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Emilia Roig

Why is the YEAR OF THE WOMEN* so important?

It is an honor for me to hold the keynote speech today at the closing of the year-long programme, YEAR OF THE WOMEN*. The title alone says a lot: YEAR OF THE WOMEN*. Why is this so important?

The voices, perspectives, artworks and writings of women* are being made invisible in all institutions. And I emphasize this point: they are made invisible. There is a process of making invisible. Often when we use the word “invisible”, it gives the impression that people are simply not there. But they are there and they are fighting. They are fighting for appreciation, for space and for visibility. Everyone who is not a cis man knows that we have to fight for space daily. Be it in the office, at home, on the street, on the subway, in the park, on the plane, in the sauna. Everywhere. And it’s about power. When we are socialized as women*, we learn very early on that we should not take up a lot of space. And, conversely, those with male socialization learn, that they have more space at their disposal. This is accompanied by the realization that this power must not be shared under any circumstances and must be protected. And that is what I would like to talk about today. Because that is the core of the problem. Power.

I will limit myself to the art and culture business here, although these processes take place in all social spheres – in science, in politics, in the field of literature, etc. I will also not focus solely on the category woman within the LGBTQIA+ movement either but on all intersectional identities. On People of Color, on trans*, gender non-conforming and non-binary people in feminist circles, on disabled people in social justice movements. On all those who experience this being made invisible every day. And of course on the reverse side, too – namely the hyper-visibility – i.e. the construction of universal subjects within different movements: For example, white gay cis men in the in the LGBTQIA+ movement or white straight middle class women in mainstream feminism. Systems of domination are reproduced in all groups.

Within the feminist movement, for example, trans* people, Women* of Color and other minorities fight for visibility and audibility. Within the LGBTQIA+ movement, it is the struggle of Muslims, refugees and disabled people against invisibilization.

Global campaigns in US America and Europe for same-sex marriage are good examples: white cis gays were the driving force, or were at least portrayed as the protagonists. The interests of other queers in, for example, access to housing, work or health care could not be pushed forward. Sex workers, poverty-stricken queers, refugees, trans* people—hardly any of them benefit from same-sex marriage. This is why we need intersectionality. However, it is not merely about deconstructing these norms and archetypes but about redefining the norms. If a trans* Woman of Color using a wheelchair were to be represented as a universal subject, then we will have deconstructed and redefined the norm. 

At this point I would like to list some statistics[1]: In 2008, the Schwules Museum decided to change its direction. The institution, which had been exclusively dedicated to gay male history and culture, was to become an organization that acted intersectionally, that sought to represent queer positions and views in all their diversity, and sometimes  their contradictions, and to be a space to which all people of the rainbow spectrum felt invited. 10 years later, the balance sheet is sobering. Almost 80 exhibitions took place between 2008 and 2017. Almost 50% devoted themselves to the usual “classically gay” artists, protagonists or subjects. 31% tried to represent the entire spectrum of queer positions multi-perspectively, such as the exhibition of queer comic book heroines* (SuperQueeroes, 2016) or the big overview show Homosexualität_en in cooperation with the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 2015. However, only 12% were dedicated specifically to lesbian and only 8% to trans* history_ies or artistic positions.

In December 2017 the largest empirical study to date on gender discrimination in the European and US art world was published. The database: 2.7 million transactions from 2000-2017 involving more than 1,000 galleries and more than 100,000 artists. Only 5% of recorded sales were for works by female* artists. The value of the works sold by the two highest-paying artists, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, exceeded all female* artist sales combined, and there is not a single woman* found in the upper echelon of international art.

In order to do something about this blatant inequality, which affects not only the Schwules Museum but also the entire queer community, curators Dr. Birgit Bosold and Vera Hofmann decided to create an entire year-long programme dedicated to female* perspectives and positions for the year 2018.

From their dossier: “The decision to dedicate a whole year of budgets, spaces and our work and dedication to predominately (queer) feminist and female* perspectives was the cause of great conflicts within the house and ongoing debates in the queer media and on the social media channels: some thought it not enough lesbian, others too “esoteric” and others still even an attack on the (gay male) identity of the house. Still, 2018 was the most successful year in the history of the museum – never before have more people felt invited and visited us, many of them for the first time, and there has never been so much discussion within and about our house.”

Sexism and misogyny – by-products of patriarchy – are fundamental tools of power. They work in both subtle and unrecognized as well as explicit and aggressive ways, as the backlash toward the Schwules Museum shows. They extended far beyond the point of making women* invisible, all the way to the explicit devaluation of their perspectives, positions and creativity. And, unfortunately, this involves more than the handful of people who fought against the YEAR OF THE WOMEN* and for the protection of their own privileges. Systemic patriarchy feeds on everything and everyone in its path, including those who aren’t aware that they reinforce or even maintain the system: Spectators, museum visitors, collectors, donors and sponsors, curators, and the list goes on.

Precisely because of the omnipresence of patriarchy – as well as other systems of rule –it is vital and necessary to practice exclusionary politics, or non-mixité, as it is called in French. Otherwise the dynamics of power and oppression may unwittingly reproduce themselves. Simply because they continue to be so powerful. No one publicly said before the YEAR OF THE WOMEN*: “Here [in the Schwules Museum] we prefer men’s perspectives;” no-one talked about the “Decades of Men,” nor were there – in relation to the USA – “White History Months” (plural) declared.

Identity Politics and the Binary – YEAR OF THE WOMEN* and the question of gender fluidity

And, now, back to the question of identity politics, and, when we talk about queerness, the question of the binary. Do we need a YEAR OF THE WOMEN* in times of gender fluidity? Doesn’t this perpetuate the male/female binary? Shouldn’t we try to get past such categories instead? Is the YEAR OF THE WOMEN* ultimately identity politics? I would say, yes. And that’s a good thing.

Identity politics is oversimplified in mainstream media. The systemic is faded out and it becomes all about people who seem to want to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller groups. But identities are flexible, contextual, and reflective. Systems create identities and not vice versa. From Judith Butler we have learned a lot about the performativity of language. I am not Black, I am made Black – by white supremacy and colonialism. I wasn’t born queer, I was made queer by patriarchy, binarity and heteronormativity. A disabled person is disabled by the societal structures and medical systems that constructed the standards for being “healthy” and “able.” Incidentally, these systems of domination also include capitalism and racism. Trans*, non-binary and gender non-conforming people constantly have to assert their humanity and worth because the rigid binary gender order is defended and stabilized violently by institutions, laws, the state, and also completely commonplace people.

Our identities are projected onto us, not made by us. Thus, the reclamation and reappropriation of our identities can become a strategy for liberation. Hashtags like #transisbeautiful or #blackpower are examples of this positive political mobilization of identity. It would be a completely different matter with #cisisbeautiful or #whitepower.

One of the goals of identity politics is to express one’s own oppression in one’s own words, based on collective lived experience. This corresponds to a process of awareness. Becoming aware that one’s own experience is not individual but collective. This process leads to empowerment, to the power of creating your own narrative. This is the power of liberation. 

It is a necessary stage, even if it is not the ultimate goal. Recognising the connection between political identity, privilege, oppression and inequality is essential to the process of moving beyond categories. Before we can dismantle the system, we must first acknowledge and understand this, and how categories come to exist. It is for this reason that we need identity politics, and it is for this reason that we need the YEAR OF THE WOMEN* at the Schwules Museum.

BUT, discourses change and power shifts. This constantly asks us to adapt the way we shape liberation movements – and identity. In liberation movements, the extent to which our identities are mobilized, rather than the systems that have created them, will either weaken or strengthen our struggles. Identity politics without intersectionality means reforming systems – but not dismantling them.

Now, back to the question of power: How can we knock down the power of patriarchy? By deconstructing the binary – the gender binary. And how does this work? By creating space for all that is constructed within the patriarchy as lacking and subservient: the feminine*. Hypermasculinity and the marginalization of femme* identities in queer spaces is symptomatic of an incomplete deconstruction of patriarchy. It’s not about gender expression, but about the different parts of our identity.

The femmes in us – in cis men, in straight women, in gay men – in all of us, must be given space, we must value and love them, appreciate them always and everywhere!

February 17th, 2019

[1] Hofmann, Bosold: Dossier zum Jahr der Frau_en, 2018.

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