I hoard books. I always have. Though I am perhaps saved from any clinical level diagnosis by the fact that I do purge my collection once or twice a decade, usually in response to a cross-country move, or some similar major life upheaval.
I share this so you can recognize the singular weirdness of a book habit I began in the mid-’90s and and that lasted for 7 years: I bought a particular type of book compulsively, often 2 or 3 in a week–though never more than one at a time. I read these books compulsively, usually several times cover to cover. And every three months or so, I collected them all together and donated them to my local Half Price Books. And after a week or two passed, I would start the cycle again.
What did these books have in common? They were all books about lesbianism.
I wasn’t very discriminating about quality or genre either; I read whatever the B. Dalton’s would stock. Erotic short stories. Adrienne Rich’s essay collection Blood, Bread, and Poetry. The tongue-in-cheek So You Want to be a Lesbian? A set of sociological studies that I have largely forgotten. Only one of those essays still stands out in my mind–an inquiry into lesbian dildo preferences: realistically phallic or more fancifully dolphin- or digital-shaped? (At this point in time, it was still illegal to purchase vibrators–and presumably dildoes– of any kind in Texas, where I then lived, so I studied the pictures pretty hard to check for fins and flippers on these “dolphin-shaped” insertables.)
I didn’t think too closely at the time about what I was doing, or why. Coming to terms with my own sexuality, clearly. Also, I think I was preparing for some fateful future day when I might meet a Real Live LesbianTM. Or at least someone who would identify herself as such. They were there all along, I learned later: even in Dallas, even among my friends. But for those of us living our solitary lives in the late 1990s, there was no public language for “I am a woman who loves women.”
How much difference a decade (backwards) makes.
Last week I went to see the documentary Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution, a retrospective on the lesbian separatist movement that began and flourished in the 1980s and ended about 1995. (It was screened locally as part of the Philadelphia QFest.) Myriam Fougère, the director, juxtaposed footage she had shot while traveling around in the mid-’80s against recent interviews with women who had been part of that dynamic time, most now in their 80s and 90s. After the credits rolled, a group of us assembled in the aisle to discuss our reactions: The power of coming-out stories and coming-together stories. How the film dealt with the racial divisions and exclusions of the separatist movement, and how we felt about “separate space” today. Our pleasure at seeing so many “crusty old dykes” represented on film: fierce and beautiful and articulate still.
And several of us mentioned this line, which had evoked a loud and knowing bark of laughter from the audience:
“When I first started being with women, I was like: ‘Aah…’ I’d like to claim that it was my feminist politics, but it was not. It was pure lust.”
I know well the nerve that line hit. That impossible desire for a desire rooted in politics first, and flesh only second. Yup. I got it. We all got it.
And I think: isn’t that strange?
Does any other group identified by a sexual affiliation wish–even as a joke–for an a priori political alliance? I don’t know.
Of course, there’s a long history here, and I have a long history with it. I steeped in the (fairly sterile) concept of “political lesbianism” long before I ever let loose with my own dreams of skin and touch. (Did I mention that Blood, Bread, and Poetry is where Rich first published her essay on “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”?) My own queerness was definitely of the books-before-bodies variety. And yet…
In the beginning, there is always lust.
Sometimes it’s just political too.
“Where The Girls Were” is part of an ongoing memory project.
Additional installments can be found here.