FORGE seeks to offer some hope and space to breathe for our community of survivors in this time of the COVID-19 Pandemic:
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This post below explores some other ways of looking at the virus in the trans community.
As many wise people have already said, the novel Coronavirus, with its routes of transmission across our hands and breath, lays bare our connections to each other:
“this virus doesn’t stop because of blame, pointing at other people’s faults, or races/ethnicities. it only stops, or slows, because each individual increases their own accountability to the collective.” –Adrienne Marie Brown
“…Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)”
There is a deeply painful irony to this epidemic: that the comforts we crave and associate with connections are the same ones that endanger us and those we are connected to. Touch is generally healing, but we are not even supposed to touch our own faces, which, research has shown, we do to think and self-soothe.
We also shouldn’t hug friends or even stand close to them. As illustrated in the viral “flattening the curve,” graphic, social distancing of 6 feet between people is critical to ensure the safety and survival of elders and those with vulnerabilities in a healthcare system soon to be greatly outstripped by the exponential growth of Coronavirus cases. If we can slow the spread of the virus, we can keep our healthcare system functioning and save tens of thousands of lives. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 requires all of us who can—including young and able-bodied people who are asymptomatic—to wash our hands well, stay home, and practice social distancing.
These directives remind us a messy reality. The complexity and complicity in an epidemic can mirror that of trauma. Survivors of trauma can sometimes also pass on trauma. They often fear they will. Similarly, we all could be both victims and passers-on of this virus and we are unsure where we stand, what we carry on our skin or inside us. There is an uneasiness in that ambiguity.
The complexity and complicity in an epidemic can mirror that of trauma. We all could be both victims and passers-on of this virus and we are unsure where we stand, what we carry on our skin or inside us… This lack of clarity…calls on us to embrace both the effort of social distancing and the humility of imperfection.
This lack of clarity could be triggering, but it also calls on us to embrace both the effort of social distancing and the humility of imperfection. We will likely not remember to reapply hand sanitizer every time we touch something on our rare trips to the grocery store. Sometimes we will drift slightly too close to a passer-by taking a walk on a Spring evening. We must forgive and accept ourselves. And also, we must try.
Happily, I have seen my own trans community quick to get on board with social distancing, perhaps because conversations about our behavior and social justice are not new. Flattening the curve neatly maps onto our existing understandings of disability justice and equity. And LGBTQ people are up to 20 times more likely than straight, cisgender people to be activists. In my part of the world, queer and trans people are leading extraordinary efforts to organize their neighborhoods, block-by-block, to keep people safe through the pandemic. (You can get plugged in to local efforts here.)
In a brand new world where our own values call upon us to set aside the most basic of comforts, we are finding new comforts and ways to show care. We remember our connection to each other as we wash our hands in newly thorough ways, or clean our countertops.
“It is time
to care for another…
To wash away fear
every time we wash our hands.”
This idea is more than a rhetorical device. We are truly protecting each other from the virus when we wash our hands. And by holding that care in our minds as we spend 20 seconds scrubbing our knuckles and palms, we are offering ourselves a respite of love and connection in a perilous time.
We also still have nature and our relationship to it, which is perhaps even more precious now. We are allowed to be outside in nature—even hike—during the kind of lock down currently underway in San Francisco and many other parts of the country. You cannot catch coronavirus from soil that has not been walked on, or from trees that have not been touched for a while. As if magic, the open air is vast enough to hold our illnesses without making us ill. History shows us that during pandemics, sunlight and open air can save us. Maybe they can also remind us who we are.
But trees and sun on our skin are not enough. We need other forms of touch too. Many memes have been made about our pets’ glee now that many folks are home more often and giving them lots of affection. Petting our animals has health benefits that should not be minimized. In addition, experts generally agree we can touch the humans in our households, (often assumed to be our partner or family), as long as they are not sick. Yet many queer and trans people don’t live, socialize, or have sex in straightforward or traditional household-based arrangements. There are also some in our community, like grocery store workers or sex workers, who simply cannot afford to practice social distancing. The answer is not to stigmatize them.
So how do we reconcile the public health imperative of social distancing with the complex platonic, romantic, sexual, and somewhere-in-between entanglements of our own communities—relationships that have, in some cases, enabled our very survival?
In this article, Carolyn Cannuscio, the director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, said that touch and other social closeness could be safe if “two households are in strict agreement that they are also going to reduce all outside contact and then those two households socialize together, to support one another. I can see social and mental-health advantages to that kind of approach.” Cannuscio’s idea is reminiscent of fluid-bonding in polyamory, wherein folks make an agreement to have barrier-free or unprotected sex with each other. Often as part of that agreement, they also trace who else they are fluid-bonded to. When done most safely, fluid-bonding involves knowing not just each other’s STI status, but also the statuses of other people in the fluid-bonded polycule. We can think of this Coronavirus network-formation as fluid-bonding, but with snot or germs as the fluid in question.
So if we practice this form of fluid-bonding in the age of social distancing, we could map 1, 2, or 3 friends and/or lovers to remain in close physical proximity with—as well as who they remain in proximity with. The network would be limited and closed. We could know everyone’s level of risk and vulnerability, and have a line of communication if anyone in the network gets sick. And if they do, you’d keep your distance for 2 weeks (the longest incubation period for the virus), particularly from those in the network who are most vulnerable. This model also means making awkward but thoughtful choices in selecting your network. If, for example, my best friend works at a grocery-store, but my partner’s other partner is immunocomprised, I might conclude that the ethical choice would be to practice social distancing from my best friend, even though that feels weird.
Let’s just say it: A lot about social distancing feels weird! We have tried to create a new culture overnight in service to public health, and a lot of it is in conflict with the old culture we’re trying to pave over. It feels viscerally rude to cross the street or give someone a wide berth when you see them walking toward you. And suddenly our individual choices—to, say, go to a bar or spend a night with a stranger—affect our collective survival in ways they never have before. This sudden interdependence can fuel conflict and painful conversations with those we care about and live with who don’t share our understanding of the virus or the imperative of social distancing. (Here’s some advice on how to have those conversations.)
However awkward, the efforts we make to practice social distancing and encourage others to do so are extraordinarily important. And trans people are equipped to take this on. We are well-acquainted with defying mainstream culture, standing outside established social categories until we make our own, trying to explain foreign concepts to loved ones, and maybe even looking weird in public. We know how to challenge social norms bravely, and to create new visions of what love or family or justice looks like. Coronavirus calls on us to use these well-honed skills to honor our commitment to each other. All we can do is wash our hands, take a breath, and try.