One of the most disheartening parts of doing social justice work is how often people draw lines, create ‘us and them’, ‘deserving and undeserving’, ‘good and bad’ categories among people who could all theoretically come under one umbrella and work together.
I think in an ideal vision of social justice, I, a fat bisexual feminist crip, would be able to hold hands and work together with fat acceptance folks, GLBTQ folks, feminists, and crips. I’d also like to be counted as an ally for groups I don’t belong to, like people of color. In theory, in an ideal world, these groups that represent part of my fight against oppression (and even parts that do not oppress me but that I recognize as oppression that should be fought) would welcome me just as much as they welcome people who do not have intersections of oppression.
The unfortunate truth is that they often do not. Let’s go through these one by one, shall we? Now, keep in mind, I am speaking of the mainstream of each movement I mention. There are figures in each of these movements who try to counter what I’m talking about, and I salute them, but that has not yet bridged the gaps that the mainstream movements have created.
Fat acceptance folks often start drawing lines between ‘good fatties’ – people who eat extremely healthy, normal portioned diets and exercise – and ‘bad fatties’ – people who do not eat as ideally or exercise. There’s also often a line people draw between fat and ‘too fat’. Now, as a crip with my particular gathering of disabilities, in hot weather, I cannot exercise beyond an extremely low minimum, and my diet is always somewhat limited by what my GI issues will allow. My disabilities (and the medications that treat them) are a significant portion of the cause of my weight gain, so even eating well, at best, I level out temporarily until a new medication change screws up my body again. I have also developed one of the problems we mark as belonging to ‘bad fatties’ – hyperglycemia, also known as prediabetes. In a perfect world, we could look at people who are fat and say, it does not matter why you are fat (whether it is genetic, or disordered eating, or lack of exercise, or disease, or medication, or disability) or how fat you are, you are still just as valuable a person as a thin person and no one has the right to judge you for your weight. But we don’t seem to be able to do that, we keep defending how we are not bad fatties, how we are not like ‘them’, the ones who shouldn’t gain the same respect we want for ourselves.
The GLBTQ (which some people now write as GLBTQAI – gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer or questioning, asexual, intersex) movement has I think done a good job in recent years of attempting to start including more membership – hence why it has gone from just ‘gay rights’ to the longer groupings of letters. They do still tend to represent most strongly the people they believe are their core, ideal group – gays, lesbians, and sometimes bisexuals. However, this movement tends to cut itself off sharply from people who are poly (that is, people who have relationships that include more than two people). They also tend to be rather shakey with how well they support their members who are people with disabilities or people of color (though this, as many of these intersections, is often a case of both groups kind of pushing away people who rest in that intersection). The GLBTQ crowd also tends to try to make a clean break between the GLBTQ movement and sex workers, and rarely supports laws to protect and assist them.
Next come the feminists. Now, there are all kinds of issues with feminism cutting people off. We say women should be able to work, and we now kind of scorn women who don’t, especially if they can’t (as opposed to women who choose to stay home). We say women are strong and resiliant, just as men are, and we don’t like acknowledging that some of us are weak, some of us do not bounce back (whether that is a disability or a personality does not seem to matter). We say women are intelligent, and we cut off the women with mental handicaps. We talk about women’s reproductive rights, but we still treat women who choose not to have children as some sort of tragedy. There’s the sexual revolution, but what about women who are asexual? The feminist movement also treats victims of abuse very poorly, as a whole, because as victims they do not typify the self-sufficient image feminists want for women. I can barely start to talk about the ways that mainstream feminism has sold out women who are lesbian, bisexual, trans, of color, disabled, fat, because it has been done so often and so deeply that it is hard to begin to describe the gap that has been created. The feminist movement, having become successful, has done exactly what early abolitionists did to early feminists – they have said ‘Wait until we complete our success, and then you too can get what we are getting.’ They have treated the social justice movement as a ladder that only one group may advance at a time, and at that, only the core, ideal members of that group.
Which brings me to the disability rights movement. Oh, we are a problematic group, I’ll openly admit that. There are more than a few branches of the disability crowd that only recognize people with physical disabilities, and treat people with psychological or mental disabilities as very much second class citizens within the movement, if they’re included at all. All three different groups have issues with attacking language that is negative to their particular type of disability, but ignoring language that hurts people with different disabilities. In fact, we often use language that reflects negatively on other disabilities, even within our own categories (like people who will use ‘blind’ to refer to lack of foresight or insight when they are a wheelchair user). The disability movement, in addition to often segregating itself (and failing with spectacular frequency people with mental handicaps), also tends to have issues with how it represents its GLBTQ members, members of color, fat members, and to some extent female members.
I’ll be honest, I’m not going to address the issues within the community of color, because I am not of color and haven’t seen the divides from inside. What I will say is this – my experience with other social justice movements suggests that it is likely that people who do not represent the ideal of this group are shoved off to the side, ignored, and trampled on just like they are within other social justice movements. I’ve heard things, but this isn’t my community and I really don’t feel like I have enough knowledge or experience to speak of it.
What does this all add up to?
Well, the simplest thing is that we have to look at ALL of the members of our group that we’re supposedly seeking rights for and try to make sure EVERYONE is getting the kind of rights we want for ourselves. The right to health, safety, equality, basic standards of living, access to who you love, protection under law, and general fair treatment.
The harder thing is that I think we have to start reaching out to other groups. I think we have to open our hands to groups we are not a part of and say this: we are all, every one of us who is working for social justice, seeking basic human rights that every person should have. I trust you to say what you see as basic human rights you do not have now, and I will support you in trying to get them. If we do not treat what others are seeking as basic human rights, they may not grant us the same treatment. If we do not think of these changes as attempts for complete and true equality, then we may never succeed at getting them. If we cannot invision our own rights, and the rights of others, that way, then the majority will win when they say ‘you’re asking for special treatment.’
And to me at least, the most basic tenent of social justice work is that we are not seeking special treatment – we are seeking inclusion, an equality of privileges, and being treated just like everyone else.