Political lesbianism remains a contentious debate in lesbian feminist circles — is there a generational divide?

The concept of “political lesbianism” has been the subject of heated debate among lesbians and feminists for many decades, though probably left off the radar of those outside lesbian feminist circles. The term, which became popular among radical and lesbian feminists during the second wave, refers to the idea that women can choose their sexual orientation, and that a true feminist might reject heterosexuality in order to fully embrace a female-centric life and reject the troubles of patriarchy on an intimate level.

Political lesbianism encourages feminists to refrain from sexual contact with men and says they can become lesbians if they choose (this definition of “lesbian” is inclusive of non-sexual same-sex relationships). The concept was controversial back in the 70s, but has become even more contentious in feminist circles of late. Lesbians who join the feminist movement today are often outraged at the suggestion that their sexuality is a “choice,” and abandon radical feminism altogether, though some stay, feeling marginalized or disrespected. I identify with the latter group, and, despite my inherent rejection of the notion that my sexuality is a choice, I am keen to listen and learn, in order to better understand how the concept of political lesbianism arose.

Throughout history, gay men have been persecuted and imprisoned, and to this day, persecution, imprisonment, “corrective” rape, conversion therapy, and even murder of homosexuals of both sexes persists in various parts of the world. However, in the United Kingdom, while gay men were imprisoned, lesbianism was mostly ignored or completely denied. Legend has it that Queen Victoria could not imagine that women would ever engage in same sex relationships, and when a proposal to outlaw it was discussed in 1921, the (all male) Lords echoed this sentiment. The homophobia and sexism within the speeches was overt on what they called “a most disgusting and polluting subject.” There was much outright denial of lesbian existence — one Lord concluded, “Such stories as we heard were exaggerated,” while others felt the discussion of women engaging in sexual contact with other women was “irrelevant.” The Earl of Desart stated, “It is very disagreeable talking of these things, but we all know of the sort of romantic, almost hysterical, friendships that are made between young women at certain periods of their lives and of its occasional manifestations.” He also feared that outlawing lesbianism might draw attention and even encourage women to partake, saying:

“How many people does one suppose really are so vile, so unbalanced, so neurotic, so decadent as to do this? You may say there are a number of them, but it would be, at most, an extremely small minority, and you are going to tell the whole world that there is such an offence, to bring it to the notice of women who have never heard of it, never thought of it, never dreamed of it.”

Ultimately, the UK never criminalized same-sex activity between women. So, while homophobia existed in the UK, it was experienced extremely differently by lesbians versus gay men. The sexual revolution of the 60s followed by the LGB campaigning and lesbian feminism of the 70s did much to combat this prejudice and enable young women to come out as lesbians.

In 1980, The Journal of Women in Culture and Society published a ground-breaking article by Adrienne Rich called, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” She argued that feminists had not done enough to link heterosexuality to the oppression of women — marriage lies historically in the male possession of women and continues to support patriarchy, yet most women participate in the practice. The “compulsory” aspect of Rich’s analysis points to the fact that heterosexuality is is assumed until proven otherwise.

Rich writes:

“Lesbian existence comprises both of the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on male right of access to women.”

In other words, she saw lesbianism as inherently political.

Lesbian porn is a highly searched genre of pornography, so it seems most men are not disgusted at the idea of women being sexually active with each other, but what is clear is that lesbianism is only acceptable to many men if they also have sexual access to these women. This pornography is generally not made for women, and the “performers” are generally gender conforming and rarely actually same-sex attracted.

In our culture, women and girls continue to feel obliged to come up with an excuse when they reject men’s sexual advances. Many of us assumed that saying, “I’m a lesbian” or, “I don’t date men” would suffice. However, as many lesbians will tell you, this often elicits disbelief: “Can’t you make an exception?” Or, “Well you’ve not had sex with me yet,” etc. If they accept the rejection, a common response is, “What a waste.” When heterosexual women say,  “I’ve got a boyfriend,” in response to men who approach them, they are not told this is “a waste,” so one could conclude that lesbianism is “a waste” only because the woman in question is not sexually satisfying a man.

The idea of compulsory heterosexuality is compelling. Girls are prepped from a young age to accept and desire heterosexual relationships, marriage, and motherhood. Fairy tales teach us that happiness can be found in a man, whose kiss can wake us from a coma or whose prowess can save us from imprisonment. These ideas are perpetuated by popular culture — teen movies teach us that if at first a girl rejects a boy, eventually she will learn to love him, and they will be happy.

One year after the publication of Rich’s paper, Onlywomen Press published a pamphlet by The Leeds Revolutionary Feminists. Building on Rich’s work, the pamphlet argued that heterosexuality must be abandoned, including penetrative sex, which they viewed as unnecessary for female pleasure. They argued that, physically and symbolically, penetration was “at the heart of sexualized culture” and an “invasion” of the woman, reinforcing the power of men.

Controversially, the pamphlet calls for all feminists to become political lesbians, defined as, “a woman-identified women who does not fuck men,” clarifying that political lesbiansim “does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.” But while many feminists would agree that sexual activity should not be mandatory, lesbianism usually requires a physical or romantic attraction to women. Refraining from sexual activity with both sexes would more be accurately referred to as celibacy.

During feminism’s second wave, women-only spaces were commonplace, and the absence of men in these spaces did much to challenge compulsory heterosexuality. During the women’s suffrage movement, many women chose to leave their husbands to devote themselves to the cause. The second wave went further in that women not only left their male partners for the cause, but for the promise of happiness with women. Many women did choose to partner with women and often these relationships were of a sexual nature. To this day, many radical feminists proclaim, “every woman is a lesbian,” with genuine belief that it is both possible and necessary to become a lesbian. It is easy to see how being part of a community wherein many women left their male partners for women might normalize this belief.

It is worth noting that, years later, Rich commented on the pamphlet:

“When I began to hear that it was being claimed by some separatist lesbians as an argument against heterosexual intercourse altogether, I began to feel acutely and disturbingly the distance between speculative intellectual searching and the need for absolutes in the politics of lesbian feminism.”

In stark contrast to the idea that any woman can be a lesbian, gay men insisted their sexuality was innate. The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 80s resulted in a huge backlash to much of the progress made on gay rights, so men began to push the “born this way narrative” in an attempt to combat homophobia. This approach was politically advantageous because if gay men had no choice or control over their sexuality, those who contracted — and those who died of — AIDS could be viewed as victims rather than blamed for their “lifestyle choice.” The other advantage to the “born this way” narrative was that it alleviated some fear amongst homophobes that lesbians and gays would “recruit” straight people to “explore homosexuality” or that they would be propositioned or coerced into sex by gay men.

In 1988, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Section 28, a series of laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities in England, which remained in place in until 2003. Lesbians who grew up in the 90s therefore had a completely different experience to previous and subsequent generations. Sex education focused heavily on sexually transmitted infections, but discussions of same-sex relations were absent. If any of our teachers were gay, they were not permitted to tell us, and the fight to overturn Section 28 could not be discussed in schools for fear of prosecution. I didn’t even know about the legislation until it was repealed.

My experience of same-sex attraction was somewhat confusing. I had a Catholic upbringing and attended a Catholic church, despite going to a secular state school, I recognize that my experience of homophobia growing up may have been different to other girls of my age: no one in my school was openly gay (even the very camp boys did not come out until after they left school). “Gay” was bandied about as an insult, and I was fearful that if I admitted sexual attraction towards any girls, they would be disgusted and assume I was a threat or that I would perv on them like a boy might.

My parents did know a few gay men and lesbians, and obviously I was aware of their existence. But due to a strange combination of the British “lesbians don’t exist” attitude and the “born this way” narrative from gay men, I overheard conversations from mothers at school who felt  gay men likely had a genetic condition, whereas lesbians just couldn’t get a man.

During my early teens, my best friend and I kissed one another, but we never discussed any romantic feelings. When she came out to me as bisexual, I assumed that I also was. I watched the 1997 film, Chasing Amy, and this reaffirmed my belief that even if women identify as lesbians, they are actually bisexual. Around this time, other kids and grown men on the street would shout “dyke” at me — I don’t know whether this was because they knew, or just because I had short hair. I had many sexual encounters with bisexual women throughout my teens and 20s, but none identified as lesbian, and most were simultaneously dating men. After a few disastrous relationships with men (in which I tried to conform to heterosexuality and suppress my disgust for the male body) I eventually came out as lesbian, which was entirely unsurprising to most of my friends and exes.

When I began to engage in radical feminist circles, women started asking me if I was a political lesbian. I had no idea what that even was. I quickly picked up on a rift between those who advocated political lesbianism and those who disagreed with the concept. Women my age were lifelong lesbians had, similar to me, grown up understanding that it was offensive to suggest that sexuality was a choice. We also felt that our experiences of homophobia during childhood and the struggles it brought were largely ignored by those who had “chosen” to become lesbians later in life, through feminism.

I was treated with much more suspicion by lesbians my age in feminist circles than those outside that community, on account of my having had relationships with men. As I learnt about political lesbianism, I started to understand their fears. First, because those of us who grew up being attracted to females did not view that as a choice, and second, because some of the strongest advocates of political lesbianism ended up going back to relationships with men. While Adrienne Rich may be right that men’s lesbophobia is rooted in the fact we are not sexually available to them, that does not define lesbianism — women being sexually attracted to other women does. It seems insulting to define lesbianism (as the Leeds Revolutionary Feminists did in 1979) as “women who don’t fuck men.”

In her book, Straight Expectations, Julie Bindel says her choice to become a lesbian in her teens was accompanied by a disinterest in relations with men and an attraction to women. She clarifies that when she uses the word “choice,” she means “if we were not under such extreme pressure to be straight, and if we did not fear the inevitable prejudice and bigotry, we might be more open to falling for someone of the same sex.” To me, this only makes sense if we are all a little bit bisexual (which clearly many people are), however, I think it is pertinent that some people would rather risk their lives than comply with a heterosexual lifestyle in a homophobic country. Similarly, some feminists may wish to be lesbian, but are overwhelmingly attracted to men and not women. Conversion therapy is widely regarded as psychologically damaging to both the gay person and his or her straight partner, and I believe this to also be the case when heterosexual women try to force themselves to become lesbians. My generation would generally view Bindel’s experience as a “realization” that she was a lesbian, rather than her “choosing” it.

In my opinion, the “born this way” vs “choice” debate is a false dichotomy. It seems to me that sexuality — like pretty much any characteristic — is formed through a combination of nature and nurture. A “gay gene” has yet to be isolated, despite many attempts. Apparently birth order can be relevant (there is evidence that having an older brother, for example, may increase the likelihood of male homosexuality), but there is also clear evidence that social or even political factors have led some women towards lesbianism. Even if our sexualities are not entirely genetic, most would still not view sexuality as a “choice.” A lesbian who comes out in later life would likely view her sexuality as something that emerged, rather than as a conscious decision.

Another criticism many lesbians have of political lesbianism is that, even if a woman is able and willing to engage in sexual relationships with women and ceases to date men, this would more accurately be defined as bisexuality. This is because lesbianism is usually defined on the basis of the internal attraction towards women (and not men), rather than the external act of who she has sex with.

Lesbians in the feminist community are divided on this issue and it creates huge rifts within the movement. Mantras like, “Get the L Out” are jarring to those of us who grew up with no access to an exclusively lesbian community — political lesbians who previously led straight lives have no connection to LGBT and it is not their place to advocate lesbians to leave that community. For those of us who grew up as same sex attracted, LGBT spaces were our only connection to other lesbian and bisexual women — these were spaces where we felt welcomed and accepted. Even when in later years we may have seen lesbians coerced into dating males, silenced, or side-lined, most of us don’t want to reject or disconnect from gay men or female bisexuals who have become our support networks and valuable friends. Many non-feminist LGBT people have absolutely no connection to queer politics — it’s a myth that anyone outside of radical feminism will label us “TERFs” for being exclusively same-sex attracted. The vocal political queer activists make it seem (especially online) as if they speak for all LGB people, but, like in any subsect of the population, most same-sex attracted people are simply not political.

The issue is so emotive on both sides: lifelong lesbians see same-sex attraction as integral to the definition of lesbianism, while political lesbians are offended by the denial of their identities as lesbian women. I have met women who insist they had never been attracted to other women until feminism opened them up to same-sex attraction, leading them to choose lesbianism. I cannot speak for their experience — I have no access to their thoughts in order to verify whether they now are exclusively attracted to women, so I believe them in the same way I have to believe anyone expressing a thought or emotion. For these women to be more widely believed and accepted, we would need a feminist community in which women were honest about their true feelings, in which bisexual women don’t feel vilified for not “converting” to lesbianism, so women could honestly say, “I am trying this out, I am still attracted to men.” Then a lesbian would at least understand the possibility that her girlfriend might abandon her for a man, or only want to replicate heterosexual-style intercourse.

I feel that often political lesbians believe that if we only understood the theory and history, we would be on board with their views. I have spent years listening to our second wave sisters and I hope that I’ve done justice to their viewpoints. However, for this emotional topic to be discussed and for the rift to heal, the conversation must go both ways.

Lesbian feminists advocate vehemently for young lesbians who may be captured by trans ideology, leading them to believe their lesbianism in fact means they are “trans men,” only to later regret taking testosterone and undergoing mastectomies. They also reminisce fondly of the gains of the second wave, trying to recreate the women-only spaces that meant so much to feminists decades ago, and to combat compulsory heterosexuality, freeing more lesbians to pursue same-sex relationships. Both are worthwhile pursuits. However, little discussion or thought is given to Generation X and Millennials who grew up under Section 28, in arguably the most difficult time of recent history to come out as a lesbian.

Olivia Palmer is a lesbian and ecofeminist from the UK.

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