Is The F-Word homophobic?

// 2 April 2008

Following on from the comments over Samara’s post yesterday, I think it’s timely to re-state some general principles. The question has come up: is The F-Word heteronormative (meaning that we assume a heterosexual viewpoint, and marginalise or ignore the perspective of LGBT readers)? Or even drifting towards being homophobic?

We received an email (the full comment will appear in the monthly round-up) about Samara’s post, saying that:

My reason for thinking that this piece on the F word and others are homophobic is that you generally seem to be taking a stance that lesbians are only acceptable if they look like femme straight women.

And then:

Now there are of course, and always have been, femme lesbians around. But most of those I know are actually attracted to butch women. Yes some people do think butch lesbians are attractive. And the fact is, whether the F word wants to acknowledge it or not, there are still a huge number of lesbians who not only do look different from straight women, but want to look different from straight women. I think it was called ‘gay pride’ once upon a time. As in – we’re not ashamed of being lesbians and don’t want to pretend we’re straight.

Frankly, I was taken aback by the assertion that The F-Word is projecting some kind of judgement about what is attractive or “acceptable” in women – lesbian or not. This notion that butch lesbian woman, and/or straight women who do not go in for the whole femininity deal, are unattractive or “unacceptable”(!?), is not one which I think we propogate here. For one thing, it’s patently untrue.

We blog about, and feature many articles on lots of issues here, ranging from domestic violence and rape to sexist advertising. However, I think that reading what our contributors write with any frequency, will reveal that contributors to the F Word constantly challenge the notion that there’s any one way women ‘should’ look, or behave. That’s one of the key principles of how I interpret feminism, and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. If our writers have not posted much about the sexiness of butch women, then I would suggest that it is not because we do not think that butch women are sexy (at least, certainly not some of us!), or are propogating some kind of heteronormative idea of beauty, but because we don’t really use The F Word blog to post about anyone much being sexy.

And one reason for that is that, as important as it is to blow apart narrow-minded notions of who is and is not attractive, I think it is also, or perhaps more, important to challenge the very notion that being sexy is all that significant. Women already have to contend with constantly being judged on whether we are ‘hot or not’.

On occasion, one of the bloggers or one of our other contributors, might mention the stereotype of “all feminists being ugly hairy-legged dykes”, for example. Just to clear up any possible confusion, referencing the fact that a) such a stereotype exists, b) it is designed to put women off feminism (or in the case of Samara’s post, certain shoes) by suggesting that it will make them unattractive to men, c) and that this can be a powerful deterrant to women who have absorbed messages about the necessity of being hair-free, pretty and heterosexual, does not imply that d) we think there is anything wrong or negative about having hairy legs, not conforming to mainstream beauty standards, or in any way endorse the homophobia explicit in the idea that it is insulting to be called a lesbian.

That said, of course I don’t want to dismiss this criticism, or any others. Comments like this help us to make sure we are clear about expressing our actual views, and, seeing as no one is perfect or immune from the (in this case) homophobia in our culture, it is always helpful to encounter robust criticism if/when our writing isn’t as clear as perhaps it should be. Please do feel free to feedback to us with your views. We’re always keen to accept your comments.

A final note.

I want to restate that posts that appear on The F-Word blog and indeed, the wider website do not represent an “official line” of any kind:

All blog posts are the views of the individual post author, and not those of The F-Word

And, although our tagline is “contemporary UK feminism”, we do not believe that feminism is monolithic, and therefore no particular feature, review or blog post by any contributor is going to represent the views and opinions of all the feminists who read us. We aim to provide a place to feature a wide range of UK feminist opinions, which is why we will link to, feature, and reference feminist voices from many different sources. We would not want to imply that the F word is the only source of feminism that anyone should refer to. We couldn’t hope to, and wouldn’t want to. Since Catherine launched The F-Word in 2001, nearly 200 different people, each with their own perspective within feminism, have contributed to The F Word. We want to carry on adding to that number – and we want to publish writing that represents the widest possible range of opinion. We couldn’t do this without your help – click here to find out how to contribute.

Comments From You

Lesbilicious // Posted 2 April 2008 at 3:22 pm

Is the F Word homophobic? No.

Not in the slightest. You don’t belittle queer women. You don’t ignore queer issues. You don’t assume that all your readers are heterosexual.

What’s more, you don’t make sweeping statements about what femme or butch lesbians find attractive… in fact you don’t even confine lesbians to the tired femme/butch dichotomy when you talk about gay issues.

Danny // Posted 2 April 2008 at 3:30 pm

I do not personally think the F-Word is heteronormative or drifting towards homophobia at all, and I can’t understand how anyone could so misinterpret Samara’s post as to think that what she wrote was homophobic; to my mind she was simply giving an illustration of some of the offensive stereotypes/ideas that prevail about lesbian women.

In my opinion certain inconsistencies crop up from time to time – such as the arguments against women only spaces appearing to be suddenly cast aside when it came to criticising the withdrawal of funding for Southall Black Sisters, apparently because they were not more inclusive themselves. But heteronormative and drifting towards homophobia? I don’t think so, no way.

I’d be interested to know what Helen G thinks about this? And in case anyone gets the wrong impression, I don’t mean to be transphobic! I just think this kind of subject is a specialist area of hers. Now I will run away hoping I haven’t crunched over too many eggshells…

Eleanor // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:05 pm

No, I have never found the F-Word homophobic, or butchphobic, or any-gender-phobic.

In fact, I’m kinda offended by the email above’s implication that I’m pretending to be straight and not proud of being gay because I happen to like wearing skirts and heels! We all know no-one gets to decide what a “real” lesbian looks like, same as no-one gets to decide what a real woman or a real feminist looks like. I’m sure the writer wouldn’t really claim I’m less gay than them but their wording above really makes it sounds that way. Grrr.

Tina Arena // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:12 pm

I’m astounded that the F-Word could be labelled as heteronormative, or even homophobic – if anything it maintains a very inclusive and broad set of Feminist philosophies and discussions… why? Because Feminism, like women, have diverse opinions and all should be able to discuss them surely? Women come in straight, lesbian, bi, black, white, butch, femme, trans, socialist, conservative, liberal, radical, pro, anti…

Much of the accusation seems to come from Samara’s post (which I read as challenging certain negatives attitudes towards supposed dress being regarded as ‘Lesbian’, but not re-enforcing or supportive of such attitudes).

It couldn’t just be… that a very particular faction of the Radical and Lesbian Feminist space are themselves internally sexist and heterophobic towards other women that are not like them or agree with them – whether that be because they are straight, femme, have different opinions on issues such as sex working or pornography, or are trans, etc. It also couldn’t be that this particular bunch are also the least open to allow such discussion of opposing Feminist and womens viewpoints on their own blogs?

Vinaigrettegirl // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:22 pm

FWIW, my instant mental image of high-heeled shoes with “lesbian heels” was of stilettos, rather than of heavier (high) heels.

I don’t think this site is particularly heteronormative in itself; and it would be inappropriate to suggest that readers might be bounced into that particular frame of mind by it. Such a suggestion would presume that readers necessarily link given objects or images with a given, restricted set of normatives; which (in my view) wouldn’t be a feminist act. And isn’t borne out by my (individual: YMMV) experience.

Steph Jones // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:23 pm

I agree Eleanor… that’s the implication I sort of read too….

As a transsexual woman, I feel at times like I am damned by some if I am femme and happen to wear heels and a skirt from time to time (I’m ‘upholding the gender binary’) and damned by some if I’m butch and wear trainers and jeans (I’m not making an effort to ‘pass’ or ‘blend in’).

The patriarchy has enforced restrictions on womens choice for hundreds of years including dress – yet some Feminists seem to assert just the same…

I like F-Word because it is welcoming and diverse, and I don’t think I have ever read any kind of underlying ‘heteronormative viewpoint’.

Juliet // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:31 pm

Which “above email” Eleanor? Danny’s? I can’t see anything in his/her post that would offend…?

I don’t think the F-word is homophobic or heterowassit either. In fact I think that’s a ridiculous accusation.

Marlow // Posted 2 April 2008 at 4:44 pm

I agree with Eleanor in that the e-mail that was sent seems a bit offensive. I don’t think anyone who dresses feminine is in any way pretending to be straight – since when was there a dress code for lesbians, anyway?

Last time I checked the F-Word has some pretty good lesbian-related articles which were in no way homophobic. So no, not homophobic at all.

Jennifer // Posted 2 April 2008 at 5:10 pm

Sometimes, I disagree with certain pieces or opinions on the F-Word – but I have never found it to be intentionally homophobic, racist or classist. I *do* think that the “lesbian shoes” article could have been worded better and that you can’t assume everyone will understand what you are saying just because this is a feminist blog. However, by posting this it just goes to show how open you are to criticism and to listening to what different voices and factions have to say.

The different voices of feminism that get a platform here is the real strength of The F Word. Sometimes you agree, sometimes you don’t, but this is what fosters debate and understanding.

I think it is a bad choice to group ourselves with only those who agree with our own personal politics and philosophy – and even worse to actively insult or ignore those we don’t agree with.

The F Word is not like this – everyone gets a voice and THAT is what makes it deserving of the label “Contemporary UK Feminism” – because everyone can submit and everone can be heard.

Three cheers to you guys!

Jess M // Posted 2 April 2008 at 5:23 pm

Thanks everyone for the kind and supportive words.

At the same time, just wanted to underline again that if people have a problem with what we’ve written on any subject, here at the blog, or elsewhere, I don’t want people to feel like they can’t point it out if they feel we’re doing something wrong, or said something that could be interpretted to be homophobic, or otherwise problematic. It’s really, really important to us that this happens. I agree with the criticism of the way that Samara originally worded her post, and it’s very good that readers said something about it and prompted this whole debate.

Anne Onne // Posted 2 April 2008 at 5:54 pm

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, all of the authors and commenters on the F word are human, and brought up in a heteronormative environment, meaning that even somebody trying not to be will write something heteronormative (or sexist, transphobis or racist) because it may be something they haven’t examined yet. in these cases, it’s good that they can be told, and asked to examine their biases. It’s something we need to all worry about, because if we don’t examine our privilege and take apart our feelings about groups of people, we can’t realsie how programmed we are.

I think it’s vital that if someone in a minorty complains, they are taken seriously, and the issue examined.

On the other hand, I would not say that the F word as a whole was heteronormative. (But I identify as heterosexual, so won’t try to speak for everyone else). It could probably write even more about LGBTQ issues, but it certainly does address them.

I didn’t read the article until after the clarification, so I’m not really sure how the accusation came about, but I wouldn’t say that one article, by one person, especially if modified for clarity, would mean that the whole site should be accused.

Laura // Posted 2 April 2008 at 6:52 pm

For the record: I don’t agree with everything written on the blog or in articles, either! But that’s why I’ve always liked The F Word and was honoured when I was asked to blog here: it is inclusive and open to debate, doesn’t adhere to one set feminism and really makes a difference in women’s lives because of this.

I should know: when I walked out of SIn City three years ago after suddenly realising that we don’t live in an equal society, I arrived home in tears, feeling sick to my stomach, typed “feminism UK” into google and found The F Word. This has quite literally changed my life: in three years I have changed so much I hardly recognise my former self. I am happy and confident and I like myself – that’s not something I could ever say before I found feminism.

So, yes, I heart The F Word (funnily enough ;-) and while I welcome criticism – I’ve certainly benefitted from this in the past – I hope that this post will be read and understood by those whose criticism seems, to my mind, a little misplaced.

sinclair // Posted 2 April 2008 at 7:02 pm

of course the F-word is not homophobic, jeez. y’all are very smart and conscious. it is *so hard* to discuss these culturally permeated ideas that others (or ourselves!) express – like “ugh, look at those ugly lesbian heels” – without offending someone, even if it isn’t Samara opinion or idea at all.

what matters, I would say, is that Samara’s intentions are (I trust) in the right place. her friend said something & it got her thinking about cultural standards of beauty, & she explored it. it’s just really hard to make those borderline-statements without *hugely qualifiying* them with big flashing letters – “this is wrong! I don’t believe this!” – otherwise someone’ll be pissed.

and, for what it’s worth, I thought the post did lack some exploration of the gender studies side of things. it’s just that I’ve come to expect that type of discussion within feminist spaces – about how compulsory femininity is bad, period. and yes, it is. but there’s another layer of gender theory on top of that explores how gender roles can be liberating when realized through a context, through performativity, through aesthetic desire & arousal. usually though the feminist (and/or lesbian, in many cases!) conversations are stuck on “gender roles are limiting, & therefore bad!”

and hey – I will always go to bat for anyone’s right to reject culturally compulsive standards of gender. make your own, fuck it up, throw it out entirely, play with it, change it every day, whatever you like. in my experience, though, that conversation of rejecting gender usually does not understand the ways that gender play can be subversive, too.

but regardless, just because Samara didn’t include all of those ideas in her post does not make her genderphobic, butchphobic, or homophobic, and it seems obvious to me that the F-word would eagerly make a space for all sorts of different perspectives and explorations of gender, sex, sexuality, & feminism, if someone wanted to explore it there. can’t get much better than that!

Catherine Redfern // Posted 2 April 2008 at 7:46 pm

*Blush* This certainly fills me with a warm glow and makes up for my lack of sleep last night fretting over this issue! But seriously, as Jess said, if you feel we can do better in any way, please feel free to let rip here. We value feedback and take criticisms extremely seriously (I don’t think I’m the only one in the F Word team to lose sleep over this particular issue), especially such a serious one as this. That’s why Jess posted this post, because if anyone does genuinely consider this site homophobic we want to open this out to our readers to see what you think. We’ve always tried to be open to criticism and honest about our aims and motives and hope to continue this approach. If you don’t want to post publicly, you can contact us via the comment page. Thank you for your lovely comments so far.

Helen G // Posted 2 April 2008 at 9:30 pm

Danny – To paraprase (I’ll cite the original when I remember where I read it): I think that sexual orientation is about who I go to bed *with* – gender identity is about who I go to bed *as*.

So, as a trans woman who is not sexually attracted to anyone, I would reply to the question “Is The F-Word homophobic?” with a simple no, it isn’t.

Danny // Posted 3 April 2008 at 9:05 am

Thanks, Helen. Please can we have more posts from you SOON, because I think they’re really interesting and I have learned a lot from them? I also like reading your opinions on other posts.

Get writing, please!

Elizabeth // Posted 3 April 2008 at 5:14 pm

How many of the people here lining up to say the F-word isn’t homophobic or heterocentric, straight?

Straight people aren’t really the ones to ask if you’re being accused of homophobia. Maybe a better approach would be to take a little time to think about what’s been said to you rather than rushing to defense and publishing an e-mail (that I’m guessing was sent to you privately) to get everybody else on board to disagree with it.

whitelabcoat // Posted 3 April 2008 at 6:19 pm

“Straight people aren’t really the ones to ask if you’re being accused of homophobia.”

I’m a lesbian – I don’t think the F-Word is homophobic. There ya go.

(Plus, I think there were a few others above.)

Laura // Posted 3 April 2008 at 8:59 pm

Elizabeth – isn’t it rather heterocentric to assume that our all/most of readers are straight?

Mary Tracy9 // Posted 3 April 2008 at 11:30 pm

About the whole “calling the F-Word homophobic because of Samara’s post on shoes” I’d like to say the following:

The post BEFORE editing, as Polly Styrene showed in her blog, made me feel uncomfortable as it seemed to be equating being “lesbian” with being “unattractive”. However, when the post got edited, it all got peachy again.

What DID bug me was the fact that Samara, upon complaints, replied that

“my disapproval of the whole lesbians=ugly theory was implicit by the very fact that I was writing for a feminist website”

Well, no, dude, that’s not the attitude. If you make a mistake, that’s OK, we understand, correct it and move on. Don’t get defensive and put the blame of the ones who have been offended by claiming they are being too sensitive.

Apart from that, I cannot comment on wether the F Word is homophobic or not, mainly because the blog is way too big and has too many voices to be defined by only one of them.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 4 April 2008 at 10:47 am

Hello… just popping in again. We appreciate all the feedback, good and bad, keep it coming.

Just to say that it seems that my mentioning losing sleep over this has been interpreted as an attempt to subtly put people off criticising of The F Word. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that and I certainly shouldn’t have said that any of the other F word team had lost sleep because I actually don’t know whether that’s true or not so that was wrong of me. The reason I personally have lost sleep is because I am genuinely, seriously, concerned to ensure that this site which I set up is generally moving along the right lines and not the wrong lines. It is in my nature to worry about things, I’m generally a worrying kind of person, so I hope that goes some way to explaining that.

However, let me repeat this AGAIN lest anyone is put off from criticising this site: please feel free to suggest what we can do better. Send us your comments. Indeed, comment here!

What I think I’d appreciate most are practical suggestions or improvements that can be made. Elizabeth, above, mentioned that we should not have posted this here. If there are better ways of responding to very serious critiques, then I’d appreciate suggestions of how. We are only human and can’t satisfy everyone and we will never be perfect but I can’t stress enough how we all want to do the best we can. Thanks.

So, practical suggestions welcome.

Zenobia // Posted 4 April 2008 at 11:49 am

Just to be clear, Catherine, I don’t think you guys are deviously trying to discourage criticism by anything you do. I just see it as a defensive reaction – overly defensive, sometimes. I’ve done it myself plenty.

As for the way Samara worded her post at first, it made me do a little bit of a double take but it was patently obvious that she wasn’t saying lesbians are unattractive, mainly that they would be perceived as unattractive by her colleague. She just missed out that step of the equation because she assumed readers would be able to infer it.

I can kind of see why people get riled over the whole ‘not all feminists are fat hairy lesbians’ thing, but I don’t really think Samara’s post was the right target to pick to take it out on.

Oh and I would never, ever self-apply the word ‘straight’ either.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 4 April 2008 at 12:46 pm

Thanks Zenobia. Much appreciated.

Goodness… it really is hard interacting over the internet isn’t it?

Elizabeth // Posted 4 April 2008 at 10:28 pm

Catherine, my suggestion would have been to go back to the person who criticised you and dialogue with them – see what they suggest. Then take some time to think about it, rather than immediately reacting.

This post feels to me as if it’s about getting reassurance from your readers as much as it may be about looking for constructive criticism. Perhaps if you want feedback you could try an open thread for criticism both positive and negative.

Lara // Posted 5 April 2008 at 12:01 am

Elizabeth – I thought this was an open thread for criticism, both positive and negative. But you seem to want one that only calls for negative criticism or for the opinions of lesbians, which I don’t think would get responses you would agree with anyway, because a) people would still inevitably comment to defend The F-Word and b) some gay women have already responded to this post with positive feedback only.

Also, I think it’s odd (and actually kind of patronising) that you suggest that this post was made immediately after The F-Word received the e-mail and that no time was spent thinking about it – how could you possibly know how long Jess spent thinking about this post, when they received the e-mail, and how long or if they needed to ‘calm down’ after reading it? I also think it is a perfectly rational response, not defensive. They get negative feedback, therefore, they ask all their readers to say whether they perceive a similar problem and if so, what they think should be done about it. It’s a difficult issue and I would think they would want to get as much advice as possible, rather than relying on one person to help them.

Perhaps instead of criticising TFW’s methodology and the validity of the opinions of the commentors based on their sexuality, YOU could explain why YOU think TFW is homophobic (I’m assuming that you do) and what you think they should do about it? It would be much more helpful.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 5 April 2008 at 12:01 pm

Elizabeth and Lara, thank you both. I can confirm that people can post negative and positive comments here.

Just to clarify a few things which might help to explain our reaction. We did respond to the reader privately. The concerned reader also published her concerns about homophobia about this site publicly, elsewhere.

As I understand it, and I hope that I am representing this accurately, the reader was not just claiming that Samara’s individual post was homophobic or could be interpreted as homophobic, but stated that she believed that there seemed to be a wider homophobic editorial stance behind this site which was (deliberately or subconsciously, I am not sure) influencing the articles being published. If I recall correctly she has indeed stated that this site is “very homophobic”. I apologise if I’m not remembering this correctly.

At the same time other feminists suggested they would boycott this site because they believed we were deliberately trying to, in some way, claim that one particular type of feminism is the only ‘proper’ feminism, or trying to represent the whole of UK feminism on this single website, or that this site has ‘lost its way’ somehow. Again, if this is misinterpreting, I apologise.

Because these were and are very serious concerns which cut deep to the heart of why this site was created and what we are trying to do with it, that is why we decided to post about this and opened it out to the wider readership. Jess and I worked together on this post and considered the wording really carefully to try to directly respond to the *concerns* raised rather than to post about the individual(s) who expressed the concerns as we felt this was unfair on them.

I hope this clarifies a bit more why we posted this here and why this matter is important to us and that people do not misunderstand what we are trying to do here. At times it feels like we have to tread on eggshells to avoid offending any particular part of the feminist community, But some articles that we publish will inevitably do this. I hope this makes clear that we have no problem with an individual feminist choosing to boycott our site, but at the same time, our fundamental aim is never to boycott any particular type of feminism from being featured on this site. I hope this goes some way to clarify why we reacted the way we did. Thanks.

Charlie // Posted 8 April 2008 at 7:05 pm

As a lesbian, I found the ‘lesbian shoes’ article offensive. But this off the cuff equation of lesbian=ugly or straight feminists not wanting to be mistaken as lesbians to not put men off them, is so common that it rarely raises an eyebrow.

I don’t feel like the F Word speaks for lesbians- after all the definition of a lesbian would conflict with the trans agenda of The F Word. I do feel that The F Word is hetero-normative. It doesn’t seem to me a space where I can come as a lesbian to read about lesbian issues, instead, issues over the definition of women and women only spaces to include trans.

The favouring of trans issues over lesbian issues says alot and it is marginalising lesbians from The F Word.

Saying that I think resolution is best achieved through dialogue than angry internet wars.

Jess McCabe // Posted 8 April 2008 at 9:43 pm

I really don’t think that it is the case that just because we publish writing about trans issues, it means that we don’t publish and don’t want to publish writing about lesbian issues. I don’t really see how the two are mutually exclusive. Although we are, of course, a feminist website, so we write about both as they intersect with feminism.

And, as well, The F-Word doesn’t take a stance on any issue within feminism, whether that be women-only spaces or whatever; we simply publish feminist writing, and the opinions expressed are always those of the writers, not any kind of ‘party line’. That includes what I write, or what Catherine writes. We’re only ever expressing our personal views.

As always, I would just emphasise that what goes up on The F Word really does just reflect the submissions we receive! If The F-Word has an agenda at all, it is to represent the widest range of opinion possible, but we are dependent on the feminist community to submit features and reviews to us. Suggestions on how we can expand our coverage to touch on more lesbian feminist issues would be gratefully received!

Tina Arena // Posted 9 April 2008 at 10:48 am

F-Word covers a broad set of Feminist-based issues. I think Charlie’s comments say much more about her (and some others) own prejudices towards trans people than the F-Word itself and any supposed anti-Lesbian sentiment – I mean… “the definition of a lesbian would conflict with the trans agenda of The F Word.” eh? I think we can see that its the F-Word’s inclusion of some trans-related Feminism that clearly is the contentious issue here with a certain minority of Radical Feminists.

The F-Word seems to me to be an open forum, where contributors are welcome to write pieces (if some Lesbians believe they are under-represented, then surely contribute some articles?). And, unlike some Feminism blogs (in fact, those maintained by the very people that are complaining), the F-Word is open to discussion instead of being ‘closed cliques’ where if you don’t agree with something you don’t get your opinion published.

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