A little over a month ago I attended the United States Social Forum (USSF) in Detroit. This was a gathering of over 15,000 progressive activists and community organizers from all over the world who came together for a week-long event to catch everyone up to speed with what different organizations are doing, what the most critical issues facing our communities are at this time, and to create a more cohesive game-plan as to how to proceed and succeed from here. There were many positives and negatives to the event. Incredible energy, a kick-ass rally rolling through downtown Detroit to start things off, and great learning opportunities and sharing of ideas. Yet there was also not nearly enough accessibility made for people with disabilities, perhaps not enough involvement with local businesses and vendors, and lots of logistical fiascos and scheduling snafus (though with an event of this size I guess that’s to be expected). The main issue I’ll focus on here though is, naturally, the queer side of the forum.

There was a huge push this year from the staff of the forum to make everyone feel welcome, including those of all gender identities. In the packet of information that was available before the forum began, it had a section describing the steps that the forum was taking to be inclusive of queer issues, such as the entire forum having gender-neutral bathrooms and the workshops being aware of people’s different preferred gender pronouns. It stated in the packet that everyone was expected to be respectful and accepting of all gender identities and that prejudice and bigotry would not be tolerated. To echo transfeminist’s feelings, I too feel like I no longer understand how different gender or LGBTQ identities could be a problem to anyone, and I was a little shocked that people needed to be reminded to respect other people’s identities. If there is a place where this should be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it be at a liberal, progressive, activist conference? Yet with 15,000 people, you’re bound to get some dissent, thus the reason for the disclaimer.

However, by the time the forum rolled around, most bathrooms were not gender neutral, and there were definitely issues of gender-nonconforming peeps not being accepted and made to feel uncomfortable for visiting the “wrong” bathroom. Similar responses were made in workshops when presenters would ask participants to include in their introductions their preferred gender pronoun. There were a lot of confused looks around as to what that meant or why that addition to the intros was necessary. There was even one very pushy lady in a workshop I went to that cut the introductions short by saying that “no one really needs to know who everyone is or cares what pronoun they use, can we just get on with the workshop? We’re running out of time.” Yes, because nothing says building community and trust amongst a movement like ignoring everyone else in the room.

And to give the forum staff credit, they did make announcements at large assemblies regarding the lack of understanding towards the gender neutral bathrooms and tried to address other concerns as they arose. Yet if the desire of all attendants aren't there to make the forum a safe space for everyone, no amount of announcements will cause the change needed.

It got me thinking a lot about the progressive movement in general, and how if we can’t even find agreement and acceptance here about these issues, how are we ever going to find it in the greater population? And of course I recognize that people came to the forum for all sorts of reasons, with all kinds of interests and agendas, and with many individual perspectives. And while I was super impressed by the queer workshops that were put on, especially the Queer/Trans People’s Movement Assembly, I was still surprised by the lack of knowledge a lot of the attendants had regarding LGBTQ issues. Yet to be fair, I’m sure if I had talked to a lot of climate justice folks (an issue I know embarrassingly little about), they would be appalled at my lack of understanding about their concerns.

Overall, it gets back to the point that has been discussed before on this blog about language and accessibility. Sometimes you need to be patient and meet people where they are, and tone down your language when speaking with a newbie. For instance, I had a wonderful conversation with an older woman from the South who knew very little about queer issues, and was absolutely shocked when she found out I was bi/pan. She had met my partner at the forum as well and said, “You mean your boyfriend doesn’t mind that you…sleep with girls?!” She shuddered when I said no. “But, he doesn’t get jealous that you date them too?” Now, this got interesting because my partner and I are poly, so for a second I continued with the conversation as normal, but then remembered that I had never revealed our poly status to her and that she was just assuming that all bisexuals were, in her mind, promiscuous. It was a weird moment, because all through college I had read articles in my queer studies courses about how this was a stereotype about bisexuals, yet I personally had never encountered it. Yet now I can check that one of my list – fun! While she was surprised at first once I explained to her that being bisexual does not mean that you always have a relationship with both a man and a woman at the same time, we ended up having a really great and open conversation about the different stereotypes and what all the terminology means. She was so happy afterward that someone had taken the time to explain it to her, because usually people just get offended and stop talking to her about it.

On one hand I know people in an oppressed position should not be the ones solely responsible for educating others on these issues, yet in some ways I feel like if we’re not going to do it, who is? It’s not that we can’t get offended or speak passionately and urgently when we’re explaining these issues, or show our frustration in people not understanding or always being put in the position of explaining, but in reality, there was someone who sat down with all of us at some point in our queer journey. Whether it’s that we already knew that this is the life we wanted but we didn’t yet have the words for it, that we didn’t even know this was a possibility, or even just did a google search and stumbled upon a queer blog and a whole new world opened up, at one point or another, someone took the time to teach us about queer issues. And here we are today. So we can’t expect everyone to be up to speed in an instant. We can expect and demand respect and acknowledgement, but if someone gives me a double take when I go into the men’s bathroom, I try to smile and not get scared away from going into the men’s room again when I feel more like that gender that day.

So what are some ways that the US Social Forum could improve its queer and gender identity inclusion, as well as inclusion regarding other issues that people may not be knowledgeable about? One thing I felt the forum was lacking was a labeling what type of audience the workshops were looking for. Some workshops I went to were clearly geared to veteran activists in a particular field, and the conversations went way above my head because I didn’t have basic knowledge of that issue. Other times, I was hoping to have a really in-depth discussion about a topic I am heavily involved in, yet the workshop skimmed the surface to try to be accessible to everyone. If there were different types of workshops created, such as ones marked as entry-level courses on certain issues to give people an intro to a topic, it could be an unintimidating way for people to educate themselves about new topics. And on the other side there could be advanced courses for people that are already working within that movement (I learned later that this was the intention of the People’s Movement Assemblies, however from what it seemed like to me, most people who were new to the Forum were not aware of this distinction).

Yet this would still not solve the problem completely because there may not be enough time to go to intro workshops, or people may feel they don’t need to learn about certain issues and won’t attend anyway. In that case, perhaps there could be more education done beforehand by the forum by sending out emails or educational articles to try to get people up to speed on the basics of the different issues that will be discussed so that people will have a better idea of what to expect when they get there. This may have been the intent of the original packet sent out with info about the gender identity inclusion, yet that was obviously not enough this year. I know this is a lot to ask, that the forum crew may have been understaffed, underfunded, and unable to take the time to do all this beforehand. And when it comes down to it, you can’t force anyone to understand these issues – that will come with their own self-education and exploration. But maybe if there was a little more materials available and a little more time for personal discussions amongst people of different views, the next US Social Forum could be even more successful and positive than this latest one was.

**Note: This post describes solely my experience at the forum, and if others attended I would love to hear your opinions and if you felt the forum dealt with these issues in a different way then I described.

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