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.”

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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

Dear Shappi: An Open Letter on the Jhalak Prize

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Dear Shappi,

I am looking forward to reading Nina is Not OK. I like your comedy very much, and am of the view that comedians have a gift for addressing the darker elements of life, so am keen to see how you highlight issues surrounding addiction and sexual assault through Nina’s story. Until the Jhalak Prize longlist was released, I hadn’t known about your novel but am very glad to have discovered it. Since last February – for almost an entire year – I have been anticipating that list and the selection books it would introduce me to. You see, I love nothing more than a good book. And the list has not disappointed!

chasing-the-starsMalorie Blackman is Children’s Laureate for very good reason – her books are impossible to put down and, for all the lessons they contain, never verge on moralising. After David Olusoga’s Black and British documentary series, which was rigorously researched and so full of heart, I can’t wait to read his book on the history of Black people living in Britain. Speak Gigantular had been on my wish list since friends raved about the beauty of Irenosen Okojie’s writing – I downloaded it as soon as the Jhalak Prize longlist was announced, and it is a delightful book. Then there is the treat of new books by unfamiliar authors: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Kei Miller, you.

The longlists of book prizes are like manna from heaven for bookworms. The quality of the books assured by the panel of judges, a great reading experience is pretty much guaranteed. For bookworms, prizes are like the literary equivalent of being gifted an all-inclusive holiday at a five star hotel. We know that these are books with the power to move, to provoke thought, to inspire feeling. These are books that will capture our hearts and quite possibly break them. These are books that will captivate our minds, stay in our heads long after the last page has been turned. The Man Booker, the Costa, the Bailey’s – each year, we bookworms look forward to those lists the same way we look forward to birthdays or bank holidays.

bare-litI was there at the Betsey Trotwood when the Jhalak Prize was announced. It was the launch party for Bare Lit Fest, Britain’s first literary festival centred entirely around the writing of Black and Asian authors. It was a weekend filled with brilliant books and the politics of liberation. Instead of the same old talk about change or resignation to the flaws of the publishing industry, this was action that promised results. Media Diversified and the founders of the Jhalak Prize had put their money where their mouth was. So had we, the people who bought tickets to attend and books once we were there. And that was really exciting to be part of.

What stayed with me about Bare Lit was that not one single person of colour apologised for or questioned their seat on a panel, the legitimacy of their work being showcased. Along with new friendships and a suitcase full of books, I took a piece of that confidence back home to Glasgow. As people of colour we are forever expected to justify our successes, our voices, and even our very presence. We’re forever fighting this assumption (on the part of white people) that anything we achieve is down to the colour of our skin and not the merit of our work. The spectre of tokenism casts a shadow over the accomplishments we earn. And I’m really sad to hear that this concern over giving “ammunition” to racists caused you to withdraw from the Jhalak Prize. Being longlisted was a huge achievement and you deserved to own it. That Nina is Not OK is your first novel made it all the more impressive.

The tokenism/merit binary has a lot to answer for. It plays a key role in upholding racism in society. When people of colour don’t get ahead, it’s because we don’t work hard enough or just aren’t good enough. When people of colour do get ahead, it’s all down to positive discrimination. How hard we graft, the barriers we face with our work – these are never given the same scrutiny. Due to your stand-up I know you have come up against those barriers too, lost a role in a sitcom because the production team decided against casting an Iranian woman for the part of a nanny in a British series, and so I don’t blame you for how you handled being caught in a situation that has so many difficult layers.

nina-is-not-okThe reason given for your withdrawal from the longlist was fear of alienating your audience. This is difficult to understand because surely, like all the other people who found your book through the Jhalak Prize, I am part of that audience. If anything, being shortlisted for a literary award broadens your audience by encouraging more people to read your books. Why reject the grounds for our interest in your novel? If the Jhalak Prize amounts to tokenism, our interest in the books listed is tokenistic too – a reductive view to take, given the superlatively high standard of the books on offer.

Appreciation of good literature is what the Jhalak Prize is all about. And books by writers of colour – no matter how brilliant – are far less likely to get the appreciation they deserve. Men named Dave are statistically more likely to make it onto a best-seller list than any man or woman of colour. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, with under 1 in 10 of its employees identifying as people of colour – this impacts not only on whose stories are told, but the extent to which their promotion is prioritised and their authors supported.

The only audience likely to be alienated by Nina is Not OK being longlisted for the Jhalak Prize are white people who feel threatened by any direct celebration of the talents of people of colour – the sort of white people who reduce people of colour succeeding to tokenism rather than acknowledge the grounds on which that success is deserved. You worried that a white girl reading your book might think “oh right, so you’re not with me” because of your book being among nominations for the Jhalak Prize. But being with that white girl – having words with the potential to speak to her – is not and should not be at odds with any acknowledgement of your Iranian heritage. Good stories have universal value. “Should a reader be aware of someone’s ethnicity?” The alternative is that the reader assumes you are a white woman.

Obscuring your ethnicity might enable readers to pick up your book open to the idea that its content will be relatable, but it does nothing to unpick the perception that books written by white people speak universal truths and books written by people of colour are of limited relevance. If a reader picks up Nina is Not OK because they are intrigued by the premise, but puts it back down again because the author is Iranian, that amounts to racism.

good-immigrantYou spoke of the limitations imposed on immigrants in explaining your withdrawal, the hostility that immigrants face in Britain today. Nikesh Shukla, co-founder of the Jhalak Prize, edited an anthology on that very theme: The Good Immigrant. In that collection Darren Chetty’s essay draws from his experience as a primary school teacher, recalling a conversation in which two young pupils explain to one another that stories are only about white people. He analyses the prevalence of the idea that books are by and about white people, the implications of internalised racism in determining how Black and Asian children understand their position in the world. It is powerful stuff, and I highly recommend The Good Immigrant if you haven’t yet read it. By challenging the notion that a story must be by or about whiteness to be legitimate, we also challenge the underlying logic that dictates ownership of stories is white: the assumption that we are Other.

In spite of rather than because of your withdrawal from the Jhalak Prize longlist, I remain a part of your audience. However, as both a passionate bookworm and a Black woman, I now feel alienated because this decision makes it seem as though you value the comfort of your white audience above the engagement of Black and Asian readership. I do not feel as though you value me as a reader, or anybody else the Jhalak Prize has brought to your novel. Leaving the longlist was not a neutral act. It carried the potential to discourage just as surely as you imagined being present on the longlist might.

Your work is your property, under your control as creator. And that’s fine. I wish you every future success, Shappi, and hope that your writing continues to receive critical acclaim. And I leave you one final question about audience: is reaching white people who engage with your work in spite of their racism really more important than reaching people of colour who engage with your work from a place of solidarity?

Yours in sisterhood,
Claire