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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of social media attention today to the release of The Trans 100, a list which I’m honored to be a part of along with many friends, colleagues, and personal heroes. Much of the attention is congratulatory and positive, some is focused more on who’s not on the list. And I think that both of those things are great. The spirit of the list, as I understand it, is to highlight all the amazing work that is done in our community: to use the 100 people on the list not as an exclusive club but as one handful of examples of people who have done great work in the past year to support trans lives in the US in myriad ways. The idea is to shift the conversation from focusing only on deaths and violence to adding a sense of celebration to our need to mourn those lost. Working in “transland,” as I sometimes call the movement, can be a paradox, as we are so often simultaneously trying to promote and celebrate the work we do as proud trans people while at the same time realizing that the work we do is focused on eliminating huge discrepancies and barriers, on reducing tremendous hate and violence. It can be an odd intersection at which to work sometimes (how do we get excited about a victory that means we are simply more likely to be alive, employed, or healthy at a baseline?), and I believe that it is crucial we never lose sight of both sides of that story–and of the other discrepancies that too often divide success from discrimination and violence along race, class, and ability lines.
I am happy about this list because it wide-ranging and it shows our collective power and ability to do great things in the face of adversity. I’m glad to see many POC on the list, a nice range of local activists, to see those doing cultural work alongside those doing legal and political advocacy. I’m glad that there are many lesser-known names, and that online activists have been included alongside on-the-ground grassrootsers. Though I’m thrilled to see my NCTE colleagues Mara and Harper Jean recognized, I’m also cheering hardcore for those who work with such amazing small radical projects as the Brown Boi Project, the Audre Lorde Project, Planet DeafQueer, and Transformative Justice Law Project. There are too many of my own heroes to name here, and also too many whose work I must. research. NOW. So while I’d like to see even more underrecognized folks on the list, more people of color, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc., I’m applying my critiques to a tone of celebration today. We have this list and it has some attention and hopefully that attention will lead to what we really need–more people nominating next year, more people volunteering to work on the project, an even more diverse and inclusive list. I’m excited to see who made the various breakout groups that will be released in coming months, and I look forward to working with this great big kickass community to achieve things that are bigger and better every year. I’m glad that my friends and colleagues are the kinds of people who recognize gaps in such a list and will bring them to light, because it makes us all better.
¡Viva la revolución trans!
I’ve been struggling for over a month to write this review, not because I didn’t like the book–it’s an amazing anthology, in fact, and I think it should be a mandatory part of the feminist/activist canon–but because as an activist and a writer, my mode is always “do, do, do.” “Here’s how to make change.” “Here are five things you can do to improve your world.” “This is my experience and why it’s relevant to you.” This review isn’t going to be like that.
Feminism for Real is a challenge to white feminist academics and activists to stop doing. It’s hard for a lot of us to listen actively and compassionately. It’s hard to say “I am wrong, my ancestors were wrong, and I cannot fix it.” I’ve known this for a while, but it’s such a depressing thought, such a disempowering thought, that it’s hard to know what to do with it. And maybe that’s the point.
This is not our battle. What white feminists can do is show some respect, be conscious of history, make space for indigenous feminists and other people of color to do good work, and make an effort in our own communities to stop harming others. We need to recognize how colonialism and imperialism continue to impact huge segments of our societies, and we need to constantly fight against these forces. It isn’t our job to trumpet indigenous feminism, tell everyone about how the cool ideas native people have about women and other genders, or talk about how down we are with indigenous causes. Indigenous people are doing that just fine on their own. It is our job to address the pervasive, continuous, active harm we are perpetrating.
There are a thousand ways to do this. Attack bad government policy, attack the media, attack educators who wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the face. Support indigenous communities by giving indigenous people room to work–by speaking out against policies that take away land, culture, and freedom; by fighting rape; by challenging patriarchy.
As Robyn Maynard explains in her piece, “Fuck the Glass Ceiling!” it is important to recognize that the problem is not just marginalization but exploitation. The harms discussed in this book are not historical, rather we continue to actively perpetrate them. This is a structural problem for which we need to take collective responsibility. Maynard explains:
Justice means–justice has to mean–an end to people deliberately destroying generations of cultures, of women, of lives, and of dignity, for personal political and economic gain.
We can do this, but only by taking responsibility and recognizing where law and policy actively harm rather than help. I would encourage other white feminists and academics to join me in this self-critique, and in the challenge to listen without appropriating. Feminism for Real provides a collection of essays, poetry, and interviews that are a great first step to listening. You can find others on the web at Racialicious, SisterSong, INCITE!, and People of Color Organize, to name a few.
You can purchase your own copy of Feminism for Real from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The centre provided me with a copy of this book, and I was not otherwise compensated for this review.
In my last post, I asked the theoretical question, do gender differences exist? I concluded that there are observable trends that group people more-or-less by gender, but that identifying with a particular gender doesn’t mean that one identifies with every trait society assigns to that gender, and that gender categorization can be damaging both to those who do and do not identify as male or female.
Next, I’d like to consider the policy implications of the question.
The challenge here is to question whether gender differences have any utility from a policy perspective, while still respecting the lived experiences and claimed identities of those who identify as male or female. I can say that gender differences are illusory, that the “box” created by a lump of traits is in many ways artificial, and that the weight put on certain traits such as secondary sex characteristics and hormones obscures the actual diversity that exists in our society. But while saying this, I have to recognize that the categories “male” and “female” do mean something for many people, perhaps most, and that these categories can be useful when setting policy, organizing, or doing activist work.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.