I am a lesbian.
There is power in typing those words, and there is power in saying them. There is power in living them. Living a life without sexual and romantic dependence on men sharpens the vision of a feminist utopia in our mind’s eyes like it can for few others, and, the clearer the image, the greater our motivation to fight for it’s realization. Our energies are free to fight the feminist fight when we banish potential patriarchal oppressors from our beds, when we organize our lives so that we aren’t coming home to them everyday. Just by living our lives, we send society the messages that start revolutions: messages of individual agency, of rejection of patriarchal religious conceptualizations, of flouting sociocultural pressure, messages that shatter the illusion of universal heterosexuality, that weaken male supremacy, that embolden young and questioning lesbians, that open the eyes of potential allies.
Without question, there is great power in proclaiming one’s status as a lesbian. The patriarchy, however, is no two-bit villian. It has a clever organization, it does, and has molded the world in such a way that even the power of out-and-proud lesbianism can be transformed into a sort of weapon.
I am a lesbian, but what is a lesbian? A lesbian is a female whose sexual and/or romantic interests lie with females, and not with males. What is a female, what is a male? Here, we run into the tangled mess that is patriarchal medical science and fear/hatred/ignorance of difference.
Males and females are the two components of a binary system of biological sex that ignores and/or pathologizes (irrespective of whether or not the relevant conditions pose a legitimate physical health risk) those whom it subsequently classifies as “intersexed.” There is no inherent problem with a binary system of biological sex, insofar as “biological sex” refers to reproductive sex. There are two, and only two, human reproductive sexes. The problem arises when we begin to generalize biological characteristics that have little or no bearing on reproduction, such as clitoral length, amount of body hair, or muscle mass, as constituting a part of this binary sex system, as they do not always follow a neat pattern of sexual dimorphism. The problem arises when we take biological sex out of the realm of reproduction.
Insofar as the word “lesbian” is defined by and based on this unrealistic and oppressive sex system, it is problematic. This fact, contrasted with the undeniable anti-patriarchy power of the term, can create something of a conundrum for conscientious lesbians. As a descriptor of attraction, the very concept of a “lesbian” presumes an unequivocally female subject, whereas “female” (as well as “male”) is not a precisely-defined biological category. Are we complicit in sex-based oppression and bad science by using this term? If we are, what can we do to fix the situation?
I do not offer solutions here, only a sketch of a patriarchal double-bind and a lesson on the importance of language.