Pursuing Joy in Defiance of Oppression

Written Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I haven't used this space for anything in a while - and that, quite honestly, has been very intentional. It also relates directly to the subject of this actual post.

It's been about three and a half years now since I realized I needed to radically rethink my ideas about who I am as a person, and since I made a commitment to pursue my own authenticity, wherever that ended up leading.

I won't mince words: it's been a tough road. In that span of time, I've learned that I'm trans, femme, non-binary, autistic, invisibly disabled, that I carry deep psychological as well as physiological trauma, and that there are plenty of forces in this world that desperately want me not to live a life of happiness, joy, and fulfillment as my true self.

I've learned a lot - enough to realize how very little I really know. About justice, about liberation, about healing, about decolonizing, about embracing a world far richer and more complex and wondrous than I ever realized existed, just a few short years ago.

And I've also tried a lot of things. Some of them have stuck, others have not. I've built a sort of personal infrastructure around trying experiments with my life, evaluating how I feel about the results, and using the data from those experiences to shape my future decisions.

So that's how my writing hiatus started. I set out at the beginning of 2022 to try a bit of a personal experiment.

I was tired - burned out, exhausted, feeling the weight of multiple consecutive years of doggedly pursuing the truth about myself in the face of significant external pressure not to be her.

I'm keenly aware that I enjoy a truly rare amount of privilege and relative ease in my experiences. I am beyond fortunate to live in a place where trans healthcare is attainable, even if it's at times awkward, difficult, and expensive. I'm employed and able to stay fed, clothed, and housed, even while the process of shifting to exclusively-remote work has taxed my autistic interpersonal struggles to the extreme. I've enjoyed a comparatively smooth process of actualizing my real self, even though a part of me twinges in pain every time I have to fill out a "gender" selection on a form with an "F" marker even though that's a severe disservice to who I really am.

I'd tried a lot of approaches to responding to the systemic injustices I experience, with all my intersectional attributes, on a literal daily basis. Some things had worked, others had not; but ultimately, I was just shot.

More crucially, I wasn't happy.

So I thought, you know what? Fuck it. The world will still be on fire in a year if I want to try and jump back into social justice work, or advocacy, or whatever form or other of external-facing praxis I want to engage in. I need a break.

And I chose to spend 2022 prioritizing my own joy, no matter what that meant in terms of giving up on trying to better the world.

I put a lot of weight on that word: joy.

I'm not sure I can emphasize enough how much that term truly means to me. It's literally my middle name. To me, it goes well beyond a simple feeling of temporary, fleeting happiness or excitement - although it certainly blends with many of those kinds of emotions and experiences.

To me, joy is existential - it's a response to the opportunity to exist, to even have experiences, and to choose how I find meaning, purpose, and value in them. I don't personally subscribe to any kind of belief framework about larger sources of meaning, purpose, value, or guidance - I am not a "spiritual" person and emphatically not a religious one, although I have no objections to anyone who finds those kinds of beliefs useful (provided it doesn't lead to harmful treatment of anyone else).

But I do find an almost transcendent kind of magic in the notion that "I", after all, am a serendipitous chunk of leftover atoms forged by stellar nuclear fusion, which have followed the inexorable dance of physical forces and evolutionary statistical processes for billions of years, to reach the point where this blob of matter has coalesced into a self-perpetuating biological organism that is able to reason about itself and the reality it occupies.

There's something deeply cool about that, to me - the notion that I'm really just a tiny, fractal fragment of a huge universe, a channel by which reality itself can peer back out and experience its own existence. I represent the opportunity for a vast, incomprehensibly immense plane of existence to experience a configuration of "being" that is literally and truly unique across all of time and space.

And when I think about what that really means to me, on a personal level, I can only describe the feelings it creates with one word.


So what does this have to do with oppression? Why am I surfacing now, after four consecutive months of this personal experiment to prioritize my own joy, to write again?

There are rumblings of some external events that have put this subject on my mind, and to be completely honest this does feel like a relevant time to talk about things like sociopolitical oppression. But it also coincides very nicely with a sort of status update about my experiment itself.

You see, it's been working - and, I must admit, shockingly well.

I'm not merely coping, anymore; not merely surviving the seemingly endless dragging-on of a global pandemic; not merely slogging through the repeated, nested marathons of all the legal paperwork, name changes, documentation updates, and awkward processes of telling the world around me about who I am as a trans person; not merely trudging along on a perpetual treadmill of attempting to stay alive despite the gradually mounting desire to just collapse in utter exhaustion.


I go back to the first time I discovered the works of bell hooks - and the subsequent weeks in which I hungrily obtained everything I could that she wrote, and devoured it all. I think about the ideas I hold about how I conduct relationships - my "queerelationality." I think about my desire to exist - the very motivation that keeps me alive and fighting for something better and that is very much responsible for carrying me through some genuinely dark and horrific life experiences. I think about how much I want to exist in good relationship to the rest of my reality; not just to people, but to the random trees and flowers growing in my yard, to the family of wild rabbits that lives there, to the possibilities of the future and the wisdom of those who have preceded me.

Wisdom of people like bell hooks, who talk about the importance of love and not being afraid to live a life centered in the embodiment of that all-important verb. Wisdom of people like Audre Lorde, who crucially observed that the mechanisms of oppression will never truly serve to set us free from oppressive dynamics.

And I look back on my own voracious, auto-didactic desire to learn, to create mental models; my autistic need to understand things in systemic terms, to piece together complex relationships and the interplay of subtle nuances and movements nigh-on-invisible - sometimes because they're almost too small to see, and sometimes because they're almost too big to see.

And I ask myself what the mechanisms of oppression really are.

I see three major categories - a taxonomy I've thought about a lot, but not written about much. There's plenty of material I could explore, here, but the depth and the detail are for another time, I think.

There are three primary weapons of any oppressive dynamic, on any scale: whether those dynamics play out inside a single person, between a small number of people, or across our entire species. I call them division, exhaustion, and information control.

Division is easy enough to explain. It's the messages I hear every day about who I "should" treat as an "enemy." Who is "against" me and wants me to "fail" or whatever else. I hear a lot about this in a country embroiled in an active attempt to erase the fundamental rights of bodily autonomy and self-determination of trans people and femme people - people like me. Division wants me to see opposition and competition and foes in every tiny shadow. Division wants me to believe I'm at war with myself, that some part of me is "against" other parts of me, that my own struggles are somehow because I'm acting at odds with my own interests - division wants me to forget that the ideas it has planted in my mind are not my own, and that the whispers of self-doubt and uncertainty and anxiety are coming directly from me. Division wants me to forget that the enemy of my enemy is, truly, my friend - that anyone else on the losing end of an oppressive dynamic could very well be my ally in my own struggles, even if we experience very different things in our respective lives.

Exhaustion probably needs little elaboration. Exhaustion wants me to believe it's pointless, that there's too much to change and not enough will to change it. That the cause is lost and the worst will happen. That I'm a failure of a person if I don't burn every last quantum of personal energy I have to undoing the wrongs of the world. That my praxis is meaningless if I take a break to just be happy for a year. That I'm a selfish and bad human for choosing to enjoy my life instead of draining every drop of blood and sweat I can to better someone else's.

Information control is perhaps the most subtle, devious, and - in this era of technological pervasiveness - also the most impossible to escape. It's in cultural messages, in media, in entertainment, in the horrific lack of representation of human diversity, in algorithms and social media accounts and our clout and our reach and our numbers. It's in the path-of-least-resistance reliance on an increasingly tiny number of sources for data and knowledge and understanding, while reassuring myself that I'm actually Quite Well Informed Thank You Very Much, I Have Internet Access. It's the choice to not question assumptions, the decision not to dig deeper, the willingness to shrug off alternative answers and perspectives because maybe they lead somewhere that says something uncomfortable about me as a human being. It's the ease with which the world lets me sit in a rut of stagnation and quietly reassures me that, no, there's no way out of this hell - the quiet, easy lie. And like all the most potent lies, it's built on a scarily large portion of truth.

So that's how oppression works, in my mind - different manifestations, combinations, and variations on those themes. It's a systemic understanding I've been refining for quite some time now.

But this year, I've found myself asking a slightly bigger question: why?

Those are the how of oppressive dynamics. But what's the actual goal? Why do those patterns exist? Why do people perpetuate them? To the extent that we could potentially anthropomorphize these dynamics on a societal level, what purpose are they trying to serve?

And I've reached what feels, to me, like a profoundly simple answer: oppression exists to deny joy.

It's the kind of elegant, compact, pithy conclusion that I'm simultaneously tempted to reject and deconstruct and denounce as too absurdly trivial to really mean anything, while knowing deep down that it's a kind of core truth that I simply cannot escape. It's a facet of reality that resonates in my heart even as my brain floods with the internalized ideas I've been bombarded with my entire life, clamoring and insisting that it just can't be that cut and dried.

It's the sort of insight that reminds me of other truths of mine that seemed impossible at first, and then somehow suddenly became inescapable.

Moreover, I've been accumulating the empirical data to support the hypothesis.

I've stopped investing in certain social venues, certain spaces, certain endeavors - sure. But I no longer find myself feeling divided. I am different and often struggle to truly fit, socially speaking; but that's a reality for many, many autistic people. I try every day to reframe my understanding of those dynamics, to gently adjust my thinking away from "alienation" and "rejection" and towards difference, towards choosing to interpret my social struggles as reflective of a lack of experience and understanding - sometimes just as much on my own part as on the part of others around me. Unawareness can be educated, and I've chosen to only try to educate those who prove by their actions that they're willing to learn. I have, numerically speaking, fewer people in my life than I have had at many points in the past, and yet I feel markedly less alone than ever before.

I go to bed tired, at the end of most days - drained, ready to sleep, in need of rest and of being refreshed; but the reasons for that have changed, over this past several months. I no longer collapse onto my mattress and wrap myself in my sheets and blankets in a huddled ball of existential exhaustion and overwhelm. Instead, I find myself gently ushering my body into the bliss of sleep, to recharge from a full day of living - of giggling at silly wordplay, of taking time away from being responsible and adult to just watch butterflies meader around outside, of finding fascination in poking at a tiny pile of dirt and seeing what tiny lives are going on within, of carefree dancing to music that probably annoys the hell out of my neighbors, of capriciousness and a childlike wonder and endless fascination with things that I could so easily write off as pointlessly mundane, of covering myself in a literal pile of plushies and having conversations with my "fuzzy friends" prior to a mid-afternoon nap, because fuck everything that says I'm "too old for that."

And slowly, tiny slice by tiny slice, I find myself letting go of the urge to follow all those old ideas in my brain. The ideas, accumulated across a lifetime of being told who and how to be, that only want to control the information I use to make my decisions.

I sent my brain on permanent vacation, earlier this year. It's much easier to ignore the lies of oppression that exist like parasites in my mind, feeding on my angst, when all I'm listening to is the leaping thrill in my chest when my heart discovers some other little sliver of joy in the universe around me.

I know I'm better off, for this.

And it's not quite had time for the experiment to be borne out in a larger venue than just my personal existence - at least, not yet. But something inside me knows, in a way that feels utterly in opposition to everything I've ever been told about how to live, that this is the way forward. This is the way not only to live a life I truly find meaningful, enjoyable, and happy - but also the way to undo oppression.

Not by picking up oppression's weapons and trying to wield them against all the things I think are wrong in the world.

But by diving directly to the heart of what oppression is trying to prevent.

Not by burying my head in the sand, channeling willful ignorance, and ignoring the very real suffering in the world - of myself, and of far too many other oppressed and marginalized and downtrodden people.

But by rejecting the lie that we can't have our joy until "all that" is "fixed."

I'll never pretend it's easy. Frankly, the choices I've made this year are easily some of the hardest things I've ever done with my life, and that's saying quite a lot.

But I'm deeply, solidly convinced it's worth it.

And I deeply, truly, genuinely hope that we can all find our respective joys, in whatever forms they make take for each of us. I hope you can find your connectedness, your meaning, and your own joy.

Travel well. We're not alone.