Navigating Care in our Queer & Feminist Circles
History & Concept of Care
A sexist and essentialist background
Care as a psychological concept originates from a study on moral development in teenagers led by Lawrence Kohlberg in 1958. For his research, he faced young people with ethical dilemmas to gauge their “morality”. Later, psychologist Carol Gilligan studied the gender differences in Kholberg’s ethical dilemma responses, concluding that there was a difference between men and women when it comes to moral decision-making: men would be more “logical”, while women would base their decision on social aspects. In her 1982 book “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development”, she thus established a new moral paradigm stemming from the priority given to interpersonal relationships: the ethics of care. This approach is however limited because it is decontextualized, as well as greatly essentialist. Nevertheless, it served as a basis for a more global and critical approach to care and the importance we give to it in Western societies.
The Feminist & Political Approach to Care
Researcher Joan Tronto later reemployed Gilligan’s argument from a political sciences perspective, allowing a broader and more constructivist approach to care. She offers four different aspects of care: caring about, taking care of, caregiving, and care receiving. She calls for a “Caring democracy” that rehabilitates care and concern for others in opposition to liberalism which favors individualism and excludes vulnerability from the public space. Building a caring society also allows us to fight against the economic inequalities caused by the devaluation of care work, whether it is professional (like healthcare or domestic workers), or domestic.
Community care as a necessary alternative
In queer and/or BIPOC community spaces, care has been valued and practiced long before it was theorized as LGBTIQ+ and/or people of color have been excluded from traditional care systems. Because of the discrimination faced in institutionalized care services, community healthcare run by members of the community was created instead. As a lot of queer people cannot depend on the traditional family system as well to receive care due to the rejection faced, community care in all its aspects has become central. Despite this particular history, we are however not immune to the individualistic vision of the neo-liberal and capitalist societies in which we grew up and live. It is thus essential to reflect on our current practices to see the real extent we apply care principles in our spaces.
Care in action: do we really apply care practices & create caring environments?
On the excessive use of “caring” and “safe” spaces to absolve oneself
Although, undoubtedly, there is a greater emphasis on care in our communities than in society as a whole, queer spaces are far from being irreproachable. We can argue that the idea of care has become “trendy” rather than being a real critical approach and truly translating into our practices. Queer events, organizations, and venues often use “care” as a keyword, as they do with “safe space”. This usage is often more a way of avoiding responsibility than of genuinely taking a critical and caring approach to the management of these groups and spaces. Claiming to be “caring” and “safe” also makes it more challenging to address problems of violence: it shuts down any discussion, not giving people the space to freely talk about the issues they might face. No one and no place is “safe”: to argue otherwise is to turn a blind eye. Care can only exist through the sustenance of free discussion and by allowing contradiction, which brings me to a crucial point.
Care also means conflict
And conflict is not aggression. Because we have been subjected to more violence than average, we queer people tend to be more sensitive to conflict and perceive it as aggression. This is also true for people coming from privileged backgrounds, who are not used to being contradicted and thus perceive it as violent. It is, however, crucial not to avoid conflict, as it often means overlooking people’s feelings and reproducing domination dynamics: if there is no contradiction, it often means we are not receptive to minority opinions, experiences, and feelings. On top of allowing conflict to take place healthily, making our spaces truly caring also implies looking at who is doing all the care work.
Who is really doing the care work?
In her works, Joan Tronto stresses that care is socially divided according to gender, race, and class. Women and people of color are overrepresented in care work, which is devalued and badly paid. Outside of the professional context, because of the patriarchal and colonial basis of our Western societies, we also tend to associate women and people of color as the ones who should be in charge of unpaid care work (taking care of children, cleaning, cooking…). This translates into our queer spaces, where it is more often than not those same minorities who take up all the mental load associated with the care work needed. We have to constantly evaluate the division of care work if we want to create spaces that are truly caring.
Striking a Balance: Accountability, Discomfort, and Self-Care
All in all, it is important to look further than simply labeling our spaces as caring after adding a “safe team” to our parties or sharing leaflets and Instagram posts on non-violent communication. As necessary as those two things are, they are the bare minimum and are not sufficient to create a caring environment.
To create more caring spaces is to consistently discuss with others, to take a step back to assess with vigilance, to hold yourself accountable, and to embrace discomfort. It is also important to care for ourselves, while still reminding ourselves that self-care and care for others are not mutually exclusive: we have to always be wary of the individualistic and consumerist approach to self-care fed to us on social media.
But care is not only about the more difficult parts: it’s also about having fun and creating space for celebration and lighthearted moments, which are so crucial in our paths of struggle.
Tronto, Joan C. « Du care », Revue du MAUSS, vol. 32, no. 2, 2008.
Jay Keim, Caring Queer Feminist Communities, 2014.
Schulman Sarah, Conflict is not abuse: Overstating harm, community responsibility, and the duty of repair. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2016.