An article written by lesbian author Julia Diana Robertson talks about how a publication changed her words when they published her interview, making her sound less lesbian and more “queer.”
“Among other things, throughout the interview, where I said “lesbian” the word lesbian was changed to “queer.”
Why were words I would never use to describe myself or my novel, like “queerness” and “LGBTQ” and “gender presentation,” put into my mouth?”
This article provides a perfect illustration of the sneaky ways in which lesbians are erased by “queer” culture. Queer culture doesn’t like the word lesbian, because it’s too specific, and because it describes women whose sexuality excludes men. Queer culture prefers to promote the idea of “queer women” instead. Queer women are any women who defy the traditional conservative norms of sexuality, sometimes by engaging in sex with other women, or sometimes by engaging in other outlawed forms of sexuality. Queer is a deliberately vague term—all it means is “odd” or “strange,” but it doesn’t name a sexual orientation or set any boundaries. In fact, the “queer woman” umbrella includes males.
As Robertson comments:
“I was rebranded. I became the mythological “if the situation was right” lesbian. The appropriated slur “queer,” has become the popular descriptor of choice for a “yes” girl or a “maybe” girl— An “I’m not going to rule anything out because I’m open-minded” girl. It doesn’t carry the sting of lesbian. The stigma of lesbian. The boundaries of lesbian. Lesbian is a solid “No.” ”Not even if…” And that unwillingness to bend is the very reason lesbians are targeted with insidious psychological warfare.”
As she comments later in her article, when you take the word “lesbian” out of a statement a lesbian made and replace it with “queer,” you are erasing lesbians. Even though “exclusion” is considered a deadly serious crime these days, no one is concerned about excluding us.
I have to also add something here, because it drives me crazy when I see this, and it was mentioned in the quote above: a person can’t be described as “LGBT.” It’s not possible to be a gay man and a lesbian at the same time, nor is it possible to be homosexual and bisexual at the same time. You are only one of the letters LGB, not all of them! Now, I do think you could argue that it’s possible to be either an L, G, or B while also being a T. Fair enough, but you can’t possibly be all four of these letters. When someone calls a person “an LGBT author” or “an LGBT activist,” this makes no sense—you’re calling one person several people.
Anyway, this article by Robertson got me thinking about the issues surrounding lesbian fiction. As she mentions, and as many of us have noticed over and over, there are lots of published works labelled “lesbian” that weren’t written by lesbians and don’t reflect who lesbians are. There is also a problem of writing by real lesbians being marginalized in a culture that prefers “queer women” and believes that lesbians are “exclusionary” and “bigoted.” When mainstream LGBT publications all adopt a mandate to cater to queer culture, where do lesbians get their work published and reviewed? We’re limited to advertising our work on anonymous blogs, in secret Facebook groups, and by word of mouth. We should be able to publish in mainstream publications like anyone else—we aren’t doing anything wrong by being lesbians.
I have been thinking about the genre of the “lesbian novel” and what makes it different from, say, a “queer” novel or a mainstream novel that has some lesbian content in it. I define a “lesbian novel” as a novel written by a lesbian, that focuses on lesbians, that represents us authentically, and that tells our truth so that other lesbians can see themselves among the pages. A “queer” novel, on the other hand, either represents a performative sexuality in which same-sex activity is used as a strategy to “spice things up,” or in which characters have a bisexual or ambiguous orientation. There’s nothing wrong with bisexual characters or experimental same-sex activity, there’s only something wrong with mislabeling non-lesbian characters as lesbians. Then there is such a thing as a mainstream novel which has mostly straight characters, but also devotes a small amount of text to a lesbian or bisexual character. This is cool, but it’s not a “lesbian novel” just because of a tiny bit of woman-loving-woman content.
A lesbian looking for a lesbian novel has two problems: when she looks through mainstream sources for published works, she is shown lots of material that is not authentically lesbian, and the writing that is authentically lesbian is hard to find because it hasn’t been publicized or reviewed by mainstream sources.
In another article by Julia Diana Robertson, she discusses the idea of segregated literature. She wrote a book that was designed to be a piece of mainstream literature that happened to have a lesbian love story in it, but where “sexuality wouldn’t take center stage.” You know, like straight people do. The literature that straight people write is mainstream and isn’t necessarily “straight literature,” nor does it have to focus on sexuality just because characters are heterosexual. She pitched her story to mainstream publishers, and was rejected. She found that she was expected to be either a mainstream straight writer, or pigeonholed as a “lesbian” writer who just wrote for lesbians.
Should literature be desegregated? On the one hand, it would be nice if a lesbian writer could just be a writer, and not be marginalized as only writing for a small group of people. Anybody can read a work of literature that has lesbians in it, not just lesbians. But at the same time, when lesbians try to work with mainstream institutions, we get lost, forgotten, and erased.
I’m mostly in favor of lesbian writing being a separate genre for a niche market. I wouldn’t want to “sell out” by submitting my own writing to a publisher who wanted to make my work more palatable to either straights or “queers.” I am happy to write for a limited audience, and I’d rather represent lesbians authentically than make a lot of money. I’m not concerned about writing literature where the focus is on a storyline and sexuality isn’t the main theme—I actually prefer when lesbian sexuality is the main theme.
But lesbians should be able to be mainstream writers if they want to be. There’s a paradox going on here where going mainstream would be good for us but it would also be bad for us. We need mainstream representation and visibility, but we also need the authenticity that comes from being in control of our own publications. Imagine if we could have both though? If we could have authentic lesbian representation from mainstream publishers, then that would be a sign we were no longer discriminated against.
I do hope to read more novels written by lesbians and review them here, but as you all know, my reading list is long and always growing. If only I could quit my day job and just read and write full time!
Dear readers, do you have any thoughts on lesbian writing and publishing?