Please stop making it so hard

My 12 year old, Sol, is non binary. That means they don’t identify as a boy or a girl. The gender roles and societal norms around gender simply don’t make sense to them. They use they/them pronouns. They prefer to use unisex toilets, so that they don’t have to choose a gender identity that does not fit, simply to go to the toilet. They dress, often, fairly androgynously. They have a classically queer haircut. They are proudly, and bravely, one hundred percent true to themselves.

But sometimes there isn’t a unisex toilet available. In which case Sol uses the toilet of the gender they were assigned at birth, and has to brace themselves for the backlash. Inevitably someone, somewhere, will tell them they are in the wrong toilet. You might never have thought of this as an issue, but in the queer community it’s known as bathroom policing, and it’s deeply distressing.

Think about it. You are in the toilet that your chromosomes and genitalia say you should be in, but it’s already deeply distressing for you because your heart knows this is not who you are. Then some busybody demands to know why you are in the WRONG toilet. You know you’re in the wrong toilet, but there isn’t a right one for you to use! And how are you supposed to prove to that busybody that it’s ok for you to be here? It’s generally not considered socially acceptable to flash either your chromosomes or your genitalia in order to assert your right to be in a space.

After the umpteenth incident like this, my problem solving, FIX THE DAMNED PROBLEM urge became overwhelming. It’s not ok for my child to have to have these conversations, but since we can’t eradicate busybodies who like to bathroom police, how can we make it easier? How can we educate the bullies (because that’s what they are, I’m afraid), without causing confrontation and further distress for a child who simply wants to be able to go to the loo in peace?

And that’s how the Non Binary Business Card was born. Pride Flag on one side, Non Binary flag on the other, they avoid the need for confrontational conversations, but provide education in a gentle, and hopefully lasting way.

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The text on the non binary side says: I am non-binary. That means I am not a girl, or a boy. I’m just myself. I use they/them pronouns. 

And on the pride side it says:

You can support non-binary and trans folk:

  • DON’T gender segregate.
  • DO provide gender neutral options in all things – bathrooms, clothing, activities, etc. 
  • DON’T insist there are only two genders.
  • DO respect people’s identity.
  • DON’T mis-gender or assume you know someone’s gender unless they have told you.
  • DO ask people their preferred pronouns.

I’m not saying the problem is solved, exactly, But at least when Sol is confronted by someone who doesn’t get it, they can simply hand them a card and walk away. They have a safe, non-confrontational strategy that they can use to exit the situation.

I wish they didn’t need one. I wish all public toilets were unisex, and that people didn’t feel a burning need to inquire about the state of other people’s genitalia. But given that we have to live in this imperfect and intolerant world, this seems like something constructive we can do.

 

Please share this far and wide, and encourage LGBTIQ kids (and adults!) to create their own versions of these cards to address their own needs. Sol and I share these under a Creative Commons Non Commercial Attribution license, which means we encourage you to use it, adapt it, and share it (acknowledging us as the authors) but not to make money from it. 

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Karma

Human beings are problem solvers. We like to understand things, to make sense of things, and to put things in a kind of causal chain. “I did this, which is why that happened.”

When a natural disaster happens religious types use this tendency to blame whatever group they find intolerable at the moment. When an unexpected death occurs, or some other unimaginable trauma, we like to say that everything happens for a reason.

And I understand that it brings comfort. If the idea that there’s a master plan brings you comfort then I beg you, please don’t read on.

Because I do not believe that there’s a master plan.

All this chaotic world fumbles along by chance

Ellis Peters

I’ve seen too many good people, who strive to make the world a better place, suffer unimaginable tragedy. I’ve seen utter bastards – evil monsters only out for themselves – not only get off scot free, but get rewarded for their sociopathic ways. I can’t believe that’s a plan.

But even without a master plan we look for control. We want to believe that our fortune is in our hands. It’s how people with privilege believe that they deserve it, rather than that it was an accident of birth. I don’t want to believe that much of my success can be explained by the fact that I am white and middle class. I work hard. And of course, I do work hard. But I am not held back by my race or my religion, or by where I was born, or what my parents did for a living. There’s a tailwind at my back that many people don’t have.

It’s the same with health. It’s easy to believe that if you exercise regularly, eat well, and generally live a healthy and active lifestyle, you will remain healthy for as long as possible. It certainly shifts your odds. But they’re only odds. The truth is an accident of genetics, or infection, or simply an accident, can take away your health – even your life – at any moment.

And when that happens to someone else we try to find a reason, so that we can “ensure” that it doesn’t happen to us. “She had a genetic issue, I don’t, so I’ll be fine.” Or “his dad smoked, mine didn’t, so I’ll be fine.” “She was a cyclist, which is risky. I’m not, so I’ll be fine.” “He ate too much red meat, I’m a vegetarian, so I’ll be fine.”

“He/she smoked too much, drank too much, partied too much, took the wrong pills, had the wrong doctor, lived in the wrong place, had the wrong job…”

This is a natural urge to protect ourselves, emotionally, from the idea that we are vulnerable. But the trouble is that it leads to blaming people who are suffering. We tend to want to believe that people who are homeless, or poor, or sick, have somehow brought it on themselves. That if they’d only been sensible about things (more like us, obviously), they’d be ok. That there’s no way it could happen to us, because we are sensible.

But it seems to me that we’re all at the whim of a random, chaotic universe. We could lose anything, at any time. There’s no way to protect ourselves from the chaos. There’s no quota of trauma after which nothing else bad could happen. Life can, and does, kick people when they are down, through no fault of their own.

To me that means there’s not much inherent meaning in this chaotic life of ours. There’s no control, no plan, no structure. As Pratchett said, “there’s just us, and what we do.” And I think that means that the only meaning I can create is in my impact on other people. In striving for kindness – to others, but also to myself (that’s my toughest challenge). In using my skills to effect as much positive change as possible.

Sometimes that means resting to avoid burnout. Sometimes it means throwing everything I have at a challenge for as long as it takes. Today, after a painful medical procedure, it’s meant bingeing season 2 of Harrow, because Daniel Harrow is many complicated things, but above all he is kind. Mind you, if the season doesn’t end well, tantrums will be thrown.

Tomorrow it’s going to mean working hard on the 6 presentations I need to have ready for the next fortnight. And if I can walk ok, maybe I will treat myself by picking up my fancy new red glasses. (Not purple! I must be ill!)

I’m a control freak. The illusion of control has been comforting. But maybe there’s something to be said for just riding the wave, and focussing on kindness. Maybe we don’t have to believe in mystical forces to find meaning. Maybe we can make our own.

 

Codes of Conduct

You know what you don’t tend to see if you are not in some way marginalised? Harassment. Bullying. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Transphobia. All of the “-isms” and “-phobias”. Because they’re not directed at you. They might not even happen within your earshot. It’s super tempting to believe that this means they’re not a problem at your particular event. They don’t happen at your favourite conference. Because your people are awesome and wouldn’t do that. They’re not an issue in your circles.

But they are.

Ask any openly LGBT+ person. Any person with dark skin. Anyone who wears a yarmulke or turban. They cop it. They cop it every day. In almost every situation.

Sometimes conference organisers say “No-one has ever complained, so we clearly don’t have an issue. If we put a code of conduct in place it makes it look like we’ve had issues!”

But you do have issues. You’ve always had issues. It’s just that if you don’t clearly signal that you want to know about them and that you will stop them in their tracks, most people won’t bother reporting them.

Because anyone who is the target of constant harassment has experienced the “oh, we’re so sorry that happened to you, I wish there was something we could do but our hands are tied” response, or some variant of it, many, many times. And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be constantly targeted. And it’s even more exhausting to turn to the people who are in a position to stop it and have them fail you. Again. Why waste energy in another pointless reporting exercise that won’t change anything?

So here’s the thing. If you’re organising event – ESPECIALLY one that involves young people, because they are so damned precious and so damned vulnerable – your code of conduct and anti-harassment policies have to be incredibly pro-active. This is a lot of work. But it is so worth it, because it means your event attendees can be safe, both mentally and physically.

So how the heck can you make your event safe? I have a few suggestions, from my own experience and that of those around me. Please add your own in the comments!

  • STEP 1 – CODE OF CONDUCT. Attending the event means agreeing to the code of conduct. This makes expected behaviour very clear to your attendees, and gives you something to point to when a perpetrator whines “but it was only a joke, you can’t throw me out!” Yep, we can, because we said we would. The DDD Perth Code of conduct is an excellent example that also empowers participants to be aware of code of conduct violations that happen around them, by giving them effective steps to follow.
  • STEP 2 – Ensure participants know who to talk to in the case of problems, and make it as easy as possible to report – which means have a range of people to approach, and a range of ways to approach them. It’s pointless to have a code of conduct if there’s no clear way for participants to get help when it gets breached. Have your people wear coloured t-shirts, highly visible lanyards, or some other very visible form of identification. Have a phone number, an email address, and an anonymous form (for people who are scared to come forward) and publicise them widely – and MONITOR them AT ALL TIMES, so that you can respond fast if there’s a problem.
  • STEP 3 – Be prepared to follow through and enforce your code of conduct without fear or favour. Have a clear, unambiguous, and fair process, and follow it. I was recently involved with an event which had multiple code of conduct violations reported (for the first time) and they had to create a response on the fly. This is both intensely stressful for both participants and organisers, and also wildly ineffective as it makes it almost impossible to act fast. Make sure you have planned this part. It is incredibly (and disappointingly) likely to happen sooner or later.
  • STEP 4 – Sweat the small stuff. When people get away with doing small crappy things they very rapidly become big crappy things. If you stamp out the small stuff immediately and make it clear that it’s unacceptable, it doesn’t have time to become big stuff.
  • STEP 5 – Do some research. Many people know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and have done a lot of fantastic work in this space. Take advantage of their considerable wisdom. Valerie Aurora has written an excellent book on this subject,which is a great place to start.
  • And Step 6, courtesy of YOW’s Michele Playfair who has been my guide in this journey – if you have a code of conduct, you are advertising your event as a safe space. This means you MUST be prepared to enforce the code of conduct promptly and vigorously. Otherwise your event is NOT safe and you have promised participants a safe space and then failed to provide it.

That’s it. Remember that people are being bullied and harassed whether you see it or not. Event organisers have the power to create safer spaces, but all of us have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, wherever we are, and whether there’s a code of conduct or not. In the immortal words of The Whitlams: I can Make the World Safe for you!

 

 

Fix me

Grief is supposed to go away. It’s supposed to have a time limit. It is supposed to get better. And there are normal responses to grief, and carefully graded measurements for how much grief you should feel based on how well you knew someone, for how long, and how closely related you are.

The above paragraph, of course, is nonsense. But it’s surprisingly pervasive nonsense. It’s built into our systems. We have periods of mourning, carefully calibrated by relationship. My last employer specified 3 days off for the death of a close family member. Nothing else. No leave built into the system for attending the funeral of a friend, or a parent or child of a friend. Of course attending funerals was tacitly allowed, but there was no provision in the leave statutes for it.

3 days of grief for a close family member before returning to work is, of course, ludicrous. But so is no time off for a close friend. Or any friend, for that matter.

Because there are no rules about how death will affect you. I knew Jacky for less than a year, but I talked with her nearly every day, and she was hugely important to me. Can you measure that? Can you argue I should feel less because of the newness of our friendship? Or because after those first few days our relationship was exclusively online, which many people will tell you is not a real friendship.

Hey, there’s not a cloud in the sky
It’s as blue as your goodbye
And I thought that it would rain, on a day like today.

Wendy Mathews, The Day You Went Away

Yet I reached out to Jacky when things were tough at work. When I was worried about my kids. When I was proud of my kids. When they were driving me nuts. When I felt inadequate. When I felt excited. When I saw something I knew she’d love. Walking around San Francisco in November I shared all the gay from the unbearably fabulous Castro. We shared book and film recommendations. We shared my kids. We shared dreams for the future.

Jacky’s death blindsided me. On the weekend I decided maybe I needed counselling – which has helped me many times, in remarkable ways – but then I realised I was trying to fix it. I wanted to get over it. I want to stem the tears, stop the pain, to fill the hole. Maybe counselling would help, but it wouldn’t make it go away.

Grief doesn’t go away. It is woven into the fabric of who we are. Of our relationships. Of our lives. It’s in the sound of a passing motorbike. In the colours of a rainbow. In a snatch of music or a scene from a movie. It’s in a moment we should have shared. In a trip we were meant to take together. In an achievement she’d have loved. In a book that would have made her at least as angry as it’s making me.

So sometimes there’s nothing for it but to listen to the sad playlist and hug your friends. To hold your face up to the sun and feel the tears of rain, even though there’s not a cloud in the sky. Sometimes you just have to cry. And it hurts more than it feels like it should, but there is no “should” in grief. There’s only your broken heart.

 

Remembering Jacky

I went to a lot of conferences last year, and made a surprising number of friends who have changed my life. But one conference really stands out. At eResearch Australasia my friend Sam asked me to host a panel. He introduced me, among other things, as a good friend and a massive nerd, which I owned with pride. But on that panel were two people who went on to become deeply important to me amazingly fast.

The panel was on the Wednesday, so Tuesday night I showed up to the drinks reception hoping to meet all of my panellists and plan out the way the conversation would go the next day. Two of them proved elusive, but I found Jacky almost immediately. We started talking and basically didn’t stop for the next 7 months. Until the day she died.

I remember being struck by Jacky’s robust, evidence-based approach to diversity in STEM, and to her profoundly human-centred focus on matters of technology.

The next day Jacky delivered a keynote for the conference where she included me in her slides as an example of someone working to improve diversity in STEM. She introduced me as “My new best friend, Linda McIver,” but even then I didn’t realise how true that was going to be.

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Jacky found me on WhatsApp and we started chatting. Intrigued by my description of my kids, Jacky soon established a WhatsApp group for all of us, together with her partner, Rachel, and these two people my kids have never actually met in person became incredibly important supports for us.

It’s not uncommon for me to bond fast with a new friend, but it’s not so common for the new friend to bond back just as intensely. Jacky was not one to waste a moment. Her ability to connect with people was phenomenal, and she devoted much of her energy to supporting everyone around her. When Jacky decided she valued someone, there was no doubt, no grey area. She gave so generously to her loved ones.

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She wasn’t shy about wielding the frying pan of enlightenment where necessary though. I was going back through our messages yesterday and couldn’t help noticing the high proportion of them that were either telling me I’m awesome or berating me for not valuing myself highly enough.

She was a huge advocate for my work, and she pushed me hard to charge more for my time, and to make sure I never undersold myself or my talents. Which is a little bit ironic because I don’t think she ever really recognised how precious and amazing she was herself, despite us telling her on a regular basis.

Last Thursday night I was busy typing a message to Jacky telling her, again, how amazing she was, when I got a message from Rachel that stopped my heart. Out of nowhere Jacky had suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. She was gone.

My kids and I are devastated. Jacky’s constant, calm, supportive, funny, loving presence in our lives became integral so fast, and even faster it has been snatched away. I go through waves of tears, bursts of rage, and periods of an unnatural calm, but I can’t come to grips with the idea that she is gone. That she never even met my people face to face, but they loved her so deeply, is a testament to Jacky’s intense ability to love and connect.

We talked about visiting, both here and there. We talked about the things we would do, the sights we would show each other. The experiences we’d share. We had plans for the future that, unaccountably, failed to take into account that there might not be one.

Jacky leaves behind a vast collection of people who love and appreciate her. Reading back through our messages I can tell we made it clear to her how important she was to us. I hope she knew how important she was to the world, because her loss leaves a gaping hole that simply can’t be filled.

 

Grieving together

Grief and I are not strangers, but what nobody tells you is that each fresh grief builds on the ones before. It’s painful, and cumulative. It comes in waves. Sometimes you feel almost normal and then you collapse under the latest tsunami of tears.

Dealing with each fresh grief brings every previous grief closer to the surface. Every scar opens a little. Every wound bleeds afresh. Each new love makes your heart grow, and each new grief makes the surface of that heart a little more raw, the nerves a little more sensitive.

I’ve seen grief described as an amputation, because you never get over it. You can’t just grow another limb, but you learn to live without it. Always aware of the loss, but getting on with life and learning to deal with it. But I think it’s more like a wound that never heals. Sometimes it’s not actively bleeding, but it’s always open. If something touches it, it will always hurt. You just get used to the pain and work around it, until something causes it to bleed again. Sometimes just a trickle, sometimes a flood of pain that it doesn’t seem possible to live through.

Too often we hide away and try not to cry in public. But all that does it make it harder for everyone else who grieves. There’s no shame in grief, no shame in tears. They show the depth of our love, and that’s something to be celebrated.

This time I’m crying in public. The day after I found out I met a friend in a cafe, and my grief was so raw that a waiter came up to me with a small packet of tissues. “I couldn’t help it, I thought you might need these.” Which, of course, made me cry more, but also in a weird way made me feel better – complete strangers can be a fountain of compassion when you need it.

A packet of tissues on a cafe table
Tangible compassion

I’m also posting more on social media. I crowd sourced a sad playlist, asking my friends to recommend their favourite sad songs, because I can’t face anything happy and bounce right now. This, too, brought me connection and solace.

It’s hard to know how to treat someone who is lost in their grief. They are so raw, in so much pain, that it can feel as though just touching them might hurt them. It can feel safer, more respectful to keep your distance and not intrude.

But grief is a terribly lonely feeling. My normal MO is to tell everyone everything. I reach out and connect compulsively. But grief tends to shrink me inside myself. It’s as though it severs the strings that connect me to the world. I curl up and disconnect, even while I crave connection and desperately need to be hugged.

So my advice is to reach out. Text. Make a playlist. Send an email. Do things that don’t demand a response, but that leave the door open to one. I’ve received emails, and messages just checking in. Letting me know people care. And it’s only day two, but I know my community has me in their hearts. It’s those messages that are keeping me afloat. I’m going to need those hearts close to me for some time yet.

I hope she knew how important she was to us. Irrationally, I worry that maybe she didn’t understand what she meant to us – as though that really matters now – but we loved her so much, relied on her so much, and I truly hope she knew.

A glass of champagne in front of a garden
To love, loss, and remembrance

It’s too late now to fret about things we should have said or done. All we can do is hug our loved ones and make sure they know how important they are to us. To reach out. To connect. And to remember.

Things we can do!

Like many Australians (though apparently not enough) I was sick at heart as the election results rolled in last night. This morning I woke feeling alternately hopeless and angry. This government has trashed human rights, gutted welfare, locked up vulnerable people in concentration camps, and absolutely gunned for the poor and vulnerable in every direction, while protecting and enriching the rich and powerful. And here they are, returned to government for reasons I can’t explain.

This morning I texted a dear friend, asking to see her, because I need to focus on the people who give me life and hope, and not the people who suck life and hope from our country.

Fortunately, a mutual friend was organising a commiserative picnic. I went, eager for hugs, and looking for a ray of light, but not really expecting to find one.

At the same time another friend responded to my facebook post (“I’m going to be sick. For three years.”) with “I don’t know what the way forward is from here…”

On a slack channel yet another friend was asking what to do. How to make a difference. Because clearly what we’ve been doing isn’t enough. Greed has won out over hope.

On twitter the same conversation was playing out.

What can we do?

How can we save the future? How can we actually have a future?

And so, when I got to the picnic with a lot of smart, well read, thoughtful people, I asked the same question. What do we do? How do we go forward from here?  We bounced a lot of ideas around. In despair some of us could see the sense of the Thanos solution (see Infinity War, but only if you’re feeling emotionally robust) – there are simply too many of us, and we are wrecking things. But the overall mood was surprisingly optimistic, and two of us, Jen and I, got really stuck into the topic of what we can actually do.

It turns out Jen had read a lot more about it than I have. I tend to rush in and just do things. Jen’s actually thought it through. I left feeling far more hopeful, so I want to share some hope with you in the form of 3 actions you can take.

Number 1: Find an organisation that’s already working on things you care about and throw your weight behind them. Volunteer, donate, give your time, skills, and energy to people who already have a plan. We are stronger together than alone. Whether it’s refugees (consider the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre), climate change (Extinction Rebellion or many others),  or political action (The Greens), consider pitching in to join people with your goals and values who already have a movement, an organisation, and a plan. It’s a great way to increase your impact, and also to find others who care about the same things.

Number 2: Talk. Write. Speak. Take every opportunity to let your voice be heard. Recently I was watching a friend’s thread on Facebook about the devastatingly terrifying abortion laws in some states in the USA, which effectively criminalise miscarriage. Someone commented that these threads were not welcoming spaces for women, as there were a couple of men stomping and fuming about the evils of abortion, making it difficult for women – the ones directly impacted by the laws – to speak.

It occurred to me that there was actually value in adding my voice to the thread, and explaining my experience. Having had two miscarriages I had a perspective on that law that those men could never personally experience, and might not have thought of. Too many of us are silent – perhaps afraid, perhaps despairing – and that suits the rich and powerful just fine. We need to speak up, whether it’s lunchtime conversations, twitter, letters to the editor, articles in news media, blog posts, or facebook rants.

Some years ago my friend Kaye spoke up in a raw and courageous way about this government’s proposal to add a medicare co-payment, which Joe Hockey callously explained away as irrelevant – just “the cost of a beer”. That post went viral, Kaye wound up on TV, and she had a real impact on the way that proposal was received. You never know who is listening, so speak up, speak loudly, and speak often! Recently my 16 year old was told that women were too loud, too aggressive, and should be quieter and more polite. Well she and I both believe we are not loud enough! Not assertive enough! Perhaps it’s time for some aggression. It’s certainly time to speak up.

Number 3: Build community. I’ve started a monthly conversation group called Chatting for Change and it is a glorious thing. Modelled on the salons in 18th century Paris, we are building a community of people with shared values but diverse perspectives who talk about ways we can change the world. At the very least, it’s a way to feel connected and inspired. At its best it may be the birth of ideas with serious impact.  I was inspired to do this by Jessica Kerr’s 2018 YOW! talk on the Origins of Opera and the Future of Programming (I highly recommend watching) where she talked, among other things, about how salons (and similar organisations) can actually create change, and why it works.

We’ve had 4 chats so far and they have been amazing. The last one came up with an idea with the potential to create real change. It gives us hope, connection, and inspiration. And that’s something everyone could use!

Why not start a salon of your own! Join an effective organisation! Lift your voice!

These are all things we can do, and they all have impact. As individuals we can feel powerless, but we all have voices, we all have connections, and we all need each other. It’s time.