"Lavender menace." That's what National Organization for Women (NOW) president Betty Friedan called the "threat" from lesbians to the newly formed second-wave feminist movement in 1969. Friedan, bolstered by other straight feminist leaders, believed that butch lesbians would damage the image of radical feminism with their "mannish" looks and "man-hating" behavior.
Fast-forward 44 years and the man-hating lesbian trope is back with a vengeance. Straight, liberal feminists can't distance themselves far enough from lesbians and their issues. As they moderate their own feminism to accommodate men and embrace a mainstreamed, it's-OK-guys-we-love-you feminism-lite, they also argue against a true, essentialist feminism that is for and about women.
Lest that make me sound like that scary, man-hating ogre I've never actually met in real life but which straight feminists and men have been talking about since before Friedan's panic attack over lavender menacing, let me explain: Feminism is a movement to empower women and equalize them in society. All women, everywhere.
Conversely, lesbophobia is a movement to silence lesbians everywhere, to double-dose lesbians with sexism and homophobia and dare us to challenge that erasure of who and what we are. This lesbophobia doesn't just come from men. It comes from the very women who should be our most stalwart supporters, undermining lesbians in their quest for equity.
Straight, liberal feminists have been so invested in rebranding straight, liberal feminism to fit a binary political system (Democrats good for women; Republicans bad for women) and binary sexuality roles (we love men; lesbians hate men) that they've completely lost sight of what the goal of feminism is supposed to be: to wrest the world from the death grip of patriarchy and divide the spoils equally among everyone, regardless of gender.
Straight, liberal feminism has also become mired in single-issue politics to the exclusion of all else -- especially lesbians. Abortion rights seems to be the only issue that straight, liberal feminists can own and support, yet feminism is about keeping women from being erased from the planet through femicide, sex-selective abortion and killings of lesbians.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen whom Taliban gunmen shot in the head in October 2012 in an assassination attempt to keep her from advocating for girls' education, spoke at the United Nations last month on her 16th birthday. Malala seems to know much more about feminism and what its goals once were/should be than do the majority of straight, white, middle-class feminists blogging around the Internet in 2013. At the same time that Malala was speaking with urgency about a need for radical feminist reforms worldwide to save the lives of girls like herself, Amanda Marcotte was writing at Slate that there is no need for radical feminism, and what the heck was that anyways, huh, and lesbians who espoused it should just get over themselves.
Straight, liberal UK feminist Caroline Criado-Perez created a furor a few weeks ago when she freaked out over getting rape threats and death threats on Twitter. Such threats, horrific as they are, were only news because Criado-Perez is a well-known, straight, liberal feminist espousing centrist feminist views. BBC and Radio 5 were quick to get her and several other well-known straight, liberal feminists on air to discuss this "new" trend.
It's not new for lesbians. Lesbians have been receiving these threats on Twitter on a daily basis, with no repercussions against the perpetrators by Twitter and no hue and cry from our feminist sisters. We have been left to pray that online threats don't translate into real-life ones, as they have for me and other lesbians.
The night of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I received rape threats ("get raped you dirty feminist cunt") and death threats ("maybe you should have died like Trayvon") on Twitter as I tweeted for several hours about the racism of the verdict and my belief that justice was not served.
One particularly repugnant tweet to me read:
I retweeted the threats. I wrote about the threats in SheWired in the days after the verdict. No one seemed especially surprised by the threats I received. Twitter did not suspend any of the men who tweeted at me, including the author of the above threat. The BBC did not ring me up, nor did Radio 5. Yet even more tellingly, not one straight, liberal feminist said a word. The very women who are up in arms over the terrible treatment of Criado-Perez have consistently shrugged off these same threats when they are made to lesbians. Why?
The culture of lesbian erasure that has flourished in the past few years has become deeply and disturbingly entrenched in straight, liberal feminism. Lesbians have become politically anathema. We're expected to support the abortion-rights movement, but there's no reciprocity: No one tossing around the term "reproductive rights" thinks it applies to making alternative insemination accessible for all lesbians.
Lesbian-rights issues abound, but I have yet to see a straight, liberal feminist address those issues as if they were her own. When I wrote about anti-lesbian "corrective rape" for The Advocate, the response from straight, liberal feminists was resounding: crickets.
Employment discrimination is a fundamental issue for lesbians. Where is the straight feminist outrage over lesbians being fired for being gay, or over lesbians who don't pass as straight being unable to access employment? Where is the discourse over lesbians being denied visitation with their children? Where is the concern over lesbians being barred from seeing their partners in hospitals or nursing homes? What about the lesbian cancer epidemic or the inability of lesbians to access non-homophobic health care? How about lesbians and poverty? And lesbians who have been raped, as I wrote about here last month? What about us?
There are myriad global threats to lesbians: "corrective rape" in South Africa, lesbians murdered for being gay in Jamaica, "honor killings" of lesbians throughout the Middle East, lesbians sex-trafficked throughout the Eastern bloc, lesbians forcibly married in India and Pakistan.
If straight, liberal feminists don't want to challenge substantive economic and social issues and global issues, perhaps they could address the misrepresentation of lesbians in popular culture. Comedian/actor Russell Brand said last month that all lesbians want to "jump the fence." Perhaps he took his ex-wife Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" song too literally. Yet this is the meme about lesbians throughout popular culture: "Lesbian" and "bisexual" are conflated, and men are inserted into the lesbian romantic equation. A film like 2010's The Kids Are All Right had Julianne Moore's lesbian character engaged in nonstop heterosexual sex throughout the entire film. In the current Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black, the protagonist is a "former lesbian." When lesbians appear at all on TV, they have a cookie-cutter similarity: pretty, "bicurious" women who end up together, or single lesbians whose best friends are straight women. On the flip side, we have late-night comedians referencing unattractive, mannish lesbians in flannel shirts.
In addition to these hardcore life-and-death issues and popular media erasures, in our daily lives lesbians face continual threats. Femme-looking lesbians like me are constantly told that they "don't look like a lesbian," or that they should get a "real" man. Butch lesbians are told that they should stop trying to be men. Lesbian couples are harassed. Young lesbians are told that they are just going through a phase and haven't met the right man. Lesbians are targets, for discrimination, for sexual harassment, for violence. Lesbians have less money and less privilege than straight women have. We have less access to everything than our straight sisters have -- except to violence.
Lesbians were at the forefront of first- and second-wave feminism. Lesbians have consistently been the standard bearers for feminism when it has made straight, liberal feminists squirmy and uncomfortable around their men. Lesbians never owned the phrase "I'm a feminist, but...."
Lesbians are at risk. If straight feminists can rally for each other, why can't they do the same for lesbians? Straight feminists need to ask themselves why 44 years after Betty Friedan declared war on the "lavender menace," that's the one tenet of second-wave feminism that straight feminists seem determined to defend.
Follow Victoria A. Brownworth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VABVOX