Why are we questioning “lesbian existence”?

The two articles on “lesbian existence” in my reader on feminist methodologies focus on culturally and historically unique settings, yet come to similar conclusions about the legitimization of homosexuality.  The researchers involved in these case studies were interested in studying the history of lesbianism and homophobia; they were also concerned that their research somehow raised questions about the legitimacy of homosexuality.  In regards to her study on the history of sexual relationships between women in Lesotho, Africa, Kendall says, “After all, constructing or recovering lesbian history is, in a way, an act of legitimization that presumes illegitimacy” (Kendall 171).  In their study on lesbian relationships in the United States during the mid-twentieth center, Taylor and Rupp expressed concern about whether or not their research mattered.  Although they all concluded that their research was important, their doubt is indicative of something much more problematic.  How and why does something natural, cross-cultural, and cross-historical become illegitimate and seemingly unimportant?

In the United States, homosexuality has always been a cultural taboo.  Different institutions and individuals have actively fought to ensure that heterosexuality, and patriarchy, remain the status quo.  As Jackson says, “It is absolutely crucial that the vast majority [of women] be structured into the system of hetero-relations which lies at the very base of that supremacy” (Kendall 170).  Compulsory heterosexuality encourages, even requires, female dependence upon males which simultaneously maintains patriarchy and the social hierarchy which oppresses women.

Different “domains of power” (as discussed by Patricia Hill Collins) in the United States go about doing this in various ways, but they have the same goal: to ostracize the LGBT community and delegitimize homosexuality.  These work to reinforce the social hierarchy which favors heterosexuals and individuals belonging to a nuclear family; those belonging to this group have privileges which are not available to those who do not fit into this mold.    For example, the structural domain of power maintains this hierarchy through legislation which prevents same-sex couples from getting married, permits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, etc.  The hegemonic domain of power also plays a key role in this process through its portrayal and representation (or lack thereof) of homosexuality in the media, academic curricula, religious teachings, etc.  Ultimately, these homophobic messages become engrained in the minds of Americans and homophobia becomes more widespread.

Because the United States is the world’s superpower, it has great influence in other countries.  As Western technologies and media become more popular throughout the world, so do Western beliefs and attitudes.  Although this has great potential (for example, introducing new types of medicine), there are many drawbacks to [this aspect of] globalization.  Unlike in the United States, sexual relationships between women were once “common and culturally respected” in Lesotho; now, “they no longer seem to exist, or at least young women of the 1980s and 1990s are unaware of this cultural activity…”  Kendall refers to this as the result of the “Western import” of homophobia.

Regardless of their initial doubts, the researchers all concluded that studying lesbian history was crucial to the feminist movement and overall society.  This information helps us build communities within the LGBT community and create ties with those outside of these communities, specifically heterosexual allies.  It also allows us to recognize how and why the LGBT community is marginalized.  Once we understand this, we can work towards accepting these differences within individuals, eradicating socially constructed differences, and creating equality.  This type of research does not imply that lesbian history or lesbian lifestyles are illegitimate; in fact, I think it proves how influential patriarchy still is , who suffers because of patriarchy, and why we need to dismantle the existing social hierarchy.

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