Is Political Lesbianism Still Relevant Today?
by Angela C. Wild
(This article was originally published in Rain and Thunder: A Radical Feminist Journal of Discussion & Activism)
In 2012, heterosexual and very pregnant, I was involved in helping to organize a radical feminist conference in London. It was to include a special focus on Lesbian Feminism which I remember thinking at the time was not relevant to me as I was not a Lesbian. I could not have been more wrong. I had no idea Lesbian Feminism applied to me and indeed had the potential to apply to any woman.
At the conference, I listened to Sheila Jeffreys give a talk on Lesbian Feminism. She shared how it was for her in the 1970’s, how she and thousands of women were challenging their sexuality and heterosexual conditioning, leaving it all behind — men, families, communities, sometimes children — to embrace a sexuality they had freely chosen, to place their focus, love, energy onto themselves and their sisters. I listened in absolute revelatory shock! The neurons of my brain worked extra fast to connect the dots, my life fast tracking before my eyes. The power of truth of radical politics hit me then and there. I looked at the room and wondered how many women had the sudden revelation as well? To me, it was crystal clear. I decided in that room that the man I was then involved with would be the last. I declared myself a Lesbian in 2013.
I smile as I write this because the power of that choice, the real true one I have ever made, is still resonating in me. I was indeed very lucky to know quite a few women who also were political Lesbians. Their support, patience, and the discussions we had made it possible for me and I am forever grateful for their friendship and guidance. I am sure most women who challenge their sexual conditioning don’t have such a support in real life and rely solely on social media for it. Unfortunately that support is not always readily available online as I soon found out when I started to work on some political Lesbian visuals to post on social media sites such as Tumblr. The result of my mini campaign was a real eye opener. I knew political Lesbianism was a controversial subject – how could it not be?! Telling women to withdraw themselves from men and love their sisters is not going to receive patriarchal support! Not in the 1970’s and certainly not now!
I was not entirely surprised but unprepared for the backlash a simple image could have. Thousands of Tumblr users calling me an absolute homophobic (insert insult of your choice here) for daring to suggest that sexuality was socially constructed and not innate. What struck me the most was that alot of these verbal attacks were written by women. I was hit once again by the rhetoric that kept me away from Lesbianism to begin with: that one has to be born a Lesbian to be one. This rhetoric is powerful and seen as absolute ”truth” today in most queer LGBTQ circles, in feminist circles even radical ones, as well as in the straight world. This rhetoric is dangerous and problematic because it contributes to keeping women locked up in heterosexuality.
It’s important to know where this ideology comes from. Originally it was the Victorian sexologists who came up with the theory/propaganda that sexual behaviour had to be labelled. That is a man or a woman engaging in sexual activity with a person of their sex is called a “homosexual”. This framed sexual behaviour as an essential part of one’s personality, a trait one is born with. Before that time, there was no need to label sexual behaviour; the behaviour didn’t label the person. But to explain homosexual behaviour, it had to be established that indeed heterosexuality was the norm so that homosexuality could be framed as a biological perversion. The Victorian sexologists are still working tirelessly today to locate the gay gene.
In the 1970’s, many gay men alongside Lesbian feminists were challenging sexism, sex roles and compulsory heterosexuality, refusing the idea that sexuality is innate and recognising this as a patriarchal invention. The gay liberation movement then made the strategic decision to argue the contrary. Taking an essentialist view of sexuality was supposed to gain mainstream/straight sympathies on the grounds that if sexuality is innate then homosexuals have to be accepted for who they are as they cannot help themselves. Lesbian feminists at the time opposed the move on the basis that it didn’t represent their experience; that it was anti- feminist and counterproductive.
The power of the idea that heterosexuality is socially constructed and politically enforced on women through coercion and propaganda is a real threat to patriarchal power and to individual men. This idea says that heterosexuality is learnt and thus can be unlearnt, dismantled, challenged and that sexuality can be freely chosen.
Political Lesbians’ uncompromising anti-essentialist viewpoint threatens men’s sexual access to women and invites women to leave their domestic and sexual servitude to join their sisters in struggle and in love.
There are some women, feminists and Lesbians too, who argue that sexuality is innate, thus aligning themselves with potentially conservative patriarchal ideologies. They also argue that Lesbianism is not a threat to the patriarchal system. Men as part of this patriarchal system know Lesbianism is a threat and indeed act to stop women choosing women. In the late l980’s in the UK, clause 28 was passed forbidding the promotion of homosexuality and pretend families (read Lesbian mothers) in primary and secondary education. This followed a time in the mid l980s when Lesbian feminism had been at its height, challenging compulsory heterosexuality in the mainstream in London local government.
If Lesbianism was not a threat, if there was no such thing as compulsory heterosexuality, then why bother passing this law at all?
Nowadays some would argue that the campaigns and tactics of the gay movement during the late l980s have won. Homosexual couples, now recognised by the law in most western countries, have the right to be treated equally with heterosexual couples and can now get married. This is undisputedly a victory according to some, but only if we forget that the original gay liberation movement as well as the Women’s Liberation Movement were against marriage.
Beyond that, the liberals’ acknowledgment that “some people are gay” and that we should all “get over it” is actually not helping the cause of women worldwide and certainly not of Lesbians either. The liberal population in the UK has now apparently accepted homosexuals and granted them equal rights ON THE BASIS that homosexuality is innate and therefore not a threat. Being Lesbian or gay has successfully been depoliticised and deradicalised: we are now represented as being similar to conventional heterosexual married couples.
In answer to whether political Lesbianism is still relevant today, we must ask has patriarchy gone anywhere? Has compulsory heterosexuality loosened its grip? Have men stopped raping and murdering their female partners making the home of women the most dangerous place on the planet (after the brothel) and heterosexuality one of the deathliest institutions for women?
More than ever in these times of extreme backlash, it is crucial for political Lesbians to be present and visible for women to see an alternative is possible.