Monthly Archives: October 2013

Empathy – a revolutionary act

If we want a radical feminist revolution that overturns our current ways of thinking and responding to the world, I believe, and I’m not alone, that this begins (and ends) with empathy.

The style of thinking that characterises patriarchy/kyriarchy is individualistic, self-orientated, and based on competition, control and domination. It comes from a false belief that these are the natural drivers of human nature, a belief that is unfortunately self-reinforcing.

In contrast to this, it is becoming increasingly clear that humans (men and women, that is – we are not separate species) have been so successful not because of some “kill or be killed” “survival of the fattest” instinct, but because of our relational nature; our ability to collaborate and cooperate. Relatively small, weak and vulnerable as we are, it was our ability to work together that got us through the last ice age and beyond.

Neuroscience has taught us that the formation of our brain happens as much after birth as before, and this development is entirely dependent on relationships (click here for a stark image of human brain development in the absence of relationships). We now also know that people heal from psychological problems and trauma through relationship – relationship quality has been shown to be the main component of successful psychotherapy, for instance, and in healthcare settings we now understand that relationships are important protective factors in things like dementia care.

The main driver of this essential human development tool is empathy; quite possibly the single most important survival technique we possess.

Let me come clean; as a Rogerian counsellor I’m thrilled that people are beginning to recognise the importance of empathy in human development. Empathy is pretty much the cause I am working towards in my personal and professional life. When I started my Facebook page, Lesbians and Feminists Against Transphobia my purpose was to build empathy between feminist, lesbian and trans* communities. Although this was intended to be a reciprocal process, and the empathy needs to be two-way, I was motivated by the institutional transphobia I had encountered within lesbian and feminist circles towards trans* people, a phenomenon entirely based in lack of empathy. This mattered to me because I witnessed the social exclusion of trans* people as having a profoundly detrimental effect on their psychological wellbeing.

Let’s go back to how much human relationships, driven by empathy, protect us from psychological distress and trauma. And then let’s think about the devastating social and personal impact of unhealed trauma. Now, let’s remember that trans* people are a considerable minority, vulnerable to trauma, and that inevitably many of the people surrounding them will be non-trans (cisgender) people. Therefore, while it’s less likely trans* people will contribute significantly to the emotional wellbeing of cisgender people in general, it is inevitable that people who are not trans*, being such an overwhelming majority, will significantly contribute to the wellbeing of trans* people, in much the same way heterosexual people have a disproportionate impact on LGB people, and able bodied people impact disabled people.

We may need to redefine our understanding of how we bring about social change in light of our better understanding of the importance of empathy. If people develop self-understanding and psychological coherence through being listened to and understood, we could question what use there is in developing opinions and theories about people in the absence of dialogue with the people themselves. Some might even suggest that diagnosing and theorising about people without their involvement is inherently paternalistic – the very essence of a patriarchal approach.

If we come to accept empathy as a necessary counterbalance to oppression, we should understand that a choice not to empathise with a vulnerable minority group will cause damage to people within that group. By excluding groups from our circle of empathy we share a responsibility for the psychological damage they experience. This may be hard to hear, but those of us who hold privilege in relation to trans* people (and despite my position under the trans* umbrella I include myself in this) share a responsibility for the unnecessarily high level of suicide within the trans* community.

We need to work on our empathy, because human lives are at stake. First and foremost, that means we need to improve how we listen.

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Whoever we are, we have power and we have privilege

I am a deeply privileged person. I am a transgender (genderqueer) lesbian in a relationship with a trans* man. I was assigned female at birth and have lived most of my life as a girl and woman. I have a minor disability. I have hidden minority ethnic heritage (Romany). I am a survivor of severe abuse and trauma. And yet my initial statement was made without irony – although none of the things I just mentioned are indicators of privilege, I am still a deeply privileged person.

This past year I have been on a journey of self-reflection to discover the difficulty and obstacles we face in examining our own privilege. I did this because as a feminist activist I believe we cannot possibly dismantle the structures that perpetuate oppression without such self-reflection. I’m coming from the more radical end of feminism – as in, I don’t believe it’s enough for women to be given equal access to our current systems and structures; we need to be looking at dismantling the structures themselves.

It has not been easy examining my privilege, and I have realised that humans all have this in common – it is far easier for us to notice the slice of cake we’re getting is too small than too big. Our concept of fairness and justice means that when we are confronted with our unearned, undeserved benefits we may feel so much shame we are unable to face the truth.

One of the oppressive structures we live under is one of blame and shame. This means that if something is wrong, then someone must be at fault, and they should be made to feel bad. This is useless when you need people to take responsibility for their actions and their participation in maintaining an oppressive structure – in order to evade toxic blaming and shaming, we disown or defend our privilege as much as possible, and this gets us nowhere. Finding my way out of this blame/shame trap was imperative.

Examining my privilege taught me empathy and compassion

In my escape from this inherently oppressive structure in which I too was participating, I went straight for the biggest oppression I help perpetrate – the subjugation and slaughter of other species. I went vegan, and this act allowed me to open my mind to my own power and the vulnerability of other beings. It taught me compassion, but it also helped me to be open to my own vulnerability and thus be compassionate towards myself.

Now, going vegan may be too radical an idea for others, and I’m not going to give anyone a hard time about this, it was an epic struggle for me to confront my human privilege and my own ability to dissociate from the harm I was causing to other beings. If others had not led the way in this, I would probably not have come to the conclusions I did. And I know that I still participate in many activities that, directly and indirectly, cause disproportionate harm to other species as well as other humans. It is still too easy for me to subconsciously decide that an animal in a cage, or for that matter a clothing worker in Bangladesh, does not matter quite as much as I do. My white, western, human, middle aged and middle class sense of entitlement is sadly still far too intact.

The point of this self-reflection was to recognise how very powerful I am; to own my personal power, to not be ashamed of it or to hide the fact that I have it. When I buy food or clothes or turn on the heating I try to hold in awareness the systems of oppression I am participating in for my own comfort. Such awareness drives change, as it is painful to carry on a damaging course with full consciousness. I might not be able to all at once fully eliminate the suffering of others but I can at the very least not block my eyes and ears to its existence.

In realising what a difficult process this was to undertake, I was also able to develop understanding and empathy for people in other privileged groups, and face the reality of the common processes of denial and minimisation that most humans seem to share in relation to their own power and position. I also learned that while I will absolutely continue to fight for the recognition of the vulnerability of various minorities, including those I belong to, we can also use our minority status to abdicate our own responsibility for other structures of oppression. This led to a shocking, and controversial, realisation.

As a woman I can’t assume all men hold more privilege than I do

In my day job, I have had to reflect hard on my assumptions about holding myself in a universal class of people called “woman” and how I can use this to evade my responsibility for other oppressive social structures. If we could do something so complicated as tallying up the sum of somebody’s privilege, perhaps I hold the social advantage over a black or disabled male client; I certainly cannot assume I do not.

In my work with young clients from profoundly disadvantaged, traumatic and deprived backgrounds, I realised I was putting the young white males into a more advantaged class than myself, despite the severe trauma and violence they were exposed to in their lives, despite their lack of access to the advantages I have been afforded. It was still easier for me to think that “people like them” are oppressing “people like me” than to see that people like me are oppressing them – I benefit from a class system that affords me better career prospects, a better education, relative freedom from violence and trauma, and access to social and economic opportunities these particular young white men do not have.

I am not suggesting, as some might, that this means that white male privilege does not exist – it does, as women or people of colour in the same environment fare even worse. I am saying that there are many intersecting structures of power and oppression in this world, and if we single out one and ignore others we get a false picture, particularly if we do so in such a way as to ignore our own advantages. I am not going to single out any group of people for doing this, because as far as I can see it happens in all groups, but I do believe ethical, intersectional feminism needs to be aware of this trap. Fighting for our own group’s needs and ignoring those of others is a form of me-ism; a scramble for privilege that is an aspect of the very system we need to dismantle.

I truly believe there isn’t a human on this planet that does not hold some form of privilege. There certainly won’t be such a human reading this blog, given access to the internet is a privilege most human beings simply do not have.

So this is the challenge I am left with, to extend my concept of intersectionality to the point that I never assume another person holds the upper hand, and therefore never exonerate myself from respect and compassion for the people I interact with, because a sense of entitlement towards my own anger, indignation, hostility or redress might lead me to abuse. The white male I am shouting at may have a learning disability, the “straight” woman I’m tussling with may be struggling with her own sexuality. My age and social status in this situation might just trump the other person’s membership of an apparently more privileged group.

Much as I can be aware of the sources and structures of oppression in this world, and much as I have a duty to name them and oppose them, I do not have an accurate calculation of where to even position myself in the global hierarchy, let alone anyone else. The only data I have is that as a human I am naturally inclined to position myself lower than I should, and the other person higher. This is why we tend to hear “I am part of the world’s poorest 99%” more than we hear “I am part of the world’s richest 20%” – even though I and most of the people reading this are likely to belong in that second statement as much as the first.

I will continue to call out all people for their privileged statements and behaviours, but I now commit to doing this with the respectful and compassionate assumption that I have the power to harm others, that we are all capable of being abusive and oppressive, and we are all a complex, indecipherable mixture of powerfulness and vulnerability.

This is about authenticity, not privilege

In the past year both my partner and I came out as transgender. He is transitioning, I’m not, but we’re both not so very far from each other in the gender multiverse. Somewhere in the “in-between” leaning towards maleness, but not all the way over. Even if he’s a he and I’m a they, even if I keep bits he doesn’t want, even if he gets bits I don’t want, this relationship is still effectively homo. Despite this we can feel our community slipping away from us, as people assume we’ve become a straight couple because they only believe in binaries, or as folks simply back away in shear incomprehension or disbelief.

Don’t get me wrong, we have many amazing, supportive friends. But I’m talking now about the wider community and the mainstream attitudes and practices within that community. For ten years I silenced myself over gender because the dominant lesbian narrative carefully constructs gender variance as an aspect of sexual orientation, and characterises being openly transgender as some sort of deluded cop-out.

Sometimes I too have my moments of “hey, have we just lost our minds???” but if so, why, in the face of all opposition, do I feel so grounded and so clear, like the only person in the theatre who has seen through a magic trick?

For many folks, though, this is way out of their reckoning, and deeply suspect. They have their own answers to what’s going on, the main one being that after a combined 40ish years of being lesbians and feminists, we just couldn’t hack it and want to acquire hetero and male privilege.

I never had a problem being out as a lesbian, but when I felt I needed to out myself as trans* at work, I cried every night for a week, agonising over whether I really needed to tell them or whether I should stay in the closet. They already knew my partner was transgender because I couldn’t very well hide the change of pronouns, but me too? That doesn’t fit so neatly; sounds a bit far-fetched. I know nobody’s going to be getting my pronouns right, I know few people will understand, so why should I bother sharing this intimate detail with the world?

Well, because I’m a counsellor and a writer and who I am and what I do pretty much relies on me being congruent and authentic. I can’t hide a huge part of who I am without becoming incongruent and false; the very opposite of what I need to be to do my work well.

The tears, in the end, were the agony of silence. When it was all out in the open, I felt ok, even if I knew I wasn’t always being fully understood. And now I’m out I can state with absolute certainty that saying you’re a lesbian is easier in any scenario than saying you’re transgender. Lesbians are 1 in 20, transgender folk are more like 1 in 1000 – and people just don’t get it.

What doesn’t fit someone’s experience or knowledge still attracts confident conclusions – conclusions about your mental health, about your not coping with being a lesbian or never having been a proper one, about what your sexuality really is, about your wanting to appear more “normal” or normative; your trying to gain privilege. They decide you’re trying to escape something or making drama or simply hell-bent on misery. Anything other than the simple reality that you went deeper into yourself and came nearer to the truth.

And then there are the members of your community who are involved in such deeply transphobic campaigning that your hands start to shake at the mention of their name. Others politely try to see both sides and remain neutral. They don’t really get how much the campaigning hurts or the damage it does. Suddenly you’re afraid to go to parties and gatherings and you realise the transphobes are more welcome in what you considered your own community than you are.

I’ve discovered the hard way that what I thought was an inclusive community is often just a bunch of people who want to hang out with folks as similar to them as possible, and in that respect they are really no more enlightened than a bunch of cis-het white dudes. Their cool extra weapon for marginalisation is attaching spurious privilege to you in any way they can, so they can feel righteous rather than guilty about shunning you. Or they simply say you should go hang out with other people like you.

But there aren’t too many out people like me, although I’m touched by the number of lesbian friends who have affirmed how my story resonates with their experience. There are even fewer out transmen. It’s lonely here, because for all I have good friends I really do fear I’m losing my community. Permaculture tells us growth happens on the margins, but still the margins are a precarious place to be.

I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not in order to fit the mainstream lesbian narrative. I’m strong enough to stand apart, and I am indeed privileged to have the inner resources and the circle of support to do this. But it does hurt to be in a “community” that goes to such great lengths to organise groups and events that only cater for the majority, and leaves trans* people (among others) uncertain of their welcome or certain of their exclusion.