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 not “constructed 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.