Category Archives: movement building

Practicing Polyamory While Healing from Capitalism’s Wounds

This post is part two of a four-part series on poly in practice. Read part one.

Card reading 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.

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Immigration Is a Trans Issue: Strategy Around Framing LGBT Rights

Back of a woman's red tshirt reading LGBT families for immigration reformThursday 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:


  1. 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.
  2. 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.

White Feminists: It’s Time to Put Up Or Shut Up on Race

Listen up, white feminists.

We have a problem.  I’m including myself because none of us are immune from this problem.  We all fuck up.  And you can say “fucking up is natural,” and that’s true, but it’s time for us to start identifying our fuck ups, and not just learning from them, but acknowledging the hurt they cause other people.

We need to acknowledge that we cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority.  Cannot.  The end.  Period.  We don’t know because we’re queer, because we’re disabled, because we’re Jewish, because we were the nerdy kid in school.  These things may have hurt us severely, but we need to stop playing Oppression Olympics and acknowledge that when we’re talking about race we Do.  Not.  Know.  No more metaphors.

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Are Unpaid Internships Ethical?

I’ve noticed some chatter lately about unpaid interns at non-profit organizations, and whether the practice is ethical or not.  My kneejerk reaction was a yes answer: after all, most non-profits have tiny budgets, and it’s hard to get a non-profit job in this economy.  If someone wants to work for free, why not let them?

The problem with unpaid interns, though, gets at the heart of what’s wrong with the way many non-profits do fundraising, as well as at some of the problems non-profits have with recruiting a diverse staff.

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Transgender Day of Remembrance and What We Can Learn

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, where we take time out of our day to remember those we’ve lost–too often to violence and suicide.  As we mourn those who have died this year, it’s important to remember who we’ve lost and why.  A few thoughts:

  • As a community, we cannot abandon those at our margins.  It is crucial that we focus on violence against poor transgender sex workers of color, a community where many of the murders take place.  How can we support sex workers as a community, and how can we adjust our attitudes to recognize ALL transgender people as our brothers, sisters, and friends?
  • The prison-industrial complex is not just a term of art.  It is a violent, oppressive system that is killing our community.  Police who have no training in cultural competency aren’t just rude towards transgender people, but frequently violent and abusive.  Prisons don’t know how to handle transgender prisoners, who are often housed in the wrong facilities, confined in solitary, denied medical treatment, and particularly vulnerable to rape.  We cannot forget those who are “lost” to the system, and must be their unwavering advocates.
  • The problem of suicide is a personal one to me, and difficult to address because I struggle with depression myself, often related to gender dysphoria.  It is difficult for me to conceptualize how others might help. However, this is a serious problem that claims too many lives, and beyond the general work we need to do to increase acceptance of gender variance in our culture, there are some solutions to make transgender and gender non-conforming people feel less alone.  Therapists, other medical professionals, and suicide hotlines that support trans* patients and have experience working with trans* people should advertise this and make themselves known in their communities.  Even for those of us who have the resources to seek professional help, the crippling fear of transphobia in the medical establishment can be too much to overcome without some sign that a provider will be understanding.  And of course, ordinary people, friends and family, can do a huge service just by listening, asking how to help, and not judging those who suffer from depression and suicidal thoughts.

Is “Queer” A Useful Umbrella Term for Organizing?

This past weekend, I got into a discussion with a couple of friends at a gathering of mostly queer-identified, mostly female-identified folks.  We were talking about the problem with LGBT (or QUILTBAG, or any other acronym) as an umbrella term.  Two of us preferred not to use LGBT because of the tendency to exclude trans people and others not actually represented in the acronym.  One woman had an interesting argument, though, against the use of the word “queer” as an umbrella term for the movement.

She explained that she would include a lot of marginalized sexual identities under “queer,” including asexuals, kinky people, poly people, etc., but that she didn’t think trans and genderqueer people fit.  Her understanding of “queer” was that it necessarily refers to sex, not gender, and so it wouldn’t make sense to lump in gender identities.  She preferred LGBT because transgender people are a small enough group that some coalition-building is useful, and her take was that LGB priorities in many cases match up with transgender priorities.

Regardless of who is right in this debate, she does bring up an interesting point, which is that people tend to have an inherent sense of what any gender or sexuality term means, and often there are disagreements.  Since we don’t yet have set-in-stone language (and maybe that’s a good thing), reasonable people are likely to disagree on the meaning of terms.

I like “queer” as an umbrella because its original definition is odd or different.  I think it’s a good way to lump together all marginalized gender and sexuality identities when one wants to speak generally.  But I’m also conscious that when I say “queer,” some people may not be hearing trans and gender non-conforming under that term.  I’m also very conscious that queer people have different policy priorities.

When we’re talking about personal identity, of course, the best thing is always to simply ask a person for their personal identity terms.  When we’re talking about policy, I think it’s most useful to think about how groups naturally form around a particular issue.  When the same (or more-or-less the same) group forms around a number of different issues, then that group might be a unit that can work together and form organizations or a policy agenda.  But it’s also important to recognize that not all members of the group are going to agree on everything.

Even when we’re dealing in smaller units, we need to keep in mind that priorities may not be the same for everyone in the group.  For example, a lesbian organization needs to be aware that the priorities of its supporters of color in urban areas will differ from the priorities of white lesbians in a rural community.  Trans people and gender non-conforming people often act in coalition, but in some areas, they will have different policy priorities, and that’s okay.

Coalitions are a powerful tool.  Often, one small group will take the lead on a priority, but others can lend support when they agree.  This, I think, is what we’re getting away from with the “LGBT” idea, but it’s where its power could potentially lie.  My friend was right in saying that trans people are a relatively small group when it comes to making concrete legal and policy change.  Trans activists usually have to ally with non-trans people to get things done, and often gay and lesbian people are supportive of trans issues because there is a common thread linking sexuality-based and gender-based oppression.  But it’s important to respect the autonomy of each group, and not to use a coalition to dominate.  The best way to operate is under an “I’ll scratch your back, now you scratch mine” philosophy.

Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars: Again, We Need a Queer Movement

Recent debates on whether Chaz Bono on Dancing with the Stars is an appropriate viewing experience for children exemplify a dangerous conservative trend in the LGBT movement.  As in debate on same-sex marriage, queer activists find ourselves being ask to defend our simple humanity, backed into a corner where visible queerness is seen as a bad strategic move.

Again, I find myself using an example of a queer celebrity in the media to argue the necessity of a truly queer movement.  The more time we spend arguing that we are normal, “just like” our opponents, the further we get from our policy priorities.  When we allow hate groups to define the debate, they have already won.

How can we turn this disaster around? Refuse to engage by framing our position around being like our opponents.  We are not like bigots, homophobes, and transmisogynists.  We embrace diversity.  We fight with creativity and humor.  We shift the ground under gender stereotypes and we regularly fuck with patriarchy.  We don’t accept conservative arguments that dehumanize us and challenge our right to occupy our space.

We’re here, we’re queer.  Join us.

How to Improve Feminist Blog Culture

I’ve been away from this blog for a couple of months, so I’ll start with an apology.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, a lot of adjusting, related to my participation in online communities and how I juggle self-care with all my different online pursuits.  I will try to keep posting regularly here, but I would encourage you to follow my Twitter feed and/or Facebook Page if you want very regular updates, as I’ve been updating those during breaks at work.

So now I’m back, and I want to talk a little bit about something that’s going around, namely a critical discussion of feminist blog culture and its participants.  I don’t want to call out any particular blogs here, but I do want to talk a little bit about my participation in this culture and how I’m changing it.  For a long time, I’ve followed a few big feminist group blogs, and just a couple of individual ones.  At times, I’ve noticed things I don’t like on these big blogs–for example, not enough participation from women of color, marginalization of commenters who try to bring up multiple oppressions, etc.  But my initial view of large feminist blogs has been that we’re all into intersectionality, diversity, and bringing together all sorts of activist issues under the umbrella of feminism.  I saw these missing pieces as an aberration and have felt like I “can’t” remove these big blogs from my Google Reader because that’s where I can get the best feminist content.

My views on this subject have been changing over the past couple of years.  I still enjoy some of the bigger blogs, and particular contributors and guest contributors to those blogs.  I do appreciate the focus on intersectionality that is often apparent in the selection of guests and in individual posts.  But I also see something lacking.  Lately, I’ve noticed a disturbing backlash and a tendency to get defensive when someone brings up inclusion issues in the feminist community.  It’s starting to look sadly like confrontations I’ve read about in the 1960s, where WOC were left out of both feminist and anti-racism circles, where queer women were shoved to the side.  When marginalized feminists want to be included in the conversation, those feminists are often bullied out by a majority of often-white, often-able-bodied, often-middle-class, often-cis-gendered people.

My solution is to expand the reach of my feminist reading, and to give support and my ear to blogs that focus on specific issues that intersect with gender–for example, race, disability, fat activism, class, and immigration.  By following a selection of interesting blogs and Twitter feeds that focus on these issues, and are written by feminists that are often marginalized in different ways, I’m getting a more complete picture when it comes to the issues that are important to me as a feminist.  I realize that not everyone has the time to do this, but I think the online feminist community could benefit from more of us reading and commenting on these solo blogs, and possibly taking some time off the bigger blogs to do it if that’s the only way we can make time.  Feminists can support each other while simultaneously using a critical lens to view each other’s posts, and I’m going to do my best to meet these goals in the years to come.

International Women’s Day: How to Support Women Activists

As a scholar in the field of international human rights, with a particular focus in gender and sexuality, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about legal reform and activism, and how activists working in one country can support those working in another.  Of course, social media and the Internet in general make international support much easier on a media/intellectual/writing level.  But there are still a lot of problematic stances that come up that are a disservice to women everywhere.  The following are a few tips I’ve picked up in my reading and activism that I’d like to share in celebration of International Women’s Day:

  1. Take a back seat.  If you are foreign to a cause, don’t try to crowd the stage.  This is true not just in the sense of being from another country, but also applies to gender, race, ability, age… pretty much any identity marker that puts you outside of the issue at hand.  White people shouldn’t be leading POC movements.  Men shouldn’t be leading women’s movements.  So why do we find it acceptable for Americans and Europeans to “bring” education, democracy, etc. to women in the developing world?  Sit back, chill a little, listen and learn.  Be an ally or a participant, but don’t try to run the show.
  2. Lend resources where resources are needed.  Instead of “helping” people in a way that seems to make sense, listen to what’s needed.  If you want to get involved with an issue in another country, research what’s going on.  Ask questions.  Learn from those directly involve.  Find out what’s needed–fundraising?  Legal support?  Support with infrastructure-building?  For example, think about what would be possible if US sources provided funding for women’s education, but asked what women wanted to learn and developed a book list based on extensive listening to a particular culture’s needs.
  3. Apply lessons at home.  So many activists travel to another country to “help” the local population, only to learn how messed up their home situation is.  Women all over the world are struggling under the yoke of sexism, patriarchy, colonialism, and oppression.  Apply lessons learned abroad to local communities.  Listen to women in other countries and cultures, and also to women in different neighborhoods of your home community.  Grassroots activism, microenterprise, and phenomenal educational efforts often spring up out of communities where change is needed both at home and abroad, and these efforts can teach all of us a lot about the nature of our societies and our lives.

Emotional & Social Support in Activism

I’ve been thinking about activism since a number of you commented to my last post expressing your interest in queer-movement building.  One of the ideas I have actually comes from my reading about pregnancy and childbirth in preparation for possibly one day becoming a doula (childbirth support person/advocate).  I was thinking about some of the functions of a doula as caretaker–providing massage, food, tea, helping the pregnant woman move around and bathe, etc.  It occurred to me that not only pregnant women need this kind of support!

When is the last time someone held your hand, prepared you a meal, or gave you a hug?  This question may sound kind of hokey, but I think a lot of us who are involved in activism tend to be very go-go-go, without ever slowing down and considering how to best support ourselves or ask for help.  Activism can be draining work, particularly when it runs parallel to our own self-discovery or processing.

Those of us who are interested in building a queer movement may encounter questions about our own gender and sexuality in our work.  Online community can be a great way to do this processing–through blogging, supporting others in forums, etc.–but it’s also good to have an in-person support system and think about how activists can blend social and emotional support with activist work.

I’ve been resistant to suggestions like this is in the past because they tend to come up in a gender-essentialized framework.  For example, when feminists encourage other feminists “not to deny your feminine side” or to “accept the natural desire for nurturing and care,” I tend to shut down.  This doesn’t fit into my concept of myself as genderqueer, which is separate from the gender binary.  My self doesn’t have “masculine” and “feminine” “sides.”  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t need support.

I’ve talked about conscious-raising before when blogging about third-wave feminism, but I think that it’s worth bringing up again in this context.  Part of queer movement-building can be coming together in small groups for a potluck or game night, getting to know fellow activists, and talking about our own processes.  Many of us (myself very much included) could use some development of our listening skills if we want to meet the ten points I proposed for a queer movement.  Sitting down and just sharing our stories can be a valuable way to do this–without interrupting or analogizing to our own experience, or thinking about what we’re going to say next.

I also think that one way to encourage a more body-positive and sex-positive approach to activism and to life is to start in small groups.  Being aware of other perspectives and open to them is a crucial skill for activism.  Talking about our own bodies, sexuality, and queer experiences can be one way to open ourselves up to the diversity of the queer movement and to begin to flush shame and guilt about our genders and sexualities out of our lives.

If anyone in the Baltimore/DC area would be interested in some sort of potluck group or queer games night, feel free to get in touch with me at judithavory [at] gmail [dot] com.  Or if you want to propose such a circle in your area, leave a comment!