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Separatism: conflict amongst the ranks

We recently celebrated Pride here in San Diego, PrideFest, aka HomoFest. I went to the parade and stood with 150,000 others, cheering for our freedoms (and demanding even more), our hard-won self-esteem and for the sheer joy of hanging out with friends. When I marched with the kids in 1990, the parade was all of forty-five minutes long. This one went on for a couple of hours. 

Sarah and I had broken up for awhile in 1988. I was a crazed mess, so went into therapy and immersed myself into the lesbian community here in San Diego. I went to several lesbian support groups, but the one on Thursday nights turned out to be the most interesting of them all. 

Those weekly meetings at the (then) Gay & Lesbian Center, took me from the myopic, white, heterosexual, middle class mindset and introduced me to… nay, challenged me… to see from various vantage points and acknowledge that I was really just a self-centered, ego-driven, hypnotized woman who thought she knew what was going on in the world. I sat, spellbound, listening to women talk about oppressions I never knew existed. I grew up in the Deep South, so had an inkling of racial oppression, but sitting face to face with women of color was stunning. I endured finger pointing, enumerating the ways I, too, was oppressing women of color… saying things like “I don’t see color; I see people,” and not knowing the PC (politically correct) terms for the nuanced cultures of the women right around me. 

I learned about other marginalized cultures (“marginalized” was a word I heard many times in those days)… the bdsm (bondage/discipline/sadism/masochism) folks, the butch (more “masculine” energied) dykes, teens coming out, lesbian mothers (my people! …who were few and far between back then), migrant lesbians, etc. and the subcultures of each of the marginalized people. Those nights at Group opened my eyes to worlds I’d never imagined. It was there I realized that every topic, every person had their own subtext within them. And those subtexts were never-ending. None of that even begins to examine the “isms” of the day, including classism and sizeism (another group I embodied). 

It’s like this in birth, too, isn’t it? Under the umbrella of human procreation, there exist an infinite number of choices women can make (or are forced to endure). Depending on where you live and even the political atmosphere of the day, the choices are rounded up like a huge net grabbing fish in the ocean. Whoever does the throwing can alter the birth’s path and outcome. Birth in the hospital? At home? With a midwife? Alone? Or, if we live in a Third World Country, does the mother feel safer with her family or the local Traditional Birth Attendant (TBA)? Do we risk losing our safe hiding place to transfer to the hospital because of a hemorrhage? (And, please know, this is an area I do not have much information about… the different choices women have in other, less mechanized, cultures. I welcome the education.) 

And then we move down the flow chart, each choice above having an infinite number of options, or, if not options, an outcome that is different for every single woman… maybe not in the live baby/live mother, live baby/dead mother, dead baby/live mother or dead baby/dead mother, but each woman carries her own experience, some in the body, others in the heart and some even deep in their souls. 

At the Festival, I ran into a couple of women from those long-ago rap groups and the flood of memories prompted me to write this. The analogy was so striking, the things that are going on in birth; I just couldn’t ignore the beckoning sirens. I hope I don’t crash amongst the rocks. 

When Sarah (who was in the Army) and I were in Germany, we’d found an underground group of gay men and women (Friends of Dorothy) and one of those women called herself a Separatist. Not having the Internet, I learned through context what that meant. 

Kathy Belge describes Separatism like this: 

“Lesbian separatism is the feminist political act of choosing to be around only lesbians or only women. In the early years of the Feminist Movement, some lesbians chose to avoid interacting with men as a way to remove themselves from male-dominated society. Their belief was that even well-meaning men were sexist and influenced by the patriarchy. They chose to be around only women in order to understand what womanhood and sisterhood is really all about. Some women moved to the country, bought land and created women-only societies. Avoiding all men was impossible, but they chose to have all of their significant relationships with women. The idea was that women could never truly understand themselves as powerful beings if they were immersed in the dominant, sexist culture. From lesbian separatism the idea of women-only space came into being at concerts, conferences and festivals.” 

This particular woman we met in Germany was so much of a Separatist, she gave her son to his father because she couldn’t abide by having a penis in the house. 

Historically, it’s important to note the connection between the Black Separatist movements of the sixties, acting as models for the women who came after in the seventies. Other societies have also chosen to remove themselves from the mainstream, too; the Amish and the Shakers, for instance. 

Any of us who’ve been in the birth world for any length of time have watched the same happen. Doctor? Obstetrician? Doctor of Osteopathy? Family Practice MD? Registered Nurse? RN with or without a BSN? Certified Nurse Midwife? Certified Midwife? Licensed Midwife? Certified Professional Midwife? Unlicensed/Direct-Entry Midwife? Religious Midwife? Overseeing organizations are created, a board elected, rules written (and continuously debated); exclusivity is a hallmark of any patriarchally-oriented organization.

Again, under each of the above monikers, factions develop, pulling together and, at the same time, pulling apart, oftentimes creating a whole new category. 

In the late 1970’s, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was born. Note the spelling of “womyn” (alternately spelled “wimmin”) – any derivative of the word “men” in it was changed to a different, “womon”-centered word. (We find this same mindset in birth with the renaming of the vagina to yoni or contractions to surges.) While I didn’t come out until late 1986, the Music Festival, and many others like it were still going strong, this one in particular continuing today. 

 If you poke around, Googling MWMF, you’ll see an on-going discussion, years long, about whether to allow transgender folks to attend. Lisa Vogel, one of the founders of the yearly event says: 

“Since 1976, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival has been created by and for womyn-born womyn, that is, womyn who were born as and have lived their entire life experience as womyn. Despite claims to the contrary by Camp Trans organizers, the Festival remains a rare and precious space intended for womyn-born womyn.” 

Interestingly, this wasn’t a concern back in the mid-late 80’s. Instead, then, it was the battle between allowing male children to attend or not. Some didn’t want any males there… no penises at all. Others were okay with nurslings and there were women who said kids under five. They picked five years old because they were still heavily influenced by their mothers, but after that they were in school and being influenced by the patriarchy. I see now, they’ve got two delineations: five and ten. They are segregated, but still permitted to attend. Why the five to ten-year olds? They were in school, but before puberty hit, when they would be considered real men. 

To some of us, this might sound absurd. People are people! How are men supposed to change without women around to show them the way? My eleven-year/fourteen-year/seventeen-year old son is not a man yet. But, I promise, to these women, Separatism was a grave and intensely crucial topic that required an opinion, one way or the other; black or white – choose or you were dismissed (physically and emotionally). Gray simply did not exist. Whole groups (and clubs) revolved around defining the word “Separatism” and who “qualified” as a real Separatist. In a fantastic article in the New Yorker, Ariel Levy says: 

“Different groups had different definitions of separatism, ranging from a refusal to associate with men to a refusal to associate with straight women to a refusal to associate with gay women who weren’t separatists.” 

The most idealistic/dogmatic womyn transformed their lives into a world where they rarely, if ever, had any contact with men. Some moved to womyn-owned land, allowing only womyn to live or visit there, excluding even male-born children; meaning mothers were required to divorce themselves from their sons. 

Does any of this sound familiar? 

Looking around, can we see parallels in the birth community? Groups form and morph depending on the cause célèbre. Should fathers be present at births? (Interestingly, while this was a big issue in the seventies and eighties, it’s come around again with Dr. Michel Odent’s belief that men should not be at births after all.) Which childbirth classes should women take? Bradley? Lamaze? None? Of course, the gulf widens as we add in Natural Birth, Normal Birth, Cesarean Birth and Unassisted Births. 

We also see this in the politics of birth even as I speak. Whether it is women who schedule a cesarean, get an early epidural or have an Unassisted (child)Birth (UC), proponents and detractors tend to be rabid about their choices. It’s very hard to find some gray. Sometimes I wonder if it even exists. 

John MacAdams of the Marquette Warrior, says “It’s a chronic problem in the rarefied world of political correctness -- and that world has spread out of academia into the mainstream media. Members of designated victim groups are allowed to be offended at the barest slight, but feel perfectly free to express rank bigotry toward those who disagree with them, or even merely adopt a different lifestyle.” 

We see any discussion deteriorate, almost as they begin, into accusations, hurt feelings and an absolute insistence on the rightness of the speaker. Isn’t there something, anything, we have in common? How do we find it amongst the sludge we all seem to be slogging in?

 Occasionally, the thought rises to the top, “What is this doing to benefit women?” On-lookers turn their heads back and forth as if they were at a tennis match; but where’s the ball? Is all this in-fighting hurting our causes (if you will)? Or is this the normal push and pull of a larger entity, clamoring to break off and live on its own. 

The latter stages of (the larger) Separatism movement found the lesbians raging against the heterosexual women, each “side” having ghastly epithets to heave at each other. “Breeder” came from that time. 

Jill Johnston says, in “Lesbian Nation,”: (emphasis mine) 

“Women wanted to remove their support from men, the ‘enemy’ in a movement for reform, power, and self-determination. A revolutionary prototype existed in their midst. But the prejudice against women within the ranks of women, much less loving women at the intimate level, was so great (still is, of course) that feminists could only act against their own best interests and trash the women who modeled their beliefs. The split between straight feminists and lesbian feminists was extremely damaging, and will no doubt continue to be in any future wave, to the cause of women’s liberation. The internal damage within the lesbian feminist ranks was also lethal.” 

I worry the same thing will happen in birth. Will the in-fighting be so intense we will only appeal to the most radical of those interested? Will women who are simply curious be so disgusted with our polarized beliefs, they couldn’t care less if we had the answer to the riddles of the Universe because it’s impossible to hear over the roar of anger? 

In those rap group days, I worked on the San Diego Lesbian Press, the local magazine/newspaper, obviously geared towards dykes who live here in San Diego. Working on SDLP was my first experience 1. working with only women and 2. using consensus to problem solve. Working with women is a whole blog post on its own. (Sarah should write it; she has extremely strong feelings about it.) But, can I tell you now how much I HATE consensus?! I mean, seriously. Could there be anything more time-consuming and more manipulative than trying to come to a consensus? Blech. I will no longer participate in groups that use consensus as their method for problem solving. (And I know others love consensus, think it’s the only way to come to “fair” answers, but that is not the way I see it. At. All.) 

I was ignorant then, a joiner and a newly self-discovered writer, so I became a part of the SDLP Collective

The defining moment came when there was a discussion about accepting an ad from a company owned by a man. There wouldn’t be any man in the ad, no penis would subliminally peek through, but this discussion turned into a humongous, weeks-long “discussion” (and I use the term loosely). You see, SDLP needed money something fierce; could they/we afford to turn away money… even though it did come from a man? The separatist side vociferously refused to even consider accepting money from The Enemy; the ad was absolutely not to be in the paper. Just as emphatically, less rigid, though still feminist, women could see the benefit of taking the money. Wouldn’t it be using a man’s money for a good cause? Wouldn’t we be bettering our women’s lives by being able to put out a paper? (Something we very likely would not be able to do otherwise.) When using consensus, everyone has to agree, no dissenters at all. I remember occasionally making a comment, but it was obvious I was a neophyte and no one cared what I said. I was probably asking basic questions like, “What are we fighting about again? I can’t even remember anymore!” 

I ended up leaving the SDLP to fight themselves to death; and they did, too. SDLP died shortly thereafter. I snarkily say dogma killed them. 

Is this our fate as well? Are the two extremes going to kill themselves off, leaving nothing but the center? 

Thinking about myself personally, I participate in this Us vs. Them as much as the next gal… maybe more sometimes. I’ve been implored to keep my mouth shut about certain issues, to try and make peace with all the birth sisters around me, no matter how much I disagree. But, you see, I wasn’t mature enough to ask the right questions back in early 1990. However, today, with many years of birth work under my belt, I feel qualified to defend my position and to speak, if not somewhat eloquently, at least pretty darn clearly about what I see and why. I’m an old crone of a midwife now (even though my midwife years are nothing compared to many of my peers), sharing the stories of those around me. Most are gloriously beautiful, wondrous births. But, too many of the stories aren’t fabulously perfect births; they have ended in tragedy and pain. I tell those stories, too. If it angers some women, then so be it. Their stories piss me off, too, so I guess, in some alternate-universe way, we’re even. 

When I stand back and see the parallels between the two Separatist movements, I know they are but two of a billion other arguments/discussions/opinions going on simultaneously. From husband vs. wife, Catholic vs. Protestant and the United States vs. everyone else to Wall Street vs. stockholders, Unions vs. employers and organic vs. commercially grown food… thinking there are just two sides is absurd. The same way couples go to therapy, employers go to mediation and we get to choose our food by which ones we buy, there have to be other ways of bridging the gaps we have in birth besides blowing each other up with bombs. 

I think about the song “From a Distance” that Bette Midler sings. 

“From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves,
it's the heart of every man.” 

I promise to remind myself, in the heat of those moments when I am standing toe to toe with another woman, that even as I speak my mind and tell my stories, I will remember she is a sister, she does have valuable things to say and I will keep an open heart and mind to what she is saying. I would only wish the same from her.


Me (and my big butt) marching in the LGBT Parade in the early 90's. Look! Polarized views even about marching with kids!



Homo Fest & Big Love

This last weekend was Homo Fest (the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Festival) and a few of us at our office went and shared space at a Lesbian Health table for a few hours. We hadn’t been to Homo Fest in a couple of years because I’ve been sick or we’ve had babies, but let me tell you, it sure has grown! There were several more Beer Gardens than there were last time I was there; a sure gauge for the size of the celebration. They even had a smallish Ferris wheel spinning around near the main stage.

If you’ve read me for a few years, you know we use to buy a table space for ourselves, but never reaped any financial benefits from it, so quit doing that. We did have a blast and a half laughing and being with each other as well as with the party-goers, but it is damn hard work, so we just couldn’t justify the cost any longer.
Remember the year we made Spec Pets? We took speculums and hot glue-gunned eyes, noses, feathers and sequins on them and made them drag queens, princesses, cowgirls and brides. We sold them for a few bucks apiece and actually sold quite a few. They were a dang hoot – and I had to stop laughing so hard as women kept asking, “Is that what you use now to do Paps?” because they were absolutely serious. I ran after the guys with them, “quacking” the speculum’s bills, telling them they better get in for their Paps right away. They just squealed and hid behind each other before running away to grab another beer.

The first year, I blew up REALLY big pictures of women giving birth and laminated them and hung them so people could see them from 50 feet away. While we didn’t garner any clients from the festival that year, I know we are still being talked about because of those pictures. You should have seen the reactions! Gay boys and dyke girls alike – aghast at the way a woman’s body stretches as a baby’s head comes out. I wish I’d gotten a half a penny for every time I heard, “Thank GOD I’m Queer/Gay/a Dyke/Lesbian/a Fag/a Homo/etc. so I don’t have to DO that!” Sarah would not let me bring pictures ever again. I giggle, though, straight-faced mentioning that I’m going to do so each time we have a booth. You can imagine the Gumby-like contortions her face and arms go through as she bellows her reminder argument against “those pictures!” and how I scared half the gay community out of procreation that year… didn’t I notice the birth rate dropping?! blah blah blah…. I just stare at her blankly and let her ramble on until she sees the corners of my mouth twitching. I’m only allowed to bring birth pictures to Homo Days in a photo album now. She watches with slitted eyes who I show them to.

We learned at our last exhibition to bring bubble machines. If you sell things at festivals (or are asking for $$ or whatever), bubble machines are the ticket to high volume visitors. Especially if your booth caters to kids, bubbles are absolutely incredible for drawing adults with money in. There are very few people who make faces at the bubbles. Curmudgeons. Tough noogies. Most people who walk through the bubbles laugh and smile – some try to eat them, many try to pop them, kids go way out of their way for them and kids-at-heart hang out near them for a few minutes, laughing.

After we’d done one festival with three machines just for our own bubble needs and had at least 40 people ask to buy them, we bought a ton of the machines and began selling them at the festivals, too. Amusingly, they began being the way for our business to make money at a festival, but it was labor intensive to bring them, stock them, store them, keep them safe, etc. We also had to sell batteries because the booths at the festival wanted the bubble machines, too! It became quite the phenomenon.

Buy your bubble liquid in giant bulk containers. Buy batteries at Costco and know that you will go through them like water. It’s worth it, though! Oh, and you can’t do this bubble trick indoors; too much of a slippery mess.

Each year, I hear all sorts of harrowing tales of our failing healthcare system. This year was no exception.

There was the very young woman whose lover pushed her towards me and made her tell me about the growing lump and increasing discharge from her nipple. The young woman (nearly a girl compared to my age) worked in a teeny-waged job with no insurance, yet didn’t qualify for Medi-Cal. She’d called asking a few places if she could come in, but they wouldn’t see her with cash up front; she was lost about where to go from here.

Another woman in her thirties, also without insurance and un-qualified for Medi-Cal, had had a “suspicious” lump that required follow-up in 6 months 2.5 years earlier. That breast had been leaking blood from the nipple for over 6 months and everywhere she called wouldn’t see her either. What could she do?

An HIV-positive woman told me about her expected uterine cancer that needed to be removed. She had Medi-Medi (Medi-Cal and Medi-Care), yet no GYN would touch her because of her HIV status – too “at risk,” they said. She said the under-lying insinuation was, “You’re just going to die anyway. Why bother?”

I asked each of the women to email me and told them I would ask Dr. Wonderful what to do. I don’t even know if he could do a thing, but I just couldn’t stand there and do nothing. I didn’t want to give them false hope – and told them that – but told them I knew a kind OB/GYN and if he knew anyone who could do anything, he would be then one. None of the women have yet to email me. That makes me sad.

I had a tender babydyke come up to me and ask if I could tell if her lover’d been with a man. Confused, I wondered if she wanted me to do an exam to see if she had a hymen… a throwback to medical care of old. I asked her if she’d had penetration in her own sex-making with her lover and when she said she had, I explained that penetration is penetration… and she expounded a little, saying that her lover’s body had “changed” suddenly without explanation and she (the woman I was speaking with) was highly suspicious. I explained that women’s bodies go through a myriad of changes throughout our lives – that hormones do all sorts of things we have no map or schedule for – and she could have had that happen. I encouraged her to talk with her lover and to come in and talk with me with or without her if she had more questions about her body or their relationship. She couldn’t have been 16 years old. I wanted to hug her.

Not to dwell on age (haven’t I?), I kept blinking and thinking, “Was I ever that young at Pride?” I turned to Sarah and she said we hadn’t been and it was a good thing because we probably wouldn’t have had our kids. She’s right! We came out when the time was right. And besides, we wouldn’t have our great Coming Out at a La Leche League Meeting story, would we? That, all on its own, is worth its weight in being married to a man for a short time. (No offense, former-husband-who-reads-my-blog. If I had to marry anyone, you were the best!) But those girls were… so young! In many ways, I wish I’d been so empowered as to have come out and stay out at that age. Such a different time 35 years ago. (Don’t I sound so dated? laughing)

Part of what I like to do in writing is share my history. The older I get, the more history I have to share.

(Trying to be affirming…) I have plenty of time to write all the articles I have to write, work on the Lenses I am working on – three at the moment – edit and copy the photos that are due to clients, take care of the 82 things on my Priority To Do list and begin the 325 on the Secondary To Do list….

WARNING!!! Spoilers ahead if you aren't up-to-date on Big Love storyline!!

Are you all watching Big Love?! Oh, my god. Is it the best show on tv right now or what?! (It’s the only new show I watch, so it’s the best as far as I’m concerned.) The tension is enormous watching to see what’s going to happen with Bill’s brother’s (brother-in-law’s?) money, (where did his mother and [her] brother GET that money from anyway?!) the Weaver gaming issue, the new wrinkle with the Green’s and Bill actually having to be on the Roman’s side (!) – it’s all so much fun! Sarah laughed Monday night after the show and said, “We’re addicted to a soap opera!” and I nodded and said All My Children was never this hot.