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Thoughts on Lesbian Differences Author(s): Chris J. Cuomo Source: Hypatia, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1998), pp. 198-205 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Hypatia, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810612 . Accessed: 29/04/2011 11:47
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Cuomo Hypatia . These include tensionsbetween my commitmentsto both women'sstudiesand gay and lesbian studies.Differences Thoughtson Lesbian CHRIS J.but because I agreewith her claim that it is useful to tease apart the distinct workings of and homophobiafromsexism and gender-based heterosexualisms oppressions. sexualdesire.can life in termsof normswhich only understandmy sexualityand my "personal" they take to be universaland feminist. in any suchaccount. I sometimes experience such tensions in the company of straight (non-queer) feminist colleagueswho. and to both feminist politics and strugglesfor sexual liberation. vol. Perhapsmost illuminating is the degree to which Calhoun takes seriously the claim. Calhoun'sarticulationof the differencesbetween patriarchyand heterosexuality also helps to explain severalphenomena that have confusedme for years. in effortsto see me as not perverse.and thatthesepolitically straight significant differences and politicsthattakethesubject to be women. 13.I also experience these tensions in the sometimes paralyzingfrustrationsof doing political workwith nonfeminist (and antifeminist)gay men. CUOMO CheshireCalhounarguesthat thinking of lesbiansas a subcategory of women an insufficient basisfor considering betweenlesbians and provides key differences are therefore erased women. that lesbiansare not women.or multiple-systemsapproach. made by Monique Wittig and others. yet which are blatantlyheterosexist. Calhoun's work helps me make some sense of why I sometimes do not know what to think as a political/sexual being.Here I look by theories of feminism at Calhoun's own accountof lesbian andarguethat closelyandcritically differences.no.whilecomplicated. oughtto remaincentral I find Cheshire Calhoun's work compelling not because I am particularly drawnto a new dual. It also helps explain why I experience uncomfortable contradictions between my feminist self and my lesbian (as in lesbian and gay) self-such as the paradoxthat I hate dragshows but love to performin them. 1 (Winter1998)? byChris J.

and for lesbians'relationswith women? Calhoun argues that thinking of lesbians as a subcategoryof women or feministsprovidesan insufficientbasisfor consideringkey differencesbetween lesbiansand straightwomen. How are lesbiansoppressedby institutionsof heterosexuality.Calhoun also arguesthat a fundamentallesbian differencelies in lesbians'relationsto institutionsof heterosexuality. It follows that "separating sexualitypolitics fromgenderpolitics is exactly what must happen if there is to be a specifically lesbian feminist theory ratherthan simplyfeminist theory appliedto lesbians"(Calhoun 1994. including mothering and the traditionalfamily. and outlaws. How are lesbians"not-women"? 2. and in responseto." lesbiansexist outsidebinarygendersystems.in ways not reducibleto or representable by patriarchal oppression? 3. more or These differencesbetween lesbiansand heterosexualwomen are less. institutions of heterosexuality(which are entwined with but distinct from institutions of patriarchy). because I am curiousabout the direct implicationsof answersto these questions for lesbian social and activist politics. In her view.naturalized heterosexualityand its institutions (1994. In what ways are lesbiansoutlawsto given systemsof meaning? 4. lesbians are actually less exploited by men than straightwomen are in their sexual and domestic lives. and the ways lesbians are oppressedby heterosexualityas a specific system to which they are. How is lesbian differencemade meaningful? I focus here on Calhoun's conclusions regardingthe last two questions. then what are the implicationsfor feminism. Cuomo 199 If this claim is more than a strategic piece of rhetoric. Calhoun investigateslesbiandifferencein responseto at least the following questions: 1. especiallythe ways lesbians'lives are shapedby. As a result."lesbianism ought not be readsolely as resistanceto patriarchal male-femalerelationships. as membersof "the third sex. and the fact that.which treat them as threatening outsiders. Calhoun believes that becauseof these differences. outsiders." but also as resistanceto normalized. invisible. aberrations.Feminismmakesthe "mark" .by theories and politics that take the subjectof feminism to be women.ChrisJ. 562). AS OUTLAWS LESBIANS Lesbiansaresexualoutlawsin additionto being outlawsto binarysex/gender of the lesbianher (simple) genderoutlaw systems. 562). or erased. but more oppressedand mistreatedby institutions of heterosexuality. lesbian differences include lesbian ways of relating to women (as opposed to straight women's interactions).

200 Hypatia status (how she misbehavesas a woman with regardto men). threatening. but the more significantpotential marksareher behaviorin responseto women. clear that what is considered threatening about lesbians from one cultural .and coparents. as we aspireto be legitimate participantsin private-spherereproductivelife. and power in making it necessaryor useful for gender. In her effort to highlight the radicalpotential of lesbianfamilies. not as we sexual insofar demand freedom.We certainly cannot understandheterosexuals'interest in maintainingcontrol of so-called institutions and activities without analyzing the roles of "private-sphere" nation. Calhoun appears to lose sight of the complicated nature of heterosexual laws. Here lies a differencebetween straightand lesbian feminist politics. and thus as individualswith socio-politico-legal standing. but also reproductiveactivities engagedin by same-sexcouples. as seducers. depends upon the female-femalecouple being the heart of heterosexualprivilege social unit [because] recognizedas a primary lies in the 'right'of access to sexual-romantic-marital-familial relationships" (Calhoun 1994.patriarchal is now). in this article and in "Family's laws: Rethinking the Connections Between Feminism. race.motivatedby her belief that. in "Denaturalizing and lovers.Lesbianism.but insofar targetedby heterosexists. marriage. or for biological parents to own and If we look carefullyat meaning in context.and the Family. But she also attempts. As a and hence lesbiansaremost as conceived most are lesbians result.domesticpartners. Those institutions which are considered danger zones for straight feminists (the family. Any sexual laws are symbioticwith laws governinggender (and they shift accordingly) and enmeshedwith other culturallawsand social realities. especiallywhen the traditional nuclearfamily is most threatenedfromwithin (as it heterosexual. Het law outlaws not only same-sex desire. it is control children like property. 579)."Calhoun presents an analysis of lesbian (and gay) difference as constituted by breaking heterosexual law Out(Calhoun 1993). DesexualizingLesbian and Gay Identity.motherhood) because they involve intimate attachments with men aregood placesfor lesbianinterventionsand resistantparticipation. function to insure reproductionby making the male-femaleunit fundamentalto social structure" (Calhoun 1994. heterosexualsystems. capital. 581). whether patriarchalor not. men to know who their children are. public discoursestend to construct lesbiansas familial outlaws (Calhoun 1997)."to deemphasizesexuality and same-sex desire in considerationsof lesbiandifference. becauserecognition of lesbians"associal beings. A central claim in this work is that because heterosexualityis not just a matterof the orientation of individualsexual desirebut a "methodof socially organizinga broadspectrumof reproductiveactivities. So lesbianoutlaw status is built on lesbians'non-relationsto the fundamental socio-politico-legal institutions through which the family is maintained and heterosexual law is enforced.Furthermore.

For just one christianF.what is a lesbian). presents the opinion that gay families are a threat to "the traditionalfamily" becausethey attempt to legitimate sinful sexual behavior (Smith 1993). I believe.fundamentalist law at PepperdineUniversity. as long as the relationship between the two women is not sexual.lesbian and gay theoristshave relied on an oversimplified understandingof what sexual outlaw status entails. it is not inconsistent with Calhoun's views to theorize the construction of lesbians as familial outlaws not merely as an attempt to maintain heterosexual privilege. economic advantages.femalehomosexualitymight be toleratedas long as it does not result in or include effortsto partakein heterosexualprivilegesregardinglegitimation as familialunits. originating. but also as the result of a drive to minimize the reproduction of homosexuals. that efforts to police the bordersof familial legitimacy exist to maintain those particularprivileges. in turn. But all. sexualityand sex/genderare to transgressions AND DESIRE DIFFERENCE. Instead. Calhoun helpfully points out the extent to which.' " she asks. Who representsthe lesbian?This is really a question . Cuomo 201 perspectivemight be seen as benign fromanother. in "The Gender Closet: Lesbian Disappearanceunder the Sign 'Women.of course. perhaps). somehow involve being sexual outlaws.some involve being outlawsto accepted institutionsof nurturance and reproduction. lesbians are also familial outlaws as unmarried heterosexual mothers are familial outlaws: they make families without men. I do not want to miss the strengthof this position:lesbiansare not merely outlaws to patriarchal of heterosexual systemsof genderbut also transgressors law. cultural legitimacy). We cannot assumethat just because certain privilegesare associatedwith heterosexuality (privacy. Another way of framingthe question of lesbian differenceis to ask what it means to consider lesbians not as a subcategoryof women but "as lesbians.to know exactly what people find threatening or unlawful about lesbian. and there are many differentways to breaksuch law. implicitly. (or. or queer existence. Hence.LaGard of Smith. in one culture for two women to live togetherandraisechildren it maybe entirelypermissible and shareeconomic and emotional responsibilities. in culturally specific prohibitions on enactments of sexual desire with members of the wrong gender. it would be a mistake to lose sight of how fundamental of heterosexuallaw. In another culture (right next door. Of course. It is difficult. in attemptsto theorize lesbian difference. and feminists have overemphasizedthe similaritiesbetween lesbianand heterosexualwomen'ssexuality.Some involve being genderoutlaws.Forinstance.Calhoun believes that we cannot get at lesbiandifferenceby askingwho is a lesbian. Indeed. professor contemporary example. gay. REPRESENTATION." Like most other lesbianphilosophers.ChrisJ.

queers.GertrudeStein.her strongassociationof lesbiandifferencewith gender transgressionis less helpful with cross-culturalinquiries concerning lesbian and female homoerotic historiesand realities. symbolize. and I agree that other aspects of lesbian identity in additionto sexualitycan be centralto lesbian transgression of heterosexual law. 22). although the big stars of lesbian history do tend to be butch. Calhoun turns to Martha Vicinus'sinvestigationof what it is aboutthe cross-dressing Rosa Bonheurthat invites us to see her (ratherthan. Western. first because the externally identifiable transgressions norms that Calhoun identifies as necessaryto representlesbiandifferenceare are available.flamboyant. mirrorimages.and that all have been readthroughthe lens of historicalanalysesthat aim to make lesbians identifiable to homos. some lesbians might find themselves better lesbians.and this genderedsubject location is not-woman. But in order to get a handle on lesbians. lesbiansare most thinkable as a third sex/gender.the Ladiesof Llangollen and others living in the eighteenth century. that lesbians transgress given cultural contexts-helps in understandingcultural and cross-cultural meaningsof lesbiandifference.Nathalie Micas) as a lesbian. Thinkable by whom?It is significantthat none of Calhoun's examples of symbolicallypowerful lesbians is contemporary. for specific to cultures in which such transgressions example. In India.the mainstreampressin India tends to associatelesbians with white.traditional image that is taken to be "lesbian"by some lesbians is of two women. her sexuality must in some way raise the question of sex/gendercategorization. and straight audiences. we have to ask. and the butch lesbians of the 1940s and 1950s with the power to represent. and socially deviant lesbians.Interestingly. living in the nineteenth century. her womanly dressed. That is. My second reason for hesitation is that. in orderfor the lesbian to be thinkable. I hesitate to accept her conception of lesbian of gender difference. severalthings make me hesitate to accept the move awayfroman emphasison enacted (loosely defined) sexual desire as constituting lesbian difference.both in saris. In this view. Cala matterof sexual houn believes that placement in this location is notprimarily desireor enactment. a paradigmatic.devoted live-in partner. While Calhoun's broader the heterosexuallaw-whatever this law is in claim. Still.and those who are most recognizableas lesbians . But again.churningbutter together.202 Hypatia about what images allow the lesbian to become thinkable and what images invite a lesbian reading. Calhoun argues that the same thing imbues Bonheur.To which sex does s/he belong?(Calhoun 1995. say. and how they are thinkable as not-women. I think that most lesbians are both women and not-women). Martina Navratilova. To answer this question.or make thinkable"the lesbian. RadclyffeHall. It reflected in or representedby less visible (less gender-ambiguous) is likely that historianswill choose to discussthe more notorious. I agree that lesbians are significantlynot-women (actually."and that is their powerto generate the question.

two femmesinteractingeroticallyon the stage at a lesbian dance club are representinglesbians to lesbians.Certainly.How are lesbiandifferences taken for granted from within dyke norms? What lesbian differences are central to lesbian imaginations? Today.Lorraine Joan Nestle. She is not a lesbian. Although Calhoun is right that genderambiguityis a typical lesbianindicator. Calhoun writes. here and now. where lesbian it is not at all unusualfor femmes representationhas become a mini-industry.I do not believe them when they say they are not lesbians.Angelina Weld Grimke. and most importantly.ChrisJ. and the increasing influence of non-Anglo representationsin the United States in recent years. The increased visibility of women's sexuality in many cultures. or noticing the same traitsthat straightpeople take to be lesbian. with women. But identifying lesbian difference is not merely a matter of picking the lesbians out from among the women. But if not-so-butch lesbians are also real. and other historical and contemporarylesbians and Hansberry. Female inverts most effectively symbolized those whom we now consider "lesbians" for sexologists because these not-women were most visible to straight audiences. athletic prowess.But for some lesbians. is marriedto a man.the ease with which "the mannish lesbian"representslesbianssaysmore about the politics of representationwithin institutions of heterosexuality than it does about lesbian differencesfromstraightwomen. Calhoun states that same-sexdesiredoes not by itself representthe lesbian and make her thinkable. Cuomo 203 to straightaudiences. comportment.she notes that some ersatzlesbiansarguethat they are not lesbians. but whose lives were significantly shapedby their erotic desire for women.hates the color pink. but who is attractedonly to men.solely through gender ambiguity. I certainly believe them less than I would believe a woman who can passfor a man. then lesbian differences from women must be located in lesbian relationships-with men. to representlesbians.with each other. in the United States. or fromstraightfeminists. have increased the representation of lesbians through their enactments of sexual desire for women and have therefore reduced the need to represent lesbians especiallyto lesbians. maybe-lesbianswho seem to resemble women. visible lesbians. As evidence that same-sex desire does not itself representlesbiandifference. excels at sports. but just persons who happen to desire women sexually. as expressed in dress.enacting same-sexdesireis itself a dislocator fromgenderbecauselesbiansenact desirefor women/lesbiansin the waysthat only men are supposedto. Personally."But categories'woman'and 'man'that most powerfully represents as Calhoun herselfacknowledges. and other butch stereotypes. . "it is not same-sexdesirebut an ambiguousrelation to the the lesbian. might also representlesbians and lesbian difference. and has children.

" (De Lauretis 1994.' "But this entails also including other "thirdtermsbetween gender binaries[transgendered people. Calhoun's work leads me to wonder if a mirror-image might be constructed."considered.Or.or Taking the Risk of EssentialismSeriously. De Lauretis does want to consider lesbians as feminists. male lesbiansand other possibleformsof not-men] as 'fullyfeministsubjects'" (1995. the lesbian must first be brought under the sign "woman. 33). Perhapsthe work of lesbianfeministphilosopherslike . therefore. 33)."The lesbian must therefore become the lesbian woman. theorized. 20).bulldaggers. or of a mass base for feminist politics and theory" (De Lauretis1994. experienced. And what of differencesamong lesbians?MariaLugonesrecently claimed Latinafemmesand butches. and she finds that challenges to the socialsymbolic institution of heterosexuality become possible through focusing on sexual difference-through fruitful implosions of "woman. perhapsin some sense. is its difference from perspectives that are not feminist."TeresaDe Lauretisarguesthat the feminist subjectsare construednot accordingto an essentialistbiological or metaphysicalview of women'sdifferences (from men). "The essential difference of feminism as socio-historical formation. again.204 Hypatia LESBIANS AS FEMINIST SUBJECTS Calhoun arguesthat "because'woman-identifiedwoman' elides the difference between heterosexualwomen and lesbians. her sexuality an accidental difference. bisexualladies of the night. betteryet. then it followsthat lesbiantheorywill have to accommodatequeerfemalesand female not-lesbians whose most prominent enactments of erotic or sexual desirearedirectedtowardother females. theorizingthat takes as its womanis unlikelyto representlesbiandifference subjectthe woman-identified effectively"(1995. to heterosexual law will help us theorize the relationshipsand differences femmes.The only hope for lesbians to be theorizedwithin a feminist frameexists "if feminism is about women and the open space of possibilitiessignifiedby 'the thirdsex.If Calhoun is right that tortilleras. arenot lesbians. among tortilleras. but on historical and materialistanalyses of the "state of emergency" in which feminists exist.queergirls. 30).including not-women. lesbian difference is analogous to the feminist difference proposed by De If so. Calhoun assumesthat for feministsto theorizelesbians and include lesbian rights as political goals. In "The Essence of the Triangle.butterchurners. argument Finally. Yet she agrees with Calhoun that for feminists to confront the "investments that feminism may have in the heterosexual institution" might cost "the dream of a common world of women.I think Calhoun'sexplorationof how lesbiansareoutlaws Lauretis. apart from men and masculinisms.and dykes. about the implications of seeing lesbians as not-women and the need for feminist theory that accommodatesmultiple subjects.

Family's outlaws: the connections between lesbifeminism. Feminist Issues 1:47-54.S. F. 1997.Denaturalizing andgayidentity.it is not at all unusualfor the straight students in my classesto read their workthis way. andBritain. ed. Rethinking andthefamily.ChrisJ. York: Routledge. and lesbiandifferencesas within the graspof "anywoman" in ways that race and class differencesclearly cannot be.The essence Feminist in Italy.lesbiantheorythat is mistakenlyappliedto heterosexualwomen insofar as they are potential lesbians. andfamilies. theory theory.Monique. ortaking the riskof essentialism 1994.Bloomington: Indiana Press.Separating 104(3):558-81. Virginia lesbian from feminist Ethics 1994. .. Wittig. InFeminism ed. the U. and Claudia Card is not feminist theory but.Cheshire. the barrio to the barto the movement.1995. In Theessential seriously: theory difference. LawReview79: 1859-75. 1981. The gendercloset:Lesbian underthe sign "women. .New anism. too? Or does the difference between Calhoun and other lesbian feministsmerelylie in whether they aim to recruit? REFERENCES 1993. De Lauretis.1993.The lesbian-feministbelief that any woman can be a lesbian (to paraphrasefolksinger Alix Dobkin) demonstratesthat there was. ." disappearance Feminist 21 (1): 7-34. Forthcoming.One is not borna woman.OR: HarvestHouse. rather.Eugene.From Lugones. 1997. of the triangle. NaomiSchorandElizabeth Weed.LaGard. or is. anddesexualizing lesbian Calhoun. significant lesbian interest in portraying lesbiansas women. Cuomo 205 MarilynFrye.HildeLindemann Nelson. Studies secondcoming: Whatyou needto knowaboutthedeadly Smith.Sarah Hoagland. Sodom's homosexual assault.Certainly. Teresa. University Maria. Are we beyond the political moment when it is usefulto remindstraightwomen that they can be lesbians.

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