Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?

This is a weird one…  I was part of the Second Wave. I was moved and shaped by some of what went on, bewildered and dumbfounded by the embrace of things like homeopathy and the Wicca.

The thing that confounds me most is how big a role people seem to think trans-folks played in the Second Wave either as participants or the trashing of us.  Granted many of the books that were of major import during the Second Wave are long out of print.

One thing often ignored regarding the Second Wave is that it had a number of nasty internal wars that harmed the Movement as well as destroying women like Shulamith Firestone.

Shortly after the trashing of Sandy Stone, women’s bookstores and the feminist press were torn by the battles between the S/M/Samois /Sex Positive lesbians and the anti-sex factions.

Lately it has become popular to once again attack trans-women.  Some of the attackers were around in the stone age of the Second Wave, others are millenials.

Back in the late 1980s the TERFs used trans-women as an element of movement disruption and destruction, diverting attention from the real struggle which should have been focused on Reagan and the rise of the right wing.

Once again TERFs are using trans-women as an element of disruption and distraction, diverting attention from the real struggle which should be focused on Trump and the religious/fascist right wing.

Cui Bono?

BTW note the weird shift from Bruce LaBruce to trans-women as though there is some sort of connection.

Further:  Many trans-folks do not embrace “queer” as an identity.

From Salon:

Millennial lesbianism can sometimes feel like a balancing act between two worlds.


A few weeks ago, a copy of Judy Chicago’s 1979 book The Dinner Party: A Story of Our Heritage arrived on my doorstep. The tome explains Chicago’s iconic artwork of the same name, a sprawling, triangular tribute to hundreds of female figures throughout human history and mythology. The exhibit, which starts with a place for the “Primordial Goddess” and ends at one for Georgia O’Keeffe, revels in vaginal imagery, domestic arts, and the role of women in Earth’s creation. The book had been shipped to me by my mother, who had never seen the work before and adored it, listening with awe as I explained who Artemisia Gentileschi and Hildegard of Bingen were on a dreary Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum.

The day after we saw The Dinner Party, I took my mother to a screening of Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrist, a scathing “satire” of second-wave feminist ideals whose subjects believe in female separatism, political lesbianism, adding “wo-” to any word containing “man” (e.g., Ger-wo-many, wo-manual), and forced gender reassignment surgery. Leaving The Misandrists, my mother and I both felt as though LaBruce, a seminal contributor to New Queer Cinema, had never spoken to a woman—lesbian, feminist, cis, trans, or otherwise—in his life. It was a jarring experience in contrast to our date with The Dinner Party, to say the least. That weekend’s journey from a seminal ’70s feminist artwork to a ruthless ribbing of all things second-wave made me realize just how alienating the disconnect between feminist history and modern queer culture can be, especially for young lesbians.

If you’re an LGBTQ millennial like me, many of the things I’ve mentioned thus far—vaginal artwork, lesbian separatism, goddess spiritualism—may have your mouse hovering over the X on this tab. In these supposedly halcyon post-gender days, it can be easy to believe that we have grown out of such pursuits as destigmatizing the vagina, reconnecting with other women, and learning from our elders. However, these practices need not be embarrassing or old-fashioned—in fact, I’d argue that they allow us to more fully understand where we’ve come from and what is at stake in queer feminist activism.

The main hindrance to that understanding right now, as I see it, is that anything that explicitly celebrates motherhood, cis female biology, or older lesbian generations is written off as a “dog whistle” indicative of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, beliefs. TERF, as an insult, has become so far removed from its original activist intentions (rightly criticizing trans exclusion in feminism) that, at this point, it’s also a word for anything that queer millennials deem uncool. Things I’ve seen called “TERFy” on Twitter and Tumblr include tampon ads, the word “female,” the non-word “womxn,” Janelle Monae’s “Pynk,” the Venus symbol, bangs, Jill Stein, Cardi B, and … trans women.

This blanket TERF-ing, which weakens necessary criticisms of transphobia, is today disproportionately applied to anything even remotely second-wave-y. (“Womxn” likely reminded its accuser of terms like “herstory” and “womyn,” popularized in the 1970s.) This isn’t without reason, since calls for sex-segregated activism and spaces during second-wave feminism often explicitly excluded trans women—perhaps most notoriously at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. But writing off any practices even associated with that era or those people is not only a disservice to older feminists as a whole, but also a disservice to the larger queer community. Such embarrassment keeps us from learning from our own history and growing as activists. It also means we are ashamed of anyone in our own community who might be invested in the healing aspects of that history.

It’s important to point out that many of these second-wave practices come from lesbian feminists, women who were determined to separate themselves from men romantically, historically, and politically. To many of them, that meant (and still means) defying medical and social abuse against those with vaginas, fighting against male violence, and re-centering women in all narratives. You might have an eye-rolling gut reaction to words like “herstory” and “womyn,” or to vaginal art or goddess worship. You might write off all the women who participated in the Women’s March with pussy hats as clueless. But is there anything inherently wrong with re-centering women in language and history? Is there anything wrong with certain women being proud of their bodies, when they’re constantly encouraged to remain ignorant and ashamed of them? Is there anything wrong with a woman connecting to herself and her presence on Earth on a spiritual level, especially when popular religion privileges men and subjugates women? Is there anything wrong with middle-aged women, who have lived through the evolution of sexism in ways we have not, pushing back against a president who admits to grabbing women by the pussy?

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2 Responses to “Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?”

  1. edith pilkington Says:

    The die was cast in the late ’90s, early aughts, w/ Dean Spade’s Documenting Gender and Resisting Medicine/Remodeling Gender. What exists now as a “transgender movement” is really a gender abolitionist movement, lead by people at places like the Transgender Law and Policy Institute. Most of today’s so called trans-political leaders – Gunner Scott; Chase Strangio; Dru Lavasseur; Sari Reisner, from the T H Chan School of Public Policy at Harvard; etc.; have come out of that culture. The only male assigned person at the TLPI is not anyone who’s been through what the gender abolitionists like to describe as a “medical transition”, a la Spade’s Resisting Medicine/Remodeling Gender. Spade’s most ardent followers seem to be from the Boston/Pioneer Valley areas. If you read Spade’s Documenting Gender you will find it is the template for the “two step” method of recording people by 1. “sex assigned at birth”, and, 2. “gender identity”, that is being promoted by Sari Reisner(Sari has a chapter in Trans Bodies/Trans Selves), The Fenway Institute, Lambda Legal, and the Williams Institute where Spade has done a lot of work. I think Spade graduated law school at UCLA where the Williams is. I think it is Spade’s writing that has been the driving force re: what tack LGBTQ organizations would take, i. e. lumping very disparate groups as one and the same to amass the numbers needed to create a coalition consisting of a majority rendering certain minorities within the coalition as petulant and usually left for roadkill.

    I met someone up at a conference in Vermont who more or less invited me to Gunner Scott’s GenderCrash spoken word events up in Jamaica Plain.

    Click to access Coll63GenderCrash.pdf

    That was back in the mid-aughts. I went to them frequently over the course of a year and one half, or so. The events were fascinating until I finally realized the hostile dismissiveness toward post transsexual people that seemed to be unspoken policy. I had never read Gordene MacKenzie’s Transgender Nation. In fact, I thought, for a long time, she was post transsexual.

    Ironically, before I opened up your pages tonight I had been reading:

    Non-Binary Gender Identity Negotiations:
    Interactions with Queer Communities and Medical Practice

    where I found this passage:

    “Under treatment for transsexualism at the Center for Special Problems. Whilst the ID card did ‘out’ those carrying it as transsexual, it nevertheless allowed people to open bank accounts and do other things that required identification. Without that card, transsexuals living in a social gender other than the one assigned to them at birth were essentially ‘undocumented workers’ who had great difficulty finding legal employment.
    (Stryker, 2008a, p. 76)”

    Susan Stryker got that from her interview with you, Suzan, didn’t she?

    I don’t like to use transsexual as a noun but people from all backgrounds still have trouble with those described as such. Queers are not immune to prejudice and bigotry. Everyone loves the non binary because they don’t challenge anyone’s notions about the mutability of sex. It’s all about gender, rendering sex as the immutable rock on which we should imagine our bodies built upon, regardless of how absurd the assignment was in light of current facts.

    A lot of Spade’s public policy positions really resonate with me – prison abolition, etc. It’s too bad because I think his activism is far worse than patronizing towards people like me. In my experience gender abolitionists are some of the worst genderists. You’d have to read through Documenting Gender and Resisting Medicine/Remodeling Gender to understand what I mean. Most of the aforementioned, following Spade, still refer to certain body parts to retain the assigned classifications, especially Reisner. It’s absurd.

    • Suzan Says:

      I’m holding with my policy of mainly reading fiction these days. That said I’m currently reading “Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman” by Phyllis Chessler. She has a memoir of the Second Wave coming out and wrote of the “Death of Feminism” in the aughts. Being Jewish she has had to deal with the Anti-Semitism disguised as Anti-Zionism.

      Yeah Susan probably got that from me.

      The problem of projecting “Gender as Identity” backwards, indeed of transing people when Transgender was not an identity is that the people involved didn’t see themselves that way. Sylia Rivera and Marsha Johnson’s STAR didn’t stand for Street Transgender (or Transsexual) Action Revolutionaries, it stood for Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.

      I’m a hippie dyke, not a gender queer even if I do view “Gender, Gender, Gender as a social construct. I don’t see wrapping ones primary identity of self in clothes/gendered behavior and saying that gender take precedent over sex is all that liberating. Nor do I see it as particularly efficient in promoting equality between the sexes.

      I also resent being drafted into a battle I don’t want to fight.

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