ON NOVEMBER 6, Elizabeth Koke filed a $3.5M lawsuit against The Feminist Press at the City University of New York (CUNY). The former Feminist Press staffer alleges that anti-lesbian discrimination led to her wrongful termination. Koke’s suit specifically names Feminist Press director — and prominent third-wave feminist — Jennifer Baumgardner.
CUNY’s feminist-minded publisher hired Koke in 2010. According to the Daily News, after Baumgardner took the helm in July 2013, she and the board of directors decided the house was “too lesbian” and should put out books with “mainstream appeal” instead.
Part of that culture shift involved weeding out the publisher’s lesbian staffers. When the Feminist Press terminated Koke in December 2014, she was the last employee who self-identified as lesbian. Days earlier, she had been promised an eight-percent raise.
Twitter reactions to news of Koke’s lawsuit skewed negative, with specific emotions ranging from shock to not-surprised. One user observed, “white feminism strikes again,” while others made reference to “The Lavender Menace.”
This is a great time to look at the history of the relationship between feminism and lesbianism.
In October, Germaine Greer — the esteemed author of The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman — made waves when she proclaimed respect for transwomen a form of misogyny. Greer decried the notion of transwomen as “real women,” asserting that women like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are unable to “look like, sound like, or behave like women.” Many outside the feminist loop were rightly shocked by Greer’s transphobia, but for those of us familiar with the “womyn-born-womyn” set, it was all more of the unfortunate same.
The fact is, mainstream feminism doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to LGBTQIA issues, and transphobic comments like Greer’s are only the most recent incarnation of non-intersectional feminism.
There’s an old adage: “Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice.” In a lot of ways, the adoption of lesbianism made sense. Women worried about what would happen to their marriages if they were to become less traditionally feminine. Many feminists questioned whether the social, political, and economic climates could allow a heterosexual couple to have a balanced and egalitarian relationship.
As Anne Koedt notes, “[f]eminists have been called ‘lesbian’ [as an insult] ever since they began working politically for women’s liberation.” Many feminist activists — the legendary Gloria Steinem included — looked for ways to navigate accusations of lesbianism without insulting their queer sisters. Steinem, for her part, just said “thank you” whenever someone said she looked like a lesbian.
Still, lesbianism’s relative normalcy within the feminist movement didn’t protect lesbian feminists from exclusion. Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan called woman-identified women “the lavender menace” that would destroy the burgeoning National Organization for Women (NOW). A group of lesbian feminists united under that banner, and The Lavender Menace successfully campaigned to have lesbian issues included in NOW’s 1971 platform.
That didn’t stop a 1981 pamphlet from causing a deep rift in the feminist community, however. “Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism” proclaimed lesbianism a feminist calling. The women who published it asked readers to self-identify as lesbians and refuse sex with men, regardless of whether or not they chose to sleep with other women.
Straight feminists felt that “Love Your Enemy” threw out the baby with the bathwater. Why should they be celibate just because their husbands held more social, political, and economic power? Why should all heterosexual relationships be foregone, simply because some were problematic?
The media used the pamphlet as a battering ram against feminism. In their hands, “Love Your Enemy” became a new strategy for putting feminists on the defensive. Instead of talking about the issues, they were forced to address constant accusations of lesbianism and homosexual recruiting. Eleven years after the booklet first appeared, televangelist Pat Robertson famously said: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
The association of lesbianism with feminism isn’t new, then, and neither are the strategies used to combat it. Steinem’s eloquent answer to questions about her sexual orientation neither confirms nor denies, and this has become the accepted spirit of response, simply because it doesn’t prioritize one preference over another.
And that is what makes the accusations against the Feminist Press so disheartening. If it’s true that Baumgardner — who, incidentally, is openly bisexual — pushed out lesbian staffers in order to create a more mainstream brand appeal, it’s a blow to both a respected indie publisher and the feminist community at large.
We’ve already learned how to handle homophobia with respect. Giving into the demands of a supposedly anti-gay readership does not advance feminism, and will not, even if it increase sales, because it flies in the face of the very intersectionality we now view as essential.