This is a discussion between a trans and cis lesbian about their connection to their lesbian identity. Emma is a trans woman and lesbian who is a social and political activist and green party member and Jenny Wartnaby just really, really likes girls and is doing a PhD about gender based violence.
Emma: I guess for me, I’ve kinda always used the word lesbian by default. Because I think when I first came out that was just where it went. I’ve always been attracted to women but when I first transitioned I was ‘oh wtf does this mean’, and in the context of gender identify clinics and gender stereotypes and all the rest of it. But the first relationship I got into was with another woman so I was like ‘great well I’m a lesbian’.
When I was doing the open university course another lesbian, who wasn’t out yet clocked that I just tacked on that I’m a lesbian on the end of introducing myself as if it was just a fact and I was like ‘well I am’. Although sometime after that she went “so you’re effectively living as a lesbian”
Jenny: Hang on, what does ‘effectively’ mean?!
Emma: Yes! This is a psychology course, let’s pick up on what effectively means, right?
And I guess I’ve always kind of had conflict, even when I was doing workshops we designed a workshop with my partner on gender and sexuality. We called it ‘Living Outside the Box’, we did a leaflet to advertise it – what it was about, who we were, and part of what she said was the fact that we probably would never be seen as a lesbian couple 1) because she had been in relationships with men and 2) because of my trans history even though we always identified as being a lesbian couple. That conflict existed and how people outside the relationship would view it. And I’ve said before I knew the experience of a trans woman who went to a lesbian group in Lancaster and had really mixed experiences by all accounts like some people that were definitely accepting but those that definitely weren’t. I mean lesbian still works for me, I’ll never be offended if someone calls me a lesbian and I’ll happily use gay as well, for me it is interchangeable.
Jenny: “I use gay most of the time, I do tend to avoid the word lesbian and I know people will straight up say that is a self-hating gay kind of thing. But that’s my experience so I think mainly because at school when people called me a ‘lesbian’ it used to make me feel sick (laughs). This is weird because they used to call me a dyke all the time and it *never* bothered me at all! I would never say to people not to use it though or that it’s inaccurate because it isn’t (laughs)
The second one is more controversial in that ‘lesbian’ is sort of now associated with a particular *type* of lesbian. Like if you’re on a dating site lesbian seems to be code for ‘terf’ sometimes. Also some of the things you’re supposed to do, like watch the L Word, I watched it and I was like why is this meant to be like a lesbian classic – it’s bi-phobic and transphobic and so maybe it is representative of a section of lesbian culture.
There is a kind of exclusivity sometimes as well like a lot of lesbians say they wont date bi women and often these people also often won’t date trans women. But ‘lesbian’ actually just used to be used to describe a woman who liked women, not a woman who *only* likes women, so I’d just say all women who like women are sapphic. Like I *only* like women but I don’t think there is a big erasure of women who like women or lesbians.
Anyway, people who say things like ‘are you bi cos I don’t date bi people?’ or ‘I won’t date someone trans’ it’s just like aw ‘I’m sorry I don’t date people who are bigoted’.
Emma: I think there is something there, lesbian feels like a harsher word, a hard sound to it. In dating I’ve become more aware of my age and the rise of gender critical feminism because I look at that and I’m going this is a real problem because I’m like 56 now, and I’m going, most of the lesbians I can see around my age are fucking transphobes so how am I going to find someone to date that is around my age?!
Jenny: To be fair I think all the lovely queer women I know about your age are already taken but age isn’t such a big deal look at Sarah Paulson and Holland Taylor (any opportunity for Jenny to mention Sarah Paulson).
Emma: After the last experiences of dating someone in their twenties, I wouldn’t date anyone under 30 again, even if they fell at my feet! (laughs)
Jenny: Lol, I wouldn’t date anyone in their twenties either, I’m too tired, I go to bed at 10, most people my age have more energy than I do (laughs) but it’s super shit that dating is so restricted by that!
Emma: There is a trans woman Gemma Stone on twitter who is fighting the misinformation that 80-90% of trans women retain their genitalia, right and that’s a myth and it shouldn’t matter but to some people it does. But I think that myth was there to portray trans women as men and most of them keep their penis and penises are bad and shouldn’t be anywhere near women’s spaces if they turned round and told them 90% of trans women get surgery then they have less of an argument as to why you should be in these spaces.
Jenny: It shouldn’t matter, there are also groups of lesbians who won’t date trans women at all even if they have had surgery and that’s transmisogyny. When you grow up gender non-conforming in a patriarchal society that isn’t a privilege, it seems like there is no empathy for that experience. When some gender critical people try make it about genitals they remove themselves from a feminist position because feminists have been fighting for women to be recognised as more than just their reproductive organs and we are all more than that who might identify with the radical separatist lesbians from the 1970s
Emma: and they’re are still there! (both laugh)
Jenny: Yes! Most radical feminists believed that gender is a construct and not biological, that patriarchal society shapes gender-based violence, abusers are overwhelmingly cis-het-men. But it also means that we can do something about it by challenging societal conceptions and challenging limited understandings of gender, there is a solution and we can all do better. But the biological argument – that men are dangerous because they have penises, also ideologically takes for granted that women are always victims and if sexual violence is innate to biology there is nothing we can do to stop sexual violence if it is ‘natural’ male predisposition. And it isn’t not all masculinity is negative, that needs deconstructed but not here.
As a survivor, it angers me that trans women are being equated to men who sexually abuse because I wasn’t abused by a trans woman, I was abused by cis-het-men. I’ve also had people ask me a lot if being a survivor is what made me gay and I resent that, what does that say about women who were abused and are straight?
Emma: Even when you talk about childhood sexual abuse, it is somebody you *know*. Politicians equate the LGBT community and it’s like look at the statistics will show you the majority of paedophiles are straight men. But we don’t see them trying to fix that, I wish they would, see if they put the same energy they are putting into discriminating against a small minority of trans people into tackling the system we might get somewhere.
Emma: You just do not know what someone’s genitals are, where do you draw the line then? If someone has a deep voice?
Jenny: Yeah like the whole thing about public toilets is a ridiculous as well because most sexual violence committed by people known to the survivor and you are most at risk from violence in your own home. But all of the lines drawn in the sand are arbitrary, like having a deep voice, plenty of cis women have deep voices, plenty of cis women have body hair especially if they have polycystic ovary syndrome. I mean I weirdly get called ‘sir’ and mistaken for a guy in public all the time. They all just buy into gender stereotypes about how a woman should *ideally* look, which is feminine in their eyes, as if body hair isn’t just natural.
Emma: For me this was one of the challenges of being trans as there’s that to be ultra-feminine all the time. I started to challenge my own identity as a woman because I didn’t dress feminine all the time, what has that got to do with how I dress, and I had to have a real internal dialogue with myself that how I chose to dress had nothing to with who I was. So, you might occasionally get me to dress feminine a couple of times a year but the rest of the time (gestures)
Jenny: I don’t, though have on a number of occasions been forced to wear dresses and stuff. I just feel shitty and uncomfortable, and whenever I had to do it no one seemed to appreciate how much I hate it. I had a foster carer who said I dressed like a ‘lesbian trucker’ and I will proudly describe that as my style!
At the end of this chat of the Emma argued that we shouldn’t feel pressured into not using the word ‘lesbian’ because *some* people have created negative connotations around the word and it’s important to take that back and I totally agree, so here’s to being loud and proud about our lesbian identities.