50.50

We were never gender binary: It’s time to reclaim radical lesbian feminism

Let’s set the record straight: lesbians have always rebelled against the gender binary and sexual repression. We have always been traitors to gender essentialism.

Inna Michaeli
6 June 2019
NYC Pride: Transgender Day Of Action, 2017.
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Erik McGregor/SIPA USA/PA Images

The recent UK debates around the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) create the illusion that one strand of feminism is inherently anti-trans: radical and lesbian feminism. So, let’s set the record straight: lesbians have always rebelled against the gender binary and sexual repression. We have always been traitors to gender essentialism.

Not all of us, of course, and that’s the point: feminism has never been homogeneous. When trans-exclusionary feminists claim to speak in the name of radical feminism, they erase its diversity.

In truth, intimacy and solidarity with transgender folks and trans struggles for rights, justice and respect are central to our history and our roots, as feminists and lesbians. Let me offer some examples from the trajectory that has informed my own identity, experience and politics.

Monique Wittig, a feminist theorist and self-identified radical lesbian, argued in her formative essay, The Straight Mind (1979), that “lesbians are not women”. The category of woman, she explained, has a meaning only in relation to the category of man, within a heterosexual system of thought and economy. This is everything but gender binary thinking.

Audre Lorde opens her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982): “I have always wanted to be both man and woman”. She imagines the triangle of mother, father, child elongating into the triad of grandmother, mother, daughter, with her own self floating in either or both directions. Lorde’s fluidity transcends patriarchal boundaries of gender, but also those of ancestry, generational lineage and time.

Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues (1992), a celebrated novel of great importance to lesbian culture, tells the story of Jess, a working-class butch, with a complicated and evolving relation with her gender identity. This book is full of love and respect for characters who are transgender, as well as those who do sex work. It celebrates femme and butch identities and culture, and fundamentally questions social norms and constraints of masculinity and femininity.

These are not exceptions. Yet, many people have come to believe that radical feminism inherently clashes with the rights, recognition and respect of trans people. Or, that to be a radical feminist means to reject the sex workers’ rights movements. In some feminist circles, being anti-trans, similarly to being anti-sex workers’ rights, is a practice of belonging. Being “radfem” – short for radical feminist – becomes a club. Belonging to this club comes with a set of ideological positions that may not be questioned, if you care to remain a member.

As a result, our legacy is manipulated and re-written, and we are left with a narrow, censored, twisted and largely transphobic version of radical and lesbian feminist theories and movements. Generations of feminists are thus ignorant of the revolutionary ideas, theories and politics on gender and sexuality brought to us by radical and lesbian feminism.

Our legacy is manipulated and re-written, and we are left with a narrow, censored, twisted and largely transphobic version of radical and lesbian feminist theories and movements

What’s exquisite in this feminism is that while centering women, it has repeatedly questioned what being a woman means in a patriarchal and heteronormative society, and envisioned future liberation from the binary system of gender and sexuality. This idea is central to “The Woman Identified Woman” manifesto by the group Radicalesbians (1970), for example.

The UK GRA debates have wrongly suggested that there are potential conflict of interests between trans and cis women. This idea often comes with a manipulative demand for “dialogue”, which offers a guise of civility.

Dialogue, however, is only possible when we come from a fundamental position of unwavering solidarity and genuine care for each other’s well-being and when we recognise each other’s humanity without reservation and wholeheartedly. This has not been the case with these debates.

Ultimately, I support trans, as well as sex workers rights movements, because of – not despite – my radical feminism and my lesbian identity and life experience. Obviously, I am not alone. Numerous expressions of solidarity, such as the massive show-up by many cis lesbians around the hashtag #LwiththeT deliver the same message.

On the policy level, we have also seen positive developments around the world. In October 2018, the Uruguay parliament passed a law on the rights of trans people, including a process for self-identification in official documents, and a pension for trans people who were persecuted under Uruguay’s military dictatorship decades ago.

In March 2019, feminist organisations working on tax justice and feminist fiscal policies, published a statement of trans solidarity (proudly endorsed by AWID, the organisation where I work).

It is not surprising that the UK backlash on trans rights comes at a time of global backlash on women’s rights, which in turn is connected to intensifying fascisms and the rise of the right in many countries across the world. This is a powerful reminder for our common interest: the destruction of patriarchy, with its gender binary system and its multiple forms of violence and oppression.

In the face of an alarming political context, it is up to us to create our own feminist realities, here and now. For this, we need each other. To quote Radicalesbians, “together we must find, reinforce, and validate our authentic selves”. This was true in the 1970s, and it is still true today.

* This article was first published on www.awid.org

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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