"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at email@example.com and put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo
Dear Comrade Femme,
What might it mean to be a loving activist? Or one that is animated by love?
When I was 22, I was romantically involved with gruff union organizer from Baltimore who would often say--when asked about his approach to the task of agitating the oppressed workers of the world to unite--that people are driven by either love or hate. You form a union either because you love your kid and need to provide them a better life, or because you hate your boss (and maybe, eventually, capitalism). I’ve held onto that idiom like a lucky rabbit’s foot, something, when the work feels too daunting, I palm for security and guidance.
Your letter reminds me of his analysis, but it also makes me question it. To start, what place, if any, does affect have in our movements? This is mostly a question I ask to play devil’s advocate because truthfully, as a Pisces moon is wont to do, I think emotion (and the things affect evokes) is relevant to everything. But why the privilege of love, as you so pointedly do, T?
I’m inclined to take your side, that the question of love, rather than hate or even grief, is actually the central question, but I think it’s important to nod to the value of those others as well. See, for example, Deborah Gould’s brilliant work on grief in ACT UP organizing, or Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger,” or the palpable fever described by the Greensboro lunch-counter protestors, recounted in Francesca Polletta’s work. We know emotion is relevant, and indeed instrumental, to our movements, but what is particular of love?
I’ll start with myself because it’s what I know best: the foundation of my politics began with the heart. A bleeding-heart, more precisely. It’s a phrase I heard my mom use on more than one occasion, as a label for herself, and, by extension, I used it for myself too. I grew up white-trash, but we defied the stereotypes of working-class bigots. My mom, doing her best, preached tolerance and color-blindness. Today, she and I both know that this is an ineffective approach to allyship, but this was my foundation: a bleeding-heart, dripping with ‘the Others’’ pain. This identity taught me profound empathy, which is, admittedly, not quite the same as love, but I think perhaps one may not exist without the other. The danger of empathy is that it can lead to guilt and inaction. When you feel the weight of anothers’ pain so much that your organs tear asunder, you become weak. I spent years feeling powerless against injustice, my heart feeble and rupture-ridden.
Could it be love that propelled me out of that motionlessness? My first reaction is, no, it was not love, but rather rage that got me unstuck from do-gooder ally and forayed me into an accomplice for liberation. I joined an activist community that rallied around aggressive rhetoric, ostensibly against instead of for: anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist. Fuck the police, and the only good fascist is a very dead fascist, and kill whitey. I held onto pacifism and peace for as long as I could, but then something shifted; there was movement.
How? Well, love. Ultimately it was love that took me from guilt and catapulted me into a compassion-based, action-inducing rage. And I mean love, in the most traditional sense. I fell in love with a boy and then a girl and then some more boys (and by boys and girls, I mean young men and women, of course). I was, in leg-mussed dorm room bedsheets, in the crooks of necks and early orgasms, in learning what it meant to be a ‘partner,’ also learning radical politics. Of course, I learned this from my platonic comrades too, but there was something about being challenged by the person with whom I felt safe enough to be literally naked, to be my best and worst self, and find trust in anyway. There was something about hearing that person explain why we had to overthrow the entire system rather than simply reform it, and being agitated by that person to see my own oppression as a working-class person and a woman and a queer, that went, uh….deeper.
I’ll pause here to make space for the cringes and scoffs and the accusations of anti-feminism. Maybe some comparisons to Gloria Steinem’s suggestion that young women were voting for Bernie to impress the Bernie bros?
I understand that reaction, but I hope you can also understand why I don’t, as a feminist, find it at all problematic that romantic and sexual love is actually one of the most important factors of my political development. In fact, I think it’s a testament to what Adrienne Maree Brown describes as pleasure politics, which she builds on from Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic.” Lorde explains the erotic as “those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passions of love, its deepest meanings.” She goes on:
“The erotic functions for me in several ways, and the first is in providing the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” (p. 89)
This is feminist politics at its finest: acknowledging positionality, acknowledging relationality. Acknowledging that the personal is political, and that we and our movements and our politics are nothing without the fervent and acute, soft and slippery, confusing and impermeable intimacies we share with other people.
For those who need more ‘proof,’ the crux of this (minus the sexy parts) has also been studied and demonstrated by sociologist, Doug McAdam, who writes about strong-ties--a close, personal relationship with a member of a movement--as the main impetus for high-risk activist involvement. In his study of the students involved in Freedom Summer, he found that connection to another activist was more significant than actual belief in the cause. Some of these close-ties were likely romantic, some were not, but, in either case, what is a stronger-tie than love?
For me, the sexual and romantic intimacy of my strong-tie love was profound. It’s not a requirement for engaged politics, but it was significant in my process, and it came to mind almost immediately when I read your question. (Hence why I began with a story of an old flame.)
So, what if we expanded this to love between one-another more broadly? I would like to imagine that our new worlds would leave easy conditions for polyamorous relationships, but even if sex and/or romantic love were out of the question for any number of reasons (monogamy, particular iterations of asexuality, etc), I think love, broadly defined, between activists enables understanding and community in a way other things cannot. And perhaps I am finally getting to answer. Which is that love creates trust and belonging….and we truly cannot build movements without these things.
Let’s consider for a moment the recent wave of protests and rallies after the election of 45. Thousands of people in the US went to their first political action because of the election results. Most went with friends, in groups that felt safe; they even had matching hats. But most of those same people didn’t know what to do next. They were able to go to that protest because so many other people they knew were also going.
But we don’t have thousands of people going to organizing meetings, or doing court and jail support, or learning community-defense techniques. Partly because of time and commitments, but partly because their friends/crushes/partners aren’t going either. Many of those same people have time to go on dates, but not to organizing meetings, which makes complete sense if we consider the importance of setting aside time for pleasure. (We aren’t fighting for bread alone!). And so, (back to Brown again): “I suspect that to really transform our society, we will need to make justice one of the most pleasurable experiences we can have.”
What does it mean to be a loving activist, or one that is animated by love, T? I think it could mean a lot of things, but to be effective, I think it means cultivating love not only outward toward some perceived Other, but within our own activist communities (which we know are one in the same; the best movements are the ones comprised of the folks most impacted). So let’s throw a wrench in love as charity, and go beyond love as solidarity, and think about love as intimacy. Pleasure. Crushes. Connection. A heat that breeds commitment, a pulse that foments tenacity, a throbbing that makes inaction impossible.