The ancient Greeks recognized two types of strife, both personified in the goddess Eris. One was harsh and unyielding and left nothing but destruction in her wake, while the other challenged humankind to better itself through its dealings with adversity.
“So, after all, there was not one kind of Strife alone, but all over the earth there are two,” wrote the poet Hesiod. “As for the one, a man would praise her when he came to understand her; but the other is blameworthy: and they are wholly different in nature.”
I’ve had cause to ponder the role of strife in social justice activism and community building lately. For those of you who’ve not been following along these last few issues, in the Mar 1 Xtra I reported on a study by the Metropolitan Action Committee On Violence Against Women And Children (METRAC) that was looking to talk to lesbians about public safety. I included in the article, for reasons that I hope are obvious, the fact that the study would not be including bisexual women.
Needless to say I was unprepared for the response the article generated — not from bisexual women, who were predictably put out about the study and quick to point out the problematic assumptions in its design, but by METRAC itself, which seemed stunned by the off-message reportage.
“We are devastated as individuals and as an organization by the impact this article has had on our relationships in the community,” states an open letter on METRAC’s website (Metrac.org) in response to the piece.
“This incident underscores the tremendous power of the media, which can be used constructively or destructively — constructively to open a space for marginalized communities to raise their voices, and destructively to ‘divide and conquer’ those very communities with nondominant sexualities.”
What a shame. It seems to me that this is a clear case of one sort of strife being mistaken for the other; that what has been presented is an opportunity to learn and grown, not the destruction it’s been painted as.
Sure, no one likes to be criticized, particularly when they have the best of intentions, as no doubt METRAC does. But being open to criticism — from within and without — is essential to the health of any organization. In the words of Pink Triangle Press’s mission statement (Xtra’s not-for-profit parent company), “Through strife and argument [communities] grow.” Let’s get growing already.
The situation makes me think of the way I imagine things must have been in the earlier days of queer activism in Toronto, when the connections between communities were brittle and easily broken. It’s an era I’m thankful I didn’t have to live through.
But Chris Bearchell did. I thought a lot about it as I sat through the memorial service for the indomitable activist, held Mar 21 at the 519 Community Centre. This was a woman who allied herself with some of the most unpopular causes going at a time when most homos were just looking for a little respectability. Surely, she was no stranger to strife.
“She would push me to see past my own issues,” Rev Brent Hawkes told the full house, while Jim Monk shared that, in Bearchell’s books, “equality in gay rights are necessary, but not sufficient.”
Judging from the tales of late night debates and extensive exploratory communiqués from her time on the editorial collective of The Body Politic, Xtra’s predecessor, Bearchell wasn’t afraid to tackle contentious issues — to embrace strife, as it were.
“She knew the personal was political,” Bob Gallagher, friend and husband (who knew?!), told the gathering, “and she always lived up to it.
“She was constantly bringing us back to first principles. The importance of sexual liberation, the importance of sexual freedom, the importance of desire.”
The celebration itself was a spectacle to behold. The audience was a veritable who’s who of queer activism in Toronto. As part of her tribute to Bearchell, friend Heather Ramsay read out a steamy passage of smut written by Bearchell herself. The refreshments were provided by the local bathhouses. For an activist of Bearchell’s passion and commitment to sexual freedom I can’t think of a better way to be remembered.