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Gender Wars History Series: "We Must Not Call Him Sister"
Lesbianism and Feminism: Synonyms or Contradictions?
“Thirty-two years of suffering in the androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the name ‘woman’.”
- Robin Morgan
Last month, I wrote about a man named Elliott Basil Mattiuzzi who called himself Beth, considered himself to be a lesbian, and wrote about all of this to a radical feminist newspaper in 1970.
Mattiuzzi, a folk singer, continued right on being active in the lesbian community. In fact, he was even slated to perform at the 1973 West Coast Lesbian Conference.
Drama ensued. On the very first night, a lesbian separatist group called the Gutter Dykes protested his involvement and his planned performance by handing out leaflets. After a quick performance, Mattiuzzi left.
These events caused keynote speaker Robin Morgan, a renowned leader of the international women’s movement, to amend her speech with a powerful section railing against considering crossdressing men to be women.
Are we, out of the compassion in which we have been positively forced to drown as women, are we yet again going to defend the male supremacist yes obscenity of male transvestism? How many of us will try to explain away—or permit into our organizations, even, men who deliberately re-emphasize gender roles, and who parody female oppression and suffering as “camp”? Maybe it seems that we, in our “liberated” combat boots and jeans aren’t being mocked. No? Then it is “merely” our mothers, and their mothers, who had no other choice, who wore hobbling dresses and torture-stiletto-heels to survive, to keep jobs, or to keep husbands because they themselves could get no jobs. No, I will not call a male “she;” thirty-two years of suffering in the androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the name “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister. We know what’s at work when whites wear blackface; the same is at work when men wear drag.
Morgan, who is today 82 years old and an acclaimed poet, writer, journalist, and activist, wasn’t having it. Clear and to the point, she explained why she could never consider a man to be a woman. It amazes me that if a prominent feminist activist today spoke similar words publically, there would be a media firestorm. I was also intrigued by how early on the comparison between blackface and womanface was being made.
I strongly encourage you to read the whole address. Morgan herself is a fascinating person, and begins the speech by explaining that she is a lesbian but that she lives and has a child with a man—a “faggot-effeninist.” Only a portion of the speech is dedicated to the topic of male crossdressers, while the rest covers other major issues of the day.
For example, Morgan makes it clear that the gay, lesbian, and women’s movements were never one big happy family:
With the creation of GLF [Gay Liberation Front], a few of us Jewish Mother types spend a lot of time running back and forth between the two movements, telling straight women that the Lesbians weren’t ogres and telling the Lesbians that the straight women weren’t creeps. Simultaneously, the intense misogyny coming against Lesbians from gay men drove many women out of the “gay movement” and into the Women’s Movement.
I also thought this and other similar sections throughout the speech were interesting in light of recent books like The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry and Feminism against Progress by Mary Harrington which argue that “sexual liberation” for women wasn't all it was cracked up to be:
What has happened when women, in escaping the patriarchically enforced role of noxious “femininity” adopt instead the patriarch’s own style, to get drunk and swaggering just like one of the boys, to write of tits and ass as if a sister were no more than a collection of chicken parts, to spit at the lifetime commitment of other Lesbian couples, and refer to them contemptuously as “monogs?” For the record, the anti-monogamy line originated with men, Leftist men, Weathermen in particular, in order to guilt-trip the women in their “alternative culture” into being more available victims of a dominance-based gang-rape sexuality.
I by no means agree with everything Morgan had to say in the address (in fact, I disagree with much of it, but I recognize that is coming from a vantage point 50 years removed!), but her intelligence and grasp of the state of the movement are obvious. The speech provides an invaluable snapshot in time not only of the gender wars but of the gay rights movement, feminism, and the broader cultural moment.
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