Should Lesbians Assimilate?

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I’ve been listening to a lot Nicole Georges podcast Sagittarian Matters lately, and she has an interesting chat with one of her friends Justin Hall, who created No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, which to this day remains the seminal work on the history of queer comics. Lots of source material has been lost due to the shuttering of gay newspapers and bookstores, and although places like the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the Zine Archive Project have compiled and hang onto these as much as possible, sometimes things just get lost. I am a compulsive purger, and plenty of documents have been lost to time and forgetfulness, but as lesbians, in particular, are a nostalgic people, we tend to hang onto mementos of the things we loved.

One topic that has been raised repeatedly around the issue of artists and writing is the question of whether the individual should choose to other themselves by creating for the “gay ghetto” (I hate that expression, but it’s the most commonly used). This means many artists and writers have frustrations surrounding their work having to either meet the demands of a mainstream audience or have a much more limited purview of whom it reaches.

We also have a tendency as a community to belittle artists as “selling out” when they get some mainstream acclaim. (Don’t lie: How many of you groused when you heard that Tegan and Sara song on the Oreos commercial? I know I did.) That’s the trouble with things that start out feeling like they are made for us, and then wind up reaching a broader audience.

Something that this dude said, that I think is both very true and also something that people struggle to articulate is that the more specific and personal a work is, the more universal its appeal can be. The greater an act of vulnerability that the piece reveals, the wider range of people that can be drawn to it—they identify with the struggle, with the vulnerability, with the longing, with the relationships.

We are most invested in a narrative when we feel “they are like me, I see myself in them.” This is fairly obvious when we talk about lesbians in media, but it occurs in smaller ways, too: The ads that included a tomboy that we saw in a formative moment, weird depressed girl we notice in the corner of the movie that lights up a small sphere of possibility, the intellectual girl who has bigger life plans than her family has for her. (Julia Stiles from 10 Things I Hate About You? Ehhhhh?) This is also very true for people of color. A Filipina friend of mine once showed me YouTube clips of the Samoan sidekick of Captain America. When we were kids, that was the best she could get on American TV.

This also becomes a larger question about cultural affiliation. Whether you are the kind of person that is excited to be moving into a time of greater cultural assimilation from the gays, or if you are somebody who wants to hold onto the distinctness of queer identity and culture. This also isn’t necessarily a generational lesbian culture vs queer culture thing, though that is a point many people have argued.

Where do you feel like you fit in? Sometimes the choice of othering oneself intentionally—articulating the differences that lie between you and the rest of the world—can sometimes be a place of strength and power. I know some queer people also intentionally other themselves or choose hypervisibility as a way of coping with a legacy of shame. When there is the weight of a whole culture telling you to get smaller and disappear, it can be a very brave act to take up more space and make the unacceptable thing about yourself the most obvious.

That said, there have always been people who wanted to fly under the radar. Not everyone is a performance artist on the inside, and many people would prefer not to be looked at. This can be a factor of personality rather than shame, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting a quiet life. There are plenty of places where the impact of queer lives have been felt and shaped, but sometimes those influences can fade after a person leaves or dies. But small towns can be fiercely protective of their own.

What’s true for you? Is it easier to fade into the wallpaper, or do need to say everything out loud in order to feel visible? I have a stronger preference for visibility, but people have all kinds of hindrances to taking up space. If you’ve just got a little voice, there’s room for you too.

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