We seem to have reached something like the opposite of a critical mass. A critical lack, rather — wherein people are looking around and asking, “What happened to the lesbian?” As we are witnessing closure of women’s bars, bookstores, festivals, and separatist land; as women’s studies faculties rebrand as “gender studies;” as the category of “woman” opens up to include anyone and everyone; and as the number of female people identifying as “woman” shrinks, in favour of “nonbinary,” “genderqueer,” or “trans,” Slate recently published a series of articles on the state of lesbianism. Many other outlets have similarly published widely-shared pieces about the disappearing lesbian.
For those of us in rainbow community, it’s not really a head-scratcher. We’ve watched lesbian culture be beaten back, redefined, and undermined — in many cases with the gleeful participation from the other letters in LGBTQ. For lesbians, it seems obvious that this is happening because we are in the midst of a backlash against feminism and women’s rights.
In the last couple years, I’ve moved from identifying as a bisexual/queer woman, to identifying as a lesbian. I offer this personal information because, as I’ve moved away from dudes and ever deeper into community and intimacy exclusively with women, I find the opposite is occurring in the communities where I once felt at home. More and more women call themselves queer (whether or not they engage in homo sex) and are going so far as to position lesbianism as an outmoded, “problematic” lifestyle. In queer circles, “lesbian” is synonymous with second wave feminism. In a way, this is right on, as it was during the second wave that women fearlessly occupied what it meant to be woman-loving and many of radical feminism’s fiercest sisters are members of the “lavender menace.”
Queer women owe their rights to the radical resistance and separatism of their lesbian foremothers, but are embarrassed by lesbian culture and history. Christina Cauterucci contributed an entire article explaining why queers hate the term “lesbian,” in unironically self-hating terms:
“In the space between ‘lesbian’ and ‘queer,’ my friend and I located a world of difference in politics, gender presentation, and cosmopolitanism. Some of our resistance to the term lesbian arose, no doubt, from internalized homophobic notions of lesbians as unfashionable, uncultured homebodies. We were convinced that our cool clothes and enlightened, radical paradigm made us something other than lesbians, a label chosen by progenitors who lived in a simpler time with stricter gender boundaries.”
Cauterucci thinks the 70s were simpler times and that gender boundaries were not something women played with, defied, and remade in their own image. She admits an internalized homophobia is responsible for her unfair characterization of lesbians, but still refuses the term and the legacy that goes with it.
Queers hurl “lesbian” sneeringly at assigned-female-at-birth homosexual women, recharacterizing females as “cis” women, which in the twisted logic of queer is equated to “privileged women.” In the superwoke queer community, privilege is finally, inexorably, another way of saying “you need to shut up, take up less space, and admit that it’s an unearned honour to have had your life shoved into a tiny pink box.” This cannot come as a surprise, as the term lesbian has always been weaponized to silence and deride women.
In 1978, Andrea Dworkin wrote, in The Power of Words:
“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… 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.”
This is precisely why Steve Bannon, the neo-Nazi altar boy of our newly elected president, ridiculed women like Hillary Clinton — powerful, self-determining women — as a “bunch of dykes.”
Lesbian is used pejoratively toward any woman who dares to defy male need. In actuality, “lesbian” is primarily a descriptor of the romantic and sexual practices of homosexual women. That I even have to point that out feels like a twisted joke, but I do. Queer culture demands that female homosexuals redefine our sexuality away from female bodies and toward gender roles, those which are traditionally associated with femininity.
Take trans comedian Avery Edison, who said this on the topic of lesbians dating people with male bodies:
“Look, it’s not like I require the women I date to be cool with having my dick inside them. In fact, I’m fine if that never happens. But being shut off from the very idea of it, not even considering that having my penis inside you is different from having a man’s penis inside you? That hurts.”
Gaymous cultural icon and sex columnist Dan Savage offers this advice to a lesbian:
“Having a coffee now and then with a trans woman you most likely won’t find attractive — but you never know –is a small price to pay to make the online dating world a less shitty place for trans people. It’s what an ally would do.”
Both of the above are examples of people socialized with male privilege telling women that they should not listen to or trust their own instincts. In order to protect the feelings of people socialized with male privilege, women should “interrogate their sexual preferences” for signs of bigotry, and then bring their newly inclusive political analysis into practice by dating people who they are neither romantically nor sexually attracted to. This is quite rich coming from Savage, a man who posits that gayness is an inborn, unchangeable biological condition.
The demand for inclusion has moved from the hot take to the dating app and beyond.
Avory Faucette, queer activist and educator, who wrote an article proclaiming that the Cotton Ceiling is real and a way cis lesbians oppress transwomen, literally teaches workshops designed to teach folks how to “expand [their] understanding of orientation for a fuller and more satisfying sex life.”
Queers, including Faucette, will concede that lesbians exist, as long as they are defined as women who love other women, meaning people who identify as women (thereby excluding transmen). “Transwomen are women because they say they are and I trust women therefore they must be women” goes the merry-go-round logic. We are told that we must love women with dicks, adam’s apples, receding hairlines and beards (shout out to all my AFAB bearded Amazons, your beards are perfect) — to not get on your knees and suck that lady cock is very transphobic.
Ironically, this doesn’t go both ways. Take a swipe at HER, OKCupid, and other dating apps — you’ll find no shortage of assigned-male-at-birth, self-identified “lesbians.” The identities of these men are respected, they are never accused of bigotry for seeking to partner only with “cis lesbians,” and they are never called-out for being too “exclusive.” Interesting double-standard you’ve got there, queers.
You think I’m making this up, don’t you? You’re not alone. My female partners have told me many times over the last several years that no woman has been told she must have sex with assigned-male-at-birth women. That would be rape culture.
What Savage and the rest get wrong is that lesbians are not attracted to the sex role stereotypes (also known as gender) ascribed to those people assigned-female-at-birth. We are attracted to females. This is why a woman who loves women is likely to date women all over the spectrum of hair lengths, preferred heel heights, ability to use tools, ability to make dinner, and preferred amount of makeup throughout her lifetime. Sure, we might have a type (mine is tall women with high-and-tights who ride motorcycles and have major planets in fire signs — DM me), but most women would not say that what they are looking for in a partner is a predilection (or lack thereof) for eyeliner. This also explains why so many lesbians love females who have or will eventually transition to living as transmen.
It’s long been a stereotype that women don’t like sex. These stereotypes remain accepted today — we’re told men are the more sexual creatures, which is why they must have access to porn, why they’re likelier to shy away from commitment and toward no-strings-attached affairs, and why they rape. In contrast, women are said to want emotional intimacy, which is why we love spooning and talking about feelings. An alternate stereotype is that women are hypersexual, big empty voids that need to be filled, whether with daddy’s big cock or the fingers of the Steubenville football team. Too crass for you? I hope you’d say the same about these original source gems by transactivists:
Women are both very sexual creatures and capable of being sexually discriminating. Our sexual practices are diverse: juicy, libidinous, kinky, vanilla, stone, cuddly, intellectual, poetic, and political. They are erotic and embodied. If you think they don’t involve touching, tasting, and loving the female body, you may have fallen prey to the patriarchal belief that women’s bodies are disgusting. Queer culture makes all sorts of room for people whose sexual practice centers around wearing diapers, coercive weight gain, and Grindr, but apparently wanting to bury your face in pussy is what Dan Savage would call “a fetish too far.”
Although my lovers have bemoaned their own “internalized transmisogyny” for being unable to imagine themselves in bed with a transwoman, they never consider there might be some internalized homophobia behind accepting transwomen into every other space reserved for homosexual females, behind closing every dyke bar, dismantling MichFest, and shouting down or shunning any woman who dares to say “no thanks.”
In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Adrienne Rich explains that one of patriarchy’s most successful strategies for controlling women’s bodies is to pose heterosexuality as the default sexuality, to funnel women into straightness and punish deviance from heteronormativity. Men in heterosexual relationships benefit from access to women’s bodies, labour, and emotional support. They surveil women, keep them from forming homosocial bonds, and enjoy concrete, material benefits from their often unrestricted access to their female partners. (Straight women: before you get all “not my Nigel,” take a deep breath and remember the centuries of lesbians who have been — and who continue to be — forcibly married, correctively raped, institutionalized, confined to nunneries, deprived of their children by the state, and electro-shocked for daring to separate themselves from men romantically and sexually.)
And while we’re on the subject of conversion therapy, let’s call “queerness” what it is: conversion therapy.
First, I will offer this anecdote: a female friend was dating the dyke of her dreams when said dream-dyke decided to transition to living as a man. This friend’s family is conservative. They haven’t fully accepted her sexuality since she’s come out, and they continue to make her feel like it must remain unspoken — like maybe it will go away someday. So you can imagine my disgust when she explained to me that her partner had made it clear that my friend was no longer a lesbian, was now straight, and had to change her vocabulary and start identifying as straight. Not only was the dream-dyke all straightened out, he expected his partner to get with the program and rebrand as het, regardless of her own sexual identity and the years of struggle it took her to be ok with it.
Replacing sexual identity with gender identity functions as a kind of conversion therapy, and queerness a colonization project of homosexual culture and the homosexual body. Cauterucci writes, “Queer people have generations of experience reclaiming words and cultural traditions that weren’t explicitly meant for us… imagine what we could do with lesbian.”
Much has already been done to lesbianism and to lesbians. Anybody who bucks gender norms is “queer,” apparently, which is why kinky heterosexuals have joined the club, and why my queer friend recently told me that a straight man with long hair, a knitting addiction, and a penchant for long processing sessions with his wife is a lesbian. Not just queer. A lesbian of the heart.
I guess the agenda of queer activists is that if everyone is queer, there will no longer be discrimination toward gays and gender nonconforming people. This is like saying that if we all just identify as men, or better yet “queer not-cis-men,” as Cauterucci turns the phrase, we’ll finally close the wage gap, quit worrying about abortion rights, and unlock our higher evolutionary level where labels disappear, making us all “just people.” It’s assimilationist politics, and it’s about as politically potent as a Mic listicle about how racial harmony will be achieved by these ten beautiful, racially ambiguous babies. (You won’t believe what doesn’t happen next!)
One thing I learned in college was that the Last of the Mohicans-type story we tell about Indigenous peoples gives white settlers the permission they need to completely colonize. The logic goes: there are no natives left, or so few that they are statistically insignificant, and therefore we can take their spaces, land, resources, names, images, stories, and culture — there really is no end to what we can take and claim as our own. The fallacy of this story is that Indigenous people are not gone. They aren’t silent, they aren’t going away, and they remember every act of theft, every degradation.
When queer culture, led by men and loyalist women, tells us that second wave feminism is dead; that the “sex class” theory is over — that lesbianism as a sexual practice, as a social group, and as an identity is washed up, outmoded, better left to the “wrong side of history” — what they mean is that there are no women (or a statistically insignificant number of women remaining) who love only women. What they mean is “get on your knees, bitch, and take what’s coming to you.”
When women-loving-women bemoan the closure of lesbian bars, women’s bookstores, and when they marvel at the disappearing butch, the prevalence of dykes transitioning to living as men, it sure seems disingenuous. If you are paying attention at all, you know that gender identity is quickly becoming synonymous with biological sex. And yet the act of sex is still physical, not theoretical. Desire is, for better or worse, remarkably disinterested in political correctness.
So those of us with who are unashamedly homosexual have gone underground. We find each other in secret Facebook groups, we hold private festivals with little publicity, we publish lit mags, we make art that serves as a breadcrumb trail into the deepest, darkest, wettest, Sapphic forests. We walk among you. But you let us know that we can’t sit with you — you brand us as “TERFs.”
But one of the big benefits of being a dyke (somewhere between the mutual multiple orgasms and impossibility of unplanned pregnancy) is that you don’t have to please, cater to, or coddle men. It’s also one of the big benefits of being a feminist. And I know that writing this article is probably going to shut down my dating life with queer women, as well as opening me up to the virtual witch burning wherein I am unfriended, slurred, doxxed, deplatformed, and worse. If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot afford to give an inch to patriarchal loyalists.
I spent many years as a bisexual, partnering with men who left me sexually frustrated and emotionally damaged. It was hard for me to accept myself as a lesbian — hard for me to ask others to accept me as a lesbian. However, feminism means never having to say you’re sorry, at least not for who you are.
Jocelyn Macdonald is a recovering heterosexual, spinster aunt, and unrepentant vagina fetishist. She lives in Washington, DC with her cat and her motorcycle.