Sometimes change tears through your life like wildfire. Over a 10-month period in 2014, my mom died, my marriage fell apart, and I moved out of the home I shared with my ex. It was a combination of Major Life Events that pushed me to the limits of my emotional and physical wellbeing in ways I’d never experienced before. I remember getting my hair cut in the midst of it all and my stylist noticing that my hair was falling out, like even it couldn’t handle the stress anymore. Learning with my whole body that there’s nothing linear about grief; it ebbs and flows and is so much more than sadness. Shifting my identity, no longer wife and not sure what daughter meant with my only parent gone. Dealing with the seemingly endless bureaucracy and physical labour of death and divorce.
Sitting down to meditate and ending up face down on the carpet, sobbing. Binge-watching 11 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (more sobbing). Crying at the office. Crying at yoga. Crying on the street. Becoming really comfortable with crying in public. Giving myself permission to feel angry. Being surprised by joy. Buying an expensive blender and self-medicating with elaborate smoothies. Building an altar in my bedroom and filling it with symbols of what I wanted to call into the space that had suddenly been created in my life. Looking up at the sky one winter night and consciously, willingly yielding to all those endings without knowing what I’d find on the other side.
It was a brutal and profoundly transformative experience that taught me powerful lessons about community, chosen family and queer interdependence. My community held, fed and sheltered me throughout that year and after. My friend Matt flew 1,000 kilometres to help pack up my mom’s apartment. Eli gave me a soft place to land in the days and weeks immediately after the split. Tae couriered fancy chocolates to my office all the way from Toronto. Connie and Taryn had me over for brunch so I wouldn’t be alone on Christmas morning. Jess and Amy said yes every time I asked to stay with them during visits to the city where my mom lived and died. Too many people and too many gestures to name. Queer community kept me standing and caught me when I fell. They were my strong roots in sturdy ground when everything else around me was changing.
This month marks the third anniversary of my mom’s death and I’ve been reflecting on how that time in my life continues to inform my thoughts and actions. I keep returning to the idea of queer interdependence - how we’re mutually reliant on each other, and how we need each other to survive in the face of multiple oppressions that daily threaten our lives and well-being. To be interdependent - to take care of each other - flies in the face of capitalist, ableist logic that values independence and self-sufficiency over mutuality and support.
As a queer and trans health advocate, I think a lot about taking care of each other both within and outside of systems and structures. Many of us have learned to care for ourselves and each other concurrently with learning to mistrust or even fear the systems and institutions ostensibly meant to keep us safe, like hospitals or welfare or our families of origin. Queer community has given me my deepest education in giving and receiving consensual care. Our ability to do so is shaped by our experiences of creating family and community in a context of individual and collective violence, trauma and loss. As Kelli Dunham writes in the essay, “Our Caregiving, Ourselves,”* “our group caregiving skills—necessitated by isolation from biological family and refined in the furnace of the AIDS crisis—are a well-documented strength of our community.”
I recognize and honour this strength, and I also witness its complexity: what does it mean to be a community whose collective caregiving skills are shaped by past and present trauma, violence and scarcity? What does it mean to give or receive care and emotional labour in a patriarchal, ableist, racist, capitalist society that devalues this work? How do our experiences of individual or structural violence, whether in our families of origin, our intimate relationships, or the various systems we interact with, create barriers to giving or receiving care? How can we safely and accountably navigate the places where our interconnected relationships are tangled, severed or dangerous? What’s the difference between queer interdependence and queer codependence, and why are boundaries and self-care so essential to our survival?
I ask these questions because I’m not naive about queer caregiving or queer interdependence, or even the notion of ‘queer community’. There’s no monolith here, and many intersecting privileges and oppressions that draw some people closer and push others to the edges, or completely outside of them. Community and caregiving are not equitably accessible. In saying this I’m aware that my own experience and notions of giving and receiving care are shaped by my upbringing as a white person disconnected from models and practices of intergenerational or community care, and by my current reality as an economically privileged, non-disabled, urban-dwelling cisgender femme. I feel myself bumping up against the limits of my knowledge and experience; it reminds me of how much I don’t know and pushes me to learn more. Here I want to specifically acknowledge my commitment to learning more about Disability Justice and the pioneering work of disabled activists of colour like Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, and many others,who have been writing and making art about and working towards interdependence, collective access, and collective liberation for years. (In short: I am not the expert here.)
I hold to a vision of queer interdependence because I don’t want us to leave anyone behind, and because - to paraphrase Aboriginal elder, activist and educator Lilla Watson - I believe fiercely that our liberation and survival are bound up together. What does interdependence look and feel like to you? What models of possibility can you imagine or are you co-creating today? What can you learn from your ancestors, and what do you want to offer to the generations that follow? What would it take to commit yourself to giving and receiving care in a way that honours your boundaries and your capacity? In a way that’s accountable, equitable and helps to redistribute privilege in service of justice and collective liberation?
Queer interdependence isn’t optional. It’s revolutionary and it’s life-saving.
*You can find Kelli’s essay in The Remedy: Queer and Trans Voices on Health and Health Care.