Lesbian Feminism and the Gay Rights Movement:
Another View of Male Supremacy, Another Separatism(1F)
By Marilyn Frye, from Politics of Reality: essays in feminist theory (Crossing Press, 1983)Many gay men and some lesbians and feminists assume that it is reasonable to expect lesbian and feminist support for, or participation in, gay political and cultural organizations and projects, and many people think it is reasonable to expect that gay men will understand and support feminist and lesbian causes. But both of these expectations are, in general, conspicuously not satisfied.
With a few exceptions, lesbians--and in particular, feminist lesbians--have not seen gay rights as a compelling cause nor found association with gay organizations rewarding enough to hold more than temporary interest. With perhaps even fewer exceptions, gay men do not find feminist or lesbian concerns to be close enough to their own to compel either supportive political action or serious and attentive thought. Gay political and cultural organizations which ostensibly welcome and act in behalf of both gay men and gay women generally have few if any lesbian members, and lesbian and feminist political and cultural organizations, whether or not they seek or accept male membership, have little if any gay male support.
All of us deviants suffer from the fact that the dominant culture is, at least publicly, intolerant of deviations from what might be called "missionary sexuality": sexuality organized around male-dominant, female-subordinate genital intercourse. Lesbians and gay men both are subject to derision and ostracism, abuse and terror, in both cases for reasons that flow somehow out of social and political structures of sex and gender. Popular images of the lesbian and the gay man are images of people who do not fit the patterns of gender imposed on the sexes. She is seen as a female who is not feminine and he as a male who is not masculine. In many states and locales lesbians and gay men find themselves joined under a common political necessity when they must battle a Proposition This-or-That which would legally sanction their civil injury, or are under assault by such groups as the Moral Majority or the Ku Klux Klan. Gay men seem to many women to be less sexist than straight men, presumably because gay men are not interested in women sexually. And the feminist commitment to individual sexual self-determination includes, for most feminists, a commitment to gay rights.
Such things might lead one to suppose that there is, in fact, a cultural and political affinity between gay men on the one hand and women--lesbians and/or feminists--on the other, and then to assume that the absence of any firm and general alliance here must be explained by there being some sort of hitch or barrier, some accidental factor of style, language or misinformation, which obscures the common interests or makes cooperation difficult. I do not share this supposition and assumption.
A culture hostile to any but missionary sexuality is also hostile to women--the culture is a sexist, a misogynist, a male-supremacist culture. Because of this cultural reality, the worlds of what the clinicians would call "homosexual" women and men are very different: we deviate from very different norms; our deviations are situated very differently in the male-supremacist world view and political structure; we are not objects of the same phobias and loathings. If some of us feel some threads of sympathy connecting us and therefore would want to be friends to each other's causes, the first thing we should do is seek a just understanding of the differences which separate us. But these differences turn out to be so profound as to cast doubt on the assumption that there is any basic cultural or political affinity here at all upon which alliances could be built.
A look at some of the principles and values of male-supremacist society and culture suggests immediately that the male gay rights movement and gay male culture, as they can be known in their public manifestations, are in many central points considerably more congruent than discrepant with this phallocracy, which in turn is so hostile to women and to the woman-loving to which lesbians are committed. Among the most fundamental of those principles and values are the following:
1. The presumption of male citizenship.
2. Worship of the penis.
3. Male homoeroticism, or man-loving.
4. Contempt for women, or woman-hating.
5. Compulsory male heterosexuality.
6. The presumption of general phallic access.
As one explores the meaning of these principles and values, gay and straight male cultures begin to look so alike that it becomes something of a puzzle why straight men do not recognize their gay brothers, as they certainly do not, much to the physical and psychological expense of the latter.
1. The presumption of male citizenship is the principle that if, and only if, someone is male, he has a prima facie claim to a certain array of rights, such as the rights to ownership and disposition of property, to physical integrity and freedom of movement, to having a wife and to paternity, to access to resources for making a living, and so forth.(2F) Though dominant men accept among themselves certain sorts of justifications for abridging or denying such rights of men (e.g., the necessity of raising an army), the presumption is on the side of their having these rights. If others deny a man these rights arbitrarily, that is, apparently without recognizing that such denial requires certain sorts of justification, then the implication arises that he is not really or fully a man or male. If he accepts the burden of proof, this too would suggest that he is not really or fully a man or male. Thus, what is called "discrimination"--the arbitrary abridgment of men's rights, abridgement not accompanied by certain sorts of justification--is felt as "emasculating," and those whose rights are abridged are inclined to respond by asserting their manhood.
Civil rights movements of various sorts in this country, under male leadership, have tended to take this approach which obviously does not question, but relies on, the underlying presumption of male citizenship. A civil-rights feminism, even one which means to be moderate, is pushed toward challenging this presumption, hence toward a more radical challenge to the prevailing order, by the fact that its constituency is women.(3F) Women's only alternative to the more radical challenge is that of claiming the manhood of women, which has been tried and is not in my estimation as absurd at as it may sound; but that claim is not easy to explain or to incorporate in persuasive political rhetoric.
Since the constituency of the male gay rights movement is very overtly and definitively classified and degraded as "womanish" or "effeminate," it might seem that a logical and proud gay political strategy would be to demand citizenship as "women"--the strategy of challenging the presumption of male citizenship. Some individual gay men lean toward this, and thus to political kinship with women, but the gay rights movement generally has taken the course of claiming the manhood of its constituents, supposing that the presumption of gay men's rights will follow upon acknowledgement of this. In so doing, they acquiesce in and support the reservation of full citizenship to males and thus align themselves with the political adversaries of feminism.
It is indeed true that gay men, generally speaking, are really men and thus by the logic of phallocratic thinking really ought to be included under the presumption of male citizenship. In fact, as some gay men have understood (even if the popular mind has not), gay men generally are in significant ways, perhaps in all important ways, only more loyal to masculinity and male-supremacy than other men.(4F)
2. In phallocratic culture, the penis is deified, fetishized, mystified and worshipped. Male literature proves with convincing redundancy that straight men identify with their penises and are simultaneously strangely alienated from them.(5F) The culture is one in which men are not commonly found laughable when they characterize the female as a castrated male. It is a culture in which an identification of the penis with power, presence and creativity is found plausible-not the brain, the eyes, the mouth or the hand, but the penis. In that culture, any object or image which at all resembles or suggests the proportions of an erect penis will be imbued with or assumed to have special mythic, semantic, psychological or supernatural powers. There is nothing in gay male culture or politics as they appear on the street, in bars, in gay media, which challenges this belief in the magic of the penis. In the straight culture, worship of the penis in symbolic representations is overt and common, but men's love of penises in the flesh tends to be something of a closet affair, expressed privately or covertly, or disguised by humor or rough housing. Gay men generally are only much more straightforward about it: less ambivalent, less restrained, more overt.
If worship of the phallus is central to phallocratic culture, then gay men, by and large, are more like ardent priests than infidels, and the gay rights movement may be the fundamentalism of the global religion which is Patriarchy. In this matter, the congruence of gay male culture with straight male culture and the chasm between these and women's cultures are great indeed.
Women generally have good experiential reason to associate negative values and feelings with penises, since penises are connected to a great extent with their degradation, terror and pain. The fear or dread this can generate might be a close relative of worship, but there is also the not-so-uncommon experience of boredom, frustration and alienation in the sorts of encounters with penises which are advertised as offering excitement, fulfillment and transcendence. So far as living with the threat of rape permits, many women's attitudes toward penises tend to vacillate between indifference and contempt, attitudes which are contraries of worship. Lesbians and feminists, who may know more securely the dispensibility of penises to women's physical gratification and to their identity and authority, may be even more prone than most women to these unworshipful attitudes. It is among women, especially feminists and lesbians, that the unbelievers are to be found. We and gay men are on opposite sides of this part of phallophilic orthodoxy.
Let me interject that though I derogate and mock the worship of the penis, I do not despise its enjoyment. I suspect that if penises were enjoyed a good deal more and worshipped a great deal less, everyone's understanding of both male and female sexuality, of power and of love, would change beyond recognition and much for the better. But I do not read gay male culture as that radical a culture of enjoyment, in spite of its hedonistic rhetoric and the number of good cooks it produces. There are suggestions of this heresy at its outer margins only, and I will return to that matter later.
3. The third principle of male-supremacy I listed above is the principle of male homoeroticism. I am not speaking of some sort of "repressed" homosexuality to which the intense heterosexuality of so many men is said to be a reaction. I speak here not of homosexuality but of homoeroticism, and I think it is not in the least repressed.
In the dominant straight male language and world view, "sex" equals what I have called "missionary sex." In spite of the variety of things people actually do with and to each other in private under the rubrics of "having sex" or "being sexual," cultural images of sex and "sexual acts" refer and pertain overwhelmingly to male-dominant, female-subordinate genital intercourse, that is, to fucking. As has often been documented, most men claim, indeed insist, that there is no essential connection between sex (that is, fucking) and love, affection, emotional connection, admiration, honor or any of the other passions of desire and attachment. To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking) exclusively with (or upon or to) the other sex, i.e., women.(6F) All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire... those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.
Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving. This is perfectly consistent with its being hetero-sex-ual, since in this scheme sex and love have nothing essential, and very little that is accidental, to do with each other.
Gay male culture is also homoerotic. There is almost nothing of it which suggests any extension of love to women, and all of the elements of passion and attachment, including all kinds of sensual pleasure and desire, are overtly involved in its male-male relations. Man-loving is, if anything, simply more transparent to the lovers and more complete for gay men than for straight men.
Lesbian and lesbian-feminist culture is also, of course, generally homoerotic. Lesbians/feminists tend to reserve passion, attachment and desire for women, and to want them from women. We tend to be relatively indifferent, erotically, to men, so far as socialization and survival in male-supremacist culture permit. Not to love men is, in male-supremacist culture, possibly the single most execrable sin. It is indicative of this, I think, that lesbians' or feminists' indifference to men is identified directly as man-hating. Not to love men is so vile in this scheme of values that it cannot be conceived as the merely negative thing it is, as a simple absence of interest, but must be seen as positive enmity.
If man-loving is the rule of phallocratic culture, as I think it is, and if, therefore, male homoeroticism is compulsory, then gay men should be numbered among the faithful, or the loyal and law-abiding citizens, and lesbians feminists are sinners and criminals, or, if perceived politically, insurgents and traitors.
4. Given the sharpness of the male/female and masculine/feminine dualism of phallocratic thought, woman-hating is an obvious corollary of man-loving.
Contempt for women is such a common thing in this culture that it is sometimes hard to see. It is expressed in a great deal of what passes for humor, and in most popular entertainment. Its presence also in high culture and scholarship has been documented exhaustively by feminist scholars in every field. It is promoted by the advertising and fashion industries. All heterosexual pornography, including man-made so-called "lesbian" pornography for male audiences, exhibits absolutely uncompromising woman-hating.(1) Athletics coaches and military drill sergeants express their disgust when their charges perform inadequately by calling them "women," "ladies," "girls" and other more derogatory names for females.
Woman-hating is a major part of what supports male-supremacy; its functions in phallocratic society are many. Among other things, it supports male solidarity by setting women both apart from and below men. It helps to maintain a clear and definitive boundary between the male "us" and its corresponding "them," and it helps to sustain the illusion of superiority which motivates loyalty. Men not uncommonly act out contempt for women ritually to express and thereby reconfirm for themselves and each other their manhood, that is, their loyal partisanship of the male "us" and their rights to the privileges of membership. This is one of the functions of the exchanges of "conquest" stories, of casual derogation, gang rape, and other such small and large atrocities.(2)
In a woman-hating culture, one of the very nasty things that can happen to a man is his being treated or seen as a woman, or womanlike. This degradation makes him a proper object of rape and derision, and reverses for him the presumption of civil rights. This dreadful fate befalls gay men. In the society at large, if it is known that a man is gay, he is subject to being pegged at the level of sexual status, personal authority and civil rights which are presumptive for women. This is, of course, really quite unfair, for most gay men are quite as fully men as any men: being gay is not at all inconsistent with being loyal to masculinity and committed to contempt for women. Some of the very things which lead straight people to doubt gay men's manhood are, in fact, proofs of it.
One of the things which persuades the straight world that gay men are not really men is the effeminacy of style of some gay men and the gay institution of the impersonation of women, both of which are associated in the popular mind with male homosexuality. But as I read it, gay men's effeminacy and donning of feminine apparel displays no love of or identification with women or the womanly.
For the most part, this femininity is affected and is characterized by theatrical exaggeration. It is a casual and cynical mockery of women, for whom femininity is the trappings of oppression, but it is also a kind of play, a toying with that which is taboo. It is a naughtiness indulged in, I suspect, more by those who believe in their immunity to contamination than by those with any doubts or fears. Cocky lads who are sure of their immortality are the ones who do acrobatics on the ledge five stories above the pavement. What gay male affectation of femininity seems to me to be is a kind of serious sport in which men may exercise their power and control over the feminine, much as in other sports one exercises physical power and control over elements of the physical universe. Some gay men achieve, indeed, prodigious mastery of the feminine, and they are often treated by those in the know with the respect due to heroes.(7F) But the mastery of the feminine is not feminine. It is masculine. It is not a manifestation of woman-loving but of woman-hating. Someone with such mastery may have the very first claim to manhood.
All this suggests that there is more than a little truth in the common claim that homophobia belongs most to those least secure in their masculinity. Blatant and flagrant gay male effeminacy ridicules straight men's anxious and superstitious avoidance of the feminine.(3) And there are gay men who are inclined to cheer this account, to feel smug and delighted at an analysis like this which suggests that they are superior to other men, that is, superior in their masculinity. They clearly reveal thereby that they do indeed pass the Contempt-for-Women test of manhood.(4)
(There is a gentler politic which lies behind some gay men's affectation of the feminine. It can be a kind of fun which involves mockery not of women or of straight men but of the whole institution of gender--a deliberately irreverent fooling around with one of the most sacred foolishnesses of phallocratic culture. This may be the necessarily lighthearted political action of a gender rebel rather than an exercise of masculinity. Certain kinds of lightheartedness in connection with what is, after all, the paraphernalia of women's oppression can become a rather bad joke. But when the silliness stays put as a good joke on patriarchy it betrays a potentially revolutionary levity about the serious matter of manhood and thus may express a politics more congenial to feminism than most gay politics.)
One might have hoped that since gay men themselves can be, in a way, victims of woman-hating, they might have come to an unusual identification with women and hence to political alliance with them. This is a political possibility which is in some degree actualized by some gay men, but for most, such identification is really impossible. They know, even if not articulately, that their classification with women is based on a profound misunderstanding. Like most other men who for one reason or another get a taste of what it's like to be a woman in a woman-hating culture, they are inclined to protest, not the injustice of anyone ever being treated so shabbily, but the injustice of their being treated so when they are not women. The straight culture's identification of gay men with women usually only serves to intensify gay men's investment in their difference and distinction from the female other. What results is not alliance with women but strategies designed to demonstrate publicly gay men's identification with men, as over and against women. Such strategies must involve one form or another of public acting out of male-dominance and female-subordination.
It is not easy to find ways to stage public actions and appearances which present simultaneously the gayness of gay men and their correct male-supremacist contempt for women. Affected effeminacy does display this, but it is popularly misunderstood. It would be perfect if some of the many gay men who are married would appear with their wives on talk shows where the men would talk animatedly about the joys of loving men and their wives would smile and be suitably supportive, saying they only want their husbands to be happy. But there will not be many volunteers for this work. Who then are the women who will appear slightly to the side of and slightly behind gay men, representing the female other in the proper relation and contrast to their manhood? Lesbians, of course. Gay men can credibly present themselves as men, that is, as beings defined by superiority to women, if there are lesbians in the gay rights movement--given only that males are always or almost always in the visible position of leadership. By having females around, visible but in subordinate positions, gay men can publicly demonstrate their separation and distinction from women and their "appropriate" attitude toward women, which is, at bottom, woman-hating.(5)
Gay male culture and the male gay rights movement, in their publicly visible manifestations, seem to conform quite nicely to the fundamental male-supremacist principle of woman-hating. Anyone who has hung around a gay bar would expect as much: gay men, like other men, commonly, casually and cheerfully make jokes which denigrate and vilify women, women's bodies, women's genitals.(6) Indeed, in some circles, contempt for women and physical disgust with female bodies are overtly accepted as just the other side of the coin of gay men's attraction to men.
5. The fifth of the principles of male-supremacy which I listed was the principle of compulsory heterosexuality. It is a rule about having sex, that is, about "missionary" fucking. This activity is generally compulsory for males in this culture. Fucking is a large part of how females are kept subordinated to males. It is a ritual enactment of that subordination which constantly reaffirms the fact of subordination and habituates both men and women to it, both in body and in imagination. It is also one of the components of the system of behavior and values which constitutes compulsory motherhood for women. A great deal of fucking is also presumed to preserve and maintain women's belief in their own essential heterosexuality, which in turn (for women as not for men) connects with and reinforces female hetero-eroticism, that is, manloving in women. It is very important to the maintenance of male-supremacy that men fuck women, a lot. So it is required; it is compulsory. Doing it is both doing one's duty and an expression of solidarity. A man who does not or will not fuck women is not pulling his share of the load. He is not a loyal and dependable member of the team.
Some gay men certainly are deviants in this respect, and would lobby for tolerance of their deviance without the penalties now attached to it. They would break a rule of phallocracy, but in many cases they are loathe to do their duty only because they have learned all too well their lessons in woman-hating. Their reluctance to play out this part of manhood is due only to an imbalance, where the requisite womanhating has taken a form and reached an intensity which puts it in tension with this other requirement of manhood. Such divergence of gay life from male-supremacist culture clearly is not a turning from fundamental male-supremacist values, so much as it is a manifestation of the tensions internal to those values.
The unwillingness of some gay men to engage in fucking women seems not to be central to male homosexuality, to "gayness," as it is presented and defended by the male gay rights movement. The latter seems for the most part tolerant of the requirement of heterosexuality; its spokesmen seem to demand merely that men not be limited to heterosexuality, that is, that genital contact and intercourse be permitted as part of their homoerotic relations with other men. They point out that a great many gay men are married, and that many men who engage in what is called homosexuality also do fuck women--that is, they are "normal" and dutiful men. They point out how many gay men are fathers. I do not pretend to know the demographics here: how many gay men do fuck women or have impregnated women, nor even how many are committed to this line of persuasion in their roles as gay rights activists. But this is one of the themes in gay rights rhetoric. Men who take such a line are, again, no particular political allies of women. They maintain their solidarity with other men in respect of this aspect of keeping the system going, and only want credit for it in spite of some of their other activities and proclivities.
6. We now come to the only one of the fundamental principles of male-supremacist culture and society where there really is an interesting divergence between it and the values and principles of what it labels male homosexuality. Even here, the situation is ambiguous, for the male gay rights movement only wants too much of something that is really already very dear to straight men.
Men in general in this culture consider themselves, in virtue of their genital maleness, to have a right to access to whatever they want. The kinds of limitations they recognize to this general accessibility of the universe to them are limitations imposed by other men through such things as systems of private property, the existence of the state, and the rules and rituals of limitations of violence among men. In their identification with Mankind, they recognize no limitations whatsoever on their access to anything else in the universe, with the possible exception of those imposed by the physical requirements of Mankind's own survival, and they may even ignore or scoff at those out of some strange belief in Mankind as immortal and eternal. The translation of this cosmic male arrogance to the level of the individual male body is the individual's presumption of the almost universal right to fuck--to assert his individual male dominance over all that is not himself by using it for his phallic gratification or self-assertion at either a physical or a symbolic level. Any physical object can be urinated on or in, or ejaculated on or in, or penetrated by his penis, as can any nonhuman animal or any woman, subject only to limitations imposed by property rights and local social mores--and even those are far from inviolable by the erect penis which, they say, has no conscience. The one general and nearly inviolable limitation on male phallic access is that males are not supposed to fuck other males, especially adult human males of their own class, tribe, race, etc. This is the one important rule of phallocratic culture that most gay men do violate, and this violation is central to what is defended and promoted by the male gay rights movement.
But note the form of this deviation from the rules of the male-supremacist game. It is refusing a limitation on phallic access; it is a refusal to restrain the male self. It is an excess of phallic arrogance. The fundamental principle is that of universal phallic access. What is in dispute is only a qualification of it. Gay male culture does not deny or shun the principle; it embraces it.
A large part of what maintains male-supremacy is the constant cultivation of masculinity in genital males. Masculinity involves the belief that, as a man, one is the center of a universe which is designed to feed and sustain one and to be ruled by one, as well as the belief that anything which does not conform to one's will may be, perhaps should be, brought into line by violence. Thus far, there really would not be room in the universe for more than one masculine being. There must be a balancing factor, something to protect the masculine beings from each other. Sure enough, there is a sort of "incest taboo" built in to standard masculinity: a properly masculine being does not prey upon or consume other masculine beings in his kin group.(8F) It is a moderating theme like the rule of honor among thieves.
Within the kin group, masculine beings may compete in various well-defined and ritualistic ways, but they identify with each other in such a way that they cannot see each other as the "Other," that is, as raw material for the gratification of the appetites. This blending into a herd with certain other masculine beings, which they sometimes call "male bonding," is what would guarantee masculine beings some crucial bit of security among masculine beings who in infantile solipsistic arrogance would otherwise blindly annihilate each other. The proscription against male-male fucking is the lid on masculinity, the limiting principle which keeps masculinity from being simply an endless firestorm of undifferentiated self. As such, that proscription is necessarily always in tension with the rest of masculinity. This tension gives masculinity its structure, but it is also forever problematic. As long as males are socialized constantly to masculinity, the spectre of their running amok is always present. The straight male's phobic reaction to male homosexuality can then be seen as a fear of an unrestricted, unlimited, ungoverned masculinity. It is, of course, more than this and more complicated; but it is this, among other things.
To assuage this fear, what the rhetoric and ideology of the male gay rights movement has tried to do is to convince straight men that male-male ass-fucking and fellatio are not after all a violation of the rule against men preying upon or consuming other men, but are, on the contrary, expressions of male bonding. I do not pretend to know whether, or how often, male-male ass-fucking or fellatio is basically rape or basically bonding, or how basically it is either, so I will not offer to settle that question. What I want to note is just this: if it is the claim of gay men and their movement that male-male fucking is really a form of male bonding, an intensification and completion of the male homoeroticism which is basic to male-supremacy, then they themselves are arguing that their culture and practices are, after all, perfectly congruent with the culture, practices and principles of male-supremacy.
According to the general picture that has emerged here, male homosexuality is congruent with and a logical extension of straight male-supremacist culture. It seems that straight men just don't understand the congruency and are frightened by the "logical extension." In response, the male gay rights movement attempts to educate and encourage straight men to an appreciation of the normalcy and harmlessness of gay men. It does not challenge the principles of male-supremacist culture.
In contrast, any politics which concerns itself with the dignity and welfare of women cannot fail to challenge these principles, and lesbian feminism in particular is totally at odds with them. The feminist lesbian's style, activities, desire and values are obviously and profoundly noncongruent with the principles of male-supremacist culture. She does not love men; she does not preserve all passion and significant exchange for men. She does not hate women. She presupposes the equality of the female and male bodies, or even the superiority or normativeness of the female body. She has no interest in penises beyond some reasonable concern about how men use them against women. She claims civil rights for women without arguing that women are really men with different plumbing. She does not live as the complement to the rule of heterosexuality for men. She is not accessible to the penis; she does not view herself as a natural object of fucking and denies that men have either the right or the duty to fuck her.
Our existence as females not owned by males and not penis-accessible, our values and our attention, our experience of the erotic and the direction of our passion, places us directly in opposition to male-supremacist culture in all respects, so much so that our existence is almost unthinkable within the world view of that culture.(7)
Far from there being a natural affinity between feminist lesbians and the gay civil rights movement, I see their politics as being, in most respects, directly antithetical to each other. The general direction of gay male politics is to claim maleness and male privilege for gay men and to promote the enlargement of the range of presumption of phallic access to the point where it is, in fact, absolutely unlimited. The general direction of lesbian feminist politics is the dismantling of male privilege, the erasure of masculinity, and the reversal of the rule of phallic access, replacing the rule that access is permitted unless specifically forbidden with the rule that it is forbidden unless specifically permitted.
There are other possibilities. Gay men, at least those who are not of the upper economic classes and/or are not white, do experience the hatred and fear and contempt of straight men(9F), do experience ostracism and abridgment of rights, or live with the threat thereof. Gay men are terrorized and victimized significantly more than other men of their class and race by the bullies, muggers and religious zealots of the world. They do tolerate, as do women, legal and nonlegal harassment and insult no self-respecting person should ever tolerate. Out of this marginalization and victimization there could and should come something more constructive, progressive--indeed revolutionary--than a politics of assimilation which consists mainly of claims to manhood and pleas for understanding. However a man comes to perceive himself as "different" with respect to his relation to the gender categories, in his sensual desires, in his passions, he comes so to perceive himself in a cultural context which offers him the duality masculine/feminine to box himself into. On the one hand, he is "offered" the dominant sexist and heterosexist culture which will label him feminine and castigate him, and on the other hand, he is "offered" a very misogynist and hypermasculine gay male subculture; he is invited to join a basically masculist gay rights movement mediating the two, trying to build bridges of understanding between them. If he has the aesthetic and political good taste to find all of the above repugnant, he can only do what lesbian feminists have been doing: invent. He has to move off, as we have, in previously indescribable directions. He has to invent what maleness is when it is not shaped and hardened into straight masculinity, gay hypermasculinity or effeminacy. For a man even to begin to think such invention is worthwhile or necessary is to be disloyal to phallocracy. For a gay man, it is to be the traitor to masculinity that the straight men always thought he was.
Any man who would be a friend to women must come to understand the values and principles of phallocratic culture and how his own life is interwoven with them, and must reject them and become disloyal to masculinity. Any man who would do this has to reinvent what being a man is. The initial intuition which many of us have had that gay men may be more prone than straight men to being friends to women has, perhaps, this much truth in it: for gay men, more than for straight men, the seeds both of some motive and of some resources for taking this radical turn are built into their cultural and political situation in the world. The gay man's difference can be the source of the friction which might mother invention and may provide resources for that invention.
One of the privileges of being normal and ordinary is a certain unconsciousness. When one is that which is taken as the norm in one's social environment, one does not have to think about it. Often, in discussions about prejudice and discrimination I hear statements like these: "I don't think of myself as heterosexual"; "I don't think of myself as white"; "I don't think of myself as a man"; "I'm just a person, I just think of myself as a person." If one is the norm, one does not have to know what one is.(8) If one is marginal, one does not have the privilege of not noticing what one is.
This absence of privilege is a presence of knowledge. As such, it can be a great resource, given only that the marginal person does not scorn the knowledge and lust for inclusion in the mainstream, for the unconsciousness of normalcy. I do not say this casually or callously; I know the longing for normalcy and the burden of knowledge. But the knowledge, and the marginality, can be embraced. The alternative to embracing them is erasing the meaning of one's own experience in order to blend in as normal--pretending that one's difference is nothing, really, nothing more significant than a preference for foreign cars, bourbon or western-cut clothes. Gay men and lesbians, all, are sexual deviants: our bodies move in this world on very different paths and encounter other bodies in very different ways and different places than do the bodies of the heterosexual majority. Nothing could be more fundamental. The difference is not "mere," not unimportant. Whatever there is in us that longs for integrity has to go with the knowledge, not with the desire to lose consciousness in normalcy.
I cannot tell another person how the knowledge of her or his marginality will ramify through lifelong experience to more knowledge, but I think it is safe to say that since our marginality has so centrally to do with our bodies and our bodies' nonconformance with the bodily and behavioral categories of the dominant cultures, we have access to knowledge of bodies which is lost and/or hidden in the dominant cultures. In particular, both gay men and lesbians may have access to knowledge of bodily, sensory, sensuous pleasure that is almost totally blocked out in heterosexual male-supremacist cultures, especially in the streams most dominated by white, christian, commercial and militaristic styles and values. To the extent that gay male culture cultivates and explores and expands its tendencies to the pursuit of simple bodily pleasure, as opposed to its tendencies to fetishism, fantasy and alienation, it seems that it could nurture very radical, hitherto unthinkable new conceptions of what it can be to live as a male body.
The phallocratic orthodoxy about the male body's pleasure seems to be that strenuous muscular exertion and the orgasm associated with fucking are its highest and greatest forms. This doctrine suits the purposes of a society which requires both intensive fucking and a population of males who imagine themselves as warriors. But what bodily pleasures there are in the acts which express male supremacy and physical dominance are surely not the paradigms, nor the span nor the height nor depth, of the pleasure available to one living as a male body. There is some intuition of this in gay male culture, and the guardians of male-supremacism do not want it known. A direct and enthusiastic pursuit of the pleasures of the male body will not, I suspect, lead men to masculinity, will not direct men to a life of preying on others and conquering nature, any more than pursuit of bodily pleasure leads women to monogamous heterosexuality and femininity. I can only recommend that men set themselves to discovering and inventing what it would lead to.
Another general thing that can safely be said about the resources provided by marginality is that marginality opens the possibility of seeing structures of the dominant culture which are invisible from within it. It is a peculiar blessing both of gay men and of lesbians that in many ways we are both Citizen and Exile, member of the family and stranger. Most of us were raised straight; many have been straight, and many of us can and do pass as straight much of the time. Most of us know that straight world from the inside and, if we only will, from its outer edge. We can look at it with the accuracy and depth provided by binocular vision. With the knowledge available to us from our different perches at the margins of things, we can base our inventions of ourselves, inventions of what a woman is and of what a man is, on a really remarkable understanding of humans and human society as they have been constructed and misconstructed before. If only we will. The will is a most necessary element.
It has been the political policy of lesbian feminists to present ourselves publicly as persons who have chosen lesbian patterns of desire and sensuality. Whether as individuals we feel ourselves to have been born lesbians or to be lesbians by decision, we claim as morally and politically conscious agents a positive choice to go with it: to claim our lesbianism, to take full advantage of its advantages. This is central to our feminism: that women can know their own bodies and desires, interpret their own erotic currents, create and choose environments which encourage chosen changes in all these; and that a female eroticism that is independent of males and of masculinity is possible and can be chosen. We claim these things and fight in the world for all women's liberty to live them without punishment and terror, believing also that if the world permits self-determined female eroticism, it will be a wholly different world. It has generally been the political policy of the male-dominated gay rights movement to deny that homosexuality is chosen, or worthy of choice. In the public arena that movement's primary stance has been: "We would be straight if we had a choice, but we don't have a choice" supplemented by "We're really just human, just like you."
The implication is that it is only human to want to be straight, and only too human to have flaws and hang-ups. While apologizing for difference by excusing it as something over which one has no control, this combination of themes seeks to drown that same difference in a sentimental wash of common humanity.
For the benefits of marginality to be reaped, marginality must in some sense be chosen. Even if, in one's own individual history, one experiences one's patterns of desire as given and not chosen, one may deny, resist, tolerate or embrace them. One can choose a way of life which is devoted to changing them, disguising oneself or escaping the consequences of difference, or a way of life which takes on one's difference as integral to one's stance and location in the world. If one takes the route of denial and avoidance, one cannot take difference as a resource. One cannot see what is to be seen from one's particular vantage point or know what can be known to a body so located if one is preoccupied with wishing one were not there, denying the peculiarity of one's position, disowning oneself.
The power available to those who choose, who decide in favor of deviance from heterosexual norms, can be very great. The choosing, the deciding, challenges doctrines of genetic determinism which obscure the fact that heterosexuality is part of a politics. The choosing challenges the value placed on heterosexual normalcy. And the choosing places the choosing agent in a position to create and explore a different vision.
Many gay men, including many of those in positions of leadership in the gay rights movement, have not wanted this kind of power. They have not wanted any fundamental change of politics and society or any radical new knowledge, but rather have only wanted their proper (usually, white male) share of the booty. But others have begun to understand the potentially healing and revelatory power of difference and are beginning to commit themselves to the project of reinventing maleness from a positive and chosen position at the outer edge of the structures of masculinity and male supremacism.
If there is hope for a coordination of the efforts and insights of lesbian feminists and gay men, it is here at the edges that we may find it, when we are working from chosen foundations in our different differences.
FOOTNOTES1F. This essay is a revision of a talk I gave at an event in the Spring of 1981, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, organized by the Grand Rapids chapter of the gay catholic organization, Dignity, and co-sponsored by Aradia My thanks to Larry Magnetize and Canine Lewes for seeing the need, and doing something about it.
2F. Obviously, what is considered a right of citizenship varies from nation to nation, and within nations men have among themselves more than one class of citizenship.
3F. There are good political reasons why it took 72 years from the first public demand for woman suffrage to the ratification of the suffrage amendment, and why the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first taken up by Congress in 1920 has not yet, 64 years later, become law. The principle of male (and not female) citizenship is very basic to phallocratic society.
4F. The homoeroticism celebrated in Plato's Symposium and applauded in some contemporary gay circles is clearly both generally elitist and specifically male-supremacist.
5F. As C. Shafer pointed out to me, according to this use of "identify with," the identification presupposes the alienation since one can only identify with something that is other than oneself.
6F. When a man who considers himself firmly heterosexual fucks a boy or another man, generally he considers the other to be a woman or to be made a woman by this act.
7F. Female-impersonators are a staple in the entertainment provided at gay bars and clubs, and they play to a very appreciative audience. Their skill is recognized and admired. The best of them travel around, like other entertainers, and their stage names are well known all over the country. They are idols of a sort.
8F. I use the term "kin" here in a special sense. The group in question may be defined more or less broadly by class, race, age, religious affiliation, ethnic origin, language, etc., and may be a street gang, a Mafia "family," a corporation, students at a particular school, a political machine, etc.
9F. And women, too, including some lesbians. But women's negative attitudes toward any group of men are not really as consequential as men's.
ENDNOTES1. See Pornography: Men Possessing Women, by Andrea Dworkin (Perigee Books, Putnam, 1981). And "Sadomasochism: Eroticized Violence, Eroticized Powerlessness," in Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, edited by Robin Ruth Linden, Darlene R. Pagano, Diana E.H. Russell and Susan Leigh Star (Frog In The Well, 430 Oakdale Road, East Palo Alto, California 94302, 1982), p. 125 ff.
2. See Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin (E.P. Dutton, 1974), and Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, by Mary Daly (Beacon Press, Boston, 1978), especially the First and Second Passages, for full discussion of the symptoms and functions of woman-hating.
3. Thanks to C.S. for the realization that gay effeminacy has so little to do with women that it is not even primarily the mockery of women I had thought it was.
4. This observation due to C.S.
5. This point due to John Stoltenberg. See "Toward Gender Justice," WINMagazine, March 20, 1975, pp. 6-9.
6. See "Sexist Slang and the Gay Community: Are You One, Too?" by Julia P. Stanley and Susan W. Robbins, The Michigan Occasional Papers Series, Number XIV (Michigan Occasional Papers in Women's Studies, University of Michigan, 354 Lorch Hall, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109).
7. For explanation and elaboration of this claim, see "To Be And Be Seen: The Politics of Reality," in this collection.
8. That this kind of unconsciousness is one of the privileges of dominance was first made clear to me by Regi Teasley, long before (to my knowledge) other feminists had understood it.