I wrote a feature for Salient
by Ms Dentata
But here’s the text:
Hi. I’m a queer, white, sex-radical feminist, able-bodied, fat, whore. I am 15 months away from getting my second degree.
I identify with the gender I was assigned (that is, I am cisgender), I come from a middle class background in a poor rural town. I have experienced mental illness. I am childless, single, an atheist from a Christian family, a survivor of sexual violence, and I could probably defend myself in many situations of physical risk.
I’m not just telling you this to let you know how exciting and interesting I am. I’m telling you this because all of those factors have influenced my chances in life, the way people treat me, the potential I perceive my life has. Packed into those statements about my background is a whole heap of privilege, and a few things that have caused me some extraordinary hardship.
The concept of ‘privilege’ is certainly gaining currency, especially in the internet activism I’m involved in. To put it simply, privilege is an unearned advantage gained due to being in a dominant social structure. Because privilege is unearned and often life-long, it can be really hard to identify.
Some examples of common types of privilege are: class, race, educational, able-bodied, cisgender, age, body-size, ‘passing’ (as in, passing as straight, or passing as cisgender), sexuality and religious privilege.
The thing about identifying privilege is that it can be a confrontational and difficult process. Quite often people will call others out on their privilege aggressively. It often seems like a slur against our individualistic ideas of self-worth to suggest that perhaps the reason (for example) we can find housing easily, gain employment, do well in university, or earn $300 an hour to wrestle is because of reasons completely outside of our hard work and individual skills. It doesn’t sit well with how we are usually conditioned to see achievements- as earned.
The problem is that once I started examining my privilege, I realised that every single person can exercise privilege in some ways whilst still experiencing oppression in others. For example, my position as a cisgender female has meant that I have experienced the oppressive power of sexism in my life, but that I have received opportunities and benefits that transphobia prevents many of my loved ones from accessing.
It’s pretty clear to me that all of us can benefit from fighting systems of oppression, no matter what great cards life might have dealt us. It’s also pretty clear to me that discrimination impacts us all negatively. The term ‘patriarchy’ is used to describe systems of male power. However, aren’t men also disadvantaged by the narrow constructions of masculinity placed upon them? I’m firmly of the opinion that ‘patriarchy’ and the more traditional ‘men oppress women’, ‘straights oppress queers’ thinking is outdated, binary, and ultimately a little bit lacking. I think it’s time for another word; ‘kyriarchy’
Very briefly defined:
Kyriarchy are the structures of domination working together as a network- not just one group dominating another. Its branches include but are not limited to racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. In a kyriarchy, our kyriarchy, this kyriarchy, different forms of supremacy on different axes are independent and interdependent”
-Rachel McCarthy James, deeplyproblematic.com
It’s probably a good time to explain how this is directly relevant to queer communities. Our activists have inspired and educated many of us in many different ways. We have a proud and beautiful legacy of queer individuals who have fought tirelessly for social justice and equality. However, we also run the risk of being a bit oppressive at times.
Dan Savage is an example of a public queer figure who, in many ways, has achieved great things. His insightful and open advice and his position as an out and proud gay man who’s interested and knowledgeable about sexuality, these are positive things. Less positive, however, are the things he has said about bisexuals.
Sorry, but avoiding bi guys is a good rule of thumb for gay men looking for long-term relationships.”
“No, there are definitely some people who should fool around with bisexual men: OTHER BISEXUAL MEN! Jesus Christ, bisexuals — if straights and gays treat you unfairly, then why not turn to each other for love and comfort? Judging from my mail of late, there’s an unlimited supply of easily offended, extremely verbose, highly ethical bisexuals out there looking for love. F**k each other!”
Questioner: I’m a lesbian, and my girlfriend is bisexual and wants to have a three-way with a man. This makes me nervous. What should I do?
DAN: Get yourself a refillable Xanax prescription, or get yourself an actual lesbian girlfriend.
Oh hey Dan Savage, do you not realise that in your helpful work with the gay and lesbian communities (who have experienced so much discrimination based on their sexual orientation) you appear to be now just replacing homophobia with biphobia? Don’t suggest we stick to our own kind, tell people to avoid us, or state that an ‘actual lesbian girlfriend’ is better than a bisexual girlfriend. This isn’t helping the questioner, her relationship, or the queer community as a whole!
Sadly, Dan Savage is not the only example. We also have the lesbian-run Michigan Womyn’s Music Fest, an annual event focusing on feminism, activism, and womyn-made music. Sounds great, right? Until you hear about their womyn-born-womyn policy. Regardless of individual views on the legitimacy of gendered spaces, it sure strikes me as pretty unfair that transfolk are not allowed at somewhere that could be a safe, nurturing, empowering, and invigorating environment. This trans discrimination is challenged annually, and yet has been upheld since 1991.
In local examples, we have our very own collection of Wellington queers who take part in slut-shaming, body-policing, ageism, mental-health based discrimination, and sadly the list goes on. One look at Aaron and Andy, a local gay blog notorious for vicious commenting and fierce arguments, will show that privilege and kyriarchy are real and relevant issues for us.
What can we do about it? I’m no expert, merely at the start of beginning to deal with my privilege and examine my attitudes and assumptions. The fundamental part of me even being able to identify the ways kyriarchy has benefited me has been learning to listen when people call us out on privilege. It can be hard to feel like somebody has no interest in hearing your opinion, but frankly I see my place in fighting, for example, racism as being an ally. As a white lady, if someone of colour disagrees with my viewpoint on an issue, I am going to listen. I am going to acknowledge in my own mind how racism is a hurtful and oppressive and awful thing. I am going to acknowledge that the fight against racism is best led by people of colour, and I am going to pledge to learn about and support that fight. It’s very hard to support these struggles if I am constantly on the defensive, it’s hard to learn if I am feeling the need to loudly express my privileged viewpoint.
Learning, co-operating, and respecting that the only way to overthrow oppression is to support and assist where wanted in struggles led by the oppressed, that’s how our communities will make positive change. The next time somebody calls you out on your privilege, take a deep breath, reflect on how your experiences have been, and realise that you may be playing a part in the kyriarchy. Don’t feel guilty about it, change it!