I've been reading Judith Butler's Bodies That Matter and I'm struck by my memory of Rosalind Weisman, the founder and old e.d. of the now defunct Empower Program in Washington, DC. I was on Empower's Girls' Advisory Board for two years as an adolescent, and ended up working there on staff later on in college. We GAB girls would huddle up in the cramped living room of the row house that Empower called an office, eat chips and and salsa and talk about being teenage girls at home, at school, on the street, in our bodies. Occasionally Ros would stop by and facilitate one of our meetings. She might get us to talk about how we think of the gay girl at school or why we let that boy talk to us that way. Sometimes she would draw a box on a flip sheet and explain to us the different positionalities of U.S. girlhood. You can be inside the box, which is like a life raft, and in the center, soaking up the sun and feeling fine. You can be one of the girls inside the box but to the side, struggling not to fall off, clamoring over all the other girls to get to the center. Or you can be one of the girls outside the box entirely. If you are one of those girls you better hope you can swim, otherwise you are drowning.
It is an incredible credit to Ros that she was able to break down ideas that Butler complicates with words like the real, and the symbolic, and concepts of contingency and what is circumscribed by the law and foreclosure. Butler isn't wrong to do this. These are complicated systems of power all around us, in and outside of our little teen girl bodies. But the effect of these systems is quite base, quite intuitive and emotional. You are either floating or you are not. You are either drowning or you are not. If you have swam in the ocean and felt the undertow slip around your feet and carry you further than you realized, it is not hard to understand how scary it feels to drown.
In reading Butler, I am reminded of the problematics of titling and naming, the contradictions in self-circumscription. When we decide to call ourselves "queer" we have made the choice to draw a circle around ourselves, and that is dangerous. It was part of my fear of moving out here to San Francisco in the first place -- "It is so gay..." I would whine to my Philadelphia friends. "I don't know how to be queer in a place where no one cares that you are queer." (I still feel as though I'm trying to figure that one out.) Likewise, when we build "safe spaces" for ourselves, we are, by the fact of that very creation of space, establishing an opposite, an "unsafe space" for someone else.
I've been in email dialogue with a friend about her interest in an organizing collective that is currently working under the auspices of being a place for womyn who love womyn. Appropriately, this makes my friend nervous. This was my response:
Personally, the way I feel about "trans-inclusion" is that it's not really an issue. It's like, there is no reason to not be trans-inclusive. Like, that shouldn't even be a phrase because that should just not be an issue. And believe you me, I am a man-hater full on, so if anyone should be about "womyn-loving-womyn" it should be me. But the fact of the matter is, SAFE SPACE IS NOT REAL: we can only create spaces where we are safe to challenge ourselves and each other. That is what a safe space is. And personally, I do not think that safe space is mutually discursive - I think that if you belong to a community that suffers from other peoples' illegally inherited privilege (i.e., your being trans means you get the bad end of the gender-normativity deal) then you are the only one who gets to make that call of whether or not it is a "safe space." The one benefiting from that privilege doesn't get to make that call! If the one benefiting from privilege does want to be exclusive, that is not a "safe space," that is called caucusing, and that is something completely different and fairly problematic in its own right. That is like "Men Can Stop Rape" and "White Anti-Racist Support Group" stuff. So don't get it twisted.Having said that, I do not think that it is putting a halt to a movement or disrupting a collective process to say, "Hold up, I think we are not examining our gender privilege here," and to really complicate essentialist notions of gender and victimization. To challenge the assumption that if you are a woman then you inherently need an exclusive space to heal from the trauma of womanhood. When, for real, if you have the privilege of so easily being able to call yourself a woman without question, then you are also part of someone else's trauma.
These same ideas came up in the conversations I was having with another friend late one night last week, about being 21 and trying to find a place to live. Feeling alienated from other 21 year olds, but rejected by older folks who are not interested in living with someone whose age represents [what? Immaturity? An inability to be trusted? We could not figure it out]. It would seem that power works in ways that are hard and visceral and complex, but not necessarily all that mysterious...