The Dangerous Territory of Lesbian Visibility Day
Although I consider myself a well-informed lesbian, I’d never heard of the fact that April 26 had been dubbed “Lesbian Visibility Day.” Who knew?
I found out about it on a queer email listserv I’m on. The person posting about it included a link to a Wikipedia page that featured a long list of “LGBT Awareness Days,” including the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20) and World AIDS Day (December 1), among others. When you clicked on the link for Lesbian Visibility Day, you got, well, nothing. It just sent you back to the long list of days.
So I did what one does in 2017. I Googled it. My search came up with 1,640 links, a very small result by Google standards. In addition to the original Wikipedia page, there were some links to college websites noting the occasion, one Facebook page that turned out to have no content and this nice article from DIVA magazine, a publication out of the United Kingdom. Included in that article was a lovely three-minute video featuring a diverse group of British lesbians all talking about how important it is to be visible. Give it a look. It’s worth your time.
So why the short shrift for Lesbian Visibility Day? Is it because we’re already so visible that the need for a special day is not as necessary as it was way back in 2008, when the day was first introduced? Or is a combination of homophobia and misogyny at work here?
While it’s possible that either of these could be factors, I would submit instead that it is lesbians ourselves, particularly those of us in the US, who have decided that celebrating a day of lesbian visibility may take us into dangerous territory.
What’s So Dangerous?
The Stigma Associated with “Lesbian.” I’m not talking about the kind of stigma that gets you dis-invited from your family’s Thanksgiving dinner or fired from your job. No, this stigma is one that is internal to the queer community.
In some quarters, the label “lesbian” is seen as a relic of another era, one that demanded strict conformity in how you dressed (jeans, no makeup), how you had sex (gently and mutually), who you associated with (preferably with no or very few men), and who you excluded (anyone transgender, especially trans women). Much of this was reflected in what I experienced in my 20s way back in the 1970s and early 1980s.
Younger women — those in their 20s today — look back at that era in horror, and, in many respects, they should. The narrow-mindedness and the insistence on conformity turned off a lot of lesbians, even back then. Women of color, in particular, refused to subscribe to a separatist ideology that would have cut them off from the men of color with whom they needed to work on issues of racial justice. Lesbians with male children were not going to abandon them to their fathers or put them in separate camps at music festivals.
The Fear that Celebrating Lesbians Will Attract TERFs. The Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) subscribe to beliefs that most queer women view as anathema. They believe that people who transition are “mutilating” their bodies; that trans women at all stages of transition are still men (and so they are always misgendering them); and that trans men are just seeking “male privilege.” Some even side with the radical right wing in its efforts to prohibit trans men and women from using the bathroom that is in line with their gender identity.
I sympathize with the fear that celebrating lesbians will either attract TERFs or somehow give the impression that one is aligning with them. Yet, it is sad that what ends up happening is that we cede the territory of “lesbian visibility” to those with a hateful and hurtful ideology.
Is Lesbian Visibility Day Doomed?
Even posing this question depresses me. So I’ve decided that instead of throwing away the entire idea of April 26 as Lesbian Visibility Day, I’d much rather wrest it away from its associations with limiting and exclusionary failed views.
What we need is to shine a light on a vision of “lesbian” that is already present in a number of bright spots in our community. These are places that are showing us a new path; one that is inclusive and encourages us to be our authentic selves.
These are lesbian organizations and individuals who work proactively and deliberately to ensure that the broad swath of queer women of all races and gender identities/expressions are welcomed, cared for and celebrated.
Lesbians Who Tech does this well by raising the visibility of women of color and of transgender women at its popular summits in San Francisco, New York and other locations. This commitment is reflected in its staff, the presenters up on the stage and in the audience.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights does this by having a visible transgender legal rights program; by elevating the leadership of attorney Shannon Minter, a transgender man who is the long-time Legal Director; and by focusing a good deal of its program resources on migrant lesbians, immigrants, and low-income lesbians.
Lesbian Visibility Day should celebrate what it means to be true warriors for today’s intersectional lesbian social justice movement instead of ceding that ground to outdated or poisonous notions.
And it doesn’t have to be about pointing to visible celebrities, as much as we might love them and cheer them on. It should instead be about everyday lesbians — those who lead the charge, paint the protest signs, sing in a chorus, work in thousands of jobs, raise children and grandchildren, stand at a pulpit, write books, or live on the streets.
In short, our full visibility should be on display today, April 26, and on all the days that follow.