I want to share some impressions of the “Lesbians in the ’70s conference” which took place October 8-10 at the CUNY Graduate Center. The conference took place over two almost unbearably intense days. The joint was packed, and not only with lesbians from the ’70s; lots of young, or younger, women were there to learn about or share research they’d done on lesbian lives in those years.
One of the highlights of the conference was Friday night’s poetry reading where Elizabeth Lorde Rollins, Audre Lorde’s daughter, read her mother’s “A Litany for Survival” with a voice and delivery so identical to Audre’s that the women sitting beside me said claimed she was being channeled into the auditorium.
If there was a divisive issue at this conference, at least from my perspective, it was the question of gender identity. After all, the question that hovered over the weekend—who are we as lesbians, now, in the 21st century?—could not be answered without addressing, among other things, the ways in which our changing understandings of gender have unsettled the whole category of “lesbian.”
During the workshops, women spoke, with open hearts, about not wanting to identify as “lesbian” because they did not want to feel they were excluding their trans brothers and sisters—some saying that for this reason they prefer to call themselves “queer.” These seemed to be primarily young women, but I heard an almost identical statement in another workshop from a one-time radical lesbian filmmaker in her sixties. There was an undeniable clash of perspectives at the conference between those of us—mostly, but not only, lesbians who came out in the ’70s and ’80s—who were disturbed by the collapsing of lesbians into the LBGT movement, along with an apparently accelerating drift towards “queer” or “boi” identification, and the mostly younger voices lobbying for inclusiveness.
I heard the word “inclusive” a lot at the conference. “Inclusiveness” has a really good sound to it. It evokes open arms, embraces. Not wanting to include, or be included, makes one seem narrow, churlish, mean even. Yet inclusiveness generally comes with a price, and too often that price is loss of vision. In the case of lesbians disappearing into the LBGT movement, that price, from what I can see, has been the loss of feminist vision. And it was feminist analysis that allowed us to cut through such an incredible amount of crap in the ’70s. Consider this: in one year, 1978, we saw in the U.S. alone the publication of Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common language, Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: a Metaethics of Radical Feminism, and Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature. Yes we had an analysis of heterosexism and of gender oppression, but alongside that we had a highly developed, extremely wide-ranging critique of “white male supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (to use bell hooks’ phrase) which reckoned with its profound spiritual implications as well as its effects on the non-human world. And we did not stop with critique; we were all about generating new models—for power, for eroticism, for love, for “be-ing” itself. Our analyses may have been flawed and partial, our visions may have been often unrealizable, but I don’t think anyone can claim that a comparable body of theory has been generated by the trans, bi and gay movements combined.
One young woman who’d had her hand up at the end of our break-out session approached me to say that she identified as a radical lesbian and was completely mystified by her lesbian peers, their queer identification, the transitioning. She said she thought the difference between her and them was that they had all learned feminism in women’s studies or gender studies programs, all of which, she said, “have been co-opted by the gay/bi/trans movement.” She, on the other hand, as she put it, “went directly to the writers of the second wave, where it’s all clear as day.” What she’d wanted to say to other dykes in her generation, she said, was “Go do your homework. Read second-wave feminist theory.”
I had an “ah-ha” moment not long after that. No wonder!! No wonder lesbian-identification is so tenuous among young people today. In the almost total absence of the remarkably rich, vibrant global lesbian-feminist culture we created in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the word “lesbian” has shrunk to an almost exclusively sexual identity. Coming out at that time meant stepping into a world. Now that that world has largely vanished, how can the word mean what it meant to us? Maybe—this was an entirely new thought for me—maybe it’s time we older lesbians stop insisting that it should. As long as the historical record of who we were and of all that we built is preserved—and judging from this conference, there seems to be no danger of it being forgotten—why shouldn’t lesbians call themselves “queer,” or anything else they damn well please?
But back to the question of gender identity. It needs to be said that there is a resistance on the part of some lesbians to acknowledging what psychology and transgendered people have been telling us for some time now: that women-identified women (some of them lesbian-feminists!) are indeed born in male bodies, and vice versa, and that for these individuals, transitioning is the only way to begin to feel whole and sane—and is very often a matter of life and death. There is no excuse for our continued ignorance about this, and for our not embracing transgendered peoples’ struggle for civil rights and non-discrimination in the same way as we have that of every other stigmatized and marginalized group since the ’70s. To lesbians who persist in calling mtf transexuals “men” I say: go do your homework!
Having said that, I also believe we need to be allowed to ask questions like the following without being called transphobic:
1) Is it possible that woman-hatred is a factor in the current trend of butches becoming bois or transmen?
2) Are sex-change operations being used by some as a medical escape route from the pain of being a woman and thus a victim?
3) Might there be valid reasons for wanting to exclude transgendered people from biological-women’s space?
Two out of the four speakers in Saturday’s plenary spoke critically of the women-born women policies of the Michigan women’s music festival, as if it were somehow regressive to still be insisting that such spaces are necessary. But if, as Vaid pointed out in her talk, citing statistics from Faludi’s recent essay in Harper’s, male domination and male violence are as rampant as ever in the U.S., then can’t an argument be made for the importance of gathering in a space where no penises are allowed?
This is an edited version of a longer article from Trivia, Voices of Feminism. To read the full version, go to http://www.triviavoices.net/current/index.html.
Lise Weil teaches in Goddard College’s Individualized MA program and lives in Montreal, Quebec, where she is completing a memoir, In Search of Pure Lust. Beyond Recall, a collection of the last writings of local painter and writer Mary Meigs, which she compiled and edited, was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award in biography in 2006.