When I came out in the sixties, “coming out” meant reinventing the world. It meant blowing a hole in the constricting walls of homophobia in my personal life, in my culture and in American politics by living out my woman-loving ways each day. It meant clearing a new and shining path in the world with my woman lover for other lesbians and gay people to walk—-to be visible in all our stunning complexity. So much of claiming the word “lesbian” for me was about identifying myself in a public way, in word and deed. Coming out was literally claiming space for my reality in a world that was bent on disappearing me, disappearing my accomplishments and aspirations as well as those of all gay people.
The world I inhabit today with my Scottish lover who is just coming out is very different from the one I encountered when I came out in 1963. Lesbian and gay couples have the legal right to marry in a handful of states and in some countries around the globe. Gay people are visible everywhere in the media, the arts and politics.
At the same time, my lover lives in a town on an island off the mainland of Scotland, light-years away from the more cosmopolitan cultures of San Francisco and Glasgow. As she contemplates her future with a woman lover, she feels certain she will be formally sanctioned by her church elders. Her friends make derogatory and demeaning comments and one is “infuriated.” Infuriated about what? She has been told in no uncertain terms to “Sort yourself out!”
Her friendship circle lives in the 21st century with the rest of us. These women are all educated. They have traveled around Europe and have access to CNN. They are not ignorant…and yet they are intolerant. They feel permission to denigrate and dismiss her deepest feelings because she has fallen in love with a woman.
Of course, the social stigma that my lover is encountering is not limited to the Outer Hebrides but surely exists in communities all over the world. It remains the sad truth that civil rights and social acceptance of lesbians is still a struggle-in-process. We are nowhere near the end of homophobia and woman-hatred as organizing principles for Radical Right fund-raising efforts.
Here in the United States things are different. Lesbian couples have the right to marry in five states. However, within lesbian communities, things are not simple like they were in 1963 when two young women shared their first kiss.
With the advent of queer studies and a more complicated assessment of gender, there is no longer agreement about what the word “woman” means, let alone “lesbian.” Male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals identify themselves as women; some identify themselves as lesbians. In the 70s, Alix Dobkin wrote a song with the lyric: “Any woman can be a lesbian.” Can a man?
What – finally – does it mean to be a lesbian if a woman whose primary sexual relationship is with a man identifies herself as a lesbian? These aren’t glib questions in a world that still tolerates societal ostracism, religious sanction and violence against gay people.
What do I mean when I call myself a lesbian? Maybe that’s the only question that I can discuss with authority at this point since immediately beyond my point of reference a raging argument is taking place, full of righteous anger and intimidation.
My definition of “lesbian” is a spiritual, psychological, sociological, cultural and political construction which is both orienting and clarifying for me, and is grounded in a life experience spanning four decades from the mid-sixties when the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental disorder. It is a name I have claimed by crawling over the glass of my own woman-hatred and internalized homophobia. It is a word that sings to me here in the early 21st century at a time when the word itself and its meaning are being threatened with utter obliteration.
Margie Adam is an integrative counselor committed to creating a safe, empowering, and joyful environment for women exploring recovery, aging and project completion issues in Berkeley, CA. (Phone sessions are available @ 510-517-5013.) She is also a singer-songwriter-pianist and one of the founder-organizers of Women’s Music, a Second Wave feminist cultural initiative fueled by lesbian passion. www.margieadam.com
This article originally appeared in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, Issue 10. www.triviavoices.net