Open Thread: Feminism, Sexual Orientation and Social Hostility

This thread is a response to a comment from Astrodyke in the Suggestions thread:

I don’t see tags for “lesbian” or “sexual orientation”. It’d be nice to have some FAQs about lesbianism and how it relates to feminism.

There are the straw questions, “Don’t all feminists hate men?” or “Aren’t all feminists lesbians?” But there are also questions like, “Why is the word “dyke” used by some men to insult women? Why does that insult work?”

These are all fascinating questions and I don’t have particularly cogent responses to them (although we do have an FAQ addressing the manhating strawfeminist). Lesbianism has been both embraced and demonised by different segments of the feminist movement at various times, and lesbians have often felt ambivalent about the heteronormative focus of liberal feminism as well. Sexual identity as well as sexual orientation is also a source of hostility: the controversies about transexuality continue to excite various anxieties, and trans women especially are subject to high rates of violence and murder due to hostility about their departure from “the norm”.

So I’m throwing the question open to the readership: what is your analysis and experience of the relationship between lesbianism and feminism? Other sexual orientations/identities and feminism? How do assumptions of sexual orientation due to political beliefs act to belittle and intimidate feminists?

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17 comments on “Open Thread: Feminism, Sexual Orientation and Social Hostility

  1. All I know is that being a feminist while being a lesbian must be easy in some aspects.

    And haven’t we moved past feeling belittled by someone making assumptions of our (homo) sexual orientation?

    Though it does bother me that anyone standing for women’s rights is always considered to be a lesbian. Why? Is it because she loves other women? Isn’t that something they have in common with MEN? Or men aren’t loving women? (which I think is the real issue)

  2. Sometimes it’s really helpful to look back into feminist history. Even just a few decades ago, there wasn’t really lesbian feminism as such – it developed because plain old feminism wasn’t addressing the needs of women who loved women. In those early days, lesbian feminism was a little unnerving for “regular” feminism (the quoted term is used facetiously) and extremely unnerving for men – because what happens if you just decide you don’t need men anymore? Think of how many institutions rely on womens’ subordinate, relationships to men – not just marriage and nuclear family-raising, but the beauty industry, reproductive health (which happily is falling more and more into female hands, but it wasn’t always so), even most “women’s labor” in the workforce (secretarial work, etc.) relies on women serving and being directed by men.
    So to be woman has historically meant “to nurture and be subordinate to men.” When you start taking men out of the picture, you’re un-womaned. I think this is the source of the negative connotations with “dyke” – it’s meant to be an insult because woman-loving women are stepping out of the so-called “natural” order of things.
    And I think even now, a lot of women are raised this way – not necessarily raised homophobic, but sort of indoctrinated with female subordination as children on up.
    I’d like to think that more and more people are “moving past” irrational associations like that, Mary, but I think it takes more than a few decades to get the culture to move past it.

    Recommended reading: “Compulsory Heterosexuality” by Adrienne Rich; “The Woman-Identified Woman” by RadicaLesbians.

  3. I don’t know much about feminism, so I’ll contribute some questions rather than facts: what do modern feminists think about transsexual men and women? Are transsexual women just men trying to invade the sacred preserves of femininity? Is the phenomenon of transsexuality just a collection of crazy people mutilating themselves because of an illusion of essentialism? Or are transsexual women doubly abused by the patriarchy – first by being pressed into the mold of men then being forced to pursue men’s idea of femininity to be accepted? Is it reasonable that the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival forbids trans women? Why is the path trans men follow – “going through butch dyke school” a friend called it – so different from the paths trans women follow?

  4. A couple of thoughts:

    While GLBT rights are like women’s rights, and tend to overlap, they are not the same. Just because it’s about sex or gender doesn’t make it about feminism. While sex and sexual orientation and gender identity are all subject to discrimination, they are not the same. They can, and are, separated, whether they should be or not.

    I would think it’s possible (weird, but possible) that a person could be feminist but not gay-friendly, for example. That could be because of a lack of understanding. Or it could be the result of a perceived lack of support from outsiders if additional issues are added to the agenda. Sure, Mom should be allowed to vote, but does that mean we want Gay Pride parades in the middle of town every Friday? (suits me, but I think I might be in a minority)

    So not only are equalities diverse, they are not equal: there is a hierarchy of equalities. Class equality is one — just because X was born a poor farmer, he is no less a man than Y, born a prince. Then there’s racial equality. Then there’s sexual equality (male/female parts). Then there’s sexuality equality (gay/straight). Then there’s gender equality. The order isn’t as rigid as all that, especially with race, since that seems to work on a different plane altogether. But I think this is the way many people perceive it.

    Someone nearer the bottom of the hierarchy is more likely to assume the correctness of the equality being asserted at “higher” levels. I think we mostly agree that the dirt farmer has no less intrinsic worth than the prince, for example.

    Who takes on whose cause? Women more than other groups tend to take on the causes of those on the higher levels.

    So is Anne taking on the role of asking the more powerful level to take up for the less powerful level?

  5. I love this discussion. And I’m going to continue throwing around Second Wave feminism, because that’s what I’m reading about right now.

    So, ideally, nobody is free while anyone is oppressed – and therefore, it’s right for straight-IDed feminists to take interest in lesbian issues and lesbians to take interest in trans rights and so forth.
    But – and JoAnne, your phrasing made this very clear when you said “asking the more powerful level to take up for the less powerful level” – women of any identification have to be just as careful about their privilege as we wish men would be of theirs. In the 70s and 80s, white feminists were getting exasperated with black feminists because their experiences with racism were a “distraction,” and then they turned around and wondered why the black feminists wouldn’t come to their meetings when they were invited. White feminism totally dropped the ball on “taking up up for” their extra-oppressed black sisters.

    Likewise, feminism drops the ball occasionally when it comes to lesbians and FREQUENTLY when it comes to transwomen. The thing is (and now I’m attempted to address Anne’s questions) however transwomen were born and however they choose to perform femininity, they are still oppressed by the same naturalistic misconceptions about sex and gender and so forth that we all are – just in a very different way, and therefore they have insight that biological women can’t speak about in their place. So maybe it’s better for biological women to be sympathetic with that cause, to listen to it and think about it and talk about it…. and not impose our biological-female privilege on it, and not worry about an individual’s motivation for transgendering, because what are we about if not personal choice?*

    *which, of course, stops at the point of hurting other people.

  6. My questions were honest ones, and it would be interesting to understand trans people’s place in the general struggle for equality. But I realize that this is a blog on feminism and not on queer rights (or at least, only on queer rights to the extent that they overlap with feminism). I was (am) asking in large part because I’ve run across lines of feminist thought that are extremely hostile to transwomen, and I’d like to know the ways the modern feminist movement (in all its diversity) views transwomen (and transsexuality in general).

    Perhaps I should have asked on the suggestions thread, as this is rather a side track from the sexual orientation this article was meant to be about.

  7. I can’t speak for anyone else, Anne, but I didn’t take any offense to the questions or think they were contrived or out of place. It’s a valid issue.

  8. The trans folks in feminism issue is, at the surface, about somewhat contradicting views of gender. On one hand, gender (as opposed to sex) is made up. But on the other hand, some folks feel so strongly in the wrong one that they must switch to the other. But if gender is made up, how can someone need to be the other one, and there are plenty of people who defy their assigned gender who don’t want to be called a woman if they’ve got a Y chromosome. And aren’t we trying to break down gender roles to further equality anyway, and doesn’t insisting on being a gender just build them back up? Rinse, repeat, and go around in circles.
    And then there really are some practical issues in the feminist world, even ignoring all the hangups that non-feminist people have — should transmen be allowed to attend women’s colleges, for example? What about transwomen? Is there are a certain point of transition that switched you to one category from the other, that can mark where you are forbidden or allowed things belonging to one group? (For example, at my alma mater, Smith College, one must be legally female when matriculating. This makes it easy for young transmen to go there, but not for transwomen, which is a little bizarre.)

    Ultimately though, I think trans issues are to the 3rd wave what gay issues were to the 2nd — the third wave feminists are few and far between who aren’t lesbian/bi inclusive, but the same can not be said about the older generation (Steinem’s horrible essay in Outrageous Acts & Everyday Rebellions, for example, though I don’t know if she’s changed her mind since writing it, or if it’s been left out of later editions that the one I have). Eventually(soon) the movement will get over it’s transphobia/confusion too.

    Also, like it or not, the fact remains that cisgendered people and transgendered people have different lived experiences. I don’t mean this in terms of playing the who is more oppressed game. The cis-woman and the trans-woman have had different gender socializations and have been treated differently by society. For the cis-woman, she knows all the minutia of patriarchal oppression, because she’s been living with it her whole life. For the trans-woman, she was once in the oppressing class — which is infamous for being blind to privilege and oppression — and has gotten off easy (on the outside, the inside is torture) until transitioning (upon which she usually receives the worst treatment from other people). As for trans-men, cis-women see someone who used to share their burdens become one more member of the group of people that oppress them. (And I’ll say from experience that some trans-men reject the feminine in them so severely that it leaks out and becomes just more misogyny directed at the women around them. I can’t speak about trans-women in the same way, since I don’t know nearly as many trans-women as I do trans-men.)

    I also think a lot of transphobia (again, comparing it to the former status of gayness) is due to the fact that most people, feminists included, don’t know any transpeople. Sheer visibility and familiarity would go a long way. And a lot of the answer is also feminists looking at issues like those I mentioned above and saying to themselves, “Whatever dude, the rights of trans folks are more important than xyz that I haven’t worked out in my head yet.”

    As for the hetero-focus of feminism.. Well, in some ways, it has to be. As said above, feminism and gay rights overlap often, but are not the same. Feminism exists because it is fighting women’s inequality to men, as caused by men. The two classes, the oppressed and the oppressor, are divided by sex, and men oppress women because they are a different sex. Were it not for heterosexuality, where there only one sex/gender and sexual acts were not regularly desired, this would not be an issue. No division due to sex, i.e. sexism=no need for feminism. And look at some of the major issues in feminism — rape, partner abuse, reproductive rights, the orgasm gap, porn — they are directly rooted in heterosexuality (not denying that same-sex abuse exists or anything silly like that). Which I think leads into some straight vs. gay women mutual eyerolling, re: gay women being less inclined to need men’s approval for everything, because they don’t want to have sex with them, and straight women being a little jealous of this on one hand and on the other being a little late to the game of ‘oh yeah, I don’t have to please them all the time either.’

  9. Yes, well, it is a bit scary to be out, given that one of us still gets beaten to death once a month or so. And once out on the Net, a simple Google will tell anybody who’s curious.

    The idea that “gender is socially constructed, so how can anyone feel so strongly they need to change it?” actually paralyzed me for a long time. I still don’t have an answer, beyond the fact that I did change it and it did help.

    I think there’s an interesting point there about lesbian relationships: if rape and partner abuse are rooted in heterosexuality, how do you explain their occurrence in lesbian relationships? It seems to me that they come from failings we all share as people, that every population has a few people capable of domestic violence. The problem is certainly exacerbated in a relationship where one partner is bigger and stronger and has been taught to express his feelings in violence, but I think lesbian relationships can serve as an instructive example of how the patriarchy is not to blame for all ills. Certainly I would be very skeptical of someone who blamed the patriarchy for domestic violence unless they gave an explanation of why it occurred in lesbian relationships that stood up to Occam’s Razor.

  10. Well, I don’t want to fall into the trick of blaming the patriarchy for everything, but I do think there’s a clear connection between lesbian domestic violence and heterosexuality. Consider how ubiquitous heterosex is compared to homosex… from a young age, we’re all surrounded and hammered by stories and films and TV shows and real-life examples of heterosexual love. Positive depictions of homosexual sex are fairly recent in media, let alone positive depictions of homosexual love.
    And, as we know, sex (like everything else) heavily depends on social construction… so when you realize your physical desire is for people of the same sex, you unfortunately can’t download a mental set of instructions to accompany this preference. You start with the same history and media and cultural assumptions that heteros have. So say there’s a continuum of heterosexual behaviors that show up in homosexual love: maybe domestic violence is on the extreme end, butch/femme role play is somewhere in the middle, the desire to marry and raise a family on the milder end. Not all people (hetero or homo) participate in all of these relationship behaiors, but they are all rooted in the heterosexual institution.

    Additionally, I think it’s probable that a lot of lesbians still internalize a lot of self-hate in the current political climate… if you’re raised to believe that homosexual is Wrong, as I was, it’s not always easy to unpick all of the cultural damage. That might be a determining factor is some instances of female/female domestic abuse.
    Which, after all that explanation? Is still pretty rare.

    P.S. since you expressed doubt earlier, I want to add that I too took your questions as honest and tried to consider them, not to criticize them. I’m doing the same here… and I won’t pretend to have all the answers, this is just food for thought.

  11. Anne: “Certainly I would be very skeptical of someone who blamed the patriarchy for domestic violence unless they gave an explanation of why it occurred in lesbian relationships that stood up to Occam’s Razor.”

    Here goes.

    Patriarchy isn’t necessarily about who you have sex with, or what genitals you have. It’s about who you have power over. The basic relationship is that of man-wife-children, in order of power and importance. The father is the head, the leader. Hence “God the Father,” the ultimate patriarch.

    Patriarchy is different from simple male supremacy in that men in patriarchy are not all equal. They fit into a dominance structure in which they can be greater than or less than someone else who is also a man. Your father is the first one, but then there’s your boss, elders in church and community, and so on.

    The model is of human inequality based on power inequality. That power inequality can be physical, economic or socially constructed.

    Violence in a Lesbian relationship can then easily reflect that “I am a person who has control over lesser persons” model that is everywhere in patriarchy.

    Yes, it could be based on other models. Yes, if it were abolished, other systems could be instituted that also espoused inequality.

    But the patriarchal model is the most widespread by far, so I’d suspect it as the source from which anyone participating in any destructive power wielding got the idea.

  12. In my experience men (and boys) have used the lesbian as an insult in regard to feminism in order to emphasis that I was not seen as a potential romantic partner for them (which was supposed to upset me).

    From reading the comments, I feel like maybe this is a little more personal and less academic a comment, but here goes anyway. At different points in my life, my appearance has caused people to read me as gay (I am bisexual) and occasionally I have had people verbally attack me. Sometimes I still feel jealous of my feminist friends who read as straight (whether they are or not). In some ways, this makes our relationships more like a relationship between allies (who have compassion and understand for each others experiences rather than first hand knowledge) rather than being part of the same group exactly.

  13. I’m a transwoman myself, and have been reading this blog for about 6 months now. Maybe 9.

    I have, on one hand, never felt like an outsider here, or indeed on many other blogs.

    That said, I have also run into the problems mentioned of being told I’m just a man invading sacred space.

    As far as gender identity and social constructs, I can’t speak for anyone else. All I can say is that, for me, it was a very physical thing. I was born /wrong/. For all my life, from as young as I have memories, I knew I was built wrong.

    Part of the transition process includes the so-called ‘real life test’. What this really is is a ritualised humiliation of transpeople, to make sure they ‘really want it’ before being allowed radical things like hormones and surgery.

    My need to transition had nothing to do with, say, wanting to wear women’s clothing (I never really had an urge to, and still wear similar clothes to what I did, albeit of a more feminine cut. I will take a pair of jeans over a skirt any day), or to play with dolls (Did that anyway, it wasn’t stigmatised in my family), or to be more ‘sensative and caring’ (I always was, and never felt it was tied to my GID).

    No, for me, it was that I had what felt, to me, a lot like how I hear ‘phantom limb syndrome’ described. I had a body part that was missing, and in return for it, I had one I didn’t want.

    As for feminism, I do consider myself a feminist. Moreso than many cisgendered people I know. I grew up in a family of feminists, of women who were very politically active (My randmother, aunt, and mother were all active in, and president of, the Pennsylvania Federation of Democratic Women, as well as other feminist political organisations.)

    So. I’m a transwoman, and I am a feminist. Some object to that, but I don’t care. Even knowing that those people won’t be there to look out for me when the shoe is on the other foot, I will always do my best to help what I see as right, how and where I can.

  14. “…feminism drops the ball occasionally when it comes to lesbians…” is a huge understatement. I mean, “lavender menance” anyone? (see wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_Menace)

    I know that I find myself behind the curve on feminism at this point in my life because I was definitely given the message in college that as a lesbian I wasn’t welcome and most certainly while I’m all for feminism challenging sexism someone above said it best: when anyone is oppressed no one is free.

    The heteronormative assumptions of a lot of the feminist writings I’ve read in the last year are frustrating (yes, by all means, write a book about women questioning the assumptions made about their bodies and who controls those bodies using your experience with unplanned pregnancy and abortion as a hook but don’t assume that every woman reading it will have access to the same experiences or feelings that result).

    I’m not sure what the answer is, nor am I equipped to address the issues of gender (ow…ow, my head!) but could we please stop using the term “gay rights?” No one called them “black rights” during MLK, Jr’s era and to call them “gay rights” minimizes the struggle for *equality* which is why we’re all here, right?

  15. “Moving onto other sexual orientations, the controversies about transexuality continue to excite various anxieties.”

    Transsexuality–and, more generally, trangenderism–is not a “sexual orientation.” It’s about gender identity. Trans men, trans women, genderqueers, and other trans people identify as all sorts of sexual orientations: asexual, gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, etc.

    • You are quite correct, of course. When I wrote this in 2007 I wasn’t as careful with my language as I needed to be, because I hadn’t read enough by trans activists, and I unthinkingly used the wrong word. I will correct the post immediately.

  16. Well, here’s my 2 cents:

    In regard to sexual orientation, I’ve always been puzzled as to why so many men always assume that all feminists are lesbians. I may have quite a few issues with negative types of male behavior (and what sane person wouldn’t?) but, at the end of the day, that doesn’t change the fact that I still desire men, sexually. There’s a HUGE double standard; if a woman voices any type of criticism about male behavior, she’s automatically dubbed as a “man-hating lesbian” (as if lesbians actually hate men ::eyeroll::). However, a man can criticize female behavior (or even make outright disgusting & brutal misogynistic comments) and his sexuality isn’t questioned. In fact, it seems that such a man is actually considered “straighter” than those who have fewer complaints about women.

    Also, I’m annoyed by the fact that women who don’t behave in a stereotypical “feminine” fashion, are immediately suspected to be lesbians (despite the fact that lesbians come in many different forms). FYI, I consider myself to be a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. ::grin::

    Regarding Trans folks: I think they have a unique perspective to offer, in regard to gender relations. Living as one gender, and then the other, is about as close as you can get to obtaining a true understanding of the sexes. I, for one, would certainly like to hear more about trans-women’s experiences. I’d like to know what role sexism plays in their lives, and how people treat them (better or worse) when they discover that they are trans.

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