Today, many lesbians are choosing to avoid lesbophobia and misogyny by identifying as men and transitioning to replicate a ‘male appearance’. Of course, it is not possible to change sex, but the appearance of men’s secondary sexual characteristics can be mimicked through surgery and maintained by continuous hormone use. An obvious example is the actress Ellen/Elliot Page who, in December 2020, declared that her new name is now Elliot and announced that she would like people to use the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘they’. Initially when Elliot (then Ellen) came out as a lesbian on Valentine’s Day in 2014, she explained how ‘awful and hurtful’ it had been for her to keep her lesbian relationships secret and that she was teased as a teenager for being a ‘tomboy’ and ‘dyke’.
A few years after coming out as a lesbian, Page alleged that film director Bret Ratner sexually harassed her as a young actress. Page alleged that Ratner then publicly outed her as a lesbian to a room of strangers.
When men expose the sexualities of women — whether through revenge porn or revenge ‘outing’ — they not only indicate that female sexuality is male property, but they also punish the woman through humiliation. The bring her private sexual life into the open, inviting unwanted attention and scrutiny.
Outing women as lesbians is a form of unwanted sexual exposure, similar to removing someone’s clothing in public, or exposing deeply private romantic secrets — the aim is to make the person feel out of control and overwhelmed. Women struggle to have ownership and control over our sexuality and, as Simone de Beauvoir notes in The Second Sex (1949), we lack of the power of definition. It is therefore very easy to sexually humiliate women — far easier than it is to sexually humiliate men. This kind of sexual bullying is an obvious weaponisation of lesbophobia (and female sexuality more generally). It is only possible because of how widespread and enduring anti-lesbian sentiment is.
The hatred of lesbians can be easily relied upon to control and intimidate a lesbian woman, or even a woman who plausibly might be suspected of being a lesbian. Due to an unwillingness to acknowledge or tackle misogyny, lesbophobia is not taken seriously whilst homophobia increasingly is. The social logic that allows sexual bullying of lesbians (and wider anti-lesbian harassment) is the same social logic that underpins modern panic around being a lesbian.
The increasing rejection of lesbianism in favour of being transgender or ‘queer’ is, in part, a response to the fear of experiencing socially sanctioned lesbophobic harassment, sexual bullying, hypersexualisation, condemnation, ostracisation, rejection by friends and family, etc. In short, it demonstrates female fear of upsetting the heterosexual paradigm. It is therefore understandable why so many lesbians jump at the chance to avoid that horror by identifying as heterosexual men and re-entering the closet.
This is not so different to women’s sexual existence as women on the whole. Most women experience sexual harassment (harassment directly related to female sexuality). We are bullied for being too prudish, too promiscuous and anywhere in between. Women and girls face increasing sexual objectification through the mass proliferation of porn. Due to the less than 1% rape prosecution rate, rape is effectively legal, and a recent study has shown that 97% of women have been sexually assaulted. Men both on the Left and Right of the political spectrum oppose women’s self-organisation. The ground where women can exist freely is closing up. Who would want to be part of the despised sex class? Who wouldn’t want to opt out?
Lesbian life is similarly threatened by misogynistic societal conditions. Heterosexual women are routinely bullied and ostracised for not conforming to the logic of the heterosexual family. For example, if women deny an abusive ex-husband contact with his child, they are vilified by relatives (often their own) and dragged through Family Court. Divorce is still seen as a failure on the woman’s part and ending relationships renders her ‘heartless’, ‘cruel’, and responsible for her ex partner’s subsequent mental health woes. Heterosexual women are routinely labelled as ‘scorned women’, perpetuating the misogynistic trope of women as overemotional, dramatic, bitter and spiteful. All of this logic — the contours of social and sexual reproduction — affect heterosexual and lesbian women slightly differently. However, it is undergirded by the same ideological basis: women are male sexual property. All women’s sexuality exists in service to men and as a resource to be appropriated by men.
Lesbians identifying as men reassures lesbophobic heterosexual society that it is in fact possible to turn lesbians straight. This is ideologically useful for maintaining heterosexuality, despite how absurd it is for lesbians to pretend to be straight men.
It is easier for society to pretend that 5ft1 106lb Ellen Page is a heterosexual man named Elliot than it is to accept lesbianism.
Is what has happened to Ellen/Elliot Page so different to what many women suffer? Her underweight appearance on the cover of Time Magazine recently would indicate no. Page looks so incredibly uncomfortable in her body. Her awkward body language is at odds with the article’s tagline: ‘I am fully who I am’. It does not communicate confidence, self-assuredness or even happiness. Page’s appearance is a visual representation of how many women are made to feel — small, quiet, demure. If we are less noticeable we are less targetable. If we conform we might not be punished for non-conformity. This exhibits itself in various ways: demureness, quietness, retreat from public life, not putting ourselves forward for jobs, self-censorship such as not speaking openly online or truthfully in real life conversation etc. All of these behaviours are intended to make us ‘fit in’ with expected norms around the smallness of femaleness, both physically and socially. A rising number of female detransitioners (previously transmen or non-binary) describe their experiences of anorexia or bulimia prior to or during transition. The link between eating disorders and transition is not incidental. Extreme weight loss reduces the prominence of female secondary sex charictaristics (breasts, hips) and can stop menstruation — combining to make women less ‘womanly’.
The tragedy of Elliot Page (and some 25,000 women currently crowdfunding for mastectomies on Go Fund Me) is that none of this is new and yet is being considered some kind of new radical phenomena. It is women who are constantly being reminded there is something wrong with our bodies, that we shouldn’t talk about them, but that there is something to be ‘fixed’ about our unstreamlined femaleness. It is mainly so-called ‘transmen’ (women who claim to be men) who are getting surgery, not ‘transwomen’ (men who claim to be women) because, after all, men do not constantly receive the message from society that there is something inherently wrong with their bodies.
As lesbians become more invisible — fleeing into transition, or finding other ways to fly under the radar in a society that hates us (and if we are honest, hates all women) — it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue for lesbian identity when high profile actors like Elliot are spotlighted for their attempt to appear male. Page, at age 33, has been celebrated for declaring herself a man, with millions of likes on her instagram announcement. She now adorns the front cover of Time magazine saying, ‘I’m fully who I am’. Such narratives of selfhood are woven in to the American Dream and becoming more common as we experience an acceleration of the hyper individualisation of neoliberalism.
The existential crisis facing lesbianism continues. If more of us opt out of lesbianism in favour of ‘tranesness’ of ‘queerness’, young women will have fewer lesbian role models. Lesbian role models (an already-scarce commodity) are becoming increasingly hard to find. As lesbianism becomes less visible, it becomes less viable.
Lesbians are no longer championed by the Left. A lesbian future looks imperilled. There are reasons to be cheerful (lesbians earn more and live longer than heterosexual women), but it is hard sell lesbianism as a utopia whilst there is a mass exodus of lesbians into the ‘queer community’. If we are to take seriously Gramsci’s words about intellectual pessimism, but optimism of the will, we must look squarely at our surroundings, imagine a better world, and bring it into being. Until there is an uptick in actual political organising, political discussion, and political theorising within our quarters, we will remain long-term at sea.