There’s been a lot of discussion this week in my little world of lesfic-land about identity.  Folks have dragged out tired old tropes about who’s a real lesbian and have defended the concept of “womyn born womyn,” an anti-transgender relic of the past now masquerading as a gender identity.  Some have lashed out, some have been hurt and other ones of us have rushed in to raise the flag of inclusion.  As the week winds down, I have to ask: do we really need to use our identities as a kind of cudgel with which to beat others into silence and segregation?

I’m 58 years old. I came out 1974.  After college, I threw myself head first into what was then the thriving lesbian feminist culture of Boston.  I proudly sang the Alix Dobkin anthem, “Lesbian, lesbian, every woman can be a lesbian,” more likely believing then that every woman should be a lesbian.  I read the early second wave feminist tracts that asserted that “feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice.”  I flirted with separatism and the rejection of “male energy” though I never turned my back on my father and I worked in the movement with a number of gay men.  I defended woman-only space, a concept I haven’t completely rejected but am willing to re-examine.  I attended the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival once, in the early 1980s, and the New England Women’s Music Retreat twice.  I liked the ability to walk around at night in complete safety but I never liked the food and I hated camping, so my festival days were few.  I was much more at home in Boston attending large women’s music concerts and historic events like the Varied Voices of Black Women and the well-attended reading of the classic anthology, Nice Jewish Girls.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but, it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.  Those of us who were out political lesbian feminists back then were relatively few in number, and we were despised and dismissed by the larger society.  So we created our own bubble of a world and we enforced sets of rules, codes and expectations upon one another.  We thought we were doing this in service of The Revolution.  We thought we were doing this so we could build a women’s utopia.  We thought we were an army of lovers that could not fail.  But what we were doing was deeply flawed.

 I could go on and on critiquing that time, but it’s easier to just compare it with today, the era that I and others find ourselves in now. 

  • I still dress in jeans and t-shirts like I did then, but I no longer expect everyone else to. I respect the fact that other lesbians like dresses, make-up and heels.  Oh heck, I don’t just respect it, I adore it.…but that’s another story. 
  • I have learned to use the word “queer.” I won’t lie, it didn’t come naturally at first.   But I got there and I’ve found that it is a useful umbrella term to speak inclusively about all kinds of people.  Just this week I came across and posted to Facebook an article from TheAtlantic.com called “The Quiet Crisis Among Queer Women,” which shared some disturbing data about health disparities and other issues.  I believe the use of the term “queer women” instead of “lesbians” was deliberate and was meant to include women of various sexual orientations and gender identities as well as transgender women.  That made sense to me. 
  • I don’t just focus on my sexual orientation anymore, I also think about my gender identity. I’m female, true, but I’m also butch-identified, which means I need more space in which to express who I am in terms of clothing, hair style, etc.  And I can’t help but note that the space I have to do so is largely due to the work of my transgender and gender non-conforming brothers and sisters who have been on the frontlines pushing back against the gender binary.  In fact, I’m always a bit stumped at the complaint of many lesbians that “all the butches are becoming men.”  No one knows that for sure, first of all.  And what’s more important is that lesbians and trans folks benefit so much more from being in alliance than we do from enforcing lines of separation.  I am reminded of this each time I put on a tie.
  • I have finally unlearned a whole lot of what I thought I knew about bisexuality. I have my wife, Jennifer, to thank for this.  She is way more evolved than I am and I’ve learned to check myself when I say something and she rolls her eyes at me.  I don’t know why this one took me so long.  I’ve always believed in the zero to six continuum of the famous Kinsey Scale of sexual orientation, and further, I’ve believed that people can shift around on that scale at different times in their lives.   But I grew up at a time when a woman who’d been a lesbian and then became involved with a man was assumed to be doing so to take advantage of “heterosexual privilege” and not because she was open to intimate relationships with people of any gender.  But now, as the wider society has become more accepting, we can no longer lean on the explanation of “privilege” and must accept that bisexuality is real and not a way station to either being gay or being straight. I now recognize that biphobia is not just a real evil, but one that needs to be actively opposed by allies like me so that everyone has room to live, to breathe and to be their authentic selves.

I guess that’s the point in this whole messy situation:  authenticity.   People need to have the room to be themselves, without shame, without feeling like they have to hide because they’re bisexual and they write books about lesbians, and without fear that if they are discovered no one will like them or buy their books.  We’ve got to be better than that and I think we can be.

The values and the community norms that might have made sense in the 1970s no longer serve us well.  It’s time to let go of the need to build walls and use our lesbian identity as a hammer.  Our comrades are no longer just the members of tiny lesbian feminist communities we forged so many years ago.  Now we are multitudes, proud and queer and walking through walls.  This is truly an army of lovers that cannot fail.

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