Welcome to OutWrite’s “From the Archive” series! This series is designed to provide an opportunity to interact with our organization’s archives, assess the opinions and relevance of our past content, and bring that content into the present. In doing so, this series will applaud, critique, and put into conversation ideas of the past with present ideologies and dialogues. Overall, we at OutWrite hope this new series opens up conversations and helps us reconnect with the past while striving for a better future.
*The following article no longer serves to represent the thoughts of the organization today.*
OutWrite Fall 2013
The Feminist Mystake | Feature/Opinion
By Kayla Vernon-Clark
“But the true feminist deals out of a lesbian consciousness whether or not she ever sleeps with women,” proclaimed Audre Lorde, in one statement shifting and reimagining lesbianism and feminism and binding them inextricably.
In one way or another, feminism and queer rights have often been bound up in one another. Feminism and the queer community have shared many historical spaces, located perhaps as much in the imaginary as in genuine physical spaces. Feminism has often been subject to intense and violent dismissal, slandered for its supposed prejudice against men. When people [imagine] feminism, it is often in this tradition of “man-hating, bra-burning lesbians,” an image that continues to carry cultural weight to this day.
Just as the lesbian identification is irrelevant to any supposed hatred of men, the same too can be said of feminism: the focus is not men. That is exactly the point.
What is important is that feminism and the Queer rights movement both challenge important features of the patriarchy: that men are the dominant force, and that much of this dominance is maintained through female submission, frequently rendered sexual. Each of these movements carries the potential to reconstruct this reality.
Gender studies often and increasingly takes Queer studies and a focus on Queer rights into account, for heterosexism and sexism are implicitly bound up together, inextricable in a culture where the white, heterosexual, middle-class cisgender (someone who identifies as the gender they were assigned at birth) man is the institutionalized version of what it means to be “human” and everyone else is measured against him. As Catharine Mackinnon writes in Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination,
“Men’s…needs define auto and health insurance coverage…their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their inability to get along with each other––their wars and rulerships––defines history, their image defines god, and their genitalstials define sex.”
In other words, the white, cisgender male figure stands at the center of what is considered to be human, and both the feminist and Queer rights movement have the potential to disrupt that.
It is important to note, however, that feminism has not always been so welcoming to the Queer community, and has had a particularly embroiled relationship with the trans* community. At various events established for women, at spaces constructed as women’s spaces, trans* individuals have been met frequently with scrutiny, suspicion, and often outright rejection from these spaces. By coding genitalia as the central tenant for entrance into female spaces, some feminists have sought to forcibly erase trans women’s identities.
Furthermore, cis women would often question trans women’s experiences involving sexism because they had not been “raised women,” and thus had been born into some notion of privilege. Of course, that critique refuses to take into account both the legitimacy of the intense discrimination faced by trans women (and trans* individuals at large) but also refuses to examine the ways in which sexism polices female bodies well into adulthood.
As Jan Morris said regarding her transition in the second half of the twentieth century, “The very tone in which I was now addressed, the very posture of the person next in the queue, the very feel in the air when I entered a room or sat at a restaurant table, constantly emphasized my change of status. And if other’s responses shifted, so did my own… Men treated me more and more as junior,…and so, addressed every day of my life as an inferior, involuntarily, month by month, I accepted the condition.”
In fact, trans women who choose to make this public transition in identification may be more equipped to comment on the damage of sexism.
To a mainstream audience, the struggle for queer rights can sometimes be perceived as the “women’s rights movement of today’s generation.” It seems fitting, then, to assume the Queer community would have already adopted feminist ideology, and would simply be making the next step, as if climbing to the next rung on the ladder required the first to be steady and supportive. But that is not always the case. Sometimes, that first rung [is] unstable, wobbly, and rotting at the corners.
Of course, to imply a completed rung ladder is ultimately to imply that feminism has reached its destination––[which] seems unlikely in the face of continued discrimination and patriarchal control, [they are not] satisfying outcomes of this continual resistance. Yet the Oueer community, [for] all of its own resistances, does sometimes reflect the society at large––in terms of representation alone, gay men have certainly garnered more of it than gay [women even] simply in terms of representation, gay men have appeared in the media more often than gay women.
The mainstream LGBT organizations communities like Human Rights Campaign have devoted enormous energy, time, and resources in pursuit of marriage equality. Marriage has often been positioned as, if not the final frontier for equality, at least a crucial step forward. Marriage is where, many mainstream organizations have deemed, the possibility …of? of acceptance, of a better tomorrow.
Mainstream LGBT organizations communities have gathered [around and focused] on [heteronormative] institutions not in order to place pressure upon their [importance], or to dismantle them, but to be allowed access to them. Frequently these heteronormative spaces are patriarchal in nature, drawn from a society deeply deeply entrenched in institutionalized misogyny. Struggling for equal footing in [such] spaces, written as addressed as equality “equality,” means begging entrance to an already-broken system,––at least for those who fall outside of the very narrow strict racial, gender, and class boundaries. Cries for equality in the mainstream movement have taken the form of such demands as marital access, suburban access, career access, and couple adoption.
“We’re just like you,” mainstream activists have cried, implying the goals remain the same: a suburban home with a picket fence, two children and a dog, all tied together with a wedding band. This approach does not encourage addressing the problematic nature of marriage, or the societal ideals of the “nuclear family.” All it wants is a part of the [patriarchal] piece.
Even the way in which identity is referred to frequently by way of genitalia within the Queer community, as attraction to and repulsion by genitalia coded either “male” or “female,” suggests an unwillingness to address the fact that gender is a verb, that gender is a learned behavior and not merely a binary fact. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that trans* individuals receive such little representation and space not only in the world, but also within the queer community. The stagnancy of the [essentialized] perception of gender [within] much of [the] queer community seems to perceive gender makes trans* identity a destabilizing force.
Centering the Queer rights platform on marriage equality also marginalizes activists with agendas outside of patriarchal privilege. This remains a world where Queer (and particularly trans*) individuals are overrepresented in homeless communities. This remains a world where lawyers are still able to claim “manslaughter” for clients who brutally murder a trans* person by claiming the victim “deceived” their client with his or her gender performance, justifying the defendant’s [violence and rendering] his violence understandable.
Where cis, white, middle-class men find marriage equality the most crucial step forward for queer rights, the struggle for trans* rights, for queer and undocumented rights, for healthcare and spaces for the queer and underprivileged, are central to the everyday, lived experiences of people often subjected to the margins of the queer community. Perhaps helping to legitimize a system built around patriarchy and ownership is not the ideal centerpiece for someone who has spent months searching fruitlessly for someone to hire them just to survive the next day.
Devoid of feminist theory, the Queer community is less likely to examine institutions like marriage as the historical subordination of women. For all the thousands of benefits that have been rightfully referenced in the campaign [for] marriage equality, feminist theory reminds us that these legal benefits incentivize very particular types of unions. To merely include same-sex marriage adds only one other acceptable kind of family, still monogamous and still romantic. To keep feminism in mind is to accept more than heteronormative, patriarchal institutions as they are.
“We’re just like vou” is not the motto of a movement working to dismantle a very problematic svstem. “We’re just like you” is a plea for inclusion. “We’re just like you” is a prayer, a promise to keep quiet and fall precisely into step.
Let’s be honest: we can do better.
*Commentary and analysis to come*