Talking about talking about sexism

Posted: August 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

After reading some of the discussions around the Butch Voices controversy over the last several days, I have been thinking about the broader issues that are being raised, issues that are part of this current situation but really have more far-reaching origins and implications. As others have noted, they are difficult conversations to have but I think we have seen that not having them isn’t really serving us well either.

One of the issues is that of how we even talk about sexism and misogyny in our communities. I have seen these discussions stall and flame out for years, often getting stuck on the same roadblocks again and again. I’m trying to come up with a good list of basic ground rules, some points everyone can agree on up-front so we can move the dialog forward when concerns are raised.

  1. We are all stakeholders in these discussions. If we are genuinely trying to create non-sexist communities and organizations then we must all be full participants in these conversations. While autonomous organizing among groups will always have its place, it is not valid to suggest that femmes should have limited participation in the larger discussion of sexism/misogyny in butch or trans communities.  And seriously, a femme who dates butches/transbutches/transmen is going to wind up on the business end of an awful lot of the misogyny manifested by them. So yeah, she has a stake* or two in this.
  2. Sexism/misogyny exists in our communities. None of us chose it; we were raised in a culture suffused with it. It’s not our fault that it exists but it is our fault if we choose to ignore it. It exists in every community** though it will not always manifest the same. This means, for example, if we are talking about the ways sexism/misogyny is perpetuated by butches, we are not saying it does not exist among femmes, nor do we need to take time out of that discussion to list the ways it is perpetuated by femmes. That is a different discussion.
  3. It still counts even if you are not aware you are doing it. That’s part of how –isms work; they become so deeply woven into what we consider normal that we don’t notice them if we don’t have to (i.e. if you’re in the group who is being bludgeoned by a particular –ism, you tend to notice it more).
  4. No individual gender presentation or identity is inherently sexist or misogynistic. Choosing to identify as male or to fully transition is not an abandonment or betrayal of feminist values.
  5. Someone calling you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language cannot be dismissed as an attack against your gender expression or identity as long as that person is abiding by rule #4.
  6. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, they are not saying that you are a bad person. This means, among other things, a general defense of the caliber of your personhood or purity of your intentions is both unneeded and inappropriate. Focus on the behavior or language that is being called into question.
  7. When someone calls you on sexist or misogynistic behavior or language, recounting your history of grievances against feminists or lesbians or whoever is not a valid response. Yes maybe some feminists have truly done you wrong in the past, that doesn’t exempt you from having to deal with your sexist/misogynistic shit.  And the way this scenario typically (not always) plays out is itself covered in a sticky sexist coating; it’s meta-sexism.  Feel free to hum along if you know this one, it goes something like this: Femme raises concerns about something being sexist or misogynistic. Butch or transman details one or more injustices committed against them that have nothing to do with the femme they are speaking to and have nothing to do with the action that they are being challenged on, but do have something to do with someone who identified as a feminist. Discussion screeches to a halt so butch or transman can be reassured and validated.  Femme’s initial concerns are set aside, minimized, or abandoned completely.
  8. If you are inclined to say something like “Misogyny means hating women and I love women, so what’s the problem” then you are a fucking tool who is being willfully obtuse and trying to derail discussion rather than engage in it. Go away and don’t come back until you’ve read beyond the first line of the Wikipedia entry and are ready to take this seriously.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything that should be a ground rule.

Be sure to tune in next time for: Butch Enough’s first post about sex. If I don’t chicken out. I kinda feel like there’s no point in me writing a post about sex if I’m not willing to make myself a little uncomfortable with it, so I’m still talking myself into it. But next week seems like a good time to try because I am leaving on vacation at the end of the week. And either I will a) get eaten by a bear*** (grizzly, not gay!) and not have to face having basically stood naked in front of the class or b) not get eaten by a bear (grizzly or gay!) and be so relieved about that I won’t care so much about having stood naked in front of the class.****

* I have recently met a femme who is very into Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Very. Into. Now, I love me some Buffy but I do not think I will ever know as much about anything as this femme knows about Buffy. And it’s not the first time I’ve come across a femme who is waaay into Buffy, so I couldn’t write the paragraph about stakes and stake-holders without imagining a whole crew of femme vampire slayers armed with pointy sticks, taking out monsters. Which is bad, because this post is about a Very Serious And Important Topic and I shouldn’t get distracted like that, but there you go.

** Back in the 90s I worked for a lesbian organization in the Northwest. We were pretty much all good, dedicated lesbian feminists and yet were still hamstrung at times by internalized sexism. It manifested in an organizational culture of privation (“Someone brought us a beat-up, flea-infested sofa for our drop-in center? We’ll take it!”) which we did have some success in countering, and in a maddening resistance to making decisions and exercising leadership in the community, which we never really overcame. And we didn’t even talk about it. I brought it up sometimes, but it was kind of our dirty little secret.

*** Some of you have read this from me elsewhere, but I have a paranoia about bear attacks that is greatly disproportionate to the actual risk. And I am vacationing somewhere that features a nontrivial risk of bear attack. Relaxing!

**** The “naked” thing is a metaphor. I am not going to be posting naked or semi-naked pictures of myself here. Ever. Almost certainly.

  1. staci says:

    Excellent ground rules. I think I would add that the person doing the calling out should attempt to do so in a calm manner. Obviously, emotions often run high but as you said, it isn’t an attack so in order for the call out to be most effective, it’s best not to frame it that way (ie. no ALL CAPS CURSING !!!!!! RAGE). I read a piece once (on Tumblr I think) describing calling out as an act of love and community-building. I agree with that wholeheartedly. Even though the sentiment you are reacting to may be despicable and you may not like the speaker at all, in the end, calling that person out is an act of love, maybe not for the person but for the community.

    Also, I adore the image of a crew of femme vampire slayers. I belong to that crew.

  2. Butch Enough says:

    Yeah, you’re right. That should go on the list. I guess it didn’t occur to me because the times I have seen people calling someone out they were doing it pretty respectfully. But it should definitely be an Official Ground Rule.

    And there’s always room for another femme vampire slayer.

  3. LisaPie says:

    I love #3. No matter the -ism that rule fits and most people don’t get it explained to them as well as you said it.

  4. Nimiiwin says:

    Here’s my thought about this: there are times when the “accusation” of sexism/racism/etc is used as a conversation STOPPER not STARTER. Sometimes, in fact I’d say EVERY time, telling someone they have said or done something sexism/racism/etc should be followed by conversation. The goal should be to eliminate those thought processes and given human nature, it takes more than an announcement. Here’s an example. I am Native American/white, my girlfriend at the time, black. (She hates being called African American so I don’t use that in reference to her.) I called her dogs and my dogs “wild jungle dogs”. Now, to me, that’s funny because of various family history things and it’s sweet and endearing. I never even thought about the reference to “jungle” being racist. She got upset and we had words and I told her to stop being ridiculous, I wasn’t calling her CHILD “wild jungle kid” and dogs don’t HAVE a race, so settle the fuck down and Jesus, Mary and Joseph, she knows better than that about me. Nothing was settled and we were both just mad. I felt accused of something I hadn’t done and she felt hurt that I thought of black people as “jungle.” A while later, we talked about it again and we were able to come to an understanding. I don’t think of “jungle” as exclusively an African thing, for one thing. I don’t think of it in terms of race at all. I had to recognize though, that this was a hurtful thing for her and THAT I never want to do. So I didn’t call the dogs “wild jungle dogs.” As much as possible, I think it helps to talk about these issues in terms of cause and effect and not as judge and jury.

    • Butch Enough says:

      Yeah, I think it’s true that sometimes calling something sexist/racist/homophobic whatever can be used to silence and we are all served better when discussion follows. I would add the caveat though that it is not always necessary or appropriate for the person raising the concern to be the one the “offender” has the conversation with. In the case of partners, then yeah that makes sense. But if the parties are not well acquainted then it may be sufficient for the person raising the concern to simply identify the problematic language or behavior and then it is the responsibiliy of the person who committed the behavior to find someone they can talk things out with.

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