Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Lesbophobia and the Rules of the Game

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I've been watching rugby lately. The sport's World Cup is in its final days in France, and for the last several weeks the bars in the touristy areas of Paris have been full of Scotsmen in kilts and Kiwis in black shirts and painted faces.

How to score is obvious--get the ball over the line, or between the uprights. Aside from that, I have no real idea of what the rules are, and everything seems arbitrary, if not bizarre. For instance, they have throw ins from the side like soccer, but in rugby, the players on the field boost each other up in the air like male cheerleaders in order to get the ball. And sometimes, when the players are in an enormous huddle, and the ball comes tumbling out, I have the strangest sense that the group's given birth to it, and that the man scooping it up and running away is a kind of midwife.

I'm pretty sure real fans see nothing of the kind, but I don't really care. There's something mesmerizing about watching all that activity and sensing an order without knowing what it is. Penalties are especially mysterious.

You could say that sums up my experience of being female.

The first inkling I had that I was dangerously at sea was a visit to one of those Christian camps with the Bethany Baptist Church youth choir. At dusk, the kids paired off heterosexually with members of other groups and wandered off into the woods. When a boy asked me, I agreed to go, too. Why not? I wasn't letting down a side that I didn't know I was on.

He bought me a milkshake at the snack bar before we set off. I remember it was strawberry, and really thick. I was happy as we set off down a dirt path with the scent of earth and leaves in the air. It felt nice to have a good-looking boy pay attention to me. And for that matter, it was nice to have the milkshake. I never had money for extras and I savored it to the last drop.

We held hands. Maybe we kissed, but I'm not sure. The part that stuck with me came afterwards when the girls were analyzing what happened with whom. When all the reports were in, it got back to me that the boy thought I was cute, but was disgruntled because he wanted to make out, and, "she never stopped sucking on that damn straw." Then he used the word lesbo in revenge.

I didn't have another milkshake for years. I also developed a phobia of straws. How old was I? Fourteen or fifteen? And it never crossed my mind that a boy might expect something in return for the price of a beverage. And if he was giving signals about his desperate longing for my ravishing self, I missed those, too.

You could blame my ignorance on the fact that I was a baby dyke. But not all straight women get the rules, either. A woman yesterday was telling me that her friends criticized how she handled broken dates. "Apparently you're supposed to cry and ask why," she told me in amazement. "Or men think you don't care." Apparently her ex liked to tell her that her ego was too big. I bet he also called her a dyke.

There are a thousand different rules you can break as a woman. But the penalty is nearly always the same, an eruption of lesbophobia.

In fact, any progress down the field draws a foul. Instead of analyzing what impact it has that we have a black woman meeting heads of state as the face and voice of America, Condi critics from both the left and right waste newsprint wondering if she's a lesbian because she co-owns a home with another woman.

The closer Hillary gets to sewing up the Democratic nomination, the more she's criticized as too tough, too ambitious, egocentric, mannish. In short, she's a dyke. Like the schoolyard cry of "faggot," aimed at swishy boys, the accusation of dyke has little to do with who we want in our beds, and everything about keeping us in our place as women.

Sometimes I think activists shouldn't even bother using words like sexual orientation, and instead of dumping transpeople to get laws passed against queer discrimination, maybe it's the gay and lesbian aspects that should get dropped.

For men, the heart of lesbophobia isn't disgust at the idea of two women sleeping together, it's not being allowed (metaphorically) to watch. It's the exclusion. And the idea women neither want nor need them. If women have progressed at all, it's not because the rules of misogyny and lesbophobia have changed, it's because we've gotten better at ignoring them.

Here's to all the girls.

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