Erasure of the “L” Word from LGBT Politics

Published in: January-February 2011 issue.


IT’S SEPTEMBER. At Georgetown University, a Catholic and Jesuit campus where I’ve taught women’s studies part-time since 1994 (always out and proud), I join excited students and faculty at the LGBT Center’s welcome-back reception. The Center represents a very hard-won victory on this campus, a triumph over homophobic resistance generated by alumni, Rome, and the local archdiocese. Diverse allies throng the event, which is garnished with “I AM” posters portraying a dozen Georgetown figures claiming different identities—I AM a gay man, a queer woman, bisexual, an ally, etc. How far we’ve come, I think. But it doesn’t take long for me to notice that absolutely no one on the poster identifies as a lesbian.

Where the hell’s the L? Ironically, it continues to be pushed as the first of the LGBT call letters precisely to ensure lesbian visibility, as too often lesbians have been overlooked and underrepresented in the discourse. The L reminds us that there is a different history for women who love women, a history and identity that should be known. Yet the L identity might as well be Leper for all that women are rushing to claim it here. Puzzled, I query several women my age, then a circle of my students, then Shiva, director of the LGBT Center, and then Dana, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Georgetown.

Shiva acknowledges that as a South Asian woman she generally identifies as khush or queer. For many women of color, the term lesbian has a text-based pedigree understood as white or Western; writers from Judy Grahn to Angela Davis have explored this dynamic. Dana, who famously took the lead in demanding partner benefits from Georgetown when she arrived on the faculty as a lesbian legally married in Massachusetts, has another viewpoint: “I submitted my profile for the ‘I AM’ poster last year and they didn’t print that I identified as lesbian, though it was the first thing I listed! It still means manhater.”

I get it. If one examines the terms most popular in identity discourse today—queer, gay, bi, trans, ally—they’re all gender-neutral or male-inclusive. They embrace masculine possibilities and identities or relationships with men. “Lesbian” is the one identity that remains challengingly “exclusive” of men. Thus the L term reads as alarmingly separatist even to women who might be personally unfamiliar with actual lesbian-separatist movements or politics. To be with women = ignoring men = hating men. But because being woman-identified currently translates as exclusionary, hence “oppressive,” the L has been remaindered in the bin of LGBT visibility.

On a side note, Dana confided that when she arrived at Georgetown, some friends warned that the women’s studies program she would be chairing was “all about 1970’s feminism.” Looking at our extensive course list, with its emphasis on global and transnational identities, Foucault, gender issues in contemporary athletics, women’s health in the 21st century, one wonders: where’s the 70’s focus? But the charge of “retro” accrues from putting the term “women” front and center. We did, in fact, change from “Women’s Studies” to “Women’s and Gender Studies” a few years ago, after months of debate.

It’s hard to watch what singer Margie Adam once called “the disappearance of the L”; and as a professor of women’s history, I find it harder still to see some activists question the need to retain women’s studies at Georgetown. Prevailing feminist theory calls for questioning gender, disrupting binaries, ending separations. The question is whether this leads to points of erasure, to the symbolic invisibility of lesbian lives, of any female existence apart from male identities.

If claiming the L identity is perceived as a 70’s throwback, the same could be said of the G word, which somehow is not read as dated. From the Army to the sports world to the medical realm, there are indeed striking differences between the experiences of male and female homosexuals, which is why the string LGBT arose in the first place. But speaking the identity “lezz-be-yen” on a college campus still packs a wallop of personal and political discomfort. (There are academic reasons for this as well. Endless energy has to be expended on reassuring women’s studies students that basic coursework on women’s lives won’t turn them into lesbians.) This patina of denial, or at least the subtext that “lesbian” is a negative reputation to bear, is pushing the L identity into obscurity. The question is whether younger women, networking their female friendships as men have done, will return to the L as a location of power without apology.


Bonnie J. Morris teaches women’s studies at Georgetown.