Lesbians and gays: a one-way alliance?
Besides making me laugh, this short exchange made me realize I may have turned into the stereotypical mean lesbian, always criticizing cis gay men and wishing for separatism. The thing is, queer history has mostly been written by white cis gay men (or at least their writings circulated the most), and this results in a partial view of the past that prevents us from analyzing our current community dynamics. If lesbians are often portrayed as bitter or cautious towards gay men, it’s because historically, they have been mistreated and betrayed by the latter. So to set the record straight and hopefully learn from past mistakes, let’s dive into the difficult politics of lesbian and gay relationships.
Normalizing homosexuality away from women and gender minorities
When French gay groups first emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, their priority was normalization: they wanted homosexuality to be considered acceptable so that repressive laws would be withdrawn. Their quest for respectability, beyond the misogyny of the time, led to the exclusion of lesbians from their demands. The few (3!) gay periodicals published in France before the 1970s thus saw homosexuality primarily in terms of masculinity and promoted it using the imagery of ancient Greece: Homosexual love was considered superior through the absence of women. Because lesbians were not overtly targeted in the legislation though it was the rallying point of gay organizations, they had little interest in joining them. Thus, the first groups and movements were mostly gendered and shared a common hostility towards each other: The Paris-based American artist and famous lesbian Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) would even write that "the act of male homosexuals is ugly and repulsive”. In short, lesbians and gays were not yet ready to unite around a common cause, and it wasn't until the 1970s that a proper alliance was formed.
Despite everything, they were still men: The reappropriation of political initiatives by gay men
France’s first radical LGBT organization, the FHAR (Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action), was co-founded by feminists, lesbians, and gender minorities in 1971. Originally formed to fight "against 'normal society'" by allying lesbians, gays, and feminists, the FHAR was gradually taken over by gay men, until they made up the majority. Faced with their monopolization of meetings for sexual purposes, their stance on the sexuality of minors, and their sexism, the Gouines Rouges, the lesbian group that co-created the FHAR, preferred to withdraw from it and continue to fight within the Women's Liberation Movement.
A similar pattern of reappropriation happened later, this time around a queer newspaper: Masques. Founded in May 1979, the periodical was born of the joint activism of gays and lesbians from the homosexual commission of the Revolutionary Communist League. Gradually, despite the newspaper being about homosexualities, the "women" column was cut back. As the lesbians who had contributed to the magazine since its creation were not registered in the newspaper's official bylaws, they had little say in the magazine's editorial line, and their suggestions were not listened to. For all these reasons, two founders and six members of the editorial board left Masques in April 1982. They wrote a letter explaining the reasons for their departure which was not published by the magazine, in which they accused the male members of the editorial team of having opposed "our questioning, our criticism, even our very existence as lesbians". A pattern similar to that of the FHAR is thus reproduced, with lesbians denouncing the fact that they were being overpowered by gays as they fought and worked together.
Similarly, in the US and UK, from the 70s to the early 80s, sexism was common within activist groups, resulting in lesbians rarely feeling welcomed in gay spaces. These domination mechanisms and this divide will only come to an end with the advent of a real common struggle: AIDS.
The AIDS epidemic, a shared fight
The fight against AIDS, which was notably led in France by Act-up Paris, a branch created in 1989, brought lesbians and gays together around a common cause. According to Act Up Paris, it was within this group that a mixed homosexual community developed: "To this day, the majority of Act Up activists are homosexuals. The number of lesbians among us has never stopped growing. So much so that Act Up is one of the few places where what should be a truly mixed homosexual community is being invented."
Despite having been put aside by the gay community, lesbians shortly came to help when the AIDS crisis started. In the US, groups of lesbians such as the San Diego Blood Sisters would work with local blood banks to ensure that blood was delivered to AIDS patients. A documentary, Quiet Heroes, shines a light on their roles, in this case, the one of Dr. Kristen Ries in the area of Salt Lake City. The AIDS epidemic was a new starting point for a lesbian and gay alliance, despite the now often-forgotten role lesbians played in the crisis and the advocacy campaigns.
And now what?
As of today, there is still room for improvement: misogyny within the gay community is still rather widespread, and there is an important lack of knowledge of the role of lesbians and other minority groups such as transgender individuals in the fight for LGBTQI rights. There is still a tendency for cis gay men to quickly forget how they got here, and not help as much as they were helped. Despite that, it is undeniable that there is a desire to learn and to unite.