Photo by Estlin Mendez (They/them)
"Whatever happened to lesbians?" Prism's final Pride Week event of the spring semester asked on Friday, April 5, 2019. Led by Stephanie Skora (she/her), associate executive director at Brave Space Alliance, the talk shed light on the histories of lesbian communities and "what went wrong with lesbians." She also has a much longer talk that she can give (estimated to be around three hours in length) that covers "what went right with lesbians," for any one interested in learning more on the topic.
Skora kicked off her talk at 7 p.m. with a set of instructions for any potential hecklers in the audience, lamenting that "heckling is a lost art" before instructing her audience, "if you're going to heckle me, please heckle me properly." Those interested in heckling her at any future appearances should take note that Skora is "a professional word-sayer" and will judge you on the quality of your heckling. Bad hecklers (those who are overly rude or use poorly-crafted, lazy insults) can rest assured they will be asked to leave and risk, both in the moment and online, shaming for their lackluster efforts.
Skora then proceeded to the actual presentation content, starting with defining the term lesbian. Lesbian has historically been used to describe gender and gender expression "even if we don't know it," in contrast with the everyday understanding many people in present-day contexts have of "lesbian" as a term denoting sexuality. Lesbian, Skora argued, functioned more as "a historical antecedent to the word genderqueer," a term that is often used today by people attempting to communicate their gender as not being captured in the more traditional Western gender binary.
When it came to talking lesbian political history, antiquity up through the 1950s was summarized in a single slide with the explanation that a lot of lesbian history has gone unnoticed and unwritten, largely due to men dominating the field for much of history and their inability to understand lesbians. Skora explained that lesbians were viewed with "terrible confusion" and that "people couldn't really wrap their heads around how lesbians had sex." She added that this meant they "couldn't legislate effectively against us," joking that confusion at least had some benefits.
Throughout her talk, Skora clearly demonstrated her depth of knowledge on the subject and deftly made jokes that were clearly relatable to her audience while also communicating a truly impressive amount of history for only an hour long talk. I can't speak for every person in attendance, but I doubt anyone found themself bored at any point during the presentation. It really did show that she is "a professional word-sayer."
The crux of the talk focused on the schism that developed in lesbian communities in the 1980s due to the ideological differences between radical lesbianism and lesbian separatism, two ideologies that developed during the 1960s and 1970s. Radical lesbianism argued for a lesbianism "as a political identity" and "an act of political resistance" from patriarchy and male supremacy, even making for heterosexual women to be lesbians, provided that they divest from supporting patriarchal interests. Lesbian separatism, on the other hand, viewed heterosexual women as "gender traitors" and led to the formation of lesbian communes. Lesbian separatists also believed in rigid ideas of gender, sex, and sexuality that were "particularly challenged by trans women," Skora explained, leading into the development of what are often referred to as Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs). Quite possibly my favorite thing said during the talk was when, twice, Skora added in the line, "Trouble with a capital 'T' and that stands for TERFs."
TERF ideology is concerned with maintaining gender as completely unchangeable and vilifying trans women as invading lesbian spaces. TERFs argue that trans healthcare is a way of "medically enforcing gender stereotypes" and trans men are merely "women who transitioned to get away from the patriarchy." The language of TERF ideology, we learned, has gone on to infiltrate the way even a lot of well meaning, trans-allied people talk about gender, such as the concept of "gender socialization."
"Gender socialization is not a real thing," Skora explained. "You are not socialized into any one particular gender, you are socialized into a system of gender norms and cis supremacy, which attempts to ascribe gender to you, but if you are not that gender, it doesn't ascribe that gender to you, it just f---s up your childhood."
As a result of this schism between TERFs/lesbian separatists and radical lesbians (including trans lesbians and their allies), many radical lesbians fled lesbian spaces to avoid political affiliation with TERFs and their transmisogyny, meaning that we've lost a whole lot of lesbian spaces, like dyke bars, all across the United States, along with a lot of our understanding of lesbian history. On top of that, lesbian identity has what Skora referred to as a "political ick," wherein lesbian identity itself is seen as inherently transphobic, unless specified otherwise. And while there have been efforts to reclaim lesbian identity (particularly led by trans lesbians) as something meaningful and empowering and unoppressive, there's also been an increase in the spread of TERF ideology, particularly through online communities.
"This is our history, this is where we came from," Skora said as she argued for the importance of understanding and preserving these lesbian histories, even though many of us are not keen to recognize the way lesbian spaces were used to spread transphobia and transmisogyny. She went on to explain how it's important to understand that just because someone is a lesbian, that "doesn't mean she's one of us." People who share our identities can still support ideologies that are harmful to us, or, ultimately, harmful to themselves.
For those looking to learn more on lesbian histories and the way lesbian ideologies developed, Skora recommended reading "any of the accepted canon of Black lesbian feminists," which includes (but is not limited to) bell hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the Combahee River Collective, and many, many more people. She also recommends the responses trans women have written to TERF writings, including the work of Julia Serano, Kate Bornstein, Susan Stryker, Sandy Stone, and so many more.
You can also learn more about Skora's work through her website, stephanieskora.com. I, for one, hope we can eventually get her back on campus to give us the longer talk of "what went right with lesbians."