Identity politics is, in part, the act of adopting an identity for the purpose of making a political point. In the case of “political lesbianism,” lesbian is reduced to a social identity that informs others of your political ideology, rather than a factual description of a woman’s private sexual behavior. As with all identities, “political lesbian” demands external recognition in order to exist. If others do not acknowledge or understand you as a “political lesbian,” there cannot be any resulting social influence. “Political lesbian,” then, functions primarily as a social performance.
First, how does one make herself as a “political lesbian” known to others? Is it accomplished by name, deed, appearance, or some combination thereof? Well, if by name alone, then “political lesbianism” is truly nothing more than a label, a performative utterance.[i] I think even self-identified “political lesbians” would agree it requires more. If “political lesbianism” comes into being by sexual deed alone, it may remain entirely confidential. If women have sex but no one knows it, their deed cannot possibly affect the wider political climate. Publication of oneself as a “political lesbian” is necessary for social influence and political relevancy. So deed may be necessary, but it too is insufficient. Ultimately, appearance may be the most effective method of ensuring that one’s announcement of herself as a “political lesbian” is coherently received by her social audience. Yet “political lesbianism” is not a fashion movement and does not prescribe particular garments or colored hankies for visibility.[ii] I have read as many definitions of “political lesbian” as I can find; there is no consensus on what it means.
Secondly, the efficacy of “political lesbianism” as a political action depends on the same rationale as every other form of identity politics: the loyal volunteers are expected to behave in a certain way that supposedly effectuates positive social change. I’ve made jokes about what “political lesbians” think the best sexual positions for fighting patriarchy are, but it’s not entirely funny. We cannot fuck our way to liberation. I learned that from queer theory. In practice, being a lesbian- “political” or otherwise- does not decrease, but actually increases, women’s experiences of discrimination and social denigration. It is arguably sadistic to encourage women to deliberately expose themselves to oppression in order to advance the collective status of other women.
More broadly, a social performance methodology of politics evades confrontation of forces beyond the immediate realm of one’s personal life. Political activism is not a self-help movement; it is the intellectual and material deconstruction of unequal class-based power dynamics that give rise to oppression. As I have explained elsewhere, oppressed people have not created their own oppression with “bad identity choices,” nor are women’s “bad sexuality choices” the cause of our sexual oppression as females.[iii] The ostensibly feminist theory of “political lesbianism,” however, focuses on the personal choices of women privileged enough to exercise control over their own sexual expression. Unfortunately, most women in the world do not have this liberty.
One’s sexuality should never be in service to her politics. If you’re lesbian, that’s just great. If you’re not a lesbian, who cares? Not me. I don’t care who you have sex with or what you call yourself; that’s your business. Market-constructed, phallocentric sexuality can and should be critiqued. Compulsory heterosexuality must be critiqued.[iv] This critique does not grant feminists license to prescribe certain kinds of sexual behavior, identities, or desires as more “feminist” than others.
Patriarchy manipulates women’s sexuality towards men and heteronormativity. “Political lesbianism” does something similar in the reverse. Here’s how: the theory of “political lesbianism” asserts that sexuality is entirely socially constructed. This framing renders women who are not lesbians—in name or deed, it doesn’t matter seem to matter—as being male-identified. Similarly, the statement “any women can be lesbian” posits lesbianism as a state of being that women should aspire to as a form of feminist consciousness. “Political lesbianism” thereby casts lesbianism as aspirational, not neutral or incidental.
The very definition of hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.”[v] It is therefore inevitable that a hierarchy is created when one form of sexual expression is viewed as better, more enlightened, or more politically effective than another. Through the establishment of this hierarchy, pressure to alter ones sexual identity is generated regardless of whether the pressure is intended or not. The positive suggestion of change is inherent to the idea that lesbianism is a (politically) superior or preferred way of being.
Glorifying lesbianism through the lens of feminist politics projects a fantasy onto those women who are “lesbians” regardless of their political views. It abstracts women’s experiences of loving women as if all lesbians were feminists.[vi] This is not fair to the lesbians who bear the burden of the unrealistic expectations of this “political” theory. It is also a demonstrably false assessment of lesbianism in the real world. There are endless examples of lesbians who prioritize men over women, who are abusive to other women, or who do not understand women as oppressed people. I’m not sure that “political lesbians” appreciate the sometimes unpleasant realities of lesbian community, presently and historically. Further, in some areas of the world it is now possible for lesbians to become almost completely assimilated into social norms. As a married lesbian in the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I can’t remember the last time someone bristled at our public displays of affection. No one cares that I am a lesbian. It is clearly not a threat to their heterosexuality or anything else they hold dear.
Leveraging a “lesbian” identity for the purpose of political warfare against patriarchy effectively turns some women’s desire into other women’s attempts at retaliation. The classic feminist text Woman Identified Woman states, “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.”[vii] This definition uses “lesbian” as a message directed at men, an insult. It is the absolute opposite of how I feel about my lesbian partner. Adopting the identity “political lesbian” in reaction to patriarchy is not an expression of love or desire, nor is it even about women. It is fundamentally about men; it uses an identity to “radically” transgress social norms of heterosexuality. We cannot use a social identity to effectuate “liberation” any more than we can gender-fuck ourselves out of patriarchy’s power dynamics. We need to change the system itself, not our individual behavior or identities within this system.
“Political lesbianism” has a long and distinguished feminist history. Some theorists continue to argue that it deserves a place at the “radical feminist” table. But this appeal to tradition does not persuade me. Identity-as-social-performance is not politically effective because it is an individualist approach to a systemic problem. “Political lesbianism” instructs us to view lesbianism from the perspective of an external observer: it is essentially a social I-dentity through which we can and should subvert the dominant paradigm of heterosexuality. Those who support “political lesbianism” as effective feminist political action have allowed identity politics to infect their ideology.
I identify as an anti-political-lesbian lesbian.
[i] See “I Say It, Therefore It Is” regarding performative verbs here: http://rootveg.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/i-say-it-therefore-it-is-so/
[iii] More on identity as politics here: http://liberationcollective.wordpress.com/2013/05/20/socialization-matters-why-identity-libertarianism-is-failed-politics/
[iv] Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Experience, by Adrienne Rich http://www.terry.uga.edu/~dawndba/4500compulsoryhet.htm
[v] Google for “hierarchy.”
[vi] See previous entry “Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded” at http://revolutionarycombustion.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lesbian-and-feminist-are-not-synonyms-expanded/
[vii] Woman Identified Woman by Radicalesbians: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/wlm/womid/