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Hierarchies of oppression: a highway to nowhere

Better to avoid self-labelling as a victim

Old nonsense is again raising its hoary head. There was a time, a couple decades back, when some people liked to number their oppressions. Some lesbians, for example, noted they were oppressed as both women and as people sleeping with the same sex.

Fair enough.

But then, they’d claim, it meant they were more oppressed than, say, gay men and their issues should therefore rise to the top of the pile.

Sort of an “I’m a bigger victim than you are” taunt.

This silliness died out. Most sensible people understand that a huge part of the world is oppressed in one way or another and that defining oneself as a victim, and creating a hierarchical ranking of victimization is, well, a highway to nowhere.

Much better to just chip away at your issues, individually and collectively, and avoid rankings and, frankly, self-labelling as a victim.

And for three decades, we did chip away. We made good progress on equality rights but we still have a long way to go in matters of sexual freedom and social justice — and those issues continue to be of pressing importance.

In recent years, some in our community have reached out to embrace the parallel struggle of trans people for gender equality. It is a bit of an awkward fit, of course, because the lesbian and gay struggle has been one centred on our freedom to express our love and lust, whereas the trans struggle is one of gender expression.

Some have argued that trans people must be responsible for organizing their own liberation, in the way that gays and lesbians did before them. Others say that their gender struggle fits well with our sexual-freedom struggle — after all, we share the same enemies — and that because trans people are much less common than gays and lesbians, it is only fair that we take up their cause. In either case, it’s clearly going to be a long battle.

The progress to date for gay rights has been accomplished largely through the involvement of middle-class (and now largely middle-aged) gay men and women who have organized the groups, led the occasional demonstrations and funded the legal challenges. It’s gay men and lesbians that are being asked to make room for trans issues in their list of priorities and, let’s face it, to pay for any future challenges.

All of which is to say that it’s really unhelpful — insulting, really — when some trans activists suggest that they are the most oppressed, and so we should put their issues at the front of the agenda.

Ottawa trans activist Jessica Freedman’s recent blog postings are a case in point. Freedman is a profoundly tenacious activist at the local level and has taken recently to sharing her blog on national listservs. A recent posting insisted on viewing trans as the “most marginalized” within the queer universe.

“I have always thought of marginalization/oppression to be, not a stagnant body of water, but a series of cascades from the most mainstream to the most marginal,” writes Freedman. “We are all holders of privilege and invisibilize those more marginal than ourselves, unless we are diligent and open.”

She goes on to call for reallocating the “resources of life.” Sounds fair at first glance.

But the implication is clear. If followed, our attention would shift to prioritizing resources to the needs of the “most marginal” (never mind the question of how we determine who they are.) Trans issues would top the agenda and our organizations would re-prioritize and spend accordingly.

Of course, it will never work — nor should it.

The numbers of gays and lesbians far outweigh those of trans. And gays and lesbians pay for our community’s struggles as volunteers and donators and we’ve still got a lot to do. Trans issues are also important, and perhaps they should be included in the overall agenda (though it seems this has become an assumption of our leaders without there first being a genuine debate about it.)

Meanwhile, any organization that buys into the insulting concept of hierarchies of oppression is not getting a donation from me.

Read previous columns by Gareth Kirkby: