On Hysteria, Transphobia, Man-Hating, Sobriety, Anonymity and Writing.
Below is an article I wrote for a recovery-themed web site. After pitching some topics at them, we settled on a personal essay about being queer in Alcoholics Anonymous. I knew this was somewhat controversial, but the taboo being broken was anonymity – a guiding philosophy of AA that has been recently questioned by younger, urban members of of the program. While protecting the anonymity of other members of AA is obviously super important, it has always confused me that I can’t be honest on a public level about being a member of AA. As a writer I have written A LOT about getting wasted. Now I find myself with almost nine years of continuous sobriety, and being unable to write or speak honestly about how that happened is not only personally frustrating, I think it sends a dangerous and false message to anyone with a drug or alcohol problem looking for inspiration to get sober. Unable to talk/write about AA, it looks like I just ‘got sober’ – like, on my own, through my very own will power, which most alcoholics find impossible. It was certainly impossible for me – on my own, my sobriety was a heartbreaking succession of brief triumphs and baffling failures. It wasn’t til I got into AA and learned about what it really is to be an alcoholic that I was able to stay sober. I can say with 100% certitude that I wouldn’t be sober today if not for AA, and it’s also my opinion that 99% of people trying to get sober outside the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous will not be able to do it. The odds are grim for alcoholics in any case – AA has the highest rate of sustained sobriety than any other method, yet even in AA the majority of people who try it will not stay sober. With such a lousy hope for recovery, why not go with the program with the best results is my thought. So, that’s why I’m choosing to override AA’s tradition of personal anonymity, knowing that a lot of people within the program are going to think it’s shitty. Here’s an article that elaborates on the current trend toward forgoing anonymity in AA.
I wrote my article about being a queer person in AA without really knowing what would come out. I sat down and followed some ideas and what I got was the essay below, which didn’t get published on the recovery web site in spite of the editor saying it was ‘great — incredibly well written, full of excellent points and so very different from anything we’ve done before.’ Because I speak about having been a pretty strong man-hater in the past, and because I briefly site some reasons why women might become man-haters (in case no one is paying attention to, um, life), the editor wanted me to add that I know some ‘wonderful men’, – I guess to make the (male?) reader feel less threatened by the piece. I pushed back, saying it is a pet peeve of mine that when making a strong critique of maleness in our culture, a woman has to then give soothing pats to whatever ego might have gotten stung. It goes without saying that I know a ton of great men. If I was writing an article about awesome men, I’d tell you all about it. But I wasn’t, I was talking about misogyny, and the insertion of someone else’s opinion into the piece felt insulting. The editor responded that she and her editorial director were adamant about just a single sentence that assured the reader that I know some wonderful men, otherwise the piece sounds ‘a bit hysterical.’ Anyone who took an Intro to Women’s Studies class ever knows that hysterical is the word that gets slapped on women who speak out about the state of women in the world. It is so ridiculous and Victorian it’s astounding that it would still be used, today, by editors trying to lighten the harshness of a feminist critique.
I added the sentence. I wanted the $200! Most blogs pay $0 – 50, so this was sort of a cool assignment. But it sat very badly with me, and I got very resentful that an angry feminist just can’t be all angry about it every now and then, when there is so very much to be angry about. The ‘hysteria’ accusation sat especially ickily, hysteria being the Victorian malady that afflicted only women and was often treated (see above) by the visit of a vibrator-wielding doctor who gave the discontented lady an orgasm because, as many women upset by sexism, they just need a good fuck. Probably Victorian women did need a good fuck, but I bet they’d still be pissed about misogyny. As many alcoholics know, resentment is very hurtful to one’s sobriety, so I pulled the piece, started a thread of Facebook about women writers needing to console men in their writing and people of color being pushed into saying that ‘not all white people are bad’ in critiques of racism, and felt pretty awesome about my decision. Anyway, here is the essay!
Oh – and when you Google Image ‘hysterical’ one of the sub-categories is ‘hysterical woman’! And when you search ‘hysterical woman’ the sub-categories are: ‘screaming woman’ ‘angry woman’ ‘crazy woman’ ‘crying woman’ and ‘sobbing woman.’
I had a Mexican friend who had to stop going to a particular AA meeting because of too many white guys sharing about running with Mexicans as part of their bottom, as if they’d been fed a steady diet of 70s-era cops-and-robbers shows depicting Mexicans and other brown people as criminal elements and were unable to shake it from their skulls. My city, San Francisco, is teeming with Mexican people not doing drugs with bottoming-out white guys, but it only goes to show where these particular honky alcoholics had been spending their time. It bummed me out so hard to hear my friend’s grievance, though I know not why—eight years in the rooms of AA have shown me that alcoholism does strike a baffling cross-section of humanity. Nice, smart people and ignorant buttholes can all become alcoholics—and then become well in AA. It’s just that some people’s “well” is more well than others. As my sage ex-sponsor-in-law once said, “In AA, you sometimes hear about alcoholism, and sometimes you hear…alcoholism.”
I try to remember this when I hear an equivalent tale shared during AA drunkalogues—and then I was hanging out with, well, Transsexuals! In the Tenderloin! Such shares aren’t common but they’re not rare, either, and when I hear them my stomach drops and my ears get hot and I send kill vibes at the guy speaking, then spend the rest of the meeting silently tormented about if I should say something (No Cross Talk!) or let it slide (Coward!) I know that, since I have a lot of trans friends I’m more sensitive to this than most people but that’s not the problem.
The problem is that more people aren’t sensitive. With all the trans-visibility in pop culture during the past years, the one that seemed to really stick is “hot tranny mess,” a phrase I’ve never heard put forth by a trans person but one which resonates with our contemporary archetype of the fucked-up trans woman, teetering around in her heels with her wig askew. Or something.
In San Francisco, the Tenderloin is a neighborhood populated with immigrant families from Southeast Asia and South America, poor white and black people, a multicultural bouquet of young people renting the cheap apartments, and transsexual women. And yes, a lot of the trans women are prostitutes, and a lot of them have drug and alcohol problems. You might be a prostitute, too, if no one would hire you because you’re transsexual. And you’d probably have a drug and alcohol problem, too, if you were among the class of people most likely to die from violence—a demographic that deals with intense street harassment on the daily; a people whose condition often requires medical intervention not covered by insurance. That is, if you could get a job with insurance, or a job at all. I turned tricks and drank and used heavily in situations not nearly as stressful as these.
I came into AA a paranoid, man-hating queer, and one of the most transformative affects the program has had on me has been relieving me of my man-hate. The world sure didn’t change—if you feel like hating men, there are always a hundred million facts and figures to keep you secure in your stance. I actually think hating on men can be a normal and healthy stage for women to go through—most all women I know have been fucked over majorly by sexism and misogyny, and we’re bullied into seeing these obvious societal patterns as isolated incidents. But if one out of six women have dealt with a rape or attempted rape, how many men out there are rapists? That’s a statistic we don’t get.
Like all unhealthy coping mechanisms, my man hating served its purpose for a moment but by the time I came into AA, it had turned against me as harmfully as drinking. It was holding me back in my intimate relationships, holding me waaaaaay back in the world at large, and it was hurting my heart. It doesn’t feel good to hate people. In AA, I listened to men that had suffered badly. I watched men cry as they spoke about how they struggled today. I heard men confess how sick their hearts and minds had been, and inside those confessions were sometimes real sorrow at how they had treated women, or regarded queer people.
I always knew sexism and homophobia hurt straight men as much as anyone, but you rarely get an opportunity to see that. In AA, where men were desperate and vulnerable, I saw it.
All this contributes to why I get so pissed when I hear guys elaborate on their bottoms with tales of trans women. I have seen how working the program can really raise consciousness, and it feels like such a fail when people aren’t able to regard the women they spent their bottoms with as addicts just like them, and addicts with perhaps fewer resources than the average addict—if you consider trans phobia in the rooms to be a barrier, and I do.
I’ve heard a lot of people in AA speak out against the idea of labeling those we spent our darkest days with as “lower companions”—those rotten, morally bankrupt, tainted people we had around us when our real friends had fled. Obviously, we were all someone’s “lower companion” at the height of our debauch; to think otherwise is totally arrogant. Before calling out the sort of folks you were hanging in the gutter with, it may be worthwhile to pause to recall that someone was probably slumming it with you.
Yeah! I wrapped it all up at the end with a nice little moral! Cause that’s what you do in magazine writing! Okay, thank you and good night.