So I have been saying this to friends: I don’t believe in public apologies.
Because I don’t. The entire ritual always feels like some kind of sham; person says something hurtful or distasteful or just morally suspect, the pitchforks come out, there is a lot of blustering and arm waving on both sides, and then the person appears with a metaphorical shaved head to show their contrition, and proceeds to announce that they are donating their chopped off hair to charity. Or announce some tangential inner pain or suffering that they have been going through. Or the apology is either so insincere or tone deaf that it just makes things worse.
So no, I will not do a theatrical performance because I have already done what I needed to do in private channels. So this is not an apology. This is just to say: I fucked up.
Ten years ago I dated a transman. Only he didn’t identify as that at that point in time, and he was what I thought was just my senior when we were studying in an all-girls school. After finding out recently that he has transitioned, I have used his gender as a punchline to a tasteless joke, and not even a funny one at that – no I don’t dare date another girl because I’m so straight they’ll change their gender after dating me. And that’s something I should have known better not to do, given my interests and access to literature. I admit that I should do so much more to read up on trans issues, and I will.
Recently someone heard me mention this. They were sitting next to me when I was talking to two other friends and then I made this bad joke. They chose to tell the ex (which is fair) who then got angry (which is also very fair).
What really pisses me off is that this person chose then to post this exchange on Facebook about half an hour later to loudly and publicly shame me, but still keeping a veneer of anonymity by not mentioning my name, just giving enough identifying details to make sure their audience knew it was me. More than that, the person then proceeded to shame the two friends with me for not calling me out, especially because one was active in the queer community, and then proceeded to publicly speculate on the other person’s sexuality. More than that, before posting on Facebook they had said that their phone was running out of battery and they might go home instead of staying on so I took out my portable charger and lent it to them.
There are so many things wrong with this that I cannot even.
- Don’t call out other people for staying silent if you are just going to do the exact same thing and then only complain on social media to your own circles.
- They could have called me out there and then and I would have taken it. They chose not to. They could have sent me a private message with their newly charged phone if they were uncomfortable with speaking to me in public (which is fair, as we are not close), but they did not choose to.
- They instead chose to very deliberately post about me, accuse me of transphobia, accuse my friends of condoning this, and then start talking about how that relationship was incredibly toxic. The last point was so irrelevant that I can only assume that what they had meant was that I was so bitter about the breakup that I misgender my ex today out of vitriol.
- When I collected my charger from them afterwards, they made no mention whatsoever about the incident until I insisted that we talk then. There was also a thread in the post where they were delighting about how I didn’t know that I was being talked about. There was so much self-satisfaction and glee in that post. Which truly indicates that they had no interest whatsoever on education, or even calling out and holding me responsible really because they intended everything was going to be done through aggressive anonymous Facebook posts (which I might not even have seen). Which is just cowardly, spiteful, vicious behaviour.
Of course it takes effort to “call in” (a really fantastic term for behaviour we really need to have more often in circles that often devolve into knee-jerk reactions. The tl;dr version means that instead of choosing to use social media platforms to openly accuse someone of their behaviour, settle things via private channels to ascertain the other person’s intentions and guilt first. There are so many instances where this is useful – when you really aren’t sure about their intentions, when English isn’t their first language or they just come from cultures where ciswomen don’t have rights let alone have the language or movements for more complex and nuanced ideas on gender and sexuality, or when you just want to give someone the benefit of the doubt. These articles from Everyday Feminism and Bustle were greatly helpful when I was reading about this issue some time back.)
And as I said, we are not close. But given that I had reached out to them in previous instances when other flame wars were happening on Facebook and defended them continually in private circles, insisting they will eventually mature and learn nuance and grow out of this kind of toxic behaviour, I will say that I’m disappointed. At this point, I’m extremely certain that their intention was never to have me learn anything, only to shame and humiliate, as they have constantly done with their knee-jerk reactions over the years.
I’m not Facebook friends with the ex but I have had some concerned friends reach out to me to inform me about this poorly disguised public smear campaign. I get that the ex is hurt and that I have not made things any better or easier because the last time we spoke in public I was very clear that I didn’t want to be friends, so he doesn’t have any kind of duty to reach out to me.
At the same time, there is so much about this relationship that I have not examined. For years I just thought that yes, I kissed a couple of girls in secondary school, and of course my first relationship was this great disastrous ruinous thing that left us both confused and hurting afterwards. Adults always dismissed the relationships in that school as a phase, and when girls who dressed or behaved in masculine fashions in secondary school grew out their hair or wore dresses in Junior College it was always something marvelled at and celebrated by peers. I have never really thought of myself as openly bisexual but I just never really examined any feelings I had toward women closely. I still think it’s a lot harder for those growing up in strong female relationships to really distinguish their feelings towards other women as either platonic or romantic. Growing up without the great yoke of masculinity, we are freer to be vocally and physically affectionate, to lavish compliments on each other’s looks and this might be why I just know more women who are willing to admit that they are bicurious; the line between the two is just more blurred. But then I’ve not needed great impetus to examine this too closely and just tucked away the thought “Yes I dated a girl” until I realised he wasn’t.
And after that? I don’t know.
Ten years ago I was willing to sever all ties with my family. I was willing to suffer and go to law school and be a lawyer if it meant my partner, who was always the more talented artistic one, could be an artist and we would still be financially comfortable. I didn’t have any kind of inkling on the gravity of those promises at that point and when I think back on it I think about how young I was. But I was so sure that I would, and could do all these things.
There is so much of the relationship I’ve either forgotten or completely blanked out on that I cannot even begin to unpick it and examine it. Even if I can somehow overcome my reluctance to. I just know that I am uncomfortable when he is around, but we run in overlapping circles and it would not be fair to ask either person to give up being in the very limited spaces available for our interests.
I like closure. I definitely have unrealistic expectations on what this means within relationships and perhaps this is why I’ve never really been able to resolve things with any of my exes. I am not friends with many of them, and do not speak to any of them with any regularity. I just find it so much easier to forget than to forgive. These days I settle for trying to think about the times we were happy and what I had loved about them, and I wish them all the best from a distance.
I was thinking a lot about how the Nat of five years ago would have behaved. Broken down and cried for days after about not being liked by everybody, I suppose. Which makes me simultaneously proud to be stronger (+1 constitution after levelling up), and grateful for my friends who have been supporting me in the last few days, and also simultaneously afraid of the kind of cyberbullying that happens. I’m hesitant to call it ‘bullying’ because I don’t feel deeply affected, but I guess that actions shouldn’t be defined by their impacts but the morality of them. I will admit that it’s kept me unsettled; that’s why I even took the time to write this. And I am also pretty pissed because what if this had happened to someone else without the support networks I have had; how would they be feeling right now?
A thing that really amused me about the smear campaign: the two were quick to point out that another poet had called me ‘an unapologetic feminist’ and wanted to mock at how badly I had fallen short.
I’ve pointed this out more than once when in front of a mic for an event; when I first came into the poetry scene in 2014, I was very determined not be known as The Feminist Poet. I had already suffered through that label in the debate scene, and it felt that people always took me less seriously as a result. (Of course I only knew social issues and lacked knowledge on International Relations. Of course I got emotional and angry. Of course I would therefore win the social issues round, or the women’s tournament, so they aren’t achievements at all.) I tried to write love poems instead, then got called the Taylor Swift poet, so I tried poems about family and nationhood and loneliness. And eventually, I realised that I was always writing about a kind of pain that the male friends around me didn’t know or understand. And then I realised I was writing so many mother-daughter poems because I have always been running from the incomprehensible life decisions my mother made. I still am.
So I started writing a lot of Women’s issues and those were the ones that gained ground and then I became Feminist Poet. Or Angry Woman. I won’t say that I embraced the label entirely reluctantly, but it definitely took me some time before I would publicly acknowledge it. I think part of it is fear. My first book is about sadness and loss, and I know I want the second one to be about anger. Then what next? I’ve coached and mentored so many female students and have been so proud to see them grow into forces of their own right but now that I have a day job unrelated to education I don’t know what I do for women’s rights anymore.
And of course there are other shortcomings that didn’t take this incident for me to realise; I opened up my feature set last month with a statement about how my writing still very much deals with heterosexual cis women issues and that I am aware of this. At the moment, I can only point to queer writers for others to read and I do my best to do this, but I cannot use my literary voice to represent theirs, and should not be expected to. Not because it is problematic, I do think that with careful research and respect and collaboration I could eventually write a story with queer characters or in a queer character’s perspective but I know I am not ready to do this now. And I also know that poetry, which still remains very confessional for me, is not a medium I can use to shine a light on those issues.
Another phrase that kept popping up during the smear campaign; ’she is now an influential figure’.
The first reaction, of course, is to laugh. Like what. What influence. I’ve been in behind-the-scenes roles for years. No one knows who I am.
And of course, then there’s the imposter syndrome; that if I am an influential figure now, I’m not ready for this. Whenever people ask me how I get published, I just say that I interned, volunteered, and worked in the literary community for four years and I got noticed. No one I know yet is satisfied with that answer.
And then yesterday while walking up to the stage for my first panel at an international literary festival as a featured author, a boy I’d never met before, still in his student uniform, called out to me and told me that he loved my book. An ex-student of mine was in the same audience supporting and cheering me on even though we didn’t really keep in touch after I stopped coaching her. That boy came by the signing afterwards and asked for reading recommendations. Another girl came up to me afterwards and then we got excited discussing Japanese light novels and she looked so happy after I gave her my number. There is power in this. I hope I never grow too comfortable at that idea.
So yes. Influential figure, or at least a figure of some influence. Definitely stuck with the feminist label now, although I wish the speculative fiction part of my writing is something people would recognise more. It’s a bizarre responsibility and power that I didn’t think I would have, especially since literature isn’t a field I’m 100% comfortable in, given that I didn’t study it formally in university and still haven’t read a lot of the classics. I will never live up to everybody’s expectations. Fuck, I can barely live up to my own. I will definitely make more mistakes in the future and there will probably be some that will be a lot more public. I can only hope to keep carrying on with grace.