things to think about

today i am thinking about: DEEP LEZ
September 25, 2009, 12:57 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

So I’m having a bad week, friends, or a bad two weeks now, or maybe it’s a bad three weeks, I can’t even tell, maybe it’s a bad 26th year or a bad 2009 or a bad life. And you know what that means my ass is doing? It means I’m sitting here with Ani Difranco on repeat over and over and yes, I know all the words and yes, you know all the words too.

And you know, say it loud, I’m a fucking deep-ass lez and I’m trying to be proud. I fuck girls. I hold hands and make sweet noises with girls. Sure, I would do it with a boy now and again, but I am not generally speaking at this point in time spending a lot of time thinking about it. I reserve the right to change my tune later but I am just speaking generally here. I am not one of those gay bacon lettuce tomatoes who is so deep into wanting to do it with the menz.

I have been negotiating lately with the way in which so many people in the corner of the queer community i live in <3s being a faggeau. and i mean don't get me wrong, i'm all HAY QUEEN HAY MARY HAY FAGGOT SNAP SNAP I'LL MEET YOU AT THE BAR LATER with everybody too. i identify the kind of masculinity I rock as faggoty chic very openly — queeny but masculine, not butch, hey girl, snap snap faggot snapping in the loafers I am so light in. I think it's fun and honestly it is an aesthetic I grew up in and I remember back in the day when I was busy coming out and at first I was like SAY IT LOUD I'M LEZ AND PROUD. And then I got the idea that lez was not my scene after all, girls were all drama, that it was all u-hauls and boring scissor sex and I ran off to the faggots and I pretty much haven't looked back. Faggot faggot faggot queer queer queer.

Here's the thing. I work at the world's premiere foundation with "Lesbian" in the name. I say the word lesbian more times at this job than I think I have my whole life ever. Lesbian this lesbian that lesbian lesbian lesbian foundation for lesbian justice lesbian lesbian. It makes a queer think, sometimes. If this word is an accurate description of my behavior, why don't I like it?

Why am I so udgy about the word lesbian? Why am I so wary of being identified that way? It feels like it holds a cultural meaning that I do not see myself in – a different way of relating to gender, a different way of having sex, a different set of aesthetic goals. I feel like I wear too many bright colors to be a lez, I have this funny concept hair, I have sex that has to do with power, and I want to be FABULOUS in a way that I do not understand inside of lesbian culture. And yet — I say all this as an outsider, as someone who doesn't really hang out with people who identify as lesbian (except maybe at work). What do I know? Why do I sit at the bar and judge? I feel like I don’t know enough.

Sarah Schulman (article from the Times!) my lez root writes in my real lez root, Girls Visions and Everything:

Actually, Lila had often considered the question of marketing lesbian popularity. She looked at other groups of outcasts who had managed to make a name for themselves. The ultimate failures were Communists. In America, they were still at the bottom of the charts. After considering various historical examples, she concluded that the most successful model was that of the Beats. Guys like Jack, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, some of them were smart and had some good ideas and wrote some lasting and inspiring work. Mostly, though, they weren’t all the geniuses their reputations implied. The thing was, they had made a phenomenon of themselves. They made themselves into the fashion, eacu one quoting from the other, building an image based not so much on their work as on the idea that they led interesting lives. Lila firmly believed that was exactly what lesbians needed to do. Why not make heroes out of Isabel Schwartz and Helen Hayes, and make The Kitsch-Inn the new mecca? let kids from all over America pack their bags, sneak out at night and flock to the East Village to hang out with the lesbians. Soon there’d be lines around the block for the Inn’s midnight show bringing those hungry for stimulation folocking to catch the last word in Lesbiana. They’d have magazine covers, syndicated situation comedies, do the lecture circuit, maybe even walk down the street without being afraid.

The harassment I get these days is, ironically, as often about being a fag as being a lez, and generally has to do with my gender. And yet I just don’t trust myself with my own squeamishness about lez as an identity. Am I just someone who saw some bad branding and reacted? Did lesbian do it to itself, get taken over by people whose vision of the world is fundamentally different than mine? This word works for a lot of people – what works for it for them? What’s about the split, and what do I think about it?

Or is it my own misogyny? My own bad idea of lesbianism? Lesbophobia? Just not feeling like it is the right word for me? Different places around the world have a different reaction to this word; what does being in the US, and the urban US, do to affect mine?

So I am going to work on a little bit of a project. I will be doing little interviews and posting what people think. I am trying to get to the bottom of this. Who loves the word lez? Who hates it? And why?

I worry my own sentiments as expressed in this post will shut people out. I am trying to be honest, even when it is hard; I am trying to own what I think in a public sphere because honestly, I don’t think I’m right. I don’t think I do the right thing when I value fag so highly but bash so hard on lez and I want to do more thinking about what that is. Conversely, I imagine a lot of people who would say something like “well, lesbian just doesn’t describe what I do” — but does fag, either? Does queer? And even within the queer community, why is faggotry valorized and lesbianism denigrated? Can’t we pull from both?

Please leave your lez thoughts in the comments. This is open to people of all genders and identities and orientations, obvs, although especially from folks who have more personal involvement with the word.

Work it out, queens!

19 Comments so far
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this is reminding me of “lesbians are so chic…” by laura cottingham. she wrote it around the time that “lesbian chic” was the big thing. lesbo songs and lesbo pictures and such and so forth. except it was all about fetishization. that was in the 90s, when our kid brains were little sponges.

maybe it got us? that weird depiction of lesbians as clearly butch and femme (kd lang gets a shave from cindy crawford: i first saw it at barnes and noble), and even the delineation of sex roles w/in lez relationships (there was a song called femme on the streets, butch in the sheets. maybe we never heard it, but. what if?)

anyway, i feel like i understand what you’re saying. calling oneself a lesbian, at least in a lotta circles i run in, would be a little bit of social suicide. at the very least a few folks would think twice before asking out a “lesbian”.

and then there’s deep lez, which feels to me like going back and saying forget that horrible cliche that got publicized, here is what women sat around tables talking about. it is what you talk about, queer lady fag homopants. it is community and loving and making a beautiful space for yourself and your peoples.

i am totes rambling. but mostly just <3ing your post.


Comment by beene

oh i know that song. it was tribe 8.

that social suicide is what is so interesting to me. what is about that moment?

i need to read that book. and do more DEEP LEZ research. i think this is worth following, and i am glad you came to ramble bc i was thinking you would have good stuff to say. ❤

Comment by arielariel

“butch in the streets! femme in the sheets! she’s just a girl when she gets home. she wants to get wild like anyone else–don’t let her fool you; she’s feminine prone.”

Comment by eliz

ariel has corrected me, and i would like to further correct myself “she wants to get plowed like anyone else–don’t let her fool you; she’s femme to the bone”
it’s interesting, bc both “feminine prone” and “femme to the bone” are good double meanings! i love wordplay!

Comment by eliz

For some number i’ve years, i’ve thought that if ‘lesbian/lez/etc’ was successfully reclaimed from its connotations of frumpyness, stridentness, and compulsory androgyny, there would be a lot less trouble and muddying (and, yes, even appropriating) of other linguistic identity territories.

Your use of ‘fag/faggot/faggy’ etc is case in point. Personally, i don’t believe that anyone who isn’t both male identified and fucks men can call themselves ‘fag’ etc in good conscience. That it’s so frequently used by people who are mostly women-identified and fuck women, as a gender-expression descriptor, points to a lack of available terminology that does for those people (and maybe you could help me answer what that is?) what ‘fag’ does. it’s edgy? it’s subversive? it points to some specific kind of performative femininity? or a kind of femininity that, by its nature, doesn’t signify hetero-ness, even on a female body? ‘lez’ could do all those things if people decided it should.

i suppose the problem is that women who fuck women don’t have all the baggage that’s comes with ‘fag’, and they do have all the baggage that comes with ‘lez’, so ‘fag’ works as a kind of convenient blank signifier that only the positives can be culled out of it, ignoring the really nasty history of that word as it’s used against men. (not to say that no gender non-conforming women-id’d people never get called ‘fag’ in violent ways – but i don’t think it’s comparable. sort of like how trans men sometimes get called ‘tranny’ in violent ways, but it’s really in fullness a word that belongs to trans women) so, i understand at least part of why it would be an uphill battle to wrest ‘lez’ away from its negative connotations. but (as someone who, admittedly, doesn’t have to put any of the work in) i think it would be a huge positive if some of the women-identified ‘fags’ could be convinced to switch over to ‘lez’ in a display of radical reclamation. still begs the question of what to do for all the men who only fuck women who call themselves ‘fags’, but that’s another conversation…

As far as how ‘lez’ got such a bad rep in the first place, my guess is a toxic brew of misogyny (internalized and otherwise) and the overall backlash against second wave feminism, both from inside the queer community and from outside. somehow, in the midst of critiquing the racism and classism of the second wave and radical lesbian feminists, etc. folks ended up dismissing their aesthetics, fashion sense, food consumption choices, music tastes, etc. And there went the word ‘lesbian’ with it. I’m sure that’s oversimplifying, but i do believe that aesthetics count for a lot.

Comment by ephraim

here are my thoughts:
1) when i get called “fag” or fagbashed, it isn’t with a history of getting fag bashed — but it is in the context of queer bashing, and of violence against women. it is a different kind of stakes but there is still violence there. i feel there is something slippery about comparing it to trans men using “tranny” vs trans women — something i also find really problematic — because i don’t think the same inequality of violent experience exists. also, see what elizabeth wrote below — i think she brings up an interesting point.

i agree that it would be pretty awes if the women-identified fags switched over to lez. i want to see that! i am trying to conceive of what that looks like in my own world. it is, as megan said above, not really popular.

i think you are also onto something with the aesthetic critique — the baby getting tossed with the bathwater.

Comment by arielariel

well, i’ll just say, that i do think there is a significant inequality of violence – perhaps not quite as large of an inequality as between trans women and trans men, but from where i stand and see, it’s still there. and i do read a power-distinction between feminine men and masculine/androgynous women (as part of a power distinction between masculinity and femininity at large).

but even if we accept that this is one of the situations that’s too complicated to merit an easy analysis of power and thus throw out the concept of appropriation/oppression, the use of ‘fag’ by women id’d (and exclusively women-fucking people) is still, by many accounts, hurtful. it alienates queer men from spaces that are supposed to be open to queers of all sorts. it makes gaining acceptance in gay male spaces even harder for bi and trans men. it carries some kind of violence with it, even if it’s not structural/oppresive violence.

it strikes me that, if it’s only the gender expression connotations of ‘fag’ that are desired, why not choose a word like ‘fey’ or even ‘queeny’? Those seem to get to the gender expression attributes without necessarily carrying along the other facets of the identity baggage (like maleness and homosexuality) and without quite as strong links to violence, because they’re in-group language rather than what non-queers call queers.

i don’t want to derail the lez conversation any further. so, more thoughts on that: in looking at other examples of how identity words were reclaimed from negative association, i can’t think of any example where the negative associations were coming almost exclusively from the in-group. straight folks are just as likely to associate ‘lesbian’ with ellen or ‘the l-word’ as they are with the indigo girls and frumpy clothes. this is an inside job. in that, there’s a certain similarity that i see with the status of yiddish in mainline jewish communities, actually. and, if i figure out a way to bring that back into style, i’ll let you know.

Comment by ephraim

often my good friend would be like “i’m a dyke, i’m a lesbian, i’m a queer” and i’d look at her funny. me, a mixed, trans dude of color with lesbionic upbringing. maybe a year later my not with it ass was like “duh!” she’s talking about multiple identities, ways to complicate and accept our wholeselves. my private college educated ass raised my organizer parents who are latinos with afros. i also wish more trans and gender queer female bodied people admitted they have some lesbo tendencies. i can’t help it. my mom is a lesbo and was raised by some fierce ass lesbos. i always question passing and what we give up. i always question the distancing to support my wholeself. whether i identified (or didn’t) as a lesbo before i transitioned shouldn’t matter. i was socialized as a woman and surrounded by the gays and lezzys my whole life, there is no way i could have escaped accessing my lesbionic tendencies if i wanted to. lesbians at one point in time were considered breaking gender norms to fulfill their own needs to be wholeself. i wear pink more to accept all of who i am but used to hate it cuz it read to me “GIRL”. my own internalized shit. i rock pink to honor my lezzy ways, faggy ways, queerness, my mom, my friend, femme masculinity, my whole self. we all have a lesbian inside of us i’m convinced of it.

Comment by LL cool G

So much going on here.

I’m not very fabulous but I totally hear this. I think it’s partially generational. My mom is a lesbian, and when I came out I couldn’t bear to use the word because it felt like it was hers, hers and older women’s. I used “gay.” That felt right and true to me then, more than any other word. “Lesbian” sounded, yes, frumpy, grumpy, etc., but mostly just old. It didn’t sound like my generation. As I got less embarrassed about the fact of being homosexual I came to terms with it. It’s not my favorite word, but I’ll use it. It’s what I am.

In addition to the generational thing is the appropriation of the word by certain feminists. Most political lesbians were not actually lesbians. So “lesbian” got mired in this political, anti-male, anti-sex thing, this thing people did like veganism, like compost. (Maybe that’s unfair, but as an actual dyke I fucking hate political lesbianism.) I think the rampant misuse of “lesbian” by heterosexual, anti-sex separatists is by far the biggest problem.

About the fag thing: I see this all the time, and I was mystified by it for a long while. I’m still mystified by it. And it’s not just “lesbian” — it’s all words that mean women. I use “dyke” and I love it, and I don’t think it has any of the problems of the “lesbian.” I once had a occasion to mention to a queer femme that she might use “dyke” instead of “faggot,” and she laughed and replied, “But dykes don’t have the pow-ah!” It’s not just FAAB genderqueer folks who have a faggy masculinity, and it’s not just “lesbian.” It’s a broader phenomenon.

How do you feel about “dyke”? It’s my hands-down favorite, though I also have a growing appreciation for “butch.”

I have to admit, though I know it’s extremely uncool, that, although I use it, I have this unshakable uneasiness with “queer.” I just can’t rally around it. I can’t shake the sense that it’s cool kid club and everyone’s membership is provisional. I can’t shake the sense that someday it’s all going to be revealed — I’m monosexual, I’m monogamous, I’m religious — and I’ll get kicked out. On some blog once someone said in passing, “whether one is monosexual or queer,” and it pissed me the hell off (and I said so), but it was also such a relief to get it out there, because it felt like this constant subtext.

Anyway. Suffice to say you’ve really got me thinking.

Comment by Daisy

ooh here is what i am thinking:
1) dyke vs lez. definitely. i can get behind dyke, kind of, more easily. i am one of those “cool kids” who is super into the word queer but i also feel like i hear the critique you level often – that it feels like the cool kid club and memberships are revokable.

2) i am working out for myself what i am vs what i think i am in re monosexual, monogamous, religious, all these things. i feel lucky that in my little slice of queer community at a kind of queer mecca, i get to work that out without feeling too jeopardized. sometimes i do anyways.

omg i want to know more abt the political lesbians. this is not a group i have run into. please tell me more.

i am curious about how you talk abt yr masculinity. you are into butch as a word, right? i am still trying to work out if i am or not. i feel awkward about it — i feel like faggy is better, kind of. i can’t tell if it is my own uncomfortableness with the concept of butch or something else that i am still working through.

Comment by arielariel

Re: political lesbians, oh jeez, well, see lesbian feminism. There’s a lot that came out of that, obviously, good and bad. I was talking about the bad. Have you ever read those old school (and old school style) writings on how lesbian desire doesn’t objectify, etc? Too lazy to google for them right now, but that’s what I meant. Reading those sorts of things I always felt like, “No, straight female feminist don’t sexual objectify women. Lesbians do it all the time.”

I do like butch as a word, though make no mistake, I still feel awkward about it, too, nervous almost. I think this is because it’s still so new, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the identity yet. Alhough it’s slowly subsiding, I still have this nagging feeling that there’s some kind of Test Of True Butchness and I haven’t passed it yet. I don’t know if this just normal noob nervousness, or something about the construction of masculinity, or butchness in particular… Something about failed men being effeminate maybe, femininity as failed masculinity? (Obviously I abhor this idea, but it’s out there.) And maybe “faggy” et al bypass that, being “failed”/non-passing masculinity from the start…?

What uncomfortableness do you have with the concept of butch? I’m curious. I think it works for me because I’m a really particular kind of dyke: I only like femmes, I like the motions and the rituals of chivalry, old fashionedness carries a certain appeal for me, etc. And I’m not faggy. Not at all. My cis straight dude best friend is significantly fruitier than I am. I’m a sweetheart and a nerd, my head in a book, but I’m not faggy. Is that why “butch” is relatively unconflicted for me?

All this makes me think of Fairy Butch, who IIRC has said ze felt the need to modify “butch” because ze’s always been a sissy, and chose “fairy” because lesbians didn’t seem to know the word nelly. I reading an interview with hir somewhere or other and of course the interviewer, a lesbian, asked first: “Fairy Butch — does that mean you’re a bottom?” Bleh.

Comment by Bond

it’s hard, the ways that gender and sexuality get wrapped up in each other. obvs this made s and i talk about the use of the word fag and i am not sure, i have so many feelings on it, some of which you and i have talked abt, ariel, and the idea of appropriating is hard for me because appropriation is so much about power in my head and heart and i just can’t really buy the way that non-trans men are the disempowered ones in this context. so there’s that, and then there’s the way that when fag gets used as an insult it seems at least as often that it is about gender and not sexual practice/experience, or at least lobbed at someone on that basis even if it is used to signify sexuality. so it’s hard, again, to think about what appropriation means or looks like. and i have a lot of feelings about the destabilization of identity that make me think that one word doesn’t need to mean one thing.

which brings me to the language of lesbian, deep lez, etc. i think a lot about whether those words are mine to reclaim, as someone who has mostly dated boys, especially over the last several years, but who also came to my sexuality through not just queer experiences but also lesbian theory and practice. as you know, i have spent the last half of my life sort of balancing and/or wrestling with what it means to be mostly–though CERTAINLY not exclusively–attracted to boys when centered in first lesbian, and then queer, communities and ideologies.

so some part of this, for me, comes with that triangle i was obsessed with/embroidering a patch of like 6 months or a year ago, which is homosexual/homocultural/homoconceptual, or all the different axes on which i feel like queerness/homosexuality/and yes, lesbianism sort of do or can work on. and i think it comes from, reconstructs, and tears apart the concepts of lesbianism from lesbian-feminism/second wave, as i understand them.

i guess what i wonder is what it takes away from the word lesbian when i try to reclaim it, and whose lives i am erasing on both sides–the people who need it and have needed it to center and identify themselves in the face of misogyny and homophobia, and my partners whose genders often get eclipsed in those words. but i definitely think that the times in my life that i was very anti-lesbian, were also the times where my misogyny, both externalized and internalized, were the highest.

omg. this comment is ridic at this point. i will just end it and we can talk more on gchat if you want.

Comment by eliz


how does misogyny play into the fact that i say gay and homo all the time (gay sex, we are all homos, etc) but NEVER lesbian? it feels less universal. how is that related to how “guys” feels gender-neutral but “ladies” or whatever doesn’t? because it’s certainly not that i only ever say queer. you know?

Comment by eliz

i don’t have enough time right now to do this justice, or even read the comments properly, but here’s commentary from the voice of the older generation that lives in my brain (one of the advantages of being queerspawn, i guess):

the squick about “lesbian” that affects folks under 35 or so is partly a result of the very successful branding and marketing of “queer” as a hip, radical chic term by (often rather misogynist) gay men in the late 1980s/early 1990s (in Queer Nation, &c). which was a classic version of a classic game: invent a ‘universal’/’umbrella’ term that erases the less privileged group that’s supposed to be included under it (especially fun when that group is largely responsible for the interesting things that’re supposed to be involved in the term).

this isn’t the only thing that was involved in the invention of “queer”, especially after riot grrrl got its hands on the word, but is one of the most important, and the one that never gets talked about – except by lesbians.

Comment by rozele

[…] launched largely from the inside, by those who have the most reason to use them. (There’s a great post more or less about this over at things to think […]

Pingback by Confidence, Not Caveats: Butch, Femme, And Tearing Down Stereotypes « Dear Diaspora

I am waaaay Deep Lez. Love it, love it, LOVE LESBIANISM. I’m not sure if I’d be what Bond considers a political lesbian, but my feminism profoundly informs my sexuality. I’m more than happy to talk about it. I love fucking women; I love looking at women (objectification?!); I love being with women. I love being campy, I adore COLOR (though I understand the sentiment that these things are frowned upon by lesians in general- I’ve gotten that too!), and I dream about the radical reclaimation of the term LESBIAN by women who fuck women. Yes, please!

I think it’s been made quite clear in the comments why faggotry is valorized and lesbianism denigrated: male power. I will spare you my feminist analysis, but I’m *really* interested in this conversation. As a woman-loving lesbian, I’m perplexed by the turn against lesbianism by women who fuck women. I’m also in an urban setting and it IS a pervasive phenomenon. I went to The Femme Show recently and there was hardly any mention of the term “lesbian.” 😦

Comment by Undercover Punk

[…] been thinking, still, about this post and the following thread, about why we use the words we use, about my slowly subsiding anxiety […]

Pingback by Pass/Fail Tests, Pit Stops, And Other Problems Of Transmasculine Identity « Dear Diaspora

I have SO many things to say about this but don’t have time right now to write the whole essay I want to write. The one note I want to make right now is that I think lez=bad in NYC in part bc of the lez=fat/fag=skinny issue and we all know NYC is batshit around bodies. Lesbians are fat and “frumpy” (although, seriously, what could be hotter than a lesbian rocking the belly, plaid shirt, worn jeans, dyke shoes, sports bra, and boxers with 110% confidence? LOVE) and the gays are supposedly absolutely fabulous and look amazing (read: very thin) in clothes. And NYC is the creepiest place I’ve ever been for people totally making up food allergies and “issues” particularly in queer scenes where they know they are not supposed to say they’re on a diet bc they are supposedly body-positive and anti-dieting and it’s awesome for other people to have the icky fat but not them so they claim like every other month some kind of food intolerance so as to be able to not eat for politically acceptable reasons (actual food allergies are pretty rare and pretty serious). So nobody wants to be a lez bc lezzies are fat and gross, obv, and fags are thin and gorgeous.

Comment by Ms. Rev.

[…] Thoughts On Passing, Limits & Masculinity October 22, 2009 I am still thinking about the language we use to describe our identities, specifically the language we use to talk about queer […]

Pingback by Butch/Fag: Some Thoughts On Passing, Limits & Masculinity « Dear Diaspora

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