Why didn't you say something sooner?—You're Asking The Wrong Question

10/17/2017 06:27 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2017

When I was a little girl, a man threw a penny at me. He was someone I was supposed to look up to. “This is what a girl is worth,” he said. I still carry that penny with me wherever I go. It’s my penny. It’s my birthright. No one can take it from me.

Why didn’t you say something sooner?— the publication kept asking, in a slew of public posts, so many times and in so many ways, the question became an accusation. A shifting of blame. A year ago the publication did a Q&A with me about my novel, and they recently discovered I was offended because they put words in my mouth and printed them up as quotes. Among other things, throughout the interview, where I said “lesbian” the word lesbian was changed to “queer.” I was rebranded. I became the mythological “if the situation was right” lesbian. The appropriated slur “queer,” has become the popular descriptor of choice for a “yes” girl or a “maybe” girl— An “I’m not going to rule anything out because I’m open-minded” girl. It doesn’t carry the sting of lesbian. The stigma of lesbian. The boundaries of lesbian. Lesbian is a solid “No.” ”Not even if...” And that unwillingness to bend is the very reason lesbians are targeted with insidious psychological warfare.

At the time, I assumed anyone writing for a lesbian publication was a lesbian. I was wrong. I was perplexed— Why were words I would never use to describe myself or my novel, like “queerness” and “LGBTQ” and “gender presentation,” put into my mouth? After all, a lesbian wouldn’t typically perpetuate the homophobic idea that ‘androgynous’ lesbians are “presenting” a “gender.” Lesbians aren’t presenting a gender. Lesbians aren’t trying to look like men. And the idea that we are, is not only extremely sexist, it’s exceptionally damaging to the lesbian community. It’s a cruel punchline that’s been immortalized by the mainstream media, and a big part of what lead me to write my novel in the first place. But to anyone reading the interview, it looked like I actually said those things, and that was the point... To make it look that way. The psychological warfare has a new face, a new posse trying to break down our boundaries. I’ve seen this strategy used in a lot in publications lately. I’ve done a lot of digging and I’ve discovered that most lesbian publications have something unsettling in common—They’re being run by non-lesbians. They only have one or two token lesbians writing on their staff. Young lesbians currently get their sex advice under the guise that it’s coming from lesbians. Let that sink in: Lesbians are the token... In lesbian publications.

Why didn’t I say something sooner? The sad truth is I wasn’t planning to say anything. Ever. I put it behind me. Like most women, I’ve been systematically conditioned to be good and quiet and nice and polite and grateful— I’ve been conditioned in this way, from as far back as I can remember. Because that’s what our society teaches girls. We shouldn’t complain. We shouldn’t ask for things. We should smile more. We shouldn’t get too good at our jobs. We should dumb ourselves down. We should let men think they thought of it first. And if we break these unspoken rules— this long list of demands— we risk demotion, we risk losing our jobs, we risk everything. We don’t get another interview. We don’t get another season. We become the difficult woman. The bossy woman. The crazy lady. The witch. The bitch. If you’re a lesbian, this reality is amplified, and if you’re a woman of color it’s multiplied.

I wanted to say something— I told my wife and my mother and my sister right away— But I didn’t dare challenge the publication. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, and I didn’t know what the consequences would be. Whenever I’ve spoken up in my life, I’ve almost always been slapped down.

Why didn’t I say something sooner? We need to stop asking women this question. Because there’s no time stamp on doing the right thing.

Lesbians are pathologically misrepresented. The mainstream media and the 'LGBT’ are male-dominated (like everything else), and these institutions have sanctioned and preserved the methodical misogynistic misinterpretation of lesbians forever— A long-standing and long-accepted brand of homophobia, that specifically targets lesbians. Actual lesbians. Not the warped man-goggle media depiction of ‘the right kind of lesbian’ portrayed in the mainstream: ‘feminine’ with a hint of pliability. The real deal: The “no” lesbian. Even lesbian organizations and media are controlled by non-lesbians and male-money— Parent companies or advertisers that ultimately control what we can and cannot say. As a result, lesbians are inaccurately portrayed, and ‘androgynous’ lesbians are made into a problem that needs to be fixed, or a fetish for gay men to conquer. And this endless dehumanizing has done a great deal of damage to young lesbians.

Calling things out is intimidating, but lesbians need to know what’s really going on right now— We’re seeing an insurgence of homophobic advice from non-lesbians directed at young lesbians— Teaching them that same-sex “preferences” are “exclusionary and wrong.” (Pride.com) Vice magazine is advising lesbians on condom use, and shaming the few lesbian bloggers we have, alleging they’ve been “excommunicated” by the “LGBTQ.” Excommunicated, a religious word, a warning to all lesbians: Conform or else. The mainstream is now teaching lesbians that their innate same-sex “preferences” make them bigots, and that although “gay ‘conversion therapy’ has been proven not to work... you can unlearn your own [same-sex] prejudices... it just takes time and conscious effort.” (EverydayFeminism) Go Magazine just put out an article by the same non-lesbian writer who changed my Q&A answers— It’s titled “The Sexpert: How Can Lesbians Have Safer Sex.” The byline reads, “Newsflash: We should be using condoms.” The use of “We” offers lesbians advice under the guise that the author is a lesbian. However, the author recently stated (publicly), “I’m not a damn lesbian” and “I’ve never written on behalf of lesbians.” The article offers lesbians advice like, “You can use condoms as a barrier when having a penis in vagina or when having anal sex."

Publications that are lesbian in name, make it seem like we’re okay with redefining ourselves, erasing ourselves... We’re not. Someone needs to fight and give lesbians a voice. Because lesbians don’t currently have a voice. We have the illusion of a voice. And the silencing of lesbian voices within the alphabet is unparalleled. It’s 2017 and we’ve been so heavily censored, that we’ve gone underground. When a group has to go underground to form secret spaces that aren’t supervised by patriarchal rule, it’s a sure sign we’re going backwards. We’ve lost our individuality. We’ve lost our autonomy. And make no mistake, we have been co-opted.

So while current mainstream favorites like BuzzFeed, are conditioning young lesbians to believe that it’s “closed-minded... harmful and exclusionary” to “label” yourself a “lesbian” (and having “genital preferences,” means your “ideas” are “incredibly reductive”)— lesbians who could defend against this homophobia, are being aggressively censored. Currently, the only way a lesbian can have a voice or a platform is if she’s okay with being rebranded— Willing to imply she’s pliable and that all lesbians should finally let go of our boundaries. Because our society has reached such a new level of blatant homophobia, that non-lesbians are now forcing lesbians to make public apologies when they say they’re “grateful” for lesbian nights... because it’s the one night they can go out and not worry about feeling someones “d*ck rub against them.” To have a voice, lesbians must be willing to publicly apologize for their inherent sexual orientation. Willing to suspend our own reality. Lie to ourselves and to others about our innate sexual boundaries.

Asking someone to suspend reality and have faith in a belief system, is called a religion— Enforcing those beliefs by silencing others, is called a cult. The few lesbian role models we have, are forced to chose between their integrity and having a voice. As I’ve watched nearly every lesbian bar and publication and mainstay disappear, I realize that the visible lesbian community is being dismantled from the inside. Allies? Please.

Why don’t women say something sooner?— Just look at what happens when we do! In my life, when I’ve spoken up, when I’ve stepped out of line, I’ve always lost something. This time was no different— I spoke up and there were consequences. The interviewer unapologetically claimed that the words were her own and that she was looking to “provide space for all LGBTQ women." But in providing this “space,” she excluded me from my own story. Excluded all lesbians. I spoke up and there were consequences for all of us— The publication promptly changed their mission statement on social media. A community that was already hurting, that’s fought long and hard for the right to name and take pride in our boundaries, was slapped down. The interview was republished and my answers are now in my own words, but the road to getting there was unnerving.

Why didn’t I say something sooner?— Because it’s a long way down. I once believed that despite being a “girl,” if I worked hard enough, I could reach the top. I’ve been at the top. What I didn’t bank on is how fast a girl will get knocked down once she gets there. All it took was for my coworkers to get teased— taunted regularly with the worst possible insult— they were being outdone “by a girl.” I was the best at my job, and my being at the top was strategically employed to bruise the male ego... and out came that word: BITCH. It spread fast. In a matter of days, I became the target of a bitch-hunt. And I lost everything I’d worked for. This is a pattern in women’s lives. And often times it isn’t even men tearing us down. It’s other women. Because we’re conditioned to do that too. To compete with each other. To tear one another down. We’re taught. From the time we can walk.

After a while, I realized, it didn’t matter how good I was, or how smart, or how talented. None of it mattered. Nothing was ever going to be enough. Girls are broken by the time we reach womanhood— I will always be the little girl who had a penny thrown at her in a laundry room, by a man who I was supposed to look up to. When I see her now, it’s as though I’m floating outside of myself, and when I allow myself to visit that place, that moment, my heart is crushed all over again, because no one ever defended her. Every girl has her penny. We’re conditioned to think we’re worth less. That we’ll never be good enough or important enough or anything enough. We’re conditioned to think we should be the flexible girl, the pliable girl, the “yes” girl. We must be nice and quiet and polite. I will always be the little girl who had a penny thrown at her, and I’ll always hear those words— “This is what a girl is worth.” I can fight it, but I’ll never be able to outrun it. That penny is mine. It’s my birthright. And no one can take it away from me.

Why didn’t I say something sooner? Because being born with a vagina comes with repercussions, and often, not saying anything at all, feels like your only option.

Julia Diana Robertson is a journalist and author of Beyond the Screen Door. You can find her (and her fiction) at www.juliadianarobertson.com

*edited to site new GO article

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