Lesbian Rights – 1971

WHEREAS the first wave of feminist anger in this Country recognized the fundamental issue of women’s liberation as “the most sacred right of all-a woman’s right to her own person.” This is the right that NOW reaffirmed a century later when it took up the banner and dedicated itself to changing those conditions in society, the laws, the practices, the attitudes – that prevented women from realizing their full human potential. Recognizing that a woman cannot reach this potential if she is denied the basic right to control her own body, NOW has demanded the dissemination of birth control information and contraceptives and the repeal of all laws against abortion. It has stopped short, however, of clarifying its position on every woman’s right to define-and express -her own sexuality, to choose her own lifestyle. Specifically, NOW has been silent on the issue of lesbianism. Yet no other woman suffers more abuse and discrimination for the right to be her own person than does the lesbian, and

WHEREAS, the lesbian is doubly oppressed, both as a woman and as a homosexual, she must face the injustices and degradation common to all women, plus endure additional social, economic, legal, and psychological abuse as well. In education and employment, the lesbian confronts more than discrimination or tokenism. She can be arbitrarily rejected or dismissed from many professions, even those-such as teaching-traditionally relegated to women. Married women are denied equality under laws that decree men as head of the household, but a wife is nonetheless allowed some legal protection. A lesbian, however, who shares her home with another woman-regardless of her income or responsibilities-forgoes all the economic and legal compensations granted to the married woman, including the tax deductions, insurance benefits, inheritance rights, etc., and

WHEREAS, this prejudice against the lesbian is manifested in the courts as well, and

WHEREAS, most divorced women are conceded the right to their children, a lesbian is automatically presumed unfit for motherhood, and can have her children taken from her, and

WHEREAS, these are but a few of the laws and practices in our society that reflect irrational assumptions about lesbians. Just as the false and demeaning image of all women provides the rationale to keep them subjugated, so does the distorted stereotype of the lesbian sanction her persecution. Not only is she assumed to be unstable or sick or immoral; but because she defines herself independently of men, the lesbian is considered unnatural, incomplete, not quite a woman-as though the essence of womanhood were to be identified with men. Obviously, this Playboy image of the lesbian reduces her to an abject sexual object, deprived of the most basic civil and human rights due every person, and

WHEREAS, because she is so oppressed and so exploited, the lesbian has been referred to as “the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” This rage found a natural outlet in the women’s liberation movement that seemed to view women in a new way and promised a new pride and sisterhood for every woman in search of equality and independence. Lesbians became active in NOW and in other groups, fighting for all the feminist goals, including child care centers and abortion repeal. As a result of their activism in the movement, lesbians -as did all feminists-reached a new consciousness, a new sense of their worth and dignity as women and human beings. They began to rebel against the intolerance of a society that condemned their lifestyle, but instead of finding support from their sisters, lesbians discovered that NOW and other liberation groups reflected some of the same prejudices and policies of the sexist society they were striving to change, and

WHEREAS, lesbians were never excluded from NOW, but we have been evasive or apologetic about their presence within the organization. Afraid of alienating public support, we have often treated lesbians as the step-sisters of the movement, allowed to work with us, but then expected to hide in the upstairs closet when company comes. Lesbians are now telling us that this attitude is no longer acceptable. Asking women to disguise their identities so they will not “embarrass” the group is an intolerable form of oppression, like asking black women to join us in white face. Furthermore, this discrimination is inconsistent with NOW’s stated goal to “recognize our sisterhood” and to help women “overcome self-degradation.” If this pledge is to be anything more than idle rhetoric, NOW must reassess the priorities that sacrifice principle to “image,” and

WHEREAS, some members of NOW object that the lesbian question is too controversial to confront right now, that we will weaken the movement by alienating potential and current members who are comfortable with NOW’s “respectable” image. The same argument, that women would be frightened away, was raised a few years ago when NOW took a bold stand on the controversial abortion issue. The argument did not prove prophetic then, and we do not believe it is valid now. We are, after all, a reform movement, with revolutionary goals. The D.A.R. can be “respectable,” but as Susan B. Anthony pointed out:

“Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards, can never bring about a reform. . .”

WHEREAS, it is encouraging to note that feminists are not so easily frightened. Since the resolution supporting lesbians was passed in Los Angeles NOW two months ago, the chapter has increased, not decreased, in membership. If a few cautious, careful people scurried away, the loss was imperceptible. And we are stronger now because many women feel more relaxed and are freer to work with us towards NOW goals, and

WHEREAS, another objection to the resolution contends that lesbian oppression is simply not “relevant” to the concerns of NOW; “the movement will be weakened or even destroyed” if we diffuse our energies on non-feminist issues. This is a curious argument, since all one has to do is read the NOW Bill of Rights to find that we have pledged support to the cause of “equal rights for all those who suffer discrimination and deprivation;” further, we have recognized a “common oppression that affects all women.” If lesbians are women, and if lesbians suffer discrimination and deprivation, then the conclusion is inescapable: their oppression is not only relevant, but an integral part of the women’s liberation movement, and

WHEREAS, we are affected by society’s prejudices against the lesbian, whether we acknowledge it or not; as feminists we are all subject to lesbian-baiting by opponents who use the tactic of labeling us the worst thing they can think of, “lesbians,” in order to divide and discredit the movement and bring women to heel. Even within NOW, regrettably, this tactic is employed by some members who conjure up the sexist-image of lesbians and shout “lavender menace” at anyone who opposes their views. NOW is inevitably weakened by these attempts to undermine the spirit and efforts of its members; we can no longer afford to ignore the problem; and

WHEREAS, the resolution does not mean that we are changing our emphasis and concentrating on specific lesbian issues, however. We have not been asked, nor do we intend, to diffuse our energies in any way. The resolution, in itself, is an action-the first step towards breaking down the barriers between women that have kept them weak and suppressed. We are giving notice that we recognize our sisterhood with all women and that we are fighting for every woman’s “sacred right to her own person.” As feminists, we can do no less;

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That NOW recognizes the double oppression of women who are lesbians, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That a woman’s right to her own person includes the right to define and express her own sexuality and to choose her own lifestyle, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That NOW acknowledge the oppression of lesbians as a legitimate concern of feminism.

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