A Modest Proposal for a Fair Trade Emotional Labor Economy(Centered by Disabled, Femme of Color, Working Class/Poor Genius)

Illustrations by Zim+Teemo

This article appears in our 2017 Summer issue, Invisibility. Subscribe today!

Editor’s note: In this piece you may notice some departures from Bitch’s house style. This piece was edited according to the author’s specifications.

Femme: A person who has one of a million kinds of queer femme or feminine genders. Part of a multiverse of femme gendered people who have histories and communities in every culture since the dawn of time. A queer gender that often breaks away from white, able bodied, upper middle class, cis ideas of femininity, remixing it to harken to fat or working class or Black or brown or trans or non-binary or disabled or sex worker or other genders of femme to grant strength, vulnerability and power to the person embodying them. A revolutionary gender universe.


The thing about being a working class or poor and/or disabled and/or parenting and/or Black, Indigenous or brown femme is that people are going to ask you to do stuff for them. Oh, are they ever. 

They’re going to ask you to listen, do a favor, do an errand, drop everything to go buy them some cat food or crisis counsel them. Manage logistics, answer feelings emails, show up, empathize, build and maintain relationships. Organize the childcare, the access support, the food. Be screamed at, de-escalate, conflict resolute. They’re going to say, “Can I just pick your brain about something?” and then send you a five paragraph email full of pretty goddamn complex questions. It’d be real nice if you could get back to them ASAP. They’re going to ask if you can email them your powerpoint and all your resources. Some of them will be people who are close to you; some of them will be total strangers. Do you have a minute? 

For free.  


And you know what’s going to happen? You’re going to do those things. Because you do, indeed, care. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because you’re good at it. Because you want to.

And because: your life as a working class or poor and/or sex working and/or disabled and/or Black or brown femme person has taught you that the only damn way you or anybody survives is by helping each other. No institutions exist to help us survive—we survive because of each other. Your life is maintained by a complex, non-monetary economy of shared, reciprocal care. You drop off some extra food; I listen to you when you’re freaking out. You share your car with me; I pick you up from the airport. We pass the same twenty dollars back and forth between each other, building movements and communities as we go. It’s maybe what hippies mean when they talk about the gift economy, it’s just a million times more working class, femme, Black and brown, and sick in bed. 

We live in a white capitalist colonialist cissexist ableist patriarchy that oppresses in many ways, including by reviling all that is femme. In the queer communities I’ve been part of since the ’90s, I’ve witnessed how femmephobia, sexism, and transmisogyny act together to view femininity and femmeness as weak, less than, not as smart or competent, “hysterical,” “too much,” not worthy of praise or respect, enforcing rape culture and political, economic and social disenfranchisement of femmes. Forget femme invisibility; the thing most femmes I know are impacted by is lack of femme respect. Femmephobia and transmisogyny infuse queer and mainstream cultures in a million ways, from the ways in which femme genders are seen as inherently less radical (i.e., assuming money spent on makeup or femme clothing is somehow more capitalist than that spent on bowties and butch wax) to the ways in which, as writer Morgan M. Page notes, “Any minor slip of language or politics and [trans women] are labeled “crazy trans women,” resulting in trans women being expelled from queer communities. 

Generations of femmes have written and organized about misogyny and transmisogyny in queer and trans communities, and I’m alive because of this work. But I remain, with many other femme/feminine people, harmed by misogynist ideas about care labor, where endless free emotional labor is simply the role our communities have for femme and feminine people. As a newly physically disabled, working class femme of color in the ’90s, I often felt how the queer and prison justice communities I was part of looked down on my gender, especially when I was sick and broke and surviving abuse and needing support. Then I really sucked—I was just another needy, weak girl, huh? The one place femme people could receive respect in those communities was if we were tough, invulnerable, always “on,” and never needing a thing. 

The thing is, the working class and poor femmes, Black and brown femmes, sick and disabled femmes, parenting femmes and sex working and rural femmes I know hold it the fuck down. We organize miracles—from complex political actions to the life support work of making sure people are fed, don’t die, and don’t get evicted—on no sleep and low spoons and a quarter tank of gas. Our organizing skills in these departments are incredible, and often not respected as much as masculine leaders’, or indeed seen as skills. Far too often, the emotional labor we do isn’t seen as labor—it’s seen as air, that little thing you do on the side. Not real organizing, not real work, just talking about feelings and buying groceries. Not a real activist holding a big meeting stuff. Thanks, though! That was really helpful!

I want our skills and competency to be acknowledged and respected. But it’s a problem when care labor becomes the only way we’re rewarded, and when it’s not seen a a choice. I also want an end to the gendered presumption that femmes are endlessly available and interruptible. Where people ask you for help and “no” is nowhere in their conception of what your response might be. 

Before I go any further, I want to be really clear about a few things: I don’t think that only femme or feminine people offer care labor, or can. I know femmes who suck at this stuff, and I know many masculine and other-gendered people who do care labor. I want all genders of people to be receiving and providing that labor to our communities. I’ve heard masculine folks talk about ways the gendering of care labor impacts them—from being expected to always be abled-bodied and strong, to being expected to be “the rock” that never has their own needs.

I’m also not against the existence of care work. I have an enormous respect for the activism, writing and care work of parents, caregivers and everyone offering this emotional labor. As a sick and disabled working class brown femme, I wouldn’t be alive without communities of care and neither would most people I love. Some of my fiercest love is reserved for how sick and disabled queers show up for each other when every able-bodied person “forgets” about us. Sick and disabled people will literally get up from where we’ve been projectile vomiting for the past eight hours to drive a spare Effexor to a friend’s house who just ran out. Able bodied people who think we are “weak” have no idea that every day of our disabled lives is like an Ironman triathlon.

But I would like to advance the radical notion that providing care is work. By work, I mean it’s just that: work. I would like to state for the record that we are building and maintaining movements when we’re texting to make sure someone is ok, talk on the phone for hours, talk shit on the couch, drop off a little care. Those things are not a sideline or an afterthought to our movements. They are our movements. 

I tried an experiment recently. For one week, I logged how many times I was asked for care labor or support, and what I noticed about who was doing the asking, and how. My findings? Every single—really—femme person who hit me up started their requests by asking me how I was doing, and prefaced their requests by saying things like “Hey, if you have time” and “Do you have the capacity to give some support?” They were also more likely to offer to buy my lunch, trade me a service, or pay me. And they were more graceful and heard it the first time when I said, hey, I’m so sorry, but I can’t right now. 

Masculine and non femme friends were much more likely to just hit me up and say, “Hey, could you…” pray for them, hook them up with a publisher, tell them what doctor they should go to, listen to them vent about an intense transformative justice process gone wrong. It was not uncommon for these requests to come from someone who I had not heard from for months. There was no “Do you think you have the time or spoons to do this?” No “I could offer this thing in return,” and no “If you don’t, it’s totally ok.”  There was also no “How are you doing?” 

This pissed me off. I also knew I was far from alone. My conversations with other femme people are full of us describing how exploited and exhausted we feel when our care labor isn’t recognized. Disabled white working class femme poet Tara Hardy recently remarked, “Femmes get objectified two ways, one sexually, the other as Mommy.” In the sexist world, Mommy does a million hours of unpaid labor a week without anyone asking them.

The roots and histories of unpaid, unrecognized labor by femme and feminine people—as well as our movements to demand compensation for our work—are enormous. I think about movements like Black Women for Wages for Housework who fought for people to get paid wages for the labor of homemaking and parenting the WSCCCAP think as “naturally” being unpaid. I think about movements like the National Domestic Workers Alliance’s Caring Across Generations campaign, where elders, disabled people, and the personal care support workers that support them—many of whom are immigrant, Black or brown people performing the feminized labor of personal care support work—are organizing together for fair wages and work conditions.

I think about how people working in “pink collar” fields that are highly feminized like cleaning, caretaking, childcare, waitressing and service work get paid so little. I think about my mom, a former waitress, explaining to me when I was 7 years old how waitresses are legally paid far under the minimum wage and are dependent on tips to make any kind of money (tips which depend on the femme emotional labor of being seen as sexy, nice, and cute) and how you should either be ready to pay 25% minimum as a tip or you shouldn’t go out to eat. 

And I think about Black, Indigenous, brown and working-class white women’s and femme bodies being forced to work for free or for pennies—as enslaved people on plantations, in Export Processing Zone factories in Global South countries, and beyond. I think about disabled and Mad people locked in institutions working for well under minimum wage in “sheltered workshops,” and I think about people in prison working for pennies an hour. Finally, I think about the rage and oppression many sex workers face for having the gall to actually charge for sexual, emotional labor! It’s impossible to think and talk about emotional labor, care work and gender without talking and thinking about all these intertwined histories and realities of oppression and resistance.

I believe in fighting to win and our ability to transform anything we need to. And all of this has started me thinking about what the solutions might be. If care labor is well, labor, and we participate in an emotional economy all the time, what would a just care labor economy look and feel like? What would I want the conditions of my labor to be, in order to feel that my work was in safe, compensated conditions that had my workers’ rights at the center?

This is what I’ve got. This is just the beginning, but every revolution has to start somewhere. These thoughts are an experiment and a work in progress. Feel free to add your own.  

Starting Somewhere: Some Fair Trade Care Labor Ground Rules

Fair trade emotional economics are consensual.

In a fair trade care/emotional labor economy, there would no expectations of automatic caretaking. People would ask first and be prepared to receive a yes, no, or maybe. I ask if you can offer care or support; you think about what you’ve got spoons (a term coined by disabled writer Christine Miserandino to mean the amount of energy chronically ill and disabled folks who have limited amounts of it have available to complete tasks) and offer a response. We can negotiate, but you also need to hear my no and not be surprised by it or push back on it.

Fair trade care webs draw on sick and disabled knowledge about care. 

Sick and disabled folks have many superpowers: one of them is that we often have highly developed skills around care. Many of us have received shitty, condescending, charity-based care  or abusive or coercive care—whether it’s from medical staff or our friends and families. We’re also offered unsolicited medical advice every day of our lives, mostly coming from a place of discomfort with disability and wanting to “fix” us. 

All of this has made us very sophisticated at negotiating care, including our understanding that both offering and receiving it is a choice. The idea of consent in care is a radical notion stemming from disabled community wisdom. Ableism mandates that disabled people are supposed to gratefully accept any care offered to “fix” us. It’s mind blowing for many people to run into the common concept in many sick and disabled communities, that disabled people get to decide for ourselves the kind of care we want and need, and say no to the rest. This choicefulness has juicy implications for everyone, including the abled.

Fair trade femme disabled care webs are reciprocal. 

Recently, my friend Chanelle Gallant commented on Femme Secret Society, a femme support group on Facebook, “Sometimes when I get hit up for advice & support from folks I’m not already friends with, I prefer if they offer me something in exchange. If we are in the same city & what they’re asking for will take me hours [to do], I might ask them if they can make me a meal.” She asked femmes on the group what kinds of things—including cash—they had asked for as compensation for requests of our free labor.

Before hearing Gallant and other femmes talk about asking for something in exchange for our emotional labor, I had rarely considered asking for something in return to the endless stream of requests for information, mentoring and support that came into my inbox. Informally, especially in disabled and femme communities I was part of, there was certainly an unwritten rule that if you gave care, you got some back—it was just good manners. But sometimes I gave a lot and was left exhausted. Many things shifted in my life when I started to think of my care labor as labor, not just as “the right thing to do” or “I’ll just answer their question, it’ll take a only a minute.” I started thinking about “How much free labor can I afford to offer this month? Are there some things I’d like in return for some of it?”

Everyone deserves to get the care they need—no one’s needs are “too much.”

Disabled people often run into the idea that we can never offer care, just receive it. However, we often talk about the idea that we can still offer care from what our bodies can do. If my disabled body can’t lift yours onto the toilet, it doesn’t mean I can’t care for you—it means I contribute from what my particular body can do. Maybe instead of doing physical care, I can research a medical provider, buy groceries for you, or listen to you vent when one of your dates was ableist.

It’s also important to hold that every care exchange doesn’t have to be 50/50 all the time. This is especially important for folks with a lot of disability or other needs who need a lot of care to survive, who may not always be able to offer a ton back. People who need a lot of care are often told we are a “drain”—on the system, on our families or communities, and this can play out in everything from “better off dead” suicide laws targeting disabled people to parents and disabled folks feeling like we’re too “needy” to be part of movements. Everyone deserves to get the care we need. 

Fair trade care labor is not a one-sided femmephobic sexist shit show.  

Masculine and other genders of people can notice feelings and offer to listen and do childcare, too! I swear to fucking god, these are learnable skills!

Fair trade care economics could be kinda like… permaculture?

The more systems are not a monoculture, the more sustainable they will be. The more there are a lot of different kinds of folks giving and receiving different kinds of care, the more there’s room for boundaries, ebbs and flows, people tapping out and people moving up. Care doesn’t have to be one way. It can become an ongoing responsive ecosystem.

Vacation, time off, sick time, weekends, and time-and-a-half could be part of the deal! 

A fair trade disabled femme working class emotional care economy would give people doing emotional labor time off. There would get to be limits to our hyper-responsibility. We would get to have lives that are more than bouncing from crisis response to crisis response. 

Because we deserve joy and rest. And while crisis and extreme states are common parts of human experience, when we have just gone through a really hard slog—being there for someone who is suicidal, or negotiating an intense death in the community—in this economic system, it’s not just ok, it’s accepted and normal to not just run to the next crisis after we’ve just finished one, but, instead, to ask someone else to move up and take the baton.  

A fair trade emotional care economy says thank you. 

We get—dare I say it—appreciation and bonuses? I’m not talking about Starbucks gift cards at Christmas, necessarily, and I’m not talking about the kind of forced gratitude that is demanded from many of us in return for care. I’m talking about a culture of appreciation, respect, and thank yous for care that doesn’t have to do with groveling. I am talking about what many of us already do: notice, thank, and witness the work being done.

Imagine how free we could get if instead of femme labor being an unpaid, demanded Mommy tap, we could be thanked and compensated for our work, and then kick back and put our feet up, smiling. Imagine if it was compensated and the labor conditions were fair, maybe everyone would want to do it more. Imagine if we were respected for our care labor, but also allowed to be more than our care labor. 

Imagine how much we could win if there was more than enough care to go around.  

This article was published in Invisibility Issue #75 | Summer 2017

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer femme sick and disabled Sri Lankan/ Irish/Roma writer, performance artist, educator and hell raiser. The Lambda and Stonewall Award winning author of Dirty River, Bodymap, Love Cake, Consensual Genocide and co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home, she co-founded and co-directed QTPOC performance collective Mangos With Chili from 2005-2015. A lead artist with disability justice performance troupe Sins Invalid, she is currently finishing her new book of essays, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice Culture and book of poetry, Tonguebreakerbrownstargirl.org

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

This :)

Thank you.

Yes to emotional labor being compensated well

Leah, Thank you thank you thank you for this insightful post about an important issue for those of us who are disabled and female. As a disabled person, I can't tell you
hot many times I have heard about the most awful thing that happened to the able bodied person within three seconds of meeting me for the first time. Do I care? Do I have any interest in hearing about it? No No No. This is an aspect of sexism that is not addressed enough. Thanks for your attention to it. May you get paid well for the emotional, caring presence you offer. How about like a neurosurgeon- $5000 per hour. Love to you, prosperity and abundance in every area of your life Leah. Keep speaking out often and loud. Love, Ellen Greenlaw

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