On being seen: A meditation on visibility

Close up of international business team showing unity with putting their hands together on top of each other. Concept of teamwork, top view

I was not quite 16 when the mother of a high school girlfriend outed me to the principal of our all-girls high school, telling them I had seduced her daughter. Within days, I was sitting in the principal’s office with my father as she explained to him that I was a “bad moral influence” on the nearly 3,000 girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls and had been passing out inflammatory literature and otherwise radicalizing the school’s student body to become lesbians.

While I would have loved to actually have had that kind of power, I did not. What I had was a bunch of purloined lesbian paperbacks I’d found in the bookcase of someone I babysat for and some clippings from the Village Voice’s lesbian columnist, Jill Johnston. In the 1970s, just a few years after Stonewall, it was a lot — enough to get me expelled simply for existing.

When I look back at that time and at my presence in that school my mother, grandmother and sister attended, I realize it was my visibility that got me expelled. I had a series of girlfriends — all upper class women. My French teacher — a closeted lesbian — was my mentor. There were closeted lesbian teachers still there since my mother’s years at the school. I was a political and social radical and my previous nine years at a small private Catholic school for girls had both solidified my lesbian sensibilities and radicalized me to be a troublemaker. I was a threat to the status quo of the closet and lesbian invisibility. Without even realizing it, I was demanding visibility, demanding the right to hold the hand of my girlfriend, to kiss her when she turned up at my locker between classes. I was demanding a world that allowed me to be openly queer and they feared that and feared its naive and unwitting messenger: me. 

I have thought about this time in my life and the concept of queer and lesbian visibility a lot recently while writing pieces about my late wife, the artist Maddy Gold, who died recently after a valiant battle with a rare aggressive cancer. Maddy and I met at Girls’ High and it was there that we began what became a life-long love affair — interrupted by the vicissitudes of homophobia, but somehow we found our way back to each other for 23 years of marriage. 

Visibility was a constant discourse we had because she also taught freshmen college students at University of the Arts and Drexel University. Students came out to her all the time and she had to help them navigate the newness — the often daunting newness — of visibility. 

The irony of these writings I’ve done over this last year without her and the memoir I am writing about our life together is that since her passing, I have never felt more invisible. Widowhood is all about absence and when my editor suggested I write about this being Lesbian Visibility Week, I wondered what I would say? Yet telling our stories is an essential part of visibility.

I spent many years being a highly visible “spokeslesbian” on TV and radio and on a myriad of panels at conferences. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, I referred to myself as The Lesbian in a Dress, because my high femme presentation was perfect for TV and producers loved to pit me against the homophobes du jour. I was quick-witted, articulate, angry and pretty. A winning ratings grab, I got called to appear again and again to talk about everything from the ex-gay movement to the Sharon Kowlaski case to lesbian mothers to ACT UP.

Being able to speak out about issues that impacted lesbians directly was critically important to me both personally and politically. Lesbians had always been overshadowed in the queer liberation movement by gay men and in the feminist movement by straight women. The erasure of lesbians as their own class has been an issue I have written about extensively. Erasing lesbians erases women’s history.

Erasing lesbians erases lesbian sexuality from historical records and is similar to the erasure of all autonomous female sexuality: women’s sexual desire has always been viewed, discussed and portrayed within the construct and purview of the male gaze.

Lesbian visibility is fundamentally about being seen and what that means. In so many parts of the world, it means the threat of death from honor killings and corrective rape, but it can also mean giving voice and face and body to our existence as women who love and desire and are dedicated to other women.

So when we talk about lesbian visibility, what do we mean? In this era of encroaching fascism and autocracy, visibility is synonymous — or must be — with sustainability: that is, re-asserting and re-establishing lesbians as central figures who cannot be erased or minimized or dismissed. My mentor, Audre Lorde said, “What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities. And in order for us to do this, we must allow each other our differences at the same time as we recognize our sameness.”

That.That is visibility. 

A lesbian friend of decades emailed me a story about Deborah Edel, one of the co-founders of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, who is turning 80 as the Lesbian Herstory Archives is turning 50. Edel told NBC News, “The act of preserving history is an act of revolution.”

When I interviewed the other co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Joan Nestle, a year ago, she told me in an era of book banning and the banning of “lesbian thought, lesbian imagination,” that “we are the cherishers of this culture, we are the holders of these books. Thousands of books at the Lesbian Herstory Archives that they would burn if they could.” 

The act of being lesbians and honoring lesbians is an act of revolution. The act of being an octogenarian lesbian who is still fighting for the freedom of lesbians to be lesbian, like Nestle and Edel are doing, is an act of revolution and a statement of visibility.

Julie R. Enszer, longtime editor of the lesbian literary and arts quarterly Sinister Wisdom, published a piece for Lesbian Visibility Week which she titled “A provocation.”

In it, she talks about her dedication to maintaining Sinister Wisdom — she has published 50 volumes herself as editor and says she has the passion to publish 50 more. Enszer said, “Lesbians and queer women need institutions that can last because the cycle of inventing and reinventing things anew generationally needs to end.”

Yes. Sustainability. “We can do better in creating lesbian futures,” Enszer says.

When I was being expelled from school all those years ago, it was because they wanted me to be invisible. They claimed I was the one with that moral power because my visibility was such a threat. So that is my message about visibility: Be a threat. Refuse Otherness. Refuse erasure.

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