WHEN an article on Germaine Greer was published by the Star Observer recently, I noticed that the comments were aggressively misogynistic.
Distressed by how much this excluded and insulted women in the LGBTI community, I asked commenters to stop using such hurtful and upsetting language in their posts. As a lesbian, I expected that my community would be a relatively safe place, and I expected a degree of solidarity. What resulted was hours of increased insults, ridicule and finally personal abuse.
Most responders were male and they used crude, aggressive and dismissively sexist language to attack first Greer, and then me, in post after post, correctly assuming that their comments would be tolerated by others.
Eventually, the Star Observer intervened and deleted the worst of the comments, but there remained a steady stream of insulting posts, eventually escalating to personal messages of abuse and lesbophobia.
Particularly upsetting were comments like this one:
I wonder how this person thinks women, particularly lesbians, would feel reading this. Lesbians here and elsewhere can face corrective rape and many of us have been coerced into heterosexuality at some point, with many more facing ongoing harassment. To propose rape, in essence, as a measure to bring women in line, is to show deep disregard for us, and channels centuries of misogyny and lesbophobia.
How would men in our community feel about this kind of hatred being directed at them in our community, where they should feel safe? I can’t even find an equivalent insult for men because society is so gendered and this kind of aggressive sexual threat is largely reserved for women.
This incident demonstrated what many women, online and in real life, know – that the first line of attack against women is sexist, and often sexually aggressive, abusive or threatening. When you speak up, the abuse gets worse and complaints about it are most often ridiculed, or at best ignored.
The hypocrisy of those who chose to use hate speech to condemn what they considered to be Greer’s harmful speech made me wonder how they would like to be told “shut up faggot” every time they voiced a complaint. We know such intolerable slurs to be obscene and hateful, yet I was persistently ridiculed for protesting similar abuse when it was directed at me.
Moreover, women were blamed for community disunity – the abuse of women wasn’t seen as a problem, just the act of rejecting it. Not only are we subjected to the ill-treatment itself, but we are also accused of doing harm when we speak out on our own behalf. The message is clear: “STFU.”
It is devastating that some of the most directed abuse I have received as a woman has been from our community, and that when I spoke out it intensified. This, and other experiences, suggests that there is nothing that women can say about misogyny that is mild enough to spare us from insults, threats and hatred, even from those who should have solidarity with us.
I ask – can we have a united community if women, and women alone, are seen as abusable and unimportant within the LGBTI community? What can unity mean if it requires silencing women?
Allowing anti-women hate speech and the suggestion of sexual violence against lesbian and bisexual women not only calls into question our representation within the community – whether we are valued at all – but must certainly undermine our participation. Who would want to stand up and speak for women when they see what happens to women who do?
In allowing women to be treated like this, we are told that sexism is acceptable, women’s boundaries don’t matter and that we should learn to put up with it, because to speak out is to invite more abuse. We are closeted by enforced silence – unable to speak safely about how we are treated and what it means.
This was not an isolated incident – from Gamergate to British academics requesting open debate, women’s speech is punished by online abuse and a torrent of hate in response to our daring to express an opinion. Our community knows about facing hatred and bigotry – is it too much to ask that we do better ourselves?
If the LGBTI community truly seeks to be a community, we need to support, not silence, all of our members. What you say to and about us makes a difference. We didn’t come out of the closet as lesbians and bisexual women only to be put back in it, by our own community.
Please, don’t condemn us to the closet we have all fought so hard to escape.
Liz Waterhouse is lesbian feminist and anonymous blogger.