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.

Reading Marx’s Capital as a feminist: the personal is political

When I started reading Capital I didn’t expect it to give me insight into my oppression as a woman. But it has. Bear with me.

One of the ways that women are oppressed in capitalism is by the displacement and fracturing of our human selves and labor into the realm excluded from capitalism and on which it depends, the ‘reproduction of human beings and their labor power’, and our relationship to capitalist economy itself through whatever it is we exchange for money. In David Harvey’s lectures, which I am following as an accompaniment to my reading of the book itself, he indicates that Marx considered the reproduction of human beings to be part of nature, and like other natural processes on which any economy depends, it is acknowledged without being addressed in terms of reciprocity. (I am thinking of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s view of human reciprocity with nature, as set out in Braiding Sweetgrass.)

It is not correct to equate the reproduction of human beings with natural processes. Women can and do choose when and how to bring life into the world. The labor that women undergo and perform to give birth and breastfeed, and men’s relationship to this labor of women and the economies of exchange between men and women with respect to the raising of children and their relationship to production of any kind, is human labor and part of human economy. I am not sure if Engels’ work on this question fully addresses this.

For some women, for heterosexual women and those forced into heterosexual relations, in conditions of patriarchy, exchange of our sexual and reproductive labor power for money or the means of subsistence is a sad fact that led feminists to understand that patriarchal marriage equates to prostitution.

For women, the paradigm of exchange of labor in capitalist economy is prostitution/marriage, i.e. exchanging sexual and/or reproductive labor power as such. That is what capitalism sees women in particular as being ‘good for’. A ‘working woman’ has the connotation of a prostitute, and women are shamed for putting ourselves on the market while it is only the conditions of capitalism and patriarchy that force women into this position, whether as a laborer on an assembly line, a secretary, in prostitution or marriage.

The notion of labor as something one can have a sense of one’s own worth in relation to, a sense of skill and pride and competence, and which can also be the basis for negotiating its exchange value for money – whether to an employer, a patron, a donor, a client, a buyer for one’s products – is denied to women by being equated with sexual humiliation. Women are both channeled into sexual self-advertising of our bodies and servility as the only ‘things’ we have worth anything to exchange, and shamed away from developing self-respect and self-worth in relation to our labor that we perform in any area of life, taking our labor seriously as the creation of value, since for women, ‘value’ is equated with the objectification of ourselves and cannot be the effect of an activity we engage in as subjects.

Women who resist prostitution and marriage, who resist objectification, may still find it hard to relate to the capitalist economy. I can say this was true for me, and maybe other women have different experiences.

I think it has something to do also with the notion of labor as a commodity under capitalism. We exchange labor for money, and David Harvey comments that it is recognized as a problem that Marx flattens out the differences between specific kinds of labor in his conception of average socially-necessary labor as the definition of value. But in reality, people in all kinds of work do not think of their labor as something merely average, alienated, a commodity as unskilled power that they must exchange for money as means of subsistence. People take pride in their work as nurses, mechanics, typists, bartenders, seamstresses, janitors, and they put some of themselves into it, there is something in work that remains unalienated despite its commodification.

I thought about this listening to the album The Changer and The Changed by Cris Williamson, a classic of 70s lesbian feminism. In concert, Cris still plays a couple of those songs but not others, and I found myself wondering why. I imagined that she might feel too distant in her life and feelings now from some of the more personal songs on that album, and thought about the concretization of her music in that form and how listeners relate to it. It’s not only that the music has a different use-value for her than for any other listener, but that she retains a link to it through her labor that no one else has. A violin maker still cares what happens to the instruments he makes and how they are being used; a mechanic may be interested in how her tinkering held up; the food we eat holds the specific labor of those who cultivated it, harvested it, packed it, brought it to market.

In my work on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, another person who was involved commented to me, ‘your DNA is in that treaty’. There is still work I’m doing to draw out its inner logic that draws on and extends that labor I put into it, there are things I know the workings of or can relate to intuitively even if I can’t articulate, like the violin maker or mechanic or gardener who can see something of the power in how the product or effect of their labor is expressing itself and adjust or draw out further or simply celebrate.

In some economies, songs remain the property of an individual or collective; songs may be sacred and cannot be sung except by the owner; or they can be sold by being taught to another person to sing. Commodification of songs as social property exchanged for money in the concretized form of recordings of the singer’s voice and words, de-personalizes them and could be experienced as alienating for the creator if she would rather retire them from circulation.

We cannot go back to pre-capitalist personal exchanges, though gift economies and barter and other kinds of cooperative economy such as community currencies and mutual aid are important still in many of our lives and communities. But I think that grappling with the relationship between the specificity and personal quality of any labor, and our ability to contemplate its worth based on our own assessment of quality and social value and negotiate any exchange from that standpoint, is important especially for women in thinking about capitalism, our aversion to the capitalist value system, and how to transform it.

It is not enough to talk about participatory democracy in the economic and political spheres, workplace democracy and socialization of political decision-making. It is also not enough to talk about women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy and the implication of this principle for upending capitalism and its patriarchal foundation. That is all necessary but the intersection between the two in women’s lives, in terms of women’s relationship to the capitalist market economy as laborers – our relationship as women to labor that is not sexed or gendered per se (songwriting, violin making, janitorial work, mechanics, nursing, law, etc.), as well as a new visioning of the meaning of women’s sexed and gendered reproductive labor as human labor – is critical for understanding ourselves in the world we live in and moving in it now, as well as to envisioning what we want to fight for, and how.

On lies, legal fictions and cognitive dissonance

Legal and social fictions, political fictions, cognitive dissonance, compromise in means toward an end are inevitable as we move in our daily lives and even in our physical bodies.  When my joints aren’t flexible enough on one side of my body due to injuries and age, the other side takes the weight.  I can’t move naturally, smoothly, coherently, I may lose my balance.  My muscles and ligaments feel the strain, if I take the pressure off in one place it moves to another.

Morality and conscience are making clear choices about what and how and where I compromise in anything that affects my deep values and commitments, knowing what those are.  Examining them and re-examining them, not taking anything for granted.

My commitments are first and foremost to myself.  Maybe in a different kind of society I’d be comfortable doing it differently but really, nobody has my back in a way I’d trust to create a common system of value that is strong enough to hold even if one of us breaks.

Inevitably, as I’m moving through my life, there is fragmentation and seeking of integration, as it’s too fast to see where the coherence lies in the moment of action, when there are split commitments.  I think that really this is inevitable for anyone who is oppressed, who has experienced abuse, who lives in modern post-industrialized society.   Gregory Bateson called it the ‘double bind’ and said it was the basis for so-called schizophrenia* as well as enlightenment, implying that it’s something out of the ordinary. But he also placed it in a framework of hierarchical orders of learning, hierarchical in the sense that each represented the working of consciousness on the previous one taken as its subject matter.  He saw the double bind as occasion for learning when the worldview you have arrived at over time that organizes the other large and small things you have learned and go on learning (similar to the ‘paradigm’ in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), is challenged.  This requires a kind of learning that isn’t easily described, but that allows one to move past the paradox, or past the inability to move that the paradox inspired.  Despite the paradox.

This week I was listening to the Trump impeachment trial (or lack thereof) in the Senate while doing other work and going about my business.  The Republicans claim it’s all political, that the Democrats timed the impeachment to hurt Trump’s chances of being re-elected, and that this is no different morally from Trump’s own quid pro quo using the mechanism of foreign policy to get a US ally to dig up dirt on one of his Democratic opponents in the presidential campaign.  The Democrats are promoting rule of law as a core value, rightly, because it has to be a core value once we are in the ballpark of a state that claims to rule in the name of the people: otherwise it’s brute force.  The Republicans are showing they don’t give a damn for the rule of law, that Trump’s personal authoritarianism and the movement he represents, a coalition (see Anne Nelson’s The Shadow Network) of Christian theocrats, extractive industries and other predatory capitalists, and white supremacists (all authoritarian and anti-democratic by nature), is party doctrine and discipline.  And so it is intensely political and moral at the same time, and this battle is itself contextualized by the premise of continuation of the US state and its Constitution.  Progressives don’t have much of anywhere to go that isn’t nihilistic outside that premise right now, since the authoritarians themselves would like to change the Constitution and they’re stronger than we are.   So we saw Nation writers and readers at one point a few years ago, early in Trump’s presidency, defending the FBI and the CIA as the bulwark of democracy, a bit hard to take for those of us who remember COINTELPRO and the assassinations of democratic socialists who won election in other countries. and other dirty tricks of the spy/covert action agencies.  I suppose in an era of private mercenaries (Blackwater) the official ones may seem better?

The mainstream, corporate-run media, including unfortunately National Public Radio (ok: to name some of the others – CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and the New York Times), have steadily trashed the candidacy of progressive populist Bernie Sanders while promoting his centrist opponents, particularly Biden and Klobuchar, and fomenting conflict between Sanders and his next-left opponent, Elizabeth Warren.  This happens both in their journalism and in the Democratic primary debates run by various media outlets.   The Democratic Party has changed its rules on campaign contributions to allow billionaire former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to run.  And meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, despite having built a strong organization and campaign with support from unions, environmental organizations, and key Congressional progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Premila Jayapal, has muddied his own waters by accepting an endorsement from racist, misogynist Joe Rogan – apparently to cultivate supporters among the Trump base of racist, misogynist white men supposed to be working class.

It’s a conundrum with no apparent way out.  Americans are not in Washington banging pots and pans en masse in the streets outside the Capitol and the White House (or as close as they could get given the tactical confinement of demonstrations that has been the policy of US cities since 9/11).  My pointing that out won’t get me or anyone else there any more than anybody else’s has.  We’re already hunkered down, we’ve either been boiled slowly in the water of authoritarianism and are about to die as a country and scrambling to save what we can in pieces or just to survive wherever we are materially, however we are materially.

And then outside the legal fiction of the state.  My friend in Iowa has a small farm where she raises goats.  It’s a beautiful life and hard.  I look out my window and know I’m relatively secure in the land I live on and in our house.  Climate change has made our winters warmer, I feel like what wants to hibernate is struggling with half-wakefulness, but it’s a joy to experience even that.

Another friend sent me a quote from Chinese novelist/poet Han Dong, translated:  “The energy sparked by battles is suspicious as it doesn’t give birth to anything new.  What we need is the labor of birthing, not a fight over the child.”  That resonates with me as similar to Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, which helped me confront the nihilism of Judith Butler.   If we are used to battles, we might fear the labor of birthing as something unknown, and resist it as if that were violence and not the other way around.  But our lives as well as our moral integrity will depend on navigating that difference.


The psychiatric state is a rapist #UnVioladorEnTuCamino

gripping cry in the throat out at the cemetery
where my mother is buried
and the grave cannot hide her crimes or take her beyond my need for forgiveness
to forgive her or be forgiven i am not sure
as they say it’s a sin to put temptation to do wrong in the path of someone who can’t resist
yet ‘la culpa no era mía’
ni por buscar asilo ni por sentirme aislada y confundida….
el violador, el violador, el violador eres tú
the state
the psychiatrists with their eyes like metal bars already incarcerating me and turning the key
for nothing
a female animal brought in crying
by the female keeper
deserved to be locked away in their kennel
el estado
los psiquiatras
el estado opresor es un macho violador

y los demás
the ones who look on with peanut chewing eyes
the nurses
with their injections
the straitjackets
the ones of us who turn to comply with a system of washing machine circularity to discuss who is ready to be the next ones to decide about the next ones
not to get out but to circulate through this mock government
of mock lunatics created by the real ones in their white coats
el violador eres tú

the state
the psychiatrists
the bitter pills and the pharmaceutical grandiosities that create them
the shockers
the electrocuters
the nazis declared and undeclared
los violadores
de nuestros cuerpos inocentes

we are not at fault
not what we did to ourselves
not what we failed in making money
in keeping up appearances
la culpa no es mía
de nada

la sociedad que quema todo lo que queremos
el violador eres tú



Why a rapist in particular?

Many reasons, but these are some.

  1. Many women, as well as men, experience a disturbance in sexuality from the toxic restrictive psychiatric drugs particularly neuroleptics.  Feminists might not care about ‘poor men’ who can’t get an erection any more.  But the disturbance for women is real and is part of patriarchy’s forced dissociation of women from our own sexual self-knowledge, a dissociation which serves and facilitates men’s sexual exploitation and aggression with women as its target.
  2. Women have reported being unable to fight back to resist rape and other sexual aggression after neuroleptic drugs and electroshock.  This effect can be long lasting.
  3. Women who have experienced both rape and forced neuroleptic drugging and/or electroshock commonly talk about forced psychiatry as a rape.  This is not a misused or misappropriated analogy.  We have to look at the details of why and how we experience forced psychiatry as a specifically sexual invasion of the body.  I think it has to do with subjugation of will, a disruption and disturbance directed at core energy that ties body and soul together, a turning to the aggressor’s purposes of another human being’s bodily existence.  In forced psychiatry the purpose is the state’s repression of either resistance or the potential resistance by useless/surplus labor.  For that reason the linkage of the state and individual perpetrators in the feminist anthem #UnVioladorEnTuCamino resonates.
  4. Sexual abuse is routine in psychiatry with or without other force, as in any institutional setting and any service provided by men to women and girls.  Psychiatrists and psychotherapists rape their clients and/or engage in romanticized manipulation (as I wrote on this blog about the pioneering psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein abused by Jung and Freud); psychiatrists and nurses and orderlies who rape and who allow male inmates to rape women in institutional or ‘hospital’ settings.  But that is only the tip of the iceberg.  If we don’t interrogate the levels at which all forced (as well as manipulative) psychiatry functions as sexualized aggression, we refuse to acknowledge what victims of psychiatry bring to feminism as a doubly marginalized population.

Here are links for the original #UnVioladorEnTuCamino by Chilean feminist collective LasTesis:





Mental illness accusations have no place in feminism

For my feminist sisters who can readily accept that the conditions of oppression women face affect our self-perception, sense of power or entitlement, happiness and satisfaction and joy in life, self-confidence, and expectations of life and other people – how do you think it relates to your life?  And how do you think it relates to other women’s lives?

Who do you think knows what part of your suffering is due to patriarchy and what part is due to the mysteries inherent to life?  Do you think that there are inherent weaknesses in your character, in your brain chemistry, inherited or transmitted from your parents, stamped on you from harm inflicted by others?  Do you think there is some authoritative knowledge that can tell you who you are?

Some of us have had the power to resist others’ claim to authoritative knowledge about us taken away violently and often abruptly, by psychiatry, responding either to our own reaching out for relief from pain and confusion, or to others’ fearful concerns for us and about us when they have decided that communication with us has reached the limits of their tolerance.  Can you feminists see us as your sisters?

Can you see that when you participate in using mental illness accusations against other women, you are arrogating to yourself a portion of patriarchal authority to use as a weapon, to silence another woman or place her outside the bounds of sisterhood, outside the bounds of lesbian-feminist ethics that require us to deal with each other face to face and honestly, or honestly simply withdraw and acknowledge a failure in communication?  Can you see that when you use mental illness accusations even against men you are increasing the hegemony of that patriarchal system and its availability for weaponization against women?

Disability consciousness has many linkages with feminism.  The movement first known in the US as ex-mental patients liberation, later and in other places as ex-psychiatric inmates, psychiatric survivors, psychosocial diversity, survivors of psychiatric assault, mad pride, started with consciousness raising inspired by feminism – a process of mutual respect and vulnerability creating knowledge together and giving each person the space to be heard.  Honoring our self-knowledge and the power to articulate it among others who won’t stick a de-legitimizing label on us, is what feminists have done and psychiatric abuse survivors have also done.  (Some of us have a hard time with that vulnerability; I passed up an opportunity at my first conference ‘for human rights and against psychiatric oppression’ to join a women’s group and regretted it.)

The politics of these movements have both been based in the principle, the personal is political, but there are nuances.  Psychiatric oppression, like men’s violence against women, is both private and public.*  By virtue of the part of psychiatric oppression that claims a beneficent motive, to provide care and treatment (words that belie the fact of detention and subjection to others’ control including their invasion of the brain and body with mind-altering drugs and procedures), psychiatric settings and their practices are given leeway both in law and in public opinion to function outside the normative framework that governs the state’s acknowledged repressive apparatus for criminal detention and other detention that does not claim a beneficent motivation towards the detainee.  (Madhouses, poorhouses, and prisons were not differentiated at an earlier period of European history according to Foucault’s History of Madness.  All function as repression directed against the lower classes.  Psychiatric wards and the mental health system as a whole still function as poorhouses, with people entering and/or unable to leave because of poverty, and so do prisons.  It is commonly said that prisons function as psychiatric wards, and this claim is usually coupled with promotion of diversion to locked psychiatric wards of people who have been criminalized; this is obviously no solution.  The underlying reality is that most people who are criminalized have been severely traumatized by life experiences so it is not hard to psychiatrize them if the motivation is there to do so.)  The claim of beneficent motive, as well as the outsourcing to privately owned and nonprofit enterprises, places psychiatric oppression in at least a semi-private realm together with men’s violence against women, where relations of domination are both excused and ignored.

However, unlike men’s violence against women, psychiatric violence is an institutionalized form of violence linked closely with the state (i.e. ubiquitous state-run madhouses; and also legislation that sets explicit substantive and procedural standards for the exercise of control and coercion).  In this way it is undeniably public, and psychiatrized women like myself can be in a position of insisting in feminist circles that the public realm cannot be invoked uncritically as a boon for women to counter privatized male violence.  Women of color have had to make this point as well; in 2019 we are very much aware of police violence against women and men of color.  As mentioned by a law professor of mine many years ago (Penny Andrews), women of color can experience their homes as a refuge from white society and its authorities, to be defended against intrusion, unlike the narrative that privacy of the home only serves to protect male violence and should be dismantled.

Another linkage between feminism and the movement against psychiatric oppression is a heightened consciousness of bodily autonomy.  Many psychiatrized women have expressed that forced drugging or electroshock is a kind of rape.  This deserves exploration.  It is not merely a metaphor, which would be offensive.  It is also not only about the sexualized abuse that often accompanies forced drugging in particular, where stripping, holding down and injecting the person in the buttocks is how the drugging is accomplished if the woman or man resists or if the goons simply want to add physical brutality.  Similar to how rape is now understood to include coercive circumstances or absence of free (and informed) consent, and women are not required to prove resistance overcome by physical force, the core violation of psychiatric assault, similar to that of rape, is an intimate invasion that is per se harmful, that turns a woman’s body to an instrument for domination of the woman as human being.  In rape, the woman’s own sexual potential is what is violated; in psychiatric violence, her consciousness as potential for engagement with the world and self is violated.  There are resonances between sexuality and consciousness, and psychiatric drugs particularly neuroleptics can both disrupt hormones and cause specifically sexual dissociation.

Yet, because of a gap between the survivor (of psychiatric oppression) movement and the feminist movement, because of feminist therapy and the debates around it, because of the male domination of the survivor movement or simply the impossibility of naming deep female experiences in a mixed space (along with having to face or avoid misogynistic fantasies that men share when it’s their turn to be heard)…. we have only talked about these linkages in small spaces (often one on one), in marginalized asides that end up being reinterpreted to exclude us.  (E.g. ‘sure, we have to de-medicalize women’s oppression.  But, there are women who are simply psychotic, and that’s a different thing.’)

Also, until 2006 (when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was adopted by the UN General Assembly) or 2014/2015 (when the treaty monitoring body, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, issued crucial interpretations of the right to equal recognition before the law and the right to liberty and security of the person), survivors of psychiatric oppression were a voice in the wilderness without any support in public authorities or institutions at all.  The CRPD prohibits deprivation of liberty based on disability, including all detention in mental health facilities, and prohibits deprivation of legal capacity to make decisions, with a heightened concern for decisions about physical or mental integrity such as psychiatric treatment.  Deprivation of liberty based on an actual or perceived mental health condition amounts to arbitrary detention, and forced or nonconsensual psychiatric interventions are a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture.

Recognition in international law (over 170 countries have ratified the CRPD; unfortunately the US is not among them) has given us a political platform, but even more basically, it has constituted us as political actors whose individual and collective subjectivity and voice matter.  (This too is similar to women’s emergence as a political constituency, which as I’ve written about elsewhere in this blog, is currently under attack due to the failure of the movement for the rights of transgender people to respect women’s definitional, political, personal and collective boundaries.)  But we still face too many situations where our sisters are vigorously promoting their belief in mental illness and its weaponization against those whose subjective realities a particular woman disagrees with, and/or whose behavior she finds objectionable.  The weaponization of mental illness accusations has been used against transgender people, including those who are female and identify as men or transmen, saying that they are mentally ill and need treatment.  The transgender movement on the other hand has conflated the value of personal subjectivity, which has been elevated by survivors of psychiatric oppression as a right of autonomy and integrity based in the equal worth and dignity of every human being, with a claim to have personal subjectivity judicialized as the basis for legal classification uniquely with respect to sex, undermining the political settlement that has recognized sex (at least grudgingly; US still has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment for constitutional equality of the sexes) as an axis of discrimination and oppression.

We have to mobilize an intersectional feminist/disability rights analysis in order to politicize theoretically and practically the relation of gender identity to feminism within a human rights framework that can serve as a space for discourse of mutual recognition and debate on terms that do not automatically invalidate either side (trans movement’s current definitional invalidation of women, or some feminists’ weaponization of mental illness accusations to invalidate transgender identity as a claim for a recognition of a specific type of gender nonconformity as social identity).  The politics of gender have to be debated, including the question of whether all gender is patriarchal (does gender = sex stereotypes = masculinity/femininity; are these in turn equivalent to dominance behaviors and submission behaviors); whether all cultural symbolism related to sex is equivalent to gender (goddess, or god; representations of female and male genitalia and bodies, always a sexualized domination or not? differences between female and male in this respect, and why?); the relationship between sex stereotypes and men’s systematic material subjugation of women through sexual and reproductive exploitation; the relationship between sex stereotypes and female and male sexuality; the relationship between gender nonconformity and female and male sexual orientation; how we characterize the ultimate goal or marker of women’s liberation from male domination (e.g. my position: female autonomy and option of separatism at every level personal and collective, from sexual to political and economic; ‘at least’ equal power and resources of women compared with men); and the relationship of social and legal recognition of nonconforming gender identities and this ultimate goal – is the recognition of nonconforming gender identities unacceptable, a temporary accommodation, a way to undermine sex stereotypes, a necessary feature of a society that has achieved women’s liberation from male domination?

Finally, it occurs to me I haven’t argued the claim that mental illness accusations, psychiatric classification and psychiatric oppression and violence are patriarchal in nature.  We all should know about Freud and Jung, notorious abusers of women and rape apologists, whose psychological theories, those of Freud in particular, have shaped our assumptions about the authoritative viewpoint of mental health professional practitioners as knowers of the supposed unconscious subjective realities of others who are supposed to have hidden those realities from their own awareness for psychosexual reasons.  (I wonder if the original ideas of Sabina Spielrien, a psychiatrized woman who became a psychoanalyst, which were stolen and distorted by Jung and Freud, would point in a different direction, or not.)  The paradigmatic analyst is male with a female patient, just as men in patriarchal culture have punished women for knowledge of their own sexuality and enforced rape (marital or otherwise) as an opening of women through violence into supposed sexual knowledge responding to male direction.  The violation of intimate knowledge either privately (creation of a relationship of domination when a woman seeks help from mental health services and is required to expose herself to the power of the practitioner to dominate and assert control over her; anything she discloses in a relationship of trust can be used against her to involuntarily commit and ‘treat’ her) or publicly (by the social and legal act of domination exercised by involuntary commitment and ‘treatment’, which stamps her with a claim of knowledge of her psyche even if she has said nothing and given nothing of her trust or participation into an interaction with them; observation rather than interaction marks her as an object and her own narrative as raw material for the practitioner as designated knower, similarly to colonial dynamics as well) terrorizes and twists our sense of ourselves in the world, making the public (our self-narrative) go underground for private conservation, and putting out our actual private lives disclosed in trust or a narrative about our private selves made up by others, for public consumption and ridicule.  (This also is similar to sexual exploitation in prostitution and pornography industries.)  Women survivors of psychiatric oppression take extraordinary risks in talking about any of this, and we should not have to do it again and again.

There needs to be a right to privacy that is female-centric, and that complements a different kind of public space as well that is horizontal and discursive rather than hierarchical and coercive, and that incorporates female autonomy and the absolute eradication of rape as a first principle.  The convergence of feminism and anti-psychiatric oppression survivor politics opens up space for the fullness of women’s lives, as we express them, to emerge into both feminism and the political institutions we are working to transform or re-create.

Note: edited slightly for greater clarity Nov 15, 2019


Radical Feminism and Dialectics

  1. I start out with a feeling of anger and vulnerability.  As a Jewish dyke, I inherit the fear of pogroms, the knowledge of being hunted and needing to be vigilant, needing to be prepared for when the welcome wears out.  Making a home in the whirlwind. Growing up in a non-religious family while attending a yeshiva, in a family struggling economically among those more well-off, I also know this feeling of hesitating at the door, not sure of knowing the right thing to do to be accepted.  (Unwrapping a Hostess twinkie package and not knowing it’s not kosher, for example.  Or however people wash dishes in their own houses.)
  2. In 2019, the welcome mat is being pulled away from Jews in more and more places in the world.  The attack on a community center by 50 neo-Nazis in Hungary, chills me most somehow despite it being violence against property and not people.  This is not a rogue shooting, it’s a message by an organized political force.  The neo-Nazis are organized in the US also, and they represent part of a far right political spectrum that Donald Trump has brought full scale into national politics and government:  a coalition of Christian fundamentalists whose primary agenda is subjugation of women through denial of sexual and reproductive autonomy, and enforcement of sex stereotypes and heterosexuality against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; white nationalists whose agenda is exclusion and ultimately genocide of black and brown people whose very existence is viewed as a threat to white supremacy (and Jews who are demonized as the masterminds of liberal and leftist agendas for equality); and predatory capitalists whose aim is evisceration of any remnant of the social safety net and any expectation that government is responsible for the well being of all its people, in essence dismantling of the social contract, problematic as it has always been due to its nature as a compromise that sacrifices power for protection.
  3. Into this scenario comes the intra-left struggle around gender identity.  Transgender people came to the forefront after lesbians and gay men won the emblematic right of marriage, which positions us as social equals with heterosexuals (though without federal civil rights protection against discrimination in employment, housing and similar areas, the slogan is true that we can be married on the weekend and fired on Monday).  Transgender people similarly lack protection against employment and housing discrimination, and deserve protection.  But the transgender movement has made demands that conflict with those of lesbians, all women, and gay men.  An important part of the women’s liberation movement has been the creation of autonomous women-only spaces, services, politics, and culture – that movement itself represents (or represented) an assertion of female separatism.  We named ourselves as a political constituency based on sex, and named our oppressors as the male sex which has systematically expropriated our sexual and reproductive power and various forms of labor, and has promulgated ideologies that treat us as half-human to mobilize our intelligence and strength and half-exploitable natural resource; we fight this oppression together with the class system and racialized exploitation that it is inseparable from.  Now comes a movement that rejects the radical feminist analysis and seeks to displace it entirely from political discourse, undermining gains we have made in women’s and girls’ sports and education,  lesbian-feminist autonomous culture and politics, women’s facilities in public mixed spaces (restrooms, changing rooms, baths), domestic violence and rape crisis refuges that bring peer support and advocacy to serve women in highly vulnerable situations, the feminist women’s health movement that named our body parts and took back power to know our own bodies and take charge of our health.  This revolution is not over, and maybe its distance from any conceivable finish line prompts frustration and fatigue, while the popularization of liberal feminism as the legal possibility and existence of women in managerial positions and skilled professions allows for a large segment of the population who are generally progressive and support women’s equality in principle to think that there’s nothing more to fight for (ignoring the massive existence of rape, femicide, sexual harassment, pay gap, the continued treatment of women and of female bodies as secondary in health care and in design of goods and services, the cutting back of abortion rights and contraception that has helped to fuel a surge in religious fundamentalist influence in our political arena, an environment where gender nonconforming girls and young women are unaware of lesbian and feminist role models and the rich literature of our movements, etc. and etc.).
  4. The transgender movement demands that a person’s declared sex must be treated as their actual sex, i.e. a man who feels subjectively that he is female must be socially and legally recognized as female for all purposes.  This and nothing less is said to satisfy the demand for inclusion of transgender persons in society.  And it directly conflicts with lesbians and women as actual, defined, collectivities of persons who have material existence and are entitled to voice, assert, and defend their boundaries that set them apart from males.  The transgender demand for self-declared sex amounts to a silencing of women and suppression of women’s autonomous political, social, and legal existence.  The impact on lesbian-feminist spaces and organizing has been huge and painful, as many have had to close or disperse and reform out of sight of the mainstream, thanks to boycotts, threats and intimidation, divisions among women about whether to include males who identify as female, ostracism, and physical violence.  These spaces have always existed largely out of the public eye, we protect them, they are ours and they are meant for us and not for public consumption.  They have always met with criticism, ridicule, and bemusement due to their being women’s autonomous spaces that have no place and no role to play within a liberal order that simultaneously pretends equality between men and women already exists, and depends on women’s unpaid and underpaid labor and sexual exploitation in homes and in prostitution/pornography that put women in subservience to men.  When we decry this impact of gender identity claims, it’s as if no one spoke.  As Judy Grahn wrote in another context, being outside the capitalist, patriarchal and heterosexual order means that ‘no one is there to testify.’
  5. Now come radical feminists.  We’d think that in mobilizing against gender identity because of how it impacts on women including lesbians, we’d be fighting simultaneously against the left/liberal consensus on this issue that reveals their misogyny/lesbophobia, and against the right which still wants to subjugate us entirely by rolling back the gains we’ve made under liberalism.  And yes, that’s a tough row to hoe and it’s ours.  There are some feminists who have decided instead to make an alliance with religious fundamentalists, and this itself becomes part of the landscape for those of us fighting for liberation for all women – including, damn it, women of color, indigenous women, Jewish women, working class women, and lesbians who are the front-line targets of the far right coalition currently in power in the US government for reasons that are immediate and life-threatening.  How dare they put us even more at risk by confirming the left and liberals in kicking feminists out of their zone of solidarity?
  6. I had written an earlier draft post discussing some of the details of the right wing alliances, but actually don’t want to give it airspace.  I will say that those women are talking out of both sides of their mouths, at one moment claiming it’s not an alliance, just sharing a platform, and the next moment organizing a joint rally and co-producing a text advising parents on how to oppose schools that introduce children to gender identity or other topics the parents might not agree with (including sexual orientation and sexuality).  Feminists who are concerned about the sterilization and body modification that is being promoted for children need to revert to the feminist women’s health movement as a grounding, talk to children and put a feminist context to the body-hatred directed at all females, while acknowledging that these individual solutions are an expression of pain and struggle and survival that are no less legitimate than those our own generations might have used.  We have to get away from using children as a prop for our political ideology, and not in any way condone or be party to the religious fundamentalists’ use of children, lesbians, or other women as a prop for their own anti-woman, anti-lesbian, anti-child’s rights authoritarianism.
  7. I titled this post ‘radical feminism and dialectics’ because we see how one thing can generate its opposition.  We need to look at the forces that have emerged against us – the far right coalition in government, the gender identity movement that aims to replace feminism with queer/trans ideology, the feminist alliance with religious fundamentalists that confirms the gender identity movement’s view of feminism as reactionary – to study and understand while also acting where we see an avenue to act.  We need to study and engage with queer/trans ideology to understand especially how girls and women relate to it and its appeal to them, while also deepening our own understanding of patriarchy and of radical feminist action, if we are to re-emerge as political actors.  It may not be immediate, but if we are correct in saying that the revolution for women’s liberation is not over, the dissatisfaction of women will ultimately be on our side.

Feminist Amendments to the Equality Act – support FIST campaign

Feminists In Struggle, a U.S. radical feminist network, has developed a model bill to illustrate how the rights of gender nonconforming (including transgender) people and lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, can be protected while strengthening the rights of women as a sex.  The model bill is a feminist response to the Equality Act, a bill introduced in the US Congress that would amend civil rights legislation to include under the category of ‘sex’, subcategories including ‘a sex stereotype,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’.  By proposing feminist amendments to that bill, FIST hopes to advance the debate about how to resolve conflicts between women’s rights and claims regarding subjective gender identity.

The central feature of the FAEA protecting everyone against sex stereotyping, broadly defined to include ‘the expectation that individuals will manifest behaviors, appearance, dress, grooming, interests and personality stereotypically associated with their sex and refrain from manifesting those associated with the other sex. Discrimination based on an individual’s nonconformity with such expectations constitutes sex-stereotyping discrimination. Sex stereotyping also includes the notion that sexual orientation will be heterosexual for both sexes (i.e. part of the stereotype of masculinity is being attracted to women, and part of the stereotype of femininity is being attracted to men).’

The definition of sex stereotyping is at the same time narrowed to prevent sex classification itself from being treated as a pernicious stereotype. ‘Sex stereotyping discrimination does not include merely recognizing or referring, accurately or in good faith, to the biological sex of an individual, or seeking to ascertain an individual’s biological sex for legitimate reasons consistent with this Act, irrespective of whether that person holds a deeply personal sense of identity that conflicts with or denies their biological sex.”’

The FAEA model bill defines sex as being female or male, based on reproductive structure and function, with the potential to adjust determinations made about intersex persons.  It contains findings that address the systemic nature of sex-based discrimination and the need for sex classification ‘in order to separate biological differences from socially assigned stereotypes and to name, reject, and ultimately dismantle the system of disadvantage and advantage, domination and inequality of power and resources that society has created with respect to these biological differences…. Affirmative recognition of the different biology of females and males is furthermore necessary to combat discrimination against women, since male-dominated institutions have routinely failed to adequately take account of women’s biology on an equal basis with that of men when formulating policy and practice that deals with the human body, in areas such as health care, design of goods and services, provision of adequate sanitary facilities, and competition in some sports.  When doing so, the ultimate goal should be equalizing power and resources between women and men.’

Furthermore, specific rules of construction are included that preserve single-sex spaces and programs for women and girls, for reasons of privacy and safety and also for advancement and development.

Finally, the FAEA agrees with the original bill that claims or defenses under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be raised against civil rights law obligations.  FAEA also agrees with the original bill that discrimination based on pregnancy and related conditions should be included under ‘sex’, and FAEA adds ‘lactation’.

Here are my slides for a presentation on the FAEA that provide more detail related to the explanation here.

The full FAEA and related materials, including a comparison summary and a tracked changes version, can be downloaded from the FIST website.

Please contact FIST to support the FAEA and otherwise become involved.

Madness and identity

Can and should madness be an identity?  I said recently that I want other mad people to recognize me as mad, but don’t want non-mad people to apply that label to me.

Madness means one thing when we affirm it for ourselves – it says, I have faced in myself what I was afraid of, what society caged me and forced drugs into me for, what is supposed to be ugly, and I find it to be beautiful and acceptable.  When someone else applies the label to me, it is restrictive, it says that all I am is what they saw when I was at my worst moments, at my most vulnerable moments that they will paste onto me for eternity.

(I’d like to recognize and appreciate the work being done by members of the RedEsfera Latinoamericana de la Diversidad Psicosocial on this question, and the proud statement by several members that they are mad, ‘Soy loca,’ ‘soy loco’, which has inspired me and informed my thinking.  Please view their webinars and Facebook page to learn more.)

I don’t embrace madness as a restrictive label that says we need some other set of rights that sets us outside society, or as a dog and pony show that we can get cookies for if we perform for somebody’s titillation.  I do think it’s necessary to embrace a mad identity in order to face down those who overtly or, more often covertly, apply tropes of madness in relating to us – ‘she’s getting upset now,  we have to calm her down’; ‘uh-oh she’s gonna blow’; ‘yeah she’s upset about her issues being left out, but we can’t let forced psychiatry dominate the agenda’.  Embracing a mad identity lets us say, or growl, ‘oh yeah? you’re afraid I’m gonna get crazy?  I’ll show you crazy!’ or, to think it and respond without fear of stepping out of line.  The lines are policed against those of us labeled as mad in ways that are both discriminatorily applied (‘uh-oh, danger to self and others) and rely on our internalized oppression leading to compliance in order to not be subject to reprisal which can include the repeated use of psychiatry as surreptitious punishment.  (Mad labeling, mental illness labeling, and the use of psychiatry against others, is always a coward’s way out – a way to avoid facing conflict with someone who pushes your buttons, who challenges you in ways you don’t want to deal with.  So you push them away through language and then through actual state-sponsored violence.)

This paradox itself of identity is something that law and policy on disability, bioethics, anti-torture, and ethics and jurisprudence in general, need to embrace and accommodate.  I am not sure how, but we cannot and will not accept being sidelined in disability politics, sidelines in anti-torture politics, sidelined for the most part in legal capacity, and channeled into debates on ‘human rights and mental health’ where we are placed once again in a defensive position being accused by experts who hold the power of discourse and the power of using state-sponsored violence as an instrument of law and policy.

We cannot, contra the recent report of the Special Rapporteur on Health, avoid the glaring problem of forced psychiatry which is pervasive throughout the world including in low and middle income countries of the Global South.  It beggars belief that anyone could imagine that our human rights could somehow be addressed by sidestepping that massive crime against humanity.  Our rights do not stop with eliminating forced psychiatry – we want way, way more.  None of us has ever advocated that this is all there is.  Economic security, including both an end to job discrimination and enough assistance to cover independent housing when we can’t work for any reason, is probably the number one issue everywhere in the world.  I can think of several people right now who are desperate for something to get them out of forced psychiatry situations, for whom lack of economic resources plus discrimination in the community related to housing and/or employment is the biggest barrier if and when they get released.  Acceptance and inclusion in the community even when we are in mad states or experiencing a crisis, is the other essential component to address in policy.  The relationship between support and acceptance has to be synergistic and interpenetrating; we need to look closely at people’s experiences of crisis/mad states with a CRPD lens to understand the variety of support needs that should be provided for, and the different ways support needs can be addressed including mutual support, self-support framed by the social solidarity to allow people time and space to take care of these needs, and dedicated crisis support whether from chosen personal assistants or designated supporters or from skilled and compassionate people who are evaluated and re-evaluated to make sure that they stay skilled and compassionate and respectful of human rights.

If we start from an identity based in this paradox of madness, we are grounded in our self-affirmation, with all that implies.  We are also simply survivors of an atrocity, or some of us are, and have a right to be known in that identity as well.  But that isn’t enough to do all the heavy lifting that replaces forced psychiatry with something else that has the power to displace psychiatry itself from its place of hegemony.  It’s only by reclaiming madness, as ours – positive, neutral and/or negative in any particular individual’s experience, but their own – and rejecting the power of anyone to use ‘madness’ as a label of judgment against another person, to avoid intersubjective relation as an equal, that we can create the right kind of policy.