The ‘Shit Cis People Say’ Alphabet: I is for ‘identity politics’

Welcome to another episode of the Shit Cis People Say Alphabet! Today:

I is for “identity politics”

Like last week’s post, this one isn’t just a thing that cis people use against trans people – it’s a pretty common thing used by the privileged against members of any marginalized group whenever we try to speak about our experiences. We’re accused of engaging in ‘identity politics’, which is apparently a bad thing? It’s not always called ‘identity politics’ either, although the term has gained a lot of traction since marginalized groups of all stripes are being scapegoated as the reason Trump was elected in the US.

Cis people and those privileged along other axes are making accusations of ‘identity politics’ whenever they accuse someone of playing the ‘trans card’ (or the ‘race card’, the ‘woman card’, or whatever it happens to be on that day), as if pointing out that we are marginalized is the real problem here. Since this has been such a hot topic recently, I’m actually not going to write my own full take-down of this one – I’m just going to give y’all some suggested reading on the topic. Links are not specifically focused on identity politics as a trans issue, but they are relevant nonetheless:

Thank God for Identity Politics | Ijeoma Oluo, The Establishment

Don’t Stop Arguing, Complaining, and Fighting for ‘Identity Politics’ | Tasneem Raja, NPR

‘Don’t play identity politics!’ The primal scream of the straight white male | Hadley Freeman

Check out the rest of the “Shit Cis People Say” alphabet!

Questions from the search terms: “everyone has a marginalized identity”

This was an interesting search string that brought someone to my little corner of the internet: everyone has a marginalized identity

I don’t know if it was meant as a question or a statement, but it wormed its way into my brain nevertheless. Because the thing is, when you get right down to it, the *vast* majority of people do experience some sort of systemic marginalization in their lives (though I would argue that there are many cases in which the axes of marginalization in question are not particularly axes of the people’s active identities).

To look at it another way, let me ask: what people in this world have faced no forms of systemic marginalization? For simplicity’s sake, I’ll actually limit myself to people in the US and Canada.

That would be white, anglophone, cisgender, heterosexual, allosexual, monotheist (really, Christian specifically), thin, conventionally attractive, non-disabled, neurotypical men from at middle-class backgrounds or higher. I am sure I’m even forgetting some things here. But the point is, its far and away a small sliver of the population.

This is, of course, part of why intersectionality is an important aspect of social justice discourse. Because once you’ve missed one of the privilege boxes, every additional hit doesn’t just add on to that, it multiplies and interacts with it. So, for instance, if you’re a rich white straight dude, you can usually get away with being publicly atheist without facing too much scrutiny (depending of course on specifically where you are, but nevertheless), whereas if you’re a rich white gay dude, it’s probably safer to at least pretend to be into the kinder parts of the bible (y’know, one of the ‘good’ gays or whatever). You don’t want to question the hegemony too much, after all.

Not to mention that when you have intersecting marginalized identities, you’re more likely to find yourself not just excluded from mainstream stuff, but also from groups dedicated to individual aspects of your marginalization – LGBT people might not want atheists visible in their groups, and atheists sadly aren’t free from heterosexism).

And I actually think this is one of the places where relatively privileged people often get stuck in social justice discourse. Because most of us actually have experienced some sort of marginalization, but those who only experience this marginalization on one or two fronts, or on the ones that are less relevant to day-to-day living, often make the mistake of thinking they know what it’s like to be marginalized. Because they kind of do. And I think most of us (myself included) are sometimes guilty of forgetting that the impacts of different marginalized identities aren’t directly comparable, that the effects of marginal identities aren’t simply additive, and that the intersections between privileged and marginalized identities within any given individual have complex and hard-to-parse consequences.

None of us can seperate out the parts of our lives that result from our privilege and the parts that result from our marginalization, because everything flows out of all of these things.

I want to be able to say that remembering we have all suffered should help us all be a little more compassionate, but unfortunately in practice it is those who have suffered the most, or those who are currently trying to end their own most immediate suffering, who are put upon to be kind and quiet and gracious and compassionate toward those who are contributing to their suffering. We are always playing a game of “no, you be civil first!” and this is a game that the most marginalized people will always lose, because the most marginalized people will inevitably have fewer emotional resources available to do the work we are constantly demanding of them.

So yes, I guess almost everyone does have some sort of marginalized identity. But we all need to learn to see past our own marginalization and recognize the experiences of those different from us, their suffering, and the ways in which we may have been complicit in, or complacent about, their marginalization. And none of us is absolved of doing so.

On inclusive and exclusive spaces, and why actively cultivating “safe” exclusionary spaces is vital

I am inherently suspicious of any group of community or event that claims to be broadly inclusive. Or more specifically, I know that attempts to be equally inclusive of everyone will always, always result in exclusionary spaces where the least privileged perspectives are the most marginalized.

In speaking about why I distrust the very concept of ‘the GSM community’ (or ‘the LGBTQIA+ community’), I recently wrote:

I am far, far more interested in hearing from communities of black trans folk, or autistic queer people, or fat femmes, than in listening to anything that can be credited to ‘the GSM community’ at large.

This is in part because I acknowledge that it is important and vital for me to continue to listen to and make space for the voices of people who experience oppressions that I do not. I cannot help but be complicit in oppressions if I do not even know they exist, and so I feel a deep responsibility to be always learning about others’ experiences of marginalization.

It as also because I know the power of groups that are deliberately and mindfully exclusionary of relatively privileged people. I know the power of explicitly and actively centering and amplifying marginalized voices above all others.

There are things that marginalized people are reluctant to say in the presence of the privileged, in the presence of their oppressors. There are things that need to be said, truths that burn inside of hurting people, that cannot be adequately addressed when the perpetrators of that hurt are listening.

For example: most women experience varying forms of harassment, objectification, or other forms of dehumanization or humiliation on a fairly regular basis, simply for being in public where there are men. Women can, and do, talk about these things publicly of course, and it is important that all of us who see this happening refuse to be silent.

However, when a woman is processing the trauma of a new, particular, experience of dehumanization at the hands of a man, it is often important for her to find a space to do so where there are no men. The reason for this is simple and terrible: because we live in the kind of patriarchal world that teaches men to dehumanize women, woman can’t even speak out and describe their experiences without having men use those experiences as fodder for their own prurient dehumanizing interests.

I’m going to say that again, actually: any time a woman speaks out publicly against her own dehumanization, and especially when she describes in detail how she was dehumanized, there are people who will use that information to further dehumanize her. It is that fucking awful. It is that fucking inescapable.

The only way that many marginalized people can even begin to process their victimization without being actively re-victimized by their effort, is by doing so in a space that excludes their oppressors.

But it’s not just that, even.

In addition to allowing for healing and processing, smaller groups and communities focusing on particular oppressions, or better yet on particular intersecting oppressions are far and away more likely to be able to get shit done.

There is this thing about public conversation about oppression; I’m sure you’ve seen it many times. When someone tries to start a broadly public conversation about what might be done about some particular form of oppression they experience, that conversation will almost without fail be derailed into a conversation all about convincing those who don’t experience that form of oppression that it does actually exist, and that it is, in fact, a problem.

By simply excluding people who don’t experience that form of oppression, or by allowing them to attend only as long as they understand that their role is only to listen and support, we allow the conversation to move past proving the existence of oppression into actually planning movements to improve the lives of people facing that oppression.

Exclusive spaces are absolutely necessary because there are some things that oppressed people only learn to name and recognize in the safety of their own communities. Exclusive spaces are necessary to have the occasional opportunity to escape from our oppressors and process our experiences.

The converse of this a weird one, though: inclusive spaces that claim to value everyone equally are never truly inclusive; they will always alienate the people most in need of community. The only truly inclusive space is a space that works actively to undermine the power and voices of its privileged participants, and to bolster the power and voices of those who are traditionally silenced.

If you aren’t actively dismantling the existing power hierarchies, you will always wind up reproducing them.

Dating while genderqueer: “Who cares if you’re genderqueer?”

A while back, I wrote a response to someone who had tried to reassure me about my dating prospects by saying “who cares if you’re genderqueer?”. The person’s point was that I shouldn’t sweat the folks who won’t date non-binary people, because I wouldn’t want to date those assholes even if I was cis. Which is true, but also misses the point.

My primary response, which is that my genderqueerness is actually important to me, and someone down-playing its role in my life and relationships isn’t really a good thing either, also missed the big picture, though.

I’ve since realized that my genderqueerness impacts my relationships in ways that go well beyond questions of allyship and affirmation. The thing is, even someone who totally gets me, and is into me and everything, might (unless they are genderqueer themself) ultimately decide that pursuing something serious with me is nor worth it. Because I am genderqueer.

Let me explain that.

What my genderqueerness does is makes the bar higher even when people are into me, because by dating me (and especially, y’know, parenting with me, since that is the thing I am really looking for), they will have to have more awkward conversations, potentially face bigotry, and their lives will be made harder in many of the ways, big and small, that being genderqueer makes my life harder.

Choosing to be with me isn’t just about choosing me, it’s also about deciding I am worth dealing with all of the other crap that comes with me, which I can’t wish away, but which they might decide they can’t handle.

And when I read this post on Neutrois Nonsense, it resonated with me deeply.

I worry a lot about my partner: that by choosing to love me, she has chosen difficulty. She has chosen awkward pronouns, chosen tricky explanations, chosen to allow my identity as a genderqueer person to shape hers as a queer woman, chosen a life that will come with footnotes and caveats.

It matters that I am genderqueer. My life is harder because I am genderqueer, and the lives of those around me are, in some ways, made harder by their association with me.

So, yeah. Can we just fast forward ourselves into a post-cis/hetero/patriarchal world already? That would help.

Identity and Labels, Part 1: Marginalized identities

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identities, and specifically about the process of labelling ourselves or others with particular identity terms. Identity labels can be a touchy subject sometimes. Some people have a strong aversion to using labels at all, whether applying them to themselves or to others. In this post, I’m going to talk about the labels we apply to ourselves, rather than the very different issue of applying labels to other people, and specifically about marginalized identity labels and their implications, meanings, and importance.

i am meThe thing is, to some extent, I get people’s reluctance to slap labels on themselves. Sometimes it feels like complete strangers want to know what label they can slap on me so I can be put in a comfortable little box and they don’t have to think about me as person anymore, really.

But at the same time, I find that the uses and benefits of a lot of identity labels outweigh the annoyance at finding myself occasionally reduced to those labels.

For members of marginalized groups, identity labels are vital. In some cases, if we didn’t name marginalized identities, they would remain invisible, and their continued oppression would go unrecognized. A gay rights movement would have been inconceivable prior to the societal creation of the identity categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” (as opposed to simply seeing homosexual sex as a behaviour that some people engage in). In other cases, marginalized groups are created by having an identity thrust upon them – racial categories largely work this way, as they function as an artificial hierarchy (of sorts) created by white culture.

The way I like to think about these kinds of labels (the ones where it would be nice if they were largely irrelevant, such as race, and even sexual orientation if we get right down to it), is that identifying as belonging within them functions as a neat shorthand for indicating the ways in which we move through and experience the world, because of particular characteristics we have that are described by a given label.

For instance, LGB people in same-gender or same-sex relationships live in a world where being affectionate with their partners in public carries a certain risk of harassment, or even violence. And I would ague that it is this experience, rather than the particulars of who they happen to be attracted to, that really delineates the difference between straight people and, well, everyone else. To not be able to hold hands with someone you love without it being a political statement, godsdamnit, is just plain exhausting, among many other things.

It would be nice if our sexuality was essentially irrelevant; it would also be great if race actually didn’t matter. But the fact is that no matter how many well-meaning people pretend not to see race, people of colour continue to face barriers to accessing many life experiences that white folks take for granted.

This dude: not part of the solution.

This dude: not part of the solution.

So, many identity labels (around race, class, ability, sexuality, and the like) are useful in terms of framing and understanding other people’s experiences in the world. They can also be reductionist, though (and this seems to me to be the main reason cited when people reject labels, or do not wish to categorize themselves).

Of course, it should go without saying that not everyone who takes ownership of the same identity labels has the same experience. This is partly due to the different ways in which our various identities intersect and interact with one another, and also due to the great degree of variation within particular categories. Identifying as a person with a disability, for instance, is a pretty nebulous categorization, given the vastly different ways in which a person can be disabled. However, I can still see the usefulness of identifying oneself as *not* normatively abled, if only because it reminds normatively abled people that not everyone is like them.

More like "queer as in none of your business, so long as you understand that I'm not straight." But that's not quite as catchy, I guess.

More like “queer as in none of your business, so long as you understand that I’m not straight.” But that’s not quite as catchy, I guess.

In fact, I am far more liable to identify with umbrella identity terms than with more specific ones. I identify as queer, (rather than the more clearly defined and generally better understood category of bisexual, for instance). I don’t think the specifics of my sexuality are other people’s business, really, but I do understand that identifying myself as “not straight” is very important. It’s deliberate imprecision is in some ways what makes this category valuable to me. For me, identifying as queer works because I really think it shouldn’t matter who I am attracted to, but I also know that in some ways it does, and more importantly, that if I say nothing about the subject, people will tend to assume I am straight (relative to whatever binary gender they think I am). When I say that I am queer, it says that I am accustomed to the experience of having other people politicize my relationship(s), in a way that straight people don’t generally have to deal with.

Genderqueer works the same way: it says that I am not male, and I am not female, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what I *am*, really. It does tell you that I am accustomed to being misgendered and feeling invisible, though, which is important information for understanding the ways in which I respond to the world around me. It’s also something people need to know about me in order to be able to do things like use the correct pronouns for me.

So, labels have their usefulness in framing our experience of the world, and in helping other people understand where we are coming from when we talk about those experiences. And the are useful in establishing patterns around how different people are treated – if we don’t acknowledge people’s racial and cultural backgrounds, it is impossible to make observations regarding things like racially-based job discrimination. And we can’t work to eliminate these forms of discrimination unless we can show that they are occurring.

But I don’t think that pointing out the usefulness of identity labels quite explains my instinctively negative reaction to people who simply reject the idea of applying such labels to themselves. The thing is, in my experience the people most likely to do this are usually speaking from a place of great privilege. You’ll see it a lot with poly people (especially) in heterosexual “primary” relationships or marriages, who engage in non-hetero relationships. These people very often feel like there’s really no need to “define” their sexuality, and think that labels would simply be too limiting.

Of course, by not labeling themselves as some form of queer (or even just accepting a label of “not straight” if none of the existing LGBQ+ labels feel comfy, ok?), these people are really just letting the world continue to assume they are straight, with all of the privileges that implies.

Because that’s really the thing. I think that the real reason why proudly taking ownership of identity labels is so very important is because we don’t live in a world where these categories don’t matter.

I’m not even saying that people who insist that they don’t want to define themselves as one thing or another need to be *out* all the time. And I don’t want to engage in identity policing here, either. I’m not invested in how people identify, or whether their identity matches my perception of them (they know better than me, anyway). And I even understand that sometimes the answer is really just “none of the above” or “I don’t know.” But even those categories are substantively different from taking the stance of “oh, I just don’t believe in labels” or whatever.

My point here is really that we all need to stop pretending that such an anti-label stance is somehow neutral, or even good. Ignoring or minimizing the differences between people and the ways they move through the world, (which is what a person does when they insist that labels aren’t important), is worse than useless. It is damaging.

People who are visibly members of marginalized groups (i.e. most people of colour, for instance) don’t have the option of not identifying with that group – they have that label thrust upon them, and are treated as members of that group regardless of whether they identify with it or not. And it is for their sake that I think that those of us who do have that option, to be able to comfortably sink below the radar of bigotry (and I do very much include myself in this category), to insist on claiming these labels, and to make sure the rest of the world sees us as members of that marginalized community.

I really would love to live in a world where these things didn't matter.

I really would love to live in a world where these things didn’t matter.

We need to make ourselves visible*, because a critical mass of visibility is necessary before society will begin to make the kinds of changes that might one day actually render identity categories irrelevant. Because, ultimately, I do agree with the sentiment that race, gender, age, body size, who we love, or whatever else really shouldn’t matter. These things shouldn’t change fabric of our lives or create barriers for us in the ways that they currently do. But, as long as they are relevant, as long as they do continue to shape the way the world shapes itself around us, and the way other people treat us, we must continue to point out the fact that those differences (in experience) do exist, and they are very important.

* I do understand that it is not always a safe or viable option for everyone to be out all the time, or even at all. I am not out to everyone all the time, nor am I even out to everyone that I interact with on a regular basis. But I also think that it is important to consider the potential positive future ramifications for other people when considering coming out, and not just making it about the pros and cons within one’s own life.

On “Over-reactions”

I think it’s fair to say than anyone who has ever tried to espouse and/or express any sort of social justice values has, at some point in their lives, been accused of over-reacting to something. It’s an extremely common silencing tactic, there’s no doubt about that. But I also realized something recently that adds just a touch of nuance to the way I think about accusations of “over-reaction”. I honestly think that there are instances where that kind of accusation can stem from a genuine misunderstanding.

I mean, there are certainly people out there (especially in internet-land) who will label any acknowledgement of racism or sexism (or any other -ism) as an over-reaction. Simply pointing out that something is problematic is considered going too far and being too sensitive as far as some folks are concerned. I like to call these people assholes, (for lack of a better term,) and don’t really feel the need to discuss them any further.

But I just don’t think that everyone who has ever accused someone of over-reaction deserves to be equated with those assholes. The realization I came to recently is that very often, when someone gets upset over some instance of marginalization, the people who lob accusations of over-reaction are simply misunderstanding what the person in question is, in fact, reacting to.

Because, honestly, I understand why responding with righteous rage to a (funny!) command that you make some dude a sandwich might appear to be an over-reaction. The problem, of course, is that the righteously enraged person is never responding to that one completely unfunny and tired joke, or single comment, or that isolated incident – they’re responding to a much larger pattern of marginalization, of which the joke or comment or incident in question is simply an illustrative example. And that example is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.

And this is the point that I want to make very clear, and in order to do so, I am going to seriously strain this analogy, and I apologize in advance. The thing is that when we discuss a straw breaking a camel’s back, we understand that the straw that does the breaking is not the first one, nor the second. In fact, understand that the camel must have been carrying a great deal of weight prior to the addition of that last piece of straw, and we would never accuse the poor creature of being flawed or weak for having been unable to take that last little bit of weight. We simply understand that its strength is finite, and it reached its limit.

But marginalized people never seem to get this kind of consideration. We are expected to simply keep absorbing the monthly, weekly, daily, and hourly instances of marginalization and bigotry in silence for ever. Why?

Because talking about prejudice is uncomfortable? More specifically, I expect, it’s because exposing prejudice is uncomfortable for the privileged folks in the room, while silently allowing prejudice to continue really only discomfits (disenfranchises) marginalized people. And really, marginalized people are used to this kind of thing, so they should totally be able t take, while it’s clearly unfair to expect racists who are accustomed to going unchallenged to suddenly be able take criticism, am I right?

Or am I just over-reacting?

But I digress: the real problem is that these patterns of social marginalization to which apparently over-reacting people are so often reacting are invisible to anyone who 1) is not directly affected by them; and 2) doesn’t explicitly try to look out for them (or, essentially, anyone who is in an acknowledged position of privilege). So, instead of seeing this:

A person who has been blissfully ignorant of the pervasiveness of marginalizing messages in their culture (and is thus only aware of the incident in question) sees this:


And it is from this misunderstanding that many an accusation of over-reaction has stemmed.

Of course, it’s also important to note here that being marginalized in one aspect of one’s life (or alternatively, acknowledging one aspect of one’s privilege) does not always guarantee empathy with people who experience patterns of marginalization base don different characteristics; thus, LGB people accuse Trans* folks of over-reacting to their marginalization by LGB people, even while those same LGB folk are being accused of over-reacting to instances of heterosexism and anti-LGB bigotry.

And I’ve been just as guilty of this kind of thing as next person. But one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is that if someone appears to be over-reacting to something, I probably lack the necessary context to properly assess their reaction. I probably don’t know actually understand what it is they’re actually reacting *to*. And remembering that one simple fact has helped me to learn so much, and become a better person. You should try it!

I promise it’ll feel good.


I always find that talking about what it’s like to be in an abusive situation is a lot like talking about a dream you had. There’s a bunch of logic that made total sense at the time, but that you have to do a lot of hand-waving around when you explain it to someone else after the fact.

Delirium is really good at dream-logic.

Of course, when I’m talking about dreams, the hand-waving can usually be glossed over pretty quickly (e.g. “And when I realized that I was only wearing one sock, I was totally relieved, because in the dream-logic this would make it easier for me to…”), and that’s just fine. But when you’re talking about having been abused, there’s a lot of decisions you made while that abuse was happening that allowed, caused, or sometimes even encouraged, the abuse to continue or escalate. And people want to understand, or they think that your actions when you were in it (You stayed! You never complained about x at the time! Maybe you even said you liked it! Maybe there were specific instances that you could have prevented but instead decided to provoke!) somehow mean that the abuse wasn’t that bad, or wasn’t as bad as you’re now making it out to be, because they don’t understand that maybe you were numb at the time, and you’re only feeling a lot of the emotional effects now that you’re out, and all of your life-energy is no longer being completely expended on basic psychic maintenance.

Because the thing is, if you’ve never had to face up to the kinds of twisted logic that we all use every day to get through life and make the world bearable, you don’t realize that the mental gymnastics that abuse victims perform to justify their decision to stay, or to forgive again, or whatever, aren’t that distinct from the hundred little ways that everyone elides good logic every day.

We all put up with ridiculous things, just to get through day-to-day life. Women accept, or refuse to notice, that in order to look “professional” they have to spend far more money (make-up is extortionate, and women’s fashion isn’t built to last half as long as menswear) and far more of their time (the grooming!) just to meet the same level of acceptance as men. Women spend twice as much money as men on apparel alone, and that’s not counting all the grooming apparatuses most women invest in. This means that even if we achieve income parity, women will still be at a significant economic disadvantage, because cultural norms insist that in order to be equally professional, they must spend a much greater proportion of their money on their appearance.

BUT, this absolutely doesn’t mean that all women who wear make-up are bringing it upon themselves. It doesn’t mean that women who “choose” to wear make-up are responsible for their economic disadvantages. And it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid or damaged. It means that they’ve accepted this nonsensical piece of culture-logic, because they can’t see viable alternatives.  And ok, sometimes it means they actually think make-up is fun, but I’m talking about everyday make-up and grooming procedures here, the kind designed to cover “flaws”, the kind that I’m sure you’ve heard women in your life complaining about, and wishing they didn’t “have to” do. This is not the kind of grooming designed to make bold,  self-expressive statements, it’s the kind that many women feel they need to comply with simply to be able to make their actual self-expressions heard, just to earn a  base level of respect.

As I see it, the main difference between this kind of culture-logic and abuse-logic is that we can’t escape the culture in which we live, whereas people in abusive situations often *can* escape their abusers (they just can’t always see the escape route, or the alternatives simply seem worse). Oh, and very few people try to make women justify their decision to continue practicing grooming rituals that they profess to hate; we all understand why they make that decision, and why it would be so hard to “choose” otherwise, whether we’re the kind of person who sees and understands the bargain they are making with the culture at large, or we’ve simply bought so fully into the cultural norms that we don’t even think the stopping is an option – it would simply be unacceptable.

Stepping outside of what you know is scary. It doesn’t matter how much you’re sacrificing to stay in that comfort zone, and it doesn’t matter what it looks like to people on the outside, it’s damn scary. And abuse-logic is the logic that allows you to make the decision to stay, and it’s often oddly comforting despite itself.

And we really shouldn’t demand for it make any more sense than the justifications we have for all the other things we do in life. So I like to talk about my past now with phrases like “but when he said something obviously incorrect just to get his way, I didn’t bother arguing  and instead just agreed, because in the abuse-logic I knew that…” and I think that should be enough.