Lesbian visibility matters now more than ever

The 2019 Pride season is on, and it seems the climate gets stormier with every passing year. Last month at Swansea Pride, Angela C. Wild, a member of Get The L Out, was dragged out from the front of the parade by four police officers. In March, London LGBT+ Community Pride (the community interest company in charge of organizing this year’s Pride in London Parade) released a statement (which has since been removed) reiterating their apology for the “transphobia” at last year’s event, saying:

“We will not let Pride be used as a platform to spread transphobic hate again. We have learned from last year, we have listened, and we are doing everything we can to avoid anything like this happening again.”

As such, London LGBT+ Community Pride says they will be partnering with the Metropolitan Police, Westminster City Council, and the Greater London Authority to increase “security.” In 2018, lesbians throughout the West attended Pride marches to speak out against lesbian erasure by queer and trans politics. I was one of eight lesbians who marched uninvited at the front of the Pride in London Parade and was labelled “transphobic” by the mayor of London, as were my sisters in Get The L Out.

Our action was guided by one key principle: lesbian visibility. While the Pride Parade claims to represent everyone in the “LGBT family,” it does not. A 2016 survey done by Her, a social networking and dating app for lesbian and “queer” women, found that 31 per cent of women surveyed reported not feeling comfortable or welcomed at Pride. Since the arrival of trans activism, this problem has been exacerbated, as women not only feel unwelcome, but lesbians in particular are being actively pushed out of Pride events.

Queer communities and “progressive” heterosexual society alike claim to support lesbians’ right to assert our own sexual and political boundaries, but today’s trans activist movement tells a different story. We decided not to take this (actual) exclusion lying down, and jumped in front of the Pride in London Parade last July in order to give a voice to all the lesbians who feel erased and silenced due to gender identity ideology and queer politics. We carried signs that named the problem — “Transgenderism erases lesbians” — and that rejected the erasure of lesbians in the queer movement: “Lesbian not queer” and “Lesbian = female homosexual.”

Many words have been used to describe our action and the women involved: “protest,” “anti-trans,” “hateful,” “bigoted,” “old,” “bitches,” “saggy tits,” “TERFs.” In truth, we are simply unapologetic lesbians and feminists. Get The L Out means removing the already marginalized “L” from an alliance that is failing lesbians.

Trans and queer politics are erasing lesbians on at least two levels. First, transgenderism is effectively selling a (post) modern version of the Victorian concept of “female and male brains” by claiming that those brains can be in the “wrong body,” thereby enforcing rigid gender roles in a regressive and anti-feminist way. Femininity and masculinity — concepts usually used by feminists to refer to the roles imposed on individuals based on our sex, which have the effect of creating and enforcing a social hierarchy where men are on top and women at the bottom — are said, under this ideology, to be something one is born with and an essential part of our individual nature. This would necessarily mean that women pushed into wearing unhealthy, painful feminine clothes and shoes; forced into subordination and passivity; and exploited in the workplace and in the household were born into these circumstances — an idea feminists have fought from the get-go.

Young lesbians — especially those who do not conform to femininity — are particularly vulnerable to internalized anti-lesbianism and hatred of their female bodies. For girls, puberty usually rhymes with an increased awareness of their bodies and a feeling of shame and self-hatred when they do not conform to rigid, heterosexist beauty ideals. Moreover, adolescence is a time when pressure toward heterosexuality from peers, family, and the media is the strongest. Sex education, pop culture, and questions from family and friends about “boys” all perpetuate the idea that practicing heterosexuality is the ultimate sign that a girl is becoming a woman. For lesbian teenagers, this means that the gap they perceive between their female bodies and beauty ideals is also tainted with the understanding that even if they do try to align with those beauty ideals, they will never be “the perfect woman” because they are not heterosexual. And when feminism — the only politics that offers a way to understand, criticize, and reject these norms — is silenced and vilified by both mainstream society and LGBT groups, some young lesbians feel even more deeply uncomfortable with their bodies.

At Transgender Trend, Gill, a lesbian detransitioner, writes:

“Everything changed as I reached the teenage years. My body changing caused me some distress, and I had thoughts around whether I would simply rather have the body of a boy. At this point I was aware of my attraction towards girls.”

Pushed by medical institutions and queer culture to see this experience as a sign of “transness,” some young lesbians are having mastectomies and/or taking hormones, thereby harming their bodies under this new “progressive” ideology. “Make no mistake, this is modern conversion therapy,” Jo Bartosch argues.

Second, transgender ideology forces heterosexuality on lesbians, pressuring women to accept men as female and accusing lesbians of “transphobia” when they won’t sleep with or date men who claim to be “women.” In her report on the cotton ceiling for Get The L Out, Angela C. Wild found that “lesbians are routinely being coerced into sexual relations with transwomen.”

But the story of Get The L Out is not just about protesting the addition of the “T.” It is also a story of lesbians who refuse to be subordinated by gay men in the movement. In her 2003 book, Unpacking Queer Politics, Sheila Jeffreys, a British lesbian feminist academic, argued that gay men’s misogyny and anti-lesbianism is at the root of lesbian erasure within LGBT culture. Despite a homophobic culture, gay men are men and lesbians are women, and therefore patriarchal dynamics still play out. When doctors were too scared to care for gay men during the AIDS epidemic, lesbians organized political campaigns and volunteered en masse at hospitals, despite the fact that gay men continued to insult and humiliate them. “We’d call them ‘fish’ and make fun of the butch dykes in the bars — and yet, there they were,” one gay man who survived the epidemic told British newspaper, the i.

The free labour and care lesbians have given to gay men over the past few decades is yet to be fully acknowledged. Meanwhile, gay men still tend to treat lesbians like second-class citizens and sexual objects. For lesbians, sexual assaults and sexualized comments from gay men are not uncommon.

For The Good Men Project, Yolo Akili writes:

“At a recent presentation, I asked all of the gay male students in the room to raise their hand if in the past week they touched a woman’s body without her consent. After a moment of hesitation, all of the hands of the gay men in the room went up. Testimonies of such sexual assaults are usually ignored because of the idea that sexual assaults are not about domination but sexual attraction, and in this flawed logic the claim that a gay man sexually assaulted a woman does not make any sense.”

Further evidence of how gay male politics play out against lesbians is in the misogyny of drag queen culture, one of the pillars of gay culture. While there’s nothing wrong with what is called “cross-dressing,” men mocking women for their oppression and gaining money and fame on their backs is not solidarity, especially when this practice is rooted in gay men’s sexist ideas of what a woman is. Drag queens do more than just put on feminine clothes, they take female names and try to mimic the female body by wearing fake breasts and vulvas and imitating our voices — the same patriarchal stereotypes that men claiming to be transwomen use to justify their “identity.”

“LGBT” is, in practice, a coalition that is not based on equality between all its members but on the political, economic, cultural, social, and sexual domination of men over lesbians. What Get The L Out activists have not had the platform to say is that our activism is about more than removing the “L” from the “GBT.” It is also a call to lesbians to reconsider where we put our energy, who we work with, and what we want to work towards: women’s liberation.

There will be no lesbian liberation without women’s liberation and no women’s liberation without lesbian liberation. Because lesbians exclusively love women, they are living proof that women can survive, be happy, and be fulfilled without men in their intimate and daily lives. As such, lesbianism is in itself a political and revolutionary act under patriarchy.

When Monique Wittig, a French radical lesbian author unfairly co-opted by Butler and queer theorists, wrote in The Straight Mind and Other Essays (1992) that “lesbians are not women,” she did not mean it in a biological sense. Rather, she meant that lesbians do not fit the patriarchal definition of what a woman is or should be: an adult human female who can be privately appropriated by adult human males via heterosexuality. It is because lesbians have sexual desires and boundaries that do not include men that their womanhood has been negated, that they have been compared to men (without ever reaching their social or political power), and that they also experience a specific type of oppression on top of the usual misogyny all women experience.

Lesbians have everything to gain by breaking this abusive political relationship with men of the GBT and focusing on ourselves, as well as working with other women towards our collective liberation. However, given the history of feminism and the current dynamics within gender-critical and radical feminism, there are several challenges related to women’s different experiences of patriarchal oppression that we need to overcome to make a serious step towards uniting women.

First, there is still some work to do to unite women across sexual orientation. Heterosexual and bisexual women in the feminist movement need to acknowledge the anti-lesbianism of patriarchy, and that their own words and behaviours can contribute to this. From heterosexual feminists’ historical fear of lesbianism for the reputation of the movement, as expressed by Betty Friedan’s rejection of what she called the “Lavender Menace” in 1969, to casual accusations of “imitating men” and accusations of “biphobia,” when lesbians claim their rights to lesbian-only spaces and sexuality, heterosexual and bisexual feminists’ anti-lesbian behaviours have pushed some lesbians towards men of the GBT.

Lesbians also have a lot to learn from all women who dedicate their lives to feminism. The radical feminist critique of patriarchy, pornograhy, and harmful practices of femininity, including arguments developed by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, can enable lesbians to get rid of our own internalized misogyny and self-hatred.

The other main challenge we need to overcome is the ongoing impact of white supremacy on the feminist movement, which has serious consequences for lesbians of colour. The rewriting of the history of the 1969 Stonewall riots by trans activists is a good example. The queer community commonly presents Marsha P. Johnson as the “transwoman who threw the first brick,” thereby starting the Stonewall riots. But this is not true. Thanks to this popular myth, two males, often presented as “transwomen” or simply “women,” are getting a statue in New York. This will cost the city an estimated $750,000 and is taking place after a consultation in which “98 per cent of respondents said they would like to see a woman honoured who was committed to social reform or justice.”

A woman who was committed to social justice for black women and lesbians was Stormé DeLarverie, who, after being hit on the head with a billy club and handcuffed, turned to the crowd and yelled, “Why don’t you do something!?” DeLarverie is the woman who started the riots at the Stonewall Inn, but will not get a statue. Claire Heuchan, writing about DeLarverie’s erasure from LGBT history, argues that black lesbians are the first victims of lesbian erasure: “Black representation, female representation, and lesbian representation aren’t always straightforward to find — especially when you’re searching for all three at once.”

The erasure of lesbians of colour from history takes place in a context of racist and misogynist structures and ideologies that dehumanize (and usually animalize) women of colour. From a patriarchal point of view, femininity and womanhood are conflated by enforcing gender roles on women. As black feminist authors and academics such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks wrote, under white patriarchy, the ultimate femininity is white, and the ultimate woman can only be white, which leaves women of colour somewhere outside of womanhood and their bodies othered.

Priyanka Meenakshi writes about her experience growing up as a young lesbian of colour in the UK:

“I could not meet the markers of being Girl — as whiteness sets the standard for true and pure femininity, my brownness and hairiness relegated me consistently UnGirl…

… Although I was expected to be beautiful, I was consistently conceived of as ugly. And although I was expected to be desirable, I would never be desired — I was an aberration.”

When racist and anti-lesbian misogyny is ignored in feminist groups, it creates further divides among women and weakens lesbian feminism and communities.

Get The L Out does not mean isolating ourselves; it means making lesbian feminism revolutionary again and working with other feminists towards women’s liberation. The way this alliance between lesbians and other women will look is still under construction, and there are different ways of collaborating, depending on the national and local context. The only sure thing today is that if we do not leave this abusive political relationship with men, more of us will be victims of male violence, and our lesbian sisters of younger generations will not know a world where lesbianism is allowed, let alone celebrated.

Sarah Masson is a lesbian radical feminist, a co-organizer of Get The L Out, and a co-founder of several lesbian separatist spaces.

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