Lesbians are being vilified by the very community they helped create. Credit: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

July 29, 2019   4 mins

Everywhere you look, there are reminders of how little the safety and wellbeing of lesbian women is valued. We can’t seem to escape violence and vilification. Especially since, in recent months, a lot of it has come from within the LGBT communities we helped build.

This year, an endless string of physical attacks has been reported in the news. In London, for example, a group of young men assaulted a lesbian couple on a bus after the two women refused to kiss for their entertainment. The teenagers responsible were charged last week. Then, Ellie-Mae Mulholland, an 18-year-old lesbian from Walsall Garth, was beaten black and blue by assailants who told her “you and your girlfriend are going to get it 10 times worse next time”. In Chile’s Fifth region, multiple butch lesbians have been assaulted and murdered.

Lesbians need as much support now as we ever did. But even within LGBT spheres, where we are – at least theoretically – part of the community, lesbians are now being vilified. For decades, gay and lesbian rights advocates fought for our sexualities to be accepted as legitimate.

But on Twitter the word lesbian has become a suspicious ‘TERF dogwhistle’. TERF is a nasty term. It stands for trans-exclusionary radical feminist and is used, in particular, to describe lesbian feminists, because we aren’t always willing to toe the latest ideological line when it comes to gender. It has also become synonymous with being subhuman.

A quick search online will give the uninitiated an idea of the inflammatory language that has become typical. “Punch a TERF.” “Knife a TERF.” “Burn a TERF.” Whatever the initial intentions behind the acronym, it has quickly become shorthand for ‘women deserving of violence’:

“Somebody slap this TERF c**t across the face.”

“TERFs can choke on my girl dick.”

“Pop quiz: if you kill a TERF, is it considered a crime? Answer: it is not. They are not considered lifeforms.”

There are countless more examples across social media platforms. And this dehumanisation has real life consequences. At the Edinburgh Pride March this year, lesbians were sworn at and shamed. It wasn’t social conservatives or religious Right-wingers who made them feel unsafe at Pride, but other members of the LGBT community.

Women carrying a banner proclaiming “Lesbian Equality” were told that they’re “an embarrassment to homosexuality.” People on the official Pride bus gave the middle finger to the women holding a banner that read “Lesbian, Not Queer.”

One woman gave a devastating personal account of the hostility lesbians experienced at Edinburgh Pride:

“As a migrant and lesbian who was born in a totalitarian state it was really shocking to come to the Scottish Pride, where we carried a banner ‘Lesbian visibility’, and be shouted at, by a group of mostly male white teenagers with the transgender flags, that we need to be “fucked”, “ashamed” and “get the fuck out”.

“I am not sure what this Pride is supposed to represent, but what I experienced was very simple and uncovered misogyny – and a specific misogyny towards homosexual women who dare to define and defend their sexuality without men telling us what it should be – clearly sanctioned by the Pride organisers.”

Similar incidents have taken place at Pride Marches across the country.

And in Edinburgh, during the run up to Pride Month, a lesbian, Julie Bindel, was physically attacked. She had come up to Edinburgh to join in a panel discussion about the rights of women as a political class. On her way out of the lecture theatre, only the intervention of campus security kept Julie from being beaten.

Her detractors have argued that Julie was speaking against the rights of transgender people. They used this claim to justify the attack on her. But I spoke alongside Julie on the panel – having been terrified out of my wits by the security drill beforehand – and listened closely to her talk. She did not say anything about or against transgender people.

And you need not take my word for it. Last week, a full video of the event was posted online. Anyone can watch Julie’s passionate speech about the importance of challenging male violence against women. She talked about the harms that result from treating every part of women’s bodies – be it wombs, hair, breast milk, or sexual organs – as commodities to be bought and sold. And she spoke about what it meant to grow up in a working-class community where the police didn’t care about women’s safety; about realising that there was no town, county, region, or country where women were entirely free from the fear of male violence. Her talk was powerful.

And it was free from transphobic prejudice. When she Tweeted the video last week, Julie challenged her detractors: “Those of you making those allegations, watch and listen if you dare.”

According to Julie’s account, it took three security guards to stop her attacker. Thanks to the intervention of campus security, she made it to the airport safely. But the fact remains: someone attempted to attack her – someone who had previously Tweeted “beat them up” about lesbian protestors attending London Pride last year.

“Any trans allies at #PrideLondon right now need to step the fuck up and take out the TERF trash. Get in their faces. Make them afraid. Debate never works so fuck them up.”

This assailant has repeatedly incited violence against women, targeting lesbians in particular, using the language of misogyny and lesbophobia.

This attack was an example of how the persistent strain of violent sexism in conversations surrounding gender is making lesbians particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile, most of the local feminist community failed to condemn the attack – perhaps they were afraid of being tarred by the same TERF brush. Yet it is precisely because I am a feminist that I believe we must challenge male violence whenever and however it manifests.

As the late, great Audre Lorde said: “Your silence will not protect you.”

Julie’s assailant is male. No matter how this person identifies, their actions are woven into a wider pattern of male violence against women and girls that feminists call patriarchy. There are some who would class this statement as an act of violence on a par with the attempted assault. But it is a statement I stand by. If we cannot name and identify male violence, we cannot challenge it in any meaningful way.

Claire Heuchan is a writer from Scotland. She explores Black feminist politics on her award-winning blog, Sister Outrider.