The Politics of Visibility

Last week’s Trans Day of Visibility saw a surge of critiques of the phrase’s dubious politics on my Facebook wall. Created in 2010 by the transgender Michigan activist Rachel Crandall, Trans Day of Visibility was meant to be a positive twin to the Trans Day of Remembrance. A celebration of the living, as a counterpart to the remembrance of the dead. However, the articles on my Facebook newsfeed also reminded me that visibility often puts trans people in harm’s way. One’s visible trans status, especially in the case of trans women and trans women of colour, often leaves trans people vulnerable to transphobic and transmisogynist violence.

In this article, I’m not trying to restate what others have so eloquently said. I want to ask a question about the origins of the politics behind TDOV’s name.

When I reposted a picture (below) celebrating TDOV, I paused at the word ‘visibility.’ It seemed an odd choice of word to me. For me, it seemed a word that might be more commonly used, or useful, in the case of celebrating lesbian, gay or bisexual identities, than trans identities.

trans day of visibility
Trans Day of Visibility

Identity politics requires the coherence of the group in question. When the identity of the group might not be visible, as is potentially in the case of some sexual minorities, members need to ‘come out’ as belonging to that group. To come out is to claim belonging. For kickass academic theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, this “epistemology of the closet” has come to structure gay identity as we know it today. It is by coming out that lesbian, gay and bisexual subjects come into being.

When I was studying at McGill University, I was a member of a group called Allies Montreal. We would visit local high schools in groups of three and facilitate workshops on homophobia at school. Our workshops would always start the same way: with our coming-out story. By telling our coming-out story we were situating ourselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual subjects. The story told the students we were the ‘real gays,’ come to educate them on gay stuff. We were legitimized as authorities on gay things. It allowed us, in a way, to speak.

Transgender Day of Visibility relies on a similar language of visibility politics. This may reflect trans’ status as an addendum to the pre-existing LGB. Although now commonplace, T was only a recent addition. And for many trans activists, piggybacking on gay acceptance isn’t that beneficial to trans rights. After all, does a group who advocates for sexual minorities and a group who advocates for gender minorities have much in common? This joining of causes may have been encouraged by the prevalence of trans people in many lesbian and gay communities and our political unification under the umbrella ‘queer.’

We are bound to talk about our identities in certain ways. LGBT activism has asked for identity recognition as access to power. In this sense, TDOV is asking that trans people be recognized as trans in order to access the language of equal rights that identity politics provides. Identity politics necessitates engaging in visibility politics –if one’s identity gives one access to power, then you need to be seen as that identity, you need to be recognized, in order to access power.

All this is to say, perhaps visibility isn’t the terms on which trans people should be fighting for their rights. It looks like we need to develop new languages and new ways of acknowledging trans people’s rights. I’m sure many others are far ahead of me.

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Fat Activism: A History By and For Fat People

New post over at rabble.ca! I wrote a review of Charlotte Cooper’s Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement. Go read the review and then buy the book!

This review has been up for a few days. I’ve been sick the past while and dragged my coughing, spluttering self to the desk in order to link it for y’all. Enjoy!

Fat Activism cover
Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement jacket

I have a Tumblr!

Hello all. I wanted to let you know that I have decided to officially incorporate my Tumblr blog into my Lipstick Terrorist empire. It’s called Mini Lipstick Terrorist and I want to use it as a space to share other people’s ideas, develop my own and have conversations with other femmes, queers, raging feminists and the like. I love how Tumblr lets you form and interact with communities. Expect to find quotes and reblogs from others I admire, my own theories in progress, fragmented thoughts and random geeky fandom gifs. It’s not very pretty yet, but it does have a lot of thought-provoking/hilarious content. Please follow me and I will be delighted to follow you! Head on over now to lipstickterrorist.tumblr.com.

Also, here is something funny I found the other day on Tumblr for all you GoT and cat fans:

Game of Sits
Samwell is the cutest

The shitty things we do to each other in the queer community

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.

cat finger point
A lighthearted illustration of call-out culture

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?

Dog shaming
Puppy shame from http://www.dogshaming.com

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.

On being 32, queer, and not pregnant

Why being a grown-up is hard, being an older queer is harder, and my feelings on discovering my brother is pregnant

Happy Family Day Canadians in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan! Happy Viola Desmond day in Nova Scotia and also Louis Riel day in Manitoba! Phew. Why can’t all of Canada agree on the same bloody holiday? That’s what this girl from a island that fits into your country, like, 40 times over (I calculated it) wants to know. What better way to celebrate the (I feel, rather patriarchal sounding holiday) by oversharing my conflicted feelings about aging, babies, careers and being a queer lady who is not pregnant, nor has easy access to sperm.

My little brother, who used to be small enough for me to pick up in my arms before he grew into an oversized human, is going to be a Dad. He FaceTimes me on the way to a dinner party with the ‘Amy is pregnant and we’re engaged!’ bombshell. Cue slightly maniacal laughter from both of us about the prospect of him being a Dad, my predictable outburst “I’m going to be the coolest feminist auntie ever” and my also predictable sinking feeling that he will now definitely be my parents’ favourite child.

I immediately call my partner and discuss where we can get some gay sperm to knock me up. I can get very competitive.

Fuck that biological clock
Fuck that biological clock

I spent the whole of yesterday in a weird daze, having given myself some kind of half concussion by dropping a glass pot lid on my nose, and having found out that I am going to be an auntie. Within a couple of hours of my brother’s we’re-having-a-baby-and-we’re-getting-married,-surprise! bombshell, I found out a dear friend of mine is engaged. This follows on the heels of finding out my best friend is pregnant a couple of weeks ago and a literal baby explosion among my straight friends in the UK.

It seems like all of my friends are having babies and getting married.

I, on the other hand, had spent a good part of last week trying to convince my partner that we should move to the prairies for my PhD program and had finally resorted to the manipulative outburst “I’ll marry you if you do.” Well done, Laura, you win romantic proposal of the year award. No thoroughly planned replica of our original date for me, oh no, just a desperate attempt to have my cake and eat it too.

Apparently, now we’re pre-engaged, or whatever that is. I prefer betrothed, as it sounds more Jane Austen-y and less nineties romcom or whatever.

So, all this is to say, that I’m feeling a lot of pressure when it comes to the aging, queerness and career front. Having vacillated a lot on the babies question in my twenties, not least because it’s not so straightforward when you’re unlikely to be partnered with a cisgender dude, I am coming to the conclusion that I probably do want the babies. Problem is, I also want the career, am starting a PhD this year, have no money and, according to received opinion, my eggs will start drying up in a couple of years if they haven’t already started to do so.

Argh! I know, #middleclassproblems, right? I am also aware that getting to do a PhD is a huge privilege, I know that my parents will always bail me out financially if necessary and I can probably get the sperm from somewhere. As I get older, I realize more and more that a) time passes and b) there is no perfect time to do anything anyway.

Plus, I’m a feminist and sceptical of the ‘have babies now now now woman it is your job and your time is running out!’ patriarchal narrative, because, you know, the patriarchy has an agenda.

I’ve also been following queer femme Michelle Tea’s blog on getting pregnant and found it upsetting to read about her fertility problems as a 40-something-year-old. Luckily, those fertility problems were not insurmountable as she now has a cute gayby called Atticus.

So, I think I’m probably going to try to do babies and PhD at the same time. This will be a couple of years after getting my dog next year, because, I’m not completely crazy or anything!

Anyway, that’s my opinion on gaybys. Happy Family Day everyone! (Barf.)

Should trans men be allowed into women’s colleges?

It would be an understatement to say I was pretty bothered by some of the views expressed in The New York Times Magazine’s article “When Women Become Men at Wellesley”. Despite the sensationalist title, the article was a well-rounded read, discussing diverse attitudes towards the inclusion of trans men at women-only college Wellesley in the US. I’m not going to descontruct some of the opinions expressed by the trans men in the article, because that has been done so brilliantly elsewhere. However, I do want to examine why we, as women and/or queers, welcome trans men into women-only spaces. And why don’t we welcome trans women?

My knee jerk reaction to the article’s implied question ‘Should trans men be allowed to attend women’s only colleges’ is ‘no.’ I don’t think a women-only space should be coopted by men, no matter whether trans or cis. I have always found the common inclusion of trans men in women-only spaces highly problematic. In the left-wing dyke queer scene, this inclusion usually simultaneously excludes trans women, whether explicitly or by sheer numbers. I feel this dynamic is offensive to both trans men and trans women.

When we say trans men are welcome in women-only/dyke-only spaces, aren’t we effectively saying that we don’t see them as men? That their female-assigned-at-birth status trumps their identification as men? When trans men participate in this inclusion, I also wonder why. Maybe they don’t want to give up a space they were formerly a member of. Maybe they simply haven’t examined the problematic dynamic of men taking up women’s space.

I just didn't want the first pic to be Cathy Puke Brennan
I just didn’t want the first pic to be Cathy Brennan

Although it may be bittersweet, transitioning means you do have to give up some things. For a trans man, he may have to give up the openness of women around those they perceive as other women. He may have to give up access to a dyke club, to a sisterhood. But, this is part of being a man. Sad as it is, the sexism inherent in our world means that women are mistrustful of men. Whether or not it is sad, women-only spaces are necessary and demanding to inhabit that space, as a man, is ignorant at best and misogynist at worse. It is clear that having been female assigned at birth does not give trans men ‘special insight woman powers,’ otherwise trans men might realize how women are routinely pushed out of physical, financial, institutional space. They then might realize how they are participating in that exclusion and cede the space to women.

It is also tragic that the inclusion of trans men in many women-only spaces often goes hand-in-hand with the exclusion of trans women. It’s weird to me that trans men would want to participate in this dynamic because it so obviously stems from seeing trans men and women as the gender they were assigned at birth, rather than the gender they actually are. Trans men are allowed in women’s spaces because they are perceived to not really be men, and trans women aren’t allowed in because they are perceived to be men. That feminist spaces perpetuate this transphobic dynamic saddens me.

Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women's spaces?
Are we being transphobic jerks like Cathy Brennan when we exclude trans women from women’s spaces?

However, the exclusion of trans men from women’s colleges isn’t as clear cut as we might like to think. Although trans men shouldn’t attend a women’s college, what about students who as FAB (female-assigned-at-birth) and gender queer? If gender is a spectrum, where should the cut off line be drawn? Although a butch woman should undeniably be allowed to attend a women’s college, what about a FAB trans gender queer person who takes testosterone but doesn’t identify as a trans man? As the New York Times article posits, you could say that, by challenging gender norms, gender queer folk and masculine women are being true to the spirit of women-only colleges.

I don’t have the answer to this last question, so I would appreciate any of your insights. What do you think about this debate? Should any lines be drawn?

Here’s some food for thought by the great thinker, Julia Serano: