Me, freshly out.
It’s June. It’s the beginning of Pride Month: the Holy Week of the LGBT+ calendar, except that even the Roman Catholic church didn’t have the vision to ask for a whole month. All over the land, flags have been raised, twitter handles bedecked with rainbows, and boxes of pronoun badges freshly cracked open. As I write, HR managers are gearing up for a jam-packed month of propagandising about whatever cash cow the LGBTQ+ protection racket currently has its eye on (“asexuality awareness”, for instance; or ruining women’s sport). Given the vice-like grip they now have on UK cultural life, it’s only surprising the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations weren’t rejected as a diary clash.
This annual festival of naked men and naked political manoeuvring is incredibly dispiriting to any lesbian or gay man who doesn’t believe in the underpinning values – if you can call them values at all. Some of my friends have become positively averse to the sight of the rainbow flag, and shudder whenever they see one. In Brighton, given the ubiquity of rainbows – from buses to shopfronts to lighting displays and beyond - this means you shudder on average about 4 times an hour. And not in a good way. Rather than feeling proud as robotically instructed, many feel ashamed of what’s being done in their name.
This is obviously ironic, because part of the original motive for Pride parades was, precisely, to redeem homosexuality from the inherited shame that surrounded it in a mostly straight culture. Rather than just submit to the cultural implications of unnaturalness and grotesquerie - and the consonant requirement of even “tolerant” people that homosexuals could do what they liked as long as they did it quietly behind closed doors - gays and lesbians wanted to shout “I’m gay!” from the rooftops, unashamed. Thanks to such efforts, these days it is easier to shout “I’m gay” from the rooftops, unashamed. And especially if you’re straight. As a very recent report on seismic increases in LGBT+ identification puts it: “The majority of the increase in LGBT identity can be traced to how those who only engage in heterosexual behavior describe themselves.” Taking pride in being gay was apparently so successful a project that the envy of many straight people was eventually the result.
Of course, being able to shout joyously from the rooftops does somewhat depend on the location of the rooftops in question. Lesbians and gays in orthodox religious or traditional working-class communities still find it relatively hard to come out. But there is relatively little interest in gay liberation for them any more. Times have changed and political campaigning objectives move on. It would be self-sabotaging of any successful LGBTQ+ lobbying group to prioritise wading into such genuinely contested intersectional territory, when they could be focusing upon easier more friendly pickings: dramatic stories that middle-class white people can really get behind, without any felt ambivalence.
But even in those social locations where coming out comes relatively cheap, it is not as if feelings of shame are fully absent. For lesbians in particular, the shame-inducing narrative of one’s attraction to women is likely to meet other shame-inducing cultural scripts for women, exponentially increasing self-loathing. The combined effects of such scripts – predicting deviancy, failed femininity, and strangeness – are still alive and kicking. They are especially pertinent for some younger lesbians, or so they tell me. As this great little documentary makes clear, some young women don’t even like the word “lesbian”, choosing new more ambiguous titles for themselves and seeking to merge into some cooler male-associated gang: to be with the gay boys or amongst the queer womxn, or whatever.
And now, of course, there are new cultural scripts from which many lesbians have to try to protect their minds. Some of these scripts derive from internet pornography, turning lesbian relationships into a degraded horrorshow of a spectacle in order to provide masturbation fodder for sexual tourists. In the visual language of porn, lesbians are nothing but a hot aesthetic, only really doing it to turn men on, and indicating by means of elaborate eyerolls and lip-licks and camera-ready positions that they are more sexual, more deviant, more nasty than other women. Queer porn may change the aesthetic considerably but the often violent objectification of female bodies remains.
Meanwhile, there are the scripts created by solipsistic males who wish to role-play being a lesbian, some of them viewing it as the ultimate in degraded turn-ons. Too much porn with a side-order of entitlement and narcissism has given us the modern phenomenon of the trans lesbian. Quite fantastically, this figure has been joyfully ushered into the lesbian club by venal media outlets and bureaucrats to the cheers of naïve children, while the rest of us have looked on aghast. Entry into lesbianism is now presumed to require only some unfeasibly unsuitable daywear, a vacant look in the eye, a winning head-tilt, and some light adjustments in the jockstrap area. If you’re lucky, Diva Magazine might even put you on the cover. Failing that, at the very least, you stand a good chance of being able to infiltrate some socially awkward group of queer womxn and start bossing everybody about.
I find doing “personal” difficult, and God knows, I hate identity politics – but in these times of cynical performances, I think it’s worth sharing something honest about what coming out as a lesbian has meant to me. I came out 10 years ago this month, aged 39. Before that, I had limped through an ostensibly heterosexual life feeling like I was no good at it, but unable to admit to myself the fundamental reason. I self-identified as a “difficult” woman, but not in a celebratory or recuperative way – quite the opposite. I felt very ashamed of the fact that I didn’t fit in. I generally felt awkward and wrong a lot of the time: too tall; too argumentative; too emotional; too clever for most people, but still not clever enough for my colleagues. I drank too much, was emotionally dysregulated, and generally quite angry. My marriage eventually ended, sadly for all involved.
After a while, an insistent thought started to pluck at my mind. I started to allow myself to think about what had previously been impossible. Maybe I could try to live out what, on some suppressed level, I had been dreaming of for over 25 years. The tentativeness and diffidence I felt in considering this change may sound gauche to the average casually bed-hopping metrosexual type. But for me, this was serious. I was serious. What lay ahead of me felt awe-inspiring to contemplate - almost sacred.
Of course, I also felt very foolish. I was not unaware of the comic aspects of embarking on such a huge change at such a relatively late age. I didn’t know what I was doing in several senses. I didn’t even know any lesbians socially at all, apart from a few I worked with. I first tried to get up to speed on my own, in amateur fashion: I read some books, I watched The L Word, I bought the 2012 lesbian uniform (Superdry!). And then thought, sod it. Stop living in your mind. Take it out into the world. And I did. For the first time, I entered a beautiful, complicated, entirely female world that had been there all along, behind a door, but I hadn’t had the key. I felt like I was entering another dimension.
In the words of Mrs Dalloway: what a lark! What a plunge!
I joined about five dating sites simultaneously and started to have some adventures. I also managed to make friends with some brilliant platonic godmothers who benevolently watched over me as I stumbled inexpertly about the scene. They would listen to my stories, tease me for my mishaps, advise me and scrape me up off the floor after emotionally bruising encounters. With apologies to Hogarth - and with the hope that there is no madhouse at the end (though there’s still time) – what I affectionally think of as my Dyke’s Progress had begun.
I learnt early on about the special feeling of being in a room that contains only other lesbians – a space unlike any other I’d ever known, and so thrillingly transgressive and exciting when you’ve never been in such a female place, with that unique kind of ambient energy in it before. Within a couple of years I was even marching at London Pride, holding one side of a banner for a lesbian volleyball team (and I don’t even play volleyball). Look look, I’m a real lesbian now! I may or may not have thought as I filed down Oxford Street. Yes, there was a lot of comedy in my early lesbian period, and a bit of tragedy too, but there was also a steady drumbeat of relief and joy accompanying it. For the first few years, I couldn’t get over the fact I was now in that wonderful secret garden – and I marvelled constantly that nobody could ever come along to take back the key.
I also started to drink less, breathe more fully, stand up straighter, move through space more easily, get angry less. A small thing, perhaps, but after years of religiously putting on makeup every day– to the point where I couldn’t even bring myself to do a no-makeup selfie when that Facebook trend was hitting, and I was tagged by a friend - I stopped overnight. Nearly all my press pictures since have been without any make up at all, and I haven’t minded one bit. I don’t need to hide from the world anymore. I was ashamed as a straight-acting woman, but I really do feel like the proudest lesbian in the world.
In 2018 - when I first felt moved to throw a couple of rather repressed blog posts out into the void, on the problems with gender identity ideologies as I then saw them – I had been out as a lesbian for 6 years. The language of these rather amateurish posts was carefully chosen – rendered garbled and inelegant, even, in a desperate attempt not to offend if possible (so for instance, I even used “women-who-are-not-transwomen” to refer to women, though I wouldn’t do that now). I was keen not to take on the issue of whether transwomen were women directly, but only to try to argue more conservatively that there were clearly different groups of people here, who might have conflicting interests in some areas. And one of those groups was obviously lesbians.
The first wave of aggression I received for these posts was in many ways the one that hurt me most, though it happened with the least general publicity, relatively speaking. It was from the philosophers, my tribe up until then - or the closest thing I had to one. The leaders of the online feminist pack quickly circled. These are people who spend half their working lives trying to develop complicated technical theories to justify whatever ethical mantras are presently socially expedient, and the other half hanging out online performing a simulacrum of goodness, or at least some degraded approximation of it. They are nearly all straight, though some of them have non-standard pronouns in their twitter handles and self-consciously interesting hairdos. Yet, even on the grounds of logical consistency if not actual moral feeling, there was no room in their stony little self-righteous hearts for a lesbian with a non-sanctioned point of view about the political desirability of men being treated as women.
After my second or third blogpost – and recall that I was self-publishing these on Medium at the time, not yet promoted to Professor, and with no particular prior following or web presence - I received an email from Justin Weinberg, a US philosopher who ran a philosophy news website. This site was, and is, very popular with progressives in the profession internationally. Weinberg and I had never interacted before. Coldly but politely, he told me he had just commissioned a well-known transwoman philosopher to write a published response to my blog-posts, and would be putting it on his site later that day. He just wanted to let me know that this was being published – and to say that if I wanted to write a response to what was going to be written about me, he would be “open to considering it” (or something equally etiolated).
Later that day, the piece “When Tables Speak” by the famed Professor Talia Mae Bettcher of California State University appeared on his website. You can read it for yourself. If you are empathic, you can perhaps imagine how it felt for someone relatively lowdown the philosophy pecking order, in a humdrum position in a humdrum university, to be snidely dissected in public in this way by someone perceived as prestigious, in front of what felt like the eyes of the whole profession. (If you are not empathic - or if you have always wanted me to be wrong - you will no doubt conclude, as indeed many of the philosophers did, that I brought this all on myself).
Either way, at the time, Bettcher’s prose was just what the online feminist philosophy vultures had been waiting for, for it gave them permission to increase the intensity of their already active public hostility to me. Academic Facebook pages were lit up with self-righteous denunciation as they linked to Bettcher’s post. The popular Feminist Philosophers blog, which was ran by women I knew, placed the post upfront with the title “Important article by Talia Mae Bettcher” and the single instruction “Everyone should read this”. It was the most fun bonfire since the last bonfire, and there hadn’t been any good bonfires for a while.
The point of dredging up this personally painful thing here is that, at one point in the piece Bettcher addresses a point I had made in one of my original blogposts. What I had said (translated from the garbled, hedged language I was using at the time) was that the special atmosphere in lesbian bars and clubs changed when transwomen – i.e. males - were in them. To this, Bettcher responded by sneering that I clearly had not read enough books or academic articles – for if I had, I would realise that this claim had been thoroughly debunked.
“For, example, I could address Stock’s allegation that trans women often exhibit male energy while in a lesbian space. This allegation is old as dirt. And it’s been discussed by a slew of trans writers. Now at this point, I suppose you’ll want the references. Another strategy, however, would be for you to actually explore the literature on your own. Typically philosophers aren’t so disempowered about learning something new! We go ahead and search! For example, how hard is it to go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? Okay. I’ll give you a hint: Pat Califia (1997), Julia Serano (2007), Talia Bettcher (2009/2014), Lori Watson (2016). Just a few examples!”
Case closed, eh? Or so the attendant mean-girl philosophy chorus also triumphantly thought, having never set foot in a genuinely lesbian-only social space in their lives. It may seem incredible – or maybe not – but these academics, most of them married or partnered with the opposite sex, and who in my experience tended to lead relatively cautious, conventional lives all round, felt completely empowered to talk about what happens in a space that is not theirs, and never will be theirs, on the basis of what a male had told them about it. Not just that - but despite all their professional cant about “lived experience”, they were emboldened to publicly mock and denigrate a lesbian for saying otherwise.
The memory of the blind self-satisfied arrogance of those people has stayed with me over the past few years, though technically I’ve experienced far worse. That one in particular lodged under my skin and left a wound, perhaps because it tried to trample over something that was so dear and precious to me. At the time – after a suitable period of drinking gin, lying on the floor, and weeping about my lost philosophical reputation - I posted a reply to Bettcher’s post in reasonable and scholarly prose, taking the points made there one by one and addressing them. To the point about the stupidity of thinking lesbian-only spaces might be altered by the inclusion of heterosexual males, I said something relatively restrained, and only moderately ironic.
But I am not now in the University system anymore. And now if I could go back in time, I would say to Bettcher, and to any of the straight philosophers who took the cue and started to mock me online for making that and related points on behalf of the interests of lesbians, a group to which I could not be prouder to belong – just who the fuck do you think you are? You will never understand what we have. It is ours and ours alone.