Feminism and LGBT The right to be different

The value of diversity
The value of diversity | Photo (detail): © konstacot/iStock

The women’s movement, homosexuals and people who do not wish to commit to a traditional gender order have often supported one another. In concrete politics, however, the alliance also raises problems. Historian Miriam Gebhardt’s assessment.

A quick look at current political developments in Germany suffices to illustrate that feminism, on the one hand, and representatives of the rights of homo-, bi-, trans- and inter-sexuals (LGBT), on the other, have much in common. Above all, they have common opponents: the new political party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), whose populism is increasingly successful, satisfies its clientele with repeated condemnations of feminism, gays, lesbians, transsexuals and the gender sciences.
 
The “new right-wingers” may well live in the present, and its ranks may include high officials with homosexual leanings or alternative family concepts, but they nevertheless lump together everything that sounds like feminism, sexual deviation and a blurring of borders between feminine and masculine. This has to do not so much with bourgeois family values as with a battle cry that currently can be instrumentalized skilfully in German society and the media: “gender mania”. 

The common points are obvious

The desire to kill, as it were, all threatening social developments with one stone, is not just the result of anxieties and conspiracy theories. In actual fact, historically the women’s movement and LGBT formed an alliance at an early stage. The common points were obvious: equality of the sexes and the right to digress from supposedly natural role models, both externally and as regards sexual preferences. Together they denounced that the whole of culture up to and including language, and power relations above all presupposed heterosexuality as the supposed norm.
 
It started in the 1970s with a demonstrative alliance between feminists and homosexual women in the so-called New Women’s Movement, the hope being that lesbians could fights against their oppression as women and their marginalisation as homosexuals with the support of feminism. At the same time, women could liberate themselves from that oppression by making themselves sexually independent of men: same-sex love as a political decision, as a weapon against the patriarchy.

Homosexuality as a fault line in feminism

The linking of emancipation and homosexuality underscored the important role of “sexual politics” for the women’s movement. That term was coined by the US-American literary scientist and feminist Kate Millett in the 1960s and it described sexuality as being at the core of the oppression of women. The next step was the idea that transgender could subvert the binary and asymmetrical gender system: when people cannot be clearly designated as women or men does it not automatically mean the end of male dominance?
 
These developments were highly fruitful for the theoretical debates, but not always in concrete women’s politics. The most famous and politically effective German feminist, Alice Schwarzer, experienced the dilemma herself. When placing herself at the head of the movement, she was aware that people would be all too willing to pin the stigma of homosexuality on feminists. After all, it seemed that men could only bear the critique of patriarchy by imputing that women’s rights’ advocates were lesbians and man-haters. Presumably for this reason – to avoid the movement being attacked even more – Alice Schwarzer decided to keep her own sexual orientation secret at the time. Which in turn was an insult to her lesbian allies. For many a female activist in the 1970s the issue of homosexuality became a fault line. 

Identity struggles and a new pluralism 

Meantime the identity struggles and the new pluralism in the movement are reflected in the term “queer feminism”. Society has begun to reconcile the legal system and family policy with individual life situations and different life styles. Since 2013 it has been easier for transsexuals to have their gender changed in their passports. In Germany, however, the so-called binary gender system is still valid, and in that binarism every person has, at least formally, to explicitly assign themselves the one or other category, with all the consequences this has.
 
As long as this is the case, the demands of the feminists to be permitted to develop in the social world free of any social and cultural gender ascription will remain an issue. The unease at the inequality rendered visible in gender promises to spur intensive debate in the future. This will be ensued not least by the common political opponents.