Founder of LISTEN, Evelyn Morris, talks through what she learnt running an online forum.
“Listen is a group that exists to spark and cultivate a conversation around women’s and LGBTQIA+ experiences in Australian music.”
This message has been written in big bold letters on our website for quite some time now. Since we started LISTEN, the wording has changed slightly but there has always been a solid commitment within LISTEN’s core organisational group to aim towards representing intersectional values at all costs. Unfortunately those efforts were undermined by the LISTEN discussion group on Facebook, which has become an unsafe space for anyone who is not in the majority. It has become an unmanageable space for us, and it is with a certain amount of relief we’ve decided to shut it down.
There are many reasons why I am happy we devoted so much energy to maintaining this space for the last year and a half. There have been bands formed, a policy group started that is making changes to live music venue practices in Australia, we’ve vocalised our disdain for large event booking practice and promoted countless local events that fit our criteria for representative bills. In addition, I’m constantly told there are heaps of people who have watched the discussions and learned a lot about feminism.
The other thing I’m happy about is that we now have an opportunity to really define who we are as LISTEN. We need to acknowledge a few major pitfalls so LISTEN can move forward and represent ourselves accurately as the intersectional organisation we aim to be. We opened up our organisation to the broader community to comment, listen, learn and grow, because until now we had not yet entirely known our own boundaries within feminism. These boundaries have been clarified very rapidly over the last few months of discussion.
I chose the name LISTEN with clear intent and it still works as a word that points out what is missing within broader societal structures, as well as within feminism itself. It is the folks who aren’t heard that are trodden on, forgotten about, silenced, discouraged, abused and misunderstood. There’s an area between ‘speaking’ and ‘being heard’ that is called ‘listening’ and it describes an active process that appears to need some further definition.
Listening isn’t just hearing something. It’s taking it in, processing the contents of what’s been heard and then using imagination to re-create the circumstances of the person who has shared their truth with you. This requires empathy and also patience and understanding. Understanding that you’re not always going to get it right and you don’t know everything yet - hence, the listening. Understanding that hearing the words someone is saying doesn’t mean you’re aware of the context of their life and therefore you need to give some extra space for those details to be illuminated. Patience and understanding that if someone is upset – THEY HAVE GOOD REASON TO BE - even if you don’t understand why just yet. In order to truly listen to someone, you often need to understand and accept that they are very different to you, and they may think very different things – and that is OK. In all these attempts at understanding it’s also really important to attempt to see where you’re placed in relation to that person. Do you really need to disagree with them? Can’t you let their experience exist alongside yours? The art of dismantling patriarchy doesn’t just mean all the simplified things that people often mistake feminism to be, it means pulling apart the internalised patriarchal structures within ourselves and within our feminist communities. We need to notice when we’re recreating the very hierarchy that we’re attempting to dismantle.
If we are asking the world to listen to women, we need to interrogate how we are listening ourselves. We need to ensure that we are aware of less audible minority voices.
It’s embarrassing to me that the arguments that broke out in the LISTEN forum are so common in feminist spaces currently. That tiresome argument that starts with a legit statement that’s something like “Trans and gender non-conforming people need to be heard” only to be shut down by defensive and dismissive responses that sound like, “Don’t dominate ‘our’ space/don’t call me cis/stop being so intense.” But essentially seem to come from a place of “We don’t understand this and so we’re not listening” Which is a very similar set of communications to that of misogynists when they’re speaking to feminists.
These responses have saddened me deeply every time they’ve arisen in the forum. They’ve caused a hot rage inside me to be perfectly honest. I started this group with feminism in mind but to me that always meant ANY people that feel they need feminism! It is completely unfathomable that we should start defining and dictating who feminism exists for and who it doesn’t. I’ve always imagined feminism to be beneficial to everyone.
Of course there are boundaries in terms of how we navigate the needs of all the participants of feminism. It isn’t productive to have white cis-gendered male voices dominating feminism because they’re generally more limited in their scope of understanding the kind of oppression that feminism is attempting to combat. Plus they are the most dominant voice in other social structures, so within feminism we reserve spaces for people who are heard less, in order to create change geared towards the oppressed rather than the privileged.
With the same measure of imbalance of numbers and experience of oppression, it is imperative we make more room for the voices of trans people and gender non-conforming people, as well as people of colour and people with different abilities. Feminist goals are no doubt similar to goals of other marginalised communities, and given that white cis-gendered women are the majority voice in feminism, we need to ensure we’re aiming all efforts towards opening things up in a way that is different to how patriarchal structures work.
Hearing from the trans and gender non-conforming communities is very important to me and was a big part of the purpose of the FB group. I didn’t know enough to begin with, and wanted to provide an open space to invite for those who needed feminism. People came on in and started speaking but there was not much empathetic listening going on.
My personal perspective always plays into the way things happen in LISTEN because so far I’ve been very emotionally and intimately invested in this project. I hope there will be many other incarnations of LISTEN in the future with other people at the helm because I don’t want this to be just about me. However it might help to share that during this time as the LISTEN forum moderator, I have found the strength to be more honest about my own gender experience. Intersectional feminism has been super important to me over the last few years because I’ve had more access to conversations around gender that have meant I’m better able to understand who I am as a gender-fluid person.
Being gender-fluid is partly why I didn’t feel I had access to feminism during my twenties, when I really needed it. I never felt as though I was ‘enough of a woman’ to be accepted in feminist discussions. I didn’t really even know what it meant to feel entirely like a woman. This was a perspective I had of feminism based on not understanding it properly. Since starting LISTEN and being publicly active within feminism I have more clearly defined what it’s about for me, and being ‘female enough’ is certainly not part of the feminism I believe in.
I don’t want to spend my time explaining why trans and gender non-conforming people deserve to be included in feminist spaces. There are already several excellent articles explaining the perspectives of these marginalised communities. But I’m no longer interested in facilitating a space that does the same thing to trans and gender non-conforming people that patriarchy does to all women. I am no longer interested in being part of something that makes people feel they need to shout to be heard, and then get gas-lighted into feeling they can’t even be in the discussion anymore.
LISTEN wants to take this moment of rupture and misunderstanding and turn it into a moment where we shift our narrative to better match what is required right now in feminism. We want to provide a space for all marginalised voices to be heard. This shift in preferences doesn’t mean that cis-gendered women will not have a voice – it means that those extra voices will be singing, shouting and fighting alongside you. When we support marginalised people to find their space in a movement, then and only then, will they have the emotional energy to walk alongside us and be part of the feminist cause.
Make no mistake - LISTEN is interested in exploring intersectional feminism only. We will no longer tolerate any activity under our name that is not representative of various kinds of gender voices. If anyone feels this is not the way we should do things, you’ll probably find plenty of other feminist spaces that will still welcome you. Just not this one.