How To Make The Queer And Feminism Movements More Inclusive: Trans-Activist Julia Serano Speaks Out

This piece originally appeared at Ravishly.com in February 2015, but has now disappeared from the Internet. So I thought I'd re-up it.

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The  left is often accused of being totalitarian, exclusionary, and  intolerant. The most recent version of this argument was made by  Jonathan Chait in a high-profile piece for The New Yorker. Similar concerns were raised by Michelle Goldberg at The Nation last year in a piece titled "Feminism's Toxic Twitter Wars."

Mainstream articles about the dangers of political correctness and  left intolerance can often seem interested in generating heat rather  than light—in demonstrating that the left is broken, rather than in  thinking about ways to fix things. They also tend to ignore, or  sideline, theorists and writers who have attempted to think through  these problems in favor of horror-story anecdotes and gleeful  denunciation (this was especially true in Chait's piece).

One such writer missing from much online discussion is trans-activist and theorist Julia Serano. Her book  Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive,  published last year, focuses directly on the problem of intolerance in  left spaces, and on what can be done to make left political coalitions  more welcoming and powerful. Here, she shares her insights on the  "extremely messy and complicated questions" surrounding inclusion in  social activism.

Often problems on the left, or exclusion on the left, is  framed in terms of "P.C." or political correctness, as Jonathan Chait  does in his piece at The New Yorker. Is that a useful way to think about exclusion in left spaces? 

I am definitely not a fan of framing these matters in terms of  "political correctness," as that label is only ever used to target the  perspectives of people who have historically been disenfranchised.

In most spaces—whether it be mainstream culture, or within specific  communities or activist groups—there is usually some kind of unwritten  code regarding what expressions are deemed permissible and which are  deemed to be beyond the pale. In other words, every space has its own  concept of "correctness." And these codes can vary significantly from  space to space. As one of many possible examples, in mainstream culture,  it has generally been considered acceptable for people to openly  dismiss or delegitimize transgender people and perspectives, whereas in  certain activist circles these same acts might be considered  reprehensible. The term "political correctness" is a pejorative that people who are  (in some way) a part of the majority or status quo tend to wield against  codes of conduct that are championed by minority or marginalized  groups.

Most people who rally against "political correctness" seem solely  concerned with the potential harm of what they perceive as "censoring"  (e.g., when a marginalized group claims that certain language or beliefs  should be considered beyond the pale), while giving little to no  consideration to the potential harm that can incur when language or  beliefs that injure or erase marginalized groups are considered to be  socially acceptable. This framing favors the concerns of the dominant  majority (who feel like their actions are now being "policed") over  those of the marginalized minority (who see themselves as simply  challenging the countless injustices that they face on a daily basis).

The one-sidedness of these arguments is readily apparent. For  instance, Chait portrays "political correctness" as a threat to free  speech, but then he berates people for staging non-violent protests and  for using a particular hashtag on Twitter. He finds it troubling that  some people will dismiss his opinion because he is white and male, but  then spends most of the article dismissing the perspectives of various  minority groups who feel delegitimized because of their identities. I  too am concerned about some of the incidents Chait details, but he  undermines his own argument when he lists these alongside relatively  mundane tactics that countless (now well-regarded) activist movements  have undertaken in the past. Chait's article reads like a laundry list  of relatively new notions that he does not understand or feels  threatened by, rather than a sincere attempt to create more civil or  productive political discourse.

The problem is not nearly as clear-cut as self-described opponents of  "political correctness" make it out to be. This is not a debate about  free speech versus repression of free speech. Rather, it is about where  we as a society draw the line(s) regarding what counts as ethical or  civil behavior.

Is it acceptable to make sexist or racist comments in the workplace?  If not, what counts as sexism or racism? If I generically refer to my  co-workers as "you guys," is that sexist? Or if I insist that Barack  Obama is not a "real American," does that count as racism? Or are we  only concerned with more blatant or explicit slurs against these groups?  And if so, what words or sentiments count as legitimate slurs?

And what about other identities, or bodies, or ways of being—should  they be protected too? If so, which ones? And to what extent? Where  exactly does your right to free speech end and my right to go to work  every day without being verbally harassed or intimidated begin? And if I  do not like where that line is drawn, what actions am I allowed to take  to push the line in my preferred direction? Am I allowed to boycott, or  picket, or engage in sit-ins, or write letters to the editor, or leave  comments in the comment section? What hashtags represent "good  forward-thinking activism" and which ones constitute "bad repressive  activism"?

These are extremely messy and complicated questions. And I don't have  any precise answers to them. And even if I did, I know for sure that  other activists would inevitably disagree with me.

What I do know is this: A sincere discussion about these issues must  begin with the acknowledgment that injustices can occur via the  expression of certain language and beliefs, but they can also occur via  the censoring of certain language and beliefs. And that some "codes of  conduct" (whether written or unwritten) are necessary to create spaces  where people feel safe to be who they are, but also, that the notion of  "safe space" can be (and has been) used as a tool to marginalize or  exclude people who disagree with, or are different from, the majority in  some way.

Freddie deBoer  argued   that Chait was right at least to the extent that identity politics can  lead to attacks or bullying in left spaces based around using or not  using the correct language, or having or not having the correct  identity. Have you found that to be the case? 

Yes, this definitely does happen. Sometimes, the unwritten codes of  conduct in certain activist or progressive spaces may be especially  rigorous, and when someone unknowingly transgresses these unwritten  codes, they may be fiercely condemned (often with multiple people  "piling on" the condemnation). While I understand the rationale behind  such condemnations (as they are intended to make the space safe for  certain marginalized populations), they can have the effect of driving  away people who are new to activism, many of whom are minorities and  marginalized themselves.

Another under-acknowledged problem is that inflexible or  rigorously-enforced codes of conduct often end up pitting marginalized  individuals against one another. For example, in many activist spaces  these days, you will likely be reprimanded if you use the word "tranny,"  as many younger trans people view this word as a slur that demeans  them. But then, what happens to trans people of the previous generation  who have long used that term  as an identity label? Similarly, some trans activists have claimed that  the word "bisexual" reinforces the gender binary (and is therefore  oppressive to trans people). But then, what happens to people who  identify as bisexual and use that word as a focal point for their activism

To be clear, I am not picking on trans activists here—I chose these  two examples because they are ones that I have written about extensively  in the past, and that others will likely view me as being justified in  citing since I am transgender myself. But I can assure you that  countless similar examples abound throughout contemporary activism. The  point is that claims that particular words or actions are always "bad"  (under every circumstance, regardless of context), and should be  banished from activist spaces and society more generally, often requires  us to pick and choose between different (or similarly) marginalized  groups.

When I first began participating in feminist and queer spaces in the  early '00s, I was routinely confronted by accusations that trans women  "possess male privilege," "appropriate women's bodies and experiences,"  "parody women's oppression," "reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative  stereotypes of women," "infiltrate women's spaces," "trigger women who  have been raped," and metaphorically "rape women's bodies." All of these  memes were invoked in an attempt to invalidate or exclude me on the  basis of my identity or imagined motives, not because of anything that I  actually did or said in those spaces.

In Excluded,  I chronicle how similar accusations have been used repeatedly against  other minority/marginalized groups within activist settings over the  last half-century. There is an obvious logic to it: If we (as activists)  are opposed to institutionalized oppression, then people whose  identities or expressions appear to "reinforce" those oppressive systems  (however we define that) suddenly become fair game to ostracize. And  within activist settings, there are few things worse than being  characterized (or mischaracterized) as being "an oppressor," or as  "reinforcing oppression," or as "undermining the movement."

I can understand why some activists may be disinclined to have this  conversation. If we admit that activist language is sometimes misused to  malign others within our own communities, doesn't that potentially give  ammunition to the truly oppressive people who can now dismiss our  legitimate critiques of oppression within society at large?

Well, I'm sure that some people will misappropriate what I (and  others) have to say toward that end. And I will continue to protest  against such misappropriations. But the alternative—allowing or ignoring  calls to exclude certain "types" of people from activist movements that  they themselves have a stake in—will only ever lead to far smaller  activist movements, with far more narrow and distorted agendas.

DeBoer  seems to suggest   that there is no way to handle these kinds of incidents; he points to a  number of examples where people were shell-shocked or reduced to tears,  and he says that basically there is no way to address that on the left  now. (He elaborates on that here.)  Is that true? Or if not, what approach do you take to dealing with this  kind of bullying or call-out culture in queer and feminist spaces? 

I believe that, in order to address these problems, we need to first  understand how we got here. There is a long history of activist  movements ignoring minority voices within their ranks. Over the years, a  set of guidelines has emerged in an attempt to make these movements  more inclusive and intersectional. Many of us who spend significant time  in activist settings are familiar with these guidelines: Allow  marginalized groups to have an actual voice in your movement. If you  want to be a righteous ally, then you should call out instances of  oppression that target those marginalized groups (otherwise, the space  will become an inhospitable environment for them). If someone accuses  you of being oppressive in some way, don't deny it or defend yourself,  just take responsibility for your actions. If the person doing the  "calling out" seems inordinately angry or aggressive, you shouldn't  complain about that, because that would be a "tone argument" that  derails the conversation. Many activists believe that only members of a  particular identity are able to speak with authority about certain  issues (this is sometimes referred to as a reverse discourse).  So if you are not a member of that identity group, and you claim that a  "call out" is unfair or an overreach, you will most likely be viewed as  speaking from a position of ignorance and/or exercising your privilege  over others.

Every single one of these guidelines is well intentioned, and they  are all things that I have argued for myself at one time or another. But  taken together, they do create a situation (which deBoer seems to be  describing) where there is not an effective way to intervene when  situations do get out of hand or become unproductive. This leads many of  us to remain silent about such incidents when they occur for fear of  being accused of "siding with the oppressor" or "throwing around our  privilege."

While I think that the aforementioned guidelines are often useful  when dealing with people who are legitimate bad actors or repeat  offenders, they can be counterproductive within activist settings where  all participants are open minded and genuinely concerned about social  justice for all people, and where marginalized individuals who are  socially situated in different ways come to different conclusions as to  how best to challenge the oppression they face.

Toward the end of Excluded, I offer a number of suggestions  that might help mitigate some of these problems. One of these  suggestions is to dismantle the "righteous infallible activist" versus  "evil ignorant oppressor" binary that many activists (including myself  in the distant past) seem to embrace.

We often associate activism with taking steadfast and strident  positions. But this can lead us to view others who espouse dissenting  opinions as either "ignorant" and/or "oppressive"—thus creating an "us  versus them" mentality. But if we accept the fact that 1) we all have  much to learn from other activists, and 2) that even the most  well-informed and dedicated activists will oftentimes disagree with one  another, then we may be able to alleviate much of the intransigence that  often occurs on both sides of "call outs." And hopefully, this might  help foster activist spaces and movements that are simultaneously  inclusive of minority voices and accepting of difference more generally.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. But I have found this approach to be fruitful in my own activism.

DeBoer also argues that most of the bad actors in left spaces  are privileged people, especially white men, who have less stake in  actually accomplishing anything and are therefore more likely to focus  on stirring up controversy. Is that your experience? Or is it useful to  see these problems in terms of identity and privilege in that way? 

I have to say that deBoer's theory that some people are "accelerants"  (i.e., people with privilege who pile on and purposely fan the flames  during these incidents) sounds compelling. But I have not personally  carried out the types of analysis that deBoer has, so I don't feel like I  can confirm or deny that hypothesis.

But I do feel that there are multiple other factors that likely (or additionally) contribute to this phenomenon.

I really do believe that many activists who participate in  unproductive or misguided "call outs" are well intentioned. Opponents of  "political correctness" or "call-out culture" often portray these  phenomena as being driven by selfishness or over-sensitivity. But from  my vantage point, I see people who are genuinely concerned about other  marginalized groups and who are sincerely trying to be good  intersectional activists. And they will read a tweet or blog post by an  activist claiming that "X" (e.g., a word, or action, or media depiction,  or some person) contributes to the oppression of group "Y." And  subsequently, when they are confronted with X, they will call it out in  support of group Y. In some cases, these will be productive attempts to  challenge oppression, while in other cases, they may be misguided or  unfair smears of other people or ideas. I feel that it is important to  acknowledge that, even when misguided, many of these occurrences were  originally intended to create positive change in the world.

Still other factors likely contribute. Katherine Cross has suggested  that we (as a society) tend to view what happens online (where many of  these outbreaks occur) as being "not real," and therefore, not subject  to the norms of civil discourse. It makes sense that such a mindset  might help fuel such problems within social media settings.

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that—whether it's a part of  American culture or human nature more generally—many people (perhaps  all of us, to varying extents) sometimes experience pleasure or  entertainment when we witness people who we do not know, or do not like,  being "ridiculed," "brought down," or "ruined." This tendency is  evident in reality TV and many forms of comedy, and I can't help but  wonder whether it sometimes plays a role in these situations as well.

Anyway, whatever the causes, I think that it is important for those  of us who are committed to social justice and activism to seek out more  productive ways to make activist settings truly inclusive and accepting  of difference.

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