Jeanne Cordova

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Towards an Anthropology of Lesbians as Tribe

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I believe that lesbians constitute a tribe of our own. Since I was a junior dyke decades ago, I’ve traveled to Rome, Mexico, England, and Africa. Wherever I go I recognize my people, lesbians. As an elder lesbian stateswoman, I want to tell my lesbian daughters – yes, you kids on the road to assimilation -- how important it is for you to know your history as a tribe, as a people separate unto ourselves.

Whether you gather by the thousands at posh hotels in Palm Springs (a ritual known as ‘The DINAH’), or you’ve been to the great lesbian music festivals, you have participated in lesbian tribe.

What does it mean to be a tribe?

Webster’s Dictionary calls a “tribe” -- a group of people, a division, class of people characterized by its own culture, and having a name, a dialect … a political division of a united people … coincident with the founding of new colonies.”
What are the characteristics of our lesbian culture? What are those building blocks which transcend centuries and define us as a unique tribe of people?

STORY: One of these characteristics is ‘story.’ Lesbians have a commonly held story of our how our people survived over centuries of oppression. Our story dates back to the beginnings of written history. In our case, it originates in 430 B.C. with the legends of the famous teacher, Sappho, and her school of the arts for young girls on the Greek Island of Lesbos. The inland of Lesbos is not fiction. Look it up in the Aegean Sea off the West Coast of Greece. Sappho is not fiction. You may find books of her poetry, and stories about her and her lover, Bilitis, and their lives as teachers to upper class Greek girls to prepare them for marriage. Even before the dawn of written history, one finds examples and references to Amazon tribes who roamed the forests of Europe before the dawn of patriarchy, the adoption of male gods and rule by men.

LANGUAGE: We as lesbians have a language composed of dozens of unique words and phrases, and a sense of cultural humor that springs out of our story. We see our language in simple cartoons like “Dykes to Watch Out For.” Alison Bechdel, the lesbian creator of this cartoon, has recently been invited to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary because linguists recognize that lesbians have a language of our own. We see our language developing in jokes like, “What does a lesbian bring on her 2nd date?” Answer: a U Haul. We have a visual language, sometimes called ‘gaydar,’ that allows us to come out and define each other on the street. “Didn’t I meet you last year at the Palms?” “This is my partner, Susan.” “Is that your girlfriend, or your girl-friend?” “Is she a sister?” “Are you a member of the family?”

DRESS: Each generation of lesbians defines itself with slightly different versions of a set of common fundamental style of shoes, hats, hair and accessories. Whether it was the radical chic, androgynous drag of the 70s, or the lipstick lesbian salty look of the 80s, or the young queer woman look of the new century, we recognize each other.

PSYCHOLOGY: Lesbians have a broad range of tools, both learned and genetic, which make us capable of and willing to live on a much deeper emotional plane. It is a place much deeper than our straight peers are capable of living on. It is a plain defined by the psyche and needs of two women engaged in intimate relating. In my eight years of living amongst the heterosexuals in an expatriate community in Mexico, one of the things I missed most about my tribe was lesbian conversation. Straights talk about the banality of life. Who you are is defined by your job or your money. How was work today? Where do you live? When will you buy a new house? How are the children?
Lesbian life is defined by the emotional news of the day. How do you feel about your job? How is your relationship (which means -- what is the nature of your relationships and how do you each feel about them)?
When a straight couple goes to ‘therapy’ it’s a secret from their friends and means they’ll most likely break up. Lesbians go to therapy as often as they get a tune up for the car. Therapy is an ordinary part of life’s unfolding for lesbians.

FAMILY: Lesbians forge familial bonds with a chosen family that is based upon shared values rather than biology. It is a blessing in disguise that most of us experienced a sense of alienation from our parents in our teens and early twenties. This forces us to psychologically separate from our biological families and go out into the world and find a group of intimate, stalwart friends. Friends with whom we share the joys and grief of relationship, birth, death, job loss – the major difficulties of life. This depth of sharing creates a family-of-choice.
When my biological sisters and brothers came to my commitment ceremony I asked them to get in a line for a ritual called ‘the procession of the family.’ This procession would then walk into the marital circle. My siblings were shocked to see eight people they didn’t know in the processional line. ‘Who are these people?” they asked me. “Why are they in the family procession?”
“Oh,” I explained, “They are my family of choice. I have two families.”

WEDDING RITUALS: Anyone who's ever been to a straight wedding and then a lesbian commitment ceremony can see the awesome differences in how we build this ritual. Women draw on our personal life experiences when planning the words and ceremonies of our partnering. We prefer to write our own scripts and vows. We pick ministers who reflect our political and social values.

RELIGION: Because we don’t find our spiritual home in traditional religions, most lesbians have made a life search of building our own spiritual lives. Many lesbians find it difficult to belong to a religion which defines ‘god’ as only masculine. We know that traditional religions are a by-product of a male dominated culture, the Judeo-Christian age of the last two millennia. Lesbians who chose to believe in a deity see ‘God’ as encompassing the female as well as the masculine principal. Many of us have gone back to goddess centered belief systems, or found New-Age spiritual beliefs, among them Science of Mind, which correctly resurrect the religions of earlier times in which our Higher Power is all things feminine and masculine.

BORN OUTLAWS: Lesbians see great advantage in being born into a minority culture, because as outlaws we are more able to think beyond the boundaries of racial and gender prejudices. It is not an accident that lesbians are primary in the leadership of most social movements in our country -- be it the abolition of slavery in the 1800s, the founding of the profession of social work (Jane Addams was a lesbian), the second civil rights movement of the 1960s, the environmental movement, doctors without borders, Amnesty International, or the transgendered movements of today. Wherever you see social injustice, you see lesbians leading these struggles.

I could go on to book length about all the behavioral characterizes of our Amazon tribe. But in conclusion I want to send a message to my lesbian daughters. The challenge of this assimilating decade may be for today’s young lesbian to know her cultural heritage, and figure out how to mainstream without losing it. I want to say to you – We lesbians are not an accident of heterosexual labeling. We are a people with a story to tell. In your drive to be assimilated into the mainstream, be careful not to lose your heritage.
My generation of lesbians, and the generation before me, bought your freedom with our careers, our family, and sometimes with our blood. We look at you, the electronic generation, with great pride and love. As we pass the torch of Lesbian Nation to you, we beseech you to not allow the price of mainstreaming to include giving up your birthright as citizens in the tribe of women identified women.

 

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