Facilitated and Written by Nomy Lamm
As a fat, disabled, genderqueer person, I have spent most of my life feeling isolated in my body and trying to connect with others through art and activism. I live for those rare moments when I can witness the wisdom of “my people” – an uncategorizable group consisting of those who are willing to locate the self in the struggle, in the moment. We meet in the space where imagination and reality combine, gathered around the metaphorical table for a conversation about our bodies, our activism, what connects us all, and what gets in the way.
I, your host, at this moment of imagination, am an antlered creature, wearing a smoking jacket and ascot, with a little pen and paper in my hooves, ready to absorb.
Leslie Feinberg is a grassroots, revolutionary political organizer and author of several books, including Stone Butch Blues, Transgender Warriors, and Drag King Dreams. Ze is a managing editor of the Workers World newspaper and longtime member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. When home in New York, Leslie reads, walks, thinks, talks, and slows down with life partner Minnie Bruce Pratt. In this moment, Leslie is barefoot, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt.
Geleni Fontaine recently left his job at the Center for Anti-Violence
Education in Brooklyn to become a full-time student in acupuncture and Oriental medicine. Geleni leads workshops on violence prevention, self-defense, and empowerment, mainly with youth and survivors of violence. A poet and martial artist, Geleni also plays the shakuhachi and enjoys walks in the park, smelling greenness, and listening to birds. Picture him wearing a ripped-up t-shirt, boxer briefs, and a top hat.
Shira Hassan is the wellness coordinator for a needle-exchange youth-drop-in program, and works part-time for the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a harm-reduction project for girls in the sex trade. Shira is the program director of Phat Camp, a body-empowerment project for youth, and a band manager. She likes to sleep, travel, knit, craft, sew, cook, hang out, and start new projects. For visuals, imagine long hair, tattoos, fuzzy slippers, and a six-pound floppy dog on her lap.
This conversation, which took place over the course of a month, through numerous emails and a phone conversation, is now presented to you, the reader, as a unified experience.
Nomy Lamm: Thanks for making time for this. You all do so much, how do you decide what to take on?
Shira Hassan: I am really bad at setting limits. I hear about an interesting project and I jump on it. My priorities are projects that unite and organize queer people of color, or youth of color. I almost always make room for a new project related to youth and the sex trade, or drug use.
Leslie Feinberg: I’m always up against the limits of what I can humanly do. I want to follow the struggle wherever it’s building up or breaking out. So the only limit is my physical strength. I sure get more emotional energy and strength out of my work and travels than I put into it, but it takes a lot out of my body.
Geleni Fontaine: I spent years working beyond overtime for an organization that I made my life, and that’s an old pattern for me. Now I’m focusing on balancing work (paid and political), school, and my arts. Some things get less attention than they used to, and others flourish. The constant challenge is keeping my own healing in that picture.
NL: Do any of you have health coverage?
SH: I am really affected right now by not being covered by insurance. I need to get on an opiate substitution therapy that is supposed to regulate my chronic pain and anxiety. I can’t afford it, so I’m waiting to go on it until I figure out healthcare—otherwise I will likely be turned down because I have fibromyalgia.
GF: I have coverage on my partner’s plan for another month or so. After that she has to find other work, so it’ll be up in the air. I’ve been through the bureaucracy of trying to get meds and treatment without healthcare, and (as a former nurse) I’ve been part of [the system]. I’ve seen people treated as if they were objects.
LF: I have not had health insurance for my entire adult life until the recent few years. During a life-and-death illness, I was able to get coverage through my union—National Writers’ Union/UAW Local 1980—that saved my life. As a transgender person, I need to be able to choose my own doctor and facility, because the treatment I receive can mean my life is in the balance.
NL: So what’s on your mind these days? What feels hard?
GF: Immigrants’ rights, and the idea of borders; these invisible lines forced on all of us. Lines that are supposed to define us, but only represent us in pieces. Our bodies themselves become colonized territory.
I’ve internalized a lot of fatphobia and racism by not allowing myself to be visible and take space. I’ve internalized transphobia by not expressing myself in many ways and holding back my needs and identity. In the past this has manifested as dependency on alcohol and drugs. I have to remind myself that self-hatred is part of the oppression, part of what I’m struggling through.
LF: My hand is still sore from an injury I acquired from three days of scrubbing due to city-ordered tenement repairs, and then touring to promote my new book, Drag King Dreams. [The book] is about a circle of (for lack of a better umbrella term) “genderqueer” coworkers and friends trying to survive on a job in a third-shift drag bar on the East Side. It’s set at the beginning of the Iraqi invasion by the U.S., with the disappearing of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern people. I wrote it two years ago, and today we’re still in the middle of the U.S. war in Iraq, still the deepening of racist profilings, still the mass disappearings. Why is it that you can find these truths in this fiction, when so little of it is being talked about in the newspapers and television?
SH: I feel overwhelmed by colonization right now. Just the other day I looked at one of the city-rag papers and saw a belly-dancing competition on the front page and I thought, shit. That’s how you know the U.S. is waging a war in the Middle East—the Lefties have started to make Middle Eastern culture into cool, hipster U.S. counterculture. Lately I have been particularly obsessed with how the Left colonizes bodies. I am trying to learn about Middle Eastern forms of herbal medicinal healing, trying to reclaim stuff from the hippies who take yoga and turn it into something you need special clothes and mats for.
NL: What are your strategies for connecting struggles of race, class, gender, disability, queerness, etc., to each other and to global political movements?
GF: I first try to integrate an overall consciousness in my life and my work—the idea of being and living the changes you want to make. It’s important to start with myself and all the identities I embody, but if I stop there I don’t challenge my own privilege and grow. In so many social justice-movements, people are burnt out, exhausted; this can make people dis-embodied. I think we need more healing spaces because we move around and work with big, open wounds. I think that survivorship is a place of connection to return to and grow from.
Being an anti-violence activist connects me to issues of global war and peace, as well as individual and community safety; domestic violence and institutional violence against people of color; sexual abuse and bias attacks against queer and trans people, etc. Those of us who relate to any of these oppressions have a lot to teach each other and a lot more power together than apart.
SH: My work is really about the micro. I work with youth who are experiencing the micro affects of the drug war ... The white youth are identified as drug buyers and harassed and arrested by cops just for living and being in communities of color. They perceive people of color as having more power than them because most of their dealers are people of color. Their perceptions of race and power are completely skewed. Oftentimes, my work is unpacking this for them. Sitting down and saying, “Okay, now, how did the circumstances develop? How did the drug war shape so much of our reality?” When I am working with youth of color, who are harassed constantly by police and by other youth, the conversation is often about empowerment and mobilization. We start with, “Okay, the situation is fucked ... How many people do we know who think it’s fucked? What could we do to make it better?” I work to make the connections by providing a space where youth of color and white youth and drug users and queer youth and youth with disabilities can sit and eat a meal together.
LF: The way I view the struggle is that our oppressions are not identical, but we’re up against a common enemy. I feel that collectively we’re trying to figure out on what basis to build coalition to fight that enemy, and that’s a process. If anybody’s left out, the strategy’s not right yet. There may be oppressions that aren’t even named yet. That happens, and the struggle opens up more opportunities for people to come forward.
NL: Do you believe that locating struggles in the body is an effective way of uniting people into a larger movement?
SH: Yes. Unfortunately, what I most often witness is people’s trauma around their bodies getting in the way of uniting. As queers, as fat people, as people with disabilities, as people of color, we have often located so much of our pain in our bodies. We internalize so much anger, we get sick from it and throw up walls and make divisions. I get inspired when I see the connections made on an individual level. But on a larger scale I don’t really see it happening yet.
I think there are two main obstacles: 1) Most of us spend a lot of time outside of our bodies. I’m not sure how many people are willing to get into their bodies in the way it would require in order for this kind of movement to build. Phat Camp was an amazing place to witness people going through this. They come in with their brains in a tizzy, wondering “What is empowerment? What is self-acceptance?” and then they realize we don’t want their brains to do the work—we want to go to a deeper place. A place where all of our bodies are unified in the struggle to be whole and real.
2) People who don’t have to think about their power usually don’t. Sometimes I wonder if we can really build anything effectively without figuring out how to cross over and get people to examine their privilege. There is so much mythology about health and wellness, that it’s hard for me to picture having a deep moment with someone who more than anything believes I just need to lose weight. Even if we agree that the prison system needs to end and Bush is a motherfucker.
I see the goal of all work like this to be community building, healing, and revolution. In that order.
LF: Part of what I appreciate so much about this roundtable is being able to listen to and learn from activists who have taken this approach. Some people like to argue for unity on the basis that we all have the same experience—for me that just plants landmines that are going to blow up later. In my activism and my travels, I’ve been able to work with so many different types of people, which teaches me to appreciate our differences and recognize the burdens that people are forced to carry. This helps me learn about what it is to be a human being and break out of the isolation that’s been imposed on me as a transperson.
GF: I taught a group of young girls of color last weekend, ages 9 to 12. They’re African-American and Latina. At least one of them had starved herself from the age of nine. We talked about how they wanted to create new magazines and images of beauty. I asked them how this conversation related to self-defense and violence-prevention. One girl said, “You have to know your life is worth something before you can fight to save it.” Others talked about their belief that one can’t work for justice in any community without starting from a place of self-love, or at least working toward that.
Shira talked about the challenge of people being wounded and in pain. Open acknowledgment of those wounds and the survivorship skills associated with them can help individuals to heal, and can be something that brings communities and movements together. We have to be aware, though, of the danger of only identifying through our pain—it can easily be diverted into an investment in a hierarchy of oppression.
NL: What kind of support do you need? Who supports you? Who is your community?
GF: I need support that pushes me to new places of learning. I need reminders to forgive myself. I need support to talk about class issues because they’re old and thorny for me, a sensitive place. I’m supported by an amazing partner who grows with me and a family of dozens of people who love even the parts of me that they don’t understand—and then work toward understanding.
LF: Whatever support I need, I must be getting it, because I don’t know what it would be. I overlap a lot of communities so I get a lot of support from different places—lesbian communities, trans communities, gay and bi communities, as well as many currents of the women’s liberation movement. Union movement, for sure, and my own Revolutionary Communist Party.
SH: I need communism already. Where the fuck is that shit? I’m tired of scrapping around for money and begging for this and that. Our drop-in is overrun with rats ’cause we are broke. I need an exterminator. I need a healthcare system that works. I need to be able to give as much as I know I can without cracking.
My community is huge. I used to think it was small ’cause I would only think locally. Recently I realized that I am part of a national community of queers and activists that are willing to give you the shirt off their backs. Thinking this way has made me feel better about the world.
NL: What is missing from this conversation?
GF: Well, we’re not conversing in person, and that reflects the disembodiment that I’m talking about, but in a way that makes this a very poignant experience, because it is so important to reach from self to community.
Nomy Lamm is a writer, musician, and activist whose work focuses on queerness, body image, disability, and connections between the Self and the systems of oppression we live within. She is an Associate Publisher of Clamor and a regular columnist for Punk Planet.