I think that it is safe to say that 2014 has already been a huge year for the LGBT community in the U.S. On February 9th, Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL-bound player. On February 12th and 13th, judges in both Kentucky and Virginia ruled the bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. On February 18th, recently-out actress Michelle Rodriguez and model Cara Delevingne confirmed they are in a
relationship, breaking stereotypes about “femme” lesbians and typical models. But one of the most talked about events happened on Valentine’s Day when actress Ellen Page, star of Juno, Whip It! and Inception, came out as gay.
Shortly after her coming-out speech at HRC’s Time to Thrive conference, the “who cares, we all already knew” comments and articles started popping up all over the internet. Here we have a woman standing on stage, nearly in tears, telling us the pain she has felt for years of hiding and so many of us received it as no big deal. It is times like these where we must take a look back at the history of LGBT women to truly appreciate the advances that we are making.
It might be surprising to learn that lesbians were often excluded by feminists during the late 1960’s when the women’s liberation movement picked up steam. Often, feminist discourse excluded lesbianism as many feminists viewed it as a sexual rather than political issue. In fact, the National Organization of Women’s leader at the time, Betty Friedan, referred to lesbianism as the “lavender menace,” a term that stuck through the majority of the movement.
In a response to being excluded, many lesbians formed organizations and developed political ideologies to address their needs. The activists argued that “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” were terms created by man in an attempt to separate and dominate women. They believed that it was crucial for women to relate to other women and to create a new consciousness of and with each other. One of the most influential and recognized activists was Rita Mae Brown, active in the American Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement.
This exclusion continued to be an issue as lesbians were trying to find a way to combat the accusations
that their masculinity contributed to the patriarchy. Eventually, lesbians gained ground by arguing that lesbian feminism was the ultimate kind of feminism because it did not involve men on any emotional level. Although this argument is not likely backed by many feminist scholars today, eventually, the lesbian community helped to eliminate the homophobia and became a crucial part of the late women’s liberation movement.
Although the climate for lesbians and all other members of the LGBT community is better today, they are still constantly being denied basic human rights and subjected to harsh stereotypes and criticism. So, when a man comes out as gay, or a woman comes out as a lesbian, or a young person comes out as transgender, we are justified in making a big deal about it, just like we were justified in making a big deal about electing our first African American president.
We can pretend that feminism, homophobia and racism are over but we would just be lying to ourselves. The fact is that kids are still bullied all throughout high school, LGBT people are still denied housing and multi-millionaire actors still don’t feel safe to come out. So when someone is brave enough to stand up on a stage and expose themselves to the world, we don’t shrug and say “whatever.” We remember the history that is woven into that act of bravery; the women who fought for decades for the rights that allowed Ellen Page, Robin Roberts and Michelle Rodriguez to come out. And most of all, we need to continue to build onto that history to create a safe and equal space for all members of our world community, gay, straight or otherwise.