driving the wedge: what peta’s lesser-known tactics can tell us about their work and our own.

Trigger warning for racist, fatphobic and anti-immigrant language and images.

Perhaps one of the most deceptively simple aspects of organizing for social justice is building an inclusive movement that respects the struggles of multiple communities.  It’s similar to building any meaningful relationship.  Genuinely share power.  Know when to listen, when to support, and when it’s not your role to take the lead.  Take accountability for your own actions and privilege, and change your behavior to respect the boundaries of those close to you.  Invest in your own growth and the growth of those around you.

But that straightforwardness doesn’t make it easy—that’s why so many of us are still learning.  Doing this work has made me deeply appreciate organizers and organizations that take accountability gracefully, and that change their approach to reflect the feedback they receive.  It’s incredibly moving to see organizing that’s truly borne of love and compassion—enough so to change its course when it leaves communities behind.

The flipside of this appreciation is a deep frustration with those that continually dodge accountability, or become more entrenched in their privilege over time.  And in my experience, there is no more consistent offender than PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

PETA has received consistent criticism for its sexist tactics, which sexualize and objectify women to drive their point home.  But PETA doesn’t just throw women under the bus—they target a variety of identities and communities.  And ultimately, it hurts their own work.  It stymies their ability to build a broader movement, and it alienates potential allies and supporters.  And, at its core, it exposes just whose support PETA is trying to win.

note. 

As with much of what we discuss at You’re Welcome, we’re here to talk tactics, and whether specific organizing reflects anti-oppression values.  This post will not debate the merits of veganism, vegetarianism, or the animal rights movement.  The discussion below is designed to focus on the tactics utilized by PETA staff and supporters to make their case.  And that, as we’ve discussed many times here, is what makes (or breaks) a movement.  It’s rare that we at You’re Welcome focus more on what’s going wrong than what we can do right, but I think there’s value in taking a hard look at what our tactics can say about our work, and what PETA’s says about theirs. I hope you agree.

exploiting racism.

In addition to its well-known sexist tactics, PETA leverages racist tropes and constructs to further their own work.  Earlier this year, they garnered some attention when PETA sued Sea World under the thirteenth amendment—the constitutional amendment that outlaws slavery.  Needless to say, this is shortsighted and overtly oppressive—to say nothing of the fact that, historically, comparing people of color to animals is almost exclusively the purview of explicit racism.  I’ll defer to Wyatt Cenac, who brilliantly dismantled this strategy on the Daily Show:

 

But the 13th Amendment strategy is just one in a string of racist tactics employed by PETA.  In 2009, supporters protested the American Kennel Club (AKC) and their Westminster Dog Show’s “purebred only” policy.  Their fliers read “AKC + KKK: BFFs?” and made the argument that both the AKC and the Klan wanted “pure bloodlines.”  Handouts were distributed by PETA supporters in Klan hoods and robes.  I wish I was kidding.  From the Associated Press:

Most passers-by seemed more puzzled than offended, though those who didn’t stop walked away thinking they really had seen the KKK. The most common reaction was to pull out a cell phone and start snapping photos. Police monitored the situation from nearby, but the scene was mostly calm. One shouting match broke out during the hour-long protest. Earlier, a man strode away yelling, "That’s disgusting! I’m going to buy more fur!"

Invoking images and even the apparent presence of the Klan, an organization founded specifically to disenfranchise and murder people of color, is beyond the pale.  But what could PETA possibly be trying to accomplish with these tactics?

On its face, this appears to be another attention-grabbing strategy.  And it is.  As organizers, we know that our communities often want to see us out in the streets, raising a ruckus that reflect the urgency of our work.  So we take to the streets at rallies and marches. But most of what we do is a lot less visible.  It’s the daily work of building support amongst potential allies, of changing the policies that impact our communities, and of martialing resources to meet our deepest, most basic needs.  It’s a lot of time on the phone, in meetings, writing and talking one-on-one with a lot of people who don’t necessarily support us.  It’s not the work that’s easy to see, but it’s the work likeliest to make concrete changes in our communities.  We often take on higher-visibility work to respect the struggles of those around us by publicly rallying around our shared needs.  And we do it to energize our communities for the days, months and years of day-in, day-out tough work ahead, and so that our communities don’t forget that we’re still here, we’re still working.

So for PETA to exploit those deep needs and daily struggles to rally their base and garner that attention makes light of all of that work, visible or otherwise.  But they don’t just do it for the attention.  Like all organizing, these tactics are designed with a specific audience in mind.

In this case, the likelihood that any people of color are going to approach anyone in Klan hoods is pretty slim.  In fact, the likelihood of engaging anyone who the Klan has historically targeted—people of color, non-Christian people, immigrants, queer and trans people—is largely nonexistent. 

But PETA’s not looking to engage us.  This tactic is designed to engage and build PETA’s base.  What this approach demonstrates, regardless of the organization’s intent, is that they want a base that experiences privilege around race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and more.  And they seek primarily to engage those who prioritize their own work at the expense of movements that might otherwise be engaged as potential allies. 

shaming fat people.

save the whalesA few years ago, PETA put up billboards in Jacksonville, Florida.  They included a bright image of a fat woman wearing a bikini, and read “Save the Whales. Lose the blubber. Go vegetarian.”

In a heartbreakingly honest letter, one woman wrote about her experience seeing the billboard on the way to the beach with her family:

My family was visiting, and I was planning on taking them to the beach to enjoy the beautiful day when i saw a billboard that made me want to cry. It says “Save the Whales,” with a picture of an overweight woman in the foreground.

We all sat there and stared at it for a minute and everyone in the car was silent. No one wanted to mention my weight. I laughed it off as usual, but it really had made me so embarrassed, so self conscious and so ashamed about my weight that I dropped off my family at the oceanfront and left to go home, making the excuse that I wasn’t feeling well.

On their own web site, PETA staff responded to concerns of body shaming:

We agree that a world where self-esteem is unrelated to body size would be a wonderful place, but we also know that most people feel depressed and embarrassed about their weight and often need some tough love. Our aim was not to insult people who are overweight but to get people talking—and then persuade them to make a simple, positive change for their health.

gone billboardUltimately, PETA took down the billboards, but they didn’t go quietly.  The originals were replaced with billboards that read “GONE. Just like all the pounds lost by people who go vegetarian” – a masterpiece of non-apology.  This is the equivalent of saying “I’m sorry you feel bad” rather than “I’m sorry for what I did.”  It’s an apology that undermines itself by dismissing the material harm it’s done, and restating the initial hurtful premise.  This is overt, paternalistic fat shaming at its worst.  Well, almost its worst.  On the Huffington Post, PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk took a strident approach:

America’s obesity epidemic calls for tough love à la Dr. Phil and America’s Biggest Loser, not more coddling and mock shock over a billboard pointing out that the majority of fat people need to have some discipline and remember that being fat means being a bad role model to our children, many of whom are now so fat themselves that "teeter-totter" has come to describe their wobbly gait.

We’ve unpacked fatphobia at You’re Welcome time and time and time again.  What PETA staff are saying here is absolutely, unquestionably fatphobic.  As fat people, we have no discipline, we’re bad role models, we’re part of an “epidemic” that we’re somehow also responsible for—hell, we’re the reason children are fat.  Won’t someone please think of the children (by bullying them in print)?!

Yes, these billboards are fatphobic.  They’re also shrewd.  They were placed in a city located on the beach in the summer. And they were placed in a state with lots of vacation tourists and a strong representation of fat people. Last year, an estimated 25% of Floridians were categorized as obese. So when they put up these billboards, PETA was presumably prepared to shame and alienate 1 in 4 Floridians. 

So let’s be real.  PETA is not trying to “tough-love” fat people into weight loss with tactics like these.  They’ve proven that they are not concerned with stopping body policing.  No organization that would use such extraordinarily fatphobic tactics is.

Again, these tactics don’t win many new PETA supporters. So who’s left?  As with their racist tactics, it seems that this fatphobic approach is designed to keep PETA in the public eye—largely to rally their existing base.  With rhetoric like this, they certainly don’t seem to want any fat people around, whether or not we’re losing weight.

appropriating immigrant struggles.

Immigrant communities have long been targeted by wave after wave of anti-immigrant policies and on-the-ground activity from groups like the Minutemen.  This has all been powered by deep-rooted xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating for a variety of social, political and economic ills.

In 2010, PETA joined in the immigration debate.  Just following the passage of Arizona’s racist, anti-immigrant SB1070, PETA posted this billboards around the state.  And just last year, they posted similar billboards in Alabama:

PETA does not appear to do any work in coalition with immigrant rights groups, so appropriating their struggle is, as I’ve discussed before, completely inappropriate.  But it moves beyond simply inappropriate when you see how they attack opponents at Agriprocessors for hiring undocumented people:

You may remember that a few months back the slaughterhouse was busted because "76% of the 968 employees of Agriprocessors were using false or fraudulent Social Security numbers." This was the nation’s largest single-site immigration raid. That’s right, the slaughterhouse was almost entirely staffed by illegal immigrants who were exploited to do the dirty work—such as hacking into the throats of cows who were still conscious.

So PETA is playing both sides of the immigration debate—claiming, on the one hand, that “no one should need papers,” and on the other, utilizing inflammatory language like “fraudulent” and “illegal immigrant” to attack their opposition.  When combined with PETA’s lack of coalition-building work with immigrant rights groups, it becomes clear that they only care about the political capital of the immigration debate, not about the struggles of immigrant communities.  They will shrewdly, cynically play either side of an issue to garner media attention, shore up their own base, and get their point across.

what you can do.

To be honest, I’ve struggled in coming up with action steps around PETA’s work.  On one hand, PETA has been around since 1981, and has gotten more than 30 years of opportunities to apologize, change their approach, and build meaningful coalitions with organizations in potentially allied movements.  They haven’t done any of that—and that could certainly be cause enough to sever ties with the organization, or to begin counter-organizing.  On the other, if you feel invested as an animal rights supporter in an aspirational view of what the movement could be, that could investment could translate into more concerted accountability for an organization that doesn’t reflect your values.

As I mentioned at the outset of this piece, movements are made up of relationships, and this movement is what you make it. Holding PETA accountable, vocally disengaging from the organization, and counter-organizing can all have impacts here, and all strike me as viable alternatives to simply laughing off their presence or ignoring their actions.  Make whatever choice makes sense for you, your community and your work.  But whatever choice you make, be sure you’re making it thoughtfully. 

And, of course, learn from PETA’s mistakes—don’t utilize these divisive tactics in your progressive organizing.  It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’d never use such overtly exclusionary tactics, because many of us wouldn’t.  But on a smaller scale, many of us make these missteps—often unintentionally—every day.  We do it when we say that we deserve rights as “taxpaying citizens,” which implies that undocumented people don’t.  We do it when we say that “gay is the new black,” an only slightly less ham-fisted message than PETA’s thirteenth amendment law suit.  We are already making these mistakes, and the biggest lesson we can take away is to be as attentive in our approach as we are in setting our goals.  Of all these tactics that PETA employs, perhaps the biggest threat they pose is making us falsely certain that we don’t, or can’t, make the same mistakes.

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‘real women’ & those of us who aren’t.

In high school, I worked in a gift shop that sold gardening tools, books and trinkets.  One of our best-sellers was a Hanes Beefy-T that read “REAL MEN GROW ROSES.”  It tapped into something with customers—something about it felt clever, irreverent.  Women would tease their husbands with the shirt; men would swagger up to the counter to buy them.  But no matter what their reactions, gender was at the fore of how they responded—because what’s more gendered than claiming the experience of “real men”?

We see this meme a lot.  “Real men love Jesus,” “real women take care of their children,” and so forth.  But more insidiously, this meme takes hold in our movements and communities in big ways.  Many of us preface our own experiences or aspirations with that phrase – “real women have curves,” “real women aren’t a size zero,” “real women don’t do housework.”  We do it because, in a world full of restrictive social scripts, we seek to see ourselves reflected somewhere, anywhere.  That lack of affirming images—or any images—leaves us to our own devices.

But sometimes, we don’t even get so far as to claim who is a “real woman.”  For example:

when-did-this-become-hotter-than-this

This is body shaming, pure and simple.  And thankfully, that’s been clearly identified in response memes that add affirming text like “it didn’t—they’re all beautiful” and my favorite “LOVE ALL THE WOMEN!!!” (a la Hyperbole and a Half).

But this tactic, which appears simply to be a well-intentioned misfire, has much more to it than that.  Let’s unpack, shall we?

 

the pitfalls of flipping the script.

In so many marginalized communities, there’s a temptation—an easy temptation—to simply flip the script on oppression.  “That skinny girl just needs to eat a sandwich, am I right?”  “Imagine what it would be like if women ran the world—we wouldn’t have any of these problems!”  This exists in a number of communities in a number of ways.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in those statements—but they do lay traps for us to spring on ourselves later.

Here’s the problem: flipping the script leaves the script intact.  The assumption in the meme above is that there is a right kind of body to have, and the women on the top row don’t have it.  While body policing of thin women operates differently than it does with fat women, it’s still body policing, and it still feels like shit.

And it requires operating on the same old norms.  If you think “that skinny girl needs to eat a sandwich,” that means her body is too thin, too small, too something. In order for something to be considered “too much” of anything, there has to be an ideal, a template or a norm—and this thin woman deviates from that norm.  Reifying that ideal—even if we’re revising it—always leaves the huge numbers of people behind, and it almost always leaves out people of color, people with disabilities, gender nonconforming people, and many more.  A truly liberatory approach to fat positivity/body positivity can’t simply replace one ideal with another, slightly shifting the whole system of body shaming and policing, but ultimately leaving it intact. So why rely on ideals at all?  Why not just explode them with images of all of our bodies and stories of all of our experiences?

 

‘real women.’

The first time I remember seeing a phrase claiming to speak to the body of “real women,” I remember my face flushing with embarrassment.  It was a familiar feeling—a trigger, then the sear of humiliation.  As an intersex woman, my sex and gender are always in question, and there is never enough evidence to somehow prove who I am, validate my body, or make sense of my gender.  Despite my strong femme gender presentation and even stronger cisgender woman identity, my body will never fit all of the qualifications required of female bodies.  I am not a “real woman,” and I am never allowed to forget it.  “Real women” memes, despite being designed to create more space for more women, not only leave me out, but they bring up the string of moments of sex and gender policing I have faced over the years, and make me feel even less access to my own gender identity.

And I’m not the only one.  Historically, as we have explored, transgender women have been accused of not being real women.  Butch women and lesbians, too, are often described as too masculine to be “real women.” The “realness” of women of color has been contested through forced sterilization, birth control testing on Latinas, and much more.  None of us are consistently understood to be “real women.”  And not being seen as “real” isn’t just rhetorical—that perception is what leads to restriction to our access to resources, social acceptance, public spaces like bathrooms—even control of our own bodies.

On top of that, there are plenty of people who aren’t women who still need liberatory movements.  That isn’t to say that every remark we make needs to reflect every marginalized community.  But failure to be aware of who we’re leaving out makes it more difficult to include those people in the future.  And it replicates precisely the kind of narrow essentialism we were initially trying to escape.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anyone to feel the burn of recognition, frustration and humiliation I feel when I realize I’m not “real.”

 

what you can do.

Talk about your experience on its own terms.  Don’t do it at the expense of anyone else.  Describing the rights, respect and dignity that all of us deserve can be just as catchy as flipping the script—and it’s much less likely to leave those who share our struggles behind.

on fat, trans, and the pitfalls of comparing identities.

A colleague and I recently gave a training on how to be a good ally to trans communities.  For those who’ve been through similar trainings, it’s nothing earth-shattering: respect people’s gender pronouns, don’t ask people when they’re having “the surgery,” and generally avoid forcing loads of intrusive questions or making a slew of judgments based on someone’s identity (or what you believe their identity to be).  Basic, right?

But something surprising happened at this training.  Many of the cisgender (non-trans) people in the room were struggling for analogies, for parallel identities and oppressions to help them understand a community that’s new to them.  But what surprised me was the number of people who compared being trans to being fat.  According to many, their perception of whether or not a trans person is “successfully passing” (that is: presenting as a gender-conforming person) is just like their perception of someone’s thinness.  If someone is passing well, or if they’ve lost weight, praise them.  If you clock them as trans, or if they’ve gained weight, it would be rude to mention. These comparisons were made left, right and center.

And as these comparisons were made, I felt myself begin to shake, from frustration, from sadness, from powerlessness, from anger.  Good as their intentions were, as a fat person, I felt more and more shameful, more and more erased, less and less valid.  I can only imagine how trans-identified people in the room felt.

We hear these comparisons all the time.  Being trans is like being gay.  Being a gay couple is like being an interracial couple.  Being fat is like being a person with a disability.  And everything, apparently, is just like being a person of color.

To their credit, this is often the way that allies—and many community members—struggle to find the language of oppression that hasn’t been taught to them.  They’re reaching to link our struggles, and that’s a good impulse.  The problem is, they’re doing it in a way that is substantially flawed and makes it deeply difficult to build relationships, coalitions and movements across lines of identity. 

 

why we compare identities.

Overwhelmingly, we do it because our intentions are good. Sometimes we do it to better understand allied communities—to deepen our understanding of the needs and experiences of other communities. Sometimes we do it to give voice to our own experience of oppression in a culture that doesn’t provide us with the tools or opportunities to speak for our experiences of marginalization. Again, the intention here is good: we’re trying to start conversations that establish various forms of oppression as real, valid and harmful.

The problem is that identity comparisons are often overarching and ineffective—and they don’t really help us meet those goals. While our intentions are good, these comparisons don’t create the impacts we hope for. So what I want to talk about today is the unintended impacts they create. So: what are the challenges with comparing identities, communities and movements?

(Note: I’ve focused here on race, LGBT, and fat, because those are the examples that I deal with most frequently, but there are many, many more.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.)

 

problems with comparing identities.

It glosses over substantial differences in experience in a way that can be hurtful, insulting and alienating.  After Prop 8 banned same-gender marriage in California, gay news magazine the Advocate published a cover story that declared that “gay is the new black.”  The problem is, this is frequently stated by white queer people.  And while white queer people have historically experienced hate crimes, police raids, and a whole lot more, we haven’t been lynched, been forced to sit at the back of the bus, or experienced the accumulation of oppression over generations on a single family or neighborhood.  Black/African-American communities have.  Intentional or not, claiming that “gay is the new black” is deeply disrespectful, and it’s often experienced as such. 

It’s an escape hatch for ally education.  When we compare our identities to others that we don’t share, we can unintentionally imply that we’ve got nothing to learn.  And sometimes we can even believe it. 

The logic goes like this: if I say that my identity is just like yours, then presto!, I have nothing new to learn about your experience or needs, because they’re the same as mine.  And if I already know all there is to know, I don’t need to change anything about what I’m doing to make spaces, communities or movements more accessible to people with differing identities. 

In that way, it also paves the way for pushing aside identity-specific needs.  If being fat is like having a disability, then I just need to make this event accessible for me, and it will automatically be accessible for you, right?  Wrong.  Many fat people don’t seek need ramps, bars, or ASL interpretation.  And making the comparison keeps us from grappling with the complexity of the identities of those around us.  It keeps us from growing, and it keeps others from participating.

 

problems with comparing movements.

It claims someone else’s work.  I’m a young white queer woman.  I wasn’t alive during the highest profile work of the Civil Rights movement, and I didn’t begin to take on anti-racist work until very recently, in the scheme of racial justice history in the US.  But if I say fat acceptance is “the next great Civil Rights movement,” I’m claiming that work as my own and conflating oppressions in a way that (rightfully) alienates communities of color.

Sometimes, it implies that other forms of oppression are “over” or “fixed.” Frequently, we hear that fat is the last acceptable discrimination. The implication here is that other forms of oppression are somehow remedied or obsolete.  Racism isn’t “fixed.” We haven’t “cured” our society of xenophobia.  But that’s the implication.

And all of that alienates potential allies. These comparisons, well-intentioned though they may be, divide our communities against one another.  LGBT communities know the pain of police raids, but we don’t readily and uniformly ally ourselves with immigrant communities, who face raids and deportation at staggering rates.  Fat people know the sting of discrimination and exclusion (see: Southwest Airlines policies), but many of us still dismiss concerns over ableism.  And when we draw sloppy parallels that make broad generalizations (while failing to pinpoint shared experience and values), we alienate the communities we are best positioned to support—and that are best positioned to support us.

 

drawing effective parallels.

This doesn’t mean that drawing parallels is out of the question—it just means that comparisons must be made carefully and thoughtfully.  Here are some ways to draw thoughtful, nuanced parallels.

Point to shared opposition & tactics of oppression.  A great example of this: Suzanne Pharr’s stellar essay, The Common Elements of Oppression.  In it, Pharr discusses the ways the common tactics used to oppress—but she is careful not to conflate communities or types of oppression.  Both immigrant communities and LGBT communities are accused of seeking “special rights.” That’s a tactic used to divide and marginalize us.  That means our struggles are linked—it does not mean they are the same through and through.

Point to shared needs.  Since our opposition (and their tactics) are shared, our communities often experience similar needs.  So when budget cuts target low-income people and communities of color, our needs are shared.  When bullying targets trans youth and fat youth, our needs are shared.  And when oppression and privilege are so poorly understood as a whole, many of our communities can benefit from some serious public education.

Be specific.  Sweeping generalizations (a la “gay is the new black”) are dicey at best, so specificity can be helpful.  Are you trying to draw a parallel between communities’ shared experiences?  Their shared oppressors?  Similar institutionalized discrimination?  Be sure to voice what you are specifically thinking.

 

what else you can do.

Support the work of allied movements.  If you’re a white queer person, like me, fight against police profiling and brutality.  If you haven’t experienced the criminal justice system as a prisoner, work for prisoner’s rights for those who have.   Believe in them, yes, and do something.  Write your elected official.  Phone bank.  Attend a rally.  Taking action is the most meaningful way to contribute.

Speak about the oppression you face on its own terms.  Grant it the integrity to speak for itself.  I feel fatphobia deeply enough on a daily basis that I can describe it in extraordinary detail.  I know, and trust, that those experiences speak for themselves, and do not need to rely on broad parallels to others’ oppression.

Use “I” statements.  I know, it’s well-worn and hackneyed territory, but it works.  Speak from your own experience, and avoid speaking on behalf of communities with which you don’t identify.

Interrogate your own privilege.  At the core of these comparisons is a deep desire to help those around us more fully grasp our own understanding of oppression.  And that desire is often paired with the internalized entitlement that comes with privilege—and that’s what creates the impulse to reach so readily for someone else’s experience in order to describe our own. 

Continuing to challenge our own sense of privilege and the internalized ways in which we appropriate others’ experiences is one of the most lasting ways to stem the tide of the comparisons that divide us while seeking to unite us.  And while that tide goes out, we can build more meaningful relationships across identities, and stronger coalitions across movements for true and lasting social justice.

the inclusion impulse & the paradox of extending the LGBT acronym

I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further.  Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.

First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent.  This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized.  This isn’t that.  This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.

 

the problems with inclusion

Inclusion is a lovely impulse.  Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent.  And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality.  Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm!  Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution!  I’m in!

But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community.  But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities.  Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:

  • We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive.  When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact.  Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military.  Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts.  Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
  • We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
  • We don’t change our leadership structures.  Most boards require major fundraising.  That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
  • We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities.  We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions.  We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people.  And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.

I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite.  I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way.  And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.

(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people.  That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)

 

why it keeps happening

With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion?  Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits.  Inclusion pacifies guilt.  It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics.  And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities.  In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk. 

None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent.  The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you.  And that support must exist on those communities’ terms. 

Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.

 

same gender loving and two spirit

Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement.  Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.

Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities.  Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities.  It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice.  Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.

So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally?  If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work?  Then do it!  Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.

 

intersex

Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female.  Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

This is the one that hits closest to home for me.  Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female.  As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex.  In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people.  So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.

As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion.  But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain.  Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.

Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means.  But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work.  And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.

 

ally

Seriously, you guys?  We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies.  We welcome them with open arms, but really.  The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.

action steps

When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do?  Here are some options:

  • Speak for yourself.  Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
  • Include a community when they ask you to.  It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it.  Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.

We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements.  But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.

breaking down fatphobia

 

I love this video.  It’s such a fantastic breakdown of how conversations about racism can derail, and how to keep them on track.  These same scenarios can be true about a variety of oppressions: homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, transphobia, and, with growing frequency, fatphobia.

Increasingly, the way we think about oppression in the US is as follows: “bigotry exists intentionally in individuals, and I do not intend to be bigoted, therefore I am not a bigot.”  The problem with this logic?  It acknowledges oppression in its smallest form, so that oppression in its larger, more nuanced forms can be denied or eschewed.  On top of that, being “a homophobe,” “a racist,” “a bigot,” et cetera, is also narrowly defined—usually as whether or not you physically or verbally attack others on the basis of their identity.

This is not to say there isn’t a lot of individual oppression happening out there—there is.  But to acknowledge that as a means to deny the experiences and needs of marginalized communities on a broader scale is a red herring.  The reasoning goes like this: I don’t use homophobic slurs, so I’m not a homophobe.  Homophobia exists intentionally in other people.  Because I have acknowledged this, and proven that I am not a homophobe, all of my opinions are objectively true.  Because I do not observe institutional homophobia, it therefore cannot exist.

I get a little sad typing that out.  It’s shortsighted, but it’s really effective.

While many of us may recognize how oppression (and denial of oppression) operates within many communities, not all of us understand how that works with fat people.  As with any system designed to exclude, shame or oppress people on the basis of shared characteristics or identities, it can be easy to assume that fatphobia only exists one-on-one, person-to-person.  Not so.  It’s a series of complex, interlocking systems designed to shame, silence and “correct” fat people. 

Because discussions of fatphobia are new to many of us, we may not recognize it as a layered system of oppression.  Plus, when we fail to recognize the ways in which fatphobia operates, it becomes difficult to recognize that it even exists, much less how to effectively interrupt it.

There are several levels of fatphobia.  Among them: personal fatphobia, cultural fatphobia and institutional fatphobia.  Let’s walk through what each of them look like in action.

 

personal fatphobia

This is where the conversation begins—and often where it ends.  I’d define personal fatphobia as the ways in which fatphobia is perpetuated on a one-on-one, person-to-person basis.  It’s important to note that personal fatphobia doesn’t need to be intentional.  Regardless of what you meant by what you said or did, its impact remains the same.  Some examples include:

 

  • Policing what a fat person is eating, or telling them about their own health.  Again, nobody knows more about diets, exercise, health and nutrition than fatties.  Friends, family members, doctors, partners and even strangers on the street have freely suggested a million and one things that we can do to change our bodies.  Many of us have tried them all.  And for those of us who’ve decided to stop hating our bodies, policing what we eat is a harsh reminder that, within current social systems, we are prohibited from defining our own bodies.

  • Shaming fat people for wearing “unflattering” clothing.  See above.  When I was in high school, my mother made a list of things I shouldn’t wear: cap sleeves, belts, skirts with hemlines above the knee, horizontal stripes, bright colors, drop waists, tank tops, pencil skirts.  Needless to say, my mom-approved outfits looked like, well, something a mom would wear.  The problem is that damn near every style guide and fashion magazine agrees that I should retreat to a life of caftans, muu-muus and graduation gowns.  The implication here is that telling fat people what not to wear is doing us a favor, and allowing us to define how we want to be seen would cause us grievous harm.  I heartily disagree.

 

  • Giving unsolicited suggestions about weight loss “for our health.”  This one’s problematic on a couple of fronts.  First, as witnessed above, lots of fatties know a whole lot about losing weight.  For real.  Second, my health doesn’t require weight loss.  Every physical I have shows that I’m healthy as a horse.  Third, my health is nobody’s business.  Seriously.  Fourth, and perhaps most basically, the assumption underlying unsolicited weight loss suggestions is that we can all agree that my body is repulsive and abhorrent, and that I must hate it and desperately want to change it.  Except that I don’t.

  • Insisting that fat people are universally unattractive, or publicly refusing to date us.  That one’s pretty basic, right?  You don’t have to want to date us, but you don’t have to shout it from the rooftops, and you can’t speak for the whole rest of the world. 

 

Again, personal fatphobia is a big challenge, and is where a lot of internalized fatphobia comes from.  But personal fatphobia isn’t the whole picture.

 

cultural fatphobia

I’d define cultural fatphobia as the norms, values and practices of a culture that devalue fat people, and value thin people as the norm.

A note on thinness: it does not, in and of itself, qualify someone as fitting into the beauty standard.  Other determinants like race, ability, age, gender presentation and much, much more play into that.  Plus, there is still some deep, longstanding pathologization (and simultaneous fetishization) of people—usually women—who are perceived to be “too thin.”  As someone who has not ever been considered “too thin,” I can’t and won’t address that.  When I say that a culture values “thin people” as the norm, I’m referring to the culture’s hegemonic values.

That said, here’s what cultural fatphobia looks like in action:

 

  • Media images of fat people.  We’ve all seen them.  In the best cases, we’re jolly, fun, full of personality, and totally unsexed.  In the worst cases, we’re slovenly, unhygienic, smelly, lazy, and morally corrupt.  Either way, the roles we’re allowed to play are extremely limited.  And an attractive, charismatic fatty?  Perish the thought.  Meanwhile, thin people (again, this is colored by many other characteristics & aspects of identity), can be anything.  Not all thin people in movies, on TV, or in magazines are culturally defined as attractive, but damn near every person who’s culturally defined as attractive (and interesting, worthy, charismatic, etc) is thin. 

 

  • The myth that thinness has always been the beauty standard.  Not so, y’all.  Beauty standards are always, always, always defined by a time and place.  They reflect the values, class politics, available resources and technologies, and historic context of the time and place they come from.  Historically, fatness has, in varying times and places, been considered a sign of wealth, fertility, virtue and more.

 

institutional fatphobia

Institutional fatphobia is arguably the farthest-reaching of them all.  Institutional fatphobia can be defined as the ways in which institutions exclude, underserve and oppress fat people.  Again, these institutionally fatphobic policies don’t need to be intended to exclude fat people—but they do disproportionately impact us.  Examples:

  • Changing BMI standards, and the consequent “Obesity Epidemic.” A lot has been written about this, including this and this, and I’m sure I can’t do it any better.  But to give a quick recap, in a nutshell, the standards of the body mass index changed in the late 1990s, making 25 million people overweight or obese overnight.  And, while nutrition, exercise and health are sorely under-addressed in the United States, to define that as an obesity epidemic is incredibly reductive, and it deflects attention from the way that classism, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression play into body image, food availability, and more.

    Concrete policies around nutrition, availability of food, and health education all break around lines of race, class and gender.  Take schools, for example.  People with more money are likelier to be able to attend smaller schools, where students get more individual attention and schools are likelier to provide fresher, more nutritious foods (ie, less mass-produced canned and processed foods). When we talk about fatness, though, it’s a two-dimensional conversation about reducing fat and calorie intake, rather than a multidimensional conversation about getting your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs. And it’s almost always a question of individuals at the expense of a conversation about policies. Ultimately, blaming fat people for a lack of willpower deflects from a much broader cultural conversation about nutrition, and reifies existing systems of oppression while making them invisible.

 

  • Policies that require fat passengers to buy two seats on airplanes.  Regardless of whether or not you think that fat people should have to buy an extra seat on an airplane, this policy inarguably excludes many fat people, especially those of us who can’t afford to find out at the gate that we need to drop an unexpected $400 on an additional plane ticket.  (Sorry, poor fat people!  No air travel for you.)  Plus, the policy is decidedly punitive.  It’s not designed to be equitable.  It’s not designed to make fat people more comfortable.  It’s designed, quite literally, to make fat people pay for their size, and the tone almost always steers the conversation toward a moral referendum on fatness.

 

what’s missing & what’s next

These lists and definitions aren’t complete and they aren’t meant to be.  Fatphobia is dynamic, changing over time and adapting to the culture that produces it.  So what’s missing from these lists?  What kinds of personal, cultural and institutional fatphobia do you see at play?

You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

Week before last, Saturday Night Live aired the sketch above as a fake ad for “EstroMaxx,” a once-daily hormone treatment for transgender women.

I know. There’s a whole lot of bad going on there. Take a minute if you need one.

Thankfully, and almost immediately, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) responded by launching a petition, calling upon SNL producers to address the impact of the sketch. In their release, GLAAD provided a quote from org president Jarrett Barrios, who said:

“The violence, discrimination and harassment that transgender Americans experience each and every day is no laughing matter. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a touchstone of American comedy, but Saturday’s unfunny skit sends a destructive and dehumanizing message.”

GLAAD’s response is timely and critically important. But the format of a press release doesn’t allow for a full response, breaking down just how & why a sketch like this is so destructive. So let’s do that here.

The Problem with EstroMaxx

To put it simply, a sketch like EstroMaxx contributes to a climate of transphobia. Where there had been radio silence on trans identities, EstroMaxx filled that silence with counterproductive and misleading messages. (And it’s become part of a little avalanche of transphobia, from Craig Ferguson to Adam Sandler.) Here are some of those messages:

The sketch makes a joke of passing, without recognizing the extraordinary barriers, challenges, and yes, violence, that people face when they don’t appear to be a gender that can be quickly and easily categorized. Trans and gender non-conforming people are followed into bathrooms, called names, and subjected to the use of gender pronouns that may not reflect their identity. And that’s just the daily background noise that transphobia creates. On the larger end, trans and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination, violence, and even dramatically increased rates of death, both by suicide and murder. Given the considerable risk, it’s incredibly unlikely that a trans woman would sport a week’s worth of facial hair growth. Should she have the right? Absolutely. But the chances that she’d do so this cavalierly are slim.

It encourages disrespectful behavior, like leering at trans people’s bodies, using the wrong pronouns, and laughing at the daily lived experience of trans people. The writers here clearly did their homework: they read up on the medical care necessary to transition. They looked into hormone treatments and surgery, and found out how difficult they are to access. Hell, they even brought in the danger that trans people face in going through airport body scanners. They learned all that, and then what did they do? They made all that hurt and all those barriers into one big hateful joke. Classy.

It paints a target on the backs of trans women, portraying them as clueless, bumbling impostors who are completely unaware of the way they’re perceived. Bobby Moynihan appears as a woman with styled hair, no makeup, and a beard. Paul Brittain wears a skirtsuit with feathered hair and a mustache. On Friday, most Americans weren’t specifically on the lookout for people whose gender presentation they didn’t recognize. By Sunday, Saturday Night Live’s 5.4 million viewers were. And that’s 5.4 million people who will start making jokes, saying hurtful things, and even inciting violence against trans people. It’s not a one-to-one equation, that’s for sure—watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.

It fetishizes trans people, while simultaneously making anyone who’s attracted to trans people creepy and suspect. That’s right, people who date trans people: you’re on the hook, too. Keenan Thompson’s attraction to Bobby Moynihan is played for skin-crawling laughs. Can it be genuine attraction? Nope. It’s got to be creepy. Partners of trans people must be even crazier than trans people, if they find that attractive.

Isn’t anything funny?

So we’ve established what’s counterproductive about EstroMaxx. But when is humor productive?

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does it expose the bias that trans people face? If so, awesome! Go forth & funny! Does it educate people on trans identities and communities? Rock it out! Is it in the hands of trans-identified people? Go team!

Look, I’m the fat girl who makes more fat jokes than anybody. I’m a big fan of the funny. Humor’s also a great tool for interrupting oppressive moments, and for taking control of narratives about our communities and experiences. But jokes that perpetuate oppression and misconceptions? Thumbs down.

“Why can’t they learn to take a joke?”

GLAAD’s response has popped up on a number of web sites, from MTV to Perez Hilton. Many of the comments feature a sad old line, rehashed again and again: “Why can’t they just take a joke?” It’s a line that’s used time and time again, in a wide range of context against a variety of communities. It’s deceptively simple, and it accomplishes several things at once. This one short line can deftly:

Absolve the speaker of any responsibility. It’s not my fault that I said it, it’s your fault for misinterpreting it. I don’t need to confront my privilege, you need to confront your hyper sensitivity. This one can also quickly and easily slip into accusations of emotional instability or straight up mental illness—a tactic that’s been used against women (hysteria was a real illness, everybody!), queer people (reparative therapy, anyone?) and communities of color (drapetomania made slaves run away!), to name a few. Simply put, the why-can’t-you-take-a-joke approach swiftly shifts focus from the oppressor to the oppressed, and can shortly thereafter cast dangerous aspersions about that person’s stability. Fair? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

Creates a space in which it’s okay to be oppressive and you can say anything as long as it’s in jest. We also see this when white people make racist jokes ironically, as a way to prove how “post-racial” they are. Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything to anyone: it perpetuates oppressive tropes and makes them impossible to critique. I like to call this part “you can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!”

Places blame and responsibility on the person/community that’s already being targeted. If you’re offended, that’s your own fault. Not only that, but you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The take-a-joke line quietly but clearly creates a climate where speaking from your own experience and voicing your needs is now, in this bizzarro upside down world, somehow oppressive to people with privilege. I know, you guys! It’s ridiculous.

Ultimately, the EstroMaxx skit is deeply transphobic. It perpetuates some dangerous myths about trans people (particularly transfeminine people, who are already at extraordinarily heightened risk of violence and discrimination) and salts that wound by making a mockery of the oppression they face. And when someone musters the courage to speak out against that oppression: they’re too sensitive to be trusted, and they’re a pariah for “ruining a perfectly good sketch.”

Some joke.