Current issues of lesbians

Lesbian chic and popular culture

Cover of Vanity Fair from 1993 showing short-haired k.d. lang sitting in a barber chair with shaving foam on her chin, reclining wearing a pinstripe pair of pants with cuffs tucked into black lace boots, open-collar dress shirt, and black and white striped tie, holding a compact mirror. Her eyes are closed. Supermodel Cindy Crawford wears a one-piece black bathing suit and high heel boots, holds lang's face to her breast and has her head thrown back so her long hair cascades down her back. Crawford holds a straight razor to lang's chin.

The cover of Vanity Fair, that marked the arrival of lesbian chic as a social phenomenon in the 1990s

The invisibility of lesbians has gradually eroded since the early 1980s. This is in part due to public figures who have caused speculation and comment in the press about their sexuality and lesbianism in general. The primary figure earning this attention was Martina Navratilova, who served as tabloid fodder for years as she denied being lesbian, admitted to being bisexual, had very public relationships with Rita Mae Brown and Judy Nelson, and acquired as much press about her sexuality as she did her athletic achievements. Navratilova spurred what scholar Diane Hamer termed “constant preoccupation” in the press with determining the root of same sex desire.[222] Other public figures acknowledged their homosexuality and bisexuality, notably musicians k. d. lang and Melissa Etheridge, and Madonna’s pushing of sexual boundaries in her performances and publications. In 1993, lang and self-professed heterosexual supermodel Cindy Crawford posed for the cover of Vanity Fair in a provocative arrangement that showed Crawford shaving lang’s face, as lang lounged in a barber’s chair wearing a pinstripe suit. The image “became an internationally recognized symbol of the phenomenon of lesbian chic”, according to Hamer.[223] The year 1994 marked a rise in lesbian visibility, particularly appealing to women with feminine appearances. Between 1992 and 1994, Mademoiselle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Newsweek, and New York magazines featured stories about women who admitted sexual histories with other women.[224]

One analyst reasoned the recurrence of lesbian chic was due to the often-used homoerotic subtexts of gay male subculture being considered off limits due to AIDS in the late 1980s and 1990s, joined with the distant memory of lesbians as they appeared in the 1970s: unattractive and militant. In short, lesbians became more attractive to general audiences when they ceased having political convictions.[225] All the attention on feminine and glamorous women created what culture analyst Rodger Streitmatter characterizes as an unrealistic image of lesbians packaged by heterosexual men; the trend influenced an increase in the inclusion of lesbian material in pornography aimed at men.[226] A resurgence of lesbian visibility and sexual fluidity was noted in 2009 with celebrities such as Cynthia Nixon and Lindsay Lohan commenting openly on their relationships with women, and reality television addressing same-sex relationships. Psychiatrists and feminist philosophers write that the rise in women acknowledging same sex relationships is due to growing social acceptance, but also concede that “only a certain kind of lesbian—slim and elegant or butch in just the right androgynous way—is acceptable to mainstream culture”.[227]

Sexuality and lesbians

The presence of sexual activity between women as necessary to define a lesbian or a relationship continues to be debated. According to feminist writer Naomi McCormick, women’s sexuality is constructed by men, whose primary indicator of lesbian sexual orientation is sexual experience with other women. The same indicator is not necessary to identify a woman as heterosexual, however. McCormick states that emotional, mental, and ideological connections between women are as important or more so than the genital.[228] Nonetheless, in the 1980s, a significant movement rejected the desexualization of lesbianism by cultural feminists, causing a heated controversy called the Sex Wars.[229] Butch and femme roles returned, although not as strictly followed as they were in the 1950s. They became a mode of chosen sexual self-expression for some women in the 1990s. Once again, women felt safer claiming to be more sexually adventurous, and sexual flexibility became more accepted.[230]

The focus of this debate often centers on a phenomenon named by sexologist Pepper Schwartz in 1983. Schwartz found that long-term lesbian couples report having less sexual contact than heterosexual or homosexual male couples, calling this lesbian bed death. However, lesbians dispute the study’s definition of sexual contact, and introduced other factors such as deeper connections existing between women that make frequent sexual relations redundant, greater sexual fluidity in women causing them to move from heterosexual to bisexual to lesbian numerous times through their lives—or reject the labels entirely. Further arguments attested that the study was flawed and misrepresented accurate sexual contact between women, or sexual contact between women has increased since 1983 as many lesbians find themselves freer to sexually express themselves.[231]

More discussion on gender and sexual orientation identity has affected how many women label or view themselves. Most people in western culture are taught that heterosexuality is an innate quality in all people. When a woman realizes her romantic and sexual attraction to another woman, it may cause an “existential crisis”; many who go through this adopt the identity of a lesbian, challenging what society has offered in stereotypes about homosexuals, to learn how to function within a homosexual subculture.[232] Lesbians in Western cultures generally share an identity that parallels those built on ethnicity; they have a shared history and subculture, and similar experiences with discrimination which has caused many lesbians to reject heterosexual principles. This identity is unique from gay men and heterosexual women, and often creates tension with bisexual women.[11] Social theorists note that often behavior and identity do not match: women may label themselves heterosexual but have sexual relations with women, self-identified lesbians may have sex with men, or women may find that what they considered an immutable sexual identity has changed over time. A 2001 article on differentiating lesbians for medical studies and health research suggested identifying lesbians using the three characteristics of identity only, sexual behavior only, or both combined. The article declined to include desire or attraction as it rarely has bearing on measurable health or psychosocial issues.[233]

Families and politics

Photo of two women holding hands, one with short hair and the other with long, both wearing white spaghetti strap blouses that read "Bride", and green skirts while the one on the left holds a sign reading "Married March 11" with a blown-up reproduction of a marriage license. They are walking down a street with other people walking behind them holding signs as if for a parade or demonstration

A lesbian couple married in San Francisco in 2004

Although homosexuality among females has taken place in many cultures in history, a recent phenomenon is the development of family among same sex partners. Before the 1970s, the idea that same sex adults formed long-term committed relationships was unknown to many people. The majority of lesbians (between 60% and 80%) report being in a long-term relationship.[234] Sociologists credit the high number of paired women to gender role socialization: the inclination for women to commit to relationships doubles in a lesbian union. Unlike heterosexual relationships that tend to divide work based on sex roles, lesbian relationships divide chores evenly between both members. Studies have also reported that emotional bonds are closer in lesbian and gay relationships than heterosexual ones.[235]

Family issues were significant concerns for lesbians when gay activism became more vocal in the 1960s and 1970s. Custody issues in particular were of interest since often courts would not award custody to mothers who were openly homosexual, even though the general procedure acknowledged children were awarded to the biological mother.[236][237] Several studies performed as a result of custody disputes viewed how children grow up with same sex parents compared to single mothers who did not identify as lesbians. They found that children’s mental health, happiness, and overall adjustment is similar to children of divorced women who are not lesbians. Sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex roles of children who grow up with lesbian mothers are unaffected. Differences that were found include the fact that divorced lesbians tend to be living with a partner, fathers visit divorced lesbian mothers more often than divorced nonlesbian mothers, and lesbian mothers report a greater fear of losing their children through legal means.[236]

Improving opportunities for growing families of same sex couples has shaped the political landscape within the past ten years. A push for same-sex marriage in western countries has replaced other political objectives. As of 2009, seven countries and four U.S. states offer same-sex marriage; civil unions are offered as an option in many European countries, U.S. states and individual municipalities. The ability to adopt children or provide a home as a foster parent is also a political and family priority for many lesbians, as is improving access to artificial insemination.[238]


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