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Why ‘lesbian’ has become a dirty word by Amazon Mancrusher

May 5, 2009

*This is a thought-provoking guest post written by my sisterfriend Amazon Mancrusher.*

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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

13 comments

  1. Thank you for this post, I had never quite put the pieces together this way🙂


  2. Absolutely wonderful post, Amazon Mancrusher! (I like the name, btw😛 )

    I loved reading this herstorical recap on what happened to the Lesbian community and the Women’s Liberation Movement. I do admit, though, that reading about the backlash always depresses me.😦 How can we all re-build a lesbian womyn-centered culture after those evil patriarchists have damaged it so badly with their queer & pomo crappy theories?

    The Women’s Liberation Movement is so much alive in my heart, which is also why I found this article very moving. I have rejected heteronormativity, femininine roles & norms for the very reasons Womyn’s Liberationist believed in.

    I hate the way lesbians are depicted in pornography, as a way to ‘titillate’ men. The so-called “lesbian porn” has nothing to do with any healthy lesbian sexuality about emotional connections between women that feminists envisioned.

    Malestream media is filled with propaganda against radical lesbian womyn, e.g. when they claim that being hairy somehow meant “being dirty”; while having hairy legs, in fact, provides women with more bodily freedom. I heard many het women complain about what a pain it is to shave (yes, ‘pain’ is always the word they use), btw.

    But men, in a patriarchy, have the power of naming unfortunately, hence they can call someone or something any dirty name they want, most people will believe it’s true.

    Is there any way we could put lesbianism back into feminism, revive the Women’s Liberation Movement and reclaim the Lesbian word for the use it is meant for, as a subversion of the dominant heteropatriarchal system?😕

    I so much wish we could…

    Thanks for posting this, Allecto.🙂


  3. Allecto, thanks for this.


  4. Oh this was great, thank you Amazon Mancrusher! (I thought of Maggie when I read that! lol)

    “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.

    Point worth repeating, and very true. It’s really only with sexism does that phenomenon occur so frequently as to be common, and I wonder at the exact phychological mechanism which creates the need. Seems like that mechanism would also include BDSM and a host of other traditional feminine behavior.

    Indeed, “blackface” is considered clearly an insult, and “drag” less so though the practitioners insist it’s all in fun. What is it that makes women do that??? It’s shades of Stockholm, but not quite. There’s a self-loathing there, and taking on the captor’s gaze, but something else… Perhaps it’s just me, but I think it might be “lack of hope”, of giving up and forgetting that there could have been a better way.


  5. In case it’s not obvious “blackface” and “drag” are done by men, mostly. Not the same thing…

    Thanks for posting this Allecto.


  6. It is easier, more palatable and less confrontational to be known as queer, gay or any other identity that decentres the needs of women.

    Amen, sister! DE-CENTERing women is the AGENDA of men and queer communities alike.

    Let’s insist on our OWN meaning. Let’s put it front & center. And take the power of NAMING into our own hands.

    I put WOMEN FIRST. I AM A LESBIAN.


  7. yes, and let’s not forget that in Sydney at least, it’s tres cool to be a gay man. Being a lesbian, however, is not so cool – rather embarrassing it seems, in fact. And for some reason the university where I am seems to be focusing on ‘queer’ theory and ‘masculinities’ studies, but ‘feminism’ has been sidelined.


  8. 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.

    Yes! Gay men, as men, also have more right to dignity; more right to have their wrongs redressed; and more right to be thought of as people than lesbians. I have met an amazing amount of incredibly misogynistic gay men – Dan Savage and David Schmader are two relatively high-profile examples. The former constantly asserts a man’s rights over women (he advised a man whose partner was uncomfortable with him masturbating to do it anyway rather than, you know, communicate and change things) and the latter is your typical, “Forced sex scandal!” dip. In his Last Days column a good while ago, there was actually an incredible example of this, wherein he trivialized the physical abuse a male star subjected his girlfriend to, including such things as ‘alleged assault’.

    Because, you know, she might have just been having really rough sex and regretted it afterwards. Righto.

    Yeah, that and the whole BDSM thing. I’m finding more and more that most ‘lesbians’ these days are bisexual who want the added ‘cool’ factor and who have efficiently absorbed the patriarchal doctrine that only objects can be fucked, and only women (in the human spectrum) are not-person enough that they can be made into objects. There’s a reason I don’t like bisexuals: they tend strongly towards the male apologist side of the fence. In my experience, female-bodied bisexuals are in it for the male approval; male-bodied bisexuals more for the ‘See, I’m oppressed too!’ card. What’s more, then they have the gall to whine that I’m biased against them for no good reason.

    Stop using women like tissues and I’ll consider liking you. I’m not here for you to jack off into and throw away.

    I also have to put in that my friend, who was a sex ed counselor around the age of 14-15, agrees with my analysis. Most of the gay men xe’s met are horribly misogynistic, too – almost as much as the new-wave dykes (the ones who fetishize and try to emulate male culture and male violence) – and apparently they have some of the worst sex education xe’s ever seen. And xe taught classes in a predominantly Mormon county.


  9. A few more things:

    Subverting the power dynamic means jack shit. To subvert something is to turn it towards another direction, so in subverting a power dynamic, you still have a goddamn power dynamic! That’s probably a large part of why feminists who critique queer politics are ignored: most people cannot conceive of a world, or even a single situation, that does not contain a power dynamic. There isn’t even the ability for the criticism to sink in; there’s a fundamental error in processing.

    It wouldn’t be acceptable for Native peoples to hold parties ‘playing with the power dynamic’ of racism because guilty white men think that racism is wrong. Rape and homophobia are perfectly acceptable, though, as is the oppression of female-bodied people. The former reminds them of people they hurt; the latter doesn’t matter because women aren’t people.

    P.S. I would additionally like to point out that queer anarchism is the stupidest thing ever, made by self-absorbed gay men who hadn’t paid attention to the fact that the concept of anarchafeminism had come long before.

    P.P.S. As an off-topic note, I need to find a scanner: I got a copy of Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography at a secondhand shop and I want to scan it and put it up online. It’s starting to seriously piss me off that a lot of the radfems out there are just giving you the link to Amazon and shrugging their shoulders when you point out that it’s been out of print for years.

    Seriously, you guys. As lovingly and sisterfully as possible, the hell is up with you?


  10. Savage Rabbit, this might be of interest to you:

    http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/OnlineLibrary.html

    Andrea Dworkin’s works online, to save you the effort with the scanner🙂


  11. Do I know you? Love your blog. Have you seen our book, “Dykes-Loving-Dykes:Dyke Separatist Politics for Lesbians Only”? It’s nice to see the Gorgons not forgotten. The first Lesbian Separatist project I worked on was the newspaper we called “Dykes and Gorgons” in 1973.

    I wrote an article 13 years ago called “Better to Be Anything than a Lesbian,” which is now on my new blog.


  12. “Many lesbians broke away from the gay liberation movement in favour of the women’s movement” However, many of us were in the women’s liberation movement to begin with! and even before the 70s.

    Ugh to the performativity thing, and you are right on about how oppression gets treated as a game. I also think they completely shine on the way that privilege and prestige operate within these “performances” and you are on the money about the devaluation of lesbians, in pomo circles and in the culture at large.


  13. thanks very much for this article….especially for the thought that other discriminated groups like blacks, indigenous people or jews do not draw on queer theory/politics as an instrument of emancipatory analysis/political struggle. Already Simone de Beauvoir stated that women were the only oppressed group in human history to(have to)entertain intimate relationships with their oppressors as structural feature of their suppression.



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