Michelle Obama won’t use the F-word. Alice Walker called it by another name. And when Hillary Clinton used the F-word, before she ran for president, she got clobbered with rumors stating she was an L.U.G. — lesbian until graduation — because she got married to Bill, and then an L.A.G — lesbian after graduation — because of her marriage to Bill.
With the Democratic National Convention meeting his month, the delegates that identify themselves with the F-word — as “Feminists for Obama” — will come out in droves. The trek to Colorado will be made by dykes, dykettes, dykelings, bi-sisters, transfolk, and, oh yeah, our straight sisters, too. But as my LBT friends have pointed out to me, the sisterhood between straight feminists and us is strained at best and nonexistent at worst. And with Hillary Democrats moving slowly over to the Obama camp, we LBT women also move with hesitancy, given Obama’s stance on same-sex marriage.
While the fault lines of race and class are rearing up among “Feminists for Obama,” so too are the fault lines of gender expression and sexual orientation, as LBT women attempt to convince our straight sisters that our families, like theirs, matter.
And while I believe many of our straight sisters understand our struggle, will they forge a sisterhood with us against a presidential candidate who supports civil unions for same-sex couples but not marriage?
During the DNC in Boston in 2004, our issues got swept under the convention-floor rug. In the Democrats’ effort to neither bash Bush nor bring up hot-button topics that might turn away swing voters, the elephant in the middle of the convention floor was the issue of marriage equality. The Democrats donned Republican drag and left Boston reneging on one of the DNC’s platform promises: to support “equal responsibilities, benefits, and protections” for LGBTQ families.
In the Democrats’ rhetoric to secure a safer world for all children, they did not understand that our children must grow up with the same rights as others and that the children of LGBTQ parents must also have those rights.
And can we, this time, rely on straight “Feminists for Obama” to help us?
Feminists have fought for reproductive justice and family protection for years. But they have also viewed us LBT women as a liability to the women’s movement. In 1969, Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organization for Women, and an icon of the “Second Wave” of feminism, called us “the Lavender Menace,” creating a chasm between straight and LBT feminists.
Going into the convention this year, “Feminists for Obama” face not only the expected infighting characteristic of the feminist movement, but also, with the current backlash to feminism, their own struggle for legitimacy. And a woman who benefited from the all the feminist movements – past and present – and could be important to their cause is not a feminist: the Democratic presidential nominee’s wife, Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama told Washington Post writer Anne E. Kornblut in May 2007, just months after her husband’s announcement of his run, that she’s not a feminist.
“You know, I’m not that into labels,” Michelle Obama told Kornblut. “So probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it…I wouldn’t identify as a feminist, just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”
When white feminists pounced on Michelle Obama for not using the F-word for herself, many African-American sisters came to her rescue, stating that many African-American women don’t use the term “feminist,” but instead prefer “womanist,” because of the racism embedded in the feminist movement and the strained history between white and black women that remains unaddressed.
But if truth be told, the creation of the word “womanist” was to conceal “the Lavender Menace.” Alice Walker specifically devised the term in response to Jean Humez’s introduction to the book Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress. Humez suggested that Rebecca Jackson and Rebecca Perot, who were part of an African-American Shaker settlement in Philadelphia in the 1870s and lived with each other for more than 30 years, would be labeled lesbians in today’s climate. Walker disputed Humez’s right, as a white woman from a different cultural context, to define the intimacy between two African-American women.
But many African-American sisters don’t use either term because both have been and continue to be used for lesbian-baiting in the African-American community. That’s where Michelle Obama fits in.
At the 2004 convention, DNC delegates who were supporters of marriage equality were disallowed from bringing signs into Boston’s Fleet Center for “security reasons” and because “the campaign wants to get a consistent message out.” Of the 4,300-plus delegates, 255 were identified as LGBTQ. And although one would think that these 255 should have been the loudest advocates for marriage equality, they too skirted the issue for fear of losing the election.
Let’s not make this mistake again. Because the distance between straight “Feminists for Obama” protecting their families and LBT women protecting our families is just one child away.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a nationally renowned African-American lesbian activist, scholar, and public theologian, whose writings have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Bay State Banner, Cambridge Chronicle, and Metro News.