Do I Have to Give Up Lesbian History to Participate in Queer Culture?

Millennial lesbianism can sometimes feel like a balancing act between two worlds.

Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party consists of a triangular table set with symbols of female figures throughout history and mythology.
Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) is on permanent display in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

A few weeks ago, a copy of Judy Chicago’s 1979 book The Dinner Party: A Story of Our Heritage arrived on my doorstep. The tome explains Chicago’s iconic artwork of the same name, a sprawling, triangular tribute to hundreds of female figures throughout human history and mythology. The exhibit, which starts with a place for the “Primordial Goddess” and ends at one for Georgia O’Keeffe, revels in vaginal imagery, domestic arts, and the role of women in Earth’s creation. The book had been shipped to me by my mother, who had never seen the work before and adored it, listening with awe as I explained who Artemisia Gentileschi and Hildegard of Bingen were on a dreary Saturday at the Brooklyn Museum.

The day after we saw The Dinner Party, I took my mother to a screening of Bruce LaBruce’s The Misandrist, a scathing “satire” of second-wave feminist ideals whose subjects believe in female separatism, political lesbianism, adding “wo-” to any word containing “man” (e.g., Ger-wo-many, wo-manual), and forced gender reassignment surgery. Leaving The Misandrists, my mother and I both felt as though LaBruce, a seminal contributor to New Queer Cinema, had never spoken to a woman—lesbian, feminist, cis, trans, or otherwise—in his life. It was a jarring experience in contrast to our date with The Dinner Party, to say the least. That weekend’s journey from a seminal ’70s feminist artwork to a ruthless ribbing of all things second-wave made me realize just how alienating the disconnect between feminist history and modern queer culture can be, especially for young lesbians.

If you’re an LGBTQ millennial like me, many of the things I’ve mentioned thus far—vaginal artwork, lesbian separatism, goddess spiritualism—may have your mouse hovering over the X on this tab. In these supposedly halcyon post-gender days, it can be easy to believe that we have grown out of such pursuits as destigmatizing the vagina, reconnecting with other women, and learning from our elders. However, these practices need not be embarrassing or old-fashioned—in fact, I’d argue that they allow us to more fully understand where we’ve come from and what is at stake in queer feminist activism.

The main hindrance to that understanding right now, as I see it, is that anything that explicitly celebrates motherhood, cis female biology, or older lesbian generations is written off as a “dog whistle” indicative of trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, beliefs. TERF, as an insult, has become so far removed from its original activist intentions (rightly criticizing trans exclusion in feminism) that, at this point, it’s also a word for anything that queer millennials deem uncool. Things I’ve seen called “TERFy” on Twitter and Tumblr include tampon ads, the word “female,” the non-word “womxn,” Janelle Monae’s “Pynk,” the Venus symbol, bangs, Jill Stein, Cardi B, and … trans women.

This blanket TERF-ing, which weakens necessary criticisms of transphobia, is today disproportionately applied to anything even remotely second-wave-y. (“Womxn” likely reminded its accuser of terms like “herstory” and “womyn,” popularized in the 1970s.) This isn’t without reason, since calls for sex-segregated activism and spaces during second-wave feminism often explicitly excluded trans women—perhaps most notoriously at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. But writing off any practices even associated with that era or those people is not only a disservice to older feminists as a whole, but also a disservice to the larger queer community. Such embarrassment keeps us from learning from our own history and growing as activists. It also means we are ashamed of anyone in our own community who might be invested in the healing aspects of that history.

It’s important to point out that many of these second-wave practices come from lesbian feminists, women who were determined to separate themselves from men romantically, historically, and politically. To many of them, that meant (and still means) defying medical and social abuse against those with vaginas, fighting against male violence, and re-centering women in all narratives. You might have an eye-rolling gut reaction to words like “herstory” and “womyn,” or to vaginal art or goddess worship. You might write off all the women who participated in the Women’s March with pussy hats as clueless. But is there anything inherently wrong with re-centering women in language and history? Is there anything wrong with certain women being proud of their bodies, when they’re constantly encouraged to remain ignorant and ashamed of them? Is there anything wrong with a woman connecting to herself and her presence on Earth on a spiritual level, especially when popular religion privileges men and subjugates women? Is there anything wrong with middle-aged women, who have lived through the evolution of sexism in ways we have not, pushing back against a president who admits to grabbing women by the pussy?

I empathize with the negative reactions to anything even adjacent to trans exclusion. It is an issue that has divided LGBTQ people—especially lesbians—for years, forcing trans people into dehumanizing debates about the validity of their very existence. But putting the onus of that entire loaded history on second-wave feminism does a disservice to both trans people and feminist history. Second-wave feminism is not inherently trans-exclusionary, and to assert that it is denies, for instance, the existence of trans women in second-wave lesbian spaces.

Personally, admittedly as a cis lesbian, I’ve found it healing to engage with my lesbian feminist roots, and all the second-wave-y historical spaces I’ve visited have been open to new perspectives on feminism and gender. The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, though laden with buttons and T-shirts and other paraphernalia that Twitter would undoubtedly deem TERF-y, is welcoming to trans women. When I stayed at HOWL, a women’s land trust in Vermont founded in the mid-1980s, I attended a meeting among its trust members. They debated how to assure potential visitors of their trans inclusivity, frustrated that, despite allowing anyone who self-identifies as a woman to stay on their land, young women avoided them for fear of taking on any second-wave associations. When I enter these spaces, I do so with an open mind and heart, not with a grimace. It has taken me a long time to realize that there is an important difference between disagreeing with certain aspects of lesbian/feminist history and feeling ashamed of lesbian history writ large. The latter reaction only makes me more ashamed of myself.

It’s deeply alienating to be a lesbian in the queer community when you’re not interested in playing the shame game. Others make assumptions about your beliefs and values based solely on your willingness to interact with anything second-wave adjacent, which socially cuts women and lesbians off from integral aspects of our history. To be clear, interacting with feminist figures whose work can be historically valuable does not mean tacitly accepting every view that figure has ever had. If we truly live by the creed that all feminists who have written about sex-based female activism are useless, then we can no longer appreciate Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Simone de Beauvoir, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Isabel Allende, or, of course, Judy Chicago. Nevertheless, all their works have been integral in shaping feminist, lesbian, and queer communities and histories. To deny this is to deny women, especially lesbians, access to their roots—and to life-saving activism and medical knowledge for cis women.

I’m not saying that you have to engage with viewpoints you believe are harmful, or that you’re not allowed to criticize them so that others might think more critically about them too. What I am saying is that queer millennials should grant others the respectful space to think for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with pushing for inclusive language—in a medical context, for instance, it can help trans people access proper care—but not every artwork, text, or random Tumblr post should be held up to a gold standard of inclusivity. Feminists can celebrate the vagina and recognize that genitalia do not necessarily define gender. Likewise, lesbians can celebrate our history and recognize its limitations. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to evolve.