How to Fight for Reproductive Rights with Black and LGBT Thought (Part 1)

So. This is a little different from what I usually write about, but since the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election is…what it is, I think there is a lot to talk about. Particularly there are a lot of questions about what organizers and activists should do for women and reproductive rights in light of the Trump administration stuffing the courts, notably the Supreme Court. But the consequences of actions like this won’t just affect the U.S, for there is a global fascist wave in the wake of economic collapse and coups, some of which were organized by the U.S. like those in Bolivia and Venezuela and have recently been reversed with each country’s respective acts of resistance. On the abortion question, the Trump administration was praised by right-wing leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. And as of this writing, there are struggles against years of neoliberalism and fascism in Chile and Greece, against centuries of colonialism in Haiti, and a violent clash between the Nigerian people and the heavy policing born from its colonial past in the #EndSARS movement, with comparison often drawn between it and the police brutality uprisings in the U.S., taking into account differences between America’s racist past and Nigeria’s colonization. Even if the staff in the White House changes in January, the global fascist reaction against gains for reproductive rights and civil rights will still be here.

Before Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States, judge Amy Coney Barrett was rushed into confirmation as U.S. Supreme Court judge just over a week after late judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. On top of Barrett being raised by a religious cult, what makes her particularly contentious are her position on abortion and civil rights. Simply put: she is a conservative who was put in the Supreme Court because Trump said outright, “…I am putting pro-life justices on the court.” And her past court decisions on everything from protest spots around abortion centers to even reversing court victories for victims of rape lean towards her acting to overturning Roe V. Wade more than not. Should it get overturned, it would be another contentious chapter around the question of reproductive rights, specifically the idea of, “Women’s Duty” and housework, that has been waged in America since its founding.

But there are LGBT perspectives around this which mainstream conversation ignores: what if you’re gay? What if you can’t have children, or don’t want to? What if you don’t want to have the exact same kind of nuclear family like Americans have been taught to aspire to since the end of WWII, and would like a different approach that fits you and your loved ones? Furthermore, within the spaces where motherhood, housework and other gendered labor do get acknowledged, problems arise around who must do what, why we assign such labor to specific groups to begin with, and even whether anyone should be made to do it at all. The way you set up a space could have accessibility issues which bar out disabled people, or the ways in which you set up tasks could end up siloing the very marginalized people you claim to support into doing all of the work.

In my view, it’s not enough to just keep an eye on how conservatives react to abortion, as important as that is. We also have to look at how we move in our own spaces where we claim to be comrades, allies and accomplices with the marginalized. Thankfully, even as rich publishers try to sue the Internet Archive into oblivion for making literature open to the public, there are ways to learn this with a historical perspective. Within JSTOR’s free-to-download catalogue of LGBT works, I decided to look at the 1970s radical feminist zine, “Ain’t I a Woman”, named after the famous but mostly fabricated Sojourner Turth speech. The issue I’m looking at looks directly at the question of childcare and motherhood from a lesbian perspective. Its answers are passionate but expose some difficult limits around how we talk about child-rearing labor, sisterhood and gender/sex-based oppression itself, with some of the assumptions made then still present in conversations today around such topics. But every answer, right or wrong, points towards problem, often left by LGBT folk in a dominantly straight world and even leftist spaces to work out for ourselves. And to ensure we do even better, we have to look at the larger Black-led movement the writers in this issue are inspired by, before, during and after their time.

In just this one issue of “Ain’t I a Woman”, published on May 1st 1974, there is a lot of bitterness. But that bitterness highlights not just what we take for granted about, “Women’s Duty”, it even questions the very notion that anyone should be made to do this kind of work at all. One section, titled “…you don’t become a mother by being a lesbian” details a lesbian author’s childcare routine, but also delves in a bit of pscyhoanalysis around male/female children and how each of their behavior, which the author details is affected by the wider culture, constitutes not only a burden but a form of oppression. Another section, “To Be Done With Motherhood Forever” details an embittered lesbian’s struggles with motherhood and why they are personally done with the whole institution, detailing the thankless struggles and the blame they have weathered as a former mother, while chiding the wider women’s movement for pushing the labor of childcare onto lesbians while preaching virtues of equality and liberation.

But there are problems which arise when trying to draw conclusions out of these experiences, however viscerally one feels about them. For example, a portion from “…you don’t become a mother by being a lesbian” on the details of childcare work itself and how lesbians (or specifically the author) relates to it when it comes to the children themselves,

One of the things that has torn the community I work in apart is the issue of male children and how lesbians should relate to them. I don’t think lesbians should  have  to  relate  to  white  male~children  at  all.  A woman who finds herself with  a  male  child  and  a  growing  feminist consciousness,  should be supported in finding alternative care for the child.  For some lesbians, even that much relationship is too much, and the need for that distance should be respected. I want  to  try to talk  from  a childless  lesbian’s  point of view  and  not  start  qualifying everything I have to say,  because as usual, even a lesbian community,  has placed the needs of childless lesbians last. 

WHITE MALE CHILDREN OPPRESS ADULT FEMALES.  Boy children do oppress female children, but they also oppress female adults. Some examples.  When  the  kids  at  daycare climbed all  over  the  adults,  the mother  of  one  of  the  boys  objected that  he  was discouraged  from ‘exploring’  the  breasts  of  the  women  he  was  in  contact  with. Since, in my experience at least, female children have been discouraged from touching the sexual parts of adult males, it seems to me that this mother was reinforcing sex differential treatment.  Boys are socialized to believe that any woman is a potential cuddle. They act on that belief. 

Boy children who deal with lesbians who prefer to relate to female children intrude themselves on the adult women in inventive ways since they are accustomed to a lion’s share of attention and resources. The knowledge that a woman in the group has male children can and has prevented feminists and lesbians from even talking about their hatred of men. This is what an ostensibly powerless “little  boy” can do to a group of adult females. The smallest boys acting in a group will harass a solitary adult woman. Why is it that if a single woman passes 2 young females on the street she is not conscious of any alert going off in her. If she passes  2 boys she is on the alert because they could as easily attack her verbally, or run their bikes or hands into her as pass her by peaceably. In all the years I rode the subway I never saw bands of female children terrorizing other passengers. I’m speaking of males under 10 years of age. The nature of institutionalized sexism is such that whatever kids as a class do to even the score against adults as a class, they do to female adults because they understand and act on the power differential between men and women.

Now, here is a silo of indignation against the labor lesbians are tasked with in the wider women’s movement. But with this shot arises problems with how one lays out oppression within women’s spaces. According to this author, male children are oppressors to women, especially lesbians, and lesbians are pushed to the sides of the general culture around motherhood and even feminist spaces. But how can one say that a child’s behavior is a product of the culture in one moment while naturalizing it the next and saying that one should have the, “right” to choose not to help them? The author points to the responsibility heterosexual mothers for their own children, even singles them out as enablers of the bad behavior of the male children she encounters in her work. But treating children as a personification of the culture slides into pathologization, which while could push out an oppressive other, is its own form of gender essentialism.

While as the section later asserts females don’t hunt for people in packs in subways the way men are socialized to, the question still remains as to whether that is because of the innate goodness of women developed from their oppression, or is an outgrowth of society. If the former, what would be the point of trying to distinguish between younger male children and older ones if their badness is a foregone conclusion? If the latter, how can one ensure that what we do to accomodate women in these conditions doesn’t create conditions where the less-distinguished and privileged are neglected? One can’t just rest on the assumption that because girls aren’t socialized be competitive like boys are that they won’t eventually grow up to be as a result of social unequalizers like capitalism and racial segregation, both of which are as real now as they were in during this issue’s publication. The rhetorical switch between people as product of culture versus a belief in innateness formed by said culture creates problems when handling the daily routine of childcare, let alone in trying to sketch out a wider program of how it should be provided.

But to get a more complete picture of the general oppression around childcare, we have to examine the societal expectations and costs of childcare itself. This is the task of, “To Be Done With Motherhood Forever”. Rather than merely tackling the day-to-day routine and structures of childcare as carried out by someone who worked as a lesbian, it draws from a personal experience decades of thankless labor, concluding that the problem is really with women having to be made to be mothers at all. But while it carries on the on the sentiment about the relations between heterosexuals and lesbians in the women’s movement, it points to problems that arise from even trying to cultivate lesbian-only spaces when motherhood itself is still upheld as something that somebody has to pick up and carry,

Demanding childcare assistance from childless women while clinging to the rights and powers of motherhood is like demanding to be Jacqueline Kennedy. That is, you can keep the ‘privileges’ and divest yourself of the burdens of  motherhood without oppressing other women. And this is particularly true if you’re asking childless lesbians to help you during the free time that your mother-right has already turned into a curse.

During most of my motherhood years, I’ve born the burden of my children alone.  Occasionally during those years,  I made hysterical attempts to divest myself of the responsibility; but the world made me feel like a moral monstrosity for trying and I never could quite carry it off.

Now, for the past year, childless lesbians have given me financial and emotional support that has made it possible for me and my daughters to live apart. Because this gave the illusion of breaking up the debilitating mother/child dependency, it seemed like a good solution at first. Before long, though, it was painfully obvious this solution was oppressive to the lesbians who were helping us. They were giving time and energy to heterosexual mistakes Of the kind that had been oppressing them all their lives; and in the process, they had little energy left over for dealing with their own oppression as lesbians

Under patriarchy, the trials and tribulations of motherhood are held up as a virtue. A lot is said about the mother as a cornerstone of the family, if not the wider community. But here is a confessional about not just the costs of motherhood, but an opinion that there is nothing rewarding about it. There’s another angle in this: the suffocating assumption that one is readily available to provide said labor but for other people’s children and by other women. What ties this issue together is a frustration with what is seen as a failure by heterosexual women in relating to lesbians in the wider women’s movement, exemplified with the reproductive labor of childcare. The difference is that the previous section sees it as a sex/gender issue, which as we’ve already discussed runs into problems. But this section’s solution of setting up childless lesbian-only spaces is an interesting, even if its a fraught project. What is it about childless lesbians that makes them more worthy of solidarity than lesbians with children, is it due to a fear of said reproductive labor being pushed upon you even by other lesbians? Further, this section mentions how childcare is seen as a sort of buffer against the state, presumably, “saving” children from foster care. This suggests a view towards having a stronger welfare system, one which would provide childcare for women as a whole as opposed to just leaving it to lesbians with all of the, “free time” they’re assumed to have by being childless.

But assuming that this is a part of a wider movement, divestment and separatism are entire projects in and of themselves. They also rest on assumptions about solidarity based on a shared womanhood that in addition to fraying even within this text itself, can in themselves be exclusionary, if not outright genocidal in application. There is an elaboration made here about lesbians as a group with their unique form of oppression by wider society, which does include other women. But to even begin to talk about the ways in which a lesbian-only praxis can have its triumphs and struggles, we have to examine the wider movements around the very mythologized act of Black women’s resistance this publication takes its name from, and it will have to be done even beyond the scope of the historical period of this presentation in order to fully address contemporary struggles around reproductive rights. This isn’t a gotcha, since this publication to its credit does mention racism in other issues, and while there aren’t many names attached to this publication, the contents of this zine overall does lean towards not just an awareness of racism but an arc of activism against it. Nonetheless, the main thesis of, “Ain’t I a Woman” the zine is lesbianism as its own space, from which one must fight for one’s own self-determination.

Part 2 will be uploaded shortly, where I actually look at the Black civil rights struggle this magazine takes its name from to show the actual differences within, and also to further elaborate on the flaws of approach this magazine has. I hope this section has given you food for thought, and even with my criticisms, I would still recommend looking into JSTOR’s LGBT collection for even more context.

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