Rethinking Lesbian Feminism

Trans feminism and lesbian feminism are often understood to exist in opposition to one another, but there are important lessons they can teach each other if they are willing to engage in dialogue.

Aly E
11 min readMay 17, 2018

The story goes something like this: Lesbian Feminism has been losing relevance for over a decade now. Ideas like compulsory heterosexuality, political lesbianism, and lesbianism as a revolutionary approach to feminism are now all met with substantial hostility. Younger feminists are concerned wary of stringently defined identity and prefer more fluid notions of queerness over more static labels like lesbianism. Trans Feminism, of course has had a rough relationship with Lesbian Feminism, and in order for feminists to include trans women, we must push back against the outdated ideas of Lesbian Feminism.

A quick dip into the murky waters of feminist think piece writing will reveal that many younger writers thinking about sexuality and gender from a feminist perspective subscribe to a narrative like the one outlined above (details change of course). It is taken as a given that Lesbian Feminism is not only a thing of the past, which will die off at some point, but also that it is necessarily oppositional to emerging trans inclusive feminisms. I don’t think, however, that this is a very fair assessment.

Obviously, many Lesbian Feminists have done little to push back against this narrative in a useful way. Trans antagonistic feminists like Sheila Jeffrey’s consistently articulate their arguments as a defense of lesbian feminism, and much of the more popular anti-trans discourses within feminist spaces are framed as defending lesbianism from some trans menace; both by preventing supposed men from entering, and by preventing butch lesbians from being tricked into transitioning to men. None of this has helped push back against the idea that Trans Feminism and Lesbian Feminism might be reconcilable, but also might have important lessons for each other that are relevant to this day.

In this article, my hope is to show that both Lesbian Feminism and Trans Feminism bring crucial insights about the lives of women to the forefront, and that each would be strengthened in their various projects for women’s liberation if they learned from the other.

A Brief Defense of Lesbian Feminism:

Before addressing the ways Lesbian Feminism and Trans Feminism can learn from each other, I want to push back against the perception that Lesbian Feminism is no longer relevant for contemporary feminist theory and praxis.

So first: what is Lesbian Feminism? I use Lesbian Feminist as a term to refer to a broad and not entirely internally consistent group of theorists and theories which are interested in theorizing from the perspective and experience of lesbianism, understand lesbianism as a form of resistance towards heteropatriarchy, and understand heterosexuality as a cornerstone of patriarchal domination. Lesbian Feminism includes, for example, thinkers like Monique Wittig, Adrienne Rich, and Sara Ahmed. These three thinkers have radically different, and variously incomparable theories, yet all of them meet these three criteria.

So, why does Lesbian Feminism (still) matter? In short, because heterosexuality is still central to patriarchal domination, and lesbianism still offers interesting insights for resistance.

In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Lesbian Feminist Adrienne Rich suggests that Compulsory Heterosexuality is a “bias” which erases the existence of lesbians, by insisting “that women are ‘innately sexually oriented’ toward men.” Additionally, Compulsory Heterosexuality is a bias that suggests that lesbians sexual orientation towards women is in fact driven by bitterness towards men, and thus is still built around an innate orientation towards men. Rich suggests that this bias has even infiltrated feminist thought, pushing lesbian existence to the sideline as something to be tolerated but not embraced. Thus, Rich insists that,“Feminist theory can no longer afford merely to voice a toleration of ‘lesbianism’ as an ‘alternative life-style,’ or make token allusion to lesbians. A feminist critique of compulsory heterosexual orientation for women is long overdue.”

Rich suggests that patriarchy invests in compulsory heterosexuality in order to ensure that women are subjugated through familial relations of providing sole emotional and material care for children and spouses. In addition to analyzing domestic exploitation, Rich turns to the work of Catharine MacKinnon in order to explore the economic function of compulsory heterosexuality in the work force. She explains that:

[MacKinnon] cites a wealth of material documenting the fact that women are not only segregated in low-paying service jobs (as secretaries, domestics, nurses, typists, telephone operators, child-care workers, waitresses) but that “sexualization of the woman” is part of the job. Central and intrinsic to the economic realities of women’s lives is the requirement that women will “market sexual attractiveness to men, who tend to hold the economic power and position to enforce their predilections.”

Thus, for Rich and Mackinnon, the economic disparity that women face under capitalism does not simply result in unequal pay, but has male desire built into it, and requires that women market themselves to this desire in order to gain access to employment at all.

This insight, into the relationship between patriarchy and the economic oppression of women, is central to Lesbian Feminism, and provides important insights today. With increased accusations against male actors and other male professionals of sustained sexual harassment of those who work for them and around them, we need a theory which can explain how employment environments foster this sort of harassment. Rich’s formulation allows us to understand how men in positions of power, especially hiring power, enforce sexual availability as a prerequisite for entering the workplace altogether. As such, the economic oppression of women in the workplace based on wage differences and job segregation is inseparable from heterosexual domination.

Under this formulation, heterosexuality is not thought of as an individual sexual orientation which some people possess, but as a structuring social principle and an imposed destiny which women have no choice but to fall in line with. By understanding heterosexuality structurally, we can unearth the way that male desire and female marketing to this desire is not constitutive of individual actions and choices, but of structural and economic incentives which maintain male domination of women. Such non-individualized and structural approaches are crucial for pushing back against neoliberal models of choice and empowerment feminism, which forsake the collective liberation of women in favor of personal empowerment through consumption of “feminist” capitalist media and products. These insights remain pertinent.

Monique Wittig uses heterosexuality to understand women’s oppression, referring to patriarchal society as Heterosexual Society. For Wittig, the domination of men is maintained by notions of sexual difference which insist that men and women are innately different in a complimentary manner, and insists that the proper place for both is in a heterosexual relationship with each other. To be a woman, for Wittig, is to be a heterosexual subject who is sexually available and destined to subordination with men.

Because of this, Wittig suggests that “lesbians are not women.” What does Wittig mean by this bold claim? Essentially, because to be a woman means to be heterosexual, to reject heterosexuality is to fail to be a woman. For Wittig, this failure reveals the ways that lesbianism exists as a form of resistance, not only to male supremacy, but to the idea of men and women as distinct genders. Lesbianism becomes a resistance alternative that can allow us to push for the abolition of gender, by allowing women to organize outside the heterosexual model of woman.

Wittig’s formulation is important because it gives us a framework to understand how heterosexual violence is enacted. In The Straight Mind, Wittig looks at the ways that the authority of psychoanalytic (and largely male) experts is used to speak over and redefine what lesbian existence means, and to paint it as a defect or as a form of bitterness towards men. Such experts attempt to heterosexualize women’s resistance through a “censorship” of women’s own accounts of their experiences. This insight is still crucial today because it allows us to understand the ways heterosexuality is still enforced today. Mass media still portrays a happy ever after life of the princess finding her prince to young girls world wide, and success for women is still painted in heterosexual terms. Even working women are still expected to enter into heterosexual unions, and Wittig allows us to understand that these expectations, these imposed destinies, are a central part of patriarchal domination.

When we analyze some of the central claims of Lesbian Feminism, it becomes clear that Lesbian Feminism is still relevant today, because heterosexuality is still a cornerstone of women’s oppression. These insights are not outdated; in fact they have undergone over a decade of neglect, and can provide important and forgotten insights that can inform feminist theory and praxis today.

Heterosexualizing Trans Women:

So, now that I have demonstrated the ways that Lesbian Feminism still offers important insights for feminism today, I want to show that it does not necessarily have to be antagonistic with Trans Feminism, and that trans women ought to use the insights of Lesbian Feminism to understand our own experiences, and resist our oppression at the hands of men.

Trans women have had a particularly complicated relationship with psychology and medicine. From the very beginning of contemporary western trans theory, what it means to be trans has been defined by male psychologists, surgeons, physicians, and sexologists. Trans women continually experience the censorship of their own experiences, through the discourses of these male experts, who claim to understand the truth of those experiences.

In America, Dr. Harry Benjamin was particularly important for trans medicine. Dr. Benjamin not only revolutionized surgical interventions for trans women, but also theorized exactly what it meant to be trans. As was popular at the time, Dr. Benjamin presented a typology for categorizing the different sorts of trans women a doctor might encounter.

Benjamin’s Typology of Trans women.

As you can see from the chart above, Benjamin created a scale which extends from type one transvestite (occasional fetishistic crossdressing) to type six true transsexual. A quick look at the graph above will reveal something interesting: for one to qualify as a transsexual at all, nonetheless a true transsexual, one has to be sexually attracted to men. Transsexuals are allowed to be bisexual in this typology, but true transsexuals must either be asexual or entirely attracted to men. For Dr. Benjamin, the ideal trans woman is a thoroughly heterosexual trans woman. A lesbian trans woman under this theory would be a mere transvestite or fetishist.

For patients of Dr. Benjamin, where they fell within this scheme could be a crucial factor in access to trans healthcare. Only true transsexuals are considered surgical transsexuals under Dr. Benjamins theory. As such, many trans women have reported lying in order to gain access to surgery, insisting that they are exclusively heterosexual, despite being lesbians.

While Dr. Benjamin’s theories are not universally accepted, more recent theorists have reformulated them. Ray Blanchard and J Michael Bailey, for example, have built a theory of autogynephilia (love of oneself as a woman) which insists that the true transsexual women are those who are attracted to men, while those who report being attracted to other women are in fact fetishists who are sexually attracted to the idea of themselves as woman. Under this framework, being a trans lesbian is impossible. Trans lesbians only report that they are attracted to women, says Blanchard, because they have misunderstood their own autoerotic attraction to themselves.

Under both of these frameworks, it is impossible to be a trans woman and a lesbian. Male experts insist that they know better than lesbian trans women, and that in actuality, the lesbianism of trans women is really oriented around men, not really sexual orientation towards other women.

Given this situation, it seems patently obvious to me that Lesbian Feminist insights can help Trans Feminism explain why these sort of medical discourses arise. Both Benjamin and Blanchard’s theories are exactly the type of censoring which Wittig criticizes. They seek to either heterosexualize trans women by making the idea of a trans lesbian impossible (or a renunciation of right to medical access), or to make trans lesbianism actually about men. As such, these phenomena are also best explained by Rich’s theory of compulsory heterosexuality, which renders the very possibility of mutual sexual love between women impossible, by insisting that women (including tans women) are innately sexually oriented towards men.

For the many trans women who love other women, Lesbian Feminism can explain censorship and oppression based on the unique experience of trans lesbianism. To push back against gatekeeping and denial of medical care, trans women must incorporate Lesbian Feminist critique.

Trans Militancy and Lesbian Feminism:

Okay. So we have shown why Lesbian Feminism is still relevant today, we have shown why Lesbian Feminism can inform Trans Feminism. The last thing to demonstrate is that Trans Feminism can inform Lesbian Feminism. In order to show this, I will look to Sara Ahmed’s exceptional essay Living a Lesbian Life.

In this essay, Ahmed attempts to give a phenomenological analysis of exactly how it is that lesbian life is experienced, and makes a call for a revived and reoriented Lesbian Feminism. Ahmed calls for a militant Lesbian Feminism which takes feminism seriously as a means of changing the world. For Ahmed, trans women’s own experiences allow us to understand what such a militancy might look like.

Ahmed explains that, “Those who have to insist on being women are willful women.” Trans women have to consistently insist that they are women despite constant attacks from within feminism, from the right, and within their own communities. Trans women understand militant insistence and organization because both of these things have been necessary for trans women’s survival. Ahmed condemns feminists who do not stand in solidarity with trans women. She explains that they act as “straightening rods” who recenter heterosexual norms and preclude a lesbian life.

Not only does Ahmed understand Trans Feminism as being able to provide guidance and insight regarding militancy to Lesbian Feminism, it also must exist in solidarity with Lesbian Feminism. Ahmed writes:

When I ask for a revival of the militancy of the figure of the lesbian feminist I am imagining lesbian feminism as in a fundamental and necessary alliance with transfeminism. Transfeminism has also brought feminism back to life. And can I add here that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance; it is against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is fatal; a sentencing to death. We have to hear that fatalism as punishment and instruction: it is the story of the rod, of how those who have wayward wills or who will waywardly (boys who will not be boys, girls who will not be girls) are beaten. We will not be beaten. We need to drown these anti-trans voices out by raising the sound of our own. Our voices need to become our arms; rise up; rise up.

Because Ahmed understands anti-trans sentiments as a form of straightening, of heterosexualizing, of pushing back against lesbian life, Lesbian Feminists must stand in solidarity with the willful and militant resistance of trans women.

Additionally, I would suggest that the ability for trans women to utilize Lesbian Feminism to explain medical discrimination and censorship strengthens lesbian feminism and demonstrates the usefulness of its insights, and expands our understanding of how central heterosexuality is to the oppression of women, trans and cis alike.

At the end of the day, it is clear that Lesbian Feminism has much to offer to contemporary feminist struggle, and that it is not an outdated or inherently oppressive form of feminism. In reality, Lesbian Feminism is necessary to understand trans experience at all, and to enrich our understanding of how all women are oppressed. It allows us to think about resistance to patriarchy not simply as empowerment or choice, but as structural and militant opposition to patriarchy. It allows us to understand how women loving other women functions as a form of resistance, and testifies to the possibility of another world. A world without male domination.

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