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Radical lesbianism is a lesbian movement that challenges the status quo of heterosexuality and mainstream feminism. It arose in part because mainstream feminism did not actively include or fight for lesbian rights. The movement was started by lesbian feminist groups in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. A Canadian movement followed in the 1970s, which added momentum.[1] As it continued to gain popularity, radical lesbianism spread throughout Canada, the United States, and France. The French-based movement, Front des Lesbiennes Radicales, or FLR, organized in 1981 under the name Front des Lesbiennes Radicales.[2] Other movements, such as Radicalesbians, have also stemmed off of the larger radical lesbianism movement. In addition to being associated with social movements, radical lesbianism also offers its own ideology, similar to how feminism functions in both capacities.


Radical or "separatist" lesbianism and other similar movements represent a rupture with the broader feminist movements. They offer an attempt by some feminists and lesbians to try to reconcile what they see as inherent conflicts with the stated goals of feminism.  Many of these conflicts and ruptures are a result of issues arising from broader and nationally specifically cultural narratives around women. Some of them are created independently in response to these needs, while others draw inspiration from radical movements in other countries. This results in no single history of radical lesbianism, but of separate national struggles.[3]

Internationally, radical lesbians often took advantage of convergent international spaces to create their own events to increase the visibility of lesbianism. Examples of this include the 1994 lesbian march in New York on the 25th anniversary of Stonewall. Another example was at the 1995 Beijing hosted World women's Conference. A third example took place during the 1997 Amsterdam hosted Gay Games.[4]


In Asia, radical lesbianism lagged a decade behind Europe, Latin America and North America, with the movement not starting until the 1980s. It was in this period that activists starting forming their own groups and creating their own publications.[5]


European radical lesbianism developed during the 1970s in response to specific situations in different European countries. International Lesbian Front was created in 1974 in Frankfurt, Germany.[5] ILIS (International Lesbian Information System) was created in Amsterdam, the Netherlands in 1977.[5]


Following the 1970s Canadian movement, a radical lesbian movement in France began to take shape in 1981. Front des Lesbiennes Radicales was proposed as an organization in June 1981. In a way similar to the American and Canadian movements, these radical, French lesbians sought to carve out space for themselves within feminism and within politics as a whole. They focused on the representation of lesbians and excluded heterosexual women, although they differentiated themselves from lesbian separatism. [6]

Influence of Monique Wittig

The Front des Lesbiennes Radicales [fr] were inspired by the words and writings of French philosopher Monique Wittig,[7] and their philosophic inquiries began through a Paris-based group including Wittig and Simone de Beauvoir who published the journal Questions féministes.[8] Wittig's 1981 essay, One is not Born a Woman, titled after Simone de Beauvoir's observation, posits that "Lesbians are not women," as "what makes a woman is a specific social relation to a man, a relation that we have previously called servitude, a relation which implies personal and physical obligation as well as economic obligation, ... a relation which lesbians escape by refusing to become or to stay heterosexual".[9] Wittig also believed that "lesbianism provides ...the only social form in which (lesbians) can live freely".[9]

In the encyclopedia Who's Who in Lesbian and Gay Writing, editor Gabriele Griffin calls Wittig's writing "part of a larger debate about how heteropatriarchy and women's oppression within it might be resisted."[9]

Latin America

Latin American radical lesbianism developed during the 1970s, and like other parts of the movement, resulted from specific national conditions. Radical lesbianism began to develop in Mexico in 1977, led by the group Mujeres guerreras que abren caminos y esparcen flores (Oikabeth). Radical lesbianism arose in Chile in 1984 in response to national conditions resulting from the dictatorship. Costa Rica developed a radical lesbianism movement in 1986.[5]

During the 1980s and 1990s, life for lesbians in Latin America was difficult because of lesbophobic repression across the region. Consequently, the communities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Brazil began working more closely together on shared goals.[4]

North America


After gaining momentum in the U.S., radical lesbianism made its way to Canada in the 1970s. Quebec and Toronto were the predominant cities in which the Canadian movement took place. [1] Lesbian organizations in Canada focused on building up lesbian culture and making service available to the Canadian lesbian community.[1] The Lesbian Organization of Toronto, for example, established Amethyst, which provided services for lesbians who were struggling with addiction.[1]

United States

See also: History of lesbianism in the United States

Second-wave feminism was influential in the development of radical lesbianism, and the number of radical lesbian organizations in the U.S. grew from the 1960s through the early 1980s. Moreover, the creation of radical lesbianism was directly linked to other left-wing social movements such as the New Left, the Vietnam-era Antiwar movement, and the American civil rights movement.[10]


Radical and liberal movements

Though both radical and liberal currents within feminism seek social change, there is a distinctive difference between the two. Radical movements such as radical lesbianism seek to dismantle the status quo whereas liberal movements seek to reform it. Additionally, radical movements align with liberation whereas liberal movements focus more heavily on equality. Radical lesbianism specifically sought to challenge male domination and male-centered definitions of gender and sexuality.[10]

Lesbian separatism

The principles of radical lesbianism are similar to those of lesbian separatism; however, there are some important differences.[7][11] In her preface to Monique Wittig's The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Quebec radical lesbian Louise Turcotte explains her views that "Radical lesbians have reached a basic consensus that views heterosexuality as a political regime which must be overthrown."[7] Turcotte notes that lesbian separatists "create a new category" (i.e., complete separation not only from men but also from heterosexual women)"[7] and that the radical lesbian movement aims for the "destruction of the existing framework of heterosexuality as a political regime".[7] Turcotte goes on to discuss Adrienne Rich's landmark essay, Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, noting that Rich describes heterosexuality as a violent political institution that has to be "imposed, managed, organized, propagandized and maintained by force".[12] Rich sees lesbian existence as an act of resistance to this institution, but also as an individual choice, whereas the principles of radical lesbianism see lesbianism as necessary, and consider its existence as necessarily outside of the heterosexual political sphere of influence.[7]


Radical lesbianism is separate from other feminist movements because it exists in opposition to the exclusion of lesbian women from mainstream feminism. For example, Radicalesbians formed in response to Betty Friedan's declaration that lesbians should not be involved in the feminist movement because they were a "lavender menace" on the movement's work.[13][14] The group repurposed the phrase "lavender menace," painting it on t-shirts in preparation for a protest at the Second Congress to Unite Women in May 1970.[15] There, they distributed "The Woman-Identified Woman," which remains a key early lesbian-feminist work.[16][17]

Internal problems

A radical lesbian community in Toronto excluded those who were bisexual, or identified as trans women.[1]: 80 

Creating a culture

The end goal of many radical lesbian groups was to create a new lesbian culture outside of the confines of heterosexuality. One way of doing this was through the written word. The 1980s and 1990s saw the development of a number of Francophone lesbian periodicals in Quebec, Canada, including Amazones D'Hier: Lesbiennes d'Aujourd'hui, Treize, and L'Evidante Lesbienne.[18] This was also a period of strength for French-language lesbian presses, such as Editions nbj and Oblique Editrices, and lesbian bookstores like Montreal's L'Essentielle.[18]

Radical movements seek to challenge the status quo, producing material goods such as art, music, and other consumable goods — a consumerism that leads to tangible representations of identity. Lesbian activists also began cultivating their own material economy.[19]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Ross, Becki (Summer 1990). "The House That Jill Built: Lesbian Feminist Organizing in Toronto, 1976-1980". Feminist Review (35): 75–91. doi:10.2307/1395402. JSTOR 1395402. OCLC 60772339.
  2. ^ Martel, Frederic. The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France Since 1968, Stanford University Press, 2000, ISBN 0-8047-3274-4, p119
  3. ^ Falquet, Jules (2004). Breve reseña de Algunas teorías lésbicas [Brief review of Some lesbian theories] (in Spanish). Mexico: fem-e-libros. p. 30.
  4. ^ a b Falquet, Jules (2004). Breve reseña de ALGUNAS TEORÍAS LÉSBICAS [Brief review of some lesbian theories] (in Spanish). Mexico. p. 39.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  5. ^ a b c d Falquet, Jules (2004). Breve reseña de ALGUNAS TEORÍAS LÉSBICAS [Brief review of some lesbian theories] (in Spanish). Mexico. pp. 32–33.((cite book)): CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. ^ "La Scission Du "Front des Lesbiennes Radicales"". Nouvelles Questions Féministes. 1 (2): 124–126. June 1981.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Turcotte, Louise. (foreword) The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Monique Wittig, Beacon Press, 1992, ISBN 0-8070-7917-0, p ix-x
  8. ^ Duchen, Claire. Feminism in France: From May '68 to Mitterrand, Routledge, 1986, ISBN 0-7102-0455-8, p24
  9. ^ a b c Wittig, Monique (1992). The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Beacon Press. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-8070-7917-1. OCLC 748998545.
  10. ^ a b Poirot, Kristan (2009). "Domesticating the Liberated Woman: Containment Rhetorics of Second Wave Radical/Lesbian Feminism". Women's Studies in Communication. 32 (3): 263–292. doi:10.1080/07491409.2009.10162391. S2CID 144728212.
  11. ^ Kramarae & Spender. Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women's Issues, Routledge, 2000, ISBN 0-415-92089-2, p785
  12. ^ Rich, Adrienne. Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Signs 5, no.4, Summer 1980
  13. ^ Rapp, Linda (2004). "Radicalesbians" (PDF). GLBTQArchive. Retrieved March 9, 2024.
  14. ^ Shumsky, Ellen (2009). "Radicalesbians". Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. 16 (4).
  15. ^ "Lavender Menace Action at Second Congress to Unite Women – NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project". Retrieved 2024-03-09.
  16. ^ "The Woman-Identified Woman / Women's Liberation Movement Print Culture / Duke Digital Repository". Duke Digital Collections. Retrieved 2024-03-09.
  17. ^ "Woman-Identified Woman". The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. Oxford University Press. 2005. doi:10.1093/acref/9780195066081.001.0001. ISBN 9780195066081. In the spring of 1970, during the second Congress to Unite Women, a group calling themselves the Radicalesbians submitted a position paper entitled 'The Woman-Identified Woman.'
  18. ^ a b Gammon, Carolyn. Lesbian Studies in Francophone Institutions and Organizations, in Gay and Lesbian Studies Henry L. Minton, Ed., Haworth Press, 1992, ISBN 1-56023-021-5, p155
  19. ^ Murray, Heather (2007). "Free for All Lesbians: Lesbian Cultural Production and Consumption in the United States during the 1970s". Journal of the History of Sexuality. 16 (2): 251–275. doi:10.1353/sex.2007.0046. PMID 19244670. S2CID 9416941.