Mad Trans Dreams

Visions and Resistance from outside Norms of Gender and Mental Health

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Internalized ableism, white saviorism, depression, secondary trauma, and sustainability

CN:White person exploring racist thoughts and feelings, mentions and brief descriptions of torture; war; depression; nightmares; self-hatred; therapy; anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-trans  violence


As many of us consider how to sustain our passion and action under the Trump administration, I am considering the role of my own racism and internalized ableism in sustainability.

After 9/11/01, another Iraq War was threatened and Special Registration unfolded. Many other things were also happening, but those were two that I was aware of at the time and felt deeply invested in stopping.

Before the Iraq War began, I attended four anti-war protests. I called the president, my Senators, and my representative. I signed petitions. I attended a meeting or two of people planning anti-war actions. I did some direct action on my campus against military recruitment. For me, this was an unprecedented degree of political activism. Bush started the war anyway. And part of me thought–but I did all the right things! All the things that people asked me to do–turn up for protests, make calls, sign petitions, come to meetings–I did them. And a lot of other people did them too. And it didn’t matter. We lost. I was genuinely surprised and discouraged.

Then I stopped being so active on Iraq War issues, and frankly, I mostly stopped thinking about it. I remember clearly, though, that one night I had a vivid nightmare. I saw burned, flayed, cut bodies of Iraqi people laying on sand. They were alive, at that point, and moving weakly. They were being tortured by my own own government, in my name. I couldn’t not witness their pain. I couldn’t stop it. It was a terrible nightmare. And when I woke up, I realized that it was true, except that awake I could choose not to witness.

For Special Registration, I went to an event put on by an immigration law organization and another put on by DRUM (the South Asian Organizing Center, then known as Desis Rising Up and Moving). I had a small house party to raise money for DRUM. I showed up to several protests. The protests were small–tiny, actually. They were generally led by white lawyers, which might have had something to do with the size.  I wrote a paper about Special Registration for class. I probably circulated info about Special Registration to an email list or two. But Special Registration went on and on and on, and I ended up mostly feeling a sort of horror and impotent rage. I couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t talking about it. I couldn’t understand why there weren’t huge marches against it. I couldn’t understand how the government could have done it in the first place, or how our laws had gotten as wrong as they were. I resented almost everyone I met for not doing something about it, and myself for not doing something more effective about it or for maintaining action against it for longer.

That year or so period was also a difficult time for me personally. I was dealing with divorce–the end of a relationship with my first love–and I was also dealing with a lot of anti-trans discrimination. Many days, I spent long hours just staring at a wall, contemplating what was wrong with my life. I did not recognize depression as a part of my experience at that point.


I made plans about what I would do last weekend. I would work hard on Thursday, close my Chase bank account, and then help with set up and tear down at a bystander intervention training that night. The next day (inauguration itself) I would pack the court for Ramarley Graham, do some writing, give to reproductive justice organizations, set up regular donations for the rest of the year, make a sign for the women’s march, participate in the general strike by not working, and have a low-key dinner with friends. Saturday, I would attend the women’s march for 2 hours or so, and do some catch-up work. Sunday, I would connect with my friends in a little support group for action we have, and do more work. During the week, I would focus on work, with a few small online actions.

Things didn’t go exactly as I planned.

On Thursday, I was anxious and distracted, so I was not productive with work. I did close my Chase bank account, and I did do set up and tear down for the bystander intervention training. I enjoyed my volunteer role at the training and learned a little. But I also left with sore knees–we practiced physical techniques like heel stomps, and while I knew it was a risk to my body, I chose to participate in that exercise rather forcefully.

On Friday, I woke up more tired than when I went to sleep. I had a splitting headache. I lay in bed for an hour doing nothing at all. With what felt like Herculean effort, I managed to move to the couch. Because when depression flares up IBS sometimes does too, I spent my day physically moving between the couch and the toilet and emotionally moving between self-castigation and self-pity. It occurred to me that I had fucked up my meds. I did not pack the court. I did not write. I did not work. I did not set up donations. I did manage to make a sign, give to reproductive justice orgs, and eat dinner, although I was not exactly the life of the party. I watched Star Trek. I took my damn meds.

Saturday, I felt a little more functional. I still had a headache, but I felt less immobilized and more desperately sad. I met with a lovely group of people, most of whom I didn’t know, to go to the march. I said that I would probably duck out after two hours because my joints probably couldn’t handle more. I marched.

My back, knees, hip, and feet hurt after around 45 minutes. I stuck it out for another 45 minutes. Then I excused myself and limped to the train. The train was crowded. For a moment it looked like I would have a seat, but I gave it up to a young kid. I kept getting off and on the train in the hopes that I would find a seat on the next one. I didn’t. When I got off the train at my stop, I considered calling a car to get the rest of the way home, but it seemed too selfish and indulgent. On such a day, I should not be calling a car using some service I’m not sure treats workers well. On such a day, I should not be wasting money I could be giving away. So I limped home, collapsed into bed, and didn’t move for a long time. Later, I took a hot bath to ease some of the pain. The pain has slowly faded since then, so that I am almost back to normal today.

This week, as I have heard the news of horrifying executive action after horrifying executive action, I have felt myself getting lost in anxiety. I feel guilty. I feel panicky. I start hyperventilating. I can’t focus, can’t calm down enough to do anything that requires more concentration than a facebook post. I keep feeling like–I need to stop this! I need to do something! This can’t happen! What is happening to people already? What will happen to them next? How can this be happening again/more/still? How can I help? I went to a #NoDAPL rally last night for 45 minutes–I left as my back started to ache. I took some online and other fairly quick and low-key actions. I was pretty productive with work Monday and Tuesday, but yesterday and today I have not managed to do much. The metaphor that comes to mind is that I am spinning out. It is a familiar sensation.


I’ve been thinking about how connected white supremacy, internalized ableism, depression, and secondary trauma are in my own thoughts and feelings. It is often difficult for me to separate them out.

When part of me was shocked that Bush hadn’t just called off the Iraq war after I gave him a phone call and showed up for some marches, that was an internalized sense of white supremacy. I have been taught and at some level believe that all people ought to and will listen to me, that I am entitled to control public policy, that there is no problem so big that I can’t solve it, and that there is no group of people so fucked over that I can’t rescue them.

This is a harmful, racist mindset. It leads me and other white people to diminish the agency, power, and humanity of people of color, funnel money to causes that do more harm than good, smugly get sex workers arrested “for their own good,” and otherwise make things worse. It also absolves us of any responsibility for doing long-term, collaborative work that centers the leadership of directly-affected people and offers the possibility of more meaningful change: work that requires not just presence but persistence, not just money but humility, not just convention but imagination, not just monologue but conversation, and not rescue but relationships.

When I stayed at the march even after my pain got pretty bad and then didn’t even consider the possibility of asking someone for a seat on the train, that was internalized ableism. I felt ashamed of my pain and weakness. I didn’t want to reveal it. I didn’t think I would be good enough as an activist if I didn’t stay at the march for at least an hour, but preferably two. I didn’t think I was worthy of troubling someone else to stand on the train, even if that person was not having any pain at the moment. And I wonder if even that is totally separate from an internalized sense of white supremacy, given that so much of white supremacy is tied up in fucked-up, fake-science, racializing claims about physical, mental, and moral “fitness.”

The harms of white saviorism and white supremacy fall overwhelmingly on people of color. It’s not so great for white people either. If you think you can solve any problem, it’s all on you when you haven’t and you can’t. While burning out and dropping out of social justice work is better than some other forms that white (supremacist) saviorism can take, it’s not great.

I’ve seen some people recommending focusing on a single issue in their activism to avoid burning out under Trump. Some people I love and respect have found that approach helpful, but it feels impossible and undesirable to me. I need to find and remember other paths to sustainability. My therapists have encouraged me to try reframing negative self-talk and saying positive affirmations when I get into self-hatred spirals. Self-hatred and arrogance seem like two sides of the same coin for me, all mixed up with white saviorism, internalized ableism, secondary trauma, and a few other ingredients.

So, I don’t know what my plans are. I don’t know what anyone should believe. I certainly don’t know what any of us should do. But for my own personal stability, I’m interested in trying a slightly different set of affirmations than what my therapists have recommended, to try to intervene a bit with this toxic internal brew:

  • I am a human being who makes mistakes and who is worthy of love and compassion.
  • My pain does not make me any more or less worthy.
  • My bodymind has limitations and vulnerabilities.
  • My bodymind has value.
  • I am an ordinary person.
  • I am not a superhero. I cannot save anyone, and I should not try.
  • Change is inevitable. Change for the better is possible.
  • It’s not all about me.
  • I can contribute to collective action.
  • I do not have more because I am better, smarter, kinder, or harder working. I have more because I have more.
  • I have more because of a history and present of exploitation and injustice.
  • I can share what I have.
  • I cannot solve any of the world’s major problems.
  • I cannot even solve most minor problems of people I know personally.
  • I can act as a resource, collaborator, and friend.
  • I cannot avoid all mistakes.
  • I can try to make amends for mistakes I have made.
  • Every bodymind has limitations and vulnerabilities, although not all the same ones.
  • Every bodymind has value.
  • Every human being makes mistakes and deserves love and compassion.

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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.


Check out this post by Janani Balasubramanian on Black Girl Dangerous:

“February is national eating disorders awareness month.  I mostly have bitterness for it, not just for the winter and its cold, but for the reality that the cold was once much harsher against my much sicker, smaller body.  And that once, I had nothing but shame for the experience. My eating disorder took up most of my teenage-hood.  Younger me had plenty of media representations of people with eating disorders.  Trouble is, they were exclusively representations of white, skinny ciswomen.  Every year, a white, skinny cis woman would come talk at my health class or school assembly about her experience.  This wasn’t a mirror for me to look into; it was a portrait of why I had an eating disorder to begin with….”