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Not a ladies' auxiliary.

What's the difference between a gay man and a lesbian? I'm not sure the mainstream media could answer that. In the recent flood of coverage about us, a number of errors has made women invisible. Sometimes the error is as jaw-dropping as a comment that "gay men and lesbians" must be careful not to fall back into pre-AIDS sexual practices like anal sex (I actually did read this, in a New York Times op-ed) - as if this writer really believes lesbians have the same anatomies as gay men, or comparable AIDS risk. Sometimes it's more subtle, as when The Washington Post and The New York Times ran all-male photos of the April March on Washington, with captions about "gay men and lesbians."

Why do I worry about something so minor? Shouldn't I be glad that lesbians and gay men are getting any air time that isn't hate propaganda? Shouldn't I enjoy the solidarity imposed on our communities, which have often been separate, even hostile? Why not keep my mind focused on the issues we do have in common - civil rights in housing and jobs, recognition of our partnerships, freedom from violence and bigotry? Why get all picky about lesbians being treated as faux men?

We all know by now that it's dangerous to assume that women's experiences mirror men's. It leads to problems like all-male heart studies and all-male history books. It implies that men count and women don't. In the case of gay men and lesbians, the assumption leads to lopsided public discussions.

For instance, lesbians have been almost invisible in the gays-in-the-military debate, which concentrates on straight men's fears that gay men are sexual predators. In reality, women are discharged for homosexuality at three times the rate of men, across all the armed forces; in the Navy, women's discharge rate for homosexuality is ten times men's. Women who've been discharged speculate that homosexuality is an easy charge to bring against women who refuse a male commander's advances. In this case, noticing the differing realities of gay men and lesbians would mean examining the problems of women in a male institution - quite a different discussion from the generals' projected fears of Tailhook for straight boys.

But such civic reasons are only part of what makes me angry. It's simply painful when the world forgets that lesbians are women - anatomically, socially, emotionally, intellectually. That we were raised to be good girls, warned against bodily pleasures, infected with the desire to please. That we cluster in different professions and make only sixty-nine cents to a man's dollar. And that, because we're romantically interested in and socialize far more with each other than with gay men, our communities have developed quite separately, with each group reinforcing its own gender characteristics, whether natural or nurtured.

Why haven't reporters looked closely enough to notice that our two communities' institutions - gay men's and lesbians' - are often very separate? In any large city there are five or ten or fifteen "men's" bars to one or two "women's." The men's magazines and newspapers like Christopher Street and The Advocate have almost no female columnists and negligible female readership; the lesbians in my area read the feminist newspaper Sojourner or one of the new magazines like Deneuve. Many gay men like to believe there's more solidarity and similarity than actually exists, and are surprised when women feel differently. Is this belief what the media are picking up?

The truth is, when gay men and lesbians try to create a community institution jointly, it works only if both sides put a lot of effort into "gender parity," ensuring that both communities are represented. For instance, some newspapers and magazines try to reach both groups, but they know they're working against the many wo/men who look at the table of contents and grumble about a magazine that's so heavily fe/male.

Lesbians and gay men even cluster in different parts of each city. In lesbian and gay meccas like Provincetown or Key West, guest houses and beaches tend to segregate, with different social rituals for each. Even our histories are different: Many gay men don't have any idea that the 1970s and 1980s were times of churning political discussion in urban and college-centered lesbian communities, with feminism examining not just what it meant to be a woman, but also questions of race, class, and privilege. It's simply ignorant when men write that "gay men and lesbians" weren't politicized until AIDS, as asserted by, among many others, a well-known gay male journalist in The New York Times Magazine.

Of all the differences between our communities, AIDS is the most difficult to discuss - and one that has been particularly mishandled by the mainstream media. Because AIDS is so serious and terrifying, because it's so highlighted by the media, because it links the great American fears of sexual contamination and death, the disease has been widely used against gay men and lesbians. As we all know, AIDS is a defining experience for gay men today. Many are living in a war zone, losing a handful or a dozen or a hundred friends in far too few years.

But for most lesbians, getting involved with the AIDS crisis is a choice, not an inevitability. Many women - though by no means all - do help out the men who are dying or at risk as health-care providers or activists. But that's not because we're losing our lovers and lesbian friends. Statistically, lesbians are the lowest-risk group in the United States, with a lower rate of infection than any heterosexual group, urban or suburban. Pointing that out seems somehow callous and cruel, as if one were self-congratulatory about the virus's horrifying patterns of behavior. But noting differences is hardly gloating. Though some lesbians are at risk because of drug use or transfusions, prostitution or rape, it hasn't hit us as a community. It's easy to see why: Lesbian sex never exchanges semen and far less often exchanges blood, the two most potent carriers of HIV.

The mainstream media seem to have missed entirely this distinction between us. A Boston Globe film reviewer, discussing a documentary about the closing of a lesbian bar in San Francisco, attributed the club's demise to AIDS. Because gay men are dying, our bars close? His ignorant assumption prevented him from even seeing some of the real and complex reasons for the bar's closing: generational change, the twelve-step movement's popularity among lesbians, political shifts. With a jerk of the knee, he shut out women's actual reality and substituted men's.

With the media making this mistake, how can I expect people around me to know better? As part of Boston's Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Speakers Bureau, I find young college students - who face greater AIDS risk than I do - asking if I'm afraid of the disease. Even my well-educated aunt, after I'd been persistently ill a few years ago, asked if I had AIDS.

Ironically, the mainstream media's willingness to use the phrase "gay men and lesbians" stems from the 1980s' heated debate among gay men and lesbians about nomenclature. To ensure we were represented, women insisted on the phrase "gay men and lesbians," because so many people heard "gay," when used alone, as meaning men, or as including women only as a sort of ladies' auxiliary, a female version of the boys. Unfortunately, tacking on the word "lesbian" while ignoring our reality erases us just as effectively as not mentioning us at all.

Which brings me to a larger question: So what? Why should the media - or any of us, for that matter - care about the particular realities of other cultures? Part of the answer lies in the civic realm: If policy-makers believe they've covered "gay" issues in the military hearings, they'll ignore the problems of lesbians in the military; if they believe AIDS is the "gay" health issue, they'll ignore lesbian health; if advertisers believe they've hit the "gay" market with The Advocate, they won't bother investing dollars in lesbian magazines.

But I think my question is also a more personal one, a question about why people bother learning about people outside our own homogeneous enclaves. What is it in our natures that willingly takes time to learn - when offered a glimpse through newspapers, television, books, movies - about Pakistani immigrants in London, women hunting for bread in Moscow, native communities in the Southwest? Some of that impulse is an almost voyeuristic curiosity about how other human beings live; some is a desire to escape our ordinary lives into others' apparently more exotic realities.

But I confess to harboring another, more utopian, hope: that by learning about each others' worlds, by refusing to gloss over each others' lives with glib labels, we might treat each other more generously in the end. Is it too much to ask the media to pay just a bit more attention, and show lesbians as we actually are?
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Title Annotation:media coverage of gays neglects lesbians
Author:Graff, E.J.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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Next Article:All-gay television.

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