Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What's in a Name: An open letter to my friends and family

Hi everyone,

I want to introduce myself to you. My name is Ashir. You can call me Ash. My preferred pronouns are gender neutral; please refer to me as “ze/ zem/ zeir/ zeirs/ zemself”.

Of course, you already know me. I’m the same person you knew yesterday, before you knew my name. I’m still your child, your nibling (niece/nephew), your cousin, your colleague, your friend. I’m still that kid you remember who loved to play dress up and climb trees, get zeir hair braided and roll around in the mud, rearrange your dollhouse and play soccer just a little too rough.

A rose by any other name, right? But names are important and language is important. What we call things shapes how we conceptualize them. You all have known me as Leah for a year, or ten, or twenty-seven. But Leah is not my name (anymore? Perhaps it never really was?). I’m not changing it just because I don’t like how it sounds. This isn’t superficial or frivolous. I’m changing it because I need to do this. I am genderqueer and non-binary transgender. The past few years have been an ongoing process of self-discovery and constantly coming-out. I’ve changed my hair, I’ve changed my wardrobe, I’ve changed my posture and my stride. I’m intentionally and deliberately transitioning into an androgynous and fluid gender presentation and I need a name that matches this crucial part of my identity.

I've known I wanted to change my name for a long time. This is a big year for me. It’s a year full of transitions. In the next few months I’ll be getting married, moving to a new city in a new state with my new wife, and starting a new graduate school program as the first step in pursuing a new career. With so many changes I’ve spent a lot of time this year in self-reflection and this isn’t as sudden as it might seem. I’m not rushing into anything; this has been a long time coming and this is the right time for it.

People keep asking me what my new name means, why I chose “Ashir”. I don’t have a good answer. I think part of the reason I waited so long to pick a new name was because for a long time I couldn't fathom what my new name might be. I kept hoping something would just come to me and I would instantly know it was right in a spiritual epiphany of certainty. Surely something as important as my name would be the easiest most obvious decision in the world, right? (Hah!) But my epiphany never came. I knew I wanted a gender-neutral Jewish-sounding names, so finally I just picked something. Ashir is androgynous in both Hebrew and English, I think it’s aesthetically pleasing, and I like that shortens to a fun and quirky nickname (Ash! Call me Ash!).

I’ve tested it, I’ve started getting used to it, and I don’t have doubts any more. This name is right, This change is real, and it is permanent (or, as permanent as anything is in this uncertain, chaotic, and changeable world). Eventually, I plan to make the change legal.

Moving forward, I ask that you address me by my chosen name and pronouns. I know it’s not easy, and that you’re more comfortable with my old name and pronouns. What I’m asking is that you step out of your comfort zone in order to support me and be a better ally. I’m asking you to respect my choice even if you don’t quite get it, even if you don’t really understand why. I know it’s hard, and I know you’ll make mistakes. Don’t worry, I won’t get angry with you, and I’ll be patient. I just ask that you try.

I know you have more questions. I’m not an expert but I’m willing to do some basic public education about gender and non-binary identities. So here’s your invitation: Ask me anything and, as long as you ask in a spirit of respect and love and with a genuine wish to understand, I promise I won’t be offended (though if it’s too personal I will politely decline to answer). In return, I ask that you understand if there’s some things I’m not ready to share, or able to explain, and don’t be offended if you disagree with my answers.


**Most of you already know that I identify as “genderqueer” and “non-binary transgender” but many of you might not know what that means. Several people have asked me for resources to read up on it. There’s not a lot out there, but here’s a couple decent websites you can check out if you want reading material on the topic:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Leaving the Safety of the Closet

For those of you enmeshed in the queer community, you know almost everyone has their "coming out story". Most of us love to share, love to commiserate and celebrate and reminisce. Of course, we all know that coming out is a continual process, not a singular event, but it's still fun to share the stories of that first memorable time. I don't really have a true coming out story because I was never really in the closet to begin with. I was extraordinarily lucky to grow up in a supportive community in which I had the safety to openly explore my gender and sexuality throughout my adolescence.

Sure, I have some funny anecdotes to share around the coming out campfire. Like the first time I explicitly told one of my Aunts that I was dating a woman and she happily responded that "bi" meant I could have one of each(!) and proceeded to gleefully introduce me to the "nice Jewish boy" on the treadmill at the JCC. Or the time I completely failed to convince my grandmother that the label "queer" is not derogatory, that my chosen identity label is not self-deprecating, and no, I can't just call myself a Lesbian instead.

Similarly, coming out as Genderqueer never included one big pronouncement. I've always been a bit genderfluid. As a kid I loved sports and mud and roughhousing, and I also loved pretty dresses and long hair. I especially loved to combine the two--who says you can't climb a tree in a princess gown? When I wore a ridiculously huge corseted ball gown to my high school's senior prom, it wasn't an act or a farse or a lie (I loved that dress!). But no one was surprised when I cut off all my hair sometime during college and started wearing mostly men's clothes, and that's not a lie or a costume either. By the time I had enough queer theory in my lexicon to understand what the gender binary is and how I don't fit into it, I was happily claiming my label(s) to anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.

I am genderqueer, I am Trans*, I am non-binary transgender, genderfluid, transmasculine, androgynous, gender non-conforming...and I've always been "out" about all of those things. BUT. I've also always been safe. I've always had a female name, female pronouns, an identifiably female-sounding voice. Most of the time, I'm read as a soft-butch lesbian. I've been lucky enough to be able to immerse myself in communities where appearing stereotypically lesbian is safe and accepted, and I've coasted on that. I've been calling myself genderqueer for years, but I've always "passed" as (butch, lesbian) cisgender female.

I'm done passing now. I'm in the process of actively changing my name and pronouns, and I'm going to be openly, obviously, and publicly gender non-conforming in every sphere of my life. And for the first time I'm a little bit scared to "come out". For the first time, I honestly don't know how people are going to react, and I'm not certain of my community's unwavering support. I don't know what my family is going to think of my new name. I don't know how brave I'll be when correcting my professors or my employers on my preferred pronouns. I don't know whether I'll still feel welcome in all of the women's only spaces I've enjoyed for years (like gendered sports teams and my beloved alma mater)

I've always been defiantly proud of my fearlessness: I've been the LGBT spokesperson, the ambassador, the one who isn't afraid to answer question and teach the gen/sex 101 to unsuspecting bystanders. So its been really hard to admit that I was scared to take this next step. And it is scary, but it's also empowering. And I'm ready.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Feminist Weddings

**This is a cross post originally published on the Offbeat Bride Tribe. The original post can be found here but you must be a member of the Offbeat Bride Tribe to read it (thus the need for a cross post).**

I want to talk about feminist weddings. For those who don’t know, I’m in the midst of planning my own wedding. It will be a same-sex, genderbending affair, so I’m facing different challenges than cis-gendered heterosexual couples face. But I’ve been caught off guard at how hard it is to break down the gender binary in wedding planning, even for queers like me and my fiancĂ©. I know wedding planning can be a touchy subject so I want to start with a disclaimer: I am not criticizing your/your mom’s/ your brother’s/ anyone else’s wedding. There are lots of very good reasons to make many different choices, my values may be different from yours, and that's ok. I am a radical third wave feminist, and this post is about my interpretation of the way feminism can be used to reclaim--or at least coexist--with an institution (weddings/marriage) which is, by its very nature, a pillar of the patriarchy.

First of all: Do you believe in gender equality? If yes, then congratulations you're a feminist. Are you a feminist who's having/had a wedding? Then congratulations, it's a feminist wedding. That's all it takes, folks.

I don’t want to turn this into a competition of who’s a “real feminist” or “feminist enough” However, if we're looking at the idea of "feminist wedding" as more than just an aspect of your identity, I want to delve into what it means to bring our feminism into wedding planning. There's a lot of discussion—on a variety of media--about how to incorporate feminism into weddings and how to balance tradition with feminist values. So for the rest of this post I'm going to talk about feminism as activism, and feminist weddings as an expression of that activism rather than just as a facet of your identity. I've seen a lot of comments that planning a feminist wedding just means being aware of the sexist history of traditions, and then intentionally choosing what to do for your own reasons and not because it's what's "expected." I disagree. That's a good recipe for having a beautiful wedding that is comfortable for you, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not feminism.

Feminism, as activism, is not comfortable. It is not safe or easy. Social inequality is pervasive, and it is often perpetuated in extremely subtle and unintentional ways; feminism is the constant awareness of the systemic oppression of women and gender minorities, and taking action to combat that oppression. It is not just about intentions, it is about realizing the implications your choices will have for everyone else in your community. Now, I know, one person's wedding isn't going to change society all by itself, but feminism is about thinking in the aggregate and acknowledging the ways in which the decisions we make in our daily lives contribute to a culture of cis-male privilege.

One litmus test I use it to envision things through the lens of a hypothetical six year old girl, with no exposure to feminism, attending my wedding. Then I picture her attending five other weddings just like mine over the next ten years. And I ask: "What does she see? What did these weddings tell her about her role in the world? What did they teach her about gender norms and sexuality and what it means to be a woman or a wife?"

If any given tradition would (subtly and unconsciously) teach that imaginary six year old girl sexist values that I disagree with, then it has no place at my wedding. Take it one step further. Imagine your wedding, with whatever choices you are making about traditions to include or not. Imagine that was the cultural norm. Imagine that every six year old girl--and boy--saw your wedding, with minor variations, at every family wedding, and in every movie and tv show over the next ten years of their life. What have they learned about gender roles and femininity and masculinity? What kind of 16 year olds do we have in ten years?

To me, feminism means grappling with these questions, and using the answers to impact our choices. Feminism isn't just about recognizing the way that we have been affected by patriarchal expectations in our own lives and rejecting the status quo to make our own choices--that's a great first step, but it's not enough. Feminism is activism, and it goes one step further to recognizing the implications that our choices (in the aggregate) have on the rest of society and making choices with a consciousness towards creating a society with gender equality.

So, again, not everyone has to use their wedding for feminist activism. That's ok. You can be a feminist and decide that, on your wedding day, you are choosing aesthetics or family unity or anything else over your feminism. That's ok. It's also ok to incorporate some feminist choices while compromising in other areas. You can have a mostly feminist wedding that incorporates some less-than-feminist traditions for any reasons you want that feel right to you. That's cool, and it doesn’t make you less of a feminist.

We all make so many choices during this wedding planning process, for so many different reasons. We're all trying to make these choices with intentionality to create an event that is a genuine representation of us and our lives and our love, and whatever is right for you is right. You want your wedding to be genuine, so part of your decisions need to take into account whether or not the image you are projecting is genuinely true to your feminist values. If feminism is important to you, if this is a cause that you’re passionate about, then please add one more layer of intentionality to your decision making process and consider not only the origins and historical meanings behind wedding traditions, but also the effects that your decisions will have for the future.

Activism isn't just rejecting the "way it's done" mentality, and then making personal and private decision. It's about recognizing that decisions aren’t really private, and using your choices to actively help create a new way that is in line with your values, whatever those values may be.