The 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ has resonated widely and had a significant cultural impact, with the iconic red-cloaks and white, face-obscuring bonnets appearing in a range of protests around the world. The novel and this latest adaptation portray a patriarchal society in which women’s roles are reduced to those of submissive wife, exchangeable baby maker, or receptacle for male sexual desire. Meanwhile, female desire, control and independence are punishable by torture and death. That a tale written over thirty years ago, and set in a world that mirrors a puritanical society harking back centuries, should strike such an emotional chord today, says a lot about the state of current attitudes and legislation surrounding gender and sexuality, women’s rights and reproductive choices. Many of the gains made for women and the LGBTQI community in the past 50 years are now being chipped away, corroded or simply swept aside.
The 18th Century Age of Enlightenment saw the birth of ‘science’ as we know it today, and central to that was the attempt to explain, and contain, the complexity and diversity of the natural world through a system of classification into different species and suborders. Today we continue to categorise the world around us in order to understand and control it. We use the biological distinction between male and female sexes based on genitalia, reproductive organs, chromosomes and hormones. However, research has also been carried out into the balance of influences on human development, between biological (nature) and learned behaviour from societal messages and pressure (nurture). This has given us the concept of ‘gender’ as a social construct of what is considered masculine and feminine, challenging the belief that ‘maleness’ and ‘femininity’ are ‘natural’ biological propensities. But even this is an oversimplification and there is in fact a diverse spectrum of biological and behavioural differences when it comes to assigned biological sex, psychological experience, sexual identity and sexual attraction, which do not fit into basic binary models. Central to many of the current regressive changes in legislation and attitudes is the desire to uphold a simpler binary notion, which sees women with a primary role as child bearer and keeper of home while men protect and go out and ‘do’. In this model, sexual intercourse is viewed as a means to procreate and so homosexuality is also demonised, and anything other than the binary concept of gender and sex is utterly rejected. Those who are made uncomfortable or feel threatened by those not conforming to these ‘traditional’ roles, are currently working to influence discussion and legislation around abortion, women’s rights and LGBTQI rights in order to suppress what they see as aberrant behaviour and to maintain control over other bodies and reproduction.
Examples abound, including changes in US policy under the current administration to reduce funding for women’s health initiatives and sex education, with budgets being cut from health clinics making referrals for abortions. Funds have also been diverted from education on pregnancy prevention through contraception towards programmes that emphasise abstinence. Legislation that has recently been passed includes religious freedom rules, allowing employers with moral objections to opt out of contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act and doctors to deny treatment to women who have had abortions or to LGBTQI patients. Meanwhile, states such as Georgia have passed ‘heartbeat bills’, criminalising abortion after 6 weeks, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Much of this is in line with the wishes of Christian evangelicals, whose endorsement helped the current president into office. At the highest levels of Trump’s administration, figures such as Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are known for their fundamentalist Christian beliefs, a lack of concern for LGBTQI rights and a desire to see the end of abortion access. Meanwhile, both of Trump’s supreme court nominees, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsich, caused concern at their confirmation hearings by either equivocating or refusing to discuss whether they believe Roe v Wade (legal access to abortions) and Obergefell v Hodges (marriage equality) are settled law. A recent 5-4 decision by the court enabled the Trump administration to continue pursuing their attempts to overturn an Obama-era law and to prohibit transgender people from serving in the military.
The US’ dangerous and regressive stance has far-reaching international consequences. One of the Trump administration’s first moves was to enforce the Global Gag Rule, which has resulted in a denial of funds to NGOs giving advice on abortion services, damaging health provisions in developing countries and reducing the ability to treat other issues including TB and HIV. Then, last month at the United Nations, the US threatened to veto the latest update of the Women, Peace and Security resolution, which protects civilians from sexual and gender-based violence in conflict. Their objection surrounded the language in the resolution, which was added in 2013, guaranteeing access to reproductive and sexual health services for victims of rape, and to the inclusion of the word “gender”. Their objection to that single word covers all UN documents, and is an attempt to undermine the rights of transgender people. The resolution in question only passed after the requested changes were made and the US voted in favour, while Russia and China abstained.
Restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQI are a global problem with countless examples around the world, many in nations with strong, autocratic, male leaders. In spite of the claims that Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is having a liberalising influence in Saudi Arabia, numerous women’s rights activists are currently imprisoned, and have allegedly been tortured. The kingdom continues to resist any loosening of the guardianship laws, which prevent women from studying, working or travelling without male consent. Meanwhile legal abortions remain out of reach in many countries, domestic violence laws were recently weakened in Russia, and in Brazil’s October 2018 election, the country voted in a man who stated, “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it.” Homosexuality remains illegal in over 70 countries, and international condemnation was muted at best amidst recent crackdowns on gay rights in Tanzania, Russia and Chechnya. However, Brunei has backtracked a little on their recently announced plan to punish gay sex with stoning to death. A moratorium was called after high-profile figures called for a boycott of the luxury hotels owned by the kingdom, showing the importance of publicity and influential allies in this issue.
There are, however, also powerful influencers working on the side of those who cling to fundamentalist readings of religious scriptures in order to restrict rights and choices. Pope Benedict recently resurfaced, 6 years after abdicating from the Holy See, in order to blame sexual abuse within the Catholic church on the sexual revolution. He explained in a letter that clerical abuses were due to the “all-out sexual freedom” of the 1960s, which led to a “dissolution” of morality in Catholicism, homosexuality and paedophilia. In the background of Benedict’s reappearance is Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor whose current mission is to unite nativist, far-right, populist movements in Europe. Part of Bannon’s effort has involved advising Italian interior minister Mario Salvini that Pope Francis is too liberal and an enemy who should be attacked, telling him, “[populism is] catching fire and the Pope is just dead wrong”. After meeting Bannon, Salvini wore a t-shirt that declared, “Benedict is my Pope”.
It is not only cisgender men who are driving the restrictions being placed on women and LGBTQI, but also some women acting as policy advocates, attacking other women and defending the actions of men who would erode the rights of those less privileged. One such example is US lobbyist Janet Porter, whose organisation Faith2Action supports gay conversion therapy. Such programmes, now banned in many states, attempt to pressure people to repress their true identities and have resulted in serious mental health issues and led to suicides. Porter, assisting GOP legislators, has also been instrumental in pushing for the ‘heartbeat bill’ (based on the false idea that a human heart is fully formed and beating by 6 weeks after conception) but wants to go further, advocating for a total ban on abortion and a legal definition of life as beginning from conception. This all in spite of the evidence that shows abortion bans place women’s lives at risk due to unregulated illegal procedures. Women are also complicit in much of the vitriol currently being directed against transgender people, with some feminists arguing against the inclusion of trans women in female spaces. Many refuse to see trans women as women and are resorting to some of the arguments that were used in the past against homosexuals, painting them as predators and paedophiles who are not to be trusted in bathrooms and changing rooms. However, there is no evidence of women or children being placed at risk by having trans women in female spaces, and while these trans-exclusionary feminists may believe they are supporting women’s rights, their stance is actually bolstering the essentialist binary agenda and aiding discriminatory messages and policy.
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ may be dystopian fiction but there is a reason it doesn’t feel far-fetched right now. Worldwide, there are concerted, often co-ordinated, efforts to deny women and LGBTQI of their rights. It’s not just about misogynist, homophobic and transphobic trolling on social media. It’s not just about wolf whistles, name calling and discriminatory behaviour. This is a determined effort by those in power to reverse progress, through policies and legislation that disadvantage women and those who do not sit comfortably in a narrow, outdated definition of gender and sex. Many currently in positions of power scoff at ‘identity politics’ but their own policies often specifically target LGBTQI, women and minorities. This is a war on women and the non-binary. And what is required in response is an army. The reason the original LGB initials have grown over the years has been a recognition of all gender and sexual diversities, and of the need to work together as allies. We need cis men and women, trans men and women, lesbian, bi, gay, queer and intersex all to advocate for recognition of a full spectrum of identities with equal rights and full autonomy and agency over their bodies. We need to fight for the right to choose when and whether to have children, and to support parents in finding the balance between work and childcare that suits them. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI of colour and low socioeconomic status, who are disproportionately affected by restrictions on sexual health services. We need to challenge the binary modal whenever we are faced with it and to celebrate diversity. We need to demand that all people be safe to be themselves and live openly with whomever they choose, without fear of censure, discrimination or violence. We need to stand up for all people to have access to the career paths they choose and the healthcare outcomes they need. We need to be allies to women and LGBTQI striving to reach positions of power in business, the media and politics, and to help them change attitudes and influence policy. Together we are powerful, we are a supermajority, and this is a war we need to win.
9th May 2019