“People are so busy multi-tasking, they don’t give a (expletive).” About the fact that there are lesbians in the world, that is. Some might disagree with this opinion, but Kathy, a middle-aged woman who has been with her partner Lisa for five years, sees the average person as having too much going on in their own lives to give much attention to the lesbian experience. “They know (lesbians) are there and they accept that they are, but they don’t want to think beyond that.”
Both Kathy and Lisa are smart, professional women, each with a wicked sense of humor. Yet their experiences differ. Like many lesbians, Kathy was involved in the “heterosexual world” until she was older, in Kathy’s case her mid-30s. Her co-workers at a privately owned company have accepted her lifestyle, as long as no one really talks about it and she leaves Lisa at home during company functions. For Lisa, however, her sexual orientation hasn’t raised any issues at her job. She notes, “Anyone can have an open mind.”
As I’ve learned, Kathy and Lisa’s experiences aren’t unusual. I have known far more lesbians than gay men in my life, but I can’t say that I really know much about the lesbian community. I’ve done a lot of research for Queer, Isn’t It, and along the way have read numerous stories about female couples and courageous lesbian activists, but I’m not a lesbian, which hopefully is evident by the photo of me at the end of my columns, so I frame these stories in my own male perspective. Therefore, in an effort to make my writing more representative of the entire homosexual population, I dove in to the girls’ side of things; visiting lesbian homepages and bulletin boards, interviewing women who are gay, and reading academic research on “the lesbian experience”. And I still don’t know much. To know the “lesbian experience” is impossible, as there is no singular experience. As Lisa points out, “It’s just like any other community”; there are as many different lesbian experiences as there are lesbians.
In the year that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in LGBT resources. They are primarily for gay men. Thinking that this was perhaps an egocentric perception, I started my research with resources available to the lesbian audience and found that my initial impression was accurate. For instance, I did a search of the Gayzoo search engine, a database for LGBT sites, for “gay men” and “lesbians”. The results gave me 27 results exclusively for men and only eight exclusively for women.
Thinking this may be an aberration, I looked to other sources of information. Both the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library had about a third as many books listed for gay men than they did for lesbians. Searching websites for the LGBT community revealed a similar disparity. All the websites I checked had more resources listed for men than women; of course, there were multiple sites for the entire LGBT population, but several sites, such as the website for the gay magazine The Advocate, had a special link exclusively for lesbian resources. The implication, of course, is that gay resources are for men or the larger community, and that lesbians are a subset of that community.
This implication is carried through to many of the books describing the history, struggles, advocacy efforts, or current status of the LGBT community. Instead of integrating lesbian history and civil rights struggles into the larger picture, many of these books have one to two chapters devoted to lesbians. This is not surprising as women’s history and the contributions of women have always been treated as a separate entity from general history lessons. For instance, American history textbooks discuss the suffrage movement, but exclude from the overall tapestry of our history mention of the centuries of oppression and discriminatory social conditions that forced women to march to gain recognition of their status as human beings.
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If professional and print resources were lacking, perhaps personal websites would fill the void, I thought. Even here, though, gay men had an advantage, as there are a significantly greater number of personal webpages and blogs run by gay men than women. (There is also a shortage of lesbian porn sites, and many of them are geared more towards fulfilling the fantasies of straight men than gay women. Yes, I checked.) Being the inquisitive type, I began to have questions about this. Do lesbians have such a strong sense of community that outside sources aren’t needed? Given that research shows women are more apt to engage in bonding-oriented communication, maybe lesbians learn from one another. Or maybe there is just a lack of attention paid to the lives and experiences of lesbians.
That’s what TJ and Kelley thought when they established the excellent website (Where Girls Kiss Girls. The couple explained the rationale for their website in an e-mail, “The idea for a website like ours was about specifically bringing together lesbians from all walks of life and from all over the world and giving them a place where they can be themselves and interact and speak their mind in a way that some people simply find really hard to do face to face.” Where Girls Kiss Girls not only features a forum and chatroom, but includes diverse areas of information, from recommended Lesbian Movies to information about Coming Out.
The diversity of personal interests and lifestyles that Where Girls Kiss Girls caters to goes against the majority of public perceptions about the lesbian community. Many in the heterosexual world assign stereotypical roles to lesbians: the butch dyke and the lipstick lesbian. But Keri, who has been in a four year relationship with partner Katrina and is step-mom to Katrina’s eight year old son “A”, feels that those stereotypes are unjustified: “The more lesbians I meet, (the more I see) it is not like that at all.” Even those who fit the stereotypes on the outside are often putting up a false front, Keri notes. A woman may come across as a big hard lesbian, but in reality could be a softy inside, whereas a dainty, feminine lesbian could very well have an iron will and ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. Still, TJ and Kelley accurately note, “I think it’s fair to say that whether you’re gay or straight, there are labels.”
Kathy, however, feels there may be more truth to these stereotypes in older generations of women. Because there wasn’t openness to discussions of sexual identity, women were more apt to rely on these roles to identify others in the community. Now, “people are just people”, meaning that someone doesn’t have to fit a certain image to identify as a lesbian. Just ask, and odds are she’ll tell you if she is.
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Regardless of how prevalent stereotypes may be, Keri believes that “the general population is less harsh when viewing lesbians than gay men”, and statistics back her up. Gay men are victims of hate crimes more frequently than lesbians (four times more, according to 2004 FBI Crime Statistics). Nevertheless, lesbians, too, must still deal with their share of unfair prejudice. Rebekah has been with her partner for seven years, but notes that she has been able to avoid some of this prejudice because she doesn’t fit the mold of the heterosexual notion of “what a lesbian looks like.” Still, she notes, “Lesbians get their share of grief and harassment and threats, especially ‘butch’ lesbians and women who appropriate fashion and symbols that are widely understood as lesbian, as they go into settings where they are no longer ‘safe’.” Rebekah describes the experience of a “butch” friend forced to get a restraining order against her neighbor, who simply didn’t like her looks.
Keri and Katrina have been lucky in avoiding such hatred. Despite living in a small Indiana town, the two women have encountered little prejudice, even in regards to their son. “Ninety-eight percent of people are open and welcoming and treat us as a family.” In fact, the coach of their son’s baseball team asked Katrina to be team mom and Keri to keep the books. The women wear t-shirts to their son’s games which state, “A’s Mom” and “A’s Other Mom”.
The social phenomenon of “lesbian chic” (which Salon‘s Mary Elizabeth Williams argues peaked in 1997) apparently did little to alter public perceptions. That’s because few were fooled into thinking that high society, trendy lesbians-for-a-month were representative of the larger lesbian community. Williams goes on to observe that the one-dimensional image associated with lesbian chic “shone the spotlight so brightly…there seemed no room for anything else in there.” (“Coming Out Rosie” , 13 February 2002,) Writing in the January 1994 issue of Herizons, Susan G. Cole complained, “The way things are going, lesbian chic is starting to mean looking the way heterosexual women look when they want to please men.” (“Losing it on Lesbian Chic”).
All of the women I spoke with felt that “lesbian chic” was a fad that hurt those genuinely interested in lesbian issues. Lisa argues that the idea behind the fad was that women “could satisfy (their) curiosity, but don’t have to take all the bullshit that comes with it.” Rebekah feels the fashionable appeal of the movement was primarily a hetero fantasy, enjoyed by straight women as well as straight men. Possibly straight women may have taken to the idea of lesbian chic due to personal desire – Lesbian-World.net reports that about half of all women have had either lesbian sexual experiences or fantasies (or both, I would imagine). Seeing women in the media publicly discuss their same-sex dalliances serves as validation for other women’s feelings or actions (or both). This is why straight men will never latch on to the idea of “gay chic”, because most straight men would never admit to having gay fantasies, even to themselves, no matter how often that hot guy at work or the gym sneaks into their masturbatory fantasies.
Of all the stereotypes that are associated with lesbians, the one that seemed to ring the most true with the women to whom I spoke was the old joke, “What does a lesbian take on a second date? A U-Haul.” Most agreed that it is difficult to find a potential partner, so when the opportunity arises, they jump on it (figuratively and in some cases, literally). Rebekah recalls her own experience: “I was doing the ‘U-Haul on a second date’ deal, if you will, after our first cup of coffee. I fell fast, hard, and seriously—and I wanted her in my home. In my arms. In my life. I wanted to play house, nest, be best friends and be hot lovers for life. That was almost seven years ago, now, and we’re still happily ‘playing house.’” Women are socialized to establish emotional bonds with other women and often crave a nurturing relationship, meaning they have a greater propensity to set up a home together quickly. Still, Rebekah notes, “I don’t think the ‘U-Haul syndrome’ implies superficial or short-lived relationships among lesbians, particularly… We KNOW when we really, really like somebody. Why waste time getting to the good stuff? And oh, how we like to nest.” By contrast, some of the women argued, men look for a physical connection first, and then see if there is an emotional connection.
To bring this back to my original purpose in doing this article, what have I learned about lesbians and the lesbian community that I didn’t know? In general, I’ve learned that there is a frame of mind that lesbian couples have that is unique. However, it is not a “lesbian perspective”, it is a female perspective that is nurtured by the presence of two women, a perspective that doesn’t thrive in a female / male relationship. And I’ve learned that society as a whole is relatively indifferent to the lesbian community, whether through acceptance, titillation, or oblivion.
As TJ and Kelly note, “We have been lucky enough to not only grow up in an era where it is certainly more acceptable to be gay / lesbian, we have also lived in two main areas where I must say society has been nothing but accepting, these being Spain, where it is a very laid back culture, and now in London, where there are so many gay /lesbian events, venues that you (make you) feel very much a part of the community, and not only is it nice to feel accepted, it is also nice to go unnoticed, because it is deemed to be ‘normal’ so to speak… So in essence, the perception of society for us is overall positive.”
This may not be the experience of lesbians everywhere, but as a society, we are becoming more understanding of who lesbians are. They’re the women next door.
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