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Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive
By Julia Serano
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While many feminist and queer movements are designed to challenge sexism, they often simultaneously police gender and sexuality — sometimes just as fiercely as the straight, male-centric mainstream does. Some feminists vocally condemn other feminists because of how they dress, for their sexual partners or practices, or because they are seen as different and therefore less valued. Among LGBTQ activists, there is a long history of lesbians and gay men dismissing bisexuals, transgender people, and other gender and sexual minorities. In each case, exclusion is based on the premise that certain ways of being gendered or sexual are more legitimate, natural, or righteous than others.
As a trans woman, bisexual, and femme activist, Julia Serano has spent much of the last ten years challenging various forms of exclusion within feminist and queer/LGBTQ movements. In Excluded, she chronicles many of these instances of exclusion and argues that marginalizing others often stems from a handful of assumptions that are routinely made about gender and sexuality. These false assumptions infect theories, activism, organizations, and communities — and worse, they enable people to vigorously protest certain forms of sexism while simultaneously ignoring and even perpetuating others.
Serano advocates for a new approach to fighting sexism that avoids these pitfalls and offers new ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, and sexism that foster inclusivity.
All of us have been excluded at some point in our lives. Perhaps because of our size, or class, or age, or race, or nationality, or religion, or education, or interests, or ability. And of course, many of us are excluded because of different forms of sexism—that is, double standards based on one’s sex, gender, or sexuality. Many of us are undermined and excluded by our culture’s male/masculine-centrism—that is, the assumption that male and masculine people and perspectives are more legitimate than, and take precedence over, female and feminine ones. And those of us who are gender and sexual minorities are stigmatized and excluded by our culture’s insistence that only “normal” bodies, and “straight” and “vanilla” expressions of gender and sexuality are valid. This sense of exclusion drives many of us to become involved in feminism and queer (i.e., LGBTQIA+) activism. We seek out like-minded people who share our goals to eliminate sex-, gender-, and sexuality-based hierarchies, and together, we work hard to build new movements and communities with the intent that they will be safe and empowering for those of us who have been shut out of the straight male-centric mainstream. And yet, somewhere along the way, despite our best intentions, the movements and communities that we create almost always end up marginalizing and excluding others who wish to participate.
Sometimes we are consciously aware that exclusion is a bad thing, and we may deny that it is taking place within our feminist or queer circles. We may even resort to tokenism—pointing to one or a few minority members in order to make the case that our movement or community is truly diverse. But in other cases, we are blatantly exclusive.
Some feminists vocally condemn other feminists for dressing too femininely, or because of the sexual partners or practices they take up. More mainstream gays decry the presence of drag queens and leather daddies in their pride parades, and there is a long history of lesbians and gay men who outright dismiss bisexual, asexual, and transgender identities. Within the transgender and bisexual umbrellas, there are constant accusations that certain individuals do not qualify as “real” members of the group, or that their identities or actions somehow reinforce “the gender binary” (i.e., the rigid division of all people into two mutually exclusive genders). And in most queer communities, regardless of one’s sex or identity, people who are more masculine in gender expression are almost always viewed as more valid and attractive than their feminine counterparts.
The astonishing thing about these latter instances of exclusion is not merely their brazen, unapologetic nature, but the fact that they are all steeped in sexism—in each case, exclusion is based on the premise that certain ways of being gendered or sexual are more legitimate, natural, or righteous than others. The sad truth is that we always seem to create feminist and queer movements designed to challenge sexism on the one hand, while simultaneously policing gender and sexuality (sometimes just as fiercely as the straight male–centric mainstream does) on the other.
There have been many attempts to reconcile this problem. Newer feminist submovements have sprung up with the expressed purpose of accommodating more diverse expressions of gender and sexuality within feminism. More inclusive umbrella terms such as “queer” (meant to include all sexual and gender minorities) and “transgender” (meant to include all people who defy societal gender norms) have come into vogue in an attempt to move away from infighting over identity labels. And what were once simply called “lesbian and gay” organizations have since added B’s, followed by T’s, then a panoply of other letters at the ends of their acronyms in an attempt to foster inclusiveness. And while all of these measures have brought a modicum of success, sexism-based exclusion still runs rampant in feminist and queer movements.
As a transsexual woman, bisexual, and femme activist, I have spent much of the last ten years challenging various forms of sexism-based exclusion within feminist and queer settings. Over that time, I have come to the conclusion that we cannot Band-Aid over this problem by simply calling for more diversity in a general sense, or by petitioning for the inclusion of specific subgroups on a one-by-one basis. Nor do I think that we can blame this situation entirely on the human tendency to be tribal or cliquish (although admittedly, such us-versus-them mentalities do exacerbate the problem).
Rather, I believe that sexism-based exclusion within feminist and queer circles stems primarily from a handful of foundational, albeit incorrect, assumptions that we routinely make about gender and sexuality, and about sexism and marginalization. These false assumptions infect our theories, our activism, our organizations, and our communities. And they enable us to vigorously protest certain forms of sexism (especially sexisms that we personally face!) while simultaneously ignoring and/or perpetuating other forms of sexism. In short, the way we describe and set out to challenge sexism is irreparably broken. My main purpose in writing this book is to highlight these fallacies in our theory and activism, and to offer new and more accurate ways of thinking about gender and sexism that will avoid the pitfalls of the past.
This book is divided into two parts, the first chronicling instances of sexism-based exclusion within feminism and queer activism, and the second forwarding my proposed solutions to the problem.
The first section, entitled “On the Outside Looking In,” is a collection of essays, spoken word pieces, and speeches that I have written over the course of an eight-year period (2005-2012), all of which, in one way or another, address the issue of sexism-based exclusion within feminist and queer settings, and offer my early formulations for how we might create more open and accepting movements and communities. It is a journey that begins with my activism fighting for trans woman–inclusion in lesbian and women’s spaces, and my efforts to articulate trans women’s experiences of sexism, both within these settings and in society at large. Later chapters grapple with femme and bisexual exclusion within various LGBTQIA+ settings. To be clear, this section is not meant to provide a comprehensive overview of the problem of exclusion. For one thing, the chapters are centered on practices of sexism-based exclusion—the hypocrisy of policing other people’s gender and sexual identities and behaviors within spaces that were supposedly founded on anti-sexist principles. Furthermore, they focus rather exclusively on forms of exclusion that I have personally faced as a bisexual femme-tomboy transsexual woman. In addition to those identities, I also happen to be a white, middle-class, educated, able-bodied1, normatively sized U.S. citizen—aspects of my person that are privileged in our culture, and which do not result in my exclusion. My focus on instances of trans, femme, and bisexual exclusion is not meant to suggest that these are the only, or most egregious, forms of exclusion—they most certainly are not, and I discuss other forms of exclusion in the second half of the book. Rather, trans, femme, and bisexual represent my vantage point onto the issue of exclusion within feminist and queer movements, and this is why I use them as my primary examples over the course of this book.
The second section of this book, “New Ways of Speaking,” is a collection of previously unpublished essays that forward a new framework for thinking about gender, sexuality, sexism, and marginalization. Here, I explain why existing feminist and queer movements (much like their straight male–centric counterparts) always seem to create hierarchies, where certain gendered and sexual bodies, identities, and behaviors are deemed more legitimate than others. Of course, past feminist and queer activists have been concerned about these pecking orders, and they have often placed the blame squarely on identity politics, essentialism, classism, assimilationism, and/or reformist politics. However, such claims ignore the fact that sexism-based hierarchies are just as prevalent in radical, anti-capitalist, anti-essentialist, and anti-assimilationist circles as they are within so-called “liberal” feminist and single-issue “A-gay” activist circles.2
Rather than blaming the usual suspects, here I show how sexism-based exclusion within feminist and queer movements is typically driven by what Anne Koedt once called the perversion of “the personal is political”—that is, the assumption that we should all curtail or alter our genders and sexualities in order to better conform with feminist or queer politics.3 This perversion of “the personal is political” can be seen in both reformist feminist and queer activist circles that seek to purge “less desirable” identities and behaviors from their movements in the name of political expediency, and among their more radical counterparts who denounce identities and behaviors that they perceive to be too “conservative,” “conforming,” or “heteronormative.” In other words, both extremes share the expectation that their members will be relatively homogeneous and conform to certain norms of gender and sexuality. Such one-size-fits-all approaches ignore the fact that there is naturally occurring variation in sex, gender, and sexuality in human populations. We all differ somewhat in our desires, urges, and attractions, and in what identities, expressions, and interests resonate with us. Furthermore, each of us is uniquely socially situated: We each have different life histories, face different obstacles, and have different experiences with sexism and other forms of marginalization. So the assumption that we should conform to some uniform ideal with regards to gender and sexuality, or that we should all adhere to one single view of sexism and marginalization, is simply unrealistic.
One-size-fits-all approaches to gender and sexuality—whether they occur in the straight male–centric mainstream, or within feminist and queer subcultures—inevitably result in double standards, where bodies and behaviors can only ever be viewed as either right or wrong, natural or unnatural, normal or abnormal, righteous or immoral. And one-size-fits-all models for describing sexism and marginalization—whether in terms of patriarchy, or compulsory heterosexuality, or the gender binary—always account for certain forms of sexism and marginalization while ignoring others. As a result, such models validate some people’s perspectives while leaving many of us behind. I believe that this pervasive insistence that we should all conform to some fixed and homogeneous view of sexism and marginalization, or of gender and sexuality, is the primary cause of sexism-based exclusion within feminist and queer movements.
In this book, I make the case that we should distance ourselves from these one-size-fits-all models, and instead embrace an alternative approach—what I call a holistic approach to feminism. I call this model “holistic” for a number of reasons. First, it moves away from the trite and overly simplistic “nature-versus-nurture” debates about gender and sexuality, and instead recognizes that biology, culture, and environment all interact in an unfathomably complex manner in order to generate the human diversity we see all around us. Second, this approach recognizes that each of us has a rather specific (and therefore, limited) view of gender and sexuality, and sexism and marginalization—a perspective largely shaped by our own life experiences and how we are socially situated. Therefore, the only way that we can thoroughly understand these complex phenomena is through a multiplicity of different perspectives. Third, this approach to feminism is holistic in that it provides a framework for challenging all forms of sexism and marginalization, rather than merely those that we personally experience or are already familiar with. I must admit that I was initially hesitant to describe this approach as “holistic,” as the word often evokes “new age”-or “hippie”-esque connotations (whereas I am personally more agnostic-and punk rocker-identified). But despite these reservations, I feel that holistic best captures the totality of the approach that I will outline here.
A WORD ABOUT WORDS
Many disagreements within feminist and queer politics stem from language. So in order to avoid such confusion, in this chapter I will define many of the basic terms that I will use throughout this book, often with an accompanying explanation for why I have chosen certain words over others. While I cannot promise that all readers will agree on the terms I use or how I define them, I do believe that knowing where I am coming from, and what precisely I am trying to convey, is crucial to understanding many of the ideas that I forward in this book.
SEX, GENDER, AND SEXUALITY
Throughout this book, three particular terms will come up over and over again: sex, gender, and sexuality. The word sex is typically used to refer to a person’s physical sex (e.g., their anatomy, genitals, reproductive capacity, hormones, sex chromosomes, secondary sexual characteristics, and so forth). Sexuality may refer to a person’s sexual orientation, interests, acts, expressions, and/or experiences. The word gender is often used to refer to a number of different things, including a person’s gender identity (e.g., whether they identify as a girl/woman, boy/man, or somewhere outside of those identities), their lived sex (whether they move through the world as female and/or male or other), or their gender expression (whether their dress, mannerisms, and interests are deemed to be feminine and/or masculine or other).
While it is often useful to distinguish between sex, gender, and sexuality, it is important to recognize that one cannot easily draw a sharp line dividing where each of these categories ends and another begins. For example, many aspects of physical sex (such as genitals) play an important role in acts of sexuality. Similarly, specific types of feminine or masculine clothing are sometimes considered to be sexually arousing. Gender expression more generally can play an important role in sexual attraction, as seen in conventionally straight people who prefer feminine female or masculine male partners, or queer people who may have a preference for either butch, or femme, or androgynous partners.
Along similar lines, some people try to make a sharp distinction between sex and gender by claiming that the former is exclusively biological in origin while the latter is exclusively social. This ignores the fact that biology likely plays some role in influencing gender identity and expression (discussed in Chapter 13, “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality”), and that sex also has social components. For example, in our society, we are each assigned a “legal sex” based on certain sex characteristics (typically genitals) but not others (e.g., hormones, reproductive capabilities, etc.). Thus, the decision of which sex characteristics count (and which do not) is very much a social matter.
So while sex, gender, and sexuality are different from one another, they are also often connected or intertwined. (For this reason, on certain occasions in this book, I will use the word “gender” as shorthand for “sex, gender, and sexuality.”) The fact that these three aspects are generally viewed as interconnected explains why most people typically assume that they should all “line up” in the same direction within any given person. In our society, most people routinely presume that all of an individual’s sex attributes (e.g., their genitals, hormones, chromosomes) will all match up perfectly and fall within typical male or female parameters; that their gender identity and lived sex will align with their physical sex; that they will be gender conforming with regard to gender expression (i.e., feminine if female, masculine if male); that they will experience sexual attraction toward other people, and that this sexual attraction will be oriented toward members of one sex or the other, but not both; that their attractions and relationships will be exclusively heterosexual in nature; that the sexual acts they engage in will center around penilevaginal penetration sex; and so on.
When a person lives up to all of these societal assumptions, they are often described as being “straight.” Since straight mainstream values dominate in our culture, straight people can take their sexes, genders, and sexualities for granted, and are seen as “normal” in this regard. When a person defies one or some of these assumptions, straight mainstream society often deems that person to be not-straight, and therefore “queer.” Throughout this book, I will be using the term queer to describe people who fall outside of straight mainstream expectations and assumptions (such as the ones listed in the previous paragraph) regarding sex, gender, and sexuality. Some people use the acronym (or part of the acronym) LGBTQIA+ (where L = lesbian, G = gay, B = bisexual, T = transgender, Q = queer and/or questioning, I = intersex, A = asexual, and + to recognize other identities and individuals not explicitly included) in the same way that I am using the word “queer” here. In addition, queer/LGBTQIA+ people may also be described as being sexual and gender minorities. Like other minorities, queer people are routinely delegitimized by society because of the fact that they are perceived to be different from the majority.
It should be noted that queer is one of many reclaimed words, that is, a derogatory term that targets a certain population which takes on a new life and meaning when that same population starts using it as a self-empowering term. The idea goes something like this: If people are going to use the term “queer” as a slur, I can either distance myself from the word and insist that others use more respectable language to describe me, or alternatively, I can embrace the word, in effect saying, “Yes, I am queer and proud of it!” Other examples might include women who reclaim the words “slut” or “bitch,” sex workers who reclaim the word “whore,” queer women who reclaim the word “dyke,” gay men who reclaim the word “faggot,” or trans women who reclaim the word “tranny.” Reclaimed words tend to generate controversy, although sometimes (as in the case of “queer”) the reclaimed word eventually evolves into a more acceptable term that is commonly used by everybody.
ESSENTIALISM, IDENTITY LABELS, AND UMBRELLA TERMS
It is impossible to talk about sex, gender, and sexuality—or any human trait for that matter—without using specific words or labels to describe differences that exist between people. There are at least three different ways in which such words or labels can be used. The first way is to view such words in terms of essentialist categories. Essentialism is the belief that all members of a particular category must share some particular characteristic or set of characteristics in order to be considered a legitimate member of that group. People often resort to essentialist thinking when considering categories they consider to be “natural”—i.e., ones that arise on their own, independent of any social context or influence. People who view sex, gender, and sexuality as entirely “natural” traits will often try to categorize differences between people in essentialist ways. An example of essentialism is when people claim that all women have a womb, are chromosomally XX, and/or are naturally nurturing. Feminists (including myself) typically reject essentialism for reasons I discuss in Chapter 13, “Homogenizing Versus Holistic Views of Gender and Sexuality.” So when words like “woman” or “gay” or “transsexual” appear in this book, they are not meant to represent essentialist categories.
Another way to view such words is in terms of identity labels. For example, I identify as a woman, as transgender, as bisexual, and so forth. Identity labels are a highly personal way of conveying to others how we believe that we fit (or don’t fit) into the world. Because they are so personal, often people who share the same trait or behavior may differ with regards to what identity labels they use to describe themselves. So unlike me, other people who are female-bodied may not identify with the word “woman,” other trans people may not identify with the word “transgender,” and other people who are sexual with members of more than one sex/gender may prefer the word “pansexual” over “bisexual,” or they may choose not to label their sexuality at all. I am a big believer in the right of people to self-identify and to self-describe their own life experiences, and at no point in this book will I purposefully use a label to describe a specific person if I know that label runs contrary to how they self-identify.
It should be noted that people can use identity labels in either an essentialist or non-essentialist way. So, someone who believes that all women are chromosomally XX may identify as a woman on the basis that she shares that characteristic, and someone who believes that all transsexuals have a specific brain condition may identify as transsexual based on their belief that they have that supposed brain condition. In contrast, I call myself a woman and transsexual, not because I hold essentialist beliefs about those categories, but because I feel those words best describe some aspect of my person. Along similar lines, I also happen to identify as a musician (because I play musical instruments) and as a bird person (because I have parrots as animal companions, not because I identify as a bird!). I do not believe that there is some magical underlying quality that all musicians, or all bird people, or all women, or all transsexuals have in common. Rather, the only thing we have in common is that we loosely share some non-essentialist quality (e.g., we play musical instruments, we have birds as animal companions, we move through the world as women, we identify and live as members of the sex other than the one we were assigned at birth, respectively).
In the course of this book, I will occasionally use words like “woman”, or “transsexual”, or “bisexual” as identity labels, particularly when I am referring to a specific person. But more often than not, I will be using these words in the third manner: as umbrella terms. So for example, throughout this book, I will use the word “queer” as an umbrella term to describe people who (for one reason or another) are deemed by society to be “not-straight” because some aspect of their sex, gender, and/or sexuality falls outside of societal norms. I contend that one can use the word “queer” in this manner (i.e., as an umbrella term) while simultaneously recognizing that not all people who fall under the queer umbrella will necessarily identify with the term (i.e., they may not personally use “queer” as an identity label to describe themselves). Furthermore, one can use the word “queer” as an umbrella term without making any additional assumptions about individuals who fall under that umbrella. Indeed, I personally do not believe that any two given queer people necessarily have anything in common with one another other than the fact that they are both viewed by society to be “not-straight.”
One might ask: “If some people don’t identify with the term ‘queer,’ why not use a different word entirely?” Well, for one thing, there is about a twenty-year-long history of people using the word “queer” as an umbrella term in this way. And even if I were to invent a completely different word to describe this same group of people, there will always be some people who will choose not to identify with that term.
Others might ask, “If people who fall under the queer umbrella are all different from one another, and many of them do not personally prefer the term ‘queer,’ then why bother lumping them all into the same category in the first place?” My answer to this is simple: I am not the one lumping us all into the same category! It is society at large that makes a distinction between people who are deemed to be “normal” with regard to sex, gender, and sexuality (i.e., straight) and those who are deemed “abnormal” (i.e., queer). More importantly, those who are deemed straight are generally viewed as more natural and legitimate than those who are deemed queer. This double standard constitutes a form of sexism, one that routinely marginalizes and injures those of us who are queer. If we were to stop using words such as “queer” (on the basis that not all people who fall under that umbrella identify with the term), it would do nothing to stop society at large from deeming us to be queer and treating us inferiorly as a result. Indeed, not having a word to describe people who are marginalized by this double standard makes it difficult, if not impossible, for sexual and gender minorities to organize and carry out activism to challenge this double standard.
This point gets to the heart of the identity-labels-versus-umbrella-terms distinction: We use identity labels to tell our stories, to describe our experiences, to let people know how we see ourselves and how we believe we fit into the world. This is an important, albeit primarily personal, matter. In contrast, umbrella terms are primarily used in order to form alliances between disparate people who share some obstacle or form of discrimination in common. By saying that we both fall under the same umbrella term, I am not claiming that you and I are “alike” in some way, but rather that we are treated in similar ways by society, and that it is in our mutual interest to work together to challenge the negative meanings and presumptions that other people project onto us.
Since this book is about challenging societal double standards and norms, I will primarily be using words like “queer” (and other terms described below) as umbrella terms rather than identity labels.
SEXISM AND FEMINISM
Throughout this book, I will be using the word sexism to describe double standards based upon a person’s sex, gender, and/or sexuality. The most commonly discussed form of sexism is what I call traditional sexism, which is the assumption that femaleness and femininity are inferior to, or less legitimate than, maleness and masculinity (i.e., what most people refer to as just plain “sexism”). This form of sexism primarily targets girls and women in our culture, although it also negatively impacts other people as well.1
- "As a transsexual woman, [Serano] says that being a woman isn't just something she puts on or pretends to be - it's who she is. As a self-declared femme, she says that feminine gender expression - wearing make-up, or a dress, or crying - is not artificial, but rather natural to her. And as a biologist, she's saying that gender isn't performance, or isn't only performance; it's not (just) something you play at, but something you are."—The Atlantic
- "Through her own experiences and stories, as well as her amazing brain, Serano is able to call out the movements she calls home for excluding her, essentializing her experience, and refusing to accept her person."—Autostraddle
- "Serano uses her personal experiences as a lens to ask some major questions about how liberatory politics become limited when certain groups are sidelined."—Bitch
- "Serano's vision of an updated and holistic feminism isn't just about making some elbow room for those of us marginalized in the struggle. It calls for full and equal participation. The new image of feminism looks like all of us. . . [She] transforms topics mired in controversy and complexity and skillfully narrows them down."—Curve
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2013
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Seal Press