One Step Forward, Three Steps Back – The ‘Crisis’ of Pronouns & Unity For Our Class

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back – The ‘Crisis’ of Pronouns & Unity For Our Class

So the Chicago Class Unity Caucus played everyone, got the publicity they were looking for, and got to choose the main topic of debate for a couple of days. As someone who has been using they/them pronouns since 2014, and one of the few visible queer & nonbinary elected national political leaders in DSA, I think that that their broken clock struck half right and it’s worth asking why for those of us who do want to have a strong class-centered politics that’s also welcoming to queer and trans people who want to build DSA. 

Class Unity Caucus is attempting to establish a stronger beachhead in Chicago DSA, which is fairly polarized right now on specific strategic, messaging, and communication questions. The caucus successfully used the Single Transferable Voter ballot election system to get their most polarizing member elected as a delegate, stir a cycle of debate about their politics, and then leveraged it into a run on open Executive Committee positions. Two days ago they released an article on this platform, Midwest Socialist, with a paragraph talking about “identitarian hacks” that include “pronoun disclosure rituals”. All this context is important because Class Unity wants to use platforms like Midwest Socialist to set the terms of debate and then let the discourse spin its wheels while they figure out the next move and identify votes to whip/caucus members to bring in/seek larger positions of power to run for in the future.

Now, that passage about pronouns is being used to call the entire article (and CUC politics in general) a transphobic rant. I think that specific members of their caucus are actively transphobic, but it muddles the terrain to call their entire orientation here transphobic and call for blanket expulsions of their entire caucus. Rather, as I said above, they have 1 good point inside of a backwards argument that betrays their fundamental mistake in “engaging the entire class in good faith.” For me, it’s worth engaging with the people who are reacting, especially the other queer people, even if I don’t want to engage CUC  (especially given their comments in venues like this podcast or on r/stupidpol).

The best way to illustrate the backwardness of their argument is through two anecdotes. First, when I was a staffer at a youth climate NGO. Like DSA, the youth climate movement at that time had an over-representation of queer people and also people who were learning what it meant to be doing politics together for the first time. As a “youth organizer,” I would often be in coalition spaces with almost entirely 40+ year old senior staffers who were actually the heart of what people mean when they describe the non-profit industrial complex. They would all work so hard to respect my pronouns, to make sure that “youth voices were centered,” that access was granted but power not given. Classic cultural dynamics that are (mostly) correctly analyzed in this CUC article. However, what it gets backward is that the game never actually was set. Every pronoun introduction a chore, every side conversation about why I was one of the only people to write my pronouns on my nametag at meetings a struggle. And the papered-over nature of that “culture” was indelibly seared into my brain in 2016 when I went to a conference in Miami and on my way out there the Pulse shooting happened. The best that the conference organizers had to offer was to encourage attendees to take part in a blood drive they were organizing – which they did not realize was an activity that none of the queer people in attendance could participate in because of the ban on blood donation from people who had had sex with the same sex (which was an overlap with everyone who used non-conforming pronouns). All of us queers, and most of the other under-26-year-olds were either underpaid staffers or volunteers on a heavy scholarship and we were splitting one Airbnb 9 ways. We spent the time that the conference organizers had for the blood drive going out dancing and making the straight people have fun with drag queens 24 hours after Pulse, and it was one of the most authentic expressions of grief and healing I’ve ever felt – understanding that we were all alienated from the culture of the NGO’s we had a foot in but that could never actually bring us the power we needed to win.

The second personal anecdote that demonstrates the backwardness of CUC’s argument is my experience at a large museum in Chicago that I started working at shortly before I was elected to national leadership in DSA. A museum job might at first glance be similar to the milieu of the “cultural hegemony” described in CUC’s article – the museum I worked at strongly encouraged the use of pronoun buttons – but the actual working conditions were more similar to a big box store or theme park. We all made minimum wage and had minimum hours with maximum availability and extreme atomization of workers. We had a manager who loved to talk about museum culture and congratulate us when we did things like wear pronoun buttons, and he never actually got my pronouns right. He also loved to talk about “federal politics” like he was an expert, and was very insistent that Warren was the best candidate and didn’t like that I liked Bernie. What his lack of attention to my (and others’) pronouns did, though, was create break room chatter where we would talk about how clueless he was, some of the women would talk about his and others’ sexism, and then we would start talking about other gripes and workplace conditions. Eventually, once the holidays came and the tours sped up, people were coming to me and asking about how we could start doing something to improve our workplace conditions because they saw that I was politically conscious and also confident enough to be “different.” But, my contract was only through January and because I was at-will the museum just declined to rehire.

So now we get to DSA and whether CUC’s argument applies. My contention based on the two previous anecdotes is that a) pronoun disclosure rituals are not actually a sole product of liberal NGO culture, but they are a cultural practice that is part of a densely connected web of other rituals, practices, and tactics that go into the stuff of both organization building and larger practices of identity formation. And given that, then b) pronoun disclosure rituals can be alienating to queer and trans people, they can be a new and interesting experience to culturally conservative working class people, they can be a tactic to start an organizing conversation, they can be a power move to play an identity card, they can be all sorts of things. Their place in building an organizational culture is not fixed, and immediate acclimation to the use of pronouns should not be a barometer for the absolute sign of respect in a space. This is where some in CUC have half a point. 

Where they are wrong, is that in DSA we do have a specific organizational culture that has been painstakingly built to develop and grow the leadership of working class queer people – which may include both salaried non-profit workers who are still barely making rent, unionized trades workers making six figure salaries, and minimum wage service/retail workers always wondering whether the grind is worth it and if they should just start driving Uber instead. All of these ‘types’ of people have the same fundamental antagonistic relationship to the means of production and alienation from the value they are producing, even if the workplace cultures look different or if they are expending surplus value into different parts of the capital formation process. In Chicago DSA, feminist conversation process is literally written into the bylaws of our organization and it has made it so much easier to train and develop new leaders to lead discussion and bring people into the organization. And this is unquestioningly a good thing. In part, because there is no real mass left LGBT movement to speak of. Decades of assimilationist politics post-peak of the AIDS crisis have led to nothing much more than Caitlyn Jenner running for governor and endless gluttonous Pride content. And it’s also good as a whole, because our job as Marxists is to form a class that reflects the heterogenous and messy nature of who it is that makes up the entire working class and take principled stands where they make sense (for example, on the question of Boycott Divestment Sanctions). Class unity is good – the culture war shortcuts posing as class analysis of the Class Unity Caucus, not as much. 

There’s a flip side to all this too, though, both in and outside of DSA. Inside DSA, some people seek to find a community, a structure of feeling, that allows us to engage in the rituals of sharing pronouns and talking about our favorite artists, sharing messy interpersonal drama, being deliberately antagonistic towards ‘breeders’, and the other hallmarks of queer subcultures, and stay too focused on that to the detriment of engaging in mass action campaigns that are deliberately working to bring in non-queer people in the workplace. Meanwhile, outside of DSA, the backlash to trans visibility has been so vicious that we have no idea how to build the power necessary to crush the fascists that would love nothing more than to literally run us over for sport. So when I see people calling a paragraph about “pronoun disclosure rituals” a “transphobic rant” I have to ask us to pause and take stock for a moment, because I’ve been personally and viciously attacked by people for my ‘identitarian deviations’ by people who went on to found Class Unity. I also have had to think long and hard about the fact that I learned more about organizing from a retired socialist steelworker who never got my pronouns right but also respected the hell out of me than I ever did from all the queer party organizers who claimed they were building a movement. And, frankly, I have also watched some of my other genderqueer and trans comrades be consistently misgendered by people who will use the language of pronouns to demand deference at the cost of building a coalition to execute the long march of power that will win us a machine to crush the enemy across all the lines of difference that separate us in this messy thing we are building.

In the 80’s when faggots and transsexuals (not yet queer and trans people) were dropping dead like flies from a disease that no one knew the cause or the cure of yet, Larry Kramer would rant and rant about how “everyone was dancing on the disco floor of a burning house and they wouldn’t know until the house fell down around them.” Today is very different, we have a growing Left in the US for the first time in decades, but the backlash to queer visibility is growing harsher every day, and every day is another day lost to sea level rise, carbon emissions, and the multiplying effects of the climate crisis. If we have the perfect culture in a 100-200k person socialist organization and do not have the power to kneecap the fossil fuel industry then it will not matter. There has been plenty of extrapolating from a contradiction already, even one presented as backwardly as Chicago Class Unity’s. That’s the way we identify people that we can engage in principled debate with, move away from vicious transphobes, and redirect towards things like campaigns that will force them to see the backwardness of their arguments. Our politics grow and change and we have to believe that the people in our organization that haven’t proven our good faith totally wrong are capable of that growth and change. Those who have rejected our good faith should be crushed and not allowed to touch power, even if they shouldn’t necessarily be expelled. That’s a whole different question worth taking the time to explore all the contradictions of – including whether we should allow any bodies that encourage parallel organizing structures rather than focusing on bringing people in to DSA. Regardless, we have millions of people to bring in. Let’s get to it.