Why ‘lesbian’ has become a dirty word by Amazon MancrusherMay 5, 2009
*This is a thought-provoking guest post written by my sisterfriend Amazon Mancrusher.*
Why lesbian has become a dirty word
You would think the word lesbian would have gotten less radical rather than more radical since the 1970’s but that doesn’t seem to be the case. These days, fewer young women seem to be identifying as lesbian, choosing instead to use queer, gay or pan to describe who they have relationships with and how they feel about their sexuality and political identity. This article will explore why young women who have intimate relationships with other women have rejected the term lesbian.
The word lesbian originates from the island of Lesbos in Greece, where a poet called Sappho lived. The people of Lesbos have historically been known as lesbians. Sappho wrote love poems to other women, many of which were destroyed by religious fundamentalists and the term lesbian became known as a term to describe women who love other women.
In the 1970’s, many women organised a feminist women’s liberation movement, in which lesbianism become a highly politicised and revolutionary concept. Many lesbians broke away from the gay liberation movement in favour of the women’s movement after making the analysis that they had more in common with straight women than gay men. They believed that gay men still benefitted from the gender hierarchy, know as patriarchy, in which the needs and human rights of women are invisible or secondary to the needs of men and where men dominate women through sexual and domestic violence. Their analysis showed that this still applied in the gay and lesbian community, where the political and social focus often focused on gay men and silenced the needs of lesbians.
Lesbians became highly visible in the 1970’s women’s liberation movement and many women who had previously seen themselves as heterosexual made choices based on their feminist politics to become lesbians, claiming that intimate relationships and sexuality are not biologically determined, but rather politically influenced. Feminists argued that heterosexuality was the cornerstone of male domination, because men are brought up to think that through heterosexual power relations, they have automatic sexual rights to women’s bodies. Feminists pointed out that the sexual power that men are granted encourages them to see the bodies of women as property or a commodity. This concept is backed up by society’s historical and cultural social structures through the laws of marriage and the culture of prostitution.
During this time, heterosexuality was ‘outed’ as something that was politically and socially compulsory rather than natural. Many feminists engaged in the women’s movement soon realised that there was a different choice and they chose lesbianism. For many women this was a choice of political resistance against compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and all other forms of male domination and gender hierarchy. Women also realised that they could make different decisions about what clothes to wear and whether to shave or wear makeup and many chose to reject feminine stereotypes. Sexual violence was finally theorised as stemming from power relations and male political domination, rather than a by-product of the ‘natural’ sex drive of men that they cannot control. This analysis meant that sexual relationships had to be politicised and the term ‘the personal is political’ became a well known feminist slogan relating to personal relationships.
Unfortunately, revolutionary lesbian resistance did not come with money and societal power and men with power in society, who control the media and finances, soon drove a powerful backlash campaign against lesbians that remains so toxic that it still poisons the lesbian community to this day. Worldwide media ran articles and news stories inflicting hatred upon women who rejected heterosexuality or rejected femininity, and claimed that lesbianism is ugly and that the rejection of femininity is inadequate for the physical desires of men. Another type of backlash against lesbians involved the depiction of women having sex with each other in pornography. These depictions were created by men who felt threatened by lesbian’s rejection of heterosexuality and wanted to place male needs back in the centre of the lives of lesbians and to recreate lesbianism in a way that they could control. Attitudes in society and the media continue to perpetuate the myth that lesbians are monstrous, revolting, unsightly beasts and lesbianism, especially in pornography is frequently represented as existing for titillation of heterosexual men.
So is it any wonder that women are rejecting this identity?
Lesbians themselves, especially those growing up in the backlash, have had little choice but to internalise this plethora of hatred and look for more palatable ways to survive and become more acceptable to their male peers and heterosexual friends. As a consequence, during the 90’s, lesbians increasingly withdrew from the women’s movement and returned to the gay liberation movement to seek political support from gay men. Many lesbians began to call themselves gay because it felt more palatable and less confrontational to their male friends.
Feminists have and continue to acknowledge that lesbians and gay men both face hatred for rejecting heterosexuality, and that a commonality exists but they also argue that the needs of lesbians and gay men are very different and that when they politically become a homogenous (same) group, that the needs will default to gay men, because as men, gay men have more economic and societal power.
The 1990’s also saw the rising influence of neo-liberalism and post-modernism, which both reject an analysis of social structures of oppression in favour of the analysis of individual power. Post-modern theorists claim that power is like a toy that can be played with by anyone, regardless of gender, race and class. Queer politics stemmed from post-modern theory, and argues that gender and sexuality can be performed and played with like a game. Adopting a queer identity became a way that lesbians could reject gender but remain palatable to gay men at the same time. Terms such as queer and pan have become used as a way of blurring the boundaries of gender. Many feminists claim that some post-modern and queer perspectives were harmful because they distort the reality of people’s day to day lives and deny the lived experience of women under patriarchy. Women living in domestic violence relationships or surviving rape are harmed by real violence stemming from real power structures. They ask how queer performance will ever help women around the world surviving rape, trafficking and domestic violence.
Queer politics proposes that if women play with their gender and do drag performances and reject the identity of woman then they will gain power. This technique has been used in recent events in the lesbian community with theme nights like Playboy where women were encouraged to dress up as Hugh Hefner in order to subvert the power dynamics. What queer politics does not tend to explore, is if these notions of male power are in fact positive in the first place and if women should claiming or subverting them will not just in reality just continue our gender binaries, albeit in a more performative way. Interestingly, queer politics has not been used by any other group to challenge hierarchy. Aboriginal people do not have colonial theme nights and dress up as white imperialists in order to distort racism and I have never heard of Jewish people coping with memories of the holocaust by holding a Nazi theme parties and playing with the role of being a Nazi. Any attempt to organise such an event would be met with confusion and probably outrage, but feminists and survivors of violence who criticize such notions of so called ‘subversion’ seem to be taken much less seriously.
To conclude, the backlash against women’s liberation has made it acceptable for the real lived experiences of women to be denied and almost impossible for lesbians to hang onto lesbianism as an alternative to a world where men’s needs dominate. It is easier, more palatable and less confrontational to be known as queer, gay or any other identity that decentres the needs of women.
by Amazon Mancrusher