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“Cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance afflicts too many feminists”

When the Daily Mail described our interviewee as a “dissident feminist” last December we knew we had to talk to this outsider of mainstream feminism, professor and writer Camille Paglia. I wanted to know why it’s not easy to slot her into a “camp”, what we can learn from her dissidence, and whether, looking back, she would consider acting differently in the public sphere. Has Paglia mellowed with age? Erm, that would be a big, bellowing, NO!

The Daily Mail described you as a “dissident feminist” and then went on to list a series of counter intuitive opinions you are reported as having. Why is it important for a feminist to be “dissident”? Do you ever play devil’s advocate and do we need feminists who are “controversial”?

I am a dissident because my system of beliefs, worked out over the past five decades, has been repeatedly attacked, defamed, and rejected by feminist leaders and their acolytes across a wide spectrum, both in and out of academe. This punitive style of mob ostracism began from the very start of second-wave feminism, when Betty Friedan was pushed out of the National Organization for Women by younger and more radical women, including fanatical lesbian separatists.

As a graduate student in 1970, I quietly clashed with future bestselling lesbian novelist Rita Mae Brown at an early feminist conference held at the Yale Law School. Brown said, “The difference between you and me, Camille, is that you want to save the universities and I want to burn them down.” The next year, I nearly got into a fistfight with the New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band over my defense of the Rolling Stones. Two years after that, as a Bennington College teacher at dinner at an Albany restaurant, I had an angry confrontation with the founding faculty of the pioneering women’s studies programme of the State University of New York when they sweepingly dismissed any role of hormones in human development. They accused me of being “brainwashed by male scientists”, a charge I still find stupid and contemptible. (I walked out before dessert, thereby boycotting the feminist event we all were headed to.)

“Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.”

There was a steady stream of other such unpleasant incidents, but everything paled in comparison to the international firestorm of lies and libel that greeted me after the publication in 1990 of my first book, Sexual Personae (a 700-page expansion of my Yale dissertation). It’s all documented and detailed in the back of my two essay collections, but let me give just one example. In 1992, Gloria Steinem, the czarina of U.S. feminism, sat enthroned with her designated heirs, Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, on the stage of New York’s 92nd St Y and, when asked a question about me from the floor, replied: “We don’t give a shit what she thinks.” The moment was caught by TV cameras and broadcast by CBS’s 60 Minutes programme. Faludi has monotonously insisted over the years that I am not a feminist but “only play one on TV”. Well, who made Faludi pope? Neither she nor any other feminist has the right to canonise or excommunicate.

I remain an equal opportunity feminist. That is, I call for the removal of all barriers to women’s advance in the professional and political realms. However, I oppose special protections for women (such as differential treatment of the names of accuser and accused in rape cases), and I condemn speech codes of any kind, above all on university campuses. Furthermore, as a libertarian, I maintain that our private sexual and emotional worlds are too mercurial and ambiguous to obey the codes that properly govern the workplace. As I recently told the Village Voice, I maintain that everyone has a bisexual potential and that no one is born gay. We need a more flexible psychology, as well as an end to the bitter feminist war on men. My feminist doctrine is completely on the record in four of my six books.

As for playing “devil’s advocate”, I can’t imagine a committed feminist engaging in that kind of silly game. The real problem is the cliquish, tunnel-vision intolerance that afflicts too many feminists, who seem unprepared to recognise and analyse ideas. In both the U.S. and Britain, there has been far too much addiction to “theory” in post-structuralist and post-modernist gender studies. With its opaque jargon and elitist poses, theory is no way to build a real-world movement. My system of pro-sex feminism has been constructed by a combination of scholarly research and every-day social observation.

The infamous faxes between you and Julie Burchill in The Modern Review are still very much the stuff of legend in the UK’s media. Any regret about the whole thing? If you were mentoring a young Camille today how would you tell her to deal with that kind of situation? All guns blazing, take her down and combative, or would you be recommending some mindfulness, meditation and understanding?

There is not a single thing I would change in my handling of that acrimonious 1993 episode. British journalist Julie Burchill gratuitously attacked and insulted me, and I responded in kind. Our exchanges continued, with my replies getting longer and hers getting shorter, until she realised she had misjudged her opponent and “bottled out” (a British locution for beating a hasty retreat that I heard for the first time from an amused Times reporter commenting on the battle).

I learned how to jab and parry from my early models, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, and Mary McCarthy. Germaine Greer, whom I deeply admire, has always been glorious in combat. As for mentoring a young Camille Paglia, I would tell her to study my martial arts moves and do likewise!

We have found ourselves in the midst of many similar battles of wits online, as Twitter is effectively publishing everyone’s faxes. As someone who can give as good as you get, how do you feel about some prominent feminists and writers being hounded off Twitter by other feminists? What do you think Twitter is doing for feminism – making it narcissistic, polarised and too noisy, or democratic, pluralist and a thriving community?

It’s a sad comment on the current state of feminism that the movement has been reduced to the manic fragments and instant obsolescence of Twitter. Although I adore the web and was a co-founding contributor to Salon.com from its very first issue in 1995, I have no interest whatever in social media. My publisher maintains an informational Facebook page for me on the Random House site, but I don’t do Facebook or Twitter and wouldn’t even know how.

“…without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out…”

It is difficult to understand how a generation raised on the slapdash jumpiness of Twitter and texting will ever develop a logical, coherent, distinctive voice in writing and argumentation. And without strong books and essays as a permanent repository for new ideas, modern movements eventually sputter out for lack of continuity and rationale. Hasty, blathering blogging (without taking time for reflection and revision) is also degrading the general quality of prose writing.

As for feminists being hounded off Twitter by other feminists, how trivial and adolescent that sounds! Both sides should get offline and read more—history, sociology, psychology, and the big neglected subject, biology. How can the greater world, much less men, ever take feminism seriously if its most ardent proponents behave like catty sorority girls throwing hissy fits at the high-school cafeteria?

The two feminist issues that create the most noise on Twitter, and generate backlash whichever way you side, are the sex industry and gender, the latter especially in relation to transgenderism. What are your thoughts on both?

I support, defend, and admire prostitutes, gay or straight. They do important and necessary work, whether moralists of the Left and Right like it or not. Child prostitution and sexual slavery are of course an infringement of civil liberties and must be stringently policed and prohibited.

Feminists who think they can abolish the sex trade are in a state of massive delusion. Only a ruthless, fascist regime of vast scale could eradicate the rogue sex impulse that is indistinguishable from the life force. Simply in the Western world, pagan sexuality has survived 2000 years of Judaeo-Christian persecution and is hardly going to be defeated by a few feminists whacking at it with their brooms.

Transgenderism has taken off like a freight train and has become nearly impossible to discuss with the analytic neutrality that honest and ethical scholarship requires. First of all, let me say that I consider myself a transgender being, neither man nor woman, and I would welcome the introduction of “OTHER” as a gender category in passports and other government documents. I telegraphed my gender dissidence from early childhood in the 1950s through flamboyantly male Halloween costumes (a Roman soldier, a matador, Napoleon, etc.) that were then shockingly unheard of for girls.

As a libertarian, I believe that every individual has the right to modify his or her body at will. But I am concerned about the current climate, inflamed by half-baked post-modernist gender theory, which convinces young people who may have other unresolved personal or family issues that sex-reassignment surgery is a golden road to happiness and true identity.

How has it happened that so many of today’s most daring and radical young people now define themselves by sexual identity alone? There has been a collapse of perspective here that will surely have mixed consequences for our art and culture and that may perhaps undermine the ability of Western societies to understand or react to the vehemently contrary beliefs of others who do not wish us well. As I showed in Sexual Personae, which began as a study of androgyny in literature and art, transgender phenomena multiply and spread in “late” phases of culture, as religious, political, and family traditions weaken and civilizations begin to decline. I will continue to celebrate androgyny, but I am under no illusions about what it may portend for the future.

Camille Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her latest book is Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars.

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What is Feminism? banner

Erica Böhr: Feminism is…

Erica BohrName: Erica Böhr

Age: 47

Location: Cambridge

Bio: Radical feminist lesbian artist and mother

For me, feminism is:

1. A radical political stance of activism in the face of ongoing inequalities in gender and sexuality

2. Not saying sorry for wanting the same wages; occupying the same personal space as men; challenging homophobia and sexism; not apologising for existing; not buying into and actively resisting patriarchy’s attempts to mind-maim women

3. Wanting a t-shirt that bears the following slogan :This is what a Ball-­‐breaking, Empire-­‐ building, Machiavellian Butch Dyke from Hell looks like

4. A space where the personal is always the political

Email your response to the question “what is feminism?” (in no more than 200 words) to editorial@feministtimes.com, with your name, age, location, a one-sentence bio and a photo of yourself.

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Review: Nineties Woman – Rosie Wilby

Rosie Wilby’s award-winning show Nineties Woman combines documentary, comedy, live storytelling, video interviews and archive photographs in a journey through her days as an awkward engineering student and lesbian feminist during the 1990s.

Inspired by her rediscovery of old copies of the York University feminist newspaper Matrix (Greek for ‘womb’), Rosie embarks on a multimedia quest to rediscover her Matrix sisters and reflects on the DIY, sometimes haphazard, nature of their 90s feminist activism.

Rosie fuses serious observations about how little the problems facing feminists have changed since her Matrix days, with comic anecdotes of unrequited crushes, and self-deprecating humour about her regrettable 90s hairstyle and inability to make friends.

Through video interviews with fellow members of the Matrix collective, Rosie reflects on the earnestness of the newspaper’s message – body image, sexual violence – and asks why the university’s 2006 revival, Matrix Reloaded was still tackling those same issues.

It’s not all serious though – there’s the time Rosie first got involved in student feminism because she’d fallen in love with the Women’s Officer; the hierarchy of cat ownership within the lesbian feminist community; the women-only bop where lesbians in Doc Martins had to dance gracefully to Nirvana for fear of making the record player skip; and the time she swam across the university boating lake to gatecrash the prestigious summer barbeque of Matrix’s sworn enemies.

Along with fellow comic Zoe Lyons, she recalls the late-night guerrilla mission to graffiti a wall with the words: “Sisterhood is Powerful” for the Matrix cover photo, only for the photo to end up reading “Sisterhood is…” Zoe was the lookout on her bike but, in keeping with the unfortunate photograph, admits she wouldn’t have stuck around had the sisterhood been caught.

The faded copies of Matrix have a beautifully DIY, zine-like aesthetic, cut and pasted during Matrix weekends spent listening to Everything But The Girl and, although there’s something faintly self-indulgent about Rosie’s nostalgic trip down memory lane, it’s a delight to share in – particularly for anyone who’s ever been involved in student feminism themselves. Having been a student feminist almost two decades later, much of Rosie’s tales chimed with my own memories and experiences.

The evening ended with a post-show discussion featuring Rosie, Diva editor Jane Czyzselska, musician and trans activist CN Lester, writer Kaite Welsh and actor and writer Naomi Paxton, looking at their own experiences of feminism and what the movement still  needs to work on – particularly in terms of the LGBT community which, in Rosie’s day, formed such a fundamental part of the student feminist movement.

For me, the panel made for an engaging warm-up ahead of our #LGBTMarryMe panel the following evening. Rosie’s and her panellists debated the idea that “media-friendly feminism has actually become less inclusive of the LGBT community”, with Kaite Welsh saying that, since feminism has gone mainstream, it’s been “girlified” and “the space for being butch and queer is being edged out.”

Combining so many different elements of feminism past and present – through Rosie’s blend of discussion, humour and recollection – Nineties Woman made for a thoroughly feminist night out that was as thought-provoking as it was entertaining.

Rosie Wilby is one of the smartest, funniest comedians on the scene at the moment and, while her solo shows like Nineties Woman are a more serious departure from her stand-up, her wit, charm and intelligent commentary are unwavering.

Catch Rosie Wilby’s Nineties Woman show on March 21 at Oxford Burton Taylor Studio, on March 29 at Courtyard Hereford and May 30 at Cambridge Junction.

Photo: Wendy Baverstock

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#LGBTMarryMe: Feminist Times & Fox Problem Debate

As part of LGBT History Month, The Fox Problem hosted the Feminist Times debate:

“Is same sex marriage just a distraction?”

Insightful points and a highly charged debate on the issues surrounding same-sex marriage and what it means to the LGBT community, hosted by broadcaster Ruth Barnes.

Listen here to LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell; trans woman, novelist, poet, critic and activist Roz Kaveney; currently blogging their wedding plans for Stylist magazine, Gemma Rolls-Bentley & Danielle Wilde; feminist blogger Zoe Stavri; and television and radio personality Georgie Okell discuss whether same-sex marriage is just a distraction.

LISTEN:

SCROLL THROUGH THE STORIFY:

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Tatchell: “Macho athletes are timid & silent in their collusion against human rights”

Feminist Times contributor Bernadette Hyland interviews Peter Tatchell, as part of our series throughout LGBT History Month – including Dr Finn Mackay’s brief herstory of lesbian feminism, Obama sends lesbians to Sochi, ‘Girls’: Lesbians in Russia, and Many Russias: Sochi’s Absurdist Olympics.

Peter Tatchell is best known as a campaigner for LGBT rights but has also worked on a wide range of national and international issues over the past four decades. He sees himself very much as a human rights campaigner: “For me LGBT rights are just one part of a broad spectrum of human rights.”

Born in Australia, Tatchell’s political awakening came at an early age. “I was 11 years old in 1963 and heard the news about the racist bombing of a black church in Alabama, where four girls about my age were killed,” he says. “I remember being horrified that anyone could do such a thing and it prompted my interest and support of the black civil rights movement.” More than

50 years later, Tatchell believes that the Left in Britain can learn from the successes made by groups such as the Peter Tatchell Foundation, Outrage and Stonewall. “The struggle for LGBT equality is one of the most successful law reform campaigns in British history,” he says.

“It has been achieved by a combination of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. Suffragette style protest by groups such as Outrage have been instrumental in putting LGBT rights on the political agenda, which has allowed more suffragist style groups like Stonewall to get a hearing within government and promote legislative reform.”

Most recently, this month’s Winter Olympic Games in Russia have seen Tatchell and the LGBT community take on one of the world’s most formidable leaders in Vladimir Putin. “The hosting of the Winter Olympics has been an own goal for Putin and Medvedev,” he believes, and has likened the position of gay people in Russia to the anti-semitism stirred up by the Nazis in the early 1930s.

He feels, however, that their campaign has forced Putin onto the defensive: “He has repeatedly been forced to respond to defend his government. We have focussed international attention on issues that are kept hidden, including corruption, anti-gay laws and the suppression of free speech.”

Tatchell has challenged well-known public figures in the LGBT community about their stance on human rights, most noticeably Clare Balding, who is commentating on the Sochi Olympics for the BBC. “I am not surprised by Stephen Fry and Paul O’Grady speaking out, but she has been muted in her comments and lots more personalities could have spoken out,” he says.

What has particularly shocked him has been the lack of response from British athletes at Sochi: “Not one single Olympian has made the slightest gesture towards the support of gay Russians – there have been no rainbow flags. These macho, go-getting athletes are timid and silent in their collusion against human rights.”

For Tatchell, human rights are much wider than any one particular issue. As a campaigner for the rights of LGBT people, he can only see this happening within a context of all people living in a happier, more liberated society.

Ultimately, he believes that liberation will only come if society itself is transformed. He is disillusioned with the mainstream parties, who “accept the neo-liberal consensus of society”, and he sees little hope in the Left and trade union movement.

“Much of the Left is in retreat. They are very defensive with little proactive campaigning. All their campaigns are defensive – against the Bedroom Tax and against the closure of A&E departments.” He feels that they have little to offer in terms of any vision of a different and better society.

Defining himself as a green socialist, Tatchell supports the Green New Deal and feels there is a need for a campaign calling for economic democracy, which he says is as important as political democracy. He believes his “vision for a new and different society” would be best enacted by a coalition between the greens and the Left, which would offer people a future that would transform society.

“The red and green traditions embody essential values and ideas for liberation and the survival of humanity,” he says. Bemoaning the lack of imagination within the Left’s campaigning, Tatchell believes they are too bogged down in organising marches, rather than offering solutions such as a wealth tax to challenge the austerity agenda.

The need to totally transform society is echoed in his views on same-sex marriage, which he will discuss at the Feminist Times February members’ event: Is same sex marriage just a distraction? “I have always seen marriage in terms of the feminist critique of sexism and patriarchy,” he says. “I am not a fan of marriage but the ban on same sex marriage is homophobic discrimination and it is important to fight it.”

He has his own ideas about how society could be organised in a form of marriage-lite, proposing an alternative to both marriage and civil partnerships called a civil community pact, allowing people to nominate any “significant other” as next of kin or beneficiary in death. “It would allow all people to pick and mix from a menu of rights and responsibilities to create a partnership agreement,” he adds.

If you want to continue the debate with Peter Tatchell, come along to our next members’ event on Wednesday 26 February: Is same sex marriage just a distraction? as part of LGBT History Month. Peter Tatchell will be joined be fellow panellists: Roz Kaveney – trans woman, novellist, poet, critic and activist; Gemma Rolls-Bentley & Danielle Wilde – currently blogging their wedding plans for Stylist magazineZoe Stavri – feminist blogger; chaired by broadcaster Ruth Barnes (BBC, Amazing Radio)

We’ll be asking: Why would same sex couples want to get married anyway? Is same sex marriage just about making LGBT couples more heteronormative? What should the priorities be for the LGBT community and LGBT feminism? If you want to be part of the discussion, please join us. Click here for details. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Many Russias: Sochi’s Absurdist Olympics

On 7 February, the world will witness one of the most absurdist events in its history: the Winter Olympic Games will be hosted in notoriously cold Russia, but in its warmest geographic point – the summer resort area in subtropical Sochi. This absurdity, however, is part of the everyday lives of the Russian citizens.

Imagine Russian political debates on TV or in the Duma (Russian parliament). Men in black suits and cassocks shout at each other with conviction, all claiming that ‘traditional family values’ best fit the country’s situation and must be codified and propagated. This rhetoric is referred to as ‘cultural bondage,’ which means that some ‘traditional’ notions tie together the imaginary Russian nation. These notions are heterosexuality, male domination and political power privileges. Who would submit to such values, you ask? The government gives the answer and it is absurdly simple: everyone, because these ‘values’ are essential for the Russian people. This trick is just a robbery of our voices.

In line with this agenda, a year before the Olympics, Russian bureaucracy adopted and implemented a number of policies that reinforce compulsory heterosexuality and male domination, threatening us with laws, supporting public hate speech and misogyny (such as calls to burn gay people) and legitimising violence against women and homosexuals. Advertising abortion services is prohibited, mentioning homosexuality in public is censured, and people – including teenagers – are surveyed by the police for being lesbian or gay. The government insists that families must have at least three children and that all generations should live under one roof to care for each other.

At the same time, there is the ‘nation’ itself: we, the people, who live our alternative lives. Some of us are women and others are gay; some are against this political agenda and others simply do not care about politics; and many of us are queer enough to fit neither category. However, we must all organise our lives keeping in mind that there is a vicious government enforcing these ‘cultural bondages’, and who claims that they are ‘ours.’ So we either manage what we say and do, or resist – there are those who can bite!

Certainly, these legal and political restrictions have an impact on our everyday lives, though it is important not to overestimate it. The law and governance in Russia are spheres that many people have got used to ignoring. The workings of these phenomena are symbolic: they demonstrate how people must answer public opinion polls, rather than actually being taken seriously. They produce people who submit to the existing constraints and strongly support government actions in official public discussions, but then do whatever they want in everyday interactions between each other.

On the other hand, there are also those with resentment towards the system: smart enough to understand the lies that the government produces, and courageous enough to say no to it. Remember Pussy Riot’s performances targeted the most profound of the government’s faults: sexism, wild capitalist rationality and clericalisation. There are many feminist grass-roots initiatives that fight back with feminist political actions, education, discussions, art interventions and so forth. Though we do not have common strategies and we do not act in accord, we subvert the existing order by providing alternatives. As a matter of fact, these initiatives, and any individuals who dare to resist, are the actual targets of state bureaucracy and the bans that have been implemented.

The Russian government officially announced its ambitious goal to represent world conservatism. The Olympic Games is to become a platform for this representation: we will witness the competition of chemical factories, trademarks and the oppression of critical voices. For me, it will also be a representation of failure – a failure that the Russian government must consider its own, without sharing responsibility with the whole people of Russia. We have become far away from each other – people and the state – by mutual misrecognition. We have become many Russias.

Alexander Kondakov is a researcher  at the Centre for Independent Social Research and Assistant Professor at the European University of St. Petersburg. Find out more at: http://lgbtqrightsinrussia.wordpress.com

Photo from NYC Pride: Kasya Shahovskaya 

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‘Girls’: Lesbians in Russia

As part of LGBT History Month, and ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympic games which begin tomorrow, Russian artist Anastasia Korosteleva presents her photography series looking at the state of Russia for lesbian women:

The photo series ‘Girls’ was made in response to the Russian federal law banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. Since the legislative ban on gay propaganda, the attitude of Russian society has worsened towards lesbians. An assertion that lesbianism is dangerous to children, anti-Russian, and a Western influence is imposed widely. It leads to an increase of violence against lesbians and penalties for ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’. This is the reason why the the identity of the women in the photographs is hidden. Moreover, their identity is protected by literally burning their faces. The burned-out faces both literally and metaphorically reveal the imprints of homophobia in Russia.

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Anastasia Korosteleva is a photographer and graphic designer based in Moscow. Find out more at akorosteleva.com

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Obama sends lesbians to Sochi

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” – Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter.

In 2014 you can buy the T-shirt but in Berlin in 1936, when African American Jesse Owens was the most successful athlete at what was supposed to be the showcase for Aryan superiority, Hitler refused to shake his hand. “The spirit among individual competitors, broadly speaking, was within measureable distance of the Olympic ideal,” The Cairns Post reported dryly between reports mocking displays designed to promote Aryan supremacy.

This year another nation’s leader seeks to promote his conservative agenda via the Olympic media spotlight. Mr Putin has chosen this time to criminalise homosexuality – promoting the supremacy and legitimacy of heterosexuality, if you will. Coca-Cola, a significant Olympic stakeholder since 1928, has been criticised for its silence on the matter.

In response, President Obama has, as one IOC member put it, “sent lesbians” in the United States delegation. Tennis great and equality advocate Billie Jean King will represent the US at the opening ceremony, while Olympic ice hockey medallist Caitlin Cahow will attend the closing ceremony.

Billie Jean King should be a thesaurus term for equality. The US Open is held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Her influence is everywhere – in the very existence of a women’s tour, in the fact tennis is the only professional sport with equal pay for women, and in the high levels of anxiety in women’s tennis about countering “out” players with heteronormatising promotional rhetoric.

King was the first lesbian outed while still playing when, in 1981, she was exposed by a “palimony” suit lodged against her by Marilyn Barnett. She has said she lost two million dollars and was forced to postpone retirement. Before that, King says: “I couldn’t get a closet deep enough. I’ve got a homophobic family, a tour that will die if I come out, the world is homophobic and, yeah, I was homophobic.”

Her fellow delegate Caitlin Cahow has been a strong advocate of Athlete Ally’s Principle 6 campaign around the Sochi games – a call for the International Olympic Committee to uphold Principle 6 and stand with LGBT Olympians against the Russian laws.

Writing for USA Today last month, she said: “Since its founding, the Modern Olympic Movement has stood for the notion that through sport, we may combat, ‘an ignorance which feeds hatreds, accumulates misunderstands,’ and impedes social progress.”

There are some obvious reasons why women have been at the queer forefront in sports. Men, being paid more, have more at stake economically, and the promoted hyper-masculinity of sports means women athletes occupy a space that confuses wider cultural signals about gender and sexuality.

Away from Sochi, things are seemingly beginning to improve for LGBT sportspeople, but only for athletes outside the 76 countries where homosexuality is still illegal. According to outsports.com, there were just 21 openly queer athletes out of more than 10,000 at the London Olympics in 2012.

It was only relatively recently, in 1999, that one of the first never ‘in’ athletes, Amelie Mauresmo, hit the Australian Open at nineteen. Ten feet tall and bulletproof, she acknowledged her girlfriend to the press and called more experienced players out for homophobic sledging. Recognising the detrimental effect of fear on performance, she told Agence France-Presse:

“I feel liberated and it’s shown in my game. There are dozens of other players like me who      say nothing – they’re often ill at ease and even unhappy… but I’m glad I spoke out. It’s just a pity the Australian press homed in on it … I’m a tennis player before anything else, it seems to me.”

She went on to win Olympic silver at Athens and both Wimbledon and the Australian Open in 2006, retiring in 2010. Reebok incorporated her openness into their ‘I am what I am’ campaign.

IOC President Thomas Bach has said that Olympians “will not be penalised” [by the IOC] for speaking out about Russia’s LGBT laws in press conferences, and Australian Snowboarder Belle Brockhoff has already been outspoken in her criticism of Putin. It is unclear how Russia will react but, with The Atlantic dubbing Sochi “the Gay Olympics”, Putin can be sure the world will be watching.

Carol Wical is a feminist cultural scholar and sports radio practitioner. Follow her @WicalBNE

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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A brief herstory of lesbian feminism

If it suddenly became the “politically correct” thing to do, could you have sex with men? No, me neither.

But seriously, when did we stop politicising our sexuality? Back in the golden days of the Second Wave, this was common practice and nothing personal was off limits to the political.

In the 1970s feminists got busy founding women-only feminist and lesbian communes, practicing non-monogamy as a political act, engaging in Consciousness Raising on all topics under the moon, raising children collectively, and still finding time to write some of it down. They produced pioneering and still controversial theory on compulsory heterosexuality, lesbian continuums and Political Lesbianism.

Political Lesbianism is a term most often associated with Radical Feminism – an incorrect association, as it was Revolutionary Feminism that actually gave us this idea here in the UK. Revolutionary Feminists in Leeds started a fierce debate in 1979 with their conference paper on ‘Political Lesbianism’, published in the Women’s Liberation Movement newsletter WIRES – the Women’s Information Referral and Enquiry Service.

This article questioned the role of heterosexual women within the movement and, indeed, the desirability of heterosexuality at all in a revolution requiring all of women’s energies and passions. The article suggested that women might consider withdrawing their energies from men, giving them instead to the Women’s Liberation Movement and their Sisters within it. This never meant becoming a lesbian necessarily, though ever since this is how the term has been misunderstood. In fact, the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group clearly advised dedicated heterosexuals that celibacy was always an option, should they be unwilling to follow in the footsteps of so many of their Sapphic Sisters.

So if feminism is the theory, is lesbianism the practice? No, not necessarily. The whole notion of Political Lesbianism, as it is commonly understood, would only make sense if all lesbians were political feminists. Let’s face it, it’s not as if all us lesbians set up home with a committed fellow activist, turn our flats into women’s centres and stay up late till the wee hours writing pamphlets; well, not every night anyway! Maybe at the weekend for a treat.

These days I’m less concerned with Political Lesbianism and more concerned with any political feminism, and with the lack of lesbians in politics of all kinds, including our own. Is it because we all really believe that things are equal now that lesbianism is so rarely mentioned within feminism and that, likewise, feminism is hardly a hot topic for most lesbians today? How often do you hear a conference organiser talk about lesbian representation on a panel, or raise the need for a dedicated lesbian space? Nobody would speak of the ‘lavender menace’ any more, but sometimes it feels as if lesbians are still feminism’s dirty little secret, despite being the backbone of this movement for decades.

It is too easy sometimes to underpin the very misogyny and homophobia that we are trying to overturn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stereotyping of feminists, particularly Radical Feminists, stereotypes which appear almost universally understood, and are rarely checked. We have shorthand of vague references to a feminism gone too far – to militancy, to radicalism, to man-hating, to ugliness – we’ve become so familiar with this typology, we sometimes don’t question it ourselves. “I’m not one of those kind of feminists,” is a familiar refrain.

What lies behind all these refrains is a perceived rejection of men and it is time we stopped acting like that’s the worst thing a woman can do. Misogyny and homophobia lurk beneath the surface of the animosity towards women-only space, Separatism and Lesbian Feminism. This may partly account for the decline of autonomous women-only organising, a vital political tool we ignore at our peril. Autonomous action threatens the status-quo by symbolising a withdrawal from men, albeit temporary. It raises the spectre of a social, cultural, political and maybe, most powerfully, a domestic and sexual withdrawal from men. This spectre haunts the institution of patriarchy, dependent as it is on the servitude of women to men.

Patriarchy has reason to fear, but feminists have nothing to fear from Lesbian Feminism or the theory and politics it engenders; there is nothing to fear in autonomous women-only space or Separatist living. Incidentally, this is maybe a good time to correct the common conflation of Separatism with autonomous organising. The former refers to the choice to live and work full-time, as much as possible, with women only. This is a personal and political choice, with a proud history, and it should be respected. The latter refers to temporary women-only spaces, political organising or leadership and is not in exclusion of other activism, including in mixed spaces.

So what if a woman chooses to have sex with other women? So what if she chooses to live in a women-only commune? So what if she chooses to be a full on Separatist and move to farm women’s land in the outback? Good luck to her! We should challenge the homophobia and misogyny that mocks our feminism with supposed insults – because being a lesbian or a Separatist should not be seen as undesirable or taboo; they are not insults. As long as we continue to act like they are, our enemies will continue to subvert our own messages and use them against us to demean our movement, demeaning lesbianism in the process.

We don’t need any reminders this week about why we should be challenging that process. With pomp, ceremony and brand endorsement, the Winter Olympics are unfolding in a city which declares it has no LGBTQ people, in a country where photos of gay men beaten and raped are treated like hunting trophies, whose president conflates lesbian and gay people with child rapists.

Closer to home, young LGBTQ people are still being bullied in school and it wasn’t that long ago, in 2009, that a gay man was beaten to death in a homophobic attack right in the middle of the gay mecca of London, in full view of witnesses, in Trafalgar Square. So next time somebody suggests all feminists are lesbians, as if that’s a reason not to be either, tell them you liberate women – and you like it.

Dr Finn Mackay is a feminist activist and researcher. Find out more @Finn_Mackay.

Photo: Purple Sherbet

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London Feminist Film Festival: Representations of Lesbianism

Alisha Rouse attended last week’s London Feminist Film Festival at the Hackney Picturehouse for us. In the second of three short blog posts, she reports back on the session on Representations of Lesbianism.

Blue is the Warmest Colour, the latest beautiful but painfully long film to rock out of Cannes, was described by its original feminist writer Julie Maroh as: “a straight person’s fantasy of gay love.”

The women involved are young, beautiful and rife with passion, drama, intensity and lust. They’re vulnerable, impressionable, and will presumably one day change their minds. It’s just the kind of lesbianism we’re all comfortable with; particularly the kind of lesbianism that male directors are comfortable with.

Take Black Swan as another case in point. A ridiculous revenge fantasy with incredibly loose lesbian subtext, where lesbianism – as Linda Fingleton, director and star of Waiting for You, told me at the London Feminist Film Festival – is shown as something dramatic and sinful. It’s always an affair, or suicide, or a death.

In fact, Linda told me she didn’t remember one on-screen gay relationship that didn’t end in one or both dying, or realising the error of their ways and running back to their heterosexual partner.

Her documentary, shot entirely with her video camera and starring just her and her partner Rena, is the antithesis of every ‘lesbians are subversive and kinky as hell and will inevitably turn back to cock’ film you’ve ever seen.

Filmed while they went through IVF – originally to show their future child – it is touching not just for its frank, emotional depiction of a couple who desperately want a child, but also that it shows a regular lesbian couple. A normal, real-life, living and fucking breathing until long after the credits roll, lesbian couple. They sit in bed, in pyjamas, with a cup of tea and chat.

This is the kind of lesbianism that makes people uncomfortable. Real, frank, and just the same as every hetero relationship going. That’s why there are no blockbusters about it; this level of acceptance of sexuality makes society very uneasy – it scares them, and it’s not sexy. And lesbians must, flaws and drama aside, always be sexy.

Lesbian representation in cinema seems to have one particular group crusading against the sexualised and hetero-friendly world of lesbianism in modern cinema – the London Lesbian Film Festival. It’s the only one in the world and it’s in Canada. Not this London, but the much smaller London in Ontario. Bending the Lens, a documentary celebrating the lesbian film festival’s 20th birthday, was also shown in Hackney for the London Feminist Film Festival.

A large group of volunteers, all of whom had no idea there were any other lesbians in London (no, again, not this one) get together every year and put on an awesome festival, where films are ‘by and for lesbians’. It’s the only of its kind in the world and aims to show lesbians that it, “doesn’t have to be dirty or smutty; you can talk about this stuff.”

As one keen Canadian put it, “I like women, I like popcorn, I like movies.” Depressingly enough, outside of this valley of sisterhood, it’s rare she’ll see a film that shows lesbian relationships in the way she knows: serious, stable, and where no one dies at the end.

Alisha Rouse is a Newspaper Journalism MA student at City University, desperately missing the north and praying for a job. Find out more @alisharouse.

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Sex party politics

I love a good sex party. In my queer feminist utopia, awesome community centres throw wild sex parties every Friday night. There is no social pressure attached to either going or not going to feminist utopia parties, which sometimes take place on large, multi-level boats strewn with fairy lights (just a personal fantasy).

Entrance policies vary. Some events are exclusively for dykes and queers; others are aimed at straight/bi women and are open to pro-feminist men. What they all hold in common are copious supplies of free communal lube, barriers, gloves, toys and chocolate biscuits. You can’t avoid the free chocolate biscuits, unfortunately.

But back in the real world, dyke public sex is harder to come by. As a lonely adolescent, my internet searching for  “lesbian cruising” was a total failure, bringing up information about ocean cruises. I hope these wet getaways are also an outlet for public sex, but suspect the hook-up opportunities they offer are more the private, cabin-based sort. Unless lesbian “cruises” are a massive pun-joke for women in the know?

Despite having fantasized about it for years, I was 20 before I plucked up the courage to actually go to a sex party. My ensuing night at heterosexual fetish club Torture Garden involved a trip to A&E (not made by me), cocaine (not consumed by me), a jilted boyfriend (not mine) smashing a mirror, copious vomit strewn around my now ex-friend’s house, but also – most seminally – my first spanking. Not to mention twenty fascinated minutes spent watching a hot, rubber-clad woman wrapping another woman in cling film.

But for any given major city, lesbian spaces for public fucking are limited. Parties tend to exist one at a time, and they never last long. There’s plenty of discussion about why this is. Women don’t buy enough drinks. Eligible lesbians become monogamous life-couples and just stay at home eating tofu and watching re-runs of The L Word. As an economically disadvantaged group, women are too busy holding down multiple jobs and finding ways to support their kids to spend their evenings rubbing up against strangers.

And perhaps we don’t spend our weekends cruising Hampstead Heath because public space is not for women. Anybody who has kissed their girlfriend outside their bedroom will know that lesbians who openly demonstrate affection will be co-opted for male pleasure. Most women are taught as children that sex is dangerous for us. Public sex – with the attendant and always-underlying fear of sexual violence – feels like even more of a risk.

The only way to find out if public sex turns you on is to brave it yourself. For sure, sex parties can amplify the general awkwardness of lesbian spaces to unbearable proportions. But the second or third time you go, you might start to recognise people you’ve seen before. And at some point, you might get to experience something you’ve previously only fantasized about.

The dos and don’ts of a sex party:

DO

  • Make sure that you have enthusiastic, active consent from anybody you engage in sex-related things with. If someone isn’t vigorously shouting “YES! YES! MORE!” (or similar) at you, then at least make sure they’re thinking it. Always ask.
  • Check that you’re engaging in activities that you consent to. It’s totally ok to go to a sex party and not fuck anyone. You can go, wander around, say “hi” awkwardly to people, eat the omnipresent free chocolate biscuits (why are they always there?) then leave, if you want.

DON’T

  • Fuck people then leave without cleaning up the mess. You guys. It’s gross and unsafe. Stop doing it.

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