Interview: Ruth Marimo!

Underneath This had the soulful and meaningful experience of interviewing Ruth Marimo. Before reading the interview, please read more about Ruth in the bio statement that she wrote.

Ruth Marimo was born and raised in the Southern African country of Zimbabwe. In 1999, at the age of nineteen, after arriving in England she found herself booking a round trip ticket to the United States. She never boarded her return flight. Ruth now lives in Omaha, Nebraska, where she feels her number one job is raising her two beautiful children. To support her family, she owns a small residential and commercial cleaning business, and in her free time she continues to work on her writing, advocating for immigration reform, and speaking out against the mistreatment of LGBTQ people in Africa as well as the world. You can learn more about Ruth’s current work by visiting her website: ruthmarimo.com.

BOOK COVER PIC!

Please describe your path to becoming an activist and writer.

My path to becoming an activist and a published author was quite accidental. I started writing my life-story in jail awaiting deportation back in 2009, my book started as a goodbye letter to my two children. I was finally released from immigration hold after 30 days in jail. I went to church that first Sunday after my release and the pastor of the church preached an anti-gay sermon. I was so angry that I confronted him about who I was after the service. That was my first act of activism and I have never looked back since that incident.

In what ways have your social and personal identities influenced your activism and writing?

Who I am intersects on so many different levels with so many marginalized minority groups: I am an African immigrant who was undocumented; I am a single black mother; I am an out African lesbian woman; I was in an abusive interracial heterosexual marriage; I have children who are biracial; I was orphaned at the age of five; I date outside of my own race; and I am a woman from a third world nation. So in a sense I feel that I have so many causes to fight for, that my battle is never really done.

You have so much resilience. How have you survived and thrived through very challenging times?

As ironic as it sounds, I think losing my mother at such a young age and basically having this understanding that I was an outcast from childhood has made me resilient, I had to find ways of coping at such a young age and that has helped me deal with life’s trials as an adult. I have also been resilient because I have never wanted to repeat the actions my mother took, so I have never allowed myself to feel so defeated that I give up.

Your mother died by suicide when you were 5 years old. What could the world be doing more for those who have lost loved ones to suicide?

Society needs to understand the pain inflicted when suicide occurs – especially for children. I grew up in a culture where bad things are not talked about so I suffered in silence as a child. Society needs to understand that grief counseling is a must any time suicide occurs. Also silence about the person does not help, it is better to reflect on the person’s life and find healthy ways to remember them. Perhaps the most important thing is to foster environments that prevent suicide from occurring in the first place. Which could start by removing the stigma associated with mental health disorders.

What was the coming out process like for you as a woman from Zimbabwe?

It was extremely challenging. My ex-girlfriend had to literally force me to come out of the closet. When I finally did come out I faced a lot of homophobia from both family and friends. It was as if I had stopped being the person they knew, I felt shunned and people I was once close to distanced themselves in very obvious ways. It was lonely, even though I live in the United States.

Homophobia and heterosexism are experienced and perpetuated around the world, and there has been much focus on aversion to LGBTQ+ people in Africa today. What do you make of that and how do you respond?

I think it is so tragic the way African nations think they are fighting back against a Western influence by punishing their own citizens. The ability for Africans to easily turn violent against one another is something that has always bothered me. What is more disgraceful is the influence of the evangelical right from Western nations in perpetuating that hatred. That factor is actually one of the main reasons I have recently made a decision to walk away from religion. I can no longer identify with something that is so divisive.

What was it like emigrating from Zimbabwe to the UK?

It was a challenge because I was only eighteen and so uniformed about the ways of the world and its laws. I experienced some of the most difficult transitions in my life while living in the UK.

You are a survivor of domestic violence perpetuated by your ex-husband. What are ways that services can be more accessible to survivors of abuse?

I think funding programs that help employ people equipped to counsel survivors of abuse would help greatly. That area needs more case workers, more follow ups of these women and their children. Programs that actually help women escape abusive situations are imperative because most women stay because they have nowhere else to go, with no means of starting over alone. Here in Omaha Nebraska organizations like Heartland family services and Catholic Services are great examples.

What were some of the most challenging parts of being in the immigration detention center in the United States?

As an undocumented immigrant in custody I had no rights whatsoever and the jail that housed me had no information regarding my case . If I did not have relatives here who managed to hire an immigration lawyer on my behalf, I have no idea what would have become of me. The lack of rights undocumented immigrants have in detention centers is deplorable. I lost twenty pounds in thirty days – that is how miserable I was while in jail.

What has it been like living as a lesbian woman of color raising two children in Nebraska?

For the most part it has been good, we live in a great neighborhood in Papillion, which has some of the best schools in the nation and ranks among the safest in the country as well. My kids play outside with the rest of the kids in our neighborhood. I am out and open at their school which is diverse in terms of ethnicity, and ability, which makes the school terrific and inclusive. However racial disparities are very apparent in Omaha depending on where you live.

Speaking!

What have been some of the most rewarding experiences of the activism and motivational speaking you have done? The most challenging?

Last February I traveled to Yale as one of the featured speakers at the annual IVYQ (Ivy League Queer Conference) and last week I facilitated a creative writing workshop at a women’s symposium at Metropolitan Community College. I have had many challenges but I haven’t noticed them as much because my activism started from rock-bottom. I was prepared to stand entirely alone when I began this journey.

Congratulations that your next book, “OuTsider: Crossing Borders. Breaking Rules. Gaining Pride” is being released very soon, in fact on the National Day of Silence. Was this date selected intentionally?

Yes. So many aspects of my story are views we never hear. People living in the shadows are too busy trying to hide and survive and hence never speak up.

RuthMarimo_FullCover_3.indd

What has the experience been of writing and publishing this work?

It was a grueling process, my editor, Stephanie Finnegan, was relentless in making sure I brought raw emotion to paper. The publishing team at Scout Publishing LLC, CEO Ryan Sallans and Art Director Erika Block, have respected my voice and believed in my story. My girlfriend, Deanne, is also a writer and helps to give me different perspectives.

How has your family responded to your art and activism?

They have been mostly silent, they don’t yet know how to react. I think writing my story is too revealing for them and who I am is still uncomfortable for them. We come from a culture woman don’t grow up to write books – let alone their life-stories. However my family has come a long in accepting my identity and I am included in anything that pertains to family.

In what ways is your work feminist?

Every aspect of it is, especially from an African perspective, I have done everything I grew up being told women simply can’t do.

How does the experience of performing poetry compare to writing a memoir?

They’re both cathartic and are inspired by my experiences so I guess the difference is only that I use more metaphors when I write and perform poetry and writing a memoir is more factual and with performing I’m in front of a crowd and in writing I’m alone.

In your poem, “Who Am I?”, you eloquently and vulnerably reflect on some of your experiences including being “an alien to my own nation.” What do those words mean to you now?

Those are deep words that remind me that I am less valued where I come from because of my sexual identity. That I am less understood by the people I share a blood line with. That I was an outcast among my own people because orphans are not loved equally in my culture. That my own biological father never bothered to have a relationship with me – most likely because I was a girl.

As an African woman, how do you perceive the LGBTQ+ rights movements in the United States? How inclusive are the communities?

The LGBTQ movement in the US still has a long way to go, there is often division within the community. We have a long way to go as far as being trans inclusive, particularly in making space for trans people of color at the table. The rainbow flag is still largely a white flag; and that needs to change.

What feedback do you have for aspiring activists and authors?

You have to master the ability to stand in your own truth. The ability to allow people to walk out of your life because they will. The ability to make new families made up of people who see you as you are and believe in what you say.

On what projects are you working on next?

My next focus will be the first of a 12 series children’s book, titled ‘What Is Africa Really Like’. I will partner with American based Cameroon artist, Gerard Pefung. The motivation behind the project is to give children everywhere an accurate depiction of far-away places in the world. Often the picture they get from television is largely one sided and inaccurate.

-Sem

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Interview: grey doolin!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and soulful experience of interviewing grey doolin. According to grey’s biography, grey is a transqueer photographer, writer, and artist currently living in Cincinnati, OH. Having lived in various parts of the Midwest for most of their life, the rolling hills; big, open sky; and tucked away forests live in their body and serve as the inspiration for most of their work (and reason for getting up in the morning). grey writes an ongoing column for Original Plumbing, the online trans culture magazine, titled “The Spaces Between,” and is particularly fond of cold, rainy days. You can find more of their photos and words at greyspacephotography.net.

Waiting

Waiting

Please describe your path to becoming an artist.

My path to becoming an artist has been very nonlinear. I’ve always loved writing, playing music, and taking photos; I’ve always been really fascinated by people and their stories, too, which is why I ended up pursuing psychology in college and then as advanced degrees. Being a psychologist or an academic seemed like a more “respectable” career path than that of a writer or photographer, meaning that I would probably make more money. There is a deeply-rooted story in my family about money equaling worth, and it doesn’t even matter if the work is enjoyable. You make money because that’s what responsible adults do.

I recently decided to leave my graduate program because I was really unhappy and had all but severed my relationship with my creative self. Three years ago I was introduced to The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and it transformed my life. I began writing every day and creating things and spending a huge amount of time outside. It was also a very difficult time in my life as I was making many foundational changes, and I credit the amount of walks I took on helping keep me okay. The Artist’s Way woke me up and gave me a safe framework within which to build a relationship with myself again. In retrospect, I knew I was unhappy in school at that time, but I wasn’t ready to let go of the structure that had held me up for so long. I spent the next couple of years really building my life outside of school so that when I finally decided to leave, I had a little more of a foundation. I had spent thirteen years pursuing a career as a psychologist, and I didn’t know much outside of that. I got involved with an awesome group of queers in Madison as part of LGBTQ Narratives, an activist-writers group, and my involvement there led to many great relationships and other community projects.

My creative work in the Madison queer community helped solidify that I am much more than a graduate degree and that my heart needs more space, time, and ongoing creative work with like-minded people to survive than was possible in graduate school. My identity as an artist is still very much evolving–both the creative work and how to be an artist in the world. It’s been a steep learning curve.

How do your creative passions of photography, visual artist, and music differ from one another? How are they similar?

My creative expression, however it manifests, comes from an intuitive, grounded, embodied place, and I trust that intuition to guide what form or “product” that expression takes. My preferred medium tends to happen in phases: for the longest time I solely identified as a writer, then I began writing songs and focused on music for a while, and now I have really shifted my focus to photography. Although I still write, play my guitar, and create other visual art, my primary artistic identity is as a photographer currently. All of the shifting around could be the Gemini in me, or it could be that I have finally settled into my preferred medium.

I feel the most vulnerable when performing my songs in front of others, so when the band I was in, The Sweetness of Gone, was doing shows 2-3 times a month, it took a lot of energy for me to get on stage each time. I couldn’t make eye contact with people most of the time and tended to turn away from the audience when playing. But my love of creating music with my bandmates and sharing that with others was greater than my fear.

My writing is the form in which I feel the most control, both in the process and the output. Although I tend to be quite vulnerable in my writing as well, I have had much more experience sharing it with others and it involves the “mind” more than my other creative work, by which I mean: there is a structure, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a point I am trying to convey. There is also a point I am trying to convey in my photography, but it is much less conscious most of the time. Unless I am taking photos for a specific project or for an event someone has asked me to shoot, most of the photographs I take are because the image or scene or moment caught my eye or tugged on my heart, really. I have no formal training in photography, so as I stated above, my intuition guides my eye.

All of my work feels vulnerable on some level, and I have really been working this past year on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, whether or not anyone else validates that for me. It’s been a challenge for sure, especially when money enters the mix. It is hard not to equate selling prints or products or the number of Facebook likes with the value or worth of my work.

Journeying

Journeying

You have written, “I am most drawn to images of the natural world because I believe it is in those spaces that humans are most accurately reflected.” Can you elaborate upon that?

Absolutely. The primary reason I prefer to photograph images of nature over human subjects is because there is a purity there that is difficult to replicate in the human realm. There is no ego. There is less complication. There is unadulterated beauty. In nature I am able to see that which is often difficult to see in others and in myself: a deep, unconditional love and goodness. This is not to say that bad things don’t happen in nature; tragedy strikes, animals attack and kill each other. But not because of shame. Not because of hatred. Not because of a fear that is unique to humans.

How do your personal identities affect your art?

My story, which informs my identities, is intricately linked to my art. I see the world through a White, middle class, able-bodied, Transqueer lens. And within those identities are the layers of growing up in the Midwest, Pentecostal, working class, and female-bodied, just to name a few. And that doesn’t even include my relational experiences and great losses and celebrations. All of that to say: every ounce of who I am shows up in my work.

What are your creative inspirations?

The natural world, animals, relationships, spirituality, people and their stories, injustice, other artists’ work.

How do you decide when and how much to edit your work?

I intentionally do not highly edit my photographs. I might make small adjustments to the light or shadow of a picture, but that’s really it. I don’t own Photoshop. I don’t know how to use it. I am not particularly fond of it. Making extreme digital corrections to an image is not photography–it’s digital artwork. When I see highly edited photos, I have a strong aversion to them because I am afraid that that is what people will think “good” photography is–perfection. Photos with a cosmetic touch feel really hard to relate to–the desire for perfection takes the heart of them for me.

I feel like there is a certain culture amongst photographers where they compare their DSLR cameras and equipment and have debates over RAW versus JPEG formats, and I say: who cares? Take a picture. I am still shooting with a Canon PowerShot SX20 because I can’t afford a nicer camera right now; I use GIMP shop, which is a free, open source graphics program to add watermarks to my photographs; and I use Picasa to edit my photos when I do edit them.

I’m sure some of my reactivity comes from my insecurities about not having formal training–I still have a lot to learn around technique and being able to talk the language of a photographer (whatever that means). And it probably also stems from a fear that being authentic in this world will not be as rewarded as knowing how to play the game. Much like I am working on allowing my work to exist on its own and to believe in its inherent worth, I am working on trusting that the only way to show up is in a real, authentic, and vulnerable way.

Tendergender

Tendergender

What has it been like working on the Trans* Reflection project?

The Trans* Reflection Project is in the very beginning stages, but I am really excited about it. I am hoping to meet some wonderful people, hear some great stories, and take some awesome photos. I plan to begin putting the call out for participants within 150 miles of the Cincinnati area within the next couple of weeks. I have been talking about this project since October of last year, so it’s time to get things rolling. I’ve realized this past year that I am great at dreaming big and less great at putting things in motion.

How does a sense of place affect your art?

As part of the LGBTQ Narratives group in Madison, I often got the feedback that my writing conveyed a sense of place very strongly, which I agree with. I think I have always found comfort and connection in the natural world, so despite where I am, whether the landscape is new or familiar, I am acutely aware of my surroundings and how whatever is happening is situated in those surroundings.

I like all of your photography but am especially drawn to your piece, “Waiting.” What inspired that piece?

Once a year I like to take a “solo retreat” to some natural space I love for several days. A couple of years ago I traveled to Lake Superior, which is a very important and spiritual place for me. I even have the outline of the lake tattooed on my right calf. At that time in my life I was struggling a lot with intimacy and being fully vulnerable in my relationships, especially with my partner. I knew my heart was about to open in a way it had never before, but I was feeling super resistant to it at the time, wondering why I needed to change at all. I was walking along the beach one day and came across these birch trees buried in the sand, their texture made smooth by water, sand, and wind, and I deeply envied their existence.

This particular tree inspired a song I wrote on that trip called “Keep Moving.” The first stanza is:

I woke up one day
and decided I was tired of change,
like a birch buried in the sand
its roots pointed toward the sky,
I was prepared to lose my texture in the wind
frozen in place while I slowly died.

How is your relationship to your work different when it is published and/or featured in a gallery?

The main difference between my relationship to the work that I share and the work that I don’t is the amount of breathing I have to do when sharing something with the world, whether it’s a piece of writing, a photograph, etc. Because my work is very intimate, intricately linked to who I am and, therefore, vulnerable, I am still getting used to sharing it with the world and feeling okay with that. Some pieces are easier than others, but my mind can come up with insecurities about anything.

Gone

Gone

What advice do you have aspiring artists?

You will feel fear, but don’t let it get in the way. Keep showing up, even when it feels difficult. Find the people who see you, support you, and love you; let the others go.

On what projects are you currently working?

In addition to the Trans* Reflection Project, I am currently working on a project called “Succession.” A close friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked me to photo document her journey with the disease. The project is deeply intimate and explores the process of death and rebirth and the intersection of those with gender identity/expression. So much of the narrative around breast cancer is by and for cisgender females who identify as such. We are hoping that “Succession” starts a new conversation around breast cancer and gender, in addition to documenting my friend’s process with her illness. Stay tuned for photos from both projects to be up on my website soon.

Interview: Bella DePaulo !

Hi. I had the very enjoyable experience of interviewing Bella DePaulo after being quite inspired by her writing an views on singlism. Thanks Bella! Before reading the interview below, please check out the bio sent by Bella:

Bella DePaulo, an expert on single life, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and of Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It. She also writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today. Dr. DePaulo has a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard, and has been a Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara since 2000. Visit her website at http://www.BellaDePaulo.com.

Bella DePaulo

How did you first become interested in doing scholarship and activism regarding singlism?

In an interview that a friend conducted with Bella, she expressed, “For years, I kept a secret file folder of observations of what I would later call singlism. Some of them were stories in the media. Others were my personal experiences. The thing about my personal experiences, though, is that I really didn’t know if they had anything to do with the fact that I was single, or whether there was some other explanation entirely.

For example, when I first started at a new job, my colleagues invited me to lunch during the week, but over the weekends, the couples would socialize only with other couples. Were they excluding me because I was single or because they didn’t want to spend time with me (and felt obligated to include me during the week when they left from work to go out to lunch)?”

Please read more of this interview at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/201110/personal-history-passion-single-life-and-singles-advocacy

In your groundbreaking book, “Singled Out,” you cogently identify 10 myths associated with singles. The most emotionally intense is that singles are lonely, tragic, and miserable. I like how you described research to combat that stereotype. What are some ways folks can become involved in activism to work against singlism?

In a post on Psychology Today, Bella recommended,”Are you someone who is willing to engage in conversations about the issues? Keep posting your comments at relevant blogs and other media sites. If you have the time and the inclination, write your own blog (and let me know about it if it is not already on my list).

Lots of stories in online newspapers, magazines, and television sites allow for comments. Jump in and have your say. Whenever possible, post your comments early so you have a better chance of influencing the subsequent conversation. Don’t just point out the stereotyping and stigmatizing of singles – also let writers know when they get something right.

For more ideas, please visit: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/201103/stopping-singlism-what-will-work

After being inspired and informed by your work and as a single person myself, I am wondering if there is a more affirming term for “singles.” What are some of your thoughts about this?

I have to confess that I don’t love the term “single,” but I have never been able to come up with something I like enough to use instead. Here’s a discussion:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/living-single/201104/what-does-single-mean

How do cultural, gender, and national identities affect the experience of singlehood?

I think these are very important distinctions. (I don’t have one article or blog post I can point to that addresses these distinctions comprehensively, but I have written a few articles here and there about specific groups.)

http://belladepaulo.com/2013/03/31/what-do-we-know-about-the-experiences-of-singles-around-the-world/

http://belladepaulo.com/2013/09/02/single-men-are-too-often-marginalized-but-not-i-hope-by-me/

In what ways can politicians reach out respectfully to single voters about issues that can be compelling for them?

Sex and the single voter

Anyone want a few million more votes?

Single voters should rule, but will they?

How has the progress regarding marriage for LGBTQ+ individuals affected the zeitgeist about singles?

A key argument in the same-sex marriage movement is that you should not have to be a certain kind of couple (heterosexual) in order to have access to fundamental rights and benefits and protections. I think all of the conversations around that issue should have made one particular question very salient – why should you have to be any kind of couple in order to qualify for basic rights and protections? Although there have been writings here and there expressing that point of view, they have not taken hold the way I would like them to.

How can workplaces make systemic improvements for people who are not partnered?

Best story I’ve ever read on singlism in the workplace

Creating a singles-friendly workplace: How would you do it?

Enlighten your workplace: From speaking out to buying an office kid

Hey, Singles: Do Co-Workers and Bosses Expect You to Cover for Everyone Else Over the Holidays?

Sabbaticals for singles?

Please describe how you developed the single at heart concept and what has the reaction been to it from readers?

I think it started when someone once asked me how they could tell if they were “meant to be single.” When some people use that phrase, they mean it in a bad way. But I just loved the idea that some people really are single at their core – single is how they live their most meaningful and authentic lives. That’s how I think of myself.

Many people seem intrigued by the idea. People who identify with it, well of course they love it. Others just can’t fathom that there really are any people who really are single at heart – they believe that people who claim that they love their single lives are just fooling themselves.

Please see more here:

http://belladepaulo.com/2013/03/09/single-at-heart-what-do-we-know-about-it/

How have your friends, students, and colleagues responded to your research and advocacy?

It has been a very telling experience. I learned some things about the people around me that were not always obvious or predictable. Some responded very enthusiastically, and that was great. But others were very resistant. I had been studying the psychology of lying and detecting lies before I started studying singles and singlism, and there were clearly some colleagues and even some friends who wished I had just stuck to that.

I understand why it was difficult for some of them, perhaps especially the ones who were coupled. In my talks, I often pointed out ways in which coupled people act in privileged ways and treat singles unfairly, and that did not go over well. What compounded the problem for some of them is that they think of themselves as very progressive people who are not prejudiced or unfair, yet they could see for the first time that some of the ways they thought about and behaved toward single people were not very enlightened.

What has been the most surprising part of your research about singles and singlism?

I can tell you about the most surprising – and discouraging – thing about the work I do in debunking myths about single people: Those myths are entrenched in our culture. We are so sure that getting married transforms miserable, lonely single people into happy, healthy, connected married people that it sometimes seems that no amount of data can dislodge those beliefs. It is especially exasperating to me when fellow scholars, who should know better, eat up these myths.

What was it like collaborating with other authors to publish, “Singlism; What It is, Why it Matters, and how to stop it?”

I loved doing that. On my Living Single blog, I put out a call to readers to contribute. Some published authors responded, but so did some people who had never published before. One of the things I loved about the result was the variety of perspectives and experiences and domains of singlism that were explored, from religion and politics to teaching and research and the workplace, the marketplace, and the media.

I just learned of National Singles Week even though it is about as old as I am. Are there ways you commemorate it? How can the media increase visibility of it?

Part 2: Taking singles seriously – in a fun way

What are some examples of positive media images of people who are single?

In a blog post, Bella indicated, “Before the 60s, producers worried that a single woman “would fail to carry a series and capture viewers’ loyalty.” As the number of single Americans continued to climb, though, single women (usually called “girls”) began to be cast in lead roles. Concerns about viewer loyalty were forcefully addressed by the success of series such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, That Girl, Charlie’s Angels, Cagney and Lacey, The Bionic Woman, and many more.” To learn more, please read the link that follows and the subsequent ones:


Before ‘Mad Men’: Single women take 1960s and 1970s television by storm

Skimpy attire but strong messages: Single women in popular media in past decades

The movie ‘Brave’: Has Disney gifted us with a princess who is single at heart?

In sitcoms, singles are not alone; in movies, marriage…

Bite me? That’s what TV and movie romances do

Has the media in the United States made progress in its portrayal of those who do not wish to partner? If so, how?

Singles rule! The surprising media phenomenon of 2012

5 sweet somethings for singles: Enlightenment is so delicious!

What future projects you are considering?

I really want to learn much more about people who are single at heart, so I will be continuing to do research on that. I have also been interviewing people about innovative ways of living and how we all find our place, our space, and our people. http://belladepaulo.com/2013/07/07/new-book-project-is-on/

-Sem

Writing towards the center by D. Allen

Underneath This is pleased to feature the writing of D. Allen, a talented creative person.

D. Allen is a poet, musician, and artist currently living in southern Ohio, but their heart belongs to Madison, Wisconsin, Durham, North Carolina, and the entire state of Vermont. You can read more of D.’s work on their website, thebodyconnected.com .

"Photo by greyspace photography, 2012,"  http://greyspacephotography.net

“Photo by greyspace photography, 2012,”
http://greyspacephotography.net

At a job interview at a university, three men sitting across from me at a table. On my CV it says that I am currently working on a book about the color blue. I have been saying this for years without writing a word. It is, perhaps, my way of making my life feel “in progress” rather than a sleeve of ash falling off a lit cigarette. One of the men asks, Why blue? People ask me this question often. I never know how to respond. We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets

I’m re-reading Maggie Nelson because I have started and stopped this essay three times, and I keep resisting the very thing I have been trying to write about. I keep drifting away like a college kid seduced by Buzzfeed the night before turning in a big paper. The page is blank, and I am elsewhere. But Bluets feels like a good place to start; it is familiar, comfortable, a book I have read many times. Like Nelson, I have also been working on a book of poems for a couple of years, invoking its name when people ask, but most of the work of creating it has not involved writing at all. My blue, and the center of my book, is my body, and my body is the very thing I will do almost anything to ignore.

A few years ago I was diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue condition. All of the physical quirks I had become used to—hypermobile joints, easy bruising, chronic joint pain, constant exhaustion, a heart murmur—suddenly had a name, and things I thought were normal about my embodied experience took on new meaning.

Collagen, the organic glue that holds our muscles, tendons, bones, and cartilage together, is not always made perfectly. The word defective gets tossed around in this diagnosis, but I’d rather say that there’s just not enough collagen to go around. Connective tissue cushions parts of the body that would otherwise rub together, and it is the rubbing together of these unprotected parts that causes me pain. Just as we don’t get to choose what or whom we love, we don’t get to choose our bodies. But I am trying—I am learning—well, I want to learn—to claim mine. And writing is part of that.

My identities as a poet and a queer and gender non-conforming person have profoundly impacted my relationship with my body. I started writing about the diagnosis when it happened, and for a year or more, I put words down on the page because I needed them; they helped me process my grief, anger, uncertainty, and pain, and they were not for anyone else.

I began talking with close friends and family about my disability, sharing pieces of new writing with the group of queer writer-activists I met with twice a month, but it was painful. For every word I spoke aloud, there were twenty more that I couldn’t bring myself to say. As with any disability that remains largely invisible, I was struck both by how much talking I had to do when my disability was made visible, and by the silence I clung to when my disability wasn’t readily apparent. Talking about my disability meant explaining my wrist braces and tiger balm and limited hand mobility to friends, co-workers, customers, or employers, but telling—telling was another story. I told very few people that my body felt like an old car rattling apart at every turn. I could not find the words to describe what it felt to inhabit a creaky, achy, worn, 25-year-old body. Telling made it real. Telling still makes it real.

The problem is, I am a writer. I can spend endless amounts of time avoiding writing like the best of them—and once I sit down to write it takes more work and presence than seems possible—but I am not at ease unless I’m working a piece over in my mind or on the page. And my mind, oh, how it loves a challenge. A year after my diagnosis, after researching my condition and trying to make sense of it, the concept of a lack of connective tissue started to feel really interesting.

I was (and am) still feeling deep grief, loss, anger, but a piece of me—the piece that steps back and watches things happen—was curious. As a poet, I’m interested in liminal spaces; I like my work to exist in the shadows between poem and essay, between truth and possibility, between reality and imagination. What would happen if I started writing poems that re-created in language what my body lacks in material? If I tried to reflect the loss of connective tissue in the structure of my poems as well as in the content, could I make a body of work that did more than tell a personal story? I believe that telling stories about our difficult experiences can transform the world, and I also believe that the vessel we make to contain a story is just as important as the narrative itself, that it can and should be compelling, well-crafted, innovative, and moving.

With those questions and curiosities as guides, I have followed my slow writing process through drafts of poems that involve armadillos and other friends’ illnesses and my fear of loss, poems that feel only tangentially related to the material of my body. Every time the writing starts to feel too personal, I walk away. Literally. I find myself in the kitchen making a snack, turning on Netflix, drawing a bath. But when people ask, I tell them I am working on a book of poems about connective tissue. I have used an elaborate version of this description to apply to six residencies and three graduate schools in the past nine months. When I went to my first residency last fall, I spent three weeks sitting with this book. I did write poems there, poems that I now refer to as my “manuscript in progress,” but saying that still doesn’t feel quite right.

I’m not sure these are the poems I set out to write. I like them, and I believe in them, but I still can’t fully articulate what it is that I want these poems to achieve. I am still afraid of what’s at the center of it all, that unshakable, unstoppable truth: I feel broken. Ours is an ableist society, yes, and I have internalized messages about what it means to be disabled, but I also cannot yet bring myself to accept that I will be in pain nearly every day of my life, and that there is no cure. That is the plain truth that I cannot approach in writing. I am looking for meaning in between bones and muscles, but the only presence there is absence. How does a writer write about this?

This is why I’m turning to Bluets today. I feel a kinship with Maggie Nelson when she writes

I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it. Mostly what happens in such cases is that people give you stories or leads or gifts, and then you can play with these things instead of with words.

When do we make the switch from “playing with these things” to writing about blue? Her book is about blue, yes, but it is also about heartbreak and longing and profound pain. Incredibly, blue stretches to encompass all of those things. Her subject is blue, and it is not blue.

I remember watching the night sky as a child, standing on the dewy grass, pushing my glasses up on my nose, squinting to bring the constellations into focus. Only when I shifted my gaze a little to the left could I see a particular star enough to make sense of its brightness. Maybe collecting objects and ideas was the only way that Bluets could have begun. Maybe writing poems about armadillos is the only way I can write about my body right now. Maybe the feeling of being “in progress” can only come after we’ve told ourselves and others that we are.

*Quoted material is from Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, sections 13. and 14

Activist Interview: Dan Leveille!

After reading a bit about Dan (description sent by Dan), please see the interview below.

Dan Leveille is a marketer, developer and product guy living in Los Angeles, CA. Dan is currently working at deviantART as a Product Marketing Manager. While he’s not working at deviantART, he’s building Equaldex, a collaborative knowledge base for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) movement. Dan is passionate about LGBT rights, the social web, and building innovative web products. Dan’s passion was really amplified during his college years at Rochester Institute of Technology when he created BookMaid a textbook exchange website for students at the college, back in 2007.

What inspired you to become an activist?

It actually started through social media. Back when I was in college there were a short period where quite a few gay marriage laws changed while others came close to changing. I heard about them through my friends on social media and started to follow the news very closely. As I followed the progress of the LGBT movement, it deepened my passion for being an activist. As the laws changed, I realized that there wasn't really a good place on the web (or anywhere) to see the global status of gay marriage and other LGBT laws. I decided that I would create one, and the idea evolved from being just a map on a website to a full collaborative website that aims to cover more than just laws.

What have been highlights of your activism? What have been some surprises?

I run a blog for Equaldex and I’d say there were quite a few highlights running the blog. There were a few stories that brought in quite a few thousand views and a few of my stories got picked up my major LGBT blogs, which was pretty encouraging.

Back in August, I private launched Equaldex to a group of Alpha Testers. After several years of slowly working on the site, it was a huge milestone to have people finally using it and seeing people really excited about it.

One surprise I’ve noticed was actually about myself, personally. When I first started being involved in LGBT rights, I wasn’t entirely comfortable about speaking publicly on LGBT topics, especially on social media. Whenever I would write about or share LGBT related news or stories on social media, I’d question what some of my friends, old classmates, and colleagues would think. But as I continued to speak out about these issues, I lost that self-consciousness and began to be much more comfortable, which is a really great feeling.

How does your involvement in different causes and movements reflect your intersecting identities?

Sometimes the most effective thing you can do when you’re involved in a cause / movement is intersect it with something you’re good at. It’s great to see people grow into activism by doing what they do best; journalism, film, art, etc. When you combine two passions, it can really make your work effective since you’re so dedicated to both.

As I started to pick up an interest in LGBT rights, I did the same thing, using my skills to make a difference. Equaldex really brings together a lot of my “identities” and passion; LGBT rights, web development, product design, entrepreneurship, graphic design, UI design, and marketing. I think that’s why the project is coming together so smoothly and why I’m so passionate about it. I’ve also been very vocal about LGBT rights on social media and by writing about LGBT news on blogs.

Please describe the evolution and goals of Equaldex.

I began working on Equaldex back in 2009. After graduating college, I put the project on hold for a while, and picked it back up in the past year or two. It’s been a slow process, but now I’m working at full speed. Back in August, as I said, I launched an alpha version of the site. In the coming month or so, I’ll have a public-facing version of Equaldex live. Equaldex will began with just the legal rights of LGBT people in each country and region, but in the future I have plans to expand Equaldex to more aspects of LGBT rights and acceptance. The goal of Equaldex is to become a comprehensive knowledge base for everything about the LGBT movement.

Which issues do you see as common to cisgender sexual minorities and transgender people? Which issues are different? Which issues are critical to these communities?

Education is always an important factor in fighting discrimination, but I think it’s even more so for the transgender community. People don’t understand what it means to be transgender, what they go through, how they feel, the legal issues they face, etc. It’s an issue that needs some light. One issue I see a lot online is a divide between the LGB and T communities. There are too many LGB people that are actually transphobic, and I’ve experienced a lot of divide and hostility between the two communities, which really needs to stop.

Within activism movements, what are some ways to continue to forge connections among people from diverse sexual, gender, ethnic, and religious groups?

The growth of the internet and social media really brings people together. People in different groups come together over shared interests, and many times traits like age, location, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, religion don’t even matter.

Another issue I see a lot, especially in younger people, is that they often say or do hateful things towards a group of people because they don’t really know anyone in that group of people. Maybe they grew up in an environment where their parents or friends made a few hateful comments and without much though, they just assumed that that was an acceptable way to act. So when they say these things, none of their friends challenges their opinions. On the internet, opinions can be very public and open to criticism, which is sometimes a really good thing.

Sometimes all it takes is exposure to other types of people to grow to accept them. That’s the beauty of the internet. Sometimes you don’t know if you’re talking to a 23 year old Black lesbian or a 43 year old Asian woman. And the truth is, if you’re having a conversation over the internet about some topic, it probably doesn’t even matter.

I hear what you mean about common interests being unifying across social locations but I am also thinking about the powerful impact social identities can have on the way a person experiences a situation, especially regarding power, privilege, and oppression. I am also thinking of intersectionality; for example, a queer person of color’s experience may be very different than a queer white person due to institutionalized and interpersonal racism, and a person with a disability who has greater access to financial means may have a different experience than someone with a disability without those means.

How have you seen power, privilege, and oppression affecting LGBTQ+ activism?

I can’t think of specific examples off the top of my head, but traits like a person’s oppressions or feelings of [a lack of] privilege definitely play a role in their activism. I think it completely depends on the person. When someone is dealing with a lot of social struggles, such as bullying, racism, sexual harassment, etc., it can really motivate them to stand up for others and be a strong activism to stop others from having negative experiences like their own. The It Gets Better project is a good example of this, as it caused thousands of people to speak out about their past experiences and how they were bullied and oppressed. But I think sometimes these other power/privilege/oppression factors might have a reverse effect, causing a person to feel fear and self-conciousness about the issues and not wanting to speak up about it.

Activist interview! : Jacob Rostovsky

Please read the following for an interview with Jacob Rostovsky.

Jacob Rostovsky is a 23 year old transman activist and founder of Trans United with Family and Friends (TUFF). His mission is to end the struggle transgender people encounter everyday and to help authentic each person’s transitional journey by providing resources to transition. For more information about TUFF, please visit http://tufforg.com/

Please describe your path as an activist.

I came out as transgender when I was thirteen years old. I experienced incredible amounts of harassment and bullying from my peers and was extremely suicidal. What got me through was finding other people who were transgender and seeing their success in life after their transition. When I finally transitioned at 15, I made a promise to myself that I would do anything I could to make sure no other transgender person went through what I did. That’s what lead me to become an activist.

What led you to co-found Trans United with Family and Friends (TUFF) and what is the organization’s mission?

I knew that once a trans person transitions their entire view on life changes for the better. For me, being able to finally be the man I always felt I was instilled hope and passion in me that I never had before. I want to be able to help everyone get to this amazing part in their trans journey. TUFF’s mission is to give financial assistance towards transition costs and costs of living for transgender and gender non conforming individuals.

What has the response from others been to TUFF since its creation?

People are incredibly grateful that there is an organization willing to help them with transition costs. Everyone I’ve talked to about the project is extremely enthusiastic and is rooting for me to succeed.

What do you see as the highest priorities for activism within trangender communities?

I feel that making transgender health care affordable and safe and getting homeless trans youth off the streets are two of the most important priorities within the transgender community.

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In what ways is your activism feminist and how does your work reflect your intersecting identities?

Well, I believe that there is no right way to be a woman and nobody can tell anyone else how to identify and live their lives. With TUFF, I can allow trans women to finally be the people they feel they are inside. My various identities push me in my activism, making sure that everyone else’s journey and identities can also be authenticated.

What tensions and collaborations exist between cisgender sexual minority and transgender communities?

A lot of the time cisgender sexual minorities assume they understand the transgender experience because we are all included in the LGBT acronym. Howeever, that is not the case. What happens is that the transgender community often feels ignored and not listened to, and our needs are not met.

In other media stories you have described being bullied and having consequent emotional distress. What feedback do you have for others with similar experiences?

I know this is said a lot, but just keep being true to yourself. Also, find a hobby or something that brings you joy that doesn’t have anything to do with being transgender. For me it was playing the drums. Whenever I felt depressed, I’d just go play my drums and get lost in it.

What are some projects you are working on for the future?

I’m hoping to establish a project with TUFF similar to Gofundme on TUFF’s website. The major difference is that recipients get to keep 99% of the donations they receive, with 1% going into a fund for other TUFF scholarships. Donors will be more inclined to donate through TUFF’s site because they will receive a tax donation receipt, which sites like Gofundme do not provide. Potential donors will also be able to visit the website, read profiles, and decide who to contribute to if they do not have a particular person they came to donate for.

Filmmaker Interview: Rolla Selbak!!

Rolla Selbak is an award winning filmmaker who grew up in the Middle East and is currently based in San Francisco, where she is part of the San Francisco Women’s Film Institute Leadership council.

Rolla’s work includes the film “Three Veils,” which tells the story of three Middle-Eastern women living in the U.S. as they face issues such as arranged marriage, homosexuality and love.

Her newest project, “Kiss Her I’m Famous,” is a satirical story about two friends attempting to achieve fame by creating a celebrity sex tape. The Real L Word’s Tracy Ryerson and The Violent Kind’s Ilea Matthews star in this web series, which can be viewed on tellofilms.com.

Please view the trailer below:

In our interview, Rolla discusses her inspiration for “Kiss Her I’m Famous,” the challenges she faced in filming “Three Veils,” her favorite female directors and more.

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How did you become interested in filmmaking?

My love affair with movies began when I was a young girl in the Middle East. My parents would take me to the video rental store once a week, and I would just watch and study movie after movie all weekend long.

I never went to film school. My self-education began in middle school with my close relationship to the family-VHS recorder that I hijacked for making my short films.

Something about movies just completely enthralled me. I would get lost in the stories, and the characters especially. My dream was to be able to create the thing that I loved most. So, here I am.

What inspired you to make your web series, Kiss Her I’m Famous? What has the reaction been like so far?

Nowadays, gratuity and fake publicity seem to be able to catapult just about anyone into the spotlight, so I wrote the series as a satire that tackles the phenomenon in smart and entertaining way.

With a subject such as sex tapes, I could have gone really over the top, but in the end, I believe it’s the story that grabs audiences, even if the content is primarily consumed through the web. So it was very important for me to create characters that were interesting and a story that had a compelling arch.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the reception so far! I really couldn’t have envisioned the trailer alone gaining 2 million views. And teaming up with TelloFilms.com as an exclusive network distributor has been a fantastic experience. So much so, that we’re teaming up again for Season 2!

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In your film Three Veils, you explore often emotionally charged experiences such as arranged marriage and homosexuality as they are experienced by Muslim-American women. What was the most challenging part of making this film?

The whole project was a challenge, from beginning to end, but I was always determined to push through for the sake of bringing these stories to the screen. As you mentioned, it was an ambitious attempt to bring forth many subjects that hadn’t been touched upon in film, and so boycotts of fundraisers, financiers dropping, and even death-threats were not a rare occurrence.

Once the film was out of my hands and started making its way to audiences, that’s when I knew it was all worth it. The unbelievable outpouring of people connecting with the film, finding themselves in the characters and stories, or even being shown a point of view they hadn’t empathized with before, means everything to me.

And by and large, the amount of positive support definitely outweighs any negativity or controversy surrounding the film. I couldn’t be more thankful about that.

Do you think the film has helped create more of a dialogue about these issues?

I certainly would like to think so, judging from the fervent discussions at the screenings. I still get emails and messages from people who were affected by the film because of something they themselves have went through, or a family member or a friend.

Giving audiences a film to connect with that tells them, “your story is shared by others, and is now being told to the world” is the single most important goal for me with Three Veils.

As a part of the Women’s Film Institute Leadership council, you have been working to support young female filmmakers. What has this experience been like for you?

It’s been extremely fulfilling to empower these young, exceptionally talented filmmakers with the guidance and encouragement I would have loved to have years ago when I was in their position.

I feel that through such initiatives and programs, we will hopefully have an influx of brilliant, capable and proficient female filmmakers in the field, pushing content to a whole new level.

In addition to directing, you also write music for your films. What is your creative process like?

Music is so essential to my creative process. Even if I’m not composing music for a film project I’m working on, I will construct a playlist that fits the emotion of an important scene, and have that music playing in the background while I write or edit.

What are some of your favorite films by female directors?

Ooh, I love when people ask me that! I would say Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow are my favs. I love Kathryn’s rhythm and pace of storytelling, it’s so compelling to me. And Jane always makes such beautiful film. I binge-watched her most recent series “Top of The Lake” in 2 days, it was riveting.

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In what ways is your work feminist?

In every way possible, lol! I feel that just me existing in this male-dominated industry, and being very vocal about my experiences, and the work I do with emboldening our young female filmmakers out there, the spirit of my work will always resonate was being feminist, and I would have it no other way.

Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?

I would say study films meticulously. Focus specifically on what you like, and what you don’t like about them. Write what you yourself would find compelling as an audience member, don’t worry about appeasing anyone other than yourself. You will find an audience if your voice is true, and your criticism of yourself is honest. And never let fear stop you. Just go out and do it. Then do it again. And do it better.

I also host a monthly live Spreecast called Grrl’s Guide To Filmmaking, where I interview influential women in the film industry. The idea is for aspiring filmmakers to get free and fun advice from the women who are making it happen. You can find out more information at http://www.grrlsguidetofilmmaking.com.

-Strike & Sem