Self-sovereignty as self-relation

1. Rights as property, or is there another way? Self-ownership or self-sovereignty?

The human rights regime has been challenged as viewing rights as a kind of property, with ownership as the ultimate right (see discussion in Robin West, Normative Jurisprudence).  If this is so, then the regime has tied its own hands and made itself unable to overturn capitalism, an economic system that entails vast exploitation and abuse of human beings and the planet.  But another view is possible.

Self-sovereignty, or self-determination or autonomy at the personal level (I am not now discussing the right of peoples to self-determination) is sometimes articulated as ownership of the self.  Particularly when rights concern my own body, as in a right to abortion or right to suicide, I might say, ‘I own myself, the state doesn’t own me.’  This view is expressed in Wayne Ramsay’s 2017 article, which was brought to my attention by survivor of psychiatry activist Mary Maddock on Twitter.

Self-ownership suggests that we are property that we might own or another person or collective (like the state) might own.  I recalled my similar discomfort or sadness to hear advocates with developmental disabilities state, ‘I am my own guardian.’  Guardianship was normative in their lives; parents of people with developmental disabilities were seeking guardianship over them when they turned eighteen, to deny their newly adult children the rights and privileges of adulthood and transition seamlessly from parental guardianship over children to the system of guardianship over adult wards.

In thinking about the rights we hold so precious in the survivor community to define our own identities and life stories, to defend ourselves from forced drugging and electroshock and from confinement in locked wards and in restraints, I think that self-sovereignty describes the right we have in relation to ourselves, and it is not one of ownership but unity of self from a legal point of view and insistence that the relationship  one has to oneself is not penetrable by others without violation.

This is related to the concept of boundaries that we establish between ourselves and others, which also are commonly defined as the word suggests, in relation to a territory.  I find that when I think of ‘boundaries’ that way, I find that it creates a provocation – a line in the sand that doesn’t so much say ‘you will not step over’ as, ‘I dare you to step over’ – a signal of willingness to fight, more than a signal of impenetrability.  It is furthermore a boundary that I am reaching to establish, that feels like it extends beyond myself, or into myself, and that is not strong or stable.  Instead, if I think of the boundary as a limit on the person’s behavior towards me, I focus on the limit itself and not the violation or potential for violation.  It is a boundary that proceeds outward from my strength.

Feminists and survivors of psychiatry both need to think about these issues.

2. The right to legal capacity and theory of personhood

The right to legal capacity, which is the legal status that recognizes individuals as actors capable of creating legal effects through an exercise of personal autonomy, has come into focus in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the pre-eminent right without which no other rights can be guaranteed.  This is not merely a prioritization of one right over another; without legal capacity one can be tortured or arbitrarily detained with impunity as no one is obligated to pay attention to your saying ‘No!’ when a doctor or court or guardian says ‘Yes’ on your behalf to institutionalization and destructive ‘treatments’.

The focus of activists and experts working on legal capacity through CRPD has been primarily to explicate the paradigm of universal (adult) legal capacity in terms of its details (how to differentiate between substitute decision-making and support) and how it responds to problems and challenges (like the situation of coma), rather than to develop an underlying theory of personhood.  When theory of personhood is addressed, it has been unsatisfying to me as a feminist and survivor of psychiatry; the focus is on human interdependence as a justification for recognizing that legal capacity can be exercised with support, which does not help to argue for recognition of equal legal capacity of persons with disabilities full stop, with a right to reject support the same as everyone else might do.

Interdependence is not satisfying to me as a feminist or as a survivor of psychiatry.  In my experience, women and girls are trained to discount ourselves as the source of answers, wisdom and strength, and to look to someone else as initiator (especially sexual initiator), arbiter of decisions, and defender.  Interdependence is a false promise when your own independent selfhood is denied – it becomes dependence and inequality.  Psychiatry enforces this misogynistic abuse-expectation and abuse-catering pattern that is demanded of women, and trashes us to the hilt – the end result of abuse that is so totalized, reaching from family to medical authorities to the state, legitimized by civil society and neighbors, is to make us unfit for interdependence – unable to relate with others as equals due to their own prejudice and our own internalized oppression.

On the other side, many women and many survivors of psychiatry find that they are not entirely beaten down, that they find strength and knowledge in bonding with other women, other survivors, and speaking the truths that the abusers forbid.  The feminist movement and the survivor movement have promoted interdependence as a value from this experience.  But it is a different kind of interdependence than that invoked to justify supported decision-making in legal capacity.  It is an interdependence starting with the collectivity of oppressed people finding their own voices together in resistance to those who tell us we have to depend on them.  It is not an interdependence that is experienced as an unequal dependence in which we strive for mutuality but are doomed to fail.

Ethics of care has started from the point of dependence as an inevitability in human life, given that we all begin life as infants and that women, as mothers and as carers for adults in situations of vulnerability, have a standpoint from which to theorize ethics based on something other than a relationship of equals, viewed as liberal market-paradigm relations between rational autonomous individuals.  Yet ethics of care can obfuscate the issue of personal autonomy and self-sovereignty as a right of individuals who are in situations of high dependence on others to meet their basic needs.  If it takes the perspective of the mother and not the infant, the carer and not the one who is relying on care, it is skewed and is morally lopsided.  I would like to leave aside the question of infancy for now and what it means to take the perspective of an infant, but it is clear that disabled people who rely on care have their own perspectives and have articulated them – that is a large part of the disability rights movement(s).

I suspect that the notion of interdependence to justify supported decision-making derives from an adaptation to ethics of care; ‘not dependence but interdependence’ as a way of presenting the situation of people with intellectual disabilities who rely on support in exercising their legal capacity as an extension of everyday life for non-disabled people.  And it is true that the best way of understanding supported decision-making is to look at one’s own life, where I have used support when making decisions, when have I supported someone else, what does that look/feel like?  Yet, it begs the question of what this kind of support really amounts to, why we are presenting it as a particular thing and not simply saying, you know how we all support each other?, well the same is true for people with disabilities.

3. Self-sovereignty and impenetrability of self-relation, in CRPD

Self-sovereignty as a right of personhood, including for those who rely on support to exercise their will, has been present throughout our work on legal capacity in and through the CPRD, in the insistence that every person has a will (by DPOs in the negotiations), in the requirement in Article 12.4 that all measures relating to the exercise of legal capacity ‘respect the rights, will and preferences of the person’, in the careful calibration of the obligations of support in relation to the exercise of personal autonomy (as the substantive dimension of legal capacity) in General Comment No. 1.  ‘Interdependence’ has played partly a public-relations role, invoking softer caring relations and mitigating fears that people with disabilities will be left on their own and will fail.  Yet GC1 is clear that support serves the individual concerned, that there is a right to refuse support, and that ultimately carers have to stand aside and respect the ‘autonomy, will and preferences’ of the person they support.

Similarly, GC1 incorporates the right to be free from forced psychiatric interventions, which it characterizes as ‘an infringement of the rights to personal integrity (art. 17); freedom from torture (art. 15); and freedom from violence, exploitation and abuse (art. 16)’ as well as ‘a violation of the right to equal recognition before the law [the parent right from which legal capacity is derived].’  (‘Infringement’ rather than ‘violation’ suggests that forced psychiatric interventions may not always violate those personal integrity rights, a manifestation of unnecessary caution from the CRPD Committee that has since been rectified (see General Comment No. 3 paras 32, 53 and 54; General Comment No. 6 para 56; Guidelines on Article 14 para 12; which recognize forced ‘treatment’ as a violation of Articles 15, 16 and 17).)  Here and in paragraph 7, which includes ‘mental health laws that permit forced treatment’ as a substitute decision-making regime, GC1 gives effect to the right to defend oneself against physical violence that has been legitimated by positioning it as defense of the person against intolerable potential for harm or deterioration within the self that decides or acts – with the irony that the act of penetration itself, if successful, accomplishes a splitting of the self and undermining of initiative that confirms the belief (of psychiatrists, family and friends, and the person her/himself) in an unreliable and illegitimate self that cannot be trusted to act.

GC1 also soundly rejects the ‘functional’ approach to deprivation of legal capacity, found in mental capacity assessments and also in the concept of ‘unsoundness of mind’, which is both the prong of legal capacity deprivation most invoked against people with psychosocial disabilities (who are viewed as incapable of ‘discernment’) and the assumption underlying involuntary internment and involuntary ‘treatment’ in the mental health system.  In its discussion of the functional approach, GC1 underscores the right to self-sovereignty as impenetrability (unknowability) of the self by other selves:

This approach is flawed for two key reasons: (a) it is discriminatorily applied to people with disabilities; and (b) it presumes to be able to accurately assess the inner-workings of the human mind and, when the person does not pass the assessment, it then denies him or her a core human right — the right to equal recognition before the law. [emphasis added]

4. Conclusions and directions to explore

The right to self-sovereignty as impenetrability of the relationship to oneself, a unique relation that unlike others is not a relation of conceptually or physically separate entities,  should be further developed in scholarship at the intersection of mad studies, disability studies, and critical disability jurisprudence – primarily by survivors of psychiatry and those identifying as mad, ourselves – and in feminist theory and jurisprudence.  (I have primarily developed the disability issues here but hope that the implications for eradication of rape, abortion rights, female autonomy/female-only space and other concerns of feminism can be extrapolated and elaborated.)  It should also be developed in advocacy and in the work of the CRPD Committee and CEDAW and other relevant UN entities, to promote understanding of personhood and human rights that is based in the standpoint of oppressed people fighting for liberation and not in property ownership, which beyond personal property or use-rights that meet human needs and are sustainable for the environment amounts to exploitation and should not be protected in a human rights regime.

Self-relation, the relationship one has to oneself, is unique and particular.  But it might also be an instance of relationality as a way of thinking about law and about human rights; duties to one another and how to relate to one another and to the environment in ways that promote the common good and individual flourishing, rather than the static and territorial approach to rights as marking a line in the sand that sets us up for fights, and is even designed to do so in an adversarial legal system (like the one in the USA).  Comparative law and comparative philosophy are important to this project; I have written before about being inspired by indigenous law, and have encountered interesting features of civil law and parliamentary systems and other countries’ constitutions that inspire me as well; I am currently reading ‘African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry,‘ which is opening doors about philosophy of personhood generally and from a comparative perspective.


Women’s liberation, gender identity and the state

The adoption of gender identity laws* by many states, and the endorsement of such laws by organs of the United Nations, demonstrates a failure to recognize women as a political class and women’s liberation as a fundamental component of the human rights project.

The transgender or gender identity movement in itself is a civil society phenomenon that has claimed the mantle of feminism and the mantle of lesbian and gay liberation as well. But it is states who bear the responsibility for the denial of women as a political class and the ensuring violations of women’s human rights.

The women’s liberation movement fought for abolition of all forms of male dominance and exploitation of women, and recognized gender as a social and cultural elaboration of  identities for men and women that not only limited individuals’ freedoms and opportunities but also kept in place the political and economy hierarchy with men on the top and women on the bottom.  This movement, now known as radical feminism, still fights all forms of male domination and exploitation of women.  It is an international and intersectional movement, keeping in mind that to be intersectional, women have to be recognized as a political class – intersectionality does not mean the obliteration of any political class or denying that there is any common political agenda, but rather pursuing the liberation of all members of that class including where that political agenda intersects with others.

Lesbians are caught in the cross-hairs of gender identity as an attack on women as a political class, most obviously because gender identity is promoted in our name through the ‘LGBTQ’ movement, but so are women of color, disabled women and women with other identities that have to fight intersectional battles, and those who have to defend themselves individually against male violence or who fight for its eradication.  Early in the US feminist movement, lesbians were told we weren’t wanted.  We are often treated as ‘not really women’.  Women of color and disabled women are also treated as ‘not really women’ or as the ‘wrong kind of woman’.  Every woman is exposed to social control and disapproval when she steps over the line of femininity as pleasing men and dedicating one’s own will and actions to maintaining a veneer of pleasantness in the family and in society, serving the interests of all hierarchies and systems of exploitation.  It is exactly trampling these lines of femininity that women need to survive, to defend ourselves against male violence both organized and individual, and to act in the world as responsible individuals and citizens.

The gender identity movement takes part of the feminist agenda, part of the lesbian and gay agenda, and makes it the sole focus to be enforced against the other parts of those movements.  The freedom to express ourselves and cross the lines of femininity and masculinity as individuals is part of both feminism/women’s liberation and lesbian/gay liberation.  It is a beautiful thing to see this freedom of expression win greater acceptance – but it has a conservative side, as the freedom is won by appealing to the construct of gender as a set of social cues in communication, e.g. I wear lipstick and present the appearance of breasts, therefore respond to me as a woman, or I tell you my pronouns are ‘they/them’, therefore respond to me as if you are agnostic about my sex.  It’s conservative because it treats an oppressive system as merely the cumulative product of individual choices, similar to a marketplace, and merely demands that the terms on which the market operates are made more equal in terms of opportunity to choose positions irrespective of sex.  But we don’t start out equal and don’t end up equal; it’s nonsense to treat a political hierarchy and system of economic and sexual exploitation as a marketplace – to do so merely entrenches the system of male domination/exploitation/extraction of resources from women along with all its dependent and intersectional hierarchies and systems of exploitation.  In order to act against oppression we have to act collectively to change the conditions that confront us; political action is not a marketplace.

Democracy has sometimes functioned as a marketplace especially when we are talking about majority vote and campaigns that function as marketing and not as political debate or deliberation.  But the answer is to bring back political debate, deliberation and collective action – not to capitulate to an individualism that is tantamount to despair.

The state is responsible for its violation of the human rights of women, but at the same time women have a right to question the state.  Democracy is a human right of a people to self-determination and pre-exists any particular form of political organization.  Equality of the sexes is fundamental to democracy, otherwise it is not democracy but androcracy.  Having been given the right to vote by states created by men, we are playing catch-up while men continue to shape the laws and customs to their own benefit, i.e. to treat rape as an individual crime for which sympathy is doled out or withheld on a racial basis to victim or perpetrator, rather than as a systemic hate crime against women that is to be eradicated.**   ‘Democracy’ itself cannot legitimize violations of human rights; like legal capacity it is a meta-right, a right that encapsulates a status for the exercise of freedom, and as a collective right, democracy remains accountable for the relations among individuals that it endorses and for those by which it operates.

The state should be the target of women’s political action and organizing, not the gender identity movement per se.  It is the state that bears responsibility within a human rights framework, and the state which, as the form of modern political organization that is answerable to democratic demands or can be targeted for political resistance if it rejects those demands.  The best and most successful organizing is being done in response to state initiatives like the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, which also benefits from a large grass-roots movement that was able to mobilize through an anonymous discussion board where women congregate to discuss political and nonpolitical issues of many kinds (MumsNet).  In the US our spheres of political action and debate are circumscribed, truncated and heavily influenced by political parties, funders and media that have created a political culture of spin and power rather than deliberation or collective action that can sustain itself independently, with some important exceptions.  We should learn from other countries and other struggles as we work intersectionally for women’s liberation.


*By gender identity laws I mean laws that allow men to change their legal classification to that of women, whether based on self-identification or on medical or social gatekeeping.  Self-identification laws are the most pernicious for women’s rights because they allow the greatest number of men to enter and represent the most complete denial of women as a political class, but laws that require gatekeeping are nevertheless problematic for the autonomy of the female sex to define itself.

**The Nordic model for ending prostitution, which provides support for women to exit the sex industry and penalizes sex buyers to criminalize the demand for commodified sex moves us toward a systemic approach by targeting sexual exploitation at the industrial level.

Gender Identity Isn’t a Box. It’s a Yardstick.

This is a great explanation of the radical feminist critique of gender identity.


One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:

What, exactly, is gender identity?

If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”

That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.

Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter…

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On pariah status

My poem Lilit captured this but I need to push the political analysis and narrative.

In yoga, my instructor invites us to ‘set an intention’ for the practice.  Tonight I set an intention to create community where I live.  At the end of the practice, when she invited us to direct energy towards our intention and see it in practice, it came to me that I want to be my full self and be welcomed, embraced, respected, valued.  My full self is a survivor of forced psychiatry – once known as an ‘ex-mental patient’ – and a lawyer whose entire work is dedicated to international human rights law for the abolition of this practice.

My full self also happens to be a lesbian, a lesbian who insists that the female body is what I desire and what I am; a lesbian feminist who needs female-only space and culture and politics to exist, who still believes that ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’.  My full self is a Jew, a female-autonomous-spirituality-practicing Jew, a walk-in-the-woods-and-pray-with-trees Jew, a kid who went to yeshiva from a non-religious family Jew.  A New York Jew who grew up knowing few non-Jewish people until high school when I went further into the wide world.

Where I live now is a rural town where people don’t know what to make of me, and I don’t know what to make of them either.  I don’t work in the community, don’t contribute, don’t relate to them except in passing, at yoga class, in transactions at store or farmer’s market.  A couple of friends I know from the remnants of a short-lived fairly radical psych survivor organization about ten years ago, in a neighboring city/big town.  A few others we call friends from the Occupy vigils we went to religiously, hour-long and contemplative and connecting – but they ended.  Others we knew from a time when we attended a church with a lesbian minister of Jewish heritage, who understood spirit enough to create a service welcoming to the likes of me, but I had to stop going when she left and the new minister talked about ‘obeying Jesus’.  A couple of lesbians from a defunct brunch group. A lesbian couple who run a successful goat cheese business, not friends exactly but we like going to their open house and kind of ‘barn dance’ events, and the gay guy who sells their cheese at farmer’s market and brightens up my day.  And the ‘girls across the road,’ as the realtor said when she sold us the house, but they don’t stay there, they stay in her partner’s house in the next town.

In 2017, as I described in the Lilit poem, I tried to engage politically with a group that formed after the election of Donald Trump.  I had just come home from Norway and wanted to get involved with something; I have skills, I am politically active and know how to analyze legislation and policy.  I thought, ok, here are people in my home town that are not racists or homophobes and give a damn about things that I do.  And don’t you know it, the leader kicked me out after I used the adjective ‘fucking’ when talking about the Democrats as a corporate party.  Clearly there is a cultural thing here or a political thing that is insurmountable, and I haven’t gotten over it.  I tried the Green Party also, but don’t like the bickering and dogmatism engaged in by men in my local meetings.

I wonder where and how is the possibility for community.  Also in connection with my short-lived local activism, I talked about freedom in health care and my work for abolition of forced psychiatry.  Pretty much crickets and tokenism; ‘she’s the one who cares about mental health issues,’ – not.  And it’s coming back to me now when in the international work, some UN mechanisms are moving to the right on the issue of forced psychiatry- apparently having decided that it’s futile to instruct states to stop their repression against people who are struggling with life already, to stop the practice of arbitrary detention and torture with neuroleptic drugs, they are promoting the view that better support is what we need, and psychiatrists are good guys who are just frightened because they buy into misguided stereotypes of ‘danger to self or others’.  I can hear you – my sister and brother psych survivors – belly-laughing all the way from here on that one.

I am in a no-win situation even in the international activism sphere.  If I complain, I am a dangerous mental patient, a militant who doesn’t know what’s good for her, a thorn in the side of those who really want to help.  Just get out of the way, let the ‘real pros’ (after all they were paid or elected) do what they do best.  I have no power there, only what I have always had, my voice and my logic and my ability to make a moral and political argument.  And to the extent I still speak for everyone who has been locked up and tortured in psychiatry, my capability of representing our constituency of victims.

I still want community.  I want what we had in the Ad Hoc Committee where the CRPD was drafted and negotiated – a moral and political agreement that those whose rights were violated LEAD.  That the constituency of victims is the constituency of experts.  I want reparations.  This is reparations, to be able to speak as a full self, a person with a history and a political struggle that relates and connects with everyone in the room because who has not faced the idea of suicide, who has not struggled with what they know and can’t say, who has not had their mind do things that were unexpected?  Who has not feared the mental institution?  This diversity, and my being a lesbian feminist, and all our diversity whether ethnic or religious or anything else, should not be a big deal, should not be made ‘special’ or misinterpreted.  There’s a lot I don’t know, but a lot I do know, like anyone else.  I want feminism to be a principle of organization and for women to question men and stop them when they dominate or expect women’s care.

I want the trans bullshit to be stopped cold for the cantankerous infantile crap that it is.  Men don’t change into women by putting on lipstick or by taking estrogen shots, or by reconfiguring their penile tissue to simulate a vulva, clitoris and vagina.  We see you and we don’t like it, it’s the worst aspects of drag taken to the nth degree and politicized, weaponized to destroy the women’s liberation movement and erase lesbian identity and existence.  Just stop it, and progressive and feminist movements stop catering to this nonsense.

Life is short and the planet isn’t in great shape; is there a space for humans to get together and set their bullshit aside for once, let go of the betrayals and create a different kind of political action that doesn’t depend on betrayal?

Is there restorative justice that doesn’t depend on hegemony of an in-group and its particular set of values and worldview?

Diversity and heterogeneity

Many years ago in reading the book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi, I was introduced to the concept of heterogeneity.  Mernissi describes how the meaning of ‘harem’ encompasses two different possible ways of life, that have no elements in common with each other.

The concept has proved useful to me in talking about two different kinds of diversity in the disability community.  There is the usual kind of diversity which is intersectional, meaning that we may be alike in one way but we are diverse in others, e.g. disabled people are male or female (or intersex), of one or another ethnic group, homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual etc.  Then there is the diversity that comes from the heterogeneity of disability, what disability is depending on whether you are a survivor of psychiatry, a blind person, a wheelchair user, a Deaf person, an autistic person, or any of the other disability experiences.  Another way of saying that is that disability is a coalition.  It cannot even be said that we are all disabled by social barriers in relation to our impairments – for a survivor of psychiatry, the concept of impairment is both offensive and meaningless, it is solely the fact of being discriminated against through the ‘selection process’ of psychiatric diagnosis by which perpetrators identify us as suitable victims of violent experimental interventions.  This relates to disability because these perpetrators regard us as persons with disabilities, they regard us as having an impairment, and when the disability community comprises those who have been subjected to such life-changing discrimination along with those who experience having an impairment of any kind, we are equally a constituency whose rights are encompassed in the disability framework.

The transgender movement that claims that ‘trans women are women and trans men are men’ for all purposes can be seen in a similar way – aiming to make the category of sex/gender a heterogeneous one.  The term ‘woman’ in their view encompasses both those who are female (or intersex and assigned female at birth) and do not reject being identified as women, and those who are male and self-identify as women.  Is this a move that we should accept or reject?

Feminists argue that treating ‘woman’ in particular as a heterogeneous concept (the concept of ‘man’ hasn’t come under such scrutiny from the transgender movement) harms women.  I have written that it reverses the polarities and allows members of the oppressor class at will to reclassify themselves as members of the oppressed, and to consider themselves as more oppressed than actual women since they claim that being transgender is intersectional as well as a heterogeneous way of being ‘woman’.

I don’t hear from the transgender movement an argument as to why the move to remake sex classifications into sex/gender-identity as a heterogeneous concept is warranted or justifiable.  I hear appeals to concern for transgender people, for their mental health and well-being which is claimed to require acceptance of their self-declared identity – their identification into a desired sex and remaking of the classification of ‘woman’ in particular into a heterogeneous category of sex/gender-identity – as socially and legally valid for all intents and purposes.  I hear appeals to be inclusive, as if the remaking of our political, social, legal, cultural and physical identity as the female sex into a heterogeneous category that allows males in somehow is akin to demands by women of color, disabled women, lesbians, to be known in our femaleness and not be limited by white, heterosexist, ableist concepts of womanhood.  The transgender movement has taken our painful and disruptive failures to fully recognize each other, all women, as sisters, and turned them inside out to say, well you can’t recognize a woman so therefore there is no such thing outside of what anybody, male or female, can claim it is for themselves.

As I may have said elsewhere, I support the possibility of having gender identities for those who claim them – as feminists do not, contrary to the transgender advocacy position that claims all persons have a gender identity – and the possibility of having multiple genders (as some indigenous people and non-western cultures do) if we retain gender as a cultural construct without forcing anyone into a role related to sex stereotyping and gender has no implication for sex-classification.  I think that accommodations of transgender and nonconforming people’s needs for safety in dealing with police and in situations of bodily privacy and state custody need to be worked out similarly to other intersectional identity groups, without making transgender operate as a requirement to treat sex-classification as heterogeneous – i.e. without requiring the state and private individuals to accommodate the needs of male transgender persons *as a subclass of women*.

I don’t want feminists to label transgender people, gender nonconforming people, or anyone else as mentally ill or to deride anyone for their appearance.  However in an environment where male transgender advocates and their female, male, heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual allies physically attack and threaten lesbians and feminists routinely with actual violence and exclusion from communities – which endangers us greatly as already marginalized people in mainstream society – I cannot say that the situation is in any way a battle with two equal sides.  The first step towards any reconciliation is to end the transgender attacks against lesbians and for the rest of society to ally with lesbians and all women now.

Sexual politics and arbitrary detention

Many of us cringe when we read some of the forward-looking legal decisions that find psychiatric detention to be arbitrary, because they are cases of rapists who have been civilly committed either instead of going to prison or after the prison term expired.

Where are the cases, and where is the outrage, on behalf of women who are doubly victimized by rapists and the psychiatric system that treats our anger, grief and disorientation as fodder for their human experimentation?  We talk about this, it is common enough knowledge that the concept of trauma-informed approaches in mental health originated in the advocacy of female survivors of psychiatry who wanted to be met with support and not revictimization.  Yet this response keeps the power and hegemony of the mental health system, including psychiatry, intact, assimilating both the politics and impact of rape into ‘mental health needs’, and carving out a specialty of trauma-informed care and avoidance of re-traumatization instead of squarely facing the primary victimization perpetrated by psychiatry equal with the primary victimization perpetrated by male abusers.  Intersectionality demands that we squarely face the double politics, the double violence, the double silencing and suppression and rendering of compliant female mental patients as a norm while isolating and ridiculing angry mad women with every vicious slur in the book.

I do not want rapists to be the poster children for my freedom.  Throw the book at rapists in a justice system administered by women, and do away with psychiatry.  What does restorative justice look like when it comes from an intersectional feminist critical disability and critical race perspective?  Including justice for the victims of domination and violence.  Including crying foul when speech of the victims is mis-labeled as violence, especially a trick of men used to silence women and by whites to silence people of color.

Let’s look at why the arbitrary detention of women who are doubly victimized by rape and psychiatry, women and men who are victimized by psychiatry who have not harmed anyone, women and men who are criminalized because of their race and/or disability and caught between psychiatry and penal system, why these acts of arbitrary detention are not so easy and clear for the human rights system to pronounce on.  I think it has to do with concept of civil rights vs economic/social rights, and the kinds of systemic and pervasive discrimination associated with sexual politics and to some degree with racial politics end up looking fuzzy to a system that wants civil rights to be black letter law, both categorical and procedural, rather than transformative and requiring work at many levels to uproot the violations.  Psychiatry as a system of human rights violations, mandated and delegated as a parallel state to enforce and reinforce the patriarchal family and its public/private divisions related to the marketplace, police and control subordinated ethnic groups and economic classes, is made invisible by its own operation, it cleans up its own trail of abuse by relying on the will of the general public to ignore what happens to those people who are made into ‘useless eaters’ and exploited for both their unpaid care of others and their economic value as objects of a paid system of control in the name of care.

The CRPD articulated the violations – detention on the basis of actual or perceived disability (mental health condition/label/diagnosis) is discriminatory, with or without any additional procedural standards and safeguards, since it is a regime that targets individuals based on a prohibited ground of discrimination.  Forced interventions that target the characteristics deemed to be actual or perceived disability for manipulation, control or eradication against a person’s will or without their free and informed consent are a form of discriminatory, disability-based violence and also violate the right to legal capacity and the right to control one’s own body and health.

Yet the CRPD could not name psychiatry as starkly as I do here, due to politics and perhaps steps in a necessary line of argument in terms of what could be achieved in that process, and also because the human rights system itself does not deal well with naming systems of oppression.  The CEDAW regime (treaty plus treaty body and its community of advocates) similarly cannot quite bring itself to name patriarchy or male supremacy as a system by which men exploit and expropriate resources from women and maintain a hierarchy by subordinating and violently oppressing women.

CRPD, in addition to struggling with this general feature of human rights, is a regime that comprises diverse and heterogeneous constituencies, which sometimes pull in different directions.  Survivors of psychiatry struggling to name our oppression accurately and create an accurate holistic picture of the problems and remedies face a situation similar to intersectionality; the reparations framework is most appropriate for us and yet it is politically still far off to name our oppression and our constituency independently as deserving of human rights subjectivity.  We fall between the cracks of the economic/social rights focus of disability rights measures such as reasonable accommodation, and civil rights with their paradigm derived from men’s public sphere of supposed procedural fairness, oblivious of race and class oppression and of hegemonic assumptions about ability that all intersect and overlap.  We also fall outside of the mainstream disability movement’s attempt at holistic conceptualizing of rights, independent living, despite our attempts (one example and another example) to utilize Article 19 to say ‘us too’.

Some lessons, tentative suppositions for future direction:

  • Intersectionality is key for the human rights movement of users and survivors of psychiatry / people with psychosocial disabilities.  We have to explore intersectionality in real detail, with sexual politics, racial justice, class exploitation – how all these systems interact with one another and with psychiatry as a parallel state.
  • Reparations framework makes the most sense conceptually to address past and present violations and prevent expansion of psychiatry in parts of the global south where it does not yet have a strong presence.  However, without political will among states and significant support among human rights defenders to become our allies, it will not be feasible.
  • Naming psychiatry as a parallel state, as a system of oppression linked with patriarchy, class, racialization, and the state itself as an organized mechanism of legitimized violence – as one form of political organization that is not inevitable and can be dismantled and replaced – needs to take place openly.  We have to get out of the mental health discussions.  Although those discussions will continue to happen and will partially advance a CRPD compliant law and policy framework now that WHO has accepted that coercive measures should be abolished, it is not going to be enough.
  • We have to think in all directions and dimensions to imagine what it will take politically for any country or sub-national jurisdiction to abolish the form of disability-based arbitrary detention that has been delegated to psychiatry as a parallel state.  This encompasses criminal as well as civil psychiatric commitment – known as forensic psychiatric institutions or security measures – and the entire regime of inpatient and outpatient commitment and coercive measures to enforce compliance with mental health treatments whether formal or informal.  It also links with increasingly worrying law and policy in the health field generally that aim to promote compliance with certain health-related behaviors (e.g. to quit smoking, reduce body mass, get a certain amount and type of exercise, get annual flu vaccines, etc.), and to remove health records and management of health care from our own control.
  • We have to confront technological developments, law and policy on the horizon that go in the managerial direction in opposition to our personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and work and fight for both our freedom and the creation of workable, non-exploitative support arrangements and relationships to sustain each other in times that are hard and frightening.
  • We have to name the oppressions accurately.  I thank Kathy Miriam and Ginny Brown for prodding me to accuracy on materialist feminism, Max Dashú for insisting on ‘sexual politics’ rather than ‘biology’ as the basis for gender critical feminism, and Nedra Johnson for her accuracy in naming ‘dominating sex class assigned at birth’ and ‘subjugated sex class assigned at birth’.
  • Our anger can be either a good guide to where there is something missing in the dominant analysis, or a vicious bloodthirstiness that feeds on itself.  Labeling oneself as a victim and therefore entitled to get away with murder is not the answer; we see too many examples to have to enumerate and those who are in the dominating class are the most likely to use ‘victim’ excuses to their advantage.  Abolishing the insanity defense is one expression of this, to return to the prompt for this blog post, where I started in the first paragraph.  But we neither leave everyone to the mercy of a racist, classist, sexist and absolutist penal system without changing it, nor do we take up uncritically the cause of rapists as our comrades simply because they are put into a position of vulnerability as criminal defendants or victims of psychiatric incarceration.  Analysis and willingness to face hard things are both needed; small groups where we develop love and trust and tolerance among ourselves, in whatever configuration needed (for me lesbian-only or female-only is one starting point) create a base of acceptance to be able to move outward and have harder conversations without fear, and analysis developed and refined together allows us to conduct advocacy campaigns without hesitation.


Some resources on women’s double victimization:

WNUSP side event at CRPD Committee August 19, 2015

CHRUSP resources page (scroll down for ‘Forced psychiatry as violence against women’)

Hege Orefellen’s statement on behalf of WNUSP and CHRUSP in COSP 11, panel 2 on women and girls with disabilities (to be posted after it is uploaded on UN website)



It’s not unusual for strong women to deny that abuse has harmed them.  (Germaine Greer’s interview, and the piece on Claire Denis in the New Yorker.)   Refusing victimhood is powerful, life-affirming, says I am bigger than what hurt me – or even, I have always been bigger than that and it had no power to hurt me.  It denies victory to the abuser.  Yet it is paradoxical that these strong women are speaking openly about the experience of rape in a context where other women have opened the floodgates, and many of them are actively seeking justice against the rapists and talking about the impact of these rapes on their lives.  The choice to speak about an event suggests that it is meaningful to the speaker, and merits attention, while the denial of suffering refuses emotional connection whether of pity or empathy, allowing only admiration.

There has always been an aspect of voyeurism, and a distasteful appearance of catering to voyeurism, in any attempt to move public feeling and opinion to oppose injustice.  We use terms like ‘disability porn’ or ‘poverty porn’ to describe the salacious telling of stories with details of hardship and degradation at the hands of others in ways that objective the person and expose her private life to public view.  It implies that this person’s vulnerability is public property and that she barters her privacy for pity – or if her story has been stolen from her that she has no privacy that anyone else need respect.

But that is a conundrum for survivors of an atrocity.  We have the desire to bear witness.  We have knowledge that needs to be spoken.  The impact of rape, starvation, forced drugging, any form of torture or abuse, is not possible for many of us to deny.  All our experience is contextual, one atrocity may pale in light of another, and we bring whatever innocence and strength we possess to these experiences, sometimes discovering hidden weakness or hidden courage.  Audre Lorde’s distinction between poetry and rhetoric might be exactly this difference – telling our story to the extent it needs to be told, sharing knowledge, bringing forth what we have inside us, or instrumentalizing our story as a weapon or as currency for achieving social change.

Does law or politics demand that we instrumentalize our stories in ways that make us, or others, public property?  I think it is political processes of denial, resistance to change, silencing and suppression, and capitalist media, that shape the double and triple victimization of those who tell their stories of vulnerability in the face of aggression.  It is also a specifically patriarchal reinforcement of the public/private divide that treats women’s suffering at the hands of men as shameful; it is our fault for having been born female.  The only way out is to be as much like a man as possible by denying this specifically female suffering; they intend us to suffer therefore we will not and earn admiration by colluding with aggression, agreeing that it’s not a big deal and if a woman suffers more than we did it’s her own fault.

In relation to sexual violence, there is a specific demand to prove that we were harmed, because men have long deemed their sexual aggression against women to be natural, desirable, necessary and fun.  The assertion of harm is more than an attempt to seek justice for the individual, it demands a change in the overall politics and law that is brought to men’s sexual violence against women.  Similarly, telling our stories of being harmed by forced drugging and other psychiatric violence demands policy change because there is no way to achieve justice individually for the vast majority of us, given the permission that is built into the law for these acts of medical aggression against people psychiatrists select as ‘mentally ill’.

Being a survivor as such means that you did not die from the atrocity.  Like Irena Klepfisz said about the Holocaust (in the poem Bashert), there is no blame or glory simply for having survived or having not survived.  Once it is done, if it is done, you have to live with what you did and didn’t do, with what you learned about yourself and what you learned about other human beings.  Suppressing that knowledge, suppressing the emotions and the urge to bear witness not only to the atrocity but to the harm, coming to accept the inability of others to ever fully understand, is also part of the journey; so is telling and sometimes over-telling, seeking relief and finding moments of connection.  If survivorship is something active, if it demands action, a choice to live, to take what is offered, to affirm life grudgingly or joyfully, it always has a reference point, a vortex, a moment or process of change, that cannot be escaped.  That is the paradox, that survivorship returns to the scene and moves away from it all the time.

Survivorship does not have to be the biggest thing in your life; it might or might not be so depending on who you were when the atrocity happened, the nature of the atrocity, whether you affirmed life and self actively in the midst of the atrocity or got lost, etc.  On this memorial day when we can remember all the victims of our country’s wars, let’s also honor the victims and survivors of the dispersed wars and the wars of containment within our own country.  Let’s reject and deconstruct the public/private simplistic honor and shaming of patriarchy, and instead honor the victims and survivors as witnesses who teach us about human nature and justice.


what will you remember this memorial day?

you ask                                                                         and indrawn breath gets me again                                                 the leaves want to brush over this                                               for years i have tried to make the memory one like any other                     memorial day 40 or so years ago                                                 not wanting to know the exact number

green leaves                                                                     hot streets                                                                     white obliteration walking                                                       the breath keeps on when the soul is dead                                       or                                                                               what does it takes to convince myself i am not soul-dead

what will i remember                                                             the small mourning without a stone                                               the bright smile survivorship no room to mourn

second birth, come out fighting (again)

sad and cautious                                                                 green leaves hot and oppressive                                                 enter and be at peace                                                           no one will get you there but                                                   the memory will never fade

it’s in my aura my mantle my specific gravity                                   these                                                                           green leaves are cool                                                           it’s their place and not the city                                               somewhere                                                                       there is justice in my heart a song of power and peace                           and wrongdoing and love                                                         a tentative joy                                                                 a desire to spread my wings                                                     the trees all around stronger than i am                                         waiting for me to let go

(c) Tina Minkowitz 2018