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THE POWER OF LESBIAN NAMING

Silence makes up the most subtle and pervasive tactic of oppression. The intense importance of 'the word' in religious and spiritual writing of all kinds stands to good reason, as does the valuation of 'free speech.'1 Words and language make up the key infrastructure of our social lives and self-expression. We genuinely need words, even if we don't consider ourselves writers, and the lack of words for ourselves can endanger our confidence that we have a self to express. The oppressed learn early that oppressors prefer their silence, and that they be referred to only by the pejorative terms the oppressors choose. The oppressed aren't supposed to have language in the first place. Oppressors labour under the idea that by denying names and language to certain sorts of incovenient people, by squeezing them out, they can deny their existence and then adjust reality until it fits. The idea remains as impossible as ever, as improbable as a Platonic ideal form, and unfortunately as persistent.

I first consciously encountered this dynamic in my teens as I struggled along with no terminology for myself or my experiences. Much later I came to understand 'coming out' as an act of self-naming that was powerful enough to block the persistent denials of my existence.

I have indirectly taken up the topic of language and its uses in resistance by lesbians in a previous essay where I laid out my views on lesbian fiction. Fortuitously the work led me to a definition of lesbian culture independent of what patriarchal society defines as "naughty behaviour with the genitals", to use one of my favourite paraphrases of Sheila Jeffreys. Here I am going to return to the areas the previous essay did not travel: the definition of "lesbian" itself and possible meanings of the pursuit of lesbian culture in practice.

Before I go on, I'd like to reiterate what the discussion here and in the previous essay are not. While they reflect my own thoughts and ideas and work for me, your own mileage may vary. My hope is that these materials support the constructive conversations lesbians have been working hard to have across their differences and in spite of often having little or no shared vocabulary to work with. As we move into the next stages in our work against oppression of all kinds, lesbians need to take up the challenge of creating and recreating our words. It serves not us but our oppressors when we need to pour energy into bare communication.2 We also need to take care not to fall into the trap of using our definitions in a manner that leads us to carry out oppression in our own right. Definitions express ideals, idealized states that we may aspire to — as well as ideas we need to keep testing and checking for the deadly ossification that can turn us into oppressors in our turn.

These questions of lesbian language and definition are not new, in fact they have been dealt with before by many lesbian Feminists, including Beth Brant, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, and Mary Daly, just to name at random women represented on my own shelves. Some Indigenous two-spirit authors have argued that 'lesbian' is itself an appropriated term. On the question of appropriation, I'm not certain the term applies. It is true that the people of Lesvos today are not bursting with enthusiasm for the use of the term by homosexual women, but their position relative to it is quite different from that of others whose terms for themselves have definitely been appropriated. For example take the terms 'american' and 'canadian,' both originally used specifically to refer to the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, their proper original names already being ignored except where they were militarily useful. Once the Europeans had a firm foothold, the terms were redefined to refer to Europeans who had been born in the Americas, not the Indigenous people, and every effort was and has been made to erase Indigenous people from the Americas all together. I think it is fair to say that women who call themselves lesbians are not attempting to claim that they are the true people of Lesvos or that they should replace them. Based on my own experience and what I have heard from other such women, the idea is to invoke a sense of continuity and sisterhood with the revered poet and lover of women, Sappho.

The contemporary orthography of the term 'lesbian' itself highlights the term as different from an ordinary national or citizenship term. For one thing, it has not been modernized to reflect modern Greek pronunciation and spelling, and it is generally not capitalized when used to refer to homosexual women. I do think it is important to follow those conventions, although in themselves those conventions don't deal with the uncomfortable subjects of homophobia, racism, and patriarchy that affect the different ways 'lesbian' may be viewed as a term on Lesvos or anywhere else.

There are certainly hard questions to be asked about the effects of tourism on places like Lesvos where it has become a key economic plank even as the sense of entitlement tourists often bring with them negatively affect the people whose homes they visit. The recent attack on Greek staff at the Acropolis who attempted to keep the site shut down in protest against failure to pay their wages, and the effective declaration of several tourists that they had the 'right' to visit the Acropolis and no Greeks had any right to stop them from doing so being a case in point. As a lesbian, if I am so fortunate as to be able to visit Lesvos, I have no right to expect a vast shrine to Sappho or the equivalent of the sort of cultural life I may or may not experience at home.

With that background set out, let's turn to the challenges of lesbian naming and defining as a practice. For my part, I have found Marilyn Frye's 1983 essay in her book The Politics Of Reality, "To See and Be Seen: The Politics of Reality" especially useful in understanding and acting on these ideas. The explanation that follows is my own understanding and interpretation of Frye's essay however, and I highly recommend reading the original.

Frye makes the case that lesbians stand in relation to patriarchal society in an even more extreme position than women do generally. Women are supposed to be unnoticed, unsurprising, behaving and being in limited and highly stereotyped ways. They are on the very edges of patriarchal society, in fact they define those edges. Only true 'persons' in patriarchal terms actively participate in patriarchal/phallocratic 3 societies. Women are expected to derive meaning and identity solely from a man. A woman who does not act in these ways is officially impossible, non-existent. Lesbians are literally "excluded from phallocractic conceptual schemes," whereas women define the edges of these schemes. It is this very excluded status that renders "lesbian" a difficult term to define in a purely patriarchal/phallocratic context. Frye also notes that lesbians are multiply (you could say obsessively) defined as non-existent, providing three examples that we are likely all familiar with, lesbian or not.

  • that's unnatural
  • logically impossible, like a round square
  • no logical term for a behaviour that defines a woman as lesbian4

Yet lesbians evidently exist. So the declaration that lesbians are non-existent is actually an attempt to define a state that phallocratic men would prefer, to which they hope to eventually make reality conform.

Based on my explanation and interpretation of Marilyn Frye's essay so far, it is tempting to suggest that a lesbian is simply a woman who does not draw meaning and identity from a man. But this would be a patriarchal interpretation, not a Feminist one, because it would deny that all women are capable of ceasing to find meaning and identity in this way, instead finding such meaning within themselves. I am against such an exclusive definition, as I believe Frye is. I would be for using the definition as that of a free woman, however. It is likely that lesbians or women perceived as lesbians by men whether they are or not came to this state first and pioneered paths towards it. This reflects their anomalous position which facilitates growth of an ability to question 'givens' and find alternatives to them.5

Instead of stopping at this definition of a free woman or its patriarchal interpretation, Frye builds a more nuanced, complex definition of a lesbian. Her definition is built up throughout the essay, and includes four key interlocking features:

  • lesbians are engaged in the polar opposite of misogyny
  • lesbians are unrepentant Seers of the Background, where women are supposed to remain unnoticed
  • lesbians do not consider women to be robots or wish to eliminate them
  • lesbians show women that they have options and power that comes from within themselves

Since Frye does not speak on the point I have made about where women are expected to derive meaning and identity from in a patriarchal society directly, I cannot claim that she would add the 'free woman' definition as a feature. It is probably not impossible to be a lesbian in these terms and not be a free woman, but it seems to me that it would be profoundly difficult to remain in that state for long. In addition, this definition again does not refer to whether or not women are engaged in orgasmic behaviour together, which again is something I agree with. I think it would be wrong to deny a woman her lesbianness whenever she happens to be celibate. This does not mean a woman who engages orgasmically primarily with men would match this definition, because that would not be the polar opposite of misogyny, which is not misandry but philogyny. Men simply aren't part of the definition; lesbians don't put their energy into them.

Now we can be more specific about what lesbian culture is without rendering the definition a straitjacket or excessively inclusive. I would define lesbian culture as customs, art, social institutions, and inventions of women who are lesbians in the terms laid out in the previous paragraph. Furthermore, these cultural forms are developed as constructive alternatives and resistance strategies to patriarchy and its complex of interrelated oppressions.

It was at a point similar to this in a discussion with several other lesbians that things went off the rails. One of the other participants became furious when I refused to separate my identity into lesbian and Métis parts while rejecting the other to be a 'true lesbian.' My antagonist felt this refusal to be 'exclusively lesbian' in her terms meant I refused to support lesbian independence and freedom and that I was a coward. It took me a long time to tease apart the personal attack, itself a reflection of the 'for us or against us' rhetoric that was destroying civil discussions in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, from an interesting question. Must lesbian identity and culture be exclusive of others?

Personally, my experience of myself is that I am lesbian, Métis, a writer, a scholar, a woman, all of the time. These few examples of the many facets to my personal identity are always real and present, integrated and whole. They are not always totally visible to other people at all times, simply because none of us has the capacity to take in the whole of any other person in a glance. Events or activities may forefront specific facets. Culture and identity are so tightly entwined that this is also a good description of my culture, the culture that I personally experience from day to day. I think this points the way to a better understanding of what goes on when we take part in and help build any of the cultures we are part of.

Linguists have a special term for how each person speaks their language or languages, 'idiolect.' My first language is english, and although it is unmistakably english, it would be difficult to mistake my mode of speaking it for someone else's. Those contrasting ways of speaking the same language (including the same dialect) is an idiolect. Languages are not perfect, hermetically sealed entities. They blend into each other in a way that we can envisage as clear centres surrounded by progressively more fuzzy regions where they blend into their neighbours. This is also an excellent description of cultures. How close our personal expression of culture is to a centre, or where it is located in the gradient between cultures varies with our social relationships. The more homogeneous the people we are in relationships with are, the more clear and singular it is possible for that expression to be. As soon as our relationships with others expand beyond a circle into a web, this changes. This is why extremist religious groups and military organizations make a point of separating recruits from their entire personal social network and cultural expressions, and maintaining them in that separated state as far as possible. Such organizations want stasis, to resist change, and to maintain control with the least effort of their acolytes.

So the simple answer to the question of exclusivity is no. In fact, exclusivity would probably do terrible damage to 'lesbian culture' and opposition to patriarchy in general, because it would eliminate an important source of questioning and self-examination necessary to overcome oppression. The place my antagonist was coming from at the time of her attack on me was fundamentally an ethnocentric one. At root, she was demanding that only what a woman of her background would deem lesbian culture be accepted as such referring to expressions of particular principles that can be used to define lesbian culture, rather than the principles themselves. For myself, the focus on principles, especially the principle of working against interconnected oppressions, is key. A push to oppose one form of oppression while leaving the others untouched 'until the revolution is over' comes to business as usual with different oppressors at the top. It leaves a key infrastructure of oppression in place to go back to work and reestablish the parts that the 'revolution' removed. Ethnocentrism can be extraordinarily pernicious and can rear it's unpleasant head in many unexpected places, 'when the revolution is over' type arguments not the least of them.

There is another question that I can think of, in considering some of the nitty-gritties of lesbian naming and defining here. That question centres on the arguments of those who would declare this whole essay and its predecessor an exercise in pointless 'cultural feminism.' For a time, 'cultural feminism' was the favoured club for beating Radical Feminists with, until it was superseded by sloppy and dishonest uses of 'essentialism.'6 As I understand it, 'cultural feminism' includes just what I have been doing here, as well as items such as texts revised in light of Feminist criticism, Feminist plays, and the resurrection of Goddess-oriented spirituality in western cultures.

It seems to me that the 'cultural feminism' critique had less to do with what Radical Feminists or other Feminists berated with this term were doing than a different phenomenon altogether. That phenomenon has already been mentioned: appropriation. Witnessing appropriation of elements of language and culture from other oppressed groups, Feminist and non-feminist critics of appropriation alike were understandably disgusted. Being a member of an Indigenous nation, I share that sense of revulsion. However, there is nothing about creating overtly Feminist art or language that inherently demands appropriation. As Carol Christ has noted, if you intend to get rid of patriarchy, you had better come up with something to go in the resulting vacuum, or people will revert to the familiar bad old days, thinking better days are impossible. Unfortunately, people who have grown up within colonialist cultures, especially those who grew up as part of the elite groups in those cultures, have learned that whenever what they already have falls short, they are permitted to take what they may need from those they have colonized. This is a privilege they have been taught to expect to have and use, and it was necessary to identify and challenge this sense of privilege as part of the effort to create non-patriarchal cultural forms. 'Cultural feminism' accusations have fallen off over the past ten years or so, not least because the critique of appropriation has been taken to heart in Feminism and many other areas. They have also fallen off due to the credibility crisis induced when they were hurled at Feminists who are oppressed not only as women, but as women of colour and/or their religion.

But what of essentialism, you may be wondering. Isn't there something essentialist about a lesbian culture, or the definition of a lesbian given above? Of course, if you were wondering that, you probably have already anticipated my answer, which is no. I have not argued anywhere that there is an immutable core 'essence' or 'feature' that a lesbian is born with that makes them a lesbian, nor that there would have to be people with such an essence who must be the participants in lesbian culture or else. My key points are based on experience and the viewpoints taken by women who are lesbians, and what I would expect a lesbian culture to do.

The uses and abuses of terms like 'essentialism' and 'cultural feminism' are excellent examples of the power of naming. The fact that such rhetorical clubs have been created and are still popular is a sure sign that the power of lesbian naming and defining is great indeed. Otherwise, there would be no need to take such pains to try to stop it.

PostScript: I have just finished reading Marilyn Frye's second book, Willful Virgin: Essays In Feminism 1976-1992, several weeks after completing this essay. Her term for a free woman as defined above in her essay "Willful Virgin or Do You Have To Be A Lesbian To Be A Feminist?" is in fact "virgin." I like her restoration of the true meaning of this old word very much.

  1. Ironically, the fetishization of free speech actually constrains it. The facts of 'free speech' discussions in the United States in particular illustrate this well.
  2. This isn't to say we will be able to stop putting energy into communication once we have the words right, or have developed a habit of agreeing on some temporary shared terms when we need to. The right words will change as our circumstances do, and we will need to stick to the work of challenging oppression in ourselves and that we may impose on others, which starts with naming it for what it is. That still takes energy, but energy of a positive kind.
  3. Frye uses the more specific term 'phallocratic' meaning a society ruled by the phallus. It is an excellent term, especially since it neatly highlights 'the phallus' which is itself a non-existent idealization. (Fans of the hospital drama ER know a bit more about the reality of what a permanent penile erection could actually mean.) However, in the context of this essay I think that 'phallocratic' and 'patriarchal' are effectively synonymous and will use them accordingly where I don't juxtapose them as I have here.
  4. By this logic, anything or anyone we have never met before and therefore have no word for couldn't exist. Very few of the things we meet from day to day, including ourselves and our own parents could ever have been if we took this idea seriously. In a way, it's a layman's definition of 'solipsism.'
  5. I'm not interested in excessively valorizing lesbians here, these are practical differences, not the stereotypical idea of an inborn 'hero' or 'saviour' quality.
  6. Marilyn Frye has also written an excellent paper examining accusations of 'essentialism' levelled against radical Feminists, arguing that most of the time what the accusers are actually taking issue with is ethnocentrism. I agree with this argument and that ethnocentrism should be challenged, however accusations are not about engaging the accused. They are about silencing them.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Saturday, February 22, 2014 22:54:18 MDT