When I moved to Columbus, Ohio last summer, I quickly heard about Slammers, the only lesbian bar in the city. As the story goes (and according to Autostraddle’s 2012 queer girl city guide, which I immediately read when I arrived), Columbus used to have a lesbian dance club that has since closed down, and Slammers is now the go-to spot, known for its pizza, sports bar atmosphere, and big outdoor patio. I finally grabbed drinks at Slammers in December on a first date with someone from Hinge. Getting ready for my date, I felt a sense of reverence — I was going to one of the few remaining lesbian bars in the country!
Walking in an hour later, my first thought was, “oh right, it’s a bar.wp_postsI felt pretty much the same as I do at any bar on a first date (primarily, anxiety about what to talk about, where to sit, and what to order), rather than an immediate connection to community. To be sure, I was excited to see the queer bartenders behind the counter, the group of flannel-wearing gay men at the booth a few seats down, and stickers for the Abortion Fund of Ohio and Trans Ohio in the all-gender bathroom. I just didn’t necessarily feel what I felt like I was supposed to feel: queer joy, a sense of camaraderie, a utopian refuge from heteronormativity. My somewhat ambivalent visit to Slammer’s made me wonder about the national press coverage and widespread anxiety about the closing of lesbian bars, best typified by the Lesbian Bar Project, and what this means about how we think and talk about lesbian spaces.
Mairead Sullivan’s new book, Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger between Feminist and Queer explores and aims to disrupt our contemporary anxieties around the disappearance of the term “lesbianwp_postsas an identity, political standpoint, and theoretical concept. As their “Introductionwp_postsprovocatively begins:
“The lesbian is dead. Or so the story goes. If she is not dead, then she is dying, a victim of new constellations of gender and sexuality. Or, perhaps, she is a victim of her own making. If it is not that no one wants to be a lesbian anymore, then it is that the generation for whom “lesbianwp_postswas a salient political claim has so well succeeded in their goals of lesbian mainstreaming that lesbian no longer carries political weight. Conversely, the story is that lesbian is too readily aligned with gender essentialism and anachronistic rejections of avant-garde cultures; lesbian has been superseded by queer, now trans, left to the trash bin of yesterday’s mistake.”
Sullivan, an Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Loyola Marymount University, spends the rest of the book unpacking these anxieties, as well as examining how they circulate in conversations about lesbian spaces and in feminist and queer theory. Throughout the book, Sullivan oscillates between discussing “empiricalwp_postsreal-life lesbians, and lesbian as a theoretical concept or an analytic that can help us think through gender, race, class, and sexuality. While an academic book to be sure, I read Lesbian Death like it was a thriller, staying up late gripped with the excitement that Sullivan had touched on something I noticed in the world around me but hadn’t yet been able to describe.
I chatted with Sullivan in January about the book and what it was like to write. Where did the project originate? They shared, “The project started about 15 years ago when I was working in public health. I was actually managing a program that was talking to lesbian and bisexual women about their experiences of sexuality and body image after breast cancer. So on the one hand, I was part of this very large, very relatively well funded program, talking to lesbian and bisexual women about their experiences of breast cancer. And simultaneously, I was involved in my more political life in thinking about, you know, what was happening in women’s spaces, specifically spaces like the Michigan Women’s Music Festival, et cetera. And at this time, my peers and I were grappling with what our relationship to this language of lesbian was, in large part because “lesbianwp_postswas being weaponized in these spaces and in the sort of defense of women’s only spaces.”
Sullivan points to a number of flashpoints in these debates about women’s spaces — the 2014 closing of the only lesbian bar in San Francisco, the end of the infamously trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 2015, and the 2016 publication of Bonnie Morris’ book The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture — as particular moments of cultural anxiety about the loss of lesbian identity and space that inspired them to write the book. Lesbian Death, she said, is “grappling with that and really the kind of dizzying experience I have of, on the one hand, being out in the world, like, let’s say on an airplane and sitting next to someone and they’re like, ‘oh, what do you do?’ And I talk about writing a book about how no one wants to be a lesbian, and they’re like, ‘but I know lots of lesbians. What do you mean?’ Like, there’s plenty of lesbians around. And then simultaneously being in more activist or political and academic spaces where there’s this really incessant hand wringing over, why does no one wanna be a lesbian? What’s happening to lesbian spaces? What’s happening to lesbian culture?”
As Sullivan writes in the Introduction, “I begin this book by outright rejecting its premise of lesbian death. The lesbian lives. If this book starts from the provocation that the lesbian is dead, it also starts from the promise that the lesbian who lives is multiple.”
“What I want to do,wp_postsSullivan tells me, “is to basically say like, don’t worry, there’s plenty of people who call themselves lesbians. But maybe what you are worried about is this loss of lesbian’s political bite. And that we’re not necessarily gonna find it by going out and counting lesbians, but it’s still here.”
Sullivan argues that, underneath concerns about the end of lesbian, is really a sense of the loss of radical lesbian feminist politics. She sees the cultural and academic hand-wringing as a nostalgia for a 1970s lesbian feminist world building project that imagined societies free of homophobia, sexism, racism, and capitalism. They astutely write in the book, “In the lament that young queer people should not abandon lesbian identity, I hear the demand: if you are queer and feminist, you must claim ‘lesbian.’wp_postsYet even if fewer young people identify as lesbians (which is not a claim that Sullivan is making), Sullivan firmly believes that we can find a commitment to a type of lesbian feminist politics among younger groups of queer people anyway. As Sullivan writes, “the political commitments that those histories signal are still here, but they might not look the same way.”
Rather than imagine lesbian as in danger of going extinct, Sullivan sees capacious lesbian feminist world building projects taken up in myriad ways in the contemporary moment. In our conversation and in the book, she points to queer parties, book stores and bars, digital spaces such as apps like Lex, and even Autostraddle as evidence of this. Sullivan argues that these spaces carry on the legacy of lesbian feminist politics whether or not they use the word “lesbianwp_poststo describe themselves. In the Conclusion of the book, Sullivan writes, “Rather than mark this time as a forgetting of lesbian feminist pasts, we can read these events as calling forth the social and political commitments of multiple lesbian feminist pasts while also allowing these commitments to be changed and reworked toward the needs of the present.”
Sullivan is also quick to point out how anxieties about the disappearing lesbian are racialized and gendered, often implicitly and sometimes very explicitly. Throughout the book, they critique the ways that lesbian and women’s spaces have frequently and historically excluded women of color and trans women, and how these tensions have come to a head in the resurgence of TERF rhetoric in the contemporary moment. “The lesbian has been weaponized by projects of trans exclusion and anti-trans violence,wp_postsSullivan argues. By positioning trans women as a threat to lesbian identity and space, “trans-exclusionary ideology recasts the lesbian as a passive victim,wp_postsa move which requires significant mental gymnastics to ignore the fact that trans women and queer women of color actually face disproportionate levels of violence in the world. In our conversation, Sullivan expresses frustration about the way that TERF ideology “has made lesbian this real site of contestation in ways that both removes lesbian’s political toothsomeness, but also weaponizes lesbian against the very communities that want to preserve this political commitment that lesbian feminism has carried.”
The first and fifth chapters of the book explore these tensions in depth. “I’m less interested in thinking about specific TERFs than I am in thinking about how this TERF-y ideology bleeds into and overrides and becomes the most important part of this conversation,wp_postsSullivan adds. She explores how even people who wouldn’t identify as TERFs tend to reproduce transphobic anxieties about the waning use of the word lesbian or the disappearance of “women’s spaces.wp_postsThese anxieties often rely upon a nostalgic image of an idealistic past in which lesbians were politically unified, imagining a monolithic lesbian community that never existed. Instead, lesbian has always been a site of complexity, tension, and multiplicity, they suggest, which makes it so politically capacious.
In the middle chapters of Lesbian Death, Sullivan traces arguments in queer theory about the political potential of destruction, death, anger, and violence, exploring how re-reading lesbian feminist theory can expand these arguments to think about the “world-destroyingwp_postspotential of lesbian feminism. Drawing from examples like the C.L.I.T. papers, the Combahee River Collective statement, and the SCUM Manifesto, Sullivan shows how lesbian feminist writing often uses revolutionary rhetoric to seek to destroy systems of oppression and completely reimagine the heteronormative status quo.
Sullivan looks to histories of lesbian activism in these chapters as well. In their fourth chapter, Sullivan tell us that the term “lesbian bed deathwp_postswas originally coined by activist Jane McGleughlin at the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, not to make a comment about the supposed drop in sexual activity amongst long-term lesbian couples, but to warn against “privatizing sex as an individual choice over and against sex as a community-building practice.wp_postsMcGleughlin used the term “lesbian bed deathwp_poststo describe “the waning of politically driven lesbian publicswp_postsand the need for collective activism around sexual freedom. Sullivan writes that McGleughlin’s arguments were particularly salient in the mid-1980s, as the AIDS crisis decimated LGBTQ communities and the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court case upheld the constitutionality of anti-sodomy laws. That “lesbian bed deathwp_postswas not coined as a tongue-in-cheek critique of lesbian relationships but a rallying cry for community activism was a stand-out revelation for me.
Toward the end of our conversation, Sullivan talks about the ambivalence under the surface of this project:
“In a more colloquial or everyday sense, we think of ambivalence as this flippant dismissal, or like, ‘I’m ambivalent, I don’t really care. I can take it or leave it.’ But in a more psychoanalytic vein, ambivalence is actually this really important developmental milestone of being able to hold together like, deep love and affection and the ways that those things that we love, we also hate, or those things that we love also do violence to us. And so to be able to hold that, I think, helps to de-idealize lesbian. And one of the things that’s happened in this TERF ideology is that lesbian has become this very idealized object that we have to save and protect. And in that way [it] doesn’t get to be the capacious political commitment to other worlds that lesbian feminism has always offered.”
Sullivan clarifies, “I wanna be clear to the people who worry about lesbian that like, this isn’t a project that’s attacking them or that worry. I wanna take that worry seriously. But I think that it gets misplaced into this TERF ideology, into this idea that like, lesbian is dead, lesbian is being killed, et cetera.”
The ambivalences circulating around lesbian are best found on the cover of the book. Rather than an image of women embracing, for example, the cover features sentences from the book’s Preface. It reads:
“That I find it so anxiety-producing to create a project on the lesbian is precisely why I have written this book. I have written this book because I am not a lesbian. I have written this book because associating my work with lesbian makes me endlessly nervous. I have written this book because I find so much richness in lesbian histories and lesbian culture. I have written this book because I have spent endless hours in archives of lesbian activists, and I have loved every minute. I have written this book because lesbians have saved me, gave me a home, gave me language, showed me a future. I have also written this book because lesbian has been weaponized, used to instigate, justify, and perpetuate anti-trans violence and vitriol. I have written this book because I want the generations that worry that lesbian has been or is being forgotten to know that we remember. I have written this book because I feel myself holding on to the political and identitarian commitments that served me but no longer serve my students. I have written this book because I feel scared to be branded as a lesbian scholar (rather than a scholar of the lesbian). I have written this book because I cannot let lesbian go. Mostly, I have written this book because I really do love lesbians.”
Sullivan shares with me that the press had the idea for the cover, and she appreciates that it “was so smart to just put what the stakes are for me in this book, just right there on the front.wp_postsIt also beautifully illustrates all of the ambivalence that lesbian evokes in the contemporary moment, and for Sullivan herself. The anxiety, love, and anger mentioned on the cover prefigures how Sullivan explores all of these attachments in their book. It made me realize that my own ambivalent attachment to visiting lesbian bars might be a more common way that queer women experience lesbian spaces than I previously thought. Perhaps many of us have ambivalent feelings and experiences in lesbian spaces and ambivalent attachments to “lesbianwp_postsas a term, both because of its historical promises and its real-life failures. To Sullivan, that complexity is what makes thinking about lesbian as a concept so exciting. To be sure, it makes Lesbian Death a compelling and timely book to think with, especially for those of us invested in building more just feminist, queer, trans, and lesbian worlds, whatever language we use to do so.