W(h)ither the Lesbian Nation? Reflections on Millennial Sexualities

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Sociologist Steven Seidman, author of such books as Beyond the Closet and Romantic Longings, recently interviewed me about lesbian identities and the changing landscape of sexual politics. 

Steven Seidman: Your first book, Sex and Sensibility, traced the decentering of lesbian-feminism in the 1990s. Has there been a parallel decentering of the broader lesbian culture in the last decade or so?

Arlene Stein: Lesbian culture in the United States has always operated under the radar to a great extent, and has taken varied forms, depending upon its location in space and time. My earlier work looked at how feminism offered many lesbians of the baby boom a unifying ideology. It was supremely sexy and radical to be a lesbian for a brief moment in the 1970s, at least in the context of the feminist counterculture.  To be very honest, I am not sure whether there is such a thing as a “lesbian culture” at all still. In small and medium sized towns, there are friendship networks comprised in part of women who have affectional preferences for other women. In cities and university towns, where there are more opportunities for institution-building, lesbian women may flock to softball leagues, volunteering at battered women’s shelters, or parenting groups. These networks tend to be highly segmented by age—and often by class and race as well. Because sexual subcultures, including lesbian subcultures, skew toward the young, I have to admit that I’m no longer the best person to serve as an analyst of them. When I wrote Sex and Sensibility as my dissertation at UC Berkeley in the late 1980s, I was myself a young person who was very much a part of the community I was studying. I am now in my 50s, and most of the lesbians I know are also roughly my age, other than those whom I encounter as a professor. My friends and I constitute a subset of the larger lesbian world, to be sure, but we’re certainly not on the cutting edge.

SS: How would you characterize the younger generation of Americans who are identifying as lesbian? Has the meaning of being a lesbian changed for these younger women?

AS: My impression is that today many younger women do not identify with the term “lesbian” at all. Many identify as queer, some as gay, some as trans. Many relegate “lesbian” to the past, associating it with a separatist impulse which they don’t particularly admire. But others, perhaps a smaller minority, are nostalgic for that movement’s radical imagination. A friend of mine, an academic who is more than ten years younger than me, and who appreciates lesbian feminism for its cultural manifestations—women’s land, women’s music, Tee Corinne drawings of vulvas, and so forth—makes large format photographs of still-existing feminist women’s land groups. She and others, some of whom identify with a cultural movement called “deep lez,” love the take-no-prisoners attitude of radical lesbian feminism, and they embrace elements of it without a hint of irony! Like other younger lesbian-identified women, particularly those who see themselves as artists, they identify with feminism’s DIY spirit, as well as with the more postmodern tendency toward cultural appropriation—and they don’t see these impulses as being at odds with one another. As the trans singer/performer Antony Hegarty said in an interview recently, “sincerity is the new punk.”

Tee Corinne, “Yantra #41,” from the Yantras of Womanlove series. c. Tee Corinne; Courtesy of the Tee A. Corinne Papers, University of Oregon Libraries.

Tee Corinne, “Yantra #41,” from the Yantras of Womanlove series. c. Tee Corinne; Courtesy of the Tee A. Corinne Papers, University of Oregon Libraries.

SS: Do you think that current lesbians will continue a tradition of community building that separates lesbians from gay men and straight women?

AS: I’m not sure. I suppose that as long as women who love other women are excluded from certain avenues of respectability and mobility, and as long as they experience homophobia and sexism, there will be a place for lesbians who organize as lesbians, even if they don’t necessarily use that term to describe themselves. My sense is that fewer and fewer women, and fewer men for that matter, experience the deep sense of fear and shame that once accompanied the recognition of having same-sex desires. Younger people grow up with images of homosexuality on television. They’re rather sanitized, and typically white/middle class/male images, but who would have imagined the day when Ellen DeGeneres, a middle-aged lesbian, could be everyone’s favorite girl-next-door talk show host? Things have changed, to be sure. Still, as we know, there are young women (and men) who live in parts of this country, and not only in rural areas or religious communities, who face tremendous challenges in claiming their desires. But at least they have the Internet and can form communities online. That doesn’t insure their physical safety, but at least it gives them a lifeline, and the knowledge they are not alone.

SS: There’s been a wide-ranging discussion of late on sexual fluidity, especially among women. What’s your sense of how this theme is playing out among younger and older lesbians?

AS: Sexual fluidity, and the possibility of bisexuality, has long been an elephant in the room. Lesbian feminists embraced fluidity when it worked to their advantage, when it brought many new women (including previously married housewives!) into the ranks of the lesbian nation. But when fluidity led in the other direction, toward heterosexuality, they castigated those who decided after spending years as happy little lesbians, to go back to men. My sense is that queer women today are much more keenly aware of the prevalence of sexual fluidity and aren’t quite as threatened by bisexuality as my generation was. Seventy years after Kinsey, we are better informed that sexuality is a spectrum. Younger women study this stuff in college, and they read magazine articles about it—and have access to girl-on-girl porn, for better or for worse. Older women? I suppose many of them—us!—have also been changed by the dominant culture’s flirtation with bisexuality. But some continue to see bisexuality as a threat.’

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SS: What has been the impact of the emergence of transgenderism and transexualism on the lesbian community?

AS: It’s pretty huge, I think. I’m doing research now on trans men and top surgery. I became interested in this project because it seemed to me that more and more female-assigned individuals who might have been butch lesbians twenty years ago are now bypassing the lesbian label and identifying as trans. Why is this the case? Certainly the decline of the lesbian feminist world and the rise of the trans community has a lot to do with it. These communities create cultural scripts that make it possible for people to construct lives that make sense to them. But there’s more to it than that, I think. Trans medical procedures, such as top surgery, are now more widely accessible, and knowledge of them circulates on the Internet. There’s a commercial element, to be sure, as surgeons have come to see this as an increasingly attractive, and lucrative, specialty. Unlike some lesbians, who fear what I’ve called the “incredibly shrinking lesbian world,” I don’t really have a unified political or emotional response to this development–which makes me want to know more. Right now, I see the rise of trans as rooted in late modern reflexivity and restlessness, and our desire to constantly work on, and become the best possible version of ourselves. Of course the impulse toward self-improvement is very American. But it’s also a product of our neoliberal age, in which we all want to become masters of our own little universe, in this case our bodies. While I certainly do not share the opinion of some feminists that female-assigned individuals who wish to live as men are by their very existence antifeminist, I do see transgender as, at least implicitly a critique of radical social constructionism and a recognition of the materiality of the body

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SS: In your view has a trend towards the “normalization” of homosexuality affected lesbians differently than gay men?

AS: Again, it’s difficult to generalize outside of particular class, geographic, racial, and age contexts, but on the whole, gay men continue to enjoy a great deal more power than lesbians in American society, as evidenced by the fact that there are still gay male neighborhoods and commercial spaces, however weakened, and that there are a considerable number of gay men who are economic and political elites. Lesbians still experience gender discrimination. Today, the highest-ranking woman in corporate America is someone who was born a man, who transitioned later in life. Collectively, men simply enjoy greater opportunities than women do in many spheres. At the same time, heteronormativity also structures society, allocating rewards to those who get married and construct families in which the couple is at the center. It’s no wonder many of us who can do so are choosing to enter that system, particularly as alternative forms of intimacy may be on more tenuous ground.

Israel, Gaza, and the Trouble with Holocaust Analogies

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The recent violence in Gaza reverberates around the world, leading to confrontations and wars of words, and testing tribal loyalties: are you with us or against us? As is often the case in times of trial for Israel, in the pitched battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are playing prominent roles.

A few weeks ago, Elie Wiesel, in an ad sponsored by Shmuley Boteach’s Values Network, accused Hamas of using children as human shields in recent fighting. “In my own lifetime,” proclaimed Wiesel, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.”

The ad, which appeared in several major American newspapers, including the New York Times, likened the Israel-Palestinian crisis to a clash of civilizations between “those who celebrate life and those who champion death,” pinning civilian deaths on the deliberate actions of Hamas.

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Two weeks later, a group of 327 Holocaust survivors and their descendants unequivocally condemned the “massacre of Palestinians in Gaza and the ongoing occupation” and took the United States to task for funding recent attacks. In a half-page ad in the Times, they accused Wiesel of “abusing our history,” likening Israeli aggression to genocide.

We are disgusted and outraged by Elie Wiesel’s abuse of our history in these pages to justify the unjustifiable: Israel’s wholesale effort to destroy Gaza and the murder of more than 2,000 Palestinians, including many hundreds of children. Nothing can justify bombing UN shelters, homes, hospitals and universities. Nothing can justify depriving people of electricity and water.

We must raise our collective voices and use our collective power to bring about an end to all forms of racism, including the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. We call for an immediate end to the siege against and blockade of Gaza. We call for the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel. “Never again” must mean NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!

That Holocaust survivors would be enlisted in the battle for American public opinion about Israel should come as little surprise. For groups vying for moral authority—the Christian right, gays and lesbians, and even captains of industry (such as when private equity titan Stephen A. Schwartzman said that asking financiers to pay taxes at the same rate as those who work for a living is comparable to Hitler’s invasion of Poland), associating oneself with the Holocaust has become a potent way to draw attention to an issue, claim moral authority, and elicit sympathy for one’s side of a conflict. (See my article, “Whose Memory? Whose Victimhood?“)

In a world of shades of gray, where it is often difficult for many of us to figure out where to stand, the genocide of European Jewry has come to symbolize absolute evil. Its survivors, in turn, have become revered figures, personifying heroism and moral authority.

Conservative critic Alvin Rosenfeld recently took left-leaning Holocaust survivors and their children to task in The Forward for criticizing Israel in the paid Times ad. Rosenfeld, a conservative objected to their political stance, charging that being a survivor “carries no special entitlement to superior ethical insight or elevated political awareness.”

The signatories to IJSN’s ad, however, invoke just such an entitlement as they ostentatiously pull rank as Holocaust survivors in condemning Israel. In inflating and exploiting a status they regard as privileged, they are guilty of doing precisely what they falsely accuse Elie Wiesel of doing: “manipulating the legacy of the Nazi genocide to justify the unjustifiable.” Their abuse of Jewish suffering for contemporary political ends comes especially to the fore whenever they proudly parade forth their pedigrees as survivors to defame Israel.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/204790/moral-emptiness-of-holocaust-survivors-who-took-on/?p=all#ixzz3DU3el6ya

He’s partly right. Survivors are rarely heroic paragons of moral virtue; they’re just ordinary people who through luck, fortune, or fortitude, managed to endure, despite the odds. I know because my father, who settled here in the early 1950s, after losing his home, his family, and nearly his life, was one of them. After spending the war years on the run in Poland and Russia, he returned home to Warsaw to find everyone gone. For four decades afterwards, he tried his best to fit into his adopted nation, and shied away from politics. He was fairly typical of other survivors in that respect.

Rosenfeld is happy to listen to survivors who agree with his stance on Israel, like Elie Wiesel. When they disagree with it, like the signatories to the letter from the anti-Zionist survivors and their families, they are guilty of “moral emptiness.”

The problem is not that Holocaust survivors are using their status to make moral arguments about Israel’s recent actions in Gaza.  The real problem is that quick and easy Holocaust analogies are easily used to shut down reasonable discussion. On the right, those who use Holocaust analogies tar critics of Israel, even thoughtful ones, with the brush of anti-Semitism, labeling them as self-hating Jews—and even charging them with inciting another Holocaust. Those on the left, on the other hand are too quick to liken Netanyahu to Hitler, and call his policies genocidal. Instead of encouraging debate, such talk discourages it. One can’t debate with Hitler, nor even, at times, with a Holocaust survivor.

Instead of enlisting Holocaust survivors as symbolic vehicles in an already polarized and all-too bloody conflict, we should honor them as the last links to a vibrant prewar Jewish world – a world that was once filled with the cacophonous sounds of debate about the future of the Jewish people. In that world, even though it was ravaged by centuries of anti-Semitism and on the verge of a yet-unknown cataclysm, there were spirited discussions about a host of issues, including the question of whether Jews should place their faith with visions of world socialism, with a national homeland, or simply with God.

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 Sadly, that tradition of debate and dissent hardly exists today, if the current state of organized Jewry is any indication in this country. Gone are the days when spirited discussions of Talmud and politics spilled out from synagogues onto the streets. Religious institutions, fearful of alienating their congregants, now shy away from controversy.  Regrettably, so do most of our national Jewish organizations. Those who refuse to be quiet, like Brant Rosen, the suburban Chicago rabbi and unspoken critic of Israel who recently resigned his pulpit for fear of dividing his congregation, are among the casualties.

Instead, conversations about the Israel-Palestine issue are more likely to take place on Facebook, or in sponsored ads in our national newspapers today. They offer stark alternatives: are you with us or against us?

We people of the book are known for our fertile tradition of dissent and disagreement. While some may believe that times of war necessitate absolute loyalty, it is precisely now that we need dissent the most.