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The Certainty of Compromise

The Certainty of Compromise

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By Effie Johari

Mapping out the topography of your sexuality seems almost like an imperative. Most of us who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual have constructed “coming out” narratives to make sense of our sexualities, if not for others then solely for ourselves. We recognize the typical coming out model as one which is constructed as “a linear process of self-discovery in which a false, socially imposed heterosexual identity is replaced with a lesbian or gay identity” that is authentic and accurate [1]. It is this constant struggle towards authenticity – certainty – that is implicated in the imperative to ‘discover’ your sexuality.

I think it’s easy to tell a story of sexuality that is a carbon copy of the dominant narrative we’re all used to hearing in gay rights activism. Gay people are born this way and ascertain their sexuality through a process of self-discovery and perhaps experimentation. The reality is not as easy a path, in particular for women, whose attraction to other women gets undermined and delegitimized, who face hard social expectations to be with men because of their social and economic dependence. I had dated men before, but I never really wanted to be in those relationships. I always found myself compromising more than I was comfortable with. Whenever I had experienced attraction towards men in the past (and in the years since I had accepted my attraction to women, it was only twice), I was only ever attracted to the idea of a relationship with them, of how nice it would be to re-enact dates I’ve seen in movies and sex I’ve seen in porn. I felt compelled, by internal and external forces, to the attraction: that I met men who were a small step up from the rest and had hope that they could be ‘fixed’ by my hand, that I confused feelings of friendship for attraction because of intense social pressure. There was (and will always be) a persistent voice inside my head that whispers: it would be easier, so much easier, if I would just capitulate. But I found my politics shifting to accommodate the exhaustion of this compromise.

It took years to realize that I no longer wanted to compromise. I realized this after years of struggling with my sexuality, years of dating guys even though I never had any strong feelings for them, not like I did for girls. I no longer wanted to be friends with men who would talk about women behind our backs (sometimes to our faces) as if we were objects to be won. I no longer wanted to explain to men I was friends with why it was wrong to think women were inferior. I didn’t want to be talked over, or shushed, or have my voice or my appearance mocked. I didn’t want to appeal to men, to be harassed or looked at. Most importantly, I did not want to feel compelled to date or develop feelings towards men. Some of these compromises are unavoidable, but I realized it was within my power to limit the emotional energy I invest in friendships or relationships with men by excluding them from my social circle. In the interim years before coming to this decision, I forced myself to be around men, to be comfortable with it. To dance with them and let them touch me, even. When I became comfortable calling myself a lesbian and telling people, all some of these men had to say in reply was a lecherous, “that’s hot.”

Lesbian is not a negative description. It is the recognition of a sexuality that exists entirely outside the patriarchal violence of men, in direct defiance to the fact that men have tried to pervert and exploit this sexual identity. Women are lesbians because they love other women and not men, and this is an outrageous notion to many. Lesbian is a celebration of an existence that is not recognized in the heteropatriarchal social order. I found refuge in its exclusivity, because I found refuge in other women, in loving other women. If the world does not exist for us – women who are not tethered to men, women who are not for men – then we carved out our own pockets of affirmation, built our own networks of love and solidarity. Whenever I am attracted to women, it is always that I am proud of them. I am insanely, bravely proud of them, and in awe of what they have accomplished, what they can do, and the kind of person they are. How they make me feel, how they affirm me, my struggles and my existence.

At the beginning of the year, I believed I had reached some grasp of certainty, after years of grappling with my sexual identity. For I had not always ‘been’ a lesbian. I had not always known with certainty nor conviction. Being lesbian was a process of becoming – to me, a process of coming to terms with the violent reality of womanhood. I felt like I had finally found a home, a refuge in the word ‘lesbian’. I had worked to carve out a network of support and solidarity, and found my niche in all women spaces, where I felt comfortable expressing my views as a separatist who subscribed to lesbian feminist ideals.

Many did not understand why you would want to commit to cutting out all men from your life, while others found it an unfeasible practice. To me, it was less a way of living than a commitment to a particular perspective. I found men to be a drain on my emotional energy, so I tailored my interactions and social circles to exclude them and prioritize women. Men, as a class, are violent. It might be shocking to hear to those who have never grappled with feminist thought, or those who skirt around liberal ideas of equality and might reject entirely condemning half of humanity as too radical a proposal. Men are violent, if not sexually then psychologically, if not physically then economically. There are feminists who have taken to singling out certain men in their lives as being different or less culpable, propagating ideas of a ‘good patriarchy’ embodied in their fathers, their teachers, or their friends. But some of us aren’t looking for tokens of redemption. Some of us have been living under the crushing weight of this violence all our lives, and want only the peace of being left alone. As a separatist, I only asked for the empathy of others to understand my position.

Lesbians face a different sort of violence. Its roots lie in misogyny, a hatred of women, but its manifestations differ. Homophobia, where lesbianism is concerned, is not only a fear of women’s sexuality but also the loss of male control over that sexuality [2]. Women’s sexuality is supposed to be for men, for male pleasure, their domination and consumption. You only need to look at porn (where, not incidentally, one of the most popular categories of porn is lesbian porn made for the male viewer), at the sexual politics and double standards that feminists have been fighting against. Lesbianism is antagonistic to this sexual order: a love, a sexuality that does not function to serve male pleasure. Entanglement with men opens you up to a world of vulnerabilities, this I do not deny, but lesbianism is a different plane of existence.

It is an existence underlined by a sense of isolation, an awareness that the world wasn’t made for you. There is a certain ache in being cut off from avenues that you see friends, family and acquaintances have recourse to.  I was not able to express my feminism as a re-articulation of my relationship to men, like many other women did as they engaged in projects of empowerment. I did not want any sort of relationship with men. This was at the basis of my refusal to compromise: I have an entire ocean’s worth of emotions in me, I have boundless energy, and I couldn’t put even a single drop of consideration towards men, nor did I want to. As women, our existence is defined by our relationship to men. This is true of a reality where the social order is organized around heterosexuality. As Monique Wittig famously asserted, lesbians are not women, for ‘woman’ only gains meaning within heterosexual systems of thought and order, as a contrast or complement to ‘man’ [3].

Separatism is an ideology; it is near impossible in practice. I cannot opt out of all interactions with men, I cannot opt out of the ubiquity of heterosexuality. As a lesbian and a separatist, I am always questioning myself, and this makes certainty and conviction near impossible as well. In certainty, we find confirmations of our identity, experience, community, and ideology. For many, certainty has been their experience. It is never justified to tell lesbians that their sexuality could be fluid – I’ve only ever experienced this suggestion as violence. The struggles that lesbians face in reconciling being a woman in relationships outside of men is difficult enough without pushing the rather popular idea that everyone is inherently bisexual, that gay people are only repressing their own latent bisexuality. Certainties are important for many people: it ties communities together, it is the foundation on which plenty of solidarity-work is built. But for me, I have to confront questions of how and where to navigate compromise, in which cracks and crevices. I am engaged in a constant tracing of sexuality like geography, its ridges and canyons, its nuances, instead of being able to read my experiences as a linear narrative and conclude with certainty.

Sexuality is not for women an individual and subjective expression, but a social institution of violence [4]. I am always already navigating within violent spaces, where there are no easy certainties, no easy routes of escape, only the constant struggle in reconciling a subjective feeling of sexuality with material reality. In engaging with this struggle, there is often only one thing keeping me afloat: women loving women. The novelty of it, the sheer audacity. The pride-shame of it all. I adore women, and I derive so much happiness and content from knowing that I love women, in spite of a reality that begs for my compromise.


[1] Rust, P. (1996) Sexual identity and bisexual identities: The struggle for self-description in a changing sexual landscape.

[2] Birrell, S. & Theberge, N. (1994) Ideological control of women in sport.

[3] Wittig, M. (1978) The straight mind.

[4] Wittig, M. (1981) One is not born a woman.

Effie is a 20-year old independent student of Economics and Women’s Studies. Works with children in various voluntary and tutoring engagements. Occasionally writes or tweets about experiences as a woman/lesbian/Muslim living in Malaysia. Interests include a careful mix of historical materialist, radical, and post-structural feminism; education and child development; fandom and sports culture; music and theater, etc.


Daniella Zulkifili

December 6, 2016 at 2:00 pm

Absolutely love this Effie. Thank you.


December 9, 2016 at 9:12 am

I’m very happy to read this as it reflects my experiences and thoughts exactly as a closeted lesbian.

Kepastian Dalam Kompromi – The G-Blog

December 12, 2016 at 3:17 pm

[…] ** Baca versi Bahasa Inggeris artikel di sini. […]


January 27, 2017 at 4:19 am

Well written and exceptionally honest. I love all of the references. Excellent.

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