The fundamental philosophy behind intersectional feminism is that, while all women are negatively affected by sexism, not all experience sexism in the same ways or to the same degree. Other aspects of identity – such as race, sexual orientation, gender presentation, age, class, religion, and marital status – impact sexism’s influence on individual women. For example, while all mothers – even famous ones – are subject to judgments of being “good” or “bad” mothers, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LBT) women are generally judged more harshly (and have more at stake when such judgments are made) than other women. In order for LBT women to overcome the impact of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, there is a need for solidarity and community among all women.
The value of such solidarity becomes clear in the context of Chilean Judge Karen Atala’s legal battle in the national and regional courts. Atala lost custody of her three daughters in 2004 because she identified as a lesbian and lived with her partner.
In the years since the initial Chilean Supreme Court ruling, Atala has sought justice from the legal system. After a nine year battle, she achieved a landmark victory in March 2012. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Chile must apologize and pay damages to Atala, a particularly momentous ruling that marked the first time that the Inter-American court issued a ruling to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In July, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), which had contributed an amicus brief to the court, honored Atala at “A Celebration of Courage 2012,” where she accepted the organization’s Felipa deSouza Award and discussed the journey that led to her victory.
In some ways, Atala’s struggle is one specific to Chile’s cultural context. Traditionally, the position of the mother in Chile is glorified. Under former president Michelle Bachelet’s leadership, the amount of day care centers tripled in part to allow teenage mothers the opportunity to continue attending high school, allowing them to have more opportunities and be better equipped to provide for children upon graduation. At the same time, some HIV-positive women have been forcibly sterilized after giving birth, preventing them from having additional children. Traditional culture values motherhood above all other roles and, in doing so, is quick to demonize women who fall outside of the traditional expectations of motherhood. It’s no wonder, then, that Atala struggled as long as she did. In a society where mothers are de-sexualized, a mother who chooses to openly discuss her sexual orientation is significantly suspect. One who is honest, and will not lie about having a female partner, is quite simply a “Bad Mother.” She will not deny herself on behalf of “good” motherhood.
In response to this judgment, Atala’s legal team – led by Macarena Sáez, a straight woman – structured their argument around a challenge of the “good mother” ideal. Rather than positioning Atala as a lesbian who happens to be a mother, Sáez and the legal team positioned Atala as a mother who happens to be a lesbian. In keeping with the idea that being a mother is more important than any other aspect of a woman’s identity, Atala’s team argued that her identity as a lesbian has no effect on her ability to raise a family and should not overshadow her commitments to her children and role as a parent. And in response to concern that allowing Atala’s daughters to live with her would not be in their best interests, the legal team countered that it is never in a child’s best interest to be separated from its mother. If motherhood is to be placed on a pedestal, this means that all mothers need to be treated equally, regardless of sexual orientation.
This argument played a significant role in Atala’s ultimate victory at the Inter-American Court. Both feminists and LGBT activists joined together to create the strongest possible case. Although the discrimination Atala experienced was specifically homophobic, her case has implications for all women, especially those who are mothers. Her case reaffirms the notion that a mother’s ability to parent is not necessarily connected to her sexual identity, ideology, or lifestyle. Her victory, therefore, is as much a feminist one as it is a queer one.
Mainstream feminist organizations and activists often ignore the specific struggles unique to LBT women. Likewise, LGBT organizations (frequently male-dominated) and activists often marginalize the women within the community. As a result, women at the intersection – women like Karen Atala – are often isolated. It is critical for all women – feminists, queer women, queer feminists, and all in between – to champion the struggles of those most at-risk of marginalization. Without the joint advocacy of feminists and LGBT activists, Atala’s struggle might never have been won. As feminist and LGBT communities world-wide, strengthen their connections, women at the intersection may finally become equal members of both worlds.
Image, top: Las Otras Familias (Other Families) organized protests in Santiago in support of Karen Atala’s case. These women are wearing masks and holding signs that read: “We’ll take the masks off when you stop taking our kids away” and “I’m a woman and a mother” among others. Photo: Las Otras Familas
Image of Karen Atala by Kena Lorenzini
Carrie Nelson is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in New York and the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s former Foundation Relations Officer.
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