Last Saturday, the Senate voted to repeal the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy that prevented gay men and women from serving in the armed forces. On Wednesday, President Obama will sign this repeal into law.
This is not just a victory for gay servicemembers and their families, or even for Americans and our quest to seek justice and freedom for all. It is also a victory for the women’s movement, because furthering the conversation about LGBTQ sexual preferences also serves to break down traditional gender identities, which can be barriers to advancing female quests for equality.
Gay rights has received a lot of attention lately, not just because of the DADT vote, but because of the recent string of gay teenage suicides that have rippled across the country, prompting the launch of the nationwide #itgetsbetter campaign. As a socially-accepted heterosexual female, I don’t claim to have intimate knowledge of what it is like to go through one’s life having to hide one’s identity or deal with the social stigma of being a lesbian. But I do know what it’s like to go through life as a woman, and there are stronger connections here than one would at first suspect.
It has always seemed to me that gay men and gay women have different reputations. While gay men (who have the sexual preferences of traditional [i.e. straight] women) can be teased and tormented mercilessly for being “like a girl," lesbians do not face the same type of discrimination. Why? Because in our society, it’s ok to be a boy and not ok to be a girl. While women have been given the opportunity to behaviorally act more like men in recent years (wearing pants, playing sports, etc.), it isn’t yet socially acceptable for men to act like women. As Ariel Levy writes in her excellent book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, it’s seen as cool, even by girls, to act like boys. We’ve all heard our girlfriends say it: “I hate girls, I only hang out with guys,” or “I only live with guys – girls are so dramatic.” It’s why girls who have male friends are considered "cooler," why girls try so often to be "one of the boys," drinking and playing cards and even making sexist small talk about other girls.
None of my gay female friends seem to experience nearly the same kind of torment or discrimination that my gay male friends do. Some of these policies are even enshrined in government-sponsored actions – one need look no further than Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s famous directive to force inmates to wear pink underwear. Why? Because pink is a girl’s color, and, because being a girl is prissy and weak, the prisoners would feel degraded and humiliated. (Let’s forget those of who are "condemned" to the humiliation of being women full-time, even without the criminal conviction!)
To be clear, anti-gay public policies, including Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, do not differentiate between gay men and gay women. Additionally, it should be noted that women who act too much like men can sometimes face swift and severe and brutal retaliation for not “knowing their place.” But these women aren’t teased and tormented and made fun of in the same way that men who act like woman are – instead, they’re beaten or raped or otherwise "put back in their place."
Promoting gay rights in this country is crucial to advancing the conversation about what it means to be male or female. Many of us feel a strong connection to our gender identity (indeed, it permeates many aspects of our lives), but we need to be willing to take a careful look at whether assigning certain behaviors to certain genders is ultimately harming both ourselves individually and the gender equality movement as a whole.