"Queer has become so inclusive that it doesn’t allow the space for lesbians to exist."
"Some women can't say the word lesbian... even when their mouth is full of one."
The first quotation is by Susan Hawthorne--activist, publisher, poet, aerialist. Her blog is a revelation. If you don't know her, you should. And her book of poems The Butterfly Effect can catch you up on six semesters of women's history... and her book of poems titled Bird, about living with epilepsy, is... well... you just have to read it. Not to mention Earth's Breath, about what it's like, before, during and after a cyclone. You can read my review of her poetry in the Lambda Literary. (Susan, if you're listening, get a Wikipedia page!)
And the second is by Kate Clinton. And everyone should watch her vlogs.
ANYWAY... I'm on Day Four of the 5-Day blog-off with Deb Randall of Venus Theatre, and it's about Day Seven of rain here in Maine... So I picked a subject that always gets me riled. False inclusives--which is to say, leaky umbrella terms.
I am old enough to remember when "men" and "man" were used to mean "men and women." Which is like telling people, "Well, now, when I say 'dog' you know what I really mean is 'dog and cat.'" No self-respecting cat would fall for that for a nano-second. They would know that it was a political ploy intended to privilege the interests of dogs, erase the traditional animosity between the two species, and, basically, make the cats suck it up.
Sadly, women, and especially lesbians are not cats. We have and continue to fall for it. Imagine a gay man being told, "Okay, so from now on, the term 'lesbian' is going to be the term used to refer to both gay males and lesbians." No self-respecting gay man would fall for that for a nano-second. They would know that it's a political ploy to privilege the interest of lesbians, erase the ... well, you get the picture.
My generation of feminists fought very hard not be called "men" or "man." The New York Times, if I'm remembering rightly, was one of the last hold-outs. It took them until 1986 to stop using Mrs. or Miss, and go with Ms. Because in speaking of any woman, anywhere, in any context, it is always supremely important to understand her heterosexual marital status.... because.....???
Anyway... trying to stay focused here. Our suffrage sisters could tell us all about false inclusives. How Thomas Jefferson (enslaver and impregnator of an enslaved captive) added the words "all men are created equal" to the Declaration of Independence, and how women were assured that this meant us, also... oh, except for when it didn't... like, for instance, when it came to being able to vote.
What I'm trying to say is that words matter. Toni Cade Bambara, whose work the entire world should know, and whose book The Salt Eaters should supplant Moby Dick... ANYWAY... Toni used to say how she took "acts of language" seriously. We all should. Seriously.
Men are not women. Gays are not lesbians. And... okay, "queer." What about "queer?" Well... I am not queer. I am not odd or unusual. To cite another awesome African American goddess, Florynce Kennedy, "I never stopped to wonder why I'm not like other people. The mystery to me is why more people aren't like me." Yeah. What she said. Now, Florynce did not identify as lesbian... so she's not talking about that. But she is talking about how supremely natural it is to be wild, social-justice-loving, inventive, outside-the-box, feral, decolonized, and liberated. Women's natural state. (Color Me Flo, her autobiography, is a great read.)
"Queer" might work for someone who experienced their same-sex attraction as a burden, or an affliction, or a disability... something they were born with and have to learn to live with. "Queer" might fit for someone who views it as a quirky, deviant lifestyle.
My lesbianism feels like a homecoming to me. It feels like a beachhead from which women, all women, can effectively fight for our truths, our lives, and for the planet. In a world where women are still forced to offer up our sexuality and our emotional resources to men, where we are still killed, incarcerated, or faced with the slow-motion violence of poverty for choosing to put women first in our lives, there is nothing queer, odd, strange, unusual, funny, peculiar, curious, bizarre, weird, uncanny, freakish, eerie, unnatural; unconventional, unorthodox, unexpected, unfamiliar, abnormal, anomalous, atypical, untypical, out of the ordinary, incongruous, irregular; puzzling, perplexing, baffling, or unaccountable about choosing women. There is something tremendously courageous, with a deep core of integrity about it. Considering how everyone's first object of attachment is a female, it can hardly be deviant to be attracted to women. It's more like making a beeline back home.
I recently had lunch with three young gay men in their twenties. The issue came up about why they didn't use the word "lesbian." All three made faces. It was a spontaneous reaction. They had a VISCERAL response to a word that referred only to women. I had the unmistakable impression the faces indicated their distaste for women's bodies, that they were all associating the word with women's genitals... which, indeed, one of them told me he was. Ah... the infamous "ick" factor.
Okay... but is that any reason why lesbians should abandon the word... just because gay men feel more comfortable with a word that privileges them and protects them from actually confronting the fact that lesbians are in different bodies?
Look, let's be honest: The reticence about using the word "lesbian" is always and ever at heart rooted in misogyny. No, really. You are not going to convince me otherwise.
Judith Halberstam in a recent article in Bitch Magazine says, that to her,"lesbian" has associations "which are always sort of dowdy and unsexy."
WTF??? The Bitch author helps us out by explaining how "lesbian" has connotations like "lumberjacks," (that's "loggers," Bitch) granola-eaters, porn stars, cat owners and goddess worshippers.
WT-double-F??? Make up your mind.
So now Trish Bendix of AfterEllen.com chimes in with how "lesbian" has "almost become a dirty word" because of its association with feminism. Jeez. The squeamish faces of the young gay men are starting to look not so bad. At least their aversion was to anatomy, not human rights... although, yes, of course, duh, there is a direct connection between their wrinkled noses and my 77 cents to the male dollar.
Look, here's the thing: Lesbians have no more control over the times and places where "gay" will include us than earlier generations of women could control when and where "men" and "man" would include us. Allowing ourselves to be given an identity whose primary referent is male may seem to offer some degree of protection and privilege, but it's a chimera. Our safest and strongest strategy is to remain visible to ourselves, and, sisters, "gay" is not going to do that. Now we see us, now we don't.
Oh... and that "label" thing that was so trendy in the 1990's ("I don't like labels...") I am talking about an identity, here. You know. IDENTITY... as in a tribe, a heritage, a legacy, a history, a culture. A LESBIAN one. If you are confusing that with a label, then you are doing EXACTLY what our enemies would like us to do... (See my "In the Beginning" blog.)
So, now let's all say "lesbian." Slowly. Thinking of Sappho. Thinking of women's bodies. Thinking of all those times and places and ways that our gay brothers don't get our issues or, worse, actually undermine them. Let's say it again and, this time, look in a mirror. Think about feminism, which is defined as the advocacy of our rights to be considered equal to men. A goal many consider too unambitious...but nonetheless a starting place. LES-BI-AN.
It's what we are and who we are. Get over it.