The unbearable lightness of lesbian (in)visibility

  • April 25th, 2020
  • Blog

Against the backdrop of this weird April, where we are all trying to live with the difficulties of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, my partner received a letter from the health insurance company. It was a kind and completely normal administrative letter, dealing with the complexity of the Belgian public healthcare system. In that letter, I was identified as her daughter. We are a lesbian couple, and my partner is older than me. The health insurance company has all our personal data, they know, of course, our gender and age difference and they know for how long we have been living together. The only thing they did not know is the kind of relationship that unites us. They saw a stable household of two women living together with a relatively small (but still substantial) age difference and decided that the safest assumption was that we were mother and daughter.

As first, I was very amused. It is a quite common experience for lesbians, so common actually that in Brussels there is a lesbian bar called “Mothers&Daugthers”. I am also a lesbian activist and board member of EL*C, a lesbian European network group, working on recognition and visibility of lesbians among other things. Of course, this happened to me while, as part of EL*C Team, I was busy organising events and campaigns to mark International Lesbian Visibility Day. The irony of having to spend 45 minutes on the phone trying to offset the invisibility of my own relationship didn’t escape me. Being a lesbian feminist, starting my reflection and activism from my own experience of oppression, means that sometimes the world sends me a small, personal reminder on why I need to put my energy and time into the cause. It is an immense motivator and, sometimes, the source of great tiredness.

So, after the amusement, my activist instincts kicked in. I started reflecting on this small insignificant episode. I am well aware that the fact that I only had to call them and ask to rectify their mistake is really a minimal problem in this moment, given the unprecedented crisis we are facing. Even the fact that I have the time, space, and possibility to reflect on this issue and write this article is a huge privilege. However, this small insignificant problem is also an example of the fact that love and relationships between women are still unthinkable. Somehow, to the person writing that letter, it seemed more reasonable to assume that my partner gave birth to a child when she was 9 years old than to dare imagine a loving relationship between us.

Lesbian invisibility, however, it is not just a matter of administrative errors and funny calls with a very confused health insurance employee. The real, dramatic consequence of invisibility is a broad misconception and misunderstanding of lesbophobic violence, harassment, and discrimination. For example, lesbophobic violence is a phenomenon that needs to be understood in the complex interrelationships between misogyny and heteronormativity. When considering, these cases, if we frame the sexual orientation of the victims as “a matter of private life” we fail to see and, therefore, understand that the deep root of this violence does not lie only in the gender or only in the sexual orientation of the victim but in their complex entanglement. Invisibility does not protect lesbians, it erases our stories, it reinforces our oppression and the oppression of all women and LGBTI people.

When thinking more deeply, I began to question my initial amusement. LGBTQI+ people learn how to collectively construct their own defenses. One of the things that I learned in my years of activism is that building resilience as a community requires a sense of humor and that laughing in the face of our oppression is a powerful and effective way to de-potentiate its weapons. Yet, while this amusement is absolutely needed and a great tool, it should not overshadow the price of invisibility that we pay on a daily basis and the consequences of it, in terms of mental health and wellbeing. There is a clear need, when dealing with gender-based violence, harassment, and discrimination, to consider the experience of lesbians as valid in their specificity and to start focusing on it and studying it appropriately (it is often not the case).

More broadly, there is a necessity to realise that a one-size-fits-all approach on LGBTI issues or women rights might appear neutral but it can easily cause a further erasure of lesbian lives and silence our voices. This is what brings me back to the need for Lesbian Visibility Day, even in time of this unprecedented global pandemic. Lesbian Visibility Day is a way to unite our community and celebrate ourselves. But it is also a way to start a common and broader reflection on what does it means to be a group at the margin, and at the same time, at the intersection of LGBTI and women movements.

Ilaria Todde

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