Can Lesbian Identity Survive The Gender Revolution?
Maybe the future really can be female. That depends on how we define it.
By this point, you’ve probably seen it everywhere: “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE.” The slogan seemed to resonate widely in the months leading up to the presidential election, especially as sheepish Hillary Clinton voters started coming out of the closet in earnest. It could have easily gone dormant after Donald Trump’s win — when the future looked like it was shaping up to be anything but female — yet on the first day of his presidency, millions of women took to the streets around the world, and those four daringly hopeful words came back with a vengeance. “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” was painted on countless cardboard signs and hoisted high in the air, waved in the face of a new administration led by a man who’s bragged about grabbing women by the genitals and has since assembled the whitest and most male first cabinet since Ronald Reagan.
The slogan itself has been around since long before the 2016 presidential election. The original version of the now famous “The Future is Female” T-shirt was created for Labyris Books — the first women’s bookstore in New York City — and photographed in 1975 on musician Alix Dobkin, by Dobkin’s then-girlfriend Liza Cowan. Cowan was working on a slideshow called "What the Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear." But the slogan’s present-day renaissance is largely thanks to a woman named Rachel Berks, the founder of the LA-based retailer and graphic design studio Otherwild. In May 2015, Berks came across the photo of Dobkin on a relatively new Instagram account called h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, run by the art director Kelly Rakowski, which has since become a popular archive of lesbian history (as well as home to a number of amazing queer personal ads).
“I had no idea it would blow up,” Berks told me on a recent phone call. After reposting the photo to Otherwild’s Instagram, she decided to make her own version of the shirt using a different typeface. Berks was only planning to run a very limited edition — 24 shirts — but her stock sold out overnight. “I never experienced anything like that,” she said. Otherwild has since sold thousands of shirts, sweatshirts, and baby onesies emblazoned with the phrase; 25% of the proceeds are donated to Planned Parenthood.
While attending the Women’s March on Washington last month, Berks saw the message she popularized on posters all over the city. “‘The Future is Female’ is not a slogan people were using before,” she said. “It’s very strange and amazing and surprising to see it exist in the world in this way.” At one point, she turned to her partner and asked, “How many people do you think know this comes from a radical lesbian separatist history?” Their conclusion: not many.
Andi Ziesler, the co-founder of Bitch Media and author of We Were Feminists Once, a book about the commercialization of contemporary feminism, told me she had also seen plenty of “Future is Female” sloganeering the weekend of the women’s marches. “What does it mean to take an incredibly complex movement like feminism and attempt to sum it up with one slogan, or one color, or one hat?" she said. "What other parts of this historical series of movements are being erased? Radical lesbianism is certainly one of them.”
The diffusion of a piece of little-understood lesbian history into the messy, nebulous sphere of modern-day feminism feels particularly appropriate at the beginning of 2017, when the future of lesbianism — as an identity, as an activist movement, as a label, as a culture — remains an open question.
In the 1970s, radical lesbian “separatists” advocated for women’s complete withdrawal from men and the privileges of heterosexuality, going as far as to establish and live in women-only communes — quite a different approach than that of most major LGBT activist groups now, which remain determined to paint queer people as just like everyone else, seemingly able and willing to assimilate into the mainstream. But even if they’d wanted to, most lesbians in decades past didn’t have that option. Betty Friedan, the president of the National Organization for Women and the author of The Feminine Mystique, infamously referred to lesbians as the “lavender menace” in 1969: She thought stereotypical man-hating lesbians would cripple the feminist cause. Soon afterward, a group of radical lesbian feminists, in a classic queer move, reclaimed the insult and rebranded themselves with it.
But even as straight, white feminists were actively excluding lesbians, many white lesbian separatists were pulling the same shit with trans people, bisexual women, and women of color. Groups like the Combahee River Collective and black lesbian intellectuals like Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde were responsible for some of the seminal texts on intersectional lesbian civil rights activism, at a time when certain white lesbians were succeeding only in looking out for their own interests.
Reverberations of separatist ideology are still causing rifts in today’s queer feminism. TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, have long refused to recognize that trans women are, in fact, women. Alix Dobkin, the feminist folk singer photographed in the original “The Future Is Female” shirt, is one of them: In 2015, she co-authored an essay claiming that “transsexuals have leaped forward on the civil rights agenda and become the latest cause of the LGBTQ community, often to the detriment of Lesbians.” TERFs long for the days before the Michigan’s Womyn’s Festival was shut down because it excluded trans people, often citing their past sexual traumas as the reason they’d rather not fraternize with women who have, or may have once had, a penis. According to TERFs — many but not all of whom are Gen X'ers or Baby Boomers, as well as second wave feminists — the growing acceptance of trans people is one of the primary reasons why lesbians are under attack, and supposedly in danger of finally going extinct.
Though lesbians are by no means under attack by gains in trans acceptance, it’s true that American attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation. Young people in particular are more likely than ever before to identify outside the assigned-gender binary; trans men and women are joined by those who identify as genderqueer, agender, non-binary, genderfluid — to name only a few. Although American millennials are nearly twice as likely as older generations to describe themselves as LGBT, much of that increase can be attributed to more young people identifying as anything other than 100% straight; some studies suggest that nearly half of Generation Z sees themselves as falling somewhere on the sexuality spectrum between straight and gay. Against the increasingly colorful backdrop of gender diversity, a binary label like “gay” or “lesbian” starts to feel somewhat stale and stodgy. When there are so many genders out there, is it closed-minded — or worse, harmful and exclusionary — if you identify with a label that implies you’re only attracted to one?
It’s lesbians more so than gay men, however, who are undergoing a specific kind of identity crisis. Though gay male representation is still far from widespread, pieces of gay male culture have found their way into the mainstream in a way lesbianism simply hasn’t. Gay male spaces, from bars to entire city neighborhoods, have managed to maintain some modern relevance, while lesbian bars and bookstores have shuttered en masse across the country. Queer people aren’t completely confined to our own spaces anymore; many of us, particularly in more progressive areas, can more frequently be ourselves out in the open. But it was in those long-gone queer-specific venues — festivals, activist organizations, stores, artist collectives, bars — where queer subcultures formed and thrived. Without them, lesbianism in the 21st century lacks a coherent cultural definition.
Many millennial lesbians, myself included, find ourselves in a strange historical moment: The heyday of radical lesbianism is behind us, and a seemingly label-free, sexually fluid future lies ahead. We’re grappling with how to preserve the best parts of cultural lesbian identity — centering and celebrating women; political organizing; reclaiming harsh, loud, fuck-you words like “dyke” and “queer”; in-jokes and lesbian signifiers and literature and art — without replicating some of lesbian history’s very real shortcomings.
When Rachel Berks first reproduced the “The Future Is Female” shirt, she considered some of the same questions. “I started realizing the history of this shirt, the history of the movement, it isn’t trans inclusive,” she said. “It’s the tricky thing about reviving things from the past: How do we make this relevant today? How do we make this intersectional? It’s something I think about a lot. And I don’t have the answer.”
At the end of 2016, Slate ran a special issue on lesbians which featured an essay by staff writer Christina Cauterucci, who wrote that she and many other young queer women have felt more comfortable with the word “queer” than “lesbian.” “Queer” doesn’t assume gender essentialism, and more accurately reflects the reality of her friend groups and dating pool — a gender-diverse crowd of transmasculine people, genderqueer people, and trans men and women, in addition to cis women. But she admits that her aversion to “lesbian” might also be couched in some "internalized homophobic notions of lesbians as unfashionable, uncultured homebodies."
Those widely held stereotypes have real-world economic implications. Some of the most flattering (though, of course, often inaccurate) assumptions about gay men — fashionable jet-setters who drink martinis and pour money into decorating their summer homes — make them an advertiser’s dream. Lesbians, however, are written off as frumpy shut-ins who couldn’t care less about nightlife or fashion, which makes advertisers more reluctant to cater to queer women — and in turn hurts small lesbian-owned businesses that rely on advertising to survive.
Lesbians still remain something of a cultural mystery, while certain facets of gay male culture, for better or worse, have steadily been gaining mainstream popularity. (RuPaul’s Drag Race won its first Emmy last year; about damn time.) If the recent news that both Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy are getting reboots tells us anything, it’s that there’s still a (primarily straight) market for certain kinds of gay characters: stereotypically flamboyant; neutered; lacking interiority. Gay male representation has diversified somewhat since both original shows went off the air, but a certain of kind of archetype lives on. And as reductive as that archetype tends to be, it’s at least both visible and recognizable.
Lesbianism, and whatever lesbian culture might be at large, isn’t as clearly defined in pop culture. Shows like The L Word, Orange Is the New Black, and Transparent have come closest by featuring multiple LGBT characters — casting female queerness as the norm, rather than the exception. Here you can find references to dildos; U-Hauling; lesbian stereotypes lovingly reappropriated; and jokes at straight people’s expense. More than simply including queer female characters, queerness is built into the shows’ DNA (though they’re definitely not perfect). All three premiered on cable or streaming services, however, which means they’ve tended to reach more niche audiences.
When it comes to lesbians — who made up just 17% of LGBT characters in 2016 — and bisexual women on television, you can typically tell they’re queer because they’ve had a coming-out narrative arc (like Alex’s recent plotline on Supergirl) and/or because they date women on the show (Spencer and Ashley on South of Nowhere; Emily and assorted girlfriends on Pretty Little Liars). A majority of these characters are ultra-feminine and white (which reflects a comically small pool of queer women in real life), and it’s not often you hear them make gay jokes, or complain about the dearth of lesbian bars, or in any way draw attention to their queerness, whatever it might mean to them.
Lesbians, like all queer people, are not a monolith; everyone presents their gender differently, from feminine to masculine to everywhere in between — though you wouldn’t know it, judging only from broadcast and cable. Feminine queer women, after all, are much easier to sell to mainstream audiences than a bunch of angry, hairy, bra-burning dykes. Masculinity is a common, though not foolproof, lesbian signifier, but with a few notable exceptions — like Lea DeLaria’s unapologetic dyke Big Boo on Orange Is the New Black and Lena Waithe’s Denise on Master of None — there are basically no masculine women on television. According to mainstream TV, the only real thing that seems to define a lesbian (besides getting brutally killed off for no good reason) is a woman who’s attracted to women.
Of course, a woman who is attracted to women is, quite literally, what a lesbian is. But the typical cool, femme queer character we’ve come to know is rarely ever a Lesbian with a capital L, in terms of her gender presentation or her cultural identity — she’s just like everybody else. She has her coming-out story, maybe a fight with her homophobic parents, her first awkward dates with a girl, but then all is soon back to normal in her group of exclusively straight friends. She wears the same makeup and has the same hairstyle as every other woman on television. The most palatable kind of queerness, after all, is one that’s barely noticeable. It’s the opposite problem of typical gay male representation, which too often defines gay men exclusively by their sexuality. Gay women (who are still accused of faking it or going through a phase) are barely defined by their sexuality at all.
For many queer women, of course, that might indeed be the end goal: having queerness be such a small and insignificant part of who they are that it doesn’t even bear mentioning — no need to fight the system, because the system has finally let us in. As Samira Wiley put it when accepting the visibility award from the Human Rights Campaign in 2015: “Sexuality and gender identity can and should be merely a footnote in our lives, rather than the definition of our existence.” But is there room for our queerness to exist somewhere between an unremarkable footnote and the only definition of us that matters?
There are some high-profile exceptions to the just-like-everybody-else lesbian archetype in pop culture. Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic memoir from 2006, Fun Home, which was later adapted into the Tony-award-winning musical, is as much about butch lesbianism and lesbian culture as it is about family, loss, and mourning; in the musical, there’s an entire song devoted to rings of keys, a longtime lesbian signifier. This month the 24-year-old alternative R&B and soul singer Syd released her solo debut album, Fin, which brims with unapologetic queer desire. She doesn’t shy away from female pronouns or from using the word “girl” to make her music more universally palatable, the way most major queer pop musicians have been compelled to.
But both are artists who started on the fringe and have steadily found themselves pulled closer toward the mainstream. The best of queer culture, often produced without pandering to straight audiences, has always existed on the margins — much like the word queer itself.
The reclaimed slur “queer” precedes its internet renaissance by decades, having long been a linguistic way to push back against both heteronormativity and gay assimilation. It has sharp edges; it still makes a lot of people uncomfortable; it conveys certain politics just as much as it connotes something other than heterosexuality. A queer person can be someone who’s still figuring out where they might fall on the spectrum; they can be someone who doesn’t subscribe to the gender binary; they could be anyone and everyone who’s attracted to one or more genders, including their own. As many as half of today’s teenagers potentially see the word applying to them. “Queer” offers a world of possibilities.
As Jenna Wortham wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year, “The radical power of queer always came from its inclusivity.” But she argues that there can be a flip side when it comes to such a big, catchall term: “Maybe we are relying on a single word, a single idea, a single identity, to do too much.”
Last November, Ellena Rosenthal investigated the state of queer nightlife in Portland, Oregon, in a piece for Willamette Week. She concluded that a “minefield of identity politics” has radically disrupted the lesbian scene in one of America’s most famously lesbian-heavy cities. There are lesbian-owned bars that cater to lesbians in Portland, she writes, but they aren’t lesbian bars in name (meanwhile, Portland has eight bars for gay men, which haven’t been rocked by the same cultural drive for gender inclusivity). Spaces and events that once billed themselves as by and for lesbians have “changed their names and focus to avoid controversy and be more inclusive.”
Some have actively expanded their target audience from lesbians to all queer and trans people, but certain event planners worry that general queer parties, lacking any specific language beyond “everyone but cisgender men” (which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue), could turn into de facto parties for gay men, going the way of many gay bars and events.
But others don’t see inclusion as merely a moral imperative, or a begrudging attempt to avoid controversy. They believe there’s real value in breaking down those old barriers, by creating spaces for queerness, and queer people, that fall outside of mainstream gay culture. Vera Rubin, who hosts a monthly queer rave in Portland, told Rosenthal that “we don't want a party that's just all dykes or all gay men. When we think of cities with really good vibrant nightlife, they're always mixed parities that are pushing the city forward."
Plenty of lesbian bars and spaces across the country have gone out of business for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with trans inclusion, while other places are still here, and still going strong — oftentimes just under a different, broader, more inclusive name. The same goes for lesbian events. That’s not necessarily erasure: That’s evolution. If anything, embracing gender diversity and welcoming queer people of all stripes have kept certain historically lesbian-only events and spaces alive, and allowed new ones to grow.
Not everyone sees it that way. There is perhaps no topic that inspires more rabid infighting in the LGBT rights movement these days than trans inclusion, at a time when cis gay support for trans rights is more crucial than ever. Gay men and drag queens have occasionally butted heads with trans people and trans allies about things like gender identity and slurs (see the infamous case of RuPaul’s use of “shemale” during Drag Race in 2014). But trans-exclusionary radical feminists are an entirely different kind of extremist breed when it comes to the language wars.
TERFs refuse to see trans women as women at all, think including trans women in women’s spaces is akin to rape culture, and advocate for separating lesbians from the G, B, and T’s. (What that would actually mean in practice is anyone’s guess.) Since intersectionality took center stage in feminism’s third wave, TERFs’ influence and cultural power has waned somewhat. But they’re still here, and now they’re even aligning themselves with the religious right to fight the advancement of trans equality.
Avery Edison, a British comedian and trans woman, recently told me that her worst interactions with TERFs have been confined to the internet. “Really all of my exposure to that kind of thinking has been online,” she said. “But in the queer communities I’ve been involved in, everything’s fine.” In 2013, when Edison wrote a series of essays about the complications of dating during early transition, one of them was taken out of context and used as an example of allegedly trans-sanctified rape culture in places like Feminist Current, a Canadian website where TERFs reign supreme.
“So much of their language is about the invasion of maleness upon their sexuality, things they perceive as male upon their sexuality — this biological essential definition of womanhood,” said Edison. “And it seems patronizing to say to an older generation of feminists, in many cases pioneers: ‘Oh, you don’t have all the information.’ It’s really sad. These are people who fight for women, and treasure women, and don’t realize there’s this whole group of women that they’re not supporting. And it’s just so boring and close-minded.”
Edison, who identifies as a lesbian, is unsure about what the future of that identity will look like. “I don’t know if labels like that will die away in one or two hundred years. Yes, I’m a lesbian, but I’m attracted to other people, too — just not cisgender men. What label do you give that beside queer?”
For Edison, as it is for so many of us, queer isn’t quite specific enough to describe her sexual orientation, and “anyone except cisgender men” certainly isn’t. So maybe we can simply continue to challenge the traditional definition of lesbianism, which assumes there are only two binary genders, and that lesbians can or should only be cis women attracted to cis women. Some lesbians who don't go full-out TERF are still all too eager to write off dating trans people because of "genital preferences," which means they have incredibly reductive ideas about gender and bodies. Our gender expressions, our gender identities, our sexual orientations — these are complicated aspects of personhood, sometimes fixed and sometimes ever-changing. The boundaries between them aren't always clear, and maybe they don't have to be.
“Everyone should just be allowed to choose the label they want,” Edison said. “I think hand-wringing over the impact of someone’s sexual choices, the identity they have, is ill-advised. You are what you feel, and what you say you are.”
In our current moment of cultural uncertainty, when we’re all establishing what we stand for and what we stand to lose, perhaps identity labels (redefined to fit the way we live now) can start making a comeback. Hell, maybe even the tides will turn and lesbians could start seeming cool. But the word “lesbian” has carried such a deeply uncool connotation for so long — sometimes for terrible reasons (ugly, old-fashioned, essentialist stereotypes) and sometimes for extremely legitimate ones (a history of transmisogyny) — that’s it’s worth considering if making the term cool is something we should really want at all.
In 2015, after she and her then-girlfriend Annie Clark were photographed wearing Otherwild’s “The Future is Female” design in the New York Times, model and actor Cara Delevingne made an announcement on her Instagram: Since a lot of people were asking where she got her sweatshirt, she’d decided to start making her own, and was donating the proceeds to a charity that supports girls in developing countries. Rachel Berks called Delevingne out on Otherwild’s Instagram, kicking up a dust cloud of online drama.
“I don’t own the slogan,” Berks told me. “I can’t say, ‘Oh no, you can’t use that.’ I obviously can’t. But with Cara Delevingne, it was the identical design.” Delevingne’s charity campaign with the shirt has since ended, but plenty of other brands have stepped into her place, making their own versions of “The Future is Female” products in various designs and iterations. A quick Google search reveals dozens of vendors. Few mention where the phrase comes from.
As the slogan spreads far beyond the small, queer-owned clothing company that popularized it, “The Future is Female” gear has become yet another piece of commodity feminism, something for women to buy to advertise just how empowered they are. As Jia Tolentino recently wrote in The New Yorker: “The inside threat to feminism in 2017 is less a disavowal of radical ideas than an empty co-option of radical appearances.” The same can be said of the inside threat to queer and lesbian activism.
Both movements are at a crossroads. How will feminism and lesbian activism survive the commercialization and sanitization of what were once barbed, fractious political movements, and how will these movements include the people they’ve deliberately excluded for so long?
Gendered spaces and institutions in our country — from sports, to the Boy Scouts, to the latest wave of exclusive women’s social clubs, to public restrooms and universities — have been forced to reckon with the fact that gender exists beyond a binary, or will be forced to reckon with that fact soon enough. Hanne Gaby Odiele, an international supermodel, recently came out as intersex, and hopes to spur more conversation about gender and bodies. Biological gender essentialism looks more and more dubious by the day.
Certain strains of lesbian history are marred by ugliness and exclusion — a legacy we have to acknowledge, and actively rectify — but others are worth remembering for different reasons. For so long, lesbian activists who refused to assimilate for straight people’s comfort have fought for lesbian rights and recognition at times when lesbians had so little of either: working class dykes who battled racism and classism; organizers who shed light on the injustices of church and state; lesbian poets of color whose work challenged gay whitewashing and inspired generations; dykes and fags who bashed back; women who started publications and production companies and festivals and bookstores and bars where lesbians with nowhere else to go found home.
We’re still benefiting from the spaces lesbian activists first carved for us. Kristen Stewart, who hosted SNL this past weekend, used the word “gay” in reference to herself for the first time while delivering her opening monologue. “I don’t think he likes me that much,” she said, referencing the time four years ago when Donald Trump tweeted 11 different times about why her then-boyfriend, Robert Pattinson, shouldn’t take her back. “Donald, if you didn’t like me then, you’re really probably not gonna like me now, because I’m hosting SNL and I’m, like, sooo gay, dude.”
Stewart has openly dated women in the public eye for years, and referenced one of those relationships in Elle UK last summer, but has always adamantly refused to label herself. The word “gay” in this context was clearly deployed as a strong, clear, specific weapon aimed at a president who, even if he hasn’t shown much personal animosity toward gay people, has certainly shown plenty of animosity toward women, as well as deeply retrograde ideas about gender roles. Recent reports that Trump wants female White House staffers to “dress like women” implies he wouldn’t be a fan of Stewart’s androgynous uniform of ripped jeans and beanies over unwashed hair, or any other lesbians and gender-nonconforming people who dress masculinely. The word “gay” also says to Trump — and to Vice President Mike Pence, and to other cisgender men who feel entitled to control, punish, and violate women’s bodies — to stay the fuck away.
Of course, there’s nothing more inherently radical about lesbianism than any other queer identity, especially since it has some deeply oppressive roots. But there has always been a certain kind of power in specific and purposeful queer language, in claiming our own identities, in letting other people know that we exist on our terms, not theirs. Slogans and catchphrases can’t do the heavy lifting on their own — not by a long shot — but they can announce who we are, and they can remind us where we came from. Maybe the future really can be female. It all depends on how we choose to define it.