Out of the Margins, Into the Streets

by Janani Balasubramanian, ’12

“This might be a faulty assumption, I can’t help but wonder: where are all of Stanford’s lesbians (and bisexual and questioning women)? I have some theories, but I have no way to tell if any of these are actually true. It’s hard to track down a hidden or missing population.”

The quotation above is from a Stanford Daily article printed last week in which Jamie Solomon asked Stanford where all our lesbians are “hidden.” Her op-ed is frustrating to me on multiple levels. Some of my issues with the piece are easy fixes. We can replace “lesbians” with “queer women” (the latter term including women who are bisexual, pansexual, etc). We can also remove unfortunate stereotyping of gay men (whom she purports to know well because of her involvement with theater and a capella). It’s not Solomon’s lack of appropriate vocabulary or inexperience with the queer community that bothers me; it’s the fact that she was unwilling to look around just a little bit before determining that queer women are invisible on this campus. (And to note, a Google search for “Stanford lesbians” would have led her to the LGBT Community Resources Center.)

The invisibility of queer female sexuality is nothing new. Our very own Terry Castle, a professor in Stanford’s English department writes about the phenomenon of queer female erasure or “ghosting”, particularly in literature, in The Apparitional Lesbian. Castle discusses the trend of queer female narratives being represented as ghost stories or other varieties of the paranormal, mirroring the invisibility of female same-sex love in Western society. Similarly, history Professor Matthew Sommer in Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China outlines the literal hundreds of proclamations and cases against male sodomy in the Qing era, and notes the absolute silence (that is, literally no legal mention) around female homosexuality. As long as queer women are still marrying men and producing children, they don’t present a threat to society the way gay men do.

It’s a contemporary phenomenon too. The most prominent queer news source, The Advocate, caters largely to white men at the expense of women, trans folk, and people of color. Most gay movies are in fact gay men’s movies. Even the word “gay” signals “man,” though it should technically apply to folks of all genders. The acronym may be “LGBT” but the archetype is really white, gay, able-bodied, male, and upper/middle class…think about what you imagine about the inhabitants of classic gay-borhoods like San Francisco’s Castro. (It’s worth mentioning, though, that the Mission is a stronghold of queer women’s life in the city.) Erasure is compounded by being female, trans, a person of color, disabled, etc.

But what’s Solomon’s response to this erasure? That queer women at Stanford should make themselves visible by going to farmer’s markets with their interracial children the way they do in Oakland? I really do not feel a responsibility to announce my sexuality in order to break the assumption that women are “straight until proven otherwise.” Furthermore, not all queer women are in relationships with other women, and those of us who are don’t necessarily want to walk around holding hands to confirm and perform our queerness.

So let’s expand Solomon’s question further. Instead of “Where are Stanford’s lesbians?”, let’s ask, “How can we celebrate difference in the queer community?”. How can we make queer spaces at Stanford safe and welcoming for all? See, it’s not just about asking “where the queer women at?” – you’ve got to do some of the looking (and changemaking) too.

A transplant from Bangalore, India, Janani identifies as both “intense” and “frivolous.” She also identifies as a queer South Asian, a vegan, and an activist/advocate for a peaceful food system. She’s a rising senior and co-term, majoring in Atmosphere/Energy and Feminist Studies.

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3 thoughts on “Out of the Margins, Into the Streets

  1. Quirk says:

    Sceth, in these discussions where all of us are heavily influenced by personal experience, no-one is a “messenger”. Everyone is a participant, as I think Janani was saying at the end of the article.

    I still think most of the issue is of others’ expectations, not what queer women actually do: I look around and I see plenty of women who are probably queer, and plenty who could be. (Not just the women I have met at queer campus events.) An astounding number of people don’t look.

  2. Holly says:

    I send virtual snaps out to your entire post, Janani, but I also have to thank Jamie for ironically bringing more attention/visibility to queer women at Stanford! This is only our 3rd appearance in the Daily (according to how often “lesbian” has been used as a tag), and I have to say I’m glad that her piece started a vibrant conversation about the (in)visibility of queer ladies on campus.

  3. Sceth StXellus says:

    Here’s another easy fix for you: replace “invisible” with “relatively difficult to detect;” I took that as implicit. You acknowledge that queer women are relatively invisible and yet you criticize her for not looking around – but there was never any suggestion that she tried to detect explicitly non-queer persons or queer non-females. It’s ostensible that she just passively discovered them, readily identified as such. Once we’ve rectified the provoking question to “Why is it so hard to detect explicitly queer women at Stanford?” you get a question that many of us within and without the queer community find ourselves asking, and for which there exists a litany of textbook answers. Her article remains both unavoidably manifest and academically of interest, and your remarks on invisibility only support this. This article reads like one blaming the messenger for a soberly rendered fact of which one was long aware.

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