Retreat

  

I’m not well-versed in religious studies, so it might’ve been rubbish for all I know, but a friend recently expressed a notion around the Buddhist hierarchy of care. First, care for the self; second, care for those around you; third, care for the world. Secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others.


I’m moving to Canada.

I know, I know. It’s a typical privileged leftist whinge whenever something doesn’t electorally go our way. It was said a lot for W. Bush, something I knew despite only being 13 and hardly politically active when he was first elected.

I remember only hearing it from straight white guys. People whose worldview and comfort was being threatened more than anything else. The outcry was righteous indignation, an expression of the anger stage of grief. And, yes, a bit of whining. But the loudest voices were those who we’d now refer to as the most privileged. Educated straight white men, usually fairly well-off to boot. People who had little to fear but a lack of progress.

I fear for my life.


I had a classmate back in school named Matt. (We actually had a lot of Matts.) Shaggy blonde hair, kind of a mad scientist look even then. White. He wasn’t a weird kid, any more than any of us gifted students were, but he was solidly independent. He knew what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go, and he just did it, opinions be damned. He talked—in middle school—about studying meteorology all the way up, getting a job in the field, and absolutely not as a weatherman. He had himself together: drive, focus, and (apparently) resources. You can do a lot with those.

Before the 2000 election, our social studies class ran a mock election. I don’t remember the exact result but I remember Gore winning. I remember voting for him. Matt voted Nader.

I looked Matt up. I easily recognized him; funny how he hasn’t changed much. He did exactly what he always said he would: he has a PhD in meteorology. I thought about contacting him, finding out what kind of person he is nowadays, but I know he wouldn’t recognize me. It was over a decade ago. I express a different gender. I have a new name. Whatever he remembers, I’m not there. Being transgender means having a lot of one-sided memories.


Being transgender also means a constant state of quiet caution. Being queer in general is the same way; with a fair bit of sacrifice and savvy, we can usually be invisible. Not a luxury for people of color, to be sure. My relative invisibility is the only reason I’m in fear rather than terror. Even so, it only takes one person to get outed, and only one person to fire a gun.

When my roommate and I discussed what we could do next, he raised the idea of entering red areas and opening dialogue. Not to normalize or agree with their opinions, but to break from his bubble and try to understand the source of the problem. A noble approach, maybe. I honestly don’t know.

My mouth started moving ahead of my brain. I said that it might help, for all I know, but I could never do it since sooner or later I’d be murdered. Then my brain caught up and realized my mouth was probably right. My mouth couldn’t move for a while after that.


Estimates put the amount of transgender Americans somewhere around 1 million (0.3–0.4%). In 2015, 21 transgender people were murdered in America, according to advocate tracking. Many were hate crimes. While the overall homicide rate has been dropping, the number of trans homicides has been growing: in 2016, 26 transgender people were murdered as of October. Post-election, the rate is expected to increase.

These numbers only account for known incidents involving people known to be trans and whose deaths weren’t ascribed to accidents, suicide, or other causes. They also don’t include violent but non-fatal assaults, suffered by approximately 1/2 of all trans people. Some studies put that ratio at 2/3. Many of those assaults are sexual.


On the list of places I’ve lived over my life, Portland is absolutely the safest. Attitudes are sharply liberal. Its fervor in protest against conservative ideology gave it the nickname “Little Beirut.” (No surprise that there were protests Wednesday and Thursday night. Not even surprised that anarchist “black blocs” got involved.) Insurance in Oregon must cover trans-related medical care, a fact I deeply appreciate after my first surgery.

But safety is not guaranteed. And Oregon has a deep history of severe racism that, while I’m individually safe from it, creates a foundation of hatred that other forms can grow on top of. I’ve seen it described as “intersectional bigotry.” I may be safer here than other states, but I’d still be subject to the federal government, and that’s the source of the fear in the first place.


I’m going to Canada to study. I admit, some of it is because getting a student visa is easier than getting a work visa. Securing my own mask.

Most of it, though, is a light bulb. I’ve talked and written for a while about my malaise with the world of technology as it currently stands. (I’m probably annoying in that way.) Part of my complaint is that the tech world vastly prioritizes niceties. We aren’t changing the world, outside of a handful of (mostly media and social) companies—and it’s easy to argue they’re changing it for the worse. The rest of us? We make toys for the upper class, we make things that make other high-education jobs just a little easier, we make technology for technology’s sake.

We make dessert. Meanwhile, the entrée is rotting.

I’ve thought for a while about what I would do after programming. I first veered towards product management since it’s a neighboring discipline and my Software Engineering degree would be just as useful there. But I don’t think I would be useful, not to the world at large. I certainly wouldn’t be bettering the technology world, just perpetuating it as-is.

My plans don’t currently involve a Computer Science master’s. (I’m currently thinking journalism, but I’m exploring what the options are.) If I’m going to help solve problems, it’s not going to be through more technology. It’s going to be through understanding people, policy, sociology, psychology. Those are the challenges humanity faces, and they’re proving to be substantial. Enough computer science has been done that the technology to deliver a solution probably already exists, in bits and pieces, somewhere out there. We just don’t know what the solution is yet. The “soft skills” are the hard part.

I like to think that I would’ve taken this approach sooner or later. Not necessarily a Canadian grad school, but some kind of approach to push me in a more civic direction. Maybe, in the thinnest of silver linings, circumstances will cause me to do more good more quickly. Because, whatever I do next has to be something that helps address these issues. I don’t know what or how yet—that, at its core, is what I intend to study. But simply not making it worse isn’t enough. I cannot abide the status quo. Perhaps I never should have.


Unsurprisingly to me, EricaJoy wrote much more emotionally and intelligently about the situation than I can. I don’t know what her plans are now—I’ve been minimizing social media—but I worry. I worry about a lot of people now. I worry about many of them more than I worry about myself.


I’m extremely lucky to be able to even consider this. I’m white. I pass well enough for a cisgendered woman to fly slightly under the radar. (Not that being a woman at all feels terribly safe.) My documents are largely in order already. I have some money and a job through which I can save up more. I find myself wondering if I should even consider doing this, or if it’s my responsibility to stay and fight.

My friend Philip—a straight, well-educated white man—wrestled with this line of thought while at Hillary’s San Francisco office. As the night progressed, he heard various comments about leaving for Canada, or Mexico, or Europe. Many of them delivered by the same kind of people who said the same kind of thing 16 years ago. At one of those comments, a friend of Philip’s responded:

Until they start the concentration camps for white boys in the Bay Area, you have a responsibility to stay, and to use your privilege to help others who don’t have it.

Philip agrees that he has that responsibility. I wrestle with whether or not I have it. Whether, because I’m largely invisible, I should stay and protect those who are visible; or, because I’m still in danger of legal and mortal attack, I should leave and protect myself.


I wonder how Matt voted; his online presence is sparse and apolitical so it’s harder to guess. I wonder how a lot of people I used to know voted. I wonder what drove their decisions. I wonder if I could’ve done anything, even just a little bit, if only I were braver.


Truth is, I’m a coward. It’s another side of that rabbit persona: being easily startled and non-confrontational. It’s not a part I chose or a part I like, but it’s a part of me nonetheless. I need to develop bravery, now more than ever, but without retreat the consequences of a mistake can be severe. Better, I think, to develop it in situations where the risk is meaningful but survivable. I can’t help others if I get myself killed.

This is, long-term, the way I have to fight. I already know my existing life isn’t working for me, and it certainly isn’t working for those around me or the world at large. I need to change my direction and find a path that helps not just in the next four years, but in the next forty I (hopefully) get to live.

For those who are braver, stronger, more privileged, read Anil Dash’s thoughts. Follow his advice. Follow his lead. If your oxygen mask is secure, assist those around you. Mine will take months to secure, but at least I can still breathe. In the meantime, I’m helping those who can’t, in ways I feel safe doing. (My charitable giving is already shifting around, for example.) It is a little embarrassing that securing my mask involves leaving the country, but I can’t care for the world if I can’t care for myself. And I can’t care for myself in America anymore.