Last week I had the pleasure of spending Independence Day with my family back home. It’s a different kind of place, Alaska. The Land of the Midnight Sun. And one thing going home is good for is to get some perspective. We all get mired in the daily grind — work, errands, bills, dishes — that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. And there are a lot of trees in the Great White North. (My God, there are a lot of names for Alaska!)
(And I should probably tell you right now — Trigger Warning. I’m going to be talking about sexual violence and about rape imagery.)
Last week I was lucky enough to call in some favors and book some amazing guest writers, who each contributed to the Letters of Hope series. If you haven’t read it, or missed one, head over to the Letters of Hope page at left. Each of the posts is a letter written by a survivor of sexual violence to her former self. They are by turns beautiful, raw, sad, touching, inspiring, rage-inducing, and hopeful. Most of all hopeful. As a survivor myself, I wanted to show another side of the journey. I talk a lot here about wrongs that need to be righted. And that matters. But so does the evolution we go through as survivors and allies to survivors. We may start in trauma, but I have seen and experienced the awesome power of rebirth that comes from healing and moving on. It’s always there. But it does not define us. And we are worthy of better days.
For some of you, it probably seemed like an odd choice for the Independence Day holiday week to bring out such stories. Perhaps you would have rather had another Feminist Bill of Rights. But if I waited for the “right” time, I’d be waiting forever. It’s never easy. It’s never convenient. It always hurts. It hurts us survivors. It hurts those we love. It hurts the strangers that make up our society and collectively shudder and want to turn away.
Call me the Lorax of the Bruised and Neglected. I speak for the ones who haven’t found their voice, yet.
While I was away in Alaska, I kept thinking on the brave stories told in the Letters of Hope series. But I also was thinking about Sen. Wendy Davis and the Texas capitol flooded with women from all over the country who would not sit quietly, who would not yield. Within days, Ohio legislators enacted some of the strictest anti-abortion measures in the country. Yesterday, North Carolina legislators wrote an abortion ban into a motorcycle safety bill. Just shoe-horn it through that eye of the needle! They must have learned that trick from Congress, watching House Republicans slap a District of Columbia abortion ban onto a milque toast spending bill.
So, what does a series on survivors finding their voice and a series of anti-abortion laws have in common? Where’s the connection? While I was sitting outside in the dusky midnight sun — there really aren’t any major fireworks on the 4th when the sun doesn’t go to sleep — I thought about what independence means. These things are connected, very connected. Usurping the control of someone’s body is about denying them their independence — their liberty. When I was sexually abused, the perpetrator sought to not only take my power, but wrest my liberty. When the state reaches between my legs and tells me to just shut up and take it — or that some committee of men knows better what’s good for me than I do living inside my own skin — that is an assault on my liberty, too.
Surrounded by trees in the middle of the city under a pink sky, I remembered how last year Chris Rock got in trouble for tweeting, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed the fireworks.” It made some people angry because, frankly, it reminded them of their white privilege. It’s not just white people’s independence, they snorted defiantly. At the time, I couldn’t help but feel a kinship with Rock, a black man making a point about the history of oppression and a holiday dedicated to the freedom of only a certain kind of person. The Declaration of Independence holds certain truths “to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” (And, of course, there’s the obvious patriarchy of a system that defines human as “men.”) But the legacy of documenting human beings as three-fifths a person — not a person but a possession, actually — remains, whether it makes you uncomfortable to talk about it or not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr himself commented on this myopic view of the American Dream in his Letters from Birmingham Jail.
Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation-and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
Indeed, King’s Letters is a rebuke of white Christians who chided the civil rights leader for causing too much “tension.” (Well, we wouldn’t want that!) Those famous acts of civil disobedience were disrupting the paradigm and shaking the foundation of white privilege. King and countless others dared to speak their truth even as they knew it would be not just unpopular and uncomfortable but that it would also be met with violence. And when his fellow Christians publicly rebuked him and demurred on the issue by asking him to “wait” for a better time to ask for change — sounding not too dissimilar to the fight for same-sex marriage rights, no? — King forced them to see how they were complicit with the very same system of oppression.
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. … My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
And in this, I find a kind of solidarity. For anyone who is in this fight for women’s equality — for autonomy over our bodies, for equal pay, for freedom from rape culture — the push-back is often not just uncomfortable but can get violent. As soon as you start agitating for change, for an end to the systemic oppression of women or LGBT individuals or immigrants or any other marginalized group still living in America’s borders, you have painted a target on your back. And the more you speak truth to power, the more violently the opposition will cling to the “traditions” of the “old ways.” And then the refrain: Not now. Wait. And silently under their breath, “Never.”
This is why I and others like me tell our stories of being survivors of sexual violence. The systems of oppression — the systems that allow rape culture — are shaken by our truth. People are shaken by our truth. It makes them uncomfortable. It makes them queasy. It makes them long for simpler times when the world “made sense.” And by “made sense” they mean, “I could pretend this didn’t exist.” Furthermore, they could pretend that they have no role in perpetuating the cycles of oppression that turn sexual assault victims into suspects, rather than witnesses to their own trauma. They can continue to believe that telling girls to be “good” and not “slutty” — whatever that means — is all they need to protect them from rape. They can continue to believe that there is no need to tell boys not to rape, because rape is a biological imperative of males of our species (they say); they just can’t help it (they say). And when we walk into the room, with our eyes up and no trace of shame on our faces and tell our stories, some of them don’t want to hear it. Some of them will continue to blame the girl who was gang-raped by the stars of the football team. They will not ask why boys would think it’s okay to rape a girl and then take her to another location to rape her again, and then do it all over again — while posing for pictures. They will shrug and say, “Boys will be boys.” And they will call the girl a whore in front of the nation and others will wonder allowed if, perhaps, being a virgin might have helped. Because somehow getting raped makes you a whore. And then, “well-meaning” female pundits will go on TV and lament the future of those poor, sweet boys whose lives were ruined because that girl had to go and tell on them for raping her. That’s rape culture. And it’s not just one survivor who is treated like this. And some survivors won’t make it through the shit-storm that descends upon them just for speaking the truth.
I will not wait until a better time to call it out. This is my pursuit of liberty. I will not yield.
And when I see reproductive justice warriors like Sen. Davis stand up for hours on end to protect the liberty of women in her state, I see that same spirit that Dr. King was talking about. It was he who said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And when politicians make laws about my body parts and about how and when I might be able to use my body or care for my body, that is a very real threat to my liberty. It is not just unjust that these things are happening, it is a public display of women’s second-class status to men and the continued misogyny of the gender-binary system.
The gender-binary: the unflinching belief that gender is fixed in a binary system (i.e. male and female) of “opposites,” that’s the seat of power in the patriarchy. Upholding the construct of gender — girls are one way, boys are the opposite — when all evidence points to a fluid definition of gender throughout time and across cultures, is what seals people into these intractable beliefs in a power structure predicated on oppression. And it does not just oppress women. As Audre Lorde famously pointed out in the seminal Sister Outsider, the oppression of women is inextricably linked to the oppression of people of color, to people of non-heterosexual identities, and to people who are poor. The gender binary is predicated on White Male being the symbol of power. All those who are non-white and non-male (and since “male” in the gender binary is defined as heterosexual, it goes without saying that being non-heterosexual is included here), are considered inferior.
(Failing to find a link on the web, I have transcribed this from Sister Outsider.)
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support. … Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.
And Lorde was famous for confronting the feminist establishment for it’s white privilege. Just call her the godmother of intersectional analysis. Incidentally, this push to show white women the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality, and income status, is exactly why feminists should care about the George Zimmerman (Trayvon Martin) trial and why feminists should not give Paula Deen a pass.
Frequently in my work as The Sin City Siren, I find myself standing outside the circle of society’s definition of acceptable women. Although, here I must acknowledge my white privilege and also my hetero-normative privilege. But even as a white, work-at-home-mom in the suburbs, I am outside the “acceptable” lines on a daily basis. I am the wrong kind of Christian, who believes in the equality of all people and in a woman’s right to choose. I am the wrong kind of mother, who allows her child to dress in whatever clothes suit the spirit and to identify oneself as a “boy” one day and “girl” another, without “correction” (because how should I know what gender this child is until they tell me?). And I am the wrong kind of wife who married the wrong kind of white male who doesn’t create his identity by subjugating me or denying my autonomy.
But most of all it is my work that sets me apart. I felt that intensely during the hearings for the comprehensive sex education bill earlier this year. How could I seem to have so much in common with those anti-education folks — Christianity, skin color, hetero-normativity, middle-class status — and yet, be so outside the lines? And I am not alone in this. We reproductive justice warriors are constantly confronted by forces and people and a society in general who angrily ask us to wait for a better time.
But as King and Lorde both implore us: Do not wait to be liberated by those who oppress us!
All these things are personal and they are political. That’s why I get angry when politicians break their promises and use my rights as bargaining chips. That’s why I refused to be silent when anti-abortion activists threatened the safety of Assemblywoman Lucy Flores after she talked about having an abortion. That’s why I continue to advocate for sexual violence victim’s rights, even when others don’t want to think about it.
It’s all connected.
And, if you’ve read this far, let me tell you the great news: They hear our deafening roars. They are afraid of our numbers and our ability to organize. They are overwhelmed by our ability to show up, stand up, and use our voices!
The time is now!