Feminism, the Family, and the Politics of the Closet: Lesbian and Gay Displacement

By Cheshire Calhoun | Go to book overview

3 The Gender Closet

. . . it is first necessary to bring the lesbian subject out of the closet of feminist history.

(Sue-Ellen Case, 1993) 1

In the previous chapter, I argued that lesbian-feminism of the 1980s wrongly placed resistance to patriarchy at the heart of what it means to be lesbian. The reduction of 'lesbian' to 'patriarchal resister' was a direct result of underestimating just how differently the category 'woman' oppresses heterosexual women versus lesbians. It was also a result of seriously underestimating just how differently institutionalized heterosexuality (what Rich called 'compulsory heterosexuality') oppresses heterosexual women versus lesbians. The consequence of this failure to acknowledge lesbian difference was, I argued, a mistaken identification of lesbian politics with feminist politics.

One might think inattention to specifically lesbian experience and politics is peculiar to 1980s feminism. After all, 1980s feminism had a penchant for thinking about 'Woman', rather than 'women', which invited exaggerated estimations both of the similarity between women's experiences and of the possibility of feminist political unity. It began by asking 'What do women share in common?' rather than 'How do women differ?' By contrast, 1990s feminism was above all marked by insistence that feminism become more inclusive by paying attention to differences between women, including differences in what it is politically most important for women of different races and classes to achieve. A suitably de-essentialized and difference-sensitive conception of 'women', rather than 'Woman', should enable us to center lesbians and lesbian politics within a feminist frame.

In this chapter I want to challenge the comfortable assumption that if only feminist theorizing begins from the right conception of 'woman' it would be adequate to the task of theorizing lesbians. Can one theorize about lesbians within any feminist frame that takes feminism to be fundamentally about women? This question would, of course, be a very odd one to raise about women of color, or poor women, or working class women, or Jewish women, or women of different nationalities. (At least it would be odd so long as we bracket their possible lesbianism.) But as I began to suggest in Chapter 2 , at the center of lesbian difference is lesbians' questionable relation to the category 'woman' itself. For lesbians, the closest available category of sex/gender

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