The question was brought up yesterday at a “Woman to Woman” forum on issues facing lesbians that was hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles. The unanimous response from the panelists was “yes.” Of course, some of the topics were specific to the lesbian community, but it’s important to recognize that the stereotypes placed on lesbians are those that have been used for years to oppress, belittle, and shame all women.
Lieutenant Yana Horvatich of the Los Angeles Police Department spoke about the challenges she’s faced there during her 24 years as an officer. Horvatich spoke about how back in the ‘80s, there were very few women on police patrol. When they did get those positions, male police officers would complain to their dispatchers that they didn’t want to work with “tunaboat.” Horvatich said she and other women in law enforcement had to overcome male chauvinism and women in general had to constantly prove that they could do the job as well as men. Sound familiar?
On the other hand, I’m pretty sure most straight women don’t deal with stories like this one: Anne-Marie Williams, executive director of the California Lesbian Project, told the story about her visit to a medical doctor in Beverly Hills a few years back to the doctor to discuss her allergies. The doctor, a woman, asked about her sexual practices, and Anne-Marie told her that she didn’t want to answer the question. When the doctor kept probing her about it, Anne-Marie gave in and told her she was a lesbian. At that point the doctor pulled her own skirt down, stepped back, and told Anne-Marie that their session was over and that she should go to a gynecologist for her medical needs.
I was appalled upon hearing this story. How can a female doctor, who should understand the challenges women face just for being women, treat patient this way? Was she really that ignorant that her perception of Anne-Marie changed so drastically when she found out she was gay?
Effects of Shame, Fear, and Low Self-Esteem
Licensed clinical social worker J. Denise Fuller explained how stories like this make many lesbians afraid or ashamed to go to the doctor or to come out of the closet. According to Dr. Allison Diamant of UCLA, research shows that lesbians in the U.S., in comparison to straight women:
• have a higher rate of depression and anxiety
• have a higher rate of substance abuse
• have a higher rate of obesity
• have a higher rate of smoking
On top of it all, the LGBT population has a much higher suicide rate than the non-LGBT population, especially among youth.
Are we harming ourselves?
When we treat each other the way that doctor treated Anne-Marie, we only perpetuate the negative stereotypes about women and lesbians that women have fought against for so many years.
I remember being called a “militant feminist” a few times over the years. The first time, I said to the guy: “What makes me militant? Am I carrying a gun?” If anyone is militant, I’m pretty sure it’s the male politicians in our country who are so obsessed with proving that we have the largest and wealthiest defense in the world. But that’s a topic for another blog post.
At the end of yesterday’s panel, Anne-Marie told how she confronted the doctor, helping her see that she had mistreated her. I’m not sure what the details are, but Anne-Marie said the doctor continued working with her and eventually saved her life. It doesn’t matter if we’re lesbians, queer, straight, old, young, single, divorced, married, teenagers, or whatever--we’re women and we have to work on standing up for ourselves. Nothing changes when we remain quiet or ignore the plight of others in our own communities.
For me, lesbian issues are women’s issues. They are my issues and I take them personally.
I’d love to hear your stories about negative stereotypes you’ve faced and how you’ve dealt with them.