The Internet has a lesbophobia problem, and that needs to change. #LesbianVisibilityDay
Jokes about Millennials and our progressive politics have been circulating the internet for so long that they’re staler than those Rage Comics that have been doing the rounds for the last decade. Even within the digital spaces where we are native inhabitants, the jibes are endless: SJW Twitter, Keyboard Warriors, PC Police, and so on. And, as a Millennial whose life is defined by a combination of liberation politics and digital media, I accept that there’s a degree of truth behind the humor – but not as much as there should be. Hear me out.
I think that more Millennials should try to live up to that standard, to get behind social justice, in the digital and material worlds alike. There’s one area in particular where young people – especially young people claiming feminism – tend to fall down: lesbophobia. And that needs to change.
Twitter is where I first began to connect with other radical feminists and lesbian women. But it’s also where I learned just how deeply mistrust towards lesbian women runs, even within allegedly progressive politics. Anti-lesbian sentiment continues to blight the feminist movement and LGBT community, despite the fact that lesbians were instrumental to building both. That disdain for lesbian women has always been there, but it feels as though social media has created a host of new ways for it to be expressed. Even as a young feminist surrounded by other young feminists, I am conscious that when issues of gender and sexuality are raised lesbian women are too often viewed as suspect.
Recently, novelist and LGBT advocate Nora Calder came under fire for asserting that as a lesbian woman she experienced same-sex attraction. One could be forgiven for hoping that in 2018, attitudes might have shifted to the point that such a statement would not be met with backlash. Yet Calder was criticized for disclosing the nature of her sexual orientation, sent a litany of Tweets which accused her of being a “vaginophile”, “vagina fetishist”, “disgusting”, “transmisogynist”, and a “penis demonizer”. In the rush to condemn Calder’s sexuality as bigoted, quite a few people forgot to check their lesbophobia at the door.
There’s an idea floating around on Twitter and, increasingly, in offline spaces too: that lesbian women are transphobic if we will not consider having sex that involves a penis. And that idea needs to die, because it stems from misogyny. Women have spent the last few thousand years being conditioned and coerced into having sex that involves a penis – it’s part of patriarchy, and highly disturbing to see this coercion continue underneath the rainbow flag.
Shaming lesbians out of our sexual boundaries is far more in line with patriarchy than progressive politics, an occurrence that is particularly worrying given that corrective rape continues to be weaponized against lesbians around the world. Upholding the logic of rape culture undermines a woman’s right to her own body, directly contradicting the principles of respect and support that are meant to be at the heart of LGBT organizing.
Young feminists and young people who identify as queer seem to forget that lesbians are marginalized at least twice over as women who love other women. It’s unfair to cast lesbians as the villains of gender discourse when we’re at such risk because that hierarchy exists. It is doubly unfair, not to mention dehumanizing, to reduce lesbian women’s sexuality into nothing more than a source of validation for trans women. It is dangerous to conflate women treating someone with respect with women considering someone as a potential sexual partner, especially in a political context where women’s rights face fresh jeopardy.
And yet the word lesbian has become all but unspeakable because it conveys an unmovable set of women’s boundaries, which some worry may come off as exclusionary. It’s significant that lesbian erasure is viewed as an acceptable price to pay in the name of inclusivity, despite the harm it does to lesbian women and the hundreds of years we have spent fighting for a modicum of visibility. As Julia Diana Robertson has pointed out, the media routinely replaces the word lesbian with a host of more palatable alternatives, ranging from ‘queer’ to ‘gay women’: “Anything to avoid the L word. They treat the word lesbian like it’s the plague.”
There’s another one of those cutesy rainbow infographics doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, and it defines lesbian as “a woman who is primarily attracted to women.” It was depressingly predictable that once more lesbian women were pushed into definitions of our sexuality that leave a little wiggle room, a little scope for the negotiation of our sexual boundaries.
Gay was described not only as “a man who is primarily attracted to men”, but “a broad term for individuals primarily attracted to the same sex.” It’s telling that gay male sexuality is treated as universally relatable, used as a catch-all shorthand, at a time when lesbian sexuality has become virtually taboo. I have yet to see a gay man accused of being a penis fetishist, penisphile, or vagina demoniser as a result of his sexuality – that’s reserved for the women. Somehow, it always is.