Drew Cordes

The Oppressed Shall Lead: Advocacy Through Empowerment - Part 1

Filed By Drew Cordes | May 10, 2013 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: grassroots, intersectionality, LGBT activism, LGBT justice, trans* justice, trans* marginalization, trans* politics

trickle_down.jpgMost people in the left-leaning LGBTQ social and political worlds readily acknowledge the futility and inequity of "trickle-down" ideology. Economic policy is the realm where we recognize this the most, but don't think this started with Reagan and the neo-cons; this orchestration has long been present in other areas of life, too -- in the other systemic channels in which we live, work, and play, largely unaware of such broad, covert machinations. Michel Foucault dubbed these conduits of power "technologies." (Fancy thinker/theorists like to play with language like that, and Foucault was gay and French, so you can decide his level of Fancy for yourself.)

Perhaps one of the "technologies" most fundamental to reasserting control of our life choices and well-being is political movements -- advocacy and organization. Unfortunately, this technology is one about which we are most deceived -- not only about the what, why and how of the decisions and actions of those in power, but about the methods we the people employ to reclaim our rightful place in the process. The blindfold, the gag preventing us from doing so is that very same trickle-down ideology. (Blindfold and gag meant to symbolize oppression, not sexy time.)

The LGBTQ justice movement largely focuses on changing the system from within. We have PACs, nonprofits, lobbyists, special interest groups, super rich campaign donors, etc. We've bought in. We've been convinced that empowerment and justice can only be granted by a group of a few thousand legislators, most of whom do not come from and therefore do not fully understand the disadvantaged backgrounds of the minority populations we're fighting for. Even those legislators who do belong to certain minority categories of race, sex, and sexual orientation, still have a boatload of economic and class privilege.

If we can only convince those in power with our emotional stories, with our appeals to logic, compassion and fairness, with our money ... then they'll put a few sentences in a book saying we have to be treated equally when we present ourselves to the various technologies of power that govern our lives -- marriage and legal status, medical care and hospitals, military, police, education, the workplace, etc. Even more abstract technologies like language dictate how we're perceived and accepted by privileged, normative society. (Binary-gendered pronouns, anyone?)

The laws will say we're equal, they'll say we have justice, but will our lives magically change with the stroke of a pen? Does these pronouncements and achievements actually trickle down to empower us in everyday life? When queer and trans* people attempt to navigate or further their own lives within these technologies, do these laws actually affect how people are socialized to perceive us as transgressors? Or do they only force discrimination to go underground? -- still present, just unspoken and implicit.

Laws are not completely worthless, of course. Instances of outright, explicit discrimination will fall slightly as organizations will be forced to comply with awareness and training campaigns, and those instances that do occur can be more effectively countered. This is, however, only outright, explicit discrimination we're talking about. Moreover, in order to counter explicit discrimination, the trans*/queer folk in question must 1.) already feel personally empowered enough to stand up for themselves, B.) be aware of the laws and how they apply, and iii.) be able to access representation if legal action is required (newsflash: lawyers cost money).

These laws that purport equality do not help marginalized queer and trans* people to meet those conditions; they assume we possess these agencies and capabilities already. We don't. Some of us do, but we're a minority. Especially in the trans* community. Justice does not trickle down any more than wealth does. (Y'know, assuming those two things are separate in the first place, which, c'mon.) These laws are hollow victories. Icing for an absent cake.

It's the difference between equality and justice. Equality presumes a level playing field. It assumes our technologies of power are inherently neutral and serve everyone's best interests. They don't. We know they don't.

solidarity.jpgSo, how can we marginalized communities empower ourselves not only to transform pronouncements of equality from window-dressing into effective, on-the-ground change, but also to confront and challenge the other intersecting technologies of oppression that produce injustice in our lives?

Answer: Not with "trickle-down," but from the bottom up. The rising tide lifts all boats. If we're able to provide basic aid, resources and opportunities to those in our communities who are the most at risk, the result will be a more educated, galvanized community willing and eager to fight for those legal equalities, plus a whole lot more.

And what activity or tool or method do we use to garner aid and opportunities? We do this via organizing the fight for justice itself. Through grassroots community organizing and advocacy, people are able to pool resources and rely on one another for basic needs while simultaneously gaining knowledge, skills, confidence, and experience, which then translates to other areas of life, such as qualifications for employment, personal responsibility, mental health, friendship and community, writing and speaking, organization ... the list goes on. Even if specific goals are not achieved, individuals still will have gained in untold ways anyway, and can continue advocating for issues of importance in the future.

It is crucial to note, however, that this fight must be one of solidarity. Focusing solely on trans*- and queer-specific causes only will effect change in that single aspect of trans* and queer lives. None of us is defined solely by those aspects, and it is not solely one's queerness or transness that perpetuates oppression; it is a range of factors such as the lack of a living wage, housing costs, prison systems that are sprawling and abusive, a legal code that criminalizes minorities and the poor, lack of educational opportunity, costly and inaccessible health care, the tax system, and more. Working across these multiple oppressive technologies to improve the standard of living of all those who are disadvantaged in turn buoys the queer and trans who are most disadvantaged, as well -- with the added benefit of helping others in need, and forming cross-cultural partnerships to support and strengthen each other's causes.

Furthermore, once any legislative goals are achieved, they'll find even greater efficacy -- thanks to the increased social visibility of an empowered community, its increase in resources and stability, and members' now-intimate knowledge of the policy's applicability, which comes as a result of fighting for it.

Simply put, we have to do it ourselves. Others can help, but we have to lead. The long history and current manifestations of trans* marginalization in the broader LGBT justice movement proves this principle is necessary. If we're not in the room, the justice for which we fight is not truly inclusive; and that will be reflected in actions and policies. No one else can represent us the way we can. Furthermore, when others speak and take action on behalf of us, even well-meaning allies to some degree, it is another unfulfilled opportunity for a member of that oppressed community. That could be a trans* person organizing that event or speaking to that rally, gaining confidence and valuable experience, stoking a life passion. That could be a disabled queer of color writing that letter/article, gaining our community exposure through the media or starting to feel like they could be a leader and reach out to others.

Our movement functions best when its processes strengthen the very people it fights for. The means must reflect the end. Empowerment is advocacy. Advocacy is empowerment.

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