What’s going on with all these campus ideological battles?

A note: I am aware that freedom of speech as described under the First Amendment only applies to the government. I’m talking more in this post about norms of academic freedom and campuses as a place where ideas are exchanged. Though sometimes, at public colleges and universities, the latter overlaps with the former.

I’ve been puzzling for some time now over the people – especially the ones who are not generally conservatives – who style themselves as some sort of modern guard against political correctness and the suppression of free speech in academia. They lump a lot of issues together, sometimes in the same sentence, that appear to me to have very little to do with each other except that they are advanced by people on the left. They don’t like trigger warnings, voluntary student-run safe spaces, discussion of microaggressions (or the word “microaggressions,” for that matter), or student protests of commencement speakers. The arguments that I usually hear against these things are:

1) These are frivolous and a symptom of how youth are coddled today. Well, frivolous is in the eye of the beholder, but clearly a lot of people disagree on that, or these concepts wouldn’t be getting any traction in the first place. And they weren’t invented by Kids These Days either. Microaggression theory came from academia in the first place, on the faculty side of things, and has been studied since 1970. Trigger warnings have existed in blogs and fandom for at least 8 years (as indicated by that question about them at that link having been posted 8 years ago). College students have been protesting commencement speakers since at least the 1960s, as you can see on page 6 here.

2) This is censorship. Even the best tools can be used destructively, but none of these concepts require censoring anything or advocating censoring anything, and in many cases they are themselves speech acts. Even protests of commencement speaker choices are not calls for censorship, unless you think a culture of free speech includes the right to be honored by a community, and that community members who weren’t allowed in on the decision about that honor shouldn’t have a say in who gets honored by their community.

Lately, I’ve been hearing people say that the Duke student who wouldn’t read Fun Home is an example of this from the right, but a student not reading a book from an optional reading list, and producing speech in a student forum explaining why he didn’t read it, is also not censorship.

So what’s going on here? Why are people, including people with a stated mission to promote free speech, ardently taking up the banner against all of these things, and why are they lumping them together? I think I get it now…and I think these people, in addition to being mostly wrong, are focusing on the wrong things.

All of these things are sending the message that speech has power. Which I would hope that people who disagree with me would still agree with – I certainly hope that my speech has some power, and I bet they hope that their speech has power too, or why would they bother with it? And, they’re sending the message that power includes the ability to cause harm. It can negatively affect someone’s psychological state. It can do that so much that the person wishes to carve out a space they can go to to avoid that kind of speech. It can have cumulative effects, and drive people away. I think Corey Robin was uncharacteristically off-base when he wrote about this and characterized student activists as censors, but he got this aspect of what was going on, that there’s an underlying thread here about the power of speech.

This recognition of speech’s power isn’t censorship. There is no contradiction, in my opinion, between being a free-speech activist (as I would say that I am) and supporting, in some form, everything that I’ve listed (as I do). But free-speech activists are aware that censors build their case by talking about speech’s power to harm. There’s plenty of history around that, as with the Dworkin-MacKinnon Ordinances (which I would strongly oppose if they were, you know, still an issue in 2015), and besides, on what other grounds could one convincingly argue for censorship? So they make a leap. They figure that activism that centers speech’s power to harm means you’re an aspiring censor, that you, the activist, intend to make that leap. I think they’re wrong in most cases, and they’re certainly wrong that embracing the concepts is indicative of an intention to make the leap.

There’s another thing that I think many of them are wrong about. Not only do they present these social justice concepts as a threat to freedom in the exchange of ideas on campus, they think they’re THE threat. Jon Chait provided a highly illustrative example of this the other day. He thinks that Liberty University is “more open to dissenting views than many liberal campuses now” because Bernie Sanders spoke there. Angus Johnston explains why this is wrong at some length at that link. Liberty University restricts student and faculty speech in ways that would be unheard of at liberal campuses. He also makes the points that 1) booing and picketing speakers is speech, not suppression of speech, 2) conservatives actually speak on liberal campuses all the time, and 3) there was never an option for students to boo and picket Bernie Sanders the way that liberal students might do to a conservative speaker at a liberal college, because Liberty students aren’t allowed to protest at all.

There are, in fact, plenty of threats to academic freedom and its norms around the exchange of ideas on campus. Threats to massacre people who show up to hear a speaker. Physical assault by some community members against demonstrators (and yes, people on the left have done this too. The cutting of student groups’ funding if they engage in political advocacy. Campus police brutality against demonstrating students. The suspension of student groups for political speech. Siccing police and deans on faculty for their off-campus political speech. I could go on. Most of these links are about liberals and leftists being targeted, because I think it’s useful to counter the stereotype that such things only happen to right-wingers and because I knew where to find the links, but a couple are examples of conservatives, or both the left and the right, being targeted. None of these are cases where, if someone does a bad job implementing a concept or invokes it in bad faith in the right way, it could lead to suppression of ideas on college campuses – they’re all cases where it actually happened.

I’m not generally one to tell people that they’re focused on trivialities and should focus their activism on more important things (especially because the supposed trivialities, when you look at them, often aren’t trivial at all). But I don’t quite understand why fears that something could lead to repression if handled sufficiently badly are getting so much more traction than existing repression. At least FIRE, for all the problems that I have with them – and I have many, including their tendency to equate these two phenomena – cares about the existing repression. Same for Ken White at Popehat. But many of these people who are so worried about potential consequences of acknowledging that speech can cause harm, are people that I’ve rarely if ever seen show interest in the types of stories that I’ve linked above.

As a street medic, I consider myself, among many other things, a free speech activist, working to keep people safe from attack by the government (or counterprotesters) as they express their political views. And my own speech in that context is highly likely to be targeted for suppression. That doesn’t mean that I can’t related issues wrong. But I do get a little tired of hearing that I’m a coddled baby who’s killing free speech by supporting short heads-up notes on syllabi or student-run voluntary hangouts with soothing things in them.


1) I see what people believe is the link between a certain set of issues now. I think their concerns are mostly misplaced.

2) Even though I think their concerns are misplaced, the principles that they’re aspiring to uphold are important. Why are those principles more of a hot thinkpiece topic for pundits when social justice activists bring in ideas from activist spaces, than when those principles are under attack by police, politicians, and institutional authorities?

How we talk about Jews and the Iran deal

Discuss the Iran deal and Democratic senators who have been hedging for too long, or come out against the deal, and someone brings up Jews. I’m not talking about the irritating right-leaning Jewish publications that can usually be counted on to pretend like their hawkishness is representative of the community (though I’ve seen plenty of words from them too). I’m talking about mainstream media. For instance, this article about Sen. Ben Cardin’s opposition to the deal mentions that he is Jewish, apropos of nothing, in the second paragraph. This article, despite the URL, only mentions Republican opposition to the deal once (very briefly), but devotes quite a bit more text to how Sen. Corey Booker was facing “immense pressure from segments of the Jewish community in New Jersey” against the deal, and how Joe Biden spoke at a Jewish community center to convince South Floria Jewish leaders of the merits of the deal. This Wall Street Journal article stresses the pressure that Democrats in areas with large Jewish populations are facing from Jews to break with their party and oppose the deal. I’ve certainly seen enough random comments from people who figure Dems should be charitable in their assessment of dithering Democratic members of Congress who represent areas with large Jewish populations, because of their need for political cover.

One could be forgiven for thinking, based on some of this discourse, that we Jews – a a mere 2.2% of the US population – are the big threat to the deal.

There is, however, a glaring problem with that perception, which is that Jewish-Americans are more supportive of the deal than the public at large. As of the end of July, 49% of US Jews backed the deal (compared to 28% of the public) and 53% wanted Congress to allow the deal to go forward (compared to 41% of the public). Only 24% wanted Congress to block the deal, compared to 38% of the public. This poll suggests that Jews do tend to be more opinionated on the issue, as the share of Jews who were unsure or had no opinion was much lower than the share of the general public, but most of those opinionated Jews are opinionated in support of the deal.

When I brought these numbers up in a discussion the other day, one response that I got was when you’re talking about Democratic members of Congress in heavily Democratic areas, the relevant comparison isn’t all US Jews vs all of the US, it’s Jewish Democrats vs Democrats in general. The person making this point suggested that Jewish Democrats would be less supportive of the deal than other Democrats. But this argument doesn’t stand up to data either. According to that Jewish Journal-commissioned poll, 70% of Jewish Democrats supported the deal as of the end of July, with only 21% opposing. A Washington Post poll from roughly the same time found that 69% of Democrats supported the deal and 25% opposed. So Jewish Dems are similarly supportive of the deal, possibly a little more so, compared to other Dems.

Given these numbers, it’s hard for me to interpret all the focus on Jewish opposition to the deal as anything but anti-Semitic (or at least, misinformed by anti-Semitic cultural currents). Some of what I hear from deal supporters comes across to me as “Even liberal and leftist Jews aren’t trustworthy on foreign policy,” even though I’m quite confident that in most cases this message is unintentional. Some of what I hear from the mainstream media comes across as “Jews should be expected to have certain political positions – which happen to coincide with the Israeli government’s – regardless of what the data says about what US Jews actually think.” Yes, I realize that a lot of self-declared Jewish “leadership” – people at organizations like AIPAC and various Jewish federations – has been active in opposing the deal, and has tried to position their opposition as the True Jewish Position. And that is not helpful, and I expect it has played a role in giving people wrong impressions of what Jews think. But as Jim Fallows helpfully points out, the opposition to the deal is coming first and foremost from the Republican party (which doesn’t have a lot of Jews in it), including its members of Congress (there is only one Republican Jew in Congress), and a bunch of largely conservative Christian candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, in addition to the contributions of hawkish Jewish groups.

This would bother me less if it were a new phenomenon. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Back in 2004, the leftist magazine Adbusters, which likes to take more credit than it really deserves for Occupy and pretend like it was nothing but an Adbusters campaign, ran an article entitled “Why Won’t Anyone Say They’re Jewish?” that called attention to the Jewishness of a bunch of neocons, listing them and putting little black dots next to the names of the Jewish ones. While Adbusters was hardly the only outlet to write about this, and took pains to make it clear that most Jewish-Americans are left-of-center (which honestly makes its article less bad than some out there – I am picking on them because I knew how to find the specific article) and that Jews are not monolithic in opinion, they’re still portraying Jews as uniquely responsible for the phenomenon and particular focus (i.e. Israel obsession) of US neoconservatism. And yet, if you look at this roundup, US Jews were more likely than the rest of the country to oppose the Iraq War over the years, were more likely across political ideology to oppose the war than others of the same ideology (Jewish Dems were more likely to oppose the war than non-Jewish Dems, and Jewish Republicans were more likely to oppose it than non-Jewish Republicans), and less likely to support US military action in general.

The idea that even if US Jews are mostly liberal and dovish, it’s a handful of hawkish conservative Jews that are driving US policy toward Israel, also seems rather dubious under scrutiny. As of 2006, 31% of US voters were Christian Zionists, defined as “a belief that Israel must have all of the promised land, including Jerusalem, to facilitate the second coming of the messiah,” meaning that there are many, many times more Christian Zionists in the US than there are Jews of any political ideology. These ultimately anti-Semitic (their beliefs require the deaths of Jews in order for Christianity to triumph) Christian Zionists have enormous and often-unacknowledged political clout in the US (including great clout within George W. Bush’s neocon-driven administration), and are responsible for a lot of shaping of US discourse and policy around Israel.

And yet, whether we’re talking about Iran, Iraq, or Israel, there’s so much focus on a handful of Jews, and not just by the sort of Jewish publications for which covering intra-Jewish debates for the Jewish community is part of their raison d’etre. The hawkish Jew stereotype persists across the political spectrum, and its cousin, the progressive-except-for-Middle-East-foreign-policy Jew, persists on the left. To be clear, plenty of Jews buy into these stereotypes as well – people internalize stereotypes about their own groups. I did, until I found more and more data complicating the picture, and I still have to kick myself from time to time when I realize I’m slipping back into it. Plus, to my annoyance, there are some hawkish Jews who find it useful to push their views as the consensus views of legitimate Jews (and then bring up the anti-Semitism of others propagating a stereotype that they themselves pushed). But people should still learn when their stereotypes are wrong and need to be unlearned, and people should think about the ways that these stereotypes tie in with classic anti-Semitic tropes accusing Jews of dual loyalty, untrustworthiness, and control of world events.

Next time you see someone attributing a senator’s reticence on Iran to the need to please Jews, consider the ways in which this narrative is oversimplified at best and pernicious at worst, and complicate it.

P.S. I know that there are people who oppose the Iran deal from the left – they don’t think a nuclear power like the US has any business trying to prevent other countries from gaining nuclear weapons, they see both the sanctions and the deal as imperialism. I’m not taking this segment of the population into account in this post because I suspect that it is too small to have an impact.

Steelmanning and responding to trigger warning arguments

This post was spurred by the discussion about trigger warnings in academia over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.

Over the last year and a half or so, there have been a lot of terrible arguments about trigger warnings in college classrooms. Opponents of trigger warnings have depicted students with triggers as whiny, mollycoddled, censorious babies, incapable of handling life. They’ve drawn false parallels between exposure therapy – which is performed by a mental health professional in a controlled environment, after an assessment by that mental health professional that it would be a useful mode of treatment – and being triggered in class – which is not – in order to claim that being triggered in class is actually good for you.

If you believe that anyone who expresses support for trigger warnings/contents note is a whiny mollycoddled baby, please go read geobiology and geochemistry Professor Hope Jahren’s very detailed post on what being triggered is like for her as a trauma survivor, and then come back. Even if you don’t think that, it’s a really good post and worth reading anyway.

Meanwhile, I’ve come across some arguments that are worth more consideration, and thought of a few extras myself. I’m going to summarize those arguments, and then suggest a university policy that would address both most of my concerns and most o f those of the people making these arguments. I thought up this draft policy while I was biking home from campus earlier this evening, and immediately typed it up with no further refinement once I arrived at home, so I’m sure it could use some tweaking.

“Nearly every argument in favor of trigger warnings/content notes that I see has a different version of what should be warned for, as does nearly every forum or blog that uses such warnings. If you want me to do this, give me a consistent account of what I need to do.” Author’s note: You can see what I’ve warned for in the past on this blog by looking over at the tags and checking out the tags that start with “tw:”.

“I don’t mind if individual instructors want to put these in, but I don’t want my institution putting more constraints and restrictions on me. For students with legitimate needs, there’s already a disabilities office, so why do we need anything else?” Author’s note: I address the second half of this question implicitly in my draft solution, which makes use of the disabilities office but also includes other elements and rationales for having them. Unlike some proponents of trigger warnings/content notes, I do see the disabilities office as an important element precisely because it doesn’t require students to depend on the grace of instructors, some of whom think, or write in major media outlets, about how students with triggers are whiny mollycoddled babies, to get useful accommodations.

“Trigger warnings/content notes appear to be an attempt to implement accommodations using a social model of disability, in which the idea is that we should make environments more inclusive, so that differences aren’t disabling, rather than accommodating on an individual basis [Author’s note: I agree with this sentence]. That’s cool and all, but this doesn’t seem like a feasible context and setting in which to do it, because there are many different conditions that can involve triggers and individual triggers are so idiosyncratic. I get that I could just warn for the major things and it would help some people, but isn’t doing this that way really unfair to the people with unusual triggers who then don’t get the accommodations they need?”

“Through adjunctification, corporatization, and other means, the power and autonomy of college and university faculty is gradually being stripped away by administrators and politicians. I’m worried that however reasonable trigger warnings/content notes are in theory, in practice they will be co-opted by administrators and politicians to further degrade the status of faculty. Or possibly, I’m a grad student TA who never had much power and autonomy anyway and I’m worried that this will be co-opted in a way that hurts me.”

“I’m afraid that if I do this incorrectly, or don’t warn for all the ‘right’ things, I will be blamed for any adverse reactions that a student has. I don’t know anything about mental health and I don’t want to be responsible for managing a student’s psychological symptoms without professional guidance.” Author’s note: You aren’t actually being asked to manage anyone’s psychological symptoms here, any more than you’re being asked to manage someone’s ADHD symptoms by giving them extra time on an exam, but I understand the fear of getting something wrong when people are telling you it’s really important but not being consistent about what you need to do.

“It seems to be liberal and leftist students pushing for these warnings, but I’m afraid that conservative students will co-opt the idea – especially the broad versions of it that say I should warn for things like racism and misogyny – to disrupt my attempts to teach material covering LGBTQ people or issues, non-Christian religions, white or male privilege, etc.”

“The student activists pushing for trigger warnings at some of these schools, like Oberlin, seem to be lifting their proposed implementations directly from blogs and Internet forums, and trying to use policies as a way to express desired social norms. But a classroom isn’t the same as a blog or message board, and policies aren’t the correct way to propose a social norm.”

And here is the policy idea that I spent my bike ride designing, which, again, could probably use adjustments. But I hope that people will find it useful, as something to improve upon if nothing else. I’m trying to minimize gatekeeping, maximize access, minimize the opportunity for instructors who think they’re fighting a great battle against political correctness to screw over students, minimize co-option opportunities, and maximize ease and consistency of implementation, all at the same time.

Students who need content notes for specific topics or depictions as an accommodation can get them with documentation from a licensed healthcare provider, including a licensed mental health provider. No specific diagnosis or history is required, only documentation from the healthcare provider that the accommodations are necessary. As many students with mental illnesses do not realize that they may qualify for accommodations, each semester, during the first week of the semester, there will be a table in the student center with information about how to request disability accommodations, with informational materials specifically addressing mental health and accommodations.

To facilitate this process, a list of licensed mental health providers who accept student health insurance (including those in the university counseling center), local sexual assault crisis centers, local domestic violence agencies, and [if there is one in that area] local members of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, and their contact information, can be obtained at the following locations: [locations].

The university recognizes that there are traumatic stress responses that may affect student functioning but are sufficiently short-term that students cannot obtain documentation from a licensed healthcare provider during the time frame in which accommodations would be helpful. If they wish, students who have experienced an event of actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others [Author’s note: This comes from the DSM definition of a qualifying trauma for PTSD], within the last month [Author’s note: A month after the trauma is when it becomes PTSD rather than Acute Stress Disorder, and Acute Stress Disorder sometimes goes away on its own], may get a note from [Relevant College Staff/Admin] stating their need for content notes if material similar to the event. All student accommodations, whether obtained through the Disabilities Office or the [Relevant College Staff/Admin], are confidential, and the [Relevant College Staff/Admin] will not be required to report conversations with students about accommodations [Note: I get that this one is a problem because it implicitly discloses to an instructor that the student recently experienced a particular sort of trauma, which is a violation of the student’s privacy, but I couldn’t think of how better to handle students who have a sudden, new, urgent need for accommodations – this is the sort of case where a pure social model approach would work better].

Some instructors may wish to provide content notes beyond what is required by this policy. Examples of such content notes can be found at [links to articles where college instructors have talked about how they implement trigger warnings/content notes in their classes]. Content notes are NOT a value judgment on the material that they cover.

Baltimore officials thought medical info for protesters was rebellion and a threat – and they aren’t the only ones

One version of the street medic logo

It was September 2012, and I was in Manhattan, acting as a street medic at the Occupy Wall Street first anniversary protests. They’d been happening all weekend but the biggest ones were going to happen next morning. Meanwhile, a bunch of protesters were crowding into Zuccotti Park, which was ringed by barricades and NYPD officers, with only one small opening for people to get in and out. I was talking cheerfully with my medic buddy C, a local as we entered the park.

As we passed by the officers at the entrance, one smirked and gestured toward the street medic markings plastered conspicuously on my shirt and kit. “Those won’t save you from us tomorrow.” I stopped and looked at him, startled. C, normally famously unrattled by cops, snarled “She’s not wearing them for YOU,” and pulled me away.

C’s medic markings were pretty small and discreet. That was true of most of the local medics I met. They, of course, could pull it off, because after months living in a park with and a year of showing up to protests with the same people, everyone knew who they were by sight. But the discretion wasn’t about a red duct tape shortage. It was about targeting. Street medics all over are familiar with medic targeting, but New York had been hit especially hard that year, with the police breaking a window with a medic’s head during a march (starts roughly at 0:13 of the video), and injuring another medic’s head so badly that she nearly died later from complications. You can listen to her, and her medic buddy (who was taken behind a police line and kicked during the same incident), talk about it here. I’d talked to yet another OWS medic at the Republican National Convention protests in Tampa who’d described being grabbed by a supervisory officer and thrown down the stairs.

I remembered all this yesterday, and am writing this post, because I was reading two articles by Kevin Gosztola on the monitoring of Black Lives Matter activists in or talking about Baltimore this spring. In the Baltimore city officials’ list of “threats” from April 27, one Twitter account (@ConstantNatalie), and one tweet from that account, are listed as “rebellion.” That tweet is, in fact, the only “rebellion” on the entire list. What did @ConstantNatalie tweet to draw this sort of attention? She embedded someone else’s tweet, with a Pastebin link, in one of her own, and added the #Mondawmin hashtag. The Pastebin link goes to a fairly good concise health and safety guide for Ferguson protesters. So spreading first aid information to protesters is a “threat” and “rebellion.”

When I talk to people who don’t do protest-type activism or are new to it, they’re often very surprised at this theme. Some wonder whether street medics and street medicking aren’t protected by the Geneva Conventions (we are not; the Geneva Conventions apply to armed conflict, i.e. warfare). More commonly, they just find this to be unreasonably and pointlessly assholish behavior on the part of the police. We’re increasingly familiar with stories of police going after the people who film and otherwise document them, but street medics don’t have that role (having a GoPro strapped to you while medicking would violate the privacy of the people you’re caring for). So why not leave medics, health & safety trainings, etc, alone? I think it’s a combination of a couple of things – morale games (protesters tend to get very upset when something happens to a medic, and to be excited about learning health & safety info) and the belief that any attempt by activists to protect themselves, no matter how obviously nonviolent, is actually violent and dangerous. The same people who think that goggles are a threat because they’re self-protection from police violence, think the same thing about medics and health & safety trainings. There are people who think that the presence of medics can only signify protester violence.

Police suspicion of street medics and their work has been documented at other protests, not just Occupy or Black Lives Matter. One of the medics who trained me has a story about their detainment at the 2008 Republican National Convention protests. This medic was grabbed out of the crowd, accused of stealing the materials in their kit from an ambulance, searched, told that they would be turned over to the feds on charges of “medical terrorism,” threatened with being used to test the pepper spray, and had most of their stuff dumped onto the ground, before being released. This story and others of medic targeting at the 2008 RNC are recounted here and more medic targeting at the 2008 RNC is recounted here.

The NATO Summit protests in Chicago saw this too, with a group of medics detained and harassed while eating pizza after a march. The Chicago PD actually planted a long-term undercover in the local street medic collective, during which that undercover tried to bring in a “friend,” incite protesters, and collect information on where out-of-town medics were staying during the NATO Summit protests. Cops lurked outside the local medic coordinator’s house, and hung around in crusiers outside the medic headquarters constantly, sometimes harassing the medics who passed by (in pairs, as we had been told in no uncertain terms by fellow medics not to walk around alone if we could help it). And there were several medics injured over the course of the weekend.

One of my medic friends who started in the anti-globalization-movement days, back when they used to train people to be street medics in the days before big summits, has a great story about a Secret Service agent sitting in the back of the room all throughout a 20-hour medic training he was conducting.

Yet another medic friend has a story about the 2009 Pittsburgh G20 protest, and the medic dispatch area – street medics coordinating other street medics, keeping track of them, helping them through tough cases, and sending them to sites where people are known to be hurt – being raided by the police, the medics volunteering there dragged out of the building.

And of course, in Ferguson last year, a church-adjacent aid station was raided by police (while I was in Ferguson, actually), and materials for treating pepper spray and tear gas exposure seized. The aid station had been up since nearly the start of the protests, but a few hours earlier, it had provided a brief health & safety training for medics from protesters for the first time, and a few hours before that, medics had provided a first in-depthy health & safety training for Ferguson protesters, at a different site. There was some indication, based on the accounts of people present for the raid who saw and/or spoke with the police, that the timing of the raid was connected to these trainings.

Going to the 2012 Republican National Convention protests, a medic bringing a case of first-aid supplies was questioned about whether she was going to the protests, and her case of supplies was seized by the TSA with no explanation, and not returned.

I did a short health & safety training for protesters here in Boston last winter. When I crossed the street there was a police car parked in a nearby lot, for no apparent reason. When I passed by it turned on its siren, scaring the hell out of me, and it stopped the siren as soon as I was past it.

This all makes so much more sense when you classify first aid and the provision of health & safety information as a threat. A special kind of threat indeed. “Rebellion,” the only threat on the Baltimore list to be classified as rebellion.

Police and protester interactions in the US are very far from Geneva.

The LGBTQ and feminist movements are natural partners, not competitors

I’ve been seeing an increasing number of “Look how well LGBTQ issues are doing compared to feminist issues!” pieces lately, perhaps inspired by the success of same-sex marriage and the last couple of years of onslaught against abortion rights and access. There’s also been some anxiety coming from major left-leaning writers like Monica Potts and Katha Pollitt, worrying that LGBTQ and especially trans liberation struggles will hurt feminist causes. I’ve tackled those concerns in past posts.

The unattractive implication of some of this genre of commentary is that liberation and oppression are competitions, and LGBTQ people have won the former while women are winning the latter (and the fact that some people belong to both groups is not seen as especially relevant to the conversation). The other unattractive implication is that LGBTQ liberation and feminism are naturally in competition, fighting each other for the scraps of progress that the mainstream deigns to give them. I even saw one Internet commenter state “I am more concerned, though, that we…have put our attention so much on LGBT rights in recent years that we have let go the much greater challenge: women’s rights (women here = bodies with uteruses).” I wouldn’t normally pull out some random person’s cissexist comment, but in this case it’s just making the subtext text – there’s only so much social justice to go around and LGBTQ people are taking up too much of it while women aren’t getting enough. It’s the same idea that landed Patricia Arquette in controversy during the Oscars.

The narrative of overwhelming LGBTQ victory depends on a very narrow view of LGBTQ issues. There are now 28 states where you can legally get married to your same-sex partner and then legally fired from your job if your workplace finds out about it, and employment nondiscrimination is even a nice mainstream-friendly issue, while issues like LGBTQ homelessness and the all-too-frequent murders of trans women of color are not so much. It’s also too narrow a view of feminism – after all, anti-sexual-violence activism, surely a legitimate feminist cause, has been doing pretty well over the last couple of years.

There’s another problem with the LGBTQ vs women framing, though. It ignores the extent to which the movements share issues.

Contraception and abortion rights and access are feminist issues. They’re also LGBTQ issues. Not just in a fuzzy “All oppressions are connected” kind of way. They are, directly, important LGBTQ issues. LGBQ teens with uteruses are far more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than straight teens (and LGBQ teens with penises are far more likely to impregnate someone than straight ones). Bi women are nearly three times more likely than straight women to have had a partner try to get them pregnant when they didn’t want to be (14.9% vs 4.5%) and about 40% more likely to have had a partner refuse to wear a condom (9.4% vs 6.8%). Trans men who get pregnant are more likely to get abortions, based on the little data we have, than cis women are. Abortion and unplanned pregnancy, by their nature, are issues that affect people with uteruses, but of those people, they affect the LGBTQ ones VERY disproportionately. LGBTQ people desperately need access to contraception and abortion, and to cast these as feminist issues but not LGBTQ issues is to miss an important part of the picture. If you look at the 2015 program book for Creating Change, the big annual LGBTQ activism conference, you see that the LGBTQ movement has come to understand this – reproductive justice was the subject of a plenary session and several workshops, and was one of the topics of discussion at the Task Force Academy Reception.

Rape and other sexual violence are feminist issues. They’re also LGBTQ issues. Not just in a fuzzy “All oppressions are connected” kind of way. They are, directly, important LGBTQ issues (and ones that the LGBTQ movement has been working on for many years through the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs and its individual members). According to the CDC NISVS, bi women are a good 2.6x more likely to be raped or have someone try to rape them than straight women, and quite a bit more likely to experience almost every form of sexual violence or physical/sexual domestic violence than straight women, from groping to stalking to choking to being kicked by a partner to having a partner use a gun or knife on them. Lesbians are more likely to experience physical/sexual domestic violence than straight women too. Gay and bi men are twice as likely as straight men to experience some form of sexual violence. These trends show up with kids, too – one of the studies on LGBQ teen pregnancy also showed that LGB teen girls in New York City were almost twice as likely to be raped as straight girls and LGBQ boys in New York City were more than four times as likely to be raped as straight boys. The situation for trans and gender nonconforming people when it comes to sexual violence is so bad that 12% are sexually assaulted JUST in the context of bias attacks in K-12 settings, and 6% in the context of bias attacks in the workplace.

Pay equity and gender-role-connected poverty are feminist issues. They’re also LGBTQ issues. Not just in a fuzzy “All oppressions are connected” kind of way. They are, directly, important LGBTQ issues. According to the Williams Institute, same-sex couples are more likely to be poor regardless of gender, lesbian and particularly bi women are more likely to be poor than straight women, and gay and particularly bi men are more likely to be poor than straight men (bi men are even more likely to be poor than straight and lesbian women). Same-sex couples make less than different-sex couples and are more likely to receive public assistance. You need only go back to the link above on trans experiences of sexual violence to see the grim stats about income distribution for trans and gender nonconforming people. And trans women’s earnings fall by nearly a third after transition (while trans men’s earnings slightly increase).

Any sensible LGBTQ movement would understand that these are all as much its issues as same-sex marriage, and put serious work into them. Any sensible feminist movement would understand that the LGBTQ movement is its natural partner on some of its roughest, toughest mainstream issues, rather than a competitor for a limited amount of social justice in the world that has managed to grab more than its share. Fortunately, there are a lot of LGBTQ activists and a lot of feminists who understand this.

Scattered notes from Baltimore

Hi readers! I’m sorry I have not posted anything here in forever! Life got in the way for a while.

I spent three days last week street medicking in Baltimore. It was an odd time to be there. There was a lull in protest activity, with almost no actions going on. There were, however, plenty of previously-arrested protesters still in jail, so I spent a huge amount of time doing jail support – sitting outside the jail waiting for arrestees to be released, in order to provide them with medical (broadly defined, as street medicking is in general, to include things like giving people water) and emotional support. I mostly did this with some other out-of-town medics who were in Baltimore for a few days.

The Baltimore jail system's intake and release building. I spent a LOT of time here.It was nice to be able to give the medics who have been there for a while a break. Some of them looked pretty tired and stressed, and understandably so. Nightly protests aren’t conducive to getting enough sleep. Several medics had been arrested, and held in jail for multiple days, and must have gotten out not long before I got there. A couple had been shot with pepper balls (similar to rubber bullets in that they’re fired from a less-lethals gun, but plastic bullets filled with pepper spray or similar). I have great respect for the medics who were on the ground through that more escalated period.

I talked to released arrestees who had been denied medical care for both acute police-inflicted injuries and chronic (including potentially-life-threatening) illnesses. This wouldn’t surprise me if we were talking about people arrested the same day, but these were all people who’d been in for several days. In the case of one of the non-protest released arrestees that I talked to, this was someone who’d been in for three weeks without care for his serious chronic illness. I don’t want to get into details because I don’t want to affect someone legally, but I was pretty horrified by the levels of apparent negligence on the part of the jail. One person that I talked to was so ill that she was having trouble walking.

Not all of the protest arrestees had actually been protesting. Some released arrestees were homeless people who had been caught up in curfew violations. A curfew is kind of a problem for people who don’t have an indoor place to sleep. There was one released person who’d simply been lost and approached the wrong, and apparently baton-happy, riot cops to ask for directions. His distraught family spent a week or so trying to get him out of jail.

I chatted with a journalist, Baynard Woods from City Paper, who got care from the street medics, along with one of his colleagues, after they were attacked with chemical agents (I was unclear on whether it was CS tear gas or pepper spray/pepper gas) while doing their jobs as journalists. Woods is trying to follow up on arrestees’ situations, if anyone reading this was arrested or knows someone who was.

I talked to three people at different times who disclosed having been fired after their arrests. Based on the other things they said, I have no reason to think any of them had been, for instance, breaking or burning anything (and one was released with no charges). I have to wonder whether the same people who are very very worried about people getting fired over impolitic tweets, because Justine Sacco, have words of concern about people getting fired over public speech against the police killing black people (or over being in the same general vicinity as people who were engaging in such speech – see previous paragraph). This isn’t totally snark; there are some such people out there that I respect and I would like to think that this does bother them on free speech and other grounds.

I also heard from non-protest-arrestees who, when I asked if they were arrested with the protest, said that they were arrested in “the aftershocks.” Further conversation with them and others suggested that the Baltimore PD may be cracking down on some neighborhoods in the wake of the indictment of the six officers implicated in Freddie Gray’s death.

The jail support medics got to do some interesting connecting of people with legal advocacy – learning about cases from friends and relatives outside the jail and then contacting the legal support people to get them on the case.

There were some funny moments, too. At one point, some guy got out of his car in the road in front of the jail, with the engine still running, and did a dance to hip-hop with multiple fishing poles. Once he finished with the fishing poles, he did another, ass-shaking dance, while washing his car, again, in the middle of the road with the engine running. The jail support medics who were there at the time were deeply confused. We talked to him for a while afterwards and learned that he was celebrating being happier than he was when he used to work at the jail. The purpose of the fishing poles, however, is still a mystery, especially as there are no bodies of water near the jail. You do you, I guess, Dancing Baltimore Fishing Pole Man. There was a car following him that I’m pretty sure was an unmarked police car.

As it was my first time in Baltimore, I was not previously familiar with lake trout, but it is delicious.

That safe-space room was actually well-done, please stop mocking it now

I’m not going to go deeply into the now-famous Shulevitz op-ed in the New York Times about how students are “hiding from scary ideas” and trying to “self-infantilize,” though I have many thoughts on it. I want to pull out a small bit of it and explain why the mockery of what’s described in that bit is off-base.

In her opening story, Shulevitz describes student activists at Brown having set up a “safe space” room where students could go if triggered or distressed during a scheduled debate about campus sexual violence. This room “was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Shulevitz doesn’t come out and explicitly mock this as childish, but she used it to open an op-ed about students infantilizing themselves – providing all the fuzzy details – and an awful lot of the people I’ve seen commenting on the piece have been mocking the hell out of this room and how childish it is.

Here’s the thing. I’ve volunteered as a rape crisis counselor for more than two years. Been trained in two different states for two different programs, and between them, interacted with a lot of people with trauma-related mental health issues. I also trained last fall as a domestic violence advocate and have been volunteering on a hotline for that for a few months (I’m actually on a shift, phone sitting next to me to be picked up when calls come in, as I write these words). And in street medic work I interact with people who have experienced some kind of trauma pretty often. I took a Psychological First Aid course, which is about supporting people who have been recently traumatized by natural disasters, early in my street medic career, before I’d had any rape crisis training, so that I could better support people as a street medic. I’ve used these skills to provide crisis support at community events from time to time too, like one of the first vigils after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The setup of this safe space room doesn’t sound childish to me at all. It sounds pretty intelligent and well-informed.

Some of the more common symptoms of trauma-related mental health issues, especially PTSD, are dissociation (e.g. flashbacks, feeling like you’re out of your body or cut off from your senses or emotions, memory loss) and “reliving” experiences that are mostly prompted by something reminding you of the trauma (e.g. flashbacks, nightmares, mental floods of traumatic memories, loss of emotional stability, having physical reactions like trouble breathing or a pounding heart). For both of these, the first-aid-y equivalent is what’s called grounding – connecting the person (or, the person connecting themselves, if they know how) back to the present, not-in-danger, reality, through the engagement of their senses.

I’ve prepared grounding kits, handed out grounding objects, and been in rooms where because of the nature of what we were talking about there was a pile of grounding material in the room for use if necessary. What does one typically use for grounding? Colors, definitely colors. Textures, especially textures with a positive mental association. Objects that catch the light, that reflect or refract it. Tastes and smells with positive mental associations. Shiny objects. Soft and fuzzy objects. Things you can squeeze, hug, fiddle with, turn over in your hands, peer at. Emotionally neutral or positive sounds. Sensations like cold, as long as it’s consensually administered and won’t do actual physical harm (perhaps because of my medic background, I’m a huge fan of instant cold packs for grounding, and almost flipped out in excitement at the realism when I saw Iron Man 3 and Tony Stark threw snow in his own face to bring himself out of panic attacks and flashbacks). Basically, lots of neutral and positive sensory input. Anything involving simple repetitive tasks (or simple repetitive exercise, like running) may also be useful for dealing with other aspects of what’s happening with the person, because another set of PTSD symptoms is what’s called hyperarousal – overactive startle reflex, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, excessive alertness, angry outbursts – and repetitive tasks that don’t require any brainpower can help with this.

If you’re paying attention to what I’m saying here, you’re probably getting my point, but just to be clear: What would I put in a room meant for people who’d been triggered, if I had the resources to stock such a room? Well, something like an elliptical machine would be nice, but probably not feasible. Staff who knew something about trauma would be nice too, and a space within the space to talk to them out of the hearing of others. I’d put in soft beanbag chairs (fuzzy texture, usually bright colors, a place to sit) as well as some other chairs, and some pillows (soft and squeezable). I’d put in some comfort-food-type snacks (taste and smell can be great for grounding). I’d put in a lot of colorful objects, maybe even a bookcase or something so that people could look at the colors on the book covers. I’d put in bead strings, pipe cleaners, craft-store-type feathers, shiny rocks, glass prisms. I’d put in squeezable foam balls. I’d definitely put in Play-Doh, Play-Doh is great for this, the only problem is that it dries out so quickly. I’d put in a pile of instant cold packs. I might put in soft music or other soft sound effects. Perhaps paper and pencils/markers/crayons as well – I hadn’t previously thought of coloring books but that’s actually pretty smart. Bubbles are nice too, they have the whole refraction-of-light thing down. I’ve traditionally carried a small (like, zip-loc-bag-sized) grounding kit within my street medic kit, and it has some of this stuff, mostly colorful beads, scents, and small squishy or soft objects, plus I have cold packs and snacks in the rest of the kit. If you talked to other people who have done grounding stuff, you’d probably get some different ideas (but overlapping, because most of my own ideas, I got from other people, mostly when I was being trained or in continuing ed).

The safe space room at Brown didn’t have cold packs – might I suggest those for next time? – but based on Shulevitz’s description, they put together a pretty solid room, one that even went with all the senses just in case using a particular one for grounding doesn’t work well for someone. Good job, student activists! Guess you got good training somewhere. Your competent work probably enabled some students to go listen to the ideas exchanged in the debate, secure in the knowledge that if they had a panic attack they could duck out to a well-stocked room for a while! And you got coverage in the New York Times too! Except wait, in the New York Times you were portrayed as childish and now a bunch of people on the Internet are making fun of you because of that op-ed. I think Shulevitz was pretty irresponsible, honestly, to not contextualize that room at all for readers who have no reason to know anything about grounding techniques. If she didn’t know, she should have asked, instead of apparently assuming that the students see themselves as small children and set the room up to reflect that.

Look people, we can argue about the nature and effects of the current wave of student activism on campus, including what, if anything, the Shulevitz piece says about them. But seriously, please stop mocking the content of that room. The fact that it had Play-Doh in it is just good practice, not actually relevant to any substantial point you were trying to make. And you’re shitting on students for doing something well.

The catastrophic levels of violence against bi/pan/fluid people in the US

March is Bisexual Health Awareness Month. As a bi person myself, I’m going to do a couple of posts about bi/pan/fluid/omni/etc issues, which I will be referring to as bi+ issues because “bi/pan/fluid/omni/etc” is a bit cumbersome to type and read.

There’s this very widespread perception out there, including among bi+ people who aren’t aware of the facts, that the main issues facing bi+ people are 1) queer communities and the media not acknowledging bi+ people, and 2) when and only when bi+ people are in same-sex or similar-gender relationships, the same issues that face gays and lesbians. To be clear, these are both really important issues and worth discussing (and the former, I suspect, contributes to some of the issues that I’m going to be talking about). But there’s so many other bi+ issues that aren’t discussed enough in general and rarely ever discussed outside of bi+ circles.

Guess what? Bi+ is NOT “gay/lesbian-lite.” While it’s true that some bi+ people can sometimes pass as straight and that can allow them to access certain aspects of straight privilege, bi+ is not the special privileged-ish subcategory of LGBTQ. There are issues that affect bi+ people worse than they affect either straight or gay/lesbian people. And they don’t just affect bi+ people with similar-gender or same-sex partners (in fact, some of them, as you will see, are more likely to affect bi+ people with different-gender/different-sex partners).

Today I’m going to talk about bi+ people and violence in the United States (if any readers have info on how this plays out in other countries, please feel free to tell me in comments!). I apologize for the binary-gendered nature of a lot of the numbers that I’ll be throwing out, but the institutions that tend to do the research, with the exception of the NCAVP, also tend not to understand that nonbinary people exist.
There’s a lot of shocking numbers in this post. When I’ve quoted any of these stats to people in the past, usually what I hear is “But WHY would these issues affect bisexuals more than either straight people or gays and lesbians?” and the answer is that we don’t really know. Until recently almost no researchers even bothered to separate bi+ people as a category. I could make some decent guesses (e.g. high rates of sexual violence being related to how bi+ people are hypersexualized by society, high rates of intimate partner violence being about both straight and gay/lesbian partners feeling threatened by their bi+ partner’s sexuality), but they are just that, guesses based on my knowledge of biphobic stereotypes.

Sexual Violence and Stalking, Except by Police/Corrections

Bi+ women are 2.65 times more likely than straight women and 3.52 times more likely than lesbians to experience attempted or completed rape*, with a lifetime rate of nearly 1 in 2 (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 1.73 times more likely than straight women and 1.61 times more likely than lesbians to experience some form of sexual violence, for a total of about three quarters of bi+ women. Bi+ men are 2.28 times more likely than straight men and 1.18 times more likely than gay men to experience some form of sexual violence, for a total of nearly half of bi+ men (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 2.36 times more likely than straight women (number not reported for lesbians) to be stalked (CDC NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women who are incarcerated in state prisons are 1.38 times more likely than straight women and 1.41 times more likely than lesbians to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates. Bi+ men in state prisons are 9.63 times more likely than straight men, though less likely than gay men, to be sexually assaulted by fellow inmates (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008).

Intimate Partner Physical Violence, Sexual Violence, and Stalking

Bi+ women are 1.75 times more likely than straight women and 1.39 times more likely than lesbians to experience physical violence, rape, or stalking from an intimate partner, with more than 3 in 5 bi+ women having experienced this. Bi+ men 1.29 times more likely to experience it than straight men and 1.43 times more likely than gay men. Bi+ women were much more likely to experience this from men, and bi+ men from women (NISVS 2010).

Bi+ women are 2.09 times more likely than straight women and 1.68 times more likely than lesbians to experience what the CDC characterizes as “severe” physical violence from an intimate partner. To pull out a couple of examples, a full 15% of all bi+ women have had a partner attack them with a knife or gun, and more than a quarter have been choked or suffocated by a partner. Unsurprisingly given all this, bi+ women were the most likely group of women to have ever been phyically injured by partner violence (more than a quarter of all bi+ women) or had PTSD symptoms because of partner violence (nearly half of all bi+ women) (NISVS 2010). These stats are backed up by the NCAVP, a coalition of LGBTQ-serving anti-violence programs across the US, which reported in 2013 that their bi+ clients who reported partner abuse (including all genders) were 1.6 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a partner, 2.2 times more likely to experience physical violence from a partner, and 2.6 times more likely to be injured by a partner, than their entire sample of LGBTQ clients who reported partner abuse (NCAVP 2013).

Bi+ women are 3.31 times more likely than straight women to have a partner who tried to get them pregnant when they did not want to become pregnant (NISVS 2010). Just throwing this out there, I wonder if the stereotypes of bi+ people, and especially female-presenting bi+ people, as promiscuous cheaters who will inevitably leave their partners, have anything to do with this – if the partners are trying to use pregnancy to anchor the bi+ person to the relationship.

Police and Corrections Violence

Bi+ people who reported hate or police violence to NCAVP member programs were 3 times more likely to experience police violence than the overall LGBTQ/HIV+ sample reporting hate or police violence to NCAVP member programs in 2013 (NCAVP 2013). And LGBTQ people in general are already, according to Amnesty International, at particular risk for police violence.

Bi+ men who are incarcerated in state prisons are 3.37 times more likely than straight men and 1.48 times more likely than gay men to be sexually assaulted by prison staff. Bi+ women in state prisons are 2.02 times more likely than straight women, and statistically equally as likely as lesbians, to be sexually assaulted by prison staff (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2008).

The Aftereffects

Given these horrifying numbers, it should perhaps not be surprising that the lifetime prevalence of PTSD for bi+ people, using DSM-IV criteria, is 17.4%, 1.76 times higher than for gays and lesbians and 2.2 times higher than for straight people.

As I already described above, nearly half of bi+ women had PTSD symptoms (note that having some PTSD symptoms is not the same as having PTSD, you need a specific number and combination of symptoms for that) from intimate partner violence alone.


Folks, these are appalling numbers. One in two bi+ women raped, more than one in seven attacked with a knife or a gun by a partner, three in four bi+ women and one in two bi+ men sexually assaulted, and on and on? More than one in six bi+ people with PTSD? These should be prominent LGBTQ issues, but they’re rarely seen as such, because bi+ people are widely seen as a privileged-ish subgroup that only sort of/conditionally counts. LGBTQ funding for bi+ issues and organizations is minimal when it exists at all. That’s why I’m writing this post. To spread awareness.

References for this post

NISVS 2010 full report and breakdown by sexual orientation
Bureau of Justice Statistics: Sexual Victimization Reported by Former State Prisoners 2008
NCAVP Intimate Partner Violence Report 2013
NCAVP Hate/Police Violence Report 2013

*The CDC defines rape as rape by penetration only, and includes rape by enclosure/being forced to penetrate as part of non-rape sexual violence.

Anti-abortion discourse is about misogyny – but not just misogyny

This is the third of my response posts to Katha Pollitt’s essay criticizing TGNC*-inclusive language in feminist and specifically abortion funding discourse. You can read the first here and the second here.

In Pollit’s essay, she frames abortion access and other issues around pregnancy as feminist issues, as women’s issues. Which they are – they don’t apply to all women, but they apply to a lot of women. This does not, however, mean that they are only women’s or feminist issues.

Many issues belong to multiple movements. Drug policy reform, for instance, is a movement issue for criminal justice reform, and also for anti-racism. Safety at work is a movement issue for the labor movement, and also the immigration reform movement. Healthcare reform is an economic justice movement issue and also a disability movement issue. These are, of course, not comprehensive summaries of any of these issues, and there are plenty more issues, and I could go on. But my point is that while movements can have ownership of issues, it’s often joint ownership.

Abortion access is a women’s issue. People get that part pretty well. But it’s also a poor people’s issue – being unable to access a desired abortion makes people much more likely to become or remain poor or needing public assistance, and poor people are less likely to be able to access abortions because of cost and logistical reasons. It’s an LGB issue, because LGB teens with uteruses are two to ten times more likely than straight ones to become pregnant, and it’s a youth issue because teen pregnancies are far more likely to be unplanned than pregnancies in general (82% of teen pregnancies vs 50% of all pregnancies unplanned, 26% of teen pregnancies vs 20% of all pregnancies aborted). It’s an anti-racism issue, because Black and Latino people are far more likely to have both unplanned pregnancies and abortions than White people (something that could be addressed with better access to contraception, another important reproductive justice issue that is a women’s issue but not only a women’s issue). It was even a Black Civil Rights Movement issue back in the day. And it’s also a trans issue, because as I already covered, pregancy among trans/gender nonconforming people with uteruses isn’t rare, and the little data we have suggests that pregnant TGNC people are more likely to have abortions than pregnant cis women.

Now, you might say that not all poor people, not all trans people, etc, can get pregnant or need abortions, so it’s still primarily a women’s issue. It is obviously true, that not all poor people, trans people, etc, can get pregnant, but that’s also true of women. Almost 11% of cis women of childbearing age are infertile. Some large percentage of women are post-menopausal. A small percentage of women are themselves trans women who were male-assigned at birth – the non-cis-dude world is not actually dividable into non-overlapping groups called “women” and “trans people” – and don’t have, for instance, uteruses. And simply calling it a women’s issue, end of story, also erases that some of those women are far more likely to seek abortions – or to have trouble accessing them – than others, as I just explained in the last paragraph.

You might also say that movement opposition to abortion is rooted in misogyny. Also true! Society sure does like policing women’s bodies! But again, not complete. Society likes policing a lot of people’s bodies. In the 19th century, when the US anti-abortion movement started, it was about policing women, and also (as Pollit knows because she wrote about this in Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights) about policing immigrants (and, ironically, Catholics). And also pretty much everyone who wasn’t a narrow slice of Northern/Western European. Trans identities weren’t understood in the same way in the 19th century, but both then and now the antabortion discourse has very much emphasized their view of abortion as “unnatural,” a framing also used by social conservatives against trans people and against a lot of other people and phenomena. In modern times, it’s intertwined strongly with misogyny, and also anti-Semitism and anti-secular-humanism, with racism…and with transphobia and queerphobia.

Anti-abortion politics are part of a history of reactionary societal policing of people’s bodies that also includes police brutality, mass incarceration, transmisogynistic laws about bathroom use, forced institutionalization of people with disabilities, and stigmatization of black and brown people’s fertility, among other issues. I don’t mean that they’re all coming out of some big intnentional conspiracy, but they’re all about restriction and violation of people’s bodies.

So yep. It’s the War on Women. And the War on the Poor. And the War on Black People. And the War on Trans and Gender Nonconforming People. I’d love to see people with all of those signs standing together at a rally, frankly. For people who are more than one of the above, recognizing that anti-abortion politics are an attack on multiple facets of their humanity, recognizes their whole self. And for people who are in a category that wasn’t traditionally understood as being affected by abortion – but that is affected by it – it recognizes that they exist at all.

Edited to add: Pollitt did suggest in her essay that she’d be fine with language that includes TGNC people as long as it also retains “women” language. I suppose you could frame everything in the language of “pregnant cis women and trans/gender nonconforming people with uteruses,” but that seems way more cumbersome and awkward, frankly, than “pregnant people,” and while Pollitt fears minimization of cis women here, I honestly don’t think there’s much danger of society ceasing to make connections between cis women and pregnancy/abortion.

*There are tons of terms out there that people use for “anyone who is not cis, whether they’re transitioning from one binary gender and/or sex to the other, or are nonbinary, or genderfluid, or bigender, or what have you.” I’ve seen trans, trans*, trans+, trans/genderqueer, trans/gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender nonconforming, T/GQ, T/GNC, and TGNC all used in this manner. I’m using TGNC here, but different people, communities, and contexts will have different preferences and usages.

Trans and gender nonconforming pregnancy/abortion discourse isn’t new

This is the second of my response posts to Katha Pollitt’s essay criticizing TGNC*-inclusive language in feminist and specifically abortion funding discourse. You can read the first here.

The premise of Pollitt’s essay is that public discourse, especially activist discourse, on pregnancy and abortion is changing to become TGNC-inclusive (and that this is worrying because it minimizes women). There’s a problem with this premise, though. It assumes that the existing public/activist discourse on these issues was cis people’s discourse, and that this TGNC influence on it is new.

Why is this premise wrong? Well, TGNC people already knew that TGNC people with uteruses could get pregnant or get abortions and that some of them did. This has been part of TGNC people’s public/activist discourse for a lot longer than TGNC-inclusive language has been a hot debate in abortion funding or pro-choice slogan-crafting. Dr. Sam Dylan More (who is themselves – I don’t know what their pronouns are so I’ll go with non-gendered – a transmasculine person) studied the experiences of trans men all the way back in 1998, publishing this article in an Australian trans community organization’s magazine in 2000. Yahoo has had a group for TGNC parents and prospective parents since 2004. Patrick Califa-Rice, a trans man partnered with a trans man, wrote an article for the Village Voice about his boyfriend’s experience of pregnancy in 2000. A Montreal trans and feminist organization wrote started a community center course for trans men considering parenting in 2007, and wrote about his experience trying to conceive via fertility clinics in a queer anthology in 2008. This is all stuff that I found with a few Google searches – I am sure that there were a whole lot more conversations going on among TGNC people than this. Notably, something that comes up over and over at these links is TGNC people’s fear – fear that their gender identity won’t be taken seriously because of their pregnancy or abortion, fear of transphobic bigotry in general, fear of not knowing whether any given service would be friendly to them or willing to work with them. When I first joined the EMA Fund as a volunteer case manager in late 2009, it was in the process of making its language TGNC-inclusive (something I’m not aware of any other fund doing until 2012), prompted by some volunteers’ awareness, through having been part of the existing discourse on the subject, that both abortion and fear of exclusion or hostility in reproductive care contexts are real issues for pregnancy-capable TGNC people.

This all makes perfect sense when you think about it. TGNC people with uteruses know that pregnancy and the need for abortions can happen – why wouldn’t it have ever been a topic of discussion before most cis people started noticing TGNC people’s issues?

So what does it imply (intentionally or not) when Pollitt frames the contributions of TGNC activism in this space as recent?

– It implies that the many contributions of TGNC activism to pregnancy and abortion activism, the TGNC conversations on pregnancy and abortion that already used non-cis-woman-centric language, before cis-dominated abortion funds and other feminist organizations started debating inclusiveness, were not important, too marginal to care about, not really part of the discourse. I think the underlying implication that TGNC people’s contributions to the public sphere don’t count becuase TGNC people are such a small, marginalized population, is harmful to all TGNC people, including trans women and assigned-male-at-birth nonbinary people.

– Since her attitude is critical, it implies that it’s bad for TGNC discourse, TGNC language norms, to go mainstream, that it’s harmful to cis women. That’s an unfortunate attitude coming from an esteemed feminist and progressive.

*There are tons of terms out there that people use for “anyone who is not cis, whether they’re transitioning from one binary gender and/or sex to the other, or are nonbinary, or genderfluid, or bigender, or what have you.” I’ve seen trans, trans*, trans+, trans/genderqueer, trans/gender nonconforming, gender variant, gender nonconforming, T/GQ, T/GNC, and TGNC all used in this manner. I’m using TGNC here, but different people, communities, and contexts will have different preferences and usages.


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