Lesbians and the Patriarchy

Words by Helena (she/her), 20 QLD 

It was about five years from when I first admitted my attraction to women, that I finally accepted I would never feel the same toward men. I’ve heard the same story time and time again. It transcends the confines of individual experience. It’s something universal, something that weaves us together.

It follows – accepting my attraction to women was manageable, realising my lack of attraction to men was horrifying.

Each sexual identity that escapes hetero-normalised standards comes, of course, packaged with its own horde of distinctive trials. But the lesbian experience is a uniquely lonely one.

The lesbian identity is one of the only forms of existence that completely de-centres men. Lesbian desire and the figure of a lesbian themselves is excessive to a phallocentric, patriarchal and heteronormative economy, which traditionally ascribes to women as objects to be exchanged among men.  As the lesbian is excess to patriarchal demands and rejects their place as a specular reflection of the male subject – a woman’s ideal role in the traditional script – they have no value. This leaves many lesbians searching for a space in which to exist, valued and accepted as both part of a whole and as a whole in and of themselves.

Taking up a heterosexual identity is rewarded and legitimised with numerous material and symbolic affirmations, while divergence from this heterosexual script leads to withheld rewards and even punishment. From this, our historical inheritance as a society is tainted by an equation of lesbian with deviance, and hence we as lesbians are left to always exist outside of.

Throughout my life, I have both observed and experienced the notion of the lesbian as a spectacle, removed from mainstream society and always held at arm’s length. We are to be regarded with a detached interest and curiosity, never allowed to cease our label as other. Regardless of many people’s well-meaning acceptance, we always exist just on the other side of an invisible line.

After coming out, I was forced to renegotiate and reimagine both the space and shape of my existence. The dynamics of my relations with other people and broader society shifted in an endless sequence of minutiae, leaving me in a space I could not recognise nor reconcile.

My interactions with men were particularly transformed. There are many men with whom I have positive friendships not unlike those I share with other non-men. However, many others, upon finding out finding out that I am a lesbian, follow one of two paths. Often their interest will increase due to my unattainability, due to the uniqueness of a woman existing outside the bounds of their gaze – or, on occasion, a subconscious belief that no woman is ever truly unattainable, that the lesbian identity is not valid.

The other path is one of complete disinterest. To be completely ignored, seen as having no value and hence no reason to bother communicating with. I was once at a party and found myself in a room sitting in and speaking with a circle of men, with just two other women. Upon one of the girls saying she was gay, one of the guys responds with, “Why are you even here?”

I often choose not to announce my sexuality when first speaking with someone, allowing me to get to know someone and vice versa without fear of one of the above exchanges playing out. I know many view this as unfair – that I am ‘leading men on’ or wasting their time. This attitude in itself reveals horrific multitudes about the way we view women – an object to be consumed rather than a subject, a person, to get to know and to understand without expectation.

As lesbians exist outside of the bounds of the heterosexual script and prescribed norms, they are never truly perceived as real by the heteropatriarchal society at large. Not only is this invalidating and delegitimising, it’s also deeply dangerous. Queer author Carmen Maria Machado’s harrowing work of autofiction, In the Dream House, details her experience of partner violence in a relationship with another woman. She speaks to a notion of “archival silence,” capturing the idea that certain histories never enter the mainstream cultural record. As Machado had never encountered narratives of queer domestic abuse before, she lacked context and precedent and was unable to make sense of her experience. An inability to see lesbian relationships as real, including the potential for partner violence, breeds danger by leaving these situations unacknowledged.

It is vital that we reject blindness, not only to the ways we are similar but also in the ways we are not. It is vital that queer people seize this conversation, take it into our own mouths. We must both speak on our own experience and soak up the words of others detailing their own.

Being a lesbian is incredibly beautiful, and in itself is an act of defiance. I am proud to be a lesbian, proud of my desire for women and the political identity characterised by heteropatriarchal rejection that lives alongside it. It is essential, however, that we acknowledge the intricacies of each queer experience, and the way in which existing outside the norms is a profoundly affective one.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc
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