Beyond Lesbian

First appeared January 8-15, 1996, in The New Republic.

"CRATE AND BARREL," I said, "That sounds like a lesbian store, doesn't it."

"Sounds like what a lesbian would wear," said Susan.

Susan and I are best friends, and both lesbians. We joke this way often. We are incessant watchers, curious about other lesbians, and whether we can literally tease them out of the crowd. But aside from the teasing, there is much serious conversation between us about what it means to be a lesbian, and what the external cues are telling us it is supposed to mean.

So, what does it mean to be a lesbian in 1995? We're calling it "The Gay Nineties." We're given symbols: rainbow flag, pink triangle, pink ribbon. We're given behavioral cues: "Pride" and "Act Up." Dogma is irresistible, it seems, and most real thinking is replaced by the rote slogans of a causeÑ"The Lesbian Avengers. We Recruit." Hence the jokes, a kind of bitter relief from orthodoxy.

But, for me, there is an urgent question under the jokes, a question the so-called "lesbian community" does not ask. Who am I?

If the straight world (and even the gay male world) has defined lesbians falsely, even maliciously, then lesbians have, to some degree, acquiesced, by forgetting the I and playing themselves into stereotypes. Lesbians have labels for everyone, it seems: bull dyke, granola dyke, baby dyke, power dyke, butch, soft butch, femme, lipstick lesbian. It goes on and on, and these are the same labels that make it easy for straight people, and gay men, to misrepresent lesbians. If we want the truth about lesbians, labels will not lead us to it, or at least not to an answer that will make any human difference. We, as lesbians, have amassed names, symbols, and behaviors, and they are designed to tell us and the rest of the world who we are. But this is not an answer.

If the question is, "What does it mean to be a lesbian?" then the answer is semantic, and the same for everyoneÑa primary sexual and emotional attraction to women. Sounds laughably clinical, doesn't it! You knew the answer when you looked it up in the dictionary at age eight. Reductive as it sounds, it is the only answer that will give lesbians the equality they demand.

Only the simplicity of what the word "lesbian" means can make being a lesbian a neutral fact of life to which all other traits, lifestyles, professions, proclivities are incidental and beside the point. Only this literal definition will make the word "lesbian" a nonissue in public life, because being an I first frustrates persecution by threading lesbianism so completely through the fabric of "the norm" that it cannot be separated from it. Being a lesbian first, however, sets you apart by your own definition, making you vulnerable as an other. The "lesbian community" defines itself by one quality, and thereby argues against its own claims for living a "normal" life. By their own design, many lesbians are living a lesbian life instead.

Perhaps such policies are inevitable. Heterosexual Americans increasingly recognize that marrying someone of the opposite sex is not a serious option if one happens to be gay. They also increasingly realize that helping homosexuals settle down into stable, committed relationships is better than pushing them into bushes and bathhouses. So the public is eager to bless stable gay relationshipsÑso long as those relationships are not called "marriage."

The straight world has taken lesbians, a numerical minority, and made them, by false argument, a moral, social, and political minority; and in retreating to the entrenched haven of groupthink, the "lesbian community" has colluded in this sophistry. But if I am an individual, if "lesbian" is reduced to what it is, one among many words that describe me, it ceases to so effectively define and marginalize me.

No doubt, my critics will label this a "back to the closet" argumentÑi.e., if you want straight rights, then act straightÑbut heterocloning is not my answer to the problems lesbians face, individualism is. Lesbianism may never be as innocuous as left-handedness, but angry ghettoization will merely aggravate prejudice.

Defining oneself beyond lesbianism, however, is anathema to the group. Behaviors not sanctioned by lesbian codes of conduct are suspect in the "lesbian community," because they smack of conformity to straight life, and so called patriarchal (an absurdly over-used word) notions of womanhood. Lesbianism, for many, has become a lifestyle, complete with its own vocabulary, food, clothing, politics, medicine, and psychology. Dissent is no laughing matter. The cause is paramount, goodspeak the lingua franca.

Nearly a year ago, a woman bought me a beer in a lesbian bar, and taught me quickly this cool lesson of conformity. After setting the beer in front of me, she seemed suddenly distraught. She asked me if my jacket was made of leather. I said it wasn't. She then looked down at my shoes and asked if they were made of leather. I said they were. She asked me about my belt, and I agreed. It was also leather. She then took back my beer, saying that she couldn't buy a beer for someone who was wearing animal hide. She then pinned to my shirt a button bearing a save-the-animals slogan whose precise wording I've forgotten. She then approached the woman next to me and gave her the beer instead. (The satisfying coda to the story is that the woman next to me returned the beer, saying that she couldn't accept it in good conscience, since her parents were furriers.)

I had failed the lesbian test, and approval was rescinded, because in the "lesbian community," political loyalty is a badge of courage and a mandate for inclusion. The veterans of everything from butch/femme in the 1950s to radical feminism in the 1970s are its esteemed matriarchs, older, seasoned women, disrespectful of the young and uninitiated. While in the gay male culture, youth and beauty are apotheosized (granted, to an extreme), in the "lesbian community" they are often resented and denigrated. How many times have these "older" women said to me, "Yeah, well God knows where you were in the seventies," or leaked into the conversation a degrading reference to youth and its assumed concomitants, social and political ignorance!

Recently, I attended a fundraising event for a lesbian foundation. They were giving a staged reading of a new lesbian screenplay. The story, touted as a lesbian Big Chill, took place at a house in the Berkshires where a group of old friends were gathering to celebrate the birth of a child to one of the couples. The script was filled with lesbian cliches. Half the women had been lovers with each other at some time or another and were still working through old resentments. Most of them were political refugees of the 1970s. Several of them were either alcoholics or proselytizing twelve-steppers. In one scene they sat around the porch with a guitar, singing Holly Near songs and recounting their coming out stories.

The comic centerpiece was a twenty-three-year-old corporate bimbo type in a glen plaid suit with miniskirt and high heels, page-boy hair, and Estee Lauder face. She was the much younger lover of one of the reunionees, and many other things she wasn't supposed to be: well groomed, attractive, and straight-seeming in voice and demeanor. She was also many of the things the writer believed must naturally follow from all the above: vapid, spoiled, rich, uninformed, rootless, and complacent.

Many of the story's biggest jokes were at this character's expense, the most pointed being the one in which she takes her turn in the Holly Nearfest and tells her coming out story. The rest of the coming out stories, as you might expect, were bathetic and trite. In contrast, the ditz character simply giggles ungratefully and says, "I don't know. I just came out"Ñthereby indicating that coming out these days is an unpremeditated nonevent, thanks to the old war-horses for whom it was, no doubt, an art form.

Recently, many poorly made lesbian films have embarrassed me, but this script was conspicuous because it embodied so much of what is wrong with the "lesbian community." The bimbo character was a caricature of lesbian youth as seen through the eyes of the ossified gerontocracy. The writer's message was clear: Don't be young, don't accept beauty, don't trespass, don't be yourself; instead, be disgruntled and carping, self-deprecating in your dress and demeanor, avoid anything that passes for accomplishment or assimilation in the mainstream, be a real lesbian and sing along.

As a young lesbian, my answer is this: be original, and write something that is a profound, intelligent depiction of the human spirit in a lesbian milieu (à la Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues), or if you prefer comedy, at least produce something that is clever enough not to become a parody of itself.

If lesbians truly want equal rights and equal treatment, they should step into the real world, make a case for their humanity first, and, above all, learn to take a joke.

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