Written by E. Hungerford and Cathy Brennan
Something has gotten lost on the way to liberation for the GLBT community – females. Females have been the backbone of the movement, with lesbians playing key roles in the 1980s fighting the “Gay Plague” of their gay male brothers, working to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and fighting for anti-discrimination protections at the state and national level. Lesbians deserve a pat on the back for their contributions, and the gratitude of their GBT brethren.
Lesbians also deserve recognition with regard to state legislation that has been advanced in the last 15 years by GLBT civil rights organizations, most notably the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, to ban discrimination based on “gender identity.” “Gender identity” sounds like a great concept; and one that – you would think – lesbians should embrace, as lesbians know full well the harm caused by sex stereotyping. But the gender identity legislation presents two fundamental problems for all females, and for lesbians in particular.
First, we are female. As females – like all females – we are vulnerable to harm based on our biology. Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Females and males are reproductively different. Yes, there are Intersex folks, and we do not deny their existence, but it is not a female’s “brain sex” that puts her at risk of sex-based male violence. It is her reproductive capacity. When females are raped by males, we suffer all the physical and emotional traumas associated with rape, in addition to the potential for impregnation.
This is a massive problem for females, who represent approximately half of the world population. We live in a rape culture. Females are assumed de facto available to males. Indeed, even Bristol Palin writes in her new autobiography about her “magical” first sexual experience – and it turns out she was drunk and not conscious. Some of us call that, well, rape. But no matter what you call it, female sexual assault is alarmingly common. So common, in fact, that Bristol Palin’s story is barely scandalous. It is a testament to why we, as a GLBT movement, should care about female reproductive vulnerability and support legal protections that recognize female harm and harm potential.
Second, as females, lesbians have been subjected to all measure of sex stereotyping as a means to keep us excluded from full participation in society. False assumptions about our biological sex’s capacity to perform specific jobs, for example, have been used to justify sexist stereotypes and marginalize women since the founding of this country. Lesbians know this all too well. Many of us transgress “norms” of so-called appropriate female behavior and appearance. For decades, members of the lesbian community faced social censure, alienation, job loss, and sexual assault for refusing to wear “women’s” clothing in public. For these women, defying gendered norms of feminine appearance is not cross-dressing; it’s just dressing. Similarly, lesbian attraction to other women in defiance of compulsory heterosexuality – a term coined by Adrienne Rich, a lesbian and Baltimore native – is not reflective of lesbian desire to be male. Rather, it is an authentic expression of desire unbridled by social duress.
Gender identity, rather than rejecting the notion that there are traits associated with genital sex, instead elevates this notion to fact – that there ARE “gender identities” that go along with your biological sex. Rather than acknowledge that there is no “way of being” that goes along with your anatomy, gender identity allows anyone to “claim” a gender based solely on a willingness to adopt stereotypical mannerisms, appearance or “behavior” of the opposite sex.
As lesbians, we accept “gender identity” as a means to provide protections to the T under our umbrella. We also abhor irrational discrimination, knowing all too well the detriment it causes both to the individual and to a society deprived of the full participation of all its members. But we need to draw a line, because lesbians endure – like all females – the specific harm that results when males run roughshod over sex-based protections. Women require distinctive legal protections that acknowledge both our biological vulnerability and the socio-historic context in which gender norms operate.
Laws that offer sex-based protections do so for a rational basis – the harm that females can and do suffer at the hands of males. If gender identity replaces sex, and “gender identity” allows every Tom, Dick, and Harry to decide “I feel female today,” females will have essentially no protection under the law. We oppose irrational discrimination against transwomen – but in their desire to use the ladies’ room, we kindly ask that they shut the door quickly behind them. A narrow definition of gender identity accomplishes this. Limiting the protections of “gender identity” to people committed to transitioning with a medical need to do so properly weighs the interests of all community members under our colorful umbrella.
Originally appeared in Baltimore OUTloud, Friday, 01 July 2011