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March 19, 2008

The Lavender Menace

There are a lot of common misconceptions about the term "feminist". One is that feminists are all man-hating lesbians. Now obviously that's not true, not only do lesbians not necessarily hate men (they just don't want to have sex with them!), you don't have to have sex with women to believe that women should have social, political, and economic equality with men.

Despite the fact that today feminism and lesbianism seem to go so closely hand-in-hand, in earlier years lesbians and lesbian issues were very much excluded from the feminist movement. In fact, many members of the mainstream feminist movement wanted to distance themselves from lesbians because they were afraid of discrimination and stereotypes. They felt that being associated with lesbianism would hinder their ability to make serious political change.

The term "Lavender Menace" to describe this threat, was first used in 1969 by Betty Friedan, the president of National Organization for Women (NOW). The leaders of NOW even went so far as to omit the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (America's first major lesbian rights group, founded in 1955) from the list of sponsors of the First Congress to United Women, November 1969.

Meanwhile, many female members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) felt that the organization was also ignoring lesbian issues - putting a much higher priority on the rights of gay men. Both issues caused many lesbian women to break from NOW and GLF form an informal group of lesbian radial feminists (dubbing themselves the "Lavender Menace") in order to protest the exclusion of lesbians and lesbian issues from the women's movement. They protested at the Congress and NOW soon adopted the belief that lesbian rights were legitimate concerns within feminism.

This informal group "The Lavender Menace" later inspired the creation of an organization called Lesbian Liberation, which later became the group Radicalesbians. The Radicalesbians widely distributed a document entitled The Woman Identified Woman, which served to remind women that oppression exists for all women, so these women should be united rather than divided based on something as minor as who-they-have-sex-with.

Here are a few of my personal favorite excerpts that further explain this concept:

...lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanize women by defining us as a supportive/serving caste in relation to the master caste of men, and emotionally cripple men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/ political/ military functions effectively. Homosexuality is a by-product of a particular way of setting up roles (or approved patterns of behavior) on the basis of sex; as such it is an inauthentic (not consonant with "reality") category. In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.

...Lesbian is a word, the label, the condition that holds women in line. When a woman hears this word tossed her way, she knows she is stepping out of line. She knows that she has crossed the terrible boundary of her sex role.

...Lesbian is a label invented by the Man to throw at any woman who dares to be his equal, who dares to challenge his prerogatives (including that of all women as part of the exchange medium among men), who dares to assert the primacy of her own needs. To have the label applied to people active in women's liberation is just the most recent instance of a long history; older women will recall that not so long ago, any woman who was successful, independent, not orienting her whole life about a man, would hear this word. For in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can't be a woman - she must be a dyke. That in itself should tell us where women are at. It says as clearly as can be said: women and person are contradictory terms. For a lesbian is not considered a "real woman. " And yet, in popular thinking, there is really only one essential difference between a lesbian and other women: that of sexual orientation - which is to say, when you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realize that the essence of being a "woman" is to get fucked by men.


We've already mentioned a few times in the past how we feel about labels. I think they usually just serve to pigeonhole people into categories designed to help other people more easily comprehend who you are. However, I don't want to be put in a box with the tag "Feminist" or "Slut" or "Heterosexual" or anything else.

Many people believe that there are varying degrees of sexual orientation (more than just the clean-cut categories of "Gay" or "Straight" or even "Bisexual"). Regardless of what you believe, the terms still serve to separate us based on who we have sex with (or rather, who we'd like to have sex with). Even the terms "masculine" and "feminine" bother me in a way, because when it comes down to it, you're categorizing someone (and assigning them a set of "normal" gender behavior and characteristics) based primarly on what kind of genitalia they have.

But ultimately, it seems that the categories aren't going away anytime soon so lesbian activism continues to be an important division of feminist activism.

The Radicalesbians eventually disbanded - in part due to disagreements regarding separatism and intolerance of homosexual/heterosexual men and heterosexual/bisexual women - they started something very important - their legacy continued to live on through the many feminist groups that came after them, such as the Furies Collective (which was a lesbian separatism movement in the early 1970s).

Although GLBTQ groups nowadays are much more all-inclusive, there are still many feminist groups out there today that focus on the rights of lesbian women, such as the Lesbian Avengers (a group that was originally founded in New York in 1992, by a group of lesbian activists from ACT-UP and now has over fifty chapters) or POWER UP (an organization devoted to promoting the visibility and integration of gay women in entertainment, the arts, and all forms of media). Also, the Lesbian Herstory Archives is world's largest collection of materials by, about, and relevant to Lesbians and their communities, located in Brooklyn, NY.



Disclaimer: Nothing we've written here about lesbian rights is meant to imply that we are blind or insensitive to the rights of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (and any other label you want to come up with!) people. We simply wanted to address a time when lesbians were discriminated against or ignored by not only mainstream society, but both the gay rights and feminist movements. We're happy that today we've come so far from that time, yet also sad that we still seem to be so far from a time when all human beings - regardless of gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc - will be treated equally... as human beings. I think the best way for that to happen is for everyone (e.g., lesbians, women of color, gay men, etc.) to have individual representation but ultimately work together to achieve equal human rights for all.

Which is why it's so important to remember that lesbian issues are feminist issues. Just like sex workers issues are feminist issues, even if the subject is 'controversial'. Not all feminists - or all women - are concerned with the same issues, but all women's issues are by definition, "feminist issues".

It's actually kind of funny and ironic to think that today anti-feminists resort to name-calling and think that "oh you're all lesbians" is such a clever retort, when it wasn't new or clever even decades ago. That is one area where we've kind of made progress if you think about it. It was obviously very powerful in some ways since the early feminists were so worried about it and there are still homophobic or anti-feminist people out there. But most young women who identify themselves as feminists would probably now have the reaction "oooh, you're calling me a lesbian? Who cares?" I'm glad we've gotten to the point where if you call yourself a feminist and someone says you must be a lesbian, instead of worrying about a 'negative' reputation, you'd probably just think that person is a moron and not be personally offended.

Feminism may always be somewhat divided, but we have to remember that what affects our sisters does affect us - as women. And to take it one step further, feminist issues and women's issues are in fact, "human issues" so they should be the concerns of all human beings, not just women.

I think it's important that we address individual issues, but that shouldn't cause us to view or define ourselves based solely on what makes us different. We must be able to recognize that underneath the labels, we're all inhabitants of this same planet and all connected... and ultimately, all the same.

1 comment:

May said...

It's posts like these that really make me love you evil sluts.

<3