Experience Is To Be Lived

Reflections on life as a [relatively privileged] minority status collector


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Why are we screening the ‘B’ word?

It’s been a long hiatus from this blog for a number of reasons (mostly depression-related), but hopefully I’ll be back for a bit now. And how or when better to restart it than today, by marking international Bi Visibility Day?

About two years ago, I partook of some Netflix binges – rewatching all of Buffy and powering through the whole of The L Word were just too irresistible. Although I can’t deny I hugely enjoyed both of these binges, there was something I just couldn’t get past – the way bisexuality was treated in both. They inspired me to start writing a blog about bi-erasure and biphobic tropes on screen over time, but things got in the way, and it was never finished.

bi-tvisibility

Here’s what Bi TVisibility could look like!

It’s never too late, though! So let’s begin.

[BEWARE – SPOILERS FOR MANY TV PROGRAMMES!]

The year is 1997, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer has hit our screens. (I was only 6, so of course I wasn’t watching it then. But for reasons which will become clear, I feel hugely influenced by this programme, so indulge me.) We have a ground-breaking strong female lead, fighting evil and generally being awesome. And she has two best friends, one male and one female. Let’s focus on them for a second…

It’s made very clear from the start that Willow has been crushing on Xander for a long time. It’s also apparent after not long that it’s not requited. And – remember this – Willow is devastated when it’s finally drummed home.

Fortunately for her, she moves on. She moves on to… Oz. It’s very obvious that their chemistry is strong, and I don’t think the depth of her feelings for him can be denied. Their relationship only falls apart because of one small complication, him needing to take time alone to understand his werewolf identity better. Don’t you just hate it when things like that get in the way?

I highlight these two relationships of Willow’s for an important reason. (Can you see where I’m going with this?) After Oz, her feelings for Tara and, later, Kennedy (both women) are just as strong as we’ve seen her experience previously, but something seems to have changed. We hear her say on several occasions that she’s ‘gay now.’

willow-wants-to-be-bi

Look. You made Willow cry now.

Now, let’s clear something up before we go any further. Everyone, 100%, without any exception, has the complete right to decide for themselves how they are defined, in every area of self-definition, and that goes for fictional characters too. If Willow says she’s gay, then within the canon of the Buffyverse, she’s gay. What I take issue with is the fact that this was the way her characterisation was dealt with. It was Joss Whedon and his team who put those words in her mouth. This is the same Joss Whedon who, when interviewed in 2002 about why Willow has a relationship with Kennedy after Tara dies, said ‘We can’t have Willow say, ‘Oh, cured now, I can go back to cock!’ Willow is not going to be straddling that particular fence.’ What particular fence might that be? Not bisexuality, surely?

I’ve given a lot of time here to one TV programme, but there is a reason for it. I don’t remember much of Buffy from the first time watching it, because I was in my early teens, or possibly even younger, and I only ever really watched it when my older brother did. It’s a bit… adult-themed. I definitely didn’t remember the details I’ve described above. The only thing that really stood out to me was Willow with Tara – not who she was with before Tara, or after Tara. My childhood brain saw this revolutionary LBGT+ character openly calling herself gay on screen, and processed it in a way which enforced a binary framework. I honestly believe it contributed in a massive way to my own repression of my sexuality.

My childhood brain saw this revolutionary LBGT+ character openly calling herself gay on screen, and processed it in a way which enforced a binary framework.

Now I watch TV programmes with both a [mostly] conscious adult mind and an understanding of my own space within the LGBT+ community, and I notice things which upset me. There are certain patterns to how bisexuality is treated (or often isn’t treated) on screen which I find very worrying. You’ve either got the complete erasure of bisexuality as a real identity, or the use of bisexuality to portray a character negatively in some way.

So, first, programmes where a character could quite conceivably be identified as bi according to how they are portrayed on screen, but the writers shy away from ever using the ‘b’ word. We’ve already seen Willow in Buffy more than 15 years ago, but it’s still happening today. Let’s look at Orange Is The New Black, which is pretty much at modern cult status. In many ways, it deserves this. It provides a lot of social commentary about race, power and humanity (though I appreciate the concerns many people of colour have expressed around its evolution into trauma porn for white viewers, and I’m grateful to have had these lived experience analyses drawn to my attention). It even tackles trans* issues front on (again, with its own caveats).

What I (and many other people) really dislike is the programme’s presentation of bisexuality, though. Piper describes her sexuality beautifully, saying ‘I like hot girls. I like hot guys. I like hot people’, but you’d think from watching the show that the word ‘bisexual’ itself is taboo or a swearword. The word ‘bi’ is only used once, in a tone of voice which dismisses the concept, but there are no similar qualms about calling her a lesbian, an ‘ex-lesbian’, or ‘gay for the stay’, depending on the scenario and her relationship of the moment. Why does it shy from bisexuality? I’m all for fluidity and embracing a spectrum, but there are millions of people across the world who choose to use the bisexual label proudly, and who, like me, have most likely at some point felt liberated realising that there are others like them. Would it be so difficult to give them someone on screen to identify with? Someone that other people can see and use to come to accept that it’s a genuine orientation too?

Would it be so difficult to give bi people someone on screen to identify with?

Then you’ve got the programmes where the concept of bisexuality is applied to a character to highlight a particularly negative character trait or an unpleasant action of theirs. This one’s a lot more varied and subtle, and isn’t so easily spotted unless you’ve started noticing the tropes. For example, I’ve recently been watching Jane the Virgin and Orphan Black, and there’s a striking parallel between them when it comes to the use of bisexuality.

In Jane the Virgin, we meet Rose, who has a bit of a complicated life – she’s torn up about the fact that she’s sleeping with (and apparently in love with) her husband’s daughter. Yeah. When the series began, my initial reaction was, ‘oh look, another bisexual character who’s being portrayed as unfaithful, promiscuous and confused about her sexuality.’ All common tropes, by the way.

rose-luisa-emilio

Rose (right), with her  husband and her lover. Oy.

But it gets much worse. She turns out to be the international drug lord whom the police have been searching for throughout the first series, and a lesbian, and she only married him as a cover so she could hide an illegal plastic surgery ring changing the faces of criminals under his hotel. I know, it’s all intentionally over exaggerated, ridiculous and far-fetched, but let’s set that aside for a moment. The only character in this programme who demonstrates any form of non-binary sexuality turns out only to be doing it in order to manipulate and deceive those around her.

I could just be reading too much into it, so let’s turn to Orphan Black, a programme with three core LGBT+ characters who are each bad-ass on their own way. There’s Cosima, the super genius lesbian evolutionary development scientist who does everything lab-related to help her clone-sisters (and one clone-brother). Then there’s Felix, the gay ever-present voice of reason and mediator whenever shit starts to hit the fan.

And then we have Delphine, Cosima’s on-off girlfriend and personal monitor in the clone experiment/the eventual director of the super evil corporation which stabs all the clone-sisters in the back and other body parts on a regular basis/eventual eventual renegade fighting on behalf of the clone-sisters. (Are you following that?) And, you guessed it, she’s bisexual. When she first starts to befriend Cosima, it’s at the behest of the man who’s her boss (and apparently also the person she’s sleeping with). Cosima falls for her, so Delphine ‘does whatever it takes,’ and they become a thing – and all the while Delphine is spying on her and reporting back.

As the storyline currently stands (at the end of series four), Delphine actually seems to be in love with Cosima and helps to save her life. The overarching theme throughout the programme, though, is that Delphine is never quite to be trusted, because her loyalties switch regularly and she’s easily controlled. Now, let’s compare that back with Rose in Jane the Virgin. In both, the only character displaying non-binary sexuality (whether genuine or as a guise) is untrustworthy, manipulative and dangerous.

It’s a recurring theme in popular culture that bisexual characters are not to be relied upon as they will ultimately hurt others because of their sexual or romantic expression.

To give benefit of the doubt, I’m sure that neither was consciously written in this way, nor can they be held responsible for the biphobia which pervades much of society. It’s a recurring theme in popular culture, however, that bisexual characters are not to be relied upon as they will ultimately hurt others because of their sexual or romantic expression. And I don’t think the writers of either programme followed that particular trope by accident.

Now, to come full circle, we have The L Word, that wonderful exploration of (mostly) female sexuality that is compulsory viewing for all queer women. If I sound sarcastic, maybe I am a little. It takes the prize with both of the trends described above.

Set, as it is, around the lives of a group of mostly queer women, you might hope it would be interested in unpacking some of the nuances of sexuality beyond the straight-gay binary. Instead, the writers just don’t seem willing to explore any of the bi presenting characters in any kind of positive, affirming way.

Where the first series kicks off, we meet Alice, who self-identifies as bisexual, Tina, who has been with Bette for many years but dated men previously, and Jenny, who has just moved in with her boyfriend. Jenny begins to explore her sexuality through an affair with a woman, ultimately breaking up with her boyfriend, while Tina and Bette clearly have a troubled relationship, which eventually falls apart.

In the third series, we also meet Moira, who begins transitioning to Max within the same series. He is seen in relationships with both men and women, but no one talks much about this sexuality because the focus is on his gender. I’m not going to explore his character in any more depth, because I lack the lived experience to capture the complexity of his gender or sexual identity, but it seems to me that here is another potentially bi character whose sexuality is erased.

What troubles me as the characters and stories develop is firstly what is said within the script to rubbish bisexuality, and secondly the social status of these characters within their universe.

tina-the-lesbian

It’s an individual’s choice how they identify, but really, The L Word writers – is it so hard to write Tina as bi?

Towards the beginning, both Jenny and Alice identify as bisexual. It seemed positive in the pilot episode that when one of Alice’s friends asks when she’s going to choose between ‘dick and pussy,’ she responds quickly to this biphobic question. What’s disappointing, then, is how she and Jenny develop over the course of six seasons. Not only do both come to vocally identify as lesbians, but they are also responsible for making some achingly familiar biphobic comments about and to Tina when she dates a man, Henry, after breaking up with Bette. Upon seeing Tina dressed up for a date with Henry, Alice makes a ‘joke’ about now understanding that bisexuality is ‘gross.’  One particularly unpleasant scene in the following series sees Tina being excluded from a basketball team composed of her friends because of it; Jenny accuses her of ‘enjoying all the heterosexual privileges’ because she has a boyfriend, and says that Tina can no longer be part of their group. Interestingly, though, Tina insists that she is ‘still a lesbian’. As in Buffy, if that’s how she identifies, then we must accept her self-definition, but why could the writers not consider letting her use the ‘B’ word instead? And why do the writers stop challenging biphobia within the dialogue as they have Alice do in the pilot?

This scene with Tina takes me smoothly to the second point – how the characters displaying non-binary traits are seen within the social group and portrayed to the audience. While Tina is dating a man, she is almost completely shunned by her social group because they see her as betraying the lesbian world. The implication that she is only doing it in order to spite Bette would barely even count as subtext. Yet another instance of bisexuality being used as a tool to portray duplicity in a character. When it comes to the social statuses of Jenny and Alice, I think the writing is more subtle, but both demonstrate the use of tired tropes too. Both are depicted as unstable, suffering from severe mental illness explicitly linked to their conflicted sexual identity, and neither really receives the support they need from those around them when they are at their worst. I doubt it’s any coincidence that the chronology of both of their storylines place their new lesbian identities as things acquired after the lack of support they receive from their friends.

So, there we go. According to The L Word, bisexuality is merely a stepping stone to homosexuality, and it implies that people who identify as or act bisexual haven’t yet earned their place in the queer world. The programme deftly manages simultaneously to erase and attack the bisexual identity.

I suppose we shouldn’t be all that surprised, though – bi-erasure is right there in the programme’s name.

This lengthy overview of bisexuality on screen is by no means comprehensive, and there are other excellent blogs examining the issue. There are plenty of other programmes I could have brought in, from Queer as Folk to Glee, but I wanted to limit myself. (And, also, Kurt’s ‘bisexual is a lie gay guys tell in high school to hold hands with girls in the corridor so they can feel normal for a change’ line makes me too angry for coherent sentences.) I think it’s important to note, though, that all of the programmes I’ve looked at are pretty progressive in many ways, exploring issues like sexuality, gender non-conformity, race, minority communities and power, and would all score relatively well on the Bechdel test. So why are they still falling so short on bisexuality?

The more it’s seen, the more it becomes normalised in society.

Now, I’m sure there’ll be people who think ‘so what if you don’t get the token positive bisexual character you want in TV? It’s not like it reflects real life or anything.’ But that’s just it. It should, and it needs to. It’s not all that long ago that queer culture and identities started to be represented on screen in the first place, even though they’ve always been there. Now it’s becoming more common, and more accepted, to see same sex couples on mainstream TV or in films, which is fantastic. The more it’s seen, the more it becomes normalised in society. Being gay is far more accepted today in Western countries than it was not all that long ago, and I have no doubt that pop culture helps with that, because the law rarely leaves the ivory towers. It’s time for bisexuality to get that same recognition and acceptance, in both the straight and queer worlds.

For me, the real question is this. Would the on-screen depictions of bisexuality in TV programmes today be sufficiently visible and positive to allow a child version of myself to build a framework of sexuality which included bisexuality as equally valid? Sadly, I think the answer is a resounding no, and until the answer is ‘yes,’ I will keep pushing for our bi voices to be heard and our bi faces to be seen.

If you have any comments, and particularly any recommendations for TV programmes in which bi characters are given a decent treatment, I’d BI very glad to read them below!

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The Fast of the Apostate

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE, DEPRESSION

Depression tried to kill me. I survived! Let’s eat!

Speaking from the depths of a severe depressive episode, this is likely to be a shorter blog post than most of mine. I feel driven, though, to pull together a few thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the last few days.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the centre of Jewish life at the time, and its destruction scattered Jews across the world.

Tuesday 15th July was a notable day for several reasons. It was the day that I had a second interview for a job that I really wanted (and didn’t get). It was also the Fast of Tammuz, a day in the Jewish calendar which marks the beginning of the saddest three-week period in the year. On that day, Jews across the world commemorate the breach of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 69CE, an event which ultimately led up to the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Exile which is ongoing. This year, many Jews chose to dedicate their fast to a hope for peace in Israel-Palestine, fasting alongside their Muslim cousins during Ramadan.

Tuesday 5th August was another notable day in the Jewish calendar. It was Tisha b’Av, one of the most significant fast days in Judaism, marking (among many other coincidental disasters in Jewish history) the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition to fasting, it is traditionally marked by adopting full mourning rituals, including not bathing, wearing jewellery, wearing new or clean clothes, sitting on chairs, using lotions or make up, engaging in sexual activity, or greeting one another. All in all, it’s a pretty intense day dedicated to bringing the person into as deep a state of sadness as is possible when they are so far detached in time and often geography from the events commemorated.

I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all.

Although I kept the fact very quiet from people around me, I have now decided to disclose the fact that I did not mark either day in any way at all, although for very different reasons.

My past blog posts both here and on other websites have hinted that I am losing my commitment to Judaism, or, as it is called in Jewish circles, ‘going off the derech [path]’. I feel as though it no longer means to me what it used to, and without a compulsion of the concept of divine reward and punishment, I have no real reason to continue to practice what I would formerly have done. It’s very much a work in progress in the moment, establishing what means something to me and what doesn’t, so I’m taking each day as it comes.

I thought about fasting on July 17th. Had I fasted, I would have dedicated my fast to the #hungryforpeace movement in hope that I was adding my voice to a call for rationality and brotherhood. As late as the night before the fast itself, I was still trying to work out whether or not I would fast, because the religious significance of the fast day just didn’t mean anything to me. Sure, there was the collective mourning, the sense of history, the solidarity with my people and my past, but I know that whenever I fasted in the past, it’s just been for show. I don’t really get into it, I don’t feel sad; I just feel hungry, and I like the feeling of hunger, so that doesn’t bother me. Believe me, I have used every method I can think of to connect with the day, but it just never really felt like a sad day. In the end, I decided that there was not enough significance for me to fast on the day of an important job interview and risk performing badly at the interview, so I did not fast. (As happens, I aced that interview! Sadly, someone else aced it more, and I didn’t get the job. But that’s by-the-by.)

On Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episodes I’ve ever experienced.

In the three-week period between the two fasts, a number of factors came together in a perfect storm of horror, and on Wednesday 30th July, I crashed headlong into the most severe depressive episode I’ve ever experienced. Twice in the first few days, I came very close to ending my life, and owe my survival to a couple of very amazing people who know who they are. Although the urges have reduced a little, they’re still simmering under the surface and bubbling up every now and then. I have passed my days in a blur of tears, self-loathing, unsatisfying sleep and an ongoing battle to keep up with my daily life as if everything was fine, even though things that used to mean so much to me are now as bland and unappealing as staring at a brick wall. That last, incidentally, is an activity that I’ve done quite a lot in the last week or so.

This is my black dog. I haven't given him a name, because I hope he won't hang around too long.

This is my black dog. I haven’t given him a name, because I hope he won’t hang around too long.

I’m not sure if  I would say that the feelings I’ve had since that Wednesday have been comparable to the experience of mourning, with which I am intimately acquainted. In the immediate aftermath of my mum’s death, I cried a lot, and I felt like life could never get better again, but I still felt like I had a purpose to life. Life may have been utterly dreadful, but I still had some kind of reason to keep going, even if it was just to get back to my degree. At the moment, in the pits of depression, that purpose feels like it has just disappeared like smoke up a chimney (to use an old cliché). The black dog of depression is doing everything it can to make my life not worth living.

When Tisha b’Av rolled around, I didn’t even stop to think for a moment about the possibility of fasting. I listened to happy music. I watched TV. I had a shower. I wore my normal jewellery, and happened to pull a t-shirt out of the drawer that I’d never worn before. The fast day was completely meaningless to me, in terms of both its religious significance and the communal solidarity it draws. Ironically, though, I felt more sad and downbeat this Tisha b’Av gone than I have ever done before. This time, I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed: my body was doing a very good job of that for me. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week by then. Far from trying to bring myself down further, I was doing everything I could to find the tiniest bits of happiness in life, just like for so many years I have tried to find the tiny bits of sadness within a generally happy life.

I didn’t need to fast on Tisha b’Av to feel depressed. I had been living my own personal Tisha b’Av for almost a week.

There’s a little self-deprecating maxim that Jews throw around quite a lot to sum up their festivals: ‘They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.’ There’s also the lesser used ‘They tried to kill us, they managed it, let’s not eat’, which is what sums up the fasts of Tammuz and Tisha b’Av. Having been through what I have recently been experiencing, though, I want to alter the ditty in celebration of the smaller successes. Depression hasn’t killed me yet, and every day that it doesn’t, I’m going to eat to celebrate that. Fast day or no.


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The Fault Is In Our Stars

TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, SEXUAL ABUSE, CHILD ABUSE, PAEDOPHILIA, COURT PROCEEDINGS

Why is it that some difficulties people experience get them instant sympathy, and others they find themselves blamed for?

If you are unfortunate enough to suffer from mental illness, whatever form that takes, you will probably be aware of the stigma that comes with it. It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help, and so many people I’ve spoken to have experienced similar reluctance to seek some kind of treatment.

It took me several years, two ended relationships, and ultimately making concrete plans to kill myself on the second anniversary of my mum’s death before I accepted that I needed to get some help.

Why do we refuse to seek help? If I have an infection which isn’t shifting after letting my body fight it for a few days, the pain wins out and I go to the doctor. If someone’s tooth is hurting when they chew, they take a trip to the dentist and generally accept whatever treatment they’re told is needed. For some reason, though, when it was my emotions which ‘hurt’, I resisted the help which was there waiting for me – even though my usually pretty high pain threshold had given way to pain so extreme that I wanted to escape life itself. It was pain of a very different sort, for sure, but pain nevertheless.

I decided recently, after a bit of consideration, to be very open with my Charityworks cohort, mostly because I knew that if any group of people would be understanding, it would be them. I had been starting to experience symptoms of depression returning, so rather than going out to a club with them over the weekend a few weeks ago, I made my excuses: I need to take more care of my mental health at the moment to avoid my depression taking hold again. Had I had the ‘flu, I wouldn’t have thought twice about stating that as my reason for not joining them, but because it was a reference to my mental health, it felt somehow more vulnerable to admit to my ‘weakness’.

Mental illness is seen by many as just that: a sign of weakness. Society says that if something is wrong with your emotions or your mind, there’s nothing truly wrong with you; you just need to buckle up and get on with life, and stop seeking attention. It’s not a ‘real’ illness with pathogens and bacteria and stuff.

They all look happy and healthy, but it's statisically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

They all look happy and healthy, but it’s statistically likely that one of them is suffering from some kind of mental illness.

The statistics are scary, though. According to research published by the Mental Health Foundation in 2007, one in four British adults will suffer a mental health problem in any given year – that’s 25%, a quarter – and between 8% and 12% of the British population (of any age) suffers from depression, the most common form of mental illness, in any year. Clearly, this is not a rare thing, and there is very little chance that you do not know a single person suffering from a mental illness, whether it is diagnosed or undiagnosed.

Let’s compare this with cancer, another illness ‘close to my heart’ (in a manner of speaking). It’s a fair comparison, I think, because in the same way that there are many different types of mental illness grouped together within that overarching category, there are hundreds of ways that cancer can present itself. According to the Cancer Research UK website, there were more than 331,000 cancer diagnoses in 2011 in the UK, and that obviously doesn’t include the people already living with (or dying from) cancer at any given time. Of different types of cancers, ‘breast, lung, prostate and bowel cancers together account for over half of all new cancers each year’, which means that, between them, this big four hit approximately 165,500 people afresh in 2011. These figures are far lower than those of mental illness, and yet we hear much more about cancer than we do about mental illness.

Meet the Smith family. They’re having a bad year this year. Aunt Bertha was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Last time they all met up for a family meal, much of the talk was about how Aunt Bertha’s breast cancer treatment is going. Poor Aunt Bertha. What hasn’t been mentioned is Aunt Maude’s ‘episode’. Aunt Maude has bipolar disorder; after struggling for a long time, though, she has just braved the trip to her GP, and has started medication and talking therapy. She’s feeling a bit better now; thanks for asking.

If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

OK, that’s a bit of a sarcastic rant, and cancer is certainly not dinner conversation for everyone, but there is much less stigma attached to it nowadays than there is to mental illness. Why? The common attitude, going back to the point earlier about the latter being seen as a sign of weakness, seems to me to be that cancer is seen as an evil, physical force acting against your body, and there’s no way that you personally could have dissuaded the tumour from growing once the cells decided to mutate, but mental illness is a state of mind, and therefore you could prevent it in the same way that you can stop yourself thinking about sex at a funeral or death at a wedding. If you get cancer, it’s the natural world ganging up against you; if you get a mental illness, it’s your own mind (i.e. yourself) ganging up on you, and you just need to be more firm with it.

It occurred to me, pondering on all of this, that mental illness isn’t the only situation where society commonly views misfortune as being at least in part the fault of the person suffering it, though. Another example is that of sexual abuse and rape. All too often, victims of sexual abuse (usually women, but not always) are seen in some way to be complicit in their own abuse, whether that is because of what they were wearing, where they were walking, what they had been drinking, to whom they had been speaking, or a plethora of other terribly incriminating factors. Part of me is incredulous when I hear comments like these being made, and another part of me is insulted and sickened.

When I was nine years old, my parents’ famous hospitality was called upon. A friend of a friend needed somewhere to stay for a Jewish festival, and we had a spare bedroom in our house, so the man was welcomed as a guest and made to feel at home. He decided to make himself too much at home, and spent an afternoon in my bedroom. As an affectionate and slightly irritating nine year old, I was just glad of the fact that someone was willing to play the board game with which the rest of my family was fed up. I did not understand the significance of the other games he wanted to play, and it wasn’t until a family friend walked in that anyone knew what was happening.

'Probation for assault on nine-year-old' headline on front page of national Jewish newspaper

When you dream as a child of being on the front page of a newspaper, a reason like this isn’t really at the front of your mind.

Fast forward a year or so, and we’re at the court case. Apparently it doesn’t happen with child witnesses any more, but I was called to give evidence by video link in front of the jury, including being cross-examined by the defence barrister. Thankfully, I don’t remember huge amounts of the experience in detail, but I do remember very clearly being lead through a series of questions which resulted in the defence informing the jury that I had just demonstrated that I had pestered the man to come my room to play a board game and therefore it was not his fault. What’s more, I had apparently shown ‘some affection’ for him, which is clearly the same thing as offering consent.

Apparently that was a strong enough defence for the jury, given that he was found not guilty of two counts of indecent assault on a minor. That, despite the fact that he was being treated for known paedophilic tendencies, and was found guilty in the same trial for having dozens of indecent images of young girls on his home PC. It certainly seems like a lot of circumstantial evidence to me, but because a trained barrister was able to ask questions which lead to the nine year old victim affirming that playing a board game in a bedroom was her suggestion, enough blame was foisted on to the victim to allow the perpetrator to walk free, and for that victim to believe still that she was somehow at fault until well into her twenties.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old.

Poor man, led astray to paedophilia by a seductive nine year old. Let’s just pause to think for a moment about the ostracism that he’ll suffer as a result of the trial. (And yes, that was also an argument used.) The girl’s recurring nightmares are nothing compared to that, and there was clearly no loss of innocence as a result on her part, because she was already a slut. Nine year old slut.

(As it happens, the same man has since completed at least one short prison sentences for another, more recent, instance of having indecent images of young girls on his computer, and my mother once told me that she’d been inundated with phone calls, emails and letters from other parents who said he’d abused their own child but there hadn’t been enough evidence to take it to court. One woman apparently even contacted her from Australia, where the family had relocated to in order to make a fresh start. I don’t know of his current whereabouts, and half hope that the Grim Reaper has paid a visit; the last time I heard, though, he’d been shunned from several synagogues but was still lecturing to undergraduates at Oxford University.)

There is something terribly, terribly wrong with a culture in which anyone other than the instigator of sexual abuse is seen as being in any way responsible. Whatever the circumstances, a person’s body remains theirs and theirs alone, and however they present it to the outside world, this is not changed. If that body is walking down a street alone at night, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body is wearing a revealing or tightfitting outfit, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. If that body has consumed more alcohol than it has a tolerance to, it is theirs with which to do that, and they are not to blame if they are sexually assaulted. It may be unwise to do these things, but from the perspective of ‘protecting oneself from sexual assault’, the protection is only needed because there are other people who feel incorrectly entitled to those bodies. The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting; there is no justification for reducing an adult male’s responsibility for sexual assault simply because the body he assaulted belonged to a young girl who had permitted him to enter her bedroom (for whatever purpose). What does that young girl even know about the more nefarious activities that could take place?

The only person responsible for sexually assaulting someone is the person who does the sexual assaulting.

So why does society seem to have this penchant for feeling that some people are responsible for personal suffering over which they have no control? Before I try to answer that, I want to bring one more example forward for consideration.

An individual’s sexuality and their gender identity are two of the most personal things that could possibly be discussed. Non-tangible as they are, almost by definition it is impossible to discuss or measure them in an empirical manner, although there are plenty of scientific, psychological and sociological studies into gender/sexual self-identification and outward presentation. We certainly do not yet seem to understand why some people are attracted to the same gender, other people feel innately that they have been born with the wrong sex, and yet others cannot associate themselves with either pole of the gender binary. All we can do is accept that this is the case and try our very hardest to empathise with these individuals, even though they go against every human urge to categorise and classify the world in which we live.

There are many people, however, who go to great lengths to argue that these identities are actually chosen by the individual. The argument generally goes that humans are assigned their gender based on their sexual organs at birth and are by nature attracted to the opposite sex – generally, but not always, based on a religious foundation of ‘God created you as a woman, and so you are a woman’ and ‘Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’, respectively. Some form of depravity or penchant for attention seeking, though, makes certain people choose to get down and dirty with people of the same sex or claim to be a different gender. If it is chosen, then, they say, these individuals could re-choose if they so wished, and therapy or external pressure might be able to make them do just that.

Does he? Really? So don't smoke.

Does he? Really? So don’t smoke.

It is often these same people who hold negative opinions towards trans or non-heterosexual individuals. Attitudes range from the religious (‘it’s against God’s will’) to the biological (‘it’s unnatural because it doesn’t allow for reproduction’), from the psychological (‘it’s an expression of formative experiences in childhood’) to the sociological (‘it’s just a reflection of the crowd you fell in with’), with a special mention for the downright intolerant (‘it’s disgusting and I don’t like it’). That last one’s my favourite. What seems to be a common trend, though, is the development of these attitudes:

1)      being that way is a choice;

2)      that particular choice is one which the bigot would not make;

3)      that particular choice is wrong, because the bigot would not have made it;

4)      the subject of bigotry should not have made the wrong choice;

5)      the person deserves to be condemned and punished, because they chose to do something wrong.

I’m not going to expend my energies picking apart the fallacies in this argument, because there are just too many ‘is to ought’s and assumptions that subjectivity can be converted into objectivity. I also willingly admit that my use of the words ‘bigot’ and ‘bigotry’ demonstrates a bias on my part. Nevertheless. What I do see is that, with very little adaptation, this same argument seems to be used in the two examples of victim-blaming I looked at earlier (mental illness and sexual abuse).

What we see in victim-blaming is that it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer.

Why is it, then, that these individuals who experience or have experienced so much suffering continue to be blamed for that very suffering? I don’t know if I have a complete answer, because this really bewilders me. All I can think to say is that it comes down to a fear of that which is different or unknown. People who have not personally experienced a particularly challenging scenario, whether that is suffering from mental ill health, having one’s autonomy over one’s own body violated, or experiencing discrimination based on their non-normative sexual or gender identity, cannot truly understand the pain involved. If those people are unable to exercise even a degree of empathy, it is often easier just to deny honest expressions of pain and reflect them back towards the sufferer. I think, perhaps, that this is what we see in victim-blaming.

I look forward to the day when we are so good at recognising people passing unfair judgements that we can call it out when we see it in others and in ourselves. Maybe, one day, we can put a stop to society’s tendency to pour salt on the wounds of those whose stars simply conspired against them.

Afterword:

I am not, in any sense, saying that having a non-heterosexual identity is a form of suffering, nor that it is comparable to sexual abuse or mental illness, because one is not a ‘victim’ of gayness or any other form of non-normativity. The thing of which one is a victim is the discrimination based on this at the hands of the intolerant, and the thing for which they are blamed is the fact that they ‘choose’ to experience that discrimination because they have ‘chosen’ to be the way they are.


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Let It Go?

It’s funny how some distance can make everything seem small…

It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog post. My ‘blog post ideas’ Word document has been accumulating ideas, but time has not been on my side. At the same time, though, it’s been difficult to write in the interim period, because I feel like I’m both barely the person I was two months ago and even more the person I was two months ago – and now really myself. I’ll try to explain.

When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Yesterday, I turned 23. When I look back over my last five years, the changes, both external and internal, that I’ve gone through are pretty dramatic. On my 18th birthday, I was taking my French A Level oral exam (which I failed!). My mother was in remission and waiting a couple of years for an all clear, and was completely healthy with it. My boyfriend of a year and a half and I were going strong, and despite some ups and downs were looking forward to spending our gap year together. My RSI was bad, but not as bad as it had been and the medication was keeping it mostly under control, so I could function normally without too much pain. I was relatively comfortable with my religiosity and my faith, a few gripes notwithstanding. I feel like that was a different me back then.

Today I am 23. I am fortunate enough to have finished university with a first class degree, to have a good job which I secured within a few months of finishing university, and to have my RSI relatively under control without the aid of medication. To that extent, things are probably as I would have hoped to see them through the lens of five years ago. Other than that, though, I doubt much of my life today is how I’d have expected it to turn out.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

I still miss my mother every day, but she acts my inspiration.

My mother’s been gone two and a half years now, and I still miss her as much every day as I did on that first morning that the sun rose without her. Yesterday, she would have turned 57 – we’d have a collective age of 80 now! – but instead she’s in Bushey cemetery and I’m still putting the pieces of my life back together, rather inexpertly. The boyfriend and I broke up nearly three years ago, after just about making it through our gap year and then being on and off in our first year of university. My low moods, which were always a difficulty between us, have now crystallised into clinical depression, and his jokes that I was almost as interested in the women around me as I was in him are no longer jokes, because I proudly came out as bisexual a year ago. And my religion? Well, that’s been a constant seesaw ever since the very first week of my gap year, and the last two months have been no exception.

I had never been all that bothered about the role of women in Orthodox Judaism while I was growing up (as I explored in a post a few months ago), and I was happy to be religious in a normative way – or, at least, to been seen to be like that outwardly. Then I got to Israel for my gap year. A couple of days after arriving was a Friday, so it was my first Sabbath spent in the country, and we decided that the only thing we could even contemplate doing was to go to the Kotel (the Western Wall) for the Friday night services. That’s what we did. To pray with a few thousand other Jews at the holiest site in Judaism should have been inspiring, incredible. I was even lucky enough to get a spot right up against the Wall, at the furthest left of the women’s section (so right up against the barrier between the men’s and women’s sections). Despite that, though, and despite the fact there were probably enough men there to have maybe 200, maybe 300 minyanim (the requirement of ten men for certain parts of the liturgy), I was nevertheless unable to hear any of the men who were leading the prayer, and so I was left praying the service to myself. I found that pretty upsetting – surrounded by thousands with the same intentions as me and yet still very much alone, just because I was a woman and couldn’t position myself near a man leading the prayers for me. The following day, we went to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where there was a communal seuda shlishit (‘third meal’, the meal between the afternoon and evening services on the Sabbath), and I sat between the other two guys I was with; a few minutes into the meal, though, the rabbi bustled over and told me that I needed either to leave or to sit by myself at a table in the corner – facing the wall! – because women weren’t allowed to share the same table as men. The three of us promptly walked out.

Those experiences really shook my commitment to my faith, although not to my practice. However much I questioned the point of being religious, I always found that I couldn’t just drop the practice side of Judaism. I’m not sure whether that was because it was too habitual, a personal comfort, or an image that I felt I needed to maintain. Many people I’ve spoken to recently about similar issues (more on that later) have emphasised that the nature of Judaism is that you can keep up the practices without necessarily having the faith supporting them while you wait to see if the faith comes back, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced, because what is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

What is the ultimate point of practicing without the concept of divine authority?

However much my faith seesawed, I do know that in the months running up and following my mother’s death, my faith was complete. By that point, my personal theology of prayer had developed such that I couldn’t accept petitionary prayer as a valid activity, so I rarely prayed earnestly for her to get better once we knew the cancer was terminal and wasn’t going anywhere; my prayer tended to focus on her being as pain-free and comfortable as possible, and right at the end all I was praying for over and over again was for her to go peacefully. Well, that prayer seemed to be answered, because rather than spending her final moments in extreme suffering from the various factors combined against her, she just took one last breath and was gone. I believed that the fact that she died on the seventh day of Channukah and was buried on the eighth day was religiously significant: the story of Channukah is about the oil burning for longer than anyone expected (like she outlasted her diagnosis); and the eighth of anything is the mystical beyond the holiness of the seventh, so she died on a numerically holy day and was buried and send to her eternal rest on a numerically extra-worldly day. I got enormous comfort from saying the mourners’ prayer three times a day (though whether that was a religious comfort or comfort from being able to say publicly, ‘I’m mourning and it’s OK for me to be doing so’, I’m not sure). It all really meant something to me back then.

I’m not sure where to go with my story now, to be honest. There’s a year and a half or so of internal struggle that I could talk about, but that probably all makes more sense in the light of recent events, and my sexuality in particular.

I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction [between my religious beliefs and commitments and my sexuality].

When I first came out, more than a few people asked me how I reconciled that side of my life with my religious beliefs and commitments, and I was very clear on the fact that I didn’t see any contradiction. A few very encouraging things I’d read and been told about Orthodoxy and its potential openness to non-heterosexuality in the weeks and months before I finally decided to come clean had convinced me that I could be who I was and still be who I’d always been. Once I found myself out of the heterosexual privilege position, though, I started to see things that I’d never noticed before. For example, the laws of modesty (tzniut) require you to be fully clothed in front of people of the opposite sex – let’s not get into gender/sex here, because it gets even more messy – but the jury seems to be out on what an homosexual or bisexual individual should be doing. Is a women’s only swimming pool really the right place for a lesbian or bisexual woman from a modesty perspective? Over time, then, cracks began to appear in my convictions…

The same-sex marriage debate is a whole other thing, and that’s really the core of this post, I think, or at least the catalyst. I’ve already written in a previous post about my views about same-sex marriage; rather, I wrote about my views as they were two months ago. Watching the concept being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. My faith in God was already questionable, and I will explain that further in a blog post soon to come, but when I saw the way that discussions of non-heterosexual rights were simply descending into thinly veiled homophobia and biphobia (in the sense of a complete lack of understanding rather than actual hatred), my eyes snapped open.

Watching [same-sex marirage] being debated on a Modern Orthodox forum about a month ago, though, changed my perspective on EVERYTHING. I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’.

Being bisexual is great. Twice as many possibilities. Twice as many pieces of attractive eyecandy. A complete lack of concern for gender identity in potential romantic interests. It’s more than that for me, though. Discovering myself and coming out has made me so much more at peace with myself, and I can know that even as other things confuse me, at least one thing now makes much more sense. It gives me peace, self-confidence, self-assurance, and happiness. By the end of these discussions, though, I was beginning to wish I could just ‘be heterosexual again’, because my skin is not thick enough to deal with people lumping my attraction to women with other ‘immoral’ sexual activities – physical urges which are not wrong in themselves but which should be suppressed for the sake of religion. And that made me realise that, frankly, if it was going to come down to a choice between expressing my true sexuality, a piece of self-knowledge which has made me so much more at ease with myself, and following my religion, which I can’t remember ever making me feel genuinely happy in and of itself, there is no contest.

Sometime's it's OK to let it go.

Sometime’s it’s OK to let it go.

The song Let It Go from the Disney film Frozen has become a bit of a phenomenon; I’m tempted even to call it an anthem. The sentiments the lyrics express can be used in an almost limitless range of situations, because what it champions is the idea that it is possible to break free from the restrictive bonds you’ve formerly been held back by, and that when that happens, you can reinvent yourself to be the person you’ve always wanted or needed to be – or felt that you already were. Breaking away from controlling parents or an abusive childhood (as is the case in the film). Slowly making your way out of the personal shackles of a mental illness. Getting out of an unhealthy relationship. Accepting your sexuality and coming out. Or maybe leaving behind a religious tradition that suffused every aspect of life while you were growing up but is no longer the positive inspiration it could be?

I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be.

I have a long journey ahead of me, and I don’t know where it will lead me. Maybe back to Judaism and Jewish faith. Maybe to another religion. Maybe away from religion entirely. Whatever happens, though, I’m going to try to bear the ideas behind Let It Go in mind. Ultimately, I need to strive for whatever will make me the most emotionally and mentally healthy individual I can be, and if that means that perhaps Judaism is not conducive to that for me, it is OK to ‘let it go’.


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What’s In A Name?

It surprises many people I encounter for the first time, but I am actually relatively new to the ‘soapbox’ sector.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been opinionated (as my family will, I’m sure, readily attest to), but it was generally petty childish strops over whether it was my turn or my brother’s to do the washing up. No, developing opinions about things which actually affect people’s lives in a significant way is a fairly recent thing for me (and I’ve certainly got a long way to go yet in terms of putting forward watertight arguments, which is why I’m going to stick for the most part just to talking about my own experiences on this blog).

What all of this means, though, is that terms like ‘lived experience’, ‘self-identify’, ‘survivor’, ‘liberation’, ‘privilege’ and so on are all phrases that I used to turn my nose up at as psychologists’ politically correct namby-pamby. Even now, certain terms I feel more comfortable with than others. I’m not entirely sure what my turning point was, but I guess that dating a pseudo-Communist for a few years, going to a pretty liberally-minded university (which is funny, given that it’s a Jesuit place!), and being ‘BFFs’ (her word, not mine) with the biggest soapbox-er of them all will all have an effect. Anyway, the long and short of it is that I basically had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

I had to learn a whole new vocabulary, and I’m still having to expand it as I go along.

Something that was probably a fairly large turning point in my involvement with liberation issues was being told at one point during my first year of university by the aforementioned BFF that I was a bigot. The context was a conversation about gender self-identification, and I had just expressed the view that if a person is assigned a gender at birth, based upon their genitalia, they are wrong to question/challenge that, unless they were born a hermaphrodite (in which case the doctors had a 50/50 chance and could have guessed wrongly). Had the ‘bigot’ criticism come from anyone other than her, I would probably have got offended, got annoyed, and then brushed it off, thinking ‘how could I, of all people, be called a bigot? I’m really open-minded!’ Given the circumstances, though, it planted a little seed in my mind, and after a couple of years of meeting people at university and in general life, I came to realise gradually how important self-identification (not just in terms of gender, but also disability, sexuality, ethnicity and so on) really is. No one has the right to look at a person and judge based on what they think they can see in front of them how that person feels about themselves. People looking at me see no disability – which is hardly surprising, given that it’s an invisible disability – and if I had left it to what they see, I’d never had completed a university degree. Even more, I’ve had instances in the past where people have deemed my RSI as ‘not a proper disability’ – presumably because they can’t see a physical aid or physical abnormality – and my reaction has been to ask them whether they would like to live with it for a day and then come back to me to repeat what they’ve said. That’s obviously different to the discrimination suffered by the trans* community, but it helped me to empathise much more with the notion of ‘self-identification’. Happily, I don’t think I would be likely to be called a bigot anymore, at least not for something like that!

My relationship with the term ‘survivor’ is an interesting one. I only actually discovered about two years ago that there is a trend among people who have experienced sexual abuse or violence to refer to themselves as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’, and it’s not one that I’ve ever fully comfortably adopted. On the rare occasions that I would speak about my own childhood experiences, I would call myself a ‘victim’ of sexual abuse, and not feel uncomfortable with that at all; now, I tend to use the terms interchangeably when referring to my own experiences, but I make a point of using ‘survivor’ if I’m talking about others with similar experiences. From a purely personal point of view, I feel like ‘survivor’ makes what I went through sound more dramatic than it was, because it doesn’t even compare with what some women survive. The issue there is that I wouldn’t say that other 9 year old girls molested by a family guest and then blamed for that abuse by the legal system experienced something negligible, but I guess there’s still a bit of a wall in my mind behind which I’ve pushed quite a lot of that entire episode; perhaps if I confront the experiences further, maybe even stop blaming myself for what happened (thanks a bundle, rape culture!), my opinion on the ‘victim’ vs. ‘survivor’ debate will change as well.

Speakers Corner, Hyde Park, London – the ultimate destination for soapbox-ers everwhere!

I really like ‘lived experience’, because I feel that it gives a really powerful tool for being able to refer to genuine and insightful accounts of any form of discrimination, minority status or general feeling of difference. One of the modules I was forced into studying at university was on hermeneutics, the theory of interpretation and understanding, and it never made any sense to me at all. (Sorry Ahmad. I wasn’t the best of students in that class…) Something that I hadn’t realised would stick with me, though, was the idea (I think from Gamader, or ‘Gadamerde’, as I called him) that one cannot detach one’s experiences from the way in which one interprets anything, because they will always play a part consciously or subconsciously, however hard one tries to be detached and impartial. Having recognised that personal experiences will colour personal judgement, the fact that they then do is not such an issue, because the person has been upfront about holding such views/biases. That seems to rub along quite nicely with the emphasis placed on lived experience, because one of the major challenges put to the idea of lived experience (or people who ‘rant’ from that perspective) is that we allow our perceptions of discrimination or marginalisation to ‘taint’ our views or make us ‘bitter’. Well, as long as we’re upfront about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen, perhaps what we can bring to the table is an account which, yes, may be biased, but will show you things you may never have thought about. I have never lived in absolute or even full relative poverty, or as a person of colour, so I could never interpret the world through the same lenses as someone with a lived experience of either of those things, but through listening to their opinions and accepting those as containing valid bias, I can come to empathise.

Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.

This last one brings me quite nicely round to the name of my blog. Choosing a blog name is an important decision, because it sets the tone of the whole thing and needs to be engaging enough to make it jump out on a web search. The real challenge is that I have a tendency to come up with dreadful dreadful puns that make people tempted to lock me in a cupboard with only an MP3 player loaded with Blink 182 and Britney Spears, so I wanted to avoid that. The thing that seemed most important to me was to make sure that it was obviously about lived experience, because that’s what I feel is the selling point of this blog. When I did a preliminary search on Google for blogs about lived experience, I found someone who’d done a post criticising the term, because ‘all experience is by definition lived’, and that got me thinking. I suppose that, yes, all experience is lived, but the point is that there is a person living those experiences and then speaking about them. It’s only through the fact that people live those experiences that society can hopefully arrive at a time when people are no longer living those experiences. The speaking about them is the key part, which is what my blog aims to do. On a more personal note, the name ‘Experience Is To Be Lived’ is intended to be a constant reminder to myself that, however dark things get as a result of my depression, experience is to be lived. For now, however bad things may sometimes seem, I need to try to keep my head up, because, I hope, one day they will be better. Only through living can I experience, only through my experience can I share, and only through my sharing can people understand.


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A Series of Fortunate Events

A few days ago, someone I admire very much posted an article about her experiences as a student with hearing loss. When I started to explore the website it appeared on, it came as a little bit of a surprise to me to realise that of the six categories of minority or liberation group covered by the website, I could self-identify into five. I’d already noticed that my diversity monitoring forms are usually slightly more ‘interesting’ than most people’s, but this was something pretty stark staring me in the face!

Liberate Yourself homepage, dedicated to the lived experiences of liberation students.

That evening, I was having a conversation with another friend I have huge admiration for, and I was speaking to her about this apparent ‘collection’ of minority identities I seem to have. Having reflected a little more on it, I’d come to the conclusion that I have at least six such identities (or even seven in situations where being under 25 can be a disadvantage), but when she went on to guess them, she missed two and picked up on one or two more of which I hadn’t really thought.

Still ruminating on this, the following morning I headed off to a learning day for Charityworks, the charity management graduate scheme I am on. The afternoon, it turned out, was a workshop on equality and diversity in the workplace, given by Jordana Ramalho, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at St Mungo’s (a charity well-known for its commitment to diversity). Timely! Not only did those two-and-a-half hours really open my eyes to issues I’d never fully contemplated before, but they also gave me another personal awakening. Divided at one point into six groups, we were given a number of different minority/liberation group to reflect upon, discussing the forms of discrimination such people could experience in the workplace and how, as managers, we could tackle such situations. When I heard the six categories, sure enough – I have some extent of lived experience in each.

All of this got me thinking and reflecting on how I might be able to put my experiences to use in breaking some of the silence surrounding certain forms of discrimination in wider society, opening channels of dialogue regarding topics that people might regard as taboo. I ‘ummm’ed and ‘ahhh’ed a little over creating this blog, wondering if some of what I have to say on certain topics might be too personal or unsuitable for broadcasting publicly on this wonderful Internetland, but I concluded that the more people speak about such things, the less taboo they will seem.

You will eventually find on this blog, then, very personal reflections on a range of topics, covering what it is to be a young, bisexual, practising Jewish woman with an invisible physical disability and clinical depression, who is a child survivor of sexual abuse and who lost her mother before the age of 21, but also thoughts on the many ways in which I experience privilege. The hope is to be able to relate all of this to how minority status is approached in wider society. Please note that there could be a possibility of triggers throughout what I may write, but I tend to write in a pretty lighthearted style, so I’ll want to avoid the heavy triggering material as much as possible anyway!

Happy reading! 😛