LESBIANS AND THE LEFT
In the past decade, the relationship between lesbians
and the left has been uneasy. In 1972 when the New American Movement, a socialist organization of which I am a
member, made gay liberation part of its political principles, many leftists were dismissing gay liberation as
merely a personal struggle. Some even called it reactionary. At that time, many lesbians who wanted to change the
entire society Were convinced th.e left was hopelessly
dominated by men who!would never even support feminism,
let alone lesbianism.
The tension also exists for anyone who tries to advocate both. When I am talking to someone outside the movement, trying to link socialism and lesbianism means combining the unpopular with the taboo. Small wonder people
feel uneasy in our political statements about joining
the two. In 1972, organizers of a Washington anti-war
march worried that a group of lesbians would turn people
off. By 1977» some participants in a Chicago march
against Anita Bryant worried about the presence of a
group called "Gay Socialists."
Although I expect this tension to continue, there are
some encouraging signs. There are fewer parts of the left
that don't support gay liberation today. The left has
come around, I believe, because lesbians and gay men refused to listen to criticisms of the early 70's and have
built a strong and progressive movement. Groups like the
New American Movement and individuals who have stajyed
within the left have also argued for support of gay
liberation. And Ms. Bryant herself has probably helped
by making the connection between right-wing politics and
opposition to gay liberation so explicit.
I believe the struggles for lesbian rights and many
of the insights of lesbian.feminism.should be an important , integral part of the larger struggle to transform
society, of a socialist revolution. I want to outline
here why I think it is important, at this point in history, and in this country. I am making a crucial assumption: that a revolutionary struggle that-does not include
a commitment to feminism is not worth waging.
While all socialist revolutions have had sweeping
changes in the status of women as goals, and most have
put some of them into practice, none has ever included
rights for lesbians. There are reasons why lesbianism
(and gay rights generally) has come to the fore in the
U.S. at this time, and I believe those very reasons make
the struggle for lesbian rights a crucial part of a
In the past century, ordinary people have been encouraged by the media and by the circumstances of their daily
lives to find fulfillment through their private, personal
lives. (Eli Zaretsky, in Capitalism, the Family, and
Personal Life gives an excellent description of how this
has happened.) As capitalism in the U.S. has developed
and life has become more complex, people experience less
and less ability to be creative or effective in the world
as a whole. At work, even executives in the corporate
world feel as much like cogs in a machine as blue-collar
workers (or cogs without a machine, in the case of the
unemployed.) More and more, we are told by T.V., popular
songs, and psychotherapists, we can find fulfillment,
happiness and ourselves in our personal lives. In the
1950's, the focus of most of this alleged happiness was
the family; by the mid-sixties it had switched to sexual
relationships. People are bombarded with the message that
by Judy MacLean
a satisfying sex life is the key to the good life, and
that it is achievable, for one and all, if only certain
products are used, or certain therapies applied,..'.
The feminist movement provided the great .insight that
the personal is political. As Shulamith Fierstone showed
in" The Dialectic of Sex, love relationships between men
and women repeat the same patterns—patterns perpetuated
by the ways men and women are raised and enforced by
unequal access to power over our lives. Our misery as
women is shared, and it is not our fault as individuals.
It is political in that it stems from the power relationships that are the basis of how our society is organized.
And so the way to change our situation is through political changes in the society as a whole, not through
changes in ourselves. Of course, we will be transformed,
too, in the course 'of the struggle, by our very act of
trying to change the world.
'From Sidonie G. Colette's Claudine a I'ecoie (1905?).
So, we find ourselves impaled upon a contradiction.
We are supposed to find freedom and happiness in our
sexual lives; in fact, our every move has been choreographed long ago. It is inevitable that with all the
propaganda about sexual freedom that some women would
actually try to seek some. And for some women, this
means violating the heterosexual norms. Surely one of
the most basic kinds of sexual freedom is the freedom
to love another woman, to build this realm of personal
happiness with someone who hasn't been programmed to
A hundred years ago there' were probably just as many
women with inclinations toward lesbianism as there are today. But in a society that downplays sexuality, that
doesn't preach fulfillment through sexual relationships,
many women probably ignored those inclinations. Of course,
some never did. But it is the contrast today, between a
keyed-up culture, where sexuality is almost always the
backdrop and where it is held as a panacea, and the reality of what many of us would do with real sexual freedom which makes the contradiction acute.
continued on page 16
CONNECTIONS, December 1979/January 1980^ 9