So I’m of the radical mind that any woman can be a lesbian. Any woman can leave men, do The Work, and be with women.
Women are born and raised in a patriarchy. One of the key tenets of patriarchy is compulsory heterosexuality. This manifests in a number of ways and varies by place and time but it always means women are taught to fuck men, cater to men, birth males, and see women and femaleness as less, as Other. Compulsory heterosexuality means women are not allowed to be lesbians. Men make sure lesbians are derided and degraded in media, that lesbophobic slurs are commonplace, that lesbians never see themselves represented anywhere, and that women are punished for loving women too much. It’s not subtle. Iterations of lesbians in all media are raped by men or die—or are not lesbians at all because their male creator had them fuck men. Little girls are called dykes for holding their friends’ hands in grade school. Most girls these days are first exposed to lesbians through porn, which is made by and for men. (This first exposure is changing and we do have more positive, strong lesbian women to look up to than we ever had before.)
And that’s just the pressure to NOT be a lesbian. The pressure to fuck men is just as powerful. The two feed off each other, they work in layers, they are employed based on the need at the time. Are women deciding not to marry men? Make it so women can’t afford to live alone. Are women deciding to live with other women? Destroy and demean female friendships. Are women lesbians? Remind them that their bodies belong to men, that they are performing for the male gaze, that men can decide to be them just to get to fuck them.
Girls are raised to hate other girls, and they grow up to hate women. We are rewarded for it. We are always encouraged to tear other women down. And there men are, eternally praised and promoted as the proper (only) choice, the hero, the inevitable result of being a woman. Patriarchy, MEN, derail young women from lesbianism by child sexual assault and rape. CSA grooms women for a lifetime of heterosexual abuse. This can become a cycle that destroys countless women.
My question is, is it any wonder there are not more lesbians?
The Born This Way narrative is politically expedient. “Don’t discriminate against us, we can’t help how we were born.” It appeals to the religious narrative: God made us this way. It makes sense to a lot of women. Many, if not most lesbians knew they were gay from a very young age. Was it before compulsory heterosexuality ‘got’ to them? Not in all cases certainly. But I think that might be part of it. When you are able to know yourself before someone else tells you who you are, you are more likely to fight back, to not believe the lies.
Women who were always lesbians are still submitted to compulsory heterosexuality. Harassment, abuse, heterosexism, corrective rape, are all ways of keeping lesbians in line, to remind them who they are there for: men. Lesbians are the punching bag for patriarchy because they are the furthest removed from men.
Later in life lesbians and political lesbians did not escape compulsory heterosexuality. They frequently had relationships with men before coming out. They bring with them huge amounts of male-identification, internalized misogyny, the poison of lesbophobia and homophobia. It takes huge amounts of self-awareness and self-love to move beyond seeing yourself as an object to be fucked to a subject with genuine emotion and love. (This isn’t to say always-lesbians don’t deal with self-hatred; they absolutely do, and it’s encouraged by patriarchy for all women, especially lesbians, to hate themselves). One thing that always struck me when I was with men was how much I felt like an actor. My words, my movements were not my own. I was presenting a preconceived notion of woman (read: straight woman) for the male gaze. I wasn’t ME—I was what I knew they thought I was. I learned this ideal from movies and porn and real life straight relationships. I had no lesbian role models that weren’t torn apart by men in order to keep me from straying from my ‘path’. When I found radical feminism, suddenly my words were my own. I was speaking with power and assurance. I knew what I was saying was my truth. And contrary to the idea of Born This Way that I’d grown up with, I saw that many radical feminists chose to devote their energy and words and love to women. And frequently, they fell in love with these women. It seems, to me anyway, to be such a natural progression of love. You’re with men, and in quiet and loud ways they hate you. You often hate yourself. You radicalize and find love. You learn to love yourself. You speak with love and love women. Then you Love Women. It is sexual, though not in the patriarchy prescribes sexuality. I think this is the key reasons some lesbians don’t approve of or believe in political lesbianism. Because male sexuality, which informs all female sexuality but most especially the sexuality of women who have sex with men, is toxic, parasitic, violent, and draining. I’ve said before that part of the reason it took me so long to figure out I’m a lesbian was because I didn’t want to do with women what men had done to me. That was my idea of sexuality. It wasn’t something I would inflict on someone I loved. It was something DONE TO me, not mutually shared. Patriarchy and men almost destroyed my ability to love women. And that was ON PURPOSE. And they succeed so frequently.
I believe that most women don’t actually want to be with men, and their “attraction” is nothing more than brainwashing and patriarchal grooming. Why else would patriarchy have to work so hard to keep women with men? If it’s so natural, why not let it progress naturally instead of forcing it upon us and removing all access to agency and choice? Women are tortured by the way they’ve been trained to react to men. I’ve had heartbreaking conversations with women who would do anything to undo what compulsory heterosexuality did to their brains and bodies from before they could speak. But the brain is incredibly resilient and plastic; heterosexuality can be unlearned with the rejection and removal of men.
I think the misconceptions around political lesbianism is a problem with language. As radical feminists, we cannot have the same idea of sexuality as the patriarchy does. We cannot demand that lesbians have sex—that is up to the lesbians. We are not men. We must be honest and real with each other. If you’ve been with men, you know they damage you. Having sex with men and being exposed to male-centric porn and media makes you feel like you can’t have sex with a woman without objectifying her, without hurting her as you’ve been hurt. This takes time to work through, maybe all the time in the world. But a woman who loves women, who only wants to be with women, and who is attracted to women, with whatever baggage she brings, is a lesbian. It’s not political celibacy—that’s called spinsterhood and it’s admirable as fuck but different. It’s not that I’m trying to mince words. I take umbrage with phrasing like ‘lesbians want to fuck women’ and ‘lesbians want to have sex with women’ because they are both so stained by maleness and PIV-centrism. It’s almost certainly because I was stained by maleness that I struggle with the patriarchal lexicon, and that’s my issue and the issue of all women who have been exposed to toxic male sexuality and their control of language.
It’s interesting that when this conversation first started happening in the seventies, it was lesbians telling straight women to ditch men and discover women, and straight women saying they love the cock and the privileges and they’re just fine thanks ever so. It’s changed now, and I do understand why. But the women looking to political lesbianism aren’t het women who’ll go back to men. They are radical feminist women who eschew men and value women, and that’s an important distinction. Every woman can be a lesbian. Not every woman should be. Some women will hurt lesbians and destroy them with their male identification–they should not be lesbians until they do The Work. But no woman is born straight. Women are groomed, and in that process there is real harm.
For me, political lesbianism was a stepping stone. It made me realize that just because I’d been fucked and raped by men didn’t mean that was my entire story. Since I (thought I) was bi, I think the transition was easier because I already had that attraction, as tainted by patriarchy as it felt at times. I stopped being with men and in fact moved toward separatism. Once I was free from those tendrils of men, once their vampiric access to my body and selfhood was revoked, I woke up. Everything changed for me. In some ways political lesbianism is coming to your true sexuality through radical female-centric politics. Loving women IS political. It is personal of course, but the personal is political. We do not exist outside patriarchy, not even separatists. It is simply the realization that you don’t have to be with men and that relationships with women can be mutual, healing, loving, and sexual. It’s the realization that you were lied to, with all the power behind patriarchy, about men, about women, and about yourself.
Sometimes I think we should retire the term altogether, but that might be because I just don’t need it anymore, and that’s incredibly selfish. Regardless of how you come to love women, of how long it takes or what your journey looks like, if you exclusively love women in every female sense of the word ‘love’ then you are a lesbian.