Tag Archives: political lesbianism


I played a bit with the Riddle Scale of Homophobia in a previous post, and now I’d like to look at the scale again.  As before, a significant contribution of the Riddle Scale is that it names attitudes more than the most clearly violent and prejudiced as homophobic.  The point I plan to make–that “born that way” arguments are homophobic–has been made before, but not, I think, with the Riddle Scale to lend its particular clarity.

Also I’ve been sitting on this post for over two years, and I’m a little tired, so it might not be that clear after all.  Also, critiques of “X-phobia” are valid, and generally I prefer the lens of “heterosexism” to “homophobia.”

The Riddle Scale was developed by psychologist Dorothy Riddle in 1974/5.  Have a look.


  • Repulsion: Homosexuality is seen as a crime against nature. Gays/lesbians are considered sick, crazy, immoral, sinful, wicked, etc. Anything is justified to change them: incarceration, hospitalization, behavior therapy, electroshock therapy, etc.
  • Pity: Represents heterosexual chauvinism. Heterosexuality is considered more mature and certainly to be preferred. It is believed that any possibility of becoming straight should be reinforced, and those who seem to be born that way should be pitied as less fortunate (“the poor dears”).
  • Tolerance: Homosexuality is viewed as a phase of adolescent development that many people go through and most people grow out of. Thus, lesbians/gays are less mature than straights and should be treated with the protectiveness and indulgence one uses with children who are still maturing. It is believed that lesbians/gays should not be given positions of authority because they are still working through their adolescent behavior.
  • Acceptance: Still implies that there is something to accept; the existing climate of discrimination is ignored. Characterized by such statements as “You’re not lesbian to me, you’re a person!” or “What you do in bed is your own business.” or “That’s fine with me as long as you don’t flaunt it!”


  • Support: People at this level may be uncomfortable themselves, but they are aware of the homophobic climate and the irrational unfairness, and work to safeguard the rights of lesbians and gays.
  • Admiration: It is acknowledged that being lesbian/gay in our society takes strength. People at this level are willing to truly examine their homophobic attitudes, values, and behaviors.
  • Appreciation: The diversity of people is considered valuable and lesbians/gays are seen as a valid part of that diversity. People on this level are willing to combat homophobia in themselves and others.
  • Nurturance: Assumes that gay/lesbian people are indispensable in our society. People on this level view lesbians/gays with genuine affection and delight, and are willing to be their allies and advocates.

I really appreciated the Riddle Scale when I first saw it in my Ally Training long ago.  It showed the nuances in between “Gay is good” and “Gay is bad.”  At the time, I found myself on the verge between Acceptance and Support, but I really didn’t understand the last three categories.  They all seemed the same to me–because they were beyond my grasp at the time.  (It took Michfest to show me all that was possible, and get me to Nurturance.  Thanks Michfest.  I needed you.  We all still do.)

“Born that way” is an explanation for homosexuality saying that sexual orientation is genetic, inborn, designed by God, and completely unchangeable.  It is used as a argument to grant basic legal rights to homosexuals.  No longer a “crime against nature” (or the state), homosexuality need not be punished via sodomy laws, DADT (in the military or other fields), or prohibition of legal marriage.  “We’d change if we could, but we can’t, and are you really going to punish us for things we can’t change?”  So we are a step up from rock bottom.  We have a basis for decriminalizing homosexuality.  Yay.

But look again at the Riddle Scale. The attitude that “We’d change if we could, but we can’t” falls under Pity or Tolerance, on the negative end of the scale.  We can’t help it.  Pity us.  Tolerate us.  Protect and indulge us.  If rights are based on not being able to help ourselves, that implies that were homosexuals able to help themselves, homosexuality would not be ok. The OK-ness of homosexuality is not a given, then.  Hmm.

And if you think homosexuality is not ok, isn’t that…homophobia?  Positions based on “we can’t help it,” even when advocating for protective laws, even when based on (pseudo)science, ARE homophobic. How can you consider yourself an ally for homosexuals, when you come from pity or indulgence, i.e. “the poor dears can’t help it,” instead of coming from “gay and lesbian relationships are AWESOME!”  On an eight-point scale, are we really settling for two-out-of-eight?  Are we really giving those folks cookies?

Don't stay where you are tolerated, go where you are celebrated

When we start to realize that born-this-way arguments see lesbians as “poor dears” instead of healthy and whole and happy women, we can recognize this argument as one of desperation.  If we grovel in self-effacing ways, if we swear to the moon that we don’t think much of ourselves, if we promise to toe the line, they will give us our limited reward for feminine obedience.  Really?  This is the tack we want to take?  Demeaning ourselves?  I know it is still a dangerous world, and the threat of violence is real, and born-this-way offers limited protection, but it will only get us so far.  Meanwhile, women who want to choose lesbianism for their liberation are called fakes.  All to protect the two-out-of-eight.

I know, we’re afraid that if the public gets wind of women choosing to be lesbians, they’ll start thinking that we can choose to be straight and the conversion therapy will kick back in.  Granted, some people who try to become straight suffer.  Immensely.  Unfulfilling relationships with people you don’t love, sex that repulses you, trying to conform to undesirable gender stereotypes—all bad. I haven’t experienced it and I hope never to.  Trying to change out of shame, guilt, or self-hate doesn’t work. When we say that sexual orientation can’t be changed, what we should be saying instead is that sexual orientation can’t be changed through self-hate or external pressure. But changing organically because that’s who you grow into intellectually and emotionally, as Radical Feminists who become Lesbian do, that is possible and good.  Fantastic, life-affirming, and joyous, in fact.

It’s not that you were born that way to begin with, discovering it later. It’s that you were born merely with the possibility for attractions, and your upbringing, your environment, your culture, your life experiences have the power to shape your sexuality over time. You are not static. You grow and change. That’s what life is. We change hobbies, friendships, politics, religion, opinions, tastes, goals…and sexuality* is not exempt. It too can grow and change with us.  We move through the stages, and come to understand Lesbianism as beautiful.  Delightful.  Indispensable.  Which, interestingly, is at the other end the of scale.   Nurturance.  Eight-out-of-eight.

Y’all, I know that there are fake lesbians in the world.  I know lesbian sexuality has been commodified.  I know there are men out there changing the definition of the word.  I’m not asking us to drop our boundaries.  I’m asking us to re-examine them, to make sure we’ve built the right ones.  “Born that way” is a sad, desperate argument, and it’s hurting all of us, not just us ex-hets.

Today is a good day to become a Lesbian

I love this one.

* But see my previous post, WTF is Sex, Anyway?


Sapphic Garden

It pains me when well-meaning women put down political lesbianism.

I haven’t seen these “straight women” who “pretend to be lesbian,” but you know what, I can assume for a moment that maybe these women are out there, maybe on Tumblr or something.  I can believe for a while that there are women appropriating the word as a political statement.  People are shitty.  I know it’s possible that someone is doing this thing, unseen by me.

What I have seen is women trying to articulate the path they took to coming out, and they use the phrase “political lesbian.”

What I’m saying is, I wouldn’t be a lesbian if it weren’t for political lesbianism.  I’ve since dropped the “political” prefix because I’ve come to understand myself as legit, simply part of the lesbian tribe.  Looking in the mirror and being able to say “This is what a lesbian looks like.”  But before that, I needed a clearly articulated theory of compulsory heterosexuality to even consider the possibility that I was anything other than an ordinary straight person.  I know that I would have kept being miserably straight had no one offered me the possibility that I could be a lesbian without having known it forever.  Mainstream LGBT coming out guidelines didn’t offer me that.  I didn’t already know it, so I didn’t believe it was possible.

Prior to reading about political lesbianism, I considered myself a 0.5 on the Kinsey scale, and called myself “mostly straight.”  I kissed a few women in casual, non-romantic contexts.  I could only think of one or two women I’d been attracted to, but, overwhelmingly, what turned me on was men.  I knew this, and I accepted it.  And this was after going to a university with a huge LGBT center, having ally training, and learning about sexual orientation as a spectrum.  None of it seemed like it was meant for me.  There were gay people, and there were straight people, and I was one of the straight ones.

Since first reading about political lesbianism, I have:

  1. Decided I wanted to be a lesbian.
  2. Started dating my girlfriend.
  3. Stopped dating men.
  4. Had lesbian sex for the first time.  Actually started enjoying sex for the first time.
  5. Came out as bisexual (still wanted to be a lesbian, but didn’t think I deserved it yet).
  6. Attended Michfest 3 times, which changed how I think of women and of lesbians.  My second year at Fest was the first time I said to myself, “I am a Lesbian.”
  7. Changed what turns me on. (Spoiler: It’s women.)
  8. Continued to date my girlfriend.  Continued enjoying sex.
  9. Started coming out to people as a Lesbian.
  10. Engaged with further women romantically and sexually. (Polyamory is only a slimy liberal dOOd plot when there are actual dOOds involved.  My girlfriend is wonderful.  So is the breathtaking creature I’m currently trying to woo.)

It’s been four years now since political lesbianism opened the door for me, and now I’m a changed person.  The thing is, sometimes we don’t know ourselves, and we also don’t know that we don’t know.  Some of us had this orgasmic, ecstatic, spiritual-religious flowering of Lesbianism waiting to unfurl in us, but it needed space to grow.  A garden metaphor, if I may:

A Sapphic Garden needs five things to thrive. First, a seed.  The spark of possibility.  I believe this is in every woman.  Maybe you don’t.  But it’s certainly in more women than we generally think.  Second, fertile soil, closely related to your material body.  Do you have self-respect?  Self-love?  It’s hard to relate to anyone, much less someone whose body is like your own, if you do not love yourself.  Third, sunlight.  Is the climate right?  Do you live in a woman-loving culture, or do you struggle in the stifling dark of misogyny and homophobia?  Fourth, water, which is community of spirit.  Are there others like you, to nourish you?  Are you emotionally satisfied, or are you thirsty for connection?  Fifth is the space in which to grow.  A tender sprout is very vulnerable to competition from weeds, which can steal food, water, and sun.  Do you have cultural or personal beliefs getting in the way of your growth?  Habits of heteo sex, performing for the male gaze, and getting value and validation from men’s attention can choke out the tiny tender seed of Lesbianism.  Those weeds have to be removed, cleared away entirely, until the tiny seedling has the chance to grow deep roots.

Sapphic Gardens have always grown in less than perfect conditions.  Many Lesbians came out without having role models or community, against the odds.  Almost all of us have gardens growing in the dark of misogyny.  We are fucking miracles, really, all of us.  And some of us started with gardens, as far as we can tell, entirely overrun by weeds.  Generations of weeds gone to seed over and over, never ending.  It seemed to us like that was all our garden was suited for.  And then political lesbianism came along like Gardening for Beginners and was all, “You know, maybe if you got yourself a digging fork and a claw and got rid of these weeds, started fresh, your garden would do better.”  Paradigm shift.

I feel particularly tender towards the women like me who had to dig out the weeds of learned heterosexuality and male-pleasing before our Lesbian seeds could grow.  And I want other women to know about the flowers, dormant in seed form, that could grow in their gardens if only they made the space for them.


Breaking Trauma Bonds



A crush.  Panic.  Adrenaline.  Heartbeat.  Nerves.  Overheating.  Chest pain.  A twitch.  Is this supposed to be good?

Or just walking away from a date feeling like crap.  You get used to it, and you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  Or, you blame yourself for feeling bad.  He still wants to see you, and that’s good, so why do you feel bad?

When I see my girlfriend, I feel happy.  I never realized what crap I was putting myself through by having relationships with men until I experienced actual friendship with a (female) partner.  I never felt “crushed” around her.  Lucky me, we started off as friends.

With my first boyfriend, things were good at first.  We were both inexperienced.  We moved so slow.  We kissed so well.  Then we fucked, and the kissing was never the same.  When we broke up, I was sure I would never have sex with anyone ever again.  I couldn’t, after this betrayal.  The most horrifying, sickening part of being dumped was the knowledge that he’d been considering it for a while, he’d “fallen out of love” with me, he didn’t like or respect me anymore, AND YET he was willing to put me in compromising positions and fuck me.  I trusted him, I became so vulnerable for him, I let him do things to me only because he respected me, and then I realized he didn’t respect me after all.  He used me.  I felt so gross and worthless.  I was broken for months.



Not speaking to him after that was the best relationship decision I have ever made.  He still wanted me there to talk to him, be supportive.  He said I was incredibly selfish to withdraw, to place the boundary that prevented him from manipulating me and sucking my feminine energy.  I really didn’t have any to spare, because even though I wasn’t speaking to him, seeing him, following his life, all I did was think about him and hope we’d get back together eventually.  The first year after him was the most painful year of my life.  Most painful of any life moment so far, worse than the death of a relative.  It felt like my own death.  I was empty inside, looking at what had been taken from me after I had given so much.  It’s hard to imagine what would have been left of me had I let him abuse my friendship, if I had continued to give while he took, if I had helped to soothe his ego.  I had enough self preservation to see that it would have shattered me.  I saved myself by denying him access.

It was a hard line to draw.  He begged and pleaded.  He criticized.  I was selfish, unfair, irrational, unequal, I was holding all of the power.  I was cruel. Yet I was steadfast.  I am sometimes amazed that I had it in me.  I ignored his emails, blocked him on social networking, and resisted the urge to say hello, to open it up again in the hope that he really did miss me.  He dangled that carrot in front of me during our final conversation, and it tempted me many a time over the years.  But I had seen him take advantage of my desire for him while he remained aloof in return.  He took without giving, and that continued to wound me and sap me.  A real friend would acknowledge my need to heal.  A real friend would not accuse me of selfishness for trying to heal.  Either he would see that in time, or I wanted nothing to do with him.  This knowledge helped me keep the boundary firm.

Over the years there were some attempts at contact.  We emailed.  I still hoped, slightly.  Then I exploded with all my unspoken anger, and stopped hoping, and starting really healing.  Only the briefest of contact, once, since then.  I’m still curious sometimes if we’ll ever catch up, or if we’ll ever have that face-to-face meeting (he dumped me by email and we never saw each other after that).  Mostly, though, as the years tick by, I find myself caring less and less.  There is nothing good to remember.  The distance healed me.  My life is so different, and there is zero chance we have anything in common.  He hurt me, and I don’t want him in my life any more.  That’s a nice realization to have.

Another interesting realization is that none of my other boyfriends are worth keeping in touch with.  We never built a lasting friendship.  I have this dreaded sense of obligation to keep the door open, but there’s no joy in that.  I’m sure it would soothe us both to imagine that our failed relationship could have some meaning in the future, but sometimes the scalpel is preferable to the salve.

I am trying to develop a forward view.  I am trying to break the trauma-bonds.

The neighbors make yucky sounds.

After gaining some awareness of the violence in intercourse, the ways it is used to harm women, the eroticization of this harm and therefore of intercourse, and the eroticization of a gendered power imbalance, I have had a shift in my attraction for men.  That is, I have the attraction less (or “attraction” because I’m not sure it’s real attraction), and I also analyze it.  Where in the past I might have got all “turned on” and “hot” to be in a man’s embrace, now it’s more like “I notice that I am in a very vulnerable position. Ah, blood seems to be flowing to my vagina, which has positive associations for me.  I would very much like this man to satisfy himself on my body.  Hm, I’m experiencing this encounter through his body instead of through my own, which is a kind of dissociation.  Yeah, do it!  I’m going to have a rape fantasy now…rape fantasies are fucked up.  OK, men’s chests look weird.”

There’s this neighbor that I used to/occasionally have a crush on.  These days it’s less “He looked at me, I’m palpitating!” and more “O hai asshole.  I see you are hot today, aka you could overpower me.  I’m going to think about you fucking me now.  You jerk.”  I go back and forth between thinking he’s gross and thinking he’s hot; it goes hand-in-hand with whether I’m subjectifying or objectifying myself that day.  It’s an internal struggle between my feminist politics and my Stockholmed femininity, having the thoughts that I detest and simultaneously observing myself having those thoughts.  Makes me feel dirty.

However.  I do take it as a sign of progress when I can hear said hot neighbor having bed-shaking intercourse next door (the walls are thin), and all I think is how gross it is.  You lose some, you win some.