14 | a.e. hopkins

conversion camp

 

I kind of regret dropping Bio. The last class I went to we learned about this all-female race of lizards in Arizona I think. They reproduce asexually but still conduct mating rituals. A desert paradise full of queer lizard ladies – could have it worse. My last hook-up before Emma was asexual and ze were better than most of the sexuals I’ve fucked.

Hannah’s not going to take it well. Yeah, I only have three classes now but I’m technically still a full-time student. I make sure of these things. Hannah doesn’t get depression or anxiety so she won’t get why I had to drop it. Knowing Professor Green held class during the protest just made me so uncomfortable. I felt like I was in class with a bunch of those White Feminists who major in STEM and try to have it all with their PhD’s and engineer husbands. I’m totally aware of my white privilege of course but I can’t be seen with those girls.

Oh yeah, Hannah. She’ll be bitching about the five hour bus ride and wait I shouldn’t say bitch. Damn internalized misogyny. Of course you can still be a good feminist and slip up because of how you were socialized but sometimes I feel like I’ll never be a good feminist. Like on the outside I am of course but on the inside I say bitch all the time. I even thought Kirsten’s outfit last night was s- – – – -. Thought it, didn’t say it, but come on, since when has a thong counted as shorts? Not that I should judge. It’s totally cool to meet up with guys from OKCupid in the Marriott downtown to tie them up and whip them. Sex work is totally empowering if the woman is choosing it. And Kirsten has a great ass how could I not look. Wait is that objectifying my roommate?

Hannah’s on time and I’m ten minutes late. I don’t bother to text her. I told her to meet me at Weather Underground because it’s the only GMO-free coffee shop in town with five different varieties of vegan milk. Emma’s allergic to soy so we get the almond milk lattes here a lot. Apparently caffeine is supposed to be bad for my Zoloft and Risperdal but it’s fine unless I wash Xanax down with it. Doctors are way too careful like I can totally have coffee and drink. I haven’t died yet.

This coffee shop is a little crowded for my anxiety level. If Hannah wasn’t here I’d tell the dudebros from the state university to stop saying “ladies” like how dare they ignore the existence of gender-nonconforming AFAB individuals? Wow, remember when I used to say “female-bodied?” Like it took three different Tumblr posts to tell me why that’s bad. I used to use the asterisk for trans* too and to be honest I don’t exactly remember why you can’t say that anymore but I know it’s a really good reason. It’s in my social justice tag on my blog; I’ll try to find it later.

The barista’s checking me out. His beard is pretty impressive and I like his beanie. I experience occasional sexual attraction to dudes but I’m only romantically attracted to ladies and trans/nonbinary folk. That makes me a pansexual homoromantic lesbian, right? I have mixed feelings about “lesbian” so I don’t know.

He hands me my almond milk latte with coconut whipped cream and winks at me. Winks at me. As if to assume that I’m interested in him because obviously all girls are interested in guys (even if their hair is really short and pink) and his preternatural charisma is enough to charm the panties off me. Men.

I tell him to get rid of the coconut whipped cream and make me a new one. He asks why. Not to spend more time with you, buddy. Last night I caved and looked up the calories of coconut whipped cream online. He’s looking at me as he makes me a new one. No sugar, I tell him. Just coffee and almond milk, the unsweetened kind. He raises a bushy eyebrow and laughs. I’m disgusted. Being the passive object of male desire really gets my anxiety. Fuck I don’t have any Xanax. I’ll have to talk to Kim about this. Our next appointment is Thursday after Women in Contemporary African Literature. God that professor is so racist.

It’s ready. I exchange a glare for my forty-seven calories.

Hannah’s at one of the tables outside even though it’s March and I’m still wearing a ski jacket (with faux fur of course). I bet Hannah’s coffee has cow’s milk in it. God I really need my Xanax. Animal cruelty and the invalidation of queer female desire are really triggering for me. Hannah wears leather too and her last deadbeat boyfriend had a farm and convinced her that murder is okay. Murder is never okay. Unless it’s like a rapist or something. Maybe they could just kill all the chauvinist male cows that deserve to be eaten. Wait I can’t think that.

I sit down across from Hannah. Her eyes flicker with that kind of concerned look Mom gives me when I skip dinner.

“So how are your classes?” Hannah says as she puts on ChapStick. Of course that’s the first question. Why can’t we talk about the plight of Bangladeshi factory workers or something that’s actually important? Shit I’m doing the White Feminist thing again. Bangladeshi factory workers are autonomous beings and forcing my help onto them would be so racist I can’t even.

I give the requisite “Good” followed by my list of courses.

“Only three?” Hannah tucks a section of frizzy hair behind her ear.

I thought Mom told her already. “I dropped Bio. The first lab was during the protest, and I so do not want to take a class with a professor unwilling to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQIA+ community.”

Hannah nods. “Do you have a major?”

Does she listen to anything I’ve ever said? “Women’s Studies and Film.”

“What are you planning to do with that after graduation?”

Oh. My. God. Talk about a capitalist mindset. “The purpose of education isn’t to have a neat little job in a cubicle, you know.”

“I know.” Hannah doesn’t know. Look at that neat satisfied expression on her boring fucking face. She’ll answer phones for thirty grand a year before devoting her life to raising equally boring little capitalist oppressors. “Have you thought about a Business minor? It’s helping me.”

“I refuse to be complicit in capitalist oppression.”

Hannah nods. “You know, I wanted to talk to you about that. Mom–”

“Is the poster child for internalized misogyny. She has you to grow up to be a suburban housewife, can’t she let me be free?”

Oh, that’s not going to go over well. It’s actually refreshing to see anything on Hannah’s pug-nosed face aside from complacency. Her cheeks are getting red. “Mom was the one who let you come here in the first place. She’s working two jobs to put you through. She believed you when you said you had to quit your job because you were sick. She paid the psychiatrist bills. If you were my child–”

“If I were your child you’d send me to conversion camp!” That should do it. I know Hannah only started supporting gay marriage three years ago, same time as Obama. She feels guilty. And she thinks that’s the end of it. As if the masculinist legal system allowing us to participate in a misogynistic institution is a victory.

She’s actually starting to cry. “Sylvia,” she says in a low voice, “Sylvia, this isn’t about that. It’s taken me time, but I want to accept you as you are. I want you to be happy.” Well she’s fucking that up royally. “Emma called last weekend. She talked to Mom for a long time. Are you sure everything’s fine?”

My girlfriend is a total sweetie but also needs to never contact my family again. I’m already envisioning the inbox on Tumblr I’m going to send her when I get back to my room. “I’m completely fine.”

Hannah takes time to respond. “Will you at least see Dr. Finn next weekend? Mom set up an appointment for you. She’ll pay for the bus.”

“Why would I need to see Dr. Finn? My psychiatrist here is just fine.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Hannah says. “He just wants to weigh you and talk to you for a few minutes. It’s standard.”

“I don’t see the point.”

She sighs like she’s going to break something to me. “I’ll be honest, Syl. You’re looking thin.”

“I’ve been working out.” I haven’t been to fencing in three months but walking around campus burns a lot of calories.

“Then why were you out of breath when you came into the shop?” Hannah always had a gift for noticing pesky details.

“It’s cold!”

“Sylvia.” She stares at me as if she’s pressuring me to say something. Something that isn’t true and won’t ever be true.

I grab my vegan leather tote. “Goodbye, Hannah.” I planned ahead with a to-go cup.

She grabs her jacket and leaps from her seat. “Syl, wait!”

I may be weak but I can run when I need to.

 

Tonight’s the Vegans Against Sexual Violence meeting and Hannah shows up at my room right before I leave.

Oh God she bought one of those “handspun in India” scarves from that totally imperialist Around The World shop in town. I don’t need an imperialist at my doorstep so I invite her into my room where no one can see.

She doesn’t like my Che Guevara pillow. He’s kind of problematic I guess. And I’m not talking about the execution stuff like he was really homophobic too. “Your room is very creative, Sylvia,” Hannah says because she doesn’t know what the posters even mean. Come on they’re not that hard. I’ve got one that says “TRANS WOMEN ARE SISTERS TOO” next to the pansexual flag. I also have a tiny picture of Marie Curie on the back of my door. I mean she was totally a privileged White Feminist but when I was little I wanted to be a scientist just like her (now I know that PhDs and radiation poisoning are for complicit privileged people and I’m better off being a professional activist).

“Syl, you should look in the mirror,” Hannah says. It’s sudden and I’m in front of the mirror so I look. I’m a little pudgy around the thighs and my face isn’t chiseled or cheekbones-y enough to be one of those androgynous models who pose for artistic nudes on Tumblr.

“Don’t you think you look thin?” says Hannah. “You know, this vegan thing – Dr. Finn says it’s not good.”

How dare she. I point to my Liberate the Livestock event poster above my bed. “Any and all animal products contribute to the destruction of our earth and the slaughter of innocent creatures.” I’m not going to bother letting her know how the dairy and meat industries are intertwined because then she’ll feel extra guilty about her Philly cheesesteaks. My goal in life is not actually to make Hannah guilty even if I’m good at it.

“I know,” says Hannah, “but Dr. Finn wants you to think about all food as okay, remember?”

I don’t because I blocked that out of my head. I used to be a carnivorous White Feminist who wanted to go to med school like a perfect daughter but now I see how great it is to have been enlightened by the activist community on Tumblr. I wish Hannah could feel like me. I wish everyone could feel like me because then we’d all check our privilege all the time and no one would be offended or oppressed ever.

“Meat-eating isn’t natural. I’m just doing what’s good for my health,” I say.

Fuck, Hannah’s tearing up again. Her snot’s going to get all over that shapeless barn coat. “Sylvia, please. Don’t make us force you. If you don’t eat you can’t live. You know that. You’ve been through this before. Please, Syl. I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’m fine!” I really am fine. Food insecurity is real and I’m living like a food insecure person to prove a point about surviving under the white cisheteropatriarchy. You know, we’ve gotta come up with a catchier name for that because the concept is just so spot-on. Only White Feminists think you can just say “patriarchy” alone anymore. I’ve heard “kyriarchy” which encompasses all oppression but it just doesn’t flow off the tongue.

“You’re not fine!” Shut up Hannah. I’m fine. How many times do I have to repeat myself? Oh yeah, many, because queer-presenting women are never listened to. Fucking kyriarchy.

My phone buzzes against my butt. “I have VASA in five,” I say, grabbing my Herschel backpack and rainbow lanyard with my key.

Hannah’s still as a bull about to charge. “I’m coming too.”

No. N-O. “It’s for vegans, are you sure?”

“I’m coming.”

The Center for Lesbian, Queer, Transgender and Other Identities is in the basement of my dorm. I don’t have to be seen outside with Hannah at least. Marni’s already opened the door so I push it with my shoulder and try to make it seem like I’m alone. Hannah gets it and takes a chair at the other end of the circle. Marni’s applying her lipstick or maybe taking selfies, I can’t tell.

Our ball’s on the table in the middle of the circle. It’s red and inflatable and says “VEGANISM IS CONSENT” in black Sharpie.

Everyone starts to arrive and I’m glad Marni has long hair too so Hannah doesn’t stick out too bad. Marni’s like a hot Eurasian femme though and her hair is a political statement. Hannah just gets the same blunt thing at Supercuts every four months.

All the chairs are taken. I place my hand on the ball. “My sister’s joining us tonight.” I thought about not claiming her but hey this is a safe space and I won’t be held responsible for triggering anyone.

“Is your sister vegan?” says Marni. That burgundy lipstick’s pretty hot and sometimes I think she’s hotter than Emma with those cheekbones and sixties bangs. I wonder if Emma would want to try a polyamory thing.

“No, but apparently she’s interested in learning!” I give Hannah one of those ‘shut the fuck up’ looks.

“Is everyone here?” says Marni.

I count eleven. That’s all of our members. I reach for the ball and take it in my lap. “I have to ask,” I start. I have mixed feelings about starting because I’m white but I’m also queer so it’s probably okay. “I know we’re not all gold stars here. So, is semen vegan?”

Reed takes the ball from me. She’s also kind of femme with her bob shielding her ears and purple lipstick smudged around her bottom lip. “Any discussion of male fluids is intensely triggering to myself and others. This is unacceptable and if it continues I will have to leave.”

Carl takes it next. I so admire him. He refuses to have top surgery because he’s comfortable in his gender no matter what his body is. He also has great boobs. D cups that he doesn’t bother to bind. “As a man, I am deeply offended by that statement.”

Fuck did I trigger people? I ask for the ball. “For the record, I never said it was a man I was referring to. Women can have penises.”

“Don’t use that word!” Reed shrieks. Fuck if I keep talking about semen Reed’s going to get super triggered but if I use some euphemism Carl’ll think I’m making this space unwelcoming to him.

“You know, I think I feel alienated here,” says Carl.

I sink into my folding chair.

“This campus really needs to do more to increase the comfort level of its trans population,” Joan with her fire engine red mohawk says. “I mean, transgender is the only the third identity on the sign outside. I’m sick of being a third-class citizen.”

I forget to ask for the ball. “I didn’t think you identified as trans, Joan.”

“It’s Jeff. And assuming someone’s gender just by looking at them is problematic on so many levels, I don’t even know where to begin. My dress is an expression of my masculinity.”

Damn, it’s so true. I need to check my cis privilege way more.

“I’m sorry, this is becoming so uncomfortable,” says Reed. “I suffer from PTSD, borderline, panic, and OCD, and I used up all my Xanax today. I’m feeling really triggered by this discussion.”

“Reed, you’re sounding kind of… transphobic,” Jeff says with a hiss.

Everything freezes. I really don’t think Reed was being transphobic. But was my emphasis on penises invalidating to trans men too? Probably. I feel the panic kindling.

“I think Reed was triggered,” I offer. I got her into this so I should take responsibility.

“I’m triggered by Reed’s transphobia!” Jeff screeches. “And so is Carl!”

Carl’s breathing heavily. The gaps between the buttons on his shirt are expanding and I can see his sparkly bra. “Jeff, how dare you speak for me,” he says. “I am triggered, but I don’t need it to be pointed out to the entire room. I also suffer from PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Reed doesn’t have an excuse.”

“What happened to our ball!” says Marni. Fuck, I’ve been speaking out of turn. I’m so fucking privileged. “This discussion is not inclusive. You can only speak if you have the ball. That’s the rule.”

“I’ve had the ball the whole time, but people keep interrupting me,” says Jeff.

“Give me the ball,” says Reed, tears straining her vocal cords.

“No,” says Jeff. “The most subjugated people get the ball first.”

“Reed suffers from mental disability,” I point out. Wait it was not my place to speak. I shove my shaking hands between my thighs.

“I suffer from the terror of living in a society that will not recognize my genders,” says Jeff. Of course Jeff has a point too. It’s just so hard dealing with so much overlapping oppression.

“Genders?” Hannah blurts out.

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckfuck.

Jeff puts the ball under his combat boots. “Today I am male. Tomorrow I may be female. Identity is fluid.”

I can tell Hannah’s upsetting Jeff and she’s not showing any remorse. She could at least wait until everyone else has spoken and then take the ball and maybe apologize for her privilege first. Wait where’s the ball?

Reed’s hugging it to her chest. “I have the ball.”

“But you’re not oppressed enough to have the ball!” Jeff stands up and glares at Reed.

She holds the ball tighter. Jeff groans. “If you won’t relinquish your privilege I will take the ball by force.”

Jeff leaps at the ball and tumbles with Reed to the floor.

The ball pops and explodes into pieces. Hannah ducks with her hands over her head. I feel little bits of plastic stuck to my cheeks. Marni’s screaming and Carl’s in some kind of fetal position. His ass is hanging over the chair and I can’t help but look.

“You broke the ball!” Jeff says, still entwined with Reed. “You destroyed the means by which oppressed people speak! You patriarchal Nazi!”

Carl falls out of the chair. “You have to stop triggering me!” The buttons of his shirt burst open, revealing a black sequined bra. I think I saw it at Victoria’s Secret the last time I was there.

“Hey!” says Hannah. “Hey! Enough!”

Jeff climbs off of Reed. Marni peels some plastic off her nose, sighing. “We need something to use as a ball.”

Carl reaches behind with one hand and unhooks the straps of his bra. “Men don’t need these instruments of oppression,” he says. “Take it.” I try really hard not to look because objectifying trans men is so appalling but he’s got abnormally large areolas.

Reed’s lips part in disbelief. “Excuse me? You’re not even a woman. Some of us like bras!”

Jeff seizes the bra by the straps. “First off, Reed needs to check her cisgender privilege. Anyone with a true understanding of trans oppression would never have claimed the ball in the first place. Trans people are assaulted by society every day of their lives. Their suffering is total and completely uncomprehensible to anyone who is not trans.”

I take one of the bra’s cups. “Incomprehensible.”

“Correcting other people’s grammar is your privilege talking,” says Jeff with a tug at the straps. “Not everyone had the opportunity to learn perfect grammar.”

Fuck. I am so off my game today. I look at Hannah. She’s so privileged she doesn’t have to worry about privilege. Right now I almost envy her.

Hannah stands up, looking down at Jeff. “What privilege?”

Okay, ignorance isn’t bliss.

“Sylvia’s white cisgender class privilege,” says Jeff. “And if you intend to participate in this community, you must take the bra before speaking.”

“Shut the fuck up,” says Hannah, placing her squat hands on her hips. “You’d listen to her if she was a man who wore a sparkly bra. And you’d think this school would have weeded out little girls who jump on each other for bouncy balls.” No Hannah. Not girls. Anything but girls. “Yeah, girls. Because this is apparently a women’s college. I don’t care what you call yourselves, but why is it that the so-called men here get the ball first? Or the bra, or whatever else. And Sylvia’s not exactly rich. She wasn’t given any advantages. But she managed to learn grammar, even at public school. And the manners that tell you not to attack someone for a blow-up ball.”

Talk about speaking for me? Now I know how trans folk feel every day wait no I don’t know how that feels I will never ever know how that feels how dare I compare my annoying sister’s comments to the oppression experienced by trans folk every day of their lives.

I’ve got to respond. “How dare you speak for me.” I’m choked from all this stress and I think I’m going to cry soon. “My sister’s homophobic and transphobic and every other kind of oppressive. Don’t listen to her. I know I’m privileged, and I take ownership of that. I’m sorry for speaking over a trans person. I’m sorry for making reference to organs that are triggering to some. I’m sorry if I contributed to anyone invading anyone else’s space. I will make a better effort to censor myself in the future.” I’m crying now. “I just want everyone to be comfortable, okay?”

Jeff says he can’t forgive me but he hopes I work on my privilege and I promise I will. Reed hugs me and forgives me for speaking for her. They all leave because tonight there’s new Hannibal . I stay because Hannah’s giving me that ‘don’t you dare leave because I’m going to come up to your room anyway’ look and it’s better to be seen with a culturally-appropriative-scarf-wearing straight white cis girl in the basement rather than in my room.

Hannah starts to cry.

I remember when I was in the hospital the first time. My thigh muscles had eroded away so I couldn’t really walk. They had me hooked up to lots of machines and wouldn’t tell me how many calories were in the IV fluids which was pissing me off. Hannah slept in a cushy green chair the nurse brought for her. She’d been there for two days. Mom had to work (Mom was probably forcing her).

She went through my AP Physics flash cards with me. “I bet you’re going to get a 5,” she kept saying. She brushed my hair and braided it in a fishtail. “I’m going to see if they’ll play Doctor Who.” The nurse rolled in one of those portable TV sets they have at the hospital and Hannah made sure it was David Tennant. She held the Gatorade up to my mouth with a straw and stroked my forehead as I drank.

Now the flush creeping up her neck is Gatorade red. “Do you even know what we’ve given up for you?” she says between sobs. “I’m not you, Sylvia, but I was going to get that scholarship. I missed the exam to make sure my little sister wasn’t dead. I thought it was the right thing to do, when your sister’s in the hospital.” Hannah breathes into the sleeve of her barn coat. “I’m going to be honest with you. We didn’t pay the clinic for this. I can’t do this anymore. None of us can.”

“Then go.” I’m not crying in front of her. “I’m making my own choices, Han. You just can’t stand that I’ve been educated about the realities of the world. Go back and fool yourself into believing that you’re making your own choices.”

“You know what, Syl? I will.” She takes a deep breath and slings her bag over her shoulder. “You always thought I was so stupid. But I don’t need to chop off my hair to see the truth. I hope you’re able to see it too.”

Hannah moves up the stairs one at a time, as if she’s waiting for me to rush after her.

 

 


a. e. hopkins was born in Manhattan and currently resides in Boston. She was previously awarded an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train in the 2014 Short Story Award for New Writers. This is her first published work. Follow her on Twitter @amandaehopkins.

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