I met Adrienne Rich once. She was speaking at a fundraiser, where I was working guest reception, and the whole thing was kind of boring for the most part. I do not remember what she said. At that time — and this was almost five years ago — she was quite frail and very much in failing health.
She reminded me of most of the women I met at the CLAGS conference on Lesbians in the 70s last year. That weekend was frustrating for about a million reasons, the most palpable of which was the seeming difficulty in overcoming the intergenerational divide between the young(ish) queer academic set, and women who had lived through the 70s and were there to find community with each other, to share their work, and to remember. This lead to all kinds of unfortunate clashes, but that is a story for another time.
These women — whom my generation, for better or for worse, has (often derisively) labelled “The Second Wave” of feminism — talked a lot about their lives that weekend. The internet is a weird place. People throw up their ideas on the screen, and they are these little scratches of meaning, argument, rhetoric, and while that certainly carries a kind of power, there is another kind of power in being in a room with someone, and experiencing their words, their language embodied, their visible affects, the way they interact (or don’t interact) with other people, and the amalgam of what happens as part of all that.
To break it down really simple: lesbians in the 70s had it hard, and they still have it hard. The women that I met, they were on food stamps then, and they’re still on food stamps now. They were marginally employed then, trying to make art and change that no one understood, and that gets laughed at now. Their old cars break down all the time and there is never any money to get them fixed and they can’t just bike around like they used to. All their spaces are gone: their bookstores, their cafes, their activist centers. They do not recognize what we call feminism as anything like the feminism they know and that has meant to so much to them; and, perhaps not surprisingly, they find our theory and our praxis highly suspect. They all have breast cancer. Some of them have had it a couple times.
Oppression creates fear, and thus, a politics of fear. I have been thinking some about that since Rich’s death. There is something emotional that is catching for me: did she know, did she really know, how damaging her collusion on this work would be to generations of low-income trans people to come? How much deep suffering and heartache it would cause? How it would bestow on us a whole new set of knives to rip each other up with?
When I see people posting reverently about Adrienne Rich in the past couple days, it inspires this panic response in me. You are not my friend. You do not have my back. I knew it. I knew you would bail all along, and that I could never trust you, and here you are, showing your true colors. We are not on the same team. We never were. It is always a lie. Fuck you.
I end up feeling this way kind of a lot.
My internet contacts cut a pretty wide swath through a couple different queer communities, and something like this always reminds me of how we are so different, and how difference is this gulf between people that can never be totally filled and only shakily bridged, and how all this factors into a fundamental impossibility of communication. It is a bummer.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the people I know who are posting about Adrienne Rich break down into two camps: 1) people who love trans women and are like, “uh, hey guys…” and 2) people who do not seem to care a whole lot about us, who post uncritical gush (like I mean you would think Whitney up and died all over again.) And certainly, though no one is necessarily obliged to care about trans women I guess, it all just makes me feel more isolated, more alone, more ostracized, more of a pariah, more shame, which are feelings I spend a lot of time feeling anyway.
I don’t remember what Adrienne Rich said that night, but it’s on the internet. However, so is a speech that this lady gave, that same night. She basically burned down the roof of the place. I will tell you, old radicals are my favorite radicals. I know it’s easy to hate on newly fired-up, barely post-adolescent revolutionaries (#occupy), but it really renews your faith to meet people who have spent a lifetime busting ass and busting heads and have won a few rounds with The Man. You can really learn a thing or two from these folks sometimes.
Do yourself a favor and watch that clip all the way through! It is 8 minutes long which is like a lifetime in YouTube time, and the sound is patchy, but it’s worth it. If you can’t manage that, Tumblr generation, let me quote, for instance, some of her concluding remarks:
I wanna tell you, your life will be made sweet by comrades and friends. And it doesn’t come naturally. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of effort. It takes chicken soup with matzoh balls when they’re sick. It takes a card or a call on a birthday. It takes lending them money when they don’t have it. It takes a lot of work to build friendship with the people with whom you struggle, but when you do, you get back twenty times what you invest.
We need to get enough sleep. None of us should smoke! We have a very important job to do and we need to stay alive and be healthy, and we have to help every one of our comrades to do the same, because when we do, our lives will be made sweet, and because I do, I am truly blessed.
Figuring out how to live together is hard. To exist in community with people who constantly piss you off is exhausting, but ultimately: worth it. As Ms. Goldin says, it is sweet. But in between, there are these things that set our teeth on edge about each other, and we start smiling the kind of smiles that are about baring teeth to each other. We don’t let it show that it stings, or we shrug it off like it’s no big deal, and we keep a running catalog of hurts in our head and a dossier of every aesthetic political statement everyone we know has ever made in public and index it against our own internal emotional safety actuarial matrices. And sometimes, if we trust you, we send you a text, or give you a call, or whisper to you at a party, or point blank bring it up while we’re making you lunch: “Hey. Did you know you hurt me? Can we talk about that? I think I trust you enough to be vulnerable enough to tell you about this, even though it’s going to make me seem like an oversensitive bitch.” I suppose that’s just how you get through, with other people, because the only way to get through is with other people.
These are the things we have learned to do
We who live in troubled regions.