(Note: This essay contains spoilers for both Analogue: A Hate Story and its sequel Hate Plus; in addition it assumes knowledge of the game and its story.)
“I just can’t believe a woman is responsible for all of this!” exclaims *Hyun-ae as you finish reading the most revelatory letter in all of Hate Plus’ archives. Her fury boils over—the regressed patriarchal nightmare that had taken hold on her colony ship, the Mugunghwa, the ninth circle of hell she had awoken into when her stasis pod was shattered by a feckless noble in want of a marriageable daughter, the same man who would steal her voice with steel—all of this was sired by a woman who made of her ideology a terrifying suture to bind the wounds of womanhood.
Oh Eun-a, no less an emancipated woman than the President of Mugunghwa University herself. She was the architect of the neo-Confucian patriarchy that the Mugunghwa degenerated into.
If pressed to name my favourite character in the series, I would—to no one’s greater shock than my own—have to name Oh Eun-a, however. In a game series that is an epistolary tableau of complex and intriguing characters, she manages quite the feat by standing out the most. Oh Eun-a is perhaps most easily described—and effaced—as a mad social scientist. But she is so much more than this sideways twist on a hoary old cliché; indeed, she reveals both the impossibility of womanhood under patriarchy and the terrible burdens of idealistic scholarship. Continue reading →
Michelle Goldberg’s feature in The Nation magazine about “Feminism’s toxic Twitter wars” landed in the social justice community like an incendiary cluster bomb and its merciless conflagration is still raging online. The article, framed around discourse about race among feminists and implicit villainisation of Mikki Kendall (of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame), enraged many who saw its misrepresentation of complex discussions skew towards condemning forthright voices of colour and protesting the innocence of the most privileged, white feminist leaders.
As someone who was interviewed in the piece, I feel a certain sense of responsibility for this and an obligation to speak out about the impact of something I had contributed to. If I had known that this was the article Ms. Goldberg would write, I would have advised her to write or frame it differently at the very least, or even hand it off to a writer from the communities she was describing who could better handle the fjord-like shoals of nuance that such critiques require. Whatever her intentions or beliefs, which I will not speculate about here, she wrote something that—as I have reflected these many long days—has left many feeling unheard, misunderstood, and villainised.
This, of course, does not even begin to describe how many trans people, myself included, felt mocked by Goldberg’s Spartan and unsympathetic description of the latest debate around the use of the word “vagina” as synecdoche for “women.”
But in the process of expressing that outrage something was lost, ultimately to the point of being effaced entirely: the fact that the article in question extensively quoted myself—a trans Latina—and other women of colour who spoke specifically to the ways that the aforementioned “toxic” culture in feminism had been harmful to us and our communities in particular.
In short, we spoke to the tragic irony of a purportedly intersectional feminism, operating in our names, which then erased us for our own putative good.
In the wake of another round of community-driven call-out articles on this topic, I felt compelled to do something I never thought I’d find myself doing—mostly out of my curious combination of shyness and wordiness—and that was to rant on Twitter.
Well, here’s the more “seemly space” I described, and come what may, here is the fuller version of what I had to say:
The Whitewashing of Activist Discourse
In the wake of Goldberg’s article, the right and proper impulse to defend Kendall and the other feminists of colour who had been antagonised by the piece became the dominant theme of much of the media criticism; it was beautiful in its way, it showed an unbowed community unwilling to be locked out of discourse about their lives and the meaning of their existence. They would not be dictated to about what their activism meant, nor would we stand for undue criticism of a tool that we use to talk back to the powerful.
A prime example of the latter is Janet Mock’s uncompromising response to Piers Morgan and his sensationalising interview that fixated unnecessarily on her embodiment rather than her activism. As she said, speaking to Buzzfeed about the incident, “That’s the special thing about social media now is that we can talk back. Piers doesn’t have the final say…Our media is just as valid.”
But the aforementioned Nation cluster bomb effect ensured that the community became more polarised than ever on the discussion of internal toxicity, and in the process the online debate became entirely about upper class white cis women and how the media was defending their hurt feelings against our online horde.
Some prominent activists even said that the article only defended white women and was only about their interests and interpretations—a fact that was patently untrue by dint of my own participation, as well as that of Samhita Mukhopadhyay, Brittney Cooper, Anna Holmes, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Jamia Wilson.
Indeed, the erasure of what we said in the activist responses to the article, and in the name of the new dominant narrative about it, which asserts that the Nation piece only privileged white women’s perspectives and interests, many social justice activists have repeated the manoeuvre that Jamia Wilson recounted from her own experience with the #FemFuture debacle:
“One self-described white feminist tweeted at her to explain that no women of color had been at the Barnard meeting “and that I needed to be educated about that,” Wilson recalls. Somehow, activists who prided themselves on their racial enlightenment “were whitesplaining me about racism,” she adds, laughing.”
I will also go on the record here and say that for all the unforced errors in the Nation feature’s framing, Goldberg’s use of my interview quotes and snippets of my writing did not in any sense “take them out of context,” as some have alleged. I cannot speak for any of the others, and Mikki Kendall herself has stated publicly that Goldberg misrepresented and misused her words (to be clear, soliciting Kendall’s memories about 5 year old events, and then calling her “obsessive” because she happened to remember, is downright low and patently unfair).
But for my part, my words were contextualised appropriately, and I will not claim to have been used by Ms. Goldberg, nor will I lend credence to the racist suggestion of others that saw me and the other women of colour dismissed as “tokens.”
As I tweeted, our part in the article was either ignored, or we were dismissed as tokens and then ignored. This is not a matter of personal pride and petulance; believe me when I say that there is a big part of me that wishes to squirrel up in a cave and never talk about this again. I did not get into activism to pen extensive pieces about rage culture, nor dwell on these topics with all the potential criticism it could entail or hurt it could cause, on top of the social justice work and academic work I’m already doing.
This is not “look at me”—this is “look at us.”
Feminist Madonnahood Redux
The discussion that Goldberg dove into was one that had been started chiefly by marginalised people. My part in it grew out of a discourse amongtransgender gaming critics (two of whom, including myself, were women of colour). We continued a larger, longer tradition of internaldiscourse about activist culture. For many of us, this was a culture we neither created nor asked for, dominated by norms, argot, mores, and rage sired by a predominantly white, cis middle-class core that had always presumed itself implicitly more knowledgeable about “what the real issues are.”
Activist perfection and ideological purity were always luxuries of the privileged. The perfect activist life is bought; it is a commodity; it could never be something organically attainable in our present relations of capital and ruling, least of all by those of us for whom “compromise” is the air we breathe.
And this inspired discussion aplenty, mostly from the most marginalised or maligned voices in feminism, about a particular form of toxicity that threatened to rob of us of the only community we had. It was a discussion about how we, as people on the margins, hurt each other using activist logics we either did not create, or created under unacknowledged and compromised positions. It is unsurprising that women of colour and trans peoplehave had the most to say about this; we are the ones who most exceed the comfortable boundaries of activist perfection and for whom the compromises so anathema to purism are a necessary way of life.
Many of our discussions about activist rage sought to acknowledge both our own complicity in it, why it happened, what external forces often compelled it (the Nation article is a good example of this, to which I’ll return), and yet also name who too often held the real power in activist movements and what the consequences of that were.
One of the cardinal sins of the Nation piece was that it did the very thing I strenuously avoided in my own writing about the subject: it re-litigated past events and named and shamed individuals, condensing all possible discussion into a singularity from which no light could escape.
Now all debate would be about whether the disagreement around #FemFuture was represented appropriately and how Mikki Kendall as an individual was characterised. It is a ditch into which discussions about activist toxicity are easily driven because of our nigh-on cognitive bias towards discussing individuals rather than social structures—no doubt it was what made Goldberg herself more interested in writing the article the way she did in the first place (or what steered her editors to encourage her to writing the article that way).
Note that I am not saying we ought not discuss these things; Mikki Kendall’s portrayal in the article is, after all, an excellent case study of the subtle ways media bias can operate and why our relationship with the press as women of colour is always a fraught one. But it is instructive to consider how the “rich white women vs. the rest of us” dynamic is all the discussion is about now.
On Misappropriation and its Consequences
The comments beneath the Nation piece itself are, by and large, like the screaming death of reason itself. Everything I ever feared from speaking out on this topic has manifested there.
Men smugly proclaiming this is the end of feminism or proof of its obsolescence, MRAs wailing that men as a whole were victims of “feminist toxicity” and that women should be punished, atheist MRAs proclaiming Richard Dawkins the most prominent victim of “toxicity” from feminists, and still others accusing Amanda Marcotte, Rebecca Watson, Sady Doyle, and other women of being purveyors of “feminist toxicity” (against men, of course).
Meanwhile those on the Left accused Goldberg of supporting apartheid in Israel (because she’d critiqued a tactic of the boycott movement) and Justine Sacco (because she, like others, myself included, had been downright horrified by the way the response to her on social media had spiralled violently out of control—it’s one thing to call out racism, it’s another to have people waiting at an airport to harass the offender, sending rape and death threats, et cetera.).
The polarisation of the discussion evinces many of the issues with online toxicity as a whole, but also the big problem with discussing these issues in front of such a wide audience. Latoya Peterson wrote about this on Twitter recently better than I ever could:
“Real talk: The crew at [Racialicious] expected random shit to happen in feminism. We didn’t expect our peeps to try to eat us too. But you have to look at cycles/systems. If I call out xxx feminist of color for being fucked up, it gives ammo to those trying to discredit. So then, I can’t even critique someone on our beef without thinking about how that plays into power structures. Because I knew if I went hard on xxx feminist of color for xyz problem, people would piggy back on my critique in ways I didn’t want.”
The wide public exposure of what began as a family discussion makes misappropriation inevitable; it attracts swarms of people clamouring to deny responsibility, hide behind it, and tell the whole world about that one time a woman of colour was mean to them.
Which, indeed, was the other dreadful thing about the Nation comments: it seemed to spawn a whole minor subgenre within itself about white cis feminists complaining about a specific incident with a specific woman of colour from a specific number of years ago. It merely added to the drear beneath the article and, in and of itself, acts as a specific form of silencing. For one thing, it disincentivises any feminist from talking about internal community problems and poisonous dynamics, but it makes it triply hard for trans people and/or women of colour to lead those discussions because of the specific ways our words can be and often are misused.
It also makes polarisation easy; it makes sweeping declarations of “internet gentrification” easy and attractive. We can defend the most vulnerable from the most privileged, and at a stroke change or challenge the narratives directed against us.
Whose e-Streets? Our e-Streets
But the problem with this, and the wider idea of internet gentrification and the assumptions such an argument relies on, is that it pretends there is no such thing as internal toxicity that disempowers and silences other marginalised people. It makes no provision for the way we do violence to each other.
I myself nearly got bullied out of activism by two other trans women, one of whom was a trans woman of colour, who mocked and derided me for an innocent mistake and then wished death to a friend I had been defending. In the light of hindsight, I understand why my views at the time were somewhat misguided and that this needed to be addressed, but I was so thoroughly vituperated that I nearly gave up online writing altogether.
I have helplessly watched trans loved ones be attacked by other trans people, shamed publicly as self-hating trans people, because of literally a single misunderstood word. I have borne witness to death threats, to people telling others to commit suicide (or even taking bets on whether the latter would occur), picking apart a woman of colour’s history to meet some arbitrary test of authenticity (one that was, lest we forget, structured by white supremacy), slandering someone into the ground for something they actually did not say, erasing each other’s words when it was expedient in the short term, engaging in inappropriate sexual commentary (be it about genitals, attractiveness, secondary sex characteristics, etc.), yelling at a trans woman who called 911 as a trans woman of colour was on the verge of suicide per her livetweets thereof, and so on.
These are all things we have done to each other. And sorting this out is a discussion worth having. It is still a discussion worth having, and discussing this is not “gentrification.” It is not about making the internet safe for the privileged or denuding us of our ability to respond with forthrightness and courage to those in power who antagonise us.
I have tremendous respect for those like Suey Park—the foremost articulator of the “internet gentrification” concept—who have taken the lead in responding to the prejudicial aspects of The Nation article and what it represents; the work they do for us on the outside of, or the margins, of the mainstream press and funded feminism is remarkable, challenging, and discomfiting in the best ways possible.
In that same spirit, however, we as women of colour must also not allow half of our voice to be silenced in the name of a misbegotten idea of solidarity, and I am willing to say loudly and proudly that we have the ability to have multiple difficult discussions at once, to speak truth to power and be accountable to ourselves.
There is no party line, there is only us.
The True Wages of Privilege in Activism
What I had strained to get at in my writing, as well as in my recent tweets, is the fact that so many norms in activist culture, as well as what gets considered pure and just, is often not decided by us but by better-off white radicals who have luxuries of choice and sacrifice we couldn’t dream of. Indeed, one of the leading headwinds against much of my own work comes from the trends sired by white queer masculine folks with access to class privilege, and whose definition of what constitutes queer culture, radicalism, and solidarity have a good deal more weight than those that originate from trans feminine folks and trans communities of colour.
Such white radicals are the first to wonder why no trans women of colour would show up to an event labelled “Tranny Pride” and then turn around and politely degrade us for being “conservative” or “reinforcing of the binary” in our desire for surgery, feminine affectation, or any number of other perceived sins. Those activist norms are also toxic.
It is worth noting that those same people would likely clamour to show public solidarity with an idea like “internet gentrification” (even as they gentrify neighbourhoods in the physical world), because the “enemy” it focuses on lives somewhere in a Valhalla occupied by Rachel Maddow and Gloria Steinem, and not in the world of activism where these particular white queer radicals I’ve described actually live.
The recent arguments put forth by many social justice advocates posit a Manichean cleavage between two camps of feminism. In so doing, they both erase the complicated critiques of certain (cis and trans) women of colour, and gives wide berth for culpable white radicals to hide and pretend solidarity– with no discussion about how what “radical” even means is something they have far too much control over– while also shutting down discussion over how we can hold each other accountable.
By making this discussion entirely about the already-privileged, we repeat a mistake that I criticised in a recent paper, which described the ways that popular discourse around anonymity focuses only on what (presumptively young, white, cis) men are doing with it. By fixating on men’s purported abuses of anonymity and seeing it only as an accelerant to their virtual harassment of women, I argued, we ignored the ways that online anonymity was of tremendous positive value to women, people of colour, LGBT people, and others (including domestic violence or abuse victims of all backgrounds). We blunted our own understanding of this vital modern phenomenon because of a popular fixation on the way privileged people exercised it.
The same thing is happening here in the wake of the Nation piece.
By allowing ourselves to think of the term “toxicity” only as a dog whistle against women of colour, we neglect the extensive, recent history of feminist insurgency against online harassment, which often critiqued social media, but never used it as coded synonym for women of colour’s voices or criticisms. The best way to overcome the mistakes of The Nation article is not to declare all discussion of online toxicity verboten, but to bring the discussion back to the complicated place we’ve been taking it for years—both in terms of describing internal and external dynamics. As a trans woman of colour it has been the pride of my life to write about both at length; discourse on toxicity, inside and outside feminism, has not only taken place between the privileged.
To give but one of many examples of discussions we could be having louder and more often: how much the linguistic focus of call-out culture (i.e. using the wrong terms, words, et cetera) is possessed of a significant class/formal-education-access bias. We talk about class all the time and piously observe that formal, credentialed education is a privilege, but if someone like my mother, who never went to high school and knows about all this social justice work only through me, were to stumble and say “transgendered” instead of “trans person,” what would we say? And why? If we can be honest with ourselves about that, we have already created a foundation for an important discussion.
That is what has been lost in the wake of the Nation article.
There is no doubt that our arguments have already been “piggy backed” on by many who are operating in bad faith, but if we allow that to silence and erase trans/women of colour with something complicated to say, those of us who embody intersectionality in its truest sense (with specific identities that also inform larger wholes) are at risk of losing the movement that supposedly speaks for us.
We cannot continue to locate the problem of prejudices exclusively in the stratum of elite media feminists or commentators—responsible as they are—we must also look inward at what we allow to transpire in the name of solidarity and what its costs are.
There is no party line, there is only us. And movement or no, everything we are, and everything we embody and represent, will remain on this earth; what we say can either further the cause of justice, or it can be lost in the name of bathing the already-privileged in yet more undeserved limelight.
Not long ago my partner and I were seated in her car discussing the arbitrary nature of certain holidays and I opined, perhaps halfheartedly, that New Year’s was a worthwhile holiday simply for it being a useful vantage point for reflection, however arbitrary. It provides an overlook whence one can see a year of one’s life and world. A recent tranche of writing by severalprominentmembersof the trans and queer feminist gaming community has renewed my faith in that idea– with the overleaf of the year we suddenly find a great deal of penetrating insight into activist discourse and the risks incurred by our silence about certain excesses that have come to define us too often.
The wages of rage in our communities, and the often aimless, unchecked anger striking both within and without have created a climate of toxicity and fear that not only undermine our highest ideals, but also corrode the comforts of community for the very people who most need it. One of the most leaden wages of that culture of rage is, indeed, fear. I have been praised for my voice by many in this community and called “brave” by more people than I can name, count, or thank; and yet sitting in my My Documents folder is a number of articles, some finished, others not, that are “on ice.”
When I mention the icebox of unpublished posts and articles to friends and colleagues, I do so with a forced smile, pretending that it’s a heady combination of academic perfectionism and fear of being attacked by bigots that leads me to suppress them. There is more than a grain of truth to this. As many of my friends, loved ones, and sisters in struggle have demonstrated and written about, there is a lot to fear from the 4chan-esque world of angry young men with ample resentment towards those of us they perceive to be purloining some birthright of theirs. My academic work is devoted, in no small measure to explaining their behaviour (more on this in a bit).
But I am lying when I say they are the sole source of my hesitation.
The rest, often as not even the lion’s share, comes from fear of something with the power to cut even deeper– my own community. I fear being cast suddenly as one of the “bad guys” for being insufficiently radical, too nuanced or too forgiving, or for simply writing something whose offensive dimensions would be unknown to me at the time of publication. In other words, for making an innocently ignorant mistake.
The Tumblr-isation of Activism
I have feared stumbling over the Tumblr trip wire and falling into the abyss of “call-out culture” to be discredited with every slur and slander in the book by the people who I ought to be able to trust the most. This stays my author’s hand as much as anxiety about being attacked by, say, the same crowd that bedevils Anita Sarkeesian. I fear the moment I get tarred as a “collaborator,” “apologist” for privilege, or a “sell out” (to women, to Latin@s, to working class people, to trans folk). Equally troubling is the fear of my loved ones being caught in the mammoth whirlpool of Twitter/Tumblr Justice and tarred for their association with me.
Fear of this sends me, yearning, into the oblivious embrace of silence.
I have written about this in the past, obliquely, and spoken in either couched or very specific terms about my feelings on this matter, which have haunted my thoughts for some time. So much online social justice activism has become hyper-vigilant against sin, great or small, past or present. That sense, that even the smallest, meanest revelation of past transgressions would come back to haunt me, inspired this paragraph in an old article I wrote about the painful contradictions of feminist activism:
“The pressure for me has always been to aspire to that feminist Madonnahood, and the perfection this demands is rigorous indeed. There is a strangely Catholic quality to the demand I often hear to show my scars, to prove I am a woman by showing how I have been hurt, to prove that patriarchy can wound me by showing how it has.
For there is something very odd about what the perfection my activism and my internalised sense of morality has demanded of me. It is not only that I show my scars but that I, paradoxically, testify to my permanent perfection from birth. In this world where patriarchy has scratched, burned, and tortured me- and where proving this martyrdom is a requirement of feminist perfection- I must also somehow be unblemished by patriarchy.”
I stand by this, but I deliberately left enough spaces for readers to assume that I was speaking about white cis middle class feminism, the dreaded “mainstream” variety that it was more acceptable to criticise. I was, but I was also speaking about the wider activist enterprise upon which many of us are embarked. This includes the world of online social justice activism, trans politics–indeed, the radical left as a whole. We must paradoxically be “oppressed” and yet bear none of the markings of that oppression upon our consciousness; we can never bear baggage or scars; as people of colour we can never show our veil of double consciousness, per W.E.B DuBois. It feels, sometimes, as if we must arrive fully formed to the world of activism, the perfect agents of change, somehow entirely cognisant of the ever shifting morass of rules and prescribed or proscribed words, phrases, argot, and thought.
But this also presumes that there is some kind of Platonic perfection to which we must unproblematically aspire. There is the lingering but important question of disagreement; identity does not fully contain humanity, and there are many of us who are women, and/or trans, and/or people of colour who have good faith arguments against dominant strategic paradigms, or dominant cultures, norms, and rules. Time and again, I speak to people of my background in the whisper filled shadows of corners and corridors, quietly fretting about “getting it wrong” or being accused of collaboration or being a sell-out for voicing such criticisms. Even when such whispers have the audacity to become a loud conversation (behind locked doors) they rarely grow into public debates– too many of us fear we’re alone.
Identity and Politics
In a characteristically elegant act of rhetorical artistry, scholar Edward Said used his article on William Butler Yeats and colonialism to find insights about the entire colonial/anti-colonial enterprise. Said took the cultural ferment that he argued gave rise to much of Yeats’ oeuvre and used it to elaborate on both the triumphs and follies of decolonisation– to brilliant effect
Yeats, in being a tribune for Irish liberation (albeit a rather problematic one, as Said explains elsewhere), wrote poetry that was not only about Ireland and Irishness but also poems that held,
“…a good deal of promise in getting beyond them, not remaining trapped in the emotional self-indulgence of celebrating one’s own identity. There is first of all the possibility of discovering a world not constructed out of warring essences. Second, there is the possibility of a universalism that is not limited or coercive, which beliving that all people have only one single identity is… Third, and most important, moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine one’s self to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, its built in chauvinism, and its limiting sense of security.”
“Nativism” is Said’s word for nationalisms that trumpet a reversal of colonialist hierarchies, exalting rather than denigrating the purported essence of the colonised. This, Said argues, leads to a “metaphysics of essences” that then begets an “unthinking acceptance of stereotypes, myths, animosities, and traditions encouraged by imperialism.”
So, what does this have to do with us and online activism? Said was speaking to vexations that have bedevilled every liberation movement, and used art to elucidate what is a fairly common struggle: how do we continue on the path to the promised land without taking perpetual detours in hells of our own making? How do we avoid the pitfalls created by the very fires we use to emancipate ourselves? And most pertinent for me: how do we do activism without taking too much of patriarchy for granted?
I have long argued (privately) that our current phase of online activism is very much hobbled by the logic of neoliberalism and its emphasis on the individual, in ways that many of us are completely unaware of. Much online activism exalts the particular at the expense of the collective, rewarding individual episodes of catharsis and valuing them with considerably higher esteem than the more hard-nosed and less histrionic work that sustains a community. This is the dark side of the anxiety over the “tone argument.”
The Uses of Anger to Late Capitalism
Odds are if you belong to marginalised group, you are saddled with a stigma against being angry. Women, people of colour, people with disabilities, trans people, the poor and labouring classes, all face various and specific stigmas for being “too loud” or “too angry.” There are paradigmatic stereotypes in the particular, as well, “Angry Black Wo/Man,” “Angry Tranny,” “Feisty Latina,” “Dragon Lady,” “class warrior,” and so on, with which we are all painfully familiar in one way or another. It was with noble intentions that many of us rallied around the idea that “tone policing” was an oppressive construct meant to deny us the eminent humanity and cleansing fire of anger. We had a right to be angry, as surely as anyone else; moreso, even. Oppression ought to make one angry.
But in the process, “the tone argument” came to be understood less as a complex piece of social machinery than an easily identifiable trope; it then became a badge that could be waved at will in any discussion to absolve one of responsibility for their words. Even though we as leftists quite literally wrote the book(s) on why and how language matters, we suspend that understanding when it comes to our own community members because we have come to value the sanctity of their anger over the integrity of the wider group. Some of us excuse this on the grounds that we provide the only safe place for certain people to express anger without being shamed for it, and that living with oppression leaves us with pent up rage that demands expression.
The individual catharsis, then, comes to matter more than the collective, and responsibility to a wider community is blurred, if not quite lost.
It’s why it was difficult for many in the trans community to challenge the #DieCisScum hashtag, for example, because any who questioned it would be charged with “tone policing” and denying the community’s right to be angry. But the problem always was that this pseudo-therapeutic exercise in catharsis only made a few people feel better while starting a violently unnecessary and unhelpful discussion with hordes of cis people who laid their own hurt and anger at every trans person’s door. It took a tarring brush to the entire community for next to no meaningful gain, other than sticking it to “our oppressors” for the benefit of a handful.
This is where we return to Said and his argument that nativism operated under colonialist logic; in addition to the emphasis on individual catharsis, the culture of unchecked rage that sometimes wracks us is also an artefact of patriarchy itself and its lust for competitive, often violent contest. Much ink has been spilled on the masculinism that infects activist discourse, leading to delightfully snarky epithets like “Manarchism,” but we ignore the fact that white cis men are not the only people perpetuating this; it’s a culture, it does not dwell only in those with a perceived “essence.” We often unthinkingly accept and venerate the modalities and methods that patriarchy most favours; rage fuelled, unempathetic, us-versus-them politics is an ideal fit with the political hellscape of modern, neo-liberal patriarchy. It is a world that prizes the atomised particular over the powerful but compromising collective.
Your rage fuels the profits of every major website on the internet; be it Facebook, Twitter, Fox Nation, the New York Times’ comment sections, blog comments, Reddit, Tumblr, or Slashdot, your rage gets others angry, committing them to call-and-response threads hundreds of comments deep, which keeps them coming back to threads obsessively, which generates pageviews, ad impressions, and more revenue for the interested parties.
Activist rage is linkbait.
The isomorphism between the particularly fiery posture of some activism and the weeknight lineup of American cable news ought not be lost on us. If we can recognise the latter as a cynical sop to capital that is degrading our discourse, then it might be time to acknowledge that, at least sometimes, we are pressed into a similar role by the cultural logic of our society. Rage seduces us all, no matter what our background, and its sirensong will always be in the language that most appeals to us as individuals, regardless of our politics.
Ethics for Queer Cyborgs
This past year I began to outline a theory of online behaviour, entitled Ethics For Cyborgs, that explained why we ought to go beyond blaming anonymity for the rash outbreaks of prejudice and mass cruelty that predominate online– what is sometimes erroneously called “trolling,” and what too often becomes a very material threat to one’s life and livelihood. I argued, in brief, that although anonymity was a part of the problem, it has been vastly overemphasised in popular and academic discussions alike, and that taking it away would not bring us to a significantly better place online, free from prejudice and the oppression of privilege’s collective soft power. Instead, I said it must be defended as a common human right for us all online, and that we must look instead to the fact that the internet is presented to us as a mobius strip of reality and unreality– real when it’s convenient, unreal when it is not, and that the cultural conceits educating us into thinking of cyberspace as less real than “meatspace” make inhumane behaviour inevitable. This is a new medium for human interaction, and one where our socialisation for it has been decidedly faulty, laden with the false conventional wisdom that our eyes deceive us.
This argument was presented as one that chiefly explained the well-known behaviour of prejudiced people who would form hate mobs directed at outspoken women and queer people. The hate mail, the organised campaigns, the rape and death threats, the pornography, the organised and well-marshalled targeting of people’s homes, families, and loved ones, would be, I argued, more intelligible within this framework.
What I did not foreground, however, was the fact that this theory– that we are socialised to believe the internet is less than real, and that this makes belligerent behaviour more likely and more defensible– also explained the less violent, but still worrying behaviour of some social justice activists who delight in vitriolic attacks against their own when they are perceived to have erred. The fusillade of expletive laden insults and cruelly-cast public aspersions by our own are equally explicable by that theory. We ourselves fail to keep sight of the fact that the people we attack are human beings, and that our words have power.
My friend, activist Kat Hache, spoke about this phenomenon in her own article on activist rage:
“Anita Sarkeesian’s TED talk touched on this sort of performative cruelty, where targeting other individuals online has gained somewhat of a competitive aspect, similar to that of a video game, with a rewards system that reinforces toxic behavior. I have to say, as much as I’ve seen directed at me that mirrors exactly what she describes in the threads about me on 4chan, I’ve seen a disturbing amount within the social justice circle.”
I find myself reminded of the time when I was a tadpole trans woman and mere neophyte blogger, when I was raked over the coals by a woman who damned me for defending a cis friend who had made a mistake on trans issues; not only was I torn into, but another woman even wished death to that same friend when I (ill-advisedly) brought up her terminal illness. My interlocutor hoped my friend would die sooner, she said.
It is an extreme example but one that is nevertheless entirely too common, and one that I came perilously close to taking as a model. There was a time in my life where I took pride in being a “social justice warrior” on Reddit, ticking the boxes of others’ mistakes, missteps, and misspoken words, cruelly scolding people, looking for those who were “doing it wrong” as a means of validating my own sense of integrity as an activist, as if each person I roasted would be a talisman against the same thing happening to me ever again. It was only when I discovered that I had made someone cry for hours that I took a long step back and asked myself if I was really making the world a better place by doing this.
I had at last allowed myself to acknowledge that this was not what I wanted to do as an activist.
From Here to Eternity: Concluding Thoughts
At its best, activism is not merely opposition to what is, it is also constructive of what will be. Ours is not a utopia of negatives– a world without this, without that, and so forth– but also a world of affirmatives and possibilities. This swirling gyre of rage and ressentiment is a terrible artefact of oppression, and one we ought not consign ourselves to. It is not a wormhole to liberation, however much we may wish it to be.
What aroused my concern was the fact that there are too many people, in the trans community alone, who feel like they are unable to call it their community and find shelter there because the tenor of discourse is so corrosive as to be just as stressful and antagonistic as the outside world. I hear this from a number of people who are close to me and have contributed mightily to activist communities with labour, art, and struggle– and I hear it from neophytes and outsiders who wish to join but find themselves put off by the rancour they hear from within. One example of the latter was a trans woman named Deb who commented on an article I wrote criticising the culture that led to the vicious online firestorm surrounding Carolyn Petit and her review of GTA V. Deb worried that that same “poisonous attitude” was creeping into “otherwise nice places,” going on to cite examples of speech in queer communities that troubled her. My reply was at pains to draw a clear distinction between oppressive speech and counter-oppressive speech, and to assert that the difference in power between the two was not trivial. Nevertheless, her core points could not be denied and so I addressed those at greater length. What I said there is, I think, a good way to close:
“It is not reasonable to compare the angry speech of a powerless minority to the “hate speech” (in the legal and sociological sense of that term) of a privileged group, but there is an ethical argument to be made. We may not materially disadvantage cis people when we speak in such overtly aggressive ways, but we do something equally bad– and you exemplify this– we isolate our community members and corrode the very community that is meant to be a shelter for us against an often uncaring world. I do not wish to be in a community where spite and anger are the prevailing emotions, however justified they may be in some cosmic sense. More than cis people, we owe it to each other to make our community more productive. The simple and ineluctable truth about our corrosive call-out culture is that it’s part of this larger problem I addressed, where we use the unique nature of the internet to do harm. People saying that others should commit suicide, die in a fire, or making death threats are not acceptable– whoever says them. And as feminists and social justice activists, we must make that clearer without indulging in the overused and disingenuous argument that oppression makes that sort of expression valid.”
We must remember that considering the impact of our words and the register in which they are spoken is not genuflection to the oppressor, but love and respect for our peers.
I would now take this one step further to say that while sheltering our community members must always take priority, we must also challenge ourselves to be merciful to those who make themselves our enemies, and keep their humanity in sight even as they denude themselves of it with petty hatred. We can do more than simply meet their cruelty with ineffectual rage, and we can do more than simply shelter in place from their privilege. It is time that we took our convictions to their logical conclusion and set our sights higher than the call outs of particular points of failure evinced by some hapless individual; it is time we took the next step so many in our communities are already taking, to a social justice activism recommitted to changing social structures and not just creating echo chambers to declaim against what we have. In Mattie Brice’s words we “need to keep in mind that we’re fighting the system that uses people to marginalise others, not the people themselves.”
Throughout this piece I have, likely to the consternation of some, been less careful with my uses of the terms “anger” and “rage” than some of the other critics and activists I have cited. I did this in part because I think it can be healthy to be critical about what we admit as “anger” and thus acceptable under the dominant paradigms of activist discourse. One can take the excellent tack that Aevee Bee took in her article and say that “anger isn’t abuse and abuse isn’t anger,” recognising that abuse is not something we should excuse with the ennoblement of anger that we indulge, but we can also think about the efficacy of even “acceptable” forms of anger. Why? Because I believe that lack of circumspection is at the heart of the problem. We allow important activist insights to metamorphose into inflexible rules, rather than useful information to help us make sense of an ever-undulating landscape. Yes, anger is useful and sometimes vitally necessary. But we can hold onto that while judging activist tactics on a case by case basis. Rather than applying blanket rules (“all questioning of anger is tone policing”) we can be nimbly thoughtful in our assessments and recognise that not every problem we face is the nail to anger’s hammer.
Justice does not take the shape of punishment eagerly dispensed. Let us recommit to the just creed that has summoned us to this work: a clarion call that resonates with our shared humanity and compels us towards a more compassionate and merciful understanding of justice– surely we owe it to ourselves.
There is a familiar cadence to the bursts of Twitter mobbing that have become the defining spasms of cyber-politics these days.
Someone in a position of privilege says something mildly foolish, they are called out on it, and then the privileged individual’s response rises to the level of something genuinely concerning and worth talking about.
It is as if some activists excel at chipping away at the wafer-thin façade of public personas to reveal the monsters beneath. While I sometimes find the methods dubious, the unmasking is often as not a public service. We should be made aware of the latent prejudices or hidden failings of many in our commentariat and we’re the better for it.
So what did we learn from the now hilariously infamous Honeygate, the latest Richard Dawkins micro-scandal to rock social media and set virtual tongues awag? Someone close to me described the reaction to the initial Dawkins honey tweet as “tilting at windmills,” and I admit I’m actually inclined to agree with them. It is hardly the worst thing Richard Dawkins has ever said, and had the words been uttered by anyone else they would hardly have occasioned such an outcry. Had my father said it, I might have even agreed with him (while of course privately snickering about honey-based whinging). But what made Dawkins’ tweet so irritating to those of us who’ve had to field his barrage of pop-sociological ignorance for so long has been drawn into stark relief by his response to the, in his words, “puerile display of sniggering frivolity” that occurred on social media. As ever, the response of a man like Dawkins to public criticism is considerably more revealing than the initial “offence” that occasioned the criticism.
The title of his piece says it all: “My Honey Trap: Why Doesn’t Anyone Believe in Public-Spirited Concern?”
And it is, at last, here that the hypocrisies of Dawkins’ belief system become gobsmackingly offensive. It is not because anything he says in the article is strictly wrong, it’s that it reveals Richard Dawkins to be a man whose “public concern” is limited to the petty, stopping well short of things that actually matter. His myopia blinkers him to the myriad ways in which he takes a sledgehammer to civil society and the dignity of its citizens.
On Missing the Forest for the Trees
The example with which he opens the article—his ill fated attempt to get a financial institution to make a minor convenience change to its website—seems representative of those things that animate Richard Dawkins-as-citizen. For him, public service means gently easing the lives of the comfortable in small ways. Occasionally, this will rise to the level of more noteworthy, practical significance, such as his lament for the family whose child was forced by airport security to go without necessary eczema cream. Strictly speaking, these are fine things to be concerned about; I too would like certain frequently-used websites to be updated with certain convenient modifications, and I too applaud those who send kind and informative feedback to institutions to make that happen.
But Dawkins seems to ennoble this with elegant laurels that are woefully oversized considering the trivial situations he lists, and smug condescension lies murmuring just beneath it all. Consider how he economically describes the exchange between himself and that customer service representative:
She thought I wanted satisfaction for myself in particular. It appeared to be outside her comprehension that somebody might take the time to make a public-spirited suggestion to help other people.
“Well, I’ve been on your website trying to get a bank statement, and I’d filled in the whole form before I was told that the system was down anyway. Could I suggest … ”
“My apologies for that, Richard, let me help you now. What exactly is it you require?”
“Er, no, I don’t think you understand. I’ve already got what I personally needed. I want to report the difficulty I had, so that you can make sure other people don’t suffer the same inconvenience in future.”
“Richard, please tell me what is the date of the bank statement you need, and I’ll have it sent to you.”
“No, I already have the bank statement I need. I’m trying to help other people in my situation … ”
I might have been speaking Volapük. She simply didn’t understand a word of Voluntary-Public-Spirit.
I suspect that the problem here has less to do with her and more with the narrow suite of options for helping customers that she was given by her company. It isn’t that she cannot comprehend the idea of helping others or that she is an insensible spectre to the light of public spirit, it’s simply that her company likely does not allow her to accept that kind of feedback and perhaps she was not used to hearing it via that particular channel. Dawkins isn’t wrong to wonder at why things are structured this way—but if he were to truly get to the bottom of it he might be forced to confront the idea that the entire private sector is built on an individualist myth that rewards self-interest and selfishness, an ideology mirrored in its vision of customer service, and epitomised by the classic slogans “the customer is always right” and “the consumer is king.” I suspect that confronting those challenging notions would be a lot less comfortable for Professor Dawkins than upbraiding a poor customer service rep in the pages of The Guardian for being resistant to his civic-mindedness.
This is, in many ways, Dawkins’ biggest problem: he addresses social problems in painfully narrow fashion and is utterly blind to social structure. He would rather blame faulty individuals (or even a mass of them) than think about truly social questions—and yes, society is more than merely a collection of individual foibles.
To put an even finer point on it, it is why Dawkins is able to write an article like this without a scintilla of irony or self-awareness, after many years of ranting at the barricades of public discourse in an especially racist, sexist register, and doing far more violence to our polity than a thousand confiscated honey jars or scores of broken bank websites. By being deliberately inflammatory and disingenuous about ethnic minorities in Britain—such as blatantly race baiting through his odious tweet mocking Muslims for not having more Nobel prizes to their name—he is rusting the radiant copper statues of civic virtue and corroding our discourse. He cheapens debate by fully adopting Twitter’s pithy idiom in his pop-sociologising about religion and its adherents, breathelessly pearl-clutching at “puerile” social media one moment, and dismissing a population of billions as idiots the next.
A Matter of “Principle”
Throughout this tempest in a honeypot Dawkins asseverated that the material loss of his honey was not at issue, it was the principle of the matter; security theatre and its pointless quotidian humiliations, he seemed to say, was what he was really complaining about. In this way “Bin Laden won,” by ensuring the death of civic trust and freedom through the thousand cuts of doffed shoes, belts, and zipped plastic bags of not more than a quart in capacity.
Principle is beautiful. It is the marble colonnade of democracy, the elegant flourish of calligraphy on parchment that spells out our rights and duties as citizens. But principle must animate something, some substance, some material reality in order to be worth the parchment upon which it was so lovingly written.
Dawkins must complain about principle here because indeed that is all that is at stake for him. For a woman thought to be Muslim, by contrast, who must endure sexual humiliation every time she passes through an airport checkpoint, the distinction dissolves painfully into the irrelevance of immediate bodily harm. It is indistinct for her precisely because the principle is the harm that was caused to her, it is the loss of her dignity, it is the human right absconded with by that selfsame security theatre. And her condition is one that is constructed and buttressed by the words of men like Dawkins who conveniently forget their pretensions to civic-mindedness when opining in grand forums about the supposed backwardness and inherent threat posed by people who are perceived to be of the Muslim faith.
When Dawkins appropriates that Muslim woman’s putative life experience and perverts it into a simulacrum that enables him to tut-tut activist and thinker Rebecca Watson who complained, rather politely, that it was unwise and unkind for male strangers to proposition women in a hotel lift at 3AM, he forgot the language of “Voluntary Public Spirit.” Indeed, one wonders if Watson was speaking Volapük.
By mocking women, including atheist and sceptic women who are part of Dawkins’ own political stratum, simply because they try to convey the unique social realities of an experience Mr. Dawkins himself does not, and cannot share, he lets loose a rather generous, malodorous pile of leavings upon the very idea of civic spirit. A glitchy bank website isn’t worth an atom of a fig when compared to the fact that we, Dawkins’ female fellow citizens, have a profoundly different relationship to the world of night, to dark alleys, lonely streets, and 3AM lifts. Yet which does he ennoble with the flowering garlands of “public spiritedness”? That says something in and of itself.
Where was he, one wonders, when his fellow “Horseman” Sam Harris called for Muslims to be “racially profiled”? If ever there was an hour for our civic minded superman to duck into a phone box and emerge to reveal his colourful, democratic tunic, it was surely then.
Yet it is, in the final analysis, the fact that honey is ineluctably a liquid that sees Dawkins gesturing to those great marble columns and that calligraphy on parchment, and that is worth getting one’s back up.
We all have a lot to learn about citizenship and building a more perfect union of sovereignly equal peoples and individuals; we will not learn it from a man who uses mighty rhetoric to cover up his perennial failure to accept any responsibility for the things he says. There is, Mr. Dawkins, such a thing as duty—and I would much rather you used it to combat institutional prejudice that makes me fear for my life and bodily integrity than to help make my bank website run a little more smoothly.
My approach to Cathy Brennan has long mirrored my approach to Ann Coulter; I generally refuse to dignify their deliberate attempts to cruelly incite. Rising to meet their hate, which is deliberately designed to provoke outrage, feels like a vindication of their strategy; what they desire most is attention, and giving it to them hardly feels like a victory for those on the side of the angels. However, after seeing a relatively sympathetic article about Brennan in the online magazine Bustle— which apparently misgenders a trans woman and which some of my friends have fairly derided as a “puff piece”– I felt there are some matters which merit clarification.
During the interview she clearly set aside the instruments of her usual rhetoric and put on her most reasonable mien. Unsurprisingly, nothing she says justifies her behaviour, and much of what she does say is premised on assumptions that have no basis in our shared reality as women.
It is that latter point that Brennan struggles with and the primary reason that reconciliation between those like her and the rest of the feminist movement is likely impossible; she simply refuses to believe that trans women are women, and structures everything she believes around that misapprehension. This keystone holds up everything she and her fellow travellers believe about trans politics. I have no illusions about convincing Brennan, but for the sake of anyone who might have been persuaded that Brennan’s contribution to this debate arises from something other than a particularly heartless form of prejudice I would submit the following in response to some of her points in this interview.
Notes on an Avant-Garde Definition of “Conservative”
First and foremost is this particular argument which lies at the heart of much “feminist” transphobia:
“The laws also codify the idea of innate gender identity, Brennan said. In pushing the idea that whatever gender a person identifies as overrides their biological sex, it “enshrines into law the idea that gender is innate.” This is an essentially conservative idea, and “it’s not advancing the cause of women’s liberation, which is what I’m interested in as a feminist. This ideology — I understand that it’s rooted in equality, but it has the effect of marginalizing women.””
This is breathtaking. It is especially gobsmacking for a feminist to argue something so painfully opposed to most feminist understandings of patriarchy and biological essentialism.
Let us be clear about what is being argued here: Brennan’s suggestion is that if one is assigned a sex at birth, forcibly, by doctors and parents on the basis of nothing more than a cursory glance at a biological fact, and then one is forcibly raised to live up to that role, backed by the full faith and violent credit of patriarchy, it is essentially conservative to then reach a point of consciousness that says “no, I am not a prisoner of my birth biology,” and identify differently from a gender that everyone around you says is “innate,” “biological,” “ordained by God,” et cetera. This courageous act is what she deems conservative, not the chorus of voices in patriarchal institutions that have long tried to pathologise and marginalise us for our asseverations of self.
Indeed, this is what transphobic feminism never seems to grapple with: how do they theorise patriarchy’s long, abiding legacy of discrimination against trans people? How do they reconcile their assertions with the fact that trans women are victims of the same types of harassment, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, street violence, exploitation, and objectification that cisgender women are? How is it that after being condemned by conservative, patriarchal religion, (lest we forget, the erstwhile Pope Benedict once likened us to climate change), the patriarchal nuclear family, and patriarchy on the street, does one come to the conclusion that what trans women are is “essentially conservative”?
Far from being “innate,” most trans people argue that gender is the very opposite, with our lives and our numbers as empirical proof of the same. Whether one likes it or not, we defied our assigned sex at birth, and we exist. Rather insistently, at that. It is certainly true that some trans people redound to reductive arguments about innate brain sex or genetics, but I and many others have argued that this should not be the basis for our claims to rights and justice.
We should not be held hostage to what some of us say when trying to win some measure of reprieve from a violent system: sometimes mouthing the words “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “I have a woman’s brain in a man’s body” is what one needs to access healthcare, a place to live, or the support of parents who would otherwise turn you out of your home. When every other door is slammed in your face, what would you do? We as feminists have ample analysis to understand this; why is that analysis always shut off when trans women enter the frame, and why do a minority of cisgender feminists suddenly and naively take what they see at face value, in a manner redolent of the crypto-misogynist who says that women make less money because we choose to spend more time with our children?
I must confess, I have never been able to follow the logic of those who argue that trans people are inherently conservative or biologically essentialist in our essence. Consider Brennan who argues:
“Our whole lives we are raised very much aware of our vulnerability as women, so I don’t understand why when a man says he’s a woman, all of a sudden the penis is no longer (an issue) … Men rape women and girls in bathrooms all the time, so it’s not like women’s concerns about that aren’t reasonable. And these laws are broadly enough written to justify the entry of anyone into a (women-only) space.
If they’re excluding you because you’re male, well, I’m sorry, but you are male. Deal with your reality. We didn’t create that reality, that reality exists.”
In other words, if you have a penis at birth and it leads to you being assigned “M,” then there is no way to escape that; you are a man for life, irrespective of any number of possible social interventions, with one’s penis being the all determining truth of the matter. (The reverse being true for those assigned “F,” presumably). Is this the grand argument against biological essentialism? How is this view, that one’s physiology at birth is the all determining truth, the full “reality” of one’s gender, not what is inherently conservative?
Our Lives, Our Truth, Our Womanhood
What is “reality” is the brutality of patriarchy for many women—for when it comes to that fist in women’s faces, patriarchy makes no distinction between cis and trans women. The other key fact ignored by Brennan in the foregoing is that trans women are raped too.
Theoretical debates about trans women prevail in some spaces, but the reality of our existence prevails in the real world of the street, the late night bus, the dark alley, the bedroom. No amount of Brennan’s averring that we are men would have spared CeCe MacDonald, Islan Nettles, Erycka Morgan, and countless other women who have suffered or died at the hands of men. It does not spare trans women of colour from being stopped and frisked by police officers who use condoms as “evidence” of prostitution. It does not spare those same trans women from being raped by cisgender men in holding cells and prisons. It does not spare trans women from being murdered by boyfriends who demonstrate the same entitlement they would over the life and body of a cisgender woman—taking it to an especially vicious extreme because transgender women are, in too many cases, even more disposable. It does not spare us from being the target of internet harassment campaigns designed to silence women—much of my own work has centered around this, and the recent hate campaigns directed at Carloyn Petit and Laura Kate Dale remind us that feminist trans women incur just as much hate for speaking out as cisgender feminists do. I myself was run off of moderating a community forum because of stalking, misogynist threats, and the odd rape threat.
Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us, even if our individual tormentors may deride us as “men” or fixate luridly upon our anatomy by calling us “chicks with dicks” (merely repeating the objectifying gestures extended to all women), they will unequivocally treat us as women.
Thus, asking us to use men’s accommodations is the equivalent of saying that it is acceptable for us to go somewhere we’ll be beaten up, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. Whatever inconvenience this poses to Brennan’s ideology, trans women are not treated as men by patriarchy.
That reality exists.
It is, in a sense, degrading that I must even write this– an article that lays bare scars, bruises, bodies, and wounded hearts– is this lurid pornography of the spirit what it takes for someone like this to accept, however grudgingly, that in spite of her hailstorm of arrows we are inexorably sisters in this struggle? Why must I even be placed in the position of proving our womanhood by proving that patriarchy has hurt us through delineating how it has? It is beyond lamentable that this has become necessary.
Finally, a brief word must spared for Brennan’s suggestion that her lawsuits and stalking are reserved only for those who go out of their way to harass her. As her recent suit against Jacobin magazine makes abundantly clear, Ms. Brennan will use legal instruments to attack anyone who merely disagrees with her. Jacobin’s crime was to publish a critical article by transfeminist Samantha Leigh Allen which picked apart the fundamentals of Brennan’s beliefs as I have done here. Like me, she did not attack Brennan but criticised her ideas and, yes, labelled them “transphobic.” This, apparently, counts as slander.
Meanwhile, a cis friend of my partner and myself is being hauled to court for mildly criticising Brennan on Twitter. Another friend, whose work centres around bringing gender equity to the internet, has been attacked by Brennan and her allies for being a trans woman.
Furthermore, as I write this, radical feminist journalist Laurie Penny has had to put an article about Brennan’s politics on ice because of a possible lawsuit, after a day of enduring her attempts to get her fired.
This is scary and intimidating. Brennan is now sending threatening emails to my employers. I could do with some support here.
I want to make myself absolutely, unequivocally clear: no one, whether trans or cis, woman or allied with women, should harass those whose transphobically harass us. There is no place for threats or hateful words directed at Brennan or any of her fellow travellers. I do not condone such behaviour. We accomplish nothing by merely summoning more cruelty and indignity into the world, whatever power differences may prevail amongst the participants.
But I am speaking up now against Ms. Brennan’s ideas because her work seems to chiefly consist in stopping other feminists from doing theirs. She is harassing our community and trying her hardest to silence women—every person in my professional circle that has faced some sort of action from Brennan is a woman, whether cis or trans, and we can now add one of our most prominent young feminist writers to that list, apparently. Every single one of these people, myself included, has important feminist projects that we are working on and constitute our life’s work—any criticism of Brennan is incidental. But it would appear that she makes it her full time job to harass us and anyone who might speak on our behalf against her, which invariably means that most of her work involves attacking and silencing women and girls, most of whom are feminists.
The culture of fear thus created where nearly everyone I know who puts pen to paper is afraid of even mentioning Brennan’s name is anathema to any ethical democratic discourse, and given the disproportionate silencing of women at work here it is a culture that is misogynist in its dimensions. This is not debate, this is not evenhanded or balanced; this is a brutal campaign that is making the life of people I love harder, and is, in some cases, putting trans people in serious danger.
How else could I describe her very public and (in the true sense of this word) slanderous campaign against an innocent trans girl being led by the right wing “Pacific Justice Institute”? Without a shred of evidence, she is attempting to gin up a national campaign to harass and exclude a young girl, going so far as outing her, for no reason other than her gender and the fact that Brennan does not approve of every place she exists as that gender. For her to ally with powerful, monied forces in the harassment of a child, is without excuse and it is persecution.
That is reality. And this must stop. As feminists we have enough to deal with without constantly dodging this decidedly unfriendly fire, especially when it targets our young.
I delivered this speech at the opening plenary of the 2013 State University of New York– New Paltz Women’s Studies Conference. I present it here in its original written form without additional comment.
(Well, one additional comment: If you wish to follow along with audio and hear the voice of Nuclear Unicorn, click here. My profound thanks to Eli Mann for the recording.)
Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies.
Contrary to those theories, feminist and otherwise, that seek an “origin myth” for patriarchy that germinates somewhere in the uterus, patriarchy has no starting point in reproductive organs of any kind—there is nothing in our marrow as women, our DNA, that sets us up as ontological victims of men whose bodies, whose bits, predispose them to oppression.
In the words of legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon: “It is one thing to identify woman’s biology as part of the terrain on which a struggle for dominance is acted out; it is another to identify woman’s biology as the source of that subordination. The first approach certainly identifies an intimate alienation; the second predicates woman’s status on the facticity of her biology.”
Put bluntly, there is no truly feminist or social-scientific way to reason that patriarchy begins in a womb, an ovary, or the vagina. What is much fairer to say is that the meaning society gives our bodies is what oppresses us—and also what binds us together, however unwillingly. I begin here because if I am to speak about trans women’s experience of reproductive injustice, I cannot indulge the false premise that women are born to be oppressed—a very different notion from saying we are born into a world that oppresses us. Much searing truth remains in Simone de Beauvoir’s timeless assertion that “one is not born but rather becomes woman.”
Those words invite us to search for the full depth of their meaning.
Patriarchy does not begin in our bodies, but it is often very intimately concerned with them. I would suggest, above all else, that patriarchy does powerfully regulate and control women’s bodies—not because a sizeable percentage of women have ovaries (not all of us do), nor because many women menstruate (not all of us do), nor because every woman can get pregnant (many of us can’t)—but because there is a powerful, controlling ideology about what bodies are for that transcends the particulars of any one woman’s embodiment.
Transfeminist writer Autumn Nicole Bradley asks us if an infertile cisgender woman would, in a feminist space, “be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?” I would ask you to think of trans women in the same light.
Feminism has often been accused—sometimes wrongly, sometimes rightly—of essentialising and universalising “woman.” Yet more often than not it is feminism that has been the necessary antidote to the patriarchal myth that all women are the same bundle of incapabilities imbuing an alabaster, pedestalised angel who exists only for man’s pleasure—for every woman who does not fit, we are cast into the fires of violent oppression at its most naked; women of colour, transgender women, poor women, women with disabilities, loud and outspoken women, sex working women, any woman regardless of race and class who refuses the objectification of that invisible cage. As we are tortured in the shadows, the myth of patriarchal essentialism—centered on a mythic, silent and obedient white virgin upon her pedestal—beats on.
Male dominance gives our bodies a very particular meaning, one that purportedly unites us and submerges all particularity, all individuality, beneath its event horizon. Our bodies are meant for one thing, and one thing alone. Ours is to reproduce; and if we cannot, then we are condemned to the great, ever swelling ash heap of this society—those considered unable to fulfill their supposedly naturally ordained functions. And yet, we know patriarchy does not apply this meaning equally; for all its mythologizing about the eternal feminine and the ultimate indistinguishable unity of women, it recognises we are not all the same. Our patriarchy, struck through as it is by classism, racism, and other forms of prejudice, desperately wants to prevent some women from reproducing—killed or sterilised by the hundreds of thousands, targeted daily by microagressions writ painfully small and propaganda writ blazingly large.
Yet even in this case, we see where patriarchy begins and ends: its alpha and omega is the meaning of women’s bodies, and so much hinges on how suited we are judged to be for reproductive purposes. So much hatred is directed at us around the issue of reproduction—whether it is forcing white women to have children or forcing black women, native women and Latinas not to. Patriarchy really cares about what we’re doing with our bodies.
Consider, no less, how the interventions of women of colour have broadened feminist understandings of reproductive justice: reminding us that reproductive injustice happens when we are forced not to bear children or adopt, as when we are forced to do so. In every case, what links them is both a denial of women’s agency—our right to choose—and a meaning imposed on our bodies by a sexist society that seeks to stifle and suffocate our humanity beneath that overriding myth of idealised motherhood. Motherhood on the terms of cisgender men, particularly white men; comprised of the right kind of mothers, doing the right and proper things—mostly involving keeping our mouths shut and bearing our pain with silence and obedience.
Where does one suppose trans women fit into this?
Feminist activist and city councillor Sarah Brown once posted a conversation between herself and a cisgender man who was sexually harassing her, fetishising her for being a trans woman. He cackhandedly asked her whether she was trans or cis by saying, “so r u a natural woman?”
Her reply: “What, like the song? Or do you mean, do I occur in the universe? Because, I like to think so.”
That natural occurrence is, perhaps, one of the more troubling aspects of our existence, so far as patriarchy is concerned. For a society that believes so very passionately that women are made to reproduce—and to do so in a certain way—the fact that we keep damnably and insistently popping up is a source of unending consternation to those most invested in biologist myths. Put plainly, I am not supposed to exist. I shouldn’t be here, and my occurrence in the universe not only disrupts what is meant by “natural” but also what is meant by “woman.” I share that quality, as I alluded to earlier, with many women whose bodies are not capable of reproducing in the way women are presumed to be universally able to.
You may wonder why I spent the last couple of minutes on so much foreground, by the way, barely mentioning transgender people at first. The reason for this, for summoning up theoretical arguments against essentialism that underlay the best of the feminist tradition, is explained by the following comment from a cisgender woman replying to an article I wrote on Feministing about why “trans rights are reproductive rights,”
“Reproductive rights are at their core the right not to die or be crippled or to be left destitute or be trapped in a violent relationship by an unwanted/unplanned… pregnancy.
Trans women cannot get pregnant, this is not about trans women.”
For all the cisgender women out there who can’t get pregnant, I’m sorry, but I guess this isn’t about you either.
Statements like this, which appear well meaning, mistake the terrain of reproductive injustice for its fundamental cause. There is no doubt that women who get pregnant are ruthlessly targeted by our society for dehumanisation and shackled by a regime of bodily control, one way or the other. But for those of us who cannot, we are in many cases ruthlessly attacked in part because we are unable or unwilling to fulfill the patriarchal mandate that says women must bear children in order for them to be both legitimate and successful women. We all feel that pressure, whatever our bodily configurations may be. That’s because it doesn’t arise from our bodies or begin in the shape of our genitalia, but instead is projected onto us by the society in which we live.
When I came out, one of the first things my father lamented was the loss of his grandchildren, the loss of progeny who would—by blood—carry his name and his “legacy.” Then came the recriminations about what my body was “for” and what “God put us on this earth to do.” I was no good to my family as a woman if I could not bear children. Interwoven in all of this is that very ideology about what bodies are for. It is precisely the same ideology that has seen women coerced into having children, that has seen people of colour brutalised under eugenics programs that sterilised them, and that has created a byzantine web of regulations regarding what trans people can and cannot do with their bodies.
It is the ideology behind laws in many countries that require trans people to be sterilised before our gender markers can be changed on various IDs and the ideology that still sees too many psychiatrists enforcing gender norms on their trans patients as a pre-requisite of trans healthcare. We all have different medical needs as trans people, but for those of us who require hormones and surgery we are often spiritually blackmailed for them (“wear this skirt and makeup or I won’t see you as a serious woman”). We may be charged dearly for the pleasure and then laughed at if we suggest such things should be covered by either public or private insurance. We may also be denied transition altogether.
All in the name of what some people—particularly men—think our bodies are for. What they think a woman’s body should be.
One of the central reasons that what we do is considered “self-mutilation” is that we are seen to be destroying our purportedly natural reproductive capacity. We are seen to be revolting against a genetic inheritance that should obviate the very existence of transgender people; sinful enough. Yet, far worse in the eyes of many petty patriarchs is when trans people express their biological reproductive capacity. All the consternation over Thomas Beatie, the trans man who made headlines with his pregnancies, illustrates this. The laws in Australia, in the UK, and in several American states that prohibit trans people from changing the gender markers on identity documents until we can prove we’ve surgically altered our genitals illustrates this.
Our limited access to reproductive care facilities illustrates this. All such facilities expect an unproblematically cisgender man or woman. So when a Planned Parenthood clinic is confronted with a transgender man who needs a gynecologist, or when a sperm bank is confronted with a trans woman who wants to have children of her own someday, it occasions the medical equivalent of a constitutional crisis that sees these trans people shown the door more often than not, left to fend for ourselves.
When trying to bank her sperm, one trans woman I know was asked by the attendant on the phone why she was doing this. When my friend explained, the staffperson abruptly said “That’s not real” and hung up on her.
A close friend simply got the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” treatment when she revealed she was trans.
We are damned because through transition we may sterilise ourselves, but we are equally damned if we try to preserve and express biologic reproductive capacity. We are caught in the very double bind Marilyn Frye deems essential to oppression. We transition, therefore we upend naturalist myths—and that existence is bad enough—but to make sure we don’t pass on our cooties and do even more violence to that patriarchal mythology, the state demands that we become sterile anyway if it is to suffer our insistent existence.
Little to no medical research is done on trans people and reproduction—whether to simply collect data or to create organs that might allow me to bear the child I should love to have someday—we are not supposed to exist, after all.
Yet do you know what else is really threatening about that existence? About everything I’ve just described? It is the fact that we as trans people—whether we are trans women, trans men, or genderqueer—expose the fatal flaw of naturalism, just as many before us have in ways great and small. But in our way, we put the lie to the idea that to be a woman, or a man, means fulfilling some evolutionary imperative, or to silently obey the edicts of our selfish genes while using the bits we were born with.
We upend the idea that one is born anything, and tacitly remind all that we “become” something.
Let me speak of this from the perspective of trans women.
When I go out into the world and have a gender ascribed to me—one that is almost always some kind of woman—the people who gender me are not thinking about my genitals, or my chromosomes, or what is on my birth certificate. I present as a woman, according to the various cues that our society assigns to the gender of ‘woman,’ therefore I am one so far as they are concerned. Therefore I am treated as one.
I run the same risk as cis women do of going into a job interview and being silently judged because I’m a young woman who “might get pregnant and leave the company”—I might get mommy-tracked, if I’m hired, and if I come out, I run the risk of being fired because I’m trans. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
In the street I face men who sexually harass me because they see me as a woman, and therefore they feel entitled to my body, whatever its configuration. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
I find myself condescended to and mansplained to; I’ve been the target of rape threats, I have been stalked and harassed online, and I’ve been called every sexist and transmisogynist slur in the book—including ones I hadn’t heard of. I was told that I was a “feminazi whore with too much sand in her fake vagina.” I’d never spoken to this man about my body—and but for the word ‘fake’ he merely said what he might’ve said to any cis woman. No uterus required, just patriarchy.
As we speak, trans women of colour in New York City are literally having their handbags raided by police officers who then arrest them on prostitution charges if they’re found to be carrying condoms. Where are their reproductive rights, one wonders? No uterus required, just patriarchy.
Women are not wombs; that is one of the most powerful lessons that feminism has tried to teach a stricken world. I say to you, my sisters in this audience, that I stand with you; I have walked where many of you have walked, and we must not be divided from one another by our corporeality, but united by our shared womanhood.
Women are not oppressed because we have wombs; wombs are attacked because they are perceived to belong to women. For those of us without wombs, because we are still seen as women our bodies are disciplined and controlled in other ways. For trans men and genderqueer people with wombs, who refuse a womanhood patriarchy relentlessly tries to foist upon them, they too find themselves viciously attacked in part because they refuse to adhere to naturalism—they may dare to show that pregnancy does not only define the condition of woman. This is very bad news for patriarchy.
We are learning, as a society, that the Sun does not orbit the Earth. Our entire view of the universe is being changed.
As I opened with a few words from Catharine MacKinnon, so too do I close. She once wrote of oratory, “A platform and a period of time and listeners who choose to be there create a threshold of mortality. If you never say anything else to them (you might not) and if you die right afterward (you could), what would have been worth this time?”
What indeed. What I would say to you if I could say naught else, my listeners for this space of time, is this: I am your sister.
We as trans women are not an entryist plot trying to distract from “the real issues,” we are women who are simply trying to get by, trying to move around, trying to live, and to claim the humanity that is the common birthright of us all. We bring not dissension and dissolution, but the same truths that women down the centuries from Sojourner Truth to the Lavender Menace have brought. The truth of feminism’s promise: that none of us will win unless all of us do, and that we are all ultimately united in struggle.
We as trans women have always been here—for while theoretical debates about our womanhood prevail, the fact of our womanhood prevails in the world out there. Patriarchy makes no mistakes about us; we are targeted because we are women. We are a great sisterhood invisible.
That notion of sisterhood, battered over the years by so much criticism, still thrums through so many trans women who find comfort and refuge among other women like them—and sometimes, as has been blessedly true with me, cisgender women who see in me their lives and struggles recited back to them in a different voice, but one that resonates with theirs.
As women, our diversity has always been our strength. It is not just an invisible sisterhood that links trans women together, but it also links cisgender and transgender women as one indivisible whole that no amount of transphobia, whether postmodern or second wave in provenance, can ever tear asunder. We share something far more essential than a body: we share the fact that we are survivors. We share the fact that patriarchy imposes a meaning on our bodies that demands something soul-wrenching from us.
But we also share this. This spirit, this will, this passion, something that burns beautifully and demands that our swords not sleep in our hands until we have built a world where all women, where all people, shall be free of those imposing ideologies and free of the nightmares that dog too many of us. We share the belief in a better world, we share hope for our children—for those we have and those we were not allowed to have—and we share lives that are insistently and powerfully lived; beautiful lives.
We are you, and you are us.
What links us is not our scars or the ways we have been hurt, but our aspirations to rise above oppression’s fetters, and claim our bodies for ourselves.
So, I updated the space with a meaty new article a few days ago, but you can still rightly be forgiven for wondering where you’re unicornish correspondent has been these many weeks and months. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling and a fair amount of work of late. I’ve also been interviewed for a few media outlets about gender in gaming.
First is this article in the Wall Street Journal, hitting the streets tomorrow morning: “Fans Take Video Game Damsels Out of Distress and Put Them in Charge.” I was very grateful to be interviewed here and pleased to see the Journal covering this important angle of gamer resistance. I should, however, add further commentary lest my lonely remark be misinterpreted or taken out of context.
I think that this trend of ‘flipping the script’ in these games shows that people want to see women protagonists and are willing to both make and support these hacks. It is also worth adding that even as there has been opposition and some vocal nastiness, a lot of gamers have come out in support of these indie projects. It stands athwart the so-called market logic that says gamers don’t want female protagonists, and that’s an important grassroots-level indicator that, hopefully, augurs for some positive change in the near future. What hasn’t changed in gaming culture is the fact that there are still all too many people who, despite our reverence for hacking, modding, and reinvention as gamers, still oppose these hacks for nonsensical reasons that are transparently sexist. But the winds are indeed shifting, and that very shift has contributed to some of the virulence of the opposition; it is a form of backlash. These creative hacks, and the fact that there are gamer dads who want their gamer daughters to see themselves in classic video games, are hopeful signs of changing times.
I was also interviewed by NPR, for KPCC’s cultural programme Take Two to discuss the meaning and context of the recent Microsoft E3 rape joke debacle. To the credit of the show’s producers, they decided to take a wide-lens look at the broader issues facing women in the gaming industry and I was very happy to help with that in my small way. You can listen to the audio here. It was hard to pick one thing that was wrong with that scenario, besides the rape joke itself: the fact that the woman in question was set up to fail (amidst a thick soup of stereotypes about women’s innate lack of gaming skill), or the fact that there was laughter at the ‘joke.’ I was glad to see Microsoft apologise, but this ritual has become, by now, depressingly familiar. A gaming company engineers a scenario very likely to run afoul of sexist landmines and then promptly acts surprised and unconvincingly penitent about the resulting explosion. There’s a disconnect here, one that can be mended by simply listening to women and respecting us as equal participants in this community.
In further ‘Corn news, I have triumphantly returned to writing at The Border House with a review of Capcom’s Remember Me. The ultimate verdict is: “give it a chance, but prepare to be disappointed with the story.” I have plans for more Border House articles and possibly another one here in the near future, so stay tuned!
When I was in high school, an insightful classmate once told me “[Katherine], I’ve never met anyone who hates and loves politics as much as you do.” Those words were searchingly true, and I rediscovered their meaning yesterday. This week has been a roaring cavalcade of politics, with its thousand faces roiling in the sea of our nation’s soul. And my personal life, as ever, threaded a helix around the public politics we were all concerned with.
We witnessed the Supreme Court at its worst, and at its halting best – in the midst of a week where I was wracked by anxiety about the complexities of community. Having watched so many of my own people get cut down by the anger and unbridled rage of activists who were supposed to be on “their side,” my faith reached a crisis point. I wondered if I had become so jaded to rage-as-strategy that I had lost my fire.
Then Austin, Texas happened. A People’s Filibuster, and a state Senator named Wendy Davis who fought with vaporous and rusted constitutional tools to ensure that women’s right to control our bodies would not be infringed in her state. For nearly 11 hours, Davis stood and spoke—without being allowed to so much as lean forward on her desk, much less food, water, or bathroom breaks; one woman’s voice was going to block a bill that would’ve made it nigh on impossible for women in Texas to receive an abortion.
And when at last the Republicans succeeded in sundering Davis’ filibuster on a technicality, and all means available to the State Senate Democrats to delay the vote further had been utterly exhausted, another woman, Senator Van Der Putte, would strike a rhetorical homerun and inspire the people themselves to take up the charge of those final, frenetic ten minutes.
A magnificent fever swept the chamber and I realised in that moment that I loved righteous anger as much as I ever had. I praised and cheered these activists and these politicians as they sought to disrupt a charade of “order” and “decorum” that served only to silence women just long enough for our rights to be taken away. And in the end, it was the people who bought those precious four minutes that were necessary to ensure the heinous bill was not passed.
That was justice, and real democracy. An unjust order is no order at all, and all the shouting, screaming, cheering and jeering was necessary to end that unjust order.
It was catharsis, and tear-jerking hope rising from the Texas statehouse at a time when Madame Justice appeared to have long absconded from the Supreme Court, leaving an echoing silence punctuated only the water torture of ill-informed majority opinions. With their rulings on tribal sovereignty, workplace harassment, and most consequentially, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, we’d witnessed the long fever of the Supreme Court’s lust for negative liberty and pseudo-libertarian governance come to yet another painful climax. The actions of the many in Texas, contrasted to the legalistic dithering of one man—Justice Kennedy—were stark and instructive; a reminder of what form real democracy must sometimes take.
A Negative Charge
And now, at last, we have cause to celebrate, in theory, with these Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8. As per usual, any discussion of same sex marriage will inspire the usual commentary and sniping between radicals and liberals—disagreeing about the enthroning of marriage as an issue at all.
But for those of us at the intersectional margins, we are in that paradoxical place of having the least to gain from these rulings and also being the most “spoken for” by some who claim to understand the intricacies of our issues. It’s a curious place. My right to marry and access partner benefits is wonderful to have—if a distant one. So much else must come first; I must have benefits to share with my partner, for one, and no law provides that I have a right to such things.
Simultaneously, however, it would be reductive to say—as some of my fellow activists have suggested—that the stark contrast between the Court’s VRA and DOMA rulings is entirely down to valuing “the gays” and devaluing people of colour. This is a misapprehension of “where we are” vis a vis the court’s views. It is worth remembering that John Roberts’ racism, expressed through his seething antipathy to all collective remedies to structural prejudice, is of a piece with the prejudice expressed in his ruling in favour of DOMA. Indeed, the Court’s conservatives were entirely consistent—they struck down Section 4 of the VRA and voted to keep DOMA; there was no split in their prejudices.
The keystone was one man, and one man alone: Justice Kennedy. If we wish to understand exactly why the Court ruled as it did, examining the very specific nature of Kennedy’s political philosophy will be necessary. To generalise and say “the Court” is racist but not homophobic is, to be frank, not reasonable. Or, put more finely, it is not nearly specific enough. It does not grapple with the nature of the Court’s prejudice, which remains quite catholic in its scope.
Justice Kennedy’s libertarian reasoning was entirely consistent, and consistent in its moral impoverishment, no less. DOMA was struck down by him less because it affected LGBTQ people and more because of the way in which the law was constructed, as a government intrusion that deliberately segregated marriages. The Voting Rights Act, by contrast, is legislation that is designed to level the playing field using the power of the federal government to empower a minority—it is this species of legislation, born of a radically democratic philosophy, that is anathema to Kennedy.
And thus we see why the Court—or more specifically Anthony Kennedy— ruled the way they did. DOMA was about a negative right—the right to have a marriage (whose terms are decided and agreed upon in other statutes, through other traditions) unmolested by government interference. Marriage is a pre-existing right, not a new one created by any legislation. Thus DOMA was an intrusion that the libertarian Anthony Kennedy understood to be one and so he ruled in favour of LGBTQ people.
But imagine if the law democratised marriage’s benefits. Imagine a law on basic income or universal healthcare. That entails a level of democratic freedom, positive freedom, that I would go so far as to call “hardmode” for liberty, and well beyond the understanding of men like Kennedy and the four conservative justices of the Court. Material conditions are required for freedom to exist, and there is no escaping that fact but in the vagaries of legal and ideological abstraction.
Were such an LGBTQ-focused law before Kennedy, a law that affirmed that reality and guaranteed the material basis of our freedom, one can be certain he’d have voted against it. It was serendipity that saw this landmark case about LGBTQ rights centre on a law that interfered with a negative right as opposed to creating a positive one. This negative charge was why Justice Kennedy voted to strike down Section 4 of the VRA– the two laws, DOMA and the VRA, could not have been constructed more differently. One interferes with LGBTQ folks’ negative rights, the other ensures an affirmative right through leveraging the power of the state on behalf of people of colour.
The rulings this week are neither schismatic nor contradictory: they betray a coherent legal consciousness on the part of the Court. Justice Kennedy and his four conservative colleagues are unable to understand informal power, and remain very lenient on formal power. Hence they have declared harassment between workers of equal standing to not be actionable—for the harassed the power is very real; for Kennedy and his colleagues, such harassment is invisible as abusive power because it does not map onto a titled hierarchy– the only thing they recognise as a power relationship.
Their worldview won’t see informal power, therefore it’s not there, so far as they are concerned. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act: prejudice in the South does not look the way it did in 1964, it has become more subtle, more shy about naming itself if no less forthright in its impact– therefore it must no longer exist, and any attempt to redress racial injustice in voting constitutes an unreasonable intrusion of federal power so far as the Court’s majority is concerned. The nature of their racism lies specifically in their inability and unwillingness to see structural prejudice, and thus support the idea that structural redress is necessary for certain citizens to exercise their Constitutional rights. This has been true for how they view women (see, the Lily Ledbetter case or their ruling against the women of WalMart, or indeed back in the late 90s when the Supreme Court weakened the Violence Against Women Act by removing its civil suit provision), and will also be true for how they deal with LGBTQ people. Their ruling on harassment, recall, would affect findings of any kind of prejudice—be it ableist, transphobic, homophobic, misogynist, xenophobic and so on.
But in the case of DOMA, Justice Kennedy could see inequality because here it was visible as an intrusion of government, the ultimate hierarchical power relationship, and thus open to the redress of his jurisprudential red pen. Consider the many cases where Kennedy has participated in the gutting of our rights and liberties, however. What links them? In each case, what was necessary to secure those rights was state intervention and redress. A victim of harassment depends on the levelling power of the criminal justice system to give her voice and standing against institutionally powerful abusers; a worker, consumer, or subordinate depends on a class-action lawsuit to band together with others and stand toe to toe with corporations; those who fight voting fraud depend on the mighty weight of the Federal Government to outweigh and immediately overrule the depredations of local officials; Native American tribal sovereignty depends on a Federal Government that honours treaties and respects the collective decisions and self-determination of tribal nations.
This is beyond the scope of what, on average, five justices on the Supreme Court are capable of seeing.
Overturning DOMA, on the other hand, necessitates less, not more government intrusion, and thus Kennedy found it palatable to do so. It is this legal accident, this sorry belching moment of classical liberalism, which has bequeathed to us this slate of rulings. There is nothing wrong with celebrating—for this outcome is indeed just; let no one question that. But it is worth remembering how and why we got this victory, and it has everything to do with the above distinction between positive and negative freedom.
Positive liberty is something that must often be fought for, something for which we cannot be meekly supine and subservient. Positive liberty was what was gained in the Texas Statehouse—not only freedom from government intrusion, but freedom to create justice, and to do so athwart Byzantine rules that were designed to preserve an “order” of iniquity.
Some Notes on the Merits of Thrown Rice
On a concluding note I should say a few things about marriage and being a trans woman of colour, because it is often in these cases that I must flash my identity like a passport demanded at border control. I’ve grown increasingly weary of doing so, and yet I feel it is a necessary preface to the fact that I must confess my growing irritation at white (sometimes cis, often male) activists who claim to speak for us on this question, as if my respective communities are monoliths in the face of social injustice.
We are not.
Marriage is neither the capitalist-cum-patriarchal Trojan Horse that some radicals imagine it to be, nor the harmless bastion of unproblematic love and joy that some same-sex marriage supporters imply it is. Same sex marriage should never have become the signature battle of the LGBTQ movement, but it has become fashionable in a no less pernicious way to treat same sex marriage as a marker of assimilation, selling out, and giving up. The people most harmed by that perspective are often those least able to defend themselves and with few other places to go, because the rich white cis queers in the suburbs will neither hear nor care about your critique—so that just leaves those closest to you, the poorer among us, the trans women, the people of colour. Heaven help them if they should smile about marriage.
In the process I’ve actually had to wince as I’ve watched trans and cis women of colour walk tightropes in discussions about their marriages, apologise for or mute their happiness—and supposedly in my name. Their reasons for marriage are complicated—there was the necessarily cold and practical element of it (shared insurance, lower taxes, et cetera), but there was also the bounteous joy at being able to call their union a “marriage,” and to make an open declaration of love to the world in a way that was societally intelligible.
It is no less worth recalling that this ruling has already helped some of the most vulnerable LGBTQ people in America, precisely those that we as radicals claim to be speaking for. It has a particularly felicitous and immediate effect on LGBTQ immigrants, for instance. They must also count in our assessment of this outcome, and to whitewash them by saying that the ruling is only for white cis suburban picket-fencers is equal parts mendacious and essentialising.
Intersectionality remains a challenge for us to understand, and if it has a core characteristic that can be summarised in brief, it is that intersectionality is where dogma goes to die.
As to marriage’s fundamental flaws as an institution and its deplorable history—I am a radical feminist; I’m well versed in the many problems of the “traditions” of marriage, well versed in its history as a ritual of transferring ownership of a woman from one man to another. But I’m also keen enough as a feminist to pay close attention to what women are doing with the tools given to us and the dramatic ways we remix the tapestries that our erstwhile male masters have painted for us. In other words, we do not always use institutions as intended, and it is disingenuous to compare the marriages of some of my sister friends to a Victorian Catholic marriage. It is, so far as I am concerned, a valid road to social justice to take an institution and rework it collectively, changing the meaning of it in the process. Often, the most enduring social changes happen in precisely this way.
All I can say is that if and when I get married, my father will not be “giving me away” and I long ago robbed my would-be white dress of any literal connotations of chastity.
But it is true that marriage has taken on vastly outsized importance as a political issue in our discourse about LGBTQ rights, and has irritatingly become the litmus test for gauging one’s “tolerance,” in spite of the fact that some of the most cissexist, racist people I have ever argued with were in favour of same sex marriage. It is, as I said earlier, a negative right—something that can be done without the intrusion of the state. Yet so much more is needed: housing for homeless LGBTQ youth, income for the same, real, lasting employment, meaningful and affirming healthcare access that is as self-directed as possible… these are the material conditions that must often exist in part or in whole before anything like marriage can be truly lived in and thrived in.
And I will say this: for the foreseeable future, it won’t be the Court that gets us there. We have every right to celebrate now—and every obligation to mourn loudly for what we have lost in the Voting Rights Act. But if there’s a lesson to be taken away from Austin today it’s that when politicians can take us no further, the rest is up to us.
As my semester ramps up and my workload is beset by ever more fascinating layers of tedious yet exciting social scientific labours, I realised that I might do well to share with you some older essays of mine; reduce, reuse, recycle, I grew up with Captain Planet, baby. What follows here is a review of a cabaret show that I wrote for my German Thought & Culture class back in October 2012. I loved the show and I wanted to share my reflections on it with you all, partially since my last essay on Nuclear Unicorn broached the subject of ‘bridge building’ across identities and experiences. This fits with that rather serendipitously I think. I hope you enjoy, there may be more of these to come; I like to write beyond discretely trans issues and German history is actually a bit of a hobby of mine.
An intimate theatre arrayed much like a speakeasy, a crowd of chatter, wooden colonnades framing a petite proscenium—all washed down with aromatic whiskey; it was the carefree spirit of Weimar as it was. If I had to summarise what I enjoyed most about K.T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler’s Vienna to Weimar cabaret, it was that both women rhapsodised about the human spirit in a way that both spoke to the distinctions of a bygone age, while resonating deeply thousands of miles and scores of years away.
The performance granted a coruscating voice to reality that puts the lie to any notion of traditionalist “good ol’ days.” These were songs about women in full crimson bloom, songs about women in three dimensions: lesbian women, women with their fists thrust athwart chauvinism, women traipsing across lines of class, gender, and sexuality—the songs tell alternating tales of politically sexual confidence with an elegantly militant posture that still wears glamorously in 2012. They capture the currents of a time in Germany where all was in furious chaos and anything seemed possible. Kohler, with a stunning voice, tremendous range, and commanding style in her tuxedo and top hat, seemed herself to be an embodiment of the times, evoking Marlene Dietrich. K.T. Sullivan’s operatic range was equally magnificent—taking us from Viennese waltzes that teased class boundaries and evoked old fairy tales, to brassy and sensual cabaret at its highest peak.
The performance was a beautiful handkerchief flung in the face of stereotypes. Even as the dark clouds of fascism gathered over central Europe, here were feminists and lesbians daring to draw the temper of their foes, daring to sing against patriarchy with the jaunty chorus of “raus mit der Männer aus dem Reichstag!” It is well worth remembering that some of these songs are courageous even today. Their boldness and the triumph of the lived womanhood that sired them become all the more impressive in that reckoning. With that in mind, the weight of a secret but potent history was expertly borne by Sullivan and Kohler, and they more than did it justice.
The show was a symphonic concatenation of a very crimson Germany. On stage Sullivan and Kohler beautifully fanned the flames of gendered rebellion and brought striking images of lesbian love forth through English and German lyrics. The artists themselves provided beautiful, and often funny context in between their sets, granting provenance to the artefacts of their lyrics, reminding us of the origins of such powerful songs as Lila Leid—“Purple Song”, an anthem to the repressed queer folk of Germany. They had the air of glamorous historians in those moments, and their brief but informative interludes curated the production beautifully.
The metaphor of curation is an apt one, for these two women were indeed charged with the expert handling and display of timeless relics. Everything in the performance evoked its period. The subtle surprise of each performer entering from behind the audience, rather than from behind the curtain, the siren-like crooning as they walked among the audience members, drawing them into the music—it all amounted to a brilliantly immersive performance, and allowed me to breath the air of those delectably seedy halls of social rebellion where women would throw off thousands of years worth of chains for one blissful night.
The artefacts themselves were songs that, as previously mentioned, revealed a truth about that age. A hidden truth that tells the stories of those often left out of history textbooks which recount only wheelbarrows full of valueless Marks, the Shakespearian collapse of President Hindenburg, and the storm clouds of the Nazism to come—as if the Weimar Republic were merely the bankrupt semicolon between the Great War and Adolf Hitler. Sullivan and Kohler’s beautiful elegy for the real Weimar, as real women saw it, was inspired—a gay revue both funny and sad, often all at once, that eagerly seized on the bright sparks of freedom that Weimar seemed to anemically offer.
That freedom is best embodied by a song that still strikes a beautifully radical note today, about a masculine and feminine woman constantly changing and upending their ‘roles’—emerging from the happy chaos is a “hermaphrodite” baby that seems to contain the hope of a brighter future where sex/gender distinction is no longer so grimly tenacious and all-consuming. The flying sparks here illuminate not only the lesbian possibilities of the era, but even transgender and intersex ones. The play, here, truly contains impressive multitudes.
But of course, from these Olympian heights of queer-utopian dreams we must descend from the Roaring Twenties into the era of the Depression. It is a testament to Weimar cabaret that it makes you laugh even when it is at its saddest. One song dreamt a fairy tale of fair and apolitical courts that presided over a fair and just republic, amongst other lovely dreams that pined for the Weimar that could have been. One woman sung her dreams, the other sing-songingly rejoined her as a liar; it was a beautiful back-and-forth teetering between funny, inspiring, and sorrowful. As Kohler and Sullivan stood hand in hand, ramrod straight and solemnly singing that “All conflict will cease and we shall all live in peace” I nearly wept; their acting was as pitch perfect as their voices, their faces captured the spirit of the Weimar Republic’s twilight. They stared somewhere far beyond the audience; one could easily envision these two singers as courageous German women living in the underground of the 20s, seeing the gathering terror in the distance and facing it unerringly.
The metaphors about ‘bottling lightning’ come to mind here. What Kohler and Sullivan managed was to somehow, in a brief and economical space, encapsulate an era and its diversity. At once didactic and intoxicating, it was a performance that allowed one to forget where she sat for a brief moment. Each quivering of my note-taking pen made me worry I was missing something on stage, each sip of Bourbon perfectly complimented the smoky and sensual gala unfolding on (and off) stage.
There is much more that one could say, for like the art of Hannah Höch this revue seemed to explode in every direction. On final reflection, however, the most interesting direction for me was the exploration of womanhood. Opera reviewers often imbue singers’ voices with the character of the circumnavigator and say that their voices survey uncharted lands. In that vein, Kohler and Sullivan’s sojourn explored the different fiefdoms of womanhood—both through their eyes and men’s eyes, taking the words of male songwriters and bathing them in a new interpretation at once searchingly sensual and political.
Whatever the intentions of the original songwriters, Kohler and Sullivan gave each piece a feminist resonance. When Sullivan sung “ich bin ein Vamp!” you wanted to leap up and join her. When their much remarked upon performance of “Atilla the Hun” was sung, you felt a swelling of sisterly pride for their proud, confident, demanding sexuality (and did not dwell on mourning the lost virility of that “cute little brute”). And finally, Hollaender’s “Chuck All the Men,” brought me to the home that this queer trans woman’s heart never left—I felt as if I could conquer the world in that moment. This very song was a mantra that armoured me with a measure of Kohler and Sullivan’s confidence after a man harassed me in Central Park not long after the show.
Those songs were a bridge between 1920s Germany and my Bronx-born queerness; something I did not quite expect going into the show, and I’m tremendously glad I walked away with it.
My So Called Secret Identity, the product of writer Will Brooker and artists Sarah Zaidan and Susan Shore, is a comic that seems to blossom out of the implied fissures left by the mainstream comic genre. While its protagonist, Catherine Abigail Daniels, is remarkable for being a non-sexualised star who presents an image of womanhood rarely seen in comic books, she is no less interesting for the fact that she is one of the “little people” in her superheroic city. The big superheroes and villains of Gloria City would be the focus of any other comic; here they are relegated to the background, flying far above the very richly detailed urban world that Cat lives in. “Gloria City is a theater where these big figures fight, posture, pose and self-promote. And if you’re not in a costume and a mask, you’re just little people,” as the promotional summary says.
The story is set to tell the tale of Cat’s intervention into that theatrical landscape, and how she becomes a costumed heroine in her own right. The perspective shift here is dramatically enticing; I can hardly wait to see how this story develops.
Cat is a character I truly empathised with, and not just because we’re both pursuing PhDs or share (roughly) the same name. The way she moves through Gloria City is an interesting sight in and of itself; it reminds me of my marrow-deep relationship with New York in its manifold rhythms and beats, its light shows, its high and low art, and the scattered constellation of shops, parks, cafes, and corners that are my homes away from home. With an economy of words and a wealth of images, the observational Cat gave me quite a lot to see myself in. Her loving descriptions of bookstore stacks remind me very much of my own literary rhapsodising.
Those powers of observation are part of what Cat’s superpower is meant to be. As one of the creators, Will Brooker, said in an interview with Nerd Span, “It’s the way she can find the links between things, recognise the dynamic and the relationships between the people and places in her world, and realise how they relate to history, theory, politics, institutions and power. Just remembering stuff is impressive, but that isn’t really Cat’s skill. She links things up. She makes connections nobody else has seen, and interprets what those connections mean.” In other words, Cat’s superpower is that she has a sociological imagination. Please excuse me while I swoon.
Her struggles include militating with the oppressive supervillainy that hangs over Gloria City, yes—the first comic literally opens with a bang—but also with quotidian sexism brilliantly and economically sketched on a single comic page that could usefully serve as a definition of ‘microagression.’ She is told she ought to be less academically forthright and confident, constantly made to feel little and ‘modest,’ and thus it feels like quite a stirring victory when she confidently confesses what her superpower is: “To put it simply… I’m really, really goddamn smart.”
Having read through the first issue, posted for free on their website, I must say that this comic—Cat’s life, aspirations, and story—really speak to me. Her struggles at university, for instance, put me in the mind of a recent debacle involving a male professor of mine. Relatable characters are hard enough to come by, but one that actually reflects the textures of a real woman’s life as lived, and then proceeds to spin that tale into fantasy escapism, is truly priceless.
The groundwork is laid in this first issue for the action to come; you get a sense of Cat, Gloria City, and the terrorism that wracks it. It’s not hard to see where this comic is potentially going, and what is hinted at is quite enticing indeed. Can Cat subvert the ‘theatre’ of Gloria City’s superheroes and villains, and perhaps become a true heroine for the “little people”? I’d really, really like to find out.
The comic’s funding scheme, which solicits PayPal donations from the readership, is no less interesting:
Here’s where the money will go:
$700 pays Suze for an entire episode (22 pages) of beautiful black and white line art
$400 pays Sarah for the painted covers, the painted interior colour, and the mind-blowing montage sequences
$100 pays Lindsay to update the website with new costume designs and character sketches in Cat’s Lookbook, each issue
That’s $1,200 per issue. We’re rounding it up to $1,300 because we want to make a donation from each issue to a relevant women’s charity.
For issue 2, we are giving to A Way Out, which reaches out to and supports vulnerable women and their families. Rather than offer a single lump sum, MSCSI will make a regular monthly donation as a partner. How much we can give, and how many charities we can work with, depends on the success of this project. The author, Will Brooker, takes no money at all from your donation, and writes this comic free of charge.
Combining social justice with fantasy superheroic justice; how can I say no? This project is in its infancy, but one hopes that this is the beginning of a beautiful saga. It isn’t often that I see a woman character I can really relate to in comics, least of all one who is the focus of the comic itself. Mainstream comics have had a few decent women characters here and there, but it’s rare that they take centre stage. One gets the sense that once Cat gets her superheroine druthers on no one will be able to steal the spotlight from her.
My So-Called Secret Identity, or MSCSI as the cool kids call it, seems to be the latest example of insurrectionist art that is pushing back against popular lies in mainstream cultural industries. Indie game designers are pushing boundaries without budgets, bending genres and showing us that, yes Virginia, feminine women can be badass video game stars. Increasingly, comic and webcomic artists are showing the way forward by doing much the same with their medium.