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A tale of now many meetings (and some other musings).

Hello, Beautiful People–

I started this post in mid-August. Since then, since this meeting about which you will read, I’ve had two more meetings. Four more students have complained about me (you’ll see why, below), and many more have, in class, in emails and in person said “thank you”. But still. Big Brother is watching and everyone’s turning into a Rhinoceros–

August 9th I met with the head of our department and the associate dean of the faculty in which I teach. Two students had gone to them with concerns about my teaching. In 2012, I went to a similar meeting, with similar boss people, for very similar reasons.

Other than that, these two meetings were worlds apart.

In 2012, three men in my class went to the teacher education office and complained that I was “sexist against men” — they were angry with my approach, and they found my feminism distasteful. They didn’t say that last bit, but that was the essence of their complaint. I usually spend some time talking about sexism in my classes, and male violence against women, and structural inequalities based on the political categories to which we are born — namely, sex, race and class. We get into it. We read and talk about the dehumanizing effects on all of us of the reproduction of inequity that the institutions of education, law, medicine perpetuate (especially education, on account of they’re all becoming teachers). It’s difficult. Sometimes I am a bit heavy-handed, and was even more so then, when I was less experienced. I could’ve done things different. I have done since then. Different every time, every year, every class. Often my students disagree with me, and sometimes they won’t say what they think, but more often they will, and more often we can explore these contradictory and difficult ideologies, ideas, approaches, and questions as well as together feel nervous, relieved, angry or curious or any combination of those (and more) emotions.

I don’t remember now what the exact incident was, but I do remember a particularly uncomfortable day, wherein several men became accusatory — one said he didn’t like that I said “all men benefit materially from some men’s violence against women”, another told me he was my ally, and several women said, “i don’t think so…” (but only one said that in class–others came to me after). One man left the classroom and never returned, not for the rest of the semester (I don’t remember if it was that was the same day or later on). I was a teaching assistant then, and my faculty mentor received and graded his final project.

Anyway, at that 2012 meeting, with the head of the department, and representatives from the teacher ed office and one of the main creators of the course and my faculty mentor, they started with reassurance. “We have to discuss these concerns with you, but we know you are a good teacher, and we support your work here” they said. “In fact, that some students are rattled enough to come to us indicates that you’re doing some interesting work, that you’re on the right track.” They met me with generosity and respect. They worked to help me check my defensiveness and to help me plan how to return to my classroom and try to deal with the hurt feelings and conflict between me and some of my students, and between the men who complained about me and some of their colleagues. They protected, supported and educated me, helped me find my part. In so doing, they reinforced me and helped me become a better teacher.

Fast forward five years,

When the bosses emailed to ask me to meet them, they did not tell me what it was about, nor did they invite me to bring someone with me. I know that these people don’t bother with lowly sessionals unless we’re a real problem to them, so I was pretty worried.

I revealed my anxiety at the beginning of the meeting, and they responded with some ‘lighthearted’ joking.  “I’m a little paranoid,” I said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t ask sessionals in for meetings to tell us what a great job we’re doing”.

“Sometimes we do” replied the Associate Dean, “But we have some concerns”.  I know, and they also told me at the beginning of the meeting that they have to bring problems to my attention if students go to them.  That’s fine with me, though I would hope students will come to me first (one did. Another did not).

Once they got that out of the way, they proceeded with the accusations. Students won’t “feel safe”, they said. “You’re on record as saying you won’t use people’s preferred pronouns”, they said. And “You’re breaking the law”.

Of course I was delighted to finally have an opportunity to speak, with people in positions of authority in my workplace, about the contradictions between gender-identity and trans-inclusion and sex-based protections  in the provincial human rights code (sadly, I’m joking. I had no such expectations). I said that there is almost nothing in the curriculum about sexism and male violence against women and girls in schools. I said we discuss many controversial and difficult topics in class, and people are often uncomfortable. Including me. But no one is “unsafe”.  I want them to be uncomfortable, for all of us to agree to “stay in the discomfort” and to meet our feelings with curiosity, and each other with integrity and respect. We are looking at some powerful things here — policies designed to maintain the structures of domination and subordination — institutions that shaped us, and in which we have invested a lot. Criticizing those institutions and analyzing those policies is kind of risky. We have to, though. It’s part of our job as educators.

They said, “you have a lot of power over your students, you could fail them”. I said, “That’s true. I could. But I won’t fail them merely because we disagree. YOU have a lot of power over me, too. You could fire me.”

“That’s not exactly true” said one, “there are procedures…” which statement I found not at all comforting, for some reason.  Neither of them said, for instance, “we wouldn’t fire you because we disagree with you, we want to learn how to continue to speak to each other even though we disagree, and reach some understanding”. That would’ve been nice.

They offered no reassurances. Once, one of them said, “I am beginning to understand what you mean”, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t ask her to describe to me what that was.  At the end of the meeting I said, “I know we all want the students in our courses to have a rich educational experience, and we have their well-being foremost in our practice”, and they agreed. As I opened the door to leave, they thanked me for meeting with them. I said “you’re welcome. I know you’re watching me now”.

It was a terrible meeting, and shook my confidence. Sessional, (or Adjunct in the US), professors are not secure. We are not well-paid (especially, strangely, in Education. We are the lowest paid instructors on campus).  A full-time course load is considered 15 credits a semester which is 5 courses. It’s a LOT of work.

And I love it.  Love it. There’s something new every day, and each person is SO interesting–they come from everywhere and have with them so many stories and experiences…each class is a village. We hear each other’s stories. You can’t know someone’s story and not love them. So there’s lots of falling in love going on. Not like  necessarily, or agreement — but love. And the possibility of conversation and connection across difference and conflict. It’s wonderful and prickly and energizing. I learn way more teaching, too, than I ever did studenting. I hope I get to keep doing it.

One month later, now. A new semester. After the first day, another student complained about me, and then dropped the course. During that first two hours together, we reviewed the syllabus, read and analysed our first article, and did a quick introductory exercise. Then, I guess, she went and looked me up on the internet, found this blog, wrote a letter of complaint to the above mentioned boss people and dropped the course. So, here we go again.

This time, because I had, this time, a representative from the Faculty Association, and also sent them notes from our first meeting, wherein I described our conversation and behaviour, they did begin with perfunctory reassurances. I think the head of our department said that they would still offer contracts, that I am likeable and smart.  blah blah. So that was better. But the other one, the Associate Dean of the faculty, she was possibly even less hospitable than before. This time, they gave me a printed copy of some of the quotes from my blog the student had cherry-picked. This time, they invited me to bring a representative with me.

The woman from the Faculty Association read my notes after that first meeting, and looked up this blog and did some research. She`s lovely. Sensible, intelligent, kind and good-natured. I don`t know whether or not she agrees with my analysis of this whole mess, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s in my corner. She is thoughtful about the points I bring up, and she applies some of the analysis we talk about to examples in her own life. She is not an academic, so she can still think, and ask questions, and take some time to consider things.

unlike, apparently, the associate dean of education or the head of the department for which I teach. We talked for an hour at our second meeting, and we again came to no resolution. They (the boss people) stepped outside for a bit and when they returned, they said that they would come up with some `guidelines for instructors`. And the head of the department said he would like to meet with me on my own (with my Faculty Association rep as well) to discuss some possible ways forward.

This is all so tiresome, I tell you what.  the week after, I had another meeting this time with the department head and the FA rep. He does not get it. Of course. We talked for an hour, which was about an hour longer than any of us has, and we came to no agreements.  At one point I said, “What about the majority of students who said, ‘thank you for letting us talk about this, we don’t know what to think, and we don’t feel there is anywhere we can discuss it.’ What about the students making room for their ideas and feelings?” His reply was, to the best of my recollection something like,  “That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that”. Which of course I knew. In the end he said, `perhaps you can address these topics in such a way as to not hurt anyone’s feelings`. To which I responded, “not likely”.

in late September, after that meeting,  I received from him a letter describing the department’s expectations of instructors (well, just me, really, but never mind that). It indicated, as I had already surmised, that those previous meetings were a giant waste of time. We are not closer to understanding than we ever were.  Here`s the second page:

Equal access to education includes access to the Department’s individual courses and classes. To be clear: it is not acceptable or available to suggest that particular students should choose, or would be better served by choosing, different or specific courses or teachers because they possess a protected characteristic. All students are entitled to access all courses, without discrimination.

A person does not have equal access to a course if one reasonably perceives oneself to be unwelcome to attend at, or access, the class or education because of a protected characteristic. This constitutes discrimination. As we discussed, reasonably and objectively feeling unwelcome is something different from subjectively feeling “offended” by academic dialogue. Reasoned, respectful discourse about social or political life does not create a climate of discrimination, but statements and behaviours which exclude, or create a climate of exclusion, do. Some examples of statements or behaviours which reasonably and objectively exclude are:

  1. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is not real;
  2. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is or should be socially unacceptable;
  3. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is a product of disease or illness;
  4. Stating or suggesting that accepting a protected characteristic is a form of abuse;
  5. Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic will not be recognized when providing the service; and
  6. Stating or suggesting that views or opinions supporting or acknowledging the characteristic are unwelcome

These statements and behaviours create a climate of exclusion which is contrary to the Department’s expectation that learning environments will respect the inherent dignity and self-worth of all. Not only do these types of statements attack the inherent self-worth and human dignity of anyone possessing a characteristic, they suggest that any person possessing the characteristic is not welcome or is less able to access the education, class or service. It is also the Department’s expectation that teachers, being leaders and directors of the classroom, foster this inclusive environment.  They are certainly not permitted to compromise it. The Department views a breach of this expectation as a serious offence

So. That’s how a feminist critique is understood. They decided from an out of context selection of quotes from my blog, and misunderstood paraphrasing of a few students’ memories of some comments from class that I am withholding a service and trodding upon someone’s human rights. And here we are.  They decide whether to offer me teaching contracts, and they decide how many. They can’t see that gender-identity protection contradicts protections based on sex, but in any case they have decided that gender identity is more important than anything else. Of course it`s more important to them, because addressing inclusion doesn’t challenge the sex-caste system that reinforces male dominion over women. Indeed, it reinforces patriarchy. Men are much better at being women than we are, because they know what men want in a woman. And when women reject their womanhood to `transition`, they are no longer a threat to male domination.

So I sent that letter to the Faculty Association representative, and I asked a friend and ally who is a lawyer to look at it too. Both of them agreed that it was threatening and heavy handed. My lawyer friend helped me find some compassion.

“There is no case law about this, no one wants to be the first” she said, “they’re frightened”. And they’ll throw me under the bus, sure as shootin’, if I step over the line to ask questions or offer a critique.

it’s not true that there is, (as he said in his letter), no hierarchy of rights or value. Gender identity is like religious or political belief — they are subjective. It’s fine for example, to critique Catholicism, or Marxism, or even post-modernism. But heaven forbid anyone should even question gender ideology. Which is a big shift from even five years ago.

Anyway, with the help of my lawyer friend and my Faculty Association friend, I wrote the head of the department a letter in reply to his letter. Here’s an excerpt:

I am writing in response to your letter of September 27th, which aimed to clarify your interpretation of the department’s expectations of instructors with respect to teaching and sections of BC Human Rights Code.

I would like to assure you that I understand there is so far almost no case law by which we can understand and interpret the new protected grounds of ‘gender identity’, and everyone (no matter where you stand in regard to your analysis of the merits or otherwise of this characteristic as protected) is kind of on tenterhooks about how to behave. As I have told you each time we have met, the students in my classes bring up the topic of gender identity every year. I do not bring it up, but once it’s in the room, I must, because of my political beliefs and pedagogical commitments, offer a feminist analysis of this form of identity politics.

This characteristic, “gender identity” is pretty subjective, as is political belief and religion. Unlike other protected grounds such as sex, race, ethnicity, these more subjectively defined protected grounds may be interpreted as in contradiction with each other. It seems that [our university] does interpret the relative importance of these protected grounds, as even asking questions about gender identity, or criticizing the ideology that informs this identity is subject to censure. Religion is also a protected characteristic. Yet there are many examples when it is entirely appropriate to invite students in the teacher education program to engage in critical analysis and expect challenging questions of some of the teachings of various religious traditions and organizations. […] I’m sure you would not prohibit, or warn an instructor away from offering students a criticism of ideologies or thought of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Marxism. Indeed, [our university] has been quite public about its criticism of the religious instruction offered to students of the law program at [___], a private Christian university [we’ll call it PCU from now on].

So, in this sense, your statement in the fourth paragraph, “…there exists no hierarchy of importance or value” is not the way I see [our university] interpret the relative standing of prohibited grounds, in light of its position on [PCU] Law School graduates.

Also, and with due respect, I would like to draw your attention to Section 13 of the BC Human Rights Code which states:

(1) A person must not

(a) refuse to employ or refuse to continue to employ a person, or

(b) discriminate against a person regarding employment or any term or condition of employment

because of the race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age of that person or because that person has been convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person. (http://www.bclaws.ca/Recon/document/ID/freeside/00_96210_01#section13–emphasis added).

I don’t think it is unreasonable of me to interpret your letter as a form of censure of my expression of political belief, and therefore could be considered a contravention of Section 13 of the BC Human Rights code. Certainly, case law on competing rights is constantly evolving and we cannot predict outcomes with certainty. […]

I have never denied a student entry into my class for any reason, nor discriminated against them. I am not contravening the new law when I suggest that perhaps a student who is firmly invested in their beliefs (about gender-identity, Christianity, or any political or religious belief that may be scrutinized in the classroom) may be more comfortable with an instructor who will not question or criticize these beliefs. Indeed, when I was a student, I would sometimes not enroll in courses because I knew I would find the professor’s politics distasteful or offensive. In the case you spoke to me about, the class in which the student was enrolled is over-subscribed, and there are many sections of the same course available at the same time. In other words, I did not deny her access to the class, (in fact I told the associate dean that I would certainly teach students who identify as transgender, you may remember that exchange), and she had many other options from which to choose when she decided to change classes.

I will not teach something that I find abhorrent. If you decide that I am not to offer a feminist critique of transgender ideology, or a feminist analysis of the social construction of gender, then I will advise my students that we will not be discussing that topic in any of my classes. It pains me to do that, but I won’t agree to offer only one view of this issue, and I think that I would not be acting with integrity were I to act as if the ideology promoted in the university is beyond criticism.

In conclusion, please be assured that I have the utmost respect for the people in my classes, and I am committed to providing my best to them in terms of instruction, investigation, opportunity to explore difficult and challenging material, and expectations for their success. We do not have to agree about anything, but I hope everyone has the opportunity to express their thought and emotion and to stay together through discomfort as we develop new understanding together.

The response the head of the department sent was merely, “thank you for sharing your response”. I don’t know if he even read it.  So now, we’ll see if they will offer me any more work in the spring or next fall. I love teaching. I love teaching in this program, but I don’t like the constant and increasing scrutiny and thought-policing to which we’re subjected.

Fortunately, I am now a certified personal trainer, so if this whole under-paid, insecure sessional gig does dry up, I have a plan B — under-paid, insecure personal trainer. At least barbells and kettlebells don’t have a gender identity. yet, anyway.

sigh.

 

Love and Accordions — variations on a theme

Oh, it’s been AGES since I’ve posted anything. Not because nothing is happening, or I’m not thinking and doing and feeling all kinds of things. Indeed, it’s been an ongoing saga – teaching, learning, loving, raging, hoping, despairing, writing, playing, working – life life goes on as it does. I’m really busy with all kinds of things, and even though I have many friends, and work and interests, still – I am lonely. Can’t shake it. There’s nowhere that is home now. No one who is my home. But that’s okay. It’s an ongoing fear of mine, to be alone. And when I’m afraid of something, it’s a sign that I ought to go toward it, do what’s required to understand the source of the fear. Hang out in the discomfort and learn something.

I’ve been more focused on another kind of keyboard entirely lately. My accordion. Well, accordions. And a concertina. People keep giving me accordions. In 2001, my brother Carl gave me a beat up old Hohner, missing the front grill, some keys sticking, others that were silent. But there were no holes in the bellows and it had a beautiful rich tone, and it was in tune, too. I started noodling around on it and remembered one song from when I was a little kid taking lessons in Red Deer. One song. My fingering was all awkward and messy, and I couldn’t find the right chords for the longest time, but by and by, I put it together, and then I could play that one song. Then I saw a young woman on the street, busking with her accordion. As I remember now, her squeezebox was nearly as big as she was, and she wore long stripy socks that almost looked like a keyboard. Her hair all messy in a couple of ponytails sticking at odd angles from her head. The music she played made me want to dance and cry at the same time. I waited until she was done her song, put five bucks into her open case and asked her if she would teach me how to play. She said okay, and then for about a month or so, she rode her bike to my house, carrying her accordion on her back, and taught me how to play Greensleeves. Then she moved away to Seattle to get famous and I never heard of her again. She was lovely, though, and patient with my fumbling stiff fingers and off-kilter rhythm.

I have a good ear, a really good ear. But when it comes to keeping time, I am the rhythmic equivalent of tone-deaf. I’m from the prairies, from farm people, people who love to dance, and I can’t even two-step. I had to move away from there.

Then when I was in university again, my professor told me about the moveable music school. That term they were offering accordion lessons! Six weeks. There were twelve students and we met in the common room of one of the students’ housing coop. and we learned a few more songs, beautiful sad waltzes and a jig and some scales too. I still know some of those. One of the women in that group had just bought herself a brand new accordion, and she gave me her old one. Another Hohner, in much better shape than mine, though with quirks of her own, too. She just gave it to me. But I barely knew her and I know that accordions are pretty dear so I offered her some money. She understood my need to formalize the exchange, and agreed to the sum I offered her – “were I to sell it to you,” she said, “that was what I thought would be a fair price”. So now, a better accordion, more songs, and the music started to live with me.

Some of us continued to learn from that teacher once the moveable music school term was over, but then summer came, she moved away, and I got too busy with school to chase down another teacher.

My accordion sat there for a while, then my apartment burned up (my ‘fridge caught fire. Imagine that!), and everything was all in a turmoil for a while. I moved myself and my accordion to my lover’s place for six months while mine was rebuilt. And didn’t play her much. At the time I was hosting a storytelling circle once a month, and that was a lot of fun – I brought my accordion – The Accordion of Love – with me to those, and I often brought her with me, too, when I went on marches or demonstrations – take Back the Night, or housing for all, or protest the pipelines or whathaveyou. The Accordion of Love was there. But I didn’t practice in between those things, and I never got any better. Well, maybe I did a little bit but not much.

My lover and I broke up, I moved my accordion back to my rebuilt apartment, she sat in a corner while I nursed my wounds and found my single footing again. By and by I got some traction in life again, and started to pick up the Accordion of Love a bit more. I remembered the songs from the moveable music school, and I was teaching some, so I’d bring the accordion to school to play for my students. They always applauded, the dear things, and laughed with either a bit of hysteria or delight. Some people loved it, some hated it. Ah well. The accordion, you can’t be neutral about it.

Then I fell in love again, oh my. This was it, this woman was home, I was sure of it. We moved from a sweet friendship to lovers. We are both feminists, both activists, both strong smart, powerful women – together we would be unstoppable.

Well. Turns out I was wrong. I had a little niggling fear that by and by she would not love me, eventually. That she would tire of me by and by. She said then, “no, baby, I know you – I have always loved you, that won’t change”.  Well. So much for that. Our love affair and our break up was/is a bit complicated and the patriarchy interfered. Even as it brought us together, it drove us apart. We were doomed from the start. I didn’t want to know that then. I don’t want to know it now. But what I want doesn’t matter, not in this regard.

In the summer of 2014, a few months after my lover broke up with me, and a couple of weeks after I defended my PhD thesis, I drove home to Alberta to visit Mom and to roam around my past on the way there and the way back too. I will always be grateful I made that trip. Mom wasn’t at my defense, (I think she wanted to come, but that’s another story, another time), and I wanted to get out of town for a while. I was very happy about my defense, it went really well. But I was still heart-broken about the end of my love affair. I did not want to give up on us. Anyway, I was happy and sad, and worried about the future, and yearning for home. So I drove across the mountains to the prairies and my mom. I’m so grateful I had that time with her then. I wish I had stayed longer. But there you go. I didn’t, and there’s nothing for it now.

On my way back, I went south to Lethbridge, where I went to university for my BA. I looked up an old roommate, and another friend who’s a poet and storyteller and postal worker. He’s also, turns out, a bit of a hoarder (more than I am, for sure!). I went to his house with him, and he has all kinds of stuff in there – a slide trombone hanging from the ceiling, and guitars, mandolins and big string basses on his walls and propped against boxes stacked against the wall. He’s got shirts half-embroidered on dress forms (he makes his own costumes for his stories, embroiders stuff on cowboy shirts he finds in thrift stores), and stacks of sheet music, books, vinyl records, stuffed animals, oh, I don’t know what all. He had two accordions. He wanted me to take both of them, but I only took one. A little 12-bass kid’s accordion. Another Hohner, but made in Italy. It has such a great sound, bigger than its size, and I could noodle around on it when I stopped for a rest from driving. This is, rather than the big, serious Accordion of Love – The Accordion of Light Flirtation.

That fall, I brought the accordion of light flirtation to the class I was teaching, the day before they were to go to their short practicum placements. It was our last day together for three weeks. We had a great time. Serious learning, to be sure, but we can still enjoy ourselves, n’est pa? The next day I was working at the rape crisis centre, and it was slow morning.

My cell phone rang, and it was a call from my brother. My brother NEVER calls me. It wasn’t Shawn, though, it was my sister-in-law Wendy. “Hi Shawn, what’s up?” I answered, knowing it must be a very big deal for him to call. “it’s not Shawn, Erin. It’s Wendy.” “What’s goin’ on?” I asked. Dread was creeping up my neck. “Your mom is dead” she’s not one for euphemisms, is Wendy. The dread rushed to my throat and poured out my mouth in a great wail. “Oh no, oh no oh no…” I couldn’t stop, “Mommommom” Even now, thinking of it, a low keening comes from deep within.

Even though there is no one who was my home, there are many. My ex-lover called me and told me to go to her house. She gave me soup and helped me book a flight and stayed with me until I went to the plane. I called other friends and they all stepped up – one drove me to the airport, another took care of hosting a meeting that I was supposed to host that week, others picked up some other of my commitments.

My dearest friend, another ex-lover, who lives in Victoria now, made arrangements to come home to be with me and my brother. She didn’t skip a beat. When I called her to tell her she said, “Do you want me to come?” I hadn’t even considered that, but when she offered it was like a parachute opening. Women called me all that week, the radical feminists sent flowers, my ex-lover and my high school friend who lives in Montreal called me almost every day. Surrounded. I was (am) surrounded by a web of relationships. I felt wide-open and cold all the time, like a prairie winter wind was tearing through me. But I was held together, no matter what. These women, from everywhere and every time hold me as I hold them—we are not always intimate but we are always linked.

I went home. I wrote reams. I wept, and went through Mom’s stuff, I held onto my brother, he held onto me. We are still holding on. I miss her so much. She used to holler at me to practice, when I was taking accordion lessons before, when I was a kid. I was supposed to practice a half hour a day, and for most of that half hour, I would just stare at the sheet music. I don’t know why I was so resistant. I did not know that I would return to it after so many years. But that’s often how I am – I never really let go.

It’s been now a year and a half since Mom died. We’ve lived through all the “firsts” – birthdays, graduation, Christmas, New Year, anniversaries, summer vacations… This year a couple of friends bought me an accordion lesson with a young man who’s been playing since he was a child, and he’s a virtuoso musician. My former professor gave me her accordion, a “ladies” size Guerrini. She’s beautiful and more ergonomic than my Accordion of Love. Now I play every day. Sometimes only for ten or 15 minutes, sometimes only a few songs, or maybe just finger exercises and no songs at all. But every day. And I’m getting better. And I do so wish I could play for Mom.

And for Grandma. My Grandma was married to a man who played accordion before she married my Grandpa. James MacDonald was “a jolly fellow” according to Grandma, but he died of an infection he got in the hospital after a routine operation, leaving Grandma widowed at 20 with two small boys and an accordion. “I should never have sold that accordion” she told me once. And she had great hopes for me when I took it up.

The title of this piece is “Accordions and Love” because I wanted to explore the metaphor. I’m not so good at intimate partnerships, apparently.  I’ve not been with anyone longer than 6 years. Mostly they end after 2-4 years, and it’s never me pulling the plug. I’m like that in the rest of my life, too. I don’t think, “I want to do this” and then go about finding out how to do it. Instead someone will say, “try this” or “go apply for that job”, or “you, I want you,” and I will go, “okay. Guess I’ll do that then.” That way, if I don’t initiate, it’s not really my responsibility.

A friend of mine said recently, “Erin, that’s what we all do.” Which may be true. Sounds about right, in fact. And once in it, once I accept the opportunity or the invitation or the challenge, then I have to take initiative. In love, politics, work, friendship, and in music, I have to practice. People have given me accordions, they have helped me find teachers, but I’m the one who has to commit. And I do. Once I say “yes”, I will stick to it (sometimes to my own detriment, I gotta say).

Every day I play my accordion. I make the same mistakes over and over again. I begin again and again. The accordion is patient. I learn to listen. When I strike the right notes, I continue. When I press the wrong key, I stop and go back. Try again. By and by I do get it right. Learning a language – the language of love, the language of music – is a process. And it’s a process that requires you to both lead and to follow. To commit and to take risks. If you’re to grow, you’re going to fail from time to time, and there will be plateaus to endure and times when you think it will never work out or become clear. Stick with it. Go back to the beginning, ask for guidance, don’t give up. Take a break, do some research, listen to other musicians, try again. Remember why this is important (remember why you love her) and imagine a future together that is beauty and freedom (imagine what you deserve—think big) and act now to put the two together.

I’m sticking with the accordion. Practicing every day is helping with my other commitments, too.  Listening to the music, learning how to read and then speak it helps me to listen to others, as well. I’m a committed feminist. Radical.  I yearn to be part of something bigger than myself, and until recently, I thought that could be a gang, or even a partnership, a lover a family – we could be each other’s support, encouragement and solace. From a home base together we could go change the world. But maybe ‘within’ or ‘part of’ is not where I belong – within. Maybe where I belong is the margin, the outside. Maybe from here, not part of a gang, not part of a family, not half of an intimate partnership – I can see more. I can hear different stuff. I can be here on the edge of numbers of groups and hold together threads between us. Sometimes I’ll be on the margin, sometimes I’ll be a hub. Sometimes I’ll play the score, sometimes I’ll improvise.

Right now, I think of myself as lonely. I feel lonely. And it’s kind of frightening. But it’s also an opportunity. To nurture other connections, to serve a bigger purpose, to lead (often from behind) – to make my own spot from which to share my voice. Maybe what I think is loneliness is only what this kind of fear feels like right now. And I should dive into it.  I am lonely. But I am not alone. It’s okay to be afraid and sad. I will feel it and walk toward it, leading and listening with all my heart and mind.

about that last post…

I made some mistakes. if you got it, please don’t circulate it. I’m going back to the drawing board.

What’s YOUR favourite decade?

I think the 70s is my favourite decade. Feminism was HOT then–the 70s was when women started rape crisis centres and transition houses–and they were meant to be hubs of feminist political activity. Some became that, too. Take Back the Night, for example, was invented by anti-male-violence feminists. Radical feminists. That didn’t last long, unfortunately, by the 80s, battered and raped women were labeled  “sick”, and rape crisis workers were (big “P”) Professionals. the gap between them and us widened, even though there is no gap. The Man imposed it. Saw that we were serious, and gaining strength–and took measures, both subtle and drastic, to slow the movement of women.

“oh, those plucky girls, look how hard they’re working! How serious and earnest they are!”  The Man didn’t realize what a threat we were at first, and for a while there was a little room for women to move. Move into a bit of power. And those that did, made room for other women. And found money for each other. Soon the centres, the resource centres,  transition houses and rape crisis lines were funded. Under funded, mind you, but still. A wedge. But that wedge, that little bit of money that kept the lines and doors open, it came at a cost. The State began to ask for statistics, credentials, proof that this was necessary, and proof that ordinary women were the women to do this work.

“Aren’t you girls over-reacting just a bit?”

No. We are not. 40 years ago we were not overreacting, either.

Some women’s groups capitulated. slowly, slowly, though. It became important to hire women with University degrees. It became important to talk to women about “the cycle of violence” and the variety of syndromes and disorders that they might have: Post-traumatic stress disorder; battered wife syndrome; false memory syndrome; borderline personality disorder; pre-menstrual dysphoric disorder; Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy; obsessive compulsive disorder; etcetera etcetera, ad nauseum, syndrome disorder ad infinitum. At first women just told The Man what he wanted to hear, so he would keep tossing us crumbs of cash.

But some of us started to believe it. And some women started making money. Capitalism is Patriarchy’s best friend. Money does talk. And it drowns out women’s voices, even when women are the only ones speaking. We started placating the man, trying to get around him, but still keep the money flowing to the women who needed it, but gradually we had to work harder and harder to get the money, and it started to eat into the time we had to connect with other ordinary women–the women in trouble;  the women The Man had an even greater stranglehold on.

Take Back the Night prevailed, though, in some places. It was an exciting, vibrant, strident gathering of angry loving hopeful enraged impatient women. No men. Not at the back of the march, not in it–women only. Do you remember? Maybe we were mad at each other, maybe we had disagreements about how things should be done, and maybe we were making mistakes all over the place, but those nights, those raucous gatherings mended us together. We raised our voices together into the night, and we took it together. Protecting each other, standing shoulder to shoulder marching through the city streets, we said with one voice, “Enough!”

Though there were often many, there were never enough of us, not really. But wow, they were grand events. We would sing and chant and shout and clap our hands and raise a right ruckus–the sounds of women’s rage was amplified by the tall buildings. We’d spray paint on porn shops and sidewalks,  while other women in the march covered us. Women at work would stand at the doors of their shops and restaurants and wave their fists in solidarity, jump for joy. Some would join us.

but now it’s become a frail and fussy distant relative, whimpering about ‘violence’ as if it’s a mysterious virus that can be inoculated against. there are men in the marches now, a lot of them. They are no longer part of the women’s liberation movement.

sigh.

But they were the tactic of another time.  And maybe they will be of a future time. Maybe we will revive Take Back the Night. We will be Women Occupying. Not Women Occupied.  been there, done that.

ah. Today I worked at the transition house in the morning. Women talked about the violence men have done to them. the controlling, the manipulations, the withholding of money and kindness. Women said, “I am glad there’s a place like this. I’m glad to be here.”

In the 1970s, my mom applied for a credit card. There was a section where her husband was to sign.  She said, “He’s not applying for a credit card, I am.” the person taking her application told her that she had to get him to sign it. She said, “why?”

There was, of course, no answer that satisfied her. She walked away. She decided she didn’t need a credit card after all.

Capitalism is Patriarchy’s best friend.  Credit cards are evil anyway. But women need access to our own money, for sure we do, ’cause we live in capitalism. and patriarchy.

is having a credit card like telling ‘the man’ what he wants to hear? “sure honey, i’ll pay you back…”

so many contradictions….

anyhow. i’m running outta steam here. The 70s, though. Favourite decade. the rising of the second wave. Thrilling.

I was a child then, though, I didn’t pay the enormous price those early feminists did.  They opened a path.

You know who you are.

Thank you.

Statement about “gender identity”

I-dentity (aka trans) politics is fundamentally LIBERTARIAN and individualistic. It is ahistorical and acontextual. It essentializes sex stereotypes by renaming them consensual “gender identities.” It legitimizes and makes invisible  power structures that give rise to female oppression. It is anti-feminist.

[via UP; also posted by Cathy Brennan, Gallus Mag, NoAnodyne, Sargasso Sea, Smash, LuckyNkl, satisaudaci, gorilerof4b, saltnpepa10, iameatingblueberries, Allecto]

The Body I Want.

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A little while ago, a young friend of mine said on facebook that she was going to start taking testosterone. She had decided she was no longer a woman, and was going to take ‘T–  “But only until I have the body I want”, she said.

I’ve been puzzling over this since. What does being a woman have to do with having the body one wants? The gender training i received hasn’t entirely taken, eh. Like pretty much ALL the women I know, we have rejected a lot of what patriarchy trains us to do in order to be a woman. All of us. Even some of my friends, well, acquaintances, really, who say “oh, i like being that woman who takes care of her man”. Grim. But even at that, these women have also rejected some of their gender training. No one of us can manage to be the “Ideal Woman” under patriarchy. none of us.

as for the body–well, patriarchy trains us to strive for slender and kind of weak looking. the Ideal Woman (far as I can tell) has no body hair and not much muscle and big breasts.  If a woman, like my young friend, is stocky and short, she’s going to have a hard time getting that kind of body. And I don’t imagine it feels good to be skinny and without much muscle tone. And on top of that, being a lesbian, well, we used to be a different kind of woman, I think. Now, though, now we’re supposed to look like “L Word” lesbians (that’d be,  like men’s pornified fantasies of ‘girl-on-girl action’). So, ya. I don’t want that, either.

So. What’s a girl to do? become trans! then you don’t have to worry about getting a straightening iron and dieting and all that. you can just take a shot every week (or whatever, i don’t know how it works…) and then you will have the body you want. no diets, no fussing endlessly with your hair, and no worrying about how to be the “right” kind of woman/lesbian.Pass as a man. whew.

but what happens to women, then? This is an individual answer to one woman’s isolation, confusion, resistance. it’s a patriarchal answer, too-i don’t think men got together and conspired to get women to do this–either starve ourselves or poison ourselves (i do think testosterone, steroids, growth hormone, all that stuff is toxic. we don’t know the long-term effects)–but patriarchy is a strong structure, and we are trapped in it. Men benefit from the disintegration of the women’s movement, and from some women ‘jumping ship” as it were, but they don’t have to DO anything–other than the usual — you know, sexual harassment, assault, incest, all that stuff–a few guys do that, keeps us all in line.  there’s a  whole big analysis of  the ways that male violence keeps us isolated from each other, including transitioning–and i’ll maybe get to that some other time, but for now, this is just a quick thread tying men’s violence against women to our own self-loathing and fervent wish to change the bodies we have to achieve peace.

unless we organize.  We need to find ways to come back to each other, to be women together in solidarity with each other. To reject patriarchal norms–to SEE them in fact. We need a women’s liberation movement. I wanted to be a boy when i grew up- i desperately wanted to have a different body–broad shoulders, narrow hips, flat muscular chest, I wanted that.  My own body didn’t always work so well, though being a girl had little to do with that. But I also  wanted the stuff that went with being a boy–the entitlement, the open doors everywhere, the acceptance,  the benefit of the doubt that men just get.

But when i grew up, I found women, and i decided to be a lesbian, and i found feminism, a MOVEMENT–so much to do, so sparky and big and meaningful–and urgent. and then it didn’t matter so much what m body was like– though i train really hard because i can breathe better and think clearer and i feel happier–and i now have a body that won’t let me down, and looks just fine in a suit, too.

Testosterone will not give that young woman the connection to other women that saved my life. That gave my daily activities a focus and meaning. We are all trying to figure out what it is to be a woman in the world, really and truly. I don’t  know what it is, exactly, but it has something to do with our shared experiences of social expectations to become “the Ideal Woman” and the ways in which we must reject it. And it has something to do with what we make room for when we don’t fuss about our “inner self” versus our “outer self” or our body. Together we can find integrity and drive–something a needle or a treatment cannot  (or a bottle or pills, for that matter).  I think we’re supposed to now want a ‘quick fix’ for our alienation–if we change ourselves, we will be happy.

No. we won’t. because The Man is always fuckin’ moving the goal posts.

My young friend will take testosterone, and notice more muscle density and her voice will change and maybe she’ll start losing hair on her head and gaining it everywhere else–but–she can run on the treadmill of trans forever and never get away from her womanly hips.

She could perhaps join a women’s organization, or start a group,talk with other women about body image, what’s the body you have, what’s the body you want, why do you want it? who’s doing the choosing here? really really…

and do some sit-ups.  Core training for the revolution.

i’m sad for her, and for us. i hope she comes back.

So many feminists–

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And we made the most of our limited time. Last week, I was  in Ottawa, the capitol city of Canada. It was  an exhausting and exhilarating week, to be sure. So many workshops and panels and singers and dancers and conversations to have that one week was not enough:  not enough but a beginning.

Not a vision of freedom, but glimpses for sure.

I  met some women who read this here blog! there were women from Italy and Nigeria, from Central America and India and Bangladesh and South Korea and Okinawa and Denmark and Norway and the Yukon and there are Indigenous women from Mexico,  Samiland and the Interior of BC and the Six Nations and –there were many many more women i’d have like d to meet, talk with, plot with, and grow to understand. But this was a beginning.

i was in a short conversation one night with a woman from south africa, a friend on facebook, who said she honours the women in prostitution in her country, because there are so few choices for women for work, and the women who engage in prostitution become rich and don’t have to do soul-destroying menial jobs for their whole lives. We honour them too, i said, but we have no respect for the fellas buying them, we want them to take responsibility and stop demanding access to women’s bodies. And we want all women to have enough.  to have much better choices between a grinding boring ill-paid menial job and prostitution. in fact, it would be good if those two ‘choices’ weren’t on the palate at all. How ’bout that?

it’s the trap that I dare say we all fall into, all the time–we talk about the women’s choices, we talk about how to help the women–we talk endlessly about hauling the babies out of the river or teaching them how to swim, and we don’t pay any attention to the guys throwing them in there. That’s an old story, the story of the babies in the river. One that Cherry Smiley of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network  told in the panel we were on together–you know,  a woman sees a baby floating in the river. She rushes in to save it. Then another baby appears, and another and pretty soon the river is filled with babies, and women scooping them out. Cherry added a few women teaching the babies how to swim. Then one woman boots it up=stream. Someone calls out to her, “where are you going? can’t you see we need your help here?” and she replies,  “I’m going to see who’s throwing them into the  river!”

I’ve heard that story many times before and mostly in the context of the anti-male violence work, though I know now that Pete Seeger tells it, too. I had not heard the part about some of the rescuers teaching the babies to swim.  I don’t know if that’s Cherry’s addition, but it’s a pretty good metaphor for harm reduction.

anyhow. It was a transformative week–so many feminists in one place. And the Abolitionists owned the conference. There were panels about feminist legal interventions–the Norwegian women told us how they managed to get their government to implement the Swedish model of prostitution law–they targeted Johns, they used a big bold sense of humour, righteous rage, and courage.

We were courageous last week, holding each other up, giving each other the best of our thinking, and the most we could of all we had learned in our daily work and lives. Lee Lakeman and Diane Matte were gracious and disciplined chairs, animators of a daily conversation called Flesh Mapping: prostitution in a globalized world. They have both been fierce feminist warriors spreading the joy of struggle for decades now. Their organizations, La Cles in Montreal and Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter are influential world-wide now.It was wonderful and encouraging to meet the La Cles women and to learn more about their activism–they’re an admirable bunch, to be sure.

I can’t tell you how many times I heard women express admiration for Vancouver Rape Relief and Vancouver feminists.  Made me all proud and humble at the same time. I have had a small small part in the successes of this powerful group, and learned an enormous amount from my association and collaborations with them. I think, after last week, that I can finally move into a more useful place, finally having confidence that my voice is important, and the work I am doing is necessary for the movement. I must put together the stories and experiences of all the women i’ve worked with, beside and for over the last quarter century–it’s urgent. I’m a theorist now, an activist academic and i can figure out a way to make the contradictions fuel our shared movement toward freedom. It’s okay to be afraid. The women before me were afraid. They have paid a great price to clear a path for me. It’s my responsibility to carry on the fight and pass what I know to those who are beside me and coming after. Finally, and beginning now–

and still play my accordion and do stand-up comedy. Cause there is joy in the struggle. and everything is political. damn. there are so many stories to tell but i gotta go now, i’ll get to it all later…another time another post, i have articles to write now…