Difference Exists

Written by E. Hungerford and Cathy Brennan

Something has gotten lost on the way to liberation for the GLBT community – females. Females have been the backbone of the movement, with lesbians playing key roles in the 1980s fighting the “Gay Plague” of their gay male brothers, working to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and fighting for anti-discrimination protections at the state and national level. Lesbians deserve a pat on the back for their contributions, and the gratitude of their GBT brethren.

Lesbians also deserve recognition with regard to state legislation that has been advanced in the last 15 years by GLBT civil rights organizations, most notably the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, to ban discrimination based on “gender identity.” “Gender identity” sounds like a great concept; and one that – you would think – lesbians should embrace, as lesbians know full well the harm caused by sex stereotyping. But the gender identity legislation presents two fundamental problems for all females, and for lesbians in particular.

First, we are female. As females – like all females – we are vulnerable to harm based on our biology. Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Females and males are reproductively different. Yes, there are Intersex folks, and we do not deny their existence, but it is not a female’s “brain sex” that puts her at risk of sex-based male violence. It is her reproductive capacity. When females are raped by males, we suffer all the physical and emotional traumas associated with rape, in addition to the potential for impregnation.

This is a massive problem for females, who represent approximately half of the world population. We live in a rape culture. Females are assumed de facto available to males. Indeed, even Bristol Palin writes in her new autobiography about her “magical” first sexual experience – and it turns out she was drunk and not conscious. Some of us call that, well, rape. But no matter what you call it, female sexual assault is alarmingly common. So common, in fact, that Bristol Palin’s story is barely scandalous. It is a testament to why we, as a GLBT movement, should care about female reproductive vulnerability and support legal protections that recognize female harm and harm potential.

Second, as females, lesbians have been subjected to all measure of sex stereotyping as a means to keep us excluded from full participation in society. False assumptions about our biological sex’s capacity to perform specific jobs, for example, have been used to justify sexist stereotypes and marginalize women since the founding of this country. Lesbians know this all too well. Many of us transgress “norms” of so-called appropriate female behavior and appearance. For decades, members of the lesbian community faced social censure, alienation, job loss, and sexual assault for refusing to wear “women’s” clothing in public. For these women, defying gendered norms of feminine appearance is not cross-dressing; it’s just dressing. Similarly, lesbian attraction to other women in defiance of compulsory heterosexuality – a term coined by Adrienne Rich, a lesbian and Baltimore native – is not reflective of lesbian desire to be male. Rather, it is an authentic expression of desire unbridled by social duress.

Gender identity, rather than rejecting the notion that there are traits associated with genital sex, instead elevates this notion to fact – that there ARE “gender identities” that go along with your biological sex. Rather than acknowledge that there is no “way of being” that goes along with your anatomy, gender identity allows anyone to “claim” a gender based solely on a willingness to adopt stereotypical mannerisms, appearance or “behavior” of the opposite sex.

As lesbians, we accept “gender identity” as a means to provide protections to the T under our umbrella. We also abhor irrational discrimination, knowing all too well the detriment it causes both to the individual and to a society deprived of the full participation of all its members. But we need to draw a line, because lesbians endure – like all females – the specific harm that results when males run roughshod over sex-based protections. Women require distinctive legal protections that acknowledge both our biological vulnerability and the socio-historic context in which gender norms operate.

Laws that offer sex-based protections do so for a rational basis – the harm that females can and do suffer at the hands of males. If gender identity replaces sex, and “gender identity” allows every Tom, Dick, and Harry to decide “I feel female today,” females will have essentially no protection under the law. We oppose irrational discrimination against transwomen – but in their desire to use the ladies’ room, we kindly ask that they shut the door quickly behind them. A narrow definition of gender identity accomplishes this. Limiting the protections of “gender identity” to people committed to transitioning with a medical need to do so properly weighs the interests of all community members under our colorful umbrella.

Originally appeared in Baltimore OUTloud, Friday, 01 July 2011


  1. Mary Sunshine · ·


    Let the truth spread far & wide.

  2. DaveSquirrel · ·


  3. I am transgender and I agree with you… I don’t want narrow definitions for the same reason. Transwomen are also in danger sometimes for similar reasons, such as the way we define “gender identity” relating to rights for public accommodations. Some transgender people may disagree with me, but the same laws that can serve to protect you can also us if used properly also serve to protect us. It’s in no one’s interest, at least not in the “Rape Culture” we exist in to make “loose purely arbitrary” definitions of gender identity. I do recognized the unique needs of cisgender women, and the unique risks and as much as trans people need legal protections from discrimination it is bad for all of us if it is made to the detriment of cisgender women. I don’t think either movement can succeed if we spend our time and effort trying to get rights at the expense of the other.

    Your blog is really good, and poignant and helps me understand to a greater degree what seems to usually get paved over in lesbian feminist blogs. As for Gender Identity, I think it’s been flagrantly misused in many circles to insinuate that it is something bigger than it is. Gender Identity means something entirely different to me, because of my own body. Gender Identity is about how I feel about my body, and has nothing to do with stereotypically gender role associations. I know other transwomen who reject the notions of feminine defined by patriarchal rules. I don’t gender my habits and behaviors where there is no connection to gender. I feel too often people appropriate gender to adjective qualities people exude that aren’t gender related, but culturally related. I, to a degree, point to the gender binary compulsory gender roles, and the dehumanizing of those who refuse to do so. Strength isn’t masculine, weakness feminine; it’s a misappropriation of meaning making association where none exists.

    It is why I advocate for people to reclaim the labels that pertain to who they are as a fundamental property from those who wish to appropriate them for their own, and potentially insidious purposes. I think it’s essential that we take care in preventing the dilution and misuse of the things we use to define our rights by.

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  6. You seem to think that it is your fundamental, biological sex that makes you vulnerable to abuse, and that’s bullshit. Let me explain.
    I’m male, somewhat androgynous looking normally, a good actor, and a cross-dresser. What this means, is that I can get in drag and appear, for all intents and purposes, to be a woman. It’s a thing I do. However, however good my clothes and my mannerisms and my makeup, I am a man underneath. Not a trans woman, a man dressing up.
    Do you know what? People treat me differently when they think I’m a woman. I’ve been put in very uncomfortable situations by men who thought I was a woman, and somehow ‘easy’ from the way I was dressed.
    What does this then show? Sexual violence is unrelated to who you really are, who you consider yourself to be or who you were born as. It only cares about who you look like. Sex offenders don’t care about gender politics, they only care if you’ve got tits and look vulnerable. To try and say that people only need protecting if they were born female, then, is just mistaken. Anybody who presents as female gets this crap, and as such, anybody presenting as female deserves the same protection.

    Oh, and buggie? If your going to respond to this post, please do me the courtesy of a real response.

    1. Chippy – wow. You are insane. Truly.

      Be a love – make a video of yourself talking – “in drag” – and talk. And then post the link here. So that EVERYONE will get how truly deluded you are.

    2. IT is true – to a degree – that the motive of the offender may be based on ‘presentation. What you overlook is the different *consequences* of that aggression. Born females – as a class – face adverse outcomes which range from social condemnation (AKA “It wouldn’t have happened if you had just…) all the way to physical colonization (pregnancy). Plus many more between and besides.

      That you – in your position – might at times face some aggressions and injuries does NOT mean you are the expert on all such outcomes – or that your outcomes are the full range possible. Born women do – as you have failed to hear – require *ADDITIONAL* defense because they are endangered by their “fundamental, biological sex” – and no that is not “bullshit”.

    3. Yo Chip, let me give you a long overdue dose of reality check upside your snot-locker since it is so broken that you can’t even smell your own bullshit: When YOU can get impregnated by a male against your will and be forced to carry that pregnancy to term, no matter the physical and psychological harm to you including the real possibility of death in childbirth, then and ONLY then will you be in a position to speak to the gravity and degree of harm that penises as loaded weapons pose to women regardless of which male those penises are attached to. Until then, you need to check your male privilege.

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  8. […] appeared in Baltimore OUTloud, Friday, 01 July 2011 Share this:Like this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

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