This is about the erasure of lesbians, which is pandemic. Lesbian erasure is global: Lesbians are being erased from every aspect of society, in both state-sponsored male violence and individuated violence. Lesbian erasure is in our families, our places of worship, our schools, our workplaces. Lesbian erasure is, increasingly, in our own LGBT community. Lesbian erasure is even, at times, within our lesbian selves.
There are many ways to erase a lesbian. As almost any lesbian can attest, that erasure begins with our families of origin telling us we aren’t really lesbians or it’s just a phase or we are really just tomboys or we are too pretty to be “dykes” or God wouldn’t approve or we’ll never have children if we hook up with women or we just haven’t met the right man or sometimes, all of the above.
The attempt to erase our lesbian identity broadens as we begin to out ourselves in the world beyond our families. That experience can be harrowing. Many lesbians become substance abusers in an effort to blunt the pain of lesbophobia and the concomitant pressures of the closet or the risk being rejected and despised from even those people we thought respected and loved us, such as friends or co-workers.
Some lesbians attempt suicide. Others attempt heterosexuality. Some transition as FtM only to transition back when they realize they were lesbians and not men, like their trans men friends.
Despite the prevalence of lesbians in heterosexual pornography as titillation for men, society has deemed lesbians best not seen, not heard, not existing. To that end, from our own families to the state, lesbians are being erased.
The literal erasure of lesbians through murder has been, especially over the past decade, statistically on the rise. Lesbians are being killed all over the world just for being lesbians. Even as you read this, the state-sponsored erasure of lesbians–the femicide of lesbians–in nearly half the countries of the world doesn’t even elicit headlines.
Which is a double erasure.
In 79 countries it is illegal to be a lesbian. Illegal to exist. Laws specific to and solely addressing lesbians and gay men are not less in 2015, they are more. In fact, as the West provides superficial acknowledgment of lesbians and gay men, mostly through changes in marriage laws, in other parts of the world harsher penalties for lesbianism and homosexuality are being created and implemented, causing terror for millions.
Not all such crimes against lesbians are state-sponsored. Many are religious and cultural in origin. Honor killings are a weapon against women in a range of Muslim nations and lesbians are among the women threatened by this practice. Even a cursory Internet search turns up dozens of articles on honor killings of lesbians or lesbians fleeing the threat of honor killing. In Gaza, which Al-Jazeera reported last March led the world in honor killings, lesbians attempt to flee into Israel to escape death at the hands of their own families. But honor killing is not just a crime perpetrated against lesbians in the Middle East. In June 2014 a black lesbian couple, Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, were murdered in Texas. James Cosby, Britney’s father, was arrested for the killings. The alleged motive was saving his family’s honor from the sin of the couple’s relationship. The couple was survived by their young son.
In South Africa, corrective rape of lesbians has become so common it is now considered pandemic in that country. More than half of all lesbian victims are also murdered. These rapes and killings are often at the hands of gangs and are especially gruesome. One young woman had her intestines ripped out through her cervix. Another was raped with a toilet brush which ruptured her uterus. Eudy Simelane, a lesbian soccer star in South Africa, was gang raped and beaten and stabbed to death. She had more than 100 wounds, even on the soles of her feet. Noxolo Nogwaza was raped and stabbed multiple times with glass shards. Her skull was shattered. Her eyes were reportedly gouged from their sockets.
International rights groups assert there are more than a dozen such rapes each week, though not every lesbian is killed in the process. Pearl Mali reported that when she was 12 years old, she was raped for the first time by an older man that her mother brought home from their church. He raped Pearl in her own bedroom, which he did daily until she was 16. Mali told the New York Times, “My mother didn’t want me to be gay, so she asked him to move in and be my husband. She hoped it would change me,” she said.
It only traumatized her.
Corrective rape has also become commonplace in Jamaica, one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Keshema Tulloch, 33, a Jamaican lesbian, was attacked in Kingston last year and then shot by police for attempting to defend herself against the man beating her. She was arrested and charged with attempted murder. No charges were brought against her attacker nor the police officer who shot her but international rights groups are trying to free her.
Maria Barin, from a family originally from Iraqi Kurdistan, was murdered in Lanskrona, in southern Sweden, stabbed to death by her brother in an honor killing because she refused to marry a man to help her family financially.
Lesbians are being stoned to death in Saudi Arabia, burned at the stake in several African nations, beaten to death in India, raped and hanged in Cameroon, raped and set on fire in Nigeria.
The first time a lesbian is reported to law enforcement for lesbianism in Sudan, she is given 1,000 lashes in public. One thousand. The lashings often result in death.
In Russia, lesbians are imprisoned for “defiling” Russian culture where some mysteriously die.
Kygyzstan is implementing a new and highly repressive law aimed at lesbians and gay men which begins with imprisonment. The same thing is happening in Egypt where being a lesbian or gay man is now illegal.
All this violent erasure yet lesbians do not make the news. There is no “Lesbian Day of Remembrance.” Even the word lesbian is erased from a majority of news outlets which use “gay” as inclusive of gay men as well as lesbians. Among the major websites using this language are even the left-leaning Think Progress.
Violence against lesbians is on the rise, but news reports of it are rare. Last week a young lesbian couple in Ireland, Roisin Prendergast and her girlfriend Ciara Murphy were left bleeding and unconscious following an unprovoked attack in Limerick. The only comments on this crime I saw on Twitter were my own.
Lesbians seem only to become news when we object to our own erasure.
For nearly two years I have been writing about Aderonke Apata, a native Nigerian who has been fighting to remain in the U.K., requesting asylum, because she fears death in her native country. This is a not unreasonable fear, as she has explained to me in several interviews for Curve magazine, because lesbians are killed for being lesbians in Nigeria. And in the 11 years Aderonke has been in the U.K., members of her family have been killed and other lesbians seeking–and denied–asylum have been returned only to die.
Jackie Nanyonjo died in Uganda on 8 March 2013 after being deported from the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention center where Aderonke herself, along with many other lesbians seeking asylum, has been detained. Another Ugandan lesbian, Prossie N, was seriously ill at the time of her deportation in December 2013. Prossie N has been in hiding in Kampala ever since her deportation while activists attempt to get her back to the U.K.
Now it is Aderonke fighting for her life.
On March 3 Aderonke appeared in London’s High Court to challenge the Home Office’s refusal to grant her asylum. As she had explained to me in an interview last year, she was forced to submit what she considered pornographic videotape of her having sex with her fianceé, Happiness Agboro.
But the London Home Office, which has been denying that lesbians are lesbians for decades, has determined that Aderonke can’t be a lesbian because she has had children–like at least a third of all lesbians.
As Aderonke explained to me, the fight to stay in the U.K., which she now considers both her home and the place where she feels safe from persecution, despite the treatment she has received at the hands of the Home Office, has left her physically and mentally fragile. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (the circumstances of her fleeing Nigeria where her former partner was killed are harrowing). In 2005 she attempted suicide.
The argument the Home Office is making against Aderonke is that she can’t be both lesbian and heterosexual. But as she explained to me, she has always been a lesbian. Like many women, however, compulsory heterosexuality was imposed on her by the state as well as the culture in which she lived in Nigeria. Which is why she fled.
There will be a ruling by the end of the month on her case at which point, if the Court does not find in her favor, she will be deported to certain death in the place she no longer considers home and which has enacted even more stringent anti-lesbian laws since she fled more than a decade ago.
The outrage I feel over Aderonke’s case–her voice is calm and lilting when she talks, but the frisson of fear is there, understandably–is far from singular. Last week lesbians were arrested in Russia and tossed into jail. Word of their condition has not been forthcoming. Last month a local lesbian activist in my city, Kim Jones, was killed in broad daylight while waiting for a bus. Her killer came up behind her and shot her in the head at point blank range.
I could list case after case after case of horrifying attacks on lesbians and murders of lesbians. But why do I have to? Why must I plead for an end to lesbian erasure and a recognition of our status–or lack of status–in the world?
A recent furore erupted on social media between some lesbians and Owen Jones, a columnist for The Guardian UK. Jones had been opposed to the letter calling for an end to the no-platforming of lesbians that had appeared in The Guardian and been widely discussed and debated on social media and which I previously wrote about here.
Jones had written a column which many objected to in which he basically re-wrote gay and lesbian history to put trans women at the forefront of the Stonewall Rebellion, erasing the lesbians who were actually at the forefront as well as the gay men, all of whom risked their lives in the days of that battle.
In the volleys that followed on Twitter between U.K. lesbians and straight feminists, the canard that lesbians are transphobic if lesbians don’t consider trans women as sexual partners was tossed into the mix by Jones, who seemed to have blocked every lesbian in the U.K. who has a presence on social media calling each “obsessively transphobic” as he tweeted on the morning of March 4.
On March 3, I witnessed an exchange between him, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, a British actress I know and a de-transitioning trans man. The exchange consisted of Jones calling my friend a homophobe and his totally ignoring the comments of the former trans man who actually could speak to the issue of dating gay men as a trans man.
The debate was over whether Jones, a gay man, would perform cunnilingus on a trans man, which, not surprisingly, appalled him as gay men are not sexually interested in women. (Just like lesbians are not sexually interested in men.)
I personally find this whole debate over who gets to play with the bodies of lesbians (and gay men) intrusive and have since it was first raised several years ago as an issue being forced upon lesbians. But perhaps Jones should have considered that fraught history when he told lesbians that if they didn’t accept trans women into their beds, they were transphobic. (And I will note here that there are women and men who are happy to be partnered with trans women and I know several. But that’s not the issue under discussion–lesbian sexual autonomy is the issue.)
When the tables were turned and Jones, as a gay man, was asked to accept trans men into his bed, Jones cried “homophobe” at the lesbians asking him to embrace what he had previously proclaimed was the moral and political duty of all lesbians everywhere to accept. Their autonomy be damned.
Goose/gander, pot/kettle, ultimately, hypocrite. If Jones cringes at the thought of opening the trousers of a bearded trans man to find a vagina, then perhaps he should understand this might be the same response of a lesbian unveiling a penis where she expected a vagina.
Gay men, while still suffering the very real threats imposed by actual homophobia (which was not what the U.K. lesbians of Twitter have any ability to impose, even if that were their intent, which it is not) are not under any of the same proscriptions as lesbians because they are not female. Oppression is not a contest–despite some wanting to make it so–but from within the confines of the LGBT community, it is beyond offensive to accuse lesbians of anything other than choice for their sexual desires or lack of same.
This is where erasure comes into play.
Lesbian sexual identity and choice is being eroded, erased and elided. This is being done by the literal obliteration of lesbians by state-sponsored violence, by the “corrective rape of lesbians” (imagine the 12 year old Pearl Mali being given the worst sort of reparative therapy by her very own mother), by the harassment and violence, by the firings (lesbians face more job discrimination than any other group within the LGBT alliance), by the enforced and compulsory heterosexuality of every society on earth. Aderonke Apata has been forced, by men, to provide not just spoken testimony and a pending marriage license, but also a sex tape of her having sexual relations with her partner to “prove” her lesbianism to the men who want to erase that aspect of her identity–the very identity that puts her and millions of other lesbians at risk of imprisonment and/or death.
If Jones is crying homophobia at being asked to accept a trans man as male, how is he not transphobic when he insists, as do many, that a lesbian who says she does not want a penis in her bed is transphobic?
Lesbian sexuality should be off limits from men–straight, gay or undecided–under any and all circumstances. It is the one thing–our own beds, our own bodies–that we have been able to keep sacrosanct from an outside world that either tells us we think we are men if we are butch or tells us we really are straight if we are femme and tells us what we can and cannot do with our lives and our loves every second of every day in every place on earth.
When you–be you straight, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning–tell a lesbian what she should do with her body, you are no different from the presidents and prime ministers who want to wipe lesbians off the face of the earth for choosing women over men, choosing ourselves over what others would have us do.
In February the Lesbian Helpline in Chennai, India, was opened to offer support and services for lesbians who are nearly invisible in India. The helpline was established following the suicide pact of two married women from Chennai who set themselves on fire rather than be separated. The Indian Community Welfare Organisation which runs the helpline says many women are still afraid to come out as gay because of the violence they might face from either their families or Indian society.
But increasingly the problem at the helpline is that men are calling looking for the phone numbers of lesbians. For sex.
This is what lesbians face. This is what erasure looks like–the endless effort of men, either deliberately and maliciously, as arbiters of the state, or simply ignorantly, like Jones with his Twitter tirade against all lesbians.
Lesbians are being no-platformed out of our very existence, whether through the insidiousness of silencing or the oppressive demands of compulsory heterosexuality or through violence that at best leaves us shattered and at worst, dead. Lesbians deserve the same level of autonomy as any other group, be it minority or majority. If you aren’t supporting that autonomy, then you are inadvertently or directly a participant in the erasure that is perhaps slowly but very definitely steadily, wiping us off the face of the earth.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novel about violence against women, Ordinary Mayhem, was published in February 2015. Her book on lesbian erasure will be published in 2016. @VABVOX