Lesbophobia past and present

The Women's Action Coalition marches in support of lesbian rights in the 1992 Gay Pride Parade.


Lesbians resist and rebel against institutions and belief systems that oppress us. Starting as young girls we fight against the tyranny of pink. Today, the situation is worse than ever for all girls, as multi-million-dollar corporations become the enforcers of oppressive sex stereotyping.

Over the last 10 years, Disney has marketed over 26,000 “Princess” items. This has not only become the fastest growing brand for Disney, it is also the largest franchise in the world for girls ages two to six. The products are all about clothes, jewelry, makeup, and of course, being rescued by the prince.

Disney enforces oppressive gender norms for girls by idealizing the institution of monogamous heterosexual marriage (Cinderella, Little Mermaid, The Princess, and the Frog). Princesses can only be imagined as heterosexual and their greatest success can only be the fairy-tale wedding, which renders them as property.

At the same time, the proliferation of pink sends more messages to girls. Pink becomes more than a color, and academics have even created the word “pinkification,” which is defined as “teaching and reinforcing stereotypes that limit the way girls perceive themselves.”

Peggy Orenstein, the author of a recent book, “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” asked a sales rep, “Is all this pink really necessary? There are other colors in the rainbow.” He laughed, “I guess girls are just born loving pink.” There are, of course, girls who rebel, turn their backs on imposed limitations, and shout, “Pink Stinks.”

As lesbians enter their teenage years, the struggle continues as it becomes clear that they are not even trusted to name their own experience.

A young Arab American lesbian, an award-winning writer of books for teenagers and young adults, did a Q and A interview about her first novel. She was aghast and appalled when the interview was published. Everywhere that she had said the word “lesbian,” they had changed the word to “queer” in their quotations.

“I was rebranded,” she said. “I became the mythological ‘if the situation were right’ lesbian. Queer has become the ‘I am not going to rule anything out because I am an open-minded girl.’ It doesn’t carry the sting of ‘lesbian.’ The stigma of ‘lesbian.’ The boundaries of ‘lesbian.’ Lesbian is a solid ‘no.’”

She added that she would never have said that the androgynous lesbian character in her book was “presenting a gender,” as her interviewer had made up. “That unwillingness to bend is the very reason lesbians are targeted with insidious psychological warfare.”

Why did she (Julia Diana Robertson, “Beyond The Screen Door”) have this strong reaction? It was not just that she was “misquoted,” and it was not aimed at those who choose to identify as queer. It was because lesbians of all ages are seeing themselves, as well as their history erased. This, of course, is nothing new, but after past years of struggle there is now an aggressive resurgence.

She was shocked that words she would never use to describe herself or the characters in her novel were put into her mouth. The interviewer admitted unapologetically what she had done; she was trying to “provide space for all LGBTQ women.” In doing that, however, she excluded Julia from her own story, and by extension, all lesbians.

Lesbian critical theory

These same issues are seen by Terry Castle, a literary scholar and currently Professor of Humanities at Stanford University. As a lesbian she started noticing that, throughout culture and specifically in 18th century literature, lesbians were always “in the shadows, in the margins, hidden from history.” So she decided to write a book about what she was seeing in literature: “The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture.”

Castle points out that throughout literature since the 18th century, as well as in general culture, lesbians have been “ghosted,” made to seem invisible, disembodied— unlike homosexual men. Lesbians were portrayed as apparitions in the works of Dafoe, Diderot, Baudelaire, Balzac, Dickens, Bronte, Colette, and Proust. This tendency continued in 20th-century writings by Mary Renault and Lillian Hellman.

In addition, lesbian heroes from the time of the poet Sappho (circa 630 B.C.) have had their biographies sanitized in the interests of order and public safety.  Radclyffe Hall’s classic fictional defense of love between women, “The Well Of Loneliness,” was banned in England in 1928 and referred to as poison: “Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul.”

Before the late 19th century, the misogynistic medical establishment did not write or believe that there was anything like lesbian identity and sexuality. Well, what did women do before men established the crucial nomenclature for women’s desire for one another? The academicians’ response was that women were involved in friendships that were merely “platonic relationships with epistemic confusion.”

As recently as 1985 this concept that lesbians are asexual was continuing to be propagated with the claim that lesbians were simply another form of female “homosocial” bonding: “The bond of sister and sister, women’s friendship, ‘networking’ and the active struggles of feminism” (“Between Men: English Literature and Homosocial Desire,” by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick).

Castle explains that she has avoided in her book, when talking about lesbianism, using “pseudo umbrella terms,” such as “queer.” Although the term “queer” has become popular in activist and progressive academic circles, it has a tendency “to disembody the lesbian once again.” While Castle recognizes the contribution of Eve Sedgwick in both explicating queer theory in the academic world and in bringing the subject of homosexuality into the academic mainstream, Castle points out that Sedgwick excludes lesbians. In “Epistemology of the Closet,” Sedgwick defends her exclusion of lesbians and admits her addressing homosexuality is “indicatively male.”

Among some queer theorists it has become popular to contest the very meaningfulness of terms such as “lesbian” or “gay” or “homosexual” or “coming out.” They claim that no one knows what those terms mean; they lack “linguistic transparency.” But lesbophobia appears because everyone knows exactly what is meant by the word lesbian. It is clear as a bell. The sexual boundaries of lesbians are fiercely policed because of misogyny and homophobia on the right and on the left. Throughout history men have imprisoned, killed, and institutionalized lesbians. Corrective rape of lesbians is still used around the world to enforce heterosexuality.

The Anne Lister controversy

The erasing of lesbians past and present converge in last year’s protests around Anne Lister’s memorial plaque.

Recently, a large number of diaries were discovered in an obscure archive in Yorkshire, England. In them Anne Lister (1791-1840) details her sexual affairs with women throughout her entire life. The eroticism of her letters was explicit and in some she developed a code to communicate secretly with her lovers. She often wrote of her disinterest in men: “I love, and only love the fairer sex and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs.”

The York Memorial Trust planned a plaque memorializing Lister in the English community where she had lived and worked. The original plaque referred to her as “gender non-conforming” but omitted the obvious fact that she was a lesbian. Thousands of Lesbians were outraged that here was a lesbian who had to write love letters in code in the 1800s, and once again in 2018 her identity was erased.

Julie Furlong started a petition protesting the wording on the plaque: “Gender non-conforming can mean anything, it simply means you do not conform to societal expectations. It has nothing to do with sexuality. Don’t let them erase this iconic woman from our history. She was a lesbian.” Thousands of lesbians signed the petition demanding that the plaque be changed.

This month, a reworded plaque will be unveiled. The York Civic Trust consulted with Lister’s biographers and responded to the outcry over the erasing of Ann Lister’s obvious lesbian identity.

The plaque commemorates what Anne Lister described as her marriage to Ann Walker at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate in 1834. This was 200 years before same-sex marriage was legalized in England.  The plaque now reads, “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax. Lesbian and Diarist took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker, Easter 1834.”

Black feminist Claire Heuchan, who blogs under the name Sister Outrider, encouraged lesbians to sign the petition protesting the original plaque. “The discrimination she faced, and the challenges that came with being open about her sexuality, were a specifically lesbian experience. She wrote specifically about lesbian life, love and sexuality. It is important to acknowledge the specifics of lesbian reality, especially because countless lesbian lives have been hidden from the record. When Lister’s diaries were first discovered by a descendant in the 1930s, friends encouraged them to burn them and purge Lister’s voice from history. It’s incredibly fortunate he didn’t. It is difficult to celebrate how Lister blazed a trail for future lesbians when the word lesbian is, apparently, unspeakable.”

These diaries illustrate that lesbians have been a part of communal life far longer than many have assumed. They make clear what lesbians have always known, that despite all the hostility past and present, we inject ourselves, visibly or invisibly, into the larger world. The numerous lesbians in Castle’s treatise on literature and culture illustrate that the sense of sexual alienation or marginalization could never stand in their way. Somehow being obliterated and erased by one’s society promoted them to assert themselves even more aggressively. We will surely see this happening again. Castle shows that lesbians are everywhere, and always have been.

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