Push Magazine: A Publication of Queer Feminist Subversions

Issue 2: "A Rising Movement Lifts All Boats: A Conversation with Minnie 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 www.mbpratt.org.

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.

MBP: Wow!

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 that was.

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 economic issues.

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 middle class.

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 things."

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 global capitalism.

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.

MBP: Right.

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]

And the era that we're in right now is very difficult. I mean it's not the '50s, but there are certain things about it that recall the '50s to me. People increasingly feel that their lives are being overtaken by economic forces that are enormous. And they are enormous. And that of course is different from the '50s—I mean, the degree to which all of this economic global capitalization has accelerated. The repression, the censorship, the conservatism, the pushing back of some of our gains of the '60s and '70s. The fact that I hear racist and anti-woman terms on TV as a commonplace, where that would not have been ok even ten years ago. The pushing back of affirmative action. This is a very difficult era that we're living in. It reminds me in some ways of post-Reconstruction—the 1890s—in the South where similarly after this almost-revolution of liberating folks, there was the counterreaction. For folks who are struggling to evolve now, to do it without the sort of mass revolutionary ferment, it's harder. On the other hand, it's crucial and of course, those kind of struggles come from the preparation during the difficult periods. Leslie likes to say, "When we were in the '50s, we didn't know the '60s were right around the corner."

NM: Exactly.

MBP: I mean, you're struggling, struggling, struggling and you don't know. For all we know, this week in Seattle is the beginning of a turning point.

NM: Exactly.

MBP: I mean, we'll see. We'll see what happens. Maybe we're at the beginning of a new mass movement of struggle that's going to start it all in motion again.

NM: And the coalitions you saw in the street with the environmentalists and the farmers . . .

MBP: That's right! And the pride-at-work pink triangles.

NM: Exactly—all together in one place. I mean, that's phenomenal.

MBP: It's phenomenal and we've spent twenty years trying to talk to and work with each other so we can have this kind of coalition moment. It certainly wouldn't have happened like this during the Vietnam War. Labor and these other groups were not in the streets together.

NM: And there's a disparate range.

Oh, Sweet Honey in the Rock [sing], "Believe I'll run on and see what the end's going to be." [laughs] And if that isn't a great song to represent being in the movement in motion. That feel of just joy, of just "can't wait." You know, "what's going to happen next?" But only with a life of conscious—a commitment to consciousness—do you have that feeling of joy about what's going to happen next. For the folks who are trying to get ready, you never know when the turning point's going to be. So it's hard to maintain focus during the difficult time, but we say to ourselves, "We've got to get prepared now, because when it all starts to move there's not going to be time to study."

NM: I mean, it's important to educate ourselves and take the steps outside [our communities] to make coalitions and work toward justice economically, as clearly economics do underlie everything. But it seems to me that exclusion—especially that based on gender presentation—is one of the biggest issues that we face within queer women's communities. It seems to me that if we don't allow people to say who they are from the inside out—I mean, they have to decide—that we can't do some of this other stuff on a grander level outside our communities.

MBP: Right.

NM: And if we can't take care of and accept one another, to me that seems criminal. Would you speak to our future in terms of self-definition and how we bridge the gaps within our communities?

MBP: Oh, this is such a crucial and in some ways complicated question and in some ways not at all.

NM: I'm with you. I'm totally with you.

MBP: I mean, it is complicated and it's not complicated. I feel like the way you all [at Push] have addressed it is the uncomplicated, completely bedrock way to deal with it, which is "come as you are; all queer women welcome." Period. Then you figure out how to talk to each other and how to learn about each other and how to work together, and presumably that will produce the broadest spectrum of what "queer and women" is. If you're going to advance together, you have to have everybody in the room to figure out how to do that. Otherwise, there are people in one group deciding what the people who are not there should be doing.

NM: Or who they should be.

MBP: Or who they should be. If you really believe in having things be different for women, you have to have all women who define themselves that way get together and talk about it—what does it mean and what needs to be done? And if you start setting up exclusionary categories, you're only serious about improving things for yourself and your sub-group. You know, so that's the simple part of it. It's sort of like if things are going to change, we need the greatest number of people to help change them because it's going to be tough.

NM: It's hard work.

MBP: It's hard work and for true change to come, it has to be masses of people. It's just true. So, if it's going to be lots of folks, then people who are working on it need to be reflective of who all those folks are. That's just common sense. Well, so that's the simple part of it. The complicated part of it is—especially around womanness and queerness—well, there are several strands to this. Historically, I feel like one of the strands is that my generation—I'm fifty—of the women's movement fought really hard to change things. And part of what we fought for was to reclaim the word "woman" from degradation—the word and the being. And to do that, we built up around "woman" a literature, women's studies, a politics.

NM: A culture.

MBP: A culture, a whole era evolved around "woman,”" and some of that is sort of a subculture of the bigger women's liberation culture, but in some currents and I count Michigan [Women's Music Festival and their exclusion of transgendered people] as one of these currents, people are just hanging on to the place we got with "woman" [in the '70s] and they're not willing to reexamine where we didn't get in our thinking.

NM: Well put.

MBP: We're not infallible. We had certain insights that were part of our struggle at our particular historical moment. Good for us! But we're not the goddess. [chuckles] We don't know everything. We didn't finish. We got to a certain point. And now there's a sticking point around womanness. Now that's just one current, but it's certainly represented at Michigan. And it's so ironic because of course for women's liberation one of the basic tenets is that biology isn't destiny. It's not that you're given a complete nature by being born in a woman's body. It's that because you're born in a woman's body—if that's how it's identified at birth and named—you get certain experiences in the material world, and then that means that certain kinds of things happen to you and you learn certain things from it. And that isn't monolithic.

NM: I was going to say culturally, socially, and historically . . .

MBP: That's right. There are all these different kinds of women, and so to create a monolithic politics, and especially an analysis around very time-limited ideas of what "woman" is, is very short sighted and destructive. It's not the way to move into the future. The future to me is really what you all [Dyke Action] are attempting to do, which is to say, "Yes, sometimes we need to draw together as women, and for us queerness and womanness are two important things about our identity. What can we learn from each other about our experiences, about how the world is treating us, about what insights that gives us into how things could be different?" But this isn't a little barred room that you then lock yourself in. How is that going to produce really fundamental change for you in that group?

The other thing is something that Leslie talks about and I think it's important to talk about it. Part of that reclamation project around "woman" was dealing with the fact that "woman" and "womanness" had been so degraded—that's a mild way of talking about it. You know what happens to us as women, all the horrors—and they are horrors. And so there's a way that it's understandable that people would want to fortress themselves around their womanness, and to defend something that's been so assaulted. And to open that up—especially to people who are perceived by the “defending” women as folks who've been on the "other side"—does mean dealing with personal histories and our understanding of what safety is.

NM: And comfort.

MBP: And comfort, and really wrestling with that. And I don't minimize or trivialize that. Women who have been assaulted and raped and brutalized and humiliated and cat-called and have lost their children and their jobs because they're women, I mean, these are terrible traumas and they leave terrible scars. I'm one of those women, and I have terrible scars from it. But I think it's really important to try to step back—if possible—from that pain and say to ourselves, "Are the folks who are coming into 'woman' in these new kinds of ways, are they really people who want to hurt me?"

NM: Very good point.

MBP: I mean, are they really people who want to assault me? Perhaps they're people who have experienced terrible assaults and pain precisely because they've been seen as being feminine or too womanly or just not fitting "woman" appropriately to the powers that be. So rather than seeing them as aligned with the assaulting forces, to just try to understand that more than likely they have been brutalized in different ways perhaps, but also in some of the same ways. And then to try to figure out ways to try to have interactions that are mutually respectful and yet illuminating to each other.

One of the things that was so powerful for me about Camp Trans, which was across the road from Michigan, was that when you entered that little, tiny space the manners of that space were that you just never called anybody by a pronoun until you had a little time to talk and get to know the person and then they would let you know or you would just ask "which do you prefer?" That's a pretty amazing thing.

I'm a new grandmother. I have a new grandbaby, and I'm trying to write about this grandbaby without using any of the pronouns and it's very difficult. One of the things that I was very proud about my son for was when he called to tell us the baby had been born, he left a message saying, "I just called to tell you that we have a new member of our family. Katie's fine. I'm fine. The baby's fine. I'm really happy. I'll talk to you later." [smiles, then laughs, pleased]

NM: That's exciting.

MBP: You know, not a pronoun in sight! It was amazing. Now, that's one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is that there is still women's oppression. There are still things that happen to people because they're seen as being women or they're seen as being womanly or feminine or they're seen as women who are too masculine. There's all this oppression around femaleness and womanness, and so it's not enough to say it would be good if we didn't have to have the pronouns. The fact is that people are still imposing punishment on us using those categories, around gender. Some of us live rather unambiguously in "woman." Some of us live very ambiguously in "woman." Some of us live in between. It's one of those wonderful paradoxes of the struggle; at the same time we struggle for a space to have lots of gender and sexual ambiguity and complexity and range, we have to struggle against oppression based on these categories. We can't just say, "Well, the categories are imposed and therefore they're meaningless." They're meaningful because people use them against you. They force you. They discriminate against you based on their perception of where you fit in the categories.

NM: Within queer women's communities, you're always going to have that faction that defines "woman" narrowly, but you'll also have progressives working for change.

MBP: That's right. And a rising movement lifts all boats and then the movement moves. Some people are sort of left stranded, and some people go out and come in on another current with another wave, you know. That's just how it is. You're right. It'll certainly be interesting to see if anything develops around pronouns. It would be great if something—some elasticity—developed around pronouns. And it's not impossible. You know, pronouns are certainly hard to change, but they never said "Ms." would last either.

NM: Exactly. And now it's standard.

MBP: It's completely standard. And there are many languages that just have one pronoun. Farsi has one pronoun for everybody. It's not like it's a bazaar concept to other people in other languages. It's just that in English we don't have it. In the meantime, the kinds of things that you all are wrestling with are very important. Making a space with language that's the most inclusive that you can is one step of building the most inclusive movement. And we've seen that over and over again.

NM: Language is vital.

MBP: You know, as to who's going to actually show up or not.

NM: I want to thank you so much for sharing your time. This is such a gift.

MBP: Oh you're welcome! Listen, thank you! I'm completely thrilled to be connected through you to this new wave that's going to lift all our boats up higher—mine included.

©  Push Magazine

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