Taking the Stairs

Featured image description: behind a bicycle, a brick column with a handicap access door button on it, in snow.

Note: This is a translation of a piece written at the end of my first semester at Oberlin. I intend at some point to write a two-semester followup, as well as a practical guide to being disabled at the College.

Content warnings: Ableism, including ableist slurs. Discussion of chronic pain. Transphobia, including misgendering.

Edited to add warnings for transphobia and misgendering, which I forgot to do on the first sweep. I’m very sorry to anyone who that affected before I caught it!

The Allen Memorial Art Museum is one of the jewels of the Oberlin campus. It’s a beautiful building with an extensive collection; it’s peppered with art from ancient Greece and contemporary America, Renaissance Europe and twentieth-century Africa. As an academic museum it’s incredible, on a level with those belonging to Harvard and Yale. And in the spirit of Oberlin, the museum is free and open to the public, whether they’re coming from campus, from the town, or from anywhere else. The façade of the building declares the museum’s intentions: on one side, The fine arts, a heritage from the past, on the other, The fine arts, a gift to the future. I doubt there’s anyone in the entirety of the college who would doubt that the museum is both honorable and necessary.

The front of the Allen Memorial museum, a grey building with columns and a raised entrance. A poster reading
The front of the Allen Memorial museum, a grey building with columns and a raised entrance. A poster reading “FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC” is visible.

On a Wednesday during my first semester, one of those days that’s just floating between Monday and the end of the week, my Chemistry class goes to the museum. We’ve met up there instead of our usual classroom, and all thirty-something of us stay on the first floor while the museum’s academic coordinator tells us about the collections we’re here to see. The pride she takes in the museum is palpable; she invites us to look at the ceiling, which is made of dozens of square, illustrated canvases. At the moment, she says, it’s being renovated, with experts carefully cleaning off every canvas, restoring them to full color and their original level of detail. This will take until next summer. She never stops smiling.

I’m listening, nodding at the appropriate times, but I can’t get comfortable. I shift my weight from one foot to the other. She reiterates that coming to the museum is free as in speech and free as in beer, that it brings fine art to the entire public equally.

I have my journal and a pencil in my left hand, my cane in my right.

Here’s the dirty little secret of this great contribution to the community: your access to everything the museum has to offer depends on if you can take the stairs.

The ceiling of the museum: two-by-two grids of square canvases. One set of four is noticeably lighter than the others, having been restored already.

One day when I was fourteen, I woke up feeling like I’d been beaten. I almost couldn’t get out of bed. I took ibuprofen, tried to remember what on earth I’d done the day before, and waited for the pain to subside.

It never did.

I found a doctor who prescribed me painkillers, discovered that I have a deformed spine (which isn’t the main culprit, but is pretty funny), and learned to live on tiptoes, dodging anything that would worsen the pain or the fatigue. I stopped going to aikido classes when my sensei declared that my newfound brittleness was intentional and disrespectful.

My high school was a small building housing a hundred and eleven students. All my classmates knew there was something wrong with me; they asked about the classes I missed because my doctors’ appointments were during business hours and my absence from races and soccer games I would’ve otherwise been obligated to attend. Every day I woke up, went to school, came back from school, and slept until I was able to drag myself out of bed and do homework. I deviated from this pattern rarely.

Despite all this, no one would’ve considered me disabled. I had a doctor’s note indicating I had no obligation to take physical education classes, a diagnosis of severe persistent asthma that arrived a decade late, fifteen milligrams of meloxicam a day, and the chatter of family and friends that someday I would stop being like this. But since no one could turn to me and guess that I was sick, I wasn’t, according to many people around me. And disability was something else, something that happened to other people, in other places. On my end of things, the adults who surrounded me promised that the burning pain would abate if I just changed my diet, my religion, my attitude.

The summer before I got to Oberlin, I did some research on the Americans With Disabilities Act. When I tentatively told one of the many people who’s effectively a godparent to me that I had read the US’ legal definition of a disabled person and that it described me, she–a former nurse–instructed me that I should never call myself disabled, because that would just make people take advantage of it to hurt me.

Two months later, I got to college with three weeks worth of my medications and almost accentless English. I had won a room in Baldwin, one of the oldest buildings on campus. Room number 213: close to the back stairs, on the second floor. My dorm had thirty residents, five lounges, a washing machine, a piano; of course it didn’t have an elevator.

After my first week in Oberlin, I gave in. I bought a cane. It came in the mail two days before classes started. After an event for incoming students I spent fifteen minutes teaching myself to walk with it and headed back to Baldwin.

I’d only seen my RA a little bit, but she’d made a good impression. By chance, on my way back, I passed by her on the first floor and we headed up the stairs at the same time, with her in the lead.

When she was almost to the second floor, she turned around and said, “Hey, Alex, so is that just decorative or what?”

A photograph of a sidewalk, in which a leg wearing black shoes and a knee brace can be seen, as well as a gloved hand holding a weathered cane. The photographer’s shadow extends across the pavement.

It’s almost nine in the morning. I’m crossing Tappan Square on my way to my first class of the day, and en route I’m thinking about a conversation I had with my dad, a couple days after he’d dropped me off on campus.

“There’s a lot of buildings on campus that only have stairs available,” I said, “I don’t know what being disabled here would be like. As a matter of fact I’m struggling a lot.”

“Well, it’s not a problem,” he said, “those people will just have to go somewhere else.”

“But there are even classrooms that…”

“No one made it obligatory for those people to be able to go everywhere,” my dad said. I changed the subject.

I’m thinking about that now, on my way to the physics building. I can only get to my classroom if I go through another building the better part of a block away, go to its second floor, and cross the Chemistry and Biology departments to reach the next elevator I need to go up half a floor in. In the classroom there are stairs as well, and this time they’re inevitable; it’s an auditorium.

I’m late to class.

A couple days after I got to Oberlin, someone finally told me that the main dining hall had an elevator. If you come in the third door of the building, it’s behind a pair of double doors reading “Authorized personnel only / Elevator access”. Instead of a button pointing upwards, the elevator has a keyhole in the wall. To get to the second floor, you have to acquire the key, open the elevator, and give the key back to the line-checker at the desk in front of the doors. Because of this, a single student can’t go up the elevator alone.

The first time I ask to use the elevator, the lady at the desk asked why I needed it. The second time, it was someone else, and she asked why as well. The third, the fourth, the fifth. In about three days I’d ended up explaining it six times over to the same three people.

My cane arrived in the mail a few days later.

They stopped asking.

And now I’m on the second floor of the museum with my intro chemistry classmates. We just went up to the “print room”, a climate-controlled space where pieces are shown without frames. The academic coordinator gushes about how different the experience of seeing art without having to look through glass is. She elaborates on the details of each photograph.

I can’t see any of them. My eyes won’t focus. I pull out a chair without permission and sit down to write in case it will help. I write: “My ability to function as a student is being eroded to the point of disappearing by something that was supposed to be fun, because the museum can allow itself the luxury of restoring its ceilings but in a hundred years of operation it’s been too expensive to consider an elevator.”

I saw a man in a wheelchair on the first floor. I don’t know how he got in; I haven’t been able to find a door without stairs leading up to it. When I got here, like always, I just started hauling myself up them.

In my second month at Oberlin, my RA decides to take me to her room to talk to me. The conversation that she wants to have is uncomfortable and significantly futile; after half an hour, in a bid to change the subject at any cost, I end up telling her a bit about being disabled at Oberlin.

The main stairs to the second floor of Baldwin. They’re made of dark wood, with a twist and a landing, and two windows behind them filed with white light.

“In my first-year seminar there’s an able-bodied guy who thinks it’s rude to say ‘disabled person’ and wants us all to say ‘differently abled person’ and I tell him, ‘As a physically and mentally disabled person that’s intensely uncomfortable for me, “differently abled” doesn’t describe me any better or respect me at all, in my experience it’s just a shield abled people use to feel better about themselves because that way they don’t have to examine the benefits being abled gives them if we all have “different abilities”. It’s a euphemism that doesn’t help at all. It just makes me invisible.” And the guy literally says, “I can’t disagree more”–literally tells me he “can’t disagree more” with me as a disabled person having opinions that differ from his! And…

“At the beginning of the semester I started using a cane,” I say, with significant difficulty, “and you were the first person to ask me about it ever, and your exact words were ‘Is that just decorative or what?’ That was utterly inappropriate and it made me incredibly uncomfortable. Questions like that are a demand for personal information about my body. The way you chose to phrase it put me in a position where I had to choose between giving you my medical history to justify my disability or let you think I’m faking it. And I don’t know what kind of person you think I am if you think I would use mobility aids as a decoration.”

The RA nods and says, “Well, in all my four years here I’ve never seen a differently abled person, so you’re going to have to forgive me, because I just spoke without thinking…”

“–so ever since I started using a cane I keep running into people who think they have a right to know what I use it for, and if I don’t want to tell them they decide that it’s rude, or evidence that I’m not really disabled, or both.” I’m speaking in my first-year seminar, and someone just said that it’s the responsibility of marginalized people to justify their existence and explain their experiences to the privileged if they want to be treated with respect, since obviously, according to my classmate, they could never deserve it by default.

“That’s awful,” a girl in my class says, “that’s just horrible. But if you don’t mind me asking, why do you have that cane?”

At the Student Health clinic, my first week in Oberlin, I commented offhand to a nurse that I figured I’d have to start using a cane to be able to get around campus. She responded with shock and horror; “Don’t say that! We’ll just have to hope that won’t happen.”

I ordered my cane the next day.

I want to emphasize that my cane might well be the best thing that happened to me all years; suddenly I could walk miles instead of blocks, I could get out of bed every morning, I felt like I was alive again. For the first time in four years, living in my body had gotten easier instead of progressively harder. My cane didn’t “disable” me, it didn’t make me someone else, it never hurt me at all. What “disables” me has only ever been Oberlin’s campus and the inhabitants thereof.

As the weeks go by I learn how to eat in Stevenson. I go in the third door, because that’s where the elevator is; I walk up to the lady who takes our student IDs; I wait, fidgeting miserably, while she calls out, “Could anyone open the door for her?”

A white hallway, with red and green event boards on the wall. At the end of the hallway, a blurry human figure sits behind a wood podium.

A stranger takes the proffered key, walks with me to the elevator, opens it. Sometimes I make an icebreaker comment. Sometimes I don’t. They’re always different people, and I always have to tell them what to do. I thank this random stranger, who I will probably never see again. I hit the button for the second floor.

This process takes time and it’s an exercise in shame to have to put myself at the mercy of others like this, but it’s not that bad, not usually. I stand for a painful amount of time, have a short, awkward conversation, and get loudly misgendered. When I have someone I know walking with me it’s better; they can walk up and ask for the key before the lady says anything, and then go up along with me.

“It’s not that bad,” says the friend who helped me out today. “All things considered, this is pretty easy.”

“Yeah,” I echo. “Not that bad.”

One day, it is.

I get to Stevenson with a cadre of friends, on a night at the end of November. It’s cold and it’s windy, and there’s only one open door, the one that’s across the building lengthwise from the elevator. I’m walking at the front of my group, and since I can’t hold the door open myself, I hit the automatic door button.

As we walk in, the line-checker demands, “Who pushed the button?”

I’ve had problems with some of them before; it’s awkward having to own up to it, because that means getting into the fact that I couldn’t hold it open on my own. I don’t want to say “I can’t”, and if it hasn’t been noticed I don’t want to stand out, but in those three days before my cane I learned that if I just told them everything they wanted to know they’d leave me alone. One spent several days in a row lecturing me that the doors took a long time to close and soon the weather would get cold; she dropped it, eventually, three weeks into the semester.

With that in mind, I say, “I did.”

She says, “You shouldn’t do that, it’s cold and the wind comes in.”

I’m already standing next to her; I lean harder on my cane and say, curtly, “I can’t open the door.”

“You have all these friends who could’ve done it for you. It wasn’t necessary.”

I don’t know what to say. My best friend steps forward. “I’m sorry you feel uncomfortable, but you’re making him uncomfortable.”


My friend gestures at me. “Him.”

The lady looks at them for a second. “I think he–she. She didn’t have to do it. She could have asked any of you for help. She didn’t have to do it.”

Afterwards, my friend will say this is proof that the lady heard them, understood, and decided to hurt me on purpose. My girlfriend will say that’s the moment where she crossed a line. The woman has a job: she swipes in our ID cards so we can get into the dining hall. At that point, there’s five of us clustered around her, and she’s not taken anyone’s card.

She says, again, “She didn’t have to do that.”

My girlfriend walks closer to her and introduces herself, smiling widely, asking the woman her name; I’m still frozen. I don’t understand what’s going on. I have a thought, worthless, pointless, painted across my mind: She’s not supposed to be doing this…

To their credit, my best friend manages to coax her into giving them the key, and the two of us go to the elevator. I’m shaking, even though I feel like–I know–what just happened shouldn’t matter.

When we get to the second floor, my girlfriend is talking determinedly with a man in a white chef’s coat, giving him the line-checker’s name and a description.

I don’t say anything. I try to eat dinner.

Later, he’ll pull me aside on the way out, tell me he’s sure the line-checker meant no harm, and repeatedly call my girlfriend a man.

Back in my first-year seminar, near the beginning of the semester, I’d asked the professor why there were buildings on campus without elevators. He looked at the wall, and said that installing elevators is very expensive, and takes a long time, and the college administration has to take things in order of priority, that it can’t do everything at once.

As well as the museum’s renovations, this semester saw the construction of a new addition to the Conservatory. It’s a glass prism on the tallest floor; I don’t know what its purpose is. My first few weeks here, the construction woke me up in the morning. They’re done with it now.

Behind a dark, leafless tree, a view from below of the side of the Oberlin Conservatory, a grey and glass building with an odd resemblance to a radiator. It’s crowned by a rectangular glass prism, the new addition.

I went out for dinner with some friends and a stranger. The stranger ended up walking in front of me twice, and shut a door on me both times. I wouldn’t have cared, but I felt like two times in a row of having a heavy door fall into me was enough to ask who he was. The next morning I was writing in my journal and I asked the lounge at large,

“So, who’s the guy who kept shutting the door on me last night?”

“He was under no obligation to hold it for you,” one person says. She mentioned his name too. I can’t remember it.

“It’s not that he had an obligation,” I say, “but…”

And words fail me. I don’t know what to say or how to say it. Later I figure out that I wanted to express that he had no formal obligation to me as a person, but that our society does owe debts to me in particular as a disabled person, the same way it has obligations towards small children and the elderly.

Although eventually I figure out what I wanted to say, I don’t bother bringing it up again.

The academic coordinator finishes talking and we head down to the first floor. I find a way to hold myself up with my arms and the tips of my toes, walking with the banister and my cane as if they were crutches, and, eventually, I make it downstairs. The professor sees me limping and offers me a chair.

I still can’t hear the lecture, nor can I see. I write: “It’s so embarrassing that they made us stand for ten minutes and then take the stairs and it did this to me. I keep thinking the pain will go away next time I breathe in, but it doesn’t. It just burns.”

The class ends eventually. I head to Stevenson, with a friend, for lunch.

The way I go down stairs is very simple: I throw myself towards the ground and with one hand on the banister and the other on my cane I catch my weight before I actually fall. It’s a day like any other, and I’m headed down the stairs in Stevenson because I got up from our table with five other friends and all of us are singing. I take the stairs fast, sliding on the soles of my feet before my cane hits the floor. We spill out into the hallway, joyfully loud; the line-checker watches us go by.

I took the stairs today, because I could. I think about tomorrow, when I won’t be able to, and I keep singing.

A photograph from above of a wide staircase. Three people are descending, blurred, into a hallway below.


I can’t SURF.

CW: Descriptions of nudity. Talking about dysphoria. Mentions of depression symptoms.

I’m sitting in the first floor piano lounge of Baldwin Cottage, our dorm for people who aren’t cis men. According to upperclassmen who’ve lived here longer than I have, my freshman year marked an unprecedented amount of transgender and/or nonbinary residents. Off the top of my head, in a building that houses up to thirty, I can name ten of us, if I include myself.

I can’t remember who’s in the lounge with me, other than one friend; in my memory, the room is empty besides us. I’ll endeavor to keep my friend as anonymous as possible, although a few identifying characteristics are unavoidable.

But let’s back up. Oberlin is notorious, at least in terms of the spiels people give prospective students, for its density of events and activities. We have an average of two concerts a day and hundreds of student groups, for a college of three thousand. Bulletin boards in college buildings are inevitably papered over with competing invitations, four or five sheets deep.

Instead of finding the diversity of opportunities inspiring, during my first year I’d managed to wield it as a weapon to break my own heart with. Depression, chronic illness, fear of strangers, and Oberlin’s famously intense academics colluded towards me spending a solid year not attending meetings for any group I was interested in. Every week I made a promise to myself I’d later break, that this time I’d make it out of Baldwin for something other than classes and meals, and so I thumbed through the dense cacophony of posters regularly.

There’s an eye for art and design in my head that I can’t turn off. It’s been my field for too long. Same for grammar and phrasing, for the same reason. Quickly enough I picked up some obvious patterns:

  • There’s a very limited amount of poster artists active in Oberlin, judging by how often a couple people’s styles visibly repeat.
  • Common phrases: “All are welcome” and “There will be free pizza”.
  • Few groups fail to mention and emphasize how valuable they would be to allies in particular.

That last one is its own post-to-be. Right now, I’m going to discuss the first two.

One of the artists I see a lot has a very recognizable style. They draw in thick black linework that ends up printed on oversized white paper, always with elongated human figures twined around each other, with the event text in the middle of the page. Sometimes they’re posted colored in; at the end of last semester I saw a group in the library in action, filling in the figures’ dresses with mottled watercolors.

I see this person’s art in two main contexts: posters for dance events and for SURF meetings.

SURF, as their posters always elaborate, is Students United for Reproductive Freedoms. They have a tumblr here. I’ve never seen their posters colored in, but new ones go up periodically, reminding Oberlin that they meet weekly. “Students United For Reproductive Freedoms”, the posters say, and some variation on “Weekly meetings 9pm in Wilder 204”, and “All are welcome.”

The blocky handwritten letters are surrounded by this artist’s trademark intertwined bodies. They’re naked and feminine-coded, with legs arranged to cover their crotches and breasts bare.

I would have said that they’re the naked bodies of women, but an awful lot of the women I know don’t look like that. The closest to hand example of someone who does, at the end of the day when I have to resentfully pry off my binder so I can still breathe in my sleep, is me.

“All are welcome.”

So let’s go back to the present tense of the first paragraph. I’m sitting in the first floor piano lounge of a dorm whose core community, at least in my experience, is dominated by trans/*/nb people. As far as I can remember, my friend and I are alone.

If you’re sitting in the first floor piano lounge, you get a lot of walk-ins. “Have you seen Brittany?” “I found this lost ID.” “Where’s Kate?” “Where should I hang this poster?”

This time it’s the last one. Someone walks in holding a SURF poster, and asks where they should hang it up. They seem perfectly nice and well-intentioned. My friend, notably shy, says nothing.

Baldwin as a dorm only really takes over the building from the second floor up. We share a building with the Third World Co-op, meaning that the first floor of Baldwin Cottage can be laid claim to equally by building residents and co-op members. By contrast, the second floor lounge is the main lounge for residents, and the hallways on the second floor have dedicated places for event posters. It’s widely trafficked, since you need to go through the second floor somehow, if you live in Baldwin, to get to your room.

Posters on the first floor get less visibility. It’s a larger space, so the attention of passers-by isn’t channeled directly to whatever sticks out on the wall. Least noticeable is the narrow couple feet of corridor between the door into Baldwin and the open area of the first floor not-piano-nor-TV lounge. People don’t linger there on their way in and out of the building. At most, they glance at the posters competing for their attention in this space–which are usually outdated–before pushing the heavy wooden door open and going on their way.

I flick through my options. I don’t like them. This is the first time I’ve gotten a good look at SURF’s posters; when I see them on the corkboards in Wilder Union, or the events board in the Science Center, I glance at them and flinch away. I can’t think of any trans/*/nb person in Baldwin their art wouldn’t potentially put at risk, without even getting into the effect on sex-repulsed ace people.

“You can put it up by the door,” I say, finally. The person thanks me, and leaves. I never see that particular poster again.

“Thank you,” my friend says, after a pause. We subside back into silence. I feel sick the way I usually do, when I have to make trade-offs Baldwin shouldn’t have had to deal with. I’m emphatically pro-choice, and disgracefully uninvolved in politics at Oberlin for a politics major, a situation I’m looking to fix. I even have Tuesday evenings free right now. But…

“All are welcome.”

They probably even mean it. They’ve still told me I can’t go.

tl;dr Summary: While Students United for Reproductive Freedoms (SURF), Oberlin’s pro-choice student group, take care to state on their posters that “all are welcome”, their posters are also decorated by the naked bodies of people who were probably intended to look like cis women. This is a big enough problem that I’ve been forced to hide their posters in my (small and significantly trans/*/nb) dorm, because the extent to which their art would trigger people’s dysphoria was too dangerous. This produces a filter, a self-fulfilling prophecy, that people who are uncomfortable with their posters won’t get involved with the organization to an extent where they would point it out. And when reproductive rights are a huge issue for the trans/*/nb community, that’s unacceptable.

With you. And against you.

A story otherwise known as The Case of the Man Who Regrets His Abortion.

Content warnings: Cissexism, trans/*/nb erasure. Quotes from transphobic and casually ableist sources. Discussion of abortion and pro- and anti-choice activism and rhetoric. References to suicide and body dysphoria. Summary at the bottom of the post .

For the record, I’ve started using “trans/*/nb” for the same reason TJ does.

Whenever there’s a legal case affecting contraception, abortion, or other reproductive health measures, twitter explodes. Most recently, rulings on clinic buffer zones and Hobby Lobby even managed to overshadow the saturation of World Cup tweets on my timeline for a little while. We got all the usual features: photos of clever pro-choice signs, comparisons to other forms of healthcare, “the government in your bedroom”, Satanism and Pastafarianism, the laundry list of medical conditions that make birth control and abortion lifesaving interventions, the cissexism that I take pains to avoid retweeted onto my timeline anyway in droves.

It’s in the hyperbole, saying that the only healthcare that businesses and states could ever care about restricting is reproductive healthcare for people with uteri, when transition-related care (let’s not even talk about other axes, like physical and mental disability) is frequently forced into being out-of-pocket. It’s “If men could get pregnant…”. It’s “all women deserve birth control”. It’s “‘Pregnant people’ is much longer to write than ‘women’”, when the writer feels no need to specify if their mentioned “women” are pregnant.

[Note: Here and in other places in this essay, everything I quote is a verbatim quote I’ve experienced. I have not included who said them because calling out individuals isn’t the point. The point is the solid wall they produce, no matter the individual speaker at a single moment.]

For the most part, I’m diligent enough as far as pruning my timeline goes for this stuff to only pop up through retweets, at least overtly. Usually it’s easy to calculate the trade-off, whatever reason I followed an account (to track Wendy Davis’ campaign after HB5, to keep an eye on Planned Parenthood in Ohio) versus my stomach and mood dropping no matter how fast I scroll. People who retweet the kind of thing I would unfollow for are harder to deal with. People I respect and have been told to respect, who have huge followings, are harder to deal with. People who are more subtle are harder to deal with.

Like still using “penis-havers” to talk about the people enforcing anti-abortion views, lumping arguably the most at-risk sector of trans/*/nb people in with cis male politicians. Like defining people affected by this kind of legislation as “women and afab trans/* people”, when not all women–or dfab people, for that matter–have uteri and not all people with uteri were designated female at birth. It’s justifying talking about women and women alone to wider audiences because antis would just get confused, and the person who said that asking that some trans person inventory for her why she should change her behavior in terms of how it affected them, personally.

It’s the man who regretted his abortion.

A couple cycles of anti-choice legislation back, someone got a photo of a protesting anti. Groups of protesters were swarming some civic building. Some antis were handing out signs reading “I Regret My Abortion”, plain white sans-serif on black. I remembered correctly that this was Texas, but it could’ve been anywhere. When this happened I hadn’t moved to the US yet; state-by-state battles were in my mind subsumed into an overall America that worried me.1 Seth Millstein got a snapshot that went viral (warning for cissexism in the comments)–nothing particularly different from the process of any other news story getting airtime.

I remember the photo as a full-body portrait shot; all I could find after the fact (credit to @opheliuchy for digging this version up for me) was this photo on instagram. The photo is of a White-looking person with short light brown hair and a grey beard, in a purple shirt with “I’m Human” printed above a fetal x-ray, holding up one of those pre-printed signs: “I Regret My Abortion”, a phone number, “Silent No More”. And this time around, that was the photo that exploded.

Twitter is–inevitably, unfortunately, blessedly, depending on the day–more ephemeral than other mediums. It’s been a little bit over a year (the Wonkette article I cite below is from July 3rd, 2013). I don’t have screenshots of how twitter recirculated it. This cropped, blurry version comes up if you google “Man holding I regret my abortion sign”. I can tell you how the original photo spread; I can’t show you anything but Seth Millstein/shortformblog on instagram chronicling their [his?] day.

There was pretty much one joke, which I must have seen running for more than three days (a twitter eternity). This one snapshot passed around like a bad cold in a small dorm, captioned “This sums up the anti movement” or variations thereupon, or sometimes just “Man regrets his abortion!”.

The first day, I cackled along with everyone I followed. The second day, I cracked that small smile at a joke I’d already seen enough times but didn’t dislike–you probably know that expression–and wondered why I felt a little uneasy. By the third day, I couldn’t make myself smile; I just felt like something was wrong.

There’s two people whose recirculation of that photo stuck in my mind: the person I saw it from first, and the person whose retweet marked the point where I couldn’t find it funny. To my knowledge, they both identify as cis. The first is a woman, the second a man. She has over 10,900 followers. He has over 92,600. I’m not going to name them. I wouldn’t have remembered they were both there by name, either, but the tweet that was the last straw was a direct reply to the first one I saw, and I’m a sucker for poetic symmetry.

The point isn’t to call these two out specifically, when they were probably milder than any other handful of pro-choice activists on twitter you could summon the names of. I’m giving you the numbers to help put the reach of this one chance photo in perspective, that it was visible to tens of thousands of people who happened to glance at their timeline, for days. The overwhelming likelihood is that they, too, snickered and moved on. I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, if I hadn’t seen it a second time, and a third, and a fourth, and…

Given what I’ve talked about above it’s almost a tautological repetition to say that everyone who put this on my timeline (directly, or by the indirect method of retweeting someone else) is assiduously trans-inclusive. No “No man in the history of the world has ever had a period” here, nor “Well, I meant all men”. No condescending responses to criticism by marginalized groups they’re not part of–at least, none of this that I saw. The high-profile people above stuck in my mind especially hard because I respect and admire them in particular. But if I only follow people who make sure to annotate how uterus-related reproductive care affects trans/*/nb people, why did this make me so uncomfortable? How did this come to pass?

Cis women who are anti-abortion/anti-choice are rampant, and frequently a topic of conversation. Like the meme of the homophobic politician who has sex with men, we have stories repeated over and over again: the woman who is anti-choice before she needs an abortion, hostile and defensive to nurses, doctors, and fellow patients while she’s there, then goes back to picketing immediately after. The high-profile anti-abortion, abstinence-only sex ed mother bringing her daughter into a clinic, after asking if there’s a back door. And the converse: the woman whose access to abortion made her decide it should be abolished. The nurse practitioner who befriends a clinic protester.

From (found through The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion, link below) Abortion Clinics’ Toughest Cases:

The medical director of an Indianapolis clinic recalled one prospective patient who phoned to ask whether the clinic had a back door. He said no. How, she asked, could she get inside without being seen by fellow picketers outside? Pointing out that two orthopedists practiced with him, the doctor told the woman “she could limp and say she was coming to see the orthopods.”

Choice Joyce quotes (emphasis mine):

Although few studies have been made of this phenomenon, a 1981 study (Henshaw, S.K. and G. Martire. Abortion and the Public Opinion Polls: 1. Morality and Legality. Family Planning Perspectives. 14:2, pp 53-60, March/April 1982) found that 24% of women who had abortions considered the procedure morally wrong, and 7% of women who’d had abortions disagreed with the statement, “Any woman who wants an abortion should be permitted to obtain it legally.”

(For further reading, I wholeheartedly recommend all of The Only Moral Abortion Is My Abortion; the bulk of the article is composed of personal testimony from staff at clinics. I’d provide a counterpoint link for the latter examples, but sadly couldn’t find any that treated their subjects like human beings–which is rather the debate. It’s an unfortunate side effect of refusing to promote people who pointedly ignore basic biology.)

Thus we cannot deny the involvement of women on both sides of the (now-abolished) clinic buffer zone. The majority of patients who undergo abortion are cis women, and the presence of women in the anti movement is obvious and unmistakable–while the politicians who enact these laws are by and large male (and presumed cis), the people agitating are frequently led by women. And if that 1981 study is still accurate today, the overlap between these groups is one in four. Talking about the politics surrounding abortion and the wider issue of reproductive justice means talking about the women on both sides (and the women in the middle). It makes it impossible to flatten women as a group down to a generalized support for access to abortion; even if one takes the easy way out (on either side) of claiming the opposition is under the influence of false consciousness, an effort has to be made to acknowledge them before we can proceed..

However, the idea that someone who’d evidently gone through testosterone puberty could’ve had an abortion? Laughable. Despite the high-profile case of trans men who’ve incubated children and gotten their own Wikipedia page for it, and the low-profile cases of all of those who haven’t, whether before or after transitioning, the idea of a man who had been pregnant was ludicrous. The same people who so carefully acknowledge that abortion is not only relevant to cis women let that fly out the window when considering groups that disagreed with them. Why?

Here’s where @opheliuchy found the image, where a Wonkette author under the name Doktor Zoom really regrettably epitomizes my point in an article entitled “Something needs to be done about all these men in Texas having abortions, because none of them are happy now” (both at the link and below, the transphobia you’d expect from that with ableism to boot cw):

See, we thought that maybe this was a fluke, and that there was nothing more that could possibly be said about the fierce derpery at work in this photo from the Texas Statehouse yesterday.
[…] Millstein had posted two other photos of men who also regretted having had abortions. Texas is apparently even weirder than we’d thought! […] Maybe the guy simply didn’t read what was on the signs […] the “pro-life” lady [Millstein] overheard tearfully explaining to a reporter, “We need to protect them [young women] from themselves,” possibly because they will grow up to become men who regret having abortions.

I’ve heard of Wonkette before, though not been a reader. Now I never will be. So I can’t tell you how widespread the influence of this article in particular was; all I can do is refer back to the reach of the sources who brought Millstein’s photo to me, the people who I would’ve otherwise vouched for on a near-flawless record of acknowledging trans/*/nb people in their discussions. Their audience: tens of thousands of people, one way or another. While many of the people circulating these images would defend the necessity of trans/*/nb inclusion when talking about the effects of rulings against abortion, suddenly the idea of them having access to abortion procedures was impossible when it applied to people who weren’t on the speakers’ side. For “young women” to “grow up to become men” was out of the question, because that spectre of trans/*/nb people was inconvenient. For a person with a beard to have been in a situation where they needed an abortion was unthinkable, and “sums up the entire anti movement” (quote via one of the people on twitter I’m talking about).

One of the side effects of belonging to a privileged group is being allowed to act without your actions being considered a reflection on the entire group. The counterpart of this phenomenon is considering a marginalized population as a block unit with no variation within it, sort of a group No True Scotsman. This is what produces one-sided inclusivity: considering a marginalized population only insofar as they benefit the viewpoints of the ally who’s speaking. While on the surface this seems better than nothing, it’s an act of dehumanization–it removes the right to nuance within a group by flattening it into a two-dimensional buzzword, relevant (consciously or not) only when convenient. Acting as though all members of a marginalized group must share a single, Borglike opinion strips them of individuality. While bringing them up on the surface appears to be inclusion, I’d go so far as to argue this kind of subtle stripping of autonomy is more pernicious than outright denial of their existence. And when trans/*/nb people are at a higher risk of sexual assault than the general population and people who experience body dysphoria are more likely to urgently need access to abortion for reasons of their own health, it’s quite likely that a disproportionate percentage of people in need of these services aren’t the cis women who are allowed a nuanced presence in this discussion.

The thing I want to highlight most strongly (so picture me dragging a fluorescent marker across the page until it bleeds through and rips the paper) is how easy this was. How simple it is to overlook marginalized populations and see what you want to see. How doing this means simplifying people from these groups to a tool, to a body of unanimous agreement without the right to hold opinions as individuals.

And you know what?

I am currently capable of bearing children, to my knowledge; the reproductive health issues that do run in my family–as far as I know–don’t generally interfere directly with pregnancy. It is not out of the question that I would need an abortion at some point in my life. And while I would lay my atheist self down to sleep to pray that I never become afflicted with what I currently consider the lack of perspective I would need to start calling myself pro-life…

I love children. I want children. But I would not be able to survive pregnancy. In theory, in isolation, in a frictionless, spherical universe that functions according to mathematical models with no interference, my body is probably capable of it. But the reality of it is that I am not. There is no way carrying a fetus to term would not kill me. If I did become pregnant, I would need an abortion. I would have no choice. And I would regret it; I would mourn. I would go through the same process of emotions cis women whose experience having an abortion turned them against reproductive healthcare access report. I pray to gods I don’t believe in that I wouldn’t try to export my experience that way, but the force of probability suggests it’s irresponsible to say no one would. There is no magical force preventing a trans/*/nb person from being anti-choice. As a matter of fact, it’s statistically inevitable.

And that’s okay. If you actually want to represent trans people as more than an automatic nod, a rhetorical tool, it has to be.

1. Yes, Mexico is just as bad, if not worse, on issues of reproductive health, as well as many other axes. Luckily for me, I hadn’t been in a position that made the difference put me at explicit risk yet. By contrast, last year’s incoming perfect storm of health insurance, legal adulthood, and a move to rural Ohio, as well as my hated inability to find equivalent Mexican news sources, kept my ears open.

tl;dr Summary: When people aren’t being careful, in the reproductive justice movement as in other movements *isms creep through. In this case, I’m talking about cissexism and trans/*/nb erasure. Even in the case of pro-choice activists who are assiduously trans/*/nb-inclusive, this inclusion frequently falls by the wayside when discussing antis, who are assumed to be cis. This is illustrated in the case of the “man who regretted his abortion” (a photo of someone who appeared to be a man, holding a sign reading “I Regret My Abortion” at a protest), an idea roundly dismissed as ridiculous from pro-choice activists with followings big and small. This halfhearted inclusion in which trans/*/nb people are acknowledged only as a unanimous unit on one side is unacceptable, and telling. We need to do better.

Edited to rearrange clauses in the last sentence so it’s clearer.

Some manifestations of privilege

Merriam-Webster, Privilege, noun:
1) A right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others

I’d imagine it’s fairly hard, at this point, to exist on the internet in such a way as you would find yourself reading this post, and not have at least run across the concept of privilege. I’m talking about the concept as it’s used in the context of social sciences and political analysis. The definition of privilege (and, by counterpoint, oppression and/or marginalization) isn’t what this essay is about. It’s an important concept, and I doubt I could do anything particularly original as far as definitions go, with dozens, hundreds, thousands of explainers out there. Instead, partly as a foundation for other things I need to write, this is an attempt to explain a couple ways privilege can manifest. A lot of this will involve talking about what privilege is not, because in a lot of ways it’s not a presence of a separate phenomenon so much as the absence of marginalization.

Describing “[X] privilege” is a static definition of something that in practice is conditional and variable. Being privileged on one axis doesn’t cancel out, invalidate, or preclude being marginalized on another. It doesn’t make you a bad person or make suffering you have experienced meaningless, no matter how often abusive people may take advantage of the language of sociological analysis to try to validate that idea. The pursuit of the perfect single privileged person, or their counterpart the most oppressed person in the world, is pointless and irrelevant. Things aren’t that easy.

“I don’t need labels”
Have you ever seen someone comment, “I don’t understand why we need all these labels, we’re all just human”? It’s fairly easy to fall into the idea that the only people who require labels are those who are attempting to distance themselves from the norm, and assign to this behavior a certain willfulness. If they didn’t want to be singled out, why would they make such an effort not to be normal?

It’s also easy to never question this. This brings you to pronouncements that counterpart labels for privileged identities are unnecessary. I grew up seeing this with “straight”, and to my great relief it’s largely subsided, to be replaced on the queer issues docket with people insisting “cis” is an unnecessary term. Similarly, descriptions of people in person and in prose largely bring up race to point out that a person isn’t White; think of when you see characters in a novel’s skin color commented on, or the difference in mental image between “the guy in front of me at the supermarket” and “the Asian guy in front of me at the supermarket”.

Privileged identities get to be a largely unquestioned norm, deviations from which are commented on and labeled. When counterpart labels are introduced, there’s a pushback: “Why do I need a label? I’m just normal”. When people from marginalized groups try to rally around their common identity, too, there’s a pushback: “Why does it have to be about differences? We’re all human”.

This is also the path through which we arrive at respectability politics–the enforcement of the idea that members of marginalized groups should aspire to being as “normal” as possible in order to make their identities acceptable. It’s also where we get flawed ideas like “colorblindness”.

The problem with this idea is that it continues to position privileged identities as the norm while faking progressive inclusivity. Not commenting on the existence of distinct identities and experiences doesn’t in any way alleviate inequality, it just makes it harder to talk about. And preventing people who have an identity in common that their society punishes them for from associating based on that only reinforces the inflicted abject loneliness of being told a facet of your existence is wrong.

(This is, for the record, the difference between–to choose an example that I’m qualified to comment on–”gay pride” and “straight pride”. People pushing “straight pride” are not doing so against the grain of the culture they have to live in. The demonstration is superfluous, and serves to further marginalize people who aren’t straight [and, in this context, straight trans/* people more likely than not]. Issues of assimilationism and Gay Inc. aside, gay and queer people finding joy and pride in something they are constantly told is wrong, abnormal, and less than is miles away from a reaffirmation of the respected status of [cis-by-default] heteroromanticism+heterosexuality that’s cemented daily.)

Which leads us to…

“I’m an individual”
A while back, a woman was elected as governor of my home state, to my knowledge for the first time. As expected for Mexico’s institutional corruption, she was summarily pegged for taking advantage of nepotism and pocketing state money. As we drove by an old campaign poster of hers, a man I was talking to commented that he’d voted for her and now regretted it. “I gave women a chance, guess I was wrong.” Just counting the time we spent as an effective single-party state, Mexico had over ninety years of male politicians executing fascinating levels of corruption, theft, and general failure. The governor before her was corrupt; so was the one after. People swearing off male politicians for that would’ve been a fascinating boon to nonbinary people. It also didn’t happen. But one female governor meant that women couldn’t be trusted, that they’d been “given a chance” and blown it.

While people may deny their membership in a privileged group at all (see above), their presence in it is what lets them get away with doing that. Privilege is not having to say “I’m not like those other people” or hear “If only they were all like you”. In a culture that praises and aspires to meritocracy, it’s implied that everyone’s achievements and failures are evaluated individually and on a level playing field. This is a sadly convenient fiction. In practice, people’s membership in privileged groups lets them be considered individuals, without the weight of whatever is associated with a particular identity–a need to prove themselves worthy of being evaluated at the “normal” baseline–modifying how people see their achievements. This is why the results of systems that are presumed meritocratic (without getting into the failure of meritocracies) echo preexisting lines of prejudice when it’s not explicitly accounted for.

“I’m not dealing with this today”
For people who are marginalized on some axis [Y], dealing with this is a daily factor. By deviating from the established, un-commented-upon norm, you get the guarantee of constantly having this fact pointed out to you. Maybe more than anything, privilege is the ability to ignore these power dynamics. It’s being able to go through a day ignoring issues of–whatever: race, class, gender, ability. It’s “I’m not going to deal with this today” meaning “I’m just not going to think about it”, not “I’m going to try to protect myself from it and I’m probably going to fail”. This is the crux of why it’s so hard to perceive your own: the list of privileges a person holds is literally that of the things they can afford to ignore without consequence.

This is what gives us the idea of the ally. (Which I find needs some pretty extreme deconstruction, but that’s another post.) The ally is a person from privileged population [X], who chooses to concern themselves with the issues of an oppressed population they are not a member of. Which highlights why it’s so easy for attempts at allyship to fail, especially when the person in question takes on their allyship as an identity–the issues they’re trying to pay attention to are the ones they’ve been trained to ignore, and their voice is more likely to be considered over the people they are attempting to be in an alliance with. This is also why members of marginalized populations can’t be allies to themselves; it’s a nonsensical statement.

Addendum: Cancellations
I’ve seen a really disappointing amount of people take intersectionality (an oversimplified summary: the idea that a single person will experience multiple types of privilege and marginalization, which can shift in different contexts) to mean that privileges and oppressions can cancel each other out. Examples have come at me from all corners: White trans women insisting they have no advantages compared to people of color and nonbinary people; cis Black people saying they can’t be transphobic or experience cis privilege (and trans people backing them up); the curious contingent of cis feminists who insist that because women are victims of sexism their gender identities do not exist and so they’re incapable of being cis at all.

This idea is attractive because it’s easy. And like many easy ways out, it’s wrong. Simplifying privilege and oppression to a single-variable system isn’t just inaccurate, it’s actively harmful. It allows people to deny themselves accountability, stating they couldn’t be exercising privilege over someone who has an advantage over them in another sector.

The dreadful counterpart of how easy it can be to tell that something’s wrong in the power dynamics between you and another person–even when that awareness is stifled by having been taught it must just be your fault–is that it’s very hard to identify your own exercises of privilege. I’m not going to lie and say this post was not pointed; ever since I got actively involved in feminist/social justice discourse I’ve been noticing a trend of people turning around and repeating the oppressive behaviors they were critiquing two hours ago towards another group. Saying “You should know better” to that elides the problem. What privilege does is deny people the opportunity to realize they have something there to learn.

tl;dr Summary: Aside from defining privilege, I think explaining some ways it manifests passively would be useful. Here are the three I found most apparent/pertinent: The ability to ignore an issue at will without it popping up in your life anyway; being a default that doesn’t need an adjective attached; existing as an individual who doesn’t have to serve as an example of a given group. As an addendum, I’d like to point out that axes of privilege and marginalization intersect, but they do not cancel, and the fallacy that they do harms discussion and gives people an easy way out to avoid confronting their own privilege. This post is largely written for me to refer to in other writings about these dynamics within social justice/feminist communities, but hopefully can have wider utility.