The falling out of friendships, the always temporal and sometimes temporary nature of activist communities spoke to my own experiences of friendship break-ups, activist relationships forged and broken, miscommunications, flawed politics, exile and exclusion that characterizes my life and work within queer communities in London, Berlin, Montreal and Toronto.
In the past week, as I have wrapped up my nine-to-five job in Communications, I have had a lot of discussions about my next adventure. Namely, my embarcation on a PhD in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University here in Toronto.
Now, as a feminist and queer woman who blogs about the troubles with the world and has generally engaged in queer activism, I am used to people saying stupid shit to me. However, I have been floored by the level of disrespect and pure ignorance I have met with this past week as I discuss this transition with former colleagues, neighbours and general acquaintances.
Firstly, no one seems to know what a PhD is. “How long will that take, a year?” has been quite a common reaction. Most people have been insistent that having a PhD is just the same as having a Master’s degree (actually, no. It’s really, really not.), “and we all know Masters are worthless these days.” No one seems to understand this is vocational training, similar to training to be a lawyer or doctor, and certainly of a similar length to the latter.
People also seem to have selective amnesia about my decision. After a company-wide email congratulating me on my acceptance into a PhD program, plus several discussions in the kitchen, people at work still wanted to know more about my Masters program. In a culture that devalues being a student, women and especially – duh – feminism, I interpreted this as a semi-conscious attempt to undermine me and my achievements.
People also found the name of my program confusing. In fact, as soon as I started the phrase “Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies” I could see their eyes begin to glaze over. The word that seemed to stick out from that title was, obviously, “feminist” and, instead of respectfully asking me what I was going to work on, most people took this word as an opportunity to rant about feminism. Whether they were telling me feminism is unnecessary, asking me if I believed in gender equality (what do you think?), or saying something surprisingly sensible about our obsession with masculinity as a culture, nobody actually wanted to engage with me about the topic. People were using my statement as an opportunity to sound off about whatever random opinion they had about feminism. Nobody was listening to me or wanted to hear what I had to say.
This is a pretty disrespectful attitude. Although I do imagine that many professionals are subjected to people’s rambling associations when discussing their vocation with people outside the field, I do think that the fact I mentioned the words “feminism” and “studying” spoke to a double-whammy of disrespect that we have as a culture, both for women and women’s rights (e.g. feminism), and for students. Please, do take my vocation as an excuse to tell me why you think what I’m doing is worthless. Please do. I can’t wait to hear all about it.
All this has left me wondering how to react. Although pursuing a PhD is very different to an undergraduate degree, I am loathe to try and distance myself from undergraduates in order to get more respect. Students should be respected no matter their level of study, and I don’t want to get into an ‘I’m-not-one-of-them’ structure of proving my worth.
Right now, I don’t know how I am going to deal with the bullshit people will say to me over the next six years. Maybe I need to come up with a few stock witty repartees, or work on developing a thick skin. How about you, dear readers? How would you prove the worth of your life choices in one simple sentence, or would you not bother and leave these idiots to fester in their own stupidity?
How call-out culture verges on the abusive and how the language we use around conflict enables us to push out members of our activist communities at will.
When I moved to Toronto two years ago, I immediately fell into a friendship group of femmes and other queers, largely thanks to the welcoming persona of one of the group. I was invited to parties and had femme friends I felt comfortable around for this first time in my life. I had a pretty good social life, pretty fast.
And then, about three months later, it all fell apart. I started dating someone who would later become my partner. This person had gone on a date with one of my new friends two days prior to meeting me. Later my friend asked me to stop seeing them, and I refused.
A week later, I found myself blocked on Facebook by another friend who would turn her back to me whenever I walked into the room. I was pushed out of my new friendship group with no explanation. As these individuals attended a lot of the queer parties of this particular scene, I no longer felt welcome or comfortable at these events. Having gained and lost close friends in the space of a few months after moving to a new country and city, I felt alienated, lonely and angry.
This this wasn’t the first time I had been pushed out of a queer community. When I was organizing a zine in Berlin, a bunch of co-organizers met behind my back and wrote a letter stating they no longer wanted to participate in the project. They, too, refused to speak about the issue (I am still unclear what it was) and cut me off from all communication with that group.
I have been accused of being anti-Semitic by non-Jewish queers and told my white, middle-class, British mannerisms were oppressing a white, middle-class Canadian. I have been implicitly excluded from community because of my feminine and middle-class dress sense, my preference for monogamous relationships, and my fatness.
Of course, it is possible that I am an anti-Semitic, classist, racist, sexist, unattractive person who is unable to see beyond her own oppression and accept her natural polyamorous and genderqueer nature. And a bad friend. Even though I am undoubtedly invested in not being all of these things, I am also pretty sure I am not all of them. I mean, I at least have good dress sense.
Now, two years after the time when I lost all my new friends and was bullied out of the Toronto queer dance scene, I am wondering why we, in the queer community, do this to each other.
I know I am not the only one who has been pushed out of the queer scene. I am not the only one who doesn’t go to events because they don’t want to bump into a particular person, and who therefore stays at home feeling lonely. I am not the only one who has been told my politics are wrong, who has been scapegoated, cold shouldered, and looked down on in order to make someone else feel better. I am sick of this. I know we can do better.
My ten years of living in various queer communities has taught me that this kind of behaviour is pandemic. Recently, there has been much discussion about call-out culture and its effectiveness.
My take on call-out culture is that it’s very effective if what we want to achieve is the exclusion of anyone who behaves in a problematic manner or pisses us off. However, it is not very effective if we want to create a community that nurtures and educates each other. I, personally, would prefer a community that is able to deal with confrontation. That, like a good friend, tells you when you’re being a douchebag but still loves you anyway.
Call-out culture is a particularly self-serving way of dealing with confrontation. It enables the person doing the calling out to name someone else oppressive, and to do so in very black and white language. It allows what Asam Ahmad of the It Gets Fatter! project has called “a particularly armchair and academic brand of activism.” Calling-out doesn’t require any action on the part of the person doing the calling-out. It enables a person to name another person racist, homophobic, sexist, etc., and to put the onus of that label wholly on the other person. The accused then becomes outcast from the activist community, and no attempt at restoration is made.
The problem with this kind of public outcry is that it is taken up by the community as a whole who seem to enjoy participating in public humiliation more than engaging in an educative dialogue. Everyone enjoys having someone to point at and say how much better a person they are than the other.
To have a whole community turn against you is a horrifying feeling. To feel first that, as a queer, you finally have a place and then to lose that place is sickening. Of course, the question of the largeness of the crime is a pertinent one here. There are some actions that are worse than others. But, in general, a lot of this alienation happens for reasons that speak more to the toxic nature of the way we reinforce our collective political identities than to the personality or politics of the individual who is being called-out. Frankly, a lot of this alienation happens owing to a simple interpersonal disagreement, as in my case, rather than a concrete case of wrongdoing.
Another reason call-out culture seems more about affirming how cool we are in contrast to a demonized other is that we all have, to some extent, done something discriminatory. What white person has not had a racist thought or committed an unthinking racist action? What person, straight or queer, has not done something homophobic? Who hasn’t made an ableist comment?
We know patriarchal and capitalist values influence our value systems. In fact, I have found that it is often through a thorough examination of our own prejudices that we come to see how they work and to do our own bit to fight against oppression. So, to write another person off as a bad queer or activist and to participate in a public shaming that has hugely negative social and psychological consequences for that person does nothing to tackle the problem. It also creates a culture in which a person and community can use public shaming to bolster their own self-image.
I understand the sentiment that we just do not have the energy to educate every other person who offends us. But I do think we should treat members of our communities differently to a member of the public who has not been exposed to lefty political thought. We should take the time to have difficult conversations in our communities, rather than pushing out those who hurt us.
This is by no means an exhaustive article. Many have started writing/thinking about and practising calling-in – a one-on-one intervention with the person who did the thing – instead of calling-out. You can read more about that here. I don’t have a solution for this problem. What I would like for now is for us to recognize that we all, as human beings, make mistakes.
In my last post I talked about the inherently classist structure of restaurants, gyms and stores that sell health food. My lovely roommate has now drawn my attention to this awesome video. Created by youth of Toronto from Lawrence Heights, one of TO’s large assisted housing projects, it draws attention to the lack of food in their community.
As one mother says, “you wanna eat healthy? Well, guess what, you have to pay a lot for it.” In response to the lack of affordable fresh food in their community, these awesome youth are creating their own projects.
But I can’t articulate any of this as well as they can, so take it away:
I know. I’ve been absent for, like, a gazillion years. That’s what moving country, falling in love and getting a full-time job all at the same time will do to ya. Plus, of course, a resurgence of the good ole writer’s block à la earlier this year. But not to worry, there’s been a lot going on behind the scenes here at Diary of a Lipstick Terrorist.
Here’s a rundown of the top 3 blog-related things that have happened this summer:
3. My zine, Dressed Like That: Feminine Voices on Sexism in the Queer Communityand I were invited by the Lithuanian Gay League to Baltic Pride! Sadly, being all the way here in Canada and the land of the living, I couldn’t attend personally. But I did attend in spiritvia a one-off English-only edition of Dressed Like That. Thanks LGL!
2. My article Is ‘cupcake feminism’ all empty calories?’was featured in an art exhibition on cupcake feminism and craft in San Francisco. This article formed part of the reading stall in the art exhibition, and was also quoted in Artlines, a journal published by the Women’s Caucus for Art. I’m proud to be part of the small critical dialogue on this phenomenon.
1. Last, but not least, I have been invited to be a featured blogger on Rabble.ca!I’m so happy to be part of this progressive community, and hope I make worthy contributions to the conversation. I will be writing exclusive content for both Rabble.ca and Diary of a Lipstick Terrorist, so keep your eyes peeled on both sites!
Despite my erratic blogging and difficulty finding the time and self-belief to write, of late. a lovely reader has given me the honour of nominating me for a WordPress Family Award. As I understand it, this award celebrates the WordPress community and is a way of showing appreciation for each other’s work and words. Thank you so much Jenness Johnston for nominating me! I am so lucky.
Although I have always been a bit of a blogger-in-denial (that is, I love blogging but tend to throw my words out there while trying not to think where they will fall – something to do with writer’s block) and therefore have so much more blog reading to do, as part of my acceptance of this award I will nominate 10 inspirational bloggers who deserve to have their work read and appreciated:
1) Lipstick and Teeth. My close friend and political ally. The person who used lipstick in the title of her blog before I did and I was, like, ‘damn’! A person whose posts, although not frequent, are of such great quality that they always impress and inspire me. I highly recommend subscribing to her feed. Katherine, it’s you.
2) Another Visual Diary. A truly inspirational, never-relenting artist who keeps blogging and producing zines and charging around Leipzig and London on her long board. A fierce feminist and a beautiful person who has made me feel supported in my writing and inspired me to continue. Do check her photo diary out.
3) The Flannel Files is my favourite blog title yet. This butch lesbian approaches writing and life in a way that I really identify with.
4) Pankhearst is an independent writer’s collective with a dark sense of humour. I find it hard to summarise what it’s about and – you know what? – I don’t care. Each post speaks to interests I didn’t even know I had.
5) This one-woman SexEd blog is inspiring both because I admire its creator and because it has some truly fascinating and helpful information about sex on it. I love geeking out about these things!
6) A blog that addresses questions of being trans and/or queer, I like CN Lester most when they posts controversial material that sparks discussion between the gays. Like all these blogs, CN deserves this award for consistent, high quality, content.
7) OMG those feminists are funny! Your Monthly Periodical is a collective magazine-style blog that writes witty commentary on pretty much everything.
8) One of the first blogs I started following, I held Discipline and Anarchy up as a model of flawless writing and thought-provoking content. It doesn’t shy away from the controversial and I try to emulate that in Diary.
9) Sheesh! So much talent, such a big internet. Stop! Talking is another angry feminist blog that I just L.U.R.V.E.
10) Never afraid to shine a critical eye on the queer community, A Radical TransFeminist has some great info. I dare you to read it.
Hey kids, hows it hanging? Everyone in NYC all right? Hope so. So, as many of you Berliners know, this weekend is Zinefest Berlin 2012! Following the festival’s amazing debut last November, Zinefest continues, bringing self-published radical content to the world of Berlin’s underground. I was very lucky to be in attendance last year, along with my very popular vagina (or, more correctly, vulva) cupcakes and feminist zine. My awesome friend riotmade with love is selling my zine and all proceeds will go to a local queer project, because we are that nice. So go along and read!
03-04 November 2012
@ SFE Gneisenaustrasse 2a
Before I go ahead and publish my post of the week tomorrow, I wanted to let you guys know that I will now be publishing new content every Thursday. This is a (potentially self-defeating) to be more organised and provide you, the reader, with a more consistent service (blah blah blah). I could make a graph to prove this theory to you, but I can’t quite be bothered. So yeah, Rock on. Thursdays are now your favourite day of the week!