Queers Were Here: Heroes and Icons of Queer Canada, edited by Robin Ganev and R.J. Gilmour (Windsor, Ontario: Biblioasis, 2016)
This book is a charming little anthology in which a group of “queer” Canadians answers the question: Who were your role models when you were “coming out?” One of the editors teaches history in the same university where I teach English, and I attended the local book launch.
In the introduction, the editors explain: “Our guiding purpose was the conviction that queer pioneers who challenged the dominant culture and fought for greater tolerance needed to be remembered and celebrated.” It seems that the 1980s were a crucial decade for most of the contributors, as they were for me. (I “came out” then too). Most of the contributors seemed to have been drawn to the “gay scene” in Toronto when they were young, and I recognized their references, even though Toronto seemed as far away from my prairie town as San Francisco or New York City.
The contributors are both male and female, and none of them emphasize the differences between gay-male and lesbian culture, but the differences are clear. Much of the urban “gay culture” described by the men seems exclusive to them.
This book fits into a pattern of recent histories of LGBTQ life in Canada since 1969. All of them discuss the long-term influence of the Omnibus Bill that was passed that year (under a previous hip, sexy Prime Minister, father of the current one), a sweeping piece of legislation which decriminalized sex between men throughout Canada, among other reforms. And of course, no book on “gay” life could avoid mentioning The Plague: the trickle of AIDS deaths in the early 1980s that soon became a flood.
Both these events left lesbians fairly untouched, except as concerned bystanders. In that sense, these events were parallel to the U.S. government’s drafting of young men into a war of imperialism in the 1960s, which supposedly inspired the rebellions of the Baby Boom generation and motivated American families like mine to move to Canada. I was a teenager at the time, but I didn’t need to “dodge” the long, uniformed arm of Uncle Sam. I was a girl.
Here in Canada, the Omnibus Bill has been described as another thing that helped to define a generation. Like the Stonewall Riots in New York City in the same year, the bill paved the way for “gay rights” by modifying (not completely ending) the legal persecution of male-male sex in Canada. This change was groundbreaking, but it had no direct effect on women.
Female-female sex has never been mentioned in the Canadian Criminal Code, which had its roots in Victorian England. There is an anecdote that Queen Victoria refused to sign a bill which would have criminalized sex between any two or more people of the same gender on grounds that “ladies wouldn’t do that,” but I have my doubts. I suspect that the gentlemen who wrote that legislation simply thought that whatever sexual games women could play with each other were unimportant (even if unladylike), and should therefore remain unnamed, even as a crime. At that time, few women had the rights of adult citizenship, so the law-makers probably assumed that improper behavior among girls or women could be privately dealt with by fathers or husbands.
Regarding the Plague, various writers and lecturers in queer venues in the 1980s tried to frame AIDS as a threat to everyone on the margins of society. An earnest lesbian acquaintance once tried to convince me (during a long car ride) that we should all start using dental dams and gloves in bed with each other because transmission of the virus from one female body to another had not been disproved. While I admired her good intentions, I felt as though she were advising me on how to protect myself and my dates from hurricanes and earthquakes, none of which happen on the Canadian prairies.
The Plague reached my town several years after I first read about its effects in larger cities, and I was sincerely upset when it destroyed the lives of men I liked and respected. I was disturbed when I read about the effects of AIDS on heterosexual women (or those who couldn’t avoid unprotected sex with men) in African countries. In the 1990s, I joined a drama group, directed by my sweetie, that went into schools to perform educational skits about HIV prevention. I wished there was more I could do.
Nonetheless, the Plague didn’t seem any more universal in the world than a hurricane slamming into a Caribbean coast. Where were all the HIV-positive womyn-loving womyn? Where was the evidence that AIDS-related deaths were cutting a swathe through the Amazon Nation?
I came to realize that lesbian sex (not to be confused with lesbian life) is the free lunch that we have all been told does not exist. Women don’t get each other pregnant, except when this is mutually desired, and one woman wields a turkey baster. Even then, the sperm has to come from someone else. Women are less likely to spread sexually-transmitted infections to other women than any other sexually-defined population. Although lesbians, even in Canada, have faced discrimination based on gender identity and general nonconformity, sexual activity between women here has largely occurred below the radar of police intervention.
The relatively conflict-free nature of lesbian sex becomes clear to me when I am deciding what kind of sex to describe in a story. Conflict in some form seems necessary to move the plot along, and in some scenarios, it’s easy to find. Sex between men and women can result in unwanted pregnancies, as well as disease. Women have reasons to fear violence from men. Men have reasons to fear manipulation from women.
Sex between men seems much less stigmatized now than it used to be, but HIV is still around. Plus there is still a feral, homophobic, straight-white-male subculture which seems especially dangerous now that it is less socially accepted than before. I don’t want any of my gay-male friends to seem too obvious among strangers.
Conflict between women in an erotic story usually has to come from something other than their sexual orientation. A story about the seduction of an innocent maiden by an experienced dyke is likely to seem unbelievable if set in the current era. How many young women, fresh out of high school in the 21st century, are unaware that sex between women is possible? How many are inclined to faint when they figure it out? (Fainting from pleasure seems like a different thing.)
I sometimes wonder why more erotic writers, of various genders and sexual inclinations, haven’t focused more on lesbian sex as a set of activities with a high ratio of immediate pleasure to negative consequences. Maybe it’s because lesbians are still often seen (if at all) as a subset of some larger demographic.