CUPE National Equality Officer

Oct 122013

I had the honour of interviewing three amazing sisters for this backgrounder on anti-trans harassment and discrimination: Deidra Roberts, Martine Stonehouse and Audrey Gauthier. Thanks also to Line Chamberland at UQAM for sharing her  research – so important, so well done.

Audrey: “I’m still hurt by comments. And often, it’s not what is said, it’s more the impression that’s left behind.”

Deidra: “There is a stigma attached to asking for help. It’s seen as a sign of weakness. But really it’s a sign of strength. People in groups are stronger.”

Martine: “We’re right there fighting for our rights and health care, and we’re not going away!”

The presentation is a summary of the backgrounder, with images and design thanks to the talented Jocelyn Renaud. Wes Payne, Wendy Johnston and Danielle Wright also helped our sisters tell their stories through this publication.

Aug 152013

I haven’t finished reading this book, but since I’m unlikely to do so any time soon (vacation ending, the book is long, and I’m reading many passages twice), I want to share my opinion now.

This may be the best non-fiction book I’ve ever read. I feel like I’m 20 again, in university, excited to have my thinking challenged and gain a new perspective on culture, power and what it is to be human.

As a researcher, I’m in awe of Andrew Solomon. He weaves together empirical research and personal stories in a powerful narrative. I’m picking up this book at night rather than a novel. I never read non-fiction outside of work; it feels too much like work. This book is different.

About the book and its author …

Andrew Solomon is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT Affairs to Yale University’s Department of Psychiatry. This book represents ten years of research and writing.

In Far From the Tree, Solomon tells the stories of parents with children who have “horizontal conditions” (having different inherent or acquired traits as parents). “They are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people conceived in rape or who commit crimes; they are transgender.”

Solomon seeks to “understand the universal phenomenon of differences within families by looking at these extreme cases. … Because prospective parents have ever-increasing options to choose against having children with horizontal challenges, the experiences of those who have such children are critical to our larger understanding of difference. … parents tend to view aberrance as illness until habituation and love enable them to cope with their odd new reality – often by introducing the language of identity. Intimacy with difference fosters its accommodation. Broadcasting these parents’ learned happiness is vital to sustaining identities that are now vulnerable to eradication. We live in xenophobic times … Despite this crisis in empathy, compassion thrives at home, and most of the parents I have profiled love across the divide. … The parental disposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one migh think.”

Solomon opens the book with his own story, and he puts his views and feelings out there throughout the book. As he put it, “My interest in profound differences between parents and children arose from a need to investigate the locus of my regret.” He referred to “those years of self-loathing” as “a yawning void”. I respect his openness, and it seems fair to others in the book who also open their hearts to us.

The book is challenging my thinking around disability and identity and how I see the anti-oppression struggle. Solomon writes: “We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. … Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine short changes identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness.”

Reading this book is helping me understand others’ experiences, learn more about oppression and recognize my own prejudices. It also inspires me to respect my daughter’s horizontal traits.

Even though the stories often have painful elements and they show how discrimination is deep-rooted in our society, I find hope in this book – in people’s resilience and capacity for love and in our potential for greater solidarity. As Solomon says:

“Differences unite us. While each of these experiences [of being marginalized] can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.”