[Cartoon image of a black woman with a black and pink background. At the top the text "Feeling uncomfortable is a necessary part", the text continues at the bottom of the image- "of unlearning oppressive behaviours".]

Not allowed to say we’re oppressed

Some months ago I was invited by Metropolitan Housing to send them our local community group’s Safer Space Guidelines with a view to them signing up. I received a response, that they could not sign up because the guidelines were “very negative”. When I asked for clarification of this sweeping statement, I was told the guidelines were “very defensive and aggressive” and that they went “against some of our values”. Still no actual detail, or suggestions of how to rectify the problem.

After much probing, I discovered that rather than the entire document being problematic, the contention was use of the word “oppressed”. Metropolitan eventually asserted they were not saying trans people are not oppressed, just that it was not “positive” to say so.

I remember the day a group of 20 people, with the backing of a few hundred people consulted online, put the guidelines together. We were cis and trans, we were professionals, parents, lay people, feminists. I remember how we were challenged as to whether we were “allowed” to boldly state “trans people are oppressed”. We still ask ourselves this, but with an air of sadness and frustration that it is so controversial to speak the truth about our lives.

Metropolitan

Of course it’s true that trans people are oppressed. There are legal and social structures in place in today’s society that make trans lives difficult by design. Trans people are in a constant fight to be safe, to have access to healthcare, legal recognition, equal employment and fair anti-discrimination legislation. But though we are oppressed, can we actually say it?

The catch 22 for minorities struggling to be granted equality is this issue of “polite request”. Put simply, we are expected to be deferential and cheery in our requests for fair treatment. This largely gets ignored, but if we are too strong or assertive we are slapped back and told we can’t expect equality if we don’t put our case in a palatable (more easily ignored) way. This is the double-bind that maintains oppressive power structures. No civil rights battle was won on deferential pleading alone, but any attempts to do otherwise are invariably, inevitably met with accusations of aggression and violence.

This is nothing new. The “aggressive” trans activist can proudly take their place next to the “angry” black rights activist and the “militant” feminist, with a shared understanding of how these words are used to silence us.

So the issue we are faced with is a community group is, do we change the guidelines so that the average person can read them through without being discomfited, and if so what will they achieve? Many organisations have signed the guidelines, and presumably they too had to think a moment about our bold use of the word “oppressed”.

Metropolitan

That’s good, we cannot let people be too comfortable with our words because comfort signifies a lack of challenge, and the status quo needs to be challenged. If people are reading through this document thinking “this is easy, this won’t challenge us, we’re already doing all of this” then it is no way near enough, because let’s be clear, we all have a long way to go and this is no time for laurel-resting.

Metropolitan went on to claim how good their own policies were on trans people, and directed me to a flimsy equalities page where they had not even managed to spell transgender correctly.

The process of challenging Metropolitan, not about their choice to not sign up, but about the way they had dealt with this, was the usual exhausting process of speaking truth to power. They of course have a complete right not to sign up to the guidelines, but how they handled the correspondence speaks volumes about them as an organisation.

This is something like how Metropolitan should have worded their original feedback: “We appreciate that we do not have the right to dictate how trans people should speak about their own experiences, but we were uncertain about the helpfulness of the specific use of “oppressed” and wondered whether there is any leeway in changing this wording?”

(Better still, they would have challenged themselves as to why they find this such a difficult word to hear.)

Here’s why my wording is non-oppressive: it doesn’t mention whether or not Metropolitan will or won’t sign up, thus it isn’t threatening the community with the withholding of support if they don’t comply. NTH don’t chase people over sign-ups, organisations sign up via the website and it’s up to them, they don’t need to defend or excuse not signing because we have no power to get organisations on board. The process is voluntary.

Metropolitan

The suggestion I’ve made is specific feedback about the wording, it isn’t vague, it isn’t patronising and condescending, it isn’t emotive, it isn’t critical, it isn’t over-generalised, and it isn’t “tone-policing”, as the original feedback was on all counts. It honours that trans people are the ones who should be able to articulate their own experiences best.

Ironically, despite their assertion that they “would be shocked if anyone in Metropolitan worked against the guidelines”, Metropolitan have indicated in their response their dismissal of the voices of the local trans community, the very issue the guidelines seek to redress. My ensuing battle to be heard by them felt akin to having my voice deliberately muted.

I remain in shock that Metropolitan as an organisation stand by the original condescending and humiliating “feedback” as being acceptable and professional. The icing on the cake for me was the phrase in response to my complaint “we’re sorry you were upset”, which only served to reinforce the humiliation and high-handedness I experienced from them.

Pretty upsetting and depressing, really, that an organisation feels comfortable dealing so shabbily with people who lack structural power, and not too encouraging as to how trans people will be dealt with by Metropolitan.

I suspect that if trans people are suitably grateful for Metropolitan’s condescension, though, and know their place, they will be just fine. Just don’t expect them to treat trans people with actual respect, equality and dignity.

In fact, Metropolitan, you have acted oppressively. But of course, I’m not allowed to say that, am I?

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