November 1, 2011
By, in effect, pretending that violence is restricted to matters like rape and emotional abuse between partners of a sexual sort, or sexualised relations, as between organisers and those who work under them – the word “intimate” here certainly signifies only one kind of intimacy – [we leave] untouched and untheorised the great violence of power and silence that comes about in activist communities.
In other words, [we continue to pretend] that the only people who can fuck you up are the people you fuck.
Part I: I Never Promised You a Rose Mountain
It is 2007 and I am at the Rosemont conference center in Rosemont, a suburb of Chicago. I wonder why the place looks like the middle of nowhere, until I remember that everywhere in suburbia looks like the middle of nowhere.
It's a pretty name, Rosemont, I mused on the train ride, envisioning a mountain of roses, my favourite flowers. But when I arrive, there is nary a hill, only the flatness of the Midwest and not even a tiny, brittle mound of rosebuds in a tiny, dingy vase. The conference center is exactly that, mercilessly efficient with people in uniforms busily scurrying around and trying to stay invisible as they constantly arrange and rearrange tables and chairs in the meeting rooms.
My friend V. and I are here at a bigbigbigbig radical people of colour/gender/queer conference. It's flush with people who have either built their lives in the alternative non-profit industrial complex or are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about having just begun their careers. She's here representing her workplace, while I'm here mostly to browse and observe. On the morning of the first day, I wake up and make my way downstairs to the breakfast tables where there are stacks of indifferent bagels, overly acidic orange juice, fruit, and cream cheese: standard conference fare. I try to be good and get some fruit but I'm more interested in the cream cheese, which I slather onto a bagel in an attempt to disguise its cracker-like consistency. I take all this and a bottle of juice into the plenary session room and wait while people file in.
I had come here earlier the previous evening as an invited participant in some sort of survey/discussion about race, a traveling show of sorts put together by a bigbigbigbig funding agency, the sort whose very name invokes hushed tones and much genuflection in the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC) where money is always tight and funders are revered like major gods. I think the broader idea, for the agency, was to go around the country and solicit suggestions on how to end racism, the sort of lofty goal the non-profit world is always signing up for. At any rate, the discussion prompts were ridiculously stilted, and based on the assumption that solving the problem of racism will solve the problems of the world. It's the same old essentialism that's so prevalent in the non-profit world, where capitalism is assumed to somehow exist outside of communities of people of colour, and where rapacious boards can be fixed simply by making them ethnically and racially “diverse.”
It was a frustrating evening, with several of us trying to complicate the conversation while the lead researcher wrote our points down on the mandatory flip boards positioned around the room. It became clear to me that he had no real interest in a sustained conversation with any of us, that we had been brought into this room in order to fulfill a mandate that the survey be taken to groups of activists in various cities and that, in effect, the answers were already written down somewhere. I was reminded of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, where the answer is 42 but no one knows what the question is. In this session, we were, in effect, told that the answer is racism, but the question – what was it, exactly, that we were expected to combat or solve? – remained a mystery.
In a few months, a final report, on very good paper, will be mailed to me, with a note of thanks for my participation. The survey's results will state, in a thicket of non-profit-speak, that racism is bad and must be eradicated.
All of this is to say: I attended a “discussion” where the insights had already been determined in advance in keeping with the mandates of an NPIC where there is little space for original thought, and for which I had made my way to a pathetically rose-less Rosemont out in the middle of nowhere.
I am not happy.
The air is thick with the vocabulary of the NPIC; words like “solidarity,” “intentional,” “affirming,” ring around me, and the unctuousness of the cream cheese offers little comfort. I place my half-eaten breakfast under my chair.
A main reason why I even stay for the conference is that it allows me to meet up with V., one of my beloved and long-time friends whom I get to see whenever she swings by Chicago, usually while traveling for work. Seeing her is always a rare pleasure, and I'm happy to have her sanity around me. Besides, she knows me well, really, really well, and today she frequently grins her support for me as we both circle around and do our thing, hobnobbing and chatting with people. She can tell by the look on my face that I am dissatisfied and not happy, but we both find ways to laugh about it. She points me to some of the people in the room, naming names and organisations. Sitting in the aisle across from me, is an Asian-American woman, someone considered a bigbigbigbig name, one of the first to take on the issue of AIDS long before it became a fashionable one. I am actually impressed.
The plenary panel, on the other hand, leaves me much less so. Suffice it to say that this is an orgy of identity politics, the sort I had hoped we had left behind in the 20th century. But here, identity now combines with consciousness-raising as each panelist affirms that she – they are all, as I remember, identified as female – does not simply think about her “intentional” politics but that she lives her oppression. She is Native American and thinking about indigenous communities, she is a rape victim and thinking about sexual violence, and so on.
As the panel drags on, it becomes clear that, really, experience is everything. And so it is that, at the end, the last speaker ends on a dramatic note. She begins by asking people to stand up as she calls out their experiences: “Who here has suffered sexual assault?” People stand up. “Who here has suffered sexism?” People stand up. “Who here has suffered racism?” People stand up. The room is finally filled with people standing up. The speaker continues with a few other forms of oppression and declares that our facing of them will change the world. I sit all the while, with my arms folded across my chest and with what I know is a look of irritation on my face. I can feel a slight flutter of discomfort around me as it slowly becomes obvious that I am the only one not standing. The bigbigbigbig AIDS activist finally turns and glares at me with a look that signals that I should be standing up. “Surely,” her face says, “You have been oppressed on one of these counts!”
It's true: as a brown, queer woman, I am both the perfect subject and object of the neoliberal game of oppression being played out here. Yet, I find the whole thing utterly problematic in its location of critique so firmly on the bodies of those who would change the system. Or, rather, it might be accurate to state that what is being called for in this room is not a systemic change but an invocation of lived experience that somehow grants particular bodies the magical ability to change things by dint of who they are, rather than what they do or think. It's one thing to acknowledge that lived experience can allow one to gain particular insight. But it's quite another to so fervently and obviously insist that one must wear one's oppression on one's sleeve, or that this sort of public declaration is somehow either desirable or a motor of change. Furthermore, I can't help but wonder how or why it's okay to think that everyone's public declaration of oppression – rape, for instance – is necessarily entirely voluntary in an atmosphere so charged with the onus of self-revelation. Witness, for instance, the Asian-American activist's implicit demand – a silent if ineffective attempt at coercion – that I should, in essence, reveal some form of abuse or oppression.
I glare back at her and remain seated. I glance over at V., who is looking at me and biting her lip, trying not to laugh. I smile at her, mouth the words, “What the fuck?” and roll my eyes – something I will do a lot over the rest of the conference.
Part II: It's Just You and Me, Baby
That conference solidified my sense that I don't entirely belong in the world of activists and organisers, even as I have, over the past decade or so, increased my profile as both. I found the conference grating in its hypocrisy. Over the course of its remainder, I was struck by how often organisers and attendees alike expected us to keep revealing parts of our personal life, and how little relation any of this really had to our actual organising. Yet, over and over, it was expected that we would throw our lives out there and reveal our vulnerabilities. To justify all this, the word “love” was thrown around a lot: we were not only expected to love our work – and what that meant for those whose work was unpaid or underpaid was quite unclear – but to love each other, to believe that we were all in the struggle together.
Radical organising frequently draws upon a notion of “community,” the idea that “we” are all in this together and that we are all fellow travelers. Much of this is in fact true – after all, it makes sense that those of us committed to a world without prisons or oppression or hierarchies or sexism or racism or who seek anti-capitalist frameworks are also in fact working in communitarian ways that are antithetical to the pursuit of corporate happiness, driven by entities which deploy the above to keep us in check (keeping in mind here the U.S. Supreme Court decision that corporations are people and, presumably, as given to emotions as the rest of us). But radical organising increasingly falls under the purview of the NPIC, which often not only emulates the worst of the corporate world but surpasses it precisely because it can draw upon the collective goodwill and desire for change on the part of its soldiers who are willing to work for less and under strenuous work conditions.
In critiquing the NPIC, we tend to forget that it exists alongside a world of volunteer-run and -driven organising, without which the NPIC would not survive: a cadre of people and organisations who can be called upon at will to donate time, labour and, on occasion, money. It's easy and even fashionable these days to be critical of the NPIC, but as someone who has worked for years in that “sector,” I know only too well how easy it is to forget that even unfunded grassroots organising is prone to the brutality, oppression, and exploitation of the NPIC.
What forms might all this take? Exploitation of labour is one. Most non-profits, including the ones supposedly devoted to social change, employ hierarchical models, and this is frequently reflected in the immense disparities between the salaries of executive directors and those hired to take care of the actual work and day-to-day operations. The website Guidestar.com, which discloses industry details like salaries is immensely revealing. In the world of unpaid organising, cultural and political capital are the currencies in trade, and it's not uncommon for a few with the resources and ability to become public spokespersons in “movement-building” while others toil unacknowledged behind the scenes.
There are arguments to be made that the leadership of organisations should be well-compensated and that, after all, their salaries are nothing like those paid to the heads of for-profit corporations. That is, of course, true – but the point is not the amount of money being paid as much as it is the disparity between incomes at certain organisations and the unfairness of salary scales. We could also argue that, in unpaid organising, it's the cause that matters, not the question of who gets credit for the work done. While that's true to an extent and while it's often true that leadership is in fact key to good organising (and as someone who has frequently had to work with utterly disorganised people who are too happy to sit around and shoot the breeze without tending to the business at hand, I know of what I speak!), we tend to forget that it does a great disservice to the work itself if we think of it as the outcome of a sole genius or the work of one person. In other words, if we are to organise for a radical new world, it is also necessary to acknowledge that change comes about collectively, not individually. That's even putting aside the danger of weighting so much of the work upon the talent of one person – take away the person, and the organisation flounders.
The recently published book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, adds a further complication to all this by bringing up a topic that many of us in the world of radical organising have known about but not quite known how to confront. It addresses two issues: the first is the prevalence of intimate partner violence within activist communities; the second is how to set up systems of resolution that do not invoke the traditional mechanisms of the prison industrial complex.
As the book argues, and as many of us know too well, the issue of partner violence amongst radical organisers who are otherwise committed to a less cruel and more just world is fraught with complications. How is it possible, we often find ourselves asking, that an organising world so devoted to the ending of violence also includes, too often, people who exploit and harm their partners while simultaneously calling for an end to war and brutality? How do we confront and lessen the harm done by these individuals without calling upon the prison industrial complex and furthering that system of state violence which we are so committed to dismantling? We need to think of how our communities often assert power relations in such a way that gendered and sexualised violence gets erased under the belief that we, who spend our days thinking through complexities – for instance, “intimate partner violence” is intended to substitute for the older and more heteronormative term “domestic violence” – in fact might have created ways in which such violence is shielded.
These are necessary questions and issues to take up, and this book is a laudable attempt to tackle the subject. Yet, it eventually reinforces the very edifices of power that it claims to want to dismantle by locating itself so firmly within the realm of partnerships and domesticity.
By locating violence and intimacy within personal or sexualised relationships, The Revolution Starts at Home allows us to keep unthought and untheorised the surrounding world of the NPIC and grassroots organising within which such intimacy is set.
By, in effect, pretending that violence is restricted to matters like rape and emotional abuse between partners of a sexual sort, or sexualised relations, as between organisers and those who work under them – the word “intimate” here certainly signifies only one kind of intimacy – the book leaves untouched and untheorised the great violence of power and silence that comes about in activist communities.
In other words, the book helps us to continue pretending that the only people who can fuck you up are the people you fuck.
Part III: “She is damaged goods”
I know too well the violence that comes about between and amongst those who are not tied within the sort of intimate relationships considered in The Revolution Starts at Home.
In 2005, the gay press reported that two men were hanged for consensual sexual relations on July 19 in the town of Mashad, Iran. The story that they had been punished for being lovers was especially propagated by writer Doug Ireland on his blog.
But such notions were quickly debunked by activists like Scott Long, then of Human Rights Watch (HRW), and critically analyzed by writers and journalists like Bill Andriette and Richard Kim. Nonetheless, in 2006, an assortment of groups backed by leaders of the “global gay community” like Peter Tatchell, who seems to see himself as the Saviour of All Brown and Black Queers, declared that July 19 would be “The International Day of Action against Homophobic Persecution in Iran.”
Commemorations were to include worldwide protests, and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) was among the sponsors. Significantly, Al Fateha, then the biggest queer Muslim organization in the U.S., did not endorse the protest. But there was widespread dissent among queers about the politics of the event, and IGLHRC eventually withdrew its support. Instead, with HRW, it organized a community forum that conflicted with a protest outside the Iranian embassy in New York, organised by Ireland et al.
The flurry of acronyms hides the fact that the criticism came from individuals like me as well as organizations. In the days that followed, radical queers expressed and mobilized dissent against this event and so-called Leftist gay leaders were willing to use the strategies of the Right that they claimed to abhor. The story revealed that the trouble with the putative fight against homophobic oppression is that it draws upon conflicting impulses of solidarity and imperialism. In the rush towards establishing a transcendent global gay identity, there may not be much difference between the two.
I initiated a critique, along with others, of the protest on the queerfist listserv (www.queerfist.org) that was taken up by others, and suggested that dissenters contact sponsoring organizations to withdraw their support. We were wary of perpetuating a U.S.-led hostility toward a country that Bush once declared part of an “axis of evil.” The idea that the two men were gay lovers, not rapists or murderers, seemed the only basis of mobilizing the gay community’s outrage against the hangings.
But, I asked, why base a critique of the wanton use of the death penalty solely on the notion of innocence and the claim that the two were lovers? If they had been rapists and murderers, would that make the punishment more acceptable? In that case, this Day of Action was extremely limited in its understanding of social justice.
Critics also took issue with Doug Ireland’s claim that gay Muslims seek a “self-affirming gay identity.” They countered that not all gays subscribed to mainstream American notions of an exact match between sexual identity and practice. From Beirut, Daniel Drennan wrote a nuanced and incisive critique of Ireland’s positions. He was especially critical of the posture of rescue that the “West” tends to adopt in relation to the “East” and wrote, “Please give it a rest. We are very tired of the ongoing ‘interventions’ on our behalf.”
Ireland’s responses to criticism became increasingly more febrile, and he suggested that I was among the “sectarian apologists for the Islamic Republic of Iran.” I am not, and was shocked that someone who claimed leftist politics would use McCarthyesque tactics to smear his opponents.
Finally, Ireland lost credibility with a single e-mail. He forwarded, without comment, a message from Jeff Edwards, also known as Jeffrey Edwards, a former member of the now-defunct Queer to the Left; we had both been members until I left the group sometime in 2005. The message was a series of ad hominems and included a claim about my sex life. I have written about this earlier, here and here, but this is the first time I have ever reproduced the email in its entirety (I've inserted paragraph breaks to break up the screed):
Someone just sent me your great response to Yasmin Nair's latest campaign against LGBT organizing. You have my sympathies. She single-handedly ruined the Chicago activist group Queer to the Left--all she ever wanted to do was attack other gay groups, and never contributed positively to anything we ever did. Eventually she deemed our work insufficiently radical because we wouldn't attack other gay groups for their lack of radicalism on the death penalty, and because we wouldn't attack groups that support hate crimes legislation (another of her hobbyhorses.)
Eventually those of us in coupled relationships were singled out as oppressors of single people and not sufficiently radical in our lifestyles. This she did as a woman who has only had sex with men--she has never had to face what it means to be a homo. But she has no problem calling herself "queer" and then policing who else gets to use the term. For what it is worth, anyone who knows her isn't reading her rubbish.
Unfortunately, her reality is largely located on the web (since people who make face-to-face contact quickly learn that she is damaged goods, and has nothing but a string of torched personal and organizational relationships behind her), so she'll relish any on-line engagement. It's the only attention she gets.
Jeff Edwards 1
Consider, if you will, the several ironies.
Doug Ireland, who continues to set himself up as the white man who will help brown queers from violence, had and, I'm presuming, has no problem trying to silence a woman – a brown woman, who actually studied sexuality and who actually could, on the basis of both academic and lived experience, speak with more authority than him about the complicated nexus between sexuality and outness – with the exact same mechanism that has historically been used to silence queer people: the threat that speaking out will result in revelations about our sex lives. In numerous cases in the not-so-distant past, and even now and even in the U.S., queers are kept silent with a threat of exposure: Shut up or I will tell everyone about your sex life. In this case, Ireland's intention was clear: I have nothing to counter this woman's politics, and I will therefore now ask you to judge her on matters like her sex life.
This is a scenario that unfolds every day, including in the supposedly entitled Western world, as women know only too well. The language may be different but the import is the same: Hey, buddy, you wanna know what she's really like? Let me tell you about the time I saw her in the backroom with this guy. You got a problem with what I have to say, bitch? Shut your mouth, or I'll tell everyone what a whore you are.
Even more ironically, Ireland, over the course of the conversation, would refer to his admiration for the “brave” women of Aswat, the Palestinian support group for LBTQ women. In fact, those admittedly brave women have exactly this kind of sexual politics to fear as they negotiate the thorny and difficult worlds where their members are made to face the potential of exactly the kind of attack that Ireland launched on me.2
Consider, then, also this great irony: that this vitriol about sexual identity, the death penalty, and hate crimes legislation was put forward by Jeffrey Edwards, who had been a member of a group named Queer to the Left.
In the years following, I would write responses to this incident, shrugging off the toxicity with humour. In a 2006 article for Windy City Times titled, “The Gay Movement is Over,” I referenced Edwards' comment that I would never understand what it meant to be a homo, writing, “Yes, perhaps. After all, this whole out-queer-woman-of-color-with-a-noticeably-Muslim-name-in-a-post-9/11-world thing will only take a lifetime to negotiate. The next time I’m pulled aside for a ‘random search,’ I’ll remember my relatively privileged position vis-à-vis white gay men like Ireland, click my heels Dorothy-style and chant ‘I’m no homo’ three times in the hopes of being whisked away to Kansas. Where I will be stared at and denied service because of the color of my skin. Which will never compare to being a homo.” I also wrote that, “Posting an e-mail about my sex life was a weak attempt to discredit and, presumably, shame me. It made him no different from right-wing ideologues who ferret out salacious details about opponents in order to shut them up. Ann Coulter, meet Doug Ireland.”
A few weeks ago, I forwarded the email to T., who was horrified enough to refer to it as a “sexist smear,” and asked, incredulously, “Who actually uses the term ‘damaged goods’?” Others, upon reading the email, have responded similarly with shock and disgust.
Yet, ironically, at the time, even those who claimed to work on queer radical politics and gender and sexuality would try to hedge their bets and support Doug Ireland and Jeffrey Edwards.
Part IV: Aftermath
It's 2006, I'm at a holiday party, and I run into the bigbigbigbig researcher on gender and sexuality in an Islamic culture, Janet Afary.* She has her back to me, and I walk up and gently tap her on the shoulder. She turns, and instantly turns white.
I had, a few months prior, written to her about my concern about her links to Ireland – he frequently referred to her work, they seemed to be collaborators, and when I heard she was going to speak about activism on Islam and sexuality, and perhaps even with him, I wrote to her saying I felt it incumbent to inform her about Ireland's sexism and forwarded his email ,with a note from me which included these words: “Of interest to you given your work on gender is that the archives below will make clear how even those who claim a left or progressive politics around matters of gender, sexuality, and repression are in fact mired in the worst kinds of sexism and utter disregard for the basic principles of democratic dissent.”
I never received a response from her. I decide, when I see her at this party, that I needed to know, first-hand, what she thought of the politics of the situation. I bring up the issue again, at the party, and ask if she has received the email. At first, she stumbles and insists that she had responded (she never did), and then tries to say something about not wanting to concern herself about “infighting” amongst queers. I keep my voice level and remind her that this was not infighting but a very real public debate that he tried to shut down, and ask what she thought about supporting the politics of a man who was so blatant about using a clearly sexist and misogynist method to shut down a woman – while she wrote about repression and violence in the context of gender and sexuality.
She continues to stumble through and I keep looking at her, and wait for her to finish. I can tell what she would really like to say: Doug Ireland writes for all these publications and he reviews my book favourably everywhere, and you, really, I mean, you're a nobody. Why are you even here? Why do I have to put up with this? Doug Ireland is the bigbigbigbigbig name and he will help make me the bigbigbigbig expert on sexuality and Islam. Nobody will care about what you think or feel. I wish you would just go away.
But I don't and insist on standing there and letting her finish her stuttering and stammering, while her husband stands by and glowers at me. When she's done, I take the conversation to the sort of mundane topics one talks about at such events: the weather, driving and living in the city, the food. Eventually, I turn and mingle with other guests, say hellos, eat a bit and then set off for the night, making a point to go up to her and say goodnight. She turns and mumbles a goodbye, and I can see the relief on her face. I'm tempted to turn around and say, I just lost all respect for you, but I don't.
In the wake of what happened, I learnt a lot about what people will do to preserve or gain their versions of power, and what even self-confessed “sex positive” radical queers really think about sexuality.
A then-close friend, let's call him C., suggested I should stop drawing attention to the email's contents. Baffled, I asked him what he meant by that. Eventually, he confessed that perhaps it's not a good idea because people might doubt my credibility and that he sees a direct connection between queerness and sexual acts. After many more months – we had been good friends, with very similar politics on issues – I finally let him go, unable to justify staying close to someone with such retrograde politics, wondering if I needed to now set up litmus tests for everyone I encountered.
Over the last few years, I've continued to poke fun at the politics of people like Edwards and Ireland. For a while, my profile on The Bilerico Project, where I am a contributor, testified to my love of cock; I was deliberately mocking people's expectations that sexuality fall on a neat continuum. Over the years, this supposedly fatal admission would become the target of people's venom, as bloggers and writers attempted to discredit my politics on the basis of what they inferred as my sexual practice. I eventually took it down, only because I realised it was inciting interest in somewhat creepy people, the sort who see a woman's admission to being a sexual person as an indication that they can and should proceed to treat her as a sex object. I'm fine with being treated as such, but it ought to be in the context of, oh, sex, and I ought to have some say in it. I'm not a celebrity who gets to swan around town in a dark-windowed limousine: I take public transportation and am out and about in the world constantly, and I've realised that I do have to worry about my physical and emotional safety.
About a year ago, a lesbian noted with approval that I had taken out the bit about cock, saying that she thought it had reduced my “credibility.” My credibility to do what, I wondered? Organise around immigration, against a conservative gay agenda,and against war and hate crimes legislation? How was any of that related to what my sex life might or might not look like? I was fascinated – and am still fascinated – by the fact that someone who, I know for a fact, would be revolted by Edwards' email, would also in fact echo what he had, in essence, articulated: that I had no credibility because I “only slept with men.”
While the notion of credibility resting on such thin ice as sexual practice is a ridiculous one, it reminds me of why I was so averse to that plenary session in that conference hall in Rosemont, where we were all supposed to declare ourselves the sum total of our experiences and... nothing more? If I were to go entirely by my identity and what I do... well, let's just say this: I am a brown woman with curly hair, I love animals, and I am slightly obsessed with knitting. And, oh, yes: I love cock. Mustn't forget that.
I could go on, but suffice it to say that the experience, in the end, helped more than harmed me. I never instituted a litmus test – Are you now or have you ever been a misogynist who thinks that my sucking cock harms the revolution? – but I did learn how to discern what people's politics were. Over the course of time – and a surprisingly short time – the world of organising that I occupy has shifted dramatically such that neither an Ireland nor an Edwards would be allowed much sway or standing.
I have, over the past few years, been honoured and proud to be part of an amazing, beautiful, vibrant and rich world of organisers and activists, both paid and unpaid, national, local, and global, who do astonishing political work to make possible the world we imagine and dream about every day. We may disagree, sometimes ferociously, but I have never, to date, experienced anything with the level of toxicity hurled at me by Ireland and Edwards.
While often a beautiful thing in its brief life, Queer to the Left became, eventually, the exact opposite of what it had set out to be. In 2005, the year I finally left the group, the white, gay men who had taken over insisted we should engage upon a pro-marriage demonstration. I voiced my critique of the marriage movement, as did others, but we conceded to group consensus.
My commitment to the group meant that I would do what was required by consensus and, in a moment of supreme irony, I even stepped in to help those involved design their flyer for the event – I refused to actually attend the “action” – when it became obvious that they had no clue about prop-art (you can read about the event here). I thought the action was, frankly, idiotic and did nothing to advance, you know, a queer left agenda.
But although I was willing, in the interest of group dynamics, to help with a politically suspect action, I was damned if I was going to let us go out there with bad propaganda.
As for our work – Edwards', Ireland's, and mine – in organising and writing: our respective records will speak for themselves.
So. Then. Why do I care about something that happened nearly half a dozen years ago? I've written about the Ireland-Edwards fracas before, so why resurrect it now and here? Why should any of this matter?
For starters, there have recently been signs that Edwards might enter the world of organising around the prison industrial complex, a world that I occupy. I have no desire to shut him or anyone else out of a movement if their work should be credible, but I would have tremendous problems with the presence of someone who inflicted such great violence upon me coming into a space where all of us militate against the PIC and against violence of all kinds. And then, of course, there is the sticky little matter of his avowed support for hate crimes legislation and his views on the death penalty.
But, again, why would it matter? Surely, someone with those sorts of politics would never really be interested in the kind of work I do?
Here, I will say that I have, increasingly, felt the need to call out Jeffrey Edwards on his rank hypocrisy more overtly. Ironically, his hypocrisy has shown itself in Windy City Times, a newspaper where I am a senior writer and a book reviewer. In 2008, Edwards wrote a guest op-ed titled, “In the tradition of Stonewall: LGBTQ violence prevention.”
He wrote about encountering the word “Fags” scrawled on an HIV/AIDS poster promoting sexual health: “One day I walked onto a train car and noticed that someone had reached up to one of those posters and crossed out 'Your partner's secrets' and replaced it with 'FAGS,' so that the poster read, 'FAGS could affect your future.' I suddenly felt threatened: What did it mean for someone to do this? What did it mean that someone could have done this in full view of other passengers? What did it mean that no one had removed this, that no one seemed the least bit affected by it? Was it safe for me to do anything about it right then, or even to allow others to see I was upset?”
I was bemused to read these words from a man who had unhestitatingly inflicted such great sexualised rhetorical violence upon me, even more so when I continued reading: “There is the violence of being called names intended to intimidate and dehumanize. And of course all of this can and does cause physical violence against us, and just knowing that – that 'queerbashing' is always present as a possibility – is another form of violence itself.” Well, isn't that just lovely, I thought. Jeffrey Edwards has no problem with exerting a form of violence against a brown, queer woman to intimidate her but, oh, the horror, the horror, that someone should dare to upset him by writing the word “fags” across a poster.
As a senior writer, I could have easily raised a stink. I could have even asked – and I believe my request would not have been seen as unreasonable – that I be allowed to write a rebuttal to his op-ed, pointing out his blatant hypocrisy. I could have written to The Thousand Waves Spa where he is, as Jeff Edwards, of all things, a “violence prevention instructor,” and asked what the hell they were and are doing with someone like him, with such clear rage and anger and evidence of sheer misogyny, working for them. I could have written to Roosevelt University, where Jeffrey Edwards is – and this surely indicates that the Universe loves irony, or that it posesses a dark and sardonic sense of humour – an Associate Professor of Political Science and a “Core Faculty Member, Gender and Women's Studies” and asked whether they thought a misogynist ought to be working with women or, for that matter, impressionable young students. I idly wondered what he might do to students who disagreed with him – did he question their credibility based on their sex lives? Did his course policy statement require that their sexual identities line up neatly with their sexual practices? If Thou Art a Lesbian, Thou Shalt Not Suck Cock.
Instead, I let it go. I even let it go when I saw an announcement that he was invited to speak about violence prevention at my old workplace, the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I still have strong ties to friends and co-workers. I could have shown up and pointed out his actions, but I never bothered. It wasn't so much that the events of the past were far away, but that Edwards seemed so inconsequential and I wanted to move away from the poison that he represented.
But ironically, given my appraisal of the book, The Revolution Starts at Home has got me thinking about the kinds of violence we ignore in our radical communities. For a further dose of irony, Edwards, in his op-ed, also wrote about complicating the notion of abuse: “And it wasn't just about 'stranger danger,' but about issues with intimates and acquaintances as well.”
What is important to remember about what happened to me is that the initial violence and then the various forms of implicit and explicit silencing that came afterwards never came about in a vicious corporate environment or in a conventionally intimate relationship (Edwards and I had once been friends, but that was much, much before his screed). Instead, as I now realise, what has come about is a deliberate attempt to forget crucial features of both Queer to the Left and Jeffrey Edwards' actions – in the very world of radical organising where we are all supposed to be “intentional” and “healing” and “thoughtful.”
In the book Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United State, Q2L is referenced a few times as an organisation that did important anti-racist work. I like the book a great deal, and my review of the book for Windy City Times makes that clear.
But I also sought to provide some much-needed clarity: “I was, along with Joey Mogul [a co-author of the book], a member of Q2L. Even until her acknowledgments at the end of the book, where she speaks of it in the past tense, it’s hard to discern that the group in fact no longer exists. In and for its time, Q2L did excellent work but by the time I left in about , some months before its eventual demise, it was entirely white and mostly male (a colleague wryly noted that my departure meant a sudden depletion in at least three constituencies), and its internal and external politics displayed the kind of racism and homo/heteronormative agenda it had originally sprung up to combat; its last public action was pro-gay marriage.”
I went on: “I provide this in part to disclose my prior working relationship with one of the book’s authors (Mogul and I still operate in intersecting activist circles), but also to caution against a tendency of the left/progressive organizing world to erase, even if with the gentle nudge of omission of certain facts, the more troubling aspects of our individual and collective histories. The authors are not responsible for long histories of the many groups they mention, but they are responsible for at least accurate portrayals and for pointing out that some groups, while they did vital work, have also died out (similarly, Queer Watch, another network mentioned, no longer exists). In forgetting or erasing our pasts, we run the risk of believing that alternative visions can operate without trouble or rancor or that, indeed, they somehow operate forever. Our fallibility as organizers does not make us any less radical or effective; our awareness of such can only make us stronger.”
My interest in returning to the Edwards-Ireland moment is to make sure we remember our fallibility as organisers and to ensure not simply that Edwards and Ireland – neither of whom has ever acknowledged their deeply sexualised and misogynistic violence or apologised for it – can no longer play a role in radical organising. Indeed, that is quite far from my intent, given my politics around the nature of violence and the prison industrial complex. When I read a news article about a man who raped his daughter and then tried to kill her, my first response was that of horror. But then I worried that he will be jailed for life and that guards will look the other way as other prisoners, driven to some mad form of “justice” in a world where they too are only guaranteed imprisonment forever, will rape him day after day to “teach him a lesson.” I write and work against sex offender registries, convinced that these do nothing to mitigate sexual violence and only strengthen the PIC.
All of which is to say: I believe in forgiveness and that people might change, and I don't believe that damnation, banishment, and punishment do a damn thing to make us safer. But I also believe that there needs to be an acknowledgment of damage done. We, in our radical communities, are fond of the concepts of wholeness and healing, almost as much as we believe in this concept of “love.” But.
What if we thought of love and violence in more radical ways? What if we considered that deep, wounding violence could actually happen within contexts outside of personal relationships? What if, instead of persuading ourselves that such toxic moments are somehow merely symptomatic of “infighting,” as the bigbigbigbig scholar put it, we had to acknowledge that this shit is fucked up and it fucks people up? What if, instead of us pretending that we radicals are all so adorable and lovely and untouched by the mean, mean politics of the corporate world, we actually acknowledged that many of us are, in fact, hung up on gaining cultural and political capital – even at the cost of refusing to name or even see violence as it spills out into our lives and careers?
What if, instead of ignoring the reality of the shit that goes down and rewriting the history of our organisations to pretend they were always perfect, we simply acknowledged: That was a great moment, and it ended badly, but we learnt a lot from it all and moved on? For fuck's sake, people, wouldn't that make for a much stronger movement? What if we acknowledged that violence is not restricted to broken bones and rape?
In writing at such length about something that, to many, will seem like a mere blip, I am also making an explicit demand to Edwards: that he stop trying to pretend that things are all right between us, in public, despite my having written about this incident twice in the past. For the past few years, I have kept running into him at events and in my neighbourhood (I believe he may live nearby).
Every time, to my bewilderment, he looks around and then pretends that we are friends. I stay silent. At first, I didn't understand it, but now I realise he was relying on exactly what most of us rely on: that the world of manners and propriety and the desire to not make a scene will protect us. Only recently have I begun to understand that what Edwards is doing is, in effect, a tried-and-true tactic employed by abusers of all sorts: to pretend that relations between them and their victims are really, perfectly fine. It's a form of self and public delusion that, in effect, helps to sustain their fiction of normality. More importantly, it helps them to hide the facts of their abuse. Hello, Yasmin. Look, we're quite fine. There has never been anything wrong between us. And if you don't respond to me, you, Yasmin, look like the asshole.
I failed to recognise this for what it is because of the simple fact that I have not seen myself as a victim in all this. I am not a delicate flower – I am not a rose, oh, for some roses in Rosemont – and I don't mean that to insult those who do see themselves as victims (and this is not the time and place to critique the discourse of victimhood which has effectively helped to strengthen the PIC). But I am tired of his tactic, I want no personal interactions with him, and I want him to stop. It seems impossible, so perhaps ensuring that this somehow reaches him will do the trick.
In writing this, I want to preserve the venom of the moment. I want the prison activists and the anti-brutality activists and the anti-death-penalty activists and the bigbigbigbig theorists of gender and sexuality – who might think of bringing in Edwards without any question, and who would erase his and Ireland's actions, and who pretend that such things are inconsequential – to reach out for what they imagine to be the smooth outer shell of two gay white men whose cultural capital will always exceed mine. And as they touch it, I want them to feel their fingers burn and the skin of their fingers to melt from the sheer toxicity of what they are forced to confront.
I want their eyes to burn from the smoke of the acid rising from the shell, just as my own burnt for days from all the crying.
Part V: Shatter
This part was to be much longer. But for now, all I really have to write is this:
On the day I saw the email sent out by Doug Ireland via Jeffrey Edwards, I shattered. I called E. the very hour it came in, weeping inconsolably. She was working retail at the time, behind a counter, and had to keep putting me on hold as she dealt with customers. I've often wondered what they must have thought as they went about purchasing their wares, all the while listening to the sounds of wailing on the other end of the phone at the salesperson's ear.
I wish I could tell you how difficult this has been to write (and how much infinite patience my editor has shown me). I wish I could describe to you the grief I held in my heart and in my eyes and in my body as I walked around numbly, in a city whose familiar places and faces had turned into landscapes of torment as every person and thing became now infinitely threatening.
There. Are you happy now? I have told you that I cried, that I felt the sort of grief and aching hollowness reserved for great loss.
Why did I cry? What was I crying about?
There are few phrases I detest more than “The personal is political.” I'm bloody sick of it. No, it's not, I want to scream, every time I hear it: the political is political, period. We don't need to justify our politics or our desire to work around abstractions by constantly locating them in our experiences and our personal lives and on our bodies.
So it is with great reluctance and after many years that I tell you now that I felt an unfathomable pain when I saw that email. I want to be clear: it was not a pain of separation or a sense of pain about friendship, but the pain of betrayal. The betrayal was not a personal one but the shock felt when we, those of us who ought to engage each other with integrity long after the friendships and the solidarity have melted away, choose instead to attempt to wound and spite and destroy.
Every time I show the email to someone, I watch them read it, their eyes widening. Always, towards the middle, there is the wince of pain and shock and then the slight but unmistakable recoil away from the page or the computer, as if the acid were spilling out onto the table and threatening to corrode their very bodies, seeping through the fabric of their clothes.
I don't seek to legitimise myself by inserting a narrative about personal pain. In the world of radical organising, as evidenced in that plenary session, personal trauma is some kind of badge of belonging, as if one can never do reasonable and even excellent work without somehow having experienced every or at least multiple forms of oppression and trauma.
Contradictions abound, and we are surely the sum total of our pasts and our indiscretions. If I were to look back honestly, I will find moments where I have hurt or even wounded people. But there is a difference between that kind of hurt and wounding and the sheer political will to smash someone's credibility and to never even acknowledge it. I want it acknowledged, and I want it out there. I've grown tired of radical love and I'm tired of the never-ending bullshit of radical organising where we all pretend to love each other for some just cause, but never want to admit that we seek power. Or never want to admit that, really, seeking power is okay – without it, how do you change things? The trick is to acknowledge that and to move forward with integrity. Not love. But a clear-eyed vision of an abstract commitment to principles, not just the people we like.
I've grown tired of the endless and needless deification of figures. The Troy Davis execution left me as drained as anyone else, but I was, by the end of it, sick and tired of the endless talk of love for him, and of how perfect he was, and how loved, loved, loved. And I didn't care, as I read, too late, of the execution of Lawrence Brewer, the man put to death the same night as Davis for the gruesome murder of James Byrd Jr., that he was apparently a white supremacist. Maybe Troy Davis was an asshole, and maybe Lawrence Brewer was always good to his mother and never let her carry heavy groceries by herself. I don't know and I don't care because when I set out to make the world better place, I didn't think it needed to be less so for the assholes I don't like.
Can we stop thinking about love and reanimate our commitment to more abstract notions of justice?
Fuck love. Fuck as frequently as you can, fuck as vigorously or as gently as you like, fuck whomever you like, but stop pretending that love – about which most of us know nothing, otherwise why would we gain any pleasure in it? – somehow circumscribes what we do.
When we talk about violence in our communities, let's stop pretending that it only happens amongst those who fuck.
What happened to me taught me not to trust that people will act on their best instincts, and it taught me not to believe that my organising community could be exactly the same as my circle of friends.
That sounds so tragic: As the world is my witness, I will never trust again. And it is, of course, precisely the narrative about the “damaged” woman that Edwards so nastily spun out in his email. But there is something to be said for not trusting that those who believe in the world we believe in will also act by our principles.
And with that, I wish I could tell you about my friends. About V. and E., and E., and R. and J. and J. and M. oh, my beloved M., who has always warned me that my issues “have everything to do with cathexis.” I wish I could tell you how these and so many others have patiently mopped me up and helped pull me back into shape.
But I won't, because this is mine to know and exult in.
I don't trust my self-described intentional, loving, strong, radical community to take care of me when the chips are down; I trust my friends. I will only say this to you: Keep your friends close, and make sure your enemies are damned far away, otherwise the poison will eat at your life.
My greatest wish for you is not that you find the one who will make your life whole, but that you know and recognise the few who will hold you when you shatter.
*Some initials have been changed. My thanks to Karma R. Chávez for her feedback, and to Marie-Claire MacPhee, for all her patience.
 I have the original copy of this email. As for the charges that I single-handedly ruining an organisation: I only wish I were that powerful.
 I want to be clear: I am by no means comparing what I faced from Doug Ireland and Jeff Edwards with the issues faced by women who encounter very visceral and real violence. But I am stating that the intent behind such attacks is the same.
*Afary's name added July 20, 2016.
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