LGBT people and feminists have the same dream
July 18, 2012 | 12:00 am
(Updated: February 26, 2013 | 5:22 pm)
In early 2008, the nation was embroiled in an epic political battle. It wasn’t between Democrats and Republicans, nor between the White House and Congress – though four years later it’s hard to imagine the country divided along any other lines. During the 2008 presidential primary season, Democrats had already caught the whiff of victory, confident it was their race to lose after eight years of President Bush. The real contest was between Democrats over what kind of history would be made that year: Whether the party’s nominee would be Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.
Senator Clinton and Senator Obama campaigned on strikingly similar policies – at least compared to how much those policies change and compromise after a candidate gets elected. On LGBT rights, the platforms were almost identical. For the average voter, there was little beyond speculation as to how a President Hillary Clinton or President Obama would govern differently. Yet supporters of each candidate were passionate, as if the whole world was at stake.
What was at stake were competing descriptions of America. One candidate touted her credentials and ready-for-battle experience, campaigned that she had rightfully earned the chance to “shatter the glass ceiling” – to be the first woman president and turn a man’s country into a country of equal opportunity. The other candidate touted transcendent change, his speeches seeming to re-write the American narrative altogether: Not a white man’s nation that had gradually accommodated women, immigrants, people of color and LGBT people, as we often perceive our history – but a nation that has always been women, immigrants, people of color and LGBT people, fighting for America’s promised recognition, equality and opportunity.
Most of the young people I knew were Obama supporters, but a majority of the gay people I knew – young and old alike – were passionately behind Clinton. Without context that would be strange; Obama’s language of transformation spoke straight to the heart of being in a marginalized group. Both candidates, one black, the other female, struck a blow to the status-quo. But there’s a simpler reason the idea of a Clinton presidency was exciting so many LGBT people: When we were threatened or bullied growing up, most of the time the person who got our backs was a woman.
Women have been our defenders and allies, our best friends, our most pro-gay politicians and our celebrity icons who embraced and played up their gay fans when male celebrities wouldn’t. In some ways the broader culture set that up to happen; women are taught to be conciliatory and accommodating, men are taught to draw the line. (How many of us grew up with a mother who’d scold: “Just wait till your father comes home!”) To a woman with gay friends, people would say, “well of course.” To a man with gay friends, they’d think it’s odd and speculate he must be gay himself.
Women in power have historically been a good sign for LGBT rights. A 2011 analysis by the Midwest Political Science Association found that an above-average percentage of women in a state’s legislature gives a stronger boost to bills for same-sex relationship recognition than does a Democratic majority alone. Even among legislatures that were already less unequal, the higher the share of women’s representation, the better for LGBT rights. Vermont, which has been a leader in women’s representation, was the first state to pass marriage equality on the legislature’s own initiative.
Currently it’s Colorado’s legislature, with 40 percent women, that ranks the highest in the nation for women’s representation, and on first glance seems an anomaly since Colorado’s civil unions bill failed in 2012. But we can probably all agree, no mater our politics, that it failed in a rather unusual way – and GOP legislators who crossed party lines to support it were disproportionately women.
In a world where women have been the LGBT movement’s most crucial allies, it’s ironic that so much of the LGBT movement, media and culture have been populated by men’s issues and male faces and leaders. It’s not clear that it’s changing; we do our best in Out Front to represent everyone, but across the nation and in gay bars and events here in Denver, men still seem to have more prominence, and certainly more venues. The older I get, the more I seem to encounter segregated spaces of primarily gay men. The feminist movement, on the other hand, has moved towards including LGBT issues in its coalition, or even its core agenda – this issue’s cover story is all about that. If so many feminists work for pro-gay causes, why aren’t more gay people feminists?
When we’re young, many of us intuitively understand that women are our allies, and the stereotypical impression is frequently true that gay boys have more female friends. When we get older and become part of gay culture, it often seems to flip – gays and lesbians drift into separate worlds and sometimes treat the other as an annoyance.
Yet anti-gay prejudice and sexism come from the same root cause: The idea that a person’s gender determines her or his roles. In the same way that sexism has told women to “act like women” – which has meant having a husband, socializing only with other women, worrying about their bodies, earning less, working more and only in certain careers – it has told gay men to “act like men,” to find a masculine job, hang out with men and find a wife, and that if they are effeminate then they are annoying, at the very least unattractive, to someone else interested in men. It has told trans people to act like the gender they were assigned at birth rather than the way they understand themselves to be. It has told us that “children need both a mother and a father,” as if a woman wouldn’t be able to fix her daughter’s bicycle or a man wouldn’t be able to show his son how to love.
Some people think homophobia is rooted in a straight person’s “ick factor” imagining two men or two women having sex. That may be partly true, but why, then, are women ahead of the curve, and why are anti-gay and anti-feminist groups so often the same people? Whatever the root of prejudice is, the same truth is there: A straight woman’s interests, along with those of trans people, bisexuals, lesbians and gays, are all aligned. All of us share a vision – a world where our lives are not scripted by the body we were born with. A world where we are unjudged and unvictimized for defying arbitrary expectations – so that we can be free to love who we love, live what we choose, and be who we are.