I gave a talk the other day about, among other things, the political deployment of identity categories. In describing the essentialized concept of womanhood deployed by Janice Raymond and her cadre of separatist lesbians,* I referred to the Take Back the Night march as an example of a small-scale of a women-only utopia. This was particularly interesting to me because I came up with it on the fly, but it makes a lot of sense as a real-world example of a) how separatist lesbianism actually works, and b) what happens when the idealized conception of womanhood comes up against the failure of womanhood as a description of the real world.
I’ve always thought of separatism as a political carrot-on-a-stick concept akin to “saving Mother Earth” or “ending poverty”; I can understand the idea behind the motion and why it’s desirable, but the practical implications tend to boggle the mind. Women-only events like Take Back the Night (in Vancouver, at least) and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival are practical manifestations of this desire, and they tend to express a lot of the positive outcomes that are posited in the conceptual model of separation – a unique sense of safety, freedom, empowerment, acceptance, solidarity and community.
Both events have been attacked for their essentializing tendencies; TBTN in particular for its blanket accusations of men, and the MWMF for its well-publicized exclusion of trans and intersex individuals. Organizers of the latter event originally intended for the event to be for womyn-born-womyn only. They eventuallly bowed to pressure from so-called Camp Trans protesters to allow post-operative trans women into the festival, who then came under attack from pre-op trans women, who typically were not affluent enough to afford surgery; pre-op trans women resented the fact they they were considered not “real women” by post-op trans women who were only womyn by virtue of having money. From what I gathered from this year’s festival website, they have returned to a womyn-born-womyn-only policy on curiously subversive identitarian grounds: one of the founders appealed to Camp Trans by asking trans women to “respect that womon born womon [sic] is a valid and honorable gender identity.” Note that this move renders “womyn” as an insular identity category, totally apart from what would normally be signified by “women.”
*In The Transsexual Empire, Raymond appeals to the tautology that only real women are able to identify who is and who is not a woman. The property that inheres in real women to make this possible is called variously “feminine spirit” and “women’s energy.”