On May 1, DePaul kicked off its annual celebration of LGBTQA Month with guest speaker Julia Serano (right), an author, performer and activist, who discussed exclusion in activist movements. Offered as part of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity’s President’s Signature Series and the Center for Intercultural Programs’ Celebration Series, Serano’s breakfast talk drew a large crowd of students, faculty and staff.
Serano based her presentation on her most recent book, “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive,” which reveals the ways that movements designed to challenge sexism often end up excluding those on the margins of the movements. For example, she discussed how feminists of color were often marginalized during the 1960s and 70s because the mainstream feminist movement intentionally focused on “traditional sexism,” without regard for the ways racism and sexism interact. Activists fighting for gender equality saw their activism through a narrow lens that didn’t consider the unique hurdles faced by women of color. “During second-wave feminism, a lot of feminists—especially white middle-class feminists—felt that racism and class were very real issues that should be addressed, but at the same time, they would say ‘we’re just interested in traditional sexism,’” Serano explains. Known as single issue activism, this approach fails to engage fully with intersectionality, which is the understanding that different forms of marginalization can interact with and exacerbate one another: “The racism [women of color] faced was often sexualized, and the sexism they faced was often racialized.”
Serano cited identity politics and binary divisions as other contributors to exclusion. “Anytime you create a binary—such as men and women—there are always going to be people who fall through the cracks,” Serano said. “There are people who are transgender and intersex … who have been theorized out of feminism. There are bisexual people and people who are asexual … who are left out when you talk about a heterosexual/homosexual binary.” Historically, those who were excluded often helped lead the charge in creating new activist movements. While Serano applauded those movements, calling them empowering, she explained that they too fell into the trap of erasing and excluding people.
Serano urged activists to learn from their past mistakes and incorporate a broader perspective. While she acknowledged that single issue activism, identity politics and binaries can be useful shorthands for discussing complex topics, it’s critical to recognize how those approaches “mark” people and ultimately legitimize certain forms of marginalization over others. “When you’re marked … you’re seen as questionable,” Serano stated. “For example, in our culture, women are marked; men are unmarked. Women are sexualized; men are not.” Markings are assumptions, stereotypes, questions, comments and critiques, and they also tend to stand for invalidations. Serano explained that those who are marked are often seen as immoral, sexualized, mentally incompetent, ill or unhealthy, and inauthentic.
“These are just tools people use to knock others down a peg,” Serano said. “For me, it’s been useful to see these as red flags.” She recalled that the first time she heard someone say “asexuality is not a real thing,” a warning went off in her head: “Wait, that’s the type of thing people say about trans people or bisexual people, that we’re inauthentic.” Being able to notice and confront those markers is one way to curb the exclusionary tendencies of activist movements. “Challenging gender entitlement is all of us challenging our own tendencies to make assumptions and expectations about other people,” Serano asserted. “I think it’s a really important part of activism that we don’t talk about as much as we should.”
Learn more about LGBTQA Month at DePaul.