doing justice

29 07 2009

I kick it with shit-talkers pop-lockers non-stopping hip-hoppers/kings, queens, seasoned fucking witch doctors medicine men/… trendiest trend setters and tenement-den dwellers/Tienemen square fellows/revolutionaries brilliant/resilient with hella truth to carry/I kick it with gay guys and women so queer they leave a homophobic rapper crippled with fear/My mother showed me hatin’ was fruitless/stupid and my God-brothers are Jamaican and Jewish/I never write you off for being white – not what my life’s about/but if white supremacy’s personified, I’ll gouge its eyes out

Senbei, Chameleon

A friend is, right as I type, participating as a facilitator in an experiential history project for queer youth. For a week, queer youth are guided around the city (a US city with lots of queer history that will remain nameless) and facilitated through workshops and programs that, it seems, are designed to give them greater appreciation of the kinds of queer genealogies and histories we can draw. I think. Or something like that.

It almost doesn’t matter exactly what they’re doing, except to know that it’s politically progressive/radical(maybe?), and involves queer and trans youth.

And, apparently, it also involves lots of workshops on oppression, and the trauma of oppression. And lots of intention, on the part of some of the facilitators, to make sure that the white gay cis boy doesn’t take up too much space. Or as they’d probably describe it, trying to make sure folks with identities that have been marginalized throughout history (remember this is a history program) are given space/platforms/support/etc. Which, you know, is important. Don’t get me wrong, I think this really matters. Platforms and space and centering oft-silenced voices.

I think what’s more important, though, is actually listening to people’s voices, rather than thinking you understand them because you’ve read about/heard other voices coming from people with bodies like theirs. And it sounds like that piece might be missing here, as it is far too frequently. When the white gay boy, this youth (so let’s be real, he’s probably not older than 17-18) has all eyes on him at all times, because he’s white and gay and a cis boy – and yet people don’t seem to notice that he is consistently stepping up to support the whole community in ‘unremarkable’ and unnoticed ways. Like ensuring that the dishes all get done, & one person isn’t left to do them. And calling out words of encouragement and support to his peers any time they seem to hit a rough patch. And participating in/encouraging spontaneous fashion shows in their downtime. Aren’t those acts of kindness as much who he is as his intersecting (and largely privileged) identities?

I’m not trying to needlessly attack other people I don’t know, participating in a program I’m not a part of, doing what sounds like mostly really exciting and valuable work. And I’m not trying to completely deride anti-oppression work, because I think it’s important. Necessary but insufficient.

It’s just that, in hearing about & talking about this program, and some of the dynamics coming up, I was reminded how damn common those kinds of stories are. How frequently those of us who try to incorporate an understanding of historical & contemporary institutionalized oppression & marginalization into our work end up doing so at the expense of the people involved. Because it’s not just about the white gay (seemingly economically advantaged) cis boy. It’s actually not even mostly about him, although I think he matters, too. It’s also about the poor trans woman of color – and what it means to distill who she is down to those identity labels, as though they could ever encompass and describe and communicate to anyone else the central tenets of her personhood. The labels we place on people, or those they/we take on themselves/ourselves, will never quite do us justice. When I tell you I am a radical queer fetch Jewish feminist environmentalist – you might be able to start to sketch a rough outline of some things that might matter to me, but you know nothing about how I love the people I gather to my heart. It tells you so little of what brings me joy, the moments for which I get up each morning, and even less of how the challenges I’ve faced have shaped me, what struggles I’ve overcome and what I’m afraid of.

Those boxes we can tick are not enough. Which is not to say that they don’t matter. Because I think they do matter. And I think there is great utility and importance in building community around points of intersection – but when those labels, boxes, and identities take precedence over each individual’s humanity – aren’t we, really, replicating a pattern of dehumanization? Aren’t we, once again, saying that the color of your skin/ the genitals of your lover/ your gender identity/your class background/your [dif]ability  is more important than understanding who you are as a person?

Typing this, I’m afraid that it’s going to read like “anti-oppression work is BS and we just need to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and love each other” which is really not at all what I’m going for. I’m not talking about a lack of accountability, or pretending that we should all just be friends and that it would be enough to right the wrongs in the world. What I want is to remember the humanness within each person we interact with; that they will always be more than their boxes and their elbows will always poke through the sides. And sometimes that humanness will manifest itself in beautiful moments of compassion and community, and people will surprise you. And also that humanness will be flawed, and people will make mistakes and be thoughtless and crass and they will have trouble learning and they might hurt you, and often those gaffes will be compounded by and entrenched with years of built up institutional inequity and privilege. And that privilege and inequity will probably make thoughtless mistakes more painful for those on the receiving end, and easier to ignore for those committing them. And we need to encourage learning and growth and accountability in those moments. But those are human errors, always. Not just straight errors or misogynist errors or white errors. Which, again, is not to say it is immaterial how heterosexuality and whiteness and cisgendered-ness and masculinity and ability and wealth play into the whole thing, or that they should be obscured, apologized for, or ignored (I’m all about identifying isms for what they are) but that those qualities of a person will never be the be-all-end-all of them.

When we let those labels become all encompassing, when we allow them to take priority over personhood, even if we are doing so in an attempt to counteract past wrongs – aren’t we going to make it impossible for us to see the person in our midst?

I guess I’m just thinking about so many of my friends, the people I love, and what would happen if you were to say to me, “describe _______ to me,” and I answered with “well, they are a queer person of color with relative economic privilege” – it wouldn’t tell you jack shit about what I love and value and treasure about them. It wouldn’t really do them justice, at all. And I mean, isn’t that the whole point? Justice?

PS The rap quoted at the top of the post? Follow the link beneath it and download the album. It’s phenomenal, and free.


pulling together

24 03 2009

There are some things I’m trying to pull together that might just remain entirely disconnected, but this is how I’m present right now, so it’s just going to be this way.


I was in a bit of pain, tonight. I think I have a tendency to downplay or minimize my own pain or suffering, for a whole host of reasons, some that I’m okay with and some that I’m not – recognizing that with health insurance, my family’s financial stability, my grasp of english, my access to a car, my race, etc. whatever the problem, it’s going to be easier for me to address than it would be for someone without those privileges (I’m okay with those things as a reason for minimizing my own pain, a healthy does of humility & perspective, that perhaps works to offset an oppressive, internalized, inflated sense of my value in relation to others); recognizing that, as a woman, I’ve internalized all sorts of really problematic lessons about pain and suffering, and about being a caretaker and prioritizing my own needs (I’m not okay with those things as a reason for minimizing my own pain) – but tonight I was hurting. I still am, really. My job makes me sore. I don’t know what it’s about, because I basically just carry a clipboard around for 5 hours, but some combination of the cold and the walking and the clipboard always on my left arm – makes me really sore.

I’m not sure I have deep conclusions about this, but I’m trying to sit with the pain.

And I’m thinking about the other kinds of pain people are forced to sit with, on account of their jobs. Of the personal bodily risks people take to sustain themselves, their families, and their lives. And, again, of how minimal my sore shoulder is compared to all of that. I’m thinking about how our capitalist system organizes people by our means of employment, and about what it means that the bodies that are placed at the greatest risk of harm are so often the bodies of people of color, of women, of the poor.


I might have the opportunity to work on a building crew this summer. I’d be working for a friend, for his  natural building company – at which he prioritizes giving queer and trans folks, and cis women greater access to the trades – and every time I think about this opportunity I get more and more excited. It might not happen, for a whole host of reasons, but I’m simultaneously optimistic & trying not to be too invested. Mixed in with that are ideas about the kinds of productivity that I value, and that I perceive others to value; also about working in the trades, and with wood – the degree to which this is and isn’t something that feels like “my” space.

Physical labor, particularly as a means of supporting oneself, was not part of the upper-middle class world I came of age in. My friends’ parents, and my own, all had advanced degrees and were “profesionals” in that way that usually connotes an office, desk, and maybe even a secretary or administrative assistant, although some were doctors and nurses and I never pictured them having desks like those that were accountants and lawyers. My dad’s office used to have a popcorn machine, which was the only thing that seemed relevant about his job for most of my childhood.

And yet, despite all of that, I strongly associate carpentry and woodworking – and the attendent skills & self-reliance – with my father. A good chunk of our garage is taken up by his tools and workbench. I love the smell of sawdust, and I always thought it was SO cool that he built the house my grandmother now lives in.

I received my first hammer at a pretty young age. It was one of those little ones with a handle that screwed off to reveal a screwdriver, with a handle that screwed off to reveal an additional (smaller) screwdriver, and so on and so forth, until you got to the really small cute one in the end of the handle. That one was my favorite. Nowadays most of the hammers I see like that tend to have flowery designs printed on them. I suppose that makes them more girly? On the one hand, that’s annoying, that tools need to be pink to be appropriate for girls, but on the other hand, if one girl picks up that flowery hammer and finds use and power in weilding it that she wouldn’t have otherwise- awesome.

Floating around my parents’ house somewhere, there’s a picture of me ‘helping’ my dad build the cabinets in our kitchen. I can’t be more than 2, and I’m literally sitting in the cabinet, holding up a tool of some sort (maybe even that little hammer), so proud and excited to be helping my dad build.

One year, for Christmas (that year it was definitely a Christmas present, not Hanukkah), he made me a really beautiful bed. It’s still my bed when I go home, and I love it. The stain is a beautiful deep shade, and there are built-in drawers underneath, painted dark green, with cream colored ceramic knobs. I remember so vividly the weeks that I wasn’t allowed to go into the garage when he was in there, and when I’d finally sneak in (while he was at work, or in the shower, or otherwise preoccupied) I would mostly just stare with wonder and excitement at the nondescript tarp-covered bulk in the middle of the garage. Once I peeked under a corner, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull the tarp back far enough to see more than a deep, warm, red edge. Christmas eve, I slept in the guest room, and I spent the night wide awake, listening to my dad and my uncle carry the massive bed upstairs, and then listening to my dad finish building it IN my room.

It is the most vivid Christmas memory I have from my childhood. I’m pretty sure that says something about what my subconscious values.

All of these things are swirling together as I think about this summer. Mostly I’m excited, and it feels like a really ideal way to spend the summer. I get this huge grin on my face when I imagine working outside, really feeling my muscles strain and grow; inhaling fresh, crisp New England summer; harnessing power tools beneath my fingers; creating sustainable, responsible, natural environments; how my hands can help give form to structures, and shapes, and milled pieces of lumber – and also how that lumber will shape and toughen my hands.

Hands. Soft, smooth, silky hands seem to be so strongly associated with class, and so I also feel the weight of my ability to choose to toughen my hands; to welcome callouses and roughness.


My mom is really awesome. Today, she sent me an email with a couple of grant and/or funding opportunities highlighted. She does this occassionaly, she’s connected to development, funding, grant-writing/-giving circles, and so sometimes she passes on interesting calls for proposals. But this time, it wasn’t even for me. It was for my friend, the one I might be working for, who she’s never met. It just struck me as incredibly thoughtful, and I feel really lucky to have had a woman like that in my life for, well, all of it.


I’ve been reading and digesting people’s thoughts on radical love, community building, organizing, sustainability, and accountability.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about someone she is growing close to. She worries about introducing him to some of her friends, to the people she loves and cherishes, because he hasn’t necessarily had exposure or access to the language & frames of analysis many of us employ with one another. And then I read these words today, by Nadia, at Now Snow Here:

feeling alienated in these conversations because of the emphasis on words and specific word choices – that is a conversation for writers, academics, people who spend time with pretentious adults. don’t want it imposed on me right now, it bothers me how judgemental people are when others don’t know or have the language for the *right* way to say things. hard to engage when its so easy to be misunderstood, not feeling like we give or get the space to make mistakes but maybe i’m wrong and just overwhelmed with the intense dialoging.

And between that conversation, and this paragraph, and all of the dialogue happening on Jess’ post at BFP’s (the “people’s thoughts” hyper link, above), I’ve been thinking about the tension this all brings up. About creating spaces to honor and affirm everyone, especially because of what Nadia is describing, but also even for people you don’t necessarily like or agree with, because it is important to honor and affirm their humanity. And I’m also holding on to accountability. I think it’s important to allow for vulnerability and not-knowing; to allow for that instability and uncertainity – I think within moments of uncertainty there’s great possibility for growth. But what do you do when affirming one person’s not-knowing and growth means allowing the negation of another? How do you balance competing, and conflicting, needs or truths? How do we both allow space for potentially screwing up, and simultaneously hold one another accountable?


There’s so much more I want to say on this, but it’s late and I really need to sleep. Hopefully I won’t be as sore tomorrow.

On Bitches

6 09 2008

Bitch. I hate that shit. The word, that is. I don’t like the way it sounds, and I don’t like the prevalence with which it’s tossed around. I respect those feminists who choose to reclaim it and employ it as a self-referential title, eschewing the idea that women must be polite and quiet, but it still doesn’t sit well with me. That, however, is the only use I’ve encountered that I’m comfortable with, and I’d like to take a minute to explain why. Let me be clear though, in explaining all of my issues with the word and why I don’t use it, I’m problematizing and taking issue with its use as a derogatory or dismissive word, not as a reclaimatory label of power and a fuck-you-for-telling-me-how-to-behave attitude. But first, let’s talk about solidarity.

On Solidarity

Solidarity, sisterhood, and togetherness have contentious histories within feminism(s). Too often, calls for solidarity have been used to silence and oppress women of color, poor women, differently abled women, immigrant women, and the list goes on. The body conceptualized by 2nd wave calls for sisterhood was a very particular body, and it was a body that DID NOT represent countless women in the United States or around the world. With good reason, many women have rejected those cries for sisterhood. We are not all the same, we don’t fight the same struggles, and the issues that matter to some of us are deemed irrelevant or overlooked by others. The silencing nature of sisterhood is, in my mind, one of the greatest missteps and problems within feminist circles and movements.

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What is Transphobia? Cissexism?

26 08 2008

Lisa, at Questioning Transphobia, has a really important post that everyone should read.

“When you say or do the things I have described here, you are supporting a cissexist society that justifies killing trans people, that justifies slapping our murderers, abusers, rapists, on the wrist. That justifies the idea that we’re not really human. And if you insist that your own words and deeds have no importance because you are not personally out there raping, beating, stabbing, shooting, strangling trans people, then you are part of the same problem that creates Andrade, Oates, Hyatt, Blake, and men who have murdered numerous other women and men just because those men believed that transphobic words and deeds that so much of the world accepts as reasonable justified their decision to erase women and men from the world simply because they existed.

This is the system you support – a spectrum of words and deeds that ranges from “You’re really a man/really a woman” to “Man is charged with manslaughter for deliberately hunting down and killing a trans woman.”

You reify and reinforce the oppression that affects me and all other trans people.

You can’t really help it, mostly. You’re born and raised in a cissexual society, a society that programs you to believe that people who change their sex are less than you. However, once you realize that this is the case – once it is brought to your attention, once your privilege is pointed out to you, once the fact that you – like all other cis people – are complicit in oppressing trans people, if you choose to deny that such privilege exists, deny that you are doing and saying transphobic things, while deliberately increasing the intensity and frequency of these actions? You are no longer at the point where you are simply complicit due to privilege. You are now an active participant.

You can always choose to stop.”

Sparkle and Embracing the Feminine

22 08 2008

I’ve been really bad at keeping up with my google reader, so I just now got around to reading Octo’s post on Feministe about “sparkle.” Sparkle (I love this term), as Octo uses it, is ‘a catch-all for burlesque, sex work, fashion, any kind of sexy display or fashion statement.”

There’s always lots of feminist debate about whether or not sparkle can be feminist, or anti-patriarchy, and you usually wind up with sex-positive feminists on one side and radfems on the other. This debate is kind of exhausting, and seems rather counterproductive, because it often ends with sex-positive feminists focusing on a woman’s right to make independent choices about her body, and radfems talking about false consciousness and having bought into the patriarchy. Which basically, as I hear it, boils down to: “you don’t know what’s best for you, or your feminism, so we will tell you and discredit what you’re saying at the same time.” That’s surely an oversimplification, and if it wasn’t already clear, I don’t identify as a radfem, but that’s at least what it sounds like from where I’m sitting.

I don’t necessarily identify as a femme. I embrace my femme side, but it’s not an everyday thing. These days, when it comes to a label for my gender presentation, I’ve been toying around with fetch (femme + butch + new pop slang = awesome!?), and in the past appropriated a friend’s phrase “quirky femme,” but I haven’t committed 100% to any of them. Since cutting my hair and coming out (which happened at similar times, but weren’t causally related), I’ve felt more comfortable embracing my butch side. Something about making active choices (coming out, not my queerness) that fly in the face of conventional beauty standards has made it easier to be comfortable with my less femme tendencies. But this also scares me, because I think it is SO important that queer communities not reject or abandon the feminine.

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Because the suggestion of sexual assault is never funny

29 07 2008

I don’t even know where to begin. This story about an effigy of Isabel Garcia (a pinata with a picture of her face) being mocked, ridiculed, assaulted, and threatened on camera and on the air, by a white, male, radio personality is incredibly awful. That link is to one of my favorite bloggers, BrownFemipower, who has links to more information. It’s almost too awful for words, and I’m both incredibly angry and incredibly sad. The video is disgusting, I almost couldn’t make it through the whole thing. As BFP said:

I want people to see this for what it is–a white man feeling like he can control, humiliate, and imply sexual violence against a brown woman–all while be recorded for public broadcast. It’s about a white man controlling a woman who pissed him off, by mocking her race, by implying sexual control over her through the use of racist imagery and language.

She is being attacked, mocked, ridiculed, and sexually humiliated because she is brown and she is a woman.

Ms. Garcia is an inspiring, talented, motivated, effective activist, and her work should be supported by feminists, anti-racists, and supporters of immigrants. But this treatment, as BFP points out, isn’t about her activism. She received attention because of her activism, but the degradation, racism, sexism, and abuse she is being subjected to isn’t about the work she does, it is about power and control in the hands of white men.

Blogging for Choice

22 01 2008

Last Friday marked the 35th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, what did you do to commemorate it?

To be honest, I’d forgotten about it until I sat down at my computer. My tuesdays are long days, and I had a total of 25 minutes in which I was not in class or working between breakfast or dinner. I used those 25 minutes to eat lunch. So, I didn’t think about reproductive justice today, because I was busy, because I was focusing on other ways to overthrow patriarchy and feminist film makers and the Library of Congress classification system. And because right now, I’m not pregnant. I’m not pregnant because I have access to (moderately) safe forms of birth control and because the integrity of my body has not been compromised.

But that is not to say that reproductive justice isn’t important. Hell no. It’s rather to demonstrate one of the particularly dangerous realities of the recent attacks on reproductive justice that pro-choice advocates have been fighting back, tooth and nail – the reality that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it still won’t be women like me who will have to be thinking about abortion. Sure, if it’s overturned, I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll be pissed as hell and ready to kick some ass, and then I’ll be working to get it back. But if Roe v. Wade is overturned, it won’t be upper-middle class white women who will be most concerned. Because, G-d forbid I ever need an abortion and it isn’t legal in Ohio, or DC, or California, or wherever I’m living – I can go to Canada. I have the means and an incredible network of family and friends who would support me, and I could do what I needed to take control of my body. But poor white women, and many women of color, don’t have that kind of access, and finding safe, affordable abortion providers will be incredibly difficult, if not downright impossible.

The Republican Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee went to Georgia today. He went to support anti-choice activists and lawmakers who are working to pass a constitutional amendment in the Georgia legislature that would both outlaw abortion and provide a legal definition of life which begins at fertilization. Called, quaintly, the Human Life Amendment.

As a progressive individual, I support and stand behind the notion of “human rights,” including but not limited to those laid down in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In classifying human rights, I would maintain that human rights definitely include things like the right to liberty, the right to an education, the right to living without fear for one’s safety and security (not that women ACTUALLY have this, but there are still a lot of folks who don’t quite consider women to be people just like the mens), the right to autonomy in decision making, and … wait for it… the freedom to exercise agency over one’s body.

As a woman, I believe I am human. Radical proposal though it is, this outrageous law seeks to deny my personhood and replace it with a very particular status, that of the Potential BabyMaker. Ironially, that link above for the amendment will direct you to a website with the URL Because they really want you to believe this issue is one of personhood. The problem, as I see it, is that they aren’t REALLY concerned with people, they are concerned with zygotes and fetuses (who may one day be beautiful children that I will love and work to protect – but right now, are not). And they seek to criminalize women on their behalf. A leading anti-abortion attorney, James Bopp, made sure to clear that up for us all, when he explained that passage of this amendment could bring about “enforcement of homicide laws against pregnant women, restricting the activities of pregnant women, outlawing contraception and so on.”

Yes. You read that correctly. Enforcement of homicide laws against pregnant women. Restricting the activities of pregnant women. Because honey, in case you weren’t sure already, your ability to live your life is considerably less important than the collection of cells growing inside of you. Some much more so, that you best not drive your car, lest you get in an accident, miscarry, and find yourself charged with the murder of your own child, in addition to the trauma of a miscarriage. The inanity of this law almost bowls me over so completely that I want to believe it’s a joke. But it’s not. They want to take away access to contraception and criminalize your pregnancy, unless you spend it barefoot and cooking. (But don’t cook with wine, they might think the alcohol hasn’t cooked out and charge you with reckless endangerment.) This may come across as vaguely comic, but it’s really not a joke, and there are thousands of women living in Georgia whose freedom and agency is being threatened.

One of the cornerstones of the Reproductive Justice movement is the concept of reproductive justice itself. More than just the right to an abortion, reproductive justice is about the comprehensive health and freedom of women. From SisterSong’s publication “Understanding Reproductive Justice:”

Reproductive justice, at that time, was defined as “reproductive health integrated into social justice.” Reproductive justice was further developed as an intersectional theory emerging from the experiences of women of color whose communities experience reproductive oppression. It is based on the understanding that the impact on women of color of race, class and gender are not additive but integrative, producing this paradigm of intersectionality. The concept of reproductive justice was further elaborated in a seminal paper written by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice in 2005.

And from the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice:

We believe reproductive justice is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.

Reproductive Justice is about more than abortions. It is about the freedom to live, as reproductive beings, and exert control over every aspect of our lives. To access political, economic, and social power and to live within a paradigm in which we are empowered and enabled to make choices about our bodies and our lives. It’s about having the freedom to be.

So the fight for Reproductive Justice isn’t about whether or not you’d have an abortion. It is about whether or not you will demand the respect to make that decision for yourself. And you can be sure as hell that I’ll be thinking about reproductive justice tomorrow.