Open the first photo album you can find — real or virtual, your call — and stop at the first picture of yourself you see there . Tell us the story of that photo.
Here’s the first photo
I took this photo on Monday, March 17 as part of the #365FeministSelfie project. Some folks on a FB page had just posted some insulting, mean-spirited comments because I called out their racism, transphobia, etc. But I think they really were mad because I refused to accept their defense that “it was all good fun” as a Pittsburgh thing. It is in fact a Pittsburgh thing, but that’s not something of which we should be proud.
This image captures a frequent experience for me – “oops did I say that?” in a playful way. Sometimes I know damn well I’m wandering into shark infested waters and I’m going to get bitten. Sometimes, I’m caught off guard. Sometimes, I don’t give a fuck that people are angry/irritated with me because my feelings are less important than some greater good. And sometimes I cry because I feel so lonely.
This morning, I was chatting with someone in the LGBTQ community that I don’t know personally. I mentioned some frustration I feel because so many events are held in smoking environments, something that is a true barrier preventing me from getting to know people. Their response was to reassure me that “everyone knows you are a good ally.”
Ouch. I was talking about getting to know people socially, as friends and such. Not seeking validation about being an ally. I realized this specific person didn’t intend that and had no way of knowing they were tapping into a deeper struggle for me. So the conversation moved on, but the comment lingered in my mind.
When I was reading the excellent memoir, “Body Counts” by activist Sean Strub, I was struck by how many significant relationships he developed (mostly friendship) with others facing similar challenges whether during is political life or living as an HIV+ positive person during the 80’s and 90’s. He wasn’t alone, even when he faced some incredibly dark and dire moments. He stood by others in their own moments. He established relationships with HIV+ positive people around the world through his advocacy. They were more than allies.
I have far more allies than friends and few friends involved in the struggle. The photo is far more telling than I might let on. My hand is mischievous and a barrier, a protective reaction and a reaction. Am I trying to hold back the things that I say which get me in trouble? Am I trying to protect my speech from people who want me to be silent because it is easier for them? Am I trying to balance expressing my opinion and being a good ally by amplifying other voices?
Maybe a little bit of all of those things?
A local feminist apologized to me for being silent to questions I had posed to her. She said that her silence wasn’t intended to be rude. And I don’t care if it was. What I care about is how the silence of so many local white feminists over 35 creates this huge opening which white men, gay and straight, over 35 have no qualms rushing in to fill – with carefully constructed commentary and feedback they offer to me to gain my complicity, my silence, my cooperation and a measure of control. They have no qualms about being FB friends because there is no illusion of actual friendship. They don’t give a damn about me – whether they want to keep an eye on me or tap into me strengths when it is useful to them, they are both brutal to me and more honest than almost all of the women. The power dynamic in these relationships is very clear and because I am typically on my own, that’s never going to change.
It is easy to be self-righteous about these things and chalk it all up to them. I may be somewhat righteous, but I’m not stupid. I know quite a bit is me. I am not a neat and tidy, put together quirky white feminist lesbian with funds for cocktails and tapas dinners at 9 PM and a cohort of women I came of age with or work with. I came of age with my rapists and torturers. I encountered feminism on my own. I am ugly-crying, symptoms hanging by threads, talking about survival and abuse and forcing myself to speak the truth of horrors that are better received in newsprint than across conference room tables. I read “black girl dangerous” more than I do the “Ms” website. I am more “Maude” than “Dorothy”, I am more “George” than “Louise,” I am more “Emperor’s New Clothes” than “Happily Ever After.” I am probably a great client, but not such a great colleague.
And not a friend.
Being an ally is a privilege. Being considered a strong ally is an honor and a responsibility. Thank you for telling me that.
Maybe the story of the photo is the story of a woman who is told to reel it in, dial it back, tone it down. To be less visible and less demanding and less insistent. To hide my words. Maybe the photo is my only shield when so many allies are silent.
ory of that photo.