Saturday, August 25, 2012

The importance of radical non-presence in maintaining intersectional integrity

Note: This is an idea I am still very much mulling over and would LOVE to hear any feedback folks have about privilege, oppression, & intersectionality as it relates to presence/non-presence.

As a teenager, before I explored myself sexually, before I maturbated, before I began writing about my fantasies, & before I began to interrogate my own desires, I accepted the romantic paths society laid out for me. More simply put: I identified as straight until I was 23. Fortunately during my sexual oblivion I gravitated toward the queer youth space in my hometown. I attended weekly meetings and identified myself as a straight ally. My very best friend had come out to me in middle school and I wanted to be the best ally I could.

These meetings provided vital challenges to the way I conceptualized my world. I encountered and began to process the reality of trans and genderqueer folk for the first time. One of our regular leaders spoke with raw vulnerability about living with and contracting HIV. I was blown away. I value what I learned there more than I can say.

A year into my attendance of these meetings a decision was made that the meeting space would available to LGBTQ -identified individuals only. I considered saying I was queer or questioning, but back then straight still felt most comfortable. Conflict & anger burbled in my belly and often escaped my mouth in the shape of resentment as I spoke about the group’s decision. “It’s mean and discriminatory and I feel like I’m being unfairly excluded”.

After listening to my complaints, calmly and at length, my best friend opened his mouth haltingly but without apology. "Sometimes, it's just better to be around people who've had the same experiences you do."

Those simple words clicked instantly. I understood the reason my experience of straightness was excluded from a queer youth space. I didn’t have words for it then but it didn’t matter. I understood. I understood that spaces can be more deeply healing and illuminating when the people in that space have a shared experience & history with specific tools of oppression (in this case trans- & homophobia). At 17 I’d never had someone hate or question me for being queer. More importantly, I hadn't had it happen to me on a repeated, systematic basis. My friend was telling me that the most valuable support I could give him was my non-presence as a person full of a lived history of straightness.

The exclusion of my straight 17 year old self from my hometown's queer youth space facilitated deeper, unquestioned explorations of internalized and subconscious trans- & homophobia. The lessons I’d have learned by continuing to share that space would have no doubt been valuable. But my experiences of straightness took up space in that room. I required time and information to connect deeply to others’ experiences of homophobia and transphobia. I wanted to be included in explorations of those tools of oppression. But it wasn’t the job of those suffering from trans- & homophobia to educate me about that experience. It is never the obligation of the oppressed to educate others about the deep level of systematic oppression they experience. This is especially true if they are present to explore that oppression for themselves.

If you are part of a feminist or anti-oppression community that is seeking to support explorations of the ways in which tools of oppression intersect, ask yourself what privileges the space of that community gives you (education? comfort? solidarity? affirmation?). Make a list of these things. If you haven’t done so yet, thank your community for those things.

Ready for a tough truth?

You aren’t entitled to any of the things on your list. They are privileges given to you by the framework of that community or by the people in it.

While there’s no limits to the privilege individuals in communities can give each other, there is an unfortunate shortage of certain resources (space, time, etc) for folks in activist communities to support each other this way. With these constraints in mind and especially when it comes to intersectional community goals, it’s important to consider, acknowledge, and sometimes forgo privileges your community regularly provides you with.

Think about the experiences and expectations you bring into a community space. Consider how those experiences and expectations are useful to the community’s projects and goals. Are they relevant at all? (in the case of my straight 17-year-old self the answer was no).

If not, it might actually be more be helpful if you relinquished your privilege to express experiences and expectations. Or even relinquished you privilege to physically be in a space. This might mean listening silently to the voices of others. It might mean asking if work would be easier without you around, and respecting a yes if that is what you receive. Being allowed presence and visibility in any community space is a privilege (one that benefitted me greatly as a budding queer feminist).

Recognizing and relinquishing your privilege to be present can allow others (who’ve had experiences radically different from yours) to more safely express and deeply explore their experiences of oppression. Knowing when and how to get you and/or your experiences out of the way is crucial to effective, inclusive activism & feminism. Being part of a community is, by definition, not all about you. Sometimes putting that into actions means shutting up, getting out of the way or even getting out of the room completely.

Special note to anybody seeking to create exclusive spaces to more deeply interrogate and confront internal and external systems of oppression: say that this is what you are doing. 
Make clear upon invitation that you want to go deep with people who have had repeated and similar experiences of oppression. Say that you recognize the value and importance of others bearing witness to this, but that the space you are trying to hold open is to confront a specific oppression & not for the purpose of bearing witness and educating. Had the terms of my exclusion not been made clear by my friend, I might still feel unwelcome in queer spaces today. If you can't present an absolutely clear declaration of what oppression(s) you are going to examine then exclusion is indefensible.

1 comment:

  1. So, some background for anyone reading this who doesn't know me: I was the first straight-identified kid to regularly attend the queer youth group that Wendy references, and I did so for several years, until I hit the age limit for the group, which was when the rules were changed to exclude straight people (I heard conflicting things about whether they waited for me to age out, but in any event it happened right at the same time, so I was technically not affected by the decision). I supported the decision, partially for the reasons Wendy lists here, and partially because the group was growing rapidly and its straight attendees were putting a disproportionate strain on the group's resources. I set the precedent that brought straight people into the group, and I felt somewhat responsible for the problems that they caused.

    It's true that sometimes the very best thing you can do to support members of a community is to GTFO, either temporarily or permanently. However, I'd like to bring up one important caveat: you have to consider the purpose of the community. This is obviously easier in communities that have an explicitly articulated purpose, but all communities serve some kind of purpose, even if the members of the community have never actually discussed what that purpose is.

    In the case of the queer youth group, it had two primary purposes: to provide thorough sex education to queer youth and to provide a safe space for them to socialize with each other and be open about their identities without fear of judgment. Initially, the presence of a straight person or two did little to to impede either of those goals, but as the number of straight attendees grew, some of the queer youth (many of whom were not out to anyone outside the group) began to feel uncomfortable. The group also served the purpose of allowing straight kids to learn about queer issues, but that was not why the group had been created, and the facilitators of the group chose (wisely, I thought) to sacrifice that secondary function in favor of ensuring that it fulfilled the first two.

    However, the outreach and education of straight people that was taking place in that group was important. You wrote, "It is never the obligation of the oppressed to educate others about the deep level of systematic oppression they experience." I'd quibble with that statement. It may not be an absolute moral obligation, but in many cases it's a practical necessity. I won't bore you with a rant about the "Silence is Death" credo. Suffice it to say that an oppressed minority (especially an invisible minority such as LGBTQ folks) nearly always winds up needing to do a substantial amount of education and outreach to those in the privileged majority. Is this fair? Certainly not, but neither are most other consequences of oppression. It is practically unheard of for members of the privileged majority to spontaneously self-educate themselves. They have to be brought into contact with the oppression in one way or another, to see the effect it has on the oppressed.

    All of this is to say that while education and outreach was not that group's purpose (and we need to respect that), it needs to be somebody's purpose. It's not enough just to tell people that they have privilege. They have to be shown why that matters. Luckily, there are plenty of groups doing that in the context of LGBTQ issues. That group was able to re-focus on its core mission: educating and supporting queer youth. But if every queer community chose to exclude straight folks, that would be a significant setback in the struggle for equality.