Megan Leslie Speech: December 6 2008

Thank you for asking me to be here today.

I have been attending December 6th events my entire adult life. It never feels any less sombre. Less affecting. Less urgent. Nineteen years later, and where are we?

I was 16 when the Montreal Massacre happened. The victims seemed like adults, I remember thinking that. Women in their early 20s, studying engineering. It was all pretty far away from my teenage reality a small mining town.

But when I look at this list now, and read these 14 names and ages, it strikes me. They were so young. They seemed like adults, and yet, I’m several years older now than the oldest victim was then.

I’ve noticed over the years that we are very careful with ourselves when we discuss this shooting.

We do not to say the name of the killer, just as I am not going to today.

We also only talk about the fatalities. Not of the hit-list the shooter had prepared, containing the names of several prominent feminists, many of whom are our friends.

We hold the events at arm’s length, and we squint.

In looking for answers, we ask ourselves: “why?”.

Because we can take comfort in that answer to “why?”

It contains phrases that allow us some distance:

“Lone gunman.”

“Isolated incident.”

“Psychotic break.”

Oh, we let ourselves think. That’s why. All of those reasons are separate from me. Unique.

I am not culpable.

I am not in danger.

But the question we don’t let ourselves ask is what.

What is it about our culture that made the shooter blame “feminists” for all his troubles?

What is it going to take to change things?

What can *I* do?

The answer to these questions is unsettling, because it makes us face uncomfortable facts:

We live in a culture of casual misogyny.

We live in a culture that pays attention to women most often when it wants to berate us, blame us, or compare us to each other.

And we don’t do enough to fight it.

Like when hundreds of Aboriginal women go missing.

When the word “equality” is taken out of the Status of Women mandate.

Like when on my first day in Ottawa as a new MP, another MP said something so sexist and so degrading to me that my first thought was “what am I wearing? Did I ask for this?”

When victims of violence are referred to in the media as “hookers” and “junkies” rather than “women” or even “people”.

As a woman, we’re subject to these warning shots all the time.

Be pretty.

Be good.

Be careful.

When we talk about December 6th, we place it as an extreme end of a spectrum that begins with domestic violence.

I am acutely aware that domestic violence touches many more lives than we are likely to ever know . It is a pandemic problem that provincial and federal governments have done little to address.

But I do not feel that the events of December 6th were an exaggerated version of domestic violence. I believe they were an extreme form of the gender terrorism that happens so much all around us that we hardly even recognize it for what it is anymore.

In the wake of these shootings, big plans were made.

We promised ourselves an end to violence against women.

And here we are today, for the nineteenth time, saying “Never again”, and trying to believe it.

We need to do better than this.

We need to call out sexist behavior, even if it causes social friction to do so.

We need to support women who are working to create and reflect a culture of non-violence and possibility.

We need to tell the media that they won’t talk us into hating ourselves and each other.

We need to remind our government that women count.

We need to look after each other, and ourselves.

The handbill for this event asks us to make a commitment to act against violence against women. I commit to naming sexism and gender terrorism. And I commit to going easy on myself when I don’t have the strength to stand up against it. And I commit to seeking support from others to make sure I have the strength to name it the next time.

On December 6th, 1989, fourteen women were shot because someone thought that they’d stepped out of line.

On that day, all of their power and potential was taken from them.

On this day, and on all days, we owe it to them to not waste ours.

Emotional labour is a two-way street

(I share this seagull’s irritation. Photo by Dustin Liebenow)

Ethan: Hey Audra, a friend of mine is getting beat up by a bunch of MRAs… I took a swing at them but could use some help. Any suggestions? [LINK REMOVED BECAUSE IT’S SUPER TRIGGERING.]

Audra: Jesus I thought you meant actually beat up.

Ethan: Yes, sorry… on FB

Audra: For fuck sake. It’s not cool to send someone a link to a thread where there are graphic images of violence against women being posted.

Ethan: Not sure how to respond to that. Trying to help a friend not cause more problems for someone else.

Audra: Sure I guess maybe be more considerate when you are asking someone for intense emotional labour out of the blue?

Ethan: Fair enough.

[FIVE MINUTES PASS AND I NOTICE HE HAS UNFRIENDED ME]

Audra: Did you unfriend me because I was critical of the way you interacted with me, after having a picture sprung on me of a woman being beaten? Like, I pulled my stepfather off of my mom when I was 8 years old, sorry I wasn’t more polite about being upset.

Ethan: I unfriended you because I was disappointed in your response to a request for solidarity. I’m not sure how I was to show you what was going on without linking or why my faux pas with sending you that link was worthy of ignoring Sarah..

Audra: I think it’s much more serious than a “faux pas” to not:
1. Warn someone that you are sending them something upsetting.
2. Express concern or empathy about the fact that you know they also deal with this stuff all the time and might not have the capacity right now to engage.
3. Express appreciation for willingness to engage if they can.
4. Ask if there is anything you can do to support them right now.
I’m not “ignoring Sarah”. I am literally unable to participate in that thread at this exact moment. I am in the middle of a lot of worthwhile things, and I have to triage. Women are not on call for you 24/7, and it’s pretty gross to behave like you expect that they are.

Ethan: I don’t expect women to be on call… I was hoping you specifically would be interested since I’ve seen that you have a lot of practice.

Audra: Okay well I don’t really feel like you’ve addressed the vast bulk of what I said just now.

Ethan: No I haven’t addressed it. I am not sure that a point by point response would very productive. You didn’t like how I approached you on this. I’m not sure how I would know that before hand but fair enough. Lesson learned. Thanks for your thoughts, I’ll keep it in mind next time.

Audra: You can say “Hey, the content in this link is pretty upsetting, so you don’t have to click on it if you’re not able to engage with that sort of thing right now. I know it’s something you deal with a lot. But if you have time and mental energy, I’d really appreciate it if you could maybe weigh in on my friend’s FB wall at some point. MRA’s are being really awful to her. Thanks so much either way. and let me know if I can do the same for you at some point.”

Ethan: Now I know! Thanks for writing it out.

Sit down, “Pastafarians”.

A person named Shawna Hammond just wore a colander on her head in her driver’s licence photo because: 

Hammond is an atheist, but she told the department of motor vehicles that she is a “pastafarian.” She says she believes no one should be forced into religious beliefs.

“For me the colander represents freedom, our freedom of religion and to whatever religion we prefer or even lack of religion,” she said.

As for being a pastafarian — it is a real thing. It came into being about 10 years ago when a man wrote a letter to a school board talking about a flying spaghetti monster, equating that to creationism being taught in schools.

I’m seeing a lot of cheering about this online, in progressive spaces. But it doesn’t sit well with me. When I tried to explain why, that answer came out as a list of six reasons:

  1. I am an atheist for sure, and am definitely coming at this discussion from a place of suffering a lot as the result of the religious beliefs of others (specifically the idea that men are head of the household).
  2. I am absolutely troubled by the role that Christianity plays in setting American and Canadian legislative policy.
  3. I find the atheist movement as dominated by patronizing and slut-shaming old white dudes as Christianity is. I do think it has a lot less power to make the world worse, because it lacks the community, resources, and political support that Christianity has. It is sure doing its best, though.
  4. I absolutely think the term “Pastafarian” is the result of a group of thoughtless white people who didn’t think at all about the racist implications of the way they were framing their legitimate reaction to the cultural and political power over their lives of a church they didn’t belong to or support.
  5. A lot of atheists act like “Whoa you guys did you know oppression is a thing?” and behave as if they are the most oppressed people in this world and it is absolutely infuriating and racist and toxic and horrible.
  6. I think that most people who identify as atheists more than they identify as anything else (feminists, socialists, etc) are at best doing nothing to make the world a less oppressive place and at worst actively facilitating and perpetuating most forms of oppression.

I’ve watched a few people be pretty defensive about this today, but I honestly haven’t seen any arguments that don’t completely reinforce the concerns I’ve outlined above. I really recommend reading Agnostic Atheist, But Not Interested In White Supremacist Atheism, on the always stellar blog Gradient Lair.

We get it. You are super oppressed. (photo by Crouchy69)
We get it. You are super oppressed. (photo by Crouchy69)

 

Inside, outside, upside down.

"Friendship", a creative commons photo by Fabrizio Lonzini
“Friendship”, a creative commons photo by Fabrizio Lonzini

When trying to figure out how a person will treat you in any given situation, which do you think most impacts your assumptions?

1. How other people have treated you in similar situations.
2. How you have treated other people (including the person in question) in similar situations.
3. How the person in question has treated you in similar situations.
4. How the person in question has treated other people in similar situations.

I realized recently that I mostly do the first of these four, with maybe overlaying hints of the second. But I don’t always think of the third and it rarely occurs to me to think about the fourth, even though those are probably the most relevant data points!

I’m putting this up as a mini-post and a place-holder, because I want to pull this apart some more with folks.

The right side of history

Creative Commons photo by Elvert Barnes
Creative Commons photo by Elvert Barnes

White people. You know how we watch things like 12 Years a Slave or Driving Miss Daisy or The Colour Purple or whatever, and think we would be different than the white oppressors in those movies? How we post about how sad we are about Nelson Mandela’s death, and how inspiring we found him? You know how we all like to pretend that if we’d been around in 1961 we would have for sure been one of the Freedom Riders?

Now is our chance to be on the right side of history.

A young black man was murdered by white policemen for jaywalking, and then his body was left on the street for hours. When members of his community reacted to this, the police used military tactics to shut them down, shooting tear gas at protesters and arresting members of the press.

This is happening not in the past, and not in a novel that your book club is reading about South Africa. It is happening right now in an American city of 21,000 people.

Please let’s not wait for the movie to come out about this in 30 years. The time for solidarity and action is now.

Find out what is happening in Ferguson. Then find out what you can do about it. If that last list feels too American to you, here is a call-to-action for Canadians

Wrapping a lead blanket around myself (For David-Benjamin Tomlinson)

Scene: Last Saturday at the Spur festival’s Literary Cabaret. 

I am standing at the Arts and Letters club, and a writer I have just met (but already hugged three times) is tapping against my cleavage and insisting “Your heart is trying to talk to you! It’s saying beep beep beep beep I have a message for you!”

Then his hand becomes a manic spider, dancing just above my freshly-shaved head. “You are all up here in your brain. You are ignoring your heart.” He returns his fingertip to my chest, and taps out a few more “beep beep beeps” for emphasis. He then looks at me sternly, says “Okay?” a few times, gives me a final hug and swoops away.

His name is David-Benjamin Tomlinson, and a few hours earlier I watched in tears as he performed a monologue about having a complicated and unattractive reaction to his best friend having a baby. It was vulnerable and hilarious and open-hearted, which is how I would describe all of my favourite art.

I loved it, but even while listening to it, I was making mental edits. At one point, he decides he is going to win this little girl over with a dance party. And as he talks about this dance party, it seems like he has won her over. I feel like my heart is being cracked open.

But then his piece continued for another two segments, and during those segments I was thinking “No. Now it is messy. Now I know that one action didn’t solve everything. Now I can’t write my own happy ending.” When the piece eventually did wrap up, though, I had to admit it was stronger that way. It had more of an impact on me, because it was more realistic.

I love other people’s realities. I tell everyone to be brave and genuine and vulnerable. I tell them that it is a gift to their community to show trust in this way. I tell them to be a role model for imperfect people doing their best. But in all honesty, I feel like the realistic version of me is embarrassing, so I’ve been hiding it away. I worry that if I paint myself in a realistic light, it will be clear that I can be impatient and avoidant and petty and untrustworthy.

I spent a few recent years in the fight of my life, trying to keep feeling like I was loveable while facing a lot of evidence to the contrary. And by some metrics my plan was successful; I survived with my sense of worthiness intact. Except now I feel like the only way I can maintain that feeling is to wrap the emotional equivalent of one of those lead blankets around myself, to keep out X-ray eyes.

This is the fear that I try to explain to David-Benjamin after his performance. Except it is humiliating to articulate. So I start sentences about not wanting to seem imperfect and then trail off, avoiding the eyes of someone who has just told an audience of strangers that he hated his best friend’s baby.

Right? Right.

But the truth is, this epiphany won’t last. This is not my tidy happy ending. This is not the point where I reassure all of you that they will only get generous and open-hearted writing from me for now on. I don’t have that in me.

All I am able to do is admit to everyone that I am scared. I’m scared that my self-preservation became self-desctruction, and that in my flailing determination to look after myself when I was left at sea, I doubled down on some of my worst qualities. And I’m scared that the very nature of these qualities is what makes them hardest to process in public.

My impatience means that I don’t want to start over in finding my voice and audience. My pettiness means that I don’t really feel I should have to. My avoidance means that I don’t want to dig through myself to do this work. And my untrustworthiness means that I don’t feel like anything I would write would be believable even to myself.

I guess believing myself is what David-Benjamin was trying to tell me to do, with his beep beep beeps on my chest. To reassure myself that I am a reliable narrator. To stop gaslighting myself, for crying out loud.

The truth is, I can’t make any promises. I can’t even promise to do my best because I don’t even know what my best is. But I want to thank everyone who encourages me to keep trying, and who tells me my voice is valuable and that I don’t have to be perfect.

And I want to thank David-Benjamin, for being a shining example of the value of authentic connection.

smitten
I’ve never been one for playing it cool.

Guest post – The Year I Met Autism

A close friend of mine recently found out that her son is on the Autism Spectrum. She’s struggling with navigating talking about this in online spaces, because his privacy means a lot to her. And while she knows that there is no shame in the diagnosis, she’s only too aware that not everyone else is there yet. So she has asked me to post this anonymously in my blog, on World Autism Awareness Day. Please read, share, and be kind.

shelter

“What did you do today?”

It was the question I asked my son every night when he returned home from daycare, or “school” as we called it. Each night, without fail, he would repeat the same answer verbatim, “I played with cars with Josh”. Or there would be silence. I’m not sure what was worse.

“What did you do today?” we would ask over and over, until finally we just stopped because the answer frustrated us so much.

It was one of the things that made me know something was wrong. He would repeat what I referred to as a “bank of phrases”, each one used to get him through the routines of the day. And he relied on those daily routines, so much so that disaster would strike if we deviated from one task for even a minute.

“It’s time for my bath, you need to go home now,” he told his little cousins at a family reunion with my brothers two summers back. How adorable, everyone thought.

Then there was the intense focus on a singular interest. Months spent talking about nothing else except for his favourite movie. Nothing. Else. On the beach in Florida where the sun was shining and the waves crashing around us, “does Woody wear a cowboy hat? Yes. Woody wears a cowboy hat.”

“You’d think that he spent 24 hours a day watching this movie,” I told my mother. “He speaks of nothing else.”

And while there were hugs and cuddles, there were never any “I love yous”. I can count on one finger the number of times my son has told me he loves me.  He does though, I know this. And I love him, which is why I fought to find out what was wrong with my boy.

It’s Autism. That’s what’s “wrong”. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). We’ve been processing this information for the past three months, and maybe I’ll get to a better place but right now it still really sucks. To be brutally honest, I never thought I would have to give more than a fleeting thought to International Autism Awareness Day. This was my sweet boy. My first born who had such a vast vocabulary at 18 months.  My baby who never wanted to leave my side, the gift life gave me that made me feel such pure happiness. I never thought we would meet autism. This caped monster that came in the night to steal all our hopes and dreams that we had for our son.

Autism means speech therapy, behavioural therapy, delaying his entrance into school so he can take part in intensive early intervention and managing the well-meaning but sometimes super awkward encounters with friends and family when telling them the news.

Writing is therapy for me, which is why on International Autism Awareness Day I asked my good friend to let me take up some space on her blog. You might ask what I know about autism, considering my child was only diagnosed three months ago, but you underestimate me and the power of the Internet. Here are some things I’ve learned on our journey thus far, and some things you might benefit from learning on this day:

Shit is confusing

Autism is a health condition in which no one has any answers and yet everyone has all the answers. So far I’ve learned that autism is genetic. That it’s not genetic, it’s environmental. That it’s a combination of genetics and environmental. Vaccines cause autism, vaccines in no way cause autism so shut down your crazy. Tylenol while pregnant causes autism. Tylenol for babies causes autism. Being induced causes autism. C-Sections cause autism. Fucking Bounce sheets cause autism. There is no cure for autism. But Natural Doctors might have things that can rid your child of autistic tendencies. Gluten free. B12 shots in the ass. Stool samples. And if you don’t do these things you are basically just giving your kid more Bounce sheets to roll around in.

Seriously. Shit is confusing. Luckily, I have people sending me all the articles on autism that exist on the Internet so that I can spend the majority of my time banging my face against my keyboard.

The Spectrum is Vast

One important thing I’ve learned is that there is no way you can generalize those who have ASD. Every kid on the spectrum is different. There are some commonalities to be sure, but the symptoms and behaviours are across the board. For one thing, don’t ask me if my son has a “special talent” cause you heard that “kids with autism all have a thing they do well”. Take your Rain Man stigma and check it.

Pity is the worst

We have some incredible friends who have responded so well to the news about our son having ASD. We’ve also had some terribly awful reactions that kept me up all hours of the night. Our son doesn’t need your pity (besides for having me as a mother). What he needs is for you to give him a chance at a playdate even though he might not be the most outgoing kid in the daycare class. He needs for you to not exclude him from birthday parties, because that really hurts. Please remember that our kids learn from us, so just because little Johnny doesn’t want to invite the weird, quiet kid from class to his party doesn’t mean that you should accept that. You know better, and you should teach your kid to know better as well. Better than any therapy in the world is the social interaction kids with ASD get from playing with their peers. Don’t just talk a good game about diversity and acceptance. Practice it even once a month. Trust me, it’s life changing for these kids.

Support is key

I don’t know what we would have done without our family and friends the past few months. Taking care of our younger child while we shuttled our son from one appointment to the next. Listening to me cry for hours on the phone. Coming over with a bottle of wine and talking about nonsense to take my mind off of the new path we were facing. Inviting our family into your home for afternoon get togethers or suppers to make it clear that our son would never be treated any differently. Most importantly, thank you for saying something. What has hurt the most is the people we’ve told who have chosen to say nothing at all. Who feel it is best to pretend that nothing has changed in our lives. It has, things have really changed, and calling to see how we’re doing would be a really cool thing to do.

So those are a few of the things I’ve learned that I felt important to share. Maybe next year I’ll have more insightful things to share about where we are with autism. Right now though, things are finally starting to feel ok. I can see my son again; I don’t look at him and see autism. I see his strengths, his character, and his drive. Those hopes and dreams we had for him are still there, but they are less vain. I want him to be happy. I want him to love his life and seek answers independently in order to satisfy his curiosity.  I don’t ever want him to change.

“What did I do today?” my son asked me at dinner last night after weeks of us not asking him the question. My husband and I turned to him, jaws dropped, before regaining our composure and engaging in the conversation. “What did you do today, buddy?” we asked. “I played smurfs with my friend and then I did craft,” he replied with a smile before following up with, “Do you like popcorn?”

It’s not one of those things you can put up on Facebook with a cute caption like, “Zoe is riding her bike!” or “Colin played his first hockey game!” but my son asking me if I liked popcorn and looking like he honestly gave a shit might be one of the best moments of my life.

That’s autism.