A Radical Dyke Experiment for the Next Century: 5 Things to Work for Instead of Same-Sex Marriage

by Betsy Brown

From off our backs Jan 2000 Vol 30, Iss 1

It was 1965. I was in the fourth grade in Philadelphia. My teacher asked the class to write about what life might be like in the year 2000. I don’t remember what I wrote. But I do remember that the turn of the century seemed very far away–and that I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to be 43 years old. I didn’t fit into the world I lived in, and I couldn’t imagine fitting into the world of the future.

As I sat in that classroom, I suppose I looked like any normal middle-class white girl–although my hair was shorter. But my life was rather strange. My father had died before I was old enough to remember him, and my big sister had died when I was eight. My mother was a civilian scientist for the Army. All of this was weird, but the weirdest thing was, I didn’t want to be a girl, and I didn’t want to grow up to be a woman.

I didn’t want to be weak and stupid and controlled by men. Sure, my mother wasn’t like that, but I watched television and listened to my Aunt Libby talk, and I knew what women were supposed to be like. It seemed extremely awful. I wanted to be a boy.

Someday, the grownups said, some special man would come along and marry me. Then I would be magically transformed into a brainless, submissive housewife. Worse yet, they insisted I would be happy. The thought of being brainwashed in this fashion made my stomach turn.

it saved my life

When I was 13, administrators at my junior high school wanted to send me to a psychiatrist. (My mother wouldn’t let them.) On my way home from school on the subway, sometimes I got beat up, and sometimes groups of high school boys would corner me and threaten to rape me to find out whether I was a boy or a girl. (I always escaped.)

I know that I was both privileged and lucky, and that other wimmin have had it much worse than I have. But I can tell you that I was frightened and baffled.

Then, on a bulletin board at school, I found a flyer about women’s liberation. (This was in 1969 or 1970, during the same period that off our backs was founded.) It was pretty tame, really. All it said was that sex roles were not natural or necessary. This simple idea opened to me the possibility that I could be female and still be myself.

Sometimes I say that the combination of feminism and Girl Scout camp saved my life. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Today it is fashionable to make fun of the lesbian feminist liberation movement of the 1970s and ’80s. But that movement made it possible for my life to be much freer than it would have been otherwise, and I am not willing to let it die. We did not merely seek equal participation in the warped institutions of an oppressive society. We worked to create alternatives to those institutions. Even our personal relationships were part of a larger movement to remake the world, to rid it of sexism, racism, and economic exploitation.

the future is now

The future is here, and sometimes it’s just so disgusting I don’t have adequate words for it. Within the United States, the continuing reality of (hetero)sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, anti-Semitism, environmental destruction and economic exploitation is denied by an official pretense of prosperity and equal opportunity.

Worldwide, the Bush/Clinton New World Order protects and promotes the globalization of capital. This means transnational corporations can freely move jobs to wherever wages are lowest and environmental protection is most lax. The abuses of this system of industrial production seem to be reaching their logical extreme. But every time global capitalism seems ready to collapse from its own excesses, it regains its feet and keeps on stomping us.

I talk with lots of dykes, both where I live in western Oregon, and over the Internet on a dykefeminism electronic mailing list. It’s my observation that there are plenty of dyke feminists and dyke separatists, wimmin with radical understandings of the ways the world could be. But it often seems to me that we’re demoralized and disorganized. Considering what we’re facing, that’s not so surprising. At least within the U.S., the visible public movements that expect our allegiance are entirely disappointing.

Frozen by panic and lack of imagination, mainstream feminist groups have supported the rapist in the White House simply because he’s not a rightwing Republican. Nevertheless, Bill Clinton carries out right-wing policies such as the war on poor wimmin known as welfare reform.

Meanwhile, the gaylesbianbisexualtransgender movement works for such bizarre reforms as same-sex marriage. This issue is a particular sore spot for me, since one of the greatest gifts feminism gave me was help in escaping that institution.

At least within Western Civilization, marriage evolved as a way for men to assert ownership of their wives and children. It allowed rich men to perpetuate their power by passing their wealth to their male descendants. It also gave rise to the nuclear family, with its deadly fallout of battery, marital rape, and incest. To see a movement that expects my participation supporting the idea of marriage sometimes drives me to the edge of despair.

what is to be done?

Global patriarchy is a very large problem. I can’t answer the invitation of off our backs to predict or suggest what the global feminist movement might look like over the next 1000 years. But when it comes to same-sex marriage, I do have some ideas for some alternatives.

I want to offer real help to all of us dykes who have no wish to imitate the Ozzie-and-Harriet stereotype. Many of us are single. Some of us have more than one lover. Some lesbians have coparenting arrangements with people who are not romantic partners. Most dykes I know are sustained by a complicated web of friends and ex-lovers–even those of us who are on good terms with our biological families. The current legal structure makes our lives much harder than they have to be.

Here’s what I have in mind for some ways to change that:

  • Everyone should have a guaranteed right to medical care. Universal health insurance would make the debate over partner benefits entirely unnecessary.
  • Immigration laws should be abolished. Same-sex partners of U.S. citizens could then enter the country with no difficulty. The persecution of undocumented workers would also end.
  • Laws that limit the number of “unrelated” people who live in one household should also be abolished.
  • We should develop the concept of designated next-of-kin (DNOK). This would be like domestic partnership, except more inclusive. You could name any number of people as DNOKs–friends as well as lovers. You would have the right to include–or exclude–any of your biological relatives. Your DNOKs would have automatic rights to visit you in the hospital, make medical decisions for you if you were incapacitated, assume custody of your children when you die, and inherit from you in equal shares. (If you’re really rich, some of your estate should be appropriated to finance item number one.)
  • Finally, marriage is best understood as a religious sacrament. The government has no more business determining who may marry than it has deciding who is a member in good standing of the Baptist church. Under the principle of separation of church and state, the government should not recognize marriage for anyone of any sexual orientation.

    If you wish the right to marry, that should be an issue between you, your betrothed, and the duly appointed representatives of whatever faith you practice. If you don’t like any of the available religions, feel free to start your own, with or without a god or goddess. For instance, you could start the Universal Church of Queer Matrimony.

a question of strategy

Having played around with these ideas for more than a year, I have some very mixed feelings about them. First, some things I like:

It seems to me that many lesbians support the mainstream gay movement, not because they like it much, but because it’s the only thing they’re aware of that offers a specific, concrete agenda they can work on. I think I’ve come up with some specific proposals that might draw more lesbians into a dyke-identified movement, and I think that’s a good thing.

Furthermore, these proposals might have a real chance of being enacted. They’re no more controversial than gay marriage, and because they would actually benefit lots of heterosexuals, they might gain more widespread backing.

Now, here’s what makes me uneasy:

I’m a lesbian separatist. That means I work for autonomous lesbian alternatives to patriarchal society. It doesn’t bother me if the work I do for lesbians also benefits non-lesbian wimmin. If the work I am doing has some side-effect that benefits men without hurting wimmin, I don’t even mind that. What I do mind is that two of my proposals require positive government support. Universal health insurance and designated next-of-kin seem to depend on the continued existence of the patriarchal government structure. Telling the government to stop doing things doesn’t bother me. If various levels of government abolish immigration laws or zoning laws or recognition of marriage, that brings us that much closer to a world without government. But if we ask the government for help, there’s a very big risk of giving a set of patriarchal institutions that much more power to oppress us.

So, I’d like to hear what dykes and wimmin think about my ideas. Does the good in them outweigh the possible harm? And if we’re going to demand something from the government, should we go ahead and ask for a guaranteed survival income for everyone? Creating a feminist future is not only a big task, but a complicated one. Maybe if we try lots of different experiments we’ll discover some strategies that work.