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Halfway to victory: The diminishing returns of activism

by Heather

The other day as she was reading something online, Zinnia asked me my opinion on the question of why people seem to be more supportive of LGBT activism than feminism. At first I gave the simplest answer I could think of: A cis, straight person can support the rights of LGBT people and then never, or very rarely, be personally affected by that support. They may never knowingly encounter a trans person or be invited to a same-sex wedding ceremony. If they work for a smaller company, they may never encounter an LGBT person at work. They may have none in their family.

It’s not so simple to avoid women. To support equal treatment of women is to admit that you’re a part of a system that disadvantages your mothers, sisters, daughters, and possibly significant others. If you’re a woman, it’s to admit that your fathers, brothers, sons, and possibly significant others are benefiting from a system that gives to them at your expense, and that most of them are either willfully ignoring this fact or actively maintaining the status quo. Feminism means acknowledging harsh realities about people you love. LGBT activism may or may not do the same.

Naturally, Zinnia thought this would be an excellent topic for me to discuss on my monthly contribution to her channel as her videos about LGBT activism, however abrasive, are significantly more liked than anything either she or I can say about feminism, so I spent a lot more time thinking about it. I realized my original thoughts were correct, but incomplete. While the current incarnations of feminism are regarded as either angry fringe movements, or overplayed songs of the past, it certainly had its day in the sun.

The Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1919 guaranteeing women the right to vote, was the beginning of a century of notable advancement for women. In 1969, president Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 banning discrimination based on sex in federal workforce hiring decisions. 1972 brought us Title IX which entitled women to equal educational opportunities and finally ended the tyranny of enforced sex discrimination in education, and 1973 brought us the infamous Roe v. Wade, which entitled women to medical and reproductive privacy. These things did not happen with the support of only a few. These things happened with the support of a majority. Yes, at one point, the majority of the United States was identifying and voting feminist.

Currently, LGBT activism is in its heyday. Friends, we just eliminated Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Countries all over the world are legalizing gay marriage. States all over the union are… they’re… trying. President Obama is the first president of the United States to endorse gay marriage. For the first time in history, polls are showing overwhelming support for LGBT rights. The standard of care for trans people is improving with many countries in the world providing full and free access to medical transition, and even in the United States it is getting easier. Progress is being made, but we’re nowhere near done.

Employment nondiscrimination for all gender and sexual minorities needs to be enforced on the federal level. DOMA – the Defense of Marriage Act which makes it so that same-sex marriages, even in states where they are legal, are considered invalid outside of the state and are ineligible for federal benefits – is probably next on the chopping block, but it’s still there. Access to medical transition needs to be as guaranteed as access to any other valid and necessary treatment guaranteed by American health insurance companies. Laws governing the ability to change one’s legal gender status are being liberalized in many states but have fallen backwards in others. Our battle for legal equality is in full force and we’re on the winning team. Of course it’s easy to support it.

Since the civil rights movements in the 1960s, it would seem that, at least for the United States, legal equality is nearly a solved problem. Precedence has been set in the Supreme Court time and again. All we need are the right lawyers, and time. For Americans, this is a point of pride, and the majority, however slim, is happy to join us.

But what happens to equal rights movements when their battles are won? When the privileged majority declares the problem sorted and moves on to another cause du jour? When, instead of cookies and claps on the back, cis straight white men still have to hear about how people of color are overwhelmingly impoverished and imprisoned, women still can’t make a buck in spite of eager and overwhelming academic achievement, are getting raped left and right, and are slowly losing their reproductive rights, or that gender and sexual minorities are still forced into conversion therapy or homelessness?

It’s an inevitable aspect of the human condition that we cheer for the winning teams, donate to the popular charities, save the cuter animals. Legal equality is a popular fight and a solved problem, but social equality is what Americans do worst. In time, like feminism, black power, and any number of fights for real equality, LGBT activism will peter out. The work will be left to those of us affected the most, and ignored by those affected the least. We’ll scowl over statistics that show our disadvantages while the majority ignores us and wonder when it ever got to be so uncool to be LGBT.

Comments

  1. Natasha says

    To be completely honest, whenever I’ve asked men why they don’t support feminism, the response has been almost entirely due to misunderstandings based on etymology. They think of ‘feminism’ as the female equivalent of Men’s Rights Activists, rather than a broad movement seeking to bring about societal change through equality.

    Before I got into feminism, I thought this too, which really put me off learning more (not to mention the anti-choice position of some second-wave radfems regarding make up, shaving, clothes etc. and the transphobia of some third-wave radfems).

    • (e)m says

      They think of ‘feminism’ as the female equivalent of Men’s Rights Activists, rather than a broad movement seeking to bring about societal change through equality.

      I used to think this as well. It is a common, but very incorrect, veiw of femminism. I always supported social as well as legal equality but I thought that that was just what normal people did. Feminists were Female supremecists, and people against equallity were just bigoted assholes. I know better now.

      • Beany says

        Maybe the movement is in need of relabeling for re-marketability. What’s in a name? Well, an awful lot really. Perhaps the name change to humanism should be more welcomed.

  2. Chrissetti says

    I think it depends on what the most obvious injustice is. At the moments we still see waves of anti-LGBQT hate in the media and from our peers, we still see the obvious legal disparity and we still see the Pride movements bringing these issues front and centre.

    If you’re a male, it’s harder to immediately see the problems that women face in the West. (In countries where women don’t have an education, can’t drive, can’t vote etc we still see massive public outcry against it (Or as far as you get public outcry for anything outside their back garden))

    The only positive side about the recent increase in the anti-abortion movement might be to galvanise people back to feminist issues again. Hopefully.

  3. says

    I find this depressing, but it strikes me as accurate. In a few generations, people will look at today’s legal discrimination with regret, but then they’ll turn around and deny the existence of any remaining problems. It will be common for people to insist that they don’t “see” sexual orientation, and therefore we should stop talking about it. That’s my prediction, anyways.

  4. baal says

    Thanks for posting Heather, It was interesting to hear how you and Zinnia sound alike. Sadly, I think you’re spot on for the future.

    (not speaking on behalf of but as relevant disclosure, I’m generally well privileged)

    I find myself very willing to say I support GLBT folks and do what I can along the way in terms of tangible support. In college, I switched room assignments to room with a gay guy. This got him away from a mostly ok but anti-gay jerk.

    I find myself not willing to go to the same degree or willingness of support for feminists and am reluctant to call myself one. Here are a few comparisons(of a potentially long list; feel free to fisk it but that would be beside the point) for my experience with feminism vs GLBT. At work, I’ve added visibility to the team contributions of women only to find that they used those opportunities to stab me in the back. I’m 35+ and have yet to see a guy do the same. When I read feminist blogs, I see too many posts about “the penis this and the penis that”. It’s not all about the penis. I take it that “penis” is being used as a technical term for some men or as mirroring for anti-women gendered language. It’s still overdone and seems like the target is all men everywhere for all things. I don’t see (feel?) nearly as many het this, straight that from the GLBT community. I’m not even entirely sure what is used as a short hand for straight-folk who are also oppressive. My favorite aunt is a married lesbian in Missouri so not legally binding) and have hung out with gay couples – mostly their kid and mine at the same event or semi-generic parties for Halloween and such. I didn’t feel intrinsic hostility. That was not the case when I had a women’s studies major roommie or spent time with individual feminists like my mother-in-law or a social swimming group I was in. My point is that the face presented from feminism, as I see it in my privileged circumstances, is a guaranteed hostility and suspicion regardless of my course of action. That hostility is something I just don’t get from GLBT folks.

  5. says

    I think this is coming sooner than we might hope. I’ve long been of this opinion too. I used to hang out in a lot of conservative political circles and have always been struck by how narrow the support for gay marriage is; those who expressed favourable sentiments towards legal equality were almost always also expressing sentiments that they think the whole gay thing is a bit overblown, gay people demand too much attention and complain too much, but that they do have a point with the legal discrimination. Given how many people seem to think gay marriage is the only LGBT issue there is, I wonder whether federal recognition of Gay marriage may well be the beginning of the decline.

    Maybe that’s paranoid, but so often when I bring up LGBT issues I get push-back from people who are tired of the issue, and if feels like a lot of people are really looking for an excuse to stop paying attention and shut us up.

  6. says

    One third of this area is covered with forest.Let bygones be bygones.I’ll have to try that.Your answer is satisfying.It’s her field.I’m thinking of hanging the lamp from the ceiling.I’m thinking of hanging the lamp from the ceiling.Winter is a cold season.It is Just what I need.Whichever you choose, you won’t be satisfied.

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