Monthly Archives: July 2016

When people are sharing hate speech and they don’t even know it

From what I’ve seen, the Anarchist Federation are generally pretty right on, including when it comes to trans inclusion, but sometimes people get things drastically wrong and then you get a sticker like this, which is kinda hate speech:

[image: a picture of two women holding a knife to a man's throat. text reads: abolish gender]

I turned up at a meeting recently and saw a pile of these in a space I generally feel safe. A space that signed up to the Safer Space Guidelines our local trans community drew up. Seeing this really threw me, especially amongst other stickers I could totally get behind. It reminded me of how far we still have to go.

People asked me what was up and I could not articulate it, afraid that without a shared understanding of the issues, I would come across as an apologist for misogyny. I’m writing this to try and make the issues clear.

First of all, though as a pacifist I’m not fond of the image, it isn’t that I find problematic. Women having violent revenge fantasies about overpowering men in the context of male oppression are just that – fantasies. The image is symbolic, I get that. If the text had said “smash patriarchy” I would be fine. Even though I know some whiny person who doesn’t understand about structural inequality will come along and talk about “misandry” or “reverse sexism”, I’m not about to censor or tone police women’s anger. It’s just a picture showing the depths of women’s justifiable rage.

But the text calls for people to “abolish gender” and that’s the hate-speechy bit. Because let’s be clear, gender is many, many things and only one of those is an axis of oppression.

Gender is Two-spirit people, Bakla, Hijiras, and the many hundreds of ways cultures all over the world explore and express the complexity of gender, in defiance of binary, colonialist narratives. Abolishing Two-spirit people isn’t ending oppression, it is oppression. And it’s colonisation, as Lola Phoenix explains here*.

Gender is also butches, femmes, demigirls, genderqueer & genderfluid folk, trans men, trans women, non-binary people, people who are agender, bigender, pangender, transgender. . .

In other words, there is a rich diversity of how people enact and experience gender across the globe and to abolish it would be to abolish us.

This is a particularly violent threat in the context of most gender abolitionists’ insistence on maintaining the legal and social categories “men and women”, which if you haven’t read my previous blogs, is still gender but gender abolitionists don’t always see it as such.

So, to recap, “abolish gender”, one tenet of second wave radical feminism, seeks to abolish diverse cultural identities and communities while remaining silent on sex assignment. Sex assignment is a non-consensual process. In it children are forced, without their permission and with physical violence in the case of many intersex children, into a legal and social category, according to the shape of their genitalia. These categories are not neutral, they are classed – one oppresses the other. This process of sex assignment gives birth to the existence of gender as class.

Abolish gender as a class structure by all means, although the only way I can see to do that is to abolish sex assignment. But there is a huge difference between ending a non-consensual practice committed against children and forcing adults to end their own cultural, consensual and autonomous practices around gender.

I do not want to be abolished. Yes, I wish I had not been assigned female at birth. Yes, I understand that assignment has massively altered my experience of gender. Yes, I understand that both my female assignment and my male socialisation have been subject to the influence of gender inequality. But I do not believe that there is anything remotely wrong with being transgender and I believe even in a utopia aspects of gender would still manifest, even if differently than in this dystopic world.

Yes, I want to smash patriarchy, but please don’t smash me in the process.

To explore this subject in greater depth, I have set up a workshop in Nottingham on 20th August

*ETA: This is a nice accessible piece on the subject, but there’s much more out there. The workshop seeks to collate the words of POC, which are not always given platforms. A good place to start if you’re up for a longer read is decolonizing trans/gender 101 by b. binaohan

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Trigger Warnings and “Man Up” culture

P1080929.JPGTW – dicusses rape, rape culture, and being a survivor. I wrote this a while back but it was too raw to post. It was my response to somebody calling me out for not posting trigger warnings about rape-related posts on Facebook, in the wake of the Stanford case.

How did I get to the place where I was sharing stuff about rape without using trigger warnings? Of all people, I should know better. I am a former victim of both rape and long term childhood sexual abuse. (I always want to say “serious sexual abuse”, but I have learned that there is no such thing as non-serious sexual abuse. I learned that the day a close friend told me about her father kissing her sexually on the lips just once. It had completely unravelled her life. Understandably so.)

I would never dream of posting something without a trigger warning on a Facebook group, or a page I run. I understand the importance of trigger warnings not just as a former victim, but also as a trauma therapist – they actually help traumatised people engage with difficult material better, and challenge themselves more, because we cannot engage well when our fight/flight/freeze/fuck it response is fully triggered. See my friend Onni Gust’s excellent Guardian piece about this.

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Warnings help us walk our more vulnerable selves through the process without freaking out. It’s a bit like when you bend your knees and clench your tummy muscles before lifting something heavy to avoid injuring your back – you need to know it’s heavy beforehand, but that doesn’t stop you from lifting it, it just helps you prepare properly.

So why would I not give myself, and my friends, the respect I give to people in groups and pages I run or belong to?

Because I am ashamed to show my vulnerability and sensitivity to this issue. Because I am frightened of being judged, as all victims of sexual crimes are judged, one way or another. I am scared being known as someone who experienced sexual crime will indelibly damage my reputation and how others treat me.

Underlying all this is one reason rape culture is so pervasive – in an unsupportive environment, we dissociate from suffering because it is our only way of coping. It’s dysfunctional, it perpetuates suffering and spreads trauma, but sometimes it’s all we can manage to do. That’s the real cycle of abuse – the self-perpetuating cycle of distancing – not caring about it enough, not listening, not believing, not dealing with it, and ultimately pushing it all back onto individual victims.

Why does society systematically deny the suffering of abuse victims? One reason could be that people cannot bear to connect to that suffering.

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I can generally cope with discussions about rape if I’m allowed to prepare myself, I’m even extraordinarily good at supporting victims as a therapist. In the counselling room, my high levels of sensitivity and the depth of my ability to understand the issues are of course an asset.  I’ve dealt with my own hurt enough (thanks to shedloads of therapy) for it not to get in the way with clients – I can prepare myself, and put it aside precisely because I know what I’m about to deal with. I have explored the terrain in every way I know how. I have learnt to be self-reflective and aware of my own processes.

But you’re rarely “all healed, all of the time” from trauma and abuse, it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes when we’re not prepared, this stuff sneaks up on us.
In spaces where I socialise, I should be able to keep myself safe enough not to end up dissociated. I shouldn’t have to have the subject of rape thrown in my face over and over without any warning. It’s manners to warn people if you’re about to throw something harmful their way – give them a chance to prepare themselves and duck if necessary. 1 in 4 women experiences sexual assault and that figure is even higher for all trans people, as it is for other marginalised people, such as some disabled groups. You can safely assume you’re talking to multiple former victims when you share stuff online.
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So I am deeply sorry for all the times I have failed to prepare people before sharing a difficult subject. This does not just apply to rape, but to other traumatic material such as racism, violence, and anything else that might trigger a trauma response.

The “man up” culture around trigger warnings, and suffering in general, let’s be honest, is merely proof of how much society is dissociated from sexual trauma and unable to really engage with it sensitively. One dissociation begets another; I find myself unconsciously “manning up” (read, acting like a jerk and inflicting harm on others and myself by shutting down my sensitivity).

When I searched my heart, I realised I was afraid to use trigger warnings in my social sphere for fear of being seen as overly sensitive, fragile, special snowflakey etc. So not really brave and facing the issue at all – I was fearful, and ducking the issue. Ashamed to admit I’m a former victim and afraid to show too much care for other victims. I also realised that the Stanford case had shifted me into full blown dissociation – I was sharing meme after meme about it, but completely emotionally detached from the impact of yet another incident where the perpetrator’s feelings and reputation were prioritised far above those of the victim. Just like in my own experience, and pretty much every other victim of sexual violence I’ve known.

I was experiencing only a detached kind of fury that refused to connect to the underlying hurt and vulnerability of reading that poor woman’s intimate and harrowing account.

When we “man up” against being sensitive to difficult issues all we do is dissociate and that makes us pretty much useless at empathy and being vaguely decent human beings. We perpetuate harm to ourselves and others. I’ll take being sensitive over that any day of the week.

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So thank you to the person who called me out for my lack of trigger warnings. It helped me reconnect to myself as well as be more sensitive to others.

And for all of those people who don’t want to see vulnerability displayed out in the open like this – please find somewhere you too can be vulnerable. Stop attacking other people for showing the things you so desperately want to hide from. Because all of you who think we should man up, be less coddled, just get on with it, etc – you’re the real cowards here, afraid to face the enormity of other people’s suffering, and quite possibly your own.

Clueless White People

CN: Orlando

I wrote this before Brexit happened. Now, more than ever, white LGBT people need to shape up and see how much we exclude people of colour from our communities. I’m done being patient with people who would rather devote their time to explaining why they aren’t racist than spend it showing up for PoC. I’m frustrated with my white friends who don’t challenge racism in their own communities. I’m impatient with the white LGBT organisations I work with who don’t even notice the unconscious biases that keep PoC excluded, and I’m tired of white people derailing every conversation and every action to focus on themselves or other white people.

It’s time we all took a stand and recognised we are either united in our differences or doomed to let the bigots win.

[Image: A statue plinth covered in candles. tealights spell out the words love and pride

Responding to Orlando

I am writing this as a clueless white person. I have worked very hard to be a less clueless white person. I think I have moved from a position of unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence – i.e. unlike many of my peers, it seems, I know I am clueless.

I am learning to listen, but it turns out white people really aren’t great at listening to people of colour. I keep working on it. I accept I’ll never fully overcome the racist culture in which I was raised but that I should never stop trying. The point is not to become complacent, nor waste time on shame and defensiveness that does nobody any good. Just keep working.

So, Orlando happened, and I haven’t even begun to sort out the emotional tidal wave that’s washed over me from that. But I know one of my early thoughts:

My queer brown friends are going to be hurting.

Because the first thing we learned was the shooter was Muslim. And so suddenly it was given a political context – not a hate crime against LGBT people by a fellow American in what is still a very homophobic, biphobic and transphobic society, but an “act of terror against America”.

“It could have been anyone” someone said on my timeline. “Apparently the shooter was casing out Disneyland but the security was too high”. “Don’t make this about gay people or push your gay agenda”, I hear elsewhere.

For those who are unaware, despite the fact that Muslim people are in the billions, when one Muslim does a bad thing the entire, diverse, religion is implicated. People I know who are Muslim suffer unjust prejudice and violence as a result. The word for this is Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, more queer lines of communication were letting us know that the victims were mostly PoC too – something that seemed to be getting missed/erased by a lot of people.

Which erasures matter?

Gay people started to get cross at the erasure of the homophobic element of the crime (we know the shooter was homophobic, as well as domestically violent and racist against other minorities). Owen Jones even walked off Sky News because of this erasure. My fellow white LGBT people cheered his anger and his political stance. It started to feel like this was being prematurely and inappropriately co-opted as terrorism against the US “way of life” and not viewed as LGBT hate. But of course, white gay people were just as guilty of their own erasures – they said “gay” instead of “LGBT”, as well as forgetting to think about the specific issues that may affect communities of colour dealing with such a tragedy in a majority white, racist culture.

We are so very aware of how it is to be LGBT in a majority straight, heterosexist culture, why so hard to understand the impact of a majority white culture on PoC?

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So I was relieved when I heard that our local QTIPoC group were the first to organise a vigil for the whole community. For once, the right people were centred – queers of colour honouring queers of colour, what could be more appropriate? I planned to attend, but had no involvement in the organising.

A few hours before the vigil, I got a message from a friend saying she’d heard of another vigil – I thought this was a shame, another group organising a separate vigil one hour earlier in the same place, instead of supporting the QTIPoC one. It seemed to me to lack awareness of something really fundamental in all this; that queers of colour were the majority victims in this tragedy, and it would be respectful to consider the QTIPoC-organised vigil as the one to get behind.

I wondered what this other group might be thinking, but concluded that like many LGBT people, and perhaps myself once upon a time, they probably didn’t think much about how things are for PoC in our community, or perhaps don’t really even see PoC as part of our community, or feel the ethnicity of the victims was important. Our LGBT spaces are so very white, and people rarely ask themselves why. In Nottingham, a city with 33% BAME population, local LGBT leaders remain incredulous that that means around 33% of Nottingham LGBTs are BAME people too.

Then I saw this message on the QTIPoC vigil event page from the organiser of the other event:

"just to clear up any confusion... there are 2 events in the same location between 6/7 tonght that are being joined together - we hope to see everybody there that can attend x"

Curious, I thought – advertising their (so far unadvertised) vigil on the other vigil’s event page and also saying that it will be a joint event? Seemed a little bit like they were taking over. Not unheard of for white people to take over the enterprise of PoC. But nothing was said by QTIPoC group members, so I let it go.

The vigils

I didn’t plan to attend both vigils, but I’d bussed into town early so I went along to the earlier vigil. The vigil was mostly harmless – there were candles, which were lovely, and a fair few people came.

Unfortunately, someone had brought an American flag and hung it centrally, with the Pride flag to one side. I doubt they had considered what a strong, or inappropriate, political message this was. With so much erasure of this as an LGBT hate crime against people who have a marginalised status within America (on three counts – race, LGBT status, and undocumented status), pandering to the highly political notion that this was an attack on America was just not on. But I’m sure the person who did it did not think this through, so I said nothing. I know they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but they did. This was not a time for American nationalism, it was a time to focus on the victims of this tragedy. But so often that ultra-right wing nationalistic politics is seen as neutral and apolitical and the harm it does is ignored.

We observed a minute’s silence, and then a few people – all white, spoke. Lots of mention of homophobia and the hate all of us face every day – passionate, angry, emotional, political speeches, demanding an end to homophobia. One person even talked about how all LGBT people face “terrorism” every day due to hate. I wasn’t sure about them co-opting that terminology, but people have a right to be passionate and angry when stirred up by something like this, surely?

By 6.30, just 15 minutes later, it was winding up. At the end, I asked them to remind the crowd about the other vigil, as they had not even mentioned it. People milled around – quite a few went, but a lot more came. Heading up to 7 there was a much bigger crowd, a different, more diverse crowd that had mainly come for the QTIPoC vigil.

I became increasingly anxious about the presence of the American flag. As 7.00 came, I felt it was now becoming a space set aside for the QTIPoC group to lead their planned vigil in their own way. It was nice that the Pride group had brought candles for both vigils, but I and others felt the flag, whoever brought it, was problematic. I spoke to some people about it, and resolved to respectfully remove it. I took it down, folded it carefully. In its place we put a beautiful art quilt that housed a myriad of identity flags to reflect a diverse community. Later, a list of the names of the dead was placed there.

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I hoped at this point someone would come up and claim the flag, and I would have an opportunity to explain why it had been taken down, but nobody spoke to me in the full 15 minutes between taking the flag down and the vigil starting. I placed the flag to one side of the plinth. Later, a couple of younger people picked it up and stood on the plinth with it. I explained to them that some of us felt it should come down, they said ok, we’ll just get a photo.

Blurred boundaries – whose space was it anyway?

I guess if it had been understood as a separate vigil, things would have been clearer, that the original QTIPoC organisers had every right to set things up the way they wanted. But the boundaries had been blurred by talk of it being a “joint vigil”. The PoC space had, in fact, been encroached upon.

The second vigil was powerful – a bigger crowd, passionate speeches, singing and readings.  It went on for about an hour. Speakers represented 3 religions – Christian, Jew and Muslim, as well as people of no faith. Women, NB folk and men, brown, black and white. A much more diverse space that went deeper into the issues and feelings that people were holding in their hearts. From the people who stayed for it, I have not heard a bad word spoken.

I felt much more represented and included as a non-binary trans person. The existence of my identity (bisexual and non-binary) was mentioned by more than one of the speakers, and when one cis lesbian spoke of the “lesbian and gay” community she got a good-natured heckle from a cis (I believe) member of the QTIPoC group: “and trans, non-binary, bisexual and intersex!”

Good-natured challenges like that go a long way to build better inclusion, and the atmosphere was such that it was safe for these challenges to happen. People were showing up for each other, making and holding space for each other. On the whole, it was a very unified crowd.

To me, this is the big difference between a Fascist vision of unity and genuine inclusivity – in an inclusive world, people are free to bring all their lived experiences, differences, disagreements, passions. A fascist vision has everyone singing from the same sheet – we will all be assimilated. Fascists talk about “divisiveness” when people don’t act or think the way they want them to, while inclusive communities are robust enough to cope with disagreement without falling to pieces.

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It took a bit of time for the second vigil to get going. Maryam, the organiser, seemed slow to get up and speak – I could tell she was nervous. She had a loudhailer to try and send her quietish voice to the back of the now 200-strong crowd, but it wasn’t always enough to get her heard. I was close, so I heard her fully, but I wondered who else caught all of it. It didn’t help that quite quickly a small group of people not far from the centre started speaking while she was speaking – so disrespectful! I got the impression that as soon as she mentioned this is the holy month of Ramadan they just tuned out. They looked cross. At one point a couple of them came over to talk to me, and I told them not while Maryam was speaking and they strutted off looking grumpy. I don’t think it occurred to them what it means for a white person to speak over a person of colour. They were clearly forming an impression of events, but it was not through paying any real attention.

Oh how I wish they’d really heard what Maryam had to say! But she repeated the gist of it when she spoke to the Post, and I recommend watching this video. Despite a few sour faces, most of the huge crowd were with her, and gave her a huge cheer. I suspect the few that walked away angry had grasped very little of what was being said, their minds closed up that Maryam had dared to mention her religion at all, or dared to speak her worries about racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the attack with a similar level of passion that the earlier speakers had spoken of homophobia.

After a couple more speakers, I got up and spoke spontaneously. I was close to tears, although apparently I sounded angry. Perhaps loud hailers make you sound angry with their harsh sound. I spoke of my upset that the news and politicians were politicising these events, naming the ethnicity of the shooter, but ignoring the lives of the dead, both their ethnicity and LGBT status. I explained that I had taken down the flag as a mark of respect to the dead – at least I tried to say that! I was rather overcome, and I was brief, because I did not want to take up too much space.

A Statue plinth with the word pride written in candles. A list of the names of the Orlando victims is tied to the bottom of the statue.

A little later Angela Dy got us all roused with a beautiful Audre Lorde poem and a call and response: “Black and Brown, Trans and Queer, Our Lives Matter”.

At some point a white gay guy got angry and aggressive saying “all lives matter” as if he did not understand we were lifting up the kinds of lives that matter less to too many people and remembering them specifically. “All lives matter” is on a par with “heterosexual prideOther than that, there was no trouble. The crowd remained large, and there was convivial mingling in solidarity long after all the many speakers had finished. People continued to light candles way into the night. I think for the vast majority, it was a wonderful vigil, and I was very grateful for the chance to be in such a warm, inclusive space.

A bitter aftermath 

Sadly, we returned home to fallout, very angry people online who felt some of the principled words and actions in the QTIPoC vigil were out of place, and felt it necessary to loudhail their condemnation over social media. I have reflected a lot in the ensuing fortnight, but I still can’t find any validity in these attacks. A kneejerk feeling of unthinking anger is one thing, and I would not want to censor people’s feelings, however illbegotten, when they are grieving. But to take that onto social media and use it to whip up hate and anger is quite another.

There was nothing inherently more “political” about the later vigil than the earlier one, it’s just that it was a politics some did not understand as well – they were as clueless about issues of PoC erasure, marginalisation and Islamophobia as Sky news had been about homophobia. Same exact problem – lack of knowledge, lack of empathy.

It was a shock that people could stir up so much nastiness during a time of mourning, and create rifts so quickly. The silence of a lot of my white peers was equally depressing. They rallied round me for taking down the flag, but then I felt centred when all I’d wanted to do was take some of the heat. Nobody directly challenged the underlying stink of Islamophobia and racism in online posts about the QTIPoC speeches.

All of what was said was insinuation – an impressionistic portrayal of people being too political, politically correct, having a religious agenda – no mention of what had been said or how, or why it had offended, just a vague impression given of nasty people doing nasty things, not in the “Spirit of Pride”. All inference, and of course no substance, but it’s amazing the insidious power of allusion to make something seem bigger than it is. You only need really say the speaker was a Muslim who “pushed her religion” and enough people will get angry, just because they need someone to be angry at right now.

When the earlier vigil’s organiser launched an angry online attack on Maryam one responder said “I was on my way n had to turn way in disgust I wasn’t sure what was going on but now I know” – in other words, they were ready to be angry without having witnessed much of anything. I’d love to know what “disgusted” them if they hadn’t taken the time to listen. Another complained about the use of a loudhailer, not considering how hard it is for some women to get their voices to carry. A few people used the massively inappropriate word “hijacked” – they all spoke as if the QTIPoC group were outsiders, and many somewhat obliviously considered the earlier vigil more inclusive. Not one other person challenged the organiser’s post, which was public, and shared in groups I am in. Not one.

Let me spell out why. People are afraid of challenging racism, and that’s why it is taking a greater and greater hold. Plenty of people were condemning this oblivious racism, just not directly to the people concerned. What we don’t challenge, we enable. The silence of white LGBT people exactly mirrored the silence of cishet people in the wake of this atrocity.

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People only need to say a Muslim did a bad thing and too many people will believe it without any evidence. Because similar is true for trans people. We are united in our marginalisation, the constant attack and condemnation, the prejudice and closed ears, the sufferance we receive in our communities if we are sufficiently well behaved and assimilated, and make no demands for change. The readiness people have to go against us if we put a foot wrong or make any kind of a fuss, or even dare to consider ourselves to have as much of a claim to the community as anyone else. Our experiences are not the same, and we should not co-opt each others struggles, but we should stand united in empathy for one another’s plight.

Well, a Muslim did a good thing here. Maryam was so incredibly brave and generous to stand up like she did. I will never forget her good work, and Angela’s, and all the others who brought together such a rainbow crowd on that powerful night. My gratitude is huge to them for holding a space that truly reflected the diversity of our community, and for empowering so many diverse people to speak. If that wasn’t a comfortable space for unconsciously racist, clueless white people, well I’m not really sorry – we pander to their comfort too much at the expense of others, and this level of discomfort and more is what QTIPoC people feel in LGBT spaces all the time.

We can accept our failures and focus on doing better

I don’t want a witch hunt like the one that came at the QTIPoC group. People need to learn from their screw-ups, not be hounded out and excluded. I know I’m a clueless white person too. I will continue to fuck up, but I will continue to make myself accountable to those more marginalised than me rather than letting those with less marginal positions always dictate terms. The reality is, prejudiced people will look for the flimsiest excuse to push marginalised people out, and claim they are doing it out of some sort of weakly justified self preservation.

We are all enraged about what happened in Orlando, we are all in grief. How this was expressed at the vigil (aside from the hostility towards the QTIPoC and trans speakers) was appropriate. All of those voices needed to be heard.

A community that cannot make space for the anger, needs, feelings, views and lived experiences of QTIPoC is not an inclusive community, and not my community.

Go listen to Maryam’s speech again. This time listen without prejudice and you will hear how we can be united.

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