The Lesbian Feminist
On change, constructs and The Cochrane
In my first year of university, I had a compulsory subject they called ‘Interdisciplinary Studies’. I intended to major in creative writing but this was the subject to learn about art history, artistic styles and movements. I found the lectures unengaging and after a week I had decided it wasn’t for me. I went to the professor, who was also the head of the department, to ask about dropping the subject. After a few uncomfortable conversations dancing around the matter of me finding his lectures boring, he agreed. I ended up picking an elective from outside the department called Modern Political Ideologies and Movements. We learnt about Civil Rights and Marxism, Feminism, Hippies and Yippies. The subject has stuck in my mind almost like a parody of the liberal arts in university it was so perfect, I loved it.
The pièce de résistance was a guest lecturer, an important part of the syllabus that past students would talk about, “Wait till week 12 with such and such…”. The lecture and subsequent workshop were always hotly debated and notoriously difficult for some students. Her shtick was being a lesbian feminist, which seemed a bit radical to us back in 2005. The distinction she made was that rather than personal preference or because she was attracted to women, she chose to be a lesbian because she believed heterosexual relationships subjugate women. She trained herself to be a lesbian for ideological reasons. Some students had an issue with the underlying principle, others with the idea of engineering something as sacred and instinctive as they held their sexual orientations to be… I liked the controversy of it but it wasn’t for me. It’s hard as a man to handle all that man-bashing; I felt like the villain in her narrative.
I did really like learning that culture and identity are constructed. It was a revelation learning much of what I thought was natural, instinctive or real could possibly be traced to causes or conditions, environment and experience. In the 20th century, this way of thinking entered the mainstream in the form of Postmodernism. It has become more common for people to say things like ‘…true for me.’ ‘that’s subjective.’ and even to use the word ‘construct.’ We learned about these things in the context of Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and the Vietnam War because it is the language of identity politics – it allowed people to articulate that things don’t need to be the way they are. I thought it was a perfect time to be learning about these things, when I was still working myself out, could get around an ideology and was hopeful enough to think the world was there for the changing.
As I age, I’m more interested in keeping my values local and playing the game rather than trying to change it. Less of my own character and identity also feel open to negotiation. It’s interesting moving from the macro-social context, to the personal. I liked that about the lesbian feminist jam, engineering change within ourselves, like what we value or even whom we love and desire.
When I get upset with my partner Angelica, it’s often because I think she’s trying to change me. She’s not, but it’s a hang-up of mine so we both have to tread carefully. I think I’m basically a good person and certainly that I’m good enough, so I feel like any change should be on my terms. For clarity, she agrees. …but whether it’s her or me, us or the family we’ll one day create, there’s an interesting tension between accepting and valuing who we are and being people who believe in and seek growth together. I’m not a stranger to her so Angelica knows why I am the way I am – she knows it’s not only my fault when I’m being a pain in the ass, that I come from a long line of pains in the ass…
We also know how far we’ve come, and that we don’t all have the same starting point. I’m new to empathy, for example, so it’s fair when I’m bad at it. Angelica knows to be patient. My mates call that The Cochrane. They used to play basketball and at the end of every season, would host themselves an award night. The Cochrane was the award for the player who performed the best according to their ability - an important award because you need to know what people are working with to judge them fairly. Angelica and I seem to have better luck when we talk about us because it seems fair to negotiate the space we share, and the ‘us’ part is a gentle reminder sometimes the collective good comes with personal sacrifice. It’s also better when we discuss what we’re struggling with, and not who (usually me). So let’s move back to growth or change in the context of culture.
I read an interesting article today by Disney heiress, Abigail Disney, who was taught from a young age to minimize her tax and protect her wealth. It’s thoughtful and well written, offering a unique perspective at a time when the shady tax practices of the mega-rich are being scrutinized. I found this particular analogy of hers compelling “…if you are a fish, it is hard to describe water, much less to ask if water is necessary, ethical, and structured the way it ought to be.” That resonated because I think we inherit much of what we are, including our identity, our community and even our strategies for tax minimisation. There is also no escaping constructs, which are more likely to be outdated than evil by design.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m a straight, white and fortunate male that I’m uncomfortable with the traditional heroes and villains narrative in this context. Maybe I need to check my privilege? I’m not saying that I’m bummed I can’t ever hope to be a lesbian feminist (juries out), just that I like a conversation that uses pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘our’ and a dialogue that grapples with problem constructs and not problem people.