Queer elephants in the room

This is the third, and most likely the last, post in a series of recent posts about feminist circles; the first was a rather theoretical post on the roots and problems within neoradical communities, the second then followed on and talked about political acts of sexuality. This third post looks at problems within queer feminist and otherwise queer circles, and how we can fix them. Some of this is inspired by a blog post/talk called “Communities Built on Exclusion”, which has since been taken down, itself partially inspired by the Jo Freeman essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

I identify as queer, and more or less, I do enjoy queer spaces. However, as a trans woman, I do sometimes feel unsafe too. Queer spaces are good as a bulwark against patriarchal forces, but we must recognise that we cannot escape patriarchy and even choices to reject patriarchy may reinforce it. With this post, as I know many people who are as queer as I am, I would like to emphasise more than most that no harm is meant by this post; indeed, I would like a safer space for myself, as a trans woman, within queer spaces. Because these are issues that we, as queers, do need to recognise.

With that disclaimer, I think it would be prudent to start with my first major problem with queer spaces: the intersection of male privilege with AFAB people. While, as an anti-patriarchal exercise, it is very good to have women-led spaces, we must recognise that queer AFAB people, especially trans men, can have large amounts of privilege in relation to queer AMAB people, both within and outwith queer spaces (indeed, the idea that transmasculine people in particular benefit from noticeable amounts of male privilege is one that is not often recognised properly). At the same time, AMAB people may feel uncomfortable with leadership from similar pressures, and maybe they’re tempering themselves in recognition of any conditional privilege and socialisation they may have accrued while they were perceived as cis men. In some spaces, even things that should be led by AMAB people, such as Transgender Day of Remembrance events, are led by AFAB people. As someone starting to formulate her gender identity for the first time, the Trans Enough project was helpful, but we must recognise that such a project that is nearly entirely focused on AFAB experiences may be problematic.

This leads to another problem within spaces: compulsory acts of gender and sexuality. In some spaces, there is an expectation, often unstated, that you must identify or express yourself as a certain way, such as non-binary or pansexual. Again, free identification outside of a heteronormative and cisnormative model is to be appreciated, but that shouldn’t come at an expense of Othering other gender and sexual minorities. Where radical feminists have historically oppressed bisexuality, there is a similar phenomenon of oppression of monosexual identities in queer feminist circles. This also has problems for asexual people, particularly in the way that sex is often used as capital in these spaces: this is something that happens in kink spaces too, that your worth in the community is measured by the amount of queer kinky sex you have. The tendency of queer spaces to often tend towards events of high sexual energy is also problematic, and can be especially troubling to asexual people. Compulsory sexuality is no more than one step from non-consensual sexualisation too, which can be problematic among trans women, especially trans women of color, where sexualisation is one of the key tools of the oppressor.

These two feed into problems regarding gender expression, in a way. One of the problems in some communities is gender performance without analysis of it. While I personally would like a world with completely free gender performance, we must recognise the effect that current patriarchal structures have on certain people. In particular, we must recognise conditional masculinity privilege, either as part of or overlapping with male privilege. We are often told to be free to express ourselves, but that doesn’t take into account that it is much safer for a AFAB person to be masculine than a AMAB person to be feminine. These assumptions, by the way, can also apply to trans people whose transition has resulted in observers coding them in their gender by default. Someone who is coded as having a feminine body, whatever their gender identity is, will be much less at risk of physical attack for expressing themselves in a masculine way than as someone coded as having a masculine body would be for expressing in a feminine way. It leads into more discussions about transmisogynist oppression, especially when queer AFAB masculinities are routinely more accepted as genuine than queer AMAB femininities.

And finally, we must also recognise hidden oppressions we may perpetuate in spaces dedicated to destroying them. It’s well known that in “non-structured” spaces (such as a queer feminist space built on consensus) that the structure still exists, it’s just hidden. For a queer person trying to enter into a queer space for the first time, there is a significant problem when the current space appears to resemble an obscure clique. Several follow-ons from this, such as safer space policies, should be watched carefully to ensure they are aimed towards safety and not used as a means to perpetuate hidden structures.

We must also recognise problems where queer spaces are often unrepresentative of people of colour, people with disabilities, working-and-lower-class people, et cetera. Often, especially in Anglosphere queer communities, leadership roles are taken by white, middle-class people. As discussed in the previous paragraph, we must recognise the intersectional nature of racist oppression and transmisogynist oppression (especially when trans women of color are more likely to be physically attacked or sexualised for expressing themselves as such). Similarly, there are elements of classism and problems with accessibility in some queer communities, but I do feel like these problems are on their way out as working-class voices and disabled voices are starting to find themselves in queer spaces.

I recognise my own privilege, especially white privilege, in being able to talk about this and be more accepted than other voices,and also recognise my own limitations in how I speak about this topic. This blog post is nothing new; Julia Serano did write partially on institutional transmisogyny in queer spaces in Whipping Girl (and there are two interesting blog posts, one by a non-binary AFAB person and another by an intersex trans man, about that problem), and there are plenty of blog posts by people of colour about middle class white cosmopolitanism in these spaces (I recommend this post by the For Colored Queers project). I would strongly recommend you don’t take my word for it, and look for more narratives by marginalised groups.

So what’s the solution? For a community that often talks about privilege, we must also recognise our own much more. I believe that most queer communities include people who do this, but also many queer people also talk about their oppressions in a way that diminishes their privileges; indeed, I have actually seen a white-passing feminine-presenting queer trans woman tell me, as an also white masculine-presenting trans woman at the time, that she doesn’t need to check her privilege because she’s trans, when I confronted her on enabling transphobia and racism. So basically, it’s a good thing to check our privilege, and we should do it more, because if we do it, we’re more than halfway there.

Addendum: While reading CN Lester et al‘s answer to a question about genderqueer femmes, I did recognise this post was incomplete, especially as I don’t talk about AFAB queer femininities and (to an extent) AMAB queer masculinities. It was an oversight I do apologise for sincerely. In particular is Hel’s massively long answer, which I would suggest reading as they have more authority, but let it just be said from my (binary transfeminine) experience, I’ve also observed erasure of genderqueer presentations that match the person’s birth assigned gender, as neither queer or trans. It’s something I also think is problematic, and ties into the erroneous idea that there are only certain ways you can be queer, such as trans identity or trans/queer expressionism. To my mind, queer as an identity should be respected as any other identity: it’s for the person holding it, and no-one else, to dictate it. And that’s something everyone, queers, non-queers, trans people, cis people, and any intersection thereof, should really recognise.

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