Struggle as Activism? A letter from Aunt Lute Co-founder Joan Pinkvoss

It’s been almost two weeks since Aunt Lute’s well attended event at La Peña: the Simple Revolution reading, and a community dialogue which centered on the topic “Struggle, Then and Now.” After taking several days to digest the ideas presented by the readers, round table participants and audience, I wanted to find a way to extend the conversation.

Immediately, to those who attended the event, I owe a personal apology for the manner in which the open discussion proceeded. As the head moderator, I am clear now that I didn’t do the work of setting ground rules or giving an overall context for the discussion.

Since it was the first question which followed the round table comments—concerning transgender women and their acceptance into the activist women’s community—that created a contentious situation, I need to say that Aunt Lute unequivocally supports gender diversity and personal choice.

Our commitment to social justice is inclusive and based on a desire to understand each other across our differences—in a manner that is thoughtful and moves us forward; in a manner that gives us a place to stand in which we can respect ourselves, a position from which we can respect others. Through our books we attempt to do just that, and our intention at La Peña was to provide a respectful forum in which to speak about and understand differences in the lesbian and queer women community across generations.

Where the evening was successful, there was a respectful discussion—or the beginning of one—about difference. And a number of clarifying statements about the importance of issues which varied across generations; across class and race; across gender diversity. Where the evening faltered briefly was when someone’s anger indicated an unwillingness to listen to different viewpoints but rather to aim hostility and demeaning statements towards others.

Both the success and failure were edifying. And they lead me to want to ask questions of those who come to the Simple Revolution blog. Because the large majority of Aunt Lute authors are women and lesbians, and because Aunt Lute identifies itself as a grassroots press trying to make ourselves available to those women who feel without voice, we too are attempting to understand what the future needs are…what social change needs to happen to meet needs not being met in the larger society. That’s the discussion we wish we’d had time to have.

For me, the best outcome of the “Struggle, Then and Now” evening is the certainty that dialogues need to happen—many dialogues need to happen. What is it like to get old and go to senior centers where your lesbianism becomes a liability again? What is it like to make a choice to transform one’s gender, in a myriad of possible ways, and be vulnerable to a hateful, murderous society? What is it like as a 20-year-old woman of color lesbian who is rejected by her family? Can we as activists address all these inequalities and dangers? And how? Do we need new alliances?

And will this activism look different from 40 or 50 years ago? Will our activism, for instance, have an element of spirituality? Some heartfelt way of allowing ourselves to bridge difference? (This is a subject that both Judy Grahn and Gloria Anzadúa have written about extensively in their later work.)

With all of these questions on my mind, I’d like to pose—for discussion on this blog—one of the thoughtful questions written by an Aunt Lute staff member: one of the questions we’d planned to ask on April 26th, had there been time:

How do people relate to the word “struggle” and to this model of activism that seems to apply some form of opposition? Is it a struggle for, a struggle against, a struggle with? If so, for/against/with whom? We often hear how activists “burn out”. Are there alternate words or models to “struggle”?

I think a wider discussion about activism and methods of struggle might better help us frame some of the very difficult and complex issues faced by women, lesbians and transgender women today. I would like to continue the discussion and hope you will too.

Thanks,

Joan Pinkvoss
Co-founder of Aunt Lute Books

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Community Forum

  1. Judy Grahn says:

    Struggle Then and Now Evening

    I was caught short by the vehement old-line lesbian name-calling, and sorry the evening devolved toward the end, yet exhilarated by the rest of it including all the panelists and one on one discussions afterwards. I am hopeful we have opened a real dialogue that can continue in a spirit of love. An agreement to embrace what Audre Lorde so wisely named “common differences”. Listening to each other’s stories, we begin to understand. So we need to make spaces for this, and ways to get into the same room together.

    The term “struggle” is an old Marxist word and refers to the need to argue within oneself as well as with others in order to bring changes that begin with attitudinal changes. Armed struggle is the extreme, talking about lines in the sand. Struggle is something we all need to be doing to take our world away from the colonizing corporations; struggle is something I need to do to stop using so many plastic bags, for instance. And to engage in more “self care” as Dulce has advised.

    But “struggle” has nothing to do with how I go about loving everyone in my communities. That requires opening my heart, showing up, learning to ask questions and staying alert to the answers. Loving requires that I pay attention to what scares, offends, angers, makes me shut down. And then questioning that. So—“inquiry” works better for me than “struggle”—. Depends what the task is, I would say.

    Clearly the younger generation is having different experiences than my generation did—I want to know more about that. And, I want a conference with face to face time.

  2. Savannah Jane says:

    Many thanks to all who are participating in this conversation – and to the organizers who put on the event. Clearly, intergenerational queer/lez family has some healing to do :) . I’m not going to defend or explain how trans women are and have been part of our communities since forever. I do want to talk about how young ‘queer’ communities have tied ourselves in knots to exclude trans women as we bend over backwards to include trans men.

    I’m 25, white, cisgendered and femme. I felt like I was – and may have been – the youngest person in the room at la pena that night. I’m part of young twenty-something-to-thirty Lefty ‘radical queer’ communities in the Bay Area. Sentiments towards ‘lesbians’ ranging from dismissal to outright disdain are the norm (or at least not challenged) in these communities.

    The wholesale dismissal of lesbian histories and elders – including histories of passing women (all of which are mediated by geography, class, culture, race, etc.) – is a big problem! We have so much to learn from our elders and ancestors – especially working class and lesbians of color who built home, loved fiercely and made shit more possible for us. This does not mean that we dismiss transphobia in lesbian communities – it does mean that we connect ourselves to a powerful lineage. We didn’t come from nowhere. I’m guilty of towing the line that lesbians are stale, nonsexual, boring, have bad politics, don’t get gender, etc. Queer trans guys aren’t to blame for lesbian histories sometimes being dismissed – but I do think there is a connection between the dismissal of lesbians and centering of trans men.

    White trans guys are absolutely centered + privileged in my community. This is a problem!

    (Trans)masculinity is valorized, pedestalized, celebrated and consistently affirmed as ultra-queer, ultra-political, ultra-hot, and ultra-trans. Patriarchy and white supremacy can make disproportionate space for celebrating, holding space for, affirming white transmasculine identity and experience. Transphobia from within and out of queer communities that targets transmen is totally real. My aim is not to diminish the violence of transphobia. I do want to get real about how white transmasculinity is privileged in a variety of contexts and how a lot of white (trans) guys get white guy privilege (hello!).

    Transmasculine-centrism hurts our communities and invisibilizes lots of people including women (trans included!), femmes, butches, lesbians (none of which are mutually exclusive categories).

    How do we talk about the fact that white trans guys are centered in many of our communities w/o propping up transphobia? How do we honor and learn from our badass lesbian linneages that have been organizing against the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy since *forever* and make space for the real grief, sadness, anger and resentment many lesbian elders have towards the queer youngsters that consistently dismiss them? How do we challenge the butch–>trans / “butch flight” narrative while recognizing how butch women have been targeted via criminalization, systematic rape, economic violence and more (along w/ lotsa other people)?

    I’d like to explore a question Lenn Keller brought up on the roundtable. She said that people in her generation never had this conversation when trans guys started coming out and transitioning en mass ten or fifteen years ago. Now we’re dealing with the aftermath.

    Also: How is it that **one** of the roundtable participants/performers at this event self-identified as femme? Really?! Much love to Dulce for holdin’ it down.

    I would love to think about how to productively continue these conversations respectfully in an ongoing, public, intergenerational forum. Thanks everyone!

  3. Patricia Jackson says:

    Thank you, Joan and all of Aunt Lute for addressing the dynamics that happened at the La Pena event, and thanks for initiating this intergenerational blog. The discussion that night again brought home the importance of building bridges between youth and elders.

    After years of collaboration with LYRIC and outLOUD queer radio in a series of sessions bringing LGBTQI youth and elders, we found some basic needs in common: affordable housing, healthcare, and helping our homeless youth. It was among the most heart filling work I have ever engaged in. Even though we had issues in common, we held different perspectives on gender, used different terms, and differed on what was a community. This dialog needs to continue. To do so, we need to build trust and assure all a safe atmosphere to be able to talk openly. In our workshops we created together and agreed on a list of do’s and don’t’s before dialogs began. A few I remember from our session: “Step Up; Step Back”, or “one Diva; One Mike” so no one would dominate the discussion, and “Don’t Yuk My Yum!” remember not to shut down someone if you disagreed or use attack language.

    Many dykes of the late ‘60s and early‘70’s were fierce feminists. As feminist, we had to “struggle” within a gay movement dominated by gay men. As dykes, we were rejected by women’s organizations like NOW. Dykes had to find each other in order to build our own movement – Gay Women’s Liberation. It was a magical time of coming into ourselves, falling in love with ourselves as women, and creating women-only spaces. We like to hear appreciation for those early years. LGBTQI youth get that we laid the foundation for them; many youth thank us. Let us be thankful that we fought for those rights youth enjoy today, and the inclusive community youth are building.

    I remember being at one of the first gay marches in LA and heckling because it led off with gay males. This was before we renamed the celebration, “Lesbian and Gay Pride.” I also remember objecting when the name was to be changed to include bisexuals; “Get your own movement”, some of us said. We learn and grow to realize we are not one another’s enemy.

    Now is another time. All our Movements are in motion toward change and growth. A Queer Movement now encompasses so many different gender identities than over 40 years ago. If we can’t understand why a person changes gender or understand transgender issues, we can educate ourselves. There are numbers of books available. And if any transperson is willing to dialog with you, stay out of judgment; listen with compassion. Youth led the way in movements of the past as they do in the Occupy movement today. Elders can share lessons learned from our times of uprisings. What a time for us to work together!

  4. Dulce Garcia says:

    Hi Joan, thank you for continuing the conversation/dialogue on your blog. I have to say that I was saddened and disappointed by the way the discussion played at that evening. In continuing this conversation, I would kindly ask folks to think about intent vs. impact. To think about the intention they have with the words they are using and the actual impact it will have on others who are part of this conversation. It was obvious from that evening that many folks (continue to) carry pain and although their intention may only be to vent and let their true feelings be heard, the choice of words they use has a direct impact on those of us in the room. The discussion needs to be focused on how to move forward in creating safe and welcoming spaces for all, rather than finger pointing and accusations. Through these dialogues I would also like to remind folks about self-care, and knowing how much energy and time they are willing to put into this discussion/dialogue. These discussions can be mentally and emotionally draining and we want to make sure that we are doing the necessary self-care to not only model the behavior but also avoid burn-out. I look forward to being a part of this dialogue and growing as a community.

  5. Chenxing says:

    I’m so grateful for the courage of the many people who have shared their perspectives—even (or perhaps especially) those I don’t agree with. Insofar as we’re all grappling with these big questions (of who, what, and why we are), I do see us engaged in an ongoing “struggle.” But “struggle” brings to mind a hapless victim in the not-so-loving embrace of an octopus, and, many-tentacled as these questions may be, I don’t think they always need to be suffocating. (Indeed, it can be joyful, as the laughter at the La Peña event demonstrated!) So, as Jaime wrote, I don’t resonate with the word “struggle.” And I feel deeply indebted to the sacrifices of those who’ve made it possible for me to arrive at this realization.

    I remember reading Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar in middle school, having fully claimed English as my native tongue after immigrating from China, and coming across an idea that made so much sense: gender is fluid. Though this notion has always seemed intuitive to me, I have never met harassment for my perceived sex/gender, probably since most would label me as female/woman. Yet I have never felt at home in this or any label, though I do wear some of them more intimately than others: 1.5 generation immigrant, (convert, ecumenical) Buddhist, Chinese American…

    The discrimination that my body remembers most deeply is racial. It is this visceral memory that accounts for the sadness I feel when anybody is made to suffer due to others’ actions and words. I felt this sadness very keenly at one point during the La Peña event, upon hearing hurtful comments that seemed to deny the very legitimacy of an entire group of people.

    As a Buddhist, I’m aware that there is suffering—and there is a path to the end of suffering. To me, the word “movement” is more compelling than “struggle.” It reminds me that all phenomena are constantly changing and unfolding. It reminds me that I have a choice in how to direct my thoughts, speech, and actions, how to move my mind, mouth, and body. To answer one of Joan’s questions, spirituality and religion are very important elements of activism for me—indeed, they are foundational. The activism I aspire to is comprised of acts of healing, however small: caring for myself and others, with joy and forgiveness and compassion, in the extraordinarily interconnected world in which we live.

  6. Sim says:

    It was so difficult to experience the event devolving into virtual name calling. It felt like some (older) women totally forgot that feminism is not just for female born women. Feminism, I always believed, was a wide open door through which everyone could walk toward a vision of ever expanding inclusiveness. To me feminism was a willing host for a world bigger than the narrow construct we had previously been condemned to inhabit. The LAST thing I want to do, as a feminist, is tell someone else that their self-definition is wrong.

    The angry, judgmental comments stated in the guise of discussion reminded of the ‘sex wars,’ when I worked in a women’s bookstore and collective members battled over whether or not to put “on our backs,” the lesbian S&M magazine, on the shelves.

    The patriarchy taught us to demean and destroy the people with whom we disagree — but feminism gave us a way to reach for higher ground. Let’s chose feminism again — for EVERYONE.

  7. jody sokolower says:

    Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    As an unreconstructed flannel-shirt anti-imperialist lesbian from the 70s, I was struck by the inclusive and respectful tone of younger participants at the event, and the lack of that tone by some in the audience from my own grey-haired generation.

    When my daughter, who is now about to graduate from college, was five, she asked me if she had to stay the same gender her whole life or if she could change. As I explained that yes, she could change, my first reaction was grieved shock: I had worked my whole life to expand gender definitions so “woman” would be large enough to encompass anything we wanted to be. Was it all for nothing?

    My second reaction was different: Ericka wasn’t a political line; she was my child and I had two choices: support her in growing to be who she wanted to be, or act the way my parents did when I came out. There was really no choice. I started educating myself to be supportive, to deal with my prejudices and my subjectivity.

    There is no doubt that every generation of the struggle against patriarchy has paid in blood; and each generation stands on the shoulders of those who went before. But, as elders, we have a job and a responsibility: to make sure we have passed on the history as clearly and honestly as we can. And then to support the next generation and the ones after that in challenging and expanding our definitions of liberation. To open our hearts and our minds to see how their flowering comes from our roots.

  8. Jaime Jenett says:

    Joan,
    Thank you for creating this forum. As a 36 year old white raised upper-middle class femme lesbian, the word “struggle” doesn’t resonate with me. It’s sort of earth-shattering when I take a moment to think about that. I have never not been out. I came out to myself at 17, I told my parents, I lived my life out and 21 years later I am happily married to a woman and we have a child (you can see more about our family at http://www.thedevotionproject.org). My life has been very…pleasant. And I’m very clear that a large part of that privilege is the direct result of the intense, bloody, tear-filled, angry, lusty struggles of queer (that’s the easiest word for me to use to be inclusive) people who came before me.
    It feels like in my generation, the struggle has moved out into the thinner edges. My circles don’t talk about the struggle to come out as lesbians (although, that certainly varies by class, race, gender, geography). The work you and your comrades did over the past decades has paid off and the fight you started about lesbian rights and feminism is now being hashed out in newspapers and courtrooms in ways I couldn’t imagine even 20 years ago. Thank you.
    The thing we talk about now in my circles is gender. Not exactly what does it mean to be female, but more what is this whole gender thing and we can expand our understanding of how it gets used. In my early 20’s, I can honestly say I felt a sense of loss when people I thought of as butch women (many of them smoking hot) began to question their gender and many began to transition. I felt like “we were losing them “. Their rejection of femaleness in their own body felt like a form of misogyny. I couldn’t understand how someone could go to such extreme measures to excise their femaleness (top surgery, testosterone, etc) and not, somewhere deep down, hate women?
    When I look closer, I see that many of these folks were and still are ardent feminists. A shift in their gender presentation didn’t suddenly un-do their politics. Many of the folks I know that transitioned to male are using the male privilege that they are being granted by society to our advantage. Trans folks are NOT our enemies. Sexism is.
    It took me years to realize that I simply may never understand what it’s like to not have my gender and my sex line up. I just won’t. Just like a straight person may never understand what it’s like for a lesbian’s brain to tell her to desire women. But just because I don’t understand doesn’t mean I have to judge.
    I now have a number of transgender friends that are close, close in my heart. I see the way they fight the same fight we are all fighting- against judgment, against oppression, against tyranny. These things that hurt lesbians hurt trans folks too. In fact, I often see trans folks taking the lumps in our community that radical lesbian feminists took a few decades ago.
    Over the years I have come to realize that we only “lose” these gorgeous, dynamic human beings from our community if we draw a line in the sand. Trans women and trans men are only “other” if we make them so.
    What do we have to lose if we say “you are one of us” instead of “who do you think you are”?

  9. animal prufrock says:

    hey joan –

    thanks for writing this. it was unfortunate that the dialog did not have a trained moderator, who could frame the dialog in a way that fostered a safe space for heated conversation.

    i think even the last sentence – women, lesbian and transwomen – creates a sense of separate categories that are actually NOT separate – women are transwomen, are dykes, are tranny dykes, are lesbians are straight, etc…

    to expand on dylan vades’concept of a gender galaxy –

    i am writing a song in which the chorus is about how we are all a part of galaxies of queer – and how we need to come together in that we are all living outside normative structures of gender, sexuality, expression, lifestyle, etc…

    it is time to listen to each other.

    it is time to love each other even if we have different ideas -
    and make sure that our ideas are expressed as offerings and not penetrations…

    there are complexities to our stories that have led to fear and anger -
    but we are all queers – whether its because we are old, or old school, or new school…it is our difference that makes us on the same team.

    lets remember we are on the same team – and build a strong diverse community and show the world how it is possible to love and be different.

    and everyone needs to have compassion for the “standpoint” of the “other”
    in order to grow and expand the spirals of love.

    love,
    animal

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