The Autostraddle Roundtable: Is there a Lesbian Generation Gap?

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Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, 1970 & 2008

Grace the Spot:

Well, some of the older lesbians (in urban centers) I know were in the thick of the gay liberation movement and can’t understand why the younger ones – and the ones in less urban areas – seem to be hell bent on “assimilating” and “becoming ordinary.” Liberation is about freedom, they say. I always respond that the institution of marriage is yet another space that should be an option for lesbians, and freedom is all about increasing options for all, even if some of the options may seem a bit un-queer to those who associate “queer” with “radical.” Liberationists can simply opt out if such an option exists, you know.

Liberation is about freedom, they say. I always respond that the institution of marriage is yet another space that should be an option for lesbians, and freedom is all about increasing options for all, even if some of the options may seem a bit un-queer to those who associate “queer” with “radical.”

It is interesting to note that – if you go one generation back from the liberationists – the original lesbian rights organization was the pre-Stonewall Daughters of Bilitis, which was founded in the 1950s by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and their original goal was to convince society that lesbians weren’t weird of immoral or diseased – but they were just like everyone else in society. Gay normalization wasn’t just “made up” in the late 1990s and 2000 you know. Know your history! Martin and Lyon were able to get legally married in California this past year before Martin passed away, and if you didn’t cry or feel a sense of vindication when you saw the ceremony, you’re a cylon, and not one of those human looking ones that can feel – you’re one of those robot-looking centurions and you suck.

Also, I derive a lot of amusement from some millennials who seem to place a premium on arguing about gender labels ad nauseam and then screaming at you when you take a bit of time to catch on or if you have a sneaking suspicion that such esoteric nitpicking is just a form of intellectualizing “ME ME ME ME ME!” In fact, a really fun game to play is “create a non-existent gender label” – it’s similar to a game you can play with hipsters called “create a non-existent indie band,” in which you approach a hipster and ask if he is a fan of [non-existent indie band]. He will either save face by nodding as if the band exists or he will swallow nervously and say that he has never heard of the band, upon which you give him a look of profound disappointment, and he will feel like crawling into the nearest hole to comfort himself by playing obscure French emo on his iPod.

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The Murmurs (1992), Uh Huh Her (2008)

To play “create a non-existent gender label” you approach a label-obsessed queer (“LOQ”) and eventually, the issue of what you identify as will come up. At this point you must proudly announce that you identify as [non-existent gender label]. LOQ will either take you seriously or be ashamed that there is a gender label in existence that she was unaware of. Many chances for playing both of these games can be found in Brooklyn, the borough of “being overly competitive at things that don’t matter.”

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Riese (27):

Yes, there is, but it’s not laced with the animosity Harris describes amongst the gay male community. (Sidenote: I’m unsure why Harris wants to criticize young gays who are politically active. If you’re out there with a sign, um, bravah, there’s really no need for anyone to look at you and think, “ignorance.” If we’ve made activism “cool,” then I think we really have won.)

True enough — although usually I feel gratitude, support and enthusiasm from lesbians of all ages, every now and then I have a conversation with an elder Lesbian who talks to me like I’m a character on The L Word or finds my current objectives naive, which is strange because I have such genuine admiration for pretty much every single lesbian older than me. They always seem shocked that I know as much as I do about the women’s lib movement or lesbian herstory. In these conversations there are things I don’t mention, e.g., bisexuality.

That being said, It’s not entirely unfair to perceive the young’uns (myself included) as Lindsay Lohanized web-enabled Dinah-Shored easy-breezy glam lesbians who don’t appreciate what their elders fought for or to think younger gens take our current freedoms for granted.

But do I think every lesbian is obligated to research lesbian history, as I have? Nope. I think that’s the responsibility of our schools. I’m not comparing our struggle to the struggle of African-Americans in this country, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an American completely unaware of slavery, the trials of the civil rights movement or the hate crimes carried out by KKK. And it’s not just that we’re left out of history lessons, we’re literally censored out of school libraries.

So, aside from dropping that my Mom’s a ‘mo (though I really can’t attribute any of my lezducation to her, having shipped out a few months after she came out when I was 15), the best way to cross this hesitant divide is to show my pebbles of self-education and my willingness & desire to know more; I’m prepared to discuss Virginia & Vita just as I am to dish on LiLo & SamRo.  (YEAH I JUST SAID THAT!)

I know more than a lot of my peers and I defo don’t know enough. When women my age say they aren’t feminists I want to hit them on the forehead with a sledgehammer, like how can you not know what that word means.

The primary generation gap I think is the internet – it has become INFINITELY easier to find other lesbos than it was even five or ten years ago when it was entirely possible to spend your life not knowing (that you know) anyone else like you.

But do I think everyone is responsible to research lesbian history? Nope. I think that’s the responsibility of our schools. I’m not comparing our struggle to the struggle of African-Americans in this country, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an American completely unaware of slavery, the trials of the civil rights movement or the KKK. And it’s not just that we’re left out of history lessons, we’re literally censored out of school libraries.

Many women (and this matters to all women, because this is about our ability to tell stories and be visible independent of our relationships to men) don’t know there’s even more than one ‘wave’ of feminism or don’t realize that Ellen’s coming out wasn’t well-received.

On top of that, as Harris points out, the generational divide is something usually reckoned with, initially, at home. We are supposed to fight with our parents on these issues. But because the homos don’t reproduce quite as efficiently as the hets nor is sexuality necessarily passed on, we don’t have the opportunity to work out political & cultural divides within various minority populations with our parents, it can only happen with our peers. With lesbians more down to date older women than anyone else in the history of all time, many of us are educated by our girlfriends rather than by our mothers or our teachers.

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With so much of our history hidden or hard to find, it’s really hard for anyone to gauge the difference between stuff we don’t know and stuff that doesn’t exist.

So I think this goes for the gay men targeted in this article as it does for lesbians—don’t get angry at the younger kids for not knowing anything. Get angry at our educational system & at the media & the press for censoring and ignoring our HERSTORY!

Mark Harris says that the elder generations think we’re not angry enough, so I say let’s all be angry together and storm the Wasilla Public Library. Omg I can’t stop thinking about S-Pale today.

Oh and BTW! THANK YOU! (Why is my answer always the most confused and discombobulated of all the answers? ssjgljdsgi)

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Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2843 articles for us.

48 Comments

  1. “Say you realize you’re gay at age 24… in a simplified situation all the sudden it’s like “Hey! I’m gay! What’s that mean? How do I tell people? Where the women at?” “Prop 8?? That’s me! WTF??” and you’re likely more focused on figuring out your sexuality and “the now” rather than the past.”

    Ha! Change 24 to 35 and this is me entirely. I’ll catch up on the history… I admit that I had to wiki Lavender Menace … but I’ll get there. So much else to be thinking about, too, though!

  2. Hello, is this thing on? I just stumbled onto this story, but I see that it’s a year old. I would love to see the conversation between the generations continue. At 51, count me among the elders!

    The younger generation seems to focus on the stories and images provided by the mass media to a much greater extent than we did 30 yrs ago. Is that perception true, I wonder? When I rummage about this website, I am more entertained by the personalities, insights, outbursts and humor of the readers and writers than I am by the celebrities who seem to take up a lot of space around here.

    Just keep being your sweet selves. You’re fabulous, you know.

  3. There’s a gap, but I don’t know if it’s generational or informational. And sometimes I think it’s a gender gap. What? A gender gap among lesbians? Yeah. Butch and femme. Some lesbians are extremely dismissive of gender identity, butch identity and trans women.

    Even though I agree that in some cases genderqueer lesbians subcategorize things to death, and yes it can be annoying, but that is no reason to throw the whole thing out like the Daughters of Bilitis did. (History repeating right here.) Yes, I understand there were dangers in the beginning and they had to be all secretive. As a rule you had to wear a skirt if you wanted to go to a DOB meeting. And when the Mattachine and the DOB got together to picket, the men wore suits and the ladies wore skirts so as to not appear too freakish. Trans women and butch dykes were not allowed…they were considered a problem. On top of that, feminists often felt drag queens to be an insulting caricature of womanhood.

    I’m 33, and I came out in 1993 when I was 17. So I guess I’m sort of straddling the gap so to speak. I’m also genderqueer. When I was a teen, they just called that butch. But then there were arguments about how butch, soft butch, hard butch, stone butch, stud etc. But I’m perfectly comfortable just lumping it all together as genderqueer and beyond that gender becomes individual.

    In the mid 90s the World Wide Web was just a baby. There wasn’t a lot of information on the web. There were message boards and chat rooms, but sometimes you needed a special code to get into them because they were so worried about men pretending to be lesbians in search of cybersex.

    I didn’t live in a big city, so I didn’t know where to find my community. I just wanted to know where I came from, so I had to resort to books. And even I am sometimes surprised at how many queer books I have from the 90s.

    Reading over them now, those books are very much like the blogs of today in book form. There’s lots of storytelling, narratives and reflections on the current state of things. It seems as though there were trying to preserve what they were doing and going through because previous generations had not been able to.

    Today, thanks to the Internet, some of this has been corrected as I’ve found several archives of queer newsletters and ‘zines of the 70s online. You can also read the original firsthand reports of the Stonewall riots that appeared in the Village Voice. And those articles written the day after include dykes.

    One of the benefits of publishing books instead of blogs, is that with the permanent nature of books there’s a greater emphasis on research and getting information right the first time. With blogs it seems like an online version of telephone where no one seems interested in going back and checking the original source.

    So let me set the record straight. The Stonewall was a dump and the patrons were the most marginalized of the gay community. It wasn’t homofabulous. It was the queerist of the queer, drag queens, butch dykes and homeless queers. They were the ones excluded from the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis with no where else to go. It was an illegal establishment not because it was owned by the Mafia, but because gay bars were illegal. They didn’t have a liquor license because they couldn’t get one. So the reliance on the Mafia was out of necessity.

    Almost every firsthand account I have read mentions the dyke that started it all, a nameless stone butch that decided to resist arrest. The queens were on the side mocking the police as if there was nothing else they could do while their friends were getting arrested. Perhaps they were scared of the repercussions if they resisted. But this dyke kept slipping out of the patrol car. She wasn’t having it and the cops got more aggressive with her. That was the spark.

    The Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine Society started the Gay Rights Movement. Stonewall started the Queer Rights Movement. And this gap is what persists across generations.

  4. I only discovered Autostraddle yday in my pursuit of anything Tegan and Sara [rock on girls!] related and I have to say, I’m hooked. The dedication to get your message out there, to be heard, to share your insights and to quote Crystal, get “totally geeked out” about things that are you important to you in an intelligent and witty manner; I’m not only going to continue coming back, I’ll also refer everyone I know, gay, straight, closeted, male, female, young and old, because this is one of the most informative and entertaining sites I’ve ever stumbled upon.

    Now, having been introduced to the world of homosexuality late in high school [early 2000s] and emmersed in it ever since, more so in the last five yrs, I’ve only known members of the younger lesbian generation with the exception of an undergrad psychology teacher. And, in the time I’ve known these women, not once did any of them ever intimate that they took for granted the women that preceded us and they have accomplished.
    I agree with many of these women who’ve spoken before me on different points. Generationally, there are always going to be gaps. Sure, sometimes educating yourself can help bridge some of these gaps but with age comes experience, with experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes the ability to teach those around you. I believe the gap lies in gender. Being a Chicana and an asexual one at that, I’ve had to deal with all sorts of discrimination. However, being a woman has always been the toughest, discrimination wise. People can only guess at my ethnicity but, can tell I’m a woman at first glance. Being a feminist has felt as normal as breathing. Like it or not, feminism, has long since the days of it’s inception, been associated with lesbianism. Because of this, so many women, young and old are afraid to be associated with feminism [even if they are hardcore feminists] because that will also associated them to homosexuality. Okay, so, I don’t want to step on my own words, I do think the gender gap is what is most prevelent but educating yourself and those around just the teensist bit will go a long way like, when you’re in you’re Psychology of sexuality class and the first thing your professor asks is “who here considers themself a feminst” and you’re the only person raising your hand, let the rest of the class [which, by the way, is made up of 20 or so females and the only progressive, straight, male in the school] that feminsm does not mean you’re a lesbian but, that you are pro women’s rights and you’ll have them all raising their hands when the prof asks the question again, once you’ve finished your rant. [true stroy]

    Thanks Autostraddle, you rock socks!

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