A brief herstory of lesbian feminism

If it suddenly became the “politically correct” thing to do, could you have sex with men? No, me neither.
But seriously, when did we stop politicising our sexuality? Back in the golden days of the Second Wave, this was common practice and nothing personal was off limits to the political.
In the 1970s feminists got busy founding women-only feminist and lesbian communes, practicing non-monogamy as a political act, engaging in Consciousness Raising on all topics under the moon, raising children collectively, and still finding time to write some of it down. They produced pioneering and still controversial theory on compulsory heterosexuality, lesbian continuums and Political Lesbianism.
Political Lesbianism is a term most often associated with Radical Feminism – an incorrect association, as it was Revolutionary Feminism that actually gave us this idea here in the UK. Revolutionary Feminists in Leeds started a fierce debate in 1979 with their conference paper on ‘Political Lesbianism’, published in the Women’s Liberation Movement newsletter WIRES – the Women’s Information Referral and Enquiry Service.
This article questioned the role of heterosexual women within the movement and, indeed, the desirability of heterosexuality at all in a revolution requiring all of women’s energies and passions. The article suggested that women might consider withdrawing their energies from men, giving them instead to the Women’s Liberation Movement and their Sisters within it. This never meant becoming a lesbian necessarily, though ever since this is how the term has been misunderstood. In fact, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group clearly advised dedicated heterosexuals that celibacy was always an option, should they be unwilling to follow in the footsteps of so many of their Sapphic Sisters.
So if feminism is the theory, is lesbianism the practice? No, not necessarily. The whole notion of Political Lesbianism, as it is commonly understood, would only make sense if all lesbians were political feminists. Let’s face it, it’s not as if all us lesbians set up home with a committed fellow activist, turn our flats into women’s centres and stay up late till the wee hours writing pamphlets; well, not every night anyway! Maybe at the weekend for a treat.
These days I’m less concerned with Political Lesbianism and more concerned with any political feminism, and with the lack of lesbians in politics of all kinds, including our own. Is it because we all really believe that things are equal now that lesbianism is so rarely mentioned within feminism and that, likewise, feminism is hardly a hot topic for most lesbians today? How often do you hear a conference organiser talk about lesbian representation on a panel, or raise the need for a dedicated lesbian space? Nobody would speak of the ‘lavender menace’ any more, but sometimes it feels as if lesbians are still feminism’s dirty little secret, despite being the backbone of this movement for decades.
It is too easy sometimes to underpin the very misogyny and homophobia that we are trying to overturn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stereotyping of feminists, particularly Radical Feminists, stereotypes which appear almost universally understood, and are rarely checked. We have shorthand of vague references to a feminism gone too far – to militancy, to radicalism, to man-hating, to ugliness – we’ve become so familiar with this typology, we sometimes don’t question it ourselves. “I’m not one of those kind of feminists,” is a familiar refrain.
What lies behind all these refrains is a perceived rejection of men and it is time we stopped acting like that’s the worst thing a woman can do. Misogyny and homophobia lurk beneath the surface of the animosity towards women-only space, Separatism and Lesbian Feminism. This may partly account for the decline of autonomous women-only organising, a vital political tool we ignore at our peril. Autonomous action threatens the status-quo by symbolising a withdrawal from men, albeit temporary. It raises the spectre of a social, cultural, political and maybe, most powerfully, a domestic and sexual withdrawal from men. This spectre haunts the institution of patriarchy, dependent as it is on the servitude of women to men.
Patriarchy has reason to fear, but feminists have nothing to fear from Lesbian Feminism or the theory and politics it engenders; there is nothing to fear in autonomous women-only space or Separatist living. Incidentally, this is maybe a good time to correct the common conflation of Separatism with autonomous organising. The former refers to the choice to live and work full-time, as much as possible, with women only. This is a personal and political choice, with a proud history, and it should be respected. The latter refers to temporary women-only spaces, political organising or leadership and is not in exclusion of other activism, including in mixed spaces.
So what if a woman chooses to have sex with other women? So what if she chooses to live in a women-only commune? So what if she chooses to be a full on Separatist and move to farm women’s land in the outback? Good luck to her! We should challenge the homophobia and misogyny that mocks our feminism with supposed insults – because being a lesbian or a Separatist should not be seen as undesirable or taboo; they are not insults. As long as we continue to act like they are, our enemies will continue to subvert our own messages and use them against us to demean our movement, demeaning lesbianism in the process.
We don’t need any reminders this week about why we should be challenging that process. With pomp, ceremony and brand endorsement, the Winter Olympics are unfolding in a city which declares it has no LGBTQ people, in a country where photos of gay men beaten and raped are treated like hunting trophies, whose president conflates lesbian and gay people with child rapists.
Closer to home, young LGBTQ people are still being bullied in school and it wasn’t that long ago, in 2009, that a gay man was beaten to death in a homophobic attack right in the middle of the gay mecca of London, in full view of witnesses, in Trafalgar Square. So next time somebody suggests all feminists are lesbians, as if that’s a reason not to be either, tell them you liberate women – and you like it.
Dr Finn Mackay is a feminist activist and researcher. Find out more @Finn_Mackay.