EthicsGender & SexualityPoliticsSocial Interaction & Networks

Too Political

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.

Screen­shot of the ori­ginal email, writ­ten in Dutch.

 

Hello Odile,

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,
[redac­ted]

 

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.