Lesbians: are you tired of going to “dyke marches” only to see men, straight libfems, and signs that say “no TERFs”? Fight back with clever T-shirts! An internet acquaintance gave me permission to share this photo. Way to go, Amazons! You are my sheros!
A reader sent me this video and asked for a post about it. It’s a short documentary-style video about a lesbian who identifies as a man and has no plans to transition. Here’s the video:
She says the same thing I’ve heard 100,000 times now from women who identify as men: “Ever since I was small, I always identified more with boys, I always kind of felt more like a boy.”
As is very common in stories of women who identify as men, they turn out to be attracted to women. Gender dysphoria doesn’t just randomly strike random women. A large majority of the women who “feel like a boy” are lesbian or bisexual. This makes it really freakin’ obvious that gender dysphoria in women is often related to the difficulties of being a same-sex-attracted woman in a sexist and heteronormative society.
This particular lesbian who identifies as a man doesn’t plan to transition. This means what she is experiencing is not discomfort with her female body, it’s discomfort with the feminine gender role. She’s okay with being female, she just “isn’t a woman.”
Dear readers, please raise your hand if you feel discomfort regarding the feminine gender role.
When dressing as a woman, Lauren feels like she is in drag and like she is putting on a character. She feels this way as an actress, but she seems to be implying that that’s the way she feels about being a woman all the time. This is also a comment I’ve heard before. Some people think that “being a woman” is an act that has to be performed, involving specific dress, appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, and behaviors. This is not true. A woman is an adult human female, and the only way to be a woman is to be born female and to grow into an adult. Anyone who is existing in a female body is “being a woman.” It turns out that women can have any kind of mannerisms, appearance, and behavior. We can have any kind of personality and thoughts and feelings. Everyone with a female body is a woman, no matter how she feels or what she wears. There is no acting involved at all.
In the video, Lauren is shown on a bus “manspreading” across her seat. This is probably supposed to display her masculine mannerisms, although she looks like a typical woman and no one would mistake her for a man.
So why does Lauren “feel like a man”? I can tell you right now. Lesbians often grow up feeling different from other women. We are often baffled at straight women’s behavior, and we often identify with the cultural stereotypes assigned to men. These days there is no on-the-ground lesbian community, so there is no way for lesbians to share their feelings with other lesbians and find out that we have similar feelings. Instead there is a “queer” community that is all too eager to label women who aren’t feminine and who vaguely and subjectively “feel different” as not-women. They can be nonbinary, or trans men, or genderqueer, or any other bloody thing. The message is clear: real women are feminine, therefore unfeminine women aren’t women. It’s the same old-school sexism that caused the last two waves of feminism, repackaged as “progressive.”
Here’s the thing: a lesbian is a female homosexual. If you are female, and you are exclusively attracted to females, you are a lesbian. Whatever feelings you have toward yourself are lesbian feelings. If you feel like hot stuff, you walk with a swagger, you like looking at the ladies, you want women to think you’re a stud, you like wearing comfortable clothes, you don’t fit into the same culture as straight women, but identify with men, you’ve always felt “different,” and you don’t meet the dominant cultural idea about what women are, then congratulations! You are a perfectly normal dyke. Your membership card’s in the mail. Welcome to the club.
Last weekend I went to the library to browse through the queer books and I came across Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote. I’ve heard other people say this book is good so I thought I should check it out. Coyote is an accomplished writer and speaker and a queer Canadian icon. Tomboy Survival Guide is their latest book, published in 2016.
Coyote is a talented storyteller who writes in a vulnerable way, heart exposed, and I was drawn in immediately. By the second chapter I already had tears running down my cheeks. The title suggests that this book is a guide for tomboys, but what it actually is is a memoir that is as much about family as it is about gender. The stories are about growing up as a tomboy, being a butch lesbian, and being a trans person, and they are also about being from a loving family from Whitehorse, Yukon—a family that remains important and valuable throughout the author’s life. Western Canada provides a beautiful backdrop for Coyote’s stories, whether it’s the Yukon or British Columbia.
I have been enjoying the book immensely over the past week while simultaneously struggling with the question of how I can review a book by someone who I support on some levels but who has very different political beliefs from me. Coyote is pro-trans, and is against my kind of feminism. Reading through their twitter account recently told me that Coyote calls women “TERFs.” I cannot discuss this book without addressing this political divide and I can’t get very far into a discussion of their work without making a decision about pronoun use.
Coyote’s pronouns are “they/them” but I do not agree that a butch lesbian should be called ‘they.’ Calling a female human ‘they’ is supposed to imply that she is not female, but is instead somewhere in between, and it disappears the difference between gender and sex. A butch lesbian is biologically female and has a masculine gender. I don’t believe it’s right to imply that a non-feminine woman is not a woman at all—that reinforces the idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women. The idea that all women must be feminine or else they aren’t women is one of the things that harms all of us. I think that when you agree that a masculine woman isn’t a woman, you are agreeing with the bullies who think she’s not okay the way she is.
I believe with all my heart that the way to support a butch lesbian is to respect her masculine gender and her femaleness, and to appreciate them both as integral parts of her that are both significant in making her who she is, and to maintain that being female and masculine isn’t a contradiction that needs to be resolved but something to honour and respect as it is. I think that calling her “they” to erase her femaleness does the same thing that straight women do when they tell her she doesn’t belong in the women’s washroom: it’s kicking her out of womanhood because she doesn’t fit the feminine standard.
With all that in mind, I know that if I were to support Coyote by calling her “she” it would be taken as me not supporting her because she uses “they.” Therefore I am going to use a mix of pronouns to acknowledge both my position and hers. It is my intention here to promote their work and their voice without letting go of my own perspective.
Whenever I read a book written by a butch, I see my own partner among the pages. Coyote’s book really hit home for me because she is a Canadian lesbian and so are my partner and I. In fact, I know that we have mutual acquaintances and some of my friends have seen her perform.
One of the first stories Coyote told of her tomboy nature was being in swimming lessons as a kid and wearing only the bottom half of her bathing suit and allowing everyone to think she was a boy. My partner did the exact same thing when she was a kid, wearing swim trunks to the community pool because that’s what she felt comfortable in, and she kept doing that until the boys were harassing her and the lifeguard told her she had to put a top on. She was not happy about this.
Near the opening of the book Coyote wrote a wonderful description of being a tomboy. It’s not about consciously rejecting the feminine and trying to be masculine, it’s about having something different about you that exists in your personality and in your very bones that you would not be able to change even if you dressed in women’s clothes.
“I didn’t not want to be a girl because I had been told that they were weaker or somehow lesser than boys. It was never that simple. I didn’t even really actively not want to be like the other girls. I just knew. I just knew that I wasn’t. I couldn’t. I would never be. (p14)”
Later on when they described attending college to learn Electricity and Industrial Electronics I saw my partner in the pages again. One of the only two women among hundreds of men, they endured harassment from their classmates despite being excellent in the program.
It can be a minefield navigating the world as a masculine woman because you never know how people are going to interpret you or treat you. Coyote wrote about times when she was “one of the guys” and times when she was “one of the girls.” Although some of their college classmates harassed them horribly, they recalled a positive memory of one classmate asking their advice on how to do something nice for his wife. In that moment, Coyote was not a failure of a woman but an expert on womanhood.
Although it wasn’t the least bit funny for her at the time, I laughed when she recalled the time when a guy managing a tourist destination, hot springs in a cave, made her wear a women’s swimsuit while calling her “sir.” Sometimes people get hilariously mixed up when they encounter an ambiguous-looking person.
Four years before writing this book, and already in their forties, Coyote had top surgery. They called this decision “the healthy, happy thing for me to do,” (p170) even though it caused them to completely lose feeling in their nipples. They describes the numbness in a very poignant paragraph:
“They are beyond numb. They feel nothing. Sometimes I think I can feel the flesh underneath them, maybe I can feel pressure there, maybe. But I can’t feel her fingertips or her tongue, or her teeth. I can’t feel the cold lake or the warm sun either.” (p151)
Is it really a fair trade, to get the chest you want but lose feeling in your nipples?
It’s interesting that Coyote says the following:
“But my day-to-day struggles are not so much between me and my body. I am not trapped in the wrong body. I am trapped in a world that makes very little space for bodies like mine. (p170–171)”
I fully agree with this. No one is trapped in the wrong body. It’s not their bodies that need to change, it’s the way they are being treated that needs to change. It’s important to locate the problem correctly. Don’t blame something on your body when it’s not your body’s fault.
Throughout much of the book, Coyote doesn’t mention being trans, because in her childhood and young adulthood she didn’t have a trans identity yet. Near the end of the book, the trans issue starts to come up. She wrote about getting hate mail from both conservatives and radical feminists regarding her writing on transgender bathroom use. She reports both groups of people saying the same thing in their hate mail, which is:
“No offense, but, if I had to share a woman’s washroom with someone who looks like you, I would feel…uncomfortable.
“Why don’t you just use the men’s room? (p224)”
Although I am a radical feminist, this quote does not represent my position at all. It’s not what anyone in my own circle of feminists says, either. We don’t want to see butch women kicked out of the women’s washroom, we think all women belong there. We aren’t uncomfortable around butch women. Some of us, like me, love butch women. We also think that single-occupant washrooms are a good idea in order to accommodate gender nonconforming people, or anyone who wants to pee alone. We don’t think that trans people should be kicked out of all the bathrooms. We don’t think women should be forced into the men’s room. I don’t know who emailed her, but they didn’t say anything close to what I would have said. My position is that everyone should be accommodated in washrooms, without forgetting that allowing the entire world into the women’s washroom does not properly accommodate women. Overly-broad gender identity laws that are based on self-declaration and no objective criteria allows anyone to announce they’re a woman and enter the washroom. This is not good policy.
There is another part of the book where Coyote’s pro-trans position bothers me. She printed a letter from a mother whose teenage daughter is transitioning to male. The teen first identified as a lesbian and then identified as trans. Coyote wrote a response to the mother which spoke of her daughter as if she were truly her son and would grow up to be a man. She didn’t leave any room for the fact that this teen could actually be a lesbian. That’s what you do when you believe in transgender politics, is immediately affirm someone’s trans identity and ignore the fact that the person is actually homosexual. Only a so-called “trans exclusive radical feminist” like me can see what is really happening here. An adult lesbian is refusing to call herself a lesbian, preferring to label herself as something other than a woman, and is affirming a younger lesbian who is doing the same. This is absolutely tragic. This is not what I want for the lesbian community. I want lesbians to be able to proudly declare their lesbian identity without falling prey to the ancient homophobic idea that lesbians are really men or that we’re failed women. I want us to carve out space for all different kinds of women to be ourselves without shame, and to show the world that women are diverse and beautiful in our differences. If it were me giving advice, I would have left the door open to this young woman actually being a lesbian and validated what she is probably feeling without jumping right onto the trans train.
For the most part, I loved Tomboy Survival Guide, and I would definitely recommend it. I was very moved by her stories and I thought the book was exquisitely written. I always appreciate hearing about what life is like for little tomboys who grow up to be butch. My criticism is that because of her pro-trans position, her writing is not as lesbian-positive as it could be. What I always hope to see in any book written by a lesbian is a positive lesbian identity and a pro-woman stance.
This year there is going to be a European Lesbian* Conference! Yeah!
…wait, what is that asterisk for?
“Our aim is to hold an inclusive European Lesbian* Conference. We insist on calling it a lesbian conference although we recognize that, as with any category or label, it may be contested and insufficient to describe the diversity of our communities. We are aware that many previous lesbian gatherings have struggled with issues about who should or should not be included at the conference. However, using the word “lesbian” is part of the political struggle for visibility, empowerment and representation. Therefore we will use “lesbian*” with an asterisk, so as to include anyone who identifies as lesbian, feminist, bi or queer, and all those who feel connected to lesbian* activism.”
Oh, for fuck sake. Just as I suspected, spelling Lesbian* with an asterisk is sorta like putting a footnote with the fine print underneath. You see the title “Lesbian” and you’re like, “Yeah, lesbians!” and then you read the fine print and it’s like “This is not actually for lesbians. This is actually for everyone in the goddamn world.”
The “queer” community must have taken their cue from advertising, where companies will advertise that a product can make you lose 40 pounds in 1.2 seconds, become magically 10 years younger, and walk on water, but then you read the fine print and it’s like “This product may not bring any results whatsoever and fuck you.”
So this “lesbian” conference is actually a conference for anyone who is a lesbian, a bisexual, a feminist, a “queer” (which can mean anything), and anyone who “feels connected to lesbian activism,” and who knows what the hell that last part means. How can anyone “feel connected to lesbian activism” unless they are actually a lesbian and doing activism?
Here’s the background on the conference:
“European lesbians* lack the fundamental structures, tools and mechanisms to fight lesbophobia, sexism, misogyny, transphobia and interphobia, racism and all other types of discrimination experienced daily by members of the community. For the past five decades, outstanding lesbian* activists have dedicated a great deal of their energy to struggles indirectly related to their own needs and thus contributed to social change. With that, they have paved the wave for us today. Whereas all minorities included in the LGBTI community have managed to gather and structure their own forums, councils, and meetings in addition to the general LGBTI organizations in Europe, this has not been the case for lesbians*. Last Fall, at the 2016 annual ILGA Europe Conference held in Cyprus, a specific lesbian* workshop took place for the first time in years. More than 70 lesbian* activists from all over Europe had the opportunity to come together and realize that, despite differences in political, legal and financial status within the European lesbian* movements, there is a common and urgent need to focus on lesbians* needs, struggles and oppression, to empower and to increase our visibility and broaden networks.”
Ugh. The only way it makes sense to say that lesbians have to fight transphobia is if we’re talking about masculine lesbians who get mistaken for men and if “transphobia” in this context refers to the fear of women who look ambiguous and unfeminine and impossible to categorize. I wouldn’t call that transphobia, I’d call it sexism and homophobia, but if someone is actually a lesbian and wants to call this transphobia I won’t put up a fight about it, she can name her own experience. However, what “transphobia” probably means in this context is that men who wish to call themselves lesbians are rejected by actual lesbians, and no, lesbians shouldn’t have to stop rejecting such men. Lesbians are not interested in men in any form, even if they get cosmetic surgery and make themselves look like Barbie dolls, we are still not interested. Female homosexuals are interested in females. We are homosexuals, not homogenderuals. And you know what, men who make themselves look like Barbie dolls are not the same “gender” as lesbians, either. Actual lesbians are not a caricature of gross, disgusting, male-defined pornified femininity. To think that not only are female homosexuals interested in men, but that we also should be particularly attracted to men who have a fetish for our oppression, is fucking insane.
To continue on with the background of the Lesbian* conference:
“Because our voices are not loud enough, our stories are not heard and we are losing the track of our own history; because positive lesbian* visibility still scares even homosexual women; because lesbians* at the forefront of change are still invisible; and because we have never had the opportunity to articulate our lesbian* needs in structured approach on European level, this lesbian* workshop led to the decision to organize a European Lesbian* Conference on October 6-8, 2017, in Vienna, on International Lesbian Day. This conference is the first step in the long-expected and needed construction of a strong lesbian* movement in Europe that will bring together a diverse team in the organizing committee by making it as inclusive and representative as possible. The conference will offer a platform for the empowerment of lesbian* communities, will open discussion on the needs and struggles, the successes and achievements, will create space for the lesbian culture and the history of lesbian activism and with all of that it will set a foundation for building of a strong lesbian* movement in Europe.”
Did you see that sentence that says “because positive lesbian* visibility still scares even homosexual women”? What the fuck does this mean?? Almost every time they mention lesbians on this website they put an asterisk next to it, and this is the only time they say “homosexual women.” Apparently homosexual women get a special mention for being a subgroup of the “lesbian*” community who are afraid of positive “lesbian*” visibility? Man, that is super suspicious and weird. I looked for some contact information on the site but there wasn’t any. Someone needs to ask these clowns what the hell they mean by homosexual women being scared of positive lesbian* visibility, because that is fucked.
You know what I love more than anything? POSITIVE LESBIAN VISIBILITY. I love it without the asterisk, because I love when female homosexuals are visible– you know, those of us who are female and attracted to females?
The wording of this conference makes it sound as though lesbian voices just aren’t loud enough. But lesbians are speaking. Lesbians are protesting, we are blogging, we are writing books, we are making videos, we are organizing spaces for lesbians to talk to each other. The reason we are made invisible and not heard is because lesbians are hated in society and because we are being silenced and marginalized by people who don’t want female homosexuals to be able to gather together or even name what a female homosexual is. The incorrectly-named “LGBT” and “queer” communities are some of the worst offenders in this silencing. That is the FIRST thing I would talk about if I was making a lesbian conference.
It shouldn’t be the least bit difficult to figure out who to include at a lesbian event. Only lesbians should be included at a lesbian event. DUH. It’s time for lesbians to get exclusionary. Special snowflakes and men of any stripe get the fuck OUT.
Please read this post by Big Boo Butch on being banned from a butch/femme site for “transphobia.” She writes about how this site used to be for butches and femmes but over time the trans borg took over and by the time she was kicked out, it looked more like a FtM/femme site. Big Boo wrote about how ridiculous it is for a supposedly lesbian site to cater to trans people instead of lesbians, and of course I’m going to rant about this too.
I get so angry when formerly lesbian spaces become no longer for lesbians when everybody decides to identify as something other than a woman. First of all, it’s stupid that women ever identify as not-women, because, you know, reality exists, and women are women. Secondly, if you are such a special snowflake that your “identity” makes you “not a woman” (despite your female body), then get the hell out of a space meant for women. Don’t try to take it over and make it a space for special snowflakes instead of for women. Women are allowed our own spaces and we don’t have to be inclusive of any of these clowns who choose not to believe the facts of human reproductive anatomy.
I get angry when women decide their degree of masculinity or androgyny makes them something other than a woman. All women are women, regardless of what kind of outfit or haircut they have on, and the idea that only feminine women are women is called sexism.
I also get angry when lesbians who identify as trans men want to have their cake and eat it too. If they think they are men, then what are they doing on a lesbian-only site? And if they are on a lesbian-only site, why do they want to be called men? Get your story straight, people! Which is it? Doesn’t the cognitive dissonance hurt, when you want to simultaneously be a lesbian and a “man”?
And another thing. Why are the femmes on this site putting up with this? I’m not putting up with butches calling themselves men for even one second. Butches are women, and they are particularly hot and sexy women, and they are the ones femmes love. Femmes love butches as women and we are lesbians, therefore we are not interested in men. The only reason I can think of that a femme would ever be with an FtM is because she is homophobic and wants to be seen as straight, but even that theory sounds pretty far-fetched. I would never call my female partner a man, I would never call her “he,” I would never pretend I was straight or bi when I only love women. If lesbians who hang out on a lesbian site decide they’d rather be men then they should get kicked out. First they should be told that it’s homophobic to claim that lesbians are really men, and then they should be told that if they cannot proudly call themselves lesbians then they don’t belong in lesbian space.
I’d be super compassionate toward them if they identified as lesbians struggling to deal with body hatred or butch shame, but not when they start lying and claiming that these inner struggles make them inherently male. That’s a load of BULLSHIT.
It’s hard for butches and femmes who haven’t had their brains sucked out by the trans cult to find anywhere to go. Some of us find refuge among radical feminists, but sadly the radfems sometimes believe that butch and femme are a BDSM role play situation that deliberately and artificially reenacts heterosexual power dynamics, and they don’t always listen to us when we tell them we are expressing our actual personalities and not imitating anything. I’m going to have to write more on that another day.
In this era of lesbian spaces being erased to make room for every identity under the sun, those of us who actually know what a lesbian is are cast to the margins. It’s so simple, people. A lesbian is a female homosexual. That’s it!
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence is an essay by Adrienne Rich published in 1980 that challenges the assumption that women’s innate sexual orientation is toward men, points out how heterosexuality is institutionalized, and presents lesbianism as a challenge to this institution. This essay is a part of the ‘lesbian feminist’ theory that lesbianism is a political choice made by women to challenge patriarchy. Although it is true that heterosexuality is institutionalized, and although many of the points made within the body of the essay are true, the basic premise that sisterhood between women is a part of lesbianism is incorrect.
My blog post is written with the assumption that you have read Adrienne Rich’s essay. If you haven’t, the full text can be found online.
Heterosexuality is institutionalized, but it’s also a real sexual orientation. We can separate the institution from the sexual orientation by separating aspects of culture from people’s personal feelings. The institution of heterosexuality can be found in religion, law, language, and the arts; it’s located in many patriarchal institutions that give men power over women, such as forced marriage, prostitution, and the lower wages given to women for paid labor. These are some of the things Adrienne Rich gets right. However, the romantic and sexual feelings that straight women feel towards men are real feelings, they are not mere products of socialization. Socialization influences our behavior but it cannot construct a sexual orientation. Neither can women construct a sexual orientation by changing their politics. Most women are indeed heterosexual; homosexuals are a minority group. Stating this fact does not limit straight women to a life of being abused by men; male violence against women is a product of patriarchy, not a product of legitimate human sexual orientation. After the feminist revolution, women and men will likely still bond together in love relationships, but they will do so on equal footing.
For most of the history of marriage, divorce was rare. A woman was literally a man’s property and the way he treated her was considered his private business. Women were strongly encouraged to marry men by everyone in their community, and they were stigmatized and discriminated against if they remained unmarried. Marriage itself is an institution; it is maintained by both government and religion, it is celebrated by entire communities and entire industries have developed around it (the wedding dress industry, the wedding cake industry, wedding planners, florists, etc). Until very recently, marriage was only for heterosexuals. The fact that heterosexual marriage is presented culturally as one of the most significant achievements of a person’s life, that their church, their government, and their community have an interest in validating, is part of the institution of heterosexuality.
When I attend a heterosexual wedding, I am amazed at how institutionalized it all is. The tradition of the white dress, walking down an aisle, formal dress, expensive flowers and decorations, and endless pomp and display, all seem to say “Look at us. We are heterosexual. Everyone celebrate and validate our relationship!” I find weddings pointless and frivolous. I have never expected nor asked for validation from my community for who I love; I don’t care what people think and I don’t need their opinion. My partner and I are legally considered common-law spouses; this is an arrangement that works for us because we are considered a couple when it comes to financial arrangements such as health benefits, but without engaging in the tradition of marriage. Thank you Canada for progressive laws recognizing same-sex partnerships! I have attended one lesbian love ceremony; it was more creative and individual and it didn’t follow the heterosexual traditions. I am guessing a lot of lesbian love ceremonies are conducted that way. Our love is not institutionalized, and our culture is created from scratch.
Women have traditionally been either kept out of the workplace, or paid lower wages for the same work, or kept in low-paying service positions (secretaries, waitresses, etc) because society as a whole regards women as wives for men, and therefore we do not need good wages or careers of our own. Our role is to be wives and mothers and any paid employment is seen as secondary to that role. This economic situation is oppressive to all women; it keeps heterosexual women dependent on men, which leads to their abuse, and it makes life difficult for lesbians, who do not marry men and instead support ourselves.
Not only does this economic structure presume that lesbians either don’t exist or don’t matter, but heterosexuality is often one of the requirements for female workers. Women have often been required to dress in a feminine manner, where the requirements for what ‘feminine’ means are dictated by men. Compulsory dress codes for female workers have often included high heels, skirts, and makeup, all designed to mark us as man’s “other” and to market us as sexually attractive to men. Thanks to the feminist movement, dress codes have been relaxed and many workplaces allow women to wear pants and comfortable shoes and to skip the makeup. Nevertheless, some workplaces still have such dress codes and women often feel obligated to dress ‘feminine’ at work as a part of a professional appearance.
When women are working in low paid service jobs, such as receptionists, secretaries, store clerks, waitresses, and the like, they are expected to behave in a pleasing manner at all times, they are expected to put up with sexual harassment, and flirting with male bosses and customers often results in advantages such as more tips or not getting fired. Sometimes women in higher-up positions are also subject to sexual harassment, and they are often expected to put up with it silently and are discouraged from fighting back. Women in the workplace will often have to behave as if they are heterosexual in order to get by.
Compulsory heterosexuality can be found in the arts. About 99.99999% of all popular songs are about heterosexual love; characters in books and TV shows are nearly always heterosexual, and often when homosexuality is mentioned in popular culture it’s mentioned as the punch line of a joke. The end result of being socialized in our culture is a belief that normal people are heterosexual and that homosexuality is just something weird to joke about. This has been changing in recent years, but even TV shows such as The L Word present a view of lesbians that appeals to the male gaze and does not reflect lesbian reality.
Sexual slavery is an institution of compulsory heterosexuality. There is a global epidemic of female sexual slavery which is more obvious in some places than in others. Groups such as Isis and Boko Haram kidnap women and force them into sexual slavery; these men do not care about the feelings, sexual orientation, or humanity of the women they enslave; for them, anyone with a vagina is seen as a sexual servant for men, both for the sexual pleasure and the babies that she provides to her male captors. Female sexual slavery is present in rich countries too; in the form of prostitution (whether filmed or not), incest, rape, and wife-abuse.
All the above points are made in Adrienne Rich’s essay, and this is all true and expertly explained, with citations from other prominent feminists. These cultural factors all add up to heterosexuality being compulsory for women. Compulsory heterosexuality is real; it’s located in the way girls are socialized to believe that we will all grow up to be heterosexual, the way heterosexual love is romanticized but homosexual love is ridiculed and punished, the way heterosexual relationships are validated by religion and the state, the way heterosexual intercourse is considered the only kind of sex that is ‘real,’ the way lesbians are misrepresented in culture (either as objects of sexual titillation for men or as deviant, grotesque, and predatory) and because, in many countries, it is still illegal to be a lesbian. Attempts by transgenderists to enforce their belief that lesbians should be attracted to men who “feel female” is more compulsory heterosexuality.
Adrienne Rich makes a good point about the ideology of heterosexual romance being taught to girls as a form of grooming to prepare them for compulsory heterosexuality. This grooming is given to all girls; in straight women it can cause them to overemphasize the importance of male approval and relationships with men, leading them to put their own aspirations on hold in order to prioritize getting a husband. It also might make them vulnerable to abuse; because they are so eager for male attention, they are vulnerable to predatory men. In lesbian women it can cause them to doubt their own feelings for women, to push their feelings aside in an attempt to be ‘normal,’ and attempt heterosexuality even though they do not enjoy it.
Rich attempted to draw a parallel between women who refuse sexual slavery and institutions of male dominance with women who are homosexually oriented. This is a mistake. Women of any sexual orientation can refuse male domination and fight patriarchy. The sisterhood felt by women who are fighting for women’s rights is not homosexual in nature.
Rich describes women who are mistreated in sexual relationships with men who care for each other as sisters and provide each other the support they don’t get from men.
“It is the women who make life endurable for each other, give physical affection without causing pain, share, advise, and stick by each other.”
This sisterhood between heterosexual women is positioned as being a part of a ‘lesbian continuum.’
“If we consider the possibility that all women–from the infant suckling her mother’s breast, to the grown woman experiencing orgasmic sensations while suckling her own child, perhaps recalling her mother’s milk-smell in her own; to two women, like Virginia Woolf’s Chloe and Olivia, who share a laboratory; to the woman dying at ninety, touched and handled by women–exist on a lesbian continuum, we can see ourselves as moving in and out of this continuum, whether we identify ourselves as lesbian or not.”
There is no such thing as a ‘lesbian continuum.’ Straight women who support each other are not in any way engaging in lesbianism, because lesbianism is the state of having a homosexual orientation, not the practice of supporting women. A political lesbian is defined as “a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men,” and actually having sexual desire for women is not required. Rich’s ‘lesbian continuum’ theory only fits into the theory of political lesbianism, it is not relevant to female homosexuals.
Those of us who feel romantic and sexual desire for women do not experience friendships or political alliances with straight women as being points on a lesbian continuum. Only romantic and sexual love between women who are attracted to women is lesbianism. Heterosexual women do not experience lesbianism because they do not experience romantic and sexual attraction for women. This theory that presents bonding between straight women as being ‘lesbian’ in nature disappears actual lesbians. It is ironic that in an essay where the author laments the erasure of lesbians from feminist theory, she promotes a feminist theory that erases lesbians.
A critique of the institution of heterosexuality is important for both lesbian and straight women. For lesbians, this critique names the systems that enforce homophobia and that limit or destroy lesbian lives. For straight women, this critique lets them see how they’ve been groomed to put men first, and challenges them to put more emphasis on sisterhood and female friendship. This critique can be made without erasing the reality of sexual orientation.
The idea that heterosexuality is being imposed upon women by men is a misleading way to explain that men have created power structures that oppress women. Heterosexuality is the romantic and sexual attraction that women feel for men, it is not the name of the power structures that oppress us. The power structures of patriarchy such as the institution of marriage, female sexual slavery, and the wage gap, put women in a position of servitude, but any number of these women in a position of servitude might have a true sexual orientation toward males. These women deserve to be liberated from systems of power and so they may experience their attraction to men as men’s equals and form healthy relationships with them. It is not an innate sexual and romantic attraction that is being imposed upon women—one cannot possibly impose a sexual orientation on people—it is the power relations between the sexes that are being imposed.
It’s in our best interest to describe compulsory heterosexuality accurately. There are social institutions that make women dependent on men and influence women to overemphasize the importance of their romantic attachments to men, and these institutions need to be named and dismantled, in order for heterosexual women to able to have healthy romantic relationships. There are social institutions that celebrate heterosexuality while erasing or belittling homosexuality, and that force lesbians into the closet, or cause violence against us, and they need to be named and dismantled, so that lesbians can live our lives as lesbians.
The process of becoming woman-identified, that is, putting women first in our lives and our politics, is a good thing for women of all sexual orientations, but woman-identification is not the same thing as sexual orientation. There are straight women who work tirelessly for women’s rights, but this does not make them homosexual. There are homosexual women who work against women’s rights, and they are not woman-identified.
It is important for feminist theory to accurately reflect the reality of women’s lives. Feminist theory is the way that women make sense of their situation so they can work on changing it. Disappearing sexual orientation is not compatible with good feminist theorizing.
Big Boo Butch makes the same points I once made about misgendering. Butches get called ‘sir’ all the time and they don’t sue anyone or have a fit. And by the way, getting someone’s sex wrong should be called ‘missexing.’ She really tells it like it is, and she had me roaring with laughter because she’s so blunt and direct.