cw: homophobia, misogyny
With LGBT+ history month almost at an end, it’s important to take time to remember the queer people who struggled and continue to struggle for equality. But, after studying this compelling history, I am left wondering “where are all the women?” – words by Clodagh Chapman
The hegemonic narrative of the LGBT+ fight for acceptance in the Western world is one saturated with cis, white, gay men. Implicitly, gay men are the group that supposedly face the most persecution and are subsequently the group that the majority of LGBT+ activism is directed towards. But this is a very skewed picture of queer experience. It ignores the intersections of oppression that queer women (and indeed any queer people who aren’t gay, cis, white and/or male) faced and continue to face. In doing so, it contributes to the erasure of queer women – who already see themselves excluded from the heteronormative wider world – and makes existing as a queer woman even more difficult.
The most common argument used in defence of this gay-male-centred remembrance is that in recent history, gay men have been the ones facing specific legal discrimination. And it is true that in 20th Century America and Western Europe, anti-LGBT+ laws were primarily geared towards men – with female same-gender relationships never being specifically made illegal under UK law. It is also true that in horrendous acts of outright homophobia, queer men were subject to state-sanctioned imprisonment and sterilisation whilst queer women were not.
But to focus entirely on legality is to ignore the fact that queer women of the last century have nonetheless found themselves in a very hostile world. Being a gay woman wasn’t ‘technically legal’ because lawmakers thought it was acceptable, it was ‘technically legal’ because lawmakers found the concept of a gay woman so ridiculous that they didn’t even want to validate the idea. From being forced into a potentially unwanted heterosexual marriage to the prospect of being made a social outcast, life as a queer woman in the 20th Century was rife with oppression and fear regardless of legal status. And that’s not to say that queer women have never faced or do not currently face any kind of legal discrimination. In 1928, Radclyffe Hall was prosecuted on grounds of obscenity for writing The Well of Loneliness, a novel with lesbian subtext. In most countries where homosexuality is currently illegal, there is no distinction in severity of punishment on the basis of gender. In short, in places and at times where being a queer man is difficult, so too is being a queer woman.
Queer women also have the added bonus of having to grapple with sexism, something that is prevalent both in society as a whole and in many corners of the LGBT+ community. Though queer men face homophobia on coming out (as do queer women), they are not usually met with disbelief. They don’t usually have women claiming they could change them and they don’t usually have women reacting to their coming out by saying “that’s hot”. Gay men aren’t usually brought up to believe that their worth hinges entirely on their attractiveness to women, or that they exist purely for female pleasure, or that their entire life should be geared around a heterosexual model of attraction. Gay men also don’t usually have to face certain gay women making derogatory and explicit comments about their bodies, then justifying them on the basis of the absence of sexual attraction. I say usually because I can only speak from my own experience – I cannot and do not claim to speak for the whole LGBT+ community or from the perspective of a gay man. Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that sexism is far from over and that queer women experience it in specific ways which often go unaddressed.
Both a symptom of this and a factor contributing to this is the lack of queer female space. Until around the turn of the millennium, queer women typically had their own bars which existed independently of gay male spaces. But with the homogenisation of the queer community, spaces that previously catered solely for gay men rebranded as ‘queer’ and supposedly began to accommodate LGBT+ people more widely. By the same token, queer female spaces became defunct and fell into decline – leaving only a small handful existing today. The reality is that most of this new so-called ‘queer space’ is still implicitly gay male space, with women included only as an afterthought. Gay bars and clubs are first and foremost organised in the interests of gay men, with the occasional more women-orientated club night. Lacking in spaces of their own and finding themselves excluded from the only other spaces that explicitly claim to include them, queer women are currently as it were ‘space-less’.
To clarify, I’m not denying that life was (and in many respects still is) very difficult for some gay men. Homophobia, whilst generally declining, is still alive and well. To say that a gay man living in a country where he could be put to death for that reason alone needs to check his privilege is at best a bit rich. And I am not trying to turn LGBT+ history month into a time for in-fighting or arguing about which specific sub-groups are the ‘most oppressed’. It’s also worth pointing out that this is all barely scratching the surface of inequalities within the LGBT+ community. From biphobia to transphobia to racism, there are issues other than sexism that need tackling. But the point still stands that to exclude women from the story is to erase the huge amounts of adversity that queer women face, to deprive queer women of their place in the LGBT+ narrative and to give an incomplete picture of LGBT+ history.
As well as a time for remembrance, LGBT+ history month is also time for celebration. So in the name of positivity, I leave you now with some female-centric queer jams to celebrate what is left of LGBT+ history month.
Photo by Emily Tierney-Lever