Sunday, July 13, 2008

(my) truth about causality, queerness, and abuse

When I came out to my birth mother, one of her first questions (or, more accurately, accusations) was: “This is because of what happened with your brother, isn’t it?” She couldn’t speak the words that held the truths of my life; “this,” for her, was as close as she could get to admitting that her only daughter was queer. “What happened” was as close as she could come to admitting that her only daughter had been abused by her own son. The causal link that she saw linking these two unspeakable truths about this girl she birthed was terrifying to her, but at the same time, made it easier to dismiss and refuse to engage with each hard truth.

These are my terrifying, real, hard truths:
I am queer.
I am a survivor* of childhood sexual abuse, a survivor of emotional abuse and neglect, and a survivor of rape.
I do not see these aspects of my identity as separate, or separable. They do not exist as isolated truths. Each identity plays into and informs the other. (Yes, intersectionality applies here, too.) I cannot say that the abuse does not affect my current sexuality, just as I cannot say that my sexuality wasn’t an aspect of the abuse as it happened.
I was victimized in part because my sexuality was already a point of vulnerability.
And here’s the other part of this truth that nobody wants me to say, nobody wants to hear: I am queer because I was sexually abused.

Yep, I said it. The way my life has panned out, there is a connection. There is a link. It is, at least in part, a causal one.

Which isn’t to say that every queer woman is drawn to women because she was sexually assaulted (although the number is a little overwhelming), or that every woman who was victimized “goes gay.” But it’s my reality. And I do not think I am alone.

I’ve spent almost the entirety of my “out” life (5 years now) running away from that truth. Denying it and downplaying it and making it not mine, fitting myself into the mold of the (already marginal) rhetoric of queer survivors of sexual violence. I was terrified to lose that legitimacy as a queer woman, terrified to open up that most painful part of my past to scrutiny and disbelief (as if it weren’t already). And maybe, in most people’s eyes, and certainly in the eyes of the mainstream alphabet-soup (LGBTQ) movement, I just lost my claim to a “real,” “legitimate” queer identity. But when it comes back to it, this is my truth. This causal link between sexual violence and my queer identity is real.

(so much more to say after the jump)

Here are some more truths about that link:

It has nothing to do with legitimacy or authenticity. More specifically: my admission to the causal link has nothing to do with illegitimacy.
I am still a legitimate, authentic queer woman.
I am still a legitimate, authentic survivor of sexual/emotional/spiritual violence.
My sexual interactions and realities and pleasure-seeking moments are inextricably wrapped up in my experiences of abuse.
My experiences and memories of abuse are inextricably wrapped up in my queer sexuality.
This link is normal.
I am not an anomaly. (The anomalous part: I am speaking about it. I am not hiding.)

There are certain standards of authenticity that the mainstream LGBTQ movement and a majority of queer people cling to and uphold. This one comes from a lot of different angles, from almost every aspect of both the queer and survivor movements. With this, I reject this standard of authenticity. I refuse to continue to fake it.
In The Courage To Heal, the text that usually stands as the bible of the survivor movement, Laura Davis & Ellen Bass declare there to be no causal connection between child sexual abuse and coming out as a lesbian. They are committed not to providing a space for different truths, different standards of authenticity, to exist; they are committed to disavowing that connection, and, by extension, denying authenticity and legitimacy to those queer women (like myself) who may see – or live - a causal connection between their abuse and their sexuality. In an article in The Advocate on the prominence of lesbians in the survivor movement, Davis says, “If child sexual abuse was responsible for women becoming lesbians, then the lesbian population would be far greater than it is today. Sexual abuse may be one factor among many in someone’s sexual orientation. But saying that abuse causes homosexuality is making an assumption that there’s something wrong with being lesbian or gay.”
Her first point is a fair one; we would, indeed, have a hell of a lot more (out) queer women if every survivor were queer. And, of course, not every queer survivor’s sexuality is a direct result of her abuse. But the rhetoric put forth by Davis, the same rhetoric put forth by the majority of the LGBTQ and survivor movements, is a limiting discourse. It creates and enforces a very strict standard of authenticity and legitimacy.
Here’s the thing about standards of authenticity and legitimacy: they, by definition, exclude people. I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise that the people excluded are most often members of minority groups (women, queers, p.o.c., etc.). Before I wrote out my truth, before I gave voice to it, I was excluded from the queer movement and from the survivor movement. I was part of each, of course, but only as a (self-)censored woman. I shut off that truth-telling part out of internalized standards of authenticity and out of the fear of being denied authenticity and entrance into the “real queers’” club by the rest of the “real queers” – that is, the queers who adhere to the rules of authenticity and presentation and legitimacy. (Which, ironically, is a little anathema to the idea of “queerness” itself.)
By contrast to Davis’ later point, I give you this quote (on p. 90, if you’re curious) from Ann Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures: “But why can’t saying that ‘sexual abuse causes homosexuality’ just as easily be based on the assumption that there’s something right, rather than something wrong, with being lesbian or gay? As someone who would go so far as to claim lesbianism as one of the welcome effects of sexual abuse [word!], I am happy to contemplate the therapeutic process by which sexual abuse turns girls queer.”

Speaking honestly and truthfully about this connection does not need to imply a negative assumption about queerness and/or lesbianism. If the LGBTQ movement is so invested in fighting homophobia, why does it play into its assumptions here? Assuming that speaking about causality would imply an inherent dysfunction of queerness is homophobic; it is, on some level, an admission of queerness as something that could be dysfunctional. If we, in our queer communities, truly based our rhetoric on the assumption that nothing could de-legitimize or de-authenticate our queerness, there would be no need to fear speaking honestly about these things we censor.
The survivor activist community plays into similar homophobic fears when it censors its members and so vehemently denies a causal link. It makes sense; the survivor movement has worked very hard to gain legitimacy and credibility in the mainstream culture, and a refusal to play by the rules of homophobia could very well threaten that mainstream legitimacy and credibility. But by creating such a rigid disavowal of the connection, the survivor movement is giving in to, rather than rising above, the power of lesbian baiting and homophobia…and therefore, forfeiting their potential for truly radical – and truly effective – change.
And that’s just on the social movement level.
On the individual level, both the queer and survivor communities are excluding people like me. People who are no longer going to censor ourselves or our sexualities or our very messy realities that we live. I’m creating a community that I can belong in, but no “established” community is particularly happy to have me, this woman who speaks the things you’re not supposed to talk about. I’m still committed to social change, and to these social movements, despite their exclusion…but that’s no thanks to the communities that would deem me inauthentic or illegitimate. I’m still committed to these movements and communities because I’ve got a stubbornness that allows me to believe that I’ll eventually be accepted, with all of my messiness. That’s not a stubbornness that we can expect from most people, or a stubbornness that’s necessarily all that healthy or communicates a healthy sense of self-worth. My standing commitment to these movements doesn’t negate the fact that these movements and these communities are in pretty dire need of change, expansive change. Something’s gotta give here. And it sure as hell had better not be my, or Ann Cvetkovich’s, or any of the other women whose sexual realities mirror mine.

The solution here is not about marching on the nation’s capital or signing petitions or writing letters. The solution is pretty simple: talk to each other. But not just in the bullshit rhetoric that’s dictated by the LGBTQ and survivor movements and communities. Speak openly and honestly, in full truths and full sincerity. Talk about the messiness, if your reality is messy. Don’t shy away from it and don’t buy into the shaming that the rest of the culture, and even your intimate communities, puts on you (far, far, far easier said than done, I know).
Control your knee-jerk reactions to realities or explorations of causality, and don’t make judgments about authenticity or legitimacy.
This is not about changing your realities or experiences. This is about being true to your reality, uncensored, uncut, this is about experiencing your reality. This is about resisting oppression, both self-imposed and community-supported. This is about revolutionary change, from individual to community to world. This is about changing attitudes, changing perspectives…and with that, changing lives and opening communities.

* yes, i have finally settled on this side of the victim/survivor rhetorical divide. mostly for simplicity’s sake in speaking about my past, but also for other, more necessarily-long-winded reasons.


Anonymous said...

Nicely done.

I just want to point out that the mainstream LGBTQ community may not fear that the causal relationship you describe will portray their community in a negative light as much as they religiously avoid any suggestion that sexuality can be "caused," and therefore may not be genetic, and therefore could be "cured."

Perhaps the mainstream community would accept an explanation that abuse is the tramuatic event that 'sets off' different sexualities in those that are already predisposed--but then again, I don't know if that describes your specific experience.

Again, thanks for the article; it was enlightening. And I hope that you don't mind my commenting...

Anonymous said...

I like this post. The reason that I've always been annoyed by people who ask if my childhood led to my sexual orientation is that they always mean "So, you turned to women because you were abused by men." What they don't know is that I was abused by a woman because while I tell people I'm a survivor, I don't usually get into anything more than that. That assumption leads to the silencing of survivors of abuse who were abused by the people you wouldn't expect, and I don't know how to feel about that.

Also, from what I know of my own experience and that of other survivors that I have talked to or read, abusive dynamics and feelings of betrayal, etc. are not limited to the person who committed the abuse itself.

While I don't deny that what happened to me is a part of who I am today or that the same is probably true of other women, I think that too often saying that abuse can be a cause of homosexuality assumes an over simplistic and inaccurate model of abuse. I don't think that what you were doing in this post. I respect and admire your ability to say what is true for you, but I think that we have a long way to go in terms of cultural understanding of abuse before we're ready to take it beyond personal.