Lesbian Visibility Week asks that we remember lesbians exist

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On Tuesday, President Biden announced his re-election bid for 2024. Despite agitation from some for him to step aside and let younger candidates run, Biden made a compelling argument that democracy was still in peril and that the Biden-Harris administration still had work to do and was best equipped to do it. With Bernie Sanders endorsing Biden and declining to run and Gavin Newsom immediately supporting Biden’s re-election campaign, the two most likely challengers fell in line. While spiritual guru Marianne Williamson who ran in 2020 is running again and anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. announced his candidacy last week, both challengers are far outside the mainstream, with Kennedy arguably more MAGA than Democrat.

With a vivid video that began with scenes from January 6, Biden said, “Every generation has a moment where they have had to stand up for democracy. To stand up for their fundamental freedoms. I believe this is ours. That’s why I’m running for re-election as President of the United States. Join us. Let’s finish the job.”

I would argue that the job of maintaining democracy is ongoing, but I won’t quibble over Biden’s semantics. As a lesbian and as a queer American, I am, along with my LGBTQ family and friends, under constant threat from the GOP and their war against LGBTQ people and their attacks on queer, female and trans bodies. Week after week I report on how hard it is to be LGBTQ in America these days, with stories that are not being written about in the mainstream. 

Two weeks ago I reported on a new survey that showed many LGBTQ+ Americans are unable to pay bills, keep savings or hold bank accounts. A few weeks before that I wrote a series on how hard it is to be an LGBTQ elder and how a lifetime of homophobia creates poverty and even homelessness. And last year I won the 2022 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Award in Newspaper Feature Reporting for my series on why there are so many lesbian, bi and trans women in prison

In all the reporting I do for PGN and other outlets, both queer and mainstream, I try to highlight the lives of lesbians because lesbians are so often eclipsed and invisibilized. During Women’s History Month I focused on lesbians and also on this issue of lesbian erasure that I have been writing about and researching for a book for the past few years. I also noted the importance of recording and reporting on our own histories, so those are not lost to the handful of rotating lesbian celebrities who get interviewed and written about repeatedly.

Last month for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote about my experience as a survivor of conversion therapy, for which I was hospitalized as a teenager after having been expelled from my high school for being a lesbian. The impact of gender conformity on lesbians then and now has changed little. And as I wrote in that story, “I never thought, when conversion therapy radicalized me as a queer activist at 16, that decades later I would still be fighting this dangerous practice, that it would still be legal everywhere, or that a major political party would be incorporating it into its platform under the guise of ‘parental rights.’” 

Yet the cultural energy being exerted against vulnerable young lesbians to conform is immense. In “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” theorist and poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “The failure to examine heterosexuality as an institution is like failing to admit that the economic system called capitalism or the caste system of racism is maintained by a variety of forces, including both physical violence and false consciousness.” Compulsory heterosexuality, Rich explained of the term she coined, is a system of oppression that denies people’s sexual self-determination by presenting heterosexuality as the sole model of acceptable sexual identity and desire. 

This theorizing was not part of what happened Tuesday in the White House briefing room, but it was certainly an undercurrent. 

A few hours after Biden’s re-election announcement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, an out lesbian, welcomed cast and creators from the Showtime TV series “The L Word” and “Generation Q,” including Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, Katherine Moennig and Ilene Chaiken, to talk about Lesbian Visibility Week at the daily White House press briefing.

Highlighting lesbian visibility during this fraught time in American politics, when attacks against the LGBTQ community have never been more intense, exemplified how representation matters. It also harkens back to Rich’s comments in her iconic essay because lesbian identity is uniquely female. And that was what Jean-Pierre and the other women were celebrating.

Jean-Pierre said, “So, this week is Lesbian Visibility Week. And as the first openly queer person to hold the position of Press Secretary for the President of the United States, I see every day how important visibility and representation are.”

She continued, “Even though I grew up in one of the most diverse cities in the world — as some of you know, I grew up in New York City — as a young queer woman of color, I felt alone and sometimes invisible.”

Jean-Pierre spoke about the impact of the TV series and its diverse representation. “It’s important that LGBTQI+ people are represented in government, in shows, in institutions across the country.”

She said, “And this work is more important than ever as the LGBTQI+ community continues to face relentless attacks from some Republicans across the country. From book bans to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws, MAGA extremists want to roll back the visibility and progress we fought so hard to achieve.”

Speaking to the White House press corps, but also the national audience that hears the press briefings every day via C-SPAN, CNN or MSNBC, Jean-Pierre was telling America that lesbians are important and vital and that lesbians are not — or should not be — invisible.

Chaiken said, “We face new threats against our community, from online harassment to legislative acts of violence to actual physical violence — astonishing, backward, mean-spirited attacks by groups and individuals who in trying to deny our humanity only diminish their own.”

She acknowledged the long history of invisibilizing lesbians, asserting, “We’ve been fighting this fight for generations, and we’ll never stand down. They may try to erase our stories from classrooms and libraries, but we’re here. We’re here today at the White House. And we won’t be erased. We will continue to be visible, powerful, engaged, contributive, creative, loving American citizens.”

Hailey said, “I’m standing here today because, as a young gay girl in Nebraska who raced Soap Box Derby cars and wore rainbow suspenders, I was seen by my family. Their love and support gave me the courage and confidence to live my life openly.”

She added, “Visibility starts in our homes and our communities. And even if it feels like you’re under attack, know that we see you.” There is no more crucial message at this political inflection point than that: We see you. And, as Jean-Pierre said, “We have your back.”

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