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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Camp Trans and the Spirit of Community, by anarchafemme (2010)


As an anarchist queer, I’m embarrassed and disgusted by much of what passes as queer anarchism. As a former organizer of Camp Trans, I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be associated with it at this moment. As someone who attended Camp Trans for many years, I feel like a part of me has been killed.The only thing that can be agreed on at this point is that Camp Trans 2010 was not a space that was safe, fun, or supportive for most of the attendees. Why was this the case? Can this be prevented in the future? Who is accountable for the nature of Camp Trans this year? If Camp Trans is anything, it’s an intentional community. Community, at it’s best, is something that is more than the sum of its parts — that the individuals who make it up also form bonds with each other, making a space, an event, that is more than the sum of themselves. Community is formed by the debts, the lacks, the obligations we have to each other, and out of inessential commonality — not out of any essential nature of ours. We don’t need to all share the same politics, the same identities, the same way of conceiving identities…and that’s never been what Camp Trans was. Camp Trans was never an explicitly radical space. Yes, the idea that trans women are women is unfortunately political, but, ultimately, it had served as years as a location to act for inclusion into women’s spaces from, and to gather up a community of trans people who provided each other with support.
As marginalized people, our community is often vital to survival. Numerous times in my life, I would have been living on the streets if not for members of queer and trans communities, or other communities I am a part of. Unfortunately, I know I am not an exceptional case in this. Communities are where we form our bonds of friendship. The Totality (the state, capitalism, all forms of oppression), as part of the preservation of its existence and as a necessary, essential function, works tirelessly to destroy community. If we truly strive for collective liberation, we should not be doing its work for it. Community is vital and must be defended for it is the very basic unit of our existence, the most basic site of resistance and struggle. It may be flawed, and those flaws can and should be addressed, but not in ways that destroy the community. Community is the basis of many cherished anarchist values – solidarity, mutual aid, and cooperation, for instance.
But Camp Trans is not an anarchist or even radical space. Until recently, it had functioned quite well as a space where anarchists and non-anarchists could mingle, socialize, form friendships, share ideas, and it was organized on anti-authoritarian lines. It was a demonstration to non-radical attendees that anarchist modes of organization can and do work. This year it failed at that, as we saw a small group grab power through physical intimidation, threats of violence against the rest of camp, and silencing tactics. While anarchism is not pacifism, coercion and turning on one’s community to run it for the benefit of the few is antithetical to anarchism. The people who utilized these tactics to take over Camp are anarchists in name only. In reality, they are authoritarian thugs, not concerned with liberation for anyone or anything beyond their immediate desires for control.
It should be noted that up until this point I have not mentioned the tow truck incident. Yes, I was there. I was giving the Camp Trans herstory across the road, and, thus, didn’t notice that something serious was going down until a crowd had gathered. I couldn’t hear what was said over the engine, and couldn’t get beyond the outskirts of the crowd. So, I would encourage people to read Maya’s account, to read the comments there, to get as many eye-witness accounts as they can, as eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Soon after the incident escalated, someone tested their pepper spray. In addition to causing minor breathing difficulties in quite a few people (which then, as someone who was volunteering as a medic, became the focus of my attention), this created a more serious medical situation that I went off to deal with, with the patient involved. I then also prepped a large amount of herbal calming/preventing of panic treatments to deal with the fact that large numbers of people at Camp were emotionally traumatized. Accounts I’ve heard or read agree that several Camp Trans attendees were threatened, one attendee was degendered, and that the festival workers seemed to side with the tow truck driver – and if they were merely intending to deescalate, they should have communicated that adequately to Camp Trans attendees after the tow truck driver left. Which, according to all accounts, they didn’t.
From those accounts, it’s clear that the tow truck driver’s behavior was unacceptable, and that the fest workers who were involved likely owe Camp an apology.
However, the tow truck incident was less a reason and more an excuse for the events of the next several days. Fest was a far more convenient target than the tow truck driver, so, people got angry at Fest, even though the tow truck driver bears the brunt of the responsibility. There were calls for a march onto the Land, having someone directly affected by the incident demand an apology from the stage, and then march out. When the plan was just this, the vast majority of Camp planned to either participate, or at least support it.
And then the goal posts got shifted – part of the small gang of a dozen or so Camp Trans attendees started talking about how much they wanted a violent, physical confrontation with festies. Hearing this, many meeting attendees panicked about both their physical safety during the proposed action, about possible contact with the police, and about the fact that for most of us, Fest is not something we want to destroy. The mission statement of Camp Trans was that we supported the inclusion of trans women at Fest, and we had found over the years that the effective approach was to see the situation for what it was — a call out of the larger community by a portion of it, encouraging the community to change and grow. The shifting from “getting the story of what happened out” to “being in confrontation with Fest” was seen by many as a contradictory to the mission of Camp Trans.
And then the bullying and shows of force started. People started hiding in the woods in small groups. An emergency trans women’s caucus occurred, and yes, not all trans women at camp attended, but many did. We (the members of that caucus) made a statement that evening that camp trans hadn’t been a trans woman-centric space for years, that it needed to just state it was a trans-centric space, and that the place for a trans woman-centric space was in Michfest, given the enormous outpouring of support this year, the non-enforcement of the policy since 2006, and the fact that it was explicitly stated that the policy wouldn’t be enforced in 2006.
Really, once we realized that the policy wasn’t going to be enforced again in 2006, we should have made the statement in 2007. We should have proactively realized that with the vast majority of the real work of trans women being on the Land and becoming truly a part of the Fest community happening at Fest, that the culture of Camp Trans would shift to a celebration of all trans people. This is a valuable and noble purpose for a space, but tension was created from the contradictions between the mission statement and the culture of the space.
Of course, after the statement, the attacks started. Dirty laundry got aired about how trans women had been made to feel unsafe in recent years, and a call out of tactics used by a small handful of people was made (most strongly by me, which I got a lot of attacks for, including being degendered, repeatedly called a fake woman, having friends and allies escort me away because many people, myself included, were legitimately afraid that I would be physically assaulted). It generally doesn’t end well, being a woman who doesn’t know her place.
It shouldn’t be ignored that there were trans women (and other trans female spectrum people) in the small group of authoritarian thugs. What’s important to note that the only trans female voices that were respected by that group and allowed to be heard were the ones that agreed with them, that were part of their group. And degendering and erasure of identities occurred on all sides, and that’s always fucked up, no matter who it’s coming from.
Candice has an account of her experiences – it’s a four part video, the third part video (with discussion of the caucus) is embedded here. All her videos about Camp Trans 2010 are worth watching.
Links to all Candice’s videos, in order:part 1
part 2
part 3
part 4
Fundamentally, the questions we need to ask ourselves are, at what cost to the safety of others is it worth to get to carry out an action? Why is it unacceptable for a tow truck driver to threaten a few of us, and Michfest workers to not respond adequately to that, but acceptable for a small minority of a community to threaten, intimidate, and silence the rest of the community? What people decided to do at first in response to the tow truck incident wasn’t the issue – what was the issue was the fact that other people’s autonomy and voluntary association were not respected, that they were made to feel threatened, and that many people fled Camp Trans Thursday during the day. When does a legitimate threat to the community — that had, by the time any decision making process occurred, become no longer an issue of physical safety but an issue of responding — allow any group within a community to make threats and tear apart the rest of the community?
We can not destroy the community in order to save it.
* What This Means For Camp Trans and The Trans Community *
Camp Trans has a lot of issues to address if it’s even to occur next year, and if a substantial number of trans people are going to feel safe attending. A way to find people accountable for making the space unsafe, for having people leave because they had a realistic fear of physical and psychological violence from inside camp, and the spread of rumors and character assassination outside of camp must be addressed. The people who did these things must be held accountable, and steps must be taken to insure that similar events do not occur. This is to not say there is a single stance that people must have and that everyone who does not hold that must be punished – this is only to say that threats of violence and physical and psychological intimidation within a community are anathema to both the community principles of camp trans, and to anarchist principles (given that they disrespect voluntary association, autonomy, and the idea of solidarity in struggle), and that needs to be addressed.
What further needs to be addressed – in all trans spaces – is the fact that trans male spectrum people, whether they identify as men or not, whether they are regarded by the larger world as men or not, continue to dominate trans spaces, particularly Camp Trans over the last several years, and as we organize our spaces and live in our communities, we need to be ever vigilant to the silencing of women (particularly trans women), no matter what their views are, and we need to continually hold all male spectrum people accountable for patriarchal behaviors. While all people need to be held accountable for patriarchal behavior, regardless of identity or privilege, patriarchy empowers all male spectrum people to varying degrees to enact these behaviors. Neither Camp Trans nor Michfest are the cutting edge of patriarchy. Trans male spectrum people trying to be unaccountable for their behavior is, and that’s really just the old patriarchy with a hip new packaging.
* What This Means For The Anarchist Community *
We need to stop giving people who deny any sort of accountability — to a larger community, to any sort of organization, even to the idea of a larger struggle as a whole — a free pass. Enough is enough. I, and I’m sure many others will join me in this, am tired of people caring about nothing beyond their immediate catharsis, no matter what effect their actions have on communities, supposed comrades in struggle, the strategic goals of struggle, or any sort of intelligent tactics. The vast majority of tactics are neither good nor bad in absolute isolation, it’s how they play into the larger strategy of struggle, what repercussions they’ll have, how likely they are to succeed that determine their utility. Taking action out of nothing but an individual desire for catharsis or excitement, or in theory to avenge a few members of a community — while harming far more members of the community in the attempt to coerce the action into being — is not anarchist. The first is nothing but bourgeois individualism, the latter is being an authoritarian in anarchist’s clothing.
Before the predictable accusations of “pacifist liberal” come out (seriously, they’ve been done, they’re stupid, and they just make you look like a petulant child when aimed at people who’ve been at this for years and years), it would be wise to consider the words of Emma Goldman:
“No revolution can ever succeed as a factor of liberation unless the MEANS used to further it be identical in spirit and tendency with the PURPOSES to be achieved. Revolution is the negation of the existing, a violent protest against man’s inhumanity to man with all the thousand and one slaveries it involves. It is the destroyer of dominant values upon which a complex system of injustice, oppression, and wrong has been built up by ignorance and brutality. It is the herald of NEW VALUES, ushering in a transformation of the basic relations of man to man, and of man to society.”
If you need to commit inhumanities against your own community to further your liberation, you’re not furthering liberation at all. In simpler terms – authoritarian gangs trying to run our own community can only ever accomplish turning our community into a collection of authoritarian gangs. If we want our communities to be free of hierarchy, intimidation, and coercion, we must not use those tactics against our own communities in times of stress. In fact, the moments when we feel most tested are when our principles are most important. It is comparatively easy to be committed to a culture of consent, where we all get to decide what actions we will take, be a part of, or support when those actions are not controversial, and not being decided on under stress. It is harder to maintain that commitment in times of crisis, but how we respond to crisis is a strong test of how we will live in the new world we want to create.
This is not a call for all anarchists to be part of large organizations to be legitimate, though more and more that is where I personally see the path to liberation lying. We can and do have legitimate disagreements on that. This is my saying that I’ll only work with people who are somehow similarly embedded in a web of accountability, that has points that I trust, and my advice that others do the same. This is my saying that once someone says they don’t hold themselves responsible before any community, I no longer trust them enough to work with them.
There is the other issue that, in our supposed respect for a diversity of tactics, some of us have just fixated on different tactics. A music festival of mainly lesbians, with no corporate support, in the woods is far different from a bank foreclosing on houses and kicking our fellow workers into the streets which is far different from the brutality of police repression. Different circumstances call for different tactics and different strategies. We need to not confuse a music festival with a major corporation or with the state itself. Different struggles have different needs and goals, and one-size-fits-all tactics are silly, betray a lack of analysis, and are ineffective — and potentially damaging to the cause you seek to promote.
To quote a friend of mine, “I’m into fucking winning”. And that involves different methods in different situations. And winning doesn’t just mean a world without a state and without capitalism, but also dealing with all the horrible things we’ve internalized being part of a profoundly sick society – the “us vs. them” mentality, false dualities, valuing winning arguments no matter what the cost rather than conversations where we grow, and a single-minded focus on external enemies (whether legitimate or illegitimate) without recognizing that we need to build and maintain vibrant, supportive, strong communities. In a truly vibrant and strong community, a small cadre can’t take over for its own ends. Our movements need to come out of these communities, rather than substitute for them, because a community is different than a common purpose — it is an exchange of mutual needs and obligations. It is the worst of what we’ve been indoctrinated in by the oppressive, hierarchical society around us to let a small group command and control the rest of us.
It is also clear, that both with events that draw on people from diverse communities that aren’t explicitly anarchist (and have many non-anarchists in attendance), and also with anarchist convergences, we need to have methods in place to handle accountability as a continuous process, recognizing that things can happen that will need to be dealt with long after the event is over. As an organizer of Camp Trans, I need to hold some responsibility for not helping prepare for such major violations of the space. I think it caught all of us by surprise that a small group of people could tear apart and destroy Camp Trans, that they would apparently want to do such, and they would use an incident where several people at camp were physically threatened and many more were emotionally traumatized. Perhaps I’m not yet so old that I’m naive enough to have expected better of my community. Unfortunately, I lose one of my last bits of naiveté like this.
in solidarity, and toward healthier, accountable communities and collective liberation,

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