Monthly Archives: March 2009

More on intersectionality

You know how I said we can’t always get it right? Well, I was right, because I got some stuff wrong in that last post. I have a tendency to let language run away with me, and go with what sounds good rather than what’s right. So in the last post, I conceptually missed one really important piece, and messed up in some of my language.

To whit, the idea of us v them (or even us and them). It doesn’t work. When I’m talking about me, I can talk about “those who are not like me”. But if I’m talking about “us” — say, feminists, or fat acceptance advocates — then I can’t talk about a “them” — women of color, or persons with disabilities — because they are us. There are feminists of color, and disabled fat activists, and fat Brown trans Deaf feminist bisexual women (ok, I don’t know of one, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist), and for them (tricky word!), separating out one “strand” of privilege/oppression is both impossible and ridiculous. It is only when one has most of the cards stacked in one’s favor that one has the privilege of pretending that that one axis of oppression can stand alone, be examined alone and dismantled alone.

We have to think about those who are not like us, yes, but we also must remember that those who may belong to a group we do not might also belong to ours. To say “feminists think this and blacks think that” is to ignore Black feminists. To say “well we invited them, why don’t they join us?” is to exclude them (to Other “them”), and to render invisible those who are both “us” and
“them
“.

Intersectionalism is vital — necessary to life! — because the world is not made up of white people and black people and feminists and trans people. Rather, the world is made up of persons, who might be any combination of white and black and trans and feminist and disabled and fat and neurotypical and and and and…

It is fine and well to have a focus, a specialty (or two or three or however many). It is natural and understandable to have more expertise in the areas where one personally and intimately experiences oppression. But we cannot, we must not, allow that focus to blind us. We must not use our expertise in one area to exculpate our ignorance in another. Intersectionality doesn’t mean we are required to study all areas of oppression equally; it calls us rather to open our eyes, to look to our own privilege when telling of our oppression, and it demands that we rid ourselves of the fallacy of “us” and “them”.

Selfishly, I need for intersectionality to succeed, for examples of those who work to end one type of oppression interlinking with others to abound, for the skill of looking beyond oneself to find the “us” in “them” to flourish; I need it to succeed, for it is my only hope of teaching my presumably-straight white middle class son how to look at all areas of his privilege, to work against all the ways those-like-and-not-like-him are oppressed, to recognize the existence of kyriarchy and oppose it always. Those of us with even one area of oppression have an opening, as we learn of privilege, to learn intersectionality; those of us with many are forced to adopt it or self-destruct. My child has nearly every privilege in the world heaped on him, in a society that teaches the ugly art of Othering from birth: I fully admit to maternal selfishness when I say I need intersectionality to succeed so I do not lose him to the kyriarchy, which would have him Other everyone I love — including me — out of importance in his life.

So, that’s not much of a reason for anyone else to adopt intersectionality (I fully recognize that an argument that sounds rather like “think of the white males!” is hardly much of a draw), but it’s one reason, among many, I will defend and promote it as much as I can. I have an obligation to others to avoid oppressing and Othering and rendering them invisible, as I myself have been, as I myself am demanding not to be. And also, yes, I have an urgent desire to demonstrate that skill to a child unlikely to ever have call to learn the hard way why it is so very vital.

Intersectionality: the art of opposing the kyriarchy, one word at a time and all ways at once.

On intersectionality

Four months ago, when I was starting this blog, I had never even heard of the word “intersectionality” (wikipedia article, blog post [amazing pictures, but probably NSFW], another blog post, link post). I was aware, in a general way, of race issues, certainly of queer issues, to a lesser extent of trans issues, among others, and I was aware of the language of privilege, of the many ways in which I live with privilege (and the many ways I do not). But “intersectionality” was not a word on my radar, and I didn’t really “get” it when I started looking it up — the arguments “watered down!” “loss of focus!” “not in this movement!” floated through my thinking, though each was, in turn, shot down.

And yet, I think I understood it even then, before I heard it, intuitively; as I named and taglined my blog, while it was primarily about the experience of being a feminist raising a boy, I was clear that he was not just any male, but a white male, a probably-straight male, an American middle class probably-straight white able-bodied male: very nearly the tippy top of the hierarchy, by way of the intersection (!) of all these different aspects of privilege.

The more I’ve thought about it, and especially after coming upon the word/concept “kyriarchy“, the more intersectionality makes sense (kyriarchy is what I was talking about here, though I didn’t realize it at the time — and I was also, unrealizingly, arguing against something of a straw feminism there). Feminism is in opposition to patriarchy, and this is good, but it takes only a moment of thought to realize that this does not and cannot (even at its most inclusive) cover all the ways in which some people are artificially privileged over others. Ultimately, I think it is the very concept of placing persons in a hierarchy (which is to say, it is kyriarchy) which needs to be done away with; and ultimately, it is intersectionalism alone which stands in opposition not just to one strand but, by definition, to all strands of oppression. It is only by working to recognize all forms of oppression/privilege in our work can we oppose all aspects of the kyriarchy; anything less is merely scrabbling for position on that fucked up ladder.

Which is not to say we need to get everything perfectly right all the time; we are human, and therefore both limited and flawed. Furthermore, we are humans raised under kyriarchy, and not one person reading this post can be without at least some privilege (since you’ve all managed to access the internet in some way or another); we are not going to be able to avoid all slip ups, all language of privilege, all incidents of accidental or oblivious oppression. But we can, and we must, try. Any step is worthy; any mistake is an opportunity to learn; any privilege recognized is a privilege weakened.

This ain’t an easy path to walk, and there is no end to it. It would be all too easy to turn aside, to close my eyes, to rest easy on the privilege I do have while screaming for justice for the privilege I don’t; but that way lies pain, if not for myself then for others, and if for others, then for all. Intersectionalism isn’t diluting our purpose; it isn’t putting others ahead of ourselves; it isn’t “PC metastized”. It is nothing less nor more than refusing to oppress others as we seek to end our own oppression. It is nothing less nor more than basic human compassion. It is nothing less than necessary, and nothing more than possible.

When the words just won’t come

I actually have three drafts sitting in my queue, ideas absolutely worthy of discussion, but almost incoherent in their construction. Seriously, even short posts on discussion forums I try to write leave me scratching my head going “what the heck does that mean?”; I shudder to think what it looks like to others.

I’m not sure what’s going on. I probably need to get my thyroid levels checked (actually, I need to anyway, as my script runs out soon and my doc won’t represcribe without a blood check). But I’m tired, I’ve been having more migraines the past few days, and the words are just seriously not coming (at least the latter two are likely connected, as one of the most irritating parts of the neurological storm known as “migraines” is the difficulty thinking of the right word, even when the pain isn’t currently active). Terribly disheartening for a word geek and writer like me.

Anyway, I leave you with a few links that I’ve found interesting recently (some of which I’ve tried — and failed — to write about, so you might hear more about them later. or not.):

And finally, how could anyone not adore this kid?

Big fish, small fish, small pond, big ocean: a Seussian experience of feminism

Sometimes I feel like two people: in “real” life, and in some of the online places I frequent, I am about the most radical feminist I know, and one of the few who has even heard the words “intersectionality” or “white privilege” or “cisgender” (much less cissexism). I find myself needing to dispel feminist myths, to spend all my time explaining the most basic vocabulary and concepts. I am a big fish in a small pond.

But in the feminist blogosphere, I am so new, so ignorant still in so many ways, and I spend most of my time just reading and reading and studying and following links and getting challenged, because there is so much I do not yet know about what it means to identify feminist, to exist with so much privilege (white, class, cisgender, able-bodied, etc), to live under kyriarchy. There are still so many myths, and misunderstandings, and consequences of unrecognized privilege within my own mind that I am discovering and attempting to ferret out. I am a very tiny fish in an enormous, diverse, amazing ocean.

I wasn’t really going anywhere with that, I’ve just had a few experiences recently that have really brought it to my attention. It’s a very Seussian form of cognitive dissonance (one fish, two fish, trans fish, cisfish?).

Anyone else ever feel like that?

Passing for straight: parenting with a man as a queer identified woman

I will say this for passing: it gives one a lot more opportunities for coming out.

I just came out to a new friend from massage school. You’d think the act –a short sentence, one second, two words: “I’m bisexual” — would get easier over time, and with practice. But to the contrary, I find it harder now than it ever was before.

My first coming out as bisexual — to my first crush, as a freshman in high school, just a few weeks after finally hearing the term and recognizing myself in it — was met with an anticlimactic “well duh, Arwyn”. Two years later, coming out to my first romantic relationship got me an amused “I know”.

You might say I did not do in the closet well. I was — and am, when I feel safe — a voracious flirt, never adhered to straight female gender roles, and had Ru Paul pinups in my locker instead of the usual… who was usual to crush on? I never kept track. Anyway, “coming out” in adolescence was, contrary to most other QTBLGs’ experience, ridiculously easy, an exercise in stating the obvious to anyone who spent any time with me. With the arrogance of ignorance and unacknowledged privilege, I scoffed (in the safety of my own cranium, at least, even then however dimly recognizing its privileged origins) at those who found it hard, who dithered and postponed and passed rather than come out and say it — or simply live it.

And now, when the moment comes to say it or lie by omission, I find myself hemming and hawing and dithering, and, yes, sometimes shutting up and just plain passing. And I hate it. What happened to “duh”?

Duh is no more, after eleven years with a man (Mr “I know” himself in fact, my first and only), after leaving high school and college and the groups of friends I came out with. And it really vanished after getting pregnant and having a baby, with a man, in the “usual”, heteronormative way. After all, I am, indubitably, a breeder now, and everyone knows “breeder” means “straight”.

It doesn’t matter in the public eye, it seems, what other signals I send: having a child, with a man, makes me straight. After all, this is the Pacific Northwest, and I run with a crunchy crowd: unshaven pits, Birkenstocks year round, having a “partner” instead of a “husband”, and being stridently outspoken for “gay rights” merely marks me as yet another crazy white neo-hippie liberal.

Add to that a social network comprised almost entirely of other women-who-spend-the-day-with-their-kids, the fear of losing straight friends to innocent flirting (not an unreasonable fear, I think, in a culture that equates bisexuality with unquenchable nymphomania, and paints us as seductresses and adulterers when it bothers admitting our existence at all), and I find myself, for the first time since I was 14 years old, being perceived as straight not just by a homophobic heteronormative society, but by people who know me. For someone who has been explicitly, outspokenly out for so long, it is a decidedly unexpected and uncomfortable experience.

But the hardest part, the part I cannot figure out how to work around, is that I had always relied on “living out” — being obvious, refusing to pass — as my way of dealing with the issue of any children of mine knowing my sexuality. If it were simply a part of my public identity, a fact that anyone who knows me would know, then the Boychick would grow up knowing it, simply and easily and without any fuss. But the very act of his creation has taken my public identity as an out bisexual from hard to maintain (I’ve spent my entire adult life in a monogamous relationship with a man; it hasn’t been exactly easy for a while) to seemingly impossible. To the extent that I “pass”, that I am understood by others however falsely to be straight, I am confronted with a dilemma where the Boychick is concerned; being closeted (used here as a verb, of which I am the subject and others the actor) means that I would be forced to decide what and when — and indeed, whether — to tell him.

And who wants to hear about their parents’ sexuality? If not a part of one’s (public) identity, one’s sexuality is a matter of what one wants to do to or with whom, which is not information I can see as entirely appropriate to share with my child. If not understood to be a part of my public identity, any outing of myself to him (“honey, I’m bisexual”), would necessarily be followed by his asking “what does that mean?”, and then what would I tell him? “Oh nothing, just that sometimes I dream of shagging women, and used to chase the hot queer chicks in high school”? I think not.

I hear some of you wondering “then why bother telling him? if you’re monogamous with a man, aren’t you basically straight anyway? what does it matter what other people think?” All I can tell you is, it does matter. We are talking about no less than who I am, at my very foundation. I may pass, in this heteronormative society that is so fond of stuffing us in to boxes whether we like them or not, but rather than make my life easy as some may think, passing is excruciatingly painful, like a tourniquet on a limb, like being told every day the sky is yellow when I can see it is blue. It is being forced to agree to a lie I know to be false, a lie about myself. It may seem “unimportant”, my sexuality a mere technicality, but in a thousand ways every day, unseen by those blinded by straightness, even a monogamous woman is expected to assert her heterosexuality; the straight world surrounds me with its memes, its jokes, its assumptions, its understanding of the world and of female/male relationships: each is just a tiny little prick to my psyche, but oh do they add up.

I live with enormous heaps of straight privilege. The fact that I can pass when needed, that I could when my unmarried partner was on death’s door in a rural hospital in the Midwest proclaim myself his fiancée and thus claim access to his bedside and his medical information, is a huge privilege that humbles me, for I know how many do not have it. I do not pretend that the pain of being invisible holds a candle to the daily risks of a life lived as a queer woman with a female partner, or multiple partners, or no partner at all. I do not claim that merely as an also-queer woman that I know what it is to live as a woman in relationship with a woman. To lay claim to that status is a hubris I strive to avoid — sometimes at the cost of disassociating from my queer identity altogether.

I can speak with lived authority only of my own pains, my own risks, my own queernesses, small as they are: the pain of being invisible, the risk of either alienating others or dishonoring myself, the queerness of a sexuality half lived… the dilemma of what to do about the Boychick.

The only solution I see, if I cannot live my life obvious (as I once did unthinkingly, without knowing how sweet I had it) — if I cannot not pass — is to come out again, and again, and again. Only now am I seeing the value of practices like National Coming Out Day, for if there is one thing I might claim to know better than my woman-partnered sisters, it is invisibility. I may pass for straight, be seen as a breeder and thereby shoved into a closet again and again every moment of my child’s life, but I don’t have to quietly stay there.

I am happily monogamous with a man. I have a child. And I am bisexual.

Private