I read with great interest the De-dking gay spaces article in Sexualities. The most interesting aspect for me is the inherent internalised sexism in lesbian feelings toward hetero women in "gay spaces." This is rarely if ever explicitly verbalised, but remains as a deep and largely unspoken hostility in some swathes of the womens community.
Interestingly, I participated in an online debate on the potential penetration by gay men into even a small part of a highly-guarded "womens space" that in reality is a "lesbian women's space" in the city where I live. The massive silence coming from women questioned whether the deep anger sensed at the "threat" to this space was actually not there, and there was explicit suggestion of fear of repercussions at potential reaction of a lesbian ascendancy maintaining this "space" as a threatened and angry group. Some even insinuated violence against some of those participating in the debate, though I have to say so far I have (hopefully correctly) dismissed such threats as overreaction.
The question remains however on why there was such a fear of challenging the local tradition of maintaining a deep social split between lesbians and other stakeholders in the gay community. As it happened, I'd brought a post-op M2F transwoman to a previous event, without any reaction. I was deeply shocked when what I read as a deeply critical and bigoted reaction to what appears to have been this occasion was voiced at a community meeting - more than 2 years later!
Again the question raises itself - while the huge area of silence in discussing the issue? It appears that there was as much of a fear of objecting to my friends presence as there was to ending the blanket man-ban. Was there a sense that somehow this was improper? Or more correctly, perhaps, an awareness of the deep outrage such behaviour would have caused? My friend is a powerful community activist and has already acted against other organisations she perceived as being in some way discriminatory, she would have led a very hard campaign against this group. Perhaps tacit awareness of this is what prevented the "true feelings" from being expressed for over 2 years?
Any discussion of lesbian spaces cannot really be discussed without considering what are perceived to be "gay (non gender specific) spaces." These are actually problematic in Cork, as in reality, while so-called "gay bars" and "gay clubs" advertise widely within the gay community they do not see themselves as exclusively "queer only" spaces but increasingly as "lifestyle bars" open to anybody. In a sense it is nice that they do return the years of discrimination against us in mainstream bars with counter-discrimination. As a result, it has brought a large contingent of hetero women into these bars. And in one case, it appears that a contingent of hetero men followed them, at least temporarily.
Another question regarding this is how quickly visually feminine women are ASSUMED to be heterosexual. While this is partly a consequence of large scale fag-hag invasion, its also the consequence of internalised sexism from both the womens community and the gatekeepers of the scene - bouncers, bar-owners, of both genders and varied sexualities. The stereotype of the lipstick lesbian is still often perceived to be a myth, despite the heavy marketing of femmetastic films, tv programmes such as the L-Word and increasingly visible celebrity lesbians - celesbians!!
A further question is - are these fag hags genuinely straight? Or is being a fag hag a possible step on the way to a bisexual or lesbian identity? I think its frequently dismissed as a potential explanation.
Another issue that is often treated dismissively is the trigger of frequent sexual harassment of hetero women (if not women in general) in non gay spaces. This is actually a serious issue which does not need the gay and particularly not the lesbian community to trivialise. From my own personal experience, it is one of the most common reasons for a straight woman spending a lot of time in gay clubs.
However when we change the language of spatial awareness to territorial claims it perhaps raises another issue - that of the issue of power within the gay community and internally within the womens community. Is there in fact a desire to police the boundaries of lesbian territories with a view to excluding those who are less than welcome - and this potentially can mean potentially, some gay women? Here is a critical question.
Comfort and safety are words frequently used in the discussions I have had, but they tend to be used without really considering their meanings. Gendered claims to space are heavily couched in terms regarding the perceived needs of some women. This tends to be not so much based on feminist ideology but on the preferences of women using the territories in question. However it has become quite divisive in terms of a much younger lesbian generation who are far more numerous, infinitely tougher and far less in need of such exclusive spaces.
The big issue I see is the perception that suggests that maintaining a territory as "women-only" increases the chances of women entering to meet other women and thus meet a potential partner. I think this is rapidly being challenged by the massive growth of men-as-guests club nights which have grown to be very large indeed, and have massively diversified the bi/gay female community. I suspect that the fight for territorial rights is in fact a desire to retain the "old order" of the lesbian community - older, protected, parent oriented, more closely-knit and most particularly closeted communities, with an inherent fear of the more "dangerous" open and brash developments of the younger community.
One thing I've also noticed in the same demographic that is demanding territorial exclusiveness is their use of the language of 1970s feminism (not that there is anything wrong with it, its a rich and often useful field, but needs critical reflection) and a particular fear at the sexualization of lesbian spaces. Some are horrified at the idea of strippers, cage dancers, Go-Go dancers etc. Yet these are already the norm in many large UK, Australian and US empires.
So I think the debate needs to get away from ideology and into the real inveestigation of needs, boundaries and realistic and fair limits to spaces. I think in particular men-as-guests and limited male access to events where there isn't really a good reason for exluding them is useful and builds bridges. In particular what must stop is the fear-mongering and insinuated victimization of lesbians advocating change within the womens community. If we cannot tolerate internal debate and criticism, then there is no real argument to defend this as anything other than tribalism and bigotry.