We stood in front of over a hundred radical folk as an absolute mockery. People were in tears. The crowd’s anger, confusion and frustration penetrated my embarrassed heart. We, the group of a few “men” who just presented the “Challenging Male Supremacy” report back to the entire Earth First! Rendezvous population, looked at each other in disbelief and shame. I wished desperately to not be standing front and center, to turn back time. But the damage was done. What was said was said. Not only did I partake in it, I consented to the process. All my heady understandings of patriarchy came to a visceral collision; my skin tingled, my vision was introspective seeing everything encased in two circles surrounding my eyes. I learned a great deal in those incredibly long moments, much of which will take a lifetime to try to unlearn.
Earth First!, Inclusion and Oppression
A part of Earth First! culture is what I would call total inclusion: a person can be an Earth First!er with the mere requirement of caring deeply for the environment. Who or what makes up the person as an individual is not a factor in participating in EF! A person’s race, sex, gender, social status, sexuality, age, doesn’t matter—just willingness to defend Mother Earth. “Rednecks for wilderness” who are willing to resist ecological plundering are as welcomed as marginalized queer people of color. As idyllic as this sounds, without a culture of anti-oppression, i.e. a culture of actively working interpersonally on our oppressive behavior, the ghost of hierarchy still lingers strong—specifically “environmentalism trumps social justice,” creating a myopic focus on ecodefense. Perhaps the idea was to ignore identity politics and power dynamics, to focus on just getting shit done, but ignorance perpetuates an oppressive social environment. The name aptly sums it up: “Earth First!” implying: “Anything Else Second!”
With this concept of inclusion and a strong tendency towards being an aggressive, macho faction within resistance culture, many have come and gone from the Earth First! milieu feeling alienated. By allowing oppressive ideology in the fold, one is enabling that behavior. “Inclusion” dominates.
Years have been put into anti-oppression work within EF! This year’s Rondy had a strong anti-oppression push. An abridged anti-oppression statement was front and center in the welcoming packet and the full anti-oppression statement of Earth First! is thorough and greatly informative. Several workshops were offered on topics of anti-oppressive work. A group from Pittsburgh was invited to host a workshop on unlearning racism. To try and curb gender assumptions, a meager attempt was made to encourage preferred gender pronouns to be included in introductions. Many people—trans, queer, or otherwise—wish to identify freely. Some wish to be seen as the gender they feel verse the sex they appear. Others use gender neutral or gender queer pronouns, like “they” or “ze,” to express fluidity and not to uphold gender binaries.
I never heard anyone at the Rendezvous try to explain why preferred gender pronouns were being encouraged. I saw a lot confused faces and heard more people say “they” than any queer circle I’ve been in.
Gender, Sex and Male Domination
Divorcing gender from sex is a complicated understanding. The major paradigm thought is that there is no distinction; one is born with anatomical genitals and therefore biology dictates the roles of being either male or female. What follows from birth is complicated societal teachings, subtle and overt, of what boys and girls do or do not do. Blue vs pink. Soldiers vs home makers. Guns vs dolls. Tough vs sensitive. Boys don’t cry. Girls don’t fart.
Analyzing closely, deconstructing, and paying great attention to origins—who is affected and who benefits—is a large part of what makes the radical milieu. When gender identities are looked at closer, the issue gets far more complicated. Not only is there differences of sex and gender, but also distinctions between gender presentation, sexuality, and even characteristics that have been genderized. And where testosterone and estrogen contribute to gender is blurry at best.
Sex refers to biological, anatomical, and hormonal distinctions often referred to as male-bodied, female-bodied and intersexed. Whereas gender is personal identifications with concepts of masculinity, femininity, both, neither, or other—referred to as male/female-identified, gender-queer and gender-neutral. Gender presentation is how a person expresses gender. Sexuality is who a person is sexually attracted to.
Characteristics such as intellect, order, focus, predictability, stability, speed, goal orientation, linearity and stability have been labeled “masculine.” While emotions, body sensations, chaos, creativity, unpredictability, slowness, process, spiraling, and change have been labeled “feminine” characteristics. Both could be said to be in every individual and can fluctuate fluidly, although it seems all too common that people default towards one over the other, perhaps due to socialization.
Western civilization could be referred to as “masculine.” Science, ideas, domination, competition, toughness, action, speed, linear mindset, objectification, the quantifiable, and efficiency are esteemed and valued in this society, but not intuition, taking time, feelings, nurturing, or listening. Not only are the “feminine” characteristics not valued, they can be discounted or incite disgust, hence another prevalence of misogyny—the hatred, dislike, or distrust of women or feminine characteristics. Male-bodied folk who exhibit feminine characteristics, gender expression, or same-sex sexuality also experience oppression, linking misogyny to homophobia. Conversely, female-bodied folks who exhibit masculine expressions can experience male privilege. Patriarchy can be any hierarchical placement of what is deemed manly, male, masculine over anyone or anything deemed womanly, female or feminine.
Back at the Rondy
Near the end of the Rendezvous, two days before the post-Rondy action, an ill attended consent workshop prompted a strong encouragement of people who experience male privilege (let’s call them “pwemp”) to participate in a “Challenging Male Supremacy” group. About forty pwemp, mostly cis-men (male-bodied folks who also identify with the gender assigned by society) circled under a small tarp shrouded in forest. Folks who experience patriarchal oppression (how about “fwepo”) bearing the double burden of oppression—having to experiencing it then being tasked to educate the oppressors—had written down hard-hitting comments and suggestions to be heard and discussed by the group. After a round of introductions and preferred gender pronouns, each person read aloud a comment to the group. Some were about discernible suggestions to expose normalized sexism like paying attention to who is dominating conversations, who is predominately in leadership roles, who gets heard more, and who gets silenced. Others tapped into tendencies of ignoring feelings, quick decision making, gonna-fix-it-quick actions, anti-spirituality, aggressiveness, and heroics. Interspersed were personal accounts of discrimination, invisibility, stereotypes, isolation, and the routine violence that shapes womyn’s lives.
After the readings, the contemplative group broke off into smaller discussion groups. Each group tasked with furthering understanding of what was witnessed. The flurry of conversation extended the big regrouping several times. Eventually, the mass group came back together to report back their discussions. Each group spoke of their topics and of any new understandings, learning, or insight. Some spoke poignantly. Some shared their personal experiences of receiving similar oppression. Some seemed to want to prove how not-new these revelations are; how far they’ve already gone with this work. Many seemed to speak in a matter-of-fact manner that was both disconnected from experiential understanding and defensive of our role in these very oppressions. At moments, I feared that the right things were being said but without a somatic understanding.
As people contributed to the conversation of sexism, I could feel the tension escalate. The frustration with the lack of anti-oppression dialogue in the culture of Earth First! was iterated several times. Persons expressed impatience with just meeting back up to talk more. A current of action began to stir. A reportback to the all Rondy denizens was suggested and agreed upon, which rapidly morphed into proposals. We were already past the workshop block time, but started a rapid fire “consensus” process to formulate proposals. Suggestions were spoken forth and voted upon to decide which ones to develop. Although each concept deserved a thorough examination with a multitude of inputs and feedback, caught up in a wave of action mentality, eight grand sweeping proposals and one demand were “consented” upon. Voices of reason were spoken…and silenced; fighting male supremacy had dominated control.
When the session was finally over, there seemed to be a general unease, a malaise of sorts, almost collective nausea. People seemed to have left frustrated, angry, excited, confused, and nervous. A few stayed behind to organize the report-back to the large group. Roles were quickly formulated: a framer to set the space, a facilitator to work the process, and readers to announce the proposals and the demand. I volunteered to be the framer, several folks volunteered to be readers. Only one person was willing to facilitate; the person who initiated the idea of having proposals.
The next morning, the day before the action, the camp is crunching to get ready for a huge anti-fracking blockade. The breakfast circle was long and intense ironing out the last details. The morning workshop block was already overrun by the meeting. Fatigue was taking a grip. Anxiety about the amount of things to accomplish before the next day was huge. Nervousness and seriousness were common currents. At the end of the meeting, we presented the “Challenging Male Supremacy” report back.
I addressed the crowd and tried to make even more meeting space to give attention to the important subject at hand. I asked a self-fulfilling question, “Do people feel confronting male supremacy is important?” A resounding “ya!” I told of the reading of the comments and suggestions given to us by the fwepo. I gave homage to the work that has already been taking place. I spoke to the difficulty of acknowledging our own roles in oppression and asked for forgiveness in advance. I mentioned not imposing actions on the group and the irony of guy-folk taking up even more space to talk about patriarchy. Then gave the light to the facilitator.
The facilitator was a white cis-man who could be described as macho, loud, and assertive. He prefaced the consensus process by stating if that there were concerns about these proposals they would be tabled, almost implying a stalling of anti-patriarchal progress. A pwemp read the first proposal to post “an article in the Journal about the status of these proposals and this work in the EF! world.” For expediency this was consented upon. Proposal two was read by another: “to practice step up, step back, where those comfortable with taking up space step back and folks not as comfortable step up.” Someone in the meeting spoke up on the ablest wording. The facilitator said the wording can be worked out later, but we need to move on. Someone else asked what is going on. “Can we hear all the proposals?”
A few pwemp, myself included, responded by taking turns reading the remaining proposals verbatim:
- Future rendezvous are to have “men’s work” (workshops, circles, etc) at the beginning of the gathering.
- To help incorporate gender justice with pronoun check-ins at workshops.
- To stop expressions that trivialize rape or feminize victimhood, for example “rape” of Mother Earth.
- To initiate a camp-wide “responsible and fun flirting workshop.”
- Drunk consent is not clear consent. Lack of consent may be seen as sexual assualt by either party. Sexual assault can deeply impact the lives and relationships of both parties and of our community. Check in with friends about crushes and drinking and understand the danger lack of consent poses to our community
- no compromise in the commitment to cultivate a culture of anti-oppression in Earth First!
With an ongoing rushed manner, the facilitator attempted to go back through the list to get consensus. He read the proposal about men’s work. When someone spoke up asking why are these in a proposal format. The facilitator spoke about doing versus talking. About half the crowd seemed to twinkle for consensus; the other half, in retrospect, seemed to stand aside. He continued on about preferred gender pronouns at introductions being required. Concerns about making anything required was spoken to. The facilitator decided to table it.
He quickly moved on to the phrase “rape of Mother Earth.” A lot of hands went up. One fwepo spoke to feeling importance in relating “rape” to the destruction of the planet. Another spoke to how we didn’t converse with anyone who these proposal involve, folks who are affected by patriarchy on a daily basis. Someone else spoke to not doing but feeling, and better understanding a womin’s experience.
Then, a womin speaking about how oppressive male supremacy is in her daily life, critiqued the whole way we were going about this: speaking only within our boy’s club; imposing proposals that ultimately result in rules; our timing after a very long meeting; and the expediency of formulating proposals on very difficult understandings. The expression of her experience to the process we chose brought her to tears. The very moment she finished giving us, and the group at large, a concise list of our errors in the micro and macro level, I asked the audience to “give us 20 seconds.” I wished to regroup with the presenters and throw out the proposal format, but what I actually did was silence her. I was emotionally moved by the comments, but instead of taking time to thoroughly hear them, I jumped into trying to change the format. Instead of taking time to receive what she said I immediately and defensively tried to shift the broad conversation.
At this point we were halted. With no check-ins, no feedback from anyone but ourselves, and the utterly patriarchal way of silencing and ramming in our agenda, we stood in-front of a hundred people as a mockery. We tried to fix patriarchy using patriarchy and got called out.
In my framing before this spectacle, I asked for a safer-space space to present on difficult subjects. I disregarded the converse, a safe space for people to hear difficult things. Rape, consent, patriarchy, male supremacy, gender, domination and oppression are all intense subjects to talk about, and on top of that, we were dominating in the manner of presenting those issues. We had triggered many people. By the end, multiple folks had spoken up in tears about how our process was upsetting and not productive.
The facilitator was relieved of his position and another pwemp tried to salvage whatever he could. The “proposal” idea was completely scrapped. A space was created by a fwepo audience member for the second afternoon workshop block to help decompress from what was just experienced.
Despite the utter recoiling of the presenters, the “demand” to address the schism of inclusion vs. anti-oppression still lingered. It was direct action to cultivate that culture of anti-oppression in the last “proposal.” In unison, four Earth First! organizers read the demand, “We ask that all male identified people in this camp come hear about this work for 15 minutes at dinner conch by the gravel pit. We feel this is not optional for Earth First! organizers and years–long members. Please come.” The 15-minutes at dinner quickly turned into a meeting of male-identified folks to take place during the same workshop space in as the safer-space planned for folks who experience patriarchal oppression.
The impact of the debacle was heavily apparent. Folks were visibly upset, some people were crying throughout the morning and there was talk of canceling the next days action. On top of a frantic day of getting ready for an intense day of confrontation, a patriarchal bomb was released on the entire group.
The emergency “compulsory” meeting immediately started off tense. About forty pwemp, mostly cis-men, circled under a small loud tarp flapping in the wind. Most were not at the first group. There were a lot of concerned and confused looks from the crowd, and a few scowls. Someone asked, “Does anyone want to facilitate?” It was silent for a few long moments until a reluctant volunteer surfaced. Someone else asked, aggressively, “What’s the purpose of this meeting? We’re supposed to do something about this situation?” An uneasy stir and people glancing at each other for direction. A long time EF! organizer responded that doing something was a huge part of why this mess existed. He continued, saying that trying to compulsively fix something that we, folks who experience male privilege, were seemingly oblivious to was disrespectful in the first place. We shouldn’t be trying to do anything but listen and better understand the enormity of patriarchy. Our mission was thankfully set. We were collectively on the same page about what the purpose was.
Around this time, another long time EF! organizer said that if people were gonna roll their eyes and continue to scowl, then they should just leave. The facilitator quickly jumped in stating that wasn’t the mood to be set for this gathering. That everyone is welcome here and because of the importance of the subject it was mandatory for EF! brethren. He set the tone to be welcoming and safe. He started the discussion with a round of introductions, with preferred gender pronoun, and if you were at the first Challenging Male Supremacy group. He added a question as an agenda item: Why weren’t folks at the first group?
After the introductions, the agenda was “Feedback from this morning” and “Why aren’t people who experience male privilege more involved in this work?”
Each person, in turn, spoke to their reactions and opinions of the Challenging Male Supremacy debacle. A lot of frustration was spoken, and a bit of sympathy too. Some of the comments were anger that we, the few “dudes” who made this particular mess, now included them in the responsibility because of their sex and gender. Some who weren’t at the first gathering had a how could you? air. Some of the anger was, ironically, from folks who were at the first meeting but didn’t seem to take co-responsibility for the utter break down. Some had been silenced at the first meeting and were doubly upset. A few folks felt the debacle was so absurd that most every person who experiences male privilege probably got a bit of clarity about patriarchy.
As cathartic and self-healing as the feedback seemed to me, the block time was devoted to men helping themselves feel better and heard. The agenda item of why this work isn’t a higher priority never got talked about.
At the same time, the safer-space for folks who experience patriarchal oppression was happening. Things they wanted the pwemp to hear were being formulated.
Near the end of our session, talk of an apology was debated. What could be said under consensus was tense. And to honor individual feelings, no group apology was formulated. An ear to feedback from folks who experience patriarchal oppression was the rational final conclusion.
In a final example of oppression, the feedback from the fwepo never got it’s ear. Everyone was too busy preparing for the next day’s direct action, a tactic often perceived as “masculine.” During the final fire circle, after that long day, a womin Earth First!er presented a closing speech about the debacle to the group at large. She spoke equally to the triggers and support for the effort. Perhaps the “feminine” eased the days tension by presenting a balanced view to grow and move on from.
This debacle, obviously exemplary of patriarchy at work, hopefully, made the issue so front and center that it can’t be pushed aside. Anti-oppression isn’t something that needs to be consented upon; it is actions, conversations, active unlearning, skill shares, supportive call out. May this debacle contribute to the conversations against oppression and genuinely be part of the process to a vibrant culture of anti-oppression in Earth First! and at large.
Although many people have helped inform my understandings, the opinions are solely my own. This editorial is not a collaborative piece. I welcome the entire gamut of feedback: mercurius [at] riseup.net