PATRIARCHY IS ONE BIG UNHAPPY FAMILY
(I have updated this chapter, first published in our book, Dykes-Loving-Dykes, in 1990. The statistics are from before that time, but the content is as relevant as ever. Because our book was originally for Lesbians only, the focus is on Lesbians, but family is destructive to all females).
Love and loyalty given to family is misplaced, and it weakens our bonds with each other. If our family has been abusive to us and we are still accepting that abuse as the price for contact, inevitably that hurt will be transferred to those we love. Some Lesbians will take out their pain on those Lesbians who are committed to loving them, while others end up damaged and with less love to share.
Family is the basis of patriarchy, where we are taught our first lessons in male domination over females.
Many Radical Lesbian Feminists who otherwise have very clear boundaries around people who hate and oppress us, seem to lose their perspective and politics when it comes to their abusive families. Instead, they allow people who would never otherwise choose to have in their lives or be friends with to have intimate access to themselves and often to their lovers. Even when male family has sexually harassed and assaulted them or female family who they love, too often feminists maintain contact, and sometimes give more commitment than they have even to their most trusted friends. Why?
There are many reasons that women betray themselves by loyalty to abusive family members (besides money and status for the most privileged.) There is the myth of family being more important than anyone else, in spite of the many and perhaps majority of males in families sexually assaulting female family (and all females who have families have been sexually harassed by male family.) There is the intensely propagandized idea of blood being thicker than water, and that only family really loves and cares for you, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Females are taught to betray themselves and all others on behalf of family, no matter how much they have been abused by them. Even when immediate family is not as abusive, the structure itself is, and is the basis of patriarchy. Many Lesbians who have never felt truly loved by their families, are longing and hoping for their families to finally love and accept them.
This is a damaging trap. The myth of family is harmful and even lethal for females. Even loving female family can mean being locked into relationships with abusive male family. Yet so few women knowing this will say no to family.
Even Dyke Separatists can share one link with male cultures all over the world by being friendly with male and het relatives, and many Separatists do so. Every nation, culture, political ideology, and people we know of in the world reveres the Family. It’s the tie that binds all mankind together. Those who reject Family are outcasts everywhere. The fact that it’s considered sacrilegious in patriarchal cultures to even consider criticizing Family tells us that it’s revolutionary to do so. Only institutions that are vital to patriarchy are protected by such strong sanctions.
Families Are the Cornerstone of Patriarchy
How can we trust, be close with, or even want to be around someone who wishes the death of who we are and would make us het if they had that power? If their acceptance of us consists of saying, “We love you no matter who you are or what you do, whether you’re a Lesbian or a murderer,” then that’s not acceptance. Do they still question “what caused you to be ‘that way'”? Do they still wonder if it was their “fault” — asking were they “too close” with us or “too distant,” “too lenient” or “too strict” with our not wanting to be feminine, did they “push us towards boys too much” or “not enough”? These Lesbian-hating attitudes aren’t good for us. And what do they feel about males they love who are attackers and rapists — did they care for and protect them? Do they still, as families most often do?
In most cultures, the father and mother legally own their children. The father and other male relatives often terrorize, beat, and rape the little girls in the family. Those who don’t physically assault “their” girls still abuse them emotionally and psychically, and profit from those males who do rape. Mothers and other female relatives too often contribute to this by choosing to not notice if their daughters and other little girls are assaulted and raped by male relatives. Many refuse to believe their daughters when they tell them. Many don’t want to know, even when the girl suddenly shows clear signs of being extremely upset, terrified, and injured. And many still don’t want to know after their daughters are grown. In every case we know of where an adult Lesbian has told her mother what her father and/or brother did to her, the mother defended her husband and/or son and was verbally abusive to her daughter.
There are mothers who do care and try to protect their daughters, but they are exceptionally rare. In the U.S., women who send daughters who’ve been raped underground to the safe shelter movement are treated as criminals and often imprisoned by the male court system. A woman who spent seven months in prison for hiding her daughter from her ex-husband said that women who do this spend more time in prison than men who have raped children.1 There’s a growing network of females who support these women and their daughters. But the vast majority of women who courageously protect their daughters were already divorced when they discovered that their daughters were being attacked by their fathers. We’ve never heard of a single case where a mother acted to protect her daughter when the attacker was her own son. Women divorce husbands, but rarely choose to separate from sons.
We Are Told the Lie of Family Love, But Most of Us Have Lived the Reality of Family Rape
We’re constantly bombarded with images of happy families in magazines, books, films, plays, etc. We’re told our lives are pathetically meaningless if we’re not part of a family. But families exist in order for males to be served domestically, emotionally, and sexually, and to enforce heterosexuality. Many of the Lesbians who return to men seem to be hoping that finally their hateful families will love and accept them.
Family is a small replica of patriarchy. It’s the basic unit — the single brick that makes up the patriarchal building. Family is based on hierarchy and inequality. The word itself comes from the Latin “famulus,” meaning “servant.”2 Family demands obedience and loyalty to those at the top of the hierarchy first. A typical nuclear family consists of the Patriarch, second-in-command Mother, and the sub-hierarchy of the children, with sons given more power than daughters. The oldest children are delegated power to boss and bully the younger ones. There is often an extended family with extended hierarchies. Every family has the “good” person and “bad” person, the in-group and out-group, the favorite and the scapegoat. Those accepted as “good” family members feel superior to the family outcasts and rejects. We get much of our sense of regard or disregard for ourselves and others through our family positions.
Those who don’t grow up in families are made to feel that they don’t really belong in the world. The lie of the “happy family” is particularly cruel to Dykes who grew up in foster homes or institutions. They’re told they’re less “normal” because they’ll “never know what wonderful experiences they’ve missed.” Sometimes even Lesbians spread these lies because they themselves believe them. Not growing up in a nuclear family doesn’t mean escaping the horror that’s common in families, either. It usually means getting all the abuse with none of the social privilege. It also means being abused by a greater number of adults because you aren’t the legal possession of one or two. Those who were adopted, or are from “non-traditional” families having only one parent, unmarried parents, or an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent, are also made to feel inferior.
If we’re “maladjusted” by the standards of the dominant society we live in (all Lesbians and Gay men are considered maladjusted, for instance), then that’s blamed on our family. The big lie is that everyone comes from a happy, wholesome family -- except for us. The truth is that there are no happy families. Emotional and physical abuse and rape are a normal, commonplace part of family life. Who could expect anything different from living with males? And how can being forced to live intimately with het couples –our parents — for years, make us happy or teach us who we are as females and as Dykes? Even having only female family, if they’re het, means growing up with emotional and sometimes physical abuse.
Individuals and groups who don’t live as part of families are treated by most patriarchal societies as having far less value than family members. Very often, people who speak out against the increase of poverty in the U.S. say how especially terrible it is that families don’t have homes or enough food, implying that single people or groups of friends aren’t worth caring about. Meanwhile, for those who actively reject their family, abject poverty is portrayed in books and films as a rightful punishment.
From “Family-Size,” “Family Rate,” and “Family-Style,” to insurance benefits, legal rights and neighborhood socializing, family members are told all the time, everywhere, that they belong, while we’re told we don’t. Try counting all the times family is mentioned as propaganda in the media. Even a television show about a disaster has the authorities telling people, “Go home to your families!” Of course that is geared to make those without families feel inadequate and worthless. Lesbians are treated as outsiders when we have jobs with hets, because we don’t talk about husbands or boyfriends — but if we talk about our relatives, we’re suddenly treated with more warmth and acceptance. It makes us seem less alien and more “human.” (This has changed since some Lesbian couples have gotten married and so can refer to their “wives,” which is part of the attraction of marriage, besides the many civil rights not otherwise possible to obtain, such as for immigration.)
Famous Lesbians who come out are bombarded with questions about whether they will reproduce, ignoring that over-population is destroying the earth. (“Zero Population Growth” as an idea and politics has been censored from the US media.) Having children makes otherwise despised Lesbians appear more “normal,” which is why so many who were closeted have reproduced. Meanwhile, the Lesbians who are choosing to reproduce with “artificial insemination” are making 85% males, a patriarchal dream come true and a nightmare for the 15% girls forced to be around them in shared daycare, etc.
Both the right wing and left wing revere family as the center of their political ideologies. Right wing fascists, euphemistically called “conservatives,” preach for a return to “family values,” while leftists demand that women make babies for the revolution and be part of the larger family of their society. Both oppress Dykes. (Socialism is more economically fair than capitalism, but it’s still patriarchal politics. Radical Feminism encompasses the best parts of socialism.) Family is essential for patriarchal cultures to exist. Dykes are a threat to family because we’re a threat to male rule.
Family Is Dangerous
Family is deadly. Over half the females killed in California in 1987 were killed by a male in their family, and the typical U.S. mass murderer is a man killing his entire family.3 As we’ve said before, the vast majority of physical and sexual attacks in families are by males, particularly adults, against females of all ages. However, physical abuse of children, especially of girls, by their mothers and other older females, is common, and most mothers tolerate and even encourage physical abuse (“punishment”) of their children by their husbands. (We define physical punishment of girls as abuse, from slapping and spanking to the most severe neglect, beatings, and murder.) A very small number of heterosexual mothers sexually assault their daughters. Of course, this rare situation is unfairly focused on by the male media, obscuring fathers’ massive sexual crime rate. Now, adding to the abusive mix, are an increasing number of fathers who are later in life insisting they are women and even Lesbians. This female-hating mind-fuck increases the suffering of girls and women in families.
Teenage runaways are less likely to be abused by strangers on the streets than by their families at home.4 Five children are killed in the U.S. each day by their parents.5 These are just the known, proven cases. Many more children go missing and are never found — occasionally it’s discovered that their parents beat them to death and then reported them missing. “Over 80% of the violence in our society [Aotearoa] is committed within the family.”6 “The family is the most dangerous place in the U.S. The most likely place to be murdered is in the family home.”7 Victims are usually the most vulnerable — babies and little girls who can’t escape, and old, ill women. It’s very probable that many old women who die while living with their families have been quietly killed to get rid of them, with the death attributed to natural causes. Even when there aren’t murders, torture, rape, and other abuse are commonplace in families. It’s chilling to think about what goes on day and night right next door in our own neighborhoods.
We’re not just talking about “exceptionally cruel and violent” families. We’re talking about all families as an institution. Family structure and function are intrinsically rotten. Sometimes privileged Lesbians use racism and classism against less privileged Dykes who talk about being raped and/or beaten by their families — implying that more oppressed families are “especially terrible,” in order to protect their own illusions. But violence and rape occur in families of all backgrounds.
God Is the Biggest Daddy of All
Many Lesbians who usually feel quite sane suddenly feel crazy around their families. That’s because families are enough to drive you insane. Brainwashing and cult mind control techniques sound familially familiar:
1) Those in authority control your environment;
2) they manipulate your environment;
3) you’re pressured to feel guilty if you don’t adhere to the values of those in power;
4) your reality is denied if it’s in conflict with the dominant ideology;
5) what you observe greatly contradicts the “truths” you’re told;
6) the explainers of reality constantly contradict themselves;
7) that contradiction is declared to never happen;
8) questioning is silenced by meaningless contradictory platitudes and clichés;
9) obedience is required of all members or else emotional and physical punishment is given.
If these techniques sound similar to male religion, it’s no coincidence. Family is treated as a religion, and belonging to a religion means belonging to a very large family. Family and religion are intertwined as a cornerstone of patriarchy. When someone claims “God made families,” families become even more inevitable and beyond question.
Families are intensive training grounds in accepting injustice and abusive relationships as the norm. Schools do this too, but for less time and in less personal and intense ways. Family life is usually our first experience in humiliation, oppression, rape, pain, and violence. That intimate betrayal from our “loved ones” teaches us self-hatred. “If the very ones who say they love me treat me in these cruel ways, then I must deserve it.” A little girl usually has no one to explain the truth and help her protect herself.
Our ability to know what’s good for us is diminished by these girlhood experiences. Family accustoms us to a sado-masochistic type of inequality in intimate relationships because our first experiences of physical closeness and affection are bonded with humiliation and pain. We often share connections and nostalgia with family members based on shared pain, witnessed pain, and inflicted and received pain mixed with pleasure and “love.” It would be easier in some ways if the people who brutalize you would be consistent. It’s heart-wrenching and confusing when the hands that feed and wash you and sometimes caress you lovingly are the same hands that hit and sexually assault you. There’s comfort with familiarity and then there’s the horror of the familiarity that’s forced on you against your will.
As a girl, you learn to expect inconsistency — kindness/cruelty, love/hate, pleasure/pain, and become addicted to the cycle. You end up believing that you can have love and warmth only if you pay with pain and humiliation. You’re trained to confuse your family with your very self. “We’re in this together.” “I am them, they are me.” How do you escape them when you can’t escape from yourself? How dare you think otherwise? Your survival depends on them. And if you share particular experiences and oppressions with your family that others don’t share with you, then it’s even more difficult and painful to separate and protect yourself. You feel guilt about your parents’ hard lives, but they usually do not want to know how they make your Iife hard.
Ownership Is Not Love
Children are parents’ proof of normality. Parents are often smug about their reproductive ability and bask in the inflated importance of carrying on the human race and the family name, as if reproduction were some rare talent rather than a physiological function. Inevitably, if you write that patriarchy could end soon, and the earth and countless species would be saved if women just stopped reproducing, the response is usually a horrified “But the human race will die out!” – which is not likely at 8 billion and growing. Humans will die out if they don’t stop reproducing. The illogical terror that some women might actually say no is revealing.
Family is each man’s extension of himself and his marking of territory. Ever notice how much space (and noise is part of space) families take up in neighborhoods compared to households without children? Parents love to advertise that they’re parents.
Parents try to use their children to do what they themselves couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Then parents make their children feel guilty for “having done so much for them.” It’s not the child as an individual person who matters, because the child is treated as a thing, a possession. If you get out of line by trying to be your own person, parents remind you that they created you from their bodies. “You’d better be good and obey your parents.” they tell you, just as many say, “You should obey god because he made you.” Parents saying they “sacrificed themselves” and “worked their fingers to the bone” for their children is outrageous. It’s a major source of Lesbian guilt towards parents, particularly our mothers. People know that if they choose to fuck, they might reproduce and if they do, then the children need to be looked after and provided for. Parents have children for their own benefit, not for the children’s. A little girl shouldn’t be blamed for needing food, clothes, shelter, and schooling. Parents too often emotionally leech off their daughters, using girls’ energy and vitality at the same time as they’re crushing it.
Belonging to family gives the illusion of belonging with them, a very hard feeling for Dykes to let go of, because we don’t belong anywhere in patriarchy. Many Lesbians believe that belonging to family is actually a “real, deep connection” with their family instead of just being a possession. But all feelings that come out of such a forced relationship are unavoidably distorted and deceptive.
Many Lesbians who don’t usually voluntarily relate to men make exceptions for male family members. Dykes who would otherwise never dream of welcoming men or boys into their homes to visit or stay overnight will welcome men from their families or their lovers’ families. Separatists who refuse to relate personally to males or even to het women often make exceptions for their female family members. A courageous few choose to not relate to any males or het women.
Some Dykes keep limited contact with male relatives in order to have access to money and other privileges to share with our communities. As long as these Dykes are able to limit and control the contact, the relationships are more like those they have with male bosses and co-workers. They’re from necessity, and carry no illusions of love or friendship. We support Dykes to not relate to any males when they have the choice, except for those kinds of situations. We also support Dykes who’ve broken off contact with abusive het female family as well, and we encourage all Dykes to limit their contact with het female family and to keep asking themselves if they truly are happy with the amount and kind of contact they do have, and how much is based on guilt or fear. If that sounds extreme, it’s because we’re upset at the damage that family, including female family, has done and is still doing to Dykes we love.
When Lesbians try to reclaim any of the terms relating to family, we’re accepting connections that are based on dominance and submission, where we have power only at another’s expense. Family is always destructive to us because it’s based on objectification, hierarchy, and violence. Apart from anything else, any heterosexual environment is a bad place for Lesbians to be. We’re expected to love our families, not because of who they are, but what they are. It’s not supposed to matter when family members hate us, have been abusive to us, and, in the case of the males, raped us — we must love them because they’re family. Family is the first lesson we learn in how to treat each other as things rather than as individuals we personally care about. Family dynamics train us to want to possess each other as objects because family is based on ownership.
How many Lesbians are still being emotionally or even sexually harassed by the same men who physically and emotionally abused them when they were little girls? (Sexual “jokes” and comments that many fathers and other male relatives make to us as adults is sexual harassment.) How many Lesbians are being emotionally abused by their mothers and sisters because they refuse to relate to rapist male relatives their female relatives still love and protect? If anyone else urged you to visit and talk or write to someone who had raped and/or beaten you, would you even consider it? You certainly wouldn’t call that kind of pressure “love.” Yet your mother or sisters may insist they “love” you even while they are disregarding your feelings and the harm that’s been done to you. It’s extremely damaging for a victim of rape or any assault to be pressured to be around her attackers, to be told by female family, “He’s your father!” (or brother, uncle, grandfather, cousin, etc.) –“he loves you,” ”why won’t you kiss him?” “why aren’t you being friendlier to him?” For a little girl, her family is often her entire world, the only people she knows, who she should be able to trust and who should love and protect her. It’s an extension of the rape when they betray her. If the courts insisted that rape victims be forced to relate to their non-relative convicted rapists, that would be a recognizable outrage, yet this insidious family pressure is too often accepted. Having different expectations of victims of rape by male family compared to other rape victims implies family rape is less important, less criminal — when in fact it’s a far worse crime because of the vulnerability of the victim and level of betrayal.
The last thing a victim of sexual assault needs when she’s trying to recover is to be told “he didn’t really mean to hurt her/didn’t know what he was doing/did it only because he had a hard life or was very upset at the time or was only a boy/is a sick old man now,” or that she’s being “hurtful” and “selfish” when she refuses to ever see the rapist again. Even when you’re clear about saying no to forced intimacy with these men, it’s much harder to say no to the women in your family who you still love and who you desperately want to believe love you too. They may even love you in the shallow way that many het women allow themselves to love other women, but it is cruel and selfish to pressure you to relate to anyone you don’t want to relate to. We need to be allowed to say no at last. (Many women have not told family members that they were assaulted by a male relative because they know they will be disbelieved and reviled.)
Families Hate Lesbians
These are just a few experiences of Dykes we’ve personally known in Aotearoa, the U.S., and other countries: After decades of being a Lesbian, a Dyke says her mother is “very supportive,” yet she’s afraid to come out to her. Another Lesbian’s mother ridiculed her because she’s never been heterosexual, and asked, “Don’t people laugh at you?” Another Lesbian’s family had her incarcerated in a mental hospital at age 19, where she was subjected to electroshock “therapy” and has lost part of her memory — yet she still takes care of the mother who did this to her. Another Dyke was disowned by her family at fifteen when they found out she was a Lesbian, yet she is now expected to take care of her aging parents. Another Lesbian’s father slammed her head into a wall when she got a lover, almost killing her. Another Dyke came out when she was seventeen and her parents called the police, forcing her to leave town with no money and nowhere to live. We know many Lesbians who came out in high school who were sent to psychiatrists and forbidden by their parents from ever seeing their lovers again.
We know of a Dyke who was killed in a car accident, whose body was taken far away by her family, and her lover was prevented from ever seeing her again. No respect was shown for their relationship and the family buried her in a christian ceremony against her known wishes. “Loving Daughter” and her name are the only words on the tombstone, even though she had believed her family truly supported their relationship.
A friend of a Dyke we know was murdered by being shot. The official verdict was suicide, although there’s reason to suspect a male acquaintance murdered her. When her lover removed her own possessions from their home, the dead Lesbian’s het sister called the police to charge her with theft and denied her further access to their home.
Typical comments from Lesbian-hating family are: “I accept you, but please don’t tell your mother/father/grandparents/aunt/uncle, etc. because it would kill her/him.”….”What did we do wrong?” ….”You didn’t try hard enough with men.”…. “You’ll die alone and unhappy.”…. “You’re cutting off half the world.”…. “This is against nature and god’s law.” One of the most selfish was “Can’t you at least go and have a one night stand to give me a grandchild?” (meaning, “Can’t you find a strange man and get raped and perhaps STDs, including AIDS, because I’m so selfish?”) Too often, Lesbians are just grateful that the response isn’t worse, no matter how bad it is.
Making excuses like, “How could they know better?” or “They’re just scared,” hurts Lesbians. That’s the kind of excuse that used to be made for European-descent families’ racism. There is even less excuse now, decades after we wrote our book, when beloved Lesbians are daily seen in the media. Some Lesbians say family members are “too old to change,” which is ageist and ridiculous when the Lesbians saying this have mothers way younger than we are. Nor is their health “too fragile to take it” since the truth doesn’t kill, lies do. (It’s interesting that for Meg Christian’s first album — one of the first out Lesbian Feminist singers — she wrote “Song to My Mama,” where she sings how her mother must know that she’s a Lesbian, but “it would kill her if I told her so.” No woman sings that her mother would drop dead if she finds out her daughter is getting fucked by a man, but somehow love between two Lesbians is horrifyingly lethal.)
In our experience, exceptionally “liberal” parents remain obsessed with people’s reactions to their daughters’ Lesbianism. A group in the U.S. called “Parents of Gays” complained on television about the stigma of having a Lesbian or Gay child. Their support was for each other, not their children.
Families’ social function as a patriarchal institution is to enforce heterosexuality and maintain heterosexual supremacy. They’re better suited to do this than other institutions because they raise us. They teach us heterosexuality just as they teach us to talk, walk, and dress. Later, when we come out, families are societies’ first line of defense against Lesbians and Gay men and they’re in a unique position to punish us. It’s been estimated that a third of teenage suicides in the U.S. are because of being oppressed as Lesbian or Gay. In a study of 6,500 teenage suicides in the U.S. approximately 30% were found to possibly be Lesbian or Gay. About 2,000 Lesbian/Gay teenagers kill themselves each year in the U.S.8
Het women’s alliance and loyalty is usually to males first. The Family and patriarchy itself couldn’t exist if women didn’t act as paid agents in policing other females and spreading males’ lies and misogyny.
Our female relatives can choose to change, but there’s no way we can make them choose females over males. What IS in our power though, is to protect ourselves and each other. It’s especially hard to defy our mothers because it’s not just patriarchy that teaches us to revere and obey them – liberal/right wing feminist politics tell us how hard our mothers’ lives are, saying that we as Lesbians are in a privileged position in relation to them. In spite of the truth being the opposite, most Lesbians respect and value mothers far more than they do non-mothers. This is destructive family roles and makes it very hard to deal with betrayal by our mothers. It helps to remember that when we relate to our families in ways that hurt us, the harm will travel through us to our friends and lovers.
Love and loyalty given to family is misplaced, and it weakens our bonds with each other. Most families can never truly accept a Lesbian daughter, because that would challenge all the lies and illusions their lives are based on. It hurts us to love someone who doesn’t even respect us enough to listen to us and who undermines the positive choices we’ve made in our lives. If they say they love us but hate who we are as Lesbians, then they don’t really love us. Most het women don’t really know what love is. They have that mind/body/spirit disconnect that they learned from men. Usually, they explain that they were “born het” or choose to be because they are just not “sexually attracted” to women. Considering how grotesque and pornified “sexual attraction” is throughout patriarchy and especially in the modern media, who but males would feel it? Being a Lesbian is a decision to be open to loving other women, which naturally leads to passion. But for het women so disconnected even from themselves, too often “love” ends up being a word to use, to justify demands, to manipulate and to explain commitments which don’t make sense.
The myth of “unconditional love” is very seductive, considering how lonely most females are in patriarchy. It’s hard not to lie to ourselves if we desperately want to believe that our families do love us. They insist they understand us better than anyone else, even though they obviously don’t know us at all. It can be easy to build up their few kindnesses in our minds while overlooking the many times they make it clear they hate Lesbians and wish we were someone else. Most assume we still belong to them because we don’t “belong” to anyone else. Only a man in our lives would count as a real relationship — certainly not our Dyke friends and lovers.
Family often don’t take our Lesbian lives seriously. Most hets believe the stereotype of the lonely Lesbian – It helps them feel smug about their dismal, desolate, sordid lives. It’s a projection onto us of their own deep emptiness and loneliness. Dykes are potentially the least alone of people. We may be outcasts, but what we have with our lovers and friends and communities is deep and intense. The stereotype is that old women will be lonely, yet in our Lesbian community, there are hundreds of Old Lesbians who regularly go out to dance and party. Sometimes so many things are happening at the same time that it’s difficult to know which event to go to. Since we don’t have women only spaces left, we usually meet in public venues, where sometimes the older het women see us and have a mixture of horror and envy on their faces, as they cling to their zombie-like men. Yet to our families we’re “just girls” together, no matter how old we are. (Bev: “When my mother looked back on her life, she referred to herself at the age of 45 as an “old lady” to explain why it had been too late for her to make her life better, yet she referred to me at that same age as a “just a young girl.”) In patriarchy, family is all and friends are nothing. Very good friends are honored by being called “one of the family,” but everyone knows they’re still “just friends.”
Bev: My mother had a very lonely life, with no friends. She lived alone with and looked after a man she hated, who hated her, like her previous two husbands. He called her filthy names, gave her an STD, and was with her only to use her. Her first husband was an alcoholic boxer who beat her regularly. The second was my father, who was cold and distant, and ridiculed her for being uneducated, rural poor (though he also was poverty class). I gave her constant support for years to leave her last husband and make a happier life, including helping her find a place and move. But she went back the next day, continuing saying how she hated him. She’d had a few close female friends, but lost them by putting her men first. It didn’t help that her last husband tried to fuck every woman who visited her (as she told me).
My mother complained about how lonely she was, yet told me how sorry she felt for me because I’d been “all alone” during the “holidays” and on my birthday. She knew I hate nationalistic, racist, and christian holidays and haven’t celebrated them since I lived with my parents. My and my friends’ birthdays are our biggest celebrations, and I’d had a wonderful time on mine,with my favorite Separatist friends and lover. My mother knew this, but “those girls” didn’t count. They’re not real since they’re not men. And though then ages 41 and 31, they would never be adults to her since they were not wives and mothers. And, of course, they’re not family. (Why my mother glorified family is beyond me. Hers was filled with horrific abuse, growing up partly in foster homes and being sexually assaulted and forced to work in fields as a little girl because her mother abandoned her eight kids to run off with a man.) When I confronted her about trying to make me feel like an outcast, she explained that she meant I was alone because I wasn’t with my family. Yet she knew I could see her anytime I wanted and I chose to keep as distance as my only way to stop her constantly harassing me.
Often our female family, like so many het women, spend hours complaining about their husbands, even saying they’re about to leave them. But this is a trap, because they use our support and caring only as a way to release their anger so they can stay with their men. So our energy ultimately benefits those men. Some Lesbians are so intertwined with their families that they say they’re going “home” when they visit their parents. They make endless excuses for the cruel treatment they get from their “beloved family” and then take out their suppressed rage on the Lesbians closest to them.
In order to protect ourselves and Dykes we love, we should be aware of how our “loving” family treats our friends and Dykes in general. We shouldn’t expect less of relatives than we do of other het women, nor should we expect our friends and lovers to relate to or accept our family’s abuse. Dykes need our love and energy more than abusive family, because we have so much less support. When we’re injured from choosing to relate to abusive families, our Lesbian friends are drained by helping us recover.
Lesbians who’ve never felt accepted by their mothers are especially vulnerable to their mothers needing them now, hoping to finally be loved by them. For those who never had a more traditional type of family, this can be very attractive, but it’s like stepping into what seems to be a beautiful pool, only to find quicksand.
Bonding with family often means bonding with privilege. One of the main ways that race and class privileged people keep their power within their own groups is through nepotism. Bosses don’t usually place a “help wanted” ad when a prestigious, high-paying position is available. They use contacts from privileged family or friends, or from that other old-school familial network — the brotherhood and sisterhood of fraternities and sororities) in order to keep power among the select few. Most wealth and positions of power are inherited.
Lesbians who grew up in families where racial, ethnic, and/or class oppression made family solidarity necessary for survival are even more painfully oppressed by the institution of Family than more privileged Lesbians. As is often said, more oppressed Lesbians need the protective, strengthening alliances that family is supposed to provide in the face of a hostile dominant culture, but we do not get it. Rape, cruelty, hierarchies, and the devaluing of Lesbians in families cuts across all races, classes, ethnic groups, and nations. As class-oppressed Dykes, we (Bev and Linda) know the pain of not “belonging” with family members who were once, by default, our most intimate partners in oppression and sometimes major allies in resisting classism. For Linda, as part of an immigrant Italian-American family, this is even more true.
Dykes with chronic illness or disabilities also may find it especially hard to distance themselves from families who’ve provided vital assistance. However, it will be easier for them to be independent of family if able-bodied and/or moneyed Dykes provide ongoing, reliable assistance, which is the responsibility of our communities. Instead, many Lesbians who give physical care do so only for Gay men with AIDS, even though that is an STD some men actively seek out. (A Gay man I [Bev] know who has AIDS says he is constantly approached by Gay men who want to get it from him.) We need to focus our caring ability on our own kind who are disabled and ill, and needing help. (In 2013, the “AIDS Lifecycle Ride” organization got $14.5 million dollars, much of it from Lesbians. Some of the male directors of such “LGTBQWTF” groups make $300,000 a year. This is outrageous. Lesbian energy and money otherwise is devoted to helping het women, as if het women’s issues are our own. Lesbian have the least and get the least.)
The more we try to get support from our families, the more power they have to further injure us. Privileged Lesbians who keep bonds with family may justify themselves by claiming that more oppressed Dykes have no choice but to maintain family bonds, yet the truth is that many racially, ethnically, and class-oppressed Dykes have had the guts to cut off those harmful relationships. For those of us who do keep some contact with het female relatives, we need to maintain control over how we relate to them. The best way we can get true solidarity and support, as many of us have already found, is with Dyke-identified-Dykes who share our oppressions.
Relating to Lesbian family members is more complex. Ideally, it’s wonderful to have someone in your life who knows your family as well as you do, who’s also a Lesbian with the potential for shared support in understanding your family’s dynamics. If your relative is strongly Dyke-identified, then it’s possible to have a true friend who’s also your family. But for some, it’s a constant struggle to not fall into old destructive familial patterns and rivalries, or to avoid pulling lovers and friends into them. It’s also important to resist the pull to automatically put Lesbian relatives before friends and lovers. Some Lesbians still feel trapped in an intolerable hierarchy with Lesbian relatives, including their Lesbian mothers, and decide to break off contact. Just because someone is a Lesbian doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily like her and want to be close. Still, there’s at least the possibility to have a close and trusted friendship with a Lesbian family member that you won’t have with het family.
One of the most forbidden things we can do is to decide to free ourselves from our family. It’s so unthinkable that the possibility never occurs to many Lesbians, including those whose families previously cut them off for years. Many of us have been so grateful our family “accepts” us that we don’t even consider we may not want to accept them. After all, we had no choice in being owned by them in the first place. Saying “no” to family in any way is considered cruel, even though you’re saying “no” to cruelty. Making the decision to free ourselves from male relatives and abusive female relatives, or even just limiting our contact with the more decent female relatives, takes great courage and determination. It’s especially difficult for those who’ve been caring for a dependent relative, which often seems to be expected of Lesbian family rather than siblings. But that decision enables us to begin healing from the abuse we’ve suffered, including from rape by male family.
Those of us who had regular recent contact with our female relatives found there wasn’t one time when we visited them that they didn’t make critical comments about our Lesbianism or how our bodies and clothes look, and how we live. Freeing ourselves gives us a chance to break old destructive patterns, which also makes it less likely we’ll respond to old or very young Lesbians in ageist ways in the future, and can help Dykes who grew up in families to be less likely to be oppressive to Dykes who’ve never had a family. For many Lesbians, it’s also meant being freed from cycles of depression, suicidal feelings, and self-hatred as well. Freedom from family gives us more physical, psychic, and emotional energy to care for ourselves and other Dykes. Sadly, Lesbians are more likely to provide support and care for ill, abusive parents than they are for ill Dykes. Yet there are often other family members who are willing to help sick relatives, while sick Lesbians are more likely to have no one.
There are some wonderful exceptions, though. In 1987, there was a story in a Berkeley, U.S., newspaper about Ollie’s, a Lesbian bar community that supported a Lesbian named Jean, whose lover had recently died of cancer. “It’s a place where people will back you in any kind of crisis.” When Jean’s lover died, the bar was the second place she called. “Within fifteen minutes, the bar had emptied and several carloads of women arrived at her house. In the weeks that followed, Jean’s friends from the bar organized into shifts, taking time off from work so that someone was always with her.” Jean said, “The people at the hospice told me, ‘Whatever your connection is, I wish everybody had it.’” This kind of support has been traditional in some Lesbian communities.
For ourselves, the changes we’ve made with our families have greatly improved our lives. One of us had letter contact with only her mother and hadn’t seen or talked with her for many years. Another of us related only to her mother, talking with her occasionally on the phone and seeing her several times a year since she lived nearby. Another of us had extensive contact with family members until a few years ago when she began to remember her father had raped her when she was little, so she cut off contact with him. When she tried to talk to her mother about it, her mother was completely protective of her father, and harassed her about “maligning such a wonderful man.” She now refuses to relate to her family until they deal with her in a more fair way, and is amazed to find herself mourning the loss of them only rarely, thinking of them hardly at all. Whether or not she has very limited contact with her female relatives in the future, she’s determined to never be “part of the family” again. And she feels clearer in her friendships with Lesbians than she ever was before.
We were not casual about distancing ourselves from our families, but did not know how to stop being treated badly otherwise. It does help to share support about doing such an unpopular thing. We appreciate the Dykes who’ve written and talked about their experiences with cutting off contact from family members.
One thing we definitely recommend, from experience, is that if you do keep having contact with relatives, visit them only on your terms, deciding how, where, and when you’ll visit, and never stay overnight with them. It’s much easier to stop them from putting you back into your old family position if you don’t live together, however briefly. Never willingly relate to anyone who you don’t want to see or who’s still treating you badly in anyway. Don’t relate to a relative, even one you love, who pressures you to see, talk with, or write to anyone you don’t want contact with. A mother who will see you or be nice to you only if you relate to the father or brother who sexually assaulted you isn’t good for you. Her approval is not more important than your recovery. It’s also damaging to you to censor yourself from talking about the harm your family has done to you. Much of family power and control is based on secrets and lies. It might surprise you how much power you do have when you start to say no.
It’s important to explore the ties that bind you. What does your family want and demand from you? If they could make you become het, would they? That would mean that they want to break up you and your lover, and all your Lesbian friendships. Also, let yourself think about what would happen if you suddenly were living as a dependent (without legal rights) with your family – how much would they restrict your freedom?
What do you want and need from your family? Do you ever get it? What do you get? How much is hurtful to you and how much is good for you? What do you have to pay for the good parts? Can you get those things from the Dykes you love? How do you feel about your friends’ families and how they’re treated by them? Do you think your friends should be treated better? Are you more willing to accept hurtful treatment from your family than you think your friends should from theirs? Would you protect your friends if you could? Are you more prepared to break off with Lesbians who upset you than with relatives who abuse and oppress you? If you don’t have the sort of close Dyke connections that would sustain you if you left your family, could making family distance create a space for those connections?
Thinking of your parents as a heterosexual couple (if they are) can help you think more clearly about the bond you have with them. Do you ordinarily choose to intensely, intimately socialize with het couples? Why should you think of your parents as any different? If you were raised by a heterosexual couple, you were intimately involved in their relationship and probably still are, if you visit them. Their primary commitment is to each other, no matter how much your mother complains to you about your father or claims you’re closer to her than he is. Would you so easily be manipulated by your het neighbors and coworkers?
Lesbians who’ve been around lovers’ and friends’ families for a long time may be accepted to some extent as “part of the family.” That can feel like an honor, because it’s so easy for us to value men and het women more than we value ourselves. But being part of a family, even one that’s not our own, means being treated in the same possessive way. They speak to you in those familiar, intrusive, critical, and callous ways that they would never use with their own friends. They’re likely to act parental and condescending, putting you in a child role. And it wouldn’t be unusual for your lover’s male relatives to be sexually suggestive towards you, including telling pornographic stories.
Let yourself pay attention to the horrible things your family says, because that lets you know what they really think. Don’t keep making excuses, remembering only the good parts.
Let’s Not “Be A Family”
“Family values” means hating Lesbians. Why do so many Lesbians want to use the term “family” for ourselves? The drive to belong, be “normal,” and be accepted by the male and het world plagues Lesbians, which is why many try to present Lesbian and/or Gay culture as just another kind of family. That’s also why many Lesbians want to try to be part of male religions, and why christian-raised Lesbians celebrate christmas (sometimes in the guise of “Summer Solstice” in the southern hemisphere or “Winter Solstice” in the northern hemisphere — which is still clearly a christmas celebration when they don’t celebrate the opposite Solstice and other more important witch days such as Beltane and Lammas.) This quest for approval undermines us as Lesbians. No amount of proclamations at Gay pride marches about how we’re all “family” will make Gay men become our brothers and why should we want brothers, anyway?
The including of Lesbians into “LGBTQIWTF” against our will is another attempt to include us into a pseudo-family that is using us and is incredibly destructive to us. We’re also trapped by the het mystique of Family if we consider “sisterhood” with other Lesbians a better ideal than friendship. For many Dykes, their biological sisters are het women who’ve been, and still are, cruel and oppressive. There’s a hierarchy among sisters in most families, which means that for many Lesbians, the sisterhood they grew up with was anything but the “sisterly” ideal. Too often that inequality creates patterns that stay with adult Lesbians and interfere with our ability to get along socially or work together politically. We grow up without any model of justice and equality. Our closest female relationships with our mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and cousins, were usually anything but fair. Many Lesbians who keep close relationships with het sisters find their heterosexuality oppressive and hurtful, including the few who attempt to not be anti-Lesbian. Most heterosexual women are actively hostile to their sisters’ Lesbianism and try, like their mothers, to “turn them straight.” Even if our sisters try to be good to us, the male structure of family inequality is too powerful to not damage our interactions.
Adults often give elder sisters the power to boss, punish, and even hit their younger sisters. Older girls are expected to do some of the parents’ work of taking care of the other children, which should not be their job, but one way for them to rebel is by taking their anger out on the only people in their power — their younger siblings. Since boys are more protected, the youngest girls usually get the most of this unfair treatment. A Lesbian Feminist told one of us she felt badly for her mother when the mother beat the littlest girls, aiming for bare skin so it would hurt more, because “she must have been in such pain to do that.” As an older sister, she chose to identify with the authority figure, her mother, rather than with her younger sisters, the truly powerless ones who needed her support. She’s still doing it as an adult, using feminism to excuse her mother’s cruelty. Some older sisters do use their position to be kind and protective to younger girls, and in rare cases they will expose a male relative who’s raping the younger girls.
It can also be hard for mothers to avoid transferring to other relationships the experience they have had of being able to order and control their children, telling them when they can eat, sleep, etc. That sense of power often continues unconsciously, and mothers will treat other women as if they expect to be obeyed. The Lesbians who have not had the status of being considered “real” adults are particularly targeted and vulnerable to this. Lesbians who grew up having power over younger siblings or as teachers also sometimes continue expecting to have power in relationships, unless they are careful to be aware of that. That attitude of authority can be quite powerful, even if they don’t have that authority now. They may still unconsciously expect other Lesbians to be submissive and it can take constant vigilance to not act out that dominant role in their relationships. Many Lesbians who were older sisters do act in egalitarian ways towards others, but some are reluctant to let go of that past authority. If you were never in such a power position, being an only, youngest, or middle daughter, you may find some Lesbians acting condescending towards you simply because you refuse to use the body language and verbal games that define you as a person who’s been in physical and emotional authority over others. You may find yourself being treated as if you’re younger by someone the same age or younger than you. In many Lesbian groups, battles over dominance and submission go on not only because of differences in acknowledged areas of privilege and oppression, but also because of family positions.
Sometimes the only equal relationships we knew in our early years were with our friends who were also little girls. But too often family inequalities were carried over into our first interactions with non-relatives. Being trained in hierarchies at home encourages us to accept other hierarchies as well, including those based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, ability, size, looks, age, heterosexism, and male-identified femininity (how “normal” and feminine one girl is as opposed to how Lesbian and Butch another is).
Schools are no places to learn kind, egalitarian, female ways of relating because its structure gives some girls power over the majority of other girls. Most of us know what it’s like to be ostracized and ridiculed by more privileged girls in cliques (often based on classism) at school. Those who are excluded are usually the majority, but as long as the favored few are admired and sought after by the outcasts who hope to join the “in crowd,” the privileged group stays in power. That cruel pattern often divides Lesbian communities even now. Whenever a Dyke is slandered, ridiculed, patronized, or excluded from Lesbian political and friendship groups, the same malicious hierarchies are being played out.
Our yearning for “sisterhood” among Lesbians is a yearning for that true love and caring we should have received from our families but never did. We can’t have it as “sisters” or “family,” but we can have it as Dykes together.
Dykes Are Home
As long as our family comes first in our allegiance, we can’t be truly committed to other Dykes. When Lesbians cut off friendships with other Lesbians over minor conflicts and differences, yet keep contact with family members who are vicious to them, they betray Dykes as a people. They’re literally allied with our enemy. We have only so much room and tolerance in our lives for difficult relationships, so it’s Lesbian friends who are more likely to be abandoned. Sometimes Dykes maintain contact with their families because no one else, friends or lovers, can be relied on to stay in our lives. The family may be brutal and hateful, but at least they’re “family.” If more Dykes put Dykes first in their lives, we will be available as friends and support for each other, and dependence on families will be easier to break.
There would be far more money in our Lesbian communities if most Lesbian money didn’t go to our families when we die. The fact that your family once owned you means they can own you again. They have legal rights to you and your possessions, which you don’t have to them. (Lesbians’ children have those “rights” over their mothers too.) Any of our family members, no matter how they’ve attacked us, can assert their right of access to us if we’re in the hospital. When we die, the family automatically has access to our bodies. If we’re very sick or injured so that we have difficulty communicating, they can take custody of us and imprison us and even deny us proper medical care. Some adult Lesbians have been declared incompetent by law so their parents or other relatives could resume ownership. That’s one way to deal with a “rebellious” daughter.
There are Lesbians still being held against their will, like Sharon Kowalski was, with their families trying to keep them from ever being with their lover and friends again. (Sharon, a U.S. Lesbian, was severely injured in a car accident in 1983. She was improving under the care of her lover, Karen Thompson, until Sharon’s parents took legal possession of her. They denied Karen access to her, and Sharon’s condition deteriorated. Sharon’s mother said, “I hate Karen Thompson like I’ve never hated anyone or anything in my life.”)11 After years of legal battles, they were reunited, but Karen believes Sharon will never recover as much as she would have if her father had not stopped her physical therapy.
It’s extremely important for Lesbians to make legal documents to try to prevent family from using their legal powers to make decisions about our medical treatment when we’re hospitalized or to incarcerate us in mental institutions, and to keep them from taking our property (including journals, letters, and possessions on loan from friends and lovers). Even then, families have been successful in overturning such contracts, but at least it gives us some protection. Lesbians who’ve made legal documents and whose families don’t know where they live are in the safest position. Legal marriages are also stronger protection, as well as giving immigration rights. As much as Separatists might be against marriage, we support it for the equal rights it gives. Of course everyone’s rights’ should be protected, whether married or not, but that is not within reach at this time, while marriage equality is. (For Radical Feminists adamantly against marriage, we question why they first don’t first try to stop het marriages.)
It’s also important to work out how we continue harmful family dynamics with our friends and lovers. Our girlhood is always going to affect us in some way, but we can improve things and try not to set up hierarchical pseudo-families in our own communities and relationships. With strong Dyke politics and support, we can and do recover from girlhood abuse, without resorting to therapists who often provide a hierarchical substitute for parents, continuing our dependence. We are our own and each other’s best healers. We should resist being in or wanting to be in elite groups, with their hierarchies of stars and scapegoats. We shouldn’t think of Lesbians in couples as being superior to single Dykes, whether ourselves or others. (It’s easy to relate to couples as if they were in authority over us, because many Lesbians in couples act parental and condescending towards single Dykes.)
We, as Dykes, have got to be there for each other with that long-lasting commitment that’s usually given only to families, with real love and caring, which means working out occasional difficulties. Then we’ll be better able to survive our families and patriarchy. We will be the enduring Dyke communities we long for.
I. KGO-TV News, San Francisco, 6 May 1988.
2. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. (New York: Bantam/William Morrow and Co., 1972).
3. KGO-TV News, San Francisco, 31 March 1987.
4. San Francisco Chronicle, 31 August 1988. Mark-David James studied 195 teenagers who left their homes and went to shelters in Toronto, Canada. He found that even the horrors of runaways’ street life –prostitution, hunger, and drugs — don’t outweigh family abuse. 86% had been physically and/or sexually abused at home, while 67% got the same treatment on the street.
5. Nina Eliasoph, “Why Kidnap Stirred the Bay Area,” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 December 1986, A26.
6. Information leaflet by Family Violence Prevention Coordinating Committee and Accident Compensation Corporation, New Zealand Listener, 19 November 1988, 61.
7. The Unquiet Death of Eli Creekmore, KCSM-TV, San Mateo, 3 May 1988.
8. KRON-TV. San Francisco, 29 March 1988.
9. Angie Cannon, “Reassurance for Gay Kids,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 March 1988, A2.
10. “Cheers: Gay Days and Nights at Ollie’s, Express, Berkeley, California. 21 August 1987.
11. Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home? by Karen Thompson and Julie Andrzejewski (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute Book Co.,1988).