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.

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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?

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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