This past week I spoke with a friend, let’s call her Ari, who was planning an action around women’s reproductive rights. She envisioned setting up a table in front of a lingerie store and handing out vagina cupcakes, booklets discussing Conservative perspectives on women’s bodies and places to get involved locally in women’s activism, and questionnaires asking if people use birth control, know someone who has had an abortion, etc. While discussing this project with her classmates, a queer friend who prefers “they” pronouns objected to the project on the grounds that it excludes trans folks and people who identify outside of binary gender. Ari’s a strong trans ally, and she asked me to weigh in on her project. In the course of our discussion, I fine-tuned my thoughts about critique and coalition, so I wanted to share them here.
I think this is a great project— engaging, thought-provoking, and fun! It’s also a project that is specifically addressing the threat right wingers post to women’s rights and fighting the shaming around abortion/birth control. There are ways in which Ari could use language to focus on access to OBY/GYN care, abortion, birth control, which trans folks that don’t ID as women may use, rather than these things being exclusively women-used. BUT, I think that the Right mobilizes very pointed anti-women language in their curtailing of these health services, and it can be important to respond with language that explicitly points out all the ways the Right demonizes women in order to justify anti-women policies.
I also think that there is a difference between a specific action/project and the work we do overall. In order to be clear and effective in our actions, we often need to be specific, and not every action we do will be directly relevant to everyone. For instance, if the high school I work at were going to hire another teacher, I might originally advocate for someone with a specialty in LGBT issues, but then redirect my support to the person with an anti-racist specialty, since I ultimately want someone progressive hired and want to work in solidarity with the other staff members lobbying for that hire. It’s important to engage in a variety of projects so that everyone gets a chance to be at the heart of an action, but sometimes we will not be at the heart of a project and it’s still important for us to engage and stand in solidarity. So in the case of Ari’s project, I think that her friend raises a very valid point that this project may not directly address trans folks, but I don’t think that necessarily means she should change her project. I think that what’s most important is that we’re building relationships with progressive folks and trying to bring our work together. So the two of them may want to brainstorm and collaborate on the next project, but I don’t think that her commitment to gender justice/trans solidarity is undermined, because she wants to do a project that addresses injustices and misogyny specific to cisgender women.
It’s important to be open to critique and to recognize the limits of our projects, but these limits should serve as an impetus to do more work, not to shut down the work we have. The exception might be when there are projects that are flawed at the heart—they are based on false information, unrecognized paternalism, or a lack of connection to people’s needs, for example. If the project perpetuates injustice, it’s just a bad project, it may be unsalvageable, and abandoning it may be the only option. However, when a project does not address the experience of everyone, but grounds itself in its own specificity, this is a different thing. The question then becomes whether the project claims to do more than it actually does. When a project claims to be about “health justice” and only talks about access to hormones for transgender people who already have health care, food, and shelter, this project over-extends itself. This is a project that needs to be radically revised so it names its own limited focus (and grapples with what it means to have a narrow focus), or expands its objectives and strategies to actually pursue “health justice.”
Ari’s project addresses the specific ways misogyny operated in the Romney/Ryan campaign and the ways misogyny continues to operate in conservative attacks on access to abortion or birth control. Her project engages in some thoughtful, progressive, necessary work, and names its specific focus. The work has relevance for trans* folks, but we do not have to be the focus of the project to support it and benefit from its success.
When critiquing the activist work of others, I sometimes think of Minnie Bruce Pratt’s chapter in Yours in Struggle, when she calls for art “to carry us forward with some hope in the struggle, so that we do not become suicidal with self-criticism.” So while I don’t think that marginalized folks should always have to be the educators, and while we’re sometimes sick and tired of being so nice to people who don’t think about our issues, I think that there’s something to be gained when we reach for solidarity. We can find hope in the proliferation of progressive activist acts. We can find hope in creating coalitions, knowing that coalitional work means that our voices will not always be at the forefront, but that our shared efforts strengthen our ability to create a more just world in which we will all be better served. When the people we know are our allies pursue work that directly addresses their specific needs, we need to step up and support them. We need to have their back, just as they’ve had ours.