Vanishing Lesbians? Dr Alison J Laurie considers the history and significance of lesbian spaces
Updated: Aug 31
Are lesbians vanishing?
Or has the way we understand visibility changed?
World wide, it seems that there are very few lesbian bars, clubs or public meeting places that survive. Even in Paris, there are now no lesbian bars. The few once lesbian bars that survive, are now for gay men. In the US, in city after city, lesbians report the loss of bars, clubs, and bookshops.
Here in New Zealand, there are now no lesbian clubs, and in many cities, no regular meeting places. In Auckland, the Charlotte Museum holds lesbian events, as does the Lilac Library in Wellington. There are occasional women’s dances, regular lesbian walks in Wellington, lesbian potlucks on the Kapiti Coast, and some other places. Some lesbian magazines continue to survive, in Auckland and Christchurch, and a few newsletters. The Wellington Lesbian Radio Programme continues, now for 31 years. The Lilac Library, Radio Programme, and some lesbian events, are financially supported by the Armstrong and Arthur Charitable Trust for Lesbians. The Women’s Bookshop remains, as do some women’s centres, but of course these are not specifically lesbian.
There are bars, meetings, and other gatherings, in the main centres for the Rainbow communities that include a range of people. And it does seem that in the big, wide, and ever-expanding alphabet soup of LGBTQI there is a less noticeable presence from lesbians. Public events like the Hero Parade remain dominated by gay men.
What has replaced the former physical meeting places for lesbians now seems to be the Internet, with a myriad of lesbian web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter connections etc. A virtual world, for discussion, dating, contacts. In this, younger lesbians are no different from others in their age group. And older lesbians are learning to do this too. Though many sites are also rainbow inclusive, and not only for lesbians.
We have always struggled for inclusion in mixed groups with gay men. In the 1960s, “kamp girls” as we called ourselves then, could not be members of kamp men’s clubs, like the Dorian Society in Wellington. New Zealand was a highly sex segregated society, especially following the return of two generations of men damaged in overseas wars, who established the RSAs, the custom of men only public bars, and much besides. Gay men and lesbians are products of the cultures in which we live, and gay men were no more used to socialising with women present than were heterosexual men. After the extension of licensing hours to 10pm in 1967, many hotels set up mixed bars, though public bars remained men only for some time.
Eventually lesbians responded to being excluded, by setting up our own clubs, the first being the KG Club in Auckland, and Club 41 in Wellington. Following the introduction of Gay Liberation, lesbians worked with gay men, to gain human rights and to change the criminal law against male homosexual acts. As these groups expanded, the sexism of many gay men meant that lesbians embraced the new ideas of lesbian feminism, also introduced from the US. Lesbians formed our own groups, soon joined by women coming out through Women’s Liberation, lesbians leaving gay liberation, and lesbians from the old kamp culture. For the heady years of the 1970s and 1980s, lesbians established clubs, magazines, lesbian centres, bookshops, organizations, summer camps, and held many events, including dances, conferences, and much more. All for lesbians only. Safe spaces, where lesbians could meet, talk, relax, and develop a lesbian culture. Lesbian separatism was one response to the male exclusivity and separatism of New Zealand society generally, and especially of the more conservative gay men.
New Zealand lesbian culture became inclusive of race, class and disability, and was politically active around anti-racism, peace and employment issues. Many lesbians worked in coalitions, and worked with gay men, leading up to homosexual law reform in 1986. During the law reform and human rights campaigns, it was difficult to have the word “lesbian” used by the media, or by gay men, many who thought “lesbian” could be subsumed under the term “gay”. We did achieve specific inclusion in the Human Rights Act 1993, arguing that “homosexual” was mostly understood as referring to men, and that “lesbian” needed to be specified to make it clear that women were also included, and that “bisexual” also needed to be specified.
As we have moved into more recent times, “lesbian” is always included in the alphabet soup. But more often as a letter, than as a reality. For example, there is little attention given to lesbian health issues, such as the high incidence among lesbians of breast cancer. Or of the importance of pay equity to lesbians, who remain disadvantaged, as are all women in New Zealand, by the pay differentials between male and female wages, compounded by the additional factors of race, class, age and disability. Same-sex marriage has brought some relief to lesbian mothers and co-parents, but the issues of maternity leave, breast-feeding in the workplace, child-care, and leave to care for sick children have not been resolved. Men in the alphabet soup show little interest in these issues.
Among rainbow youth, “Lesbian” may be regarded by some as an old-fashioned, unpopular, unattractive identity, despite all the Ellens and Hollywood stars coming out. Famous people have always been allowed to be different, and it may not change things that much on the ground, in schools, workplaces, families, and all the many places where lesbians fear discrimination and exclusion. It remains difficult to live as lesbian, in a society where women who refuse to be sexually available to men threaten the gendered structures of patriarchy. However, there are increasing numbers of young women who do live as lesbians, marry, have children, and socialize only within their family groups. Perhaps they no longer have any need for lesbian spaces, events, or cultures.
So – are lesbian spaces vanishing from the physical world, into the safer spaces of the virtual world? Can lesbians retain visibility within the alphabet soup, or do we need to move away and rebuild more lesbian spaces like the Charlotte Museum and the Lilac Library? And to what extent should we welcome others from the alphabet soup into our lesbian spaces? Would these others take them over, dominate, so that these places could become rainbow areas, mainly reflecting the interests of men. As girls and women, we are taught to put the interests of men first, to make them feel comfortable, and look after them. And not to make them angry, for fear of the consequences. It’s hard to break this socialisation. And those who have been socialised as boys and men, can speak with such authority and confidence, that it seems natural to defer to them, and to put their interests first. A Rainbow Museum might be financially sound, if men supported it, but would it still display adequate lesbian material among large new Rainbow collections? And, the Charlotte Museum advertises in a blog post, that a “lesbian-feminist transwoman may be the most radical of us all”. If they were many, and a critical mass, what kind of “lesbian” culture and history would be reflected? Alix Dobkin sang, “every woman can be a lesbian”. Today, perhaps “everybody can be a lesbian”. Otherwise, there are Rainbow events overseas and in New Zealand, with an ever-increasing alphabet soup of genders and sexualities, dominated by gay men, queer men, flamboyant and keen to prioritise their own visibility and their own issues.
These are all questions to consider for the future. Will lesbians vanish? Become more visible? Move in completely new and unimagined directions?
Dr Alison J. Laurie, 2015.