I was just reading Victoria A. Brownworth’s newest Huffington Post piece, “Why Do Straight Feminists Hate Lesbians?” and I wanted to send off a Tweet, but then I realized that what I wanted say could not be crammed into 140 characters.
In reading through the comments, there were a lot of indignant women who said that they were feminists who said they supported the LBGTQ community and gay rights and the whole enchilada. Which kind of proves Brownworth’s point: these straight feminists support lesbians as members of the gay community, not as fellow women. To make the point more directly, these self-proclaimed straight feminists who support the LGBTQ community are “othering” lesbians right to Brownworth’s face.
Perhaps they took umbrage at the title–hate is an awfully strong word. Would fear have been more appropriate or accurate? Probably, but since fear is a prelude to hatred, I don’t Brownworth was out of line. But I do want to talk about fear.
Why should straight feminists be afraid of lesbians? Because straight women still want to be attractive men, and in doing so, they also want to make feminism less threatening to men. So, Brownworth was spot-on when she called my fellow straight feminists and myself for saying shit like, “I’m a feminist, but…” I’m sure I’m guilty of at some point saying that, even if I can’t remember it off the top of my head just now. But the point I want to make is that these women are being naïve; there are men who embrace feminism, and there are men who view feminism as threat, and guys who land somewhere in between. The guys that view feminism as threat will not be persuaded by lame attempts at sugarcoating, so why are we bothering? Because as straight women, we still buy into antiquated notions of man-pleasing.
Brownworth also makes a good point that contemporary feminism has been mired in single-issue politics with an emphasis on how they relate more directly to straight women–namely abortion, but I’ll throw contraception in there for good measure. However, I think it’s because the ascendance of the Tea Party has made attacks on abortion and contraception access a policy priority. With that, I can see where the needs of lesbians have, at best, become an afterthought.
There is something else I’ve noticed before, and it’s this: our cultural frame of reference for lesbians is painfully narrow, and our social support system for them is woefully undernourished. Here in Chicago, our big gay neighborhood is called “Boy’s Town.” It’s a big city, I know there’s lesbians out there–I’ve gone to school with them and I’ve worked with them. So where’s Lesbianvillle, USA? For the most part, when we take about supporting the LGBT community, we’re talking about gay men. Let’s face it, gay men are still men, and we still live in a society where being able to pee standing up means you get to rule the world. In the bigger context of TV and movies, lesbians are relegated to being objects of fetish (if attractive) or ridicule (if unattractive).
Perhaps I’m more sympathetic to what Brownworth has to say because of what I’ve witnessed: I worked with a young bisexual woman a few years ago who was in relationship with a woman. Some guys at work were hassling her, and it was just like Brownworth described: You need a real man, etc. I did tell the woman I worked with that if she wanted to report anything, I’d have her back, but she didn’t want to, and I never said anything because I felt I would have betrayed her trust. Also, by her own account, even outside work, I got the impression that she and her girlfriend couldn’t even go out for coffee without someone shooting their mouth off. (Really, why do so many straights just need to know who the is “man” and the “woman” in gay relationships?) Also, when I was first discovering feminism, some of the first things I read were by Camille Paglia and Andrea Juno. While Paglia certainly has her own eccentric views of feminism, she really did open my eyes to the broader scope of sexuality. Juno’s Angry Women series, where she interviewed female authors, artists, and musicians was, for me, a more direct introduction to lesbian culture. The gay and bisexual women that Juno interviewed all seemed to have these stories about being harassed and/or assaulted for their orientation. On the flipside though, they also had these amazing stories of coming together and looking out for each other.
To me, that’s what really makes feminism interesting: women looking out for each other. And damn it, lesbians are women too.