The unbearable silence of being (queer)

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From the moment we are born, the people around us – particularly those with power – try to convince us that ‘silence is golden’. It’s most extreme expression may well be the old maxim that ‘good girls should be seen but not heard’. As activists, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can have our voices heard. But as today’s discussion showed again and again, there are also silences that we need to overcome within our own lives and within our own communities.

For the last few hours we’ve been trying to unpack the key challenges we’re facing. As we know, there is no shortage of problems: overcoming invisibility, gaining full control over our bodies, accessing our reproductive rights, becoming informed about sexual health, to name a few. But some of the richest discussions to emerge today related to the more subtle struggles we face.

A lot of the time it’s easy to identify the way that patriarchal power plays out in society. But power also works in insidious ways; within our own bodies, within our relationships, communities and movements, we often absorb and replicate destructive hierarchical power structures. Even the most politically aware of us make assumptions about others’ lives or bodies; often, especially when the bedroom door closes, we find ourselves falling into traditional gender roles. The desire to label and describe is strong – who among us isn’t shaped by the culture in which we exist? – but this can also lead us to inscribe our own and others’ bodies with ways of being that may be damaging or limiting.

On the flipside, labels can be powerful: they help to raise visibility and are often important for movement-building. So how do we negotiate this dilemma? We’re still nowhere close to the answers, but having open dialogue is the best place to start. And here at the workshop there is certainly a lot of ground being covered.

These conversations are vital. We must start challenging ourselves to think about the position of trans*, intersex and gender-nonconforming individuals in our movements; about how we can constructively talk about our own bodies; about how we can effectively challenge traditional notions of gender; about how we can positively construct new ways of thinking and being.

At the heart of all of these questions is the notion of silence: we cannot smash patriarchy until we end the silence, and we cannot end the silence until we recognise power in our own lives. People’s unwillingness to recognise and interrogate issues of HIV/AIDS or to acknowledge intimate-partner violence within lesbian or gender-nonconforming relationships undermines broader moves to battle oppression and stigma.

We are lucky to be having some of these conversations here and now, and we’re looking forward to sharing some of these discussions with you. But even more, we’d love to hear what you think. How are these silences affecting your life? What forms of power are being ignored within our activist movements? How do you feel about labels?

Stay tuned for updates on these exciting conversations.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

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The gap: where rights stop and lives are lived

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We all have a right to be safe. We all have a right to express ourselves. We all have the right to choose our identities, to control our bodies, to love ourselves and each other. We all have a right to … but wait, what is this ‘rights’ thing?

Yesterday the group had a brief conversation about wellbeing, safety and security. At first, it all seemed straightforward: be aware of your surroundings, think about the people you’re socialising with, guard your identity documents and so on. But is this sufficient? Can we talk about these issues in such broad terms?

As a comrade reminded us this morning, wellbeing is political. Although it is necessary to discuss our personal safety in practical terms, there is also a great need for us – as feminist activists – to integrate wellbeing more thoroughly into our conversations. Whenever people meet and organise, there are always practical constraints. Indeed, it is inevitable that time will run out or that a ‘more pressing’ issue will be raised. Broader discussions about our wellbeing – and when I say this I’m speaking of all the complexities of our individual selves and our lived experiences – are, sadly, often pushed to the side.

Most of us are brutally aware of the disconnect between the rights discourses of which we so often speak and the realities of our lives. We all carry baggage, we all experience – in one way or another – oppression and we all have the normal stresses of everyday life. How, then, are we going to integrate these aspects of our lives into our political organising? This question is more important than it may at first seem: by not including these conversations we are, in a way, overlooking significant sites of power.

In this morning’s session, there was a point raised about how rape and sexual violence highlight the gap between rights discourses and genuine protection. ‘I know I have a right not to be raped,’ one participant noted. ‘But when it’s happening, rights mean fuck all. How do we navigate these rights discourses but still acknowledge where rights stop? How can we have these discussions in ways that really protect us, that empower us to be protected?’

We must always be aware of how our external experiences shape us and our communities and, perhaps more importantly, acknowledge the real-life impacts of these. As our comrade reminded us, ‘wellbeing is not about pedicures: it is a deeply political thing that we need to pay more attention to’. Again, there is no clear way on how to integrate these conversations more effectively, but let’s not ignore this vital part of our lives.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

Sexuality and gender – what are the issues?

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Feminism. Sexuality. Gender. Patriarchy. Power. Bodies. Knowledge.

These words – and many more like them – fill our conversations, drive our activism. But what do such concepts mean for us as a movement? Have we moved beyond the need for labels and definitions? How do we harness the knowledge that comes from existing in sometimes similar but often radically different contexts? And how can we, as a coalition, integrate a feminist-centred politics into a sexual rights advocacy plan?

Answers to such questions never come easy, but as activists we must not shy away from tough conversations. For the last few hours, the workshop participants has been discussing, debating and rethinking how we understand sexuality and gender. For how can we move forward, how can we ignite our social revolution, without first setting our own points of reference?

And so the challenge is posed: to start developing a conceptual framework, a theoretical starting point, that not only works for us but that can drive positive change on sexual rights.

Of course, these conversations will be ongoing throughout the week, and there are plans to properly unpack the issues starting to emerge from today’s small-group conversations. But in the meantime, we thought it would be nice to share some of the themes and questions that have already begun to surface.

  • To define or not to define? A big challenge revolves around how to understand our sexual behaviours, our identities and expressions, our roles and communities. All of us make assumptions and define others, but does this behaviour encourage or hinder our battle against patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality?
  • Challenging or replicating? Vital to any discussion of sexuality and gender is the problem of power – how does it play out within our relationships, our communities, our political mobilising? Are we really moving beyond hierarchical power structures, or in our own lives are we reproducing and mimicking patriarchal power dynamics? What happens when there is no blueprint for the world we are trying to create?
  • Tick a box. Lesbian, womyn, trans*, bisexual, feminist – what do these terms mean and how do we integrate other people’s understanding of identities and expressions? Are these concepts still relevant to our live and struggles? And how does our cultural and national heritage affect these understandings?
  • Happy families? There are few, if any, visible spaces for us to discuss openly and honestly issues around families, children, reproduction or abortion. How do families impact on our relationships? How do we negotiate the boundaries of queer or nonconforming family units? In what ways do we need to interrogate the dynamics of families and how do we approach issues around definition?
  • Knowledge is power. As a coalition we hold a wealth of experience, knowledge and radical thought. But who has access to this knowledge? How does such knowledge relate to power? How do we use it to increase visibility and engage with the broader world in a way that recognises and supports our members’ own work? And how do we share our experiences, both positive and negative, in a way that seeks to preserve the dignity of individuals?
  • Fixed or fluid? So many of use the words like intersectionality and privilege, but what do these really mean for our interventions and the way we mobilise as a political movement? When is something a preference/orientation or a prejudice? Do we forget our political beliefs when we enter the bedroom?

As noted above, this is just the start of the conversation – it promises to be an exciting and engaging debate, and we’re looking forward to sharing with you some of the highlights. To give you a taste of what to expect, here is a beautifully posed question from today’s debrief session: ‘How do we escape the cages of conformity, for these are all patriarchially imposed and serve patriarchy’s interests?’ This question is at the heart of our work and must stay in our minds when planning, implementing and renegotiating any interventions. No doubt there will be much more to come on this topic.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).