Solidarity and intersectionality matter

Acknowledgements
First off, none of these ideas are original, but I don’t have citations for where they all came from either because I learned them informally mostly through others. It doesn’t seem right not to mention. I wish I were better read in the sources. In some cases in the past I’ve received ideas third hand and badly mangled, and I may mangle some here myself, for which I’m sorry. Please let me know in the comments. I’m aware of the debt owed in my politics to the black feminist movement for their analysis of intersectionality, the various queer and trans people of colour who have given their time freely educating me about anti-racism, the social model of disability and the disabled people’s movement that gave birth to it, and pomosexual trans people who first introduced me to the idea that many apparently clear cut social categories actually look very fuzzy when you stop just presuming everyone fits neatly within them.

Preamble

(Skip if you already know the background. TL;DR: Intersectionality fight begat unfortunately non-intersectional responses. I wanted to write about why it’s vital we don’t just pick up intersectionality when it suits us.)

The last week has seen 2 unusually strong and unified pushes in the UK by online trans activists and our allies spanning what appears to be a somewhat more diverse population than usual. I think there are important things to look at and learn from these.

The first was the #TransDocFail tag on Twitter, initiated by @auntysarah and erupting with stories of abuse and failure of trans people by the medical establishment. Particularly unusual was the focus not on specialist transsexual related medical services, but ways in which a variety of healthcare professionals and institutions let trans people down. Spontaneously a great many people were speaking up about many different sorts of bad experiences deriving from strikingly similar roots in the medical community (stigma, lack of awareness, and impunity amongst medical professionals to interfere with our bodies or our care because we are trans, disempowerment of trans people making it difficult to speak out when we need to). This explosion allowed following commentators, even one website targetted at GPs to start seeing patterns underlying the issues rather than narrowly focusing on specifics.

The second was a different sort of explosion, also on Twitter, where a cisgender trans-ally challenged Suzanne Moore’s throwaway reference to “the Brazilian transsexual” in an essay republished by the New Statesman, and as callout and response developed one after another, Suzanne Moore moved from indifference to the challenge to rage about people bringing up the oppression of the real people behind the objectified image she was invoking. When pushed on the issue of “intersectionality” and needing to be in solidarity with trans* women, she moved on to making further stereotyping references about trans women and accused her critics of just trying to assert their superior feminist credentials over her, as well as prioritising trans issues over “what’s happening to women”. She made it clear she had “issues with trans anything actually.”[1]

For Suzanne Moore and later Julie Burchill in her support, one of the main points of defense became against the idea of intersectionality, which they tried to portray as lofty academic nonsense used to shut down debate and side track from “real” issues, like the ones that they relate to as successful middle class white journalists who come from a working class background. Whatever problems Moore has with trans people I believe she didn’t intend to cause any harm by her original remark but was offended by the idea that Some Other Issue might complicate and detract from her piece, whilst Julie Burchill has long expressed all sorts of issues with trans people but still saw fit to find space between the transphobic vitriol, weird racist and classist stereotyping and limply irrelevant name calling (bed wetters? seriously?) to give intersectionality a kicking also.

In response, a lot has been said in the last week in defence of trans people and our place in feminism, in society, and our right not to be attacked. But frequently in amongst our defence were cries that this impunity to provoke and abuse us was unique to trans people and simply wouldn’t be allowed if it were in the context of another minority (usually with the specific example of black people given). And so, whilst this very public argument started in quite a significant part over intersectionality, our defence was frequently single issue and made using language that marginalises other struggles. Given the exoticised and racialised nature of Suzanne Moore’s “Brazilian transsexual” reference as well as later remarks about “Latin culture”, as well as JB’s many racist references, it seems fair to say that the popular focus on the trans issue here with relatively piecemeal reference to other problems with the language also worked somewhat to erase issues of racism built in from the start.

So, to set right some wrongs: This isn’t about a need to be a better feminist, trans activist or anti-racist than anyone else. It’s not a competition. If I were the best at it, the only thing I’d win is the smug self righteous knowledge that I’m lonely in my ivory tower and fucked without comrades I can trust to be doing their best too despite our common imperfection (and an almost certain knowledge that I’m screwing up at being aware of the problems with my politics and others don’t feel confident enough to challenge me on them).So anyone in a point scoring mood, I hope we all can move beyond worrying about scoring points and on to struggling for our mutual liberation.

And so, getting on with it:

Intersectionality is[2] the idea that no particular experience of oppression is universal, and that different forms of marginalisation shape and compound the effects of each other. Despite declarations that our politics “shall be intersectional or it shall be bullshit”, there’s no dotted line as people resisting oppression where we all sign up formally to the principles of intersectionality. However, a lot of us are signed up to the broad idea that everyone deserves equal access, liberty, inclusion, self determination and freedom from abuse. I believe intersectionality follows on from this quite naturally if we couple that principle with the knowledge that people’s experiences are diverse and so are the injustices we face, and I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to just assume that’s enough for readers to say “fine, yeah” at that point.

There is a broad coalition of people and groups who favour some sort of “social justice” or equality for various marginalised groups of society, frequently homogenised as “the left” or “progressives”[3].

We often find ourselves tied up in struggles within our own organisations and amongst neighbouring organisations or campaigns. Frequently these struggles amongst this broad coalition are derided as “identity politics” (often regardless of whether it is to do with identity at all), setting us all apart each into single issue minority groups and setting up artificially split loyalties and increased marginalisation for those of us who straddle 2 or several such groups.

The other popular framing of issues faced by marginalised groups revolves around the principle of offence, and frequently results in outcry against “people who go out looking to be offended” when marginalising or oppressive behaviour is challenged. This perspective brushes aside wider systematic patterns of social injustice in favour of focusing on an individual offender for having been rude or abusive, and their victimised individual or group. Both the misdirection onto looking at things in the individual scale and the putting down by some of offended parties as being the problem themselves are pretty much direct results of framing things this way.

Our greatest weakness, the thing that allows the divisive single issue model and the individualising micropolitics of offence to carry on, is that we (or at least a great many of us) often at best only pay lip service to intersectionality and solidarity. As a broad and diverse gathering of social justice movements (and within our own interest groups as diverse populations of people rallying under one or another issue) we need to embrace reality here – we keep waging war against each other because those of us with the power to do so haven’t made a meaningful attempt at peace with those we’re hurting. For us to continue (often in little groups homogenised by race, class, sexuality and/or ability) casually subjugating and marginalising of OTHER marginal groups circularly in the defence of our own “issue” is to carry on making war with each other (and, frankly, doing the job of keeping oppression stable) because there’s no reasonable way for the other side to make peace with being further marginalised. For us to get side-tracked down the idea of offense, and from there with tedious inevitability to criticise each other’s “oversensitivity” or exploit soreness around marginal characteristics where we know they’ll hurt is no better. And when we make the briefest of nods to the experiences of our marginalised others in service of our own single issue without engaging with the idea that our others deserve as much freedom as we do without competing for it, we’re drawing up battle lines that carve through the lives of people caught both sides, and set our hopes of freedom against the freedom of an Other.

We owe it to ourselves to stop passing oppression on down the line (and each other).

I’d like to talk about the importance of selfishness. For some few most privileged civil rights campaigners it will ever be enough to fight things as single issue battles and elide the diverse needs lying under the surface of single issue politics. So be it: to be in that position is frequently to be safe to mostly go it alone or in small insular groups.

For many of us though this doesn’t work and getting tied in following that sort of politics means burying some needs and desires in the hope that once the “main work” is done we’ll get around to facing down our other oppression. So in response I advocate fostering a culture of selfishness for mutual gain.

Those of us who are recipients of ally support will somewhat frequently encounter allies treating solidarity as an act of charity, ostensible selflessness, something to confirm their identity as a good person. From this point of view alliance comes not because our social position is a fundamental injustice or in order to unify struggles and spread and strengthen solidarity generally, but because as marginalised people we are in a pitiful state and are needy of strong privileged saviours to come to our rescue. Some of us will have also engaged in this sort of attitude and behaviour ourselves looking on at “those folks over there worse off than us” in some way. Frequently this behaviour takes the form of action that adopts a cause so far as it suits the personal interests of the rescuers and absolutely not a step further, breaching the illusion that it has anything to do with equality or justice and turning the subjects of this rescue mission into pawns in the rescuers’ political game.

Only yesterday I was subject to this: “Trans people need cis allies, you should watch how rude you’re being. Maybe if people weren’t so rude to Suzanne Moore…” went the insightful ally’s advice on why we were still being oppressed. The agenda here is to put us back into our place as grateful recipients of ally-charity. And when we (whichever we, from whatever position of privilege) mete this logic out on other groups we’re not a part of we put them in THEIR places. We’re busy placing ourselves in a fight for our personal interests against someone else’s and against our collective liberation. And our personal struggles become ineffectual because of how isolating having absolutely no solidarity is.

The crux of this: if we open our view further, we recognise that we are more effective and better able to struggle together rather than against each other by throwing ourselves wholeheartedly into resisting oppression in general and avoiding perpetrating it against each other (and making reparations where possible when we screw up or at least taking on criticism gracefully). We don’t just hurt our personal credibility when we fail to work in solidarity; we dig away from freedom and equality in general. When we stay vigilant and speak out against oppression that doesn’t land directly at our own feet, when we hand over power derived from privilege to those whose oppression we benefit from, we stand up for ourselves and a world where we’re not at war with each other over an innumerable different fronts all the damn time. We build alliances that serve the interests of both sides and have space to grow strong, not just setting up a strange ally identities for cheerleaders of a particular minority group. We allow ourselves the breathing space to focus on what matters as a diverse gathering of people, groups and needs and spend less time “infighting”.

And let’s face it, in these struggles, there is no such thing as in-fighting, there’s different interest groups fighting over privilege and status as if it’s a scarce commodity. The classic example given above of “noone would allow this transphobic crap to be targetted at [pick an ethnic minority]” is an explicit request that the oppression of 2 groups be equalised with each other, completely ignoring the possibility that both groups deserve to be entirely free from oppression and abuse altogether, not to mention that frequently such claims are factually inaccurate and the person saying just has a blind spot for the subject of their envy. It’s not the only way in which we set ourselves off against each other, it’s one of many, and we need to be vigilant about them.

It is in our self interest to do this. Freedom is a good thing for all of us, and we pay lip service to making our struggles intersectional at our peril.

[1] During all this a small number of people not originally involved in challenging Moore’s language also made some vile and threatening comments. It’s not surprising that these might have contributed to Moore’s anger and feeling bullied in general despite many people trying to explain and discuss things with her calmly. Given she lashed out at trans people in general though and the idea of intersectionality multiple times rather than focusing on her online attackers it seems more than a little bit an excuse for bad behaviour rather than anything else.

[2]  Please let me know if I’ve mangled this somehow, clear concise definitions of things are hard to get right sometimes, and I’m sort of new to the principle as a different word from solidarity.

[3] This does very little service to the variety of loyalties, issues and political ideologies it contains, or the contradictions around left-right politics split, but I hope as a handwavey gathering or interests it makes sense.


On the right to die

ETA: This is the first thing I’ve blogged in quite a while, it’s not very coherent, I’m feeling pretty angry. Tony Nicklinson is just a bloke trying to get what he wants, but the media attitudes are really deeply pissing me off.

Yet another landmark case on whether or not disabled people can elect to be killed by a person of their choosing and yet another rejection. I’m really glad for the result.

One thing that has shocked me is that anyone sees it as compassionate to endorse/support the feeling by a disabled man that having some extra challenges to getting about and communicating is so wretched that the only reasonable response is to live in self-imposed isolation and boredom pending appeals to die.

When people without physical impairments feel like life isn’t worth living anymore, the appropriate response is to help them with their mental health. Nonetheless the liberal left seems to think it’s really compassionate to get behind someone’s feelings of self-loathing and endorse the idea that the solution is death.

It’s deeply worrying that by and large it’s conservative/religious groups in the main who raise loud concerns about how self-hatred can be constructed through familial pressure, alterior interests of people we’re dependent on, social prejudice and feelings of being a burden. The left or at least liberals seem to have a hardon for killing disabled people. Having any sort of understanding of the social pressures contributing to feelings a person would be better off dead than suffering the indignity and bullshit that goes with being disabled goes right out the window. Social conscience? What’s that? We are collectively responsible for allowing the conditions to happen where people feel that worthless.

There’s a New Statesmen article about how Ian Huntley murder is completely different from a family member killing someone because they love them, and the law is deficient because it fails to make a distinction. Frankly the attitude that killing your family members is a loving or positive thing is A BIT TOO IAN FUCKING HUNTLEY!

We are constantly bombarded with the Tragedy Model of disability, we’ve had it all through the Olympics, we’re going to have plenty through the Paralympics, we get it all through Comic Relief, Sport Relief, and in most interactions anyone ever has with the idea of disability outside of media stories about how burdensome disabled people are on the state. Unsurprisingly, when people find themselves suddenly gaining significant impairments, they struggle not just with the challenges of getting back on with life with a different set of conditions on how they do things, but also with becoming the subject of practically universal pity, hatred, projected misery, disgust, and resentment. It’s no surprise given all this that some disabled people feel the only way out is dying.

A bunch of smug liberal wankers saying “oh you poor thing, I support you, die you pitiful bastard” is the most hateful thing I can imagine as a response.


Obligatory transgender day of remembrance post

I’m already regretting this as I post it. The loose-knit community of trans people, our families, lovers and allies are winding up for the annual remembrance vigil. Understandably it’s a pretty emotional time for a lot of us.

Historically I’ve been quite sceptical of how good it is for us emotionally or politically, particularly with respect to how we remember our fallen others, brothers and sisters. I’m terrible at being sensitive about what these things mean to other people and my own history of having experienced several violent attacks makes it difficult for me to trust the motives of trans people insistent on spreading news of our vulnerability far and wide when many of them haven’t experienced anything beyond some funny looks on the bus and a bit of workplace bullying. For the new generation of trans people with access to far greater support and advisory resources on dealing with abusive situations we will likely be fast becoming a much less vulnerable population with respect to the feelings of legitimacy and impunity that transphobic attackers can often justify their actions with.

I fear the things that can be done in the name of our protection, I worry about the impact hate crime law has on us and society at large. I’m especially worried about what it does for us as human beings to carry this weight of fear and persecution when although we may be subject to a much higher rate of violent attacks than is average (and I’ve had my fair share of those) the likelihood of any one of us being killed is vanishingly low. Connected with that I’m concerned that there is too little respect paid to the fact that alongside the factor of us being trans, many of those who are murdered have been marginalised in other ways. The very worst of the assaults I experienced including a case of GBH bordering on attempted murder were all when I was a teen. Violence amongst and against young people in our society is so commonplace it is rarely taken seriously. Since a few years after becoming an adult I’ve had a few minor assaults and nasty words but nothing that really compares. Other factors that seem to have a significant contributing factor to trans people’s vulnerability to attack seem to be poverty, ethnic minority status, black/grey market employment such as sex work, and probably many more.

In recent times I’ve come to accept transgender day of remembrance for it’s original aims, to keep and observe a record of fatal victims of transphobia (as identities are often contested after death and this is something close to a lot of our hearts) and to grieve for those we’ve lost. I find this opportunity useful myself, I feel a powerful personal connection to the trans community who have at crucial points of my life looked after me, saving me from despair, homelessness, isolation. Without the trans community I’m certain I just wouldn’t be here presently.

On the other hand I just listened to a memorial podcast recorded as part of the lead up to the remembrance and the reading of the names was supplemented by the theme from Schindler’s List, and the first thought that strikes my mind is that we are hardly facing forced train boardings shipping us off en masse to death camps! Maybe the producers just felt that it was appropriately funereal given the memorial nature of the event. Likely I’m being too cynical about their motives. For some reason this time of year I become quick to start making judgements about how other people should be grieving. I don’t know if I’m being out of line.

And I listen and I cry along with any other warm blooded humanoid listening. Not because of the music (as it fades into Barber’s Adagio for strings) but because it’s a list of a large number of my fellow humans, shot in the head, burned alive, decapitated, mutilated, beaten to death. The sheer horror of it seems unfathomable.

I worry that that horror is a source of political validity for some of us, from my perspective nothing good can come of it. I pay attention to the names of the dead because I hope if some bastard kills me other people will notice and care, it’s a sense of human duty rather than a feeling it does anyone good but the fearmongers. Through fear we may restrict ourselves more fully than the most well equipped oppressor, and lend power to villains that offer us marginal gains at best.


FSM on a bike! I got out of the house!

I wasn’t really planning on making personal posts on this blog when I started out but I haven’t posted in ages, in part due to my laptop dying a few months back and not having access to a private computer of my own to blog from or one which is comfortable to post from either. Phone came up for renewal and hey presto, comfortable internet platform at the cost of 18 months more contract!

Anyway suffice to say I’m quite happy about this and should get back to blogging stuff. Other upside is I now know about stuff going on politically and socially because it’s pretty trivial to follow news and events via the numerous social platforms when they’re working hand over fist to create mobile specific apps to keep access convenient.

All that and I got out socially on Saturday night! Got a photo to prove out and everything, which I might post later at some point.Gosh, the luxury of getting out of the house not to go to work or the shops.Heady heady stuff.


Diversity

or “Some friendly advice for Privilege Accountants”

Many of us in the left have been there before. A political or politicised gathering has been gathered, and mostly the demographic appears to mostly approximate what we’ve seen before in activistoidalism. As usual, the people present found out of it by word of mouth, and it occurs to someone or even a few people that this appears to be a relatively narrow section of the population represented and to mention this following a pang of guilt.

The trouble is that though this might be the case, and it is important to take some responsibility for making sure you aren’t just inviting people who fit comfortably into a similar/familiar set of life circumstances to yourself, there are risks to saying “this room is too White/middle class/non-disabled/academic/heteronormative/…” and so on.

First of all for many people who don’t fit these categories it is nevertheless possible to pass for fitting them anyway. A great many people who experience racism, who are working/lumpen class, who are disabled, who have no academic background, etc, it’s still possible to not be marked out as those things. Some of us who fit into one or another of those categories being declared “not present” or “insufficiently represented” respond to this sort of thing by feeling like we are being made invisible or assumed to be irrelevant. A great many disabled people have mental illness as our most significant impairment, or experience invisible forms of physical impairment which isn’t apparent to people around us because otherwise in order to become visible we’d have to spend a huge amount of time tutting and sighing giving people updates on our physical energy and pain levels. Many paler skinned people of colour are assumed white by people who aren’t aware of their ethnicity and yet still experience racist oppression sometimes even from the people declaring them to be White.  Many of us who appear middle class because of the ways we speak and dress learned to speak and dress those ways because of parents and guardian figures knocking it into us, which is besides the fact that it’s perfectly possible to pronounce your “t”s and be economically disadvantaged/disempowered (ie: low-wage working or on benefits, with no option to be plucked up out of poverty by your family). Some of us grew up in well to do families which we wouldn’t for one reason or another be able to rely on for financial security. Some of us learned this supposedly “academic” language within political organising and activism. Some of us who are seen to be “academic” developed our language for ourselves in living communities of activists, in order to meet the needs of discussing and understanding the power structures we’re struggling against. Many of us have never read the great postmodern philosophers but have become well versed in ideas like “deconstruction”, “essentialism”, “social constructs” and so on because the idea of pulling things apart into constituent pieces is an important part of critical thinking whether you’re trained in it or not.

It’s vital people take more responsibility for outreach, for spreading the word about campaigning beyond small privileged circles and extended networks of friends (not to mention for activists in those privileged circles to engage with the idea that people outside of their privileged circle are getting on with campaigning and activism without them elsewhere!) It’s also true that those of us who pass better at having privileges that we often don’t experience in practical terms might have an easier time of “fitting in” with a group or privileged people, and that our presence doesn’t negate the exclusion of others. This is an issue that needs to be addressed somehow.

However, before you comment on your perception of the room’s demographic, please consider that you really don’t know all that much for certain about it and that people may feel erased or be made unwelcome by being expected to identify within the homogenous group. It’s really uncomfortable being the person speaking up saying “but I’m not…” having had someone declare you not present or insufficiently present. It’s uncomfortable realising people are talking with the assumption that we’re all one homogenous group and that in some way you’re not part of the expected audience. It’s unwelcoming and it doesn’t help with diversity to behave in that sort of way.

If it’s absolutely crucial to mention that people in a room seem particularly well-educated, articulate or well spoken, why not say that without making assumptions about people’s background?

If you’re concerned that not enough effort is being made to contact groups outside a limited and privileged circle/network of friends, why not look for groups of people who might also be interested in the work you’re doing and get in touch with them to discuss it?

If you’re worried that racist attitudes and behaviours are making the space a threatening or unwelcome place for people of colour why not challenge it where it happens?

If you’re worried that people are using language in ways which deliberately obscure meaning then why not challenge them to speak more plainly? Otherwise, if you’re concerned that people are using language in a particularly technical manner why not ask them to clarify what they mean by it?

If you’re worried that there are access issues that might be preventing people from participating in a space, why not look at what sorts of things could be changed to make it more accessible?

All of these suggestions (please add your own in the comments if you’ve got some) replace relying on some sort of collective guilt (that many of us don’t even feel comfortable joining in with) with taking action directly as possible to solve issues.

(and yes, I’m aware I’ve been responsible for a number of these issues myself and don’t claim immunity from behaving in unhelpful ways)


Transition Guilt

(Apropos of nothing anyone has said anywhere recently that I’m aware of, just a train of thought I’ve been reminded about)

A lot of trans people feel guilty and selfish for undergoing medically-assisted transition processes.

How many people feel guilty or selfish for having gone to a doctor for assistance with other things which allow them to continue to function in a healthy manner? [edited to add: It's been pointed out to me, and I agree, that there are many other situations where people feel guilty about health issues and taking time to resolve them. The fact that many people feel others needn't feel guilty about being unwell doesn't mean lots of people in fact don't respond to illness or dependence on medical support with feelings of guilt, and I completely overlooked this.]

Using myself as a case study for instance Read the rest of this entry »


The Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill

In the past few weeks there has been international (and social network based) outcry about the Anti-Homosexuality Bill passing through the legislature of Uganda. In particular, there has been outcry over the provisions in the bill for “repeat offenders” to be executed.

What seems to have gone ignored (at least so far as the British and probably American clicktivist movement goes) is that currently Uganda is in a state of social turmoil, like what we have been experiencing here in the UK with our incoming programmes of “austerity measures” except far, far worse. People have been shot and killed for their involvement in peaceful “walk to work” marches protesting rapidly rising prices for basic necessities such as food oil and fuel. The Ugandan people (straight and queer) are experiencing a combination of vicious economic measure and violent attacks by their own government.

As has been pointed out by many African gay rights activists, this is a very public campaign to stop people thinking and unite them against a gay scapegoat over fears around HIV/AIDS, distracting them from the horrendous human rights abuses being meted out by the government against the citizens.

As has been pointed out by (amongst others) the blogger Gay Uganda, what is needed right now is not just international outcry over this hateful bill, but international declarations of solidarity with ALL Ugandans, gay and straight against the vicious repression they are facing. As GayUganda says, these aren’t 2 separate issues, they are one and the same.

Spread the word, we all need to stand together in solidarity as human beings in whatever capacity we can against all oppressions together, not just one or another angle on it. What good is queer equality for people living under threat of being shot for complaining about poverty?


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