A couple of things have all come together for me in the last month or two that have really shaken the way I feel about practicing advocacy.
First, I stumbled into a debate about Michfest, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. See, there’s been sort of a raging debate surrounding Michfest for years, but it’s really been gaining momentum lately. Because of what has happened in my own head, I feel hesitant to even outline what the issues are, but, I’ll try.
See, the Michfest founders have a policy that the only people that can be admitted to Michfest grounds are, as they put it, Womyn-born-womyn. For the purposes of their festival, transexuality, intersexuality, or being genderqueer are irrelevant. If you were born with a penis, it does not matter if you even don’t have it any longer, you are not welcome at Michfest. The other, strange side of that coin is that if you were born with a vagina, even if you no longer have it, you are welcome at Michfest.
People feel really strongly about this, too. With one side talking about the intrinsic realities of growing up female in a culture that subjectifies, objectifies and oppresses those who do, and the other side agreeing and saying, yes, and now you’re doing it to us who are also subjectified, objectified and oppressed.
It’s a heated subject.
I threw in my two cents in a crowd of aggressively queer identified, and many trans identified people.
It wasn’t until maybe the third or fourth time I replied that I realized my error.
This was not my playground, and I needed to sit down.
I identify as queer, but that identity is nearly meaningless in a world where I present as a hetero-married wife and mother. I am also cis gendered.
As much as I have my own realities and truths about being queer, I rarely have to fight them because when the world looks at me, they see a woman with a man and their eyes pass on over. I don’t have to fight that fight every day. That’s a choice for me, and in a world where that simply isn’t a choice for many, I do not know the life or reality of someone who never had that choice.
I bowed out of that conversation, humbled.
I should clarify that I wasn’t hurt, but rather, I realized that my point of view was one that hinged on whimsy and philosophy. It was not my life at stake, my core sense of self was not on the line.
Exit Episode 1.
Enter Episode 2.
I had been hearing around about a guy who had a Facebook page for Feminists. Friends were warning others off of the page. There was a bunch of talk about banning, about deleted posts and comments, etc. I didn’t really know much about it, so I just went on my way.
I don’t even much want to go into it, because I’m not going to do as fair a job as Darlena did, but I’ll try to give you an outline like I did with the Michfest fiasco.
The Facebook page owner is a man who runs this Feminist group and does Feminist blogging. His page started with a team of moderators but as time has gone on, he has cut that team down to one and only one person, himself. He has banned and deleted comments and posts of those who critique or dissent. Now, we’re talking about people who are women, specifically, being silenced on feminist issues that they are giving their life experiences and beliefs on. Again, specifically being silenced by a man who is trying to shape a dialogue about feminism.
As I understand it, he believes his male voice of advocacy is more important than dissenting or critiquing female voices, and that he brings a legitimacy that women alone can not.
Which sort of makes me angry. While I am thankful for men who give advocacy to feminism, and I absolutely believe men can be feminists, when it comes to speaking up, please do not cover up our voices. Not even “for our own good.”
Exit Episode 2.
Episode 3 was more painful and personal, it was also sort of ongoing.
A few months ago one of my female friends had some random guy come up to her and command her to smile. She was in the middle of some task and not particularly angry nor happy. She was just not smiling. He told her to smile. She got annoyed. She shared that experience, and it unleashed a bunch of “ugh, yeah, that,” on her Facebook, and then I wanted to talk about it for a minute on my Facebook, and things got really weird, and really ugly.
Every woman bar two shared frustrations and experiences that were similar. We’re talking a huge list of women, too. We talked about our group experiences of our faces and emotions in no way being perceived as our personal property, but instead as communal property that had an obligation to be pleasant and happy.
One of the women who disagreed said that service people had an obligation to smile. The other came in and agreed that it wasn’t objectifying after her husband had insisted that to tell a woman to smile wasn’t a bad thing, and that we were just taking it wrong.
Let me back up that sentence again. A guy. He insisted that our shared, female experiences of routinely being told to smile was not the irritating thing that we all agreed, as women, it was, but that it instead was a pleasant way to cheer someone up.
He wasn’t the only one, either.
We insisted it wasn’t even about being cheered up. That many times we aren’t sad, we’re just focused, but that the constant insistence on looking pleasant was irritating at best and down right hostile at worst.
He told us our shared experience was simply not true.
And he had several other men there saying the same thing. I should also mention there was more than one man insisting that they found it irritating or hostile, also, not to back up and verify our feminine experience, but because I don’t want to discount them.
What was worse is that one of my closest friends also stepped in and then said much the same thing. He said we were taking it wrong. That our reception of this experience of having people regularly tell us to smile or cheer up was simply a matter of us not appreciating someone caring for us.
This is a person I respect more than I can even put into words. So, I didn’t simply banter back and forth on it. I stepped back and told him that this was probably the sort of conversation we should have in person, and that I was about to go out of town, so could he put it on hold?
He responded at length, and what felt like a bit of a slap in the face seemed somewhat cleared up, and I went on my vacation and didn’t think much more about it.
Only to find out later that my best friend and him had been quarreling mightily over it. She was extremely hurt with his position. For weeks, evidently, they had been hashing this out afterward. Again and again coming to it like a dog at a bone. With him saying you’re taking it wrong, and her saying you’re silencing me.
It got so heated, and is in fact still so heated, that I have advised her to seek mediation between the two of them in the matter. Them falling out over such a thing would be an arrow to my heart.
But it brings me back to advocacy. This man that is my respected and loved friend? He is a feminist. Truly a feminist. He was raised by a feminist. He’s been on ground zero of feminism since birth.
I don’t know the truth of their situation from both sides. I haven’t yet spoken to him about it, because I really do want to have that conversation in person.
So, I won’t call him out in particular.
What I will call out is all of us.
There is this thing, in advocacy, wherein we may attempt to advocate for someone.
It is of paramount importance that in advocating, we do not silence that someone. That in speaking for them we do not speak over them. That in trying to ease the oppression of others we do not participate in that oppression by adding our own.
It’s made me uneasy in my seat for weeks now, and a lot quieter. It’s a bit of a thing to consider and digest.
When making a space clear for others to speak, we must silence ourselves to hear the other.