Now that I’m over sixty, I get a discount on Interrail passes. Since I’ve never been particularly good at math, I probably ended up spending that discount multiple times over during my travels in October, but I don’t regret the costs at all. During two weeks in October I had the privilege of visiting three different worlds, and even though I was sick and broke by the time I returned home to Linz, being able to visit these worlds was absolutely worth it.
Transition I: Linz to Bologna
Originally, I had hoped to be traveling with a large group, but October proved to be difficult for too many other people, so I ended up traveling alone – alone with my memories. Memories of Innsbruck, arriving in Innsbruck and leaving Innsbruck, memories of Südtirol, Alto Adagio, the German-speaking region of Northern Italy, memories of traveling around Italy with Peter …
When I arrived at the station in Bologna, my friend Helen was waiting to meet me and take me to the flat we were to share with three other friends for the week. I’ve been living alone with my cats for nearly seven years now. Sharing a flat with four entertaining flatmates as though we were young college girls again was so much fun.
The World of /etc @ XM24
The Eclectic Tech Carnival (/etc) has always been my world. It brings together everything that I love, that matters most to me. It is a celebration of the ideals of Free Software, a respectful, non-commercial Internet, activism and creativity and endless tinkering for the good of a broken world, and it is a feminist space, a space to explore, learn and just breathe and feel accepted. After co-organizing the /etc 2007 in Linz, I had the pleasure of writing a longer essay about the history and background of the /etc for the online journal Transversal, “Things Can Break”, because it means so much to me.
We had not held an /etc for several years, and it seemed that perhaps our time had ended, but as more and more women expressed a need for another /etc, a small group of us met earlier this year in Brussels to explore the possibilities, and when the possibility of holding an /etc at the social center XM24 in Bologna in October emerged, it seemed a perfect opportunity for me, offering everything I wanted to do with my new retirement.
Since the process of becoming retired turned out to be a bit more complicated than I had expected, I was not able to be as much involved in the preparations as I had hoped, but the women from XM24 were so dedicated and energetic and other women involved in past /etc’s were able to be so supportive that everything came together wonderfully. It was exactly what I had been wishing for, what I needed most, and I am still deeply grateful to everyone involved in making this happen.
Although we have always adhered to certain core principles, every /etc is different, because every organizing group is different, every location is different. The conditions, possibilities and opportunities are always different, and this combination of difference and recurrent themes and principles is always fascinating. Of course that was also true of /etc @ XM24. Following from our more intense online contact with the women of XM24, it was a bit surprising (for me, at least) that XM24 turned out to be such a palpably male-dominated space. I found myself wondering sometimes whether the Left has really learned nothing since the 1960s, whether even the most idealistic, progressive cis-hetero men will ever learn to critically reflect on the many ways they occupy too much space. Until they do, those of us who are not cis-hetero males are still stuck with the problem of trying to claim, define, defend, occupy spaces for ourselves in different ways. In the 1980s and 90s it still seemed to make sense to create women-only spaces, even though I have meanwhile learned to understand, as an old (white, cis-hetero female) feminist, that we inadvertently created other mechanisms of exclusion, which were not intended and which we now have to learn to rectify. For ten years now, the Eclectic Tech Carnival has been grappling with the problem of naming who is invited into our space and who is not, and at /etc @ XM24 it became evident that we have still not quite solved that problem yet. In Brussels we came up with the self-description “We are a collective body of feminists with a particular history, chewing on the roots of patriarchy”, and I felt certain that must be sufficient, but apparently not. One of the men who joined us was clearly in the right place, a beautiful wounded soul certainly in need of the kind of “safer space” we have been working to create, and he was very sensitive to contexts and situations, understanding when he was welcome to join the conversation and when it was time for him to go and find something to clean or help prepare food. He understands the need for these kinds of spaces and he even understands how to help make them. Another man, who had come with his partner, also proved to be supportive and unobtrusive, and despite my initial skepticism, I was happy to see that it was working with him. A third man took part in one of the first workshops marked as “mixed” (“non-mixed” = women and LGBTQ only) and gave us an outstanding demonstration of why we have always sought to exclude cis-hetero men with their typical behaviors. Although I’m not sure he was even intentionally in the room (I thought he might have been a local who was asked to help with a connection problem and just stayed out of curiosity), almost as soon as the presentation about VPN began, he started interrupting, playing the old, boring game of pretending to ask questions in order to show off his own technical knowledge and undermine the speaker’s authority. In conversations later, it turned out that many of us were immediately irritated, but hesitated to tell him to shut up, because the speaker was doing such a great job of shutting him down herself. Finally one of the younger women sternly asked him to keep his detailed questions for a private conversation with the speaker later, because the rest of us wanted to hear her presentation. I had the impression he seemed a bit startled to realize that nobody in the room was even remotely impressed and managed to keep his mouth shut after that.
The fourth man who, for some incomprehensible reason, felt addressed by our call for participation, turned out to be the epitome of the type of people I personally want to keep out of our space. I’ve seen this type so many times before, they always irritate me, and I’ve tried so many times to describe what these guys are like and why I don’t want them in my space, even though I don’t usually object to them in other spaces. Often they wear skirts or make-up or pigtails, exhibiting external markers of being “not like other men”, but beyond these external markers they exhibit exactly the same behaviors as more traditional men, whether they are the more open-minded “helps with housework” types or clueless machos: they have the same insatiable need for female attention. And because they present themselves as feminists, allies, whatever, they get that attention and end up having a decidedly divisive effect. Just before I left Bologna, I was very unhappy to find myself arguing with a young woman about this fourth man, when we had so many more important things to talk about. She took the position that we have to be nice to allies, welcome them and help them learn. I hated hearing the anger in my own voice as I argued: “But he’s not. He is not listening, not learning, not interested in anything we have to say; he’s just wandering around looking for someone to listen to him, and all his so-called contributions are essentially no more than mansplaining in a wheedling voice!” Men like that are one of my personal pet peeves, because it invariably infuriates me when they so often succeed in monopolizing women’s attention that would be better focused elsewhere. Maybe we need to move away from gender identities and focus more on the learned behaviors. The particular space of the Eclectic Tech Carnival is so valuable and important to me that I simply cannot surrender it to needy men.
Yet despite these unresolved problems, the Eclectic Tech Carnival in Bologna was inspiring, motivating, wonderful and rich. The full program offered everything I could have hoped for: workshops and presentations on security/encryption, Free Software, feminism, programming, managing online identities … I was able to fill in some of the gaps I had been stuck with and find new starting points for further explorations. As one person said in our closing assembly, she appreciated an opportunity to present a topic she is extremely interested in, even though she doesn’t know everything about it. I felt the same way about my workshop on the history of Linux, as I had been feeling overwhelmed and insecure about the details I don’t have a firm grasp on, but it turned out to be enough to move into a fantastic conversation at the end about a “future feminist history of Linux”, a history that I seriously want to help write.
And we are not finished: there is a strong drive to continue and to have another Eclectic Tech Carnival in yet another different place. The interest and enthusiasm of the many young women taking part in an /etc for the first time was a powerful affirmation that this still matters and we still have much to share and learn and work on together. In the end I left with my bag full of stickers, folders, copious notes, and my head filled with ideas and inspiration. It was everything I had hoped for.