The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture
By Bonnie J. Morris
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016, 247 pp., $22.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jen Manion
The narrative arc of The Disappearing L moves from the lesbian culture and politics that pioneered a social revolution in the 1970s, ̓80s, and ̓90s to the marginalization of lesbians in the twenty-first-century LGBTQ community. Author Bonnie J. Morris claims that the power of those early lesbian subcultures, which centered around music, literature, and politics, is now silenced and forgotten in both feminist and gay community histories. Not only is lesbian history disappearing, but lesbians themselves—as the title asserts—seem to have less of a place in the contemporary LGBTQ community, as many people embrace fluid identity categories such as “queer” and “trans” rather than those that are more precisely defined, such as lesbian.
Morris begins by explaining the importance of music festivals to the creation and growth of the lesbian feminist movement. The first of these festivals was held in 1974, at the University of Illinois. Morris captures the festival scene beautifully in this description of what a night out could mean:
Concerts were a novel, affordable date night that couples could look forward to; they were places for the newly out and/or single lesbians to encounter each other; and as large-scale community events they served as radical awakenings for entire audiences. Every revolution needs anthems, and a charismatic performer could transform a crowd into a thousand activists—instantly.
These vibrant, transformative, and culture-defining events popped up across the country and drew thousands of women, year after year. Some women travelled from festival to festival, while others attended only the one nearest their home. Audience members carried with them the energy of these all-women gatherings in their hearts and minds, drawing on it for strength and power long after they returned to their regular lives.
The erasure of the women’s festival movement could be seen in both the feminist and LGBT press. Lesbian readers of Ms. magazine complained to the editor throughout the 1970s that it neglected to cover the women’s music movement sufficiently. The lesbian magazine Curve and the gay newspaper Washington Blade both celebrated the Lilith Fairs of 1997 – 1999, characterizing them as the first women’s music festivals—and neglecting the trail blazed by their very readership in the process. When Lisa Vogel, a co-founder of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, which took place every August from 1976 – 2015, pushed back against this erasure in the pages of the lesbian magazine Girlfriends, its readers took offense at her claim that Lilith Fair organizers were “afraid of being seen as dykes” and “bent over backwards to be nonfeminists.”
Morris contends that two of the forces responsible for the demise of lesbian culture are the broader acceptance of LGBTQ people in mainstream society and a shift in the lesbian community from public cultural events to domestic normativity. These forces are intimately bound together: mainstreaming shifted LGBTQ community priorities, from nightlife and culture to religion and daycare. Morris writes,
[B]y the late 1990s, the mainstreaming of LGBT rights made separate (or secretive) institutions serving the lesbian community less necessary as couples found warmer welcomes at established places of worship or at “family” vacation destinations and restaurants. A “gayby boom” saw more and more women having children in a culture gradually accepting lesbian families.
We lesbians had a hand in this loss and are not simply the victims of external forces. While some of this shift can be attributed to a younger generation who never knew lesbian bars and music festivals, a segment of lesbians from older generations played a part as well, embracing the wider range of social and cultural outlets newly available. How many of us abandoned gay-owned restaurants, bars, and businesses when we found acceptance in other ones? How many of us traded in our lawn chairs at music festivals for mezzanine seats in concert halls when lesbian performers such as K.D. Lang and Melissa Etheridge broke through? How many of us retreated from the public sphere of political activism into domesticity when the urgency of the political fight for basic rights seemed to abate?
The third element of Morris’s theory of the “disappearing L” is much more polarizing. She laments the “gender turn”—scholarship and activism that aims to deconstruct categories such as “woman” or “lesbian”—and claim that it marginalized histories and communities of women and lesbians. This line of thinking is woven throughout the text. For instance, Morris claims that the renaming of “women’s studies” as “gender studies” devalues women in an attempt to make men and trans people feel more welcome. But women’s studies programs’ shift to include “gender” and now “sexuality” in their mission is not necessarily part of a pernicious woman-hating agenda. Rather, it reflects feminists’ desire to understand women’s lives relationally—through gender—rather than in isolation.
Morris’s thesis, that the once robust and distinctly identifiable lesbian community is now disappearing, presumes that “lesbian” as a category was always clear, unifying, and uncontested in the first place. It implies that there was a golden age of lesbian feminism, unmarked by intergenerational tension or debates about who belonged. Yet the book is sprinkled with examples of long-running conflicts over who could and should be counted as one of us. The organizer of the first women’s music festival at the University of Illinois—that pioneering lesbian art form—was not a lesbian. Kristin Lems, the feminist producer, was motivated by the exclusion of women artists from a folk festival she had recently attended. While some lesbians were apolitical and many feminists were homophobic, a tremendous amount of important cultural work was done under the umbrella of lesbian feminism. Many women—no matter what their sexuality—were drawn to women’s concerts for the music, culture, and politics.
There are many reasons why the category “lesbian” is not embraced by everyone who, by virtue of their sex or sexual orientation, might claim it. I can think of three that are most salient: race, gender, and culture. For example, Morris cites a conversation with the LGBTQ Center director at Georgetown University, Sivagami Subbaraman. A native of India, Subbaraman identifies as khush, which translates as “queer.” Subbaraman could identify as lesbian but feels that khush captures her experience and feelings more precisely. Although Morris glimpses through this door, she leaves the territory largely unexplored.
She effectively demonstrates how difficult it is to document and make available the history of the lesbian feminist movement in its prime. But her claim that the category of lesbian is newly imperiled is less well substantiated and mostly anecdotal. While fewer young people seem to identify as lesbians, we never really understand why this is the case. Lack of access to lesbian history is certainly part of the problem—but to what extent that has resulted in youths’ embrace of other categories, such as queer, trans, bi, or pan, rather than lesbian, is unclear. Numerous studies show that more Americans actually identify as bisexual than lesbian or gay. The power and allure of 1970s and 1980s feminism, with its woman-identified culture, may have impelled a significant number of women to claim a lesbian identity in order to fit into this exciting movement. Rather than mourn the loss and decline of lesbians, we might celebrate the tremendous influence lesbian feminism has had, enabling significant numbers of people to embrace a range of gender identities and sexualities. Morris captures the real ambivalence among some lesbians about today’s LGBTQ community:
Progress had proven to be a mixed blessing. It offered the next generation of younger women visible role models in entertainment media—yet it took away feminist bookstores and other sheltering hangouts. Ironically, now that LGBT leaders and smiling, empowered lesbian celebrities declared that it was safe to come out, there were in fact fewer lesbian places to go in America.
A sense of loss—probably greater among “Ls” than among “GBTQs”—has heightened the stakes for protests against “certain long-lasting lesbian institutions,” such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for policies that refuse to recognize transgender women as women. Some lesbians see the boycott as an unfair attack on one of the few cherished community institutions that survived into the twenty-first century. This is no small accomplishment, as so many lesbian bars, bookstores, and organizations folded or became queer spaces that welcome people with a diverse array of gender expressions and identities—a far cry from the once dominant androgyny of 1980s lesbian feminism. But it is important to note that most lesbian activists and institutions have not been the focus of protests, because they accepted transgender women and men all along. The emphasis on the debate surrounding Michigan elevates a sideshow to center stage.
The Disappearing L moves back and forth between telling stories of the past and highlighting the obstacles to remembering those stories. Morris’s last chapter is most despairing about what she calls “points of erasure.” The “points” concerning mainstream media and the writing of history are clear and well substantiated—but those aimed at the transgender community are unclear and unsubstantiated. There is no doubt that the younger generation of LGBTQ activists—including transgender people—could learn a great deal from studying the history of the lesbian feminist movement. But generational transitions can be dramatic and full of contradictions. While some of us at age twenty were eager to learn from our elders, others were too caught up in the here-and-now of our own lives and problems to care. Perhaps more to the point, the queer movement and the transgender revolution are happening and will continue to happen, whether or not lesbians are on board.
Of course, The Disappearing L does not represent the view of all lesbians, of whatever generation. For every lesbian who feels lost in the new, hazy-dazy world of queerness, another feels relief that she can bring the language of gender back into the community as a meaningful dimension of her life. That the gender turn, in all of its glorious expansiveness, is seen as an oppositional threat to lesbian culture and identity is both ironic and a shame—because lesbian feminism made it possible.
Jen Manion is author of Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015) and Taking Back the Academy: History of Activism, History as Activism (2004). She is associate professor of History at Amherst College and tweets at @activisthistory