Misinterpretation vs. Post Liberal Disingenuousness

Everyone is finally talking about J. Jack Halberstam, but it’s not because he broke out the coup of academese or wrote a readable deconstruction of language, politics, and identity. Instead, Halberstam waded into the very tired “tranny” debate, and along the way, managed to become the next Dan Savage, Tosh.0, Seth MacFarlane of the LGBT universe. Like a ball of sticky goo (sticky goo being oh so funny, don’t you know), he picked up along the way a raging misreading of lesbian political history, a misunderstanding of stated boundaries, a misappropriation of assault survivor’s lexicon, and a misarticulation of gender performance.

Halberstam, in his piece, basically starts off bemoaning how nobody understands (the Spanish Inquisition) Monty Python anymore, and then delves right into his own lesbian angsty memory:

I remember coming out in the 1970s and 1980s into a world of cultural feminism and lesbian separatism. Hardly an event would go by back then without someone feeling violated, hurt, traumatized by someone’s poorly phrased question, another person’s bad word choice or even just the hint of perfume in the room. People with various kinds of fatigue, easily activated allergies, poorly managed trauma were constantly holding up proceedings to shout in loud voices about how bad they felt because someone had said, smoked, or sprayed something near them that had fouled up their breathing room. Others made adjustments, curbed their use of deodorant, tried to avoid patriarchal language, thought before they spoke, held each other, cried, moped, and ultimately disintegrated into a messy, unappealing morass of weepy, hypo-allergic, psychosomatic, anti-sex, anti-fun, anti-porn, pro-drama, pro-processing post-political subjects.

Here are my issues with this paragraph:

  1. I would expect an academic to understand his or her own experience in a political movement as exactly that, one data point. One experience. Extrapolating from one data point? Not an intellectual engagement.
  2. This completely misses the point that in the 1970s and 1980s (and 1990s, let’s get real) lesbians who came together to build a new community often did so under duress, sans love of family, against a culture that was much more weaponized against them than we see in 2014. There were a lot of things to cry about, a lot of broken people trying to make their way through the world with few resources. A lot of women lost their jobs expressly for being gay, and they had no recourse. The closet was a different beast. AIDS was claiming lives and lesbians were often on the front lines. So some of them finally felt that with their energy and input they were creating a space from which they could speak up about their needs (colognes do actually cause allergies), fighting one’s parents and siblings does leave one fatigued, but thanks, Dr. Halberstam, for asserting that these people who thought they were your comrades were messy and unappealing.
  3. This is really ableist. Though according to Halberstam’s critique there’s no room to claim that ableism is bad. I’m just a bad neo-liberal, right?
  4. Camille Paglia better look out because Halberstam’s paragraph reads like it was stolen out of her next manuscript.

Halberstam’s next paragraph pulls out two threads in the 1990s:

Political times change and as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, as weepy white lady feminism gave way to reveal a multi-racial, poststructuralist, intersectional feminism of much longer provenance, people began to laugh, loosened up, people got over themselves and began to talk and recognize that the enemy was not among us but embedded within new, rapacious economic systems. Needless to say, for women of color feminisms, the stakes have always been higher and identity politics always have played out differently. But, in the 1990s, books on neoliberalism, postmodernism, gender performativity and racial capital turned the focus away from the wounded self and we found our enemies and, as we spoke out and observed that neoliberal forms of capitalism were covering over economic exploitation with language of freedom and liberation, it seemed as if we had given up wounded selves for new formulations of multitudes, collectivities, collaborations, and projects less centered upon individuals and their woes. Of course, I am flattening out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements. But I am willing to do so in order to make a point here about the re-emergence of a rhetoric of harm and trauma that casts all social difference in terms of hurt feelings and that divides up politically allied subjects into hierarchies of woundedness.

Look, is there a limit to liberal feminism? Yes. Was it too easily fraught with the kind of “Lean In” thinking that furthers capitalism on the backs of more marginalized (read: of color) women? Absolutely. But why is it framed in terms of humor? You know who talks about women who need to “loosen up?” Sexist men, that’s who. “Loosen up,” the very phrase has been used since at least the last mid-century to dismiss women’s needs and boundaries. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest that Halberstam uses it here because he’s making the very same move. Your right to a perfume-free environment is bunk. Your claim that you are hurt is bogus. Loosen up and you’ll see that things won’t bother you as much. This is as clearly an anti-intellectual engagement around women’s boundaries as one can make.

Should we examine institutions for their role in perpetuating oppression differentially across race, class, gender, and other intersections of power? Yes! But can we take a step back and remember that we all have a lived experience inside of these institutions and forces and that people are situated in different places in culture? Sometimes their situatedness means that they experience a lot of pain and understand that pain as emotionally exhausting. Sometimes they find themselves the survivors of violence and those moments radicalize them such that they begin to make new inquiries into the world around them. Locating ourselves within this postcolonial/neocolonial world is an honest means of making revolutionary critique, it does not take away from it. And if we are lucky enough to have escaped “harm and trauma” then a critique with integrity would identify that as a site of privilege. Which means that when Halberstam is calling a “rhetoric of harm and trauma” problematic in that it is divisive, Halberstam is bing a privileged individual telling those with a different history that they need to be silent.

It is in this way that I read Halberstam’s piece as silencing, as not in solidarity with people who have made requests of us, the other people on the broad Left who have said at one point or another that we are all in this together. And when I get to that interpretation of Halberstam, the rest of his piece makes sense, in an internal consistency sort of way. It is actually antithetical to an emancipatory politic. Here is why.

Much of the recent discourse of offense and harm has focused on language, slang and naming. For example, controversies erupted in the last few months over the name of a longstanding nightclub in San Francisco: “Trannyshack,” and arguments ensued about whether the word “tranny” should ever be used. These debates led some people to distraction, and legendary queer performer, Justin Vivian Bond, posted an open letter on her Facebook page telling readers and fans in no uncertain terms that she is “angered by this trifling bullshit.” Bond reminded readers that many people are “delighted to be trannies” and not delighted to be shamed into silence by the “word police.” Bond and others have also referred to the queer custom of re-appropriating terms of abuse and turning them into affectionate terms of endearment. When we obliterate terms like “tranny” in the quest for respectability and assimilation, we actually feed back into the very ideologies that produce the homo and trans phobia in the first place!

It’s not surprising that Halberstam glosses over what “these debates” are about—because he misses their point entirely. The history here is that some trans women, most of them under 30 and representing a younger generation of trans women, have said for at least the last decade, that they want everyone in the LGBT umbrella (because we’re a political coalition, at least in the eyes of the Family Research Council), to stop using the word “tranny.” For them, they’ve stated plainly, the word has been used against them during violent attacks, during personal attacks, in the act of refusing trans women housing, employment, and education. It’s been deployed to alienate them, disempower them, and yes, kill them. To not even bring to light WHY trans women have asked us to stop using the term is to once again dismiss the request. I’ve heard all sorts of defenses for continued use of the T-word, from loyalty, a sense of nostalgia (usually among gay men), a pseudo-academic argument for free speech (which even SCOTUS understands as different from hate speech), and some misguided sense of entitlement (you can’t tell me what to say!). But I’ve never seen anyone make the case, until Bond’s and Halberstam’s essays, that getting rid of the word would perpetuate transphobia.

And that idea, frankly, is preposterous. It would mean that mainstream (read: non-LGBT) individuals would come across the word and think, wow, I love transgender people. Look how cool Justin Vivian Bond is! Check out that Ru Paul! If they say it, I can say it, and it will mean I love trans women everywhere. It would mean that in the greater context of people bashing trans women and using the very same word that it’s the moment of drag frivolity (or what Halberstam would say is humor) that would transcend as the stronger signified, such that what, eventually if we just scream “tranny” often enough nobody will think of using it against trans women anymore?

No. I say no. Not only is this implausible, it means withholding material reality that trans women of color are the single most abused group in the FBI’s hate crime statistics. It would mean making invisible serious, authentic requests that women have made in order to keep a fucking word in the community. It would mean that there is no linkage between an epithet and a bigoted attitude toward a group. It means nothing less than the justification, rhetorically, of demeaning trans women in a larger community that has already demoted their political, social, sexual, and economic needs and that still will call up a sister and ask her to sit on the Pride planning committee so it can have a token trans woman in the room. It is nothing more than the lazy, anti-intellectual side-talking history that has worked against real change for LGBT people since we came together as a community during the Stonewall riots. During which transgender people and gay men fought side by side, by the way.

Saying that requests not to use a pejorative term or to put a “trigger warning” on a text of some kind are the kind of neo-liberal mushy (sorry, “messy, disintegrating”) inquiries that are limiting the movement is to erase the reality that for many people under the LGBT umbrella, we are broken and hurting and looking for support. Is it funny and humorous? No. Should a political movement use humor as one of its methods for liberation of its people? Sure, but Halberstam is making fun of ourselves, and the target ought to be those systems of oppression Halberstam says we should be focusing on.

All Halberstam’s piece does is give more life to a debate that is taking time and energy away from the real work we need to do. If a sexual assault survivor asks to be told up front if the content she’s about to see is violent, it is no skin off of Halberstam’s nose to tell her. Just as it is no loss to let the T-word fall to the way side, the way we have let many, many other words do in the last forty years. That Halberstam would pen this piece and offer nothing else for trans women in coalition with LGB interests, political, artistic, or other, tells me that he’s not really interested in trans women’s interests. And that is the sign of a disingenuous argument.

Of course we have made strides in the last two generations. That’s the point! It’s not the fault of younger trans people that they have come into a world that has the slightest grasp of what transgender identity is or can be. And even if an individual trans youth comes into a slightly more understanding culture, it doesn’t mean they face a more supportive immediate climate. Forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, according to a recent survey. An unimaginably high percentage of trans people have attempted suicide. Saying:

These younger folks, with their gay-straight alliances, their supportive parents and their new right to marry regularly issue calls for “safe space.”

is as disingenuous as it gets. Not only should we be proud that the culture in the rightward-moving US has gay-straight alliances in some areas, we should not use it to dismiss requests for safer space. I may agree that there is no such thing as a safe space, and I may agree that left-wing policing can be used against in-community people to their detriment, but the problem isn’t in the call for safe space, and it’s certainly not the case that we ought to curtail any space that is more supportive than in decades past. This is just nonsensical. And I don’t see, once again, a good argument made here around gentrification. (For that, turn to Samuel Delany and Sarah Schulman.)

Halberstam then makes a leap from trigger warnings and the T-word and safe space to this:

…as LGBT communities make “safety” into a top priority (and that during an era of militaristic investment in security regimes) and ground their quest for safety in competitive narratives about trauma, the fight against aggressive new forms of exploitation, global capitalism and corrupt political systems falls by the way side.

Actually, no. Some segments of the community have set boundaries around specific issues of sexual violence, violence, and individual terms, and some segments of the community have tried to open a dialogue about safety. Our safety is of paramount concern to our political agenda (the one that deals with institutions and stuff, remember). In the past week I’ve seen at least four articles about Black trans women murdered, missing, or attacked. If we can’t talk about safety being a top priority, we’re pretty safe, in all probability. If we can’t talk about intersectionality because we’re afraid someone will claim we’re starting an oppression Olympics, then we can’t talk for very long. And if we’re concerned about policing, then what the hell is Jack Halberstam doing in this piece? Because it reads like a ship ton of policing to me.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, ponderings, Pop Culture

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