Sunday, July 13, 2014

Regarding “Generation Wars”: some reflections upon reading the recent Jack Halberstam essay

Jack Halberstam recently published an essay called You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma, and it’s been making waves on the activist internets over the last week. It felt like a bit of a “kitchen sink” article to me, in that it discussed a plethora of different matters (including Monty Python, historical debates between second- and third-wave feminisms, current controversies surrounding the word “tranny,” the recent proliferation of trigger warnings, supposed connections between expressions of trauma and neoliberalism, safe spaces, “It Gets Better” campaigns, and concerns about millennials being hypersensitive) and attempted to weave them into one nice neat coherent narrative. This narrative could be summarized as follows:

queer & trans culture and politics circa the 1990’s was strong, progressive, and fun!

whereas queer & trans culture and politics circa the 2010’s is frail, conservative, and a killjoy.

While Halberstam’s essay made a few points that are certainly worthy of further exploration and discussion, it also overreached in a number of ways, especially in its attempts to shoehorn a potpourri of recent events and trends into the aforementioned overarching narrative. Some concerns that I have about the essay have been addressed by others here and here and here and here (sorry, original posting of that response was here) and here

I generally do not respond to every essay that I disagree with on the Internet (as that would be a full time job!). But I wanted to add a few thoughts to this discussion because, while the essay in question is uniquely “Halberstamian” in its style and themes, the overarching narrative that holds the piece together is remarkably similar to the one recently forwarded by Andrea James, and resembles recent comments made by RuPaul. Indeed, it seems as if queer and trans folks who came of age around the 1990’s (ostensibly my generation, give or take a few years) are increasingly invoking this as the “go-to” narrative to explain why a younger generation of queer and trans activists behave the way that they do. And I think that the assumptions that prop up this narrative are in dire need of unpacking.

on having to walk uphill, both ways, in a foot of snow, everyday, on your way to school, back when you used to be a kid
I think that a useful place to start is with the “four Yorkshire men” Monty Python sketch that Halberstam invokes as a metaphor for the “hardship competitions...among the triggered generation” (which is to say, how young people today are supposedly constantly complaining about how hurt and oppressed they are by relatively minor things, such as “a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on”).

Now personally, I always understood that Monty Python sketch as making fun of how people, as they get older, tend to glorify their own past: imagining the hardships they faced as being especially challenging or severe, thereby allowing them to self-conceptualize themselves as being especially resourceful, righteous, cunning, and perseverant for having survived despite overwhelming odds. And this human tendency has historically enabled older generations to outright dismiss younger generations as being misguided, or especially soft (because “they have it so much easier than we did”), and so on.

The notion that queer and trans people of my generation were somehow stoic and resilient, whereas the younger generation of queer and trans people are a bunch of oversensitive crybabies seems to be quite a stretch. I can attest to the fact that we too complained about how oppressed we were, and we often expressed our hurt feelings in public, and we often became outraged about particular language choices or media depictions that we found problematic. The main difference is that we (in glorifying our own past) tend to believe that the causes that we fought for were righteous and justified, whereas the younger generation’s causes and concerns may seem misguided and frivolous to us.

One blatant example of this sort of hypocrisy can be found in RuPaul, who with one hand dismisses concerns of a younger generation of activists who find the word “tranny” problematic, while with the other hand types angry Tweets at people who use the word “faggot” (which he considers to be a “derogatory slur”). The logic here is totally inconsistent. Such actions only make sense if he (and those who agree with him) privileges political stances taken by his own generational cohort over those taken by a newer generation.

We certainly have the right to critique any given strategy taken by younger activists (e.g., if we believe that a particular strategy will be ineffective or cause more harm than good). But outright dismissing all their concerns as frivolous, or as mere expressions of their generational over-sensitivity, is patently unfair.

It is worth pointing out that this sort of dismissal of an entire generation can cut both ways: Sometimes, as younger activists, we view our own generational cohort as especially righteous, lucid, and cutting-edge. This may lead us to view the causes and courses of action that we forward (or forwarded) as being wholly justified, while dismissing the previous generation of activists that came before us as naive and completely misguided in their pursuits. One can see this in both Halberstam’s depiction of “weepy white lady feminism” of the 1980’s, as well as in the comments I have heard certain younger queer and trans activists make these days (e.g., in response to Halberstam’s piece, or RuPaul’s stance on certain issues) that thoroughly dismiss queer theory and/or drag as horrible wrong turns that activism took in the 1990’s. The truth is sometimes opinions and strategies that seemed promising and created positive change in one generation may become less relevant, or appear outdated or problematic, in another.

Here is a germane example: I believe that it is perfectly reasonable for us to recognize that, for its time, Monty Python was truly groundbreaking in its portrayals of gender transgression and sexual expression, while at the same time admitting that, were the comedy troupe to be miraculously teleported to 2014 in their original form, many contemporary activists would likely claim that their sketches perpetuate queer and trans stereotypes, or that they appropriate or mock our experiences in some way. And these critiques would seem to have some merit now, whereas if you teleported those critiques back to 1969 (when Monty Python’s TV series first aired) they would have seemed absolutely preposterous. In activism (as it is with humor), context is everything.

It is crucial that we try to move beyond using broad strokes to paint different generations as being either “right” or “wrong,” or “radical” or “conservative.” We should instead recognize that each generation (and subcultures within that generation) has different experiences and exists under different circumstances, and this will inevitably shape their beliefs about which course and forms of activism should take place. (I have tried to articulate this same point in these two recent blog pieces.)

dead parrots society
As I alluded to, Halberstam’s essay makes a lot of Monty Python references. The essay also engages in the “straw man” strategy of pointing to numerous instances where today’s youth claim to be triggered or traumatized by relatively innocuous or not-quite-so-serious events—this of course, implies that all complaints they make (e.g., regarding chemical sensitivity, the use of derogatory slurs, etc.) are just as frivolous.

One of the instances Halberstam cites in this manner is “...students trotting out stories of painful events in their childhoods (dead pets/parrots, a bad injury in sports)...” The specific reference to parrots is no doubt an allusion to Monty Python’s famous “Dead Parrot” sketch. Alluding to a humorous comedy sketch here no doubt enhances the frivolousness nature of such a trauma.

However, as I was re-reading the essay while working on this piece, it belatedly struck me: I actually dedicated my first book Whipping Girl (in part) to a dead parrot!

She was a Jenday Conure named Coby. Just after she passed, I wrote this about her. Trigger warning: the webpage that I just linked to is very very sad.

(By the way, the above trigger warning is intended to be a joke, albeit not one meant to ridicule trigger warnings per se. I share some concerns about the misuse/overuse of the concept of “triggers,” and some trigger warnings I have seen seem more about letting people know that an uncomfortable conversation is coming rather than addressing legitimate issues of trauma (e.g., PTSD). But I think we can have that discussion without entirely dismissing the concept of trigger warnings and their potential usefulness in some circumstances for making work more accessible. Anyway, my intention in adding the facetious trigger warning was to challenge Halberstam’s essay’s insinuation that there is some kind of link between acknowledging pain/trauma/triggers and humorlessness. I mean, we as human beings are perfectly capable of being sad and serious sometimes, and then happy and silly at other times. And if you’re a fan of The Smiths and Morrissey’s lyrics, you can surely attest to the fact that both sadness/seriousness and happiness/silliness can even be expressed simultaneously! Anyway, having made that disclaimer, I do feel compelled to reiterate that what I wrote about Coby on that webpage is indeed very very sad.)

I loved Coby and was devastated when she died. I was such a mess that I took several days off from work. I grieved for a very long time. Since her passing, I have named the two laptops I have owned badobeep and badoobeep2 (“ba-do-beep” was the noise Coby used to make when she was happy). She died almost nine years ago, and despite the passage of time, when people ask me what I would get a tattoo of (if I were to ever get a tattoo), without hesitation, I say “my bird Coby.” She died almost nine years ago, and yet right now, as I am typing this, I am getting teary-eyed.

Despite the intense impact Coby’s life and death had on me, I would not claim that I was “traumatized” by her death. Nor am I “triggered” these days by watching Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch. But do you know what would upset me? If somebody tried to dismiss my feelings about Coby and the grief that I felt after her passing. If my boss (who was very understanding about the situation) would have instead said, “You wuss, it was just some stupid bird, get over it, and get you’re ass back to work,” I would have totally lost it. If someone would have insinuated that I was some kind of “freak” for caring so much about “a silly parrot,” or that I couldn’t possibly have experienced “real grief” when she died, I would have felt legitimately angry and frustrated.

I am trying to illustrate an important distinction here, one that Halberstam seems to gloss over: There is a very real difference between someone claiming to be “traumatized” by their parrot dying, and somebody expressing anger toward people who wholly delegitimize the possibility that the death of an avian animal companion can be a “real,” “serious,” or important” matter.

Analogously, I am not “traumatized” over being trans and queer. Sure, there were times (back when I was much younger) when I grieved over those aspects of myself. But that grieving process is way in the review mirror for me (although I understand that it might not be for some queer and trans folks, especially younger ones). These days, what upsets me is not the mere acknowledgement or reminders of the fact that I am queer or trans. But what I do get legitimately outraged about is when people do not take my identity, experiences, perspectives, or concerns seriously because of the fact that I am queer and/or trans.

In other words, I think Halberstam’s essay seems to conflate complaints about difficult or sad personal experiences with legitimate activist outrage over having our identities, perspectives, and concerns wholly invalidated by mainstream society, or members of our own community, simply because they cannot relate to us or our experiences.

and speaking of taking other people’s concerns seriously (or not)…
So another dichotomy upon which the narrative I am attempting to debunk hinges is the presumption that 1990’s-era queer and trans activism (with its poststructuralism and queer theory, appreciation of intersectionality, embrace of drag, pornography, etc.) was truly open-minded, alliance-oriented, and welcoming of diversity, whereas 2010’s-era activists (who are supposedly pre-occupied with expressing their individual traumas and complaining about things that make them feel personally uncomfortable) are thoroughly closed-minded and destroying any chance for us to come together due to their constant “call outs,” “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” etc. (Indeed, it is this supposed self-involved individualism that allows Halberstam to link this new era with neoliberalist agendas.) While I admittedly share some concerns regarding how these practices sometimes play out within activist settings (as I will touch on in a moment), I believe that this presumption as a whole is once again patently unfair to the younger generation of activists.

There have always been activists who only want to focus on, and talk about, their own issues, concerns, pain, perspectives, etc.—they exist in every generation. What is new (or at least new-ish) about many contemporary activist settings is that people are starting to take other people’s concerns seriously (or at least, arguably, more seriously than they used to).

Younger activists have heard the stories about how the concerns of people who fall under the bisexual and transgender umbrellas were outright dismissed by gay men and lesbians for decades. And so now, when some seemingly new queer identity or subgroup begins expressing their perspective, some of these activists will immediately work to accommodate their views and needs. Along similar lines, many activists today take very seriously arguments forwarded by womanists/feminists of color during the 1970’s and 1980’s—for instance, that it shouldn’t be up to the marginalized group to constantly have to articulate their existence and needs, or to single-handedly challenge the ism they face whenever instances of it arise; rather, this is the work that the dominant majority should be doing if they want to be actual allies and make their spaces truly inclusive. This helps explain why many of the “call outs” and monitoring of language that occur in these spaces comes from people positioned as allies.[1] And when activists today ask people not to wear scented products to events, or when they provide trigger warnings before certain blog pieces or performances, it is not because they want to “police” or “censor” people’s behaviors, but rather it’s usually because they have some familiarity with disability discourses and they are trying to make their spaces and work more accessible to others.

To be clear, I am not trying to portray contemporary activism in a utopian manner here. Plenty of people blatantly disregard these tenets, and countless others pay only lip service to them. On the other extreme, if you follow all of these tenets to the letter—acknowledging every single person’s every concern—then that invariably leads to its own dilemmas. What happens when a cis woman survivor of sexual abuse says she feels unsafe in the presence of penises—do we exclude pre- and non-op trans women? If someone argues that they believe that the label “bisexual” invalidates their transgender identity, do we expel bisexual-identified people? And what if some members of a marginalized group say we should do X, while others say we should do Y? How can we best support a marginalized subpopulation within our community if they don’t even agree amongst themselves on that particular issue?

I also share Halberstam’s (and others’) concerns for how calls to make “safe spaces” typically devolve into homogeneous “same spaces,” where people feel “safe” because they only ever have to interact with folks who they view as being “of their own kind”—such tendencies can obviously have all sorts of racist, classist, cis/heteronormative, and other negative ramifications.

So admittedly, the current climate of activism is often messy and sometimes self-contradictory. And its complex protocols with regards to using appropriate language, “call outs,” “trigger warnings,” and so on, can admittedly be difficult to navigate, especially to those brand new to the community (and this, of course, could be considered another potential form of exclusion). This system is far from perfect—indeed, I dedicate most of the last chapter of my book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive to discussing these problems and how we might better resolve them. But having said that, I wholeheartedly disagree with those who wish to mischaracterize these expressions of activism as “self-focused” and “individualist.” After all, the primary force that is compelling the latest generation of activists to listen to and heed all of these disparate concerns and claims is a desire for diversity and inclusiveness.

Things were definitely different in the 1990’s (when I first participated in trans communities) and early 2000’s (when I first became especially active in queer and trans communities in the San Francisco Bay Area). In certain ways, those spaces were more accommodating of difference: You could identify however you wanted, perform your gender in whatever way pleased you, express your sexuality however you wanted (provided that what you did was consensual), and no one would ever complain.

Wait a minute, let me correct that: Sometimes people would complain, for legitimate or illegitimate reasons (depending on your perspective). But other people in the community rarely acted upon those complaints. The general attitude was: They’re just being themselves, speaking their minds, sharing their opinions, and expressing their own desires and experiences. And you are free to do the same.

Still to this day, I miss certain aspects of those spaces. It did often feel like we were working together toward a common goal despite our significant differences. And it was amazingly freeing to know that I could get up on stage and perform a spoken word piece wherein I made a confession, or got something off my chest, that challenged my community’s dominant narratives and norms. And it was a relief to know that nobody would publicly call me out for speaking my mind (although they might whisper nasty things about me to their friends after the show).

It is easy for me to romanticize those spaces, and that particular time in my life. But then I start to think about the many ways in which those same spaces sometimes failed me.

After a year or so of enjoying San Francisco’s burgeoning queer/trans performance scene, I began to notice that I was one of the only trans women who regularly attended those events. Those spaces were filled with cis dykes, FAAB genderqueers, and trans male/masculine folks galore, as well as various drag and burlesque performers. But hardly any trans women. When I would invite trans women that I knew to these shows, many shared their experiences about how they had been repeatedly disrespected and ridiculed when they attended such venues in the past. And these were not the supposedly “fussy” “oversensitive” trans folks of the 2010’s. No. These were (according to the narrative I am debunking) strong, resilient queer-identified trans folks of the previous generation. And they were not avoiding these queer/trans spaces because they were delicate flowers who were afraid of having their feelings hurt. To the contrary, their attitude about the situation was rather pragmatic, something akin to: “If people in those spaces aren’t going to treat me with respect, then screw them and their events!”

At one trans-themed show that had at least 150 attendees, I purposefully began going up to people I knew and made the following somewhat snarky “joke”: “Hey, so I’m here, and there’s Shawna, and there’s Charlie, and there’s Sherilyn, and there’s Brooklynne. All five trans women in the Bay Area showed up to the event—great turn out!” The people I said this to knew that I was being facetious—after all, the Bay Area has a large population of trans women. And the five or so of us who regularly showed up at these events did so because we were performers sharing our work. But few other trans women showed up to simply enjoy the show. You can understand why the word “token” started to roll around in my mind a lot during that time.

Anyway, when I shared my “joke” about being one of the “five trans women in the SF Bay Area” at the show, people usually got uncomfortable. I could tell that they realized that it was a problem (at least, on an intellectual level). But (with a few exceptions), they almost never asked me what they could do to make the space more welcoming to trans women. Many didn’t even ask why these trans women felt the space was unwelcoming in the first place. Some organizers acted as if the situation was completely out of their control—after all, they flyered the entire city! What more could they do? They were victims of the whims of free market forces!

In the last chapter of Whipping Girl, I explain that while the ideals of that particular era of queer/trans culture might be described as “gender anarchy”—with all of the potential freedom and progressive values that invokes—in practice, it sometime resembled “gender libertarianism,” where those who already had some prestige and privilege within the community ultimately prevailed. In my experiences, trans masculine-spectrum folks, drag performers, and others who were especially visibly gender-non-conforming were viewed especially favorably in those spaces. Trans female/feminine-spectrum folks, and trans folks who appeared too “heteronormative” in their personal style or partner preferences, were often disregarded in those spaces.

Some of us started pushing back (as disregarded people sometimes do). We forced conversations about the subtle and sometimes blatant forms of trans-misogyny that made trans female/feminine folks feel unwelcome in those settings. There were boycotts of queer and trans events that hosted artists who performed at MichFest and other events that excluded trans women. And so on. Unsurprisingly, people who held trans female/feminine folks in low regard dismissed us as “oversensitive whiners” and described MichFest-related boycotts as “censorship” (sound familiar?). But all we were trying to do was to hold our community accountable. Isn’t that what activism is often about?

Anyway, nowadays, when people organize queer events, they are far more likely to consider how to make their space welcoming to trans women than queer event organizers did ten or fifteen years ago. From my perspective, this is a positive development. But after everything that I’ve been through, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t also listen to the concerns of other groups who have been similarly disregarded by queer communities in the past (e.g., people of color, poor and working-class folks, people with disabilities, femmes, bisexual/pansexual and asexual folks, etc.). And as I’ve already discussed, it can get really complicated when you try to take everybody’s concerns seriously. But I believe it is a good place to start.

I can certainly understand why some folks of my generation might view queer and trans culture and politics of the 1990’s and early 2000’s (with its more laissez-faire do-whatever-you-want attitude) as more liberating or progressive than contemporary activism. But I would invite them to consider whether their preference for that era’s politics is directly related to the fact that they were not among those who were disregarded by the community during that time period.

stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before
So this is the obligatory controversy surrounding the word “tranny” digression—a topic that I am chock full of ambivalent feelings about. The word has a very complex history (which I discuss at great length via the link in the previous sentence), and I feel that people who completely ignore its previous usage as a reclaimed word within trans communities, as well as those who hurl accusations of “censorship” at those who view it as a derogatory slur, are both severely oversimplifying the matter.

We have to make this unfortunate “tranny”-debate pit-stop because Halberstam makes this accusation of “censorship” in his piece without any serious discussion whatsoever about *why* some activists wish to curb usage of the word.

For the record, this argument is primarily forwarded by trans women—and not just a small “fringe” group of “hashtag activists” (as some claim), but rather a significant number of trans women from diverse backgrounds and ages. And they would point out that trans women are the primary targets of the word (particularly when it is used as a derogatory slur), and that many trans women experience the word in conjunction with abuse and violence (which trans women experience disproportionately relative to other LGBTQIA+ folks). That is their argument. Now, Halberstam may not be moved by this line of reasoning, and he is surely entitled to state his preference for reclaiming slurs rather than eliminating them. But the problem is, he doesn’t even mention these trans women’s concerns or rationale—instead he dismisses objections to the word as a “quest for respectability and assimilation,” or symptoms of hypersensitive and easily triggered dispositions. So I think it is easy to see why many people who read his essay interpreted it as yet another example of how trans women’s concerns are often not taken seriously by others within queer communities.

Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Halberstam’s piece is that he chose the recent name change of the long-running queer/trans event “Trannyshack” (now called “T-Shack”) as the centerpiece for his depiction of overly sensitive censorship gone awry. But as Tobi Hill-Meyer discusses here and here, the name change arose out of good old-fashioned community dialogue, wherein the two parties worked together (rather than dismissing or censoring each other) in order to create a mutually beneficial outcome. In Hill-Meyer’s words:

I actually was very involved in the conversations around Trannyshack and it was very positive, cordial, and constructive. The organizers of T-shack thanked us for our input and designated our organization the beneficiary of their show. We gave them an award. Everyone was happy and thought it went great. Then a bunch of bystanders simply assumed that we must have strong armed them into it through whining about being triggered. Folks who weren’t involved in the conversation wrote about how terrible trans women are for censoring and being PC police. Hecklina from T-Shack wrote up her perspective trying to clarify that wasn’t what happened and that in fact she got way more pressure from cis fans demanding she not “give in to the trans women word police” but her words never got the same reach or publicity as the folks complaining about emotionally reactive trans women.

I understand why Halberstam and others might want to portray this as a “generation war” of sorts, where folks from the previous generation are politically righteous, while the younger generation is politically incompetent. But when I look upon this matter as a trans woman—from that standpoint—I find that there are people in both generations who are genuinely concerned about trans women’s issues and willing to listen to and work with us, and others who couldn’t care less about our concerns, or who caricature us as the-people-who-ruin-everything-fun-about-queerness.

<!-- end digression -->

everything right is wrong again
Okay, so some of you may have noticed what I did earlier: I made the case that self-focused individualism contributed to exclusion within 1990’s-era queer/trans activism, whereas many of the things Halberstam dislikes about 2010’s-era activism are actually carried out in an attempt to create diverse and inclusive queer communities. In other words, I have somewhat turned his argument around. I have also (perhaps not so subtly) peppered my descriptions of 1990’s-era activism with phrases like “free market forces,” “laissez-faire,” and “libertarianism.” All this perfectly poises me to make the case that it was 1990’s-era activism (and everything associated with it) that engaged in neoliberalist rhetoric, and therefore, was irredeemably conservative.

But I am not going to do that. For a couple of reasons.

First, as a trans woman, femme, and bisexual, I have been on the receiving end of too many your-identity/expression/perspective-is-inherently-conservative-and-holding-back-the-movement arguments (both within academic and activists settings) that I now recognize them to be (far more often than not) merely tactics to dismiss people and opinions that we do not like. After all, we (feminists, queer and trans folks, activists more generally) are trying to change the world. So what better way to disparage things we don’t appreciate or understand than to portray them as “conservative” or “assimilationist” or “neoliberalist”?

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should be apolitical. But we should be cognizant of the fact that these sorts of subversivist arguments—where activists claim that one way of being trans/queer/female/etc. is radical (and therefore good) whereas a different way of being trans/queer/female/etc. is conservative (and therefore holding back the movement)—are almost always arbitrary, and serve little purpose other than to create (or perpetuate) hierarchies within our movements and/or to provide a rationale for us to police behaviors that make us feel uncomfortable. (For a thorough discussion of the numerous problems with such claims, please consult Excluded, especially Chapters 12 and 16)

Neoliberalism is a real thing. But when people start using the specter of neoliberalism to dismiss instances where members of marginalized groups complain about things they find offensive, frankly, I get really suspicious.[2] After all, I’m sure that someone could write an entire dissertation about how, by using the Internet to post this piece, Julia Serano is reinforcing neoliberalist agendas. On the one hand, I understand the importance of examining how underlying forces and political agendas (such as neoliberalism) often shape our lives, and how sometimes we unknowingly participate in these forces. But on the other hand, isn’t focusing specifically on neoliberalism with regards to Julia Serano’s use of the Internet just a convenient way to shut me up or dismiss what I have to say?

Anyway, that is one reason why I won’t be claiming that 1990’s-era queer and trans politics was inherently “conservative,” or that 2010’s-era politics is truly “radical” in comparison. The second reason why I am loath to make such arguments is that I believe it would completely erase the historical context in which these different political movements arose.

If you look back at radical feminism and gay liberation in the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were many aspects of those movements that were truly radical and which created much positive change. But there were also horrible missteps. Certain assumptions and beliefs became entrenched as those movements coalesced, and this led many feminists and (what we would now call) queer activists to feel shut out of those movements and communities. For understandable reasons, it was those people who were excluded from these previous movements who became the driving force behind the creation of 1990’s-era queer politics and culture. The ideas that they forwarded challenged the status quo, and created more inclusionary spaces that allowed for more diverse expressions of gender and sexuality. It was truly radical and liberatory, at least for a time, and for certain people. But once again, over time certain assumptions and beliefs became entrenched, and this led many people (including myself) to feel left behind by that movement. So of course, many of us forwarded new ideas (as well as new takes on older ideas) that challenged that status quo, and which we found to be radical and liberatory. But of course, things will eventually coalesce (or perhaps they already have?), and some folks will feel shut out by the movement (or perhaps they already do?). And they’ll forward new ideas that challenge the new status quo. And so on.[3]

It is also important to stress that we are not merely reacting to the activist movements that preceded us; we are also responding to evolutions in mainstream society that greatly impact our daily lives. As I’ve discussed here and here (as well as earlier in this very essay), a marginalized group will surely encounter different sets of obstacles during different time periods. And overcoming those time-specific obstacles may require different strategies of resistance in different eras. In the 1990’s, there was almost no mainstream awareness or discussion of trans lives, so in-your-face tactics like embracing the provocative label “tranny” may have been an effective way to disrupt that, to resist a culture that simply wanted us to disappear. But in 2014, trans people are on TV and in the news all the time, and the mainstream is constantly trying to co-opt and consume various aspects of trans identities, lives, and culture (e.g., as seen with the popularity of the phrase “hot tranny mess”). So perhaps in this era, forcefully telling the public “No, you are not allowed to have the word ‘tranny’! That word is not yours to use!” is a form of resistance—a defiant refusal to be assimilated into mainstream culture.

For the record, I am not necessarily making this case—word elimination strategies can have serious negative ramifications that I feel are often under-discussed (or poorly discussed, as in instances when they are flippantly dismissed as “censorship”). But what I am trying to say is that activist approaches that yielded positive results during one era might not be so useful in another era.

As I alluded to earlier, I know younger activists who view 1990’s-era queer and trans politics (and especially things like queer theory and drag) with the same disdain that Halberstam seems to have for “weepy white lady feminism” of the 1980’s. I try to encourage them to see that era contextually, and to recognize that ideas and strategies that may seem “exclusionary,” “outdated,” or “conservative” today may have once been powerful and radical (and perhaps still can be in certain contexts). And I would encourage folks who came of age in previous generations to recognize that aspects of contemporary activism that may seem “exclusionary,” “assimilationist,” or “conservative” to us, may potentially be radical and liberatory during this time period (for some people at least).

Personally, I found 1990’s-era activism to be inclusive in some ways, while exclusionary in others. And now, I find the current activist climate to be inclusive in some ways, while exclusionary in others. I think that it is incumbent on us to try to identify the underlying causes that lead us to perpetually create activist movements that are exclusionary in certain ways (even if the specific groups that are excluded differ somewhat from movement to movement). I spend the second half of my book Excluded discussing these underlying causes and proposing potential solutions. One of the notions that I propose (and which helped shape this essay and some of the other post-Excluded blog-essays that I linked to in this piece) is embracing ambivalence—that is, recognizing that certain ideas or objects may simultaneously posses both good and bad qualities, especially depending upon the context in which they occur.

I realize that, superficially, embracing ambivalence might seem to be the complete opposite of what activism is all about. After all, aren’t we supposed to have strong convictions, and to forcefully and passionately fight for them? Sure, that’s fine when you’re passionate about fighting for “justice” or “equity” or “an end to sexism.” But when we adopt extremely hardline attitudes about very specific issues (e.g., trigger warnings, the word “tranny,” pornography, being out versus blending in, same-sex marriage, wearing high heels, just to name a few lightning-rod topics)—assuming that these things are always good or bad, or wholly radical or conservative, no ifs ands or buts about it—then we lose the ability to see these things contextually (e.g., recognizing that they may have potential positive value in some situations, or for certain people, or when carried out in a specific way, or during certain time periods or places, but not necessarily in others).

Embracing ambivalence may not be a panacea, and it offers no easy answers for what our best course of action might be. But it can help enable us to disagree with one another about the particularities of different activist strategies without having to resort to dismissing one another’s identities, questioning each other’s commitment to “the cause,” dismissing other people as “humorless,” and/or portraying them as politically incompetent.

Since this piece has largely been a reflection on his essay, allow me to state for the record that this last point is not intended to be a “call out” singling out Jack Halberstam, because these sorts of insinuations can be found on all sides of every argument within activist circles. I have made these sorts of insinuations myself in the past. But I think we would all be better served if we sincerely listened to one another’s concerns, and tried to see the merits in each other’s line of reasoning. I am not so naïve as to believe that this will solve all our problems. We will no doubt continue to disagree about many things. But at the very least, such a strategy may encourage us to see our opponents as thoughtful human beings rather than as "whiners," “ignorant,” or “the enemy.”

postscript added 7-19-14: earlier this week, Jack Halberstam wrote a follow up piece intended to address concerns that people expressed about his original essay. It mentions my response (i.e., this blog-post) amongst others. 


1. Indeed, one of the “call outs” that Halberstam complains about in the piece is ‘a young person who reported feeling worried about potentially “triggering” a transgender student by using incorrect pronouns in relation to a third student who did not seem bothered by it!’ This is clearly an example of someone in the dominant majority attempting to stand up on behalf of a member of a marginalized group. Such actions challenge Halberstam’s theme about young people being too self-absorbed in their own pain that they are unable to see systemic forms of oppression. After all, one of the ways that cissexism/transphobia works is through invalidating people’s gender identities, and this is often accomplished via pronoun misuse. This student seems to be acting out of an awareness of this (even if framing the potential invalidation in terms of “triggers” is a very loose and arguably unproductive usage of the term).

Regarding the misplaced concern in the incident (i.e., that the person who was actually mis-pronoun-ed didn't mind), I think this may be an example of the messiness of contemporary activism that I discuss in the subsequent paragraph: When the marginalized group that you are trying to support disagree amongst themselves on some matter (e.g., what constitutes appropriate/inappropriate language), it often becomes unclear how to proceed, and may ultimately lead to interventions that some members of that group find to be unnecessary or unwelcome.

2. Not to mention concerned. I can only imagine what the straight majority might do if they decided to appropriate these sorts of arguments: “Hey guys, great news! Apparently, when queer and trans people complain about so-called injustices, they are merely engaging in neoliberal rhetoric. And if they complain about the language we use to describe them, apparently they are merely engaging in a “quest for respectability and assimilation,” which is like, a totally conservative thing to do. So we don’t have to take them seriously anymore.”

3. I am well aware that this paragraph is simplistic in its depiction of three distinct generations, when in fact each generation includes people of disparate backgrounds, geographies, identities, ideologies, perspectives, experiences, etc. While this "three generation" model is admittedly a contrivance, I reference it because Halberstam uses it in his essay when he makes a distinction between cultural feminism and lesbian separatism of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the 1990’s-era feminist/queer/trans politics and culture that he extols, and the current generation of “naked, shivering, quaking” young folks. To his credit, at one point, Halberstam admits this description of distinct eras “[flattens] out all kinds of historical and cultural variations within multiple histories of feminism, queerness and social movements.” If only he applied that understanding to today’s generation, he might have recognized that the more radical/progressive activists of this generation (who happen to be the ones most likely to engage in “call outs” and to offer “trigger warnings”) are often highly critical of “It Gets Better” campaigns and same-sex marriage for reasons similar (if not identical) to those that Halberstam would likely cite.

There are also many potential “subgenerations” (i.e., sub-divisions within generations). Throughout this essay, I paint myself as being of the 1990’s-era age-wise, even though I am about a decade younger (more or less) than the activists most closely associated with that era. If we were to be more precise, I came of age (activism-wise) in the 2000’s, which may be doomed to be perpetually perceived as a “transitional period” between generational shifts, rather than its own distinct time period.

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  1. After publishing this piece, I thought that I'd explain the title, specifically the "Generation Wars" part.

    It is a purposeful reference to the so-called feminist "Sex Wars," which involved a potpourri of different issues that, together, seemed to create a distinction between an established generation of activists (e.g., second wave-feminist/"sex-negative" feminists/lesbian feminists) and an up-and-coming generation (third wave-feminists/"sex-positive" feminists/queer activists and theorists).

    While I didn't experience the "Sex Wars" era, the way in which positions on a plethora of current issues (sometimes related, but not always) are seemingly separating activists into two distinct camps (often based upon age/generation, but not always) brought the analogy to mind.

    Also, I am not insinuating that Halberstam, or any other individual, is waging an all out "war" on another generation. As I said in the piece, I was driven to write this because a number of older activists have forwarded the narrative I discuss here, and additionally, I find that some younger activists are forwarding a counter-narrative that wholly dismisses 1990's-era queer and trans activism. Since I feel like I kinda sorta straddle these two "generations," I wanted to debunk these overarching narratives (which I feel deny historical context, on both sides), even though I am aware that this essay may do little to sway either camp on the associated micro-issues involved (such as trigger warnings, the word "tranny," etc.).

    1. and for the record, I am not suggesting the issues I just mentioned are "micro" in the small and insignificant sense. I just mean that these are all issues that some (not me!) insist fall under some larger generational/theoretical distinction.

      For instance, the idea that this current generation is "anti-T-word" because they are "pro-trigger-warning". These issues seem unlinked to me, but stances on these issues are increasingly seen as establishing a person into one "camp" or another.

  2. A brilliant response to both Halberstam's blog post and the many issues it brings up. Thank you!

  3. Just a quick comment: in your list of other critiques of the article, the fourth link you give is actually a reblog of the original source text. The real author is tumblr user navigatethestream:

    1. thank you so much for this correction! (I am admittedly rather tumblr naive.) I just edited the piece to add the link you provided.

  4. Terrific post, the best response I've seen to this thus far.

  5. The idea that the Millenial Generation is somehow more entitled, more selfish, more clueless, than what came before is so pernicious and is pushed by such strange bedfellows as Fox News and, apparently, queer activists. I'm getting pretty sick of it.

  6. Everyone who read Halberstam's essay, it seemed, missed the point. No, not the point that it was supposed to be "humorous"; some certainly identified that. His primary message was not, "Stop being triggered," but rather, "Our undue focus on surface issues is causing us to expend resources infighting about terms, rather than addressing the true roots of misery and discrimination." In this, he was much like Rev. Dr. King, who reminded us that the ability to sit at the lunch counter was meaningless if one could not afford the lunch.

    Halberstam spent a lot of time being cute with "trigger" anecdotes, but in the end (go read it again if you have to), he came back to the issue that actual economic inequality produced the vast majority of the tangible suffering out there.

    I.e., straight WASP men who lose their jobs, end up homeless, become invisible to society, get raped and beaten, and starve to death on the street, are suffering more than someone who gets shocked by the title of a talk at a conference at a fancy hotel on the eastern seaboard.

    I'll suggest what Halberstam only averred to indirectly: that it is because of the obsession with our own privileged trauma that we are able to so effectively ignore far greater injustices. That's why it's so vulgar that, in a globe filled with so many men being tortured in state prisons, and so many African children being daily torn apart, the thing that riles most Americans up--that causes them to write papers, vote, formally protest, and argue on the internet--is not the literal death and destruction of human lives, but the terms used to address the sexual identities of a comparatively tiny subset of financially comfortable people who don't live in war zones. Some might even say it's Ironically Supreme.

    1. So I am aware of the larger points Halberstam was trying to make, and in my response, I mentioned on numerous occasions that I share many of his concerns.

      I agree that we sometimes spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy debating (or as you refer to it, "infighting" about) seemingly minor things (such as terminology or media representations) rather more tangible/material/serious matters. But other times, those conversations play a determinative role in whose perspectives are given a voice within activist movements, and this does have a material affect on the issues that movement will notice and seek to address. So these matters are not unconnected, although I agree that often times they seem to be at odds with one another.

      Also, I made clear at the onset that the reason I wrote the piece was not to outright dismiss Halberstam's piece and all its points (although I did discuss my concerns with some of them), but rather to challenge the overarching narratives that different activist generations use to dismiss one another. I think this issue is very relevant and important, but it need not trump other important and relevant issues.

    2. We're discussing these issues in the very real context of the unjust, deliberate infliction of death and penultimate misery upon millions of human beings. Given that--if anything at all--does it not seem that these issues really aren't "very relevant and important" by comparison?

      For example, say that during the Vietnam War, we're having an argument about how fit black men are for positions of leadership? We're ignoring, say, the screaming napalm death of the latest ten thousand children's lives to be burned away, and instead focusing on "racial equality in American academic and leadership positions."

      Well, fast forward a few decades, and now we have a black man administering the imposition of Africomm on the dark continent, actively slaughtering god-only-knows how many children. We even have a more aggressive female being courted by neoconservatives to be the next leader. Wouldn't you say that proves the point that these issues are not really that relevant at all? Does it matter if the black people are enslaved, sharecropping, working for sub-poverty wages, or in prison?

      How many gay people were starved to death in Iraq by Bill Clinton? If you believe that one in four people are gay, that's at least 250,000. No amount of job denial or rude slurs in America can compete with 250,000 lgbtq people, most of them children, starving, slowly and painfully, to death.

      What about 50 years from now, when a handicapped transgender half-Inuit clone is President, and we're bombing Saturn? Will the point be made, then, that these issues are just a distraction from genocide?

      I share your desire that people not say hurtful things to one another, but no amount of American social discrimination can compete with cluster bombs or anti-food and anti-medicine naval blockades. In fact, I suggest to you that our focus on these things--even as low as 1% of our hallowed focus, though the real number far exceeds 50%--is an integral part of the narcissism that causes us to tolerate leaders who use incremental games of social progress as an intellectual bread and circus to drive policies of constant mass murder.

      That's why these kinds of discussions are ghoulish. We're inside a burning house arguing about who farted, while Obama and his friends are laughing as they drive away with an empty can of gas. Our argument isn't just misplaced; it is, in fact, the very reason we didn't respond to all the clunks, bumps, and scraping noises outside five minutes ago. We need to get over ourselves, and realize that, until the fire is out, it doesn't matter who farted, who stubbed whose toe, or whether Damian kissed Lance when Lance was supposed to be faithful to his second cousin Stu after what happened between Stu and Brian. It just doesn't matter while so many people are being killed.

      Throughout this giant surge of academic sensitivity that we've had from the 1960s onward, we've seen both a consistent, decades-long decline in real wages, the destruction of the academic job market and respect for advanced degrees, the reduction of Congressional speaking grade-level, and yet, more loudly-avowed concern about various class/subset issues than ever before in human history.

      These connections are not coincidental. These "seemingly minor things" are what drive privileged western audiences to think more about their own sexual identities, and how others respond to them, than about other people being ripped apart.

    3. Hey my dear Julia, this just popped up to help me out a little bit:

      I'm Done Apologizing for Israel.

      See how the guy exploits LGBT activism and other pop-causes right at the beginning, in order to then explain why exterminating a swarthy native population is an acceptable act? As though the one can cancel out the other?

      The engines of our genocidal empire are always getting lubed up by the use of "domestic social progress" to spray perfume on mass murder.