As part of my ongoing efforts to make my content accessible to everyone, I will be transcribing each of my podcast episodes and posting them here.
Over the coming months, I will be working my way backwards through old episodes until I’m up to date with transcription.
As always, if you have any feedback on steps I can take to make this content more wholly accessible, please do not hesitate to reach out.
To a transer (and more accessible!) future,
Em Rabelais (they/themme, fae/femme) is now available on:
iTunes (Apple Podcasts)
Arielle: Em Rabelais is the white, disabled, queer, trans feminine, and non-binary ethicist, nurse, scholar, white feminism dismantler, and potential kept themmebian you never knew you needed. Until now. WHOOO that was a mouthful.
As an academic, their scholarship is rooted in disrupting and dismantling white supremacy in nursing—but Em’s work doesn’t end there. They are deeply committed to pushing back against all forms of oppression, including the rampant ableism and transmisogyny they regularly endure.
Em has no desire to play nice with oppressors—they know that the nursing status quo of niceness and civility have not changed anything. Instead, they are intense, intentional, and direct as they push back against oppressive systems designed to harm marginalized and minoritized groups and individuals—even when their methods result in immense personal backlash.
This episode mentions sexual assault, white feminism and white supremacy, racism, transmisogyny, and ableism.
This is Em Rabelais on white feminist violence in nursing.
Hi Em, welcome to the show! Why don’t you kick us off by sharing a wee bit about yourself today?
Em: Hi! My name is Em, just like you said. And my pronouns are… well, at least professionally— with people I don’t really know—they/themme. And the “themme” is a “femme themme” spelled “T H E M M E,” so they/themme/themmself/theirs. But with people close to me, with my loves, fae/femme/faer. Fae is spelled “F A E, femme is like “femme,” “F E M M E,” and faer is “F A E R.”
And, you know, with pronouns… sometimes, people have used she/her with me. And it’s not exactly right, but it’s not totally wrong. And I don’t really understand that, but maybe, in the course of this interview, we can have that figured out by the end. Cause that is clearly the biggest…
Arielle: Ya’know, there’s a whole lot to unpack in under an hour, but we can totally do it and I have total faith in us.
Em: Sure! By the end, let’s come back to this, and we’ll see if we’ve learned something.
Arielle: So, you said a lot in a few words, which you tend to do. And I kind of want to unpack a few things you said. So, you say that your “themme” is a “femme themme,” “T H E M M E.” Can you talk a little bit about what that means to you, why that’s important? Especially for people that may not have heard or seen “themme” spelled that way before.
Em: Yeah. Before I decided on that, I hadn’t ever seen anybody using “themme” that way. So, there’s a lot behind that. Thanks, I hadn’t thought about that lot in a while.
Arielle: Threw you a curveball…
Em: Thank you. Well, I’m non-binary and trans…
Arielle: (interjecting) On this show? Never!
Em: Well, yeah. I mean, a lot of non-binary people, they don’t necessarily include “trans” as part of identity. And that’s okay, doesn’t need to be at all. But I do, and part of the reason I do is because I don’t have a choice. So, I am transmisogyny…umm…crap what is the word?
Em: Thank you.
Arielle: Did you want to start that phrase over?
Em: No, this is part of my disability stuff, too. Like, I can’t remember things, but you can and your brain’s good cause you’re also stuck in COVID.
Em: So, I’m transmisogyny-affected. I think it’s a better way of saying things that whatever the assigned gender at birth is. And in healthcare, that’s more meaningful than any assigned gender at birth, or sex designation, or whatever it would be. I never really told you any wee bits about me… I’m also not really sure what wee bits you’re talking about, but that stuff’s related to the work I do, too, if we want to talk about that.
So, a lot of the non-binary world, lots of people think that it’s only people who were…oh, shit, then we just have to use these… that only assigned-female or designated female at birth folks are or could be non-binary.
Arielle: Yeah, people view it as “woman-lite,” which is not what it is at all.
Em: Or, even if you think of it in the opposite way, like “man-lite.” Like, “you say you’re non-binary, but you don’t want to go all the way to being a trans-masc person,” for example. And obviously, that’s also not what it is… also not androgyny. I think Instagram memes have pretty much covered this stuff. Everybody should look at those, too, and believe them.
So, I understand myself to be trans feminine…because, well I guess I do?… and making “themme” into a “femme themme” just felt good. It looked better. When I see it written down, it just feels more affirming. When I hear people say “themme,” and they’re referring to me, I’m imagining that that last “me” is on the back, which is also my name spelled backwards. So, does this have even greater meaning? Because there’s the “th” and then there’s “em” and then there’s “me.” I don’t know, does that explain the “femme themme” pretty well?
Arielle: Yeah, no, totally. And then, you also mention that you use “fae/femme/faer” pronouns among people that you’re close with. And those are pronouns that I don’t believe as many people are familiar with. And I’d love for you to just share about… they’re often referred to as neo-pronouns, you know, pronouns that fall outside of the he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs pronoun sets.
And I’d love to hear about your journey to beginning to use those pronouns among close loved ones, and what that means to you.
Em: Yeah, so, I’ve been using the “they/themme” pronouns for a while now. I went straight from not being out, to coming out in a “three way”—trans, queer, and non-binary.
Arielle: A trinity.
Em: Yes, right. Exactly. And “they/them…,” for some reason, it feels a little bland to me, and thus why the “femme themme,” to make it less bland to me. But it just felt like there was something missing, and I kept thinking, “Should I be a ‘they/she?’” And I was like, “no, that’s not right. Cause ‘she/her’ isn’t right, but it’s also not wrong.” And part of what it means for who I am.
I spent a long time—decades, really. More decades not knowing what to do with the whole gender stuff, then a couple of decades in tremendous physical pain after an injury when I was younger. And that’s all still here, but going through that—like what many of us have to do—I was really, really good at dissociating, both about the pain, about gender, about gender pain, about not understanding what things are.
And it made it really easy for me to understand the realities that are going on around me as also overlaid with these sort of, little alternate reality fantasy sort of things that mostly were entertaining or funny or interesting. And it sort of became a way for me to continue to exist with the pain, knowing that whatever was going on in the world, it wasn’t fitting me. And I didn’t really know what to choose. I’d seen “fae/femme/faer,” or “fae/something else/faer.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s fun, but that’s not necessarily it for me. But then, one of my very good friends, another disabled friend, we do a lot of community care—well we used to do much more and then COVID, but we still are—fae uses “they/them,” not spelled the way I do, professionally, and “fae/femme/faer” with close friends, loved ones, and whatnot.
And so, after a few additional meetings with femme after hearing that, I really sheepishly asked, “Is it okay if I also do that?,” thinking like, “I’m stealing someone’s pronouns,” which is not how this works.
And, of course, fae was like, “yeah, absolutely, yes. The more of us, the better.” And I liked it because “femme” was the middle one, and I have a “femme themme” and now I have a “femme femme.” And…
Arielle: Say that ten times fast…
Note: This next section (“wings”) takes a humorous tone, and is not meant to be serious! (Unless you have the secret code, then we’ll tell you all about our trans agenda to grow wings!)
Em: I mean, one of the main things, obviously, that I think is most important about having these “fae/femme/faer” pronouns that I hold really close to me and love is that maybe at some point I can grow wings and it’ll help with disability because I can fly.
Arielle: (jokingly) Well, that was my next question—when are you gonna be able to fly?
Em: Well I… okay. What exactly… I mean,I took hormones and grew boobs. And…
Arielle: (interjecting) Well, the natural next step in your transition is growing wings, that’s what trans people do, right?
Em: (interjecting) Yeah, yeah. I mean, I had an “endocrine disorder,” like a hormone dysregulation at some point, most of my life. And I got that fixed…and so, now…I mean, I got part of it fixed. Obviously, I’m missing the wings and the tail and some horns, also. And I just… what is the hormonal cocktail that I take to grow those?
Arielle: You know, when science finds out, science should let me know. And to circle back to an equally interested, but slightly less supernatural discussion about “fae/femme/faer” pronouns… one of the the troubling things I hear people say, and something I encounter frequently about neopronouns, is, “Oh, that’s just teens on Tumb1r who want to be edgy, and it’s the same people that say they identify as a cat or identify as a kangaroo or attack helicopter.”
And I often find myself having to unpack that for people and address the fact that that is not the same thing… that, maybe some of the non-conformist teenagers are also trans, and I found that Tumb1r trans culture… a lot of kids I knew on Tumb1r did end up being trans, but that doesn’t mean that that’s the same thing. Is that something that you’ve encountered as well?
Em: I mean, yeah. All the time. And it’s not just neopronouns. Even trans folk on the binary, [I’m] getting the whole, “it’s just so hard, I don’t know how to do it, it’s gonna take time.”
Arielle: (Interjecting) “Oh, they/them is plural! Blah, blah, blah…”
Em: Right, and there’s a whole lot of ways of talking about that with history and stuff. So, as we’re talking about this, I was scrolling really fast through my Instagram bookmarks…I have one thing here that’s like, “here, here’s how people can do it.” But first, like you asked, “does this happen to me?” Yeah, it happens all the time. It happens from my workplace. So, I’m faculty at UIC Nursing—that’s University of Illinois Chicago, College of Nursing. Just making this really clear for all the folks out there, I work with a lot of white women.
Arielle: (Interjecting) Yes, you do…
Em: Uh-huh. And the dean misgenders me all the time. And when I name that she’s misgendered me, her response is to get angry and say how hard it is, and that she’s really trying. And so, that happens…I mean, I’ve had tons of family doing that stuff, too. I get misgendered a bunch by people who use “she/her” pronouns for me. When I’m referring to the dean—she and the others there misgender me using “he/him” pronouns, and that’s where this is tremendously violent
Because transition… whatever the words are… somebody who’s trans, doesn’t mean that… I mean, first of all, none of us are transitioning from one thing to another, the world needs to transition to understand who we are. And so that’s not on us, we don’t have to have hormone therapy, we don’t have to have surgery, we don’t have to do anything, we don’t have to dress differently, and we’re still trans.
Arielle: Yeah! And then the question that comes into play here is, how does it feel and how do you respond when the world around you refuses to transition to support you? What do you do when you’re in an unsupportive workplace, when you are surrounded by even other LGBTQ folks, other queer folks, other trans folks, who are within your community but are still gatekeeping identity and saying, “no, you can’t use these pronouns,” or “no, you don’t fit into this narrow mold of what we view as non-binary, therefore you’re less valid”—what do you do with that? What have you done with that?
Em: If those people are part of my social life, they aren’t anymore. They’re gone. If they were part of my family, they’re gone. Just, it’s not more. For your readers—listeners—I’m 41 and 3/4, plus… wait, almost there… twenty something….
Arielle: (overlapping with Em) But you’re one and a half in trans years
Em: Oh, that’s true. So I’m like a teenager… like, a young teenager…so, with feelings, it depends on what the misgendering is. If the misgendering is “he/him,” I’m angry. I’m ashamed. I’m more ashamed than I am angry. I know I shouldn’t be feeling shame for that, but I do.
Arielle: Where does that shame come from?
Em: Part of it is that I spent well over 30 years having this understanding about myself, mostly that… the thing that I understood is, “I am a lesbian. But I can’t be a lesbian, because I’m a guy. But I am a lesbian. But I’m a guy, and I like women.” I was all… everything was on the binary back then.
Arielle: Yeah, and I mean, those words didn’t… you know, non-binary didn’t even enter my vernacular until I was 20, and I’m currently 25.
Em: It just feels so shitty. And depending on who is doing it… like, if I’m on the phone, it happens every fucking time I’m on the phone, like, calling the utility company, or whatever… I have to make the decision, “Do I correct them?” And very often, people will apologize and move on, and be okay with it. And sometimes, they will just start trying to make my life hell. Sometimes, they hang up on me. And if it’s in person, or more likely on video conferencing or whatever, I am very direct, very quick, to tell them that they misgendered me, and they should never do that again.
And, depending on the setting—and almost all the time, it’s been work settings—I’m already seen as the angry person who is trying to make everybody else upset.
Arielle: Right, because you’re not afraid to call out the gross transphobia, and ableism, and racism that you see in your workplace.
Em: Yeah, and all of the other oppressions. If it’s with “she/her,” sometimes it’s like, “oh, that interesting. It’s not right.” Sometimes, they’ll tell me that they were misgendering me to other people, and then I get deathly afraid. And this is really mostly only been with people I’ve met since I came out, and I ask how they were misgendering me, and they say, “it’s with ‘she/her’ pronouns.” And I feel this weird relief, like, “oh, that’s not so bad, then. That’s okay.” Because it’s the least bad direction, if there were directions to go with misgendering. And sometimes, I don’t do anything with that, and sometimes, then, they realize—like, when we’re in conversation—they’ll realize later, and then maybe I’ll pause, if they’re someone I care about, and we’ll talk about it a bit.
But if it’s people that I don’t know, it’s hard. One time, earlier this fall, I went to a pharmacy, and I was wearing makeup… it was really good makeup….I had my hair down, queer haircut, dyed purple. I was wearing a dress. I had a purse. And the person kept referring to me with “he/him” pronouns and would not stop, no matter what I said. And I was picking up estrogen. And I was just so angry, like, I needed to get the meds because…you know… it’s been harder and harder to get intramuscular estrogen for injection, and like, what do you do? The positions of power that we sit within…
Arielle: Yeah. And, just to be clear, that intentional misgendering is a form of emotional and verbal violence that can, and often does—especially for trans feminine folks, especially for trans feminine folks of color—lead to physical violence, lead to our murders. And so it’s not just something we can brush off, these are very real issues that can easily snowball into something even more dangerous. And it’s like the metaphor of death by a thousand paper cuts, because even if it never escalates from that, getting continually misgendered, it just wears at you, and wears on you, and, over time, it just…what do you do when that’s just so constant?
Em: I just wanted to add in there, also for the listeners—I’m white. Black, Indigenous, other trans feminine, trans women folks of color, they get the extreme brunt of this, because of racism, because of the multiple ways that we can do oppressions and apply them all at the same time. And the misgendering, for me, when that happens… like I had said before, if it’s with a “he/him” I automatically get scared, because when those things happen, usually what is coming up right after that is physical violence for me. And most recently a couple weeks ago. It’s been far, far less during COVID times, because we get to wear a mask, we get to wear a big mask that covers most of our face, but it’s still happening.
Arielle: I want to pivot a little bit here to talk about… you’ve been someone who’s very publicly responded to transphobia, transmisogyny, ableism, and white supremacy in your workplace in particular. I’d love to hear first how you decided to be so unapologetically outspoken about those things on public platforms—what that both has accomplished, but also what the backlash has been for you.
Em: I am an academic health ethicist and a health humanities scholar, where my goal is to dismantle—and, at least at the beginning, to decenter and disrupt—but to dismantle the oppressions of white feminism in health professions and bioethics education practice and research. And I focus mostly on the educational environment, because that’s where we’re helping new folks coming into these professions to do the work that they’re excited to do and we’re excited to have them come and do.
So, I think I was a pre-teen…I don’t know when “tween” starts, but we can just use…
Arielle: (interjecting) Uh, tween is 10 to 11…
Em: Okay, so I was pre-tween when I first noticed, or starting asking questions at least, about the different ways that people with different skin colors were being treated, and why the news was talking about how police and white people were really upset at Black people for doing what they were calling “protesting and rioting and looting.” And my questions were along the lines of, “well, I guess I see they’re explaining why the white people are mad, but nobody’s talking about why are the Black people doing these things. They have to be angry about something, what happened? What happened that got to this point where they’re angry about whatever’s going on?”
That was just sort of my very rudimentary understanding as a child, and my parents didn’t give me any answers except things that probably are just really racist. And I didn’t really understand any of that. I think a lot of the way that I’m thinking about stuff is because of something subliminally about how gender just wasn’t working inside me. I’ve focused, all through school and education stuff, on narrative and stories to understand who people are and why we do what we do and whatnot. Cause those are the things that are most important to us.
Having gone through nursing, which I did instead of medicine because I thought, “if you’re a nurse, you get to have a life. And if you’re a doctor, you don’t get to have a life,” knowing that I wanted to head toward this thing that I thought was bioethics. And I just spent so much time around, “what is nursing?,” which is this sort of white-woman dominated, white feminist approach thing where the way that we act and respond to each other has to be rooted in niceness and respectability politics and civility rhetoric. And those things are all parts of white supremacist imaginations of what the right thing to do is, because they make a demand upon people for how to act and behave.
And I kept using that sort of approach in trying to figure out how to interrupt or stop whiteness or white feminism. Doing it with the polite sort of civility or respectability politics sort of ways never worked when I would write papers for publications, when I would write grants… never worked when I would try to engage with my faculty members, co-members. It didn’t do a whole lot to earn trust with students, and I was noticing that. And so, I started changing the way I was doing things. And one of the times that I started doing some major changes—so, I started at UIC College of Nursing in January of 2017, so getting up to my four year anniversary here—and right away, the ableism started. Like, it was pretty profound.
Arielle: And when you say ableism, what were you experiencing?
Em: I requested workplace accommodations. Really simple things like a chair that has a headrest and has the maneuvering capabilities that I would need in order to keep my body from increasing in pain as the day goes by. Which, a chair like that still won’t do entirely, I need other things. We were offered a laptop or a desktop computer, and I had a laptop that was falling apart, and I was like, “I need a laptop, but it needs to be the lightest-weight one that can fit what I need it to do.”
It was pretty easy to figure out what that was, and it wasn’t that much more expensive than the Dell laptops that they were handing out to people, but it also weighed 1/6th the amount. And so, for my body, and my neck especially, that’s really important, because I can’t really carry much of anything without pain increasing a whole lot. They were denying things left and right. I adopted a dog, trained her to be a service animal, and she was phenomenal. She carried my things, made my life so much easier. And then, other faculty members started to bring their dogs to work and let them run around, barking, off-leash. I went and talked to the people that I had to jump through hoops in order to have my service animal come into work to help me, and they said, well, they can’t do anything about the other people. Mine is a “risk” because it would be coming with me, the disabled person, but theirs were not risks… it just didn’t make any sense.
And then I had department heads and other people tell me that I needed to change my scholarship to something they wanted, because they didn’t like it. They told me I wasn’t thinking right about the way that I do things. And so, part of that is related to a white supremacist response to me work, and part of that is… things that you say to folks who aren’t neurotypical, who may be neurodivergent, and that’s me. I think about things way differently than lots of other people do, and I like it. I think it works well. It makes the stuff I do, I think, better.
So, around that time, I had the ableism going on, and I was being attacked for that. And our faculty union is great, and we had a grievance about that going on. And then I started getting attacked because I’m trans. In fact, I was assaulted there because I was a trans feminine person trying to use a single-use restroom, one toilet and a door that locks. I received zero support from anybody at the college of nursing. In fact, I was chastised by my department head for saying, “I’m not a fucking sir,” quite loud, while I was trying to get away from the two people attacking me. They were both promoted at some point in the following year. There’s never been closure to that, it’s been now just over two years.
So, at this point, then… by about a year and a half ago… I was being attacked for my body in two ways—because I’m disabled, because I’m trans. And in nursing, if you’re disabled, you can’t be a nurse and you can’t teach nurses, because “nurses take care of disabled people,” is sort of the line that they have. And “it’s okay to be non-binary trans if you really are ‘just a woman’ as they see.
But, for somebody to be trans feminine, that means that you are disrupting the “purity” of what it means to be a woman, and then jumping into those spaces where you’re not allowed to be because you’re “really just a man.” So, really transmisogynistic stuff.
Those two things were going on, and I was like, “Okay, I’m existing.” And then, the breaking point for me was when they started attacking my work with white supremacist responses to my work on whiteness and white feminism. And I called it “white supremacist responses”—some people were calling it racism—and it can’t be racism, I’m white. They may be racist, but not against me.
Arielle: I think that’s a really important distinction to make there.
Em: Yeah. I’m white, you can’t be racist against white people.
Arielle: Reverse racism does not exist.
Em: It does not, it’s impossible that way. It does not work with the power structures we have. But, what people can do is have white supremacist responses to other white people, especially when they’re trying to work toward making conditions better for Black and Brown people, queer and trans people, disabled people, other minoritized folks. And so, they first tried to stop me from talking about my work on the faculty Listserv. And so, there was that, and then it was, “you can’t use these words. You can’t use the word whiteness because we don’t like it.
And my faculty union was quite helpful with many of these things. And that was going on for a while, and that’s the point where my workplace, when they did their own “three-way” thing with me—ableism, transmisogyny, and their white supremacist responses to things. That they created, or helped create, an anxiety disorder for me… and I’ve never had an anxiety disorder before. So I had frequent panic attacks. Those slowed down over the next several months in 2019. And then, I sort of thought that in the beginning of Spring 2020 that I could just distance myself a bit from that and sort of focus in other ways for myself.
And then, this is related to some other stuff, too. And then COVID hit, interrupting lots of stuff. And I was like, “okay, fine, I can deal with this—except that all of our policies were gonna kill the students. And I was like, “shit, can’t do that, can’t have that, I need to protect the students.” So I was working on that, and then George Floyd was killed, and protests started up everywhere, which is amazing. And I was really glad that we were having sustained protests, and I was so incredibly upset because I thought that I had a chance to distance myself from UIC nursing’s white supremacy. I don’t know how, then, I could have lived with myself if I didn’t start pushing back. And so, it was 18 months ago, and then continued through this year, that I just started getting pushy—more pushy—and not doing the respectability politics, not doing the civility rhetoric, not doing the niceness stuff. These are legit methods. The niceness thing is a method, too…respectability politics is a method. Those are informed by white supremacy, and the methods I’m using now are things that I’ve learned a lot from Twitter and Instagram, and some other things, and from many of my accountability partners.
Someone gave this good example. So, let’s say that I am driving a car and I run over your foot. It hurts you a lot. You could say something nice and quiet and gentle, “oh, you ran over my foot and it hurts a whole lot right now. I didn’t appreciate that.” You could also respond with, “What the fuck are you doing?! You asshole! You just ran over my foot.” Both of those are completely valid responses, as is any other response from the person who was hurt. Does that make sense?
Arielle: Yeah, that makes total sense. You can’t, as an institution, require people to temper or mediate their own emotional responses to the ways in which you’re harming them, the ways in which you’re harming people or communities that they care about. It’s a personal choice for people who want to approach it that way, but it’s fundamentally unjust and fundamentally rooted in white supremacy to expect people to respond that way to being oppressed.
Em: Something else important there is that both responses are valid. And they’re valid because, when somebody is harmed, they can respond however they want to. Both responses are also methods, they’re a way that we can respond. So sometimes, if you’re hurt and it’s a new way of getting hurt, you may scream or whatever because that’s a standard reaction to whatever. But also, for those of us…and it’s more than just trans and non-binary folks… Black and Brown folk, who can also be trans and non-binary…disabled folk..lots of people…that when we get these harms, these little stabs—some people call them micro-aggressions, but they’re not… they’re only “micro” to the person who’s doing the aggression, they’re not micro to us. They’re huge.
Arielle: Death by a thousand paper cuts.
Em: Yeah, with lemon juice everywhere.
Arielle: With lemon juice everywhere.
Em: And so, that happens, and we… not that we get used to the pain, but we get used to the fact that it’s going to keep happening because the oppressors, the violent people out there, are just going to keep doing the things that are violent. And so, we get to choose… sometimes, we can get to the point where we get to choose how we’ll respond.
And, as a person who is well-trained in scientific research methods, but also humanities methods, I have started changing my methods to what I do when I’m seeing this violence, because the niceness, the civility, the respectability, does not work. There’s that same question, like, you know, for how long were Black folk in the US doing the “being nice” thing to try and say, “okay, we’re asking you nicely, can you please stop being terrible, being violent, killing us?,” and when does that ever stop? It doesn’t.
So, the niceness, the respectability politics, do not work. They do not work within white supremacy. They might work between two white supremacists, but maybe not. And so, there are other methods, and some of those other methods include protests that cause disruption of traffic, causing institutions to shut down. And what I’ve started doing is naming exactly what is happening, being very precise with my language, “the policies that we have are racist,” “the policies that we have are ableist.” In fact, some of the policies that we have at UIC Nursing are disabling—they are causing people that didn’t have disabilities before to get disabilities, in the same way that I was grown an anxiety disorder… those are the wrong kind of hormones, let me tell you that.
I never had anybody have changed behavior when I was doing it the niceness, the civil, the respectable way. It is only since I’ve started speaking up louder, both more directly while being really upset, and more directly while being… not aggressive, like other read it as aggressive, but it’s sort of like a calm, intense, directness.
Arielle: Calm, intense, and direct?
Em: Calm, intense, and direct.
Arielle: There is a word for that, I also just can’t think of it right now.
Em: So, it’s both that, and it’s also the loud upset—and I do both. And I do both because those are the things that have actually worked. There are faculty and staff who are changing behavior. There are faculty and staff who now want to change their behavior, who are writing to me and writing to the entire faculty and saying, “I read the introduction to (whichever book).” So, I also run a health ethics book club… I started it in 2019, and so, yes, #FuckBookClubs. But last year’s was on Racism and Whiteness, this year’s is on White Feminism in Nursing, and both have made changes. It’s sort of like, this is one of the ways I do my scholarship within the academic environment, and the idea is, “can we get nursing faculty to start shifting how they think about things so that they can stop enacting these violent things that they do not want to be enacting?” So, folks are changing behavior, it’s really kind of awesome. It’s happening really really slow, but it’s happening. It’s not happening with anybody in leadership, but, you know, take what we can get for now.
Arielle: Yeah, but it’s happening. You’re seeing an impact from what you’re doing and what you’re saying, and I think that’s really wonderful. It also doesn’t change how it affects you personally, and I know from our conversations, all of these issues that you face in the workplace a) have cause you anxiety, but also have made you prioritize care and relationships. And you have some really interesting and nuanced views on the role of care and relationships in your life, and among queer folks, that I would love to hear more about. And I would also love to hear more about how that connects to your coming out as that “three-way,” that queer, trans, and non-binary.
Em: Yeah, from now on, I think I just want to refer to coming out as “the three way.”
Arielle: Yeah, your three-way!
Em: Which means I get to have a three-way every day.
Arielle: Because we come out everyday.
Em: That’s right. So, I came out when I was 38. That gave me decades of the whole “what am I? What the fuck is going on?”
Arielle: Ah, the age-old question. I ask myself everyday.
Em: Yeah, and still asking. That gave me decades to think about who I want to be, partly through observing other people. I spent so much of my life with this understanding of “men are really terrible people. They’re predatory. They’re mean. They get my friends drunk and assault them or rape them. And I’m a man.” And having that sit within me for so long, it’s a gaslighting of myself, it does damage to me. It also affects how I want to exist in the world with other people.
What that means for me is kind of what I mentioned earlier… anyone who does those violent things and knows that it’s wrong but does it anyway, they’re not part of my social life or family or chosen family. Anybody who won’t participate in something like a transformative justice, like an apology process… Mia Mingus has a great description, if you just type “Mia Mingus transformative justice apology,” it talks about the four different steps for apology, and it’s really good.
Arielle: I can link that in the episode notes.
Em: That’s awesome, thanks. So there’s those things, but then I’ve got a few other things. The people that I hang out around have to know what transmysia is—mysia means “hate,” it’s better than phobia because there’s trans hate out there, which is different from fear. Especially, they have to know about transmisogyny, and the difference between transmisogyny-affected and transmisogyny-exempt people, and what that means for me, and what that means for existing in the world with me when we’re not in a place with a door that is closed that is safe. Like, my home.
It has to mean that they know what ableism means, they know what disability is, and they or we get to learn about each others’ disabilities and how to help each other feel better in the world. They need to know about whiteness, and be anti-racist, or at least be working towards anti-racism actively. Those are the things that I need the very most for feeling safe.
That can include a lot of people. But for me, the people that I have interpersonal relationships with—for each person involved—it has to include the care, and the love, and the needs, and the wants, and the desires, and all the boundaries… and that’s very important, all the boundaries… that are the very best for each person, and then for all collectively involved.
And so, that may look like, from the outside, a friendship. It may look like a partnership. It may look like a friend, something like some mix in-between of what it is of how those people exist together. It may be something totally different. It doesn’t… that part doesn’t matter to me… what matters is that we are safe with each other, and that we talk about this stuff and we communicate about it, and any shifting in how that stuff works, especially around boundaries, must have consent.
And, so that’s sort of been decades of me thinking about how I exist in the world with and without people, but also simultaneously doing the work of mine about narrative and minoritized folks, with structural oppression. I guess I basically just want abolition.
Arielle: Abolition in what senses? Like in what regards?
Em: All of them.
Arielle: All of them?
Em: Yeah. I mean, I do abolition in my teaching—there’s no grading, there’s no deadlines. I believe people when they say things to me. I’m understanding that I’m learning from them just as much as they are from me. I take the things they say quite seriously, and in relationships, it’s sort of like, I guess abolishing the traditional understanding of what an interpersonal relationship is, and trying to founded upon, “what is best for the person…” The weird thing with the golden rule, “treat others how you want to be treated,” is terrible.
Arielle: Like, no.
Em: Yeah, it’s like, no. Treat others how they want to be treated.
Arielle: (Interjecting) …how they want to be treated.
Em: Exactly, yes. So, I mean, it’s…
Arielle: (Interrupting) I always had a weird thing about that in elementary school, and people were like, “what do you mean, ‘how they want to be treated?” And I was like, “You don’t know that other people want to be treated the same way as you want to be treated, and in fact most of them don’t want to be treated the exact same way that you do… because people are different, and they communicate and understand the world differently.” I didn’t say it in these words when I was 10, but I was thinking the thoughts.
Em: I bet they were pretty close!
Arielle: I was pretty precocious, I’m not gonna lie. I would have these really deep discussions about these things when I was a kid.
Em: Yeah. A…tween.
Arielle: A…depends on how we’re defining tween, I was, yeah… under my definition, that would certainly fit.
Arielle: So, how has this understanding of care and relationships affected the kind of relationships and the kind of community that you’ve built since coming out? Cause, I mean, we met, and you’d already been out a few years, we met… fun backstory for everyone… we met through Instagram when I was visiting Chicago last year, and now we’re good friends.
Em: We are good friends.
Em: Your question is really good and really hard. About a year ago, I started finally looking for community. I came out because a friend of mine who I was working with, a family medical physician at UIC, and I were teaming up on this paper that who knows if it’ll ever get published, she invited me to join the Chancellor’s Committee for the Status of LGBTQIA+ Persons… I think that’s it. And that was the first time I’d been knowingly surrounded by queer and trans people who I didn’t know, I just knew the folks there were queer and trans. It was about six months later, after that first meeting, that I came out… this was also right after I had also addressed the pain problems I’d been having.
And so, I didn’t have too many friends. It was mostly friends through another person. And about a year ago, I started trying to find community… so, started using apps, lots of them. Lex had just sort of come out, I guess, and that was kind of fun, I guess…
Arielle: As had you…
Em: Well, I mean, I came out before that…but thank you.
Arielle: I know. But I would never miss an opportunity for that joke.
Arielle: Who would I be?
Em: Right, exactly. And I made a friend. She’s phenomenal. We have not seen each other since March. And then, late December, I went to a brunch. I knew two people there, and there were a bunch more. And I introduced myself, and used my pronouns, and somebody’s head whipped around really fast and I made my first non-binary friend ever..the only other person I knew that used non-binary pronouns, and we’re still great friends… and made a few other friends through app stuff, and also had all the shitty things happening through apps. And with these two or three friends that I had, I was finally getting to this spot where there were going to be activities at a person’s place, and it was going to be all queer or trans people, and the people weren’t ableist, they weren’t racist, they weren’t transmisogynistic… supposedly, although….
Arielle: We all know how that goes among other trans people who are…not trans feminine… sometimes. Some are wonderful, and sometimes there’s a lot of transmisogyny within queer and trans spaces.
Em: Well, that’s been part of my problem over the last eight months or so. But the first of those little house gathers, where I was finally going to be surrounded by queer and trans people socially—the very first time in my life—that was the day after I started my quarantine. I’ve never been surrounded by queer and trans people in the way I thought I was going to start to get doing after Spring Break 2020 when my schedule was going to calm down. And then COVID happened, and lots of the queer and trans people that had been living in Chicago had their folks, they had the people they know, and so they were able to form their own pods or bubbles. And I made some friends, hung out with some of them outdoors or other ways, and kept trying to find a pod to join so that I could regularly be around people and maybe unmasked.
I think I stopped at around 11, cause that’s when second wave started… of, not feminism, but COVID… right, but also…
Arielle: If it can even be called the second wave, I mean, where does it even… divide.
Em: It’s more like a third wave, but I think second wave fits well because all these folks ended up being transmisogynistic…
Em: Yeah, funny now!
Arielle: Ugh. Vomit noise!
Em: Yes, there we go, perfect. And just months of meeting outdoors and getting along, talking going well, feeling safe and trusting, and then we go through COVID consent, which for is sort of like we talk about us and what we do, we talk about those other people that are in our air or saliva space, like sharing saliva with, cause that’s the scariest part of COVID.
Arielle: I don’t know how I just let people just breathe on me before this and never thought about it.
Arielle: I just let people spit all over me!
Em: In fact, they did spit on me, too, before this. But it was for different reasons.
Arielle: Buh-dum, chh.
Em: Yeah. Each of those times, it would be either I’d check in like, “hey, are we doing this still, just wanting to confirm,” and then that person would never ever write back. Or, they would cancel, and it would be no excuse at all, whatsoever, and never any communication. Or it would be an excuse that doesn’t make sense with how we were talking about things beforehand, and then no communication ever. And, that’s 11 times… I think it’s pretty easy to confirm some transmisogyny is the thing going on there.
Arielle: So, I’m curious to hear, you kind of alluded to some of this, but what moments of trans joy have you had since beginning to find community, even though some of that was disrupted by COVID?
Em: Meeting you was one of them.
Arielle: (Happy gleeful humming and squealing)
Em: You are my first trans feminine friend. Mhmm.
Arielle: I bet that’ll sound really great on headphones, that squeal.
Em: It will. I wanted to start squealing at a higher pitch, too, but I was like, “I’m not gonna be able to do it right now.” (Squeals) Nope, that was bad.
Arielle: I love you.
Em: I love you, too. I made my first non-binary friend. And COVID hit. First couple of weeks were pretty dark. Also with a lot of flashbacks to childhood that I can’t remember. And I’m like, “oh, right, I must have had trauma in childhood, fancy that.”
And then joined, somehow, two different Instagram nude photo sharing, Queerantine groups. And these were amazing, because one of the last things I did before quarantine was what was supposed to be a sexy photoshoot thing, cause in early January 2020, I was trying to take pictures for a new headshot of me, in a corset, looking awesome. And I got two pictures. Both of them were the first time I could look at a picture of me, an image of me, and not want to look away. In fact, I wanted to keep looking.
And so, I was like, “I need to have a professional do stuff with these. And so, with a great friend who had great pics taken, I got some pics taken, too. Except that was also the day before I knew I was going into quarantine, or like, the hours before. And so, I was a bit freaked out, it was scary, and now I need to try it again at some point. But these Instagram nude Queerantine photo-sharing groups—in the groups, and I don’t think this is necessarily by the rules except you needed to be queer, there were no heterosexual people. There were no cis men. There were trans masc people, and trans men. There were all different kinds of bodies. And they’re all gorgeous, everybody was just having fun with their own bodies. And I started doing that, too, and it was liberatory in that sense. And I’ve gotten to the point, and there was a whole lot else going on, but I’m at the point now where I love my body! My body is amazing!
And I’m really cute! I don’t know if I’m gonna go so far as to say I’m hot, but I’ll let you do commentary about that later if you want. Not only that, but going over with the whole, “I need to step away from work,” “shit I can’t now cause then, what does my work mean if I’m stepping away from talking about how we allow our political institutions and the individuals within those political institutions to continue to kill Black people?” With all of this going on, it helped me to name, for myself, what is most important to me.
And what it is that I need to do, moving forward. And a lot of that includes, if I have family members and they will not stop doing shitty stuff, they’re gone. Done. Easy. If there are social people that I’m interacting with, and there’s just stuff they don’t stop doing—gone, done. Somebody violates boundaries more than once—usually I give a once slide, depending on what the boundary is—they’re gone. Nope. I don’t need that in my life. I really just want to be surrounded by the people that I love and care about, and the people that care about and love me. I’ve been getting some of this. I think I have more friends that I have these kinds of relationships with not in Chicago than I have in Chicago. In fact, it used to be that I had more living outside the US than inside the US. And I think that’s not the case anymore. And that’s been a lot of my joy. I also moved, and I love my apartment, and I feel safe here finally.
Arielle: Yeah! And you’ve got a nice rooftop.
Em: I’ve got a rooftop deck. I mean, I’ve got a gas fireplace, I’ve got a deep-soaking jacuzzi tub, I’ve got a really big television. I’m a great baker. I live 90 seconds away, at most, from the lake. This is also now a dating offer thing
Arielle: This is a Lex ad right now.
Em: It is. Cause there’s no visuals, it’s just words. Cause, while I am, yes, still unpacking…I can say I offer a nice, cozy, comfortable space. And I mean, for anybody who needs a pod person, I’m probably gonna be really good at that, I think.
And if anybody needs a kept themmebian, I would be even better at that. My cocktails are really good—there is more tail, and less cock in them.
Arielle: In light of this alluring Lex ad, where can people find you on social media to contact you if you have any takers?
Em: Yeah, so, I know that you primarily perform…cause gender is performance, in a way… out of Instagram. So, you can find me on Instagram as @Dr.Whomever. And on Twitter, it’s almost the same thing, it’s @dr_whomever. And when you’re looking, instead of just “Em” showing up—like, on Twitter, it’ll be “Em Rabelais.” My last name is pronounced “Rob-lay.” Or, wait, I can’t do the french “r,” can I do it now? Nope! Not gonna try. It got caught in the back of my throat, and it was like nope, nope, nope nope. “R A B E L A I S,” just like François Rabelais, who wrote Gargantuan and Pantegruel, which was pretty much just a bunch of poop and fart jokes, making fun of european people.
Em: You can find me in those places. If this is a professional thing, DMing me on Twitter works really well. My DMs are open there. You can also find, if you just type in UIC Nursing and my name, you’ll find my faculty profile page.
Arielle: And do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share before we close out?
Em: I do. I mean, I hope.
Arielle: Fuck yeah.
Em: I mean, “fuck yeah” is a great word of wisdom to close with.
Arielle: “fuck who you want!” is my word of wisdom.
Em: “fuck who you want” is great, too.
Arielle: With consent, always.
Em: Exactly. So, I think this needs to be a two-fold thing. One, please just fucking stay COVID safe.
Arielle: Oh my god.
Em: Please don’t do the travelling.
Arielle: It’s six times as bad now as when you all were freaking out about it. Please stay home.
Em: Stay home. Or, in my home, if we’ve gone through that COVID consent thing. Cause we’re doing the Lex ad still, probably.
Arielle: I mean, when does the Lex ad end, and other things begin? All of life is a Lex ad, you might say.
Em: Yeah, it doesn’t end. I mean, I guess the big thing is: you are important. You are a person. You’ve got a bodymind. You’ve got a body. You’ve got all these thoughts and stuff. I put them together because Descartes’ whole “mind-body dualism” is fake, it’s not real. You’ve got this bodymind, you’ve got your existence. Your physical existence, how you think about things. And we haven’t put you anywhere yet, but you’re in the world, and you’re here. And that means you’re important. That’s important to me, that we remember that we are valid. Our bodyminds are valid. Even when the fucked up world is saying that we’re not.