Queer Activism & Stories of Personal Adversity (Or, How Misery Dicks Could Ruin Us)

TW: Discussion of trauma relating to abuse, assault, bullying, identity policing, and probably other more specific triggers I’m not thinking of.  Basically, I wouldn’t go into this post if you’re feeling fragile or are easily triggered by discussions about trauma.

As queer people, we often have painful pasts because of anti-queer attitudes.  I do, for example.  If we’re comfortable talking about it, the pain and trauma in our pasts can be used as a tool for social justice.  Specifically, we can use it as an example of why anti-queer attitudes are bad for us and, ultimately, for everyone.  This is a powerful resource for us, but I worry that we’re using it both too liberally and in the wrong places.

I’ve seen the following interaction occur pretty often in the context of queer social justice discussion:

Person A:  [makes a statement about how they think queer politics work or should work]

Person B: I don’t agree with that.

Person A:  Well, here are my reasons why.

Person B:  But I know what I’m talking about because I’ve experienced enormous pain.  [provides an extremely personal anecdote of adversity]

This almost always ends with Person A being silenced.  They don’t want to be a dick and belittle Person B’s pain and personal experiences, so they feel like any ability to continue to have a dialogue about the issue has ended.  The only real way to respond to an anecdote of extreme personal adversity when it’s provided as a political argument is like this:

Person B:  So, how can you still have that opinion in the face of my experiences?

Person A:  Well, I know what I’m talking about too, because I’ve experienced enormous pain as well!  [provides an extremely personal anecdote of adversity]

Now, first of all, no one should be put in a position in a social justice discussion—or any discussion—where they feel like they have to  provide intimate details of their lives in order to be taken seriously.  I’ll address this more later.

Really, the thing is, it’s not a productive dialogue to have.  We all know that as queer people many of us—most of us, really—have been through and seen things that were unjust, painful, and often traumatic.  It turns into a game of what my friend Maggie calls “Misery Dicks.”  Apparently, Misery Dicks is a Thing and not limited to Maggie—I just Urban Dictionary’d it.  The Urban Dictionary defines Misery Dicks as follows:

A game played where two or more people share horrible things that have happened in their lives. Whoever has the worst life has the biggest misery dick.

You may be surprised to learn that Misery Dicks is not a very fun game!  It is also not a very friendly game!  Or a game that is at all productive!  Most insidious of all Misery Dick’s insidious qualities, though, is that players of Misery Dicks very rarely realize they are playing it.  (To my knowledge, Maggie and I are the only people who play it on purpose.  We usually tie.  Another thing about Misery Dicks is that due to the ambiguous nature of being a person and having subjective experiences, a fairly judged contest of Misery Dicks almost always ends in a tie.  Imagine that.)

So, what I’ve established here so far is that sometimes, when queer people disagree with each other about queer politics, it turns into a big old game of Queer Misery Dicks and that in the immediate context of the discussion, this is good for absolutely no one.  But what else does Queer Misery Dicks do?

It reinforces the queerphobic idea that queer lives are by necessity sad, dreary, painful lives.

How does it do that?  Well, it seems to me that in the dialogue I provided above, Person B is implying that they must be correct in their opinion because their traumatic experiences have rendered them more authentically queer and thus more qualified to speak on queer issues.  Person A is then rendered less queer because they either haven’t been through something terrible or they aren’t willing to share that terrible experience in a public forum.

Person B is unwittingly making the argument that unless you’ve had a life that includes trauma, you haven’t had an authentically queer life.

Now, I think this whole situation is bad generally and ought to stop.  But I do have a slightly more personal note to add: This is harmful particularly to queer people who have been through significant trauma but aren’t willing or able to share information about that trauma in a public forum.  There are queer trauma survivors who are in a place with their traumatic experiences where they are able to discuss that trauma publicly; that’s a brave thing to do.  But there are also queer trauma survivors who can’t talk about their trauma because it’s triggering.  That doesn’t make them less brave.  There are queer trauma survivors who can’t talk about their trauma because the abusers who perpetrated that trauma might see that discussion and come try to retaliate.  They are also brave people.

People need to be more aware of these issues when they talk about being assaulted in the street, being thrown out, being abused at home, being bullied at school with slurs, etc etc.  There’s a time for a sharing of that kind of thing.  In fact, I think it’s a hugely important part of being queer and having a queer support system: sharing that you’ve been through something, getting support, and being helped to heal.

If a political discussion is getting emotional enough for you (and this happens to me all the fucking time, there’s nothing wrong or shameful about it) that you’re getting to the point where you want to go, “Oh yeah?  Well my dad used to call me a freak and scream at me outside the locked bathroom door while I shook and cried hoping the lock would hold!”  Well, it’s time to back away from that discussion and practice some self-care.  I do this myself.  There is nothing wrong, shameful, or weak about it.

I want to end this post with a sticky outy note that just didn’t go well anywhere else in it:  a huge problem with Queer Misery Dicks is it gets SUPER TRIGGERY SUPER FAST.  People usually don’t put trigger warnings on their entries in Queer Misery Dick competitions, and I know I’ve been triggered pretty badly before by someone trying to start a game of Queer Misery Dicks with me.  (Especially because I’m not emotionally comfortable playing it with anyone but Maggie, and was all, “OH NO I AM A BAD WEAK PERSON BECAUSE I CANNOT SHARE INTIMATE PERSONAL DETAILS ONLINE” and got all guilt-ridden.)

And that’s my very longwinded way of saying that willingness to discuss personal adversity is not a qualification to speak about queerness and that all queer people’s lives and opinions deserve respect in a conversation about our community!  Do not play Misery Dicks; it is no fun and anyway Maggie and I are better at it than you.

NB:  What I’m saying in this post probably applies to people who deal with other oppressions, but I don’t want to speak for them.  If anyone has any thoughts on how this works in activist communities of color, disabled activist communities, anything like that, I’m interested.

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5 Responses to “Queer Activism & Stories of Personal Adversity (Or, How Misery Dicks Could Ruin Us)”


  1. 2 tikihead November 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Hahaha, the Misery Dick Game reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, where they one-up each other with stories of their awful childhoods. Hilarious (in that context).

  2. 4 Jay November 18, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    Very interesting exposition. I definitely agree with your assessment of trans and gay culture, and have witnessed the misogyny you mentioned concerning FAAB bodies by gay men. I always found it strange and repulsive.
    I often wonder about the limitations of attraction and would be curious to hear your thoughts on the importance of physical attraction. As a trans gay man, what is it that identifies the boundaries for who you have the possibility to be attracted to in a romantic relationship? Is it simply that a potential partner must identify as male, regardless of their body?

    I’ve struggled with my own limitations of attraction and haven’t come to any real conclusions about it. When I first came out as a cis gay man, I was strictly interested in hyper masculine gay men and am also a stereotypically masculine gay man. I was never really able to break that cycle of attraction, even after becoming more aware of the unimportance of physical beauty (at an emotional level, not just at an intellectual level). Many traditional markers of beauty gradually slipped away from my interests, but a few remained, unable to be overcome…for example, an interest in a partner with facial hair, which seems like such a silly thing to be important, but it is true nonetheless.

    One dilemma that crept up was, if it is ideal to divorce the body from attraction, why can one not be open to dating anyone, essentially making bisexuality the ideal for everyone. I like the idea of bisexuality as an ideal, but at a gut level do not feel I would ever be able to be in a romantic relationship with a straight cis-woman.

    Do you have any thoughts on these issues?

    keep up the good work. And if you have some free time, check out http://www.freedomainradio.com …there’s a lot of good philosophical discussion going on there. :)

  3. 5 Zanron November 26, 2011 at 2:52 am

    Oh, I so detest that method of trying to “win” an argument, whether it is done intentionally or not. I’m a very private person and will not start dishing out my own experiences, if I have any that apply. I’m also very stubborn and will not yield because someone sees it fit to drag personal experiences into a debate to tip the scale, so to speak. (I find it insulting to all who are part of the debate, as noone knows what the next person has gone through, and noone should be expected to have to share) But then, I don’t mind if people think I’m a dick either, so I guess it all works out. >.>


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