I had the chance to think about how activism can become either a mass celebration or a struggle over scant resources, as I pitched my tent at Camp Trans in the woods near Hart, Michigan, for the second year in a row.
It was hard not to feel jealous of the well-resourced Michigan women’s festival (officially the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival) that took place just down the road. It felt like the couple hundred of us — trans people and allies — who set up camp in the dusty field a short walk from the venerable lesbian institution, were definitely the have-nots. As in, we didn’t have enough food to eat, and the porta potties desperately needed to be emptied.
It felt like sticking to my principles — in this case, protesting against the Michigan Festival’s “women-born-women” policy — was a struggle marked by scarcity and unrequited desire.
The experience has certainly helped me understand the poverty and isolation that many trans people face every day, but it didn’t resemble any of the experiences that I have had in Ottawa — which has an incredibly diverse and well-integrated queer community. I know that our somewhat staid capital city gets a bad rap for being a boring, bureaucratic town. But there’s something about the medium size of the queer community that forces people to hang out together and combine our efforts, no matter where we sit on the rainbow spectrum. And that is a very good thing.
Some of the division I experienced in Michigan represents a generational divide — the gay liberationists and the lesbian feminists in their forties and fifties, versus the queer and trans activists, largely in their twenties. But as far as I am concerned, these groups have more in common than they may think. We all believe in justice and human rights, many of us have experienced some sort of oppression because of how we look or who we fuck, and we all challenge mainstream definitions of love and family, simply by the virtue of who we are.
I think it’s a mistake to view social justice as a battle for scarce resources — as in, what should be “the issue” that “the community” works on. The reality is that we all intersect and work on a range of issues together — we don’t win every battle, but we build community in the process.
I would rather have a united community and take a couple more years to achieve a particular victory than have a splintered and resentful community, with those with money and power focussing on a single goal at the exclusion of all others. Many argued that this was the case with the campaign for equal marriage. Now that this has been won, there are so many possible ways we could use our collective energy.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Fighting censorship of queer images in public spaces. Laws may have changed, but public attitudes still have a long way to go. Last week, an Ottawa community centre refused to display a poster for the Dyke March. A local health centre still refuses to display a sexual health guide for trans men, and Capital Xtra routinely runs into problems with restaurant and store owners who want the publication turfed from their properties.
2. Fighting homophobia and transphobia in schools. Queer youth are still vulnerable to bullying, and face clamp downs on their activities by leery or discriminatory teachers. We have a long way to go to make our schools safe for gay and trans teens.
3. Supporting freedom of choice. This struggle represents everything from the right to have a safe and legal abortion, to choosing our sexual partners and practices and supporting the decriminalization of sex work. The fight for bodily autonomy started with the gay liberation and pro-choice movements and continues today.
4. Fighting state surveillance. Just last month, the media revealed the ludicrous fact that Maritime singer Rita McNeil was under RCMP surveillance in the 1980s, for participating in feminist consciousness-raising groups. Given the post-9/11 paranoia, I have no doubt that queer activists could be subject to similar scrutiny. Inadequate immigration policies keep queer refugees from entering our borders, and draconian homeland security-type measures could put all of our civil liberties at stake.
5. Fighting for gender justice. Adding gender identity and gender expression to the prohibited grounds of discrimination under the federal Human Rights Code, as well as the equivalent provincial codes, would help protect everyone — from the nelly fag to the butch dyke, to the tomboy who refuses to wear a skirt. Restrictive definitions of masculinity and femininity routinely lead to bullying and violence against the people in our community — not just trans folks.
We have plenty of important issues to sink our teeth into. Rather than feeling like we should somehow come to a global consensus on what is the most important, why don’t we just roll up our sleeves and work on the issues that catch fire in our bellies? That will certainly fill me up more than any pots of beans.