I’ve been thinking a lot lately about various revolutionary feminisms that preceded and continue to inform the sexual/political/cultural/theoretical aggregation we call queerness. This has partly been provoked, I confess, by the incongruity of stumbling across an article about the Van Dykes in the New Yorker. Beyond the bizarreness of reading about lesbian separatism in that context, I was struck by the tendency of Ariel Levy’s “Lesbian Nation” to map the relationship between the Van Dykes’ moment and the one in which the piece appeared as one of near-incomprehensibility. Levy comments, “Now, when the phrase ‘lesbian mom’ is a commonplace, it’s hard to imagine a time when female homosexuality was so imbued with countercultural connotations so potent that women were drawn to it by ideology rather than desire.” Without pausing to examine the glut of assumptions that freights that comparison, Levy continues, “Similarly, if you are a young gay woman today, it can be difficult to understand the idea of organizing your entire existence around your sexual preference.”
Well, okay. I recognize that as a career queer, I may have a slightly skewed perspective on that last point. But one thing that queer theory and the kind of feminism that sent the Van Dykes out on the road for the better part of a decade have in common is the recognition that one’s existence is already organized by and through sexuality; they’re simply seeking modes of creative response to that situation. Both have, as well, unleashed a certain productive ambivalence about the notion of citizenship--recognizing the necessity of a pervasive critique of both liberal and communitarian frameworks, while working to develop alternative practices of citizenship and of belonging.
The clip I’ve chosen is from Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist classic Born in Flames. The film is set ten years after a non-violent socialist revolution has supposedly transformed the US; predictably, however, women and poor people still find themselves on the short end of the stick. The underground feminist network the Women’s Army tries to address this state of affairs in a number of ways, from organizing neighborhood women to oppose the defunding of their local day-care centers to defending women against assault by swarming the would-be rapists on bicycles, blowing whistles. Other feminists find the group suspect—some think they are not radical enough, others too radical, while still others question their methods—but ultimately they manage to collaborate without erasing their differences, disregarding the romance of unity. Most of the activists in the film are queer (in an interview, Borden opined that it was their lesbianism, even more than their feminism, that so many viewers found upsetting) though this is simply another fact of life. Unlike Jamie Babbit’s 2007 homage to Borden, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, the film’s politics are not tethered to a predictable lesbian romance plot: rather, politics is itself the romance of the film.
The clip begins as the Women’s Army’s founder, Adelaide Norris, is terminated, without reason, from her construction job (it is implied that this is the doing of the two FBI agents assigned the task of monitoring and neutralizing the threat posed by the Women’s Army). The montage of women’s unrecognized and undervalued work that follows the termination scene culminates in a women’s right-to-work protest at City Hall.
What I love most about this clip is the way it maps the motion of women’s hands in ways that are both feminist and queer: feminist in the way it mimics the depersonalization and fragmentation of women’s bodies by the conditions in which they labor, queer in the way it refuses, as it drives this point home, to abandon the pleasure of the movements themselves. This dual capacity might, I think, be one good place to begin tracking where and how feminist and queer citizenship touch one another.