by Rev. Irene Monroe —
Michelle Obama won’t use the F-word. Alice Walker called it by another name. Her daughter, Rebecca Walker, an icon of the “Third Wave” of feminism, redefined the F-word and then denounced it. And when Hillary Clinton used the F-word, before she ran for president, she got clobbered with rumors stating she was an L.U.G. – lesbian until graduation – because she got married to Bill, and then an L.A.G – lesbian after graduation – because of her marriage to Bill.
With the Democratic National Convention this month, the delegates that identify themselves as “Feminists for Obama” will come out in droves. The trek to Colorado will be made by dykes, dykettes, dykelings, bi-sisters, trannies, and, oh yeah, our straight sisters, too. But as my LBT friends have pointed out to me, the sisterhood between straight feminists and us is strained at best and nonexisting at worst. And with Hillary Democrats moving slowly over to the Obama camp, we LBT women also move with hesitancy given Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage.
While the fault lines are already rearing up among “Feminists for Obama,” so too are the fault lines of gender expressions and sexual orientation, as LBT women attempt to convince our straight sisters that our families, like theirs, matter.
And while I believe many of our straight sisters understand our struggle, will they forge a sisterhood with us against a presidential candidate who supports civil unions for same-sex couples but not marriage?
“He can’t take on this issue now and win the election. Wait until he gets into office. I think he’ll do it,” argues Gaby Meadows, a lesbian from Maine.
During the DNC in 2004, our issues got swept under the convention-floor rug. In the Democrats’ effort to neither bash Bush nor bring up hot-button topics that might turn away swing voters, the elephant in the middle of the convention floor was the issue of marriage equality. And as the Democrats donned Republican drag, the DNC left Boston reneging on one of its platform promises: to support “equal responsibilities, benefits and protections” for LGBTQ families.
But in the Democrats’ rhetoric to secure a safer world for all children, they did not understand that our children must grow up with the same rights as others and that the children of LGBTQ parents must also have those rights.
And can we, this time, rely on straight “Feminists for Obama” to help us?
Feminists for centuries have fought for reproductive justice and family protection. But they have also viewed us LBT women as a liability to the women’s movement. In 1969, Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organization for Women, and an icon of the “Second Wave” of feminism, called us “the Lavender Menace.” This created not only a chasm between straight and LBT feminists, but also even bigger chasms between black and white feminists, and between black men and women that still exist today and have me worried that these tensions will get played out on the convention floor.
Going into DNC 2008, “Feminists for Obama” face not only the expected infighting classic to the feminist movement, but they also face, with the current backlash to feminism, their own struggle for legitimacy. And a woman who benefited from the all the feminist movements – past and present – and could be important to their cause is not a feminist: the Democratic presidential nominee’s wife, Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama told Washington Post writer Anne E. Kornblut in May 2007, just months after her husband’s announcement of his run, that she’s not a feminist.
“You know, I’m not that into labels,” Michelle Obama told Kornblut. “So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it…I wouldn’t identify as a feminist, just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”
When white feminists pounced on Michelle Obama for not using the F-word, many African-American sisters came to her rescue, stating that many African-American women don’t use the term “feminist” but instead prefer the term “womanist” because of the racism embedded in the feminist movement and the strained history that remains unaddressed.
But if truth be told, the creation of the word “womanist” was to conceal “the Lavender Menace,” keeping on the down-low the homosocial and homosexual relationship between two black church women.
Alice Walker specifically devised the term in response to Jean Humez’s introduction to the book Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Humez suggested that Rebecca Jackson and Rebecca Perot, who were part of an African-American Shaker settlement in Philadelphia in the 1870s and lived with each other for more than 30 years, would be labeled lesbians in today’s climate of acknowledging female relationships. Humez supported her speculations of the Jackson-Perot relationship by pointing to the homoerotic dreams the women had of each other. Walker disputed Humez’s right, as a white woman from a different cultural context, to define the intimacy between two African-American women.
But many African-American sisters don’t use either term because both have been and continue to be used for lesbian-baiting in the African-American community that has kept black women from identifying themselves even to each other, let alone publicly.
In the last convention, DNC delegates who were supporters of marriage equality were disallowed from bringing signs into Boston’s Fleet Center for what was cited as “security reasons” and that “the campaign wants to get a consistent message out.” Of the 4,300-plus delegates, 255 delegates were identified as LGBTQ. And where one would think that these people should have been the loudest advocates for marriage equality, they too skirted the issue for fear of losing the election.
Let’s not make this mistake again.
Because the distance between straight “Feminists for Obama” protecting their families and LBT women protecting our families is just a child away.
by the Reverend Irene Monroe
The Rev. Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, theologian, and public speaker. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African-American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow. Reverend Monroe is the author of the soon-to-be-released Let Your Light Shine Like a Rainbow Always: Meditations on Bible Prayers for Not-So-Everyday Moments. As an African American feminist theologian, she speaks for a sector of society that is frequently invisible. Her website is irenemonroe.com.
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