An Open Letter on Identity Politics, to and from the Left
We, the undersigned, are in the uncomfortable position of reporting on a problem that we are told does not exist.
We ask you to consider a few incidents.
In 1968, the leftist Shulamith Firestone gives a speech at a conference. She is giving voice to one side of a debate that has arisen within radical youth movements; on the one side, many radicals argue that capitalism is the only true enemy, and the only cause of oppression. On the other, equally radical women note that capitalism alone is not a sufficient explanation for why they are excluded from leadership positions in their own groups, or why they are treated in exploitative and abusive ways by male radicals.
“We women often have to wonder if [men] mean what you say about revolution or whether you just want more power for yourselves,” Firestone says. “This time we aren’t going to wait for your revolutionary clarity… we’ve learned better.”
The reaction to her speech, people recall, was “like a riot was breaking out.” Men begin chanting “take it off” and “take her off the stage and fuck her” to drown Firestone out. An organizer, panicked, tells Firestone’s co-presenter to “shut Shulie up,” and tries to get both women off the stage. “If radical men can so easily be provoked into acting like rednecks, what can we expect from others?” Ellen Willis asks.
Willis’ sympathetic reporting on the incident receives angry letters to the editor, informing Willis that “the enemy is not man, but capitalism.” And so it continues.
In 1973, trans, queer leftist Sylvia Rivera — one of the women who famously started the Stonewall riots and sparked one of the century’s great justice movements — takes the stage at the New York Liberation Day Rally. She represents STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and her talk is on transgender women in prison.
Those women, Rivera says, are beaten, raped, and denied necessary medical treatments. They can’t write to gay male activists for help: Gay men ignore them. They can’t write to feminist organizations for help: Cis feminists revile them. Those women can only write to Sylvia, and to STAR. And as Sylvia takes the stage, the crowd makes it very clear why that is.
“Shut the fuck up,” a woman shrieks, over and over again, as Rivera takes the mic. Gay men bellow and boo at the stage. The noise is impossible. Before long, Rivera is shrieking too, screaming in an effort to be heard over the crowd.
“I will not put up with this shit,” she yells. “I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment, for gay liberation, and you treat me this way? What the fuck is wrong with you all?”
There she stands, one of the women who started the GLBT rights movement in America, pleading, screaming, just to be heard. Just to have her life, and the lives of women like her, acknowledged by cisgender gay men and lesbians.
“Shut the fuck up,” the crowd continues to holler. And so it continues.
In 2015, two young black women,* Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford, occupy the stage at an event for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. They speak for Black Lives Matter, a radical group aimed at exposing and resisting the murder of people of color by the police.
“Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the ruthless murder of Michael Brown,” Johnson says. “It is time that we honor that here and now.”
“We’ve already done it,” a woman shouts from the crowd. “HOW DARE YOU,” a man bellows. The boos cascade over the stage. By the end of the speech, the young women appear visibly shaken, perhaps on the verge of tears. They are subsequently accused of working for Goldman Sachs, a powerful financial institution, or directly working for one of Mr. Sanders’ opponents, Hillary Clinton.
Gawker publishes a response to the incident, by a white and male writer, Hamilton Nolan. The article, entitled “Don’t Piss On Your Best Friend,” sums up the women’s actions as follows: “It is stupid, don’t do it.” Nolan goes on, at length, to describe which political tactics are “appropriate” and inappropriate for Black Lives Matter protesters, and concludes: “If you truly care about such inequality, you should be planning to vote for Bernie Sanders… closing the racial wealth gap is probably the single most effective thing that any politician could do to help advance the cause of ending structural racism in America.”
The enemy, in other words, is not whiteness but capitalism. And so it continues.
And, in 2016, we find ourselves needing to speak, again and again, about the harassment we have received from our friends and colleagues. One woman criticized a male colleague’s book cover. She has been called a “clinical lunatic,” a “mentally ill house pet,” a “psycho,” and has seen any friend who supports her accused of “enabling her mental illness” — mental illness which that male colleague initially spread rumors about online, telling others she was “not well.” One woman worked for seven months on loan modifications; she has been accused, over and over, of “throwing poor black people out of their homes” (she is, herself, a black woman); complete strangers have dug up documents pertaining to her former employer, posted them publicly, and spent hours browbeating her via social media. One woman — again, in this instance, a woman of color — mentioned seeing a racist Tweet from a Bernie Sanders supporter; she has received photos of naked men asking her for “dates,” and threats to “twist her tits off” and “rip her guts out with a garden trowel.” One woman was confronted by a popular left-leaning blogger over what he saw as a statistical inaccuracy; she saw photos from the inside of her apartment unearthed from an anonymous AirBnB page and shared on social media by that man’s co-workers and friends.
These are not the only stories. There are many more like them. They do not impact and oppress cis women alone, but people all along the gender identity spectrum. The impact of misogyny on trans women is often substantially more intense and targeted than the impact many cisgender women experience. Trans men, genderqueer and non-binary people are also targeted for attacks which are both transphobic and, often, fueled by misogyny.* One non-binary writer did nothing more than file a correction for an article which misgendered them as a woman; for this, they received a loud round of stinging mockery and disparagement from both Gawker and Salon. Nor are these stories confined to bad experiences on social media: Women have been threatened in their workplaces and by their co-workers. Women have been invited to “meet up for activism,” or for jobs at progressive publications, only to be propositioned by the men who invited them. Women have reported sexual harassment and assault within progressive organizations, only to see those allegations blown off. Those with life choices or circumstances which many on the left state they respect and want to help protect, like sex workers or sexual abuse survivors, are often more intensely harassed, rather than more protected in that additional vulnerability and marginalization. Those experiences or circumstances are often used to arm harassment as much as to disarm it.
In one instance, two female leftists came forward to accuse WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of rape — they had met him while organizing and attending events for WikiLeaks — and were accused of secretly working for the CIA to take him down, or (in Assange’s words) of belonging to a “hornet’s nest of radical feminism” aimed at destroying men’s lives. Prominent leftists organized to raise bail for Assange while those women had their photos and names published by major media outlets (a flagrant violation of standard procedure for reporting on rape cases) and anonymous commenters spread their home addresses and phone numbers online. In another, a progressive PR firm operated for years, representing NARAL, MoveOn and Amnesty International; its reputation in the wider community was spotless until over half a dozen female employees — and female clients — reported being groped or sexually harassed by its founder, Trevor FitzGibbon.
Yet, once the story broke, women came forth to say that FitzGibbon’s behavior was an “open secret.” They had been warning each other against working with him, or being alone with him, for years.
We all live with “open secrets.” Most of us have already sent or been sent the messages — watch out for that guy, he… — about more than one man, in more than one context, in more than one year. And “open secrets” alone are never enough to protect us: As in the case of NARAL, MoveOn and Amnesty, or the heroic women who worked with WikiLeaks, the best of us can still be drawn in by an abuser if we do not receive those warnings in time. And the breakdown of trust those abusers create within their communities is often some of the most lingering damage they cause.
Yet, on the occasion that we choose to forgo “open secrets” and speak publicly about the problem, we have have been told we are “vicious liars,” that we are “informants” or “McCarthyites” or “authoritarians,” that we are interested in quashing “disagreement,” or “debate.” None of us are lying. And all of us are able to identify our attackers, because they are familiar to us. They are people who have done this and similar things, as part of a steady, identifiable, and escalating pattern, for years.
All of us know why it is being done. Because we have been told why it is being done, many times.
It is being done because we have been identified as representatives of “identity politics.” Representatives of feminism, of anti-racism, of trans rights, of disability rights, of queer rights, of movements which explicitly aim for an intersectional approach to both economic and social justice. For these crimes, we have been serially, violently, sexually and continually harassed, with the aim of purging us from our positions or from our own movements, in order to establish a “pure,” exclusively class-based, left.
We are the Left. We are long-standing and devoted activists and advocates, whose work concerns reproductive health care access, ending rape culture, queer and youth advocacy, the protest of the criminal justice system’s systemic racism, sex and sexuality work, the sustained critique of media bias relating to marginalized people, ending economic injustice and income inequality, and more. We have unionized our workplaces; we have protested; we have marched. We have Occupied. We speak to the Left because, for many of us, it is where we live, work, fall in love, find our friends, make community and find the support for our continued survival and well-being. Our investment is not, and cannot reasonably be, in doubt.
Moreover, we are the people the Left explicitly stands in solidarity with, as the entire reason for its being including the economic class issues so much of leftism is often centered in: 70% of the nation’s poor are women, or those women’s children. Transphobia, homophobia, disability and domestic violence are all directly connected to homelessness. Much of this nation’s working class is comprised of people of color; the victims of America’s prison-industrial complex are, disproportionately, people of color, or mentally ill, or both; immigration status is not only connected to class and race, but also one of the major issues the Right is currently exploiting to push a campaign built on white, male hatred. We stand in solidarity with these groups, not out of any abstract ideal, but because we, ourselves, are in the same danger; we belong to the classes being oppressed, have experienced the violence of discrimination, and have an innate and self-motivated interest in ending the varieties of capitalist oppression described.
We are the Left. We have always been with you. When you act for the Left, you act in our names. And it is in the spirit of collective action that we speak now, to make the following demands.
1) We call upon progressives to acknowledge that all politics are identity politics.
That sexism and racism exist cannot seriously be in doubt for any progressive person in the year 2016. Everyone has an identity; every identity is political, whether because it is marginalized or because it benefits from the marginalization of others. It is not “enlightening” or fresh or radical to ignore identity-based oppressions, or minimize them, or demand marginalized people stop talking about them. Oppression is not a “debate” or a “discussion.” It’s a fact. You can “debate” gravity all day, but that won’t change what happens when you drop a bowling ball on your foot. You can “debate” sexism all day, too. The outcome of sexist behaviors remains the same.
Viewpoints which attack “identity politics” directly attack marginalized people. Viewpoints which do not take racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, whorephobia or transphobia into account are not “universal” or “pure” — they are biased in favor of white, male, straight, Christian or cisgender people.
The incidents of direct violence and harassment we have reported are facilitated by an environment in which our political concerns are marginalized, trivialized and mocked. One reproductive rights advocate found herself on a panel with a man who boasted about registering pro-life voters, so that he could push a “true progressive agenda.” When she confronted him about the implication — that a “true” progressive agenda included denying women and trans people life-saving healthcare and forcing them to carry unwanted pregnancies — he responded with anger, dismissiveness, and gaslighting. In another, a woman simply told a man, in the middle of a conversation about drone warfare, that she specialized in reproductive rights and hadn’t done much work on drones. She was told that “abortions are drone strikes for babies.” Subsequently, men joked that “if it doesn’t have to do with her vagina, she doesn’t care about it.” None of this is disconnected from the fact that, in a year of Democratic presidential debates, many of which hinged on the definition of “progressive,” neither candidate was asked a single question about abortion. When our concerns are minimized, and written out of the political narrative, our lives and safety are written out as well.
Nor is this phenomenon confined to any one issue. Biphobia and sizeism are consistently written out of the list of identity-based oppressions.* There are cases where outright exclusion occurs. People with disabilities are constantly erased from identity politics — events are hosted in venues with no accessibility or appropriate resources, which literally exclude them from participating. Their experiences are erased when ableism is presented solely as a mental health issue (ignoring many who face different issues). But mostly, they are not considered in the realm of identity politics at all despite the overwhelming rate of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, discrimination, incarceration and social marginalization.
Oppression consists, not only of brute force and resource inequality, but of the hierarchy of speech: The ability of those in power to decide whose voices are heard, whose experiences matter, whose concerns or goals are “serious” and “political” and whose are merely “personal” and should be ignored. To overturn this hierarchy, it is essential that marginalized people speak to their own concerns, define the agenda, lead movements, and continually complicate the white, male picture of the world with their own perspectives. You cannot “purify” us out of the Left by re-imposing the old hierarchies of speech. You cannot get a “better” or “truer” left by eliminating the truths we bring you. You cannot simplify us out of the Left, because when you do so, you stop being the Left: You become the status quo, upholding and celebrating the exact hierarchy you say you exist to oppose.
Which is to say: Attacks on “identity politics” are not progressive. They are identity politics — an openly conservative identity politics, aimed at delegitimizing marginalized people’s concerns, and centering white, straight men in perpetuity. And, because they explicitly reinforce the oppression of those most harmed by capitalism, they effectively undermine any chance the left has of reaching its goals.
2) We call upon our fellow progressives to recognize that abuse is not dissent.
This statement is not being put together by people who unilaterally agree with each other. Some of us have criticized each other in the past — thoroughly. Though the recent incidents seem to have corresponded to the Democratic primary, the people actually harmed include enthusiastic supporters of Senator Sanders, Secretary Clinton, and possibly even Jill Stein. We disagree on tactics. We disagree on issues. Some are socialist, some are not. Some call themselves “progressives,” some “leftists,” some simply “liberal.” Each of us has a slightly different idea of what an ideal “progressive” agenda would look like in practice; each of us has developed our own priorities and threshold for compromise in the name of that agenda; each of us has disagreed with other progressives on these things.
What we do not do, however, is send each other sexually explicit or violent images, inveigh against each other with slurs, make claims about each other that we know to be untrue and inflammatory, respond to any discussion of oppression with personal insults, follow each other around the Internet leaving nasty comments on each other’s pieces, set up fake social media accounts to harass each other, monitor each other’s communications, coordinate pile-ons, send explicit or implicit threats, dox, defame, discredit, or degrade each other.
None of this is “disagreement.” It is abuse. It is oppression. It is disproportionately aimed at and disproportionately harmful for those of us living with intersectional oppressions: Trans and non-binary people, disabled women, women of color, poor women, queer women, for whom the lack of safety and support in progressive spaces is potentially disastrous, given that they already live in a world where there is precious little support for their survival. It does not promote healthy and illuminating discussion or disagreement — it actively makes that disagreement impossible, by making the penalties for discussion so severe and frightening that people become unable or unwilling to speak. If you care about maintaining the right to dissent, you should set your sights on stopping the abuse, not the complaints about being abused.
3) We call upon each and every one of our fellow progressives to clean up their own house.
Abuse has been actively facilitated by the silence and cooperation of our communities. We have seen people go quiet around this issue, and in the space provided by that silence, abusers have been legitimized, condoned, and given free rein to escalate their abusive behavior indefinitely.
“Identity politics” is not free of these patterns, either. White women have been silent about the harassment of women of color, or have facilitated it, or enacted it. Cisgender women have doxxed, threatened, excluded, or otherwise targeted transgender women and non-binary people. In each case, the problem was the same: The abuse existed, either because no-one outside of the targeted groups knew it was happening, or because people who did know did not address it openly.
In one case, a white man, Hugo Schwyzer, targeted women of color for years. Hugo, too, was an “open secret.” Some white women stayed quiet in the hopes of avoiding him — he had a very real tendency to fixate on women who confronted him — and some stayed quiet in the hopes that ignoring the problem would make it go away. Some stayed quiet because they did not take the problem seriously. But that silence was exactly what Schwyzer relied on to escalate his abuse and escape consequences. One of our writers, a white woman, only realized how severe the problem was when a woman of color wrote a post critical of Schwyzer on the blog they shared, and Schwyzer contacted her about taking the post down. But by that time, the problem was so severe, and white women’s silence was so hurtful, that the trust between feminists of color and white feminists had completely disintegrated. We will never know how much stronger or healthier our movements might be, had white women been more willing to listen to women of color, and more willing to speak out against their oppressions.*
If we see people being harmed, it is our duty to help them. If we see bigoted behavior in our communities, it is our duty to call it what it is. We call upon men to address sexist behavior, white people to address racist behavior, cisgender and straight people to address transphobic, biphobic and homophobic behavior, and everyone to say what they see, when they see it. And we ask that each of us be self-reflective and willing to admit when they may be wrong, or when their own behavior may be causing harm. No-one can clean up all of the garbage, but we can each pick up whatever pieces we see in front of us throughout the day. This only works if we have each other’s backs.
We are the Left. We are not attacking our movements by speaking about these problems; we are not harming them; we are not dividing them. We are making our movements possible.
Because when you target us, harass us, diminish us, oppress us, you lose us. You lose the coalition you need to organize. You lose the credibility you need to persuade. You lose the people who could have or would have helped you. And when you spend all your ammunition on taking us down, you will, eventually, realize the real problem: When it’s time for the revolution, you will have driven out so many of your fellow progressives that you find yourselves charging up that hill all alone.
Alice Driver, Amber Dawn Mitchell, Amie Newman, Amy Gray, Andi Zeisler, Andra Dare, Angus Johnston, Anil Dash, Ann Friedman, Anne Enke, Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, Avital Norman Nathman, Bettina Ramon, Briana Dixon, Brianna Wu, Carol Queen, Casper ter Kuile, Cheryl Chastine, Chitra Panjabi, Christine Hart, Claire Kissinger, Connor Clay, Dacia Mitchell, Dahlia Lithwick, Dana Northcraft, David Futrelle, David von Ebers, Dionne Obeso, Dirk Lester, Edie Jarolim, Eileen T. Flynn, Eliza Cussen, Emily Sheffield, Erica Prosser Marshall, Erin Herlihy, Erin Matson, Feminista Jones, Gabriel Arana, Gregory Cendana, Hanne Blank, Heather Corinna, Holly Snow, Idit Klein, Ijeoma Oluo, Imani Gandy, Jaclyn Friedman, Jacqui Shine, Jamia Wilson, Jamie Nesbitt Golden, Jan Harrison, Janna Zinzi, Jelena Woehr, Jenn Smith Lejano, Jenna Sauers, Jennifer Pozner, Jessica Arons, Jessica Ensley, Jessica Luther, Jessica Mason Pieklo, Jillian Foster, Jodi Jacobson, Josh Shahryar, Kari Lerum, Kate Baxter-Kauf, Kate Forbes, Katherine Cross, Katie Klabusich, Katie O’Connell, Kebé, Kerri Lyn, Kindred Motes, Kira Manser, Kristen Sollee, Lachrista Greco, Laura A. Craig Mason, Laura Goulding, Lauren Bruce, Lauren Golanty, Lauren Rankin, Lee Solomon, Lena Chen, Lily Bolourian, Liz Plank, Liz Tripp, Lizz Winstead, Loretta Ross, Louis Kissinger, Ludovic Blain, Lux Alptraum, Madison Kimrey, Maha Rafi Atal, Mallica Dutt, Matt Osborne, Marcus Johnson, Margaret Maffai, Maria Peeples, Melissa McEwan, Melissa Silverstein, Mia Brett, Michael Kimmel, Michelle Kinsey Bruns, Mikki Kendall, Ming-Shing Fan, Mira Curzer, Moira Weigel, Molly Haigh, Mona Eltahawy, Monika Brooks, N’Jaila Rhee, Natalie Kissinger, Natasha Vianna, Nicole Julien, Nicole Naghi, Nicole Stipp, Nora Reed, Pam Keesey, Pamela Merritt, Princess Harmony, Rachel Hills, Rebecca Kling, Renee Bracey Sherman, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ron Hogan, S.E. Smith, Sady Doyle, Sam Wall, Sara Davidson, Sarah Deer, Sarah Kendzior, Senthorun Raj, Shafiqah Hudson, Shannon Drury, Shanthony Exum, Shaun Lau, Shelby Knox, Shireen Mitchell, Siri Nelson, Sonya Renee Taylor, Soraya Chemaly, Stephanie Gilmore, Steph Herold, Suzanna Walters, Sydette Harry, Teddy Wilson, ThePansyBastard (TM), Tina Vasquez, Tom Head, Tonia Thompson, Trista Winnie Fraser, Veronica Arreola, Wagatwe Wanjuki, Zoe Krause, Zoe Nicholson, and those members of our initial organizing coalition who remained anonymous, because the cost of being named was just too high.
- CORRECTION: This sentence, which initially read “they affect, not women alone, but people along the gender identity spectrum: Trans men, genderqueer and nonbinary people are all targeted for misogyny,” could initially be read to misgender both transgender women and transgender men. We’ve received immensely useful critique on this matter and have adjusted copy to (we hope) emphasize the role of transphobia in these attacks and enhance the precision of the passage in question. We’re currently reaching out to our critics on this front in the hopes of crediting them with this insight, but feel it would be unethical to name specific people without their permission on a statement that is both relatively high-profile and an established harassment risk for those named.
- CORRECTION: We’ve received word that Johnson and Willaford prefer to be identified as black women, rather than “women of color.” Our apologies.
- CORRECTION: One of our editorial and organizing team personally requested a few edits and mentions specifically regarding sex work and sex workers after publication; we agreed to those changes as a team and the letter now includes them.
- CORRECTION: Two readers individually and separately requested spotlights given to biphobia and sizeism, with both people citing these issues’ larger invisibility in progressive communities; we’ve incorporated that here, with an additional spotlight on biphobia in our list of oppressions straight people should and must address.
- CORRECTION: At the request of a reader, the end of this graf on white women and Hugo Schwyzer has been adjusted from “had white women been more willing to listen to women of color, and more willing to speak out” to “had white women been more willing to listen to women of color, and more willing to speak out against their oppressions.”
- FINAL EDIT DEADLINE: We will no longer be making editorial changes after Saturday, July 16th. If you’d like to make a suggestion or ask for an editorial change, simply comment below on or before that date and let us know. Thank you. UPDATE: As of 6 PM EST on July 19, edits on the letter are closed. Thanks for asking us for more.