I was listening last night to David Harvey’s lecture on part 8 of Marx’s Capital, which feels like ‘this is the real dirt on capitalism’ that Marx set aside for the purpose of making his argument in the early chapters. Original accumulation or accumulation by dispossession, i.e. private property really is theft on a massive and systematic scale. The existence of capital and labor-power as the two essential components of the capitalist economic system cannot be brought about except by violently dispossessing people from the land and their homes, taking away from them the ability to work for themselves. This continues most obviously through colonialism but is also present as a feature of the continual evolution of capitalism in all its stages. Harvey cites Rosa Luxembourg for this and also gives the example of the subprime housing crisis as continuing expropriation within a developed capitalist economy.
What struck me beyond capitalism itself, is applying the accumulation by dispossession to male-female relations. The trans movement in its demand for gender identity to supersede sex is, from women’s point of view, nothing more or less than a reassertion of patriarchy by the aggressive and violent accumulation of social capital on behalf of the male sex at the expense of the female sex.
There is no need from a human rights and non-discrimination point of view to dispossess women from the spaces and institutions we have created for ourselves – chosen, created through hard work and advocacy, for love of ourselves and other women – in order to recognize the existence of gender diversity and of social groups that help to expand this diversity. It is true that we use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ to mean both sex classes and something more that has a range of cultural overtones varying by culture, (language!), and individual. That is why I use the terms transwoman and transman in order to acknowledge those individuals’ personal identities. They are outlier identities just as lesbian, dyke, butch are outlier identities. We exist in a similar space on the edges of our cultures’ mainstream gender norms and expectations.
My awakening to the problems with transgender advocacy came primarily from reconnecting with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival after a hiatus of many years and finding how much the energy of the women who continued putting it on and attending was being sapped by vicious attacks on the livelihood of performers and the existence of this female-centered community in itself. Michigan was, I used to think, the premier cultural institution of lesbian feminism in the United States; everything that was being discussed or worked out in our community, whether theory or practiced, came through and the festival’s handling of it showed the rest of us one way (or more) it could be addressed. So it was with the Womyn of Color tent, DART (oh help me out with what it stands for – an area set aside for disabled women and a hub for access needs), areas for non-smoking and smoking, chem-free and chem-tolerant, quiet and noisy, Twilight zone where anything goes. So it was also with transgender attendees. Despite the known presence of transwomen at the festival including on the work crews which were its core community, transgender activists attacked the festival as transphobic for its stated intention that the festival be for ‘womyn-born-womyn’ only. In lesbian feminist culture, intention is important in shaping the spaces we create and the future we desire. It is an affirmation and projection of ourselves into material reality without violent insistence on our own way. Why did transgender activists attack this festival and count it as a victory when the festival’s entrepreneur Lisa Vogel decided to retire after the 40-year anniversary, if the aim was to create space for gender outliers rather than to dispossess women?
Many current debates among gender-critical feminists (my definition: women who are actual feminists, advocating the defeat of patriarchy/male dominance and who reject the contention that gender identity supersedes sex) center around the degree to which any of us are willing to acknowledge the social group of people who consider themselves to be transgender. Some women refuse to use the terms transwoman or transman or even transgender, as they consider these terms to give too much ground. They consider that ‘gender identity’ as a concept contains in itself the aggressive dispossession of women – the political and legal erasure of women as a recognizable social group ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum are those who would concede to transwomen some inclusion in the category of women for some purposes, but would protect female-only spaces particularly in situations of vulnerability such as spas and changing rooms, prisons, shelters, hospital and rehabilitation settings, and in sports. Some of us like myself want to recognize the social groups of gender outliers by the names and concepts they choose for themselves and believe this can be done without accepting that ‘gender identity’ is a universalizing concept by which everyone can be reliably classified so as to displace sex. I do not think it is warranted to allow any members of the male sex to be considered women for any purpose, given the impossibility of justifying this according to a materialist feminist analysis and the need to maintain and nurture women’s resistance to patriarchy, our ability to reliably create female-only space for ourselves, to protect and defend lesbians and lesbian cultures.
The question of separatism is re-raised for lesbian-feminists, and our separatist cultural and political forms are flourishing. Sarah Hoagland commented once that the anarchist/socialist debate was reflected in lesbian feminist community as separatism/radical feminism. I don’t yet know where to go with that thought, and hope to explore with Sarah how she sees it, but my inclination is some of both. There is always a material reality underneath the social forms that, if we can gain independent ground we can stand on to mount a resistance. (I have also recently read the account of Emma Goldman’s involvement with the Spanish anarchist movement – in Emma Goldman in Exile, by Alice Wexler.) Land is a source of independence; some women are creating a high degree of self-sufficiency for themselves through subsistence living, creating all-female land communities, and/or simply re-orienting ourselves to what it means to live in the world based in relationship to land rather than the socially overdetermined spaces of cities. For women this is a meaningful lifting of the male gaze and male intrusions; while we have to defend ourselves we have greater scope to defend and the time and space to think for ourselves and think through personal and collective strategies.
At the same time I am aware of how small a percentage of women, even of lesbian feminists, the land dykes represent, and the many obstacles to accessing land and living sustainably (for oneself) in rural areas of the United States – knowledge of country skills, economic resources and access to livelihood, race/ethnicity discrimination, misogyny and homophobia facing women buying home or land and arranging for work to be done that we can’t do ourselves, uncertainty and precarity of all kinds. The distances between our lands is great for the most part, though there are clusters in a few places. If we could create (or fan the flames of) a vibrant lesbian-feminist land culture and develop it politically to the point where it could pose a real alternative for women in general, we would face violence and other threats to our existence. It seems to me sometimes that women in this land culture may have mixed feelings (and send mixed messages) about openness and inclusivity (among females), aiming for spaces to be refuges for women and a land base for women’s freedom but also wanting to curate the women admitted into these communities and maintain them as personal rather than collective refuges for those who have made the community their home.
I am a lawyer by training and profession, practicing international human rights advocacy. That is about as far from land-dyke separatism as possible, but I do live in the country, on some land, with my wife. We are part of the larger far-flung land-dyke community and recent visits have reaffirmed this connection. I am not sure whether land-dyke separatism is a refuge that allows me to do my work – that nourishes me in so many indescribable ways – or whether my work involves the theorizing of projections into a future where this way of living will be one among other sustainable ones available to human beings if and when capitalism collapses in on itself with as few casualties as possible.