Girls just wanna have fun

Lock up your daughters. This story is about young women experimenting with sex the way their parents' generation dabbled with drugs. It's about young women sleeping with other women without worrying about the L-word -- not because they reject it but because they aren't interested in any label at all.

Saturday, February 13, 1999
The Globe and Mail

Kingston, Ont. -- The dance floor is crowded at 1 a.m. in Club 477, Kingston's lone gay bar. It's a rainy winter night. The usual suspects are here. Three older women with short hair and flannel shirts line a bench against the wall. Some very pretty young men are moving in synch on a raised platform.

Then three even prettier young women stride through the door, shucking off fashionably puffy parkas before they pour onto the dance floor, arms in the air or around each other. They are tourists.

"Oh it's good to see you," says one, hands on the hips of a friend. Another leans in close. "Check that out," she yells above the music, and arches her eyebrows at the platform. One of the pretty boys is still there. Now, beside him, is a lithe young woman in a white tank top, spinning slowly on her own, eyes tightly closed. It's not clear which of the two the girls are watching so appreciatively. Or maybe they're watching them both.

These three girls are not the usual visitors to the gay world: jittery straight couples who sit stiffly, clutching each other as they look around wide-eyed -- "breeder voyeurs," as they are known among gays. Rather, these grinning young women in midriff-baring tops and platform shoes are here in this once-foreign land because they just might want to sleep with some girls. They have come visiting, because the land's not so far away any more, and the border can be crossed without any trouble at all.

"It's like eating Indian food without joining an anti-racism group," says Elise Chenier with a throaty chuckle. Ms. Chenier is working on a doctorate at Queen's University on the history of sexuality. Her gentle face and long dark hair belie a tough, no-nonsense manner. She will, if pushed, identify herself as bisexual. She is currently in a lesbian partnership and she has firm ideas about what's going on with girls and sex.

"Women don't have to assume a radical political struggle just because they want to have sex with another woman," she says. "Sex is overpoliticized. Sex is just a pleasurable experience. Identity politics are disintegrating, that's what this is about."

This is about young women experimenting with sex the way their parents' generation did with drugs. It's about young women sleeping with other women without feeling any need to take on questions of sexual identity, and without worrying about the L-word -- not because they reject it but because they're not interested in any label at all. This is not about feminist response to patriarchal society; it's about girls on a Saturday night.

Miriam Kaufman, a pediatrician in the Teen Clinic at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, has seen the phenomenon. The politics of identity was central to decisions about sexuality in previous generations, she says, but that is far less true now. "Kids have broken free of some of that. They're into 'Who am I attracted to?' and 'I think this is kind of cool.' It's about being queer, not gay or lesbian." Dr. Kaufman talks about young women experimenting with lesbian sex: "She's exploring who she is without exploring a sexual identity."

There are two important things about the lesbian experimentation, Dr. Kaufman says. One is that it is still largely a big-city phenomenon. And the other is that it is limited to girls. "There are hardly any boys experimenting that way. There is way more homophobia with boys, much more rigid ideas about masculinity."

So what's going on with the girls?

That question fascinates Keith Louise Fulton, who teaches gay and lesbian literature at the University of Winnipeg. At 52, she says she is delighted to see young people profiting from the battles fought by gays and lesbians of her generation. "We wanted women to own and to experience their sexuality," she says. "We wanted there to be no coercion, either for compulsory heterosexuality or for a battle with homophobia. This is part of their rejection of labels -- of oppression as well as the labels of struggle."

Take Sara, 27, a personal trainer in Toronto who declines to reveal her last name. "I sleep with women, women I'm attracted to," she says impatiently. "And I sleep with men I find attractive. And I don't stay up at night thinking about whether I'm bisexual or anything else. I'm healthy. I have sex. I have relationships. And I think we're past the politics of all that. I don't march."

Or take the crowds who turned up for the Lesbian Bathhouse in Toronto on Thursday. When the first such event was held at a rented-out men's bathhouse last fall, there was a four-hour lineup around the block to get in. This week, advance tickets sold out in two days; several hundred women poured in to drink and dance and maybe slip off into a cubicle for a little casual sex. There weren't many of the butch lesbians of popular perception: It was a mostly under-35 crowd, all platform shoes and lacy camisoles.

And there are lots more like them, according to Bert Archer, a Toronto writer whose book The Death of Gay and the End of Identity Politics will be published this spring. "They call into question the link between sexual behaviour and sexual identity," he says. "These are people whose sexual behaviour does not agree with their sexual identity and who refuse to give up either." And no wonder, Mr. Archer adds. "There are well-established communities with good things associated with all of them -- there is heterosexual privilege, there is gay chic."

Mr. Archer dates the sea change to 1991, citing influences from the gay character on the television program Roseanne, to Madonna's Justify My Love, to the movie Philadelphia. "As a result of the media affirmation, people feel comfortable doing and talking about these things," he says. "As people have been allowed to play in the margins, they increasingly are."

Ultimately, these changes are the product of debates played out in the lesbian community since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, when gay resentment of police harassment erupted. The fierce gay rights movement, which claimed lesbianism as a political identity, was challenged in the early 1980s by a movement that wanted to bring the sex back into sexual orientation. In 1985, a high-profile U.S. lesbian porn mag began to publish with the mocking title On Our Backs (a shot at the radical feminist journal Off Our Backs). Books such as Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality, written by arch-leather dyke Pat Califia and published in 1988, argued that lesbianism was primarily and ultimately about women giving women pleasure, not politics.

From this split -- between the theorists and the hedonists -- there grew, in the early 1990s, a gradual recognition that the community was big enough for everybody. Then two new species began to pop up in the dyke field guides: the LUG and the lipstick lesbian.

The lipstick lesbians, of whom the best-known example today is Anne Heche, the sleek blond actor who pouts on the arm of comedian Ellen DeGeneres, were a new incarnation of the plaid-shirt-and-Birkenstock lesbians of yore. In power suits or fancy frocks, they were as unapologetically gay and out as they were attractive.

LUG (lesbian until graduation) is the slightly derisive name for a phenomenon that has erupted on college campuses. Dyke became the coolest thing that a young, on-her-own and flirting-with-new-ideas-and-her-roommate college girl could be.

Overheard from a burly football player, newly arrived at Queen's a year ago: "Man, there's not a single chick on this campus who doesn't have one of those rainbow flag things pinned to her backpack."

The latest evolution in that cycle is the reclamation of "queer" -- the label of choice for a younger generation that eschews "gay" or "lesbian" in favour of grandmother's word for the two nice fellows who share a house down the road. Check out Friday night at Tallulah's Cabaret in Toronto: dancing hordes in plastic barrettes, goth black, combat pants and crushed velvet. These are the kinds of kids who recently slapped up "Queer is Cool" stickers all over downtown Kingston. Kids who read 'zines and dance to techno and move in a community where gender is far less defined and sexual orientation is far less significant.

Brenda Wardle, a Kingston high-school guidance counsellor who facilitates a support group for "queer kids," says teenagers are questioning earlier and experimenting more. She attributes the change to the prevalence of images of queer sexuality in the arts and media, and to an openness among young people about all things sexual.

But Ms. Wardle is quick to point out that, for many queer-questioning kids, it can be as difficult today to face the gossip-mongering, status-obsessed world of the high-school locker room as it was 20 years ago.

Take Stephanie Docherty. She transferred from one Kingston high school where students wrote "fag" on her locker to another where she took her female partner to the prom. Blessed with strong self-awareness and supportive parents, Ms. Docherty was able to embrace the label of "dyke" at 16. Three years later, she works in Toronto, as the calm and capable operations co-ordinator for the Lesbian, Gay, Bi Youth Line. "There's a movement away from the past dichotomy of gay-straight," she muses in her rabbit-warren office, with its posters of Wonder Woman and safe-sex ads. "Queer leaves more space for different identities, for more than one type of lesbian. It's a shift from butch-femme to a newer vision of gender identity."

There is consensus, among the lesbians who identify themselves as such, that this is a good thing. "This is what many of us struggled for," says Prof. Fulton of the University of Winnipeg.

But Sara, the personal trainer, who sleeps with men and women and resolutely doesn't march for anything, presents a problem to older lesbians, who put in years protesting and suffering the discrimination of not being able to live with their partners, let alone claim same-sex spousal benefits. They are less certain that Sara's freedom to eschew labels is an entirely good thing. There is anger from gay women who don't want to be straight girls' little experiment, or who don't want their sacrifice so quickly overlooked.

Alisa Palmer understands that anger. The artistic director of the Nightwood Theatre in Toronto, Ms. Palmer is a svelte and sexy 34. She lives in a long-term relationship with a woman, but defines herself, with a flash in her slate blue eyes, as "omnisexual."

"I use that word because, in a utopic view, people would just be sexual," she says. "But I do recognize the need to identify myself as a lesbian for political necessity, I see the value of that community." Ms. Palmer talks of fear among lesbians that bisexual women are "strategizing," or want to have their cake and eat it, too. But she has sharp words for any old guarders resentful of the label-free sexuality of a new generation. "That freedom -- it's like giving a present," she says. "You don't tell someone what to do with it."

For Marney McDiarmid, all of this raises some difficult questions. Ms. McDiarmid is finishing a master's thesis at Queen's on the history of the queer community in Kingston. At 25, she loves small flirty dresses and glitter eyeshadow. She also owns some tough combat boots and sports a rainbow flag on the rear window of her battered little car. She defines herself as queer, and talks knowledgeably about the politics of gay liberation. And she thinks sex -- dyke sex, straight sex -- should be about fun. At Club 477, she moves easily between the women in the flannel shirts and the girls in cargo pants; mostly, though, she's dancing.

"I guess the question for me is, who is going to march, who is going to lay their bodies on the line?" she asks. "This attitude, of it being just about sex and not politics, implies that the freedom to do this, for women to have sex with other women, is not contested. People don't realize that the gains made by feminism and gay liberation are constantly being challenged. There should be space for all that [recreational sex], but when it comes right down to it, who's going to keep what we have from being taken away?"

That argument might be a hard sell, though, with women such as Sara, or with the young women in Club 477. They aren't scarred by the battles, and they don't see any in their future. What was once a hidden desire, and then a fought-for right, is their unquestioned choice on a Saturday night. They are the poster girls for the "Let's get lucky" era.

Copyright 1999 The Globe and Mail