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The Evolution of the Modern American Lesbian Community

Julia Smith's picture

Is there progress in biological evolution? In my evolution class, we have talked about this idea and have never reached a conclusion. The concept of evolutionary progress still stirs up debate among modern scientists, including one who we have studied, Ernst Mayr. Mayr claims that, although it depends how we define progress, evolution has to be progressive because there is no doubt that the “survivors of this selection process have been proven to be superior to those eliminated” (216). (Of course, to me that just means we have to get into a whole other discussion about what superiority is.) However, what Mayr asserts is that progress is gained not just in complexity from single celled to multi-cellular organisms, but also through time and survival; that is, humans are progressive as compared to the dinosaurs because we’re still around. Using this definition of progress, I believe that I can safely say that the American lesbian movement has progressed, despite my initial belief that it has only diversified. If I take Mayr’s idea into account, I believe that the emergence of a newer, more diverse “lesbian” community shows cultural evolutionary progress. I’m going to focus on the “modern” American lesbian community, that is, the lesbian community that originated in the 70s with the second wave of the women’s movement.

            The idea of a “political lesbian” began the modern American lesbian movement in the midst of the modern feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Feminists rebelled against traditional gender roles and dominating masculinity, and therefore, lesbianism began to represent the ultimate revolt against patriarchy (Wilton, 90).  Lesbianism became a political identity. In a society where women were trying to establish their independence from a male-dominated world, political lesbians were claiming that they didn’t need men at all: not in the workplace, not in their politics, and not in their beds. Would you call this progressive? I certainly would. It was the beginning of the modern American lesbian identity, and put ideas into the public mind that were taboo. It “outlived” older ideas about what a lesbian was. Additionally, it certainly, by Mayr’s definition, evolved and diversified the feminist movement. However, a divide occurred between the feminist movement and the political lesbian feminist movement. Political lesbians began to assert that heterosexuality was a threat to feminine independence. Naturally, heterosexual feminists were offended. Radical ideas started popping up on both sides. Radical lesbian groups such as the Lesbian Sex Mafia went to far as to say, at an academic conference at Barnard in 1982, that heterosexuality was an “incorrect” form of feminism (Gaines, 387).  Heterosexual feminists such as Susan Brownmiller said that gay women were fighting a different fight from hers, that lesbians were “over-concerned with sex and generally oppressive in their maleness” (Wilton, 93). Now, can we say that this split is progressive? It certainly is evolution and diversification. But, at this point in history, nothing has been eliminated, or “died out”, so to speak. Radical political lesbian groups still argued for feminism, as do heterosexual based feminist groups. I would argue, however, that this separation, allowed for the spread of new ideas and identities, and it also killed the idea that feminists and lesbians were one and the same.

            However, one progressive movement that emerged from the split of the feminist and feminist lesbian was the resurfacing of “butch/femme” politics. Butch/femme relationships were condemned throughout the 70s by the lesbian feminists because they perceived it as forcing lesbians into gender roles that they were trying to escape. They didn’t understand why any woman would want to act or dress like a man (or, in the femme’s case, an object of a man) when they were fighting so hard for female independence. After the split of the feminist and lesbian feminist groups, a butch/femme group split from the lesbian feminist group, led by Joan Nestle, who romanticized the butch/femme relationships of the 40s and 50s. (Faderman 586).  Now, one could quite possibly argue that, because Nestle and others essentially wanted to revive the butch/femme lesbian relationships of the past, that this is not a progressive idea. One could even say it is regressive. Nevertheless, I would argue that the neo-butch/femme movement was different because roles were not as strict as they were in the 40s and 50s (Faderman 591). Modern butches and femmes may identify as one or the other, or a mix of both. In addition, the movement challenged the old ideas of butch and femme, and the old butch/femme ideals of the 40s and 50s (one, dominating partner to act as the “man”) “died out”. Therefore, the reemergence of the butch/femme movement in the 80s is an example of the progressive evolution of the American lesbian community.

            Although the butch/femme politics seemed to shake up the lesbian community, it was nothing compared to bisexuality and, later, transsexuality. The butches, femmes, political lesbians, and cultural lesbians all agreed that they were women who loved women, and were, for the most part, unwilling to accept women who claimed to be bisexual. In the 1990s, bisexual women, such as Jo Eadie and Claire Hemmings became increasingly vocal about their sexuality. They spoke out against oppression of bisexuals and challenged “barriers” put up by the gay and lesbian communities. They defined bisexuality as “problem-free” (Dollimore 253). To many lesbians it seemed like bisexuals were attacking their world, and another split occurred, this one more of a contemporary concern. Bisexuality is certainly a progressive idea. As more lesbians “came out” as being bisexuals, bisexuality killed the idea that all lesbians were only women who slept with women. The evolution of the bisexual woman from the lesbian woman is progressive. Another movement that shook the lesbian community was the transgender movement. Just as lesbians felt their sexuality threatened by bisexuals, they felt their gender more threatened by transgendered people. Janice Raymond, a radical feminist lesbian, asserted that feminists must target transsexuals because they represent traditional gender roles (Prosser 314). Lesbians, even bisexual-identified lesbians, at least all held one common idea: they were women. The transgender movement, sometimes referred to as “transactivism” really began in 1993 with the murder of Brandon Teena, a female to male transsexual. Transsexuals were not only outraged at the murder, but also at the assumption that Teena was a “cross-dressing lesbian” (Prosser 316).  This movement, like the bisexual movement, is an example of progress because another it emerged and diversified the lesbian community. It specifically did so because it challenged the belief that all cross-dressing women were lesbians and it also challenged the belief that all cross-dressing women wanted to be men.

            When I started out writing this paper, I wanted to challenge what I thought of as being progressive. I wanted to really find out if any social movements can consider themselves progressive, and I think if we consider them individually, like I did in this paper, then the answer is yes. If, however, we compare them to other social movements (for example, the Gay and Lesbian Movement is often compared to the Civil Rights Movement), then can we really consider that progress?  To me, it just seems like the idea of civil rights is being repeated for different minorities. Perhaps it is much like Mayr’s idea of the evolution of the car. No one can say that the car hasn’t progressed from a model T, but it hasn’t made the bicycle or the train obsolete.


Works Cited



Dollimore, Jonathan. “Bisexuality”. Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction.             Ed. Andy Medhurst and Sally R. Munt. London: Cassell, 1997.  250-60.


Faderman, Lillian. “The Return of Butch and Femme: A Phenomenon in Lesbian             Sexuality of the 1980s and 1990s”. Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 2, No.             4. (Apr., 1992), pp. 578-596. JSTOR. <            4070%28199204%292%3A4%3C578%3ATROBAF%3E2.0.CO%3B2-S>


Gaines, Jane. “Feminist Heterosexuality and Its Politically Incorrect Pleasures”. Critical             Inquiry, Vol. 21, No. 2. (Winter, 1995), pp. 382-410. JSTOR.             <            HAIPI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O>


Prosser, Jay. “Transgender”. Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction. Ed.             Andy Medhurst and Sally R. Munt. London: Cassell, 1997.  309-326.


Wilton, Tamsin. Lesbian Studies: Setting An Agenda. London: Routledge, 1995.









Alyssa's picture

The Song Remains the Same

This is a good essay, but it replicates a major failing of most lesbian histories.

Trans women, that is MtF women, are totally erased.


Anne Dalke's picture

progress--or repetition?


Bingo! I think you’ve done a fine job, here, of tracing the evolution of the modern lesbian community; it’s a fascinating history, isn’t it, of increasing complexification and diversification? My responses have largely to do with refining the very interesting story you have to tell:

--I’m not clear about the founding definition on which you lean for the remainder of the essay, your assertion that, according to Mayr, “humans are progressive as compared to the dinosaurs because we’re still around.” Progress=survival, then? I’m not following the logic of that claim.

--your tracing the emergence from feminism to political lesbianism to butch/femme politics to bisexuality to transsexuality is compelling. I found myself wanting a fuller explanation of why, in the 1990s, lesbian women “drew the line” at bisexual women. And paragraph more insistently throughout, please, to help your reader see the steps you are traversing.

--I resist accounts of when a movement, any movement, “really” began; the narratives we tell are not innocent in the origin points we chose, and choosing the murder of Brandon Teena gives a particular focus to the story you share here.

What I like most, of course, is the sense that your own thinking evolved in the course of writing this paper: you began with a notion of diversification that was not progressive, and end by arguing that diversitification as survival=progress. What most intrigues me, of course, is that huge and VERY interesting gesture you make at the very end: that the lesbian rights movement can be seen as progressive, when looked at alone, but when put in the context of all the social rights movements that have taken place in this country, we seem to have a picture of repetition. Is it static? I’d love to discuss this more w/ you—