Yesterday evening (August 18th), following a week of suspense, I got an email saying that I had indeed been, as I suspected, banned from the local trans organisation of which I had been a member for over a year.
Let me start with a translation of the email, before I present some further thoughts on the matter.
As a result of upheaval during and after last week’s PRIDE, we as board of [redacted] have decided to ban you from our organisation from now on.
Your personal initiative to use our participation in PRIDE as a protest with political aim are not fitting in an organisation like [redacted].
We have fought for years to include transgenders [sic] in PRIDE and build up a neutral relationship with our partners. Specifically because this could be done in a safe and apolitical atmosphere, we have succeeded in this. Nevertheless, we heard from several loyal members that they felt unwelcome due to the expression of political stances.
We greatly value keeping the peace within our group. We will continue trans activities, but hope that you might be able to organise yourself in another organisation. Such as [redacted].
If you’d like a conversation about this, you can request one from [redacted].
This evening we will also inform the other members of this decision.
Hoping you will understand,
Alright, so first some facts:
- The Antwerp Pride parade was held on Saturday August 11th, a little over a week ago.
- The political statements I made were in the form of the sign shown in the gallery above.
- We were given no instructions beforehand by anyone in the organisation, nor the parent organisation of Antwerp-based LGBTQ+ groups, that it would be forbidden to make political statements during the parade.
- A member of our organisation’s board had seen my sign at least an hour before the parade started, and they gave me no indication that it would be a problem.
- At no point during the parade did anyone from the organisation or parent organisation approach me to indicate that my sign was problematic and/or ask me to hide it or walk in another section of the parade.
- On the evening of the 11th, a post-pride meeting of the organisation was planned, which I did not attend.
- At that meeting, a discussion broke out between several members about the political sign of another member (not me). As that discussion escalated, a board member told another member (‘ironically’) that they should leave, and might just as well jump out of the window.
- After that meeting, a Facebook discussion was had about what had happened at the meeting and how we should deal with political differences within our organisation. One board member was present in that discussion, which did not escalate.
- During the past week, several members got an invitation to an emergency meeting of our organisation that eventually took place yesterday evening (Saturday the 18th). I was not invited to that meeting, nor was my wife, who is a regular attendant of the organisation, nor was another member (the one whose sign had been criticised and who had been told to jump out of a window).
- During the past week, my wife and I were banned from our organisation’s private Facebook group without prior notice or explanation.
- Yesterday evening, the emergency meeting was held. I was not invited and did not attend.
- At that meeting, the decision of the board to not invite me (and by extension my wife) and the other excluded member to the meeting was vehemently questioned by several other members. The discussion escalated. One member was physically dragged in an unsuccesful attempt to remove them from the meeting room because they were angry at the board, sustaining light injuries. Several members were consistently misgendered during the meeting.
- An hour or two after the meeting, I received the email shown above. At no point during the week had I been approached by any of the board members to personally discuss my sign at pride and any consequences it might have. The only information I got — that there would be an emergency meeting and that I was not invited — I received when pressing the matter myself. I could get no more information out of the board than that, before the email. The other member excluded from our organisation received a similar email, stating that they had been banned as well. My wife received no personal explanation whatsoever, even after asking for one.
Right. So those are the facts, based mostly on personal experience, and on reports of people who attend the two meetings in question.
My thoughts and feelings, as you expect, are legion. I am, to put it in scientific terms, fucking pissed. However, I’m going to try to give a slightly more elaborate and constructive analysis. Here goes.
First of all, about my sign. Yes, it is a political sign. I would consider it mildly political in the sense that it is ambiguous, and does not refer directly to particular positions. The most political element of it, arguably, is the word “borders”. I did indeed intend to refer to the borders of our country, and the borders of Europe. Now, there is no statement in there about what should be done with and at our borders, I merely call attention to the fact that “our people” are dying there. This “our people” can refer to e.g. queer people, trans people, or people in general, depending on your own feelings regarding that phrase. This is intentional, as a way to get people to think about what they consider “our people”. Personally, for me it is all three. Obviously I have a political opinion about certain things that should be done with and at our borders. But that opinion is not expressed on the sign.
Now, it is something of a commonplace in my circles that ‘pride is a protest’. There is good historical basis for that statement, but in recent years we have seen a rising trend in pride organisations that see pride as a ‘neutral’ celebration of queerness, with no place for ‘political’ statements or protest. This view is echoed in the email above, and is in full display at events like Antwerp Pride and Amsterdam Pride, where political parties and corporations join the parade to emphasise their supposed LGBTQ+-friendliness. This feigned neutrality is a sham, of course, both in pride in general, but also in my (ex-)organisation.
It is certainly not the case that our organisation is a politically neutral place, as alleged in the email. According to my view of the political, it simply can’t be; any group of people, particularly a group of trans people, is a political organisation simply by virtue of existing as a group. Of course, what is meant in the email is that at our meetings (and our pride presence), we do not express any political opinions apart from our views on trans (and LGBTQ+) rights. This too is an illusion, one that was never borne out in practice, nor could it be. At meetings, people have been able to express political opinions, as they should. This ranges from ideas about employment and police treatment of trans people, to islamophobic statements with regard to the supposed danger Muslims pose to trans people, the latter of which I have always tried to contest when uttered in my presence, but never aggressively. Clearly, our organisation never was politically neutral.
A detail in this regard that I do not want to keep from you is that one of our board members, during pride, did not march with us, but with one of the Flemish political parties. To wit, one that is nationalist and right-wing. This member makes no secret of their political affiliation by marching under the party’s banner. That they did not bring the party’s banner to our group is to me a mere technicality, as anyone in the local LGBTQ+ scene who knows them knows that they are a board member of our organisation.
Regarding the email’s statements about people feeling “unwelcome due to the expression of political stances”, I would say first of all that the way this is applied here is inconsistent. If people felt unwelcome due to political stances, than clearly anyone expressing a fear of Muslims should have been called to attention long before any of this happened. Moreover, no one ever asked me — not this week, nor at any time before —whether I felt uncomfortable at our meetings because of any political stances. For the record: I did feel uncomfortable at times, but I never felt unsafe, which to me is a crucial distinction when it comes to handling politics in an organisation such as ours. More importantly, my wife, who is Muslim, was more profoundly bothered by such expressions of islamophobia, indeed to the point of not always feeling welcome in our organisation. We never made a point of this, but in the light of recent events perhaps we should have, although I wonder if the results would have been much different.
In this context, how is my sign, and that of my fellow excluded member, excessively political, while the general atmosphere in our organisation and the abovementioned board member’s actions are not?
The bottom line is that I believe that banning my fellow member and me does not follow from any politically neutral guiding principles, but from a personal disapproval of our political position by one or more of the board members. We were, in other words, ostracised.
What should we take away from all this? There are people in our organisations that are dedicated to furthering the political status quo (with the exception of (white) trans rights, which they want to improve, of course), by intentionally marginalising those with contrary opinions. Maintaining the apolitical, neutral façade that many organisations in Western societies are so fond of, in practice means silencing or banning (sometimes with violence) any voice that challenges the status quo.
At least now, in our case, the masks have come off, and we can move towards a different future. I’m sure I will meet a number of fellow members of our (ex-)organisation there.