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Creating Change: Solidarity, Human Rights, and the Smell of New Ideas

February 12, 2011

Exactly one week ago I was preparing for a workshop at Creating Change in Minneapolis. The session was led by Ricci Levy, Executive Director of Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and consisted of a panel and story telling exercises.

Our goal was to show how powerful story telling is for building empathy and connection with a group of people and communicating about the kinds of change that you care about. Robert Perez, of Fenton (a stellar communications firm) talked about story telling in general terms and offered examples. I talked about the problems of jargon and identity politics. Ignacio Rivera, performance artist and educator, talked about the need to introduce new language and educate people. Carmen Vazquez, long-time activist and advocate for sexual liberation and human rights, talked about the need to communicate about desire, sex, and connection. Then participants had a chance to identify changes they wanted to see, and to begin to create stories that would help them talk about those changes. It was a powerful session.

This is what I said.

Do you remember the smell of new ideas? The kind that make you feel powerful, connected to other people, and suddenly sure of yourself?

I remember the smell of wool sweaters and patchouli in a college classroom in New England during a storm that rattled windows and sent a kind of electricity through a very passionate discussion of sexual justice. My Philosophy of Sexuality class was reading Suzanne Pharr‘s Homophobia – A weapon of sexism, and suddenly the world made sense.

As a student, I learned new words and they changed everything: heteronormativenondichotomous… Just saying them made me feel better. I learned theories of social constructionism and hegemony, and found frameworks that helped me suddenly understand the difference between how I felt and what was expected of me. I felt powerful with my new words and my new ideas. I joined feminist activist groups and the campus LGBT student organization. I protested. I marched on Washington. I felt like I could change the world.

I wrote my senior thesis on the ways that theories of nondichotomous gender roles could be used to challenge the hegemony of the heterosexist patriarchal nuclear family.

And then I went home.

Heteronormative didn’t mean anything there. My mother is a very open-minded, college-educated woman who moved up and down the class ladder from working class family of origin to upwardly mobile woman working to support her dental student husband, to stay at home mom in professional class marriage, to working poor and lower middle class single mother of two. She’s a firm believer in the need for gender equality and she was encouraging of my gender and sexuality exploration. She certainly wanted me to be happy.

She just couldn’t understand what I was talking about.

I was frustrated that she didn’t know – and didn’t always see the need for – these new powerful words of mine. It took me quite a while to realize that she wanted the ideas without the jargon. It took me a while to realize that the power came not from the words but from the ideas that they represented.

My mother unsuspectingly became my best teacher. She read every paper I wrote in graduate school (at least every one I didn’t put off too long to show her before it was due). She read my entire dissertation, chapter by painful chapter, through multiple drafts. Later she read drafts of articles before I submitted them. And she was brutal at pointing out jargon. “Why do you always say hegemonic when you could just say dominant?” (I confess to harboring a love for the word "hegemonic" but I’ve learned to enjoy it sparingly, the way I would a fine scotch or expensive chocolate.)

Her editing made me a better communicator. I learned that talking with people is different from talking at people, and that conversation requires shared contexts and shared vocabularies. I learned that even people I thought were on the same poststructuralist jargon laiden page as I didn’t always share the same ideas about what our words meant. I once was 5 minutes into conversation with a fellow graduate student about my dissertation on sex work before we determined that she thought I was talking only about prostitution when I was actually talking about stripping, and neither of us was talking about a whole range of work that can be considered sexual labor.

As I worked on communicating more clearly I bumped up against another challenge: finding the right language with which to describe myself. My identity is complicated and multifaceted. I think this is true for most of us! I don’t easily fit into boxes, and somehow it seems harder now, though the boxes are proliferating. I’ve often thought of my identity as if it were comprised of a box of loosely jumbled color forms. Do you remember those? Where you could dress the figure with the princess crown, the firefighter coat and the scuba flippers? Am I "white middle class woman"? "Queer feminist college professor"? "Married queer activist"? It’s complicated.

Identity politics became a personal challenge and I believe it is a challenge to the movement as well, something that must be clear to each of us who has tried to append a new letter to the ever-expanding alphabet umbrella we need to describe it.

The problem is not that there are too many identities under that umbrella. Quite the contrary. The diversity of our movement is what gives us our strength. The problem is that we forget that there are identities that we all share, and we forget that the rights we are all fighting so hard to achieve are ours, born with us, not because we are lesbian or gay, bisexual or queer, but because we are human.

Rae Carey articulated clearly in her State of the Movement address and it’s heartening to see threads of human rights woven throughout the fabric of this entire conference.

I don’t mean to say that our unique sexual and political identities don’t matter. They do. But they matter differently than many of us thought they did in the past. Developing queer political identities was tremendously useful in mobilizing this movement. But identity politics hurts us if it weds us to a civil rights agenda. Those who attack us and prevent us from exercising our rights may do so because we are queer, but the rights they try to take are ours by virtue of our humanity, and only once we have protected them as human rights will we really be free.

Identity needs a new place in our movement.

I think that new place is in telling our stories to one another. You heard it last night at the plenary. Our challenge is to be brave enough to share our stories with people who are sheltered under different parts of our umbrella. Perhaps even more challenging is to be open enough to hearing the stories of those others, whose desires and struggles might be so different from our own.

Yes, our identities matter. They matter for the same reason our sexualities matter. They matter because they are intrinsically part of us and we each have a right to be our whole selves. And we need to recognize and honor one another’s whole selves. Your struggles may be different from my struggles, but I cannot truly win mine if I am not invested in yours.

It comes down to this: I’ve claimed my right to form loving and lustful relationships. I am free to express my attraction to people who fuck with gender, to live openly in love with more than one person at a time, to proclaim a desire to be fisted and a love of making out. I have a right to define the terms – emotional, erotic, financial – of my sexual exchanges. I have the freedom to work and to use my body as I wish. I have these rights and freedoms not because I am queer, but because I am human. And because I am human and I care about these rights it is my obligation to fight so that everyone, regardless of identity, can enjoy them.

It will be by sharing our unique identities, by telling our stories and sharing our desires, by listening compassionately to one another’s struggles, that we strengthen the connections between the diverse constituencies under our umbrella, and thus strengthen our movement. But we will also communicate clearly to people like my mother, who thinks of herself as standing just outside our umbrella, that our movement includes her too. That we are fighting for our rights because they are human rights, rights that should be enjoyed by all, because nobody can legitimately take them away.

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