This talk was given at the Dyke March on June 26, 1999 in San Francisco. Copyright 1999 Urvashi Vaid.
Good Evening lesbians, bisexual women, trans gender women, queer girls, and think you are still-straight women! Hello supportive brothers. Happy Pride. I stand before you tonight to make a confession of bias, a confession of desire – I love women madly passionately, hopelessly, and lustfully. I love the warmth of women, our intensity, our intimacy, our ability to relate, I love our maddening process-consciousness, our ever more inclusive politics. I love the way a woman will drop everything to show up for you. I love the smell and sight of a woman in seduction mode, the body angles, the smiles, the sideways glance, the painstakingly digressive pick up process. I love the minds and the voices and the hearts of women. I love black women, I love Latina women, I love Indian women, I love Native American women, and I love Asian women. I love our power to create and even our surprising avoidance of seeking power. I love our laughter and analysis. I love the intersectional politics that radical women of color invented. I love lesbian politics. I love old women. I am enthralled by activist women of every type, age and ability. I love the fierce joy of women. I love the kindness and okay I even love the cattiness of women.
What is so great about seeing you here tonight is that you all — each and every one, whatever your biology, desire, identity, experience in life, in some core, in some part of your hear, you are here because you carry a love of and for women. Make no mistake about it, this love, this passion, and this appreciation for womankind is not a dominant view in the world in which we live.
We live in a moment in which the lives of women and lesbians are limited and damaged and deformed every day by the institutionalized, hostile sexism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism we face. The past 30 years have taught us that for every emergence of women there is always an emergency among men. Backlash against women’s freedom and independence runs wild in the world and in this nation – on our bodies and about our humanity a bitter series of battles are being fought. Here are some glimpses of that battle:
- The idea of an autonomous female existence remains radical. The idea of an autonomous female sexuality — not contained in the boundaries of heterosexual and patriarchal nuclear family — remains deeply threatening and is resisted by many people.
- Lesbians experience high levels of violence, both as women and as gay people and as gender non-conformists.
- Discrimination against women remains real and pervasive – whether it is harassment on the job, sexual harassment in the military, the denial of certain job occupations, the glass ceiling in certain professions, whether it is the old dual standard that is applied to every woman than is applied to men.
- Lesbians face huge barriers in the creation of family with each other – be they custody fights, barriers to getting artificially inseminated, barriers to adoption and foster parenting, or the blinders of a society set up out of lesbian invisibility.
- In that nightmare that is Kosovo, all people have paid a bitter price. It is a war that shows the ultimate futility of all war and the insanity of nationalism and identity politics carried to the extreme. It is a war that will never end because it is a war of a people who have lost track of their humanity and retained track only of their particular narrow ethnic and religious identities – and we know that kind of retained hatred here in America – as a nation which faced a civil war around race that continues to this day. In that war in Kosovo, the bodies of women have been a battleground – unreported and savagely accepted as a matter of course. Last week the NY Times reported that women who have been raped in Kosovo must bear the burden of ostracism from their husbands and cannot marry so they lie about it – which accounts for the underreporting in the statistics. And that is not just a reality in Kosovo but right here in the US – rape and violence against women continue to be enormously high and the burden of that threat continues to be born by women and not shouldered by men.
- Also a few weeks ago in the NY Times’ there was an article about how women’s independence and sexual autonomy is so threatening in Arab countries that brothers and fathers, mothers and sisters consider it a badge of honor to kill a woman for even the hint of promiscuity or sexual agency. Women are killed for being embodied with love and lust and a mind of their own. Last year I received a phone call from an Arab lesbian who was living underground in this country because she was afraid her family might kill her because she had brought shame on them for being gay.
- We have no farther to roam than our home grown movements to repress and target women – the Promise Keepers, the anti-choice movement, the anti-gay movement, the anti-welfare movement are all movements that seek the control of women’s bodies, women’s freedom and women’s sexuality. The promise keepers campaign for all women to be graciously submissive to their male husbands; the anti-choice movement seeks to institutionalize the principal that women’s reproductive organs belong to the state, the community and the church – to anyone but herself; the anti-gay movement hates us in part because we represent the idea that sex and sexuality are not evil, but can be forces of good in the world; the anti-welfare movement penalizes the status of single women and single parenthood through the horrible law passed a few years – that law is completely attacks on single motherhood.
The world and this nation are hostile places for women. IT is to challenge this hostility and to commit ourselves to the creation of a world that loves women that we are marching.
To handle this reality and truly change the world, I believe we lesbians must be bold and step up our militant leadership in three ways. First, we must be very active in strengthening our movement against homophobia at the state and local level. We must be more involved. Second we must be passionate advocates of the open-minded, inclusive and intersectional politics that are the hallmarks of lesbian politics. And third, we must be imaginative, fearless, willing to make mistakes, open minded and compassionate and militant in our advocacy for women.
One of our lesbian foremothers, Eleanor Roosevelt said, “For where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity and dignity.” It is in the small places, close to home that we will fight for and win our human dignity and freedom. It is in the small places and small towns of this country, that queerness will come to be seen as valuable as good and human and therefore divine. It is in the small places and small towns of this country – close to home that we want you – each and every one of you to go, to organize and to change the world.
Home is a complicated place for us lesbians and queers. In the early 1980’s era of new wave music, a British singer named Lene Lovich wrote a song called HOME. It began – “Home is Where the Heart Is/ Home is so remote/ Home Is Just Emotion/Sticking In My Throat – Let’s go to YOUR place, Let’s go to Your Place.”
That strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the relationship we each have had to those complicated places we call home. Home in the sense of the places we grew up, and where we came from is sometimes a tough concept for queers to embrace — there is pain and struggle attached to that memory.
Home is complicated for us because homophobia for us began in many of our homes and hometowns – at the kitchen counter, in the playground, in our churches and synagogues.
For years, we have said to each other, get me out of here. Let’s go to your place. For many years, queers moved to the urban centers, away from home. We made these cities our new homes, and we maintained an uneasy tie to the places of our birth, and childhoods, to the families and communities that could not contain our sexual identities despite their urgent efforts! We made new homes and made our domestic private home lives into small havens of safety and insularity. Our home was private; GLBT politics was somewhere else – in DC, in NYC, not in our block, or suburban neighborhood or in our parents’ houses.
Well, my friends the time has come to transform this old relationship to home into a new one.
It is no longer enough for us to go away from home to avoid its emotion sticking in our throats. Its no longer about thinking that home is a haven away from politics. It’s about claiming the public, the communities in which we live as our homes – about making this nation our homeland. In a political sense, its about renewing our dedication to equal rights and social justice by increasing our organizing in the very many places in which we live – and especially at the state legislative level.
We must do so for three main reasons:
(1) Because federal power has been devolved more and more to state legislative and local political bodies over the last twenty years; and it is trend that will continue;
(2) Because the increasingly specific policy needs of our people will require detailed addressing at the local level and there are sp many opportunities to create social change at the local and state level; and
(3) Because this new frontier of organizing allows us the potential to do education and reaching out to our neighbors =— the kind of communication and organizing that is the key to changing consciousness – which in turn is key to changing the world’s understanding of women, and lesbians – of race and gender and other human difference.
We have witnessed in the past two decades a serious redefinition of government power from federal to state. From Reagan to Clinton and Gingrich to the next few years — both the Republican and Democratic Parties have endorsed sweeping changes in the role of the federal government: the devolution of government power from federal to state lawmakers is well underway and will not be reversed.
In the 21st century, the principal battleground for gay and lesbian equality will be state legislatures and city councils. State politics is in a great sense more personal and immediate than national politics. It affects the many things that make up our daily and home lives — whether the issue is marriage, family law, custody of children, adoption, Medicaid regulations to allow HIV positive gay men to get funds to pay for life-saving drugs and care, safe sex education, school curricula for youth, housing for low income gay people, sodomy laws, hate crime bills, police standards and account. Whether the issue is the funding that gay and lesbian social service agencies — Community Centers, Health Clinics, Youth programs, Hotlines, Alcoholism and Drug Addiction programs, programs serving gay elderly and so on receive. All of these decisions are made by the actions taken in Governor’s offices and State Capitols of this country as much as they are by the actions of Congress.
You heard earlier about the Knight Initiative – a campaign to intrude on the freedom of people who are gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender to form and protect our families and relationships. It is a campaign about how our society will understand homosexuality – as an illness and a deviance that is destructive to society; or as a social good and a moral good that can actually benefit society by opening up family creation and love to new forms of expression.
The Knight Initiative can be defeated – with serious grassroots organizing, with strategic media and public education, with a sustained and coordinated effort that involves every single person who can hear my voice and all of our friends and families. We can win this fight and we must give our full effort to it – this is our generation’s moment to resist, the world will watch what happens in California. And the way you conduct that fight is as important as its outcome.
The second shift we must make is around the politics that we advocate for as we build these stronger grassroots and national organizations. The poet Mark Doty said, “My being queer has to do with history, with economics, with how I speak and what I wear. It has to do with what happens to me on the street. It has to do with my job. A poetry that didn’t admit every aspect of my life would seem to me too limited.” Mark was talking about poetry – but what he said is applicable to politics as well. A politics that does not admit every aspect of our queer beings seems to be too limited. We have talked for years in our movement about seeing our queerness not just through the lens of sexuality but through the lens of all aspects of our identity and humanity. We are deeply complex human beings, with the desire and capacity for love, with the ability to be compassionate and just. We are a multi-colored, multi-cultural people; a many gendered people; a people with many different kinds of politics.
We are a people at the intersection of so many things: sexuality is at the intersection of race, gender, class, ability, age, religion, self, family. Why do we not act out of an intersectional politics? Why do we act as if all we need to think, care and deal with is gayness alone? As if the problems of the rest of the problems of the world are someone else’s responsibility not ours.
In my view, the question of what do other issues like racism, sexism, poverty, welfare, have to do with GLBT politics is the wrong question to ask. The better question is what answers can GLBT politics provide to address the problems that GLBT people face. What is GLBT politics capable of doing about these situations? I believe in a GLBT queer politics that is capable of taking on the broader set of problems as we work on “our issues” And I am tired of people wondering how to prioritize the issues they work on. A commitment to social justice politics, to intersectional politics does not require you to choose the “right issue” it affects how you choose to do your work on whatever issue you work on.
So a GLBT progressive politics focused on AIDS also pushes for health care reform;
- A GLBT movement seeking access to family law must defend single women and single parents from the demonization they are facing in the welfare law;
- A GLBT movement courting the corporate market can challenge those corporations to be committed to progressive workplace policies, support for social welfare programs and a socially responsible capitalism;
- A GLBT business community that is concerned about safe streets might be more credible if it campaigned for increased taxes to provide housing and social services for people who are homeless or mentally ill;
- A GLBT movement interested in non-discrimination laws for queers CANNOT sit silently by while civil rights remedies like affirmative action and other measures are systematically dismantled;
- a GLBT movement for an end to violence could seek interventions in schools and families that tackle the construction of violent people – not just seek bias penalty bills;
- A GLBT workplace movement could have an economic analysis of why some people have work and others don’t, how our global economy fosters uneven progress and greater disparity in opportunity and how it could be addressed; how a prison industrial complex has replaced a military industrial complex and how we as a criminalized class might want to challenge that development.
It is how we choose to work on the issues we prioritize that make us progressive NOT whether we have chosen the “correct” issue.
Will all of our very diverse community ever unite behind one set of ideological politics? No we will not. Nor do we have to. There is so much work we can do together on the coalition agenda that is the GLBT civil rights movement. But should GLBT progressives just throw up their hands and abandon the values we cherish movement to people who sacrifice principle over politics or whose principles are so radically opposed to human rights? No way.
For me this commitment to social change is a matter of imagination even more than it is a matter of ideology. Fundamentally as a movement – as people committed to social change, we are engaged in a process of defining what the kind of society we want to move into as we move into the 21st century will look like. That is an exciting and powerful quest. And in this quest it is critical for lesbians and feminists to be militant about our advocacy for women AND TO be a force that presses for our movement to move beyond an identity-based politics to one that is more progressive in its political actions.
This dyke march is exciting because it is filled with so many wonderful women leading in so many ways on local and national fronts, building community, working to end gender inequality, speaking out against sexism, racism, ageism, ableism, economic injustice, homophobia and every other form of injustice. But I worry because lesbians, who have long been the holders of radical values and the folks who argued for a focus on economic and racial justice are not being loud or militant enough inside the GLBT movement in demanding progressive politics, in demanding a focus on local issues, in demanding a focus on women. We find ourselves as lesbian activists working inside a queer movement that is operating without feminist values; inside feminist organizations that have not made commitments to sexual freedom; inside people of color movements that still struggle to place heterosexism on their agenda; inside white organizations and institutions that still cannot find the ways to work meaningfully toward racial justice.
Overall, we lesbians find ourselves at the end of this century, needing, searching for, hungering for, stumbling towards a more useful and synthetic politics than the ethnic-identity based model of organizing that each social justice movement in America has employed. I worry that instead of creating a politics of intersection, instead of taking on the challenge of developing a political practice, a politics of practical action and organizing that operationalizes our understanding that race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, class and other differences among women are linked– instead of doing that exciting work, we are still stuck in the politics of inclusion and recognition.
And you know what, as hard as battles of inclusion have been, as many segments of this crowd or our lesbian and queer universes still do not see themselves included or represented in organizations like NGLTF or NOW, as important as I believe those discussions of inclusion are and as painful as the fights I have lived through have been – the politics of inclusion is the easy part.
What is harder is to figure out is what we want to put in place to the system we find. What is hard to figure out is how to create a practice out of our inclusive politics that is daily and effective. It is tough to imagine how the government we want to produce will operate in an inclusive manner.
What is harder to do than argue about who belongs at the table is to decide how we propose to rebuild it in a different shape – how to re-form the institutions in society that perpetuate heterosexism, like the traditional family, like the church and the synagogue, like the military.
What is hard to do is to have a set of policy objectives we are pushing for the goal of which is to de-institutionalize racism, to figure out how to unstructure the economic inequality that is embedded in capitalism, to figure out how to teach new generations of boys and girls the importance of the humanity of women and men, and the insanity of gender rigidity. What is hard is what lies ahead of us – how to move to a new place – through the symbolic politics of visibility that have been the hallmarks of queer liberation for three decades to more muscular and practical political activism.
If we are interested in ending institutionalized racism, ending structural economic inequality, to ending heterosexism embedded in the economy, in the family and in government then we must be willing to operate out of an ideology-based politics, not just out of identity-based organizations. The future requires us to have a commitment to an intersectional politics that constantly operates from its knowledge that institutions need to be transformed as much as individuals – that institutional racism, is connected to institutional sexism to structural economic inequality. We need a politics that can see the strengths and weaknesses of identity based politics and we must be willing to supplement that politics and model of organizing with an ideology based and values based politics for the future.
In conclusion – throughout this week of being in San Francisco I have seen the rainbow flag everywhere. As I saw this symbol everywhere, I am reminded of the words of the great African American writer James Baldwin. Baldwin in a book about racism in America Titled The Fire Next Time, and in the last sentence of the book Baldwin quotes the words of a spiritual that have echoed in my mind: he writes, “God gave Noah the Rainbow sign
No More water, the Fire Next Time”
These powerful and evocative words provide a compelling metaphor as we contemplate the potential and the challenge facing our movements. The rainbow sign is a symbol of hope, of luck, of new possibilities, of a new beginning. IT is a symbol of a new way of conceptualizing community that embraces all humanity around a set of values that are different from the values of the dominant culture in which we live. It is a symbol of the possibilities we have of creating a new society, one ion which society is seen properly as what it is part of the humanity of all people. In which women are seen as full and worthwhile and autonomous and powerful and able to be sexy without damaging consequences kinds of human beings. The rainbow is a concept that ought to represent a new kind of political and civil community – the political coalition of which Jackson spoke that can be realized.
And yet Baldwin’s words evoke the danger of our failure to realize the rainbow. A great danger lies ahead if we cannot realize the new community and new politics that we are creating in our movement. If it is just about empty symbolism, just about marketing and not about a deep commitment to new values – the rainbow will surely be replaced by the fire that faces us if our enemies on the Right win.
We face a theocratic Right wing movement that is campaigning in a systematic way to impose its worldview on all people. We face a far better organized and better-funded movement than our own. We face internal arguments about the importance of our movement’s work on racism and sexism. We face a lot of disagreement about what the rainbow really means.
May we face these arguments with open minds and open hearts? May we be able to realize the opportunities we have for creating a more just society.
May we be strong and honest in our work.
May we – lesbians – tested as we are by fire, be the creators and the prophesizes, the organizers and the laborers, the visionaries and the healers, the spiritual voices and the dreamers of the new community.