In their piece for #BodyPositivityInColor, James Factora explores how societal perceptions of lesbianism are often boiled down to a single experience instead of a complex and varied tapestry, and how those perceptions are severely limited by heteronormativity and marred by transphobia.
By James Factora
I’ve always been visibly, obviously, loudly queer, a perception that has persisted even when I didn’t want it to. These days, I own it. I wear my flannels and clunky Doc Martens with pride, I walk with unabashed butch swagger, I relish the lingering stares and alternating pronouns I get from strangers, and every time I exchange a nod or smile with another visibly queer person in public I carry the warmth of our exchange with me for the rest of my day.
I love being an unapologetic dyke who plays with gender like it’s putty. I love having a totally unintelligible gender identity and presentation, sometimes even to myself. What I don’t love is when people assume that because I am openly queer, I am open to questions, comments and assumptions about my sex life, all of which frequently border on genuine harassment.
In high school, I was a pescetarian – meaning I didn’t eat any meat except for fish. I’m also allergic to nuts. This particular combination of dietary restrictions proved to be the height of hilarity. Get it? Because I’m a lesbian? And I can’t eat nuts? And the only meat I ate was fish? The joke, of course, is that all lesbians hate penises and love vagina. Totally not a gross or invasive comment to make to a teenager at all!
Even today, other lesbians and queer women will make sly comments or jokes about not liking dick, making meaningful eye contact with me and expecting me to relate or validate them in some way. Usually, I’ll just force a laugh in response. What else can I do?
The truth is, there is no one lesbian community or lesbian experience. Our bodies, our cultures, our sex–all of it contains infinite possibilities.
People, even fellow queer people, seem to be unwilling to consider lesbianism and lesbian sex as layered, complicated identities and phenomena. One of my gay male friends, whom I love dearly, once asked me, “How does topping and bottoming even work with lesbian sex?” I still laugh about it to this day. People assume that lesbians look like one thing, have gentle, feather-soft sex in only one way which absolutely, under no circumstances involves dicks (the very thought repulses them!), and then adopt a cat or something until they experience the inevitable lesbian bed death. One would think this is the case for the whole of the lesbian community (as though there’s a homogeneous lesbian community to begin with) based on what little mainstream representation we have.
These experiences certainly may be true for some lesbians, though the theory of lesbian bed death has been vastly disproven. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a Subaru-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching lesbian who has a cut and dry relationship to her body and loves vanilla sex. I love that for you, if that’s you. I just don’t love that for me. The truth is, there is no one lesbian community or lesbian experience. Our bodies, our cultures, our sex–all of it contains infinite possibilities.
Complicated gendered embodiment has existed in lesbian communities for as long as the identity-category of “lesbian” has existed. In the late 19th and early 20th century, one popular explanation for queerness was the sexual inversion theory. This posited, ironically enough, that cisgender gay men and lesbians were really just heterosexuals “trapped in the wrong bodies.”
The 1940s-60s brought butch/femme culture into existence, borne from working class lesbian bars. And although some see the roles as a replication of heterosexuality, they’re more like drag–an inversion of the roles, if you will. They’re one big inside joke, complex and nuanced gender expressions in and of themselves. Although the rise of lesbian feminism in the ‘70s tried to squash the existence of this culture (and of lesbian sex culture in general) it persisted and persists to this day, with an arguably renewed mainstream interest.
Butch, femme, andro, boi–anyone and everyone of any gender expression can have a cock.
Despite this, there are still so many misconceptions about lesbian sex and embodiment, even among lesbians. While these misunderstandings among lesbians undoubtedly stem from internalized homophobia and the continued repercussions of second wave feminism and the sex wars, dykes like me and my lover and my friends have existed for as long as dykery has been a thing.
Lesbian sex can actually be a boundless playground of gender fuckery and exploration, though mainstream porn (and mainstream lesbians) would tell you otherwise. Here’s the thing: lesbian sex can, and frequently does, involve cocks. (The TERFs are quaking in their boots right now.) Whether that means a strap-on, a penis, a tongue, a fist, a clit, or whatever else is totally up to the individual dyke. One’s cock, or lack thereof, doesn’t have to be concerned with gender, or it can have everything to do with gender. Butch, femme, andro, boi–anyone and everyone of any gender expression can have a cock. To say otherwise displays a lack of imagination, and that’s no fun. Between the sheets, a lesbian can be anything–a ma’am or a sir or a mx, a dom(me), a sub, a switch, a slut, a daddy, a mommy, a stone top or bottom, wrapped in leather, lace, latex or all of the above. Queer sex in general has always been about fucking with gender–quite literally. Why should lesbian sex be the exception?
Of course these complex gender expressions also extend outside of the bedroom. Lesbians can pack and bind and wear breast forms and tuck and not tuck. Lesbians can get top and bottom surgery, whatever that may mean for the individual lesbian. Lesbians can take estrogen or testosterone or refuse to do either. Lesbians can shave or not shave whatever parts of their body they want. Lesbians can use whatever pronouns and gendered titles and names they want. Lesbians can fuck like rabbits or not want to fuck at all. Lesbians can experience gender dysphoria and/or gender euphoria. Lesbians can be trans or nonbinary or genderqueer or all of the above. None of this makes any lesbian a man, but it does make every lesbian beautiful and handsome.
So, I’m not here for your boring, tasteless dick jokes–leave them in the ‘70s. I’m here for trans dykes. I’m here for butches and femmes. I’m here for intersex dykes. I’m so here for fat dykes. I’m here for Black and Brown dykes. I’m here for disabled dykes. I’m here for politically inconvenient dykes. I’m here for the dykes who don’t know if they can feel the way they do about their bodies and still claim lesbianism, for the dykes who are figuring it out, for the dykes who feel alienated by everything they’ve ever been told about lesbianism and the bodies of lesbians. I promise you there have always been others like you, and that there are women who will love you exactly the way you are. At the very least, I know where you’ve been–I’m there too. And I’m in your corner forever.
James Factora is a New York-based writer. You can find them on twitter @james_factora.