Shannon Gomes & Aria: Missing the boat

That Labour Day here commemorates riots that immolated a police officer makes me proud this little place handed flag-and-anthem independence has an official holiday to celebrate the violence, contradictions and messiness of our history of change-making and justice-seeking, which get erased daily by postcolonial amnesia. This past fortnight that was in throbbing evidence all over social media and talk radio, as a nation of people who accept daily injustice and inefficiency with complacency turned into eager jurors of social activism.

A young woman, who it seems dresses like Pennelope Beckles, lined up when one of the trendiest Ariapita Avenue clubs, like many others, advertised “Ladies Free”. But the bouncer treated her “in a manner that was equal to a man,” the club said, because “Ms. Gomes attempted to enter the club wearing male clothing.” They defended their decision to charge her the men’s admission price, saying doing otherwise would be “discriminating against the other females” and lamented that she didn’t grasp their clear logic. But, they hastened to clarify, “Our club welcomes all types of people” “regardless of…ethnicity, background or sexual preference.” “We are part of a very unique and diverse society and we aim to only foster unity rather than hate.”

Offended, the young woman posted a public account of the snub on social media, which quickly became a news-story. Another young woman, Stephanie Leitch, a self-declared feminist and lesbian who recently incorporated an NGO that began as a Facebook group, announced Womantra would protest the young woman’s treatment. And protest they did, to considerable media attention.

Two things seemed manifest. Particular details, the women free thing, what dress code rules were posted, speculations about sexual orientation, didn’t matter much. For me, Shannon Gomes was simply “everybody who has ever been profiled or cheapened or insulted or humiliated trying to get into a club. It is about all the dehumanising practices that clubs practise”, I told one newsreporter.

The second thing that struck me was that these two young women’s responses seemed as remarkable as Kurt Allen stopping on a highway to rescue an unknown woman fleeing violence. Instead of being silent victims or bystanders to the way things are, of upholding injustice with a shrug that “Those are the rules”, a young woman who felt wronged by an establishment turned to social media to shame the club and mobilise scorn; another young woman led a group of other women, calling themselves feminists, to take action; and despite quite a bit of ridicule, including in these pages, they did.

Simple, small acts of resistance that would be unremarkable, were it not for our persistent amnesia, the Shannon Gomes-Aria incident seemed a bald model for social action. And, it turns out, a hugely missed opportunity for national solidarity. What happened instead was we quickly all became bouncers guarding the ropes of the status quo, or the boundaries of our own social worlds. People who’ve never protested anything became sudden arbiters of what is legitimate or tactical social protest.

She just wanted to enjoy privilege and get in the in-crowd free, and we’re protesting she couldn’t? She want to act and dress like a man, then get treat like a woman? Typical feminist double standard: they never thought to protest for men, the real victims of the policy. And don’t feminists have more important issues to protest than a bouncer—weren’t women beaten and killed last week? Besides, clubs have posted rules: don’t want to follow them—spend your money elsewhere. Even if what happened was unfair, it’s not strategic to waste scarce LGBTI scarce social capital on it. Why is being Black being equated with being gay, which you can hide? She skipped her own protest?

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Aria’s “dress code” wasn’t posted, Womantra did protest “women free” club policies; but we’ve also entirely missed the point. That clubs’ capriciousness in humiliating so many of us across so many differences with their door policies could unite us powerfully in creating a kind of public justice we want, regardless to their private status. And that openings for social change are never ideal, always messy, and opportunities random. Comparing Gomes and Leitch to Rosa Parks (whose action wasn’t happenstance) or Mohamed Bouazizi is silly. But just what ignites justice movements? Why didn’t this spark more of a sense of shared outrage, an eagerness to hold clubs accountable? Do we all just want to be the ones inside?

Several discerning commentators helped broaden the debateRhoda Bharath, Rachael Espinet, BC Pires, Sunity Maharaj; several others needed to be holier-than-thou, judging what’s “right” social action.

But there were lessons. Nickolai Salcedo questioned the protest, a young man in his Facebook thread too young to remember 1970s Black Power calling me an amnesiac African, whining there’d never been a protest “as effective” about racism—something Leitch might take as a compliment. Salcedo later posted: “I posted something earlier today that appeared to incite hurt and spread ignorance…I am glad to know that women went out with the WOMANTRA organization to protest against persistent sex and gender based inequalities in our society. They took a stand. We need more people that are willing to do so.”

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