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.