The Burden of Your Learning

Years ago I became friends with the first openly trans person I had ever known. I am ashamed to admit, now, that in hindsight I asked her all the classic questions, and basically made her shoulder the burden of my learning about what it means to be trans.

And, you know, I meant well. I wanted to help. I wanted to save her from the trauma she was dealing with. But the sheer arrogance of thinking that I had any useful contribution to make appalls me now. I knew, quite soon afterwards, that I had behaved badly. But I don’t think I really understood.

And now, 25 years later, here I am with a non-binary child. And I value with all of my heart the friends who listen. The friends who ask what it’s like. Who want to know how they can help. And above all, the friends who pass on what they have learned to their loved ones.

What exhausts me, beyond measure, are the people who “want to help”, by which I really mean, whether they know it or not, the people who want my child’s non-binaryness to go away.

The friends who ask whether we are pandering to a whim that will disappear over time, or helping our child make choices they will come to regret.

The people who say they are sure that gender is binary, non-binary is not a thing, and can we please explain to them what it means, and how it can be real?

The people who doubt.

So this is my message to you, if you doubt. Or if you can’t understand the issue when people say things that trans & gender diverse people find hurtful.

Don’t ask trans and non-binary people to explain themselves to you. Don’t ask their parents to prove it to you.

Do some reading. Read things by trans and gender diverse people – the internet is full of them! (And please, please don’t ask us to find them for you – start at a reputable trans support organisation and work outwards. It’s really not difficult.)

One of my friends recently questioned why I was so upset about JK Rowling’s comments. She couldn’t see what the problem was. And after a bit of back and forth, I was really touched when she apologised. She had realised, she said, that she had been doing her learning out loud, and that in such a traumatic context, that was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

I love that she did the learning, and came to understand the issue, and I am grateful to her for crystallising my learning, and articulating what was troubling me, that I had not fully understood: That every person who puts their doubt on my shoulders – or, far worse, on my child’s shoulders! – imposes an extra burden on shoulders already bearing more weight than they should. More weight than you can imagine.

So if you encounter a trans, or gender diverse person – or anyone else dealing with issues you don’t understand! – listen to anything they have to tell you, but spare them your doubt. Go and do your learning in the privacy of your own head, and keep the burden of your ignorance away from people who experience far too much of the world’s ignorance, and cruelty, every day.

We can make the world safe for queer kids

In this progressive age of marriage equality and general enlightenment, it would be easy to think that queer kids have it easy. After all, we have openly gay footballers, pride matches, pride marches, and even openly gay conservative parliamentarians. There’s a trans character on neighbours, thanks to Georgie Stone. It’s easier to be queer now than ever before.

And perhaps it is easier. But it’s still so far from actually easy that you can’t see easy with a telescope from where queer kids stand.

Last year our local MP told us that life is good for queer kids in Victorian schools. Every government school is Safe Schools compliant, after all. And they don’t hear about any issues, so there aren’t any. QED.

Sadly, we know from personal experience that Safe Schools compliance does not make a school safe for queer kids, so I ran a survey for queer identifying kids in Victorian Schools. I wanted to tell the stories. To show how far we still have to go to protect and support our LGBTQI+ kids, and empower them to thrive.

It’s a small sample – just 44 queer kids – but their stories will break your heart.

Let’s start with the data. 68% of the kids in this survey have experienced bullying at school relating to their queer identity. That’s 30 kids from 25 different electorates. The bullying was everything from other kids deliberately using the wrong pronouns and dead names*, to ostracism and physical violence. One girl had her arm broken due to bullying around her gender identity.

Here are some examples, directly from the survey.

“My child was bullied by kids, teased, threatened, bashed, made fun of, had memes made of her, told to kill herself, which led to her trying to commit suicide and slit her wrists , develop an eating disorder and major anxiety.”
Stop for a moment and imagine this was your child.

“Parents and grandparents of other kids laughing and pointing, kids following my child around the playground filming them, calling them a ladyboy”

“Some people would call me a ‘demon and unnatural’”

“Kids followed me around asking what was in my pants, and telling me I was possessed by Satan. I didn’t feel safe anywhere.”

“I’ve been called a number of slurs on a semi-regular basis and teasing on the regular. Some kids that I didn’t even know would call me names and roughly push past me in the schoolyard. Even kids in lower year levels. They’d call me a mixture of ‘he-she’ ‘shemale’ ‘dyke’ ‘faggot’ ‘it’ and other names.”

“There were threats to kill me published online with my name, as well as implications of suicide.”

“My child has been bullied at school due to being gender diverse. She has been singled out by older children resulting in her being terrified to go to school.”

These kids have to expend so much emotional energy just trying to be themselves, and stay calm and safe in the face of unimaginable abuse every day. And you might think that this is “just” in the school yard. Just at break times.

Devastatingly, it turns out that 50% of LGBTQI+ kids who responded to the survey have experienced issues with school staff relating to identifying as queer. These include

  • deliberate misgendering and deadnaming
  • exclusion of non-binary and gender diverse kids – which usually means separating the class by gender
  • refusing to use the child’s preferred name until a legal name change took place
  • refusing to allow a child to transition at school,
  • organising activities by gender and insisting that transgender kids go with the group of their legal gender rather than their gender identity
  • refusing to allow kids to use the correct toilets or changerooms, even to the extent of excluding kids from activities like swimming because it’s “too complicated”.

This isn’t ancient news from the 1970s. This stuff is happening to our children today. Every day. And it’s not going to go away just because schools can call themselves “safe schools compliant”. To be truly safe, inclusive places, our schools need to work hard to educate both students and teachers about what it means to be LGBTQI+. To put policies in place that support and empower queer kids, and that make transphobic, homophobic, and intolerant behaviour unacceptable.

Queer kids aren’t going anywhere. Some studies have found that only 48% of teenagers identify as completely straight. A study conducted in the US in 2016 found that around 3% of teenagers identify as trans or gender nonconforming. That might sound like a small number, but in a school of 1000 kids that means there are around 30 kids whose need to have their gender identity respected and included won’t automatically be met.

And we know that queer kids are more likely to self-harm, attempt suicide, and suffer depression. Make no mistake. This isn’t because they are queer. It’s because of the way our society treats queer people. Intolerance kills. Quite literally.

Like racism, homophobia, transphobia, and intolerance won’t just magically disappear. They need to be actively addressed, taken seriously, and called out. And straight, cis people are unlikely to know it’s even there, unless they go looking. Kids don’t report it, because they know it’s unlikely to help. They don’t want to make a fuss or be labelled a dobber (and cop more bullying as a result), and all too often they know the school won’t take effective action.

It’s hopelessly ineffective to address this kind of bullying one on one. The safety of our children demands a school-wide – no, system wide! – culture shift that explicitly, proactively, and positively includes LGBTQI+ identities. Because they are not preferred identities, or chosen identities. This is who our kids are. And it’s time we made them welcome.

We can fix this. But it won’t fix itself.

I’ll leave you with two quotes from students who answered the survey. They speak for themselves!

“It can be terrifying. Especially if there are students that are openly transphobic and homophobic, even if it’s not directed at you it still makes you feel scared and insecure.”

I hope that some time in the future I can walk into school not worrying about crying in class from the LGBTQ+ phobia.”

*kids whose birth gender does not match their gender identity often change their names, and using their former name is known as dead naming, and can be deeply traumatic.

A version of this post first appeared on the Midsumma website. I’d like to thank the kind folks at Midsumma, especially Karen Bryant and Felicity McIntosh, for their support for this work.

Meltdowns

I had a full on meltdown yesterday. A proper “all my friends hate me (and they should, because I suck), I’m a terrible parent, we’re all doooooomed” kind of meltdown.

Fortunately I retained the tiniest grain of rationality, and I managed to force myself to call a close friend. Who, when he called back after his meeting, was his usual kind and loving self and (surprise!) didn’t seem to hate me at all. He gently nudged me in the direction of writing my feelings, which is my usual go-to therapy form, handily also preventing my friends from receiving an email 3 miles long every 10 minutes when the feels are just overflowing.

But right now it’s hard to write. Exercise helps, but it’s weirdly hard to exercise. We’re so lucky we have zoom, meet, jitsi, and all of the other video conferencing things that actually let us see each other.  But they’re just not face to face, and not only because there are no hugs. There’s so much missing information. It’s so much harder to connect.

And we have to work for every tiny scrap of interaction. In the BC times (Before Covid) there were hundreds of incidental contacts every day. Walking past people at the office. Chatting in the tea room. Smiling at someone on the train. Thanking the bus driver. That funny tram driver, or the announcer at the station who should really be doing standup. Enough to make an introvert crawl into a cave, but it kept this extrovert ticking over nicely.

The person who holds the door open behind them, so that you can scurry in out of the rain. The barista at the cafe who remembers your order. Every “how about this weather then?” at the checkout or in a queue. Every time you make eye contact with someone. Teeny tiny connection points that remind us that we’re all human, that the driver who cut in front of us might be having his own bad day, or that not everybody sucks, even on days when it feels like they do.

“Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well… human beings.” Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

Now we have to schedule a meeting every time we want to talk to someone. In the first few weeks I was scheduling meetings left right and centre, knowing that my crazily extroverted self was going to need plenty of contact just to survive, even if thriving was off the table. And now I need contact more than ever, but it’s weirdly hard to schedule it, the same way it’s strangely difficult to exercise. Finding the energy to do the things I know will help me is getting really hard.

Which means that small acts of kindness and connection suddenly have immense meaning.

I drag my 13 year old up to the cafe up the street every day, just to get them out of the house. (I cannot BEGIN to express my gratitude for the very existence of that cafe, not to mention the gloriously kind friendliness of the staff.)  Paul, the staff member we know best, knows our names, remembers our orders, and went and did an online quiz for us so that we now know he’s a Hufflepuff (these things matter to some, apparently) even though he has never read or seen any of the Harry Potters. This small thing is a huge deal in these bizarrely disconnected times.

Yesterday Paul wasn’t in, but the other staff knew my order just the same.

The pharmacist yesterday could not quite remember our names, but remembered my non binary child’s pronouns without prompting, and made sure she used them correctly. (See? It’s not so hard!) I think we’ve met that particular pharmacist maybe 3 times before. I nearly cried.

It’s not just the isolation, of course. Though every fibre of my being is crying out for contact, both physical and emotional, that might not be the worst part. The uncertainty is brutal. How long will we have to keep doing this? How risky is it to reopen? Can I hug my bestie? What will happen when this is all over? And that’s just for those of us who don’t have to worry about where our next meal is coming from, or how we’re going to keep a roof over our family’s heads, because suddenly there’s no work, and no-one knows if those jobs are coming back.

We’re dealing with the big stuff every day – will we get sick? Will someone I love die, or be permanently incapacitated by this bastard virus? Will I have a job at the end of this, or even next week? Will things ever get back to normal? Will I ever be able to see my friends and family interstate and overseas again?

And at the same time the minutiae of daily life can be far too much. Cooking another meal. Cleaning the house – which is a whole new saga when the house is fully occupied 24/7. Getting some privacy to make a phone call and express your feelings. Time alone – even for an extrovert! There’s no respite from each other, no time apart with friends to vent every unreasonable irritation and come home recharged and reset.

Sometimes it feels as though everything we use to define ourselves is under threat. Our relationships. Our jobs. Our communities. Our very way of life. And, even though we are carrying all of that weight, life goes on. People still get ill from other things. People die. We fight. We make up. We have car troubles. We parent as best we can under unprecedented circumstances.

We worry about our kids’ diet, exercise, mental health, vitamin d, social contact, schooling. We do the washing (SO. MUCH. WASHING.). We do the dishes (how can there be SO MANY dishes every single day!?). We do the shopping as rarely as possible and feel horribly at risk when we do so. We feel guilty for baking and eating so much. We feel guilty for not baking. For not exercising. For not cleaning. For not eating healthier. For eating too much. For putting on weight. We worry about whether getting food delivered is risky. Should I get that mole checked? Is it even safe to go to the doctor?

We worry.

We worry.

We worry.

About everything.

And in the absence of regular contact with real people who remind us of normality and ground us in the familiarity of everyday life, we read the news obsessively and stress over 5G conspiracy theorists and the “OPEN UP EVERYTHING IT’S ALL A HOAX” protests that only have a handful of people, but they are ALL WE CAN SEE RIGHT NOW.

We obsess over Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and spats between our Prime Minister and yours, or between federal and state governments, or random shock jocks saying outrageous things that normally wouldn’t even register with us. Because clickbait is all we have. Scrolling endlessly, we look for connection and find outrage instead.

Every day feels the same. We try to be productive, while redefining how productive looks. We try to be kind, but sometimes it’s hard not to lash out. We make more coffees, drink more tea, eat more snacks, just to get away from our desks. We check the mail every five minutes. We vibrate with excitement when a van appears in our street. We check every footstep and every car sound in case something might HAPPEN. Suddenly we understand dogs who bark every time there’s a noise outside.

I think we need to redefine productivity. We need to prioritise reaching out. Connecting. Doing what we can to make this trauma bearable. And even if you’re not sick, and no-one you love is either, this is still trauma. This is hard in ways we’ve never seen before. Nothing is more important right now, than staying safe and looking after each other. And maybe that’s a lesson we can take into the future. Because, really, is anything ever more important than that?

 

Your poor zoomed out brain

Are you spending a lot of time learning, teaching, or meeting online these days? And do you find it puzzlingly exhausting?

There are things about video conferencing that we have not yet understood – or if we understand them, we haven’t incorporated them into the way we manage our days.

Our brains are deeply impressive, and really rather sneaky. They spend a lot of time processing things that we are completely unaware of. They are constantly scanning the world – for unexpected movement, for danger, for chocolate (or maybe that’s just mine), for the way people are behaving and reacting to us.

A whole lot of that scanning is never brought to our attention unless it really needs to be. My brain doesn’t need to tell me that there’s a room with no chocolate in it at all. But it absolutely does need to point out unexpected chocolate cake.

unexpected chocolate cake

So for the most part we are unaware of all of the extra work that’s going on in our subconscious. We often even have emotional reactions to things we are not consciously aware of – a tightening in someone’s voice, a minute change in their posture, or an unexpected noise in the distance.

When I am in the same room as someone, I am absorbing a lot of information about them without knowing that I am. From their body language to really subtle things like all of the different frequencies in their voice. Someone’s whole body, taken head to toe, can tell me a lot, much of which I’m not even aware of processing, about how they are feeling and responding to me.

“Who said I was worried?” Glenda snapped.
“You did. Your expression, your stance, the set of your body, your…reactions, your tone of voice. Everything.”
“You have no business to be looking at my everything!”  

Unseen Academicals. Terry Pratchett.

Every aspect of your body language and voice is another piece of information. Unfortunately we lose a huge number of those pieces when we connect via video conferencing.

The quality of a video conferencing call means that we get, at best 30 frames per second. Think of video as a really good stop motion animation. It’s actually a series of still images – photos, really – that are taken so quickly and stitched together so well that it looks seamless. Like a flip book animation where the flipping is done perfectly evenly and at just the right speed. But the human eye can process a lot more frames than that – some evidence says up to 500, or even 1000 frames per second. Which means that, face to face, we’re getting a much more detailed impression of what’s going on. We’re seeing minuscule changes in facial expression, voice quality, and posture, that give us a massive amount of information about the person we’re dealing with.

In video conferencing we get less than a tenth of that detail (and that’s just the visual, never mind the audio quality). That’s assuming the network is coping and there’s no glitching.

So when you’re watching a video, or sitting through a zoom call, your brain is actually working fiercely hard, trying to make sense of what, to it, is an incredibly glitchy image, even if it seems smooth to you. It’s trying to fill in the gaps from frame to frame, work out what is missing, and understand information that simply isn’t there. It presents you, where possible, with a smooth and seamless experience, but it has to work incredibly hard to do so.

Sounds exhausting, doesn’t it? And that doesn’t take into account the fact that you can generally only see the head and shoulders, at most, of the people you’re meeting with (a whole lot more pieces of information gone missing), and there are network glitches, background noise, and interference that lower the video quality even further.

Most of what our brains do is outside our conscious control, or even our awareness.  And right now, we have a huge amount of work to do that we’re not used to, and that we don’t even know we’re doing, just to try to relate to the people “around” us, and maintain our connections, relationships, and workflow. The duck that’s our brain appears to be swimming along happily, but it’s paddling so fast under the water that its little legs might just fall off.

There are so many reasons why what we’re experiencing is wearing us down, but online calls are more challenging than they seem. So cut yourself some slack. Schedule breaks in between your online meetings. And look away from the computer as often as you can. Knowing how hard your brain is working to make sense of the world seems a good reason to give it a rest!

 

 

Perspective of a Year 12

This is a guest post from a Victorian Year 12 student. It gives you an insight into the pressures on our year 12s, and the stress created by endless speculation by both government and media about how year 12 will be handled. It is clear to me that the priority for these year 12 students living through an unprecedented era of trauma and disruption must be mental health, not maintaining outdated systems that we know do not work. 

My name is Zoe, and I’m in year twelve this year. At least for now.

I’m writing this on the 7th of April, the same day I found out that the Andrews Government is seriously considering extending the most stressful year of most people’s lives by several months, taking our summer holidays away, and best of all, still forcing us through our end of year exams if we want any semblance of a result, of proof that we attended thirteen years of schooling.

The entire concept of the ATAR is majorly flawed as-is. It puts ridiculous amounts of pressure on young people, it sets all the wrong standards for our lives, and teaches us all the wrong skills. It’s also known to be a terrible predictor of anything real-life related, such as university performance or success later in life.

And year twelve is the same. It is insane amounts of pressure, drawn out over a year, and culminating in the most stressful experience of many of our lives to date. All the same, I know I speak for the vast majority of year twelve students when I say we looked forward to this year. Sure, not the SACs, or the GAT, or final exams worth 60% of our grade, but we looked forward to our year twelve jackets, to being top dogs at school, to having a common room and our very own dress up days, and most of all to muck up day, and now we won’t get any of that. And that sucks. But we know it’s unavoidable, and many of us are doing as much as we can to help the world deal with this.

And now the Andrews government wants to screw us harder than ever before by sticking with a dated, systematically exclusionary system which pits year twelves against each other to get a score which is essentially meaningless in the real world. They want to extend our year into January, taking away my cohort’s first taste of real freedom, and force us to endure more stress and anxiety, all the while spouting the bull that they care about us, that they want us to get the most out of our education, and that they want us to do as well as possible.

Well now I have a bone to pick with the entire state government, and with VCAA. And a message for Mr Andrews: You aren’t fooling us. It’s clear that you don’t care about the class of 2020. If you did, you would have gotten rid of the ATAR for something better years ago, but especially now, when we are living through a deadly epidemic already having serious worldwide socioeconomic impacts. This, alone, has seriously affected our mental health, and you still want to force us to endure more stress. And for what? A ranking?

There are so many better options, even if you are insistent on giving us a meaningless result at the end of the year. We could get a rough score based on assessments we have already done, and advise universities and other institutions that they should not put so much weight on the ATAR.

We could scrap the ATAR entirely, and simply leave it up to universities to find other, more equal and representative ways to decide on entry to courses. And if Mr Andrews insists on forcing us to work though our summer holidays, we could at least get time off now to make up for that time.

The fact is, we know that the final year of schooling we looked forward to is gone, but if we, a group of sixteen to eighteen year olds with not much real life experience, can come up with better ideas in a few minutes while calling friends on snapchat, then you would damn well think a government of 128 elected officials could work something out. Something better than taking away our holidays so we conform to your dated ideas of educational success.

I am furious. With the coronavirus, with people who are still not washing their hands, and especially with the system that expects me to stay in year twelve for an extra 3 or 4 months because the people responsible for Australia and for the state of Victoria are too lazy to find a better option.

One foot in front of the other

One day last week – I think it was Tuesday, but it’s all blurring together somewhat – I spent most of the day fighting back tears. The only times I wasn’t fighting back tears I was actually crying.

And you know what? That’s ok.

These are tough times.

We don’t know what’s coming. This feels like the calm before the storm – except it’s not very calm, and we have no idea how bad the storm is going to be. In Australia we’ve weathered bushfires, drought, and locusts, and we were just beginning to breathe again when toilet paper and pasta shortages began to hit. Before we knew it we were all (well, most? maybe? I hope?) isolating to keep each other alive. To protect the vulnerable, and also ourselves.

I have to admit that in late January I told a friend who was reconsidering her travel plans that I thought it was just a bad flu, and that we really didn’t need to be reconfiguring our whole lives to handle it. I could not have been more wrong.

When I started making videos about the data science of the virus (like this one on exponential growth, this one on why we need to flatten the curve, and this one on how to actually calculate the death rate during a pandemic) I started to crunch the numbers for myself and it scared me so badly that I have barely left the house for two weeks. And I am the extreme end of the extrovert spectrum. The lack of physical contact is really tough for me. The loved ones I am separated from are going to be hugged to within an inch of their lives when all of this is over.

So we are taking this incredibly seriously. But my husband is still going to work, because he can’t really work from home and until the government shuts down non-essential businesses, his work is unlikely to close down. My kids still don’t know whether they are going back to school at the start of term 2, though the smart money is on remote learning. But we have no idea how long that will last.

Our orthodontist said shut downs would likely be brief, or cyclical, with closures, re-openings, closures, and so on, for the foreseeable future. She was very confident. Scotty from Marketing, meanwhile, is saying that hair cuts and jigsaws are essential, but we should all stay home unless we are essential – ie if we have a job. And he’s saying that lockdowns would have to last at least 6 months once they start.

We have no certainty. Those of us who are taking this seriously are isolating ourselves and worried about how long that will last. The homeless are in serious strife. The jobless might be protected but funding won’t kick in immediately. Renters are worried about finding the money for next month’s rent. Everyone is worried about getting sick. About the potential for losing loved ones. About what there will be to come back to when all of this is over. What does this all mean for our future? No-one can say for sure, but everyone is speculating.

And some of us are expected to keep working throughout the drama. We’re all trying to maintain some sense of normalcy among a frenzied onslaught of things that are way beyond anything we’d ever have considered normal.

We’re zoomed out but desperate for contact. We’re dying to be touched but touch might kill us.

And meanwhile the smaller things of households suddenly thrown into close contact without relief and rubbing against each others’ raw nerves… well, they’re first world problems, right? We’re not dead. We’re not starving. But that doesn’t make this unrecognisable life easy or manageable.

So how do we keep going? When one foot in front of the other suddenly involves a completely unknown path with all kinds of potential pitfalls. When we can’t just go to a friend’s place and vent when things get tough. When there’s no such thing as a private conversation anymore.

There are no easy answers. And we have to stay home, isolate, and take this seriously, if we’re going to get through this. But there’s one thing I learned when my Dad was dying. He was facing a long, brutal decline from cancer. He refused treatment, and would not even acknowledge that he was ill, and his future terrified me beyond words. And that future did not eventuate. He died, suddenly, of a heart attack, and was spared the worst. And that’s when I realised that all of that time and energy spent fearing the unknown but terrifying future was not only wasted, it was destructive.

“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” is an easy motto to say, but not so easy to live by. But actually, I think it’s essential. At all times, really, but now more than ever. To immerse yourself in the moment, and focus on getting through to the next moment, and the one after that, is all we can usefully do right now. Do what you can. Reach out to those you can help. Take whatever steps you can to make the people around you smile – whether it’s making pancakes, co-constructing a playlist to make you feel connected, or having virtual drinks with friends – and take each day as it comes.

And, at the same time, remember that some days you won’t be able to do any of that. Some days it will all be overwhelming, and you will need someone else to pull you back from the brink. And that’s ok.

One foot in front of the other still works. And when it doesn’t, it’s ok to admit it. Because every time you admit things are hard, it gives someone else permission to not be ok.

Even in these times when we have to be separate, we still have each other, and we still have love. And that’s what will take us through to the other side.

 

 

 

 

What it means to lead

I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately. We’re certainly suffering from the absence of it in many of the places you’d normally expect to look. Some people are saying there’s no leadership at all. Yet I think, if you look carefully, you’ll see leadership everywhere. And I think it’s really important to recognise it and celebrate it, because it’s in our true leaders that we can find hope.

So what does real leadership look like?

Real leaders raise themselves up by lifting up everyone else. They celebrate people with the courage to have divergent ideas, and they relish having their own ideas challenged. They help people to grow with praise and encouragement, and they’re never too important to pick up a vacuum or rearrange the furniture when it’s all hands on deck.

Real leaders see things that need doing, problems that need solving, and people that need helping, that the rest of us tend to walk past with averted eyes. They get things done, and they get their hands dirty. They notice the people who clean their floors and empty the dishwasher. They know their names and ask about their families.

Real leaders don’t hunker down, wring their hands, and say “I wish there was something I could do!” They go out and find ways to make a difference. They do the things that people say can’t be done. And they rally other people to do the same.

Real leaders also have bad days. They have days where they do and say the wrong thing, and disappoint themselves hugely. And they own it. They are not afraid to show the world that they are human, that they make mistakes. And real leaders make amends.

Real leaders see the people around them. They notice when they are suffering, and they don’t look away. They remember birthdays, celebrate milestones, and stand shoulder to shoulder with their people.

Real leaders are real. Their people know that they have lives, loved ones, and troubles the way we all do. They are authentic, and open when the going gets tough. They don’t tell you everything, but they are open enough that you can relate to them. They connect with people.

Weirdly, for the most part, real leaders don’t recognise themselves as real leaders. They are so busy lifting everyone else up, and trying to be better, that they don’t see how extraordinary they really are.

So if you have a real leader in your life, make sure you tell them how much you appreciate them. Because real leaders tend to see everything that still needs to be done so clearly, that they can’t see how much they’ve already achieved, how much they help people. And they take problems to heart. All of the problems. Which means their own hearts need a little extra encouragement sometimes.

Those who stand UP

Recently I read this article about parents of trans kids that resonated so hard it nearly shook me out of my chair. Why parents of trans kids are a special kind of tired. It talks about how exhausting it is to fight, day after day. It is exhausting when your child is different. Not because your child is different. But because the world is seriously messed up when it comes to understanding and including difference. And for a while after I read it, I slumped in my chair feeling very seen, and very, very tired.

Well it’s a jungle out there,
the year 2018 I didn’t think
we’d still be sorting babies into blue and pink
and all our progress, well I wonder what it means
when the only girls’ clothes that work for me turn out to be boyfriend jeans
well that’s fine, ‘cos I decline
your narrow set of rules that just don’t work
‘Cos these red lines? they’re not mine.
And if you need me, you can find me ironing my shirt
‘Cos I’m in black tie tonight
Send a postcard to my year 11 self
in her year 11 hell
darling everything’s gonna be alright
no you won’t grow out of it
you will find the clothes that fit
Grace Petrie, Black Tie.

But as people ask me how my kids are doing I’m starting to realise how phenomenal our support network is. Because when you ask me what’s going on for us I will tell you about the friend my child has who supports them at school and won’t hesitate to take on the other kids who make transphobic and homophobic comments. This friend squares up to the other kids and tells them to pull their heads in. Which means that my child isn’t always defending themselves. Sometimes they are defended. And that is a beautiful thing.

And I’ll tell you about three of the friends I know through work, who had probably never heard the term non-binary in a context outside computing until I started talking to them about my child. Those friends are now having conversations with their friends and family about what it means to be non-binary. Those friends and family are largely interstate and many of them will likely never meet my child, but when they next meet a non-binary person they will have a clue. Maybe use the right pronouns, and not make assumptions about bathrooms. And that is a beautiful thing.

And I’ll tell you about the non-binary adults we know who have adopted my child with their whole hearts. Who fight for them. Support them. Love them unconditionally.

And what all of these beautiful, beloved people have in common is that they don’t choose to hide in their own burrows and fight only their own battles. They certainly could! They all have a lot going on in their own lives. Their own trauma to manage. Their own stresses to deal with. They have no immediate need to speak up, to stand up, and to make a difference.

None of us really has any immediate need to stand up for anyone else. It’s much easier, goodness knows, to avert our eyes and walk on by. Some days there’s no spare energy for anyone else.

But the people who do stand up… they really change the world. When you’ve not been in a position to need someone to stand up for you, perhaps it’s difficult to understand the impact. But when you’re exhausted, and battling all the time just for your right to be well then someone else taking up the metaphorical cudgels on your behalf, even just for a moment, is a truly extraordinary thing.

People who see someone being harassed and go stand beside them. People who speak up to defend others. People who see problems that don’t directly affect them, and yet work to fix them. These people are my heroes.

It’s time

I’m not sure anyone in the world can claim ignorance of the Australian fires anymore, though our government seems keen to try.

It’s easy, under these circumstances, to get despondent. To curl up under the doona and cry, believing there is nothing we can do. That climate change is a done deal. That the fires are unstoppable. That the government are unspeakably callous, greedy, and incompetent, but that it’s out of our control.

Some of that may be true, but if we succumb to despair, then all is lost. We need goals. We need action. Above all, we need change.

So here are things we can do:

  1. You can donate directly to the Victorian Country Fire Authority or to the bushfire relief fund here:
    https://www.cfa.vic.gov.au/about/supporting-cfa and to Wildlife Victoria, who are helping wounded animals, here: https://www.wildlifevictoria.org.au/donate/donate-to-wildlife-victoria
  2. Protest. Protest online. Protest in person. Write to newspapers, especially newspapers that typically publish a lot of climate change denial. Overwhelm them with the truth. It will be harder to get published, but may make more difference if you do. Write to your local MP. Write to environment ministers, senators, government enquiries, committees. Make videos, write blogs, write opinion pieces. You can’t complain that no-one’s listening if you won’t raise your voice. There are protests happening around Australia on January 10th. Find your closest one and make your voice heard.
  3. Think about what really matters to you when you vote. Actually go and read the policies of all of the political parties and decide which ones most closely match your values. This is how I came to be a member of The Greens. If you find a party that really reflects your values (NOT the party your family has always voted for, or the party with the least objectionable local MP), join them, hand out how to vote cards for them, support them with money and time as best you can.
  4. Don’t share stuff if you can’t be sure it’s true. And share fact checking from reputable sites like the ABC and The Conversation when you see people sharing stuff that isn’t true (like, for example, that the fires are all the fault of the Greens because we stopped hazard reduction burns – this is the exact opposite of Greens policy and is pure propaganda). Think, and research, before you share.
  5. Demand that Governments base their policies on science. Call them on it when they ignore or ridicule experts. If we despair and give up, we give them exactly what they want – a docile population who will allow their country to burn. Demand evidence. Demand data. Demand proof. And demand that the government acts in line with it.
  6. Organise. Find groups that share your values and your goals and join them. We are stronger together. We can have actual impact if we band together. Extinction Rebellion is giving me hope right now, but there are plenty of other organisations working for change. Get involved. Get your friends and family involved. You’re more likely to stick with an organisation if you join with friends.

It’s time. We can’t afford to despair. We can’t afford to give up. And we can’t afford to wait for the government to act. We need to stand up, make noise, and make change.

If you have more ideas for things we can do, please add them in the comments!

 

PS The bushfire relief fund is coordinated by Bendigo Bank, who do a whole bunch of ethical, community based work. What does your bank do for the community? If it doesn’t do much, switch to one that does. For Aussies, Bendigo would make a great start. For those overseas, research your local banks. Search for Community banks. Shifting your money to an organisation with values that match yours is a great way to start changing the world. The same goes for superannuation. Australian Ethical is a good start here.

Surviving Christmas

Christmas in my house used to be a veritable sea of unspecified but nonetheless compulsory expectations that would bite us whatever we tried to do. “We don’t mind when you come, as long as you come,” would be the trap, only later to be sprung: “I can’t believe you didn’t love us enough to come during this previously unspecified and very narrow window!”

For me as a teenager, Christmas was a collection of guilt-ridden traumas where I had stepped in a trap that no-one knew was there. It was only decades later that I realised that the fault was not mine. That those traps were sometimes only set after I had stepped. That I was doomed to be the cause of conflict regardless of how carefully I aligned my footprints.

It’s not easy to appreciate Christmas when you have been meticulously trained to know that thermonuclear detonations are moments away at any given time. The detonations may be in my past, but the scars are very present.

But I know that, for some, the detonations are not in the past. They are ever present dangers. For some, Christmas is a time of unavoidable contact with racism, with homophobia, with transphobia, with unacknowledged privilege. A time when you have to swallow or muffle your identity merely to survive.

I know it’s complicated. Sometimes it’s for the sake of Grandma, who is a sweetheart and would be devastated if we didn’t all get together… or for the kids, who love Christmas and their cousins and don’t hear the subtext…

But I want you to know one thing, and hold it tightly. You don’t owe anyone so much that you should ever have to hide yourself.

If you have to pretend to be someone else. To hide yourself away just to keep the peace. To bury your gender, your sexuality, your background, your politics, or anything else you care about, just to try to get through the day?

Maybe it’s time to create another day. They say you can’t choose your family, but you absolutely can. My family loves me unconditionally. They don’t hesitate to wield the frying pan of enlightenment when I’m being dumb, but they do it with love, and they catch me when I stumble. Some of them are related to me by blood, but many are not. I have chosen my family. They are local, interstate, and overseas, and I can trust them with my heart. Always.

It has taken me a long time to learn this, but nobody has the right to make you feel less than you are. To make you feel smaller. To deny your identity. To ask you to be someone you’re not.

You have the right – the NEED – to move on from those people, and to choose your own family. And if that means changing Christmas day, then change away, my friends.

Choose your own family, carve your own space, and be true to yourself. Life is too short for anything else.