No Single Struggle (And Five Questions For Activists and Corporations)
Reflecting on Pride month raises two questions: where is the celebration and fight during the rest of the year? And is it but a dream to represent many critical political agendas at once?
This article is an edited version of a keynote speech originally held by Michaela Moua at the Helsinki Pride week event “Faces of LGBTQ+ activism”, on June 26, 2018. Moua is an activist and the vice chair of Anti-Racist Forum Finland. She is also a therapist specialized in the trauma of racism and a project manager at the ministry of Justice.
An African proverb says: “Until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
Alas, until the story of the Pride movement is told by the most oppressed, the story of greatness will always glorify the imperialist, the colonizer. The Pride narrative told today has been whitewashed, middle-classed and commodified. Erasing Black and Brown bodies from brave heroic stories has been historically done in the western hemisphere, in all fields of public discourse. Pride is no exception.
Pride month has come and gone and so have all the gimmicky rainbow flags in different corporate storefronts around Helsinki. Has Pride turned into feel good, low threshold, single issue social activism far removed from its radical, intersectional beginnings? Is celebrating Pride a costume we can comfortably wear once a year and then throw in the attic and forget about until next year?
To gain the truest and most accurate understanding of where the Pride movement is today, one must begin at the root. History is a piece often missing when it comes to understanding what narrative is being told and why.
Before Pride went corporate, it was about radical activism. The word “radical” seems to have a negative connotation attached to it in order to pacify us and to see being radical as something bad and extreme. However, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, it is defined as departure from tradition and has synonyms like “revolutionary” and “progressive”.
Let’s start from this radical history of the LGBTIQ+ liberation with talking about the Stonewall riots, and Marsha P. Johnson.
Johnson remains one of the bravest and most progressive people in the fight for LGBTIQ+ rights. She was an activist, a sex worker, a drag performer and, for nearly three decades, a fixture of street life in Greenwich Village, New York City. She was a central figure in the pride movement, yet rarely mentioned. Until recently, her story remained unknown to the mainstream. However, with the release of the Netflix documentary The Death and Life Of Marsha P. Johnson in late 2017, awareness has been raised and the documentary attempts to shed light to the mysterious circumstances around her death through the people closest to her.
The letter “P” in Johnson’s name stands for “pay it no mind”. People would ask about her gender and that’s what she would reply. Johnson was around five years old when she began to wear dresses but felt pressure to stop because of bullying. She left home at the age of eighteen with $15 and a bag of clothes and began life as Marsha. She identified as gay, transgender and a drag queen, and used female pronouns. Her signature headdresses were made from flowers she found sleeping under tables at the Manhattan flower market.
Marsha was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, New York. It is where the infamous Stonewall riots started on July 28th, 1969. These riots, which were a series of violent demonstrations by members of the LGBTIQ+ community against police raids, are thought of as the starting point of the Pride movement. As the police raided the building, Marsha was in the front lines fighting back against injustice and discrimination. She then joined the Gay Liberation Front and was a pivotal part of protests across New York. Alongside her was friend Sylvia Rivera, a seventeen-year-old Latina trans woman and activist who is credited with “throwing the first heel”, or rather, throwing the first bottle in the riots of Stonewall. Together they founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization and STAR house. It was the first shelter of its kind, taking in homeless gay and trans children ostracized by their families for being gay or gender non-conforming.
Her story is still a wakeup call,
in 2018, into supporting marginalized members
of our community, rather than assuming that because
some of us are fine all of us are.
Johnson and Rivera did all this while facing tremendous adversity from society and law enforcement, but also from CIS gender gay, lesbian and bi people. In 1973, drag queens were banned by lesbian and gay societies from attending pride marches, but Marsha and Silvia went anyway. Marsha was found dead in the Hudson river in 1992, and although the police claimed her death was a suicide, her family and friends believed otherwise.
Marsha’s story needs to be told, again and again, for two reasons:
1) for a long time, she was neatly erased from being a main character in the history of the pride movement; and
2) she was the epitome of solidarity or intersectionality in activism.
In Marsha, race, gender, class and sexuality all came together – and in her activism, she fought all these systems of oppression racism, sexism, capitalism and heterosexism long before the feminist and sociological concept of intersectionality was coined by Critical Legal and Black Feminist Scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. Marsha understood that to eradicate these systems we must work collectively. Thus, the origins of Pride loudly and proudly claimed the value of the lives of marginalized and oppressed peoples by centering their experiences.
Her story is still a wakeup call, in 2018, into supporting marginalized members of our community, rather than assuming that because some of us are fine all of us are.
How are we still at this point? Why are we at a point in LGBTIQ+ liberation and the Pride movement where the accepted way of expressing one’s rainbow identity is closer to the oppressor than the oppressed? How is it so far removed from the most marginalized and especially Black and Brown bodies? How has it become a movement where gay, White, affluent CIS gender men are afforded the luxury of safety? Why is whiteness at the center of the LGBTIQ+ liberation narrative that was kickstarted by a Black and Latina trans woman who stood up for the rights of all people in the rainbow family?
The way I see it, the main reason that the LGBTIQ+ movement is at this point is due to respectability politics. The term respectability politics was coined by a Black woman Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in 1993, and it refers to attempts by marginalized groups to police their own members to be more respectable and assimilate to mainstream values and norms rather than to challenge society to accept them as they are. This suggests that people who are marginalized are at least in part responsible for their own oppression and the reason society does not accept them.
The phenomenon of pink washing or corporations using “the struggle” for economic gain is also a recent development. Helsinki was showered with rainbow colors during Pride month in June, but as fast as they went up, they were taken down when the party was over. Corporations using Pride as a marketing tool do not fully grasp the history or put their money where their mouths are in terms of actually supporting intersectional LGBTIQ+ issues.
Under the guise of exceptionalism, Finland’s national identity clings hard to the illusion that equality has been achieved, as if it was static and unchangeable to begin with.
A prime example of pinkwashing X respectability politics X homonationalism in one big bowl of opression potpourri is some gay clubs is Helsinki, as previously explained by HeSeta chairman Hassen Hnini (in Finnish) . They gladly use the rainbow flag for economic gain, yet are blatantly racist and xenophobic with their bouncer politics. They reinforce the message that the rainbow flag means a safer space for a specific type of “respectable”, CIS gender, White, and affluent person. These policies as well as homonationalism mimic the forms of oppression used against the LGBTIQ+ community historically, but now with a few victories such as the equal marriage act and mainstreming of especially the L, the G and the B, the most privileged of the community use their gained power to actively work against the well-being of the most vulnerable members of the community.
Nordic exceptionalism and being a shining beacon of equality has been Finland’s main export. Under the guise of exceptionalism, Finland’s national identity clings hard to the illusion that equality has been achieved, as if it was static and unchangeable to begin with. However, there is still work to do. ILGA Europe publishes the Rainbow Europe index each year. It gives each country a rating based on the The Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People in each respective country. This year Finland is ranked fifth, which was a slight improvement to the previous year (7th).
There are three main issues bringing down the overall score of Finland. The first one is the inhumane treatment of trans people. Finland's current legislation violates the basic human rights of transgender people with sterilisation as a requirement for legal gender recognition.
The second one is intersex chidren. There is no legal prohibition of medical intervention, hormonal or surgical, on intersex minors when intervention has no medical reason and can be avoided or postponed until the person is old enough to provide consent.
The third issue is concerns raised about the treatment of LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers, in the asylum seeking process with authorities. Persons seeking asylum based on sexual orientation or gender identity form a particularly vulnerable asylum seeker group. Human rights organizations Seta and HeSeta have repeatedly raised the problems faced by the LHBTIQ+ asylum seekers. The process is marked by the lack of LHBTIQ+ sensitive support which manifests for example when assessing the credibility of the applicant’s identity. Several asylum seekers and NGO representatives have experienced that during the process the threat that poses candidates belonging to sexual and gender minorities from certain countries is not recognized.
The Ministry of Justice’s Rainbow Rights project, for which I work, has conducted a first of its kind research in Finland on multiple discrimination. This is a form of discrimination where an individual is discriminated against on several grounds either as ‘cumulative discrimination’, where discrimination takes place on the basis of several grounds operating separately or as ‘intersectional discrimination’, where two or more grounds interact simultaneously and inextricably.
The research focus was on people that are LGBTIQ+ and belong to one or more other protected characteristic under the non-discrimination law. From the pool of interviewees the protected characteristics were ethnicity, religious minority, ability and age. The aim of the research (which will be published in the fall of 2018) was to analyze and make visible how multiple discrimination manifests both in the reference group as well as in society at large.
The best way to evaluate and reflect on one’s activism is by looking in the mirror.
One of the main findings of the research was that multiple discrimination indeed exists and is a specific type of discrimination. Once again ethnicity and especially skin color, is highlighted in relation to sexual or gender identity. The results of the research are hardly surprising when comparing them to the EU-MIDIS II report, a survey by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) on discrimination in the EU countries. The survey shows that Finland is one of most discriminatory countries in the EU and that discrimination against people of African descent is particularly common. Almost half (45 per cent) of the respondents reported that they have experienced discrimination over the past year and well over a half (60 per cent) that they have experienced discrimination over the past five years.
Now we come to the question about intersectional activism. Is it possible to “do activism right”, meaning inclusively and intersectionally instead of with a single-issue lens? The best way to evaluate and reflect on one’s activism is by looking in the mirror. Here are five concrete questions, for private individuals as well as corporations, that we at Anti-Racist Forum, the first PoC led critical, intersectional, feminist, anti-racist organization in Finland use to reflect on our work:
1. Representation = visibility + voice. Visibility without voice is not re-presenting something new. Instead, it is tokenism. As Audre Lorde so eloquently put it: “Black Feminism is not a white feminist with blackface”.
Do you centralize the most marginalized voices? Who is representing your movement? If you are in a position of privilege vis-à-vis your community, you should avoid acting as a savior of any kind and make sure that the most marginalized within your reference group are also in positions of real power and in leading roles like in your board and management where they can be seen and heard.
2. Do you actively seek out communities who have not been previously involved? Knowing who is missing from the room is not enough. Invite those folks to create the space with you. For instance, a majority of anti-racist work in Finland focuses on migrant communities and integration. There is nothing wrong with that, but what about racialized Finns, the Roma and the Sámi, or undocumented people, who are too often ignored in these conversations.
3. Do you recognize the varied expertise of marginalized, discriminated against persons beyond being objects of discrimination? It is important to consider whether your own actions maintain the status quo of power relations. Realize when it is time to step aside and give room to the expertise of others.
4. Do you regularly reflect on your practices? Before trying to change people around you, think carefully about your attitudes and motives for action. If your activism only makes you feel good, then you are doing it wrong. Shaking structures is always an uncomfortable process.
5. And in regards to Pride, do you raise your rainbow flag comfortably only once a year to show everyone you are one of the good folks? Or do you actually move beyond pride month and authentically celebrate and support the LGBTIQ+ community year round by doing all of the above?
In addition to asking these questions, one must find people who embody the issues discussed without fetishizing them, tokenizing them, sexualizing them or eroticizing them. One must think critically about topics chosen and how debates are framed to ensure one does not privilege one oppression over another by way of oppression olympics. Self-reflection is at its best when one actually questions and is insightful about the limitations of one’s own identities.
Put your critical thinking glasses on and look at the ways in which race, class, gender, ability, immigration status, and religion affect our communities. Every day we should breathe life into the true narrative of pride by saying the names of Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera and remember that the movement was kick-started by a Black and Latina trans woman. With these concrete tools towards intersectional advocacy, free of respectability politics and a single-issue lens I challenge us all to go back to the roots of the LGBTIQ+ liberation movement and to move away from moment-in-time activism to year-round activism. Let’s all be radical innovative, progressive and revolutionary.
Text: Michaela Moua
Illustration: Caroline Suinner