Oppression Olympics: The Dark Side of the Rainbow

By Stoyan Francis
Originally printed 1/28/2016 (Issue 2404 - Between The Lines News)

In 1978, artist Gilbert Baker designed what would go on to be the biggest symbol of the LGBT movement: The Rainbow Flag. The legacy of the flag is that different thoughts and ideas united and made something beautiful. This legacy of solidarity felt somewhat lost this past week at the Creating Change conference.

The Invitation to the Winter Games

Creating Change is an annual conference that is filled with opportunities to collaborate and educate members of the LGBTQIA movement. There were many arenas one could navigate to meet, greet and celebrate the unity of each other and the organization represented. Unfortunately, unexpected divisions hindered my expectation of togetherness and celebration. I prepared for the possibility of racial inequality and misunderstandings. Those things are as familiar as hopscotch on a hot summer day in Detroit. I know what to do with that. I have built armor for those dilemmas and have an arsenal of comebacks for that type of oppression, and/or miseducation.

However, what I received this past conference was new and as surprising as loan forgiveness. I saw people who looked like me, spoke like me, who I shared oppression with, excluding me from shared space. I felt my sisters separating me as a "cis"-ter and naming me and the rest of our black and brown family as oppressors and conspirators. The Oppression Olympics had started.

As I stated previously, I am used to running against racial inequality or injustice. The thing I wasn't used to was running against my family, my black and brown trans sisters who have the knowledge and experience of bigotry and injustice for the same reasons as my sisters and I.

Opening Games

While we understand that there are several categories in these games, the focus of this will be the category of womanhood: transgender vs. cisgender. During Creating Change, there were many spaces filled with chants to acknowledge the lives and experiences of transgender women of color. From my vantage point, there were many sessions geared toward the trans experience and a few for funding resources. Now, all these spaces may not have been geared towards transwomen of color, but several sessions each day of the conference were available. For my lesbian counterparts, very few spaces (maybe even a handful) were available. The "L" in LGBTQIA felt small and invisible.

Nonetheless, there were spaces for everyone to learn something new. Unfortunately, the dialogues that some of the other cisgender women of color and I experienced were "the lives of black transwomen were harder because of rape, violence, medical disparities and access." Being a woman and gender studies graduate, my mind was blown. In my head, I replayed statistics and passages of books in my head: 1 in 3 women will experience violence by an intimate partner; 1 in 5 girls will experience child sexual abuse; the forced sterilization of women of color; rapes during slavery. However, my experience and input was discounted and discredited before I could get out a complete sentence.

I think it is in mind, during these games, that socialization plays a very dynamic role in the delivery and designation of these spaces. No matter what a transgender individual's chosen gender, there was a time when they were socialized as the opposite gender. Let's be clear that this is not an insult or a perceived shortcoming, but it is a fact. From some of the negative experiences cisgender women of color have come across with transgender women of color, there has been a subtle hint of privilege in this space.

Transgender women of color have been exposed to something cisgender women have never had privy to: male privilege. And sometimes it is that internalized privilege that transitions with them, unknowingly. It is sometimes with this privilege that transgender women disrespectfully command cisgender women to their attention and sometimes will invalidate cisgender women of color and their experiences as "not being as bad as..." This equation tends to negatively result in a war of gender politics between women. You find cisgender women hurling slurs of what defines womanhood at transgender women. This is a space where cisgender women, especially of color, need to be mindful of our privilege, and not only privilege as it pertains to transgender versus cisgender, but also our privilege in that some of our insults can be applied to cisgender women. One gun, nine bullets, endless victims.

Lighting of the Torch

In my opinion, love is unconditionally accepting a person for whom and what they are without reservation or constraints. This means not trying to mold them into what I want them to be, or to reflect a certain ideal, but supporting them through the journey of becoming better and being able to live their truth. Everyone was created to bring something new and original to the table of life by virtue of the gifts afforded them through their unique creation. For this reason, I don't limit womanhood to the act of giving birth, menstruating, being feminine or holding them to any specific construction or ideology. Womanhood is a masterpiece in its own right, which is fluid and nonconforming to biology or gender expression.

For one who is not trans to say they know or understand the barriers and plights of transitions is someone who doesn't understand the complexities and uniqueness of learning and self-discovery and expression in truth. I know everyone doesn't move in the same direction of my steps and that the world is cruel even to those who have adapted and mastered the execution of heteronormativity. So with that, I can understand how my trans-sisters tiptoed into situations and spaces with a sense of uncertainty. In a world where murder, silence, invisibility and no access are common threads of their fabric, they would be foolish not to.

Warm Up

The Olympics is widely regarded as the biggest sports spectacle where competitors compete to determine who is the best in respective fields. People go on to great heights and can use their fame to attract the attention and support they may want/need.

The Oppression Olympics is verbal banter between different, possibly marginalized, groups who are trying to determine the weight of their many intersectionalities of oppression (race, gender, socioeconomic status, disability) to determine who has it the worst. These games are damaging to any group or movement because of the alienating and dehumanizing effects of invalidation that can cause all parties to try and be gold medalists.

This is not something that is simply limited to the LGBTQIA movement. This is visible in feminism, and with racial disparities and immigration issues. The gold medal of the Oppression Olympics is seen as the commanding spot for demanding change, for visibility and allocation of resources. Conversely, it is also an instrumental tool in the social segregation of various populations. And with this, barriers to solidarity are created and resentment between groups is formed, and humanness becomes asinine.

Passing the Baton

"On your mark! Get Set!" Their words rose and shot up in the air. "Go!" I buckled, I froze. The shots rang for the first race, and I was left in a dust of bewilderment and disbelief. I'm glad this conversation wasn't a sprint but the first round of the relay.

I took two steps back and shot forward. Each step forward, I ran trying to reach my trans sister to let her know she was running against me, not towards me.

We, cisgender and transgender women of color, are anchored at the hip of oppression. Pain and abuse are our matching birthmarks. During birth, the doctor of patriarchy pulled us out and slapped us with the same force; and yet we are not the same in any capacity. Though we are black and brown alike, we wear different uniforms and colors to these races, and our cheering sections rarely acknowledge the dedication and sacrifices we make to get to the Olympics. Their primary focus is for us to win so they have bragging rights in support of the win. If we lose, then we become as invisible as the microscopic cells that determine our identity. To say we entrants in the game are the same would not acknowledge the ways we were designed, socialized and traumatized. And for that, we should never trip each other over when we have commonalities in the same hurdles we are trying to jump, despite the length of our race and destination of our journey. We should all celebrate and pay attention to everyone as the struggle and sacrifices in getting to the Olympics puts us on an even keel.

The Victor

The end of the race is marked by a sense and space of solidarity. However, there are no true winners of the games because the genius of the game was lost in translation and it became a solo experience instead of recognition and celebration of the entire orchestra. This has become a place where we stand on the backs of our ancestors in hopes of unification. We are deeply rooted in selfishness and ignore that it was not one of our ancestors that paved the way for us, but several -- all with different skills. In essence, this should be a world where we advocate, not isolate; a place where we harmonize our songs of oppression with alternate solos with the same orchestra as an integral part of the performance. No one is more of a woman or more of a victim or more important, and if we are able to get this out of the way in this hierarchy of oppression, we will find that things are a lot better on the other side of the rainbow, and the rainbow will be an indelible reminder of who and what we are and represent.

Stoyan Francis is a sexual assault, domestic assault and LGBT of color advocate. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Women and Gender Studies and a Master's Degree in Social Justice. She is an alum of the LGBT Detroit Leadership Academy and board member of SASHA Center. She does community tabling and first response for Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner's program and other domestic violence organizations. She splits her time between activism and LGBT diversity trainings and presentations. This was Francis' first Creating Change conference.
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