Naima Coster’s “Lila” Explores the Power of Female Friendship, Disses Lesbian Love

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Naima Coster

Naima Coster’s Lila is a thoughtful reflection on the power of female friendship. Inseparable since childhood, the two young women share a deep-rooted affinity. Coster’s essay about this connection is insightful and charming, written with disarming honesty. There’s just one problem. In describing why she chose not to build a life with Lila, Naima Coster dabbles in lesbophobia.

As Naima Coster describes it, her relationship with Lila extends well beyond the boundaries of platonic love. They go drinking and dancing together in gay bars, hold hands, flirt, touch, share intimacy – memories that glow in a halo of the author’s nostalgia. It’s clear that she finds Lila intoxicating:

“I feel it too, an inward pulse when I am near her. My skin grows warm, my eyes liquid, when she tells me how she sees me, who I am to her. I have always wanted to be wanted in this way: recklessly, without borders, too much.”

Friends in a long term same-sex relationship confirm Naima’s theory that she and Lila are drawn together by the thread of attraction. During their school years, which involved spooning and kissing, other girls called Naima and Lila ‘the lovebirds.’

This bond with Lila is a source of joy and fulfillment. And yet the author makes a point of delegitimizing her relationship with Lila as ‘false love’ – less “real” than what her male partner Sebastian can offer.

“It’s like she speaks to me on this frequency… And Sebastian, he speaks to me on this other, lower frequency. Not lesser but softer. And even if what I have with Sebastian is real, is better, there’s something about this other frequency – Lila’s – that I can’t resist.”

While Naima Coster may have felt that she and Sebastian were more compatible, this framing of his love as “better” has implications beyond her personal life and choices. For over a century, lesbian and bisexual women have been told that our same-sex attraction is nothing more than a pale imitation of true, heterosexual feeling.

While Naima Coster may have felt that she and Sebastian were more compatible, this framing of his love as “better” has implications beyond her personal life and choices. For over a century, lesbian and bisexual women have been told that our same-sex attraction is nothing more than a pale imitation of true, heterosexual feeling.

Governments, churches, local communities, and even our own families have repeated this message in the hope that we will internalize it, give up on building lives with women, and return to the heterosexual fold. Adrienne Rich called it compulsory heterosexuality.

The logic of homophobia argues that the straight world is the real world in order to justify imposing it on us. The alternative worlds lesbians construct for ourselves are, of course, positioned as no more substantial than a child’s game of pretend. Given this context, it’s jarring when Naima Coster constructs a similar argument to explain why she chose to have a boyfriend over a girlfriend.

“…I’ve started keeping lists in my journal, one called False Loves, another Real Loves. I am trying to understand why so much of how Lila loves makes me shine all over – flattery, coddling, telling me she can’t stop looking at my breasts – and why other things, Sebastian’s things – keeping promises, talking through conflict, mutuality, separateness, space – don’t drive out my fears in quite the same way. The thing about Lila is when she isn’t filling up one side of the list, she’s filling up the other. And the False Loves – they are my favorite.”

The issue of lesbophobia comes to a head when Coster begins to categorize Lila’s love as False and Sebastian’s love as True. Sigmund Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis, notoriously claimed that lesbian desires were a mark of immaturity that women could overcome. The ‘solution’ to this problem, he believed, was for women to enter heterosexual marriages and accept being male-centric as the natural way of life.

The issue of lesbophobia comes to a head when Coster begins to categorize Lila’s love as False and Sebastian’s love as True. Sigmund Freud, the Father of Psychoanalysis, notoriously claimed that lesbian desires were a mark of immaturity that women could overcome.

Echoes of Freud can be heard in Coster’s account. In her own words: the “healthier” she becomes, the more she is able to tune in on this “lower frequency” that is the attraction to Sebastian.

Sebastian is a shadowy figure hovering at the edge of our peripheral vision. It is important to acknowledge that just because he is not the focal point of this essay doesn’t mean he is unimportant to the author. Their relationship is quite deliberately not offered up for scrutiny. So it’s impossible for readers to draw a complete comparison between the author’s connections with Lila and Sebastian.

And yet Naima Coster admits that Lila falls into both categories – what she considers the Real and the False loves – which Sebastian does not. The relationship Naima describes sharing with Lila holds a deep, mutual significance. She vividly remembers a time when “…Lila wanted us to gamble on each other, and we nearly did.” This essay is as much a ‘what if?’ as a commemoration of that love.

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