Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
When I first heard about the Lesbian Project, a non-profit organization just launched in the U.K., my mind jumped to the 1991 episode of the British sitcom Waiting for God in which an elderly man inadvertently stumbles into a community centre gathering called “Lesbian Awareness.” At the time, “Lesbian Awareness” stood for what the younger generations were up to. Not so 30 years on.
The Lesbian Project is the joint effort of some high-profile women in their 50s and 60s: among others, journalist and women’s-rights activist Julie Bindel, former philosophy professor Kathleen Stock, and tennis player Martina Navratilova. It is born of a kind of nostalgia, not for 1950s heteronormativity, but for a time when one spoke of “lesbians” as such, rather than just in an umbrella expression, LGBTQ+. They’re not raising awareness of the existence of lesbians, in a world unaware that sometimes a woman is into women rather than men, but rather fighting what they call “lesbian erasure.”
The work of the Lesbian Project, writes Kathleen Stock in The Guardian, is “to put lesbian needs and interests back into focus, to stop lesbians disappearing into the rainbow soup and to give them a non-partisan political voice. Same-sex-attracted females are not going anywhere, but public understanding of them is disappearing and younger lesbians in particular are paying the price – however they identify, and whatever they call themselves.”
As everyone familiar with the names and issues will have already put together, the group leans into the “exclusionary” part of “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” “TERF” is a fraught term, with roots in intra-feminist rifts, but that is more broadly used to refer those who’d reject transgender women from women-only spaces. In part, The Lesbian Project is another example of British feminism making everything about trans issues.
Except that it’s not just that. The Lesbian Project excludes not just trans women, but also bisexual women and gay men. Nor does it cater to the Matt Walshes of the world, i.e. right-wing anti-transgender rabble-rousers.
The Lesbian Project is defined by the group it does serve, namely cisgender lesbians. This is, paradoxically, why it’s worth the attention even of women for whom a lesbian separatist movement would hold no appeal.
Women – of any sexual orientation – often do not feel entitled to assert boundaries in their romantic lives. We’re expected to be amenable, and not just where gender or anatomy is concerned. Straight women could stand to do more boundary-assertion. There’s no obligation to give men we’re not attracted to a chance, or to do in the bedroom whatever a man suggests. Women should feel empowered to have only the sex they want to be having, with the consenting partners they want to have it with.
But things get more complicated when someone publicly asserts the limits of their physical desire.
If you believe consent matters, then everyone has the right to say no to sex with anyone else. If you proposition someone, get a no, press them on why, and learn it’s because they prefer a slimmer partner, you can’t charge that they’re being fatphobic. There is no such thing as “-phobic” in this realm, because the minute you decide there is, you’ve argued yourself into a corner where consent can be overridden.
However! You should not announce, during office chit-chat, that you would never go out with a fat person. Something changes when a line is drawn publicly. Personal boundaries morph into gratuitous insults. Most of us are not sexually attractive to the rest of us, but civilization would collapse if we unpacked this at every turn.
Yet people do need to publicly assert their sexual boundaries in one context: minority sexual orientation. Stating that you’re gay or lesbian is not maligning women or men, respectively. It’s something of practical and political importance to make clear.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Is declaring your sexual orientation different from spelling out – publicly – that you’d only partner with people assigned male or female at birth? Does it matter if there is a level of medical transition at which someone would register as a man or woman to you in an intimate context?
Put bluntly: Is a lesbian with an openly stated no male anatomy policy closer to the body-shaming example or the sexual orientation one? Common sense says the latter. But if the colleague who has just told you to stop asking about her husband because she’s a lesbian goes on to let you know that she finds penises revolting, this is, perhaps, too much information. And if she insists that trans women are not only insufficiently female for her romantic purposes, but are actually men, then we’re looking at a different topic entirely.
It’s hazy what relationship there is between an individual’s boundaries for romantic partners, and a club drawing up rules for membership. The ethics of sexual consent don’t apply. It’s instead a tension between the right to assemble and anti-discrimination.
In the case of the Lesbian Project, exclusion seems theoretical, as it does not appear that trans women (or bi women, or gay men) are scrambling to join up. Nor, for that matter, is it necessarily overrun with members of its target audience.
As Ms. Stock admitted in an interview, it could be that there simply isn’t that much interest among younger women. The paucity of resources for lesbians as this group defines them – ostensibly the impetus for the project – may just be about a lack of demand. But there’s something worthwhile about remembering that women can have boundaries. If that’s what comes through from this activism, it’s a good thing.