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International Gay & Lesbian Review

Dyke Idea

by Joyce Trebilcot

Cynthia Cavalcanti: Cynthia Cavalcanti is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Social Ethics at the University of Southern California. She is intensely interested in the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and religion. Her current research focuses upon the religious experience of lesbians, particularly in Buddhism.

Joyce Trebilcot's motivation to write “springs from puzzlement or pain” associated with such questions as “why do I behave as I do?” or “why do I have a particular belief or value?” She also writes “to connect with wimmin, to find wimmin like me, to learn about wimmin like me and those who are different.” She hopes “to contribute to wimmin's cultures… to make some wimmin's lives better, including [her] own” (vii). Dyke Ideas embodies Trebilcot's perspective as a dyke, and as a scholar trained in the analytical and positivist traditions of philosophy. Contrary to her academic rearing, Trebilcot rejects the universalization of “truth.” To attempt to persuade others, she believes, is to support the inherently coercive, white male hegemony. Trebilcot's approach to ideas is a process of discovery: by discerning the source of her own beliefs and values, she may bring resolution to her “puzzlement [and] pain” (viii).

Adopting the time-honored feminist maxim ‘the personal is political,' Trebilcot self-consciously identifies as both oppressor (e.g., caucasian, “middle-class, thin”) and oppressed (viz., “female, old, and ‘homosexual'”) to recognize and understand how her background and past experiences influence her ideas and behavior. Full understanding must acknowledge that ideas evolve from psychological, logical, and political origins. In Dyke Ideas, Trebilcot abandons a rigorous academic style of writing in order that her work be accessible to a broader readership of wimmin. This volume comprises a number of excellent essays, several poems, one provocative dialogue, and several pieces which do not adhere to any particular category. The title is meant to convey the connection between the author's own “thinking/feeling [and] being a dyke.” For Trebilcot, to be a dyke is to hold such “radical lesbian feminist ideals” as:

Being alert to and active against oppressions; Taking every womon seriously, especially by attending to what each womon has to say; and Empowering wimmin in contexts that wimmin create.

The essay “Notes on the Meaning of Life” begins with Trebilcot's claim that women must constantly defend themselves against sexual threats that are concretely real, viz., “fucking, rape, molestation, and harassment” (3), as well as the less tangible threats characteristic of an ideology that is inherently phallic. Within her own 1950's Berkeley social circle, i.e., young, caucasian, and predominantly male, Trebilcot defined two ethics: one of experience, and one of achievement. The experience ethic entailed a mystical quality, advancing practices which engendered awakening through ecstasy induced by drug use, sexual practices, or meditation, for example. The achievement ethic advanced the idea of “great works or deeds” (4) as a vehicle to prosperity and prestige, and life everlasting insofar as great works or deeds garner attention even after the agent's death.

Trebilcot, unlike her male contemporaries, experienced a conflict between the two ethics. She demonstrates how the ethics of experience and achievement are tied up with male orgasm and reproduction, respectively. The parallel between ecstatic experience and orgasm is self-evident. The association of reproduction with immortal achievement follows from the obvious connection between male orgasm and the impregnation of females—especially, the dependence of the latter on the former. For women, orgasm and pregnancy exist in mutual isolation, hence the conflict for Trebilcot between the two ethics. When she realized she had attempted to adopt a value system created by and for men, Trebilcot abandoned it in favor of nurturing a different set of values she had already begun to recognize as applicable to, and essential for, women.
“Craziness” is the author's recounting of an auditory phenomenon experienced in her late twenties, when a male voice regularly intruded upon her thoughts and threatened to take control. Her angry, rebellious response, wrought with “fear… self-hatred and guilt” (12) manifest in episodes of “raving and crying” (14). Defiance and resistance began in childhood for Trebilcot and followed her to the academy. She came to associate her craziness with patriarchy but later realized that even by surrounding herself with women, she could not guarantee her own safety against intrusion, as women can sometimes be equally as threatening as men. The scope of her separatism was thus defined as separation not only from males but from male values as well. While separatism does not necessarily preclude ‘craziness', crazy feelings and experiences are more likely to be embraced and understood by lesbians. The connection between self-hatred and patriarchy, and Trebilcot's resistance to the former, is further echoed in the section entitled ‘Guilt', which includes poetry, one thoughtful essay, and a few works of an unnamed genre. A quote from “The Prick/Chick,” the first work in the section, sets the tone for what follows:

Self-hatred is a prick within me sapping my best energies, twisting skillfully my every effort. The chick within. Made by him, is him, to constantly defeat me (19).

In “Dissecting Guilt,” Trebilcot speaks of her desire for “immunity from guilt” (29). She imagines a space created by and for wimmin that is devoid of guilt—both as a feeling and as a concept. Guilt is self-punishment, justified by the belief that suffering is deserved. Through self-hate and self-denial, women collude with the patriarchs to uphold a system of pain and oppression. Conscience is an instrument of guilt that motivates us to adopt and adhere to a set of alien (male) values in order to avoid guilt and pain in the future. Trebilcot identifies five types of guilt that keep “rich white men in power” (31). Identity guilt is intrinsically woven into the labels which distinguish the oppressed from persons of relative privilege, e.g., definitions of women relative to men, of lesbians relative to heterosexuals, or of persons of color relative to caucasians. Victim's guilt describes the feeling on the part of oppressed persons that they somehow have brought upon themselves the ill-treatment they suffer at the hands of their oppressor(s).

Trebilcot's term oppressor's guilt defines a feeling often experienced by persons who are both oppressor and oppressed. For example, a caucasian lesbian who is aware of her marginalization as a woman, and as a homosexual, is likely to also be aware of her white privilege. Her guilt over the latter may drive her toward self-punishment rather than toward the effective dedication of her energy to reducing racial oppression. Official guilt belongs to the province of moral or legal systems, where guilt is not ‘felt' necessarily, but rather determined. Typically the judgment ‘guilty' is followed by punishment and, perhaps, forgiveness. Trebilcot dismisses feminist guilt as an ineffective strategy to redress harm. For example, when friend A causes some avoidable harm to friend B, B will be satisfied if A feels guilty because in this way they will both have suffered and are therefore equal. If A does not feel guilty, B will feel A is now in a dominant position. Trebilcot would prefer an alternative approach to healing the friendship which absents guilt—for example, a process of discovery through talking. In a final word, the author ties guilt to hierarchy via the entanglement of the former with morality and, hence, power structure.

The section ‘Process' comprises three essays, the first of which is entitled “Dyke Methods.” Here, Trebilcot considers how she, as a dyke, can participate in discovering and creating “consciously lesbian realities” (43). The essay turns on three principles to be understood not as rules which demand adherence but rather as value guidelines: (1) I speak only for myself, (2) I do not try to get other wimmin to accept my beliefs in place of their own, and (3) there is no given. These principles are engendered by Trebilcot's anger—specifically that she feels about the control imposed by males and male-identified females upon “women/wimmin and girls [through] erasure and false naming” (44). The first principle entails the conscious use of words in order to avoid generalizations or assumptions: for example, the statement ‘We all need love' would, ideally, be rephrased as ‘I need love.' The second principle deliberately eschews the influence or ‘persuasion' of others' ideas and minds, in favor of creating a ‘potluck' of ideas (as over against the patriarchal ‘marketplace of ideas') in which each person may contribute, share, and choose whatever she wishes. The third principle suggests that dykes, in the process of evolving or nurturing a feminist identity, carefully take stock along the way as to “how patriarchal assumption” (50) might corrupt our thinking and undermine our progress.

“Ethics of Method” questions feminists' motivation to favor certain subjects and approaches over others. Those who choose ‘conventional scholarship' are at least somewhat aware of the ways the academic machine benefits them. Others who are oppressed by the machine, such as feminists, may be driven by the desire for truth and representation in scholarship. Trebilcot criticizes the inaccessibility of much of feminist theory due to the rigorous academic writing style employed by many scholars. Her ‘ethics of method' entails replacing ‘theorizing' with story-telling, a process which includes the elements of theory-making while allowing the work to be more easily accessed. “Not Lesbian Philosophy” explores the unlikely relationship between the labels ‘philosopher' and ‘lesbian'. ‘Philosopher' conjures images of mature, caucasian, ‘wise' men whose authority it is to define truth, value, and morality. Trebilcot rejects this label for herself, notwithstanding the fact of her employment as a philosopher. She opposes ‘lesbian' as well, for its definition is ostensibly sexual in its focus. Ultimately, rather than identify as a ‘lesbian philosopher', Trebilcot prefers the name ‘anti-hierarchist'.

The idea that women competing against one another is inconsistent with feminism is the subject of “Competition.” Trebilcot refuses to participate in the creation of losers through competition in dyke space. She believes that the self-esteem and thrills associated with winning can be experienced in ways that do not require comparison. She would allow for and perhaps even encourage competition in patriarchal spaces (e.g., corporations, education), where dykes must fight against the hierarchy in order to obtain. Actually, Trebilcot conceives of such resistance as a separate space, a “third [arena] straddling between dyke space and patriarchy” (86). She explores her own notion of non-competition in “Envy” by asking such questions as: “Why don't I want [my] friend's work to be good?” (87), then objecting to her own answers, e.g., “Because I believe that success is scarce…” (89) to arrive at the conclusion:

The part of the conflict wherein I want attention feels like envy… The part of the conflict wherein I do not want attention feels like home (93). [Emphases in original.]

In “Taking Responsibility for Sexuality,” Trebilcot calls for feminist women to be responsible for “sexual identity… not only in explicitly sexual relationships but as… whole person[s]” (99). She is not suggesting that a woman ‘should' or ‘ought' to take such responsibility but acknowledges that to do so is a choice. Limiting her focus to feminists who regard themselves as lesbian, heterosexual, or bisexual (whether actively sexual or not), Trebilcot explores what the process of taking responsibility means to the women who make that choice. For example, when a woman comes out, does “she [discover] she is a lesbian, or [decide] to be a lesbian” (100)? Trebilcot acknowledges both aspects of the coming out process—the ‘discovery' of a pre-existing state and the ‘creation' of a new self-concept. Taking responsibility means connecting with the woman-identified reality that was already there, plus self-consciously choosing to not “participate in… heterosexuality” (ibid.). When a woman takes responsibility for her own sexual identity— i.e., refuses to be defined in terms of her sexual availability to men—her choice is not only self-empowering, but it also reveals a chink in the armor of patriarchy, which benefits us all.

The dialogue between “Hortense and Gladys on Sex” is actually the author's own exploration of sexual questions via two perspectives, or voices, to which she has given names. Hortense, the predominant voice, has lost interest in sex, a condition she attributes to everything from age, to feminist political correctness, to her distaste for the idea of male dominance implied in ”[b]eing fucked” (115). Gladys argues against the idealistic Hortense at every turn, asking questions of a practical nature, finally getting her to admit that she simply does not “want to make love” (ibid.). “Decentering Sex” is a more serious take on why some lesbians choose “to have very little [sex] or none at all” (117). While some lesbians decenter sex for no apparent reason, many have very specific motives, including histories of abuse, political persuasion, or religious vows. This essay looks critically at the social construction of sexuality and the notion of ‘fuckability' entailed therein, which Trebilcot equates with ‘rapability' in a context of power relationships, i.e., consent versus non-consent.

“Lesbian Feminism in Process” outlines the tenets of that political persuasion. First, Trebilcot differentiates between (1) lesbian feminists, who often come out not only because they love wimmin but also as a political reaction to heterosexuality; (2) the LGB movement, in which sexual orientation determines political orientation; and (3) Queer, which seeks to nurture “political awareness [while] transgressing sexual and gender boundaries at the same time” (128). Trebilcot return to her focus on lesbian feminism, articulating three basic tenets therein, writing in particular for the benefit of those lesbians for whom these ideas are new. The first notion is ‘separating from men', avoiding interaction with males as much as possible. The second is ‘rejecting the family'—meaning the institutionalized family structure which legitimates hierarchy. The third, ‘choosing lesbianism', discusses different ways of thinking about the origins of identity, e.g., biological, essential, social, or political. Trebilcot presents her ideas in a streamlined fashion, rejecting both the concept of sexual orientation and that of sexual preference, in order to embrace a more inclusive and organic notion of sexuality.

“On the Edge” is a sort of litany that deals with marginality—that which is imposed by society and that which is self-consciously chosen. Trebilcot maintains her stance on separatism because dykes cannot “be expected to live in worlds made by others” (138). Her ideal community would look like ”[p]atterns of overlapping circles” (ibid.) where each dyke's individual circle would blend, to some extent, with other circles. Most importantly, every woman would contribute to the process of creating the core of the community, “making its rules and customs… policy decisions and daily decisions” (139). Trebilcot obtained within such a community during her twenty-year tenure in a women's studies program. That program existed on the edge of the greater academic community, but within the program there was solidarity among wimmin.

Dyke Ideas taken as a whole is a collection of interesting, informative, and thought-provoking works offered freely, without the expectation that readers will or should adopt any particular political stance or way of thinking. The book's greatest strength is the breadth of its appeal. Its accessibility can be of great benefit to those readers who are new to feminist thought, and those readers who want to engage in feminist thinking without having to wrestle with academic writing. While Trebilcot's style is not laden with theory or scholarly language, her work remains rich enough in insight and criticism to appeal to experienced and highly-educated feminists as well.

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