Breaching Borders: Identity and the Insiders

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Breaching Borders: Identity and the Insiders

Nancy Evans

In her 1995 book, "On the Outside Looking In: The Politics of Lesbian Motherhood", Ellen Lewin presents the phenomenon of lesbian women who, through childbirth, gain access to the heterosexual community as an in-group member. At first glance, Lewin's observations seem to subvert traditional inside/outside ideology, portraying the boundaries of the hetero- and homosexual worlds as permeable rather than rigidly, relationally exclusive. A more exhaustive analysis, namely of the accounts of the women Lewin interviews, serves instead to reinforce inside/outside construction in relation to self and perceived identity. While the women are 'allowed' into the selective sphere of heteronormality, they do not cross these categorical lines as both 'lesbian' and 'mother'. This paper will argue that the terms 'lesbian' and 'mother' are mutually exclusive, perhaps not in reality, but in the capacities of identity, performance, and location within an inside/outside dynamic.

Lewin prefaces her analysis with a glance at the classic Western representation of the lesbian. This depiction focuses on the exclusion of lesbians from typical female roles of "motherhood" and "nurturing"; being a mother carried an implied notion of heterosexuality, therefore, lesbianism and motherhood "cancelled each other out in the popular imagination" (107). Indeed, many of the women surveyed shared the sentiment of motherhood as "overwhelming and engulfing other dimensions of their lives—including what they considered the lesbian component" (109). While this may be ascribed to the daunting tasks of mothering and childcare, the women pointed to a more self-appropriated explanation as they echoed one another in their tendencies to "downplay the significance of their lesbianism in giving accounts of themselves [as mothers]" (110). Simultaneously, these women were rooting themselves more deeply in the heterosexual world and losing ties with the homosexual world. Many of the reports quote the lesbian mothers as feeling stronger ties to the world they share with straight women than with other lesbians. Many felt the lesbian community to be unfriendly to lesbian mothers. One woman was even asked to leave her all-lesbian rap group after her child was born, as her fellow group members believed she was no loner "attuned to lesbian issues" (124).

The question remains as to why straight mothers, as a representation of the larger heterosexual community, would be so quick to ally themselves with lesbians, even lesbian mothers. For a scholar of feminist theorist Diana Fuss, this coalition seems to threaten the inside (read: dominant) status of heterosexual society. Fuss' notion that the "denotation of any term is always dependent on what is exterior to it" means that any group (in this example, heterosexuals) typically defines itself in "critical opposition" to that which it is not (homosexuals) (233). Not only does heterosexuality need the category of homosexuality to keep at a distance that which is undesirable, heterosexuality itself is threatened if homosexuality ceases to exist or becomes assimilated into the inside group. In a structure where existence is so dependent upon the joint processes of "alienation, splitting, and identification which together produce a self and the other", what is to be done with individuals who can be recognized as both the alien (lesbian) and the insider (mother) (Fuss 234)?

To add another level of specificity to Fuss' argument, and to attempt to answer the question posed in the last paragraph, let us further interrogate the identities of the women described in "Lesbian Mothers". None of the women in Lewin's study spoke of 'renouncing' their lesbianism; even if motherhood eclipsed the lesbian aspect of their lives, they would still respond in the affirmative if asked if they considered themselves lesbians. The important component in this situation is not, then, the actuality that the women were homosexuals but the rational choice of their own dominant identity and the corresponding performance of their homosexuality. The straight women who became compatriots to the lesbian mothers had no illusions as to the sexuality of their new friends; they knew these women were lesbians, but they also knew they were not performing the role of lesbian.

This brings us to the notion that it is not the existence of homosexuality that threatens heterosexuality, but the performance of it. The women were not not gay, they were merely not actively occupying 'gay'. There was no closeting, no attempt to "pass" as a heterosexual, not even any denying of actually being a lesbian, merely a swap out of a divisive identity for a more salient and harmonious one in order to move inward without difficulty. In this process, lesbian is not deleted, simply dormant. Fuss, channeling Foucault, concedes that "sexual identity may be less a function of knowledge than performance" (238). Yet this description of stepping out of lesbian identity without switching to the binary counter-part (or even another counter-part within the schema, bisexual, for example), upsets Fuss' claim of relational determinacy. What does it mean for an individual who is not performing a homosexual identity but also not performing a heterosexual identity? It means there must exist another space outside of inside or out that Fuss has neglected to name and "Not inside yet not outside yet not in between" somehow does not seem enough.

The theory-based analysis presented thus far in this paper does not address the potential moral implications of changing inside/outside spheres. Why do these women choose to become a part of a system that othered them in the first place? Taking into account the obvious social and political implications of being among the insiders, participating in heterosexual society seems to allow these women to escape from some lesbian norms. As one woman admits,

"Since I had [my daughter], I felt it was okay to do these things I've been wanting to do real bad. One of them is paint my toenails red. I haven't done it yet, but I'm going to do it. I felt really okay about earinf perfume, and I just got a permanent in my hair... I feel like I'm robbing myself of some of these things I want to do by trying to fit this lesbian code. I feel like by my having this child, it has already thrown me into the sidelines." (Lewin 110).

Unwittingly, this woman has given us more of a space for lesbian mothers than Fuss can provide. Again, she is not attempting to be straight, she is just taking a break from her performance of lesbian and watching from the "sidelines". Some of the women also associate motherhood as giving them access to "sources of goodness" helping them "construct a satisfying image for themselves" that homosexuality, with its associations with deviancy and moral wrongness, can never provide (Lewin 110).
There are also women who enter the heterosexual world hesitantly. These women seem to recognize the current mutual exclusivity of 'lesbian' and 'mother' and, viewing heterosexuality as the site where motherhood can occur, decide to sacrifice their homosexual identity for the time being. These women overwhelmingly speak of motherhood as a temporal identity, one which they will occupy arguably until their children are old enough not to need the constant care of infancy. After this point, the women will embody lesbian again, letting 'mother' fall into the background in identity choice.

Evidently, Fuss is necessary as a locus for which to place the forces at work in Lewin's work. Yet she falls short to fully identify the differences between innate and performative identity and the implications these have for inside and out. It is these differences, as well as the task of finding space for those who move out of their own sphere and without renouncing it, that prove to be the logical next steps in Fuss' inside/out construction.

Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories". New York. Routledge.
1991. pp 233-239.
Lewin, Ellen. "On the Outside Looking In: The Politics of Lesbian Motherhood".
Conceiving the New World Order. Berkeley: Univ of California Press. 1995 Pp 103-121.

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