'On Queer Grieving: The Community Crisis of Vicarious Trauma', by Cee Frances

In 2017 the queer and gender-diverse community of Australia undertook an incredible campaign of everyday activism around marriage equality. As individuals and collectives we shared our personal stories with our networks – from social media, to workplace to school playground. We purged our tears and our rage – documented as poems, articles, photos, short stories, status updates, tweets, blog posts, political cartoons, and short videos. Many of us were shocked at the vitriol directed at us, to our faces, in our letter boxes and online, even in ‘secret’ Facebook groups. Many of us were hurt by the unspoken tensions and the conversations we couldn’t have with some of our nearest and dearest. By the end, we were truly exhausted.

We at Brow Books are thrilled to publish Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or No’, a book that collects a diverse array of perspectives and narratives, a book that is a journal of record of a time when the value of human beings was debated, a book that tells an overall story that is much larger than the sum of its parts.

'On Queer Grieving: The Community Crisis of Vicarious Trauma' is written by Cee Frances and is one of the pieces you can read in Going Postal.

For sid/binchickendeluxe.

I have lost count of how many times I have woken from a nightmare involving the death of a queer loved one, and today is no exception. After waking, I lie in bed for hours, unable to shift a sense of incapacitating dread—it becomes a physical ache that spreads throughout my body.

Last week, I travelled to a suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne to give a presentation for The International Day Against Hombphobia, Transphobia and Biophobia (IDAHOBIT). Since I started specialising in the area of queer & trans trauma writing and research, speaking about LGBTQIA+ issues has become part of my job. For this particular event, it means I have the opportunity to speak to more than 200 people about my experiences navigating trauma as someone who is both queer and non­binary, as well as an academic and community advocate. In preparation for these gigs, I usually ask organisers what angle they wish my presentation to take: Trans terms 101? Political commentary? An overview of my current PhD research? To my surprise and slight discomfort, the organisers of the event asked that I simply “tell my own story”. Having based my career on convincing others that marginalised identities need more than a cursory, abstracted political platform, I have grown accustomed to using careful, persuasive language to carry personal narratives. Being asked to tell the story of my life seems both too difficult and too easy. How could I confidently implore a room of predominately white, heterosexual, cis government staff to respond to the current mental health crisis facing my community? Without focusing on my meticulously collected accolades, why would they listen to me? And of course, the ever familiar ode to imposter syndrome: what right do I have?

Going Postal: More than 'Yes' or 'No', out November 2018

Being an intersectional researcher means acknowl­ edging that privilege will always inform what stories we tell, who tells them, and how they get told. There is a certain irony in going through one’s life navigating certain identity categories and the oppressions that come attached to them, only to end up as an advocate who must decide what to speak of and when—to stand back from the mic or step up to it.

As IDAHOBIT approaches I think of all of the queer and trans stories that need to be told. About the current epidemics of racism and ableism plaguing both our immediate and broader communities. More than anything, I begin to think of those who are no longer here to speak for themselves. Generational and immediate community mourning is the underpinning of every project in which a queer person becomes a representative of our own cause.

Most of us learn to shake off our nightmares, attributing them to an overactive imagination or that cheese we ate before bed. I, along with so many queer and trans people, was forced to stop dismissing night terrors around the same time I started burying young, vulnerable members of my community.

In around my second year of being immersed in Melbourne queer spaces and relationships, I lost an online friend to suicide. This event precipitated a breakdown longcoming, and I lost my job in community health due to needing to extend my bereavement leave. Upon telling both my previous employer and other (nonqueer) friends and family members, I was faced with the same series of questions: Were they a close friend? How did I know them? What happened?

As my mental health hit rock bottom, the echo of these painfully insensitive enquiries and their speculative undertones began to haunt me. I received a new psychiatric diagnosis and became suicidal. I did not want to tell anyone in my life how bad things were—after all, what right did I have? My friend who died was somebody I only met once, I was not suffering nearly as much as their closest friends and family.

I could not find a way of articulating how gravely the point of my grief and health decline was both entirely separate from, and tied to, these disqualifications. I was so impacted by Gem’s death because I never got the chance to know her better, and because we both spent a lot of time in an online space designed for women and queers to discuss our mental health in detail. There, we received the kind of support that we couldn’t get anywhere else.

The reasons for our loyalty to this digital space were varied, but united by acute need. The some 300 people in this space knew more about my mental health struggles than most of my IRL loved ones. Online, friends and strangers alike could “opt in” to offer support, and mediate this choice through both the distance and strange closeness of an internet forum. From suicide alerts to counselling recommendations, we held each other up daily. When Gem died, our lovingly sheltered community was blown apart.

The point I see absent from most discussions of queer community (particularly from mainstream, outsider perspectives) is just how much of our lives are anchored by, and negotiated through, the online spaces that hold us. Part of existing in a community facing daily hardships is learning about the limitations faced by others as well as ourselves; the reality that IRL support is not only difficult, but often dangerously scarce in supply. Alongside this, many of us have a back­catalogue of failed relationships and support systems, which can prevent us from seeking out new, healthier, intimate connections: typical ‘stable’ friendships are instead sublimated by online meme groups, political communities and party culture. This is not to say that healthy friendships cannot grow from such contexts, but simply acknowledges these divergences from traditional relationship frameworks. In the historical context of LGBTQIA+ party culture, we rarely discuss the fact that this is the result of the swing between bunkering down or going OUT, because sometimes destructive urges are about choosing the least harmful vice, and damn it, we deserve a break.

The reality underpinning these changes to our internal social structures is that all of us have experienced traumatic events in our lives, though in different ways and to differing extents. Assumptions from outsiders based around questions regarding suicide such as “Were you close?” don’t hold up when loss and harm reduction are fundamental, daily experiences. Already, so few of us can fully articulate how traumatic events have shaped our lives, and if we do, we are often continually forced to qualify our suffering. Not only does such gatekeeping perpetuate cycles of silence and harm, but we are prevented from developing necessary strategies for managing the shockwaves. The strategies we need range from managing the ongoing nature of vicarious trauma, grief support, and an acknowledgement of who carries the burden of emotional labour when community traumas occur. Overwhelmingly, it is the most marginalised individuals; those socialised as women, femmes and People of Colour, who end up shouldering the bulk of the load, and who are expected to step up and forego their own wellbeing for the more pressing crises at hand. It is of no surprise that in the last two years, the community suicides I have been most affected by have sat at the intersections of women, femmes, POC, and sex work.

Those who look the strongest are often experiencing the highest labour demands—and yet, we continue to ignore these critical internal community realities. And so we burn out our most precious resources, contribute to further lateral violences, and isolate ourselves in a desperate attempt to reduce our own suffering. At best, we barely keep our fragmented communities afloat; at worst, those who have become isolated drift further and further away from any possibility of support when they need it most. And yes, people get sick, and they die. They aren’t here anymore to tell us how we could have done better. If the AIDS crisis has taught us anything, it’s that our community absorbs the pain of members far and wide, and exchanges this load generationally by necessity. We feel the loss of strangers through their close proximity to our social orbits, political values and personhood—we grieve, through sharing the stories of their suffering. By remembering, we are reminded of why we must continue fighting current crises.

This is the nightmare we are living in postplebiscite, in the era of “Equal Love”. This is what I wake up to and from, today, on the day of this year’s IDAHOBIT. This is why questions like “Were you close?” don’t even begin to address the devastation of suicide for LGBTQIA+ individ­ uals and their broader networks. In this game of dominos we are pushed to an illogical extreme, only to be faced with incredulity at the causes of our inevitable collapse.

On the way to last week’s presentation, the reasons for my restless sleep the night before settled on my shoulders and refused to budge. I realised that the most important story I had to tell to a room of strangers with little context for LGBTQIA+ issues was not the trajectory from closet to New Queer World; this place where finally, every now and again, I get paid to teach others what inclusion actually means for my community, and how the frameworks through which we view trauma must be expanded far beyond their current parameters. It is my story, colliding with that of my friends who have died, and who will continue to suffer if we do not learn how to effectively address current realities of violence as both an institutionally-regulated reality, and an everyday, vicarious burden we all share.

If we do not receive support to develop our own action plans, destructive cycles of crisis and burnout will continue to ripple through our communities and their unique kinship structures. Too many lives, and the stories connected to these lives, have already been lost. And so, I tell a room full of strangers about my friends, about my most recent queer loss and its true, devastating weight. The room is silent, punctuated by discomfort. As the event wraps up, however, I am flooded by bodies and shuffled towards a rainbow photo wall. Strangers beam at me from all sides and pose for the camera, shiny-eyed with gratitude. I agree to stay for lunch, summoning the energy to answer their enthusiastic questions. Witnessing this level of optimism floods my chest with warmth, but it is exhausting, and I am relieved when the crowd finally thins.

After driving home, I cancel my plans for the next twenty-four hours. I do what I feel I must—I go to bed, even though I will dream on high alert. Most importantly, I continue to tell our stories. I speak to the crisis within them, in the hopes it might fall on listening ears.

Cee France is / mad as / a cut snake / rising / a watermark / seven loose teeth / an ode to femme-fags / and / a wardrobe of pink slime.

Going Postal, edited by Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne, is officially out in stores around Australia on Thursday 15th November—the first anniversary of the historic ‘Yes’ vote in the marriage equality postal survey. You can also order it here.