Until the past 20 years, most lesbians have lived in social isolation from one another, knowing only slightly what the richness and variability of our experiences may be (Adleman, 1986; Sang, Warshaw, & Smith, 1991). The available social constructions of lesbian sexuality have often arisen from discourses of the dominant culture, in which lesbians were silenced. In the absence of a discourse between and among lesbians and other sexual minority women, the only language available to lesbians for speaking of sexuality to ourselves as we constructed sexual identities was that provided by a heterosexist narrative, and it has affected us as sexual people. As Phyllis Lyon, cofounder of early lesbian social and civil rights group Daughters of Bilitis, described it in writing of discourse on lesbian sexuality prior to the 1970s, “The subject of sex between women was ah most never discussed among friends and acquaintances—and I suspect among some lovers” (1983, p. xi). Heterosexism also has pervaded the discourse in more recent times; to cite one anonymous lesbian respondent to a survey conducted by a lesbian sex researcher, “I see a butch dyke in public and I’m embarrassed. I’m staring at her and I see other people staring at her, too. I would never want people looking at me that way” (Loulan, 1990, p. 29).

Such constructions have had profound and visible effects on the ac­tual sexual functioning of lesbians by creating external norms and images that do violence to the lived experiences of many lesbians. But there also has been resistance to the heterosexist imagery, and subversive transfor­mations of its destructiveness into visions of lesbian and female sexual power, desire, agency, and potency. This resistance has led to struggles within and amorig lesbians who bring different political analyses to their understanding of these forms of resistance; some (Loulan, 1990; Nestle, 1992; Newman, 1995) have argued that such lesbian constructions of the positive, powerful, agentic sexual woman are in fact radical departures from anything contained in heterosexist imagery. Others (Kitzinger & Perkins, 1993) assert that these images are simply another manifestation of lesbian oppression.

The Phenomenology of Lesbian Sexual Identity in Heterosexist Cultures

Assume for a moment that you are an adolescent girl experiencing the dawning of sexual attraction and arousal. You find that your attractions are to other girls and women. As do your peers, you search for information that will mirror and thus shape and validate your experience; songs, movies, romance novels, advertisements, all give images of sexual, romantic, and passionate ways of being. But search as you may, you cannot find yourself in any of these places. You begin to wonder if anyone else like yourself exists. Or, you know that others like yourself exist, and you know that you and they are considered perverted, sinful, dangerous. Others like yourself appear in the pages of abnormal psychology books, or in sermons on sin; they lose their jobs, their homes, their families. People with initiative pe­titions come to the door of your home and encourage your parents to sign in support of laws that would declare people like yourself perverse, never to be discussed in even a neutral, much less a positive, manner. Even in the songs sung and written by artists who you know to be like yourself because you read about them in People magazine, you find only genderless pronouns.

Such was the social discourse that surrounded the development of a sexual self for many North American lesbians over the age of 35. For the most part, a lesbian learns that sexually she does not exist in any recog­nizable form within the images of the dominant culture. There are few commonly shared words and images available to the lesbian adolescent that will aid her in creating a sexual self-concept. Those emerging media ex­amples in which lesbians are portrayed in a positive light (e. g., lesbian characters on Friends, Relativity, Mad About You, and Roseanne, [the last three all being the lesbian sisters of main characters] or in movies like Go Fish or The Incredible True Adventure of Two Girls in Love) are not univer­sally accessible, since parents may turn off the t. v. or forbid going to the movies in question. The adolescent lesbian-to-be may even lack the words to describe her own feelings; this writer, for example, did not hear the terms lesbian or homosexual until her second year of undergraduate school. The tyranny of compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1980), which portrays relating to men as the only option open to women, sucks the air and life out of the sexual environment of the developing lesbian; a lesbian trying to learn on her own what two women do together is most frequently doing so outside of the context of social discourse.

Alternatively, a lesbian encounters the discourse described above, in which she is either impotent or dangerous. Lesbians learn we exist only as imitations of and adjuncts to heterosexual relating. In this text there is no authentic lesbian sexuality that arises from women’s feelings and experi­ences. There is only a truncated heterosexuality in which the shadow of a man is omnipresent and to be deferred to.

In the literature, art, and social discourse of the dominant heterosex­ual culture in which all lesbians first develop our sexual selves, these images of absence, inadequacy, shame, and crime are the first reflections of our­selves that we encounter. It is thus hardly surprising that until after the lesbian, and gay liberation movements of the 1970s and 1980s began to break us out of our isolation from one another, many of the images that we created of our own sexuality reflected these heterosexist ones. From The Well of Loneliness to Beebo Brinker in the lesbian novels of the 1950s, the images of our sexuality that we wrote about and lived within were those that contained seeds of these destructive heterosexist visions. Reading most of the books listed in Jeannette Fosters’s Sex Variant Women in Literature (1975), which represents the most authoritative com­pilation of English-language books with a lesbian theme, it is nearly im­possible to differentiate the lesbians written by lesbians from those in­vented by heterosexual authors; impotency or danger are consistently present.

Or, maintaining the heterosexist construction of lesbian sexuality as invisible, we were secret, seen by one another only if we somehow learned the codes. Grahn (1984) describes how her first lover taught her what it meant to be a woman making love with another woman: “We had a secret gay culture. We knew about the color purple.. . We knew about cunni – ligus, although only the boldest among us practiced it. .. We knew about tribadism” (author’s note: a form of lesbian lovemaking in which women intertwine legs and surge into one another’s bodies) (p. 5). As Grahn de­scribes it, learning the words to describe lived experience was an essential part of developing an identity as a lesbian, yet for many women who be­haved as lesbians during this era, both the words and the identity were unavailable. But because many of the semiotics of this secret lesbian culture were class-based, and dependent in large part on a woman’s willingness to participate in bar culture, which was itself one of the most stigmatized aspects of lesbian existence in the preliberation time, middle-class and pro­fessional women who were lesbians often had no access to this information (see Sang, Warshaw, & Smith, 1991, for extensive first-person accounts) and lived in isolation with a lover, having no knowledge of the existence of any other lesbians and unable to read the signs.

In another example of the effects of lesbian invisibility, poet and author Audre Lorde (1982) writes of the first time she made love with another woman: “Until the very moment that our naked bodes touched… I had no idea what I was doing there, nor what I wanted to do there. I had no idea what making love to another woman meant” (p. 138). Later, after a passionate first love-making, “I finally lay quietly… So this was what I had been so afraid of not doing properly” (p. 139). In the absence of knowledge, desire was required to be a teacher; love-making was shad­owed for many lesbians with anxiety, simply because there were no shared images of how this was done, much less done well or done right. As Lorde puts it, “There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone” (p. 176). The heterosexist discourse had effectively banned or de­

nied female sexual agency; for a woman to thus behave agenticly with another woman and assert her desires in the absence of a man was to enter an entirely new and different universe of meaning.