Thoughts on Woodhull and The Transgender Training Institute’s Training of Trainers

Today marks the one week anniversary of a journey into two conferences I never in a million years thought I would have had the balls to attend, much let alone participate actively.  From Thursday morning until Sunday evening, I spent my time in Alexandria, Virginia at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit, and from Monday morning until Wednesday evening I was in Philadelphia for the Transgender Training Institute’s Training of Trainers.  Right now I am typing this blog entry fully aware that I will be taking breaks, maybe to get a cookie, maybe to switch a load of laundry (of which there are so many), maybe to watch an episode of Pokemon Indigo League on Netflix, or maybe just to cry.  It’s possible I may abandon this entry altogether, and it’s possible I may put it down for the evening when my partner comes home so I can spend some time with him as we have not seen each other in a week and have much to catch up on.

Avery’s cautious optimism – Day 1 Woodhull

I had so many ideas for directions in which I wanted this entry to go.  As my week progressed, I talked with my peers about how I wanted to write about my experience, each idea changing, refining into something not completely new or different but a lesson scaffolded onto another lesson.  Where the beginning of my week I focused quite bitterly on my sense of being outcast from a blogging community I had expected to welcome me with open arms, a community that treated me like the new kid on the block in not so nice ways, I also realized this was a community made up of individuals going through their own shit and experiencing a drastic change in social environment in their own ways as well.  I tried to empathize via messages I was learning about mental health through amazing workshops, but my own mental health and the difficulty I had processing a recent failed relationship with underpinnings of emotional abuse left me untrusting of those around me and suspicious of why people were not extending hands of support when I consistently asked for them, be it through social media, during audience participation, or outright face to face in hallway conversation.  I found myself feeling not welcome in blogger spaces, and grappled with how much of this was a projection of my own insecurities and how much was legitimate.  Had I been identified as the “needy new neurodivergent blogger with overambitious aspirations of making friends?”  Everyone seemed settled with their groups.  I felt invasive.

Fleeting negative thoughts were carefully mitigated with the positivity of a community I had known for years, friends and lovers I had known for decades, partners of partners, educational cohorts that have now become lovers, this huge mishmash of intersectional (in the least trivial sense of the word) eros that was aggressively unapologetic, forcing me under their wings.  I find myself crying right now thinking about my gratitude for a queerness of bodies and minds that didn’t just give me permission to join them, but danced with me until the day I walked back to my car, smelling them and feeling them and imagining their words and spirits and the grazes of their beard on my thighs and their giggles around the lube bottles I had tried gagging them with and the cupcakes I had licked off their fingers and the way their underwear rippled when I beat them gently and the beauty of their tattoos and the violence in their hand gestures as they spoke of the illusions in idolatry and the way pool water made their t-shirt float all around them and I thought GOD I WANT TO BE THAT T-SHIRT and I thought, “I love you people.”  I fucking love you people.

So much love.
So much love.

I was so proud to be a part of that brilliance.  I was so thrilled to share true magic, in all of its wooey exuberance, with my hematite in one hand and the possibility of failure in the other, and know that no matter where I ended up this week, I would fail beautifully and with people who were willing to help me.  I reaffirmed my beliefs in the humanness of wanting to be happy vicariously.  If I saw others crying, my heart hurt.  The stories I heard, the microaggression activities and other practices of facing transphobia during my TOT Conference, there was so much pain.  At one point my cohort, Emily Nagoski turned to me and said “You know what, Avery, I kinda like that you identify ‘punk’ as one of your genders.”  And I do.  I think I need that hardness.  Because if I spent all this time in my heart, in this empathy and in this affect, I’d fucking flounder.

Private queerspace play party at Woodhull!
Private queerspace play party at Woodhull!

So these two conferences taught me to feel.  They taught me that when I get defensive, I intellectualize, I overanalyze, I try to get into other people’s heads, I reflect on the past, I try to do exactly what I’m doing now.  I don’t feel because it’s a completely fucking vulnerable place.  Case in point: where I was in tears writing the paragraph about my experiences at Woodhull I was a sobbing mess.  Right now, I am dissociated to the point of disinterest, to the point of ending the entry and wondering why I wrote it in the first place.

Mental health wise, I am a person with Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and several instances of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Sometimes these blend wonderfully to make me a hyperaware, feelings-sensitive, intelligent being who is very careful with my assumptions.   Sometimes the blends bring me to other places, some good, some great, some downright horrible.  I don’t have any complete or concluding verdicts to round up my experiences at Woodhull or the TOT to make this a digestible blog post.  I’ll probably revisit it and do quite a bit of editing and adding later on.  But something needed to be said.   Something deserved to be written.  It has been a powerful, emotionally exhausting, and life-changing week to the point where I’m not quite sure who I am right now (I thought today was Friday for a few hours).

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Second to last day at TOT, burnout imminent.

One final thing I want to say about Woodhull, though I’m not sure the order it should be included in this entry, but I wanted to put it in before I forget it, is how much the last week has taught me about the concept of status in the field of Sexuality.  Whether a blogger, educator, sex worker, activist, clinician, so much more that I feel partially terrible for marginalizing the “so much more” bit, you are important for whatever you do.  Not like I need to be the one validating your work, but still.  I saw so many “famous” and “well-known” people this week that were just fucking humans like everyone else.  I even feel a little guilty for name-dropping Emily Nagoski and am debating that redaction…going to sit on it for a bit and why I felt the need to include that.  I had so many great conversations with all of these “big names” this week and didn’t tweet them, didn’t tell anyone else about them, because I respected them for what they were, great conversations.  And I’m a little salty and a lot confused why celebrity has become a thing in the field of sexuality.  I get the whole giving creedence and respect.  I definitely agree with live tweeting hashtagging and giving proper citation for brilliant ideas being generated during workshops.  But when I see stuff like “OMG selfie with ___ look who I just met!”  I’m left with a really puzzled feeling.  I don’t really know what that feeling is, other than maybe fear of capitalist tendencies or going back to that status of not being the cool kid I discussed in the earlier parts of my blog, but it’s like, we’re all part of one community here.  One of the “celebs” I was hanging out with after Woodhull said they deliberately wore a hat the entire time because they wanted to avoid that kind of response, and I totally get it.  Like, maybe they’re here to learn, too?

I mean, my toy lineup from our play party made me semi-famous the morning after.
I mean, my toy lineup from our play party made me semi-famous the morning after.

When I went to the Transgender Training of Trainers, Dr. Green even said something along the lines of “Yeah, you can totally tell people you passed this course…you get a certificate, you know!  But you don’t have to go throwing my name around, even though technically it is my course!”  When you use the image of a celebrity, big name, well-established community figure, when you name-drop, what kind of agency are you taking from that person?  What kind of subalternity are you creating and in a community promoting sex-positivity; do we really want to get that gross about it?  To me, it just cheapens the whole idea.

Yes, I am super fucking proud of myself for pulling through this week.  I most definitely had a deep con-drop on Sunday night, collapsing on a dear friends chaise lounger in the dark and calling my partner in Jersey on the phone crying, “I can’t do the next three days, I don’t even have the energy to shower.”  But I fucking pulled my shit together, I smelted one last spoon, and I held my own during this training.  So yeah, I’m going to toot my own horn.  I’m going to be confident for the first time in a long fucking time and say, “Not only did I do the thing, but I did the thing FUCKING WELL!”

So thank you to Woodhull and TOT for helping me feel all the feels, and to reduce my temptation to get Butlerian with this entry and to let it come from my heart.

/mic drop

Now the gods grew quite scared of our strength and defiance…

and Thor said, “I’m gonna kill ’em all with my hammer, like I killed the giants.”

As part of our Business of Blogging course with Epiphora and JoEllen Notte (The Redhead Bedhead) this past spring, my fellow bloggers and I were given the task of coming up with an origin story…something that encapsulated our desires to blog about sex, sexuality, identity, toys, and all the other delightful things we write about on a regular basis.  I loved this assignment so much; it gave each member of our cohort such unique opportunities to express our backgrounds in so many different formats.  It was a delightful way to learn about each other and I had tons of fun writing it.  So here it is, in all its unedited glory:

 

The concept of an “Origin Story” has put Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s “Origin of Love” in my head on a loop all week with the simultaneous imagery of Weapon X from the Marvel universe (Uncanny X-men story arc ALWAYS).  And I’ve sort of been traversing head and heart for my story.  Do I illustrate a mosaic of snapshots from my life with a lens covered in more vaseline than RuPaul’s Drag Race seasons 1 and 2?  Do I pick one cathartic moment and deconstruct that in order to respect its own value as life is full of origin stories?  And then I realized my “Origin Story” had been staring me in the face the whole time.  Hedwig and X-men.  So what’s the connection to blogging, toys, my passions for sex education, sexual self-discovery and exploration?

First of all, I had discovered both Hedwig and the Angry Inch and X-men comics at hugely transformative stages of my life.  I was around 7 years old when X-men entered my life.  It was one of the first cartoons I ever really engaged with, the first arcade game I punched rolls of quarters into, the first comic series I began reading, and Goddess help me, when that 1994 Fleer Trading Card Series came out, the first thing I had ever began collecting feverishly (I still have every card, mint condition, in a plastic binder on my bookshelf).

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That wig was the WORST.

I understood the higher value of the foil cards that shimmered with their metallic colors, the importance of collecting every card for the triptych stories in order to get the full picture, and I also loved talking about collecting these cards with other kids.  It reminds me a lot of my sex toy collecting now.  Between my highest quality “gets,” to fawning over other collectors’ toy displays, to wishing for those “rares” that were in such limited production that even if I didn’t want them, I NEEDED them, my appreciation for the different artists and aesthetics in the ’94 Fleer Set was really precocious for a 9 year old kid.

The characters in X-men have also been an evolving (see what I did there?) inspiration throughout my life.  As a child, I dressed up as Storm for Halloween one year and Jubilee the next.  In my preteen years, X-men gave me an immense respect for powerful women, but simultaneously allowed me to eroticize them, as my first fantasies as a kid were Psylocke and Polaris.  Purple and green is still my favorite color combination, go figure.  As I got older, and began to understand the political context behind X-men as mutant “others” and my own morphing (again, X-men puns) LGBTQ identity, I saw these characters less as fictional impossibilities and more as realistic role models than most celebrities in early 2000’s culture.

When the live action movies began coming out, I sort of twinged at their “artistic license” with the canon, but was really excited that they were getting more people interested in X-men…people that previously may not have considered themselves “comic folk” or “superhero affiliated.”  It’s sort of like how Sex and the City and Fifty Shades of Grey are all types of frustrating and problematic as introductions to sex toys, but they create dialogue among audiences that might never have happened, and that is something of merit.  I was also really jazzed that Bryan Singer, one of the directors for several of the movies, was openly bisexual until I heard about all the cases of sexual abuse filed against him.  My heart dropped.  As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it created a lot of conflict as to whether I wanted to continue supporting X-men films, where that would compromise my ethics, or if it might trigger me along the way.

I liken this a lot to my immediate knee-jerk reactions to companies like JimmyJane affiliating themselves with larger, “morally corrupt” corporations like Pipedream or concurrently wondering why She-Vibe continues to stock JimmyJane products.  I see that when inserting my own personal narrative into someone else’s decisions without understanding the individual perspectives of everyone involved, it is really difficult to control my emotional reactions.  I couldn’t rationalize any positives in the X-men films, for example, Anna Paquin, who is also openly bisexual and a proactive figure within several advocacy groups, and I was quick to write off an X-men movie if Bryan Singer had any affiliation with it.  So this is definitely an ongoing battle of mediating my own impulse to “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” which is something that will require extensive work if my blogging aims to explore sociopolitical subtexts behind the production and promotion of sex toys.

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Yup. This was a thing. This was absolutely a thing.

Where the X-men had jumpstarted my sexual exploration in childhood and LGBTQ affiliations in teen years, Hedwig and the Angry inch engaged my sensitivity to self in terms of love, mental well-being, and using my “rebel roots” to connect with people instead of isolating.  My early angsty teens were fueled by punk rock, Ani Difranco, and a complete transformation into masculine-leaning androgyny.  I hadn’t begun identifying as genderqueer, but after seeing Hedwig in my best friend’s living room my sophomore year, I learned that just like my fluid understandings of gender, my ideas of appearing “hard” and “soft” to people were equally blurry.  It became the pitch for my sex education from undergrad onward: because I looked “alternative,” I was actually “accessible.”  People would understand that I wasn’t judging them because I was probably always being judged.  Hedwig taught me to embrace my vulnerabilities in praxis, that I’m not going to get anywhere in life without taking risks, and that mistakes are a part of the process.

But most of all, Hedwig taught me love in a profound way.  I learned about love as a spiritual process, love as a means of connecting to people, love as a foundation for creation, love as the element that runs through everything we do as humans.  And today, it still holds true.  Every paper I have written, every thesis, practicum, or capstone I have ever worked on has emphasized the importance of love in your work.  It is the great equalizer in that it is indefinable and yet always felt in some form.  I use love in how I teach students, how I work with clients in therapy, I am using love right now in how I write this entry.  It is nebulous, explosive of time and space, heady yet simple, spectral beyond anything narrowed down to a “concept.”  I still write anonymous letters to randomized addresses I find from whitepages.com telling people “I have no idea who you are, but you are beautiful and I love you.”  It’s worth doing.  Love makes this all worth doing.

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Fifteen years after watching it in her living room, my best friend and I finally got to see Hedwig on Broadway. With Taye Diggs, no less! <3

Reflecting on X-men and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I think not only of Stan Lee and John Cameron Mitchell, but everyone else that has had input in the creation and writing of these stories.  These stories are rich with value, complexity in symbolism that are universal enough that almost anyone can connect with them, but nuanced enough that they are not two-dimensional and individuals can take away different messages.  These writers are absolutely brilliant at their craft and it takes a network of support and years of effort to achieve such excellence.  But they are also unique as human beings, they had their own “Origin Stories” to bring them to writing.

Everyone has an origin story, if not one, than many, or even infinite.  Some may say every moment is a new opportunity for an origin story.  I am curious to hear yours, if you’d be willing to share.  If you click on this entry, it will take you to the post where you can add your comments, or you can email me or even chat with me in real time via IRC.

 

 

With love,

Avery

Reflections on Sobriety, Relationships, and Self

Please be aware of the “content” in this entry before you continue reading.  (I still don’t know how I feel about the labels “Trigger” or even “Warning,” because they can sometimes be alarmist and also paint my authenticity as negative.  If anyone has suggestions for how to label blog posts with sensitive topic material, please let me know.)  This entry is going to deal with some of my histories with addiction, substance abuse, emotional abuse, and my current relationship with sobriety.

So I made my official decision to stop drinking and using cannabis around Labor Day of last year. I am hesitant to scroll through text messages to figure out the exact day because I don’t want to quantify my sobriety in terms of an anniversary. I’ve found that sobriety, much like many other things in my life, has been a very fluid, spectral concept.  I know it is not always this way with other people and it may not always be this way during my trajectory. Growing up in a music scene that was heavily populated by straight-edge folks, I know that some may frown upon what appears to be a lack of commitment, but the ideologies behind abstinence make me really squirmy.

I decided to stop drinking as a response to many years of binge events, nights where I would use alcohol to allay social anxiety but instead I would turn into a monstrously abusive person. When drunk, not tipsy, not buzzed, but full-on hammered, I would become so reckless that I picked verbal fights with loved ones, had sex with people without even learning their names, drove drunk, pissed in public (my first experience at age 15 was on a cop car in Spain after downing a pint of vodka), threw up, chain smoked, and did virtually anything I could think of to be the center of attention.

 

shotglass jameson
This shot glass never got washed because it was constantly in use.

My first year at undergrad, I was on the planning committee for one of the biggest LGBTQ events of the semester, and I ended up getting alcohol poisoning before the dance even started. I was one of a dozen students that ended up being hospitalized for acute alcohol intoxication, and DIVA Night was cancelled for almost a decade following this incident. So many people from my Pride Alliance, the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and other feminist organizations I was a part of were commenting on how, if you needed to be that drunk for a night based in Drag and “gender-bending,” you clearly had some insecurities about attending an LGBTQ event. Even more humiliating, a fellow student had filmed me getting carried out of my dorm in a stretcher into the ambulance, and used it for her documentary about DIVA night. So there I was, outed to these organizations I was a part of, a queer kid with a drinking problem whose irresponsibility had now been lumped in with speculations of internalized homophobia.

collection of bowls in college
The “Gay House” bowl collection, 2003.

And I did nothing to improve my reputation. I moved out of the dorms to the LGBTQ off-campus housing, which was a huge deal because I was a freshman living with all seniors, and we ended up being one of the bigger stoner houses in our complex. I lived in LGBTQ houses for the rest of my years in undergrad, carrying the stoner reputation with me in my social life, battling a brief cocaine addiction in my antisocial life, and drinking what I thought were normal amounts according to college standards. I mean, I hung out with kids who had a phrase called “Puke and Rally,” where you kept drinking even after throwing up.  Drinking to the point of vomiting once a month is totally normal, right?

microbrew sideproject fruit
A fruit Belgian side-project we named “Queer Beer.”

College ended, and the local microbrew scene greeted me with open arms when I moved back home. My dad and I began brewing our own beer and we enrolled in our local pub’s beer program, where you had to drink every kind of beer they offered in order to win all sorts of points, perks, and prizes. All my friends became obsessed with this pub, which I had been eating at since I was a small child. I became really chummy with the owners and staff…I even got a tattoo of their logo on my forearm one drunken night in my basement by a guy I was buying weed from and cheating on my current partner with. Most of the beers there were high ABV (alcohol percentage), and I would still chug them like they were Bud Light. I did gain an appreciation and knowledge of different beers (along with 30 pounds), but it was mostly just an excuse to binge drink three times a week, go to my friends house down the street to smoke weed, and attempt a very foggy drive home. How I have lived my life without any DUIs is an absolute blessing beyond comprehension.

 

tattoo of pub logo
I went right from getting the tattoo to showing it off at the bar.  Ugh…
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Flights were a personal favorite when I was the designated driver.

When I moved to California for six months, I began to develop a completely new relationship with cannabis, using it medically to replace my prescriptions for insomnia and anxiety. I found that by smoking, I rarely drank alcohol, and my cannabis use was also relatively infrequent (maybe once or twice a week if I was having a tough time sleeping or had a big social event in San Francisco). The level of responsibility and accuracy of treatment, plus the attitudes of my friends around me towards cannabis was totally foreign. It was no longer a substance to abuse, but a medium to titrate in order to regulate daily life. I don’t want to glorify it, there were certainly still people abusing cannabis in California, but the general attitudes were much more mature than anything I had ever experienced on the East Coast. When I moved back home to Jersey, I brought what little of my prescribed cannabis I had left and lived off of that until it was gone. I will not buy anything illegally here, mostly because I have no idea what strains I am smoking or whether it is benefitting my mental state, but also because a lot of the mindset around here still treats cannabis like a fucking novelty. It has its place for recreation, I understand, but I can’t be around people who use it like that given my efforts towards sobriety and clearer thinking.

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I used to glorify my substance abuse by trying to take “artsy” pictures.

So if I were to ever start using medical cannabis again… would that mean I was no longer sober? I’m not sure. I was able to maintain self-awareness and was never abusive when using medical cannabis. At my SMART meetings, they tell us that if we are on psych meds, it is absolutely acceptable. I had to take Norco (an opioid) during my back surgery, and I did so responsibly. There is a difference between using chemicals as medicine and as an escape. When I think of my sobriety, I think of a very strong mindfulness that comes with levels of responsibility to myself and others.

What I do know is that I am not abusive when I am sober. That is the only sure thing I understand so far. Living a sober life these past ten months has taught me new introspection, new methods of social interaction, given me new confidence, and kept my anger at bay. Most importantly, sober life has saved my relationship with my primary partner. Where we spent every night drinking and every weekend drunk, frequently blowing up these intoxicated evenings into fights and days of not talking, my partner and I communicate more now than I have in any previous relationships (poly family excluded, they have been outstanding communicators). We emotionally process each other’s feelings now, we slow the pace of our conversations, and we check our assumptions.

keurig cup post it
We also drink inhuman amounts of coffee, tea, and seltzer.

During these ten months I have had a drink or two, and I don’t consider it a “fall from the wagon.” I have enjoyed a nice glass of red wine with my family for my father’s 60th, and I definitely had a Manhattan to honor the death of my grandma who drank one before her evening programs until the day she died. My beautiful partners in Philadelphia made me a soul-warming Hot Toddy for Boxing Day with their family. These have been significant moments with what I consider libations in the most fundamental sense of the word. I have not consumed these drinks for the sake of intoxication, but rather to honor the moment and its rarity in my ongoing commitment to remain sober for the sake of myself and the ones I love.

I still pee in public these days, but with a much more discerning eye, and usually with a functional objective rather than drunkenly marking my territory.

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