The following blogpost was written for my friend Neena "Domino" Thurman over at The M.I.C. Neena has graciously given me permission to also post this on my own blog, as it relates to my work around trans* identities and resillience. Thanks, Neena!
After a hectic spring, I have spent the last few weeks doing some self-care. For me, that means riding my bike as often as I can and reading some books that have sat on my nightstand for a long time. The first two books, which I have been meaning to read for years (no joke) are Brené Brown's The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to be and Embracing Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Now, perhaps it is odd that my definition of leisurely reading are books that deal intimately with difficult issues that have plagued me for what seems like an awful long time (e.g., perfectionism, vulnerability, and what Brown refers to as not feeling ____________ enough, where the blank space can be filled in with any number of adjectives). For those of you thinking this very thing, I would say two things: first, I am also (slowly) making my way through George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, and second, I often need to be intentional about setting aside time to invest in this sort of self-care. If I do not, it is likely to be the first thing that falls off my To Do List, despite my knowing it is important. I am also preparing for a job search in the coming year, which, as a trans* person, has been something that is already surfacing some deeply held insecurities. Thus, I figure now is as good a time as any to begin doing some of this self-exploration.
For fear that this post could easily turn into a book report, I will just say that Brown's work revolves around issues of shame and vulnerability. Brown argues that when we are vulnerable, and embrace ourselves as imperfect people, we are able to build our own resilience to shame. Her work, then, is about moving people from saying things like, "I am not ___________ enough," to, "I am ___________ and I am comfortable with that." And, if ever we become uncomfortable with being ___________, as often is the case, we are able to address these feelings in ways that allow us to live with courage, purpose, and connection. As Brown wrote in Daring Greatly, "What we know matters, but who we are matters more" (p. 16, italics in original).
Now I know the critique of Brown's work and, in fact, I agree with some of it. Yes, Brown's work is rooted in the seeming immutability of a gender binary (e.g., Brown often uses 'men and women' and 'he/she' language) that forecloses the possibilities of gender variance. Her work also leans on heterosexual narratives, which is problematic. These issues are real, and I am sure Brown, who is a talented and thorough researcher, has (or would) respond to them with the importance they deserve. However, the one thing I have often heard from people, especially those friends and colleagues of mine who share my critical worldview, goes something like this:
Well, Brown's work is fine, I guess, but come on; not everyone can be vulnerable all the time. And really, what does authenticity even mean? I think Brown is forgetting that there are some real issues of safety that make a lot of what she writes about inaccessible to marginalized communities.
This critique has been on my mind the past few weeks as I have been reading (and really jamming on) her work. Certainly, I have several privileged identities; I am White, temporarily-able bodied, and have a level of economic security that affords me some comfort. However, I also am trans*, and am not out to everyone in my life specifically due to issues of safety. Put in other words, I hear, get, and live the critique to Brown's work. That being said, I still don't agree with it, as I think it misses the point of what Brown is trying to say.
I do not read Brown as saying, "Being authentically you means being the same person in all settings at all times." Nor do I read her as saying that being vulnerable means sharing your life story with everyone you know, meet, or with whom you interact. In fact, she says something much to the contrary; she suggests we all need to find those people with whom we can be vulnerable and will be vulnerable back with us. Brown states that our stories are precious, and we should be careful and planful in determining with whom we choose to share them. So I think she gets that there are spaces and people with whom we cannot--nor should we feel compelled--to be vulnerable. Also, related to this, I read Brown as saying that being authentic means doing what is best for us in terms of taking risks and making meaningful connections with other people. What Brown sees as damaging is isolating ourselves and falling into our own feelings of shame and worthlessness, not that we do not reach out to every single person around us. Therefore, if we do not share pieces of ourselves, our histories, and/or our identities, it does not mean we are being inauthentic or are trying to eschew vulnerability. Instead, it means that we may be making good choices about with whom, and where, we can take the risks that encourage connection and build our own resilience to shame so that we can state affirmatively, I am enough.
Thus, the critique I laid out above seems like a bit of a red herring to me, as it is not wholly based on the point Brown is making. In fact, I think she would likely agree with the comment, and then quickly say something like, "but that's not really what I am suggesting in my work.
Another word that I have often struggled with is 'bravery.' This word came into sharp focus for me this weekend when I was with a participant with whom I have been researching for the past two years. We were walking together when we heard Sara Bareilles' song "Brave." I have to admit that this song holds a special place in my life. Although I have struggled with the imperative in the song to 'be brave,' (as if that is an equally accessible, safe, or wise thing to do for everyone), a dear friend introduced me to the video about a year ago and whenever I watch it, without fail, it brings me close to tears. There is something so lovely about seeing people 'do them,' and I am always slightly envious of their abilities to be comfortable enough to just dance. So there I am, wondering again what it means to 'be brave,' and if it is safe/accessible/ever okay to not be brave, with a participant walking alongside me singing and dancing to the lyrics. The more I thought about it, I started to realize that Bareilles isn't suggesting bravery looks the same to people across all contexts and in all moments. Instead, one way to think about the song is to queer the notion of bravery as a unified concept and see that being brave means different things across times and spaces.
Similar to my thoughts on 'bravery' as a concept, I think 'authenticity' and 'vulnerability' do not have stable or static meanings. I have spoken with several friends about my own discomfort with authenticity as a singular construct, as it seems to suggest we are--and should be--the same person in all settings and at all times...and if we aren't, then we are inauthentic, which, as it sounds, comes with a normative value judgment (i.e., authenticity = good; inauthenticity = bad, immoral, fake, false, deceptive). The labeling of 'inauthenticity' as 'bad' or 'deceptive' in this sense hits very close to home, as the trans*-as-deceptive narrative is still a widely-held common conception, especially for trans* women (for more on this, please see Julia Serano's 2007 book Whipping Girl, published by Seal Press). But I don't read Brown or Bareilles as saying this. Instead, I see them as telling folks they need to make good choices about where and with whom we are vulnerable, brave, and authentic (in the myriad forms and iterations these may take across spaces and times). If we do this, then we are reaching out, making connection, and working to reclaim our narratives rather than being subjected to the negative messages that tell us we are never _____________ enough.
And maybe, just maybe, if we do this, we can reclaim vulnerability, authenticity, and bravery, which are terms that speak to many people across a wide array of identities. I am also thinking there may be something here that relates to how one can understand resiliency as not a solid, stable, or unified concept...but I'll save that for a future post...
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.