I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about “lesbians” lately. How “typical lesbians” do this and do that. I even got some feedback from a clerk in a furniture store the other day about the way lesbians commonly make their home decor decisions. And there was that comment in another store alluding to the proliferation of cat hair present in all lesbians’ homes. The infinite stereotypes of lesbians have been assailing my senses from every conceivable direction: the magazine article about the U-Haul girlfriend; the movie caricature of the closeted dyke; the semi-viral video highlighting the predictability of “lesbian bed death”. The assumptions around normalcy for this community are rampant.
It seems to me that many lesbians buy into and self-actualize these stereotypes. Our community’s take on gay pride, perhaps: embrace and live to the fullest what they all expect us to be. Is this a statement on our general progress as a group toward accepting our cultural identity? Are we collectively at Stage 3 on the R/CID? That’s actually just me being funny, but there’s always a little bit of truth behind every joke, isn’t there? As a cultural community, lesbians continue to be marginalized and oppressed in many ways: there’s the ongoing marriage struggle, the biased and baseless firings, not to mention the subtle social rejections related to the tasteful public affection that heterosexual couples take for granted. I am concerned that, as a result of these challenges, we may unconsciously devalue ourselves. What’s more, by accepting and perpetuating the stereotypes used to define us, we corroborate with the minimization of our genuine humanity.
Disguised as individualized personality and gender expression, many of the stereotypes contributing to the community’s debasement involve the style of dress and carriage of an “identifiable” lesbian. The community itself labels and identifies “types” of lesbians (e.g., stone butch, high femme, tomboi, chapstick lez, etc.), making them easy to pick out of a crowd— a helpful practice for women seeking to connect with other lesbians, but also a support for the hateful folks looking for target practice. When Elena Kagan was nominated for the high duty of Supreme Court Justice, the biggest flurry was around her masculine appearance and potentially hidden homosexual persuasion. Regardless of the truth of her personal life, her looks and presentation made her the object of derision and suspicion, even in spite of her accomplishments and professional status.
Many lesbians see identifying themselves clearly through their dress and manner as an expression of gay pride and hardiness of spirit. Which is, in fact, a very normal step along the path to fully accepting a cultural minority identity. I believe that, as much as we long for full societal acceptance and support, our group’s level of sociological and psychological development may contribute to maintaining us in a secondary (tertiary?) social status.
Other stereotypes that minimize our worth revolve around our interpersonal politics. There is certainly some truth to the popular conceptions around lesbians’ relationship boundaries. Common practices include: sex and dating within friendship circles; former lovers maintaining primary positions in each other’s lives; newfound partners shacking up in the blink of an eye. These dynamics are common within the lesbian community, but as we look around at (“normal”) heterosexual behavior, we see the same things taking place. I admit to entertaining some judgment around a lot of lesbian behavior, but it is just that — my definition of it as lesbian behavior — that I think offends me the most. I am not a fan of unhealthy boundaries in my personal life, and as a professional I see the damage they can wreak in other people’s pursuit of happiness. It is the unhealthy behavior that turns me off, not the lesbian quality of it. However, our community accepts these interpersonal patterns as our own, diminishing our own mental health and wisdom even as we are crying out for equal rights and social acceptance.
Communities are made up of individuals. The way to improve our overall health, support our cultural identity development, and step forward as deserving human beings is for each one of us to find strength within ourselves. Elena Kagan didn’t chuckle or lash out at the insults hurled her way. She kept looking forward, standing firm in her right to be where she was, and exuding personal strength and self-assuredness throughout her inquisition. When we have personal self-esteem and acceptance, it is easier to claim that out in the world. When we know who we are and fully accept our individual strengths and limitations, we no longer need to utilize stereotypical ways of being to identify ourselves and derive self-worth. Some women seek acceptance within our community because they don’t believe in the possibility of being loved and valued by the larger society. But hiding within an insulated and stereotyped community supports lesbians’ separation from the equality they so dearly covet.
Each one of us, personally and quietly, can revolt against stereotypes (no matter how true or fictitious) by reminding ourselves of our coexisting individuality and humanity. We don’t have to internalize the real or perceived hatred that plagues the homosexual community in order to find our place in society. We can do individual work to reject the hatred we have experienced in our lives and refuse to turn that ugliness against ourselves and our community. A further step involves acknowledging that we don’t have to love all lesbians as a sign of group loyalty, just as we don’t love all humans just because they breathe. The key is to realize that lesbians are human beings who share qualities with gay men, heterosexual ladies, and all the genders and genderless in between. When we get past the need to cling to stereotypes and other self-judgments to assert our worth, we will become ready to accept the liberty that is rightfully ours.
© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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