[AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Confessions of a Recovering Activist series is intended to look critically at activism and shed light on my recovery from being “that activist.” I hope when you read this, you will keep that spirit in mind.]
Over time, the word activism has begun to leave a bitter taste in my mouth. I’ve always been fairly certain in my assessment that there is a place for each style of activism, from rebel to reformer, from citizen to change agent, but that began to change as I found more and more rebels fighting against the reformers, citizens and change agents instead of against the most cruel forms of oppression. That statement isn’t intended to point the finger at the rebels, of which I consider myself, but to note a problem in the institution we’ve come to know as activism. Reformers, citizens, and change agents are all just as fallible, and I can easily note many occasions in which their faults cost social justice movements points in the political game, but they are not the focus of this confession.
I’m sure I’ve used the phrase, “We need to call them out,” on at least a hundred occasions. It’s true – we cannot let oppressive ideology go unchecked. However, “calling out” has taken on such a negative connotation in the world of rebel activism that I no longer feel any sort of connection with the phrase. I always felt that “calling out” oppressive behavior was a way to inspire change, which it certainly can be when used appropriately, but now I struggle with how to use it appropriately. More and more I saw the technique used to bully, harass and embarrass people. More and more I felt the technique lost touch with principles of non-violence. We no longer sought to change ideas and philosophies with a “call out” technique, but instead wage war against our activist counter-parts with it.
A recent example can be seen in Plano, Texas. The City of Plano recently passed a non-discrimination ordinance originally designed to prohibit discrimination against people based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. Sadly, the final ordinance, which passed the City Council, excluded sex segregated spaces, such as bathrooms and locker rooms, opening the door to discrimination in the most private settings. To be clear though, as the recent story out of San Antonio illustrated, sex segregated spaces don’t always mean a bathroom. In the case in San Antonio, high school buses were segregated so that “boys” rode one bus and “girls” rode another. Thus, a “sex segregated” space was created in which discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity could take place under the Plano ordinance.
Up until the passage of the Plano ordinance, LGBT organizations largely disavowed any language to exclude these sex segregated spaces from the ordinance. After the ordinance passed, opponents to LGBT rights began repeal efforts. The opposition found unlikely allies in the repel effort in some LGBT rights advocates. Many LGBT activists felt that in order to correct the inadequacy of the ordinance, it must be repealed and resubmitted without the exclusive language. However, several organizations which often represent the LGBT community in political matters have issued statements opposing repel of the ordinance. This is a very serious situation and a debate could circulate around the strategy behind revamping the ordinance.
Unfortunately, any policy debate that could have benefited political activists got lost in the “call out.” Plano area activists, for better or for worse, issued numerous statements claiming that Equality Texas and Transgender Education Network of Texas, which refused to support repeal efforts but instead supported amending the now existing ordinance, are supporting trans-exclusive policies. That statement is, at best, “partially true.” At its worst, it is extraordinarily misleading and reminiscent of a Fox News Headline – you know the ones “Radical Muslim Terrorizes School,” then you read the article and it’s about a young man trying to obtain prayer time between classes.
Similarly, “call out” techniques have been used for just about any activist who has supported marriage equality, whether individually promoting same or promotion of it through affiliation with an organization. I can recall numerous episodes where, in spite of my vocal support and resources being placed behind non-discrimination policies, immigration reform and other policies, I’ve made mention of marriage equality and suddenly I’m “called out” as elitist and on occasion, “racist,” because marriage equality is a cis-gender, white person issue. The impact of these continued attacks was significant. I found myself becoming quieter and quieter about any issue of importance to LGBTQ people, rather than empowered to take action.
While certainly my observations and confession are mine alone, I do firmly believe that these types of issues have resulted in the collapse of what was a strong radical movement. That movement, at its height, was a spark of revolution, but the revolution was stopped short by our own inability to look at ourselves critically while looking at others with less severity. We, the radicals, continued to “call out” our LGBTQ family and our allies, when what we should have been doing is educating them in.