Speech delivered March 11, 2009 for BAMN’s first public hearing on campus climate.

We’ve all come together in this place in good faith, as people with progressive ideas.  We want to see our campus reflect an ideal society where the individual has the right to be who we are without risk of harassment or violence.  We’ve got a long way to go, but I want to take a step back and examine some of our assumptions.  Before we begin to work out what we need from the people who aren’t in this room, I want to ask what we need from each other.

While I can’t and won’t assume what others need from me, I can take a stab at what we need as a group, considering some experiences I’ve had over the past four years in progressive action and education here at U-M and elsewhere.  I believe that our progressivism has fallen prey to collusion and internalized prejudice.  We have given into the dominant narratives that describe our identity groups as monolithic.  We have forgotten what it means to form real working alliances.  These are ideas that make me uncomfortable, but it’s high time we started being a little less comfortable with each other.

I hear a lot of prejudiced ideas get thrown around in our progressive communities.  Whether or not they’re glib doesn’t matter.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being taken aback by a gay rights activist who accuses another of “not being gay enough,” or a feminist who accuses transsexual women of “not being real women.”  I don’t think I’ll ever stop being hurt by white allies telling me I’m not a real person of color because I’m multiracial, or by trans rights activists who tell me my gender non-conforming friends who choose not to physically transition are “breaking up the movement.”  I find the idea of accusing someone of not fulfilling the stereotypes attached to their identities incredible, as if it were a bad thing that we’re all our own unique people.

This is ridiculous and it’s something that I’ve seen happen consistently here at U-M.  This is not something that has to do with the administration of this university.  It has nothing to do with liberals versus conservatives.  It has nothing to do with people who are content to ignore inequality in our society.  It has to do with me.  It has to do with everyone in this room.  What are we expecting from each other?  What assumptions do we approach each other with?

We need to change the way we think about identity communities if we are going to make a change on this campus and in the world.  By accusing of someone of not living up to the expectations of them due to their personal identity, we are colluding with the dominant narrative of a society that seeks to systematically marginalize us because we are people of color, gender minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities, or refuse categorization.  But this is a symptom of a deeper problem.  The dominant social narrative says that minority groups are monolithic – because I am transgender, I have the same interests and wishes as all other transpeople, even though there is vast diversity in experience and expression in the trans community.  By constructing minorities as faceless “others,” the dominant narrative is effective in denying us access to power, freedom, and equal opportunities.  And sometimes, we internalize this oppression by placing unreasonable expectations on ourselves.

So, the fruits of collusion are alienation.  I know plenty of other people on this campus who have been driven away from activism by the actions – not the beliefs – of the activists.  Though we’re supposedly a liberal campus, what does that liberalism represent if only certain identities and kinds of expressions are allowed by the campus liberal establishment?  I was a latecomer to trans activism, even though I’ve been out of the closet since my senior year of high school.  I rejected my role as a gay rights activist after coming to U-M, which is incredible considering that, under my tenure as president of my high school’s gay-straight alliance, we established an unprecedented inter-high school GSA council.

There is nothing wrong with our ideals.  There is nothing unjust about our struggle.  What is wrong, though, is our willingness to submit to dominant narratives.  I believe this is the case because submitting to the dominant narrative is the path of least resistance.  It is easier for me to blame others than myself.  I find it easier to accept that I may not receive tenure in the future as a professor due to my race and gender identity, and fault a biased institution, than it is for me to challenge my colleagues and myself: what would I do when faced with a similar decision about someone very different from myself?

Just because we are liberals, we are not absolved.  Just because we are progressives, we are not absolved.  Just because I am a socialist does not mean I am absolved.  Just because I am a member of one of the most marginalized groups in our society does not mean I am absolved.  I’m a transsexual postgender queer atheist person of color, and I still get it wrong.  I step on people’s toes.  I make assumptions about others based on their social identities.  Occasionally I say things that are racist, sexist, or ableist.  And I don’t always have the courage to say so.  Making the mistakes is alright.  We’re human.  But failing to examine them isn’t.

I realize I’m calling us out.  I’m calling myself out.  There’s something wrong with the way the progressive movement has handled the politics of personal identity in this country, and we need to re-evaluate.  Hybrid identities are the reality – in fact, I would argue the norm – in this modern world.  We are complicated creatures.  I am not defined by my transsexual identity.  I know that nobody is defined by any one identity.  We all know that.  It’s time to stop acting like we think otherwise.  We can’t forget that our own prejudices are part of the campus climate.  We must to start considering that, as people who stand for the equality of all people, those prejudices need to be examined and dismantled.

All I’m trying to say here is that we have the chance to reject identity politics.  As a group, we can reject the expectations imposed on us by dominant narratives of race, gender, age, ability, sex, sexuality, and religious identity.  We can improve campus climate by improving the climate of our progressive communities.  In order to do that we must form a new progressive alliance.  What does that mean?

A new progressive alliance recognizes individuals as the most valuable components of building the future.  In an alliance, it’s assumed that there will be disagreement.  Allies must recognize that they’ll have to clearly communicate their needs and priorities, and negotiate with others in order to realize their goals.  They must be as willing to give as they are to take, and they must be willing to walk a mile in their allies’ shoes in order to get anything done.  They must cease making assumptions about the others at the table.  They need to be courageous in challenging others, but more importantly, themselves.  They need to know what is most important in their mutual struggle.

We owe it to each other to create a progressive alliance that has the interests of all in mind, without passing judgment on the individual.  We owe it to each other to be more progressive than simple identity politics.  As long as we accept our status of other-ness, we will fail to improve this campus’s climate for minority students.  In order to do that, we must examine our movement.  We owe it to ourselves to realize a future where we don’t just call into question the things we’re taught, but call into question the things we’ve learned.

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