Those Lesbians

One night, I was out with a female acquaintance. After we’d both had a few drinks, she proceeded to tell me about how she had fallen in love with her best friend and had a sexual relationship with her. ‘But we didn’t continue it,’ she explained to me. ‘I want to get married and have children one day.’

In other words, even though she had fallen in love with a woman, even though she’d slept with that same woman, she did not consider herself to be one of those women; those lesbians. Get married and have children, of course, is just code for fulfilling the patriarchy-approved vision of womanhood, which requires both heterosexuality and femininity. After all, at least in most Western countries, it’s perfectly possible to enter into a lifelong relationship with another woman and have children together. Depending on where you live, you can even receive various levels of state recognition to legitimate your relationship.

So, if that was really the motivation that was driving her, there would have been no reason to discontinue the relationship with her female friend. What she meant was that she was afraid of becoming a non-woman in the patriarchy’s eyes; of stepping outside the bounds of permissible female behaviour and admitting that she was one of the many, many women for whom the patriarchal fairytale does not work.

This distancing technique is not uncommon. It is not only a distancing of the potential lesbian self from other lesbians, but a split in the psyche itself. Denying that the lesbian self is lesbian, and also that the lesbian self is female, allows the woman to maintain the fiction that she is not one of those lesbians; that she is a special case; that the womanly part of her is happy with her heterosexual womanly role and that whatever the bits of her are that break away are not-female, not-womanly, aberrant.

The life of writer Daphne du Maurier illustrates the point. A married woman with three children, she found that the role allotted to her as mother and housewife was not enough; she became a writer and had several secret love affairs with women. This required her to split herself into two halves – the womanly half of her that was happy (supposedly) with what women were supposed to be happy with; and the male half of her that was ambitious, creative, intellectual and capable of loving and desiring other women. It was thus the not-woman part of her that was the writer, the lover of women; she could rationalise to herself that she was not one of those women; those lesbians, unnaturally chafing against what men had declared innate.

Given that du Maurier had relationships with both men and women, she is commonly claimed as a poster child for the bisexual movement. But our understandings of ourselves and our own sexualities do not occur in a vacuum. Merely saying unproblematically that she was bisexual overlooks the coercive social environment that shapes women for a heterosexual destiny. It’s possible of course that du Maurier was bisexual, but it is equally possible that, had she not been subjected from birth to relentless social conditioning for heterosexuality and marriage, indoctrinated with the idea that any behaviours she displayed outside of hetero-patriarchal femininity were non-normal and non-female, she would have lived her life as a lesbian. (du Maurier’s ‘bisexuality’ is discussed in Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller by Margaret Forster).

We could go further back, and examine the curious case of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf. Even though members of the Bloomsbury group, including Woolf, were prepared to defend The Well of Loneliness when it was put on trial for obscenity, privately both Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West disparaged Hall and her work, perhaps on account of her lesbianism and her very obvious flouting of acceptable womanhood (see The Trials of Radclyffe Hall by Diana Souhami). Yet Woolf and Sackville-West also engaged in sexual relationships with women (including each other), so it was not so much engaging in sexual acts with other women that was the problem, but Hall’s forceful rejection of both marriage and femininity; her becoming one of those lesbians outside the patriarchal identifiers of femaleness.

Woolf could sympathise with Hall enough to support her work, but not to acknowledge that the two of them might be alike; that they might share, at their core, the same passionate love and desire for women. She did not welcome Hall because Hall threatened to expose the dissonance and denial within her own psyche.

But, even when heterosexual conditioning fails, patriarchal society must have a way to contain the threat of lesbian women. Typically, the technique employed is a variation on the distancing technique used to convince ‘heterosexual’ women that they do not, or cannot, feel lesbian desire; even whilst engaged in relationships with other women.

Here I wish to turn to Simone de Beauvoir’s discussion of lesbianism in The Second Sex. Whilst no doubt progressive for its time, de Beauvoir’s chapter on lesbian sexuality oscillates uneasily between challenging and reproducing the dominant medical and psychological discourses of the day. This is rather ironic considering that so much of the book is concerned with challenging patriarchal ideals of womanhood. But when it comes to understanding lesbians, de Beauvoir, like so many theorists both then and now, stumbles. Too often, she falls back on the very same patriarchal ideologies for elucidating the condition of lesbianism that she refuses to accept when it comes to heterosexual women.

On the one hand, de Beauvoir rejects the idea that all lesbian women are psychologically or anatomically different from heterosexual women. She explains perfectly logical factors that may lead to a woman embarking on a lesbian life, like a desire for a more equal relationship, a dislike of being treated as lesser by men, or the pursuit of a career that makes heterosexual marriage impractical. She also disputes that lesbian women can be simplistically categorised as either ‘masculine’, with an unnatural desire to be ‘like a man’ (which de Beauvoir rightly asserts to be nothing more than the desire to be treated as a subject instead of an object – something which it is unacceptable for any woman to aspire to) and ‘feminine’, a woman who is desirous of fulfilling the traditional feminine role but wishes to do so with a woman rather than a man due to some kind of ‘unnatural’ fear of men.

Instead, de Beauvoir discusses several different lesbian women and shows the variation in both their relationship to their own sexuality and what sort of relationships they preferred and why. For its time, this is very advanced thinking, and I don’t wish to diminish the importance what de Beauvoir does here. But nevertheless, problems remain. Despite recognising the false construction of the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ binary in lesbian sexuality, de Beauvoir still discusses lesbian sexuality almost exclusively in these terms. She theorises psychological differences between those lesbians who are ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’; arguing that ‘masculine’ lesbians often remain unfulfilled because of their inability to truly inhabit the male role, and that ‘feminine’ lesbians, paradoxically, are sometimes happier because they can fully express their female nature with another woman who understands in ways a man could not.

There is, however, another and more serious problem. And that is de Beauvoir’s unquestioning acceptance of the fact that, even though some lesbians could be described as, for want of a better word, ‘normal’ women, there are others who are lesbians because of anatomical and medical abnormalities.

What struck me reading these paragraphs was the similarity of the language used here to contemporary justifications for those who are seen as trans. This is something that needs to be carefully considered. On the one hand, it is generally recognised that early and mid twentieth century theories about lesbian and gay sexuality were deeply harmful and homophobic. But on the other hand, trans discourse is often represented as being on the cutting and contemporary edge of theories about sexuality. So what does it mean that arguments we hear coming from trans supporters sound very similar to conservative anti-lesbian ideologies from the first half of the twentieth century?

I am going to quote from an extended passage here, in order to illustrate this point:

There is no doubt, however, that physiological characteristics may create peculiar situations. There is no rigorous biological distinction between the two sexes; an identical soma is acted upon by certain hormones the direction of which – towards maleness or femaleness – is genotypically determined but can be diverted more or less during the development of the foetus, with the resulting appearance of individuals in some respects intermediate between male and female. Certain men take on a feminine aspect because the development of their masculine organ is delayed: thus we occasionally see supposed girls – especially some devoted to sports – become changed into boys.


Under the influence of male hormones, women called ‘viriloid’ show masculine secondary sex characteristics such as a growth of hair on the face; in women of infantile type the female hormones may be deficient and development therefore not completed. Such peculiarities may more or less directly give rise to lesbian leanings. A female of vigorous, aggressive, exuberant vitality prefers to exert herself actively and commonly spurns passivity; ill-favoured, malformed, a woman may try to compensate for her inferiority by assuming virile qualities; if her erotic sensitivity is underdeveloped, she does not desire masculine caresses.

[Quoted from the 1974 Vintage edition of The Second Sex, pp. 451-2].

There is so much going on in these two short paragraphs I could write an entire essay on them alone – but for the sake of brevity I will confine myself to making just a few observations. Note first of all the anxious desire to assert some kind of physiological difference between the lesbian woman and the ‘normal’ heterosexual woman – that is, the desire to assert that lesbians are in fact a different sex or gender from other women. This has obvious parallels in arguments which are sometimes used to support trans identity and reasons for transition. Note also how the exact nature of these physiological differences remain elusive – they cannot be quantified in and of themselves, and so their existence is proven by the observation of other conditions and behaviours. Most usually, the ‘proof’ is that the girl acts as a boy, for example by enjoying sports, rejecting men sexually – which is seen here as evidence of lack of proper sexual and erotic development, and/or has some kind of congenital condition which in modern terms we might see as intersex. In de Beauvoir’s time, such factors were taken as evidence of a maladjusted and possibly physically freakish woman, one of the results of which was likely to be lesbianism. We see here the pathologisation of lesbian sexuality and desire for female autonomy, the need to medically and psychologically distinguish lesbian women from other woman, and also the casual confusion of intersex conditions with homosexuality.

Again, it is difficult for me not to see the correlations with how trans theory works – the belief that some women and some lesbians, because of ill-defined and mysterious psychological or physical conditions, are really men, and the common correlation of trans identity with intersex conditions, as if the existence of one proves the existence of the other.

This is also an example of what I meant above when I said that patriarchal society must contain the threat of lesbian women by convincing them that they are somehow still not lesbians. Here, lesbian women become not-lesbian by virtue of being something else – a sexual invert in de Beauvoir’s time; a transman in our own. This works within part of a larger framework of denying all kinds of lesbian subjectivity – women who reject femininity as part of their lesbianism must not really be women, but women who maintain femininity must not be lesbians, as femininity is seen as an essential part of heterosexual womanhood. It is a lose/lose situation in which lesbians are erased either way.

The lesbian is the ultimate Other, and the shame of becoming her is such that all women are taught to fear inhabiting this condition. The patriarchy can enforce this by either convincing heterosexual women to deny the significance of lesbian attraction – such as with my friend mentioned above – or by teaching lesbian women that their sexuality is somehow different from that of other lesbians. These women believe that, despite all evidence, they are still not one of those lesbians; those lowly creatures who attract the wrath of the patriarchal overlords by expressing their sexuality and their desire for women in ways that (intentionally or not) are too threatening, too challenging, too far outside the bounds of what patriarchy understands.

Patriarchy works to destroy the possibility of desire; the possibility of recognising others and oneself as lesbian. It creates and relies upon fractured psyches to keep women in a state of non-acceptance and self-hatred, fearing comparison with other lesbians, fearing  being placed in the dreaded category of the lowest of the low. Lesbians are still not taught to see their sexual desires, behaviours, personal appearance and life aspirations as natural offshoots of being a woman, as natural as heterosexuality if not more so, but a deformed growth requiring correction.

No one can be a lesbian.

Everyone can be a lesbian.

One actually follows the other. ‘Lesbian’ does not exist; therefore it is an identity that anyone can claim. We have all seen plenty of this in recent times, with the invasion of all kinds of self-identified this and that seeking to co-opt and inhabit a non-threatening and patriarchy-approved farce of lesbianism – one which, in some way, will always involve sexual reference to men.

The only thing standing in the way of the completion of this project are lesbians themselves. Stubbornly, for reasons that patriarchal supporters will never understand, there are some of us who still refuse to participate in our own erasure. We are called backwards and stupid and unsophisticated as if these are not old insults we have heard before. We are accused of every kind of sexual hang-up and perversion as if desiring women and not desiring men is a crime (actually to patriarchy, it is). We are guilt-tripped, brainwashed, sent off to therapy, told we’ll realise we like it with men one day, told we are too masculine, unnatural, really men on the inside, in need of medication, in need of transition; that under no circumstances must we be allowed to live out our lives peacefully without the intervention of a million screaming voices telling us how and what to be.

I’m reminded of the prophetic words of Sappho, the lesbian poet whose own existence was nearly erased, whose poetry survives only in fragments. An incomplete canon that mirrors both the destruction and endurance of lesbian lives, against all the terrible odds.

You may forget but
let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us

And so I say: I will always be one of those who re-members.

Final Thoughts:

I feel as if what I am going to say here is rather redundant, but it might help to spell some things out for anyone who is having trouble wrapping their head around this essay. What I have described above is a prime example of circular patriarchal ill-logic: a woman who experiences sexual desire for other women is not really a woman because she steps outside the bounds of what patriarchy recognises as ‘womanhood’; therefore she is not really a lesbian (a woman who desires other women); therefore lesbians don’t exist; therefore a woman who experiences sexual desire for other women is not really a woman because lesbians don’t exist; etc. etc.

It doesn’t make any sense, but of course making sense is not its purpose. The purpose of circular thinking like this is to keep women trapped within harmful patriarchal discourses that deny female reality, and lesbian reality, and stop meaningful thought from occurring. Only once women recognise the existence of this stagnating loop, and break free of it, can we even begin to start formulating thoughts of our own.

2 thoughts on “Those Lesbians

  1. This is fundamental and still, even more than four years later, completely, if sadly, relevant.

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