Since i’ve become involved in movement spaces, i’ve been frustrated by the still looming threats of sexism and rape culture, within and without activism, radicalism and society and the way that culture shows up differently depending.
As i’ve grown older and more aware of the hierarchy in which we live, i’ve revisited this awareness of sexism and gendered violence, with a commitment to searching out and confronting distorted accusations toward men of color produced by popularized white supremacist patriarchal culture. This production has likely served to insulate white men from being held to account for their responsibility in creating a hierarchy of violence and patriarchy that other nonwhite masculine of center and menfolk have adapted and enforced against womn in our communities.
But I digress, because i mostly want to talk about womn and femme of center lovelies in this world. I only hope that men too will revisit their behaviors and methodologies of interaction, of navigating the white supremacist patriarchy, with a commitment to confronting the learned usability of womn and femininity.
As with everything within a racialized rigid gendered hierarchy that still favors cis white womnn, the fetishization of radical womn can disproportionately become weaponized against women of color, particularly black and indigenous womn. It shows up in so many ways, first and foremost in the interpersonal, but also the structural way in which our movements are organized. There are so many amazing critical articles sharing perspective on sexism, misogynoir (specific racialized sexism against black womn, yes, even by other non-black womn), transmisogyny, over sexualization, fetishization of womn of color, all working together to categorize, amplify, restrict and attack how we express femininity.
I want to talk about how these sexisms and misogyny changes forms in self declared radical spaces, with participants who learn the language of anti sexism and “feminism”, who stand beside us and call us radical womn and say they mean it as a compliment, recognition, but it ends up being another category to be exploited. Where men call themselves feminists as proclamation rather than through actions that confront themselves and other men in non dominating ego flexing ways. Even while we have done extensive work on how patri-hierarchy oppresses and frames masculinity, men and all children, or how assigned/enforced gender and the contingent development of masculinity limits the development and recognition of duality, fluidity and femininity in gender identity. Womn continue doing work for men, even for their liberation. This has been true in so many ways, through emotional labor, material labor, in our homes, on the streets, in the workplace, in our movements, all of our relationships. Even if we preclude cis men from spaces to work on our own experiences of misogyny and breathe, they often need help coping with de-centering or processing exclusion, processing our resistance.
They are afraid we are angry. Under patriarchy our resistance, which is not the same (amongst each other), serves as another barrier to the men around us. Sure, they benefit from it. They even affirm it, they have to! But a lot of the times they just don’t know how to “deal with us”. Womn and femmes break barriers every day all day long, smashing silence, interrupting power, spreading resilience. But checking MANpower tends to not be enough, structurally. So in spaces where men or masc of center folks know they can’t be mainstream sexist, how does it show up?
Have you noticed that being branded a radical, while being femme, means you will be watched more closely, not just for information, but to catch you when you slip? While at the same time men or masc. of center people named radical seems to enjoy a type of buffer that shields them from the same hyper-critical visibility, it actually buys them space. If femininity isn’t taken as invitation enough to be constantly evaluated for our worth, being considered a radical and femme of center person seems to be a special kind of license for hyper vigilance and pressure. This visibility comes with our own hyper awareness of the ways in which others respond, verbally, emotionally, visually to us. We attract attention, the sizing up of womn in rad spaces like we are either opponents, which results in our actions and ideas being constantly measured, or as objects to be watched or tokenized. And with attention comes increased demands on our time, energy, labor, and our bodies. In liberal spaces this brings with it expectations- our “radical” participation is demanded, not respected, but used and wielded as leverage to win gains for more “reasonable” goals. Meanwhile, we take the risk.
On social media, it results in people watching us, piecing together our posts, constructing versions of us that fit narratives others construct for us- rather than what we construct for ourselves. Sometimes made targets based on the wholeness and multiplicity of our femmexperience and how attraction manifests in our spaces, the hierarchy of desirability (inclusion), the ways in which we are approached. For trans and non binary folks this attraction or attention can be dangerous or turn to violence.
We learn to navigate oppression and develop tactics and discussion to combat and confront misogyny in resistance for our fucking survival. This shit is not cute, even if we feel it. It is not meant to be sexualized, or an invitation for your attention or MACtivism or machismo. If you are at attention, you can be listening and learning while recognizing the unpaid, devalued labor we are doing for ourselves that you are piecing apart and benefiting from for yourself. So many of us become “go to” people to validate or explain analysis and provide information, even though half the time it results in needling and provocation with people who just wanted to argue in the first place. Online this results in harassment, trolling, death threats and if we speak out against it usually we have to deal not just with one abuser, but a network of apologists for the abuse.
Oftentimes femme resistance ends up attracting observers in a way that further objectifies us and divorces us, in their eyes, from the real struggle of our survival. The worst form of this is people who think that our resistance is attractive and while they are fascinated, they really want to tame us. They want to tell us we are overreacting, demanding too much, capture our attention just to show us that #NotAllMen. They invite us out or to an event, but don’t really want us to show up in all our fullness. They position themselves next to us for social credibility, but stay out of the kitchen when it gets too hot.
This is a reflection on informal hierarchies that develop in our relationships and mentorship relationships including with elders / re: intergenerational ageism in our communities.
As womn, femmes and youth, together there are so many barriers to participating in social movements and critical spaces that one of the solutions to this seems to be informal or formal mentorship. In my opinion, consent is the most important part of all our relations, including mentorship relationships. The issue with these relationships is they tend to look like- people who carry more social capital determining how younger femmes and womn can get access to enough social power to be able to participate authentically. Some spaces (less so these days) are dominated by men, and by fitting in under someone’s “wing” you can avoid the seemingly expected ritual of navigating a new space or movement without social capital. It should be noted that I’ve been in enough situations where older (white) womn have put me in positions where I am supporting them, but if i don’t follow predetermined expectations, they will withdraw emotional social material support. We all need a support structure, but how that support is structured is key.
Mentorship gone bad can have consequences. When (if, but when) issues that need to be addressed arise in the space, whether bullying or physical and sexual abuse, it tends to be a trend that men will call forward their comrades to confront folks on their behalf. I hate writing about this, because womn /femmes mediating patriarchy or abuse is common both as exhaustion and solution. If someone is also under the authorship of a mentor, and the person being called in is their mentor, there is that much more pressure on womn to act as apologist OR mediator or both for their mentor. This is partially a reflection on the dynamics and exchanges of social capital, a type of currency present in all our interactions but magnified within social movements. It’s that much harder to call to account a person who is highly regarded in the community, who has social capital, or provides particular skills or labor to the community, especially if they are positioned with privilege.
Masc of center peoples will shield themselves in the relationships they build with womn and femmes. Abusers will shield themselves in the relationships they build with others. This is because it is that much easier to isolate and alienate womn and femmes, or targets of abuse generally, from movement spaces than it is to have constructive accountability processes with abusers about their behavior and its consequences.
Non-binary & Transfemme Erasure
We can’t exclude examining the specific ways in which trans femmes and nonbinary folks have their existence, labor and resistance both erased and fetishized at the same time. Gender policing and fetishization of gender itself creates barriers in movement spaces, especially spaces that lack facilitators who are themselves non binary or trans. This often results in non binary or trans femmes being ignored or not warmly approached or appreciated for their brilliance or contributions.
Trans women of color particularly have spent much of their lives fighting for their survival only to have that struggle slurped up by the mainstream LGBTQ movement, distorted and whitewashed. With hyper visibility (including resistance) comes increased violence for trans womn of color. Still now, our transfemme comrades seem to be appreciated for their disruption only when it doesn’t effect the agenda setters and gate keepers of mainstream movement organizing. Fetishization disproportionately affects trans women of color and non binary or gnc femme of center peoples. Probably in all the ways previously outlined, but also in more ways that I myself can define, and with an increased threat of violence.
To some degree, despite the variability of our skills and struggles, womn are positioned outside the labor models that wage us (unpaid labor), but still within hierarchical relationships that exploit us (home care, house work, domestic violence). For womn of color there is not just one career, a trade, a routine that fits neatly into capitalism, both because of adaptability but also because of lack of stability (particularly affecting TWOC). Our intuition cannot be neatly categorized within the economy. Similarly, neither can our resistance, and womn have been burned for this (literally). We are givers- this is often both burden and strength which seems to characterize most of our resisting life, and we are still resented for it. And because we already do a lot of “voluntary” situational labor, we fit right into the self organizing labor that comes with practicing/coordinating/sharing in collective resistance and movement spaces.
I recently saw a meme that reminded me about how we treat femininity without transformation of social racial political economic proportions. Resistance does not mean less labor for womn, and really it might mean more for everyone. Still, we can create towards a restructuring of how we approach our relationships and the spaces we inhabit with ableism and accessibility in mind- going beyond the idea of ‘equal’ mandatory labor and toward a vision of ‘shared’ labor. Really challenging the usability of each other, going beyond the value systems of worth we’ve internalized via hierarchist misogynist models of power.
But the meme reads: lover, sister, healer, housekeeper, cook, coach, doctor, therapist, storyteller, taxi driver, nanny, mother, teacher, organizer, friend… none of which can be reduced just to an individual job, but an entire care economy that demands womn and fem of center folx to do all of the above at any time, at the same time, upon request, or even without request, to fill in, pull the slack, even read minds. How exhausting! As a recovering workaholic myself, I have to be extremely aware of how my propensity to take on more and more responsibility reproduces itself in resistance. This practice can be extremely alienating to people who are already made to feel marginalized and excluded by the work models of capitalist white supremacist patriarchy. But often the people fielding the most pain and trauma are also the ones made responsible for the labor of healing not just themselves, but others. Of mediating not just their own conflicts, but those of the people they care about and so on.
Care work seems to be even multiplied almost exponentially in spaces where worth is measured in radical vulnerability. The care we share is for our survival, within and in spite of capitalist white supremacist hetero-patriarchy. And often we want to do this care work because we desire it to be mutual, interwoven into our collective struggle, as a model of liberation. We might even want it to cease to be work- but that’s just not the case now. The challenge is that because care work is so feminized, it has been undervalued and unrecognized and others have yet to recognize it and adopt it themselves.
All people benefit from care work, including the emotional labor required to process our environment and conditions. Deconstruction is a practice that can be just as much internal as it is communal. But sometimes people transpose that responsibility into labor required of others in movement spaces. Especially since men are being demanded to decenter masculinity in movement spaces and to center the voices and perspectives of womn, particularly queer and trans womnn of color, there is a significant amount of effort needed to process and apply these constantly repeated principles into practice. This labor time and time again gets displaced onto femme of center people.
At the same time I have seen and known men friends who have worked really hard to give lip service and at times, actually practice, solidarity with femmes and womn while also working on themselves. I’ve done emotional labor listening and offering perspective to these men- almost as a form of mutual aid. As with all situations and dynamics of structural power, regarding masculinity, recognizing and undermining how those power dynamics show up in our interpersonal dynamics and spaces needs to be constant vigilance- emotional labor. For masculine folx who are committed to this practice, I have found that even if they are good at it, if they go through some shit, or a multiplicity of challenges come up in their life that shake them, this commitment will falter and the power to float by on misogyny (resistance is supplemental, misogyny is default) will slip through. Know this.
Take the time to care for yourself, so it’s not all on us. So we don’t have to do both- care for ourselves in your wake, and care for you. We have our own deconstruction to do too. Entire networks of womn and femmes should not form in order to support each other in coping with your ish.
Just remember it isn’t just the state responding to our resistance that makes targets of us, but the way established power dynamics and hierarchies reproduced keep femme of center movers, shakers and agitators on the outs, tokenized, or our resistance harvested for relevance and social capital while we stay fetishized ourselves.
Many thanks to the compa who read over this and has both gone through some of this stuff with me and talked with me about it repeatedly. Also please listen to this audio discussion via On Resistance on the Fetishization of Radical Womn.