Political lesbianism is not an ‘identity’, this is queer BS talk. Political lesbianism is a process. A process of understanding the ways in which we, and our sisters, have been personally damaged by the hetero-patriarchy. It is a recognition that, on a personal and political level, we do not have to be intimately involved with a system which is deeply damaging to us and we can love other women in all ways instead of competing with them or mistrusting them.
It is not purely about sexuality (who you are attracted to). Nor is it about ‘appropriating’ the word lesbian while maintaining all outward appearances of being heterosexual and enjoying heterosexual benefits, such as they are. Nor will it, by itself, dismantle patriarchy, though it is a step along the way. Many women have found it easier to be radical activists without the burden of dissonance ringing in their ears. Many women have freed themselves from the clash of being intimately tied to an oppressive system while having a radical, critical analysis about it. Many women have discovered that they can, and should, love women as a direct result of their feminism. Women’s oppression is the only oppression where the oppressed are forced to live intimately with the oppressor. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand what is happening politically while we are in such situations. Our political judgement is inevitably clouded because we have to find a way of covering up personal truths in order to continue to live in such a way. It is only when we have broken free of hetero-patriarchal constraints that we can often name our truths under patriarchy.
The resistance to political lesbianism within the current upsurge of online radical feminism; a resistance to understanding and accepting it, is hugely disappointing to those of us who embraced the concept of political lesbianism many years ago. It is particularly disappointing because that resistance and hostility is taking place within a back-drop of new, younger, women discovering the process of political lesbianism IRL. Most women who ‘come out’ via the process of political lesbianism, do so because they meet radical lesbian feminists, or radical feminists, and connect; politically, personally and emotionally. Online political activity rarely, if ever, captures the process of political lesbianism because it is a real, lived, personal experience brought about through consciousness-raising.
Some new, younger women are afraid to ‘come out’ or are convinced by the negativity that their feelings are somehow ‘unreal’. It is crucial for any newly ‘out’ lesbian to feel welcomed and accepted, no questions asked. Unfortunately, there are a vocal cluster of online lesbians who associate with radical feminist theory (I am unclear whether they identify as radical feminists themselves or not) who, without understanding the process of political lesbianism, make accusations of ‘appropriation’. Accompanying this offensive accusation is a suggestion that political lesbianism is ‘just like the trans debate – if I say I am a lesbian I am’. This is not only a nonsensical interpretation of the process of political lesbianism, it also fails to analyse the construction of sexuality from a radical feminist perspective. The underlying assumption is that there is an ‘authentic’ lesbianism and a version which is so unauthentic that it is labelled ‘appropriation’. This completely bypasses the radical feminist analysis that heterosexuality is a major part of our oppression and escaping its colonisation has many benefits for us as individuals and for women as a class.
Some lesbian sceptics ask us why we can’t ‘encourage’ women to become celibate instead; leaving the lesbian landscape to the ‘purist’ lesbian. The very question shows a lack of understanding about the social construction of sexuality. In most societies, channelling sexual desire into a social construction leads to a whole range of other factors dictating how people live their lives. Many heterosexual women become celibate and live their days within heterosexual marriages with all the economic benefits this brings. Being celibate, by itself, is not the counter-patriarchal act ‘coming out’ as a lesbian and living within lesbian cultures and communities is. And, again, the emphasis on celibacy defines all relationships by sexual activity, or lack thereof. The social construction of sexuality is far more complex than that.
Whenever this subject comes up, some older lesbians also get on their soap boxes. They are certain, from their past, that heterosexual women would identify as lesbian but not feel sexually attracted to women. The heterosexual women would do it as some kind of misplaced political allegiance, they say. I am not aware of that definition of ‘political lesbianism’ ever being part of my political discussions. It was not something which I encountered in the past and I wonder if it took place in pockets of the US or whether it took place at all and was merely a misinterpretation of the process of political lesbianism. Who knows? Just as radical feminism cannot get stuck because of myths about it, nor can political lesbianism if it means women are afraid to ‘come out’ because they are not accepted as being ‘real’ lesbians.
The over-emphasis on sexual activity as an essential part of the lesbian experience is concerning. Most heterosexual women have experienced pressure to be sexually active. We have all been conditioned to believe that sexuality is a major part of intimate relationships or else the relationship is not ‘real’. Few very old people, generally, have an active sex life. They have other challenges to deal with. Lesbians are no different but they don’t stop being lesbians. Celibate older people do not get constantly questioned on their sexuality; it is assumed they are heterosexual. Whether sexual attraction is current or not, should not be the definition of what it is to be lesbian. Being a lesbian is a social construction of intimacy, community and cultures. Usually, initially, it takes a sexual expression but it does not always for all time for many lesbians.
Heterosexual women have latched on to online hostility about political lesbianism from some lesbians. They, in turn, have repeated the mantra that the process of political lesbianism is appropriation. Therefore, they say, it is perfectly OK for them to assert that, if the world were a lesbian island, they would remain celibate, thank you very much. In the ‘old days’ lesbians would have challenged such assertions but nowadays lesbians are too busy ‘sexing up’ the concept of lesbianism to do so.
Contemporary conversation about sexuality is not framed within a radical feminist analysis – even though it may be radical feminists exchanging words. The ideological assumptions behind the debate is that sexuality is innate and ‘we were born this way’ sexually. It is the only element of women’s oppression where there is a political acceptance that there is NO ESCAPE.
In fact, sexuality, as a social construction, is far, far more than merely who we are attracted to at any one point in our lives. It is moulded, institutionalised and structured to benefit men, as a class, and oppress women as a class. Women are unpaid slaves in the domestic sphere and that includes in all matters heterosexual. Many contemporary radical feminists have written about the dangers for women of ‘sexual intercourse’ (frequently called ‘PIV’ – penis in vagina) and the pressures women are under to accept this as the only form of sexual activity possible or desirable. Doing so is at the expense of women’s well-being and pleasure. Pornstitution, (pornography, women being bought for sexual purposes), myths surrounding sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, are all forms of direct and indirect pressure and coercion leading to women being sexualised, de-humanized and being viewed by men as objectified body parts and/or his possession. The more subtle forms of coercion and pressure to be slaves include the ‘myth of the fairy tale princess’, that ‘the right man for you is out there somewhere’ and other assorted well-known indoctrinations which take place as soon as we can understand language. Forced and coerced sexual submission, regardless of her wants and needs, are a cornerstone of the domestic servitude which men demand of women under hetero-patriarchy.
The idea, therefore, that women are not bound to that servitude forever because of their ‘born this way’ sexuality, has been a freeing revelation for many feminists over decades. The idea that sexuality, just like all other aspects of life, can shift and change alongside political realisations, is revolutionary in a world where sexuality is seen as fixed and innate. If we demand that men change their sexual behaviour, how can we possibly deny that we have the potential to change our sexual desires to ones which are more liberating?
There is another myth fairly rife on the internet today. It has gained momentum because of the prolific writing of a small minority of believers. It is the idea that a born-this-way lesbian (or woman who has always chosen lesbianism) is, somehow, free from the shackles of hetero-patriarchy simply because she has avoided pressure to ever having a heterosexual experience. Well, I beg to differ, having had sexual relationships with a few born-this-way non-feminist lesbians. They were as woman-hating and self-hating as anyone else – with the added burden of believing they had no choice but to be lesbians. Someone saying “I don’t want to love you but I can’t help it” isn’t exactly encouraging. They sought to ape many of the tenets typical within heterosexuality; such as someone owes you sex if they are in a relationship with you, whenever you want it. There is a lot more to say about the subject but, ultimately, I do not believe that any woman is free from internalized woman-hatred. Always having felt sexual towards women/girls is not a ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card.
I would also like to briefly touch on another myth. The myth is: It is only those who have found lesbianism through political processes, as opposed to pure born-like-it desires, who stray off the golden path and ‘go back to men’. Given the varied backgrounds of the women I have known who have redefined as heterosexual or bisexual, there is no basis for arguing political lesbianism is any more likely to result in further heterosexuality than other routes. In fact, I would argue that it is less likely considering political lesbianism is such a deep-rooted process. Claiming that we should value sexual experience as being more authentic than political thought is highly dubious from a radical feminist perspective.
In summary, I urge lesbians who do not understand political lesbianism to stop misrepresenting it and then arguing against that misrepresentation. This is a phenomena which happens to radical feminists all the time so they should already know how frustrating it is. I also urge heterosexual women to stop using the arguments lesbians have between ourselves to prop up your own political positions. You’re not harmed by being open to political lesbian ideas. In fact, many previously heterosexual women have felt our lives to be enormously enriched by them.