Disagreements as to whether to focus efforts through ‘single-issue’ organizations or to pursue much broader aims have also given rise to separatist strategies. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme since the early days of homosexual activism. The very first movements for the rights of sexual minorities which arose in Germany around the turn of the 20th century were already split around this question, with the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee (1897), led by the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and based upon a ‘third-sex’ model of homosexuality, tending towards a gay-separatist model of alliances between gay men and lesbian women, while the Gemeimchaft der Eigenen (‘Community of Self-Owners’), co-founded in 1902 by the anarchist Adolf Brand, the sexologist Benedict Friedlaender, and the youth movement activist Wilhelm Jansen, promoted a gender-separatist model of alliances between gay and heterosexual men. The Daughters of Bilitis, generally recognized as the first organization for lesbian rights, founded in San Francisco in 1955, broke apart in the 1970s over internal disagreements regarding the prioritizing of commitment to women’s rights over specifically lesbian interests. Furthermore, the American National Organization of Women (NOW) called for the expulsion of the ‘lavender menace’ from its
ranks, fearing that vocal lesbian presence would increase media hostility towards the movement.
Some strands of lesbian separatism of the 1970s and 1980s radicalized such controversies in seeking not only organizational, but also geographical, independence. Most prominently, Jill Johnson’s 1973 work Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution argued for ‘tribal groupings’ of ‘the fugitive Lesbian Nation’, calling for separate lesbian social and cultural spaces which could act as a power base within the wider women’s movement. Dutch radical-feminist groups dreamt in the early 1970s of establishing an independent lesbian community on a ‘women’s island’, a utopian idea that was echoed when Australian activists declared the small islands of Cato to be the new micro-nation Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea in 2004, issuing its first postal stamps in 2006. Territorial separation of either lesbian-only or women-only groups was achieved – if only temporarily – with the founding of women-only spaces and festivals with names such as ‘herland’, ‘wimminsland’, and ‘Womyn’s Festival’ in the US, Canada, and Australia, satirized in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City novels. Territorialized strategies were revived by the US radical feminist Dworkin’s call, in 2000, for a separate homeland for women. Male gay authors such as William S. Burroughs have similarly called for a gay nation state, and organizations such as the German-based Gay Homeland Foundation, created in 2005, aim to persuade ‘the government of a large and thinly-populated nation’ to sell a stretch of ‘uninhabited land’ where an independent state would be established for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and transgendered citizens.
Virtual versions of separatism around gender or sexual identity are incarnated in the recent writings of the British ‘Miss Martindale’, the self-proclaimed public face of ‘the feminine empire Aristasia’ where men do not exist and the two sexes are ‘blonde’ and ‘brunette’. Semi-religious versions of separatism emerged from the 1980s in the shape of spiritual organizations
across the world such as the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess International, and Dianic Paganism, some types of which have been associated with lesbian separatism. The latter, following Zsusanna Budapest’s 1975 ‘ovarian book’ The Holy Book of Women’s Mysteries, regroups ‘neo-pagan feminist goddess-worshippers’ in Wiccan groups or in non-Wiccan covens which draw heavily on biological models of femininity to celebrate female reproductive powers, women’s bodies more generally, ‘womanism’, and ‘the divine feminine’.
The territorialization of sexual and gender politics involved different activist strategies for radical groups such as Queer Nation, which emerged in New York in 1990 and produced the deeply controversial slogan ‘I Hate Straights’. Queer Nation epitomizes newer approaches to the politics of sexuality in no longer demanding the right to sexual freedom in the privacy of the home, or in literally separate ‘homelands’, but instead calling for the de-heterosexualization of the public sphere through actions such as ‘queer nights out’ in straight clubs by groups like the Lesbian Avengers. Being queer is, they argue, not about the right to privacy, but about the freedom to be public. Whereas separatist political lesbianism promoted ‘fugitive’ exit from the heterosexual colonizer, the new cultural (rather than ethnic) nationalism of queer nationalism calls for the gay re-colonization of public spaces by eradicating heterosexist homophobia.
In theoretical terms, queer theory, as associated with authors such as Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Teresa de Lauretis, Michael Warner, and Steven Seidman, and developed from the early 1990s onwards, has built upon earlier radical feminist theorization and critique of normative heterosexuality by Adrienne Rich, Monique Wittig, and others. Queer theory emphasizes the socially constructed nature of gay and lesbian categories, echoing the earlier writings of Michel Foucault, symbolic interactionist sociologists such as Gagnon and Simon, Ken Plummer and Jeffrey Weeks, and theorists of political lesbianism. Though the term
‘queer’ encapsulates a plurality of meanings, it primarily refers to the rejection of binary categorizations such as man/woman and gay/straight. Instead, the multiplicity and instability of identity labels in general is emphasized. As the sociologist Diane Richardson puts it:
We are, it is suggested, post such identities: post woman, post man we are transgender; post lesbian, post gay, post heterosexual (perhaps?) we are queer.
Culturally, queer theory involves an emphasis on ‘permanent rebellion’ and subversion of dominant social meanings and identities. For some authors, this includes a vehement rejection of the spectacular development of gay consumer culture since the 1980s, including gay travel agencies, bars, bathhouses, legal services, therapists, and fashion outlets, as expressed in the slogan ‘we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re NOT going shopping’. Instead of promoting assimilation into mainstream society, queer theory aims radically to transform the social order by destabilizing not only the taken-for-grantedness of heterosexual norms, but also stable, biologized understandings of gay and lesbian identity as well as gender. Gender and sexual identities are, it is argued, fluid and unstable, as queer author Kate Bornstein illustrates when describing herself in the following terms:
In a nutshell, I used to be a het guy who did the gender-change thing and became a grrl, a lesbian grrl at that. Then, after my female lover became a guy, I stopped calling myself a lesbian. Being a lesbian had become too complicated. Calling myself a lesbian managed to offend just about everyone, so I began to call myself a dyke.
The US sexologist Carol Queen and novelist Lawrence Schimel coined the term ‘PoMosexuals’ in 1997 to describe ‘POst-MOdern’ individuals such as Kate Bornstein, who graphically illustrate the fluid nature of both gender and sexual identity. In their words:
We pomosexuals are the queer’s queers, the ones who will not stay in the boxes marked ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ without causing a fuss – just as we all burst out of the boxes the straight world tried to grow us in.
Pomosexuals, the ‘bastard children’ of the gay and lesbian movement, as the American self-identified ‘troublemaker’ and ‘S/M writer of gay male pornography for women’ Pat Califia puts it, break the intricate links between gender and sexuality involved in the labels gay, lesbian, and heterosexual.
Politically, queer activism – numerically a very small movement – involves an emphasis on inclusiveness and solidarities around diversity. Queer politics has also, however, involved calls for a renewing of alliances between lesbians and gay men on the grounds of the prioritization of common identities as ‘queers’ over that as women. Some versions of queer political theory criticize gay and lesbian organizations for implicitly assuming homosexual identity as unified and stable. Similarly, radical feminism has been attacked for naturalizing the category of ‘woman’ (as well as for its presumed ‘moralistic’ stance). In contrast, in a queer future, sexual labels such as gay, lesbian, as well as heterosexual, would be subsumed in the overarching fluid identity of queer, as is argued by queer theorists, who often prefer to speak of LGBT&F (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Friends). The current reality is, however, different, as the writer D. Travers Scott put it:
Queer almost immediately came to mean ‘saucy fags and dykes’, not the radically-sexualised boundary-breaking coalition it was first advertised to be, or we’d have a hell of a lot more heterosexual ‘queers’ in our parades.
Moreover, the privileging of solidarities across different identity labels has led to criticisms of a ‘false unity’ which glosses over specific discriminations around gender and race. Judith Butler,
seen as one of the most prominent queer theorists, has raised such questions in her own writings, while also warning against the idea that feminism and queer theory are somehow incompatible.
Queer theory echoed earlier criticism of sexual liberation, including gay liberation, politics (or the sexual liberation promoted by Reich and Marcuse) by Michel Foucault, who famously rejected the implicit assumption of liberationism that there was such a thing as a natural, biological sexuality that could be ‘liberated’. As Foucault and other social constructionists emphasize, sexuality should instead be viewed as a social experience that is shaped by its social and political context. However, while political mobilization based upon tactics such as ‘coming out’ and ‘outing’ (declaring public figures to be gay) have, on the one hand, solidified the categories of gay and lesbian, the emphasis on sexual identity as ‘choice’ and political practice (though not shared by all gay activists) also denaturalizes sexual identity. Moreover, the wider categories of gay and lesbian have been the object of greater fragmentation since the time of Foucault’s writings, as reflected in commercial and activist subcultures which cater for leather dykes, S/M gays, butch/fem lesbians, denim queens, lipstick lesbians, bisexuals, pan – or omnisexuals, gay Republicans, anarcho-lesbian-feminists, gay veterans, gay Mormons, British gay skinheads, or Daddies (older gay men with a sexual interest in young, adult men). Both the denaturalization and the fragmentation of wider identity labels and related political interests serve to create new opportunities for sexual politics, as well as new difficulties for coalition politics and new exclusions.