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LIPSTICK LIBERATION : For a New Breed of Lesbians, Birkenstocks, Holly Near and Political Angst Are Out. Madonna, Stiletto Heels and Erotica Are In.

March 15, 1992|LINDSY VAN GELDER | Lindsy Van Gelder often writes about lipstick as a senior writer at Allure, and about lesbian-feminism as a contributing editor to Ms. She is also co-author of "ARE YOU TWO . . . TOGETHER? A Gay and Lesbian Travel Guide to Europe," published by Random House.

But lesbianism of any stripe still leaves most people clueless, warns Urvashi Vaid, 33, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a leading gay civil rights group. "For mainstream society, there have traditionally been only two images: man-hating bulldykes and titillating porn, made by and for straight men. The curious thing about both of those images is that here we are, women who love other women, and to the rest of the world, all they see is the lack of a man. They have to insert the man, as someone that we supposedly really need, or even as someone we supposedly hate, because it's indifference to men that drives them mad. What doesn't compute is women really liking and loving other women. In a society obsessed with men's relationships, lesbians are like people speaking a foreign tongue."

This is also precisely why lesbian feminists in their 40s and 50s, who spent years challenging the straight stereotype that somebody in a lesbian relationship "has to be the man," are sometimes driven bananas by lesbians in their 20s and 30s who think that playing at butch and femme, or wearing a dildo to bed, is the height of deliciously scandalous erotic behavior.

And then there's bisexuality, the last taboo among lesbians. Articles have recently been appearing in the gay press on the topic of "lesbians who sleep with men"--a concept that might seem, at first glance, to make about as much sense as "vegetarians who eat fried chicken." But in the current climate, women who would have been exclusively lesbian 15 years ago out of solidarity with other women no longer feel the need to do so. Other women, who might have been exclusively heterosexual in the past, may be attracted to the glitzy charms and new visibility of the lesbian scene. "It's very in to be lesbian in '92," says Girl Bar operator Sandy Sachs. "I know this might sound wild, but there are quite a few hetero women out there who are fascinated at the idea that they don't have to worry about pregnancy and disease. It's like, tell your husband, 'my girlfriend and I are going to lunch.' "

Carol Queen, 34, who works at Good Vibrations, the female-owned San Francisco sex boutique, and writes for On Our Backs, describes herself as a "queer-identified bisexual, bottom with top rising. And I very much identify as a femme, although I sort of miss my crew cut some days." Queen grew up in Oregon, where "if you see a woman gussied up, she's either selling Mary Kay cosmetics or she's a femme dyke. All the straight women wear flannel shirts and chop wood." For years in Eugene, she was involved exclusively with women, "but I secretly identified as bi all that time. I was told that I'd get over it. " But Queen now feels that there's room in the lesbian, or certainly the "queer" community, for her to have a male as her current primary partner.

Queen adds that many younger lesbians don't especially care about being accepted or even understood by straights or older lesbians. "I see it in the store, especially with sales of dildos. Older dykes have this idea that sex toys--especially penis-shaped ones--are patriarchal." According to Queen, "the deal for a lot of older women is that you ought to be able to have good sex with nothing but your own natural female body. But that's really as oppressive as straight couples thinking that it's wrong to do it in anything but the missionary position."

SOME LESBIAN FEMINISTS would argue that the truly threatening, scare-the-horses sex in this culture is precisely the kind that women can have without anything resembling a penis--or whips or garter belts or the rest of the porno staples. In fact, what seems rebellious in a feminist context often plays into the most reactionary stereotypes. If straight males extrapolate from lesbian porn that lesbians really want be be tied up, or penetrated by a penis, or treated like jiggle-objects, it's only a hop, skip and a jump to harassment, gay bashing and rape. But if lesbians don't want to monitor desire for other people's sensibilities, what's the solution?

Nowhere is this delicate tightrope walked with more awareness than among lesbians of color. "It's extremely complicated," says Alycee Lane, 28, a UCLA graduate student in English literature. Lane, who also writes for BLK, the black gay and lesbian news magazine, is editor of Black Lace, a magazine of African-American lesbian erotica. "I won't tell you Black Lace isn't pornography--it is," Lane says. "And the question is, how does one put out an erotic magazine and deal with the stereotypes of black women as insatiable sex objects?"

"We live in strange times," Lane says. "On the one hand, there's the fact that I can write a dissertation on homosexuality in the black community and get support from faculty members--that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Then again, this is happening at a time that's very repressive. I have to wonder, what does it all mean?"

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