24 de Enero: ¿Qué quiere decir ‘extremo’?
Over the time that I have spent conducting research on women and gender in Bolivia, I have had the opportunity speak with scores of activists in the local feminist community, representing a variety of different organizations. Some of these organizations work on sexual and reproductive rights; many aim to reduce violence against women; others focus on increasing women’s political participation; still others target a specific demographic, such as campesina or indigenous women. Many of these organizations work on a combination of issues.
Since I first set foot in La Paz in January 1999, countless individuals–feminists and not-so-feminists, taxi drivers and newspaper vendors, restauranteurs and health care providers–have informed me in hushed tones that the organization Mujeres Creando is the “most extreme” of La Paz’s feminist groups. (See http://www.mujerescreando.org/)
But why “extreme”? What exactly does “extreme” mean in this context? The home of Mujeres Creando–a sizable building on 20 de Octubre street, called Virgen de los Deseos–houses a health-food restaurant, a hostel for visitors, a small shop and bookstore, a public shower, a low-cost clinic, and childcare for its guests. The organization holds seminars and workshops on a variety of themes, offers literacy classes, publishes magazines and books, and maintains a radio station, Radio Deseo 103.3 FM. None of these activities seem exactly “out of control.” Perhaps so many describe Mujeres Creando as “extreme” because of their raucous street performances, where women occasionally appear in their underwear? Or because they dare to call Bolivia’s popular indigenous president, Evo Morales, machista? (A recent protest circulated pamphlets imagining what Evo’s life would have been like had he been born a woman. An accompanying graffiti read, “No saldrá Eva de la costilla de Evo,” or, “Eva will not emerge from Evo’s rib.”) Or maybe the organization seems extreme because one of its founders sports an unusual haircut and dark eye makeup–María Galindo often shaves one side of her head.
Eventually, I gave up guessing why so many paceñas refer to Mujeres Creando as the “most extreme” of the local feminist organizations, and simply asked. The response, after much hemming and hawing, usually read like this: “Well, you know, they make women’s issues about being lesbian;” or, “They’re always so public about being lesbians;” or, “They just don’t like men at all.”
It is true that some of Mujeres Creando‘s current and former leadership is lesbian-identified. The organization was originally founded by María Galindo and her then-partner Julieta Paredes. After the couple split, Galindo continued as a central figure in Mujeres Creando, while Paredes moved into other areas of feminist activism. So, those are the facts.
And the fallacies? The manias, the myths, the “extremeness”? It seems that, to your average paceña–even to some feminist activist paceñas–the mere existence of a couple of women organizers who do not have sex with men (and who have sex with women) is so unthinkable, that it makes the entire organization “extreme.” Extreme, meaning = unreasonable, not representative of “real” women’s concerns, and perhaps, dismissible.
Recently, on my way up to El Alto, the trufi in which I was traveling passed the following graffiti:
“You have to be brave to be a fag. Mujeres Creando.”
Mujeres Creando‘s graffiti are often full of puns, word games, and double entendres, and this one is no exception. In a country where maricón, like fag in the U.S., is often used to describe an “unmanly man”–the opposite, perhaps, of a brave man–the organization points out a definite reality: that actually, one DOES have to be brave to be a fag. Gays, lesbians, transgendered, and gender-queers around the world face discrimination and violence, making the act of being open and out one of bravery and defiance.
However, as I read this, another thought occurred to me: perhaps this phrase also expresses the reality that Mujeres Creando and its members–gay and straight–face daily. Perhaps in Bolivia, where being gay–or even being part of an organization whose leadership is gay–means being labeled as “extreme” (again, = unreasonable, dismissible), you DO have to be brave. You have to be brave to be out: as a fag, as a feminist, and even, as a woman.