Whether it is conscious or subconscious, people often understand the fight for “gender equality” as being a fight for equality between men and women and a fight that must take place within the gender binary.
Feminist discourse tends to centralize the struggle of women and, in turn, the feminist movement has sought to dismantle the barriers for inclusion of women, to elevate and empower women, and to ensure that women have access to the same opportunities that men do. Mainstream feminism is a product of a feminist discourse created in pursuit of achieving binary female-male equality. Consequently, those who question heterosexuality and or exist outside the male-female dichotomy have been routinely excluded from feminist groups. If the goal of feminism is truly about eradicating gender inequalities, feminists must confront their own biases and challenge their acceptance of heteronormativity. When thinking about “feminism” as a movement that fights to end gender inequality, it is important to question the idea of “gender”. When a person is born, they are assigned a “sex” that categorizes them as either male or female. One’s sex is determined by their biological genitals. This initial sex-categorization contributes to cultural assumptions about the relationship between one’s physical body and the ways in which that person is socially perceived. In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, a politically active French feminist and writer, suggested that “one is not born but rather becomes, a woman”.
Beauvoir explains that “gender” refers to the socially constructed norms and expectations that a given culture deems appropriate for men and women. Similarly, Judith Butler (1990) defies traditional ideas of gender and offers a theory of gender performativity which suggests that gender is the repetition of acts that have been influenced by the dominant ideologies of gender. Beauvoir and Butler, along with many other theorists, argue that people are socialized into “performing” gender; gender is something that people “do.” Despite the separation between sex and gender, society has normalized heteronormativity: heterosexual relationships, the male-female gender dichotomy, and male superiority over females. Heteronormativity is a powerful ideology that socializes people on the assumptions of heterosexuality and a devotion to a rigid gender binary where men are superior to women. The socialization of heteronormativity has served as a means of making non-binary identities invisible even though they have always existed. Considering that the mainstream gender categories were determined directly in reference to the binary sex categories, feminism and the fight for gender equality has largely focused on women while excluding non-binary identities. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals face harmful repercussions when feminists normalize heteronormativity.
After the 1969 Stonewall riots, lesbians attempted to get more involved in gay and women’s movements. Isolation from male-dominated gay rights organizations led them to seek a more dynamic role in women’s rights groups. However, the women’s movement thought lesbians posed a threat to their agenda because their sexual identity could challenge the traditional understanding of femininity—with the traditional understanding solely including heterosexual females. Betty Friedan, known for her book The Feminine Mystique and the first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), drew negative attention to lesbian feminists when she coined the phrase “Lavender Menace” during a NOW meeting in 1969. Friedan created this term to support her argument that the inclusion of lesbians would compromise the feminist agenda and the feminist public image. Friedan, along with other women in NOW, believed that lesbian issues did not fit within their feminist fight for economic and social equality. Women who feared the impact of lesbian involvement failed to realize that lesbians can be women who desire social and economic equality and sexual liberation. Since many lesbians experienced subordination as a result of their gender and yet, were excluded as a result of their sexual identity, the decision to exclude lesbians from NOW reinforced heteronormative ideologies. Excluding lesbian identities from the feminist movement has never, and will never, make “gender equality” a reality. As a result of facing discrimination from mainstream Women’s Liberation groups during the second wave, lesbian women borrowed radical feminist ideologies to create a lesbian feminism. Radical feminists believe that women are oppressed by patriarchal structures, or in other words, by the social and sexual control of women by men. In 1970, the Radicalesbians released their manifesto titled “The Woman-Identified Woman” which politicized lesbian identities.
The text begins by explaining that lesbian women feel the anger that all other women feel, clarifying that lesbian oppression and lesbian goals are within the scope of the broader women’s movement. The manifesto goes on to argue that male-dominated societal structures teach women what it means to be a woman and to identify themselves as inferior to men: As the source of self-hate and the lack of real self are rooted in our male-given identity, we must create a new sense of self. As long as we cling to the idea of “being a woman,” we will sense some conflict with that incipient self, that sense of I, that sense of a whole person. It is very difficult to realize and accept that being “feminine” and being a whole person are irreconcilable. Only women can give to each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men.
The Radicalesbians are questioning what it means to be, and live as, a woman within a heteronormative society. Moreover, they are questioning who determines who counts as a woman while also arguing that women need to be liberated from the binary system of gender and sexuality. If gender is something people do, and if feminism is about reimagining the norms and expectations associated with one’s gender, it seems counterintuitive for feminists to discount lesbians on the basis of pre-existing ideas implying that women are “supposed” to be sexually attracted to men. Excluding lesbians from mainstream feminism reinforces binary ways of thinking and the lived realities associated with oppressive relationships. Feminist groups that exclude women on the basis of their sexuality are feminists that inadvertently define womanhood with a set of strict rules; they are feminists that police people on the correct and incorrect ways of being a woman—one of the primary objectives that they claim to be fighting against. Even among lesbians and gays, there is a need to confront heteronormative ways of thinking because the gender binary and the favoring of masculinity are still prevalent. A study centered around sensual and romantic desirability demonstrated that both gay men and lesbian women had a general preference for masculinity.
Similarly, the literature on human development processes explains that boys who deviate from the expected masculine gender performance face greater consequences than girls who stray from their feminine gender roles. Studies show that boys tend to get bullied and be isolated from their peers when they act in feminine ways whereas girls acting in masculine ways do not face the same scrutiny. In fact, masculine gay men are less likely to have anti-gay experiences than feminine gay men. As demonstrated, the current literature on homosexual experiences suggests that masculinity is favored and embodiments of femininity lead to degradation. This “masculine versus feminine” hierarchy stems from the creation of a binary. In “The Woman-Identified Woman,” the Radicalesbians said, “The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy, and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women—or those who play a feminine role—are held”. This statement acknowledges that women have been, and continue to be, subordinated by binary underpinnings. The idea that masculinity has been placed above femininity further suggests that all genders can only be liberated if heteronormativity is tackled. Furthermore, many people in the feminist community are hostile towards the transgender community. These individuals are often referred to as “TERFs,” which means trans-exclusionary radical feminists.
TERFs believe that trans individuals perpetuate the existence of the gender binary. A key shortcoming in the TERF narrative is the failure to understand the diversity of within the transgender community. While some transgender individuals ‘transition’ from a male-to-female or a female-to-male gender, many transgender individuals take sex hormones that do not align with the sex they were assigned at birth and yet they identify their gender as non-binary — existing outside the socially constructed male-female gender dichotomy but within the male-female sex category. In 1973, Sylvia Riveira, a leader of the Stonewall Riot, faced trans hostility when many radical women argued that she be removed from the stage at New York Pride. It is important to recognize that even at an event such as New York Pride, which is all about self-affirmation and liberation, trans individuals can be subjected to discrimination. To this day, trans people, and particularly trans women, are dismissed as being illegitimate and are victims of anti-trans violence. Feminists who attempt to prohibit trans women from the category of women strengthen the harmful idea that there is a correct way of being a female. When feminists only include ciswomen, they fall back on binary categorization and perpetuate the toxic understanding of hierarchal genders. Masculinity is also placed on a pedestal in the transgender community. Research shows that transgender children on the feminine continuum tend to be physically mistreated and experience cissexism earlier and more frequently than transgender children on the masculine spectrum. In addition, the United States Human Rights Campaign documented over 25 transgender or gender non-conforming individuals who were killed in 2018; the majority of these people were black transgender women.
In 2017, there were at least 29 deaths; again, these were predominantly black transgender women. Although each case is different from one another, it is clear that transgender women of color are disproportionately targeted with violence. The reason for each of these killings varies or, for many, the information remains undocumented. That being said, the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality among black transgender women highlights the importance of elevating all marginalized identity categories and dismantling heteronormativity. Feminists, whether they were born as a female or not, need to join forces to break down the hegemonic power structures that threaten the experiences and safety of humans. The social acceptance of the gender binary and the normalization of heterosexuality have fostered a harsh division between men and women, as well as a hierarchy of feminine identities. Although human equality is incredibly important, striving for “gender equality” in a heteronormative society deepens the oppressions faced by many people. While female oppression should be considered in relation to misogyny and sexism, gender equality should move beyond binary categorizations.
The realities of a white ciswoman cannot be equated to the realities of a black lesbian nor can they be equated to a white transgender person. If gender equality is fought for from within a binary system, one can assume that heteronormative masculine dominance will persist and the wide range of feminine identities will remain isolated. As stated in the 1970s in the Radicalesbian’s manifesto, “together we must find, reinforce, and validate our authentic selves”. Moving forward, feminists need challenge themselves to recognize the existence of differing feminist realities and they need to recognize that in order to be a truly inclusive movement, they need to fight for gender liberation rather than equality between women and men.