How Kyriarchy Infects Good Movements

Cross posted at Dissenting Leftist

Many left libertarians, particularly of the feminist variety, use the term kyriarchy as an umbrella term denoting intersecting structures of domination and power. For instance, I spend a lot of my time critiquing the kyriarchy that results from an intersection of statism, militarism, nationalism, transphobia, ageism, ableism, homophobia, misogyny, puritanism, racism, corporatism, class divisions, and other such phenomena.

Well, lately I’ve been noticing that one of the main problems with kyriarchy is that specific liberation movements end up plagued with many structures of domination.

One great example is this article by Courtney Desiree Morris, describing gender violence in radical left and anti-racist movements, and how this enables state violence against such movements. The entire article is well worth reading, but I’ll post a few key excerpts below.

To save our movements, we need to come to terms with the connections between gender violence, male privilege, and the strategies that informants (and people who just act like them) use to destabilize radical movements. Time and again heterosexual men in radical movements have been allowed to assert their privilege and subordinate others. Despite all that we say to the contrary, the fact is that radical social movements and organizations in the United States have refused to seriously address gender violence [1] as a threat to the survival of our struggles. We’ve treated misogyny, homophobia, and heterosexism as lesser evils—secondary issues—that will eventually take care of themselves or fade into the background once the “real” issues—racism, the police, class inequality, U.S. wars of aggression—are resolved. There are serious consequences for choosing ignorance. Misogyny and homophobia are central to the reproduction of violence in radical activist communities. Scratch a misogynist and you’ll find a homophobe. Scratch a little deeper and you might find the makings of a future informant (or someone who just destabilizes movements like informants do).

Then, she provides an insightful historical perspective in which to ground discussion of gender violence in leftist and anti-racist movements.

Reflecting on the radical organizations and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s provides an important historical context for this discussion. Memoirs by women who were actively involved in these struggles reveal the pervasiveness of tolerance (and in some cases advocacy) of gender violence. Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Elaine Brown, each at different points in their experiences organizing with the Black Panther Party (BPP), cited sexism and the exploitation of women (and their organizing labor) in the BPP as one of their primary reasons for either leaving the group (in the cases of Brown and Shakur) or refusing to ever formally join (in Davis’s case). Although women were often expected to make significant personal sacrifices to support the movement, when women found themselves victimized by male comrades there was no support for them or channels to seek redress. Whether it was BPP organizers ignoring the fact that Eldridge Cleaver beat his wife, noted activist Kathleen Cleaver, men coercing women into sex, or just men treating women organizers as subordinated sexual playthings, the BPP and similar organizations tended not to take seriously the corrosive effects of gender violence on liberation struggle. In many ways, Elaine Brown’s autobiography, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story, has gone the furthest in laying bare the ugly realities of misogyny in the movement and the various ways in which both men and women reproduced and reinforced male privilege and gender violence in these organizations. Her experience as the only woman to ever lead the BPP did not exempt her from the brutal misogyny of the organization. She recounts being assaulted by various male comrades (including Huey Newton) as well as being beaten and terrorized by Eldridge Cleaver, who threatened to “bury her in Algeria” during a delegation to China. Her biography demonstrates more explicitly than either Davis’s or Shakur’s how the masculinist posturing of the BPP (and by extension many radical organizations at the time) created a culture of violence and misogyny that ultimately proved to be the organization’s undoing.
These narratives demystify the legacy of gender violence of the very organizations that many of us look up to. They demonstrate how misogyny was normalized in these spaces, dismissed as “personal” or not as important as the more serious struggles against racism or class inequality. Gender violence has historically been deeply entrenched in the political practices of the Left and constituted one of the greatest (if largely unacknowledged) threats to the survival of these organizations. However, if we pay attention to the work of Davis, Shakur, Brown, and others, we can avoid the mistakes of the past and create different kinds of political community.

And of course, on these matters racial privilege ends up plaguing even explicitly anti-racist movements.

Race further complicates the ways in which gender violence unfolds in our communities. In “Looking for Common Ground: Relief Work in Post-Katrina New Orleans as an American Parable of Race and Gender Violence,” Rachel Luft explores the disturbing pattern of sexual assault against white female volunteers by white male volunteers doing rebuilding work in the Upper Ninth Ward in 2006. She points out how Common Ground failed to address white men’s assaults on their co-organizers and instead shifted the blame to the surrounding Black community, warning white women activists that they needed to be careful because New Orleans was a dangerous place. Ultimately it proved easier to criminalize Black men from the neighborhood than to acknowledge that white women and transgender organizers were most likely to be assaulted by white men they worked with. In one case, a white male volunteer was turned over to the police only after he sexually assaulted at least three women in one week. The privilege that white men enjoyed in Common Ground, an organization ostensibly committed to racial justice, meant that they could be violent toward women and queer activists, enact destructive behaviors that undermined the organization’s work, and know that the movement would not hold them accountable in the same way that it did Black men in the community where they worked.

But then awareness of the racial privilege can end up turning into a form of rape apologism when the violence is committed by men of color.

We often worry about reproducing particular kinds of racist violence that disproportionately target men of color. We are understandably loath to call the police, involve the state in any way, or place men of color at the mercy of a historically racist criminal (in)justice system; yet our communities (political and otherwise) often do not step up to demand justice on our behalf. We don’t feel comfortable talking to therapists who just reaffirm stereotypes about how fucked-up and exceptionally violent our home communities are. The Left often offers even less support. Our victimization is unfortunate, problematic, but ultimately less important to “the work” than the men of all races who reproduce gender violence in our communities.

Of course, the problem isn’t just in anti-racist movements. Sexual liberation movements have been plagued with problems of perpetuating kyriarchy for years. As a privileged white male, I’m relatively ignorant of racism in these movements, but here’s the Wiki on racism in the LGBT community for your perusal and privilege checking. However, I have noted various sex and gender issues that plague our communities and movements.

Take, for instance, transphobia. Among lesbian feminists, particularly in the 1980’s, transphobia has been rampant. Janice Raymond even published a book called The Transsexual Empire in which she argued that transwomen were infiltrating feminism, and even compared them to rapists. Transgender rights activist Patrick Califia writes in his book Sex Changes that back when he identified as a lesbian he participated in witch hunt style behaviors regarding transwomen. Even when not displaying this sort of outright hostility, the overall LGB(t?) movement has often pushed transgender concerns under the rug. We are often so interested in issues like marriage equality and convincing straight people that “we’re just like you,” that we push things deemed harder to normalize, such as deviations from gender norms, out of the spotlight. Well, maybe it’s that I’m genderqueer and quite a few of my friends are outright trans, but these issues are just as important, if not more, than marriage. Sidestepping the rights of an entire segment of our community is not pragmatic, it’s callous and simply entrenches transphobia.

Bisexuals and pansexuals often face a similar stigma within the queer community. For people who experience attraction pretty much exclusively to one gender, those of us who can lust and love across the gender spectrum seem like an anomaly. So, many people brand self proclaimed bisexuals and pansexuals “closet cases” who refuse to admit that they’re gay. Bisexual females are often suspected of simply being straight girls claiming bisexuality for experimentation and to appear sexy (the sad part is that many straight girls do this, breaking lesbian hearts and giving honest bisexuals a bad name). Bisexual males are often deemed suspicious for STD’s, and have even been suspected not to exist. Elena of Women’s Glib wrote a great post on these issues, albeit not specifically as they apply within the queer community, fairly recently.

Another problem that I’ve seen in our community is the pervasive nature of slut shaming. Now, my thoughts regarding the slut/stud dichotomy and judgmental attitudes towards sex in general are made clear in this video and in my founding of the Facebook page Rational people against puritanical and misogynistic “slut” shaming. I have never encountered a community completely free of this sort of sexual prescriptivism, however. Even when I’m with far left, or godless, or queer, or feminist, or even blatantly sex positive friends, I occasionally encounter some variant upon this sexual taboo, this dichotomous judgment.

Now of course, this post is far from an exhaustive discussion of how bigotry pervades movements that seek to fight it, how kyriarchy’s branches entangle themselves in groups that seek to kill aspects of it. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned how reformist wings of most movements seek to simply moderate the police and prison system’s attitudes towards groups, while I think police power, and indeed the power of the state itself, is oppressive regardless of inequities. But one post cataloging every example of such unfortunate kyriarchal structures in movements is both impossible and unnecessary.

Because the real task belongs to each of us involved in such movements and communities. As we work together to fight oppression in society as a whole, we need to take a serious look at oppression that happens in the corners that are already “ours.” And then, as Gandhi said, “we must be the change we want to see in the world.”

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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