Though I’ve never had a stall before, I love the Wellington Zinefest and look forward to it each year. I’ve got a pile of zines at home that I’ve bought, swapped, collected and enjoyed from markets over the years. Through the art supply shop I work at, I sponsored the Wellington Zinefest 2015 gladly, with free prize packs and zine-making kits. It’s a uniquely accessible and inclusive affordable, no-frills, not for profit, grassroots event. I take heart in the fact that it’s there and allows us Wellingtonians to share and exchange creative work and ideas – even challenging ones – so freely.
This year, on October 25, I finally registered and paid for my first very own stall at the Wellington Zinefest – after over a year of preparing my books. This is them: Free West Papua 101; How Freedom’s Won, and Sisters Speak.
Freedom zines. So imagine my surprise when, over a fortnight after my registration, on November 12, I received a letter from organiser telling me I wouldn’t be welcome at the Festival. My registration fee would be refunded.
“So what have you done to upset her?” I have been asked. Yes, the inevitable question. The question women are always asked! “What did you do to upset that person!” “What have you done to cause this!”
So okay. Despite the fact that it is clearly unreasonable to ban these handmade books from a community market, I’ll answer the question. And the answer is not so much to do with what I’ve “done to upset” this person – who I’ve only met while helping her with sponsorship for last year’s Zinefest. This is about what upsets some people about my work.
I was provided with two reasons for refunding my registration fee. The first:
When [organiser] approved your stall for this year’s Zinefest market day, she had no idea that you were the same Renee that I was in communication with earlier this year, about the competition [you ran]… This lack of communication between us, and this late notice, is our fault. We never expected you to wish to work with us again.
To explain: Wellingtonians may remember how Massey University’s Massive Magazine published its hideous issue cover in March this year, with the Manga-style pornographic image of a woman being raped from behind on the cover. For those of you who have erased it from your memories, here it is again. Behold.
I saw this magazine come out and was as offended as many other Massey students, particularly female students. So I ran a competition through the shop I work at offering Massey students an opportunity to design an alternative cover, and win a prize. I wanted to provide outraged students some platform for a response. This was my brief:
We would like to offer $100 worth of art materials to any Wellington-based Massey University student who can make an image that is an improvement on the cover of this magazine by Monday 21 March.
It needs to illustrate / acknowledge these realities:
1) rape culture and widespread objectification of women
2) increasing financial strife among large groups of students
3) the sex industry’s exploitation of these
4) that women are human beings
You may wish to add to these.
No pornography please.
The entries don’t have to be highly polished, but they do have to be smart and honest.
Please send any entries to email@example.com
And include your name.
Look forward to your entries!
A whole month later – once the palaver had all but blown over – I received an e-mail out of the blue from the Zinefest saying that “Going forward, we will no longer be collaborating with you on Wellington Zinefest events, nor will we be seeking your sponsorship for materials” because apparently, my competition “discriminated against sex workers, and served to increase the stigma that already surrounds sex work in New Zealand”.
The e-mail framed me as someone who is out to shame women who work in prostitution. Whereas if you look at the criteria I set, it is quite clear that that is not my intention at all – and those correlations – financial strife, exploitation, rape culture – all clearly exist, no matter what one’s perspective is on prostitution as an industry. And those correlations are certainly not of my making, nor can I be said to be exacerbating any of them in any way. It was Massive‘s cover that took gross advantage of women.
In any case, the Zinefest dissociated itself from my shop. That’s a bit sad, but their prerogative, and no skin off my nose. In the end that was less work and giveaways for me to worry about; I’m sure the Zinefest has all the resources it needs without my shop’s support. So, that was the end of that – until they raised it again as a reason to exclude me personally from the Zinefest.
They provided a second reason to exclude me, too.
We have already formed a working relationship with InsideOUT – they co-hosted Queer my Zine with us as part of Zinefest meets Matchbox this month – and it would be a conflict of interest to have you be part of Zinefest, due to the piece you wrote on your blog that attacked their organisation.
We feel that your presence at zinefest would jeopardise the safety of our queer and trans artists, people we have worked hard this year to protect and create a safe space for.
This refers to an article I published on my blog in October, which challenges InsideOUT and RainbowYOUTH. It includes a list of questions requesting more information about how both organisatons are addressing different problematic aspects of gender identity politics. For example, one thing I mention is how there are clear statistical patterns now showing who is undergoing transition and sex reassignment. One strong pattern is pre-adolescent boys – even pre-schooers – who do not conform to gender norms or exhibit typically “masculine” behaviour. They might like wearing dresses, or playing with toys marketed at girls. Transitioning, for many of these boys, means sterilisation. So one question I posed to InsideOUT and RainbowYOUTH, was, in sum – what are you doing to ensure that your work isn’t faciliatating eugenics? Considering that both organisations are involved with the medication of gender non-conforming young people, whichever way you look at it, this is a legitimate question and concern. Surely, wherever children are being fed cancer drugs off-label to stunt puberty, and hormones, questions can and should be raised and welcome and sought. Surely.
The Zinefest committee is telling me though, that I am “trans-exclusionary” and that I’m not “safe” for trans people to be around. So I say – okay, there is a big difference between reactionary, rude, and certainly violent, and being critical.
I certainly object to being called violent, when I am being critical. I have not threatened or hurt anyone – I’m actually trying to discuss and prevent people being endangered. I also do not see anyone else at the Zinefest having their work, outside of what they submit, being evaluated by the organising committee – only mine. That makes my exclusion an act of discrimination.
It’s fine with me if we disagree. I don’t think, though, that we are going to the Zinefest because, or so that, we can agree on every political view that each of us holds. On the contrary, I am sure there is plenty of divergence of opinion, and surely we are going to have some kind of creative and challenging discussion. My exclusion is an act of discrimination against my particular politics.
So I’m hosting my own carpark stall, called the Zinefest des Refusés. It’s there as a matter of principle, in defense of free speech, and against discrimination.
Keeping in mind too, that I am a woman being excluded for talking about sex-based oppression. It’s hardly analogous to the question of “what if some skinheads wanted to come,” or the legalise rape MRAs. By “skinheads” we normally mean white, violent men, who pose an actual threat to people who are oppressed. It would be reasonable to exclude somebody who was actually violent, or had verbally or physically intimidated or threatened to abuse somebody, or explicitly encouraged physical violence, sure. But I am a woman considering and critiquing sex-based oppression, and reading bell hooks, Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin and Audre Lorde. That’s not violence, no matter who disagrees with my views. That’s my right and obligation. Disagreement doesn’t constitute violence, either – there is simply no good reason to consider or label me threatening to anybody, unless what you really want to do is simply limit the scope of conversation.
In regards to the particular feminist views I hold, this exclusion to me is also a matter of precedent, when it comes to critiquing issues relevant to sex-based oppression, like gender identity and prostitution. You’re not allowed to do that here, and that is a problem. A spokesperson from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective went on National Radio recently and referred to sex trafficking – I’m not joking – as a “working holiday”. That’s to stifle discussion of the links between legal prostitution and trafficking – and shows how we need to open up critical discussion. With regard to gender identity politics, I know of a number of pre-school boys who are being socially transitioned into “girls” because they like looking in the girls’ section of the toy shop, and wearing pink, and dresses. That needs to be able to be critiqued in relation to our broader framing of gender and gender identity, and in relation to what we know about eugenics. We need to be able to talk about how we might be inflicting harm on children who are gender non conforming, but not “trans”. We need to be able to critique these things.
The fact that I am being excluded from the Zinefest because I am raising these concerns – the sex industry’s predation on women in poverty, the sterilsation of children – really sets a precedent in terms of conversations around sex-based oppression. We’re going to see an escalation of misogyny and violence against women, and anti-feminist sentiment to boot. So while I do find this Zinefest palaver all somewhat amusing – I also find it genuinely, deeply frightening to consider the kinds of conversations that have been deemed taboo already. The sterilisation of children. The link between legal prostitution and sex trafficking. If we cannot talk about those things within a grassroots, community forum, or even feel welcome at community events just because we’ve asked questions somewhere before…
We are in really big danger.