Inclusion and Moving from Identity to Intention
July 8, 2011
Gender and Who “We” Are
NOLOSE is a volunteer-run organization dedicated to ending the oppression of fat people and creating vibrant fat queer culture. That’s been our mission since the early ‘90s. Since that time, our community has been defined by who “we” are (by nature, an evolving definition).
NOLOSE started out as the National Organization for Lesbians of SizE, firmly fixed in identity politics, as a community of fat dykes and bisexual women. As the years passed and the organization grew, we changed our policy to include not only a broader community of queer women—dykes, lesbians and bisexual women, including trans women—but also transgender people overall. This was partially in response to the evolving gender identities of people already in our community who were marginalized under the old policy.
Since then, NOLOSE and the annual NOLOSE Conference have been explicitly trans-inclusive, inviting all fat queer women (regardless of assigned sex or gender at birth), and all fat trans and gender-variant folks and our allies of *all* sexual orientations, with the specific exclusion of cisgender men (men who were assigned male at birth and identify that way now).
In the years since making this change, we’ve become aware that the altered policy continues to marginalize transgender people by requiring that they negate parts of their identities in order to be welcomed into the conference. For example, at this time trans men who attend can do so on the basis of having been formerly identified or socialized as female, but not on the basis of being men. At best, they can attend on the basis of being trans-men, which assumes a natural divide between cisgender men and trans men. This division can be dehumanizing.
While trans men are welcomed regardless of the degree to which they have undergone hormone treatment or gender confirmation surgeries, we understand that the current gender policy may not feel as welcoming to trans women who have either not yet undergone hormone treatment and surgical transition, cannot afford to, or choose not to. This is also dehumanizing and does not represent the kind of feminist body politics we wish to be a part of.
Although our previous policies seemed to make sense for the organization at the time, NOLOSE does not wish to police the bodies, gender identities and gender expressions of our community. Instead, we’d like create a place that welcomes people on the basis of their desire to help build fat-positive and anti-oppressive community.
Challenging Identity as a Focus
Identity politics have their use and appeal, but they’ve also been constricting for us and many social justice movements. Because we defined our conference as being for and by a particular group, we opened thorny questions about legitimacy, and who had the right to be present and heard. Had we not begun to challenge that definition, we would likely have had to deal with border disputes between people arguing about “how much” of some identity one must have in order to belong. This is a common challenge in groups and movements organizing for change around identity.
There are also complexities regarding representation—if we’re all in the same identity category, questions will invariably arise regarding what we say we want and how we should represent ourselves—often centered on the experience of assimilation/anti-assimilation. This can easily become a politics of shame, wherein those least able or least wanting to assimilate to some normative category get left behind. This perpetuates oppression and exclusion, drawing lines through the bodies of people.
We think there’s a better way for us. Rather than trying to agree about “who we are,” we want to come together around what is desired—what kind of ethics/politics we hold, and what kind of world we want to create. In the process, we remain cognizant of the fact that because we are differently impacted by relations of oppression and privilege, we also have different imperatives and investments in making change. Rather than try to bang out an ironclad code of conduct for what that means, we ask that everyone come willing to do the necessarily messy work of trying to figure out how to do anti-oppression politics and bring about social change and justice.
Because previous definitions of who belongs and who doesn’t haven’t worked for us, and because we believe that our NOLOSE community is shaped by the consciousness, ideological intent, and action of our participants rather than by identity, we’ve decided to change the criteria for conference attendance from an identity-based one to one that’s ideologically-based. This means that anyone aiming to help create a queer, fat positive, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-classist, anti-colonialist, feminist space will be welcome at NOLOSE. In effect, this means that all people interested in building fat-positive, queer, anti-oppressive community, including cisgender men, will be welcome at NOLOSE. Nobody will be excluded on the basis of identity. This change will be implemented by the time of our next conference.
It’s been a long process that brought us to this decision. We began by having several in-person discussions more than a year ago, then created a forum (held at the 2010 conference) that helped us, as a community, identify people’s hopes and fears regarding opening the conference up to cisgender men. That input was the basis of several discussions to follow, including a consultation with LGBT social worker Katy Bishop (a counselor with expertise in helping communities navigate issues of inclusion and exclusion). It was in a meeting facilitated by Katy that we outlined this new policy.
Challenging the Concept of Safety
One concern in regards to this policy that we want to specifically address is the fear of losing of what’s long been called “safe space.” This conference has often been more comfortable for white people, those with temporary physical ability, and mid-size folks, while others of us have had to field assumptions and been forced to educate those with more privilege in order to keep from becoming invisible. This isn’t our idea of safety.
While we respect people’s yearning for spaces that feel secure, we want to recognize that there is a distinction between being “safe” and being “comfortable.” In our policy considerations, we define “safe space” as space free from physical, verbal, and emotional violence; “comfort,” by contrast, often has more to do with lack of challenge around our preconceived beliefs, and may also be informed by individual privilege. In that sense, discomfort can be what allows us to challenge oppression and build more inclusive community. We challenge the idea that truly comfortable space is possible or even desirable.
We want a conference that lives up to social justice principles in regards to anti-violence, body size and ability, race and ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, and class background. We want it to be a space that’s less “comfortable” and more radical and conscious about the kind of world we all want to live in and work toward. This means sharing space that may be challenging for all of us, and in which we’re accountable to each other in order to meet those challenges with compassion and strength. This means taking risks, asking questions, being willing to learn and listen, and being responsible for our own learning as well.
Moving Forward Together
We want your input on how to actualize this policy. We, the board of NOLOSE, welcome suggestions and input from you all on how to make this policy and focus change work. We encourage you to email your ideas, concerns, and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s what we would especially like to hear about:
- Suggestions for things to include in the conference mission.
- What do you, as a community member, need to help you through this policy and focus transition?
- Are there structural ways that the conference can respond to your needs in regards to the new policy?
We welcome you to join in this space with us. It’s an ongoing adventure that’ll bring its own perils, wisdom, and love with it. Thanks for sharing it with us.
The NOLOSE Board of Directors
Tara Shuai, Co-President
Galadriel Mozee, Co-President
Kim Paulus, Vice President
Geleni Fontaine, Secretary
Edited to add: While our inspiration for this policy change comes from a myriad of places (including conversations with and feedback from many NOLOSE community members, internal board discussions, facilitated board discussions and conversations with friends and allies), there are a number of specific sources we looked to that we want to cite here:
- Meleo-Erwin, Z. (2012). “Disrupting normal: Toward the ‘ordinary and familiar’ in fat politics.” Feminism and Psychology. Forthcoming. Published online 5/7/12.
- Copenhagen Queerfestival http://www.queerfestival.org/index.php/news-reader/items/no-safer-spaces-this-year.html
- Koyama, E. (2002). ‘A Fest in Distress.’ Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. Issue 17. http://eminism.org/michigan/20020700-bitch.txt
- Tremain, S. (2006) ‘On the Government of Disability: Foucault, Power, and the Subject of Impairment.’ The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Davis, L. New York: Routledge.
- Galadriel Mozee