sexuality and social change movements (part 1)

March 2, 2007

Tonight I attended a panel called Desiring Change: Sexuality in Multi-Issue Organizing at Barnard College, my alma mater. Like most thought-provoking and star-studded events there, it was put on by the Center for Research on Women. On the panel were Amber Hollibaugh, Surina Khan, & Scot Nakagawa (you can read their bios in that first link). I’m going to focus on the words of queer femme activist Amber Hollibaugh, who wrote one of my favorite books and has proved to be an inspiring and thought-provoking teacher every time I hear her speak.

The issue at hand is incredibly complex and fraught and yet so basic to organizing and movement building. How do we integrate parts of our lives that are so fragmented? More specifically, why is sexuality (especially queer sexuality) such an untouchable and detached issue in our social change movements? This question is especially poignant when we think about how many activists across the board are queer, and how many of us are forced to separate who we are as sexual beings from who we are in the rest of our lives – even in the most progressive/radical of movements.

I can’t summarize the whole panel, as much as I’d like to. A number of points resonated with me that I’d like to share. Amber talked about her own identity, how she grew up poor and mixed-race, how she entered social movements with multiple identities that she struggled to keep separate. She was a lesbian and a sex-worker and was very active in both the civil rights and feminist movements (among others). She spoke about feminist discussions about sex work, discussions had with the assumption that no feminist had had any experience as a sex worker.

This is a continuing problem of a feminist movement that imagines “woman” only as white and middle-class. Self-hatred joins together with racism and classism to create a catch-22 scenario, where the white feminists are unfamiliar with the identities of a group that they are taking part in silencing, and the silenced group is too freaked out about being “out” to make their own needs and struggles heard. In the Jewish community, where the assumption is that you are Ashkenazi and middle-class, making yourself heard as Mizrahi or Sephardi or working-class is an uphill battle.

What’s amazing, though, is that we all have complicated lives and identities. Even middle-class white women don’t live up to the standard against which everyone else is judged. Once the silence is broken, we realize that this so-called “minority” is no minority at all. This whole notion that any single-issue movement can actually speak for everyone is kind of a farce. And this also goes for the mainstream LGBT movement that is pouring resources and energy into “Marriage Equality.” (if that doesn’t define them as single-issue movement, I don’t know what does).

Thank goodness for Beyond Marriage and its signatories – a list that includes all three panelists. It was getting pretty exhausting trying to explain my opposition to the current same-sex marriage movement without being allied with the Christian right. It’s a pretty perfect example of this multi-issue thing put into practice. And again, as with many of the issues the panelists discussed, it’s not about a minority pushing its views in. The fact is, most queer people (and some would argue that most straight people) do not fit into the narrow configuration of “family” that the same-sex marriage movement puts forward. It doesn’t account for our complicated, messy lives. All of our lives and identities and problems are multi-issue – why should our social change movements not follow through?

Postscript: as usual, I finish my discussion with more questions than I started with. In part 2 – coming this weekend – I’ll try to flesh out some of the questions this panel brought up for me, specifically around sex. Specifically, what is it about queer sexual identity that makes even the most progressive activists so twitchy?



  1. because, queer, of course, is always the claiming of an indvidual idenitity, while feminism deals in group identities, there will queer & unique lives can never be mapped easily into a feminist context.

    queer is the politics of identity while feminism is identity politics. the politics of a personal identity will always challenge the identity politics of group assignment.

  2. I don’t know that I agree – second-wave egalitarian feminism tended/tends to be identity politics and focuses/ed on white, middle-class women, but there are many types of feminism (including queer feminism) that calls the feminist vs. queer dichotomy into question.

    Even queer people have to rally around some type of “group” identity in order to fight for concrete and systemic social change, just like feminists. And finding commonality and community is precisely how we form those groups. The question is how we negotiate our group/community voice with our own.

  3. Sounds like a great conference. Amber Hollibaugh is excellent. Hey, did I know you were in NYC?

    the ss marriage thing–yyyeah, i hear you; it’s just, well–

    does the Alternatives to Marriage project talk about ways in which transnational couples can stay together without getting married?

    because, i have several friends who’ve been struggling with precisely that. Even if they could get married in Massachussets or domestic partner’d, it doesn’t really solve the fundamental problem: that’s a national-level issue.

  4. btw, do you know Renegade Evolution? seems like there’s a bit of a wavelength happening.

  5. BD-

    You should check out the Beyond Marriage statement– it’s more of a call for us to rethink these efforts, to reframe how we think about marriage and family and how our energies might be better used pushing for universal healthcare and immigration reform (for example). So in short, they do address the transnational couple issue, but not in the way that they offer up a “solution.” I think they see the problem in the way that we are approaching the issue (i.e. more that it’s an outgrowth of the general xenophobia and racism in this country and isn’t a tunnel-vision “gay” issue).

    You might have heard of them – but you should check out Immigration Equality.

    I catch Renegade Evolution sometimes, and I’ve been reading a little bit of this feminist blog drama but honestly I find it all kind of overwhelming and I get the feeling I don’t *really* understand what’s going on. Can you possibly sum up the drama – is it about some specific incident or a general irritation with the waspiness of the feminist blogosphere?

  6. per gay marriage et al: I get it, I just believe I suppose in harm reduction. and: whatever works. sometimes I think, well, maybe the Family Values types are actually right, in a way, it -is- a “slipepry slope” in that next people might actually ask, well, what -about- poly relationships? (for example). And you know what? Fine by me.

    but I mean: i dunno. I’d like to see a more international approach to this, since obviously now there -are- places where same-gender marriage is legal; but then they have a -lot- of other differences from the U.S. as well.

  7. Can you possibly sum up the drama

    ah. ahahaha. um. well.

    “In the beginning, the earth was formed, and it was very hot. Then the dinosaurs came! Then they all died, and…”

    I think basically what’s happening here in the blogosphere is we’ve been sort of replaying the last thirty or forty years’ worth of feminist history in a sort of Reduced Shakespeare way. anyway, much of the drama is a clash between what you’d call second-wave and/or mainstream feminism(s) and…other, I expect.

  8. sometimes I think, well, maybe the Family Values types are actually right

    Totally! I mean, I think they are right in the sense that the ‘Beyond Same-Sex Marriage’ folks’ utopic vision is a world where people, not the government or the religious right, get to decide for themselves what “family” means. In a way, the country is already at a point of being “beyond marriage” (I’m sure you’ve caught all these studies about fewer Americans being married than ever before, etc. etc.) – these folks just want our legislation to match who we already are as complicated people with complicated definitions of family.

    Not to toot my own horn but have you seen this? It’s from last summer, when I hardly had any readers. You might be interested.

    There are definitely places in the world where gay marriage is legal – but that definitely does not solve all of our gay problems (I feel like a lot of mainstream gay organizations are playing like gay marriage is the holy grail of the LGBT liberation movement, which is not only untrue but is a really dangerous position to play).

    Re: second-wavers. Now I see why I didn’t want to get involved. I read one sentence and my eyes start rolling – I get scared they’ll just fall right out of my head so I stop. There was a horribly anti-Semitic and grossly tunnel-visioned post and comments last week on Feministe about Haredi Jews. I hope this new RenEv group blog can rock.

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