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I spent an enjoyable spring break travelling around London with friends. But my mind, quite frankly, was elsewhere. I was incapable of reflecting on the beautiful paintings, remarkable old manuscripts and lush green lawns that England offered up for my perusal. All I could think of us was my return to Cambridge and the upcoming Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Awareness Days (BGLAD).
I've been looking forward to this week for quite some time now. The symposiums, dances and meetings will provide countless hours of enlightenment and entertainment. But most importantly, the BGLAD days offer us a perfect opportunity to reflect on the achievements of a group that has not received its fair share of societal recognition: lesbians.
Gays have spent remarkable amounts of time and energy trumpeting their contributions to civilization. But their loyal lesbian sisters have received comparatively little attention and acknowledgement. How many years will it take before society takes the time to stop and look back on the dazzling panoply of lesbian accomplishments?
Most people, when the word "lesbian" is mentioned to them, simply respond with "Yabba!" or some similar expression of fear, squeamishness or disgust. Of course most of us know lesbians, or at least known of lesbians. We see them everyday. But we don't really know about lesbians and we stubbornly refuse to make any effort to address our ignorance. The time has come for us to acknowledge that lesbians have made many notable contributions to society.
We are all familiar with the stereotypes. The popular imagination thinks of lesbianism as simply about shaving one's head, piercing every conceivable body part and donning a leather jacket. But lesbianism is about much more than this.
Let's look at lesbian literary luminaries. Looking at the contributions they have made to the single field of literature, my own field of specialization, shows how much they have enriched history. I have three questions for you:
Did you know that the great writer Gertrude Stein, herself an 1897 graduate of this fair institution, was a lesbian? (Well, now you know. And knowing is half the battle!)
Could our world go on existing without the poetry of Adrienne Rich? (The answer is, probably yes. Perhaps this isn't the right question.)
Wouldn't the contemporary literary landscape be absolutely empty without the hulking figure of Dorothy Allison?
I could go on and on, looking at lesbians in many different fields. But the greatness of lesbianism cannot be adequately capture by drawing up a laundry list of lesbians in the limelight. Their greatest achievement transcends the deeds of any one individual. Lesbians have transformed the way that we think about love and intimacy.
They have enabled us to move on to consider a purer form of love. Lesbian love is marked by an absence of a dominated party and a dominating party. Thus lesbian relationships are characterized by perfect equality of partners. Lesbian love also allows us to move away from narrow and repressive notions of phallocentric love. Thanks to lesbians, we can discard outdated, penetration driven models of intimacy that have created so much trouble in the world.
Now various conservative groups and religious authorities (such as the Catholic Church) have their objections to homosexual relationships. But hey, we're all good liberals, right? Who cares about what conservatives say? We don't need to refute such arguments with analysis. In fact, to do so would be to dignify oppression.
While in London, I was lucky enough to watch the musical "Sunset Boulevard." One of the most moving songs in the entire show is entitled "New Ways to Dream." It's a song about how pioneers in the motion picture industry gave the world novel ways of thinking about their own lives and experiences. The chorus of the song is quite moving: "We gave the world / New ways to dream." If I could change that song in honor of the BGLAD days, it would read as follows: "Lesbians gave the world / New ways to love."
David B. Lat's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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