Dispatches from the Margins: Lesbian Connection & the Lavender Menace

A brief foreword: Every so often, a lesbian will write a message that deeply moves me. They usually start out by thanking me for defending lesbian sexuality in a time when it is contested and then move on to express something deeper – a feeling of loneliness and despair brought about by the way lesbians are treated in progressive spaces, be they feminist or queer. Women around the world carry this feeling, and have reached out to me to express this sense of isolation it creates. I’m also carrying that sadness and, while I can’t alleviate it in myself or others, am capable of unpacking some of the factors that cause it.

Dedicated to Anne. You’re not alone.


I’m losing friendships with straight Black women. And that loss is painful. But it’s not hard to grasp the reason for it. The feminist connections between me & hetero women have never been entirely easy: there’s a kind of distance that comes into being, and obscures shared points of understanding, through their responses to my sexuality. Yet still it is difficult, because there is place and kinship in those friendships along with a lot of joy. For the benefit of those who have never been forced to weigh up the risk of racism before building a relationship, I will also point out that there is a great spiritual ease in knowing that you will not experience anti-Blackness from a friend, because she too is Black. The friendship becomes a place of safety. So much is possible when that soft, vital part of you is open instead of pre-emptively guarding against the likelihood of racism.

Quite a few of my friendships with white lesbians, some fledgling and others fully formed, have disintegrated too – over those women’s approach, or lack of, to race. Although experiencing racism is never a picnic, I am used to receiving it from white women and have adjusted my expectations accordingly. It’s less of a pressing concern because I am not particularly invested in whiteness. I learned from a very early age that when you are surrounded by a group of white people, it’s a question of when rather than if the racism is going to manifest. There is no reason to imagine that white lesbians are the exception to whiteness by virtue of their sexuality. However, I think the reason deep friendship with white lesbians remains an ongoing possibility for me is that their radical feminist politics can enable the critical, reflective work required to unlearn racism.

For the last year I have felt pulled between the expectations that straight Black women and white lesbian women have put upon my feminism. At multiple points, it seems as 20171029_152443though what one group values about my feminism is a point of contention for the other. In the eyes of a number of straight Black women in my life, I am too radical – my unwillingness to divorce gendered aspects of the personal from the political creates a rift. With some of the white lesbians in my life, I am insufficiently radical – too invested in exploring grey areas and the pesky politics of race to fit with their understanding of lesbian feminism.

You can’t please everybody, and I haven’t the slightest desire to try. No person who lives authentically can be universally liked. Yet this split does not feel like a mere matter of liking, and neither does it feel coincidental. In fact, it can usually be traced back to the positionality of everyone involved.

At one of the conferences for women of colour I attended last year, I had the pleasure of eating lunch around a table with two other Black women, fellow speakers. Their company was at once thrilling and reassuring: because they saw my perspective as being relevant to the event and were interested in my ideas, it was possible to untie the knots in my stomach for long enough to avail myself of some delicious stew and give a talk unimpeded by nerves. There’s magic in how being seen by other Black women enables one to shake off the imposter syndrome that develops through being made continuously Other. I hope my belief in those women, my excitement in their ideas, provided a similar kind of affirmation. It was uplifting. We talked between sessions, as is the way of things. As we started to feel familiar, one asked whether I had a man and children.

It was a weird moment. I had imagined the only way I could look more obviously lesbian was by wearing a Who Killed Jenny Schecter? t-shirt. But not everyone reads lesbian presentation, least of all heterosexuals. For a second I hesitated, conscious that my honesty would remove some of the assumptions of similarity that had enabled our tentative bond. I didn’t know how to explain, and didn’t want to expose the part of myself that dreams of one day having and being a wife – less still the fledgling hope that one day I’ll have sufficiently stable mental health for us to raise a daughter together. It was painful to think the women with whom I’d shared understanding might find these aspirations alien or repellent.

Audre taught me the power in a name, in claiming the word lesbian. She never let that part of herself be erased or dismissed, even when it would have been convenient for her as a woman and as a feminist. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – deny it either, but at the same time I never relish spending the mental energy required to come out to a relatively unknown person. The risk and reward don’t necessarily balance out in within those transient connections, or any other for that matter, but within those fleeting friendships it can seem like a lot to give. Coming out isn’t just a one-time thing, as Mary Buckheit once wrote. It’s the work of a lifetime, repeated over and over again – assuming it is safe enough to do so in the first place.

I’ve been out for a few years now. In that time, I’ve become a bit too familiar with that little fission – the peculiar sensation when someone’s perception of me changes in the moment they learn that I’m a lesbian. And I felt it in that moment. There was a before, and there was an after. While I do generally share an affinity with my fellow Black women, more than any other demographic, issues of gender and sexuality do bring some tensions to the surface. The obvious solution would be to invest more time & energy in Black lesbians. Unfortunately, Scotland’s Black population density is pretty low – which makes finding other Black lesbians even harder. There are a lot of white lesbians, a few lesbians of colour, and a tiny number of Black lesbians in my life. For now, at least, I must play the hand geography has dealt me. This involves following a lot of Audre Lorde’s advice and using difference creatively – as something to be explored and learned from.

Broadly speaking, the feminism of straight women and lesbian women tends to be different. Straight and lesbian are not the only two categories into which a woman’s sexuality may fall, and certainly not the only feminist standpoints worth considering, but this particular difference requires some exploration. I’m not inclined to go down the purist path of a certain political lesbianism and claim that one is stronger or worthier somehow than the other – feminism isn’t a competition, and the variety in women’s perspectives only ever enriches the movement. All the same, there are differences in those feminisms brought about by a difference between how heterosexual and lesbian women experience the world.

Straight women are sheltered by the social support system that accompanies heterosexuality (Frye, 1983), not exposed to the precariousness of a lesbian life. Every significant relationship developed during my adult life falls into the category of “fictive” kinship, nameless ties not recognised as real by a heteronormative society. Lesbian connections are positioned as lesser, unreal, unnatural. Conversely, straight women are rewarded for forging ties of “true” kinship through marriage and blood, ties which society deems legitimate because they exist in relation to men. Building a life in which men are central – prioritised, desired, and considered essential companions – is fundamentally different to building a life that is woman-centric.  Each path holds contrasting limitations and possibilities for how a woman lives her feminism, which is not necessarily a bad thing for the movement. It is the approach to difference, as opposed to the difference in itself, which determines the depth of what is possible between women.

…we sometimes find it difficult to deal constructively with the genuine differences between us and to recognize that unity does not require that we be identical to each other. Black women are not one great vat of homogenized chocolate milk. We have many different faces, and we do not have to become each other in order to work together. – Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities

I think that as mainstream feminism’s scope has narrowed from a collective to an individual scale, becoming more about choice than structural analysis, space for women to explore the political significance of their lived realities has dwindled. There is a lack in contemporary feminism, a lack which has led us to stop pushing for liberation and instead settle for tepid notions of equality. As a result, feminism has an ever-shrinking scope and we are encouraged to abandon feminist practice that goes beyond what is comfortable or easily explained. Those complex avenues of thought, which lead us to ask immensely complicated questions about the relationship between the personal and the political, are not places women receive great encouragement to explore. And in a way it’s convenient, because we are spared the uncertainty held within radical possibilities – but we also lose out on the freedom those possibilities offer. If we pick comfort over challenge, the safety of the familiar over the potential of the unknown, the power of the feminist movement dissipates: a radical restructuring of society remains beyond our reach.

The area where feminists have become most restricted, hemmed in by fear and inhibition, is gender. Nothing will change to the benefit of women or trans/non-binary identifying people until an armistice is reached on the so-called TERF wars. Just as the sex wars blighted feminism of the 1980s, the TERF wars undermine the modern day movement. I believe that a willingness to ask difficult questions, of ourselves and each other, is the only way feminists holding any belief about gender will be able move past this stalemate. Naturally, this involves thinking challenging and uncomfortable thoughts. To practice radical honesty, instead of thinking only what falls within the walls of convenience and straightforwardness, will at least allow feminists of differing perspectives the space to connect and understand one another better.

In calling for greater honesty around the subject of gender, in advocating a deeper radicalism, I do not mean cruelty. Scrutinising gender does not and should not require cruelty towards anyone trapped by that hierarchy. If anything, radical practice demands compassion in every direction. And there is a definite shortfall of compassion within conversations about gender and sexual politics.

There are a great many things to find upsetting about how gender discourse now happens. What I find hardest to bear is watching friendships with straight Black women unravel, fray, and snap, pulled apart by gender politics. It hurts. It’s weighing on my mind. And I don’t have the energy to resist anymore. There is a particular malice that is projected onto the motives of lesbian women critiquing gender. Responses to lesbian feminist perspectives on gender often fail to recognise that it is a system oppressing us twice over, on account of both our sex and sexuality. By some twist of logic, the harm gender does to lesbians is erased – though marginal on multiple axes, we are assumed to be the oppressive force within an LGBT context.

The way straight feminists approach queer politics suggests that a significant number do not have a solid understanding of what LGBT+ organising is actually like for the women who do fit under the rainbow umbrella. In collective organising of the 1970s and ‘80s, lesbians were marginalised by the unchecked misogyny of gay men (ed. Harne & Miller, 1996). A lot of LGB spaces were male-centric, treating masculinity as the default way to be gay or bisexual. Women’s lived realities and political interests were not a priority unless actively centred by lesbian feminists (Jeffreys, 2003). While it’s easy to get caught up in the narrative of lesbians being deliberately difficult, it’s important to remember that cooperation meant being complicit in your own oppression instead of resisting it. When the T was added onto LGB, concerns of sexuality and identity were rather clumsily amalgamated – which means there are even more competing interests under the rainbow umbrella. Somewhat predictably, women’s concerns – especially the concerns of lesbian women – have become ever more peripheral. In today’s queer context, we’re more likely to be told the term lesbian is outdated or invited to re-examine the parameters of our sexuality than receive a modicum of solidarity. Straight feminists, who don’t live or organise under the rainbow umbrella, are perhaps not best placed to pass judgement on the lesbian women who do.

Life under the rainbow isn’t all fun and games. These conflicts directly affect our lives in ways that can be hard to carry, and we’re yet to reach consensus on any possible solution. Lesbian women and gay men were recently lambasted for suggesting that we return to organising around issues of sexuality – an unfortunate backlash, in my opinion. Collective organising around sexuality and collective organising around identity would enable each respective group to pursue their political needs more effectively. Without the in-fighting, there would be potential for a new and true mode of solidarity Screenshot_20180211-104222.jpgunhindered by the tensions of today. Where there’s common ground, there would be room for coalition. Where there’s none, there would at least be an absence of competition. I’ve seen more than one queer activist make the case that “it should be just the TQ+” as “the LGB part has already been normalized into heteronormativity.” Although this perspective doesn’t account for radical lesbian and gay organising, there is a case to be made for untangling the alphabet soup.

Queer politics have brought about this myth that gays and lesbians have achieved liberation. It goes the same way as rhetoric used (often by men) to explain why feminism is now redundant: women are basically equal now. Women are not equal to men, much less liberated from them – don’t bother trying to convince me otherwise until the pandemic of men’s violence against women and girls comes to an end. Patriarchy remains part of society’s foundation. Gender, which exists as a cause and consequence of patriarchy, gives rise to heterosexism and homophobia. It’s all connected.

In a recent conversation with my mother, she spoke about why she has remained at the same place of work for nearly two decades. The company has excellent policies safeguarding the rights of gay and lesbian employees – she told me that, even if people didn’t like her sexuality, she felt confident they couldn’t express anti-lesbian sentiment towards her because of strictly enforced consequences for discrimination. I know that’s hardly the ultimate struggle, and there is a certain privilege in having been able to build a lengthy career with one organisation, but it broke my heart a bit that whether or not she would be supported against lesbophobia factored into my mum’s decision making process in choosing her job. (Yes, she is a lesbian, which makes me lucky enough to be a second generation gay.) To be a lesbian does not bring a woman any great power or socioeconomic privileges – in fact, it does the opposite. Which is why it’s disheartening that mainstream feminism has ceased to treat us as worthy recipients of compassion.

Lesbian women are not viewed as “natural” subjects of empathy, despite being marginalised, because we do not live “natural” lives. Our way of living – which involves loving, desiring, and prioritising women – is not simply outside of heterosexist values, but a direct challenge to those values (Rich, 1980). The lack of empathy we receive from straight women is influenced and enabled by lesbophobia. I invite straight feminists to consider why their go-to assumption is that a lesbian feminist perspective on gender is motivated by malice, and to ask themselves why it is easy to imagine an innate cruelty in lesbian women.

Increasingly, I see straight feminists treating their lesbian sisters in a way that they could never condone behaving towards their trans siblings. Perhaps this disparity in compassion is because trans-identifying people do not overtly challenge the foundations of a heterosexual feminist life, whereas sharing spaces with lesbian feminists invariably brings the institution of heterosexuality into sharper focus – and in so doing raises uncomfortable questions. At times straight feminists speak about certain lesbian feminist theorists in such a way that you would be forgiven for thinking they described repeat violent offenders, not women in their sixties and seventies. Linda Bellos, a committed Black lesbian feminist, was vilified for speaking about the conflict between lesbian and queer politics. If we do not speak about it openly and honestly, that horrible tension is only going to grow – but I fear that scapegoating lesbian feminists is easier than engaging with what lesbian women have to say.

lavender menace

Lesbians are more likely to be described as unfeeling or – more ridiculous still – dangerous than straight feminists who analyse gender as a social harm. We are pathologised even within the feminist movement, lavender menaces once more. Radical feminists – many of whom are lesbian – consider gender as a vehicle for violence against women and girls. Therefore, we aim to eliminate gender in order to liberate women and girls from violence. Being a gender abolitionist has nothing to do with cruelty or prejudice, and everything to do with wanting to make this world a better, fairer place – somewhere all women and girls can thrive. I wish that more straight women could find ways to critique the gender politics of any lesbian feminism without resorting to Othering. There is scope for disagreement without subtly pathologising lesbian desires or perspectives.

An ever-growing number of Tweets muse about the correlation between lesbian IMG_20171116_231114.jpgsexuality and “TERF” politics, including such dubious pearls of wisdom such as this: “repeated use of the word ‘lesbian’ is also a dog whistle for TERFs.” If even saying lesbian can be taken as proof of transphobia, something has clearly gone wrong in this conversation. As Black feminist theory has long held (Hill Collins, 1990), self-definition is an essential step in the liberation of any oppressed group – including lesbians. And yet straight feminists are often willing to be complicit in lesbian erasure or, worse still, deny that erasure is happening even as lesbians challenge it.

For the most part I try not to write in anger, but there is something uniquely galling about being asked to consider how lesbian sexuality upholds oppressive practices by women who are married to and raising children with men. Lesbians experiencing same-sex attraction is casually problematised in conversations about gender – often by women who are exclusively attracted to the opposite sex and consider partnership with men to be the “natural” trajectory of their lives. And because relations between men and women are positioned as “natural” in heteropatriarchy, they are not subject to a fraction of the scrutiny that lesbian (and, increasingly, gay) sexuality faces. It’s sad but predictable that heterosexuality is rarely critiqued as part of gender discourse, even as expression of lesbian sexuality is treated as evidence of transphobia.

As the tension between gender and sexual politics grows, the mainstream feminist movement tends to forget that lesbians are women doing our best to survive life under patriarchy – perhaps even to break free from it if we’re lucky. Lesbians are not and never have been the women mainstream feminism is concerned with protecting: our vulnerability, unlike that of heterosexual women, evokes no great sympathy. Straight women treat lesbians as expendable to the feminist movement, although we have always been at the heart of feminism, in order to create enough distance to safely avoid being branded lesbian themselves.

The terror of Black Lesbians is buried in that deep inner place where we have been taught to fear all difference – to kill it or ignore it. Be assured: loving women is not a communicable disease. You don’t catch it like the common cold. Yet the one accusation that seems to render even the most vocal straight Black woman totally silent and ineffective is the suggestion that she might be a Black Lesbian.  – Audre Lorde, I Am Your Sister: Black Women Organizing Across Sexualities

There is irony in straight women condemning lesbian feminists for our gender politics: it is, of course, our very refusal to live within the confines of gender that makes us the legitimate targets of their Othering. The distance between straight and lesbian feminists stems from het women’s failure to use that difference as a mine of creative energy. Difference can function as a source of solutions, not problems, if we are bold enough to seize upon it.

Ultimately, it’s not difficult to see why so many straight Black feminists are receptive to the notion of gender as identity. White lesbians ask me about this routinely – why so many heterosexual Black feminists have embraced queer gender politics – and my answer revolves around the following points. White women’s gender politics have historically been antagonistic towards Black women, compounding the racist oppressions we experience. Black women know what it is to be positioned outside of the acceptable, recognised standard of womanhood. Therefore, some sense parallels between the struggles of being born into Black womanhood and finding transwomanhood. The shared pains and challenges that come with being an outsider act as a bridge. What’s more, single-issue, gender-only feminism was only ever a viable option for the most privileged white women. Gender might not even be the most keenly felt form of oppression that manifests in a Black woman’s life, and so accepting its continuation may seem like a viable political compromise when it brings about fresh potential for solidarity.

The part I do not understand – or rather, do not want to understand – is the reluctance of some straight Black women to extend the same empathy or willingness to understand towards their lesbian sisters. Shared similarities between straight and lesbian Black women do not mean that I will hesitate to challenge an Othering approach to our differences. But it is not a criticism that I relish having to make. With certain women, there is a choice to be made: I can have my principles, or I can have those friendships. Principle wins every time. It’s simple, but also excruciatingly complicated.


Bibliography

Marilyn Frye. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory

Lynne Harne & Elaine Miller, eds.. (1996). All the Rage: Reasserting Radical Lesbian Feminism

Patricia Hill Collins. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics

Audre Lorde. (1988). A Burst of Light: And Other Essays

Audre Lorde. (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence

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Womanhood: On Sex, Gender Roles, and Self-Identification

A (not so) brief foreword: this essay was originally commissioned by an independent publisher looking to release an anthology on gender. In 2017 they asked if I’d be interested in writing an essay on womanhood. I was a little surprised, the publisher being explicitly queer and me being a radical feminist, but ultimately pleased: their goal was to publish a collection with plural perspectives on gender, and I believe wholeheartedly that having the space for plural perspectives on any issue is essential for healthy, open public discourse. I knew that my lesbian feminist essay would probably be in a minority standpoint, and felt comfortable with it being published alongside contradictory perspectives. Given the extreme polarity of gender discourse, which results in a painful stalemate between queer activists and radical feminists, it was encouraging to think we had reached a point where multiple views could be held and explored together.

So I wrote the essay, made the requested edits, and produced a final draft with which the publisher and I were both delighted. Their words: “We’re really happy with the edits you’ve done and the areas you’ve developed on upon our request. You did a splendid job refining the essay.” However, certain people objected to the inclusion of my essay before having read it. Some early readers gave the feedback that they were unhappy to find a perspective that they were not expecting, and alarmed that I had connected my personal experience of gender as a woman to the wider sociopolitical context we inhabit. Backlash escalated to the point that the publishing house faced the risk of having their business undermined and their debut collection jeopardised.

They gave me the option of writing another essay for the gender anthology, or having this essay published in a future collection. I declined both choices, as neither felt right – fortunately, there are more projects on my horizon. That being said I have great sympathy for the publisher’s position, and find it regrettable that their bold and brilliant venture should be compromised by the very people it was designed to support. Furthermore, I wish the publisher every success with this project, and all future endeavours. As for the essay, controversial even before being read, I have instead decided to publish it here as the seventh part of the series on sex, gender, and sexuality. It is, in my opinion, a good essay and deserves to see the light of day.

If you enjoy or learn from this essay, and can afford to do so, please consider donating to cover the lost commission of this work. [UPDATE: the publisher has offered partial payment depending on the success of their crowdfunding campaign. Thank you to everyone who has supported me. It means a great deal.]


 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. – Ntozake Shange

I absolutely love women. I love women in a way that leaves me breathless, in a way that catches just behind my ribs and gently tugs at my heartstrings until they unravel. I love women with a depth and fervour that is fundamentally lesbian. And in loving women I find extraordinary reserves of strength, the will to keep on challenging white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984), the motivation to chip away at every hierarchy and oppression that acts as a pillar upholding the ills of society. A love of women is central to my feminism, for bonds between women – links of solidarity and sisterhood in particular – have a revolutionary power unequal to any force on this earth.

According to Adrienne Rich, “the connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.” The connections shared by women, and all that flows across connections between women, open the possibility for radical social change – which is why lesbian existence and feminist politics are complimentary forces in a woman’s life.

Loving women as I do, I have spent a great deal of time musing upon what it is to be a woman, from where the appeal of women springs. As many young lesbians do, I speculate about the nature of the draw which compels us to watch all sorts of random crap on television simply because the middle-aged actress we fancy has a small role in the production. Having grown up in this world as a girl and subsequently learned how to negotiate this world as a woman, I have also reflected upon the social and political significance of the category – the weight which is undeniable. The question of what it means to be a woman has been central to feminist discourse for hundreds of years: establishing what womanhood is, pinpointing the means and motive behind woman’s oppression under patriarchy, and working out how to end that oppression are central feminist concerns.

At present the feminist movement is split in two over how to conceptualise woman and woman’s oppression. The tensions between queer ideology and sexual politics have proven every bit as divisive as the sex wars of the 1980s. The source of the split lies within gender – specifically, whether gender ought to be conceptualised as a hierarchy or as an identity within feminist analysis. Feminists have historically identified gender as the means of women’s oppression: patriarchy is reliant on gender to establish and maintain a hierarchy that enables men to dominate women.  But by the turn of the century queer theorists such as Judith Butler and Jack Halberstam began to suggest that gender may be subverted and experimented with until the very fabric of society is no longer recognisable.

Owing to the mainstreaming of queer ideology, we have entered an unprecedented era governed by the logic of postmodernism – a time in which the relationship between the physical body and material reality is untethered by the politics of identity.  As such, those engaging with the progressive politics – be they liberal or radical – begin asking ourselves anew: what does it mean to be a woman?

Woman as a Sex Class

A key element of feminist analysis is the recognition of woman as a sex class. By this I do not mean that all women’s experiences meet the same universal standards, or that all women are positioned similarly within the world’s power structures: factors such as race, disability, social class, and sexuality all shape where a woman is situated in relation to power. Rather, this perspective offers an acknowledgement of the role in which patriarchy plays in determining the power dynamic between women and men. Women’s struggle against patriarchy is collective, and emancipation from systemic oppression cannot be found through individualising a structural issue. Women of all colours and creeds, women of all classes and castes, are actively subjugated from birth – a political analysis which fails to incorporate this reality cannot truly be thought of as feminist. Women’s oppression is a direct result of having been born female-bodied into a patriarchal society. Considering woman as a sex class is, therefore, fundamental to meaningful feminist critique of patriarchy.

This mode of analysis – radically feminist analysis – can grate when misapplied by white women who seek to deny any difference between women’s lives. But when carried out correctly, with rigour and consideration, it has the potential to change the world.

My own womanhood is hardly conventional, Black and lesbian as it is. I do not meet white Eurocentric standards of female beauty or womanhood and no longer aspire towards those standards, which are rooted in racism and misogyny. Owing to skin pigmentation and hair texture, my Blackness is impossible to conceal – even if it were possible, having begun to unpick the misogynoir I have internalised from an early age, I would not choose to hide it in order to assimilate. To be visibly Other is to live with an increased vulnerability, to be perpetually open to manifestations of structural oppression. For a time I despised both my Blackness and my womanhood as a result of the painful alienation misogynoir brought into my life. I have since learned to place the blame firmly where it belongs, with the source of these cruelties: white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Since embracing radical politics I have learned to love both Blackness and womanhood, to love myself as a Black woman, in a way that was never possible during my pursuit of conventional beauty standards.

My lesbian presentation (Tongson, 2005) is a further rejection of those beauty standards. I style my hair in a fashion that is distinctly lesbian and have maintained a crisp undercut since coming out. At various points certain members of my family have attempted to enforce compulsory heterosexuality by shaming any outward presentation of a lesbian aesthetic, endeavouring to guide me back into the feminine role. I am told that returning to conventionally feminine presentation would render me “softer”, “more approachable”, and closer to the ideal of beauty. And while I could choose to pass for heterosexual, allowing an assumption that I am available and receptive to men to cushion me from a degree of marginalisation, I do not. I have no desire to appear soft or approachable, least of all to men – the oppressor class. Alice Walker proclaimed that “resistance is the secret of joy”, and she was quite right: there is a feeling of pure elation that flows from resisting the trap and trappings of heteropatriarchy.

Like every single woman living in a patriarchal society, I experience systematic oppression as a consequence of being female. Women – all women – are bound by the rigidity of the gender role ascribed to us on the basis of our biological sex. We are socialised from birth to be soft, compliant, nurturing so that we are primed to adopt the caring role required for upholding the domestic sphere owned by a man, be he husband or father. As Mary Wollstonecraft notably lamented, women are actively discouraged from pursuing our full potential as self-actualised human beings. Instead, women are subjected to a deliberate social (and often economic) pressure designed to create in us an ornamental source of sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour for men.

From Sojourner Truth to Simone de Beauvoir, there is a long and proud tradition of feminists critiquing the role of femininity. During her time as an abolitionist orator, Truth deconstructed womanhood to great effect, asking “ain’t I a woman?” Arguing against the hierarchies of race and gender that determined how the category of woman was understood in North American society during the heights of the transatlantic slave trade, Truth offered her own story as testimony to the falsehood of femininity. Truth used her own strength and endurance as empirical evidence, asserting that womanhood was in no way dependent on or related to the characteristics which construct femininity. Her opposition to gender essentialism and white supremacy continues to influence feminists’ perspectives on womanhood to this very day.

Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir further critiqued femininity, connecting the socialisation of gender to the oppression of women by men. She theorised that man was the normative standard of humanity and woman understood purely in relation to him:

Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.

That woman is relegated to the Other, lacking in positive definition, mandates a life that is male-centric. If woman exists as the negative image of man, she is forever bound to him. Self-definition has long been recognised as a necessary tool for the liberation of an oppressed group, and if women remain dependent on men for definition then the root cause of our oppression can never be fully tackled. Adrienne Rich once claimed that “until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves” – as is often the case, her words contain more than a little truth.

Gender is normalised through essentialism, positioned as a natural and inevitable part of life. From the get-out-of-accountability-free card that is ‘boys will be boys’ to the constant refrain of “she was asking for it” when men act upon the cultural conditioning that assures them they are entitled to women’s bodies, the hierarchy of gender maintains the gross power imbalance at the root of sexual politics. Here is how I understand the connection between biological sex and gender roles:

Gender is a socially constructed trap designed to oppress women as a sex class for the benefit of men as a sex class. And the significance of biological sex cannot be disregarded, in spite of recent efforts to reframe gender as an identity rather than a hierarchy. Sexual and reproductive exploitation of the female body are the material basis of women’s oppression – our biology is used as a means of domination by our oppressors, men.

We teach boys to dominate others and disavow their emotions. We teach girls to nurture others at the expense of their own. And I think this world would be a better place if we encouraged more empathy in boys and more daring in girls. If gender were abolished, if we raised boys and girls in the same way, patriarchy would crumble. Like a great many feminists before her, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie advocates the elimination of gender:

The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognising how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations… Boys and girls are undeniably different biologically, but socialisation exaggerates the differences, and then starts a self-fulfilling process. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All be Feminists

It is impossible to consider the position of women in society, the reality that we are second-class citizens by design of patriarchy, without acknowledging the extent of the harm done by gender. Womanhood is caught up in the constraints of the feminine gender role, prevented from escaping male dominion. In the abolition of gender lies a radical alternative. In the abolition of gender lies women’s liberation.

Therefore, recent reframing of gender as an innately held identity has proven problematic in ongoing feminist struggle. Gender identity politics rely on essentialism that feminists have fought for hundreds of years, an essentialism that argues women are naturally suited to the means of our oppression. If gender is inherent – a natural phenomenon after all – then the oppression of women under patriarchy is legitimised.

Womanhood

During the second wave of feminism, it was argued that woman simply meant a biologically female adult human. Feminists (Millett, 1969; French, 1986; Dworkin, 1987) made the case that womanhood could and should exist purely as a biological category, unfettered by the feminine gender role – a vision of women’s liberation. This perspective is directly contradicted by a queer understanding of gender, which primarily focuses on gender as self-expression:

The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality. – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

A queer notion of gender presents it as a matter of performativity, arguing that dominant power structures may be subverted through transgressing the barriers of masculine and feminine gender roles. Identification with the characteristics associated with a gender role is taken as belonging to the category. Those who identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as cisgender. Those who do not identify with the gender role ascribed to their sex class are described as transgender. From a queer standpoint, sex is not a fixed category but rather an unstable one. Queer politics are formed gender as a mode of personal identification. Radical feminist analysis, in which gender is understood as a hierarchy, is dismissed as old-fashioned.

If one cannot say with absolutely clarity what is woman and what is man, the oppressed and oppressor classes are rendered unspeakable. Subsequently the hierarchy of gender is made invisible and feminist analysis of patriarchy grows impossible. Without words used as markers to convey specific meaning, women are deprived of the vocabulary required to name and oppose our oppression. Postmodernism and political analysis of power structures make uneasy bedfellows.

Here is where the controversy lies, where gender discourse grows explosive beyond the point of reconciliation between queer and radical feminism. If gender is a matter of personal identification, it is a purely individual matter and, therefore, depoliticised. The power differential between oppressed and oppressor is negated by a failure to consider man and woman as two distinct sex classes. Gender ceases to be visible as a means of oppression, further obscured as the categories of man and woman are considered immaterial. If sex classes are unspeakable, so too are the sexual politics of patriarchy.

If womanhood can be reduced to the performance of the feminine gender role and a personal identification with that gender role, there is little scope for distinguishing between the oppressor and oppressed. Womanhood ceases to be indicated by the presence of primary and secondary sex characteristics and instead becomes a matter of self-identification. The oppressor may even benefit from a lifetime of the privilege conferred upon men through the subordination of woman and then claim womanhood. Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Woman’s Hour, came under fire for highlighting that prior to transition, transwomen benefit from the social and economic privileges accorded to men in patriarchy. Shortly afterwards, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received backlash for differentiating between the experiences of women born as such and transwomen:

 I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switch gender – it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experiences with the experiences of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one.

If it is no longer possible to consider the experiences of those born female, to analyse the relationship between sex and socioeconomic power, feminists can no longer identify or challenge the workings of patriarchy. This is a particularly unfortunate consequence of embracing queer ideology. Women’s rights are human rights, as the slogan goes – inalienable and absolutely worth fighting for. The injustices faced by women around the globe are intolerable: one in three women will be subject to male violence within her lifetime. Yet, if the linguistic tools necessary to critique patriarchy are removed from the feminist lexicon, women’s liberation hits an insurmountable stumbling block: you cannot challenge an oppression you cannot name, after all.

The cultural significance attached to the word woman is in a state of flux. As queer politics would have it, womanhood is simply the performance of the female gender role. As radical feminism would have it, the female gender role exists purely as a sexist stereotype of woman rooted in essentialism and misogyny. The only escape queer politics offers women from patriarchal oppression is for all those who are biologically female to identify out of the category ‘woman’. To claim the label of non-binary, genderfluid, or transmasculine – anything other than a cisgender woman, who is naturally suited to her status as a second-class citizen – is the only route queer politics offers biological women to being recognised as fully human.

Women, by queer logic, cannot be self-actualised and have no meaningful inner-lives. We are simply Other to men. It is for this reason that queer ideology has been able to reduce women to “non-men” – to “pregnant people”, “uterus-havers”, and “menstruators.”  It is worth asking: does trans-inclusivity depend upon women being written out of existence? While queer theory has reflected upon the nature of masculinity, it has not deconstructed the category of man beyond the point of recognition. Just as in mainstream patriarchal society, man is the normative standard of humanity and woman defined in relation to him. The positive definition of womanhood is treated as expendable within queer discourse.

As linguist Deborah Cameron asserts, women’s power to self-define is of immense political significance:

The strength of the word ‘woman’ is that it can be used to affirm our humanity, dignity and worth, without denying our embodied femaleness or treating it as a source of shame. It neither reduces us to walking wombs, nor de-sexes and disembodies us. That’s why it’s important for feminists to go on using it. A movement whose aim is to liberate women should not treat ‘woman’ as a dirty word.

However one understands the category of woman, its erasure can surely be recognised as a disastrous impediment to the liberation of women.

Lesbian Sexuality

The controversy over how womanhood is defined manifests most acutely around lesbian sexuality. An unfortunate consequence of queer politics is the problematising of homosexuality. Lesbian women and to a lesser extent gay men (for it is women’s bodies and sexual practices that are fiercely policed within patriarchy) routinely face allegations of transphobia within queer discourse. A lesbian is a woman who exclusively experiences same-sex attraction. It is the presence of female primary and secondary sex characteristics that create at least the potential for lesbian desire – gender identity is of little relevance to the parameters of same-sex attraction. As it is governed on the basis of biological sex rather than personal identification with gender, the sexuality of lesbian women is under scrutiny within queer discourse.

These words are not written with detachment. It is not an abstract concern alive only in theory. The reality is, this is a particularly uncomfortable window of time in which to be lesbian. We face mounting pressure to expand the boundaries of our sexuality until sex that involves a penis is considered a viable option. And sex that involves a penis quite simply isn’t lesbian, whether it belongs to a man or a transwoman.

I am deeply concerned by the shaming and coercion of lesbian women that now happens within queer discourse. The queer devaluation of lesbian sexuality – from the insistence that lesbians are a boring old anachronism to the pathologising of lesbian sexuality that occurs when we are branded “vagina fetishists” – is identical to the lesbophobia pedalled by social conservatives. Both the queer left and religious right go out of their way to imply something is wrong with lesbians because we desire other women.

Lesbian women are attracted by the female form. In addition to sharing a profound emotional and mental connection with other women, lesbians appreciate the female form – the beauty of women’s bodies is what sparks our desire. If biological sex ceases to be recognised as determining womanhood (or, indeed, manhood), it can no longer be said that there is such a body as a woman’s body. If the distinct set of sex characteristics which combine to form womanhood are rendered unspeakable, attraction inspired by those characteristics – lesbian desire – is made invisible. Something vital is lost when women are deprived of the language to articulate how and why we love other women (Rich, 1980).

Lesbians are being coerced back into the closet within the LGBT+ community. We receive strong encouragement to abandon the label of lesbian, which we are told is comically archaic, and embrace the umbrella term of queer in the name of inclusivity. But no sexuality is universally inclusive – by definition, sexuality is a specific set of factors which when met offer the potential for attraction. It is unreasonable – and frankly delusional – to imagine that sexuality can be stripped of any meaningful criteria.

A queer woman is less challenging to the status quo than a lesbian, easier for men to get behind, for queer is a vague term that deliberately eschews solid definitions – a queer woman may well be sexually available to men, her sexuality in no way an impediment to offering men the emotional, sexual, or reproductive labour upon which patriarchy is dependent.

Queer stigmatising of lesbians is a tactical manoeuvre designed to undermine acknowledgement of the female sex category. If there is no need to address same-sex attraction between women, the significance and permanence of sex categories demands no scrutiny. That encouraging lesbian women to consider sex that involves a penis has become newly acceptable, a legitimate line of discourse within the progressive left, is a terrible puzzle. The logic of it is straightforward enough, yet the underlying truths about what is happening within LGBT+ politics are not easy to look at. Yet still I cannot help turn it over and over in my mind, working at the ideas like a Rubik’s cube until the pieces fall into place. Queer ideology seeks to enforce compulsory heterosexuality in the lives of lesbian women just as surely as the standards set by patriarchy. By denying the possibility of lesbians exclusively loving other women, by delegitimising lesbians living woman-centric lives, queer politics undermines our liberation.

Conclusion

There is a persistent thread of misogyny running through queer politics, from the inception of queer to its present incarnation. Queer was the product of gay men’s activism, concerned primarily with sexual freedom and transgression: as such, queer did not represent the interests of lesbian women when it came into being during the 1980s and does not represent the interests of lesbian women now (Jeffreys, 2003). Queer is less about collectively challenging structural inequalities at their root than an individualised subversion of social norms.

Though it promised a radical, exciting alternative – one which many women have embraced, along with men – queer politics are ill equipped to dismantle systematic oppressions. Queer erasure of womanhood, queer disregard for women’s boundaries if they happen to be lesbian, and queer obscuring of the gender hierarchy breathes a new lease of life into patriarchy, if anything.

I dream of a world without gender. I dream of a world where men can wear dresses and be gentle without either being treated as a negation of manhood. But much more than that, I dream of a world where no assumptions are made about what it means to be woman beyond the realm of biological fact. And if that makes me a heretic in the church of gender, so be it – I’m an atheist.

Gender roles and the hierarchy they maintain are incompatible with the liberation of women and girls from patriarchal oppression. It is because I love women, and because I am a woman, that I cannot afford to pretend otherwise. Embracing gender as an identity is the equivalent of decorating the interior of a cell: it is a superficial perspective which offers no freedom.


Bibliography

Simone de Beauvoir. (1949). The Second Sex. London: Vintage

Judith Butler. (1990). Gender Trouble. London: Routledge

Andrea Dworkin. (1987). Intercourse. New York: Free Press

Marilyn French. (1986). Beyond Power: On Women, Men, and Morals. California: Ballantine Books

Sheila Jeffreys. (2003). Unpacking Queer Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press

Jack Halberstam. (1998). Female Masculinity. Carolina: Duke University Press

bell hooks. (1984). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. London: Pluto Press

Kate Millett. (1969). Sexual Politics. Columbia: Columbia University Press

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2014). We Should All be Feminists. London: Fourth Estate

Adrienne Rich. (1979). On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978

Adrienne Rich. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.

Ntozake Shange. (1982). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo. New York: Picador

Karen Tongson. (2005). Lesbian Aesthetics, Aestheticizing Lesbianism. IN Nineteenth Century Literature

Mary Wollstonecraft. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

 

À propos de notre disparition: réflexions sur l’effacement des lesbiennes

The Vanishing Point: A Reflection Upon Lesbian Erasure is now available in French! Many thanks to TradFem for the translation.


C’est une époque étrange où être une jeune lesbienne. Eh bien, assez jeune. Durant le temps qu’il m’a fallu pour évoluer du stade d’apprentie baby dyke à celui de lesbienne complètement formée, la tension entre la politique d’identité queer et la libération des femmes est devenue tout à fait insupportable. Facebook a ajouté le drapeau de la fierté gaie à ses emojis de réactions le même mois où ils ont commencé à bannir des lesbiennes pour s’être identifiées comme dykes. À mesure que sont progressivement normalisés la législation sur le mariage pour tous et les droits d’adoption de conjoints du même sexe, on voit le droit des femmes lesbiennes à s’auto-définir et à tracer leurs limites sexuelles être sapé au sein même de la communauté LBGT+. Si de telles contradictions sont caractéristiques de l’époque actuelle, cela ne les rend pas plus faciles à vivre au jour le jour.

L’amour est l’amour, à moins que vous vous trouviez à être une lesbienne, auquel cas love-is-lovevotre sexualité sera déconstruite implacablement parce que soupçonnée de faire preuve d’ »exclusion ». Comme je l’ai écrit dans un texte précédent, toute sexualité est par définition exclusive. La sexualité est un ensemble de paramètres qui régissent les caractéristiques auxquelles nous sommes potentiellement attirées chez les autres. Pour les lesbiennes, c’est la présence de caractéristiques sexuelles féminines primaires et secondaires qui créent (mais ne garantissent pas) la possibilité d’une attirance. C’est le sexe et non le genre (ni même l’identité de genre) qui est le facteur clé. Mais dans un contexte queer, comme dans la société patriarcale traditionnelle, le mot lesbienne devient une étiquette litigieuse.

Les lesbiennes sont plutôt encouragées à se décrire comme queer, un terme si vaste et si nébuleux qu’il en devient dépourvu de sens particulier, en ce sens qu’aucune personne munie d’un pénis n’est perçue comme étant entièrement au dehors de nos frontières sexuelles. Jocelyn MacDonald décrit bien cette situation :

« Les lesbiennes sont des femmes et on enseigne aux femmes que nous sommes censées être sexuellement disponibles comme objets de consommation publique. Nous passons donc beaucoup de temps à dire « Non ». Non, nous ne baiserons pas des hommes ni ne nous associerons pas à eux ; non, nous ne changerons pas d’avis à ce sujet ; non, notre corps est un no man’s land. Que nous soyons lesbiennes, hétéro ou bisexuelles, nous les femmes sommes punies chaque fois que nous essayons d’affirmer une frontière. Le queer comme expression indéfinie rend vraiment difficile pour les lesbiennes d’affirmer et de maintenir cette limite, car il rend impossible de nommer cette frontière. »

À une époque où la simple reconnaissance du sexe biologique est traitée comme un acte d’intolérance, l’homosexualité est automatiquement problématisée – et les conséquences imprévues de la politique d’identité queer s’avèrent de très grande envergure. Ou plutôt, il serait plus exact de dire que c’est la sexualité des lesbiennes qui est rendue problématique : l’idée de femmes réservant exclusivement nos désirs et nos énergies l’une pour l’autre demeure suspecte. Étrangement, le modèle des hommes qui placent d’autres hommes au centre de leur vie ne subit jamais la même réaction hostile. Ce sont les lesbiennes qui constituent une menace pour le statu quo, qu’il s’agisse de l’hétéropatriarcat ou de la culture queer. Lorsque les lesbiennes rejettent l’idée de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis, on nous qualifie de « fétichistes du vagin » et de « gynéphiles » – puisque la sexualité lesbienne est systématiquement qualifiée de pathologique dans le discours queer, tout comme la sexualité lesbienne est traitée comme pathologique par le conservatisme social. Je ne trouve donc pas surprenant que tant de jeunes femmes succombent à la pression sociale et abandonnent le terme de « lesbienne » au profit de celui de « queer ». L’effacement est le prix de l’acceptation.

« Ce n’est pas un secret que la peur et la haine des homosexuels imprègnent notre société. Mais le mépris pour les lesbiennes est distinct. Il est directement enraciné dans l’horreur éprouvée envers la femme qui se définit, se détermine, la femme qui n’est pas contrôlée par le besoins, les ordres ou la manipulation des hommes. Le mépris envers les lesbiennes est le plus souvent une répudiation politique des femmes qui s’organisent en leur propre nom pour acquérir une présence publique, un pouvoir significatif, une intégrité visible.

Les ennemis des femmes, ceux qui sont déterminés à nous nier la liberté et la dignité, utilisent le mot « lesbiennes » pour attiser une haine de femmes qui refusent de se conformer. Cette haine retentit partout. Cette haine est soutenue et exprimée par pratiquement toutes les institutions. Lorsque le pouvoir masculin est remis en question, cette haine peut être intensifiée et enflammée au point de la rendre volatile, palpable. La menace est que cette haine va exploser sous forme de violence. La menace est omniprésente car la violence faite aux femmes est applaudie culturellement. De sorte que le mot « lesbiennes », lancé ou chuchoté comme accusation, sert à concentrer l’hostilité masculine sur les femmes qui osent se révolter, et il sert également à effrayer et intimider les femmes qui ne se sont pas encore révoltées. » (Andrea Dworkin, « Words », publié dans Letters from a War Zone)

À en croire la politique d’identité queer, le fait que des femmes biologiques soient exclusivement intéressées à se lier à d’autres femmes serait un signe d’intolérance. Ne gaspillons pas de paragraphes en équivoque. Ce monde contient bien suffisamment de silences sur la question du genre, et ce sont toujours les femmes qui paient le prix le plus élevé pour ces silences – dans ce cas-ci, les femmes qui aiment d’autres femmes. Et donc je vais parler clairement : la raison pour laquelle la politique queer qualifie de « transphobes » les lesbiennes qui nient catégoriquement la possibilité de prendre un partenaire muni d’un pénis est parce que cette position ne comprend pas les transfemmes dans la sphère du désir lesbien. Quant à la lesbophobie inhérente à la réduction de la sexualité lesbienne à un simple facteur de validation, elle ne suscite, bien sûr, aucune objection.

Pourtant, la sexualité lesbienne n’exclut pas nécessairement les personnes qui s’identifient comme trans. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme non binaires ou genderqueer. La sexualité lesbienne peut s’étendre à des personnes biologiquement féminines qui s’identifient comme transhommes. Comme une proportion relativement élevée de transhommes auto-identifiées vivaient comme lesbiennes butch avant leur transition, il n’est pas inusité que des transhommes fassent partie de relations lesbiennes.

Où se situe la frontière entre une lesbienne butch et une transhomme ? Au cours de ses réflexions sur la vie lesbiennes, Roey Thorpe note que « … il y a toujours quelqu’un qui pose la question : ‘Où sont passées toutes les butchs ?’ » La réponse courte est : du côté de la transmasculinité (et la réponse longue appelle un billet à elle seule). À quel point dans le spectre de l’identité est-ce que finit la butch et commence la transhomme ?

cover The Argonauts

Cette frontière est amorphe, mais Maggie Nelson tente avec imagination de la tracer dans The Argonauts. Son amante, l’artiste Harry Dodge, est décrite par Nelson comme une « butch débonnaire sous testostérone ». Aux yeux de Nelson, « la seule similarité que j’aie remarquée dans mes relations avec des femmes n’est pas l’uniformité de la Femme, et certainement pas l’uniformité des parties. C’est plutôt la compréhension partagée et écrasante de ce que signifie vivre en régime patriarcal. » Dodge affiche un genre fluide et une présentation masculine. La testostérone et la mastectomie ne suppriment pas une compréhension de ce qu’est que d’être située, dans ce monde, en tant que femme. Ces vérités coexistent.

L’idée que les lesbiennes sont transphobes parce que nos frontières sexuelles ne s’étendent pas jusqu’à accueillir le pénis est aussi fallacieuse que phallocentrique. Et la pression exercée sur les lesbiennes pour leur faire déplacer ces frontières est franchement terrifiante ; elle repose sur un sentiment de droit envers les corps des femmes, un droit qui fait partie du patriarcat et qui se reproduit maintenant dans l’espace queer. Il faut rappeler que les lesbiennes n’existent pas comme simples objets sexuels ou facteurs de validation, mais comme êtres humains auto-actualisés ayant leurs propres désirs et frontières.

Parler de politique queer avec des amis gays de mon âge est une expérience révélatrice. Ces conversations me rappellent deux choses : avec les hommes, « non » est accepté comme mot de la fin. Avec les femmes, le mot non est traité comme l’amorce d’une négociation. La plupart des gays que je connais sont tour à tour horrifiés et amusés par l’idée que les paramètres de leur sexualité pourraient ou devraient être modifiés par les prescriptions de la politique queer. Certains (chanceux dans leur ignorance) ne connaissent pas le labyrinthe de la théorie queer. D’autres (les nouveaux initiés) sont, sans surprise, résistants à la problématisation queer de leur homosexualité. L’un d’entre eux est même allé jusqu’à suggérer que les gays, les lesbiennes et les bisexuels devraient rompre avec la soupe alphabet de la politique queer et s’organiser spontanément en fonction de critères sexuels. Compte tenu qu’une foule de dykes ont été ciblées comme TERFs dans cette nouvelle chasse aux sorcières pour avoir lancé la même suggestion, j’ai trouvé à la fois encourageant et déprimant d’entendre un homme extérieur au féminisme radical exprimer les mêmes opinions sans crainte de censure.

Je suis heureuse de dire qu’aucun des gays que j’appelle mes amis n’a opté pour ce qu’on pourrait appeler la stratégie Owen Jones : celle de rejeter comme intolérantes les préoccupations des lesbiennes dans l’espoir de se mériter de savoureux biscuits à décoration arc-en-ciel pour alliés fiables. La tendance des hommes de gauche à miser sur la misogynie pour mousser leur réputation est une histoire aussi ancienne que le patriarcat. Que cela se produise dans le contexte de la communauté queer n’est pas surprenant, car cette culture est dominée par des hommes.

La communauté queer peut finalement s’avérer aliénante pour les lesbiennes. Même si j’ai participé à des espaces queerau moment de mon coming-out, je me suis de plus en plus éloignée de ce contexte au fil du temps. Je ne suis nullement seule en cela : beaucoup de lesbiennes de mon groupe d’âge sont conscientes d’être effacées et repoussées dans les milieux queer, auxquels on nous dit pourtant que nous sommes censées appartenir. Ce ne sont pas seulement les lesbiennes plus âgées qui résistent à la politique queer, même si Dieu sait qu’elles nous ont prévenues de sa misogynie. Mon seul regret est de ne pas avoir prêté l’oreille plus tôt, d’avoir gaspillé beaucoup de temps et d’énergie à essayer de combler le fossé idéologique entre les féminismes queer et radical.

Le discours queer utilise ce qui ressemble à la tactique de la carotte et du bâton pour amener les jeunes lesbiennes à se conformer : nous pouvons soit embrasser le queer et trouver un sentiment d’appartenance, soit demeurer des outsiders sans rapport, à l’instar de vieilles lesbiennes ringardes. Cette approche, lourde d’âgisme et de misogynie, a échoué à me dissuader : je crois qu’il n’y a rien que je voudrais être autant qu’une lesbienne plus âgée, et il est formidable de savoir que c’est l’avenir qui m’attend. La profondeur des réflexions que m’adressent les lesbiennes âgées, leur façon de me mettre au défi et de me guider dans ma prise de conscience féministe, joue un rôle essentiel en façonnant à la fois mon sentiment du monde et la façon dont j’y comprends ma place. Si j’ai vraiment de la chance, j’aurai un jour ces conversations aériennes (et, parfois, intellectuellement éprouvantes) avec des générations futures de baby dykes.

Bien que j’apprécie le soutien et la sororité des lesbiennes plus âgées (de loin ma préférée parmi les catégories démographiques d’êtres humains), je dois dire qu’à certains égards, j’envie la relative simplicité de ce qu’était la vie des lesbiennes pendant les années 70 et 80. Pourquoi ? Parce qu’elles ont vécu des vies lesbiennes avant que la politique queer ne devienne généralisée. Je ne dis pas cela à la légère, ni pour laisser entendre que le passé a été une sorte d’utopie pour les droits des gais et des lesbiennes. Ce n’était pas le cas. Leurs générations ont connu l’article 28 (qui bannissait la promotion à l’école de l’homosexualité comme normale), alors que la mienne a obtenu le mariage pour tous. Les gains dont bénéficie ma génération sont le produit direct de leur lutte. Pourtant, elles ont pu vivre au moins une partie de leur vie à une époque où, de tous les prétextes pour lesquels le mot lesbienne rencontrait du dégoût, l’accusation d’être « trop exclusionnaire » ne faisait pas partie de la liste. Il n’y avait pas d’incitation, dans un contexte féministe ou gay, à « queerer » la sexualité lesbienne.

Certaines choses n’ont tout de même pas beaucoup changé. La sexualité des lesbiennes est encore régulièrement dépréciée. Les dykes lesbiennes servent encore de faire-valoir aux femmes qui disent « Ne vous inquiétez pas, je ne suis pas ce genre de féministe… » Mais aujourd’hui, lorsque je vérifie mes messages reçus sur Twitter, cela me prend vraiment un moment pour déterminer si mon identité lesbienne a offensé quelqu’un de la droite alt-right ou de la gauche queer. La distinction est-elle vraiment significative ? La lesbophobie emprunte le même format. La haine des femmes est identique.

There will be no revolution

Au moment des défilés de la Fierté gaie, on a vu circuler sur les médias sociaux, l’image d’un transfemme souriant, portant un t-shirt ensanglanté où l’on pouvait lire « I punch TERFs ». Cette image avait pour titre « Voici à quoi ressemble la libération gay ». Cette prétention est particulièrement douteuse, dans la mesure où celles d’entre nous qui vivons à l’intersection de l’identité homosexuelle et de la féminité, les lesbiennes, sont souvent qualifiées de TERF pour la seule raison de notre sexualité. Comme nous vivons dans un monde où une femme sur trois subit des violences physiques ou sexuelles au cours de sa vie, je ne peux trouver cette image amusante – il n’y a rien de révolutionnaire ou de contre-culturel à faire une blague sur le fait de frapper des femmes. C’est un endossement irréfléchi de la violence anti-femmes, présentée comme un objectif de la politique de libération. Et nous savons tous que les TERF sont des femmes, car les hommes qui font respecter leurs limites sont rarement soumis à ce genre de vitriol. Bien sûr, le fait de souligner cette misogynie entraîne un nouveau déluge de misogynie.

Il y a une réplique à la mode réservée aux féministes qui critiquent les politiques sexuelles liées à l’identité de genre, une réplique qui rappelle davantage des adolescents agressifs que quelque véritable politique de résistance. C’est « Suck my girldick » (Suce ma bite de fille). Ou, si leur malice tente de se parer d’originalité, « étouffe-toi avec ma bite de fille ». Se faire dire de s’étouffer avec une bite de fille n’est pas ressenti comme différent d’être invitée à s’étouffer avec une bite classique, mas cette insulte est presque devenue une figure obligée des propos sur le genre affichés dans le réseau Twitter. L’acte reste le même. La misogynie reste la même. Et il est révélateur que, dans ce scénario, la gratification sexuelle découle d’un acte qui bâillonne littéralement les femmes.

 

Un vers célèbre de Roméo et Juliette de Shakespeare proclame que « ce que nous appelons une rose embaumerait autant sous un autre nom ». En gardant cela à l’esprit (car il y a beaucoup plus de tragédie que de romance dans la présente situation), je prétends que même sous un autre nom, un pénis serait sexuellement repoussant pour des lesbiennes. Et c’est très bien. Le désintérêt sexuel n’équivaut pas à une discrimination, une oppression ou une marginalisation. Par contre, le droit d’accès sexuel que veulent s’arroger certains a précisément ces effets : il joue un rôle fondamental dans l’oppression des femmes et se manifeste clairement dans la culture du viol. La perspective queer ne laisse pas place à des discussions de la misogynie qui autorise certains à se juger en droit d’accéder aux corps de lesbiennes. La moindre reconnaissance du problème est tout de suite jugée outrancière ; par conséquent, la misogynie se voit protégée par des couches et des couches de silence.

Ce n’est pas une époque géniale pour être lesbienne. La réticence de la politique queer à simplement accepter la sexualité lesbienne comme valide à part entière est profondément marginalisante; elle va parfois jusqu’à considérer le désir de faire l’amour comme plus valide que le droit de s’y refuser. Et pourtant, la connexion lesbienne tient bon, comme elle l’a toujours fait. Les relations lesbiennes continuent de nous nourrir, tout en offrant une alternative radicale à l’hétéropatriarcat. Ce n’est pas parce que cette alternative n’est pas particulièrement visible en ce moment, parce qu’elle n’a pas la popularité répandue (c’est-à-dire patriarcale) de la culture queer, que cela signifie qu’elle n’existe pas. Les lesbiennes sont partout – cela ne changera pas.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. (Ne laisse pas les salauds te réduire en poussière)


Bibliographie

Margaret Atwood. (1985). La Servante écarlate

Andrea Dworkin. (1978). « Words », dans The Andrea Dworkin Online Library

Cherríe Moraga. (2009). Still Loving in the (Still) War Years : On Keeping Queer Queer

Maggie Nelson. (2015). The Argonauts

Adrienne Rich. (1976). Naître d’une femme : la maternité comme expérience et institution


Translation originally posted here.

Original text initially posted here.

Dear Roxane – An Open Letter on Queer Feminism & Lesbophobia

A brief foreword: this letter was written as an invitation for queer, bisexual, and straight women who call themselves feminist to reflect upon their lesbophobia.


 

Dear Roxane,

As every woman active in the modern day feminist movement knows, there is a growing schism between queer ideology and sexual politics. The conversation has grown fraught, with those on either position growing heartsick from the conflict. It’s difficult, because points of connection are missed, especially on social media – where everything becomes somehow more polar, more about point-scoring than moments of political connection. And it was my aim to connect with you in raising the issue of lesbophobia, to share a meaningful engagement from which we could both develop, because otherwise nothing ever changes and the same mistakes are repeated ad infinitum – and a feminist movement that replicates the hierarchies of mainstream society is in no way equipped to dismantle them.

I am not writing with the intention of ridiculing you, nor do I claim to be some paragon of feminist virtue. The reality of the situation is that I’m just about as bougie as a Black girl can be, and held onto some shitty class politics until turning twenty two, politics which I will spend the rest of my life unlearning and resisting. While it is embarrassing to get things wrong, devastating to realise you have been complicit in the oppression of others, the real shame would be in turning your back on the women who try to address behaviour born of politics that are damaging to them. With this in mind, I hold compassion for you as I address the lesbophobia you displayed on Twitter.

In response to Kat Blaque’s Tweets about a confrontation with Arielle Scarcella, you said the following: “Oh my god. I am on the edge of my seat. Slap her.”

Roxane 1 beta

From the context I gather this remark was intended with humour, a pass-the-popcorn type jibe about the drama, but the joke falls flat when we consider just how vulnerable lesbian women are in heteropatriarchy. Just this week it was announced that Aderonke Apata, a Nigerian lesbian rights activist, won her claim for asylum in Britain after a 13-year struggle to have the state recognise that as a lesbian she was at extreme risk of violence if forcibly repatriated. Lesbian women are treated with revulsion simply for loving women. We are disparaged and degraded for experiencing same-sex attraction, and abused – often brutally – for living woman-centric lives. By all means, criqitue Arielle Scarcella’s videos – I’m not stopping you. But please do not suggest that violence against a lesbian woman becomes legitimate simply because she subscribes to a set of politics that are not aligned with your own. Not even in jest.

Blaque is a well-known trans blogger. Scarcella is a well-known lesbian blogger. Blaque has made numerous videos denouncing Scarcella, and the beef between them is well known in the sphere of LGBT+ online community.  In many ways, this issue goes beyond the drama that happens between them, stretching to encompass all the tensions of gender discourse.

Gender discourse isn’t abstract. How the politics of gender manifest in our lives has very real consequences for everyone involved. You know this, and have written about it with great eloquence. The tensions within gender discourse have grown particularly explosive where lesbian sexuality is involved. What is sometimes referred to as the cotton ceiling issue – whether lesbian women ought to consider those identifying as transwomen as potential sexual partners – has become hugely controversial in the last few years.

For me, it is obvious: lesbians are women who exclusively experience same-sex attraction. As transwomen are biologically male, lesbian sexuality does not extend to include them. That is not to say lesbian women would not consider taking trans-identified lovers – as I have previously written, the boundary between a butch lesbian and a transman is often blurred, and many non-binary identified people are biologically female too – but rather that our interest is reserved for those who are physically, biologically female. It is also worth pointing out that approximately two thirds of transgender people have reported undergoing some form of gender-confirming surgery, meaning that the majority of transwomen are in possession of a penis – a definite no insofar as lesbian sexuality is concerned.

From what I have seen of her videos, Arielle Scarcella is of a similar view – she defends lesbian women’s right to assert sexual boundaries and the validity of same-sex attraction. No matter your opinion on Scarcella’s work, one question arises when considering the accusations of transphobia levelled against her: why, in 2017, is it contentious for a lesbian to categorically reject sex involving a penis? The short answer is homophobia and misogyny, both of which can be found in abundance in queer attitudes towards lesbian women.

Roxane 3 betaWhen I pointed out that your words were lesbophobic, you claimed this could not be because you are “queer as the day is long.” Since you are queer as opposed to lesbian, it is not for you to decide what is lesbophobic or not. Being queer does not inoculate you against homophobia or, indeed, lesbophobia. Queer is an umbrella term, a catch-all which may encompass all but the most rigid practice of heterosexuality. It is not a stable category or coherent political ideology, as anything considered even slightly transgressive may be labelled queer. Queer is a deliberately amorphous expression, avoiding specific definitions and fixed meanings. It need not relate to the politics of resistance, and indeed cannot relate to the politics of resistance because queer lacks the vocabulary to positively identify oppressed and oppressor classes. Queer seeks to subvert the dominant values of society through performativity and playfulness as opposed to deconstructing those values by presenting a radical alternative to white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. Queer is the master’s tools trying to dismantle the master’s house, and – inevitably – failing. Predictably, queer replicates the misogyny of mainstream society. As lesbophobia is essentially misogyny squared, identifying as queer in no way indicates a politics that values lesbian women.

Being a lesbian woman is not the same as being a queer woman. That observation is not rooted in purism, but fact: lesbian and queer are two different realities. Devoid of concrete definitions, to be queer is to be sexually fluid – meaning the term queer is male-inclusive. Within the possibilities implied by queer, there remains scope for men to gain sexual access to women. As queer women’s sexualities do not explicitly – or even implicitly – reject men, queer womanhood is accepted in a way that lesbian womanhood will never be. The lesbian woman represents a threat to the status quo, to male dominion over women, in a way that the queer woman by definition (or lack of) never could. As a result, lesbians have been consistently pathologised and abused since the 1800s. I do not dispute that there are difficulties in the lives of queer women, but a degree of social acceptance may be purchased through vocally disparaging lesbian women in the way that you disparaged Arielle Scarcella.

To publicly shame and ridicule lesbians in an effort to alter our sexual boundaries is to follow the blueprint created by compulsory heterosexuality. And make no mistake – it is Arielle Scarcella’s adherence to lesbian sexual boundaries that Kat Blaque takes issue with, the outspoken self-definition of a lesbian woman, that have resulted in allegations of transphobia. The problematising of gay and lesbian sexuality is an unfortunate product of queer politics. If biological sex is unspeakable, so too is same-sex attraction; if same-sex attraction is unspeakable, so too is lesbian sexuality – the logic of queer forces us back into the closet by insisting that lesbian women and gay men abandon self-definition. And self-definition is fundamental to the liberation of any oppressed group. Sooner or later, those embracing the label of queer must reckon with that homophobia.

Arielle Scarcella sought to address the tensions between queer people and lesbian women in her videos – which, regardless of whether or not one agrees with her content, is a brave thing to have done. Few feminists want to speak publicly in a candid, heartfelt way about the relationship between gender and sexual politics because, irrespective of whether or not one speaks in good faith, a witch hunt is all too likely to ensue. Without having exhaustive knowledge of her work, I can at least say that I’m grateful Scarcella is speaking up for herself and her lesbian sisters. Even and especially within LGBT+ community, this is a particularly unpleasant time to be a lesbian.

The long answer as to why it is newly acceptable to pressure lesbians into altering our sexual boundaries reflects upon the history of anti-lesbian sentiment within feminism, from Betty Friedan branding us the “lavender menace” to Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating dismissing us as “stale and stodgy.” Lesbians are routinely used as a foil to reassure the wider world that ‘normal’ women can engage in feminism without ending up ugly, angry, and bitter like the dykes. We are caricatured with great cruelty, presented as a malevolent extreme or reduced to a joke. The comparatively mainstream branches of feminism, be they liberal or radical, actively engage in the devaluation of lesbian womanhood.

The only reason your ‘joke’ about slapping Arielle happened is because she is a lesbian who categorically rejects dick. Queer politics have created a strange, painful context where lesbian women are acceptable hate figures in feminism for simply maintaining our sexual boundaries. But lesbians are not the whipping girls of other women, queer or bisexual or straight, nor do we exist as your symbol for all that is wrong within the feminist movement. Using lesbian women as such builds upon a long history of lesbophobia.

If lesbian women are suggesting to you (as many of us did) that your words contain lesbophobia, it is time to listen. Lesbians are not the oppressor class, and we certainly don’t hold the lion’s share of the power in an LGBT+ or feminist setting. Brushing us off as malicious TERFs is a whole lot easier than engaging with anything we have to say about the relationship between gender and sexual politics, a slick manoeuvre that enables queer discourse to delegitimise our words and the women with the courage to speak them. Lesbian women are lesbian precisely because we love women – not because we feel hatred towards any other demographic, although a respectable case has been made for misandry. Lesbian women do not exist to provide validation. The sole purpose of our sexuality is certainly not to provide affirmation. Lesbian sexuality is not a litmus test for transwomanhood.

When it comes to queer politics, lesbians are made into some sort of bogeyman – a spectre that haunts the progressive left. “Cis lesbian” and “TERF” are used almost interchangeably in queer discourse, used as shorthand to convey how utterly contemptible we supposedly are. If our concerns about coercion within queer culture are “TERF nonsense”, our sexual boundaries can be challenged without compunction. There is an Othering, a monstering of lesbian women, that is fundamental to this process. Demonising lesbians for being lesbian means that we are not worthy of compassion or basic human decency, that jokes about slapping, punching, raping, and otherwise abusing us are fair game in feminism.

Demonising lesbians for our sexual orientation is lesbophobia, no matter how you look at it. And I hope that you do look at it, Roxane, that you – and other women, be they queer or bisexual or straight – have some honest, critical self-reflection about why bits of your feminism come at the expense of lesbian women, about why you think that is an acceptable trade to make. This conversation is long overdue.

Yours Sincerely,

Claire

The Vanishing Point: A Reflection Upon Lesbian Erasure

No longer would these truths be contained inside me, and so it is time to send these words out into the world.

Part four in my series of essays on sex and gender – here are parts 1, 2, and 3. This one is dedicated to E for The Argonauts and the encouragement.


 

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. love is loveAs 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?

IMG_20170426_131514_562

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.

women's libOver 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.


Bibliography

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

Lezbehonest about Queer Politics Erasing Lesbian Women

This post is the second in a series of essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. The first is available here, along with parts three and four too. 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 and Spanish.


lesbian_feminist_liberationLesbian 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.

lesbianA 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.

cc-workshop

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.

Conclusion

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.


 

Bibliography

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