Personal News: I haven’t been feeling so hot the past few weeks, but good news, my pesky uterus and its fibroid passenger “Guillaume” are going to come out within the next several months. YEETERUS AT LAST.
Content Note: Brief mention of kink in the question. If you’re a child and/or the concept of D/s relationships irks you, skip this one.
I (they/them) am in a D/s relationship with a trans woman (she/they) involving mutual service dynamics, and one aspect is me being her “guard dog.” I very much enjoy being the protector, and love to be called her guard dog and such things, but sometimes when I really do need to protect her, I fail to do so. Being brave in terms of investigating noises or taking on situations that scare her is one thing, but I am really useless when it comes to helping with conflict. For example, if someone is transphobic to her in public, I often completely freeze up or say something really milquetoast in response. I am just completely filled with shame that in so many situations where I could actually help her, I’m a useless lump instead.
I am working on being braver and taking baby steps to being more assertive and standing my ground when it’s safe to do so, but it feels like I’m not really making much progress. And, any time I fail, it completely tanks my self image and for a long time afterwards, hearing her call me her guard dog just feels horrible. She doesn’t hold it against me, and she isn’t trying to call me out, but in the aftermath I just can’t help but feel like I’m a pathetic armchair warrior, playacting like they’re brave but hiding anytime things get real.
What can I do to get better at being brave and blunt in the moment? How do I learn in my bones that it’s okay to rock the boat when someone has tried to throw someone overboard? And in the meantime, how do I handle the shame and feeling like I don’t deserve her praise or the title of guardian?
–Big Bark, No Bite
Dear Big Bark,
Good news: Assertiveness in the moment is a skill and a habit that can be practiced and learned over time.
Medium news: If you didn’t grow up with the knack, it takes time and practice to unlearn old habits and social dynamics and acquire new ones. You’re not alone in freezing up during high conflict situations, and it feels hard to push back because bigots (and the misogynist, homophobic and transphobic racist culture that we’re all swimming in) makes it hard to push back.
Bigots assume that most people in the dominant group secretly agree with them, and they rely on pressuring anyone who doesn’t agree with them to remain “polite,” “calm,” “neutral,” “civil,” to “prove you’re the bigger person,” to “rise above it,” to “not get emotional,” or “ruin the occasion.” Everything in quotes in the prior sentence is a code for “STAY SILENT AND COMPLIANT AND DON’T REACT.” Bigots want to be able to say and do whatever hateful stuff they want and treat anything less than total compliance, welcome, and praise as proof that they are being persecuted by rude and uncivil forces. *Any* negative reaction from a non-bigot will be treated as an overreaction, as they try to turn attention away from the vile shit they said and blame you for ruining everyone’s fun when you don’t enjoy it. Does that make sense? You’re always going to feel “rude” when you respond to bigotry because bigots thrive by defining any opposition to their violent views and behavior as your faux pas, and the rest of the culture has been conditioned to police “possible rudeness” harder than outright eugenics as long as the horrible person never raises their voice.
Responding to a rude, transphobic remark can be as simple as saying a word or two: “Wow.” “Not cool.” “Yikes.” “Really.” “Yuck.” “Gross.” “Shame on you.” “That’s unacceptable.” “Awkward!” “How embarrassing.” “What an odd thing to say out loud.” You don’t have to be snappy, slay them with your wit, explain yourself, deliver a footnoted treatise on why it’s wrong, or debate with them (almost always a trap). It doesn’t have to be perfect, eloquent, or suave as long as you say or do *something* that indicates that you’re not okay with whatever is happening. Practice speaking up, practice dealing with the flood of pressure and weird feelings that rises afterward, and practice being very kind and gentle with yourself. It’s a process, but if you keep at it you’ll find your own style over time. If that style is more on the “milquetoast” end of things, but you are consistently able to express dismay and disapproval when you encounter bigotry? Then you’re probably doing great!
It’s not always safe to respond, especially for more marginalized people, and you (both you the Letter Writer and you the Reader) are going to be the best judge of when walking away quietly or other de-escalation tactics are necessary to avoid violence Just know that whenever you are able to say something back to a bigot, you are doing four very important things:
- You’re returning the awkwardness to sender. The bigot is the one who ruined everyone’s good time with their asshole remarks, you’re not making it weird by responding. [Remind yourself/bystanders of this by re-stating the facts of what the bigot said and did. “Oh, yes, I realize my ‘tone ‘is quite strident, but I’m not the one who casually suggested a genocide at Book Club.” “Why are you more okay with [the exact horrible thing they said] than with me reacting to it? Weird!” ]
- You’re removing the bigot’s plausible deniability that their views are acceptable and that “everyone” agrees with them.
- You’re signaling to any nearby marginalized folks and fellow non-bigots that they’re not alone here.
- Even if there is no one else there to notice and nobody is on your side, by speaking up you are standing firm in your own integrity. This too takes practice!
These four things are true and important whether or not the bigot ever “learns a lesson.” It’s unlikely that anyone – especially a stranger in a public place! – changes their horrible views just because you made the right snappy comeback at the right time.
Now, Letter Writer, I want to delve into the specifics of the relationship a tiny bit here.
If you’re being asked to do something as part of a kinky exchange, and attempting that thing is consistently making you feel awful, then it’s probably time to renegotiate things with your partner. “Can we talk about ways we can both show up for each other and push back against transphobic interactions in public? The ‘guard dog’ role isn’t working for me when it involves other people, and I keep freezing up. Can we take that out of the package for the time being and focus on [stuff we both enjoy]?”
You don’t enjoy this particular aspect of your relationship. That is not a failure on your part, and that is a good enough reason to change it. If it’s not working for you, then it’s not working, period.
That doesn’t mean you should stop speaking up altogether when you and your partner encounter transphobes in the wild. Standing up for your partner the way you would do for a friend, a stranger, or heck – yourself! -is still going to be a good idea for all the reasons stated above, and it’s still a good idea to practice and learn. But I think it will work better if the two of you are a team about it, and if your partner’s safety and agency around this isn’t outsourced to you under pressure of performing a certain way. Sometimes you speak up and they back you up, sometimes they speak up and you back them up, experiment! But overall, I suggest that you untangle the assertiveness skill-building from the kink for now, remove pressure, and see how you do.