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Looking Back; Thinking Forward: Feminism & LGBT Politics August 29, 2006

Posted by Winter in queer politics, the adventures of mind the gap.
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Our Feminism and LGBT politics discussion turned out to be one of the best events we’ve hosted so far. Ten people attended and we had a very respectful and productive dialogue. Together we identified the main tensions we have experienced between feminist and LGBT politics and tried to come up with some ways forward. Please be aware that the views expressed in this post are those of people in the group and not necessarily my own, although I agree with much of what was said.

First, it was agreed that both feminist and LGBT politics have become a great deal more complex and fragmented since the 1970s and 80s and that the complexities must be acknowledged if there is to be progress.

The Trouble with Lesbians

Some lesbian feminists observed that they seem to spend a lot of time working on issues which more directly effect the lives of heterosexual women, such as abortion and reproductive rights. While it was acknowledged that these issues impact upon the lives of all women, tension emerges when lesbian feminists feel that straight feminists do not fully engage their problems in return. More spaces should be created for dialogue between heterosexual and lesbian feminists to talk about the different issues that effect them on equal terms.

Much concern was expressed about the continuing use of the “butch lesbian,” within anti-feminist rhetoric, as a stick to beat all feminists and create division. As soon as a woman takes up a visibly feminist position, she is open to being associated with the monstrous “ugly, hairy, man-hating dyke.” It was acknowledged that this stigmatising strategy has been quite effective in encouraging younger heterosexual (and some lesbian) women to disassociate from feminism. We need to counter antifeminist lesbophobia, but we need a much more effective and widely available feminist media and more grassroots activism in order to do this. The lack of such a media and the decline in activism was a recurring concern all evening.

The damage done by the feminist sex wars of the 1980s was duly noted. Although some of the fall out was due to misunderstandings of radical feminist analysis, it has to be acknowledged that many lesbians abandoned feminism when they perceived radical feminists to be telling them that they must not enjoy their sexual practices anymore. Some even believed that feminists were telling them to give up sex. Radical feminism therefore needs to be revisited. The radical feminists in the room were particularly concerned that radical feminism is often regarded as a monolith and an exclusive body of thought which does not engage other areas of feminist thought. Radical feminists do not all agree with one another and radical feminism has positively influenced other forms of feminism as well as LGBT politics and Queer Theory.

The trouble with Gay Men

No gay men attended the discussion!

While it was agreed among those present that many gay men are excellent feminist allies, it was felt that there is still a woman-hating gay male culture out there which is extremely problematic for feminists. Sadly young gay men often seem to be drawn into this culture in the process of forming their own identities.

It was also felt that gay men do not always appreciate the fact that homophobia is misogynistic, insofar as it is expressed as hatred of the feminine in men, or violent disgust at men taking up a sexual roles perceived to be female. In this area, gay men and feminists have much common ground for activism. Again, it was felt that there is a need for more dialogue between feminists and gay men and more attempts should be made to find common ground for action on both sides.

The Trouble with Bisexuals

“Nobody likes bisexuals!” This is definitely a problem.

It was explained that lesbians sometimes become angry with bisexual women when they refuse to acknowledge their access to heterosexual privilege, although it was also acknowledged that many now do.

One of the biggest problems for bisexual feminist women is the media depiction of “trendy” bisexuality in which female bisexuality is represented as a performance to entice male attention. This narrative does not even acknowledge bisexuality as a valid sexual identity, positing it instead as an aspect of heterosexuality. The narrative may in fact be all about de-fusing the serious challenge to heteronormativity which bisexuality presents and it needs to be more effectively countered.

For some reason bisexual theory and activism has lagged behind feminist, lesbian, gay, transgender and queer theory and activism. It was agreed that all feminists should support bisexual feminists in the production of bisexual feminist theory within the broader feminist galaxy and, as always, we need more dialogue between the different groups.

The T-Word

One of the biggest arguments between transsexual and transgendered women and “women-born” feminists continues to be fought over the creation of separate spaces. While it was generally agreed that “woman” is largely a socially constructed identity category (which does not make it any less deeply felt), most of the “women-born women” in the room argued that they do require some separate spaces. This is because being born into the female role means you have certain shared experiences with other people born female. It was also explained that some women who have experienced rape and sexual abuse do not feel comfortable discussing these experiences with people who were born into the male category.

There was only one transgendered woman at the meeting and she explained that she often feels intensely anxious about entering even inclusive feminist and women’s spaces, because it is very hard to know how she will be received there. Although she respected people’s rights to set up exclusive spaces for certain reasons, she felt it was very important that there should be more inclusive spaces for discussion. She personally did not feel comfortable in local transsexual and transgender groups for various reasons, including the lack of feminism she had found there. She also observed that many FTM and MTF transsexual and transgendered people have themselves experienced rape and sexual abuse before or after transitioning. Where are they to go for support if there are not adequate services in the local area and they are excluded from feminist and women’s groups/services? It was agreed by all that transsexual and transgender women are also particularly vulnerable to misogynistic, homophobic violence.

Transgender feminism must be developed and there must be places for dialogue and support between transsexual and transgender women and “women-born” women. Sexual violence against transsexual and transgender women needs to be more widely acknowledged and discussed within feminism. FTM transsexual and transgender people must also have a place in the discussion, not least because they also have had the experience of being born into the female role.

General issues

Some people felt that mainstream LGBT politics has taken an alarmingly heteronormative turn and abandoned feminist analysis in the pursuit of heterosexual privilege without always considering the political implications of that agenda. While no one denied an individual’s right to have a civil partnership, much concern was expressed about the lack of questioning currently taking place. As one lesbian feminist in the room put it, “In the 1970s we looked at marriage and asked what is this thing? Why do we have it? What is it doing? How is it implicated in the oppression of women?” Raising such feminist questions in LGBT fora now often attracts intense hostility because so many people have so much invested in the marriage campaign. While we had no solutions to this problem, we felt it important that those of us with questions continue to ask them.

Conclusion

The need for more dialogue between different groups was reiterated over and over again all evening. It was felt that feminism and LGBT activism have become too fragmented and compartmentalised. While we must acknowledge the necessity of “picking your fight” and the very real need for separate spaces for different groups, we must also start coming together more to build bridges in the fight against oppression and create a vision of the kind of world we’d like to see for everyone.

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Comments»

1. jo22 - August 29, 2006

That sounds like a very positive and productive discussion. The way forward then must be to have more regular meetings like that one. Our own separate spaces are important, but if we do not all come together to speak about our common goals, misunderstandings and bitterness will stifle the movement.

2. Andygrrl - August 29, 2006

Wow, sounds like an amazing discussion. I think the balance between separate space and inclusivity is a delicate one, but it’s necessary. And meetings like this one show how productive inclusive discussions can be! Well done!

3. Winter - August 29, 2006

I should probably clarify my personal position on separate spaces as I didn’t agree with some of the statments on this subject made during the discussion.

While separate spaces may sometimes be required for various groups and various reasons, I do think the exclusion of transsexual and transgendered women from women’s spaces is highly problematic.

If I and a transsexual/ transgendered woman have an experience of sexual abuse, I think we have enough “shared experience” to share a theraputic space. After all, what kind of “shared experience” are we privileging in order to create these inclusion/exclusion zones?

I also think that if a woman (born or not) is to be excluded from a space, it should be on the basis of unnaceptable behaviour, rather than unnaceptable gendered embodiment!

However, I can see that theraputic spaces are a sensitive issue for many women and we have to tread carefully in this area.

But I would not attend an event that excluded transsexual/transgender women and I don’t support such exclusion from any non-theraputic spaces.

4. Winter - August 29, 2006

I’d be interested to see what transsexual and transgendered feminists think about this. When it came to feminism and transgender issues, this was the sticking point and we couldn’t get past it.

5. Winter - August 29, 2006

And I really don’t like that “woman-born” term at all. I wouldn’t use it to claim privilege over a transsexual or transgender woman. Can we come up with anything better, or should we stop trying to make those kind of distinctions?

6. antiprincess - August 30, 2006

wow – rock on with y’all!

that was some great work you did. I wish there was something similar going on across the pond (there may be – but I’m not aware of it).

7. Anna - September 11, 2006

There’s some great points raised here.

I’ve been trying to get some discussion going in cyber land over at these forums:

http://www.wo-magazine.com/phpBB2/index.php

It’s been pretty unsucessful so far as I think people have been pretty hesitant to put their opinions out there…so I’d like to invite y’all over if you want to continue some of these discussions in an online context.

8. beepbeepitsme - October 8, 2006

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