Saturday, May 17, 2008

First Things First

This past Tuesday I had the privilege to participate in and present at a small conference/training day for adults who work with GLBTQ youth. The workshop I facilitated focused on supporting transgender and "gender variant" youth (their language, not mine). It was the only session focused specifically on trans issues; all the other workshops lumped the T in with GLB and Q.

Toward the end of the day I was chatting with the keynote speaker, a successful academic who does community-based research on GLBTQ youth and their families. I asked her a couple of questions about trans issues in her research. All of her responses could be summed up as "We don't know, because we didn't analyze the data on trans youth, and that's not our focus." I don't blame her, I guess, but on a personal level I felt disappointed.

Then she politely returned my interest in her work, and asked me what it was like to be a consultant on trans issues here in Western MA. I reminded her that it is still legal to discriminate against trans people in MA, and explained how that makes it difficult to tell organizations that they must/should be welcoming of transgender people. I said I enjoy my work as a consultant, but that part of the reason I'm self-employed at all is that most workplaces are hostile or at best clueless about trans issues, and therefore I have found I'm nearly unemployable except in trans-specific jobs.

She responded, "Oh, well you're such a great activist, you can fix that!"


It struck me that the speaker was not particularly comfortable with my being there as a trans activist. She does a lot of good work on behalf of GLBTQ youth, trying to improve their situations so that they can make free and healthy choices. And yet when a young(ish) trans person says, "I'm here in this room, doing this work with you, in part because I have gotten totally screwed over as a young trans person and this was one of very few paths open to me," she tries to change the subject.

"Be an activist," she says, "and it will be all better." And through her words I also hear, "Don't talk to me about how bad it is. It's not my department."

I mean, thanks for the vote of confidence. Truly, I'm glad you think I can change the world. But the compliment was almost totally overshadowed by the way it functioned to avoid acknowledging the emotional context of the problem. It's like saying, "It's no big deal that your community is totally downtrodden and disenfranchised. Just work real hard on your activism, and one day (maybe) you can be part of the regular job market."

On top of being tactless, the comment was also nonsensical. It doesn't usually work that way. People who are downtrodden and disenfranchised, who are living in poverty and being treated badly, don't have time or energy to show up on picket lines, to write letters to their congress people, or to be there for each other in a healthy, functioning community. They may not even be able to be there for themselves.

Instead of "Be an activist, so you can be employed," I'd like to be telling trans people, "We'll help you get employed, and then when you have some stability in your life, you can make your own decisions about being an activist."

In my personal philosophy, I tend toward the assumption that anyone who's not being an activist is not pulling their weight. I think it's my responsibility to be an activist because I'm a human who's conscious of my surroundings. However, it is not my responsibility as a trans person to do activism on trans issues because trans people are oppressed. Trans people have no particular moral responsibility to be activists, any more than people in general do. And like people in general, trans people should be able to come to activism of their own free will, because they see a need for change, and not because their immediate survival depends on it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

queering yr anti-zionism

The issue of Zionism, non-Zionism, anti-Zionism, etc. is one of the few areas of my own politics about which I rarely have fun, make art, get lewd, or feel able to take a joke. My thanks to this guy, whoever he is, for helping make resistance to Zionist expansionism sexy. Wish I'd seen the ad when it was still current!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

More on Protest at Smith

A Smith student who attended the protest wrote this excellent piece, commenting on the distinction between interfering with free speech and interfering with academic decorum ... or as I put it to some Smithies I chatted with after the protest, between breaking the law and being impolite. Enjoy.

(Hope the links works. It's to a facebook note, and facebook's weird.)

Right, so the facebook link doesn't work cause you need to have a facebook acct and be my friend BUT here's a link that does!! ~anonymous

Friday, May 02, 2008

Damn Lesbians!

For all those queer women, etc. who don't happen to like the word Lesbian, you have allies in Greece. From MSNBC:

Greek islanders seek to reclaim term ‘Lesbian

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Protesting Homophobic Speaker: What I saw & Lessons learned

Last Tuesday I was privileged to witness and participate in actions organized by Smith College students in protest of lecturer Bryan Sorba coming to campus. Sorba was invited by the college's Republican Club (or, he invited himself and asked the Republican Club to reserve him a room - opinions vary). His thesis is that people are not born gay, but that rather it's a lifestyle choice, and that it's a choice against (his) God, and that therefore gay people don't deserve civil rights.

There's been a lot of conflict amongst Smith students (and alums) about whether and how students should have protested the event. A small part of this conflict centers around whether Sorba's really all that bad, and most of it centers around what forms of protest/disagreement would have been appropriate.

As to the question of whether he's really that bad: he is. If you need to discover it for yourself, you can see some of his writings here - though I'm loathe to give his site more traffic. Among his published opinions are that Islam is inherently violent and anti-intellectual; that everything good in Western (sic) society, including science, is a result of Christian values; and that wealth inequality is a good sign (!), because it means that some people aren't living in squalor like presumably everyone was
before Protestant capitalism. And that's not to mention the homophobic stuff.

Several alums, writing to the LGBTQ Smith Alumae listserve, argued that as long as Sorba's work is academically sound, then it should be allowed as a part of a vibrant academic environment. The thing is, his work is not academically sound. It is full of bad writing, internal contradictions, and sometimes statements that are demonstrably untrue. More on that below.

Since pretty much anyone who reads my blog probably agrees about Sorba and his views, I'll stop wasting pixels with that and move on to the interesting part: What should we have done? I said above that Smith students organized a protest, but actually, "organize" might be too strong a word. The events surrounding the lecture came together at the last minute with no central organizing body and no formal leadership. This has its pros and cons.

Here's what I saw happen:

Students decided to protest the event in a variety of ways. Some staged alternative events at the same time, such as a "love in" where students went to cuddle, smooch, study for finals, and be affirming of their various sexual orientations. Others decided to be visible at the event itself. Plans for protests at the lecture included simply being visibly queer (by wearing rainbows, fairy wings, etc.), turning chairs around and causing Sorba to lecture to the audiences backs, and holding signs. A few people brought pots and pans to bang on, but this was not part of any organized plan that I know of.

The part of the organizing that most deserved that name involved what students planned to say to Sorba. Many, perhaps most, of the students who gathered to protest had the intention of witnessing Sorba's entire talk and then asking pointed questions intended to highlight the inconsistencies and ridiculousness of Sorba's argument. In other words, they were going to engage with Sorba in the way that's customary at academic lectures. Students researched Sorba ahead of time so they'd know what issues were likely to come up. (Perhaps more preparation than they do for their classes, or at least more preparation that
I ever did for an undergraduate lecture!) One student with a background in bible studies volunteered to be the designated repudiator of faulty biblical references. It was, I thought, and admirable example of students pooling their intellectual acumen to prepare for the kind of fight they're good at - the rational, abstract, academic kind.

For the first 15 minutes or so of Sorba's lecture, many of the students in the room did just that. At one point, rumor has it, Sorba quoted Magnus Hirschfeld in support of Sorba's claim that people are not born gay. A student blurted out - interrupting, but who can blame her? - "But, Hirschfeld was gay!" Sorba said, "No, he wasn't." The student replied, "Yeah, in fact his Institut was burned down by the Nazis." Sorba said, "That's not true," which of course, it is. That exchange seems to me like exactly the kind of victory Smith students would want. If it sounds dry, chalk it up to my inadequate description. The pleasure that students at an elite school get from showing-up someone in their chosen field of study is at least as pleasurable, albeit in a different way, as a good picket or chant.

It's my opinion that the rest of the lecture would have gone in pretty much the same vein, if all the protesters had been allowed into the room. After all, that was the only solid plan that had been made. I suspect that at some point, Sorba would have said something even more reprehensible, for example something that seemed to advocate violence, and at that point the banging on pots would have commenced, and Sorba would have been drummed out in a way that even the stuffy foremothers of Smith College past would have been proud of.

However. What happened instead was that the lecture was held in Neilson Browsing Room, a medium-sized parlor (I can think of no other word) in the front corner of Neilson library. Public Safety officers determined the room to be "at capacity" about 20 minutes before the lecture was to begin, and stopped letting people in.
Some self-designated leaders of the protest approached the folks in charge of the lecture, including college staff who were present, to ask if the event might be moved to a larger venue. They were told that it couldn't.

The room was packed with protesters of the sit-backwards and ask-pointed-questions crews. The hallway was likewise full, making it difficult for students to get in and out of the Browsing Room or the Library itself, which distressed the librarians. The steps of the building were writhing with milling protesters, and the embrasures of the windows were packed with students literally climbing on each other (and happily consenting to be climbed on) in attempts to see and hear what was going on inside. There was also a quiet stake-out in the reference section adjacent to the room's rarely-used back door.

In other words, the room was surrounded on four sides by people who came expecting a protest. All the plans had assumed that everybody would be in the room where the lecture was happening. As it happened, barely half of us fit inside. The folks on the outside (I was one of them) were at loose ends, itching for a protest, but with no plan, and no leader to look to for a new plan. At first we piled into windows trying to hear what Sorba was saying. Some people shouted, "Turn up the mic!" but it was all the way up already.

What can I say? We were bored. It was chilly. Someone started up a chant. That was a good idea, because it kept us warm, but it didn't have much to do with the original plan. Some people ran an errand to one of the Co-op houses to get more pots to bang on. Eventually, someone got the windows open. Students started climbing through the windows. Public Safety officers tried to prevent this, but there were more windows than public safety officers. I heard (but could not see because as a sometime contractor for the college, I opted not to climb through the windows) that some folks ended up marching in tight circles around the podium itself, chanting and holding signs.

After about 20 minutes, Sorba said he was going to take a break, and would come back "after the anarchists leave." Public Safety officers escorted Sorba out the back door into the library. Students hiding in the stacks overheard the officers telling Sorba that he should leave, because the event was a disruption to the library. Sorba never got back to the podium.

When it became clear that Sorba was not coming back, a student from the Republican Club, which had hosted the event, stood up and declared tearfully, "I have an announcement. You won, but what did you really win?" The other students burst into cheers and pot-banging. Gradually they dispersed to cuddle, study, smoke cigarettes (sad but true) and eat ice cream. Some people called it a victory. Other people called it an embarrassment.

So, lessons learned:
  1. Have a plan. Have a backup plan. Have designated leaders to make on-the-spot calls.
  2. Know the rules. In the middle of the protest, someone turned to me and said, "What leeway does public safety have here? Can we get arrested for forcing our way into the room?" and nobody knew the answer.
  3. Have a goal to refer back to when making last-minute decisions and/or declaring victory. Was the goal to embarrass him? To make him leave? To be a visible presence? To affirm our sense of our own goodness as queers? Or what?
  4. Have a position statement that clearly lays out all the issues, sets the terms of the debate, and does not rely on the opponent's own publicity to dig its own grave. I can't believe how much breath was wasted saying, "Well, is saying that people aren't 'born gay' necessarily homophobic?" That was the rhetoric that got around most quickly, because that was the title line of Sorba's own materials. It's not nearly the most offensive thing he says. Protests need to have a clear target, and Sorba makes a good one, but only if we highlight what we believe to be offensive about his message, not just repeat the language he's using.
  5. Be organized. By which I mean, have an organization! Of the three GLBT-based student organizations that have been active at Smith, one is small and floundering, one is trying to restart, and one is totally defunct. This event highlighted the need for ongoing organizing on GLBT issues, so that the community wouldn't be caught off-guard when something like this comes up, and so that a leadership structure would be already in place.
  6. Form, maintain, and draw on strong coalitions. There are student groups at Smith that have expertise in organizing protests. They weren't involved in this event at all. Later, students pointed out that a) this isn't the primary issue those groups work on, b) there aren't many students with that expertise, and they're tired, and c) the huge number of queers who showed up to protest Sorba rarely show up to anti-war protests, or indeed to anything that's not queer-specific. Coalitions go both ways. We need to show up as queers at events that are not only for us. And more people should have those skills so that we're not relying on a few over-extended perennial organizers.
Finally, even though I learned good lessons about how not to run a protest, I'm not disappointed about how it went down. It wasn't the best way we could have won, but it sure wasn't bad, especially for something that came together on barely a week's notice while most people were busy studying for their finals.

As one alum pointed out to me: We literally drummed him off the stage! How often do activists get to celebrate a victory as dramatic as that? Let's learn from our mistakes, yes; but let's also not forget to enjoy our successes.