Thursday, October 8, 2015

Cherchez la Lesbienne

The other day at the public library book sale I picked up a charming book I've been wanting to read for a long time: Diamonds Are a Dyke's Best Friend (Firebrand Books, 1988) by Yvonne Zipter, an informal look at lesbians and softball.  I just finished it, and enjoyed it all the way through.  Zipter, a freelance journalist and poet, had found softball a helpful community builder and enjoyable recreation, so when a friend suggested she write about it, she came up with this book.  It's not a monograph, but she did read up on women in sports, circulate questionnaires, and interview people.

Zipter spends some space on friction between jocks and feminists, though one of the book's virtues is that Zipter recognizes that the groups are not mutually exclusive, and is more interested in doing justice to the variety of views and politics among lesbians rather than finding a unifying essence despite everything.  (After all, the dyke cartoonist Alison Bechdel -- several of whose drawings illustrate the book -- has celebrated lesbian softball as played by her strongly feminist characters.)   But I was brought up short by this quotation excerpt from one of the questionnaires:
Stephie: "What do you mean by feminist?  When I think of feminists, I think of hairy armpits, hairy legs, ERA all the way ... I believe in equal pay, yes.  [But] if I was straight and went out on a date with a guy, I'd still want the guy to open the door for me.  I don't think I'm a feminist.  I believe in equal rights -- don't get me wrong -- and I believe in equal pay, but ... I know some women are feminists but I'm not like that" [139].
Hairy armpits?  Hairy legs?!  Why, they sound like a bunch of lesbians!

Let me remind the reader: the person quoted here is herself a lesbian.  Yet she deploys the crudest and most laughable stereotypes of lesbians to distinguish and distance herself from feminists.  (Her evident assumption that "ERA all the way" is an extreme radfem slogan is equally wack: the Equal Rights Amendment was a liberal-feminist project.  And. of course, it was meant to enforce the "equal rights" that Stephie claims to support.)  I wonder who holds the door for whom when Stephie goes on a date with another woman?

My first thought as I tried to resolve the cognitive dissonance this quotation ignited was that Stephie was an unreconstructed femme, but she could just as easily be a butch with hairy armpits and hairy legs herself.  One happily effeminate gay man I met in my first year in a gay community said, when he learned I was involved in the campus Gay Liberation Front, said to me: "The GLF? Aren't they all -- you know -- [hand wiggle] effeminate?"  He promptly burst out laughing, acknowledging his own queeniness, and I have never been able to decide whether Reggie was serious or was just performing one of his little comedy routines (he had several).  Later, though, I met other less-than-butch gay men who denounced other GLB student organizations in the same terms: Oh, they're all just a bunch of screaming queens.

If Stephie were a straight woman, even a straight feminist, she might use the same stereotypes to establish firmly that she's not a lesbian.  (The trope about holding the door open is still, astonishingly, with us, and invoked by women as well as men.)  Zipter also discusses the anxiety of women athletes trying to fend off the stereotype that they are lesbians -- even when they are lesbians.  That's the irony of Stephie's remarks: she's not really talking about feminists, she's talking about lesbians, even if she shaves her own legs and armpits.  It's a fascinating example of someone tripping over her own stereotypes, and of the difficulties people have with thinking about principles and politics.