This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gay Liberation and Lesbian Feminism

Jeffreys, Sheila, “Gay Liberation and Lesbian Feminism,” in Unpacking Queer Politics, London, Polity Press, 2003, pp. 1-14.

Two aspects of gay liberation theorizing distinguish it dramatically from queer politics. One is the understanding that the oppression of gay men stems from the oppression of women. Another is that many forms of gay male behaviour, which today are lauded in queer politics, are the result of gay oppression, and cannot be ended without ending the oppression of women. Forms of behaviour which historically were part of the behaviour of men who had sex with men, such as cruising and effeminacy, were seen by GLF activists to be the result of oppression, rather than inevitable and authentic forms of gay behaviour (p. 4).

Homosexual oppression and the oppression of women were both seen to result from the imposition of what were called `sex roles'. Political activists of the left in this period were profoundly social-constructionist in their approach. Thus both gay liberationists and feminists saw sex roles, which would probably now be called `gender roles', as being politically constructed to ensure male dominance. Women were relegated to the female sex role of the private sphere, nurturing and being concerned with beautifying the body in order to be an appropriate sex object. Lesbians were persecuted because they challenged the female sex role of sexual passivity and the servicing of men. Gay men were persecuted because they challenged the male sex role, which, as well as requiring masculine behaviour, was founded upon heterosexuality and sexual intercourse with women (p. 2).

`We have been forced into playing roles based upon straight society, butch and femme, nuclear ``marriages'' which continue within the relationship the same oppression that outside society forces onto its women' (p. 2).

We are children of straight society. We still think straight; that is part of our oppression. One of the worst of straight concepts is inequality . . . male/female, on top/on bottom, spouse/not spouse, heterosexual/homosexual, boss/worker, white/black, and rich/poor. . . . For too long we mimicked these roles to protect ourselves ± a survival mechanism. Now we are becoming free enough to shed the roles which we've picked up from the institutions which have imprisoned us. (Wittman 1992: 333)

One development that is likely to have hastened the abandonment of feminist insights by many gay activists is the withdrawal of lesbians in large numbers from gay liberation, in order to concentrate their energies on lesbian feminism...One issue which was a source of serious schism between men and women in gay liberation was sexual practice (p. 6).

Lesbian feminism starts from the understanding that the interests of lesbians and gay men are in many respects very different, because lesbians are members of the political class of women. Lesbian liberation thus requires the destruction of men's power over women...The principles of lesbian feminism, which distinguish it quite clearly from the queer politics of today, are woman-loving; separatist organization, community and ideas; the idea that lesbianism is about choice and resistance; the idea that the personal is political; a rejection of hierarchy in the form of role-playing and sadomasochism; a critique of the sexuality of male supremacy which eroticizes inequality (p. 8).

Woman-loving does not survive well in male-dominated queer politics. In a mixed movement the resources, influence and just sheer numbers of men give them the power to create cultural norms. As a result, some lesbians became so disenchanted with their lesbianism, and even their femaleness, that there are presently hundreds, if not thousands, of lesbians in the UK and the USA who have `transitioned' ± i.e. adopted the identity not just of males but of gay males with the help of testosterone and mutilating operations (Devor 1999).

The lesbian of lesbian feminism is a different creature from the female homosexual or female invert of sexology or earlier assimilationist movements. She is very different, too, from the gay man of gay liberation. Whilst gay liberation recognized that sexual orientation was socially constructed, there was no suggestion that gayness might be subject to voluntary choice, and might be chosen as a form of resistance to the oppressive political system. The lesbian feminist sees her lesbianism as something that can be chosen, and as political resistance in action (Clarke 1999). Whereas gay liberation men may say `I am proud', lesbian feminists have gone so far as to say `I choose' (p. 8).

Lesbian feminists took from radical feminism the understanding that `the personal is political' (Hanisch 1970). This phrase sums up the important revelation of the feminism of the late 1960s and the 1970s that equality in the public sphere with men was an insufficient, if not a nonsensical, aim...Hierarchy had to be eliminated from personal life if the face of public life was to change, and if the barriers between public and private were to be broken down (p. 11).

Eroticizing equality

The creation of a sexuality of equality in opposition to the sexuality of male supremacy, which eroticizes men's dominance and women's subordination, is a vital principle of lesbian feminism. Radical feminists and radical lesbian feminists in the 1970s and 1980s argued that sexuality is both constructed through, and plays a fundamental role in maintaining, the oppression of women (Millett 1977; MacKinnon 1989). Sexuality is socially constructed for men out of their position of dominance, and for women out of their position of subordination. Thus it is the eroticized inequality of women which forms the excitement of sex under male supremacy (Jeffreys 1990a). As a result, radical feminist critics argue, the sexuality of men commonly takes the form of aggression, objectification, the cutting off of sex from emotion, and the centering of sex entirely around penile entry into the body of a woman. For women sexuality takes the form of pleasure in their subordinate position and the eroticizing of men's dominance. This system does not work efficiently. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, a whole army of sexologists and sex advice writers sought to encourage, train and blackmail women into having orgasms, or at least sexual enthusiasm, in penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse with men, preferably in the missionary position so that the man could remain `on top'. The sexological enforcers have identified women's failure to obtain such pleasure as political resistance, or even a `threat to civilisation' (Jeffreys 1997b).

The construction of sexuality around the eroticized subordination of women and dominance of men is problematic for other reasons too. This sexuality underpins male sexual violence in all its forms, and creates men's sexual prerogative of using women, who dissociate to survive, in the prostitution and pornography industries. Thus radical feminists and lesbian feminists have understood that sexuality must change. A sexuality of inequality, which makes women's oppression exciting, stands as a direct obstacle to any movement of women towards equality (p. 12).

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