Edited version in:“In Magazine” June'08.
Towards an anthropology of lesbians as a tribe
I believe that lesbians constitute a tribe of our own. Since I was a baby dyke decades ago, I’ve traveled all over the world, to Rome, Mexico, England, and Africa. Wherever I go I recognize my people, lesbians. As an elder lesbian stateswoman, I want to tell my lesbian daughters – yes, you kids on the road to assimilation -- how important it is for you to know who you are. Whether you gather by the thousands at posh hotels in Palm Springs (known as the DINAH ritual), or you’ve been to the great lesbian music festivals of the 1980’s, you have participated in the international lesbian tribe.
What does it mean to be a tribe? Webster’s Dictionary calls a “tribe” -- a group of people, a division, class of people characterized by its own culture, and having a name, a dialect …a political division of a united people … coincident with the founding of new colonies.
What are the characteristics of our lesbian culture? What are those building blocks which transcend centuries and define us as a unique tribe of people?
STORY: One of these characteristics is ‘story.’ Lesbians have a commonly held story of our how our people survived over centuries of oppression. Our story dates back to the beginnings of written history. In our case, our story dates back to 430 B.C. with the legends of the famous teacher, Sappho, and her school of the arts for young girls on the Greek Island of Lesbos. Lesbos is not fiction. Look it up. It’s an island in the Aegean Sea. Sappho is not fiction. You may find books of her poetry, and stories about her and her lover, Bilitis, and their lives as teachers to upper class Greek girls to prepare them for marriage. And even before the dawn of written history, one finds examples and references to Amazon tribes who roamed the forests of Europe before the dawn of patriarchy (rule by men).
LANGUAGE: We as lesbians have a language and a sense of cultural humor that springs out of our story. We see our language in simple cartoons like “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Alison Bechdel, the lesbian creator of this comic, has recently been invited to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary because even the heterosexual world recognizes that we lesbians have a language of our own. Now that’s recognizing the linguistic uniqueness of lesbians! We see our language developing in jokes like, What does a lesbian bring on her 2nd date? Answer: a U Haul. We have language, sometimes called ‘gaydar,’ that allows us to come out and define each other on the streets, “Didn’t I see/meet you last year at the Palms?” “This is my partner, Susan.” “Is that your girlfriend, or your girl-friend?” “Is she a ‘sister’?” “Are you a member of the family?”
DRESS: Each generation of lesbians defines itself with slightly different versions of a set of common fundamental style of shoes, hats, hair and accessories. Whether it was the radical chic androgynous drag of the 70s, or the lipstick lesbian salty look of the 80s, or the young queer women of the new century, we recognize each other.
PSYCHOLOGY: Lesbians have a broad range of tools, both learned and genetic, which make us capable of and willing to live on a much deeper emotional plane. It is a place much deeper than most straight people are willing to live on. It is a place defined by the psyche and needs of two women engaged in intimate relating. In my long eight years of living amongst the heterosexuals in an expatriate community in Mexico, one of the things I missed most about my tribe was lesbian conversation. Straights talk about the banality of life. Who you are is defined by your job or your money. How was work today? Where do you live? When will you buy a new house? How are the children? Lesbian life is defined by the emotional news of the day. How do you feel about your job? How’s your relationship (which really means -- what is the nature of your relating and how do you each feel about it)?
When a straight couple goes to ‘therapy’ it’s a secret from their friends and means they’ll most likely break up. Lesbians go to therapy as often as they get a tune up for the car. Therapy is an ordinary part of life’s unfolding.
FAMILY: Lesbians forge familial bonds with a chosen family that is based upon shared values rather than biology. I think it is a blessing in disguise that most of us experienced a sense of alienation from our parents in our teens and early twenties. This forces us to psychologically separate from our bio-fams and go out into the world and find intimate, stalwart friends. Friends with whom we share the joys and grief of relationship, birth, death, job loss – the major difficulties of life. This depth of sharing creates family. When my biological sisters and brothers came to my commitment ceremony I asked them to get in a line for a ritual called ‘the procession of the family.’ This procession would then walk into the marital circle with me. My many siblings were shocked to see five or six people they didn’t know in the line. ‘Who are these people?” they asked me. “Why are they in the family procession?”
“Oh,” I explained, “They are my family of choice. I have two families.”
WEDDING RITUALS: And speaking of weddings, anyone who's ever been to a straight wedding and then a lesbian commitment ceremony can see the awesome differences in how we build this ritual. Women draw on our personal life experiences when planning the words and ceremonies of our partnering. We prefer to write our own scripts and vows. We pick ministers who reflect our political and social values.
RELIGION: Because we don’t find our spiritual home in traditional religions, most lesbians have made a life search of building our own spiritual lives. Many lesbians find it difficult to belong to a religion which defines ‘god’ as only masculine. We know that traditional religions are a by-product of a male dominated culture, the Judeo-Christian age of the last two millennia. Lesbians who chose to believe in a deity need ‘God’ to encompass the feminine as well as the masculine. So we have gone back to goddess centered belief systems, or found New-Age spiritual beliefs, among them Science of Mind, which correctly resurrects the religions of earlier times in which our Higher Power is all things feminine and masculine.
BORN OUTLAWS: Lesbians see great advantage in being born into a minority culture, because as outlaws we are more able to think beyond the boundaries of racial and gender prejudices. It is not an accident that lesbians are primary in the leadership of most social movements in our country -- be it the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, the founding of the profession of social work (Jane Addams was a lesbian), the second civil rights movement of the 60s, the environmental movement, doctors without borders, Amnesty International, or the gender bending movements of today. Wherever you see social injustice, you see lesbians leading these struggles.
I could go on to book length about all the behavioral characterizes of our Amazon tribe. But in conclusion I want to send a message to my lesbian daughters. The challenge of this assimilating decade may be for today’s young lesbian to know her cultural heritage, and figure out how to mainstream without losing it. I want to say to you – We lesbians are not an accident of heterosexual labeling. We are a people with a story to tell. In your drive to be assimilated into the mainstream, be careful not to lose your heritage. My generation of lesbians, and the generation before me, bought your freedom with our careers, our family, and sometimes with our blood. We look at you, the E-generation, with great pride and love. As we pass the torch of Lesbian Nation to you, we assure you that the price of mainstreaming must not include giving up your birthright as citizens in the tribe of women identified women.
(Written: May 17, 2008. Based on my speech at June L Mazer Lesbian Archives, “Lesbian Spaces, Lesbian Culture” -- May 4, 2008)