The Nail that Sticks Out: The Case Against Assimilation in Feminism
Almost all social movements can be approximately internally divided into two categories, which we’ll call the Deviants and the Assimilationists. The Deviant camp wants to expand the boundaries of socially accepted behavior; the Assimilationist camp prefers to cross over into these boundaries, leaving the social norms as they were and adjusting to conform to them.
Both the Feminist and the LGBTQIA+ movements challenge social structures, particularly gender and sexuality, and while the LGBTQIA+ movement has largely learned from the feminist movement, it has evolved into a deep and powerful movement in its own right. The growth and evolution of the LGBTQIA+ movement serve as an excellent role model to feminism, a study in how to adapt to an increasingly harsh and divided world. So, what can feminists learn from the rainbow?
The Blood of the Covenant
The scene in Season 2 of the popular TV show, Sex Education, in which a group of girls accompanies another in boarding a bus after the latter was sexually assaulted on it a few days prior, is one of the most iconic scenes in the show, and arguably, in television history. In fact, Sex Education is famous for the sheer number and quality of scenes of women’s solidarity in the face of crisis. It is incredibly relevant to the approach of the feminist movement as a whole.
What the LGBT+ movement has strived to build over years, and what feminism should emulate, is the creation of a community of mutual support. The long-standing rhetoric of the LGBT+ community is its welcoming of new genders, sexualities, and even allies with open arms. The community comes pre-loaded with its own language of sorts and culture, encouraging deviance from norms as the only norm. “The more the merrier” with subtle undertones of “We’re in this together”. LGBT+ spaces are predominantly safe spaces for unapologetic expression and just being one’s true self. The nature of collectivization is also noteworthy. LGBT+ people come together not only for political purposes like protests and parades, but also generally, in clubs and bars, just to enjoy each other’s company (while recognizing that their very existence and happiness is political). This was a natural occurrence over the course of the queer movement as a way to provide a family to those that were rejected by the ones they were born into, which is a story that is not as widely applicable to women but has a result that is desperately required nonetheless.
A lack of support from society often boxes women into lives and careers they do not want. Less than a third of businesses worldwide are owned by women, and less than 40% of the total workforce is made up of women. The ability to live lives to the fullest is in part determined by the amount of risk one is willing to take. For those without the support of a family or a community, it is rather low. Women need to be able to find community in other women, connected by their collective experience of oppression, and most importantly, by their collective drive to find liberation.
The Grass and the Oak
Queer movements have a history of questioning even the structures they seek to integrate into. Marriage is prominent among them. Campaigns for marriage equality are always specifically targeted at the powers that keep the community from having the option, as opposed to reflecting a desire to assimilate into the norm; much like the run of the mill problem child, they don’t settle for getting what they seek — antagonizing the oppressor is its own reward. The dramatic fire-eating of the Lesbian Avengers was more about irritating the government than it was about getting rights. Make no mistake, this is a good thing. It prevents the LGBT+ movement from slowing down at the sight of victory: the movement always challenges the status quo, rapidly shifting from goal to goal.
This can be seen in how differently the LGBT+ movement reacted to achieving marriage equality versus the feminist movement on acquiring voting rights. While the LGBT+ movement remains stronger than ever, the feminist movement lost supporters steadily over the years. In part, this is due to the goal-oriented nature of the early feminist movement. Voting rights, legal equality, are all highly specific, often legislative demands that could eventually be met. Compare this with the more process-oriented, vague politics of the LGBT+ movement, focussed on defying the powers-that-be than it is about getting certain things done. Getting period leaves into the mainstream, already a pyrrhic victory in itself barely improves things for women in the workplace. The discrimination will continue and hiring bias will remain firm, because it was not really a lack of period leave that kept women from being successful — it was that capitalist systems were not built with women in mind, to begin with.
The ephemeral nature of the goals of the LGBT+ movement makes it incredibly capable of absorbing smaller movements, with the vast majority of newer and startlingly revolutionary forms of sexuality and expression (like with non-binary and gender non-conforming people) almost seamlessly coalescing into the movement. This could also be owed to how little the movement sticks to its past, always changing its views to suit new knowledge and new people.
Another unique aspect of the LGBT+ movement is that it refuses to challenge stereotypes, most often defiantly embracing them in an act of reclamation so powerful, most governments attack it with censorship in a frenzied panic. Pride parades often star people dressed in nearly shockingly immodest attire chanting positively blasphemous slogans. There is no attempt to ‘tidy it up’ for the press, which could roughly be described as “If you don’t accept us like this, we don’t want your acceptance.”
The tradeoff for a more sustainable movement, however, is quite clear. The marathon-like absence of a visible victory line automatically cuts out anyone who is in it for a sprint. The feminist movement is astronomically larger than the LGBTQIA+ movement. But the point of it all is that size is not everything. Large movements that have specific goals tend to die out when the most well-off members of the movement meet the goal themselves (think of how white women who got the vote first left behind a weakened movement to finish the job), or break up into groups that end up mutually opposed (think of the transphobe Germaine Greer and the advent of trans exclusionary radical feminism).
The takeaway here is that feminist movements need to learn to forget the goals and focus on the process. The process of creating a community, of redefining standards of acceptance, of broadening the scope of human diversity, of narrowing the gap between men and women. Instead of finding a way to fit women into a system that was never designed for their presence, feminists should fight for alternative systems altogether.