identities on unstable grounds _ an essay about lesbian and queer identities II

you can find part one here.  a very short introduction in queer theory and politics can be found here.

i would like to open this to discussion, so please do not hesitate to use the comments to share your thoughts and questions.

4 _ how is lesbianism defined around the turn of the millenium?

Before we explore the great changes that brought “queer” and the concept of “queer politics” in the lesbian communities, we will discuss and follow the path of the “classical lesbian identity” and question the roles and changes of this construct within temporary lesbian representations. The bottom line of lesbianism was that lesbians are not straight and not male. This concept marked the borders of the imagined lesbian communities. Gender varieties do not fit in and therefore are they excluded (Stein, 2010, p. 26). As Stein (2010) points out an example for this are the refusing discourses around transgender in lesbian communities. Within these discourses transgender, especial the female-to-male transition, is marked as threat to lesbian communities.

If we understand lesbian identities as performed – what are the markers of lesbian identity understood as a cultural and social forms? Esterberg’s research on the self-understanding of “lesbian” and “bisexual” women at the end of the 1980s offers different indications for a “classical lesbian” identity. First, we find a distinction between lesbian and heterosexual women; lesbians were thought as different – as outsiders with a uniquely sense of style and lesbian presence but nearly always thought within the binary gender system. Second, lesbian identity is performed through a certain style and body language. For this performance the gender roles butch and femme play an important role. Third, this lends to a practise called “spot the dyke” – what means lesbians try to identify other lesbians. For this identification short hair, specific clothes and specific jewellery played an important role. Here we find masculinity privileged: “To be a [visible] lesbian is to be coded as not feminine.” (Esterberg, 1996, p. 272) To be a lesbian always means to perform a lesbian identit by using the markers and the roles that are offered within the script of lesbianism.

Esterberg (1996, pp. 275-277) points out that lesbian styles were clearly changing in the 1990s. The earlier “anti-style” that was motivated by feminist theory and a rejection of male images of female bodies is substituted with a more feminine style. This development is also represented in the media. Young, white, glamourous – are the keywords to describe the new identity. To be a lesbian is defined as a lifestyle and has now a close connection to consume instead of political activism. This is a sign for the growing acceptance towards gay and lesbian identities within the mainstream. We find a similar argument by Roseneil (2000) who argues that queer identities are becoming more and more visible in the media representations and the popular culture in general. Besides a lot of TV shows we find queer representations as a common image in advertising.

5_ lesbian identities as empty lifestyle category – a media analysis of the G3 magazine

An approach to the new meanings of lesbian identity is offered in the following analysis of a lesbian lifestyle magazine. G3 is a magazine for lesbians and bi women “which hopefully serves as verification of how the lesbian community has come“ following the self-definition. The g3 magazine is published since 2001, monthly, is for free and can be found at various, mainly gay and lesbian, venues in the whole United Kingdom.

In the november 2011 issue from 100 pages 44 are advertising plus the back. Most of the advertising is adapted to the target group of this magazine. There are ads from several big companies pointing out how LGBT-friendly they are other ads are for housing property, sperm banks, clubs, bars and lesbian events plus a few dating portals and lifestyle products like tattoos. This shows three things, first, lesbians are a high-value target for advertising, second, to be lesbian is lifestyle, something that can be consumed trough special products, third, this representation of lesbian identity has no difference to the mainstream ideas about a good living. Working in a well-paid job, finding love, buying housing property and becoming children and having a nice spare time in clubs and bars – we can see a lesbian identity that is in the middle of a consumer-society. Also in the articles consuming plays an important role – like in every lifestyle magazine we find articles about fashion, products and also eight pages with information for spare time – here: lesbian clubs, bars and their events. Only two pages in the whole issue deal with political issues. Lesbian identities are normalized and they are becoming integrated in the core family so that the sexuality is not any more something that marks as different (Stein, 2010, p. 29). This is clearly represented in this magazine.

How is lesbian identity advanced defined in this issue? Can we find old patterns of the lesbian identity? The topic of the november issue was bisexuality. Bisexuality is a highly discussed topic within “lesbian communities” and is often seen as a threat to/for homosexuality, because bisexuality blows the borders of lesbian identities (Gamson, 1996, pp. 405-407). In difference to lesbians who are thought to have a stable same-sex desire after coming out once (Stein, 2010, p. 23) bisexuals are crossing the line between heterosexual and homosexual all the time. A double page in the magazine is dedicated to confront the readers with their own prejudices. Four women mainly marked as feminine trough their long hair and clothes like dresses have numbers in their hands and the reader shall match the way they look with their sexuality to answer the question “Does sexuality dictate identity anymore?” (g3, November 2011, p. 35) We have four categories to choose from: lesbian, bi, straight or trans. These four categories referring to the sexuality except of trans that refers to sex-reassignment correspond to old models of sexuality classifications. They leave no space for ambiguities that play an important role within queer identities and the categories “male” and “female” stay unquestioned. Furthermore a “quiz/label you up – how bi are you?” (g3, November 2011, p. 14) helps the reader to identify themselves with answering seven questions. The three possible verdicts are “lez bob” (lesbian), “bi babe” or “in denial” (straight). Three questions concentrate on the sexual desire like the sexual phantasies or the reaction towards the two sexes, two on the look – short hair is identified as lesbian, one site shaved as bisexual and “[g]lamorously long and luscious” as straight, we find the same pattern concerning the “favourite fashion brands” more masculine marked brands like Gap and G-Star are identified as lesbian, female marked ones like Miss Selfridge as straight. Here we can find both – the constant importance of the “right” more masculine look and the (new) possibility to consume it through specific fashion brands. Two other questions deal with spare time activities. Whereas “Coronation Street” is identified as lesbian “Next Top Model” is identified as straight. In this quiz the different types of desire are linked with different gender representations – gay is represented in a more masculine gender role and straight with a clear feminine gender role. We find the same pattern in the question concerning sports – whereas the lesbian answer is “Sorry? I can’t hear you trough my cauliflower ears.” – a clear pointer to combat sport, bisexuals only “love a bit of Roller derby” – a sport that brings femininity and roughness together, straight women are preparing the dinner while their partner watches football. Stereotypic representations are part of quizzes like this. But we find this understanding of gender and sexuality within the whole issue, there are no other types of sexuality or gender mentioned. The continuing effects of the idea of lesbianism as a definable category that is marked by more masculine gender representations can be seen in the magazine.

6 _ queer identities and the power of deconstruction

Another pathway of lesbian identities since the 1990s is a queering and deconstruction of the identity category itself. The queer turn within the lesbian and gay politics must be seen as part of a larger transformation of Western societies. With the deep changes within lesbian and gay identities trough equal rights, integration in the mainstream and the great impact from lesbian and gay people on the music, fashion and club culture the possibilities for ambitious gender expressions increased and the borders of lesbian identities were particularly falling down. (Evens, 2004, p. 486; Roseneil, 2000) Furthermore the ambitious identities are an expression of the “late modern self” (Stein, 2010, p. 29); a self that is more focused on personal meaning than on community (Stein, 2010, p. 29). This can be critically discussed. Of course modern identifications under the umbrella queer do not offer clear and definable identity categories that can be the basis for a identity politic in the old sense. But therefore they offer inclusion for all the sexual minorities that fail to fit in the heteronormative matrix. (Gamson, 1996) Because they “are much more fine-tuned, combining sexual preference, gender presentation and other modes of identification.” (Stein, 2010, p. 29) Moreover they are intersectional – they not only deal with questions of sexuality and “sex”, they also deal with “race” and “class” as axes of power hierarchies and the fact that we all have multiple belongings within this categories (Gamson, 1996). Identity is not a three-way decision – homo-, bi- or heterosexual like the quiz implies.

Considering the close relationship between lesbianism and feminism in the past a manifesto which refers to “radical feminism” as origin is used to illustrate how identities build upon queer theory can look like and what implications this has for the politics. The title of the manifesto is “manifesto for the trans-feminist insurrection” it can be found on several pages on the internet in portuguese, spanish, italian and english. It was first published in 2010. The name of the group is “WhoreDykeBlackTransFeminist Network” but this name is not excluding other identities. We find a wide range of identity categories covered here and they are referring not only to lesbians (dykes) and gays (faqs) – here we find also transsexual and transgender people (trans) included and “the ones who earn little and don’t go to the university” , “the immigrants without legal resident papers “ and the black people as well. “Race”, immigration and classism do not remain as blind spots. “Whore” can be interpreted as the adaptation of the swearword for sex workers – the same kind of adaptation like it happen with queer twenty years before. The manifesto also includes “hetero dissidents” in general and implies with “…. “ space for addition.

All these diverse identity categories are put together instead of excluding each other – intersectionality becomes visible. The excluding character of the category women is convicted and substituted with diverse and expandable categories that represent the axes of power – sex/sexuality, “race” and class. The whole manifesto is stamped by queer theory and poststructuralist thoughts. The aim is “unmasking the power structure” and the manifesto refuses the binary sex/gender system completely. This makes it possible to break open the borders of the category “women”. The shift away from two sexes means also to shift away from the narrow limits set by the heteronormative matrix. This creates a space that is open for many different sexes and gender expressions and the problematisation of the complex hierarchies within modern societies. Here lesbianism is only one of many different possibilities to choose from. Concerning to the manifesto complex hierarchies find their starting and endpoints in the bodies – “We call for reinvention based on desire, the fight with our bodies before any totalitarian regime. Our bodies are ours!, as well as their limits, mutations, colors and transactions.”

Self-empowerment to choose the gender and/or identity expression in general one ones to have – “we transmute our genders, we are what we want to be, transvestites, dykes, super-fems, butches, whores, transgenders, we wear veils and speak Wolof, we are network: furious pack.” – is also a practise of intervention in discourses. The “we” in this manifesto is not based upon one fixed identity category. This “we” has political opportunities for actions – “[w]e call for insurrection, for the occupation of the streets, to the blogs, to disobedience, to not ask for permission, to generate alliances and structures of our own”.

7 _ contemporary queer politics

All these ideas are reflected in contemporary queer politics – for example the “transgeniale Christopher Street Day”- an alternative pride parade that takes place annual in Berlin since 1998. The “transgeniale CSD” is directed against the commercialisation and the depolitisation of the CSD Berlin. Moreover it is open for any genders and sexes and also problematises racism, gentrification, low wages etc. (Transgenialer CSD // Berlin, 2011) Another example is the “genderfork” online-community “for the expression of identities across the gender spectrum.” ( Profiles in which people introduce themselves by answering questions like “I identify as…” “As far as third-person pronouns go,…” “I’m attracted to…” and “I want people to understand…” are the main part of the website. The questions leave much room to follow the motto of the community – “define yourself”. The answers are mostly complex and touch all aspects of identity like in the manifesto. But the page gives not only the possibility for people to express themselves and support people by making queerness visible – it works also as space for networking within a growing number of online-sources that deal queer expressions and questions of queer politics.

8 _ after play

In sum it can be said that there is no fixed lesbian identity. The queer theory shows us that sexual identities are always constructed trough discourses and they are always unstable and shifting. The look back in the history demonstrates how lesbian identities were linked with the women’s movement and later the gay liberation movement developed and that they are in a steady process of transformation. During the last twenty years we can see mainly two directions of the development. On one hand the normalization of lesbianism as inclusion in the mainstream-society and media-representations associated with commercialisation and lifestyle plus depolitization. On the other hand we can identify the development of queer theory and politics as a turning point for identity politics. The implications that gender, sex and desire are constructed, depended on each other and in addition to it part of a larger system of power have been picked up not only by academics also by the queer community. We can see how the old identity categories and their boundaries are dissolving. Against the assessment of post-modern identities as only self-involved and without communal attachment we can see how new political ideas, communities and political actions are developing around queer. The promise of queer is to blow away the boundaries and create spaces that are free from hierarchies because there are no fixed identities that can be prioritizes above others. To create and recreate such spaces we need to be attentive and open minded.


Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

Epstein, S. (1996) ‘A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 145-167.

Esterberg, K. (1996) ‘’A Certain Swagger When I Walk’: Performing Lesbian Identity’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 259-279.

Eves, A. (2004) ‘Queer Theory, Butch/Femme Identities and Lesbian Space’ in Sexualities, 7 (4), pp. 480-496.

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gamson, J. (1996) ‘Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?: A Queer Dilemma’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 395-420.

Namaste, K. (1996) ‘The Politics of Inside/Outside: Queer Theory, Poststructuralism, and a Sociological Approach to Sexuality, in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 194-212.

Roseneil, S. (2000) ‘Queer Frameworks and Queer Tendencies: Towards an Understanding of Postmodern Transformations of Sexuality’ in Sociological Research Online, 5 (3), Available at: (Accessed 20 November 2011).

Seidman, S. (1996) ‘Introduction’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1-29.

Stein, A. and Plummer, K. (1996) ‘’I Can’t Even Think Straight’: ‘Queer’ Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 129-144.

Stein, A (2010) ‘The Incredible Shrinking Lesbian World and other Queer Conundra’ in Sexualites, 13 (1), pp. 21-32.

Vicinus, M. (1996) ‘’They wonder to which sex I belong’: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity’ in Vicinus, M. (ed.) Lesbian Subjects. A Feminist Studies Reader. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,pp. 233-259.

Weeks, J. (1996) ‘The Construction of Homosexuality’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 41-63.


g3 for gay/bi women. November 2011. Available at: (30 November 2011). beauty in ambiguity. Available at (Accessed 30 November 2011).

The WhoreDykeBlackTransFeminist Network (2010): Manifesto for the Trans-Feminist Insurrection. Available at: (Accessed 28 November 2011).

Transgenialer CSD // Berlin (2011): Geschichte. Available at: (Accessed 1 December 2011).

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