This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
In the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, a dyke friend in her twenties posted that, real talk, she doesn’t like men. I hit the like button super fast, feeling secretive and sort of guilty about it. She’d come through the same radical queer and trans circles I came up in, and in that click, I felt relieved to acknowledge an obvious truth: Most men treat women like something less than human, whether accidentally or on purpose, and that means it’s hard to like them.
I’d recently been scanning the men coming into my workplace, wondering about their histories of sexual assault. Is he a rapist? What about him? Where does he fall on the creep scale? It was an old impulse that had returned in force as the nation debated just how many of their husbands, brothers, and sons were perpetrators, given that one in three American women experience sexual violence in their lifetimes. Republicans insisted that men were the ones who should be afraid, while women recounted the everyday, harrowing ways we reroute our lives to avoid assault. My “woke” male co-workers made #MeToo jokes, as if the whole thing were a funny spectacle. It was enough to make me want to stop talking to men entirely.
Yet still, inside my head, the #NotAllMen chorus roared. What about the dad of two who likes all my angry tweets? Or the guy who showed up at the hospital with too much food when my spouse was in labor? Or my friends who are trans men?
Patriarchy runs so deep that I defend hypothetical men’s feelings right away, even to myself. I am a married lesbian, as far away from needing male approval as a woman can get, and I still feel it, the slow poisonous drip of cultural conditioning that tells me to prioritize men. My imagination, that thing that could break us out of American fascism, is trapped in an old feminist loop, because I’ve been trained that the worst thing I can be is a man-hating dyke. But it’s time to confront the latent homophobia in that insult and our fear that anger makes us seem too gay. Because anger, not fear, is precisely the emotion that’s needed these days.
Of course, certain women’s anger had become trendy under Trump: that of straight cis white women, the good girls of the left taking on the big bad president. Rebecca Traister, promoting her new book, Good and Mad, joked on at least two podcasts that writing about rage made her sex life better, reminding the world—perhaps unconsciously—that women’s anger needs a heterosexual qualifier.
When straight cis white women talk about anger, it’s sexy resistance fuel. When straight cis black women get angry, they get caricatured and punished. When cis lesbians talk about anger, we get Rosie O’Donnell’d, used as a shield for misogyny, since men know other women won’t defend us. “Man-hating dyke” is a classic insult, whether aimed at actual lesbians or Hillary Clinton, used to remind queer women that there’s something wrong with us. Second-wave straight feminists did whatever they could to distance themselves from lesbians, avoiding the “lavender menace” and adopting pretty, gender-conforming icons like Gloria Steinem. Straight or queer, angry or not, trans women’s mere existence is considered a threat.
Perhaps that’s why the dykes I know have been crying in bathrooms and going to bed early, more riddled with anxiety than boiling over with righteous indignation. For a lot of us, the reminder that none of us is safe is an old feeling. We are tired and despairing, not newly enraged and energized.
Part of that is because dykes have always held cultural space for women’s anger, absorbing and reflecting the frustration with men that straight women can’t express. We are the friend you call when you’re sexually assaulted, the one who drags you to a protest (or who starts the whole movement). Cis and trans lesbians are in a unique position to see misogyny from the outside, because our dates generally understand that women are fully human. We just haven’t always been explicit about the domestic misogyny we see from a distance or how we feel about it, because homophobia and transphobia make it dangerous to be an angry dyke. Dyke anger is the difference between gay assimilation and queer radicalism, and we are punished for it socially: Why do you have to be such a killjoy? Can’t you leave your politics at home?
Practically speaking, we still have male bosses and landlords and clients and mayors and editors (hi!) who wield power in our actual lives, even if we don’t come home to a man on the couch every night, and it’s hard to publicly state our resentment, lest some of them use that power against us. But what that means is that “man-hater” remains an insult we’re afraid of. We’ve reclaimed “witch” and “queer” and “dyke,” but we can’t seem to own this last, worst stereotype of ourselves. Frankly, men do not deserve this much mental sympathy, and the few who do already know it. But even as men kill women who question them daily, those of us with the least amount of investment in patriarchy are afraid to say what we really think of them.
In a quick poll, my dyke friends had good reasons to eschew the “man-hater” label: They like plenty of men; they don’t want to “hate” anyone; and no one wants to be associated with trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs. Plus, many lesbians are proudly gender-fluid or butch, and it feels icky to reject masculinity wholesale when it feels like something that’s a part of you.
But it’s time to get the misogyny out of our own heads, because if we don’t, we cede a powerful space for women’s anger to those who want to control us. We can be angry dykes if we want to, even if all that means is owning that term for ourselves.
To be clear, I do not mean we should create physical lesbian separatist spaces. There is too much painful, transphobic history in that idea to even entertain it. I watched some women online muse about moving to communes—“Do those still exist?”—to avoid the constant negotiation of public space with men. I assumed they were straight and cis, because otherwise they would have known about TERFy women’s lands or at least about the drama of Michfest. We dykes have already torn ourselves apart over trans identity and how to separate men from women. There is only one right side, and communes that ban anyone based on their genitalia are not on it.
What I mean instead is reclaiming a phrase that lets us divest from patriarchy in a more serious way. Men have to learn what it feels like when we stop protecting them, and we have to stop seeking male approval. We have to name who’s perpetrating violence against cis and trans women in this country: It’s white men, with the white women who are invested in patriarchy along for the ride. We need to quiet the last of those self-censoring voices. Reimagining something bigger than resistance, in Michelle Alexander’s terms, requires us to get beyond that fear of male approval. Once we do, we can be a source of massive, radical power, and straight women would do well to follow our lead.
Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.