Queer Liberation in Fourth Wave Feminism
Feminist perspectives part 4
by Bea Keeler
During the transition from second to third wave feminism, women recognized that for feminism to be a progressive movement, it needed to focus on the oppression of all women rather than on just those with a high privilege or class standing. African American feminist bell hooks used her position as an oppressed woman to step back and analyze what was happening in society during that time of transition. Because of her work, women of colour gained more respect and notoriety for their oppression, and although racism is still an issue today, women are much less segregated from each other along racial lines than they once were. The Lesbian Feminist movement was gaining popularity during that time as well; feminism was crucial for many lesbians who sought refuge in a community beginning to welcome women of every minority. However, white gay men are still seen as privileged because of their position in society, regardless of their sexual orientation. On top of that, there is overt tension between lesbians and gay men because of their difference in sexual preference, one gender often finding the other “revolting” or less valuable. The strategies of bell hooks can be used to rework feminist theory into the ideal feminism: a new humanism that disregards gender normativity.
In bell hooks’ opinion, privileged white women were unable to truly understand the oppression that coloured women were experiencing. Because of this misunderstanding, they dismissed coloured women when their own immediate oppression was rectified. If the Gay Movement is a fight similar to that of a feminist’s, why is there such a disconnect between the two? Shouldn’t we be able, as a 21st century society knowledgeable enough to reflect on our past experiences, to resurrect a framework like that presented by bell hooks and mold it to correct some of the issues that plague us today? Is fourth wave feminism possible if we look at the progression we've made for race equality and apply it to sexual equality as well?
Marilyn Frye concluded in her essay Politics of Reality: essays in feminist theory that “if there is hope for a coordination of the efforts and insights of lesbian feminists and gay men, it is here at the edges that we may find it, when we are working from chosen foundations in our different differences.” She used the same tactics while examining the relationship between gay men and lesbian feminism as bell hooks did for women of colour. Frye discovered that with little exception, lesbians, and in particular, feminist lesbians, have not seen gay rights or organizations convincing enough to maintain significant interest, and this could be for the same reason expressed by bell hooks as to why white bourgeois women did not include the oppression of coloured women in their feminist movement; because these women directly benefited from the movement, they no longer felt the need to be actively involved in it. Frye suggests that male homosexuality and straight-male supremacist culture are harmonious, but so many straight men refuse to understand the parallel. In reply, the male gay rights movement tries to educate and encourage straight males to appreciate gay culture, but it does not address the male supremacy it is adhering to. And often, if gay men do gain acceptance from their straight male counterparts, the oppression of lesbians is no longer as relevant to them. Lesbians and feminists in turn do not feel a connection with gay men because in this; they are not fighting for the same cause.
How can gay men feel comfortable and part of a movement that has been solely dedicated to the struggle for women’s rights? As important as it is for feminists to continue to raise awareness about the oppression women face, it is just as important for feminists to acknowledge the oppression of individuals such as gay men who, although differing in circumstance, share the same qualities as many of the women who claim to be feminists. On the other hand, gay men must be just as willing to dismiss the expectations of what it is to be masculine, and at the same time reject the principles of the patriarchal society they are trying to be a part of. But how is this possible?
Lesbians and feminists live their lives by the same rule: "claiming their bodies and desires as their own, taking full advantage of its advantages, creating and choosing environments which encourage chosen changes," to quote Frye. It is clear why these two groups would use their oppression to work together for the betterment of both causes. Do gay men not also have to claim their bodies against social beliefs about masculinity? Lesbians and gay men are both subject to alienation, cruelty and violence, for reasons that exist because of our social and political structure. To not love men is a sin in this male supremacist culture, believes Frye, yet the same does not apply for gay men. This is because society is as homophobic as it is patriarchal. Gay men defy the “norm” of what it means to be a man because, to society, it is equally important for men to make love to women as it is for women to love men. A man who does not or will not fuck women is not holding his share of the weight. Gay men want to remove themselves from the feminine implications that are imposed on them, and like other men who have at any time experienced what it’s like to be a woman in a woman-hating culture, they want to protest, not against the discrimination of anyone being treated so poorly, but against the injustice of their being treated like a woman.
White bourgeois women were said to downplay the oppression of the coloured women, if they recognized it at all, because they didn’t want to jeopardize the fight against their own oppression. This is another reason why, in terms of feminism and queer rights, gay men and feminists have such a strong disconnect; gay men try to reject the femininity projected on them by homophobes and male supremacists, and feminists fight against male supremacy. If gay men join the fight for feminism, they could be seen as submitting to the feminine stereotype of being gay and if feminists support gay men, they risk having their ideals called into question. However, it is as essential for gay men in society today to examine the feminist struggle and acknowledge the position their marginality gives them as bell hooks suggested it was for coloured women, and make use of their perspective to critically analyze the current foundations of feminist theory.
If one considers why homophobia exists, one would discover that it cannot only be about sex, as there are no defining lesbian and gay sex acts. People are discriminated against just for being perceived as gay, regardless of what gender they are having sex with. This applies equally for both gay men and lesbians. Both groups are oppressed in the same manner; gay men who are overly flamboyant and butch lesbians who dress androgynously are both subject to more oppression than gay men or femme lesbians who better disguise their sexuality amongst straight individuals. Is queer inequality caused more by the things we do and less by who we are? Is there a distinction between the two? Gay men’s rejection of their femininity, as stated before, causes feminists and lesbians to refuse support in their cause. Yet, why is it that lesbians who identify more with masculinity than theirare still welcomed into the feminist movement and praised for embracing who they are while gay men are not? If feminists do not accept them, and society does not accept them, where can gay men find a community?
If feminists were to absorb the queer movement, there would be more support against discriminatory attacks on queer individuals, politically and physically. To say that queer politics and liberation will become a more important facet of feminism is not to say that the issues or oppression of women is to go unheeded. When feminism was reworked to include the oppression of coloured women, it was done so not to lessen the feminist struggle but to enhance it. As the cultural intelligence as humanity increases, so too does our ability to examine history and evolve. This is what bell hooks suggested, and this is the structure that played a significant part in successfully progressing feminism from its second to third wave. If oppression is inevitable, as some individuals may always choose to participate in it, the best solution is to create a bond among the oppressed strong enough to withstand them.
bell hooks makes a point about the victimization of women, how “they accept their place in life without question, without communal anger or rage,” and this made me think about gay men and their acceptance of the male supremacist culture. This could be why feminists and gay individuals have not been aligned in the fight for equality. Gay men need not agree with the ideals of society to try and gain the acceptance of the majority, which is telling them they are wrong. This position inadvertently defies what it means to be a feminist, but it doesn’t mean their oppression is not similar, if not equal to that of lesbian feminists. Feminism can’t be successful if it does not acknowledge the oppression of every queer individual. In a movement for equality, everyone must be considered equally. We as a society need to challenge what it means to be masculine and feminine. When women dress in the style of clothing typically seen on men, it’s called “androgyny”, yet when the roles are reversed, men are ridiculed as feminine or gay. If feminism is about equality, shouldn’t labels like this be applicable to both genders? Maybe then queer individuals will no longer feel pressured to reject who they are, and some of the segregation caused by that rejection could be expunged.
Bailey, Alison, and Chris Cuomo. The Feminist Philosophy Reader. McGraw-Hill, 2008. 241-249. Print.
Cudd, Ann E., and Robin O. Andreasen. Feminist Theory. USA, UK, AUSTRALIA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2005. 60-68. Print.
Frye, Marilyn. "Lesbian Feminism & the Gay Rights Movement: Another View of Male Supremacy, Another Separatism ." Feminist Reprise. n.d. n. page. Web. 14 Apr. 2014 <http://www.feminist-reprise.org/docs/fryegayrights.htm>.