There are days when my body and emotions betray each other. I turn on my lover in a distrustful fury; my sexual self becomes dangerous territory; my love suddenly measures up short to “normal” others who seem to love, unfettered. I become depressed. This is the emotional labor I continually work through, as I know other queers of color do, who share the identities of survivors/victims of/affected by sexual and intimate family violence. In these moments of betrayal, I have learned through the years to ground myself in resilience by accepting a gift my child-body would dream recurrently—yes, a night dream:
My heart clenches with fear. My helmet hums with the engine of the tank I look out from. From a distance, I examine the heavily guarded, concrete building I know he is being held in. I drive forward, understanding my mission: to break through the concrete to get to him—to free him.
The man in the dream was my abuser. No longer a child, for a while, I ignored this dream. I found it to be a perplexing child’s drama of militaristic heroism for a man who enraged me. As I developed a feminist analysis on violence and became engaged politically, I took to heart the messages queer feminists of color have written with fierce pointedness—that our dreams, images, and poetry are not luxuries—they are too precious to dismiss amidst the onslaught of violence, at home and institutionally, that happen daily for queers, women, people of color, youth. I now receive this dream as my first moment of politicization; it was my hurt body’s desire to articulate the violence, so deeply privatized as a child, in connection to what I could intercept from the broader world’s drama of what is bad, good, criminal, guilt, shame, pain, love. Ultimately, my child-body found there was something potentially liberatory, however fearful I felt, in breaking concrete. My child body, though violated and confused, was powerful and capable—of imagining past Rage and beyond Forgiveness.
This kind of imagining is a daily act of resistance, especially when the landscape of healing for survivors in the US, especially framed by the state, is overwhelmed with colonizing Western binaries that impose positions for feelings. Let me explain. There is no doubt that the feminist movement fought for a lot: for instance, community education efforts are now supported by the state to help stop rape culture and there are more intentional advocacy services for survivors. However, simultaneously the anti-sexual violence movement was co-opted by the state and a lot of critical feminists of color have pointed this out. The growth of professions and bureaucracies to manage gender violence, like rape crisis centers, despite their importance, have resulted in closer relationships with the racist prison/legal system. Angela Davis once asked at a 2000 INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence Conference, “Can a state that is thoroughly infused with racism, male dominance, class-bias, and homophobia and that constructs itself in and through violence act to minimize violence in the lives of women? Should we rely on the state as the answer to the problem of violence against women?”
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Subtler is the project of how feelings and testimonies of sexual violence have been managed by the state. I would argue that the landscape of healing for survivors, initially the result of radical grassroots feminist organizing, now has evolved more into privatized and personalized enterprises of healing—a lukewarm adaptation of the feminist protest “the personal is political.” Shame, an emotion common for survivors, is often framed as a “bad” feeling to be excised in privatized settings like therapy. On the other hand, forgiveness, imbued with a religious-patriarchal sense, is a “good” feeling to have, tied into personal liberation.
These binaries of “good” versus “bad” limit feelings like shame, to the realm of personal work. It obscures interrelated shaming systems like the prison system which can complicate our frameworks for survivor liberation; this in turn, limits how radically we move in our bodies affected by violence, how we love people, even “perpetrators” of that violence, how we talk to each other.
We become actors of the state, secrets (some kill themselves), confessions in therapy, or vulnerable populations, instead of the agents, architects, creators of the poetry, images, dreams we need to heal whole.
I had an opportunity to facilitate an action/healing writing space for survivors of intimate family violence at a student of color conference for social justice. It was called “Writing Out of Shame & Re-imagining Justice.” As we did a round of short introductions, one student shared how he lied to acquaintances that asked about the workshop he was attending. He laughed, so we joined his laughter in support; this eased other students to admit their own stories of hiding—how one walked into a power mapping workshop to appear to a group of new friends that he was attending it, only to walk out to mine a few minutes later. Despite the secrecy, here we were: individuals seeking a justice paradigm for the shame, violence, and pain that sit in the most intimate places of our bodies—pure grit.
Our conversation hovered over nodes of shared experiences. We realized a group consensus in our distaste for therapy to unravel the family dramas in our lives, a distrust centered on therapy’s relation to state interventions, held since we were violated children, against police, immigration, social workers, schools, prisons. We realized our shared queer identities, and the unease of speaking of them in relation to our experiences of violence. We realized the complexities of love we harbor in our relationships with lovers, the brother who molested, the father who abused, and desired a language of love that has still yet to take shape in our world, a kind of Pangaea for punitive legality, our so called “justice” system. Shame helped navigate our conversation, in shared experience, as our body’s visceral link to structures of violence; beyond “bad” or personal, shame offered us an optic for critique, like looking at a piece of glass in the light, to expand connections to other shaming systems, and in turn, affect how we move with our politics and demand healing whole.
Queer people of color affected by intimate family violence have radical projections, dreams, feelings, imaginations, and critiques of existing systems of justice or retribution. Let’s write for ourselves, for each other, in wild vulnerability and shame, love and longing. Queer, Chicana feminist, Gloria Anzaldúa talks about how writing is like having a cactus needle embedded in the flesh: “I get deep down into the place where it’s rooted in my skin and pluck away at it, playing it like a musical instrument—the fingers pressing, making the pain worse before it can get better. Then out it comes. No more discomfort, no more ambivalence. Until another needle pierces the skin. That’s what writing is for me, an endless cycle of making it worse, making it better, but always making meaning out of the experience, whatever it may be.”
At the end of the workshop, we stood at the shore, the tide of our conversations returning to sea, with greater questions strewn around our feet and on our papers. The radical accountabilities of love and justice we seek are like describing new colors. What is the language of new colors?
Let’s break some concrete.
*Note from the author: Dear Reader, if you decide to re-post, I prefer that it not be accompanied with a trigger warning. I know the value of trigger warnings and understand their necessity for some spaces, places, times, and materials. However, I think the tendency of stamping ‘trigger-warning’ on things with any association with sexual violence, with good intentions, of course—giving the people we love a head’s up—more often than not, can unintentionally turn into a form of policing how narratives of violence are told and what is “appropriate” for who. Also, the unexamined, repetitive use of trigger warnings can further pathologize experiences of sexual violence as scenes of always, lasting danger, as opposed to scenes of potential, transformative knowledge that we need to and can grapple with. Lastly, for me, triggers are for guns, and the herstory of my body is not a gun. Of course, if you disagree with me and know the needs of the folks in your social networks, couch the language however you want, but please, not as a trigger. Thanks for reading!
Peggy/Kyoungwon is a queer Korean American poet, writer, and graduate student in the Midwest. In her spare time, she loves to karaoke and is always aspiring to write like a song.
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