GEORGIA KOLIAS

Why We Stay: The Hidden Epidemic of LGBTQ+ Intimate Partner Violence

This post can also be viewed here on The Huffington Post Queer Voices section.

JD survivor

At a recent routine doctor’s appointment, I sat across from a nurse with incredibly long eye lashes. Between her animatedly telling me her source for lash extensions and efficiently taking my blood pressure, she asked me a list of routine questions in a monotone voice.

Did I have any specific health concerns?

Did I drink or do drugs?

Was I being threatened or hurt at home?

 

That last question stopped me, because I’ve been thinking a lot about domestic violence aka intimate partner violence (IPV) and the devastation it leaves in its wake. Frankly, I was surprised that she was asking, and I wondered if anyone actually ever answered yes to her question – a question that would expose someone’s most vulnerable spot. I imagined she might have better luck if the patient were wrapped in a blanket, held close, and asked in a gentle voice, “Is anyone hurting you at home?” How many people might say yes?

 

Domestic violence is a hidden issue within the LGBTQ+ community. According to the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey released again with new analysis in 2013, 44 percent of lesbian women, 61 percent of bisexual women, 26 percent of gay men, and 37 percent of bisexual men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. According to The Williams Institute, 31-50 percent of transgender people experience intimate partner violence. Abusive queer partners are driven by the same desire for control as heterosexual abusers and use the same weapons of physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse, but have the added arsenal of societal discrimination and often threaten to out partners to employers, family members, etc. Additionally, it’s a mistake to assume that only masculine presenting partners are the perpetrators in LGBTQ+ relationships; gender, size, and presentation have no bearing on who the aggressor might be.

 

When outside of a situation, it’s easy for a random person to shake their head and say, “Why do they stay?” Even people experiencing abuse sometimes have a hard time explaining why they stay. But there are a number of documented psychological processes at play that create an emotional trap that makes it hard to admit or accept what is happening, much less get the wherewithal to leave – and the emotional ties that bond are formidable.

 

Lance, a gender queer Asian butch in a lesbian relationship, didn’t realize that she was the victim of gaslighting, a systematic emotional deconstruction of the victim’s reality that tips the locus of control into the abuser’s hands, and causes a dangerous power imbalance. Many times, it’s hard for the victim to see what is happening, because it’s a progressive process that often starts with excessive praise and affection, aka “love bombing,” and eventually degenerates into a strategic campaign of undercutting another person’s grasp on reality, turning random occurrences into crises that can be blamed on the victim. The perpetrator often offers justifications for their abusive behavior that further destabilize the victim’s perceptions and reinforces the cycle of violence. Lance shared her light bulb moment when she was finally able to see that something was terribly wrong, and that it wasn’t her fault.

 

We were sitting in a restaurant and I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a decade. I was excited to reconnect. When I brought him over to the table to meet my new wife, she was mean. She told me I was wrong for talking to him, because he knew me when I was married to my ex-wife. She was outraged and made a scene in the restaurant. I think it was seeing myself and her through his eyes. He knew me to be a strong, confident, loving partner. Here I was being berated in public for something that could not possibly be in any way deserved.

 

It is exactly this either/or dichotomy that is so dangerous. If a victim believes their behavior can shift a perpetrating partner from abuse to love, then they are caught constantly trying to please them, not only for their safety, but because they have a tenuous grasp on reality because the gaslighting is so insidious and intense. Especially in the case of emotional abuse, the key to freedom is to break the dichotomy and accept that the perpetrating partner is both bad and good at the same time. They aren’t entirely bad and they aren’t entirely good, and there is no amount of good behavior from the victim that will shift an abuser to acting “good” all the time. When a victim can finally accept this reality, they can then begin the arduous road to freedom.

 

If you suspect or know that you are in an abusive relationship, the first step is to tell someone you trust, whether it is a non-judgmental friend, a therapist, or spiritual leader. Sometimes seeing your experience through someone else’s eyes is what you need to see more clearly when your reality has been disrupted by an emotionally abusive partner. Be kind to yourself, and know that being a victim of abuse doesn’t make you a weak person; in fact, some perpetrators prefer to choose strong, successful people to prey on because they like the challenge.

 

J.D. Glass, a survivor of intimate partner violence, is the author of Drawn Together and Red Light, novels that educate and cast light on the often hidden topic of abuse in the queer community. She told me,

 

Probably the best advice I can give is, once you know you have to go, you have to plan and watch for the opportunity to find some way to secret a few dollars away somehow and plan an escape route. And on the day you know the moment has arrived, hide anything that can be used as a weapon, and maybe have a friend you can text with a code in case things go horribly awry, someone you know will either come help ASAP and/or call PD if necessary. It sucks, because it feels like lying, but it will save your life.

 

Lance adds, “We are blessed with strong minds and bodies but as I learned, you can be strong and smart and still fall victim to abuse. Freedom is forgiving yourself.” Since leaving the abusive relationship Lance has again found her own gravity and is enjoying healthy intimate relations with others.

 

Self-blame is useless in this journey to freedom, and self-love is everything. If you are or have been a victim of abuse, you are still wonderful, intelligent, creative, and strong and you can regain your life. You can shift from victim to survivor. If you need help contact:

 

The Anti-Violence Project for LGBTQ and HIV affected communities 1-212-714-1141

The Network/La Red a survivor led organization to end LGBTQ partner abuse 1-800-832-1901

FORGE for trans and gender non-conforming survivors of domestic and sexual violence 1-414-559-2123

Redefining Butch-Femme Relationships

This post can also be read here on The Huffington Post Queer Voices site. The gorgeous butch-femme couple in the photo are Vanessa Mártir and Katia Ruiz, from their personal photos.

 

katia and vanessaReentering the dating universe can be a little bumpy, as most anyone can tell you. First you have to negotiate what you want and need within yourself, and then turn outward to see what the beautiful world has to offer you. I am still in the “negotiating within myself” phase. But one thing is sure, I am a femme woman attracted to masculine women, aka butches.

 

Recently, I had a first date with a brilliant woman I perceived to be masculine of center, but I was fairly confident she didn’t identify as butch. As I sat on her couch with cocktail in hand, entering into the kind of exploratory conversation that lays down the beginning structure of getting to know someone, she said, “I’m not sure. You seem to be strongly into butch–femme, and I don’t identify that way. I’m not into the roles.” I had heard this concern before.

 

I’m not entirely sure what people mean when they reference “the roles,” but it made me want to define butch–femme relationships for myself, acknowledging that there’s a vast spectrum of how people express themselves as individuals and in relationship to each other. I assume when people talk about roles, they are thinking along the lines of something my mother told me when I was young, when I asked her what a lesbian was. She said, “Two women get together, and one of them pretends to be a woman, and one of them pretends to be a man.” I’ve always gotten a good chuckle out of that definition, because it is so wrong and so right at the same time.

 

Butch–femme is not about pretending, or playing at roles. It’s a natural expression of feminine and masculine gender expressed within an interconnected sexuality that sometimes feels like a tango – intense and dramatic, and incredibly romantic. Some people think the butch–femme dynamic is a dying identity, but I beg to differ. Butch–femme lives and evolves and is a legitimate choice for relating and connecting with a sexual partner.

 

Every femme I know is a strong badass, not some weak, simpering facsimile of a 1950s housewife.

A tired criticism of butch–femme is that it tries to mimic a patriarchal relationship structure, with a powerful male figure, and a submissive female figure. As a femme lesbian, I can tell you that I like to get my nails done, wear dresses when I want to look beautiful, and always keep a lipstick in my purse. But I am also incredibly strong and self-sufficient. Every femme I know is a strong badass, not some weak, simpering facsimile of a 1950s housewife. And if I sometimes choose to take a submissive role in a sexual situation, it’s to serve my own pleasure, not to give up my power.

 

While butches are also fiercely strong, they often have a soft core. They are protective and caring, qualities that require a nurturing nature. We are yin and yang – seemingly oppositional forces that are actually complementary and interconnected. We offer a devoted appreciation for the gender expression of the other, an affirmation of intrinsic qualities that make us who we are. Each of us is unique, with our own blend of characteristics along a gender spectrum. We all carry both masculine and feminine aspects within ourselves.

 

So if femmes are strong and self-sufficient badasses that choose to be soft with their butches, and butches are nurturers that protect and pleasure their femmes through their expressions of masculinity, how does that resemble the patriarchy of old?

 

When I am with a masculine partner, my sense of feminine power is intensified. Rather than feeling subordinate or weak, I feel a heightened sense of self. Her masculinity not only contrasts my femininity, but amplifies it. Within the butch–femme dance, I feel appreciated for my very essence. My every curve is a path to explore; my flirtations, bold or demure, are received and returned with equal desire. I want my partner to be strong and a gentleman, but that’s not a role. That’s a way of being. Another way to look at this is that I want my partner to treat me well and to validate my feminine expression. In order for a butch to be a good partner to me they must love deeply, wish to protect my heart, and respect my intellect and rightful sense of self-determination.

 

Recently I found a huge spider in my laundry room. My initial reaction was to scream. Then I pulled out a tape measure to document its size, and then I killed it. I posted the picture of the spider next to the tape measure on Facebook and captioned it, “Yes, I did scream like a little b*tch.” First, a butch friend of mine asked if I’d held the tape measure up myself to take the picture, and when I proudly took credit, she told me I had balls. I take pleasure in breaking the expectations of what a femme can do and be. Another friend, Lea Arellano, a Two Spirit medicine person, said, “Little bitches are sacred and to be cherished.” This comment made me unreasonably happy, for this is the spirit that someone who loves femmes comes forth to offer.

 

I take pleasure in breaking the expectations of what a femme can do and be.

Femmes are sacred and to be cherished. Butches are sacred and to be cherished. I’ve dated a masculine, ultra-protective woman who would never call herself butch. I’ve dated a 6’2” basketball player who would never call herself butch. I loved a romantic dreamer who proudly claimed her butch identity. I was married to a trans butch who, after 17 years, medically transitioned to a full-time male identity. What I really care about is who the person is, how they treat me, if they want to tango, honor my femme identity, and let me honor their masculinity. I, too, reject roles.

 

I love butch–femme and the particular dynamic that exists when two people are firmly in their fullest expression of their gender and interconnected in a dance of complementary opposites. Do I ever feel I am playing at a role, or being anything other than my deepest, most authentic self? No, never. The divine feminine in me sees the divine masculine in my partner – and it is both a spiritual and sexual connection that cannot be denied. Whether we call ourselves by certain labels or not, it is deeply authentic and compelling. What matters is that powerful spark that ignites when two people see into each other’s truest essence.

Wonder Woman in the Age of Trump

When my darling heterosexual friend Patti invited me to go see Wonder Woman with her, I agreed half-heartedly, not because I didn’t want to spend time with her, but because I had little interest in seeing the movie. I hadn’t seen any trailers, read interviews, or otherwise been exposed to its plot or themes. I expected it to be just another Hollywood money grab with a starlet in provocative clothes who is strong up to a point, until she eventually gets saved by a man and sees the light. Damn, was I wrong.

 

We were a little tardy getting into the theater due to the snack line and when we entered the dark theater with previews in play, we were awed to see that nearly every seat was already taken. Inwardly grumbling about the sore neck I’d have later, we settled into our second-row seats just in time for the opening scene, which quickly segued to Wonder Woman’s origin story on the breathtaking island of Themyscira. Surrounded by undulating blue water and shocking in its unspoiled beauty, Themyscira is the birthplace of Princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman), who was sculpted of clay and brought to life by Zeus. But even more breathtaking than idyllic Themyscira were its inhabitants – a community of Amazonian women engaged in fierce hand-to-hand battle practice. As they fearlessly lunged and spun into high kicks in an evocative dance of strength without breaking a sweat, I turned to my friend Patti and said, “You didn’t tell me this was a lesbian movie!”

 

It was that, and it was so much more.

 

Is it an overstatement to say that it’s every lesbian’s dream to live on an island such as this one? Where women are powerful, fully capable of defending themselves, and tasked with the knowledge that the beauty and safety of the world is in their capable hands? Is it every woman’s dream to live on a pristine island where the concept of sexual assault is unheard of and body shaming hasn’t been invented or experienced? Ever. What would it be like to live without the hobbling effects of shame and fear and misogyny? Themyscira gives us a peek, and it is glorious. When it’s Diana’s turn to learn to fight, her aunt, Antiope, trains her fiercely, and when Diana stumbles, she commands her, “Never doubt yourself!” leading Diana to find unknown strength and power in her next moves.

 

In the age of Trump, when it feels like the seams of our world as we know it are breaking apart, Themyscira seems like a utopia for this Amazon wannabe. And when Greek mythology is evoked to explain that one day the God of war, Ares, will come to corrupt mankind with hatred and loathing, and it’s the Amazons’ purpose to defeat him, you can’t help but well up with grief over the parallels to our time.

 

Throughout the film, when Diana is confronted with human suffering, violence, evil, and war, she is single-minded in the knowledge that it’s her purpose to end it, even under seemingly insurmountable circumstances. When her traveling companions, seasoned male veterans of war, balk at the idea of advancing against the German front, she leaps forward alone, fiercely striding toward the enemy lines with only her metal wrist cuffs, her round Amazonian shield, and determination to protect her from the onslaught of machine gun bullets aimed at her.

 

This film operates on an archetypal level. From the moment war ships broke the magical veil and advanced toward unspoiled Themyscira, I was hit with the realization that I was witnessing the attack of Christianity on Goddess culture and the birth of misogyny. Diana’s quest to find Ares and defeat him is quite simply the desire for goodness to conquer evil. But the most important message of the movie was not one of simplicity, nor was it black and white. The message was about complexity. That each one of us holds good and evil within us – and that it’s what we believe that shapes our actions and the world we live in.

 

When Diana is engaged in an epic battle with Ares, and her faith in humanity is in question after she sees what we are capable of – the good as well as the evil – Ares tries to convince her that the world would be better off without humans. I have to confess that I’ve had my moments thinking the same. Wouldn’t Earth be a paradise without our interference, without the disruptions to the equilibrium of nature that we bring? But Diana struggles to find the good, and even as she heaves a tank overhead in a moment of rage and grief, she is still able to see the humanity in the eyes of her enemy and spare them.

 

In that moment, as she looked into the eyes of her cowering and destructive enemy, we see their vulnerability and we are forced to wonder – what makes someone evil? What makes Trump the way he is? What makes the conservative GOP set policies specifically intended to hurt the vulnerable and the marginalized? What takes away a person’s capacity for empathy? Evil begets evil. I can’t help thinking about how restrictive and stifling it is to grow up in a conservative and punitive culture. How it can break a person. When you live under those kinds of rules, you either bend to them to survive –often continuing the cycle of abuse – or you rebel and accept that you will be an outcast to your community of origin.

 

It’s much like the epic struggle to come out within conservative families. Some people go so deep in the closet that they can’t even look at themselves in the mirror, and we end up with spiteful, sexually repressed lawmakers who legislate to govern our bodies while trying not to get caught in the local motel with a rent boy. Others break the closet door and lay down a path that everyone else in between can follow to freedom.

 

No one saves Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. She saves herself, and she saves our idea of what humanity can be. We can recognize the good and evil within ourselves, and choose to believe, against all the evidence, that if we work toward the good and never doubt ourselves, we too can be the saviors of our world.

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.

Scroll To Top