Interview with Dawn Cavanaugh
Tell us about how CAL has changed since you first joined it. I joined CAL first as an Executive Committee member in 2008, and became Co-director alongside Fikile Vilakazi in October 2010 until she left in 2012. CAL was formed to increase lesbian visibility in the women’s movement, where these issues were ignored, and women’s visibility within the gay and lesbian movement, where the men were in the forefront and the women were taking notes and making the tea. So, CAL was formed to assert our organising capabilities and analysis in both these movements; it was saying, we are here and we bring a feminist politics that critiques patriarchy and its intersections with other oppressions. The organisation’s Constitution was quite clear about the category of ‘African lesbian feminist’ being a political standpoint [rather than a fixed identity] but I think in practice, people spoke about this category in quite a hard, fixed way. Since 2010, we have progressively been articulating a politics that takes us out of identity politics – recognising that the identity is important to name and foreground for very clear political reasons but that it has to be located within the broader politics that other social movements are busy with, which affect us as much as anyone else. So, our emphasis on the language of intersectionality and crossmovement work. We use five factors in all our analysis and we take that analysis into every space – militarism; capitalism in its current form of the global neo-liberal economic order; extremisms and fundamentalisms; patriarchy and heteronormativity; crisis in democracy, and we need to include a sixth, the exploitation of natural resources and the environmental crisis, into the analysis.
What are some of the changes – within movements and in these factors – that CAL is grappling with? Ten years ago, the women’s movement was struggling to push back against the politics that defined women primarily as reproductive machines and not as sexual beings. A big part of what CAL was doing was asserting the sexuality and sexual autonomy of women, and clinging to this idea of ‘lesbian’ as a category helped to assert that. It is quite different now; women are still seen as reproductive machines but there are increasing numbers of people who have articulated a broader sexual politics. Whether they use sexual rights language or the language of autonomy, those words, ideas and concepts are heard and said a lot more often. They are woven into the politics, they are in these big, monolithic UN-type spaces, where they are said increasingly even though they are contested, and they are being contested and that is something positive! The ideas are provoking dialogue, debate and discussion which have not been held before – or not like this! From a political and economic perspective, it’s also a different world; the world is on fire, literally. There is a significant rise or at least a rising to the surface in an unprecedented way of extremisms and fundamentalisms and different people are being attacked for different reasons, based on ideologies that are not distinct and separate from economic warfare, because these fundamentalist blocs are economic units – but often we miss that. We often speak about it as religious fundamentalism but really, the way capitalism is playing out is basically an economic fundamentalism, the way we have been turned into markets in Africa and how militarism is feeding the capitalist economy. It is a much less safe world for everyone and definitely for women; from the home to all the other sites of struggle and power, the attacks on women’s bodies, on women’s autonomy have intensified. Trying to find a sense of joy and a sense of wellness in the midst of global chaos is one of the things that we have to take seriously moving forward, in CAL’s work but also in movements and women’s rights activism.
Ideas of autonomy, agency and freedom go beyond the rights discourse and yet, at times, CAL has made a decision to work in spaces that frame themselves in the human rights discourse. Can you share more about this? The thing that helps me personally explain and frame the work that needs to and demands to be done is still the work of Patricia Hill Collins – thinking about the hegemonic domain, the domain of ideas, and really thinking about how change happens and the centrality of those compelling ideas that drive us. What inspires me about those spaces is our experience in the Sexual Rights Initiative at the UN Human Rights Council, where CAL is part of this wonderful six-organisation coalition – mainly from the global south but also with organisations from the global north – that is trying to work in ways that don’t replicate that usual global economic south / global economic north power dynamic. We do this both by learning to work together in new ways that honour each other’s knowledge and experience, but also by going for the hardest possible issues at the Council. We are going to keep saying contested words in multiple spaces to sensitise, or maybe desensitise, those spaces – like saying ‘abortion’, and insisting and asserting that this is a right, even when they disagree. Then adding in analysis and enabling dialogue and learning and debate! The battle is for ideas and any space where ideas are being articulated and contested is a space we need to be in, even if the physical manifestation of that space may be the UN building – such as the Commission on the Status of Women or the Human Rights Council. These institutions come with specific constraints as they bring together such diverse views and hardened positions, but that is also the power of the space. It’s where we have been honing our own skills to be able to debate in such spaces, to take people and perspectives on and be present and use our own bodies in that space. You are not speaking about someone else’s body, it’s your body and you develop the capacity to say that the subject and the theme is actually about you, but you are also able to lift yourself out of that and think about how all of these feminist, pan-Africanist ideas are going to help you when someone says something is un-African, unholy, that you are insane, etc. You are able to take those things one at a time and sometimes land at a very simple question. You say, for example, “this un-African view, whose idea is this? Are you speaking your own idea, or did you get this idea from someone else?” It’s through such dialogue that you begin to engage with real ideas from real people and about real people. And so, for me, that is one of the main motives for being in those spaces – this is one of the ways that the women’s movement has made the gains that we have – it starts with that small dialogue and the articulation of an idea that is seen as ridiculous or is seen as not being right for the time but we keep pushing in the ways that we do, coming from different angles. Some of us refuse to go to the UN and are out on the streets, and that is all part of that slow, and sometimes not so slow, pushing, moving the thinking about what is not okay, and who says what is okay or not okay.
If we reflect back on the lesbian and gay struggle in South Africa and the decision to use the language of LGBT rights and identity politics, there was even at that time an acknowledgment that there were limitations with the discourse but we decided to take it on. There are political moments when it is about particular ideas and the language we choose to use then sets us on a particular trajectory. If we think about women’s rights to organise and then further to lesbians’ rights to organise, we know that at this moment these are coming under attack, so how does CAL then position itself in these politics? It goes back to the idea of nuances, it’s not clean, it isn’t two different colours, clearly contrasting. What was happening in the political moment in 2003 was that it was part of our feminist resistance to have these two words – African and lesbian – next to each other; and it added something so powerful to our assertion that it made sense in that political moment to do this. When I came into CAL in 2008, one of the debates concerned the categories ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’. Why do you want to be a man? What does it mean to be a man? And then you can’t define the category ‘man’, and at the same time the question that arises is, why do you want to hold on to being a woman? And so, this questioning of all the language we use was quite a big thing; there were conversations about dropping the word lesbian, and even questioning the category ‘women’. There was a realisation that there is something wrong with the binary and then there was the arriving through that into a new political moment, not just in our heads but a knowing that included our bodies, knowing that actually the problem, the thing that has to go, is gender. It’s impossible, there is no such thing as gender equality, it’s not possible because gender is inequality; it exists to create inequality. So, some of those in the Coalition say, okay, we probably need to get rid of this L word at some point, but then even if you were ready to, you can’t do it, because what happens in October 2010 is that the African Commission denies CAL’s application for observer status and we hear from people behind the scenes that if we change our name then we would be more likely to be granted observer status. Important people are heard saying we can’t have “African” and “lesbian” in the same sentence. So, that offers and suggests another political moment. Even though some may be ready to get rid of this L word, it’s impossible right now. How do you get rid of it at this point when the contestation is about your right, your freedom to name yourself in particular ways, and it links race, geography and sexuality in a very particular way. And so you insist this is what you are even though you also know that it replays the same binary you need to destroy. You insist because you know that the reason CAL was needed is still the reality for most of us today. I think that is what resistance is. Thinking back on what we did 10 years ago, we might think we would never do that again, but in that moment, it was the best possible way to demonstrate our resistance. And really, when we have achieved what we set out to achieve, we would then need to just close down. But we have not achieved our objective. So we are the Coalition of African Lesbians!
Can you reflect on some of the challenges of being a membership organisation? Coalitions will never be easy because you try to have a common approach, a common agenda, and yet we are all so different, for example in our ideologies and organising cultures. Everything in life is mediated, everything is a performance, you do things to please others; there is always something in between what I am really thinking and feeling and the person that I am trying to talk to. I have to package it and repackage it and we learn how to do these things and we are told it is diplomatic – and so we are in this constant process of using up piles of energy to have our messages – and ourselves – accepted and our work affirmed. But when we are together as these coalitions and networks and alliances, we have to be able to look forward to them with joy because these spaces need to be safe. We need to able to shape them, to know that when we are here, we are going to be affirmed, and if we have done something wrong it will be addressed with love and care and the confrontation will be done gently and firmly and that we are all able to confront each other. We know conflict is there and it’s going to be there, but we also know that we will engage our differences with gentleness. And when we make mistakes and are ungentle with each other [and this happens], we are able to see it and say sorry. And mean it. Movements are often hostile places where hurt, angry, anxious, exhausted and damaged people – all of us – come together with all of ourselves – the good and the hard – and often we are hostile and cruel towards each other. So, for me, if only one thing must change in this Coalition and in many of the coalitions and movements that we are part of, it is that we need to find ways to organise internally so that we can actually look forward to being together…that we can create these spaces of community care and collective healing. Love.
The last question is an obvious one. We have marked out this ten-year anniversary as something significant and one assumes that CAL will probably not have achieved its founding vision in the next ten years. If the work so far has been about contestation of ideas and some of the other things you have spoken about, what will be the nature of CAL’s work going forward? I suppose it’s really about building. After what was almost the closing of the doors of CAL in 2008, followed by the transition up to 2010 and re-establishing it as a stronger and more effective space, in the last four, five years, we have really been building. Our building has been towards a place of greater strength, with increasing numbers of people thinking along feminist lines, and we can see that even in the I Am More Than campaign – our campaign for sexual rights in Southern Africa. One way to build is to challenge the focus many of us place on casting ourselves as “victims”. This is what many of us know as the way to demand justice. Please can you give me my right as I am being violated. Not, I am human and this is our world and we must share the space and enable each other to be fully who we are. We cannot rely on an analysis which is confined to victimhood! This is not a viable political analysis. We need more than that!! That is a big challenge, that often there is the ‘politics of no politics’. Second, we will need to support a shift from so much investment in reaction-based work. We go along and do our business as usual and then our government attacks us and then we all we stop and scream to the international community ’Save us, Africans are dying’, ‘poor Africans, poor us’! and then they jump up to save us. And its wonderful when there is solidarity. And emergencies are real! But often the responses and reactions are drama and power-play. Organisations wanting a cut of the media and attention! And it is important to remember that this emergency framing has its own economy that fuels itself! And so the politics of no politics and the reactionary response, together with identity politics – these three things, to a large extent, define some of the movements we are working in. And we can and must move beyond this! We are thinkers with an analysis. We must bring it to bear on the work and activism we do. And shift from reactive to proactive and from victims to agents! We must set the agenda and shape the demands and articulate our claims! Third, since CAL is not a movement we can be one of those organisations, resources that can be used by feminist movements to ignite the fires, inspire, support, enable and provide other resources to contribute towards sustaining activism and movements. This is work we have already engaged in. We make ourselves available to affirm and inspire and trigger those moments of bursting, explosion that are the actual movements. We are particularly interested to connect with those women, gender non-conforming individuals and groups that are feminists, active and leading, ready – the little fires are burning in multiple places. These groups and collectives don’t need support from CAL in terms of consciousness raising but there may be other things they need from us to keep and stoke the fires. We need to know what these needs are. And we need to be ready and able and willing to rise to the political moment and offer what is needed with ease and focus! And finally, we also need to continue to offer our resources and capabilities to inspire and strengthen commitment and passion about feminist ideas and to keep bringing more people into the thinking and analysis and so adding to the power of the movements. Making more space for and bringing more people into movements and organising – to ignite and reignite the wonderful feminist fires that are already burning out there! Above all we need to increase the opportunities for joy and love in our movements – to create and strengthen communities of care. Because that is what it is all about.
Thank you for your time and sharing your insights. I look forward to continuing the conversation with you over the next ten years.