«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
But Geertz is not the only one to conceptualize the longevity of social forms in terms of affective stability. In her text, An archive of feelings, Cvetkovich (2003) quotes Amy Baur in her description of what it was like to participate in the AIDS activist organization ACT UP, "For a lot of people ACT UP was like a zombie from outer space that ate away at the rest of their life…and since ACT UP couldn't meet their needs, eventually they got really mad at it and they burned out" (2003, p. 171). Cvetkovich concludes, "the key to long term involvement was not to make ACT UP the center of social life...the preciousness of activist relationships…were specific to the context of activism and in many cases their intensity could not be sustained" (2003, p. 174) The notion that supportive political economic conditions and measured affective dynamics can potentially give rise to sustained and inter-generational social forms is borne out by the example of queer and trans of color community arts initiatives like BlacknessYes! whose existence runs counter to the "flash in the pan" trend so common among other similar programming. BlacknessYes! describes itself as a community-based committee that seeks to celebrate the histories, creativity and resistance of Black, African diasporic and Caribbean queer and trans people.
Additionally, the BlacknessYes! committee members come from different generations of organizers throughout the City. Between Nik Redman who has been involved with the committee from its inception and me, the newest member who joined in 2013, the other members have been involved with BlacknessYes! for widely differing periods of time. Unlike many of the other initiatives discussed in this chapter and throughout this dissertation, BlacknessYes! does not financially compensate its members for their organizing work; all committee members are volunteers. Thus, contrary to ILL NANA or Asian Arts Freedom School, BlacknessYes!
members do not rely on this organizing work as a source of income: they financially support themselves through efforts outside of the committee. And while BlacknessYes! is responsible for raising funds for the smaller activities that it seeks to undertake, its main initiative, the event that occupies the majority of the committee's work, is financed through Pride Toronto (which in turn receives most of its funding from the City of Toronto). In contrast to many other queer and trans of color groups, this source of funding for Blockorama is not tied to the political economic prioritization of youth arts. The enduring and inter-generational nature of BlacknessYes! is thus related to economic dimensions of the committee in which its members are expected to volunteer their labor and the funding for its headline event is secure (and not youth-specific).
But economic considerations do not completely account for the temporal character of BlacknessYes! as questions of affect are also at play. The love that committee members have for their work and the conflicts that they have with each other are not altogether different from the kinds of feeling-based interactions that occur in other queer and trans of color initiatives.
However, the spaced out nature of this work provides an opportunity for the dissipation of potentially destructive affective dynamics. That Blocko happens once per year means that while BlacknessYes! prepares for this event over a 12 month period, the large majority of the organizing work takes place in the two to three months leading up to the event itself. There is no doubt that conflicts occur within the committee, especially in this intensive work period. In the first year that I was part of the committee, one member decided to discontinue his involvement partly because of the severity of such a conflict that revolved at least partly because of different
approaches to doing community work. In my interview with this member he shared:
Steve: The challenges in any other situation would be financial, getting money or getting promotion and stuff like that, those are the things we would have actual trouble with but it was getting people to pay attention or answer emails or meet you half way with work.
Matthew: So it wasn't resource problems it was personnel problems?
Steve: Right, normally I'm in a position of being in control of everything and not to say that I can't be a participant, I don't always have to be leader but I felt it was hard. It’s actually hard working in a collective of people that is not getting paid, I think that’s a big part of it.
Matthew: Because the incentive?
Steve: Are different…I'm used to structure, whether in communication or meeting or dates… and it wasn't that at all, it was very unstructured and it was new for me in that sense… there were challenges that were happening and I kind of got it but it was my first year and I just want to get this done. I just wanted to be structured and organized and thought that was what I was fighting against In my interview with Steve, he explained that working with BlacknessYes! was a steep learning curve for him as he had never been involved in this kind of community organizing effort before and struggled to feel comfortable with the more unstructured working style. Eventually Steve brought up his concerns in a BlacknessYes! meeting that quickly became quite heated with raised voices and negative remarks being made on the personal character of other members.
These kinds of affective tensions that build up over a fairly short time period are eased in later months when the committee takes a long break after Pride. This break and the slow pace of getting back to work allows for the dispersal of the potentially destructive affective forces built up during more intensive work periods. In asking another committee member, Craig, about his experience working on Blockorama, he shared, “It can be frustrating. I enjoy it and that’s why I'm still doing it. [But] This last year was really difficult because there was a lot of infighting, there was a lot of tension, there was a lot of anger and I really didn't like most of it but I knew what it was going to end up being so I think it was worthwhile. After blocko we didn't meet up for a long time and we just needed a break…I think afterward I just needed to decompress.” While Cvetkovich argues earlier that a high level of affective intensity cannot be sustained within social justice initiatives, this point is irrelevant in the case of BlacknessYes!: the fact that Blockorama occurs once a year means that sustaining a certain level of affective intensity is not necessary. The build-up and let down that I describe side steps much of the destructive affective dynamics that characterizes other initiatives and that are a major factor in how organizers burn out/break up with each other.
In attempting to think through the kinds of conditions necessary for Toronto-based queer and trans of color organizers to build create sustainable, inter-generational initiatives, I do not mean to detract from the power of short-term organizing efforts. In his analysis of the 2008 protests that occurred in South Korea over the importation of potentially tainted US beef, Lee (2012) argues for the importance of understanding the dynamics of short term processes of mobilization. Despite the fact that these protests lasted a mere 121 days, they were effective in bringing about a change in the agreement between the Korean and US governments as to the sale and importation of US beef to South Korea. Ultimately, Lee contends that it is these often ephemeral social actions, like the pro-democracy protests that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989, that have historically played a central role in reshaping political landscapes. The argument of this chapter is thus not to belittle the importance of short-lived social forms. Indeed, as indicated earlier, many of the people involved in this project spoke fondly of fleeting queer and trans of color art initiatives that were nevertheless crucially significant for their own personal development or for bringing about important changes in community norms. What this chapter does hope to point out however, is that by transforming the affective political economic contexts in which they work, queer and trans of color community organizers may bring about the chronotopic realities that they envision. In this case, questions of time are also question of love and money.
CHAPTER FOUR: ON AFFECT, VIOLENCE AND (UN)MAKING HUMANITY: THE LIMITS OF ANTI
In this chapter, I examine how changes in queer and trans of color community practice reconfigure the relationship between affect, violence and humanity. While many QTPOC adhere to anti-oppression principles to combat systemic inequalities, how these principles are mobilized has adverse consequences on queer and trans of color social relations. For instance, QTPOC organizers understand “calling out”, or the process of publically censuring individuals for failing to adhere to anti-oppression politics, as a kind of dehumanizing violence that creates affective environments of fear and shame. As an alternative community practice, many QTPOC are turning to transformative justice as a way of addressing political conflict. I argue that this move operates as a local practice of humanization in which queer and trans of color organizers reorient their relationship to the connection between affect and violence.
By illustrating the challenges faced by minority community practitioners, this chapter shows the limitations of scholars who praise the work of these practitioners as a way of demonstrating the shortcomings of more conventional approaches to social life. For instance, in his text, The trouble with normal, Michael Warner (2000) draws attention to a division within what he refers to as the "gay movement" in the United States. Mobilizing Erving Goffman's (1963) distinction between "sitgmaphobe", contexts in which conformity to dominant culture is ensured through a fear of stigma and "stigmaphile", spaces where stigmatized groups come together among themselves, Warner problematizes how an increasingly powerful segment of this movement has come to align itself with stigmaphobe politics in its valorization of "normal". In response to the equation of sexual difference with pathology, groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have emphasized the importance of seeing gay people as "normal". Warner argues that such a stance is built on embarrassment and defensiveness in an embrace of a respectability politics that is both desexualizing and depoliticizing. He contends that the main problem with such a stance is that it "throws shame on those who stand further down the ladder of respectability" (2000, p. 60) in the reinforcement of other hierarchies around gender, race, class and urban geography.
In contrast to a politics based on the claim of normality, Warner argues for the importance a stigmaphile politics associated with minor queer counterpublics or pockets of alternative culture in the suburbs, among younger queers, in drag culture, among Black and Latino cultures, in the club scenes and the arts, on websites and in queer zines…that find expression in many local organizations: health service organizations, community centers, motorcycle clubs, theater groups, churches, antiviolence campaigns, transgender alliances, racial or ethnic groups, private support groups (2000, p. 67) Within these circles, Warner states that to be queer is a way of saying "we're not pathological, but don't think for that reason we want to be normal" (2000, p. 59). While those associated with this kind of stance tend to have less money and visibility than groups such as the HRC, they are more directly accountable to those they claim to represent. Ultimately, Warner argues that "the world has much to learn from the disreputable queers who have the most experience in the politics of shame, but who for that very reason have been least likely to gain a hearing - either in the official policy circles where their interests are allegedly represented, or in the theoretical and philosophical debates about morality sex, and shame, where their point of view can be most transformative" (2000, p. viii) In this chapter, I seek to trouble Warner's call for the valorization of minor queer counterpublics. While Warner positively appraises a stigmaphile politics that counters the kinds of normativizing tendencies to which mainstream gay organizations adhere, I argue that a queer politics founded on the valorization of radicalism brings with it other kinds of limitations. These limitations are particularly salient in Toronto-based queer and trans of color community organizing circles where anti-oppression politics becomes the framework for moral evaluation.
Though this approach to appraising social life certainly differs from the emphasis on mainstreaming often found in more prominent gay organizations, I show how the enactment of the valorization of radical politics within queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) communities does not necessarily serve as an antidote to the exclusions created by an adherence to respectability politics.
By showing the limitations of an orientation toward anti-oppression politics as a kind of radicalism within queer and trans of color organizing in Toronto, this chapter ethnographically elaborates the insights made by Jasbir Puar (2007) in her text Terrorist assemblages. Puar identifies queerness as "the modality through which 'freedom from norms' become a regulatory queer ideal that demarcates the ideal queer" (2007, p. 22). While she points to the way in which queer of color analyses mobilize intersectional models that challenge, for example how race and class norms are complicit with heteronorms, this adherence to a regulatory queerness, "holds queer of color organizing and theorizing to impossible standards and expectations, always beholden to spaces and actions of resistance, transgression and subversion"19 (2007, p. 23).