Sarah Schulman’s Conflict Is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility and the Duty of Repair landed in my mailbox last winter, sent by the publisher, and I promptly shelved it, asserting that the last thing I needed in my life was somebody telling me that any abuse I’d personally experienced in my relationships or community was merely conflict. But Autostraddle readers kept recommending it, so in March, I picked it up. And couldn’t put it down.
Conflict Is Not Abuse is the 18th book published by lesbian activist Sarah Schulman — a novelist, playwright, AIDS historian and, currently, a distinguished Professor of the Humanities at the College of Staten Island. She is the co-founder of MIX: NY LGBT Experimental Film and Video Festival, the US Coordinator of the first LGBT Delegation to Palestine, and the Co-Director of the ACT UP Oral History Project, having joined the organization in 1987 and been one of many lesbians who took on political, activist and care-taking work at the height of the AIDS crisis. In 1992, she was one of five co-founders of the legendary direct action organization Lesbian Avengers, responsible for planning the US’s first Dyke March, which took place in Washington DC in April 1993. Her published books include the novels After Delores (1989), Rat Bohemia (1993) and The Cosmopolitans (2016); non-fiction works Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences (2009), The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (2012) and Israel/Palestine and the Queer International (2012). Her novel People in Trouble (1990) was the uncredited inspiration for the musical RENT, a situation she chronicles in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America (1998). Awards under her belt include a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright, New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, Kessler Prize for Sustained Contribution to LGBT Studies, a Stonewall Book Award and multiple Lambda nominations.
Conflict Is Not Abuse is a discussion of how inflated accusations of harm are used to avoid accountability, and she traces this phenomenon as it applies from interpersonal relationships to global politics. For the latter, she looks specifically at HIV criminalization in Canada and the occupation of Palestine. The book opens with the example of the police officers who saw Michael Brown and Eric Garner as “threatening” when they were doing literally nothing, and how any kind of difference, resistance or anxiety can be seen as an attack when it’s not. The book has generated heaps of conversation online and off, is blurbed by bell hooks and Claudia Rankine, is the winner of the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Non-Fiction and a nominee for a Lambda Literary Award.
Of course, it was the interpersonal and local community focused sections at the front that really drew me in, because I am basic like that. Her investigation of shunning and group dynamics, especially within groups heavily populated by those who’ve experienced personal trauma or inherited generational trauma, is particularly interesting from the perspective of a queer community organizer.
I became, quite quickly, obsessed. I sent copies to ten of my friends, and we eagerly texted each other snapshots of our favorite passages. Everybody connected to it (or didn’t) in their own way, based on our relative experiences with shunning, with re-examining the degrees to which we allow past trauma to impair present relationships and interrogating how the overstatement of harm has squashed so much potentially enlightening online discourse and torn so many queer communities apart.
See, since approximately early November, I’ve been questioning everything. How my friends and I treat each other, how my workplace operates, and most of all, how us queer feminist progressives handle ourselves. How do we communicate with each other, with our enemies, and with our potential allies? This has meant confronting material that used to scare me — because it seemed like too much, ’cause I was scared of what it’d make me have to confront within myself and what it would bring into focus about my work. It feels like we’ve hit a wall with callout culture and language policing and problematic-fave-destroying where we’re forced to acknowledge that a lot of how we do things just isn’t working. We’re not achieving consensus or winning politically, either.
Critical response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive or at least invigorated. The main line of criticism that’s come out against this book speaks to my initial reservation: my fear that Schulman would re-frame legitimate abuse as conflict. My read accounted for this discrepancy — I simply assumed experiences that I knew were straightforward abuse were not the types of experiences Schulman was asking us to re-name. But perhaps my own specific background enables this type of comfortable disassociation because the only people who’ve ever denied abuse I’ve experienced have been the me and the abuser — my friends, family and psychiatric professionals have generally been the ones to name it, not the ones to discredit it. (The police didn’t believe me either, but unfortunately that’s exactly what I expected from them, so.) That also has given me room to interrogate my own role in abusive situations without feeling like I have to accept shame or blame, too. Furthermore, the book itself does not seem to speak to abuse within families or parent-child relationships, which I believe exist on a different paradigm altogether.
This interview took place in March, but I’ve been mulling over this introduction ever since, as her ideas have continued percolating. I’ve doubled down on some and reconsidered others. For example, this book and Sarah’s other work and related materials have already profoundly impacted how I approach queer community-building here and at A-Camp. Namely, we’ve committed to deliberately pivoting away from punitive justice towards a more restorative model. We’ve pushed back against demands for further unilaterally-enforced rules and regulations as the best methods of ensuring safe and productive communities, and confronted how we ourselves demand state-level regulations when we should know, by now, to take uneven and biased enforcement into consideration before making such demands. Yes, often predators and abusers are simply that, and must be removed from a group to ensure group health, or required to seek professional psychological help in order to return. But we have an obligation to engage and de-escalate and restore, not to punish, whenever possible — and it’s possible a lot more often than we think. Often we are all clumsy animals, making hurtful mistakes, full of room for improvement. Moving forward in Trump’s America, it’s never been more important that we harness the empathy and understanding I’ve found very unique to queer women’s communities in order to build our own care-taking networks and institutions. We have to figure out how to take care of each other better. Nobody else will.
Engaging with Conflict Is Not Abuse jump-started a kind of re-entry, for me, into the world of ideas and theory, and to remembering the importance of engaging intellectually with broad-level interrogations of how we talk and operate. Even the process of considering and ultimately landing on disagreeing with an idea of Schulman’s strengthened my own understanding of my own convictions. On the internet, there’s not much room for nuance. Within social justice communities, there’s this sense that there are bad guys and good guys, and we’re the good guys, and it’s our job to inform the entirety of “good guys” the Right Way To Think and Act. Reading Schulman and other authors since has been enlightening ’cause there are, even within the queer feminist left, so many different approaches to things, and we should be able to engage with them and consider them and even disagree vehemently about them without resorting to shunning, lashing-out, taking material out of context and wielding it like a weapon, name-calling, massive overstatements of harm and projecting our anger at the world onto each other because well, underneath all that is a lot of love.
If you’ve not read Conflict Is Not Abuse but want some sense of it before reading this interview, I highly recommend reading this transcript of Schulman’s recent conversation with trans writer Morgan M Page on “Queer Suicidality, Conflict and Repair,” in which book-related concepts enter the conversation midway. But do read the book, it changed my life. Also, reading People in Trouble and then Stagestruck and thus finding out the real story behind RENT totally ruined my life, but that’s another article for another day, so.
This interview took place on the phone on March 21, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Riese: First of all, thanks for talking to me and thank you for this book — and for the six or seven books of yours I’ve now read in total, actually. I’ve bought Conflict Is Not Abuse now for about 15 people I work with, and as a fellow feminist Jewish lesbian writer who works in queer community building, it really articulated and brought into focus a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time —
Sarah: That’s great!
Riese: I know from reading other interviews that you’ve been surprised that most people wanted to talk about callout culture, which wasn’t your intention when writing the book, so I’m gonna try not to be too predictable in that regard.
One of the things that resonated with me from Conflict Is Not Abuse was your indictment of text-based communication as insufficient for true conflict resolution, which you talk about in terms of text and email. How do you see those kinds of conversations playing out in spaces like Facebook and post comments, and how does performativity fit in when these conversations are happening in public? What do you think the benefits and drawbacks are to having those kinds of conversations on social media?
Sarah: Well, the advantage of Facebook is that there’s a record. So like, if I say “the sky is blue!” and the other person says HOW COULD YOU SAY THAT THE SKY IS GREEN?!!!, I can actually show them that I said it was blue. So that’s a big advantage. But I think that there’s nothing better than actually talking to somebody, getting their affect, being able to go back and forth. It’s just a more sharing experience and it’s deeper and it’s more humanizing.
Riese: Do you think that when someone is having an argument on social media or on a website of some kind that the fact that they’re sort of being observed and watched by other people plays into how they handle conflict?
Sarah: No, weirdly.
Riese: Ha! I totally do, so that’s interesting.
Sarah: I think that people act like they’re not being observed.
Riese: So, you don’t think that people sometimes call people out because they think it makes them look a certain way?
Sarah: That may be… but if the other person was actually right in front of them and there were other people there as well, they might be a little more flexible. As you know, I ground the solution in other people, so that if somebody is escalating when they have an opportunity to make peace, hopefully the other people around them will help them negotiate and let them know that they’re not serving themselves or that they’re causing division. When the other people don’t do that — when they egg them on or they’re standing by passively — I call that “the negative group.” It’s a group that’s constructed through negative bonds.
Riese: What makes you choose sometimes to talk about things on Facebook as opposed to when you’re in front of people? Is it just the convenience?
Sarah: For example, today somebody posted that they were upset that mentors and teachers of theirs were favoring trans men over trans women. So I said, “Why don’t you just contact that person and ask them if you can talk to them?” And they were like, “No no no I could never do that.” I can understand that there’s a frustration that gets expressed by putting something on Facebook, but if it’s a way to avoid the responsibility of actually talking to someone, then it’s not necessarily a positive action.
Riese: I think some would argue that the trans woman in question shouldn’t have to do this work herself — that simply surviving consumes all the emotional energy she has and she might not have it in her to advocate against her own oppression, especially if in the past those conversations have been more disheartening than productive, or if she’s worried that speaking out could negatively impact these relationships she needs in order to progress academically? And obviously also time is a finite resource. How do we decide which of these conflicts are worth the time and emotional energy? Does venting, in and of itself, ever serve a purpose?
Sarah: In this case, the teachers were already supportive of trans men, but over-emphasizing them in relation to trans women, so it seemed to be a question of expanding their understandings. If the authority figure was hostile or negative it might be a different story. Also, the speaker described the people as “mentors” and that implies an intimate and positive relationship. It would be awful to give up on someone that we have shared with and learned from without first trying to speak to them directly.
Riese: Where do you think the instinct comes from to sort of vent instead of address something?
Sarah: Sara Ahmed talks about this in The Promise of Happiness, the one where she comes up with the idea of the feminist killjoy. She talks about how there’s this idea in entitled societies that people have the right to always be comfortable. But that’s actually not a right, because the only way you can always be comfortable is at other people’s expense. And that actually, we have a responsibility to be uncomfortable. The expectation that one should always be comfortable is an expectation of supremacy. It’s unreasonable, and it’s overly entitled.
Sometimes people don’t want to talk to other people because they would be uncomfortable, because they might have to rethink things about themselves or change, but it’s for the general good to rethink things and change. So I think that that’s not an appropriate expectation.
Riese: Do you think that when people are asking for safe space, criticizing its lack, or telling people how to make one, that what they’re getting at is a space that’s 100% comfortable?
Sarah: You’d have to look at the specifics. You can’t really generalize.
Riese: Okay, well, what do you think qualifies as a “safe space”? And is that something that we should really be looking for?
Sarah: It really depends on the situation. I mean, safety from violence, of course, is a completely desirable and necessary thing. But safety from criticism or safety from truth or safety from having to look at yourself? Those are negative desires that I think are detrimental and divisive.
Riese: With Autostraddle, we’ve started to experience this phenomenon where people that we don’t know reach out to us to let us know that someone who writes for us or works for us is a “known abuser” or was allegedly emotionally abusive in a past relationship. They demand that we remove the person from Autostraddle, that we don’t let them write anymore, that we eliminate them from our group, and if we don’t do that they’ll say that we don’t really care about safe spaces or queer community, or that we are complicit in abuse. We’re commanded to enact these extreme punishments against accused people who are being accused, again, by people we don’t know, and ordered that we should do so without interrogating any of their claims. Usually we don’t even know the accused person — like we’ve never met them in person. And it feels like this is part of a larger trend in queer and feminist circles —
Sarah: It’s even larger than that. This is a phenomenon that exists in the intimate as well as in the broader social and even in the geopolitical. It’s like when a government tells people to denounce people who are HIV+ under HIV criminalization or when the Israeli government builds a wall to keep out Palestinians. This wholesale group exclusion of a person based on an accusation that they are somehow dangerous without any opportunity for that person to describe why they think this charge is happening or how they are experiencing it, or for anyone to look at the order of events that produced this accusation or the history of the person accusing — I mean, this is the definition of injustice. I’m amazed at how often I’m asked to hurt people, you know? People are constantly saying, “why are you talking to her, why did you invite him, why are you working with them,” they want people to be hurt. This past fall in Montreal, I co-hosted a community town hall on trans and queer suicidality with Morgan Page, who is a trans woman writer from Montreal. One of the things that kept coming up is that when people are shunned by their cliques and by their families, they feel like killing themselves. [ED NOTE: You can read the transcript of that panel here.]
Sarah: It’s the most cruel — it’s so cruel! And it produces no positive outcome. If you think through that action, you end up with what we have now, which is mass incarceration. This idea of removing people instead of trying to resolve conflict.
Riese: One thing that sort of struck me about it when you look at how often people end up being shunned with minimal evidence because they belong to a demographic group that we think “had it coming” all along, which can even be the less oppressed group in certain social justice circles — was thinking about on the flipside, how the mass incarceration of black men has been enabled by things like the Three Strikes rule where judges and juries are often putting someone in jail not because they can prove what they did, or that what they did should be rectified with incarceration, but because a racist jury or judge figures, “well, even if they didn’t do this, they’ll probably do SOMETHING wrong, let’s get them off the streets.” Which is… terrifying.
Sarah: And also first of all did they actually do this specific thing and if they did do it, why? I mean, most crime is caused by poverty, except white-collar crime which is caused by greed. So when someone says so-and-so did something, so if they did do it, what were the actions that led to it? That always has to be understood, and in order for that to be understood, people must communicate.
Riese: How do you think it works within communities? I mean, all of our writers who’ve been accused of abuse have been trans or Black or both, which is unsurprising. I think subconsciously, or not, a lot of people who consider themselves very politically aware still end up feeling more comfortable levying accusations against those with less institutional power.
Sarah: In my book I cite the National Anti-Violence hotline 2013 report where they found that when the police were called for same-sex domestic abuse, over half of the time the police arrested the wrong person. Because when people are the same gender, instead of trying to figure out if it was conflict or abuse, they would arrest the person who was of color, or who was not a mother, or was butch, or was not a citizen, or was HIV-positive. With these stigmas there’s an assumption that a person is dangerous, but actually it’s most likely that that person is endangered.
Riese: When I read that statistic I immediately sent it to my editors and was like, “see, we were right to be wary of acting on those accusations!” The State has this tendency not to believe victims of abuse or assault, and many liberal feminists have decided to remedy this by believing every victim without hearing both sides or asking additional questions, and if we’re not believing these accusations at face value, we’re participating in rape culture. When really the best remedy is to listen to both sides with an open mind, which the State doesn’t do.
Sarah: Right. But of course some people do lie, but there are also other reasons for people to inflate charges and one of the things that I point to is that where we are now is that our entire focus is on figuring out who is the perpetrator so that they can be punished. But if our focus is on trying to understand what happened, which I think is the healthy and appropriate focus, then people would not be encouraged to escalate charges. Right now the standard is that you are only eligible for compassion if you are a pure victim. If you in any way participate in creating a conflict you are no longer eligible for compassion. But every person should be eligible for compassion.
Riese: Yes, exactly — people think they won’t be heard or given compassion unless they can label their experience “abuse,” and they’re not wrong.
Sarah: We’re making it impossible for people to look at their own participation in creating conflict.
Riese: So what do you think our responsibility is when the accusations are being made within the queer community?
Sarah: The first thing I do, if somebody says to me, “that person is terrible and you should hurt them,” is to call that person and ask them, “Why do you think this is happening?” This is the crucial question. As soon as you are being told that your group is shunning someone or that you should shun someone or something like this, the very first thing you should do is call that person and ask them, “Why do you think this is happening?” because it is entirely unethical, divisive, and destructive to hurt somebody without ever talking to them first.
Riese: I think within liberal feminism, that would be considered doubting the victim.
Sarah: People should be overjoyed to learn that they are contributing to a problem! Because if they understand how they are contributing to a problem, they have the power to resolve it. But if we punish people for having the power to resolve it, then instead they abdicate any kind of accountability and, as I show over and over again in my book, when we abdicate personal responsibility for our participation in conflict we enhance the power of the state — whether it’s Gaza, whether it’s HIV criminalization, whether it’s people calling the police just to grandstand in a relationship conflict because they can’t be self-critical.
If you look at the history of the feminist anti-violence movement, when I was born in 1958 in New York City, if a woman was raped she could not get a conviction based on her own testimony — she had to have a witness.
Riese: Right! Which is horrifying.
Sarah: It’s insane! So, in the 60s, when the feminist movement against violence emerged, it emerged in a context in which the state was literally the enemy of women. In those early years, the movement had no relationship to a state apparatus of punishment. It was not working with the police or asking the state for anything. The focus was on empowering women, not on punishing men. The things that they did were things that we would now call “restorative justice,” although that concept didn’t exist at the time. They did stuff like rape crisis hotlines, where if you were raped you could call a hotline and another woman who has been raped could talk to you. There’s no policemen there, there’s no state there. They did battered women’s shelters, they did self-defense for women.
When Reagan got elected in 1980, he immediately dismantled the CETA program, which had been paying some salaries of grassroots organizations, and from that moment the state started to take over a lot of these services. It got away from what the original feminist movement had seen as the causes they named as patriarchy, poverty and racism. The US government is not interested in patriarchy, poverty and racism. It depends on patriarchy, poverty and racism. Instead, it became entirely focused on a punishment apparatus. Which, when we trace it, we see has been over-applied to poor families and men of color specifically. The US government is one of the greatest sources of violence in the world. So it’s a contradiction in meaning for it to be in charge of ending violence. All it’s done is enhanced punishment. That solution, that’s where it takes you.
Riese: Right. But then, what’s the difference between punishment for punishment’s sake and punishment that aims to protect current and potentially future victims from harm? When you say, “the focus was on empowering women, not punishing men” — what do you think should be done with men who are rapists or sexual predators? What alternative is there to having the state remove them from the environment where they can continue to rape women and be predatory?
Sarah: It is our responsibility as a society to find a way to deal with male offenders. When the only choices are to do nothing, or to incarcerate people, we will end up with no positive change. Of course some people are actually predators, they enjoy breaking other people’s will, and this condition exists for myriads of reasons that are social, experiential, and biological. Our president is one of these people, and so are some of his friends. But I believe that this is only a percentage of the “Male Offender” category.
I think there is also a lot of confusion out there about how to communicate sexually, about repression and expression, and standards that may not benefit us really. The kind of messaging about heterosexuality and about masculinity that is conveyed constantly through mainstream cultural and religious messages are very distorting. There is a huge amount of projection at play in intimacy, and bringing that into the social open would be beneficial. I also think that women have a lot of confusion as well. Many factors about desirability, availability, and self-image are at play. That is why I advocate for MORE COMMUNICATION, not less, a wider range of permissible sexual expressions, and support for facing our own fears within the groups in which we live.
Riese: What systems would you like to replace the current ones?
Sarah: Well, I think that the answer lies in the group. It’s very complicated […] but I do believe that the solution is in the group, and by “group” I mean your friends, your family, your clique. Cliques are so important. Social constructions for justice and injustice. Communities, religious groups, HIV status groups, national identities, your workplace group — any group that you belong to. If a person is not handling a situation well and is escalating when they have a chance to repair, it is up to the group to help them negotiate and to show them that they are expected to negotiate, will get support for negotiating, and will not get support for escalating.
Riese: How do you think that this plays out? You write that you’re coming from a queer perspective and being part of those communities, and a lot of things that are really great about queer women’s communities in terms of empathy and care and a desire to subvert dominate paradigms have now led to a near-epidemic of overstating of harm. “This person said something problematic, now I need these strangers to help me trash them,” or else they need it to be fixed for them. “This person made me uncomfortable, you should bar them from this or that space.” At the same time there’s this huge expansion of what “counts” as emotional and verbal abuse, and what people are now declaring to be “violence” that isn’t actual violence —
Sarah: But it’s not just queer women who do this. The US government does this. This is operative on every level of social interaction in the time in which we are currently living. Trump every day tells us what a victim he is; how he’s being attacked. And it’s always because people are telling the truth.
Riese: I mean that’s his M.O.; he’s built his whole empire on the idea that he’s a victim and everybody’s after him and they’re all lying. And absolutely this happens on all levels — but I was wondering if you had thoughts on why our communities, which we imagine should have better ways of dealing with conflict than everybody else, have picked up this type of behavior, although exercising it in basically the opposite context as it is employed by the state. Do you think it’s a top-down thing, that we’ve learned this from the state?
Sarah: Well, I’m in the queer women’s community, and I’m trying to change this. And Catherine Hodes who is my model here, the social worker, she’s a lesbian, so, I mean my whole book, all of my examples, most of them are lesbian examples of queer women examples. Most of the book comes from that impulse.
Riese: More specifically — there’s a part of the book where you talk about how the behaviors of the supremacist are often indistinguishable from the behaviors of the traumatized, although they have different and nearly opposite causes. Because queer women have much higher rates of trauma, are more likely to have experienced actual abuse, and are dealing with so many mental health issues, if we’re more vulnerable to, or maybe even desperate for, out of a need for some end to this pain, an uncritically punitively modelled way of thinking?
Sarah: Well, everybody’s doing it but for different reasons. Some people are overstating harm for supremacist reasons. Like white people who claim that they’re being oppressed by immigrants. And some people are doing it for traumatized reasons. They can’t bear to be self-critical because they are so fragile they can barely hold it together. But the fact remains that if you are on the receiving end of this, whether it’s from supremacy or trauma, it can destroy your life. It happens all the time, it happens every day.
I think we should call off shunning. You know, there are people who had an argument 17 years ago and one person still won’t speak to them — their friends have to intervene and say “come on, I’m not gonna support you in this anymore, it’s time for us to all sit down and talk.” And if the person won’t talk then the friend should go to the object and say “why do you think this is happening?” I think that’s the sentence that starts the repair process. “Why do you think this is happening?”
Riese: Have you, in different groups of queer people that you’ve been involved in, observed really successful conflict resolution?
Sarah: I mean… sometimes. But if your group is negatively constructed — based around keeping each other from facing your own flaws, or inflating each other’s importance, or something — then that group is not going to be able to do that.
That’s why in the book I compare four systems: traditional psychoanalysis, pop psychology, mindfulness and Al-Anon. These four systems, which are very different from each other, all point to two similar conclusions. The first is delay — if you respond right away, your chances of escalating are much higher than if you delay. The second is the positive group — whether the 12-step meeting or the meditation group or the meeting with the therapist, people need to be in a positive group where they will be encouraged to be self-critical. Even if their friends and family are negative groups all rooted in not facing themselves, everybody needs to find a positive group where they can be self-critical.
Riese: I want to talk a little bit about Trump. As you touched on earlier, his entire platform is overstating harm while simultaneously insisting that the left is full of crybabies and special snowflakes. How do you think we’ve evolved or devolved as a country to get to this place? Are there any elements of the situation with Trump that you find particularly alarming that you think are being overlooked or aren’t being talked about enough?
Sarah: Well how he got elected is very complex, right, because it’s all these different elements. There’s international intervention. There’s media being irresponsible and exploiting him for ratings instead of critiquing him. There’s an electorate that does not understand how our society works and thinks that you vote for people because you like them instead of what your policies are. There’s the fact that a lot of people don’t like Hillary Clinton, that she didn’t communicate well with people and even though she probably was the most qualified person to ever run for president in the history of the country, she was also a warmonger and a lot people didn’t have good feelings about her. There was the manipulation by the FBI. There was profound sexism which is a huge factor. And then there’s the way that Trump manipulated racism. So there’re so many elements here.
I think the category “how Trump manipulated racism” is probably the most appropriate to what we are discussing now. Because if you take working-class white people who’ve been in this country for 200 or 300 years for whom immigration is a distant memory, and who have worked in factories and mines multi-generationally, and have had no upward mobility, and have problems with addiction, and have not gotten educated, and then their jobs are taken away from them because the factories are globalized, and they lose their social role. The people who are the source of their problem are the white one percent. But, because of racism, the white working class identifies with that white one percent, and then projects their anxieties onto the wrong party. This is traumatized people overstating harm, misplacing blame, and they blame immigrants. Trump is going around saying immigrants cause crime. Immigrants do not cause crime! There’s no evidence that immigrants cause crime. Crime is caused by poverty. So this construction — the inability to challenge racial identification — is really the manifestation of what my book is about.
Riese: Are there parts of what he’s doing now that you don’t think people are paying enough attention to?
Sarah: Today it looks like he’s in trouble, but who knows. There’s so much we don’t know. But we do know that he’s attacking everybody. He’s building an enormous coalition of Muslims, trans people, journalists, judges — it’s remarkable how many different kinds of people he’s uniting so the chances of a popular resistance… the popular resistance is there. The problem is in the Democratic party, which has been sentimentally attached to a system that creates their status and that system no longer exists. The society we lived in under Obama and before this — this neoliberal, dysfunctional, unequal society — we are never going back to that. It’s over. And we can only come out the other end of this. He’s already dismantled so many protections — I mean we’re looking at having to imagine another way of living. So, the Democratic party or whatever party is gonna come up has got to understand that and move forward. Retrogressive nostalgia is not gonna be productive.
Riese: When you’re observing the resistance against Trump, is there anything from your experience with ACT UP or Lesbian Avengers that you think the resistance should be employing?
Sarah: One thing that is bothering me is that students are not responding appropriately. We’re not seeing as much campus activism. We have seen in some ruling class schools and also in some UC schools, this emphasis on the idea that stopping fascists from speaking is somehow gonna move things forward, and I can understand people’s frustration but I don’t think that that is necessarily the most productive strategy. I’m looking for students to have dramatically powerful organizing, especially around questions like sanctuary campuses. And that has not emerged yet.
Riese: Things like protesting Milo speaking or Chick-fil-A opening a store on campus or spending a lot of time jumping on various established smart people saying problematic things about trans folks or gay people or women, and the extensive processing of those statements and the eventual shunning of that person from discourse — is that a distraction?
Sarah: It depends on the example. If it’s a person who has legitimacy in that people are really connected to them and have struggled with them and there’s a relationship and then there’s something that they “don’t get,” I think there is a value in arguing with them. And also there are generational things that are just not gonna be overcome. But if it’s someone who’s created by the media and who is a corporate icon and never had grassroots relationships, that’s something else entirely.
My fear about shutting people down is that as somebody who’s pro-Palestinian, I’ve been seeing a move to equate criticism of Israel with hate speech. And this is the danger of these hate speech rules, because what matters about them is who controls them and if we see legitimate political analysis called hate speech then I think it’s clear that that frame needs to be heavily dismantled, because unless you can guarantee that you’re gonna control its application, which no one can guarantee, it’s quite dangerous. […]
Riese: Okay, this is a question from my friend Natalie, who is a big fan of your work! In Gentrification of the Mind, you take up the “privatization of the family” as reflected in the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy. Though arguably important in de jure equality, this is a narrowing of a queer politic and a shrinking of space for plurality of political projects/struggling together against dominant hegemonic culture, values etc. Could you expand on how this (narrow) construction of family continues to shape and and undermine collective structures of social support, including funding for public services?
Sarah: I don’t know if I can answer that. In the current book my thinking has gone a little bit farther … all studies show that children who are raised in queer families have almost no experiences of violence. I mean this is parents who decided to have children in the context of queer relationships. You know, “chosen children.” Studies show that these families benefit children. So children are doing very well in queer families.
What I’m worried about is the mothers. The mother role in the queer family appears to be the same as the mother role in the straight family, which is one of martyrdom, sacrifice and guilt. And because so many lesbian mothers end up as single mothers, I mean this is a trend, but anecdotally, their lives end up being completely controlled by the fact that they are mothers but also their legitimacy is completely controlled by the fact that they are mothers. It’s almost like a “psychological prison,” especially in my generation, where simply to be a girl was a problem and to be a lesbian was the worst thing you could possibly do, but perhaps later if you had a child then your family would forgive you and bond with you, and then gay people get more legitimacy as gay people. Even though the system does nothing for mothers and undermines families that don’t have money! But anything that has to do with familial normalization has benefited queer people in terms of legislation. So the only grounds on which you matter are that you’re a mother, but you’re still stuck in this system where you’re a martyr in order to be a mother. I’m very concerned about my generation of queer women who are mothers and who are caught in this bind and particularly the role — now that adult children are much more dependent on their parents emotionally, especially in the middle classes and higher, and that there’s this psychological expectation that independence and autonomy is delayed, I fear that this generation of queer mothers are enslaved to their family units forever, and that their own personal happiness and their own personal evolution, separate from being a mother, is something that has really become not just second place but no place. So I question how good the queer family structure is for women. Especially in a country where women are earning so much less than men.
Riese: Which you talk about in Stagestruck also, the double negative —
Sarah: A female income vs. male income.
Riese: — so if you’re looking at these women that you’re concerned about, what can be done to make them not slaves to this paradigm?
Sarah: I don’t know the answer. But I think that the fact that we have legalized gay marriage, for example, but we don’t have legalized protection from anti-gay discrimination, just shows that social legitimacy exists only in the realms in which we resemble straight people and their concerns. In the realms in which we do not resemble them, the realms in which we are different, we have no legitimacy at all. And I think that that’s psychologically harmful.
Riese: Also in Stagestruck you talked about how lesbians are expected to go home and care for elderly parents, which I’ve definitely observed, like the straight people are allowed to go off and get married and have kids but if the lesbian is single then she’s expected to take care of the parents —
Sarah: It’s like you don’t have a life if you don’t have a child! Especially if you don’t have a son. If you have a son then you have a life because you’re doing something important which is you’re raising men.
Riese: Pivoting a bit — in Gentrification of the Mind, you express some degree of hope that there might be an alternative and independent art scene building up as a departure from the then-current state of art and literature. Do you still feel that way? Do you think it has improved?
Sarah: There’ve been a few queer female works that have really broken through and have gotten a lot of corporate approval lately. But what’s interesting about them — to look at Transparent, Fun Home, and The Argonauts — is that they’re all about family. That is not to denigrate those works; that has nothing to do with their inherent value or the achievements of those artists. But none of them are about difference.
Riese: You don’t think Fun Home is about difference?
Sarah: It’s about a family that has contradictions and tragedies, but the relational construction is the familial one and that’s the one that the straight world likes. I have yet to see a work embraced by corporations that actually shows, for example, the real way that homophobia functions or real queer sexuality. There are works that show ultra-religious people being homophobic, just like there are works that show ultra-white people being racist. But there are not works that show how it actually functions or how these systems function, because the pieces that get picked out to be rewarded on some level reinforce the dominant culture’s image of themselves as tolerant. They’re comfortable with the image. If you go back to AIDS representation, there was the same issue. Philadelphia, the film that won an Oscar, is based on the idea that a gay man has AIDS and he’s being discriminated against, so he goes to a homophobic lawyer because in the psychology of that film there are no gay lawyers.
Riese: I remember seeing that in the theater — I guess it was in the early 90s, so I was 10 or 11? I totally bought that narrative and assumed it was real.
Sarah: It’s absurd. Not only ahistorical, it’s the opposite of the truth. It’s a fantasy. Of course that person would go to a gay lawyer, that’s what those people did. But they have to construct that the straight person is the savior. And why is he the savior? Because he bravely overcomes his prejudices. And that’s how they construct straight heroism. The whole thing is insulting.
Riese: As someone who has written extensively about the difficulties lesbian playwrights face to get their work produced, were you surprised by the success of Fun Home?
Sarah: I’m a playwright and I understand how the theater works, and the forces that decide decided on that one.
Riese: Do you think Dykes to Watch Out For would’ve made a better musical?
Sarah: That’s funny. […] If you look at it from the book side of the book business … it’s a graphic novel. Interestingly, there is a history of queer work being allowed to thrive in forms that are not considered the blue ribbon form. You can’t have a lesbian novel be a national bestseller, but you can have a lesbian graphic novel. You can’t have a multi-character play in a traditional format, shaped like an O’Neil play or a Miller Play, but you can have things that are sort of performance arty or solo, in a form that they don’t consider to be “The Form.”
Riese: Do you think that’s true in poetry?
Sarah: Poetry’s different because it doesn’t sell. I mean that’s not always true, because Claudia Rankine’s Citizen has sold 200,000 copies, but that’s very rare. Poetry’s different because there’s no money attached.
Riese: Who are your favorite writers right now?
Sarah: Claudia Rankine. Rabih Alameddine, I’m very loyal to him, I think he’s a great writer. I just read Sex Museum, an LGBT studies book by Jennifer Tyburczy, a very very smart highly interdisciplinary book about the display of sexuality in museums that i thought was really smart. I just read Emily K. Hobson’s Lavender & Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left, about the gay left in California during the Nicaraguan revolution and the whole thing about queer solidarity groups.
Riese: What stories would you say that the mainstream LGBT press are currently overlooking or not devoting enough space to?
Sarah: Oh there’s so much, oh G-d.
Well one thing … When I went to college you had to be in the closet, and now when you go to college the first day in orientation week they have a special thing for gay students and you meet the person that the college hired to run all the gay stuff, and there’s an office where you’re gonna meet, and they tell you what the events are gonna be, and I’m starting to think that that was a big mistake. Because I think it makes queer students very passive and very controlled. And I would love to see somebody talk about that.
Riese: I was definitely not out in college and wouldn’t have taken women’s studies or queer theory that would make me seem gay!
But when we first started Autostraddle in 2009, most of our interns were college students, and they influenced a lot of what we talked about and how we talked about it. Over the past seven years, I’ve come to realize that there’s an agreed-upon mode of discourse and topics that are appropriate and things that people are interested in talking about that begins with academic queer communities. I was never in those communities so I was oblivious to it. Then it ends up making this divide between queer people who’ve had access to those programs, in an undergraduate place where they were out and in these queer groups, and people who didn’t, who end up feeling like they don’t have a place in the discourse because they’re not familiar with the language that comes from those communities.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s a problem. I mean, I’m glad that those programs are there, they’re very important. A second topic that has not been fully discussed if we’re gonna talk about the realm of education is how little that material has been integrated into mainstream curriculum. […] It’s all so parallel. You can have a social science education and never learn about anything gay.
Riese: They do have a very off-on-its-own way with gay literature, or AIDS literature.
Sarah: [Another thing LGBT media overlook is] I think sexuality discourse … I go into this in my book quite a bit. I think that expressing desire is now conflated for some people with assault.
Riese: I COULD TALK ABOUT THIS FOREVER.
Sarah: I would like to see some serious discussion of how that happened and what its implications are.
Riese: When I was reading that section I thought about a situation at an early A-Camp where some campers asked camp staff to talk to another camper about consent and forbid them from drinking for the rest of camp. The camper in question was a person of color from a very conservative religious background who’d never been around queer women or alcohol much before, and was drinking too much and being pushy about boundaries. For a number of reasons the conversation never happened. But in retrospect, I’m not sure what the right thing for us to say would’ve been anyway.
It could’ve been humiliating for them to get a speech on boundaries and alcohol abuse from us, or damaging to their struggles with desire and sexuality by telling them to chill out with their desire in the first context where they felt free to express it. And that camper left camp feeling alienated from the queer community anyway — they wrote in their feedback form that they’d been shunned by their cabinmates for not being as rich or educated, which wasn’t the real reason why they were shunned, and that wasn’t their cabinmate’s backgrounds. The situation made me really sad, for everyone involved. But I still have no idea how we should’ve handled it!
Sarah: Someone wrote on twitter that I never discuss consent. And it’s not true, I’m constantly discussing it, but I call it negotiation, I have a different word. I recently had an interesting discussion with Don Romesburg, who runs the queer studies program at Sonoma State. We were talking about this California consent law —
Sarah: The person has to say yes, but if they’re drunk they can’t say yes or something like that? In my experience, life is more complicated. And there’s this puritanical idea that if you drink, you’re gonna have sex that you don’t want to have — you will “lose control” — but when shame, and double standards, etc., are at play, sometimes we lose BEING controlled. Because actually, people sometimes drink so that they can have sex they DO want to have, which would not be possible, or excusable, without drinking. Those kinds of rules are not even human; they don’t recognize what people’s lives are really like.
This was a reality that we realized during the height of the AIDS crisis. Rather than claiming that people had unsafe sex because they were drunk, it became apparent that some people got drunk SO THAT they could have unsafe sex.
Riese: I think the California regulation was intended to be a tool for women seeking legal/administrative action against their sexual assaulters, to help them get justice through that specific system, which has not been kind to survivors and often claims a girl who passed out drunk could’ve somehow consented to sex. But somewhere along the way, this regulation was taken up by the feminist internet and the younger queer community as a behavioral standard for all sexual encounters, and anybody who had a drink before having sex or expressed consent in a manner besides “enthusiastic verbal consent” to every sexual act, as it happened, was told they weren’t ready for sex. I don’t think I would’ve ever had lesbian sex in my early twenties if I hadn’t been “allowed” to drink first, or if I’d been asked to declare what I wanted. But I was ready. It’s all very terrifying — especially as queer people, who often have sexual encounters with people who may or may not be “out” to themselves or others, and have desires they’re not capable of articulating yet but should still have the right to act upon. What happens when a girl wakes up after having lesbian sex for the first time the night before, freaks out because of shame over her sexuality, and learns it’s within feminist bounds to say that, because her partner knew she’d had a few beers but had sex with her anyway, she was assaulted? These regulations could so easily become another tool of white straight supremacy, because we all know who is more likely to be accused and convicted of assault, whenever we get the-powers-that-be involved in interpersonal sexual relations. Not to mention the shunning, of course.
Sarah: They’re being taught that control is freedom. I had this argument… I was doing this seminar at Columbia University that was really interesting. That’s the place where a student was sexually assaulted and she carried the mattress around campus for two years and we were talking about the question of expelling the guy. And I believe that a guy who is a sexual assaulter… at a campus where there’s no state intervention, at a private school like Columbia, that expelling him is not the answer because that is just letting him loose on the world of women who don’t go to Columbia, and I think that strategy is a class-based strategy. Like “let’s kick him out of the country club, who cares what happens when he actually leaves the gates.” When actually these wealthy schools who have the resources should be made responsible to actually deal with male offenders, to create some kind of infrastructure because expelling them or incarcerating them are not the only alternatives to letting him get away with it.
Riese: Doesn’t that place an undue burden on the woman, though? To have to go to school with her rapist and see him every day? Or am I missing something.
Sarah: What I think you are missing is the way class divides women in this equation, into those who attend the gated community of corporate universities and are seen as inherently deserving of protection, versus those who live outside of the country club and have no structure with which to negotiate. Simply excluding a male offender from contact with students in elite schools does not address the problem, and – in a sense- lets them loose on everyone else. Instead, it is the responsibility of these very wealthy schools to use their resources to attract the most gifted and knowing professionals to develop pilot programs — within the closed world — to address male offenders therapeutically. And these programs can become models for the public sphere, and in that way would become a service.
Sarah: Anyway we’re getting in a whole argument about this and finally there’s one girl in the group who grew up working-class in Queens and she says, “You know, when I grew up, in my neighborhood, people were raised to be resilient. Now, I’m at Columbia and people wanna be protected. And I’m not sure which is best, resilience or protection.” And I’m like, “Resilience is better!” Because the only way you can be truly protected is at other people’s expense. Only a very small group of people can be truly protected because everyone else is controlled by them. So this impulse to control control control instead of DEAL and try to understand what’s going on and try to understand ourselves and help each other negotiate and reach for necessary transformations — it ends up being a domination tactic.
Riese: I guess when I talk to people about this, they tend to be like, “well what’s the harm in it, in having affirmative consent rules?”
Sarah: That when these rules don’t actually speak to people’s real experiences and the grey zone where most people live, people end up being labeled as abusers and offenders when actually that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that their realities are not being reflected in the rules. Obviously some things are clearly sexual assault, everyone understands that and there are people who truly are predators and they enjoy breaking other people’s will. But that’s a very small group of people.
Most of this arena now is a grey zone arena, where two people can have the same identical sexual experience and for one person it’s devastating and traumatizing and for the other person it’s nothing. And it’s not because of the experience itself — it’s because of their histories. You can’t have these blanket standards. You have to talk to people and listen to what people’s experiences are and how they understand what’s happening, and what their histories are, in order to draw any conclusions. The fact that someone is very very unhappy and very frustrated and suffering does not inherently mean that another person abused them. It doesn’t mean that their problems will be solved by punishing another person.
Riese: For sure I’ve found that there’s this initiative to re-label people’s consensual yet unpleasant or traumatic experiences as assault. I’ll tell people about an experience I had and they want to label it assault. But sometimes I did fucked up things or consented to traumatic experiences. The other person involved in the encounter with me might deserve personal consequences, like me not wanting to see them again or be their friend, but not necessarily legal ones or community ones, you know?
Sarah: I talk about that in the book, about words like “stalking.” Stalking is a real thing! It’s like when your ex-husband is sitting in front of your house in a car with a gun. People get killed by stalkers. Someone who wants to talk to you and resolve a conflict that you don’t want to resolve because you might have to face something about yourself that’s uncomfortable, that’s not stalking. So how come we’re using the same word to apply to two completely opposing phenomenon?
Riese: Well, I think we’re trying to make room for people who feel unheard, or silenced by the powers-that-be.
Sarah: Sometimes they are unheard, sometimes they feel unheard or sometimes they’re upset about other things that get projected, like the Trump voters who blame immigrants instead of Trump. There’s a lot of anxiety projected onto vulnerable objects who are not the cause of the pain. This gets into the concept of “trigger.” My definition of “trigger” is “an unresolved pain from the past that expresses in the present and that asks the present to be accountable for a pain it has not created.” And that way when someone is triggered, two parties are hurt — the person who’s reliving a pain they should not have to relive, and the other party is the one that they acted out on who did not cause it.
Riese: We don’t let people use the word “triggering” on Autostraddle because it was getting out of control with what people were using that word for. It was becoming meaningless. Another thing that confused me about that specifically, which you talk about in your book, is how college classrooms should actually be the safest space for this stuff to happen. If there’s no possibility of a world in which everything upsetting can be warned about before it happens, what really is the point in prohibiting it in these specific spaces —
Sarah: But even more than that, what really should be happening is that the issue should be faced and resolved. And a classroom is a great place to do that because even though a classroom can be a place of inequality and racism, it is rarely the site of actual sexual assault or physical violence. It may be the only space in people’s lives where dangerous ideas can be engaged with no threat of physical consequence.
At this point we’d already been talking for an hour, so our conversation had to end even though I obviously still had a lot of questions! If you’ve made it thus far, congratulations on reading a 10,000 word article, that’s like half a novella.