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Claiming Space

Claiming Space

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When I got called, for at least the second time in just as many months, a Trans exclusionary radical feminist or TERF and a cis-gender sexist, I decided that was it. I’m giving up feminism. Inspired by an article I had read, called ‘Excommunicate me from the church of social justice’, I announced my intentions on Facebook. Where else does a feminist in 2017 go for public validation?

I was accused of being a TERF because I allowed a post that was potentially transphobic, and subsequently enabled a debate about whether or not the post or the person who posted it, was transphobic.

On another occasion, a party flier I designed for a queer women’s party using the word ‘womyn’ instead of women provoked a similar response by someone who quipped in the comment box, “Is this a TERF event? I wasn’t sure if the organisers intended it to be so. ‘Womyn’ is a trans phobic word”, and linked the post to an Everyday Feminism article on transphobic words cis gender women use without knowing it. I thought, well, it didn’t used to be.

It’s not that my group is exclusively lesbian or bisexual, but the people there are majority cis gender lesbians or bisexuals. The group caters specifically to that demographic. I became obsessed with what it meant to be intersectional and ideas around claiming space and why I potentially wasn’t intersectional enough in someone else’s eyes. I googled and read multiple listicles on how to recognize privilege, my own potential privilege, and looked for the answer to the question: do I have a right to claim this space – cis gender lesbian – without being accused of being un-inclusive?

I was having a distinct crisis of belonging. Being accused of being transphobic wasn’t just political, it was personal.

 

 

I run a few community pages and groups on Facebook. One in particular is for queer women, mostly lesbian and bisexual women. The group has never been self-consciously feminist nor has it been overtly politically engaged in LGBT advocacy. Where posts or discussions have covered those topics, it has only been instigated by a few members in between posts about Kirsten Stewart, badminton meet ups and discussions on coming out of the closet. Those posts tend to get one or two likes whereas the Kirsten Stewart memes are far more popular. But regardless of the community’s lack of a political consciousness, they have rightly claimed that space and more importantly, need that ‘safe space’, to live authentic lives. It is their right.

But the space was being questioned – the use of our language, the way we were identifying and defining these identities, even to the extent of how we saw ourselves. The group was never created to be exclusive, in fact the complete opposite, and the labels we use, however limiting are not definitive, they just were of the time and moment and what was important to recognize then.

I have noticed more and more content posted is trans gender related. Perhaps it’s easier to talk about someone else or feel engaged in someone else’s problems when your own are quite heavy. I didn’t question it at first. Maybe exposing lesbians to trans issues would make them more empathetic to the issues of being marginalized, maligned and criminalised, maybe it would inspire them to look at themselves, beyond themselves, to recognize their own issues there and to help them unpack their own prejudices, preconceptions and, dare I say, privileges?

There has been a mainstreaming of trans people’s issues with discussions about LGBTs focusing more and more on transgender issues. Where I think this is an inspiring and completely necessary thing, it has been problematic for me, admittedly, because I felt as lesbians, we were still not being seen or heard by society or even participating and acknowledging ourselves. For all intents and purposes, the lesbian community is still very much in the closet in Malaysia and still desperately need a space to exist as a unique identity and community all of their own and there’s nothing wrong with that. Having one space for a unique identity does not automatically make that space exclusionary.

With the focus on gender, sexual orientation was taking a back seat, especially in terms of identities being represented. After I re-wrote the group manifesto, which states what kind of group we are and what things we are interested in, I realized later, that I hadn’t even mentioned the word sexuality. Tides were changing and I was not sure what this meant for my identity especially since, I observed, that any critique of any discourse other than cis female and lesbian, was accused of being phobic. Was being a cis gender lesbian the new oppressor? Were cis lesbians more privileged than other queer people? Can’t we critique without being automatically labeled as phobic?

 

 

The way we deal with difference and engage in discussions about our differences is problematic. We still rely way too much on mainstream Western narratives and on binary languages. Especially younger people, whose access to feminist ideas is predominantly via an American biased internet. Where just a few years ago, young women were trying to disassociate themselves with feminism, the culture now looks like – “I am an intersectional feminist, your feminism isn’t as pure or good as mine.”

Like normal people, feminists make mistakes too. When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s comments on trans women caused such outrage, I was annoyed because I don’t believe she deserved that kind of vilification. We all have an opinion and can criticize other opinions, but her unpopular views do not mean she is not a feminist and she’s been a feminist way longer than most of us. I’ve done my fair share of calling out and shaming, homophobes and sexist men mostly, and sometimes women who enabled them. But it’s important to recognize that outrage is toxic. Calling out culture, which often comes with public shaming is toxic and anti-intellectual. Feminism is not a one size fits all thing because women are diverse, and to not consider difference actually oppresses more people than liberates them.

While we should criticize sexism and homophobia and transphobia but especially as feminists, we should do so in a feminist way because passive aggressiveness and confrontational behaviours cannot be healthy, for anyone. We should also remember to allow for a certain amount of error, for people to catch up with the language and acknowledge that miscommunication occurs especially over social media and texts, and simply, that some people’s opinions may just differ from yours even when they are on the same team.

The point with all of this is – give people some space. Identity politics are changing faster than I can write this sentence.  Identity politics exists primarily to claim rights. Labels like ‘woman’, ‘lesbian’, ‘transwoman’ are tight little boxes that people have been forced into. There are also political reasons people claim these labels and they are not intentionally exclusionary. History, something we must all remember and study, has made them necessary. Instead these labels are protection and a sense of belonging and when the time comes that these boxes are no longer needed, for either safety or control, please give people the space to crawl out and at their own pace.

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