Lesbian Communities and Dehumanization
Infighting doesn’t help us
Lesbian communities (and LGBTQ communities too) are broad and diverse. Like many marginalized groups, we experience infighting and project a lot of the discrimination we experience onto one another.
I’m tired of it.
In my 30+ years out as a lesbian, I’ve lived through several rounds of spectacular infighting on many topics relating to feminism, gender, sexual expression and violence against women within my communities. For years at a time, the lesbian or queer community would split into camps that hate one another, and then eventually would either drive out those who disagreed with the prevailing view or come to some kind of peace with our differences, or both.
I think this harms us, not least by limiting the ability for people to participate authentically and feel belonging.
I have some faith that we do eventually work things out, but honestly, I really just wish we could accept that just because someone is also a lesbian (or more broadly LBTQ), doesn’t mean you have anything else in common with her. This is not high school – we don’t all have to wear or think the same things at the same time to be accepted, do we? Accepting we have different perspectives, experience and beliefs doesn’t mean we can’t be allies on the places where we connect, and live and let live where we don’t.
Here is where I was going to put a practical example, a list of some of the terms that people use to describe others within our communities who they wish to justify violence, ostracism, or contempt for. I edited that list out of this essay, not because I don’t think having examples of the broad range of words we use to dehumanize our opponents wouldn’t make things clearer, but because I do not want to be dehumanized myself. The political discussion within our communities is often so polarized, that no matter what term I label as dehumanizing, even if I include terms on both sides of all the divides, those who use any of those terms will decide I am the enemy. Even this essay, which is meant to be peace-making, moderate and a call for empathy and compassion, puts me at risk within an environment that supports dehumanizing others.
Here’s the thing, about those terms I edited out though. THEY ALL ARE DEHUMANIZING. Anti-trans terms, anti-feminist terms, anti-conservative terms, anti-progressive terms, anti-woman terms, anti-lesbian terms, anti-straight terms, anti-minority terms, anti-majority terms whether used by progressive or conservative persons – I’ve seen all of them used in ways that dehumanize a person for their beliefs or experiences. I have witnessed verbal or written threats of death or violence directed at *women using all of those terms, and at times by people I would otherwise agree with. It has to stop.
No mattter what side of whatever political divide you are on, dehumanizing language has one purpose, to frame a person as less than human so that you can treat them in ways you would feel bad about if you recognized their full humanity. Dehumanizing language fuels violence and makes it easier for people to put aside the moral boundaries they would otherwise apply to their own behaviour toward another human being. Dehumanizing language that is intended to target a specific type of *woman is always, at its root, sexist and misogynist along with whatever other hate it embodies.
What is dehumanizing language?
Here’s one way to tell. I don’t claim it’s a perfect tool, but it seems like most of the words that are dehumanizing can be and are) used in the following way to promote and express hatred. Have you seen the word used in a sentence like this?
No ____________ need apply.
No ____________ welcome.
Kill the _________________
Punch a __________ today.
Dehumanizing frames a group of people as evil, animal-like, dirty or otherwise unworthy of basic human value.
Shame and Vulnerability Expert Brene Brown on Dehumanizing Language
To quote shame and vulnerability expert Brené Brown on this topic:
Michelle Maiese, the chair of the philosophy department at Emmanuel College, lays it out in a way that makes sense, so I’ll use some of her work here to walk us through it. Maiese defines dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.” Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.
Once we see people on “the other side” of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil. Maiese writes, “Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases more militant leadership comes into power.”Brené Brown – Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language
So what do we do about it?
Boundaries are when we are clear what behaviour is okay and not okay in relation to us, what we have sovereignty over (our bodies, our thoughts among other things) and what we do not.
When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us and what doesn’t with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change. Yes, there will be people who violate our boundaries, and this will require that we continue to hold those people accountable. But when we’re living in our integrity, we’re strengthened by the self-respect that comes from the honoring of our boundaries, rather than being flattened by disappointment and resentment.Brené Brown – Rising Strong
The clearer and more respected the boundaries, the higher the level of empathy and compassion for others. Fewer clear boundaries, less openness. It’s hard to stay kind-hearted when you feel people are taking advantage of you or threatening you. Boundaries recognize the humanity in others – they say what you will and will not do, and what you will and will allow.Brené Brown – Dehumanizing Always Starts With Language
Alternate language – it’s about behaviour
It’s okay to have spaces and groups that are centred on the needs of a particular group. It’s okay to have spaces that are set apart, particularly to address the needs of a group. For example: “This event is by and for BIPOC folks”. “This is a Queer bar.” Saying what your intention is, and who you are centering is an assertive way to set boundaries.
I believe that it is okay to say what behaviour is off limits sets a clear and assertive boundary, labelling behaviour as unwelcome rather than people or their private thoughts or beliefs. Examples of this might be:
“Denigrating language towards identifiable groups is not welcome”
“Please provide your pronoun when introducing yourself”
“Informed and enthusiastic consent is honoured and required in this space. Reports of consent violation, whether you feel they are valid or not, will result in you being asked to leave.”
“Please do not touch others without permission.”
“Please ask before offering advice or commentary on others’ sharing during this meeting”
Note, this type of framing draws a boundary about behaviour in your space or in relation to you, without violating someone else’s thought boundaries by telling them how they must think in order to be valid or welcome. It recognizes that we may (and usually don’t) agree, and that’s fine, but how we behave together must be respectful.
I don’t have the solution to the perpetual infighting our communities experience, but I do think that taking the high road is the best way through to a place where we can go forward constructively. I welcome your respectful and constructive comments below.
Definitions / Footnotes
FYI: I’m using the term “*women” as short hand for “all women, inclusive of cis and trans women”.