Gatekeeping in the Lesbian Community

Why We Must Welcome Nonbinary People – and Reject the Ideas of a Certain Famous Author

Before J.K. Rowling utterly stepped in it, then doubled down on her stepping in it, then signed an open letter with a bunch of other famous people stepping in it and calling it a defense of free speech and debate, “feminism” and “the lesbian community” had plenty of problems with gatekeeping and exclusivity.

While the number of examples of women’s affinity spaces being trans-exclusive is well documented, I think – I hope – it goes without saying that the lesbian community must be trans inclusive. If we’re a community united because people make assumptions about our character, intelligence, and capabilities based on our bodies, then we have to recognize that trans women feel the same sense of being dictated to because of their bodies. Usually worse. If it’s our experiences with men that unite lesbians as a community, well, I can’t think of any group more deserving of inclusion than trans women, who experience harassment, abuse, and even murder in proportionally greater numbers.

Whether or not nonbinary people should be included and welcomed into the lesbian community seems like a less clear-cut point for many people. I won’t link to the views arguing nonbinary people don’t belong in the lesbian community because I don’t agree with them and I often don’t hear compelling evidence in their arguments. But their points go something like this: “lesbian” refers to female or feminine people, so anyone asserting a nonbinary identity must be rejecting femaleness or femininity (or, at least, too embracing of maleness and masculinity to belong).

But there’s another way to look at the lesbian community, which is to understand its historical roots and configurations, as problematic as they might sometimes be. In her essay “Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage from the 1950s,” Joan Nestle offers a personal account of lesbians passing as straight men in the pre-Stonewall days. They wore men’s clothing and sometimes adopted men’s names, so they could live publicly with the women they loved and (because of wage discrimination) earn enough living to keep their nontraditional families afloat. Nestle argues against a reading of butch-femme relationships that sees them as imitating cis heterosexuality, with one person “wearing the pants” and one “being the wife.” Instead, she argues that passing as a man, walking around butch, took tremendous courage because it flaunted gender norms in a socially conservative time. For Nestle, butch lesbians aren’t trying to be more like heterosexuals; they’re breaking even more social rules than femme lesbians.

In recent years, Nestle’s work has been taken up by trans scholars because of the insistence that we don’t read people as “imitating” others who have more power (such as butch lesbians imitating cishet men). This new research says we should celebrate the ways people live their truths, regardless of and especially because flaunting social conventions can lead to ostracism, violence, and possibly death.

The idea of a “nonbinary lesbian” might seem contradictory, but some of Nestle’s cohorts might have used this terminology if it had existed at the time. If we think of nonbinary not as neither male nor female but both or somewhere in between or existing in a world outside the male/female dichotomy, we probably know – maybe we are – people who fit this description. “Lesbian,” of course carries identity markers for both gender and sexuality: a female person attracted to other female people. But if we think instead about lesbian culture or “the lesbian community” (if such a thing exists) as a culture in which life does not revolve around cishet men, then logically we should welcome nonbinary people.

Pink News did a story on the conundrum of the nonbinary lesbian, with several people explaining how they understand and describe their identities. One of the interview subjects, Ash, explains it this way:

“As a lesbian you defy probably one of the biggest gender roles that exists, which is for your life to revolve around a man, so that links into how being non-binary also doesn’t conform to expectations of gender.”

-Ash, as quoted in “Can You Be Both Non-Binary and Lesbian?”, 2018

Rather than looking for ways to divide up the umbrella with enbies on the right, cis lesbians on the left, and trans lesbians in the middle, I think we would all benefit from looking for common ground. In the case of nonbinary people and lesbian culture, there are two logical points for me. First, historically “lesbian” was often more easily applied to butch women, many of whom may not have actually identified as female or feminine. Second, if “lesbian” refers to a community or culture that rejects the idea of the cishet man as the center of the family and society, nonbinary people should absolutely be welcome because their very existence rejects this idea.

My two forthcoming novels with Bold Strokes Books will be catalogued and shelved as lesbian (or WLW) romance because one half of the romantic pair in each book is a self-described lesbian. Both books will also be tagged as having nonbinary characters and categorized in LGBTQ romance, since the other romantic partner is someone who identifies as nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. I’m really excited to see the melding of these two genres and universes, and I hope that readers accustomed to lesfic only will be willing to make the leap. Enbies are always welcome in my world.

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