Erasing Lesbians in 2014
Job Discrimination, Corrective Rape & Honor Killing of Lesbians Marked a Troubling Year.
By Victoria A. Brownworth
The best lesbian is a lesbian who doesn’t say the word “lesbian.” Or a silent lesbian. Or, sometimes, a dead lesbian.
That was the over-arching message of 2014 for the only group of people on the planet who are not sexually active with or sexually available to men. That lack of sexual availability in a society where compulsory heterosexuality has invalidated and co-opted lesbian sexuality and lesbian lives for millennia has always been an issue. Throughout 2014 our singularity became a locus for legislation against lesbians as well as extremes of violence against us.
Erasure–through silencing and even killing lesbians in the U.S. and globally–began a trend in 2014 that is far from over. It’s not hyperbole to say we are under threat. The question is, how expansive will that threat become in the new year? And are we really powerless to stop it?
Certainly there were positive moments in 2014 for lesbians, including celerities coming out as lesbian. Perhaps the most dramatic was ABC anchor Robin Roberts, 54, who was long rumored to be lesbian, but opened the new year by acknowledging her long-time partner in a Facebook message to her friends and colleagues and coming out in a subtle but declarative way.
Other celebs who broke the silence were former Miss Spain Patricia Yurena Rodríguez, who won in 2008 and 2013 and came out in the summer. In the UK, Christian music star and inspirational speaker Vicky Beeching came out. Former lead singer of the band Misster, Jin Tai, became Taiwan’s first “out” star when she came out in November. In the US, former Miss Kentucky Djuan Trent came out, saying she thought it was imperative to show people images of “queers of color.” TV star Emily Rios, a Mexican American, echoed that sentiment when she came out.
But actresses Ellen Page and Raven-Symone hedged on their coming out. Page refused to use the “loaded” word lesbian, effectively re-closeting herself, and the Black Youth Project expressed disappointment at what was termed “erasing black lesbian identity” when Raven-Symone refused to acknowledge either the labels African American or lesbian in an interview with Oprah that went viral.
In 2014 marriage equality expanded exponentially in the U.S. and became law in a number of other countries. Photos abounded on social media of elderly lesbian couples finally marrying after decades together. These images of our love for each other were precious.
They were also few. And marriage equality, while an important civil rights milestone, actually impacts only a small percentage of lesbians.
Legislation that affects all lesbians eluded us again. For the 20th year the U.S. Congress failed to enact ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination in hiring and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers with at least 15 employees.
For 20 years we have failed to achieve this most basic of civil rights protections. And consistently, it is lesbians who bear the major burden of its failure to become law, as lesbians are the most vulnerable and most often fired for their sexual orientation, particularly in the area of K through 12 teaching, which remains an overwhelmingly female profession.
In 2014 numerous lesbians were fired from their teaching positions, many of them in Catholic schools, some just for getting married. One lesbian teacher, Barbara Webb, was a chemistry teacher and volleyball coach at Marian High School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., for ten years. Webb was fired right before the 2014-2015 school year began in mid-August when the all-girl’s Catholic school was informed Webb and her wife of six years, Kristen Lasecki, were expecting their first child.
Olivia Reichert and Christina Gambaro were both fired in September from Cor Jesu, an all girls’ Catholic school in St. Louis, Missouri. Reichert and Gambaro had applied for a mortgage together and someone sent the school a copy of the application. Like Webb, the couple were legally married.
Because there are no protections for lesbians in employment, none of the women had legal recourse. As Gambaro told the St. Louis Dispatch in September, “The law is not on our side.”
Nor was it, tragically, on the side of an Iowa lesbian whose name was erased from her stillborn baby’s death certificate, invalidating her motherhood.
In April, Tennessee passed the Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which ostensibly made it legal for religious students to bully lesbian and gay kids in schools by repeatedly stating that homosexuality is a sin and against God..
Arizona, Mississippi and Kansas all put forward anti-“homosexuality” laws in 2014 with a vast array of discriminatory policies.
Yet these laws seem tame compared to those enacted in other countries in 2014, all targeting lesbians and gay men.
The year began with the Russian government’s crackdown on lesbians and gay men in advance of the Olympics. Russian journalist and out lesbian (and a former editor of mine) Masha Gessen spoke out about the repression of lesbians in Russia in January 2014. Gessen said repeatedly that she was forced to flee Russia or “lose my children” because of Draconian anti-“homosexuality” laws enacted by President Putin.
Gessen organized against what she called “creeping fascism” when Putin banned speaking about homosexuality. She told Huffington Post Live “What they're doing with this law is they’re enshrining second-class citizenship. So in that sense it’s very much like the laws in Nazi Germany. It makes it a crime to say that a group is socially equal to another group.”
Gessen was forced to flee Russia with her girlfriend and their children.
One of the harshest laws against homosexuality in the world was signed in Uganda in February 2014. The Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2014, called the “Kill the Gays” law by critics, made it illegal to be lesbian or gay. The law also penalized anyone who knows someone is lesbian or gay and does not report them to the police for arrest and imprisonment.
The law was passed overwhelmingly. Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni called homosexuality–and lesbians in particular because they “defy men”–a threat to the African family.
Passage of the law prompted many arrests as well as violence against lesbians and gay men.
The law was struck down in August, but in November new legislation that is even more far-reaching and, according to its proponents, able to hold up under any scrutiny, was proposed. The new law, called The Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill, is expected before Parliament shortly.
This bill also makes being lesbian or gay illegal, but relies on the sexual practices aspect to promote incarceration of lesbians and gay men.
Homosexual acts are already illegal in Uganda and punishable by imprisonment. The “Kill the Gays” law made repeated arrests for being lesbian or gay punishable by death. The same is true of The Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill. The Anti-Homosexuality Act was annulled by the Constitutional Court, which ruled that parliament lacked a quorum when it was passed–but that did not mean the law didn’t have popular support throughout Uganda. According to BBC Africa, the original draft of the new legislation requires the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality,” which includes entering into a same-sex marriage.
While the law in Uganda was playing out, several lesbians were arrested in March in Cameroon for the crime of lesbianism and imprisoned.
In 2014 lesbianism was punishable by death in Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania and Nigeria. In Gaza, which leads the world in so-called “honor killings,” lesbianism is considered a reason for honor killing, but human rights advocates note that while honor killings are most common in the Middle East, they also occur in the West–in Europe, the UK and the US. In June 2014, a lesbian couple was murdered by the father of one of the victims because he, a Muslim, felt their lesbian “lifestyle” shamed the family. Crystal Jackson and Britney Cosby, both 24, were killed by Cosby’s father, James, 46, in Galveston, Texas.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, Ahmed Tuma, 20, attempted to murder his 22 year old sister and her girlfriend in an honor killing because he believed her lesbianism brought shame on the family. The woman, whose name was withheld by police, survived the attack.
Lesbianism is illegal in nearly 40 countries and in most of those countries, lesbians can be forced into heterosexual marriages by their families.
But in 2014, even in some countries where the law seems to be on the side of lesbians, silencing them–often permanently–has become epidemic. According to the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights of the United Nations (OHCRH), in 2014 “corrective rape” of lesbians was on the rise and expanding globally.
South Africa remains the corrective rape capital of the world, with an estimated 10 such rapes a week in the townships, some ending in murder of the victim. Quite a few cases have received worldwide attention due to their level of brutality. But according to OHCRH, other countries have seen cases of corrective rape, including Uganda, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, Honduras, Brazil, India, Pakistan, the UK and the US.
This is just a snapshot of the silencing and erasure of lesbians through everything from job discrimination to corrective rape to honor killing in 2014. What will happen in 2015? Repressive laws aren’t changing. There is no hope of passing ENDA in the US before 2016 with a Republican Congress. Corrective rapes and honor killings are on the rise, not the decline.
While others are silencing us, however, we can resist erasure by declaring and thus affirming our lesbian lives. We can use the word “lesbian.” We can send tweets and emails to our elected officials about the importance of ENDA. We can educate people about corrective rape and honor killings. And we can remember that we deserve equality, as Gessen said in response to Putin. Our lives, our families, our lesbian community–they all matter. Even if the rest of the world doesn’t acknowledge it. Yet.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem will be published in February 2015 and Erasure: Silencing Lesbians will be published in June 2015. @VABVOX