#OwnVoices & My Own Voice
The truth is, this is a hard post to write. It’s a scary one because it evokes such intense feelings of anger, fear, sorrow, and anxiety about the future, as well as what has happened in the past.
**This post is in no way commentary on the reviewer I refer to in this post or the opinion they shared. I clearly understand the intention and their effort to do due diligence**
As some of you know, I’m a mental health therapist in my “other” life. I’m also queer, intersex, an intense creative, and a foster parent. Something I have often offered to my clients is this: “If you’ve ever worried if you’re enough, then you so are.” I say this as an affirmation of how we often rip away at our own internal scaffolding in an attempt to align with a world that 1) never understood us, and 2) probably doesn’t want to. Not really.
After all, who benefits from our paralyzing self-doubt and internalized oppression?
Spoiler alert: it isn’t us.
But how does this have anything to do with #ownvoices and publishing?
I’ll tell you the story of a younger me. Step back in time almost three years and NineStar Press had just published Trans Liberty Riot Brigade. I was doing interviews, blog tours, and grappling with an evolution in my own understanding of myself. At the time, I was having the “am I intersex enough?” internal battle, having received some new information about my endocrine system that snapped a lot of my life experiences into focus. Shit suddenly made so much more sense. I was learning more about the intersex community and the extremely diverse spectrum of biological sex. I was also reeling because I had written a book featuring intersex and trans characters long before I had the conscious realization of that part of who I am. Writing and fiction can be magic like that, holding the seeds of truth about ourselves until we’re ready and able to water them into fruition.
And I was also terrified.
In the process of all of this, a reviewer sent me a message on Twitter letting me know they were writing a review and wanting to know if I was myself trans or intersex.
I felt sick.
I had a full panic attack.
I felt like a fraud.
#OwnVoices was burgeoning as a rallying call of empowerment. The reclaiming of stories exploited and used to benefit those in positions of power, rather than folx who have the actual lived experience of the stories they write, was happening all around me.
But in that moment, I didn’t know how to talk about where I was at in my journey. I had barely begun to even articulate it to trusted others, much less have it be any kind of public knowledge. I was still quite busy having my “enough” civil war. So I panicked and told them no, I wasn’t. Because I shuddered at the thought I might be taking up space designated for someone more intersex than me. Someone who deserved that recognition more than I did.
I found the review, through the lens of #ownvoices, to be as expected. A critique of my commentary on other lived experiences that were not my own (as a cis / non-intersex person) and the choices I made in writing Brigade.
I was devastated. But not by the review. I was devasted by my own (what I perceived as) cowardice. I had been cowed by my shame, and inability to step up and out. After all, didn’t I consider myself an advocate? An activist? Didn’t I write an entire book about fist-fucking the system and giving the middle finger to the conformist boxes of a supremacist society?
Worse than a coward then… apparently, I was also a liar.
Time passed. I struggled and struggled and STRUGGLED to write Brigade 2. At the date of this writing, its still not done. I was consumed by how hard it was to write the second book, which dealt much more directly with the emotional fallout of the first book, and the absolute loss of respect I felt for myself. Both as a writer and human being.
Time passed. I began disclosing openly that I was intersex, feeling pressured to align my public persona with what was happening internally. Wanting to avoid more punishment or questioning of my decision to write what I was writing. However, I didn’t feel freed by this disclosure. I still struggle with it and more than anything, I resented feeling pressured to reveal something I wasn’t ready to share. That there was a price to be paid for not making my most intimate details available for public consumption.
Since then, I’ve had time to reflect on this experience and understand this has been yet another “coming out” story. The truth is, I’ve come out many times and in many ways. I ache
for the girl who never felt at home or safe in either het- or queer community. That girl was told she was “Anne Hecheing” and that bisexuals were never happy or satisfied every time she “came out” or something changed in her relationship landscape. So she called herself a lesbian to comfort insecure partners. She twisted herself into a dried-out crumbly pretzel, trying to fit. I cry for that girl, who fell in love with a boy and then a girl and then broke her own heart into a million pieces. She chose a girlfriend because she had no idea there was anything else she could do. She suspected there was something really wrong with her that she was such a terrible straight and then, in turn, such a terrible gay. She didn’t know there were any other options and there were no other models of relationships possible in her world. So discovering the word “pansexual” was a relief and greater still, the word “queer” has made her big-gay-heart sing ever since.
So now we live in an era where the battle rages around #ownvoices and who tells whose stories. And once again, I feel in that in-between wasteland of what I owe the gatekeepers and what I owe only to myself. Because, if we’re telling the truth, #ownvoices IS a kind of gatekeeping. I’m just one person and I don’t hold the answer as to whether that gatekeeping is right and necessary. Maybe it is. I can only speak from the place of someone who has been profoundly impacted by it. What has been meant to uplift and empower marginalized creators and their stories really seems to mostly benefit those willing to make their identities consumable and available to the public. There are many creators willing to do that. I’ve made my peace about having to do it. But let’s not forget… we’re asking people to out themselves, to make the most personal aspects of their lives available for commentary, critique, and assessment by absolute strangers. And if they won’t? If they cannot? For reasons of safety or just simple preference, we may be excluding the very people whose stories we insist we want to hear. To me, this falls into the category of – “I want to hear your story, but only if you tell it in the publicly sanctioned way.” It does not leave room for the messiness, the uncertainty, and the fluctuating nuances of identity we will all experience in one way or another.
What I’ve come to know and understand, through my own journey, and bearing witness to so many others, is that people do change. That over the developmental lifespan, people’s orientations shift. Their understandings and relationship with gender changes. That what is true in one moment, might not be in another. That people write truths long before they fully have embodied that truth consciously. It is one of many reasons I love working with adolescents. Getting to sit with them, listen to them, and tell them, “You are okay, just as you are, right now,” knowing it may change, knowing I may be one of many voices or the only one they’re hearing say that to them.
That shit is important. And I fear, with all our good intentions and attempts at transforming marginalization into narratives to be seen and celebrated, that we are also creating the conditions to favor only those who have the privilege of safety, courage, and security to be who they truly are.
In that moment.