Queer Wounds (Part 2); or, The Romanticization of Vulnerability and its Discontents
Hello dear ones,
Last week I shared some writing from the final chapter in my book, Touch Me, I’m Sick, which has inspired my next book project, which I’m calling Queer Wounds. I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability and how much those of us with trauma — and queers in particular — want to be vulnerable. We see others model vulnerability and something inside of us flutters. Because we know that their vulnerability can help us access our own. And, more and more, I see how those who are vulnerable have become pedestalized and romanticized within queer community, and then disposed of when shit gets messy. We love the idea of vulnerability — but when it comes time to practice it, to embody it, the very thing we’ve been seeking causes us to run away. What follows is more of my thoughts on this topic.
As part of Queer Wounds, I’m looking to talk with folks who’ve experienced harm in queer relationships. If you’d be interested in talking with me, please reach out to email@example.com with the subject line QUEER WOUNDS. And if you’ve already contacted me: THANK YOU! I am working on crip time to get back to folks, so know that you will hear from me soon.
A few reminders and FYIs before we dive in:
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Vulnerability is an embodied experience, made all too clear by its etymology. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin vulnerābilis, meaning wounding. Vulnerability, then, is our capacity to be wounded. The word trauma shares a similar root, coming from the word Greek τραῦμα, or wound. That there is a link between vulnerability and trauma does not surprise me. Our vulnerability, when not received well by others, or, when it is used against us, is a kind of trauma. And our trauma is a sign of our vulnerability. Trauma and vulnerability are open wounds.
Both literally and metaphorically, it is in our best interest to avoid being wounded. Wounds are uncomfortable at best and painful to life-threatening at their worst. And yet, making ourselves impervious to wounding comes at a great cost. How can we truly be in connection with others when we keep them at a distance so that we may remain invulnerable (as though such a thing were even possible)? What I have learnt is that my attempts to avoid being wounded haven’t done much to prevent that from happening – because, annoyingly, I cannot control everyone and everything around me. To avoid being wounded, I would have to completely opt out of the social – and, even in my darkest moments, that’s not something I have been willing to do.
I’d be lying if I said that keeping myself open to intimacy – and thus open to wounding – has been easy. Intimacy requires vulnerability. I have found solace in these words from Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt in his aptly named poetry collection This Wound is a World. Riffing off of the late Lauren Berlant, Belcourt writes: “Love, says cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, ‘always means non-sovereignty’ but only if we think of love as what opens us up to that which feel like it can rupture the ground beneath our feet. Berlant insists that love requires that we violate our own attachments, that we give into instability, that we accept that turbulence is the condition of relationality as such.” To be vulnerable, to love, to be intimate with another, is to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. I’m moved by Katherine Angel’s reminder that vulnerability marks “our capacity for injury” and it is also a reminder of “the shared softness of us all.”
So many of us have internalized the story that vulnerability is a weakness, something to be kept out of sight or else we’d be punished, ostracized, or ignored. As a human who has always had all the feelings, learning to dissociate from my vulnerability took great effort. Eventually, it became a habit so ingrained it would take me years and years of therapy to undo; for every time I would try to let myself be vulnerable, my body would shut down. Within my queer circles, vulnerability is something that we strive for: like some blinking light on the horizon just out of reach. We want the kinds of deep and authentic intimacy that vulnerability makes possible.
Wanting something can always lead to its romanticization. Vulnerability feels so exciting when we only focus on what we can gain from it, on the ends rather than the means. The truth is vulnerability isn’t a neat thing. It is messy. Ironically, this is precisely why we desire it: we want the space and the permission to be messy with another.
In my experience, vulnerability is pretty ugly. It is being triggered in the presence of someone who has never seen your nervous system activated and hoping that they won’t run away, gaslight you, or judge you for having “too many” feelings. Vulnerability is being accountable for the ways in which we hurt and harm one another. Vulnerability is getting your snot all over another person’s t-shirt as they hold you while you ugly cry. Vulnerability isn’t showing up as your best self all of the time – as much as you might want it to be. Our task, if we seek out vulnerability, is to hold space for and build our capacity to be in the messiness that vulnerability entails.
As we romanticize vulnerability, we pedestalize those who we see as embodying it. It’s like we’ve created a new Manic Pixie Dream Girl: now we have the Wounded Mermaid Faith Healer. While the MPDG’s job was to help sad, brooding men appreciate life, the WMFH plays a different role: this vulnerable creature is there to show others that it’s safe to be vulnerable; and that, in being vulnerable, they can restore their faith in intimacy, and heal their relational wounds. The problem is that the WMFH is also a human being, one who opens themselves up to the possibility of being wounded as they too take the risk that is entering into relationality. The Wounded Mermaid Faith Healer is desirable so long as they remain composed, just vulnerable enough to be palatable. Once they get messy, they lose their magic in the eyes of the lover.
I have been thinking about Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s essay “Two or Three Things I Know For Sure About Femmes and Suicide.” In that list is the truth that “Femme worship can kill you if you are not also loved in your mess”:
“After these femme suicides, I saw masculine people write testimonials exposing how much they loved (or more often ‘worshipped’) femmes, where all they praised was high femme aesthetic choices—the five-inch heels, the perfect winged eyeliner. Never pain. Never imperfection. Never mess […] I have never seen a masculine person write an ode to how much they love their femme partner or friend when s/he is in sweatpants and smell bad. I have rarely seen a hymn to femmes who are fucked up and failing, not available, driving everyone nuts, including ourselves.”
These observations lead Piepzna-Samarasinha to ask: “Are we loved when we are ‘ugly’?”
The answer, unfortunately, is often “no.” What’s ironic here is that the very quality that we say we love — vulnerability — is the very thing that can cause us to leave a relationship. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told “you make being vulnerable so easy,” or “you’re the most emotionally available person I’ve ever been with.” I’ve had people tell me that one of the reasons they want to be with me is because of the way that I show up in my relationships; that they want to be with someone who could be vulnerable. My vulnerability is what made me desirable, beautiful even. And then, as it does, things got messy. Vulnerability was no longer the sweet new relationship energy of making me a playlist of songs about being vulnerable; vulnerability meant that we needed to spend hours processing my feelings when I named that something that happened didn’t feel good for me. Suddenly, I felt the shift. Vulnerability was no longer fun for them. It was work. And they ended the relationship.
We’re all entitled to end a connection when something is no longer feeling good for us. And we also need to ask ourselves what do we owe to one another when we seek out another’s vulnerability? What do we owe to the other when they have been so vulnerable with us? These questions can help us step away without falling into the trap of disposability. One thing I try to consider when ending a connection is the depth and quality of the intimacy that was shared. It doesn’t matter if we dated for 6 weeks or were together for 3 years. Some of the most profoundly vulnerable relationships I’ve had have been short-term connections. It’s also important to remember that, at the start of a connection, we haven’t yet built trust or secure attachment. So being vulnerable is extra risky. Hopefully, by the time we’ve been with someone for a year or more, being vulnerable feels a lot less scary because the other person has demonstrated their commitment to us and their capacity to care for us in our most vulnerable moments.
I want us to learn the difference between desiring vulnerability and practicing it — and to build our capacity for the latter. I want us to catch ourselves in the moments where we romanticize the person for their vulnerability, where we turn them into the Wounded Mermaid Faith Healer. I want us all to remember that our vulnerability is a precious gift – to ourselves and to others. Because when we are vulnerable, we deepen our intimacy. We’re already wounded enough. I want us to try harder to mitigate the harm we cause one another. If we can be with the messiness that is part and parcel to vulnerability, we can access the forms of relationality we’ve dreamed of, and we can heal our wounds.
People will often ask me: how can I become more vulnerable? Here are a few things you can do to make practicing vulnerability a little less scary:
Start small. You don’t need to share your deepest, darkest, biggest fears and/or traumas with another person right away. In fact, that will likely cause some major nervous system dysregulation. It feels a lot different to share “I’m afraid of spiders,” than it does to say “I’m afraid of being abandoned by those I love.”
Turn it into a get-to-know-you game. There are so many great card decks with questions that you can ask one another, so that way the sharing is reciprocal and you can both learn more about each other! Here are two of my favs: Actually Curious: Curiosity Edition; Boundaries Conversation Deck; Holstee Reflection Cards.
Check in beforehand. Before you share something vulnerable, it’s important to ask the other person if they have the capacity to receive your share in that moment. The last thing we want is to share something vulnerable and have the human on the other end be too stressed, tired, or distracted to respond with their full presence. If they don’t have the space in that moment, ask if you two can set aside time later.
Share your aftercare needs. “When I share something vulnerable, it can feel really supportive for me if you could [thank me for sharing; hold my hand; not give advice; ask me questions; etc]. That way you’re setting both of you up for success.
Juma DeJesus aka. ThePapiiiMystic is a Queer, Non-binary, Latinx multidisciplinary artist whose been invited on a trip to study in Peru, this upcoming fall: “Over the course of three weeks, I will have the incredible opportunity to study and learn from the indigenous Shipibo people in Pucallpa, Peru. During my stay with them, I will learn to work with several different master plants that are used for holistic healing and medicine. These powerful plant medicines help aid in healing our emotional, physical, mental, energetic, and spiritual bodies. The wisdom, clarity, joy, healing, creativity, cleansing, and openness these ancient plantas can bring is truly incredible.”
Help cover the costs of this trip! Share their GFM on your social media or: