Lesbophobia is, like lesbianism itself, invisibalised in favour of more respected social forms. The wider amorphous ‘homophobia’ serves today as a catchall for any anti-gay sentiment, but it only really captures what gay men face: prejudice and discrimination based on their sexuality i.e same-sex attraction (to other men). Anti-gay prejudice experienced by men is pure homophobia, whereas lesbophobia is purely misogynistic. It is not the same-sex element of lesbianism, that two women engage sexually together that is objected to (as we know, many people enjoy watching depictions of lesbianism in porn and heterosexual women will perform lesbianism for men’s arousal). It is the sexual prohibition against men that is hated and is the root cause of lesbophobia.
If anti-lesbianism is to do with imposing a sexual boundary against men – something all women experience opposition to and potential reprisal for when saying “no” to men or a particular man – lesbophobia therefore has a universal quality to do with the sexual politics of women as a sex.
Women are sexually oppressed as a class, whereas men are not. Not even gay men face structural oppression due to their sexuality or sex (if we are to separate oppression out from prejudice and discrimination). If we understand prejudice, discrimination, and oppression as separate forms, oppression is structural and exists both as a manifestation (a social reality) and a function (society functions only as it does through the necessary oppression and super-exploitation of oppressed groups, specifically; women and people of colour).
Our societies require women to exist as a sexual resource and must be oppressed sexually in order for it to function as it currently does and reproduce itself – through appropriating women’s sexual capacity and burdening us with social reproduction in the home – society does not need gay men to exist or be oppressed for it to function. This is not to diminish the violent discrimination or virulent prejudice many gay men face globally, but rather, to clarify that anti-lesbianism is embedded in the wider picture of women’s sexual oppression as a sex class.
As Ti-Grace Atkinson wrote in Amazon Odyssey (1974) lesbians are kind of ‘sexual renegades’ who refuse to take part in sexual appropriation by men and we face specific prejudice for that refusal. But the prejudice related to that sexual refusal only exists because of the wider context of women’s sexual oppression.
Why does this matter? Because oppression surrounding sex class (women) and sexuality (lesbian or heterosexual) are defined by social relations. Biological sex class and sexual orientations are not simply identities and the recent rapid proliferation of sexual identities has obscured that reality. Whilst women’s sexual oppression is rooted in sexual biology, it is still realised through social relations. If we were to transform social relations, we could transform women’s oppression and rid the female sex of sexual oppression entirely (that does not however mean that things like the risks pregnancy brings, the medicalisation of the female body involved, the injuries and trauma of giving birth, the enormously depleting care required for raising a child, etc. would not be difficult or disappear, but oppression does not equate to difficult or dangerous).
Lesbophobia contains very few shared terms with the homophobia gay men face because of its roots in sexual difference (biological sex). One shared characteristic is that gender non-conforming dress and behaviours commonly elicit homophobic responses towards both gay men and lesbians, or, in actuality, anyone who is gender non-conforming. Gender, as a set of social relations and norms that organise the sexual hierarchy of male dominance and female submission, is key to understanding lesbophobia and all other forms of misogyny.
If women’s oppression is due to our biological sexual reproductive capacity, lesbianism is a stumbling block to the goal of female reproduction reproducing male-serving structures i.e why women are required by society to be sexually oppressed in the first place. Lesbophobia illustrates to us the specific discrimination and prejudice women face when we do not comply with the reproductive expectation placed on all women. That anti-lesbian prejudice and discrimination shows us how important oppressive gender roles still are to our society (gender role refers to stereotypes of women as domestic, suited to the private world of the home, unsuited to the public world of work or politics and concerned with accompanying feminine pursuits such as clothes, decoration, cooking, jewellery, talking about children, ‘gossip’, etc.)
If lesbophobia is, as I claim, a specific form of misogyny; lesbophobic misogyny, it is the rawest kind because lesbianism loudly declares unwillingness to take part in women’s sexual reproductive capacity. Even if a lesbian couple decides to reproduce using modern technological techniques like IVF, that child is not male property of a father and they have not allowed sexual male access to themselves. It should be noted though that lesbian couples that do marry and reproduce, following the heterosexual model, are recently much more applauded by heterosexual society much more than others who refuse to replicate the nuclear family.
Lesbophobia in that regard is likely very similar to the prejudice ‘spinsters’ and unmarried women faced historically. It should come as no surprise the majority of witches burned were widows or unmarried women (women lacking male protection and not of domestic or sexual use to any particular man). Lesbians, and women who don’t allow sexual access to men for whatever reason, are therefore a problem for reproducing society socially as it currently exists (particularly during their years of fertility).
That refusal of heterosexuality informs almost all of the characteristics of lesbophobia. Firstly, the idea that lesbians are ugly and ‘unfuckable’: a classic patriarchal reversal. Lesbians refuse men, a refusal that must be hidden, so it is reversed into a male refusal of us. Secondly, the notion that lesbians are manlike or in fact men, to signal attention our deviance and again assure everybody we are simply not ‘normal’ women. Thirdly, sexual harassment or corrective rape, to demonstrate that lesbians, and in fact no women, can escape male sexual attention. Lastly, the figure of the isolated and unhappy ‘spinster’ lesbian who must be miserable and lonely (to show straight women what might become of them should their stray from the righteous path of marital family life).
All of these contours arrange towards presenting heterosexuality as desirable or inescapable. Lesbophobia is a buttress against turning away from sexual reproduction with a man and all of the things that are intended to go with it for women; pregnancy, marriage, domestic servitude, childrearing, etc. Lesbophobia therefore is just one mechanism that secures women’s sexual appropriation by men, cements women’s domestic exploitation by men, and shores up reproduction by helping to ensure its continuance. The mistreatment of lesbians serves as a warning to all women. Is it any wonder many same-sex attracted women like to call themselves ‘bisexual’ (even when really not) in order to appease others by not signalling a sexual barrier to men?
When women refuse men’s advances it isn’t unknown for there to be the comment, “are you a lesbian?”, as if her rejection is otherwise incomprehensible. Similarly, how many of us have heard women asked why they don’t have a boyfriend through the quip of, “what, are you a lesbian?” raised as both ridicule and simultaneous warning of what she will be regarded as unless she attaches herself to a man.
In sharp contrast to the spectre of the unadmirable desolate lesbian ‘spinster’, lesbians live longer than women married to men and earn almost 10% more on average than heterosexual women. Kids do fair statistically better too without a man around as research shows there is a 0% child abuse rate within lesbian households.
What form does lesbophobia take practically? Prejudice and harassment at work are common, manifesting in the form of lesbophobic comments, often poorly disguised as ‘banter’ or ‘jokes’ (always at lesbians’ expense) that actually amount to sexualisation, sexual bullying, and sexual degradation. Within the workplace lesbians are targeted for a lack of conformity as women, despite it being far from the site of the family (the home). For some us we do not need to ‘come out’ at work, it is already guessed by everyone we meet that we are lesbians due to, basically, gender non-conformity in terms of appearance, mannerism, gait, voice, and distance from the behavioural norms expected of women (femininity).
However unique or unusual lesbians as women sometimes are, what we are subjected to in terms of lesbophobia is related to the universal status of women and indicative of how hotly policed women overall are. Being reduced to our sexuality is a universal diminishment all women face. If for lesbians, explicit refusal to have a sexuality that is available to men, lesbophobia represents a particular height of misogyny; that a woman is worthless and to be demeaned if she does not accrue legitimacy in the eyes of men. Lesbophobia directly stems from a woman who enforces a sexual boundary because her refusal encapsulates the possibility of any other woman refusing to be sexualised by men. Lesbians represent a “no” to men that is unfathomable at best, and violently hated at worst.
The lesbian couple attacked on a London bus in Camden in 2019 after refusing to perform for a group of teenaged boys who demanded they kiss each other represents how lesbophobia exists as hatred of non-compliant women. Five boys between the ages of fifteen and eighteen surrounded the women on the bottom floor of the night bus, demanding they kiss and “show them how lesbians have sex”, before throwing coins at them, which escalated to physically beating the women. Dr. Melania Geymona later wrote her account of the attack on Facebook, “I’m tired of being taken as a SEXUAL OBJECT”. Her partner Christine Hannigan later said at the trial they had been targeted “because of who they were”. But who is it that they were? Women who refused sexualisation on command.
In refusing to perform sexually for the teenage boys each of these women signalled their sexuality was their own. Not even that her sexuality was reserved for her girlfriend, or other women generally, but simply that her sexuality was her own property. Women defying the conception of themselves as the sexual property of men is a fundamental challenge to patriarchy and capitalist reproduction. If lesbians are categorical ‘refuseniks’ then so is every woman each time she refuses to be sexualised. “In the first place they came towards us because we were seen as sexual objects,” Dr. Geymonat told The Times. The wider edifice of heterosexual social relations that extrudes a woman’s sexuality from her looms large. Naturally, the lesbian couple attacked on the bus are joining the campaign to support new government legislation in the UK to make misogyny a hate crime.
Because lesbophobia is an incarnation of sexism and everyday misogyny, as a recognised phenomenon it is almost entirely absent from the gay male-centred discourse of ‘homophobia’. Gay male culture, from drag queens to the deprioritising of lesbian issues within the historical gay liberation movement, indicates a male supremacist culture.
Male domination is why so many lesbians split from the mixed gay liberation movement, so their voices could be heard and lesbian struggles prioritised for once. Some gay men do show solidarity with lesbians, but today not noticeably more than straight men do.
For those of us who have experienced lesbophobic verbal slurs in the street, or physical assault, none of the assailants ever checked if we were really were ‘dykes’ first. A woman’s lack of compliance with gender norms is enough to make a good guesstimate that she is a deviant ‘dyke’. Beyond this, I would go further and say it’s not even an estimate – what women who refuse men are really being punished for is a lack of sexual agreeability to men even visually (sometimes referred to as the ‘male gaze’). Any woman can receive punishment for refusing men, or be displeasing to men’s eye, not only lesbians.
In conclusion, lesbians have far more in common with heterosexual women than we do gay men. All women are oppressed due to our sex and sexuality (sexual capacity) and we navigate the sexist world around us, having the same gender expectations imposed on us, and all risk reprisal whenever we say “no” to men sexually.