Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Separatism is separatism is separatism...

Obviously, I'm all for female solidarity. I'm also all for lesbian solidarity. Gay solidarity. Transsexual solidarity. African American solidarity. Latin American solidarity. The solidarity of feminist dog lovers. Etcetera. Really, any group of people who want to claim solidarity with each other, I'm all for it (as long as they, as a group, are not hurting, harassing or terrorizing any other group or other individuals). On the other hand, I feel tremendous ambivalence towards separatism, as the extreme evolutionary end of solidarity, in pretty much any form. While my discomfort with separatist conservative religious sects/cults has pretty obvious roots, I'm almost (though not quite) as uncomfortable with the idea of lesbian separatism. To wit, from yesterday's New York Times:
THEY called it a lesbian paradise, the pioneering women who made their way to St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1970s to live together in cottages on the beach. Finding one another in the fever of the gay rights and women’s liberation movements, they built a matriarchal community, where no men were allowed, where even a male infant brought by visitors was cause for debate.
Behind a locked gate whose security code is changed frequently, the women pursue quiet lives in a community they call Alapine, largely unnoticed by their Bible Belt neighbors — a lost tribe from the early ’70s era of communes and radical feminism.
These days, [they] worry about the future of Alapine, which is one of about 100 below-the-radar lesbian communities in North America, known as womyn’s lands (their preferred spelling), whose guiding philosophies date from a mostly bygone era.

The communities, most in rural areas from Oregon to Florida, have as few as two members; Alapine is one of the largest. Many have steadily lost residents over the decades as members have moved on or died. As the impulse to withdraw from heterosexual society has lost its appeal to younger lesbians, womyn’s lands face some of the same challenges as Catholic convents that struggle to attract women to cloistered lives.
Now, the idea of a peaceful, quiet existence with other women who share my values and hopes and dreams sounds sort of idyllic, I guess. Actually, no, it sounds pretty stifling to me, but I can still understand the appeal for others, particularly women of the second wave generation who were forced to live false lives and endure the very real social stigma of lesbianism for so many years. If the world were still like it was thirty or forty years ago, then I might also be able to get behind women continuing in this tradition. And the idea of lesbian-only or women-only spaces during certain periods of life (e.g. women's colleges, all-female nursing homes) doesn't bother me. However, I agree with Amy over at Appetite for Equal Rights when she writes, "I don't see much of a problem with women spending their final years in a matriarchal community - I just hope that this doesn't trickle down to younger feminists, until, in the most extreme case, the world turns into isolated communities of different demographics, and integration is a thing of the past."

I think the world is a very different place now. It's not perfect by any means, but society isn't going to keep changing for the better if we go into hiding. The idea that women in these communities are worried about "recruiting" young women to their "way of life" so it will "survive"...makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to accept that things which were great innovations of the past, seemingly offering an ideal solution to a very real problem, may not hold up to the test of time. Not all "ways of life" can remain relevant...or should.

In response to the above article, The Bilerco Project's Father Tony asks, "Does growing up mean extending our comfort zone to encompass people of different color and sexual expression and identity? Sure, but do we ever stop pining for a kitchen filled exclusively with the scent of our own kind? Are some of our efforts at inclusion and assimilation deluded?" And I would answer yes, growing up (as an individual and as a [LGBTQ] community) does mean extending our comfort zone, just as we expect others to grow and learn and expand their comfort zone(s). As Miriam of Feministing opines, "My main problem with these communes (besides my lack of desire to be part of one) is that they do nothing to push, challenge or transform the wider society. It's commonly known that when someone knows a queer person they are much more likely to be accepting of queer people overall. If we separate ourselves, what are we doing to change the world for new lesbians growing up?" I agree. As individuals we are obviously free to do as we choose, but as a community I think we should feel compelled not only to broaden the horizons of diversity for future generations, but also to broaden our own horizons so we, too, can learn to understand, accept and communicate with those different than us.

Perhaps we might still occasionally pine for that kitchen filled with "people like us," but the world would be very dull and very insular indeed if we spent all our time there making cupcakes and never wanted to step outside the grounds. As for the inclusion and assimilation bit, sure, sometimes we'll meet a brick wall and we'll have to beat our heads against that wall for a while (which, as John Cage discovered, is sometimes a good way to make music). That doesn't mean it's a delusion, only that it's hard work. If you don't try to change things, you'll never know what could have happened if you did. And I'd take lots of hard work with the possibility of a better future over that any day.

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