Lesbians and the logic of cultural change

Ariel Levy reports on changes in the gay community, specially a group of women who emerged in the 1970s.

“The Van Dykes [were] a roving band of van-driving vegans who shaved their heads, avoided speaking to men unless they were waiters or mechanics, and lived on highways of North America for several years…”   

It's a wonderful article, necessary reading for someone who wants to keep in touch with what is happening in our culture.

There is an especially interesting quote that reveals something about how we go about cultural change:

Now, when the phrase “lesbian mom” is a commonplace, it’s hard to imagine a time when female homosexuality was imbued with a counterculture connotation so potent that women were drawn to it by ideology rather than by desire.  Similarly, if you are a young gay woman today, it can be difficult to understand the idea or organizing your entire existence around your sexual preference.  

In the early days, a new idea can be so powerful, it can inflect people’s very sense of desire.  It's as if people could not embrace the change at all unless they embraced it entirely.  Being a radical feminist transformed one’s entire life. 

But once the idea has helped remake our world, being a Lesbian doesn’t define everything else about you.  Now you are inclined to make your own choices.  Your politics, taste in music, choice of sports, manner of dress, these are what they are.  They may or may not be influenced by your sexual orientation. 

When it's brand new, the cultural change comes in like a lion.  It transforms everything about the individual.  The Diderot effect is formidable.  To make this choice is to make a much larger, more thoroughgoing set of choices.  But eventually, we return to a kind of modular culture, where the individual makes each choice discretely.  Our "Chinese menu" approach (i.e., "one from each column") is once more back in effect. 


Levy, Ariel.  2009.  Lesbian Nation.  The New Yorker.  March 2, 2009, pp. 30-37, p. 33.