In 2005 at the University of Florida, I attended a lecture where Queer Theorist Jack Halberstam asserted that butch lesbians, and female masculinity in general, would never be embraced by a media perpetually shaped by male desire. Where trans women may titillate the male gaze, female masculinity horrifies.
We must investigate some of the silence concerning butch women. The only time I can recall a butch lesbian making a major cover is when K.D. Lang posed with Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vanity Fair. Cindy Crawford's alluring presence was amenable to the male gaze. But where are the butch lesbians, right? Would Lea DeLaria make the cover of Vanity Fair? While DeLaria skillfully portrays the complexities of life as a butch lesbian on Orange Is the New Black, make no mistake, the marketing force behind the show is the feminine on feminine, or the highly feminized.
As more masculine-bent women -- lesbians, in particular -- are transitioning to men, the lesbian community as a whole is shrinking. Note that the lesbian bar The Lexington Club recently closed. Note that there are only a few feminist bookstores left in the country. Note that last summer the National Council of Lesbian Rights boycotted the lesbian dominant festival MichFest for being "trans exclusive." I used the above quotes because this is not the language of MichFest's most recent statement regarding trans women and trans men attending the festival. Rather, producer Lisa Vogel asserts that the intention of the space has always been for women who have lived their entire lives as women, and continue to walk through the world as women.
Vogel's 40-year festival will see its last summer this August. MichFest was one of the first events trans activists boycotted, so much so, numerous musicians, including the Indigo Girls, eventually quit playing the festival due its reputation as trans exclusive. As someone who worked at the festival, and came of age in women's space (during my high school years, for example, my mother ran a motel called The Mermaid Inn; we lived at the motel, our phone number was 1-800-749-DYKE), I feel melancholy over the end of lesbian space.
The thing about being a lesbian: the identity category implies a binary-gender (being a woman, duh); meanwhile, gay, trans, and bi-sexual do not imply any gender category. As queer theorists and gender theorists discuss how "fluid" gender is--by the way, gender fluidity is so on trend right now, we must remember that most of us live in a world where much of our landscape is divided by the masculine, the feminine; the male, the female.
Being born a woman has uniquely shaped my point of view. When I was in eighth grade, each day this group of boys used to tell me, "Hey, you got blood on your ass." Finally I got to the point where I told them to fuck off. One day, toward the end of the year the boys were at it, and as usual, I told them to fuck off. The red headed one looked down at his feet, "No, really. You have blood on your jeans." After a trip to the bathroom to confirm, I sat on the toilet horrified, ashamed. Even now, over 20 years later, when I get my period, I still have those moments: What if there's blood on my jeans?
By the end of eighth grade, however, I learned how to transcend bloody jeans, menacing boys. I went to a lesbian writer's conference in Georgia. I'd already had numerous crushes on girls, but I wasn't ready to quit trying the whole boy thing. At the conference, I fell in love with a 38-year-old woman (she did nothing to encourage it) and I learned how to dance with abandon. It was 1989, so the music included Madonna, Janet Jackson. I circled the dance floor, making contact with nearly each woman. I was no longer the girl rocking from side-to-side with some kid named Jared at the cafeteria mid-day dance. From then on, I've never been afraid to be the first person to hit the dance floor. I am a DJ's dream. But, this special gift (as a pedestrian mind you, I failed miserably at formal dance training), could not have been possible without women carving out their own space, a space free of male privilege, free of the male gaze. Granted, this molecular feeling is impossible to translate; but, being in a women's space is the closest thing to religion I've ever felt.
Before that writing conference in 1989, I'd always known I was a writer. But, I never felt comfortable sharing my writing in English class. My teachers were actually uncomfortable with some of my themes. They wanted me to visit guidance. When I was bullied in high school for being an out lesbian, I wrote and published essays for local feminist publications. There was an audience for my writing, and it wasn't at school.
For all the trans youth who are finally seeing themselves represented, who are now finding their own voices, writing their own blogs, and dancing freely, I'm ecstatic. But with new gains, there is loss. I care about the extinction of an entire people: lesbians. Unlike some radical feminist thinkers, I don't think Caitlyn Jenner's version of womanhood as an insult. However, as the concept of woman evolves into something more fluid, I wonder, where will the lesbians play?