LESBIANS IN CULTURE
In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.
Simone de Beauvoir
There is a historical coincidence between capitalism, urbanism, and an extreme gender distinction, accompanied by a strict segregation between males and females. In a rural agricultural culture, both men and women labored year round, both genders contributed the the family’s prosperity and survival. The income came from the harvests, but once income came from wages in factories, gender inequality took on new dimensions. Men were paid more than women, not necessarily because they did better jobs but because low wages for women and children incrusted profits for factory owners. New forms of wealth also impacted the middle class as well, giving the men enough income to support a wife who, in emulation of upper class women, did not earn an income. As men took a larger role in the business/industry based system, they became more powerful, but their behavior was more carefully regulated in a modern world that needed both fiscal and sexual discipline.
Because men were given higher status in society and their behavior had more impact upon the social system, only male sexuality was regulated. Lesbians were usually not recognized as such and were more often labeled as “spinsters” and pitied for their condition and did not come under legal control. Romantic friendships among women and “Boston Marriages” between women were tolerated, doubtless because such friendships provided women with emotional sustenance and such unions were good places for “old maids,” or left-over women, to live out their lives. In fact, the nineteenth century was safer than other centuries for lesbians who, like gay men, had been put to death as late as in the seventeenth century.
Lesbians were left out of gay liberation, which was mostly a male movement. Lesbians had a prior commitment to women’s liberations but in the early years of the Women’s Movement, lesbians were marginalized in favor of heterosexual women in order to give the movement wider appeal to the masses. The relationship between lesbians and feminism was turbulent and it took years for mainstream feminists to accept lesbians as part o their cause. Lesbians realized that gay men were part of the male patriarchy and were complicit in the subjugation of women. It was a clear case of gender (male) trumping (lesbian) sexuality.
Men, regardless of sexual preference, would bond with men and, even though lesbians had long identified with the gay culture and had allied themselves politically with male homosexuals, men, no matter what their sexual preferences, would not be supportive of women. Lesbians had not suffered the persecution that gay men had. “Straight” men had high opinions of “femme” lesbians and had fantasies about a pair of such ladies making love. Therefore, lesbians were no threat to masculinity or to the family or to male dominance, and the lesbians who were “butch” exhibited all the appropriate attributes of the male bureaucratic personality: objective, logical and unexcitable. Nevertheless, according to the late Jill Johnson, author of Lesbian Nation, “in the 1950s, there was no lesbian identity except a criminal one.”
Because of instinctive male bonding, the poet, Adrienne Rich, made a connection between lesbians and feminism in her 1978 article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Rich made a very important argument in deconstructing heterosexuality, which was assumed to be “natural” and was therefore unmarked. Rich pointed out that heterosexuality was not natural but was an oppressive social force that was imposed upon men and women. Heterosexuality was like capitalism in that it created relations of unequal power, and, according to Rich, gay men are complicit in the marginalization of all women. Johnson agreed stating, “Gay men, however discriminated against, are still patriarchs.”
Because male domination of women is in the interest of men, whatever their sexual preference, all men oppress women. Rich puts forward the influential concept of what she called “compulsory heterosexuality,” meaning that the entire social and economic system forced heterosexuality upon the population through laws and customs. Homosexual behavior, everything from certain sex acts (among men) to mode of dress (for men), was outlawed and homosexuals were stigmatized and shamed. Heterosexuality, therefore, is not a personal preference or a religious dictate but a political institution that works to the disadvantage of all women.
Here is where Rich connects the cause of the gays and lesbians with the feminist movement. By denying women full equality, women’s lives are limited and their dependence upon men is increased. Rich’s position was an interesting one, considering that for over a decade, feminists had kept a distance from lesbians, fearing that feminism would be even more stigmatized. But by the late seventies, stigmatization had already occurred (feminists hated men and didn’t shave their legs, etc.) and the feminist movement became more inclusive of homosexual women because they were sisters in inequality.
The legal and social inequality of (homosexuals) lesbians and women keeps straight men in power and maintains an imbalance of privileges through the political system. Heterosexuality is “naturalized,” that is, the culture insists that heterosexuality is the “norm” or is normal and that any deviation from the “natural” organization of male and female is “unnatural.” By making lesbianism pathological, heterosexual masculinity is privileged. Lesbianism, then, is a resistance to the patriarchy, according to Rich, even though “lesbian” is a term used against women. (We continue to see this label applied to Hillary Clinton.) Lesbian theory in America was straightforward and practical and, in its way, reformist and assimilationist but every nation produced a different version of lesbian theory.
In France, a nation that was not open to extending equality to women, feminism was, by necessity, less practical or more theoretical. The late French feminist Monique Wittig, stated that lesbianism and the term “woman” is possible only in a sexist society that is ruled by rigid sex roles and is characterized by male supremacy. “Woman” and “man” are imaginary formations created and constructed by the culture in order to create power positions. What Wittig and Rich are saying is that the “identity” of “women,” “men,” “gays,” and “lesbians” is not natural but a cultural fiction, and this position was a radical change from the way in which the concept of “identity” had been used during the Civil Rights Movement in America.
During the period of Gay Liberation, “identity’ was linked with political activism and with “pride” in that identity which would be asserted in the face of the labels of the Heterosexual culture: “deviant,” and “invert,” and “queer.” Wittig deconstructed “identity” and “queer” and “lesbian” in order to escape value-laden binaries. As she wrote in “The Straight Mind” in 1980:
To destroy ‘woman,’ does not mean that we aim, short of physical destruction, to destroy lesbianism simultaneously with the categories of sex, because lesbianism provides for the moment the only social form in which we can live freely. Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man), because the designated subject (lesbian) is not a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically. For what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation (‘forced residence,’ domestic corvée, conjugal duties, unlimited production of children, etc.) a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual. We are escapees from our class in the same way as the American runaway slaves were when escaping slavery and becoming free. For us this is an absolute necessity; our survival demands that we contribute all our strength to the destruction of the class of women within which men appropriate women. This can be accomplished only by the destruction of heterosexuality as a social system which is based on the oppression of women by men and which produces the doctrine of the difference between the sexes to justify this oppression.
In 1978, Wittig was arguing with Simone de Beauvoir’s famous book, The Second Sex, which was mostly about the history of straight women, in which the older scholar said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” But the two Frenchwomen shared the same ground, as women and/or as lesbians, they were the Other, and both inherited their ideas from Marx (or ultimately from Hegel) that systems, not people, created human relations. Wittig tried to situate lesbians outside of the system of binaries: “…it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for ‘woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women…” an act of separatism that, in her lifetime, would yield to the desire to become part of the wider society where Ellen de Generes would be a beloved lesbian talk-show host.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.