- I start out with a feeling of anger and vulnerability. As a Jewish dyke, I inherit the fear of pogroms, the knowledge of being hunted and needing to be vigilant, needing to be prepared for when the welcome wears out. Making a home in the whirlwind. Growing up in a non-religious family while attending a yeshiva, in a family struggling economically among those more well-off, I also know this feeling of hesitating at the door, not sure of knowing the right thing to do to be accepted. (Unwrapping a Hostess twinkie package and not knowing it’s not kosher, for example. Or however people wash dishes in their own houses.)
- In 2019, the welcome mat is being pulled away from Jews in more and more places in the world. The attack on a community center by 50 neo-Nazis in Hungary, chills me most somehow despite it being violence against property and not people. This is not a rogue shooting, it’s a message by an organized political force. The neo-Nazis are organized in the US also, and they represent part of a far right political spectrum that Donald Trump has brought full scale into national politics and government: a coalition of Christian fundamentalists whose primary agenda is subjugation of women through denial of sexual and reproductive autonomy, and enforcement of sex stereotypes and heterosexuality against lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; white nationalists whose agenda is exclusion and ultimately genocide of black and brown people whose very existence is viewed as a threat to white supremacy (and Jews who are demonized as the masterminds of liberal and leftist agendas for equality); and predatory capitalists whose aim is evisceration of any remnant of the social safety net and any expectation that government is responsible for the well being of all its people, in essence dismantling of the social contract, problematic as it has always been due to its nature as a compromise that sacrifices power for protection.
- Into this scenario comes the intra-left struggle around gender identity. Transgender people came to the forefront after lesbians and gay men won the emblematic right of marriage, which positions us as social equals with heterosexuals (though without federal civil rights protection against discrimination in employment, housing and similar areas, the slogan is true that we can be married on the weekend and fired on Monday). Transgender people similarly lack protection against employment and housing discrimination, and deserve protection. But the transgender movement has made demands that conflict with those of lesbians, all women, and gay men. An important part of the women’s liberation movement has been the creation of autonomous women-only spaces, services, politics, and culture – that movement itself represents (or represented) an assertion of female separatism. We named ourselves as a political constituency based on sex, and named our oppressors as the male sex which has systematically expropriated our sexual and reproductive power and various forms of labor, and has promulgated ideologies that treat us as half-human to mobilize our intelligence and strength and half-exploitable natural resource; we fight this oppression together with the class system and racialized exploitation that it is inseparable from. Now comes a movement that rejects the radical feminist analysis and seeks to displace it entirely from political discourse, undermining gains we have made in women’s and girls’ sports and education, lesbian-feminist autonomous culture and politics, women’s facilities in public mixed spaces (restrooms, changing rooms, baths), domestic violence and rape crisis refuges that bring peer support and advocacy to serve women in highly vulnerable situations, the feminist women’s health movement that named our body parts and took back power to know our own bodies and take charge of our health. This revolution is not over, and maybe its distance from any conceivable finish line prompts frustration and fatigue, while the popularization of liberal feminism as the legal possibility and existence of women in managerial positions and skilled professions allows for a large segment of the population who are generally progressive and support women’s equality in principle to think that there’s nothing more to fight for (ignoring the massive existence of rape, femicide, sexual harassment, pay gap, the continued treatment of women and of female bodies as secondary in health care and in design of goods and services, the cutting back of abortion rights and contraception that has helped to fuel a surge in religious fundamentalist influence in our political arena, an environment where gender nonconforming girls and young women are unaware of lesbian and feminist role models and the rich literature of our movements, etc. and etc.).
- The transgender movement demands that a person’s declared sex must be treated as their actual sex, i.e. a man who feels subjectively that he is female must be socially and legally recognized as female for all purposes. This and nothing less is said to satisfy the demand for inclusion of transgender persons in society. And it directly conflicts with lesbians and women as actual, defined, collectivities of persons who have material existence and are entitled to voice, assert, and defend their boundaries that set them apart from males. The transgender demand for self-declared sex amounts to a silencing of women and suppression of women’s autonomous political, social, and legal existence. The impact on lesbian-feminist spaces and organizing has been huge and painful, as many have had to close or disperse and reform out of sight of the mainstream, thanks to boycotts, threats and intimidation, divisions among women about whether to include males who identify as female, ostracism, and physical violence. These spaces have always existed largely out of the public eye, we protect them, they are ours and they are meant for us and not for public consumption. They have always met with criticism, ridicule, and bemusement due to their being women’s autonomous spaces that have no place and no role to play within a liberal order that simultaneously pretends equality between men and women already exists, and depends on women’s unpaid and underpaid labor and sexual exploitation in homes and in prostitution/pornography that put women in subservience to men. When we decry this impact of gender identity claims, it’s as if no one spoke. As Judy Grahn wrote in another context, being outside the capitalist, patriarchal and heterosexual order means that ‘no one is there to testify.’
- Now come radical feminists. We’d think that in mobilizing against gender identity because of how it impacts on women including lesbians, we’d be fighting simultaneously against the left/liberal consensus on this issue that reveals their misogyny/lesbophobia, and against the right which still wants to subjugate us entirely by rolling back the gains we’ve made under liberalism. And yes, that’s a tough row to hoe and it’s ours. There are some feminists who have decided instead to make an alliance with religious fundamentalists, and this itself becomes part of the landscape for those of us fighting for liberation for all women – including, damn it, women of color, indigenous women, Jewish women, working class women, and lesbians who are the front-line targets of the far right coalition currently in power in the US government for reasons that are immediate and life-threatening. How dare they put us even more at risk by confirming the left and liberals in kicking feminists out of their zone of solidarity?
- I had written an earlier draft post discussing some of the details of the right wing alliances, but actually don’t want to give it airspace. I will say that those women are talking out of both sides of their mouths, at one moment claiming it’s not an alliance, just sharing a platform, and the next moment organizing a joint rally and co-producing a text advising parents on how to oppose schools that introduce children to gender identity or other topics the parents might not agree with (including sexual orientation and sexuality). Feminists who are concerned about the sterilization and body modification that is being promoted for children need to revert to the feminist women’s health movement as a grounding, talk to children and put a feminist context to the body-hatred directed at all females, while acknowledging that these individual solutions are an expression of pain and struggle and survival that are no less legitimate than those our own generations might have used. We have to get away from using children as a prop for our political ideology, and not in any way condone or be party to the religious fundamentalists’ use of children, lesbians, or other women as a prop for their own anti-woman, anti-lesbian, anti-child’s rights authoritarianism.
- I titled this post ‘radical feminism and dialectics’ because we see how one thing can generate its opposition. We need to look at the forces that have emerged against us – the far right coalition in government, the gender identity movement that aims to replace feminism with queer/trans ideology, the feminist alliance with religious fundamentalists that confirms the gender identity movement’s view of feminism as reactionary – to study and understand while also acting where we see an avenue to act. We need to study and engage with queer/trans ideology to understand especially how girls and women relate to it and its appeal to them, while also deepening our own understanding of patriarchy and of radical feminist action, if we are to re-emerge as political actors. It may not be immediate, but if we are correct in saying that the revolution for women’s liberation is not over, the dissatisfaction of women will ultimately be on our side.
Feminists In Struggle, a U.S. radical feminist network, has developed a model bill to illustrate how the rights of gender nonconforming (including transgender) people and lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, can be protected while strengthening the rights of women as a sex. The model bill is a feminist response to the Equality Act, a bill introduced in the US Congress that would amend civil rights legislation to include under the category of ‘sex’, subcategories including ‘a sex stereotype,’ ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation’. By proposing feminist amendments to that bill, FIST hopes to advance the debate about how to resolve conflicts between women’s rights and claims regarding subjective gender identity.
The central feature of the FAEA protecting everyone against sex stereotyping, broadly defined to include ‘the expectation that individuals will manifest behaviors, appearance, dress, grooming, interests and personality stereotypically associated with their sex and refrain from manifesting those associated with the other sex. Discrimination based on an individual’s nonconformity with such expectations constitutes sex-stereotyping discrimination. Sex stereotyping also includes the notion that sexual orientation will be heterosexual for both sexes (i.e. part of the stereotype of masculinity is being attracted to women, and part of the stereotype of femininity is being attracted to men).’
The definition of sex stereotyping is at the same time narrowed to prevent sex classification itself from being treated as a pernicious stereotype. ‘Sex stereotyping discrimination does not include merely recognizing or referring, accurately or in good faith, to the biological sex of an individual, or seeking to ascertain an individual’s biological sex for legitimate reasons consistent with this Act, irrespective of whether that person holds a deeply personal sense of identity that conflicts with or denies their biological sex.”’
The FAEA model bill defines sex as being female or male, based on reproductive structure and function, with the potential to adjust determinations made about intersex persons. It contains findings that address the systemic nature of sex-based discrimination and the need for sex classification ‘in order to separate biological differences from socially assigned stereotypes and to name, reject, and ultimately dismantle the system of disadvantage and advantage, domination and inequality of power and resources that society has created with respect to these biological differences…. Affirmative recognition of the different biology of females and males is furthermore necessary to combat discrimination against women, since male-dominated institutions have routinely failed to adequately take account of women’s biology on an equal basis with that of men when formulating policy and practice that deals with the human body, in areas such as health care, design of goods and services, provision of adequate sanitary facilities, and competition in some sports. When doing so, the ultimate goal should be equalizing power and resources between women and men.’
Furthermore, specific rules of construction are included that preserve single-sex spaces and programs for women and girls, for reasons of privacy and safety and also for advancement and development.
Finally, the FAEA agrees with the original bill that claims or defenses under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be raised against civil rights law obligations. FAEA also agrees with the original bill that discrimination based on pregnancy and related conditions should be included under ‘sex’, and FAEA adds ‘lactation’.
Here are my slides for a presentation on the FAEA that provide more detail related to the explanation here.
The full FAEA and related materials, including a comparison summary and a tracked changes version, can be downloaded from the FIST website.
Please contact FIST to support the FAEA and otherwise become involved.