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August 2, 2014

Reviewing ‘Straight Expectations’ by Julie Bindel

by Jess Guth

Curled up in our summerhouse on a giant beanbag in middle class sort of suburbia not a million miles away from Hebden Bridge I have just finished reading Julie Bindel’s new book ‘Straight Expectations’. Before I had finished the book Professor Chris Ashford published his review of the text on his blog. Initially I thought I didn’t really have anything to add to his thoughts. I agree with everything he says in that post so blogging a review repeating what he has already said seemed pointless. However, having finished the book now, I think I do have something to say.
Bindel’s book was on my list to read urgently (I have various lists!) for a number of reasons. I contributed to one of her surveys and was interested to see the results of that survey, I am strangely fascinated by identity; often disagree profoundly with Bindel and was slightly irritated by the subtitle ‘What Does it Mean to be Gay Today’ because surely that depends on a whole host of factors and I also thought the book might help me also develop my own research on LGBTQ legal academics.
Let me start by saying that I think you should read the book. It is an amazingly honest and open book and we need more of those. Ashford is right in calling it a very personal book and it is a book that certainly made me reflect, think, laugh cry, get angry and think a bit more. It’s a few hours since I finished the book and I can’t shake off the feeling that, as a lesbian, I must be such a disappointment to Bindel. But let me try and do this in some kind of order.
One of Bindel’s key arguments is that the campaign for equality and in particular marriage equality as well as the right to ‘acquire’ (her words) children is actually inherently conservative. I don’t really disagree with her. I have never been at all interested in marriage, gay or straight. I don’t particularly like weddings, I don’t get the point, the significance or why anyone would want to get married – actually particularly women. However, what I do get is that it is really really important to some people and that these people are not being screwed by the patriarchy, they don’t need liberating, they have thought about it and the implications and made the decision to get married. That of course doesn’t always hold true and I remain deeply suspicious of the institution of marriage but I just don’t believe that everyone entering into wedded bliss has been brainwashed into supporting the patriarchy.
It may surprise some people that the sections in Bindel’s book about children and the increasing trend amongst gay men and lesbians to have children irritated me the most. I don’t like kids. There are very few children I tolerate, even fewer that I like. I have friends with children and in spite of the joy that their offspring clearly bring them, I fail to see why anyone would want to put themselves through all of that. Quite frankly I find having cats stressful enough, I don’t have a biological clock (and strongly suspect it’s a societal clock rather than a biological one anyway), I have no maternal instincts… and even if I did I am not sure I understand this urge to have biologically related children. There are so many kids out there who would benefit from a loving stable home – why not look at adoption/fostering etc, particularly now the legal barriers have been removed (I do agree with Bindel here though that the law is way ahead of societal attitudes here). So, so far I have agreed with the narrative in the book – so why the irritation. Well, I feel deeply uncomfortable about making claims about what is and isn’t right for people. Personally I can’t really think of anything worse in my life than pregnancy and having a sprog but I have also seen a lot of people who have genuinely blossomed and come alive once they had children. Why criticise that? Why suggest that if they are gay or lesbian and have the desire to have children of their own, they are somehow letting the side down by wanting to become just like ‘them’ (meaning straight folk). I also felt a little uneasy about the distinction made (implicitly) between lesbians who had kids from straight relationships which they had left (good lesbian) and lesbians who decide to have children as single lesbians or in lesbian couples (bad or at least not so good lesbian). I just do not think that Bindel, me or indeed anyone else are in a position to tell people what they should or shouldn’t want from their lives, be that babies or marriage
This brings me to the points she makes about marriage and marriage equality. I was genuinely excited about the change in the law that allows same-sex couples to marry. Why? Because I believe in equality. Do I think it takes the gay rights agenda any further forward – well no not really. Gay culture is about much much more and just because we have achieved equal rights does not mean the fight is over. There is a long ling way to go and Bindel captures this well. I am not sure I agree with her that we shouldn’t have bothered with marriage rights but should have always worked to overthrow the patriarchy though – maybe the patriarchy can still be dismantled! But the thing is, I have never been particularly activist or political. I have never been radical in that sense. I have never dressed ‘lesbian’ (whatever that means), I have always just been me and that me has never had a particularly lesbian identity. My sexual orientation has never been a big deal. I have no coming out story, at some point in my life I started having sex with women that was that, then I fell in love with one, that didn’t work out, then I fell in love with another. No dramas, no big political statement, no big personal statement. Did I choose to be a lesbian or was I born this way (another key debate Bindel picks up on). I don’t know, I don’t care, I don’t see why we should get so hung up about this. I understand the arguments Bindel makes here but I don’t find them that interesting and do not think they help us further. I am who I am and I have always been open about my personal life but I have never made that personal political in the sense that Bindel clearly has. Part of me admires her for that.
So I said towards the beginning of this post that I felt Bindel would surely be disappointed in me as a lesbian. I am not an activist, I am not radical, I do not speak out against the patriarchy all that much, my life can hardly be described as alternative. I am not even hippy enough to feel comfortable in Hebden Bridge, I don’t often go to gay/lesbian events and the last Pride I went to was a few years ago in Halifax. I don’t wear cocktail dresses or high heels but I also don’t express my identity as a lesbian through what I wear. I live in a pretty middle class area in domestic bliss… The only two things that might make me an acceptable lesbian in Bindel’s eyes is that I am suspicious of the institution of marriage and that I don’t want kids. But I guess to Bindel I am still letting the side down, I am still striving to be too much like ‘them’ and am still too much of a respectable face of lesbianism.
Or am I? I say I’m just me but that just being me isn’t always easy. I challenge my students to think differently, to challenge the patriarchy, to accept me for me as a professional, as a woman and as a lesbian. Sometimes what I say and do in the classroom is radical. Sometimes what my friends with children do is radical, sometimes being just like them is radical… Bindel’ hints at some of this and I welcomed that acknowledgement even though she is quite dismissive of it in the end. So, I am aware that I am now just rambling – you should read Bindel’s book, it’s thought provoking and it gives a snapshot of what it means to be gay for some of us today – actually I don’t mean ‘us’ here because even though I responded to her survey and even though there are some sections with which I absolutely agree, I just don’t see myself in the book, I don’t fit and that is bothering me.

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