Issue 2: "A Rising Movement Lifts All Boats: A Conversation
Bruce Pratt About the Future of Queer Women's Communities"
by Nan Macy
Minnie Bruce Pratt
is an award-winning poet, writer, teacher, activist, and rebel
known for her determination and honesty in grappling with the
multilayered truths and lies of oppression and injustice. She
grounds her uncompromising work in personal history, making
strong connections to public history while—by example—pushing
readers to bravely question the status quo. Southern born and
raised, she makes her life in the North with her beloved, Leslie
Feinberg, known to many as a relentless activist and organizer,
and the insightful author of Stone Butch Blues and Transgender
Warriors. Pratt's latest book is Walking Back Up Depot Street,
an epic poem which follows the life of Beatrice—a protagonist
whose life experiences reflect Pratt's own—from the segregated
South to the industrialized North. Visit Pratt on the web at
Our interview took place in Seattle in December 1999 at the
end of a historic week of mostly peaceful protests against the
World Trade Organization (WTO) conference, which were going on
as we taped the interview, and which Pratt had taken part in
earlier in the day.
NM: When I heard you were coming to Seattle, I wanted to
interview you because you have such tenacity for teasing out all
the connections of things, and I think that's so necessary for
understanding the past and bridging the past to the future. I
see you as a visionary in that way because you look back and
help us learn, and then you look forward. And you're making so
many connections on so many levels, especially through your
personal history. Your amazing honesty in relaying your
experience is inspiring.
MBP: Obsessed with telling all. [laughs] I mean I am. I am.
NM: But it's exciting—and perhaps it's a bit voyeuristic. I
remember reading Rebellion the first time in '92, and the book
changed my life.
NM: It was incredible because it was like finally someone had
gotten beyond the simplicity of "ok, we're going to talk only
about race or only about class. Ok, I'm only going to talk about
queer stuff." And you weren't willing to stop there. So I'd love
to hear you talk about how you see the future for queer
women—broadly defined. Where do you think we need to be going,
and what do you think we need to do to get there?
MBP: Boy, that's a great question. [laughs] I find it easiest
to get into big questions like that by talking a little
personally first, just concretely. And sometimes that helps
other people find where they can enter in also. About fifteen
years ago I wrote the essay "Identity: Skin Blood Heart," where
I was wrestling with racism—understanding what it had done to my
life and to other people's lives and to this country and how it
connected to other issues. And that essay ends with this sort of
visionary moment, with my talking about how I hoped I would have
this future where—because I had been principled and done
anti-racist work—my human connections would be expanded and I'd
be able to have humanity and friendships and love and caring in
a way that hadn't been possible under segregation, under the
apartheid-like conditions I grew up in. And it's a beautiful
ending . . . and it's a flawed ending.
The years between then and now for me have really been spent
understanding that dealing with human relations isn't enough.
It's not enough to try to improve our attitude or try to educate
ourselves or behave better. When I wrote that essay, I hadn't
pushed my analysis. My analysis was limited, and I really needed
to push forward with it. The essays in Rebellion were really my
attempt to do that, to start engaging [questions like] "well how
does class intersect with race in my life?" But those essays are
still rather tentative in how they address those issues I think
now, looking back at them. And what has really been going on
with me—and I think that I parallel others—is that as I've been
doing anti-racist work and as I've been trying to make a
difference with that work, I've run up against over and over
again how changing attitudes isn't enough, how reform measures
aren't enough, that the pressure of the structure we live in
pushes us back or causes us to revert time and again. Even when
we're trying our hardest to behave differently and be
differently, the pressures of the structure that we work and
live within push us back. What that's meant to me is that I've
increasingly turned my eye on class. Not that issues around
racism are secondary, but that I have been seeing how racism is
held in place by the economic structure that we live in.
There's a way in which I feel that my progress on this
parallels what's been happening in the movement as a whole. I
feel like we spent the years between say '75 and '95 in our
progressive movements really grappling with the "other"—whoever
NM: Other from us.
MBP: Other from us, whoever we were. So you know, we were
dealing with this whole spectrum of issues which we really had
to deal with within progressive movements. If we were women we
were dealing with disability issues or maybe we were dealing
with anti-semitism within the women's movement. Folks in the
labor movement were trying to cope with "what does it mean to
integrate queer issues into labor issues?" So there was all this
internal work within progressive movements where we were sort of
cross-fertilizing each other.
NM: Good phrase.
MBP: And then what? So we've learned more and we've made some
modest progress around certain issues. Some companies have
partner benefits for queer folks, and a few towns now have bills
that say people there are guaranteed a living wage. But then
what? Where do we go with all this knowledge [of the "other"]?
We've begun to see that we have a lot more in common than we
thought, and that a lot of those things are around basic
economic issues—like health care, job protection, a living wage
as opposed to a minimum wage—and yet we haven't mobilized all of
those constituencies together to really move on these basic
And I feel like for me, a large part of that inability at
looking at class issues has been how I completely identified as
middle class. And there are a lot of reasons why I would
identify as middle class. I'm from a family where my mother was
a social worker and my father was a white-collar worker. I went
to college and graduate school. I've been a teacher all these
years. I have a Ph.D. in English Literature. I had braces when I
was growing up. [laughs] I mean, you look at me from the
outside—I look at myself from the inside and I think—well, a
middle-class person. But what does that mean—"middle class"?
That's a very interesting phrase. What are you in the middle of
if you're middle class? You're in the middle of the owning class
and the working class. I mean, that's what middle is. And why
are you in the middle? I began to try to understand more about
what lay under that term because so many people identify as
MBP: Right. So I began to try and get underneath the idea of
middle class. For me that meant two things: It meant going back
and looking again at my family history. What was really going on
economically in my family? Where were we in relation to the
economic forces of power over the history of my family? The
other thing I did was to read more about class, to do more basic
reading in Marxist theory, and to go to meetings where Marxist
issues were talked about. I explored what it means to live in
the system that we're in right now. How do you describe it? So I
began to do that kind of education, and one of the effects of
that for me was that I began to understand that my family—my
particular family—would absolutely be considered working class
under strict Marxist interpretation. My mother and father both
drew paychecks their entire lives. They never hired and fired
anybody else. They were working people. And they actually
identify as working people. They talk about work in a way that
people who describe working-class culture would describe as
working class. But I didn't identify that way, and in some ways
neither did they. And when I looked back at the history of my
family, I saw that in the nineteenth century both sides of my
family were slave owners, but not the kind that people think of
with [Gone with the Wind's] Tara. This was much more typical of
the South—small farms with fifteen or twenty people who were
enslaved. Alice Walker said once, "It is nothing to be ashamed
of if you were a slave. It is something to be ashamed of if you
were a slave owner." And that's the way I think of my family
when I think of their connection to owning slaves. It's a
terrible thing to have in your family. That made them owning
class—even if it was not a Tara stereotype—in the nineteenth
century on both sides of my family. They owned other people. And
then, over the next hundred and fifty years, they weren't owning
class anymore. They were working for wages. And yet, in that
matrix, the way that issues of race and class are so
inextricably bound together in the South, they had hung on to
this idea that at least they were white and that meant that they
were not workers in the same way that African-American people
were workers, which meant that they had hung on to this illusion
of status even while they were worrying how they were going to
pay the rent every month.
I think this story relates to something true for many, many
people who think of themselves as middle class, which is that
the seduction of capitalism is that you can lift yourself up,
you can make yourself safe, individually you can make your way.
And maybe you'll never make it into the owning class, but you'll
make it into the middle class and then you'll be safe. Nothing
will happen to you. You'll have retirement and health benefits.
But it has always been an illusion, though at some times [the
middle class] was more economically protected than it is now.
So I think that the way forward now is that we really need to
be studying and trying to understand what class and class
struggle really are. We need to go back and discover the
history. We have to educate ourselves because it is just
fundamental that as long as the economic structure that we live
under remains unchallenged, all the other issues that we
struggle with correcting are going to just keep repeating. I've
come to that understanding after this long period of trying to
make a difference in these other ways, and watching the same
pattern repeat over and over again where people are willing to
deal with their emotions and feelings but when we move to how
we're going to change allocating resources and actually making
changes in the structure and economics of organizations, people
won't do it.
We've got to challenge ourselves to move in a very
fundamental way, I think, to align our self and our
self-interest not with the powers that be economically, but with
the working class—with the folks who work and make the world
run, and who are increasingly losing ground to this global
capitalist economy. But mentally, intellectually, and
politically when we make decisions about where we're going to
put our energy and what kinds of steps we're going to take in
organizing, in understanding how our local community is
connected to the rest of the world, who are we making common
cause with? When we look in the paper and we read the accounts
of what has happened here this week [with the WTO conference and
related protests], or whatever the local news is, when we're
reading that, are we reading critically and saying, "In whose
interest are these things happening and who are they working
against, and where am I in all that?"
I think we can educate ourselves. We can examine ourselves
internally and align ourselves intellectually and emotionally in
a different direction. And then I think—especially for your
audience of queer women—I think that a riff on the 1960s' CR
[consciousness raising] groups is a possibility. People, when
they talk about the CR groups, I think sometimes their image of
them is mixed up with Zen meditation or something. They think
that "oh, people just went in and just sort of thought about
NM: Right. [chuckles]
MBP: But actually if you go back and look at the original
outlines for the CR groups, you researched a topic; you brought
your personal interest and experience to that topic, whatever it
was-masturbation or abortion or low wages or whatever—you talked
about it, and then you formulated new theory based on that
conversation; and then you tried to address it with action.
Action was always a component of the CR groups. The idea was to
have action grow out of formulating new theory. What would that
mean if we started addressing economic issues in the same way,
you know, preparing ourselves mentally and politically, and
looking for the other people who are doing that also?
NM: Building coalitions.
MBP: What other groups are really, really consistently trying
to understand what it means to live under capitalism? Are there
groups out there that have forums, and can you figure out how to
work with them around issues? And also I think it means adopting
a really international stance because you can't deal with class
issues and class struggles without dealing with imperialism and
NM: If that's not a lesson of this week with the WTO here, I
don't know one!
MBP: I know! Exactly! Exactly. I mean, it can be very
daunting because you see the force of the system. On the other
hand, when people were living under slavery, nobody
thought—except a very few people—that it would ever end. I mean
white folks were living under it and were justifying it as God's
way [by saying] "It's natural, it's the way things are."
NM: How it's always going to be . . .
MBP: Nothing's going to stop it. And then there were these
few abolitionists who said, "We don't accept gradualism. We
don't accept reform. Period." You know, there were many, many,
many black abolitionists and white abolitionists, but relative
to the entire population, they were a small group of people, and
people thought they were insane.
NM: Was it Margaret Mead who said, "Never doubt that a small
group of people can effect change because indeed that's the only
way it happens"?
MBP: Right. Exactly. Principled. Consistent. Exactly. And
people thought they were crazy.
NM: And they paid a price.
MBP: They did.
NM: It seems to me that part of what's behind what you're
saying is that you have to be willing to pay those personal and
public prices—not necessarily monetary ones.
NM: But in order to effect [change], you have to be willing
to go forward and be courageous.
MBP: There are things that you will lose, but I have found
that most of what I have lost is illusory.
NM: It wasn't anything that you needed.
MBP: It wasn't anything that I needed. I needed it to stay
where I was. I've felt it in my own life—it is so truly
liberating to be in the struggle because instead of living a
half-conscious life, you're awake and you're really living. I
mean, I was designed by my culture in Alabama—my white
supremacist culture—to just walk through life like this little
beauty queen lady . . . But that's like moving through life in
your sleep. It's not living. It's not fully living because
you're not fully in your own humanity.
And guts, well I don't know. People say to me, "Oh, you're so
courageous." I don't know about that. I think that when you come
into some kind of consciousness about what you need to do to be
fully human—and that's different for everyone—that place where
you say, "I have to do this or I'm going to be denying my own
self, my own humanity." It'll be almost like a spiritual suicide
not to do whatever that might be—being true to yourself. When
you come to that moment, I'm not sure I would call it courage. I
think that for me I just saw that I had a choice for one kind of
life or another, and it didn't feel courageous to choose a life
of truth, it felt like self-love. And the other kind of life
felt like self-destruction. The challenge is to come to that
moment, to allow yourself to really face it, to wake up enough.
And of course, I think what's so important—you know, you talked
earlier about how important you thought knowing our history as a
movement is, and I couldn't agree more because when I look at my
own life what I really want to tell people is "I didn't do it by
myself." I was doing this in the middle of social cataclysm, in
the middle of what we thought was a revolution. All around me it
was happening. It wasn't me by myself. In fact, I was a slow
learner, you know, really. [laughs]