The Future’s Not Here Yet: Neither Gay Rights Movement Nor Feminism Has “Succeeded”

If there are two stories that probably feel very familiar to progressives at this point, they’re the “war on women” and the “victory of gay marriage.” Since rights for women and rights for gay people are both things that the same far-right religious conservatives fervently oppose, it makes sense that one might be confused about why gays have allegedly seen “victory” while many women’s issues are still struggling. Especially given the nuanced conversation about the progress experienced by the more privileged subsets of the gay community, one hypothesis might be that the mainstream gay rights movement contains (and is mostly headed by) white gay men. Could their participation in the movement be part of why that movement has experienced more “success?” One person in fact posed this question to (gay cis male) AMERICAblog editor John Aravosis:

Do u think part of the reason gay rights has moved forward while women’s rights backwards is b/c gay rights includes men’s rights?

Aravosis’ simple answer is, essentially, “no.”

First, as for the gender issue, it’s hard to say.  The conventional wisdom in gay politics has always been that lesbians were the kinder and gentler face of the movement.  That straight men aren’t threatened by lesbians (and even, crudely, find lesbians “hot”).  Whereas they hate gay men, are threatened by gay men, etc.  And gay men represent the sexualized component of our movement, in part because gay men got AIDS, whereas lesbians didn’t in as great of numbers, and the religious right and their GOP allies were happy to use AIDS against us.  So it’s not clear that the presence of gay men made the gay movement more sympathetic-seeming to the outside, but still, it’s an interesting argument.

There are a few logical fallacies immediately apparent here. First of all, Aravosis seems to be conflating “perceived as threatening” with “less privileged,” which isn’t quite how privilege works in this context. I don’t mean to erase the tragic history of gay-bashing, hate crimes, police abuse and the way in which AIDS was used to demonize the gay male community, or the hatred and abuse that gay men, especially young gay boys, still experience for failing to conform to traditional heterosexually masculine expectations and behaviors. But even though gay men may be perceived as more “sexually threatening” than lesbians, that doesn’t mean that it erases the fact that men in general are taken more seriously and their ideas and experiences are given more value. It also distracts from those groups for whom being seen as “sexually threatening” is an inherent element of their present oppression — trans* women (and especially trans* women of color) are demonized (and attacked, and murdered) much more than gay men, which has resulted in an aggressive sidelining of issues important to that segment of our community. In that light, it’s not clear what the fact that gay men may be “perceived as a threat” has to do with their level of privilege relative to gay women, and how that may impact the movement. To claim that gay women have been the more respected element of the movement is honestly preposterous.

Maybe the most important practical concern that Aravosis is missing here, however, is money. It’s no secret that political movements that are better funded and have more donors are able to be more successful. Regardless of sexual orientation, men still have access to more income and more wealth (income is what you earn, and wealth is the assets at your disposal overall). In terms of procuring funding and support for a movement, more individual gay men have the kind of money that gets them an audience with legislators, more access to powerful people, and it’s important to remember that men’s needs are seen as more important in this sphere just like anywhere else. Men have always had access to money, visibility, and political capital that women haven’t, and even when those privileges are being used in the service of a progressive agenda, that doesn’t mean they’re not privileges. Ignoring this fact perpetuates the implication that when activism led by women doesn’t progress in the same way that activism led by men does, it’s because women are incompetent activists, which is obviously untrue.

In addition to being more connected and having more access to decisionmakers, rich cis gay men also have a different relationship to the cause they’re trying to promote than women do. The way that Aravosis talks about “gay activism” and “the gay movement” in his piece, it seems like he’s pretty much just talking about gay marriage (“Women’s advocates, in many ways, are fighting a war of nuance.  Where gays want to get married, women don’t want the right to choose…”). Marriage is an issue that, at least in terms of legal access, affects all members of the gay community equally; a white cis gay male lawyer who makes $200,000 a year is just as unable to marry as a lesbian single mother of color who works two jobs. Because rich gay men have a personal investment in marriage, they have an incentive to work to make it equal. Many “women’s issues” – reproductive rights, access to healthcare, employment discrimination, sexual harassment – can become much less of a pressure for women in positions of power and privilege. Which isn’t to say privileged women don’t support those issues, many do, but it’s possible that the disparity in funding could be related to the real-world impact of the legislation under discussion. Again, much of the impact of many movements comes down to power as determined by funding, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about money without also talking about gender.

Another place where Aravosis’s argument seems to be lacking some nuance is when he makes the claim that the progress of the gay rights movement seems more impressive because “gays have the ‘advantage’ of being further behind women, which makes our message clearer.” He’s arguing that because there are concrete rights that gay people lacked that women didn’t, gay progress appears to have made greater leaps. There are a few issues with this. First, it should be noted that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about “gays” and “women” as separate groups – many gays are women and many women are gay, so comparing them is at best difficult and at worst problematic. Perhaps more troublingly, this argument gets dangerously close to referencing a hierarchy of inequality, or an “oppression olympics.” This can be seen even more clearly when Aravosis tries to compare the civil rights movement to the current mainstream gay rights movement:

People see African-American CEOs, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and might think “they’ve won, employment discrimination over,” without understanding that, in some ways, it may never be over, at least not for a very long time. But the devil is in the details much more so than it is with gay rights because we’re still fighting for some of the rights that African-Americans got (at least on paper) fifty years ago.

This is deeply problematic because firstly, as already mentioned, talking about African-American or black people as distinct from the “we” is just objectively wrong. Many black people (and other people of color) are gay; many gay people are black and/or of color. Second, comparing oppression in this way totally ignores the stratification within the mainstream gay rights movement; while it’s true that black people were able to legally marry each other (and interracial marriage was legalized) before gay marriage, when one compares the level of day-to-day privilege that Aravosis likely has as a white cis gay man to the day-t0-day experiences of, say, a poor trans* woman of color, or even to a straight cis black man, that fact is pretty meaningless. This argument relies on an oversimplification so extreme that it doesn’t make sense to draw any real conclusions from it. It doesn’t work when Aravosis makes a comparison between gay rights and women’s rights, either:

As a man, it’s not as easy to see where women are still lacking in rights (that doesn’t mean they aren’t, I’m saying that clarity of the harm isn’t as stark as perhaps it once was).  On gay rights, there are hate crimes that shock the sensibilities.

Especially in the wake of Steubenville and the combination of horror and total apathy in response to it, it’s ludicrous to make the claim that gays suffer crimes motivated by hate and women don’t. If the openly broadcast gang rape of an unconscious girl and a subsequent public shaming of the victim doesn’t constitute a violent, hateful crime that shocks the sensibilities, it’s hard to imagine what would — and sexual assault, as a gender-based hate crime, happens every two minutes. There are about 207,754 victims of sexual assault per year. According to the FBI, there were 6,216 single-bias hate crimes reported in 2011; 20.8% of them were reported to be based on sexual orientation, which makes ~1293 anti-gay hate crimes in one year. Granted, much anti-gay violence goes unreported or are not categorized as hate crimes, but then again, 54% of sexual assaults aren’t reported either. If violence is going to be the premise upon which you base the idea that gays are “worse off” than women, the only way that argument can make sense is if the person making it is totally unaware of the degree to which the threat of violence defines women’s lives, including queer and especially trans* women. You want hate crimes that shock the sensibilities?  Here.

But if these arguments don’t necessarily hold together, then why is the gay rights movement more successful than the “women’s rights” movement? Part of the reason that these arguments fall apart is because that’s not actually true. Two large and visible issues — marriage equality and the repeal of DADT — have made major strides this year. But that’s not the same thing as being successful. Many of the more marginalized groups within the mainstream gay movement are just as disadvantaged, if not more so, than a year ago. And the way that the women’s movement has been struggling isn’t actually very different from the  way those groups are struggling. For instance, take the saga over VAWA’s renewal this year: the crucial bill that provides funding for support of survivors of intimate partner violence was suspended for months because of new updates to the bill that would explicitly provide support for queer, Native, and immigrant women. It’s clear that women’s safety and security isn’t a priority to a legislature that would refuse to renew a bill that is so obviously necessary, but it’s also clear that the rights of gay people can’t be much of a priority if their safety and security is so distasteful to the legislature that they’re willing to scuttle an effective and necessary bill just to deny them support. Anti-LGBTQH murders have actually risen in recent years, not dropped, and reached a new all-time peak in 2011.  Still, 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, an obviously disproportionate number. When you look at issues outside of marriage equality and DADT, gay rights haven’t actually moved forward in the spectacular way that Aravosis describes, and since the causes that are still struggling for recognition tend to be those that relate to the experiences of the most vulnerable in our community, it seems like it’s only reasonable to talk about how those discrete successes probably are due to the most privileged members of the gay community: cis white men. John Aravosis is only one writer, but the arguments he’s putting forward aren’t unique to him, and it’s important to talk about why they’re flawed so that we can move on to authentic success. The sooner everyone, including cis white men, acknowledge that, the sooner we can see movements working in coalition with one another that are successful for the whole community, not just those who are already the most powerful.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 771 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. Thumb up 2

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    Hey check out “Advice on love and life: Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed. It might answer some of your convoluted,Gordian Knotted approaches to life. I live in South Africa, a country with the so- called most liberal constitution in the world and lesbians get killed in the townships by black male lunatics subscribing to Zulu/Xhosa culture frequently. The madness of belief and perception reigns supreme in the Townships here. Where there is fear there is madness and scarcity thinking.

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      This is derailing but I can not. I’m South African too and I genuinely don’t get what you’re trying to say here??? Rachel’s wonderfully lucid argument holds true to a great extent here, just way more amplified in many ways, plus given our painful recent history, we have some other rather large issues to grapple with too. OBVIOUSLY. Ours is a hugely divided and unequal society, despite the great ambitious beauty of the constitution. To want to imply that the worse than war-like gender based violence we are dealing with is a township/xhosa/zulu/black? issue is to not take notice of what’s happening around you in a major way. Sadly this is the one thing that totally transcends “race” and class. Reeva Steenkamp’s murder? Not an isolated incident at all. Pumla Dineo Gqola’s “How the ‘cult of femininity’ and violent masculinities support endemic gender based violence in contemporary South Africa” is a good place to start reading.

  2. Thumb up 9

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    Rachel, you have a wonderful way of talking about the angry thoughts that swirl in my head as a cohesive, convincing and easy to read argument.
    It can be really hard to tell others why the Big Fight For Marriage Equality can make me uncomfortable sometimes. Especially straight n cis people (or those LGBTQ folk who aren’t aware of there privlege- the statistics about homeless LGBTQ youth would be an eyeopener to some i’m sure).
    These people are so often happy, jubilant for gay people that we’re now ‘getting our rights’. Well, no. Marriage isn’t our only right, guys. We should have the right to live without fear and children and yp should have the right to be who they are in their own homes.
    It can be hard to express this though, when I fear coming off ‘ungrateful’.

    Thanks for this article <3

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    This article is amazing and that Aravosis guy is a douche.

    Also on the topic of “sexually threatening” minorities, I’d argue that lesbians are perceived as just as much if not more threatening than gay men by the average cis dudebro, so that’s another point that isn’t just misdirective but plain false.
    They’re told all their lives that their dick is the embodiment of their manhood and God’s gift to them and womankind, so you can bet that they feel threatened and personally offended by the idea that some women don’t want anything to do with it. That’s why they’re so obssessed with the myth of lesbians who secretly crave men/just haven’t met the right one yet/can be “turned” (see : millions of porn videos and articles in men’s press), and that’s why you’ve got phenomenons ranging from lesbians being harrassed in the street to corrective rape.

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      Plus the whole “gay dudes are gross, lesbians are hot” really only applies to lesbians who are conventionally attractive, heteronormative in appearance and willing to “perform” in front of straight men.

      Straight men don’t like lesbians, they like straight girls willing to Katy Perry out for their amusement.

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      I have to add to this, because (as a femme) when I go on a date with a dom sweetie, the anger in some men’s eyes is so prevalent. They are fine with lesbians as long as they are both femme and willing to have a threesome. But when they see that you are in a real relationship with a dom and you really like her and you are serious, they actually get very upset, even derisive.

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    the more i think about it, the more accurate this parallel is — the dismantling of the idea that women should be housewives and men should be breadwinners, one of the feminist movement’s earliest causes, has been achieved. and that’s an issue that affected women with certain privileges, and didn’t affect or completely disregarded the needs of many other women, especially poor women and women of color. Lesbians weren’t welcome in the women’s movement for a long time, they were ostracized. the women’s movement, like the LGBT rights movement, also hasn’t progressed much in the area of trans* women’s rights either. anyhow, it seems like the same patterns rise again and again whenever straight white cis people occupy the positions of power in society and in their civil rights movements, respectively.

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      “the dismantling of the idea that women should be housewives and men should be breadwinners, one of the feminist movement’s earliest causes, has been achieved.”

      Has it though? The idea has been broken down to some extent, but I would venture that that structure is still the default for the vast majority of childbearing couples with that option. Or it is common for both partners to work, but the woman is still assumed to pick up most of the cleaning and child-minding duties. The idea is definitely alive and well in my brother’s head, anyway.

      But I totally agree about these movements prioritising issues affecting the most privileged

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        “it is common for both partners to work, but the woman is still assumed to pick up most of the cleaning and child-minding duties.”

        yes, absolutely! i do think it hasn’t wholly changed things — but it’s a HUGE difference from how it was. i think it’s easy to forget how recently things were vastly different. sure it’s still the expectation for many families. yes, women still do the bulk of childcare and housework — that hasn’t changed. but for a certain race/class of woman that was represented in second-wave feminism, things have changed dramatically in that it’s no longer totally unheard of or frowned upon for middle-to-upper-middle-class white women to work outside the home.

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        I don’t think it’s been completely dismantled for everyone, but it definitely actually a VIABLE option. The way the old people talk about it, you would be embarrassed and ashamed to be a man who “lets” his wife work outside of the home, or be a man who takes part in the household chores, etc. It’s not really like that now, though it is still looked down upon by many.

        I myself (a man, yes) don’t mind doing housework, even if I’m working outside of the home as well. If my wife wanted to go work, that would be fine, and she doesn’t need my permission to do so. I believe marriage is a partnership, not a dictatorship. The only thing we’d have to worry about is how to juggle work and the kids :)

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    Good article, and thanks for not forgetting trans* people, but I have to correct one thing: You say “40% of homeless youth are gay”, but the article you link to says 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, which is not the same thing.

    When I was homeless in New York, most of the people I knew were bi and/or trans*.

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    Back in the day when I was a dumb (dumb dumb dumb) young thing who “believed in equality for men but didn’t call myself a feminist”, I used to think that feminism had already won. I saw the paper victories — the right to vote, women who had jobs — and figured that was it. I was really stuck in my own privileged experiences as white, cis, more or less middle-class, growing up in a bit of a bubble, and in such a weird place with my queer identity where I wasn’t (quite) in denial, but I wasn’t engaging with it either, so it became a temporary non-issue with how I experienced the world).
    So I guess I can see why this guy might feel like the gay movement has the “advantage” of starting further back than feminism. I certainly used to think that way. But this argument, that the “ease” of some fights over others has a lot to do with the interaction of certain privileges within the movement (whiteness, maleness, cis-ness, economic privilege, etc.,) is a much better way to look at things. It complicates the matter in a way that needs to be complicated, avoids the oh-so dangerous temptation to delve into Oppression Olympics, and actually analysis what might be at the core of the thing instead of just looking vaguely at the results.
    tl;dr, thanks for this article, Rachel. I always love when some stupid assumption I’ve been deluded by gets challenged by someone much smarter and more observant than me!

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    I think Biddy Martin was the one who said that while we should be sympathetic to the plight of men who transgress the norms of (traditional) heterosexual masculinity and help them in their fight against oppression, we should also remember that (traditional) heterosexual masculinity often bases itself on women’s oppression and as such it oppresses all women (to varying degrees and in different forms, of course), whether they transgress heterosexual gender expectations or not – so our ultimate purpose should be to try to dismantle (traditional) heterosexual masculinity, not merely to try to earn men back the privileges they lose when they transgress its norms.

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    I found some parts of Aravosis’ article frustrating/confusing, like this:
    “The conventional wisdom in gay politics has always been that lesbians were the kinder and gentler face of the movement.”

    and I genuinely would like to hear more about how gay men think lesbians are perceived by straight people. because it has always been my understanding that lesbians are not perceived as kinder or gentler than anybody.

    but anyways what I really wanted to say that what I think one of his main points was, which I agree with, is that the gay rights movement SEEMS to be moving forward by leaps and bounds because at this point in time there are very concrete examples of civil rights being denied to gay people, and therefore very concrete instances of victory when laws change.
    when everything looks equal on paper, when laws aren’t explicitly discriminatory, then the lgbt movement will be more in the same place where feminism and racial equality are now. when people think the battle is over, it will be harder to engage people in discussions and move forward.

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      This, I think, is where Aravosis and the author of this article are thinking at cross purposes. Rachel, you’re telling us how things *are*, and all of your descriptions are correct. But Aravosis is talking not about how things *are* (or at least, he shouldn’t be, and in places where that isn’t clear, he undermines his argument), but about how things *seem*- as Mary mentioned, how they look “on paper”. That’s why he uses phrases like “easy to see” and “at least on paper.” It’s entirely a matter of public perception, according to him, because it’s easier for the general public to comprehend something like “not being able to marry” or “getting fired from your job for being gay” rather than “not technically being fired from your job for being pregnant but being slowly and inexorably forced out due to deliberately-constructed barriers and hardships.” And unfortunately, the way this country is constructed, public opinion is a pretty crucial factor.

      And in that context, it does make sense to talk about “gays” and “women” even though they’re overlapping sets. Because since the relevant factor is public perception, not reality, “gays” and “women” become these Platonic categories in people’s heads rather than being groups of actual people.

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    Yes! “Gay rights” has been hijacked by the marriage equality movement to the detriment of the overall human rights aspect. There, I said it.

    While the country is falling all over itself to support marriage equality, it still treats feminism like a four-letter word. From Reddit to Youtube, you’ll find misinformed/borderline violent comments about how feminists are “man-haters” or “Nazis”.

    Yeah, okay. Calling a feminist a man-hater is like calling a Black Panther from the 1960’s a racist. Feminism is a reaction to oppressive social conditions that stretch across time and space…and we Americans have it good. In many underdeveloped nations, child brides and female genital mutilation are the norm.

    To quote John Lennon, “Woman is the n!gger of the world.”

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    I think this is the best article I’ve seen on this website. Thank you so much for examining so much of the grey area that exists in social justice issues. WHY CAN’T ARTICLES LKKE THIS BE IN THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA???

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    This is such an important article with such important points to make.

    I agree with Mary, where they stated that “the gay rights movement SEEMS to be moving forward by leaps and bounds because at this point in time there are very concrete examples of civil rights being denied to gay people, and therefore very concrete instances of victory when laws change.” and I think it’s really important to look at where Aravosis is coming from.

    As a (presumably) cis, gay male, he specialises in fighting the oppression and discrimination that affects him* and not that experienced by women. He seems to see that the struggle of women is more ‘over’ than that of LGBTQ people (though he seems to think of them as ‘gays’ primarily and any other sexual/gender orientation secondly). He is only experiencing that one form of (institutionalised) discrimination, he doesn’t know about the struggles of women.

    *I think that’s one problem that can exist in the cis white male area of the LGBTQ movement – as white men, they are often unaware of the discrimination faced by people of colour, women, trans or non-gender binary people, and just generally people with other sexual or gender orientations. They see the struggles present with their fight, they see only their own problems. People of other minorities, or minorities within a minority group, seem to be more focused on justice for all, as a generalisation.

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