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Society, Politics & Law

Will gay rights and feminist movements please return to your assumptions?

Updated Monday, 21st July 2014

We need a broader based education about gender and sexual diversity and to move away from simplistic binary labels, writes Meg Barker.

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An illustration of the spectrum of genders starting with pink for girls and ending with blue for boys. Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license

This summer two friends attended EuroPride to be on a panel about bisexuality. They were faced with the usual stereotypes about ‘making your mind up’ and scepticism about the existence of bisexuality. Another friend attended a Pride London event where the words ‘gay’ and ‘homophobia’ were used throughout by speakers.

Others attended the London DykeMarch and were met with a protest by a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists who shouted transphobic abuse at one of the speakers.

This trouble around bisexuality and trans and non-binary genders, stems from the same place - that sexuality was simply a question of dividing things into binaries, men and women, gay and straight etc. Recognising this provides a way forward that will not only be more inclusive, but will be better for everybody, if we’re brave enough to do it.

Very broadly speaking, feminist and gay rights movements emerged in similar ways.

With feminism, the world said that there were men and women, and that women were inferior to men. Feminism therefore began to work to get women treated equally to men.

With gay rights, the world said that there were straight people and gay people, and that gay people were inferior to straight people. Gay rights movements therefore began to work to get gay people treated equally to straight people.

The problem is that while early feminist and gay rights movements rightly challenged the second part of what the world around them said about gender and sexuality (the inferiority bit), they generally accepted the first part (that everybody could be divided into the binaries of men and women, gay and straight).

However many mainstream feminist and LGB/T rights organisations and campaigners retain those underlying binary assumptions. And it is generally their voices that get heard.

I think that this explains why, when I talk to people from many LGB/T organisations and media outlets, they argue that they need to keep working to get gay and lesbian people accepted, and homophobia eradicated. Only once that has happened can they start to address bisexual people and biphobia. This results in the strange situation whereby some campaigners who know lots of bisexual activists, and who even experience sexuality in non-binary ways themselves, still default to talking about ‘gay’ people and ‘homophobia’. The concern is that bisexuality might ‘muddy the water’ because of the binary assumptions that their campaigns are based on. They don’t seem to consider the possibility that it might point the way to an alternative model of sexuality which could be more – rather than less – palatable to the people whose opinions they are trying to change.

The acceptance of binary assumptions also explains why some feminists are so troubled by trans and non-binary genders. The basis of everything they’ve worked for has been that there are two categories of people - men and women – with one oppressing the other. It therefore feels important that that those categories are stable (that people remain in the gender they were assigned at birth), and that those categories are easily readable off a person’s general appearance and genitals. If this is not the case, then people worry that campaigns based around women’s experience, or what men do, might be called into question, as well as there being difficulties in creating safe spaces for women.

I would like to propose an alternative perspective. We should talk about gender and sexual diversity, rather than about men and women, straight and gay. It is these binaries which cloud our thinking, and it is these binaries which shape our discriminating world.

To give one example, current campaigns encourage school education to include lesbian, gay and bisexual agendas. The aim is to empower girls and raise boys’ awareness of sexism. We could achieve these same goals – and many more - through a broader education about gender and sexual diversity.

For example, education about the range of sexual experiences (including attraction to different genders, enjoyment of different practices, and having different levels of sexual desire) could benefit not just young people who aren’t heterosexual. It could also help all young people to understand that there are (often safer) alternatives to penis-in-vagina sex, and that it is okay to want sex and to not want sex, and to have all kinds of desires. This could enable them to communicate more openly and consensually about sex, and to respect it when they find that other people have different types and levels of sexual interest to themselves.

Education about diverse genders could not only benefit trans and non-binary young people, enabling them to find ways of making sense of their experience and articulating it to others. It could also help everyone to understand the ways in which narrow gender roles restrict their possibilities, and help them to find ways of experiencing and expressing their genders that don’t limit them (whatever their gender) or constrain others. Such an approach would also lend itself to exploring how sexuality and gender intersect with other aspects of experience (e.g. race, class, ethnicity, age, and religion), and how oppressive systems function across all of these areas.

Education is just one example. A gender and sexual diversity approach approach also has a great deal of value in terms of how we address gender and sexuality in relation to health, crime, the workplace, and media representations. And it is particularly appropriate in relation to international campaigns where we are often working with cultures who do not understand gender or sexuality in a binary manner anyway (otherwise attempts at feminist and LGBT+ rights interventions risk enforcing compliance with a western understanding of these things in a very problematic way).

It is understandable that some feminists and LGBT campaigners are fearful of returning to the underlying assumptions of their movements and changing them. This would involve challenging how they’ve been doing things in some radical ways, and it is really hard not to be invested in the ways we’ve been seeing the world and fighting for our rights for so long.

But I think there is a real possibility that, far from undermining our movements, such an approach could give them more strength and power than they’ve ever had before. Research suggests that between one and ten percent of people identify as LGBT (depending on which study you read), and probably similar numbers identify as a feminist. However, well over a third of people experience attraction to more than one gender, or find that their attraction is not tied to a person’s gender but is about other things, or don’t experience sexual attraction at all.

Young people now use terms other than straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual to identify their sexuality. And young people are using a wide variety of terms to capture their gender experience.

If we come from a starting point of gender and sexual diversity, we open up our movements to all of these folk as well as to those who identify explicitly as LGBT or as feminist. With numbers like that we could really change the world.

You can read a fuller version of this article on openDemocracy.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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