By Julia Penelope
From Lesbian Ethics Vol 1. No 3, 1985
The Context of Choice
Liberal feminists have made the word choice so attractive, as though all wimmin were capable of acting as autonomous, self-determining beings. “We must respect all women’s choices,” they say, as though our choices are made in a vacuum, as though every single woman knows what her choices are or might be. Humanism ignores the fact that our choices, such as they are, are made in the context of heteropatriarchy. How many of our “choices” are REAL choices? If there is a “politics of liberal feminism,” it’s nothing more than a way of rationalizing the fact that women continue to choose men.
Many Lesbians have expressed surprise and pain about the phenomenon of wimmin who “go back to men.” Each of us knows at least two or three “lesbians” who’ve “gone back” to heterosexuality. Gloria Greenfield, for example, once a Separatist, later a co-owner of the now-defunct Persephone Press, describes her own shift in identity from Jewish Lesbian to Lesbian Jew in Nice Jewish Girls.1 Now, she’s married (but she didn’t change her name). Because “choices” can only be made in the heteropatriarchal context, they’re no choices at all. A Lesbian who prioritizes her heterosexual community doesn’t live full-time in a Lesbian community, and her dual allegiances will lead, inevitably, to betrayals.
The message sent to Lesbian Separatists by such Lesbians is: We don’t need you. Maybe not. But I need you: I need Lesbians. Many Lesbians cannot “go back” to men because we didn’t start there. One can “go back” only to something she’s previously “left.” The metaphor of “returning” to men or heterosexuality reveals the heterosexism of liberal feminism, because it assumes that ALL women are or have been heterosexuals, first. Heterosexuality becomes the touchstone of their identity.
I have no heterosexual community to return to. It’s just not that simple. Maybe, as Beverly Smith has suggested, white Lesbians become Separatists because we have to reject white men and all they stand for.2 But we could certainly choose to identify with gay men; we do, after all, share an oppression. There may be some truth in what Beverly said, but it ignores every Asian, Native American, Black, or Chicana lesbian who has chosen herself and other Lesbians as her priority. Separatists didn’t invent racism or classism or sexism. We may not be any better than anybody else, but we’re also no worse, and anti-Separatist Lesbians of Color, like Barbara Smith, have allowed themselves to be used by anti-Separatist caucasian feminists, who wield more power than they do, because of skin privilege.3 These attempts to discredit Separatist political analysis have caused Separatists of Color a lot of pain because the statements have been used by caucasian anti-Separatists to justify ignoring and isolating Separatists of Color, thereby denying them support and making them more invisible.(4)
When we talk about “choices,” let’s at least try to be honest with each other. We have enough pain and sufficient obstacles in our lives not to compound it all by lying to each other. Those Lesbians who believe they must choose between the racism, classism or anti-Semitism of caucasian Lesbians and the Lesbophobia of their genetic communities will, I hope, make their choices well. We don’t choose the ethnic, racial, religious, or economic communities in to which we’re born. We can choose a commitment to other Lesbians. We can also reject the idea of Lesbian community, and many Lesbians have done just that, by returning to the “safety” of their genetic communities and rejecting me. They say, and I believe it’s true, that they feel “safer” choosing labels and communities that include men. But I believe that “safety” is illusory and dangerous to Lesbians. Is the hatred and violation of Lesbians in male groups easier to tolerate than whatever racism or classism still infects the minds of white Lesbians? If so, let’s say so and have the realities of the choices we make or don’t make out in the open between us. Choose men, reject Separatists, but don’t try to justify your choice by trashing us.
I’ve singled out racial and ethnic conflicts here because Lesbians like Barbara Smith have used them as a pretext for diverting our attention from wimmin’s issues. But the return to men and their communities is going on under a variety of other guises as well. I could expect, and get, praise for dropping my political commitment to Lesbians and turning my energies to combating racism, or classism, or fighting for animal rights. Because I’m an obvious Lesbian, I have no credibility in the heteropatriarchy. Any cause I chose would be discredited by my voice unless I also chose INVISIBILITY. I’d have to choose to abandon the priority I give to lesbian existence.
In contrast, writers like Rita Mae Brown and musicians like Holly Near can use their ability to pass in order to make money from liberal
heterosexuals. Such wimmin may excuse their choice by claiming, as Rita Mae has, that they’re “artists” first and Lesbians second, but that’s a convenient lie. The fact of the matter is that it’s not only more rewarding to label oneself an “artist” rather than a Lesbian, it’s also safer, because “artist” is a category validated in the heteropatriarchy.
Similarly, I have no sons to bind me to the heteropatriarchy. I cannot see myself as having any political investment in “human beingism” as some Lesbians with sons do. I was a humanist before I became a feminist, and I know that the neo-humanism now popular among feminists is a way of ignoring choices; I understand that none of our choices in these days is easy. But, really, is it also necessary to discredit and trivialize Separatists in the process? Is there something inherent in the nature of your choices that requires you to claim that my choice is invalid? Do those choices necessitate my dismissal?
As Sid Spinster pointed out in her excellent rebuttal of Adrienne Rich’s confused “Notes for a Magazine: What Does Separatism Mean?”;5
It’s time for non-Separatist Lesbians to start explaining yourselves. What does it mean to not be a Separatist in “our” movement? What is your strategy for the defeat of patriarchy over the long haul? Can you honor the choice of Separatist wimmin of color not to work with men? Is it racist not to be a Separatist; not to withdraw your support from patriarchy, not to fight for an anti-racist Lesbian-identified culture?
I have yet to hear even attempted answers to Sid’s questions, which indicates two things to me: First, the neo-humanists among us didn’t (and don’t) take her questions seriously; second, they can’t afford to take them seriously because they don’t have answers to them. To date, neo-humanists have substituted Separatist-baiting and name-calling for outlining a viable, plausible political analysis of their own, thereby avoiding the unpleasant prospect of asking themselves questions they’re afraid to answer.
My politics aren’t something I can put on and take off like designer jeans (even if I could find them in my size). My politics are me. I believe that the same is true for other Lesbians who call themselves Separatists, Lesbians who refuse to put aside their priorities for the illusory benefits of neo-humanism. There are too many Jewish Lesbian Separatists who have chosen the potential of Lesbians together, in spite of anti-Semitism among us. There are too many Black Lesbian Separatists who choose other Lesbians, in spite of racism, for the vision of a community where we can be together. So many Separatists are working-class or poor that charges of “elitism” and “privilege” would be laughable if they didn’t come from other Lesbians who should know better.
Let’s be honest with each other. Let’s stop hiding behind the rhetoric of the left of the 1960s: Separatism isn’t racist, classist, or elitist. Those are fashionable labels used to discredit Separatist analysis, they’re substituted to hide the void in other “analyses.” Ironically, in spite of efforts to keep Separatists invisible in the WLM media, we have a quasi-mythical grass-roots reputation because the visible “stars” of WLM can’t resist taking potshots at us. So a lot of newcomers to WLM are told that “Separatists are bad,” but the few who might take the time to check things out for themselves don’t know where to go to get the information that would enable them to make their own judgments.
For years now, Separatists (and Separatism) have been cast as the “villains” in episode after episode of the WLM soap opera. We turn up in some of the most unlikely places: Friedan’s It Changed My Life, Morgan’s Going Too Far (as the dreaded “killer dykes”), insulted in the last segment of Joanna Russ’s Extra (Ordinary) People.6 And the spectre of “separatism” is frequently raised by their “gay brothers” whenever individual gay wimmin finally tell them that they’re tired of “struggling” with gay male misogyny.
We’ve been made into the ogres lurking under bridges in the WLM fairy tale. A rap group for young Lesbians in Washington, DC was told, a couple of years ago, simply that “Separatism was a bad thing, unrealistic, man-hating, etc.” When the facilitator of this group was asked where one might go to read about Separatism, she didn’t know. At a workshop on racism in Lincoln last year, one Lesbian asserted that “the Separatist bent” in the Lincoln wimmin’s community was responsible for the racism there. Fortunately, a Separatist was present who pointed out that racism had a significantly longer history in Lincoln (and elsewhere) than Lesbian Separatism, and it wasn’t likely that one could account for racism among Lincoln wimmin because of the six (or eight, depending on how one counts) Separatists who live there.
But we must ask, and seriously, what kind of stupidity exists among us that such assertions are accepted, believed, and repeated as though they make sense. Why do the lesbians who utter such nonsense gather followings around them as though their garbage was astute political analysis? Such assertions are common in Lesbian and feminist communities all over the U.S., and this scapegoating has given us enough notoriety that many Lesbians find their way to reliable sources of information on their own eventually. What worries me are the larger numbers who don’t bother to find anything out for themselves, accepting instead whatever they’re told about Separatism and Separatists regardless of the credibility of the source. This docility is evidenced on an even larger scale in our preference for negative information about other Lesbians, information which we rarely bother to check out and simply accept as “true” without considering the source or the probability of distortion. In contrast, we hardly ever pass along positive information about each other. Where does this come from?
As they were about the ancient Amazons, stories are told, events are elaborated according to the taste of whoever’s telling the story, and no one knows for sure what’s fact and what’s fiction. But Lesbians go on becoming Separatists. No, we’re not the media “stars” so doted upon by heterosexuals, but the hostility and rage directed at us have worked in our favor. We’re not engaged in a dialogue with heterosexuals. Most of us, however reluctantly, have decided that our energies must go to other Lesbians; attempts to talk to heterosexual feminists are usually frustrating and depressing. Lesbians are the focus of our lives. In contrast to all the wimmin’s voices telling us we should be working with “progressive” men and their issues. For this “narrowness” we’ll never be “forgiven.” But no one is attacking us because we aren’t “struggling” with fat men, for example, to eradicate sizeism and looksism in our society, even though a lot of Separatists are fat and have these issues in common with fat men. Why aren’t heterosexual and Lesbian feminists calling us names for excluding fat men from our lives?
Partly because they have no interest in fat issues; partly because they’ve bought the Virginia Slims theory of “liberation.” But the crux of the matter remains that Separatists have steadfastly maintained, even those (like myself) who have, on occasion, worked in coalitions, that MEN ARE THE ENEMY. We’ve insisted that our primary commitment is to Lesbians (or, for some, to wimmin in general). Liberal feminists are embarrassed and threatened by our refusal to let go of wimmin and our issues as priorities, and, lacking a coherent political analysis of their own, they’ve resorted instead to calling us “man-haters,” “elitist,” “privileged,” “racist,” and, yes, “fascist,” every name that’ll set liberal knees ajerking. Judy Grahn once observed, when we were discussing this phenomenon, that she’d never heard a heterosexual womon called “fascist,” only Lesbians. (Recently, a group of Separatists in the Bay Area told participants at the Jewish Feminist Conference that Jewish Lesbian Separatists didn’t appreciate being called “fascists.” Why isn’t the anti-Semitism of this name-calling obvious?) Why do wimmin/Lesbians feel comfortable comparing any womon to powerful, evil, violent men like Hoover, McCarthy, and Hitler? Why do they immediately, reflexively, grab for the most odious male name they can think of and wield it as a weapon against us? What is the source of this deep-felt need to discredit and hurt Separatists? The viciousness itself is a cowardly, feeble act of deception, a dangerous masquerade in which Separatists are portrayed as the male enemy so that other wimmin can feel powerful by attacking us, instead of confronting their very real powerlessness in this culture. What comfort can there be in this?
Separatists have been saying this for years, but it bears repeating again (and again and again): We choose wimmin or we choose men. Let’s drop the deception and the rhetoric. Let those feminists who prefer men, who need to work with men in order to feel good about themselves, who require the company of men, who feel safer with men, simply say so and claim their choice out front. I won’t like that choice, and I won’t approve of it, but I’ll respect the honesty of the assertion.
What angers me are the elaborate justifications and abstract theorizing about choosing the causes and movements which are validated by segments of the heteropatriarchy. What angers me is the hostility directed at me, as though hurting me will somehow discredit my decisions to work with Lesbians and make choosing men seem a courageous and necessary act. But this is nothing more than the old trick of heteropatriarchal reversal, a tactic also being used successfully by the S&M “feminists” who’re martyring themselves for the “cause” of PORNOGRAPHY. Choosing wimmin over men is scary; choosing Lesbians over the safer category, wimmin, is even scarier. I know; I’m scared a lot. When I get really terrified and think I can’t go on choosing Lesbians for one more day, I recall the image of Robin Morgan weeping pitifully in “Not a Love Story” because her decision to stay with “her man” and struggle with his sexism was so hard and painful for her, casting herself as the helpless heterosexual “victim” of Lesbian “oppression.” That image has stayed with me because I was so angered and sickened by the hypocrisy and self-delusion of her plea for pity. What does it mean to say that one “loves a man” and, at the same time, to acknowledge the male violence experienced every day by millions of women? What does it mean to “love our oppressors”? Women have been loving men for millennia, and I can’t see that it’s done anything but worsen our situation. What does it mean, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, to believe that men, now, today, can be “rehabilitated,” and to commit one’s life to that belief? Why is that choice seen as “nobler” than choosing each other? Why is it so easy to be male-sympathizers and cast Lesbian Separatists as the “oppressors”? Who’s living in the “real world”?
Choosing men is simply not the same act as choosing wimmin or Lesbians, and its consequences are very different. I’m not talking here about lipstick, or pantyhose, or a hamburger. I’m not debating a matter of “taste” or “preference.” I’m talking about the conscious, aware decision to choose the safety of male approval instead of the risks and dangers and joys of a Lesbian community. Don’t think for a moment I’m glorifying or romanticizing the day-to-day exhaustion and tiresomeness of living among Lesbians. I’m not ignoring the pain I’ve experienced when other Lesbians have attacked and rejected me. I’m saying that, in spite of the pain and frustration I’ve experienced among Lesbians, we need each other.
Accepting the priorities of men as their own, liberal feminists hastened to rewrite the entire WLM agenda hoping, thereby, to get the male approval they knew would be withheld otherwise. This revisionism has had a foreseeable and subversive effect: There is no longer an identifiable, autonomous WLM in the U.S. That the word feminist and the derogatory women’s libber continue to identify us as “man-haters” in the popular mind is beside the point. It feels very different for many of us who were once active and “inside” the Movement. (I know for a fact that I do speak here on behalf of wimmin other than myself.) What many now call the WLM is indistinguishable from socialism, environmentalism, and a diluted, ineffectual brand of liberalism that occasionally affirms a “concern” about racism, anti-Semitism, and imperialism. If I’d wanted to concentrate my energies on issues that affect non-women, I’d’ve signed up long before the second wave crashed onto the shores of my consciousness. I didn’t need feminism to alert me to the dangers of anti-Semitism, nuclear war, or racial bigotry then, and I don’t look to feminism to do that for me now. I grew up as a Lesbian among Jewish Lesbians; I know how anti-Semitism continues to flourish. I grew up trying to squeeze myself under my desk during the obligatory “bomb drills” of the late Forties and the Fifties; I’ve been afraid of nuclear war since I watched mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud blossom into fire and ash on the movie screens of my childhood. I grew up in the racially-segregated South; I’ve fought racism since I was old enough to ask my mother, “Why?”
The WLM, once so hopeful and energetic, and even irreverent, has been successfully subverted from within as well as without. We cannot continue to put other issues and causes ahead of our own. Surely there are men capable of doing something worthwhile who don’t require constant monitoring!
I want wimmin who choose men to take responsibility for that decision, because it’s a choice that everything in our society encourages, urges, mandates, requires. I live in a society that tells me every day to choose men. When I turn on the radio or television, no one screams at me to choose Lesbians. No one tells me to buy Diet Pepsi because then I’ll meet “the Dyke of my dreams.” I’m not told to buy Hanes pantyhose because Dykes “prefer” them! (Which is probably just as well for me!) In such a society, try to imagine the insult to my intelligence, my sensibilities, when Starhawk, who calls herself a “feminist,” asserting that “we need images of both genders to enable us to come into all of our powers” and that “the part of us that feels free and autonomous, out of the realm of mother’s control, comes to be identified with maleness,” LEAPS to the conclusion that, “This might change, of course, if our childcare arrangements changed so that men as well as women become associated with the fears and pleasures of infancy”7
What kind of “political” analysis is this? It’s pure heterosexualism.8 When Starhawk asserts that “we” need both sexes for our role models, she blithely ignores those of us who were brought up by our mothers, liked it that way, and believe that our lives are better and stronger because we didn’t have a male parent during our formative years. Some of us have managed to do well for ourselves, and, even though I agree with her claim that we associate freedom and independence with men, I can’t conclude, with her, that allowing men access to babies and children will help to break that association. If anything, as an incest survivor, I believe that allowing men unlimited and unsupervised access to children is a stupid, dangerous idea, made to appear plausible in the context of a humanist framework that asks us to ignore real and provable differences between the behaviors and actions of women and men. If men get their way, and women let them participate in raising children, we’ll very quickly notice a substantial increase in the numbers of incest victims. And I know too well the damaging extent and power of my past experiences as an incest victim, and how, without my being aware of it, those experiences controlled and poisoned my responses in intimate relationships.9
Where Do I Go From Here?
It’s time now to return to two of the central questions in this essay. First, why do wimmin who call themselves “feminists” refuse to name the enemy? Earlier, in part II of this essay (Lesbian Ethics No. 2) I listed so many sources and varieties of FEAR that I don’t think I need to do more than say, again, their fear of the consequences, male retaliation, is stronger than their need for freedom. We see such behavior in battered wimmin, who return, time after time, to the batterer, and they call their fear of change “love,” or “financial dependence,” or “the children’s sakes.” The willingness of wimmin to remain in battering relationships brings me to the fact that we are, all of us, the “broken” wimmin of whom Mary Daly writes so eloquently:10
From the earliest times of patriarchy countless mothers have been broken, and the resulting broken daughters have carried on the chain of fragmentation…Women in the Misbegotten State have been assigned to break/divide the daughters, to break in their daughters, to break down their defenses, to cut off their possibilities for Original communication. They are indeed unfettered in carrying out this male-ordered mission.
The fact of the matter is that every single one of us is “broken”; not a one of us can claim that her self is whole. When we strike out at each other in anger or pain, we’re often acting out of our broken state, retaliating against each other for the damage done to us in the heteropatriarchy. In spite of our best intentions, we persist in hurting each other. But we must break the “chain of fragmentation” somehow. Are there some ways we can acknowledge the old pain we carry within us, stay in touch with its origins enough so that we can realize our violent reactions to each other have their sources in the things men have done to us in the past? Can we make it possible to begin to heal ourselves by allowing for mistakes, disagreements, and angry moments, by stepping outside the immediate situation, examining our own intentions and motivations, and saying to each other, “Yes, I made a mistake. Can we go on from here?” Must we continue the cycle of oppression among ourselves by expecting a level of perfection, even nobility, in each other, while, at the same time, excusing the mistakes of men? Why are we kinder to men than we are to each other?
Which brings me to the second question of this essay: If some of us are willing to name our enemy, men, why is it possible for us and impossible for a majority of wimmin? What is it in us that acknowledges our fear but feels compelled, in spite of it, to say, Men are the enemy?
Almost everyone I know has a simple theory about the perceivable differences between ourselves and “the others.” Most of these theories start with “There are just two kinds of people in the world, the ________ and the _________.” The blanks are easily filled in with the theorizers then-current favorite opposites: the Good and the Bad, the Saved and the Lost, the Suckers and the Con-artists, the Sadists and the Masochists, the Hawks and the Doves, the Haves and the Have-nots, the Anal and Oral retentives, the Dreamers and the Doers. Other theories about our differences get pretty sophisticated and allow for three classes: the good, the bad, and the ugly; ectomorphs, endomorphs, and mesomorphs; the lower, middle, and upper classes; the stupid, the average, and the bright.
Well, as a good friend once observed, theories are like assholes; everyone has one. I have an asshole, and I have a theory. Mine is also simple. It goes like this: There are two kinds of people, those who crave reality at any cost, and those who have to escape from reality, also at any cost. There are those who go crazy if they’re told to ignore what they see around them, and those who go just as crazy if reality is the only thing they can get. Of course, only a minority seems to need to stare long and hard at what they can see, and the business of providing illusions is the multi-million dollar industry of politicians, amusement parks, television, movies, and Madison Avenue, all of whom manufacture neat deceptions for the majority of people who don’t want to know what’s going on around them.
Pretty simple, huh? But complicated, too. Who’s to say what’s “real,” after all? Reality is a slippery item, and as the quantum physicists assure us, we create the reality we perceive, we see only what we expect to see, and the cultural filters imposed on our minds guarantee limited and conventional vision. So maybe the people I say are escapees from reality are the ones who “really” know what’s going on and I’m the one who “can’t face the truth.” (I’ll grant that that’s possible, but I’m dubious. This is my theory, after all, so I get to put myself in the “good” category, those who need reality to feel safe.) Indeed. What we believe we know exists depends utterly on where we’re standing in the world at a specific moment. Here’s what I believe I know: Men rule the world. Men rape women. Men rape all females, their daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, granddaughters, and any other female unlucky enough to be accessible to them when “the urge” strikes. Men beat women up, cripple them, maim them, starve them, kill them. Men make money and war. Heterosexuality ensures that men will always have a ready and willing supply of females for their uses.
That’s what I see around me every day I live, and some days are worse than others. I would welcome anyone who can demonstrate to me that I’m wrong, that my perceptions are distorted by where I stand in the world. But don’t trot out your “exceptional man” to show me; everyone has one or claims to have one, including me. But I’m not willing to base my entire political analysis on his existence. I wish I had a dollar for every heterosexual feminist who’s challenged my Separatism by claiming that “her man” is “different,” and, then, after she’d become a Lesbian, confided to me that he was a rapist, a batterer, a violent misogynist. I remember my mother telling me, when she still hoped that I’d turn out heterosexual, that “a good man is one in a million” and holding up my dead father to me as evidence. Heterosexual women know men for the untrustworthy, base individuals that they are. Why, then, do they persist in defending them, lying for them, and protecting them? Is this, perhaps, proof of the “mothering instinct,” since the facts so clearly contradict the assertions? Is it possible that they can’t “help themselves”?
In a conversation (November 9, 1984), Jennifer Lynne suggested that the difference seems to stem from how individual wimmin deal with their knowledge of oppression. Some seem to take the information inside, turn it over, look at it from every angle they can think of, and, on the basis of that examination, set about the processes of changing themselves; their commitment moves from the inside out, from their experiences of oppression and their construction of hopes to those of other wimmin. Others, in contrast, seem to acquire the information about their oppressed situation, learn the appropriate rhetorical noises to make, yet don’t seem to change themselves. They can talk about “wimmin’s oppression,” or the need to eradicate pornography, or the importance of dealing with racism, but there’s a barrier of some kind between the words their lips are forming and the inside of their minds, because the shape of their lives doesn’t seem to change over the years. They go on hurting other wimmin and seem oblivious to the damage they do in our communities. Some have called this the process of intellectualizing our oppression.
Take, for example, the night I ended up defending Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party,” something I’d never imagined I’d find myself doing. A local wimmin’s collective had shown the movie about the making of “The Dinner Party” to raise money. At a bar later, I found myself in a heated argument with another lesbian who had nothing but criticisms about the art itself, the movie about it, the processes involved, etc. etc. I’ve criticized “The Dinner Party” myself; I think I know its flaws as well as anyone. Yet, something about the criticisms of this Lesbian grated; something about her intensity, her persistence in refusing to say that there might be anything positive about Judy Chicago’s art, made me doubt the reasons underlying her totally negative, critical approach to Chicago’s efforts. Finding words for what I felt is hard, but I think it was the way she dismissed everything about “The Dinner Party,” denied it any value at all, insisted upon its “wrongness.”
That, and the fact that this particular Lesbian had never taken any risks herself in the community, had never tried to do anything, become active in one of the many groups, contributed anything of her own to our efforts on behalf of wimmin. Instead, she remained aloof from all the groups, and had set herself up as “critic,” made herself responsible for telling those of us who were trying to do something everything she thought we were doing wrong. And she may have been right. But, after a while, I stopped listening, and then I stopped caring. Because she never had a good word for anything; she didn’t take the time to say, “I think you did a good job here, I think you made a mistake there.” The negativity wasn’t ever balanced by even a token acknowledgement that, in spite of mistakes, we might also have accomplished some positive things. Had she been working alongside any of the wimmin she criticized so freely, had she herself contributed to the community, I think my reaction would’ve been significantly different. As it was, I found myself trying to get her to say that something, anything, about “The Dinner Party” was deserving of her approval. To no avail. Yet, she has now aligned herself with the politics of the male left and, from that position, harangues other wimmin about their alleged misdeeds and misbehaviors.
Broken? Yes, she’s a broken womon. So am I. And I’ve done the same thing or been perceived as doing the same thing. I, too, have forgotten or neglected to say, “Good job, but don’t you think such-and-such could’ve been handled better?” But I’ve also been taking my own risks along the way; I’ve also been “putting myself on the line,” open to the judgments of other wimmin myself. My own commitment to change was visible and explicit, and I think I’ve been consistent enough in my willingness to take risks that I’ve earned some measure of latitude for my mistakes, some credibility, at least, for the quality of my commitment. It’s too easy to sit back and ridicule or trivialize another womon’s efforts, to deflect our ancient anger against men and target other wimmin for its expression. It’s called “horizontal hostility” and is the behavior that most surely marks an oppressed group. We will, every time, turn our anger in on ourselves rather than direct it against the perpetrators of our oppression. I’m not advocating the kind of liberalism that urges uncritical support or validation for every impulse or idea of any womon. We need to be critical of each other, and it’s easier to see the errors and misconceptions of someone else than it is to see them in ourselves. We need to remain aware of heteropatriarchal traps, to monitor ourselves as well as other wimmin, to question, question, question.
But we cannot go on as we are. We may have to consider the possibility that being Lesbians simply isn’t “enough” to enable us to create communities for ourselves. Perhaps because of my own experience, my necessary reliance on other Lesbians for community, and my lack of investment in any heterosexual group, I’ve believed that we, Lesbians, do need each other. The strongest, surest part of me cries out for Lesbian community. Part of me says I’ll take a scruffy, loud-mouthed, pushy dyke any day, every day, because I’m a “scruffy dyke.” A part of me is invested in the survival of every Lesbian, whether I like her or not. Maybe she’s a vegetarian, an alcoholic, batterer or battered, sado-masochist, or hermit, but she’s created herself, and every day she lives she’s backed up against the same wall I am, heteropatriarchy.
There’s no retreat from that simple fact. I can’t “go back” to anywhere from here. Once I became conscious of my oppression and all that my life would never be because of it, I closed that door. Now, I must continue, somehow, to live the conceptual impossibility of being a Lesbian, of trying to make myself whole. That is my reality, my life. Now I re-member.
Can we call each other to being other than we are, for the sake of a vision we can live toward, at the same time remembering that we will continue to make mistakes, continue to hurt each other, continue to forget how serious our differences are? Can we be critical and remain kind, learn perhaps to disagree honestly without disowning each other? Can we value and respect each other’s strengths, skills, and talents without devaluing ourselves? Can we learn to thank each other for time and effort? Can we stop taking each other for granted, and stay in touch with the miracle of self-realization that each of us is? Can we focus more on the good things we do without forgetting that we must continue the process of critical self-examination? Can we end the destructive effects of our victimization in the heteropatriarchy, distinguish the pain we bring with us into our communities, identify when our feelings arise out of past experiences and gradually learn to respond to our present context? Can we break the control that our past exercises over us in order to create a present context for survival? Can we unlearn the behaviors of victims and come to value ourselves as survivors? So far, our anger and frustrations, directed at each other rather than our real enemies, have worked to destroy us internally far more successfully than any retaliatory actions undertaken by men. Can any one of us afford to do their work for them?
Can we go on together?
There are three possible answers to that question: yes, no, and maybe. I can’t assume a positive answer, as much as I’d like to. We can no longer assume that “being Lesbians” is “enough” of a bond to enable us to put ourselves first. Maybe we can’t go on together, and we need to look at this negative possibility now, acknowledge it, and talk about it. Perhaps only a few of us are, first and last, identified as Lesbians. If so, we need to find each other and work out ways of supporting our vision of a community where we can heal ourselves, or find satisfactory ways of reconciling ourselves to our isolation.
We’re at “maybe” now, and we must be honest with ourselves. If the answer is “no,” then we can all “go back” to whatever we were doing before the dream of a Lesbian movement called forth our best energies and commitment. I will not base my life on deluded expectations and false hopes. Easy affirmations won’t do either. If the answer is “yes,” then we have a lot of hard work to do as we renew our focus on creating a Lesbian community, and we’ll have to begin by discovering values we share, values that will identify us to each other.
I suggest we begin with honesty, of the variety that originates in critical self-examination, each of us asking herself exactly what we want and expect from other Lesbians, and results in clarity. Whatever we do, we deserve honesty and clarity from each other. If we cannot go on together, as Lesbians, we need to say it now.
1 Gloria Greenfield, “Shedding,” Nice Jewish Girls, Evelyn Torton Beck, ed. (Trumansburg, NY: The CrossingPress, 1982), pp. 5-27.
2 Beverly Smith & Barbara Smith, “Kitchen Table Dialogue,” This Bridge Called My Back, Cherrie Moraga & Gloria Anzaldua, eds. (Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1982), p. 121.
3 See in “Mystery of Lesbians: II” for example, my discussion of Yours In Struggle, Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, & Barbara Smith, eds. (Brooklyn: Long Haul Press, 1984).
4 My thanks to Linda Strega for this observation.
5 Adrienne Rich, “Notes for a Magazine: What Does Separatism Mean?” Sinister Wisdom 18, Fall 1981, pp. 83-91. Sid Spinster, Letter to the Editors, Sinister Wisdom 20, Spring 1982, pp. 104-5.
6 Betty Friedan, It Changed My Life (New York: Norton, 1985); Robin Morgan, Going Too Far (New York: Vintage, 1978); p. 185; Joanna Russ, Extra (Ordinary) People (New York: St. Martins, 1984), p. 160.
7 Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark (Boston: Beacon, 1982), p. 86.
8 The word heterosexualism, as I use it here, was coined by Sarah Lucia Hoagland in her book, Lesbian Ethics, now in manuscript.
9 I describe the effects of incest with respect to my sexuality and emotional capabilities in “Whose Past Are We Reclaiming?” Common Lives/Lesbian Lives 13, Autumn 1984, pp. 16-35.
10 Mary Daly, Pure Lust (Boston: Beacon, 1984), pp. 365-66.