“Political Lesbianism” is Identity Politics

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.

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[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/

[ii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handkerchief_code

[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 https://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/

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.

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

Feminism.

Feminism is not a lifestyle. Feminism is not an I-dentity.

Feminism is not about personal self-assessments of empowerment wherein individual women learn to feel good about themselves–while women as a class are substantially deprived of  intellectual authority and socio-political influence.

Feminism is not about formal equality with men, such that women emulate male behavior and strive for male-defined “success.”

Feminism is not about the infinite inclusion of social causes within our purview.

Feminism is not about fantasies of revolution, mysticism, or the divine feminine.

Feminism is political. Feminism’s subject is the class:women.

Feminist analysis is directed at political structures, institutions, and principles of social organization.

Feminism deconstructs, with ultimate the purpose of destroying, artificial power relations between the sexes.

Feminist action aims to improve the status and lives of women as a class by confronting the social structures that support male supremacy.