Tuesday, May 29, 2007

LESBIAN SEX CULTURES: Part One – Self-Determination

Recently, I read an article that said that gay men had a more developed sex culture than lesbians. I took umbrage. In fact, there are highly developed lesbian sex cultures. Granted, they may not be found prominently at the Folsom Street Fair nor in back rooms in bars, but lesbian sex cultures have benefited every person in the United States, and, I would argue, they have benefited people beyond the U.S. borders. To suggest that the sex cultures among lesbians are less developed than among gay men is specious, but more importantly such a suggestion is harmful to us all.

Lesbian sex culture, which I’ll speak of now in the singular, though that singular is not monolithic. I use the singular, lesbian sex culture, with the understanding that lesbian sex culture is a variegated, multiplicitous composite of a variety of cultures. Fundamentally, lesbian sex culture is premised on two values. The first value is that everyone has a right to determine for him or herself what to do with his or her body. The second value is that everyone has a right to experience a pleasurable and fulfilling sexuality. These two values provide the foundation of lesbian sex culture and extend beyond the lesbian community to impact broader notions about sexuality.

Let me begin by exploring the first value. It bears repeating. Everyone has a right to determine for him or herself what to do with his or her body. In short, everyone has a right to sexual self-determination.

This value of sexual self-determination has been manifested in lesbian sex culture in a variety of ways. One expression of this value is the work of lesbians, in conjunction with heterosexual men and women, to ensure reproductive rights. Reproductive rights, whether they are access to birth control or to abortion or to just basic, common-sense information about sexuality, emanate from a public sex culture that lesbians have created.

A public sex culture is not simply formulated as public sex acts. That is too simplistic. Public sex cultures make sex and sexuality visible so that it can enter the public discourse. The notion of reproductive rights found its expression and public entry, in part, through lesbian sex culture. This isn’t to say that the notion of reproductive rights was created by lesbians; it wasn’t, though lesbians were intimately involved with the work to create it. Rather, lesbian sex culture—our experience of our sexuality as both a private and a public experience deserves protection and expression—was central to the creation and public embrace of reproductive rights.

Another way that sex and sexuality are made visible is in sexuality education. Lesbians, whether openly lesbian or closeted, always have played a role in educating women about their bodies and their sexual organs, including how they work and how they can be pleasurable. This education, the belief in it and the consequence of it, is another public expression of lesbian sex culture. Our sexuality and our experience of it is made visible through the education of other women and through the creation of social movements that seek to further protect women’s bodies and women’s rights to sexual self-determination.

The basic value that women have the right to sexual self-determination is an idea that emanates from the theories of feminism. It has been made visible and put into practice by a broad network of women, with lesbian women integrally engaged in its creation and promotion. The value of sexual self-determination is one contribution of lesbian sex culture.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #3 dated May 29, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 582

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


While America is watching and voting on the next American Idol, I’m thinking about lesbians. Specifically, I’m thinking about Lesbian American Idols. The cult of American Idol is built on discovering new talent among young people, transforming it into commercial talent, and ultimately into pop stardom. Some of these new, up-and-coming singers may even become icons, a few may even become divas.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that the real American Idols are under the age of thirty, and I don’t think that the real American Idols are singers. I think that the real American Idols are people who have pursued their passions for many years and whose passions have enhanced all of our lives. In the lesbian community, we have our own share of real American Idols. This is about what and whom I idolize.

Idolize means to hold someone in blind devotion or adoration. My Lesbian American Idols are in three areas: literature, activism, and history. I don’t want to exclude singers. After all, there are lesbian singers that are Lesbian American Idols – and now many of them have become idols to the rest of America, not just to the lesbian community. Melissa, k.d., they go by first name only. Yes, these are Lesbian American Idols. There are also Lesbian American Idols among the women who build womyn’s music. I think of Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, and Ferron. I idolize them.

Lesbian American Idols aren’t just music-makers, however. Lesbian American Idols build our culture, not only in music, but also in literature, activism, and history. Lesbian American Idols have committed themselves to building lesbian culture and lesbian identity over a lifetime. Here are four of my Lesbian American Idols: Barbara Grier, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon, and Lillian Faderman.

Barbara Grier loves books. She’s always loved books. First, as a young adult she collected books by and about lesbians. Then, through The Ladder, the publication of the Daughters of Bilitis, she wrote about books by and about lesbians. Then, she published lesbian books through Naiad Press. Recently, Barbara Grier has retired – and, with her partner Donna McBride, made the largest contribution of lesbian books ever to the Hormel Center of the San Francisco Public Library. Grier’s life and lifelong commitment to literature is something to idolize. I idolize Barbara Grier.

Like Grier and McBride, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have built a life and a legacy together. They organized the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 as a way to build a social life as lesbians. In 1972, they published the book Lesbian/Woman. A year later they followed it up with Lesbian Life and Liberation. The lives have been filled with activism to benefit lesbians everywhere. Most recently, Martin and Lyon were among the couples married in San Francisco in February 2004. Their marriage came after over fifty years of their intimate partnership and life together. The activism of Martin and Lyon is something to idolize. I idolize Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.

Lillian Faderman knows how to tell a story and how to bring together the stories of our past into a lesbian herstory. Her first contribution to lesbian herstory was the book Surpassing the Love of Men which looked at the romantic love between women in since the Renaissance. She followed it with Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers as well as an autobiography about her life as a lesbian. Most recently she’s collaborated on another history of gay and lesbian life called Gay LA. As a result of Faderman’s work, we know more about our history. I idolize Lillian Faderman.

These are just three of my Lesbian American Idols. Yes, I’ll be watching American Idol and yes, I’ll be voting for the next American Idol, but I’m aware that these pop stars may or may not last. My Lesbian American Idols are all tried and true. Their stardom has lasted, but, more importantly, their impact on all of us is everlasting.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #2 dated May 15, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 653

For permission to publish, please contact Julie R. Enszer at JulieREnszer@gmail.com.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

MARKING OUR TIME TOGETHER: Reflections on Lesbian Anniversaries

The perennial question in response to lesbian couples celebrating anniversaries is, What are you celebrating? This question refers not to the number of years that the couple is celebrating together, though certainly that is of interest, but rather it asks, what milestone is being celebrated?

We have a variety of milestones that we celebrate in our relationships. First meeting. First date. First sex. And now in the new world of increasing relationship recognition by governmental units, additional questions are appended: domestic partnership? civil union? or in Massachusetts and select countries around the world, marriage?

I think it is good and right that we celebrate our anniversaries in whatever ways we want to construct them. In the absence of formal government, religious, or community recognition, we put together a patchwork of anniversary milestones that recognize our relationships and define them on our own terms.

My partner and I celebrate the first day that we consummated our relationship – though, to be honest, the entire week surrounding the anniversary is a series of remembrances. This is the day you told me that you were in love with me. This is the night of the fundraising party. This is the first night that you slept at my house. The milestones, burned into our memory are numerous. We celebrate each in small ways as we recall and retell the story of falling in love with one another.

In spite of my fondness for our celebrations together, I’m always struck that anniversaries, no matter what their basis, are an arbitrary construction to recognize our relationships. We create them to recognize and mark our relationships, but ultimately the significance of our relationships is not found in these anniversary dates, whatever the stories behind them. The significance of our relationships is not in our annual milestones; the significance of our relationships is in the daily milestones of our lives together.

Relationships endure not from the stories of their creation, though we may revel in these. The stories of first glances, first dates, and falling in love are the stories of love and romance. Love and romance captures the popular imagination in the dominant heterosexual culture, and, indeed, they are the stories that we love in our own lesbian cultures. We tell them again and again to friends, new and old.

The stories of love and romance, the initial stories of a relationship, however, are moments driven by lust and those delicious chemicals called pheromones. Certainly, individually and as a community we parse out moments that define our creation as a couple. While these moments define our relationships publicly as they draw us together individually, they are not the moments that write the future anniversaries which we celebrate.

The moments that write anniversaries are everyday moments. They are moments that may be remembered fondly minutes later, but not years. Everyday moments are the ones that sustain a relationship – shared responsibilities, shared interests. Everyday moments are small in their scope in a relationship and in a life. They are the moments when wet towels are hung carefully on a towel rack. They are the moments of bringing popping corn to the beloved during a scary movie. They are the moments of bringing home flowers for no reason or dinner after a long week at work. Everyday moments are the moments that provide the sustenance to keep a relationship together.

In the retrospective of a life, people rarely recall every play or concert that they have seen together, but they know that they like to do such things together. Thinking back over a relationship, people rarely remember the smallest of kindnesses and the most meaningful of thoughts, but they know that they have shared a life with another person on a daily basis that was characterized by kindness and thoughtfulness.

Celebrating anniversaries is something that we’ll all continue to do. I hope that in the face of increasing governmental recognition we don’t lose our own community definitions of anniversaries. I also hope that we’ll acknowledge – and celebrate – the everyday moments in our lives together.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #1 dated May 1, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 677