Hold your horses before you read further!
TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes mentions of abuse, torture, self-harm, stress, depression and suicide.
Guys, I’m actually supposed to be in a sight-singing text (for my music theory class) but I am neither physically, emotionally or intellectually prepared for it so I’m not going. I’m feeling sick – with body aches and a bad sore throat but no fever – and I’m really upset to the point where I feel like cutting myself. So I’m trying to calm down and write instead. I hope this is a good coping strategy. And I’m gonna much on some Oreos. And, yes, I’m messing up with the class but I hope things can be resolved later on.
If you don’t know MBLGTACC, it’s the Midwestern BLGT (LGBT/GLBT/Queer) Ally College Conference that happens annually at a Midwestern college/university, one that’s large enough to host it. It’s like Pride but an intellectual exchange within the academic LGBT community. I was actually surprised to find out that the first MBLGTACC – then with a slightly different name – happened in eraly 1993, before I was even born. So it was like a wow and this year I went to the 20th Anniversary! Here, I’m gonna break some of my privacy policies because I need to specifically mention what happened where and when and maybe even who was involved. But I’ll try to abide by my own policies as much as possible.
70-ish% of what I know about the queer community, I owe it to MBLGTACC. I did not have an enjoyable experience going with the school GSA, but it was still a very educational experience and it sent me off further on the journey of self-discovery. Ok, about the school GSA, I have had some unpleasant encounters with it – as much as with every other part of this school – but I have never garnered enough courage to come out and address any issues, directly to the GSA or on my blog. The time has come to do so, more or less, since I organized a trip to 2013 MBLGTACC separate from the one organized by the GSA. Here’s the story:
The 2012 MBLGTACC was barely halfway across the state from my school. I don’t know why or how but the school put us in a hotel outside the town where the conference was happening – a 15-20 minute drive to the host university. The conference takes place starting the evening of the first Friday of February (7:00pm to be exact) to the mid-afternoon of the following Sunday (1:00pm to be exact). Things went ok that Friday night (in 2012). Saturday morning, workshops start at 8:00am so I was out of bed an ready by 7:15am. Everybody else woke up after 7:20am and they decided to sleep in and skip the first workshops – because they were “tired from the drive” the day before. (Yes, I was so anxious I kept track of the time.) Excuse me?
Ok, I need to mention who was in the group our school had sent for the 2012 conference: 2 then-sophomores who were (and still are) part of the GSA e-board; a then-senior who had a car and drove us there; and there was me. MBLGTACC was a complete ermahgerd for me coz, within the first semester of college, I’d crossed an ocean to go to college (in the middle of nowhere though), I’d come out publicly, and at the beginning of the second semester, I was at MBLGTACC – the queerest thing in the academic circle. One more thing, the 2 sophomores were in a really tough sociology class then and their classmates had made remarks that they shouldn’t have gone to the conference over the weekend because the work load was just immense. These two were very fixated on class for the most part at the conference. The senior was very light-hearted and giddy, and since she had come as replacement for a junior (who had to go to Chicago for some personal business) I couldn’t tell how serious she was with the conference.
At the conference, I was the only one comfortable enough to break away from the group. The advisor of the GSA had told us to play by ear the conference because it was only 4 of us. And the other 3 stuck together and consequently all the decision making went on without me. Saturday evening, the workshops were over around 5:00pm and they decided to go back. But there were programs late into the night after a dinner break – film screenings, live entertainment including a drag show and a dance. They had homework to do and shit but I ain’t gonna miss my first drag show and I’m enjoying so much the company of my new friends – all sorts of queerness from all over the US. So yeah, I ended up deciding not to go with them – which meant I’d have to find a place to stay myself – but it was ok coz I would’ve slept at a police station if I had to, just so I could experience the conference to its fullest. My group told me I’d be responsible if anything happened to me and I agreed, coz it sounded reasonable. 3 lesbians offered me a place around 9:00pm to my relief. I am so grateful to them. The night went splendidly and I slept in my underwear for the first time.
Sunday, the workshops end around 11:00am and, instead of hearing the last of the 3 keynote speaks, the group decided to leave around 11:30. They said they needed to get back to campus asap to work on class work. Also, I was given the option of finding by myself a way to get back to campus. At this point, I just had to go with them. Instead of getting back to campus early, what happened was: we stopped by at an Asian buffet place and ate there till it was like 2:00pm. Excuse me! We could’ve grabbed fast food, stayed for the 3rd keynote speaker and arrived back on campus at the same time.
[Ok, I went to bed for like a 4-hour nap coz I felt so tired. There’re several cuts on my left forearm but there’s no blood. I’d taken in half a stack of Oreos and a glass of wine before bed so I should be fine. But I’m listening to the beautiful music of Wagner and Berlioz, but I don’t know how to feel about that coz they sound so sad.]
Despite this unfortunate company, I still learnt a lot from the conference. The main thing was intersectionality. Ok, I didn’t realize how deep the subject was but I found out it exists. I discovered there were multiple facets to my identity – national, cultural, spiritual/religious, artistic, musical, personal (personality), sexual, gender, etc. It was mind-blowing! The first keynote speaker was Rev Dr Jamie Washington – black, gay, fraternity member, reverend, university professor (in sociology and women’s studies) and social activist. And he came out on stage (there and then at the conference) before 1700+ people of being HIV+. That was very powerful, y’all! His point was: a person is never just one thing, one label doesn’t fit all. And he stressed the importance of people collaborating and celebrating different social movements. I wish I could talk in more details but I need to focus more on the 2013 conference.
So I decided to plan a trip of my own to the 2013 conference. I needed company, I needed transportation and I needed a place to stay. I know last year’s incidents were circumstantial but I definitely didn’t want to travel again with the GSA. And there’s a Burmese saying that you don’t actually know people until you travel with them – and there’s no way I was gonna give them a second chance on something that is super important to me. I had to plan and plot in secrecy. I had to calculate the logistics and talk to some of my closest friends individually. We’re all college students and we’re broke all the time so affordability was critical. The trip ended up costing $160-$180 per head, by the way – including food, transportation, registration, sourvenirs and entertainment. My persuasion points were that we would have more autonomy at the conference and we would have a fuller experience of it. Also, we’d be getting away from pledging weekend on campus – which was a plus for a lot of people, because only God knows how hectic pledging can get on campus, even for non-pledges. After weeks of trying, I ended up with a company of 4 – my Indian sister and 2 new Midwestern friends I met this year. One of them had a nice little sedan and he and the other Midwestern friend could drive so they took turns on the wheel. I also have a white brother from the Northwest. (Yes, I’ve formed non-blood-related family relationships at school.) He was also gonna come with us but then he decided not to because a queer-themed conference is so far out of his comfort zone. He gave $100+ as support instead, so that’s what brought the cost down to an average of $170 per head.
Ok ok, I actually need to start talking about the MBLGTACC 2013 outtakes. Here are the highlights, which I will expand on later in the post:
- kissed a boy from Mexico;
- saw the incredible Latrice Royal perform;
- talked a CNN columnist about blogging;
- learned about and identified with victim-blaming in LGBT personal crises;
- looked into the legislative aspect of fighting conversion therapy;
- heard stories about intracommunity drama with queer circles; and
- public boob-groping and titty pinching with my Indian sister – lots of it!
The Kiss & Latrice Royal ::
So I danced with a Mexican boy at a club and kissed him. No big deal, right? Um, it WAS – coz there were issues related to cultural difference, personal space and comfort zones. I met him earlier that day during lunch, and we had an amicable interaction although we didn’t talk a lot – because we’re both international students. But he’s newer in the US than me; in fact, it’s only been a couple of weeks since his first semester started. Anyway, I recognized him at the club (which was fairly dark) and pulled him by my side – coz I hate dancing alone. I went to the club without my group because everybody else was too tired or too broke. Back to the boy, I did made sure I wasn’t rushing things; I asked him explicitly if he was gay, if he was ok with me dancing with him and if he was comfortable with me getting close to him. But then we were at a gay bar. Still he constantly kept nodding his head and didn’t speak much – as if we could hear each other talk with that blaring dance music. So around midnight, Latrice Royal came up on stage and did her first act. She stripped down like 3 layers and did jumps, spins and splits on stage and, given how big her build was, it was stunning! I loved her. I loved that woman. This was my third drag show and, for the Mexican boy, it was his first, but we both were equally hyped about the show. There was this white boy who was getting really sexual with strangers at the club. He’s one of those people who’d easily say, “What doesn’t happen at a drag show?” He was touching everyone in his way in a very sexual manner. I played along coz I’m a whore and I don’t mind. At one point, he started touching my guy – tits, butt and crotch. He didn’t seem to mind at first and took him a while to react. I noticed him getting a tad bit uncomfortable but I didn’t intervene coz I didn’t want to act like he was mine and I wanted to see his reaction. [I think I need to mention that I wasn’t under the influence of alcohol. I did have a glass of white wine and a shot of vodka but that was before 9:00pm and I didn’t get to the club till after 10:00pm and the drag show started around midnight.] After that, it was just the 2 of us again. I smooched him on the cheek first and he very readily offered me his lips. The last thing I remember was his smile before the kiss, then things got awkward. It was the first fucking kiss for both of us. (I had tried unsuccessfully to hook up before but that didn’t even involve making out.) Our lips didn’t part easily and it was just weird. We said sorry to each other and we danced a bit more. But the fun wasn’t there anymore. And it all ended when he had to “go to the bathroom” – which meant he was ditching me.
This is all about culture shock, y’all. We got close really well, even without words, because we’re both from non-American cultures. But then we were meeting up in the cultural context of America and gay culture in the US, in Burma and in Mexico are all different things. I’ve been here longer than him and feel more integrated but – as much as I’ve come to embrace sexuality (orientation and just being sexual/promiscuous) – I’m still a prude in practice. I just wanted to make out with him but I wasn’t experienced enough to accommodate him. And he wasn’t a very articulate person. It’s his first month in the US and some random guy from another side of the globe kissed him at his first drag show. How weird is that! Given where he was in life, I think he handled the situation pretty well.
I actually have an announcement to make, and I will post this on the announcements page also that I am starting a new blog. No, I’m not abandoning this one. This Queer&Gay blog has been basically an open book journal for everyone and anyone to read, and it has had positive affects on some people’s lives. I’m happy and proud of that. For readers (any reader) to get further insight into the queer-ally mindset and personal lives, I decided to bring together a squad of writers to write in a similar style on one blog. It’s called The OUT Diaries and it’s still in the making. It’ll be a shelf of open-book journals, so keep an eye out for it.
Talking to LZ Granderson was actually no biggie. He was the last keynote speaker at the conference. This year we had 4. Me and my 3 peeps stayed till the end of the conference so we got to hear LZ talk. He talked about stereotypes – how we try and not try to fit into them and how limiting they can be. He finally advocates rejecting labels and stereotypes and mentions that he is still in the process of rejecting them. He gives the excellent analogy of hula-hooping multiple hoops. He’s black, he’s gay, he’s a journalist and sports commentator, he’s a country music fan and he’s an activist. Labels and stereotypes are expectations of us, what we should be and how we should behave. He compares them to hula-hoops. Keeping one going is hard enough. Keeping many going in different directions at different speeds is impossible. So just be who you are and do what you like and you don’t really need to make it up to others.
I just asked LZ about censoring certain materials on my blog and about choosing subject matter. Coz a lot of the times when I’m blogging, I feel like Chris Crocker (the Leave-Britney-Alone guy), very loud, very opinionated, very explicit to the point of offending the audience from time to time. He said no to censorship, epecifically to self-censorship – because it takes away the authenticity. If I have something to share, put it out there and someone will read/consume it and don’t mind about their reaction. And he got me connected (professionally) with a cute boy from a near-Chicago school who is involved with the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. I have yet to explore that in good details.
It’s actually the domain name of Emi Koyama’s website; she was the first key note speaker at the conference. I am regretting now that I did not take notes at the conference. This is how she identifies herself: “a multi-issue social justice activist and writer synthesizing feminist, Asian, survivor, dyke, queer, sex worker, intersex, genderqueer, and crip politics“. She also identifies as a Buddhist and a rogue intellectual and she has some pretty interesting ideas about how social activism is being undertaken in our modern society. We definitely have come a long way in terms of progress but she focused on the malfunctions and failures of support systems. She explained things using “System Failure Alert” the new grassroots campaign that she is starting. I’m gonna put it down as what I best understood. If you think I’m wrong in my interpretation or confusing in my presentation, question me please.
We live in a society where each individual is supposed to have control over their own destiny. When we encounter problems like emotional, physical and emotional abuse, society blames us for being vulnerable, for not being strong enough, for letting them happen in the first place. Furthermore, support systems (from the police, counselors, therapists, friends and family) expect us to be proactive about these traumatizing experiences. We mistake the Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” to be inspiring and lines like, “You can’t change what happened but you can choose what to do about it.” This is the model for helping people recover from personal crises. This is the acceptable way to recover. These lines are not always necessarily true. In partner abuse cases, consent is involved, or dependence and inevitable constant interactions translate into submission. If people can’t rise out of their misery or if people can’t see themselves in light of this model, the system blames and shames them for not recovering and the victim feels further isolated from and abandoned by society and other victims/survivors. Also, the media has become more focused on celebrating survival and victory. The “It Gets Better” video campaign comprises of self-congratulatory messages from the winners and the media is inundated with coverage on marriage equality – often diminishing issues like bullying, suicide, partner abuse, conversion therapy, etc. We need to refigure how we are helping the victims within our own community. Are we really helping them out? Or are we heaping them with more misery and pushing them further into the dark?
Did that make sense to you? I tried to recall as much of her message as I can. Her speech was kind of a downer at the beginning of the conference, when everybody was so pumped to get together and celebrate. But her message spoke directly to me. I have not been through several issues myself. I have not been in life-threatening scenarios but I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts, cutting, stress and depression, homesickness. And I have been in and out of counselling – in and out, because I didn’t think it was helping. I had a session just this morning and it wasn’t very different from before I went in. Only my records would say: “Han Zaw went in for a counselling appointment. He’s working on his emotions.” What school officials would say/think: “He started counselling since this time last year. Why has he not recovered? What is wrong with him?”
When I started meeting a mental health professional, I didn’t want to go at all, just so you know. Coming from Burmese culture, I associated counselling with being insane. I’m not insane, I’m just sad and stressed and depressed. But some school officials popped up at my door like twice and they were like, “Hey, we heard you were going through a hard time. You should try this on-campus service to help you be normal again. Come, we’ll take you there.” Excuse me, I was never normal – not where I come from, not in your cultural perspective. Only after hearing Emi speak, I realized what I needed was help to make me feel comfortable in my own skin – not in this certain environment. Coz if you make me comfortable in this particular environment, I’m gonna have problems when I move away. And I’ve tried, I’ve tried so hard to fit in at this school. It’s currently my 4th semester and it isn’t working out still. And tell you what, 4 semesters here and I’ve evidently had emotional problems in 3 of them. So here’s a FUCK YOU to anyone who thinks I shouldn’t settle my ass down and make the best of the remainder of my time here. That includes my mom. (Yes, I love her to death but she also deserves a fuck you, I’m sorry.) Realizing being comfortable with myself is more important than fitting in with the rest of campus has helped me a lot. All of a sudden, being alone/being single isn’t such a terrible thing anymore. I may not be able to participate in all the institutionalized student organizations that look so pretty on resumes but I am creating my own little world on the internet. I have social media, through which I can connect with people from anywhere in the world. And I blog, and you read, which I greatly appreciate.
Conversion Therapy ::
Ok, with conversion therapy – aka sexual orientation reparative/change therapy – I can only say it’s a terrible inhumane practice. And I cannot personally offer you details as to how to take action against it. The therapy is mainly forcing the “patient” to psychologically associate homoromantic, homoerotic, homosexual behaviour or anything that doesn’t conform to traditional gender norms with pain and agony by means of heat, cold, electric shock and verbal brainwashing. It’s basically torturing you into believing you can only assume heteronormativity in life.
I’m gonna refer you to Samuel Brinton, whom I met at the 2012 MBLGTACC. (I’d been trying to bring him to campus but the GSA keeps ignoring it, so …) He’s a survivor conversion therapy himself and has become a rigorous activist over the years. Watch his story here. He’s currently studying nuclear physics at MIT and law at Harvrd. I have no idea how he manages it but he says staying busy is an addiction he has developed. He also sings in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. He took up law just in good hopes of outlawing conversion therapy, which I think is an excellent step. I am not educated enough to profess about how the legal system works in the US, so research his biography and get in touch with him. He is very accessible for a busy man, and I don’t know how he does it but he recognizes me personally.
Also, some good news for survivors: the Trevor Project now has professionals trained to converse with conversion therapy survivors. So if you (a survivor) are in desperate need of conversation as a form of crisis intervention, dial 1-866-4U-TREVOR (that is 1-866-488-7386). For people who have no knowledge of this horrid practice, do not ever joke about converting people straight or gay. You never know who has been through this practice and you could be triggering something. Another valuable outtake from the conference is the importance of triggers and trigger warnings. People who have been through psychological turmoil, you can never tell who they are. They blend in really well and they, either actively or unintentionally, hide their past. You need to be very careful about what you say, when you say, where you say and how you say it – especially when it’s a sensitive subject. If you’re going to touch on a delicate subject in public, mention trigger warnings first. Please and thank you!
Intracommunity Dramas ::
My issues with the school GSA that I present at the beginning of the post are a perfect example of intracommunity drama. GSA dramas are take a whole slew of forms from love triangles, and gossiping to name calling, exclusion/ostracizing, cat fights, deliberate outing or threats of outing, etc. And think about it GSAs are supposed to be safe inclusive affirming spaces and isn’t it sad and ironic that all these horrible things go on within them. It destroys the idea of a safe zone and deters social movements and student leadership.
I’m not gonna talk about the stories of other people that I heard at the conference – coz I didn’t ask for permission if I can retell theirs on my blog. I’m just gonna tell mine – coz I’ve always thrown out what I feel about our GSA and they’re not gonna like it anyway. We’re at a lose-lose situation here, people. Since after the 2012 conference, I had talked to the then-vice-president and advisor of the GSA about my ramifications at the conference. They said they’d talk to the group that went to the conference. Well, I don’t know if that happened because I didn’t hear anything since then. I wanted to bring Samuel Brinton to campus. It couldn’t happen spring semester 2012 because student senate was running out of money. It didn’t happen fall 2012 because (even at the beginning of the year) the semester has been filled with events, and I’m not gonna try again coz it’s mid-semester spring 2013 already. They managed to bring Andrea Gibson the slam poet and it was a good thing. She was probably easier to get sponsors for. Non-GSA sponsors included the school slam poetry group and the feminist resource group. To invite Samuel Brinton to campus, we’d have to spend more money and as a single student organization and I wasn’t part of the e-board so I’m kinda powerless. And, folks, it’s my own fault that I am not part of the e-board. I was so fixated on transferring last semester that I abandoned all institutionalized leadership positions on campus. Leadership roles are very powerful and very rewarding, even more so when they are institutionalized. I started 2 blogs which are kind of activism-focused and I organized a trip to MBLGTACC in 2013 but neither of those are institutionalized and they won’t look very good or credible on a resume and that is assuming I can put them down on paper.
I have never presented my issues with the GSA openly to the e-board, especially out of fear that I might offend them. And that is a very likely thing given how aggressive/assertive I am and how they’ve been running the organization for years. The e-board is essentially all new this year and at the beginning of the fall semester, when there were lots of curious freshmen at the meeting, they said they could take the group in the direction of activism. Interest waned and we’re a social group again. It’s not that they are inactive. I just have issues with how they are active. If I had to offer alternatives to the operation, I probably wouldn’t be able to do so. So I don’t wanna call them bad or dysfunctional. And with the waning interest as the year progressed, I’m not sure if it was waning interest or people who wanted to take it in the activistic direction backing out because it’s falling back into the social group pattern. It’s complicated.
But I think I can definitely say the GSA is not resourceful – at least not enough for me. When I came out to my family in November 2011, I emailed the then-president and then-vice-president of how I could handle the situation and maintain good relationships with my family. One of them tried to talk to me about it on the way to class. She was a Jewish girl but I don’t think she understood the severity of the situation – coming out in a cross-cultural context. And other members of the GSA, their ideal in educating parents about their sexuality is sending them educational flyers. They’re not gonna help in my case. My parents barely read English and they’re definitely not gonna understand queer culture. I’m still dealing with family conflicts to this day. But I’ve reached a point where I can talk about boys openly with my sister again, so that’s progress. (Ok, I used to google hot guys with my sister and she was completely oblivious to homosexuality. Then I came out and things got awkward.) People always act like, “You can legally get married and adopt children in this Midwestern state. It’s almost a utopia. You don’t need to worry about stuff.” Bitch, NO! I do not exist in my homeland. I am invisible. They don’t get it. It’s such a relief to see that there are people who are conscious and activistic about social issues even though they are not part of institutionalized support groups. And the 3 folks, I took with me to the conference, they had never interacted with the GSA during their time at school – one a freshman, one a fellow sophomore and one a junior.
At this point, I don’t know if I’m gonna try and bond again with the school GSA again. I have been very rebellious and dissident – though without malicious intent, I’d say. But these things I just spitted out have been closeted inside me for so long and I don’t intend them to bring down or attack anyone. I just want people to know. I want people to know how I feel.
Speaking of feelings and struggles and stuff, it comes down to my last point. DON’T EVER TRIVIALIZE OTHER PEOPLE’S TROUBLES. Everybody’s life happens within a cultural context, one they have no control over. And often they don’t even have the option of getting out of that cultural context – whether or not they want to. So don’t judge, don’t assume – whether you consider someone to be a success or a failure. Everybody has a story. If somebody presents you theirs, consume carefully with full attention. If anything confuses you, ask politely. Be interested. Show some love. We all have stories we keep to ourselves out of fear that we will be judged if we put them forth. When a person wholly understands another, they don’t judge or criticize anymore. Rather they’d sympathize and even share with you their story. Sharing stories is a powerful experience. I am one of those few people who are daredevil enough to throw my stories out under the spotlight – (1) because I like the attention; and (2) because (I believe) they’re worth hearing. Why don’t you try doing it, too? Record/publish it in some way. Somebody might pick it up, connect with it/you and be inspired!
P.S. Ok, I should’ve included networking on the list of outtakes but y’all should know how important it is by yourselves. And yes, although I met old friends from last year’s conference and made new ones as well, I felt all else I’ve written down above was important.