So what I’ve learned from the past couple months of being really loud about being a bi woman on Tumblr is: A lot of young/new LGBT+ people on this site do not understand that some of the stuff they’re saying comes across to other LGBT+ people as offensive, aggressive, or threatening. And when they actually find out the history and context, a lot of them go, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, I never meant to say that.”
Like, “queer is a slur”: I get the impression that people saying this are like… oh, how I might react if I heard someone refer to all gay men as “f*gs”. Like, “Oh wow, that’s a super loaded word with a bunch of negative freight behind it, are you really sure you want to put that word on people who are still very raw and would be alarmed, upset, or offended if they heard you call them it, no matter what you intended?”
So they’re really surprised when self-described queers respond with a LOT of hostility to what feels like a well-intentioned reminder that some people might not like it.
That’s because there’s a history of “political lesbians”, like Sheila Jeffreys, who believe that no matter their sexual orientation, women should cut off all social contact with men, who are fundamentally evil, and only date the “correct” sex, which is other women. Political lesbians claim that relationships between women, especially ones that don’t contain lust, are fundamentally pure, good, and unproblematic. They therefore regard most of the LGBT community with deep suspicion, because its members are either way too into sex, into the wrong kind of sex, into sex with men, are men themselves, or somehow challenge the very definitions of sex and gender.
When “queer theory” arrived in the 1980s and 1990s as an organized attempt by many diverse LGBT+ people in academia to sit down and talk about the social oppressions they face, political lesbians like Jeffreys attacked it harshly, publishing articles like “The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians”, arguing that because queer theory said it was okay to be a man or stop being a man or want to have sex with a man, it was fundamentally evil and destructive. And this attitude has echoed through the years; many LGBT+ people have experience being harshly criticized by radical feminists because being anything but a cis “gold star lesbian” (another phrase that gives me war flashbacks) was considered patriarchal, oppressive, and basically evil.
And when those arguments happened, “queer” was a good umbrella to shelter under, even when people didn’t know the intricacies of academic queer theory; people who identified as “queer” were more likely to be accepting and understanding, and “queer” was often the only label or community bisexual and nonbinary people didn’t get chased out of. If someone didn’t disagree that people got to call themselves queer, but didn’t want to be called queer themselves, they could just say “I don’t like being called queer” and that was that. Being “queer” was to being LGBT as being a “feminist” was to being a woman; it was opt-in.
But this history isn’t evident when these interactions happen. We don’t sit down and say, “Okay, so forty years ago there was this woman named Sheila, and…” Instead we queers go POP! like pufferfish, instantly on the defensive, a red haze descending over our vision, and bellow, “DO NOT TELL ME WHAT WORDS I CANNOT USE,” because we cannot find a way to say, “This word is so vital and precious to me, I wouldn’t be alive in the same way if I lost it.” And then the people who just pointed out that this word has a history, JEEZ, way to overreact, go away very confused and off-put, because they were just trying to say.
But I’ve found that once this is explained, a lot of people go, “Oh wow, okay, I did NOT mean to insinuate that, I didn’t realize that I was also saying something with a lot of painful freight to it.”
And that? That gives me hope for the future.
Similarily: “Dyke/butch/femme are lesbian words, bisexual/pansexual women shouldn’t use them.”
When I speak to them, lesbians who say this seem to be under the impression that bisexuals must have our own history and culture and words that are all perfectly nice, so why can’t we just use those without poaching someone else’s?
And often, they’re really shocked when I tell them: We don’t. We can’t. I’d love to; it’s not possible.
“Lesbian” used to be a word that simply meant a woman who loved other women. And until feminism, very, very few women had the economic freedom to choose to live entirely away from men. Lesbian bars that began in the 1930s didn’t interrogate you about your history at the door; many of the women who went there seeking romantic or sexual relationships with other women were married to men at the time. When The Daughters of Bilitis formed in 1955 to work for the civil and political wellbeing of lesbians, the majority of its members were closeted, married women, and for those women, leaving their husbands and committing to lesbian partners was a risky and arduous process the organization helped them with. Women were admitted whether or not they’d at one point truly loved or desired their husbands or other men–the important thing was that they loved women and wanted to explore that desire.
Lesbian groups turned against bisexual and pansexual women as a class in the 1970s and 80s, when radical feminists began to teach that to escape the Patriarchy’s evil influence, women needed to cut themselves off from men entirely. Having relationships with men was “sleeping with the enemy” and colluding with oppression. Many lesbian radical feminists viewed, and still view, bisexuality as a fundamentally disordered condition that makes bisexuals unstable, abusive, anti-feminist, and untrustworthy.
(This despite the fact that radical feminists and political lesbians are actually a small fraction of lesbians and wlw, and lesbians do tend, overall, to have positive attitudes towards bisexuals.)
That process of expelling bi women from lesbian groups with immense prejudice continues to this day and leaves scars on a lot of bi/pan people. A lot of bisexuals, myself included, have an experience of “double discrimination”; we are made to feel unwelcome or invisible both in straight society, and in LGBT spaces. And part of this is because attempts to build a bisexual/pansexual community identity have met with strong resistance from gays and lesbians, so we have far fewer books, resources, histories, icons, organizations, events, and resources than gays and lesbians do, despite numerically outnumbering them..
So every time I hear that phrase, it’s another painful reminder for me of all the experiences I’ve had being rejected by the lesbian community. But bisexual experiences don’t get talked about or signalboosted much,so a lot of young/new lesbians literally haven’t learned this aspect of LGBT+ history.
And once I’ve explained it, I’ve had a heartening number of lesbians go, “That’s not what I wanted to happen, so I’m going to stop saying that.”
This is good information for people who carry on with the “queer is a slur” rhetoric and don’t comprehend the push back.