The last three weeks have passed in static-filled silence. A white noise that blankets the bottom of my brain and forms a barrier between my perception and myself. I am somewhere stranded on the other side of the steady crackle, and in the meanwhile, I go through motions, and when I come to a stop, I stare.
This is not unfamiliar. When I was young, and didn’t know myself, the absence would amplify itself interminably. The strain of disconnection and the rising panic, bouncing off the walls of my skull as time slowed to a stop. The thick afternoon light falling in fat triangles as the world goes on, purposively, outside the window. The dead weight of a blank, silently-screaming eternity.
I know myself better now. I don’t panic. I soon notice the signs. I hear the crackle, and am blessedly certain that I am still there on the other side. I am not fatally flawed or broken beyond repair. I am not consigned forever to this place that time forgot. It is futile ricocheting around my skull searching for solutions. (Breathe). Stop. Remember. (Breathe). You have been here before. (Breathe). It is simple. (Breathe). You are upset.
But it is not so simple. The crackle is created because I am upset about something I have decided I cannot be upset about. Because I am upset about something I think I can do nothing about. I am upset about something that therefore, I have forgotten.
It took years of the past to find the absent sources of these absences. I unfolded my story slowly – by following the symptoms, and emotional excavation. Below the seemingly solid crust of static, a substrata of annihilating rage wrapped around a dense core of pain, which, when unleashed, was mobile enough to shock every slice of my spine out of its alignment.
This, I came to understand, is what the incessant, immoderate violence of the needs of men does to the body of child who is powerless to protect herself. It is what inculcation in shame does to the body of a young woman unable to even think resistance, who knows that survival depends only on self-contortion, and acquiescence, and denial.
Through psychoanalysis, and feminism, and feminist psychoanalysis, I learnt the words to speak what had happened to me. I learnt that it was not okay, and that it was not my fault. I learned that the contents of the once-impervious black box at the core of my story was both comfortingly, and horrifyingly, mundane. I learnt that I was not crazy, or hysterical, or broken, or monstrous. I was not a snake-haired gorgon, or a chasm of need which would consume everything it encountered. I was not self-loathing-torpor, or abnegation, or striving or perfectionism. I was a person with needs raised in a world where persons like me are not allowed needs (unless that need is to service the needs of others). I learned to say what I wanted. I learned to say no.
And so finally I remember, that three weeks ago, the internet TERF-war reached, for me, its apotheosis. There are many formulations and intricacies, but it comes down to this. On the one side, the need of women-born-and-socialized-as-men to have their identity affirmed by women-born-and-socialized-as-women. And on the other, the need of women-born-and-socialized-as-women to say no, to anyone, but especially to those who refuse their right to do so, those who usually (and non-coincidentally) happen to be people born-and-socialized-as-men
This is fucking feminism ground zero. I know you think you are going to bring the whole thing down with your half-arsed deconstructing binaries (newsflash, you ain’t getting out of metaphysics) and your magic queering pixie dust. But you misunderstand the whole fucking problem. The problem isn’t that your brain makes distinctions between things that are actually not entirely distinct. That’s just how concepts work, and it’s a damn good job they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to brush you teeth in the morning, or make it to the other side of the bedroom without stepping on your cat. The problem isn’t that we’re more or less sexually dimorphic animals (with a few exceptions, and fuzzy at the edges, like all schematizations). The problem is – as has been said innumerable times, and apparently cannot be heard – that GENDER IS A HIERARCHY.
Gender is a class, not an essence. People are put into that class on the basis of their potential reproductive capacity (viz. the fact that that capacity may or may not be (able to be) exercised does not determine whether you are placed into that class). This is done because this class-system – which us old-fashioned types like to call patriarchy – is designed for the purpose of the dominating class appropriating the reproductive labour of the dominated class. Because it is a class, and not an essence, you a free to join that class if it will make your life more livable, but it would, at the very least, be respectful, to recognise that entering that class at some point in your life does make you different from those who were put there at birth and socialized to internalize beliefs and manifest behaviors which serve to perpetuate their oppression.
So, the way this works. The people in the dominated class are subjected to systematic violence from the moment they are placed in that class. When they are children, if they are lucky, that mostly consists of them being informed in more of less subtle ways that their needs are shameful, dangerous, monstrous, and that in order to be loved they must put other people’s needs – especially people in the dominant class – above their own. Their capacities for self-directed action and expression are punished and coerced, they are reprimanded for being too noisy, inquisitive, intelligent, demanding, attention-seeking, talking too much or taking up too much room. They are not allowed to move freely in and occupy space. They are taught to fold their limbs and avert their gaze and not get dirty and speak in a tremor and not notice being constantly interrupted.
And this is before puberty. Puberty is the real breaking in. A hitherto lifetime of inculcated passivity and shame is compounded a hundred-fold from the moment a girl-child shows the first indication of sexuality. From then on it’s a more or less incessant twenty-year gamut of fondling and cat-calls and stone-throwing and being forced up against walls, and pushed down on the ground. Of strange men sticking their hands between your legs, and shoving their fingers down your throat. It is having your insides clench so tightly that when you open your eyes in the morning the only way to stop the vertigo is to pretend it never happened. You exit the train carriage and as the doors close you wipe it from you mind. This is the world. There is nothing you can do. Just pretend it never happened.
And then, after years struggling with the static, you learn to remember. And you realize that you don’t have to accept. That there are words that you can use, and women you can talk to, and finally, finally, a way to resist. Together, holding each other up against the swell of the pain, we open our mouths, and we say one single word. We say NO.
Three weeks ago, after battling through the endless pretzel logic and name-calling one more time, I hit a wall. I have spent my life on justice. I care that people suffer, and I want them to have all and every support that they need in order to alleviate that suffering. But in a world in which women are bent and broken from birth in the service of the needs of men, and where, since time immemorial, we have been considered nothing but the mirrors of men’s egos, I cannot acquiesce. In a world in which we have to struggle for years to find a shred of belief in the legitimacy of our own needs, and still have to cling together to have the courage to say NO, I. Will. Not.
I did, for three weeks. I went away, sad and hopeless and defeated. We are used to defending ourselves. Against charges of hysteria. Of whoreishness and prudishness. Of blue-stockinged unfuckability. But this. This incessant stream of vitriol. This dogged insistence that my need to name my oppression is a hate-crime. That the nourishment I draw from the occasional spaces where I can freely speak that oppression is akin to murder. That my ever-contested, and hard-won, ability to say no is now, in looking-glass land, the exemplification of domination.
My will was crushed by the thought-terminating tautologies and by the hate, and by a familiar sense of violation still too painful to stare at squarely. I went away and the static set in. But I know myself better now. I look for the signs. And after a spell of staring I remembered to look inside. And there, below the crust, was the old, familiar fury.
I hear you say you are winning. And if that victory means better medical care, and more quotidian tolerance, and greater visibility, and more self-acceptance, then it can only be a good. But it cannot come at the price of erasing the violence done to the people you claim as your sisters. You cannot take our language and our space and the tools made over many years to make our lives livable in the wake of this violence and expect us – as good woman are taught – to acquiesce. You cannot demand our welcome when your own pain blinds you so utterly to why, in this world, a woman must be able to say no. And if winning means a final and decisive annihilation of our no, believe me, you will not win.
I SAY NO.
NO NO NO.
NO NO NO NO NO.
NO NO NO NO NO. NO NO NO.
I SAID NO.
I SAID NO.
I SAID NO I SAID NO.
I SAID NO ISAIDNO ISAIDNO ISAIDNO.
You say that you are us.
To be us
Is to understand why we say no,
And why we must be able to say no.
We can only move forward from here.