Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo from 1979 Barnard Scholar and Feminist Conference. Published in The Future of Difference. Eisenstein and Jardine, eds. Schocken Books, 1983

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Pamella Farley

Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo Published in The Future of Difference; ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. (1980: Barnard College Women’s Center, G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, MA)

Because the conference was originally designed to discuss difference primarily as a male-female problematic, I wanted to choose a title that would perform several functions. The first would be to create a safe space for lesbians to talk, without at the same time creating a token enclave that others, whose defensiveness and tension about sexual difference are as yet submerged and unresolved, could use unconsciously as a dumping ground. The analysis of male-female difference, utilized oppressively as the basis for male supremacy and glorified as natural, is at least respectable. But other differences, like those of color and sexual identity, which are also used oppressively, are simultaneously glaring and invisible. We are always caught up in the dual necessity of surviving the oppression that makes those embodying difference into scapegoats and tokens, I and transforming it: moving beyond victimization to creative activity.

So this was to be the second use of my title: to move both ways, engage both perspectives, acknowledge oppression, and build a way out. To tap the hidden sources of our power. Like compressed energy anywhere, what has been hidden, kept down, generates power, force, strength. An oppressed group performs the negative function of supporting the oppressive; but it also acts, in its liberatory movement, to transform those relations. Everybody knows this on some level, or nobody would need either to deny it or to participate in it: nobody would need to struggle around it. Difference would have no function in oppression; oppression would have to be different. For oppression uses difference – especially differences that can be made to seem natural, according to whatever social (that is, scientific or religious) construct we used to delineate a “law”. Yet transforming those very characteristics which we in this society today feel to be at the base of “human identity” can be threatening as well as liberating. Both dynamics function together; for all of us – lesbian, black, white, heterosexual – they call each other into being. Finally, I wanted to indicate that this process of transforming, of a dynamic, of a change, takes place in a historical context, in which we are all implicated. None of us wants to participate in “the social function” of oppression. To speak of a social function is to speak of a systemic process which, as is true of any system, has structures and procedures that, by certain criteria, benefit some at the expense of others, and an ideology that obscures this dynamic. Heterosexuality, built on the gynophobic laws of male supremacy, is such a system-and we have been raised by it, in an age of racism and imperialism. Because of this, our survival has required- even as we rebel-participation in our own oppression. It is our task to locate and refuse the means by which we participate, to render them socially dysfunctional-to recognize, in the dialectic of oppression, that subversive transformation in which we each playa different and crucial part.

So: "Lesbianism and the Social Function of Taboo." In the workshop we went around the room and introduced ourselves; I spoke, and then we had a discussion, with about forty women participating. I began with several premises. The first is that in fact as lesbians, we know several things not "generally known"-not, that is, well accommodated in heterosexist knowledge.

We know women can act in non feminine ways, can act as males do, can behave in combinations of ways both baffling and enticing, but not gender- determined. Murray Hall, a woman who twice married women and was a Tammany Hall politician for thirty years, successfully passed as a man and evaded public detection of her gender until she died in 19 1.

"I wouldn't believe it if Dr. Gallagher, whom I know to be a man of undoubted veracity hadn't said so," said Senator Bernard F. Martin. "Well, truly, it's most wonderful. Why, I knew him well. ...Suspect he was a woman? Never."2 If behavior is not gender-determined, then all the systems of knowledge and all the social systems built on the assumption of heterosexuality and inherent male-female differences are inaccurate. There are psychological and social systems to enforce the coincidence of gender and role, and they may appear inherent. But they can and do change, as an adequate history of sexuality and of women will show. In this period, where the supposed universality of male supremacy is threatened, its ideal opposite, the essential feminine, rises to challenge it. Yet both are constructs used by people as labels for forces in conflict,] whose outcome will transform them both, and whose process already does. In the modern period new combinations emerge as visible from these changing relations, manifest themselves in individuals, in groups, and by affecting all relations in the system. We also know that woman is central. Not only in our own lives, though certainly in our own lives, women are definitive, valuable, influential. Yet also in the way we see the world and its relations are women central. This vision is outside of History (an intellectual construct built by "men "), and contradicts it. While the class war has been recognized-and distorted-in History, having become a form of “male-dominated" struggle, "the battle of the sexes" has been distorted-and unrecognized-in the culture. During the early industrial period, free women's wages for cotton, tobacco, laundry, and other domestic work challenged the slave system and provided an alternative to the feudal structure, both on the farms and plantations and in marriages and homes. Unpaid labor was being displaced by paid labor in both places. The process has engendered bloody wars, which continue to this day. Yet the evidence of a woman-centered view of relations is kept confined, to the realms of "folk," or joke, to the insane-to "the unconscious," which contains it.

Furthermore, not only is woman central to the maintenance of human life, and life-sustaining systems. In particular, lesbians know a non-patriarchal secret: the primary significance of the mother. It is she-not Freud's patriarchal father-in a system, who is the central figure in shaping our identity and culture, a fact which History determinedly and systematically denies.

Thus History, Culture, and Science lie. Lesbians know this; however much we might have swallowed the myth that we were wrong for seeing the lie, we refuse to live wholly by it. We defy the patriarchal, heterosexual constraints against woman-love and so somewhere in our experience exists the dangerous evidence that recorded knowledge is inaccurate.

A second premise follows: that identity is created in social systems, in which all participate. There is something about "heterosexual society" which produces so-called homosexuals. The pertinacity with which we have survived despite massive and nearly universal repression is testimony not only to the amazing strength and power of the individuals who have lived but also to the questions we must inevitably raise about the historical development of ideas, posited as "universal," that classify "human nature" outside of this social interaction. We are familiar with the contamination theory used to bar us from parenting, from teaching jobs, and from other “sensitive” areas where ideology is transmitted, for fear we will teach “heterosexual” to be “homosexual.” The obvious reply that we came from heterosexual families, schools, and cultures is ignored over and over again. The very persistence of the denial and fear indicates that on some level people do understand both that heterosexual identity is created socially – at the expense of nonconformers who must be kept down to maintain heterosexuality as a system – and that the entire society takes part in this process.

Take the identity, “slave.” A slave is created by force and the maintenance of several fictions as “reality” on the part of a society. There can be no slave without a master, certainly, but no master without a complex social system lending him the power to appropriate the life of the slave for her labor power and ability to reproduce. The identities of both master and slave are sustained by everybody else-in the master's family, in town among shopkeepers, tradespeople, and artisans, in the courthouse, the homes, and churches, on the streets, and, to some extent, dialectically by the dynamics of resistance to slavery, by those still needing to mask their resistance in order to survive. The point is that social identity is created by and maintained coercively in the social system. As lesbians we are learning this about sexuality as well, learning to reject individual guilt for not behaving as heterosexual females are supposed to behave, learning "even" to be proud of that.

A third premise is that any system pretending to exclusiveness, like heterosexuality, uses scapegoats. By definition heterosexuality denies homosexuality; but it both requires and suppresses the scapegoat. Her function is to be the unthinkable alternative, the nonchoice of heterosexuality; to validate it by being a mistake; to preserve the system, the ideological construct and its material, institutionalized forms. To be wrong, so the other can be right; to be bad, so the other can be good; to be unnatural, so the other can be natural: to be Different. The need for such reassurance is very great. So many of the pressures of the patriarchal system push toward consciousness the sense of something wrong, bad, not natural about its arrangements, that the need to demonstrate the opposite, and divide women, is constant-and growing, as the feminist movement which gives voices to those suspicions and becomes itself a force, grows.

If the function of what is denied is to shore up something trying to be different and better (whatever is doing the denying and benefits most from it), then the processes of denial have to be overt, while the processes of shoring up have to be covert. This dual reality is further complicated by a factor we are all familiar with from other contexts: the denial. the oppression of any category of people-whose difference is exploitable according to the logos/force employed by any other-takes overt and covert forms as well. Not only are the oppressed made to disappear, rendered invisible and even obliterated. So too are the means of oppression made to disappear, rendered invisible, obliterated. Nobody sees them. Even the victims are made to feel-often too successfully-we are responsible, guilty, for our difference-as-badness. (Whether the "badness" is called evil, sick or criminal depends on the model of law.) And too often the guilt runs us; we escape self-destructively into elaborate systems whose mutually reinforcing and interdependent (and exchangeable) roles that defy “reality” simultaneously appearing to resemble the heterosexual dependency system. We are unacceptable, and that which makes us so is acceptable. That we retreat, deny, rebel against this process is only evidence, even sometimes to ourselves, of our insanity. We may be told we have “a personality problem" if we see things differently, or that we're "sick"; if we point out trouble we are "troublemakers"-or "criminals." Not only behavior but people become taboo. This doubleness, which includes keeping the lid on while apparently taking it off in a token instance, is a social function that maintains the taboo even more effectively than the force and violence which lie beneath it and, by being so much more reprehensible at perform- ing the same function, dignify it. Liberalism is the direct result of the doubleness of a reality that maintains itself by denying another.

The social system includes this conventional, institutionalized, ideologically invisible violence as heterosexual sanction; it is the underside of the social institutions, conventions, and ideology of heterosexual/patriarchal society. Because each aspect of the system, as well as the system itself, maintains male supremacy, each victimizes women and each is embattled. We see these contradictions within and outside of the family, that legal unit that serves to contain and control the kin systems which formerly determined social relations, particularly as given shape by the movements against legal wife battery and child abuse, incest, rape, enforced sterilization, and other abuses of reproduction and abortion, and for child care and women’s liberation in every sphere. What most divides women in this historical struggle for self-determination is the taboo against women loving women, the taboo that forbids women to step out of the socially defined behavior for females, that maintenance of a “natural" difference by which some are served and others serve.

This taboo has been so widespread, and the repression of lesbianism so successful, that while male homosexuality, also a severe challenge to heterosexuality and patriarchy, has covertly been both incorporated and punished, lesbianism has been almost invisible. The massive oppression and repression of nonmale, and nonheterosexual, behaviors is built upon a gynophobia strong enough to challenge matriarchal society if it ever existed, and prevent it if it didn't. Our civilization is built on systemic woman-hating, and is maintained by systemic denial of the fact. Like the parasitic dependency of the ruling class upon those it exploits, the dependency of “men” upon “women” is a great secret of History. To keep it, same-sex social/sexual relations – which provide the evidence to disprove the “necessity” of exploiting dependency relations of gender difference – are made taboo. Social identity is shape by the intimate experience of patriarchal dependency relations, enticing us to participate in them as adults as we were forced to as infants. These relations pervade class society, whose functioning depends upon them, at all levels. The taboo is a crucial, invisible support.

Thus the social function of the lesbian taboo is to support “civilization.” Difference is used as a tool for maintaining divisions in the hierarchies of power. It follows that "History"-the male record of civilization-has been a socially masculine construct, by definition hiding, containing, and refuting female power function. History silences and requires silence. It is not amendable; it is a weapon. By definition, "civilization" has been a coercive system to reproduce dominance relations-all of which have benefited social "men"-and maintain them throughout several modes of economic and social production. Civilization requires and is founded upon compliance. What is repressed materially is appropriated: the labor and resources of women, poor people, blacks, the earth, the universe. Their energies appear either to disappear (become used) or become mysterious, wild, untamed, chaotic, and destructive until understood, mastered, tamed, categorized, and controlled by men. This repression, hidden by history, is recorded in the "unconscious." So, "reality" is a political construct, denying and run by its denial of what it taboos. As marriage is supported by prostitution, so the family is by incest, and heterosexuality by homosexuality. The key is that "women" must "love" "men." What is hidden is woman at the center of these relations. From her vantage point, they would all look different.4 Finally, we spoke of how lesbian culture is calling for a radical transformation of vision, the empowering of women, and the building of a new culture sustaining, not destroying, the different lives and energies of our universe.


1. Olga Broumas captures the complexity of this process in her poem "Cinderella" (in Beginning with 0 [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1977], p. 57), which transforms the traditional tale by assuming a feminist stance. "Cinderella" evokes the pain of a woman, successful at using the master's tools, who finally refuses to buy into patriarchal success, putting her, as it does, in the position of participating in the oppression of her sisters, dividing her against herself.

2. Jonathan Katz, Gay American History (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976), p.234

3. Political economists and historians have devised a model to describe the conflict of social groups as the moving force in history, and psychoanalysts have devised a model of the psyche which mirrors it. But both are finding that those forces posited as different – dark, not white; irrational, not rational; untamed, not civilized 9according to the patriarchal logos) – are, as they come to power, challenging the systems that contained them. Psychology and History are constructs different from, and laid down upon, reality. For a fuller discussion of these models and how they function in daily life, see my paper "Taking Medicine," for the New York Women's Studies Association Col1oquium "Frontier or Backwater: Can Feminism Survive in the University?", Brooklyn Col1ege, 1977.

4. These ideas were first developed in my paper "Beyond Marx and Freud: Some Theoretical Considerations," at the session "Power, Oppression and the Politics of Culture: A Lesbian Feminist Perspective," at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on Women's History, Mount Holyoke College, 1978. <comments />

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