Why We Should Not Blame Gun Violence on Mental Illness

On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley walked into a Texas church and killed twenty-six people with a gun.

In the wake of this undeniable tragedy, many have been arguing about the best way to prevent it from happening again in the future. I mean, as many of us are probably aware, this is not the first time that there has been a shooting in the United States. In fact, according to the Gun Violence Archive, between January 1, 2017 to November 5, 2017 alone, there have been 307 mass shootings, averaging 7 mass shootings a week.

So, yeah, I think we all agree that this is a serious problem that needs to be stopped. But that begs the question: how do we do it?

Well, the answer for many people has been in creating stricter gun laws, something that has in fact worked for other countries (Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries). And, personally (just to get any potential bias out of the way now), I agree with this approach. But guns are not the only thing receiving the blame following a shooting.

Following the Texas shooting, comedian Chelsea Handler tweeted: “Mental health issues without guns are people with mental health issues. With guns, they become murderers“.

Now, I’m sure that when Handler tweeted this, she did not mean to imply that, if you give any random person with mental illness a gun, they will immediately start shooting. I’m sure that she did not mean that any person with depression or generalized anxiety disorder or schizophrenia is just one gun away from murder. That would be an insane generalization to make. But, at the same time, it is very common for people to blame mental illness when mass shootings like these occur.

In fact, following the Texas shooting, Donald Trump did not even mention the issue of gun control, rather calling this a “mental health problem“. More than that, 63 percent of Americans believe that shootings have more to do with mental health problems than they do with gun control.

And, I mean, sure; why wouldn’t that be considered? It has been a common theme throughout many of these shootings. Devin Kelley, the Texas shooter, escaped from a mental health facility in 2012 and had a violent history. James Holmes, who killed 12 people and injured 70 more at a shooting in Aurora, was diagnosed with a schizophrenic disorder. Stephen Paddock, responsible for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, was on anti-anxiety medication and said to be susceptible to bouts of depression. This does seem to be a theme that comes up, again and again, so why wouldn’t it be at least mentioned?

Well, one thing that I think should be stressed is that, of the three examples that I gave above, only one of those men was actually diagnosed with a mental illness. Stephen Paddock was never diagnosed with anything, and Devin Kelley, while having escaped from a mental health facility, was there due to his accusations of spousal abuse and violence. He was never actually diagnosed either. In fact, only 14.8 percent of shooters in the United States are diagnosed as psychotic.

And of people in the general population who are diagnosed with mental illness, rates of violence are surprisingly low. In fact, it is estimated that people with mental illness contribute to only three to five percent of all violent crimes in the United States. And of these three to five percent of violent acts, most of these do not involve guns.

In fact, a mentally ill person in America is more likely to be the victim of their own gun-related violence. In 2013, guns killed 33, 636 people, and nearly two-thirds of these were suicides.

The problem that needs to be addressed here is not mental illness. There are hundreds, thousands, of mentally ill people who go their whole lives without once wanting to kill anyone with a gun. I happen to be one of them. Saying that shootings are a problem of mental health contributes to this society that sees every person with dissociative identity disorder as Norman Bates, and every psychopath as Hannibal Lecter. It inspires fear against the mentally ill, fear that has contributed to the fact that those with mental illness are actually ten times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population. It also creates an environment that makes it that much harder for people with mental illness to actually seek help, because they know that if they do, then others would constantly fear what they are capable of. They do not want to be perceived as dangerous, and so they suffer in silence for society’s sake.

As Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, said, “Imagine if [Trump] had said, ‘veteran’ – that this was a ‘veterans’ issue. He’d besmirch the whole community. Well, that’s what he’s doing with mental illness.”

We need to stop blaming violence on mentally ill people, because the fact is that we are not solely responsible for it. We need to stop stigmatizing individuals who need help, who should be made to feel safe and supported so that they can reach out. Nobody should have to deal with a mental illness alone, but that is exactly what this sort of conversation is causing.

And if you are someone who is dealing with a mental illness right now, I sincerely hope that you find love and support from your community. I hope that you find or have someone who you can talk to, who won’t judge you or look down on you, because you do not deserve any of that. You are a beautiful, wonderful, valid individual, and I sincerely hope you know that, even in the wake of all this mess.

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Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

Acting Like A Lady

“Oh, come, come, sweetie. Don’t say those words. Ladies don’t curse.”

“Ladies sit with their legs closed, sweetie.”

“Ladies wait until marriage to have sex.”

“Real ladies don’t wear too much make-up, lest they lead the boys on and give them the wrong idea.”

“Real ladies don’t kiss other girls, because that’s not the right way to get a boy’s attention.”

“Real ladies like girly things, like make-up and shopping and gossip. They don’t enjoy sports or comic books or science fiction.”

Honestly, I could go on and on with these, but I don’t think I have to. Because I think that (especially if you were born female), you’ve heard at least one of these statements before, and probably countless others.

This idea of “being a lady”, being a proper, well-behaved young girl. Some people still say this to children of the genetically female persuasion. Some people still say this to grown women. I know I’ve heard it many, many times; very recently, in fact, I’ve received the complaint that swearing is “not lady-like”.

And I think that many people will defend this idea of enforcing “lady-like” behaviour in girls simply because it’s “proper manners”. Look at the example of telling girls that they need to sit with their legs closed: of course we need to tell girls that, because girls, more frequently than boys, wear dresses and skirts, and it simply isn’t polite for children to be giving you a view of their underwear.

Except, A) children engage in a lot of activity that isn’t polite because they’re children, and B) young girls are also capable of wearing pants, and young boys are never told that they need to sit with their legs closed (for more on this, look up ‘manspreading‘).

And, in fact, a lot of these behaviour that we tell girls to engage in from a young age really have nothing to do with manners. There is no etiquette-assigned reason for why we can’t wear dark eyeshadow or visible foundation. Polite conversation does not particularly care how many sexual partners you have had, so long as you are not going into lengthy detail about them at the time. And there is most certainly no manners-related reason why girls can’t kiss other girls, whether they are doing it because they are lesbians, because they are bisexual, or because they are simply curious and/or experimenting.

So, all of this considered, why do we tell girls this? What does “acting like a lady” really mean?

Well, if I’m gathering information from the above examples, a “lady” is quiet, innocent, virginal, takes up very little space, doesn’t attract too much attention, feminine, and heterosexual. In other words, she is the quintessential passive, submissive woman living under the patriarchy.

And allow me to take a moment to say, “fuck you” to that noise.

Because here’s the thing: women should be allowed to be whoever they are. They should be allowed to make noise without being worried that they will be rejected by society as “unfeminine” if they do. They should be allowed to take up space. They should be allowed to curse and wear make-up and kiss girls and boys and whoever the fuck they want, no matter who gets the wrong (or maybe right) idea about them.

And they should be allowed to do all of this, while still being accepted as valid human beings, rather than the horror stories that we try to steer our children away from.

Because, end of day, what we should be striving for our children and for, ultimately, everyone, regardless of gender or age, is that they have the ability to be who they are. And maybe some of us do fit into the mould of the “lady”; maybe, my nature, some of us are quiet and passive and not the greatest fans of sex or sexuality. But my point is that, while that should most certainly be accepted, so should the opposite. Nobody should feel forced to become anything they are not because society says that they should. Nobody should be pressured to “act like a lady” just because they happened to be born with a vagina. Because not all of us were born as “ladies”, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t women and, more importantly, people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve respect, or acceptance, or to be taken seriously.

So the next time that you most to correct someone else’s “un-ladylike” behaviour, question yourself; is this behaviour really “un-ladylike”? Or is it merely the behaviour of a different sort of lady?

And, please, never feel guilty for acting in a way that comes natural and hurts no one. A lady can do whatever the fuck she wants, because the beautiful thing about us ladies is that we are all, each and every one of us, different.

The Love of Monsters

As Halloween approaches, everyone is getting prepared in the fairly typical ways. We’re all fine-tuning our costumes, decorating our houses, and, if you’re anything like me, watching a lot of horror or monster movies.

Personally speaking, I’ve always been drawn to horror movies – or, really anything with a monster in it. And, more than that, I’ve always been drawn to the monsters themselves. I didn’t just love vampires and witches and shape-shifters – growing up, I wanted to be one. My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with these stock characters of film and literature, but it’s only really been recently that I’ve found myself questioning – why? What is it about these characters that draws me – or, more generally, that draws us to them? I mean, there must be something, considering we have a whole day (or, for some, a whole month) dedicated to them.

The stock-answer that many have come up with is simply that we as a species enjoy being scared. Being scared produces adrenaline, which leaves us with a nice “whew-I-totally-escaped-that-killer-even-though-there-was-no-actual-danger” feeling afterwards. But, truth be told, in my case at least, I don’t think that fully grasps where my obsession with these characters comes from. I mean, sure, if I actually met up with a vampire in real life, I’d probably be crumbling to my knees and begging for my life (seriously, it wouldn’t be very pretty), but I’m well aware that the chances of that actually happening are pretty slim. And yet, that doesn’t stop me from turning on Lost Boys or Interview With The Vampire – and not just in October either. I’m talking about a year-round obsession here. A year-round obsession with something that, supposedly, is intended to scare me, but by my 111th-viewing of Lost Boys, it’s sort of lost its initial edge.

So why do we keep going back to these figures?

Well, the next answer that I could think of for this would be that monsters often symbolize for us the forbidden, but I’d even take that a step further – monsters symbolize transgression.

Ever since childhood, the monsters were the only characters that I saw on screen that were allowed to transgress.

Witches, for example, are often represented, not only as strong women, but as unashamedly strong women. Women who keep only female company (interpret that how you will), and who don’t worship the Christian God, and who forego the act of having children. Women who are learned and down-to-earth and free with their bodies and their sexuality. There’s a reason why many feminists identify strongly with witches.

Vampires are often associated with sexuality, due to that whole penetration-exchange-of-fluids thing. Sometimes, such as in Bram Stocker’s Dracula, this sexuality is merely supposed to be interpreted as deviant-outside-of-wedlock-not-for-the-purposes-of-conception-sexuality. Sometimes, such as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, this sexuality is supposed to be interpreted as same-sex-sexuality. Either way, vampires are usually allowed to operate under rules that society restricts humans from, and these rules are often sexual in nature, or at the very least carefree and fun, rarely producing any serious consequences (unless you count getting staked through the heart as a serious consequence).

And even for the monsters that are a little bit less fun to imagine yourself as, they still force us to operate by rules that society restricts us from. Stories of possession force the possessed to reveal sides of themselves they never would have. Zombie stories quite literally force us to imagine what we would do if there was no society to restrict us. And good, old-fashioned werewolf stories are, as we all know, supposed to explore the more animalistic side of humanity.

Growing up and watching these movies, the heroes were all pretty much one-note: strong, tough, fearless, quick-witted, white, heterosexual, able-bodied men or emotional, nurturing, white, heterosexual, able-bodied women. They weren’t really allowed to stray much in their character from story-to-story. The monster, however, could be anything. And now that I’m older, I know that the reason why the monster could be anything is because the monster is supposed to be disgusting and terrifying, and through their transgression, they have earned their punishment. But nonetheless, along my journey into becoming an unashamedly feminist, bisexual woman with mental illness, I had these monster movies to identify with.

And, I mean, yes, it’s a shame that Nancy gets hospitalized at the end of The Craft, but isn’t she just so badass before she does?

And, yes, it’s always sad to read about Carmilla being murdered at the end of Carmilla, but until then, she’s fucking awesome!

And truth be told, I think this touches on the reason why many of us enjoy monsters stories: because many of us relate to the monster. Even if it’s just some small part of us, no one feels like they completely fit in, and no one feels universally beloved and valued. Therefore, when we see a character that is literally hunted down for who they are, we can relate. Because many of us have at least felt as though we are expected to shave off parts of ourselves to fit into society’s mould.

Therefore, we take one of two approaches to the monster: we are saddened by their ultimate downfall, or we take comfort from the knowledge that they had to be destroyed for society’s own good, just like those parts of ourselves that we rejected.

But, for me, these monsters will always hold a special place in my heart because of that sense of identity, that shared feeling of being hunted down and hated by society. And I mean, sure, I understand that they went a little too far when they went to the lengths of murder, and I understand that they earn their punishments because of that, but still, it’s all a fantasy, right? It’s still fun to pretend, just for a little bit, that you do exist in the media.

And that isn’t to say that representation isn’t improving in the media. It is, especially as we continue talking about it. And hopefully, in the future, young, feminist, bisexual girls with budding mental illness will be able to see themselves in the media without that exact character being punished for who they are. Hopefully, we will reach a place in society where the hero is allowed to transgress just as much as the monster is.

But until then, the approach of Halloween gives me an excuse to settle down with a good book or turn on the TV, and catch up with my old friends.

Me Too: Why We Need to Keep Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

If you have been active on social media lately, you might have become aware of the fact that every feed, dashboard, and home page has become an endless scroll of heartbreak. You sign on, and you receive an awful punch to the gut as you realize just how freaking common sexual assault and harassment is, all by reading those two little words that actress Alyssa Milano encouraged all those who have experienced it to post:

Me too.

Nearly every woman who I’m friends with or following on social media has posted it, and some men have as well. I have seen it posted by close friends, family, and people who I haven’t spoken to since high school. In some cases, it wasn’t a surprise, and in some cases, it was.

And all of a sudden, I find myself transported back to the first time that I realized sexual assault and harassment wasn’t just a horror that existed; it was commonplace. Back to being thirteen years old and discovering the statistic that one in four North American women would report being sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Back to telling a group of my three closest friends this statistic, and upon doing so, having it strike me for the first time that, if this was true, then chances were that one of us would be assaulted at some point in our lives. These were girls that I cared about too. Close friends of mine who I didn’t ever hope to see get hurt, not in any shape, way, or form.

This was a pivotal moment in my life, because it was in that moment that I first realized just how astounding this statistic is. And the thing is, the statistic isn’t even where it ends. It is estimated that for every 100 rapes that occur, only 6 are reported to the police. I have known women who were raped, and then discouraged from seeking police involvement because it was her word against his and they didn’t think that they would be able to do anything with that. I have known women who were raped by their boyfriends, and then didn’t seek legal involvement because they cared about him, or because they didn’t realize at the time that what had happened really was rape. I have known people who were raped and then didn’t come forward because they didn’t want to deal with the shame that would inevitably follow.

In short, I have known too many people who have been raped. And none of these people even count toward the statistic of ‘one in four’. So, yeah, to this statistic that caused me such horror when I was thirteen years old, I call bullshit; the number is much, much higher than that.

And that’s just rape. This “me too” hashtag encompasses much more than that; it includes sexual harassment as well, like being groped without consent, having others make obscenely sexual comments toward us, or being offered unwelcome “rewards” (like raises, or a job) in exchange for sexual favours (etc.). And it seems like every woman has a story to tell in this regard, even if she hasn’t been sexually assaulted.

Let me take this moment to offer my own “me too” to this discussion.

So what do we do with this information? Right now, the internet is over saturated with “me too”s, but what do we do about that?

Well, personally, I think that this whole “me too” hashtag is actually starting us off in a good direction: we need to talk about it.

And I understand; not every survivor of sexual assault or harassment necessarily wants to talk about it right now. PTSD is a real and terrible issue that should be considered in all this, and nobody should feel pressured to talk about a trauma that they aren’t ready to discuss.

But, that being said, societally, we need to start talking about this, and we need to talk about it now. This isn’t just some horror that we hear about on the news; some senseless tragedy that we can’t understand but will never touch us in our cozy little lives. This does affect us. This affects every single one of us, in one way or another, whether you’re the survivor, or you’re the person who chooses not to hear the survivor out because you just don’t want to admit that there’s a problem. Either way, we’re all involved.

We need to start educating our children on consent. We need to start telling our boys that their worth doesn’t come from dominating others, or that they’re any weaker or less manly because they were assaulted. We need to start telling our girls that it doesn’t matter what they were wearing, or if they were drinking, or where they were at the time; they still didn’t deserve it, and they still deserve justice, or at least the right to feel safe in public.

We need to stop doubting survivors when they come forward. We need to listen to their stories when they try to speak out. We need to encourage others to come forward, and we need to create a safe space for them.

And this “me too” hashtag is a great idea, if for no other reason than that we can’t log onto social media without coming across it right now. It breaks my heart to see how many people have dealt with all this, because I wish we lived in a world where people (and predominately women, femme, or female-identifying people) felt safe to go out in public, or go to work, or even take the fucking bus. But at the same time, this hashtag is a great method of forcing us to realize just how common this issue is, how it has affected so many. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone in all this, and that’s a wonderful thing for people who have been silenced (which many survivors have) by society.

But at the same time, I hope that this conversation won’t end with this hashtag. It’s great that we’re talking, but we need to keep talking; we need to keep drawing attention to the issue. Because only by spreading awareness and continuing the discussion can we enact real change.