My dear friend Leslie is on a new show on TLC called Big Sexy*. It follows the lives of five New York City women aged 24-30something who are all plus size and work in the thin-centric fashion industry. Big Sexy premiered last night and has two more episodes that air on Tuesday nights at 10PM. I’m sure the first episode will re-run a few times this week.
Leslie and her fellow cast mates organized a viewing party for their friends and family at a big sports bar in Times Square.
It happened again. The phone calls and texts started, trying to give me news of a friend’s suicide before I found it on Facebook. This is what we have now. Who knows the protocol?*
Me and Amanda at a dance party in 2010. Yesterday I met someone who had tiny flying birds coming from a tattoo on their head and it reminded me of her shoulder tattoo.
This is a post about my friend and it’s a post about my messy grief process. I don’t know what to do right now, but I think modeling how I am grieving may be of some help to other folks out there who are bewildered and confused and don’t know how to keep processing these suicides of bright light Femmes.
My friend Amanda and I became close in 2008/2009 when she was a member of Femme Family, a Femme organizing group that sprung to life after the Femme Conference in August of that year. We wanted Femme community in NYC, and me and Damien, Amanda, Sophie, Chris, Taueret, Bryn, Bridget, Rachel, Hana, Dylan, Erica, Heather, and a lot of other Femmes who popped in and out, made it happen. Mostly we were cultural organizers, throwing dance parties, fundraisers, Femme poker nights, a Femme literary reading series, we had a book club and published a zine.
Clockwise from top left: Bryn, Sophie, Damien, Amanda, Rachel, Me, Chris, Dylan, Erica. We were all so busy working our party that we had to do a group photo in stages.
Taueret, Heather, Me, Bridget, Amanda.
Amanda was the Madam of Country Glam, me and Damien weren’t yet roommates but we were Co-Head Madams. Taueret was the Madam of Ferocity. I forget which Madam title Bryn had. Taueret took her life in February of last year and Bryn just this past January. The last time I saw Amanda was when she was out for Taueret’s memorial (on Amanda’s birthday, October 3rd) and the last time we spoke on the phone was after Bryn passed and Amanda needed advice about posthumous art curation. It was such a beautiful moment, we talked for an hour while I was in a park at sunset, Dara and I having just seen what would become our quirky house in LA. I watched the beauty transform around me in my new neighborhood, we processed about Bryn and she filled me in on her new romantic adventures.
Amanda had the biggest heart. She was so sweet and welcoming. She was from Arkansas and it was a huge part of her identity. She was brilliant and political and knew how to show up for people. She always drove a huge SUV and made it look really easy in Brooklyn and Manhattan. She was a little younger than me and in some ways I think that played into our dynamic. A couple of days ago a friend of hers told me Amanda referred to me an inspiration but to me she was my fiercely loyal Femme friend.
I’ve known so much grief and loss for so long that I know that even in sad circumstances we need to celebrate life. So even though it was the day of Taueret’s memorial and that was the reason for her visit, I knew our Femme Family reunion brunch needed to include birthday candles for Amanda.
I was still rebuilding myself after my painful break-up with my ex fiancé and she witnessed and held space. She showed me solidarity. She loved Steel Magnolias and Dolly Parton as much as me. She loved to get dressed up and take pictures. She loved other Femmes and loved to peacock for and with us.
The title of this post is an homage to a shared favorite movie.
She started performing burlesque as Lola Dean and I think her first performance ever was at my Queer Family Holiday party. Taueret’s first burlesque act was at my previous party, a Queer Zombie Cabaret, and they both bonded over learning burlesque. When I competed for the title of Miss LEZ I asked them both to be my back-up dancers for my “talent” (hosting a gameshow/being surrounded by hot Femmes) as the Baconettes.
Amanda loved these pasties so much, she bought them special for the show on Etsy. Photo by Alison Picard.
Amanda was amazing backstage at the pageant. She was a former pageant queen in high school and gave me great advice about my interview portion and poise and other pageant stuff. Taueret was also amazing and told off a former date of mine who had recently stood me up. I remember leaving with Taueret after losing the pageant and feeling both physically famished (they don’t feed you backstage) and emotionally supported while kind of crushed that I lost.
We brought the Baconettes back together the following Spring. I was Queen of Honor at Hey Queen, a queer dance party that was a staple of Brooklyn nightlife for five years. I was “Size Queen” and wanted to compose a really hot number to Madonna’s “Hanky Panky.” Me, Taueret, Amanda and Hana met up in my tiny living room to practice. We did it again at That’s My Jam the next month and from the buzz off those events I started Rebel Cupcake at Sugarland on International No Diet Day, May 6, 2010. Amanda performed as Lola Dean along with Taueret at the first Rebel Cupcake and once more before she moved to San Francisco.
She, Sophie and Rachel all moved to San Francisco at about the same time. I felt really sad that they left but felt kind of okay, too, because I knew they had each other and no doubt they would do magical things out there.
Watching the blossoming friendship of Rachel and Amanda was really special. Photo from the photo booth of Rebel Cupcake, by Nogga Schwartz.
I think a lot about how Femme Family was this beautiful incubator for those of us involved. It gave us confidence in our abilities and we got ideas that were firmly based in our Femme identities. I started Rebel Cupcake, a body positive dance party for fat kids and fabulous weirdos. Damien started Heels on Wheels, a Femme art tour, show series and now a book with Heather. Sophie started Shameless Photography a feminist body positive pin-up photography business and many of the Femme Family were her first models.
Amanda went on to create Femme Space, a reclamation of space for Femmes and a beautiful portrait project. The stories and photos are stunning, I highly recommend a deep dive into them.
Long distance took an understandable toll on our friendship, but it never lost all of its love. I would see her and have epic conversations about all the things but mostly romance gossip because it was a fav of both of ours. Just six months ago she got on snapchat and she posted the sweetest thing on Facebook about how she loved my “snapchat stories” and for a bit there we would have girl talk and lingerie sharing over snapchat private message 10 seconds at a time.
As our friend Elisabeth said memorializing Amanda, she was the ultimate “Hi Femme!” which was her actual license plate. She had to appeal a bunch to the CA DMV to get it–they thought it was about drugs and she schooled them that it was an actual identity. She was tickled every time she caught someone taking a photo of it behind her in traffic.
We constantly bonded over country music and I still think of her every time a good block of country music sung by women is on the radio (which is rare). When I was in LA last year learning my way around I heard a whole hour dedicated to women in country music and was so excited to tell her about it.
A couple of years ago she told me her plan after she moved to San Francisco was to eventually go back and head an organization for Southern Queers in Arkansas. I loved seeing Arkansas through her lens on social media. I loved seeing places she had told me about.
Visiting San Francisco with Mackenzi, outside of the Lexington with Sophie, Dagger and Digg. Amanda was always a poly-identified Femme and there are a bunch of really good looking folks that had the pleasure of knowing her romantically in mourning. She was so special as a friend and I think she was extra extra special as a lover.
Another toll of long distance is when your friends throw parties you hella want to be at. She had a birthday party at the Madonna Inn one year and I was SOOOOO SAD I was too broke to go because I had always wanted to go to the Madonna Inn and they were taking lingerie photos with all the theme rooms! It was going to be Femme Slumber Party birthday magic. And I got to go to Dollywood which I know she always wanted to do and I wanted to do it with her! And she had a Dolly Parton themed getaway birthday party.
Femme Conference 2010.
Now that I’m in LA I am closer (wouldn’t ever turn down an invite to the Madonna Inn now!) but her housewarming party in Crockett, where she just moved to get more rural, was a night when I’m doing a big event here. I remember thinking “SOMEHOW SOMEWAY we will have a party we can both attend.” She died before I could even pester her to come be my photographer for Dollypalooza next month.
One of the things that is most beautiful in Femme friendships is seeing yourself reflected in one another. Amanda was positive and upbeat, like me, and sparkly. She was the kind of Femme who threw herself into activism and organizing and also had good hair and impeccable nails. I always told her she was my nail inspo and had stiletto nails long before they got really mainstream popular. She kept a few fingers on the right hand short, for sex. I was living for her ombre. Honestly, her hair just kept getting better and better.
Nashville fans, she declared Juliette Barnes one of her fashion icons. Amanda left behind a perfect shiba inu/chihuahua rescue named Memphis and her cat, Kitten Butt. And a gorgeous white bedroom set she moved cross country.
I’m taking this death really hard. I am replaying all of the ways in which I feel like I could have done things differently. Like what if I hadn’t flaked on hiring her to photograph me at my high school reunion reclaiming space that felt alienating to me as a teen. Would we have had a heart to heart two weeks ago that could have changed things? Should I have finished writing my book already since it’s mostly about how I survived this epic heartbreak and betrayal and bloomed even bigger and brighter than I ever thought possible? Could it have been a road map for her?
I shared these feelings with a friend yesterday who said, “You can’t put your lightness in someone else’s darkness.” And then confessed that they must have been channelling Spirit because they would never have said that. I’ve also gotten similar messages about Bryn and Taueret when I asked my psychic Alex about their possibly related suicides.
Photo by Alison Picard.
I feel like there’s this way that when you shine really bright like Amanda did, like Bryn did, like Taueret did, that the world doesn’t want you to survive. Just being a bright light superstar that by your very identity challenges the white heteropatriarchy is dangerous. That manifests in the experiences of trauma caused by oppression, misogyny, heterosexism, ableism, fatphobia, transmisogyny, slut shaming, classism, and on and on. It’s hard to stay sane and positive when the world is relentless with heartbreak, police brutality, apartheid, and all of the other horrific things you see just by turning on the news.
The world is made better and sweeter for me by activists and artists like all three of them. I try like hell to take care of myself. I try like hell to model self care for the corner of the internet where people pay attention to what I say. When I’m modeling self care, I am saying “This is how I am staying alive today.” Because self care is vital and survival is vital.
The same month she took her life her face was on the side of a Muni bus. Her light was shining bright. But it goes to show that we can have a good face on and be battling darkness really deep.
And let’s talk about our fucked up mental healthcare system. Why don’t we have walk in clinics, where you can start treatment without a giant ball of red tape and bullshit. Why don’t we fund this? Is it because the people who are in charge find our bodies disposable? We have such a fucked up world we need to make it more survivable. Instead the fuckedupness is making it harder and harder to stay alive.
It’s important and good we know about what’s going wrong in our world. We have to see it to change it, right? But we also need to recognize the toll that takes on everyone’s mental health.
We need to stop treating self care like it’s optional. Take care of yourself and take really fucking great care. And fund easy to access free mental health for everyone because we need it . All three of these friends of mine were brilliant women with different access to help and different ways of soliciting it. What about the people who aren’t as resourced or good at self advocacy as Bryn, Taueret or Amanda? Somehow we need to do better at getting mental healthcare into the hands of people who need it. The amount of people who need it is mounting.
Speaking of Femme.
I keep thinking about the idea of feminizing the world as a means of creating world change and world peace. Amanda even mentioned it in the article announcing her as one of KQED’s 20 Women to Watch.
In response to the question, “If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play or painting, what would it be?” She replied, “It hasn’t been written yet (to my knowledge), but I’m looking forward to media exploring a futuristic femme oligarchy. Until then, Steel Magnolias will do.”
Maybe that’s how I need to womanifest my thoughts about how to feminize the world. Write a TV treatment for a show exploring a Futuristic Femme Oligarchy. If Femmes ruled the world? It would be amazing. Amanda dedicated her Femme Space project that was poppin’ off to the memory of Taueret and Bryn (check the footer on the page) and I would dedicate that TV show treatment to all three.
In the meantime we need to figure out how to survive. This is why I blog. This is why I talk about the things I’ve figured out for self care and to take good care of myself. I’m writing a self care zine so I can brain dump to whoever wants it all the stuff I know about self care. Because we don’t live in a world where mental and emotional healthcare is free and easily available. ’Til we do we need to be taking care of each other and ourselves.
I talk a lot about becoming a rich lesbian. I mostly want to be rich because I want to start a foundation to support the kind of hard to fund amazing grass roots edge of social change groups that don’t usually get grants. I want to give them cash and provide support for their sustainability and helping have the kind of structure that ensures the legacy can move forward if the founders either move on, burn out or have shit go down in their lives. My friend Jenn and I brainstormed that I need to have a social worker on staff who can provide therapy for supported organizers, coaching people in self care.
I see a lot of activists whose work and care taking is dedicated to the point of compulsion. There’s always more to do and not enough money or resources. I see people who are broke who give what little they have to folks who are broker than they are. It’s in the giving nature of people dedicated to world change. I wonder if Amanda needed more care than she was capable of receiving. I wonder if there’s a way to teach people to receive the love that is around them. Because Amanda, Taueret and Bryn were all beloved.
These deaths rip open the wounds that I work hard to heal. I’m grieving hard the loss of all three, grief compounded upon grief. I was putting dishes away and a wave came. I was literally sobbing into my kitchen cabinet when I came to. I find it’s easiest to grieve when I just open myself up to it. I don’t try to pretend that I’m cool when I’m not and I work to practice radical honesty with people who ask me how I’m doing.
When I was doing my deep dive into my photo archives I realized that right after this Femme picnic in Dolores Park I met up with my queer Femme friend Melissa Tracy who also took her life this year.
I’ve learned a lot about grieving over the years. I was sending a blog post about break-up grieving strategies to a friend and I realized a lot of it was very applicable to death. Try to be present. Try to let it flow. Commit to your plans so you don’t spiral out for too long. For me, preventing the darkness is easier than being swallowed by it and having to crawl out, so I’m trying really hard to not fall into that place.
This week I asked for a lot of help. Dara has been out of town for work for almost two weeks. On Saturday Amanda’s suicide hadn’t been announced yet and I had to figure out how to get the help I needed without doing the endless phone calls and messages thing, so I put an all call on Facebook. I don’t give a fuck about seeming vulnerable. I think we should be more vulnerable with each other, it’s a sign of strength.
In some ways it’s been good that Dara’s not here. I have been relying for primary support from my friends and it’s important to lean out of your primary for support. I’m also crabby and listless, and I’m actually feeling shitty about how I am not a pile of sunshine for Dara right now. So being independent from her has been helpful.
Yesterday I knew I had a ton of work to do and in the in between times might need brightening. So I asked Facebook once again for sweet memories. Remembering connections to other, living folks is a sweet way to remind me that I am loved, and taking breaks from work to sit with a few at a time has been so helpful.
I keep remembering all the hot people I was going to set her up on dates with. I keep thinking about all of the collaborations I wanted to do. Over the past year I thought a lot about what Amanda would do my Femme Space photo about. I thought maybe my rainbow mumu and me in a Home Depot because I am definitely a power tool wielding Femme, I do not let stereotypes about women and femininity stand in the way of me getting what I want to get done. And then I definitely thought it was going to be me teaching my new fitness class at the body positive gym opening up in LA. But whatever it was, it’s a collaboration that won’t happen. Because something about the world was too painful for her.
I want to make the world more survivable. I wrestled with the choice to not go to her funeral on Wednesday but the thought of making the travel plans was so overwhelming I was paralyzed. So I took that, and my big chronic digestive disorder flare as my signs that I needed to stay put and take care of myself. I can’t make the world survivable unless I take care of my own survival.
*For me, just in case this is relevant to any of my friends reading this, I prefer a phone call. Almost all of my calls are scheduled because that’s how I roll, so if you call me twice in a row and text “Call me ASAP” I know what that means. So that’s my preferred protocol. I changed my number to a 323 number when I moved to LA so check your phone and delete that old Jersey 201 number!
I have all these new friends I just made and I wonder if they think it’s weird that I say I love you literally every time we part ways. It’s because I’ve known so much loss and I’m only 37 and I know it might be my last opportunity to say it. So I always do when I feel it. Grief is an unfortunate side effect of love, and I love really big. I loved Amanda a lot and my grief reflects the size of that love. There is no timeline on grief, I will never get over missing her. I will never get over Bryn and Taueret. I will only do what is the best case scenario and get used to the idea that they aren’t here.
More Amanda Love:
KQED Holding Space for Amanda (lists a lot of her artistic accomplishments if you want to learn more about her prolific work)
To be added: Memorial information for next month’s memorial.