My complicated mourning: RIP, Adrienne Rich

I fell in love with Adrienne Rich and her poetry in the late 1980s, when I got my first job at a bookstore. I was 17, and Tim, the bookstore’s manager, put me in charge of the poetry section. Up until then, most of what I knew about poetry was stuff I had learned almost by accident on the rare occasions that I actually went to my lit classes, or what my girlfriend, who was good at school, read to me. Working the poetry section changed that by degrees – there was an awful lot of stuff I didn’t like (Rod McKuen, anyone?), but there were also books by Nikki Giovanni and Adrienne Rich, and they moved on me in deep and mysterious ways. Diving into the Wreck was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought, and when Blood, Bread, and Poetry came out that year, I bought it joyously. I had imprinted on her poetry, and now I could read her prose as well. I swallowed every word.

At the same time, I was exploring my own identity first as a young lesbian, and then as a young queer person with gender troubles. This was during the AIDS years, and I chose the label “queer” deliberately, as a signal against the homophobia that I encountered daily. Adrienne Rich taught me about my literary heritage as a woman who wrote (yes, I’m trans, so I guess technically I was a man, but I lived as a woman for most of this time, so…). She taught me how to confront and explore racism and heterosexism. She taught me how to find poetry in daily life, in tragedy, and in community. For all of this, I remain profoundly grateful.

When the news came across the internet yesterday that Adrienne Rich had died, my first response was a painful welling of sorrow that she was gone, because her contributions to American poetry and the lives of innumerable women have been uncountable. Her contribution to my own writing has been tremendous. But then I felt a different kind of sorrow, because I couldn’t just mourn her without complication. I had to ask myself about her transmisogyny, which has been largely overlooked in the wash of admiration. What I needed to know was whether or not she had ever disavowed statements about trans women in which she called them “castrated men” and other hateful things. I needed to know whether she had ever stepped back from her friendship and collaboration with Janice Raymond, who made a career out of her virulent, dangerous hatred of trans women.

I can’t just think, “Oh, well, she was a poet, and she changed poetry, so her views on trans women are private and don’t matter.” That would be dangerous, and it would also be untrue.

It’s not like Adrienne Rich existed in a vacuum, or as if she wrote a century ago. She lived and worked now. We admire Susan B. Anthony, but acknowledge her racism, to use an example from Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry. In the essay “Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life,” from 1983, Rich writes that she and her friends and colleagues were challenged to deal with the whiteness prevalent in the feminist movement, that they had to carry on Anthony’s legacy of progress while at the same time making a point of dismantling her legacy of false inclusion. In fact, part of what I find most troubling is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of Rich’s writing in the world in which she faces her own history head on. She readily accepts that she, and most other white feminists, have a lot of work to do about not merely “including,” but really listening to and welcoming people of color, not-Christians, and others into their movement. And yet…

As far as I can find, she never evolved in her stance on trans women. I have no idea what she thought about trans men (I imagine she thought we were sort of like lesbians, only confused or broken, a viewpoint I find extremely irritating when I encounter it in real life). In “Resisting Amnesia” she challenges her readers to look at their curricula, their classwork, their reading lists, and their own work and figure out which women are missing, and then to change that, with respect and sincerity. Nowhere in the list of which women are missing does she mention trans women. I gather that she believed trans women were not women, which I find both misguided and abhorrent, and that dilutes my mourning.

Does it matter? Yes. It matters because we salute her contribution, but if she had spoken out against the inclusion of African-American women or suggested that Jewish women or Latinas were somehow less than human, we would talk about that. We would critique that.

It also matters because when prominent lesbian feminists cut trans women out of the movement, their actions create a space in which transmisogyny flourishes. Especially when the method of the exclusion includes hate rhetoric like that employed by Janice Raymond and Mary Daly. In the early 1990s, I spent a lot of time working with cisgender lesbians at another bookstore, and one of the topics we discussed at length was the Michigan Womyns’ Music Festival. Now, I should mention that even without their policies on trans women, Michfest is not a place I ever would have wanted to go. Camping? In the woods? In August? With a zillion patchouli-scented women? No. So my coworkers liked to try and convince me to go, and I liked to explain all of the reasons why this was never going to happen. At some point, I learned about the trans policies (I have no idea where – possibly Outweek magazine?), and I brought this into the conversations. What I learned was that perfectly sensible, educated, brilliant, interesting women like the women I worked with thought that trans women were not women, that they had no place in womanspace, and that they themselves were comfortable supporting this view with a) myths about safety that echo today’s bathroom rhetoric and b) the sure knowledge that the cis women they admired, like Adrienne Rich, would agree with them.

Imagine how different poetry and the women’s movement would be if cisgender women like Adrienne Rich had stood up and said, “Trans women are our sisters, and they are welcome in my womanspace, and if you don’t like it, you can piss off.” Imagine what a difference it would have made for trans women who wanted to be part of the community of women, and were instead shunned and vilified. I am vastly sad that Adrienne Rich is gone, but I wish her legacy were pure, untainted by transphobia and transmisogyny. As they say, With great power comes great responsibility. She should have used hers better.

(cross posted from the Faunboy blog)

18 responses to “My complicated mourning: RIP, Adrienne Rich

  1. A friend of mine linked to this post on facebook & I had to read & comment. I also loved Adrienne Rich deeply. I’m sad to say I was unaware of her stance on trans women: typically, the topic was left out of the feminist lit courses I took & I have that privilege that allows me to not think about the issue (do we call that straight privilege? We should.).

    Your post reminded me of how confused and conflicted I felt when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. As amazed and inspired as I was by his story and all he accomplished as an activist, I just could NOT look past the fact that he was abusive to his wife & girlfriends and was pretty openly misogynist. I don’t even care if his actions took place in the context of the 1950′s–so what? Agents for social change have a responsibility to educate themselves on the groups they impact & affect.

    Nevertheless … I’m really sad to hear of Rich’s passing. Thank you for writing this post–it’s important.

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  5. To Jess Morrow: That’s not straight privilege, it’s cis-privilege.

    Thank you for writing this it’s very important.

    • Thank you for the correction there. I actually had another friend point it out to me today, and the second she said it I understood why I was using the wrong term … I need to know this stuff!

      • If I may: you don’t need to know, you just have to be willing to ask and listen.

  6. Interesting point but it’s asking for near perfection from a mega aware writer who was already tectonically shifting the status and awareness of women, lesbians, gays and so many “others” not to mention writing and living her own life. Expecting so much from one successful, radical woman is common, and we seem to not allow any mistakes from her. Rich was ONE powerful woman. She was a major shapeshifter of culture, perception and life. But where were the others to share this awareness and do the work, i.e. Standing off at the womyn’s music fest? Is it the obligation of someone like Rich to take on all of the issues of the issues too because she’s so aware. If we’re in the realm of shoulda, The other women could/should shoulder the work of the awareness and not expect so much from one woman.

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  8. Hello, and thank you for this important post – as Jess says above. I’m from a similar position on the feminist-theory front and was unaware of Rich’s lack in this area. The dialogues and discourses on trans subjectivites are found in the queer schools in academia, not necessarily feminist or women’s writing…it’s a silence, and silencing that needs to be opened up, illuminated and recognised.

    This said, I am a woman with MRKH – we are born without a uterus and vagina, and part of the journey of this condition for me has very much been in working out where I could be as a ‘woman,’ it was a category that didn’t seem to include me for many years. When feminist-spiritual stuff starts harping on about the unifying possibilities of wombs and menstruation, women like me and like you are totally alienated. What then? Are they wrong? Are they simply writing from a place that is of its time, partially ignorant without even knowing it?

    Rich’s book ‘Of Woman Born’ really opened up my eyes to the power of discourses surrounding the maternal, and in turn the feminine. However, she has obviously made huge oversights herself… This does not detract for me from the healing power that text had/has in my life because I’m a magpie, a gleaner, and I am content to pick the ideas from authors and artists that appeal and leave the others. We are so diverse and complex, wouldn’t it be self-defeating to only fully appreciate the works of those whose ideals are only fully aligned with our own? It can’t make me mourn her with any less feeling.

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  10. I continue to be blown away that a woman, both progressive and representative of her time could be so vilified so quickly with no discussion of her alliance work. What makes me really sick is that the text was from 1979. Most people haven’t even read it. She helped with the editing, and yes quite likely she held that position. Do we know her position at 82?

    Further could she have been allowed to change her position with the way “Transsexual Empire is held up as the ONE text? It’s as if it’s the `One Ring’ that once a person holds it, it will take over your thoughts! I think of how it is not publicly available and in a search in my state/province I can find more copies of Mein Kampf available. So is this text so influential or should I step faster to reading Dean Spade’s Normal Life on Administrative violence to see where the real issue of transphobia lies?

    What kills me, as a woman, as a lesbian and as a person of colour is the invocation of race as an equalizer – when it is not dealt with equally. The truth is, I could blow up so many obituaries in the queer community on the topic of race.

    What becomes even more apparent to me in the dismissal is how race and trans-ness come together every year in the Trans Day of Rememberance where racialized names are stumbled over and what’s highlighted the serious issue of folks incorrectly identified as male being killed for stepping over the gender boundary imposed by society. However, after so many years of attending TDOR it is rarely pointed out this intersection. Race matters, but it really doesn’t in the general queer community so let’s just own that shit right now as a group.

    For straight people out there wondering what the hell they stepped into. QUEERS don’t have their shit together around race as much as you might think they have what with being sexual minorities and all. No joke.

    So what do I need to call out more? The overwhelmingly white queer/trans community silence or overt racism? How do either plau out at TDOR on some more murdered than others?

    Or do I need to call out Adrienne Rich and other women of her time who’s push around gender actually is the precedent for public dialogue on how we see gender actually is part of how we are where we are now in understanding the boxes aren’t real?

    Perhaps everyone is at fault. Perhaps we can only hold one piece at a time and therefore where Adrienne and her colleagues worked on race and made public alliances that were deep and meaningful. We now have trans-issues as what is labelled as more important for public loyalty.

    So I get to read the slippery slope which is an indirect attack – by erasure -of her commitment to people of colour.

    I think when I read these `complicated’ pieces I see what’s missing is the dialogue around her work with Audre Lorde for example on issues of race and gender and sexuality. But geez, that get’s left out and she’s just listed as a `poet’ and for current generations of queers all they get to see is her listed as transphobic.

    It’s an utter disgrace, and reminds me that the days of actually cracking a book open and knowing what you are reading before talking about it have been killed via quick short wiki search references which are totally lacking. Before you slice her – READ what she said because right now, all I am seeing is wiki (jesus, it’s now god’s bible right?) quotes on what Janice Raymond said about her.

    Here’s what I think. If you can cut down Adrienne Rich utterly- rightwinger delight in it. You form the attack they don’t have to formulate. You say that her lifework to be an ally to herself, to people of colour, and to the word and experience of *some* women is INVALID.

    What are you telling me: When I put myself out there, my printed word can come back to haunt me, that my association with my friends will be put on trial even if folks have no idea if we struggled and disagreed?

    You are telling me that TRANSPHOBIA matters more than RACISM and that a few lines of acknowledgement from a vilified author can destroy people’s right to mourn another writer’s passing?

    So, something written 33 years ago, that is an important text relative to feminist theory but insignificant relative to administrative laws of the society can wipe out someone entire body of written worth?

    I can see some budding authors withering and dying on the limb of poison. I can see certain exploratory texts being ghosted and therefore we will continue not to have space for people to figure things out.

    Trust me, as a Black lesbian I have to make space for countless white people every day with little manouever room for my own mistakes from the system.

    Every day I have to make some room in myself to be called out on my cis-gendered privilege.

    So, how do you want to work this thing? Shame elders entirely but leave them no room to talk things through because they should be with it already? What I’d like is to be able to support Michelle Cliff mourn. Then I’d like to think that somewhere, there’s a modicum of respect in the community for what Adrienne’s personal papers would reveal. if all you are hunting for is her position on trans – you will have missed the point of much of her life and the context she existed in.

    One woman. People, she was just one woman. If you don’t want POC to jack one person up for the whole system of white privilege then THINK this through, seriously.

    I really appreciate David Beck’s comment on this site:

    I’d say it’s not the only thing that matters. Ever. Check your TDOR list please and then return to considering you, your actions and your capacity to be intersectional.

    Did Adrienne Rich fail on this at the end of her life? I DON’T KNOW.

    Was she working on other intersectionalities? YES

    Does working through your process on trans publicly possibly get you beaten up? The answer is not looking good to me, not in the last 20 yrs.

    How do we want to care for the living elderly in our communities? How do we want to treat their complicated lives? How do we want to treat the long learning curve that is this life?

    I don’t know how to answer this, but as someone who has sat with the dying and the dead. It’s awfully quiet, except sometimes for the labouring breath where our mortality is so clearly fragile. The reality of that fragility so stark not just at this closing but clearly through the whole extension and expression of being.

    You don’t get to take back the hard words you say and you never said it to her face when she was alive. This is like someone digging up some muck to thriow and frankly I’m not sure if it’s hers.

    I suppose her estate, her family,her children, her life partner weren’t even a thought.

    Here’s my commitment, as someone who’s had to write more obituaries than she’d ever dreamed she’d have to do in my process of assessment and as a part of how I want to move forward with memory. I riff Dorothy Allison:

    I will give up nothing. I will give up no-one.

    So I’m taking some time and I’ll be putting Dean Spade beside Janice Raymond and when I am done reading both of those texts with that I’ll spend long moment with Adrienne Rich’s work and some to be named current poet or poetry I might find talking about this business.

    Maybe, if I’m not to freaked out by the response to this… It might just be me.

    Good luck to all of us thinking it through from our varied positions.

  11. “When I put myself out there, my printed word can come back to haunt me”

    Well, of course. And if I advocate bigotry publicly then hopefully when I see the harm I’ve done, I’ll retract it publicly too.

    But no one here is giving up Adrienne Rich. The OP says he is mourning her and I believe him. Some people think we should never speak ill of the dead but I think we can honor them and recall their greatness without pretending they did no harm and harbored no bigotry.

  12. Thank you very, very much for this piece. For your honesty, for your nuance, for your voice.

    “When the news came across the internet yesterday that Adrienne Rich had died, my first response was a painful welling of sorrow that she was gone, because her contributions to American poetry and the lives of innumerable women have been uncountable. Her contribution to my own writing has been tremendous. But then I felt a different kind of sorrow, because I couldn’t just mourn her without complication.”

    When I heard that she had died, I cried. For all the reasons you lay out here. And I find it heartbreaking that someone who’s related to Adrienne Rich’s work in the same way I have, who has felt in her voice the same kind of lifesaving truth of the heart that I did, has to be mired in a grief for our shared heroine that’s so complicated by that heroine’s rejection.

    What a shame. What a damn shame.

    I’m so sorry.

    The other thing I felt at Adrienne’s passing, immediately after the sudden and deep grief, was a kind of paralyzing fear: “It’s up to us, now. It’s up to *me*.” Somehow, when the voices who have been brave for you, who have blazed and cleared the path you walk, are still in this world, you feel — or *I* have felt, at any rate — slightly less responsible for blazing it, myself. Slightly less responsible for finding and clearing the tangled and the dangerous underbrush in the way of my own generation’s walk to freedom; slightly less the one who must burn away from our feet everything that conspires to hide the snares and traps and pitfalls in our way.

    But we are, I am, you are the one who will do that work in *this* world. In our world, not Adrienne’s. And perhaps I’m wrong to fear that responsibility. Because you’re right — those we have leaned on left people behind. I think we can be everlastingly grateful for their work, and still acknowledge that truth. They left people behind. People like you. They left *you* behind.

    It’s our time. It’s our work, now. Let’s decide we’re unwilling to leave *anyone* behind. Let’s clear a wider path.

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