Queer Attachment: An Anti-Oppression Toolkit for Relational Healing

A Zine by Leah jo and Fizz Perkal

We made this zine free and accessible in two versions: one to read online, and the other to print in zine format.

We invite you to read or print this zine for personal reading, or to share with others. We ask that if you do so, and are able, to consider making a donation to one of the following organizations, or another of your choosing. This zine was a labor of love, a gathering of teachings we have been lucky to receive from so many wise ones. In order to give back from what we have gleaned from the wisdom, leadership, teachings and inspiration of radical Black, Indigenous and POC leaders and organizers, healers and liberators, we hope that others will donate to some of the organizations that are making the way towards collective liberation for all of us. Donate here to support the Radical Dharma Movement Project. Donate here to support The Red Nation and their work towards Native liberation. And, amazing Indigenous musician and protector of future generations Lyla June is running for a seat in the NM house of reps on a climate justice platform, if you want to donate to her campaign!

Why we wrote this zine: 

We came to this project with a love of tools for self-growth that was born out of our own pain and pain we inflicted on others, as well as a desire to heal. So often this meant submerging ourselves in the deep and generally problematic waters of “self-help” books. While these writings led us to epiphanies and gave us a greater understanding of ourselves, engaging with them meant that we often had to filter out frameworks that didn’t fit us. Generally, the authors of self-help books are straight, white, cis folk who rarely acknowledge the larger structures within which our nervous systems and attachment systems exist. There aren’t many good how-to’s that substantially account for queer identity and provide an anti-oppression lens. So we decided to write something!

This writing weaves together what we have learned through more mainstream white attachment theorists, study of trauma and the nervous system, and radical queer Black, Indigenous, and people of color practitioners of this work. We are deeply grateful to the people we cite and reference directly, and also for the movements and visionaries who have shaped and inspired our analysis more broadly—especially the brilliant queer women and non-binary folks of color within the healing justice and transformative justice movements. 

We bow down to the writing, organizing, and intervening on generational trauma that, in the words of Cara Page, “transform the consequences of oppression on our bodies, hearts and minds.”[1]  We credit the disability justice movement for modeling how to center practices of community care, mutual aid, and interdependence. Whether explicitly named or implicitly present, these lessons are foundational in a politicized and comprehensive vision for relational healing. We are so grateful for all of the writings, conversations, and reflections that makes up this zine. This is a project of gathering wisdom that has been shared with us.  

We live in a web of systems of oppression and domination. Oppression is traumatic. Our bodies and nervous systems are not isolated individual entities untouched by the world. We are connected and related beings who are constantly impacted by each other and the larger systems that we exist in. We fundamentally believe that we are all harmed by systems of domination, albeit very differently depending on identity and experience within the historical and current contexts of settler colonialism, slavery and anti-Black racism, capitalism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy. 

We offer this writing to help connect the work of self-reflection and growth to political practices of accountable, deep, transformative anti-racist, anti-colonial, and feminist work. We’re coming from a place of believing that change must happen on many levels: personal, interpersonal, cultural, and structural. The same personal and interpersonal patterns we struggle with in our intimate relationships can play out in harmful ways in our organizations and movements, so we see this self and interpersonal work as intimately connected to social change work. 

Trauma is relational, so healing must be relational. Despite the conditions of trauma and oppression in our society, we are adaptive and resilient beings. This sentiment guides this writing as an aspiring road map to relational healing through the lens of nervous system regulation and (l)earned security.

Who is the We?

We are two white, queer, european settlers currently living on unceded Pueblo territory in New Mexico. Leah Jo is a community organizer, artist, and harm reductionist family medicine provider. Fizz is a non-binary community organizer, abolitionist, and full-spectrum doula. Leah Jo identifies more with anxious attachment, and Fizz with avoidant attachment tendencies.

We are not experts on attachment theory or the nervous system, nor therapists with extensive experience professionally supporting people in attachment related healing. We are two queers who have found these frameworks incredibly useful on our own healing journeys, and to supporting friends navigating relational challenges (romantic, platonic, and in organizing for social change). We also acknowledge that because of our privileged identities, we will inevitably miss things and make mistakes in this writing. We aim to be humble about our shortcomings; we are eager for feedback and dialogue!

Trauma and the nervous system

There is a strong relationship between the development of our attachment styles, the social systems we are raised in, and the development of our nervous system. We’re going to talk about the nervous system, and how it relates to trauma and to our survival and coping mechanisms.

What is trauma?

We hear the word trauma a lot these days. With trauma, we are talking about the way the body responds to and holds onto stressful and harmful experiences. Whether a one-time incident or a sequence of wounds, trauma is a form of disconnection, an experience of overwhelm so big it is stored in the body to be processed later. As there is often not an opportunity to deal with it later, this becomes survival patterning in the body. This can look like anxiety, nightmares, panic attacks, disproportionate/strong emotional reactions either to small daily incidents, (a loud noise, getting cut off in traffic, a comment) or to something for no visible reason. 

Trauma is experienced both individually and collectively. Oppression is traumatic, and oppressive systems prevent many of us from being able to process or resolve trauma. In the case of the US, these systems of oppression—historically rooted in genocide and land theft of Indigenous peoples and the system of chattel slavery—have been present for 500 years. This means 500 years of unresolved collective trauma. Today, people are living under the direct threat of policing, immigrant detention, the decimation of Indigenous sacred sites for extraction, and the chronic stress of surviving under capitalism. In these conditions, there often isn’t the physical safety and space to collectively process or resolve trauma.

What is the Nervous System?

When we talk about how trauma shows up in the body, we are talking about how it impacts the nervous system. The nervous system is an intricate network of nerves and chemical communicators that run through and connect our brain, organs, and really, our entire being. Our nervous system is organized into some big-word categories, but here we’re going to talk about it in terms of “survival” and “sustainable” physiology (a word used to describe the function of the body). Our survival physiologies are the states of our nervous system that help us fight, flee, or freeze. These are old and adaptive states that serve a function when engaged appropriately, but because of generations of trauma and systems of oppression, many of us are chronically stuck in our survival physiologies.

Download the zine to read more!

What is Attachment?

Attachment styles are unconscious coping mechanisms, or relational adaptations, that we develop at a young age based on our early caregivers. Our attachment styles go on to impact how we behave in our intimate relationships and relate to attachment figures in our adult lives. The terms and definitions we synthesize here are simplified, though we acknowledge that to attempt to simplify something as complex as the human experience within attachment relationship is slippery. We encourage folks to read and learn more if interested, and there are many books, podcasts, and writings available. Further, we acknowledge that attachment theory is a U.S. and euro-settler centric framework, which comes with all sorts of shortcomings (including a disproportionate amount of studies being based on straight white people). 

Our intent here is to share some simplified definitions, and help others access what we feel is another useful framework to better understand ourselves in connection to others. We investigate some of the ways that our attachment styles are informed not only by early nuclear family-based relationships, but also by intergenerational trauma, and the isolation, disconnection and chronic stress of capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy that create an almost systemic attachment wounding in our society. Lastly, we aim for this framework to help folks build towards (l)earned security inside of ourselves, our relationships, and our organizations. By (l)earned security, we are referring to the ability to resist anxious or avoidant patterns that we’ve inherited and instead to cultivate secure, safe, and connected tendencies in our relationships. We use this spelling because we see this as both something that we work for (earned) and that we teach ourselves and each other (learned).

Tools Section

In this section, we will explore some of our favorite tools and frameworks for (l)earned security and nervous system regulation. We are using the term (l)earned security as an umbrella for various strategies and approaches to relational healing, or the healing that we do in relationships. Nervous system regulation includes different tools and approaches to help regulate our own biology and emotional states. Put another way, (l)earned security is about co-regulation, and nervous system regulation is about self-regulation.

In Nurturing Resilience, the authors talk about regulation as our bodies’ ability to manage our emotional state and to calm ourselves when we experience heightened emotions such as fear, anger, and frustration. They explain that regulation is a learned process that we integrate by observing others and through attachment with our early caregivers. Nervous system regulation relies on co-regulation and self-regulation skills. Co-regulation is the way in which our nervous system is settled through the support and soothing we get in attuned relationships with others. We can learn co-regulation early on with attuned caregivers if they soothe us when we are upset, and let us explore in developmentally appropriate ways.

Mainstream attachment theory exclusively focuses on the ways that attachment wounding arises in monogamous romantic relationships. The container of intimate romantic relationships is particularly ripe for early attachment wounds to be triggered as we unconsciously seek out and reproduce familiar unhealthy caregiver dynamics in order to attempt to heal and transform them. We want to acknowledge that attachment wounding can also be triggered in platonic and community level relationships, but not usually to the same degree of intensity.

Attachment healing work in romantic partnerships can be tremendously powerful and transformative. However, too often this work happens in isolation and separate from community support. We feel that the most powerful potential for interpersonal transformation within romantic partnerships is when they are held in community. When we build resilient communities with many layers of secure relationships, we create more space for mirroring, accountability and deep love within romantic partnerships. We hope these tools will be helpful in both attachment healing within romantic relationships, and on a community level. 

As Naomi Ortiz says in Sustaining Spirit: Self Care for Social Justice, “The reflection for growth and transformation, the work we have to do inside of ourselves, is not quick or efficient. The greatest transformations happen when we make time to reflect on what is possible.”[5] We don’t want to downplay how challenging, long term and deep this work of (l)earned security and nervous system regulation can be—and yet, we fundamentally believe that humans are resilient and have the capacity to be on the non-linear, messy, beautiful journey towards relational healing. One of the outcomes of this work is that we get to live our best lives.

We begin by sharing some frameworks that radically reimagine how attachment theory can be applied to social change work. Next, we explore (l)earned security, and some more tools to build secure relationships. We then finish with a few tools for self-regulation and nervous system healing.

Download the zine to read more!

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