The (Second) Elephant in the Room: Another Gender Q&A

elephantinroom

The elephant in the room!

About a year ago, I answered some questions that readers had about my gender.

It felt strange to do this, knowing that my identity was constantly in flux and that I was still figuring myself out. But I can never resist a good Q&A!

With 2015 coming to a close, I revisited that article for old time’s sake. And, of course, I was not surprised to find that not every answer held true for me in the present day.

So I figured, why not make this Q&A something of a yearly tradition? It might be interesting to see how my sense of self shifts over the years.

If you’re new to the site and wondering what in the hell my gender is, or if you’re a veteran reader who’s just curious to see what has changed this year, this Q&A will give you some insights into my gender identity and my transition.

It’s a new year and a new Q&A. Let’s do this!

What is your gender? What pronouns do you use?

I identify as genderqueer and non-binary.

I use he/him as my pronouns, though I’m also a fan of they/them, so I respond to both!

What do those words mean to you?

To me, genderqueer means that I don’t identify exclusively as masculine or feminine. It means I fuck around with gender and I’m content with the ambiguity. Non-binary is essentially the same in that I reject the gender binary.

How have your self-descriptors changed since last year?

I used to self-describe as transmasculine, meaning I identified more with masculinity than I did femininity. I realized that this felt safer for me. I thought that I had to reject femininity to be seen as a valid AFAB (assigned female at birth) transgender person.

However, in the last year, I’ve found that language to be really limiting. I’m reconnecting with my own femininity and I’m seeing how there are a lot of layers to my own gender.

So I’m back to using “genderqueer” as my primary descriptor.

Are your gender identity (your sense of self) and your gender expression (how you express it on the outside) the same? Different?

Last year, I had a pretty non-binary identity but a decidedly masculine expression, meaning that while I didn’t identify with any particular gender, the way I presented myself to the world was very masculine.

In part, that was motivated by that binarism that says AFAB trans people must transition to be masculine, and AMAB trans people must transition to be feminine (which is SO not true and such a limited understanding of transness).

Part of that was also just the trauma of being misgendered and feeling that I needed to be as masculine as possible in order to avoid being read as a woman.

I’ve slowly moved away from that and have started looking for ways to incorporate all kinds of gender expressions into my everyday life. That’s felt super liberating for me. It’s no longer about other people – it’s just about me now.

How did you know you were transgender?

There were so many little moments building up to this that it’s hard to say which one was my “aha” moment. My two biggest moments, I think, were when I saw an androgynous character on television for the first time and when I started wearing a chest binder.

I’d suggest reading this memoir piece (which is easily the best thing I wrote this year) and this article on internalized transphobia (another one of my best pieces) to get a full sense of what my journey has looked like so far.

When did you come out and what were the reactions you received?

I came out to close friends a few years ago, and was really lucky to get a mix of affirmations, support, and curiosity.

I came out to my family gradually – subtle conversations, tap dancing around it – but came out completely this last year. There was fear, hesitation, confusion… but underneath all of that, there was love. It’s the love that’s carrying us through right now. I have an incredible family.

Does your family know about your writing?

Every single year, I get asked this question a few times.

Yes! And they’ll read it from time to time. Hi, Mom, I love you.

Some of my extended family found my work online and they’ve been wonderfully supportive. Hey, cousins, what’s up?

How has your transition been so far?

Last year I used an equal number of negative and positive adjectives when answering this question, even using the word “painful.” It definitely speaks to where I was at the time with my transition.

This year I have almost exclusively positive adjectives: Beautiful. Affirming. Life-giving. Scary. Magical.

And like I said before, only with more conviction this time: Exactly what I needed.

Are you taking testosterone? Do you plan to?

Last year I said I wasn’t sure. It’s funny to me, because I couldn’t be more sure now.

Back in May, I had this realization – that I couldn’t keep living my life in this body and in this way. It’s the kind of epiphany that you feel at the core of your heart. I knew from that point on that it was something I needed to do.

On December 9th, 2015, I started testosterone (and every Wednesday, I write a weekly column at Ravishly, “Testosterone and Tea,” where I reflect on that week’s experiences – you should follow along if you haven’t been already!).

It was absolutely the right choice for me and I’m glad that I waited until I felt ready.

Have you always known that you were transgender?

It seems like every day, as I let go of the shame that I felt around being trans and I start to heal, I am able to really connect with my past and begin to see the ways in which I was struggling with my gender for a long time.

I haven’t always known and I definitely wasn’t born this way. I also think the trauma of having bipolar disorder meant that I had to focus, first and foremost, on my own survival.

But in all the reflecting I’ve done this last year, I can see that this was a long time coming.

If you aren’t a man or a woman, what is your sexual orientation?

Hahaha. I laugh because it’s like, I could care less about my sexual orientation. I am at that point in my life where it’s just irrelevant. I’m queer, and I’m polyamorous, and I’m happy; I date whoever I want.

I will say that I date mostly other trans people and/or folks with mental illness. It’s not on purpose. I think it’s because I just feel understood and validated and safe around folks who have struggled with similar shit. It allows me to build the kind of closeness that I need to be with someone.

What has been the hardest part of being trans?

I want to be more specific this year and say that it’s hard to be non-binary.

Because so few people understand or want to understand, so few people see you as you actually are, and you’re juggling a lot of different forms of oppression coming from cisgender and [binary] trans people alike.

This year I decided to stop playing it safe and calling myself “transgender” all the time when what I really mean is non-binary.

I realized that it was a revolutionary act to openly and urgently name myself as a non-binary writer and advocate. And I knew that my community needed me to be upfront about this, because we’re so invisible in so many spaces.

With that has been an avalanche of really important self-reflection. Reflections on how to claim my identity, how to stop apologizing for it, and how to navigate what it means to be a public figure who is also genderqueer.

It’s been a worthwhile process. Because while it is true that I am transgender, it is equally, if not more true that I am non-binary. And opting for neutral language just because it’s more accessible does not challenge people to learn about me or my community.

Sometimes we have to work a little harder to be seen and understood, even if it means taking a stance that isn’t neutral or palatable, because being seen is a fundamentally important part of our liberation.

Shout-out to my non-binary readers who encouraged me to start using this language, and continue to boost the signal on my work. You are the heart and soul of this blog.

What do you think is in store for you in 2016?

A lot of body hair (thanks, testosterone!). A lot of selfies (thanks, Instagram!).

And kind of unrelated, but I’m determined to launch a YouTube channel (which you can subscribe to early if you’d like, follow the link!) and to get a cat.

Because seriously. Why don’t I have a cat yet?

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Update: Turns out I just had to wait one more year!

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Why I’m “Out” as a Person with Mental Illness

Content notice: suicide. This piece was originally published at The Body Is Not An Apology.

The image features the author, SDF, smilling at the camera. He is an androgynous white person wearing large, round glasses and a striped t-shirt.

Out and proud!

Far and away, the most frequently asked question I receive as a writer with bipolar and anxiety is, “How did you get to a place where you could be this open about your struggles?”

It’s usually followed with a question like, “Aren’t you scared?”

I used to be terrified. Like many folks with a mental illness, one of the first things we’re told is to keep it to ourselves. At times, I existed in a cloud of shame that followed me around wherever I went.

But that’s just it – that’s exactly why I came out and became such a vocal advocate for my community. It’s because of that shame that I started talking about what I had been through. I was tired of feeling afraid, tired of feeling ashamed, and tired of seeing the stories of my community being told by people who just didn’t get it.

I wanted to tell my own story and to reach people like me who needed to know, without a doubt, that they were not alone.

Yes, it’s scary to put yourself out there and tell the whole world – let alone family or friends – about what can be the darkest, most vulnerable part of our journeys. There are real risks involved, too, that people need to weigh when deciding who to tell about their illness(es) and when.

Our safety, our security, our housing, and our jobs can all be at stake because mental illness, unfortunately, is a highly stigmatized status to hold in our society.

But when I weighed all of these risks, and I thought about my fourteen-year-old self, who was contemplating suicide because he felt utterly alone, I knew that I had an obligation to speak up. For me, if I could help make someone’s burden a little bit lighter by being outspoken about my illnesses, the benefits far outweighed the risks.

I remember that the first place I looked for help as a teen was not a guidance counselor, not a parent or guardian, not a friend. Instead, I turned to Google. I searched for things like, “Help, I want to die” and “I’m depressed and I don’t know what to do.” I remember, vividly, scouring the search results, looking for some kind of affirmation or something to hold onto.

The reality is that the stigma around mental health keeps us so silent that we’d rather ask Google what to do than ask our friends or family. We go it alone because we’re ashamed, we’re afraid, we’re confused, we’re overwhelmed, and we think that our struggles make us too much of a burden for others to deal with.

There was a time when Google knew more about my mental illnesses than my best friend did.

After spending too many years feeling isolated, disconnected, and self-hating, I began to write about what I had been through. And, with time, that writing ceased to be a private exercise and instead, became the beginnings of a blog. That blog, which came to be known as Let’s Queer Things Up!, helped bring into sharp focus all of the reasons why being out as someone with bipolar and anxiety was the right decision for me.

Why am I out?

Because I want to build community around mental illness, especially for those who, like myself, are transgender and also grapple with these illnesses.

Because, too many times, I’ve received emails that said, “You’re genderqueer and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”

Because too many people think of folks with mental illness as anything but people – as criminals, or “psychos,” or burdens on society rather than fully human and deserving of every bit of compassion, respect, and dignity that all people should be afforded.

Because, when you take away the rights of people with mental illnesses – when you vote against important legislation or elect a politician who wants to strip us of the resources and support that we need – I want you to remember my face and remember my words.

Because visibility matters, and because I want teens to grow up in a world where, when they are searching for people who have lived through what they’re going through, they can find them.

Because a teenager sent me a letter that said, “I found you through Google. I’m trans and I have bipolar. I didn’t think I could be successful, but I look at everything you’re doing, and you make me believe in something.”

Because I want to create a safe space for others to use their voices, too, so that together, the collective vibration of our voices will be an undeniable force.

Because you cannot deny our personhood, our worth, our brilliance, or our power when we work together.

Because teens would rather tell me they’re suicidal through my Tumblr ask box than pick up the phone and call a hotline or a friend.

Because an article I wrote asking people not to ridicule someone with a mental illness was read in over 180 countries by millions of people around the world.

Because it was an article I never should have had to write in the first place.

Because no one with a mental illness should ever feel alone.

Because there is enough shame surrounding mental illness that we have to even consider whether or not to “come out.”

Because we shouldn’t wait to have our stories told for us. They are ours to tell.

Telling the world that I have bipolar disorder (and later, anxiety) was not an easy choice to make. Friends and family expressed concern, asking me whether I was sure I would want the word “bipolar” forever attached to my name for anyone in the world to see. Others told me it would be a career-ruining move that would haunt me for the rest of my professional life.

But in order for other people with mental illness to have a life – to have careers, to have a future – they first need to know, unequivocally, that they are not alone, and that others now thrive with these same illnesses that threatened to pull them under.

When seeing is believing, visibility is everything. If living visibly means that I give someone with a mental illness the chance to keep going, I will keep the word “bipolar” forever, and I will proudly do the work that I’m doing, even if it means that a lousy potential employer puts my resume in the garbage.

There’s something poetic about the fact that Google was the first place that I found people like me, and nowadays, I am the person that people are finding when they search for help. The tables really have turned.

Even on the days when I feel afraid and question my decision to go public with my disorders, I remember what it felt like to turn the internet upside-down as a teen, looking for someone, anyone, who knew how I felt. If I can be that person for someone else — the link that opens up their world and keeps them going — it’s all been worth it.

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If I’m a Stranger Now, I Will Be a Stranger Forever (Reflections on Testosterone)

A cursive lettered tattoo that reads,

My favorite tattoo and my simplest one, too. A reminder.

I was at a poetry reading when an older butch woman sat down next to me and started to talk to me about her experiences in the lesbian communities of San Francisco.

Typical Bay Area. Queers chatting up queers. And for a little while, it was just an ordinary conversation for two gays in the Bay.

But then I looked at her. I mean, really looked at her. I saw the creases in the corners of her eyes, the years settling into her smile, her pixie cut graying.

“I wonder who I’ll be when I’m her age,” I innocently thought to myself. “I wonder how I’ll look…”

That’s when I panicked. I faked an important text message, pretending that some urgent situation had suddenly arisen. I picked up my things, said a hurried goodbye, and took a long, solitary walk on a hiking trail nearby.

It wasn’t getting older that scared me, per se, but the thought that I might spend the rest of my life being seen as a woman, as something I was not. It was the idea that I would be trapped in a body that felt alien to me well into old age, and with it, bearing a lifetime of misgendering, dysphoria, and invisibility.

I had a tendency to only think of my life in terms of the here and now – something of a survival skill I’d perfected after years of living with bipolar disorder.

But the thought that I would endure this kind of pain for life, the pain of being alien to oneself and misgendered by everyone else, made me realize that my transition wasn’t just about the here and now.

I could survive in this body today, but what about five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty?

Could I really do that? When I reach the end of the line, counting down the days in my old age, when I look in the mirror, who do I want to see staring back at me?

And while I could nurse my wounds each time I heard “she,” and I could pick myself up when my dysphoria knocked me down, and I could swallow my pain and shelve it for a more convenient time, it finally occurred to me that it was not something I could keep doing for the rest of my life.

Today, maybe. Tomorrow, maybe. But all the tomorrows to come, all of the days I have left?

As adamant as I was about staying put, fear shackling me in place, I’d forgotten how the world still moves forward, with or without me.

And it was there in the woods, the smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air around me and my heart pounding through my bound chest, that I promised myself that I would put the gears into motion.

I promised myself I would get on testosterone.

/

Transition is not always simple, and not always certain.

Sometimes transition is guesswork – discarding what you are not to get closer and closer to what you are. Sometimes transition is not precise, just in the way that the beautiful pictures in our minds are never quite as beautiful when we manifest them on the page.

Being non-binary, neither a man nor a woman, is something like that. It’s knowing what I am not, and creating new spaces, new expressions, new ways of being to get closer to what I am.

I avoided testosterone for a long time. I thought, “Why should I have to choose? Can’t I just be?” It took years before I understood that not taking testosterone was just as much a choice.

There is risk in not acting. There is risk in staying the same.

Just because it isn’t precise, that doesn’t make the endeavor less worthwhile.

So I take another step. I throw another dart with the hopes it’ll strike near the target. I pick up the brush and let it kiss the canvas.

Gender has always been intangible. And when dealing with the intangible, we use what tools we have to articulate our truth – the closest approximation.

/

This September, I am starting testosterone.

I know, I know. I’m genderqueer. “If you’re not a man and you’re not a woman, what’s the difference?” they might ask. “Why do this?”

Because standing still and wishing away the pain will not douse the fire.

Because if I’m a stranger now, I will be a stranger forever.

Because all I can do is stumble my way through and hope that, on the other side of this, there is a reflection staring back that no longer scares me.

Because they will not bury me with breasts. Because they will not bury me under a false name like they did to Leelah. Because they will not mistake me for a woman at my funeral. Because they will not bury me in someone else’s body when I die.

Because of all the tomorrows that are coming.

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Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik (http://www.jessicakrcmarik.com)

How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

Header illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

I was watching an episode of Bones, oddly enough, when I first realized that I might be transgender.

No, I’m not kidding. I wish it were a more exciting story, but I have to be honest. I was just sitting on my couch, watching television, when the light bulb began to flicker.

In this particular episode, there was a distinguished anthropologist who had joined the team temporarily to help solve a case. I remember, vividly, the first moment that I saw this anthropologist on screen. They were androgynous — visibly outside the binary, sending the other characters into a complete panic as they tripped over pronouns and social conventions.

My heart raced throughout the entire episode. I don’t remember the murder, much less who the culprit was, but I do recall how captivated I felt by this character and their androgyny.

And then there was a thought that bubbled to the surface, one that changed my life.

“I want to be them.”

I wanted to be this person. Desperately. No, not an accomplished scientist, though that would be cool. I wanted to be androgynous and have everything that I imagined went with it.

I thought about how I might achieve that androgynous look, to confuse others and exist beyond categorization. But more than that, I wanted the freedom I felt they had — the freedom to be who they were without others forcing a label onto them.

Maybe I felt this way because, for a long time, I could feel so many gendered assumptions being forced onto me.

“Woman” had always felt like a filter that reduced me somehow, like it diluted me or masked me. I felt like an outsider to it, like it was a story I was told but never believed with any certainty. I had been wrestling with my gender, trying to fit in or at least coexist with it, but instead I came up empty and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t know at that time who or what I was. But I had a sense of what I was not. And I had known, for a long time, that I was not what people told me I was. I felt lonely and misunderstood without the words to express why. There was something about being perceived as a girl, and then as a woman, that made me feel alienated.

The image features the author, Sam, looking down contemplatively. I often wished that these labels didn’t exist at all; being called a woman was like being backed into a corner I couldn’t get out of, and the sense that I was trapped was, at times, suffocating.

I took baby steps at first. I cut off my hair and immediately felt a weight lifted. I stopped wearing makeup. And I started reading up about androgyny, contemplating my next move. And then something amazing happened — I met someone like me.

I met Ray, a genderqueer classmate who, much like the character in Bones, was spectacularly androgynous. And again, I could feel my heart bursting at the seams. I was envious, too, of how they seemed to blur so many boundaries. I thought of how liberating it must feel. I thought of how much I wanted to be rid of the labels that made me feel so uncomfortable.

Ray gave me resources, guidance, support, and yes, the language that I needed to begin to describe how I felt. I finally understood. I was drawn to androgyny — people like the doctor on Bones, Ray, and other queer people that I met not long after — not because of how they looked, but because my assigned gender itself was making me unhappy.

I realized that I wasn’t a woman because I knew, on an intrinsic level, that this did not align with how I experienced my gender and myself.

The discomfort with parts of my body and how I was seen, the deep longing for escape, the sense that I didn’t belong, the inexplicable sense that I was misunderstood, the painful desire to be “something else” but not knowing what that was, and finally, the uncontainable excitement that I felt each time I met someone who was visibly androgynous made me realize that I felt this way because my gender was something other than what I had been told.

Maybe I had other options. Maybe, instead of calling myself a woman, I could embrace this androgynous space that I felt so at home in.

I was transgender, and at age 19, I finally understood.

I knew that this angst around being seen as a woman, and my fantasies about “escaping” my assigned gender, meant that something was not aligning with how others saw me and how I really saw myself.

It’s hard to explain how we know our own gender. It’s often just a sense of who we are, filtered through culture and the words we have available to us. We know, with tragic cases like that of David Reimer, the existence of third and even fourth genders around the world, and the countless stories and experiences of transgender people, that gender is more than just anatomy.

But with something so intangible, it can be difficult to express who we are. When the language around gender is still evolving, we are limited in what we can say. It’s approximations, it’s our best guess, it’s prodding at the unknown.

So here’s what I know: Each step I took towards the gray — the in-between, the neither here nor there — made me feel more comfortable, more at home, more whole. And calling myself genderqueer has been perhaps the most honest thing I’ve ever said.

Identifying as non-binary was my way of saying to the world, “I know what I am not. And I am on a journey to discover what I am.”

I am still on that journey. And the excitement I felt when I saw that androgynous scientist for the first time is now the excitement I get to feel each day, when I get closer and closer to articulating what it is I feel and who it is I want to be.

There is a conviction I cannot shake, one that urges me forward, a certainty in my bones that tells me that who I am exists beyond this binary. A binary that, no, cannot contain me and no, was never meant to.

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Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

Coming Out Again: Why More Queer Folks with Mental Illnesses Need to Speak Out

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

Many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community know all too well what it’s like to be queer with a mental illness.

I know this because when I tell you that I have a mental illness, more than half of you say, “Me too.” We have these conversations on the regular – whispers at Pride, a confession in our support groups, anonymously in our forums, or if we’re feeling brave, it’s an off-hand comment when a friend is struggling.

But too often, these conversations are happening behind closed doors, and the folks who need us most are often left on the other side.

The stigma of being a person with a mental illness is enormous enough on its own, but to be queer at the same time is daunting.

But without visibility, too many people in our community are left convinced that they are alone as they occupy an intersection that too few are willing to openly claim.

So many folks in our community have struggled with their mental health, and yet the only time it’s considered appropriate to open this “can of worms” is when someone in our community commits suicide. Suddenly, we collectively nod and, feeling brave, we admit, “I’ve been there.”

We talk about suicide, but we often neglect to discuss mental health more generally. We neglect to talk about the pain and instead we talk about the consequences.

Every other day, there’s an email in my inbox from someone in our community who says, “You’re transgender and bipolar? I thought I was the only one.”

The idea that anyone in our community would be convinced that they are alone in this struggle is indicative of a bigger issue. This tells me that conversations about mental health and mental illness in the queer community aren’t accessible enough for everyone.

And ultimately, if we continue to have these conversations in private – afraid to admit that we are here, queer, AND neuroatypical – we uphold the isolation, the fear, and the stigma that convinces so many queer people that they must suffer alone.

Where are the conversations about depression? Where are the conversations about anxiety? Where are the conversations about queers with OCD, queers with bipolar disorder, queers with borderline personality disorder, that are actually written by queer people?

And are these conversations accessible? Or are they hidden away on the top shelf, just out of reach?

Instead of telling queer youth that it gets better, why aren’t we having more open and honest conversations about what it means to struggle with your mental health as queer? What it means to be queer and hospitalized? What it takes to survive when you are marginalized at this complicated intersection where the stigma and the pain are so compounded?

It’s not always safe to reveal a diagnosis, and it’s scary enough to come out once. But if you can, I’m asking you to come out twice. I’m asking you to leave the closet once and for all. I want to issue a challenge to my community – to those of you who come to me and say, “yes, me too” – to emphatically remind others like you that they, too, are not the only ones.

Because straight and cis people aren’t the only ones who grapple with mental illnesses – in fact, these disorders disproportionately impact our community, and fuel the tragic losses we incur as more and more of us take our own lives.

Inevitably, if we only have these conversations under pseudonyms, behind avatars, or in the comfort of our own homes, we cannot advocate for ourselves, and we cannot reach the people in our community who desperately need our stories, our words, and our voices.

I know I am not the only genderqueer person who has a mental illness – but so long as we live in a world where people are actually convinced that I am the only one, or worse, do not know that I and others exist, LGBTQIA+ people will continue taking their own lives under the impression that people like them don’t have a future, people like them don’t matter, or people like them aren’t meant to exist.

I am asking you to be visible, because visibility is everything when you are in the depths of these illnesses, unable to imagine a future that has you in it.

Visibility is everything when the pill bottle is in your hand, and all you can see is the pain you’ve silently endured day after day. I can tell you (and maybe you remember, too, because maybe you’ve been there) that a bottle of pills is nothing in comparison to the years of pain that break you down, pain that you are convinced that no one understands.

I understand. So, so many queer folks understand. And there are people in our community, right now, who need to know that we exist.

We still live in a world where queer people with mental health struggles are largely invisible and isolated. But that is within our power to change, if we choose to extend our hand and reach out to them, and if we make ourselves known.

The next time you are wondering if your story could make a difference, remember what I am saying: I thought the same thing. I didn’t know if my words could ever make a difference. But you know what? Five million views later – and countless letters that start with, “I thought it was just me” and “I am so glad I found you” and “you make me believe in something” – have proven, without a shadow of a doubt, that our voices are needed.

Our voices could save someone’s life.

So where do we start? There’s a call for submissions for a great anthology, HEADCASE, of folks who are both queer and neuroatypical; there’s an awesome website, Queer Mental Health, that’s looking for new writers.

Heck, you can just do what I did and start a blog (and let me know so I can go promote the fuck out of it).

Volunteer at your local LGBTQIA+ community centers, volunteer for queer hotlines, or start a support group for folks in your area and get the discussion going. And of course, support the organizations, writers, bloggers, and communities who are keeping these conversations alive.

It can be as simple as saying “me too” when someone in your community talks about their depression instead of just nodding; it can be as simple as saying “I know what that’s like” or “I have that too” or, most importantly, affirming that they are not alone.

It can be as powerful as saying, “I have depression and I need help” to the folks in your community, instead of choosing to keep it to yourself and going it alone. And it can be as beautiful as saying, “How can I help?” when someone else opens up to you.

We are no strangers to struggling. But we, as a community, are also not strangers to supporting one another, advocating for change, and creating a refuge for those who need it most.

And when it comes to our mental health, it’s not enough to have these conversations where only a few people can access them.

We need to make our voices loud enough so that no one doubts that we are here.

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Editor’s Note: This article is by no means intending to invalidate or ignore the many courageous activists who are, indeed, very open about their mental health struggles and identify as queer. It is meant to inspire more of us to take on this work, and to support others who are doing it.

We’d also like to acknowledge that not everyone is in a position to “come out,” and safety should always be your first priority.

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I Take “Crazy Pills” and I Am Not Ashamed

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Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik

[The illustration features a place mat with an array of breakfast foods and coffee. A pair of arms rests on the mat. One hand is holding a spoon; the other hand is clutching onto a pill bottle.]

I remember the first “crazy pill” that I ever took. I was on vacation in Tennessee, sitting on the edge of one of those generic motel beds with a hideous blanket covered with — what was it? Seashells?

Pill bottle in hand, my mother looked at me with apprehension and said what many folks would say to me for years to come:

“Are you sure about this?”

I nodded, looked her in the eye and without hesitation, I said, “Absolutely.”

In the years that I have been taking psychotropic medications, never for a moment have I regretted my decision. Have I been afraid of what happens in the long term? Sure. Have I contemplated the impact of “big pharma” and my piece in that frightening puzzle? Definitely.

But for me, trying to survive each day trapped within an agonizing depression was not an option. Attempting to end my life again was not an option. Continuing down the path that I was on? Not an option.

When I looked back at my life, I realized I had spent more time struggling than I had spent truly living. And I knew that if something didn’t change, bipolar disorder was going to kill me.

Everyone and their brother has an opinion on my decision to take medication for bipolar and anxiety. But have you tried meditation? What about acupuncture? Have you changed your diet? What about fish oil?

Initially, I entertained them. I explained that I had tried everything that I could, and that medications had been my last resort.

That is, until I realized that I was under no obligation to justify my decision, especially to those who did not understand my struggle.

People who did not know what dissociation was, or what it feels like to be in the midst of a paranoid delusion; people who had never felt anxiety that stripped them of their ability to function in our society; people who had never felt emotional pain that seemed to throb from inside the marrow of their bones.

Complete strangers would badger me, presuming to know what was best for me without actually knowing the relentless, devastating pain that mental illness had put me through. Strangers who thought that they knew better than me, the person who had lived through this for years, what my body needed to heal.

Sometimes, it was well-intentioned. But most of the time, it was coming from a judgmental place.

They may as well have been saying, “I know nothing about mental illness, but I’m going to tell you about this random treatment I read about on the internet because clearly you don’t know what you’re doing.”

And it made me so, so angry.

No, medications were not a “cop out,” they weren’t the “easy way out,” they weren’t a “quick fix” that magically made me happy and high and light. They weren’t easy, they weren’t quick, and they definitely weren’t fun.

Taking medication for my illnesses was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, and it took incredible courage to make that choice. It was a process that took years — years of side effects, years of false hope, years of judgment, years of doubt — to finally get it right.

But eventually, with the right doctor and with a lot of patience, we did get it right. After four years of being the equivalent of a human guinea pig, my body responded at last and I could begin to do the important work of healing. Combined with therapy, my transition, and self-care, I was able to begin again — this time, completely present and alive, no longer struggling just to keep my head above water.

And you know what? I’m not sorry. I’m not sorry for exercising my bodily autonomy. I’m not sorry for making the choice to take care of myself. I’m not sorry for taking control of my life.

Most of all, I’m not sorry for having the strength to choose life over death. Each day that I swallow these pills, I am reminded of the tenacity it took to keep myself alive, in spite of every fiery and relentless urge to end it all. I did what I needed to do to keep myself alive, and I’ll never apologize for the fact that I’m still here.

To be clear: Meds aren’t right for everyone, and they aren’t accessible for everyone, either. We need to do better not just for folks who take meds, but for those who do not or cannot. We need to protect a person’s right to dictate and choose what’s best for their body, and advocate to make those resources available to them — no matter what they end up deciding.

Ultimately, this is not about medicating every single person with a mental illness. It’s about giving us the power to decide how to heal, be it with medication or otherwise, and defending our right to make that choice without pressure, without shame, and without obstacles that prevent us from exercising those choices.

I am not ashamed of these pills. I am only ashamed to be part of a society that still believes it can dictate what’s right for my body, and what’s right for my community.

 

Editor’s Note: The use of the phrase “crazy pills” is not being endorsed as acceptable for mainstream use, but rather, reclaimed in a way that the author finds personally empowering.

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If It’s Not Accessible, Who Is It For?

Since going viral last October, the invitations to speak at conferences and other events have slowly but surely started trickling in.

At first, it was thrilling. I’ve always wanted to travel and talk about my experiences, because I still believe that face-to-face interaction does something that my words on the screen simply can’t. I wanted people to put a human face to the very important issues that I’ve been talking about.

I wanted people to realize that trans people exist, trans people with bipolar no less, and that I am not only surviving, but thriving in a world that often limits us.

But just as quickly as the invitations came in, they were being revoked. Not because I wasn’t capable of speaking, or that the engagement was cancelled – time after time, the conference and workshop invitations were being withdrawn because I had asked for disability accommodations.

As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, I had requested what many folks with disabilities request – a travel companion.

Sometimes we ask for a companion because we need an interpreter with us. For others, we need someone to offer us assistance because our mobility is limited in some way. For me, with a history of panic attacks, I ask for a companion so that I can better cope with my anxiety that is frequently triggered by travel.

This is not an accommodation I ask for because I want a friend to go with me for fun. This is not an accommodation I ask for because I am trying to inconvenience someone. This is an accommodation I ask for because anxiety severely limits my ability to travel, and having someone with me has made that anxiety more manageable.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to ask for an accommodation; it would be built into the system. Heck, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have an anxiety disorder to begin with.

But folks with disabilities often need accommodations to be able to participate in events. It’s unavoidable. And in almost every case, we are either asked to foot the bill for the “added expense,” or in many cases, our invite to participate is mysteriously (or sometimes, not so mysteriously) revoked.

We’re told it has something to do with budget, but I can’t help but hear it as, “Your voice does not matter enough for us to accommodate you.”

We are seldom represented at conferences and events – not only because we aren’t asked to be there, but because even when we are, there are obstacles preventing us from accessing the event.

We’re often told that it’s an issue of money, that they would LOVE to have us, that it’s so unfortunate that they can’t accommodate us. I’ve heard this more times than I can count.

But here’s my question: If you cannot make your events accessible to people with disabilities, who exactly are these events for?

By being unwilling to take the necessary steps to ensure that folks like me are able to participate in events, we ultimately create conferences that are by and for able-bodied people. We effectively erase and marginalize people with disabilities.

If you are denying someone the opportunity to participate in your event on the basis of their disability, it’s no longer about money and has everything to do with ethics. It’s not a question of money, but rather, a question of what YOU are doing to ensure that your event is accessible, diverse, and representative of the communities that these events are for.

This applies not just for those who are attending, but for those you have invited to speak.

To suggest that folks with disabilities are too expensive to bring to an event, or a financial burden you are unwilling to take on, tells me that you are less concerned with accessibility and more concerned with the bottom-line.

And that tells me that the problem isn’t with my disability or accommodations – the problem lies with you.

I am blogging about this not with the intention of shaming anyone in particular, but rather, because accessibility is a very real issue that speakers and writers like myself face. I raise this issue, too, as a challenge to those who are organizing events. What effort are you making to both recruit and retain speakers with disabilities? People of color? Queer and trans folks?

It’s so important, especially in blogging communities, that the events we create include as many of these diverse voices as possible. And if you aren’t making an intentional and sincere effort to be inclusive, it’s time to change strategies.

Otherwise, it’s a lose-lose situation. When folks with disabilities continue to be silenced and excluded, these events will inevitably fall flat because they only represent a small slice of what our broader communities really look like.

So I ask again: Who are these events really for?

Author’s Note: I know that there is some debate around whether to use “differently-abled,” “disabled,” or “person with a disability.” I acknowledge that there is some disagreement there and validate those concerns completely. I used the language that I identify with most, but recognize that not everyone uses this same language.

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