When Allies Attack

So did you hear about how the Bilerico Project ran a piece from their brand-new contributor Ron Gold last week and the internet caught fire and burned down because it was so smugly transphobic? (No? Then you should be reading my blog. Seriously, people, I have a life outside of here you know.)

Now, Bil Browning ultimately did the right thing and took down the offending post and rescinded Gold's contributor status. I'm not going to rehash the particular reasons why this post was incredibly wrongheaded and stunningly insulting. I'm more interested in a phenomenon illustrated by this fracas: what happens when allies do something you find profoundly hurtful.

Being part of a disprivileged group is never easy. Every day you are confronted the ways you don't fit into the "mainstream," every day you are reminded how you are different, how you "don't fit in," how societal expectations never seem to expect...you. In a culture where the default human being seems to remain white, male, cis, and straight, it's pretty difficult to make your way if you don't happen to fit one of those categories. (And heaven help you if you find multiple exceptions on that list.)

Luckily, you're not alone. After all, the white, male, cis and straight are a minority. And one of the most positive effects of the various civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s was the realization that they all had a lot in common, and a common opponent in the societal structures that systematically disprivileged them. The various movements often borrowed theory and even rhetoric from each other, building upon prior successes and trying to evade previous setbacks, in the process forming alliances and laying the groundwork for a broad progressive movement.

But this solidarity is fragile, and when it breaks down it can feel much more painful than being turned on by people who don't share your broad vision. It's one thing to be attacked by Peter LaBarbera: gay, trans, or female, he's pretty much against any expansion of civil rights for you. You know this, and can let his attacks roll off your back as you share in some healthy ridicule with your fellow attackees. It's quite another matter, though, to be attacked by people that you agree with: to be a feminist trans woman and hear that a feminist icon like Germaine Greer thinks trans women are "ghastly parodies." Or to be a gay man or a lesbian and see how progressive liberal politicians always insist that gay rights needs to take a back seat to whatever the pressing social issue of the day is. (It doesn't matter what the issue is; it's always more important.) Or to be a feminist cis woman and encounter misogyny in male spaces, gay or straight.

It hurts. It hurts because these people are usually good allies; they're all for women's rights, but still think calling somebody a stupid cunt is okay; they're all for same sex marriage, but don't want it taught at school; they're all for disabled rights, but think not using the word "lame" is...lame.

They're all for the idea that homosexuality is inborn, but being trans isn't.

And because this feels like a betrayal, because it is so unexpected, people lash out. And in lashing out, they use the tools they use to fight ordinary oppressors. Transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic--these words get thrown around at people the same way they would at more overt homophobes, transphobes, and misogynists. And that continues the cycle of betrayal: now the ally feels attacked by an ally, and goes through many of the same emotions. Lines get drawn. Positions harden. Movements get divided, yet again.

That doesn't mean that people aren't justified in their anger, or should always swallow the hurt or always seek a conciliatory stance. A lot of the time, the anger is justified, and people need to be called out when they screw up--after all, if they really are your ally, if they really are progressive, they're supposed to be willing to listen. But it does mean that people can try to think before typing, because Jay Smooth's advice is a progressive philosophy as well: call out the act, not the actor; tell them that what they did is racist, not that they are a racist.

That doesn't absolve the person who messed up, though. One of the most presumptuous of privileges is to speak for someone else; and that's precisely what Bil Browning did by allowing the Ron Gold piece to run. "We intend to challenge our readers and contributors to reach beyond their usual expectations and engage on some topics that might be outside of their comfort zone," he said, but had he asked any trans person he'd quickly have found out that there was nothing challenging in Gold's post--just the same old tired attacks trans people deal with everyday.

It's important for allies to talk to each other with respect; but even more important is that they listen to each other with the proper attention, be open with each other on what the important issues are, and be quick to acknowledge when they have made a mistake or asserted a privilege. That will prevent a recurrence of the Gold fiasco far more than simply putting up a flurry of trans-themed posts at Bilerico.

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