I REMEMBER MY OWN EPIPHANOUS REALIZATION THAT I WOULD PROBABLY NEVER BE A SOLID citizen of Lesbian Nation. It was in the early ‘80s, in a heavily guarded wooded compound in rural Pennsylvania, at a women’s music festival. Perhaps it was even a wimmin’s or womyn’s or womb-moon’s festival--all these alternatives to wo-MAN were taken seriously at the time. Such women-only retreats, all over the country, were then the World Series of lesbian-feminist culture, and there was typically much about them that was fair-minded and progressive, from the encouragement of multiculturalism to free child care and special signers for the hearing-impaired. In theory, they were safe havens where we could relax among our own, entertained by lesbian musicians. In reality, the hills were increasingly alive with political correctness.
My first clue at this particular festival was the dress code: studded black leather and other accouterments with even a whiff of S&M; imagery were explicitly forbidden. (The couturiers of choice appeared to be Messrs Birkenstock and L. L. Bean.) Then there were the biographies of organizers and performers in the official program, each more a victim wanna-be than the last, and capped by someone who, in the absence of a more compelling oppression, felt the need to list her propensity for yeast infections. But my moment of truth came when a grim sentry from the festival’s security forces accosted my lover and me and reproachfully thrust a crumpled-up beer can into our hands. Some eight hours earlier, according to this human bloodhound, we had apparently committed the cardinal sin of tossing it in an alcohol-free trash basket.
My honey and I jumped in the car and fled with relief back to the hetero world, where plenty of people would just as soon spit on us as let us live next door--but where we could at least be regarded as Baaad, rather than Incorrect.
Nowadays, we’ve got lots of company beyond the gates. In fact, the newest directional trend for gay women might be described as “out of the woods, and in your face.” Lesbian life has changed radically over the past decade, beginning with the fact that the “wimmin” of the ‘90s are as likely as not to call themselves “girls.” Lesbians who came out in the ‘60s and ‘70s and those who came out in the Reagan-Bush years often regard each other across a generational divide that Robin Gans, 36, co-proprietor of the floating Hollywood nightclub, the Girl Bar, wickedly terms “the wrinkle gap.” But it’s a state of mind as much as a matter of age, with women in their 30s on both sides of the barricades. At its crudest, it’s a case of girls just wanting to have fun--the more outrageous, the better.
The new breed, sometimes known as “lipstick lesbians,” are usually feminists by most definitions of the word, although many of them wouldn’t accept the title. But they’re rebelling as much against the restraints imposed by the more rigid dos and don’ts of feminist ideology as those dictated by the larger society--the endless processing, consciousness-raising, life-seen-through-a-political-prism that dominated lesbian/feminist culture for decades.
But if politics are considered boring, bedfellows--or in this case, bed gals--are not.
And therein lies the heart of the matter. “The most important development happening in the lesbian community is the exploration of our sexuality,” says Bryn Austin, the 25-year-old managing editor of the Advocate, the Los Angeles-based national gay and lesbian news magazine.
IN THE ‘70s, ALTHOUGH LESBIANS WERE CERTAINLY HAVING SEX, THE EMPHASIS was often on a spiritual-oriented female solidarity; you virtually had to sit around a campfire for nights on end singing Holly Near songs before you could score. Today, in an era in which many gay men and straights increasingly regard lust as a land mine, lesbians, including monogamous couples, are indulging in it with gusto.
A decade after the battle by a generation of straight and gay feminists against pornography, the best-selling lesbian publication in the country is the 8-year-old San Francisco hard-core magazine On Our Backs. The nation’s most famous lesbian dance bar is New York’s relatively new Clit Club, notorious for its scantily clad go-go dancers and erotic videos; its success has been cloned by hot spots such as Hollywood’s Klub Banshee (which not long ago featured a retro hair and fashion show as its evening’s entertainment) and San Francisco’s G-Spot. Not even the serious politicos are exempt: At a workshop to discuss the implications of this sexual explosion at the Creating Change national conference in Washington last fall, panelists were dared to take off their tops--and did.
For those who have stereotyped lesbians all along as purely sexual beings, this may seem like something less than a news flash. But for the rest of us, it’s as if 20-year-old Jewish kids suddenly turned their backs on their parents’ hard-won assimilation and started wearing their grandfathers’ yarmulkes as a cool fashion statement. Young women have eroticized precisely those bimbo-slut roles (or a playful, girls-in-the-know version of them) that feminists once found embarrassing. Sexy clothes have made a comeback, and even women who prefer a more androgynous look seem to be dressing more like cute gay men than dowdy women. “When I wear a dress, I go all out,” says Austin. “I have this great dress made out of black PVC, the stuff they make raincoats out of--strapless, mid-thigh, with a zipper all the way down the front. I like to wear it with gauntlets and these thin, stiletto shoes that look like something Morticia would wear.”
While the festival scene is far from dead, lesbian social life--formerly defined by sliding scale admissions, potluck dinners, and feminist institutions such as the now-defunct Women’s Building in Los Angeles--has gone upscale. One popular venue is women’s ocean cruises, “which would have been considered elitist 10 years ago,” according to Robin Tyler, 49, who organizes many such events. The Dinah Shore golf weekend running March 27-29 in Palm Springs is an annual pilgrimage for thousands. Once unwelcome in gay male space, lesbians are also now a fixture at many men’s clubs, and most gay publications like the Advocate have drastically beefed up their lesbian coverage. (The Advocate recently ran a service piece for its female readers titled, “What a Friend We Have in Dildos.”)
Robin Gans and her lover, Sandy Sachs, 30, who operate Girl Bar, are among those who find the hard-line politics, separatism and downward mobility of olden days unappealing. “Music festivals?” Sandy shudders. “Didn’t they stay in log cabins? Eeeuw! I’d rather sit in the lap of luxury than in a bunch of twigs.”
Sandy and Robin are of a type of lipstick lesbian sometimes known in the community as “car-phone lesbians” or “luppies": successful, glamorous and unapologetically middle-class. “We’re feminine looking and we do dress nicely because that’s just an extension of who we are and how we feel about ourselves,” says Robin. “And when men find out we’re together,” they add, “they’re real disappointed.”
But today’s young up-and-coming-out lipstick lesbian might also be a lezbopunk bike-dyke, like Jenny Shimizu, 24, who, along with several of her friends, is planning to open Girl Garage, a car-repair shop in Silver Lake. The only lesbian writer Jenny reads is Pat Califia, the Advocate’s advice columnist and the author of many porn classics. Her passions, aside from cars and motorcycles and what she calls the leather scene, are her tattoos: Japanese characters on the back of her shoulder that mean “and she walks away,” a flaming cross on the back of her neck, and on her biceps, a pinup girl straddling a wrench.
How would she respond to a feminist who might think she’s glorifying the image of woman-as-piece-of-meat? “I think I’d agree with her,” Jenny says gleefully, “and I’d say, right on sister! I’m all for sexual freedom: S&M;, bondage, dancing half naked. I just think it’s great.”
NOT SURPRISINGLY, NOT EVERY LESBIAN IN HER 20s THINKS THIS TREND IS fabulous. Sophia Corleone is 24 but says that all of her friends “are between 35 and 60 . . . I can’t even hold a conversation with a lesbian my age. It’s like talking to a vacuum.” Corleone was a supporter of the Los Angeles chapter of ACT UP. But she has since left the group because she doesn’t “want to give of my time and energy” to men who care more about AIDS than about breast cancer.
Now she devotes her energy to her job as co-coordinator, with Gail Suber, of the Lesbian Writers Series of readings at A Different Light bookstore in Silver Lake. She worries that at a time when feminists and gays are being targeted by the right wing, too many of her contemporaries “have been been Reaganized. Go-go dancing and mud wrestling at women’s bars isn’t an alternative culture, like drag queens are--it’s completely similar to what goes on at the Tropicana up in Hollywood or any other straight club.”
The majority of lesbian literature that’s bought today is mystery novels, sci fi, or erotica--very little theory, she adds. “Lesbians are reading the lesbian version of what everyone else is reading. They’re listening to mainstream music, wearing mainstream fashion.”
She fears that many lesbians have bought into the politically correct backlash. “I’d like to see a shift in terminology. Politically correct has become as silly a phrase as male chauvinist. I’d like people to start talking about being politically responsible.”
Marilyn Murphy, a 59-year-old Florida-based columnist for the Lesbian News, believes that hot-to-trot young lesbians are acting out of “despair,” a numbed-out, last-ditch Weimar Republic-like decadence that bespeaks an inability to fight problems such as rape, sexual harassment, and incest. Murphy was upset last Christmas when the cover of Lesbian News featured go-go dancers from Girl Bar and an accompanying article titled, “Jiggle Belles, Jiggle Belles.” “I’m not going to criticize the women who do the dancing,” says Murphy, “but I think it’s a double betrayal that lesbians--who have been in the avant-garde of making the world safe for women--would turn around and objectify other women. It takes my breath away.”
But folklorist Kay Turner, 43, of Austin, Tex., who received a women’s studies fellowship from the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, insists that there are reasons and seasons for what’s happening. “We’ve moved from an era defined by Artemis--who was sort of the Birkenstock goddess, if you will, and who gave voice to discourses on subjects like pornography and separatism and incest--and into the era of Aphrodite. The discourse now is about being touched, and it’s catalyzed by the presence of Madonna in our culture. Although she’s not technically a lesbian, she’s the figure lesbians gravitate toward.”
In her alter ego as lead singer for the band Girls in the Nose, Turner organizes an annual Madonna Hoot. The highlight of the last Hoot, which drew several hundred women and men, was the construction of an altar featuring pictures of the Virgin Mary and Madonna and a naked female go-go dancer covered with fruit that the audience was invited to nibble. “It’s always a very successful event,” Turner says.
Certainly a far cry from a Take Back the Night march. Liz Hendrickson, the 42-year-old director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, thinks it’s understandable, if sometimes frustrating, that young lesbians don’t necessarily have the same priorities that their elders do. “I came out in 1973,” Hendrickson recalls. “Ms. magazine had been out for a year, and the women’s movement was in full tilt. This was the time period of things like women’s shelters, which are now politically safe but at the time were very cutting edge. If you participate in the building of community, you have a sense of being its roots and its heart--whereas people who come along later, when everything is in place, are really just consumers.” Because of the successes of the ‘70s, she adds, fewer young lesbians are marrying men. “They skip that step. It’s no wonder they’re not up on problems like lesbian mother custody; it isn’t happening to their friends.”
What is happening to their friends is AIDS. “It’s a mistake to say that young women are apolitical; they just care about different issues,” Hendrickson says. “Young lesbians are very clear about abortion rights, but the issue for this generation is AIDS--it’s their Vietnam. They all know people dying of AIDS.” (Although lesbians are statistically at very low risk for AIDS, some non-monogamous lesbians practice safe oral sex with a cut-up condom or a small square of rubber oral surgery material known as a dental dam.)
For many lesbians, the gay community has become what the women’s community once was. While gay women in the ‘70s and early ‘80s tended to identify with and hang out with straight women, today’s new lesbian is likely to feel those loyalties to gay men. Not surprisingly then, the other cause that many young lesbians are rallying around is the necessity for being out of the closet. While many older lesbians thought of themselves as women who just happened to be gay (and who even believed that making their lesbianism known would “hurt” the feminist movement), young women often regard that stance as hopelessly wimpy. “The biggest issue is making homosexuality as normal as heterosexuality,” says Jenny Shimizu emphatically. “It’s all about the right to be yourself. And I have a lot of anger at women who are closeted.” COMING OUT IS ACTUALLY ONE OF THE COMMON DENOMINATORS SHARED BY the wild and crazy girl and the middle-class professional lesbian. The two groups just go about it in different ways. Dr. Katherine O’Hanlan, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of Stanford University’s Gynecologic Cancer Service, recently “married” her lover, Leonie Walker, director of the Leadership Council of Equity Institute, a nonprofit agency. The marriage isn’t recognized as legal by the state, but everything else about the ceremony was at least as elaborate as any straight wedding: the double-ring ceremony at the Crocker Mansion south of San Francisco (with readings from Audre Lorde, Kahlil Gibran and Corinthians), the white suits, the lavender bouquets of orchids and irises, the wedding cake topped with two brides, custom-made by a claymation artist to resemble the couple. “It was your very basic, traditional lesbian wedding,” says O’Hanlan.
The couple have always believed “that if we’re going to ask for the respect of a married couple, we’re going to treat ourselves like a married couple,” says Walker. While they were living in New York, they waged a successful battle to get the hospital that O’Hanlan worked for to cover her partner’s health insurance; they are currently pushing for the same rights at Stanford. O’Hanlan, 38, describes herself as a feminist; Walker, 34, is more hesitant to apply the label. “What we do well is to live our lives fully and create change by being out there,” she explains.
Lesbian stand-up comic Kate Clinton of Provincetown, Mass., says that she’s changed her routines to reflect these new realities. She used to do a comedy shtick about a lesbian couple “de-dyking” their apartment when their parents came to visit: hiding telltale books and tapes, and pretending to be “roomies” who slept in different beds. “Now I’m cranking it up, with the joke being whether anything you say can get the family to leave: showing Dad the huge leather harness over the bed, and proudly telling him you made it with your very own Black & Decker.”
Still, the 44-year-old Clinton acknowledges, “sometimes these young women make me feel like an old fart. They have a sense of entitlement, which I think is great. Being out for them isn’t the frontal assault that it was for my generation--it’s just the way it is. But sometimes a sense of entitlement makes you forget that you’re really not entitled to the goodies in the culture--there was a lot of work that was done to get people those goodies, and without more work, they can all be taken away.”
A pivotal event for many lesbians (including the legions who stayed home) was last year’s first, and possibly last, National Lesbian Conference in Atlanta. By most accounts, it was political correctness at its looniest: fat women threatening to storm the crafts area to protest the sale of low-cal cookies, chemically sensitive women refusing to mingle with women wearing scented deodorant, even a fistfight during the last session between an anti-war lesbian and a lesbian Gulf War veteran. How is it that a movement dedicated to equality and the dignity of women degenerated into a cat fight between different squadrons of the thought police?
“Lesbians have been so invisible in the culture at large that whenever one of us does breach that line of invisibility, her image tends to stand for us all,” says Patty O. Veranda, 34, whose Louisville, Ky.-based lesbian rock band, Yer Girlfriend, played at the Atlanta conference. Even people who think they’re familiar with gay culture usually turn out to know something about gay men , she notes. “We have so few shots at getting in the public eye that it’s very tempting to try to present a monolithic front, to simplify our complexity, to don an intellectual uniform and say that of course we all believe such-and-such--ironically to deny the very diversity that one would hope to celebrate, the kind that makes gay culture so rich and vibrant.”
But lesbianism of any stripe still leaves most people clueless, warns Urvashi Vaid, 33, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a leading gay civil rights group. “For mainstream society, there have traditionally been only two images: man-hating bulldykes and titillating porn, made by and for straight men. The curious thing about both of those images is that here we are, women who love other women, and to the rest of the world, all they see is the lack of a man. They have to insert the man, as someone that we supposedly really need, or even as someone we supposedly hate, because it’s indifference to men that drives them mad. What doesn’t compute is women really liking and loving other women. In a society obsessed with men’s relationships, lesbians are like people speaking a foreign tongue.”
This is also precisely why lesbian feminists in their 40s and 50s, who spent years challenging the straight stereotype that somebody in a lesbian relationship “has to be the man,” are sometimes driven bananas by lesbians in their 20s and 30s who think that playing at butch and femme, or wearing a dildo to bed, is the height of deliciously scandalous erotic behavior.
And then there’s bisexuality, the last taboo among lesbians. Articles have recently been appearing in the gay press on the topic of “lesbians who sleep with men"--a concept that might seem, at first glance, to make about as much sense as “vegetarians who eat fried chicken.” But in the current climate, women who would have been exclusively lesbian 15 years ago out of solidarity with other women no longer feel the need to do so. Other women, who might have been exclusively heterosexual in the past, may be attracted to the glitzy charms and new visibility of the lesbian scene. “It’s very in to be lesbian in ’92,” says Girl Bar operator Sandy Sachs. “I know this might sound wild, but there are quite a few hetero women out there who are fascinated at the idea that they don’t have to worry about pregnancy and disease. It’s like, tell your husband, ‘my girlfriend and I are going to lunch.’ ”
Carol Queen, 34, who works at Good Vibrations, the female-owned San Francisco sex boutique, and writes for On Our Backs, describes herself as a “queer-identified bisexual, bottom with top rising. And I very much identify as a femme, although I sort of miss my crew cut some days.” Queen grew up in Oregon, where “if you see a woman gussied up, she’s either selling Mary Kay cosmetics or she’s a femme dyke. All the straight women wear flannel shirts and chop wood.” For years in Eugene, she was involved exclusively with women, “but I secretly identified as bi all that time. I was told that I’d get over it. " But Queen now feels that there’s room in the lesbian, or certainly the “queer” community, for her to have a male as her current primary partner.
Queen adds that many younger lesbians don’t especially care about being accepted or even understood by straights or older lesbians. “I see it in the store, especially with sales of dildos. Older dykes have this idea that sex toys--especially penis-shaped ones--are patriarchal.” According to Queen, “the deal for a lot of older women is that you ought to be able to have good sex with nothing but your own natural female body. But that’s really as oppressive as straight couples thinking that it’s wrong to do it in anything but the missionary position.”
SOME LESBIAN FEMINISTS would argue that the truly threatening, scare-the-horses sex in this culture is precisely the kind that women can have without anything resembling a penis--or whips or garter belts or the rest of the porno staples. In fact, what seems rebellious in a feminist context often plays into the most reactionary stereotypes. If straight males extrapolate from lesbian porn that lesbians really want be be tied up, or penetrated by a penis, or treated like jiggle-objects, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to harassment, gay bashing and rape. But if lesbians don’t want to monitor desire for other people’s sensibilities, what’s the solution?
Nowhere is this delicate tightrope walked with more awareness than among lesbians of color. “It’s extremely complicated,” says Alycee Lane, 28, a UCLA graduate student in English literature. Lane, who also writes for BLK, the black gay and lesbian news magazine, is editor of Black Lace, a magazine of African-American lesbian erotica. “I won’t tell you Black Lace isn’t pornography--it is,” Lane says. “And the question is, how does one put out an erotic magazine and deal with the stereotypes of black women as insatiable sex objects?”
“We live in strange times,” Lane says. “On the one hand, there’s the fact that I can write a dissertation on homosexuality in the black community and get support from faculty members--that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Then again, this is happening at a time that’s very repressive. I have to wonder, what does it all mean?”
But Urvashi Vaid thinks that the new diversity may allow lesbians to come into their own. “We’ve become astoundingly more visible lately--just look at the what’s been in the news in the last couple of months: Martina (Navratilova) on the sports pages, (NOW president) Patricia Ireland acknowledging that she has a woman partner, and (Nebraska Sen.) Bob Kerrey’s lesbian joke--even if it was sexist.” One might add to the list Amanda Donohoe’s bisexual CJ character on “L.A. Law” and the coming-out in print of Linda Villarosa, an editor of Essence. Or Vaid herself; she’s young, feisty and made headlines in 1989 when she was thrown out of a National Leadership Council on AIDS conference because she demanded that President Bush spend more money on AIDS research.
Maybe, Vaid says, lesbians only now feel comfortable enough in the larger culture to start breaking out of the cookie-cutter mold. “People were just as queer in the ‘50s, but they couldn’t even find each other. The movement has created a space where all this openness and experimentation are possible.”
When my friends in their 40s heard that I was researching this article, I encountered plenty of curled lips and murmurs about “apolitical ingrates.” I understand. It pains me that some younger lesbians don’t call themselves feminists because they equate the word with boring rigidity. For that matter, I worry that the sex-toy mafia (some of whom already dismiss other lesbians’ sexual choices as “vanilla”) could become as judgmental as the PC prunes. Black lingerie and red lipstick, however delicious and crucial to one’s well-being, are also never going to change the world--and I can’t imagine how any woman who followed the Thomas hearings and the Kennedy and Tyson trials couldn’t think the world needs changing.
But the visibility of a generation of out, proud lesbians will make a difference. Spunk, honesty, control of one’s destiny and delight in one’s sexuality are all feminist values the last time I checked. The nail polish may be new, but the lesbian movement is still in good hands.