Ever since I read Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice — and then, a few weeks later, I’m a Transwoman, I Am in the Closet, I Am Not Coming Out — I’ve been thinking about how we treat liminal people in activist communities.
Liminal people: those who are still becoming. Trans and non-binary people who haven’t come out yet, who sometimes haven’t even admitted their status to themselves; disabled folks who’ve just become disabled or who’ve just realised their disabling condition, and who are still cautious about claiming our label and our community; newly diagnosed or newly realised autistics (who may or may not ID as disabled), or mad people; mixed-race folks, especially ones usually read as white, carefully trying to claim their racialised identity; folks slowly realising they’re bi, nervously joking about their same- or different- gender attractions; folks claiming their position on the ace spectrum; new feminists and other folks who’ve just realised that systemic oppression is real and pervasive and informs all the facets of our lives.
These are, in some ways, the most vulnerable members of our communities. Not necessarily in terms of the privilege they experience out there in the world, but in terms how little they know about how to navigate the activist community — or at least how to navigate it in their new skins. These are folks with (temporarily or permanently) insufficient coping skills, and often mental-health stress.
A few months ago a friend told me they were asking folks in their life to introduce them to new potential partners. They wanted to date, but didn’t want to try online dating; they figured asking those who know them to set them up would be a good first step. I almost immediately thought of a good match to introduce them to; when I described the person though, my friend immediately panicked: Oh no, this person sounds like they’re in the middle of the activist community, I can’t date them! I used to be part of the activist community, I got hounded out of it, I’m never going there again.
My friend is a multiply marginalised, thoughtful, radical person. They care deeply about systemic oppression. But all the activism they do now is solo, because of how the activist community has damaged them.
I think we need to, and we can, do at least a little better. And, considering the overwhelming reposting of Excommunicate Me, many of us want to.
How things are
I know we are harsh and gatekeeping and angry and judgmental often because we need to be. Our anger has kept us alive. In fact, the more marginalised we are, the more likely it is that anger is a vital part of keeping us alive.
At times in my life when I was experiencing the effects of my marginalisation the most acutely, without mitigating support or community support — when I was desperately poor and did not have access to any framily members who could lend me money or buy me food when I was literally starving, and when the folks who administered my tiny income were capriciously cruel but I had no resources or support to challenge them; when I still had a noticeable accent and was treated with the same disrespect our society gives to people with intellectual disabilities; when I used a cane or a wheelchair and people treated me like I couldn’t speak for myself, like I wasn’t fully human; when my multiple physical disabilities compromised my basic self-care (like eating or dressing), but I couldn’t get attendant care; when I was a newly out queer and gender-non-conforming university frosh living in a new city where I knew no one; when I was cutting off my family of origin while dealing with horrifying flashbacks of their violence and the attendant suicidality; when I didn’t know local social cues, because of my autism and because of being an immigrant from a vastly different culture — my anger kept me alive, and doing survival tasks.
Audre Lorde said, “Anger is loaded with information and energy.” My anger helped me know what was not okay in my life, told me what bullshit not to internalise, helped give me energy to try to attend to what was wrong and to take care of at least some of my survival needs, and it helped me to value myself, to know that I could and should have better conditions in my life. It helped me keep fighting when things were so hard I often thought about just giving up and dying.
I knew I had no one to count on. I felt I couldn’t afford to be soft. If I’d easily given support or education or the benefit of the doubt to folks not immediately in my small, close framily circle, folks who were not guaranteed to be safe and to return my emotional labour, I might not have had enough resources left to take care of me, I might have been destroyed by microaggressions or overwhelmment. I might have perished. Survival back then was that perilous.
Anger and gatekeeping save lives.
And, venting our anger can also shut people out of our communities, people who often lack social capital and access to radical education. As Frances Lee says in Excommunicate Me, none of us were born knowing All The Radical Activism. It is folks who come from small towns or insular communities, those who lack community and friends already, those who’ve lost their family, who are often the least likely to know what’s oppressive in an area they are privileged, and/or what comes across as thoughtless or rude.
If you are, for example, an older trans woman from a small town, with no peer support, how likely are you to know the right terminology when you finally find other trans people? What if you refer to yourself as “MTF”, or buy into misogynist stereotypes, like the mainstream media taught you? How kind will your new, radical community be to you? What if you know nothing about disability and access, because that is one of the axes of oppression you do not experience; what if you say something ignorant about disabled folks, like the mainstream media taught you?
We often say that ignorance is not an excuse — but it can be an explanation. Our ignorance can come from very real, limiting life circumstances. We may not have had an opportunity to learn better. We may not know that we should do better. Who will teach us? Does the fact that we don’t have important, community-navigating knowledge automatically consign us to exclusion from radical communities, from queer and trans peer support? Sometimes it feels like the answer is yes. In order to navigate even the basics of the activist community well, we need to already have a certain amount of activist education. A vicious circle. Are we okay leaving some folks totally out of the loop?
What about when we mistake people’s identities? When a cis woman angrily lectures a closeted trans woman or a non-binary AMAB person about male privilege, assuming her/them to be a cis man; when folks assume that someone is trying to get undeserved emotional labour from disabled folks or BIPOC, but they are in fact just coming out as members of those communities, or have been living with invisible disabilities or with light skin privilege; when queer folks disapprove of ‘girls pretending to be bi for attention’, when those ‘girls’ are in fact taking hesitant steps out of the closet; when we hound a gender-questioning person out of an online trans/NB group because folks assume that person is cis? Should we only have to acknowledge and respect marginalised identities when they are performed in a way we approve of and recognise? Only people who use the right terminology, only folks who don’t have doubts about who they are, only folks who visibly represent an identity with no opportunity for confusion?
What about when folks’ disabilities or neurodivergences prevent them from learning quickly, or being able to speak/respond to situations in ways we want? Many autistics, folks with brain injuries, folks with physical or mental health conditions that alter their memory or how well they are able to learn and comprehend, have to take a while before they grasp a particular concept, or a new linguistic phrasing. Do we just want to throw away everyone who is not as quick, not as privileged as the rest in their ability to learn and put that learning into practice? But often we assume a callous, willful ignorance on the part of everyone who hasn’t learned quickly enough, who is still screwing up. We don’t check why that might be. And folks who can’t keep up are excluded, shamed out of participating.
(Did you know that there are neurodiverse self-crit groups on facebook? Because folks with neuro differences can’t count on regular spaces to be patient enough with us, to share education in a way that’s not shaming and harsh right off, some folks needed to create spaces where we can just ask direct questions about what’s expected of us, and why. Take that in: regular social justice spaces are not safe for some (clearly willing) folks to learn in.)
How things could be
After witnessing some of these things — and occasionally hearing of the consequences for the folks experiencing them (e.g. Jennifer Coates), I know I want to let go of some of my suspicion and anger, even though they have kept me alive, and put out a little more openness and kindness. It is sometimes difficult. It costs me more emotionally than do suspicion and anger. And it is only possible because my marginalisations are now offset some by the access to community and framily and resources I have gained. Seriously, that access has been the single most important reason the quality of my life has improved. Now — even though I’m still: poor, living with PTSD, estranged from my family of origin, immigrant, multiply disabled, queer, non-binary, Jewish, autistic, etc. — I know folks won’t let me starve at the end of the month, will help me find badly needed life-aiding items, will support me when I get micro-aggressed or when someone is hostile or cruel, will advocate for me or help me find someone who will. For a long time I didn’t have that. Some of you reading this do not have it.
I am not going to tell any of you to let go of your anger, of hostility and gatekeeping and suspicion. And I hope no one reading this will translate this text into permission to police people around their anger and how they handle oppression directed at them. I’ll say it again: anger saves lives.
But if you have the support, and/or the social capital, please consider extending welcome and patience to folks new to our communities. Consider sometimes educating, calling to mind the kind and patient and generous folks who educated you when you first arrived, newly queer/trans/disabled or newly radicalised, very naive, on these shores. (Sometimes literally. Many of us are immigrants.) You know there were those people. No one is born knowing All The Radical Things. And they were part of what made our communities magical places of refuge, support, and learning.
Notes for allies
And especially if you are being an ally, if you are directing anger and hostility and suspicion at folks who have fucked up, and not because you yourself are injured by their fuckups, but because you are trying, from your in-this-case-privileged position, to help out folks who are not — for the love of G-d, please show patience instead, please do your best to be kind.
Hostility and shaming limit folks’ ability to learn from their mistakes. Please leave reacting from that place to marginalised people directly injured by the incident. Your job, if you have ally spoons just then, is to help fight the oppression. Educate. Talk to the offending person as if they meant well. Who knows, maybe they did? Who knows, maybe they’ll be grateful to be helped, and become a more effective member of activist communities? And if they are not, someone hearing or reading your words likely will benefit. You don’t have to waste endless labour on someone determined to misunderstand you — in fact, please don’t; your labour is better spent elsewise, and by getting stuck in a circular fight with them you might be inadvertently helping to teach them that they are entitled to endless attempts at education without exhibiting any good will — but try once or twice, speaking with kindness and respect. Genuinely try. Don’t project contempt and impatience. Try to channel the generous people who first taught you when you were fucking up all over the place. (You were, once. We all were once.)
Sometimes, it’s not just that you are an ineffective ally when you shame and push away folks who you think have fucked up; you can also end up policing/shaming/excluding folks who are members of the very community you are trying to help.
Anecdote: a cis person jumps on someone who spoke in a thread on non-binary-friendly language usage, because another NB person didn’t like what they said. The person jumped on? Turns out to be non-binary. And that enby gets to say what language they like as much as the enby up thread. Policing them on a thread dedicated to talking about language appropriate for NBs is a seriously problematic move.
Another anecdote: an argument erupts on a TTC bus over a seat. Someone trying to help resolve the issue informs the invisibly disabled person currently sitting in one of the blue priority seats that these seats are not for them, they “are for people with disabilities, you know”.
Another anecdote: in an online trans and non-binary group, a person starts their comment with something like “I am definitely cisgender, but…” — but by the end of their comment it seems clear they are in the process of gender questioning. Well-meaning cis people harshly criticise the person, and tell them to shut up, this is not their lane, they are appropriating trans experiences, etc. Some (mostly trans) folks defend the person and their right to explore their gender, this is exactly the right group for it, but it’s too late: 45 minutes into their first participation, that person has fled the group. I hope they found good, solid support elsewhere. Though, as Jennifer Coates describes — probably not.
This is not helping, allies. Don’t participate in destroying our young. Don’t contribute to the isolation and abandonment of folks who need support; don’t encourage them to flee our communities.
Another way to phrase this request: those of us experiencing marginalisation in any particular area have mostly survived by maintaining our anger, our suspicion, by hoarding our emotional labour spoons. We can’t always afford to be the smiling face welcoming young learners and newcomers to our communities. This is where allies come in: you can be the welcoming patient smiling faces. You can both help include new people and educate those who have some learning to do. This is what you can do for us who are/when we are marginalised. And this is what I can do for you when it is you coping with oppression, and me experiencing privilege.
Yes, sometimes being kind and patient won’t be the best thing you can do. Sometimes, e.g. a racist asshat is spewing on a bus and your attempts at education aren’t interrupting them enough, and their spewing is harming folks stuck on that bus right now. Shutting them down as quickly as possible is likely the better option there. But even then — shaming the person is not that effective. Nine times out of ten they’ll double down or fight back, because they’ll feel a need to push back against the humiliation you’ve just inflicted. Shut it down the way you’d shut down a small child who’s doing an inappropriate thing: firmly, but without shaming or cruelty. I’ve personally had remarkably good results with “Please stop talking”.
I’ve been thinking about how easily judgmental in general we activists are. And there are good reasons. Judgment, like anger, can keep us from wasting our resources, from getting too attached to people who will harm us, from making ourselves vulnerable in situations that are dangerous for us. I’m not advocating a “don’t judge anyone, ever” approach — but the amount of judgment and suspicion we direct at one another, the way we, as Frances Lee said, are sometimes/frequently afraid of our fellow activists, afraid that despite our best efforts we will be judged and harshly punished, worries me. There should be a way to balance our need to protect ourselves and our communities, with being kind and encouraging to our fellow activists. There should be a way to welcome a plurality of viewpoints, rather than insisting that at any given time, only one perspective on various events is correct. People with various positioning in the oppression matrix will of course have different experiences and perspectives. They are likely to be grounded in what their intersections of privileges and marginalisations are. And maybe that can be okay. Maybe knowing that someone else’s perspective is not mine, because their life experience is different from mine, doesn’t make either of our perspectives automatically bad, just limited.
So many times, a significant event happens, with all sorts of complexity to it, and most of us first wait to see what other, more important, activists in our communities say. E.g. that time the Chicago Dyke March asked several white Jews with rainbow flags with the star of David on them, to leave. As a pale Jew (racialised back home, but with access to white privilege here) I had complex thoughts on that event — that I certainly wasn’t going to share with most other activists I knew, especially once the prevailing winds of our community seemed to settle on this one truth: there was no antisemitism, those people were troublemakers. I am not arguing that different choices should have been made at the march; I wasn’t there, I don’t feel qualified to comment, I’m not convinced there was one correct way to handle the situation, and that all others are faulty. But it absolutely worried me when my non-Jewish social media contacts started their commentary on this with “If you think this was anti-semitism, unfriend me now.” Should differences of opinion be that threatening? What if we genuinely listened to each other, agreed that pluralities of perspectives can be a good thing, and withheld either judgment or approval of each person’s individual analysis of the events? Maybe shared our viewpoints, grounded in our experiences, but without throwing people away?
Folks in our communities so often respond with reflexive judgment/approval to hearing someone else’s opinion that many of us (cf. Frances Lee again) end up performing activism rather than sharing our perspectives with each other.
The troublesome in this situation got even worse when folks started posting “Chicago Dyke March accuser has done this before” type articles. I felt pretty alarmed: that’s usually the kind of rhetoric mainstream rape culture reserves for discrediting sexual assault survivors. Why would our communities use discreditation instead of discussion?
Then there were the posts about how often white/pale Jews lie about anti-semitism in order to distract from our racism. Yes, that happens. Folks can and do lie and deflect when called out on oppressive behaviour — including sometimes lying about their own experiences of oppression. And sometimes it’s not lying, but still inaccurate; it’s people only seeing what hurts them, and failing to process how they have hurt others, and so interpreting an experience so very differently from others who were there. If we’re acknowledging the lying of Jews, though — contravening the (sometimes spoken, often not) rule that only an oppressed group gets to decide what is and isn’t an offence against them (us), and that we must take those folks’ word for it — can our communities also acknowledge that people of all marginalised groups do this, not just Jews? (Otherwise, singling out just Jews for that censure smells pretty strongly like anti-semitism.) And establish some sort of (gentler) process for examining events from multiple perspectives?
What I’m hoping from all of us in activist communities: that we’ll show up in our communities the way we want those communities to show up for us. That we’ll try to show kindness where we can, and patience where we can, so we can build safe, sweet, refuge-providing, safely educating, supportive communities. But that we’ll still embrace our fierceness, our right to anger, to self-caring withdrawal or bluntness. That we won’t shut out plural perspectives. That we’ll keep in mind that any person we’re speaking to there might be a fragile, new, liminal member. That we won’t let that make us give too much. Statistically speaking, some people will turn out to be genuine assholes, or waste our spoons without learning anything or contributing to our communities; the resources we put in may not be appreciated or repaid/paid forward. It is healthy for us to be suspicious, to opt out, to choose to save our few spoons for ourselves, or for particular community members. Where it’s not feasible or logical for us to share kindness or patience — we can ask allies to show up to give kindness and respect and to educate. This will all be quite the balancing act. There are no clear, easy rules.
And if you are on the receiving end of clear, kind, patient education — I hope that you’ll appreciate the emotional labour someone just put in for you. Consider what they said. Do some more reading, video-viewing, or podcast-listening on the subject on your own time. Say thank you. And repay their effort, or pay it forward. Help educate someone else — especially your family members. Perform effective, not grandstanding, acts of allyship. Do some behind-the-scenes tasks so that particularly marginalised folks can participate in our communities: do some attendant care, fundraise for ASL, put in a few hours as a child minder or door person for events that might not be relevant to you (a BIPOC-only workshop, a trans folks’ dance) but are hugely important for the target demographic.
And I’d love it if we kept talking about this. There are no easy answers; I want this post to be just one piece in a long conversation, as opposed to some sort of definitive work. But the system we have is not working well enough; we are losing too many valuable, vulnerable people. We can do better. Let’s try.