By Walt Mueller
Even though it’s been several years since I saw it happen, its impact on me is still strong. I was sitting in the stands at a Good Charlotte concert with a raucous crowd of young fans. At one point in the concert, the band stood on stage and asked for the houselights to be brought up. After quieting the 10,000 teens in the room, the band calmly asked, “How many of you here have ever considered or attempted suicide yourself, or know someone who has taken their own life?” I stood in stunned silence as what looked like every hand in the room went silently and slowly up in the air. It was a powerful encounter with a dark cultural reality. Then, after the young quintet of punk rockers told the crowd that suicide is a road they should never travel, they launched into their hopeful anti-suicide anthem, “Hold On.” I had a difficult time listening as my eyes kept scanning the crowd of young people in the room.
That moment has come back to me whenever I read, hear about or discuss a teen suicide. Sadly, that’s been far too often. While there’s no way to really know just how many kids are pondering suicide, this hopeless and horrific act is the third leading cause of death among 10-24 year-olds, with 6.3% self-reporting having attempted suicide one or more times in the previous 12 months.1 In the United States, one teenager takes his or her life every 100 minutes. It’s recognized that this statistic is far too conservative as many teen suicides aren’t reported as such. What is known is that there’s been an alarming and steady rise in suicide among younger children and teens.
I don’t know Phil, but the brief story Phil told on his website offered another reality check. “My name is Phil and last year I lost my son to suicide. He was only 17. If you were like me … chances are you don’t know anything about suicide or noticing the warning signs … I know that I didn’t … but I do now. My wife and I have put this site together for both adults looking for some information on how to prevent this from happening to their children, and also for other teens looking for help.” Because I’m a father, I find Phil’s words somewhat haunting. One day his son was there. The next day he wasn’t. I can’t even imagine. For whatever reason, Phil didn’t see it coming. I’m sure Phil’s ignorance is admittedly shared by the great majority of parents who have experienced his same horror. One loving and involved Christian parent described to me what it was like for them after their 13-year-old son took his life.
The young man had endured a horrible breakup along with a change in schools before slowly getting depressed. The parent says, “We were frogs in boiling water and missed the signs of the rising temperature. No one ever thinks suicide will happen to them—we thought we were dealing with the highs and lows of a budding hormonal teen.” When you’re especially close to someone – even your own child – subtle changes that take place over time are sometimes very difficult to see. Sometimes it’s the things right under our noses that we so easily miss. This parent’s words are words we should all hear and heed. The parents deeply loved Christ and their son. They were active in his life. The signs were there. But still they were missed.
One of the most memorable moments of the 1992 Summer Olympics occurred when Britain’s Derek Redmond was sprinting around the track in the 400-meter run. As Redmond sped around the backstretch, his right hamstring tore. How did you and I know he was hurt? He showed us. He stopped running, limped a few steps and fell to the ground. His face contorted in response to the physical pain he was feeling. He grabbed his leg and rolled around on the ground. Those who were in close proximity heard him scream out in agony. We knew he was hurt because he told us not in words but through his actions. His physical pain was obvious to anyone who was watching.
Teenagers who attempt suicide give signs, some of them extremely subtle. About 80 percent of those who take their lives communicate their intention to someone prior to the act. While they may not always communicate their pain and intentions with verbal clarity, the signs are there. But they may never be heard unless we know what to watch for. Experts say there are five categories of signs teens give when contemplating or before attempting/committing suicide. No, they’re not all there all the time. But some signs will most likely be present. Carefully read through the descriptions of these signs, realizing that they will usually appear in some combination before a teenager acts on their thoughts.
My fellow queers and assorted allies: we have got to stop using arguments like “We were born this way!” and “Being queer is not a choice!” as our first line of defense against heterosexists. It might sound like a neat little trick to pull on these people: if we can’t help being queer, then it’s not fair to punish us for something we didn’t do. But in reality, every time we use this argument we are actually weakening our own position. Shouting “Born this way” from the rooftops is the opposite of progress…. I think the most serious problem with this argument is that it reinforces the idea that we need an excuse to be queer. As a result, using this line subtly supports the idea that being queer requires excusing in some way. Don’t use it. Don’t allow straight people to generate an understanding of queer sexuality that sounds like: “Well, of course Bob wouldn’t wish to be queer, but he was born this way. I guess we better give him equal rights – poor Bob, he just can’t help it. We shouldn’t punish him for something he didn’t choose!”
Meanwhile the real reason that you shouldn’t punish Bob for queerness is because there’s nothing wrong with it!
Alie arrived at our 1st-grade classroom wearing a sweatshirt with a hood. I asked her to take off her hood, and she refused. I thought she was just being difficult and ignored it. After breakfast we got in line for art, and I noticed that she still had not removed her hood. When we arrived at the art room, I said: “Allie, I’m not playing. It’s time for art. The rule is no hoods or hats in school.”
She looked up with tears in her eyes and I realized there was something wrong. Her classmates went into the art room and we moved to the art storage area so her classmates wouldn’t hear our conversation. I softened my tone and asked her if she’d like to tell me what was wrong.
“My ponytail,” she cried.
“Can I see?” I asked.
She nodded and pulled down her hood. Allie’s braids had come undone overnight and there hadn’t been time to redo them in the morning, so they had to be put back in a ponytail. It was high up on the back of her head like those of many girls in our class, but I could see that to Allie it just felt wrong. With Allie’s permission, I took the elastic out and re-braided her hair so it could hang down.
“How’s that?” I asked.
She smiled. “Good,” she said and skipped off to join her friends in art.
‘Why Do You Look Like a Boy?’
I had been trawling the net for illustrators for “Butterflies and Bulletproof Vests” I did not in all my wildest dreams realize where I’d find one. Thanks also to Chris for letting me post his artwork and story here.
When I first met Chris Hill, he seemed like any ordinary rough sleeper. He was sitting outside the old GPO in Bourke Street, surrounded by bags containing the only belongings he had. He was anxiously dotting at a page with a really old inked pen. Normally, I don’t look at people like Chris. I tend to look through them thanking the heavens that is no longer me. Chris, however, made direct eye contact with me and said “hey, check out my drawing”. Something inside me said, yeah, why the hell not. So I did. He showed me an exact replica of St Paul’s Cathedral. I asked him if he’d ever been to London and he said that his father had given him pictures when he was a child, on one of his many business trips there. Not really needing to be anywhere other than a place that served coffee I asked him if he’d like to come with me. He said ” you’re paying, right”, with a glint in his eye.
When we sat down the first thing I noticed was how many glances of disdain, disapproval and often downright rudeness Chris received. I asked him if it bothered him and he shrugged and almost seemed resigned to the fact that because of his appearance people were going to judge him. I asked him to tell me more about where he came from, how he came to start drawing.. I didn’t ask him what brought him to the streets, but he volunteered the information with a voice that sounded as if the words had fallen from his lips a thousand times before. Chris had come to Australia from Romania at the age of 12, his family had originally settled in Brisbane but at the age of 21 he moved to Melbourne where he met his ex-wife and had a daughter.. by the age of 30 Chris had developed schizophrenia. He began to hear voices and experience paranoia. Because of his refusal to seek treatment his wife had left him taking their daughter with her. He came home from a lengthy period of hospitalization to find his belongings on the curb the locks of the doors changed and his family gone. Because of his illness he found it extremely hard to find and keep work or accomodation. So he turned to art.
“Drawing gives me something to focus on. When it gets too intense (in his head) I try and put it onto paper” and his drawings speak absolute volumes.. from images of medieval dragons, to an almost perfect rendition of van gogh’s “the scream” Chris’s artwork revealed a side to him that he said he is often afraid to voice in words.
“People think i’m crazy. But i’m not really… just had a rough time. if i were to sit down and tell some shrink about all this shit, i’d probably end up locked up for good.” I had to leave, but I gave chris some of my poetry and my email address.. the next day I found this in my inbox.. It is the illustration of a poem “Carry” about a soldier who developed PTSD after carrying his dead brother on his back. .
I asked him if he’d like to illustrate more of my poems in a published book.. I cannot describe the look in his eyes…it was one of disbelief and gratitude and why the fuck is this person doing this for me? I said to him I’d send him the manuscript and he could draw what he felt like at his own leisure. We have met countless numbers of times since and during that time, Chris has gotten accomodation and is working towards setting up his own website and applying for art school. He is on medication although he has reservations that it will hurt his ability to draw. I guess the point of this blog is never ever judge a person on what you think you see. There are so many incredibly rich talents hidden beneath the rough exteriors of people that society so easily overlooked. I don’t know what drew me to Chris, that day or any day. I don’t have any illusions of salvation. I did not “save” him nor are homeless people poor pitiable creatures to be “saved” they are rich, vital, often incredibly talented human beings who have simply not had the priviledges many of us take for granted. Chris has shown me so very much about how to live life in a way that is dignified and throughout this partnership I hope we can learn more from each other as time goes on.
Thank them. It is very hard to come out to people as transgender. They trust and/or respect you very much to have come out to you. Thank them for trusting you; it will mean a lot to them, because you mean a lot to them.
Respect their gender identity. Think of them as the gender they refer to themselves as and refer to them with their chosen name and gender pronoun (regardless of their physical appearance) from now on. (Unless they are not out, or tell you otherwise. Ask to be sure if or when there are times it is not okay.)
Watch your past tense. When talking of the past don’t use phrases like “when you were a previous gender” or “born a man/woman,” because many transgender people feel they have always been the gender they have come out to you as, but had to hide it for whatever reasons. Ask the transgender person how they would like to be referred to in the past tense. One solution is to avoid referencing gender when talking about the past by using other frames of reference, for instance “Last year”, “When you were a child”, “When you were in high school”, etc. If you must reference the gender transition when talking about the past, say “before you came out as current gender”, or “Before you began transitioning” (if applicable).
Don’t be afraid to ask. Many transgender people will be happy to answer most questions, and glad you are taking an interest in their life. Don’t expect the transgender person to be your sole educator. It is your responsibility to inform yourself. Exception: questions about genitalia, surgeries, and former names should usually only be asked if you need to know in order to provide medical care, are engaging in a sexual relationship with the transgender person, or need the former name for legal documentation. ( Matt’s note: I would say questions around genitalia are even inappropriate in some contexts when discussing sexual relationships beyond issues of pleasure and consent – it depends on the level of intimacy with your partner. Casual hook up conversations would be very different to intimate partner conversations)
Respect the transgender person’s need for privacy. Do not out them without express permission. Telling people you are transgender is a very difficult decision, not made lightly. “Outing” them without their permission is a betrayal of trust and could possibly cost you your relationship with them. It may also put them at risk, depending on the situation, of losing a lot – or even being harmed. They will tell those they want to, if or when they are ready. This advice is appropriate for those who are living full-time or those who have not transitioned yet. For those living full-time in their proper gender role, very many will not want anyone who did not know them from before they transitioned to know them as any other than their current, i.e. proper, gender.
Don’t assume what the person’s experience is. There are many different ways in which differences in gender identity are expressed. The idea of being “trapped in a man/woman’s body”, the belief that trans women are hyperfeminine/trans men are hypermasculine, and the belief that all trans people will seek hormones and surgery are all stereotypes that apply to some people and not to others. Be guided by what the person tells you about their own situation, and listen without preconceived notions. Do not impose theories you may have learned, or assume that the experience of other trans people you may know or have heard of is the same as that of the person in front of you. Don’t assume that they are transitioning because of past trauma in their lives, or that they are changing genders as a way to escape from their bodies.
Treat them the same. While they may appreciate your extra attention to them, they don’t particularly appreciate you making a big deal of them. After you are well-informed, make sure you’re not going overboard. Transgender people have essentially the same personalities as they did before coming out. Treat them as you would anybody else.
With only a couple of days left in this challenge my thoughts have turned now to how we can create a better environment for women and girls to live in. My thinking is that if we have a picture of the world we want to create in mind, we can do it. The world i want is one where:
No one would have to fear their own spaces, at home, abroad, at work, socializing, or study.
Consent would go beyond a simple yes, to a true understanding of desire, pleasure and enjoyment of sex. It would mean communication about desire, enjoyment and pleasure was always possible and done.
Women and girls would not have to fear being disbelieved, they would be taken seriously and their concerns heard and validated. They would be active agents for change and creation of the world they want to live in. Their perspectives would inform every area of systems that affect them.
Women’s refuges would be places that were staffed, funded and prioritized. They are not dispensible, or able to be abandoned if not politically expedient.
Men and women co-exist as allies, and men take an active role in challenging sexist and violent behaviour in their peers. Also, this would mean that sexual assault would no longer be seen as a marker of a man’s “success” or worth as a man. Examples of masculinity based on respect, compassion and equality were held up as the norm.
A world in which young women are not sexualized, nor is sexuality the totality of who they are. They are encouraged to discover and explore sexuality at their own pace and in a way that is healthy to them. They are supported in this by the culture that surrounds them. They see images that look like them, and are not bombarded with unrealistic perceptions or co-erced into behaving a certain way.
I want a world in which any type of woman, whether she be trans, cis or any female expression, can live in her community and not face rape.
so… now it’s your turn.. what would a world without sexual assault look like to you? email me at matthewthepoet28at gmail dot com and i’ll put the best answers up.. 🙂
Surviving sexual assault sets the survivor on a rollercoaster… I liken living with the effects of trauma to living in a snow globe. For the most part, things are calm, untill a chain of events, even a single seemingly small incident will shake everything up and it takes forever to be calm again. I recently came across a man who looked exactly like my abuser, and for the following three days was convinced that he had somehow found me and was afraid to leave my home.. That’s what the psyche of someone who’s survived trauma can be like.. It needs a pretty strong and resillient group of people to reassure the survivor that their feelings aren’t irrational, that they are real and a natural reaction to an unnatural set of circumstances.
When you are supporting someone, it’s good to know what they may feel,and experience. These feelings are not exhaustive, and each victim survivor’s experience is different, but these are some of the common feelings people have described, and I know that on numerous occasions, I have experienced.
Shame – the often interminable feeling that you are unclean, devalued and have become substandard due to what you have experienced, along with the idea that you will not be believed, listened to or understood SHOULD you speak up. Shame is a huge silencer, it is what keeps people from discussing their experiences and continues to be a source of power for the perpetrator. Shame can last for years, and is often one of the most powerful impacts of violence.
Fear. Fear is a very multifaceted impact. It can happen during the abuse and lingers on after.. Everything, everything, after violence has the potential to be frightening. The places that you once found a source of comfort can be a source of fear. Sometimes your own home can be a source of the most devastating memories. To this day i cannot go certain places, for the fear they engender. Fear can often precipitate days of crippling anxiety, depression and self hatred.
Guilt – this is incredibly hard to shift. The overwhelming feeling that you were at fault, somehow, for your own experience. The feeling you could have done more, been somehow better, fought harder, not worn that dress, had that drink or gone home with him. The feeling that as a child, you should have told someone, spoken up, or done something to stop what was happening. The truth is that you were not at fault. This is not a situation you caused, it is always the responsibility of the person who abused you.
Anger – you may be angry at the world for allowing this to happen at all, you may be angry at yourself for being rendered powerless, you might be angry at a system that has failled you, or for a number of other reasons. Anger is a normal response to what happened to you. It is perfectly acceptable to feel and express anger in a healthy way, yet particularly for women it is often deemed unacceptable.
Displacement – this is what i describe as the impacts on work, homelessness, study and other day to day areas of someone’s life. I have changed cities due to my abuse, and lived with the affects of limited employment opportunities, and the impacts my post traumatic stress disorder has had on ability to concentrate and participate in study. I have regularly had displacement described to me by women who’ve experienced violence and felt the impacts too great to continue with work, or have turned down study or travel opportunities because they no longer felt safe. It is also really long lasting and can see victim survivors in cycles of poverty and in multiple scenarios of further risk, such as sex work, homelessness, or unsafe relationships. It is a further erosion of the dignity and right to a fulfilling life survivors often encounter.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – this is extremely common in surviving sexual assault, although it is a highly medicalized term. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is experienced in flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, panic and anxiety symptoms and depression. It is a lingering effect that often takes years to work through, and ”processing” symptoms is impacted by the amount of time it takes someone to come forward. I refer glibly to PTSD as “the gift that keeps on giving” but in all honesty it really is. The repettition of traumatic incidences long after they have occurred has really shaken my sense of reality. Although the abuse is no longer occurring, during a flashback or traumatic memory, it can feel like it is. You can instantly be propelled back to that time or place. I have begun to lose faith in my mind’s own processes, if so often, it can take so little to be taken back to a really horrendous time. The working through of PTSD does require a trained professional, and is best done with someone who knows how to help you get through your symptoms. (if you need someone to discuss these options for assitance with and you’re in australia 1800 737732 can give you advice)
There are so many more impacts, it’s a really huge minefield of feelings thoughts and ways of being. If you need advice there are many resources on the internet or contact your local women’s or comunity health Centre or GP for help.
for a blog that discusses the impacts of sexual assault from a victim survivor’s perspective check out 16impacts.wordpress.com