By 6:30 p.m. on March 9, a small room in the Church Center for the United Nations was packed beyond capacity with people standing in the doorway, pouring down the hall, and sitting on the floor. The air was buzzing with excitement as if something momentous was about to happen. The occasion was a caucus on sexuality and women’s rights sponsored by the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (iglhrc) and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. The conference coincided with the launching of a new edition of Written Out: How Sexuality is Used to Attack Women’s Organizing, first published in 2000. In five panel discussions, women’s rights advocates discussed sexuality-baiting around the world.
Cynthia Rothschild, who researched and wrote the revised report, was the first speaker, arriving at the podium wearing a business shirt and tie. She kicked off what would be a riveting roundtable by explaining that 63 women from around the world had shared stories with her about sexuality-baiting. In Written Out, Rothschild defines sexuality-baiting (and lesbian-baiting) as “practices of strategically using ideas, or prejudices, about women’s sexuality to intimidate, humiliate, embarrass or stifle the expression of women.” She later added that “baiting is a tool to obstruct political vision, not only because of who we are but because of who we are imagined to be.”
How many times have you heard people make snarky comments or speculations on Hillary Clinton’s sexuality, or Patricia Ireland’s? The problem was even explored on an episode of The L Word, when Bette’s position as the curator of a modern art museum in Los Angeles was called into question by a crackbrained right-winger intent on drowning out the real issues with a drumbeat of anti-lesbian rhetoric. Attacks of sexuality-baiting, Rothschild emphasized, take place everywhere in every country.
The international panel emphasized the pervasiveness of sexuality-baiting around the world, offering tales from their home countries that were variously harrowing, humorous, and depressing. The panel included an unforgettable cast of charismatic characters.
Lohana Berkins, a transsexual woman, spoke about running for election on the United Left ticket in Argentina and finding that her political vision was not taken seriously by the left or the right. The only area in which she was accorded any authority was GLBT issues.
Sarah Mukasa, organizer of the V-Day Campaign in Uganda, which was recently prohibited from performing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, talked about how the organization was labeled “a bunch of lesbians” and “satanic worshippers of the vagina” by its opponents. The organization’s response to the lesbian-baiters was to remind them that Uganda has signed on to “a charter that protects the rights of all people without distinction.”
Elizabeth Khaxas, founder of Sister Namibia, spoke of a 25-page document called the “Woman’s Manifesto” that tackled a slew of issues related to women’s rights, but with only two small references to lesbians in the “Human Rights” section. But that did not stop Swaba, the ruling party’s women’s council, from demanding that its name be omitted from the document because they believed it “promoted homosexuality.”
Liz Amado, a remarkable young (age 26!) activist, discussed the challenges and successes of the Campaign for the Reform of the Turkish Penal Code from a Gender Perspective, which has successfully secured more than thirty amendments, among them the criminalization of marital rape, the abolition of discrimination against non-virgins and unmarried women, and the elimination of all references to patriarchal concepts like chastity, honor, morality, shame, and indecent behavior.
Both panelists and attendees offered an array of strategies for combating lesbian-baiting. Rothschild challenged the audience to speak up when references to our lesbianism are made to disempower us and our ideas—and be ready with a comeback! (“Yeah, so what’s your point?” works well.) She urged us to bring the conversation immediately back to the pertinent issues, which would show lesbian-baiting for the smokescreen that it is.
Susan Fried, the moderator and media director of iglhrc, took this point further, stating that “it is crucial that we don’t respond by denying the accusation. To do so only legitimizes the baiting.” Fried also affirmed the need to tell and retell our stories in solidarity: “Nothing is a substitute for the personal story; the process of coming out and telling the story is never-ending.” We should never let lesbian baiting succeed in censoring our words or diverting attention from the real issues at hand. Our collective history can serve as a force strong enough to overcome the power of baiting. There is power in our numbers, much more than we realize.
The global AIDS crisis can serve as an object lesson for how we can recruit supporters for the international campaign for women’s and GLBT rights. The U.S. didn’t pay much attention to the global AIDS pandemic until it registered that it wasn’t just a gay men’s disease but a worldwide public health crisis and a possible security threat. In a similar way, it is imperative that advocates for women’s and lesbians’ rights demonstrate that men, too, and society as a whole, have an important stake in our liberation.
Stephanie Fairyington is a frequent contributor to this journal.