Gender Critical = Gender Conservative

Content Warning: The following post includes a discussion of transphobia and transmisogyny.

How has gender become a map of a moment? Why do so many movements present themselves as against gender? In a recent article, Judith Butler shows how the difficulty of giving an account of the anti-gender movement tells us something about how that movement works: “Anti-gender movement mobilizes a range of rhetorical strategies from across the political spectrum to maximize the fear of infiltration and destruction that comes from a diverse set of economic and social forces. It does not strive for consistency, for its incoherence is part of its power.” Butler’s article is primarily about the uses of a range of rhetorical strategies by authoritarian regimes. They show how the term “gender” ends up being treated as a “foreign invasion” and how fields of academic inquiry including gender studies, queer theory, and critical race theory, have come to be represented as “destructive forces” that threaten the breakdown of social institutions, including marriage, the family, the nation, civilization, “even man himself.”

Many feminist scholars are writing about the mobilization of anti-gender rhetoric across the globe. Butler is thus participating in a wider feminist conversation that is urgent and necessary because the states are so high.[1] As Butler articulates, the “principal aim of the movement is to reverse progressive legislation won in the last decades by both LGBTQI and feminist movements.”  In this account of the anti-gender movement, Butler does not reference in the large part what has become known as “gender critical” feminism. In the conclusion, however, Butler suggests that “it makes no sense for ‘gender critical’ feminists’ to ally with reactionary powers in targeting trans, non-binary, and genderqueer people.” They then lodge an invitation or an appeal, “Let’s all get truly critical now, for this is no time for any of the targets of this movement to be turning against one another. The time for anti-fascist solidarity is now.” In this article, Butler does not call “gender critical feminists” fascists but invites them not to be in alliance with fascism by making trans, non-binary and genderqueer people their target.

Butler’s invitation is also, perhaps, a provocation. It is, admittedly, rather hard to read Butler’s article and not to notice how many of the rhetorical strategies used by gender critical feminists, with all their inconsistencies, are similar (and, in some instances, even the same) as those used by fascist or authoritarian regimes, again, with all their inconsistencies. Did gender critical feminist readers notice their own arguments in Butler’s picture of the anti-gender movement?  If “gender critical” feminists saw themselves in the picture being drawn, Butler’s invitation might have also functioned as a mirror. The point might be then that “gender critical feminists” in seeing themselves reflected in this piece, did not like what they saw. That, in itself, is rather promising. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, dismissals of Butler’s article followed very quickly. One “gender critical” feminist tweeted, “I just think it would help everyone if someone sat down with Judith Butler and patiently explained what gender is.” Another “gender critical” ally tweeted, “it reads as though Butler has just started looking into these issues and is mostly relying on twitter and Tumblr.” One way of not confronting what you see when you don’t like what you see, of not learning from a reflection the need for self-reflection, is to smash the mirror.

It is hard not to read these tweets and laugh. Butler has over decades given so many of us, within and beyond the academy, vital critical tools to make sense of the complexity of our gendered and social lives. Perhaps we do need to laugh. The laughter is also a groan because the voices of “gender critical” feminists have been so amplified by the mainstream media that there are now so many distortions that it would be hard for someone new to feminism to see clearly what is going on. Many “gender critical” feminists are themselves highly critical of who they call “academic feminists” including those of us who have been part of the development and consolidation of Women and Gender Studies programmes in the UK. One “gender critical feminist” made a joke at a Women’s Place Conference, that most academic feminists are not academics and not feminists. You could hear the hum of agreement in the audience. The dismissal is not surprising; Gender Studies programmes tend to be shaped by work in Queer Studies and Trans Studies although there is much more work to be done so that theorisations of sex and gender from Transgender Studies are not added on to Gender Studies but worked from. Throughout this post, I place “gender critical” in quotation marks as most of the most critical work on sex and gender within the academy is happening in the very spaces, Gender Studies, Queer Studies and Transgender Studies, many “gender critical” feminists oppose.

I am grateful to have spent so much of my career as an academic feminist (or probably to be more accurate a feminist academic) and by this I am not just referenced the years I spent as a lecturer in Women and Gender Studies, or the time I dedicated with feminist colleagues to developing new equality policies or to finding new ways to confront old problems of harassment and bullying in universities. I am referring to the fact that I have been systematically engaged in reading feminist literatures since I took my first feminist course in Women’s Writing in 1988. When you dedicate your life to feminism, you acquire many resources. Butler in appealing to us to participate in anti-fascist solidarity is making use of these resources. If we follow Butler’s lead, we can hear that there is more to the invitation. Butler is calling to feminists not to make trans, non-binary and gender queer people their target as this would amount to “targets of this movement” in effect “turning against each other.” To turn against each other would be to turn against ourselves. Butler is encouraging us to witness in the urgency of these times that the movement “against gender” is an anti-feminist movement.

In this post, my task is modest. I want to show how and why “gender critical” feminism becomes, or can be understood as, a gender conservative movement. If feminism gives us the resources to challenge anti-feminism, then feminism gives us the resources to challenge “gender critical feminism,” to hold up that mirror and to show its reflection. In my new project on common sense, I hope to show how gender conservative feminisms are part of the not-so-new conservative common sense, which has reweaponised “reality” as a “war against the woke,” that is, as an effort to restore racial as well as gendered hierarchies by demonizing those who question them.[2]   I will also show how much of the harassment enacted by “gender critical” feminists is made invisible by appearing to take the form of opening a debate.

When you enter the gender critical world as a feminist who is not used to being in that world, it is deeply disorientating. Let’s take the social media world. In this post, I am going to quote from tweets, which will appear as italicised sentences (I will later quote from academic articles and trade books).[3] You enter, and you will encounter twitter handles with purple and green, the suffragette colours. On the same handles, you will find utterances like, Sex not Gender or Sex is Real. You might see statements like, I stand with, and the name of such and such person who has been targeted apparently for saying something like, Sex is real. You will encounter words like adult human female, or natal woman, or even biological woman. You will encounter claims that you know have been central to patriarchal logics, for instance, women are oppressed because of their biology.

How to make sense of this?

It is hard to make sense of this.

We know that feminists have disagreed about how to understand sex and gender as social categories; we inherit them, we did not invent them. We know that part of the work of feminism is to contest that inheritance. Even the “sex-gender distinction” was not invented by feminists; it was introduced to feminism by the work of sexologists such as John Money. [4] If you are a reader of feminist literature, you will know that many feminists have problematised that distinction, precisely because of how it placed “sex” outside of history. Take for instance the work of Ann Oakley. Her classic, Sex, Gender and Society certainly made use of the sex-gender distinction, drawing on the work of Robert Stoller, with sex referring to biological differences, visible difference of genitalia, difference in procreative function and gender referring to “a matter of culture” and the social classification of people into “masculine” and “feminine”’ (16). However, in Oakley’s later work, she offers a strong critique of this same distinction. In “A Brief History of Gender,” Oakley writes: “the distinction between sex and gender does not call into question how society constructs the natural body itself” and “sex is no more natural than gender given that our speaking of both is mediated by our existence as social beings” (30). Or we could think of the work of historical materialist Christine Delphy who argues that “gender precedes sex.” She writes: “we have continued to think of gender in terms of sex: to see it as a social dichotomy determined by a natural dichotomy” (1993, 3). [5] Whatever we think of the feminist critique of the sex-gender distinction, most feminists will know that the categories with which we organise our lives, how we refer to our bodies and ourselves, are not neutral; the terms we use to describe ourselves, are implicated in the worlds we are questioning, which is why such descriptions are provisional as well as political.

So, why are these terms being used not only as if they are simple descriptions but as if that very usage has something to do with feminism? If the “gender critical” feminist landscape is littered with phrases like sex is real, sex not gender, we need to ask what they are doing. Let’s call them catch phrases, words or expressions that are used repeatedly and conveniently to represent or characterize a person, group, idea, or point of view. These phrases are a way of signalling an allegiance to a political movement that has its primarily velocity, it seems, in a virtual space. They are relatively new ways of using old terms. Nevertheless, despite being relatively new, to encounter these phrases is to be given a snap shot of a history. To start to try and make sense of them by starting with them, would be like turning up in the middle of a conversation, hearing a reaction, and not knowing what came before that provoked a reaction. And yet, many use these phrases as if the point of them is whether or not we can say them. They are turned into stories. Force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?  But it (and with it, the term cisgender) can’t be forced on to women like me who regard questioning gender roles, while advocating on behalf of our sex, as the whole point of feminism. You might feel an outage, as well as disbelief that this is the case: we can’t even say sex is real! That phrase when used in the way is doing what it is designed to do, provoke outrage. And the outrage is how a story is carried forward, acquiring momentum. The statement that people have been forced out of the jobs for saying that sex is real is not only false (if you look at any specific instance, that is not why people are forced out of jobs, the sentence cannot be detached from a wider context), but by circulating, it acquires substance, an impression of being true achieved by virtue of its repetition. Sex is real has become a catch phrase in recent times (just like sex-based rights became a catch phrase in recent times – a quick search of the internet shows that it only began to be regularly used by feminists in 2018). Sex is real is an assertion within a horizon of assertions. Sex is real. Sex is material. Sex is immutable. Sex is biology. Sex is objective. Sex is science. With these assertation about what sex is, come counter-implications about what gender is not. Gender is not real. Gender is immaterial. Gender is subjective. Gender is stereotypes. Gender is ideology.

We learn about terms from what they are used to do; a story is being told in certain terms for a reason. The feminist mantra becomes sex not gender because of who is associated with gender. Judith Butler has taught us that the incoherence of the arguments of anti-gender movements are doing something. The more arguments against something are incoherent, the more what they are against becomes vague. And the vaguer the target, the more are caught up by it:  gender identity, the idea of gender, teaching gender, gender studies, trans people are not only collapsed into each other, but in being so, become all the more menacing. Another way of putting this, would be to say that the term gender has become sticky; the more gender moves around, the more are stuck to it.[5] If trans people are associated with gender, and gender is treated as immaterial, trans people or trans identities become immaterial. All you need to put on your handle is Sex is Real to indicate an attachment or an allegiance to a series of positions that do not have to be made explicit: being trans is ideology not science, feeling not fact, immaterial not material, subjective not objective.   The terms themselves can end up doing this work of de-legitimating or “de-realising” trans people.  This can be done in more or less subtle ways. When a “gender critical” feminist network was set up, it was described as being concerned with “how sexed bodies matter,” and with critiquing “constraining stereotypes of gender.” Once we have learnt what sex and gender have been routinely used to do, who they have become associated and not associated with, we can understand what is going on here. But it won’t be obvious to some what is going on here. One of our tasks is to try and make it more obvious.

It is not only that the terms “sex” and “gender” are being used to de-realise and de-legitimate trans people, but the project of trans inclusion can be framed as feminist exclusion, as if trans people are replacing us by replacing our terms with theirs. “If we replace ‘sex’ with ‘gender’ as a way of thinking about ourselves, it will be harder to tackle sex-based oppression.” So, the implicit story is that if we accept trans people, sex will be replaced, or even women will be replaced or we will lose the terms we need to talk about our history. A phrase can bring with it a history of associations. “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.” Firstly, the sentence implies that such and such people are saying sex is not real. I don’t know anyone who would say sex is not real although I know most feminists are aware, to borrow the title of an important book by Marilyn Frye of “the politics of reality,” and that what is real, at least when we are talking about how human beings organise and understand ourselves, is complex and mediated. We will return to this. But let’s interrogate firstly the claim that unless sex is real, we cannot talk about women globally.

There are many feminists who have challenged this very idea that we can talk about “the lived reality” of “women globally.” I want to stress here that these challenges are not new. Anyone who knows feminist history, will know that even the category of “women” has always been contested by feminists; it has rarely been what brought us together.  That the category of women has been so contested has something to do with what the category of sex brings with it (although there is more to it).

Some had to insist that they were women. We can think of Sojourner Truth, speaking as a Black woman and former slave, at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851 saying, “Ain’t I a Woman?” As Angela Davis notes, Truth in her speech referred to the strength of her own body, her labouring body, to challenge the “weaker sex” arguments made against the suffragettes (1981, 61, see also hooks 1987).

Some had to insist they were not women. We can think of Monique Wittig, speaking as a lesbian feminist to the Modern Language Association conference in New York in 1978, saying “lesbians are not women.” This audacious claim was necessary for Wittig to show how the very category of “women” has historically functioned as a heterosexual injunction, how “women” came to exist, or was required to exist, in relation to men. [6] 

The fact that a single term “sex” does not bring us all together might even have been the reason we enter in conversations with each other to work out what we have in common, however we come to define ourselves. Although there are many different viewpoints within feminism about the status of categories like sex and gender, critiques of the very idea of biological sex have been consistently made. Black feminists, for instance, have challenged not only the category of “women,” but also the naturalness of sex and gender. As Che Gossett powerfully summarises, “from the Combahee River Collective (a collective of Black feminists meeting since 1974) and its critique of biological essentialism as a “dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” to trans genealogies of Black feminism — Black feminism as always already trans — many writers have problematized and troubled the categories of binary gender and of binary, medically assigned sex.”  Even feminist traditions assumed to be untroubled by the category of sex such as radical feminism have in fact been so. Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, for instance, offers a radical feminist challenge to what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186).

I will return to this critical feminist history of questioning the category of sex as it will help me to explain how critiquing gender but not sex leads in the direction of gender conservatism. To point to this feminist history is to get in the way of the story being told as a story of the erasure of sex. In fact, it is this critical feminist history that has to be erased in order to tell the story as a story of the erasure of sex.

The claim that sex has been erased is not only endlessly repeated and given a cause (queer theory, trans ideology, trans people, gender queer people, non binary people, people with blue hair, snowflake students; yes, the more there are, the more of a menace), but is often the basis of another even stronger claim of prohibition. The story goes something like this: we have to say sex is real, because gender (that fiction, that feeling, that ideology) has been imposed upon us, which means we are not being allowed to talk about sex or to talk about women (the slide, to make this point again, matters, the story being told is that women would disappear if sex is not material or if biological sex is not immutable). A claim to prohibition also involves a claim that somebody is being prohibited by somebody: so, the story goes, it is because such and such group has an agenda that we are not allowed to talk about what we want or need to talk about. Historically, feminists have often been positioned as those who are imposing restrictions upon others because they have an agenda or because that’s their agenda (we can’t call women darling! We have to say Ms! We can’t use men to describe everyone!). In fact, anyone involved in trying to challenge norms and conventions to enable them to be more accommodating, we will know how quickly you will be judged as imposing restrictions on the freedom of others. A norm is a restriction that can feel like freedom to those it enables. To challenge a norm is thus almost always treated as restricting other people’s freedoms.

It is not only a bitter irony that tactics so often used against feminists are being used against trans people by “gender critical” feminists. It is telling us something about “gender critical” feminists that they are willing to use these tactics. Why has sex has become a tactic, not just a position but a project? By using sex as if sex was natural, material, and gender as if it was not, some people become “not,” not natural, immaterial, not real even, unreal.  Danger can be located in the “not.” When sex is used tactically, turned into a project, trans people are treated not only as not natural, as immaterial, but as being powerful and dangerous.

In my own work, I have focused a lot on stranger danger, how some bodies become “matter out of place,” and how danger (and violence) is located in those who are deemed not to belong. Stranger danger is about how danger is located in the outsider.[7] I have focused primarily on racism. Stranger danger often works by making violence intrinsic or expressive of a group (so if someone from a Muslim background commits violence, this violence becomes expressive of Islam).  Stranger danger is a well-oiled machine: it works so well from being used so often.[8] Much transphobic harassment works through the logics of stranger danger: trans people are positioned as strangers not only as “out of place,” but as threatening those who are “in place.” Just think about the use of terms like “gender extremism,” which work to creating a menace, a vague sense of menace, borrowing perhaps from racializing discourses (extremism as a term always tends to stick to some bodies more than others).  Note the common use of terms like “the trans lobby,” or even “the trans Taliban” to imply a powerful agent that is behind this or that action. Transphobia does not mean that a necessarily person feels personal animosity towards, or fear of, trans people. They may or may not: that is not the point. Transphobia describes the process whereby trans people are constructed as dangerous, as those who are to-be-feared. If stranger danger works to locate danger in those deemed outsiders, often by inflating the power of those whose exclusion is deemed necessary, it also creates the figure of the endangered, most often a child. Contemporary transphobia works to suggest or imply that trans people are endangering children (One headline reads, Are you transphobic? Me neither, we’re just worried about our children).

Stranger danger also creates a line, a boundary, between inside and outside that is seen as necessary for protection. This is how some can be judged as imposing on others; sometime by virtue of existing in the way they do. A category too can be assumed to be closed; a door can be used to close the category “woman,” for instance. It is important to add that closures however much they are justified as natural or necessary still depend upon actions; the creation of new terms if the old ones are being drawn in a way that includes those you don’t want to include (woman becomes adult human female). This is how opening a debate in certain terms can be how some are shut out. Of course, we should not enter a debate in those terms.

Gender too can be turned into a stranger (yes, a category of thought can be treated as a stranger), framed as an imposition on nature or biological reality (women become natal women).  Part of the transformation of gender into the stranger, is the treatment of sex, often biological sex, as nature or as natal or even as native as if these categories are not themselves product of labour, as if we do not have a hand in making and shaping them [9] When the category of gender becomes a stranger, those who are assumed to rely on a category for their existence become strangers too.  A category is turned into a conspiracy. As case in point would be how the group LGB Alliance finds the use of “gender” by Stonewall, for instance, as evidence of a conspiracy to erase sex and with it same-sex attraction. So, if people talk about being attracted to people of the “same gender,” that can then be read as a conspiracy to force lesbians to have sex with trans women (who are really “biological men”). It is hard to imagine that anyone concerned with equality and social justice can take such viewpoints as evidence of anything but bigotry. But they can and do, they even publish newspaper articles based on them.

The distinction between sex and gender, remember, has only been made relatively recently. It is a line we sometimes draw for convenience. It is a line that some feminists have used and other feminists have challenged (some of these feminists are the same feminists). In the UK, in the law, sex and gender tend to be used interchangeably. If a person who has the protected characteristic of gender reassignment (to use the terms from then 2010 Equality Act), then they have changed sex.  To follow words is to learn from them. Gender is often used rather than sex in ordinary discourse. I remember when I first came out as a lesbian in 2001, a member of my wider family using that term “same gender.” He said, “so what, you fell in love with someone of the same gender.”  In fact, it is hard not to notice how gender is sometimes used rather than sex on equal opportunities forms to refer to “men” and “women.” My own suspicion that people often use “gender” as a kind of polite way of not talking about sex, which evokes bodies and desires in a way that gender does not. I think in everyday life, many use sex and gender vaguely. And they may do so because sex and gender are vague, which is why any attempt to be clear about what they are, to create a line, takes us further away from everyday use.  The idea that gender is being imposed by trans activists is not just plain wrong (a mistake that is easily evidenced by following the word across space and through time), it is strategic. It allows the figure of the “trans extremist,” to circulate as those who are imposing that restriction.  In other words, the idea that gender is being forced upon us by a trans lobby is repeated because it allows the fight for equality for trans people to be framed as the formation of an industry. It allows trans people to be positioned as holding or wielding a power they do not have.

There is no clearer evidence of transphobia than the use of terms like “trans extremist” or “trans lobby.”[10] Of course, if you even use terms such as transphobia to describe these discursive mechanisms you will be judged as trying to impose a restriction on free speech, to return to an earlier point. There is another point I want to make here. I have already noted that words like “extremism” stick to some more than others. Remember: the vaguer the target the more can be caught by it. A stick becomes a slide. The trans extremist becomes the gender identity extremist. The gender identity extremist’s do not seek trans equality, the public are onboard with equality for all. The master manipulation has been to turn it into a trans supremecy [sic]. A propaganda machine together with institutional capture has rendered it dangerous to speak of reality. And then the gender identity extremist becomes the gender extremist. The pressure is so severe in gender extremist circles that using sex-based pronouns is considered hateful and treated as a hate incident. People who announce their pronouns are pandering to this extremism. The term “gender” itself comes to carry the implication of extremism without the need to use the word extremist. Indeed, making gender itself extreme can be linked to how gender is made immaterial and even then, can be the basis of a call to stop trans people from existing at all. So, a “gender critical” feminist at the recent LGB Alliance conference objected to the use of the term “gender extremist” because she said the term implied being trans was not, in itself, an extremist position. For her, it is extremist to say that trans people exist. For her, trans people do not exist. She said this. When she this, she was applauded by the audience.  We need to hear the violence of that applause. “Gender critical” feminism, however diverse and incoherent, gives this kind of hate speech somewhere to go.

The speech acts that are represented as the most prohibited are often the most promoted; this is true of racism as well as transphobia. To say, sex is real or the stronger statement I am not allowed to sex is real, or I was targeted for saying sex is real, and you will end up being a platform; the more you say it, the more platforms you will be given. You will not only be promoted and platformed, you will be protected, with that protection usually taking the form of a defence of free speech or academic freedom. In other words the prohibited is incited. And those who understandably feel unsafe or harmed by these views, not only from how they are expressed but how they are incited, will typically have their concerns disregarded as immaterial.

This is how seemingly simple utterances like Sex is Real or Sex Not Gender can be snap shots of a longer history, a violent history, a history of how some people are made dangerous, or how some people are made to disappear.[11] To participate in this discursive regime, to use those catch phrases, to position yourself as being silenced because of that use, is to be involved in a project that is making it harder for trans people, non-binary people, gender queer and gender non-conforming people, to survive on their own terms.  It is to be involved in a project that contradicts the aspiration for trans, queer and feminist liberation from coercive sex-gender regimes. Yes, I say trans, queer and feminist liberation because our liberations point in the same direction.

I noted earlier that the terms that have been questioned by feminists can only be elevated into catchphrases, as if they embody truths, by erasing so much of a more critical feminist history.  In other words, the project of removing trans people from feminism has ended up removing feminism, too. Let’s return to Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist critique of the biology of sexual difference. She expands further: “Hormone and chromosome research, attempts to develop new means of human reproduction (life created in, or considerably supported by, the scientist’s laboratory), work with transsexuals, and studies of formation of gender identity in children provide basic information which challenges the notion that there are two discrete biological sexes. That information threatens to transform the traditional biology of sex difference into the radical biology of sex similarity. That is not to say that there is one sex, but that there are many. The evidence which is germane here is simple. The words ‘male’ and ‘female,’ ‘man” and ‘woman,’ are used only because as yet there are no others” (175-6). Dworkin argued that a transsexual in a culture of “male-female discreteness” is in “a state of emergency,” and stated that transsexuals should have access to hormones and surgery because they have a “right to survival on his or her own terms” (176). If Dworkin did imagine that transsexuals might disappear in some projected future, this was only in the context of her view that discrete sexes would also disappear. Whatever we think of her androgynous solution, we learn from Dworkin that radical feminism, a feminism that is feminist at root, must have a radical model of sex and biology.

I think again of Dworkin’s emphasis on survival, on the right of trans people to survive on their own terms. I think of Audre Lorde’s words (1978, 31): “Some of us were never meant to survive.” Audre Lorde (1984, 112) also suggests that “those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women” know that survival “is not an academic skill.” Perhaps if those “outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women,” those who have to fight for survival, were those whose theories of sex and gender mattered, who were being heard for how they were interrogating the terms, questioning what was acceptable, we would not be here, having to do this, having to say this.

Survival within a coercive sex-gender system can be an ambitious project for some people, including trans people as well as queer people. So much of our politics  derives from what we need to do to survive a system that is not intended for us. Perhaps to survive a system we have to dismantle it, the master’s house, to borrow again from Audre Lorde, to chip away at its foundations. We can begin to understand why gender critical feminism ends up as gender conservative and indeed as socially conservative, not dismantling the master’s house, but becoming his tool. If gender creates the effect of two discrete biological sexes, to make sex into a cause would be to reproduce the system we are trying to dismantle. In other words, to critique gender but leave “sex” in place, or treat “sex” as if it was outside of a man-made history, would be to preserve the system by turning its effect into our cause. To argue that spaces should be for different “sexes” is, in other words, is to replicate a sex-gender system. When “sex” is enlisted to do things, “sex” is organising rather than originating. To use “sex” as if it is the origin of the organisation is to disguise the organisation; and that, too, is how the sex-gender system works.  And this is how as soon as sex is treated as outside of history, gender norms, somatic norms, this is how women are, men are, who they are, what they are, will be exercised and made to disappear. And this is why we are now witnessing increasingly conservative judgements about women and men in terms of what they are like or how they appear being made in the name of feminism.

These judgements are organized around the assumption that you can always tell the difference between men and women by how they appear.  Here are some quotes from trade books by “gender critical” feminists. “Human beings generally, including children, have the capacity to pick out the biological sex of others from visual appearances alone, most of the time. The capacity to correctly sex other people most of the time is grounded in a cognitive heuristic, and obviously not infallible.” This is very old-fashioned and simplistic understanding of the nature of social perception, which does not seem to be informed by any engagement with the critical or feminist literature. The author then writes, “it is disingenuous of our critics to suggest that the only means humans have of identifying other people’s sex is by the ‘checking of genitalia’, and that this is what is needed to maintain sex-separated spaces. If this were true, dating would never get off the ground (and neither would sexism).” I can’t quite believe that somebody could claim that sexism would not “get off the ground” unless you could see the difference between women and men. Feminists have shown how sexism is about the consolidation of that very distinction. The stability of perception points not to nature but to history. Ideology is history turned into nature.

Another writer describes the ability to judge the sex of another person as “exquisite,” a word that suggests not just precision but beauty. These are the author’s exact words, “Since evolution has equipped humans with the ability to recognize other people’s sex, almost instantaneously and with exquisite accuracy, very few trans people ‘pass’ as their desired sex. And so to see them as that sex, everyone else must discount what their senses are telling them.” This is like reading a bad version of evolutionary psychology (are there other versions? probably not). Feminism is a pedagogy of the senses: we learn just how our senses are trained, what are senses our telling us, from our political effort to unlearn them. Those who appear to confound the senses, to create confusion (are you a boy or a girl, who are you, what are you?) are those who fail to reproduce a history. Queer and trans feminisms find in that failure, a revolutionary potential. We learn not to make assumptions. We ask each other how to address each other –to ask not to assume is not only kind but key to our liberation. To be not at home in a word or a world is not only how we come to know that word or world, it is how we open up other possibilities for arranging ourselves and our worlds differently.[12]

When we treat sex as natural, we don’t see the norms through which we see the world, including other bodies with whom we share a world. [13] That’s how norms work, by not appearing as norms.[14] So much violence follows the norms we do not see, which also means there is so much violence we do not see. So many bodies, our bodies, will end up appearing wrong, strange, odd, out of place, because they do not line up.  Many cis women as well as trans women have been told they are out of line; told they have entered the wrong room; told they are not really women because of how they do or do not appear.  Of course, much of the violence I am describing here is a product of the sex-gender system. This is why the feminist project is to challenge that system.  Instead, some “gender critical” feminists have justified the violence against those who are gender non-conforming as necessary to protect women. They write, “Given the occasional fallibility of our capacity to sex others, arguing for same-sex spaces for females, such as bathrooms, dormitories, and changing rooms, means that sometimes, females in those spaces will be missexed; and sometimes, males in those spaces will not be perceived as such. We see the former as a regrettable cost that has to be balanced against, and is nonetheless smaller than, the greater harms to females, should women-only space effectively become unisex via a policy of self-ID.” The argument for “same-sex spaces” requires those who use facilities to be become the police. To enforce the boundary of same sex spaces is then to enforce the boundary of womanhood. Sarah Franklin has usefully described “gender critical” feminists as “feminist Brexiteers.” She writes:

Promising to protect the sanctity of the female toilet as the guarantor of gendered justice is, like the Brexiteer’s promise to save the United Kingdom from economic ruin, a symptom of reactionary panic and confusion. It is not a remotely credible promise, but an embittered form of nostalgia driven by myopic indignation. Like the Brexit leaders who promised to ‘take back control’ of the nation’s borders, feminism’s Brexiteers promising to rescue true womanhood are using gender as a proxy for a past they imagine they have lost, an identity they feel is threatened, and a battle in which they see themselves as both victims and as visionaries.

Like all nostalgia, the nostalgia of “gender critical” feminism misses the point, what they want to return to, did not exist in the way being imagined. It is nostalgia for a lost object that can give the impression that the object was real. A nostalgia for what is lost can turn quickly into a promise of protection. There is a connection, then, between that promise of returning a lost object, policing and violence. Protection is often justified as protecting women from violence. For many women, protection is violence. Violence against gender non-conforming women, cis or trans, is deemed a cost of a system of policing that is presumed to follow from biological sex. And note as well how the regrettable cost sends a message to those who bear that cost, who are stopped, questioned, and harassed. Perhaps you are also being told, that if you don’t want to be in harm’s way, you should change your ways, that if you don’t want to be questioned about your right to be in a women’s space or facility, you should try to appear more like women are meant to appear. This is an argument for gender normativity even if it is not put in those terms, a claim that it would be safer and thus better for girls to be girls (and for us to be able to tell that the girls are girls) and boys to be boys (and for us to be able to tell that the boys are boys).

One “gender critical” scholar cites in her book a blog that suggests that preferred pronouns are like a date drug. The suggestion is that if those who do not conform to a narrow idea of how women appear asked to be addressed as “she,” then this is confusing to the senses, making other women’s reactions sluggish. The writer of the blog suggests trans women intentionally use that sensory confusion to take advantage of cis women. The stereotype of the trans woman as sexual predator is a deeply disturbing and explicit form of transmisogyny. I suspect some “gender critical” feminists would not go along with it. But that association between trans women with danger to cis women can be preserved without using this stereotype – and can even be preserved by appearing to challenge it. Although the book author does not go along with blog author’s assumption that trans women are sexual predators (she even describes it as fearmongering), she still cites the blog as a credible source thus lending it credibility as source. And she still preserves the core assumption of the blog that compliance with preferred pronouns would be dangerous for women. The cognitive disadvantage for those who try and comply with pronouns will be the same. When talking about “cognitive disadvantage” she is talking about physical danger. Something that slows down the cognitive processes of women in relation to potential aggressors may turn out to have very serious ramifications for them. Note the danger here is implied to follow from compliance, by complying with preferred pronouns (pushed by “trans activism” to use the term used by this author in the same paragraph), women will be at a disadvantage, suffering very serious ramifications for their health, safety or well-being.

This association of compliance with preferred pronouns and danger suggests that safety depends upon clarity, that bodies need to line up, or be accurately sexed. Those who are not clearly men or women, who do appear how “he” or “she” should appear, are in other words, dangerous. Any demand that people clearly be men or women, let us be clear, is the patriarchal world view. But from the view that sex is material, that biological sex is immutable, comes a requirement that bodies line up, to appear as men or women. Biological sex is used to create a social line, that we have the right, even moral duty, to enforce. Any costs become regrettable. In such a world view, deviation is seen as dangerous, even deadly. This is how, by treating the idea of two distinct biological sexes not as the product of the sex-gender system, but as before it and beyond it, “gender critical” feminists tighten rather than loosen the hold of that system on our bodies. To breathe in feminism we have to loosen this hold.


Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books.

Butler, Judith (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela (1983). Women, Race and Class.  New York: Ballantine Books.

Delphy, Christine (1993). “Rethinking Sex and Gender,” Women’s Studies International Forum, 16, 1: 1-9.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman  Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Franklin, Sarah. 2001. “Biologization Revisited: Kinship Theory in the Context of the new Biologies,” in Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon eds,  Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Franklin, Sarah (forthcoming). “Gender as a Proxy: Diagnosing and Resisting Carceral Genderisms,” European Journal of Women’s Studies,

Germon, Jennifer (2009). Gender: A Genealogy of an Idea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

hooks, bell. 1987. Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism. Pluto Press.

Lorde, Audre. 1978. Black Unicorn. New York: Norton.

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press.

Oakley, Ann (1972). Sex, Gender and Society. Maurice Temple Smith.

Oakley, Ann (1997).  “A Brief History of Gender,” in A. Oakley and J. Mitchell (eds) Who’s afraid of feminism?, London: Hamish Hamilton; New York, NY: The New Press.

Spade, Dean (2006). “Gender Mutilation,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds).  The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.315-332.

Stone, Sandy (2006). “The Empire Strikes Back: A PostTransexual  Manifesto,” in Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (eds). The Transgender Studies Reader. London: Routledge.

Young, Iris Marion (1990). Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays. Bloomington Indiana University Press.

Wilchin, Rikki (2014). Queer Theory, Gender Theory. Riverdale Avenue Books.

Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

[1] See for example the very helpful series of blog posts by LSE Gender Studies,

[2] A contribution to the book produced by the Conservative Common-Sense Group discusses attacks on Britain as attacks “not in a physical sense, but in a philosophical, ideological and historical sense.” In addition to how immigration has rendered people feeling like strangers in their own country, or how activists are challenging how British history is narrated, there are vague references to the gender agenda. Words that have been universally understood for millennia, such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are now emotionally charged and dangerous. The fictions of binary sex and racial purity exist in close proximity, which is also how policing the borders of sex can be about policing the borders of the nation. See Franklin (forthcoming) for a discussion of how anti-gender feminism can be understood as feminism’s Brexit.

[3] For an explanation of my citation policy please see my earlier post, Killjoy Commitments. I am not citing individual authors by name as I have no wish to enter into a dialogue with “gender critical” feminists. I am just offering instead a diagnostic of how the effort to exclude trans people from feminism (and with it from the many public services that trans people, especially trans women, may need to survive) has led to the contradiction of core feminist principles. I know from experience that “gender critical” feminists if they read this, will caricature and dismiss my work. That is of no concern to me.

[4] For a discussion of how the “sex-gender” distinction was imported into Gender Studies (via the work of John Money on intersex communities) see Jennifer Gorman (2007). Gorman also explores the link between Gayle Rubin’s model of the “sex-gender system” and Money’s work.

[5] This reversal was also performed by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), which drew on many other feminist theorists to show how physical and sexed bodies are shaped right from the very beginning (or even before a beginning) by social norms and values.

[6] The history of the word “woman” teaches us how the categories that secure personhood are bound up with a history of ownership: “woman” is derived from a compound of wif (wife) and man (human being); woman as wife-man also suggesting woman as female servant. The history of woman is impossible to disentangle from the history of wife: the female human as not only in relation to man but as for man (woman as there for, and therefore, being for).  Wittig argues lesbians are not women because “women” is being in relation to men. Wittig calls the lesbian an “escapee” from this system.

[7] Stranger danger can be dangerous. It can be dangerous to those deemed strangers: those who tend to be treated as dangerous are often those who are most vulnerable to violence. But it can be dangerous because of where it does not locate danger: here, at home, in the family. Women for instance are much more at risk when they are home. Stranger danger is how the violence that is close to home is often overlooked.

[8] I began working on the uses of stranger danger as a frame in my second book, Strange Encounters. Most of my work has been on stranger danger as a technique of racialisation. A crucial aspect of stranger making is that the stranger, however singular as a figure comes to stand for a group. It is crucial to understand how this work in the media reporting of violence. Take anti-Muslim racism: if a Muslim person commits an act of violence, that violence becomes expressive of the violence of Muslims (which quickly then becomes an argument against immigration or for increased securitisation and so on). Much transphobic reporting works to make an instance of violence made by a trans person as expressive of the violence of a group (which quickly then becomes an argument against “gender ideology,” or allowing trans people to live in accordance with the gender identity and so on).

[9] As Sarah Franklin has noted, biology can refer to both a “body of authoritative knowledge (as in the science of reproductive biology) and a set of phenomena” (2001, 303). Biology can thus refer both to studies of living organisms and to the living organisms themselves. This confusion of different senses of biology is evident in some of the wider discourse, which has had the effect of treating “a body of authoritative knowledge” as if corresponds to a set of phenomena.

[10] If gender is a moving target, so too is transphobia.  At this present moment, “biology” and “biological sex” are the main terms in use. At other times it is not biology but “socialisation” that is used: trans women cannot be women because they were socialised as men and benefited from male privilege. Here it is the social rather than the biological that becomes what is immutable: as if socialisation goes one way, relates only to one category (sex) and is not contested and disputed in everyday life depending on how one might not embody or not embody that category. Feminism itself depends on the failure of socialisation to bring about willing gendered subjects. Another typical argument is that “transgenderism” as a set of medical practices depends on essentialist notions of gender because it corrects gender nonconforming behaviours and is shaped by a heterosexist imperative.  Of course there has been decades of scholarship by trans theorists that is critical of how gender and hetero norms become an apparatus of truth within medical institutions; that has shown how in order to gain access to surgery and hormones, trans subjects have to tell a narrative that is legible to authorities by using gender scripts: from Sandy Stone’s wonderful “The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto” ([1987] 2006) to more recent work by Dean Spade (2006) and Riki Wilchins (2014).  This work shows how not to be accommodated by a gender system (which requires you to “stay with” an assignment made by authorities at birth) can involve becoming more vigilant and reflexive about that system (although it is very important not to expect those who are not accommodated by a system to become pioneers or transgressors of norms, either). I think what is going on in anti-trans feminist work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target).

[11] I put it the following way in an earlier post, You are Oppressing Us! “There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.”

[12] Those who are not at home, come to know categories more intimately, which is why some of the most important work on gender, sex and sexuality is coming out of trans studies. Can I also add that to dismiss “identity” and “emotions” as somehow immaterial relative to “sex” is to forget so much previous feminist work. I have even heard a gender critical feminist say she doesn’t believe in gender because that’s about feelings and she is a materialist!  There is a huge and important literature that teaches how emotions, how we feel in relation to objects and others, are physical, visceral as well as being about judgment; how we come to know about ourselves as well as worlds. If your body does not feel right, if you feel wrong, it takes a huge amount of work, a difficult transition, to get to a point to where things feel right. I am myself a cis woman, but I have learning so much from trans people’s accounts of transition and of the emotional and physical nature of this process. On what it means to feel wrong, or how wrong feels, I do think of my own experience of heterosexuality. I think of the work it took, how long it took, to let my bodily feeling “this is wrong,” however powerful, palpable, to lead me to change my situation. Sometimes feelings can be traumatic, because you realise from them just how much you have to do to rearrange yourself, your life, so you can breathe, even if there is joy and hope and possibility in that rearrangement. To dismiss other people’s feelings about gender as immaterial, as I have heard people do, is deeply unethical as well as anti-feminist.

[13] Gender and sex work habitually, as a series of background assumptions. This is why phenomenology is so useful for feminism. Phenomenology also helps us to think about how bodies are shaped through habits, ways of acting that are repeated over time. Simone de Beauvoir or Iris Marion Young are feminist philosophers who have shown how we become women through in relation to our bodies. Biology matters, yes, but biology is always part of our historical situation. For Beauvoir, “woman is not a fixed reality, but a becoming.” For Beauvoir, the “body is our grasp on the world and an outline for our projects.” What this means is that yes, Beauvoir does acknowledge the body and its limits. She might even talk about women’s bodies as having such and such qualities, but as she describes “they do not carry their meaning in themselves.” Even matter is made to matter.  We can thus denaturalise the category of “biological sex” and talk about our lived experiences as gendered beings (in fact, we have more, not less, to talk about when we don’t bracket sex as if was outside the social or the cultural domain). We can talk about physical and fragile bodies, aging bodies; and yes, we can still talk about women’s bodies without presuming in advance who is and is not “women.”

[14] A project is thus to show the norm, make it appear. This has been important linguistically. Man is operating as the norm when you say a woman bus driver but not a man bus-driver.  Man is often unmarked, so we mark the man as norm, we begin to say, if we need to say anything, the man bus driver. Whiteness is often the default, which means that when race is mentioned, it is used to refer to people of colour. We mark the unmarked by making it appear. The word “cis” is another attempt to mark the unmarked, to make a norm be visible. Saying “cis” is a slur is a bit like saying “white” is a slur, or “man” or “heterosexual.” That people do respond to being positioned in that way is telling us something about how norms work.

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A book can be a thank you note

Yesterday we launched Complaint! 

I want to express my deep appreciation for all you who are doing the work of complaint, chipping away at the walls of the institution, knocking on the doors, causing disturbance; unburying, rebuilding.

My apologies for those who could not make that time. We did not record the launch because we know how hard it can be to bring histories of violence and trauma into the room.

Thank you to everyone who came along, and to Chandra Frank, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Sirma Bilge and Heidi Mirza for your beautiful and wise and moving contributions.

I am sharing the words I prepared and read out.  There are more thanks to follow.


We launch this book, Complaint! an ode to complaint collectives, as a complaint collective. Let me introduce myself as a member of this collective by giving a you a complaint bio. As a feminist killjoy, to give a full complaint bio, would be to tell too many too long stories. So, I summarise: to be a feminist killjoy, to be willing to receive this assignment, is to become a complainer, heard as negative for not wanting to reproduce the same thing, heard as destructive for the same reason. When I was a PhD student, I often complained about how critical theory was being taught around a very narrow body of work (all white men, basically), though not by using formal complaints procedures, but rather informally in what I said in seminars and out of them. I am still complaining about that! In my first job, I complained about how race was being talked about, or not being talked about. One time I sent an email to the Dean after he had said during a meeting that race was too difficult to deal with, an email that led to my name being put forward for a new race equality group that was formed to write a new race equality policy. A complaint, whether made formally or not, can lead you to become a diversity worker. I wasn’t until my second and last job as an academic that I participated in a formal complaint, and that, well that led me here.

Now that we are here, I want to say thank you. I want to thank all of you who have shaped this book. I think of this book as a thank you note. This book was only possible because of how many of you shared with me your stories of complaint, and in sharing stories, shared  so much wisdom, institutional wisdom, hard worn wisdom. I want to thank all of you who engaged with this work on complaint, becoming part of a virtual complaint collective, whether by chatting in person to me after I gave talks or by sending emails, or by tweeting to me and with me, sometimes using my project hashtag, #complaintasfeministpedagogy, by sharing with me informally anecdotes and stories, some of which are in the book, all of which are in the work. I want to thank my publisher Duke for providing yet again a home for my work although I would also like to use this moment to say to Duke that you need to recognise the Duke Workers Union. I want to thank Joje and the team in Critical Gender Studies at UC San Diego for hosting this event, for the time and the care, so we can share the work, again, creating another complaint collective. Thanks to all of you who are listening, and to all the people we bring with us when we are listening. Thank you: Chandra, Leila, Tiffany, Sirma and Heidi, for being on this panel, for being part of this complaint collective. And I want to thank my queer family, Sarah, Poppy and Bluebell, this in order of size and age, but not importance, I promise you Bluebell, for the good hap of being together, for the love and the care in living our feminist lives. Sarah, you have taught me so much about what it means to hammer away at institutions, to try and rebuild them by changing their meaning and purpose, what they are for, who they are for.

A book can be a thank you note. This book is the first I began as an independent scholar. That I had left my post made it possible for me to do this work at least in the way I did it. To receive these stories, to be a feminist ear, I needed to be somewhere else, not in the institution even if I am still on it and not fully out of it. I suspect even if I had not left the institution, I would have had to find support for this research somewhere else. A complaint collective can be that somewhere else, how we find the support to confront institutions that often work by withdrawing support from those who confront them. So many of those whose stories I share in the book were led, sometimes by making a formal complaint, sometimes not, into a direct confrontation with institutions, and by institutions I include not just senior administrators and managers but also colleagues and peers. In the research, I thus needed to guarantee the anonymity of all participants. In sharing these stories, they had to be separated from those who gave them. I think of this separation as a limitation. I say this not with regret, there are always limits, we decide what to give up when we make decisions. But I wanted to acknowledge it here.

It was important that the story of the complaint that led to the research was not told by me. I mentioned earlier that my first involvement in a formal complaint process led to this research. I supported a group of PhD students who had already made a collective complaint. I joined their group, their group became ours, ours, that promising feminist word, not a possession, but an invitation. It was important that the students themselves, some of who are now early career academics, others who are lighting feminist fires elsewhere, to tell their story in their own terms. I was just so honoured that the first conclusion of the book was written by Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck and Chryssa Sdrolia and others.


Thank you so much Heidi, Sirma, Leila, Tiffany, Chandra, for being here, for being part of this complaint collective, and to all of you in the audience, listening, for being here, for being part of this collective. I want to share some thoughts about how the book is itself a complaint collective. And to do that I am going to read two paragraphs from my conclusion:

I think of the first time I presented this material. I was standing on a stage, and the lights were out. I could hear an audience, the sounds, the groans, sometimes laughter, but I could not see anyone. The words: they were so heavy. I was conscious of the weight of them, of the pain in them. And as I read the words that had been shared with me, knowing the words were also behind me, lit up as text, I had a strong sense, a shivering feeling, of the person who shared those words saying them to me, of you as you said them, of you being there to say them. I felt you there, all of you, because you were there, helping me withstand the pressure I felt to do the best I could, to share the words so they could be picked up, heard by others who might have been there, in that painful place, that difficult place (complaint can be a place), so your words could do something, so your words could go somewhere. And each time I have presented this work, the feeling has been the same, of you being there with me. Maybe to keep doing it, to keep saying it, that is what I needed, for you to be there with me.  

 I am aware that if these stories have been hard to share (to share an experience that is hard is hard), this book might have been hard to read, hard on you, readers. I know some of you will have picked this book up because of experiences you have had that are hard, experiences that led you to complain, experiences of complaint. You might have had moments of recognition, painful and profound, as I did when I listened to these testimonies. It can help to share something painful, although not always, and not only. One academic said to me at the end of our dialogue, “It’s really helpful talking to you. It reminds me that I am not alone.” It was helpful for me to talk to you too. A complaint collective: how we remind ourselves we are not alone. We need reminders. My hope is that this book can be a reminder: we are not alone. We sound louder when we are heard together; we are louder.

I have chosen to read these words from my conclusion because they are about how being part of a complaint collective made it possible for me to do this work, to keep doing it, to keep sharing it. When I say this book is a complaint collective it might sound like I am talking about the collectivity as being in it. And I am not “not” talking about that. The book is a collection of stories, to collect is to create a collective. I am talking about complaint collectives as much to point to the process as to what it brings into effect. I am pointing to what it takes to get here, to get to it, this, what it takes, who it takes, the time, the labour, the listening, the learning, the meeting up, the going back, the checking in, the speaking, the hearing, the encountering, the reencountering. This is why complaint never felt like a research object. I was in it. And I was in it with you, those who shared your stories with me. And that helped me so much. I felt part of something, at a time when I might otherwise have felt very alone. I am so grateful.

In my conclusion to the book, I suggest that “complaint offers a fresh lens, which is also an old and weathered lens, on collectivity itself.” I just want to say a little more about what I mean by that. I talk in the book about the queer temporality of complaint, we are going back over something because it is not over, we are trying to deal with something because it has not been dealt with. To complain is to be willing to look afresh at something with which we are already familiar, too familiar even, something we have had to endure. You might have to keep complaining because they keep booking inaccessible rooms. You have to keep saying it because they keep doing it. But if you keep saying it, you become an institutional killjoy, getting in the way, standing out, becoming the problem, all over again. Having the eye of the institution land on you, being under scrutiny, treated as suspicious, can be very frightening. So many of the stories shared in this book are stories of institutional violence, that is the violence that comes back at you when you complain about violence. We need a collective to witness this violence, to say, yes, this is happening, this is wrong. We also need a collective to withstand the violence because so often the point of it is to make it hard to hold your ground.

The harder it is to get through, the more we have to do. The harder it is to get through, the more we need more.

To witness, to withstand. As I was listening to testimonies, bearing witness, witnessing your witnessing, I was given energy, even hope. I call it a weary hope, a hope that is close to what is wearing, to what wears us down, to what we have to withstand. I came to feel in my bones what it takes, what it will take, to lift the weight, the weight of a history, how so many of us have to do so much, risk so much, to build more just or less hostile worlds. It is so important that we honour that work, to value it, recognise it. So much of that work is happening behind closed doors. And that is where so much harassment also happens: behind closed doors. When harassment is a structure more than an event, how some are worn down or work out by what they have to do to be somewhere, or what they have to put up with to stay somewhere, a structure is how you close something, a possibility, an opening, or how you stop someone, without needing a damn door.  The more you try to bring that out, the violence of how some are stopped, the more doors are shut, nay slammed, in your face. In other words, we encounter what we complain about because we complain. Complaints, that history of harsh encounters, can end up hidden by the same structures they attempt to redress.

I think of where complaints end up, behind those doors, in those files, in that complaint graveyard. I think of all that is also there with them. So much is there. We too can be there. The places that complaints are buried, are holders of many histories, histories of profound pain and loss, of violence, yes, but also histories of struggle, or refusal, those who say no to it, who won’t go along with it, who won’t take any more of it. It is not surprising then that to complain is to find out so much, you put yourself in touch with a history, you find stuff out about yourself, what you will and won’t take, but also other people, about institutions, about power. You might find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. In the book you will read about secret letters in post-boxes, file mysteriously appearing on fax machines, graffiti on books left by one to be picked up later by another. To complain can also be how you learn to notice a burial in a story, a story you might have been told before about someone who had complained before. The more complaints are contained, the more inventive we need to become to get them out. We might turn a complaint that is treated as hostile, perhaps by being perceived as a threat to free speech or academic freedom, into a protest against hostile environments. Transphobia is a hostile environment. I express my solidarity to all students protesting hostile environments.

A complaint in the present can unsettle past complaints, if they are dusty, they are not done. Even complaints that have been buried can come out. To complain can be how we keep not just our own complaints alive but other people’s complaints. An old and weathered lens: we can be a collective without being in the same time or in the same place. An old and weathered lens: we meet in an action without meeting in a person. I think of Audre Lorde. I always think of Lorde. I think of how Lorde describes poetry, in a poem, Power, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  Perhaps complaint can be connected wire, allowing something to pass between us, like electricity, snap, snap, sizzle, a complaint as how we keep a connection alive. It might not always feel like that. You might feel like you did not get very far. You might feel disconnected. But you know what; we know what. You said no, you had a go. Who knows what you stirred up? Who knows who can pick that no up? We pick each other up. Piece by piece, a shattering can become a movement. A sharp piece, an illumination. A complaint can be clarifying; it can be how you clarify your project and your politics. It can be how you find your people. It is how I found my people. Thank you.


I feel so moved to have brought Complaint! to the world by creating a complaint collective. Thank you to everyone who was there, who shared thoughts and feelings on the chat, stories on our shared document, as well as responses during and after the panel. I was so touched to hear and read responses from participants in the research, for the tenderness of your testimonies. I am glad of how if we hand our stories to each other, they can come back to us.

Thanks to everyone for bearing witness, for withstanding, for being the more we need.

We enact what we aim for. Nothing less will do. We share our pain, our fury, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We can do that only when we trust each other, when we promise each other to learn from each other, when we create room for each other, giving each other permission to enter and also to leave, to try and also to retreat, to express ourselves when we can or not when we cannot. We become part of each other’s survival.

I am empowered to have been on this journey with you.

A feminist life can be a thank you note.

With love

Sara xxx


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Complaint! is out!

You can now purchase the book direct from Duke University Press as well as from Combined Academic Publishers if you are in the UK/Europe. Until October 15, you can receive a 50 percent discount using the code FALL21. You can hear or read interviews with me about the book here, here and here.

There will be a virtual launch event for the book on October 20th 6-7.30 pm (BST) and 10-11.30am (PST), which I am co-organising with Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page. The launch is kindly hosted by Critical Gender Studies/Ethnic Studies, UC San Diego. The registration link is here.

In addition, during November and December, I will be available for informal conversations to talk about Complaint! (the book and the work). If you are interested, please do get in touch with me using the contact form on my website. Priority is given to student-led activist groups working on sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and gender based violence,  homophobia and transphobia, racism and racial harassment, decolonizing initiatives, ableism and accessibility.

Complaint! is out! I feel like adding some exclamation points!!!!!!!

Thank as ever to my complaint collective for keeping me going. By complaint collective I am referring first to the group I worked with before I resigned from my post and second to the many people I communicated with about their experiences of complaint, whose words, work and wisdoms I share in the book.

Complaint! has two conclusions. I am so honoured that the first conclusion is written by my complaint collective in the first sense. Let me share the introduction to the concluding part of the book to celebrate its arrival.

In killjoy solidarity,




If it can be difficult to know how to start the story of a complaint because it is difficult to know when a complaint starts, it can be difficult to know how to end that story because it is difficult to know when a complaint ends. The kinds of complaints I have discussed in this book do not have a point that, once reached, means we are post-complaint or after complaint. When a complaint is taken through a formal process, the end of that process—you might have received a letter, a decision, although sometimes you don’t even get that, you are left hanging—is not necessarily the end of the complaint. To end the story of a complaint can be to cut it off at some arbitrary point. Perhaps the story ends when we no longer have the time or energy to keep telling it.

There are so many ways of telling the story of complaint. There are so many threads to pull from the stories I have collected. The second chapter of each part of the book thus far has had a concluding section. The titles of those conclusions tell their own story: “Sensitive Information,” “Letters in the Box,” and “Distance from Complaint.” Before I turn to the conclusions of the book, let me to return to these concluding sections. Each offered an explanation of how complaints are contained or end up in containers. That complaints contain “sensitive information” or “sticky data” might be why they end up in containers (chapter 2). In other words, complaints are contained because of what they threaten to reveal. Some become complainers because of what they are trying to reveal. Complaints we express in our own way, in our own terms, can end up contained in the spaces in which they were made or which they were about (chapter 4). Or it might be that doors are closed on complaints, and on those who make them, in order to open the door for others. An open door can be predicated on keeping distance from complaint (chapter 6).  Those who complain can end up with nowhere to go. To explain how complaints are contained is thus to explain how institutions are reproduced, how the paths that can be followed are made narrower by stopping those who are trying to question how things are going or who are trying to go a different way.

Even if a complaint is contained or those who complain end up without a path to follow, a complaint might still go somewhere. Complaints might go somewhere because of how they affect those whom they come into contact with. If you leave because of a complaint, you do not just leave the problem behind. The effort you made to deal with that problem, even if you did not seem to get anywhere, becomes part of the institution, part of its history; however hidden, it happened. It might be that the story gets out, the information you gathered gets out, either accidentally or through a deliberate action. We will hear of such accidents and actions in due course. But what can be leaked as a result of complaint is more than information. What we have to do to gather that information, the work of complaint, is even harder to contain. Complaint is an outward-facing action: it involves people, many people, some of whom do not even meet. That involvement matters.

This book ends with two concluding chapters. The first was written by members of the collective I was privileged to join, Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, and Alice Corble, with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia, and others. Not everyone who was part of our collective is named as an author, but given that writing about the work of complaint is a continuation of the work, everyone who was part of the collective has shaped the writing. It is important to them, to us, and it is important for this book that they get to tell the story, in their own terms, in their own way. I learn so much from how they describe a “we” being formed, light, even tenuous, out of differences, each person having their own story of getting to a point that is shared. If we have to combine our forces in order to get anywhere, that combination has a history, that combination has a life of its own; even telling the story can be another way of combining forces.

In chapter 8, I return to the stories I have collected for this book, which include many instances of students and academics working together to get complaints through the system. I show how those who complain often end up politicized by complaint, becoming complaint activists, pressing against organizations, using their time and resources, even wasting their time and resources, to keep complaints alive. The last section of chapter 8—perhaps it is the conclusion of the conclusion—is titled “Survival and Haunting.” We can think back to, think with, the image of the complaint graveyard. Even the complaints that end up there, buried, under the ground, have gone somewhere. What has been put away can come back. To tell stories of complaint, leaky, ghostly, haunting, is to be reminded of what can be inherited from actions that did not seem to succeed. We do not always know where complaints will go.

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In Dialogue, a letter to Lauren

Dear Lauren,

I knew we were going to lose you. You told us in so many words. You have such a way with words that I had to work hard not to be distracted by their beauty from the devastation of what you were telling us. When I heard you had died, I was just so lost.

What if the person you lose is the one who could best describe that loss for you?

When we lose a person, we lose the words they might have shared in a future they will not have. I have no words for saying how it feels to say these words: that Lauren Berlant has died. That you have died. I have no words, but then I do, no words are words, edging for something, connecting us to someone. I still can’t bring myself to believe it. I want belief to lag behind, take your time coming, take your time. Your presence has been so orientating for me, a landmark, like that distinctly shaped tree, or that tower you can see, nearby or in the distance that allows you to know which way you are facing, which tells you how to get to where you need to go. I feel disorientated, without a compass, without you being here. I am not sure how to find my way around.

We muddle through. You taught me to attend to what we do to muddle through.  Your words are still guiding me. I am grateful for all of them. I could read just a few of your words and know they were yours. You have a style like no other, sentences that are crisp but with curious combinations, crisp and opaque, coming at you and escaping from you at the very same time. You have a way of capturing details, of fine tuning amidst the fuzz or the buzz or the chaos so you could hear the singularity of a note, sharp, painfully clear. You found in the materials of the everyday so much to think with, turning things around, giving a different angle on them so they glimmer or flicker, or a different angle on ourselves so we glimmer or flicker.  I have never met or read anyone so able to explain the difficulty we have giving up attachments, even when we provide evidence ourselves of how they are not working, and yet alive to the potential for rearranging things, turning slips into starting points for another story, whilst we are in a muddle, in the middle of something that does not, even will not, acquire the shape of an event.

Nor have I read or met anyone who was so interested in other people, so curious about their histories, what brought them to their work, what they brought into their work, or someone with such profound fidelity to the task of reflection, to sustaining reflection on our shared worlds, feelings, thoughts, attachments, so that what might have, at first glance, seemed solid, a norm say, becomes spongier, looser, lighter. Sometimes, as someone who is shy, unless I am in a formal setting where I know the rules, someone with strong boundaries, maybe too strong, but we do what we can to live the best we can, it made me nervous, the directness of your attention, worried about what you might see or not see in me. I was at the same time grateful for it and for the time you gave me. Gratitude can be near grief, a sense of how much someone gives as a sense of how much you could lose; could lose, will lose. You asked, “I am a love theorist, how did that happen?” I think I know how it happened. A love theorist, a loving theorist, a theorist of love and loss and relationships that end up, as we do, in unexpected places.

As we do. The first time I encountered you, saw your name, read words you had written, yes, that can be enough to encounter a person, was on a piece of paper that had been put in my pigeon hole by a colleague, who was later to become my life partner (you were around during that becoming!), Sarah Franklin. I love that: that I first saw your name, read your words, because of a piece of paper that had been put in my mail box by a friend of yours. Relationships can have priority; they can be how we find each other’s words. Sarah had photocopied your CFP for a special issue on intimacy and circulated it to all members of the department. I emailed you. I suggested I could write a paper on intimacy and autobiography. I was writing, at the time, a chapter for my book Strange Encounters that took me near intimacy but was not on it. I was a very junior lecturer at this time, I had only just finished by PhD, my first book based on the PhD had yet to come out, which meant I was still trying to bend myself to fit any opening, any opportunity. I hoped near would be near enough. You explained that what I proposed was not what you had in mind. I can’t remember the words you used, but it was something like, it is a bit obvious to approach intimacy through autobiography. Our first exchanges were a little tense, funnily enough, as I explained why I thought autobiography could provide an unexpected angle on intimacy precisely because that is where intimacy is expected to be found. I did not know then how attending to the obvious (as well as attending to expectations of where something or someone is assumed to be) would become what I did or how I would follow a thought.

I think there were some tensions between us in the years that followed. There are signs of it in some of our writing. The introduction of Cruel Optimism, for example, positioned me as interested in emotion and not affect. Although I had been critical of the uses of the distinction between emotion and affect, much of my work has been about promises, atmospheres, sticky objects, affective economies, how histories get under our skin, and has thus been in the terrain of what is sometimes called “affect theory.” I referred to your argument in my introduction to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, as an example of how affect and emotion are given distinct trajectories (and even objects). We never spoke to each other about this; I wish we had. Much later when you were writing the paper, “Sex in the Event of Happiness,” which I think will appear in your next book (I am so glad I can say this, Lauren Berlant’ s next book!) you did ask me if we could brainstorm together because “your work is troubling me (in a good way)” which was a reference, I assume, to The Promise of Happiness. I wasn’t around when you messaged me, we did not get to brainstorm. We will not get to brainstorm.

Despite these troublings and tensions, there was so much we came to share in our work. Perhaps this despite is misplaced. Troublings and tensions can be how we are in relation. To be in relation, as you taught, is the joy (also inconvenience) of being with someone you are not.

But I have in thinking of tensions fast forwarded. Let me go back.

Our first communications were, from memory, in 1996. And then we invited you to be a keynote speaker at the Transformations: Thinking Through Feminism conference in July 1997. This was the first major international conference for the Centre for Women’s Studies at Lancaster University; it was such an important event in the life of that Centre. You spoke in the first plenary session, and the first time I saw you, you were already on a podium. You were wearing a leather mini skirt, if I recall correctly, and I just remember thinking wow, you were so stylish and cool. I was totally intimidated when we had our first in person conversations if the truth be known, and you said something about it, I can’t quite remember the words, but perhaps that we had those tense exchanges led you to think I might be a little fiercer than I tend to present (my feminist killjoy self, however, is furious as well as fierce, it is just only some occasions when she comes out). Later, I was to learn, you got that, you got it, you got me, how I could take on the assignment of a feminist killjoy not despite being shy, anxious and sensitive, but because of it; the armour we use, has its story, which is our story, hardness comes to matter for those who experience themselves as too easily hurt.

Later, I was to learn what a good reader you were not just of texts but of people.

And you held the room with a lecture on “The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics,” from which I still learn so much. That was the first time I heard you lecture. I have since heard many more. I loved how you stood (some call it the tree pose), how you laughed, how you filled the room, yet also seemed to create room for others. The questions you asked in that lecture, which we published as a paper in our edited book, remain so important: “What happens to questions of managing difference or alterity or resources in collective life when feeling bad becomes evidence for a structural condition of injustice? What does it mean for the theory and practice of social transformation, when feeling good becomes evidence of justice’s triumphs?” After that you came to Lancaster again for a conference on Testimonial Cultures and Feminist Agendas in 1999, organised by myself and Jackie Stacey, and you gave another extraordinary lecture, “Trauma and Ineloquence,” which we published in the journal Cultural Values.  One sentence I remember, “Symptoms that condense history are like dead metaphors, challenging their readers to make them live.” You helped me to question how trauma becomes an expectation of delivery for the negated, the subordinated, but also in that questioning, to imagine another way of receiving somebody’s trauma, of making a dead metaphor live.

A new millennium brought with it plans to bring you back to Lancaster. Sarah Franklin took the lead in a proposal for a Leverhulme Visiting Professorship. And then in the summers of 2001 and 2002 you came for extended periods of time, participating in a series of more and less formal events loosely organised under the rubric, “Feelings in Public.” Between 1997 and 2002, then, you were around so much, around at a time I was working on The Cultural Politics of Emotion, around at the time I decided to write about happiness – a decision which I am sure was inspired by our conversations as well as my experience of doing empirical research on diversity and racism. Writing about happiness led me to the feminist killjoy, led me to do the work of changing my work so that it would less bound by the university, less caught up in the dynamics that keeps our work in the university, which is also how I ended up on it, working on the university, on institutions with their manifold histories.

Thinking back, to the good hap of that, you being around there, then, I can see how much my own work on emotion and affect was enabled by being in dialogue with you, and the mark you left on all of us working in Gender Studies and Cultural Studies in the UK. In an endnote to The Cultural Politics of Emotion I wrote, “I am very indebted to Lauren Berlant, whose insightful questions, ‘when do norms become forms,’ has provided the inspiration for my work.”

To inspire, can mean not only to uplift or encourage, but to enable to breathe, to give air. The life you breathed into my work is all over my work. In Queer Phenomenology, I cited your co-authored piece, “Sex in Public,” with the wonderful description of queer worlds, the “queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (2005: 198).  In The Promise of Happiness, I borrowed your delightfully crisp expression “the foggy fantasy of happiness,” and also your idea of objects as “clusters of promises.” In Willful Subjects, I drew upon your essay “Slow Death,” in accounting for snap, suggesting that we “cannot see the slower times of bearing or making do” and also draw on your description of the problem of how will becomes the problem.  As you wrote in Queen of America goes to Washington City, which is still my favourite of your books: “In the new good life imagined by the contracting state, the capitalist requirement that there be a population of poorly remunerated laborers-in-waiting or those who cobble together temporary work is not deemed part of a structural problem but rather a problem of will and ingenuity” (2004: 4). I came back to your work in Living a Feminist Life, a number of times, thinking with your idea of cruel optimism, wondering who gets to diagnose when a life is working or not working, and also your explanation of a situation, “a state of things in which something that will perhaps matter is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life.”

Yes, you teach me how to describe what is happening, the usual activity of life, how to notice what will perhaps matter as it unfolds, to notice an unfolding as a way of holding something, lightly.

What we create is fragile because we need it to survive.

We did meet up over the years. You came to London. I remember cooking you and our partners some vegetable curries. And then I came to Chicago a few times, one time to give a lecture for your programme, another to give a lecture at another university. I think that first time was in 2013. You were such a generous host. The other time was in 2015 – the last time we met in person. We met at your hairdressers then hang out for a bit. I was in the middle of supporting students who had made a collective complaint about sexual harassment that led me to leave not just my post but our profession – I told you about that. We have in our work and in our different ways, tried to account for the toxicity and violence of institutions, to think about how to handle it. Handles can turn thoughts into care. When I left my post, I also left Facebook, which is where we usually communicated, so there was a time, almost two years in fact, when we were not in touch. I regret that. When we got back in touch, you told me you hoped I felt freer. I said I was getting there. It can be hard to put it behind you; the institution can find you. But researching complaint was helping me, I said.

Which brings me to complaint. I always expected in my work on complaint to engage directly with The Female Complaint, your middle book in your wondrous trilogy. I learned so much from that book about complaint as a genre with a loose hold. But I didn’t because Complaint! ended up being led by those I spoke to, my complaint collective. They became my theorists. So, I didn’t do what I usually do, follow complaint around, follow the word around, a following that would have led me to your work, to a proper engagement with it.

I emailed you about it. I wanted you to know that I missed the encounter we might have had; the dialogue we were both, I suspect, waiting for. You understood what I was telling you. You wrote, “I’m gathering you’re telling me that you barely think with the female complaint.  It’s a shame for me because we have for so long been interlocutors. We should interview each other like old times when it comes out. Would you like to? I can totes arrange it.” I was sad for that “shame for me,” but I understood it. I said yes, yes to that dialogue. Then you got more and more ill. You still sent me Lauren messages (Lauren messages are not only messages Lauren sent but messages that were so expressive of Lauren). The last message you sent me was on June 11th the same month you died. You wrote that you were writing me from “pain hell.” You wrote that you had seen my book, Complaint! in the Duke University Press catalogue. You made a Lauren quip about how Duke had used an author photo for me (and why they hadn’t for you), and then said, “so excited to get a copy. Meanwhile thank you for thinking with me as I do with you.  It means a lot.”

It means a lot. I think you were telling me that there are many ways to be in dialogue and that we hadn’t missed it. A dialogue can be what we are in, a space, a zone, an intimacy.

“I didn’t think it would turn out this way” (Lauren on intimacy’s secret epitaph).

We can be in a dialogue without having one.

We are in dialogue. This is how it is turning out.

I emailed you back and said I would send you one of my first copies, my author copies, with an inscription.  I will still send it to you, of course.

This is an endnote in the book: “My emphasis on the affective nature of complaint connects with Lauren Berlant’s (2008) consideration of female complaint. Berlant describes complaint as “a way of archiving experience, turning experience into evidence and evidence into argument and argument into convention and convention into cliché, clichés so powerful they can hold a person her entire life” (227). My discussion is more about feminist than female complaint. Feminist complaint can also “hold a person her entire life,” although perhaps less through convention and cliché. With thanks to Lauren Berlant for the inspiration of her work.” I wrote this note without realising you had changed your pronouns. If there is a second printing, I will ask to change her to their, to honour your preferences and your work.

I know we are in dialogue. I know that you were writing fiercely from and through “pain hell” with your Lauren dedication, and that there are more books on their way because of that. But I wish I could have more dialogues with you in person, to hear your laughter, the sound of your voice, to feel you there with me.

I am writing this letter to you. I know it is important to say to each other what we mean to each other. We cannot always do that. Sometimes, we know the importance of something when it is no longer possible. I am sharing this letter on my blog, Lauren because you taught me that if you write through a feeling, with it, you share it. We create an assembly, grief-stricken, yes, but all the better, all the sharper, lovelier, even, for having known each other, found each other, in words, in persons. In the shattering, queer losses, queer lives, creating new shapes; glimmering, flickering.

I wrote to you once last time after you died.

“I can’t believe you are not here anymore. I came back to Facebook as I remembered we messaged just so I could hear you. I can always hear you in your writing, no one else sounds like you. I’ll miss you so much but I will keep learning from you Lauren. I promise xxx”.

Lauren, I promise. I promise to keep learning from you. To think with you, to stay in touch, to be in dialogue.

With love, as ever

Sara xxx

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Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy

In the last months, I have been presenting my research on complaint in the form of three different (but connected) lectures: “Knocking on the Door: Complaints and Other Stories about Institutions,”Complaint, Diversity and Other Hostile Environments” (also here and here) and “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy.” I am taking a break from giving public lectures until 2022. Complaint! comes out in September of this year (you can now read the introduction on line). Later this year, I hope to do some informal launch events for the book focusing primarily on discussions with students and academics involved in activist projects at universities. I am including below the text of my lecture, “Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” which was the last lecture I gave this year.  This is the unedited version (without references), written as spoken.

In killjoy solidarity to those complaining for a more just world

Sara xx

“Complaint as Feminist Pedagogy,” Lecture presented by Sara Ahmed, May 31st, 2021,  Permanent Ordinary Seminar, Bilbao.

I have been listening to stories of making complaints at universities. Let me start with a story.

I am talking to a postgraduate student about her experience of trying to make a complaint about gender-based based harassment and bullying. She had started the process by communicating her intent to complain to the chair of her department.  From him, she received a warning articulated obliquely as an expression of concern for her career: “his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how will this affect you in the future.” She begins to feel a shift, the withdrawal of support: just by saying I want to file a complaint, I sense that I am being treated differently.”  She wasn’t sure whether to go through with the complaint because of what she was being told: that to complain would be to compromise her position, her career. Complaints are often treated as sticky data: if they stick to you, you fear, you are taught to fear, you will end up stuck.

Toward the end of her story, she told me about another student who had made a complaint before her: “There was a woman who had filed a complaint and she was outcast; no one goes near her.” She added: “people told me the story. It is so difficult to get my head around because at the time I was so willing to go along with it. And now there I am, recognising that if I were to move forward, I would likely be experiencing some of the same things she did.” She recognizes that to go forward with a complaint would be to go through what the woman before her went through (to go forward as to go back). “And now there I am,” and so, she came to see through it, a story she had been willing to go along with about a woman who had complained before.  If a story can be inherited as distance (“no one goes near her”), a complaint gives you proximity, an unwilled proximity, to those who have been cast out. To make a complaint can be how we acquire scepticism towards stories told about complainers, stories that are rarely told from the complainer’s point of view. Today, I will be sharing stories of complaint told from the point of view of those who have made them.  Since June 2017, I have been talking to academics and students who have made complaints at universities. I need you to know before I share their stories that many are painful and traumatic. These stories are difficult to share and I am aware they may be difficult to hear.

My project on complaints at the university is also on the university. And by “on the university” I do not just mean the university is my research site, I mean that my project is about the effort to transform universities. I was inspired by my experience of supporting a collective complaint about sexual misconduct and sexual harassment that was lodged by PhD students. Leila Whitley, Tiffany Page, Alice Corble with support from Heidi Hasbrouck, Chryssa Sdrolia and others, wrote one of the conclusions of my book about the work they began whilst they were students. To write about the work is to continue the work, and I indebted to each of them, all of them, for that work. In this project I am also indebted to critiques of diversity and the university offered by Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Sirma Bilge, Heidi Mirza, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Malinda Smith, Shirley Anne Tate, and Gloria Wekker.  I think of their combined work as counterinstitutional, they teach us how universities work, for whom they work. Counterinstitutional work in feminist hands is often housework, with all the drudgery and repetition that that word implies, painstaking work, administrative work, also care work, because if we need to transform institutions to survive them, we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: to make a complaint within an institution is to learn about how institutions work, what I call institutional mechanics. To tell the story of a complaint made within an institution can be to tell another story about an institution. The story of complaint often counters the institution’s story of itself.  On paper, a complaint can be pictured as a flow-chart, with straight lines and pointy arrows, giving the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they appear. I look at this complaints procedure and I see diversity, diversity as papering over the cracks, diversity as smoothing out an appearance. The problem with procedures is not simply that they don’t determine what happens. Procedures can also be techniques, used to stop complaints. One academic describes: “I had to push them because according to their procedure there were so many days you had after submitting the complaint for it to be investigated.” She has to keep pushing them to follow the procedure because otherwise her complaints would be dropped in accordance with their procedures. Many complaints are dropped on procedural grounds because those who complain do not submit the right forms, in the right way, at the right time. The narrowing of the complaint as a genre is how many struggles are not recorded.

Even complaints that assume at some point the form of a formal complaint begin long before the use of a procedure.

Another story. A lecturer is returning after long term sick leave. She is neuroatypical, she needs time, she needs space, to return to her work, to do her work. If she has to complain to get more time, her complaint takes up more time. She describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” I will return to how complaints end up as files or in files later. She has to keep making the same complaint to different people because they are not speaking to each other.  If we were to picture a complaint from the complainer’s point of view, it would be less of a flow, flow, away we go and rather more like this:

It is a mess, a tangle, if you get in, you can’t work out how to get out; you end up with so many dead ends, so many crossed wires. And despite all of that, all that work, nothing seems to shift.

It is worth noting here that a complaint can be an expression of grief, pain, or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment, or a formal allegation. This latter sense of complaint as formal allegation brings up these other more affective and embodied senses.  In making a formal complaint, you have to become expressive. The word express comes from press; to express as to press out. Each time the early career lecturer tries to express her complaint, she encounters a wall.  She speaks to a physician from occupational health. She has to complain to him about how he tries to express her complain: “he was shocked I think that I complained to him in the room face-to-face. He was dictating the letter to the computer, which was automatically typing it and I think he was astonished that I said I am not going to sign it.” I think of her refusal to sign that letter, to agree with how he expressed her complaint back to her: the words he reads out loud, his words, the computer automatically typing those words, his words; the different ways you can be made to disappear from your own story.

To go through a formal complaint process is to be channelled in a certain direction. You end up having to complain about how your complaint is handled, having to say “no” to how the institution records your “no.” It can be hard to keep saying no if you don’t feel you have a right to keep saying it. She describes: “There is something else which is something to do with being a young female academic from a working-class background: part of me felt that I wasn’t entitled to make the complaint – that this is how hard it is for everybody, and this is how hard it should be.” To question one’s entitlement to complain can be to question whether one has the right to expect anything other than more of the same (how hard it is, as how hard it should be). If part of her felt she was not entitled to complain, she has to fight all the more, she has to fight against that part of herself, that inheritance of a classed as well as gendered history; just as she has to fight to express her complaint in her own terms, and to fight for what she needs to do her work. She describes that work:

It was like a little bird scratching away at something and it wasn’t really having any effect. It was just really small, small; small and behind closed doors.  I think people maybe feel that because of the nature of the complaint, and you are off work so they have to be polite and not talk about it and so much of their politeness is because they don’t want to say something. And maybe [it is] to do with being in an institution and the way they are built; long corridors, doors with locks on them, windows with blinds that come down, it seems to sort of imbue every part of it with a cloistered feeling, there is no air, it feels suffocating.

It was like: note this it. A complaint as something you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace; the more you try, the smaller it becomes, you become, smaller; smaller still. I think of those birds scratching away and, I think of diversity work, described to me by a practitioner as a “banging your head on the wall job.” When the wall keeps its place, it is you that ends up sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seem to have done is scratch the surface.

Scratching can give you a sense of the limits of what you can accomplish.

A complaint becomes a magnifying glass: so many details are picked up by an attention; the geography of a place, the building, the long corridors, the locked doors, the windows with blinds that come down, less light, less room.

When you have to fight for room you can become more conscious of what little room you have. I was struck by often doors came up in her testimony as well as in the testimony of others. She describes: “I was just frightened and I just allowed myself to go through it very privately and I hit all those doors along the way, and just came out very guarded by it.” You are more likely to notice doors when you hit them rather than enter them. Doors are not just physical things that swing on hinges, though they are that, they are also mechanisms that enable an opening or a closing. When a path is no longer available to us, a door becomes a figure of speech: we say, that door is closed.  Doors can be, to borrow from Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools,” teaching us how the same house is being built; how only some can enter; how others become trespassers.

From complaint we learn how the house is built.   In my book What’s the Use? I use this image as an image of queer use, how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended.

I think of these birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned a small opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door perhaps, a way of getting in and out of the box. Of course, the post box can only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters. I am aware that this is a rather happy hopeful image. It is rare that we can just turn up and turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter. For some to take up space that is not built for them often requires a world-dismantling effort. A complaint describes some of that effort.

A complaint can be the effort to be accommodated. An academic describes how she has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible: “I worry about drawing attention to myself. But this is what happens when you hire a person in a wheelchair. There have been major access issues at the university.”  She spoke of “the drain, the exhaustion, the sense of why should I have to be the one who speaks out.” You have to speak out because others do not; and because you speak out others can justify their own silence; they hear you, so it becomes about you, “major access issues” become your issues.

Structures are treated as issues, made personal. Those of us who have “issues,” often end up on the diversity committee. The more issues we have, the more committees we are on. These committees can end up occupied in old ways. A woman of colour academic describes: “I was on the equality and diversity group in the university. And as soon as I started mentioning things to do with race, they changed the portfolio of who could be on the committee and I was dropped.” Yes, you just have to say the word race and you’ll be heard as complaining. Another time she is writing a paper for a special issue of a journal on decolonizing her discipline. She receives feedback from a white editor: “the response of the editor was ‘needs to be toned down, not enough scholarly input to back up the claims they are making.’ Basically, get back in your box, and if you want to decolonize, we’ll do it on our terms.” Being dropped from the diversity committee for “mentioning things to do with race” is continuous with being told to tone it down on the decolonizing special issue. Whiteness can be just as occupying of issues when they are designated decolonial. What happens if you raise issues? She describes: “whenever you raise something, the response is that you are not one of them.” A complaint seems to amplify what makes you not fit, picking up what you are not.  A complainer becomes a stranger, a foreigner, a trespasser.

A complaint can be used as evidence that you are not from here or do not belong here. A PhD student objects to how a lecturer is communicating with her – he is overly intimate. He had sent her an email from a private Hotmail account and suggested they “meet up during this or the next weekend in the evening.” She communicates to him that she found his style of communication to be inappropriate. This is his response, written in an email: “As for meeting in the evening and its combination with [personal email], this is how we do it here at the department (ask our MA students). Perhaps your department has some other norm which I do not understand. Also, your religion might be a problem.” Note the assertion of “how we do things here” as an answer to a questioning of how he is doing things there. Note the interpellation of other students into that assertion. And note how her religion – she is from a Muslim background – is used to explain her objection.

If you complain you end up confirming a judgment that has already been made, you are not from here, you do not belong here. A lesbian academic describes: “if you have a situation and you make a complaint, then you are the woman who complains, the lesbian who complains.  And then of course you get witch-hunted, you get scapegoated, you become the troublesome uppity woman; you become the woman who does not fit; you become everything the bully accuses you off, because nobody is listening to you. And you don’t like to hear yourself talking like that but you end up being in that situation, again. You can hear them saying, ‘oh there you go.” We both laughed when she said this. The feminist killjoy comes up here; she comes up in what we can hear. We hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well, she would say that. It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

We might laugh, we do laugh, but we also groan with recognition. If you are followed by rolling eyes, you are followed by eyes, you stand out; you end up under scrutiny. One time she is introduced by a student as a lesbian head of department, “there was some discussion of that with colleagues, like I had some banner to fly, pushing students to get involved with this.” Just being called a lesbian head of department can be heard as pushing an agenda. Some are judged as being pushy, imposing themselves just by virtue of not being or doing more of the same. It should not surprise us that a “pushy minority” can morph into a bully.  And, members of her department submitted an informal complaint to human resources identifying her as a bully. You can be called a bully just by being called or calling yourself a minority.

Complaints as tools to redress bullying and harassment can be turned into tools to bully and to harass. This will not be surprising to feminist audiences. We are familiar with how the tools introduced to redress power relations can be used by those who benefit from power relations. I noted earlier how formal complaints can bring with them other more affective and embodied senses of complaint. Formal complaints can end up separated or detached from those who have a complaint to make because of what they experience.  This is why it is so important not to tell the story of complaint as a story of what happens to formal complaints; formal complaints can be redirected toward those who try to challenge abuses of power, those who desire or require a modification of an existing arrangement. The complainer becomes a complaint magnet, to become a complainer is to attract complaints, to receive them as well as make them, to receive them because you make them. If you use the word race for instance you might be heard as complaining but you also more likely to be complained about. The magnetism of the figure of the complainer has much to teach us about the direction of violence. Violence is redirected toward those who identify violence and that redirection can be achieved through the very techniques we introduce to challenge the direction of violence.

The violence you complain about can be redirected toward you because you complain. A trans student of colour make a complaint about sexual harassment and transphobic harassment from their supervisor who kept asking them deeply intrusive questions about their gender and genitals. Questions can be hammering; for some to be is to be in question. These questions were laced in the language of concern for the welfare of the student predicated on judgements that they would be endangered if they conducted research in their home country. Racist judgements are often about the location of danger “over there” in a brown or black elsewhere. Transphobic judgements are often about the location of danger “in here,” in the body of the trans person: as if to be trans is to incite the violence against you. When they complain, what happens? They said: “people were just trying to evaluate whether he was right to believe there would be some sort of physical danger to me because of my gender identity… as if to say he was right to be concerned.” The same intrusive questions that led you to complain are asked when you complain or because you complain. So much harassment today is enacted as a right to be concerned. We have a right to be concerned about immigration (as “citizens”); we have a right to be concerned about sex-based rights (as “adult human females”). A right to be concerned is how violence is enacted, a violence premised on suspicion that some are not who they say they are, that some have no right to be where they are, that some have no right to be.

There are many ways we can be shut out – from institutions, from categories of personhood, from ourselves, even.  One woman of colour describes her department as a revolving door: women and minorities enter only to head right out again: whoosh, whoosh.

You can be kept out by what you find out when you get in. And yet consider how diversity is often figured as an open door, turned into a tagline; tag on, tag along; minorities welcome, come in, come in! Just because they welcome you, it does not mean they expect you to turn up.  Remember the post-box that became a nest?  There could be another sign on the post-box: “birds welcome.”

Diversity is that sign. That sign would be a non-performative if the post-box was still in use because the birds would be dislodged by the letters, a nest destroyed before it could be created. Those comments, tone it down, different ways you are told this is not your box, “get back into your own box”, judgements, “he is right to be concerned,” they function as the letters in the box; they pile up until there is no room left, no room to breathe, to nest, to be. It is not enough to open a door, to appear welcoming.  For some to be in that room requires stopping what usually happens in that room, otherwise they would be, as it were, displaced by the letters in the box. If diversity is that sign, diversity covers over the materiality of dispossession.

And so, we learn: occupation and dispossession are achieved by the same materials. Another story, more materials.  A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

It started I would say in the second or third lesson I had with Prof X. There were certain signs that rang alarm bells for me and my first reaction is stop being paranoid, stop being a feminazi where everything is gendered, you know, you are probably reading too much into this, you need to take a step back.

The sound of an alarm bell announces a danger in the external world even if you hear the sound inside your own head. We don’t always take heed of what we hear. She starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour.  She tells herself off; she gives herself a talking to. In questioning herself, she also exercises violent stereotypes of feminists as feminazis even though she identifies as a feminist. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt. But she keeps noticing it, that the syllabus is occupied; how it is occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” He introduces a woman thinker as “not a very sophisticated thinker.” She comes to realise that her first impression that something was wrong was right: “and then I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” When she realises, she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out. I think of all of those no’s, no, no, no, no, the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement.

The work you have to do to express “no,” is part of the story of complaint. A story of complaint can also be about how you are received because of that “no.” In Living a Feminist Life, I described sexism as received wisdom, and by that term I was referring not only to content but form; you are supposed to take it in, take the professor in, the canon, the curriculum, to ingest it, what he says, whatever he says. So, when she tells him, she wants to write her essay on gender and race, he says if you write on those fucking topics you are going to fucking fail my course, you haven’t fucking understood anything I have been talking about if you think those are the correct questions for this course.” If you ask the wrong questions, you hear the violence of correction. And then she hears how he writes her off: “But then he says, wait, you know what, you’re so fucking old, your grades don’t really matter, you’re not going to have a career in academia, so write whatever essay you wanted to write. You are going to fail, but it doesn’t matter.” The complainer becomes not only a nag but a hag, the feminist who gets the questions wrong, the old woman who might as well be wrong, who is too old for it to matter whether she got it wrong, because she can’t proceed, she won’t proceed.

In the end, she decides to make a formal complaint because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”   A complaint can be understood as non-reproductive labour: the work you have to stop the reproduction of an inheritance. You have to stop the system from working, you have to throw a wrench in the works or to become, to borrow Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms, a “wench in the works.” She goes to her course convenor who says, saying “I hear a lot of these complaints every year,” in an intonation that almost implied a yawn, as if to say: heard that before, been there, done that. She replies: “if you hear them every year why is it continuing?” To complain is often to find out about other complaints, earlier complaints. She then receives a warning, “be careful he is an important man.” A warning can be a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgement; it is a direction. She went ahead with a complaint. In making it she “sacrificed the references.”  In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said, “the door is closed.”  

References can be doors: how some are given a route through, how others are stopped from progressing. When the door is closed on her complaint, and also on her, she will not be there, bringing to the institution what she might have brought to it, the door is kept open for him. When the door is open for him, he can keep doing because what he has been doing where he has been doing it: behind closed doors.

 Complaint as feminist pedagogy: the system is working by stopping those who are trying to stop the system from working.

“That door is closed:” it would be hard to point to a single action that closed that door on her or for her. Did the closing of the door begin with her indicating she wanted to write her essays on gender and race what he calls “the wrong topics”? Did it begin by her questioning who was missing from the syllabus? Did it begin by sharing with the course leader that she had a problem with his teaching? These questions would locate the cause of the closed door in her action. And that is how so many closed doors are explained. We need to explain the closed door differently.  Doors are teaching us about how power, even when it is not simply held, is acquired. It is not only that the professor is holding the door which he can then close on the student as penalty for complaint (although that is indeed an important part of this story). Consider the lecturer who delivered the warning to the student.  She is relatively new and junior member of her department; far junior to the professor. For the door to be open to the lecturer, for her to promoted at some future point, she would need his support. In other words, the door that she closes on the student’s complaint could be understood as the same door that she, as a junior lecturer, will need to get through.  The warning she gives could thus be a warning she has received about what she needs to avoid doing in order not to compromise her trajectory. She might shut the door on the student’s complaint because otherwise she would shut the door on her own career. A door can be a deal: there is much you cannot say or do, or at least that is what you are told, in order to have a path through and up an organization.   

Complaint as feminist pedagogy: what you are told you need to do to progress further and faster in the system is what reproduces the system.

A door can be a deal. I communicated informally with a woman of colour academic. She told me how she had given her support to a white feminist colleague who had made an informal complaint about plagiarism by a senior white man: “she decided that she cannot speak publicly about the theft of her work by him. Her openness about it previously has apparently hurt his career. She fears it is hurting hers as she still needs him to be a reference for future jobs. So, a complaint made public now becomes detached from one person —literally let go, and now it is still attached to a few others but mainly me.” Her white woman colleague lets the complaint go in order to keep the door open for her own career; she needs that reference. Yes, references can be doors. But the complaint does not go away, or disappear from the public realm; it gets stuck to her, a woman of colour.  I suggested in my introduction that complaints are treated as sticky data. Not everyone who makes a complaint will be stuck by them or with them. If some people can free themselves of their own complaints, unbecoming complainers, others will remain stuck with them.

And by stuck we are talking about a door being shut. The door that is opened for some is same door that is shut on others; the same door. We could tell the story of white liberal feminism as a story of the same door. We could tell the story of the white progressive institution as a story of that door too; the same door, the diversity door. People of colour are assumed to enter the diversity door however we enter the institution. And that door can be shut at any point. The door can be shut to stop us getting in. The door can be shut because we get in. A black woman academic was racially harassed and bullied by a white woman who was her head of department. .

 I think what she wanted to do was to maintain her position as the director, and I was supposed to be some pleb; you know what I mean, she had to be the boss, and I had to be the servant type of thing, that was how her particular version of white supremacy worked, so not just belittling my academic credentials and academic capabilities but also belittling me in front of the students; belittling me in front of administrators.

How do you know it’s about race? That’s a question we often get asked. Racism is how we know it’s about race; that wall, whiteness, or let’s call it what it is, as she has, white supremacy, we come to know intimately as it is what keeps coming up. To have got there, a black woman in a white institution, a lecturer, a senior lecturer, on her way to becoming a professor, she is now a professor; is to be understood as getting above your station, above yourself; ahead of yourself. To belittle someone, to make them little, can function as a command: be little! And that command is being sent not only to her, but to those who are deemed to share the status of being subordinate: students; administrators.  She said: “I had put down that I would like to work towards becoming a professor and she just laughed in my face.” That laughter can be the sound of a door being slammed.  Some of us in becoming professors become trespassers; you are being told you need permission to enter by being told you do not have permission.

Harassment does not just behind doors, it takes place around doors, those doors we sometimes call promotion. I am listening to an indigenous woman academic. She tries to make a complaint after a senior manager sabotages her tenure case as well as the tenure cases of other indigenous academics.  When you are harassed and bullied, when doors are closed, nay, slammed, making it hard to get anywhere, it can be history you are up against; thrown up against

There is a genealogy of experience, a genealogy of consciousness in my body that is now at this stage traumatised beyond the capacity to go to the university. There’s a legacy, a genealogy and I haven’t really opened that door too widely as I have been so focused on my experience in the last 7 years.

To be traumatised is to hold a history in a body; you can be easily shattered. There is only so much you can take on because there is only so much you can take in. We can inherit closed doors, a trauma can be inherited by being made inaccessible, all that happened that was too hard, too painful to reveal.  Decolonial feminist work, black feminist work; feminist of colour work is often about opening these doors; the door to what came before; colonial as well as patriarchal legacies; harassment as the hardening of that history, a history of who gets to do what; who is deemed entitled to what; who is deemed entitled to whom. A complaint can be necessary: what you have to do to go on. But you still have to work out what you can take on. She went on by taking them on:

I took everything off my door, my posters, my activism; my pamphlets. I smudged everything all around the building. I knew I was going to war; I did a war ritual in our tradition. I pulled down the curtain. I pulled on a mask, my people we have a mask…and I never opened my door for a year. I just let it be a crack. And only my students could come in. I would not let a single person come in to my office who I had not already invited there for a whole year.

Closing a door can sometimes be a survival strategy; she closes the door to the institution by withdrawing herself, her commitments, from it. She still does her work; she still teaches her students. She uses the door to shut out what she can, who she can.  She takes herself off the door; she depersonalises it. And she pulls down the blinds and she pulls on a mask, the mask of her people, connecting her fight to the battles that came before, because, quite frankly, for her, this is a war.

Our battles are not the same battles. But there are many battles happening behind closed doors. Behind closed doors: that is where complaints are often found, so that is where you might find us too, those of us for whom the institution is not built; and what we bring with us, who we bring us, the worlds that would not be here if some of us were not here; the data we hold, our bodies, our memories; perhaps the more we have to spill, the tighter their hold.   The more we have to spill. Many complaints end up in filing cabinets; filing as filing away.  One student said of her complaint: “it just gets shoved in the box.” Another student describes: “I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.” When a complaint is filed away or binned or buried those who complain can end up feeling filed away or binned or buried.  Sometimes to get the materials out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries.  I became a leak: drip; drip.

The university responded in the mode of damage limitation, treating information as a mess. There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of our mess.   A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints.  That we find each other through complaint is a finding. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective; we are assembled before you.

One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, it was she who likened complaint to a little bird scratching away at something, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. She wanted to do more, to put her letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.    I think of the scratches on the wall. They seemed at first to show the limits of what we could accomplish. They can also be testimony, how we get our letters on the wall.

It might take a collective effort to get the letters out. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of the university to make reasonable accommodations. And then a file suddenly appears: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were historical documents about students who had to leave.”  The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. She speculates that a secretary was doing “their own little bit of direct action,” releasing those documents as a way of giving support to her complaint that she was not supposed to give. It is not surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; secretary derives from secrets, the secretary is a keeper of secrets, she knows that there are secret files, where they are, she knows how to release them. I thank about the student who wrote that letter. We can’t know, we won’t know what happened to her. But we can make her letter matter. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that letter would have stayed put; dusty, buried. We can meet in an action without meeting in person.

If direct action is required to get the complaint out, complaints can be direct action. We can become “complaint activists” making use of complaints within institutions to press against them. This student applied what she learnt from complaining at the university, to make complaints against other organizations for the failure to make reasonable adjustments. If we learn about institutions from complaint, we can apply what we learn. I have learned so much from the creativity of student-led complaint activism. A queer feminist student described to me their work to make violence more visible as the work of complaint: “We complained through posters that there is gendered discrimination. We performed complaint through spoken word poem recital.” A complaint can be a poster, a performance, a recital. They took on a role as student representative on an internal committee that dealt with complaints. The complaints committee can be one place where you do the work of complaint. The classroom is another place. A professor makes deeply offensive statements in the class. When they challenged the professor, they were asked to leave the class but stood their ground: “Before I could complain, he complained. The complaint was addressed behind closed doors with other professors.” We have learned to listen to the doors. They have something to tell us. The door is used to shut the violence in – the student is made to apologize. But they kept complaining. The more you complain about the more you are complained about.  They become, in their words, “a nuisance for the admin,” an institutional killjoy, perhaps. To let complaints out—all that negativity, what a nuisance—is to become a complaint magnet, making complaints knowing that they will come right back at you. In the final year of their studies, they “did not have the energy to continue to be complained about.” And so, they turned their complaints into a dissertation project.

So many turnings, so many complaints. Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions although it is that. It is about finding different ways to express our complaints: on the walls, in the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations, on the streets.  Complaints can be expressed all over the place; they can be sneaky as well as leaky. The work of getting complaints out is also non-reproductive labour, complaints are records, they teach us something, the truth even, the truth about violence, institutional violence, the violence directed towards who identify violence, who say no to violence.

There is so much violence in the containment of violence. We have to shatter that container.

And when I think of that shattering, I hear the words of Audre Lorde.  As this is the last time, I am presenting this material before the book comes out, I want to use this time to acknowledge my profound debt to Lorde. Lorde describes how she was driving her car when she heard the news of a white policeman being acquitted for the murder of a black child. She stopped the car to express how she felt. She stopped the car and a poem came out. From Lorde I learn that sometimes to register the impact of violence we have to stop what we are doing. And to express ourselves then is not only to let violence in but to get it out. In the poem that she got out, “Power,” published in The Black Unicorn, Lorde uses an image of what poetry is not, how poetry is about not letting our power “lie limp and useless as an unconnected wire.”  To get it out, the violence out, her refusal to accept it, her words become electric, snap, snap, sizzle, making a connection to others, keeping that connection alive.

The more complaints are contained, the more we need to express them, to get them out, keep them alive; the more we need to sneak, to leak, to leave trails behind us so that others can find us. After all, as we have learnt, a complaint in the present can lead to an unburial of past complaints. I think of the complaint graveyard. I shared this image with one person that had been shared with me by another:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

We can and do form complaint collectives. We can and do become harder to manage. But we do not always assemble at the same time or in the same place. You might feel like a lonely little ghost, right now. Your complaint might seem to have evaporated like steam, puff; puff.  Your complaint can still be picked up or amplified by others. You might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet. But those who come after can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to do was scratch the surface.  There you are, little ghosts, little birds, “scratching away,” at something, trying to create room from what has been scattered; shattered. It can just take a small opening, a tiny crack, for more to come out, no, no, no, no, an army of no’s; we are that army. A complaint can open the door to those who came before.  Thank you.

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Complaint Activism

I have just sent the proofs off for Complaint! The book, which is rather like a complaint, long, drawn out, somewhat messy, hard to hold, hard to contain, full of emotion and shared reflections, full of pain and also possibility, a collection of stories, a collective, an assembly, is on its way to you, co-complainers.

To mark the moment, I am sharing some paragraphs from my conclusion on “complaint activism.”

With killjoy solidarity

Sara xxx


Complaint Activism

Many of the stories I have collected in this book seem to be stories of working very hard not to get very far. We learn from what we fail to achieve. The complainer knows how much work goes into things staying the same. Being involved in a complaint can thus be a politicizing process in a similar way to participating in a protest or demonstration. It can be violence that brings you to the protest, the violence of the police, for instance. But in protesting against violence, you witness that violence all the more—the violence of the police, the violence of the media which misrepresents the violence of the police as caused by the protestors—you learn how violence is directed, against whom violence is directed. You come to learn how violence against those who challenge violence is how structures are maintained. You come to realize that some are more readily targeted. A formal complaint can lead you in a direction similar to a protest: you come to witness the violence of the status quo when you challenge the violence of the status quo; you come to realize the politics of who gets identified as the origin of the complaint. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution, let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house,” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Making complaints can lead some to become complaint activists. I first thought of the term complaint activism when I was talking to a disabled woman about the complaints she had made as a student. She needed to make a formal complaint in order to be able to study part time, to have the time she needed to be able to do the work. I drew on her testimony especially in chapter 4; she taught us how you can be heard as complaining if you do not display the right attitude as a disabled person, how you have to show “grovelling gratefulness” in order not to be “a pain in the ass.” She told me not only about her experiences of making a complaint at her former university but how she took what she learned out, onto the streets. Becoming a complainer at her university led to her becoming a complainer wherever she went: “I have started doing this activism using the law and in particular the part of the Equality Act (2010) that only applies to disability regarding reasonable adjustments.” She made use of the law, however limited, as a tool to try to press organizations to become accessible, to become compliant with existing legislation. If complaints can lead you to learn how institutions work, how policies work, what they do and do not do, you can take that knowledge with you. I noted in chapter 6 how a complaint can leave a blank space in a cv, but really it could be claimed as a transferable skill. Even if you can’t claim those skills, you can still make use of them.

Her activism was probably well described by what she said her former university perceived her to be: “a complete pain in the ass.” She was indeed described in local media as trying to ruin small businesses because of demanding they be accessible to her as a wheelchair user, a demand she should not have to make. From her I learned how complaints about institutions can be used to press against them. You are making noise; you are making demands on their time; you are requiring them to do work (even the work of covering over a problem is work) and to use up their resources. A complaint can be a way of occupying their time. You complain again and again about inaccessible rooms and buildings; yes, you are saying it because they are doing it, but it does not mean it is not worth saying it; we just need more to say it as well as to say it more. Perhaps they hope you will stop saying it. You keep saying it even if you don’t have much hope that they will stop doing it; you don’t want their hope you will stop to stop you. If the complainer is irritating, complaint activism might involve being willing to be an irritant, an institutional killjoy.

To be an institutional killjoy, a killjoy at work, you need to work with others. Complaint activism can lead to forming new kinds of collectives. She began working with a group of disabled activists, to use compliance with the law as a method for putting organizations under pressure to be as accessible as they claim to be. Complaint activists can thus also be understood as complaint supporters; you not only work with each other, but in working together, in pooling your resources, you are also more able to give advice and practical support to those who are making complaints.

This kind of complaint activism has a long history. Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe ([1985] 2008) in the Black British feminist classic text The Heart of the Race quote from a Black woman talking about the work of her activist group in the 1970s. She refers to how they gave support to a Black mother “in making a complaint against the police” (158). She expands: “We picketed the local Police Station and called in the local press. Then we got involved in a People’s Enquiry, gathering information and evidence on the courts, the police, our housing situation, employment and education practices—everything which affected the Black community in our area. A lot of Black people came along to give evidence on how they had been dealt with by the local police and we helped to compile a report” (159). Supporting a complaint can be about how you make a complaint more public and visible, using pickets and the press, as well as how you collect the evidence needed to compile reports. To make a complaint against an institution is how you gather more evidence of its violence.

We can turn our own experience of institutional violence into a shared resource for others.

Complaint activism might describe a stance or a style, a willingness to fight back, to fight for more, whatever the costs, whether or not you get through. Not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. This also means that getting somewhere is not always about getting through. Complaint activism is a way of thinking about what we get from complaint even when we do not get through. To complain is also to create a record. Remember: you have to record what you do not want to reproduce. If you record what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists even if what is reproduced is still reproduced. Yes, a record can end up in a file. But the record is also what you retain: you can take it with you wherever you go. A complaint becomes a companion, a noisy companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution told me,

I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I had a go, I did try. And for the record: that matters to me. It matters to me not that I tried to seek justice, because I don’t really believe the process can deliver that, but just to have some accountability and explanation in the hope of institutional change, which was I think all I was asking for in the end.

A record can be what matters to the one who assembles it; a record can be a reminder that you made an effort, that you had a go, even if that effort did not lead to institutional change.

To be a complaint activist is not necessarily to enter a process believing it can deliver an end such as justice. Complaint activism does not come from an optimism in the law or in complaints procedures; if anything, complaint activism comes out of the knowledge of institutional violence that comes from making complaints. I noted earlier that there is hope in the trajectory of becoming a complaint activist. The hope of this trajectory is not tied to success. Complaint activism comes from an experience of institutional failures of many kinds. One student said, “You know the process is broken, but still, you know you must do it, because if you don’t, more falls to the wayside. So, it’s like a painful repetitive cycle where you do what you know is right, knowing it may not make a difference at that time, but you always hope, you always have that hope, that maybe because I did this, it paves the way for something else.” Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle,” which you can recognize because you have already been through it. You have hope because even if a complaint does not make a difference at the time you make it, it could still “pave the way for something else.” I think of how paving can become pavement, how possibility can be preparing the ground. The hope of complaint could be thought of as a weary hope, not agentic, bright, forward, and thrusting, but a hope that is close to the ground, even below the ground, slow, low, below; a hope born from what is worn.

Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative. Consider how feminist artists have made use of complaint, or how feminist art can be complaint. The Guerrilla Girls, for instance, had an exhibition called Complaints Department, in which individuals and organizations were invited to post “about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about.” They also ran office hours where you could share your complaints “face to face.” You can turn what might be assumed to be a mundane administrative practice into an art project. The direction of travel goes both ways. Those who make complaints, who enter that department, the Complaint Department (though of course making formal complaints often means entering many departments), can turn what they do—it might seem tedious, it might seem dull, all those papers—into art. Or perhaps there is no turning involved; perhaps there is an art in the mundane, to the mundane.

Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions, although it involves that. It is also about taking complaints out, making complaints across different sites: the walls, the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations. Complaints can be expressed queerly, coming out all over the place. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky.

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Melancholic Migrants

Not that long ago I received a message. It was a relatively mild message compared to some I have received. As a lesbian feminist of colour from a Muslim background who writes on racism as well as other forms of power and oppression, albeit keeping my work as far away as I can from mainstream media, I know what I will receive is what I work on. But this message caught my attention. Before a long hate-filled preamble, it said “just because someone called you a P— in the 1980s.” Here a racist insult is repeated by saying that it was or had been said. The insult is firmly located in the past (that distant decade) and attributed to another (that someone) whilst being said, put into a message, put to a person, in the present.

Note the implication of the wording “just because” as if what you are doing now, the work you are doing now, perhaps the critiques you are offering now, are because “or just because” you did not get over what someone once said to you in the past. Note as well how what was said is not only located in the past but is made singular, as if what was said was said once.

So often when we talk about racism we are heard as talking about something slight.

Because, just because.

So much harm, so much history, can be turned into a slight.  There is a history to this making light of history.

Racism: a word we use because we refuse to make light of this history.

When Black or Brown people refuse to make light of racism, we find ourselves turned into a ghostly figure, the melancholic migrant.  The migrant is already a racialised figure: you can be Brown or Black and born here and told to go back to where you came from or to go home.  To be a melancholic migrant is to say what I just said, or do what I just did, to use the languages of race, racialization or racism to make sense of who gets to reside here; who decides who resides here. The melancholic migrant, like any other killjoy, is a useful figure, locating soreness at a certain point. That melancholic migrant is exercised regularly, turning up whenever we bring racism up, as if to say, we talk about racism “just because” we have a chip on our shoulder, racism as how we instrumentalise, even weaponise, our individual or collective trauma.

Because? Just because.

Speaking of singularity, you just have to say the word racism and you are heard as always saying the word racism, as if you are a broken record, stuck on the same point, as if you can’t pause for breath, as if you can’t even punctuate your sentences with any other points.


We might keep saying it because they keep doing it (though we are the ones who will be heard as repeating ourselves). But, actually, we have many different points to make. You can make many different points and be heard as making the same point.

One woman of colour I interviewed for my project on diversity said, “they say you make everything about racism.”

About. What’s that, about?


Maybe its because when you say it, that is all they can hear. Or maybe its until you bring it up, they don’t have to hear it.

Then if we bring it up, they say you made it up, as if to bring it up is to bring it into existence.

And then: it is assumed it would go away if you just stopped going on about it.

No wonder we are heard as repeating ourselves.

I suspect mostly most of us want to get on with things. And most of the time, we put what makes it hard to do our work into the background, which does not mean it no longer exists. Sometimes you are busy, doing what you do. But then you are hit by it. I remember one meeting, an informal meeting at the house of a white feminist colleague. Another white feminist, a colleague of a colleague, well known for her work on cultural difference, suddenly peered over the table at me, as if to examine me more closely.

“Sara, I didn’t realise you were Oriental.”

Even when you are used to it, it can catch you. Casual comments, draped all over you.

Realisations cutting the atmosphere like a knife.

I wince, but don’t say anything.

Maybe when we wince, we are heard as sore, as shouting, because of what we are not receiving, the message, kindly meant, dear, how curious, dear, look at you, dear.

You can be deemed to be holding onto racism just by noticing what is going on.

Noticing can be a killjoy hammer.

I first reflected on the figure of the melancholic migrant by working through and working out what I found so problematic about the film Bend it Like Beckham that feel-good film that presented a happy view of British multiculturalism. The film tells the story of Jess, who wants to make her family happy, but also wants to play football because that is what makes her happy. Happiness is a crisis if what makes you happy does not make those you want to make happy, happy.

Racism comes up because Jess’s father brings it up as an explanation of why he does not want Jess to play football. He says: “I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and sent me off packing.” The father says he does not want Jess to play because he does not want her to suffer like him. A memory of racism, it is implied, stopped him from playing, and could stop her from playing.

The father makes a second speech in which he announces a different decision: he wants her to play. He says, “When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jess to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.”  The second speech implies that the refusal to play the national game is the “truth” being the migrant’s suffering: you suffer because you do not play the game, where not playing is framed as a kind of self-exclusion (“I vowed I would never play again”). For Jess to be happy he lets her be included, narrated as a form of letting go. By implication, not only is he letting her go, he is also letting go of his own suffering, the unhappiness caused by accepting racism, as the “point” of his exclusion.  

In these two contrasting speeches, we can hear an old diagnosis that is not invented but inherited. Racism is treated as a kind of false consciousness, as how some hold onto what is no longer relevant or real.  Racism as an explanation of migrant suffering (“they made fun of my turban and sent me off packing”) is deemed to function to preserve an attachment to the very scene of suffering. The melancholic migrant holds on not simply to difference (such as the turban), nations can enjoy some differences, but to the unhappiness of difference as an historical itinerary (they “made fun of my turban”).  In other words, racism is framed as what the melancholic migrant is attached to, as an attachment to injury that allows them to justify their refusal to participate in the national game (“the gora in their club house”). By implication, it is the story of injury which causes injury: the migrants exclude themselves if they insist on reading their exclusion as a sign of the ongoing nature of racism. The narrative implicit in the resolution of the father’s trauma is not that migrants invented racism to explain their loss, but that they preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it.

The moral task is thus “to get over it,” as if when you are over it, it is gone.

Killjoy maxim: Don’t get over what is not over.

The task is not only to let go of the pain of racism but to let go of racism as a way of understanding that pain. Implicit to the task is also a warning: if you don’t stop talking about racism, then you will be stopped (from playing the game, from doing something, from getting somewhere). Perhaps we are required to tell that story happily, as if the only thing stopping us from playing the game is ourselves.

Why bring up the figure of the melancholic migrant now? Because the figure has come up again.

This figure appears in the Report recently published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities set up by Government (March 31, 2021). The report reads like a reference for the Government. It reads like that because it is that. The report acknowledged (it “has to acknowledge”) that the  “original trigger” for the setting up of the Commission was the Black Lives Matter protests that “engulfed the world.” Language is a lead. If the protests are treated as what could spread and engulf and enflame, the Commission (and the Report) is the effort to put the lid on it.  It did what it was set up to do: deny the ongoing existence of institutional and structural racism. We know it was set up to do that because those who chose and were chosen to lead the Commission had already denied the existence of institutional and structural racism.

Brown and Black people who deny structural racism are far more likely to have a door opened to them by those who benefit from structural racism. In fact, my own research on complaint has taught me how denial can lead to promotion (or how promotion can be a reward for denial).

The more you deny the existence of structures, the more you are promoted by those same structures.

The Commission is another door slammed shut, evidence of what it says does not exist. It teaches us how some others are allowed in because of what they are willing to do or not do. You give them what they want: a happy story about diversity, a refusal to acknowledge racism, colonialism, that recent history, that present, occupying so many institutions.

Doors are opened to some of us on condition we show we are willing to shut the door on others. If you police the border, you get in. And then, the shut door is treated as a melancholic object, not in the world but in the minds of those who don’t get in.  To evoke as the report does that old-worn-tired figure of the melancholic migrant is to shut the door whilst denying the door even exists. So, racism appears only by being located in the minds of those who are haunted by history: “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.”

Racism is not only deposited in the past it is deemed to be what stops us from seeing the present.

If we are haunted it is because racism has not gone. If we are haunted it is because racism goes on.

What has not gone, goes on.

As killjoy critics, we have learnt to read the distribution of positives and negatives. In the report, being positive is treated as being objective and neutral and forward-thinking; being negative, as subjective and biased and stuck in the past. Indeed, the report uses positive and negative not only as attitudes that alone determine outcome for individuals, but as judgements made against different ethnic groups: “Those groups, particularly Indian and Chinese ethnic groups, who have the most success in British society tend to see fewer obstacles and less prejudice. And those groups that do less well, Black people and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, tend to see and experience more of both, though Black African people are considerably more positive than Black Caribbean people.” The implication here that when you see an obstacle, you are you are own obstacle. When I think of the grossly simplistic and frankly outrageous moral economy, I think of Audre Lorde, who taught us how “being positive” as an outlook is used to obscure so much.  Lorde writes, “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76).

What is threatening is what you are supposed to overlook to do well.

The report even “see the positives” in slavery, “here is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.”  Yes: even slavery, which caused the death and dispossession of millions of African people, can be, has been, is being, turned into a positive story of cultural and self-empowerment.

Being positive is also turned into a teaching resource, which they contrast to “the negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum:” “Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds. We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage. We want to create a teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain. One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well-known British words which are Indian in origin.” Here happy diversity, becomes happy hybridity, a story of mixing and mingling.

Just in case we need a reminder: the dominant way of telling the story of the British empire in Britain has been as a happy story, which was the same story that justified empire, of course, as a moral or civilizing project in the first place; empire as gift, empire as bringing railways and Shakespeare, empire as drinking tea with smiling natives, as bringing light to dark shores; the British imperialists as rather well-meaning gentlemen and even gentler women. That dominant happy view of empire is enforced through citizenship, by which I mean, to become a citizen is to learn that positive view and to be required to repeat it. The Home Office guide for citizenship tests Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship first published in 2005, mentions empire a few times and always in positive or glowing terms, for example, empire as what brought “regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order” to “Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.”

Gone the violence; the dispossession of people from land, from language, from culture, the dispossession of people from people.

Gone the violence: how the violence has not gone.

This happy story of empire is endlessly reproduced everywhere. The former head of the former Commission for Racial Equality once said, “And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Invasion, enslavement, and servitude are rewritten as a party, as diversity, mixing and mingling with different people and even as a confirmation of not being bigoted. A former prime minister made a list of things make England great, and included in that list that we “took slavery off the high seas.”

Great Britain is remembered as the liberator of the slaves not as one of the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement has travelled into the UK, following the paths of other anti-racist global movements, there has been more of a concerted effort not to keep telling the idealised story of empire. There has been more of an effort to remove statues of slave owners and to take the names of eugenicists off from buildings.  This is not about censoring history but refusing the censoring of history, refusing not to deal with the violence that has not been dealt with.

Because that is what we are dealing with: what has not been dealt with. My research into complaint has taught me the racism experienced by many Black and Brown students and academics in universities in the UK is almost always met with by denial (see here, for a recent lecture on Complaint, Diversity and Hostile Environments). Universities can announce their commitments to Black Lives Matter whilst remaining hostile environments for Black people. We know can from do.  Universities are not a special case: they are public institutions amongst other public institutions. Much racist speech is routinely justified as free speech or turned into an error message, as being inexpressive of what persons or institutions are really like (they didn’t mean it; it didn’t mean anything). I have learnt that even acts of physical violence are justified as forms of self-expression or as inexpressive and if not justifiable in this way are explained as caused by how others appear.

So much violence is dealt with by not being faced.

Denial is how institutions handle racism.

Denial of racism is how racism is reproduced.

Denial is how institutional racism works.

In denying the existence of institutional racism, the Report produced by the Commission is evidence of institutional racism. It is teaching us how institutional racism works.

Sadly, we don’t need to learn that lesson; the point of that lesson is we have already learned it.

The reassertion of positivity-as-duty is a concerted and deliberate attempt to close the door, to dampen the mood, to loosen the will, and to deny the truths, of those protesting the violence of racism, especially anti-Black racism, the violence of more violence, the violence that leaves so many people so much more vulnerable to violence, police violence, state violence, economic violence, inter-personal violence.

It will not work. We will keep doing the work.


Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.


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Apologies for Harm, Apologies as Harm

What would you do if you opened your complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

This is not a hypothetical question.

We ask some questions because of what has happened.

A student is being harassed and bullied by the professor who teaches the core course of her MA. In a one-to-one tutorial, he shouts and swears at her, tells her that her questions about “gender and race,” were “the fucking wrong questions.” He tells her that her grades don’t matter, that she doesn’t matter, because she’s too “fucking old,” she is “not going to have a career in academia.” She is “insulted, undermined, threatened.” She felt afraid not only because someone with power was acting toward her in such a manner but because his actions left no physical trace.

She said: “I felt afraid. He hadn’t touched me. He hadn’t physically abused me.”

If other people can’t see it, that it happened, did it happen? Some forms of violence, however hard they hit you, do not appear to others. Fear can be magnified by not being able to evidence what you encounter.

She said: “So, then I started getting afraid, I started questioning and doubting myself.”

Fear can be not only directed toward something, but can be the experience of not being able to communicate what it is directed toward to others.

We can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

What then, what to do then?

She did make a complaint after her MA about what happened during it. And she complained in part because the professor used the power he had as professor to close the door. He was not supposed to mark her dissertation, but he does; she gets a much lower mark than she did for her other course work. On the prospect of doing a PhD, she said “that door is closed.” He closed the door on her complaint, he closed the door on her career; he closed the door on her. She knows that the low mark was a form of retaliation, for asking the wrong questions, for not receiving passively what the professor taught as wisdom (in Living a Feminist Life, I call sexism “received wisdom”). Believe me, when someone retaliates, you know it. But it can still be hard to convince others that the retaliation is retaliation. Many people do not want to be convinced because of the investments they have in persons (he wouldn’t do that; he couldn’t do that).

So many complaints are blocked because of people’s investments in persons, in programmes, in projects.

To complain is to encounter a wall of investment.

She felt she had a duty to complain: she wanted to stop what happened to her from happening to others. But her complaint did not get anywhere. He was protected by the organisation and by his colleagues. She is left feeling there was little point to having complained:

I think lots of students would have complained but a lot of people are a lot better at self-care than I am and realised that this process is damaging, is traumatic and to be perfectly frank it is not very helpful for me as a student all I am doing is being fobbed off by the university, where they are making excuses for their behaviour. As far as I can tell, no real change is going to happen. I might get some money at the end of it to shut me up. In terms of change for future students, institutional change, or any real genuine apology or sense of worry from the university that they had let a student have the kind of experience I had, none of that so ultimately the complaints process has not helped me in any way. Maybe you could make an argument that somehow it is therapeutic to air one’s woes but to be perfectly frank I haven’t found it therapeutic at all. And, it continues and I am finding it difficult to move on with my life.

Like many of the stories of complaint I have collected for this project, her complaint did not end well. She was not even able to narrate the experience as therapeutic. Rather she witnessed what I think of as the “clunk, clunk” of institutional machinery. She encountered the same thing she complained about because she complained: the protection of an esteemed professor by an institution and by his colleagues.

How he gets away with it is how he keeps doing it.

Unlike most of the stories of complaint I have collected in this story there is an apology, or at least an apparent apology made by the professor even though, as she describes, there is no “real genuine apology” or even a “sense of worry” expressed by the university. In her complaint file she finds a letter addressed from him to her. She had not asked for an apology. She was quite clear about what the apology was doing and not doing by turning up in her file. She said:

I think it’s a box ticking exercise, oh at least we apologised, but look at the words, think about what an apology really means then tell me you’ve apologised or whether you have got a lawyer and wrote a letter that you wanted to show.

To describe an apology as a “box ticking exercise,” is to suggest that the apology is fulfilling a bureaucratic function. Some apologies are made so those who make them can show they have been made (“a letter that you wanted to show”). If a “real genuine apology,” would be a recognition of harm, a bureaucratic apology would be a way of appearing to recognise harm without really doing so. An apology can be offered rather like that non-performative nod, a way of appearing to hear somebody’s complaint, a way of placating somebody. An apology can be used to resolve the complaint, to complete an action, when it acquires the status of evidence that the harm identified by the complaint has been heard and handled. An apology for harm can be a mode of recovery, a recovering of harm, covering over harm.

Although in this case the apology took the form of a letter from another person, by describing it as “box ticking exercise,” she is pointing to the usefulness of the apology to the institution.  The apology is teaching something about how the institution is working (2). Even an apology that takes the form of a letter addressed from a professor to a student can be an institutional speech act. It can follow a format, or a template; it can be signed by an individual but written by lawyers with words carefully chosen to ensure that the apology does not do too much, say too much, reveal too much (“look at the words”). By attending to how the words fall short of what “an apology really means,” she is showing that an apology does not always apologise; it does not mean what it says. A person can apologise for wrong doing in such a way a person frees himself from implication in that wrongdoing.

It is not always clear who is freeing what from what. This lack of clarity can be doing something. Perhaps the apology can be made vague in what the apology is for or in who it is from. She shows the vaguely institutional nature of the apology by switching between “you” and “we”: she says that the apology is written for you or by your lawyers so that “at least we apologised.” That an apology can be vaguely institutional means that an apology can be used by the institution to create an impression that it handled and heard the complaint in such a way that the institution is not implicated, or is cleared, of wrong doing. If the institution can be vaguely cleared perhaps the professor is cleared too. Perhaps the vaguer the apology, the more can be cleared.

Apologies can, of course, be made by institutions such as universities to nation-states. In such instances, apologies are official to the extent they are made by a person or persons who have already been given the authority to speak on behalf of the institution. Even when institutional apologies can be used to cover over wrongs, apologies can still be received as recognition of wrong doing. This is why many governments today still refuse to apologise for colonialism and slavery, preferring weaker words like regret. To apologise can be to say too much, do too much, because of how apologies can be received as an admission of something, or as taking responsibility for wrongs, historic or not, whether intended as such. Some apologies are not made because of where they could lead; apologies as a path toward reparation, for instance. However, we know from history, that it is possible to apologise for crimes against humanity without starting on a path toward reparation.

If apologies are paths, where else do they lead? Perhaps we need to ask about who, who apologises, before we can think about the direction of an apology. Apologies are more often made without the need for authorisation; the person who is apologising is doing so on their own behalf. What such interpersonal apologies do depends on how they are made, when they are made, by whom they are made and to whom they are made.

Some apologies can be habitual; some people can keep saying sorry as a way of prefacing their own existence as if they are apologising for existing. Apology in this form is very gendered; femininity as apology for taking up space.

Apologies can be made without referring to a person’s own conduct. The person who apologises does not have to say what they are apologising for. Or a person can apologise for what they have done in such a way that they make what they are apologising for seem small or minor. Or someone might apologise for causing offence rather than for being offensive. An apology is then made a matter of how someone is affected rather than what the person who made the apology caused: If you apologise for hurting someone’s feelings, hurt feelings become the problem that is being resolved by the apology.

Of course, so much harm can be minimized as a matter of hurt feelings without an apology being made.

Let me return to complaint. In my complaint testimonies, I found different kinds of apologies.

What are they doing?

An academic made multiple complaints relating to plagiarism as well as racism. Her complaints could be well described as “feminist of colour pedagogy,” she came to know the institution intimately, profoundly, as a white patriarchal institution, from the work of complaining. She came to know how it worked, how white men academics ended up with more research time, how people of colour, especially women of colour, ended up with less research time; all those backdoor deals and shadow policies. I share her learning in Complaint! and explain her use of the term “shadow policies.” She is sure that she will never receive an apology for the harm caused to her. She stated, “x will never apologise or acknowledge they made a mistake. They are afraid of lawsuits.” Some apologies can be not made, more than not, will never be made, because they recognise too much, because of where they could lead, to lawsuits.

Apologies can be refused because they recognise harm.

A senior researcher made a complaint about bullying and harassment. Her complaint ends up with an ombudsman. They require that the organization apologies. She describes “The organisation ‘had to apologise formally.’ The state of that apology. It is ridiculous: it is 10 percent of what happened.” She describes the apology, which took the form of a written letter as “not really an apology.” She added, “They are sorry for the suffering…but is not their fault, and things have changed now so it is fine.” Sometimes it is clear: an apology when required can be made in such a way that it clears an organisation of wrong doing. When you are sorry for someone’s suffering, you are not saying sorry for what you have caused. You do not have to admit responsibility for causing suffering when you are sorry for suffering (3). She added: “there is no recognition of the harm they did and that it’s their fault and responsibility and it’s not fair.”

She experienced this apology that did not recognize harm as harmful.

Apologies can be made because they don’t recognise harm.

Take these bold sentences together:

Apologies can recognise harm and not recognise harm. Apologies can be not made because of what they do or made because of what they do not do.

Apologies can hold histories because they hold contradictions.

I am understanding so much more about what apologies do and do not do from listening to those who complain.

More instances.

Apologies that do not recognise harm (or do not really do anything) can be experienced as empty or meaningless by those who receive them. I spoke to a student who made a complaint about disability discrimination. Her complaint also ended up with an ombudsman who found that the institution had failed to handle her complaint fairly. She described, “x was required to write an apology, which they did on the last day.” The university also gave her a small monetary compensation. She passed over the gesture because she recognised what the gesture allowed the organization to pass over: “as a gesture of good will you can just go away.”

An apology can be another way you are told to go away.

If an apology from one party to another party is made into a requirement by a third party, the person who receives the apology does not always experience the apology as empty or pointless. In another example, an academic experienced abuse from another academic. She describes: “There was one moment I had to complain where a female member of staff was completely drunk and verbally abusive and aggressive to me, and on that particular occasion I managed to get the institution to force her to write a letter of apology, because I think that is really important to have it on record and on file that in any given circumstances you are not ethically in the wrong position.” She was not concerned about whether the person who made the apology was being sincere or not, or whether the apology in its wording offered a recognition of the harm that had been caused or not. For her that an apology was made was what mattered. An apology here, however solicited, however required, or perhaps even because it was solicited, because it was required, becomes a record of a wrong.

An unsolicited and unrequired apology can also matter in part because it is unsolicited or unrequired. A postdoctoral researcher made a complaint about racism that led her to experience more racism. She attends meetings that end up as interrogations. But in the middle of the process, a person from human resources apologies to her. She describes, “She was like: wow I am really sorry you had to go through this. And the union official said they and never heard someone apologise.” If you are an administrator of a complaint process you might be encouraged not to apologise because of an institutional concern that an apology can be used by the recipient as evidence or as acknowledgment of wrong doing. If someone apologies in the middle of a complaint process about the process, in part as that’s the right or decent thing to do, it stands out. An apology becomes a gesture filled with meaning because in being offered it does not follow the path laid down by the institution.

It can help sometimes to have someone recognise how hard a process is, which can be about how hard a process is on you. If so, then: apologies for how someone is being affected by something can do something for someone.

In writing about apologies and what they do, and do not do, I am not writing apologies off. I am not claiming that in doing this or doing that they only do this or only do that. Perhaps apologies are another queer map of the organization, also of a complaint, also of a life: messy.

And yet: we still need to write about what some apologies write off.

The following is the some of that story.

Let me return to the testimony from the MA student with which I opened this post. She said:

And the other thing they did is send me that letter by x. I didn’t ask for any contact from that man. He is a bully. He already lives in my nightmares.

If the letter was an apology, it was also a form of communication. Making an apology allowed the professor to enter the complaint she had made about him in his own terms; it allows him to enter her mind as well as her file, to take up space in the way he had already taken up space (“he already lives in my nightmares”).

The insertion of an apology into a complaint can be a continuation of the kind of communication she complained about. The apology becomes another instance of unwanted communication. Even his apology is a form of self-assertion. To accept his apology would be to accept how he inserts himself, into her complaint, her file, into her mind; her world. She needed not to accept that apology because she needed him not to be there.

She added, “I think they thought I would accept it as a real apology.” The action she is identifying as problematic is not only the apology, but the expectation of what would follow the apology, that she would accept it. Finding that letter in the file is to be put under pressure to accept it, to move on with it, to get on with it.

The use of an apology teaches us how reconciliation can be a form of governance (4). When reconciliation becomes a mode of governance, abuses of power are treated as minor squabbles or as the product of poor communication that can be resolved by better communication.

Another student was considering making a complaint about sexual misconduct by her former tutor.  She was told her options would either be a formal complaint, which she didn’t “think would lead anywhere without tangible proof of physical assault” or “writing him a letter directly.” She did not want to write such a letter. As she describes: “I have no wish to reopen channels of communication with X as I have successfully cut myself off and I do not want to start a conversation with him or give him a chance to explain himself.” To be asked to communicate whether in writing or in person with the person who has harassed you, is to be asked to reopen channels of communication that you closed to protect yourself. The person who abused you is given more chances to express himself.

Reconciliation can be experienced as the enforcement of communication.

Stories of apology are also about who is given the task of reconciliation.  A white academic, when she became head of her department, told a black academic to reconcile with the former head of department: “I want you to reconcile with her because after all she is my friend and colleague and all she ever did was write you some long emails.”  The black woman she is addressing (although not addressing as a colleague) had in fact been racially harassed by the former head of department, another white woman, for many years. This white woman by expressing her desire for reconciliation (“I want you to reconcile with her”) is also offering an interpretation of events (“all she ever did is to write you some long emails”). A key tactic for minimising harassment is to present harassment as a style of communication: long emails might be annoying, but the implication is that they are not harmful or serious.

If reconciliation can be the enforcement of communication, violence is shut out by being presented as a style of communication.

The work of reconciliation often falls upon those who have been harassed: it is the Black woman who is given the task of reconciling “with her,” the white woman who harassed her whilst she was her head of department.  The expectation she will smooth things over or keep smoothing things over is how she is required to maintain a relationship that is damaging.   An expression of desire for reconciliation might appear to be a friendly gesture. There is nothing friendly about this gesture. If she does not return the desire for reconciliation, if she is not willing to smooth things other, moving on, getting along, getting on, she becomes the one who has not only broken a connection but refused to repair it.

This story is not a story of an apology. And yet I learnt from her testimony something about timing that allows me to return to apology in a different way. Being required to accept an apology can be how you are required to accept a situation. Perhaps some apologies are made not after harm but before harm; apologies for harm, apologies as harm. An expectation of reconciliation can be enforced right from the beginning; the violence that follows must be forgiven in advance for someone to advance.

In fact, then, the requirement to accept an apology can be the requirement to overlook violence: it didn’t mean anything, they didn’t mean anything, don’t be mean!

Abusive relationships are often treated like fragile, breakable things. And repair is often narrated as achievable through giving time and attention; patching it up, patching things up. Sometimes, however, in order to end abuse, we need to end relationships with those who are abusive. Keeping those relationships going in the hope they can improve is to keep going with something that is harmful.  If an apology is made to keep a relationship going that is harmful, an apology is harmful.

Institutions too can be treated as fragile things that can be patched up or as persons whose problems can be resolved by learning to communicate better. In my book, On Being Included I noted that when racism is recognized as institutional, institutions are quickly psychologized. Consider this definition of institutional racism: “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping.” In a way, the institution becomes recognised as racist only through being posited as like an individual, as someone who suffers from prejudice, but who could be treated, or made better (perhaps through diversity, that reconciliation story).  The recognition of institutional racism can easily be translated into a form of institutional therapy culture: where the institution becomes the sick person, who can be helped by being given the appropriate treatment.  An apology can be expressed as treatment.

When institutions apologise, those apologies often assume a magical form: as if to say it is to be over it. An apology can be offered as a way of “being over it.” If it is not over, it is not the time to be over it. If apologies are to have a point as well as purpose, they need to be offered in recognition that what an apology is an apology for is not over. Being sorry is not being over it. We apologise for what we are in not what we are over.

Perhaps an apologetic institution is also one that demands we preserve our attachment to it despite everything the institution has done not to deserve that attachment.

Apologetic institutions: the violence perpetuated by an apology for institutional violence as if apologising for institutional violence is no longer being violent in the same way.

Apologetic racism: the racism perpetuated by an apology for racism as if apologising for racism means no longer being racist in the same way.

Apologetic sexism: the sexism that is perpetuated by an apology for sexism as if apologising for sexism means no longer being sexist in the same way.

And so on. And so, it goes on (5).

The problem is not only that apologies can be used as if they create the conditions for transcending what apologies are for. An apology can enact what the apology is for. For instance, someone can take up more time and space by apologising for taking up more time and space.

I want to return for the final time to the story of an apology found in a complaint file that inspired this post. This former MA student also said:

Reading it, it is not an apology. He did exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars. Of course, of course, you’re right, but not actually to enter into any discourse, so in fact telling you, I am not even going to grant you the respect of a conversation. I am just going to capitulate in such a tone that tells you that I don’t believe a word you are saying, therefore not giving you the respect of recognising that you might have a valid point. It sounds bizarre but by saying a person’s right you can somehow devalue or invalidate the point you are making but x is an expert at doing that.

What you are told to receive as apology you do not have to receive as an apology. You have to be assertive not to do as you are told, not only not to accept the apology but to insist that an apology is not what it is (“reading it, it is not an apology”). You might refuse to recognise the apology as apology because of what you recognise. She recognises the letter, the tone of it, what it is doing, what he is an expert in doing, because it is what he did before (“exactly the same thing he used to do in seminars”). An apology for conduct can be that conduct: it is familiar to her, he is addressing her in the same way he used to address her, the disbelief, disdain; how a right, you’re right can be a way of not engaging, not recognising someone, not entering into discourse. You can be telling someone how little you think they are worth by appearing to concede in such a way that intonates their point, their complaint, is not “a valid point.”

Summary: an apology for bullying can be an extension of bullying.

Remember: violence is often enacted in a way that makes that violence intangible to others.

Also: we can feel the absence of evidence as fear.

An apology can add to the fear: how the violence is made to disappear.

An apology inserted into her complaint file can be a way of countering the evidence of complaint, countering an absence with its presence. His apology could be showing: she has nothing to show.

What would happen if you opened a complaint file and found an apology from the person you complained about?

I don’t know what would happen in every instance. But I know what could happen from what did happen.

When you open the complaint file and find an apology, you can find the enactment of what you complained about. An apology can be that enactment.



  1. In my book, Complaint! I have only one paragraph on apology. I could have written much more than I did but there was only so much room and I had so much material. In the year to come, I hope to share posts drawing on data I missed out from the book.
  2. I have wondered about the work of the apology before. In the chapter, “Shame Before Others,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I examined the role of apologies, as well as expression of sorrow, remorse and shame, in the Sorry Books written by settler Australians about the stolen generations of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. Many of these speech acts were requests for an apology by the government for the violent theft of Aboriginal children from their homes and communities. I was struck then by how often the request for an apology by government took the form of a desire for national pride, in other words, an apology was deemed a necessary condition to be able to return to being proud to be Australian. An apology was assumed to be necessary to bring an end to this shameful period of colonial history. Colonial violence and subjugation can be treated as inexpressive, as not being evidence of what we are really like. So much structural violence is deemed to be inexpressive in this way (we are not that, we need to do this to show we are not that.
  3. As I was writing this post on January 26 2021, the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was widely reported by the press as having apologised for the suffering caused by coronavirus. This was a day to be sorry, a day to be outraged, very angry and very sad: it was the day that over 100,000 deaths from coronavirus were officially recorded in the UK. Johnson’s speech was an expression of condolence to all those who had lost loves ones. But it was not an apology in the sense of offering a recognition of wrong doing and harm caused by government policies. Or perhaps it was more of an apology in the original sense of the word; an apology as speech given as defence. Despite saying he was responsible as Prime Minister, Johnson also attempted to clear his government (and thus himself) of responsibility by saying they had done “everything [they] could” to minimise death and suffering.
  4. The uses of reconciliation as a governing strategy by organizations is not unrelated to the uses of reconciliation by settler colonial nation states. Reconciliation can be the demand that indigenous peoples reconcile themselves to the situation of occupation as well as with the colonizer (see Nicoll, 1998). The use of reconciliation in the settler colonial context can imply, as Glen Sean Coulthard has astutely noted, that the task for native peoples is to overcome “negative feelings” in the promotion of harmony. He writes, “it is frequently inferred by proponents of political reconciliation that restoring those relationships requires that individuals and groups work to overcome debilitating pain, anger and resentment that frequently persist in being injured or harmed by a real or perceived injustice” (2014, 107).
  5. The structure I am describing here is similar to the uses of criticality: critical racism as the claim to have transcended racism (as racism is uncritical) and so on.



Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014. Red Skins, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nicoll, Fiona. (1998) “B(l)acklash: Reconciliation after Wik,” Meanjin, 57, 1: 167-183.

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Killjoy Commitments

It is another year, a new year. A new year, an old reality, being where we are, in a global pandemic, a time of immense loss and hardship for so many. When times are hard, inequalities become harsher.

This is a killjoy commitment.

I commit to keep going, to keep doing what I can to challenge inequalities where I am.

On the morning of January 1st 2021, I made another killjoy commitment. I tweeted:

I recommit myself to the task of explaining what I oppose without elevating what I oppose as a position worthy of being debated.

My task in this post is to show how these killjoy commitments are part of the same commitment.

To challenge inequalities where I am is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose to a position worthy of being debated.

For me to undertake this task will be to return to complaint.

My study of complaint is an explanation of how hard it is to challenge inequalities.

Harassment is an equality issue.

What do you do if someone with institutional power harasses you? You know that if you did complain they could use that power to do what they can to stop not just the complaint but you, to stop you from getting somewhere.

Much harassment is the effort to stop people complaining about harassment.

That some have power can be what makes it hard to complain. Power works by making it hard to challenge how power works. We have systems in place to stop those who have power from retaliating against those who complain. But those systems often work to protect those who abuse their power from those who complain about abuses of power. My study is a study of what follows this but.

We learn about power from those who complain about power. Hence my project hashtag: complaint as feminist pedagogy.

In the year to come, I hope to write more posts that draw on the material I gathered for my study of complaint. Although my forthcoming book Complaint! is long, it was not possible to share all the stories that have been shared with me. There is so much left to share. I hope to write some shorter, dare I say it, snappier posts in the coming year. These are hopes, because I have yet to write the posts.

I hope to reflect more on how and why so much harassment today is justified as expressions of freedom. I also want to write specifically on how transphobic harassment is reproduced by the refusal to identify that harassment as harassment. These posts will not mention specific authors by name, even if I use direct quotes. I have quoted from work without naming authors in earlier posts (such as this one). I am well aware people can follow the quote to the source. But I will not cite authors by name insofar as a citation can be an invitation to dialogue. Remember: my killjoy commitment is to explain what I oppose without elevating what I oppose into a position worthy of being debated.

Why not debate the views you oppose? To oppose some views requires opposing debating some views. It can be the transformation of what you oppose into a viewpoint that is debatable that you oppose.

Let me explain.

There are lots of debates that, if reopened, would compromise our commitments to equality. A gay journalist published an article about homophobia he had experienced. One person wrote a comment in response: “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.” I was really struck by this sentence. Sometimes a history can be abbreviated as a sentence. This statement did not claim that homosexuality is a mental illness. It said we should be allowed to debate whether or not that claim is true. One suspects that only a person who has such a viewpoint, that homosexuality is a mental illness, would articulate a desire to make that viewpoint debatable. Viewpoints that counter existing commitments to equality are often expressed as an effort to reopen a debate. One way of saying “homosexuality is a mental illness” is by saying “we should be allowed to debate whether homosexuality is a mental illness.”

A viewpoint can be expressed in the act of calling for a viewpoint to be made debatable.  This is especially the case when the viewpoint expressed is one that pathologises a group protected under equality legislation (treating a group as suffering from illness). Groups that are protected by equality legislation (in the UK, the language is “protected characteristics”) are groups that are discriminated against.

Debatability can thus be code. It can be saying: we should we allowed to discriminate.

Harassment is an equality issue.

There are some debates we must refuse if we are to express in a meaningful way our commitments to equality. A commitment to equality is a commitment to enabling what does not yet exist (a commitment to equality is necessary given the existence and reproduction of inequalities).

For equality to be possible, there needs to be restrictions in what people can do as well as say. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege from those who experience the restrictions necessary for equality as restrictions on their freedom. We learn something about the nature of power and privilege that some people experience equality as theft.

If we were to reopen the debate as to whether homosexuality was a mental illness, those of us who are lesbian or gay would be hammered, all over again, prodded and poked; we would have our lives and our loves scrutinised. Homophobia would be given legitimacy; it would be given somewhere to go. To have to defend ourselves against this claim, would be to have to go back over what made it, what makes it, very hard to exist in our own terms. Some of us know that it would not take that much for that to happen, for lesbian and gay people to have to defend ourselves against homophobic terms, how we live, how we love. We know that the public commitments to equality are conditional and can easily be withdrawn.  We know that the equation between homosexuality and paedophilia is still being made in debates about sex education which is also how (and why) the legitimation of transphobia is often the re-legitimation of homophobia. We also know the gap between commitments and action: we know gay friendly organizations can be hostile environments for gay people. We also know that if homophobia is often prefaced in public as what you are not allowed to say, in private it can be expressed without any such prefacing whether in the form of jokes, slurs, insults, abuse, or in assaults.

Well then, imagine this: you say, I will not have that debate, I will not make my existence a debate, and you are told, stop being a sensitive snow-flake, too easily offended, stop censoring others. Imagine being accused of harming those who wish to have that debate because you refuse the terms of that debate.

You don’t have to imagine it: this does happen; this has happened; it is happening.

Another killjoy commitment: to document what is happening to those who refuse to debate their existence.

In my book Complaint! I explore how much verbal and physical harassment is justified as freedom. I talked to a woman postgraduate student who made a complaint against men students for sexual harassment (earlier posts that refer to her testimony are here and here). Most of that harassment took the form of sexist and misogynist language: the men students used expressions like “milking bitches” to describe women students and academics. One staff member put pressure upon her not to complain saying “he didn’t mean anything by it.” When the woman student went ahead and complained, with support from other women students, the harassment worsened, turning into threats of physical violence (statements made included “grasses get slashes”). As another student involved in the complaint described “they were talking about the women who complained as vermin who needed to be shot.” These threats were not taken seriously. She explains: “Even when threats of violence were made, it was implied it was just talk and it didn’t mean anything.” In a subsequent meeting with the students who made the complaint, their head of department said: “I don’t need to talk to you about discourse analysis and poststructuralism, and we can all do a discourse analysis on x; and we’d all come up with very different meanings.” The head of department makes reference to current theories to imply that interpreting “milking bitches” as an offensive and sexist speech act is just one interpretation amongst a universe of possible interpretations.

Just one interpretation: the implication is that the speech act can be justified. We could call this justification the theoretical justification of violence.

The head of department’s comment is the kind of justification that I have heard over and over again in my study of complaint and from my own experience of trying to challenge sexism and racism in the wider public domain. A common justification for using offensive terms is that terms have different meanings. I have heard lecturers or students justify their own use of racist terminology including terms we know by letter; I will not share the letters, a history can the violence of repeated letters, as an attempt to give those terms new meanings or even to show that they can acquire new meanings.

The justification of violence is how that violence is repeated. The justification of violence is that violence.

The transition from “he didn’t mean anything by it” to “it didn’t mean anything” to “we’d all come up with very different meanings” is teaching us something about how and why meaning matters. The implication is that to complain about what such-and-such person said is to impose your interpretation upon others. I think what is going on here is another version of stranger danger. In earlier work I have suggested that stranger danger is used to imply that violence originates with outsiders. It can also be used to imply that those who identify violence “on the inside” do so because they are outsiders. The use of words like racism and sexism become understood not only as impositions from the outside but as attempts to restrict the freedom of those who reside somewhere, the freedom to interpret what words mean and to do as they say. When you complain about offensive terms within the university you are often treated as ungrateful for the benefits you have received by the university, the freedom to make your own interpretation, the freedom to be critical; academic freedom. Replace university with nation and the argument holds: the complainer becomes the stranger, whose complaint is evidence that they do not value our freedom; they are not from here, they do not belong here.

Many terms are treated as attempts to restrict freedom not only as impositions from the outside but as made by outsiders. This is true for the terms sexism as well as harassment: consider how many people mourn a world where you can say and do certain things because feminists have called such behaviours harassment or designated them as sexist. I document these acts of mourning in The Feminist Killjoy Handbook, which I am currently compiling. This is true for the term racism: consider how many people suggest that you are not allowed to argue for restrictions to immigration because you would be called racist, or how work in  the new eugenics, which is not that different from the old eugenics, implies that racism is used to stop us having certain kinds of conversations about why white people might prefer being with white people and have the right (even duty) to defend their spaces accordingly.

We call these words and actions racist and sexist. Those who use these words or act in these ways don’t call themselves racist or sexist. They claim to be censored by the words, racism and sexism, stopped from saying certain things, stopped from doing certain things, stopped from being certain things.

This is also true for the word transphobia. I have come across countless instances where  the term transphobia is identified as an attempt to restrict the freedom of some people to say what they wish to say, do what they wish to do, be what they wish to be. Misgendering, for example, is often justified as freedom of speech. The requirement to use the correct pronouns is often positioned as a restriction on that freedom. When some academics say “out of politeness” they respect pronouns of their students they are implying they are free to do so or not to do so. They are not in fact free not to do so; they are required to do so under existing equality law. The guidance  by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) thus includes deliberate misgendering as an example of harassment of persons (using the terms of the 2010 Equality Act) with the “protected characteristic” of gender reassignment.

Those who are members of groups with a “protected characteristic” are those who decide what counts as harassment, which includes “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.” So, if a woman student says that the repeated use of terms like “milking bitches” made the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. So, if a person of colour says the repeated use of a racist slur makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled.  So, if a trans person says that deliberate and repeated misgendering makes the environment hostile, that is harassment. Disputing the terms is how the harassment is enabled. Some might say (some do say) misgendering is not like a slur or an insult; they might try to minimize the harm of misgendering, to make light of it. Well, those who harass almost always try to minimise or deny harm, to make light of it. It is not up to them to decide what counts as a hostile environment. Many transphobic utterances are given what I call theoretical justification. Using theories to justify misgendering (I can call you he because my theories mean I don’t recognise you as she) is no less harassment than it would be without that theoretical justification.

My book Complaint! explores how theories can be used as techniques to shut out the violence of actions. Theories can also be used as if they are exemptions, as if they exempt someone from the requirement not to act in a hostile way toward a group that is protected because they are discriminated against.

Killjoy truth: Your theories do not exempt you.

Killjoy commitment: They do not. So it must stop.

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A Mess as a Queer Map

This post is dedicated to all messy queers and other subjects in disarray. We recognise each other from the mess we make; we don’t try to tie up each other’s loose ends. This post is for all those who have been judged as having “made a mess of things” because of what they have tried to do, or tried not to do, not to accept things as they are, not to accept an existing arrangement.

It will take me some time to explain my title, how a mess can be a queer map, but I’ll get there.

Doing research on complaint felt like becoming attuned to mess. As I noted in my previous post, when I first imagined researching people’s experiences of complaint, I thought I would be doing semi-structured interviews. I realised rather quickly that complaints were “too messy,” even for a loose set of questions.  What do we learn from the messiness of complaint? And what do we learn from the “too” of “too messy,” from how the messiness of complaint tends to exceed our frames for dealing with it?

On paper, complaints might not appear messy. Consider that complaints procedures are often represented as flow charts, with lines and arrows indicating paths that give the would-be complainer a clear route through.

Things are not always as they seem.

Things are not always as they appear on paper.

I talked to an administrator about her experience of supporting students through the complaints process. She talked me through the process:

So, your first stage would require the complainant to try and resolve it informally, which is really difficult in some situations and which is where it might get stuck in a department…And so it takes a really tenacious complaining student to say, no, I am being blocked…. If something bad has happened, and you are not feeling that way inclined, you can understand why a student would not have the tenacity to make sure that happens, and to advocate for themselves. They might go to the student union, and the student union is really bogged down. So, you can imagine that something on paper that looks very linear is actually very circular a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem, students get discouraged and get demoralised and feel hard done by, and nothing’s getting resolved and then they are in a murky place and they can’t get out.

On paper, a complaint can appear linear. In reality, a complaint is often more circular (round and round rather than in and out). If a procedure exists in order to clear a path, that path can be blocked at any point. Blockages can occur through conversations. When a lecturer went to human resources to make an informal complaint she was told that they were “too busy” to deal with it. Or if, as this administrator describes, a student goes to the students’ union and the students’ union is “really bogged down,” the complaint will end up bogged down. A complaint can be stuck in the mud, so to speak, muddy as well as messy.

You can be stuck by the very nature of the terrain. What it takes to get a complaint moving or to get a complaint through (such as “confidence” and “tenacity”) might be what is eroded by the experiences that led to a complaint (“something bad has happened,” “not feeling that way inclined”). The experiences you need to complain about are the same experiences that make it difficult to keep a complaint going.

A complaint is not simply an outcome of a no, a complaint requires you to keep saying no along the way. Complaints then are rarely experienced as a flow. If we were to picture a complaint, it might be less of a flow chart and rather more like this: it’s a mess, what a tangle.

A Complaint

You can enter the complaint process but not be able to work out how to get out (“they are in a murky place and they can’t get out”). Each line is a tangle, each path, leads to another path, you end up criss-crossing, going backwards, forwards, around and about.

Those cross-crossing lines can be wires; there are so many crossed wires, all that mess, all that confusion. If to make a complaint is to make the same complaint to many different people, those people are not necessarily talking to each other. One student who made a complaint about transphobic harassment from their supervisor described how they ended up having to administer their own complaint process: “I am the one who has to arrange all this information and send it to different people because they are just not talking to each other. I had to file the forms in order to get the human resources records; I had to do all the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. It was on me to do all of this work, which raises the question of why have human resources officers at all because I am literally doing their job. And I am the one who made the complaint and I have all the emotional damage around that to deal with.” The person who makes the complaint – who is often already experiencing the trauma or stress of the situation they are complaining about – ends up having to direct an unwieldy process, becoming a conduit; they have to hold all the information in order that it can be circulated, they have to keep things moving. We sense a difficulty here given that many of the experiences that lead to complaint can make it hard to hold yourself together let alone direct an unwieldy process.

You have to keep making the same points to different people. An early career academic describes: “there are like four channels of complaint going on at the same time. But interestingly none of these people seem to be crossing over. You duplicate the complaint at different times, emails, phone calls, occupational health; the union. It is all being logged. It is generating all this material and all this paper work but actually nothing seems to shift. It’s just a file, actually.” You end up duplicating the same points to multiple parties because there are no clear lines of communication between those parties. A complaint can be experienced as the requirement to labour over the same points, which are already sore points, points that can become even sorer because of the need to keep making them. And where does a complaint end up? All of those documents many of which replicate other documents, end up in the same file (“it’s just a file, actually”).

When you make a complaint, you write papers that have to go all over the place. Where papers go, you have been; a complaint can be how you end up all over the place. All those different paths you follow lead to the same destination; all the materials you created or collected end up in the same file. I talked to another student about her experience of making complaints. She had also worked as an administrator supporting students in making complaints so she had experience of the process from different angles. She describes: “It’s messy and it’s cyclical: you file the complaint this process happens, which can cause another complaint.” Complaints can lead to more complaints because of how complaints are handled. One student who made a complaint about sexual harassment from another student was told by a member of human resources: “I need to tell you this, the only way you can go with this now; you can’t put in a complaint about a student…. The only complaint you can put in is if you complain against the university, against the way that this has been dealt with.” Being directed to make a complaint about the complaint can be how the original complaint is dropped. You end up on another route, which does seem circular, round and round, round and about, complaints end up referring to other complaints; you have to keep dealing with what is not being dealt with; yes, once you start the process, it is hard to get out.

The straight lines of a complaint procedure can be how complaints appear. But what appears is often not what the person who makes the complaint experiences, which also means that the person who makes the complaint experiences what does not appear.

A mess can be what does not appear. Or perhaps the effects of that messy process, which are themselves messy, do appear. And then it can seem that the complainer is the one who made a mess of things; that the mess is you.

Perhaps procedures are not just what exist on paper, they paper over what exists. Complaints procedures can be used rather like diversity: as a way of not addressing a problem by appearing to do so. My book Complaint! is profoundly indebted to the work of Black feminists and feminists of colour such as M. Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Heidi Mirza who have offered critiques of what diversity does not do.

Diversity can paper over racism. Paper matters. To make a complaint is often to make use of papers. An academic describes, “In every one of my complaints I used the policies that were given to us by the university.”  To make use of policies in a complaint is often to point to their failure to be followed. Having evidence of the failure of policies to be followed does not guarantee the success of a complaint. She described policy as a trip wire: “That was my experience of the complaint process.  As an employer of the university, the minute you try to enact policy that you are told when you are hired to be the vanguards of, to protect the quality of education and work at the university, that in effect it is a trip wire, and that in effect you become the person to be investigated. These policies are not meant.” When you try and use a policy to do what it was meant to do, your action sends out an alarm or an alert. To make a complaint is to find out what policies are not meant. You are stopped from using the policy rather like a trespasser is stopped from entering the building.  If a usage becomes an alarm, you are being told, you are not supposed to do that, you are not supposed to be here. You are stopped by becoming “the person to be investigated.”

It is worth reflecting more on how we learn about institutions from what policies do not do.  She describes further: “I was told it was now a formal process. I had to look at all the policies. I found there was this fog. It was constant. Every time I found clarity – isn’t it supposed to happen in accordance with policy blah blah-blah – this has been around ten years, isn’t this supposed to happen, and they would be like no.” To be told “no” is to be told that however long a policy has been around it is not going to determine what happens.  Even when a policy makes something clear (“every time I found clarity”) you end up in a fog: messy; muddy; foggy. Nothing is clear. A complaint can thus queer your relation to the institution, and I mean queer in the older sense of the word, queer as strange or wonky. Words that are everywhere in my data are odd, bizarre, weird, strange, and disorientating.

To enter an administrative process, interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, can be the start of a rather queer experience: trying to assemble the papers in the right way can lead to odd things happening. One lecturer described what happened during his complaint about discrimination in a promotion case. He noted how documents would suddenly appear in files that had not been there before: “the lawyers had said in my file I had all these negative annual reviews. I thought that was weird as I had no negative reviews.” I have collected many stories of documents that mysteriously appear or disappear from files.  The words we use to describe something tell us about something. He described his experience thus: “I would bend towards the surreal. The situations have been so bizarre. I want to believe there is some research value in that because it is so strange.”

I agree: there is research value in documenting what is bizarre and strange. The strangeness of complaint manifests in so many ways, there are so many loose ends, nothing seems to add up or line up. I remember from my own experience how disorientating the experience of complaint can be: you have to keep switching dimensions; you are having all these conversations, so many meetings, meetings after meetings, but most people you are working with don’t even know about what is going on. And you have to keep going back to your other job, your day job, different kinds of meetings; and that world, which is supposed to be the real world, the upright, brightly-lit world, feels increasingly unreal; topsy-turvy; upside down.

If complaints can be what you end up doing, where you end up going, the lack of clarity of the process becomes the world you inhabit: nothing seems to make sense; you can’t make sense of it. One early career lecturer who complained after being harassed by a professor in her department describes:

It is like being trapped in some kind of weird dream where you know you jump from one section to another because you never know the narrative. I think that’s the power that institutional abuse has on you.

Making a complaint can feel like becoming a character in somebody else’s story; what happens to you is dependent on decisions that are made without your knowledge or consent. This is why making a complaint about harassment can often feel like being harassed all over again, becoming subjected, again, to another’s will. You know that what is happening is not what is supposed to be happening, but you still don’t know what is happening. I think again of our messy picture. Perhaps those lines are not just paths, or wires; perhaps they are strings. When you make a complaint, you can feel like something or someone is pulling the strings, but you don’t know what or who.

“Too messy,” can be how you experience a complaint. “Too messy,” can be a life experience. A picture of a complaint can be a picture of a life.

A Life

Another student described multiple delays in her complaint: “Months went by. Nothing. They really botched my complaints procedure just by the virtue of missing their own deadlines.”  The more precarious the situation, the more those lines become threads. In the midst of complaint, a life can be what unravels, thread by thread. I use the term strategic inefficiency to show the connection between inefficiency and inequality: for some, a botched job can be a botched life; a delay in a process the end of a line. As an international student, she was waiting for her complaint to be processed whilst her visa was running out: “Ten days before my visa was about to run out, I applied for a new visa. And they were like how can we give her a visa she is on probation. You have to have good standing to get a visa and they were like this complaint thing is open.” For students and staff who are more precarious because of their residential or financial status, the longer a complaint takes, the more you risk losing. If you are already on the edge, barely managing to stay on top of things, a delay can mean everything seems to topple over.

Not everything: perhaps some stay up by how others topple over. If we notice the toppling; it’s a mess; what a mess, we might not notice who stays up, what stays up. That mess often up being contained; remember all those letters that end up in “the same file.” Perhaps making a mess becomes what we aim for. We mess up to get the mess out.  We might want to get the papers out from where they have been contained. Sometimes to get the papers out, we get out. When I make the reasons for my resignation public, I shared information, not very much, but enough; that there had been these enquiries. I became a leak: drip; drip. Organizations respond in the mode of damage limitation, treating the information you share as a mess, mopping up a mess. The more you share, the more they mop.

There is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess. A leak can be a lead. By becoming a leak, I became easier to find; people came to me with their complaints. That we find each other through complaint is a finding. This finding is not so much a finding from the research but what led me to it; it is how I could do it. My resignation letter, at least the version I shared in public, was how many I spoke to found me. Posting that letter was how I became part of a collective, a complaint collective.

To resign can be how you get the letters out. Even complaints that do not seem to get anywhere can lead us to each other. One lecturer who left the academy after her complaint did not get anywhere, turned her resignation letter into a performance: “I wrote a two-page letter and it was really important to me to put everything in there that I felt so that it was down on paper. And then I asked for a meeting with the Dean. I kind of read the letter out in a performative kind of way just to have some kind of event.” We find ways to make our letters matter. I think of her action, of what she expressed.  You can do so much and still want to do more; still feel you could have done more. She wanted to do more, to express more, to express herself in more places, all over the place. She wanted to put that letter on the wall: “I just thought I am not the kind of person who would put my resignation letter on the wall, but I just wonder what it is that made me feel that I am not that kind of person because inside I am that kind of person, I just couldn’t quite get it out.” Perhaps that is what complaints are about; how we help each other to get it out.

What you put down, down on paper, everything in there, others can pick up. We don’t always know how. We do not always know when. A disabled student was not getting anywhere with her complaint about the failure of her university to make reasonable adjustments. After a particularly difficult meeting, documents suddenly appear: “a load of documents turned up on the student’s union fax machine and we don’t know where they came from, they were like historical documents about students who had to leave.” The documents including a hand written letter to a human rights charity by a former student who had cancer, and who was trying to get the university to let her finish her degree part-time. The student speculates that a secretary at the meeting had released these documents as a way of giving support to her complaint she was not supposed to give.

The word secretary derives from secrets; the secretary as the keeper of secrets. It should not be surprising that a secretary can become a saboteur; those who do administration, institutional housework, know where to find stuff, know what to do to get stuff out.

I think of the student who wrote that letter by hand. We can’t know, we won’t know, what happened to her. But we can make the letter matter; a complaint can be a hand stretched out from the past. If the student I spoke to hadn’t made her complaint, that file would have stayed put, the letter too; dusty, buried.  If the secretary had not witnessed what happened to the student, if she hadn’t been politicised by what she witnessed, she might not have pulled the letter out of the file. Many have to meet to pull something out, to pull something off.

You can meet in an action without meeting in person.

Perhaps a mess can be how we meet. Mess as meeting; mess as eating. The word mess derives from the old French mes; a portion of food, a course at dinner.  To share a mess can be to share a meal. Can we share a meal, sustain each other, be sustained by each other, without meeting in person? I picture again, that mess.

A Queer Map

A mess can be a picture of a complaint.

A mess can be a picture of a life.

A mess can be a picture of an organization.

A mess can be a queer map of an organization. Queer maps of this kind are not made by organizations or for them. A queer map of an organization is not a brochure. It is not a shiny happy picture. There are no straight lines; no flow, flow, away we go. There are no smiling colourful faces; this is not about what or who is faced. A queer map is a map of the behind, of what is ordinarily hidden from view, of what goes on behind closed doors. It is a map of what has been filed, what has been kept secret, what would be threatening if revealed; a filing cabinet can be an institutional closet.

I think of all those lines, those paths, those wires, those strings, threads too: so much can unravel, come tumbling out, so much, so many.

When I think of that mess as a queer map, I still think of complainers, of all the trails you follow, those dead ends, those stops, those blocks, going back, going this way, that, how you cannot go forward, go there, be there. To follow a trail is to leave traces behind despite the effort made by organizations (and others) to wipe those traces away. Sometimes, the work of complaint becomes the work of leaving traces of complaint: that is what it means to get mess out. A mess as a map: a tangle can tell us where you have been. A mess as a map: a tangle can be what you find; how you find, and also then, how we find you.

What we find, how we find: queer maps are useful to queer people because they tell us where to go to find queer places, places that come and go, providing temporary shelters, gay bars can be our nests. We need queer spaces because we need not to be displaced by how organisations, also worlds, are occupied; yes, compulsory heterosexuality can still take up space; time, too.  If queer maps are useful because they tell us where to go to find queer spaces, queer maps are also created by use.  Perhaps those messy lines are also desire lines that tell us where we have been, what we found, who we found, by going that way, by not following the official paths we are told would have opened doors or eased our progression.

I think of other kinds of queer maps. Paul Harfleet, for instance, turned his experience of homophobic violence into an art project, planting pansies where acts of violence and abuse had taken place (1). Perhaps a complaint is what we plant, a new growth marking the site of violence. The site of violence is the site of remembering violence, of protesting violence, of saying no to that violence.

A complaint leaves a trail, however faint. This is how complaints can be a queer method. I think of my own method of listening to those who complain, as well as how that listening is also a way of gathering and holding data only to let it spill; holding as leaking information. The word complaint might pick up on the word queer, sharpened by its use as an insult, queer as cutting. When we use the word queer we hold onto its baggage, the sharpness of a word repurposed as tool. We turn the word queer from insult into complaint, redirecting the no that has been flung at us back to the institutions that do not accommodate us.  My method in Complaint! is all about ears: not queer eye for the straight guy but queer ears for our queer peers.

That complaints are made is how we come to know something happened there; no as tale; no as trail. It takes work to keep a no going. A no can be passed on, passed down. In the mess, that queer map, we hear each other, those who said no to what went on, no to what goes on.

(1). See also the Queering the Map project With thanks to Paul Harfleet and Lucas LaRochelle for creative inspirations.

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