I Am The Lavender Menace by Christa Tillman Delacy

The starting months of 2015 have not been easy ones for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. They have been filled with painful hate crimes and lives lost to murder and suicide, particularly of women, and for lesbians in a staggering amount. Many of us have had heavy hearts as life after life is destroyed or taken. Our communities have been coming together in anger, terror and grief. But the silence from mainstream feminist media on these horrors has been deafening. Lesbians are dying, and straight feminists are turning a blind eye. The past few months I have been heartbroken, I have been terrified, and I have been angry. And I have felt unheard. Women like me have been forgotten, ignored by the very movement that is designed to support and protect women.

The suicide of transgender teenager Leelah Alcorn did get attention from feminists, many mainstream feminist media outlets featured articles on the tragedy and there was a mass rallying cry across the Internet for change in her name. The petition for a ban on corrective therapy being a hugely important step forward to give hope for the future of young LGBTQ+ people, but after the support and attention for the death of Leelah faded, it seemed that the feminist blogosphere simply congratulated themselves on a job well done supporting LGBTQ+ women and wiped their hands clean of the need to pay any more attention for the time being. But Leelah’s death has been far from the only tragedy to hit LGBTQ+ women in rapid succession, and the painful attacks on lesbians in particular have been completely ignored.

Perhaps the most telling was the silence of the attack against Lisa and Anna Trubnikova, a lesbian couple from Massachusetts. A hate crime against a married, femme, white, lesbian couple should have gotten mass coverage. They were the “right kind of lesbians” to cause media frenzy, they were young, beautiful and deeply in love, described as a perfect couple by family and friends. But feminist and mainstream media alike were silent. I first heard of the attack from lesbians on the social media site, Tumblr. My dashboard was filled with lesbian bloggers horrified and heartbroken over the news.

Anna and Lisa were both US Coast Guard officers stationed in Massachusetts. A fellow officer, Adrian Loya had been obsessed with Lisa for years since having been stationed in Alaska with the couple, he was angered that Lisa, a lesbian would not return his attraction. In early February, a heavily armed Loya, drove from where he lived in Virginia to the condominium where the Trubinokovas lived. There he broke into their home and opened fire, killing Lisa, and leaving Anna in critical condition. Before entering the home of the couple he placed fake bombs around the premises and set a car on fire to stall police from the scene. When police did arrive, Loya shot at them and seriously wounded Officer Jared MacDonald before he was apprehended. Investigation of Loya’s computer records following his arrest showed that he had done significant planning into his attack.

It was a horrifying event that shook the lesbian community. As a soon-to-be married lesbian woman myself, it forced me to face the reality that even in a day when I can legally marry the woman I love, there are still plenty of people who would kill me for who I am, men in particular who would rather I die than face that I am not interested in them, and I was not alone in this terrifying reminder. And yet, when I and other lesbians, went to the Internet trying to find further news and reaction to the crime, there was very little said. Other than local news reports of the event and articles on lesbian media sites, the Internet was void of talk on what had happened. Notably feminist media was silent. When I went to prominent feminist news and media sources I saw articles on empowering fashion choices, on television shows, on pop culture, and not a word about the woman who had died for refusing a man. In a similar situation to what had happened only months early in the shootings committed by Elliot Rodger in California, a woman was dead because of a man’s feelings of sexual entitlement to her. This was an attack based in misogyny and further fueled by homophobia, an intersection of discrimination targeted at lesbians, which is known as lesbophobia, and straight feminist media ignored it. Lesbian women across the country were struck deeply and terrified, and straight women seemed to not care. They cared more about lipstick shades than lesbian blood on the ground.

It soon became apparent that this was only the first of a rapid succession of hate crimes targeting lesbian women. Just days after the attack on Anna and Lisa, a lesbian in Tacoma, Washington was attacked in a hate crime. The 45-year-old butch lesbian who wished to remain unnamed, was out at around 3:00 AM searching for her dog who had gotten out. While out, she was followed down an alley by a man who began to yell homophobic slurs at her and proceeded to violently attack her, strangling her and carving slurs into her body with a knife. The woman was seriously injured and likely would have died if not for her dog who appeared and began barking, drawing attention to the scene and scaring the attacker off.

Once again after this attack feminist media was mute. Local reports and lesbian bloggers were the only ones talking about the incident. And many lesbians have very much felt the sting of the fact that this was not only a hate crime on a lesbian being ignored, but specifically an attack on a butch lesbian. The all too frequently heard straight feminist mantra of “I’m a feminist, but I’m not a hairy man hating dyke!” echoed in our heads.

More attacks were soon on the heels of the previous two. In mid-February, a young lesbian couple in Ireland were the targets: two men in Limerick, Ireland violently physically and verbally attacked Roisin Prendergast and Ciara Murphy. One of the pair was beaten unconscious while the other was left bloody and bruised. Both girls survived the attack but were left physically and emotionally traumatized. And once again other than articles written by LGBTQ+ news sources the attack went unremarked upon.

Yet another lesbian targeted killing took place just weeks later. On February 20th, Kornesha Banks the girlfriend of 20-year-old Janisha Fonville of North Carolina called the police when Fonville, who suffered from mental illness, was unstable and she needed assistance getting her girlfriend to the hospital for treatment. Banks stressed to police that while Fonville was holding a knife at the time she was not a dangerous or violent individual, but that she simply needed help in getting her to the hospital for psychiatric aid. The police however shot her at close proximity upon entering the apartment, killing her on site. No questions asked, no statements taken. Simply shot dead. This killing was incredibly multiple layered as it involved a mentally ill, black, butch lesbian. At a time in our country when attention is being given to police brutality against black individuals, as well as attention being given to police brutality against the mentally ill, this incident was one that should have been given serious response. And yet again, other than local news coverage there was silence. A young woman had been killed and her partner was distraught and in pain, and straight feminists were oblivious.

I wish I could say that I was shocked by the way that this series of crimes against lesbians was ignored, but I can’t say that I was. Straight feminists turning their backs on lesbians is nothing that is unfamiliar, it’s nothing new. It’s what we have grown to expect, for decades, it has been the norm. As a lesbian, I can say in earnest that years have shown us that straight feminists don’t care about us, that they don’t give a damn about the issues that we face.

Mainstream feminism has a long history of either ignoring lesbians or outright painting us as a threat to feminism. In recent decades this largely stems from the input of Betty Friedan and second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s. Friedan is hailed as a feminist icon despite the fact that many marginalized groups of women have been calling her out on not being inclusive for decades. The Feminine Mystique, and Friedan’s approach to feminism as a whole focused on middle class, straight, cisgender, white women. As president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Friedan blatantly stated that she felt lesbians were a threat to the feminist movement, coining the term “The Lavender Menace” to refer to lesbians in feminism. Friedan and other second wavers felt that including discussion of LGBT issues or race issues in feminism would distract from the message of gender equality. In particular, Freidan and other feminist leaders of the time, expressed fear that association with lesbians would paint feminists as “mannish” or “man hating” and detract from the movements political credibility.

This barring of lesbian inclusion extended to excluding women in same sex relationships from joining the organization, and pushing lesbian leaders in the movement to step down. Many straight feminists of the time expressed the opinion that lesbians were essentially men due to their sexual attraction to women and were particularly discriminatory towards butch lesbians who were frequently painted as sexual predators and potential rapists.

Lesbian feminists at the time refused to take this blatant discrimination and claimed the term “Lavender Menace” as their own, forming a group to protest the lesbophobia in feminism, led by prominent lesbian feminist Rita Mae Brown, who had previously been a leader for NOW, but resigned due to the discrimination in the organization. This group staged a protest at the Second Congress to Unite Women on May 1st 1970 and introduced a manifesto “The-Woman-Identified Woman” calling out straight feminists on the way they treated lesbians in the movement.

The protest was a successful moment in lesbian feminist history, but the attitudes of lesbophobia in feminism have never died. If anything lesbophobia in feminism has resurfaced with a vengeance in the past few years: we are still made to feel like a lavender menace. The familiar line of “being a feminist doesn’t mean you are a lesbian”, is an often repeated phrase by straight feminist, most of whom don’t even realize it is an incredibly homophobic micro-aggression. It implies that being a lesbian is a negative, and that being associated with lesbians is a negative. The line is often said replacing the word lesbian with the slur “dyke”. There is a popular quote from Kate Nash that is widely circulated on the Internet:

“Feminism is not a dirty word. It does not mean you hate men, it does not mean you hate girls that have nice legs and a tan, and it does not mean you are a ‘bitch’ or ‘dyke’, it means you believe in equality.”

To the casual reader it’s a rallying grrrl power quote, as a lesbian though it’s loaded with a slap in the face. Dyke is a word that many lesbians have chosen to reclaim for ourselves, I frequently refer to myself as a dyke. But I use it to take back the word, and it’s a word that has been used against me, and thousands of other lesbian women in verbal and physical violence. It’s a word that, in the case of the woman in Tacoma, has literally been carved into our bodies. Like any reclaimed slur, only those who were targeted by the slur have the right to reclaim it, in the mouths of anyone else it is still a slur, it is still a knife cutting into our skin.

The Nash quote has been widely spread over social media, by individuals and mainstream feminist media alike. It’s a quote that equates being a “dyke” to being a “bitch” and essentially implies that lesbians do not believe in equality, which, in itself, is a commonly held idea by straight feminists. The idea that lesbians are men-hating is rampant, equating not being sexually or romantically attracted to men to meaning you hate men in general.

Many lesbians, myself included, are incredibly distrustful of men, and have good reason to be. Lesbians experience types of sexual harassment and fetishinzation from men in a way that straight women never have to experience, and frankly anytime a man expresses any sexual interest in me, I am struck with fear, a reasonable reaction in a world where lesbians still experience corrective rape every day. Adrian Loya’s fixation, and eventual murder, of Lisa is a painful example of a fate that many lesbians live in fear of. I myself have first handedly experienced the anger that straight men express when they learn that I am a lesbian and sexually unavailable to them, especially as a more femme presenting lesbian. They often feel that they can “fix me” and that I am “too pretty to be gay”. The amount of times I have been told by a man that his dick is the one that can change my mind about being a lesbian is mind-boggling.

The hatred butch women experience from men is often based in disgust that a woman would present herself in a way that is unappealing to the male gaze. And often accompanied by anger if she is partnered with a femme woman, whom men often feel has been stolen from them. My girlfriend, a more butch presenting lesbian, and I have been in situations where these attitudes from men have been enacted upon us. In one instance, we were at a bar and a man waited until my girlfriend had left me alone to go to the bathroom and then cornered me aggressively, asking why a “pretty girl like me” was with a “dyke” when I could be with a “real man”. The incident nearly ended in a violent altercation before the man was kicked out of the bar. Incidents like this are why my distrust and often fear of men is based in realities that I cannot avoid, but my feelings are often perceived as hatred rather than legitimate concerns.

And it’s not men alone with distaste towards lesbians. Straight women are often just as lesbophobic, if not more so than straight men. Negative stereotypes against lesbians are rampant among straight women in general and in mainstream feminism as a whole. The idea of the predatory butch lesbian is incredibly prevalent, even in media that includes generally positive lesbian representation such as the hit series, Orange is the New Black, the only true butch lesbian representation on the show comes from the character, Big Boo, who is portrayed as a sexually predatory character who takes advantage of straight women. These sorts of representations in media paint societies view of lesbians in a negative unrealistic light, largely created by homophobic views based in previous generations prejudices.

These upheld homophobic views towards lesbians, particularly towards butch lesbians, can be seen in many current feminist trends. The current fad of the idea of “weaponized femininity” is incredibly alienating to lesbians as a whole, and to butch lesbians in particular. The trend is based in the concept of making men uncomfortable by means of radical displays of empowered societally perceived feminine traits, women proclaiming their red lipstick and stiletto heels as feminist symbols. The concept of autonomy and personal choice in feminism is a strong solid model, which says that any women regardless of how she presents or the choices she makes for her life should not be discredited for her feminist ideals. The concept of weaponized femininity however idealizes women who conform to societally recognized concepts of femininity, ideals that are often based in a societal desire to appeal to men. As a result this movement ostracizes lesbians, especially butch and gender non-conforming lesbians, in short, it lends to the idea that straight women are more capable of true feminism than lesbian women are. Upon delving into social media discussion of the concepts in question when butch lesbians raise their discomfort with certain aspects of mainstream feminism they are berated as being as guilty as men for viewing women in a sexual light. It’s an echo of Friedan’s call to a arms against The Lavender Menace.

This attitude from straight feminists has even trickled down to the lesbian community itself. Many femme lesbians have admitted that they have held negative views of butch lesbians based on societal pressures that construct butch women as being mannish and prone to being abusers. Some butch lesbians have also internalized these views about themselves and feel shame or guilt for not conforming to societal gender norms. I’ve known several butch women who felt pressure to identify as non-binary or as transmen rather than as women, despite the fact that they personally do identify as women, but our culture, even LGBTQ+ culture, is incredibly rigid in what it believes defines femininity and masculinity. Mainstream feminism all too often pushes these ideas of gender roles just as much as general society, and thus alienates women who fall outside of the constructed standards.

All of this, and many other elements, are behind the way that crimes targeting lesbian women are far too often ignored by feminist media. Our struggles, our pain, our losses are not viewed as women’s issues, and as a lesbian, it is impossible to understand that without coming to the realization that straight women don’t view us as woman enough for feminism. And that is a statement that I truly cannot fathom, even though I feel its sting every day. I can’t see these crimes against lesbians take place and see straight feminists turn their backs on us without feeling that you don’t care, we are dying and you blindly step over our bodies. We are crying and screaming out, and you are deaf to us. I could be killed, the woman I love could be killed, for who we are, our lives could be ended, and our deaths wouldn’t matter to you. That is the message I have been given, the message I see when I look at feminist media and find that lipstick is more important than lesbian lives to mainstream feminism.

I am a lesbian. I am a woman. I am hurting. I am mourning. I am afraid. I am angry. And I need you to listen. I need you to care. If that makes me a menace, lavender or otherwise so be it, but please hear this menace out.

 ~

Christa Tillman DeLacy is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing and Women and Gender Studies programs, she has been published in Columbia’s literary anthology Hair Trigger, and she has contributed articles on LGBT issues to various online publications. Her blog can be found at http://christadelacy.tumblr.com/.