No, no, I’m not suggesting people bring tents to the next Butch Voices conference. I am suggesting there’s something to be learned from the Occupy movement that can be applied to other areas, including movements hoping to empower groups that traditionally do not have power in our society. One of the issues that stood out for me at Butch Voices was that the emphasis on identity was at once empowering and part of the problem. If you pay attention to the stories coming out of the Occupy movement, all over the country and the world, you won’t see statements about identity, or debates about which words are acceptable as ways to describe included identity and which ones are not. What I see are people uniting based on common experience, the experience of being on the outside of a political and economic system that alarmingly favors the people who already have a shit-ton of money, over the majority of people who worry about survival, paying essential bills and what the hell’s gonna happen when they get too old, too infirm, or too sick or injured to work.
The lesson that people involved in Butch Voices and Butch Nation can learn is that concentrating on specific identities is not the best way to go. Identity politics always leaves someone on the outside who might otherwise be an asset to the movement or organization, and tends to lead to rigid identity policing that takes away from any positive benefits the group might otherwise generate. There was a lot of defensiveness at Butch Voices and a lot of strident, even aggressive, expressions of identity that lent to an air of exclusion rather than inclusion. People drew lines between themselves and others, and line drawing doesn’t tend to lead to unity or a common sense of purpose.
So here’s an alternative for y’all to consider: how about organizing around commonality: common experience, common oppression. Regardless of how you identify, if you were assigned female at birth, and you do not conform to dominant culture’s idea of what a female person should look like, or do, or show interest in, you have and will experience oppression of some kind. I’ve had a number of conversations with people since the conference and we agree on this: if a female identified butch walks down the sidewalk with a male identified trans man and a gender non-conforming masculine genderqueer, it’s very likely the muggles will not see those individual and different identities, they’ll see a bunch of butch dykes, and they will oppress, taunt, harass and sneer at all three equally. Yes, identity is important and it is well worth fighting to have the power to self-identify. However, if it leads to infighting and territorial battles and line-drawing among people who share common oppressions, it’s not doing us any good. We need to find a balance.
I don’t support using identity as a way to beat people down or create a hierarchy of who’s more butch, or more queer, or more entitled to the rewards that the group produces.
If we organize around common oppressions and experiences, maybe we could stop arguing about divisive and unproductive issues. Maybe we could actually create positive change.
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