Minister of Justice visits Haven: Reflections on the Shape of Power

•June 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Haven Society gets most of its funding from the Ministry of Justice, and the minister, herself, came to visit us today. It was a gathering of representatives from many local agencies who support women and families suffering abuse. There were informal conversations. There were personal introductions. (Even I was introduced to Herself.) There were formal thanks to the minister for her continued financial support. And of course, there were photos. Lots of photos.

All good and laudable things…but.

I know I’m looking at this morning’s event through a different lens than others are. I am, after all, not an employee. I am a volunteer. I recognize the importance of honoring support from the Ministry. That is important. I recognize, too, the usefulness of occasionally bringing together people who support the women we serve in a social setting. All that is good, very good, (even if the coffee was not.) But I think I need to say I was disappointed the minister appeared to have come here primarily to be told what a wonderful job she and her people are doing. I found myself angry at the missed opportunity she had to be curious. When we were introduced, her sole comment was, “The world turns on volunteers.” (Yes, more and more. I suppose it does. I could have said more than a little about reduced funding and reduced hours, about untrained volunteers having to step in for highly qualified professionals, but that would have been oh, so unwelcome.) Even the queen and Prince Philip ask questions on their royal visits: quite well informed ones, so I have read. The minister, it appears, does not. “The world turns on volunteers,” she said. Then, as if that were more than enough, she turned away.

I wasn’t looking for the stroke. Had I the quickness of wit to invite a question; had I said something like, “Minister, you spend so much time answering questions–in the legislature, in front of reporters, do you ever get a chance to ask questions yourself? I wonder if you have any questions you might like to ask the front line workers here. What might they be?” I would have loved her to ask, “How many women didn’t you get to this morning because the agency was shut down for this event? I would have loved a question about how many counseling appointments didn’t happen; how many were cancelled or delayed? How many women, how many children, were there on the wait lists, and were any of them urgent? How many women were waiting for a call? How many women did I not get to today?” If she had been interested and well informed, she might have asked, “How does an agency like this attract such massively credentialed workers (most of whom hold Masters degrees in counseling, psychology, social work, or criminology) when your budget only allows you to pay them twenty to twenty-five dollars an hour? Many of them have worked here for ten years and more. What keeps them here, when they could earn five times as much in private practice? Service? Some kind of political act?” Given the argument we often hear for paying six figure salaries to politicians, (especially cabinet ministers)…“We have to pay enough to attract the best”…someone bolder, not to say cheekier than I, might have turned the question back at her and wondered aloud if perhaps we might ask the same of our politicians. What an interesting conversation that would have been!

Had she asked, I would have been happy to say that this is a place where I get to do important work that affects real lives. I would have been happy to acknowledge the support the Ministry offers us, but I would have been even happier to tell her that on average we have about 250 open files in CVS (Community Victim Services, the program I work with), and that it can take a week or more to return a suffering woman’s call, and another three or four weeks’ wait for an appointment. I would have been happy to tell her that we have a wait list several months long for the children’s program, and a similar wait list for  Women’s Counseling. I would have been happy to remind her that workers’ hours have recently been cut and that therapeutic counseling is work untrained volunteers simply cannot do. But she didn’t ask: not me, and as far as I am aware, not anyone. It seemed as if we had set our clients aside for an entire morning to celebrate a woman who simply didn’t care.

Perhaps I am looking at this through an imperfect lens. (I am sure I am.) Perhaps I sell the minister short. Perhaps I shouldn’t have reacted in the way I did, but I find myself (just a little) angry…well, disappointed more than angry, I suppose. I find myself wondering, is this what the asymmetry of power looks like? Is this how it works? Is this how it works on you? She had the opportunity to learn something today. She missed it. There were voices far more qualified than my own who could have been heard if only she had asked. She didn’t. She smiled. She said her piece. Then she turned away. She didn’t even try.

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Baking Powder Biscuits

•April 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

So the scene was set. Annie was coming over for tea, and Karen had promised hot baking powder biscuits and cheese to nibble on. Things did not go well. I admit it. The biscuits came out dark. Okay, very dark. Annie described them as “caramelized.” I even ate one. Tonight, I made the decision to compost the remainders, thus destroying the evidence. Now any time I go to the kitchen counter, you have to understand, the dog infers I am preparing food–hopefully for her. I had biscuits? Could she have one? (This is the dog who laps up black, disgusting, slimy stuff from the roadside with no apparent ill effects.) I offered her one. She accepted and took it into the living room–her usual spot for dining on biscuits. (Sigh. Well, it had been almost 24 hours since I had vacuumed. Why would I complain?) I consigned the rest to the compost bucket. I had barely snapped the lid shut, when the dog reappeared, looking anxious, if not agitated. “Too late,” I told her. “They’re in the compost.” That was when I noticed she still held the original biscuit in her mouth. (Were her lips pulled back in disgust? Really?) She walked over to the door and rolled her eyes at me in what I can only describe as a look of abject apology. I opened it, and with one more backward glance, she disappeared around the corner of the carport. I am guessing she has buried the offending object in the garden somewhere, in hopes the texture and flavor will improve with age and decomposition.

Yesterday I actually ate one. Zoee, the dog who will eat black, slimy stuff from the roadside has not. So far, neither of us has died.

Crisis Call*

•February 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

* Note: details have been altered and/or omitted to protect the client’s identity.

It is Friday, ten minutes to four. A long and busy day is winding down. I am debating with myself whether I have time to make one more phone call when the volunteer receptionist appears at the door. She is holding a hand-written note in her hand. “Where is Trina*?” she asks. “I can’t get the message to go through to her voice mail. What do I do with this? She wants to talk to Trina.”

“Trina went home ill this morning,” says Deanne. “What is going on?”

Sometimes the universe takes a hand in human affairs. The message—it has come from a service provider—didn’t go through to voice mail. It has come, purely by accident, to us. She has a client with two small children, battered by her husband, possibly suicidal. Her husband is threatening to kill her. That is what is going on.

It is no small thing, bearing witness to what follows over the next two hours: the phone calls: first to the service provider, then to Trina at home. Then to the service provider again: “Have you been in touch with the client? (She’s not picking up.) Can you provide us the name? If you’re not comfortable with that, would you like to make the call?” The discussion: there is threat to life and limb. If the client will not—or cannot report, we must do it for her. It’s our ethical responsibility. It’s the law.

Deanne puts the phone back down. She has the name. The air feels thick, as if we are standing underneath a huge, vibrating bell. “Karen, can you find the file?”

Astonishingly, it is lying open on my desk. The universe, once again, seems to have taken us in hand. I had tried, unsuccessfully, to call earlier in the day. I had been just about to put the file away. The file will have details: names, history—some of it at least, though not all. Never all. Most important, it will have a phone number; an address. Deanne flips through it quickly. “This is a mess. This is ugly. If we call the police, the Ministry will remove the children. Then she really will be suicidal. I wish I could get hold of Sharon.** She understands these situations the way we [at Haven] do. Regular RCMP, the Ministry, they don’t. But it’s Friday afternoon. It’s late. Sharon’s probably off for the weekend. She’s not answering her phone.” Deanne heads upstairs. Anne, our executive director is in a meeting. Deanne will interrupt it for a hurried conference. Breaking confidence is no small matter. There is a protocol. Another phone call. Another conference upstairs and finally,  a decision.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“Better,” she tells me. “It’s the right decision.” In that moment, I know things will be all right. I want to remind her of what I have been reminded so many times in the past: take things one step at a time. Make sure she and the children are safe. Worry about the rest later on, but I don’t say anything. I am the student here, not she. There is no need.

I realize we both are breathing more easily. The air has stopped its vibration. In the midst of the storm, there is calm. I am watching my friend save a woman’s life and quite possibly the lives of her children as well. Who know how far the stain of blood might otherwise have spread? The universe is silent, briefly. Then Deanne reaches for the phone.

*Program supervisor for Community Victim Services at Haven

**Domestic violence investigator for Nanaimo RCMP

You don’t have to be crazy to work here…

•January 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Yesterday was my first day back at Haven since Christmas. One counsellor was home, sick, and everyone else busy with month end–which left me manning (womaning?) the phones, scheduling the appointments, and generally messing up the filing system. “Karen, can you count these files we’re closing and file them? And these ones in this pile go back in with the open files.”
Brainless. I can do brainless really well. “Of course I can file them for you. Where do you want me to record the number?”
“Just on a sticky. Thanks.” Exit Trina.
Twenty-six folders. Oh, wait…there are some separate files here. Okay, twenty-eight. No, thirty-four. I turn to Marti, but she’s busy wading through her month end pile: two hundred fifty active files, and every one of them has to be reviewed. “What about the attached files?” I wonder. “Do I count these as one file or two? I decide to wait until she comes up for air. Meanwhile, the message light has been flashing on the phone since I got in this morning. No need to bother Marti right now. Instead, I decide to pull out the phone log.
Main menu: You have two new messages; four saved messages. To listen to your new messages, press 2.” I press 2. “Hi, this is Erin from PVS. I have a referral for you…” Fill out the phone log. Replay the message to check the phone number and the spelling on the last name. Pull out a PVS Initial–the pink one. Remind myself to add the name to the wait list.
“To listen to your next message, press…” Yes, yes, I know ‘Press 77.’
“Hi, this is Tove. I’m just calling to see if you have any appointments booked for me for tomorrow.” Why is this message here? This should have gone to our receptionist, Glenda. She handles the bookings for the massage.” Enter the call on the log. Fill out a note for Glenda.
Write up the file notes for the PVS referral. Initial the phone log. Initial the notes. Make the call. “Actually, I’m doing okay,” she says. “I don’t think I need any help right now.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that,” I tell her. “Good for you. Can I give you our contact number, just in case something comes up?”
“Sure.”
Trina reappears at the door. “Karen, do you have the count on those files we are closing?”
“Twenty-eight.”
“Really? That’s all?”
“I’ve been through them twice.”
“Mmm. Unusual. Okay. And can  you prioritize re-filing these files?”
“I’m just finishing up this initial while I remember the details. That’s next on the list.”
“Great.” She turns to Marti. “I’m back upstairs in a moment. You can use my office if you need to.”
Exit Trina. Marti gathers her files. “Karen, are you all right here?”
“Oh, yeah. I know where to find you. Oh, wait. What about these attached files? Do I count them separately or do I count the package as one file?”
“Do they have separate file numbers?”
I flip a couple of them over. “Yes.”
“I’d count them as separate files.”
“Makes sense. Okay, I’m good. I’ll come pester you if I need to.” Marti heads out the door. I turn back to the form in front of me, finish the notes and initial them. I call Erin back to confirm contact, then initial the confirmation at the bottom of the form. No need to add another name to the wait list.
Now. The pile of files. Actually two piles: these are closed; these stay open. At least they’re alphabetical. Mostly. That makes it easy.
Closed files go there. Open files go here. I’m halfway through the process when I notice the sticky note on the front of the folder. “File this with the open files,” Trina told me. “Close this file at the end of January,” says the sticky. And count the number of files we have closed. Okay, I’m confused.
Then the phone rings. “Hi, Karen, it’s Erin from PVS. I have a referral for you.”

Brainless. I can do brainless. But I think I’m going to need more stickies.

Truth has Nothing to Do with It

•December 1, 2014 • 1 Comment

Ad

THE END OF GIRLS’ SPORTS? Her dreams of a scholarship shattered, your 14 year old daughter just lost her position to a male…Now she may have to shower with him. Are you willing to let that happen?” So asks the full page ad that appears in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune. (Page A10) Inclusion of transgender students (specifically MTF transgender students) in school sports is, according to the ad, putting our daughters at risk, and we’d better stand up for them, or else. It’s an old trope and oft repeated. Advertising 101: To be effective, the message must be consistent, and it must be heard consistently over time. That it’s a lie doesn’t matter. As Herman Goering observed, if you tell a big enough lie often enough, people will believe it. It’s abhorrant. It’s hateful. But it is depressingly effective.

A generation earlier than Herman Goering, Woodrow Wilson discovered that advertising (some now call it ‘spin’) could turn public opinion surprisingly easily. American anti-war sentiment against entry into a European conflict shifted entirely in only six months. Truth and rationality had nothing to do with the effect; it had everything to do with the manipulation of emotion and symbols. Here we see the same process at work: the image of the unhappily sidelined young woman combined with the misinformation and outright untruths about the perceived threat of sexually deviant and dangerous transsexuals are powerful manipulators. Here transgender women are dehumanized and demonized, just as the Jews were in pre-war Europe, just as blacks are in many American states, just as Muslims are throughout the western democracies.

Intelligent discourse and informed opinion become powerless in the public discussion because ads like this evoke deep seated fears for the safety of our children, fears that are unlikely to be assuaged by fact. When the American army conducted the first mass intelligence testing in US history, (WW 1), it turned out that “average” intelligence was much lower than anyone had imagined. As Wilson discovered (to his dismay) this meant that “average” Americans (by extension, Canadians as well,) are depressingly easy to manipulate. Once our prejudices and fears are aroused, once the “other” has been identified and demonized, (that would be transgender women in this ad,) people of average intelligence, people we entrust with the vote, are unlikely, even unwilling to engage in rational conversation. They lie, and when they see the lie in print, they believe it.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out,” Martin Niemoller famously wrote, “because I was not a socialist.” Tonight, they come for me.

Transgender Day of Remembrance: Despite it All

•November 20, 2014 • Leave a Comment

The phone call came through late in the afternoon, just over a year ago. “Karen, one of our clients, has suddenly passed away. I don’t know if you knew her: Alison. (Not her real name.) She was transgender. The counselors who have worked with her will be gathering for a healing session in the common room tomorrow at 2:oo. We were hoping you might like to come along.” I had only met Alison once, in the reception area of the lobby. This was a very public space, not a counseling office, yet she had talked openly about dealing with death threats, poverty, chronic ill health, and thoughts of suicide, lightly dismissing our concerns with a laugh as if none of this were not to be taken seriously at all. Our brief conversation had left me deeply worried about her. Now the worst had come to pass. As a woman who happens to be trans, I knew what had transpired. I didn’t need to be told.

According to the report  INJUSTICE AT EVERY TURN: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011), an estimated forth-one percent of people who are transgender attempt to commit suicide at least once. Among the general population, an estimated one and a half to two percent is the generally accepted figure.  Forty-one percent is an appalling number. A similar, though smaller, study in Ontario just a year later found an estimated thirty-eight percent of respondents had attempted suicide, so the numbers are probably accurate. Another study found that an estimated eighty-five percent of trans folk have struggled with clinical depression and suicidal ideation as well. The truly appalling part of all this is that being trans is not a clinical disorder. The depression and suicidal thoughts are the result of the social climate in which we live. In other words, we’re not doing this to ourselves. There is, in fact, nothing wrong with us. It’s the way others treat us. We face abandonment by friends and loved ones, loss of careers and homes, verbal abuse, criminal assault, rape, murder, even political persecution, simply because we exist. Simply for being here, many of us pay a terrible cost. Today we pause to remember Alison, and too many others like her.

Yet to those of us who yet survive, I say here what I say to clients at Haven again and again: Look at what you (we) have been through. Any one of these calamities could be life changing. Let’s face it; they are. As people who  happen to be transgender, we know. Every one of us who survives has, in some way, paid a price. Yet here we stand, despite it all.  Despite it all, we do great things in this world. Despite it all, we bring great gifts to those willing to receive them.

We are strong. We are proud. Despite it all.

September End

•September 30, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Featured image

Written on the eve of my second anniversary post-op.

Two years ago this evening, I lay in bed in a clinic in Montreal, awaiting my surgery. I was not alone. My daughter was there. Samantha and Nikki (along with her mom,) and Mady were there: a party of six, four of us nervously euphoric, anxious. “After all this time,” said Nikki at one point, “it’s hard to believe that it’s real.” Two years on,  I still lie down at night disbelieving.

It’s a small pleasure in the great scheme of things;

I know it is,

But tonight, as I lie down in my cool, sun-dried sheets

I will remember the clothesline’s creak and the tree-frog’s reply.

(He has taken up residence somewhere among the potted chrysanthemums.)

I will remember a single maple leaf, orange-brown, glowing in my laundry basket

Not the first, but one of the first

To come feathering down the bright September sky.

I will remember wheeling maplewood

And stacking it under the deck

And a little black dog

Who brought her soggy self back from the pond,

The tip of her tail wagging apologetically at my mock anger:

“Young lady, what on earth have you been up to?”

Tonight, I will close my book,

And I will lay me down tired,

I will draw those fragrant sheets about me

While wonders unseen hiss through the trees outside.

I will remember; I will dream; I will sigh.