10 Things I Want My Daughter to Know About Working Out

28 Jul

Yes to all of this! My three year-old has already told me that she wants to run a race one day.

wellfesto

Mid-way through a recent group exercise class, the teacher lost me.  She didn’t lose me because of some complicated step sequence or insanely long set of burpees; I mentally checked out because of a few words she kept saying over and over.  “Come on!  Get that body ready for your winter beach vacation!  Think about how you want to look at those holiday parties!  PICTURE HOW YOU’LL LOOK IN THAT DRESS!

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This is what a runner looks like

15 Jul
I used to hate my thighs. Now I love that they give me power.

I used to hate my thighs. Now I love that they give me power.

This is not a Fitspiration story. There is no before and after photo. No weigh-in or declaration of a new “lifestyle change.” It’s not about how much healthier I am or more attractive I feel. It’s about how I learned a skill and got over some baggage, plain and simple.

I grew up with intellectual parents who never played sports. Gym class was torture. And even though I know now in retrospect that I was of average size, I always felt like the fat kid. Track and field day was the absolute worst. I remember being forced to participate in sprinting races, finding myself winded and in tears within seconds.

I was similarly puzzled when gym teachers assumed that I knew how to play sports. No one ever taught me the rules or any of the skills. It made no sense to me that we were entitled to instruction in math and writing, but not in the basic skills required to master athletic pursuits. So I stumbled along and dropped gym after the mandatory ninth grade class was finally over.

Until my mid-20s, I led a typically sedentary lifestyle. I always felt like my body was useful for carrying my head around, and not much else. Until I threw out my back at the age of 25 and decided that I didn’t want to live in pain. So slowly and with trepidation, I began a gym habit. I soon discovered that exercise was actually something I enjoyed.

At the time, I did lose a considerable amount of weight. Much of this was associated with the emotional baggage of a couple of bad relationships and the side effects of anti-depressants. But when I found my comfortable, active place on the size spectrum, I was still considered fat by conventional medical standards. And I still am.

More than 10 years later and after a few bleary-eyed years of early parenthood, I decided to teach myself to run. This involved exercising outdoors, in shorts, in busy parts of the city (I live downtown). It was initially very exposing. I kept thinking, “Does that man see how slow I am going … and do my thighs look huge … and why am I out of breath?!?” But I used one of those Couch to 5k apps, took it at my own pace, and soon gave zero fucks about what anyone else thought.

For bigger people, exercising in public is a radical act. And it’s one of the major barriers to beginning any sort of fitness routine. The threat of mockery or cruelty keeps fat people off the streets and out of gyms. The idea that you need to be slender to work up a sweat is self-defeating and perpetuates body imperialism.

Decoupling exercise from any specific weight-loss goals has been revolutionary for me. The only “results” I am seeking are stronger legs and lungs and the ability to keep up with my three year old daughter. It also helps that when I exercise, I can severely cut down on the number of chiro and massage appointments I need to remain pain-free.

So for the last few months, I have been blasting punk music and congratulating myself every time my feet strike pavement. I’ve been enjoying cool summer mornings and late evening sun. I’ve been running a little further and a little longer each time. And on Sunday, I completed my first 5k race, finishing in a shockingly fast 32:29.

Amanda Bingson: Olympic hammer thrower and total bad ass.

Amanda Bingson: Olympic hammer thrower and total bad ass.

Having a sense of athletic accomplishment is an entirely new experience for me. It’s not something that was ever intuitive and it did not come easily. But I am inspired by athletes like total bad ass Amanda Bingson. She’s an Olympic hammer thrower, 5’5, and more than 200 pounds of dense muscle and power. She was kicked off her high school volley ball team because she couldn’t fit in the uniform. And now she’s an Olympic athlete who says, “I’ll be honest, I like everything about my body.”

I choose to take Bingson’s words to heart: “Whatever your body type is, just use it.” My strong thighs, formerly a source of shame, are now site of power.

But my decision to run is not a virtuous one. It’s a choice, like any other. “Health” is relative and not a moral virtue. And you really can’t judge a person’s fitness level by the size of their shorts (or volley ball uniform).

Bingson is what an Olympian looks like. And I am what a runner looks like. Though I still can’t quite believe it.

Bullying the powerful

13 Apr

I have been accused of being a bully. Since I wrote the Storify post about pinkwashing last week, the mud slinging has come from two camps. One group has argued that I was somehow bullying the youth associated with the Day of Pink by levelling such harsh criticism at the sponsoring organization’s choice of ambassador. And the other group is painting me as an oppressor of Laureen Harper (perhaps not surprisingly, this second group is exclusively dominated by right-wing former Sun News shock pundits).

I want to address both of these arguments. I believe the first one is coming from a genuine place of concern, and the second one is nothing but blow-hard bigotry. But both feature the same rhetorical and conceptual error: the characterization of political criticism as interpersonal bullying. And in the case of the shock pundits, confusion between offence and oppression.

The public realm

I was careful in my criticism of the Day of Pink and the Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity to focus on public statements and communications. I attacked the letter that the group sent out featuring Harper and I criticized the organization’s response to the controversy.

One commenter on my blog pointed out that one of the pieces I referenced was written by a 20 year-old. It’s unfortunate that the CCGSD chose to run a piece by a young worker in response to public outcry, as opposed to a statement by the group’s Executive Director or Board of Directors.

I believe this wrongly placed a junior staff person in the line of fire, when a senior leader should have been absorbing the outrage. But if you put your name to a public piece of communication, it’s reasonable to expect criticism. Especially when you speak for a queer/trans association and affiliate yourself with the Conservative Party.

But I also remember what it was like to be 20 years old and a target of political criticism. I have written previously about my traumatic experiences as editor of the student newspaper at Concordia. I know how excruciating it can feel when something you care about is being ripped to shreds in the media. And all of this happened to me before the advent of social media.

But the attacks I faced as a student journalist were of an explicitly personal nature (though my journalism at the time was certainly fallible). I believe my words on the Day of Pink issue speak for themselves and convey no ill intent. My goal was to support the amazing work that queer/trans youth are doing in their schools and communities by ensuring that the adults with power in the community don’t sell them out politically.

The persecution of Mrs. Harper

Now, the other brand of criticism I received is of an entirely different calibre. The same right-wing pundits who are quick to demand free speech at all costs have accused me of bullying Laureen Harper for suggesting that she has no business speaking for the LGBT community. I am thankful that this excellent teacher/blogger took the time to explain the difference between bullying and public discussion. This graphic, borrowed from We Are Teachers, explains the distinction.

bullying

It’s very similar to the difference between actual oppression and simple annoyance or offence. Publicly criticizing a prominent figure for her lack of action on queer/trans rights is well within the realm of public debate. I find it hard to imagine that spouses of Prime Ministers are an oppressed class.

Former Sun News reporter turned Freelance Rage Generator

Former Sun News reporter turned Freelance Rage Generator

But then again, defunct television personality Brian Lilley seems to think it’s sacrosanct to criticize her good works. Why do the queers need to get SO POLITICAL about bullying? THEY ARE BEING SO MEAN TO LAUREEN AND RUINING EVERYTHING?

But scream caps aside, Lilley’s response was entirely predictable, as was Robyn Urback’s in the National Post. They say queers should be happy with the scraps that the Conservatives have given us. Put up and shut up. Accept a whitewashed version of “anti-bullying” that’s been stripped of any of its specific meaning.

I won’t do that and I hope you won’t either.

More on the pinkwashing of the Day of Pink

9 Apr
me and d

I do wear pink occasionally. But only in the form of hot pants.

Well, then. I guess a few people liked the post I put up in haste the other night, while simultaneously entertaining my almost three year-old and responding to a flurry of Tweets. Or they disagreed with me, but felt compelled to read it. Either way, I’m grateful.

My reason for criticizing the choice of Laureen Harper as the ambassador for the Day of Pink was very clear to me. I believed strongly that we needed to make sure that queer/trans youth knew we had their backs — not just in a symbolic sense, but politically too.

I remember when I testified in Ottawa in support of provincial legislation mandating gay-straight alliances in publicly funded schools. I listened to speakers from the Catholic board and the evangelical right use syrupy language to try and strategically remove the queerness from any anti-bullying efforts. They spoke of the need for “diversity clubs” and other meaningless monikers that obscure the specific and excruciating struggles that queer, trans and gender non-conforming youth face in schools.

We need to keep the focus on the specific experiences of kids like Leelah Alcorn, Blake Brockington and Jamie Hubley (may they rest in power and peace). And that means fighting school boards to ensure that queer/trans kids are supported and given spaces in which to meet. It means advocating for trans human rights legislation like Bill C-279 and naming and shaming the politicians like Don Plett who are holding back progress. And it also means holding LGBT organizations accountable when they choose respectability politics over the rights of the people they purport to serve.

I want to take a minute to address some of the criticism I have seen over the last couple of days. Much of it was thoughtful and I would like to acknowledge the people who engaged with me on Twitter and in other online spaces.

1. Why are you judging Laureen Harper by the actions of her husband? 

I am judging Laureen Harper by her complicity in the Conservative publicity machine. See? She even has her own page on the party’s website. She has stood by her husband during every election and has allowed herself to be used as a humanizing factor to help tone down his look of evil. (Well, that, a sweater vest and kittens). And her rather vapid statement in support of the Day of Pink did not make a single mention of queer or trans youth.

She has never made a public comment that contradicted the policies of the Conservative party. And Laureen certainly has not said a word about trans rights or Bill C-279. Should she choose to prove me wrong one day, I would be thrilled. But until that day arrives, she has positioned herself politically as Mrs. Harper and that is what I will call her.

2. Why are you wasting your energy criticizing a group that does good work?

Because this organization — formerly known as Jer’s Vision — has re-branded itself as a national LGBT organization. By choosing the new name of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, this group is carving out a voice on the national stage. And that comes with responsibility. The fact that the CCGSD’s first action out of the gate is to associate themselves with the Harpers is really bad news. It shows a preference for name recognition and banal “awareness-raising” over real justice for queer and trans youth. And their misstep only serves to benefit the politicians and right-wing evangelicals who would be thrilled to see queer and trans people banned from public bathrooms.

It seriously concerns me that the CCGSD’s reaction to public criticism yesterday was either to invite people to have private conversations with them (and therefore take the conversation offline) or implying that critics were contributing to toxic activist cultures by not being kind enough. I and many others responded publicly to a very public piece of communication. The discussion and process of accountability should remain in the public sphere.

3. But have you heard the rumour about Laureen Harper?

I live in Ottawa and I have heard the rumours that Laureen may be a secret member of “the family.” But unless she distinguishes herself from the Conservative machine, she’s never going to be invited to any lesbian potlucks. To paraphrase an old Ani Difranco song, “I don’t give a fuck who she’s screwing in private, I wanna know who she’s screwing in public.”

I am not wearing pink today. This is why.

8 Apr

I made a post over at Storify last night, after a bunch of my Tweets about the Day of Pink went viral last night. WordPress won’t let me embed it into this blog, so click on the big photo below to read it.

storify harper

Think of the children

26 Feb
Pro-choice, always

Pro-choice, always

I started to claim the title of “Mama” before I even gave birth. Even though I am devotedly pro-choice, I did this strategically. Because I knew that the “concerned parent” moniker was powerful and that I needed to mobilize it for good, not evil. I attended a counter-demo to the March for Life when I was about eight months pregnant, holding a sign that said, “Mama for choice.” And when I was only a few weeks away from giving birth, I presented to a provincial committee studying Bill 13, which compelled all Ontario high schools to allow gay-straight alliances (including the Catholic board).

Because whether I like it or not, being a parent lends me some sort of credibility and authority to speak on issues that are relevant to children. And it gives me an opportunity to disrupt the bigots who use ridiculous “think of the children” logic to deny people’s human rights and promote discrimination.

Cheap tricks

The notion that children need to be protected from queer and trans people is an old trope. In the 1970s, Anita Bryant based an entire “Save Our Children” campaign on the idea that gay people could be hiding in schools and corrupting innocent kids. She played on the false association between homosexuality and pedophilia and built a national campaign against gay rights in the U.S. based on it. While this seems like a total anachronism to many of us today, this same vein of manipulation is still alive and well. Two pieces of legislation are currently under debate that would have tremendous positive implications for queer/trans youth. But opponents are begging us to shut them down for the sake of “the children.”

In Ontario, the first comprehensive update to the health and sex education curriculum since 1998 was introduced last week. A similar update was first put on the table in 2010, but was quickly withdrawn after fundamentalist bigot Charles McVety raised a stink about it. The crux of his argument? You guessed it: that children’s innocence would be corrupted by frank discussions of sexuality.

He’s at it again with this latest curriculum. Before it was even released, McVety and his ilk were busy spreading rumours that the schools were planning to teach six year-olds the mechanics of anal sex (emphatically, not true). And now they are using the same argument as Bryant did in the 70s — arguing that parents, not schools, should be in charge of teaching kids about sex.

I am not going to get into the details of why the opposition to this curriculum is totally nonsensical, because I am going to trust that it’s obvious to you. But as a parent of a 2.5 year old, I gotta say it’s totally warped that anyone would oppose measures to teach kids about their own bodies and consent. These measures protect children much more effectively than willful blindness. And if you had any doubt any children’s capacity to understand these issues at a young age, watch this video that Staceyann Chin and her 3 year-old daughter Zuri made.

Luckily, our “lesbian activist Premier” (as she is being called by the right-wing chorus) has been fierce in her defense of the new curriculum and it’s sure to go through this time. But another crucial piece of legislation is sure to be quashed because of similar straw man arguments about “the children.”

Fear mongering

Just last night, an un-elected Canadian Senator took it upon himself to issue a death sentence to a piece of human rights legislation that has been in the works for years. Bill C-279 would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include “gender identity” as a grounds for protection. It has has been dubbed the “trans rights” bill and mirrors very similar legislation that is already in place in five Canadian provinces and territories. It was introduced in 2011 by NDP MP Randall Garrison and passed third reading in the House of Commons in 2013 — this included support from a handful of Conservative MPs, including Cabinet Ministers.

Then, the bill languished in the Senate. For years. As Justin Ling so adeptly pointed out in an article for Vice, this was clearly part of a strategy by the Harper government to sideline this bill and try to make it disappear. And then last night, Senator Donald Plett sentenced Bill C-279 to death. He brought forward an amendment that essentially reverses the intent of the bill and would effectively bar trans people from public bathrooms. If the Conservative-dominated Senate votes to adopt Plett’s amendment, the bill will get bounced back to the House of Commons and surely die before the next election is called.

What is the crux of Plett’s argument? You guessed it, THE CHILDREN. Specifically his young granddaughter, who he claims will be assaulted by “men” in bathrooms if trans people are afforded formal human rights protection under the law. I honestly cannot imagine what it would be like to be on the wrong side of history like this. To take it on one’s self to quash human rights legislation in the name of fear and gross misinformation. But as a queer mama, I gotta say:

  1. Trans people use bathrooms all the time. There have been ZERO reported cases in Canada of a trans person assaulting a child (or anyone else, really) in a bathroom.
  2. The people who have most to fear in bathrooms are those who are gender non-conforming and face harassment every time they try and go pee.
  3. And for trans youth, the inability to find a washroom in which to comfortably and safely relieve themselves leads them to drop out of school and leaves them even more vulnerable to homelessness.

Simply put, I support both sex education and human rights protections for trans people because I care deeply about THE CHILDREN — specifically the queer/trans youth in my community who are at highest risk of social exclusion, mental health issues and violence.

So I will use my “concerned parent” privilege as best I can to speak out against the manipulation of children — mine and yours — to further the cause of discrimination and harassment. Our kids deserve protection under the law and to see their families reflected in their school curriculum. If there is anything I’d like to shield my daughter from, it’s bigots like Charles McVety and Donald Plett.

Call me in

12 Jan

I just spent the weekend with fellow members of the board of the Ten Oaks Project — an organization I care deeply about and spend a lot of volunteer hours promoting. We run a summer camp for kids from LGBT families and queer/trans youth. We also put together a radical social justice/leadership retreat for youth under 25 called Project Acorn.

While other organizations might deliver these types of programs using  charitable model, Ten Oaks is an organization dedicated to social change and anti-oppression. We may not always get it right, but working from this standpoint means we constantly need to review our principles and practices to make sure we’re “walking the talk.” Which is why I ended up participating in an anti-racism workshop yesterday morning, despite the fact that I’ve identified as an activist for more than 15 years. We are really never done the process of unpacking our own oppressive practices and seeking to do better.

anti-o

I remember the first time someone called me a racist and told me I “needed a workshop.” I was 20 years old and the editor of the student newspaper at Concordia. A self-declared activist, I probably had never heard the term “white privilege” before. After a couple of years in journalism school, I was all puffed up with vague notions of “freedom of the press,” but put little thought into how my words could affect others. When I published an editorial featuring an inflammatory image and an egregious error about the Palestinian Occupied Territories, it understandably made a few people angry.

The dynamics of how people sought to hold me accountable for those errors were complicated. It involved a lot of men yelling at me, demands for my resignation and a petition with a thousand signatures to see me deposed. I was “called out” repeatedly, but the calling out process was misogynist and aggressive, with a significant taint of anti-Semitism.

Mostly, it was the product of youth. We were inexperienced activists with heads full of anger and good intentions. But we had no skills to hold each other accountable. We pointed accusatory fingers, stood on points of inflexible principle and spent a lot of time either yelling at each other or avoiding one another. It was ugly and almost made me shrink away from activism completely.

I see a lot of similar rhetoric in the age of social media. A person writes or says something. That thing then becomes a permanent mark on their life and they are excised from activist communities as a result. If we want to build meaningful movements, we may want to consider “calling people in” instead of calling them out. This is what we talked about in the workshop yesterday and it resonated strongly with me.

The process of “calling in” means investing in a relationship with someone by taking the time to explain why their actions are hurtful. It involves (as Jay Smooth points out) telling someone that they did or said something racist, rather than calling them a racist. This may seem like an inconsequential difference, but it’s actually a big deal. Holding people accountable and inviting them to learn from their actions is much more effective and sustainable than condemning them and casting them out. It’s also a harder thing to do.

Obviously, not everyone merits this kind of time and attention. But our organization works with youth, some of whom have just come out and had zero exposure to political movements or the “right” language. The process of calling them in shows them that we embrace them and want to learn alongside them. I certainly wish someone had taken this approach with me when I was 20 years old. It would have made a world of difference.