Explaining Horizontal and Intra-Community Hostility: Aoife Helps Out

Aoife O’Riordan who writes (or wrote, last post was in 2017) the blog formerly hosted here on FtB Consider the Tea Cozy once wrote a bit about anti-bi-woman sentiment in lesbian communities. She doesn’t gives us much about causes, but she does identify a problem similar to that experienced by trans* women in queer women’s communities (especially but not only those that label themselves lesbian communities). This should be no surprise, since she’s actually attempting to use the experience of cis bi-women to educate other cis people about the experiences of trans* people who share their communities.

There’s lots of lesbians, you see, who won’t date or sleep with bi women. Even if there’s mutual attraction, they don’t want to go there, simply ’cause we fancy men as well. Girl meets girl, girl fancies girl, girl finds out girl also fancies guys, girl backs away in disgust. While it’s absolutely their right to reject whoever they like for any reason the like (of course!), it still sucks to hear. And the fact that it’s a pattern familiar to almost every bi woman I’ve talked about is, y’know, a problem. This doesn’t mean that every lesbian in the world has to date the first bi woman who fancies her, regardless of whether the attraction’s mutual! It just means that a lot of bi women (and hopefully loads of lesbians too) would like it if the lesbians who do feel that way took some time to think about whether their feelings might be based on prejudices and stereotypes. That’s all.

But this anti-bi-woman prejudice, where it exists, isn’t explainable as a reaction to some genital configuration because it is just as prevalent when lesbians interact with cis bi-women as it might be when lesbians interact with trans* bi-women (though in practice it appears to be dramatically more prevalent, because sexual orientation tends to take a back seat to biological sex – past or present – in discussions of cis* lesbians interacting with trans* folk).

We have to draw on other knowledge to help us explain this intra-community split. Fortunately, I’ve written about this before on a Pharyngula thread:

[After WW2 and the Holocaust,] people wanted an ethical system that said, “Never again” and meant it. Clearly the deontology of divine command didn’t do it. You couldn’t count on contractarianism to make a government respect its citizens. So, what then?

The infinite, the universal, the transcendent is what. If we can’t give human beings an infinite, transcendent value, then there will always be the possibility that some community or nation will believe that mass killings are desirable based on comparing the value of those human beings (to the nation considering the killing, not to those people themselves) to the value the society places on its own goals.

Infinite worth was the way out of the despair of WW2. Existentialism spread like wildfire. Good stuff, in its way. It gave us terms & concepts like “devalue”.

If you see yourself as horribly devalued, however, and you latch onto infinite value ethics as your level to try and achieve your safety, a couple things [might] happen. First, you try to universalize: you want to get every woman on your side, the struggle is that important. Thus, “we’re all in it together”, thus “we’re all exactly the same in the way that matters most”, thus, “those sufficiently different from me that I truly can’t imagine myself ‘the same as’ cannot be in my category”, thus “those falsely claiming to be in my category are jeopardizing my movement and thus my safety,” thus “it is appropriate to label their destabilization of this category upon which I rely for my ultimate safety ‘an attack’ ”.

[This particular chain of ethical reasoning] also shows how the same women can claim to be anti-racist (“we’re all in this together, of course I care about women of color”) but end up pursuing an agenda that has nothing to do with ending racism (“The real oppression is sexism, it’s universal to every society.  So when we get rid of the real oppression, *THEY* won’t need racism to divide us and racism along with all those other subsidiary oppressions will pass away” – AKA “there will be no racism after the revolution, so don’t worry your nappy little head about white supremacy”). [original comment lightly edited for our purposes – cd]

Keep in mind that these aren’t thoughts that necessarily flow from existentialist ethics. Indeed de Beauvoir’s graph on ethics and morality was called, “Pour une morale de l’ambiguïté” (in english traditionally rendered: “The Ethics of Ambiguity”), and the intolerance of destabilized categories of essence is directly contrary to de Beauvoir’s concept of self-directed, self-determined essences. Nonetheless, these ethical statements about the negative value of subdividing the category of woman are descended directly from de Beauvoir’s leading-edge, second-wave existentialist feminism. This is, in fact, one of the reasons why I find exclusionary feminisms so incomprehensible at times. They clearly attempt to preserve quite a lot of de Beauvoir and other early second-wave feminisms, and yet they fully reject aspects of those feminisms that were fundamental to their cohesion and their ethics. In the language of de Beauvoir, they have embraced facticity and rejected transcendence.

Nevertheless, while hollow-boned, feather-winged flyers were not inevitable once early archosaurs evolved, and while hollow bones and other aspects of modern birds would be in conflict with the mode of existence that made early archosaurs what they were, looking backward we can say that birds’ descent from those early archosaurs is a historical fact. Likewise, it is a historical fact that these ambiguity-rejecting, fear-based feminisms descended from de Beauvoir’s feminism (albeit with admixtures from independent sources).

It can be very difficult to understand how trans* exclusive feminists who appear to cling to the second wave can simultaneously reject so much of the second wave’s fundamental insights. But this is not because the development of these feminisms and their ambiguity-rejecting ethics is inherently incomprehensible. Rather, the difficulty in understanding comes from attempting to derive these feminisms based solely on prior feminist categories. In fact, other sources of fear or love, other priorities and values, even other meta-ethics from entirely outside feminism are constantly mixing with our existing feminisms. At times, they enrich our work and make it more effective, as with Kimberlé Crenshaw and the development of intersectionality. At other times they mix poorly. But on its own, bringing into feminism other aspects of women’s experiences, knowledge, and thought is not a bad thing. Indeed it’s a good thing. We wouldn’t have feminism at all if we weren’t allowed to bring those things into a feminism that did not yet include them. How else would we have gotten a feminist labor movement? How else would we have gotten a feminist movement for a more ethical judaism?

So let’s understand that this fear of the other, this fear of destabilized categories, when brought into an early existentialist feminism that offers hope of a universal, stable category of woman, a category that can then be called upon for universal action, can seem wise. It does not instantly negate the opposition to sexism that is the organizing principle of all feminisms. But if you hold existentialist feminism to the light in just the wrong way, it seems as if our fears as women of sexist domination absolutely demands easy categorization, eradication of ambiguity, an undivided unity of interest.

It is tragic, but even the existentialism that so many thought offered a way to guarantee that we fallible humans would live up to our own mutual promise, “Never again,” cannot prevent dehumanization. It cannot prevent violence. It cannot prevent – and it has not prevented – genocide.

The cry for easy categorization, for undivided unities in the face of violence is a cry of fear. It guides us towards liberation no more reliably than any other fearful response. But it is comprehensible, and it should not on its own negate efforts to feel and to offer sympathy across the boundaries of rigid categorization those crying out in fear construct. Indeed better understanding and sympathy for the fear can often be useful in opposing the ossification of these new and contested constructions.




  1. fledanow says

    I am so lost in all of this. I must be very simple. I don’t understand all this subdividing of women into the right kind of women and the wrong kind of women. I do understand that different experiences matter and that ignoring or dismissing the lives of women of colour, of women who wear obvious religious garb, of women who are identifiably different in any way from comfortably off white women, aren’t seen as the “type” of Woman in Canada, that this obtuseness and willful blindness to the lives of so many women is anti-feminist at its core. What I don’t get is thinking that I, as a white, cis woman, get to say who is a woman, or a “real” woman, or the right kind of woman. A trans woman knows who she is. What would give me any basis for saying otherwise? How can someone claim to be a feminist if they don’t fight for the rights of all women, and how can we fight for the rights of all women if we don’t fight against all the forces that oppress women in the various and intricate ways women get oppressed in different societies, including within so-called feminist groups? Oh, dogs! I am so tired of this endless slicing and dicing of people into tinier and tinier categories. I can’t follow the debates. They are just so much noise for supporting bad behaviour and some variation of “I got mine”.

  2. Allison says

    I’ve been trying to follow your argument, and I’m afraid I don’t see why the phenomenon you and Mano are discussing — the tendency of one component of the LGBT+ spectrum being bigoted towards another — needs such a complicated explanation.

    For the most part, the bigotries that LGBT+ people perpetrate are the same ones that Western society perpetrates. Everybody in Western society is marinated in all kinds of bigotries — anti-semitism, misogyny, transmisogyny, classism, all manner of flavors of racism, homophobia, islamophobia, etc. — so it’s no surprise that members of a marginalized group would internalize them. They’d have to have grown up in a subculture which actively and consciously educates its members otherwise to avoid any of it. Even being a member of a marginalized group doesn’t protect you from the bigotry against your group — viz. internalized racism among black people and other POC, internalized misogyny among women, etc.

  3. lanir says

    It’s been interesting reading this series of posts. I’d largely chalked such things up to the same sort of zero sum popularity game you get with a limited group size.

    Example: I went to a small school so my first grade class had 20-30 students in it. First grade is kind of young to be doing sophisticated social tricks but we had bullies, followers and victims all marked out in the first few days. Nothing substantially changed until I entered highschool and that group became a small one compared to the overall class size.

    Because the group wasn’t that big a lot of silly nonsense could go unchallenged. Everyone had some sort of stake in it so there was no large group of neutral bystanders who could be shocked by anything that was done.

    It’s all zero sum because there are only so many people to subdivide into different groups and get followers. Only a limited amount can be some sort of leader and still feel like they’re really popular rather than just hanging out with one or two friends. If you want to be at the top it makes more sense to throw shade at others than it does to prop yourself up. The former is effortless for the instigator after it’s done, only the target needs to defend themselves. The latter runs the risk of needing to own up to any boasting done.

    When the different groups are small in number some of the same BS can happen. Then you just get people treated like generic proxies for the group until the person throwing shade experiences enough of their target to start seeing them as a person and not a rung on the social ladder.

    I could be way off base applying this to other groups (LGBTQ+ included) but so far it’s seemed to work for me. It’s not based on any academic works, just my own experience so don’t take my word for anything here. I don’t generally get persecuted by anyone these days (I’m in a pretty good position to tell bullies where to go). I’m just wondering if I’m way off base or not.

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