she came, she saw, she conquered

I just now came across my notes from a talk I gave for an International Women’s Day panel this past March, for the Journée de la visibilité lesbienne, an evening organized by GRIS (the group that does queer sensitivity education in high schools). The talk was about women’s visibility and participation in mixed queer organizations, and for some reason I’m inclined to write about that now. Why? Meh. Who knows. Maybe because Pride season is fast approaching, so I’m thinking about the many community groups out there doing all kinds of good work… many of whom find it challenging to keep their numbers of women up as high as they might like.

I came at the topic from my experience within a number of organizations – six years with Quebec’s Gay Line, three of those as president (the second female president in the organization’s 30-year history); seven years coordinating Tip of the Tongue (les/bi social group); various stints as a volunteer or consultant with Image+Nation, GRIS, Dykes on Mikes and other groups – as well as general community involvement and observation. Does this make me right? Does it mean I have all the answers? Nah. But I imagine some of it may resonate. The people at the talk seemed to think so, if that’s any help.

I should preface the rest of this post by saying that I’m all for the idea of problematizing or questioning the term “woman.” In other words, I’m fully supportive of people who identify as “woman” regardless of what their pink bits look like; and I’m fully supportive of people who feel most at home in an in-between or entirely other gender, regardless of their pink bits; and I’m also fully supportive of people who transition out of “woman” into something else but still feel connected to women’s politics and struggles. For me, this is not just about armchair-activist political support – it’s active ally work, community connection, friendship and at times love.

(On a side note, I would love to have worked with trans people in sufficient simultaneous numbers in any one given organization to have a better sense of what trans-specific retention struggles might be in these same groups, and what sort of strategies one might employ to ease them. Unfortunately, though I have a pretty solid understanding of wider trans battles, and though there have been transfolk present in virtually every queer group I’ve worked with, the numbers have never been high enough for me to feel solid about calling out specific trends and retention strategies for these groups in particular. Other than, of course, getting a good education in trans politics, asking transfolk to join and then being respectful as a baseline.)

I should also preface this by saying I’m not usually comfortable with gross generalizations, but I think they can be useful at times when applied in appropriate ways – in other words, when it’s well understood that they don’t speak for every person’s reality.

So the way I see it is that regardless of biology and politics, there is still a category called Woman, however blurry we might make the edges and however many other categories and possibilities we create. And the people who, whether fully or in part, fall into that category of Woman still have a particular range of general struggles in common. That category and those struggles are the ones I’m referencing when I talk about the challenges of increasing women’s participation in mixed queer organizations.

So here are the points I made when talking about how to do that better.

1. Check your sexism. First things first: make sure your group is a good place for women to be. Ask yourself the following questions.

  • Is your group made up of a bunch of gay men who take up a lot of space – in terms of speaking loudly, hogging the floor, holding all the positions of authority, and placing their concerns first and foremost? 
  • Are any of them sexist in their approach to women? 
  • Do they get grossed out when women’s sexuality is discussed?
  • Do they have a hard time swallowing the idea of a woman’s leadership?
  • Do they dismiss women’s perspectives as irrelevant, less interesting, hormonal?
  • Do they surround themselves exclusively with men and have no female friends?
  • Do they believe that the acronym “GLBT” is an accurate reflection of the relative importance of each sub-group of queer?
  • When (if) they talk about women, do they approach the topic with the idea that women are “different,” “other,” those odd creatures over there that we’ll never understand?
  • Most significantly, do they think of themselves as friendly to women, and do these things anyway?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you need to do some work within your organization way before you start to advertise it as a friendly place for women to be. You might want to contact your local women’s centre or a women’s studies department at your local university to see about reading you can do, training you can take, or consulting services you can retain. Or…

2. Recruit a woman to recruit women. Find yourself a gal – or two or three, but at this stage I’m not talking about big numbers – who can become your den mother. Tell her the deal up front: you want to figure out how to get more women involved, and you’d really value her advice and opinions on how best to do that. Tell her you want her to be honest, and mean it. Integrate her deeply into your operations. Listen to her advice on how the organization needs to change. Especially listen to her if she points out specific people whose attitudes or behaviours are problematic, and strategize about how best to work with them (hint: turfing them out is only a very last resort).

3. Get critical mass. Numbers make a difference here. If a woman shows up to a queer organization’s meeting and she’s the only gal present, or one of a tiny handful, she will immediately begin to wonder why the others aren’t there and likely perceive even small things as potential indications of underlying problems. The lack of women’s presence is a self-perpetuating phenomenon – sort of like when you scare a bird and the entire flock flies away. It’s about safety. If all the others decided they’d better not stick around, perhaps she should take their advice.

This can, at least in queer groups, be exacerbated by the existing lack of common ground between men and women. Don’t get me wrong; I totally understand that we often share political goals. But once we’ve achieved them, the boys go off to the bathhouse and the girls go have a potluck, and unlike straight folks, we often don’t have compelling reasons to keep an even gender balance in our social worlds.

As a result, many (though certainly not all) gay men live in a more-or-less men-only bubble in which they really don’t have to think too much about women’s concerns and realities or about their own potential discomfort around women, sexism or misogyny. And many queer women rest happily in a more-or-less women-only bubble in which we rarely have to deal with sexism, male entitlement and so forth in our everyday social circles… and as a result of that, these things are all the more readily apparent when we do venture forth into more mixed spaces. Now, we all venture into mixed spaces in life, true. Very rarely do any of us exist exclusively in a one-gender bubble. But a mixed space is one thing when, by necessity, you’ve got to deal with work colleagues or taxi drivers, and quite another when you’re volunteering your time or pursuing a hobby. Most of us would really rather just enjoy ourselves and not face the struggle.

Just so you know, I really don’t stand behind the stereotype of the Man-Hating Lesbian. And yet there are, unfortunately, many (though I wouldn’t say most) lesbians who just don’t trust men too much – often with good reasons born of personal experience. Which is not to say we shouldn’t challenge that mistrust and heal it, but it’s undeniably there, and you can’t pretend it’s not if you want to bring us on board. 

Think about it. If you combine three factors… 

  • a certain sub-population of women who have a relative lack of need for men’s presence;
  • that population’s potentially heightened sensitivity to some men’s problematic behaviours and attitudes; and
  • a specific sub-population of men that in some cases may be less inclined to be sensitive towards women…

… you have a recipe for things not going so smoothly when you bring these two groups together. Add a skewed numbers balance, and you’re definitely facing some challenges.

As a result, it’s a good idea to recruit in numbers. This provides the safety net of a mini-bubble for the ladies, the power of the group to challenge when things are not proceeding in ways that are favourable to them, and the pleasurable draw of same-gender socializing.

Luckily, in my experience, I’ve noticed a very strong tendency among queer women to join organizations in groups. We’re social creatures. This isn’t to say that men aren’t; it is, however, particularly relevant among queer women. Don’t ask me why. It just is. So often the best strategies for getting women to join include…

  • Convincing an influential member of an existing group of friends or colleagues to join, and bring others with her.
  • Recruiting couples.
  • Recruiting via networking, not advertising. This isn’t to say that advertising doesn’t work; it does, to an extent. But it’s a lot more work and a lot less reliable than speaking to the girls you know, who know girls, who know girls… It’s a time-honoured tradition that started with phone trees in the pre-Internet age and continues to this day. Relationship makes a huge difference in women’s interest and our resulting participation levels.

Which leads to…

4. Keep the women interested. There are various strategies for this too. Remember two important points:

  • Women respond to relationships. So forge them.
  • Women are often not listened to enough. So listen. No, I mean really listen. And make it count.

In other words, you can’t just assume we’ll keep coming back once you’ve got us. No; we require maintenance. This involves being sensitive to the particular concerns women, as a population, may have that will affect our ability to remain involved and our interest in doing so. These concerns may include…

  • Child care and/or pregnancy. More so now than ever before, dykes are popping out kids. If you always organize your meetings in such a way that makes it difficult for a woman to accommodate her kids, she might have to drop you. Of course this is different for each woman, but that’s why it’s worth referring back to the whole “listen” thing – find out what she needs and see if the organization can provide it. 
  • Income. Lesbians are famous for spending as little money as possible. Are we just cheap? No, but we might be somewhat less well paid than average. There are any number of reasons for that, most of which you’ve probably heard for decades now – women are overrepresented in underpaid fields; women are often the victims of unequal pay (we’re still well under the average salary a man makes); and so forth. Not to mention, though I can’t support this with statistics, I can’t help but observe that among dykes there’s at least somewhat of a tendency to work in non-profit organizations or small businesses (sometimes as owners, sometimes as freelancers), which often means a smaller income than people who work in the for-profit or big-business sector. All of this to say: don’t make it a financial burden for a gal to take part in your organization. Keep it as inexpensive as possible, and we’ll stick around in greater numbers.
  • Life balance. Again, I’m not sure why this seems to be a specific thing for lesbians, but it’s come up so frequently in my experience of working with queer groups that there must be something to it. Dykes like to live a balanced life. We want to do a little bit of everything. Friends, family, work, volunteering, fun, exercise, school and so forth. So don’t expect us to make the organization in question the centrepiece of our lives – and don’t be hard on us if we can’t take on every task you want us to. Partly because we want balanced lives, and partly because people often place lots of demands on women’s time (caregiving, etc.), we won’t stick around if the work level becomes draining or overly time-consuming. Balance in all things.

Now last but not least, there’s this particular strategy for retaining dykes that’s so specific as to merit its own point on the list. In some ways it even contradicts some of what I’ve already written, but it seems to work… 

5. Put the women in charge. Seriously. You want to keep a queer woman around? Make her Queen of the World. At least your organization’s little corner of it. Hand over the decision-making power,  give her the title and the corner office (even if that’s to be taken metaphorically most of the time) and follow her direction. Our numbers may not be high in every organization, but it’s really remarkable – if you look at Montreal as an example, at least – to note how many women are in positions of great power within those organizations, and to note that they stay there for years and years at a time.

Just a random sample: Image+Nation queer film festival? Charlie Boudreau and Katharine Setzer have been at the helm for, gawd, must be almost a decade now. L’Androgyne, our former queer bookstore (RIP), which was around for 30 years? France Désilets ran that thing like a champ for almost a dozen years, if I remember correctly. Divers/Cité? Suzanne Girard is renowned for her monopoly (whether that’s a good thing or not, you’d have to ask those who’ve worked for her). Coalition Multimondo, the three-year-old group bringing together all sorts of ethnocultural queer groups? Mona Greenbaum, who’s also the heavy-hitting momma behind the Lesbian Mothers’ Association and the dyke who’s most influenced Quebec’s same-sex marriage and adoption laws, is hugely active there and has been from the get-go. GRIS? Their coordinator, Marie, is a venerable institution. And so on, and so forth.

There are a lot of powerful ladies out there, and if you can find one and stick her at the top of your food chain, her presence alone will work wonders for your group. It’ll cover all four of the other points on this list in one fell swoop – or at least put you well on your way to covering them.

So there it is, folks. Hope that was helpful. I’d love to hear it if you have further suggestions – I’m definitely not the only gal in this town who has a take on this question. Which, really, is precisely the point.

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