Category Archives: activism
This is another post that is so five years ago, but it’s about a bit of media coverage that’s still annoying me in 2017. Specifically, it’s about the mainstream media coverage of model Andreja Pejic back before she came out as a woman and was being intentionally vague about her gender in interviews. Throughout that year or two of heavy coverage, the media was completely obsessed with its own invented idea of Andreja as terribly androgynous and the fun of a tired old “surprise, it’s a man!” storyline, while completely ignoring what was revolutionary about Pejic: the fact that she openly talked about a non-binary identity in interviews and asked mainstream readers to question their understanding of gender.
With everything in the news lately around the Muslim ban and other potential disastrous pieces of immigration policy in the U.S., I keep thinking about what it means to queer immigration—how can we queer the narratives, whether “left” or “right,” that we hear about immigration in the mainstream press?
Queering, as a verb, is all about disrupting narratives and shifting perspectives. It’s about questioning the premises of an argument, not just arguing the “opposite.” It’s a lens that leads me to think less about gradual immigration reform and more about the very concept of states and borders in the first place. What do the stories we tell about immigration say about us and our values? How are immigration arguments used to normalize settler colonialism, slavery, heteronormative family structures, and white supremacy? These are some opening thoughts, but I expect I’ll have much more to say on this topic as the great fascist Amerikan state keeps rolling on.
It probably says something that I’m doing a New Year’s post two weeks into the year, but as John and Sherlock would tell you on the BBC, it is what it is.
This post isn’t about the clusterfuck that was 2016 in the world, or the Trump presidency, but rather a short collection of personal thoughts about what 2017 might mean for me and what 2016 did. Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been quieter in public in recent months. A large part of this has to do with wrestling with what actual accountability means as a white person trying to be involved in countering white supremacy. I’m less comfortable with public activism than I used to be, because I don’t want my voice to be one of the loudest. But I expect that I’ll continue to write, albeit at this slow pace I’ve settled into, for many years to come.
While I do less public speaking and writing about general queerness, wanting to make space for QTPOC voices, I have been still thinking about areas where my contribution might be more appropriate. So I’ve done a few talks on trans-inclusivity in data, melding my day job with my side hustle, and I’m excited that B Cordelia Yu and I will be presenting together at the Nonprofit Technology Conference in March on that topic. I’ve also toyed with a podcast idea, but it burned bright for a few weeks and then energy drained away, much as it’s been with wanting to learn to draw comics, designing games, etc. And that brings me to the real point of this post, which is figuring out how to make contributions when your mental health just doesn’t want to let you.
In recent years, I’ve seen a lot of posts and Twitter commentary on how insidious it is when folks claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA (an alphabet soup I’m not too fond of in the first place) stands for “ally.” All these commenters make good points about why allies shouldn’t get a cookie or claim allyship as an identity, as well as about asexual erasure. I too find it frustrating how corporate white gay America, institutionalized in various forms such as the high school gay student organization, equates being an ally with actually being a GSM, often defining “ally” only as someone who vaguely supports “gay rights” and shows up at queer events from time to time. But I’m even more frustrated when I see some of the same white queer folks who make these points about how ally is not an identity that gains you membership into the queer club try to simultaneously position themselves as allies in another space—the space of anti-racist organizing and conversation.
Yes, there is a role for white folks in anti-racist work. But we don’t belong front and center. We don’t get to name ourselves “allies,” or claim membership to a club simply because we manage to have a bit more humanity than our white siblings in naming and shaming racism. Simply by virtue of being white, we are part of a brutal genocidal culture, and no person of color should have to give a reason for wanting space away from us, or for wanting us to step back in anti-racist movements.
This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.
In the first post in this series, I talked a bit about how some societal norms around the relationship escalator have pushed me into an inadequate framework for looking at relationships, particularly in the practice of polyamory. In this post, I’d like to dig more into those societal norms, and particularly into how we can practice polyamory in a healthy way while healing from the wounds a capitalist society constantly and pervasively inflicts on us. I’ll note by way of introduction that I have some privileges particularly relevant here: I’m white, college-educated, and benefit financially from the capitalist economic system in the United States. While I’m ideologically opposed to capitalism, it’s important to note that I also materially benefit from it (and often allow my 9-to-5 work to get in the way of active resistance). I imagine that many of these points apply even more starkly to working class people and people of color.
So to start, I think it’s no surprise that a capitalist, data-driven culture can affect our romantic relationships. I talked in the last post about the dangers of a framework of equality in relationships, and I think it’s this culture that creates the myth that equality is possible. The bootstrap mentality encourages us not only in work but in our relationships to focus on competition, rather than on community: when we allow this poisoned economic model of relating to gain a foothold in our lives, our romantic relationships become tainted by a feeling of scarcity.
I frequently hear poly folks talking about their struggles with a fear of scarcity, whether the scarce resource is time, energy, or even love. We often forget to talk directly about that fear, though, and are afraid to ask for what we actually need from our partners or our metamours in this perceived scarce environment where naming a need means acknowledging that a scarce resource may not be available to us. Instead, we expect that our needs will be met and feel hurt if they are not. This is no surprise, given how most of us spend most of our time at work in environments with limited resources and no salary transparency. We become accustomed to a culture of hoping that if we do our best (in work or in love) we will get what we need without any direct negotiation.
I find it funny, sometimes, how folks on the Internet perceive me, for better or for worse. So much of the writing I do is about identity and assumptions–about labels and the importance of not labelling others without permission, on the risk of misgendering someone you don’t know by assuming their gender in advance. I’m pretty heavily “out” online and in the world in general, so it’s easy enough to find out the words I use to describe myself. Every few months, it seems, I tweak my bio for a new gig or article, but some of the core words remain the same: non-binary, trans, queer, geek, femme, poly. Most of the time, when someone ignores these descriptors they’re just responding to one thing I’ve said and making an assumption about who I am, or they’re accusing me of “lying” about one of these words. “Lying” is funny in this realm: for example, it’s hard to list all the things that are wrong with assuming what others assume is in a non-binary person’s pants, and then accusing them of lying about their “birth sex” when they haven’t said much about it at all. Huh?
But then there are other ways of categorizing, used by trolls and serious critics alike, that are interesting in that they’re both wrong and make an important point about privilege, that I can take as a useful way to grow even if I disagree with the label. For example, the idea that I’m a “social justice warrior” or a career activist or one of those people who makes a lot of money to give talks and write books is a common thread. Full disclosure, I do sometimes make a bit of money to write an article or speak on a campus, and I’m highly privileged in that way. I can earn that money because I’m white, educated, and have connections in certain circles. A lot of activists do a hell of a lot more than I do and probably have a hell of a lot more to say (or at least things to say that really need to be heard by those in power), but aren’t invited to paid gigs because of systemic oppression and the discomfort people in power tend to have with radical people of color telling them that they’re wrong. I try to use the platform I have to point to voices of people of color and other marginalized folks, and to encourage white privileged people to do better. But I do accept some money for these gigs: in a given year, the equivalent of about a month’s salary. I want to own and acknowledge that.
I don’t belong to much of an “establishment,” as far as I know, in a formal sense, other than the establishment of privileged folks who need to spend more time educating ourselves and listening down the vertical hierarchy of power. I don’t currently work in an activist movement, though I have previously. I’m not so much a part of social communities (BDSM communities, poly communities, queer communities, trans communities) mainly because I don’t have the time. I miss having more involvement in trans communities online, and if there’s any community I might claim it would be those. But I can understand how I might represent something of a “radical establishment” position to some, and so I’ll take the criticism in a constructive way and focus in 2015 on exploring viewpoints that do not command much of a spotlight, particularly voices of color, and on examining my own privileged position and how I can make difficult decisions towards the ultimate goal of tearing down institutions systemic oppression. Sometimes, the best way to do this may be staying silent and making space. Other times, I will lend my voice to the fray because I do think it has some value–no more or no less value than any other single voice.
It’s time for another post in the “dear fellow white people” vein. There’s been a lot of cultural appropriation showing up in my feed reader lately, and while the white culprits may have been well-meaning when they embarked upon the appropriative act, it shows a remarkable degree of “wow, we really just don’t get it, do we?” Even while I was writing the first draft of this post, for example, one of my favorite bloggers, Spectra, published a post you have to read to believe on a white woman my age who went to Kenya and claims to be a Massai warrior princess. Big surprise, she’s now writing a book to profit on her experiences.
I suspect the common practice of cultural appropriation has roots in both colonialism and capitalism, though you don’t have to be a self-avowed capitalist or aware of your colonialism to do it. There’s simply a tendency among white people to see that something is good, and then have a reaction of “I want to have that” without seeing the problem with that attitude. Capitalism sees things as property, and people as beings that should want more property, always, while colonialism ignores the concept that land, practices, symbols, and goods might be sacred or collectively held in favor of declaring the white European’s value system superior and rushing to lay “first white claim” on that land, practice, symbol, or good. When we don’t try to make an exclusive claim on something, we still tend to feel that it’s okay to share (appropriate) in the name of equal access. (Yep, because white people as a collective totally believe in equal access to resources.)
Here’s the thing about equality: it’s not equality when you run around taking things from less privileged, systemically oppressed folks and then make a profit from your New Age bookshop or power yoga studio or whatever. Nor is it equality when you use cultural values for parody or humor. Nor is it equality when you mark up cultural resources, turn them into a fad, and limit the access those of the origin culture have to a resource. That’s called stealing.
Now, is there ever a case in which cultural exchange is valid and appropriate? Sure! My recommendation (one that I’m trying to follow myself) is simply that we as white people be sensitive to where things come from, and aware of the violent history of colonialism and current state of systemic oppression that might make those of non-white cultures a little wary about our interest. (This, by the way, applies regardless of the situations of our personal ancestors and other axes of privilege along which we may fall further down). There are plenty of tools out there that we can use to educate ourselves on cultural origins and the perspectives of people of color. We can also respectfully ask questions to our friends who come from the culture in question (keeping in mind that there is no duty to educate) or to those who publicly offer themselves as resources. We can proceed slowly when it comes to our appreciation, rather than immediately asking “how can I have that/be a part of that/become an expert in that?” When seeking education on a subject that has its origins in a particular culture, we can take our money to teachers from that culture rather than approaching white teachers. We can avoid supporting white folks who profit from another culture’s resources.
Some white people are inevitably going to say “but wait, my situation is different, I only care about other cultures.” I suggest that those folks at least make an effort to think critically about how that statement sounds while they’re say, enjoying a beer at the DC football team’s game. What seems harmless to one person may in fact me a reminder of colonialism, cultural theft, and genocide to another.
I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I lived in the same house for 18 years of my life and went to Wake County Public Schools throughout my formative years. My parents voted in local elections. A lot of my friends were conservative and religious, and some weren’t. A lot of my friends were white, and others were black, Latino/a, or API. I was a bit homophobic and pro-life as a pre-teen, and later came to my more liberal views in the process of coming out as bisexual at 16 and learning to read critically. My grandfather was the rector (head minister) of the oldest church in Raleigh, and I grew up going to Episcopalian Sunday school. Several of my friends as a child were immigrants. At 17 I protested the Iraq War outside of the building that housed Senator Elizabeth Dole’s offices. I was happy when John Edwards was elected and couldn’t stand Jesse Helms. I drink sweet tea and eat hush puppies. I still don’t understand Yankees.
This is all to say that being a North Carolinian is complicated. Our political views are diverse and vary widely throughout the regions of the state. Those of us who grew up in the cities experienced liberalism and conservatism in nearly-equal doses. Many of us changed our minds on political issues several times while growing up. Many of us have had to think about what our families’ pasts mean as we’ve become adults. Some of my ancestors likely owned slaves. My great-grandfather was a bootlegger. My great-grandmother was married to an abusive alcoholic. My grandparents called black people “colored” until they died and my great aunt thinks I’d be pretty if I just “did something” about my hair. My mother is a proud former flower child, a socialist, and a prison reform advocate.
Being a North Carolinian does not, contrary to the actions of our General Assembly, mean being a jackass, a sexist, a racist, a homophobe, a bigot, or a crusader against reproductive rights. Those people exist in our state. They have always existed in our state. And they exist up North and in the Midwest, too. I’ve met them everywhere I’ve travelled. I’ve also met amazing people all over the South, from fireball activists to unassuming Christians who accept all people because they believe that to be Christian is to live as Jesus lived.
If Pat McCrory had offered me those cookies, I might have thrown them in his face. I praise the woman who did receive the Governor’s offering for her restraint. But I also know that McCrory could be my grandfather or great-grandfather. Being a North Carolinian, again, is complicated.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that people change. Deeply-held beliefs can be altered when you meet someone who doesn’t fit into your worldview, when you’re forced to consider the impact of your bigotry. You might be persuaded by a logical argument, or it might simply be the kindness of someone who isn’t like you that sways you to change your tune. Maybe you come around through prayer, or discussion, or reading. Maybe the simple passage of time has an effect. I don’t excuse the actions of the bigots in my state, nor do I accept their simple apologies. Actions speak louder than words. But I am hopeful, perhaps more so than most, that there will eventually be positive actions. Because I am a North Carolinian, and that is something anyone who stands against us will have to accept.
Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.