What Makes It ‘Lesbian’?

Published in: July-August 2010 issue.


WHAT’S WITH THE “GOOD” in the subtitle of your book? people ask me. Couldn’t you get the “best” writing? or (tongue in cheek) is it writing by “good lesbians”? The subtitle of Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing echoes that of an earlier anthology published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Wonderlands: Good Gay Travel Writing (2004). Editor Raphael Kadushin explained in his introduction that he used “good” because he was tired of every other damn collection’s claim to be the “best” writing—which is logically impossible, after all. I admired his reasoning but avoided repeating his explanation in my own introduction—hence, the questions. Meanwhile, I’d like to address the other questions that the four-word subtitle has raised.

The hardest question focused on the definition of “lesbian.” By including the occasional straight-acting dyke or XY-chromosomed woman in a “lesbian” book, wasn’t I opening the floodgates to a slew of lesbian wannabes? Such “slippery slope” questions are inherently loaded, but that doesn’t keep people from asking them. What if most or even all of the pieces in the “lesbian” anthology were about having sex with men, or told from the point of view of MTFs (male-to-female transgenders)? Such inclusiveness might win points for political correctness (in the guise of “community”), but it would also raise questions about who had been left out of the collection—such as plain vanilla lesbians, born female and drawn to other bio-females. Still, if those intersex, queerest of the queers who hang out on the margins of our community had the most interesting stories to tell, then I wanted them—the stories and the outliers—in my book. My main criterion was to choose the stories with the most heart, not those that fit a marketing demographic.

The issue of gender further complicated my decisions. In thinking about which stories I’d include in my lesbian anthology, I turned away from a philosophy that has influenced me for many years. For more than a decade, the organizers of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival have been confronting the incursion of MTF, gender-queer people who identify as female and thus feel entitled to inclusion in the annual women-only festival. Lisa Vogel, the owner of the festival (which is held on private land), has maintained a policy that her event is for women-born-women only. She has asked the members of “Camp Trans,” an annual gathering of protestors that happens on public land outside the festival, to respect the rights of women-born-women to have their own space (and festival). To be sure, no one is doing panty checks at the front gate, but security will ask people to leave if they “self-declare” as transgender—as happened one year when some vociferous members of Camp Trans were admitted, and some pre-op “women” went to the (shared, open) showers to bathe, exposing their male bits to public view, and scandalizing more than one lesbian. I respect Vogel’s staunch advocacy for private space for women-born-women, I enjoy the festival, and I hope she never changes her position.

But a book is not the same kind of “community” as a festival, and as editor I had to question the limits of my definition of “lesbian.” I seriously considered over sixty stories that varied greatly in the amount of lesbian content. In “Playing with Fire,” a story that did make it into the collection, a lesbian narrator who’s visiting Africa has a fling with a good-looking dancer who’s not only sultry and smooth but also (gasp) a man. The narrator has to come to terms with this unexpected, even alien, development: “It wasn’t the first time I’ve been attracted to a man, but the feeling still surprises me so much that I don’t admit to it right away. And then I tell myself it’s because I’m not in my real life that I’m thinking like this. … I’m playing with fire here, getting involved with a man.”

I too felt trepidation about her heterosexual affair. I had to decide whether that story, compelling as it was, belonged in the sacred territory of “lesbian literature.” I thought—and still think—that engaging in repeated, consensual, adult sex with a man would pretty much negate a woman’s lesbian bona fides, or at least change her label to include a “bi” or “poly.” But there she was in Africa, having hot sex with a person of penis—and she’d submitted the story to a lesbian anthology. Who was I to declare her a non-lesbian just for enjoying an exotic sexual adventure while on vacation? Finally, the fact that it was a great story won out, and I left it in, and I’m happy to report that no one has suggested a change of gender in future editions.

I had more trouble deciding about “Five Days in Palm Springs,” not because of any illicit heterosexual activity, but because I thought—not to say suspected—that one of the characters, Gypsy, was a little too flouncy and festive to be anything but a gay man. I wondered if Gypsy was based on a real person, who was in fact a male-to-female trannie (the term that’s in general use in Australia, where I live). So I wrote to author Rebecca Chekouras, asking her to clarify Gypsy’s gender status: “The distinctive tone and well-realized details of setting lead me to a question about the characters. It’s all very ooh-la-la, as befits a Palm Springs piece, and it made me wonder if either Gypsy or the narrator were, in previous parts of their lives or currently in spirit, gay men. As I read of her collecting, her motel’s decor, her recreational substance abuse and her manners, I was sure Gypsy was a trannie. … (Also, they go to swish parties with caviar on endive in photographable living rooms, and not pot-lucks.)” It was not, I assured the author, that I intended to exclude MTFs from the anthology, but I felt it unfair to the reader to have such important information about a central character withheld. Just as I teach my writing students not to withhold key facts for the sake of a surprise ending—“Oh, it was all just a dream!”—I wanted Chekouras to satisfy inquiring minds.

In responding to my queries, Chekouras was less forthcoming than I’d hoped she’d be. While I was looking for a confirmation or denial of Gypsy’s trannie status, Chekouras contended that lesbians don’t behave in predictable ways, and that just because a lesbian character was drinking cocktails every afternoon and owned a kitschy motel and a spoiled Chihuahua, that didn’t make her transgendered. She wrote in an email: “I don’t believe there is only a certain type of woman who can be thought of as lesbian or only a certain type of woman who can be regarded as legitimately female. And, as an extension of that thinking, I don’t believe that lesbians or women are only identifiable by a certain set of behaviors—either stereotypical or otherwise.” She was right, of course. I asked Chekouras to rework some of the story, to remove ambiguity about the character’s early childhood (and the character’s biological sex), and she did so, but only to a certain degree. With time running out, I left the story with the hints of a girly childhood and, I thought, unresolved questions about Gypsy’s past.

Finally, there was the slippery slope we were possibly headed down. If I included one story about a lesbian who sleeps with a man (which some lesbian feminists equate with fraternizing with the enemy), then what if I selected ten such stories? What if all the “lesbian” narrators were having sex with men, or were born boys, or were en route to becoming males? Just how much testosterone could I allow before the floodgates broke, and this little piece of lesbian turf became grounds for a gender-fight free-for-all?

A real-world test of all this speculation occurred when a straight friend of mine bought a copy of the anthology and, at the same time, happened to pick up a copy of Lesbian Connection, a long-time magazine distributed by and for lesbians. While I was eager for her to see the volume I’d just edited, I felt reluctant to share the Lesbian Connection with her—and presumably her husband. I later realized that I felt protective of the lesbians who had written in to LC, which by editorial choice is intended for lesbian eyes only. My take on the magazine’s stance is that it isn’t so much about excluding men (who cares if straight men read our opinions about menopause, parenting, or sex toys?) as it is about avoiding the gaze of men who would exploit the magazine—straight men who find titillation in all things lesbian, who don’t want to engage with our minds or hearts but are obsessed with our sexuality. It was a protective instinct, not exclusivity, that made me discourage my straight friend from reading the magazine.

But I don’t feel that same protective sense about the authors in my collection. As editor, I want and welcome all readers. Even if someone were gauche enough to seek out pornographic elements in the book, that reader would probably be disappointed – he’d likely encounter some elements of human connection, whether he wanted to or not. There’s a subversive, maybe even transgressive, value in having lesbian work seen by all readers – even those who might not be sympathetic or supportive.

Part of the reason for having a “lesbian” collection, I concluded, was to provide a place for women who’ve written with other lesbians in mind. Otherwise, why not just call it “good travel writing by women” or even just “good travel writing”? The answer is similar to the reason that my partner and I tend to seek out other dykes when we travel. It’s not just about safety or companionship; it’s a social strategy, a way of maximizing our chances of being understood, and being ourselves. Our gaydar is our social GPS: it lets us navigate around new places and eventually find our way back home.

One reviewer commented that reading the book was like going to a party at which women have gathered to talk, meet, flirt, and tell stories. This metaphor shows why we need lesbian literature, and it points to one important criterion I applied when selecting pieces. I didn’t want narrators who would willfully disrupt a social gathering, or judge others harshly, or make them feel uncomfortable. There are no stories by lesbian bigots here, no lesbian snobs; there is no male-bashing or, for that matter, female-bashing. It’s a comfortable place to talk about things that might not always be comfortable to discuss in the broader world. Even if the broader world is watching over our shoulders, our group gathering makes us feel safer and freer than if we were alone.

When I was teaching on U.S. Navy ships, I heard often that the only thing everyone in the navy has in common is that they’re in the Navy. I think that’s true of lesbians, too: the only thing lesbians have in common is that we’re lesbians (unfortunately, that status doesn’t come with pay, promotions, or educational benefits). The thing that unites the people in this book is their shared identity as lesbians, even though some of the narrative voices might not identify or be identified as such. About half of the stories could have been narrated by a straight woman—but they weren’t.

As for the most common question about the book’s subtitle, the best rejoinder came from one of the book’s contributors, Jourdan Keith, at a reading we did at In Other Words in Portland, Oregon, the last nonprofit feminist bookstore in America. Unruffled, Keith replied: “Sure we’re good lesbians. We practice.”


Gillian Kendall, the editor of Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, maintains a website at www.gilliankendall.net.


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