The Myth of 'The Death of Lesbian Spaces' & Black Queer Erasure

by Sierra Witcher

 

Be it the comment sections of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival website or the open mics of Charis in Atlanta, Ga, without fail, some woman is exclaiming “Why aren’t there any more lesbian spaces?”. This exclamation gives way to cheers and cries of outrage as the crowd yells “Because no one’s just a lesbian anymore!” What does it mean to be “just a lesbian”? Which lesbian spaces are dying off? What makes a space a lesbian space? Is this outrage really fear? Is the death of lesbian spaces a myth? The aforementioned questions will be explored and analyzed in relation to topics within queer theory, in particular cultures of dissemblance and deviance as resistance. The death of lesbian spaces warrants theoretical exploration due to its lack of integration of gender, sex, desire, class, and race among women who love women. 

The death of lesbian spaces is not an issue but a contemporary manifestation of deeply rooted, and problematic, fear. For example MichFest (or The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival), the largest and oldest women’s music festival in the county, had its last festival in August 2015. The circumstances of the rather abrupt end to a cultural staple within feminist and “lesbian” communities, since its formation in 1976, were officially unclear. Unofficially, however, MichFest experienced a large pullout of sponsors and performers in response to mounting tensions over the exclusion of trans women from the festival. Since the removal of a trans woman from the festival in 1991, co-Founder of MichFest, Lisa Vogel, defended (subtly and overtly) the exclusion of trans women at MichFest saying that the festival was a space for “womyn-born womyn” to navigate the unique oppression they experience as “womyn-born womyn”. The support of this policy by TURFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) and notable national lesbian organizations brought, to mainstream attention, the transphobia still prevalent within lesbian communities. A petition, initiated by Equality Michigan’s former executive director Emily Dievendorf, called for a boycott of MichFest until they agreed to openly admit trans women; unofficially leading to the end of MichFest.

The mythology of the dying lesbian space can be clearly outlined using a quote from the official announcement of the end of MichFest. In the statement Lisa Vogel says, “Everything you feel on the Land, everything you see – is something of spirit, and love, and passion for female empowerment….for womyn’s community.” MichFest upheld an understanding of the experiences of women as a direct connection to the experiences of being female. Gender and sex are completely different and the refusal, of this space, to evolve along with the community’s consciousness of identity led to its end. The fear of dying lesbian spaces has more to do with a close attachment to a problematic and binary way of articulating the identities of women who desire and/or love women.

Moreover, the “lesbian space” is not dying; rather the language surrounding those spaces has evolved tremendously. When the death of lesbian spaces is discussed, it is often in reference to the greater number of women openly identifying as queer, pan, bi, trans or gender non-conforming. However, the understanding that language and identity are constantly evolving is not a new one among women who love or desire women. In fact, this understanding is goes without saying among black queer women (historically and contemporarily). Depending on which community within the "lesbian" community is asked, the subsequent spaces will differ. Mainstream lesbian spaces have been, recently, white in America. In the early 1900s to the 1950s lesbian spaces were not white but commonly black. Due to early respectability politics (i.e. politics of silence) and black queerness being used as a justification for "separate but equal", mainstream lesbian spaces became increasingly white as did the stereotypical image of lesbianism. Thereby framing the modern lesbian space, often referred to as the “gayborhood " (Atlanta’s beingMidtown and East Atlanta Village), in a White, cis gay lens.

The argument of a dwindling number of lesbian spaces typically speaks of recently white spaces and fails to integrate the historic and modern “lesbian” spaces of women of color in general; especially those of black queer women.

 

CULTURES OF DISSEMBLANCE

In this paper two concepts from queer theory will be used to analyze the myth of the death of lesbian spaces and its subsequent erasure of black queers, the first being cultures of dissemblance.

The article, “No More Secrets, No More Lies: African American History and Compulsory Heterosexuality” by Matte Udora Richardson, introduces compulsory heterosexuality by introducing Adrienne Rich’s article, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience.” Richardson critiques Rich’s central theory in saying, “Her theory of a lesbian continuum reduces all intimacies between all people identified as women by dominant culture as lesbian, thereby erasing bisexual and transgender experiences, not to mention a host of other identities, bodies, and histories.” This critique of an, arguably, outdated view of identities of women who desire women provided an outline of how cultures of dissemblance work in relation to the “death of lesbian spaces” myth.

Dissemblance, as defined by historian Darlene Clarke Hine, was a method used by black women to, not change their sexual lives, but change how they are documented in history as to avoid intentional contributions to the otherness of Black people in general. Subsequently, cultures of dissemblance were created to justify and uphold this means of survival. These cultures of dissemblance can also be used to analyze the modern day erasure (intentional or not) of black queer women’s spaces from the mainstream “lesbian” space. As the mainstream gay agenda evolved into one of homonormativity, the spaces in which the public interacted with gay and lesbian people were forced to evolve with the overall political agenda. Lesbian spaces, Black ones in particular, were known for celebrating those who lived outside of the norms of their gender and gender roles, in turn removing especially deviant (and conveniently Black) lesbian spaces from the public view made sense. In order to justify the desired (mainstream) historical narrative Black queer women’s spaces, hidden not nonexistent, were and continue to be erased from the dominant discussions of lesbian spaces. If these spaces were considered in the mainstream assessment of lesbian spaces, the concern of dying lesbian spaces would be invalid.

 

DEVIANCE AS RESISTANCE

The theory of “deviance as resistance” will be the last topic this paper uses to analyze the myth of the death of lesbians spaces and its inherent erasure of black queerness. The previous section introduced the necessity, from a dominant (white in this case) mainstream “gay” perspective, of the erasure of black queer women’s spaces from the identity of mainstream lesbian spaces. In its conclusion, the aforementioned analysis introduced a possible reason as to why black queer women’s spaces could not fit within the desired homonormative narrative; an inherent unwillingness to conform.

Currently, black lesbian spaces and mainstream lesbian spaces differ in their articulation of identity to the dominant culture. In the paper, "Deviance as Resistance: A New Research Agenda for the Study of Black Politics." by Cathy J. Cohen, Cohen critiques this in saying, “some queer theorists, and more queer activists, write and act in ways that unfortunately homogenize everything that is publicly identifiable as heterosexual and most that are understood to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender or “queer”.” This, almost obsession, with placing all facets of existence within the LGBT community on a binary simultaneously erases the intersecting experiences of oppression faced by members of the community based on race, class, and gender. Particularly ignoring the possibility of how the intersectionality of black queer (in this case women’s) spaces and their unwillingness to conform could be integral to creating a future radical existence for queer women. This future radical existence would not be in reaction to oppressive norms, but one that has true self-determination.

Deviance as resistance, in relation to the topic of interest, does not imply that Black queer women’s spaces are content with their otherness.  Rather it implies that Black queer women refuse to change their identity and its expression for the sake of acceptance into a dominant culture. Therein assuming unwillingness, or deviance, as a form of resistance to political gains acquired using oppressive means. Cohen outlines the ramifications of this by stating “these individuals…not only counter or challenge the presiding normative order…but also create new or counter normative frameworks by which to judge behavior.” Deviance as resistance is a fundamental building block of black queer women’s spaces and outlines their historical and continued erasure in dominant debates on modern “lesbian” community.

 

CONCLUSION

In concluding my analysis of the current queer concern with the death of lesbian spaces in relation to black queerness, I find it necessary to insert my relationship with the personal ramifications of this “crisis”.

As a Black queer, femme, woman in Atlanta I recently attended the Trans Rally during the 2015 Atlanta Pride Festival. I say as a Black queer woman because my identity within the LGBTQ community’s yearly celebration of “pride” was made painfully obvious this year. I watched my friends (a black trans woman and a black gender non-conforming femme) speak on the necessity of centering Black trans folks, as press began to circle they began looking for people to take an official photograph. I watched the white photographer move throughout the crowd tapping a number of people they wanted to feature. Satisfied with their selection, the photographer began to (only) take pictures of the selected participants. Realizing all the participants they selected were white, I looked on in anger and sadness. Anger at this photographer’s (a historian of sorts) choice to commemorate the first Trans Rally at Atlanta Pride to be hosted on the main stage with only white attendees. I was saddened that this erasure is a normal occurrence when black queer spaces (and bodies) convene within mainstream gay space.

This erasure was replicated when I overheard a group of white participants at the Atlanta Dyke March say there aren’t any lesbian spaces “like this”. I responded by asking “which lesbian spaces are you talking about?” The utter confusion on her face and her subsequent answer of “What do you mean “which lesbian spaces”?” floored me. The erasure of black queer women’s spaces and the insulting fallacies within the “death of lesbian spaces” debate do not necessitate explanations riddled with academic theory when the proof is just beyond the rainbow. 

 
Posted on October 19, 2015 .