As publisher of Archer Magazine, the Australian journal of sexual diversity, I spend a lot of time speaking to people about sex, gender and identity. As a whole, we’re a diverse lot. ‘LGBT’ is more than just a four-letter word: sexuality is fluid, extremely personal, and often very complex. It’s easy to assume, to miscalculate, to accidentally exclude, in regards to sexuality and gender, because it’s just about impossible for a single person, even someone very conscientious, to be fully across the spectrum of human experience.
To help with this situation, I apply a ground rule with respect to the sensitive subject of sex: that everyone’s experience is valid, as long as a) everyone involved is consenting, and b) no-one is being hurt.
I read Brooke Hemphill’s Lesbian for a Year ahead of her event at the Melbourne Writers Festival. The book, as the title suggests, is an account of one year in the author’s life, a year during which Hemphill explored the spectrum of her own sexuality.
Before anything else, it’s worth asking: is the sexual experience described within this book valid? The answer: of course it is. It’s familiar, too, and will probably ring true for many Australians.
But if we apply my ground rule, and consider whether anyone is being hurt by this account, then the book’s validity begins to wane. Through markedly disrespectful language, Lesbian for a Year hurts people. Some parts hurt me. Other parts hurt my family, my friends. Many parts will directly hurt the diverse readership of Archer, should they read it. And it will likely hurt them indirectly, even if they never come into contact with it.
Is the offence intentional? I don’t believe so. But it’s there, and whether by ignorance or laziness, it’s an outcome that both author and publisher must own. On a wider note, though, it’s the shortcomings of our society that produced this failure.
Yes, sexuality is a diverse experience, and Hemphill’s is just one story. But when something hits a nerve like this book has with many, it’s a sure-fire sign that more discussion is needed.
I’m heavily immersed in sexually and gender diverse communities, and sometimes I forget that many—even perhaps the majority of—Australians don’t even know what LGBTI stands for, let alone how to talk about the issues that face people who identify as such. Every now and then, though, I’m reminded, by way of a little message from outside my progressive bubble, that there’s still a long way to go before anything resembling equality is possible. Lesbian for a Year is one such message.
Like the majority of media—newspapers, TV, radio, books—in Australia, Lesbian for a Year is not aimed at an audience who is immersed in queer politics. But that doesn’t stop it from affecting queer people. Deafening alarm bells rang for me while reading this book, at some of the language choices that slight people in sexual minorities. At one point, people who are attracted to both sexes are referred to as “greedy bisexuals”. In more than one instance, lesbians are referred to as “carpet munchers” or “rug munchers”. Regardless of their intended use, the reality is that these terms are predominantly used for sexuality-based bullying, and they do not have positive connotations for most people.
Additionally, the author describes the Dykes on Bikes troupe stripping off their clothes during the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney. Hemphill states that it is unfortunate for the male audience that these more masculine women, not the “uber-hot lesbians”, are publicly bearing their bodies.
I am hurt by this writing, and I’m sure I’m not alone. But my anger does not really lie with the writer. I’m not even angry with the educated and skilled people in publishing who read this book and saw no issue with it going to print (though I am baffled).
Mostly, I’m sad that our society still breeds the attitude that to be different is to be freakish. Are we still, as a society, so opposed to diversity in bodies? Does the mainstream media still dictate to us what we should find desirable? And if so, does it still maintain the myth that women are only attractive if they abide by some vague idea of what it means to be ‘feminine’?
And while we’re asking such questions, when has it ever been okay to denounce bisexuality as a lesser sexual preference?
In Lesbian For A Year, Hemphill describes her first forays into lesbian desire as being entirely for male observation. The author and her friends would get drunk and kiss each other, but only while the guys were watching. This unwavering dedication to male desire was a reality for a lot of people growing up, regardless of their sexual orientation. It’s a horrid myth that persists in our society: that a woman’s sexual enjoyment comes secondary to male satisfaction. We are constantly told that we’re objects for male observation and use – it’s how we are brought up, and for me, Hemphill’s book really hits that sad reality home.
And yet, Lesbian for a Year doesn’t only place men as the perpetrators. The first scene of the book depicts the author-as-narrator blinking bleary-eyed into a morning hangover, surprised to find a woman in her bed. Described only by her appearance—“blonde … with very large breasts”—this woman is then unceremoniously kicked out of the apartment. She exists only to give reason for the author to question herself. It would seem for Hemphill that moving into the realm of lesbianism brings with it a propensity to treat women as objects. I feel empathy for protagonist, and antagonist. And again, I feel sadness.
There are language issues in the media all the time. There have been language issues in Archer Magazine. As I said, it’s difficult to get it right all the time. But we must do our best to be respectful, to be compassionate, and we must pledge to educate ourselves, to try to get it right, and to learn from our mistakes.
The style, title and cover of Hemphill’s book, all of which have caused a backlash in various communities, are unabashedly directed at a mainstream audience. Let’s face it: Lesbian For A Year, is not a book for lesbians, many of whom would argue that their same-sex attraction is not something that can be adopted and discarded over the space of a calendar period.
In this capacity, at least, Hemphill’s story may prove valuable. It may work to open the minds of conservative Australians, those who have never spoken to a queer person about their experiences, or taken the time to acknowledge that sexual diversity exists. In reality, there’s a strong chance this audience will not be offended by the stigma attached to throw-away comments like “rug munchers”. But it’s a blight on society that a negative appraisal of diversity will be reinforced by yet another piece of media.
Let’s make it clear. It’s not okay to devalue someone based on their looks. It’s not okay to teach young girls to define their sexuality around male desire. It’s not okay to refer to bisexuality in a pejorative sense, or to suggest that someone is less worthy because of their body shape, or their gender identity. These are basic guidelines for respectful interaction with people. Human decency is not restricted to marginalised communities.
Lesbian for a Year is out there in the world, and its story belongs to the writer. It is legitimate and meaningful. But it is lamentable that more people didn’t spot any issues with the dehumanisation and stigmatisation that occur within the text, especially before its publication. I pity the people not in my bubble, those who relate to the attitudes in this book. But most of all I feel sad for the people who will be hurt, emotionally, mentally or physically, by the attitudes perpetuated by this book.
If nothing else, through its oversights, Lesbian For A Year has shown us that we need to keep discussing the issues of respect and acceptance around sexual, gender and body diversity. If nothing else, we should be thankful that another book has ignited this meaningful debate.
Amy Middleton is the founder of Archer Magazine.