By Lila Schmitz
Last night, I was up late. As the drizzle pitter-pattered on our window, Amelia and I joined the chorus around the globe of the vocal chords forming the sounds of tragedy. The feeling of pain and fear in our guts was enough to keep eyes open and minds muddled. As Amelia spoke on their feelings of hurt and powerlessness, I recalled Cassandra Ellerbe-Dück’s message about the necessity of activist self-care. In musing about my latest musical obsession, Akala, I had to share his words with Amelia: “The only way to ever change anything is to look in the mirror and find no enemy,” adding, “But I think it’s more than that, it’s more than ‘no enemy.’ It’s about being good and healthy first.”
We woke without the springing bounce that seemed to guide us out of bed over the past week. In my grogginess, I made it at least a block from the apartment before realizing my shorts may not have been the most appropriate choice on this chilly, damp morning. On the train, I pieced together, with the aid of good ol’ Google Translate (complete with a downloadable offline feature!), a headline about the massacre that read, “[Donald] Trump Calls for Obama’s Resignation.” I wish the permeation of the former’s overused name into this German headline had been a jolting surprise, but alas, since arriving in Europe three weeks ago, I’ve noticed it more than ever. While in London, I read an opinion piece in The Evening Standard, which claimed, “The Trump phenomenon would be a little less alarming were it confined to America. But it is merely the most dramatic instance of what looks increasingly like a pan-Western pathology.” The extensive transnational effect of the United States makes me worry tenfold about the aftermath of the events of this election season and this Sunday morning could have around the world.
In “The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution,” Erik N. Jensen explores transnational collective memory, as it bridges between Germany and the United States. Jensen finds, “Films, plays, historical studies, and commemorative strategies produced in one country have often found a receptive audience in the other” (339). Yet, he also explores the dichotomy that exists as the gay community in the United States finds the Jewish Holocaust “a template for understanding the persecution of homosexuals, [while] the German gay community has avoided this comparison” and looks to the history of the United States (342). By appropriating the story of the Holocaust in association with German gay movements, the United States is able to elevate itself above the level of that sort of inhumane oppression by “othering” the terrors of the foreign. Meanwhile, Jensen notes the German commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in the United States, an act of not only solidarity, but also adopted history, leaving me to wonder what could happen if our histories begin to cross again in the current political climate.
This is where my mind is as we sit, again in Each One Teach One, to hear from Magda Albrecht and acclamie, writers for the largest German feminist blog: “Mädchenmannschaft” (“Grrrls Team” in English). Magda and acclamie sit at the front of the room in cushioned chairs in a laid back, talk-show style, next to Heidi, who “feels like Oprah.” Today, the show is a continuation of the special series: “How to Live as an Activist,” Episode: “Blogging.” acclamie and Magda introduce the history of “Grrrls Team” and its development over its nine year lifespan. Coming to fruition in 2007 at the hands of three young white women, this blog family is now composed of fourteen writers, and has resulted in 4,500 posts that have received 51,000 comments.
The “Grrrls Team” writers, like most activists, work for a gain that exists outside the realm of capitalism ($0 per hour, after taxes). Magda is a self-proclaimed musician and political educator, doing events management to “pay the rent.” Her dress has smiling hot air balloons of different pastel colors, and she refers to herself as the “Grrrls Team granny,” as she is currently the longest standing writer, having joined the blog in 2009. She works specifically in queer feminism and fat activism. acclamie chooses to use a pseudonym for job safety reasons, but it also allows her freedom of voice that Magda writes without. “I’m still scared to hit the publish button!” Magda tells us. “Wow, really?” acclamie exclaimed, as she hasn’t fully realized the power of her own pseudonym until today. Both women found feminism in returning to Germany from studying abroad in “anglophile” countries, the U.S. and the U.K. They laugh, remembering the feminism they were reading at the time and reflecting on their constantly developing activism. acclamie finds that social change “takes for fucking ever.” “Things reconfigure, but do they really change?” she wants to know.
The writers tell us about the slow introduction of intersectional feminist theory throughout the years at “Grrrls Team.” For instance, for their fifth anniversary, they celebrated with panelists and other invited activists, but as happens in the world of activism and Oprah, some of the guests who came to speak about SlutWalks spouted some “racist bullshit” and set off a divide in the “Grrrls Team.” Five members of the team left, while the rest stayed on with an even clearer notion that antiracism and feminism must coexist. Four years later the blog is still thriving and inspiring readers every day. In looking back at this timeline, Magda was wary of the potentially teleological narrative that could arise, saying, “This idea that development is so linear, I have a problem with that.”
The conversation turns toward the possibility of “eradication” of oppressive systems. Heidi finds this a place of impossibility, but acclamie counters, “Racism is not transcendental. [It has a historical emergence.] It takes for freakin’ ever, but it is possible. It is man-made. It has a starting point, so it could have an ending point.” Along these lines, one of the early proponents of women’s rights in Germany, Clara Zetkin, found, “Only with the destruction of capitalism and the victory of socialism would the full emancipation of the female sex be possible” (Honeycutt 133). As capitalism is an essential part of sexism, the idea that anything man-made could be man-destroyed, or better yet woman and/or trans-destroyed, allows for a train of thought I had long ago believed was out of commission. What does it mean that capitalism and sexism are man-made? What does it mean that that which is created can also be eliminated? How do I even begin to imagine a world in which eradication is a possibility?
On “Grrrls Team,” not all comments are published. The authors monitor them, and about 10% do not make it through the screening process. While that is often an easy decision, it comes down to the author of the piece because, as Magda shares, “We have to feel comfortable with it. In German, we say, ‘This is our neighborhood, our little garden.’” “Our turf,” acclamie adds. Contrary to popular belief, this is not censorship, because it is not executed by the state. It is in their self-cultivated garden, and there are only so many bacteria along with which their flora can survive.
In addition to their (free, volunteer, activist) work on the blogosphere, they organize and host Lady*Fest, which happens two weeks from now in Heidelberg. The poster promotes workshops, parties, lecture/performance, self-defense, film, café, Do It Yourself, and art. Magda noted today that although the blog’s internet capital is soaring, social and financial capital is only a fraction of the size, which for a primarily internet activist must be a constant frustration. With this festival, the opportunity to merge the physical and virtual activist bodies becomes an imperative. The festival is creating a space to find comfort, learn, and create. This reminded me of the introduction to Winter Shorts, a collection of short stories illuminating oppressive systems in contemporary Germany, Sharon Dodua Otoo recalls, “Recently, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion called ‘Can art save the world?’ And when I think about how Black people are being dehumanized, my honest answer is: it is the only thing left that can” (18).
So here I am, sitting in Café Berio in Schöneberg staring at the art on the walls. Naked bodies in their own distinct coloring sit, thinking. A green woman kisses a blue one contrasting the bright red background. They exist as connected bodies, particles of paint, colors dancing with each other. I find the other works (all by the same artist, who signs “Sarah”) more subtly solemn and pensive, yet coexisting with the tender, passionate embracing couple. As activists, we will inhabit the single portraits of pensive philosophers, but we cannot thrive in the work without a laugh or a kiss. I’m still going to worry about the state of political affairs, queer safety, racism, and the many other pains that compose the world as I know it, but for now, I think I’m going to take a walk through Berlin and listen to Doublethink for the thirtieth time this week, as I’d like something to give me a little hope, and I think Otoo might be right: Art is “the only thing left that can” (18).
Lila Schmitz is majoring in Film and Media Studies and minoring in Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College. She’s going to be starting her second year at CC and third year of college in the fall. She’s enjoyed getting involved with CC theater and a capella (Ellement!), as well as tripping and sweating her way through intramural sports. This summer she’s lucky enough to get to do some gallivanting on the European continent, where you can often find her in a park (photographed in Tiergarten) with that very notebook. Important note: She does not usually look so serious, but rather was trying to figure out how to draw a chin and ended up with this photographic chin display.
In a recent resolution, the Republican National Committee (RNC) called on the Department of Education “to rescind its interpretation of Title IX that wrongly includes facility use issues by transgender students.” The RNC further claims that the gender assigned at birth is one’s only “true” gender, thus implying that trans people do not exist. The Committee believes that the Obama administration’s attempt to protect the rights of trans students by providing them with equal access to bathrooms is an example of “governmental overreach.” Their claim is that the current interpretation of Title IX is a violation of the privacy to those using the bathroom that is “correct” for “members of that sex.” Through a postmodern feminist theoretical lens, it becomes clear that the RNC’s interpretation of these bathroom bills is incredibly harmful to trans people and demonstrates clear discrimination towards bodies that do not fit societal norms.
It is incredibly disheartening to know that the RNC is so backwards in their collective thinking that they would view a move to protect student safety as “overreach.” Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Bathrooms continue to be a constant source of anxiety for many trans people, including both those forced to use the bathroom that does not match their gender identity and those whose identity and/or presentation is ambiguous. For the latter group, there is no appropriate bathroom, as the two male-female options do not acknowledge an existence outside the binary. As Jack Halberstam explains, “Those of us who present in some ambiguous way are routinely questioned and challenged about our presence in the ‘wrong’ bathroom” (332). Halberstam further illustrates this problem in summarizing the narrative of “he-she factory worker, Jess Goldberg” who must “make crucial decisions about whether she can afford to use the women’s restroom” (333). Thus, the bathroom becomes a representation of the “limit to her ability to move around in the public sphere” (333). Unfortunately, even if the RNC’s resolution were to be denied, the issues illustrated by Jess Goldberg would still be very real for many trans people. Very few institutions have “all gender” bathrooms, and while buildings often have single bathroom options, there are usually very few, and they can require long treks across the premises to find.
The RNC is so ingrained in their archaic understandings of gender that they take no issue with the fact that their condemnation of trans bathroom rights could force people to everyday experience systematic oppression whenever they need to pee. As Julia Serano explains, “Transphobia is an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against people whose gendered identities, appearances, or behaviors deviate from societal norms” (349). Thus, what is causing the RNC so much uneasiness is the fact that people exist who do not remain within the status quo. Serano further defines cissexism as “the belief that transsexuals’ identified genders are inferior to, or less authentic than, those of cissexuals,” and then notes that “the most common expression of cissexism occurs when people attempt to deny trans people the basic privileges that are associated with the gender the trans person self-identifies with” (350). The RNC, then, is both transphobic and cissexist in their denial of appropriate bathroom rights. Were the RNC to reify the existence of trans people, they would be subsequently giving up some of their power that is built into the current cissexist system of society. By accepting the performative nature of gender, the patriarchy’s survival begins to crumble by default. Unfortunately, though, the RNC’s uneasiness comes at the cost of trans students’ basic rights and daily sense of wellbeing.
Thus, the RNC’s condemnation of trans bathroom rights reveals their deeply rooted insecurity surrounding gender. Riki Wilchins comments on this phenomenon by explaining, “In fact, the United States may be the only country in the world where we are so insecure about gender that the words man and woman have no meaning unless they are preceded by real” (341). The RNC epitomizes this statement in their insistence that trans people are not expressing their “real” gender. The fact that trans people are able to transcend patriarchal boundaries is incredibly frightening for men desperate to uphold their power that is built into a strictly static binary. Riki Wilchins also explains binaries as “the black holes of knowledge. Nothing is allowed to escape, so we get the same answers every time” (341). Those that do escape are labeled the deviants of society who need to be put back into line. In order to punish those who are rejecting our society’s static binary, organizations such as the RNC begin to methodically remove basic rights from trans people. The message they are sending is that if you want to exist in this society as a human, you must also conform to the system of control that is currently in place.