Susan Raffo

Radical acts of queer love: some lessons from September 11th

Filed By Susan Raffo | September 11, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: 9/11, accountability, anniversary, love, queer, relationships, war

I had a crush on her for three years before anything happened. It was that gentle kind of crush - the tingly feeling of attraction that stayed pretty uncomplicated even while it was always there when we saw each other. When we fell in love, it was like someone had unstuck the pause button and then - slam - it was instant and hard.

The first year was mostly spent in long distance. She had to go back to Brazil due to visa issues. I sat at home thinking, really? Really? Eventually I moved to Brazil to try things out, see if this was serious. We knew it was from the minute I got off the airplane.

Like lots of queer couples, we count our anniversary from the first time we had sex. That long night of intensity when we did all of the silly impulsive things without a shred of embarrassment: talked babies and future trips and what our families would think of each other.

That first night slid into a first year and then seven years later into having a kid together and building a shared culture of experiences and short hand language. We have taken trips and found out that our families each like the partner we chose. On today, September 11th, we celebrate 15 years.

Now, lest the start to this piece make it sound like it's all been roses and romance, it has not. We've almost broken up - like seriously almost broken up - twice. I have very much not liked her. She has not liked me. We exist somewhere between monogamous and not, but only in theory. In practice, we're monogamous. Both of us get crushes and look around. Sometimes our crushes have ended up a bit more intense than that. We've checked in with each other often - is this still what you want? Do you want to open the relationship? Do you want to sleep with someone else? It's ok if you do, we think. We laugh because time and again, we come back to this moment of - nah, it's not worth it. When we have sex, it is still really good. Even earth shattering sometimes. We don't have it as much as we used to. Sometimes that's about having a kid and a really full life. Sometimes we're just not on the same schedule. We still try to figure this one out.

When things have been hard, here is what we have said: how can we have a vision and a belief that the whole world can change into someplace magical and compassionate, that social justice and whole communities are possible, when we can't figure out how to find our way back to loving and respecting each other? Why would I have faith that strangers can really care about strangers if we can't take the time to really care about someone we already love? Notice, our goal is to find our way back to loving and respecting each other, not to being in a committed relationship. The form of our relationship - partners - is just the vehicle. We want to stay honest, respectful and loving. If the best way to do that is to change how we live, change the shape of our partnership - then we will change it.

Everything is about relationship and I'm not just talking about me and Rocki, my partner. I am talking about life. About community. Whether we have sex or live on opposite sides of the planet - everything in some way springs from the question - do I feel compassion for who you are and how you struggle or do I feel distant from it? If I feel distant from it, then how do I shift this? How do I find my way to love?

Oh dear, I used the word "love" in a piece on politics. But seriously, why would we do anything, anything at all, if it weren't to increase our ability - individually and collectively - to feel and give and enjoy love?

About six years after Rocki and I first had sex, we watched the planes fly into the Twin Towers. This was on the morning of our anniversary, when we had plans to go out to eat and maybe catch a movie. And suddenly our shorthand - 9/11 - took on another meaning entirely. For the United States, 9-11 now meant people dying. It meant a fear of being attacked by planes, by bombs and by people who would hurt you because of how you looked, because of your name, because of your language, how you believe in God, because of how you dress. It meant experiencing suddenly what so many people on the planet experience every day. It meant experiencing what people in this country had already been feeling, long before the planes crashed into the towers.

I can feel the connections between the September 11th that Rocki and I celebrate and the September 11th that will be all over the news. They inform each other and affect each other for no other reason than our relationship holds both meanings of the 11th of September. But writing that connection out, explaining why and where they come together, is a different story. The relationship between these two September 11ths exists as layers upon layers, sediment and bedrock, one upon the other, weaving back and forth and creating a kind of whole. The two September 11ths move through my thoughts rapidly, one image chasing the other. What it feels like to love and to be afraid. The day to dayness of fifteen years, how regular it is. How even now I can look at Rocki and feel like I've never seen her before. Feel like I don't know her. What it feels like to tell the truth, even when I am afraid. All of the stories that gather around 9-11. What it feels like to hear people talk about generic Muslims as though they know them, knowing their actions and their beliefs, their motivations. The feeling of the hatred generated by speakers on television, by elected leaders, by people who live on my block. Talks of Quran burning. How tight and hard my belly feels when I hear that hatred, how the skin prickles between my shoulder blades. What that rage and anger must feel like. How many people are afraid. What fear feels like.

Accountability and truth telling can never fully happen in a single sentence. "I'm sorry," doesn't really cut it. Not by itself. In a relationship between two people, accountability happens everyday, with words and with follow through, with assumptions made and then relearned. It happens directly and it happens indirectly. It happens in layers. All parties have to agree that accountability has taken place, not just the person who shared their regret. And within all of this, there is telling the truth, asking for help, and doing it without trying to control what happens next. Letting go of the outcomes. There is stumbling, forgetting and not seeing, really seeing, the other person. There is relearning, again and again, how to tell the truth.

Accountability and truth telling for whole communities, with histories that cross generations, is slower and bigger. Unwieldy. Deliberate. Much harder because all of the relationships and the things that happened are so tangled together. Truth and reconciliation. No single person can track the whole thing, but in telling the truth over and over again and in being listened to in the telling, new stories are born. Who did what and why, and what happened as a result and then, years later, what it still feels like. How what you did changed my life forever. "I'm sorry," doesn't really cut it. Where did this hatred, this rage, begin? And whose fault is what happened? Whose fault is it? That's the underbelly of what the memorials of 9-11 cover: defining who is at fault and who is most hurt. This has not been just an argument or a discussion. This has been war.

Fear is part of the creation of this country. It was used to justify the stealing of this land and its resources. It was and is used to justify slavery and its child, the prison system. Fear makes it unsafe for brown skinned Spanish-surnamed people in Arizona and other states who don't have the laws but still have the practice. I literally can't hear you when I am afraid. When I am afraid, my thinking self shuts down and my nervous system goes on alert. All of my body's resources go to putting blood into my muscles, all sprung and ready for reaction. When I am afraid, I can't see the big picture. All I can see is what I am afraid of, turning my head to try and look in other directions, I can't help but keep it there, warily watching it out of the corner of my eye. Not letting go until I know I am safe.

Layers and layers. Where did this hatred, this rage, begin? And whose fault is what happened? Whose fault is it? And what, really and truly, are we afraid of? What is on the other side of it and what is the cost of letting it go?

There is a link between what Rocki and I celebrate today and what most people in this country are thinking about. Maybe that link is just about practice. About practicing the same kind of skills - telling the truth, listening, showing up, being willing to be afraid, not shutting down the complex humanity of the other person because I am afraid - that are needed in dealing with the bigger 9-11. In a day to day way. Without defining the outcomes before we get there.

Our anniversary isn't about the fact that we've stuck together for fifteen years because this is not a race with the longest-staying as the winner. Our anniversary is about still liking each other, that we continue to try, and that we show up. Because that's really what it's about: showing up, accountability and truth telling. That when we are afraid, we can't just step away because it gets hard and uncomfortable. If we want to make change, to deeply and truly make change, to stay liking each other, then we have to show up, awkwardly and without the right answers. We have to show up even when we are afraid. And so we continue to practice. That is what we are celebrating. That we continue to practice.

Love is revolutionary. And there is nothing easy about it. We practice it in our most intimate spaces, and we make more mistakes than we can remember. We use our belief that the whole world can change into someplace magical and compassionate, that social justice and whole communities are possible, when we figure out how to find our way back to loving and respecting the other. From the other who lives right here, in the same house with me, to all those I have never met. Everything is about relationship and I'm not just talking about me and Rocki, my partner. I am talking about life. About community. Whether we have sex or live on opposite sides of the planet - everything in some way springs from the question - do I feel compassion for who you are and how you struggle or do I feel distant from it? If I feel distant from it, then how do I shift this? How do I find my way to love?

Thank you to Rocki and Flo for their incredible help with this piece.

And thank you to Ricardo Levins Morales for generously sharing his artwork for the illustration.


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Hannah Knazna-Lippman | September 12, 2010 12:13 AM

oh, my god. This is such an incredible piece. I feel honored I got to read this. Thank you Susan.

Thank you Susan Raffo for this piece. That love is both compassionate and tough--individually or collectively is something we keep forgetting it seems. We get caught up in our culture with syrupy notions of love--all choreographed to dream sequences set to music; and we forget that it is about empathy.
Doing work in a Jesuit school, I am particularly thrilled to see Oscar Romero on here.
Thank you again.

Wow! Susan, I am awestruck. This is a beautiful and powerful piece of Love and Truth. Your humanity and ethic and caring leap from every paragraph and I am both humbled and inspired. Thank you.
J-Marie

Thank you for your thoughtfulness in living and writing this article. Your reflections around community and relationships are beautiful and offer an example or road map around loving and being in community with others. Thank you for your words. They are powerful and not lost on me.

On a side, as a queer person in a long term relationship, I feel uncomfortable when folks (queer or hetero) are impressed with the longevity of our relationship and offer up praise and accolades. This immediate acceptance/reverence bestowed on long term relationships (especially if people perceive them as traditional - a.k.a. - monogamous/traditional gender presentation/etc) is just...well, it's just plain fluff. We've done nothing out of the ordinary. We actively choose to be present and live through the great times and work through the not so great times. The genius of your article (for me) is your insight into the power and difficulty of continuing to show up and love the person across from us. Whether that person is our partner, neighbor, politician, or someone around the world.

Finally, your article reminded me of my mom. I grew up with a mom who would sing this little song to me as I woke up, "I am the place where Love shines through, for Love and I are one, not two, and if I am relaxed and free, Love will carry out it's plan through me!" She shared that no one is our enemy and our only job everyday is to love and see examples of love in everyone that comes into our experience. So again, thank you for your commitment to working through difficulty, loving, building community and choosing to write about it. Thank you for using the word love in a piece on politics.

Wow. Just wow. Partway through this piece, I chose a remarkable sentence I was going to quote in the comments. Then I found another one. Then another. Then the sentences coalesced into a feeling, a truth I can not quote or really remark on, but can only be grateful for and sit with.

Thank you, Susan. I love you big time.

exactly what happened to me.

so i put on f'book:
@Susan Raffo: "thank u so much, for sharing honestly, and for linking LOVE and political thought. It truly does motivate ALL we do. Beautiful."

Am inspired--I used to write like this in the 70's and 80's and love finding this today.

Sorry but that was utterly sickmakingly sentimental nonsense! Do you work for Hallmark? What on earth is radical or queer about the reactionary sacchrine Christian message of Jesus' love? Tripe and indulgence.