In early September, the organisers of Lesfest, a national lesbian festival and conference, were granted an exemption under Victoria's Equal Opportunity Act to allow the event to be advertised as being for "female-born lesbians".
Explaining their wish to hold a gathering restricted to lesbians born female, Lesfest's organisers stated in a September 17 press release: "Lesbians born female ... need positive affirmation in today's climate of queer politics, post-modern deconstruction of gender and the backlash against feminism.
"Lesbians born female have become a minority group in the gay and lesbian community, and their culture and identity is in danger of being subsumed and invisibilised.
"Lesfest 2004 is not for all lesbians — it is for those who identify as lesbians born female. Lesbians born female respect the right of all other groups to meet amongst themselves for their own reasons, and trust that they will be extended the same respect in return."
However, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) revoked the exemption on September 30 because the organisers had failed to notify the tribunal about a complaint from the Australian WOMAN Network, a group that lobbies for the rights of Australian women with transsexualism.
In a media release issued on October 1, co-convenor of WOMAN Karen Gurney explained that the group had complained because the tribunal's exemption allowed festival organisers to exclude "those lesbian women who were born with transsexualism or other intersex conditions and had been surgically assigned as female. [These are] people who have legal status as women."
WOMAN supports the organising of a lesbian-only festival, and backs the tribunal's endorsement of the need to provide "a sense of security and wellbeing for those attending and participating in the festival program", but it has condemned the use of the term "women born female".
WOMAN argues that restricting participation to "women born female" is supported by neither the common law nor the Equal Opportunity Act, and serves to create an underclass of women who, though legally female, were born with both male and female characteristics and were therefore not "female born".
The VCAT's ruling barred those who are socially and legally women from being part of the very group of women with which they identify.
The dispute over who is welcome to participate in Lesfest taps an continuing debate within the gay and lesbian community, and within the feminist movement, over the nature of gender and sexuality. While it is now widely accepted that human sexuality is a social rather than a fixed, biological construction, the debate over gender identity continues. By defending the notion that a "true lesbian" is born female, a section of the lesbian community still holds fast to a separatist, biologically determinist view.
In defending the exclusion of transsexual lesbians, the Lesfest organisers state in their September 17 press release: "Being born and raised female clearly makes us a distinct group. In a society that is not yet equal, we are doubly oppressed, firstly as females and secondly as lesbians. During girlhood, we are trained to accept our disadvantage. We learn to become second-class citizens. Male to female transgenders cannot share this experience."
This assertion assumes that transgender people do not experience oppression as they are growing up. It overlooks the fact that many realise from an early age that they do not fit the gender role dictated to them by society. Although they are born as males, they have little access to the privileges of being male. They suffer oppression as transgender people — being forced to conform to stereotypes that contradict their identity. When they start to live openly as women, they are harassed, intimidated, rejected and isolated for doing so.
They experience the oppression that all women face — violence, sexual harassment, unequal wages and sexist assumptions. Because female transsexuals also suffer from sexism, their experiences become intertwined with those of all women in a sexist society.
Anna Langley wrote in a letter to the September 15 Melbourne Age: "I campaigned against this 'womyn-born-womyn' prejudice when I lived in Melbourne. I found that it was a baseless bias, propped up by the repeated (albeit nonsensical) assertion that transpeople were somehow trying to rob them of their womanhood. I was saddened by the hypocrisy of lesbians complaining of oppression while beating up on a group even more oppressed than themselves. The organisers of Lesfest 2004 are bigots, however they dress it up. But with the Victorian and federal governments still dragging their heels on legal recognition of transpeople, they are in good company."
Lesbians are oppressed in our society, and have every right to organise themselves against that oppression, but to dismiss the issue of lesbian transsexuals as the "post-modern deconstruction of gender" is biologically determinist and exclusionary. Not only will it further undermine the still limited legal recognition of the rights of transsexuals, it also weakens lesbians' campaign for equality and recognition.
Despite the exemption being revoked, Lesfest will go ahead as a female-born lesbian gathering, now to be held in December. Because three months' notice must accompany any revocation, it doesn't take effect until the end of December.
BY SARAH STEPHEN
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.