I come from a nonconfrontational family. Immigrant grandparents who worked hard, kept their heads down, didn’t talk about their feelings. Who stayed polite because they didn’t feel entitled to anything, because they were always just a little afraid of being reminded that they didn’t belong. Who wanted a better life for their children, and who understood that part of ensuring that better life was shutting up and not making a scene. My parents learned this lesson from them, and I learned it from my parents.
It is hard for me—on my own—to make a scene.
I have gone to protests. I have marched in the street, my body an addition to the surging mass of flesh. All of the tools of modern technology have aided me in signing petitions, sending letters. But as I grow older, it seems to me that protest and dissent, while related, are perhaps more like cousins than synonyms. A protest is a moment in time, however prolonged, a chorus of voices raised in sharp objection, a necessary rupture in the social fabric. Dissent has started to appear to me as a series of slow, uncoiling choices, inexorable change. It is no longer what I might do, but what I might be.
Basil once told me a story that ended in “This is class rage.”
At the time, we were still dating. In our twenties. Basil hadn’t yet transitioned. We were living in Iowa City, and it was fall, and the windows were open in his apartment. He was telling me about being a teenager in Florida—working class, lesbian, butch—contracted to mow the lawn of a wealthy older lady. A toothache had built and built over weeks until the pain traveled from his teeth into his entire head. And there he was, mowing her lawn and throbbing with pain, mowing and throbbing, thinking about how he couldn’t afford healthcare, how she could afford to have a lawn and hire a person to mow it—which wasn’t her fault, but it was a fact—about how he couldn’t afford to get his teeth fixed and couldn’t afford not to mow her lawn. He said a great anger filled him, and he got angry all over again telling me about it.
His anger was electric, tangible. It filled the apartment, became another participant in our relationship. It upset me at first. But when I could listen past my own noise to the clean signal of that anger, I could hear its power, and it was a power I had never let myself have. I remember that it was frightening and mesmerizing.
We were in grad school. We were both on food stamps. I had been thinking of myself as broke until Basil’s anger took a seat in the room. It examined my teeth, and I examined my teeth, and I realized that pains in my teeth had always been fixed. My parents, although not wealthy, had always found the financial means to prioritize medical care, and I had benefited greatly.
“This is class rage,” Basil said—half apology and half defiant explanation—and thus named, his rage lifted its head and fixed me with a direct stare: Hello.
Hello, I replied.
At the time of that Iowa evening, Basil was still using female pronouns.
When I first remembered that conversation, I could conjure the details exactly: Basil’s well-worn plaid shirt, the coffee-stained mug that was never far from hand, the window that was open onto the fire escape, and the way the air smelled. And, also, I conjured us as two women, facing each other in Basil’s living room, framed against the green walls, the wood floor. But since that time, Basil’s pronouns have become he/him. So what is it that I am doing, exactly, when I remember the scene as it was then? Am I being disloyal to Basil as he is now?
As I write this, I am suddenly very worried that by remembering Basil as a female person, I am erasing him in the present tense. (My iPhone corrects this phrase to “present trans,” which seems crude and prescient at the same time.)
I send these paragraphs to Basil to see what he says.
He writes back:
Those selves existed. I have lived socially as a woman; I have lived socially as a butch woman; I have lived socially as a “they”; and now I live socially as a man. And all of those realities are my experience. Our experiences as queer people exist in a multitude of selves, which only makes us richer.
This is the first time that I’ve thought about multiplicity as an act of dissent: To live within a social construct, to find it not true enough, to forge another one. To do this as many times as is necessary.
Dane is such a charming misanthrope. His favorite word is “appalling.”
From the second I met him, I thought: This one.
I am getting used to the confusion on people’s faces when they first meet me alone and then later meet me with my partner. My partner is a six-foot-four cisgender man who reads as gay. They do some math about me, and they do some math about him, and none of it seems to add up. Sometimes, they pull friends aside and find discrete ways of asking if I am not, in fact, a lesbian. (In fact, I am not.) Sometimes they ask if Dane is not, in fact, gay. (In fact, he is not.) “I didn’t know they were a straight couple” is a thing that is said about us to other people. (In fact, we are not.)
It is amazing, the set of mental calisthenics that must be done to fit two disparate ideas into a single shape. In this case, the disparate ideas are each of us, and the shape is what a relationship is supposed to look like when one of the participants is a cis man and the other is a person in the shape of a woman.
When Basil met his wife, he had not yet transitioned, and she identified as a lesbian. Basil now has a Bob Dylan beard to go with the curly mop of Bob Dylan hair he has rocked for as long as I’ve known him. They support each other fiercely in their various queernesses. People mistake them for a straight couple often. They react with a mixture of grace and sadness. I particularly feel for Ely. I’ve never once seen her undermine Basil’s masculinity in order to prove her own queerness. She refers to him as her “husband,” whereas that word feels so straight to me that I can’t get it out of my mouth. I always say “partner” and then watch people squint at my ink and my half-shaved head as they listen closely for pronouns.
This is ungenerous of me.
Ely is more generous. She wears flowy dresses, and she teaches their baby daughter to pull tarot cards. She has a tattoo of a little girl on her upper arm that she got in her twenties. Their daughter, Goldie, looks so much like her tattoo that one starts to question the space-time continuum; was it a future-tense Ely who went back in time to persuade past-tense Ely to tattoo herself with present-tense Goldie? Goldie pulls the Empress every time the deck is reshuffled, which has convinced me that she is a witch. She is also the only baby I find interesting, and I’m nearly certain that these two things are related.
When I first met Ely, I was prepared for each of us to perform tolerance, as befits the current and former partners of exes who are trying to be friends. Then I just liked her so much that I forgot about performing anything.
Sometimes, when I walk into a room and it’s clear that a conversation had been taking place about whether I am straight or gay, or percentage-wise how much of each I might be—I think of Ely. And in thinking of her, I feel like there is one other person in the world who is—maybe even at that exact moment—the subject of uncomfortable scrutiny around how her identity intersects with her relationship. And I imagine, based maybe on the fact that she wears flowy dresses and her baby is a witch, that Ely is making the choice to stay polite. And this encourages me to stay polite too.
This is a choice I make a lot, and as a consequence, once I burn through the sizable bastion of politeness that has been shored up and shored up and shored up—all that is left is rage.
When Basil and I lived together in Astoria, our old Greek landlord would watch us with a baleful disapproval. He kept referring to Basil as my cousin. “I see your cousin is staying with you again,” he would say.
“She’s my girlfriend,” I would tell him, again and again.
I knew he’d seen us holding hands, kissing on the sidewalk. Whenever I said this, he would pretend not to hear me, or he would look away long enough for the words to defuse. Then he’d be back at it: “I see your cousin is visiting.” Whenever Basil and I left the apartment and I saw him lurking in the shadows, I felt as if we were doing something forbidden. It had been years since I felt like that about being seen with a girlfriend; it felt like falling off a cliff that I’d forgotten was there. The cliff hadn’t gone anywhere just because I’d forgotten it.
Cities provide the promise of anonymity that is occasionally, surprisingly obliterated by the act of being seen. What scares me the most: eventually, how we’re seen can become how we see ourselves. This is the definition of power, and if we let it, it will rest in the hands of strangers.
Remembering who you are, always, even in the face of being mistakenly seen: that too can become a form of dissent.
This is the rest of what Basil said when I asked him how I should remember his pronouns from that distant Iowa night:
Just because I am socially treated as a man now—or in queer spaces as a trans man, which is a whole other thing—doesn’t erase my life as a woman, which was more than this life, which affects who I am and how I interact with the world. I feel sad or angry when I think all that life as a woman is somehow erased.
My friend Thomas Page McBee is a trans writer and activist who, in his book Amateur, examines socialization as the basis for gender norms. Gendered behavior isn’t innate, he says. Little boys aren’t inherently one thing and little girls another. If you teach a little boy that boys are inherently stoic and aggressive, he will grow up to be a person who fights instead of cries. If you teach a little girl that girls are inherently nurturing, she will grow up assuming that her job in a group setting is to take care of other people’s feelings. This isn’t a matter of testosterone versus estrogen; it is simply the fact that if you put a growing thing inside a mold, it becomes the shape of the mold.
I never thought about socialization until Thomas. I was raised in a grab bag of countries, learning a variety of words in a grab bag of languages. Expectations shifted from country to country; if I thought about socialization at all, it was only to assume that I’d mostly escaped it.
A couple of months after moving to LA for a TV job, I’m in a Lyft driven by an older man. He’s friendly, talking to me about my day, his family. Then he pulls off the road into an empty parking lot behind a hamburger shack. I ask him what he’s doing. He says he’ll be right back and tells me to wait for him. Increasingly alarmed, I ask why. He thinks for a minute and then says that he has to go to the bathroom. He gets out of the Lyft, walks around the car, and disappears behind a wall.
I sit very still. I think about getting out. I think about walking up the road, trying to call another Lyft. Because of the way the app works, I would have to cancel this Lyft to call another one. What if he comes back as I’m leaving? I think. I’d have to explain that, even though I listened to all his stories about his family, I’m terminating this interaction. I am, essentially, firing him. But why? Because I was inconvenienced? What if he really is taking a shit? Who am I to think that I do not deserve to be inconvenienced? I’m a young woman, who, for the first time in her life, is being paid an obscene amount of money to sit in a room and pitch what-if scenarios. This man is maybe only a decade younger than my father, and he is driving this car to pay his bills, and he may be incontinent. Where’s the justice in that? How can I possibly make this man feel bad about his life right now?
The man gets back in the car. He has a small plastic bag in his hand. He puts it in the glove compartment. I don’t get a long look at it, but if I were on set and props came up to me and asked, “Does this look like a bag of coke?” I would say, “Yeah, that looks like a bag of coke.”
We start driving again. He doesn’t say a word about what happened. I don’t say anything either.
I tell the story later—days later—to a friend. He says, “Why the fuck did you not get out of the car?” He says, “If that were me, I’d be like, ‘Mister, did you just conduct a drug deal on my drive home?’ ” He says, “Did you report him to Lyft?”
And I say no.
And he asks: “Well how many stars did you give him?”
And I answer truthfully, knowing even as I say it that this is the wrong answer: “Five.”
The question poses itself: Does the amount of estrogen in my body make me so inherently nurturing and conflict averse that I had no choice but to stay in that car and complete our transaction? Or have I been told by our culture from birth that I must think of my comfort and convenience as worth less than the comfort and convenience of others—particularly men?
Or, to reframe both questions: am I inherently a pushover and a sucker, or is that female socialization?
The other thing about socialization is that the way you were raised is because of the way your parents were raised, which is because of the way their parents raised them. So it seems very steady. Bedrock, even. It might be the one thing under our feet that isn’t pitching and swaying with the general chaos of our lives.
But what if this bedrock were sand?
Or what if it wasn’t there at all?
Resocializing yourself is an act of dissent that your entire body holds.
At the moment, it is the most meaningful one I can think of. Or—no. “Meaningful” is the wrong word. It is future oriented. It is about creating a future more than it is about shaking a fist at the present. It is, as my mother would say, “on the side of life.”
My mother is soft-spoken. She gets sad more easily than she gets angry—this is something I inherited from her. She earned her PhD in organic chemistry at Harvard, one of the few women of her generation to do so, but after my brother and I came along, she stayed home to raise us. She volunteers at the local watershed association; she and her best friend retrieve larval insects from streams and identify them in order to gauge rising pollution levels. My mother, in her waders, clutching her pocket magnifying glass, makes this look more exciting than you’d imagine. I have always known her to determine what needs to be done and then do it quietly, without fanfare.
The first time my mother told me she was engaged in an act of civil dissent, I was in college. During one of my phone calls home, my mother brought up the private girls’ school in our town. I had gone to the public high school, where we thought of the private school as the place where rich girls were sent to ride their horses. My mother informed me that the four hundred acres of woods and wetland over which town residents hiked, dog walked, bird watched—and yes, rich girls rode horses—was going to be sold to a developer. The developer planned to log the woods and build million-dollar mansions. My mother was furious.
Retelling the story over a decade later, her voice still trembles with indignation. I’m home for the weekend, and we’re sitting in my childhood bedroom. I’ve asked her to remind me how it was that she ended up as an environmental dissident. She tells me that she first heard about the logging plan from a friend, and when my mother asked, “Can they do that?” her friend replied, “People seem to think no one can stop them.”
But my mother and her friend started recruiting nonetheless. And, as their ranks swelled, this band of moms and teachers and retired lawyers and entrepreneurs and librarians and dog walkers began circulating a petition asking for a referendum that would allow the town to buy the woods. They pitched their platform to neighbors and strangers alike. My shy, anxious mother lasted through one whole list of cold calls and then caved: “It was a nightmare. I’m just not made for that.”
I ask my mother how she learned to leverage what she was good at instead of trying to wield tools that didn’t suit her.
She thinks for a beat then says that instead of cold calling, she started cold writing. She reached out to four different conservation organizations, and the Trust for Public Land responded. And then, with their help, things kicked into gear, and the small group started organizing. She knew that she didn’t thrive in situations that called for improv. She isn’t a charismatic talker; unpredictable social situations give her heart palpitations. But my experience of my mother is that—unlike me, who is constantly striving to remake myself—she has recognized and forgiven her own weaknesses. And therefore, she knows her strengths: that she is detail oriented and meticulous; that she handles facts with the delicacy of an artisan, turning them from side to side to examine them fully but never bending or breaking them; that she has always known how to prepare—for a storm, for a journey, for an argument.
My mother tells me, “I settled on examining the impact of pesticides from housing developments. I went over to Walmart and looked in their gardening department, looked at all their pesticides, herbicides, weed killers, and fertilizers, all that stuff, and I wrote down the ingredients.” Online, she found websites that listed each chemical and which ones were considered likely carcinogens or endocrine disruptors. My mother says dryly that the online databases also listed which chemicals were no longer allowed to be sold in developing countries. “They don’t want it. But we’re selling it in Walmart?” She laughs, then adds, “One thing that helped was that the major town aquifer is under the property. Because then the pesticide problem started making sense: you want to drink this stuff, or what?”
She started researching how much of each chemical is required to toxify drinking water. “Often with these things it’s not much at all; we’re talking about parts per million or parts per billion, which is like a couple of drops in a swimming pool.” She researched hydrology—how water moves, how it sinks in different ways through different types of soil, how it reaches and pollutes an aquifer. Also, what happens once your aquifer becomes polluted. (Hint: “It stays that way for a very long time.”) And after she had done all that research, after my mother the chemist had uncovered, chased down, fact-checked, and consolidated all of the information that was required, she wrote a series of papers, drew painstaking maps, and presented all of this before the Board of Selectmen, the Conservation Commission, and the Open Space Committee.
My mother’s voice, even at home, is always a few decibels lower than hearing range. You have to lean in to hear her. She has joined a music quartet in recent years, and they play together with the shared agreement that they will never perform in front of an audience. So I ask my mother how on earth she spoke before roomful after roomful of strangers. She doesn’t hesitate: “I really hated it. I was shaking. But I just did it.”
When the referendum was finally achieved, the town voted to buy the land. The Trust for Public Land brokered the contract, and Keep the Woods threw a fundraiser to help raise the thirteen million dollars required for the purchase. My mother donated some of her drawings to the auction but didn’t attend.
“I don’t really like those things,” she says pensively when I ask her about it. “You know—social things.”
Basil calls me. “I’m at Planned Parenthood,” he says. He’s waiting to get his T shot—it’s overdue, and he’s been feeling the effects: cramping, a kind of hormonal exhaustion that starts somewhere in the body’s core and works outward. He tells me that a nurse popped into the exam room to ask him if, in the past three months, he’s had any exposure whatsoever to sperm.
“What did you say? ‘Only culturally’?”
When Basil laughs, he makes me feel like the funniest person in the world. Basil is someone who is incapable of fake laughing, so every time he does laugh, it’s like receiving an award that I know I deserve. He and Dane have a few traits in common, and this is one.
“God,” Basil says, after he’s stopped laughing. “I wish I’d thought of that.”
Once you find someone who thinks you’re funny, and who you think is funny, you have to hang onto that human for the rest of your life, in whatever configuration your lives permit. Lover, friend, co-parent, writing partner, adopted sibling—whatever shape it needs to be. Love makes us shapeshifters. Love is the reason fluidity exists as strength.
Sometimes I find myself thinking love is its own brand of dissent.
As I grow older, my parents surprise me again and again. Maybe when I was younger, I wasn’t paying enough attention. Or maybe I was so focused on all the ways I might surprise them—I’m queer!; I got a tattoo!; I got another tattoo!; You think I’m in college, but actually I’m in Morocco!—that I wasn’t clocking the frequency of the reverse.
I am home visiting again, and we are walking in the woods; sunlight splashes through the thick foliage overhead, making shapes on our faces and hands. My father tells me that he has been thinking about how hard it is to dream or be anything that your language does not make room for—in its grammar, its syntax, its structure. He tells me about a Washington Post article he read that excerpted letters between Grover Cleveland’s sister, Rose, and her lover, Evangeline. Rose had once written to Evangeline that it was anguishing to have no words to describe their relationship, and my father wondered how this could be. Reading on, he learned that the word lesbian had not yet entered our cultural vocabulary. This was the 1890s; there truly was no language.
This is not the sort of conversation my father and I have had before. He’s met previous girlfriends and boyfriends, and I told him and my mother when Basil’s pronouns changed to he/him. But we almost never talk about what it means that I’m queer. Only once, when I first came out to him, did he tell me to be careful in public spaces. “People can be violent,” he said, “I just don’t want you to get hurt.” I’m sure that at the time I replied with all the self-righteousness of a liberal arts education (“I refuse to live in a state of fear!”), but the moment has stuck with me over nearly fifteen years: how sincere he was; how from the standpoint of his generation, queerness was inextricably linked to violence; how his love and his fear were twinned.
Hearing my father meditate on language leads me to an unexpected place. I find myself telling my parents that if there were a better pronoun, I would use it. I say that she/her doesn’t really describe how I feel, but at this point in my life, I’m just too tired to take on the labor of insisting on they/them for myself and then having to fight an uphill grammatical battle (“Yes, I know it’s also used as a plural”) alongside most other uphill battles. I think, almost every day, of the moment in Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in which she says that her gender identity is “tired.” I’m in my mid-thirties; I have burnt out navigating the system that exists instead of dreaming of another one. In the absence of a pronoun that feels correct, I’m making do with the language there is.
My father is quiet; I’ve surprised him. In fact, I have surprised myself. And then I go home to New York, and for the next few months, this conversation is all I think about, and the question I ask myself—over and over again—is whether it is dishonest to express no preference and permit the wrong language. Or if there might be something left at the bottom of my exhaustion. If, in fact, there is language I should be helping to forge.
Here are some more: dissent as
a moment in which the unexpected arrives, beautifully, at your door;
a place where newness can leak in;
the universe’s refusal to participate in the narrative that we are all plunging closer and closer to disaster at every step;
When I was 21, I got in a strange man’s car (“I refuse to live in a state of fear!”) and let him drive me up a narrow road, trees pressing in on both sides.
We were in rural Japan, close to midnight, on the thickly forested slopes of a dormant volcano. My friends and I were at an outdoor rave, but we’d gotten separated. My cell phone didn’t work (this was before the advent of the iPhone), and besides, there weren’t any cell towers out there. The man was a foreigner like me; he spoke a beautiful, fluid French that I hadn’t heard since I lived in Paris as a kid. When he offered to give me a lift up to base camp, I looked at him and thought of every story I’d ever been told about men with cars and girls who went missing, and then I thought, Fuck it, and climbed in.
We reached the first plateau, where cars were parked at haphazard angles as if their owners had just abandoned them and dashed toward the fray. If we’d followed the trail into the woods from here, we would’ve reached a bright cluster of tents and outdoor stages, lights plugged into generators, the party raging but muffled by the thickness of the woods. But instead, he kept driving—up and up and up. I asked where we were going, and he said he wanted to show me something. Again, I flashed to a lifetime of missing girls, the lesson to every cautionary tale.
When we reached the top of the volcano, the narrow road opened into a small circular lot. Everything was saturated blue-white by moonlight. He parked the car and turned up the music. I still remember that the singer was Cheb Khaled, the Algerian raï musician, and the song was “Aïsha.” The man opened his door and stood in the cool night air, feeling the music move up his spine. I opened my door and stood as well. Cheb Khaled’s voice soared, slipping easily from Arabic to French and back. The wind caught it, lifted it higher. The volcano was so quiet. It felt as if we were alone on the roof of the world, that the wind might carry the song for miles. The man told me that he was from Algeria, that he’d come to Japan for work, and that he was very homesick. He added, “This is my favorite song.”
He turned up the volume some more.
When the song ended, we played it through one more time. Then he drove me back down to the first plateau and dropped me off. We wished each other luck. And remembering this, even now—or if, by chance, I hear that song, as has happened only a handful of times since then—I am still stunned, unarmored, paralyzed with the possibility of unexpected kindness.
And this too, especially now, especially now—is dissent.
From The Gettysburg Review Volume 33, Number 2. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2021 by Jen Silverman.