Self-authorship, mad pride, lesbians

Gerda Lerner in her second volume on women’s history, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’ (1993), writes about Hildegard of Bingen’s coming to self-authorship, shown in her final series of mystical art works, in each of which she includes the figure of a nun writing on tablets in the left hand corner.  Women still struggle with self-authorship, putting ourselves forward is taking a risk of hubris anticipating that other women as well as men will tear us down and ignore us, not because they dispute the quality of our work so much as because they dispute our right to claim public stature as authors at all.  I am not talking about the industries and their commodification of art, writing, scholarship, activism, legal practice, any profession, so much as that which, as Lerner wrote at the end of ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ (1986), puts women at the center (taking any issue from the perspective of how it is experienced by women) and gets outside patriarchal thought (questioning all systems of thought, including one’s own).

Readers of this blog will know that I can claim co-authorship of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and can demonstrate in particular my contributions to its most innovative normative standards.  They may also, from knowing me, or from some of my previous writings, know that I struggled first to minimize the significance of this authorship while retaining enough control within the ongoing work to continue developing the logic of what I had begun, then later to reassert and reclaim an authorship that was unique in relation to the issues that I addressed and in the constituency of survivors and users of psychiatry/ people with psychosocial disabilities that I represented in that process.  It was only when it became apparent to me that others claimed credit for innovations that pre-existed their participation, or had a mistaken view of equal contributions when their memories seem to have not retained key milestones in the process for which I had been uniquely responsible, or simply wished ‘everyone to get along’ and minimized – as I had myself – the aggression directed against me as a woman with a bare minimum of credibility from patriarchal institutions (being at the time a recent law graduate), a gender non-conforming lesbian, a survivor of being locked up as a madperson, upending two millennia’s worth of doctrine with a logical pathway that no one had seen before but that opened clear as day to my naive eyes.

Claiming ‘naivety’ is a trope of humility of mystics of both sexes as well as a way of deflecting frontal assault for the temerity of authorship by a woman.  I did experience my work on the Convention as a somewhat mystical destiny, having had a prefigurative dream soon after being freed from psychiatry in which I saw myself as a lawyer, never having considered law as a profession, and having left law school abruptly the first time I started in the 80s, having completed all but six months, then embarking on a kind of ‘rabbit hole’ journey that focused on self-healing, contemplation, self-knowledge, self-directed study and attention, which led me back to law school undertaken at a higher level of understanding and with some awareness of personal power, and which included my first thoughts putting together disability non-discrimination with international human rights to address psychiatric oppression.  Many kinds of synchronicity – meaningful coincidences and decision-points – affected my law school education, and shortly after I graduated I became aware of, and had and eagerly took the opportunity to become involved with, the inauguration of a process to draft a convention.

I had experienced during my time in law school, and reflected to a professor I spoke to,  that I was being erased or erasing myself, and that this wasn’t uncomfortable.  It wasn’t about becoming ‘a lawyer,’ it was something else that I believe was about becoming an impersonal public self to act within history, while letting personal aspects of identity, or who I believed I was, fade away.  It made space within me to allow me to focus on the ideas that I absolutely knew were the logical pathway, and that I kept checking with my sense of responsibility to the constituency – to not harm anyone or destroy anything that should be preserved, given that this was about destroying systemic practices that harmed us and that needed to be catabolized.  There was accountability to the board of the organization I represented, through formal and informal mechanisms, and I involved many people in our networks and in my personal circles in collaborative thinking and decision-making – and yet it was clear that the drive, the logic in its totality, the authorship resided in me.

There is still a sense of potential shame in saying this, a sense that I am sticking up my head like a nail to be beaten down.  I don’t think I could have done it if I hadn’t been female, a dyke, opening myself to the void and its creation of self and other and definition all at once.  I don’t think I could have done it with the male-paradigm creativity of bringing an issue to an international forum and raising it within the confines of possibility, or speaking out and promoting a new vision and collecting adherents.  I worked within a sense of historical time and creative energy, not expecting or anticipating next steps until they were already there, creating the tightrope I walked one as a spider spins out her thread.  Maybe that is why no one saw what I did as I was doing it.  My wife has always called it the ‘path-o-logic’ pointing to the mad quality of this creativity standing outside conventional norms.  I don’t know another ‘mad’ person who has claimed simultaneously to enter history, to bring the void to the conventionalities, which is what the CRPD has opened a pathway for.

And, maybe we are all doing it.  Gerda Lerner’s vision of authorship and how she sees the obstacles to it is still somewhat class-limited, it doesn’t take account of thinking by women, especially women of lower classes, that might be profound and worthy of engagement that simply was trashed, that wasn’t written down, that was burned, that was ignored, that was ignored, that was ignored.  As Judy Grahn wrote in ‘A Woman is Talking to Death,’ ‘I looked in the mirror and nobody was there to testify; how clear, an unemployed queer woman makes no witness at all, nobody at all was there for those two questions: what does she do, and who is she married to?’  Lerner also gives short shrift to lesbians (so far in my reading), saying only that some women ‘turned to each other for care and affection’ among those who escaped the general subordination not only to men’s control but to the material and sexual servicing of men.  While dykes it seems to me are self-authoring beings out of a void, who interact with each other in unpredictable and permeable ways, different entirely from the paradigm of yin/yang heterosexual relations (see eye-opening Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India, by Giti Thadani), and the paradigm of lesbian self-authorship not only as women alone against patriarchy but as women interacting with other women similarly inventing themselves against patriarchy, because they are drawn together, seeking fulfillment in each other and through their honoring of each other, has been important for feminism, at least as much as women in heterosexual relationships reinventing their own stance and honor between the sexes.

For Jewish women newly entering the emerging working class in Russia, Eastern Europe and then as immigrants to the United States, theory and analysis was thriving in the communist socialist collectives they took part in during their off-work hours (at least until they married); this is documented beautifully along with other dimensions of women’s lives written in Yiddish during the period in which that language flourished.  (We need to talk about Jews in history also; the background/foreground effects of Biblical history/Israel as nationhood narrative contrasted with exile among nations, as a people similarly exercising creativity from a position of non-identity or void.  Lilith is said to be ascendant in exile; as well as being the energy of autonomous female sexuality.)  Revolutionary women were among the prominent theorists; I have mentioned Alexandra Kollontai’s essay and should set myself to read some of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg, and I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of – to center women and step outside patriarchal thought as Gerda Lerner has challenged us to do.

My point in these last two paragraphs is that democratization of authorship is consistent with women’s claim and necessity of self-authorship.  As entirely predictable, when I recently posted a quote from Lerner on the need for women to assert ‘intellectual arrogance,’ a woman was right there to decry women becoming more like men.  How can we overcome silencing without confronting that which tells us it is ‘arrogant’ to speak?  As with lesbians creating permeable relationships into and out of the void, as mad people creating lives unaccountable to systems of normalization, it is essential to radically re-create all social relationships that have been based on dominance or shaped by ideologies of dominance of any kind (which as Lerner convincingly argues in ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ is modeled on, reinforces, and always develops in interaction with, patriarchy), to be more like what we create in resistance from these positions of oppression.  Lesbian relationships based on desire of mutually autonomous beings each self-creating in resistance, are unique and cannot be replicated in our relations with men, in work comradeship, in platonic friendship; still as Audre Lorde said in ‘The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,’ we can and do use the same energy throughout the different parts of our lives.

Lesbian relationships require us to pay attention to women’s relations with each other completely outside anything to do with men.  Feminists have also looked at women’s class relations with other women.  Gerda Lerner addresses these differences consistently – the (upper class) ‘wife’ in ancient Near East patriarchy could own property including owning female and male ‘slaves’ but her sexual and reproductive power was owned by her husband, while lower class women would be sold into slavery or concubinage to pay off their family’s debts; in both cases women’s relationship to class is defined by their sexual relationship to men); she acknowledges that class differences have made it difficult for women to come to awareness of themselves as an oppressed sex, but does not deal extensively with the intra-sex cross-class relations, e.g. (as described in Nell  Irvin Painter’s biography) Sojourner Truth’s description of having been sexually abused by a ‘mistress’ as having been especially traumatizing because it was done by another woman.  The lesbian/feminist journal Lesbian Ethics made a point of addressing abuse in the mother/daughter relationship and philosopher Claudia Card takes as one of her starting points the existence of abuse within lesbian relationships.  But it is difficult to not only claim authorship but excavate claims and counterclaims and create the language for them among people who have been denied not only authorship but connection to one another unmediated by their oppressors.  (Alison Bechdel, the ‘Bechdel Test’ for movies – are there more than 2 women, do they talk to each other, about something other than a man?)  (Two lesbians, recently beaten up on a bus in the UK, after refusing to kiss for the titillation of a man.)  Our connections to one another have not only been circumstantially impeded, they have been actively suppressed, repressed, and punished.  Solidarity in response to male violence has paradoxically been more visible in the mainstream and in a sense more acceptable, more cognizable, than women being able to claim public (?) space to talk as women with other women, about pains caused within the community of women.  We don’t want men jumping on this, as lesbians we don’t want straight people using our imperfections to vilify us or, even worse, benevolently offering to fix us up if we would follow their advice.  Women claiming public space, lesbians claiming public space – public in the sense of being open to all women, or to all lesbians – while excluding those who don’t belong (men, non-lesbians, respectively) was marginal for the brief periods we have claimed it and now is being forced into hiding, into the impossibility of being public, once again through accusations of transphobia.

The principle of female autonomy I have proposed starts with a first principle for social/economic/political organization of ‘at least equal’ power of the two sexes (‘at least’ with a preference for women to avoid backsliding to patriarchy or women’s millennia-inculcated habits of deference) including definitional power and control over resources.  Sexual autonomy – autonomy of women as a sex – is claimed in all relations with women and with men – sexual, familial, communal, social, cultural, civil, economic, political, spiritual, meaning the freedom (individually and in collectives) to interact exclusively with other women in any or all of these dimensions/spheres, and (individually and in collectives) to interact with men in any or all of these dimensions/spheres on women’s own terms.  I think that this fits with Gerda Lerner’s call for women to develop new consciousness for liberation and the overthrow of patriarchy.  Lesbians, female-autonomous spirituality, female-only consciousness-raising groups, and much else that is female-only from sports teams to colleges to music festivals, are crucial to developing women’s consciousness of ourselves as oppressed and our resistance – both to patriarchal thought and to patriarchal practices and their extensions in the state, capitalism, colonialism, other dominance relations.  We are now facing a multiple backlash from the left (accusations of transphobia, undercutting and gutting women’s affirmative action, positive measures for advancement, safety and privacy within/against systematic disadvantagement and exclusion from public spaces at all levels and the at-will, continuous violation of our private spaces by men treating us – our sexed bodies, our attention, our capacities and powers – as public/private property), and from the right which seeks unabashedly to drive us back to ‘kinder, kuche, kirche’, even to the extent of blatantly justifying unequal pay for elite women (Heritage Foundation on the US Women’s Soccer team, won’t link to it, a recent article).  Yet women’s powers of self-authorship are stronger than ever before, challenging everything albeit in a cacophony of voices that are watched and algorithmed by corporate social media, maybe irrelevant to late stage capitalist oligarchy destroying the living planet, or maybe not, as women, starting with indigenous women and women of color, defend migrant children against yet another genocide in progress.


Reading Alexandra Kollontai and Gerda Lerner, and countering Judith Butler (again)

What’s rolling around in my head…

  1. Alexandra Kollontai’s essay ‘Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle‘ in which she makes the point that in modern society we have the idea of ‘possessing’ the lover.  This struck a chord with me.  Lesbians are affected by the notion of love as possessing and being possessed, while we also insist on and value our own autonomy and the autonomy of our partners.  Struggling with this heterosexual-patriarchal paradigm inflected with capitalist individualism, the idea of what a love relationship is and should be, we are faced with the need to invent like every other lesbian couple before us, a relation as free dykes – free autonomous female creators who are drawn to each other and feel strongly for/about each other, who deeply want each other’s satisfaction and thriving, and have to remember ourselves and our own needs and wants and moods and turning away and to respect those of our lover.
  2. Gerda Lerner’s book ‘The Creation of Patriarchy‘ is revelatory about the history of early patriarchy (focusing on ancient near-east and Israel, then briefly on Greece, as foundational to western culture), peeling down and adding back the layers.  But let’s look at how she answers the ultimate question about how it came to be that men were in a position to appropriate the sexual and reproductive powers of women, in the very first instance.  Women’s role in life-giving, as those who can bear children, means that if a society needs more children to have agricultural laborers in a harsh environment they are more likely to succeed if they regulate women’s sexual and reproductive power.  Not every society turns patriarchal (she mentions Iroquois as avoiding it); so it is historical contingency rather than causation that she maintains is the basis for patriarchy.  She can’t answer the question about how the initial shift towards disparity of power in favor of males was accomplished because there isn’t sufficient evidence – only to say that certain factors predisposed greater success in consolidation of wealth and power for those societies that developed this way, leading to patriarchy’s predominance – whereas there is good evidence for how male elites shifted more and more power away from women, in the stages that are recorded in writing.  It might be enough though, to say it’s contingent and, if the planet and humanity survive, it is possible to be vigilant about choosing equality of the sexes as a first principle for economic and political organization – with an edge towards women, ‘at least equality’ I have said elsewhere, so that we never go back.  Contingency means it is our hands.
  3. Some feminists have been discussing Judith Butler recently, and I was reminded of the terribly dystopian vision of social constructionism in Gender Trouble, which posits that men constructed language, sex and sexuality once and for all as patriarchy and all we can do now – the only kind of subjectivity and agency possible – is ‘parody or pastiche’ of sex roles and sex stereotypes.  I reacted strongly against this when I read the book, returning to my own body and knowing with every breath I am newly conscious of the world and the world changes as every subjectivity and agency is always changing and interacting in complex engagements.  I found an echo of this in Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, and think it it is even more strongly supported by Gerda Lerner’s evidence for the historical contingency of patriarchy.  We are not limited by patriarchy, patriarchy is limited by our capacity to choose and create differently having a consciousness of the terrible consequences of any encroachment on female autonomy, any suggestion that we are instruments for survival of the whole.

Self-sovereignty as self-relation

1. Rights as property, or is there another way? Self-ownership or self-sovereignty?

The human rights regime has been challenged as viewing rights as a kind of property, with ownership as the ultimate right (see discussion in Robin West, Normative Jurisprudence).  If this is so, then the regime has tied its own hands and made itself unable to overturn capitalism, an economic system that entails vast exploitation and abuse of human beings and the planet.  But another view is possible.

Self-sovereignty, or self-determination or autonomy at the personal level (I am not now discussing the right of peoples to self-determination) is sometimes articulated as ownership of the self.  Particularly when rights concern my own body, as in a right to abortion or right to suicide, I might say, ‘I own myself, the state doesn’t own me.’  This view is expressed in Wayne Ramsay’s 2017 article, which was brought to my attention by survivor of psychiatry activist Mary Maddock on Twitter.

Self-ownership suggests that we are property that we might own or another person or collective (like the state) might own.  I recalled my similar discomfort or sadness to hear advocates with developmental disabilities state, ‘I am my own guardian.’  Guardianship was normative in their lives; parents of people with developmental disabilities were seeking guardianship over them when they turned eighteen, to deny their newly adult children the rights and privileges of adulthood and transition seamlessly from parental guardianship over children to the system of guardianship over adult wards.

In thinking about the rights we hold so precious in the survivor community to define our own identities and life stories, to defend ourselves from forced drugging and electroshock and from confinement in locked wards and in restraints, I think that self-sovereignty describes the right we have in relation to ourselves, and it is not one of ownership but unity of self from a legal point of view and insistence that the relationship  one has to oneself is not penetrable by others without violation.

This is related to the concept of boundaries that we establish between ourselves and others, which also are commonly defined as the word suggests, in relation to a territory.  I find that when I think of ‘boundaries’ that way, I find that it creates a provocation – a line in the sand that doesn’t so much say ‘you will not step over’ as, ‘I dare you to step over’ – a signal of willingness to fight, more than a signal of impenetrability.  It is furthermore a boundary that I am reaching to establish, that feels like it extends beyond myself, or into myself, and that is not strong or stable.  Instead, if I think of the boundary as a limit on the person’s behavior towards me, I focus on the limit itself and not the violation or potential for violation.  It is a boundary that proceeds outward from my strength.

Feminists and survivors of psychiatry both need to think about these issues.

2. The right to legal capacity and theory of personhood

The right to legal capacity, which is the legal status that recognizes individuals as actors capable of creating legal effects through an exercise of personal autonomy, has come into focus in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as the pre-eminent right without which no other rights can be guaranteed.  This is not merely a prioritization of one right over another; without legal capacity one can be tortured or arbitrarily detained with impunity as no one is obligated to pay attention to your saying ‘No!’ when a doctor or court or guardian says ‘Yes’ on your behalf to institutionalization and destructive ‘treatments’.

The focus of activists and experts working on legal capacity through CRPD has been primarily to explicate the paradigm of universal (adult) legal capacity in terms of its details (how to differentiate between substitute decision-making and support) and how it responds to problems and challenges (like the situation of coma), rather than to develop an underlying theory of personhood.  When theory of personhood is addressed, it has been unsatisfying to me as a feminist and survivor of psychiatry; the focus is on human interdependence as a justification for recognizing that legal capacity can be exercised with support, which does not help to argue for recognition of equal legal capacity of persons with disabilities full stop, with a right to reject support the same as everyone else might do.

Interdependence is not satisfying to me as a feminist or as a survivor of psychiatry.  In my experience, women and girls are trained to discount ourselves as the source of answers, wisdom and strength, and to look to someone else as initiator (especially sexual initiator), arbiter of decisions, and defender.  Interdependence is a false promise when your own independent selfhood is denied – it becomes dependence and inequality.  Psychiatry enforces this misogynistic abuse-expectation and abuse-catering pattern that is demanded of women, and trashes us to the hilt – the end result of abuse that is so totalized, reaching from family to medical authorities to the state, legitimized by civil society and neighbors, is to make us unfit for interdependence – unable to relate with others as equals due to their own prejudice and our own internalized oppression.

On the other side, many women and many survivors of psychiatry find that they are not entirely beaten down, that they find strength and knowledge in bonding with other women, other survivors, and speaking the truths that the abusers forbid.  The feminist movement and the survivor movement have promoted interdependence as a value from this experience.  But it is a different kind of interdependence than that invoked to justify supported decision-making in legal capacity.  It is an interdependence starting with the collectivity of oppressed people finding their own voices together in resistance to those who tell us we have to depend on them.  It is not an interdependence that is experienced as an unequal dependence in which we strive for mutuality but are doomed to fail.

Ethics of care has started from the point of dependence as an inevitability in human life, given that we all begin life as infants and that women, as mothers and as carers for adults in situations of vulnerability, have a standpoint from which to theorize ethics based on something other than a relationship of equals, viewed as liberal market-paradigm relations between rational autonomous individuals.  Yet ethics of care can obfuscate the issue of personal autonomy and self-sovereignty as a right of individuals who are in situations of high dependence on others to meet their basic needs.  If it takes the perspective of the mother and not the infant, the carer and not the one who is relying on care, it is skewed and is morally lopsided.  I would like to leave aside the question of infancy for now and what it means to take the perspective of an infant, but it is clear that disabled people who rely on care have their own perspectives and have articulated them – that is a large part of the disability rights movement(s).

I suspect that the notion of interdependence to justify supported decision-making derives from an adaptation to ethics of care; ‘not dependence but interdependence’ as a way of presenting the situation of people with intellectual disabilities who rely on support in exercising their legal capacity as an extension of everyday life for non-disabled people.  And it is true that the best way of understanding supported decision-making is to look at one’s own life, where I have used support when making decisions, when have I supported someone else, what does that look/feel like?  Yet, it begs the question of what this kind of support really amounts to, why we are presenting it as a particular thing and not simply saying, you know how we all support each other?, well the same is true for people with disabilities.

3. Self-sovereignty and impenetrability of self-relation, in CRPD

Self-sovereignty as a right of personhood, including for those who rely on support to exercise their will, has been present throughout our work on legal capacity in and through the CPRD, in the insistence that every person has a will (by DPOs in the negotiations), in the requirement in Article 12.4 that all measures relating to the exercise of legal capacity ‘respect the rights, will and preferences of the person’, in the careful calibration of the obligations of support in relation to the exercise of personal autonomy (as the substantive dimension of legal capacity) in General Comment No. 1.  ‘Interdependence’ has played partly a public-relations role, invoking softer caring relations and mitigating fears that people with disabilities will be left on their own and will fail.  Yet GC1 is clear that support serves the individual concerned, that there is a right to refuse support, and that ultimately carers have to stand aside and respect the ‘autonomy, will and preferences’ of the person they support.

Similarly, GC1 incorporates the right to be free from forced psychiatric interventions, which it characterizes as ‘an infringement of the rights to personal integrity (art. 17); freedom from torture (art. 15); and freedom from violence, exploitation and abuse (art. 16)’ as well as ‘a violation of the right to equal recognition before the law [the parent right from which legal capacity is derived].’  (‘Infringement’ rather than ‘violation’ suggests that forced psychiatric interventions may not always violate those personal integrity rights, a manifestation of unnecessary caution from the CRPD Committee that has since been rectified (see General Comment No. 3 paras 32, 53 and 54; General Comment No. 6 para 56; Guidelines on Article 14 para 12; which recognize forced ‘treatment’ as a violation of Articles 15, 16 and 17).)  Here and in paragraph 7, which includes ‘mental health laws that permit forced treatment’ as a substitute decision-making regime, GC1 gives effect to the right to defend oneself against physical violence that has been legitimated by positioning it as defense of the person against intolerable potential for harm or deterioration within the self that decides or acts – with the irony that the act of penetration itself, if successful, accomplishes a splitting of the self and undermining of initiative that confirms the belief (of psychiatrists, family and friends, and the person her/himself) in an unreliable and illegitimate self that cannot be trusted to act.

GC1 also soundly rejects the ‘functional’ approach to deprivation of legal capacity, found in mental capacity assessments and also in the concept of ‘unsoundness of mind’, which is both the prong of legal capacity deprivation most invoked against people with psychosocial disabilities (who are viewed as incapable of ‘discernment’) and the assumption underlying involuntary internment and involuntary ‘treatment’ in the mental health system.  In its discussion of the functional approach, GC1 underscores the right to self-sovereignty as impenetrability (unknowability) of the self by other selves:

This approach is flawed for two key reasons: (a) it is discriminatorily applied to people with disabilities; and (b) it presumes to be able to accurately assess the inner-workings of the human mind and, when the person does not pass the assessment, it then denies him or her a core human right — the right to equal recognition before the law. [emphasis added]

4. Conclusions and directions to explore

The right to self-sovereignty as impenetrability of the relationship to oneself, a unique relation that unlike others is not a relation of conceptually or physically separate entities,  should be further developed in scholarship at the intersection of mad studies, disability studies, and critical disability jurisprudence – primarily by survivors of psychiatry and those identifying as mad, ourselves – and in feminist theory and jurisprudence.  (I have primarily developed the disability issues here but hope that the implications for eradication of rape, abortion rights, female autonomy/female-only space and other concerns of feminism can be extrapolated and elaborated.)  It should also be developed in advocacy and in the work of the CRPD Committee and CEDAW and other relevant UN entities, to promote understanding of personhood and human rights that is based in the standpoint of oppressed people fighting for liberation and not in property ownership, which beyond personal property or use-rights that meet human needs and are sustainable for the environment amounts to exploitation and should not be protected in a human rights regime.

Self-relation, the relationship one has to oneself, is unique and particular.  But it might also be an instance of relationality as a way of thinking about law and about human rights; duties to one another and how to relate to one another and to the environment in ways that promote the common good and individual flourishing, rather than the static and territorial approach to rights as marking a line in the sand that sets us up for fights, and is even designed to do so in an adversarial legal system (like the one in the USA).  Comparative law and comparative philosophy are important to this project; I have written before about being inspired by indigenous law, and have encountered interesting features of civil law and parliamentary systems and other countries’ constitutions that inspire me as well; I am currently reading ‘African Philosophy as Cultural Inquiry,‘ which is opening doors about philosophy of personhood generally and from a comparative perspective.

Women’s liberation, gender identity and the state

The adoption of gender identity laws* by many states, and the endorsement of such laws by organs of the United Nations, demonstrates a failure to recognize women as a political class and women’s liberation as a fundamental component of the human rights project.

The transgender or gender identity movement in itself is a civil society phenomenon that has claimed the mantle of feminism and the mantle of lesbian and gay liberation as well. But it is states who bear the responsibility for the denial of women as a political class and the ensuring violations of women’s human rights.

The women’s liberation movement fought for abolition of all forms of male dominance and exploitation of women, and recognized gender as a social and cultural elaboration of  identities for men and women that not only limited individuals’ freedoms and opportunities but also kept in place the political and economy hierarchy with men on the top and women on the bottom.  This movement, now known as radical feminism, still fights all forms of male domination and exploitation of women.  It is an international and intersectional movement, keeping in mind that to be intersectional, women have to be recognized as a political class – intersectionality does not mean the obliteration of any political class or denying that there is any common political agenda, but rather pursuing the liberation of all members of that class including where that political agenda intersects with others.

Lesbians are caught in the cross-hairs of gender identity as an attack on women as a political class, most obviously because gender identity is promoted in our name through the ‘LGBTQ’ movement, but so are women of color, disabled women and women with other identities that have to fight intersectional battles, and those who have to defend themselves individually against male violence or who fight for its eradication.  Early in the US feminist movement, lesbians were told we weren’t wanted.  We are often treated as ‘not really women’.  Women of color and disabled women are also treated as ‘not really women’ or as the ‘wrong kind of woman’.  Every woman is exposed to social control and disapproval when she steps over the line of femininity as pleasing men and dedicating one’s own will and actions to maintaining a veneer of pleasantness in the family and in society, serving the interests of all hierarchies and systems of exploitation.  It is exactly trampling these lines of femininity that women need to survive, to defend ourselves against male violence both organized and individual, and to act in the world as responsible individuals and citizens.

The gender identity movement takes part of the feminist agenda, part of the lesbian and gay agenda, and makes it the sole focus to be enforced against the other parts of those movements.  The freedom to express ourselves and cross the lines of femininity and masculinity as individuals is part of both feminism/women’s liberation and lesbian/gay liberation.  It is a beautiful thing to see this freedom of expression win greater acceptance – but it has a conservative side, as the freedom is won by appealing to the construct of gender as a set of social cues in communication, e.g. I wear lipstick and present the appearance of breasts, therefore respond to me as a woman, or I tell you my pronouns are ‘they/them’, therefore respond to me as if you are agnostic about my sex.  It’s conservative because it treats an oppressive system as merely the cumulative product of individual choices, similar to a marketplace, and merely demands that the terms on which the market operates are made more equal in terms of opportunity to choose positions irrespective of sex.  But we don’t start out equal and don’t end up equal; it’s nonsense to treat a political hierarchy and system of economic and sexual exploitation as a marketplace – to do so merely entrenches the system of male domination/exploitation/extraction of resources from women along with all its dependent and intersectional hierarchies and systems of exploitation.  In order to act against oppression we have to act collectively to change the conditions that confront us; political action is not a marketplace.

Democracy has sometimes functioned as a marketplace especially when we are talking about majority vote and campaigns that function as marketing and not as political debate or deliberation.  But the answer is to bring back political debate, deliberation and collective action – not to capitulate to an individualism that is tantamount to despair.

The state is responsible for its violation of the human rights of women, but at the same time women have a right to question the state.  Democracy is a human right of a people to self-determination and pre-exists any particular form of political organization.  Equality of the sexes is fundamental to democracy, otherwise it is not democracy but androcracy.  Having been given the right to vote by states created by men, we are playing catch-up while men continue to shape the laws and customs to their own benefit, i.e. to treat rape as an individual crime for which sympathy is doled out or withheld on a racial basis to victim or perpetrator, rather than as a systemic hate crime against women that is to be eradicated.**   ‘Democracy’ itself cannot legitimize violations of human rights; like legal capacity it is a meta-right, a right that encapsulates a status for the exercise of freedom, and as a collective right, democracy remains accountable for the relations among individuals that it endorses and for those by which it operates.

The state should be the target of women’s political action and organizing, not the gender identity movement per se.  It is the state that bears responsibility within a human rights framework, and the state which, as the form of modern political organization that is answerable to democratic demands or can be targeted for political resistance if it rejects those demands.  The best and most successful organizing is being done in response to state initiatives like the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, which also benefits from a large grass-roots movement that was able to mobilize through an anonymous discussion board where women congregate to discuss political and nonpolitical issues of many kinds (MumsNet).  In the US our spheres of political action and debate are circumscribed, truncated and heavily influenced by political parties, funders and media that have created a political culture of spin and power rather than deliberation or collective action that can sustain itself independently, with some important exceptions.  We should learn from other countries and other struggles as we work intersectionally for women’s liberation.


*By gender identity laws I mean laws that allow men to change their legal classification to that of women, whether based on self-identification or on medical or social gatekeeping.  Self-identification laws are the most pernicious for women’s rights because they allow the greatest number of men to enter and represent the most complete denial of women as a political class, but laws that require gatekeeping are nevertheless problematic for the autonomy of the female sex to define itself.

**The Nordic model for ending prostitution, which provides support for women to exit the sex industry and penalizes sex buyers to criminalize the demand for commodified sex moves us toward a systemic approach by targeting sexual exploitation at the industrial level.

Gender Identity Isn’t a Box. It’s a Yardstick.

This is a great explanation of the radical feminist critique of gender identity.


One of the big questions I was still left with when I stopped blogging here for a few years was very simple:

What, exactly, is gender identity?

If you read mainstream trans sources, the answer gets a bit circular: “gender identity is one’s deeply-held internal sense of one’s own gender.”

That’s exactly the kind of definition that doesn’t get us any closer to what is actually meant by the term “gender identity” when it is enshrined into law or company handbooks. After all, the law (in a liberal Western democracy, anyway) is generally unconcerned with policing the deeply-held internal senses of citizens.

Besides, this seemingly quick-and-easy definition doesn’t hold up with what mainstream trans activism is actually demanding. When using a non-preferred pronoun or disallowing a trans person from opposite-sex spaces is legally actionable, “gender identity” requires government employees, trans people’s co-workers, and those in sex-segregated spaces alter…

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On pariah status

My poem Lilit captured this but I need to push the political analysis and narrative.

In yoga, my instructor invites us to ‘set an intention’ for the practice.  Tonight I set an intention to create community where I live.  At the end of the practice, when she invited us to direct energy towards our intention and see it in practice, it came to me that I want to be my full self and be welcomed, embraced, respected, valued.  My full self is a survivor of forced psychiatry – once known as an ‘ex-mental patient’ – and a lawyer whose entire work is dedicated to international human rights law for the abolition of this practice.

My full self also happens to be a lesbian, a lesbian who insists that the female body is what I desire and what I am; a lesbian feminist who needs female-only space and culture and politics to exist, who still believes that ‘a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle’.  My full self is a Jew, a female-autonomous-spirituality-practicing Jew, a walk-in-the-woods-and-pray-with-trees Jew, a kid who went to yeshiva from a non-religious family Jew.  A New York Jew who grew up knowing few non-Jewish people until high school when I went further into the wide world.

Where I live now is a rural town where people don’t know what to make of me, and I don’t know what to make of them either.  I don’t work in the community, don’t contribute, don’t relate to them except in passing, at yoga class, in transactions at store or farmer’s market.  A couple of friends I know from the remnants of a short-lived fairly radical psych survivor organization about ten years ago, in a neighboring city/big town.  A few others we call friends from the Occupy vigils we went to religiously, hour-long and contemplative and connecting – but they ended.  Others we knew from a time when we attended a church with a lesbian minister of Jewish heritage, who understood spirit enough to create a service welcoming to the likes of me, but I had to stop going when she left and the new minister talked about ‘obeying Jesus’.  A couple of lesbians from a defunct brunch group. A lesbian couple who run a successful goat cheese business, not friends exactly but we like going to their open house and kind of ‘barn dance’ events, and the gay guy who sells their cheese at farmer’s market and brightens up my day.  And the ‘girls across the road,’ as the realtor said when she sold us the house, but they don’t stay there, they stay in her partner’s house in the next town.

In 2017, as I described in the Lilit poem, I tried to engage politically with a group that formed after the election of Donald Trump.  I had just come home from Norway and wanted to get involved with something; I have skills, I am politically active and know how to analyze legislation and policy.  I thought, ok, here are people in my home town that are not racists or homophobes and give a damn about things that I do.  And don’t you know it, the leader kicked me out after I used the adjective ‘fucking’ when talking about the Democrats as a corporate party.  Clearly there is a cultural thing here or a political thing that is insurmountable, and I haven’t gotten over it.  I tried the Green Party also, but don’t like the bickering and dogmatism engaged in by men in my local meetings.

I wonder where and how is the possibility for community.  Also in connection with my short-lived local activism, I talked about freedom in health care and my work for abolition of forced psychiatry.  Pretty much crickets and tokenism; ‘she’s the one who cares about mental health issues,’ – not.  And it’s coming back to me now when in the international work, some UN mechanisms are moving to the right on the issue of forced psychiatry- apparently having decided that it’s futile to instruct states to stop their repression against people who are struggling with life already, to stop the practice of arbitrary detention and torture with neuroleptic drugs, they are promoting the view that better support is what we need, and psychiatrists are good guys who are just frightened because they buy into misguided stereotypes of ‘danger to self or others’.  I can hear you – my sister and brother psych survivors – belly-laughing all the way from here on that one.

I am in a no-win situation even in the international activism sphere.  If I complain, I am a dangerous mental patient, a militant who doesn’t know what’s good for her, a thorn in the side of those who really want to help.  Just get out of the way, let the ‘real pros’ (after all they were paid or elected) do what they do best.  I have no power there, only what I have always had, my voice and my logic and my ability to make a moral and political argument.  And to the extent I still speak for everyone who has been locked up and tortured in psychiatry, my capability of representing our constituency of victims.

I still want community.  I want what we had in the Ad Hoc Committee where the CRPD was drafted and negotiated – a moral and political agreement that those whose rights were violated LEAD.  That the constituency of victims is the constituency of experts.  I want reparations.  This is reparations, to be able to speak as a full self, a person with a history and a political struggle that relates and connects with everyone in the room because who has not faced the idea of suicide, who has not struggled with what they know and can’t say, who has not had their mind do things that were unexpected?  Who has not feared the mental institution?  This diversity, and my being a lesbian feminist, and all our diversity whether ethnic or religious or anything else, should not be a big deal, should not be made ‘special’ or misinterpreted.  There’s a lot I don’t know, but a lot I do know, like anyone else.  I want feminism to be a principle of organization and for women to question men and stop them when they dominate or expect women’s care.

I want the trans bullshit to be stopped cold for the cantankerous infantile crap that it is.  Men don’t change into women by putting on lipstick or by taking estrogen shots, or by reconfiguring their penile tissue to simulate a vulva, clitoris and vagina.  We see you and we don’t like it, it’s the worst aspects of drag taken to the nth degree and politicized, weaponized to destroy the women’s liberation movement and erase lesbian identity and existence.  Just stop it, and progressive and feminist movements stop catering to this nonsense.

Life is short and the planet isn’t in great shape; is there a space for humans to get together and set their bullshit aside for once, let go of the betrayals and create a different kind of political action that doesn’t depend on betrayal?

Is there restorative justice that doesn’t depend on hegemony of an in-group and its particular set of values and worldview?

Diversity and heterogeneity

Many years ago in reading the book Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi, I was introduced to the concept of heterogeneity.  Mernissi describes how the meaning of ‘harem’ encompasses two different possible ways of life, that have no elements in common with each other.

The concept has proved useful to me in talking about two different kinds of diversity in the disability community.  There is the usual kind of diversity which is intersectional, meaning that we may be alike in one way but we are diverse in others, e.g. disabled people are male or female (or intersex), of one or another ethnic group, homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual etc.  Then there is the diversity that comes from the heterogeneity of disability, what disability is depending on whether you are a survivor of psychiatry, a blind person, a wheelchair user, a Deaf person, an autistic person, or any of the other disability experiences.  Another way of saying that is that disability is a coalition.  It cannot even be said that we are all disabled by social barriers in relation to our impairments – for a survivor of psychiatry, the concept of impairment is both offensive and meaningless, it is solely the fact of being discriminated against through the ‘selection process’ of psychiatric diagnosis by which perpetrators identify us as suitable victims of violent experimental interventions.  This relates to disability because these perpetrators regard us as persons with disabilities, they regard us as having an impairment, and when the disability community comprises those who have been subjected to such life-changing discrimination along with those who experience having an impairment of any kind, we are equally a constituency whose rights are encompassed in the disability framework.

The transgender movement that claims that ‘trans women are women and trans men are men’ for all purposes can be seen in a similar way – aiming to make the category of sex/gender a heterogeneous one.  The term ‘woman’ in their view encompasses both those who are female (or intersex and assigned female at birth) and do not reject being identified as women, and those who are male and self-identify as women.  Is this a move that we should accept or reject?

Feminists argue that treating ‘woman’ in particular as a heterogeneous concept (the concept of ‘man’ hasn’t come under such scrutiny from the transgender movement) harms women.  I have written that it reverses the polarities and allows members of the oppressor class at will to reclassify themselves as members of the oppressed, and to consider themselves as more oppressed than actual women since they claim that being transgender is intersectional as well as a heterogeneous way of being ‘woman’.

I don’t hear from the transgender movement an argument as to why the move to remake sex classifications into sex/gender-identity as a heterogeneous concept is warranted or justifiable.  I hear appeals to concern for transgender people, for their mental health and well-being which is claimed to require acceptance of their self-declared identity – their identification into a desired sex and remaking of the classification of ‘woman’ in particular into a heterogeneous category of sex/gender-identity – as socially and legally valid for all intents and purposes.  I hear appeals to be inclusive, as if the remaking of our political, social, legal, cultural and physical identity as the female sex into a heterogeneous category that allows males in somehow is akin to demands by women of color, disabled women, lesbians, to be known in our femaleness and not be limited by white, heterosexist, ableist concepts of womanhood.  The transgender movement has taken our painful and disruptive failures to fully recognize each other, all women, as sisters, and turned them inside out to say, well you can’t recognize a woman so therefore there is no such thing outside of what anybody, male or female, can claim it is for themselves.

As I may have said elsewhere, I support the possibility of having gender identities for those who claim them – as feminists do not, contrary to the transgender advocacy position that claims all persons have a gender identity – and the possibility of having multiple genders (as some indigenous people and non-western cultures do) if we retain gender as a cultural construct without forcing anyone into a role related to sex stereotyping and gender has no implication for sex-classification.  I think that accommodations of transgender and nonconforming people’s needs for safety in dealing with police and in situations of bodily privacy and state custody need to be worked out similarly to other intersectional identity groups, without making transgender operate as a requirement to treat sex-classification as heterogeneous – i.e. without requiring the state and private individuals to accommodate the needs of male transgender persons *as a subclass of women*.

I don’t want feminists to label transgender people, gender nonconforming people, or anyone else as mentally ill or to deride anyone for their appearance.  However in an environment where male transgender advocates and their female, male, heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual allies physically attack and threaten lesbians and feminists routinely with actual violence and exclusion from communities – which endangers us greatly as already marginalized people in mainstream society – I cannot say that the situation is in any way a battle with two equal sides.  The first step towards any reconciliation is to end the transgender attacks against lesbians and for the rest of society to ally with lesbians and all women now.