Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why I Fight (the trolls)

I spent this weekend high on painkillers while trying to pass a kidney stone, arguing with strangers on the internet. This may seem like the least productive weekend a PhD student could possibly have - I didn't get a scrap of my own reading done! So, why on earth did I spend all this time in a vortex of hundreds of comments?

The first thread of comments I engaged with was an argument with a man who saw himself as qualified to give safety advice to women. At the outset, I responded assuming that he meant well, but that his privilege was showing prominently. As the thread went on, it became clear that he did not care so much about our safety but about his apparent right to be right - even, in one astounding comment, asserting that a black friend cannot possibly be a black woman, but is merely saying so for rhetorical purposes. Feminists can play that game for as long as misogynists can, and we did. Hours of back-and-forth commenting later (I have never been called a liar quite so many times, in quite so irrational a manner), he left, and I vowed to leave the group.

Then another thread popped up.

The UBC Take Back the Night March had, reportedly, some issues with including trans* folks. That was apparent from the event page itself - the wording was problematic in the way that revealed that organizers likely saw trans women as something other than, well, women. At the very least, it was clear that they hadn't done their homework, and that making a safe space was not a priority for this event. I didn't attend the actual march, but one attendee posted voicing her disappointment with the way trans* voices were silenced. I cannot comment on what was or was not said at the march itself; the commenting maelstrom that followed was, to say the least, everything but inclusive.

At issue here was the inclusion of a group called Vancouver Rape Relief in the rally. VRR has a problematic legal history of having excluded Kimberley Nixon, a trans woman, from their volunteer training group on the basis of her trans history. Their own website makes their position on the case clear. After a lengthy legal battle, the courts decided that VRR could legally decide who was and who was not a woman for the purpose of their peer counselling programs.

As a cis feminist who is absolutely committed to equity and justice for all women, I am appalled at their implication to decide who is and who is not a woman. Their decision to exclude Nixon from their work indicates that she was not enough of a woman for their purposes. This sentiment is not something that was simply buried; it is not a small fragment of VRR's history. This is something that came out, repeatedly, in the comment thread I was arguing in over the weekend. Several commenters claimed that including trans women as volunteers would undermine their peer counselling approach, because it was based on having a common experience, from birth, as women.

This idea of a common women's experience is what I particularly wish to address, now that I am not (kidney) stoned.

As a white, middle-class cis woman, raised in a feminist household, I would never presume that I shared a common girlhood with women who did not have the privilege of food security, a stable home, not being subject to racism, and being embraced as a girl from the day I was born. I don't remember ever being told by my family that I couldn't do something because I was a girl - those sentiments were new to me when I went to school. When I briefly aspired to be a pro baseball player, my family signed me up for preschool t-ball in the park. My t-ball failures had nothing to do with being a girl, or social prejudices, and everything to do with poor hand-eye coordination (something I still lack). I honestly do not remember being faced with sexism until I was nearing puberty. The other privileges I was born into diluted the privilege I did not have. Layers of privilege inform how and when women experience sexism. It is far from purely a function of how doctors judge what we have between our legs as infants.

The other point that commenters brought up was that of reproduction and relationships. To many of them, a common women's experience consisted of dreaming of weddings from a young age, or fantasizing about what to name our children. Anyone who has read this far will probably realize that - shock! - neither of those experiences have anything to do with being cis. I can say that from a young age, the idea of a wedding filled me with trepidation, rather than girlish dreaminess; even before I had a word for "lesbian," I imagined myself marrying a woman and I knew, somehow, that this would mark me as different. As I grew older, I learned that I could not legally marry - and that stung.

As for reproduction, well, not all cis women experience childbirth. Experiences of pregnancy intersect with those of abuse for some, but not all, cis women. No, a trans woman would not have the experience of growing a baby inside her uterus - but is that really the marker of womanhood? The millions of women who are not mothers, or who are mothers but do not give birth to their children, would likely disagree. Cis privilege lets cis women claim ownership over experiences such as motherhood - but they are not universally ours, and they are not exclusively ours. Women experience motherhood in myriad ways.

So, hopefully I have made a solid position for how I believe that cis women and trans women are all women, are all equally women, and can be peers - just as much as, say, women of different sexual orientations could be peers. I do wonder how the VRR supporters in the thread would have responded if someone had substituted the word "trans" for "lesbian" and "cis" for "straight" in their comments.

So, why do I fight if it is inflammatory? Well, I am fighting precisely because it is inflammatory. In fighting, I am trying to build fires, rather than extinguish them. Before I face a comment wall accusing me of arson, I should point out that these are metaphoric fires - and in this metaphor, fires are a good thing. Bear with me.

This is inspired by Khelsilem Rivers' metaphor of decolonization as the regeneration that happens in a forest fire. Persuading VRR to rethink their policies is not decolonization, but it is regeneration, and it is change. With leaves burnt off and trunks laid bare, we can see the fundamental similarities that unite us as human beings, rather than the cultural meaning that we have attached to various aspects of our bodies. Fire is also a source of community; it allows people to come together, to have dialogue, and to heal.

I engaged with these commenters because they are people who care, passionately, about eradicating violence against women. I hope they can begin to fight for the rights of all women, and fully include all women, rather than just those they feel they can relate to the best. I argued because we are all survivors, and we are all afraid, and often in pain from that. Not all of these women are trolls, even though some of them were awfully abusive to the trans* folks in the thread. They were arguing to defend an organization that quite possibly saved their lives. As a survivor, I respect their fear. Some of these women participated in other threads that denied rape culture, and we were a united front. I hope one day to see them defending trans women as vigorously and passionately as they'll defend cis women.

It takes a long time for sparks to ignite a pile of soggy wood, but when we are cold, it is worth it. I hope the dozen or so of us who kept commenting have inspired at least some thought, some reconsideration, from other women on the thread. After a few days of arguing, I am out of matches - but if I have to, I'll whittle another one.

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