There’s no place on the East Coast quite as queer as Baltimore, Maryland. In this city, micro-identities are as common as rats. Blue hair dye and stick-and-poke tattoos act as social capital, granting friendships and political protection. Calling yourself “queer” buys you a seat at the table of local influence. Didn’t you hear? Being gay isn’t cool anymore. Of course, actual gays fought to be accepted as normal, not “deviant oddities,” the literal definition of queer. This slur, taunting us before an assault, shouted by parents as they slam the door on their kids, is a slap in the face.
Homosexuality is not a quirky lifestyle. It’s not an identity you can opt into on a whim. It’s just a term to describe same-sex attraction. Lesbians are female homosexuals, women who love women, but our spaces, resources and communities are on the verge of extinction. And now our very definition is co-opted and rendered meaningless by people who call themselves queer. Don’t believe me? Here’s a fun game you can play: go to any neighborhood coffee shop or underground basement venue and ask, “What is a woman?” This year I did that, and more. But the reactions I got were harsher than I expected. I became the most hated lesbian in Baltimore.
Backlash is nothing new to me. After college, I was ostracized from more social circles than my rapist. My crime was asking questions like, “Why is a man named ‘Woman of the Year?'” I lost my best friend after refusing to call myself “cisgender.” Members of my co-ed fraternity called me “dangerous” and encouraged new initiates to avoid me at all costs. People I trusted told me to die in a fire for naming male people men.
When I finally met other women who asked questions, I cried with relief. Here was the oasis I craved. We held potluck dinners and wondered what “queer” really meant, or if it really was transphobic to decline a date with a transwoman. “How come straight people who do BDSM are part of the rainbow community? Why are all the lesbians transitioning? Are our kitchen tables the only female-centered space in Baltimore?” We wondered if there were any women out there like us, sharing meals and asking difficult questions.
This little lesbian community grew strong in a short amount of time, but monthly potlucks weren’t enough for me. There had to be more tangible ways to support the feminist movement. I volunteered for projects like Women’s Liberation Radio News, Women’s Liberation Front, and more. But what could I do about Baltimore’s landscape of misogyny? In early 2018, when I heard that Baltimore’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, was starting an LGBTQ Commission, I jumped for joy. This was a real opportunity to make a difference locally. I applied for the job to voice the concerns of our underrepresented community and stand for lesbians in local government.
Let’s just say, it didn’t go as planned.
Our very first meeting was in May. To make the commission “as inclusive as possible,” Mayor Pugh invited applicants to a welcoming reception. When I arrived, Ava Pipitone, president of Baltimore’s Transgender Alliance, was preaching everyone’s favorite buzzword: “inclusion.” He seemed a caricature of femininity with overtly demure mannerisms and performative vocal fry. At the end of his prepared speech, Mayor Pugh tenderly embraced him, thanking him for being “so brave” at the podium.
Pugh then assigned everyone into groups. I was partnered with seven gay men. We were to “identify subject areas” regarding “LGBTQ issues,” and I was always the last person in my group to voice concerns, like lesbian representation in business, government, and media. After ten minutes of cameramen circling us for good PR optics, each group selected a representative to share one idea with Mayor Pugh. Unsurprisingly, the only ideas offered were ones which fit mainstream narratives, like legalizing the sex trade and altering birth certificates. This process ensured the exclusion of unpopular ideas. “Lesbian” wasn’t uttered once.
When the meeting adjourned, I scanned the crowd for women who looked like me. At the back of the room I saw her: short hair, sensible shoes, tucked in button-downn shirt. I approached and asked, “Do you call yourself a lesbian?” My heart sank when she said with pride: “No, I am a transman!” I watched her face fall and realized she was mirroring my expression. I awkwardly removed myself and headed to the hall where some of the men from my group lingered in conversation. We talked about homophobia, a mutual concern. They spoke of the violence gay men face for performing femininity; I spoke of the cotton ceiling and its misogynist obliteration of lesbian sexuality. They responded with confusion and empty concern. I left feeling so alone in a space that was meant to include me.
One month later, Baltimore celebrated Pride. Our streets were swathed in pink and blue. For every one rainbow banner I saw, there were trans flags surrounding it. Corporate sponsorships oozed heteronormativity, and social media was flooded with workshops for super fun “queer” things to do, like vogueing and anal sex. Mmm, no thank you.
Nothing was lesbian-only. On the contrary, some events were explicitly lesbian-exclusionary.
The Baltimore Trans Alliance sponsored a dance called “Queer Qrush” that was a “safe space” but which advertised that “exclusionary” lesbians would be “hung (sic) by their necks” if we dared to attend.
Mayor Pugh had invited all commissioners to march with her in the parade. I accepted her invitation and bought a stack of poster boards, brainstorming woman-centered slogans: our own Lavender Menace on the pink and blue streets. The next day, two friends and I marched in protest of lesbian erasure. Our signs read, “Lesbian NOT Queer,” and “Violence Against Lesbians is an Epidemic,” among other slogans. By tailing the mayor’s entourage, we marched the entire parade route. Other lesbians who made similar protests at their Pride parades were not as lucky, such as a group of senior lesbians who were assaulted and mobbed at San Francisco Dyke March. But for one glorious hour, we were entirely visible, grinning and waving to the world.
Bystanders cheered, clapped, and took pictures with us. Some whispered thanks while others shouted, “Go home TERFs!” Twitter blew up trying to find the notorious dykes who crashed Baltimore Pride. I was doxxed and multiple friends, including one woman who was not a part of the protest, received threats.
Months later, things cooled down, and I was focused on the commission. I attended every event, took detailed notes, and followed up with absent members. I ran for Co-Chair of the Law and Policy Committee, wondering if anyone recognized me from Pride. My suspicion was confirmed when Jabari Lyles, the mayor’s liaison, called me in October to ask if I believe transwomen could be lesbians. Apparently, a number of Baltimoreans voiced concerns about my “Dykes Don’t Like Dick” sign. In spite of this, Lyles and I remained diplomatic, and the next day he congratulated me on being elected Co-Chair. I was truly part of the LGBTQ Commission. I had a seat at the table. I was undoubtedly qualified and hell-bent on making a difference, so I looked forward to our first committee meeting.
When I arrived to the first Law and Policy meeting, Ava Pipitone, of BTA, shook my hand and greeted me by my full name. I knew I was in for a show. I asked him what he does for a living, and he gushed about the app he’s developing with engineers in California — “like if Air BnB and OkCupid had a baby” — a dating website based on rental locations, every pimp’s wet dream. It was no surprise to hear him confess later in the night that he’s an agent for the global pimp lobby, the Sex Workers Outreach Project.
Before we could talk about bylaws, Pipitone announced the rejection of my written comments on some new policies from the Baltimore Police Department. He further derailed the conversation by asking me to name his sex. There was no point in lying. I said, “You’re male,” but my Co-Chair, Akil Patterson, a gay man, disagreed on the grounds of gender identity. When I asked Patterson to differentiate “gender” from “sex,” Pipitone accused me of gaslighting. Instead of answering, they deferred: Why does a stranger’s identity matter so much? Why can’t you just support trans people? What does it have to do with you?
I brought up Karen White, a convicted pedophile and rapist who was placed in a UK women’s prison, despite being legally male and undergoing no steps to socially or medically transition, where he then raped two inmates. White’s case illustrates how easy it is for men to manipulate the law, but Pipitone smirked and claimed I was being performative. In delicate tones, he expressed concern with my leadership. He claimed Lesbianism and transgenderism are incongruent political forces (probably the only thing we agree on). Instead of enacting “lateral violence” against transfolk by crashing “our parades,” he argued that lesbians should assimilate with male lesbians to “punch up” at an unnamed oppressor.
He must have forgotten the threats his organization made against lesbians during Pride week.
Before I could reply, Patterson said we could lock the doors and argue all night. As the only female in the room on an isolated floor, I was filled with dread and had flashbacks of being raped by men. At the end of the two-hour meeting, Pipitone and Patterson swapped phone numbers. Peals of laughter rang through City Hall as I left the building.
October began with a flurry of emails. Pipitone accused me of violence for naming his sex when he asked me to and motioned for a Co-Chair re-vote. My argument against housing men in women’s prisons was criminal to him and many other men on my committee. Lyles questioned my fitness as a leader, because “referring to a transgender woman as a man is a similar infraction” to calling a lesbian “a disgusting abomination.” Ironically, lesbians are already slurred this way for rejecting the sexual advances of men like Karen White. For weeks, my heart raced each time a new email came through, my false allies building a case against me in their anti-lesbian witch hunt.
Lyles and Patterson quickly organized an emergency meeting in December to discuss my removal from the commission. I prepared a statement thanking my fellow commissioners for giving lesbians a voice in local government. Their confidence in me was as easily gained by my capable leadership as it was eroded by Pipitone’s malicious accusation.
I figured they’d cast me out at the first chance they got, and I was right. Before the meeting, Patterson pulled me aside and warned that I could not speak unless spoken to, as my power was already stripped. I challenged him, but he smiled and referred me to the mayor’s office. Thankfully I wasn’t alone at this meeting. Three brave radical feminists joined me at the table. We knew we’d have to listen to them twist my words, proselytize gender stereotypes, and erase the reality of female homosexuality.
I didn’t want to look at my accuser, so I sat next to him. When Patterson opened the floor, I encouraged Pipitone to speak by saying, “Ladies first.” His flimsy argument against me was as baseless as it was comical: “I don’t really feel that we have to say too much to build a case.” I would have laughed if my body hadn’t been pumping cortisol. Several queer community members claimed that differentiating sex and gender hurts their feelings. One gay man, Phillip Clark, said modern science debunked sex. I was dumbfounded. How can we be homosexual if biological sex is fake?
The night continued with so much gaslighting that the room began to spin. Robert Steininger, past president of OUTLaw at Baltimore University, disagreed with the dictionary definitions of “sex” and “lesbian” that I listed in my statement. Another committee member who had just had a hysterectomy said her vulva is “masculine, and it’s a male and it’s a man.”
Finally, Patterson steered the meeting towards a vote by saying, “My question for you was simply, could you in a responsible manner not publicly bring your internal language to a table of diversity?” Pipitone motioned to vote, and Clark seconded. All members present raised their hands except me. “Motion to keep Julia as co-chair?” My hand alone raised. The meeting adjourned. None of my critics would look me in the eye.
Baltimore City is a hostile environment for lesbians. Organizations like the LGBTQ Commission that claim to support Lesbians are too often controlled by men who de-platform and silence outspoken women. Too many activists wear a facade of benevolence, preaching inclusion and equity while threatening to beat and kill women like me. But their lesbian-hating is somehow protected by their “queer” social status.
Queer needs to be questioned. The term is not applicable to female homosexuality. As lesbian radical feminist Claire Heuchan explains, this “deliberately amorphous expression… replicates the misogyny of mainstream society… Devoid of concrete definitions, to be queer is to be sexually fluid – meaning the term queer is male-inclusive.”
I joined the commission to represent lesbians in my local government. But we all know how well that went.
If you’re a lesbian reading this, I need you to stand up. Join me in defense of our existence, because your silence won’t protect you.
Nothing less than complete capitulation will appease the queerios. I tried to play nice, to find common ground, but there is no compromise on their behalf. So grab your sisters and make some noise. Demand the L be respected in the acronym we begin.
Maybe you can be the most hated lesbian in your city, too.
Julia Beck is a radical feminist lesbian guest writer. All of her opinions are her own and are not representative of AfterEllen.
All illustrations are copyright of Kacie Mills.