... and ain't i a woman?: Male-only bars and misogyny

March 11, 1998

and ain't i a woman?

Male-only bars and misogyny

The Laird Hotel and Club 80 in Melbourne applied to the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal on February 26 for an exemption from equal opportunity laws so that they can ban women from their premises.

The owners of the venues say that their clients — gay men — want to be able to socialise without feeling "intimidated" by women. As a precedent, they point to an all-female gym in Melbourne which recently received an exemption.

It makes no difference whether the bars are all-gay male or all-straight male venues. The exclusion of women is reactionary, and these applications should be refused.

Feminists have struggled for centuries to break down the gender apartheid in our society and be permitted equal access to all public spaces. The formal exclusion of women from any public space would be a huge leap backwards, and the thin end of a wedge still wielded by an increasingly vocal and influential ultraconservative movement.

As part of the struggle for equality, feminists have also argued that women-only areas are a necessary counterbalance to the many areas where it is unsafe, if no longer illegal, for them to go in this sexist society.

Since this society is also homophobic and gay men, too, are assaulted and discriminated against, shouldn't they also have a right to male-only spaces? The answer is no, and the difference is clear.

In a society in which women as a group are oppressed by a set of social relations which give men as a group the power of oppressor, women's physical and mental health and safety sometimes require male-free zones. There is no such institutionalised relationship of oppression between gay men and women.

Certainly, many individual women (like many individual men) are homophobic. And certainly, individual ruling-class women may exercise their economic and political power to perpetuate the oppression of gays.

However, women as a whole have no socially sanctioned power over, and pose no threat to, gay men, yet all women are being banned from these venues. Homophobic men, on the other hand, do pose a threat to gay men, yet there is no mention of how these venues will screen such men from entry (do all men have to swear an oath of sexual orientation at the door?).

Women as a whole benefit in no way from the oppression of gay men. On the contrary, homophobia is founded on the ideology of the family, in which men's and women's roles are defined in terms of heterosexual, monogamous parenting. These roles, so the ideology goes, are "natural" or God-given.

This sexist and homophobic ideology greases the wheels of capitalism by justifying the sexual division of labour which relegates women to economic dependence, and therefore their oppression as a sex. The institutionalised discrimination against gay men and lesbians is a by-product of this oppression.

Before the women's liberation movement raised public consciousness about the existence and consequences of sex discrimination, the exclusion of women was often justified as being for their own benefit (so they wouldn't see or hear anything that might offend their — uniquely female — sensibilities). Now it is being argued on the grounds of the benefit to men.

But what sort of benefit? Since female patrons hardly pose a physical threat (certainly much less of a threat than homophobic men who manage to gain entry), could it be that women's presence in these bars is simply distasteful to the male clientele? It seems so.

That is misogynist and no more justifiable in gay male venues than in such bastions of sexism (and homophobia) as the elite Melbourne Club, which still bars women and Jews from membership.

The establishment of male-only domains of any sort is politically misguided and dangerous. If gay men want to live in a world truly free of homophobic intimidation and in which there is full freedom of sexuality, rather than pose women as the enemy to be excluded en bloc, they should seek common cause with all those women struggling against the oppressive relations between the sexes that underlie gay oppression.

By Lisa Macdonald

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