Happy Mothers Gay

Flicking through a newspaper left in a cafe yesterday, I came across a predictable opinion piece focusing on Mothers’ Day. What was less predictable about it was that it was aimed at women who aren’t mothers. It wasn’t a child-hating call to solidarity from a childless woman, neither a judgemental or pitying address from one mother to none. It was just acknowledging attitudes towards motherhood and non-motherhood. This made me think about how the word ‘mother’ categorises and stereotypes women in much the same way as the word ‘lesbian’. People derive from it assumptions about your role within relationships, your place in society, and your attitudes and values.

My own thoughts on motherhood can be loosely organised into three strands: 1) being a lesbian mum 2) being the mother of a gay child, and 3) being a lesbian who doesn’t want children, or isn’t sure. I should say at this point that I am speaking from opinion, not any kind of authority, on this!
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Some of the general mum stereotypes are that (on the positive side) you must be unselfish, caring and with your priorities right or (on the negative side) that you are constantly frazzled, can only talk baby and are uninterested in a career and unreliable as an employee. In addition to these, lesbian mums also have to contend with the constant coming out at nursery/school, and the equivalent of the idiotic question of ‘which one’s the man?’, being replaced with ‘which one’s the dad?’. They also face a greater level of intrusive, personal questions, which are somehow considered ok to ask a gay person but which you would never ask a straight person; such as ‘how did you get pregnant?’, and ‘how did you decide which one of you would have the baby?’, ‘Is [the other mum] ok with that/are you worried it will affect your relationship?’. When children of lesbian couples (or single parents) are older, there’s all the worry over homophobic bullying, not to mention the moral panic from fundamentalist Christians and right wingers about the ‘sanctity of the family’ and the presumed damage that a lack of father figure will do to a child. All of this ignoring straight single parent families, and despite the fact that a 2010 study following children of lesbian parents from birth to adolescence found that these children score similarly to children of heterosexual parents on measures of development and social behaviour. They even score higher in terms of self esteem and confidence.* This was regardless of whether the children had a single lesbian mum, or two.

Something that really is missing for lesbian families is more opportunity to socialise with others. There are some good Rainbow Families events in London, but (according to a lesbian friend with a child), these are often focused around high income brackets, and I doubt that such good networks exist outside of London and Brighton.

So what about being the parent of a gay child? This is something that we can all have a view on from being the child. As it’s relatively rare for a gay child to have gay parents, a friend of mine once commented that a lot of gay people don’t have ancestry for this part of themselves, which is partly why LGB history is so important. Yet, we do all have our own ancestry and it’s the family that bring us up that largely influence how we feel about our gay identity. We all know people with horror stories of parental rejection or disapproval over their sexuality, but it’s still interesting (and shocking) to me (and my parents) that parental homophobia overrides maternal and paternal instincts and also that it is so widely tolerated in society. For me, there is no condoning parents who forsake their children, but I have a lot of empathy with parents also being on a journey in getting their heads around their child being gay. Surprise, shock and worry are not the same as homophobia. Neither is wanting to examine the nature/nurture part of it. For people in their thirties and over, the parent generation was not brought up with gay assimilation and so it does take a shift for all of the facets of a gay identity to come into consciousness. For many parents, it isn’t that they think badly of having a gay child – they may just never have had to think before about what it means to live as a gay person, and challenging received or unconscious ideas about this takes time. When someone comes out, they have usually had a long time to process their sexual orientation intellectually and emotionally, whereas most parents won’t have, so it’s only to be expected that they may need some time to do this – but that doesn’t mean they don’t accept having a gay child or that they won’t come to embrace and celebrate it. So what I’m saying is that gay children should have some patience and empathy as their parents are also on the coming out journey. And they may also need to be educated about gay language, culture, rights etc, just as we had to educate ourselves – no one is born knowing this stuff just because they’re born gay.

Lastly, what about lesbians who don’t want children, or aren’t sure? This is an interesting one, as I’m not sure that lesbians who choose not to have children are actually judged as negatively by society as straight women who make this decision. If a straight woman doesn’t have a child, she risks being seen as obsessed with her career, selfish, or somehow unnatural if she doesn’t have biological or maternal instincts. Yet lesbians having children can also been seen as unnatural by some groups, so those who don’t have children are somehow seen to be ‘doing the right thing’. Another reason why lesbians might not be judged for not having children is that there is less expectation for them to – given the limits of some people’s imaginations about how this could be possible. Obviously this thinking is fundamentally flawed, and I think I’d rather be seen as selfish than unnatural, as at least the latter is a relative rather than fixed label. And yet, it’s the ‘selfish’ argument that actually bothers me most about being a childless woman, especially as it often comes from women who are mothers. I am neither career obsessed, nor (I hope) completely selfish. I give plenty of my time and emotional energy to my family and friends, and their children. I also like children and certainly have maternal instincts. I just don’t really have the biological instinct to have my own child, at least not now (which is probably just as well in terms of finances and relationship status). So this means adoption might be the best route in future, but this is one that is made harder for straight and gay parents due to the amount of social services hoops that (perhaps rightly when dealing with vulnerable children) have to be jumped through. Not to mention the homophobia that exists within some services, such as religious adoption agencies.

My obvious conclusion in discussing all of these strands is that we need to accept and celebrate diversity in attitudes towards motherhood, just as much as we do with female and lesbian identity. It takes all sorts, and all that!

I should add, at this point, that I am very fortunate to have a mum who is my unconditional champion in all areas, including gay rights, and friends who are amazing mothers, who neither conform nor subscribe to any of the stereotypes mentioned here. And I will celebrate all of them today. #HappyMothersDay

*TIME article on the lesbian parents study http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1994480,00.html

Why it takes many voices to sing a rainbow

My subject for this post (hopefully more a discussion than a rant) is competition between people who claim, or aim, to represent whole communities. I’m talking specifically about competition amongst bloggers or social groups to be the definitive ‘voice’ of their demographic. Like if I claimed to represent all femmes and set myself up in competition with every other blogger writing about femme life or issues. I’m not doing this, because: a) I really wouldn’t want that responsibility or pressure b) I’d have to significantly up my game to try and represent a group that is in itself so diverse, and due to this c) it would seem downright ridiculous, not to mention arrogant, of me to try.

The reason I take issue with this kind of competition where I’ve seen it exist within LGB social events and media is because working against each other and polarising is not practising what we preach, or embracing what we perpetually fight for: equality and diversity. The paradox of unity and ‘standing as one’ is that we risk losing the diversity within. Which is why we call ourselves a community – a collective of many individuals, which should celebrate many voices. It’s many voices that have power – it takes many voices to stand up for injustice, for example. Working together, yes, but as individuals rather than a homogeny, which is what we’ve fought against being seen as.

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When LGB competition rears it’s head, it’s like staking claim to part of the rainbow in a political or ideological coup. In the name of equality we wrestle this part as ‘our’ own, but then replicate stereotypical patterns in trying to have one, or few voices. It all seems a bit Animal Farm.

No one has put journalists, bloggers, or event organisers in a position of power or glory. We’ve just chosen to find a public outlet for our musings, interests or motivations. I’m not denying that a bit of ego comes into play. We all have one and all want to be heard in some way, whether publicly or privately; by word, action or indirectly. But this isn’t just about art, it’s about life, and I believe our own voices are heard and responded to better in discussion than monologue. Of course competition can be good when it increases choice and quality, but even with LGB businesses (events, venues, dating sites, services etc), partnership, cross promotion or just mutual support is mutually beneficial, as the target market is relatively small and interlinked. So I think we can afford to be a bit more generous with our words and our promotion. To be fair, there are a lot of bloggers and organisers who are, and in my own experience, I’ve gained so much for being entertained or made to think by them than I would’ve done just spouting out my own thoughts. In being mutually supportive, I do feel like I’m in an online community with diverse voices.

Icons obviously hold great power and influence but it’s the people we can relate to that can have the most impact. We can’t all be a Harvey Milk or an Ellen Degeneres, changing the landscape, or a Claire Balding or Gareth Thomas, influencing public opinion and culture through who we are. But the power that all of us have is to engage with others. Through being open about who we are and coming together as diverse voices, we can normalise being gay (any way) and (hopefully) make it that bit easier for the one or many people looking to find their own voice.

With a little help from our friends: speed dating, lobster style

Skinny jeans. Lips. Snoring. Writing. No, this isn’t a very British mash-up of The L Word opening theme. These were some of the words I clocked stuck to femmes in She Bar, Soho on Friday night. Just one of the many twists involved in Pink Lobster Dating’s ‘Fancy a Femme’ speed dating event.

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My feelings about attending a speed dating event were predictably mixed. Alongside a ‘nothing to lose/it’s just a laugh’ attitude, came ‘would I really prefer to be a cliche on Valentine’s Day than stay in with a Mike Leigh film, box of Creme Eggs and my best friend? What if I look desperate? What if everyone is younger than me and I look like a desperate cougar? What do I say to a stranger in less than three minutes? What if I seem weird? What if they’re weird? Argh!

The best thing about speed dating, of course, is that if they are weird, or it’s all horrendously awkward, you’ve only invested minutes of your life into the meeting, as opposed to spending an entire Friday night on a blind date with someone unsuitable and not even the ‘work in the morning’ excuse to bail early (I won’t make that mistake again). Another good thing about it is obviously meeting lots of people in one evening/ place, where it’s acceptable to work the room without reputational risk (cost effective too!).

The worst thing about it, from the only previous time I’ve been speed dating (well, actually I also went to a wine tasting one but don’t count that as it ended in chaos with everyone too drunk to circulate/ speak), is that no one really knows how to start the conversations. The pressure to say something insightful about yourself, ask questions that will give you some insight into the other person, and to express some kind of wit or charm whilst doing so is immense. As a result, people often go to one of two extremes: asking really factual questions (‘so, what job do you do?’) or going all maverick and asking ‘out there’ questions (‘would you rather be a frisbee or a space hopper?’)*. The first risks being boring; the second coming across as a bit affected. Neither are likely to give you the essence of the other person. Some people are so emboldened by the brief encounter that they go in for the kill with really direct (potentially scary) flirting, whilst some are so nervous they barely manage to say their name before the whistle blows. It seems the hardest thing is to be ourselves – not really surprising in an environment that’s pretty unnatural.

But here’s the ‘However’… The Pink Lobster event was different, and challenged my ideas about speed dating. This had much to do with the hosts, Pink Lobster Directors Juliette Prais and Emma Ziff. Obviously any event is only as good as the people there, but even if the attendees had been a bad lot (they weren’t, but more on this later), these two would still have ensured it was a good event. This is all about the vibe that they created – warm, classy, fun and laid back. As soon as I walked in, I was welcomed, given a free glass of pink prosecco and a goody bag (very nice freebies in there too) and adorned with a sticker with the answer to a random question I was asked written on, all in the name of ice breaking – which worked! Whilst waiting for the actual speed dating to begin, the women there started chatting without awkwardness. The atmosphere was one of meeting friends of a friend, rather than being treated as ‘clients’ whose dating needs were being catered for in an impersonal way. No one was made to feel at all pathetic for being at a speed dating event on Valentine’s Day, just like femmes who wanted to have fun. The people I spoke to weren’t depressed, desperate women who would be crying into their cat if they weren’t there. They were women who thought ‘why not?’, especially as invisibility often makes it hard to meet other femmes. Despite it being February 14th, a lot of people just seemed to want to suss out the femme scene, meet some likeminded people and be open to the possibility of something more.

Sex and Relationship Expert Emma’s introduction to the event was refreshingly honest and sound advice about not feeling pressured to do or say anything that didn’t match our gut instincts; acknowledging that we’re all there for a reason. It was just the sort of reassurance that you need from a friend before going on a date and was a great leveller. So much more helpful in that situation than the two-dimensional flirting advice that a lot of dating companies give! Next came the big twist – we weren’t actually going to meet people with a view to impressing them about ourselves. Instead, we were to ‘buddy’ with another person, getting to know them for the first ten minutes, and then rotate to meet all of other women there, with a view to finding a match for our buddy. Therefore, we were still talking about ourselves but ‘assessing’ for the buddy. It took a while for us all to understand the rules (maybe we were over-analysing!) but once we did, it worked really well. It was a clever way to not only feel less self conscious (therefore actually being more ourselves) but also to ask more insightful questions, based on trying to match other people. At the end, we wrote down the top three women for our buddy and for ourselves and handed in the results. Pink Lobster will now email through individual matches and also the buddy recommendations.

Obviously, this method could pose a problem if you had a buddy who you didn’t feel ‘got’ you (luckily I was buddied with a lovely lady who did – as much as you can in ten minutes!), but it wouldn’t really matter, as you’re still meeting all of the other women yourself and selecting your own matches too. Plus the after party provides an opportunity to talk to people in more depth.

I think having a wing woman is reassuring, and opens up greater possibilities to consider people you might have discounted but who your buddy thought would be a good match. Ultimately, there will always be the chance of ‘on paper’ matches not correlating to having the right chemistry, but Pink Lobster speed dating allows opportunities to explore both. And for those of us who are more slow burn than speed, it also offers the opportunity to make more femme friends and see where things could lead. As a good friend of mine always says, ‘if it’s not that person, it could be their best friend’. Which could be awkward, but true!

Pink Lobster Dating’s next speed dating event is in March. For more info, go to http://www.pinklobsterdating.com

*Example for illustrative purposes only. I have never been asked this question and have no idea what my preference would be.

New voices, different expectations

imageSo it’s a new year with new resolutions. Last year, I wrote about how we can’t ‘resolve’ to change things outside of our control – we can only hope to work towards these, so in a way, it’s more about new year hopes and efforts. But this year, I’ve been sent a guest blog post which has made me think about how far other people’s expectations, and our own expectations of ourselves, form the basis of unhealthy, unattainable resolutions – to look or act a certain way that doesn’t come naturally, or to impose arbitrary deadlines on life events that need to unfold in their own time. So I propose we just resolve to just be who we are, and to fight against any expectations to be otherwise. And now I give you the guest article by Lisa Blake, who discusses social expectation and why being visible as ourselves is so important… Thank you Lisa!

The Pressure of Social Expectation by Lisa Blake

Flicking through the pages of a book in a wonderful little bookshop I discovered in London a few weeks ago, I read a fascinating article which struck a chord inside me.

The bookshop – @gaystheword and the book ‘Homophobic Bullying’ by Ian Rivers featured a 30-something man reflecting on his formative years. The man featured inspired me to reflect more deeply than before with a growing self-awareness and realisation of the importance of visibility.

Similarly to the reflective man in the article, I too as a young teenager in the 1990s began to feel increasingly withdrawn, awkward and insecure. Easily dismissed as ‘typical teenager’ or ‘coming of age dramatics’ I hear you say, but I have (slowly, rather painfully!) come to realise that it was more than that.

I was that shy, scared person, perhaps not entirely but largely because I was a lesbian. ‘So what?’ I now scream at myself but in a world – my world – of white, middle class conservatism that influenced not just the environment around me but my own ideas about myself, I found it an excruciatingly difficult place to be. I don’t want to lament too much on this because I realise my struggle doesn’t come close to that of others. I grew up as a marginalised gay female but being white, middle class, living in a (relatively democratic and open) Britain, my life was somewhat privileged in comparison to so many others around the UK and wider world.

We are told/taught/instructed, as children from birth through influences all around us, as to just what our pathway through life will be. Little girls are groomed to expect that when they grow up they will meet boys, go on dates, get married and have a husband, buy a house and have children…oh and live happily ever after of course. As a child, this was never questioned. An alternative narrative was never offered or even seemingly available. It was never said that when you grow up you will meet someone (a boy or girl, man or woman) that you may fall in love with and you may be able to choose whether or not to get married and have children. It was and still is this absence of representation and the subtle and discreet indoctrination of heterosexuality, perhaps innocently but ignorantly, that blights so many young minds with repercussions that can last lifetimes that makes ‘visibility’ SO important.

Let’s not make our young minds ignorant. Let us lose the pre-determined social construction of heterosexuality and allow our young minds to grow and live freely and without the burden of heterosexual expectation.

Be gay….be any way…it’s ok! Walk tall and be visible!

Lisa Blake – on a journey through life and awareness. Come and join me currently on Twitter @lisamblake247 and/or with my partner @Kerry3Lisa

Out on the page

Some interesting things have happened over the past few weeks. Lesbians appear to be making it further into mainstream media, using our own voices, rather than just being reported on…. A study in the Metro reported that 7.9 % of women say they are in a same sex relationship, as opposed to 1.8% 20 years ago. A separate study published by UCL found women four times more likely to have a same sex encounter than 20 years ago – with 16% saying they’d had a same sex experience when asked in 2010, as opposed to 4% who said the same in 1990.image

Just before these stats were published I was asked to contribute to an article by Rhiannon Williams in the Telegraph women’s section, discussing where all the younger lesbians are – and what barriers they face on coming out.

Putting aside the reliability of the research studies, this media attention has made me think again about the visibility and ‘outness’ of lesbian and bisexual women.

My viewpoint, echoed by the others in the Telegraph article, is that lesbians are less visible than gay men due to the fact that society at large does not see them, rather than the fact that there are fewer lesbians or that they are all in the closet (though there are likely aspects of truth in here). I and other contributors use the example of femme lesbians being assumed straight, or somehow playing up to straight male fantasies. However, I do also think that some femmes may lack the confidence to come out as they aren’t well represented by identifiable role models (there are some, but many femme ‘celesbians’ are categorised in a straight way or over glamourised as media and fashionista types, which undermines us further) or seen much on the traditional scene, especially femme couples. Of course this isn’t true – there are hundreds of us real, diverse femmes out there, it’s just hard to know where to look.

Jane Czyzselska, Editor of Diva Magazine, made the point about society and the media generally placing less emphasis on female sexuality than male. This and the survey stats made me think about the closet question. Are there really more lesbians now than 20 years ago (proportionate to population size) or are there just more women stating that they are as they feel safer being out than 20 years ago? It seems shocking to think that as recently as the 1990s the climate was so different for lesbians. Are there more lesbians in couples as lesbian lifestyles and culture has changed, or are these women who feel safer being out in a couple than as single lesbians?

I think the survey about same sex experiences is intriguing, as these women aren’t necessarily identifying as lesbian or bisexual, and neither are they talking about same sex relationships, rather sexual experiences. The fact that female sexuality is reported to be more fluid than male, the diversity of the lesbian community as opposed to the gay male scene and the fact that women may be happier to live without a set definition of their sexuality are all further possible reasons as to why lesbians are less visible. I wonder though, if this emphasis on fluidity and experimentation (partly influenced by Lindsay, Carla and co) is having an impact on younger lesbians coming out. Rhiannon Williams’ question made me think that perhaps teenage girls don’t feel they need to come out, or make a big deal of it, as same sex experimentation almost seems an essential part of secondary school or college experience now (this is according to a friend of mine who works with teenagers). In a way, this shows acceptance amongst that age group and gives girls a safe culture to experiment, but it could also be doing lesbians struggling to come out a disservice. If a 15 year old who thinks she is a lesbian is surrounded by peers who think they’re straight but want to experiment just for a laugh, then this could undermine the lesbian’s identity and trivialise the process of coming out. Of course, coming out does not have to be an angst ridden rite of passage, but it does have to be taken seriously rather than dismissed. Dismissal, to me, is almost disbelief, and therefore counter to the casual acceptance of experimentation that suggests equality.

Finally, this media coverage raises the question again of how ‘out’ to be. And the unanimous response in the Telegraph article was, as out as you want to be. As much as we want equality for lesbians (within our own community and wider society) and need to be visible to achieve this; we aren’t obliged to over share or make a song and dance about who we are, any more than straight people are. We should feel free to be out, and stand up for our rights, but to me, true equality is just being, whatever that means to you.

This relates to my previous post on The closet. It also relates to why this is an articles type blog and why I don’t blog all of the time. I only write when I have something I really want to say, because whilst it’s an important part of who I am, being a lesbian is just one part. I don’t see my whole life through a lesbian filter, just a human one with bits of gay thrown in!

You can read the Telegraph article on Lesbophobia here

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10452313/Young-lesbians-where-are-they-all-Coming-out-in-an-era-of-lesbophobia.html

When Sally Met Sally also has an article on the UCL study

http://whensallymetsally.co.uk/news/uk/women-sex-research-lesbian-fluid-attitudes-university-london

What we have to be proud of (and what we don’t)

To shoehorn in with Pride season (but really just using this as a juncture to be retrospective and a bit femme-smug and evangelical), I present to you my take on what femmes have achieved to make us feel proud….

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1. Greater visibility at a national and international level

As amusing as it can sometimes be to see the look of surprise on someone’s face when they find out you’re gay after making some sleazy/sexist/homophobic comment, for the most part it’s just tedious or awkward having to continually come out – not to mention frustrating having to chat people up with all the subtlety of a brick – we’re all aware of the facets of femme invisibility. So to be more visible as a ‘community’* is both positive in terms of helping us to be personally less invisible, and also as it promotes…

2. Greater diversity within the lesbian community/depictions of lesbians.

I think this benefits all lesbians, not just femmes. This is as it both smashes through the outdated image of lesbians acting like men, shaving their heads and wearing dungarees, and also challenges other tick boxes and stereotypes; highlighting that there are far more identites than just butch and femme, and furthermore, that there are a lot of blurred boundaries within these identities – in fact, no homogenous ‘identity’ actually exists. Lesbians are all individuals and therefore just look how they look and are who they are. The new politics of individuality seem to have overtaken the gender identity politics that were rife in the 80s and 90s (this is based on friends’ testimonies and (by no-means rigorous) research, rather than personal experience, but my experience now is that these are not the primary political battles I face). We do of course still need to fight battles for equality, and in this respect, lgbt identity is all still ‘political’, but to me it seems that the inward politics are less divisive.

The blogs, dating site and campaigns aimed at femmes who are attracted to other femmes also serve to dispel the assumption of butch-femme dynamics in relationships. Ironically, media portrays of lipstick lesbians had been doing this for quite a while but weakening the validity of these representations by making them (mostly) ludicrous.

3. Greater courage to be visible as femmes (and to feel ok about that)

I acknowledge that this is not the case for everyone, and not applicable in the first place for some. But it applies to people like me, who always felt shy about coming out to straight people (not ashamed, just not being able to face saying it again and again and again) yet also felt that I needed to be somehow apologetic for looking ‘too straight’ (whatever that is) in lesbian venues. I didn’t want to conform, just to be accepted as myself by more people than just my friends and family. And now I do.

4. Greater opportunities

…stemming from numbers 1-3. Opportunities to meet likeminded people, meet partners (potentially – I’m still waiting to reap that benefit from all of this), represent femme/lgbt diversity/causes, engage in dialogue about all of this, etc.

We can’t let the party poppers off just let, though. Human nature has it that wherever there are positives, there are also negatives, and femmes are no exception. There are things we shouldn’t be proud of. Some of these are inevitable, some unpredictable, some spiteful, and some (the worst) are self-sabbotage.

Let’s start with the inevitable:

1. Exposure

As many a celeb has lamented in Observer Magazine interviews, there is a price for visibility. And that price is lack of privacy. If we stand up to be counted as femmes, everyone knows. And this means no hiding – at work, home, any social group, or (and especially) on social media. Of course it’s good to be out and proud, but, as I said in my previous blog on only coming out when you’re ready, context is everything. It’s important that we come out to people when and how we want to. A Twitter ‘outting’ because we’ve liked a femme website might not be the preferred method. And once out, there’s the issue of some people thinking that any social norms don’t apply, and it’s fair game to ask you all sorts of highly personal questions, regardless of their relationship to you. And not many people really want to explain how femmes do things to that random colleague from payroll. Thus, a can of worms is opened. I’d argue the benefits of visibility outweigh this, but it does mean being clear within yourself as to what you want to share, where, and with whom. In other words, how to keep the preferred number of worms in the can.

2. The haters are given more fuel for their fire

Bigots will always find a vehicle for their venom – we can’t stop them. We can only expose their opposition as unjust and bonkers by showing even greater visibility. The only way for every homophobic argument to be challenged is to show that there are millions of diverse examples to the contrary. But still, it’s scary being ‘out there’ and knowing that you’re setting yourself up for abuse. Thankfully, social media has blocking and reporting functions aimed at exactly this sort of situation. And femmes are gaining strength in numbers.

3. Lord of the Femmes

Without meaning to sound like a disappointed parent, this one makes me sad. It’s the age old phenomena of in-fighting. And it’s why I put a * and quote marks around the word ‘community’ earlier. Because it’s when we don’t always act like one. One femme group starts up, be it a website, campaign, blog or whatever, and instead of cross-promotion and discussion, another group snubs or sets out to sabbotage the other. Which is such a basic human act that in a way, it endorses our humanity and the diversity within the femme community. But it also plays up to the cliche of female/lesbian bitchiness, which does none of us any favours. The outside world see us as one. We see ourselves as diverse and individual – but we can be both, can’t we? How about we go with the ‘women can multi-task and have multiple identity roles’ stereotype instead. Or a bit of Dogtanian ‘all for one and one for all’ spirit.

I don’t want to end with a Jerry Springer style ‘so let’s celebrate our strengths and learn from our mistakes’ kind of conclusion. Partly because it’s nauseating and partly because nothing qualifies me to. But mainly, because in all of these aspects, femmes are being gloriously, messily human. Which is what we really want to be accepted as, isn’t it?

Unhealthy competition

Competition. It’s seen as the thing that can make us or break us in different areas of life. In relationships, it’s definitely usually on the ‘break’ side. Competition seems contrary to the idea of equality in a relationship; to loving an individual for who they are and how they compliment you, rather than seeking to merge with them for wish fulfillment or to supplement our own psychological gaps. The latter is seen as unhealthy in any relationship – and in my experience, competitive feelings mixed with romantic feelings do not make for a happy mind or heart.

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Femme competition can take multiple forms. There’s the circumstantial competition with other femmes over attracting the object of your mutual desire in a very small world. There’s also some level of competition amongst organisations aimed at femmes; between those anxious to represent femmes a certain way, or simply ‘human nature’ type competition between competitive personalities.  And then there’s the biggie – competition within femme relationships.  I can’t help but wonder if femme couples are at a greater risk of competitive feelings (in terms of looks, achievements, etc) than butch-femme couples, or couples that have some other kind of binary difference – the most obvious being heterosexual couples. Of course, other non-femme but similar lesbian couples could also experience this type of competition. And similarly, femme couples may be very different in terms of their styles or personalities, so this may not be an issue. There isn’t any research that I can find about competition between femme couples specifically, but Psychotherapist Michael Kimmel agrees that gay couples experience competition more often than straight couples. In a recent article, he says ‘it seems easier for opposite sex couples to not compete. Perhaps it’s because they look at their partner and the person across the dinner table looks so different from them’. He adds that where competition does exist, ‘it is usually not a conscious choice’.

Whether competition exists, or is a risk, I think very much depends on how a lesbian views both her own identity and her role in the relationship, rather than what type of relationship she is in. But where it does exist, is there a way to re-frame how we look at competition in lesbian relationships?

Counsellor Joyce Lindenbaum considered this right back in 1985. She presents the problem as envy, rather than competition, as she believes competition requires difference and the problem here is similarity. It’s a concept she calls ‘felt difference’ – when lesbian partners unconsciously merge with each other and may then experience envy if/when they strive to claim back their individual identities. She says that although this can also exist in heterosexual relationships, it is more common in lesbian relationships. As lesbian partners may feel ‘as one’, to separate themselves brings about these feelings of envy as they feel that separating their identities back out separates the relationship. It’s the tension between the instinct to be both merged and different that causes this envy, rather than being similar alone. I’d argue that this isn’t really envy so much as fear, but it’s an interesting idea as to why some sense of competition might exist.

I think there’s also a difference here between the real envy of a partner actually wanting what the other one has, or wanting to be like them – and this perhaps being why they were attracted to them in the first place; and the envy that comes about as a result of being similar. It’s the second of these that I’m most interested in, as I think it’s more specific to femme relationships than the former.

Lindenbaum goes on to say that in an attempt to address this, lesbian partners may try to be separate to the extent that they have affairs or act out of character. But she believes that the ultimate resolution  is, in fact, to be competitive - as true competition means asserting separate selves and challenging this envy (or fear) in a conscious way.

Lindenbaum says that competition is someone becoming ‘competent’ in a certain area, but that this shouldn’t have to be at the expense of the other partner. She therefore defines competition as partners being both separate and connected. Michael Kimmel agrees. He points out that the word ‘competition’ ‘is from the Latin word ‘competitionem’,  which means to meet, or come together, which is what good relationships are all about’. Perhaps this ‘meeting as individuals’, rather than ‘beating each other’, should be our definition of healthy competition, both within femme relationships and the femme community?

Read more on the Pink Lobster blog

References

Joyce Lindenbaum ‘The shattering of an illusion: The problem of competition in lesbian relationships’ in Feminist Studies (11:1), 1985http://www.williamapercy.com/wiki/images/The_Shattering_of_an_Illusion.pdf

Michael Kimmel ‘Competition in same sex couples’, March 2013http://www.lifebeyondtherapy.com/index.php?/blog/2/entry-35-competition-in-same-sex-couples/