Barefoot, Pregnant, and Quiet

From taunts of "Dyke Hillary" to outright murder, report calls lesbian-baiting a global threat to activist women

A new report from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) suggests that Senator Hillary Clinton can expect a fresh onslaught of sexuality- and gender-based attacks if she does indeed run for president in 2008.

The commission's report, entitled "Written Out: How Sexuality is Used to Attack Women's Organizing," says that Clinton "continues to be baited as a public leader both because she is seen as strong, smart and opinionated, and therefore 'not a good traditional woman,' and also because of the controversy surrounding her husband's sexual 'transgressions.'"

IGLHRC bases its claims on incidents dating back to 1992, when the senator's detractors claimed she was "anti-family" because she didn't "stay home, bake cookies and have teas." Protesters picketed all sorts of surprising events, including the U.S. Open tennis tournament, carrying posters with the words "Dyke Hillary" splashed over the first lady's face. Continuing to crank the rumor mill, critics called her "a New Age occultist deep into black witchcraft" for her presumed influence over her husband while he was in office, and ran television ads during her senate campaign claiming she was a lesbian and a supporter of gay marriage.

But according to IGLHRC, the abuse Hillary has received is just one example of what appears to be a widespread increase in lesbian- and feminist-baiting as a means of silencing or intimidating female activists and organizers.

Drawing on case studies from around the globe, the report's authors say such tactics have become increasingly sophisticated. They argue that the Bush administration's war on terror coupled with the rise of fundamentalist movements has meant that more women who try to speak out—whether about gender and sexuality or simply conditions in the local prison—are labeled lesbians as a means of shutting them up.

The authors find evidence of this kind of attack even within the halls of the United Nations, where "Written Out" was presented on Wednesday during the 49th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. "Alliances forged by the Bush administration with conservative and extremist governments," the report says, "have also revealed that a country's 'enemy' on paper and in speeches may be welcomed as a collaborator in the cafeteria, especially when the topics at hand relate to sexual and reproductive rights."

Lesbian- or feminist-baiting can turn threatening, even violent. Last month in Uganda, a coalition of women's organizations were eagerly preparing a staging of Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues when the Ugandan government abruptly banned it.

Jessica Nkuuhe of Isis-Women's International Cross-Cultural Exchange, one of the organizations involved, recalled her government's rationale: "'You can't start addressing issues of the vagina. It's a vulgar issue.'" When the play's producers appealed the decision to Uganda's Media Council, they were greeted with vitriol from religious fundamentalists on the radio and television, and in print.

"One man came from one of the churches and said [on the radio that] feminists and homosexuals have a hidden agenda to destroy the culture of our nation and bring in the Western violence of homosexuality," said Nkuuhe. "Some of the our organizations were labeled as led by lesbians and promoting lesbianism." This is no small thing in a country where homosexuality is a deep-seated cultural taboo and remains a crime, offering gays virtually no protection.

Not all victims of lesbian-baiting are lucky enough to escape injury. Last September, FannyAnn Eddy, the founder of the first-ever gay organization in Sierra Leone was murdered as the result of her work.

"Lesbian-baiting does not just happen to women doing organizing around sexuality," notes IGLHRC program director Susana Fried. "It is part of a well-developed political strategy, and when women are attacked in this way it is a human rights issue because it threatens women's basic freedoms to mobility, liberty and security."

In keeping with that idea, IGLHRC is using the conference to push for greater coalition-building among human rights groups, targeting those that have previously shied away from association with groups advocating for sexuality and gender rights.

 
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