by CarmenLeah Ascencio
Somewhere in my late 20s I made the commitment to love and make family with another woman of color. It felt important to me to care for and build intimate relationship with women from my communities who I admired and loved so deeply. Along with this commitment came an understanding that if I chose to love and make family with another woman of color, that I was also choosing to have patience and understanding for the ways that oppression may have manifested in this woman’s life. Manifestations like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or limiting, self-protective behavior.
Queer and trans people of color (especially poor, undocumented and/or disabled QTPOC) have a unique experience of suffering that arises from living in a society that devalues, marginalizes, and wants some of us dead. When QTPOC love each other, with a commitment to freedom and healing for each other, we resist and counteract the harmful effects of oppression. And yet, there is a fine line between having a generous amount of patience and compassion for one another because of our common understanding of oppression, and being in an unhealthy relationship where your needs are not being met, or worse, you are being abused.
How do we figure out where this line is if we have made a commitment to loving QTPOC, who might have more shit to deal with due to the effects of possible abuse or just living in a fucked-up racist, sexist, classist, ableist, queer- and transphobic society?
My own experience with being a hot mess, being affected by other people’s hot messes, fucking it up and then getting in right, in intimate relationships, taught me to ask the following five questions when loving someone who has experienced a disproportionate amount of oppression and the symptoms of this oppression start to show up in unhealthy or limiting ways.
1. Do you have compassion and understanding for each other’s unhelpful behaviors and patterns while also knowing what your respective limits and deal-breakers are?
Not having clear boundaries got me into a lot of trouble in relationships. Playback: “Sure, I will engage in romance with you while you figure out your non-monogamy needs with your husband because I care about you and about your liberation” or “Yes, I will allow you to lie to me because I feel empathy for your struggle with mental health.”
Ay dios! I cringe a little remembering how my deep empathy for these women let my boundaries be virtually non-existent. Empathizing with the struggles of people I cared for was not a problem, yet doing so without clear boundaries about what was and was not acceptable for me resulted in pain for all those involved. Both compassion and boundaries are necessary to foster a healthy relationship. If you lack either compassion or boundaries, you are likely to break up as soon as each other’s faults appear OR allow harmful or unhealthy behavior to persist to the point of injury or unhappiness – neither of which leads to a healing and freeing relationship.
Try journaling or talking to a friend to identify areas where you need compassion for your loved one’s struggles AND to identify and commit to boundaries for yourself.
BGD is a reader-funded non-profit.
GIVE BACK and help amplify marginalized voices.
2. Are you always honest and open with each other?
Honesty and openness are central to undoing the effects of lies we have been told about ourselves and for giving and receiving information that can help us heal and grow. And, honesty can be hella hard if we’re worried about being rejected, or rejecting someone else, and if we have all kinds of defenses up to protect ourselves or other people. If our oppression is rooted in lies, then our freedom must be rooted in truth. Lack of self-expression is a major flag that your relationship does not contain the necessary ingredients for freedom and healing. Dishonesty includes withholding truths about your needs or feelings. I caused more harm to partners and myself by silencing my truths because of fear and trying to protect my loved one. Like those times I stayed in my relationships out of fear of hurting my partner even though I knew it was time to end it – yeah that stuff.
Ask yourself: In what ways am I being inauthentic or untruthful in my relationship? Start sharing from there. For real, get down with some radical honesty (which can still be compassionate).
3. Are you accountable for your mistakes without making excuses?
If either of you or your partner raises an issue and the response usually start’s with “Yeah, but…” there’s a lack of accountability. When we have grown up being taught that we are less than because of any part of our identity, we can easily become wired with defensive reactions in order to protect our sense of self. Yet this type of reaction is based in survival, not freedom. Taking responsibility for our harmful behaviors without making excuses or giving reasons, gives us the power to change and become who we want to be. Whenever I am living from excuses, I am limiting my most powerful and liberated self, which is directly related to my freedom in an oppressive society. I cannot take action aligned with freedom and healing, for myself or others, when I don’t take responsibility for my shit and change my behavior.
So, next time you get in an argument with your boo, rather than focus on what they did, ask yourself what you did. Try owning it without justifying your actions or mentioning what your partner did. Just stand in responsibility and focus on what you really want with your partner (i.e. connection, intimacy, openness) and see what happens. This does not mean taking responsibility for what your partner did; it is only about what you did or did not do.
4. Do you forgive and accept each other?
Forgiving each other (when we are truly accountable) helps us move forward into the better versions of our selves, free of (yet still informed by) our past mistakes. Acceptance of each other, just as we are and just as we aren’t, provides the foundation for us to feel whole in a world that causes us to feel broken.
When I am trying to change my partner (even when I think it’s in her best interest), I deny her the healing experience of being seen, validated and loved just as she is. When my partner forgives me for my less than skillful actions (that I am accountable for), it fosters my own self-acceptance and compassion, which undoes shame and any false sense of badness I may have.
What needs to be forgiven or let go of in your relationship in order for it to grow and evolve? I challenge you to release it and not keep your partner prisoner to past mistakes. And, I challenge you to know you are worthy of forgiveness if you have been accountable for a mistake and have changed your behavior.
5. Are there any issues with power and control in your relationship?
If you, or your boo, habitually exert nonconsensual power and control over the other this is a red flag for abuse. There is no possibility for healing until abuse stops. As much as you may want to help your boo (or vice versa), this help must be sought outside of the relationship. There is little incentive to change when the abusive person continues to have the reward of being with their partner. Check out this link if you have any concerns about being in an abusive relationship: http://tnlr.org/about-partner-abuse/
QTPOC love can provide a base for healing and undoing internalized oppression. QTPOC love can also cause us further harm if both people involved are not accountable for the ways that being oppressed may cause behavior that is not conducive to forming healthy and nurturing relationships.
If we can’t love each other right in partnerships, how can we possibly use the power of our love to create a revolution of epic proportions that will heal and free us all?
CarmenLeah Ascencio a public health social worker, community theatre facilitator, trauma-sensitive yoga instructor, educator and proud Boricua 2nd generation queer femme. She is currently the director of Get Free, a Black Girl Dangerous program, and is the creator of Freedom Labor Love, a consultancy business that helps organizations and schools be trauma informed, emotionally healthy and inspired social change environments. She facilitates BGD Get Free workshops at organizations and schools. To find out about booking CarmenLeah, go here.
Do not republish anything from this site without expressed written permission from BGD. For more info, go here.