by Jordan Alexander Stein
On January 3, Tammy Baldwin assumed office as the first openly gay person ever elected to the US Senate. She didn’t think it was a big deal, though, and kept repeating in interviews that “I didn’t run to make history.” But the voters had spoken, and they sounded pretty excited about lesbian leaders. By September, when New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn spectacularly lost her bid for the city’s Democratic mayoral nominee, the fact that she was a lesbian seemed to be the main reason she didn’t lose by a larger margin. The man she lost to, meanwhile, is married to the author of a 1979 Essence magazine article titled “I Am A Lesbian.”
Elsewhere in the U.S. political landscape, 2013’s national victories for gay rights featured lesbians at their center. Edie Windsor, plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned section 3 of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, won a lawsuit for the nearly $360,000 in federal taxes she was obliged to pay on the estate of her late partner, Thea Spyer. It was a gay rights victory for the Citizens United era, as one friend of mine quipped, fighting discrimination by upholding estate tax privileges. The Court’s decision was issued on June 26, two days before the 44th New York Gay Pride parade at which Windsor served as Grand Marshall. The crowd was far too jubilant to gripe that the corporate event called Pride Weekend had once been the community event called Christopher Street Liberation Day.
From the gritty streets to the glossy sheets, lesbians were exalted as a metaphor for all kinds of domestic arrangements in 2013. In May, The New Yorker celebrated Mother’s Day with Chris Ware’s cover featuring two lesbians in their spacious kitchen, reading the card left by their three children. On June 28, Kristin Perry and Sandy Stier, plaintiffs before the Supreme Court whose case legalized gay marriage in California, celebrated with the first same-sex wedding to be performed in San Francisco City Hall that day. Across the country, Beth Asaro and Joanne Schailey, the first pair to have a civil union in New Jersey in 2007, were married by the mayor of Lambertville when same-sex marriage became legal in the Garden State on October 20. Lesbians had become the face of gay marriage, and, maybe not coincidentally, gay marriage had been rebranded as “marriage equality.”
While it’s safe to assume that not all lesbians found love and money in 2013, those who were down on their luck only tended to appear in fictions rather than headlines. The year bloomed with stories about lesbian criminals. Mediaphiles spent the summer buzzing about Netflix’s original series “Orange is the New Black,” a serial reboot of the “women in prison” films of the 1950s — though now the lesbians behind bars are not necessarily dastardly butch villains so much as alt-femme anti-heroes. That is not to say, however, that the hot butch has no place in 2013’s mediascape. She was wonderfully realized in Max Freeman and Margaret Singer’s web series “The 3 Bits,” where the conniving Mr. Pussy tries to lure the earnest Roman into the shadowy underworld of drug dealing and away from her honest life as a lesbian hooker.
The cup that really overfloweth in 2013 was the sex worker’s. Premiering in September, the dramatis personae of Showtime’s new series “Masters of Sex” included Betty DeMilo, a prostitute who sleeps with men for work but keeps a female lover at home. Alongside such tales of lesbians who happen to be prostitutes were the stories about lesbian prostitutes. Stacie Passon’s Concussion premiered at Sundance in February, telling the tale of an unhappy housewife who channels her suburban ennui into a thrilling and risky life of lesbian sex for pay. At the other end of the generic spectrum, a similar theme takes an inspired comedic turn in Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins, a laugh-out-loud remake of Gus Van Sant’s indie classic My Own Private Idaho, in which two penniless lesbian hustlers solicit Republican housewives in front of an Upper East Side Talbots. Though different in tone and style, 2013’s two feature films about lesbian prostitutes raise the grand total of feature films about lesbian prostitutes to somewhere just north of two. (Incidentally, Monster was ten years ago.)
It’s worth observing the sharp contrast between the political advances lesbians made in U.S. politics this year and the fictional representations of lesbian criminality. In fact, lesbians are making history, money, and political decisions; in fiction, lesbians are making trouble. There is no clear answer to the question of who benefits from this discrepancy, but I doubt it’s any average lesbian, whose life, in distinction from what she reads in the news, may not be a rich pageant of six-figure tax returns, domestic bliss, and electoral votes. But if that average lesbian might prefer to escape into the exciting fantasies of risk and delinquency that she finds in film, television, or the web, she will see herself figured here emphatically and almost exclusively as a white lesbian. (Even “Orange is the New Black,” with its welcome diversity of body types, races, and gender variations, has only a single lesbian character who is played by a non-white actress.)
The few narratives that tried to represent the concerns of average lesbians oddly tended to treat lesbianism as ancillary. Blue Is the Warmest Color, the critically-cheered (thought not by all!) three-hour French drama, tells its tale of lesbian awakening as just another young-and-in-love coming-of-age story. The film’s embarrassingly long sex scenes are paired with equally long dinner scenes, suggesting that our appetites make us who we are, not what we happen to put in our mouths. Similarly but more appropriately incidental were the lesbians in documentarian Su Friedrich’s powerful and acerbic Gut Renovation, whose short 2013 theatrical release allowed viewers to track six years in the aggressive gentrification of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood in under two hours. Friedrich’s film was by lesbians and about lesbians, but, like Brooklyn itself, it hardly seemed to be just for lesbians. (And this despite out-going Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s late 2013 declaration of his domain as the lesbian capital of the Northeast.) These two films go to show that if you want to reach hearts and minds, use a love plot; but if you want to tell a truly universal story, say that the rent is too damn high.
To be nostalgic for a time when New York was a more affordable place, more than anything discussed so far, is so 2013. What seems barely to have registered this year, however, is any overt connection between lesbians and economic justice. In 1970, the collective called Radicalesbians published their “Woman-Identified-Woman” manifesto, linking lesbianism with feminism and using both to combat the idea that women should be economically dependent on the male providers they were socially expected to marry. In 1974, the Combahee River Collective (of which the in-coming first lady of New York City was a member) released their classic “Statement,” arguing that the political concerns of anti-racism and anti-sexism could be united in the attempt to right the wrongs of economic inequality in the US.
In 2013, by contrast, lesbians are flourishing in public life and media, but they’re doing so apart from much consideration of the harsh economic realities of the post-2008 global financial crisis. While we in 2013 haven’t heard many lesbians actually defending laissez-faire capitalism or advocating for austerity measures, we also haven’t seen many who are publicly on the other side of the argument. Not even the lesbian criminals who star in 2013’s fictions are fighting on the side of radical wealth redistribution or the destruction of private property. (Whatever else prostitution is, it’s not exactly a property crime.)
One reason that this year’s high-profile lesbians aren’t concluding that economic inequality is the result of racism and sexism may be that they aren’t talking much at all about either racism or sexism. If, as members of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union wrote in a 1971 pamphlet, “Feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice,” 2013 was a year of weak theory. Lesbian rights are now aligned far more with gay rights than with women’s rights. In 2013, women are wage earners, heads of household, relatively sexually self-determined, and able to marry each other in seventeen — soon to be eighteen — states. Except for the right to marry in a decent chunk of those states, everything in the previous sentence was true before 2013 started. It’s blurrier to see this year’s lesbian victories as victories for women, and easier to see them as victories for homos everywhere. Feminism in 2013, so often fought in factions on Twitter, isn’t your foremother’s feminism. Few women now spell “womyn” with a “y,” whereas gay men don’t think twice about calling themselves — or their lesbians pals — “girl.”
This is the unequal world we’re lucky enough to live in. For many lesbians and non-lesbians alike, it has huge advantages over the unequal world of forty years ago. It’s easy enough to be nostalgic for the days of cheaper rent, but it’s much harder to be nostalgic for a time when kissing your girlfriend goodbye on the street was an act of rage-filled courage and defiance for which you could be fired from your job in at least 21 more states than you now can be. To say this another way, if 2013 was a better year for lesbians than for economic justice, that’s not the fault of individual lesbians, many of whom did spend 2013 as feminists, activists, policy makers, and sisters in struggle. Still, one wonders what would happen if the next lesbian senator did run to make history.
Jordan Alexander Stein educates the future leaders of tomorrow at Fordham University and tweets at @steinjordan.