Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded

On a previous episode of “lesbian and feminist are not synonyms,” I argued that the term lesbian should not be appropriated by women who reject heterosexual relations on a political basis, rather than a sexual one.

First, let’s review again what a “political lesbian” is. There are various interpretations, but one of the clearest  definitions is given on page 5 of the 1981 Love your Enemy? booklet– which, incidentally, makes an interesting read despite the pdf’s poor quality:

We do think that all feminists can and should be political lesbians. Our definition of a political lesbian is a woman-identified woman who does not fuck men. It does not mean compulsory sexual activity with women.

This would be better described as political celibacy. A feminist does not magically transform into a lesbian merely by forbidding herself to fuck men. Lesbians do not reject relations of heterosexuality for primarily political reasons, but emotive-sexual ones. Lesbianism is not about negative feelings regarding men, but the presence of positive, sexually charged relations between two women. It means eroticism between females; there is absolutely nothing lesbian about a woman who does not desire sexual engagement with other women. Lesbianism and feminist politics may be mutually reinforcing for those of us who are both, but they are different ways of be-ing: one does not necessarily lead to the other and they are in no way dependent on each other. Correlation is not causation.

To say that a woman choosing celibacy for political reasons is very much like a lesbian flattens the meaning of lesbian. It screens the experience of being a lesbian through a sanitizing political filter, reducing it to an analysis of how lesbians are treated by non-lesbians. External political observers of lesbianism see that unpartnered heterosexual women and lesbians– both refusing the domestic protection of men, often living alone or co-habitating with other women– violate the same patriarchal mandate of compulsory female sexual interest in males. Hetero-non-compliant women of all kinds are frequently accused of being lesbians in effort to shame them into more male-pleasing, submissive behavior. A celibate heterosexual woman may therefore believe that she can demonstrate solidarity-by-appropriation with existing lesbians by naming herself as one. Her well-intentioned political goal is to ultimately improve the sovereignty of women-as-a-class by increasing the visibility of, and thereby destigmatizing, women who do not have significant romantic relationships with men. From this point of view, calling oneself a “political lesbian,” as opposed to a spinster or a celibate feminist, might seem perfectly reasonable. Yet this is not the most significant thing about being a lesbian.

To be a lesbian is substantially experienced by lesbians as an internal phenomenon characterized by desire. Lesbians are lesbians because of the erotic and romantic quality of emotion that another woman can inspire in us (even when these feelings prove to be unrequited). It is to crave her company; to be intoxicated with her mere existence. It is a longing for her to be intimately entwined with you and your life because you believe the intimacy you can spin with her will reach a place in you that nothing and no one else can. It’s the aching in your chest when things are unsettled with her; the lightness in your step when things are well. Thoughts of her constantly running in the Background. And it happens between two women– or from one woman towards another– even when everyone else around her is conspiring, often violently, to prevent it from happening. That is to be a lesbian. It is a private, deeply woven, emotional experience. It is not a fundamentally political decision. Lesbians are not lesbians because we are concerned about the social position of women as a class; nor because we love all women equally. We are lesbians because we are viscerally attracted to other individual women; because we crave the immersion in desire and intimacy that we experience with particular women.

This is where I part ways with lesbian feminists such as Sheila Jeffreys. From The Lesbian Heresy:

In lesbian feminist philosophy the theory and practice of lesbianism is constructed through feminism. Thus the feminist understanding that the personal is political means that all aspects of lesbian life will be examined to see how they fit with the feminist project. A fundamental insight of feminism is the importance of holism and connectedness. Everything affects everything else. No one lives in a vacuum and no part of our lives is really quite separate from any other.

I may agree that a “fundamental insight of feminism is the importance of holism and connectedness.” Disassociation and emotional compartmentalization are hallmarks of patriarchy. I may also agree that many brilliant insights have been borne of women’s willingness to focus our attention on the political patterns that imprint themselves on our personal lives. Feminism has given many women the emotional fortitude and intellectual tools to make unflinching, 360 degree assessments of sex-based relations as they play out in all aspects of our personal and professional lives. An analysis of connectedness is both fundamental and necessary to a feminist politic.

At the same time, this political analysis is neither fundamental nor necessary to lesbianism. For many of us, the “theory and practice of lesbianism” is notconstructed through feminism.” Lesbianism is not an invention of feminism. It existed before “feminism” was a political ideology and it will exist in the magical post-feminist utopia as well. Deconstructing, then reimagining that lesbians should conform to feminism’s agenda is politically indefensible. Feminism may not prescribe the meaning of lesbian, define who lesbians are, nor dictate how we should behave as Good Lesbians ™. Lesbians have every right to insist on a semantic distinction between the organic and spontaneous romance of lesbianism and women who, through political deliberation and commitment to political values, consciously strive to devote their primary energies to other women.

Janice Raymond acknowledges this difference in her book A Passion for Friends:

While my Lesbian feminist sensibility wants to affirm any woman’s womanist existence and affection for other women as Lesbian, my philosophical and ethical faculties say otherwise.26 Philosophically, I have the gnawing intuition that this affirmation is logically incorrect, morally shortchanging to women who are Lesbians, and patronizing to women who are not Lesbians. We need to be clear about the meaning of Lesbian as contrasted with Gyn/affection. 

Lesbianism is fundamentally different than other forms of gyn/affection because it specifically invokes erotic attractions and romantic attentions between women.

The word Lesbian, in this work, connotes a knowledge of and will to affirm Lesbian living. Many women do not choose to live Lesbian lives (including some lesbians). They may move in the world of female friendship, and their affinity and struggles for women may be often characterized by intense Gyn/affection. However, to use the word Lesbian in these cases is false inclusion. Women who are Lesbian must have a history of perceiving their Selves as such and must have the will to assume responsibility for Lesbian acts, erotic and political.  

It is critical that lesbians retain the autonomy to define what “lesbian” means. Under no circumstances should other people, including radical feminists, believe they have the authority to name lesbians or to take our name for themselves because they consider it politically expedient. A lesbian may surely be a feminist; but a woman may not, through feminism and platonic gyn/affection alone, rightfully describe herself as a lesbian.

The experience of being a lesbian is fundamentally organic and emotional, not political or rational. Layering a thick blanket of feminist politics over lesbianism dampens the passion inherent to our love and lives. The idea of “political lesbianism” callously disregards the authenticity of spontaneous, unstudied lesbian eroticism. “Political lesbianism” appropriates, through ignorance, the name for women who defy heterosexuality as an unintended consequence of their deeply felt desire for particular individuals– desire that exists irrespective of men and patriarchal disgust.  Feminism is politics; lesbianism is sexual attraction to women. Please do not be confused.


Special thanks to No Anodyne for helping me develop my thoughts on this over many, many discussions.

22 thoughts on “Lesbian and feminist are not synonyms, expanded

  1. I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘political lesbian’, mainly for the reasons you have outlined, but it was an expression of its time. That time is gone now. The easy peasy solution is to say “separatist”. Doesn’t tread on anyone’s toes. Or “spinster”.

    I’m not fond of the compulsory naming of sexuality either, like someone has to define themselves as lesbian, or het, or bi, or asexual, or celibate, etc etc. Separatist is plenty accurate. Does not have to be defined on the sexual attraction continuum. Job done.

  2. And I didn’t even TOUCH lifestylism (yet). This is just one argument against PL. And yes, I agree that trying to define one’s sexuality so very strictly is a losing battle/waste of time. For most people, it’s much more complicated that the hetero framework provides for. But we know why that binary framing of sexuality is hegemonic: Patriarchy.

  3. During the early 70’s, I experienced two diametrically opposite uses of the phrase “political lesbian”. One was the use that you discuss.

    The other was to describe, or to refer to, dykes & lesbians who were political about their lesbianism, in the sense of: “what the hell is happening to LESBIAN SPACE? how can we defend it? how can we stop the erosion of the meaning of the word lesbian?”

    Mostly we referred to ourselves as “political dykes”, we hung with each other, we were all lesbians.

    Bess, what you explain so carefully and exactly, is also so lyrical. This is analytical poetry, the expression and statement of lesbian desire.

    To squirrel, I will insist: a non-heterosexual woman may be a separatist, but NO heterosexual, bisexual, or lesbophobic female may be a separatist.

    The word separatist means something. No one gets to jump in and redefine it for us. There are lots of playgrounds. Separatism isn’t one of them. “Feminist separatism” which is lesbophobic is NOT separatist.

    A female-only space is not, by that virtue alone, separatist.

  4. Reblogged this on GenderTrender and commented:
    “It is to crave her company; to be intoxicated with her mere existence. It is a longing for her to be intimately entwined with you and your life because you believe the intimacy you can spin with her will reach a place in you that nothing and no one else can. It’s the aching in your chest when things are unsettled with her; the lightness in your step when things are well. Thoughts of her constantly running in the Background. And it happens between two women– or from one woman towards another– even when everyone else around her is conspiring, often violently, to prevent it from happening. That is to be a lesbian. ”
    Fantastic. Must Read.

  5. Thanks for this *huggles*. I always thought the old ‘political lesbian’ framing was a mistake right from the first time I ever heard it, no matter how well-intentioned, it resulted in so much pain and division, especially in erasing a large chunk of lesbian (and hence female) history and existence in one fell swoop. Like it didn’t matter. Many feminists were lesbians long before they discovered feminism — do they stop being a ‘lesbian’ to change and become a ‘political’ one, just because they have also adopted feminism in their political views? Does adding the “political” prefix – convey some form of credibility or social legitimacy on the lesbian aspect? Does that mean being just a plain old lesbian is still a dirty word unless its socially cleansed by having a prefix attached as “political”?

    Some lesbians never become feminists. Some lesbians remain emotionally invested in men/patriarchy in non-sexual relationships. Some lesbians maintain personal separatism, not just from men, but from all other non-lesbian women as well. As you say, ‘lesbianism’ predates ‘feminism’ by millennia and claiming that 20th century feminism somehow “invented” it, is just not true. Feminism may have helped socially in helping lesbians ‘come out’, helping women find space in their lives to explore the possibilities or make sense of confused feelings they may have long held in their attraction to other women, but framing ‘political lesbian’ as a social construction, is straight out co-optation, appropriation and a denial of the existence of lesbians and lesbianism in all its diversity through all its history.

  6. I’m glad you’ve written about this, as I have always had a hard time understanding political lesbianism. I can see why choosing not to live with men, and then opting to live with a woman can threaten the patriarchal structures, but that is nothing to do with sexuality.

    For example, I’ve been thinking about how I knew I was heterosexual, and it’s *not* just because I was pushed into it. It was because of the physical response I had when around boys at the age of 14 upwards. I put two and two together… But I also realise, now, that it’s highly possible that I’ve had that same sexual response whilst being around women *but not even realised it because I wasn’t looking for it.* And I know for sure that the biggest heartbreak of my life was when my best friend and I had a huge falling out at the age of 17. I’m 31 and I’ve never gotten over it.

    I do think sexuality is fluid however. There are many women who become lesbians naturally later in life, and not just because they’ve had it with men, but because they begin to understand themselves and their sexuality better.

  7. HELL to the YES, Rain! All of that. Thank you. Awesome words. ❤

    I am *very* pleasantly surprised by these supportive comments. 🙂 Disagreeing with the venerable Sheila Jeffreys is never fun. But PL seems to be an increasingly hot topic among radical feminists and there is little in the way of CRITIQUE available for those who sense the problems inherent to the concept. I actually wrote this several weeks ago, but I don't need the f-ing blogger backlash, so it never saw the light of day until I engaged in a particular discussion (with Ruby Fruit) on FB yesterday.

    I have identified 3 additional very important arguments (VIA) that need to be explored: lifestylism as "politics;" breaking lesbian hearts in selfish exploration of one's own sexuality; and the irony of pressuring women to change their sexual preferences in the context of compulsory heterosexuality.

  8. And about innate sexuality, which Cherry touches on: a theory of political lesbianism (that all women can/should become practicing lesbians by sheer will) necessitates a strictly *constructionist* view of sexuality.
    HOWEVER. Hold it right there!
    The opposite is NOT true: opposing that same theory of political lesbianism does NOT require one to believe that sexuality is set-from-birth and unchanging. It simply requires us to acknowledge that certain aspects of our sexuality are not *necessarily* voluntary. We’ve all been attracted to people we can’t have, yes? It happens!! There is a certain spontaneity or serendipity, if you will, to sexual attraction. Sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it starts, then stops. Sometimes it grows in unexpected places, where it was previously dormant or seemingly absent. But in every case, you shouldn’t force it. Ever. <<*That* is the POINT!

    And on that note, don't do me any FAVORS, ladies. Either you're into me or you're not. Don't treat me like a political charity case or your guinea pig, k? Much appreciated. Love, Hungerford

  9. Thanks very much for this. I have called myself a “political lesbian” to make the point that while I am heterosexual, I’m celibate and woman-centered and celebrate lesbians as political leaders and friends, but this article convinces me to find a new way to say all that.

  10. Thank you for this piece – I too agree with your assessment, and I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts/concerns about the concept of political lesbianism.

  11. I am sincerely surprised by the positive comments this post is getting. Seriously.

    Now, if I haven’t mentioned it lately, my wife is brilliant. She pointed out that calling oneself a lesbian for political reasons (rather than erotic/romantic ones) also takes the focus *off* of men. It makes it easier for men to avoid and deny the reasons why a woman might be choosing NOT to engage in romantic or sexual relationships with any men at all EVEN IF the woman is NOT simultaneously attracted to other women. From this perspective, adopting a PL identity for public purposes is potentially counter productive.

  12. If I may, I would also like to expand a little more on Cherry’s point about lesbians who come out later in life. While I think that sometimes it is due to better self-understanding, or experiencing an attraction not previously felt, I have known a lot of women who didn’t come out as lesbians until they were in their 30s or 40s but who had known they were lesbians from a young age. As in, in their teens and 20s they had consciously experienced and sometimes acted on sexual/romantic feelings for women but had nevertheless still been more or less forcibly socialised into heterosexuality.

    For some of those women, the social conditioning becomes less effective over time, usually because of the development of greater independence and self-confidence/self-esteem, to the point where some are able to (re)claim their original lesbian selves.

    I think this is also partly because the pressure to be and remain heterosexual tends to ease off a little once women are past the age where they are deemed ‘fuckable’ and reproductively viable – they’ve done their heterosexual duty, so to speak, and it doesn’t matter so much if they become or return to being lesbians. It’s more important to focus on making sure that the next generation of young women are likewise sexually and reproductively available to men.

    All of which is compulsory heterosexuality in action, of course. And if it wasn’t for compulsory heterosexuality, then I think we would see more women who would act on and explore lesbian feelings/desires/emotions that, under the current model, are often destroyed or erased even before they get to the point of being recognisable as feelings/desires/emotions.

    But I don’t think it therefore follows that every woman and feminist can or must or should be somehow obliged to make herself a lesbian.

  13. I’m so glad for your posts on political lesbians – thank you!! And I’m enjoying the comments on here as well, especially Rainsinger’s.

    Others have touched on this, but I particularly dislike the current wave of “political lesbianism” because it seems to be coming from women of relative privilege (Cynthia Nixon, Carolyn Gage…etc) who fancy themselves better, smarter, and more politically savvy than us dykes who just want to be plain ole “lesbians”. As if we’re not political enough just being lesbians and feminists, unless we also agree that we “made a choice” to be lesbians, like they so valiantly and courageously did, and take the *extra* *super* *cool* label “political” and tack it on to “lesbian”. WTF? Why is that label even necessary when we already have the words to describe ourselves?

    All the recent posts written by political lesbians inevitably shame “born that way” dykes and put themselves in a separate category, above the rest of the “ignorant” golf dykes and Olivia Cruisers with the rainbow flags. This creates MORE divisions in the lesbian community, not less, because it makes being a feminist (or “political lesbian”) an exclusionary thing. As if those dykes, even those of us who were “born that way”, didn’t also “make a choice” to be out, to love women, to become orphaned, to be cut off from family and friends who don’t agree with our choice; to be beaten, harassed, murdered; to choose to live a life of eternal struggle for self-love and acceptance within society. Political lesbianism erases the majority of plain ole Lesbians’ struggles in putting itself on a pedestal above the rest.

    Political Lesbianism is not sisterhood. It is not women-centered feminism. It is selfish, illogical, Identity Politics and Lifestylism, like Bess said. It is no different than mainstream liberal feminism. Which, as we know, has only taken us backwards from our goals.

    Being a Lesbian is NOT an identity. Being a “political” Lesbian is NOT activism. Being a “political” Lesbian will NOT dismantle patriarchy.

  14. I feel no pressure to be heterosexual. I am. I just refuse it. It’s very hard. But true, there is societal pressure not to be Lesbian. Even well past any sexual interests, I am drawn to, respond to, ‘rise’ to males. I have never understood what political Lesbian meant. It seems to cheapen *Lesbian*.

    I do not understand your meaning here Mary: “Feminist separatism” which is lesbophobic is NOT separatist.” Huh?

    Thanks Bess.

  15. It seems to me from what I’ve read here that there’s a certain atmosphere in the U.S right now whereby the term “Political Lesbian” evokes the notion of identity politics and of riding roughshod over women who are “born that way lesbians” because they haven’t earned their stripes by “choosing” lesbiansim, while at the same time sneering at het women because they’re deemed as not being committed enough to feminism to “convert”.

    So I do think it’s important to acknowledge that the atmosphere might have been very different in the seventies when Sheila Jeffreys went down this route. From what I have heard the main motivation was to restructure society. Apparently women from all walks of life had signs saying “Don’t assume I’m heterosexual” stuck on their fridges. Their motivations were good. After all it was the women of the seventies who moved mountains and society changed a great deal because of their capacity for organizing.

    The problem is it didn’t leave room for spontaneity, and there’s no room in the ideology of political lesbianism for the fact that sexual attraction occurs when you least expect it (as you point out).

    So perhaps the fact that we all here have reached this same conclusion today in 2012 is a sign of how far women have come. Back then, perhaps the situation was more desperate, but we’re now able to take stock, take a breather and think, no, that part does not quite fit and doesn’t really work.

  16. I hope you’re right Cherry. Yes, PL motivations seem to be benevolent, but the road to hell is paved…and that’s no excuse. Just because you don’t intend to cause harm doesn’t mean that it is impossible to do so. PL is very clearly identity politics and lifestylism: two things I DESPISE.

    Women need to DO THE INTELLECTUAL WORK to analyze the ideas that we are putting forward as “radical feminism.” Just because PL is supported by someone like Jeffreys or Bindel doesn’t give us (or it) a free pass on critique. Frankly, challenging traditional wisdom is what I came to do– doesn’t matter who you are or how many books you’ve written. Now, I’ve heard some protest about the historical context in which PL was developed as being *significantly* different than today’s social climate. Ok. I’m sympathetic to that distinction, but I’m also not convinced that PL could be effective as a political strategy under ANY circumstances. Sure, things were different back then. But it didn’t work in the 70’s and it isn’t going to work in the new millennium, either. So I don’t find the contextual distinction particularly useful except in the sense that it may allow me to understand why some women are *emotionally attached* to the PL concept and have immense difficulty being rational about it. I am urging feminists to LET IT GO, please. We need to do BETTER than this.

  17. Catherine Orian has blogged in response to this post here.

    Unfortunately, blogspot does not allow HTML and my comment apparently exceeds the limit of 4,096 characters. So I’m posting it here instead.
    Hi Catherine, thanks for reading and responding to my work. I always appreciate mature discourse.

    I agree with you that ACTING on lesbian desire is a choice, and that being PUBLIC about it (i.e., being OUT) is unavoidably political–but this is only because of the lesbian-hating context in which we live. Many lesbians have no interest in politics whatsoever; they act on their deeply felt lesbian desire DESPITE the oppressive context, not BECAUSE of it. <<That is the difference. Assuming or asserting that lesbians SHOULD care about women as a class (because feminism does) is paternalistic and confuses the two concepts.

    Now, you say:

    I do not see the distinction Hungerford and Raymond make between gyn/affection and lesbianism as a useful one because I suspect it to be a socially constructed distinction – the only reason (most, all?) women do not fall in love with their female friends is that they are conditioned not to.

    First, this ignores the fact that women DO fall in love with their females friends (or acquaintances), again, DESPITE the heterosexual conditioning. How do you account for this? If the conditioning were strong enough to keep lesbians from being lesbians, there would be NO LESBIANS. Such reasoning doesn’t make sense to me.

    Further, lesbians have best friends! We have close, intimate, loving, sometimes lifelong, relationships with our female friends. If your assertion– that there is no useful distinction between gyn/affection and lesbianism– is true, then this is true for lesbians too. You are directly implying that lesbians cannot tell the difference between friendship and the visceral, overwhelming ache of romantic desire. I find that somewhat insulting. I trust that this is not your intent, but it presumes knowledge about lesbian experience that is not reflective of our emotional realities. Many lesbians do not even want to BE lesbians; they desperately deny their desire. I suppose that if you have never felt this difference, you might dismiss it as inconsequential. But for those of us who know the difference between female friendship and lesbian love, it is absolutely real.

    Additionally, I have made no such distinction about the length of time that someone has felt lesbian desire:

    My main issue with Elizabeth Hungerford’s post is, I think, that she makes too strong a distinction between lesbians who have always felt themselves to be attracted to women and women who become lesbians later in life due to a conscious decision based on political understanding…

    I believe that a woman could fall in lesbian love for the first time in her 80’s. Or 90’s. Anytime! It is not about the length of time one has felt lesbian desire, nor about how many women she has felt it for. The distinction I make is about whether one purposefully seeks out romantic relations with women as an extension of her concern for ALL women as a CLASS of persons (feminist politics), versus those women who spontaneously FALL IN LOVE with particular female individuals who *rock their world.* Lesbians do not work to feel what they feel; they do not do it in order to live more consistently with an adopted political ideology. So yes, I am saying that “the latter don’t love women in the same way as the former” but it is not because of the length of time. It is because of the political intent that informs feminist-motivated lesbianism versus apolitical and unstudied erotic desire for individual females.

    And finally,
    I think that sexual attraction as the central part of overall attraction between individuals (lesbians or otherwise) is overrated. Surely the emphasis on sexual attraction as the major part of attraction in general is a patriarchal construct?

    I very deliberately avoided focusing on sexual behavior because I do not believe that the mere act of having sex with women is the defining characteristic of lesbianism. Just as a lesbian may have sex with a man but still be a lesbian (happens all the time), a woman may have sex with other women without being a lesbian (also happens all the time). The essence of lesbianism is organic desire: romantic and erotic, just like I said.

  18. Thanks for responding to my post, Elizabeth – I really appreciate the clarification on some of my/your points. I don’t have time to respond properly now, but I will come back later.

  19. Pingback: Political lesbianism, or otherwise « some of this must be true

  20. Pingback: Lesbian Is Political Whether It Is Or Not (or Any Woman Can Be A Lesbian) | ann tagonist

  21. Pingback: “Political Lesbianism” is Identity Politics | Revolutionary Combustion

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