Anne Balay: If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism
Today we welcome a guest post from Anne Balay, author of Semi Queer: Inside the World of Gay, Trans, and Black Truck Drivers, just published this month by UNC Press.
Long-haul trucking is linked to almost every industry in America, yet somehow the working-class drivers behind big rigs remain largely hidden from public view. Gritty, inspiring, and often devastating oral histories of gay, transsexual, and minority truck drivers allow award-winning author Anne Balay to shed new light on the harsh realities of truckers’ lives behind the wheel. A licensed commercial truck driver herself, Balay discovers that, for people routinely subjected to prejudice, hatred, and violence in their hometowns and in the job market, trucking can provide an opportunity for safety, welcome isolation, and a chance to be themselves–even as the low-wage work is fraught with tightening regulations, constant surveillance, danger, and exploitation. The narratives of minority and queer truckers underscore the working-class struggle to earn a living while preserving one’s safety, dignity, and selfhood.
Semi Queer is available now in both print and ebook editions.
If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism.
At each protest I’ve been to since Trump, I see a sign saying: If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it isn’t feminism.
I agree with the sentiment, but I feel compelled to add that intersectional thinking is genuinely difficult. The insight of intersectionality (Crenshaw) is not that we all live within an interlocking system of oppressions, but rather that these oppressions pull us in different directions, causing divided loyalties – internalized conflict and tension. Intersectional identity leaves each person feeling ripped apart at the core. AND each person who theorizes or does activism intersectionally feels that, too.
Writing Semi Queer, my book about gay, trans, and black truckers, encouraged me to think about visibly stigmatized bodies putting themselves out in dangerous public spaces as part of their jobs. And to think about public perceptions of and knowledge about truck drivers and other disrespected, blue-collar workers. I literally wrote the book on this subject, but it remains difficult for me to think about these two threads at the same time.
For example, during the Pittsburg protests about the murder of Antwon Rose, a 17-year old boy shot in the back as he fled from police, traffic was stopped on the highway. A news reporter interviewed two drivers who left their trucks to talk to protestors. They interview Gene, and “another guy who was driving one of the larger trucks.” The entire news segment avoids the word trucker, though both interviewees are white, middle-aged men with beards and ball caps. The journalist seems surprised that these men support the protestors, even though they’re inconvenienced by them.
Class analysis of this segment suggests that the narrative about the “white working class” as racist and resentful is not promulgated by the workers themselves. When you ask them directly what they think, they usually surprise you by being human, and having a nuanced view of the issues affecting them. However, the truckers being interviewed are white, male, and at the very least straight-passing. How would this story have played differently if the truckers were my narrators?
I met a gay couple last weekend who team drive. They never get out of the truck alone. If one needs to use the bathroom, they both go. Always. Seen together they are unmistakably gay, yet togetherness provides some degree of safety. If they had mingled with the protest crowd, how would the reporter have treated them? Would they have been visible enough as “truckers” to even be asked?
A woman trucker trapped in traffic would probably not get out. She would lock the doors, and run her seatbelt through the door handle for added security. She might feel forced to hide in the bunk with the curtain drawn, praying that her load was not tampered with.
One of my narrators, who is Mexican and lesbian, was stuck in highway protests last year in Minneapolis. She was terrified. Lost income is real, since truckers are paid by the mile and sitting on the highway lowers their income and might even cost them their job. But the greater threat is violence, and violence is consistently more likely to be directed against a female, non white, queer-presenting person. The casual way the drivers in the news segment walk around and talk to people, comfortable in the security provided by whiteness, beards, and down home accents is just not available to my narrators.
What does it mean to think intersectionally about this scenario? How can we understand the fear and anger my narrators would experience in this situation as compared to the enlightened anti-racist words of the white bros?
I’m not sure how to answer this question. What I am sure of is that if we jump to glorify Gene and Robert, who saw the footage of Antwon Rose, Jr. being murdered by police and concluded that the protest was justified, and that “the DA needs to really, really look at this and don’t do no white washing . . . so this don’t happen no more” without understanding both that this anti-racist analysis is not at all uncommon in America’s working-class and that it is facilitated by their white, straight, cis male embodiments, we are neither feminist nor intersectional.
Anti-racist activism is an ongoing and formative part of working-class life. Same with queerness and gender non-conformity. It’s only within my lifetime that tolerance and diversity have gotten linked to the middle-class, mostly by projecting bigotry onto less educated workers. Nadine Hubbs argues that one effect of this history is to enable intellectual, coastal, middle-class white people to assume the mantle of virtuous anti-racism without doing the work or experiencing the risk.
Danger, vulnerability, and invisibility are ongoing and constitutive aspects of blue-collar life. My goal is to remind myself to consider how these shape what feels possible, and what meaning is. A transwoman alone in her truck looking out at a line of cops in riot gear might pray for invisibility, and certainly would not dangle herself in front of the cameras, the crowd, or law enforcement. Her thoughts about Antwon’s murder, and about race, fear, and justice, would be shaped by that reality, as well as by her larger context, history, and attitudes.
At this intersection feminism, anti-racism, and social justice are all moving targets.
Anne Balay is winner of the Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Award. She teaches in gender and sexuality studies at Haverford College and is the author of Steel Closets. For more information, you can visit her website, or follow her on Twitter at @anxiousannieb. You can also read her previous UNC Press Blog posts here.
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