Saturday, February 28, 2009

A van without a man

Ariel Levy's New Yorker article about the Van Dykes, a group of separatist lesbians who, yes, traveled around North America in a van, was fascinating, and I've been trying to figure out what about the article made it so.

Levy traces the history of 20th and early 21st century American lesbianism, from a 1970s political movement independent of sexual preference (renouncing sex with men in the name of feminism) to one tied to sexual preference but also about shocking the staid and uptight, such as with openly-announced affinities for S&M, all the way to the present, with an influential gay movement interested in integration into mainstream society via same-sex marriage and gays in the military, not in ruffling feathers and bringing about the revolution.

While it's amusing to think about a 1970s notion of lesbianism embraced by ostensibly heterosexual women who, unsurprisingly, opted for cuddling over anything more explicit in their 'lesbian' relationships, this was not, I think, the most interesting aspect of the article. These women were not the first nor the last folks to act in ways opposed to their natural inclinations - whether towards or away from convention - to make a point. The story itself, about one woman's trajectory towards radical lesbianism, culminating in a reunion with a daughter she'd had with a Black Panther, could easily have swung in the ostentatiously PC direction, but luckily it does not.

What struck me most in the piece was the notion of separatism itself, and how homosexuality might - or might not - permit this approach to life. The cliché of the straight woman, perhaps dumped by a cad, announcing she wishes she were a lesbian, only to get a well-deserved earful from gay friends about how much discrimination gays are still up against, is worth taking another look at. What the straight woman wants - and perhaps what all straight people are curious about on some level - is a world in which everyone is a potential object of attraction, a world in which those who are the easiest to talk to, because they are your sex, are also the most exciting to talk to, for the same reason. Which brings us back to the Official WWPD Definition of Sexual Orientation: all things equal, and even when sex-the-act is not at stake, members of the sex to which you are attracted are simply more interesting to be around.

Yet much as we might like, women cannot, by definition, enter all-male environments, nor men all-female ones, successful cross-dressers excepted. Which brings up the locker-room conundrum: for every straight person made uncomfortable by the presence of gays in the locker room, there's another straight person who thinks how much more interesting life would be if he or she could go to the Women's or Men's locker room, respectively. But that wouldn't work, because if one man could go into Women's, they all could, and the room would no longer contain only potential objects of attraction.

All of which is a roundabout way of wondering whether a separatist movement could work, assuming it were economically viable and not held responsible for propagating the species. By 'work', I mean, would it get annoying to just be with other men, even if one was only attracted to men, or vice versa? In pop culture, gays (particularly gay men) are often represented as preferring to spend time with members of the opposite sex (particularly skinny, red-headed women named Grace). This squares neither with what one would expect of gays - who are, by definition, attracted to members of the same sex - nor with what I've observed at any point past high school, when, for reasons specific to the social climate of American high school, this type of counterintuitive socializing is known to occur.

Yet from what Levy describes, it sounds like the Van Dykes ended up fighting with one another as much as would any group of straight women stuck for years on end sharing a van. Which leads to another question: was the problem the van, which is to say, the fact that logistically, separatism - even in non-van variants - lends itself to extensive dealings with a tiny group of people, which can be claustrophobic no matter what, or was it the purely same-sex environment? Do we need the opposite sex even if we don't need the opposite sex?

Now, back to gender in nineteenth century (pre-van) France.


Anonymous said...

separatists or not, I can't help but thinking they should hire a guy named "Richard" to drive, or at least do chores, for them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

As in Richard Bucket?