Well folks, it’s almost Black History Month again!
Well folks, it’s almost Black History Month again!
I’m a little behind on writing this up (and I still owe you more installments on When Feminism Fails) but I want to talk to you briefly about some of the criticism of feminism, and when it comes from sources you might not expect.
I recently read this piece on Libby Ann’s fantastic blog, Love, Joy, Feminism, which talks about the argument over feminism in the atheist community. Now, I don’t identify as an atheist, and I don’t follow atheist blogs unless they also talk about something else which interests me (Libby Ann’s blog is a prime example of this) so while I had kind of heard there’d been some hoopla about the feminism going on I wasn’t familiar with the specifics.
If you are interested, I encourage you to go read that post. I think it is worth your time and I think Libby had some important things to say. Originally I thought I’d go point by point, with quotes and all that, but instead I’m going to try to (for once) keep this brief.
Basically, what is happening here is that some people in the atheist community (all the people Libby quotes are men, though the concept itself was created by a woman) are trying to make a distinction between two kinds of feminism that they see as completely different and somewhat opposed to each other. They call these two kinds of feminism “equity feminism” and “gender feminism”. It needs to be noted right off the bat that all the people who believe that feminism breaks down into these two categories, all those people consider themselves to be “equity feminists.” The people who they would categorize as “gender feminists” do not see the world of feminism in terms of these two different categories, and we mostly just call ourselves, you know, feminists.
The first big problem is the way that they define these two different forms of feminism. In their world, equity feminism is considered with creating legal and social equality for women, and gender feminism is dumb and wrong. That’s a little bit of hyperbole, but it’s not too far off the mark. Rather than first defining the two things as “equity feminism thinks this and gender feminism thinks this” and THEN moving on to “and I’m an equity feminist and here’s why I think gender feminism is missing the mark” they include their criticisms of gender feminism right in their definitions. Ok, here’s just one quote to show you what I’m talking about:
Gender feminism is very different. It looks far less egalitarian, involves sharp criticism of gender roles, and seems to emphasize victimhood.
Libby personally doesn’t pick apart why that definition is a problem, but I want to. Because any time that your definition of your opposing view includes such negative language, you aren’t really engaging with it at all. Rather than explaining the criticism of gender roles, and then explaining why they find that to be less egalitarian, they start right off the bat telling you that gender feminism is NOT ABOUT EQUALITY.
Hm. Insisting that the majority of feminists aren’t interested in equality and just want to play the victim… does that sound familiar to you? Let’s come back to that in a minute.
Because that’s just the first problem. The second problem is the insistence that gender feminists want to deny that there are biological differences between men and women. Essentially, what they are saying is that if there aren’t more women engineers, it’s probably because women just aren’t as good at engineering as they are at some other things (like childcare!) and we just need to accept that men and women are different and let them do the things they are best suited for. As long as women have full legal rights, gender roles are a-ok with equity feminists.
So many issues here. First, sex and gender are two different things, and that is an important thing to know. When you use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably you create some very real problems (and I stop taking your argument seriously). Sex is biological, and gender is social. The two are often related, but not always. Also, because gender is a social construct, gender norms and expectations can vary greatly from culture to culture. If this is still confusing to anyone, here is an example:
Having breasts is part of being of the female sex, while wearing a bra is part of the female gender (in many parts of the world). Breasts are biological, whereas to claim that women naturally wear brassieres, as if it were somehow part of their biological make-up to do so, is preposterous. In many parts of the world women do not wear them, and while in our culture it is considered a feminine thing to do, it is entirely possible to still be female without one on, and it is also possible for male people to wear them.
The argument being made by the “equity feminists” (and it’s really the same argument being made by many supporters of old-school patriarchy) is that when we rail against gender roles, we’re trying to deny that there is any difference between men and women at all. That simply is not true. Because sex and gender are different things. And because we don’t any of us live in a vacuum. It is impossible to know whether women are by nature more nurturing then men are, as long as we encourage young girls to play with baby dolls and discourage young boys from doing the same. And even if you, as a parent, don’t tell your son not to play with baby dolls, unless you are parenting in the woods with only toys you made yourself by hand, the gender roles of the dominant American culture affect your child.
Go into a toy store. Go into the “pink” aisle. Tell me how many baby dolls there are. Now do the same in the “blue” aisle.
And if that weren’t enough, what are they using to back up their gender essentialist claims? Oh good, it’s evolutionary psychology. Here’s some criticism of evolutionary psychology that you might find interesting, including this gem about an evolutionary psychology study that claimed to FINALLY discover why girls prefer pink. (Spoiler, pink used to be considered a boy’s color, and the study makes no sense.) Recently I had to try to explain evolutionary psychology to a friend who was not familiar, and I broke it down like this:
Evolutionary psychology is when you take a look at your wife staying home to take care of the house and kids, and you wonder why that might be. Then you think “hey, maybe there’s an evolutionary reason she wants to do that! I bet that back during evolution times MEN were the ones hunting (cause men hunt now!) which lead me to believe that women stayed home with the kids (cause someone had to or they would have been eaten by a lion).” Then you take that faulty logic and REAPPLY it to the modern world, asserting that women EVOLVED to stay home with babies, and therefore that must be what they are best suited for now.
Most of the scientists I know just start laughing when evolutionary psychology comes up.
Ok so this still hasn’t been as brief as I would have liked, there was a lot to talk about. We need to bring it full circle now. Because the argument that some feminists are good and want equality and some feminists are bad and want to be victims… it’s an argument we’ve heard before in many different forms.
“now, when you say feminist, do you mean pro-equality, or pro-women?”
Bam. He was just asking a simple and honest question, which actually led to a very productive and positive conversation. However, wrapped up in that question were all of the reasons I didn’t call myself a feminist when I was fifteen, all of the reasons my mother doesn’t call herself a feminist now because “I’m for equality for everyone, not just women.” The raised eyebrows I was met with when I actually did start calling myself a feminist, the way I still get a little nervous dropping an f-bomn in public sometimes, and the reasons it is so effing important to keep doing it, they were all there in that simple little sentence.
Yes, I realize that quoting oneself is kind of ridiculous. This is from my piece about why it’s important to speak out for feminism and against patriarchy. Because that is all I could think about while I read about supposedly liberal-minded, equality-minded atheists arguing that the reason most of the speakers at atheist conventions are men is because speaking at conventions is “kind of a guy thing.” Because rather than saying that ALL FEMINISTS are bad, these “equity feminists” are setting themselves up as the “good feminists” and all others as the “bad feminists”… the same old straw feminists that we are all sick and tired of hearing about.
But other than that, other than that assertion that there is a small group of good feminists who think that voting rights are enough, their argument sounds EXACTLY the same as the tired old conservative patriarchal argument that women ought to just stay in their place.
I need to talk to you about gay marriage.
No, I really need to talk to you about gay marriage.
This is important.
The political powers that be have made gay marriage a hot-button issue. In fact, it’s generally assumed that if you’re talking lgbtq rights, you are talking about marriage rights, and that is a pretty dangerous assumption. One reason that gay marriage gets so much more attention than other queer issues is because of the powerful backlash against it. The push for constitutional amendments to specifically ban gay marriage is fairly unique, and it is quite obviously a problem. The personal is always political, but this is one area where the personal decisions of some people have been loudly and publicly and unfairly politicized. However, when we talk about gay marriage as being synonymous with lgbtq rights we miss a a lot of very important things.
You guys, I’m engaged.
And I really want to be all “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me!” but the fact is that I’m not sixteen anymore and I’m just done wanting to be seen as someone who doesn’t care how other people see me. I do care. I care what the people who I love and respect think about me. Sharing our opinions about each other’s life choices is one of the ways that we take care of each other as a community. I’m not so desperate for approval that I’m going to do everything someone else says, but I will take other opinions and viewpoints into account, and I think that is healthy. I care what people think about me, and I want people to understand what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) when I say that I’m getting married.
So, let’s talk about gay marriage, ok?
The argument goes something like this: as long as the government is sanctioning some kinds of committed relationships, why should gay people be excluded from that? We have as much right to get married as anyone else does! Furthermore, the opposition to gay marriage comes, primarily, from conservative religious leaders, but we all know that we are supposed to have separation of church and state in this country. Plenty of people, both gay and straight, have taken a look at loving gay relationships that look an awful lot like loving straight relationships, and asked questions such as “why can’t they share insurance?” “why don’t they get deathbed visits?” “why can’t they file taxes together?” and perhaps most importantly “why can’t they be married in the eyes of the law?”
Or, as my great-grandmother once very eloquently put it, “Oh, let them be unhappy along with the rest of us!”
It just makes good sense.
1. Widening an Exclusive Category Vs. Creating an Inclusive One
A few months ago I went on this totally intense Netflix marathon of the horrible TLC reality show Sister Wives. The show is really incredibly boring because, as they keep trying to remind you over and over again, they really are just a normal family in most regards. Seriously, if you are looking for something juicy and complicated, be forewarned that even reality TV editing cannot make watching other people grocery shop exciting. The sexism can be frustrating, the patriarch is a total goon, and the plot line is anti-climatic at best. And yet, I am addicted.
One thing that the gang on Sister Wives do though, that most folks pushing for gay marriage try their best not to do, is compare their situation to the gay marriage struggle. The comparison is easy to make. Gay people do not have the right to marry legally in most of this country. Polygamists also do not have the right to marry legally, however they have the added bonus of being able to be prosecuted for living as if they were married! Wowza! If three adult people decide to enter into a marriage-like agreement, even if they do not seek any legal spousal benefits for the third spouse, they can be prosecuted for that. Think about that for a second, when I did, it was probably the first time that I felt privileged as a queer person. I mean, my fiancee and I may never be able to share insurance, but no one is going to take me to jail for calling her my wife.
(It bares mentioning that that was not always the case, and historically many gay people were in fact locked up for the crime of having “indecent” relationships.)
And yet, when conservatives bring up polygamy in that “if we allow gays to get married, what’s next?” sort of way, the vocal majority of those pushing for gay marriage have one clearly resounding answer: We are nothing like them. They are icky. We absolutely oppose polygamy. We promise if you just let us nice, clean, polite, monogamous, gays get married, you’ll never have to worry about polygamy being legalized.
And this is what we call marriage equality? Does that sound anything like equality?
And here’s that quote from the president that we’ve all ready a million times:
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
Let’s not even talk about how his beliefs on gay marriage never “evolved”, just his public persona. The president makes his position very clear: GOOD gays should be allowed to get married. MONOGAMOUS gays should be allowed to get married. Gays who just want a family as beautiful as the Obamas, they should be allowed to get married. It’s not just mormon polygamists that are being left out of the discussion, it’s whole crowds of queer people who don’t fit into the tight little mold of what a “good gay” looks like. If you are queer, bisexual, pansexual, polyamourus, genderqueer, trans, or otherwise WEIRD… well then, you need to take a step back, because this conversation is not about you. This conversation is about RIGHTS, and you don’t have any.
I’m annoyed by the president’s statements, but I’m not shocked by them. What really gets my goat is the sanctioning of this crap by gay folks. Do we have no empathy whatsoever? Why doesn’t the experience of having our rights denied cause us to be protective of the rights of others? How can we even call this equality?
2. Basic Rights before Marriage Rights
I live in Michigan. In the state of Michigan, there is a constitutional amendment on the books which prevents the state from recognizing my impending marriage as a marriage, for any purposes whatsoever. Many people think that is ridiculous, and I agree with them (however, if the election in 2004 is any indication, the majority of Michiganders think it’s swell). Actually, one thing that is interesting to me is that many Michiganders aren’t actually aware of that amendment, and I keep having conversations about my engagement that include the questions “so how does that work legally in Michigan?” to which I answer “well, it doesn’t.” The 2004 election was an important milestone on my own path to political awareness (it was the first election I could vote it, the second Bush Jr. election, and the election where Michigan decided that gay marriage was SO ICKY that mere laws against it simply would not do) but I suppose it wasn’t that for everyone.
However, when we act like our inability to marry (legally) is the only injustice going on, we act like fools. Because in Michigan it is also perfectly legal for my employer to fire me because I seem gay. The good news for me is that my employer doesn’t want to fire me for my gayness! I’m a middle class white lady who went to art school, who has a vaguely art-related job, and works with some other gay folks. I’ve been set up on dates with women by people I work with. Folks at work keep congratulating me on my engagement. It’s absolutely fabulous.
The thing is, not everyone has a fabulous job where they can be out and talk about gay stuff. And because discrimination against gay people is in no way protected against, many people have to stay in the closet in order to maintain a job, a job they probably need to survive. And it seems to me that the right to SURVIVE, that right needs to take precedent. So it strikes me as odd that the push for gay marriage has been so strong in recent years, and yet the push for anti-discrimination laws takes a back seat.
Of course, if you are cynical enough, it isn’t all that surprising.
The mainstream gay rights movement is led by gay folks in positions similar to mine. We don’t really need anti-discrimination laws because we have the ability to choose jobs where we feel safe and comfortable. Anti-discrimination laws likely won’t benefit us directly… but you know what would be nice? That’s right, having our relationships sanctioned by the state, and getting the laundry list of benefits that that entails. Which leads us to….
3. When “Gay Rights” = “LGBT Rights”, and How We Love to Forget The T
I’m sure you are going to be totally floored when I take this opportunity to remind you that we live in a patriarchal society. I know, I hoped that I could get through a whole blog post without brining it up too, but I just can’t. Yeah, patriarchy, it blows for all sorts of reasons. Patriarchy is all about hierarchies, and guess who’s at the top? You guessed it! White dudes! Usually straight white dudes, but in the case of lgbtq issues, we will even accept gay white dudes!
So often, when we talk about LGBT rights, or LGBT issues, or LGBT interests… what we are really talking about is gay men and their rights, issues, and interests. I’m not arguing that those things aren’t important, but there’s three more letters in LGBT, and four if you include the Q (I do, I didn’t in this statement or heading because I’m talking about the larger mainstream conversation, which usually doesn’t). We are leaving people out, and we are leaving them out based on where they fall on the patriarchal hierarchy.
And guess who we don’t talk about when we talk about marriage equality? We don’t talk about trans people. We don’t talk about them, even though they are more likely to be murdered than the rest of us. We don’t talk about them. We talk about nice, upstanding gay men, and maybe some nice, upstanding lesbians. But that’s it. I know tons of people who technically fall under the definition of LGBTQ but don’t identify with it, because they see it as all about gay men.
I stopped reading my local LGBT newspaper because they were more likely to publish an article about a straight woman who wrote music or was in a play that gay men love than an article about a gay or queer woman. I’m just saying.
4.”We’ve Been Together for 3,000 Years and We’re Finally Tying The Knot!”
Every time gay marriage gets legalized somewhere, the press is the same. You see a lot of pictures of happy couples getting married at city hall, and I won’t deny that it always brings tears to my eyes. Always. Every single goddamn time. But I’ve also noticed a trend. If you have been with your partner for 20, 10, or maybe even just 7 or 8 years, and you want to get married, the liberal media loves you.
But guess what there’s zero coverage of? Brash, young, crazy in love homos getting married. I haven’t seen any. Granted, I haven’t specifically looked for it, but I have looked at a lot of general gay marriage coverage, and impulsive young people are simply not included.
Is it because we’re trying to be more palatable to the mainstream? It it because we have something to prove (like how committed we are)? Is it because the folks who’ve been waiting for years are more likely to get married on the first day marriage is legal in their city? I don’t have the answers, my guess is a combination of all of the above. But I do think this goes back to my first point, about the GOOD GAYS getting married. Apparently, the mark of a truly Good Gay is that marriage is not the commitment, the commitment is in fact made years before the marriage.
5. “Traditional” American Marriage and Patriarchy, Straightness
One of the biggest arguments against gay marriage that I hear from queer people is this one: marriage is straight, sexist, constrictive, patriarchal institution, so why should we even want it? I want to respond to some of that in a bit (mainly my response boils down to “it hasn’t always been/it doesn’t have to be”) but I do think it’s important to mention the argument.
Many, if not most, of the elements of the average American wedding these days are extremely patriarchal and gendered. In many US states married women could not own their own private property until the 1840s. And while it seems that most present-day Americans prefer more egalitarian relationships, and the practice of say, the father of the bride “giving his daughter away” to the groom is merely a nod at tradition, it’s probably worth pointing out that it isn’t that way for everyone.
I don’t bring all of this up to say that we should reject the term “marriage” outright, but rather to say that it’s probably a little more complicated than “I have the right to get married the same as you do!”
1. Marriage is About Individuals, Not The State
I’m one of those people who thinks that the state shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone’s relationship, and that includes my own. That means that while my state will not recognize my marriage, I still get to have one. Just as most Christians see the ceremony they have in their church with their religious community as witnesses and their religious leader as an officiate as infinitely more important than the marriage license they receive, I see the ceremony we are planning together as infinitely more important than the marriage license we won’t be receiving.
Recently, I was on the phone with a very good friend discussing my engagement and impending wedding, and after we talked about the legal aspect she said “gosh, I’m sorry you have to deal with that.” The only way I could respond was to say that yes, it is frustrating sometimes, but at the same time I feel incredibly lucky that I get to deal with it. I want to make a public commitment with an incredible woman, to spend our lives together, to keep a home together, to take care of each other. That’s what I want, and I asked her, and she said yes, that is what she wants as well. And that is what marriage is about as far as I am concerned. What 60-something percent of voting Michiganders think, or what the president of the United States thinks, it’s not a factor to me because I’m not marrying them.
2. Many Different Forms of Marriage, Not Just Patriarchal Marriage
Historically, throughout the world, many different kinds of marriages have been recognized. While in the US we tend to think of patriarchal marriage as “traditional marriage” that isn’t strictly true. I can definitely see how someone could look at the state of marriage in this country and reject the institution wholesale, I can get it, but it’s not my view.
We do not intend for our wedding, or our marriage, to be a slightly modified version of a patriarchal marriage. We intend to do what queer folks have always done, to build the relationship that makes the most sense for us. It will have some things in common with “traditional marriage” but it will also be very different. The union we have in mind is a covenant, but is not about ownership or control. It’s about forming a family together, a family that starts with two equal partners who love, respect, and honor (but not necessarily obey!) each other.
We’ve talked a lot about our ideas about what a marriage is and isn’t, should and shouldn’t be, can and can’t be, what we want and what we don’t want. I need my queers who are critical of the institution of marriage to please trust me on this one. This is well thought-out, this is not a hasty decision, and this will not be a slightly watered-down or gussied-up version of the thing that you hate.
3. I’m In Love, and I’m Stoked About Calling This Rad Lady My Wife
WordPress says I’ve written almost 3,000 words on this subject, and yet I haven’t gotten all gushy and starry-eyed about my betrothed yet! That is crazy, that simply will not do.
If you haven’t met her, she is simply the best, and if you have you probably don’t need me to tell you how great she is. A few short weeks ago, I took her out on a pedestrian bridge in our neighborhood, and under the moon I told her how much better she has made my life, and me as a person, and how I want to grow with her and continue to let her challenge and change me. Then I offered her the rest of my days, and asked if I might have hers in return. There was a ring. (Quick plug for Emily Wiser, who made the ring, and is incredible) There was crying. There was a toast and a prayer.
Since then I keep having these little moments, moments where I notice how great it all is. Maybe we’ll be talking about something we’ve been meaning to do together, and suddenly we both burst out smiling when we realize we have all the time in the world. Maybe I’ll be talking with a friend about heartache and say “when I’m broken hearted I always ____” and then I realize that doesn’t need to apply to me anymore. Maybe my favorite cat marks her as a member of his pride/family and I realize that he’s absolutely right. Maybe I call her my girlfriend and someone corrects me and says “fiancee” and I have to catch my breath.
That kind of happiness strikes me as a very good reason to get married, despite all the shit.
I’ve got about eight months to plan a wedding and make a dress. I’m not sure how much I’ll be posting about it on here, but you know, wish me luck.