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It’s Not Always Oppression Olympics; Sometimes Social Justice Must Be Urgent

Mural of queer and trans activist Mia Tu Mutch by Tanya Wischerath, Clarion Alley, San Francisco. Photo by Aaron Muszalski. Creative Commons license.

Mural of queer and trans activist Mia Tu Mutch by Tanya Wischerath, Clarion Alley, San Francisco. Photo by Aaron Muszalski. Creative Commons license.

“There is no hierarchy of oppression. […] There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.” –Audre Lorde

Last summer, I attended a national gathering of activists and artists from around the country.

In a session on building solidarity across transgender and gender non-conforming communities of color, a question along the lines of “who should be at the center of our struggle for justice?” came up multiple times.

The room was full of trans* white folks and folks of color, cis folks seeking to learn more about building solidarity, and a great deal of diversity across race, ability, class, education, etc. There were several moments of tension as members of the group attempted to address this overwhelming question.

The current landscape for gender justice is overwhelming: There are state-wide and national bills mandating that transgender people use bathrooms designated for their birth-assigned sex rather than their identity. Incidents of violence against trans women of color, in particular, have soared in recent years. And many within our communities struggle to access adequate health care and reproductive justice resources.

Related: Trans Women Are Women, Too

So, the question remains: whose voice do we give a platform to?

The term “Oppression Olympics” is tossed around in activist and marginalized communities to describe this conflict — the conflict over who is “most oppressed” in a given situation or social justice movement.

A white, cisgender gay man may complain that there is too much focus on race and not enough on his oppression as a gay man; a queer person of color may argue the opposite. Both experience oppression.

Oppression Olympics is largely framed as a negative thing, and I know that it can be at times. As activists and oppressed people, we need to find the balance between sharing our own realities and invalidating others’. It can be a painful experience to share our struggles to exist and be met with, “you think that’s bad? Wait ’til I tell you about my life!”

In the commonly quoted (and misquoted) passage above, Audre Lorde reminds us about the complexities of intersecting and multiple identities. She, as a Black, immigrant, woman and lesbian, often felt that only one aspect of her identity was represented in various justice struggles. She felt the homophobia and racism within women’s movements; the homophobia and sexism in the struggle for racial justice.

Her struggle and voice still ring true for many activists and those striving for justice. We have multiple oppressed and privileged identities that shift, depending upon context.

While I have deep respect and love for my Black queer ancestor Audre Lorde, I’d slightly modify her quote above. While it’s true that engaging in a competition over who is “most oppressed” won’t lead to our liberation, I’d also argue that there are contexts in which certain folks are more marginalized and do need to be at the center of those conversations.

Related: Queer and Trans: A Primer

As a non-binary, masculine-presenting person of color, I carry the daily weight of being constantly misgendered, facing racial microaggressions and having the very existence of my gender regularly questioned and challenged.

But I can honestly say that I don’t regularly feel threatened when walking home by myself. I don’t fear for my safety. I don’t feel concerned that my gender identity would prevent me from getting most jobs that I seek. In the context of fatal violence against trans* women of color, I am differently and less oppressed.

This is a messy and difficult conversation. But perhaps there is a way that we can determine who needs a sense of urgency in oppressed communities: those who face constant threat and the highest rates of homelessness, unemployment and violence.

It doesn’t mean that we aren’t all oppressed in different ways. It just means that the sense of urgency shifts.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s possible for us to honor each other’s oppression while acknowledging that some of us need to be given priority?


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