Sexuality and gender – what are the issues?

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Feminism. Sexuality. Gender. Patriarchy. Power. Bodies. Knowledge.

These words – and many more like them – fill our conversations, drive our activism. But what do such concepts mean for us as a movement? Have we moved beyond the need for labels and definitions? How do we harness the knowledge that comes from existing in sometimes similar but often radically different contexts? And how can we, as a coalition, integrate a feminist-centred politics into a sexual rights advocacy plan?

Answers to such questions never come easy, but as activists we must not shy away from tough conversations. For the last few hours, the workshop participants has been discussing, debating and rethinking how we understand sexuality and gender. For how can we move forward, how can we ignite our social revolution, without first setting our own points of reference?

And so the challenge is posed: to start developing a conceptual framework, a theoretical starting point, that not only works for us but that can drive positive change on sexual rights.

Of course, these conversations will be ongoing throughout the week, and there are plans to properly unpack the issues starting to emerge from today’s small-group conversations. But in the meantime, we thought it would be nice to share some of the themes and questions that have already begun to surface.

  • To define or not to define? A big challenge revolves around how to understand our sexual behaviours, our identities and expressions, our roles and communities. All of us make assumptions and define others, but does this behaviour encourage or hinder our battle against patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality?
  • Challenging or replicating? Vital to any discussion of sexuality and gender is the problem of power – how does it play out within our relationships, our communities, our political mobilising? Are we really moving beyond hierarchical power structures, or in our own lives are we reproducing and mimicking patriarchal power dynamics? What happens when there is no blueprint for the world we are trying to create?
  • Tick a box. Lesbian, womyn, trans*, bisexual, feminist – what do these terms mean and how do we integrate other people’s understanding of identities and expressions? Are these concepts still relevant to our live and struggles? And how does our cultural and national heritage affect these understandings?
  • Happy families? There are few, if any, visible spaces for us to discuss openly and honestly issues around families, children, reproduction or abortion. How do families impact on our relationships? How do we negotiate the boundaries of queer or nonconforming family units? In what ways do we need to interrogate the dynamics of families and how do we approach issues around definition?
  • Knowledge is power. As a coalition we hold a wealth of experience, knowledge and radical thought. But who has access to this knowledge? How does such knowledge relate to power? How do we use it to increase visibility and engage with the broader world in a way that recognises and supports our members’ own work? And how do we share our experiences, both positive and negative, in a way that seeks to preserve the dignity of individuals?
  • Fixed or fluid? So many of use the words like intersectionality and privilege, but what do these really mean for our interventions and the way we mobilise as a political movement? When is something a preference/orientation or a prejudice? Do we forget our political beliefs when we enter the bedroom?

As noted above, this is just the start of the conversation – it promises to be an exciting and engaging debate, and we’re looking forward to sharing with you some of the highlights. To give you a taste of what to expect, here is a beautifully posed question from today’s debrief session: ‘How do we escape the cages of conformity, for these are all patriarchially imposed and serve patriarchy’s interests?’ This question is at the heart of our work and must stay in our minds when planning, implementing and renegotiating any interventions. No doubt there will be much more to come on this topic.

Workshop coverage provided by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action in collaboration with the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL).

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