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.

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