I mean, I wear all the hats all the time…)

 

One thing I struggle with a lot (and have written so many incomplete blog posts about, it’s hilarious) is the obsession with seeing dance as sexual.

 

And this is hard, because there’s also the other extreme, especially in ballet, where dance gets pulled and interpreted so far away from the sexuality in its history to a fake sense of “purity”. I can’t say that dance isn’t sexual. It is. Not just in the way sex work and ballet were historically linked; so much of social dancing is about sex and partnering, or, to talk about humans as if they were birds, showing off to a future mate in a ocially acceptable manner. Not all, certainly, but quite a lot. Enough.

 

And then sex was taken out (ie. “purified”, as I have discussed in terms of Irish dance) or codified into the dance form in such a way that the movements became separated from the actual act of sex.

 

Even with this obsession of seeing sex in everything, it’s probably quite easy to argue that current modern and contemporary dance has less sex in it than most other forms of dance.

 

So what’s the aroace to do? Especially the sex-repulsed one? How do you remove the sex from dance without taking away the dance?

 

I really haven’t figured that one out. My current solution is to neatly sidestep anything related to sex because that’s just not my kind of dance. But I can’t help but worry if all I’m doing is leaving the problem for another day.

 

Then again, does it have to be a conflict? Sex (and romance) is not one of my interests in dance. That doesn’t mean others can’t work with it. All it means is that I don’t.

 

Can I really do that? Or am I just following in the footsteps of the nationalists and legitimizers?

 

I have to believe that there are new options, ones I can make – dance that is inherently unrelated to sex. I have to believe that there are new fields to explore outside the sexual and romantic options available.

 

It’s even less charted territory than trans dance.

 

What does nonsexual dance look like?

 

What does asexual dance look like?

 

What does aromantic dance look like?

 

I have no idea. But I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

On allyship and being enough

tl;dr For my cis allies – you’re doing enough. It might not feel like it, I definitely might not think it all the time, but you are. The only necessary thing is to care. Promise. 

One of the huge things I struggle with is the feeling that I am never doing enough. And this is something that particularly affects me in terms of allyship. As a white person, I am never a good enough ally to people of color. As a trans person that can slip through a lot of cracks by appearing cis, by not changing my legal name (and, in fact, going by said name at times), by being able to argue gender theory with flouncy, academic language, I am never a good enough ally for queer people who are more visible and, thus, more vulnerable. As an able-bodied person, I often overlook issues of accessibility and need constant reminders that what might work perfectly for me does not accommodate everyone and is, thus, imperfect.

We talk a lot about guilt and how, for allies, it’s not about us. Our guilt is simply a way to derail a conversation, it’s inefficient and unhelpful and best ignored. But at the same time, the guilt is still there and ignoring and suppressing it won’t make it go away.

I get so sick of cis guilt and cis pity and the way cis people performatively jumping on “save the trans!” bandwagons without actually having a fucking clue of what they’re doing. It’s tiring. It demands a lot out of me. I hate holding cis people’s hands and spoon feeding them successful allyship while they moan about how guilty they feel about transphobia.

But I’ve also been on the other side of the equation and I know the guilt and the cluelessness and the general feeling of never doing enough. Which, especially for someone with anxiety, can easily spiral into believing I’m a bad person. It’s my responsibility and I’m working on it. Someday, I might be the ally and the person I would like to be. But it’s slow going, and it’s hard and I need to be patient with myself.

I need to believe I am doing my best. And to do that, I need to believe others are doing the same.

So, I usually don’t do this, but this post is specifically for cis people. I’ve written a lot about how you can be a trans ally, I’ve given instructions and lists and ideas of what makes a good ally. But here’s the thing – I know you are doing your best.

Everyone’s best is different.

It’s hard. It’s especially hard for me if your best isn’t what I need to it be. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t doing it. And it doesn’t mean it’s not enough.

I, and other trans people, can’t stand here and hold your hand. It’s a lot of work and we have loads of other work to do, so I trust you’re doing your best, I trust you are learning, I trust you will get where I need you to be when you’re ready.

You’re a person too. So, take your time, take care of yourself, and cut yourself some slack.

Mistakes are forgivable. Distraction or focusing on something else for a while is completely understandable.

The only unforgivable thing is refusal to try and refusal to care. Maybe I’m an idealist, but I do believe anyone who’s read this far is not guilty of those two things.

Just because you can do more doesn’t mean you aren’t doing enough.

You can’t do everything. That’s fine. No one can. We’re all problematic messes of imperfection. It’s honestly kind of beautiful.

Just keep caring. That’s all I ask. That’s more than enough.

(And keep this on hand for whenever you need it, because I probably will never write something like this again).

Choosing to be That Trans Person

tl;dr I use to worry about making everything about my gender, but I’ve realized that gender theory is something I enjoy and that my choice to be presently and actively trans in a space can have a huge impact for other trans people. 

As I was leaving my dance program, a very well-meaning teacher gave me some convoluted advice.

 

What she was trying to say was completely fair, it boiled down to “be more confident, let people know how great you are when you walk into a room, not after months of knowing you”.

 

This, of course, was completely spot-on advice that I have heard before and need to keep hearing because I’m working on it…slowly.

 

However, what made her advice convoluted instead of straightforward and true was that it was tangled up with the very cis logic of “you don’t have to make everything about your gender”.

 

For the record, this was one of the most supportive (possibly the most) teachers I had all year, definitely the most clued-in and this came after she had already told me some of the changes she was making to her teaching after having had me as a student.

 

And yet, I barely made anything about my gender in her class. I sent the same email to every teacher asking them not to misgender me and walked into class completely prepared to not bring it up because I really didn’t feel safe making a fuss in front of a bunch of classmates I had only just met. She was the one who sought me out to apologise for misgendering me after a few instances and took it on herself to do better. When I realized that she could do better, I did start expecting more from her than my other teachers. I don’t see that as a bad thing and it didn’t take away from my ability to learn something completely (ok, somewhat) unrelated to my gender.

 

This is something I’ve struggled a lot with when it comes to art. No one wants to be That Trans Person. You know, the one that never ever shuts up about their particular brand of transness. The first piece I created was, more or less, a coming out piece. The next piece, was about being trans. And the next. And then I tried to create something else and it didn’t work. This year, I went into choreography class silencing my trans voice because I didn’t want to be That Trans Person. I don’t want to talk about my gender all the time because I worry that it makes me a one-sided caricature.

 

Except, I also really enjoy gender theory. I have good trans friends that I can sit down and hash through ridiculously academic nonsense about gender in ways that apply to our life. It’s not for every trans person, but, for me, it is the best fun ever. I love the challenge of trying to meet abstract, academic concepts with artistic practice with practical, everyday solutions. I love being able to analyse gender on my terms (not Judith Butler’s terms) and to present gender on my terms.

 

And yeah, probably some of this comes because of how gender has a very strong impact on my life. But it’s also just my interest. It’s who I am.

 

And why shouldn’t I be interested in something that affects me personally? It’s not a coincidence when women get involved in feminist studies or when the growing number of queer theory classes are advocated for by queer students. The best scholars in a field are not always the ones that look at it most objectively, they are the ones that understand the real world consequences of their theories.

 

And hell, this is art, there’s absolutely no reason to ever look at art objectively. In my opinion (of course, it’s all subjective here), the best art is personal and honest and it is the rigor behind its creation, not its objectivity that decides whether or not the work is successful.

 

Here’s the other thing (and I’ve talked about this a bit, but still). Yes, I can walk into a classroom, let myself be misgendered, be read as cis and “not make things about my gender”. Sometimes I choose to do that because some battles are best left fought at another time. However, there are two times when I refuse to do this – when I am in a position where I am a role model, and when I am a long-term dance project/training/situation.

 

I worked at a summer camp last summer and I was scared and I didn’t come out immediately. I thought I would just take six weeks of my summer, pretend to be a girl so I could do a job I wanted to do, and I knew it was something I knew I could do. And then, two weeks into camp, I found out that two of the campers were trans and had already been bullied while I was busy hiding and looking in a completely different direction. Could I have stopped the bullying? Probably not on my own. But what if I had been out from the beginning? What if I had asked the director more explicitly why there hadn’t been a single lgbt-related workshop during orientation? What if I made it clear to those two campers that they were not alone?

 

Those kids’ struggles were on me.

 

It is my responsibility to make my dancing and my art as much about my gender as I can because that’s how I tell younger trans dancers that they aren’t alone. That’s how I make unfriendly spaces slightly more welcoming to the next trans person that enters it. As a teacher, it’s how I show my students that bullying and discrimination are completely unacceptable in my presence and it’s how I tell trans students that I will do my best to keep them safe.

 

So yes, there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to be the one-trick pony. I don’t want to be a single-dimensional artist only ranting and raving about gender until everyone’s ears are sore. And, I’d like to think my art is a little more complex by now.

 

But I will do it if I have to. And I enjoy doing it, so what’s the problem?

Dance is fun

 tl;dr Dance is fun. There’s no point in dancing if it isn’t.

October 2016

I had a conversation with a friend once, which went along the lines of:

Me: Sometimes I need the reminder that the point of dance is that it’s fun

Friend: Really? Isn’t the point of dance hard work?

And, of course, it made me think (like most things do).

First of all – why the hell can’t hard work be fun? Yes. Dance is a lot of hard work. Even going out dancing once a month as a social activity requires a certain amount of commitment and energy that doesn’t come in many other domains. It requires brain work, cooperative work, physical work, time management skills (sometimes I think we overlook this, but, trust me, anyone who has ever danced probably understands exactly how quickly dance can eat into a schedule), and a whole lot of energy. It’s hard.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Sometimes, doing something hard makes it more fun. It’s like how once I started playing threes!, 2048 was kind of boring and definitely not as stimulating. I mean, I’m terrible at threes!, but that’s the point – I had to work at it while 2048 is just easy coasting.

But I get the sense of an obsession with hard work without the fun from a lot dancers. There’s this idea that dancers must always be working at their maximum and overcoming impossible challenges and never relaxing. And there’s this idea that, if a dancer is having fun, they aren’t working hard enough.

I mean…seriously?

Having fun doesn’t devalue work. On the contrary, it makes the work more valuable because it’s so much easier to do something when you enjoy it.

And I can’t help but question dancers that aren’t enjoying themselves: what’s the point of doing something that’s so much work if you don’t enjoy it?

I mean, we’re talking a career in which most professionals barely get paid and have to have a second job (and third and fourth and fifth job, I’m not kidding). If dancers aren’t getting money for their work, why are we still doing it? Working harder? Hell, if hard work was the only reason I was dancing, I’d quit and try to go into banking or something.

There is no point to dance if it is not fun and enjoyable. And, while there are always times in which a specific class or situation isn’t fun, because that is how life is, I believe that if the HARD WORK starts outweighing the fun, it’s time for a re-evaluation of why I am dancing.

Good thing I’m still having a lot of fun at the moment.

 

Forgetting

By comparison with music, dance performance remains largely unbound by ever-present libraries of the historical canon. It easily forgets its own history and is therefore constantly in the process of reinventing itself, recast each time in a new body for a new decade.

From The Choreographer’s Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, p. 199

 

Since I’ve read this particular quote, way back in December, it has been sitting with me pretty strongly. I find it very hopeful.

 

Even as  feel like I’m bashing my head against institutions and social structures in vain, there is a process of forgetting. There is always a chance to reinvent dance in a more positive, inclusive light. We can always conveniently forget the discriminatory, oppressive bits and rework and rework and reform and recreate until dance is something worth showing to the world.

 

What came before is important. History is necessary. Modern dance in particular is rooted in feminism, something I have trouble remembering when I look at how the patriarchy has co-opted and controlled its development. But we don’t even have to use Martha Graham’s exact form of feminism to stay true to her history. We can change. We can become. We can grow. We can be as revolutionary as she was in our own time.

 

Let’s reinvent what counts as the canon for dance works, because it isn’t even invented yet.

 

Let’s recreate dance in our image.

 

Let’s reinvent the meaning of dance to include all dancers, and to stand against the hegemony and the social structures that pit us against each other.

 

Let’s value the power to forget because it allows us to become so much more.

I did this

tl;dr despite teachers that insult me in their congratulations or take credit for my hard work, I am celebrating my successes as mine

It’s amazing how often teachers want to take credit for their student’s success.

 

It’s amazing how many of the compliments I’ve received from teachers in the past year have been couched either in insult or a self-congratulatory, “I did this for you”.

 

I’ve actually had teachers say “I was surprised you managed to accomplish anything”, as if their lack of faith in me, after having known me for a month, was to be expected and not a horrifying insult.

 

Here’s the thing I wish I could tell to every single one of my teachers this year: I was amazing before I came to this program. I was a good artist, a thoughtful person, and used to working rigorously. I entered this program believing that you would treat me like I was competent and, instead, you treated me like I was completely clueless. I appeared clueless to you because you weren’t looking for anything else. My success on this program came from the moment I chose to ignore you and to work on my own practice.

 

I did this.

 

In fact, my blind trust in my teachers’ experience and knowledge made me a worse artist for a long period of time. So many of my teachers told me I “found my voice” during their program, as if it was their careful guidance that helped me there.

 

Anyone who’s seen my work from before I entered the program would know that I actually already had a pretty strong artistic voice. I entered the program because I wanted to develop and stregnthen it. Instead, I lost it. In what I thought was an attempt to learn, I took my teachers’ advice too much to heart and I lost my artistic integrity.

 

I did that.

 

I regret it.

 

But what that experience did, beyond all else, was strengthen my conviction in what I do.

 

I know how to work. I know my voice. I know what to say and how to say it. I love the rigorous process of exploration and creation.

 

I had all of that before I started.

 

Now I know I have all of that.

 

Teachers don’t get to insult me for that. And they definitely don’t get to take credit for my hard work.

 

I was the one who succeeded.