Thousands push the limits (their own and the system’s) on a daily basis to fight the oppression of individuals labeled with psychiatric diagnoses, and to change the way the world understands various kinds of distress. Some of us call the body of people engaged in this work a ‘movement’. I am one such person who is often referring to a ‘civil rights’ or ‘human rights’ movement within this context, although I recognize the problems with referencing a singular ‘movement’, as well.
But, if we are to accept this body as a movement, we must also be willing to take a real look at its flaws, downfalls, shortcomings and anything else that may run counter to our expressed goals.
One of the ways that this movement falls short is related to its treatment of women and the recognition that sexism is a very real and present issue herein.
Now, that’s not to say that people doing this work necessarily treat women especially poorly when compared to the rest of the world. However, I will assert that this struggle for social justice within the psychiatric realm seems to carry no particular power of immunization against misogyny.
As a woman who has been both directly and indirectly impacted, and who has seen our efficacy as a larger body similarly affected, this matters to me. I’ve never been one to demand that everyone be unified, and I’m all the more less inclined to do so when the demand is to be unified in numbers and not by integrity or beliefs. But, nor can I stand confidently by a movement that fosters fractures in favor of fear, hate and re-traumatization.
If you’ve read this far, and are still mystified as to my point, let me get a little more direct:
For all our efforts to fight one brand of hurt, our own movement remains a microcosm of the world and its assorted transgressions, regularly playing out biases related to race, class, sexuality, gender and so on. In other words, where gender is concerned, our male counterparts (primarily those who are cisgender), tend to operate with a good deal of privilege (whether they intentionally take advantage of it or not).
This shows up in so many ways– some more visible than others. Although I have neither the time nor the space to develop a truly comprehensive list, it does seem relevant to offer up some examples. No matter your gender identity, consider the following signs you’re abusing (or feeding into) male privilege in this movement:
You use your (fledgling or otherwise) ‘rock star’ status in the movement to pick up women after your various speaking gigs, groups, or other events where individuals in vulnerable places are likely to be looking up to you.
You don’t have to worry about being constantly interrupted, especially since you’re the one who usually gets to speak first… or most… and/or yours is often the voice interrupting others.
You take credit for a woman’s work directly or indirectly (and treat them like they’re silly or ungrateful when they object).
You think it is ‘funny’ or ‘cute’ when a woman expresses concern that you’re somehow implicitly or explicitly a part of taking credit for their work, and you openly make light of it to others.
You argue that ‘who gets credit’ isn’t what’s important, but the truth is that you make that argument within a context where you’re the one most likely to get that credit anyway. (Yes, I’m spending a lot of time on the ‘credit’ issue, and not because of some misguided grab at fame. Rather, taking credit not due is one of the most common affronts I see. And, it is one that fundamentally undermines a person’s voice and personal power by literally stealing their hard-earned wisdom while simultaneously encouraging others to bypass that person in favor of another who has simply collected that information rather than lived it.)
You take part in event planning committees periodically, and when you do, it feels totally natural and expected for the women in the group to do the ‘behind the scenes’ work, while you take-on all the parts related to being in the public eye.
You know you’ll get heard, as long as you show up and open your mouth, and don’t really care about how much harder the women around you may need to work to garner the same respect. (On the other hand, if they come up with a good idea, you’re more than happy to ride their coattails.)
You enjoy taking part in a collectives or groups portrayed as being all on equal footing, but when you do, you still feel entitled to retain control (even over objections) as the most frequently heard ‘public voice’ representing them.
You organize a conference with only white, male keynoters… and you don’t even notice that you’ve done so.
You have accused a woman of ‘over reacting’, being ‘too emotional’, invading business not her own, or, even worse, acting out of unrequited feelings of lust or love when she called a man out for his unethical behavior (all as if she, and not the behavior she called out, were the heart of the problem).
You think you’re the one who’s best equipped to explain the issues and concerns most relevant to being a woman in a male-dominated world (or on any other issue where you do not have direct experience), even when there’s a woman present and ready to speak for herself.
You think activism and sex go hand-in-hand, and feel personally offended and angry if a woman you’re organizing or somehow working with says ‘no’ to your advances.
You make excuses for or don’t speak up at all to a man, men or male-led organization participating in one or more of these activities.
You continue to promote or work uninterrupted with a man, men or male-led organization that is routinely guilty of one or more of these activities.
You have played any role in threatening or silencing the women who have attempted to raise these or other similar issues (including calling their employers, defaming them publicly, or otherwise using your connections with fellow individuals in positions of power to ‘circle the wagons’).
You’ll support women who want to stand up against these issues (in some instances, risking their jobs, financial security, and so on in order to do so), but only behind the scenes because to do otherwise would be too uncomfortable or mean giving up some aspect of your own privilege.
Your choice to ignore any of these issues is unlikely to bear any negative consequences… for you.
You read this list and your immediate reaction is to get angry or defensive or to come up with a list of ways in which you’re not privileged (followed by unwillingness to work through any of that to understand why or be a part of the change).
You may read through this list and see signs of one person or another (or perhaps even yourself), but the truth is it’s not about just one single individual. As with all oppression, this issue is systemic, and for those of you who don’t see it at all, you’re likely in enough of a position of power to not have to.
But, for those of you who do recognize it, what do we do next? I almost always come with more questions than answers where such historical wrongs are concerned, but consider this:
We’re facing a pretty big challenge right now (read: the Murphy Bill!) and it behooves us to stand together on that front, but standing together on one issue does not necessitate sweeping all else under the rug ‘for the sake of the movement’. It can’t. Surely, the Murphy Bill 2015 will not be the last major attack we are called upon to face, and refusal to address our own failings with honesty and courage will only leave us all the weaker when those future threats head in our direction.
So, we’re all going to need to get a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and I guess this blog is intended at least somewhat as a call to action to do just that. As individuals, we need to:
- Be careful to recognize each other’s hard work, even when recognition doesn’t seem required or who did what isn’t the priority topic of the moment (as that sort of recognition is a show of basic respect and valuing of another person’s efforts, and to do otherwise is a replication of a psychiatric system that has historically devalued or taken advantage of what we have to offer)
- Get much more adept at speaking out (person-to-person or publicly as makes sense) when we see something happening that doesn’t fit with our values
- Stop promoting individuals who are known for unethical behavior, just because their names are recognizable or they’re seen as most likely to bring in a big crowd
- Avoid being driven by what is likely to lead to (or lose) more contracts or money (as it is, in fact, the industrialization of all things ‘peer’ and ‘recovery’ that has stolen vast amounts of our strength to date)
- Stop speaking for people whose experiences we do not share, and instead speak with them or simply be a part of creating the space for them to speak (and shut the hell up)
- Be willing to stand next to our friends, co-workers and allies who are taking some of these risks, even if that means taking on some risk ourselves
- Challenge the organizations that we work with or that fund us and other groups to do the same
Now, I can’t close without acknowledging that I write this as a woman… A white, cisgender woman who is married to a white, cisgender man. I speak English as my first language, celebrate Christmas, and hold a job where I’m in a leadership role. I also grew up with a fair amount of wealth and social capital at my disposal in a city with a low crime rate and good educational access. That’s a boatload of privilege right there, and in fact, this movement needs to take a hard look at privilege (and lack thereof) on every level.
Our efforts were founded on all sorts of great ideals and slogans like ‘nothing about us without us’, but all these years later we still seem to be searching for what that really means. Yet, in spite of all our struggles and convolutions along the way, it continues to boil down to essentially the same basic point, doesn’t it? If we simply could figure out how to genuinely support each and every person – for all their parts and their whole – to have equal space to make their own meaning, speak their own truth and be valued for all they have to contribute, we’d be in a hell of a better place than we are right now.
Why on earth is that so hard?