In Search of Our Queer Gardens: Adrienne Rich

Editor’s note: Two extra sources and a paragraph working them into the post were added a few hours after the post first went up.

As I’m sure most of you already know, last Wednesday the world lost feminist poet and gay rights activist Adrienne Rich. She was 82. I had planned to write this post on Rich last week before receiving the news that she had passed; and this, plus something else that has come to light to me since her death has caused this post to be delayed and almost not written at all.

I had fully intended to write a post about my personal (and limited) experience with Rich’s work: the poetry I had read, her essays on feminist thought and action and her classic work on the institution of motherhood, Of Woman Born. This was complicated by the sad news of her passing: I by no way could write a memorandum appropriate for Rich’s breadth of work and activism. It was further complicated when I was informed, that very Wednesday night, of accusations of transphobia lodged against Rich and her participation in the creation of Janice Raymond’s nefarious and hateful 1979 text, The Transexual Empire. This woman, whose achievements are beyond comparison in both the realms of poetry and activism, had just died. Why drudge up a part of her history  that can make it appear that I’m speaking ill of the dead, or being disrespectful? At this very moment I’m still wavering on even publishing this piece, but I know, as well as we all do, that ignoring something does not wish it away and that includes the painful and exclusionary parts of our collective feminist history. Also, ignorance is a matter of privilege: there are numerous women and transfolk who cannot ignore this, whose lives have been impacted by this.

This is not an easy post to write by any means, but let’s dive into the wreck.

I first discovered Rich’s poetry about a year ago while doing research for academic articles on singer/songwriter PJ Harvey for a project that has been set aside for the time being. One critic used Rich’s poem “Diving Into The Wreck” as a method of interpreting Harvey’s debut album Dry and the excerpts from the poem used in the article struck me as something I needed to read on my own. Rich’s wordplay and her economic use of words appealed to me immediately. A few weeks later, I was in a bookstore browsing for poetry and Rich’s name danced through my memory, a breathy sigh from my subconscious. They only had one of her collections, The Dream of a Common Language and while I was initially disappointed that it was not Diving Into The Wreck, this would soon be dispelled upon opening the book in front of me. My favorite Rich poem is still the one that I read first and was also the first in that collection. Titled “Power” it told the painful history of Marie Curie and again, I was awestruck by Rich’s methods. (I have not quoted the poem in its entirety in this post because of fear of infringing on any copy rights, but please click on the link and read the poem, as I will be referring to it later.)

Flash-forward a few months later, and I encounter Rich again in a Feminist Literary Criticism course. Her essay, “The Politics of Location” articulated the need for us to identify the intersectionalities of our privilege or lack there-of in order to better place ourselves in a social-justice framework. For example: I am a white, American, middle-class, able-bodied genderqueer male who presents as male and so I still benefit from male privilege (just not heterosexual privilege.) She really emphasized the importance of nation in one’s privilege, something that I still find largely lacking in some of our social-justice conversations and dialogues. I remember loving the essay, I found her personal narratives to be striking and an effective tool for admitting to privilege, to making oneself culpable and accountable for their actions, and in a non-“you should be ashamed of being privileged” way.

And so, it is this idea of accountability that I am carrying with me throughout this post. Not accountability in a shaming way or an effort to besmirch someone and their character, but accountability in a way that lets us learn (and heal) from the past and move forward into the future.

The dilemma, then, of the accusations of transphobia. In this great piece titled “Adrienne Rich and Transmisogyny: We Can Begin by Acknowledging That it Matters” (which I strongly encourage you to read because it masterfully addresses what I am trying to and also delves into the painful history of The Transexual Empire), blogger tenderqueer writes that:

When all is said and done, the conversation we need to have isn’t about Adrienne Rich as a person. It’s about our communities, movements, and transmisogyny.

kiriamaya said it best:

“We (trans* people) are not angry that y’all didn’t know that Rich was a TERF. We’re angry that you don’t seem to think it matters.”   (TERF = Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist)

And I don’t think that I could sum it up any better. It is our duty to acknowledge that history, to unpack it, examine it and see that we learn and heal from it. When comments like this are written in response to tenderqueer’s post, our mission is evident:

Everytime a lesbian dies, someone is sure to ask “But what about the male born?!1?”


Yeah, what about meeee????? So what if one of the great poets of our time was not only a feminist, but a Lesbian feminist? So what if the contribution she made to the literature and to the women’s movement will live forever? SO WHAT? SHE WAS CRITICAL OF TRANS_____!!! MEEE MEEE MEEEEEEEEE!!!!

To act as if acknowledging the transphobia of a generation of our feminist ancestors (some, like Germaine Greer, who are still living) comes at the expense of the achievements they made on behalf of cisgender straight women and lesbians is a grave mistake.  The very fear that acknowledging a minorities’ oppression comes at the expense of a larger majority is how oppression functions  and comments and attitudes like the ones shown above are emblematic of a resistance to acknowledge privilege and not doing so comes at the expense of transfolk’s livelihoods and rights.

To return to Rich’s poem “Power”, the first two lines:

Living   in the earth deposits   of our history

Today a backhoe divulged   out of a crumbling flank of earth 
The backhoe divulged a painful history that we may wish to look away from. What do we do with it?
As tenderqueer pointed out, we need to look at our “communities [and] movements”, but we also refuse to let this history be buried again under “a crumbling flank of earth.” This isn’t about painting Rich as a terrible person or evicting her from our history. This is about holding ourselves accountable in the moment, and holding our history accountable as we currently write our own histories. We cannot afford to continue to silence our peers who are not cisgendered. In the classroom, in consciousness raising groups and in conversations with each other we need to begin to make our best efforts to include being cisgendered in our politics of location. If we don’t talk about it, the privilege continues to be “normalized.”
The ending lines of “Power” describe the tragedy of scientist Marie Curie:
She died   a famous woman   denying
her wounds
her wounds   came   from the same source as her power
This weekend I was at the South Eastern Women’s association conference along with some JMU faculty and students, and I conferred with a number of them on how I should approach this post. If I was to write about Rich in my Queer Arts series, I could not withhold my knowledge of this history of transphobia. One faculty member told me something along the lines of (I’m paraphrasing) “We don’t come in pieces, we are whole” and this is something that I have considered deeply in writing this post. If we are to look at cisgender identity as being a privilege and can be used as a means to maintain “power”, and a transphobic history as “wounds” of a sort (our wounds, the wounds of our history, the wounds of exclusionary politics that cost transwomen’s lives) then these “wounds […] came from the same source of […] power.” Those wounds can only be healed by airing out this painful past. We cannot afford to ignore this, and if we do it is only to retain a hierarchical power structure that continues to advance the needs of the cisgendered. It would be to the absolute detriment of all. Blogger rafeposey, in his post titled “My Complicated Mourning: RIP Adrienne Rich” writes that:
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.
And it is absolutely necessary that we do. If we do not, then all our talk of inclusion and equality is nothing but empty talk. Feministing added an addendum  addressing the history of transphobia that their commentators had to bring up in their memorandum for Rich, but no separate post has been made, nor have I found any links on their website to any posts that explore it in more depth more than their mere editorial footnote. We need to do a better job at making sure that this is addressed, or we have failed our movement. It is that simple.
How then, does this fit into my continuing series on the Queer Arts? I didn’t examine any of Rich’s poems on lesbianism, nor her essays on compulsive heterosexuality, which was my initial plan. In the advent of her unfortunate death, I am sure there are numerous articles that examine these, such as this one. If part of my growing intention in this haphazard journey is to show how the formerly voiceless are using their voices, then it is my personal duty to talk back to a voice we are probably quite familiar with: a voice that we can cherish, that we can love and that we can celebrate but none-the-less a voice that we cannot spare from interrogation when it has participated in oppressive politics. If we are all striving to equalize and destabilize power structures, we need to attend within.

One thought on “In Search of Our Queer Gardens: Adrienne Rich

  1. I really enjoyed reading this tribute. I think it’s true that while we mourn the loss of a truly inspiring advocate for the LGBTQ community and the feminist movement, I believe it’s more important to push forward with the views and activism she dedicated her life to teaching the world. I love the fact that she focused much of her effort on transgender equality, definitely a community that needs particular support. Rest in peace Adrienne Rich.


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