The failure of intersectionality, insofar as it fails us, is not primarily a failure of feminism. Rather it is elevated expectations of feminism (or stricter standards applied to women’s behavior), and lowered expectations of all the other movements (or more permissive standards applied to men), that create the biggest problems.
Kimberlé Crenshaw took note of the disparate reactions by her students to similar questions of intersectionality in feminist and anti-racist movements in her article ‘Close Encounters of Three Kinds: On Teaching Dominance Feminism and Intersectionality.’ Recently I observed an example of a generic call for coalition-building issued by a white male leftist in the name of intersectionality, which completely failed to grasp the nature of intersectionality as actually illuminating what each movement misses because it ignores the issues faced by a significant part of its own constituency. Thus, in a Counterpunch article Anthony DiMaggio fails to connect the dots that make #metoo a workers’ rights movement – surely elimination of sexual harassment would raise the status and bargaining power of women as workers! – and similarly fails to relate Black Lives Matter and similar protests against racially motivated police violence to class struggle – surely this repression, and the accompanying criminalization, is connected to maintaining a large segment of African Americans as a super-exploitable underclass.
Everyone seems to point a finger at other movements that should be intersectional – actually with the exception of feminism, which has taken on its own struggles internally now for decades, and in many spaces as a result of this painstaking work achieved some real success.
The problem becomes most acute for women now because the transgender movement has misused intersectionality so that it becomes not a call for inclusion but a demand to re-set the entire table of feminism on its own terms. These terms are, like most other movements not led by women, dictated by men – by trans-identified-males who refer to themselves as trans women and refer to women, or females who do not identify as trans men, as cis women. This is an extraordinary reversal of the polarities of dominant and subordinated classes, most extraordinary in that it is so widely and popularly accepted in left circles and the liberal mainstream.
A friend asked me yesterday, what was a TERF and how to understand where trans ideology comes from, why it has become such a conflagration?
I thought about it for a long time after the conversation, and these are some of the pieces:
After same-sex marriage equality was established in the US by the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision – a huge milestone – there was a vacuum in the lesbian/gay movement’s advocacy. Although many lesbians in particular were politically and personally unenthusiastic about marriage, an institution that as we knew it enslaved women and privileged upper classes, I don’t think that anything else would have enshrined in law and public consciousness the honor and dignity of our relationships, and by extension our sexuality. In a society where marriage remains the only way to create family between equal adult partners, and it rests on a sexual relationship, marriage equality stands in for, and opens public space for, our sexual and romantic relations to be acknowledged openly and celebrated. We don’t all have to be married, and we can live marriage as we choose if we do marry. We can be sexual outlaws or nonconformists, if that’s still who we are. Marriage, I think, still creates more space for us as lesbians, gay men and bisexual women and men.
There is a connection between sexuality and personal expression, and in particular between homosexual orientation and rejection or divergence from the roles and expectations prescribed for one’s sex. Homosexual and heterosexual are binary orientations, even bisexuality is binary in that we are dealing with two sexes. Similarly gender is binary if we understand gender to be the sociocultural constructs related to the two sexes. Cultural symbolism around sex does not need to be patriarchal; think of women’s autonomous spiritual practices and productions. (I will refrain from including generally ‘goddess symbolism’ here as it can be subordinated or created through a male gaze, to serve men.) We cannot escape the need for cultural signifiers relating to sex – there are knowledge bases available and relevant to women and not men, about our female bodies and their development and capabilities and powers, our cycles, our sexuality, our center of gravity and our energy. Our motherhood or inability to become mothers or rejection of motherhood. We need our language and our connections to each other around these experiences that are binary in nature within the context of society, as they are unique to women. If we are homosexual we are these amazing female beings who bring this entire being to another female. Men, including gay men, will have whatever binary experience they have on their side that is not necessarily about dominating or exploiting women or about entitlement to enact violence and sexual aggression (i.e. patriarchy). Lesbians and gay men have a unique vantage point on the roles and expectations for our sex, respectively, necessarily because our sexuality is qualitatively different from heterosexuality, and we are a different kind of woman and a different kind of man. But it goes deeper than that also; many lesbians grow up rejecting femininity and become proud butches, many gay men grow up being told they are sissies and come out to their beautiful selves. In this gender nonconformity is the connection between lesbian/gay politics and the issue of gender expression and identity.
Transgender people who choose to express themselves in ways that violate gender binary expectations, or to live in an identity different than their sex, which may include body modification that creates a quasi-intersex body type and experience, have the right to enjoy all their human rights and not be excluded from society. But if we really want to talk intersectionality, the gender identity movement needs to start by addressing anti-sexism, and the differential impact of gender identity and transgender identities on men and women, including those who are equally gender nonconforming and do not identify as transgender but as butch lesbians or the equivalent for gay men. That movement needs to deal with the feminist analysis of gender as the vehicle for maintaining male supremacy and patriarchy, an analysis to which numerous lesbians contributed, and which leads women identifying with feminism to understand themselves, and all women, as by definition gender non-conforming because they resist the subservience demanded of women as part of femininity. (Which is why we reject the name ‘cis’.) Feminists also maintain that the distinction between transgender and non-transgender is a false binary as no one is a walking stereotype. Even non-feminist women heft babies and diaper bags and strollers, mow the lawn and stack wood, for example.
Women are pushing back against the new political orthodoxy demanded of us in left circles and in a new male-led transgender-focused feminism. In the UK feminists are getting mainstream airtime and media (for example, here, and news roundup with link here) in their fight to prevent legal changes that would allow a male to receive a gender recognition certificate as a woman purely on his self-declaration. Australian leftist journalist Caity Johnstone took note of the transgender movement’s policing of language as part of a liberal identity politics that masks authoritarianism. In the US, we are impeded by the right-wing’s capture of the pushback against gender identity as a return to manly men and womanly women; attempts at coalition-building between feminists and right-wing women while potentially interesting are doomed to fail so long as feminists put feminism in the back seat.
Let’s have some rules for intersectionality.
- Intersections have to go both ways. I build bridges between lesbian/feminism and the psychiatric survivor movement. That means I work in both of them, bringing out issues, experiences and perspectives that pertain to lesbians and other women who are survivors. I have to say at present it is highly risky to bring lesbian/feminist ideas to the survivor movement, because of capture by transgender identity politics. And for the moment lesbian/feminism is more open. But in principle there has to be mutuality of engagement with the issues of a segment of each movement’s constituency that the movement is not paying attention to.
- Intersectionality cannot require reversal of the polarities of an existing movement or cannibalizing it out of existence. That is what the gender identity movement is doing to feminism. We, lesbians, midwives and other feminists who are backed into a corner or simply have the chutzpah to stand up for ourselves, aren’t allowing ourselves to be eaten.
What else can you think of?