What Will We Do Now That We've Listened?
There’s an often-quoted saying used in justice-minded communities credited to Indigenous Australian artist and activist Lilla Watson, a quote that I’ve had trouble connecting to for a long time. “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
To illustrate my trouble with this quote, take this example. I’ve been an advocate for women’s rights for a long time, and I struggle to truly believe the idea that "men’s liberation" is bound up with mine. Sure, let’s work together so we can both be free, even though I need more freeing. And also, do I want to help free a source of confinement? Or would I rather some men just do that on their own and leave me out of it?
I think a lot about how we translate listening into action. Listening to the voices that might be hard to hear unless you search for them or place yourself in new situations is one thing. Reorienting your work in response to these voices is another. If how you engage in activism shifts, what do you take with you to continue being a better advocate for yourself and other people? What action do you take when you listen and find a new way of being complicit in someone’s liberation? Do you work together? If you have a certain amount of privilege, do you focus on being less exhausting and do you own work? Both these things? I’m always looking for examples for how to do this well.
In Abby Norman’s book Ask Me About My Uterus, she chronicles her life with endometriosis (among other medical issues), advocacy work, and a brief history of women and pain. At the beginning of the book, Norman includes an author’s note which really stuck out to me. It explains: “When debating the title of this book, I worried that it would be viewed as exclusionary to those who identify with the struggles portrayed but who do not have a uterus. I am firm in my conviction that endometriosis is not a uterine-dependent disease— as firm as I am in the conviction that not all women have a uterus and not all those who have a uterus identify as a woman.” She goes on to acknowledge privilege as a white cisgender woman and asks that readers actively seek out stories different from hers. Given that most writing about uterine health is exclusively cis hetero woman-centric, I was glad and surprised to see, first thing in this book, a strong nod toward people outside that realm and their search to find appropriate medical care.
I’ve come to respect authors and researchers who are very clear about the limits of their analysis, advocacy, or writing. Norman’s note is evidence she’s listened to other people within the endometriosis community who have stories different from hers–and that she's reoriented herself in response. By including voices different from hers in other parts of her book, she takes steps to become more sensitive to people with less-heard stories and nudge others like her to do their own work to expand their knowledge. This move improves her work by providing a much more whole picture of the maze of trying to get your gender and pain taken seriously.
I’m not a medical expert or advocate, but the majority of my education, writing, and professional work over the past ten years has been about improving women’s lives. As I’ve tried to step back and rethink advocacy work over the past year, it’s been very obvious that there is a limit to liberation when engaging in this type of work using the same, cis woman-centric framework over and over again. This wasn’t new information to me; it has just seemed more obvious recently.
In Norman’s book she gave an appropriate example of how listening and then, even in a small way, binding her work to trans and gender non-conforming voices plotting a course through, and advocating within, the medical industry is a very important first step. Those of us who recognize our privilege need to take a step past listening and toward advocating for a world in which people bound up with us can truly exist and thrive.
What are my ethics as an advocate with a certain amount of privilege around acknowledging what doesn’t seem to exist but actually does, in the advocacy work I do? As a healthy, white, hetero, and cis woman who navigates sexism on a regular basis, how can I use that experience to advocate for people who might have their identity questioned or erased?
In writing about the undermining of the already precarious access trans people have to the reproductive healthcare system, Chase Strangio in Can Reproductive Trans Bodies Exist? writes: “The cost of not existing is felt very differently across axes of race, immigration status, disability, poverty, and gender presentation.” Chase goes on to give the example that “the anxiety is that if we accept that a body without breasts and with a uterus, for example, could desire to carry a child, we might destabilize the advocacy projects of both the reproductive rights and the transgender rights movements.” If we accept that what already doesn’t get enough understanding— pain, health, and gender— might actually be more complicated than we thought, do we believe and act on the impulse that ground is lost instead of gained? What does that do for people bound together?
“We need to offer more than lip service and it’s not up to people in marginalized communities to tell us what they need – but if they do, we sure as hell need to listen to them. We should be actively pursuing opportunities to advocate and elevate the voices of those whose stories can’t be told as easily as our own."
- Abby Norman
I asked Norman if she thought trying to be an inclusive advocate has made her a better advocate for herself. She said, “At this point, both due to physical limitations and limitations imposed by society, medicine, [and] healthcare, I’ve advocated for myself as much as I can. There isn’t much else I can do to remedy my situation. A lot of where I am right now is accepting that.” Norman, who became an emancipated minor in her youth, has been advocating for herself since before her health problems (mostly) began at age 19. “I’ve grieved a lot, but it’s also, in a way, given [myself] permission to stop thinking about my own situation. To stop thinking about myself. I’ve told my story, and I’m glad I did. But I’m ready to move on from it and take those skills and try to figure out the best way to use them outside of my own circumstances.”
Romeo, a Black, queer, non-binary activist explained in an interview with the National Women’s Law Center in 2016: “We need to center all people who are disproportionately affected by reproductive coercion—not just cisgender women. For example, when I’ve gone to receive reproductive healthcare, sometimes the forms you have to fill out assume you have certain needs if you say you’re a man or a woman. Instead, I think forms should ask what body parts you have, so people can get the health care they actually need. When healthcare is binary– and assumes you’re either a cisgender man or a cisgender woman, it’s unclear where to go as a non-binary person.”
These two visions from Norman and Romeo stuck together for me— now that I’ve advocated for myself, against my coercion, as much as I can, what will I do?
Romeo concluded: “I want advocates to consider how the decisions they make affect trans women of color who don’t have access to health care. Organizations that provide and advocate for reproductive health care should be asking themselves: How are your services different for trans women? Are you meeting the needs of trans women in clear ways?”
What will be do now that we’ve listened? “There’s so much work to be done here and cis white women need to do more than just remark about how much work there is to be done,” points out Norman. “We need to offer more than lip service and it’s not up to people in marginalized communities to tell us what they need – but if they do, we sure as hell need to listen to them. We should be actively pursuing opportunities to advocate and elevate the voices of those whose stories can’t be told as easily as our own.”
So I go back to the beginning, to Watson's quote, the one that hasn't sat with me. And I think it hasn't sat with me because, well, I’m hearing it wrong. Maybe she’s not asking me to walk hand-in-hand with my oppressors. Maybe instead she's asking this: if you have advocated for yourself as much as you can, how are you now meeting other needs in clear ways?