Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A Brief History of the Nutured Lesbian

This weekend my mother rented "Yo, La Peor de Todas" (I, The Worst of All), which is about the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz.

"Have you ever read any of her stuff?" I asked my mother.
"Every survey of Spanish literature always includes her."
"Did you like it?"
"I don't really remember, but I have the feeling that I didn't," my mother admitted.

Why rent the movie then? My mother pointed to a name of one of the supporting actresses listed on the movie sleeve--Dominique Sanda of "Il Conformista" fame. "She's beautiful," my mother noted. Thus, it was not the content of the movie but the role of Sanda as "erotic Muse" to Sor Juana that convinced her to rent the movie. As one of my friends would say, that's kind of gay.

So it goes in the nurtured lesbian household. Lesbianism is taught and learned in the nurtured lesbian household, albeit unwittingly. In my case, it involves building one's aestheticism around feminine beauty, as well as modeling one's work ethic after the sacrificing housewife. Selfhood is intrinsically understood along with notions of freedom from men. The litany of attributes goes on and on, but the point is that it is the other side of a certain developmental theory. Poets may be born but never made; lesbians, on other hand, are made and seldom (if ever) born.

Such a theory is certainly out of vogue at present and perhaps even a touch heretical. It has a history though, and if you don't ask me to cite sources too meticulously and if you don't mind some gaps (which represent the gaps in my own knowledge), I'll give you the brief history of the nurtured lesbian, including her rise and fall.

We can start very loosely with Krafft-Ebing's 19th century works on deviant sexuality. In studying lesbians, Krafft-Ebing identified a woman who was congenitally defective. All other theories aside as to lesbian's "masculine intelligence" and greater tendency toward other sociopathic behaviors, Krafft-Ebing was on of those modern pioneering sexologists who first put forth a theory of lesbians born (rather than made/nurtured).

Krafft-Ebing's work, naturally, could not be considered to sit well with turn of the century lesbians. No one likes to be called congenitally defective. It's just not one of those failures that garners a good laugh at parties. Besides, for the educated lesbian, it probably didn't feel like the theory "fit." Take the Susan B. Anthonys, the M. Carey Thomases, or the Emily Blackwells, just to name a few notables. All three were successful women who undoubtedly did not feel themselves to be defective but who did in fact live out lesbian lifestyles. For some of these women, they lived them unashamedly so, and in their lack of shame admitted that their lesbianism-that-as-yet-had-no-name went part and parcel along with their work and their feminist politics. These were, in fact, the women who were able to link lesbianism with women's liberation. They chose a lesbian lifestyle in the same breath that they chose a life's work (and usually a life's work in the service of other women). It is with these women that we get a sense of elective lesbianism as a political gesture as well as an emotional tendency.

Lesbianism as a political statement continued write up through second wave feminism. Whip out your first edition copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973) and turn to the chapter called "In Amerika They Call Us Dykes." The testimonials are of women who unapologetically chose lesbianism as part of what they considered to be a liberated way of life. Not only did they choose lesbianism, but you have women like Adrienne Rich writing such pieces as "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," which put forth the idea that heterosexual women aren't born that way either but that their existence is forcibly elected through patriarchal propaganda. Lesbians make a conscious choice to be so, and many heterosexual women choose their lifestyle by way of a compulsory decision. Either way, every woman has to take responsibility for the way she behaves.

Still in the waning heat of second wave feminism, Marilyn Frye in The Politics of Reality asked if you have to be a lesbian to be a feminist. No, she says, but you can't be heterosexual and be a feminist. It's an interesting essay that I mention because it's one of the last vestiges of a feminist thinker who maintained the sexuality carries with it definite political consequences.

And then something happened.

Questions from the studio audience came pouring in. They asked, "If you can choose to be perverse, why can't you choose to be normal?" For the stalwart second wave [lesbian] feminist, the answer was obvious--choosing perversity was the point. You had to be perverse to be liberated. If you didn't veer from the patriarchal norm, then you hadn't escaped it yet. But other women buckled because the accusation of perversity bothered them. It is amongst these women whom I believe wished to divorce lesbianism from its political implications. They wanted their lesbian to have a compulsory heterosexual flavor, hence why gay marriage keeps becoming a bigger and bigger issue. Lesbian feminists don't need gay marriage because they don't need heterosexual structures within their overall philosophy. Lesbians who are not lesbian feminists do. With this divorce brought about an important change. Lesbians were no longer made; they were born. "Natured" lesbians as opposed to "nurtured" lesbians became the ultimate exculpation. "Don't burden us with the label of 'perverse.' We don't choose to be this way. Nature made us so," we now hear. Don't believe me? Check out a later edition of The New Our Bodies, Ourselves (1984). This time flip to the chapter tepidly entitled "Loving Women: Lesbian Life and Relationships." None of the 1973 dykes participated in the new addition. Correspondingly, we see a new breed of lesbian who tells us she didn't have a choice, she is lesbian born.

The consequences are, of course, political. Being born a lesbian is a cop-out--it's the excuse for not having to take responsibility for a position that has very hotly debated political consequences. It's a tricky play for equality. "Treat me the same, for as you were born your way, I was born my way" not only means that lesbians don't have to take responsibility for their lesbianism but that heterosexual women don't have to take responsibility for their heterosexuality either. And that is a step backwards, not forwards.

It is, for that reason, that feminism really isn't what it used to be. Without lesbianism coming as part and parcel along with feminism, you lose a lot of political edge. You lose, in fact, the whole liberation side of things. Amongst the born lesbians, you get what I call the assimilationist approach. You get lesbians replicating heterosexual models that the first and some second wave feminists fought hard to show women didn't work. And you don't have lesbianism feminists exactly; you have lesbian separatists. It's an anachronistic group that chooses its sexuality as it chooses to redefine its political structures along new terms, not revised ones.

It might have been Fran Lebowitz who said that term "sexual politics" doesn't make any sense. It ought not to make any sense, but in fact it does exist, and to deny it is to deny one's responsibility for the consequences contingent upon one's sexuality.

Anachronistic. The nurtured lesbian is, as I said before, an anachronism. Her day has been eclipsed by the natured lesbian, lesbian born. Clearly this is a temporally dynamic issue that will change with the political pulse of the times as well. Perhaps with third wave feminism the nurtured lesbian will rise again. Until then, don't expect much. Expect the occasional mother to teach accidentally her daughter lesbianism (or even asexuality) because she doesn't think its possible for her daughter to be free otherwise. Perhaps this mother will re-emphasize this lesson by teaching that beauty IS Dominique Sanda, Ava Gardner, any of the great female beauties. Expect that these daughters will learn these lessons of independence and desire from the few and far in between hip and single women they meet every now and then, as I did. But don't expect more. In the debate surrounding nature versus nurture lesbians, it's the lesbian-by-nature who carries this day.


Will said...

Haywain -- I too was raised in a lesbian househould -- where "Lesbianism is taught and learned ... albeit unwittingly," and "where selfhood is intrinsically understood along with notions of freedom from men." And yet until I read this, I did not really have the words for the enviroment I grew up in. There was no father, but everything was very understated. No one made a big deal of it. It just was what was.

I would imagine my mom and sister are both uncomfortable with the born gay position for the reasons you cite -- there is the cop out aspect -- and while there were flirtations with those who used their sexuality as a bludgeon against the other gender, there were too many good men always around us for that to fly. Both also have hated the aping of heterosexaul norms. So while there have been very committed relationships, there have been no committment ceremonies, Which used to bother me (By God, if I have to go through the wedding shit, so do you) but doesnt anymore. I have come to like what is lived, rather that what is spoken. Which is why I love your blog. You are something else Haywain. Something quite different.
BTW -- Your mom sounds like a hoot.

Haywain McTarry said...

Indeed, my mother can be a hoot. She's an amazing combination of streamlined commonsense and occasional hysterical flightiness.

In retrospect looking over my entry, however, I'm not sure if I made it clear that my mother is not in fact gay. That's why her lessons have always been taught inadvertently. That's also part of joke. (Guess it just adds to her hootiness. :-)

So what was your family make-up growing up? I know you've said that your family is large. Is that your family as a whole or your nuclear unit? Any brothers or just sisters?

Will said...

Yes -- I understood your mom is not gay and I do not think that is required, actually, for a lesbian household and it is almost more authentic if it is unwitting at some level -- I was not aware of my mom's sexuality until I was in my 30s. The nuclear unit was my mom and my sister, but I have 26 first cousins and growing up we seemed to be together all the time. My mom has been in a commitment relatioship with someone I have known since I was in 7th grade. My sister is sort of breaking up now with her partner of the last six years, although I can't figure that out and don't try to.