We arrived at the 2018 Vancouver Dyke March in superhero costumes and t-shirts with the word “Lesbian” written overtop a drawing of a uterus shaped like a superhero crest.
Having chosen “lesbian heroes” as our theme for this year’s March, we carried homemade signs that featured lesbians we admire — our lesbian heroes — pioneers who have made significant contributions to lesbian culture or allies in the ongoing struggle for lesbian sexual autonomy.
Many of these women are on the ever-growing list of lesbians considered enemies and “bigots” due to their views on gender, female space, or our right to gather separate from males, among peers, and to determine for ourselves who those peers are.
The roster of lesbians whose names have become taboo, forbidden, and synonymous with hatred is notable. Lesbian feminist historian, Max Dashu, has been smeared as a “TERF” (trans-exclusionary feminist) and a bigot, no-platformed from the Witches Confluence in San Francisco after participating in the San Francisco Dyke March, along with allied lesbians, who carried signs reading “Proud to be Lesbian” and “Lesbian Visibility.” The works of women like Julie Bindel, Sheila Jeffreys, Janice Raymond, and Mary Daly are expunged from bookshelves, gender studies departments, and reading lists of LGBTQ centres. This makes them inaccessible to young lesbians wanting to know about their history. Protests are organized against spaces that carry the writings and stories of these lesbians — literal erasure (pun intended). Their crime? Analyzing how gender identity ideologies affect the material lives of women and women’s sex-based rights.
Our group — The Lesbians Collective — wanted to honour and make visible our lesbian heritage by featuring some of the lesbians that have been erased from our history. We made many placards featuring our lesbian heros and included a quote from each one. Many of these quotes spoke to these women’s own experiences with the gender constraints imposed on all of us. One sign, for example, read, “When I was little, I told everybody I was a boy. I didn’t want a boy body, I just wanted the things boys have,” paraphrasing lesbian YouTuber, Peachyoghurt. Another paraphrases lesbian journalist Julie Bindel, and read, “I have lost count of all the times men have asked me how do lesbians manage to have sex without a penis.”
While we were gathering near McSpadden Park, where the march was to begin, we were approached by two members of the Vancouver Dyke March board. They told us that our T-shirts and placards excluded transwomen and since this was an “inclusive march” we would have to remove them if we wanted to participate. We were additionally told that if any of our signs, banners, or t-shirts included the venus symbol — representing “woman” — (the two interlocked venus symbols have always meant lesbian) or “XX,” symbolizing the female sex chromosome, we would also have remove them. We were warned to not touch anyone and keep our hands to ourselves. Nothing was offered in terms of how our inclusivity and safety would be protected.
We respectfully declined to follow their demands to get rid of our signs and T-shirts, and proceeded in a calm, respectful, and peaceful tone, and joined the march. During the march, board members, organizers, volunteers, and their supporters — male and female — surrounded us, yelled “TERF bigots;” pointed a megaphone at us, chanting, “Tranwomen are women,” “This is an inclusive march,” and, “There is no room for hate at the Dyke March.” One particularly aggressive trans-identified male ran through our group repeatedly, yelling “Get your ‘Fuck TERFs’ pin!” in the faces of individual women in our group, and trying to hand out said pins, which we refused. Others formed a human barricade in front of us, separating us from the rest of the march, which had the effect of insulating us within the crowd of people who were harassing us, and shielding the rest of the march from witnessing this harassment. The yelling and hostility became increasingly frenzied as the march progressed and as more onlookers joined in. We were grateful it was a relatively short distance from the beginning of the march to its end destination. Notably, not a single person intervened, but approximately 10 more women quietly joined us. By the end of the march, we were 50 strong.
When we asked a board member what they planned to do about all this hostility and harassment, we were told that no one was in violation of any Vancouver Dyke March guidelines (except us) and that anyone had the right to protest hate speech (except us, apparently), and informed us that “TERF” is not hate speech.
In response to our show of lesbian pride, the Vancouver Dyke March board published a statement after the event, labelling us a “hate group.” The lesbians who originally began these marches out of a desire to celebrate lesbians and to have a space of their own, separate from men, would no longer be welcome in LGTBQ spaces or events today — even the Dyke March itself. In 2018, the Dyke March has become an event where lesbians who refuse to accept males either as peers and/or sexual partners are told they are not welcome, branded a hate group, and harassed and threatened if they defiantly and peacefully participate anyway. All under the dubious rubric of inclusivity. One must ask how “inclusive” it is to ban lesbians from the Dyke March?
Lesbians are being told to accept males as female, and therefore to accept men as “lesbians.” Those of us who reject the notion that a man can be a lesbian and continue to maintain our sexual boundaries are labelled hateful bigots on account of being “trans-exclusive.” But there is no such thing as a “trans-inclusive” lesbian — lesbians are, by definition, adult females exclusively attracted to other adult females. If a female is attracted to male-bodied persons, she is heterosexual. If she is attracted to both males and females, she is bisexual. These are perfectly fine things to be, but do not make a woman a “lesbian.”
Similarly, there is no such thing as a male lesbian, as, again, a lesbian is an adult female attracted to other adult females. This has always been true. We did not just invent that definition — it has always excluded males. Eons before trans-identified males and the trans movement, lesbians were exclusively attracted to females. Lesbians have always and will continue to exist. This has always made men angry and continues to today.
We are not only told that we are oppressing men by refusing to consider them as sexual partners, but we are no longer allowed set our own boundaries or define ourselves as female. Yet heterosexual men (who are also monosexual, meaning they are attracted exclusively to people of one sex) who claim to be women are allowed to call themselves “lesbian.” We have even been positioned as “privileged” above these men — men who, themselves, cannot change their sexual orientation, but expect us to change ours.
These are age old fights. Women’s right to gather, organize, or live their daily lives separate from men has never been tolerated, never mind accepted. The right to say “no” to male sexual partners has always been met with extreme reactions from men. Decades of radical feminist organizing, along with the recent #MeToo movement, have resulted in men being held to account, but at the same time, we are seeing women publicly maligned, harassed, and even threatened with rape and death for defending their own sexual boundaries. Today, the same old imposition of heterosexuality, misogyny, rape culture, and disregard for women’s boundaries has been rebranded as social justice. Where is the justice in that? Defending men’s sense of entitlement to our sexual orientation and our bodies, stripping us of our ability to define ourselves and our boundaries is not a progressive way forward. Indeed, this entitlement is no different whether it comes from Harvey Weinstein or from Reily J. Denis.
In trans activist and social justice circles online and in the real world, it is commonly and openly agreed that using the word female or female specific language is “exclusionary” and proof someone is a bigot — an oppressor. There is now a concerted campaign to make the word female and all female language forbidden. This is the literal erasure of women.
But it doesn’t stop there. Being branded a “TERF” forever guarantees a “shoot now, ask questions never” approach tied to a “you asked for it” attitude where, increasingly, any and all retaliatory behaviours are considered justified. A fundraiser for Baltimore Pride was held this year, called QueerQrush. The event description read:
“#QueerQrush is an ALL INCLUSIVE dance party that’s welcome and open to everyone that wants to come! That does NOT include you if you participate in racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, misogyny, sexism, bigotry, or general creepiness. This is NOT a safe space for abusers and any of the above behaviours will NOT be tolerated…
…TERFs will be hung by their necks.”
So, while racists, actual sexual predators and abusers, and, ironically, misogynists are merely told they will not be tolerated, women branded as “TERFs” are threatened with lynching.
This is an extreme example. However it has become common place, in postings of events that are supposedly inclusive, to insert direct threats of violence towards women branded as “TERFs” who dare to show their face. “Punch TERFs” has become a common and wholly acceptable rallying call of sorts among queer activists. This has resulted in real-life violence against and bullying of women, including rape and death threats from trans activists and their supporters, many of whom don’t even understand who and what they are fighting. They just know what they have been told: that we are “TERFs.”
You will notice that self-identified “transmen” (who are born female) are not campaigning to bully gay men into dating them or sleeping with them. Transmen have not invented a term like the “cotton ceiling” to refer to the “problem” of gay men who refuse someone of the opposite sex as a sexual partner. This has the damaging effect of making well-intended lesbians feel there is something wrong with them when there is nothing wrong with them — they are just ordinary lesbians.
There is no “jockstrap ceiling.” This is because gay men are allowed to define themselves as adult males attracted exclusively to other adult males. Notably, it is lesbians who are under attack for attempting to maintain the exact same sexual boundary.
If gay men value their sexual autonomy, they must stand with us as we defend ours. Where are they? Why are they not speaking out about this? Surely all gay men are not in agreement with the deeply homophobic stance that says lesbians must be “inclusive” of males. We are under attack and gay men have been silent for far too long.
Everyone has the right to set their own sexual boundaries. No one has the right to define our boundaries for us. But that is exactly what is happening to lesbians right now and we can not afford for the rest of the world to be silent.
Women have sex-based protections — protections rooted in the biological reality that we are female, and that, under heteropatriarchy, we are targeted and discriminated against on that basis. Women fought very hard for these rights. It is for this moment, when all women’s sexual boundaries are at risk, that those protections were put in place.
You are wrong if you believe this trend only affects lesbians. The erasure of lesbian culture is the destruction of female culture. Saying lesbians must include males is clearly homophobic and embodies rape culture. But it also carries the additional consequence of making any woman’s sexual boundaries dismissible. If saying “no” is bigoted, what right does any woman have to reject a sexual partner? No woman is safe if the sexual boundaries of lesbians can be trivialized and rebranded as hate speech. It is shocking that a group claiming to be progressive, “feminist,” and in solidarity with the LGBTQ movement would take such a position.
We call on women to stand with us. If lesbians lose their sexual autonomy, you lose your sexual autonomy. It is time for female and male allies alike to join us as we stand in solidarity with lesbians at Pride events and Dyke Marches around the world who are saying they have had enough. Our sexuality is not fluid and our sexual boundaries are non-negotiable.
We are female. We are strong. We will never stop resisting.
We are The Lesbians.
Danielle Cormier is a long time radical feminist activist, and currently one pissed off lesbian.