Lesbian spaces are still needed, no matter what the queer movement says

lesbian bar

Portland, supposedly an “LGBTQ haven,” no longer has any lesbian bars (despite the fact there are eight bars for gay men). What’s more, the city doesn’t have a single dance party that caters to women seeking women. In Willamette Week, Elena Rosenthal asks why.

We’re told we live in an era of greater acceptance of homosexuality, yet the loss of hard-won lesbian spaces and events is a growing trend. San Francisco, known as one of the most prominent LGBT communities in the world, doesn’t have a single lesbian bar, and New York City’s lesbian spaces have dwindled severely. There are no explicitly lesbian bars in Vancouver (Lick — once the city’s only lesbian bar — closed in 2011), though there are a number of bars for gay men and “queer nights” that take place within various venues.

Some have argued that as society becomes more accepting, lesbian spaces are naturally rendered obsolete. Rosenthal suggests that perhaps lesbian spaces have vanished because “mainstream culture” has evolved, turning “every bar in Portland… into an unofficial lesbian bar.”

This common explanation begs the question: What the hell are they talking about? Can you imagine if this were actually true? Can you imagine walking into any old bar only to discover it just happened to be completely dominated by women? And that you could therefore easily meet lesbian women everywhere you went? I think Rosenthal might have Earth confused with Wonder Woman’s home planet of Amazonia.

To pretend the decline of lesbian spaces is merely a sign of progress is totally inconsistent with reality. Rosenthal implies we have reached a kind of utopia, with regard to female sexuality, stating, “It wasn’t too long ago that identifying as lesbian carried a huge stigma.” But she also notes that in Portland State University’s recent “survey of students and their identities, more students identified as ‘pansexual’ than lesbian” and quotes a young woman (who dates women, albeit some who identify as “non-binary”) saying, “‘I have never felt comfortable with the term lesbian.’”

Hmm. That sounds like… what’s the word… oh, yeah: stigma.

This “progress” explanation not only falls flat because stigma around lesbianism remains, but because it fails to account for the fact that spaces for gay males have remained largely intact. In my hometown of Philadelphia, for example, a peek at any “gayborhood” calendar offers a plethora of events catering to gay men, including: gay bingo, gaybill (musical theater night), gay burlesque roulette, free country line dancing, gay antiques shows, and a best gay mac and cheese contest.

By contrast, the latest Phillesbian Fall Guide lists events such as: a beer festival… No, not a lesbian beer festival — just a regular one. In fact, there’s not a single explicitly lesbian event in the guide (unless a Tegan and Sara concert counts).

The last lesbian bar in Philadelphia, Sisters, closed in 2013, turning the country’s first gayborhood into a mostly male affair. So although rainbows proudly decorate street signs and crosswalks, there’s little real diversity to be found.

Yet, it seems that “diversity” is an important piece of the puzzle. Rosenthal points to “a minefield of identity politics” as being responsible for the downfall of the lesbian bar and the challenges faced by women who try to organize regular meet-ups or monthly dance parties for lesbians only. What causes the organizers to throw in the towel? The accusation of being “non-inclusive.”

Rosenthal offers numerous examples that illustrate the way in which the term “lesbian” has been framed as offensive on account of being “exclusionary.” A monthly lesbian meet-up called Fantasy Softball League was accused of being an “unsafe space for trans women and others who don’t identify with feminine pronouns,” she explains. After coming under fire for being a lesbian event, the organizer instead started calling it an event for “queer women.” Yet people still took offense, as specifically referring to “women,” “ladies,” “girls” and even “gals” in this context is viewed as violently exclusionary (apparently, setting boundaries that exclude males is practically criminal).

Rosenthal acknowledges that gay males are not facing this same problem, but fails to explore why that is. She posits that the “splintering of identity” is responsible for the decline of lesbian spaces, saying “the transgender rights movement… has exploded the categories of gay and straight and male and female.” But if biological sex as a category has supposedly exploded into nothingness, why does this glaring disparity between gay males and lesbians now exist? Surely a sex-based analysis could be applied here…

It seems the burden of “queering” “identity” always falls on women in particular. For example, why is it usually women’s bathrooms that are turned into “all-gender”/“inclusive” bathrooms, while men’s rooms remain unchanged? Why are lesbian events accused of bigotry and bullied out of existence, while those for gay males continue on their merry way?

Feminist writer Sarah Ditum points out that it is primarily women’s spaces and organizations, “not services intended for men,” that are attacked for being “non-inclusive.” She names “rape crisis centres (Vancouver Rape Relief), abortion rights campaigns (A Night of a Thousand Vaginas), and women-only music festivals (Michfest)” as just a few examples. “Gentleman’s clubs — those all-male bastions of the Establishment — have not been targeted for protests,” Ditum writes.

It appears that even though the project of “queering” is, we’re told, about going beyond gender, the movement disproportionately affects females in negative ways.

Today’s social commentators bend over backwards in their efforts to put a positive spin on the decline of lesbian spaces, claiming their absence isn’t so bad because it “eschews gender binaries” and “labels,” while embracing “outsider identities and marginalized communities.”

The contemporary LGBT movement is currently enthralled by an ideology that presents “labels” as the source of social oppression. The category of “lesbian” itself is viewed as an affront to progress because black and white labels are mean and bad and suppress the diversity and fluidity of queer rainbows! Identifying as “queer” is thus favoured over “lesbian” because it can mean pretty much anything and include anyone.

But succeeding in encouraging women to soften their sexual, political, and physical boundaries is no triumph. In fact, that sounds more like old-fashioned patriarchy than it does cutting-edge progress.

Space is political: one of the chief ways that male supremacy is maintained is through men’s domination of public spaces. It is baffling that the mainstream media runs endless pieces about things like street harassment and “manspreading,” but refuses to connect the loss of lesbian space to patriarchy.

Lesbian spaces are essential and cannot be replaced with “inclusive spaces” because, as Sheila Jeffreys explains, “All space becomes male space unless females maintain a concerted effort to mark a space for themselves.”

We can make progressive-sounding pronouncements about certain spaces being inclusive, non-binary, and gender-neutral all we want, but these declarations do not magically disappear the material relations of power between the sexes foundational to our social world. If we call a space gender-neutral, it doesn’t neutralize the threat of male violence. If we call a space inclusive of all genders, it doesn’t ameliorate the fact that males will likely come to dominate it.

Lesbian spaces are important because patriarchy and heterosexism prevail in our culture. And despite all the cheering for queering, erasing lesbians for the sin of being “exclusionary” will not solve anything. In fact, being exclusionary is pretty useful — another word for it is creating boundaries, which are important, even when men don’t like them.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.