This post is the second in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. The first is available here. I have written about lesbian erasure because I refuse to be rendered invisible. By raising my voice in dissent, I seek to offer both a degree of recognition to other lesbian women and active resistance to any political framework – het or queer – that insists lesbians are a dying breed. If women loving and prioritising other women is a threat to your politics, I can guarantee you are a part of the problem and not the solution.
Dedicated to SJ, who makes me proud to be a lesbian. Your kindness brightens my world.
Update: this essay has now been translated into French.
Lesbian is once more a contested category. The most literal definition of lesbian – a homosexual woman – is subject to fresh controversy. This lesbophobia does not stem from social conservatism, but manifests within the LGBT+ community, where lesbian women are frequently demonised as bigots or dismissed as an antiquated joke as a result of our sexuality.
In the postmodern context of queer politics, women whose attraction is strictly same-sex attraction are framed as archaic. Unsurprisingly, the desires of gay men are not policed with a fraction of the same rigour: in a queer setting men are encouraged to prioritise their own pleasure, whereas women continue to carry the expectation that we accommodate others. Far from subverting patriarchal expectations, queer politics replicates those standards by perpetuating normative gender roles. It is no coincidence that lesbian women are subject to the bulk of queer hostility.
Along with the mainstreaming of fascism and the normalising of white supremacy, the last few years have brought an avalanche of anti-lesbian sentiment. Media content hypothetically geared towards and written by lesbian women informs us that we are a dying breed. Feminist resources questioning whether we even need the word lesbian, op-eds claiming that lesbian culture is extinct, puff pieces claiming lesbian “sounds like a rare disease“, and even commentaries arguing that lesbian sexuality is a relic of the past in our brave and sexually fluid new world – such writing deliberately positions lesbian sexuality as old-fashioned. It actively encourages the rejection of lesbian identity by confirming the reader’s understanding of herself as someone modern, someone progressive, if she is prepared to ditch the label. Just as patriarchy rewards the ‘cool girl’ for distancing herself from feminist ideals, queer politics rewards the lesbian for claiming any other label.
Discouraging lesbians from identifying as such, from claiming the oppositional culture and politics that are our legacy, is an effective strategy. Heather Hogan, editor of the allegedly lesbian publication Autostraddle, recently took to Twitter and compared lesbian resistance of lesbophobia to neo-nazis. Hogan herself is a self-described lesbian, yet positions lesbian feminist perspectives as inherently bigoted.
Queer keyboard warriors led a campaign against Working Class Movement Library for inviting lesbian feminist Julie Bindel to speak during LGBT History Month, filling the Facebook event with abusive messages and harassment that escalated to death threats. That Bindel considers gender as a hierarchy in her feminist analysis is enough to have her branded “dangerous.” The newly-opened Vancouver Women’s Library was subject to a campaign of intimidation by queer activists. VWL was pressured to remove feminist texts from their shelves on the grounds that they “advocate harm” – the majority of books deemed objectionable were authored by lesbian feminists such as Adrienne Rich, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and Sheila Jeffreys. One does not have to agree with every argument made by lesbian feminist theorists to observe that the deliberate erasure of lesbian feminist perspectives is an act of intellectual cowardice rooted in misogyny.
Lesbian sexuality, culture, and feminism are all subject to concentrated opposition from queer politics. Rendering lesbians invisible – a classic tactic of patriarchy – is justified by queer activists on the basis that lesbian sexuality and praxis are exclusionary, that this exclusion equates to bigotry (in particular towards transgender men and women).
Is Lesbianism Exclusionary?
Yes. Every sexuality is, by definition, exclusionary – shaped by a specific set of characteristics which set the parameters of an individual’s capacity to experience physical and mental attraction. This in itself is not inherently bigoted. Attraction is physical, grounded in material reality. Desire either manifests or it does not. Lesbian sexuality is and has always been a source of contention because women living lesbian lives do not devote emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour to men, all of which are demanded by patriarchal norms.
A lesbian is a woman who is attracted to and interested in other women, to the exclusion of men. That the sexual boundaries of lesbians are so fiercely policed is the result of a concentrated misogyny compounded by homophobia. Women desiring other women, to the exclusion of men; women directing our time and energy towards other women, as the exclusion of men; women building our lives around other women, to the exclusion of men; in these ways lesbian love presents a fundamental challenge to the status quo. Our very existence contradicts the essentialism traditionally used to justify the hierarchy of gender: “it’s natural”, that becoming subservient to a man is simply woman’s lot in life. Lesbian life is inherently oppositional. It creates the space for radical possibilities, which are resisted by conservative and liberal alike.
Lesbian sexuality is freshly disputed by queer discourse because it is a direct and positive acknowledgement of biological womanhood. Arielle Scarcella, a prominent vlogger, came under fire for asserting that as lesbian woman she “like[s] boobs and vaginas and not penises.” Scarcella’s attraction to the female body was denounced as transphobic. That lesbian desire stems from attraction to the female body is criticised as essentialism because it is only every sparked by the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics. As lesbian desire does not extend to transwomen, it is “problematic” to a queer understanding of the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality.
Instead of accepting the sexual boundaries of lesbian women, queer ideology positions those boundaries as a problem to be overcome. Buzzfeed’s LGBT Editor, Shannon Keating, advocates the deconstruction of lesbian sexuality as a potential ‘solution’:
“…maybe we can simply continue to challenge the traditional definition of lesbianism, which assumes there are only two binary genders, and that lesbians can or should only be cis women attracted to cis women. Some lesbians who don’t go full-out TERF are still all too eager to write off dating trans people because of ‘genital preferences’, which means they have incredibly reductive ideas about gender and bodies.”
Lesbian sexuality cannot be deconstructed out of existence. Furthermore, problematising lesbian sexuality is in itself problematic: a form of lesbophobia. Lesbianism has been “challenged” since time immemorial by patriarchy. Throughout history men have imprisoned, killed, and institutionalised lesbian women, subjected lesbians to corrective rape – all as a means of enforcing heterosexuality. Old school lesbophobia operates with a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, the price of social acceptance (read: bare tolerance) that we allow ourselves to be assumed heterosexual, straight until proven otherwise. Not a threat.
‘Progressive’ lesbophobia is altogether more insidious, because it happens in the LGBT+ spaces of which we are ostensibly part. It asks that we jettison the word lesbian for something soft and cuddly, like Women Loving Women, or vague enough to avoid conveying a strict set of sexual boundaries, like queer. It asks that we abandon the specifics of our sexuality to pacify others.
The Cotton Ceiling
The Cotton Ceiling debate is commonly dismissed as “TERF rhetoric“, yet the term was originally created by trans activist Drew DeVeaux. According to queer feminist blogger Avory Faucette, Cotton Ceiling theory aims “to challenge cis lesbians’ tendency to… draw the line at sleeping with trans women or including trans lesbians in their sexual communities.” Planned Parenthood ran a now notorious workshop on this theme, Overcoming the Cotton Ceiling: Breaking Down Sexual Barriers for Queer Trans Women.
The sexual boundaries of lesbian women are presented as a “barrier” to be “overcome”. Formulating strategies for encouraging women to engage in sexual acts is legitimised, sexual coercion whitewashed by the language of inclusivity. This narrative relies upon the objectification of lesbian women, positioning us as the subjects of sexual conquest. Cotton Ceiling theory rests upon a mentality of sexual entitlement towards women’s bodies that is fostered by a climate of misogyny.
Lesbian sexuality does not exist in order to provide validation. No woman’s sexual boundaries are up for negotiation. To argue as much within queer discourse recreates the rape culture produced by het patriarchy. That gaining sexual access to the bodies of lesbian women is treated as a litmus test, a validation of transwomanhood, is dehumanising to lesbian women. Framing lesbian sexuality as motivated by bigotry creates a context of coercion, in which women are pressured to reconsider their sexual boundaries for fear of being branded a TERF.
Refusing sexual access to one’s own body does not equate to discrimination against the rejected party. Not considering someone as a potential sexual partner isn’t a means of enacting oppression. As a demographic, lesbian women do not hold more structural power than transwomen – appropriating the language of oppression for the Cotton Ceiling debate is disingenuous at best.
To put it bluntly, no woman is ever obliged to fuck anyone.
Lesbian sexuality has become the site upon which ongoing tensions surrounding sex and gender explode. This is because, under patriarchy, onus is placed firmly upon women to provide affirmation. Gay men are not called bigots for eschewing vaginal sex due to their homosexuality. Loving men and desiring the male body carries a certain logic in a cultural context built around the centring of masculinity, in a queer setting. Conversely, as the female body is consistently degraded under patriarchy, women desiring women is regarded with suspicion.
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde
Lesbians have faced the same old combination of misogyny and homophobia from the right and are now relentlessly scrutinised by the queer and liberal left: that we are women who are disinterested in the penis is apparently contentious across the political spectrum. Social conservatives tell us we’re damaged, abnormal. The LGBT+ family to which we are meant to belong tells us that we’re hopelessly old-fashioned in our desires. Both actively try to deconstruct lesbian out of existence. Both try to render lesbian women invisible. Both suggest that we just haven’t tried the right dick yet. The parallels between queer politics and patriarchy cannot be ignored.
Julie Bindel. (2014). Straight Expectations.
Cordelia Fine. (2010). Delusions of Gender
Audre Lorde. (1984). Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Woman and Loving. IN Sister Outsider
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper. (2015). Sex and Gender: A Beginner’s Guide
Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence