“Political Lesbianism” is Identity Politics

Identity politics is, in part, the act of adopting an identity for the purpose of making a political point. In the case of “political lesbianism,” lesbian is reduced to a social identity that informs others of your political ideology, rather than a factual description of a woman’s private sexual behavior.  As with all identities, “political lesbian” demands external recognition in order to exist. If others do not acknowledge or understand you as a “political lesbian,” there cannot be any resulting social influence. “Political lesbian,” then, functions primarily as a social performance.

First, how does one make herself as a “political lesbian” known to others? Is it accomplished by name, deed, appearance, or some combination thereof? Well, if by name alone, then “political lesbianism” is truly nothing more than a label, a performative utterance.[i] I think even self-identified “political lesbians” would agree it requires more. If “political lesbianism” comes into being by sexual deed alone, it may remain entirely confidential. If women have sex but no one knows it, their deed cannot possibly affect the wider political climate. Publication of oneself as a “political lesbian” is necessary for social influence and political relevancy. So deed may be necessary, but it too is insufficient. Ultimately, appearance may be the most effective method of ensuring that one’s announcement of herself as a “political lesbian” is coherently received by her social audience. Yet “political lesbianism” is not a fashion movement and does not prescribe particular garments or colored hankies for visibility.[ii] I have read as many definitions of “political lesbian” as I can find; there is no consensus on what it means.

Secondly, the efficacy of “political lesbianism” as a political action depends on the same rationale as every other form of identity politics: the loyal volunteers are expected to behave in a certain way that supposedly effectuates positive social change. I’ve made jokes about what “political lesbians” think the best sexual positions for fighting patriarchy are, but it’s not entirely funny. We cannot fuck our way to liberation. I learned that from queer theory. In practice, being a lesbian- “political” or otherwise- does not decrease, but actually increases, women’s experiences of discrimination and social denigration. It is arguably sadistic to encourage women to deliberately expose themselves to oppression in order to advance the collective status of other women.

More broadly, a social performance methodology of politics evades confrontation of forces beyond the immediate realm of one’s personal life. Political activism is not a self-help movement; it is the intellectual and material deconstruction of unequal class-based power dynamics that give rise to oppression. As I have explained elsewhere, oppressed people have not created their own oppression with “bad identity choices,” nor are women’s “bad sexuality choices” the cause of our sexual oppression as females.[iii] The ostensibly feminist theory of “political lesbianism,” however, focuses on the personal choices of women privileged enough to exercise control over their own sexual expression. Unfortunately, most women in the world do not have this liberty.

One’s sexuality should never be in service to her politics. If you’re lesbian, that’s just great. If you’re not a lesbian, who cares? Not me. I don’t care who you have sex with or what you call yourself; that’s your business. Market-constructed, phallocentric sexuality can and should be critiqued. Compulsory heterosexuality must be critiqued.[iv] This critique does not grant feminists license to prescribe certain kinds of sexual behavior, identities, or desires as more “feminist” than others.

Patriarchy manipulates women’s sexuality towards men and heteronormativity. “Political lesbianism” does something similar in the reverse. Here’s how: the theory of “political lesbianism” asserts that sexuality is entirely socially constructed. This framing renders women who are not lesbians—in name or deed, it doesn’t matter seem to matter—as being male-identified. Similarly, the statement “any women can be lesbian” posits lesbianism as a state of being that women should aspire to as a form of feminist consciousness. “Political lesbianism” thereby casts lesbianism as aspirational, not neutral or incidental.

The very definition of hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.”[v] It is therefore inevitable that a hierarchy is created when one form of sexual expression is viewed as better, more enlightened, or more politically effective than another. Through the establishment of this hierarchy, pressure to alter ones sexual identity is generated regardless of whether the pressure is intended or not. The positive suggestion of change is inherent to the idea that lesbianism is a (politically) superior or preferred way of being.

Glorifying lesbianism through the lens of feminist politics projects a fantasy onto those women who are “lesbians” regardless of their political views. It abstracts women’s experiences of loving women as if all lesbians were feminists.[vi] This is not fair to the lesbians who bear the burden of the unrealistic expectations of this “political” theory. It is also a demonstrably false assessment of lesbianism in the real world. There are endless examples of lesbians who prioritize men over women, who are abusive to other women, or who do not understand women as oppressed people. I’m not sure that “political lesbians” appreciate the sometimes unpleasant realities of lesbian community, presently and historically. Further, in some areas of the world it is now possible for lesbians to become almost completely assimilated into social norms. As a married lesbian in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I can’t remember the last time someone bristled at our public displays of affection. No one cares that I am a lesbian. It is clearly not a threat to their heterosexuality or anything else they hold dear.

Leveraging a “lesbian” identity for the purpose of political warfare against patriarchy effectively turns some women’s desire into other women’s attempts at retaliation. The classic feminist text Woman Identified Woman states, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”[vii] This definition uses “lesbian” as a message directed at men, an insult. It is the absolute opposite of how I feel about my lesbian partner. Adopting the identity “political lesbian” in reaction to patriarchy is not an expression of love or desire, nor is it even about women. It is fundamentally about men; it uses an identity to “radically” transgress social norms of heterosexuality. We cannot use a social identity to effectuate “liberation” any more than we can gender-fuck ourselves out of patriarchy’s power dynamics. We need to change the system itself, not our individual behavior or identities within this system.

“Political lesbianism” has a long and distinguished feminist history. Some theorists continue to argue that it deserves a place at the “radical feminist” table. But this appeal to tradition does not persuade me. Identity-as-social-performance is not politically effective because it is an individualist approach to a systemic problem. “Political lesbianism” instructs us to view lesbianism from the perspective of an external observer: it is essentially a social I-dentity through which we can and should subvert the dominant paradigm of heterosexuality. Those who support “political lesbianism” as effective feminist political action have allowed identity politics to infect their ideology.

I identify as an anti-political-lesbian lesbian.

_______________________________________

[i] See “I Say It, Therefore It Is” regarding performative verbs here: http://rootveg.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/i-say-it-therefore-it-is-so/

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handkerchief_code

[iii] More on identity as politics here: http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/socialization-matters-why-identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/

[iv] Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience, by Adrienne Rich http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm

[v] Google for “hierarchy.”

[vi] See previous entry “Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded” at https://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lesbian-and-feminist-are-not-synonyms-expanded/

[vii] Woman Identified Woman by Radicalesbians: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/wlm/womid/

Privilege Blinders REPOST

Originally published DECEMBER 6, 2010 (edited slightly to remove tangential content).

____________________

I am going to talk briefly about what I call the “Privilege Blinders” method of discrediting other people’s arguments and opinions. It’s closely related to Oppression Olympics, where social I-dentities are vigilantly tracked for the purpose of evaluating the speaker’s perceived “qualifications” (by virtue of personal experience or I-dentity) to discuss particular topics. Both Oppression Olympics and Privilege Blinders fail to analyze the substance/content/meaning of the speaker’s words. Instead, legitimacy is determined by the speaker’s apparent location on the social hierarchy. These techniques are conversation stoppers. Which makes them very dangerous.

And yes, Privilege Blinders work just like beer goggles. When intoxicated with privilege, one cannot understand why she is sooooo Very Wrong about [insert contested socio-political issue here]. I am using the term BLINDERS in the cognitive sense; it (allegedly) prevents one from comprehending something important about social dynamics.

beer_goggles_2

BEER GOGGLES!!

Privilege Blinders is a persuasion technique often encountered in political discussions. It can be leveraged to discredit anyone who is positioned “above” you on any social hierarchy when you don’t like what they’re saying. Instead of identifying logical or reality-based inconsistencies in their assumptions, reasoning, or conclusion(s); you can simply accuse them of wearing Privilege Blinders and, viola!, you have  effectively discredited the other party’s entire argument. Because Privilege Blinders render the privileged person “blind” to a critical something (we’re usually not told exactly what–red flag!). This something is entirely obvious and/or self-evident from another, presumably “lower,” perspective on the social hierarchy. If not for Privilege Blinders, the other party would clearly agree with your Truth and submit to your righteousness. Further, alleging Privilege Blinders insinuates that the wearer is both insensitive and arrogant for not realizing that her assertions are flawed (because they are dependent on her specific hierarchical positioning).

You may notice that the Privilege Blinders defense is often used against women, who are more vulnerable (as a class) to accusations of emotional insensitivity than men are. Guilt tripping. Check out the second paragraph of Marilyn Frye’s Oppression essay. 

Privilege Blinders is, indeed, a favored technique of post-modern genderists. Their ideologies are completely unsustainable, but instead of confronting actual problems, they will greedily pounce on the opportunity to attack their detractors’ (personal characteristics). Trans sympathizers have a tendency to use the Privilege Blinders defense at every possible opportunity. They habitually instruct others to edumacate themselves on Trans 101 because cis-privilege is getting in the way. The suggestion is that if we simply took off those Privilege Blinders, we’d either suddenly comprehend their “logic” OR we’d just stop being so callously insensitive and start acting like Stereotypical Women™ who appropriately, femininely, STFU whenever someone’s precious feeeeelings are hurt! Either way, it’s a WIN!

See how that works? Yeah, it’s pretty effective. Unless you know what you’re dealing with. And I’m tired of it.

Stick to the issues, be specific, or go home. Thank you.

____________________

Smith College to be confronted by a trans test case

Well, I’m back on the tumblr.

For a singular purpose.* To respond to this:

Which I did here. And I’m not done.

Let’s review the original intent for the creation of Smith College. In Sophia Smith’s own words, her will bequest was for:

the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_sophia.php).

Unfortunately, women are still in need of these safe harbors from male entitlement and classroom domination. Women remain significantly underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Despite what Larry Summers might think, it’s not because women are stupid. It’s because of “…environmental and social barriers – including stereotypes, gender bias and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities – that continue to block women’s participation…”

As a result, single sexed educational institutions continue to offer critically valuable and unique opportunities to young women:

At Smith, there are no stereotypes about what women should do, but there are unlimited expectations about what women can do. Smith is a great training ground for careers that might still be considered non-traditional for women.

(See: http://www.smith.edu/about_whyissmith.php).

One does not become a woman by complying with the antiquated sex-based stereotypes that Smith College was established for the express purpose of combatting. A male does not become a female by identifying with, nor by expressing, what is traditionally understood as “femininity.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:

Traits stereotypically assigned to females – such as care-taking, emotionalism, and weakness – have served as sufficient [] justification for women’s exclusion from employment, participation in government, and many other critical social functions.  Archaic stereotypes are directly responsible for the denial of female credibility and intellectual authority, in addition to causing the historical marginalization of females, lower social status vis-à-vis males, and lack of power to engage equally with males. Even where law has evolved to formally prohibit sex-stereotyping; women continue to suffer from the lingering effects of sexist ideologies about female inferiority. So although we support every individual’s right to freely express their gender identity, it is absolutely critical that [we] not confuse “feminine expression” with [sex].

Gender essentialism is NOT OK. It is regressive and it is counter-productive to female equality. I will never accept that gender expression is what fundamentally constitutes being a “woman.”

Please reblog, please tweet, please help make some anti-gender-essentialism NOISE about this attack on Smith College.

*Yes, I’m a Smith College graduate. Class of 2000. Philosophy: a major I would not have had the confidence to undertake but for the supportive, woman-centered environment and the encouraging words of my female peers and professors. I would have been too intimidated by the arrogance of male intellectual authority in a co-ed environment. I was still scared to take all those upper level philosophy courses, but at least I knew that I wouldn’t have to endure endless mansplaining in the classroom from other students.

Cis privilege does not exist. Male privilege does.

Femininity is not a fun game women play because we were born to enjoy dress-up.

The gender binary is a means of organizing social relations and distributing power. Power is gendered. Males and masculinity are systematically privileged over females and femininity. Feminine subordination manifests in wide-ranging social practices from intellectual dismissals of women’s ideas to the pervasive sexualization of female bodies– a phenomenon that begins at shockingly young ages. Being coercively assigned the feminine gender at birth, as all female-born people are, is not a privilege.

The notion of “cis privilege,” however, which is often used as an insult and/or to discredit the speaker, falsely posits a feminine gender assignment as socially equivalent to a masculine gender assignment. The near universal institutional oppression of females– the process by which male authority is ensured– clearly demonstrates that lumping all non-trans individuals into the same group is a gross oversimplification of how the gender binary operates. Non-trans females and non-trans males are not similarly situated persons in regard to gender.

So, for example, when someone says DIE CIS SCUM, they are charging  non-trans females with (at least) 50% of the responsibility for gender-normativity-as-oppression. It arrogantly assumes that all non-trans females are comfortable with, and benefit from, the current gender arrangement. This is simply not true. The concept of “cis privilege” simultaneously denies the experiences of millions of females who ideologically reject femininity as female destiny, and completely erases the reality of butch females as if they never existed.

It is victim-blaming and woman hating to suggest that those in the subordinate position of this powerful gender binary are responsible for withholding self-identified trans* people’s liberation from them. Females are not responsible for this situation. Non-trans feminists have worked very hard to oppose compulsory female femininity by deconstructing and conceptually disentangling sex from gender.

If circumstances were otherwise, I’d find the idea of “cis privilege” amusing when finally viewed from this feminist perspective: males benefit from their coercive gender assignment, females do not.  Anyone who wants to discuss “gender” and oppression should evince a basic understanding how and why the gender binary operates in the first place.