Separate is not equal

May 5, 2008

There has been a long history of separatism within the feminist movement, as well as within the GLBTQ[1] community. This separatism may take many forms, it may be an attempt to create an alternative to mainstream society, or it may refer to exclusionary practices within either the GLBTQ community or the feminist movement.

In addition to lesbian & gay separatism, there are manifestations of separatist feminism such as lesbian separatism and radical lesbianism, there’s bisexual exclusion and transgender exclusion, and probably a whole host of others that I’ve unintentionally overlooked. Of course, there’s political separatism – and let’s not forget racial separatism and class separatism too.

There seems to be a widespread human desire to categorise others, irrespective of how they categorise themselves – or even if they want to be categorised. We must have an opinion on everything. Many of us seem to do it, and it’s as if by putting someone into a nice little box with a neatly-typed label, we exempt ourselves from any further thought on the subject. Out of sight, out of mind. Until, of course, the occupant of one of those boxes suddenly finds a different box, or boxes – and then we feel obliged to re-think our position in a hurry, often forgetting even the simplest logic in the process.

The recent firestorm that Thomas Beatie was subjected to (see also Jess’ pieces on the media coverage and reactions here and here) is a result of this panicky thinking. It has been said that trans* people should ‘transgress’ the narrow definitions of the gender binary and reinvent themselves as something other than male or female. Leaving aside for a moment the different ways of looking at ‘gender’ (personal or political, yes another binary): Beatie did just this – “the pregnant man” – and has been roundly criticised from many sides, including by people who one might have thought would have supported him in this deconstruction of gender.

But binarism isn’t just restricted to gender. Male-female > you-me > us-them… It’s not a long way. And with each step, our snap value judgements become compounded and entrenched. Stereotypes appear out of nowhere and become reality with only the slightest twist of logic. “I told that trans woman he would never be a real woman like me and he got really cross. Typical – once a man, always a man – they’re all the bloody same!”. And suddenly a personal difference is projected on to a whole group of people who may only have the slightest, almost tenuous connection. But the way things are framed puts people on the defensive: “I’m a ‘she’, not a ‘he’ – and I’m just as much of a woman as you!”. And then words spoken in self-defence are construed as an attack by the framers: “Oh there you go, being aggressive and loud, invading my space – just like a man”. And so on…

I don’t understand why we can’t celebrate our differences and still work together on our common causes. Cooperation – not competition, as the saying goes. Don’t get me wrong, differences of opinion are part of life and essential to constructive dialogue – but the hostility, even vitriol, is surely counter-productive. How can we ever hope to achieve any kind of equality if we insist on drawing lines between us, attacking each other, when we could be combining our energies into dismantling the structures that really harm us? Is that really so much to ask? Me, I’m with Elvis on this one: what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

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[1] I use the acronym GLBTQ here as a convenient shorthand and nothing more. I’m well aware that there are many who do not identify simply as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer; and that the term is subject to much discussion. Some may refer to LGBT, others to GLBTQI – there are many variations. My new personal favourite is FABGLITTER (Fetish, Allies, Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Intersexed, Transgender, Transsexual Engendering Revolution) – apparently it was coined by Anything That Moves magazine although, as Wikipedia notes, “this term has not made its way into common usage”.

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Later edit: About an hour after posting this at TFW, I received a comment saying how offensive that person found the term FABGLITTER. *sigh* I think the commenter has completely missed the point of my post, to be honest, and at the time of writing this edit I felt a bit disheartened by that. But still, the customer is always right (and, anyway, I really wasn’t in the mood to get drawn into a row on a subject I wasn’t even discussing), so I deleted the very last sentence from the version on TFW (highlighted in pink here).

Later later edit: Having dug around a bit further, I thought it might be safest just to delete the entire post and comments (which I’ve done). The protesting commenter is a self-identified ‘separatist lesbian’ and her blog has links to at least two ‘radical feminist’ sites, both of which have recently published transphobic pieces. I don’t want a war with these people, they are as set in their beliefs as I am in mine and there is no value in trying to enter a debate with them. Neither do I wish to bring a new round of the flame wars into existence at TFW. The post is still showing online but I hope this is just a caching thing and that the site will eventually replicate and then the post will disappear.

Yes, I am letting my reluctance to get into a fight with radfems drive me to self-censorship.

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Posted at, and deleted from, The F Word on 11 April 2008

©2008 Helen G

2 Responses to “Separate is not equal”

  1. Brandon Says:

    “Separate is not equal”. One of the dangerous myths of our time.

  2. Helen G Says:

    Brandon: Care to elucidate?


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