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13 January 2011, 9:00 am 2 Comments

History: Why Don’t Gender Rights Have a Bigger Queer Following?

This post was submitted by A.M. Bowen

This book explains the whole Gender Rights framework quite well.

As I do something of a Riki Wilchins impression, and riff off of Jay Carmona’s excellent explanation of why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is a super-qualified success, I throw this discussion-point into the ether: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” shows the need for a broader gender rights movement.

I’ll explain what gender rights means in a second, but what I want to show by the end of this post is that when policymakers consider putting anyone other than heterosexual males in combat, such policymaking elicits this freaky protective reaction from right-wingers, whether the non-heterosexual or non-male person in the combat role is a woman, lesbian, gay, or bisexual person (probably trans, too, but I have no examples of that hysteria). This “freaky protective reaction” reinforces/exemplifies the need to look at feminism and LGBTQ rights as the same struggle.
Somewhat Boring Part of the Post

First, with the Riki Wilchins part. Wilchins, a gender rights activist, has been pushing–for years–the notion that everyone is pressured to conform to some binary gender role.
As to those rigid, binary roles: if you are born with a vagina, you should like boys, be emotionally and physically delicate, groom yourself, and not push your interests too strongly; if you are born with a penis, you should like girls, look strong, enjoy sports, denigrate women and anything feminine, not groom yourself, and push your interests really hard.
The gender rights perspective says that men and women are forced into these roles regardless of sexual orientation, though sexual orientation plays an integral role in defining the gender roles. Everyone is affected by these gender roles. A gender rights movement would coherently link feminists and  lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex activists (I’ll use queer henceforth to stand in for LGBTQ any other identity you want to throw in the acronym); heterosexual-identified males who maybe like to garden or cry a little bit (looking at you, John Boehner), and, well, everybody, actually.
The gender rights perspective is cool because it elegantly shows the connections between the cruelties that demographically different people face.
It’s under this framework that so-called transgender rights are an issue that affect even the most “straight-acting” (some people’s term; not mine) gay male’s life. The right to transgress standard gender roles liberates the transfolk and the gay male, who is attacked by homophobes because constricting gender roles say that real men love women.
It’s under a gender rights framework that abortion is a queer issue. If politicians have the right to control peoples’ bodies and behaviors with respect to those bodies, they can stop abortions and gay sex.
And discussion of combat roles in the military provides a clear example of how a gender rights framework provides a more effective analysis of equal rights problems than stand-alone analyses of how queer people or women alone face discrimination.
Arguably the More Fun Part of the Post

The combat role has been a focal point of gender-role terror over several decades about integration of women and queer people in the armed forces. I’d like to start my storytelling in 1980, with one of my favorite forgotten “national debates”: that of admitting women into the Selective Service.
In early 1980, right after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Administration wanted to prepare for a possible war. Part of its semi-mobilization proposal involved giving the President the authority to register women in addition to men for the Selective Service.
Predictably–in that season of growing right-wing power–this found a lot of people frothing. Phyllis Schlafly, the figurehead in the movement against the Equal Rights Amendment, sent her followers to Capital Hill to spread the word that drafting women defeated societal morals. Her own statement to the House Military Personnel Subcommittee included laugh lines like, “We don’t want our daughters taught to kill. Women’s mission is to participate in the creation of life, not in destroying it. We expect our servicemen to be tough enough to defend us against any enemy—and we want our women to be feminine and human enough to transform our servicemen into good husbands, fathers, and citizens upon their return from battle.”
The drive to kill Carter’s proposal had bipartisan support. This was back when there were more conservative Democrats than today, and the Democratic Chairman of the House Military Personnel Subcommittee offered technocratic proposal-killing language. He said that since the draft existed “for the purpose of developing a reservoir for combat purposes, and…women would not be used in combat,” there was no need to register women.
On the more hysterical end of the spectrum, Republican Representative Larry McDonald of Georgia added to the Congressional Record an article called “The Proposal To Let Them Shoot Women,” a piece originally found in the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society magazine American Opinion. “The Proposal to Let Them Shoot Women” opined that the liberal establishment wanted to draft women and place them in combat, which would in turn violate the “biologically rooted concept of women as the irreplaceable bearers and nurturers of future generations, and the related concept that men must protect the women and children.”
Carter’s proposal died, giving birth to one of the military’s official lies: that women are barred from combat. In the 21st Century’s perpetual wars, women of the U.S. military fight in combat zones. Honestly, women of the U.S. military had already been in combat zones before 1980; they, too, suffered PTSD, exposure to Agent Orange, and other horrors of Vietnam. But as the 1980 debate over the Carter Selective Service proposal showed, there’s this inbuilt reaction among certain elements in our society that define combat as a rigidly heterosexual male domain: and given that women presently fight in combat zones, but are not officially recognized as being allowed to fight in combat zones, this reaction denigrates women.
This 1980 debate predicted the hysteria that met Clinton’s proposal to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the military (Senator Sam Nunn played a starring role in both dramas), and even in 2010, we see some of the same madness over discussion of the combat role. The Pentagon’s “Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated With a Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’” highlighted this finding:
Though the survey results demonstrate a solid majority of the overall U.S. military who predict mixed, positive or no effect in the event of repeal, these percentages are lower, and the percentage of those who predict negative effects are higher, in combat arms units. For example, in response to question 68a, while the percentage of the overall U.S. military that predicts negative or very negative effects on their unit’s ability to “work together to get the job done” is 30%, the percentage is 43% for the Marine Corps, 48% within Army combat arms units, and 58% within Marine combat arms units [citation omitted].
It was this apparent anxiety among combat troops that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) harped upon in his opposition to repeal. Ann Coulter, in a predictably infuriating piece, also went after the combat statistic, conveniently (for my purposes) linking combat roles with a justified discrimination against women AND gays/lesbians/bisexuals (transgender people implicit, I’d say):
Military combat is a very specialized field comparable to nothing in civilian life. There has to be a special bond among warriors — and only one kind of bond. The soldierly bond gets confused if some guys think their comrades are hot or if they suspect their superior is having a relationship with a fellow soldier.
It’s the same confusion that results from putting girls in the military. When an officer makes a decision, nothing should enter into it except his views on the best military strategy.
And there you have it: while “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is dying, opposition to repeal has shown pretty clearly that past and extant discrimination (or discriminatory feelings exhibited by some combat troops, John McCain, and Ann Coulter) against women and queer folks is rooted in a protection of those rigid gender roles I outlined earlier.
I try to write about arguments I haven’t seen yet, so that explains my silence on the very important transgender relation to this military discussion: that DADT repeal does nothing to help transgender servicemembers (something that has been admirably covered by Jay Carmona, Autumn Sandeen, and the National Center for Transgender Equality). Transfolks are “medically disqualified” from serving.
With that, this whole pot of deficiencies in the military’s continued discrimination against queer folks and women just extends my point: a gender rights analysis provides a great framework to show the connections between the still-legal discrimination and devaluing of non-heterosexual and/or non-male servicemembers. I wanted a tangible, current example of how the gender rights framework is relevant, so I grasped onto the DADT repeal. A wider treatment of the value of a gender rights framework has already been written by Riki Wilchins, so let me direct you to her book Queer Theory, Gender Theory, and ask that you pester your friends and associates with the question: “why doesn’t the gender rights concept have a bigger queer following?”
Correction: As a commenter correctly pointed out, Rep. Larry MacDonald was actually a Democrat.

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  • Levi said:

    Holy crap this is good…And I’m kind of jealous that I didn’t write it.

  • Cal Engime said:

    Larry McDonald was a Democrat.