CW: sexual harassment and violence, including rape, child abuse, LGBTQIA+ antagonism; oppression and violence related to disability, race, and class
Despite the fact that I spend much of my time laughing, playing ridiculously silly games, singing my way through house work, and generally talking in funny voices, I am usually invited to talk about really serious topics. This morning is no exception, since I will be reflecting on the #MeToo movement, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and my experience as a bi- or pansexual, demisexual, genderqueer person. I personally feel ambivalent about the opportunity: I’m grateful for the invitation and for the chance to speak about crucial issues; I’m also exhausted by the necessity of repeating how gender and sexuality have been weaponized against vulnerable people, including how speaking up too often makes folks targets of more coercion and violence. So here is my current best attempt to put it into words, a lot of words, that will include discussion of sexual harassment and violence, including rape, child abuse, and gender and sexuality antagonisms. I’ll also talk about the intersection of this kind of violence with disability, race, and class.
By choice and circumstance, I don’t participate much in social media, and so I didn’t post #MeToo when the phrase went viral in in October 2017. But, even if I were more active on twitter or facebook, it would have been a difficult choice for me to type those words. To begin, some LGBTQIA+ people risk outing themselves or another person by sharing their stories. Further, although the general response to #MeToo has been supportive, there is still the risk of people asking intrusive questions or giving unsolicited advice. Even in best case scenarios, we run the risk of being reduced to the status of victim, and that label can stick. In worse scenarios, we run the risk of word reaching past abusers or other dysfunctional relationships, which can bring about further harassment or violence. In a society that does little to heal communities from violence, there is often a fine line between empowering and endangering us when we speak up.
There is also a commonly held myth that everyone who identifies as LGBTQIA+ has done so because they were abused, so declaring #MeToo can get us pulled into conversations that leave us with a difficult choice: allow people to make assumptions about our gender and sexuality, or be pushed to share very personal and private stories about our lives, desires, and experiences. So I’ll share a little – only a little – of my own story, in the hopes that it will spare other LGBTQIA+ folk the hassle and pain. In my own case, I don’t remember a time when I was comfortable with being assigned male at birth, and those memories predate the first time I was sexually abused. I do believe that my gender variance made me a target for at least some of the abuse I endured throughout my childhood. Further, enduring harassment for being “too effeminate” has made me very careful about how I express myself, and I often choose more stereotypically masculine presentations as a tactic to protect my own safety and try to be less vulnerable to bullying or abuse. And that’s all I’ll say about this topic this morning.
I’m still shocked by how frequently people act like they are entitled to the details of these stories, as if it is my duty to prove to acquaintances and even strangers that my gender and sexuality are legitimate. So to all of you lovely people living in the heteronormative, cisgender camp: please be respectful of other people’s gender, sexuality, personal dignity, and stories. In almost every normal circumstance, no one owes you anything. Ask permission, take no for an answer, respect boundaries, and listen. Any of these small acts can be a wonderful and often too rare a gift.
Yet even if I were able to jump these first two hurdles, a third one would await me before I could have typed out #MeToo. It was not long after the hashtag picked up steam that disagreement emerged about who was allowed to participate. The original tweet by Alyssa Milano specifically invited “women” to participate, so there was controversy, with some folk wanting to include and others wanting to exclude broader participation, from disabled folk to people of color to LGBTQIA+ folk. Here locally, a prominent LGBT activist went on social media to make a point of excluding a trans man who had posted #MeToo. It was painful, discouraging, and awful. So as someone living under the transgender umbrella, assigned male at birth but correctly a genderqueer person, I doubt I would have risked incurring that kind of trolling.
While I am glad that I feel comfortable making a decision that supports my well-being, it is still troubling that I can self-censor so easily. It is a long habit, something I’ve been trained in for years, which is why it is so appropriate to name the heroes of this broader movement to expose sexual violence as “the Silence Breakers.” I learned silence very early, around preschool age. Something happened to me, and I tried to talk to a couple of people about it. It was embarrassing to the adults, and they hushed me. They reassured me that it was not a big deal, though I came to understand later that they were really reassuring themselves. Still, I learned then that these types of things were not to be spoken about; they were, paradoxically, both shameful and normal. I kept quiet.
By the time I was a teenager, my conservative Southern Baptist community had taught me two lies disguised as lessons. First, my gender and sexuality made me very disgusting and evil in their eyes. I needed to work extra hard to avoid any kind of what they considered sexual sin, because the sins of a genderqueer and bisexual person were worse than other kinds of sexual sins, including the sin of sexual abuse. This was another reason to keep quiet. Second, I was taught that the suffering that came with enduring sexual violence could be used to my abusers better people. My job was not to expose them, but to save them. So I prayed, and I kept quiet. Lies are powerfully good at keeping people quiet.
I learned these things at church, but I have other stories where I learned similar lessons from different places – family, schools, pop culture, or peers. These kinds of ideas don’t have as much to do with religion as they have to do with social control, with patriarchy, with oppressive systems. I’ve shared these experiences because, for many of us, it is no easy thing to say #MeToo. Especially in public spaces, we’ve come to expect that our experiences will be minimized or dismissed at best; more often, we will be interrogated and then blamed for our own suffering.
Sexual Violence and the LGBTQIA+ Community
We have good reason to be cautious. Our personal experiences and the stories we share with one another are also reflected in statistics, statistics that reveal a terrifying reality. The Human Rights Campaign have summarized the “CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey” findings from 2010 -
• “44 percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 35 percent of heterosexual women
• 26 percent of gay men and 37 percent of bisexual men experience rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, compared to 29 percent of heterosexual men
• 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17 percent of heterosexual women and 13 percent of lesbians
• 22 percent of bisexual women have been raped by an intimate partner, compared to 9 percent of heterosexual women
• 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21 percent of heterosexual men” (https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community )
These trends are also seen in the transgender community. For example, the September 2017 report on the U.S. Transgender Survey documented that, of the transgender people who participated in the survey, 35% of heterosexual, 37% of gay and lesbian, 41% of bisexual, and 51% of pansexual respondents “reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime”. (http://www.lgbtmap.org/file/A%20Closer%20Look%20Bisexual%20Transgender.pdf )
There is another level that demonstrates how comfortable our society in general is with violence against LGBTQIA+ folk, and how we are demonized and dehumanized for our gender and sexuality. In the legal world, “gay panic” and “trans panic” are considered actual, legitimate defenses that, in the words of the American Bar “ask the jury to find that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction. They characterize sexual orientation and gender identity as objectively reasonable excuses for loss of self-control, and thereby mitigate a perpetrator’s culpability for harm done to LGBT individuals.” These defenses “have been used ... to mitigate a charge of murder to manslaughter or justified homicide … . By fully or partially excusing the perpetrators of crimes against LGBT victims, these defenses enshrine in the law the notion that LGBT lives are worth less than others.” (https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/abanews/1373479339_31_1_1_9_resolution_summary.docx ) As of late December 2017, only 2 states – California and Illinois – have banned the use of gay panic or trans panic as legal defenses. (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/12/28/574453009/illinois-to-ban-gay-panic-defense-in-new-year)
We could say more. We could note the ways that systems often fail us when we try to access resources and help. We could, for example, look at discrimination in housing, employment, and health care, and then investigate how navigating those realities make LGBTQIA+ folk more vulnerable to all kinds of violence, including sexual violence. But I’d like to go another step and reflect on how sexual violence has operated historically and sociologically as a part of larger oppressive systems and cultures.
Sexual Violence as a Mechanism of Oppressive Systems & Cultures
Although citizens of the United States have, as a cultural rule, enjoyed thinking about themselves as the shining pinnacle of all that is good in the world, as a kind of exception to the unjust practices of all the other nation states, the difficult truth is that oppressive systems have long used sexual violence as a mechanism for power and control, to traumatize and terrorize in ways that reinforce how those oppressive systems work. This includes the United States, and it is true whether we are considering how our society is arranged economically, socially, or politically. It is also why many of us at the margins remain skeptical that the systems can be reformed to work without oppression. Oppression is a feature of the way things are, not a breakdown.
A trip through the historical record of the West in general, and the United States in particular, is not a pleasant journey. From the earliest documents of the colonial age, the journals of explorers and bureaucrats record stories of sexual and other acts of violence as if they were cataloging how many barrels of rum were in the hold. The stories are graphic and horrifying, and they are also completely normal. The men writing these accounts have no shame in their stories of rape and murder. In many accounts, they come across as bragging about what they have done, as in the infamous case of Michele de Cuneo, to whom Admiral Christopher Columbus “gave” an indigenous woman.
This same history spills over into the exploitation of enslaved people in the United States. The rape of enslaved women by their male masters was an open secret, detailed in the words of people like Harriet Jacobs, who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or in the tragedies of people like Missouri’s own Celia, who fought back against Robert Newsome, was convicted of first degree murder, and was executed. Racially motivated sexual violence continued after the abolition of slavery, perpetuated in stereotypes about African American sexuality and demonstrated in the lynchings of black men falsely accused of raping white women. In the latter, these are the only widespread and socially acceptable cases of which I am aware of in US history where false accusations of sexual violence are tolerated and even encouraged, up to today.
We could tell similar stories of sexual violence against immigrants, indigenous people, employees, suspects and prisoners, the elderly, the disabled, children, or any other marginalized population. We could recount thousands of stories from these hundreds of years of sexual terror. It is, to say it again, a feature and not a breakdown. Oppressive systems have long used sexual violence as a mechanism for power and control, to traumatize and terrorize in ways that reinforce how those oppressive systems work.
Once we understand this, we can begin to unpack how oppressive systems, particularly in the West, have emphasized punishing individuals as a way to focus a society’s outrage and vengeance on a single person without threatening the oppressive system as a whole. Our society has proven itself more than willing to sacrifice a few individuals now and then, with no intention of actually changing the underlying structures and cultures that produce, permit, tolerate, and protect those behaviors. So many of the most talked about cases have been focused on prosecuting individuals, firing individuals, shaming individuals, forcing resignations of individuals.
Don’t get me wrong; I am quite happy to see a lot of these people go. But these actions in themselves don’t go to the root causes, and the systems that produced, permitted, tolerated, and protected those behaviors will continue long after this moment’s scapegoats are forgotten. The structures and cultures remain intact as long as we are relying on those structures and cultures to provide the solutions for the very problems they perpetuate. And so we risk reinforcing those very structures while missing key insights about how and why the problems arise in the first place. Our criminal justice system and media both focus on individuals. Our politics focus on reform. It all hinges on the promise that all of these problems would go away if only we could get the right people in charge. What we are missing is the reality that the system produces, permits, tolerates, and protects oppressive structures and behavior, even if it is required to sacrifice a few exceptional individuals along the way.
These two observations uncover a third, that coercion is normal in our society. It is what we learn and what we expect. Our society is organized around profit and has, both historically and sociologically, understood exploitation of all kinds as necessary means for achieving the accumulation of power and money. Even in these high profile cases that have come to light, it is, in the end, business as usual. So it is a common refrain, heard across stories and generations, by people within these systems: “I was not surprised.” Why would we be surprised? How many times have you heard the warning, or given it yourself, that those teen-aged boys just want to have their way with a girl? Or that this boss gives out perks for sexual favors? Or that you shouldn’t leave children with that one family member? Or that you shouldn’t walk alone at night, or in a certain part of town? Can you see how utterly normal it is? Can you see how we have come to accept sexual violence as just the cost of living in these societies that encourage toxic masculinities? Sexual violence is an integral part of patriarchy, and patriarchy is an integral part of our society.
It is, quite literally, business as usual. For example, since the 1990s, the US government’s Office of Compliance has paid more than $17 million in discrimination settlements, including sexual harassment cases (http://www.cnn.com/2017/11/16/politics/settlements-congress-sexual-harassment/index.html ). Of course, this is nothing compared to the approximately $45 million in publicly known settlement cases that were paid out over the years to cover the tracks of former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/10/21/report-bill-oreilly-struck-sexual-harassment-deal-january-former-fox-analyst/787360001/ ). In these and so many more cases, what we see is a pattern of abuse that is tolerated as long as keeping the abusive person around is profitable. In O’Reilley’s case, ad revenues totaled $100 to $300 million annually, depending on who was doing the counting, but affiliate fees of around $9 billion were also part of the considerations (https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/19/heres-how-much-money-bill-oreillys-show-made-according-to-one-media-analyst.html ).
With profit as the standard, the lives of people who suffered from O’Reilley’s sexual violence were of little value. So not only was O’Reilley tolerated, he was empowered by his position at Fox News. With such money and power behind him, ready to bail him out, he was able to harass with near impunity, until his behaviors finally caught up to him and he became a financial liability.
Even when this is not directly the case, even when the person involved is not either holding the check book or laying the proverbial golden eggs, oppressive systems are so integral to our socioeconomic and political arrangement that to oppose patriarchy, to oppose racism, to oppose ableism is to oppose the very foundation on which our society is ordered. We excuse abusive behavior with platitudes and with a fatalism that accepts that patriarchy is a necessity, inevitable if not natural. Again, our society has, both historically and sociologically, understood exploitation of all kinds as necessary means for achieving the accumulation of power and money. And that’s the reality.
On the whole, our society isn't ordered around caring about the well-being of most human beings. The simple equation at work is: how does this behavior impact our profit and power margins? Disrupting patriarchy or white supremacy disrupts the system, and threatens those in power, people whose power and wealth depend on the exploitation of masses of people and the earth itself. Sexual violence and its suffering are just another externalized cost.
Many of us understand this, even if only subconsciously, and I believe it’s a big reason why many of us never speak out. For the most part, the system promises to protect the abuser for as long as it is profitable, in terms of money, power, or image. Most of us cannot afford to stand up against such power. We risk losing jobs, families, immigration status, and our well-being. Even when we do make a successful fight, what the system offers us is a pay off, in the form of a settlement, or a pay back, in the form of public humiliation or revenge. What the system does not offer us is true and lasting change. We are asked to become martyrs, to sacrifice ourselves with the scapegoats on the altars of power. And the systems stay intact, to repeat the cycle.
Resisting, Healing, & Cultivating Just Communities at the Margins
Clearly, dismantling these systems and cultures that put money and power into the hands of the few is not quick work. So what are we to do? One of the lessons that has re-emerged with the #MeToo movement is that listening can be painful, hard work, especially when it asks us, personally and as larger communities, to change. We are uncomfortable hearing how others have been hurt, we are uncomfortable learning that people we respected and trusted have acted in inappropriate and even violent ways. We are uncomfortable with what it asks of us. And sometimes there are risks. It’s difficult, painful work, but it’s also where we begin.
Out of this listening, there are some very practical and beautiful examples of how folk have worked at building communities where we can practice and learn these alternative ways of relating to one another. We become better at taking care of ourselves, better at caring for one another. We simultaneously learn how to better recognize and resist coercive, dominating ways of treating one another while building the skills, networks, and resources we need to create new systems and cultures that replace oppressive ones.
Here are four of the lessons that, as a collection of diverse movements, we’ve learned over the years, and that can act as a beginning if you want to support genuine change.
First, we all have work to do, both personally and collectively. Most of us have grown up learning about power, sex, desire, and love in the context of imperialist-white supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. Being aware of that does not make us immune to its influence. We all have internalized oppression, dominance, or a mixture of both. So we understand that there is grief, healing, and transformation that needs to happen, again and again.
Second, it’s much more difficult to silence people when you eliminate structural imbalances. The less hierarchical and the more partnership-oriented we are, the better we are at preventing, naming, addressing, and healing from harassment and violence.
Third, we must move our focus to include systems and cultures, resisting the temptation to focus solely on individuals. This means making our analyses and actions intersectional. This means centering marginalized populations. This means dealing honestly with how sexual violence has been part of the structures of power and profit.
Fourth, while we can and should support and agitate for reform in order to minimize harm, we must devote as much time, energy, and resources as possible into building community. We have to earnestly and intentionally cultivate practices, habits, and structures that dismantle patriarchy and replace it with non-hierarchical and partnership-based social relationships that rely on and embody mutual care, respect, and justice. This is also where restorative and transformative justice practices become essential, as well as community based conflict transformation. We have to make justice and love normal.
I want to conclude with the reflections of Tarana Burke, who created the Me, Too campaign in 2006 and continues the work through Girls for Gender Equity, “a non-profit devoted to helping young women live self-determined lives.” In an interview with The Nation, Burke emphasized the importance of centering marginal communities and pursuing restorative and transformative justice. In reflecting on #MeToo, she said,
“The conversation is largely about Harvey Weinstein or other individual bogeymen. No matter how much I keep talking about power and privilege, they keep bringing it back to individuals. It would be very easy to get swept up and change directions and change the focus of this work, but that’s not going to happen. It defeats the purpose to not have those folks centered—I’m talking black and brown girls, queer folks. There’s no conversation in this whole thing about transgender folks and sexual violence. There’s no conversation in this about people with disabilities and sexual violence. We need to talk about Native Americans, who have the highest rate of sexual violence in this country. So no, I can’t take my focus [off] marginalized people.”And,
“We have to start talking about nontraditional methods to pursuing justice. What does justice look like for a survivor? It’ll mean different things to different communities. … we need to look at alternative approaches to justice, I’m talking restorative justice and transformative justice. … We’ve got to get a clearer understanding of what justice is and what people need to feel whole. And if we’re ever going to heal in our community, we have to heal the perpetrators and heal the survivors, or else it’s just a continuous cycle.” (https://www.thenation.com/article/tarana-burke-says-metoo-isnt-just-for-white-people/ )
I titled this talk “We Are Not the Fragile Ones,” because victims are often spoken about in ways that patronize and condescend. The world knew it could break us, and they were right about that. Too many of us have had to live lives that were not ours, just to survive, locked away in a straight, cisgender world. And more - too many of us are wounded, and too many of us are dead. But I’d like to point out that it is oppressive systems that are brittle, and that it is people in positions of power and privilege who usually feel the most threatened and reactive to movements for justice.
Those of us with these stories, we are not the fragile ones. We are not the ones who need a gay panic or trans panic defense. We are not the ones who think that our families will disintegrate if we accept people’s gender and sexuality as they are, rather than as we say they should be. And we are not the ones who justify cruelty and violence out of a fear of divine judgment. I offer my reflections as an imperfect tribute to all my comrades, to all my friends at the margins, who live as exiles amid these fragile, brittle egos. I offer my love to all of us fabulous and resilient and wounded people who, together, are creating a new and beautiful world.