No longer would these truths be contained inside me, and so it is time to send these words out into the world.
This is a strange time to be a young lesbian woman. Well, young-ish. In the time it has taken me to evolve from a fledgling baby dyke into a fully formed lesbian, the tension between queer identity politics and women’s liberation has become pretty much unbearable. Facebook added Pride flag reactions in the same month they started banning lesbian women for describing ourselves as dykes. As equal marriage legislation and same-sex adoption rights grow increasingly standard in mainstream society, the right of lesbian women to self-define and declare sexual boundaries is undermined within the LGBT+ community. Such contradictions are characteristic of this era, but that doesn’t make them any easier to live with from day to day.
Love is love, unless you happen to be a lesbian woman – in which case your sexuality will be relentlessly deconstructed under suspicion of being exclusionary. As I have written before, every sexuality is by its very definition exclusionary. Sexuality is a set of parameters that govern the characteristics we are potentially attracted to in others. For lesbians, it’s the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create (but do not guarantee) the possibility of attraction. Sex, not gender (nor even gender identity), is the key factor. But in a queer setting, as in mainstream patriarchal society, lesbian is a contentious label.
Lesbian women are instead encouraged to describe ourselves as queer, a term so broad and nebulous as to be devoid of specific meaning, on the grounds that nobody in possession of a penis is read as being entirely outside of our sexual boundaries. Jocelyn MacDonald rounds it up nicely:
“Lesbians are women, and women are taught that we’re supposed to be sexually available objects of public consumption. So we spend a lot of time saying “No.” No, we won’t fuck or partner with men; no, we won’t change our minds about this; no, this body is a no-man’s land. Lesbian, straight or bi, women are punished whenever we try to assert a boundary. Queer as a catchall term makes it really hard for lesbians to assert and maintain this boundary, because it makes it impossible to name this boundary.”
In a time when acknowledging biological sex is treated as an act of bigotry, homosexuality is automatically problematised – the unforeseen consequences of queer identity politics are wide and far-reaching. Or rather, it would be more accurate to say, lesbian sexuality is made problematic: the idea of women exclusively directing our desires and energies towards one another remains suspect. Somehow, the pattern of men centring men in their lives never receives the same backlash. Lesbians are a threat to the status quo, whether it’s part of heteropatriarchy or queer culture. When lesbians dismiss the idea of taking on a partner with a penis, we are branded “vagina fetishists” and “gynephiles” – given that lesbian sexuality is routinely pathologised in queer discourse, just as lesbian sexuality is pathologised by social conservatism, it’s no surprise to me that so many young women succumb to social pressure and drop lesbian in favour of queer. Self-erasure is the price of acceptance.
“It is no secret that fear and hatred of homosexuals permeate our society. But the contempt for lesbians is distinct. It is directly rooted in the abhorrence of the self-defined woman, the self-determining woman, the woman who is not controlled by male need, imperative, or manipulation. Contempt for lesbians is most often a political repudiation of women who organize in their own behalf to achieve public presence, significant power, visible integrity.
Enemies of women, those who are determined to deny us freedom and dignity, use the word lesbian to provoke a hatred of women who do not conform. This hatred rumbles everywhere. This hatred is sustained and expressed by virtually every institution. When male power is challenged, this hatred can be intensified and inflamed so that it is volatile, palpable. The threat is that this hatred will explode into violence. The threat is omnipresent because violence against women is culturally applauded. And so the word lesbian, hurled or whispered as accusation, is used to focus male hostility on women who dare to rebel, and it is also used to frighten and bully women who have not yet rebelled.” – Andrea Dworkin
As queer identity politics would have it, biological women being exclusively interested in being with other women is a sign of bigotry. Let’s not waste paragraphs on equivocation. This world contains more than enough silences around the subject of gender, and it is invariably women who pay the highest price for those silences – in this case, women who love other women. And so I will say it: for lesbians to categorically deny the possibility of taking a partner with a penis is framed as transphobic by queer politics because it does not include transwomen in the sphere of lesbian desire. The inherent lesbophobia of reducing lesbian sexuality to a source of validation is, of course, given a free pass.
Yet, lesbian sexuality doesn’t necessarily exclude people who identify as trans. Lesbian sexuality can extend to biologically female people who identify as non-binary or genderqueer. Lesbian sexuality can extend to biologically female people who identify as transmen. As a comparatively high proportion of self-identified transmen lived as butch lesbians prior to transition, it is not unheard of for transmen to be part of lesbian relationships.
Where is the boundary between a butch lesbian and a transman? During her reflections on lesbian life, Roey Thorpe considers that “…invariably, someone asks: Where have all the butches gone?” The short answer is transmasculinity (and the long answer requires an essay of its own). At what point within the spectrum of identity does butch end and trans begin?
The border is amorphous, though in an imaginative sort of way Maggie Nelson attempts to chart it within The Argonauts. Her lover, the artist Harry Dodge, Nelson describes as a “debonair butch on T.” To Nelson’s thinking, “whatever sameness I’ve noticed in my relationships with women is not the sameness of Woman, and certainly not the sameness of parts. Rather, it is the shared, crushing understanding of what it means to live in a patriarchy.” Dodge is fluidly gendered and masculine presenting. Testosterone and top surgery do not remove an understanding of what it is to be located, in this world, as female. Those truths coexist.
The idea that lesbians are transphobic because our sexual boundaries do not extend to accommodate penis is a phallocentric fallacy. And the pressure on lesbians to redefine those boundaries is frankly terrifying – it rests on an attitude of entitlement towards women’s bodies, an entitlement that is part of patriarchy and now being replicated within queer space. Lesbian women do not exist as sex objects or sources of validation, but self-actualised human beings with desires and boundaries of our own.
Talking about queer politics with gay male friends my age is something of an eye-opener. I am reminded of two things: With men, no is accepted as the closing word. With women, no is treated as the opening of a negotiation. Most gay men in my life are in turns horrified and amused by the notion that the parameters of their sexuality could or should be expected to move in accordance with the dictates of queer politics. Some (the fortunate ones – ignorance here is bliss) are unfamiliar with the rabbit hole of queer theory. Others (the newly initiated) are, unsurprisingly, resistant to the queer problematising of homosexuality. One went so far as to suggest gays, lesbians, and bisexuals break away from the alphabet soup of queer politics and self-organise specifically around the lines of sexuality – given that numerous dykes have been subject to the TERF witch-hunt for making the same case, it was at once uplifting and depressing to hear a man outside of radical feminism voice the same views without fear of censure.
I am glad to say that none of the gay men I call friend have opted for what can be described as the Owen Jones route: dismissing the concerns lesbian women as bigotry in pursuit of those tasty, rainbow-sprinkled ally cookies. The trend of left-wing men cashing in on misogyny to bolster their own reputations is a tale as old as patriarchy. That it happens in the context of queer community comes as no great surprise, as queer culture is male-dominated.
Queer community can ultimately be an alienating for lesbian women. Although I participated in queer spaces around the time of coming out, I have grown steadily more withdrawn from that context over time. I am by no means alone in that – plenty of lesbian women within my age bracket feel conscious of being erased and displaced in queer settings, places we are told that we are meant to belong. It’s not purely older lesbians who are resistant to queer politics, although god knows they warned us about its misogyny. My only regret is not listening sooner – that I wasted time and energy trying to bridge the ideological gap between queer and radical feminisms.
Queer discourse uses something of a carrot and stick approach to shoehorn young lesbians into conforming – either we can embrace queer and belong, or we can be irrelevant outsiders just like boring older lesbians. This approach, reliant as it is on ageist misogyny, was misjudged: I can think of nothing I would like to be so much as an older lesbian, and it is pretty wonderful to know that’s the future in front of me. The depth of thought older lesbians extend towards me, the way they challenge and guide me through the process of feminist consciousness, plays a pivotal role in shaping both my sense of the world and how I understand my place in it. If I am really fortunate, one day I will have those soaring (and, at times, intellectually gruelling) conversations with future generations of baby dykes.
Although I appreciate the support and sisterhood of older lesbians (by far my favourite demographic of human beings), in certain respects I also envy them the relative simplicity of lesbian existence during the 1970s and ‘80s. The reason for that envy: they lived lesbian lives in the time before queer politics went mainstream. I do not say that lightly, or to imply that the past was some utopia for gay and lesbian rights. It wasn’t. Their generation(s) had Section 28 and mine has same-sex marriage. What gains my generation benefit from are the direct product of their struggle. Yet they were allowed to live at least part of their lives in a time when, of all the reasons the word lesbian was met with disgust, being deemed “too exclusionary” was not one of them. There was no impetus, within a feminist or gay context, to “queer” lesbian sexuality.
Some things haven’t changed a great deal. Lesbian sexuality is still routinely degraded. Lesbian women are still the posterdykes for “don’t worry, I’m not that type of feminist.” Only now, when I check my Twitter notifications, it genuinely takes a moment to work out whether my being a lesbian has offended the alt-right or the queer left. Does it particularly matter? The lesbophobia takes the same format. The hatred of women is identical.
Over Pride, a picture of a smiling transwoman clad in a bloodstained t-shirt proclaiming “I punch TERFs” circulated on social media. The image was captioned “this is what gay liberation looks like.” That those of us living at the intersection of gay identity and womanhood – lesbians – are often branded TERFs purely by virtue of our sexuality makes this claim particularly dubious. Considering that we live in a world where one in three women experiences physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, I cannot share in the amusement – there’s nothing revolutionary or countercultural in making a joke about punching women. Violence against women was glorified without a second thought, positioned as an objective of liberation politics. And we all know that TERFs are women, as men who assert boundaries are rarely subject to such vitriol. Pointing out the misogyny of course results in a fresh deluge of misogyny.
There is one favourite rejoinder reserved for feminists critiquing the sexual politics of gender identity, a retort associated more with surly teenage boys than any politics of resistance: “suck my girldick.” Or, if malice couples with a stab at originality, “choke on my girldick.” Being told to choke on a girldick doesn’t feel any different from being told to choke on a garden variety dick, yet it has become almost a routine part of gender discourse unfolding on Twitter. The act remains the same. The misogyny remains the same. And it’s telling that in this scenario the sexual gratification is derived through an act that quite literally silences women.
An iconic line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet proclaims that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” With this in mind (for there is far more of tragedy than romance about this situation), I argue that a penis by any other name would sexually repel lesbians. And that’s fine. Sexual disinterest doesn’t equate to discrimination, oppression, or marginalisation. Sexual entitlement, however, does: it plays a fundamental part in the oppression of women, and manifests clearly through rape culture. Within a queer framing there is no space given over to discussions about the misogyny that enables entitlement towards sexual accessing lesbian women’s bodies. Simply acknowledging that the issue exists is considered beyond the pale and, as a result, that misogyny is protected by layers and layers of silence.
This is not such a brilliant time to be a lesbian. The unwillingness of queer politics to simply accept lesbian sexuality as valid in its own right is deeply isolating, at points privileging the desire to have sex over the right to refuse sex. And yet lesbian connection persists, as it always has done. Lesbian relationships continue to nourish whilst offering a radical alternative to heteropatriarchy – just because it’s not particularly visible right now, just because it doesn’t have the mainstream (i.e. patriarchal) appeal of queer culture, doesn’t mean that it’s not happening. Lesbians are everywhere – that will not change.
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
Margaret Atwood. (1985). The Handmaid’s Tale
Andrea Dworkin. (1978). The Power of Words
Cherríe Moraga. (2009). Still Loving in the (Still) War Years: On Keeping Queer Queer
Maggie Nelson. (2015). The Argonauts
Adrienne Rich. (1976). Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution