Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why do I still have to argue that it's wrong to expect people to work without payment?


I was asked to perform this week . As an LGBT performer at a poetry event. By a colleague I like and respect and for a cause that passionately I believe in.

“We promise to promote you thoroughly” the invitation went but as it's free event there will be no payment involved.

Of course Of course there was no payment involved. I didn’t expect any. It was if both the “no payment” and the” of course” were taking for granted somehow.

Generally I accept these invitations without thinking about it too much. 

Especially when they come from an organisation that is supposed to be on my side. And in many ways actually is. i think...

And anyway for a long time I thought so poorly of my performance skills it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for payment. 

And besides, having  suffered so much when I was young because there were no trans people visible anywhere, it feels important to me to be out there. 

Important to be visible, important to be proud. Important to show that there is an alternative to hiding away in fear and in shame. Important just to be normal.  Being there matters.It’s part of the job somehow.

So I was about to say yes when I started thinking. And then paused.

I was thinking that the event was going happen in a pub and so would make money for the pub’s management. I was thinking the event was going to happen in a back room of the pub and it wouldn't be hard to charge admission.

And I remembered I'm a member of the actors union. Of Equity. And if ever anyone tries to suggest that we should perform for no money there is the most massive uproar. And rightly so.

And then I remembered I am also a member of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, and how long and how hard we fought to establish the principle the writing is a skill and needs to be properly paid for. 

And that trying to build an industry or develop an art form on the basis of unpaid labour is a disaster for all concerned.

So I paused some more.

Did the fact that I was being asked as a poet and performer, and a LGBT poet and performer… did that make it different? Did that make it right for me to be expected to perform for no money? 

When this is, after all, my livelihood. 

I was thinking it makes it different in that all of us who suffer discrimination and oppression also suffer because we internalise that impression.

And that as a consequence we suffer from rock bottom self-esteem, and as a consequence, we are vulnerable to exploitation because it is often hard for us to imagine that our efforts deserve rewarding.

“I never think to ask for payment”, a gay colleague tells me,  “and often don't realise I don't value myself enough to even think to ask.”

And as a consequence we suffer from the prejudice in the world around us and from the prejudice we inflict upon ourselves.

Often without even realising. And it matters that we realise; and that once we have realised, we resist.

And so I didn't say yes. I said no.

 And then I heard of how someone had seen me perform at some other event, when I also wasn't being paid, at a time when they were still firmly in the closet.

And that there was something about the way I performed that helped them overcome their fears, and come out. And now their lives were so much better.

So was I being selfish?

Years ago, when I was still in the closet, in the context of all the feminist activity that was going on around me, it was easy for me to think that my suffering wasn’t authentic and didn’t matter somehow. That it wasn’t oppression. That if I was suffering it was not because i was suffering oppression. It was because I was sick. And deserved it. And anyway didn't really count for anything.

It took a long time to get past that one. But here I am, trying to reflect on this, and on the irony that ultimately the organisation asking me to work for nothing is supposedly on my side.

And the thought also keeps occurring to me that in the middle of everything else that's going on, isn’t this just so trivial?

But it's not trivial. Trans lives matter.


It matters that we learn to look after ourselves. And that we learn to look after each other.,

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