Living a Lesbian Life

Last week I enjoyed attending the Lesbian Lives conference in Brighton (my fifth!). I gave a lecture drawn from material in my chapter on “Lesbian Feminism” which is the final chapter of the book I am working on. It was a one-off presentation, put together especially for the event, so I am sharing it with you now.


“Living a Lesbian Life,” Sara Ahmed, Lesbian Lives conference, February 20, 2015, University of Brighton

I speak today from a conviction: in order to survive what we come up against, in order to build worlds from the shattered pieces, we need a revival of lesbian feminism. This lecture is an explanation of my conviction.

Right now might seem an odd time to ask for such a revival. It might seem we are offered more by the happiness of the queer umbrella. I think the erasure of lesbians as well as lesbian feminism (often via the assumption that lesbian feminism is a naïve form of “identity politics”) would deprive us of some of the resources we need because of what is not over, what is not behind us. In some recent queer writing, lesbian feminism appears as a miserable scene that we had to get through, or pass through, before we could embrace the happier possibility of becoming queer. For instance, Paul Preciado (2012) in a lecture on queer bulldogs refers to lesbians as ugly with specific reference to styles, fashions and haircuts. The lesbian appears here as elsewhere as an abject figure we were all surely glad to have left behind. I suspect this referencing to the ugliness of lesbians is intended as ironic, even playful. But of course much contemporary sexism and homophobia is ironic and playful. I don’t find it particularly amusing.

We need to refuse this passing by holding onto the figure of the lesbian feminist as a source of political potential. Lesbian feminism can bring feminism back to life. Many of the critiques of lesbian feminism, often as a form of “cultural feminism,” were precisely because of how lesbian feminists posed feminism as a life question, as a question of how to live. Alice Echols in her book Daring to be Bad, which gives a history of radical feminism in the United States, describes: “With the rise of lesbian-feminism, the conflation of the personal with the political, long in the making was complete and unassailable. More than ever, how one lived one’s life, not commitment to political struggle, became the salient factor” (1989: 240) Note this not: the question of how we live our lives is separated from a commitment to political struggle; more than that, it is implied that focusing on living our lives would be a withdrawal of energy from political struggle. We can hear a similar implication in Juliet Mitchell and Rosalind Delmar’s argument: “the effects of liberation do not become the manifestations of liberation by changing values or for the matter by changing oneself, but only by challenging the social structure that gives rise to the values in the first place” (cited in Echols 1989: 244). The suggestion is not only that life change is not structural change but that focusing on how one lives one’s life might be how structures are not transformed.

I want to offer an alternative argument. When a life is what we have to struggle for, we struggle against structures. It is not necessarily the case that these struggles always lead to transformation. But to struggle against something is to chip away at something. Many of these structures are not visible unless you come up against them and this makes doing the work of chipping away, I call this work diversity work, a particular kind of work. The energy required to keep going when you keep coming up against these structures is how we build things, sometimes, often, from the shattered pieces.


I am currently writing a book, Living a Feminist Life, which concludes with a chapter on lesbian feminism. One of the aims of the book is to bring feminist theory “home” by generating feminist theory out of ordinary experiences of being a feminist. The book could have been called “everyday feminism.”  Feminist theory is or can be what we might call following Marilyn Frye “lived theory,” an approach that “does not separate politics from living” (1991: 13).  Living a lesbian life is data collection; we collect information about the institutions that govern the reproduction of life: it is almost too much data; we don’t have time to interpret all the material we collect.  If living a lesbian life generates data, then lesbian feminism provides the tools to help us interpret that data.

And by data I am referring to walls. I first began thinking about walls when completing a research project on racism and diversity within institutions. Diversity practitioners would talk of how the very institutions that appointed them would block their efforts. Diversity work was described by one practitioner as “a banging your head against a brick wall job.” A job description becomes a wall description. And what I learnt from doing this research was that unless you came up against the walls, they did not appear: the university would seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

In one interview I conducted quite late in the research process, a practitioner described one of her experiences of a brick wall. It was a click moment: you know that kind of moment, when something is revealed to you that you realise retrospectively you had been trying to work out or to work through. She described to me what happened within her university when they tried to change a policy around appointment procedures: she had got the change agreed at the diversity committee, but the agreement went missing from the minutes; when the minutes were sent to council someone noticed because she had chaired the diversity committee; the minutes were rewritten and resubmitted and the policy was approved by council; but then people acted within the institution acted as if the change had not been agreed. The diversity officer said that when she pointed out there has been a change of policy “they looked at me as if was saying something really stupid.” I learnt so much from her account: I learnt how the mechanisms for blocking structural transformation are mobile; things can be stationary because what stops things from moving moves. I learnt how an effective way of stopping something from happening is by agreeing to something. A “yes” can be said when or even because there is not enough behind that “yes” to bring something about.

It is the process of trying to transform a situation that allows this wall to become apparent. And I realised that this was the difficulty I had been trying to describe throughout my work: how you come up against things that are not revealed to others. Indeed what is hardest for some (I mean literally, ouch) does not even exist for others. I now use diversity work to refer not only to the work that aims to transform institutions, but the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. When we fail to inhabit a norm (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then it becomes more apparent, rather like that brick wall: what does not allow you to pass through. A life description can be a wall description.

Things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. Think of a crowd: if you are going the right way, you are being propelled forward; a momentum means you need to make less effort to keep going. If you are not going that way, a flow is something solid, a wall; an obstruction. Lesbians know a lot about obstruction. And it might seem now for lesbians that we are going with the flow. Hey, we can go; hey, we can get married. And if you talked about what you come up against now, those around you may blink with disbelief: hey what’s up, stop complaining dear, smile. I am not willing to smile on command. I am willing to go on a smile embargo, if I can recall Shilamith Firestone’s “dream action” for the women’s movement (1970: 90). Talking about walls matters all the more when the mechanisms by which we are blocked are less visible.

The everyday is our data.

A lesbian experience: you are seated with your girlfriend, two women at a table; waiting. A straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away. This might also be a female experience: without a man present at the table, you do not appear. I have experienced my female solidarity around these sorts of experiences: say, you are pressed up against a busy bar; two women who do not know each other, and over and over again, the men are served first. You look at each other both with frustration but sometimes affection, as you recognise that each other recognises that situation, as one in which we are perpetually thrown: she too, me too, “we” from this too. For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up that place.

Of course more than gender is at stake in the distribution of attention. But gender is at stake in the distribution of attention.  Every now and then you encounter something that reveals that distribution: that allows the feminist groan of recognition. One time I was at the London feminist film festival. They were showing A Question of Silence.  It is a table scene, of course: there is one woman seated at a table of men; she is the secretary. And she makes a suggestion. No-one hears her: the question of silence is in this moment not a question of not speaking but of not being heard. A man then makes the exact same suggestion she has already made: and the other men turn to him, congratulating him for being constructive. She says nothing. It is at that moment she sits there in silence, a silence which is filled or saturated with memories of being silenced: her memories, ours, having to overlook how you are looked over. Sexism: a worn thread of connection. And yes: there was a collective groan.

Feminist philosophers has taught us for over a century how men becomes universal; women particular. Or perhaps we might say women become relatives, female relatives, existing by existing in relation to men. To become woman is to become relative.  Women encounter the universal as a wall when we refuse to become relative. Note how we come to know these distinctions (such as universal and relative) not as abstractions, but in everyday social life, which is to say, in being in a world with others.

I want to add here that the requirement to become a female relative is not simply about the privileging of heterosexuality.  Working in the academy I have noticed this expectation that to progress you must progress through male networks: you have to declare your love for one dead white male philosopher or another (if not Derrida, then Lacan, if not Lacan, then Deleuze, if not Deleuze, then, who Sara, who are you following?). You have to cite men and give more time and attention to their work; you have to have references by men in order to validate your own work. Of course, we do not “have to do” what we “have to do.”  But if it is easier to refuse that requirement from a position of relative security then we learn how that requirement is enforced through insecurity, the sense that, to reach somewhere, you have to go in this direction, or you might not get anywhere at all.

For her to appear, she might have to fight. If this is true for women, it is even truer for lesbians. Women with women at a table are hard to see (and by table here I am referring to the mechanisms of social gathering, a table is what we are assembled around).  For a gathering to be complete a man is the head.  A table of women: a body without a head. Male privilege is not simply about being seen but being seen to, having your needs attended to. This is why I describe privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required when a world has been assembled to meet your needs. You don’t need to raise your arm to have a standing. I will return to willful lesbian arms in my conclusion.

Data as wall.

You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you pull your two little beds together; you find other ways of huddling.

Questions follow you, wherever you go. For some to be is to be in question. Is that your sister or your husband? Are you sisters? What are you? Who are you? As a brown woman I am used to be asking “where are you from” as a way of being told I am not from here. There are many ways of being made into strangers, bodies out of place. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, this time, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. Some of these questions dislodge you from a body that you yourself feel you reside in. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them. Waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge.

It can be exhausting this constant demand to explain yourself. A desire for a more normal life does not necessary mean identification with norms, but can be simply this: a desire to escape the exhaustion of having to insist just to exist. A history can become concrete through the repetition of such encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. But they accumulate over time. They feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down.  Actions that seem small can also become wall.

An ordinary battle

An ordinary is what we might be missing when we feel that chip, chip. An ordinary can be what we need to survive that chip, chip. Susan Griffin remembers a scene for us, a scene that has yet to happen :

I remember a scene … This from a film I want to see. It is a film made by a woman about two women who live together. This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the small daily transformations which women experience, allow, tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture. In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show knowledge of. What they have lived through and what they will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist ((cited by Becker, Citron, Lesage and Rich 1981).

Lesbian feminism: to remember a scene that has yet to happen, a scene of the ordinary; of the movements, little movements, which tell the story of our survival. It is a touching scene. Sometimes you have to battle for an ordinary.   When you have to battle for an ordinary, when battling becomes ordinary, the ordinary can be what you lose.

But you have a glimpse of it even when you lose it.

Think of this: how for many women, life has been understood as a sphere of immanence, as dwelling in not rising above; she is there, there she is; not transcending things by creating things. A masculinist model of creativity is premised on withdrawal. She is there, there she is: engaged in the endless repetitive cycle of housework. We can follow Adrienne Rich who makes this starting point into an instruction: “begin with the material,” she says, with “matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder” (1986: 213). Lesbian feminism is materialist right from the beginning. If women are expected to be here, in matter, in materiality, in work, at work, this is where lesbian feminism begins.   We begin in the lodge where we are lodged.  We begin with the lodge when we are dislodged.

A poignant lesbian scene of ordinary life is provided by the first of the three films that make up, If These Walls Could Talk 2. We begin with that ordinary: we begin with its warmth. Edith and Abby: they have been together a long time. The quietness of intimacy: of going to see a film together, of coming home together.  Yes maybe there are comments made by some kids on the street, but they are used to it: they have each other, a place to return to; home as shelter, a place to withdraw to. If the walls could talk, they would tell their story, photographs cover the walls, photographs not only of each other, of their friends, but of lesbian and gay marches, demonstrations. A wall can be how we display a lesbian feminist history.

Everything shatters, when Abby slips and falls.

Everything shatters. A life can shatter.

We are in the hospital waiting room. Edith is waiting to hear how Abby is. Another woman arrives. She says: “they just took my husband in, he had a heart attack.” When this woman asks about Edith’s husband, Edith replies, “I never had a husband.” And the woman says, “That’s lucky, because you won’t have the heart break of losing one.”  The history of heterosexuality becomes a history of broken hearts, or even just the history of hearts. To be recognised as having a heart is to be recognised as the one who is broken. With such recognition, comes care, comfort, support. Without recognition, even one’s grief cannot be supported or held by the kindness of another.

We know this history; it is a history of what we know.

And so Edith waits. When she asks the hospital staff to see Abby they say “only family are allowed.” The recognition of family ties, as the only ties that are binding, means Abby dies alone; it means Edith waits all night, alone. When lesbian grief is not recognised, because lesbian relationships are not recognised, you become “non-relatives.” You become unrelated, you become not. You are left alone in your grief.

Heterosexuality could be described as an elaborate support system. Support is how much you have to fall back on when you fall. To leave heterosexuality can be to leave those institutional forms of protecting, cherishing, holding. You have less to fall back on when you fall. When things break a whole life can unravel.

When family is not there to prop you up, when you disappear from family life, you had to find other ways of being supported. When you disappear from family life: does this happen to you? You go home, you go back home and it feels like you are watching yourself disappear: watching your own life unravel, thread by thread. No one has willed or intended your disappearance. Just slowly, just slowly, as talk of family, of heterosexuality as the future, of lives that you do not live, just slowly, just slowly, you disappear. They welcome you, they are kind, you are the lesbian aunties from London, say, but it is harder and harder to breath. And then when you leave you might go and find a lesbian bar or queer space; it can be such a relief. You feel like a toe, liberated from a cramped shoe. And we need to think about that: how the restriction of life when heterosexuality remains a presumption can be countered by creating spaces that are looser, freer not only because you are not surrounded by what you are not because you are reminding there are so many ways to be.

So much invention comes from the necessity of creating our own support systems. Note here the significance of fragility to this history: how we too can be shattered, how we need each other to put our lives back together again. And: if we are recognised as fragile, breakable, broken, we are often assumed to have caused our own damage. We after all have willingly left the apparently safer paths, the more brightly lit paths of heterosexuality. What did you expect, dear: what did you expect? Feminists are often assumed to cause their own damage, as if she, rather like a broken pot, flies out of hand. When we say she “flies out of hand” we usually means she speak out of anger, caught up by a destructive impulse, and that in breaking ties, she breaks herself.

Shattering; it is shattering; she is shattered.

There are many ways of telling the story of the struggle for recognition because there are many stories to tell. The struggle for recognition can be about having access to a good life. It can be about wanting inclusion in the structures that have been oppressive, wanting inclusion in the very structures that remain predicated on this dispossession of others.  But that’s not the only story. The struggle for recognition can also come from the experience of what is unbearable, what cannot be endured, when you lose your bearings, becoming unhoused. The struggle for recognition can be a struggle for an ordinary life, an ordinary that is more far more precious than property; indeed an ordinary as what is negated when things become property, when things become alienable things. We learn this from If these Walls Could Talk 2: when Abby’s family ask what things are hers so her things can become theirs, Abby’s things, her loved worn things, her memories, can become family possessions. A family possession is a dispossession. Perhaps a lesbian feminist struggle for recognition comes out of rage against the injustice of how some dwell by the dispossession of others. We want the walls to come down. Or, if they stay up, we want the walls to talk, to tell this story. A story too can shatter: a tiny thousand little pieces, strewn, all over the place.

Lesbian feminism: in making an ordinary from the shattered pieces of a dwelling we dwell.   We dwell, we tell. How telling.

A Willfulness Archive

In this first part of this lecture I noted how actions that are small can also become wall. Lesbian feminism might also involve small actions.  Maybe the chip, chip, chip of hammering can be transformed into a hammer: if he is a chip off the old block, we chip, chip, chip away at that block. Chip, chip, chip, who knows, eventually it might come right off. To persist in chipping at the blocks of hetero-patriarchy, we have to become willful.  I want to think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive, a living and a lively archive made up and made out our own experiences of struggling against what we come up against.

Why willfulness? Let me share with you a typical definition of willfulness : “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?

Lesbian, feminist and anti-racist histories can be thought of as histories of those who are willing to be willful, who are willing to turn a diagnosis into an act of self-description.  Let’s go back: let’s listen to what and to who is behind us.  Julia Penelope describes lesbianism as willfulness: “The lesbian stands against the world created by the male imagination. What willfulness we posses when we claim our lives!” (1992: 42, emphasis in original). Marilyn Frye’s radical feminism uses the adjective willful: “The willful creation of new meaning, new loci of meaning, and new ways of being, together, in the world, seems to me in these mortally dangerous times the best hope we have” (1992: 9). Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way:A black feminist or feminist of color… Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one… Responsible. In charge. Serious.” (2005: xi, emphases in original).  Together these statements can be heard as claims to willfulness: willfulness as audacity; willfulness as standing against; willfulness as creativity.

Willfulness is usually a charge made by someone against someone.  Willfulness becomes a charge in Alice Walker’s sense, to be “in charge.” If we are charged with willfulness, we can accept and mobilize this charge. To accept a charge is not simply to agree with it. Acceptance can mean being willing to receive. A charge can also be thought of as electricity. The language can be our lead: willfulness can be an electric current, passing through each of us, switching us on. Willfulness can be a spark. We can be lit up by it. It is an electric thought.

We can distinguish here between willfulness assumed as behind an action, and willfulness required to complete an action. Sometimes to stand up you have to stand firm. Sometimes to hold on you must become stubborn. Remember my example of going the wrong way in the crowd? For some bodies mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as an insistence on going against the flow. You have to become insistent to go against the flow and you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent. I think of this as a life paradox: you have to become what you are judged as being. You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive what you are judged as being.

We are often judged as willful when we are not willing; not willing to go with the flow, not willing to go.  To become lesbian might require not being willing women; lesbians as willful women. Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women” could thus be read through the lens of willfulness. She argues that lesbians are not women because to be “women” is to be is being in relation to men: “women” for Wittig is heterosexual term or a heterosexual injunction. Remember woman becomes from the conjunction of wif and man: wif as wife, as female servant. To be a woman with a woman or a woman with women (we do not need to assume a couple form) is to become what she Wittig calls an “escapee” or a stray. To be a lesbian is to stray away from the path you are supposed to follow if you are to reach the right destination. To stray is to deviate from the path of happiness.  So if lesbians are women, if we wrestle woman away from this history of women as being for men, we are willful women.

Willful women: how striking. Willfulness as a style of politics might involve not only being willing not to go with the flow, but being willing to cause its obstruction. Political histories of striking are indeed histories of those willing to put their bodies in the way, to turn their bodies into blockage points that stop the flow of human traffic, as well as the wider flow of an economy.

Willfulness might seem here to be about an individual, the one who has to become willful just to keep going, although we see how a strike only works when it becomes collective, when others too are lit up by that spark.  We might think of characters like Molly Bolt from Ruby Fruit Jungle (1973) as part of our willfulness archive: girls who want girls are often those girls whose wills are deemed wanting. As a lesbian feminist reader it is was characters like Molly Bolt with a spring in their step that picked me up; feisty characters whose vitality is not at the expense of their lesbian desire, but is how their desire rooms across the pages.

If we think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive we are not simply directing our attention to characters such as Molly Bolt, however appealing. A willfulness archive would derive as much from our struggle to write ourselves into existence, as from who appears in what we write. This intimacy of audacity, standing against and creativity can take the form of a book.

A willful girl in a book

A willful girl as a book

I am rather taken by you

Gloria Anzaldúa describes her book Borderlands as follows: “The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will. It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly” ([1987]1999: 88). A book, a survival strategy, comes alive, acquires a life of its own, a will of its own, a willful will; history by the bone, own but not alone. Words are sent out: willful words; they pile up, they make something. Words can pulse with life; words as flesh, leaking; words as heart, beating.

Lesbian feminism of colour: the struggle to put ourselves back together because within lesbian shelters too our being was not always accommodated. Where does she take me?  Not white, lesbian out of not; here she comes. I think of a brown history, a mixed-history as a lesbian history, another way in which we can tell a history of women being in relation to women.  I think of my own history, as a mixed lesbian, with so many sides, all over the place. I think of all that lesbian potential, as coming from somewhere. Brownness has a lesbian history; because there are brown lesbians in history, whether or not you could see us, whether or not you knew where to find us. As Nila Gupta (2014) has noted it is sometimes assumed as brown queers and trans folk that we are rescued from our unhappy brown families by happy white queer communities; but not, what if not, what if not; what if brownness is what rescues us from the white line, the line takes us in a direction that asks us to give up part of ourselves?

I will not give you up

A willful will; not willing as willing not

Lesbian feminism of colour is a lifeline made up out of willful books that insist on their own creation. Books are themselves are material, paper, pen, ink, blood, the sweat of the labour to bring something into existence. Words come out of us.

A poem weeps

Audre Lorde spoke of herself as a writer when she was dying. For Lorde, writing and speaking and living as a Black lesbian (Lorde never refused the demands of this “as” nor assumed it can abbreviate an experience), survival is militancy; words are her weapons. She says : “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose holes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” (1988: 76-77).

And so she did

And so she did

She goes out, she makes something. She calls this capacity to make things through heat “the erotic.”  Lorde notes: “There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love” (1984: 58).

A love poem

A lover as poem

I warmed by the thought. I am warmed by Cherrie Moraga’s poem, “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).

We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows (yes they are pedagogy), you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house.

To stand against what is we have to make room for what is not. Lesbian feminist world-making is nothing extraordinary; it is quite ordinary. We might think of the work of making room as wiggling, a corporeal willfulness. Remember that toe, liberated from its cramped shoe. She does not toe the line. Lesbians (as lesbians well know) have quite a wiggle; you have to wiggle to make room in a cramped space. We can be warmed by the work required to be together even if sometimes we wish it was less work. To recall the vitality of lesbian feminism as a resource of the present is to remember that effort required for our shelters to be built. When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter.

I think of lesbian feminism as willful carpentry: she builds with her own hands; she is handy. What we build to survive what we come against, the very materials, are how values materialise or are given expression. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls can come down. We keep them up by keeping up with each other. A fragile shelter, a looser shelter: walls made from lighter materials, blowing haphazardly in the wind. It is a movement. We might recognise this fragility not so much as what we might lose, or will lose, but as a quality of what we have: values that do not derive or depend on making things safer, more secure or more permanent. There are other ways to survive.  Lesbian feminism is another way to survive.

Conclusion: A Lesbian Feminist Army

I want to share a “lesbian lives” story with you. I gave my very first lecture from my research project on will and willfulness in Dublin at the 17th Lesbian Lives conference in 2010. I shared a story I found because I was on a trail, I was following willful girls, going wherever they went. Yes I did end up all over the place. Because I was on this trail, I found this story: a Grimm story, about a willful child.  This is not a lesbian story. But perhaps there is a lesbian in this story. Let me share it again.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. It is quite a story. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; as the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is the story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down. Is the willful child a lesbian feminist? Or is the wayward arm a lesbian feminist?

We could tell a few lesbian stories about arms. One story: a butch lesbian enters the female toilets. The attendant become flustered and says “you are not supposed to be here.” The butch lesbian is used to this: how many of her stories are toilet stories; to pass as male becomes a question mark of your right to pass into female space. “I am a woman,” she says. We might have to assign ourselves with gender if we trouble the existing assignments. With a re-assignment, she can go to the toilet. When she comes out, the attendant is embarrassed; the attendant points to her arm, saying “so strong.” The butch lesbian allows the moment to pass by joking, giving the attendant a “show of her arms.”

With arms we come out, with arm we come in. These moments do not always pass so easily. Many of these histories of passing or of not passing are traumatic. Arms can be beaten; they can be straightened. Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity notes with some surprise how Havelock Ellis uses the arm as a gender test in the case of Miss M : “Miss M. he thinks, tries to cover over her masculinity but gives herself away to Ellis when he uses a rather idiosyncratic test of gender identification: ‘with arms, palmed up, extended in front of her with inner sides touching, she cannot bring the inner sides of the forearms together as nearly every woman can, showing that the feminine angle of the arm is lost’” (1998: 80). If the muscular female arm is measured by a straightening rod, the arm is not straightened. An arm becomes a wayward gift.

So maybe I am thinking too of your arms, your strong butch arms and what they can do, who they can hold. I think of being held by your arms.  Yes, I do.

Judith Butler includes the arm in a list of limbs that can symbolise the phallus. Although I always have had sympathy for Judith Butler’s “The Lesbian Phallus” (1993: 88), and by this I mean her argument, I wonder if we make arms into phallic symbols, that we might miss lesbian arms in all their fleshy potential.

Let me share another “lesbian lives” story. When I gave that first paper on willfulness at Lesbian Lives in 2010, Kath Browne said to me afterwards, I am not sure if she remembers this, that my lecture concluded with a real “call to arms.” I think you were referring to my call for us to be willful, to be killjoys, to be willing to cause the unhappiness we are assumed to cause. It took me a long time before I heard the arms in that expression “call to arms,” even though I had already been struck by the wayward arm from the Grimm story.  Once I heard the arms, the call sounded differently:  the call to arms as the call of arms.  A call can mean a lament, an accusation; a naming, as well as a visitation (in the sense of a calling upon). Can we put the “arms” back into the “miserable army” of the inverted described in Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness? Can we hear in the sorrow of their lament a call?

A wayward arm is a call of arms. A call of arms can be a recall. Just recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman activist as a black woman and former slave, having to insist that abolitionism and suffrage can and should be spoken by the same tongue : “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says, “look at my arm.” And in brackets, in the brackets of history, it is said that Sojourner Truth at this moment: “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnik 2011: 99).[1] The muscularity of her arm is an inheritance of history; the history of slavery shown in the strength of the arm, the arm required to plough, to sow the field. The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slave, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Those who have to insist on being women are willful women, and the arm becomes your resource, something that can lend its hand in a battle to be. Trans women are willful women; women who have to insist on being women, who have to keep insisting, again and again, often in the face of violent and repeated acts of misgendering. Any feminists who do not stand up, who do not wave their arms to protest against this misgendering, have become straightening rods. When I ask for a revival of the militancy of the figure of the lesbian feminist I am imagining lesbian feminism as in a fundamental and necessary alliance with transfeminism. Transfeminism has also brought feminism back to life. And can I add here that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance; it is against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is fatal; a sentencing to death. We have to hear that fatalism as punishment and instruction: it is the story of the rod, of how those who have wayward wills or who will waywardly (boys who will not be boys, girls who will not be girls) are beaten. We will not be beaten. We need to drown these anti-trans voices out by raising the sound of our own. Our voices need to become our arms; rise up; rise up.

There are many arms, they keep coming up, arms that are muscular, strong, labouring arms, arms that refuse to be employed, striking arms, arms that break, Gloria Anzaldua said once, “I’m a broken arm” (1983: 204);  arms that are lost in service to the industrial machine. Willful arms not only have a history; they are shaped by history. Arms are history made flesh.  Arms that exceed an idea of the arm (an idea, say, of how a woman’s arm should appear) have something to say to us. It is the arms that can help us make the connection between histories that otherwise do not seem to meet. Intersectionality is army. If histories meet in arms, then histories meet in the very limbs of our rebellion. The arms that build the master’s residence are the arms that will bring the walls down. Audre Lorde entitled an essay with a proclamation : “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984: 110-113). In that unflinching “will never” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool!

Chip, chip, chip, when our arms become tools, we hammer away at the house of his being. We make our own houses, lighter, looser; see how the walls move; it is a movement.Chip, chip, chip, a lesbian feminist army is being assembled.

Here we are; here we come; here we arm.

Thank you.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria (1999) [1987]. Borderlands, La Fontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco:   Aunt Lute Books.

———————- (1983). “La Prieta” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldua (eds). The  Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown:  Persephone  Press. pp.198-209.

Brown, Rita Mae (1973). Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books.

Butler, Judith  (2003). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London:

Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America,1967-1985.  University of Minnesota Press.

Firestone, Shulamith (1970). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam Books.

Frye, Marilyn (1991). “Introduction”, Are Your Girls Travelling Alone? by Marilyn Murphy, Los Angeles: Clothes Spin Fever Press. pp.11-16.

————————- (1983).  The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.  Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Gupta, Camel (2014). Presentation in Black British Feminism panel, Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths. December 11.

Halberstam, Jack (1998). Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Radclyffe (1982) [1928]. The Well of Loneliness. London: Virago Press.

Lorde, Audre  (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: Crossing Press.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press. P.219.

Penelope, Julia (1992). Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory. New York: Crossing Press.

Preciado, Paul (2012). “Queer Bulldogs” Documenta 13.

Rich, Adrienne  (1986). “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Walker, Alice (2005).  In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. Phoenix, New Edition.

Zackodnik, Teresa (2011). Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


[1] Zackodnick is citing here from Frances Dana Gage’s Reminiscences in which Gave, a leading feminist, reformer and abolitionist, gives us this account of Truth’s speech as well as “bodily testimony” that has been crucial to how it has been remembered. It is important to note the status of this description as citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is through the testimony of others, in particular, the testimony of white women. Maria Zackodnick notes that other accounts of this event did not include references to Truth baring her arm (2011: 99). We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to arms in history: we might only be able to read (of) arms through the mediation of other limbs.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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