Womanhood: On Sex, Gender Roles, and Self-Identification

A (not so) brief foreword: this essay was originally commissioned by an independent publisher looking to release an anthology on gender. In 2017 they asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on womanhood. I was a little surprised, the publisher being explicitly queer and me being a radical feminist, but ultimately pleased: their goal was to publish a collection with plural perspectives on gender, and I believe wholeheartedly that having the space for plural perspectives on any issue is essential for healthy, open public discourse. I knew that my lesbian feminist essay would probably be in a minority standpoint, and felt comfortable with it being published alongside contradictory perspectives. Given the extreme polarity of gender discourse, which results in a painful stalemate between queer activists and radical feminists, it was encouraging to think we had reached a point where multiple views could be held and explored together.

So I wrote the essay, made the requested edits, and produced a final draft with which the publisher and I were both delighted. Their words: “We’re really happy with the edits you’ve done and the areas you’ve developed on upon our request. You did a splendid job refining the essay.” However, certain people objected to the inclusion of my essay before having read it. Some early readers gave the feedback that they were unhappy to find a perspective that they were not expecting, and alarmed that I had connected my personal experience of gender as a woman to the wider sociopolitical context we inhabit. Backlash escalated to the point that the publishing house faced the risk of having their business undermined and their debut collection jeopardised.

They gave me the option of writing another essay for the gender anthology, or having this essay published in a future collection. I declined both choices, as neither felt right – fortunately, there are more projects on my horizon. That being said I have great sympathy for the publisher’s position, and find it regrettable that their bold and brilliant venture should be compromised by the very people it was designed to support. Furthermore, I wish the publisher every success with this project, and all future endeavours. As for the essay, controversial even before being read, I have instead decided to publish it here as the seventh part of the series on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is, in my opinion, a good essay and deserves to see the light of day.

If you enjoy or learn from this essay, and can afford to do so, please consider donating to cover the lost commission of this work. [UPDATE: the publisher has offered partial payment depending on the success of their crowdfunding campaign. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.]


 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. – Ntozake Shange

I absolutely love women. I love women in a way that leaves me breathless, in a way that catches just behind my ribs and gently tugs at my heartstrings until they unravel. I love women with a depth and fervour that is fundamentally lesbian. And in loving women I find extraordinary reserves of strength, the will to keep on challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984), the motivation to chip away at every hierarchy and oppression that acts as a pillar upholding the ills of society. A love of women is central to my feminism, for bonds between women – links of solidarity and sisterhood in particular – have a revolutionary power unequal to any force on this earth.

According to Adrienne Rich, “the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” The connections shared by women, and all that flows across connections between women, open the possibility for radical social change – which is why lesbian existence and feminist politics are complimentary forces in a woman’s life.

Loving women as I do, I have spent a great deal of time musing upon what it is to be a woman, from where the appeal of women springs. As many young lesbians do, I speculate about the nature of the draw which compels us to watch all sorts of random crap on television simply because the middle-aged actress we fancy has a small role in the production. Having grown up in this world as a girl and subsequently learned how to negotiate this world as a woman, I have also reflected upon the social and political significance of the category – the weight which is undeniable. The question of what it means to be a woman has been central to feminist discourse for hundreds of years: establishing what womanhood is, pinpointing the means and motive behind woman’s oppression under patriarchy, and working out how to end that oppression are central feminist concerns.

At present the feminist movement is split in two over how to conceptualise woman and woman’s oppression. The tensions between queer ideology and sexual politics have proven every bit as divisive as the sex wars of the 1980s. The source of the split lies within gender – specifically, whether gender ought to be conceptualised as a hierarchy or as an identity within feminist analysis. Feminists have historically identified gender as the means of women’s oppression: patriarchy is reliant on gender to establish and maintain a hierarchy that enables men to dominate women.  But by the turn of the century queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam began to suggest that gender may be subverted and experimented with until the very fabric of society is no longer recognisable.

Owing to the mainstreaming of queer ideology, we have entered an unprecedented era governed by the logic of postmodernism – a time in which the relationship between the physical body and material reality is untethered by the politics of identity.  As such, those engaging with the progressive politics – be they liberal or radical – begin asking ourselves anew: what does it mean to be a woman?

Woman as a Sex Class

A key element of feminist analysis is the recognition of woman as a sex class. By this I do not mean that all women’s experiences meet the same universal standards, or that all women are positioned similarly within the world’s power structures: factors such as race, disability, social class, and sexuality all shape where a woman is situated in relation to power. Rather, this perspective offers an acknowledgement of the role in which patriarchy plays in determining the power dynamic between women and men. Women’s struggle against patriarchy is collective, and emancipation from systemic oppression cannot be found through individualising a structural issue. Women of all colours and creeds, women of all classes and castes, are actively subjugated from birth – a political analysis which fails to incorporate this reality cannot truly be thought of as feminist. Women’s oppression is a direct result of having been born female-bodied into a patriarchal society. Considering woman as a sex class is, therefore, fundamental to meaningful feminist critique of patriarchy.

This mode of analysis – radically feminist analysis – can grate when misapplied by white women who seek to deny any difference between women’s lives. But when carried out correctly, with rigour and consideration, it has the potential to change the world.

My own womanhood is hardly conventional, Black and lesbian as it is. I do not meet white Eurocentric standards of female beauty or womanhood and no longer aspire towards those standards, which are rooted in racism and misogyny. Owing to skin pigmentation and hair texture, my Blackness is impossible to conceal – even if it were possible, having begun to unpick the misogynoir I have internalised from an early age, I would not choose to hide it in order to assimilate. To be visibly Other is to live with an increased vulnerability, to be perpetually open to manifestations of structural oppression. For a time I despised both my Blackness and my womanhood as a result of the painful alienation misogynoir brought into my life. I have since learned to place the blame firmly where it belongs, with the source of these cruelties: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Since embracing radical politics I have learned to love both Blackness and womanhood, to love myself as a Black woman, in a way that was never possible during my pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

My lesbian presentation (Tongson, 2005) is a further rejection of those beauty standards. I style my hair in a fashion that is distinctly lesbian and have maintained a crisp undercut since coming out. At various points certain members of my family have attempted to enforce compulsory heterosexuality by shaming any outward presentation of a lesbian aesthetic, endeavouring to guide me back into the feminine role. I am told that returning to conventionally feminine presentation would render me “softer”, “more approachable”, and closer to the ideal of beauty. And while I could choose to pass for heterosexual, allowing an assumption that I am available and receptive to men to cushion me from a degree of marginalisation, I do not. I have no desire to appear soft or approachable, least of all to men – the oppressor class. Alice Walker proclaimed that “resistance is the secret of joy”, and she was quite right: there is a feeling of pure elation that flows from resisting the trap and trappings of heteropatriarchy.

Like every single woman living in a patriarchal society, I experience systematic oppression as a consequence of being female. Women – all women – are bound by the rigidity of the gender role ascribed to us on the basis of our biological sex. We are socialised from birth to be soft, compliant, nurturing so that we are primed to adopt the caring role required for upholding the domestic sphere owned by a man, be he husband or father. As Mary Wollstonecraft notably lamented, women are actively discouraged from pursuing our full potential as self-actualised human beings. Instead, women are subjected to a deliberate social (and often economic) pressure designed to create in us an ornamental source of sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour for men.

From Sojourner Truth to Simone de Beauvoir, there is a long and proud tradition of feminists critiquing the role of femininity. During her time as an abolitionist orator, Truth deconstructed womanhood to great effect, asking “ain’t I a woman?” Arguing against the hierarchies of race and gender that determined how the category of woman was understood in North American society during the heights of the transatlantic slave trade, Truth offered her own story as testimony to the falsehood of femininity. Truth used her own strength and endurance as empirical evidence, asserting that womanhood was in no way dependent on or related to the characteristics which construct femininity. Her opposition to gender essentialism and white supremacy continues to influence feminists’ perspectives on womanhood to this very day.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir further critiqued femininity, connecting the socialisation of gender to the oppression of women by men. She theorised that man was the normative standard of humanity and woman understood purely in relation to him:

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

That woman is relegated to the Other, lacking in positive definition, mandates a life that is male-centric. If woman exists as the negative image of man, she is forever bound to him. Self-definition has long been recognised as a necessary tool for the liberation of an oppressed group, and if women remain dependent on men for definition then the root cause of our oppression can never be fully tackled. Adrienne Rich once claimed that “until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves” – as is often the case, her words contain more than a little truth.

Gender is normalised through essentialism, positioned as a natural and inevitable part of life. From the get-out-of-accountability-free card that is ‘boys will be boys’ to the constant refrain of “she was asking for it” when men act upon the cultural conditioning that assures them they are entitled to women’s bodies, the hierarchy of gender maintains the gross power imbalance at the root of sexual politics. Here is how I understand the connection between biological sex and gender roles:

Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men.

We teach boys to dominate others and disavow their emotions. We teach girls to nurture others at the expense of their own. And I think this world would be a better place if we encouraged more empathy in boys and more daring in girls. If gender were abolished, if we raised boys and girls in the same way, patriarchy would crumble. Like a great many feminists before her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates the elimination of gender:

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

It is impossible to consider the position of women in society, the reality that we are second-class citizens by design of patriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of the harm done by gender. Womanhood is caught up in the constraints of the feminine gender role, prevented from escaping male dominion. In the abolition of gender lies a radical alternative. In the abolition of gender lies women’s liberation.

Therefore, recent reframing of gender as an innately held identity has proven problematic in ongoing feminist struggle. Gender identity politics rely on essentialism that feminists have fought for hundreds of years, an essentialism that argues women are naturally suited to the means of our oppression. If gender is inherent – a natural phenomenon after all – then the oppression of women under patriarchy is legitimised.

Womanhood

During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1969; French, 1986; Dworkin, 1987) made the case that womanhood could and should exist purely as a biological category, unfettered by the feminine gender role – a vision of women’s liberation. This perspective is directly contradicted by a queer understanding of gender, which primarily focuses on gender as self-expression:

The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

A queer notion of gender presents it as a matter of performativity, arguing that dominant power structures may be subverted through transgressing the barriers of masculine and feminine gender roles. Identification with the characteristics associated with a gender role is taken as belonging to the category. Those who identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as cisgender. Those who do not identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as transgender. From a queer standpoint, sex is not a fixed category but rather an unstable one. Queer politics are formed gender as a mode of personal identification. Radical feminist analysis, in which gender is understood as a hierarchy, is dismissed as old-fashioned.

If one cannot say with absolutely clarity what is woman and what is man, the oppressed and oppressor classes are rendered unspeakable. Subsequently the hierarchy of gender is made invisible and feminist analysis of patriarchy grows impossible. Without words used as markers to convey specific meaning, women are deprived of the vocabulary required to name and oppose our oppression. Postmodernism and political analysis of power structures make uneasy bedfellows.

Here is where the controversy lies, where gender discourse grows explosive beyond the point of reconciliation between queer and radical feminism. If gender is a matter of personal identification, it is a purely individual matter and, therefore, depoliticised. The power differential between oppressed and oppressor is negated by a failure to consider man and woman as two distinct sex classes. Gender ceases to be visible as a means of oppression, further obscured as the categories of man and woman are considered immaterial. If sex classes are unspeakable, so too are the sexual politics of patriarchy.

If womanhood can be reduced to the performance of the feminine gender role and a personal identification with that gender role, there is little scope for distinguishing between the oppressor and oppressed. Womanhood ceases to be indicated by the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics and instead becomes a matter of self-identification. The oppressor may even benefit from a lifetime of the privilege conferred upon men through the subordination of woman and then claim womanhood. Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour, came under fire for highlighting that prior to transition, transwomen benefit from the social and economic privileges accorded to men in patriarchy. Shortly afterwards, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received backlash for differentiating between the experiences of women born as such and transwomen:

 I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.

If it is no longer possible to consider the experiences of those born female, to analyse the relationship between sex and socioeconomic power, feminists can no longer identify or challenge the workings of patriarchy. This is a particularly unfortunate consequence of embracing queer ideology. Women’s rights are human rights, as the slogan goes – inalienable and absolutely worth fighting for. The injustices faced by women around the globe are intolerable: one in three women will be subject to male violence within her lifetime. Yet, if the linguistic tools necessary to critique patriarchy are removed from the feminist lexicon, women’s liberation hits an insurmountable stumbling block: you cannot challenge an oppression you cannot name, after all.

The cultural significance attached to the word woman is in a state of flux. As queer politics would have it, womanhood is simply the performance of the female gender role. As radical feminism would have it, the female gender role exists purely as a sexist stereotype of woman rooted in essentialism and misogyny. The only escape queer politics offers women from patriarchal oppression is for all those who are biologically female to identify out of the category ‘woman’. To claim the label of non-binary, genderfluid, or transmasculine – anything other than a cisgender woman, who is naturally suited to her status as a second-class citizen – is the only route queer politics offers biological women to being recognised as fully human.

Women, by queer logic, cannot be self-actualised and have no meaningful inner-lives. We are simply Other to men. It is for this reason that queer ideology has been able to reduce women to “non-men” – to “pregnant people”, “uterus-havers”, and “menstruators.”  It is worth asking: does trans-inclusivity depend upon women being written out of existence? While queer theory has reflected upon the nature of masculinity, it has not deconstructed the category of man beyond the point of recognition. Just as in mainstream patriarchal society, man is the normative standard of humanity and woman defined in relation to him. The positive definition of womanhood is treated as expendable within queer discourse.

As linguist Deborah Cameron asserts, women’s power to self-define is of immense political significance:

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.

However one understands the category of woman, its erasure can surely be recognised as a disastrous impediment to the liberation of women.

Lesbian Sexuality

The controversy over how womanhood is defined manifests most acutely around lesbian sexuality. An unfortunate consequence of queer politics is the problematising of homosexuality. Lesbian women and to a lesser extent gay men (for it is women’s bodies and sexual practices that are fiercely policed within patriarchy) routinely face allegations of transphobia within queer discourse. A lesbian is a woman who exclusively experiences same-sex attraction. It is the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create at least the potential for lesbian desire – gender identity is of little relevance to the parameters of same-sex attraction. As it is governed on the basis of biological sex rather than personal identification with gender, the sexuality of lesbian women is under scrutiny within queer discourse.

These words are not written with detachment. It is not an abstract concern alive only in theory. The reality is, this is a particularly uncomfortable window of time in which to be lesbian. We face mounting pressure to expand the boundaries of our sexuality until sex that involves a penis is considered a viable option. And sex that involves a penis quite simply isn’t lesbian, whether it belongs to a man or a transwoman.

I am deeply concerned by the shaming and coercion of lesbian women that now happens within queer discourse. The queer devaluation of lesbian sexuality – from the insistence that lesbians are a boring old anachronism to the pathologising of lesbian sexuality that occurs when we are branded “vagina fetishists” – is identical to the lesbophobia pedalled by social conservatives. Both the queer left and religious right go out of their way to imply something is wrong with lesbians because we desire other women.

Lesbian women are attracted by the female form. In addition to sharing a profound emotional and mental connection with other women, lesbians appreciate the female form – the beauty of women’s bodies is what sparks our desire. If biological sex ceases to be recognised as determining womanhood (or, indeed, manhood), it can no longer be said that there is such a body as a woman’s body. If the distinct set of sex characteristics which combine to form womanhood are rendered unspeakable, attraction inspired by those characteristics – lesbian desire – is made invisible. Something vital is lost when women are deprived of the language to articulate how and why we love other women (Rich, 1980).

Lesbians are being coerced back into the closet within the LGBT+ community. We receive strong encouragement to abandon the label of lesbian, which we are told is comically archaic, and embrace the umbrella term of queer in the name of inclusivity. But no sexuality is universally inclusive – by definition, sexuality is a specific set of factors which when met offer the potential for attraction. It is unreasonable – and frankly delusional – to imagine that sexuality can be stripped of any meaningful criteria.

A queer woman is less challenging to the status quo than a lesbian, easier for men to get behind, for queer is a vague term that deliberately eschews solid definitions – a queer woman may well be sexually available to men, her sexuality in no way an impediment to offering men the emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour upon which patriarchy is dependent.

Queer stigmatising of lesbians is a tactical manoeuvre designed to undermine acknowledgement of the female sex category. If there is no need to address same-sex attraction between women, the significance and permanence of sex categories demands no scrutiny. That encouraging lesbian women to consider sex that involves a penis has become newly acceptable, a legitimate line of discourse within the progressive left, is a terrible puzzle. The logic of it is straightforward enough, yet the underlying truths about what is happening within LGBT+ politics are not easy to look at. Yet still I cannot help turn it over and over in my mind, working at the ideas like a Rubik’s cube until the pieces fall into place. Queer ideology seeks to enforce compulsory heterosexuality in the lives of lesbian women just as surely as the standards set by patriarchy. By denying the possibility of lesbians exclusively loving other women, by delegitimising lesbians living woman-centric lives, queer politics undermines our liberation.

Conclusion

There is a persistent thread of misogyny running through queer politics, from the inception of queer to its present incarnation. Queer was the product of gay men’s activism, concerned primarily with sexual freedom and transgression: as such, queer did not represent the interests of lesbian women when it came into being during the 1980s and does not represent the interests of lesbian women now (Jeffreys, 2003). Queer is less about collectively challenging structural inequalities at their root than an individualised subversion of social norms.

Though it promised a radical, exciting alternative – one which many women have embraced, along with men – queer politics are ill equipped to dismantle systematic oppressions. Queer erasure of womanhood, queer disregard for women’s boundaries if they happen to be lesbian, and queer obscuring of the gender hierarchy breathes a new lease of life into patriarchy, if anything.

I dream of a world without gender. I dream of a world where men can wear dresses and be gentle without either being treated as a negation of manhood. But much more than that, I dream of a world where no assumptions are made about what it means to be woman beyond the realm of biological fact. And if that makes me a heretic in the church of gender, so be it – I’m an atheist.

Gender roles and the hierarchy they maintain are incompatible with the liberation of women and girls from patriarchal oppression. It is because I love women, and because I am a woman, that I cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Embracing gender as an identity is the equivalent of decorating the interior of a cell: it is a superficial perspective which offers no freedom.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage

Judith Butler. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge

Andrea Dworkin. (1987). Intercourse. New York: Free Press

Marilyn French. (1986). Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. California: Ballantine Books

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press

Jack Halberstam. (1998). Female Masculinity. Carolina: Duke University Press

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press

Kate Millett. (1969). Sexual Politics. Columbia: Columbia University Press

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate

Adrienne Rich. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

Ntozake Shange. (1982). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. New York: Picador

Karen Tongson. (2005). Lesbian Aesthetics, Aestheticizing Lesbianism. IN Nineteenth Century Literature

Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

 

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Dispatches from the Margins: On Women, Race, and Class

A brief foreword: this is my third dispatch from the margins – the first and second of my personal reflective essays on feminist movement building are available here. This one is dedicated to Jo & Cath Planet, and Siân Steans – women who are there for other women in every way that matters. I’d also like to thank Liz Kelly for opening my eyes to the ways in which power can be used, and the responsibilities that come with its accumulation.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


Writing is really a way of thinking – not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet. ― Toni Morrison

Eternal Sunshine

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

My relationship with the feminist movement is struggling. I feel like this truth might make tough reading for some of the women who attach significance to my voice, but in a way that makes sharing it all the more necessary. I have no desire to be placed upon a feminist pedestal. Therefore, I am resistant to having my reputation as an essayist or feminist theorist obscure the aspects of my life which are too messy to fit within the limits of public expectations. Please don’t read anything I have written and imagine that I have all the answers to any set of questions – I’m a low-functioning depressive trying to negotiate a range of ongoing problems; “just a fucked-up girl who’s looking for my own peace of mind.” It’s tempting to buy into the vision behind the public expectations placed upon me, of this intellectual Amazon who fears nothing and gets shit done, but it would also be deeply dishonest.

Everything good that I’ve said or done came from a place of uncertainty, which is the home of radical possibility. I never imagined that Sister Outrider would go this far, or I’d have written it anonymously. At the time of starting out it was inconceivable that women around the world would read my words and engage with my ideas – it seemed infinitely more likely that nobody would be interested in my perspective. It never fails to surprise me when women assume that I began this blog with a belief in the importance of my own words or ideas. That belief never did materialise, although I am now confident of the instinct that tells me what to examine. Which is why it’s possible to write all of the following…

There needs to be scope for women to explore the lows as well as the highs of practicing feminism – in particular, space for women marginalised through race, class, and sexuality to address problems created in our lives when the women who have more power than we do decide to wield it against us. Those exchanges are painful and demanding, but without them the women who ought to be centred within feminism end up pushed to the margins or growing so alienated that they leave the movement altogether. I have watched women with good hearts, sharp minds, and highly relevant critiques leave the feminist movement when the women holding the lion’s share of power refuse to hear them.

Radical feminists pride ourselves on being women who speak truth to power, and rightly so – but so much of what is good about our movement breaks down when women among our ranks are the power to whom truth must be spoken, when those women refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of critiques directed towards them. As a result, racism and classism flourish within the British feminist movement. It’s soul-destroying to watch a movement that is supposed to be about women’s liberation recreate the same hierarchies we’re meant to be dismantling – hierarchies with real, damaging consequences for women around the world.

When I first started to engage with radical feminist communities, I dared to let myself hope that I had finally found my tribe. Growing up a biracial Black girl in Scotland (a country whiter than a thousand packets’ worth of Uncle Ben’s rice) was an incredibly isolating experience. Add a large dose of mental illness and irrepressible lesbian tendencies to the mix, and we have ourselves a black sheep. There was never a context in which I fully belonged, or so the world told me on a daily basis. And then, as a young woman, I found this glorious, mismatched set of women who wanted to escape the elaborate pink prison society trapped us in – a prison called gender – and dismantle it brick by brick.

Radical feminist spaces nurtured my ideas and pushed me irreversibly down the path of liberation politics. I have made lasting friendships within these communities, forged connections with women I am honoured to call sister. I have also been hurt repeatedly by women behaving in ways incompatible with feminist values: white women who caucasityweaponise racism against me, white women who expose me to graphic racism because they wish to capitalise on my response, white women acting as though anti-racist politics must come at the expense of my commitment to feminism, white women treating women of colour like tokens instead of self-actualised human beings, white women approaching women of colour as a handy source of progressive ally cookies as opposed to valued comrades in political struggle, white women who don’t see race because acknowledging it would complicate their feminist utopia (remember how Charlotte Perkins Gilman casually endorsed white supremacy and eugenics in Herland?), and white women using sisterhood to claim that women of colour addressing all of this racism are the real problem because undermining solidarity between women. It’s exhausting. Carrying all this on a daily basis is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

I’m out of whatever combination of optimism, energy, and naïveté led me to believe I could do anything to improve upon the dynamic of race within the feminist movement. It’s painful to admit, but I don’t actually know if a feminist movement in which women willingly divest of hierarchical power is possible anymore. I’d like to keep believing that it is, but carrying hope around in both hands leaves you exposed and less able to defend yourself. This prolonged feeling of despair makes it very difficult for me to both reconnect with any feminist spaces and take sufficient care of my mental wellbeing. For months now I’ve been thinking about how to continue engaging with the feminist movement in a sustainable way, and there is no obvious answer. My relationship with feminism is struggling because of racism, because of that barely concealed disdain straight women reserve for lesbians, because of the spectacular array of cruelties visited upon women who voice truths inconvenient to the wider (and whiter) feminist movement.

We can rise up from our screwups, failures, and falls, but we can never go back to where we stood before we were brave or before we fell. Courage transforms the emotional structure of our being. This change often brings a deep sense of loss. During the process of rising, we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena, but there’s nowhere to go back to. What makes this more difficult is that now we have a new level of awareness about what it means to be brave. We can’t fake it anymore. We now know when we’re showing up and when we’re hiding out, when we are living our values and when we are not… Straddling the tension that lies between wanting to go back to the moment before we risked and fell and being pulled forward to even greater courage is an inescapable part of rising strong. – Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I want to repair my relationship with feminism. This movement – the project of liberation – is everything to me. Feminism isn’t something I can simply put down or let go of – it has filtered through into every aspect of my life, shaped my way of being, and changed how I engage with the world for the better. I want to get back to a place where I feel like part of something so much bigger than myself, linked with women around the world in purpose. How to do that remains unclear. There is no way to undo knowledge or experience, so I can’t find a stronger connection with the feminist movement by going backwards. Instead I must locate a path onwards, even if I must build it from nothing. Zadie Smith once wrote that “you are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair” – and the place beyond despair is my eventual destination, even while the route remains unknown.

I’ve asked an assortment of friends who are seasoned feminists what brings them back to the movement, and each of them speaks of a connectedness that eludes me – a way of finding joy in women, the unexpected and delightful moments opened up by practicing feminist principles, or an act of resistance bringing about results. And while all of these experiences – especially shared connection with women – are uplifting, they no longer keep me tethered to the movement after so many repeated onslaughts of racism and cruelty.

Bojack 5

Bojack Horseman

For months on end I had this recurring fantasy of driving a blade into one of my arteries, of the profound calm that would descend as I lost blood – a sense of euphoria better than having your first orgasm or the last slice of pizza. The reality would, I expect, be far more panicked and utterly horrible. Yet the idea grew into a fixation. These are what healthcare professionals refer to, through the veil of euphemism, as “intrusive thoughts.” Though it scared me, this vision appeared so vividly and frequently that it felt like a permanent fixture in my mental terrain (mental being the operative word). It has now been a month since this scenario appeared in my mind. It has now been a month since I last participated in Facebook, Twitter, or any feminist space. That doesn’t feel coincidental. I share this information to remind women that their conduct in feminist spaces, digital or material, has an impact on other women. Damage done may manifest in a whole variety of ways, not all of which are necessarily linked to mental illness. The degree of impact will differ from woman to woman, because some of us are coming from a stronger place than others.

Being in contact with feminist spaces where cruelty was not only permissible but actively encouraged has contributed to the decline of my mental health. There are at least two dozen women in my life who have, in one way or another, been damaged by toxic practice in feminist spaces. This problem is widespread and threatens the very foundations of our movement. It’s one of those things we never talk about, how cruelty and dominance have found a home in radical feminism. Fear has created a layer of silence around this problem, perhaps because so many women are afraid to acknowledge the extent to which toxic practices have been normalised within feminist space. Another part of that reluctance stems from women’s fear – particularly white women’s fear – of considering what it means to be the oppressor, and not the oppressed, in any political analysis. There is a false kind of safety in feminism which looks only at the hierarchy of gender, as it protects white middle class feminists from having to do the difficult work of critical self-examination and unearthing truths that are less than flattering.

White women seem to take the phrase ‘white feminism’ very personally, but it is at once everything and nothing to do with them. It’s not about women, who are feminists, who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness, which at its core are exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist.

 

For those who identify as feminist, but have never questioned what it means to be white, it is likely that the phrase white feminism applies. Those who perceive every critique of white-dominated politics to be an attack on them as a white person are probably part of the problem. – Reni Eddo Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Feminist consciousness is a process, not a destination, which lasts women a whole lifetime. There is no end point to feminist consciousness: developing it involves effort, critical self-reflection, and a willingness to divest of whatever advantages we hold as a result of structural power imbalances. In short, as feminists we can always learn more – especially from the women we are arrogant enough to believe have nothing to teach us – and grow from that knowledge.

It is essential that we as feminists are prepared to give up a position of dominance to ensure the liberation of all women and girls. Exploring the full implications of what it means to belong to any dominant political class is not comfortable work, but confronting those difficult truths is necessary work. It’s important to remember, however hard it may feel, that unlearning a prejudice is a minor inconvenience in comparison to being subjected to that prejudice. For feminism to be truly radical, for feminism to succeed as a liberation movement, we must consistently go to the root of structural inequalities.

women race classNo practice which upholds the hierarchies of race and class can be described as radical, let alone feminist. Feminism is a political movement aiming to bring about the liberation of all women and all girls, not merely the white and middle class. However, there is a persistent strain of what masquerades as radical feminism – led by women who are predominantly white, middle class, and heterosexual – which aims to dismantle the gendered inequalities experienced by certain women whilst clinging to the privileges brought to them by hierarchies of race and class. It ought to go without saying that weaponising racism and classism against women who hold less social power than you do is a fundamental contradiction of feminist principles, yet this pattern of behaviour is rife within the British feminist movement.

This strain of white middle class feminism cherry picks which oppressions to challenge and which to enact on the basis of self-interest. The sad irony is that all oppressions share the common root of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. It is impossible to eradicate misogyny when you’re holding onto racism and classism with all of your strength.

Sisterhood is love and solidarity in action. Sisterhood is rejecting mean-girl cliques. Sisterhood calls out and calls in. Sisterhood is quiet, tender, loud, and joyful. Sisterhood is hard. Sisterhood is rewarding. Sisterhood is leading with love and letting go when love’s lost. Sisterhood is celebrating womanhood in all of its forms and facets.Crunk Feminist Collective

Periodically I am asked what I consider to be the biggest challenge facing feminists today. The answer is this: the dogmatic tribalism of white middle class feminists shielding each other from being held accountable for their hierarchical race and class politics. For women who claim to oppose “identity politics”, they participate in those politics frequently, abandoning reason and empathy both in order to protect women sharing their privileged identities from being challenged in any meaningful way. That Lean In brand of feminism, all about advancing the interests of comparatively privileged women at the expense of less powerful women, acts as a barrier not only to solidarity between all women but to the radical thoughts and deeds essential to liberation politics. It has to stop.

This total absence of critical self-reflection, enabled by a politics of individualism that is the antithesis of collective struggle, means that oppressive practices are imported from the mainstream into the allegedly radical. Gaining power has superseded liberation as their objective, meaning that those white middle class women who consider racism and classism legitimate extensions of their feminist practice are a threat – both to the feminist movement, and to women who hold less socioeconomic power than they do. These women sneer at any feminist analysis which addresses privilege precisely because that feminist analysis challenges the hierarchies from which their own power stems.

Where we are positioned in relation to power is not always static, and often determined by context. A nuanced analysis of power is central to feminist critiques of patriarchy – pretending that any hierarchy is somehow not relevant to or worth addressing within our analysis of power is an exercise in self-defeat. As feminists, we’re fighting in resistance to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – a system of power which Patricia Hill Collins describes it quite succinctly as a matrix of domination. Hierarchies of race, class, and gender are interlocking, interdependent, and fundamentally connected.

Although it was forged though being relentlessly Othered, I believe that never having an walls angela davisinherent sense of belonging has ultimately served me well; it is for this reason that I am usually open to the possibility of connection with women who are different to me, whether this difference means that they hold more power than I do, less power than I do, or something close to parity. As is often the case when one is visibly Other, learning to use difference creatively has been essential to my survival. Being positioned on the fringes of groups in which I have some level of belonging also gives me a handy vantage point – my eyes are drawn to common causes, sites where coalitions may be built between people marginalised in various ways. The authenticity of my ways of knowing the world gets challenged in pretty much every setting, meaning that it’s virtually impossible to sink into complacency and ever make the assumption that I know everything. If I had grown up taking my own belonging for granted, I very much doubt that I’d be a woman who writes or thinks in this way. Not bad, as silver linings go.

To be Other on multiple counts is profoundly challenging, but it also creates rich standpoints and fertile ground for movement building. I almost wish that it were possible to bring white middle class feminists en masse to a standpoint rooted in Otherness, even briefly, so that they would be more open to empathising and connecting with those Audre Lorde knew to “stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older…” I’d like to share the joy in what Otherness makes possible with white middle class feminists because, having felt it, practicing cruelty and domination against women with less power would be at least become harder to countenance. Replicating hierarchies would, perhaps, lose its appeal if a true vision of radical alternatives could be witnessed. Or maybe that’s foolish talk. Either way, I’m glad it’s a hypothetical scenario – if white middle class feminists chose cruelty and dominance over kindness and connection, it would crush what hope I have left for this movement.


Bibliography

Brené Brown . (2015). Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution

Nathan Connolly (ed.). (2017). Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class

Brittney C. Cooper, Susana M. Morris, & Robin M. Boylorn. (2016). The Crunk Feminist Collection

Reni Eddo-Lodge. (2017).  Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race

Audre Lorde. (1979). The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Zadie Smith. (2000). White Teeth

Dispatches from the Margins: Depression & Digital Detox

A brief foreword: this is my second dispatch from the margins (read the first here & the third here), and this essay is dedicated to Moon for inspiring it. Also for being a really good friend.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.


I deleted Twitter and Facebook. To 99.9999999% of the world’s population, my absence is irrelevant. To a small pocket of the feminist movement, my absence holds some level of significance. My mum was a bit surprised, because there were times when the only way I could have spent longer with my phone was if it had been surgically attached to my hand, but she was also pleased for exactly that reason. So other than a few feminists and my mum it’s unlikely that many people are really bothered. Still, there have been quite a few messages asking a) where I went b) if I’m well c) when I’m coming back – enough that I’ve decided to share some thoughts on the matter.

The first point to make is that I have a debilitating combination of depression and anxiety. I’m sick. Mental illness continuously shapes how I move through the world. That doesn’t always filter through the bright and shiny lens of social media where, even if we consciously attempt to resist building an idealised narrative around ourselves, only the good parts of our lives are consistently visible to others. On Twitter I tried to communicate some of the realities of how mental illness impacts my life without undermining my own privacy. It’s hard to gauge how successful that was. But I stopped performing wellness, because Screenshot_20170525-233335.jpgmaking mental illness invisible contributes to a culture of shame – it’s what leads people to conceal their problems rather than seeking help. But something shifted. My mental health declined. Twitter is all about communication, sharing thoughts and ideas. And there were nights when all I could think of, the only idea that presented itself, was suicide. Which, even in that state, I realised Tweeting about probably wasn’t the best plan. I’d retweet the @SoSadToday Twitter account in the hope of conveying no more than a socially acceptable level of despair.

Social media isn’t a great environment when you’re feeling fragile. Too many engagements become more about confrontation than a meeting of the minds, more about likes and petty point-scoring than genuine connection. There is an abundance of cruelty in digital spaces – even the feminist ones, which is an ongoing source of dismay. How women choose to interact with women who hold less power than they do – that is the ultimate indicator of how strong their feminist politics hold. Altogether too often, the women on the margins of the feminist movement are considered unworthy recipients of kindness by the women at the centre of the feminist movement. This hurts to witness, and it hurts to be subject to. No feminist should be kind only to the women who have something to offer her, or the women with whom associating may prove advantageous. Maybe more women should start thinking about kindness as a form of feminist praxis.

Choose to be kind friends, choose to be kind:

Not duplicitous, not two-faced,

Not passive-aggressive, not dishonest,

Not spiteful, not cowardly anonymous.

Have good grace, bring out the best, don’t stress.

When faced with a choice, choose kindness.

– Jackie Kay, Kinder

So often women of colour contact me because they feel overwhelmed by the cruelty white women direct towards them in feminist spaces, the casualness with which racism is weaponised against them. And I try to be supportive, try to listen to their truths that have been wilfully ignored elsewhere, try to give practical advice when possible. But it breaks my heart. And it makes me angry. That anger isn’t abstract – I feel a deep rage that women of colour are treated as expendable in a movement to which we are essential. I hate that our pain is brushed off as a mild inconvenience by the very women who cause it.

Being stuck between men of colour and white women is like being trapped between a rock and a hard place – women of colour are encouraged to accept misogyny or racism as our lot in life and liberation politics, depending upon which group we’re aligned with. Men of colour are quick to assure us that whatever misogyny they subject us to is small fry in comparison to the harms white supremacy acts upon women of colour. White women fall over themselves in the rush to claim that racism is a minor issue compared to the real threat of patriarchy.

I am tentatively prepared to reach out and build solidarity with both groups, but it is a sad irony that men of colour and white women fail to grasp that they each give women of colour as little reason to trust them as the other. Both groups represent a risk as well as the potential reward of coalition building within liberation politics. It would almost be amusing that men of colour and white women both use one another as a foil to convince women of colour that they are the less bad option, were the consequences not so devastating.

The idea of a digital detox came one afternoon when I was looking at my computer screen thinking I’d rather kill myself than keep looking at social media. It felt like death would be better than get suckered back into the cesspit of cruelty that white middle class feminists enact to avoid being held accountable for their racism or classism. Which is probably a disproportionate response but, as we have established, mental illness manifests in messy ways. And then I realised there was a third way: I didn’t have to kill myself, and I didn’t have to absorb any more of the toxic practices masquerading as feminism either. I could just delete social media, distance myself from that deluge of cruelty, and spend time doing things that make life feel worthwhile. Which is exactly what I have done.

I didn’t technically go anywhere – or rather, I went to all the same places I usually do, but without posting on social media. Mostly, I’ve been in my house. I’ve knitted one and a IMG_20171228_165010_683.jpghalf scarves and crocheted just under half of a blanket. One week I went walking in the highlands, which was beautiful. Periodically I visit the local library for more books. Most days I try to fit in a walk by the river, because the writer’s lifestyle runs the risk of being sedentary. I’ve also been cooking proper meals as a form of self-care, trying to look after my body and mind both. And I’ve been present in all of those things, giving them my full focus.

Our lives have become very small, limited by the tiny size of the screens we peer down at. Sometimes the whole world and everything that’s important to us seems to be completely contained within the tiny square of glass lying in our hands.

– Tanya Goodin

FB_IMG_1493853686713.jpgThere’s something insidious about how we use scrolling through social media as a way of numbing, distracting from emotions we’d rather not experience. It’s easy to do, but sooner or later we need to pay the debt on everything that’s repressed – with interest. So instead of looking for a diversion in any of the devices I own, I’ve been sitting with those difficult things and trying to resolve or make peace with them. Mostly that’s going well. So, to answer your questions, I’m not exactly alright but I’m doing the things that are necessary to become alright.

Being online has become increasingly difficult as my profile has grown. At first, being heard on Twitter was a revelation – it was the first context where I ever felt properly seen and listened to. When we talk about race or gender politics, there’s a big risk that someone would rather gaslight than have their investment in the status quo called into question. To be brought into a space where looking directly at systems of power becomes unavoidable isn’t easy, and remaining there takes courage – not everyone is brave enough. Early experiences of being dismissed as imagining things when I talked about how racism or sexism manifested made me reluctant to do so, and it was only through developing a radically feminist consciousness that I found the conviction, vocabulary, and inclination to be a dissenting voice. The women within various radical feminist communities on Twitter were vital to that process – and so, even now, I think of Twitter fondly. But my relationship with that space is no longer so positive or straightforward. As my public visibility grows, so does the scale of expectations placed upon me. It’s disconcerting to have knowledge and skill projected onto me at times when washing or feeding myself is a profound challenge.

Screenshot_20180105-013559.jpgRecently I’ve fallen in love with Bojack Horseman. I’m currently watching it again for the third time. It’s this zany black comedy about a horse/man (there are anthropomorphised animals living alongside people – don’t ask) who was in the most popular family sitcom of the ‘90s. He skyrocketed to fame. Fast forward to the present day, and it’s immediately clear that hyper-visibility has crushed every functional aspect of Bojack’s life. The series starts with him having been out of work for seventeen years, immobilised by the twin spectres of success and failure. Bojack clings to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which makes for amusing but poignant viewing, in order to escape the pervasive sense of existential dread that follows him everywhere. The opening sequence is mesmerising. It shows us Bojack waking up in his opulent Hollywoo(d) home, moving through the film studio where he works, sliding past a glamorous premiere, reeling through a fancy after party. And with every scene change the panic in Bojack’s eyes grows increasingly more apparent.

In some respects, I find Bojack very relatable – he’s wildly depressed, which he doesn’t always handle well, and struggling to cope with the ramifications of being in the public eye. I’m a moderately popular essayist, a hyper-visible Black woman on the internet. It’s not fame, and neither would I want it to be. But anonymity is gone. I don’t get to blend in and be invisible in certain contexts, and with any degree of power comes responsibility. Margaret Atwood wrote that “a word after a word after a word is power”, which is certainly true. Words have given me power – at least, substantially more power than I had before claiming voice and publishing my work.

I try not to devolve into a performance of myself. I try, for my own sanity, to maintain boundaries between what is public and what is everyday. I try to keep my personal life and my @ClaireShrugged life in harmony, to keep balance between being Claire Heuchan and Sister Outrider, which isn’t always easy in the face of expectation. Social media and the extent to which our lives are now lived online complicates all of those objectives. It was discombobulating, the number of times I’d move from digital to analogue space and back again. Occupying digital space has given me voice, but becoming hyper-visible in digital space has to some extent distorted my sense of self. Marina Diamandis writes about this conflict with real insight:

I can’t remember when I first became conscious of it but I started to feel like there were two parts of me, artist self and private self, and there was nothing in between to link the two anymore. I was one or the other, and neither part of my personality could be present in the same environment….When one part of a personality dominates, other parts shrink and life can take on an unreal, two-dimensional quality. I felt confused as to why I no longer felt like I fit into the world I’d built.

Diamandis also wrote a song called Disconnect about the cycle of anxiety and alienation caused by reliance on social media. Her lyrics, as ever, capture a lot of relevant details about modern life. That song has basically become my anthem. I’ve switched off to look after my health and take a breath. I’m taking the space and time to recalibrate. My goal is to integrate my public/creative self with the person I am when nobody is watching, or at least find a way for the different aspects of me to complement one another. During this digital detox, I’m also trying to evaluate social media’s impact upon my mental health.

I know there’s a correlation between my wellbeing falling apart and internet usage – it’s not the reason I’m depressed or anxious, but both my depression and anxiety are exacerbated by certain elements of digital space. Twenty years from now, there will be a wide array of writing on the impact of living within a digital golden age – in particular, the effects of coming of age in a time when smart technology is omnipresent. There’s a reason Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and so many Silicon Valley executives have chosen to raise their children in tech-free environments. Kids using phones for three hours per day are significantly more likely to be suicidal, and there’s no obvious reason to believe it’s any different for adults.

At present it seems unlikely that I’ll come back to Facebook. I don’t want to be added to any more so-called radical feminist groups where cruelty is currency. Those groups are never as private as women think (I’m not even on Facebook now, yet still I ended up with receipts), and their behaviour is not without consequence – the foremost of which is harm to women with less power than them. I don’t want to watch any more of the bullshit performative dramas that certain feminists (who are mostly white/middle class/straight) wage against other feminists (who are mostly of colour/working FB_IMG_1498781060309.jpgclass/lesbian). If only a middle class woman weaponising racism and classism against her fellow feminists generated the same outrage as a working class woman using the word cunt in anger… I don’t want Facebook pressuring me to reply to messages on my Sister Outrider page at 11pm, when I’m trying to chill out and knit with my grandmother, in order to maintain an “excellent response rate.” The idea of being permanently publicly available is, frankly, horrifying. Facebook is so much needless stress. Facebook makes me feel tired and unhappy. Facebook is cancelled. The only things I’m going to miss are the depression memes and all the photos of my friends’ adorable brown babies.

I am tired of explaining

And of seeing so much hating

In the very same safe haven

Where I used to just see helping.

– Amanda Palmer, Bigger on the Inside

As for Twitter, I’ll come back when I’m good and ready. There was some joy on that site, and meaning in the connections I made there. There was also a lot of messed up shit. Last year there was a police investigation into the abuse I received following my first article in the Guardian – some of it was Tweets, some of it was comments left on this blog. There is one particular memory that stands out: crying silently as I printed out the abuse at the request of the two officers who visited the house, praying my grandmother wouldn’t come into the room and see any of the words in front of me. I’d put all the relevant screenshots into a file, thinking I could just email it to the police, but apparently their system wasn’t up to that. So I printed them all out, one by one. Not going to lie: that was a traumatic experience. After that day it was impossible to go on deluding myself that the digital and the physical worlds could be kept at a safe distance from one another; that online abuse didn’t seep into my everyday life.

I love Book Twitter, Black Twitter, and Gay Twitter far too much for this goodbye to be final. But my way of being on Twitter will have to change somehow, when the time comes. It can’t absorb so much of me when I have so little to give. There were two FB_IMG_1497130315418.jpginstances last year when I could have met with feminist friends from other countries and had to cancel at the last minute because I’d shifted from passively to actively suicidal. Both times I was honest about being ill, if not the exact nature of the problem. Is there a polite shorthand for “sorry to flake on you, but I’m trying really hard not to kill myself and need to remain in a safe, controlled environment until this feeling passes”, or is that wishful thinking? Sometimes literally all of my energy has to go on not self-harming. Last summer I made a series of desperate calls to suicide prevention hotlines. Things got bad. Each time the person on the other end would talk me down, explaining that my family and friends would not, in fact, be better off if I died. At the time I’d thought it was just a natural dip in my mental health, which has been completely destabilised since my grandfather died in 2016, but one factor behind these oscillations is caused by being hyper-visible in digital space.

There are those who probably worry I’m exposing vulnerable parts of myself. And they’re right. Those same women probably think this is unwise in a time when so much hostility is being directed towards those of us who practice a feminism that seeks to dismantle every facet of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. And possibly they’re right about that too. Maybe not, though – I think part of the problem within digital feminist spaces is how quickly some forget (or ignore) the humanity of women whose questions take them to uncomfortable places of critical reflection. There are layers of contradictory meanings, different stories told to different women, levels of duplicity that need to be weeded out and replaced with radical honesty. The only way to enact a lasting, meaningful change is to be part of it, so this is my truth: I’m mentally unstable and heartsick over cruelty.

A number of feminist friends have been in touch since my digital departure. Despite what Mark Zuckerberg tells us, no actual friendship needs Facebook. The comments of one friend in particular (you know her as @Bigoldsupermoon) stayed with me. We were texting one afternoon, slagging off the commercialised idea of wellness that wealthy white women sell – the steamed vaginas and at-home coffee enema kits that make up Gwyneth Paltrow’s unfortunate cultural legacy. And then a notification came through. I’d turned off notifications for every app, save WordPress, and couldn’t help but be curious: the alert showed me that someone had linked to my blog at the words “crazy lesbian”, a description entirely more accurate than the OP realised. He went on to argue that, owing to the Bible and Qur’an, “we can also conclude through divine law that feminism is a Satanic doctrine.” I know I shouldn’t read any of this trash, but it was actually quite nice – I hadn’t felt that comparatively sane for months.

Anyway, Moon suggested that I write about the blesbiarchy – her term for my flavour of

FB_IMG_1506421298442.jpgBlack lesbian feminism – through the lens of mental illness and self-care. Moon is basically a genius. The idea stayed with me, as all ideas that demand to be written into being do. I’ve put together a little playlist to go with it, songs that I’ve had on loop through this digital detox.

 


  1. Disconnect, by Clean Bandit (feat. Marina and the Diamonds)
  2. Enjoy the Silence, by Depeche Mode
  3. Bigger on the Inside, by Amanda Palmer
  4. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, by Bessie Smith
  5. Mama Said, by Dusty Springfield
  6. Uncomfortable, by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  7. Fatal Gift, by Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton
  8. Fade Together, by Franz Ferdinand
  9. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, by Nina Simone

 


Bibliography

Marina Diamandis. (2017). It Takes a Long Time to Get Over Yourself

Tanya Goodin. (2017). OFF. Your Digital Detox for a Better Life

Jackie Kay, ed. (2017). Ten Poems of Kindness

 

Aux femmes blanches qui veulent être mon amie : guide féministe Noir de solidarité interraciale

For the White Woman Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend: A Black Feminist Guide to Interracial Solidarity is now available in French! Many thanks to the amazing women of Révolution Sorore.


Bref avant-propos : il s’agit de la conclusion de ma série d’essais sur la race et le mouvement féministe. Les parties 1, 2, et 3 sont toutes accessibles ici. La connaissance présentée ici a été acquise à mes dépens. Utilisez-la comme vous le souhaitez. Je dédie cet essai à toutes les femmes – Noires, racisées, et blanches – qui m’ont soutenue sur le chemin de la sororité.

Dès que je parle de racisme dans le mouvement féministe, cette question revient constamment : les femmes blanches demandent « que puis-je faire de concret contre le racisme ? Comment puis-je être solidaire des femmes racisées ? ». Il s’agit là d’une question compliquée, à laquelle je réfléchis depuis maintenant un an, et il n’y a pas de réponse simple. Il y a plutôt plusieurs réponses, aucune n’étant fixe et toutes étant sujettes à des adaptations contextuelles. La réalité de la situation est qu’il n’y a pas de réponse simple et établie aux siècles de racisme – racisme sur lequel notre société est fondée, et sur lequel ses hiérarchies de richesse et de pouvoir sont établies – qui façonnent les rapports entre les femmes racisées et les femmes blanches. Cette asymétrie de pouvoir et de privilège affecte les interactions personnelles. Elle crée les strates de défiance justifiées que les femmes racisées ressentent envers les femmes blanches, même (et peut-être tout particulièrement) en milieu féministe.

La modification des rapports dans lesquels la race n’existe que comme hiérarchie et construire des formes de solidarité pérennes entre femmes va nécessiter une introspection et un effort constants, ainsi qu’une volonté de la part des femmes blanches de changer leur approche. Voici ma perspective sur les étapes concrètes que les femmes blanches peuvent passer afin de remettre en cause leur propre racisme, qu’il soit conscient ou inconscient, dans l’espoir de leur donner la possibilité d’être véritablement sorores avec les femmes racisées.

« La première chose que tu dois faire est d’oublier que je suis Noire. La seconde est que tu ne dois jamais oublier que je suis Noire » Pat Parker, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend

Reconnaissez les différences causées par la race. Ne définissez pas les femmes racisées par nos ethnicités respectives. De même, ne prétendez pas que nos vies sont les mêmes que les vôtres. Ne pas voir les races revient à ne pas voir le racisme. Ne pas voir le racisme revient à le laisser prospérer sans remise en question. Commencez par reconnaître notre humanité, en voyant les femmes racisées comme des personnes pleinement accomplies, dotées de perspicacité, de capacité à penser de façon critique, ainsi que – et c’est souvent le point le plus négligée dans cette conversation – de sentiments. Commencez par examiner la façon dont vous pensez les femmes racisées, et construisez à partir de ça.

Monopolisation du féminisme et autorité

Les femmes blanches qui monopolisent le discours féministe et qui se présentent comme les seules autorités qualifiées à déterminer ce qui est et ce qui n’est pas le Vrai Féminisme perpétuent de nombreux problèmes. Ce n’est pas un hasard si les contributions des femmes racisées, en particulier leurs commentaires s’adressant au racisme ou au privilège blanc, sont fréquemment reléguées au rang de distraction par rapport aux enjeux principaux du féminisme, c’est-à-dire les enjeux qui ont des conséquences négatives directes sur les femmes blanches.

Le présupposé tacite selon lequel la perspective d’une femme blanche est plus légitime et plus informée que la nôtre, que si les femmes racisées se renseignaient simplement davantage sur un enjeu particulier alors notre regard deviendrait lui aussi nuancé, est persistant. Ce présupposé est soutenu par la croyance selon laquelle les femmes blanches sont l’avant-garde du mouvement féministes, et que les femmes racisées sont au second plan. La situation est la même s’agissant de la politique de classe, avec les femmes des classes populaires étant catégorisées comme non informées quand leurs perspectives féministes diffèrent de celles des femmes de classe moyenne. Le renforcement de ces hiérarchies est le plus grand obstacle à la solidarité entre les femmes.

Les femmes blanches ont l’habitude de trancher entre ce qui est féministe et ce qui ne l’est pas d’une façon telle qu’elles centrent le vécu des femmes blanches et le positionnent comme la référence normative du vécu des femmes. Si le vécu des femmes blanches est la référence, le vécu des femmes Noires et racisées devient, par définition, la forme déviante – et ce paradigme contribue à altériser les femmes racisées.

Le féminisme est un mouvement politique dédié à la libération des femmes de l’oppression. Cette dernière est en partie genrée, mais aussi en partie basée sur la race, et la classe. Elle est aussi en partie reliée à la sexualité ou encore au handicap. Et au sein de ces catégories, il y a toujours possibilité de recoupement. L’incapacité à reconnaître l’intersection de ces identités maintient l’oppression des femmes les plus marginalisées, ce qui n’est en aucun cas un objectif féministe. Dire aux femmes racisées qui dénoncent le racisme « les filles, ce n’est pas votre moment » rentre directement en contradiction avec les principes féministes. S’attendre à ce que les femmes racisées gardent le silence pour le bien général, c’est-à-dire au bénéfice des femmes blanches, n’est, par nature, pas un acte féministe. L’idée qu’il y a un lieu et une heure pour reconnaître une forme d’oppression vécue par les femmes mine les principes sur lesquels le mouvement féministe est construit. Les femmes blanches doivent écouter ce que les femmes racisées ont à dire sur le racisme au lieu de détourner les critiques.

Les femmes blanches ont une fâcheuse tendance à s’imposer comme les sauveuses éclairées tout en présentant les hommes racisés comme des oppresseurs barbares et les femmes racisées comme des victimes passives d’une oppression qui ne vient que des hommes de leur groupe ethnique. Cette logique reconnaît que les femmes racisées subissent des violences genrées tout en effaçant l’oppression basée sur la race que nous subissons. De plus, cela nie la réalité de l’appartenance des femmes blanches à une classe oppresseuse – façon habile et déloyale de retirer aux femmes blanches toute responsabilité dans le maintien du racisme systémique. Si le problème du racisme n’existe pas, il n’y a pas besoin d’en parler. Si on ne parle pas du racisme, les femmes blanches peuvent continuer à en bénéficier sans remise en question.

Afin que la solidarité interraciale existe au sein du mouvement féministe, la question de la propriété doit être soulevée. Encore et encore, les femmes blanches se comportement comme si le mouvement féministe était leur propriété exclusive, auquel les femmes racisées peuvent à la rigueur participer sans jamais contribuer à la définition du discours et des actions. Non seulement cette approche efface le rôle historique essentiel des femmes racisées dans le mouvement féministe, mais elle nie la possibilité que les futurs efforts de collaboration se produisent sur un pied d’égalité.

Les femmes blanches qui veulent établir un rapport de confiance et de solidarité avec les femmes racisées doivent d’abord réfléchir à la façon dont elles pensent les femmes racisées, à la façon dont elles nous conceptualisent – est-ce que vous nous considérez comme des sœurs ou comme quelqu’un à qui vous apportez un soutien de façade sans jamais vraiment nous écouter ? Sommes-nous une partie centrale de la lutte féministe ou une simple case à cocher ? Une honnête auto-critique est essentielle. Analyse la façon dont vous nous pensez, étudiez avec critique les raisons, et travaillez à partie de là.

Organisation du militantisme féministe

Etes-vous en train de monter un groupe pour les femmes ? De créer un événement ou un espace féministe ? D’établir un réseau féministe ? Chaque rassemblement de femmes crée de nouvelles possibilités pour le mouvement féministe, et il se trouve que l’une de ces possibilités est l’amélioration des rapports de race en milieu féministe. En termes d’organisation collective, les femmes blanches doivent se poser la question suivante : y a-t-il des femmes racisées dans ce groupe ? S’il n’y en a pas, c’est pour une bonne raison. C’est bien beau de dire que des femmes auparavant amies s’organisent ou que quelques militantes partagent un but précis, mais la façon dont ce groupe s’est formé n’a pas eu lieu dans un vide social. Il s’est formé dans une société où les femmes de couleur sont racisées et altérisée à tel point que notre vécu de femmes est perçu comme fondamentalement moindre. Par conséquent, notre compréhension de la situation politique des femmes, et donc du féminisme, est perçue comme inférieure.

Par exemple, plus je m’investis dans la cause Noire, plus ma légitimité féministe est contestée par des femmes blanches qui persistent à croire deux idées erronées : la première, qu’il est impossible de s’occuper de plusieurs causes en même temps, et la seconde, que la politique de libération peut être clairement divisée puisque le chevauchement des identités n’a jamais besoin d’être pris en compte. L’idée selon laquelle mon soutien à la libération des Noir-e-s ne peut être qu’au détriment de mon soutien à la libération des femmes, qu’il dilue ma politique féministe, ne saisit pas la façon dont l’essence de ces deux engagements politiques a été établie et le fait qu’ils sont intrinsèquement connectés dans la vie des femmes Noires.

S’il n’y a aucune femme racisée engagée dans votre groupe féministe, réfléchissez au pourquoi et ensuite à la façon d’y remédier. Peut-être que votre organisation, votre contenu, ou votre praxis féministe est aliénante ? L’auto-critique est loin d’être un processus confortable, mais elle est nécessaire pour que la solidarité soit possible. Un élément fondamental de cet enjeu est la façon dont les femmes blanches se comportent avec les femmes racisées.

Considérer les femmes racisées comme un simple gage de diversité, et non comme des membres à part entière de l’équipe, trahit une forme de racisme dans la façon dont nous sommes conceptualisées. Nos compétences, savoirs, et engagements pour les femmes ne sont pas vus comme étant aussi évidents que la contribution des femmes blanches au groupe en milieu féministe. Le supposé selon lequel notre présence ne sera jamais qu’une façon de remplir des quotas ignore notre humanité. Oubliez cette façon de penser. Regardez notre valeur en tant qu’individues, comme vous en avez l’habitude avec les femmes blanches, et vous finirez par notre humanité aussi. Déconstruisez votre racisme avec la même vigueur que vous déconstruisez votre misogynie intériorisée.

Il est important que des femmes racisées soient impliquées au niveau organisationnel, en tant que membres de l’équipe qui conçoit les événements et les campagnes. Laissez tomber le paternalisme qui vous persuade que vous, en tant que femmes blanches, vous êtes en position de parler pour toutes les femmes.

Comportements

Point le plus évident : ne soyez pas racistes, ni dans vos mots, ni dans vos actes. D’une façon ou d’une autre, cela se verra. Si vous dites quelque chose à propos des femmes racisées en privé que vous ne diriez pas en public, réfléchissez à la raison pour laquelle vous différenciez ces deux environnements – la réponse est souvent liée au fait que les femmes blanches ne veulent pas être vues comme racistes. Paradoxalement, être vue comme raciste est devenu un plus grand tabou que le racisme même.

Et si votre racisme est confronté, ne voyez pas cela comme une attaque personnelle. Ne soyez pas les femmes blanches qui ramènent tout à leurs propres souffrances, dont les larmes les exemptent de toute responsabilité pour leurs actions. Réfléchissez plutôt à l’étendue des souffrances subies par les femmes racisées en raison de ce racisme – je garantis que c’est si douloureux que votre propre inconfort n’est rien en comparaison. Ayez la même empathie pour les femmes racisées qui subissent le racisme que pour les femmes blanches qui subissent la misogynie.

« A la fin, nous nous souviendrons non pas des mots de nos ennemis, mais des silences de nos amis » Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ne restez pas silencieuses quand vos ami-e-s sont racistes. Ne regardez pas ailleurs. Ne prétendez pas que rien ne soit arrivé. Votre silence vous rend complice de ce racisme. Votre silence normalise ce racisme, et fait partie de ce qui le rend plus légitime en général. Il n’est pas facile de défier quelqu’un dont on est proche, ou quelqu’un avec plus de pouvoir et d’influence. Mais la justice n’est pas toujours la chose la plus facile à mettre en pratique.

Enfin, ne vous reposez pas sur vos lauriers. Dans un récent entretien pour Feminist Current, Sheila Jeffreys regrette l’essor des politiques identitaires, qu’elle associe à la praxis intersectionnelle, affirmant que parce qu’on n’attend jamais des hommes qu’ils fassent tout, on ne devrait pas l’attendre des femmes. Cette attitude n’est pas rare parmi les femmes féministes blanches. Toutefois, l’attitude de Jeffreys soulève la question suivante : depuis quand le féminisme radical lesbien prend-t-il exemple sur le comportement des hommes ? Le féminisme n’est pas un nivellement par le bas, c’est un mouvement politique radical. Et cela implique une intense pensée critique, une remise en cause constante de l’oppression qui ne soit pas sélective mais totale.

Ce sera inconfortable. Ce ne sera pas une tâche aisée. Mais cela crée des pistes entières et nouvelles de soutien et de sororité entre les femmes. Solidarité qui soutiendra et nourrira toutes les femmes dans notre chemin vers la libération.

 

Dispatches from the Margins: On Feminist Movement Building

A brief foreword: this post is, as ever, written in the hope that it will enable women to come to a greater place of understanding. After a period of contemplation, I have decided to address the issue of racism at FiLiA 2017 because if it requires women of colour to keep quiet about racism, it’s not sisterhood and never can be. There is potential for better. It is the first in a series of personal reflective essays about feminist movement building. The second and third are available here.


 

I am tired. So very tired. There are days when I want to withdraw from the feminist movement. There are days when I want to withdraw from life. So far, I have done neither because I’m conscious that it’s a sickness that plants the seeds of suicidality in my mind. And if I have to live in this world, you can be damned certain that I’m going to try and make it a better place for women and girls to inhabit – to firmly grasp the roots of injustice with both hands and pull. While my mental health and participation in the feminist movement may not at first glance appear connected, both are consistently and adversely affected by one common factor: racism.

It is widely acknowledged by feminists that sisterhood is the most sustaining force, what keeps our movement in motion despite the weight of constant struggle. And as women who live our politics, aiming to unite theory and practice in the everyday, that solidarity between women is vital to a feminist’s being in all spheres of her life.

As I have previously written, I believe that racism is one of the greatest barriers to sisterhood between women. Since 2014 I have devoted significant energy and time to removing that barrier by challenging racism within the feminist movement. This has involved using my back as a bridge to bring white women to a place of understanding, guiding white women through the process of unlearning racism, letting my experiences of racism become teachable moments, and – frankly – showing more patience with white women’s casual racism than anyone could reasonably be expected to give. I have tried to make myself and my words a conduit for movement away from racism, movement towards true solidarity between women and girls.

In some ways, this project has been a success. It shows when a white woman has taken the time to critically examine her own racism and altered her behaviour towards women of colour. I’ve run many gentle interventions, large and small, and actually feel really proud of that work when I see a white woman is consciously unlearning racism after our conversations, when I see a change in how she practices her feminism. I don’t do it because white women deserve the Morgan Freeman treatment – members of the dominant class (in this case, white people) aren’t entitled to a unique level of understanding from people of colour. No, I do it for the women of colour whose paths will cross with those white women in feminist organising and other settings. Women of colour deserve so much better from the feminist movement than to be pushed to its margins, just as we are within a mainstream context. And so I tried to build pockets of space where white women could get to grips with basic anti-racist politics without fear of being castigated for asking questions which belied racism (again, it took an extreme degree of patience) or spiralling into defensiveness when that racism was addressed.

I think that racism flourishes because of all the silences that are allowed to grow around it. Race exists as a hierarchy, and white people are invested in upholding that hierarchy in order to retain the socioeconomic power that comes with it – and maintaining the hierarchy of race is partly achieved by making its acknowledgement taboo. Through an extraordinary feat of mental gymnastics, talking about race – in particular the realities of that hierarchy as experienced when your skin happens to be Black or brown – becomes a far greater offence than being complicit in systematic injustice.

Talking about race becomes a transgression, which is politically significant. Both within feminist spaces and in mainstream society we are all, to varying degrees, rewarded for not speaking about race and – by extension – posing no threat to whiteness as an ideology. The shame attached to talking about the dynamic of race acts as a buffer of sorts, a layer cushioning racism from in-depth scrutiny or challenge. If we cannot name or identify racism, how can we oppose it? This layer of silence creates distance between the act of racism and accountability for being racism. It is what protects the ideology behind racism from being unpicked. And so I have crafted contexts in which race may be discussed.

FiLiARecently I delivered a keynote address at FiLiA 2017, sharing my vision of interracial solidarity in the feminist movement with the conference. FiLiA was a complicated experience. For months in advance I had planned to use my time to talk about the radical and often untapped possibilities within sisterhood – but it was only the day before conference that the reality hit: I would be stepping into a predominantly white space to speak about racism, putting myself in a more exposed position than is comfortably occupied as a Black woman. And it was a very white space: I saw more Black women in the student cafeteria upstairs than in the entire conference setting. Vulnerability is a necessary part of the radical honesty that movement building demands, yet there is a fine balance between what it is to be vulnerable in talking about race and exposed to racism. Still, I gave the talk and sent those ideas out to permeate the conference.

Responses to my FiLiA address have been rather overwhelming – mostly in a good way. White women have thanked me for opening their eyes to something they hadn’t previously considered with a bit of Racism 101, shared the ways in which they plan on organising differently, and a few even said that my words changed their lives. Women of colour’s responses have been more layered, coming at the issue from a standpoint so much closer to my own, and profoundly moving. But, in the immediate aftermath, one particular response devastated me.

After the session where I spoke, I attended a panel about body positivity: Flaunting Fearlessness. Fat, disabled, and Black women are the pioneers of the body positivity movement – so their absence on the panel was immediately noticeable. The speakers consisted of four white women in the room and one Asian woman Skyping from Los Angeles: I do not name these women because a public shaming is not my objective. Instead I want to address the impact of the classism, anti-Blackness, and ableism that were woven into the conversation and uncontested by the chair. It was deeply uncomfortable and, more than that, pushed women with little social power to the margins of the movement.  Listening to that panel I grew acutely conscious that they did not view our concerns as women’s concerns, did not perceive our struggles to be women’s struggles. Having spent the morning inviting women to build interracial solidarity at the conference, it was devastating.

Sitting in the audience was acutely painful. I deliberated over whether to say anything, but a friend pointed out that the burden of challenging racism shouldn’t fall to a Black woman. So Siân raised her hand and, with real empathy, invited the panel to consider how the racism projected onto Black children has resulted in them being penalised by their school or having their hair cut off by teachers. She spoke about how money acted as a barrier to so many spaces and experiences that were being described as crucial to body positivity. She addressed the harm done by recreating hierarchies within feminist spaces. She brought up the issue of representation, or lack thereof, on the panel. And Siân, bold and brilliant, was applauded by women across the room. It was the best example of a calling in that I have ever witnessed – a genuine, compassion-filled invitation to connect.

But Siân’s invitation, like mine, was rejected. The panellist who claimed to be part of a movement so inclusive that even her dog belonged in it said “I could talk about race all day, but we can’t make everything about race.” In a society founded upon white supremacist principles, everything is already inherently racialised. To claim that those of us who address the hierarchy of race are responsible for making an issue about race is to miss the point spectacularly. Explaining that to the panel was impossible. Building a bridge was impossible. So I left the session. And I wasn’t the only one.

I left that session in tears, empty and exhausted. I found a quiet place to sit and breathe. I brought the issue to the attention of the FiLiA team, who admitted to having concerns about the Flaunting Fearlessness panel beforehand. And I agreed to help the collective as they take the necessary steps to ensure such a thing never happened at any future FiLiA conference – a point to which I will return. My reason for doing so was the same as my reason for attempting to build interracial solidarity between women in the first place: to improve a feminist space for women of colour. All the while Siân was checking up on me, making sure I didn’t feel alone.

I did not ultimately decide to leave the conference, but neither did I attend any other sessions that day. Instead I ended up sitting on the steps with Liz and letting myself be drawn into a series of comfortable conversations with women – conversations about the gendered expectations of caring, women’s spaces, and the politics of lesbian weddings. Liz Kelly is something of a litmus test for how I will engage (or not engage) with white women in a feminist setting. There are very few white feminists holding my absolute trust, but Liz is one – and so the white women she vouches for are generally among the white women I’m open to connecting with. I will not universalise this experience and say that this is an option for every Black woman: it’s not. But letting Liz’s judgements inform my own is a mechanism that saves me a lot of energy that would otherwise be spent guarding against racism in one form or another.

sisterhood

Liz has enabled me to occupy a range of predominantly white feminist environments that would otherwise not have been bearable. Siân’s courage in holding space for Black women saved me emotional labour and alienation. As I have previously written, I dislike the concept of allyship because it invariably sinks into something hollow and performative. Instead of allyship, I consider such actions as a manifestation of solidarity between women. Sisterhood is powerful – or it can be, when women are prepared to work to build it.

I value sisterhood with white women, complicated as it is. And I value solidarity with men of colour, though they are similarly complicated by context. The two are not mutually exclusive – actually, in my experience, they fit together because they are both born from living a politics of connection. The Black security guard kept catching my eye as I danced with a group of otherwise white women at the FiLiA party on Saturday night, and every time I’d laugh. Those little moments of shared understanding made me feel seen as surely as Liz or Siân did.

Within my interactions with other women of colour lies the greatest significance. But, for various reasons – all of which relate directly to power – those are the interactions about which I can say least. Most women I will not name, because they have enough to manage without being scrutinised by white women as a result of these words. Some (me included) recede into ourselves in predominantly white feminist environments, too focussed on how best to negotiate the space, too guarded against the very real risk of racism, to be fully connected with what’s going on. This is white women’s loss far more than it is a loss for women of colour. Since becoming part of the feminist movement I have watched many of the brightest and most insightful women I know clam up in spaces that are hostile to them, spaces in which their perspectives would have been of greater relevance and use than anything said by the voices centred. Such is the risk of treating white women’s voices as default.

During both days at conference I took the opportunity to connect with women from various feminist networks and communities – some of them posted about catching up with me on Twitter and Facebook, which is pretty standard of how these things go. And on more than one occasion another woman of colour messaged me privately to indicate which white women I ought to be careful around any why. (When it comes to racism, the receipts will always catch up with you.) The reach of racism in any mixed feminist space is disconcerting. And while it is grim that women of colour are in a position where protecting one another is necessary, it is a wonderful thing to be held by that sisterhood.

IMG_20171103_102643_562.jpg

The final product

On the second day of FiLiA I carried a bag of knitting around with me – having a repetitive, constructive action from which something beautiful grows is soothing. I joked to friends that returning for the next day of conference after addressing the issue of racism felt a bit like being Maleficent at Aurora’s christening. Knitting was a way to retreat from those worries and find a sense of calm. Over the lunch break I sat on the steps with a group of friends and knitted, having reached the level of anxiety at which eating food ceases to be a viable option. One of those friends was a woman I first met at the previous conference, when it was still known as Feminism in London – we had both been quiet with one another, feeling out of place (read: conspicuously brown) in that context. Although that same discomfort persisted, we had a frank and gentle conversation about anxiety – I felt seen by her, and hope she felt seen by me too, which can be the greatest gift when you are conscious of being made Other.

Later on, after knitting my way through a panel on specialised women’s services, I felt like food was possible. In the queue I bumped into Rahila Gupta and another woman. We talked about the politics of voice – who is heard, who is ignored. We talked about public speaking, when we preferred to read from notes or speak off the cuff. And Rahila asked for my perspective. It was nothing short of astonishing to me that a woman as brilliant as Rahila Gupta would treat me as a peer. Long before meeting her, I read of Rahila’s work with Southall Black Sisters in archive materials at Glasgow Women’s Library.

That interaction stayed with me all through the day and long after the closing session of FiLiA. Maya Angelou, who was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her outstanding contributions to literature, once lamented that “I have written eleven books,maya-angelou-quote but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” As was often the case, her words lit upon a truth – one which I find highly relatable. Part of me suspects that sooner or later it will emerge that my ideas are worthless – all writing opportunities withdrawn, prizes and nominations revoked, and so on. Even being invited to give a keynote by the FiLiA organising team, I did not have a sense that it was legitimate for me to occupy that space and worried that my thoughts on feminist movement building would immediately be discredited. The things I wonder ‘is it legitimate for me to say this?’ are often the things that most desperately need saying. And yet…

Imposter syndrome isn’t uncommon among women of colour. In fact, imposter syndrome is rife within the networks of Black & brown women who make up my peer group. They achieve extraordinary things, build extraordinary spaces, create extraordinary works – and continue to be plagued by self-doubt. That self-doubt is informed by context: it is what happens when we absorb the racism and misogyny thrown our way in this society. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff is one of the finest journalists of this generation, yet she too is familiar with imposter syndrome:

“This is the key difference between the imposter syndrome suffered by women of colour and others: the strong forces telling our subconscious that we are undeserving of success and that we don’t belong in the environments we inhabit. We don’t see people who look like us, hear accents like ours, or, necessarily, have role models. Our insecurities over our achievements are the effect of people reacting with shock when they realise how well [we are] doing…”

If the feminist movement is truly concerned with the liberation of all women and girls then we as feminists must ensure that our spaces do not replicate the same old hierarchies, but instead create a viable challenge to those hierarchies. If those spaces happen to be racially mixed, white women have a responsibility to uplift women of colour – to centre our voices instead of pushing us to the margins. White women have a responsibility to actively unlearn their racism. It is the white women who cling to racism that should doubt the legitimacy speaking on feminist politics, not the women of colour whose words are a fundamental challenge to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

In the weeks after FiLiA I was hugely conflicted, but ultimately I stand by my radical vision of sisterhood – one in which true interracial solidarity between women is possible. Whether or not I have the energy to help bring that vision into being is another question altogether.  I am not a well woman. Neither am I a resource for white women to mine. And, in the spirit of honesty, it is far more tempting to devote all that energy to becoming a crochet master – something sustaining, not draining.

Still, I have spoken with Lisa-Marie – the founder of FiLiA – about the conference. To me, the most significant factor is how a white woman responds to racism – will she deny the issue is there, or will she grasp it at the root? Lisa-Marie was adamant that FiLiA is to be a space where women can engage with feminist politics free from racism, classism, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. She fully acknowledges that FiLiA is imperfect in its present form and is determined that the space engages with issues of structural power – which is why I offered Lisa-Marie my perspective on how FiLiA can evolve and gave her permission to check in with me on developments. FiLiA is flawed, but something good can grow there. Perhaps, with enough work, FiLiA will become a place where interracial sisterhood flourishes. Like I said on the stage: “to be a feminist is to be an optimist.”

 

Interracial Solidarity in the Feminist Movement – #FiLiA2017

A brief foreword: this is the transcript of the keynotes address I delivered at FiLiA 2017, on Saturday the 14th of October. I was initially hesitant to share this speech, as I can no longer think of interracial solidarity between women of colour and white women as a viable project. However, out of commitment to feminist documentation and the women who requested it be made public, I have decided to post the transcript.

Writers and theorists who remain immobile, closed to any shift in perspective, ultimately have little to offer. Perhaps in the future I will return to advocating interracial movement building. Perhaps not. Either way, this transcript is an outline of the thoughts I held on the matter.


It is an honour to be here with you all today, and a privilege to share the stage with Kate, Sophie, and Cordelia. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this year’s FiLiA conference. As someone who is passionate about movement building, it is a pleasure to be here speaking about the radical potential within feminist sisterhood. As Adrienne Rich once said, “The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” Given their revolutionary potential, I think that as feminists it’s worth exploring the possibilities contained within the connections between women – some of which remain largely unrealised or underexplored. For this reason, I’m here to talk to you about interracial solidarity within the feminist movement – a mine of untapped potential within our politics and many women’s lives.

Before we get going, it’s important to say that the burden of self-reflection and action required to improve the dynamic of race within the feminist movement lies with white women. This is at points a tough conversation, but it’s also a necessary one, and for the white women hesitant about engaging fully with it I’d like to point out that racism is consistently undermining the efforts made by feminist women – the benefits to fully unpicking racism from feminist spaces and communities are legion. To the women of colour in the audience, I have decided to focus on this specific issue because it is vital that all the Black and Brown girls coming into this movement experience better from it than what has gone on before in mixed feminist spaces. Every last one of them deserves more.

Feminism is a social movement devoted to the liberation of women and girls from oppression. The oppressions we experience are the result of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy – quite a mouthful, but it is vital to acknowledge that these hierarchies are all interconnected. Systems of oppression cannot be neatly divided into separate entities when they constantly overlap in our everyday lives. Since you’re engaging in a feminist space that’s all about trying to develop ideas on how to improve our movement and make this world a better place to live in, I’m working in the belief that most of you will be receptive. We are all here at FiLiA as feminists who understand the value of movement building. I’ll try to be gentle, but not at the expense of the radical honesty this conversation demands.

The reality is that race politics are where a lot of white women fall down in their feminist practice. Not all white women – but enough that women of colour are reasonably wary of those interactions. White liberal feminists have a habit of failing to consider racism in terms of structural power. White radical feminists can be quite unwilling to apply the same scrutiny or structural analysis to the hierarchy of race as they do to the hierarchy of gender. Both liberal and radical white feminists often carry the expectation that women of colour should prioritise challenging misogyny over resisting racism, as though the two issues are mutually exclusive and not woven together in the fabric of our everyday lives.

For years amazing women such as Stella Dadzie, who will be speaking to you tomorrow morning, have been documenting and challenging the racism and misogyny that Black women experience in Britain. I’m not here to prove that racism exists or has negative consequences for women of colour in Britain: it does. I am here to talk about how we – as feminists, as women who share a social movement – can unpick racism from feminist communities. I’m going to talk about movement building, the dynamic of race in the feminist movement, and practical steps towards building interracial solidarity between women.

As we participate more in feminist spaces and conversations, women build a deep understanding of patriarchy – how it works, and where we are positioned by the hierarchy of gender. Feminism has enabled women to connect the personal with the political in our analysis of patriarchy. Nothing about feminist politics or theory is abstract – it all connects back to some element of women’s lives. The movement also gives us space to think about how structural inequalities have impacted upon our experiences, shaped our realities. And once you start to join the dots between the personal and the political, the extent to which women are marginalised around the world becomes clear.

White women rightly consider themselves to belong to the oppressed sex class. And I think that it’s because white feminist women fully understand the implications of belonging to the dominant class that exploring what it means to be part of the dominant racial class can be so challenging. This awareness punctures the fundamentally misguided belief that all women are positioned the same within structures of power.

That knowledge does not fit alongside the claim that a unilateral, one-size-fits-all approach to feminism is going to work – that really gender is the main problem women have to contend with, and everything else can wait. So in order to side-step any difficult conversations about race and power within feminism, we’re fed this idea that talking about race divides women. In addition to protecting white women from the having to confront their own racism, this argument suggests that the energies of all feminist women would be best concentrated on challenging sex-based oppression – if we follow this logic, it leads to the expectation that women of colour work towards an agenda that sees a great many white women liberated while we are left within exploitative hierarchies.

Focussing on misogyny alone isn’t going to solve all of the problems created by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, let alone dismantle that system of power. Being selective about the forms of exploitation and dominance that we analyse is not only ineffective, but a contradiction of core feminist principles. Every feminist knows that revolution isn’t brought about by half-assed politics. We have to live those politics and let them diffuse throughout every aspect of our lives. There’s no way that we can drive a cultural shift towards women’s liberation if we don’t make sure that feminism recognises and prioritises the needs of all women – of colour, working class, disabled, migrant, lesbian, bi. All women.

It isn’t talking about race that divides women – it’s racism that divides us. To be specific, women as a political class are divided by the racism white women direct towards women of colour, the racism that white women observe and fail to challenge because, ultimately, they benefit from it. Whether intentional or casually delivered, that racism has the same result: it completely undermines the possibility of solidarity between women of colour and white women. White women’s unwillingness to explore the subject of race, to acknowledge the ways in which they benefit from white supremacy, acts as a barrier between mutual trust.

So It’s not really a secret that certain strands of feminism have an ongoing problem with race. The feminist movement didn’t form inside of some sort of social vacuum, separate from white supremacist values or beliefs. Everyone in this society absorbs racism. People of colour internalise it. White people weaponise it against us. Even within the movement. Here are some examples of how.

Less so now that intersectionality has become so fashionable, but some white women have a tendency to position racism and sexism as totally distinct and separate problems, issues that do not overlap and do not therefore need to be analysed together. This perspective completely disregards the lived realities of women of colour. While a significant amount of early radical feminist writing and activism was what we would now describe as being intersectional in nature, white womanhood was too often treated as the normative standard of womanhood within the second wave of feminism. As a result, women of colour were and continue to be further marginalised in a context that is supposed to be about the liberation of all women.

Another issue is the response when we try to address racism in the feminist movement. When white women disregard and speak over those women of colour who do voice concerns over racism, that’s not sisterhood. If anything, that pattern of behaviour undermines sisterhood by exploiting the hierarchy of race. Telling us that we’re angry, scary, imagining things, being overly sensitive, or playing on any other racial stereotype to shut down the conversation and assert the innocence of white womanhood is racism, plain and simple. Yet it happens so routinely.

And then there are the hierarchies that manifest within feminist organising, hierarchies that only replicate the system of value created by white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. The balance of authority tipping towards white women in mixed feminist spaces is not neutral. Women of colour ending up on the fringes of a feminist group or campaign, brought to the centre of the team only when there’s a camera about, is not neutral.

Looking over patterns that unfold within feminist spaces, there are three main areas which I invite white women to consider for future collective projects within the movement. This is by no means an exhaustive list of every single issue that stems from racism within the movement, and neither is it a definitive guide. The politics of engagements between white women and women of colour are contextual, relational, and shifting – nothing is set in stone, and truly organic connections can’t be pre-scripted. That being said, perhaps some of these points will prove helpful in shaping approaches to those interactions.

The first point is white women acting as gatekeepers of the feminist movement, positioning themselves as authorities of feminism above other women. Of course white women have developed a rich body of knowledge throughout their participation in feminism, but feminism is a global movement containing multitudes of women – however worthwhile it may be, white women’s theorising cannot reasonably be assumed to hold universal or absolute feminist truths applicable to all women. This tension manifests in a lack of understanding towards the perspectives held by Black and Asian feminists – there can be a tacit assumption that our ideas aren’t worth meeting or building upon within mainstream feminism. Or, if we approach an issue from a different angle to white women, there’s often an implication that if our ideas were a little more developed or nuanced, the disagreement wouldn’t exist. And that makes it very difficult to enter a feminist conversation on an equal footing.

Feminist organising is another area worth drawing attention to. It takes such energy and commitment to sustain a group or campaign. I fully appreciate that, and commend all the women who are part of creating that magic. All the same, it’s important to keep working towards best feminist practice – and improving the dynamic of race within mixed feminist spaces is very much an achievable goal. If there are no women of colour in your group, team, or collection, ask why not. Please don’t fall into the trap of complacency and think that no women of colour are interested in working collaboratively. If there are none, there’s a reason for our absence. Reflect on what it might be about the project that’s off putting and try to work out steps to change it. Give women of colour reason to trust you. Think about it this way: how much time would you realistically spend in an optional activity where being on the receiving end of misogyny was a distinct possibility?

And when there are women of colour within the feminist space, think about your approach to us. Do you give us the same support, encouragement, and understanding that you would another white woman? When we speak, do you listen to our voices and engage with the layers of what we have to say? Do you think of us as full members of the collective, necessary to the work done by the feminist movement, or as tokens and boxes to be ticked on a diversity form? How you answer those questions make a profound difference. Those are deciding factors in whether sisterhood can exist.

The most direct step is to reconfigure how you think about women of colour. I don’t really like the word ally, because allyship tends to devolve into something hollow and performative. It also doesn’t really offer the scope for a mutual connection, which is what interracial solidarity between women is. But unpicking racism has a steep learning curve. How could it not when white supremacist values are at the foundation of this society? During the course of that learning process, especially during the early stages, try and keep in mind that most feminist women of colour have had these conversations about race dozens and dozens of times. And those conversations cost us more than they cost you. There are plenty of quality books and resources on the subject, so make use of them.

And now I have some points for women of colour who are pursuing any kind of solidarity with white women – less advice than reminders. Look after yourself. Don’t forget to prioritise self-care. Your needs are important, and it’s okay to take whatever space and time you need. I think because of the superwoman quality that gets projected onto Black women especially, we are not always positioned as in need of gentleness or empathy – so it is crucial that we take care of ourselves and each other.

Remember that you can say no. It is a complete sentence, short and sweet. And you don’t owe anybody an explanation as to why.

You’re not a learning resource, and you’re not the Morgan Freeman type character in a white woman’s story – you’re a human being with her own story. So don’t be afraid to set boundaries, assert needs, and follow your own instincts.

There is something fundamentally freeing about spaces that are built by and for women of colour. Those spaces have a joy and easiness to them, and there is this indescribable feeling of connection – it’s very nourishing to experience. Women come out of our shells and share so much of ourselves that it is impossible to be unmoved by a women of colour space. Last weekend I was in Amsterdam for the second annual Women of Colour in Europe conference, and inhabiting a space like that is sustaining. That feeling is what I think of when I picture sisterhood. And I think we’ll have achieved a greater degree of interracial solidarity when there is greater scope for women of colour to access that feeling of ease and belonging in mixed feminist spaces.

If I am willing to remain an optimist, it is because I believe in a feminist movement built upon true solidarity – one in which “all women” means “all women”, not an insistence that white women are prioritised. And I can’t think of a better place to start building it than FiLiA. Although our movement struggles with the dynamic of race, it can improve here and now. To be a feminist is to be an optimist – to retain the belief that structural inequalities can be dismantled, the belief that better is possible.

When women of colour address the racism demonstrated by white women, we are seeking to overcome the ultimate barrier between women. I don’t think many women waste their breathe on a critique if they don’t think it can bring about positive results. I’ll finish with this quote by Chandra Mohanty, which sums it up beautifully: “…sisterhood cannot be assumed on the basis of gender; it must be forged in concrete, historical and political practice and analysis.”

À propos de notre disparition: réflexions sur l’effacement des lesbiennes

The Vanishing Point: A Reflection Upon Lesbian Erasure is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


C’est une époque étrange où être une jeune lesbienne. Eh bien, assez jeune. Durant le temps qu’il m’a fallu pour évoluer du stade d’apprentie baby dyke à celui de lesbienne complètement formée, la tension entre la politique d’identité queer et la libération des femmes est devenue tout à fait insupportable. Facebook a ajouté le drapeau de la fierté gaie à ses emojis de réactions le même mois où ils ont commencé à bannir des lesbiennes pour s’être identifiées comme dykes. À mesure que sont progressivement normalisés la législation sur le mariage pour tous et les droits d’adoption de conjoints du même sexe, on voit le droit des femmes lesbiennes à s’auto-définir et à tracer leurs limites sexuelles être sapé au sein même de la communauté LBGT+. Si de telles contradictions sont caractéristiques de l’époque actuelle, cela ne les rend pas plus faciles à vivre au jour le jour.

L’amour est l’amour, à moins que vous vous trouviez à être une lesbienne, auquel cas love-is-lovevotre sexualité sera déconstruite implacablement parce que soupçonnée de faire preuve d’ »exclusion ». Comme je l’ai écrit dans un texte précédent, toute sexualité est par définition exclusive. La sexualité est un ensemble de paramètres qui régissent les caractéristiques auxquelles nous sommes potentiellement attirées chez les autres. Pour les lesbiennes, c’est la présence de caractéristiques sexuelles féminines primaires et secondaires qui créent (mais ne garantissent pas) la possibilité d’une attirance. C’est le sexe et non le genre (ni même l’identité de genre) qui est le facteur clé. Mais dans un contexte queer, comme dans la société patriarcale traditionnelle, le mot lesbienne devient une étiquette litigieuse.

Les lesbiennes sont plutôt encouragées à se décrire comme queer, un terme si vaste et si nébuleux qu’il en devient dépourvu de sens particulier, en ce sens qu’aucune personne munie d’un pénis n’est perçue comme étant entièrement au dehors de nos frontières sexuelles. Jocelyn MacDonald décrit bien cette situation :

« Les lesbiennes sont des femmes et on enseigne aux femmes que nous sommes censées être sexuellement disponibles comme objets de consommation publique. Nous passons donc beaucoup de temps à dire « Non ». Non, nous ne baiserons pas des hommes ni ne nous associerons pas à eux ; non, nous ne changerons pas d’avis à ce sujet ; non, notre corps est un no man’s land. Que nous soyons lesbiennes, hétéro ou bisexuelles, nous les femmes sommes punies chaque fois que nous essayons d’affirmer une frontière. Le queer comme expression indéfinie rend vraiment difficile pour les lesbiennes d’affirmer et de maintenir cette limite, car il rend impossible de nommer cette frontière. »

À une époque où la simple reconnaissance du sexe biologique est traitée comme un acte d’intolérance, l’homosexualité est automatiquement problématisée – et les conséquences imprévues de la politique d’identité queer s’avèrent de très grande envergure. Ou plutôt, il serait plus exact de dire que c’est la sexualité des lesbiennes qui est rendue problématique : l’idée de femmes réservant exclusivement nos désirs et nos énergies l’une pour l’autre demeure suspecte. Étrangement, le modèle des hommes qui placent d’autres hommes au centre de leur vie ne subit jamais la même réaction hostile. Ce sont les lesbiennes qui constituent une menace pour le statu quo, qu’il s’agisse de l’hétéropatriarcat ou de la culture queer. Lorsque les lesbiennes rejettent l’idée de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis, on nous qualifie de « fétichistes du vagin » et de « gynéphiles » – puisque la sexualité lesbienne est systématiquement qualifiée de pathologique dans le discours queer, tout comme la sexualité lesbienne est traitée comme pathologique par le conservatisme social. Je ne trouve donc pas surprenant que tant de jeunes femmes succombent à la pression sociale et abandonnent le terme de « lesbienne » au profit de celui de « queer ». L’effacement est le prix de l’acceptation.

« Ce n’est pas un secret que la peur et la haine des homosexuels imprègnent notre société. Mais le mépris pour les lesbiennes est distinct. Il est directement enraciné dans l’horreur éprouvée envers la femme qui se définit, se détermine, la femme qui n’est pas contrôlée par le besoins, les ordres ou la manipulation des hommes. Le mépris envers les lesbiennes est le plus souvent une répudiation politique des femmes qui s’organisent en leur propre nom pour acquérir une présence publique, un pouvoir significatif, une intégrité visible.

Les ennemis des femmes, ceux qui sont déterminés à nous nier la liberté et la dignité, utilisent le mot « lesbiennes » pour attiser une haine de femmes qui refusent de se conformer. Cette haine retentit partout. Cette haine est soutenue et exprimée par pratiquement toutes les institutions. Lorsque le pouvoir masculin est remis en question, cette haine peut être intensifiée et enflammée au point de la rendre volatile, palpable. La menace est que cette haine va exploser sous forme de violence. La menace est omniprésente car la violence faite aux femmes est applaudie culturellement. De sorte que le mot « lesbiennes », lancé ou chuchoté comme accusation, sert à concentrer l’hostilité masculine sur les femmes qui osent se révolter, et il sert également à effrayer et intimider les femmes qui ne se sont pas encore révoltées. » (Andrea Dworkin, « Words », publié dans Letters from a War Zone)

À en croire la politique d’identité queer, le fait que des femmes biologiques soient exclusivement intéressées à se lier à d’autres femmes serait un signe d’intolérance. Ne gaspillons pas de paragraphes en équivoque. Ce monde contient bien suffisamment de silences sur la question du genre, et ce sont toujours les femmes qui paient le prix le plus élevé pour ces silences – dans ce cas-ci, les femmes qui aiment d’autres femmes. Et donc je vais parler clairement : la raison pour laquelle la politique queer qualifie de « transphobes » les lesbiennes qui nient catégoriquement la possibilité de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis est parce que cette position ne comprend pas les transfemmes dans la sphère du désir lesbien. Quant à la lesbophobie inhérente à la réduction de la sexualité lesbienne à un simple facteur de validation, elle ne suscite, bien sûr, aucune objection.

Pourtant, la sexualité lesbienne n’exclut pas nécessairement les personnes qui s’identifient comme trans. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme non binaires ou genderqueer. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme transhommes. Comme une proportion relativement élevée de transhommes auto-identifiées vivaient comme lesbiennes butch avant leur transition, il n’est pas inusité que des transhommes fassent partie de relations lesbiennes.

Où se situe la frontière entre une lesbienne butch et une transhomme ? Au cours de ses réflexions sur la vie lesbiennes, Roey Thorpe note que « … il y a toujours quelqu’un qui pose la question : ‘Où sont passées toutes les butchs ?’ » La réponse courte est : du côté de la transmasculinité (et la réponse longue appelle un billet à elle seule). À quel point dans le spectre de l’identité est-ce que finit la butch et commence la transhomme ?

cover The Argonauts

Cette frontière est amorphe, mais Maggie Nelson tente avec imagination de la tracer dans The Argonauts. Son amante, l’artiste Harry Dodge, est décrite par Nelson comme une « butch débonnaire sous testostérone ». Aux yeux de Nelson, « la seule similarité que j’aie remarquée dans mes relations avec des femmes n’est pas l’uniformité de la Femme, et certainement pas l’uniformité des parties. C’est plutôt la compréhension partagée et écrasante de ce que signifie vivre en régime patriarcal. » Dodge affiche un genre fluide et une présentation masculine. La testostérone et la mastectomie ne suppriment pas une compréhension de ce qu’est que d’être située, dans ce monde, en tant que femme. Ces vérités coexistent.

L’idée que les lesbiennes sont transphobes parce que nos frontières sexuelles ne s’étendent pas jusqu’à accueillir le pénis est aussi fallacieuse que phallocentrique. Et la pression exercée sur les lesbiennes pour leur faire déplacer ces frontières est franchement terrifiante ; elle repose sur un sentiment de droit envers les corps des femmes, un droit qui fait partie du patriarcat et qui se reproduit maintenant dans l’espace queer. Il faut rappeler que les lesbiennes n’existent pas comme simples objets sexuels ou facteurs de validation, mais comme êtres humains auto-actualisés ayant leurs propres désirs et frontières.

Parler de politique queer avec des amis gays de mon âge est une expérience révélatrice. Ces conversations me rappellent deux choses : avec les hommes, « non » est accepté comme mot de la fin. Avec les femmes, le mot non est traité comme l’amorce d’une négociation. La plupart des gays que je connais sont tour à tour horrifiés et amusés par l’idée que les paramètres de leur sexualité pourraient ou devraient être modifiés par les prescriptions de la politique queer. Certains (chanceux dans leur ignorance) ne connaissent pas le labyrinthe de la théorie queer. D’autres (les nouveaux initiés) sont, sans surprise, résistants à la problématisation queer de leur homosexualité. L’un d’entre eux est même allé jusqu’à suggérer que les gays, les lesbiennes et les bisexuels devraient rompre avec la soupe alphabet de la politique queer et s’organiser spontanément en fonction de critères sexuels. Compte tenu qu’une foule de dykes ont été ciblées comme TERFs dans cette nouvelle chasse aux sorcières pour avoir lancé la même suggestion, j’ai trouvé à la fois encourageant et déprimant d’entendre un homme extérieur au féminisme radical exprimer les mêmes opinions sans crainte de censure.

Je suis heureuse de dire qu’aucun des gays que j’appelle mes amis n’a opté pour ce qu’on pourrait appeler la stratégie Owen Jones : celle de rejeter comme intolérantes les préoccupations des lesbiennes dans l’espoir de se mériter de savoureux biscuits à décoration arc-en-ciel pour alliés fiables. La tendance des hommes de gauche à miser sur la misogynie pour mousser leur réputation est une histoire aussi ancienne que le patriarcat. Que cela se produise dans le contexte de la communauté queer n’est pas surprenant, car cette culture est dominée par des hommes.

La communauté queer peut finalement s’avérer aliénante pour les lesbiennes. Même si j’ai participé à des espaces queerau moment de mon coming-out, je me suis de plus en plus éloignée de ce contexte au fil du temps. Je ne suis nullement seule en cela : beaucoup de lesbiennes de mon groupe d’âge sont conscientes d’être effacées et repoussées dans les milieux queer, auxquels on nous dit pourtant que nous sommes censées appartenir. Ce ne sont pas seulement les lesbiennes plus âgées qui résistent à la politique queer, même si Dieu sait qu’elles nous ont prévenues de sa misogynie. Mon seul regret est de ne pas avoir prêté l’oreille plus tôt, d’avoir gaspillé beaucoup de temps et d’énergie à essayer de combler le fossé idéologique entre les féminismes queer et radical.

Le discours queer utilise ce qui ressemble à la tactique de la carotte et du bâton pour amener les jeunes lesbiennes à se conformer : nous pouvons soit embrasser le queer et trouver un sentiment d’appartenance, soit demeurer des outsiders sans rapport, à l’instar de vieilles lesbiennes ringardes. Cette approche, lourde d’âgisme et de misogynie, a échoué à me dissuader : je crois qu’il n’y a rien que je voudrais être autant qu’une lesbienne plus âgée, et il est formidable de savoir que c’est l’avenir qui m’attend. La profondeur des réflexions que m’adressent les lesbiennes âgées, leur façon de me mettre au défi et de me guider dans ma prise de conscience féministe, joue un rôle essentiel en façonnant à la fois mon sentiment du monde et la façon dont j’y comprends ma place. Si j’ai vraiment de la chance, j’aurai un jour ces conversations aériennes (et, parfois, intellectuellement éprouvantes) avec des générations futures de baby dykes.

Bien que j’apprécie le soutien et la sororité des lesbiennes plus âgées (de loin ma préférée parmi les catégories démographiques d’êtres humains), je dois dire qu’à certains égards, j’envie la relative simplicité de ce qu’était la vie des lesbiennes pendant les années 70 et 80. Pourquoi ? Parce qu’elles ont vécu des vies lesbiennes avant que la politique queer ne devienne généralisée. Je ne dis pas cela à la légère, ni pour laisser entendre que le passé a été une sorte d’utopie pour les droits des gais et des lesbiennes. Ce n’était pas le cas. Leurs générations ont connu l’article 28 (qui bannissait la promotion à l’école de l’homosexualité comme normale), alors que la mienne a obtenu le mariage pour tous. Les gains dont bénéficie ma génération sont le produit direct de leur lutte. Pourtant, elles ont pu vivre au moins une partie de leur vie à une époque où, de tous les prétextes pour lesquels le mot lesbienne rencontrait du dégoût, l’accusation d’être « trop exclusionnaire » ne faisait pas partie de la liste. Il n’y avait pas d’incitation, dans un contexte féministe ou gay, à « queerer » la sexualité lesbienne.

Certaines choses n’ont tout de même pas beaucoup changé. La sexualité des lesbiennes est encore régulièrement dépréciée. Les dykes lesbiennes servent encore de faire-valoir aux femmes qui disent « Ne vous inquiétez pas, je ne suis pas ce genre de féministe… » Mais aujourd’hui, lorsque je vérifie mes messages reçus sur Twitter, cela me prend vraiment un moment pour déterminer si mon identité lesbienne a offensé quelqu’un de la droite alt-right ou de la gauche queer. La distinction est-elle vraiment significative ? La lesbophobie emprunte le même format. La haine des femmes est identique.

There will be no revolution

Au moment des défilés de la Fierté gaie, on a vu circuler sur les médias sociaux, l’image d’un transfemme souriant, portant un t-shirt ensanglanté où l’on pouvait lire « I punch TERFs ». Cette image avait pour titre « Voici à quoi ressemble la libération gay ». Cette prétention est particulièrement douteuse, dans la mesure où celles d’entre nous qui vivons à l’intersection de l’identité homosexuelle et de la féminité, les lesbiennes, sont souvent qualifiées de TERF pour la seule raison de notre sexualité. Comme nous vivons dans un monde où une femme sur trois subit des violences physiques ou sexuelles au cours de sa vie, je ne peux trouver cette image amusante – il n’y a rien de révolutionnaire ou de contre-culturel à faire une blague sur le fait de frapper des femmes. C’est un endossement irréfléchi de la violence anti-femmes, présentée comme un objectif de la politique de libération. Et nous savons tous que les TERF sont des femmes, car les hommes qui font respecter leurs limites sont rarement soumis à ce genre de vitriol. Bien sûr, le fait de souligner cette misogynie entraîne un nouveau déluge de misogynie.

Il y a une réplique à la mode réservée aux féministes qui critiquent les politiques sexuelles liées à l’identité de genre, une réplique qui rappelle davantage des adolescents agressifs que quelque véritable politique de résistance. C’est « Suck my girldick » (Suce ma bite de fille). Ou, si leur malice tente de se parer d’originalité, « étouffe-toi avec ma bite de fille ». Se faire dire de s’étouffer avec une bite de fille n’est pas ressenti comme différent d’être invitée à s’étouffer avec une bite classique, mas cette insulte est presque devenue une figure obligée des propos sur le genre affichés dans le réseau Twitter. L’acte reste le même. La misogynie reste la même. Et il est révélateur que, dans ce scénario, la gratification sexuelle découle d’un acte qui bâillonne littéralement les femmes.

 

Un vers célèbre de Roméo et Juliette de Shakespeare proclame que « ce que nous appelons une rose embaumerait autant sous un autre nom ». En gardant cela à l’esprit (car il y a beaucoup plus de tragédie que de romance dans la présente situation), je prétends que même sous un autre nom, un pénis serait sexuellement repoussant pour des lesbiennes. Et c’est très bien. Le désintérêt sexuel n’équivaut pas à une discrimination, une oppression ou une marginalisation. Par contre, le droit d’accès sexuel que veulent s’arroger certains a précisément ces effets : il joue un rôle fondamental dans l’oppression des femmes et se manifeste clairement dans la culture du viol. La perspective queer ne laisse pas place à des discussions de la misogynie qui autorise certains à se juger en droit d’accéder aux corps de lesbiennes. La moindre reconnaissance du problème est tout de suite jugée outrancière ; par conséquent, la misogynie se voit protégée par des couches et des couches de silence.

Ce n’est pas une époque géniale pour être lesbienne. La réticence de la politique queer à simplement accepter la sexualité lesbienne comme valide à part entière est profondément marginalisante; elle va parfois jusqu’à considérer le désir de faire l’amour comme plus valide que le droit de s’y refuser. Et pourtant, la connexion lesbienne tient bon, comme elle l’a toujours fait. Les relations lesbiennes continuent de nous nourrir, tout en offrant une alternative radicale à l’hétéropatriarcat. Ce n’est pas parce que cette alternative n’est pas particulièrement visible en ce moment, parce qu’elle n’a pas la popularité répandue (c’est-à-dire patriarcale) de la culture queer, que cela signifie qu’elle n’existe pas. Les lesbiennes sont partout – cela ne changera pas.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. (Ne laisse pas les salauds te réduire en poussière)


Bibliographie

Margaret Atwood. (1985). La Servante écarlate

Andrea Dworkin. (1978). « Words », dans The Andrea Dworkin Online Library

Cherríe Moraga. (2009). Still Loving in the (Still) War Years : On Keeping Queer Queer

Maggie Nelson. (2015). The Argonauts

Adrienne Rich. (1976). Naître d’une femme : la maternité comme expérience et institution


Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

El Problema que No Tiene Nombre porque “Mujer” es Demasiado Esencialista

Este es el tercero de una serie de ensayos sobre sexo y género (ver partes 1 & 2). Inspirada por los comentarios de Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sobre identidad de género y por la consiguiente respuesta social, he escrito sobre el lenguaje en el discurso feminista y el significado de la palabra mujer.


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“¿Alguien me puede decir alguna manera más corta y no esencialista para referirse a las ‘personas que tienen útero y esas cosas’?” – Laurie Penny

La pregunta de Laurie Penny, que trata de encontrar un término que describa a las mujeres biológicamente hembras sin usar la palabra mujer, ejemplifica muy bien el mayor reto que tiene el discurso feminista en estos momentos. La tensión entre las mujeres que reconocen y las que borran el papel de la biología en el análisis estructural de nuestra opresión, ha abierto una gran brecha (MacKay, 2015) en el seno del movimiento feminista. Las contradicciones surgen cuando las feministas tratan de defender cómo la biología de las mujeres conforma nuestra opresión en una sociedad patriarcal, a la vez que deniegan que nuestra opresión sea fundamentalmente material. En algunos puntos, el análisis estructural riguroso y la inclusividad no son buenos compañeros de cama.

Esa misma semana, Dame Jeni Murray, que ha conducido durante cuarenta años el programa de la BBC Woman’s Hour (La Hora de la Mujer), fue criticada por preguntarse “¿Puede alguien que ha vivido como hombre, con todo el privilegio que ello conlleva, reclamar su condición de mujer?”. En su artículo para el Sunday Times, Murray reflexionaba sobre el papel de la socialización de género recibida durante los años formativos en la configuración de nuestro comportamiento, desafiando la idea de que es posible divorciar el Yo físico del contexto sociopolítico. De la misma manera, la novelista Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie casi fue llevada a la hoguera por sus comentarios acerca de la identidad de género.

Cuando le preguntaron “¿Importa de alguna manera la forma en la que se llega a ser mujer?” Adichie hizo lo que muy pocas feministas se atreven a hacer en estos momentos, debido a lo extremo del debate en torno al género, y dio una respuesta pública sincera:

“Cuando la gente habla sobre si las mujeres trans* son mujeres, lo que yo pienso es que las mujeres trans* son mujeres trans*. Creo que si has vivido en el mundo como hombre, con los privilegios que el mundo concede a los hombres, y después cambias de género —es difícil para mí aceptar que se puedan entonces equiparar tus experiencias con las de una mujer que ha vivido desde que nació como mujer, a la que no se le han otorgado esos privilegios que se les otorga a los hombres. No creo que sea algo bueno combinar las dos cosas en una sola. No creo que sea bueno hablar de los problemas de las mujeres como si fueran los mismos problemas que tienen las mujeres trans*. Lo que quiero decir es que el género no es biología, el género es sociología”. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Para el tribunal de la opinión queer, el crimen que cometió Adichie fue diferenciar entre aquellas que son biológicamente hembras y criadas como mujeres, y aquellas que transitan de hombre a mujer (y que fueron, a todos los efectos, tratadas como hombres antes de empezar su transición), en su descripción de la condición de mujer. En el discurso queer, los prefijos ‘cis’ y ‘trans’ han sido diseñados para señalar precisamente esa distinción, y sin embargo es sólo cuando las feministas intentan expresar y explorar esas diferencias, que esta diferenciación resulta una fuente de ira.

Las declaraciones de Adichie son perfectamente lógicas: es absurdo imaginar que aquellas socializadas como mujeres durante sus años formativos tienen las mismas Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie_photo1experiencias vitales que aquellas socializadas y leídas como hombres. La sociedad patriarcal depende de la imposición de género como vía para subordinar a las mujeres y garantizar el dominio de los hombres. Combinar las experiencias de las mujeres y de las mujeres trans*, borra el privilegio masculino que las mujeres trans* tuvieron antes de la transición, y niega el legado del comportamiento masculino aprendido. Además niega el verdadero significado del cómo se llega a ser mujer y de las implicaciones que tiene en la condición de mujer. En definitiva, niega ambas realidades.

‘Everyday Feminism’ publicó un artículo resaltando siete puntos que prueban que las mujeres trans* nunca tuvieron privilegio masculino. Un artículo que tal vez habría sido más efectivo en su propósito de abogar por la solidaridad feminista, si no hubiera dirigido semejante misoginia etarista hacia las feministas de la segunda ola en la línea que abre el texto. Con este artículo, Kai Cheng Thom sostiene que “…si [las mujeres trans*] son mujeres, eso implica que no pueden recibir ningún tipo de privilegio masculino —porque el privilegio masculino es algo que, por definición, sólo hombres y personas que se identifican como hombres pueden experimentar.”

Y aquí está el punto crucial del asunto —la tensión que existe entre la realidad material y la auto-identificación, en cómo se construye la definición de la condición de mujer. Si la condición de mujer trans* es sinónimo de la condición de mujer, las caraterísticas distintivas de la opresión de la mujer dejan de ser reconocibles como experiencias propias de las mujeres. El género no puede ser categorizado como un instrumento de opresión socialmente construido, si además tiene que ser considerado como una identidad innata. La conexión entre el sexo biológico y la función primaria del género —oprimir a las mujeres en beneficio de los hombres— queda borrada. Como declaró Adichie, esta combinación, en el mejor de los casos, no ayuda nada. Si no podemos reconocer los privilegios que reciben aquellos que son reconocidos y tratados como hombres, en detrimento de sus homólogas femeninas, no podemos reconocer la existencia del patriarcado.

La biología no es el destino. Sin embargo, en la sociedad patriarcal, determina los roles asignados a las niñas y los niños al nacer. Y hay una diferencia fundamental en la posición en la que las estructuras de poder colocan a aquellos biológicamente varones y a aquellas biológicamente mujeres, independientemente de su identidad de género.

“Las niñas son socializadas de maneras que son dañinas para su sentido del Yo —para que se reduzcan a sí mismas para satisfacer los egos de los hombres, para concebir sus cuerpos como contenedores de culpa y vergüenza. Muchas mujeres adultas tienen dificultades para superar y desaprender la mayoría de ese condicionamiento social. Una mujer trans* es una persona que ha nacido varón y una persona a la que, antes de su transición, el mundo trataba como varón. Esto significa que experimentó los privilegios que el mundo otorga a los hombres. Esto no niega el dolor de la confusión de género o las difíciles complejidades de cómo se siente al vivir en un cuerpo que no es el suyo. Porque la verdad sobre el privilegio social es que no tiene nada que ver con cómo te sientas. Tiene que ver con cómo te trata el mundo, con las sutiles y no tan sutiles cosas que internalizas y absorbes.” –Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Si las mujeres no pueden seguir siendo identificadas con fines políticos como miembros de su casta social, la opresión de las mujeres no puede ser abordada o combatida. Por consiguiente, los objetivos feministas se ven socavados por las políticas queer.

La lingüista Deborah Cameron ha identificado esta tendencia como la de “la increíble mujer que desaparece”, resaltando el patrón de las realidades vividas por las mujeres y de la opresión invisivilizada por el lenguaje de género neutro. Mientras la condición de mujer es despiadadamente deconstruida en el discurso queer, la categoría de condición de hombre sigue pendiente de ser discutida.

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No es un accidente que la masculinidad permanezca incontestable incluso cuando la palabra mujer es considerada ofensiva y excluyente. ‘Hombre’ es el estándar normativo de humanidad, ‘mujer’ es el otrodel hombre. Al reducir a las mujeres a “no-hombres”, como trató de hacer el Green Party en Reino Unido; al reducir a las mujeres a “personas embarazadas”, como aconseja la Asociación Médica Británica (British Medical Association); el discurso queer perpetúa la clasificación de las mujeres como otro.

La ideología queer usa las convenciones patriarcales en su propia conclusión lógica, mediante la completa eliminación de las mujeres.

Definir a la clase oprimida en relación con el opresor, denegando a los oprimidos el uso del lenguaje para que hablen de cómo se les margina, sólo sirve para ratificar la jerarquía de género. Aunque estos cambios lingüísticos parecen inclusivos al principio, tienen la consecuencia imprevista de perpetuar la misoginia.

“Eliminar la palabra mujer y el lenguaje biológico de las discusiones relativas a la realidad corpórea de las mujeres nacidas hembras, es peligroso. Negarse a reconocer la anatomía femenina, las capacidades reproductivas y la sexualidad ha sido, desde hace mucho, trabajo del patriarcado. Parece como si hubiéramos tenido unas cuantas décadas doradas de reconocimiento,en las que hemos podido llevar nuestra experiencia vivida en nuestra condición corpórea de mujer —pero ahora tenemos que abandonar este lenguaje en favor del grupo. Incluso con la lógica en el asiento del conductor, es difícil no sentir que este aspecto de la condición de mujer está siendo borrado con incómodos ecos del patriarcado que dejamos atrás.” – Vonny Moyes

Hablar de los asuntos relativos al sexo biológico y de la socialización de género se ha vuelto cada vez más controvertido, con algunos sectores de la ideología queer clasificando automáticamente ambos temas en el ‘mito’ TERF. Sería muy fácil desear que la conexión entre la biología de las mujeres y nuestra opresión, así como las consecuencias de la socialización de género, fueran sólo mitos. En un escenario así, aquellas personas en posesión de un cuerpo femenino —mujeres— podríamos simplemente identificarnos de otra manera para evitar la opresión estructural, podríamos escoger ser de cualquier grupo que no fuera el de la casta oprimida. Sin embargo, la explotación de la biología femenina y la socialización de género, juegan ambas un papel central en el establecimiento y mantenimiento de la opresión de las mujeres por parte de los hombres.

Las políticas queer cambian el envoltorio de la opresión de la mujer para venderlo como una posición de inherente privilegio, mientras, simultáneamente, nos priva del lenguaje necesario para abordar y oponer esa misma opresión. El asunto de la identidad de género nos deja a las feministas en un dilema a dos bandas: o aceptamos que ser marginadas como consecuencia de nuestro sexo, es privilegio cis; o alzamos la voz para después ser etiquetadas como TERFs. No hay espacio para voces disidentes en esta conversación —no si esas voces pertenecen a mujeres. En este sentido, hay muy poca diferencia entre los estándares establecidos por el discurso queer y aquellos que gobiernan las normas patriarcales.

La palabra mujer es importante. Con el nombre viene el poder. Como Patricia Hill Collins observó (2000), la auto-definición es un componente clave de la resistencia política. Si la condición de mujer no puede ser descrita positivamente, si la condición de mujer se entiende sólo como el negativo de la condición de hombre, las mujeres quedan relegadas a la condición de objeto. Es sólo mediante la consideración de las mujeres como el sujeto —como seres humanos auto-realizados y con derecho a la auto-determinación— que la liberación se vuelve posible.

“La fuerza de la palabra ‘mujer’ es que puede ser usada para afirmar nuestra humanidad, dignigad y valía, sin negar nuestra feminidad corpórea y sin tratarla como una fuente de culpa y vergüenza. No nos reduce a úteros andantes ni nos desexualiza ni nos descorporiza. Por eso es tan importante que las feministas sigan usándola. Un movimiento cuyo propósito es liberar a la mujer no debería tratar la palabra ‘mujer’ como algo sucio.” – Deborah Cameron

F-31Si no usamos la palabra ‘mujer’ abiertamente y con orgullo, las políticas feministas carecerán del alcance necesario para organizar una resistencia real a la subordinación de la mujer. No se puede liberar una casta de gente que no debe ni siquiera ser nombrada. La condición de mujer es devaluada por estos traicioneros intentos de invisibilizarla. Si las mujeres no nos consideramos a nosotras mismas dignas de los inconvenientes que causa el nombrarnos directamente, específicamente; difícilmente podremos argumentar que valemos las dificultades que traerá la liberación.

Cualquier ofensa potencial, causada por referirse inequívocamente al cuerpo femenino, es menor comparada con el abuso y la explotación de nuestros cuerpos femeninos bajo el patriarcado. Como Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie dice, “‘Porque eres una chica’ nunca es una razón para nada. Jamás.”


Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Sexo, Género y el Nuevo Esencialismo

Sex, Gender, and the New Essentialism is now available in Spanish! Many thanks to SOMOS LA MITAD for the translation.


 

Breve prefacio: Este es el primero de una serie de ensayos sobre sexo, género y sexualidad. Si estás de acuerdo con lo escrito, fenomenal. Si no estás de acuerdo con nada de lo que leerás a continuación, también está perfectamente bien. De cualquier manera, tu vida no se verá afectada por nada de esto una vez que cierres esta pestaña independientemente de lo que pienses sobre este post.

Me niego a seguir callada por miedo a que se me etiquete como mala feminista. Me niego a seguir callada mientras otras mujeres son sometidas al acoso y derribo por sus opiniones en torno al género. En nombre de la sororidad, este texto está dedicado a Julie Bindel. Puede que nuestros puntos de vista no siempre coincidan, pero agradezco mucho su trabajo para acabar con la violencia machista contra las mujeres. En palabras de la gran Audre Lorde: “Soy intencionada y no le tengo miedo a nada”.

Cuando me matriculé para formarme en Estudios de Género, mi abuelo me apoyó —contento de que por fin hubiera encontrado la dirección para encaminar mi vida y de que hubiera desarrollado una ética de trabajo que nunca se llegó a materializar durante mis años de colegio— aunque le sorprendía el tema. “¿Para qué tienes que estudiar eso?” Me preguntó. “Yo te lo puedo enseñar gratis: si tienes partes masculinas*, eres un hombre. Si tienes partes femeninas*, eres una mujer. No tiene más misterio, no necesitas una carrera para saber eso”. (*Las convenciones sociales nos impedían a mi abuelo y a mí usar las palabras pene o vagina/vulva en esta conversación o en cualquier otra que mantuviéramos.)

Mi reacción inicial fue el shock: después de haber pasado demasiado tiempo en Twitter y habiendo sido testigo de la extrema polaridad del discurso en torno al género, era consciente de que expresar una opinión como esa en las redes sociales conllevaría el riesgo de convertirte en el sujeto de una campaña de abuso continuado. Sin embargo, siendo blanco y varón, deduje que —si mi septuagenario abuelo decidiera aventurarse a usar Twitter— probablemente estaría a salvo de tal abuso, que normalmente y casi en su totalidad se dirige a las mujeres.

Y además, el escuchar ese punto de vista expresado con esa naturalidad, el estar juntos, sentados en el jardín de casa; nos situaba a un mundo de distancia de las tensiones del espacio digital, del miedo de las mujeres a ser etiquetadas como ‘malas feministas’ y a convertirse en blanco del acoso público. Esta conversación con mi abuelo me llevó a considerar no sólo la realidad del género, sino también el contexto del discurso de género. La intimidación es una táctica silenciadora muy poderosa —un ambiente gobernado por el miedo no conduce al pensamiento crítico, al discurso público o al desarrollo de ideas.

Hasta el final de su vida, mi abuelo permaneció completamente ignorante ante el cisma que el género había creado en el movimiento feminista, una división conocida como la guerra de las TERF. Para las no iniciadas, TERF son las siglas en inglés de Feminista Radical Trans-Excluyente (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) —un acrónimo que se usa para describir a las mujeres cuyo feminismo es crítico con el género y que abogan por la abolición de la jerarquía. Lo que cada una entiende por género es sin duda la principal fuente de tensión entre las políticas feministas y las políticas queer.

La Jerarquía de Género 

El patriarcado depende de la jerarquía de género. Para desmantelar el patriarcado —objetivo central del movimiento feminista— el género debe ser abolido. En la sociedad patriarcal, el género es lo que hace que el hombre sea el estándar normativo de humanidad, y que la mujer sea lo Otro. El género es el causante de que la sexualidad femenina esté tan estrictamente controlada —las mujeres somos putas si permitimos a los hombres el acceso sexual a nuestros cuerpos y somos unas estrechas si no lo hacemos— y de que no se juzgue de la misma manera la sexualidad masculina. El género es la razón por la que las mujeres que son abusadas por hombres sean culpabilizadas y públicamente avergonzadas —’lo estaba pidiendo a gritos’ o ‘iba provocando’— mientras el comportamiento de los hombres abusadores se suele justificar con un “ya sabes cómo son los hombres” o “en realidad es un buen hombre”. El género es la razón por la que se premia a las niñas que son cuidadosas, pasivas y modestas, cualidades que no se fomentan en los niños. El género es la razón por la que los niños son premiados por ser competitivos, agresivos y ambiciosos, cualidades que no se fomentan en las niñas. El género es la razón por la que se considera a las mujeres como una propiedad, pasando de pertenecer a sus padres a pertenecer a sus maridos a través del matrimonio. El género es la razón por la que se espera de las mujeres que hagan el trabajo doméstico y emocional a la vez que la gran mayoría de los cuidados, y de que estos trabajos sean devaluados e invisibilizados por considerarse femeninos.

El género no es un problema abstracto. En Reino Unido, cada tres días hay una mujer asesinada por un hombre. Se estima que, cada año, 85.000 mujeres son violadas por hombres en Gales e Inglaterra. Una de cada cuatro mujeres británicas sufre violencia a manos de su pareja masculina, cifra que aumenta a una de cada tres a escala global. Más de 200 millones de mujeres y niñas, en vida a día de hoy, han visto mutilados sus genitales. La liberación de las mujeres y las niñas de la violencia de los hombres y de la violencia usada para mantener esta diferencia de poder, es un objetivo fundamental del feminismo —objetivo que es del todo incompatible con la aceptación de las limitaciones que impone el género como frontera de lo que es posible en nuestras vidas.

“El problema con el género es que prescribe cómo debemos ser en lugar de reconocer cómo somos. Imagina lo felices que seriamos todos, lo libres que seríamos de ser nosotros mismos, si no tuviéramos la carga de las expectativas de género… los niños y las niñas son innegablemente diferentes biológicamente, pero la socialización exagera las diferencias y da paso a un círculo vicioso.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

Los roles de género son una prisión. El género es una trampa construida socialmente y diseñada para oprimir a las mujeres como casta sexual en beneficio de los hombres como casta sexual. Y la importancia del sexo biológico en esta dinámica no puede ser ignorada, pese a los recientes esfuerzos por redefinir el género como una identidad en lugar de una jerarquía. La explotación sexual y reproductiva de los cuerpos femeninos son bases materiales de la opresión de las mujeres —nuestra biología es usada por nuestros opresores, los hombres, para dominarnos. Y aunque hay una pequeña minoría de personas que no encajan en el binarismo del sexo biológico —las personas intersexuales—, esto no altera la naturaleza estructural y sistemática de la opresión de las mujeres.

Las feministas han criticado la jerarquía de género durante cientos de años y por buenas razones. Cuando Sojourner Truth trató de deconstruir la feminidad, criticó cómo la misoginia y el racismo anti-negros conformaban la definición de la categoría de mujer. Usando su propia fuerza física como evidencia empírica, Truth demostró que ser mujer no dependía de las características asociadas a la feminidad y cuestionó la marginación de los cuerpos femeninos negros, tan necesaria para elevar la fragilidad de la feminidad blanca al ideal femenino. ‘¿No soy yo una mujer?’ (Ain’t I a Woman) es una de las primeras críticas feministas al esencialismo de género; el discurso de Truth era un reconocimiento de la interacción de las jerarquías de raza y género en el contexto de la sociedad patriarcal de la supremacia blanca (Hooks, 1981).

Simone de Beauvoir también deconstruyó la feminidad diciendo que ‘no se nace mujer, se llega a serlo’. En su ‘Segundo Sexo’, afirmaba que el género no es innato, sino que impone una serie de roles y que se nos socializa para adoptar unos u otros en función de nuestro sexo biológico. Resaltó las limitaciones de estos roles, particularmente las impuestas sobre las mujeres como consecuencia del esencialismo de género, de la idea de que el género es innato.

Como de Beauvoir defendió, el esencialismo de género ha sido usado contra las mujeres durante siglos con el objetivo de negarnos la entrada en la esfera pública, en la vida independiente de la dominación masculina. Afirmaciones como que la mujer tenía una capacidad intelectual inferior, una pasividad inherente y una irracionalidad innata, eran excusas que se utilizaban para relegar la vida de las mujeres al contexto doméstico, basándose en la idea de que ese es el estado natural de la mujer.

La Historia demuestra que la insistencia en que existe un “cerebro femenino” es una táctica del patriarcado que ha servido para que el sufragio, los derechos de propiedad, la autonomía del cuerpo propio y el acceso a la educación formal, fueran dominio exclusivo de los hombres.  Si miramos la larga historia de la misoginia, que se apoya en la idea de un cerebro femenino, no solamente comprobamos que es científicamente falso sino que además este neurosexismo (Fine, 2010) o neuromachismo es contradictorio con la perspectiva feminista.

Y aún así el concepto de cerebro femenino está siendo reivindicado no sólo por los conservadores sino también en el contexto de las políticas queer y de izquierdas, que generalmente se consideran progresistas. Explorar el género como una identidad en contraposición con una jerarquía, a menudo se basa en la presunción de que el género es innato —”en el cerebro”— y no construido socialmente. Así, el desarrollo de las políticas trans y los consecuentes desacuerdos acerca de la naturaleza de la opresión de la mujer —sus raíces y lo que define a la mujer— han abierto una gran grieta (MacKay, 2014) en el seno del movimiento feminista.

Feminismo e Identidad de Género

La palabra transgénero se usa para describir el estado de un individuo cuya concepción de su propio género no está alineada con su sexo biológico. Por ejemplo, a alguien que nace con cuerpo de mujer y se identifica como hombre se le denomina hombre trans (transhombre) y a alguien que nace con cuerpo de hombre y se identifica como mujer se le llama mujer trans (transmujer). Ser transgénero puede implicar cierto grado de intervención médica, que puede incluir terapias de reemplazo hormonal y cirugía de reasignación de sexo, un proceso de transición que se lleva a cabo para alinear el Yo material con la identidad interna de las personas transgénero. Sin embargo, de los 650.000 británicos que entran en el paraguas transgénero, se estima que sólo 30.000 han llevado a cabo algún tipo de transición médica o quirúrgica.

El término trans describía inicialmente a aquellos que nacen hombres y se identifican como mujeres, o viceversa, pero ahora se usa para denominar una gran variedad de identidades basadas en la no conformidad de género. Trans incluye identidades no binarias (cuando una persona no se identifica ni como hombre ni como mujer), la fluidez de género (cuando la identidad de un individuo va cambiando de hombre a mujer y viceversa), y el género queer (cuando un individuo se identifica con la masculinidad y la feminidad a la vez o con ninguna de las dos), por nombrar algunos ejemplos.

Lo contrario de transgénero es cisgénero, una palabra que se usa para aceptar la alineación del sexo biológico con el rol de género que le corresponde. Ser cisgénero se ha establecido como privilegio en el discurso queer, con las personas cis en la posición de clase opresora y las personas trans en la de oprimida. Aunque las personas trans son innegablemente un grupo marginado, no se hace ninguna distinción entre los hombres y las mujeres cis en relación a cómo se manifiesta esa marginación. La violencia machista es responsable de los asesinatos constantes de mujeres trans (transmujeres), un patrón trágico que Judith Butler achaca a “la necesidad de los hombres de cumplir con los estándares socialmente establecidos de masculinidad y poder”.

Desde una perspectiva queer, lo que dictamina si la sociedad patriarcal te margina o te beneficia, es el género con el que te identificas y no la casta sexual a la que perteneces. En este sentido, las políticas queer están fundamentalmente en desacuerdo con el análisis feminista.

El marco queer posiciona el género en la mente, donde existe como una identidad autodefinida positivamente, no como una jerarquía. Desde una perspectiva feminista, el género se entiende cómo el vehículo para perpetuar el desequilibrio de poder estructural que el patriarcado ha establecido entre las castas sexuales.

“Si no se reconoce la realidad material del sexo biólogico o su significado como eje de la opresión, la teoría política no puede no puede incorporar ningún análisis del patriarcado. La subordinación continua e histórica de las mujeres no ha surgido porque algunos miembros de nuestra especie decidieran identificarse con un rol social inferior [y sería un acto de atroz culpabilización de la víctima (victim blaming) sugerir que así ha sido]. La opresión ha surgido como método por el cual los varones pueden dominar a esa mitad de la especie que puede gestar descendencia, y explotar su labor sexual y reproductiva. No podemos entender el desarrollo histórico del patriarcado, ni la continua discriminación machista, ni la misoginia cultural, si no reconocemos la realidad de la biología de la mujer ni la existencia de una casta de personas biológicamente hembras.” – Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, What I believe about sex and gender

Como la teoría queer se basa en pensamientos post-estructuralistas, por definición es incapaz de aportar un análisis estructural coherente de ninguna opresión sistemática. Después de todo, si el Yo material es arbitrario en la manera en que cada uno experimenta el mundo, no puede ser un factor en el entendimiento de ninguna casta política. Lo que la teoría queer no advierte es que la opresión estructural no tiene nada que ver con cómo se identifica cada individuo. El género como identidad no es un vector en la matriz de la dominación (Hill Collins, 2000) –si alguien se identifica o no con uno o varios roles de género determinados, no tiene ningún efecto en la posición que el patriarcado le otorga.

El Problema con la Etiqueta ‘Cis’

Ser cis significa “identificarse con el género asignado al nacer”. Pero la asignación de roles de género basada en las características sexuales es una herramienta del patriarcado que se usa para subordinar a las mujeres. La imposición de una serie de limitaciones en función del género asignado con el objetivo de definir la trayectoria de su desarrollo, es la más temprana manifestación del patriarcado en la vida de una persona, lo cual es especialmente dañino en el caso de las niñas.
El esencialismo que se esconde tras la asunción de que las mujeres se identifican con el vehículo de su opresión, se basa en la creencia de que las mujeres estamos inherente e idóneamente preparadas para que se ejerza poder sobre nosotras. En otras palabras, categorizar a las mujeres como ‘cis’ es misoginia.

A través de la lente postmoderna de la teoría queer, la opresión como casta sexual se ve como un privilegio. La violencia masculina, a nivel global, es una de las primeras causas de muerte prematura de las mujeres. En un mundo en el que el feminicidio es endémico, en el que una de cada tres mujeres sufren violencia machista… nacer mujer no es un privilegio. Que una mujer nacida hembra se identifique con un rol de género determinado o no, no influye en si se verá sometida a la mutilación genital femenina, o en si tendrá dificultades para acceder al cuidado médico de su salud reproductiva, o en si será discriminada por menstruar.

Es imposible escapar a la opresión material de base mediante la identificación personal como individuo del género opuesto. Por tanto, la etiqueta cisgénero tiene poca o ninguna influencia sobre la posición en la que el patriarcado coloca a las mujeres. Considerar que habitar un cuerpo de mujer es un privilegio, implica rechazar el contexto sociopolítico de la sociedad patriarcal.

La lucha por los derechos de las mujeres ha sido larga y difícil, cada avance conseguido a un muy alto precio por aquellas que resistieron al patriarcado. Y la lucha no ha terminado. Los significativos avances en el reconocimiento de los derechos de las mujeres conseguidos por la segunda ola de feministas, fueron deliberadamente rechazados con una reacción sociopolítica muy violenta (Faludi, 1991), un patrón que se está repitiendo en la actualidad hasta tal punto que el acceso de las mujeres al aborto legal y a otras formas de cuidado de su salud reproductiva está siendo puesta en riesgo por el fascismo conservador que prolifera en Europa y Estados Unidos. Intersecciones de raza, clase, capacidades y sexualidad, también juegan un papel importante en la definición de la manera en la que las estructuras de poder actúan sobre las mujeres.

Y aún así, en nombre de la inclusión, las mujeres estamos siendo despojadas del lenguaje requerido para identificar y posteriormente combatir nuestra propia opresión. Las mujeres embarazadas pasan a ser personas embarazadas. Amamantar pasa a ser dar el ‘pecho/torso’ (chestfeeding en lugar de breastfeeding). Citar la biología de las mujeres se convierte en una forma de intolerancia retrógrada que hace imposible el hablar de las políticas reproductivas, de parto y de maternidad sin transgredir la ‘norma’. Además, hacer que el lenguaje en referencia al sexo sea neutral, no previene o combate el que las mujeres sean oprimidas como casta sexual. Borrar el cuerpo de las mujeres no altera en manera alguna la forma que tiene el género de oprimir a las mujeres.

Desde el punto de vista queer, el discurso de género pertenece exclusivamente a aquellos que se identifican como trans. El resultado es que muchas feministas tratan de evitar el tema del género, a pesar de ser la jerarquía que desempeña el papel principal en la opresión de la mujer. Las invitaciones a beber lejía o a morir en un incendio son, nada sorprendentemente, una táctica silenciadora muy efectiva. Los chistes y las amenazas —muchas veces imposibles de distinguir unos de otros— en referencia a la violencia contra las mujeres se usan de manera habitual para callar voces disidentes. Este abuso no puede ser considerado como defensivo, como la frustración de los oprimidos volcada sobre el opresor. Es, en el mejor de los casos, hostilidad horizontal (Kennedy, 1970), y en el peor, la legitimación de la violencia masculina contra las mujeres.

Las políticas de identidad queer yerran al obviar, y a veces ignorar, las formas en las que las mujeres son oprimidas como casta sexual. Este abordaje selectivo de las políticas de liberación es defectuoso en su fundamento. Despolitizar el género y abordar de manera acrítica los desequilibrios de poder que crea, no beneficia a nadie y mucho menos a las mujeres. Sólo la abolición del género traerá consigo la liberación de las restricciones que el género impone. Los grilletes del género no pueden ser rediseñados como objetivo en la búsqueda de la libertad.


 

Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Loud and United – Reflections of a Black Feminist on the Road

Dedicated to my mother, Angela, without whom this adventure would have been impossible. Thank you, mum – for getting me to the airport and for encouraging me to spread my wings.


The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories – in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. – Gloria Steinem

Before

At the beginning of this year – the first lived without the guidance of my grandfather – I challenged myself to two things: more travel and more adventure. The writer’s life is typically one of books and ideas, and although writing has the power to transport both author and audience to extraordinary places, across the vast expanses of human imagination, I sometimes wonder if I use writing as an excuse to retreat from the world and into myself. By inclination I crave routine and solitude, neither of which can be depended upon in the great unknown. That is, perhaps, why it is so important to push myself outside of the comfort zone so easily constructed around the familiar and open myself to new experiences. Through the unexpected, the unpredictable, we grow and learn more about ourselves in the process. When static, we too often see what we expect to see as opposed to what’s really there in front of us.

20170607_142308Feminist theory is meaningless without the ability to put it into practice. And life, though it can at times be daunting, requires living. So I am on a plane to Brussels for Loud and United, an event which marks twenty years of the Observatory on Violence Against Women. The Observatory was created to put political pressure upon governments across Europe to eradicate male violence against women and girls.

Loud and United is split into two parts: a symposium in which experts, politicians, and activists discuss the realities of male violence against women, and a march through the streets of Brussels to protest that violence. Loud and United is the perfect balance of words and deeds, what Audre Lorde described as the transformation of silence into language and action. In coming together, naming the agent, and resisting the insidious idea that male violence is a ‘natural’ part of women’s lives, we resist the very foundations of patriarchy. I want to be part of that resistance. And it doesn’t hurt that Gloria Steinem is to give the keynotes address.

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This isn’t my first trip to Brussels – last September I was there for what turned out to be the greatest adventure of my life so far: Young Feminist Summer School. Fifty women from across Europe came together to exchange activist experiences and learn from each other’s feminist perspectives. Sharing space and time with my AGORA sisters developed my understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and practice like nothing else, radically altering my approach to feminist organising. Being part of that group blew away the cynicism that threatened to take root in me, dealt with the weariness that came from challenging racism within the feminist movement, and restored my belief that anything is possible when women work together. AGORA also imparted a degree of self-confidence, a sense of my work being legitimate and having a place within the context of the feminist movement.

Attending Young Feminist Summer School changed so much for the better. And I almost didn’t go – partly out of the panic that stems from chronic anxiety, partly due to a heavy bout of Imposter Syndrome, and partly because my grandfather was dying. On the final day of Summer School, I received a call to say that he couldn’t be released from hospital until I had been taught to feed him through a tube – which I did for the final month of his life. It was a difficult time. Becca, one of my AGORA sisters, introduced me to spoon theory during Summer School – a disability metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino to explain the extra limitations capping the available energy to spend on the day to day tasks that make up everyday life. And now, almost a year on, I have even less spoons within reach. In caring for my grandfather I ceased caring for myself, which created something of a spoon deficit.

I have taken leave of absence from university owing to depression, scaled back professional and social responsibilities, and entered a kind of hibernation period to focus on my health. I have set three rules to live by: 1) go to therapy 2) volunteer at the Women’s Library at least one day every week 3) look after yourself properly. It’s a cliché, a bourgeois twenty-something going to Europe to find herself, but I will not apologise for that. After Young Feminist Summer School I can think of no better place to look for that bold young woman with a radical spirit than the city of Brussels, no better point to reconnect with my politics and the passion behind them than Loud and United.  People living with debilitating illnesses and disabilities are expected to justify every last speck of joy, but I am going to grab it with both hands and without apology.

When the plane touches down in Brussels, I begin to feel hopeful. Armed with enthusiasm and a basic grasp of the French language, I set off to board the shuttle bus to the city centre. I spend the journey alternating between staring at the lush expanses of green fields and blue sky and reading Gloria Steinem’s most recent book, My Life on the 20170614_174803Road. Steinem’s reflections are thoughtful, and something about the way she connects physical movement through the world with a development of ideas strikes a chord. What I like most about Steinem’s writing is that from her early essays to recent reflections delivered in her eighties, she doesn’t pretend to know everything and is therefore always open to learning and improving her own feminist praxis. If there were such a thing as total and definitive understanding of the feminist movement, Gloria Steinem would have more right to claim it than most. But there isn’t. Feminism is a socio-political movement propelled by women’s actions and ideas – it’s a continuously ongoing process, not a destination. Its progress is best marked not only in the accordance of women’s rights, but in the development of surrounding ideas and attitudes.

Ilaria, a fellow graduate of Young Feminist Summer School, is waiting for me at the bus stop. She introduces me to her girlfriend Michela and we work out how best to communicate. Ilaria and her girlfriend moved to Brussels from Italy last September, which – being a total homebody – I find incredibly brave. Michela speaks French with a little bit of English. I speak English with a little bit of French. We meet somewhere in the middle, with Ilaria translating what Michela and I cannot. As they guide me back to their flat, I feel none of the anxiety of being away from home alone. Because I am not alone.

We drop my luggage off at the Tetris House, affectionately termed as everything has an exact space, to head out for dinner and drinks. As we walk, I am struck by the beautiful art nouveau design of the buildings. Ilaria fills me in on the area’s history. She and Michela live in the most diverse part of Brussels – half of the population is white, and half of the population is people of colour. Houses that were once the pied-à-terre of Belgium’s upper classes are now flats occupied, more often than not, by migrant families. It’s the first port of call for people from all around the world when they first move Brussels. Sure enough, as we meander through the city I see a gorgeous spectrum of brown skin. It is nothing short of divine to feel so inconspicuous.

Belgian fries are in a league of their own, so we get chips for dinner. Mine are accompanied by a falafel wrap, which makes going abroad and getting chippy for tea seem acceptably cosmopolitan. The greatest difference between Brussels and Glasgow is how each city’s inhabitants occupy public space. In the cobblestone courtyards, the pavements are full of tables and chairs set out by nearby bars. To my surprise, Ilaria says that we can sit outside a pub of our choice and eat our meal there. She and Michela choose from a long list of fancy beers – one Belgian treat I decline owing to an unapologetically femme taste in drinks.

At the bar, there are five fridges full of craft beers. They are as mysterious to me as the rules of any sport that isn’t Quidditch. I search for a fruit cider, the closest acceptable approximation to beer. The bartender takes pity on me and comes over to help. He laughs, not unkindly, when I explain what I’m looking for and says that they don’t stock any such thing. I struggle to understand the Flemmish accent to his French. When he realises that not only do I speak English, but that I am Scottish, the bartender is delighted. “Glasgow? I love Glasgow,” he tells me. “That city is CRAZY!” He pantomimes the sort of argument that is characteristic of the city, mimicking those interactions that walk the fine line between masculine bonhomie and pure aggression. It involves a lot of gesticulation and “FUCK YOU!”  That’s Glasgow alright. Perhaps out of kindness, perhaps out of the fear that he has given offence, the bartender pours me what can only be described as a triple gin and tonic. He moves the gin to a pint glass upon realising that both ice and tonic will not fit. Fortunately, Glasgow has taught me how to hold my drink.

Back at the table, we discuss lesbian politics and culture. Ilaria and Michela moved to Brussels because it’s a better place to be a lesbian couple than Italy. Life away from Catholic homophobia and social conservatism is happier. Scotland isn’t perfect but, by comparison, I feel fortunate. Two leaders of Scottish political parties are lesbian. Holyrood is “the gayest parliament in the world.” Not bad at all.

We talk about our first forays into lesbian culture – how much the shows with even a couple of lesbian characters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or even solid lesbian subtext (Xena) had meant to us all growing up. We all watched The L Word. There were so many sex scenes in it that I would wait until my grandparents went to church before watching an episode on Netflix lest they overhear. Needless to say, feast days and holidays of obligation (extra church on days other than Sunday) were always welcome – thanks be to God! Michela thinks this is hilarious. She watched Sugar Rush when it first aired, despite not having much English, and would watch programmes in any language provided there were lesbian characters. The lengths to which lesbians will go to see ourselves represented in the media know no bounds.

On the way to the bar, I had spotted people drinking what looked like irn-bru in wine glasses. Ilaria told me that it was, in fact, aperol spritz and suggested we have some next. She asks what’s in irn-bru. Aside from sugar and colour, I haven’t the faintest idea. Does anybody? For a time irn-bru was banned in America, which says a lot about the ingredients in Scotland’s other national drink. At first I’m not convinced by aperol spritz. Michela taps an inch down the glass and reassures me that by this point in the drink, the taste will improve. She’s right.

During

Having been anxious about Loud and United since the moment my plane tickets were booked, I feel remarkably at ease with the world on the day. Ilaria can’t make it, has to go to work first thing in the morning. Michela makes a delicious breakfast and we head out. In the lobby we pass two older women, and Michela pauses to talk to them. I assume they are neighbours, perhaps another lesbian couple, and feel glad for Ilaria and Michela. Older lesbians make the world a better place. But when she joins me on the street, Michela explains that the women go from door to door trying to convert people to Christianity. When Michela told them that she’s a lesbian, they responded that God would still love her. For a split second I wonder if it’s truly a love-thy-neighbour Christianity being advocated here, but Michela explains the catch: God is prepared to love lesbians provided we don’t have sex with women. Neither of us can keep a straight face. I asked Michela what she said to that. She replies, with a mischievous grin: “No way. I love sex with women.” Our laughter carries throughout the street. In this we are agreed. I’ll take lesbian sex over God’s love on any day ending in y.

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Michela guides me through the metro and leaves me at Grand-Place.  The square is even more beautiful than I had remembered, a magnificent display of gilt and Gothic architecture. Spotting a security guard, I explain that I’m here to help the European Women’s Lobby set up for their event. He doesn’t let me in, says the EWL aren’t here yet, and so I sit at the edge of the square and scribble away in a notebook until another volunteer arrives. With a confidence that is uniquely American, she talks security into hallletting us inside. The EWL are nowhere to be seen, so we explore the building and marvel over the opulence of Brussels. The room is extraordinary. Wooden walls panelled with richly painted murals, a high ceiling supported by ornately carved beams, and even pews lining the back – it looks more like a church than a feminist meeting space. There is something delicious about repurposing places that symbolise male wealth and power for women’s liberation. The meeting space in Glasgow Women’s Library, where we recently held an all-female literary festival, used to be a gentlemen’s reading room.

When the EWL team arrives, I am filled with relief. We set up signs and flags, put out badges, organise seat reservations, and arrange a selection of literature about the European Women’s Lobby’s projects – tasks that are comforting in their familiarity after three years of volunteering at the Women’s Library. Believing passionately in feminist documentation, I snap pictures as we go. I take a photo of Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls and text it to Liz Kelly.

Liz theorised the continuum, radically altering the way male violence is framed and conceptualised not only within feminist theory but support and prevention work. I think she’ll be pleased by the way her work is being applied but, more than that, I think she’ll enjoy “disrupting.” It’s a good word. Disruption is very Liz: being so thoroughly radical in her feminism has created a boldness in her this is catching. Being radical in my own feminism lends me a certain courage, too – not once do I question my right to be at Loud and United, or the legitimacy of being there.

As soon as we are ready, the doors open. Two hundred and fifty women from around the world enter the hall, united by a commitment to ending male violence. Edith Schratzberger-Vécsei, President of the European Women’s Lobby, gives the opening address. She talks of how habituated to male violence societies across the world have become, invites us to “disrupt an ancient system” in dismantling patriarchy. “All the forms of violence that we’ll be discussing today have one goal: to silence women.” It is fitting, then, that we should be loud as well as united.

The first panel is HERstory. Women’s organisations from across Europe share their expertise in resisting male violence against women. The agent is named. The root cause 20170608_135151is addressed. Biljana Nastovska is exactly right in her assessment of patriarchy: “violence against women is a manifestation of unequal power relations between women and men. Violence against women is not accidental, but structural and political.” There is something profoundly moving about witnessing the women of the Observatory’s commitment to ending violence against women and girls, the passion of their belief in this cause. Vanja Macanovic explains why she works for the Observatory: “As long as one woman is raped or beaten, prostituted or trafficked, the European Women’s Lobby Observatory will be there to fight it.” Her words, so resolutely spoken, have a superhero quality about them.

I wish that frontline workers in women’s organisations were celebrated and valourised the same way Wonder Woman is – while Diana Prince provides a symbol of hope, the work the women’s sector do is very real. In Britain, 85% of women aged 18-24 have experienced street harassment. 45% have experienced it in a form of unwanted touching. And when women of colour resist street harassment, we get racist abuse too. The support and prevention work done in the women’s sector is vital. It makes this world a better place. The Swedish MEP Anna Maria Corazza Bildt neatly sums up the endemic of male violence against women: “when we talk about gender-based violence, it is violence because you are a woman.” In every society, we are punished and abused simply for having been born female.

The second panel is Inspiring Initiatives by Women’s Rights Activists. Inspiring is right. The organisations represented are La Maison des Femmes, Sexual Violence Centre Cork, Lilies of the Street, and Women’s Tribunal. These women stare unflinchingly at the very worst of male violence in order to support women through it, enduring in the hope of creating a world in which male violence is eliminated. The words of Mary Crilly (Sexual Violence Centre Cork) in particular stand out. She talks candidly about the rage she feels against male violence, how the horror of male violence weighs upon her, and feeling burnt out as a result. Mary acknowledges how high the cost can be. And then Mary describes why she keeps going, why every woman in the room must keep going too. She says “at some point in your life someone will come to you and say ‘this happened to me’. If you are open to hearing it, they will tell you.” I think of that telling. I think of being told. Mary is right when she says that meeting such a disclosure with empathy is one of the most important things any of us will ever accomplish.

The mechanism of violence is what destroys women, controls women, keeps women in their so-called place. If we want to end male violence against women, we must think of the most vulnerable and leave no woman behind. – Salome Mbugua

Next, we hear testimonies of women who have survived male violence. Witnessing this panel is an extraordinary privilege. Monica Weissel Alvarez speaks with radical honesty about her experience of intimate partner violence. The total absence of institutional support she received – Monica’s helplessness to escape her abuser, being “trapped in circles of domination” – is devastating to hear about. Alisha Watts recounts her experience of online grooming, of how she was isolated and exploited by her abuser. As Alisha’s voice trembles, I am in awe of her courage – the bravery required to share something so raw and painful in front of two hundred and fifty people in the hope of helping other women and girls. That iconic Maggie Kuhn quote springs to mind: “Speak your truth, even if your voice shakes.”

The final panellist to speak is Fiona Broadfoot, who became an abolitionist campaigner upon exiting the sex industry. Nothing on this earth could have prepared me for hearing Fiona’s story. She was groomed into prostitution at fifteen and spent eleven years in the sex trade.

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Of that time, Fiona says “I was at immediate risk of extreme sexual violence and abuse. I lost my identity and what little self-confidence I had. Rape became an occupational hazard.” She repressed the trauma by telling herself it was a job like any other. At 17, Fiona told herself “innocent women will be raped if I don’t do this.” Fiona begins to cry while sharing her story, for which she makes no apology: “it’s a sign I’m a healthy human. I used to distance myself and display no emotion.” It’s only then that I notice the tears on my own face, notice that women all around the room are in tears too. There is no shame in crying. I never want to become the kind of person who can look at such injustice and remain unmoved.

As with Monica’s story, it is devastating on two levels: that Fiona experienced this violence, and that institutional misogyny meant structures that should have helped her worked against her. Fiona’s pimp was on first name terms with the Vice Squad. She was criminalised and he was not. When she tried to rebuild her life, Fiona was kicked out of her college course due to having been arrested for prostitution. Afterwards, she returned to prostitution. Fiona’s words will stay with me for the rest of my life, as will her strength and dignity. Even with so much cause to be angry at the world, Fiona spends her life trying to make it a better place for the girls who live in it. I am determined to follow her example, to emulate Fiona’s generosity of spirit. Getting called SWERF (sex-worker exclusionary radical feminist) on Twitter is a tiny, tiny price to pay for standing beside Fiona and all the women in her position, of which there are many. Although not all women survive the sex industry. The mortality rate of women in prostitution is up to forty times above the average. Between 60 and 80% of women in prostitution experience regular physical and sexual abuse by men. The sex industry isn’t revolutionary or liberating, but a manifestation of patriarchy and capitalism. It is time to end demand, to end men’s belief they are entitled to sexually access women’s bodies.

After the Stories of Survivors of Male Violence panel, I am emotionally exhausted. And so I fulfil that millennial stereotype and check my phone for a bit, retreating into the world of WhatsApp and Twitter. Liz has replied, asking if the continuum was referenced in the EWL literature. I read through the pamphlet, find no direct reference to Liz or her research, and write back to tell her. This is a difficulty within feminist theorising. Good Loud United Badgesfeminist practice involves sharing ideas and making information as widely accessible as possible. Radical feminism can challenge ownership and institutional power as following patterns of male dominance. But there is something inherently radical about acknowledging women’s work, the development of women’s ideas over time and who made it possible. As Virginia Woolf observed, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” Making women’s ideas invisible, treating them as common knowledge rather than giving credit, only serves to further the erasure of women in public life. The continuum is a widely known concept. Upon seeing the pamphlet, I thought immediately of Liz’s work. But if I hadn’t read Surviving Sexual Violence (Kelly), hadn’t known where the continuum came from, making that connection would be impossible. Other women could read the pamphlet without being able to trace the idea back to its source.

Referencing women’s ideas is a revolutionary act. It is a form of resistance to say that a woman made this, a woman did this, a woman thought this. And so I reference Liz publicly, Tweeting about the use of her theory in Disrupting the Continuum of Violence Against Women and Girls. Liz responds to my Tweet, saying that she loves this use of her work but believes as feminists we have a responsibility to acknowledge one another. The European Women’s Lobby get back to her immediately and positively. I’m confident they will add the appropriate references to the publication, and glad to have nudged them in the right direction. Acknowledging women’s ideas is at the heart of my life with Glasgow Women’s Library.

It’s just as well I do check Twitter. My friend Pauline has Tweeted her astonishment at finding me here, so far from Scotland. I fizz with excitement at the thought of Pauline here in this room. Sure enough, her Tweets pepper #LoudUnited. We make plans to meet up after the symposium. This will be the first time I have met Pauline in person, though we have been friends for over a year. We met through radical feminist Twitter. My favourite thing about Twitter is that it has the power to connect women around the world, that it hosts such a fertile ground for feminist discourse.

As the panel changes over for the final time, a woman sat in the row in front turns to face me. She asks “are you Claire? Do you write Sister Outrider?” Guilty as charged. I nod. She recognised me from Twitter, says that my writing is exciting and that she is glad to have met me. After she turns back to face the front, I mull over her words. It’s not totally uncommon to be recognised at home, buying books or visiting libraries. Those are settings in which I am expected, places where I have worked. But this is a continent away from those contexts. Although my writing has been translated, I could not have predicted that anyone would connect me to it. It is in parts disconcerting and thrilling. I vow not to let myself develop an inflated sense of self-importance, regardless of how far my writing ever reaches.

And then in walks Gloria Steinem, a masterclass in humility from which a good few writers could learn. Her presence is assured yet unobtrusive, though heads swivel. Nothing about the way Gloria conducts herself is designed to monopolise attention. She sits in the second row awaiting introduction whilst Twitter explodes with her arrival.

When Gloria takes the stage, there is heartfelt applause. She holds up one fist in a feminist salute, just like in that iconic photograph of her with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes. It

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Gloria Steinem addresses Loud and United

was Gloria’s commitment to joint speaking tours with Black women, her approach to interracial solidarity between women, that drew me to her work. And now the woman whose words have come to me through books, videos, and podcasts is speaking to this audience directly. She highlights that the women in this room have overcome boundaries of difference to come together in support of women’s liberation. Observing that patriarchy is under five thousand years old, that it was not universal and is not permanent, she creates a feeling of optimism. It is possible in that moment to imagine that a better future is within reach, a world free from male violence.

Although the word intersectionality (Crenshaw) is never explicitly used, the principles are there in what Gloria says. She talks of race and class and caste alongside gender, about how all hierarchies are interconnected, sharing her theory of supremacy crimes: acts of violence and domination committed not for material gain, but with a view to maintaining the privileges that come with being at the top of a hierarchy. Gloria credits Black Lives Matter as being “a brave and important movement” and goes on to discuss the crimes of George Zimmerman. Before he murdered Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s history was littered with acts of violence against women. In her view, these are both forms of supremacy crime. “Supremacy crimes are related. One predicts another.”

Next comes the part I have been silently dreading: the march. At risk of confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about keyboard warriors and slacktivism, I hate going to protests. It’s not a question of if I will experience an anxiety attack, but rather how many. The crush of people, the noise, the difficulty in getting away – these are difficult. Discursive activism is what comes naturally. Earlier this year I went on the Women’s March in London to protest Trump’s inauguration and the erosion of women’s rights. It was powerful to be part of that resistance. It was also terrifying. I put on an oversized pair of sunglasses and prayed that Liz – so bold and determined – wouldn’t notice that I was crying. There was a point when I wanted to ask her if we could go to one side while I closed my eyes and did a breathing exercise, but in the rush I just couldn’t find the words. So I didn’t talk to her for whole stretches of time, lost in my own panic. Liz tried to steer us through the crowds as quickly as possible. Afterwards, knowing what it cost, she told me that I did a brave thing in marching. Liz is a good friend. But today I am here alone, une femme seule. I make a beeline for Joanna, the EWL Secretary-General, and decide to keep a member of the team within sight at all times. So radical.

On the way out of the building, I hand Gloria a Glasgow Women’s Library badge. It’s one of my creations – badge-making is one of the many unexpected skills I have picked up at GWL. Another is confidence. I ask Gloria to sign her book for me, and she obliges. Joanna takes a picture of us together. And for the first time in memory I don’t look at the image wondering whether I look sufficiently thin or pretty. I look truly happy, and that is enough.

The protest is in turns brilliant and scary. Provided I keep the EWL team in sight, the panic is manageable. As we march, we chant: “Sol-sol-sol! Solidarité avec des femmes du monde entire!” Solidarity with women of the entire world. This, I believe in wholeheartedly. Loud and United feels like a fitting description of the group. People stop to listen to our message, to watch the protest go past. The crowd is dotted with pussy hats and feminist banners. We are a force to be reckoned with. A shout goes up: “keep your rosaries away from my ovaries!”

A stage is waiting in the middle of the square. Various women’s organisations wave banners and lead chants. Balloons are blown up. T-shirts and badges are handed out. On the other side of the square, women draw the Venus symbol in purple chalk. In the middle, they lay flowers in memory of all the women killed by male violence. A feeling of harmony between women makes alright simply to occupy this space.

IMG_20170609_224917_653Wielding an impressive megaphone, Joanna takes the stage to introduce Gloria. Perhaps it is my imagination, but Gloria seems more at ease in the midst of a protest than behind a lectern. She observes a truth that is obvious to women of colour yet often disregarded within mainstream feminist spaces: “Sexism and racism go together. You can’t fight one without the other.” The Black women beside me cheer, and I do too. It feels good to have the connection between racism and misogyny acknowledged, highlighted by a woman who is arguably the world’s most recognisable living feminist. There is always that danger in feminist space that white will be treated as the standard unit of womanhood.

Girls line the front of the stage holding up the Loud and United banner. It is moving to see the future of feminism standing before a woman who is emblematic of the second wave, the past and the future woven together in the present. The smallest girl raises her fist like Gloria. When the rally is over, Gloria gestures to the girl’s father who lifts her onto the stage. I love this *picture. It captures the joy, the hope, and the solidarity of the day.

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(*Image shared with the express permission of the child’s parent. Not to be recirculated.)

As the rally disbands, two young women sat smoking on the stage call me over. Both recognise the Glasgow Women’s Library logo on my tote bag. One of their friends was an ERASMUS exchange student in Edinburgh and frequently travelled through to GWL. Many women in and around Glasgow consider the Library a home away from home, a peaceful place to work or while away the hours. It’s nice to think of that Women’s Library joy sending ripples across the continent, of international connections between women.

After

Following the buzz of the protest, it is a relief to sit and chat with my AGORA sisters: Ilaria, Ahinara, and Aurelie. Ahinara has a Spanish translation of Gloria’s book, which I 20170609_224529admire. We get drinks and snacks from a nearby supermarket and listen to a salsa band play live music. It feels good to simply be in that moment. Michela joins us when she finishes work, and I finally get to chat to Pauline in person. We talk about the power of radical feminist Twitter, how online misogyny works to silence women, and anonymity on social media. Wary of threats and violence, Pauline doesn’t share her name or location on Twitter. This layer of privacy enables her to maintain a distance between life online and offline. Men tend to exploit anonymity, use it as a shield from consequence when sending abuse, whereas women often use anonymity as a way of protecting ourselves from abuse. To an extent I regret not creating a separate Twitter account for Sister Outrider and remaining anonymous, but at first it never occurred to me that more than a dozen people would actually bother to read this blog.

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As ever, I am astonished by the energy of my AGORA sisters. Ahinara goes to do more work, and Aurélie departs for a feminist meeting. The rest of us wander through Brussels in search of food. Over dinner we discuss how male violence shapes the very fabric of society. More importantly, we discuss forms of resistance. There is a slight irony to sipping a neon blue cocktail named after Walter White, a character who typifies Toxic Masculinity: Nice Guy™ edition, as the conversation unfolds. Pauline tells us of a case in which a violent father used his last weekend of unsupervised visitation rights to murder his two children and commit suicide in order to punish his wife for ending their marriage. Their bodies, well-hidden, were found by chance. He had intended for her to spend the rest of her life wondering what happened to her missing children. It’s a harrowing story, not an isolated incident but part of the pattern of male violence. Sometimes I think the company of other women – their understanding and encouragement – is the only thing that makes life under patriarchy bearable. That, and good food.

Before she goes, Pauline invites me to come for a visit in her home country. I accept. In the style of Shonda, this is my year of yes – no more turning down adventures or opportunities. Radical feminist Twitter is a brilliant community, connecting women around the world. It’s filled with challenges and complexities, but also women looking to share and develop their ideas. It’s also a good place to make friends. My generation were warned about stranger danger online, yet there are few things I delight in more than meeting radical feminists from Twitter in person. There is something wonderful about being together with someone that has shared space and ideas with you. Bridging the gap between community space online and offline isn’t always practical, but it can be wonderful.

 

Ilaria and Michela take my for my first authentic Belgian waffle, which tastes like heaven, and tour of the Brussels gay scene, which feels like home. In both aesthetic and atmosphere, the bar we gravitate towards reminds me of nothing so much as Delmonica’s, though no doves hang from the ceiling. But first they give me a tour of LGBT 20170609_224229art around the area. For Pride, a crossing is made into a rainbow. In the alley beside Rainbow House, there are gorgeous protest murals as tall as the surrounding buildings. It’s touching to witness this art as resistance, touching that Ilaria and Michela thought to show it to me. There is a popular saying in radical lesbian circles: “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine.” Ilaria and Michela remind me of the truth in those words. We discuss lesbian culture over cocktails, including mounting tension between lesbian and queer politics. Like every lesbian I know back home, Ilaria is frustrated that LGBT spaces are dominated by gay men. Still, there is something undeniably wholesome about seeing men sharing tender gestures – holding hands, cuddling on benches, and kissing one another on the mouth in greeting. It’s a refreshing change from the brutality of conventional masculinity.

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“I hope you realise that what you see in porn is not real life lesbian sex! It’s just girls having sex the way men would want them to…”

The next morning, I’m up early – a little fuzzy after the previous night’s antics, but filled with purpose. Pierrette has invited me to join an abolitionist meeting she is facilitating with young activists from across Europe. During Young Feminist Summer School Pierrette ran a workshop on prostitution, the sex industry, and why the European Women’s Lobby endorses the Nordic Model called Whose Choice? – I was impressed by how she conducted that session and am keen to see what other forms her work takes. Like so many great things, the meeting happens in a library. Stickers on the spines of books make books about women, sexual politics, and gender easy to find.

Often we are told that ending demand is impossible, that in this world men will inevitably buy sexual access to women’s bodies. Proponents of the sex industry commonly fall back on the defence that “it has always been this way”, positioning opposition to the prostitution of women as naïve. Similarly, social conservatives tell us that male dominance over women is part of the natural order. Both rely on a sense of hopelessness at the scale of the problem to discourage feminists from pursuing social change. Yet this network of activists demonstrate such commitment to ending demand that I can’t help feeling hopeful, even if it is an uphill struggle. They care. That’s such a simple thing to say, but it’s true. They care. And how one views the sex industry does ultimately boil down to a question of empathy. To feel empathy with women, one must recognise us as fully human. And it is impossible to simultaneously feel empathy with women and view our bodies as sexual objects which money entitles men to access.

20170609_225123A narrative of “choice” is often used to whitewash the structural power imbalances upon which the sex industry depends. According to research, “poverty, family loss, homelessness, drug addiction and a history of physical and sexual abuse combine to make young women vulnerable to entering prostitution.” Consideration of choice without analysis of context is meaningless when discussing the realities of women – and they are overwhelmingly women – prostituted as part of the sex industry. When we talk about choice in relation to prostitution, it is important to scrutinise the choice of the men who buy sex. We must question why so many men feel entitled to sex with women, why they consider sexual access to our bodies an inalienable right. This meeting is one of those rare occasions in life when I am truly happy to see that men are part of the group, giving wholehearted opposition to the sex industry. After all, demand will not end until men’s attitudes towards women change.

Mid-way through the session, Gloria Steinem makes a surprise appearance. I don’t notice her straight away, having returned from the bathroom, although she is sitting directly in front of me. Gloria fits into the group quite naturally. She participates in but does not dominant the conversation between activists and experts, making the odd suggestion when useful. I like that her public profile hasn’t distracted Gloria from feminist activism and organising. The way she occupies group space, present and unassuming, is true to good feminist practice. Though I could happily spend all day learning from this group – not simply what they say, but how they say it – I must resume my own life on the road.

As I leave the room, Hanuka presses a copy of her book into my hands. Big City Violets is a diary of her time as a social worker, filled with difficult truths and delicate line drawings, which makes this gift all the more personal. I begin to read it on the journey home, until the turbulence grows too much. Even then it stays in my thoughts. Writing can be cathartic, a way of giving voice to painful things that are hard to express and making sure they no longer go unseen. Hanuka’s book shows a cycle of trafficking and prostitution and drug addiction and violence, a cycle that decimates women’s lives. Not only did Hanuka contain those truths within herself, she put them out into the world. So the seeds of liberation are planted.

Exhaustion catches up with me as I zig-zag through passport control. I wonder what Brexit will mean for determining airport lines, how we will queue – such a British worry. But dividing people by whose passport is EU and whose isn’t becomes redundant. Both trips to Brussels filled me with an appreciation for the European Union, in particular all the social good it has made possible. A familiar feeling of horror sets in as I consider anew the consequences of Brexit. What good are the politics of isolation?

Airports are terrible places for grief. I think it’s because the world is filtered into a binary of home and elsewhere, the familiar and the unknown. A part of me cannot help but expect that my grandfather will be there waiting for me, as he so often was, eager to hear what I have achieved during the course of my absence from our home. I remember his delight as I stepped onto the ward last September – the promise of home I brought to him, as he so often brought to me. I remember the scratchy blue wool of his jumper against my cheek. But my mother is waiting for me, has driven over an hour to collect me. There’s work to do at the Women’s Library, on Sister Outrider, and in so many other spaces. I have stories to share and truths to tell. Coming back is not always easy, and neither is continuing. But if we do not return from one adventure then we cannot begin the next.


Bibliography

Kat Banyard. (2016). Pimp State: Sex, Money and the Future of Equality

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. (1989). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color

Gail Dines. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality

Liz Kelly. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence

Hanukah Lohrengel. (2016). Big City Violets

Audre Lorde. (1977). The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

Christine Miserandino. (2003). The Spoon Theory

Rachel Moran. (2013). Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution

Gloria Steinem. (2015). My Life on the Road