Oppressive Tactics and Coalition Building
September 21, 2008
This is another post from an old forum, one of my most popular, dating to March 2007. Enjoy.
I frequently hear folks talking about structuring liberatory/anti-oppressive movements in inclusive, multi-issue formats. But what does that mean? One can assert that the occupation of Iraq is a queer issue, or that the queer movement must take on the struggles specific to poor & POC queer/trans folks, but I have little long term faith in this. Certainly, trans groups working in concert with immigrant groups against the REAL ID act was/is important and possible. But there is a fundamental problem–when one is working in a group “for yourself,” one tends to take the problems affecting oneself more seriously than those affecting others. Furthermore, in an organization devoted to “LGBT” rights, one does not have any necessary resistance to capitalism/classism/racism/etc. If one is a rich gay white man, there’s no obvious link between your liberation and the liberation of a middle-class straight black woman, nor an Asian trans punk kid experiencing homelessness. There may be a link, and I think there is, but racist & sexist white gay men see POC and women (let alone someone who’s both) as the *problem*, not the solution. How does a movement draw people from that standpoint into agreeing to confront their own prejudices & privileges and joining in coalition?
It’s very clear that the nonprofit & activist sectors are becoming increasingly professionalized, and with that professionalization comes educational barriers to participation and leadership–in a world where educational opportunities are distributed unevenly by class, race, gender m/f, gender cis/trans, ability, and even sexuality–it should be clear that professionalism reifies oppressive power dynamics within activist organizations. Any organization that’s already doing that has very little incentive to stop–its goals, narrowly formulated, will be better served by having the best trained people, who just *happen* to be privileged. Is there really any hope for undoing this dynamic within identity based organizing? I am pessimistic.
But why do we need to found anti-oppression groups on the basis of identity at all? If we were to look at oppressive tactics rather than oppressive targets, we’d see a very different, connected picture. If, for example, we took control of the body as our example of an oppressive tactic, we’d immediately see the connections between fat phobic harassment and medical incitement to anorexia, prison medical experiments, the incarceration epidemic/prison-industrial complex, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, abortion/reproductive rights, the Standards of Care for trans medical treatment and medically-based criteria for identification, gender coercion, rape & rape culture, forced institutionalization & sterilization, male circumcision, intersex genital mutilation & coercive gender assignment, denial of legal/economic/sexual agency to children, kinkphobia, sex-negativism in general, the marketing of control of women’s bodies through BDSM products like The Toy, etc etc. It leads us right into coalition building, because if we really are to attack all forms of public control of the body, we *cannot* be a single-identity group, and all those involved have very good incentive to deal with their racism/transphobia/misogyny/etc.
Furthermore, by making our object of analysis something other than a “shared experience” along identitarian lines, we avoid the trap of assuming that my own experience can be taken as representative of everyone’s experience. It leads us toward intersectionality–when we ask “how does the state control oppressed people through mental hospitals,” and part of the answer is that black folk are likely to be seen as aggressive/dangerous and trans folk likely to be seen as crazy/duplicitous, and those with less economic/class/educational privilege (in general true of both transness and blackness) are less likely to be able to appeal decisions, it’s very obvious that a black trans person is at much greater risk of being involuntarily institutionalized than either a black cis person or a white trans person, in a way that doesn’t become obvious when we just ask about the oppression of trans people or black people.
Organizing around tactics actually supports finding much better answers to law & policy than identitarian organizing, for two reasons: 1)the foci of this kind of organizing are more similarly structured to the foci of a law, which normally constitutes one or two large-scale actions (tactics) in a wide variety of situations (oppressions). Thus, many groups of people might be affected by the REAL ID bill, but ultimately it’s an attempt on the part of the government to improve its domestic intelligence to increase its own power and to facilitate the control and elimination of undesirables (immigrants, trans folks) and all who resist the state’s interest in gathering increasingly large amounts of personal information and tracking systems.
Secondly, by centering on tactics, we’re much better able to articulate a vision of a just law/policy/society. Here, I finally have an example of this kind of politics being played out in real life–www.beyondmarriage.org–which is articulating a response to one large-scale tactic in a variety of arenas–the regulation of relationships, which is necessarily mired not only in homophobia, but also in racism, classism, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, ageism, and sex-negativism/monogamism. By envisioning a world where all relationships are valued without governmental interference, they radically reshape the whole debate on marriage & relationships.