The Cotton Ceiling Is Real and It’s Time for All Queer and Trans People to Fight Back

The blogosphere is fired up over the cotton ceiling today, a term porn actress Drew DeVaux and other queer trans women are using to challenge cis lesbians’ tendency to support trans causes generally but draw the line at sleeping with trans women or including trans lesbians in their sexual communities.  Some cis lesbians have responded in outrage to the term (trigger warning on link for heavy transphobia), claiming that it implies sex with cis women without their consent, perpetuates rape culture, and reveals trans women’s patriarchal motives to break into their bedrooms as they presumably have broken into their bathrooms.

This spectre of rape that cis lesbian “radfems” habitually raise, centered around the supposed inherent threat of the phallus, minimizes the appalling rates of physical and sexual violence committed against trans women, particularly trans women of color and sex workers.  It also twists the picture of systemic violence to make it look like trans women are a huge, systemic threat to cis lesbians when in fact trans women as a group face incredible systemic barriers in almost every aspect of life.

Certainly there are individual cases of interpersonal violence that one could bring up involving a perpetrator of any description.  But, although I may not be 100% comfortable with the mental image of panty-ripping, I find it ludicrous to suggest that trans women, in pointing out their exclusion from lesbian sexual communities and the relationship between common lack of cis lesbian desire for trans women and the structural problem of cissexism/transmisogyny, are threatening rape of cis lesbians or perpetuating rape culture.

At one point in my life, I identified as female and as a lesbian.  I was early to feminism and I had been through some difficult heterosexual experiences.  I’m ashamed to admit that I sympathized in some ways with the radfem position.  I want to be clear in my argument here–I’m not ashamed of the fact that at that time, I wasn’t interested in PIV sex or in touching a penis. That’s a legitimate sexual preference.  My shame comes from the way I looked at trans women at that time without examining my prejudices or educating myself, and the fact that I assumed a preference for cis women was a natural preference that I didn’t need to mention aside from identifying as “lesbian.”

I pinned a misogyny that at the time I attributed to almost all men onto trans women, as well.  I assumed that sex with a trans woman would be penetrative and violent, that I wouldn’t have the camaraderie with a trans woman that I felt at the time with many cis women, that female history was somehow very important.  I didn’t think about what a trans female experience might be like, or what a trans woman’s relationship to her body might be.  I was pretty naive about sex.  I put a lot of stake in body parts because I was fumbling with my own gender, body, and sexuality.  I said that I was against transphobia but knew no openly trans people.

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Ending the Erasure of Mentally Ill Experience

Mental illness has been, and without a doubt will remain, the defining experience of my life. I’ve aspired to normalcy, I’ve fantasized about sanity, I’ve wanted to be someone without a mood disorder more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my entire life. I recognize that this isn’t how it ought to be, but any other characterization would be dishonest.

This deep desire to be something other than what I am seems to me to have two primary causes:

1) The profound mental distress I’ve experienced and the way it’s interfered with my life.

2) The mainstream ignorance of the reality of mental illness.

Sure, the world at large knows that mental illness exists. But this superficial awareness hasn’t prevented a widespread fear and outright dislike of people living with mental illness. In a 2010 article in The L.A. Times, “Mental illness stigma lingers even though people understand it’s a brain disease,” Shari Roan reported on a study regarding attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill. The study looked at attitudes over time, and found little had changed from 1996 to 2006.

Roan wrote that, “For example, the percentage of people who said they are unwilling to work closely with someone with major depression was 46 percent in 1996 and 47 percent in 2006. The percentage of people who considered people with schizophrenia to be a danger to others was 54 percent in 1996 and 60 percent in 2006.”

Aware of this considerable stigma, the community of mental health advocates and organizations are focused on ending it by tackling it directly. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) has a monthly “StigmaBusters Alert” that focuses on harmful portrayals of mental illness in pop culture and the media. Medical websites, such as the Mayo Clinic, often have portions of their website devoted to mental health stigma. Celebrities like Glenn Close have come forward to be spokespeople against stigma.

And while all this is admirable, and I’m sure many of that these organizations have the best of intentions, I doubt this is really enough. Ending the stigma of mental illness is important, but that alone doesn’t facilitate a real understanding of what it means to live life with mental illness.

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