Note: This post is a written transcript of my most recent YouTube video.
Remember how, in my video about Nazis in Norse Paganism, we talked about how most of the ideas held by modern white supremacists can be traced back to a handful of bigots hiding behind a facade of academia? Turns out, that’s also the case here.
Sheila Jeffreys has been hugely influential in two political movements that are still creating pain and division in queer spaces today: the “political lesbian” movement, and Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism.
The political lesbian movement, also called lesbian feminism, argues that women should cut off all contact with men and should focus all of their time, energy, and attention on other women. This movement also argues that, regardless of their actual sexual orientation, women should only have romantic and sexual relationships with other women, which is where the term “political lesbian” comes from. For these women, being a lesbian is a political choice, not an inherent part of who they are.
It’s also worth noting that several of the founders of this movement were former members of the Gay Liberation Front — the group founded as a result of the Stonewall riots — who left because they didn’t like working with men and transgender people.
The Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist movement, which you may know better by the acronym TERF, is a form of radical feminism that very much developed out of lesbian feminism and similar movements. TERFs have a lot of the same beliefs as political lesbians, but in addition they reject the idea that transgender women are women and advocate for the exclusion of trans women from women’s spaces.
Sheila Jeffreys has been very active in both of these movements since the 1980s. She’s written several books that have defined decades of radical feminist thinking, including Gender Hurts, which was published in 2014 and directly challenges the experiences and identities of transgender people.
Because political lesbians believe that men are inherently oppressive and that the only “correct” relationships are those between women, they regard a lot of the queer community with suspicion or outright disgust, especially queer men, queer women who are attracted to men, and transgender women, who they see (incorrectly) as men appropriating femininity.
The reason I’m talking about Sheila Jeffreys is because, in the 1980s and 1990s, LGBTQ+ people in academia started a movement called “queer theory,” which was an effort to create a shared space to discuss non-cisgender, non-heterosexual experiences and the shared oppression we all face.
Although activists, especially people of color, had already started reclaiming the word “queer,” this helped normalize the use of “queer” as a positive umbrella term for everyone who isn’t cis and straight. In this context, “queer” is a word that allows for a wide variety of experiences, including the experiences of people who don’t have a label that fits them or who aren’t yet sure how they identify.
Sheila Jeffreys and other political lesbian authors pushed back viciously against queer theory. She wrote an article called, “The Queer Disappearance of Lesbians,” where she argues, to quote from her abstract: “the developing field of lesbian and gay studies shows a likelihood to discriminate against the interests of lesbians and certainly against lesbian feminist theory through the incorporation of a ‘queer’ perspective.” The first line of that article is, “The appearance of queer theory and queer studies threatens to mean the disappearance of lesbians.”
Her argument, basically, is that, by celebrating a shared queer culture, including aspects of culture that were created by gay men, academia is giving into the patriarchy and erasing lesbian identity. She is especially critical of the aspects of queer culture that subvert or play with gender, such as drag.
Later, in 2003, Jeffreys published a book called Unpacking Queer Politics that essentially argues that the reason lesbian feminism fell out of fashion wasn’t because it was an inherently close-minded and reactionary movement, but because it was, to quote the back of the book: “submerged in the 1990s beneath a gay male agenda called queer politics.”
The irony here is that, by rejecting the shared queer identity, Jeffreys is advocating for an LGBT academic field that centers cisgender lesbian experiences, while at the same time accusing queer theorists of centering cisgender gay men.
Unfortunately, Jeffreys and other authors who share her opinions gained a lot of followers both in the mainstream feminist movement and in the LGBT community, and we’re still hearing echoes of their rhetoric decades later.
Refusing the use the word “queer” or a similar umbrella term for the shared experiences of non-cishet people paves the way for gatekeeping and makes it easier to police who is allowed in LGBT spaces.
As I mentioned earlier, Sheila Jeffreys and her crowd are incredibly vocally anti-trans. They argue that transgender people don’t belong in gay and lesbian spaces and make huge efforts to exclude them.
Self-identified queer spaces are also often the only spaces where bisexual and pansexual people feel welcome. People who are attracted to more than one gender often experience “double discrimination,” experiencing both homophobia from outside the community and biphobia from within the community.
This has been confirmed in multiple studies. A University of Massachusetts study led by Tangela Roberts found that the levels of discrimination bisexual people face from gay and lesbian people is only slightly lower than the level they face from straight people.
Because queer spaces focus on shared experience rather than on specific identities, they’re automatically more welcoming to bisexual and pansexual people who often find themselves excluded from events and spaces that solely focus on gay and lesbian experiences.
Because the word “queer” acknowledges a level of fluidity to human experiences, it creates spaces that are more welcoming not only to transgender people, but to nonbinary and genderfluid folks who, like bisexuals, are often told that they are confused and need to pick a side.
Queer as an umbrella term also allows space for identities that often don’t get talked about at all in other LGBT forums, like asexuality. Asexual people are often pushed out of LGBT spaces, told that they’re “basically straight,” or even told that their identity is a mental illness.
This is similar to the way Sheila Jeffreys and crew talk about transgender people, and it drives home an important point: these exclusionists aren’t really concerned with individual identities. Their actual goal is to make LGBT spaces inhospitable to people who are different from them.
When a group chooses to identify with an acronym rather than an inclusive term like “queer,” they maintain power to police which identities are allowed in their community.
For example, many groups try to exclude certain identities by changing what the letters in their acronym stand for. For example, a group might claim that the “A” in LGBTQIA stands for “Ally” instead of “Asexual,” or that the “Q” stands for “Questioning” instead of “Queer.”
In other cases, groups will police presentation and behavior and will demand that people meet their criteria in order to be included. Even if they have “B” in their acronym, bisexual people who pass as straight or who have straight partners may be excluded. Even if the acronym has a “T,” it may only guarantee a space for transgender men and women, while nonbinary, genderfluid, and agender folks are left out in the cold.
This kind of gatekeeping is unfortunately common in LGBT groups, especially groups that buy into the “queer is a slur” discourse and other ideas with roots in lesbian feminism. People are turned away for not being gay enough, or for being too gay, or for being gay in the wrong way.
I don’t want to focus too much on my personal experiences here, because this is a problem that is bigger than just me and that affects the entire community. That being said, it has been my personal experience that groups that ban the word “queer,” supposedly because of its history as a slur, almost always follow this up with active or passive efforts to exclude certain queer identities from their space.
People like me, who self-identify as queer and who don’t feel that other labels accurately describe their sexuality, are pressured to change the way we talk about our own experiences and identity because the language that feels comfortable for us is no longer deemed acceptable.
We’re pressured to call ourselves lesbian, gay, or bisexual, even when we don’t identify with those words. People who identify as genderqueer are pressured to choose a label like nonbinary or genderfluid, even though that may not fully describe their experiences. People who aren’t willing to change how they name and express their identity are shunned from the group or publicly shamed for “using a slur.”
In my experience, the next step has always been to start phasing out acceptance of queer identities that political lesbians don’t see as valid. Asexual people who are aromantic or heteroromantic will find themselves pushed out of conversations that increasingly focus on same-gender relationships, as will queer people in opposite-gender relationships and straight trans people.
The next step is usually to start openly excluding transgender people from the group. This might include changing the language the group uses to talk about gender to be more biological essentialist (meaning gender is equated with biology and anatomy). It might include enforcing a strict masculine-feminine binary and erasing identities that exist outside that binary.
For me, this makes it almost impossible to talk about my experiences in a meaningful way. I am someone who is attracted to multiple genders. I do not identify as bisexual. I do not identify as pansexual, or polysexual, or omnisexual. I am queer. My relationships are queer relationships. My community is a queer community.
My gender is also queer. I am a cisgender woman, but I experience womanhood in an inherently queer way. I do feel like my gender is woman and also, in some cases, other. I’m not nonbinary or genderfluid, but I am someone who experiences gender in a queer way.
“Queer woman,” for me, is a label that covers both sexuality and gender. When I have that taken from me, I’m suddenly left unable to describe my experiences in an authentic way, and that is incredibly alienating. It makes me feel like I’m an outsider, even within a community that is supposed to be for people who exist outside the norm.
This is why the word queer is so important. It’s an inclusive, all-encompassing word that allows people to come together and celebrate a shared identity. It’s more accessible, includes more people, and allows more room for growth and individual experiences.
Now, I do not want to invalidate the fact that many people have had the word “queer” used against them as a slur. I know from firsthand experience how painful it is to be called a slur because of your identity, and I would never want to make someone feel like their experiences of abuse and oppression don’t matter.
However, I take serious issue with the idea that the word “queer” is beyond reclaiming.
The reality is, most of the words queer people use to self-identify were originally used to demonize us or to medicalize our identities. “Gay” used to be a slur. “Lesbian” used to be both a slur and a medical diagnosis. We’ve always had to reclaim our identities from those who hate us. Reclaiming is inherent to our identities as queer people.
Again, speaking from personal experience, I’ve had the word “gay” used against me as a slur much more often than “queer.” I’ve also been called a lesbian by people who definitely meant it as a slur. So why are those words embraced by the community, but queer isn’t?
The process of reclaiming “queer” began in the 1980s, more than 30 years ago and only a couple of decades after people started reclaiming “gay” and “lesbian.” It’s one of the oldest words in our community’s vocabulary.
The idea that “queer” is a horrible slur that is unclaimable is, again, something that comes from political lesbians who want to control who is allowed in queer spaces. The only difference between “queer” and other reclaimed slurs like “gay” is that “queer” does not have a strict definition, and so can’t be used to gatekeep people who identify with it.
Philosophy Tube makes an excellent point about this in her YouTube video on the word queer, where she talks about how language changes over time. When thousands of people start using a word as a positive identifier, it takes power away from homophobes who would use it as a slur. And that’s very much what we’ve seen happen in the last 30 years.
People are different, and there’s probably never going to be a community-wide consensus about what people who aren’t cisgender and straight should be called as a collective. Maybe someday, someone will invent an entirely new umbrella term that will fit even better than queer. But I hope this has helped illustrate the danger of banning words, taking words away from people, and trying to control how others identify. I sincerely hope that one day I will live in a world where I can say that I’m proud to be queer without people within my own community accusing me of bigotry.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila_Jeffreys (for a basic summary)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesbian_feminism (for a basic summary)
YouTube Videos to learn more:
- Rowan Ellis’s video about TERFs, how they’re connected to political lesbians, and why they’re dangerous: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFhFt7ecVjg&t=223s
- * Jessie Gender’s (much longer) video explaining the TERF movement in detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDNQoZObOh4
- Hi It’s Efe’s video about biphobia within the queer community: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvEzdqGqIHY
- * TheNotAdam’s video about biphobia at Pride: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIkRen9eSaI&t=328s
- * Misty Gedlinske’s Ted Talk about bi erasure: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oa6AnOCQD50
- * Sara Sunflower’s video about asexual exclusion in the LGBTQ+ community: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGWmmKUYLi8
- * It’s Tama’s video about acephobia in the LGBTQ+ community: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sQVJGzGQ3rg&t=851s
- * The Closet Unlocked’s video about the reclaiming of “queer”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm0FUtxGEZQ
- * Rowan Ellis’s video about the history of “queer” and its inherent intersectionality: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rURiMCBd44
- * Philosophy Tube’s video about queer theory and its history: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Hi6j2UXEZM&t=369s
- * = own voices
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