GEORGIA KOLIAS

Gay Concentration Camps: Silence = Death

This post can also be read here on The Huffington Post.

silence = death

I drove to work crying the other morning. It wasn’t the stress of being a solo mom of three kids under ten, or dealing with chronic health issues and economic challenges. It wasn’t the video of the passenger being dragged off the United flight, or the military posturing in the waters near North Korea, or the families being broken by deportation, or the mother of all bombs dropped in Afghanistan. I could have cried about any of those things, gripped by a deep anguish and fear for where we are headed as a country and culture. What I was crying about that grey morning as the windshield wipers streaked raindrops across my line of sight was Chechnya. More specifically, reports by the respected newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, of the establishment of the first gay concentration camp, and the round-ups, torture, and interrogation of gay men in what appears to be the beginning of an attempt to exterminate queer existence there.

 

Since the election last November, I have tread a line each day between staying aware and engaged, and trying to keep my sanity by withdrawing and indulging in enough denial to keep me functioning without falling apart. But I cannot ever ignore the fact that in the southernmost tip of Eastern Europe, 60 miles from the Caspian Sea, the Chechen Republic, or Chechnya, is replicating the process of elimination that was used on Jews in Germany. The strategies and rhetoric are similar. Round up innocent people, torture them for information on others like them, tell them to leave the country while at the same time building camps to imprison and kill them. Local journalists report that additional camps have been discovered, bringing the total known number of Chechnyan gay concentration camps to six.

 

One divergent strain is that while Hitler clearly stated his goals for deporting and exterminating Jews in Germany, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and his press secretary, Alvi Karimov, claim the reports of gay concentration camps are libelous and untrue because they assert that there are no gay people in Chechnya. And further, that if there were gay people in Chechnya, that their families would have eliminated them through honor killings.

 

Hitler asserted his intention to separate Jews from Aryan society and to abolish their civil, legal, and political rights as early as 1920, and by 1935 Jews were stripped of German citizenship and the first concentration camps were established. The persecuted in Nazi Germany also included queer people who were forced to wear pink triangles to identify themselves, the counterpart to the yellow Star of David Jews were forced to wear. In the past I’ve often wondered, How could people have let it happen? How could six million people be exterminated during the Holocaust while others looked on? At that time even esteemed media outlets such as The New York Times refused to report on the Holocaust, believing little could or should be done. Between the enforced censorship in Nazi Germany, and the negligence on the part of the press to report on the widespread genocide taking place, and perhaps an overwhelming sense of denial and helplessness, the Holocaust was allowed to take deadly hold.

 

A similar question could be asked about the AIDS epidemic. In the U.S. there are approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV, and 700,000 have died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic, and 35 million have died globally. Then President Ronald Reagan remained silent from the first reported case of HIV in 1981 until he finally spoke about the disease toward the end of his second term in office in 1987 after over 20,000 people had died. Bolstered by the support of the religious right and a new political action group the Moral Majority founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell, who claimed that “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals,” Reagan was emboldened to remain silent and let people die.

 

In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reclaimed from the Holocaust and inverted as a symbol of queer resistance and solidarity. And in 1987, six gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project, plastering posters around the city featuring the pink triangle on a black background and the words “Silence = Death” in a push for visibility and action against the silence. At the bottom of the poster were words that are still relevant and powerful today, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable…Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”

 

The Russian LGBT Network, headed by Igor Kochetkov, is doing all of these things. They have formed an underground railroad for gay men in Chechnya. The network has arranged travel to evacuate gay men out of the region, found safe houses, and provided medical care for those who are badly injured. But don’t let that put you at ease. As of April 21, they only had funding to evacuate 25 men. They have 30 more waiting to leave, and they receive five new requests for help each day. That number will only escalate. You can donate here to help.

 

Here is another article that lists ways that we can take action.

 

Crying in my car on the way to work won’t change anything, but it does take me out of my denial and puts me in touch with the emotions necessary to fuel a fight. We have to look at our history and learn from it so that it never repeats. We have to be fierce, loving, and defiant, and never, ever silent. Remember those words from 1987 and make them ours for today.

 

Why is our government silent about these gay concentration camps? What is really going on in our governmental and religious institutions? The LGBTQ+ community is not expendable. Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.

 

What the bigots and homophobes and transphobes and sexists and racists don’t seem to realize is that we will never be eliminated, even if they try to pick us off one by one. We will continue to rise up in resistance. Because we have learned all too well that Silence = Death and Action = Life. Rise up!

A Friendship Valentine

A version of the post can be read here, on The Huffington Post Queer Voices.

Alex and me unicornsAh Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love with red hearts, chocolate, and flowers. A day to embrace the one you love and tell them how much you appreciate them. But what if this year we do it a little differently? How about this year we make it Friendship Valentine’s Day? Because while not everyone has a romantic valentine, most everyone has friends, and those friends are oftentimes the backbone of our lives.

I met my best friend back in the 1980s. I was fifteen and shy, trying to find my way into the choir and drama department and she was beautiful, talented, older, and aloof. I sang next to her in the soprano section of the choir. I started out in bit roles while she starred in the play. She was eventually voted homecoming queen and arrived to the prom wearing a huge white wedding dress with lace sleeves and a hoop skirt, accompanied by her bestie, a preppie queer boy who might have been more suited to be queen. She didn’t know I was alive as far as I could tell.

One fateful day we were walking down the hallway of our high school, both of us heading toward the music wing. She was surrounded by a group of friends/admirers, and I walked a few paces behind by myself. She was caught up in talking and wasn’t watching where she was walking. She was totally caught off guard as she crashed into a trashcan and nearly fell over. I picked up her books and handed them to her, expecting her to brush me off, but instead she laughed in a self-conscious way. She was embarrassed by her misstep, and thanked me profusely. It was the first time I think she saw me, and I realized in that moment that what I thought was aloof was actually shy.

Fast-forward thirty-five years, and outside of my family of origin, our relationship is the most enduring and long-lasting I have ever experienced. Not only is she my best friend, she is my sister from another mother – my sister friend. We came out together, hit the lesbian bars together, lived together, waxed each other’s legs. There was one period when a deep misunderstanding and a meddling friend caused a rift for six painful years. Living without her in my life was a constant source of grief.

While separate from each other, she got married and started a new life without me. But proof that we were still connected in some way is that while apart we both miscarried babies and then finally gave birth to our first children four months apart. Valentine’s Day originated with the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, an annual celebration of fertility commemorated each February 15, so it seems fitting that fertility, miscarriage, and our babies were what finally brought us back together.

When I see people with best friends that clearly center prominently in their lives, that provide a feeling of home and safety, I imagine that friendship can be considered a different kind of marriage. We may or may not share physical intimacy, but the bonds of friendship are truly profound.

Our closest friendships are just as important even when we have a romantic partner. Each kind of relationship has value, and there is room in our hearts for both. And when we are lucky, our romantic partners are also our best friends. My partner Amy Liam is handsome, charming, amazing, and I am so in love with her. On Valentine’s Day I will celebrate her and the way she loves me – with the unconditional love, fierce acceptance, and encouragement I always craved. Our connection is profound, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. She will always be my Butch Valentine, and no matter if we are separated by miles or geography, our devotion to each other is unshakable. On Valentine’s Day I will give her my heart, and it will be red.

But I will give Alex, my sister friend, a blue heart. According to the Urban Dictionary a blue heart means you are in the friend zone. But I like iemoji.com’s definition better: a blue heart can symbolize a deep and stable love. Trust, harmony, peace, and loyalty.

This Valentine’s Day, whether you have a partner or not, if you have a special friend who has stood by you, been silly and laughed with you, seen you through break-ups and new loves, send them a blue heart to thank them for their deep and stable love. Or send them this message:

Dear Friend,

You’ve seen me at my best and my worst. Thank you for loving me and listening to me when I need to feel seen. This Valentine’s Day, I celebrate you and the friendship we share. Thank you for loving me. My life wouldn’t be the same without you in it.

With deep affection and appreciation,

Your loyal friend

The Year To Be Queer

You can also read this post here on The Huffington Post Queer Voices.

firas-nasr

Of all the images that have poured in since the election – global marches, protest signs, memes, videos – my favorite by far is of this one: a group of around 200 queer people overtaking the Vice President’s Washington DC neighborhood wearing their queer regalia, sweaty and dancing in crowds on the streets, twerking on cars, and asserting their right not only to exist, but to thrive in all their glory. The dance party was initiated by the queer-based grassroots movement called Werk for Peace, which was founded by Firas Nasr, in tribute to the 49 beautiful souls who were killed, and 53 injured, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. It’s nothing new to say that clubs have been safe havens for many of us as we came into our identities, seeking community and acceptance. But what I love about the concept of taking dance to the streets as a form of protest is that it thrusts us out of our safe enclaves and into visible spaces. Werk for Peace has inverted the queer club and made the world our catwalk.

It’s a given that our community is on edge, and bracing for what comes next. And as a woman, it is deeply triggering to have had a sexual predator voted into the White House. The idea that he has been entrusted to enter the White House and walk, sleep, eat, tantrum, and touch our physical history feels like a violation in itself. It’s within the narcissistic realm of possibilities that he could paint the oval office gold and replace every piece of art with portraits of himself, before he rolls up his sleeves and tries to strip us of every right we’ve earned to please his religious zealot campaign contributors. But before he does that, let’s dance.

For the last eight years the LGBTQ+ community has made amazing strides. We won marriage equality and legal protections against job discrimination, repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, won political positions, and even earned the right to be Boy Scout leaders. But there are still many battles to fight, especially for our trans and gender non-conforming community members who are fighting for their right to choose the bathrooms that match their gender identity and protection from an epidemic of violent hate crimes. It’s natural to wonder what the first strike will be when the President is wild card assembling a cabinet of queer-hating white supremacists and the Vice President is a staunch supporter of conversion therapy (aka torture) and wants to decimate our community. But hey, I was going to try not to get heavy.

There’s a popular therapeutic technique where a person is called upon to write a different ending to a traumatic event. For instance, a client may recall a childhood story where they felt trapped within a frightening or abusive situation. The therapist asks them what they wish they could have done in that situation. The client wishes they could have run away. The therapist prompts them to recall the story, but this time to imagine themselves running away just in time, escaping the situation and the ensuing trauma. In this way the client rewrites their story and relieves some trauma.

Since the election, I feel an underlying sense of trauma that has lessened my resilience in many situations. I realize it’s because I grew up in a very conservative Greek, male-dominated household where my mother, sister, and I were isolated from others, and had little if any self-determination. I was expected to leave the house only once I married a man. Having a misogynist, predatory, and controlling President in the White House rings all my warning bells; him being in power is symbolic of a national dysfunctional family relationship. When I see the First Lady’s face crumble after the President delivers her a stern look, I am taken right back to my volatile home of origin. But they aren’t our parents, and we aren’t their trapped children. We will write our own ending to this story.

This is the year to be Queer – with a capital Q. In this climate, Queer includes all us queer folks across the spectrum of sexuality, gender, physical ability, presentation, and anatomical gloriousness. But it isn’t only us. Because truth is, in the current political climate, if you aren’t a straight, white, patriarchy-loving religious zealot, you’re queer too. That’s why understanding and honoring intersectionality and coalition building is so important. It’s us and them and there is strength in numbers. So let’s link arms with our millions. If you forget who they are, replay the footage from January 21, 2017. All over our country and around the world as far as Antarctica and Nairobi, people marched. That is cause for celebration. Whether you’ve never marched before or you’ve marched a million times, you are all welcome to this party.

The way we’re going to fight back is by loving each other strong. Donate to legal organizations that protect our rights. Organize political actions and post daily reminders of what we can do each day to make change. Be like Pam Howell and bake an extra turkey for the local LGBT kids homeless center on Thanksgiving. Start a writing collective or make copies of your poems to pass out on the street like Michelle Tea did back in the day. Be like Firas Nasr and werk it on the roof of a car in front of the Vice President’s house. Do your art. You don’t have to be a star to be exceptional. We have a chance every day to be kind and to bring love and creativity into this world. When times feel hard—and they will—remember that we are surrounded by amazing, inspiring people who are ready to fight to create and protect the world we want. The fight takes many forms, whether it’s activism or art or kindness. Let us flower when they want us to wither. Let us grow when they want us to shrink. Find love each day. That’s how we’ll survive. We will persist.

 

Haunted by Family Rejection

You can also read this blog here on The Huffington Post.

FullCover
FullCover

With Halloween around the corner, images of ghosts begin to proliferate into our consciousness. Silky threads begin to appear in my front yard in earnest this time of year, with unknown numbers of spiders working together to create their glistening traps. There is something beautiful about the structures which are at the same time so fragile, persistent, and sticky – much like the ties we have to family when we are queer. I think it is safe to say that most queer people have had the experience of being rejected by family, whether in small or large ways – and with the start of the holiday season, it is a pain that naturally comes to mind.

Betrayal by family haunts many queer folk, with memories that pop up, unexpectedly reopening old wounds. One of my memories is of visiting a beloved aunt in Greece. I’d lived with her and my cousins for a year in her tiny farming village when I was nineteen. I cooked for them, harvested crops, attended funerals, and witnessed new life with them. They were my second family. After I left and returned to San Francisco I missed them terribly. I periodically sent pictures and cards to keep in touch, until I could return. On a subsequent visit years later, I found a small photo album I’d sent my aunt on a small table in the entryway of her house. I was delighted to see that she had it so prominently displayed. As I started to flip through, however, I realized that she had edited the photos. She’d kept the ones that just showed me or my children, and literally cut apart the ones that showed me with a female partner so that only I was left in the photo. That moment broke my heart and my belief in her unconditional love. Her actions showed me that she was ashamed of me – that an integral part of my life was to be excised and shunned.

I began ruminating on this topic after reading the recently released novel, Cooking for Ghosts, by Patricia V. Davis. It’s a story about four women of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds that meet online and decide to risk opening a restaurant together aboard the historic ship, the RMS Queen Mary, which is in actuality permanently docked in Long Beach and functions as a floating hotel and museum. It was originally built as a luxury ocean liner in the 1930s to host royalty, aristocrats, and the biggest names in Hollywood. Bigger and more powerful than the Titanic, it was soon called into military duty during World War II and renamed “The Grey Ghost.”

The RMS Queen Mary is also considered one of the most haunted places in the world. It has special significance to me because I met my Butch love there for the first time, after many months of an online courtship, and we have returned two additional times to soak in the romance, history, beauty, and indulge in midnight ghost-hunting. It is the perfect backdrop for the novel, and a character in her own right.

Each of the main characters in Cooking for Ghosts has a shameful secret from their past they can’t outrun, and family relationships that haunt and torment them. Over the course of the book, significant interactions with the spirit world bring each of the women face to face with their family secrets. An expression by Andrew Gilmore kept coming to mind as I read the book: “Sometimes good people do bad things.”

One of the main characters, Angela, is an Italian-American pastry chef who lived her life with a husband of her family’s choosing, according to the rules and cultural and religious expectations of their close-knit conservative Italian family. We learn early on that she has a son Vincenzo, from whom she is estranged. It takes a brutal confrontation with a mysterious man Angela meets on board ship to break her blind adherence to cultural expectations. “Did you really think that God was punishing you for giving you a son like him? And why was that – because he wasn’t the son you ordered?” We learn that Angela’s son is gay, and because Angela lacked the personal fortitude to reject her cultural and religious indoctrination, Vincenzo had his own moment of realizing that his mother was ashamed of him – that he was someone to be excised and shunned from the family picture.

I asked Patricia V. Davis what drew her to include a subplot about a mother who feels so constrained by culture that she has difficulty embracing her gay son in Cooking for Ghosts.

“Many of us who are raised in deeply religious or ethnically isolated families feel brainwashed into believing that gay people are sinners, and that those of us who support LGBT rights are going to hell. I wanted anyone who’d experienced a parent letting them down to know that sometimes it’s not cruelly intended. Sometimes the people they love are too afraid to change their opinion and fight the norm of the group.”

Davis paints a realistic portrait of a mother stuck within a conservative group mentality. But when Angela finally finds the clarity and courage to break free from her cultural indoctrination, she realizes her own liberation and gains a chance at a meaningful relationship with her gay son. Davis says, “If you read my dedication it says, ‘To every mother who has ever lost a child, to every child who never had the mother they deserved.’ This is my little beacon of hope for those people.”

A beautifully structured novel that builds layer upon layer of meaning, held together with gossamer threads and magic, Cooking for Ghosts not only gives insight into the potentially negative power of cultural expectations, but also shows that redemption is possible when we have the courage to think individually – to “do the right thing” vs. “following orders.” Davis creates a character for your straight family to relate to and learn from, and hopefully gives them a beacon they can follow back to their greatest treasure – you.

My Big Fat Greek Queer Wedding Wish

You can also read this here on The Huffington Post Queer Voices.

Queer WeddingMy sister’s Jewish ex-husband liked to joke about being a “Super-Jew.” When he’d use that term, I knew exactly what he meant. Not because I’m Jewish, but because I’m Greek. To me, a Super-Greek is the kind of character you see in Nia Vardalos’s My Big Fat Greek Weddingmovies, based on an archetypal Greek immigrant family that came to the United States in the 1950s or 60s with a lower educational background but a firm work ethic and an ultimate value for family. Vardalos captures the essence of the traditional Super-Greek family in her films. In my family growing up, I experienced the same expectation that my big fat goal in life was to get married (to a man) and the message that college education was unnecessary for girls. In fact, despite being very bright and motivated, my mother only had the opportunity to complete school through the fifth grade and was given away though arranged marriage at age 16 to my father, a man she’d only met once. The heterosexual marriage assumption in Greek culture can be suffocating, especially if you grow up realizing that you are Greek and queer.

 

When I was growing up, my exposure to queer culture through the Greek immigrant lens amounted to my mother telling me, “Lesbians are worse than prostitutes.” I remember asking her what a lesbian was and her response being, “Lesbians are two women that get together and one pretends to be a woman, and one pretends to be a man.” This definition brings me endless amusement now as a femme lesbian who loves her butch partner to the ends of the Earth. If only I had taken my mother’s definition to heart I could have skipped a whole phase of coming out where I thought I had to have a short haircut and wear button-down shirts and penny loafers. It was such a happy day when I decided to rebel and grow my hair out long and paint my nails again.

 

I can be light-hearted about it now, because my mother has come a long way, and not only respects and supports my partner and me, but is my biggest champion. But when I was growing up, and for many years thereafter, coming out while Greek brought me a lot of pain. And to be honest, I still have my moments of pain trying to bring together my culture with my queer identity.

 

Even though I have an agented novel out on submission about a quirky Greek foodie struggling to reconcile her religious beliefs with her emerging sexuality, and a poetry manuscript that reflects on the experience of Greek diaspora over three generations, and my children have attended Greek school, I still can’t call myself a Super-Greek. In my mind, a Super-Greek would have a natural place within the Greek community, and as a Greek lesbian, I don’t. Despite years of trying, I have few Greek friends. It is incredibly rare to meet other Greek queers, and while next generation Greeks are friendly, I don’t see many who are eagerly inviting queers to their parties. The official Greek Orthodox religious stance is that homosexuality is grounds for ex-communication. So you see, even if I did want a Big Fat Greek Wedding of my own, I’m not allowed to have one in the church.

 

I know there are some Greeks who don’t like the Big Fat Greek Wedding movies because they play up stereotypical images of Greek immigrants for laughs. That may be true, but as I watch those movies I see my mother’s house robe and remember how my father told me not to go to college. I think about the dowry I started collecting when I was 12 so I’d be ready for my groom. I do see reflection in those movies, and I feel my invisibility and exclusion as I create a life outside of heterosexual matrimony.

 

The movie trailers for the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding let us know that there will be another wedding, but they don’t tell us whose. Will it be the grandparents remarrying? Will it be a renewal of vows for our main characters, Toula and Ian? Will it be the granddaughter finding love with her new boyfriend? The movie carries these three subplots, and because it’s Hollywood and this is a comedy, I expected a surprise and a few laughs.

 

What I wasn’t expecting was to sit in a dark theater watching the sequel with my mother, my sister, my three children, and my butch partner. I wasn’t expecting Andrea Martin’s character to turn to her son and say, “Families don’t keep secrets. Is he your partner, or your partner?” Sitting there in the dark, I felt a wave of shock electrify me, and I felt the tears threatening to overwhelm me as I realized that Nia Vardalos had written queer Greek life into visibility in a mainstream Hollywood movie, even for that fleeting moment.

 

And then a hysterical hope started to grow within me. I know it will probably sound ridiculous to the cynics among us, but I let myself fervently hope that the surprise wedding would not be the grandparents, or the parents, or the daughter’s. I let myself hope that the surprise wedding would be a gay one. That Joey Fatone’s character would experience the uplift, celebration, joy, acceptance, euphoria, and community support to create a beautiful Big Fat Greek GAY wedding.

 

But alas, the wedding was not a gay one. In the end, it was all the straight couples reaffirming or finding love. But the gay cousin was there at the table, part of the community, with his male partner, still accepted, and still Super-Greek.

 

In an interview with HuffPost Live host Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani, Nia Vardalos said about including a gay family member in the script, “It is our issue, and the more that we speak out for each other’s issues the louder our voices will be…the goal is parity. That’s it.” While I wish that My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 ended with a surprise gay wedding, I am holding out hope that My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3could still bring that surprise home and create real parity for the Greek queer community.

The Motherland

In April, I had the honor of being a featured Greek American poet by Windy City Greek for National Poetry Month. You can see the post here. The series was curated by Katie Aliferis, who selected my poem, The Motherland, for inclusion.

The Motherland

I left the motherland

On September 12, 1965 at 11:05 p.m.

It was a Friday night

 

And for all intents and purposes

I was in San Francisco, California

United States of America

 

But as I emerged

 

I crossed a threshold

From the motherland into exile

Never to return

 

To that fertile land lush

With pulsations of

My mother’s heart

 

The heart of Greece

 

For below the gurgling of her intestines

The sound of her blood filtering

Through our placenta

 

Her voice resonated

Her tongue forming my

Sense of sound

 

With each swallow, tastes of

Honey walnut feta oregano lemon

Hardwired my taste buds

 

Her fingers tapping my back

In rhythm with the bouzouki and κλαρίνο

Taught my feet to dance

 

And through her eyes

Gazing longingly into the pictures

Of family 6756 miles away

 

She instilled in me sadness

An undying experience of

Exile

 

Before I left her body

I was already schooled

In the language of loss

 

Her grief for the motherland palpable

 

In each gulp of amniotic fluid

In each labored breath and sigh

In each reluctant step on new soil

 

She left the land and

She left me

Wandering this strange territory

 

Of divided loyalties

Searching for all time and zones

Without a map for the

 

Road home

Breaking the Cycle of Food Addiction

This post can also be read here on The Huffington post Parents section.

T cookingMy six-year-old daughter likes to stuff her cheeks full like a ravenous chipmunk when she eats. She will take several big bites in a row until her mouth can no longer close. No matter how many times I tell her to take smaller bites, she persists in filling her mouth to beyond capacity as if she is starving. This used to terrify me. I would sit across the table from her and imagine her future if the habit persisted. She’d weigh 300 pounds by the time she was eleven, unable to sit in normal chairs at school or run at recess. I wondered why she’d picked up this gluttonous habit. My mother also has a tendency to overfill her mouth and I pondered whether it was genetic or coincidental. But below the surface, I was also incredibly aware of the real source of my fear: that she would be like me.

When I was her age I never wanted to eat. I was picky. Meat repulsed me. The whites of eggs were disgusting. Anything set in front of me was met with suspicion. My sister, on the other hand, ate with gusto and would help me out by stealing food off my plate when my mother’s back was turned. But my Greek mother had eyes in the back of her head and would spend mealtimes yelling, “Georgia, EAT! Sula, STOP eating!” I was usually grateful for my sister’s thievery, except for the occasional times when she stole something from my plate that I actually wanted to eat.

I don’t know why I never wanted to eat. Perhaps I was unhappy. Mealtime was also one of the times when my parents argued. Over time, my habit of not eating morphed into overeating to cope with my emotions. To this day, when I eat at my mother’s home I scarf down my food so quickly that I am plagued with continual burping as I recover. I went from being a skinny, sickly little girl with bad breath and dark circles under my eyes, to a plump tween forced to shop for husky girls’ clothing. And when my mother changed her tune from “Don’t eat!” to “You need to go on a diet” when I turned ten, my war with my body began. I was trapped in a negative cycle with food: feeling guilty for eating, weighing myself, hating myself, binge eating, finding solace and acrimony in eating, disassociating while eating, hearing my distant voice in my head begging me to stop eating while my hand continued bringing more and more to my mouth. It’s exhausting thinking about how many years I have wasted held hostage by my relationship with food.

When you hate yourself for eating too much, there is no time for much else. It is crippling. Time that could be spent daydreaming, planning, creating, exploring is instead co-opted by thoughts of self-disgust, desperation, and entrapment, which lead to more emotional eating. It’s a nasty loop that is hard to break. So no wonder my daughter’s stuffed cheeks terrified me. I do not want her to spend her life squared up in battle against food, instead of pursuing her dreams and practicing daily self-love. I never want her to look in the mirror with disdain, or to feel helpless in the face of a food addiction.

A few weeks ago, we happened to catch an episode of Kids Baking Championship. There were children, just five years her senior, whipping up macaroons, creating recipes on the spot, dazzling the judges with their creations. She was fascinated. She watched the episode multiple times. I could see her future was sealed. She is, through and through, just like her mother, a foodie. When she makes herself hot chocolate, she breaks squares of gourmet chocolate off the bar and tosses them into the milk with authority. She taste tests and stirs with a sure hand. When she toasts her bread, it must be perfectly golden without any brown edges. She melts the butter into a lovely glass bowl and dips the perfectly toasted bread in with great pleasure. She has an affinity with food and it brings her satisfaction. I know that I cannot fight it, and I wouldn’t want to.

Instead, I am choosing to encourage her love of food. But not as a panacea, a balm for her hurt feelings, a friend when she is lonely, or a way to stuff her feelings down until they disappear. I will teach her to love food for the magic it can create–the alchemy of combining ingredients and creating something entirely new and wondrous. Food will not be a metaphor for an unhappy childhood. It will be the paint for her canvas and the wings that help her soar. It will be something she can master, and not be a slave to.

At this age, my daughter loves food just because. She is not me. She is not growing up around constant hostility. She is not unhappy. She does not want to either starve herself into disappearing or eat herself into oblivion. She simply loves food. I will still encourage her to take smaller bites so she can savor the flavors longer. But I will no longer be terrified that she will be like me. Because I am finally okay with myself, and she is free.

_______________________

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

Lessons from Lesvos

You can also read this piece on The Huffington Post Impact section here.

Syrian girlsWe all have the ability to make an impact on world issues, from wizened grandmothers, to the Hollywood elite, to your average citizen with no money but a big heart. These are lessons we can learn from Lesvos, the economically struggling Greek island whose citizens have selflessly helped Syrian refugees arriving in their waters. The grassroots organization Avaaz recently organized an international campaign and collected 638,000 signatures supporting Lesvos’ nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize – more specifically an 83 year old grandmother who bottle fed refugee babies, a fisherman who has saved many from drowning, and American actress Susan Sarandon, who visited Lesvos and reported back forThe Huffington Post. The driving force behind these efforts is empathy and realizing that “they” are just like us.

I remember my mother’s hand on my shoulder and her words as she spoke softly to me in melodious Greek. “See those people over there?” She used her eyes to direct my gaze toward the people she was focused on. One time it was a lone person picking an orange from a tall pyramid at the produce store. Another time it was a family with young children like my sister and me. Yet another time it was a woman wearing a headscarf. Whoever the person was, she demanded I pay them attention. It was the 1970s and my mother was still wearing her hair teased out in a circular bouffant framing her face, with a light chiffon scarf lightly tied over it to keep the wind from blowing her hard work away.

“See those people over there?” she would say. I would nod my head yes. “They are just like us.” I would stare at them and wonder what she meant. Were they immigrants? Did they have an accent like my parents? Were they Greek? These people always had dark hair and eyes like us. But when they spoke, I couldn’t understand the language flowing from their lips. “Who are they?” I would ask her, wondering if there was something I was missing as I scrutinized them. She would squeeze my shoulder and say, “They are Armenian,” or she would say, “They are Arabs,” or “They are Persian,” or “They are from the Middle East. They are just like us.” She explained to me that they cooked the same food, that their music sounded like ours. They loved their families. They stuck together. The only difference was their religion.

My mother was one of ten children, five girls and five boys, growing up in a small farming village in the Peloponnesian region of Greece, near the western coastline ringing the Ionian Sea. Her family lived in a two-room house they’d made out of mud bricks they’d shaped and dried and stacked themselves. They were dirt poor, relying on their crops, livestock, and well water to survive. She came to the land of plenty at the age of 17 through an arranged marriage, and even now, no matter that nearly 60 years have gone by, she still waxes nostalgic about the idyllic happiness of those days among her sisters and brothers. And while she loves America and has deep gratitude for the comforts she’s earned here, Greece will always be her homeland. So as a young mother, deeply missing her siblings and parents, desperately wishing for grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins for her children, she would point out others that were like us. It was as if she was trying to give us and herself a place of belonging, a sense of extended family, if not by blood, then through cultural similarity.

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Today I look at pictures of Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos I can’t help but think of her words: They are just like us. I see pictures of families, mothers, fathers, and children in the grips of terror and grief and perhaps temporary relief as they reach shore. Lesvos is separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait, at its narrowest point just 3.4 miles wide. This small geographic measurement is the line that separates the Syrian refugees from the shores of Turkey to the next step to freedom through Greece, and yet within these waters mothers and fathers have tried in vain to save their children from drowning. I hear my mother’s voice. They are just like us.

Even as the islanders of Lesvos face their own crisis as Greece flounders to remain afloat in its own economic emergency, they extend their hands out to help. They grab hold of the refugees and pull them out of the water. They embrace them, dry them off, clothe them, feed them, house them. Greek fisherman patrol the dark waters at night looking for refugees in danger, ready to pull them out of the sea engulfed in grief and fear, and deliver them to safety. The people of Lesvos extend themselves to help the refugees, contributing their own resources, sacrificing their safety, and tirelessly working to feed and house the refugees. In doing so, they exhibit the highest level of humanity. Rather than saying, we don’t have enough for ourselves, find someone else to help you, they give instead, saying, let me share what I have.

CNN reports that 31 United States governors have said that the Syrian refugees are not welcome in their states. Why is it so hard for them to look at the refugees with humanity, and to find a safe way to help them enter? Just like in the old story about Stone Soup, where three traveling Buddhist monks showed villagers how they could make enough delicious soup to feed everyone if they pooled their resources together, the islanders of Lesvos are working together with the Syrian refugees to find a way. I’ve read numerous accounts of the islanders citing their own poverty as their motivation to help. When they look at the Syrian refugees, I imagine their compassionate hearts whispering, they are just like us. If the citizens of a small economically devastated island can find the courage and resources to help, so can we. All we need to remember is they are just like us.

ONE WAY TO HELP: When Syrian refugees arrive on Lesvos in unstable, overcrowded boats they are drenched in sea water. Their dirty clothes had been discarded until the Dirty Girls of Lesvos started collecting, washing, sorting, and redistributing the clean clothes to arriving Syrian refugees. Your donation provides warm jackets and clothing to the refugees and keeps their old clothes out of landfill. Even Susan Sarandon got into the act. See her post on helping get clean with the Dirty Girls. For more information see their Facebook page.

The children featured in the photos are Syrian refugees that survived the voyage to Lesvos and received clean dry clothes from Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island.

Photo credit: Alison Terry-Evans

My Butch Valentine

So thrilled that My Butch Valentine was chosen as the top feature story on The Huffington Post Queer Voices section for February 13, 2016. You can also read the post here.

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To be honest, I had given up on myself. Even though I was writing and getting my work published, had three amazing kids that I had worked so hard to bring into this world, and many things to feel thankful for — when I looked in the mirror I saw someone getting old, tired and dull. My long-term adversarial relationship with my body image sank to a new low. I felt like my best years were behind me and my color was definitely fading. I had shut down emotionally, and I didn’t even know it.

Being a stay-at-home mom and writer doesn’t present a lot of opportunities for getting out and being social beyond the parent chit-chat at pick up and drop off. Feeling isolated, I had turned to social media as a way to reach out into the world and engage in some kind of human interaction. It didn’t require a baby sitter, or cash, or much of anything, really, except a willingness to participate. I got into a groove, posting interesting essays and pithy anecdotes on Facebook and even ventured into the world of Twitter, a social world where encapsulating your thoughts into 140 characters is a requirement. Blogging for The Huffington Post brought me into contact with many new acquaintances and my Twitter followers increased as I posted each new blog. I had some fun, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that some part of my life — my vibrancy — was over for good.

Each time I gained a new follower, I would look at that person’s Twitter feed. There was one that was quite unlike the others, with gorgeous quotes that appealed to my literary side and ethereal, romantic photographs. Her tweeted conversations with friends demonstrated a wicked sense of humor, while her profile description revealed a sensitive and passionate side. “Butch Lesbian. Sagittarian. Musician. INFP. Passionate Soul. Stargazer. Lover Of: Music, Poetry, Books, Nature.” Her profile picture intrigued me with her jaunty English driving cap, arching just so over her eyes that twinkled with knowing. I followed her back and sighed deeply, knowing that I would never meet her, but that it couldn’t hurt to admire her handsome spirit from afar.

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What followed was a polite exchange of likes of each other’s tweets, an occasional personal message. She was gentlemanly and respectful. Then one day as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed I saw that she had posted a picture from the 1940s of San Francisco’s first lesbian nightclub, Mona’s 440. It was as if a spark lit through my body and I was on fire. The picture of a group of butch lesbians sitting around a table with the bar matron behind them seemed to have some inexplicable deep significance – like a signal that had finally reached its receiver across time and space. Illogical as though it might seem, in that moment, I knew that my destiny was somehow tied to hers.

Obviously, I could not tell her that. But somehow she knew too. She followed me over to Facebook, where we were no longer constrained by 140 character messages. Long private message conversations that extended deep into the night confirmed some unexplainable connection. My heart started palpitating each time we spoke. I started losing weight, no longer seeking pleasure from food. I would feel waves of her energy wash over my body reinvigorating me. The color came back into my cheeks and my eyes sparked with satisfaction. I was coming back to life. She was bringing me back to life.

We explored each other’s Facebook photo albums, absorbing our histories and imagining each other embodied. Instead of avoiding the mirror, I started to enjoy my reflection. She told me I was beautiful and I believed her. She was handsome and intelligent and she wanted me. But she didn’t just want me, she respected me, admired me, treated me like an equal and a lady at the same time. I started wearing deep red lipstick and dressed up for her each day. Even though we had never met, even though she’d never see what I was wearing. Until I started taking selfies for her, and then I started to see myself as she saw me. For the first time, I realized my body was beautiful, just like she said.

But deeper than accepting my body, or feeling beautiful, she taught me so many things about myself. By showing me her emotions, and being fearlessly honest and demanding the same from me, she taught me it was safe to feel things again. I am no longer old, tired and dull. I feel joy, desire, hope, determination. With her, I am learning to be strong and vulnerable at the same time. She has shown me that I can lean on her and feel protected, and also know that I can protect myself. I never expected to come back to life, when I was most certain that my vibrancy was over. I never knew that falling in love could bring me so much of myself.

And I was wrong about one other thing. I thought that I would never meet her, and that I was resigned to only admire her from afar. But some things are written in the stars. We did meet, and our souls connected, and her embrace brings me to euphoria. For my birthday, Butch Valentineshe registered and named a star to commemorate that fateful photo and place that somehow ties us together. She named it Mona’s 440. When I am with her, it is easy to imagine being back in the 1940s, a Butch/Femme couple fiercely in love, tearing up the dance floor, facing any challenge head on. It’s as if history and our present incarnations intertwine, unencumbered by the boundaries of time.

With my head resting on her chest, her strong arms around me, enveloped in her tender spirit, I can do anything. I am powerfully alive and in love. Thank you, Amy Liam, for bringing me back to life. Always be my Butch Valentine.

Finding My Daughter’s Voice

This can also be read on The Huffington Post Parents section.

voice girlMy six-year-old daughter stood with her hands on her hips, her face contorted into an expression of rage, her hair in a wild tousle around her shoulders, screaming, “You’re not the boss of me!” She stood across from her little brother who is quite the bruiser, assertive and vocal. Born in the year of the Dragon and named after a Greek God, he lives up to his pedigree. They stood facing each other like two cowboys in an old western movie. Who would draw their pistol first?

Some mothers would be groaning at the sight of their kids squaring off. But any time I hear my daughter assert her voice and boundaries, I feel relief and pride. She came into the world screaming, limbs outstretched, full of spirit. But as a baby, she was very quiet. While some babies cry to get their mother’s attention, she would make a little “ah” sound. If that didn’t work, she might try again, just a little more loudly.

I was determined to teach my daughter to speak Greek, and just as my mother did with me, I spoke to her in Greek at all times. She understood everything I said to her. She followed commands, responded to requests, smiled at jokes. But she never spoke. When she still wasn’t speaking at eighteen months I mentioned it to her pediatrician, who suggested we wait six months to see how many words she’d pick up. By the age of two she had just a handful of words, including mama and something approaching “big bear” for the Winnie the Pooh stuffie she kept within her reach at all times.

My gut told me something wasn’t right with her speech development, and I insisted on a referral for evaluation. Her hearing tests came back fine, and there didn’t appear to be a physiological reason for her silence. When I took her to a speech therapist for evaluation she pretended to be asleep in her stroller. When I lifted her out, she hid her face, avoiding the gaze of the therapist and her overtures with various toys.

After the evaluation, the speech therapist said that my daughter’s speech was indeed delayed, but she was stopping short of diagnosing her with Apraxia. I had no idea what Apraxia was, but later learned it was a lifelong disorder where the brain struggles to plan the necessary movements of the tongue, lips, and mouth to form speech. She recommended twice-weekly speech therapy, and for me to stop speaking to her in Greek. She said, “Let’s not worry about her knowing two languages, we need her to at least learn to speak English.” I left feeling both depressed and guilty, as if it were somehow my fault that she couldn’t speak English because of my desire for her to know Greek. But my mind also kept circling around that word, Apraxia.

My daughter would occasionally say a word, but then be unable to repeat it. One day I said the word “vulva,” which she immediately picked up and would yell at random times, like in the grocery store. I noticed she didn’t wave or say hello to others, and was extremely shy. In general, her ability to mimic seemed missing. I stopped speaking Greek completely. I struggled to find a speech therapist whose techniques worked well with my daughter’s temperament. A common practice among therapists we tried seemed to be withholding a coveted toy until she repeated a word. This only made my daughter withdraw further and her stress became generalized into other areas of life. When her children’s activity program offered a free speech evaluation, the speech therapist spoke to her for five minutes in a busy classroom and said to her assistant, “Did you see that? Did you see how she was reaching to say the word? She has Apraxia.” There was that word again.

Each speech therapist I visited had a different opinion. One admonished me for discontinuing Greek and said the reason my daughter wasn’t speaking was because she was controlling. Another said it isn’t possible to diagnose Apraxia in a child so young. I finally found a speech therapist I liked who would hold a toy up next to her mouth and in slow, exaggerated motion, demonstrate the movements necessary to form a particular word. She employed a playful low-stress approach that enticed my daughter out of her shell, and helped her gain the confidence to try forming the words.

Aside from the worry of not knowing if my daughter would ever speak with ease, the financial commitment was crushing with twice-weekly therapy at over $100 per visit. When she turned three she was evaluated and found eligible for free speech therapy once per week through the local school district. At a repeat physical evaluation by an ear, nose, and throat doctor at the local children’s hospital, I fearfully asked the doctor if she might have Apraxia. He said he wasn’t sure, but that he himself did, as did his two sons, who had both graduated from Ivy League colleges. There was something immensely reassuring about this kind, successful man lowering the professional curtain and sharing his personal life with me to show me what was possible.

Quite randomly a neighbor offered me a free swing set that summer. My daughter became obsessed with swinging. She would swing every day. She would swing until she fell asleep in the swing. That summer, I noticed an improvement in her speech. She seemed to be picking up words and retaining them with more ease. It was like a faucet had turned on. She still had issues with articulating certain sounds and it took obvious effort to put two syllables together, but there was definite improvement. I have since learned that swinging is used as a therapeutic modality.

I was still nervous as I anticipated her starting preschool in the fall. When she started she took her Pooh bear with her for the next two years. Her teachers described her as engaging in “observational play,” which essentially meant that she watched other kids play. My heart ached for her as I imagined her isolation and loneliness. But with time, her speech did improve to where she was almost caught up with her peers by kindergarten. She had even found the courage to leave her Pooh bear at home and start playing with friends instead of just observing them.

I don’t know what her official diagnosis is or was – perhaps just a garden-variety speech delay with unknown causes. All I know is that when I see her stand up for herself and speak, asserting herself with a mighty roar, “You’re not the boss of me!” my heart swells with relief, pride, love, and satisfaction. That little girl worked hard to get her voice, and I will always encourage her to use it.

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