Mad Trans Dreams

Visions and Resistance from outside Norms of Gender and Mental Health

Leave a comment

My Rikers visit–race, gender, disability, and jail

Content warnings: suicide, solitary confinement, racist violence, sexist violence, ableist violence, jails

When I went to a vigil for the victims of the Charleston shooting last Sunday, one speaker stood out to me. I think he was Jumaane Williams, but I could be wrong. He spoke directly to us white people in the audience, saying that it was fine we were standing with them that night and mourning, but asking us where we would be the next morning. He said–and I could be getting this wrong, but my memory is that he said–don’t you dare stand with us tonight and cry if you aren’t willing to stand with us tomorrow, when we demand police reform, affordable housing, welfare rights, and more.

Yesterday I went to the Trans Day of Action. I loved it. I have been away from my NYC community for too long. I got to see so many beautiful people–some I knew, many I didn’t. People carried signs like Stand with Jennicet, End Deportation Now, Arm Trans Women Disarm Cops, Trans Power. Trans people of color led the march and rally. I could be wrong, but I thought more people participated in the march using wheelchairs this year than past years. I found myself able to state my own access needs better than I had in the past. Our chants filled the air–like “No Justice, No Peace, No Transphobic Police.”

As I left, I saw a huge gathering of people carrying the HRC equals sign. It felt like a punch in the gut, even though as soon as I saw it I realized I should have predicted it given the gay marriage decision.

Gay marriage, of course, has been all over the news and my social media feeds. I thought I would feel something learning about the decision, but I felt nothing. Or at least, I didn’t feel anything at first, but eventually felt guilty for not feeling anything, and somewhat–antsy? anxious?–as the stories kept scrolling.

I thought I might feel some happiness, because I know many people in our communities–and not only white cis gay men–have fought for this and found it meaningful. I thought I might feel some relief, because the intense homophobic opposition to gay marriage had not won out. I thought I might feel contempt for the national gay organizations that have pushed this issue ahead of so many more pressing ones. I thought I might feel frustration with the way the decision shores up marriage and continues to privilege it over other relationship configurations. I thought I might feel rage that people claimed victory when Gutiérrez was shushed, when Peterson is in prison, when Hall is dead, and when so many Black people, trans people, disabled people, and Black trans disabled people are imprisoned, deported, hurt, homeless, killed. I didn’t expect to feel…blank.

Today was the Dyke March, which I have never attended. As I was considering what to do today, I decided that it felt most important to me to join the Resist Rikers march. I’ve been out to Riker’s many times, but always as a lawyer visiting a client. I would go on the long trip, go into the main entrance where “ordinary” visitors are not allowed, show my attorney ID, take a shuttle bus, go through security, and usually eventually get to meet with the person I came to see in some tiny room. My client, almost always a poor trans woman of color, often someone disabled, young, or an immigrant, would tell me about horrible things. And I would talk to her, do my best to show compassion and respect, take notes, share any advice I could, offer ideas for next steps in our work together, and then leave. Going back today as a part of a protest, shouting that this jail and all jails must be shut down, seemed important. And I didn’t know if I could handle doing anything explicitly gay, given my reaction to HRC logos and marriage discussions. And I thought of the speaker at the Charleston vigil, and asked myself if I was going to be one of the hypocrites he spoke about, or whether I would at least do this much–just a tiny drop in the ocean of what white people need to do for racial justice, but something that is probably easier for me to do than for many others. And so I went.

It was a fairly small group of protesters. It was unseasonably cold and rainy, and many of us were not dressed warmly enough. I didn’t know anyone there. I don’t know how many trans people there were, but I feel confident I was not the only one. A beautiful person across from me held a beautiful sign that said “No Trans Liberation Without Prison Abolition.” One of the chants we shouted was “Arm Trans Women Disarm Cops,” echoing the sign I had seen the day before. It was a multiracial group, although it seemed somewhat whiter to me than the Trans Day of Action.  It seemed like there was a lot of press at the action, but I have only seen one story so far.

During the rally, I was reminded of how much jail issues are disability issues, at the same time they are race and gender issues. I didn’t catch the name of any of the speakers, but I mostly remember the speeches by Black women. The first Black woman who spoke shared her experiences as a prisoner on Riker’s Island. She talked about how officers called her “bitch” so much it came to seem like a second name. She talked about trying to help out when a prisoner and officer were having some sort of conflict, and how officers physically attacked her for it. She talked about how after that she was placed in solitary confinement, where guards would take away her phone call, her shower, and her meals on a whim. She talked about how, as a certified nurse assistant. she used to always speak up when she or someone else wasn’t getting the health care they needed, but how Riker’s took that from her. They shamed her and punished her for that sort of advocacy so much she came to feel it was wrong. She talked about how they refused her medical attention for her injuries from the officer attack, and how it took two months for them to finally X-ray her ankle, admit it was broken, and put it in a cast. She talked about how she used a wheelchair for four months–until she was released. When she was released, they said that she couldn’t take the wheelchair, because it was their property. She wanted to leave so much that she literally crawled off the island without the wheelchair, and finally made it home.

Another Black woman told us about Kalief Browder. He was a Black teenaged boy accused of stealing a back pack. He refused to take a plea bargain, so he stayed on Riker’s Island for three years until he finally had a trial. Of the three years he spent on Riker’s Island, two of them were in solitary confinement, a form of torture he wrote about. While in solitary confinement, he became suicidal for the first time in his life. He attempted suicide more than once. Some time after he was finally released from jail, he completed suicide. A big part of the protest was naming the Department of Correction as his murderer, delivering a symbolic coffin, and demanding that every person on the Island be released.

I know that prisons are all about racism, gender oppression, and ableism–that all those things are bound up with one another. But I only feel it viscerally on some days. Today was one of those days.


1 Comment

to live as Borderline means you by Kayla Rosen

A lot of what I do in this blog is share other people’s work. That’s actually a big part of my idea for this blog. I want to find work that other people have done or are doing, especially work related to madness and transness, broadly defined. I want to share that work when it seems ethical to do so. I’m hungry for it, and I doubt I’m the only one. I’ve been starting to think about other things I might do with this blog, too. You might see some new types of posts from me. Insh’allah, my posts will be more frequent too.

Right now I want to share a piece I loved from a zine called Today’s Identity of the Day Is… by Kayla Rosen. I think it’s pretty amazing, and I happen to know that Kayla will share pdf or screenreader-friendly versions of their zine. You can write them at kaylarosenzine at gmail dot com.

This page has content warnings for ableism, abuse, and victim blaming. Below is the original text by Kayla Rosen:

to live as a Borderline means you

a Mad nod to Gloria Anzaldúa and her “to live in the borderlands means you.” Written during a poetry workshop by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasingha at the UW D Center. Thanks to everyone who shared that space with me.

There are two short ways of saying “borderline personality disorder”

“BPD” goes nicely with the others: ADD, GAD, PTSD

and then there’s “borderline”

Borderline what?

When you say borderline, you mean you don’t know if I’m psychotic or neurotic.

I say, why not both?

My doctor thinks I’m too good for it, tells me it’s normal to have “low self-esteem”

There’s no such thing as “too good for it,” but me and my neurotype are too good for her, and my self-esteem is just fine, thank you very fucking much!

“Borderline what?”

Borderline everything.

Borderline like I’ll self-diagnose and tell you why the diagnostic criteria are shit in the same breath

Borderline like all or nothing, borderline like both

Borderline like attracted to all genders, have none myself,

Like I can’t bound it in and I don’t want to

Borderline like half the time I don’t know if I want to be friends or fuck—

I just want to be with you

(but probably both.)

Borderline — just the label will put me on the wrong side of the victim/abuser dynamic in your mind; nevermind who put me where I am

Borderline like I’ve had way too much already and I’m always a split second from running but if that moment never comes, there’s no end to how close we can be.

Borderline like if I say I care about you, the flimsy border between my love and my terror might collapse,

Borderline like saying it anyway

Leave a comment

Disabled genders

Check out this post on Disabled Genders in an exciting new blog!

Silence Breaking Sound

If an alien were to visit certain parts of Earth and take a look at many of the bathroom doors here, they’d see a regular bathroom for the figure in a dress, a regular bathroom for the figure in pants, and a single stall for the figure in a wheelchair.  Based on this, they might well come to the conclusion that human society recognizes three genders: man, woman, and disabled.  And, as far as how nondisabled people think about disability, they might not be totally wrong.

Disability is seen and treated as simultaneously emasculating and defeminizing.  On the one hand, it’s often assumed that disabled people lack some of the most prized qualities associated with masculinity — namely, physical strength and a keen intellect.  Meanwhile, we’re not considered to have positive traditionally feminine traits such as beauty and social graces either.  If anything, we get assumed to have the worst traits attributed…

View original post 384 more words


Society for Disability Studies and Karen Nakamura

I spent the last four days at the Society for Disability Studies conference (SDS). This conference has a lot of serious problems, including high financial cost, plenty of jargon, and ongoing racism. It’s also amazing in some ways, including great people, better accessibility than any other academic conference I have attended, more undergraduate presentations than any other academic conference I have attended, and fantastic conversations. I decided to go mostly because it would give me a chance to hear presentations by people whose work I admire. One of those people is Karen Nakamura.

I first heard Dr. Nakamura speak at a queer disability symposium at NYU a few years ago. I was so excited about her work that I rushed out to buy her most recent book—Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan. In Disability of the Soul, and the accompanying short films, she shared some of what she learned about a community in Northern Japan where most people have schizophrenia or some other form of mental illness—a “disability of the soul.” This community sounds pretty amazing, although Dr. Nakamura is careful not to romanticize it, and of course it has its problems. Still, most people live and work and love in the town, supporting each other and building community, going to the hospital relatively rarely and mostly on their own terms. I really recommend at least checking out the two minute trailer to the film Bethel if you can. It has the welcome song that people in this community sing, and I love it.

I’m grateful that Dr. Nakamura shared information about this community–with the consent and encouragement of that community. I’m also grateful that she disclosed that she too has what she terms a biopsychosocial disability. While she lived in the community as a scholar studying the community, she also participated in that community as a woman with a disability.

I want to share some of what I heard Dr. Nakamura talk about at SDS. But I also want to make it clear that I was very, very tired when listening to the talk, and that now I’m trying to remember it a few days later. I’m probably getting some things wrong, and I know I’m missing a lot.

The title of her talk was “Why I am Not a Medical Anthropologist.” She started out showing an image of brain scans. These scans showed the amygdalas of a gay man, straight woman, lesbian, and straight man. She pointed out how it was supposed to show that gay men’s brains were like straight women’s brains, and lesbians’ brains like straight men’s brains. She pointed out that it was gay men who did this research, on the theory that it would lead to legal protections for gay people–but that it carried forward old medicalized theories about “inversion,” doesn’t really make a big difference legally, and obviously didn’t reflect anything like the whole world of possible genders and sexualities.

Then she talked to us about how she did research on Deaf communities in Japan, and then on psychiatric disability in Japan. Apparently, as soon as her research shifted from deafness to psychiatric disability, people started to label her as a medical anthropologist, instead of a cultural or visual anthropologist. That has a certain irony, since Disability of the Soul was about a community that really didn’t center medical models at all. While she did interview the psychiatrist in the community, she didn’t center those interviews, and as I recall the psychiatrist mostly talked about how overused psychiatric hospitalization was.

In the talk at SDS, Dr. Nakamura said that she resisted the label of medical anthropologist in part because people were pushing it on her so hard as an automatic response to work on psychiatric disability. “I reject that the medical should be the totality of our experience.” She also touched on a problem that I am sure many of us mad people and allies in academia are way too aware of already–that students with psychiatric disabilities often get offered nothing in terms of accommodations and told that they must take medical leaves.

Dr. Nakamura also gave us a little taste of her next project. I was so excited to hear that she will now be working on trans activism in Japan. She said that when the DSM-III was translated into Japanese, they couldn’t use the term “disorder” because a direct translation would give the meaning “chaos.” (I think disorder would be this word, 混乱, but my Japanese is very bad, so feel free to correct me if I am wrong!) Instead, they used the word for disability. (I think disability would しょうがい, but maybe ふじゅう?) She suggested that trans communities in Japan have organized around a disability identity much more extensively than trans communities in the U.S.

I wonder if that naming in the DSM also had an impact on the organizing of people with (other) psychiatric disabilities. In my experience, in the U.S. and it seems like probably the U.K., a lot of people in our communities have organized under the umbrella of consumer/survivor/ex-patient, mad pride, radical mental health, or recovery movements, often deliberately distancing themselves from larger disabled communities. Of course that isn’t all of us, but I think it is a lot of us. (It may also partly be due to disability rights activists with physical disabilities distancing themselves from us crazies.) And I don’t know—if the term disability replaced the term disorder in the English DSM, I might actually be more concerned rather than more excited about using disability language; it would seem more medicalized to me because the psychiatric establishment would have claimed it. Not that I think it would have been enough to make me want to distance myself from the amazing work people are doing with building disability justice frameworks.

The discussion after Dr. Nakamura’s talk was interesting to me as an outsider among anthropologists. A few people talked about how calling themselves medical anthropologists opened doors for them that had been closed when they called themselves cultural anthropologists. While I respect and agree with Dr. Nakamura’s position that anthropology about disabled communities ought not to be thought of as a subset of medical anthropologist, I realized that if I were an anthropologist, I might be a medical one. It’s not that I think the medical does or should define our experience. It’s that I’m fascinated with all of the ways the medical industrial complex harms us. I’m also interested in the ways that we navigate medical systems, and how some of us can sometimes get useful things out of those systems. That’s actually part of the reason why I like the term “psychiatric disability” as opposed to mental, emotional, psychosocial, or behavioral disability. Partly I like that term because our impairment or difference is associated with our psyches–with what people think of as the “mind” part of bodyminds. And partly I like that term because while some pieces of psychiatry sometimes help some of us, psychiatry is also one of the things that “disables” us–it puts social and institutional barriers in our way, locks some of us, and hurts many of us at least some of the time.

I am excited to read Dr. Nakamura’s next book. I hope that some more people will check out her work too.

And if you want to learn more about what happened at SDS, you can go over to twitter and check out #2015SDS. Most sessions had livetweeting.

Leave a comment

List of books, articles, and blog posts about transness and disability

I created this list recently for someone who asked. Some of these pieces I absolutely love. Others I have some real frustrations with. A few I haven’t yet read. Some are poetry collections, some are academic articles, some are newspaper articles, some are personal narratives, some are zines, some are fiction. What is missing from this list?

Gabriel Arkles, Bringing Disability Justice to Analysis of Trans* Legal Issues, NUSL Blogs (May 24, 2014),

Gabriel Arkles, Gun Control, Mental Illness, and Black Trans and Lesbian Survival, 42 Southwestern L. Rev. 855 (2013),

Janani Balasubramanian, #EatingDisordersAreForWhiteWomen, Black Girl Dangerous (Feb. 17, 2014),

Baril, Alexandre (2014). “Exploring Ableism and Cisnormativity in the Conceptualization of Identity and Sexuality ‘Disorders,'” Annual Review of Critical Psychology 11.

Baril, Alexandre. (2015). “Needing to Acquire a Physical Impairment/Disability: (Re)Thinking the Connections Between Trans and Disability Studies Through Transability”, Translator: Catriona LeBlanc, Hypatia: Journal of Feminist Philosophy, Special Issue: New Conversations in Feminist Disability Studies, 30, 1.

Baril, Alexandre (2015). “Transness as Debility: Rethinking intersections between trans and disabled embodiments,” Special Issue: Frailty and Debility, Feminist Review, no. 111. 
Gabriel Charonzec, Accessing Mental Health Care While Trans (2013),

Simone Chess et al, Calling All Restroom Revolutionaries!, in THAT’S REVOLTING! (Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, ed. 2010).



Cecilia Chung, Cecilia Chung Speaks on Trans Women Living with HIV (2014),

Michael Davidson, Pregnant Men: Modernism, Disability, and Biofuturity, in SEX AND DISABILITY (Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, ed. 2012).

Reina Gossett, APA Revises Manual: Being Transgender Is No Longer A Mental Disorder (Dec. 3, 2012),

Harlow, My Experience with Discrimination (2015),

Lucas Hildebrand, Dear Rhys Ernst: LUCAS HILDERBRAND ON RHYS ERNST’S “DEAR LOU SULLIVAN” Visual AIDS (March 2, 2015),

Alyssa Hillary, On the Erasure of Queer Autistic People,

Tori Jezebel, I Get It (2013),

Anson Koch-Rein, Special Needs and Rainbows: Narratives of Disability in Parenting Blogs on Transgender Children

Jennifer H. Levi and Bennett H. Klein, Pursuing Protection for Transgender People through Disability Laws, in Transgender Rights (Paisley Currah, Richard Juang, and Shannon Minter, ed. 2006).

Kyle Lukoff, Taking Up Space, in Gender Outlaws (Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, ed. 2010).

Lee Lyubov, How to be an Ally to Disabled & Neurodiverse Folks in Activist & Academic Communities, Queer Mental Health (July 16, 2012),

Mia Mingus, Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability, Leaving Evidence (Aug. 22, 2011)

Rebecca Minnich, Don’t Mess with these Girls, POZ Magazine (Aug. 2004),

Ashley Mog, Bathrooms as Trans and Crip Spaces of Contestation,

Michael Scott Monje, Jr., Defiant (2015).

Leroy Moore/Kay Ulanday Barrett, Trans Man of Color with a Disability, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Breaks It Down Poetically, Politically & Personally, Poor Magazine (Nov. 25, 2013)


Jasbir K. Puar, Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled,

Sylvia Rivera (STAR) and Arthur Bell (Gay Activist Alliance) interview Chris Thompson for GAY FLAMES 1970,

Matthew Rodriguez,Raquel Sapien Shares Her Life as an Openly HIV-Positive, Trans Activist, The Body (Jan. 8 2015),

Princess Harmony Rodriguez, You Can Be Loved: For Those of Us Who Live With Mental Illness, Black Girl Dangerous (June 3, 2015)

Kayla Rosen, Today’s Identity of the Day Is… (2015).

Ellen Samuels, Critical Divides: Judith Butler’s Body Theory and the Question of Disability, in FEMINIST DISABILITY STUDIES (Kim Q. Hall, ed. 2011).

Chase Strangio, Debating ‘Gender Identity Disorder’ and Justice for Trans People Huffington Post (Dec. 5, 2012)

Abby L. Wilkerson, Normate Sex and Its Discontents, in SEX AND DISABILITY (Robert McRuer and Anna Mollow, ed. 2012).

Tarynn Witten, End of life, chronic illness, and trans-identities, Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life & Palliative Care 01/2014; 10(1):34-58.