Isolation: Is Pittsburgh’s Feminist Community Too Insular?

Even amidst the horrible camaraderie of survivors speaking up and out about sexual assault, I’m reminded of how deeply isolated I feel, especially among local women’s groups and feminists.

I’m not lonely in the sense that I do have wonderful friends from all stages of my life. But I’m lonely in the sense that I don’t have interpersonal connections with other feminists and the women’s community. And to be transparent, within the queer community.

And right now, that really hurts.

My experience is that feminism and queerness in Pittsburgh are microcosms of the general trend to stick with folks we know; what was once known as parochialism based on geography (the neighborhood) also extends to grouping ourselves with people whom share an affinity. This makes sense – clinging to one another tightly in a world and a region that is hostile to our priorities and even our identities.

Some groups have grown from shared professional and advocacy experiences – growing up together, so to speak, working on reproductive rights or political campaigns or other progressive organizations. Others are built around mutual experiences such as raising children. Both of these bring people together and create a connection that lends itself to where these folks invest their personal resources – their time, their attention, and their energies.

I didn’t have those specific professional experiences. I spent my early 20’s working in social service ministry in rural Western Kentucky, very much on my own. When I did return to Pgh to earn my MSW from the University of Pittsburgh, I entered the regional human services/nonprofit workforce a few years behind other people. I was just enough older to feel it. And I went more into human services than advocacy work so I wasn’t moving in progressive circles professionally. It was only when I began blogging in 2005 that things changed.

Another reality of Pittsburgh’s feminist and queer communities is financial. If you can afford tickets to fundraisers and to join boards and become sustaining investors in their work, you are more likely to spend time with the folks doing the work.

So my feminist identity and my queer identity evolved from experiences that were literally isolating. My professional and educational choices maintained that solitude. I never earned a lot of money. I chose not to have children.

It feels like these constructs, while perfectly reasonable, are also walls to those who aren’t part of the affinity group. What that looks like are perfectly great conversations via email or FB messenger or occasionally in person about issues and politics, but rarely lead to actual relationship building. It means some lunches or coffees, but never being invited over for dinner and not meeting someone’s partner or kids. It looks like watching their children grow up on Facebook, just a few miles from where you live, and never having met those children because you aren’t invited into their life. But you are invited to advocate for them.

My personality doesn’t lend itself to casual social recreating. Managing anxiety and other chronic illnesses requires me to make choices that also keep me aware of those barriers. For example, last year Ledcat and I went to a benefit for local women’s organization. I needed an aisle seat as an accommodation. When I reached out to the organizers, they weren’t sure how to handle my request even though I told them how the venue itself handles the requests. And when we showed up early to find our seats, it turns out that they hadn’t reserved them – a volunteer literally went running past us with the “Reserved” signs. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing, and, yes, isolating to have a legitimate and pretty low-key request treated with such a cavalier response. To be singled out as “the disabled person” and to have done all of this work on my end to spend my money in support of an organization that should be supporting women with disabilities hurts, honestly. It still hurts.

So I just don’t turn up for their fundraising events now because I don’t want to feel that way again. And I feel gun-shy about asking other feminists organizations to give me a similar accommodation. I don’t think that’s how it is supposed to work though. I think a ‘good feminist’ would forge a trail. But that’s exhausting, especially when you feel ‘othered’ at the get go.

Another personal challenge is navigating the nuances of existing networks. I struggle with women lifting up someone who protects male staffers that have been charged with domestic violence. I don’t understand why the feminists aren’t quietly saying to this person that it is untenable to do feminist work and protect abusive men. I don’t understand why women and feminists don’t resist the leadership of a woman who openly supports Trump and helps lead an anti-violence organization. These are real things happening in Pittsburgh. I’ve asked and asked, but no one will explain it to me. They seem to want me to just go along and stop asking.

How do you say you believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and yet not the local women & man who claim they’ve been abused?

I don’t know how to do that because I am literally afraid of these abusive men gaining more influence and power over me. And the silence from other women reminds me of growing up in a church and a family where all of the adults did the same thing. We see how that worked out.

And then there’s alcohol culture which is an omnipresent facet of feminist culture where jokes about wine are just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not anti-alcohol, but it is rare to see sobriety addressed with the same fervor as women in male-dominated alcohol jobs (craft brewers, etc) and it is rare to find any event that isn’t centered on access to alcohol. We take more care managing gluten than we do alcohol.

A lot of this is me. I can be rigid and strident in my opinions. I grew up in a state of permanent chaos and traumatic abuse that plays out in my day-to-day life, especially now. I desperately crave interpersonal contact, warmth, and acceptance while clinging tightly to the belief that I don’t deserve those things. I want people to be their best selves so I can sustain the little bit of hope that I can be my best self one day.

I also define myself as a person who does good things, that’s how I’ve always defined my self-worth. Doing good things doesn’t necessarily translate into peace of mind. It can be exhausting, soul destroying work that erodes the actual good within you. It isn’t a series of life-sustaining ‘pay it forward’ or ‘random act of kindness’ moments. I don’t know how to not be intensely invested in doing this work. Intensity is not the same thing as being a sweet, nice, charitable person.

These are characteristics that occasionally garner praise and compliments, but that also tend to happen in isolation. I work alone because I am driven by forces that I don’t quite understand. I hope this explains a recent situation where I was seeking information on supports for transgender survivors of sexual assault inside the Allegheny County Jail and could not get answers. No one knew, few were willing to ask, and no one followed up with me or this seeming reality that trans folx endure. I hope that’s a reflection on how they perceive me and not trans survivors of sexual assault in the jail.

And that’s very Pittsburgh, too. It is the Pittsburgh where I grew up, filled with unspoken agreements and quiet understandings. It is a Pittsburgh that is tight-knit and keeps things in-house. Where we joke about not crossing bridges, but actually stick to our own side of the river most of the time without any sense that we see the irony.

This post had its origins when I attended a progressive conference in August and was reflecting on how alone I felt in a crowd of literally thousands of progressive folks. I spoke with people, chatting about the conference and the sort of small talk that you do in these scenarios. But I was so acutely aware of how cutoff I felt the entire time. Was it just me?

Then came the Grand Jury Report and now the sexual violence allegations against SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh. I tried to reach out to some folks whom I thought might be struggling and that’s when I realized something surprising – I didn’t have their actual phone numbers. Just email addresses and social media contact. If that doesn’t represent the essence of those relationships, I don’t know what could. I felt so sad at that moment.

So I feel conflicted in this period of time. My awareness of the universality of our experiences of sexual violence is heightened. When I’m on Twitter or Facebook or browsing blogs, I feel connected. But I also feel cut off locally from the very people most likely to offer me comfort and support outside of my personal support system.

I suspect I’m not alone in my sense of isolation. But it certainly feels that way. I’m not asking that people make overtures to me personally, but to give some thought to the insular characteristics of local feminism and progressive communities.

You might be surprised that many of my personal friends don’t identify as feminists. Some do, of course. And some are feminists who simply don’t identify that way. I hadn’t given that a lot of thought in the past or really noticed it until these past weeks. And perhaps I’m parsing too much between personal feminism and the feminist/progressive world of professionals, organizers, spokespersons, funders, etc.

I don’t like feeling so alone. I think we can do better. I suspect that I’m breaking yet another unspoken rule by blogging on this topic. I hope feminists will take some time to reflect and reach out to people, asking for feedback. Isolation is a powerful silencing tool and we should be resisting silencing anyone’s true experiences.

I remember when we had potlucks and group dinners and conversational gatherings at coffeehouses. Perhaps this is just a symptom of aging and my nostalgia. But I’m only 47 years old. I want to think there is more community in front of me than behind.

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  • Really appreciated reading this, not only for the courage it takes to be so honest, but also because I’m encountering exactly the same things living in Vermont. The lack of unity among women across the U.S. indicates to me that most women who consider themselves progressive are more like women’s auxiliaries for every cause but women’s human rights. Women who self-identify as “feminist” more often than not seem to equate “feminism” with a sort of generic progressive attitude which, again, means serving as a ladies auxiliary to male-dominated causes. I’m an older lesbian and I haven’t seen or experienced true Sisterhood since the 90s. As for Pittsburgh, when I lived there, I was stunned at how few women knew each other outside of their own activist circles so I organized monthly potlucks for “feminist and progressive women” (note that I made a distinction — lol). They were very successful for a while and I do know that many lasting connections & networks resulted. But I do think there’s a uniquely North American version of feminism that cultivates elitism, neofeminist tendencies & a lack of understanding of the absolutely critical importance of sisterhood. Without it, we’re just meat for the boys. Thanks again for your post — I hope things begin changing in Pittsburgh & beyond, and I hope to meet you one of these days.

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