This is an attempt to wrangle some wordage out of my miasma of dribbling lassitude. I am having a week of work to recuperate just a little bit from a sustained period of horrible stress which involved the long distance cleaning up Mum’s house, having it broken into and ransacked, and then supervising cleaning and repairs, and sorting and selling. All while negotiating the part time job not of my dreams, (topped up with casual contracts in ‘real’ academia), menopause, neighbour’s renovations, various friends’ crises, my own crises and chronic pain.
Shimmering points of light amidst all of this have included the ongoing work with Melbourne Artists for Asylum (MAFA) which now has a proper website and is organising an exhibition in June. Little things: making zines, stencils, screen prints. Workshops, meetings, hugs, phone calls, zine stalls, plans. Sharing memories and words and hope and ideas and laughter. This keeps me going. Hope it helps others too.
The other wonder in my life – is the group of intersectional feminist activists and academics who have been meeting for around 18 months. Like MAFA – it is run by women of colour, as an inclusive, positive, wonderful and mostly safe space…… It started as a group of women of colour comparing the books in their bags – and this has led to 3 events based on feminists reading from the books written by other feminists. It reminds me of everything that the academy has tried to extinguish about radical feminist studies in universities – and reminds me of the radical organic roots of grounded theory. I have been so delighted to see so many friends, colleagues and other people from so many areas of my life come together to share words and ideas that mean something – and that show us how to live.
The last event seemed to be getting bigger and better – with funding from AWGSA (the peak body of university gender studies programs), and located at the public pop up space of VU in gentrifying Footscray’s retail precinct, and held in conjunction with a week of feminist festivities around Footscray. I had been looking forward to it all week, and invited some friends and ex-colleagues to attend….
And the first speaker, describing the epistemic violence against lesbians in women’s health data collection, and the confounding barriers against older women with disabilities (the NDIS excludes people over 65 which is why my Mum had to fork out mega bucks for a wheelchair) nearly had me in tears. I was thinking of a close friend whose chronic illness has just caused her to lose her job and end up in hospital and which also prevented her from being at the event. We had spent the previous summer marching hand in hand at Melbourne’s numerous rallies, as supporters or participants – but often supporters and in solidarity with queers of colour (which we’re not), queers with visible disabilities and other causes…. and her response to the first event was PLEASE tell me if and where and when there is anything more like this. And I did, but she couldn’t come, and I was just wishing so much I had recorded the speaker, and that she could be there, when…. the chair had called ‘time’ and then…
a nasty little spate of words of hate.
words of hate that declared a battle ground between transwomen and others – as if transwomen are a single category, and something separate and defined and definable by non-transwomen.
I looked at my phone and deleted my text ‘wish you were here’.
and I wish I had been able to act more decisively. you know, to stand up. to turn my back on the speaker or lower my pants or lift my dress, or do something outrageous and express outrage. I didn’t even feel outrage. I felt numb and sick and sad.
Thank dog other speakers had words. Powerful words of love and rage and justice. Sangeetha Thanapal followed with an instant statement declaring how the gender binary on which transphobia depends is a colonial construct and unacceptable.
When two audience members stood up (including speaker/reader Clare Land) and said “we have to stop! something just happened that is unacceptable that has made this space intolerable”, MC Candy Bowers spoke and called a break, while people caught their breath and had a pause and decided what to do.
Candy asked us to sense our feelings, and I almost broke down. I just had tears and sobs and was glad I could wipe my tears on my friends’ shirt. Argh whitegirl tears! what do they do? A few friends in the break suggested it was an older feminist problem, and I replied, ‘but what about Raewyn Connell? and other transfeminist ‘mothers’, who are brilliant intersectional feminist scholars and great transfeminists?’ I could have added What about the transwomen of stonewall? the radical queers and transmen? There are so many intersections of age and radical politics that cross the narrow political field defined by some as ‘radical feminism’ where transfolk and non-transfolk have worked, struggled, marched, fucked, fought and written together and continue to do so.
Candy spoke with the offending speaker (the official acronym is TERF or trans exclusionary radical feminist) who then decided to leave. Organiser Nilmini Fernandez spoke. Candy spoke again, and the program went on. Shaken and stirred. Sister Zai in her “God is a Black Womban” also addressed the gender binary as a colonialist white supremacist construct. I mention this, as a reminder that this was an event that was so much bigger than the little turd of hatred that crept into the room. This was an event primarily organised by women of colour, who all acted to honour and protect the space as safe and welcoming and honouring of trans* women’s experiences.
However, herstory is not writing it as this, and it has been reduced to another incident of the catfights between (white) TERFS and (white) transwomen . The latest example of this caught my eye in an article by Iris Lee.
Her account of the evening is different. She mentions her tears, but also characterises the transphobic speaker Barbary Clarke as white and privileged – which ignores the fact that Clarke has POST POLIO syndrome, and is aged, disabled and queer. But this is not about a competition of identity labels. or at least this is not what I want it to be – only an acknowledgement of nuance. That politics is messy and complicated because people are messy and complicated, and goodies and baddies only really exist on TV, and most people stuff up sometimes, and some people stuff up more often, and the point is what we do with that mess…..
My understanding of the the brilliance of grounded feminist theory is the capacity to extrapolate the personal, the private, the shameful into cogent political analysis and collective political action. However so often what I see is the reverse: where feminist (or political) collectives degenerate into individuating contestations over who has the most oppression and who is the most ‘right on’ in their words or actions.
I find the latter so abhorrent it is the single reason why I have not become a vegan in the past 27 years of activism. I never want to buy into the politics of purity: of being a better activist than the person next to me. The politics I hold dearest to my heart start with kindness, and start with an opposition to cruelty of all kinds. Maybe I am a closet vegan. I have enough wretched catholic trauma to still shudder at the internalised guilt tripping that feeds off ‘callout culture’ and to shudder even more at the beatification that we activists pour on our heroines, or whoever seems cooler, hipper, purer, more with it, more able to find the words that speak the ones that we can’t say or can’t here or……
And, as much as I am a wordsmith, as much as I swoon when someone finds the right words for a situation, I feel that words only really do their thing when they allow the silences of others to be heard, or for the silenced themselves to find a voice. This is why I love the Loving Feminist Literature group so much – it is about sharing words, and doing marvellous things with words, and taking the spaces between words and reading and words and speaking and words and action and doing new things with them…..
So, back to my privileged little cocoon, where I mooch and read and scribble and hope. I keep returning to an idea of orientation, and the direction in which the performativity of our politics is headed. Working with asylum seekers has enabled active connections between queers, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, socialists and so many different types of people enact a simple politics of care, of seeking refuge (for selves and others), of doing kindness. The months and years of repeated connections of this sort have acted to build forms of community and connection that defy the divisive categories that are placed over us. This is not to say that any of us have had any success with changing government policy…. but I keep returning to the most recent moments – such as around the imminent deportation of Saaed. Where people (including transfolk) gather and join our bodies and our beliefs in something bigger than our individual selves. I like to think of this as the space of the polis: of the political body that aggregates and unites and protects the vulnerable and speaks truth to power. I wish there was a better way for feminist identity politics to articulate the lived connection of many of us have with these kinds of movements. Maybe this would provide a way out of the awful blocks of silence and pain and name calling that occur in so many of our spaces.