The Women-Identified Women

What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. She is the woman who, often beginning at an extremely early age, acts in accordance with her inner compulsion to be a more complete and freer human being than her society — perhaps then, but certainly later — cares to allow her. These needs and actions, over a period of years, bring her into painful conflict with people, situations, the accepted ways of war with everything around her, and usually with her self. She may not be fully conscious of the political implications of what for her began as personal necessity, but on some level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society — the female role. The turmoil she experiences tends to induce guilt proportional to the degree to which she feels she is not meeting social expectations, and/or eventually drives her to question and analyse what the rest of her society more or less accepts. She is forced to evolve her own life pattern, often living much of her life alone, learning usually much earlier than her “straight” (heterosexual) sisters about the essential aloneness of life (which the myth of marriage obscures) and about the reality of illusions. To the extent that she cannot expel the heavy socialisation that goes with being female, she can never truly find peace with herself. For she is caught somewhere between accepting society’s view of her — in which case she cannot accept herself, and coming to understand what this sexist society has done to her and why it is functional and necessary for it to do so. Those of us who work that through find ourselves on the other side of a tortuous journey through a night that may have been decades long. The perspective gained from that journey, the liberation of self, the inner peace, the real love of self and of all women, is something to be shared with all women — because we are all women.

It should be first understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behaviour possible only in a sexist society characterised by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanise women by defining us as a supportive/serving caste in relation to the master caste of men, and/emotionally cripple men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/political/military functions effectively. Homosexuality is a byproduct of a particular way of setting up roles (or approved patterns of behaviour) on the basis of sex; as such it is an inauthentic (not consonant with “reality”) category. In a society in which men do not oppress women, and sexual expression is allowed to follow feelings, the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality would disappear.

But lesbianism is also different from male homosexuality, and serves a different function in the society. “Dyke” is a different kind of put-down from “faggot,” although both imply you are not playing your socially assigned sex role… are therefore not a “real woman” or a “real man”. The grudging admiration felt for the tomboy, and the queasiness felt around a sissy boy point to the same thing: the contempt in which women – or those who play a female role -are held. And the investment in keeping women in the contemptuous role is very great. Lesbian is the word, the label, the condition that holds women in line. When a woman hears this word tossed her way, she knows she is stepping out of line. She knows that she has crossed the terrible boundary of her sex role. She recoils, she reshapes her actions to gain approval. Lesbian is a label invested by the Man to throw at any woman who dares to be his equal, who dares to challenge his prerogatives (including that of all women as part of the exchange medium among men), who dares to assert the primacy of her own needs. To have the label applied to people active in women’s liberation is just the most recent instance of a long history; older women will recall that not so long ago, any woman who was successful, independent, not orientating her whole life about a man, would hear this word. For in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman – she must be a dyke. That in itself should tell us where women are at. It says as clearly as can be said: women and person are contradictory terms. For a lesbian is not considered a “real woman”. And yet, in popular thinking, there is really only one essential difference between a lesbian and other women; that of sexual orientation – which is to say, when you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realise that the essence of being a “woman” is to get fucked by men.

“Lesbian” is one of the sexual categories by which men have divided up humanity. While all women are dehumanised as sex objects, as the objects of men they are given certain compensations: identification with his power, his ego, his status, his protection (from other males), feeling like a “real woman”, finding social acceptance by adhering to her role, etc. Should a woman confront herself by confronting another woman, there are fewer rationalisations, fewer buffers by which to avoid the stark horror of her dehumanised condition. Herein we find the overriding fear of many women towards exploring intimate relationships with other women; the fear of being used as a sexual object by a woman, which not only will bring her no male-connected compensations, but also will reveal the void which is woman’s real situation. This dehumanisation is expressed when a straight woman learns that a sister is a lesbian; she begins to relate to her lesbian sister as her potential sex object, laying a surrogate male role on the lesbian. This reveals her heterosexual conditioning to make herself into an object when sex is potentially involved in a relationship, and it denies the lesbian her full humanity. For women, especially those in the movement, to perceive their lesbian sisters through this male grid of role definitions is to accept this male cultural conditioning and to oppress their sisters much as they themselves have been oppressed by men. Are we going to continue the male classification system of defining all females in sexual relation to some other category of people? Affixing the label lesbian not only to a woman who aspires to be a person, but also to any situation of real love, real solidarity, real primacy among women is a primary form of divisiveness among women: it is the condition which keeps women within the confines of the feminine role, and it is the debunking/scare term that keeps women from forming any primary attachments, groups, or associations among ourselves.

Women in the movement have in most cases gone to great lengths to avoid discussion and confrontation with the issue of lesbianism. It puts people up-tight. They are hostile, evasive, or try to incorporate it into some “broader issue”. They would rather not talk about it. If they have to, they try to dismiss it as a “lavender herring”. But it is no side issue. It is absolutely essential to the success and fulfilment of the women’s liberation movement that this issue be dealt with. As long as the label “dyke” can be used to frighten women into a less militant stand, keep her separate from her sisters, keep her from giving primacy to anything other than men and family – then to that extent she is controlled by the male culture. Until women see in each other the possibility of a primal commitment which includes sexual love, they will be denying themselves the love and value they readily accord to men, thus affirming their second-class status. As long as male acceptability is primary – both to individual women and to the movement as a whole – the term lesbian will be used effectively against women. Insofar as women want only more privileges within the system, they do not want to antagonise male power. They instead seek acceptability for women’s liberation, and the most crucial aspect of the acceptability is to deny lesbianism – ie deny any fundamental challenge to the basis of the female role.

It should be said that some younger, more radical women have honestly begun to discuss lesbianism, but so far it has been primarily used as a sexual “alternative” to men. This, however, is still giving primacy to men, both because the idea of relating more completely to women occurs as a negative reaction to men, and because the lesbian relationship is being characterised simply by sex which is divisive and sexist. On one level, which is both personal and political, women may withdraw emotional and sexual energies from men, and work out various alternatives for those energies in their own lives. On a different political/psychological level, it must be understood that what is crucial is that women begin disengaging from male-defined response patterns. In the privacy of our own psyches, we must cut those cords to the core. For irrespective of where our Jove and sexual energies flow, if we are male-identified in our heads, we cannot realise our autonomy as human beings.

But why is it that women have related to and through men? By virtue of having been brought up in a male society, we have internalised the male culture’s definition of ourselves. That definition views us as relative beings who exist not for ourselves, but for the servicing, maintenance and comfort of men. That definition consigns us to sexual and family functions, and excludes us from defining and shaping the terms of our lives.

In exchange for our psychic servicing and for performing society’s non-profit-making functions, the man confers on us just one thing: the slave status which makes us legitimate in the eyes of the society in which we live. This is called “femininity” or “being a real woman” in our cultural lingo. We are authentic, legitimate, real to the extent that we are the property of some man whose name we bear. To be a woman who belongs to no man is to be invisible, pathetic, unauthentic, unreal. He confirms his image of us – of what we have to be in order to be acceptable by him – but not our real selves; he confirms our womanhood – as he defines it, in relation to him – but cannot confirm our personhood, our own selves as absolutes. As long as we are dependent on the male culture for this definition, for this approval, we cannot be free.

The consequence of internalising this role is an enormous reservoir of self-hate. This is not to say the self-hate is recognised or accepted as such; indeed most women would deny it. It may be experienced as discomfort with her role, as feeling empty, as numbness, as restlessness, a paralysing anxiety at the centre. Alternatively, it may be expressed in shrill defensiveness of the glory and destiny of her role. But it does exist, often beneath the edge of her consciousness, poisoning her existence, keeping her alienated from herself, her own needs, and rendering her a stranger to other women. Women hate both themselves and other women. They try to escape by identifying with the oppressor, living through him, gaining status and identity from his ego, his accomplishments. And by not identifying with other “empty vessels” like themselves, women resist relating on all levels to other women who will reflect their own oppression, their own secondary status, their own self-hate. For to confront another woman is finally to confront one’s self the self we have gone to such lengths to avoid. And in that mirror we know we cannot really respect and love that which we have been made to be.

As the source of self-hate and the lack of real self are rooted in our male-given identity, we must create a new sense of self. As long as we cling to the idea of “being a woman”, we will sense some conflict with that incipient self, that sense of I, that sense of a whole person. It is very difficult to realise and accept that being “feminine” and being a whole person are irreconcilable. Only women can give each other a new sense of self. That identity we have to develop with reference to ourselves, and not in relation to men.

This consciousness is the revolutionary force from which all else will follow, for ours is an organic revolution. For this we must be available and supportive to one another, give our commitment and our love, give the emotional support necessary to sustain this movement. Our energies must flow toward our sisters, not backwards towards our oppressors. As long as women’s liberation tries to free women without facing the basic heterosexual structure that binds us in one-to-one relationship with our own oppressors, tremendous energies will continue to flow into trying to straighten up each particular relationship with a man, how to get better sex, how to turn his head around – into trying to make the “new man” out of him, in the delusion that this will allow us to be the “new woman”. This obviously splits our energies and commitments, leaving us unable to be committed to the construction of the new patterns which will liberate us.

It is the primacy of women relating to women, of women creating a new consciousness of and with each other which is at the heart of women’s liberation, and the basis for the cultural revolution. Together we must find, reinforce and validate our authentic selves. As we do this, we confirm in each other that struggling incipient sense of pride and strength, the divisive barriers begin to melt, we feel this growing solidarity with our sisters. We see ourselves as prime, find our centres inside of ourselves. We find receding the sense of alienation, of being cut off, of being behind a locked window, of being unable to get out what we know is inside.

We feel a real-ness, feel at last we are coinciding with ourselves. With that real self, with that consciousness, we begin a revolution to end the imposition of all coercive identifications, and to achieve maximum autonomy in human expression.

Ed: This article was written by a collective of women in New York, and has been reprinted in several journals, including Come Out and The Radical Therapist. Gay News reprints it from Vector, which is the publication of the Society for Individual Rights. They are based in San Fransisco. To them we send love and thanks, and wish them much success in 1973.

S&M and the Gay World

19720901-08Homosexual sadomasochism is one subject which the gay liberation movement has never discussed. Although gay liberationists have strongly supported transvestites and pederasts by urging repeal of laws against cross-dressing and those governing the age of sexual consent, sadomasochism has been completely ignored.

Most gay men have such a difficult time coming to personal terms with S&M that they treat it as an embarrassment. Gay Liberationists have even actively persecuted sadomasochists. A new and very secret Los Angeles organisation, Gay Zap, has been sending crank letters to several of the Hollywood gay bars that sadomasochists patronise demanding changes in business policies and promising police action if the demands are not met.

19720901-09S&M has been the bad boy of the gay world, and only during the past few months has anything been written about it. Dennis Altman, author of Homosexual: Liberation and Oppression, devoted several pages to transvestism but dismissed sadomasochism in a single sentence by saying it was probably the result of a confused sexuality which would disappear under less repressive social norms. He added that coming to terms with S&M was one of the real challenges for the gay liberation movement.

The largest gay newspaper in the country, The Advocate, has never had anything about S&M although 20% of its personal ads are placed by sadomasochists. By way of contrast, only 1% of the personals concern transvestites and about 4% pederasts. This does not necessarily mean that 20% of all gay men are sadists or masochists. It does suggest that S&M may be much more common than generally believed. We will have to wait until the Kinsey Institute publishes its report on homosexuality this year for any statistics.

The New York City gay liberation newspaper Come Out! published “S&M and the Revolution’ in its January, 1972 issue. This article may be the first about sadomasochism in any gay newspaper. It is primarily an apologetic explanation of S&M and emphasises that sadomasochistic activities are entered into voluntarily between sadist and masochist, and nobody ought to have any right to oppress voluntary sexual conduct.

Gay civil rights activist Peter Fisher wrote a sympathetic chapter on S&M in his recent book, The Gay Mystique, but his coverage seems so superficial that he must have relied mostly on hearsay. It was not until the publication of Larry Townsend’s The Leatherman’s Handbook in March that we can get a real look at gay sadomasochism. Townsend, president of HELP, Inc., a Los Angeles gay legal defence group claims to be intimate with the S&M cult.

His wild accounts of what sadists do to masochists boggle the mind and will certainly stir up a controversy. The Handbook digs deep into every S&M scene from the “toys” the S-men use on the M-men to how to lure your prospective partner (victim?) to your “Playroom”. Most S&M men – even those who admit their homosexuality – are so ashamed of their practices that they keep their sadism or masochism a guarded secret. People just wouldn’t understand. Townsend at least has the guts to put his cat-o-nine tails on the table and let the rest of us know where he stands.

I realise that many gay brothers are opposed to violence of any sort, and it is all too easy to condemn S&M on prima facie value alone. But I believe that many of those who condemn men grooving together in a ritualistic flaggellation aren’t going to say anything about the pusher who sells LSD to somebody and sends him on a trip over the Golden Gate Bridge.

For many, gay and straight alike, no other form of sexual expression seems more repulsive than sadomasochism. Liberation is for all gay people, and not just for counter-culture gays and political radicals because they say they have the proper political or social consciousness, nor is it only for transvestites and other fem-identified males because they have flung their homosexuality in the face of society so long. There can be no second-class gay people who must remain in the closet while the rest are liberated. By ignoring, and even persecuting the S&M people, organised homosexuality – the newspapers, churches, political groups, and liberation organisations – have done exactly what straight society has done to the rest of us.

Within each of us there are elements of sadism and masochism. Most of us have sublimated these feelings towards non-sexual and sometimes undesirable goals. Such socially approved activities as military discipline, football or queer-beating by police often carry homosexual sadomasochistic overtones.

Do you like to give orders to other men? Do you really dig marines, policemen and other authoritarian uniformed types? Like to buddy-ride on bikes or maybe wild wrestling? Perhaps your thing is a wild time in the old bunkhouse with all those butch cowboys and lumberjacks? If you have secret feelings for any of these things you might have strong but unresolved gay S&M urges, and until you act out those feelings you are going to feel frustrated and sexually unliberated.

The S&M man might be especially sexually liberated because he dares to act out fantasies other men only dream about, but more disturbing are the sadomasochistic fantasies in the first place. Perhaps the gay sadomasochist is the ultimate casualty of our anti-sexual Judaeo-Christian heritage – a man so conditioned by the anti-erotic morality of religion that sexual arousal and orgasm are possible only through the giving and receiving of pain.

Social psychiatrist Wainwright Churchill writes in Homosexual Behaviour Among Males that American society is so sexually repressive that furtiveness and anxiety are necessary for erotic arousal in many men, and they are deliberately forced to seek partners whom they cannot trust or might cause them trouble. Churchill reports that such men are even grateful for the laws prohibiting homosexuality because they foster the anxiety-ridden contacts they must have!

According to Ford and Beach in Patterns of Sexual Behaviour, sadomasochism is restricted to sexually repressive societies. Christianity has attached sinfulness and evil to erotic stimulation, and for centuries priests flagellated grovelling penitents to purge them of their sins.

Alex, anti-hero in the motion picture A Clockwork Orange, was programmed by behavioural psychiatrists through drug aversion therapy which reduced him into an asexual half-man who could not protect himself when his past victims sought to do him in. Similarly, the gay sadomasochist has been programmed by a brainwashing technique developed by the Church, and most Americans are so brainwashed by this religious conditioning that they have ceased to be free agents. Deprived of free will, Americans have reacted against homosexuality with a knee-jerk reflex without understanding why.

Gay sadomasochists are the end products of religious conditioning, for it has constructed within their minds an obsessive-compulsive fixation to give and receive pain. Erection and orgasm respond only to pain, and sexual pleasure is partially replaced by pain. Sadomasochists have no free will to choose the sexual activity, they are involved with. We have no moral right to pass judgement on those who cannot help themselves.

Sadomasochism is easily the least understood part of the gay world. People envision tough, leather-jacketed queers attacking youths and torturing and mutilating their bound and gagged victims in scenes of wild abandon and depravity. In actuality, most gay S&M people engage in acts of controlled fantasy, often in psychodramatic roles involving domination and submission such as Marine Corps boot camp, fraternity initiation, or cowboy bunkhouse. Much of it simply involves such symbolic acts of humiliation and servitude as bootlicking or calling the sadist “sir”. Heavier S&M usually includes a considerable amount of “discipline” and frequently includes bondage and flagellation with a whip or studded belt and that can cause real pain.

Really hard-core practitioners become so addicted to S&M that they may not become sexually aroused without pain. Occasionally some sadomasochistic activities go beyond moderation and include real torture such as castration. Larry Townsend gave a graphic description of such a castration where the severed testes were stuffed into the victim’s mouth. Things like this make S&M revolting to anyone.

Although S&M tends to be role-oriented, “rough sex”, which means a lot of brawling and heavy wrestling, could be considered S&M without the role playing. Most writers of sadomasochism ignore rough sex. A lot of S&M is also fetishistic and requires that one or both partners wear certain articles of masculine garb such as black leather jackets or cowboy boots. Before we condemn fetishism, how many straight men are turned on by women in spike heels and black garter belts?

It would be unfair to brand all gay leather-men, cowboys, or other masculine-oriented types as S&M. Many gay men wear leather, denim, cowboy outfits, hard-hats and similar attire because they feel more masculine in it or it helps attract sex partners. After all, male homosexuals are attracted to men, not to a man who looks and acts like a woman. Some critics – mostly effeminate types from the “fluffy sweater” or transvestite crowds – charge that the denim-leathermen are “male impersonators” and “straight-identified”.

They claim that female drag is the only proper clothing for the really liberated male homosexual, and one must act effeminate and become fem-identified. These critics are also often straight-identified … as heterosexual women, and they are simply continuing straight society’s definition of the male homosexual as some sort of pseudo-woman. No, the denim-leathermen are not male impersonators, just male.

Organised S&M and leather-oriented gay social clubs exist in several cities, notably Los Angeles, San Fransisco and New York. Los Angeles has 17 bike and leather-denim social clubs with a combined membership of perhaps 225. Most of the nine leather-western Los Angeles gay bars are members of HELP, and several of the HELP officers and many members are involved in the leather-S&M subculture.

This subculture is a very stable element in the gay community (many bike clubs have been going for years) and constitutes an organisational reservoir, but because most leather-men have tended to be “closet queens”, they have been apathetic as far as political action goes, and it has only been recently that they have shown an interest in gay civil rights. We will find them becoming increasingly prominent in the gay rights scene.

S&M supporters have given two main reasons for sadomasochism. First they argue that S&M is entered into voluntarily by both sadist and masochist, and people must not be concerned about the habits and lifestyles of others as long as they remain voluntary. But how voluntary is S&M? Are we really dealing with an obsessive compulsive behaviour which people cannot control? Even Townsend admits that a sadist freaked out on drugs can be deadly. There seems something suicidal and homicidal in S&M, and I have heard and read of hair-raising stories about high voltage electricity, castration, branding irons, needles through the teats and scrotum, rack stretching, and burning chemicals applied to the body. Even if electric prods or red-hot pokers are not your thing there is little one can do to stop the application of these goodies to the body if bound and gagged.

A traditional argument against homosexuality is that it destroys society. One could also argue that S&M destroys the individual. Besides the ultimate danger – death – there are lesser dangers leading to permanent injury to the body – genitals ruptured and mutilated, the insertion and breaking of sharp objects in the rectum, hepatitis from sticking dirty needles into people, and permanent blindness from gonorrhea in the eyes resulting from infected urine if splashed over the body.

The second argument for S&M is that it supposedly directs violence by channeling it to certain specific sexual encounters. Men are drawn from those sublimated homosexual desires which have boiled over into war, and violence would be eroticized into sex. Ever read about the origins of the Nazi Party? Many of the early Nazis were homosexual sado-masochists, and they didn’t sublimate anything

On the contrary, S&M is common to all anti-sexual militaristic societies, and sadomasochistic sex is basically part of a general tendency of the violence within such a society. In fact, the propagation of S&M might have a detrimental effect on society by increasing the general level of violence in the same way psychologists say that television violence affects children. Fundamentally S&M is authoritarian, demanding superio-inferior relationships, and, I have a disturbing suspicion, a penchant for an authoritarian society.

Sexual equality is probably the strongest argument for homosexuality because heterosexual relations always involve role-playing simply because of the differences between men and women. Gay sex offers the possibility of equality between partners as well as relationships. The husband-wife roles taken by the transvestite and his “husband” is an imitation of the heterosexual relationship. S&M sex is another kind of role-playing involving dominance and submission. If one argues that a masculine homosexual is straight-identified, such a gay man is only enacting a role expected of men. With the elimination of extreme social roles, gay relationships will tend to change to what will be expected of men, but it is necessary to liberate all men, not just gay men.

Gay sadomasochism is a confused and muddled issue. It is liberating insofaras the practitioners act out otherwise suppressed fantasies and oppressing because of the dominant-submission role-playing and the giving and receiving of pain. I profoundly hope it will wither away as sexual norms liberalise and men are not straight-jacketed into social roles they cannot fulfill. Rather than persecuting sadomasochism we should turn our attention to its causes.

Reprinted with love from Gay Sunshine, 1972