Tales of a wandering lesbian

The marginalized masses

Okay, let’s review:

We commit emotional violence on each other all the time, like when we talk about neighbors or delegitimize people’s feelings.

We do it because we’re suffering from mass Post Traumatic Stress Disorder brought on from the emotional trauma we suffered in junior high and high school (and every day after that).

Which causes us to use power-structures to marginalize each other.

We find ourselves in a hierarchical system that requires us to rank ourselves in relationship to each other.  What kind of car do we drive?  How much education do we have?  What kind of job do we do?  We all know which cars are valued more than others, which jobs are respected more.  If there’s any question, just watch an evening of tv and commercials.

Or we can look back at high school.  I remember clearly the day someone came up to me and asked the question, “so are you a jock or a hic?”  Boom.  There it was.  I was stunned.  I realized a couple of things in the seconds it took me to compose myself:  1. I don’t have a horse, but maybe I’m spending more time than I thought with the Rodeo crowd; 2.  I get to define myself; 3.  I better be careful how I answer this question.

I knew exactly where jocks fit in, as opposed to hics, as opposed to stoners, and punks and drill team, and student council and band.  Even the loners, who refused to be part of a group had a label and a rank in the system.

In this system, those at the top have more power, more influence.  In order for this to be true, the system requires there to be other people on the bottom.  So, in order to stay in control, those on the top need to marginalize those on the bottom to keep them from gaining influence.  To give them a label, and put them in their place.

I think I wore my letterman jacket every day for the rest of my high school career.

Here’s my background.  For a number of years, I worked in the realm of GLBT politics.  I worked first as a community organizer, a ground-level trainer, and then served in leadership positions on state and national boards.   I organized door-to-door canvasses, phone banks, community meetings and political rallies.  I sat in rooms with high-level operatives and I sat in rooms with disillusioned naysayers.

I learned a lot.

When all was said and done, I learned one thing in particular.  Something that has informed the way I approach individuals and groups representing communities of individuals.  Something that has informed the way I reach out to and react to others in both my political life, and in my personal.

We use systems of power to marginalize.  We do it as individuals.  And because organizations are made up of individuals, we do it organizationally, too.

Here’s how I started to see this in my life.  The organization I worked for purported to represent a minority community.  It was perhaps the best job I’ve ever had.  I loved training people to talk face-to-face about their lives.  I loved listening to community members who had ideas about how to best engage in a political and social movement.  I loved planning rallies, and bringing people to see legislators.  I loved making sure people felt heard.

I was a true believer.  I believed deeply in the issues, and in the people I was representing.  I believed in the power of people to affect the views of their neighbors by simply talking with them.  I believed in the power of communities to affect the views of legislators by doing the same.  I believed in my organization.

I watched as the organization I loved, an organization representing marginalized individuals, moved into a position of relative power.  I worked hard to help make this happen.  I watched as it gained relevance, found its voice, and developed friends in powerful positions.    Then I watched as the organization chose to use the precise system that had marginalized it and its members to isolate and marginalize others.  I say “chose,” but it wasn’t something conscious.

It took me a little while to figure out what was happening and why.  I was uncomfortable with the snide comments that would be made about fellow organizers – “competitor” groups representing the same community, and individuals with differing views.  The categorical discounting of anyone who didn’t agree with the game plan developed by my organization.  The unweilding push to isolate and discredit those who questioned.

So I volunteered to attend the “coalition” meetings of competitor groups, to engage those who had been discounted.  To talk with the people I felt we should be representing, and not just those who could bring the organization the institutionalized power it was seeking.

As I did this, I heard the fear in the voices of those who felt they had no voice.  I heard the anger of those who felt they had been shut out.  And I saw a different path emerging.

The power structures that pedal influence, that require a hierarchy to function, assume that there’s a limited amount of power and influence available; that anyone who gains power, does it at the expense of another.

But we don’t live in a world where there is a finite amount of power.  That’s not reality.

The reason we set up the systems that we do is that we’re stuck in a cycle.  We’ve been hurt, we’ve been wounded, we’ve been discounted and marginalized and isolated by those who we saw as having power.  And the second we find ourselves in a position of relative power, we do what we think we’re supposed to do when we’re in power.  We hurt and wound and marginalize and isolate others.  Because that’s the system we have been operating in.

But we don’t have to.

If we can take a step back, look at what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, we’ll be able to find a new path.

Those of us who find ourselves marginalized at some point in our lives (and that’s all of us) can either work to put ourselves in a position of power, using the systems in place to marginalize others, or we can do something different.  We can reject the system altogether.  And that’s scary.

It means opening up.  It means being available to hearing conflicting ideas and opinions.  It means being vulnerable and engaging others with the imperfect language that we have, and the incomplete vocabulary of someone who is learning.   It means trusting that, by giving power to another, everyone’s power will increase.  That by helping someone else to find their voice, all of our voices become clearer.

It means forgiving ourselves and others for the harm we’ve done and recognizing that it was done with a complete lack of awareness.  It means committing ourselves to non-violence in our interactions with each other and ourselves.

And it means that we’ll have to stop ourselves, with great kindness, when we forget and fall back into the old patterns.

But it also means that we can move forward, intentionally, creating the relationships and the interactions that we want, unencumbered by our wounds.  Doesn’t that sound really excellent?

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March 17, 2010   3 Comments


First things first. This is an emotional post for me, so I want to set some things out at the top. To my family and friends: I love you. End of story. To the girls in middle school: I hope you have fulfilling lives and are nice to people who are different from you. To the hiring attorneys: I really want to curse you, but that would only hurt me, so I hope you have gay children and that they teach you compassion. Oh, and thanks for not hiring me. There’s no way I’d be bumming around Italy right now if you had. Okay, on with the show!

Going on holiday has a certain energy about it. There’s excitement, and curiosity. There’s a sense of escape. You can be anyone on vacation, and everything is new.
An extended vacation brings with it a different set of emotions. You get the excitement and curiosity that comes on a vacation, but then you settle into your surroundings. Maybe you pick a favorite coffee shop or restaurant. Maybe the clerks at the grocery store start to recognize you.

And then there’s the experience of moving. There’s excitement, yes. Apprehension, probably. Fear, maybe. There’s a certain finality to a move.
What I’m experiencing right now is a combination of these experiences. It’s more like going away to college, or an all-summer camp. I’m not on vacation, but things are certainly exciting. I’ve chosen a couple of regular coffee shops, where the people start making cappuccini when I walk in. And my Italian family shows itself as family in unexpected ways. Like with my hair.

I keep my hair fairly short. About once every 4 weeks I shave it down to no longer than ½ inch. At about the 4-week mark, I start to go a little insane with all the little curls that appear. (Yes, Mom, I know they’re precious. They’re also distracting and frustrating.) If things get crazy, I might trim the back and sides and go 6 weeks between a cut.

And, I cut my own hair. Maybe 10 years ago I realized that I was paying someone else to cut it and then going home – or even to the car – to re-cut it the way I wanted. So I learned how to give myself a pretty darn good haircut in the shower with scissors. Then I found that I really do enjoy having really short hair, and I started shaving it regularly.

I just feel lighter – less attached – when I cut my hair. There’s no good way that I’ve found to explain it, but it is clear that my hair is a source of control for me. It’s been a source of struggle, and one of pain, and I’ve tried for years to take control of it. And an oddly large number of the people in my life have tried to take control of it as well.

Like in middle school, just for example. I’m not sure what my hair did to the people in my school to earn their ire. Maybe it was the way it poofed out, all frizz, bushy and unmanageable – different from everyone else. Maybe it was the way I slicked it back, pulled hard into a giant ponytail. Maybe it was just that it was MY hair. (It’s true,my intimidating good looks and intelligence can be hard for others to handle.) Who knows? All that really matters is that it was enough for girls I barely knew to kick the crap out of me when we played flag-football in PE, shouting “bushwacker!” as they pulled me down. Yeah, “bushwacker.” They had no idea how funny that would be.

And I remember vividly the night of the high school dance when one of my friends brought over a giant bottle of gel and did my hair. Over the course of an hour, we used probably half the bottle on my crazy hair. The effect was good. The frizz turned into curls. I was unrecognizable. I actually had multiple people come up to me at the dance and ask me if I was new. So I spent the next few years applying insane amounts of gel to my hair daily – eventually just to the top of my head (no, I don’t know why, and yes, I’ll try to post pics). I was never really able to duplicate the style, though.

When I left for college, I had sported short hair for a couple of years, but my hair was still ridiculously bushy. The pictures from that first year of college are hilarious. Me with my mushroom head, knowing that I was the shit. It wasn’t until my second year that I finally cut it all. Without telling my family or friends, I got up my courage, walked the mile or so to the salon and told them to cut it – short. Even the damn stylist – WHO I WAS PAYING – didn’t want to cut it. After the second round of cuts (she wanted to make sure of how short I wanted it, so she cut it about half the way and tried to convince me to leave it there), I walked out feeling exhilarated. Aside from the enormous amount of product the stylist had put in, trying to make it look curly and sweet, my hair was the closest it had ever been to the way I wanted it.

I waited about a week before I had my friend Jason shave my head. And at least two weeks before I told my family. From that point, there was no going back. I’d call Jason every month or so for a cut (we’d call him “Frederico Choo-Choo!” when he was my stylist), and I’d have an internal battle about whether to cut my hair before going home for holidays. If I didn’t cut it, was it because I was letting my fear of disapproval control me? If I did cut it, was it because I was responding to that same fear, equally controlled by it? An unwinnable battle. And one I still struggle with.

I learned two things about my hair in law-school. First, it can be a convenient excuse for a reason not to hire someone with great credentials. A couple of male hiring attorneys had told the director of career services that they would have hired me, but they were concerned about the blonde highlights that I had put in my hair. She told them it would grow out. I told her I didn’t want to work in a place where they wanted to control my hair (read: apparent sexual orientation. It was clear they weren’t really concerned about my hair).

When I worked as a GLBT organizer, I wasn’t so concerned with my hair. In fact, I grew it longer than it’s been in years and years. The day after we lost the election, though, I shaved the four inches of hair, looking for some kind of a fresh start. And I was relieved – and devastated by the loss of the election. Working with school districts, or fundraising for babies, I was always conscious of how I was perceived. Would people be less likely to work with me if my hair was too short for their liking? Ultimately, did it really matter if I had long hair, if I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin – in my own hair.

The girls in middle school were lashing out at someone who was different. The hiring attorneys were acting out of fear and ignorance. Anyone who might choose not to work with me is someone I can afford to lose. But, my family and friends care about me, and I love them. And that complicates things. My grandmother has finally stopped crying when she sees my hair. That’s a definite bonus. Now she just asks me to grow it long for her funeral – every time I see her. My sister tells my mom to leave my hair alone, and that’s nice, but even she asked me to leave it long for her wedding. My girlfriends have all had input as to how they think my hair should be. The smart ones, however, told me how much they liked my hair more often than they expressed their opinions about what I should do with it.

And that brings me to my Italian family. Last week I announced that it was time for a haircut. “No!” was Sandra’s response. “Yes.” This was a familiar battle, but one I hadn’t really expected. I was just looking for a place to get an electric razor. Yes, I feel a kinship with my new friends – one I can’t explain. Yes, I love them dearly. Yes, I feel that they care about me as well. But why my hair? I know we’re in Italy, in little, conservative towns. But, I’ve had a shaved head in Idaho, and in Salem, and Albany, and many other little, conservative towns. And it’s not like I’m going to take a straight razor to it and spit-polish my head. Maybe it represents an overt statement that I am, indeed, an unapologetic lesbian that makes everyone nervous, but I don’t think so. Almost everything about me is a statement to that effect. It could be discomfort with the gender-non-conforming nature of a woman with really short hair. But, I get called “sir” MUCH more often when I have longer hair than when it’s shaved. It could be that other people like my hair longer and I like it shorter, but the attachment to my hair – on all sides – seems more than a style-preference. I really don’t know what it’s about. What’s more, I don’t know why it’s so important to me. Last night I had the opportunity to examine this in a new way.

Tommy, the 14-year old boy I live with, has weighed in with his opinion of my hair – which has been the subject of a couple of dinner conversations. “NOOOO!” He motioned to the sides of his face, indicating the curls that are starting to form in my sideburns. “Yes, Tom. Anyway, I’m almost out of gel, so that will be it. Two days, max.”

Last night, when Tom came back from the salon where he was having a trim, he had a bag for me – a present. “Now, there are no more excuses,” he said, putting the bag proudly in my hands. It was a bottle of gel. Tom stood in front of me, waiting for a reaction. And, I felt completely out of control. Here stood this beautiful boy who, with a sweet and misguided gesture, had tried to help. I turned my back on him. I muttered “thanks, Tom, but I’m still cutting my hair.” I couldn’t find the way to be kind. I couldn’t find the way to be gracious. All I wanted to do was run to the nearest barber shop and shave my head. And I felt controlled. By a 14-year-old boy, and by twenty 14-year-old girls shouting, “bushwacker!”

When we all got home, Tom asked me if the gel was alright. “Yes, Tom, thank you very much. It’s very sweet. But I’m still cutting my hair.” I must have had a look on my face. Sandra asked “what’s happened?” She’s incredibly intuitive. “Everyone has to stop caring about my hair,” was all I could get out before I had to walk away. I was now in the position to have to tell a wonderful child that he had wasted his money and his emotion on something that I can’t even explain. Hiding in the bathroom, I found some space to think about just exactly I could tell Tommy about why I reacted to his gift the way I did. I felt like I owed him that much. But I didn’t have the words. So I thought. And in the context of Tommy’s gift I was able to come up with this: There are times in life when people want you to be a certain way, whether it’s how you act, or what you do for a living, how you raise your kids, or how you look. And it can be very hard sometimes to know the difference between what it is that other people want you to be, and what it is you want to be. It can be very difficult, but very important.

I have no idea if that realization will mean anything in the battle for my hair. I’m hoping maybe I’ll be able to disengage from it; to neutralize it. The only reason I see it as a battle is because I’m fighting in it; invested in it. That might be too big a step. I’m not sure. Maybe for now we could just declare a truce while I work out my exit strategy. At least now I have some gel while I’m working it all out. And people who care enough about me to share their opinions of my hair.

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November 20, 2009   13 Comments