Jewish holidays as transformation and community building

Passover is just ending for this year, and I had been thinking, for no particular reason, about feeling a lack of connection with my ancestors; not having any descendants myself either. I was thinking that I didn’t have a way to talk about, approach, the historical trauma that affects me as a Jew.

We had had a really good seder on the first night, and I felt connected with both the ancient story and the modern freedom songs and the poetry (especially Irena Klepfisz’s Bashert) included in the Haggadah we use.

And it came to me that Passover itself is a ritual for the transformation of historical trauma. That this has been here in plain sight, and I was already participating in it. We have the container within our own culture, and we can make it more meaningful (I can make it more meaningful) by acknowledging that this is what it is.

That is my connection with the ancestors, and they gave it to me just as I was feeling the need for it.

Other Jewish holidays that commemorate liberation from oppression – Chanukah and Purim – are different kinds of transformation rituals. Now I’ve just been through Pesach, so am in the grip of this one which is the most intense and even grueling.

Then I think that Shavuot and Succot are nation-building or people-building rituals. And our high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are community-building more than they are simply a matter of inward contemplation. We ask one another for forgiveness, we ask forgiveness in community. These are all part of the transformation of historical trauma as well. Building community is the nurturance we need, after we have been through hell and come out alive.

Even the story of the Akedah, which we retell on Rosh Hashanah, we tell in order to emphasize that the sacrifice did not take place.

There is something in this that nourishes me and leads me out into the place where I am born, where I am connected to the whole and enter into community that is mine.

Submission to UN SOGI Expert

‘This submission is to clarify that there is a stance taken by feminists who maintain that sex matters and needs to be acknowledged as separate from gender identity, and who reject any attempt by religious fundamentalists to use us as a wedge against ‘gender ideology’. ‘

Read full submission here.

Identities and who gets to have them

Identity is a paradox. We’re all human, and society – well let’s say patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist/racist society – constructs all kinds of ways to select some people to rule over others and exploit them. Those who are on the bottom don’t get much say in their identity, or anybody else’s. Those at the top get to hide behind a mask of neutrality and objectivity, they are the gods naming everybody else and can remain unnamed themselves.

There is a paradox in oppressed people finding their own voices, because we are embedded in culture that has defined us as the objects for others’ use, for their manipulation and management. Yet every oppression also entails the oppressors knowledge that oppressed people are human beings, subjects with will and creativity and the power to turn their gaze on the oppressor, unmask the oppressor, appropriate even the oppressor’s language to change the common fabric of culture. (It is only by being aware of the humanity – the personhood – of those you oppress, that you instrumentalize their capabilities and seek their compliance; punishment and reward, manipulation and deception all demonstrate this paradox. Oppressed people develop strategies of resistance and accommodation both within and against an oppressive system, and suffer moral injury from compliance; political consciousness is not a given and cultivating it can be both painful and prolonged.)

It seems that there is first a sense of not being able to speak (or naming the reality that one’s speech is made an impossibility), having no words and no context to name the reality of who we are that is crossed out, named to death against us. Listening to ourselves, using the inherent creativity of a conscious being, what Hannah Arendt calls natality, by paying attention in new ways, we find what it is we need to say. Post-colonial studies, women’s studies, pedagogy of the oppressed, ‘hearing each other into speech’, creating separatist spaces to encounter one another free from the exempted gaze and discourse of those who speak from outside this reality and put together the shards of what needs to be made whole; or talk about the brokenness and witness the whole emerge.

Identity and material reality

I’m going to talk about survivor identity here, and the concept of psychosocial disability, users and survivors of psychiatry, and also women as in women’s liberation. Who the ‘we’ is that gets to define who ‘we’ are – that gets to name ourselves, to take the reins of power from the oppressed, to define the oppressed. So starting with women, because the identity has now become convoluted – if anyone can define themselves as a woman, and the oppressor class is now those who would gatekeep and deny such definition…. we see the oppressed pushed back into silence, denied the power and even the linguistic possibility of naming ourselves. We are defined out of existence as an oppressed class, by virtue of a theory that can admit even that society constructs oppression based on sex – what gender theory cannot admit is the existence of oppressor and oppressed classes that are materially constituted not as biological essentialism but as power, so that female human beings can be understood as a class naming themselves. (We do not have to claim a universal female experience; nor do we have to claim any universal or monolithic experience of any other oppressed group – e.g. every oppressed group contains both male and female human beings who are differently situated, and that is intersectionality.)

OK, so material oppression can be analyzed, and posited as a fact underlying this politicization of identity, a fact or a ground on which people who are experiencing oppression can recognize themselves as oppressed, separate themselves from the oppressor, and begin to speak against the oppressor and construct a new consciousness that leads toward a deliberate strategy to end the oppression materially.

Psychiatric oppression and madness-related identities

How does that apply to psychiatric oppression? Or, what does it mean to combat psychiatric oppression as a survivor of it, and how does that relate to the other identities that it has been linked to? We say there is no ‘there’ there, that the material reality of psychiatric oppression is the selection by psychiatrists of their victims through the acts of diagnosis and hospitalization and treatment that may be formally voluntary or involuntary but in which the person has no real power to negate the material fact of this selection if the psychiatrist insists on it through involuntary commitment actually carried out or threatened in order to gain compliance. But what about people who present themselves to psychiatry seeking services, who may use psychiatric drugs and struggle to go off them but have never been involuntarily committed and lead full lives? What about people who go through a period of madness without being locked up? And really what about those of us who were locked up once, got out and never looked back? What is it that defines all of us as a collective? Is there a material reality to madness – again a kind of black-box, what does it mean? – we can reframe it as distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions, does that help? Is that actually an experience common to all people, and could we say something about this experience significantly impacting a person’s life either for a period of time or long-term? Including the long-term impact of the profound discrimination and violence entailed in the psychiatric selection and subjugation? (Maybe, maybe not; do we need to refer to madness and define it – if we refer to it I think it has to be defined so as to avoid romanticism and circular subjectivism; is it useful to define a material reality as a basis for our collective reference group, and is ‘madness’ the starting point for such definition that makes most sense?)

The reason this becomes important is that we cannot actually rely on people to come out about their experience in any uniform way; this is true about any identity that is not immediately visible, including (for some people) being gay or lesbian, and even about identities that are immediately visible such as people who have limited mobility – no one is required to claim any particular identity even if others might apply it to them. (Note that madness is imputed and therefore visible in some sense, and the markers for perceiving someone as mad say more about the social construct of madness than about any characteristic of a person; this can be said about other identities as well but madness imputes an internal state of being to the person that is impossible for anyone else to directly ascertain, even if it can be well defined.)

The madness-related identities, including simply being labeled and treated as a mad person by others – and perhaps madness amounts to this exact disconnection – but then what about those who simply use mental health services, who might identify as having a mental health condition, or might simply say, I see a therapist for trauma counseling, or I use a psychiatric drug to help me stay alert and focused – are they all on the same continuum? We might have converging interests for example in banning electroshock and banning or seriously challenging the prescribing of neuroleptic drugs (the equivocation about neuroleptics in contrast to the banning of electroshock reflects the state of negotiated consensus among the constituency; more people use neuroleptics satisfactorily by choice than have satisfactory experiences with electroshock, among activists in the human rights-focused – as opposed to medical model – movement of the collective); we might converge in caring about reform or abolition of psychiatry and mental health discourse, or psy disciplines (again the equivocation reflects ongoing debates about reform vs abolition of psychiatry etc and what this might mean; it is a separate question from abolition of involuntary commitment).

We might also converge on fighting for abolition of psychiatry’s power to select and subjugate, i.e. all the powers related to involuntary commitment, because anyone close to the mental health system can get sucked under in a moment if a drug wreaks havoc unexpectedly, perhaps from a new prescription or change in the dosage, or by confiding newly emerging deep and raw feelings to a therapist or psychiatrist who is unprepared and decides this makes you a danger to self or others.

Does it matter that we have different experiences? Does it matter that some of us experienced a crisis (also somewhat of a black box requiring explication) only once, and whether or not we were locked up and therefore claim a survivor identity? Does it matter if we still experience trauma from being locked up? Does it matter if the only discrimination we currently face is by identifying as a survivor, bearing witness and fighting for abolition, and thus confronting all the prejudice that reads ‘survivor of psychiatric violence’ as ‘mental patient’, ‘mentally ill person’? Who has the choice to identify in or out, and how much depends on political solidarity? If my identification as a survivor and indelibly part of ‘this collective’ is based on bearing witness, declaring ‘never again’ and understanding that no one in ‘this collective’ of identities related to madness is differently situated than me in that we all have been or are vulnerable to being exposed to psychiatric violence and related oppression – is it a personal identity? Does it say anything about me, other than that I refuse to exempt myself, refuse to escape a collective fate? (Well, I personally stay far away from psychiatry and there is no one left in my life who has an agenda of psychiatrizing me, so I don’t feel myself to be at risk except as a form of political retaliation that could mobilize my identity and acknowledged history, and this comes to the surface when I am called upon to take risks in any kind of activism for human rights. But beyond that, is there a survivor guilt or simply a political commitment and calling to do the work I do?)

Problematizing identities and the choice to not identify

I need to problematize these identities and the diversity within our collective, because the choice of whether to identify or not is political, especially when a person is doing work on ‘our issues’. That is to say, when a person is in a position of advocating ‘for the human rights of people with psychosocial disabilities’ or pronouncing on these rights in an official capacity, and has had relevant experiences but feels that they do not really qualify or prefers not to take on the identity in doing the work. Sometimes people in such roles openly acknowledge that they use mental health services, and may also consider that they are being treated for a ‘mental health condition’, but balk at the suggestion that this places them within the collective of ‘people with psychosocial disabilities’. (They should know, by the way, that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities instructed Spain that it could not maintain a false distinction between people with mental health conditions and people with psychosocial disabilities; for purposes of the Convention all people with mental health conditions are to be treated as people with psychosocial disabilities. This came in the context of Spain having argued that the Committee’s recommendations to repeal legislation authorizing deprivation of liberty based on psychosocial disability had nothing to do with Spain, because their legislation only authorized involuntary hospitalization based on a mental health condition. Well, that was a non-starter for the CRPD Committee which emphatically told them otherwise. (This illustrates a material convergence of interests irrespective of whether or not an individual chooses to self-identify.))

The point is that playing word games about identity doesn’t get to the real issue. If you say you’re not a person with a disability, large numbers of people who identify as mental health service users or as survivors of psychiatry also don’t like the term disability and don’t identify with it personally; it’s a tool to claim our human rights and the concept of disability non-discrimination works well as applied to core issues of this constituency; our version of the social model of disability is that every person is fine just as they are and society needs to accommodate them and act in solidarity with them rather than trying to ‘fix’ the person – not the version that parses out impairment from social disablement and links them through the existence of barriers. If you say you’re not oppressed – well not all of us who identify have been either. Not all of us have been locked up, not all of us struggle to go off psychiatric drugs, not all of us experience long-term or intermittent distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions. Not all of us have been electroshocked, not all of us have been neurolepticized, not all of us have been put in restraints or institutionalized long-term, not all of us have been locked up. Not all of us live in poverty, not all of us experience racial oppression or oppression based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex. It is a heterogeneous identity or heterogeneous collective, in that it includes people whose experiences do not overlap with each other. (So what is it that leads some to identity and others not, and why does it matter?)

Sometimes people disclose experiences privately that inform their passionate advocacy for legal capacity or abolition of forced psychiatry or, perhaps more problematically, ‘human rights in mental health’. I don’t out people unless they are disclosing experiences of another person – e.g. if someone discloses that a family member is a person with psychosocial disability, I do inform my colleagues in the movement that this person is a family member because that’s an identity to watch out for especially when the person advocates the permissibility of any forced interventions. But I don’t disclose a person’s confidences about having used mental health services or having experienced madness. I think we have a right to our own privacy. (If someone has once put themselves forward as a member of a delegation of a representative organization of users and survivors of psychiatry, I may also clarify that I was under the impression that this person was a member of the collective, as we do not put forward others to speak for us. There are material interests at stake, in terms of reputation and credibility, and I do reject the simultaneous attempt to benefit from such elevation and denying a personal stake in the issue as to which expert status is claimed.)

Keeping these confidences puts me in an awkward and problematic position. I want to challenge those who confide in me, or who might think of doing so, to think about the self-exemption that they have chosen in contrast to my choice of solidarity. I would like them to understand that there is no inherent difference between us – and especially that appealing to the question of whether or not a person has been oppressed by virtue of madness-related experience is not read by society as the meaning of ‘psychosocial disability’. (If this applies to you, reader, you might consider the impact of occupying space by virtue of speaking on issues about which you disclaim any personal stake, which is a privileged position, and either come out about your own stake in the matter or give up your space to someone who possesses human rights expertise and is willing to claim their personal stake as well. It is not by claiming an identity, but by claiming expertise, that you occupy a space illegitimately. The world needs more of us who challenge society’s disconnect between madness and reason, not fewer; and you cannot escape your personal contradiction by doing the work while remaining closeted.)

The world reads self-identification as part of this collective, whether as a survivor of psychiatric violence, mad person, mental health service user, etc., as categorically meaning a person with mental illness who then must always speak as a patient, as a petitioner for others’ attention, and never as an authority – never as a legal innovator, except accidentally and exceptionally; never as an official of state. If we have these extra identities, they are superimposed on ‘mental patient’ rather than understood as who we are in the world, coming from a standpoint as survivors of psychiatric violence, etc. It’s important for those who use mental health services but don’t identify with the collective, to consider what you are keeping by remaining separate, and to reflect on and be open about your own relationship to mental health services or madness – yes, including ‘distress’ – when you are discussing mental health policy, abolition of forced psychiatry, legal capacity.

Nobody can make you identify in a way that you don’t, nobody can make you join a group that you don’t want to join or to speak in a representative capacity. But if you don’t identify your own particular stake in the work, if you speak in a voice that claims neutrality and objectivity, you are in effect privileging your own position by refusing to put it in dialogue with others in the heterogeneous collective. Everyone ought to put their own standpoint on the line publicly, including family members, friends, people who have no relationship to it whatsoever and might be curious – it can’t be that self-identified survivors, people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health users are ‘marked’ and those who choose not to self-identify, or who never had any connection on the receiving end of the drug or the needle or therapy, get to stay outside as ‘unmarked’ and their position privileged as having no axe to grind.

Anyone working on these issues needs to ask themselves, what is your connection to ‘mental health’, to madness and to forced psychiatry? Did you ever call the police on somebody to involuntarily commit them? Did you ever exclude somebody from your land group or political committee because they were too difficult and you decided they were bipolar or had borderline personality disorder? We’re all in this in our real lives, and nobody is exempt.

‘Occupying space’ as a mad person, as a woman, as a lesbian

There is the question of whether you are taking the place of someone who deserves it more than you, if you are only seeing a therapist and have never been locked up or taken psychiatric drugs, do you really count? But I would like to say, there are not a finite number of ‘spaces’ to occupy. Nor is it a particular space that one occupies in a figurative sense, by coming out about one’s personal relationship to an issue. The identities as such don’t matter – except when someone categorically sets themselves apart from this identity that they see others as falling within. Nobody – certainly not I – chooses to occupy space as a mad person, as the mythologized stigmatized other created by societies and augmented by psychiatry. I put myself forward to represent this collective as an affirmation that nobody deserves to be placed in that role – to erase the identity by claiming our rights in the context of the CRPD. It deserves to be a disappearing identity, is not one that I have any desire to hold onto or make meaningful. I suppose I differ in that regard from those who claim ‘mad’ as a positive identity meaning something like, resisting society’s normality. (I am revisiting here an issue I addressed in an earlier blog on madness and identity.) My work on CRPD is a bearing witness, an act of reparation and transformative justice, that calls for the opening out of those labeled as mad, into simple humanity, really a spectrum of intense and often painful experiences that are unintelligible until the way is found to articulate them.

Can gender work the same way? Well if it’s only gender in isolation sure, we can say gender as sex-linked roles and expectations (stereotypes, or constellations of meaning) is not necessary and can be abolished. And society’s construct of sex-based oppression, not just a conceptual but a material construct, can be dismantled, and we are all human beings finding our own ways to flourish. The sexed body is its own reality as our experiences of distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions are real, and as madness in the sense of radical disconnection and unintelligibility that can transform itself in an instant, is real. But we don’t get to that abolition by substituting mere subjective identification for a material analysis of the basis of oppression and how different people are situated in relationship to it; in this case based on sex as well as based on different kinds of conformity or non-conformity to sex stereotypes, including the impact of deceptive or assimilative self-presentation (passing) or apparent sex contrary to one’s actual embodiment, and the complications introduced by hormones and surgeries. Again, we need to look at the actual situated positions and their implications for a person’s standpoint on any given issue. We don’t disappear gender by waving a magic wand, only by everyone speaking especially those who are gendered as the class whose reproductive labor is appropriated by the other, unmarked gendered class. Nobody wants to be a ‘woman’ unless they are romanticizing oppression or unless they are remaking the meaning of solidarity and self-regard, coming to consciousness, of those of us with female bodies and experiences related to socialization as this subjugated gender – or unless they are members of societies that avoided gender oppression so that the meaning is a word of strength and centrality to human community rather than victim of predatory exploitation.

Lesbian, I have to add, is an irreducible identity. It may be a historically situated one, as everything we do is historically situated. But it is an identity that once found, I would not like to see disappear. It has meaning as a core of female sexuality and the autonomous mutual relation of female beings to one another, it has a spiritual dimension and a political one as well as being social and sexual. Lesbian cannot be merged into LGBTQI, and it has been contested, or has had to contest for space, in the context of ‘woman’; merging lesbians into LGBTQI further pushes us out of the context of ‘woman’ and pushes ‘women’ back into compulsory heterosexuality in which their reproductive labor for men cannot be refused. It doesn’t matter if ‘every woman can be a lesbian’ in a literal sense; heterosexual women’s sexuality is as authentically theirs as lesbians’ is ours; it is in a societal sense that lesbians relate to the existence of an autonomous women’s movement as part of a continuum that rejects the gendered compulsory linkage of woman with man while man is able to stand alone.

I’d like to bring these themes together, but I can’t. Lesbian is an irreducible identity to me, that I find joyful. Being a survivor of psychiatric violence is a fact stamped on my life by oppression, I take it as it comes and work with it, work through it, towards human liberation. (Being a woman is a stamp on my life as well, that leads me to solidarity and to separation of female embodiment, and the culture we create as female-embodied persons, from gender oppression that encompasses male subjugation of females and the ideology, including sex stereotyping, that rationalizes this subjugation.) They don’t intersect so much as coexist. And this complexity is fine, because we don’t need a complete theory of identities, we need theory that is useful for the purposes at hand.

Dislocations – political and personal

– This reflection piece was first written to an email group in a discussion I had started about marriage and disability (for many of us from a lesbian or queer perspective), that brought up issues of care/support in our old age, which is on my mind, as well as loneliness. –

I am thinking about how dislocations shaped my relationship to community, always a qualification or limitation, this but not really or fully this, that but not fully that, etc. again and again.  I am an American Jew, never a Jewish American (until perhaps now when facing antisemitism directly in the political sphere).  My people were never at home here, not just as settlers but as Jews; and our previous homes were also precarious and then wiped out; my only relatives overseas that weren’t wiped out are in Italy and there was some strangeness about the familial relations that we never got to know them.  My parents treated their background culture and language (Yiddish was still spoken in their homes alongside English) with a mixture of pride and shame; my mother in particular strove to assimilate both in terms of class and culture, and there was a lot about that process that was head-scratching for me, just confusing in ways I didn’t know how to understand or even begin to articulate.  Because of ups and downs in that attempted assimilation process I never made lasting friends in my childhood as we shifted from one school to another and one neighborhood to another (unrelated to the schools); then I internalized some of that and became a person who stood to one side.  

But also we were focused on the family, there was little real sense of community belonging aside of that; there was the sense of being a Jew but as a relationship to culture and not so much community.  The Yeshivas I went to, we were class outsiders and also outsiders by not being religiously observant; I tried once going to a neighborhood synagogue by myself (as my family didn’t go) but it’s not a kind of place a child can go alone unless maybe they are very gregarious.  And nothing about the wider social or political existence in terms of how it affected us as citizens; my mother told me later she supported the civil rights movement but she never talked about any such activity to us.  So adulthood seemed like it was ‘leaving home’ but also leaving culture and any kind of belonging at all, there was nothing in the wide world expected to welcome, just the market economy and how you might become part of it, or get the college degree and do something more fulfilling.  

Without a sense of responsibility and mutuality as belonging to something bigger than my family, though there was cultural Jewish political imperative of Tikkun olam – repairing the world – that I did internalize! – there is a way that my wanderings that ended up being locked up in psychiatry reflect the dislocation that became a break and that I could then grow up differently out of, though it took years and painstaking effort to do that.  I don’t mean grow up in a psychoanalytic developmental sense, rather like a tree growing up new out of a stump struck by lightning.  

I’ve been thinking about this because of the question of individualism and community that is on my mind – related to the pandemic and also to my big piece of writing on social model crisis support, which some of you have read and commented on and that I’m finalizing now with revisions.  It feels like this is the root of my need for community and inability to actually achieve it so far, and in a sense replicating the dislocations.  I think it’s important to excavate historical dislocations and traumas in a way that isn’t rote, that starts from our own lives and not (only) from some particular historical event or set of events; there are always the particularities (multiple) and how they come together in any person’s life and legacy.  

I’m realizing in the pandemic what it is I need in many different ways; and making some tentative feelers towards deepening friendships while being open to what might present itself, and staying close to what matters to me; it is important to not lose your center or unbalance yourself in order to try and fit in some community, to not leave part of yourself outside and hope for the best while accepting some lesser connections.  I tried that, thinking it was going to be just easy and casual (with a local recreational group) but that failed too, my personality and culture and politics had to emerge somehow and were too much for that group and their narrow ways of thinking.  

Does this resonate with anyone else?  The thing about individualism as a strategy for class and cultural assimilation that is actually counterproductive and backfires is what feels important to me politically and personally.  And it’s not about prescribing anything to counter it, but just to understand it and see what changes.  

On identity politics

There are three meanings of identity politics.
1. developing group consciousness, organizing, and developing analysis and political strategy from your own situation.
2. group identity as the decisive factor in agreeing with positions or supporting political candidates.
3. group identity recognition as either a collective or individual right; based on the criteria determined by that collective or individual and deferred to by others. 

In the CRPD negotiations, identity politics in the sense of #1 and #2 to create a workable structure for decision-making in the disability community (steering committee based primarily on constituencies) and to speak for ourselves and take the major role as authorities about our own human rights, politicizing our subjective agency against structural oppression that treated us as passive and spoken-for by family members or service providers.
This was a foot in the door, it did not substitute for analysis. (Analysis is also part of #1, we made bridges of the analysis developed by the various disability movements, to the UN human rights and non-discrimination framework, to situate ourselves in relation to that framework and indicate where discrimination existed and what forms it took, and how to redress it.)

I have been putting forward the idea that women as the female sex need to claim our identities (plural because it includes the identities of subgroups of women, such as lesbians) in the sense of #1 and #2, and perhaps in the collective sense of #3.  
The disagreement between women’s-liberation feminists (feminists fighting for the liberation of the female sex from systematic male domination and exploitation) and the transgender movement boils down to:
– a disagreement about the categorization of women as being based on sex (biological and political, responding to sex-based oppression), or being based on gender (as a cultural or psychological phenomenon)
– a disagreement about collective vs individual authority about membership in the category of women

In my view women have to claim our collective identity as the female sex, and all related identities such as lesbian that meet the criteria of being sex-based and politically relevant to women’s liberation from male domination and exploitation, in order to combat the invisibilization of women and of an analysis of sex-based oppression in intersectional movements. We have to name ourselves, otherwise we allow opponents of women’s liberation to name us and dismember our identities. 

This does not mean accepting the negative aspects of identity politics that amount to making identity the end goal of political advocacy, or making it a proxy for analysis that is used to shut down argument. 

If we don’t recognize that identity is the root of what is being contested, and that we have a stake in it, we are left with either analysis that doesn’t have a driving political force, or with a focus on biology that has led too many feminists to align themselves with reactionary Christian theocrats who oppose the concept of gender as distinct from biology from the standpoint of their agenda to maintain patriarchal rule.

Context: in the left (socialist), and in feminism, we sometimes hear opposition to ‘identity politics’ as dividing the movement. This gets used against the left and against feminism also; e.g. I remember when two other lesbian feminists and I wanted to create a ‘Women’s Collective’ of the ex-psychiatric inmate organization ‘Project Release’ a woman in the group spoke vehemently against it, saying it was divisive. Against this, we have identity politics that was put forward by Barbara Smith as a way to organize with other Black women to create a politics based on their situation, which later became understood as ‘intersectionality’ (coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw). The two concepts are not identical, intersectionality is more focused on analysis and different kinds of representativity, but they are related.

The religious reactionaries and others associated with the political right (‘conservatives’) decry identity politics which they take to be any standpoint that disagrees with the existing political, economic and social order. They oppose workers’ movements (class consciousness), feminism (consciousness of sex-based oppression), certainly racial justice and national liberation movements; they deride affirmative action especially and consider it a kind of charity instead of what it really is, a reparation of past and present structural disadvantage. (Affirmative action alone is never enough, there has to be real structural change, which takes into account race and class at the same time, as figures in the Black liberation movement including Martin Luther King, and more recently Michelle Alexander, have promoted.)

Reactionaries also use terms like ‘special rights’ for anyone whose rights they disagree with, such as lesbians, gay men and bisexuals as well as transgender and other gender nonconforming people. They oppose any recognition of these groups as having equal rights with everyone else as ‘identity politics’. Their opposition is not the same as gender-critical feminism which opposes only the categorization of people as male or female based on individual gender identity rather than the biological and political category of sex.

Feminists and others who talk about identity politics, whether in support or opposition, need to understand the different meanings and the context and to be clear about what it is that they oppose or support.

Rape, shame, and women

Where did we get the idea that humiliation doesn’t apply to women? That humiliation is a petty ego thing that only men experience, while women’s reality is more simply that of violence, threats to our physical safety and our psychological well-being? How did we ever get the idea that the act of rape can be described without talking about the violent humiliation of the female victim by putting her to the sexual use of the rapist, simultaneously turning her into property and claiming her to be used and discarded? Why don’t we think about the act as one of humiliation, and the experience as one of humiliation as well as pain and terror?

Before I wrote the above paragraph, I had written two paragraphs, which disappeared from the page, on the patriarchal idea of rape as something a woman ought to be ashamed of. Rape was a crime against her reputation, or the reputation of her family, since she could no longer claim sexual innocence, equating violence with sexual initiation and placing blame on the woman for the fact that this initiation took place outside marriage, marriage being the route by which men legitimated their economic control of women and children through the status of fatherhood. Sexual pleasure could not belong to women, they were supposed to be passive receptacles of a husband’s sperm, and his act of depositing that sperm was declared to be not-rape. Rape carried with it a sense of defilement of the woman as sexual property of her husband, father, or an entire community (thinking of the use of ‘white womanhood’ to justify lynching black men on rape charges of which they were innocent).

In combating the stigma placed on women for ‘having been raped’, we reframed the act rightly as ‘a man raped a woman’ and denounced rape as an act of violence against a female human being for which the male rapist has to be held accountable. Yet criminalization of rape was not enough to either make any credible moves towards stopping it, or to politicize it as a systematic reign of male terror against the female half of the human race. Therapy or ‘rape crisis counseling’ became the response to women’s rage at being treated like a receptacle and made to witness oneself being treated as such by another human being who did this deliberately and used his maleness as weapon and shield, flaunting his power to rape and not be raped (by a woman) in turn as a mark of his superiority and her inferiority.

So I say again, where is our politics of humiliation? I think it went the same way as women’s privacy. Disappeared into … shame. Disappeared into a language that tries so hard to dismantle men’s privacy, men’s claims of humiliation that mean a woman shouted at them, a woman fought back, a woman asked for help in fighting back, that it swallows itself and meets itself coming back again. We swallowed shame together with pride, looking for survival. Safety first. But women’s privacy means something. It starts with our bodies as inviolable – unassailable – as they must be if rape is to be eradicated. I hear derision in my mind at the word ‘inviolable’, as if I am trying to keep us sexually innocent, children. But can we only imagine the female body as inviolable if sexually innocent? (Or, thinking also of the synonym impregnable, vs our capacity for pregnancy – do we really have such trouble differentiating female sexuality from a dissociated accommodation of rape?)

If my body is inviolable, it starts with recognition of my humanity; my body is not separate from myself as a woman – a female human being. A human being of the female sex. Being inviolable means I defend myself, with whatever I have at hand, no apologies. Not my patriarchal reputation or honor, but myself. And I demand that the particular sexed humiliation that is rape, the sexed act of violence that is designed to humiliate women as women, be eradicated. You and who else, I hear. What can I back such a demand up with?

I want our pain to be recognized as something other than a psychological problem requiring healing, other than a trauma. I want it politicized, to bare its teeth. Whatever else it is, if it means that we face the fact daily that we’re living as subjugated human beings until we eradicate this systematic violence that is practiced with impunity, that targets us as its particular and designated victims. We nurture a rage that has a right to boil over and destroy everything that cannot withstand it.

I want that rage to be alive in the world.

Coda: Yes, I know, I’m not the first woman to talk about rape this way, or to nurture the rage. Every time a woman does this she is right, and the world has to change. As a favorite quote of mine by Alice Walker says, only justice can stop a curse.

Gender, sex, and patriarchy

I want to try and understand the dynamics of gender as a social construct that orders society, vs sex as material reality and the systematic male subjugation of females and control of their sexual and reproductive powers. In the book Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas, Barbara A. Mann says that gender in traditional Iroquoian society came from a division into binary complementarities reflected in social organization and cosmology, rather than the reverse. That how that society understood women and men as complementary but different derived from the complementarity of divisions into clans or groups of clans, and related to mythological figures that are both male and represent a duality. They also saw the binary division as necessary to the functioning of society. I don’t want to fetishize any indigenous culture or take it as a template. I’m thinking that this way of seeing gender is 1) not inherently patriarchal – women controlled economic resources and had substantial social and political authority – and 2) a social construct in a more deliberate sense than feminists usually think about it, and somewhat divorced from sex in that sense – though built on sex, and the existence of two sexes. I am saying it’s gender because it’s a social construct, but it doesn’t separate sex from gender. Gender is always built on the existence of two sexes. But if women have power in constructing the meaning of sex, their relations with each other and with men, social organization and cosmology, it might be no different from what feminists say we are doing when we lift off patriarchal gender as a restriction and construct new relations and values.

Any society needs to come to terms with biological sex as a material fact of existence, but not all societies give it the same emphasis. Gender as a binary social division is not necessary and not implied by the existence of two sexes. My memory is rusty on this but I recall reading about an egalitarian hunter-gatherer society in Africa where women and men have the same economic and political roles, yet they have separate ceremonies for women’s and men’s coming of age.

The relevance to where we are now in pluralistic complex state societies, I want to think about in a general conceptual sense. To be able to approach discussions about gender without dogmatism – and still recognize that in our own societies we are dealing with patriarchal gender. And we have to come to terms with that in any intersectional movement against oppression – that liberation of women from male oppression is non-negotiable – as well as dealing with the material reality of sex as necessary to allocation and design of resources and services and to talk about sexuality and reproduction itself and ensure women’s safety and autonomy (the latter a lifting of patriarchal gender, from sex, but I think necessary to be vigilant about even in a theoretically post-patriarchal future).

This may all be my way of getting to a point that others of you have arrived at long before or through different paths. I’m thinking about, in relation to the last paragraph, the article in Times UK with stories of detransitioners, and how they are the canaries in the mine for women – society is making life intolerable for women to live in a female body, and male identity is offered as a way out that doesn’t change the underlying reality either of the body or of one’s alienation from what society has to offer women. We have to be able to talk about this without resorting to narratives that portray the women solely as victims – they are victimized by the circumstances and by irresponsible medical practitioners but it is their actions that tell us the most, their search for a way to live in the world as female.

The rest of it, what males are doing when they transition – I suppose that has to also be looked at in a way that sees their agency within the patriarchal system. Is it that they want to use the survival strategies allocated to women in patriarchy, which feminists deplore – and why? What is attractive about that? Or is that a totalizing narrative – as we don’t want to do with women either, and detransitioners are always careful to avoid. Can we understand the reality of people who transition and are happy with it in terms that respect their agency and that make sense to us within a feminist worldview?

It’s not enough to talk about eliminating sex stereotypes as a systemic goal, that has proven to be cumbersome and unwieldy despite being an obligation under CEDAW. (Patriarchy can’t eliminate itself; states are in charge of implementing CEDAW; feminist social criticism only goes so far when many women as well as men are happy, if not with oppression then with aspects of their gendered socialization and culture.) Legal protection of gender nonconformity despite the indefiniteness of what that means makes sense in the same way legal protection of disabled people does. We now have in the US protection of transgender status, and in some state laws and some trans/queer advocacy gender nonconformity and transgender status are merged. (Actually they are arguably merged in the proposed US Equality Act: ‘GENDER IDENTITY.—The term ‘gender identity’ means the gender-related identity, appearance, mannerisms, or other gender-related characteristics of an individual, regardless of the individual’s designated sex at birth.’)

The problem is not with anybody’s identity or expression, or simply divergence from patriarchal gender norms, but with treating that identity, expression or divergence as having anything to say about the person’s sex.

Many feminists have rejected the idea of talking about women’s identities as a sex – by which I mean the terms woman, female, girl, lesbian, mother, and any other nouns referring to females in particular – as identities, or our identity as women meaning the political and legal class of female human beings. I think we need to talk about this material identity and distinguish it from expressive gender identity. Gender identity is expressive not only because it usually involves some outward expression in appearance but also because even as a simple declaration it requires expression, an assertion, otherwise it has no social dimension that others can recognize but only a private internal self-concept. I think we can respect and protect expressive identities while differentiating them from material ones that already exist, in particular the material identity of female human beings as women.

Gender as a social construct, as a division of society built or imposed on the two sexes, and continually re-created, challenged, contested and changed by the actions of individuals accumulating into shared culture, is separate from the political and legal classifications we need to make based on sex and that we can also make based on expressive gender identity. In many UN documents, gender itself is included alongside sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination, originally understood to mean paying attention to the ways women are disadvantaged because of artifacts of gender, such as discrimination against part-time workers who are mainly women dealing with child care and household responsibilities. If gender itself has legal status and protections, the reasons for and scope of such protection would need to be debated, in my opinion it is confusing and unnecessary; sex-based discrimination would cover all discrimination against women and, if a male person was discriminated against because they were perceived as a woman – not based on being transgender but simply being perceived as a member of the sex targeted for subjugation, they would have redress also. (In the same way disability rights and racial discrimination law cover people who are perceived as being members of the targeted classes although they are not in fact.) This does not require us to change legal sex classification or to include such males in the political category of women.

Affirmative action and set-asides for women based on legacy of discrimination should still be limited to females due to the impossibility of effectively determining which males might actually partake enough in this systematic discrimination by virtue of being perceived as women to warrant inclusion, and the enormous potential for abuse given the existing patriarchal and male supremacist culture that would tend to prioritize and center those males. (Female-only spaces related to biological differences such as sports, and those designed to serve women in their confrontation with male violence or any other spaces where women gather outside the male presence to meet their needs as women, absolutely need to be protected for women as a sex, and there is no argument for including males.) Males who by virtue of expressive gender identity or any other reason may be perceived as female in many settings may want to have their own spaces developed to meet their needs.

The US Supreme Court’s Bostock opinion, whatever may have been the diverse political compromises that shaped it, gives us a framework to argue the distinction of sex and gender in US law (see Elizabeth Hungerford’s analysis; also compare with Dar Guerra’s assessment of the decision and its impact on women as a class). The opinion is ambiguous as to how identity functions as sex and as transgender status – is it entirely separate, a single identity that changes over time, or simply irrelevant for purposes of sex discrimination law? Sex is ‘identified’ at birth while an individual may ‘identify as’ or ‘identify with’ a different sex today. Yet the Court does not go so far as to attribute active identification as or with one’s own sex identified at birth, to persons who do not transition – it does not embrace the term or the concept of ‘cisgender’. The comparator for a person identified male at birth who identifies as a female today is simply ‘an employee identified female at birth’.

Feminists have the opportunity now to work out a vision for how sex and gender identity meet in law, in the US context (including having to grapple with the fact that birth certificate and passport changes are already here, and what should ideally or feasibly be done about that).

Aside on identification – the argument for changes to ID has been that police and others who might check identity are bigoted against transgender people and will subject them to brutality if their identity doesn’t match their outward appearance. This doesn’t hold up to legislation that allows reclassification based on simple self-declaration of identity, it only makes sense if at all for those who effectively pass. In addition, gender non-conforming people who do not transition or request recertification are left unprotected; transition with all its costs appears as the only pathway to safety. Alternatives are possible especially in the context of current uprisings calling for radical restructuring, diminishment and replacement of policing with alternative community accountability and safety mechanisms. Women’s equal share in such mechanisms, in their design and in carrying out of enforcement including any armed self-defense, is essential, as is a clear understanding of sex-based oppression and the absolute inviolability of female bodily autonomy and privacy and the eradication of any hate speech, macro- and micro-aggressions, slurs, put-downs or ridicule that create hostile environments for women in public and private spaces as well as threatening their safety. Acceptance of transgender people as transgender, and of all gender nonconforming people, including lesbians and gay men, is part of the vision of community safety as well. The purposes of sex classification on identity documents need to be debated to ensure that female only spaces are respected while no extraneous or bigoted uses can be made of such classification.

The UK model which currently allows gender recognition certificates subject to gatekeeping (not based on self-ID), while also preserving female-only spaces, should be explored by US feminists but should not constrain our thinking. We need to envision what works for our complex, large, settler and slavery-legacy society, with its religious right and white nationalists still holding power even as the Movement For Black Lives puts forward a breathtaking new vision for change – the BREATHE Act – based in years of dedicated work. Feminists need to be part of the revolution and this means taking a clear look at where we are and being able to debate with each other and with others who can see as a starting point, that shutting down women’s speech, lesbians’ speech, feminists’ speech, is not in any way progressive.

Solstice meditations

  1. On envy

Envy as need for belonging, wanting to fit in, to be included, to be safe, to find a home. In childhood we may have been denied a safe home or our trust and safety was violently disrupted. We may have been bullied or just not fit in. Others may have characterized us as strange or different, we may have seen ourselves as different.

Envy as imitating others who seem to have a better right to speak, whose needs are attended to, whose existence is more legitimate than our own.

Envy as being replicated by being drawn to derelict places, wastelands, and also to the places where no one else has seen the beauty. Sometimes this is a path of choosing work that fills a historical or spiritual need.

Envy as linked to sex and love, themes of wanting love and fearing to lose the self, amplified by patriarchy which demands women to lose ourselves and men to extract women’s soul energy.

What or whom do you envy? Where does it start, and where does it end?

Free will and determinism in a dialectic, thinking about Jane Rule’s novel This is Not For You. A heart-breaking story of lesbian love rejected, and the rejected woman becomes a nun. It is presented as the inner logic of her destiny while at the same time if both women had had the courage – not bravery but courage that starts from self-acceptance – to love each other, if everything around them had not built walls of fear and shame and denial, a different destiny could have manifested itself.

Believing in good luck and and allowing good fortune.

Shoving off the chains of caring what nay-sayers think. They don’t hold my destiny. Who are you? Finding the truth, the kernel of light and shining it where you are. Diffused light, diffused power of growth, keeping time.

2. On feminism and progressive politics in this historical moment

Several times on this blog I’ve addressed my feminist sisters including about rejecting mental illness accusations. This time I am addressing my progressive, leftist, anti-racist community, including my psychiatric survivor and disability community.

We are living a significant historical moment for the transformation of society to eradicate police terror and other systemic racial injustice against Black people in the US. At the same time we are living the decline of feminism as a movement for liberation of the female sex from subjugation to males, and the submersion of lesbians into an LGBTQ+ acronym that erases our unique existence as same-sex attracted females and the intersectional struggle we bring to feminism and to the politics of lesbian/gay liberation. Progressive spaces fighting racism can be unwelcoming to those of us fighting for lesbians’ and women’s liberation, and we are subjected to ageism as well, treated as dinosaurs who should die out and leave the young to their innocence.

Some background for pride month. The word ‘gay’ can include lesbians, but often a bar, gathering, organization, event, service advertised as gay turns out to be exclusively male or to be centered on gay male sexuality. Saying lesbian/gay was our way to make women visible in the movement of homosexual, or same-sex-attracted people. The additional of bisexuals, and then transgender, then queer and other letters, was a different kind of political intervention – a move towards redefinition of the politics of gay/lesbian liberation into a politics of diversity encompassing sexual orientation of any non-heteronormative kind and gender nonconformity in expression or identity.

The role of butch lesbians in the Stonewall uprising has been obscured by a focus on drag queens and transwomen, who are male. Stormé DeLarverie and other butch lesbians fought with police who arresting them and beating them for being at a gay bar, and according to some reports, Stormé’s call to the crowd, ‘Why don’t you do something?’ sparked the collective rebellion. Stormé, a Black lesbian, was a drag king performer and remained active in the gay liberation movement; she was honored with awards and Michelle Parkerson made a film about her. Lesbians’ place in our own movement (lesbian/gay liberation) needs to be honored, respected, uplifted, and continually remembered.

When progressive spaces make us into pariahs some white women avail themselves of privilege to jump to alliances with reactionaries, who are willing to use feminist concerns as a front for anti-trans, anti-gay/lesbian, anti-female, anti-poor and racist agendas. Progressives have to do their part to fight the mainstreaming of reactionary politics by opening a door to feminists and lesbians – women of color as well as white women – whose feminism excludes males and includes all females.

The use of feminism by reactionaries has extended to the fight against exploitation of women in sex industries and surrogacy – public sexual and reproductive exploitation, in the capitalist market, that unsurprisingly affects disproportionately black and indigenous women and other women of color, and women without economic resources. Reactionaries’ objections to these industries are that they undermine the control of women by the patriarchal family, but they are happy to have feminists front for them while they steer the agenda.

There is a difference between converging on a particular policy at a moment in time, and making organizational alliances, conducting joint projects, creating relations of dependence and interdependence. There is also a difference between such alliances and lobbying of politicians or government officials who may be diametrically opposed to one’s political views. The US disability movement has encountered similar issues in its position that Terry Schiavo should be maintained on life support, and in legislative work including the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is not always easy to draw the lines and the issue is one of politics and impact – the impact on feminism, on women, in this case, of succumbing to a strategy of co-optation that steers us away from our own ultimate objectives. Cooptation is an issue we have faced in the US psychiatric survivor/anti-psychiatric oppression movement, when the federal mental health agency decided to fund our organizations to provide peer support and consult on mental health programs but not to do anti-psychiatric oppression work.

Male violence has been named as a problem by feminism in three respects that have to be disentangled. The most central is men’s violence towards women that is specifically enacted sexually through rape, including rape aimed at enforced pregnancy and rape as a weapon of war and genocide; that is aimed at controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction, including anti-lesbian violence, ‘honor codes’ legitimizing the killing of women and girls who are sexually active or who are raped, the criminalization of abortion, female genital mutilation; that is aimed at subjugating women individually and collectively, including the beating and killing and coercive control of intimate partners, misogynist femicides against one or more women chosen to represent women as a class. This is sexual politics per se.

Secondly, violence itself, including sexual violence, and including war, is itself predominantly a practice of males. It can therefore be examined through a lens of gender, or sexual politics in an extended sense, to consider analytically and historically, what is the linkage between the male sex-role, the premise of male sexual entitlement and sexual aggression under patriarchy, and the maintenance of violence through war, particularly aggressive and imperialist war, violent and militarized policing and penal systems and other violent carceral and repressive systems including psychiatry, violence between groups of men and individual men, violence related to criminalized economic activity such as the drug trade, violence against feminine males whose existence threatens sexual politics and the feminization of male enemies. Analytical and historical research on these questions links to the complementary need to research matriarchies – societies ‘beginning with the mother’ – that are egalitarian, consensus-led, based in economic reciprocity with distribution under the control of women, in which structural violence is eliminated. Are these societies peaceful in general, and are they also characterized by an absence of and intolerance for rape? What is the relationship between women’s centrality socially and culturally and women’s economic control, and the ability to live harmoniously? What lessons do these societies hold for us to un-build capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy?

Thirdly, some women hold men to be essentially violent, and equate violence with either male biology or with a male sex-role. This view can lead to diametrically opposed positions, either aiming for complete separation or the fantasy of eradication of males and reproducing parthenogenetically or in other ways controlled entirely by women, or eliminating sexual politics entirely and viewing feminine or feminized males, and those who are sexually assaulted, as being equivalent to women and butch or masculine women, and women who commit violence, as being the same as men. The resurgence of interest in evolutionary biology among feminists in a more narrow sense of theorizing a difference in reproductive strategies between males and females differs from these other positions as the antagonism it implies is not necessarily violent or irresolvable but would need to be taken account of, which could point towards a matriarchal organization of society. I am not comfortable with such an account, since it posits biology as an explanation of behavior, flattening out culture and history and any initiative for change outside the posited parameters. While biology constrains us – e.g. we can’t fly without mechanical constructions, our sexed bodies can’t be self-adjusted like the blowfish though they can be modified through hormones and surgery – the linkage between biology and behavior at individual or species level is a different kind of proposition. That type of theory has been invoked to uphold racism, male dominance, ableism and violent practices associated with those ideologies including eugenics and forced psychiatry, so while I want to learn more about this position from a feminist colleague who holds it, I am skeptical.

Which way forward? We have to continue to think, and act, in all dimensions that we move, with as much consciousness and deliberateness as we can. It is likely that partial movements, constrained by the limitations of politics in liberal capitalism and the violence of the state in suppressing uprisings outside those constraints, will continue to arise, and that suffering and oppression will increase worldwide as capitalism tries to postpone the inevitable running out of material for its pyramid scheme of constantly increasing wealth. I am tempted to think, my life is finite and it won’t be my problem, but I am not yet dead and the year 2020 continues to show us that we will be surprised if we aren’t paying attention. Better to meet the future with open eyes and tools to fight for the whole of what we believe in.

What is Pride?

LGBTQ+++ spaces are asking ‘what does Pride mean to you?’ Pride is sorrow for being deprived of a public language in which to express who I am as a lesbian.

Pride is hurt that when I talk about being a lesbian feminist, a lesbian whose destiny is bound up with the fate of all female human beings, I am drowned out by ‘trans lives matter’. I don’t want to have to answer that with sharing the stories of lesbians brutalized for the intersectional oppression of being homosexual and female. Or with those of women forced into compulsory heterosexual arrangements and punished for following their own desire of any kind, raped and disbelieved and punished again by police and family. Any of those could have been me.

Pride is sometimes small and quiet, self-preservation finally shaking off fear. Pride is knowing who I come home to, and in which spaces I am only tolerated or precarious (too many, including LGBTQ+++ and progressive politics generally in the US). Pride is being my full big self, laughing and unafraid. Pride is dignity knowing there are some spaces where my role is as an ally and not centering my needs there, but if a community requires me to leave part of myself at home – this time it’s my femaleness more than being same-sex-attracted – I will be a shadow and will not stick around but will show my support in other ways.

This Pride I’m coming out as a lesbian who stands up for female autonomy and won’t go back into the closet, will make that a core part of my political public identity and not ask anyone’s sufferance. So here’s my coming out for 2020: integrating my women’s human rights work with my larger body of disability rights work, I’ve uploaded my 2016 LLM thesis ‘Female Autonomy vs Gender Identity A critical analysis of gender identity in CEDAW jurisprudence and the Yogyakarta Principles‘ to my Academia page, to join the rest of my papers.

Happy Pride!

White women and racism

I’m writing this on June 2, 2020, during a Week of Action called by the Movement For Black Lives, after a series of racist murders and incidents including the horrific police murder of George Floyd, whom they initially approached over an alleged counterfeit $20 bill and who was unarmed. His murder was captured on video by Black teenager Darnella Frazier and others, taking place over eight minutes while he slowly asphyxiated complaining he couldn’t breathe.

Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old African American EMT, was murdered in her home on by police who fired several shots rapidly, after her boyfriend Kenneth Walker shot at them in self-defense. They had entered after midnight with a battering ram without identifying themselves as police, executing a ‘no-knock’ search warrant based on allegations that a drug dealer had used the apartment to receive packages.

Amy Cooper, a white woman, called police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation), who had told her to leash her dog and took out dog treats when she refused. She told police that she’s a white woman and a Black man is threatening her life, dramatizing with her voice to give the impression of intense fear. Christian’s videotaping may have saved his life, and showed the incident to the world. When police came, both of them had left. Amy lost her job and had to return her dog to the shelter she had gotten it from.

As a white-privileged, Jewish woman I grew up with and internalized a lot of racist tropes and attitudes. I was conscious of white privilege mixed with upward class mobility, as protection from the horrors that I knew Black people and other People of Color were subjected to, in my segregated New York City (neighborhoods were pretty much one ethnicity or another, not very mixed): poor housing and schools, violence that comes out of poverty; later I understood that police were an occupying force in those communities. My family were marginal in Jewish communities we lived in and in the Yeshivas I attended, neither being religious nor materially successful, but being Jewish was the identity I most related to. In some sense it created a shelter that itself amounted to white privilege, though it was also a root of heritage that entailed good and bad I would have to sift through. Anti-semitism was not a daily or current matter and adults placed the Holocaust, pogroms, their own earlier poverty in the past along with the Yiddish language, though some horror images and stories percolated through.

I was also the favored child in my family, the oldest and the one with whom my mother had first experienced that sensation of falling in love with a newborn. With her injuries and traumas, I had to mother myself a lot but the experience of being favored, along with her real sensitivity to my needs at times, gave me a sense of confidence that stayed with me even after we had an irrevocable breach in our relationship. The privilege was doubled edged, however, giving me a sense of my fragility – caution, deserving to be protected in some way – and of not needing to be accountable. This family privilege linked to white privilege through my blond hair as a child, unusual in a Jewish family, and in my school I was viewed as pretty as well as smart (the latter of which I feel confident that I was in fact).

As an adult I’ve had hardships and needed to unpick and unpack all of that. But it stays with me as what I bring to a conversation about white women and racism. It’s not enough to proclaim solidarity without feeling personally implicated. As a Facebook friend posted, in the fight against racist violence there are no bystanders. Witnessing the murder of George Floyd, witnessing Amy Cooper’s blatant racist weaponizing of the police, just the latest in an unending onslaught since the first slave ships, white people have to choose justice or else be swept up in evil whether by deliberate choice or indifference. We are personally implicated either way.

I have been dismayed and horrified to see the large numbers of gender critical radical feminist white women who are turning to racism as, apparently, their true ‘identity’, looking to the extreme religious far right to save them from what they see as the greater evil of gender identity or as they say ‘transgenderism’. (I consider ‘transgenderism’ to be a slur as no transgender people use it about themselves; we can discuss the boundaries and ideological disputes between feminism and transgender activism without denying that there are people who identify as transgender and it has a particular meaning. We do not have to, and I do not, accept the view that being transgender changes a person’s sex.) Let’s think about that for a minute.

If the transgender ideology ‘won’ and transwomen could legally identify as no different from me, female, for all purposes – if that legal fiction were to be fully and dogmatically enforced in every area of life – it would make it potentially unsafe in some circumstances for me to get health care (it being important to me to have female providers for most kinds of care, and especially gynecological care), and potentially make body searches (at the airport, or if I am under arrest or in jail or prison) even more abusive and traumatizing. It would – it already has – silenced me and deprived me of solidarity among LGBTQ communities that treat me as a pariah. It could – in London and San Francisco it has – resulted in violence against lesbians and other women who profess that ‘lesbian’ and ‘woman’ are material identities and not subject to appropriation by anyone born male.

What does the extreme far right threaten me with? Race war. Assault weapons being welcomed into our capitols without a murmur – the building of white militias tolerated with a wink as ‘free speech’. Creating a hostile climate against all LGBTQ people – all of us who are same-sex-attracted and/or gender-nonconforming – while allowing some, white, lesbians to occupy a protected space if they turn against others and join the religious fundamentalists in calling LGBTQ pride a dangerous and destructive movement. Lesbian feminists have separated ourselves from ‘LGBTQ’ or previously ‘gay rights’ when it is male-centric and misogynist, and still do. But accepting a protected berth with those who want to return women to male domination (maybe accepting de-sexed lesbianism as a kind of spinsterhood so long as it upholds and doesn’t challenged their authoritarian regime) is not just dangerous for those who do it, it implicates white privilege as fragility and lack of accountability.

For me – though apparently not for all Jewish women – being Jewish puts me emphatically in opposition to white nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Anti-semitism is in resurgence, and though we’re not the main target this time, it’s not just about ‘us’ as Jews in particular, it’s knowing what this is and needing to put ourselves in the way of it – to stop it and to give it no breathing room, no aid or comfort, not an ounce of allegiance. Being confronted with the Amy Cooper video puts it very starkly to all white women: are we going to be that, or are we going to stand with women and men of color and say ‘no more genocide in my name’?

There’s a process that any white woman has to go through, to examine her own thoughts and feelings and unpick racism from what she really needs in the world. We need to defend ourselves against violence or abuse from any man, and too often we don’t get what we need – we are overpowered and the abuse happens, the police don’t come or we choose not to put ourselves through their further abuse in case of rape, too many injustices – like forced psychiatry – aren’t even criminalized. We have a ton of injustices to confront and combat. But taking power that is the power of racism and of a racist, male supremacist state, of anti-woman and anti-gay religious fundamentalists, to bring in bigger guns against someone we have a dispute with, is only empowering what is racist, complicit with a genocidal state and misogynist religions, in ourselves – it cannot empower us as women of the world, as lesbians of the world, as dykes of the world. It doesn’t stop violence, it escalates and accelerates it.

Sally Roesch Wagner, a white second-wave feminist who has studied Haudenosaunee culture and the influence of that culture on first-wave feminism in the US, recounts that a Haudenosaunee friend commented to her that white women look at their culture and think women have significant power, but to her, it was a matter of responsibility rather than power. White women need to think about the relationship between responsibility and power, and that it might be different from our own accustomed starting point – in our lives there might have been responsibility imposed on us without power, so we focus on gaining power – but in doing so, remain within our own frame of reference which is a racist, male supremacist, capitalist one. When we start from responsibility we may think we have to give ourselves up – but we can start from inside, quietly. What are we accountable for, and how can we turn that around, show up for ourselves and others in an exercise of responsibility?

And responsibility has to turn outward to the world as it is, not to an imagined one where the white enclosure is all that matters.

Join the Movement For Black Lives and participate in this week of action; see also Bend the Arc: Jewish Action to join with other Jews for Black Lives.