Hiding to Stay Visible

After spending the past week in fabulous San Francisco CA, I’m winging my way across the Rocky Mountains returning to dreary Portland Maine.  The company I work for, Odyssey Events LLC, just hosted their first West Coast sex & BDSM conference, after a decade of only doing events in Maryland and DC. Making it all happen took months of hard work, but the event was a spectacular success, exceeding the expectations of everyone who had a hand in its planning, and execution.

In addition to being the event’s national talent coordinator, scheduling coordinator, and production assistant, I kept busy through the weekend: teaching three classes, co-leading opening ritual, and acting as a secondary event photographer. 

I should have had an awesome, if busy time, reveling in the realization of a difficult vision. But on top of all of those things, I also spent the entire event desperately working to suppress the symptoms of my Tourette Syndrome.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the condition, or whose knowledge doesn’t extend past corpolalia (the relatively uncommon “swearing tics” that the media is so very fond of), allow me a brief moment to explain:

Tourette is a neurological condition that causes repeated involuntary movements and sounds, or “tics.” These can include sniffing, grunting, throat clearing, head jerking, facial grimacing, or just about anything else you can imagine. Both motor and vocal tics must be present (or have been within one year) for a diagnosis to be made, and the symptoms wax and wane over time without a great deal of rhyme or reason. Over time, new tics can develop and old tics can fade away. I have a host of symptoms, from the largely unnoticeable, such as painful dystonic back and neck tics, to more obvious tics like head jerking and the barking from whence my website and blog take their names.

Just as symptoms vary from person to person and moment to moment, so does a limited ability to suppress those tics for periods of time. The problem with suppressing is that it often takes a great deal of mental energy, making it difficult to maintain focus on other things. Suppressing like this also typically makes the tics far worse later, once someone has passed the limits of how much they can suppress, or are in a situation where they can stop doing so. In my case, I can manage my vocal tics for short periods of time, but doing so makes my painful back tics worse, tires me out faster, and means that I’m constantly devoting a considerable amount of focus and attention simply on the effort of not vocally ticcing.

Why then make the effort?  Put simply, I hate being invisible.

I often say, and only half in jest, that growing up with Tourette Syndrome taught me how to be a social entity. After all, I’ll point out, it’s hard to be a wallflower when you’re standing in the corner barking like a small terrier.

But in reality, particularly in sexually charged or queer environments, the rather noticeable consequences of my atypical neurological wiring has the effect of rendering me virtually invisible as a person possessed of sexual agency in the minds of the people around me.

This is hardly unique to my experience as a Touretter of course. Many people who present outwardly as having a disability find that they are automatically classified as a non-sexual being in the minds of those around them and even those whom they interact with on a regular basis.  Nor is this phenomena remotely confined to the rather specialized world of kink and BDSM events.

Among gay and queer men, my condition is often seen simply as a burden too far out there to be bothered with as a prospective partner. There is a regrettable stigma in being LGBT in our culture, and in part out of that stigma has grown the pursuit of a nebulous idea of “perfection” in our sexual and romantic partners. As if to say “yes I’m in a same-gender relationship, but wouldn’t you be too if you could have him/her/hir on your arm?”

Equally significant though, the media engines of Gay Inc. have worked hard to present an image of what it means to be LGB(t) in America: attractive, upper middle class, white, monogamous, and most importantly, “normal.” Even if I ticked all those boxes save the last, which I don’t, being perceived as “normal” hasn’t been on the table for me since my tics became significantly noticeable nineteen years ago.

It’s tempting I know, to say that I’m not giving people credit, that given a chance, many people would be happy to engage with me as a sexual and romantic entity despite the Tourette. We want to believe that faced with this sort of situation we’d be guided by our better angels and look past something as simple as some barking or twitching.

But we don’t, and while that’s sad, it’s also very human. As “proof” I can offer this utterly unscientific experiment I ran over the course of a couple of years:

When I remove any mention of the Tourette from my online dating profiles, without making any other fundamental changes, I get responses to messages I send out, and get unsolicited messages in my inbox with some regularity. Put the Tourette back, and the well goes abruptly dry. It doesn’t really matter how vague or specific I get, or even if I take pains to note that I don’t have coprolalia. If I’m out about the Tourette, I get nowhere.

Nor does the strategy of getting to know someone over the web and building a connection before disclosing my condition prove remotely viable. Once the TS is out in the open, potential play or romantic partners disengage to seek out partners whose neurotransmitters fire in a more conventional way.

While rejection always sucks, I vastly prefer the passive rejection of an unreturned note or a note never sent, over building a connection with someone only to have them turn tail and run when they find out about the Tourette. This is why after much experimentation, I settled on leaving the disclosure in place in my social media and dating-site profiles.

As an aside, I’ve found in talking to many of the trans* people in my life that there are some clear parallels to be drawn between my own experience as a Touretter and the trans* experience, especially but not exclusively as it relates to dating and sexual agency. While as a rule most of the trans* people in my life reject the idea of trans* identity as a “medical condition,” and I certainly wouldn’t call being trans* a “disability, one could likely replace “Tourette” and “TS” in the preceding couple of paragraphs with “trans* history/identity” and have a painfully familiar storyline to many people.

Despite all the issues inherent in being seen as a Touretter, suppressing my tics at Surrender was hardly a rousing success as a strategy. With part of my attention perpetually diverted to managing the tics, I found it hard to fully engage with the people around me, and I know that I was a bit off my game during opening ritual and my urethral sounding class if nothing else.

On a related note, while I’ve achieved a satisfying level of professional success in my field, although I certainly have goals and dreams as-yet-unrealized, I have doubts as to whether I could I have gotten where I am now, had my entry into this world not coincided with a combination of a strong waning phase and a couple of years where my primary tics were not as socially intrusive as the barking (which has been an on-again/off-again companion for nearly nineteen years). After all, as I’ve discussed before, my much of my work is fundamentally related to sex work.

But beneath all the issues of dating and career opportunities, closets are not, and have never been places where I feel comfortable. When I did consider pursuing play at Surrender, or even just a deeper intellectual/emotional connection with someone, I found myself hyper conscious of the fact that I was not presenting them with my authentic self.

Speaking only for myself, Tourette Syndrome is part of my fundamental makeup, and without its overarching influence, my life would surely look radically different than it does today. It’s not hyperbole to say that there’s no way to really know me without understanding the TS and how it has and continues to effect who I am and how I move through my life.

I’d love to say that I’m going to resolve to be more open and positive about the Tourette, or that I won’t repeat this exact same pattern come Dark Odyssey Winter Fire in February. But the reality is that I honestly don’t know.

That’s the Siren’s song of the closet after all.  

Trying To Balance Conflicting Identities on National Coming Out Day

Today is National Coming Out Day, and it’s got me thinking about the complex nature of identities and openness. More specifically, I’ve been told that I’m to write a post on that topic as penance for not addressing it the way She wanted me to in today’s What You Need To Know on Bilerico.com. I should really be sleeping, but my tics are so severe that the anti-tic medicine I take at night isn’t doing shit. So while I wait for my sedatives to kick in, here goes:

 The subject of identity is probably the most common threat binding Notes From A Barking Shaman’s six year run together. I suppose I’ve hardly ever stopped exploring and dissecting who it is that I am as I move through the world, and yet somehow I feel less sure myself now than at any time I can remember since sitting down to write my first post back in September of ’06.

For the first time in recent memory, I find myself in the incredibly unfamiliar place of being closeted in one way or another across many areas of my life, and to be honest it doesn’t sit well with me.

I move through many different spheres and sub-cultures, and the values they each hold dear are often in direct conflict with one another. It’s a delicate balancing act, and I exist in a state of constant struggle not to be a social and ideological chameleon, but rather to hold on to a solid sense of self-identity.

Perhaps the biggest conflict is between my pagan identity and my work as an LGBT blogger and activist. Although I’ve talked in the vaguest terms about being pagan in my writing for The Bilerico Project, where I am now associate editor, the progressive LGBT movement is overwhelmingly anti-religion and faith. And as a rule, it seems that atheists seem to hold pagans, and in particular practitioners of magic, as one infinitesimal step above radical conservative Christians in terms of disdain-worthiness. The Lady really wanted me to use NCOD as an opportunity to address my pagan identity directly with that audience, but I chickened out in the interest of self-preservation. I could potentially build my LGBT activism and blogging work into a semi-reliable paycheck (in higher paying speaking gigs if nothing else), and I’m reluctant to burn my bridges any faster than I already do by defending faith as a concept, and pro-equality religious people as a whole in my writing there.

Given the LGBT community’s general view on religion, my faith, service to the gods, and place as a magician, is something that I heavily downplay in my feeble attempts at dating as well. Although I suppose that could be part of why I’ve not had good luck lately. I’m open about my paganism on OKCupid, but it’s a conversation topic I steer away from with potential suitors.

But within the pagan community I don’t particularly feel free to be my unbridled self either. First and foremost, the pagan response to my Tourette often makes me incredibly angry, and so I tend to try to suppress my symptoms as much as possible in pagan space. Believe it or not, some people see the TS as a sign of the gods disfavor towards me, and others can’t accept that someone could have the talent and discipline for magic when their body isn’t fully within their control.

Beyond those issues, you’d be amazed how many people want to “fix” my TS. Best case scenario they hound me to let them try, worst case they just try without asking my permission first. I’ve also been told that I should just (insert deity to pray to, wacky diet to try, crystal to carry, position to sleep in, etc), or better yet, just “let go of my negativity” and my TS will be cured.

I could go into a long and very technical magical explanation of the flaw that underpins most of the “cures” people have tried or wanted to try, but I’m just going to say that I’ve worked with some of the finest healers, magicians, and energy workers that I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and while I can use certain magical techniques to manage the symptoms for short periods of time (I can suppress tics far longer than any Touretter I’ve met who wasn’t a fellow magician), “curing” the Tourette is not feasible.

That’s a personal issue in my interactions with the pagan community, but there’s an ideological one as well. I’m a scientist at heart, and technology, science, exploration, and intellectual curiosity are deeply important to me. I’m not going to say too much here, because there’s a whole NFaBS post on this topic coming, but I and many of my friends and colleagues have noticed a growing anti-intellectual thread within the pagan community that seems deeply at odds with our history. I had an argument with someone not all that long ago about the gods-blessed Polio vaccine for Hel’s sake! And I’m going to choose not to delve into some of the “conversations” on economics I’ve heard recently.

All that said, you can imagine that a pagan, much less a spirit worker, doesn’t exactly feel welcome in science-friendly spaces either though. And there’s a popular meme, particularly in the online lay-science community that any religious faith is incompatible with even an interest in scientific thought and advancement.

On a different note, I’m certainly not closeted within kink/BDSM space about being GSRM, but as I’ve discussed before, my sexual orientation doesn’t fit well within the kink/BDSM world that I travel in. Likewise, the gay community can range from very accepting of kink and polyamory, to not remotely. I’ve chosen to build my identity within the world of LGBT blogging and activism from a position that uses my kink experience and status as an asset, although I do recognize that it closes as many doors as it opens.

I’m open to an extent about my spiritual beliefs as a kinkster and in my work as a kink/sexuality educator, but only to a point. The BDSM community wants spiritual programing, classes, and rituals, but stripped of any overtly religious or pagan context. This means that while I’m widely known as a shaman, ritualist, and facilitator of cathartic ordeals and scenes, my actual pagan beliefs are far less known or public.

I don’t know that I have a sense of where my GSRM identity fits within the pagan community, or within my own identity as a pagan person. I’ve only ever been involved with very accepting pagan communities such as Asphodel or FSA, but at the same time, for all their inclusivity, I’ve never felt like I explored the spiritual nature of my sexual orientation or identity. Certainly I’ve never had my sexual orientation and spiritual/magical being working in synergy the way I have with my kink/BDSM identity and my spiritual and magical Work. That’s something I’ve been hoping for an opportunity to explore at some point in the future.

So as I move through the world on National Coming Out Day, I wrestle with how to balance the myriad and sometimes conflicting roles I have to wear and identities I carry:

Gods-slave, Magician, Shaman, Educator, Writer, Activist, Presenter, Event (Assistant) Producer, Photographer, Kinkster, Switch, Touretter, Poly, Disabled Person, Designer, Mechanic, Gay, Queer, Male, Cisgender, Gun Owner, Liberal, and the list could go on.

I feel like an understanding of how to make all these roles/identities work and play well together is just beyond my reach, but that in time I’ll get the hang of it. Maybe some will have to merge, maybe some will have to be let go, and maybe still more will be added to the list, but no matter what, laying them out and giving them acknowledgment on National Coming Out Day is no bad place to start.