PODCAST: Has the gay rights movement ‘lost its teeth?’ Julie Bindel on her new book, ‘Straight Expectations’

Has the gay rights movement become more conservative than radical? Julie Bindel, the Straight Expectations Julie Bindelauthor of a new book that tracks the changes in the gay community in the last forty years and looks at what it means to be gay today, argues that the “gay rights movement has lost its teeth.”

In this episode, I speak with Bindel about the problems with the “born this way” mantra, political lesbianism, compulsory heterosexuality, misogyny in the gay community and the declining radicalism of the gay rights movement.

Bindel is a radical lesbian feminist, a journalist, a founder of Justice for Women and co-editor of “Gaze: A Modern Review.”

Find her on Twitter @bindelj.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Komal

    You know, I don’t mean to troll at all, but I have a difficult time taking seriously anyone who claims she chose her sexual orientation, that ‘sexuality is a social construct’ (a very unclear statement, as well as a false one), and that she looks forward to a time when nobody calls themselves gay or straight. That sounds borderline homophobic to me.

    • horde

      There are multiple ways to understand “choosing.” She didn’t claim she “chose” it the same way that one chooses to eat cereal vs oatmeal for breakfast or to become a doctor vs a dentist. I believe that what she meant was that sexual orientation is not inborn, and neither is it chosen in the way one chooses a career or breakfast food. There is actually another way to understand how sexual orientation develops which is neither wholly determined (genetic / inborn) nor wholly individualistic (“free choice”). What that third way is, if I understood Bindel correctly, is an account of how sexual orientation comes to be that recognizes that context– social, familial, personal, etc.– shapes how each person navigates their life and their needs. It is a choice in that it involves an active ‘navigating’ and it is structured/limited in that it involves a context that one has no control over.

      Sexuality most certainly IS a social construct in the sense that there is no reason that sexuality should consist of the specific choices/identities/categories that it does in the west. “lesbian,” “gay”, and “straight,” for example, are social constructs. One way we can tell this is that, as concepts, lesbian/gay/straight presume that the thing that is definitional to sexuality is the sex of the people with whom you (want to) have sex. This is fine, and it’s not “wrong,” but it isn’t “just a fact” given by nature, either. Other cultures can and do view things differently. The Romans, for example, viewed as definitive of one’s sexuality not the sex of the people you wanted to have sex with, but whether or not one wanted to be “active” or “passive” when having sex. WHO the sex was with really didn’t matter that much.

      • I’m not sure why there are only two or three of us saying this but it should not matter how anyone came by their sexuality.

        The “born that way” frame — when it’s compulsory — strikes me as playing on a right wing field. People are saying sexuality is genetic, so it’s like race, for instance, and bigotry against either is therefore just as bad.

        No. Bigotry is bad no matter what its basis. What kind of sex you’re having if you’re not harming anyone is nobody’s business but your own. Maybe your reasons are genetic, maybe they’re your choice. It doesn’t matter. It’s nobody’s business but your own.

        The meddling is the bigotry. Not whether the object of intolerance is genetic.

        • horde

          I’m not sure why you said this in response to my comment (unless I am mis-reading the nesting of the comments?)… I never suggested that equality or respect can only be had if sexuality is socially constructed (or inborn, for that matter).

    • C.K. Egbert

      Thinking of sexual orientation as “innate” obscures the power of compulsory heterosexuality and naturalizes what is essentially a process of (violent and pathological) socialization into sexual servitude toward males.

      Thus it serves to contain and mitigate the potential threat of lesbianism to male control over women’s sexual and emotional lives (MacKinnon aptly notes that the exploitation of women is not just material but emotional). So if you tell women that lesbians are “born that way,” women are going to presuppose that they can never be lesbian if they weren’t always lesbian. On the other hand, if it isn’t something that is innate, then women may decide that they have had it with men and don’t want or need relationships with them. It opens up the possibility of having one’s emotional and social needs met through a community of women–and that is very threatening to patriarchal structures.

      • horde

        I agree, but think it might be better to put the emphasis on women as a class rather than individual women. In other words, this radical feminist understanding of lesbianism opens up possibilities not primarily for individual women in the present (who may “decide that they have had it with men” etc) but rather for women as a class, who may organize their radical politics around a rejection of patriarchal/heterosexual/phallogocentric institutions.

        The only reason I suggest this is not because I don’t think that some women will find personal possibility in lesbianism (of course some will & that’s awesome), but because it is important to keep the focus on structural and class-based changes rather than individual choices. The discourses on sexuality in this culture are, as far as I can tell, almost inherently individualizing, so as radicals I think we need to be actively correcting for that most of the time. Also, some women can’t catalyze lesbianism into personal sexuality-defined change for themselves (i.e. can’t become lesbians), for whatever reasons (continget though they may be). And those women can still have a stake in having “one’s emotional and social needs met through a community of women.”

        • C.K. Egbert

          Excellent points, I agree 100%. Thank you for pointing that out.

      • “So if you tell women that lesbians are “born that way,” women are going to presuppose that they can never be lesbian if they weren’t always lesbian.”

        These are my thoughts exactly. Thank you for saying this! I had great trouble in university figuring out my sexuality because of all the “born this way” rhetoric and narrative. I felt like an impostor lesbian and I felt like I was having to deny half of my feelings and deny the truth. I was not “born that way.” Also because of the way that being lesbian/gay is now being framed as not a political choice but more a way to fit in and live in a nice house in the suburbs and have your capitalist married life (just trade in the normal man and woman cake toppers for the two women or two men cake toppers on your wedding cake), it really did not resonate with me at all. I had tremendous difficulty “feeling it.”

        I agree with Julie, I feel like the meaning of being gay is being lost and so many of my gay friends I’m not even sure what we have in common anymore, for me it’s political and it has a meaning, for them (though I think they are doing the right thing and making a good moral choice that benefits society) it doesn’t have that meaning.

        This is not even mentioning the whole butch and femme thing among lesbian women or the fact that butch lesbians are now being pushed to be trans* men. This was tremendously disconcerting to me in university, this rhetoric that, “If you are really really super gay/lesbian, then you will probably actually be trans*. That’s like being a supergay!” It is like the essence of being lesbian or gay has been completely lost. I feel that we are now almost considered trans* lite or something like that. Am I right that this is the idea that is being promoted ? While there is still enormous homophobia, being lesbian or gay is no longer seen as being in need of as much activism and protection. We are no longer seen as subversive.

    • Laur

      Komal, I’m surprised by your comment. You’re way too smart to fall for the “born this way” crap.

      Bindel is right when she says we need new terminology besides just choice or biology to describe sexual orientation. Personally, what I think happens, is that some boys and girls grow up not fitting the stereotypes for their gender. For girls, they may be very into sports, labelled tomboys, not wear make-up, not be into fashion, etc. They don’t have to be all of these; just a few will do. Then, as they get older, they are called, “lesbian.” At first, this sounds ridiculous, but as they are told this over and over, it is internalized. The same thing with boys.

      There is more to it than just this, of course, and for some women, it really is a choice-choice; think of all the women that came out as lesbians in the 1970’s in the U.S. These were previously heterosexual women who now were practicing lesbianism.

      • I don’t see what smartness has to do with it. I was born gay in the sense that it is my destiny to be this way, and I came into the world with this destiny. ‘Born this way’ is an inaccurate expression, but convenient in some contexts when you can’t explain what it means to have a spiritual destiny that you come into the world with.

        I have never been attracted to males, though I was pressured to do so throughout my life, including by the idea that there is some sort of presumption, albeit a rebuttable one, in favour of romantic attraction toward people (an idea that Bindel implicitly endorses by conversationally implying that the only reason a person can have for being homosexual is not wanting to be in ‘patriarchal’ relationships [as if all hetero relationships are patriarchal]. Note, however, that I am not using this to argue against her position, as to do so would be to commit the fallacy of appeal to consequences). It took quite a bit of confidence for me to be able to assert that I am a homosexual and I don’t need to explain myself to anyone about it. I didn’t make any choice to be this way at any point, though I did endorse the flowering of my natural orientation.

        This is somewhat speculative, but I suspect that what is happening in many — possibly all — cases of people claiming to be gay by choice is that they endorsed the process of their romantic orientation flowering into what it was destined to be, and conflated the endorsement with a choice. We should be careful not to infer from the fact that someone would have chosen x if they had a choice, and that x is the case, to the conclusion that they chose x. I would have chosen to be a lesbian if I had a choice [although this is tricky since I am imagining the choice from the standpoint of already being one], and I am a lesbian, but it does not follow that I chose to be one. I am not saying that all people who claim to be gay by choice think that it does follow, but am just warning against it.

        Please note that people’s sexual orientations changing during the course of their lives does not prove that it is always, most of the time, or even ever a choice. That something can change does not imply it was a choice to begin with; it might be that they are naturally homosexual but their orientation didn’t manifest itself until later. Considering that there is — though much less now than before, in most cultures — a gravitational pull of heteronormativity, sometimes it takes an extra push to counteract the pull. That push can come from feminism, as that can provide females with a boost in self-confidence and a will to be authentic, which is what they needed to escape the trap of heteronormativity/compulsory heterosexuality. Anyway, even if some people do make choices that impact their orientations, that doesn’t mean that we all do. Also, innate should not be conflated with immutable (this is just a general remark).

        One final point: Julie Bindel at times merely asserts that she and a few others made the choice to be homosexual. This is still probably false, but is not as grating a claim as the claim that we all chose it, which flies in the face of our own experience. This latter claim, however, is also one that she has made, and has not bothered to back up with evidence. This bothers me a lot, I think more than everything else she has done, because of how intellectually unethical it is. I care about the truth, and when people don’t bother with truthy things like evidence and reasons (veritistic, not pragmatic), I consider that a greater crime than saying something politically incorrect. Even commentators on this thread have committed the fallacy of appeal to consequences and others of a similar structure, by arguing that the idea of being born gay helps ‘the right-wingers’ or makes it harder for straight females to pretend to be lesbians or something,and therefore is false. What matters is the truth about sexual orientation, not what you think will help feminism.

    • Alison Langston

      Komal — it goes well past borderline. The lesbian separatist dogma on sexual orientation is born of a significant amount of internalized homophobia, and Bindel’s “come on over the gay camp, straight ladies — you know you want to” language deserves all the scorn within the movement that it has received.

      What’s more laughable about Julie Bindel’s attempts to talk about the gay community’s “teeth” is that that Bindel herself has been conspicuously absent over the last few decades from the fights to insure
      a) employers can’t discriminate against gay employees or applicants based on their orientation
      a) same-sex partners may enjoy the same legal rights and protections as anyone else (sorry Julie, but your civil union wimpout doesn’t cut it)
      b) hate crimes based on sexual orientation are prosecuted in a manner to
      reinforce

      We could deal with similar failings among radical second-wavers when it comes to fights surrounding safe access to abortion and birth control, but we’ll save that for the time one of them decides to publish a book chiding the pro-choice movement for its failings instead of lifting a finger to help.

      • Laur

        I know of many second wavers, myself included, who work, or have worked, in the reproductive rights field.

      • nucr

        you seem to be missing the point.

        …oh, you’re pro-marriage. got it.

  • This interview made me think about what it means to be a “political lesbian.” I’ve always had the impression that a political lesbian is a straight woman who has decided not to have relationships with men—a different situation altogether from a woman who is naturally attracted to other women. But listening to Julie Bindel made me think about all the variations that can exist in between these two opposite ends of the lesbian continuum. It’s made me realize that I am a political lesbian. I’m technically bisexual because I can be attracted to any type of body but I deliberately chose a female partner because I knew I didn’t want to live with a man. I am constantly thankful for having a female partner—nobody in my home has male privilege, and I have avoided one of the most important patriarchal institutions—heterosexual marriage. And since both my partner and I are radical feminists, we have developed a little sense of feminist separatism right in our home. If I had really wanted to be “normal” I could have married a man I suppose—I might have found a man I liked if I had kept looking—but I refused the status quo, I refused to be a man’s wife, and in effect I make that refusal every day by continuing to love my partner and to put women first.

    • gorgo

      great comment! My only nit-pick is to point out that you said “a woman who is naturally attracted to other women,” when I think part of the point of political lesbianism is precisely to point out that no woman is attracted to other women outside of the context of patriarchy. There isn’t really a “pure” or “natural” lesbianism, as opposed to a “political” lesbianism (although there very well can be a-political or politically ignorant or conservative lesbians).

      • “when I think part of the point of political lesbianism is precisely to point out that no woman is attracted to other women outside of the context of patriarchy”

        I don’t know what you’re getting at here, Gorgo. Maybe outside of patriarchy the label of lesbian would be unnecessary, but there would still be women attracted to other women. My attraction to women is natural, meaning that I have a history of feeling “butterflies in my stomach” and nervousness around women I like, I feel feelings of romantic love for women, and I’m aroused by women’s bodies. I don’t just choose to have feelings for women because I decided that it would be a good political strategy. What is political is my choice to act on those feelings despite society telling me not to.

        • gorgo

          politics don’t just operate on the “intentional” level, though. In other words, your attraction to women is political in that it occurs within a patriarchal (read: political) context. In the same way, ALL sexual “orientations” are political in a patriarchy, whether the people to whom they belong are invested in seeing them that way or not. That is what I was getting at.

          You say that your attraction to women is natural, but many heterosexual women feel that their attractions to men are “natural,” and surely you see how that is problematic from a radfem standpoint? It’d be like saying that the butterflies I get in my stomach when I am standing near the headmaster are “natural”– rather than seeing that they are taking place in a context in which he is an adult, I am a child, and he has the power and “right” to beat me with a cane until I bleed if I displease him. I may interpret such butterflies in a number of different ways, and those interpretations may depend in part on my strategy for surviving in and making sense of my life. Butterflies can = excitement, exciting fear (cf. women who are attracted to men with authority, men in uniform, or men who scare them by pushing their boundaries). Strategy being employed: get close to authority in order to survive. Butterflies could = hatred, frustrated anger (cf. women who hate men, hate the out of control feelings of ‘love’). Srategy being employed: get away from authority in order to avoid its wrath.
          You see what I’m getting at?

          I hope that comparison doesn’t come off as offensive– my only point in that comparison is to say that the feelings we have, and how we organize or make sense of those feelings, is shaped by context. That doesn’t mean that those feelings are “fake,” or less real, however.

          I understand what you are getting at when you contrast what you call “natural” lesbians to women who “decide that it would just be a good political stratgy,” but I think that you may be oversimplifying. To be clear: I’m not saying that these two experiences are equivalent or interchangeable. If I suggested that earlier, I apoligize. I see why you want to make a distinction between them. I respect that distinction on an emotional level, but on an analytic level I’m not sure what it accomplishes for us. Why is it important to reduce a large and complex and heterogeneous group of women who loveo ther women into two groups– one more “real” than the other?

          I do think that they each (the ‘natural’ vs ‘political’ lesbian) have more of the other in them than people want to see. Isn’t it true in some cases that a good life strategy (e.g. managing human attachment and sexuality in one’s life) is the same thing as or fits in with a good political strategy (e.g. feminism), and in those cases the life path of a person is then fully political as well as fully “true” to that person (not cynical, not just a MERE strategy)?

          You say that outside of patriarchy the label “lesbian” would not exist, but women loving women would. But isn’t that like saying that outside of patriarchy the category “feminine” would not exist, but the color pink still would? It would still exist, but it would be transformed, it would mean (be embedded in a system of meaning) totally differently.

    • Ella I agree with you. I don’t know either but I’m guessing the same that a political lesbian is someone who is a lesbian (and has chosen women over men) for political reasons which would include both women who were straight and chose not to have romantic relationships with men and women who are bisexual and chose not have romantic relationships men.

  • I must say, however, that despite Julie Bindel being wrong about a lot of things, having a narrowly and excessively political perspective, and committing logical fallacies all the time, she is one of the few famous gay people who has not given in to the ‘queer’ and ‘LGBT’ nonsense. She says she’s gay, not ‘queer’, and still talks in terms of gay liberation. That doesn’t make me like her, but it does make me glad that she’s around, as a counterforce to the new ‘queer’ nonsense if nothing else.

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