Mairead Sullivan on Lesbian Feminist World-building

Feb 22, 2023

In episode 149 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews women’s and gender studies professor Mairead Sullivan about the histories and futures of lesbian feminism.

Mairead is the author of the new book Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger between Feminist and Queer, which offers a love letter to lesbian feminist world building while also refuting the weaponization of lesbian identity against trans lives and trans communities.

In their conversation, Mairead and Cathy explore how the political and economic project of lesbian feminism has evolved over time and how different generations of queer and trans folks have remade what the identity of lesbian can and does mean.

They also delve into experiences of aging, anxieties over the loss of the lesbian bar scene, and the complex ways ambivalence and nostalgia play out in contemporary queer and feminist politics.

Finally, they close out the interview with a vision for a lesbian feminist future, one grounded in intersectional, trans-inclusive, and capacious ways of imagining otherwise.

In this episode

  • The politics of lesbian identity and its changing meaning over time
  • Lesbian feminism as a “life question” as well as a political, cultural, and economic movement
  • How generationality and aging shape our identities and political organizing
  • The recurring question of the death of lesbian bars and its impact on various communities
  • Ambivalence and nostalgia in contemporary queer politics
  • The promise of lesbian feminist world-building
Cover of Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger between Feminist and Queer, with yellow wall of writing on lavender background

About Mairead Sullivan

Mairead Sullivan is an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Loyola Marymount University and affiliated faculty in the Health and Society Program.

Mairead brings a background in community-driven public health activism to feminist and queer cultural studies.

Mairead is the author of Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger between Feminist and Queer (University of Minnesota Press, 2022), which offers a love letter to lesbian feminist world building while also refuting the weaponization of lesbian identity against trans lives and trans communities.

Currently, Mairead is at work on cultural biography of the herpes virus.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

[00:00:00] Cathy Hannabach: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about bridging art, activism, and academia to build more just futures.

I’m Cathy Hannabach, and today we are delving into the histories and futures of lesbian feminism.

My guest in this episode is Mairead Sullivan, who’s an associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Loyola Marymount University as well as affiliated faculty in the health and society program.

[00:00:29] Mairead is the author of a new book called Lesbian Death: Desire and Danger Between Feminist and Queer. This book offers a love letter to lesbian feminist world-building, while also refuting the weaponization of lesbian identity against trans lives and trans communities.

In our conversation, me and I explore how the political and economic project of lesbian feminism has evolved pretty radically over time, and how different generations of queer and trans folks have remade what the identity of lesbian can and does mean.

[00:01:01] We also delve into our own experiences of aging, as well as anxieties over the loss of the lesbian bar scene and the complex ways that ambivalence and nostalgia play out in contemporary queer and feminist politics.

Finally, we close out the interview with the vision for a lesbian feminist future, one that’s grounded in intersectional, trans-inclusive, and capacious ways of imagining otherwise.

Thank you so much for being with us today.

[00:01:27] Mairead Sullivan: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

[00:01:30] Cathy Hannabach: So, in the introduction to your book, you tell a story about a housemate of yours declaring a need to reclaim the word lesbian. I’m curious how that comment and the conversations that ensued because of it, how did they help plant the seeds for what became this book?

[00:01:46] Mairead Sullivan:

Yeah, thanks. This is a great question because I’m excited to be able to share a little bit more of the context that I was living in that anecdote that I shared. So, this conversation happened around 2008 and at the time, for my day job, I was working as a project manager for the Women’s Wellbeing Studies at Boston University.

[00:02:09] Calling it the Women’s Wellbeing Studies is a bit of a misnomer because our focus was actually on lesbians and on lesbian breast cancer specifically. We were looking at quality of life issues with an attention to sexuality and body image that lesbian breast cancer survivors faced. But, and this is in 2008, we couldn’t actually use the word lesbian.

[00:02:31] So in all of our recruiting materials, we used language like women who partner with women, maybe even, I think women affiliated women. This was supposed to be a kind of mirror to public health language of men who have sex with men. But the reason that we couldn’t use lesbian was actually twofold.

[00:02:50] So on the one hand, it was assumed to be off-putting that the women who we were talking to, and again this is women who are breast cancer survivors. To be classified as a survivor, you have to be at least five years post-treatment. Most of the folks we were in contact with were age 50 or above.

[00:03:10] There was this sense that this language of lesbian didn’t resonate with the women we were talking to, that it would be off-putting, and they wouldn’t necessarily connect to this language.

But also, there was a sense that it could be dangerous. So, we were mailing recruitment materials to people on the Massachusetts Cancer Registry, which is sort of the equivalent of cold calling.

[00:03:29] So every once in a while we’d pull a new block of people up and we’d send them a letter saying, we’re recruiting for this research study. And the thought was that if we put the word lesbian in the materials, we could either risk offending people or outing them. And again, I think it’s important to point out that this was Massachusetts in 2008, so we’re four years into gay marriage as legal in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is considered the top of the top for gay equality, etc.

[00:03:49] But actually at one point even the IRB shut down our recruitment efforts because a woman who had received the recruitment materials, that did not contain the word lesbian, thought we were accusing her of being a lesbian because she was listed as unmarried.

[00:04:10] Yeah. And so, we got shut down for six whole weeks while we had to sort of convince the IRB that it was okay to reach out to lesbians and try to find them in these ways or with this language of women who partner with women.

[00:04:35] So in my day job, I’m working pretty much exclusively on lesbian issues, but in my social and political world, I was very much a part of queer and trans organizing that was pushing back against the exclusionary practices of women’s space and at this time, specifically against the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.

A year prior, my housemates and I had been at the center of protests and the subsequent canceling of the musician Bitch’s performance at the Boston Dyke March, which is one of the fomenting moments in the way too long, I would argue, slide to the end of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival.

[00:04:57] But this was really in that time from about 2005 onwards, when there were mass protests against performers who were still, or artists who were still performing at Michigan, despite their doubling down on the exclusion of trans women from that space. And so, my roommates and I were just sitting around our kitchen table and my roommate is like, “We need to take back lesbian, like we need to make it ours.” This is happening in this strange political moment in both my life and my work.

[00:05:20] So on the one hand, lesbians being weaponized at Michigan and at many women’s only spaces. And just prior, I was also involved in writing a white paper at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center about why trans women should be included in the women’s only space of the rape crisis center.

[00:05:44] Lesbian had sort of like lost its political edge. So, in my experience then, it was actually something that older generations, the women in my study, were disidentifying with because of its long association with a specific strand of radical feminism. Or it becomes this thing that the IRB doesn’t want us to use because if women see the word lesbian, we might be accusing them of this sort of bad acting, if you will.

[00:06:03] All those conversations are happening separate from the conversations about trans exclusion at MichFest. And so, when my roommate offered this, my immediate reaction was like, “Hell no. I want nothing to do with this strand of lesbian that’s being weaponized, that we’re being told you have to be in this certain way or, is really being gate kept and guarded.

[00:06:33] And yet the next day I got up and tracked off to this job that I really loved where I got to talk to lesbians. And one of the things that we learned in that research study was actually that lesbians had far greater social supports than their heterosexual peers.

And so, in some of our measures, lesbians actually had better outcomes for reasons that had everything to do coming of age and coming up through lesbian feminist politics.

[00:06:59] And so in 2010, when I went back to graduate school for my PhD, I was interested in tracing lesbian health politics and specifically in regard to breast cancer.

I talk a little bit in the book about how in the early 1990s there was this sort of declaration of the lesbian breast cancer epidemic, and that’s what led to my being employed on this grant-funded public health research program, talking to lesbians with breast cancer.

[00:07:25] And so I was interested in tracing the political organizing that got us there.

But while I was working on my dissertation, I was in the archives looking for, what were lesbians, lesbian feminists, feminists talking about around breast cancer in the 1970s. And that’s when I stumbled on the CLIT papers. CLIT stands for Collective Lesbian International Terrorists.

[00:07:44] They wrote these amazing manifestos in the style of Valerie Solanas, that I talk about in my book. But as I was reading them, I was flooded with this same kind of joy that I found as a younger queer person when I was in college, and I discovered lesbian feminism.

[00:08:05] It’s important to note as I did that this conversation I talk about in the book is in 2008 when really there’s so much mainstream gay and lesbian organizing around gay marriage and there’s so much queer organizing that’s pushing back against the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian life.

[00:08:24] And so it’s in the archives in 2013, when I find the CLIT papers, that I actually realized what my housemate was talking about that day. And it made me realize in this whole new way that it’s this kind of political force, the political force that made it so that we weren’t allowed to call our research subjects lesbians lest they be mistaken for feminists,

[00:08:45] that my housemate was really arguing for, and also that they were really naming the way that lesbian was taken up in a trans-exclusionary paradigm and weaponized against those of us who were committed to the kinds of imagining otherwise that lesbian feminism represented.

[00:09:07] And so that’s really the seed for how this project became a project about lesbian feminism that still anchors itself actually, I think in lesbian breast cancer and the switch point I identified in the 1990s, but also, it centers my own vexed experience in lesbian political organizing and also disidentification with lesbian as an identity term.

[00:09:30] Cathy Hannabach: Generationality seems a key part of this, and you talk quite extensively about this in the book, and I think when I was reading this book, I also had very similar kinds of memories and a certain degree of nostalgia of living these transitions of what that term has meant, what that term has allowed and enabled, and then the kind of limitations of how the term moves in different spaces.

[00:09:56] You talk about that you’ve written this book not just for fellow scholars or academics, not just for activists and various communities, but specifically for students as well. You say that, and I’m going to quote from the book, you say, “I have written this book because I feel myself holding on to the political and identitarian commitments that served me, but no longer serve my students.”

[00:10:18] What does that mean for you, and what do you hope that the book will do for students in particular who might have a really different relationship to the term lesbian?

[00:10:29] Mairead Sullivan: Yeah. Great. This is such an important question that is, as you point out, a central question to the book.

[00:10:38] Two weeks ago I had coffee with some former students who had recently purchased my book. One of my best former students, who’s now a good friend, said that she had bought copies of the book for her friends for Christmas before she had read it.

And then she started reading it and she got really nervous that her friends, who are all mid/young 20s lesbians, would be really upset and defensive about the book. And I should pause quickly to say, we quickly realized they won’t be, and I hope that that Molly and her friends love the book.

[00:11:01] But this was such a shocking report to me because I’ve envisioned this book as speaking to my generation and above who I think worry that lesbian is falling out of fashion, that no one wants to be a lesbian anymore.

[00:11:23] And yet here’s Molly telling me that like actually all of her friends are very committed and invested in lesbian identity and in lesbian space in ways that are capacious.

And I mean, to say that they are trans-inclusive erases the centrality of trans women to lesbian space and lesbian politics and lesbian identity currently.

[00:11:45] I want to share that anecdote because it was surprising to me. But I’ll come back to why I wrote the book and what I hoped it would do and how that’s changing now that the book’s out in the world.

In many ways, I envisioned that the audience for this book would be people in a generation slightly above me. And I think the question of generations is, as you point out, really central.

[00:12:07] And, I’ve been writing this book as I find myself in a middle generation. And so, I’ve been thinking also a lot about my own experience of aging and of you being not in the bar scene as much as I was in my 20s, and just the different ways that I do my political organizing now that I have other commitments, etc.

[00:12:30] But I had envisioned this book as sort of speaking to the generation or to those of us who might worry that lesbian is falling out of fashion to say like, “Hey, you know, it might not look how you expect it to look, but lesbian is still here.”

It is still a political ideology. It’s one that people find great pleasure in. But also, if you’re really worried about lesbian and the persistence of lesbian identity, then we need to worry especially about the weaponization of lesbian and the ways that that weaponization is taken up against trans communities, but even more violently and specifically against trans women.

[00:13:05] For my students, I think of it as offering that kind of history that’s able to parse lesbian from identity to think about like what was the project and how does the project of lesbian change in different moments?

But as I sit here thinking about Molly and her friends, I’m recognizing that I hope that this actually serves as a tool for my students, for people who are younger than me

[00:13:37] to think about how to both preserve lesbian culture, but also to recognize that they are lesbian culture. That it, doesn’t have to look any one way if we think of lesbian, as I propose that we do, as a political project of world building.

I should note that I’m drawing that, especially, not only from decades of lesbian work, but also most recently from Sara Ahmed who talks about lesbian feminism as a life question and as a sort of inroads to imagining otherwise.

[00:14:07] That’s what I experienced as a young person who discovered lesbian feminism and got to re-experience reading the CLIT papers. It’s what I get to see my students experience when we read Cheryl Clark and Robert Reid-Pharr on living as a lesbian in my queer theory classes.

[00:14:34] And I think that part of the generational challenge is for me and those in my generation and perhaps above, to actually get to appreciate, enjoy, and experience the ways that younger people now are taking up lesbian and in some ways taking up that project of hand-wringing about lesbian that, I think, I thought this book might help to put an end to.

And I think since talking to younger people, I’ve been able to say, you know, it’s true.

[00:14:54] There’s a lot of work that worrying about lesbian does. And I talk about this in the book in my chapter about bars or about lesbian spaces.

I think I’ve been resistant to that lesbian hand-wringing because on the one hand I can look and see like there’s lesbians everywhere. When I share with strangers on a plane, like, “Oh, I’m, I’m writing a book about how no one wants to be a lesbian.”

[00:15:12] They’re often like, “Oh, I know a lot of lesbians.” And so, there’s this sort of like empirical retort.

But the joy of this project is actually to see that there’s ways in which the motor of lesbian life is about worrying about the motor of lesbian life, and that those worries are maybe actually what’s different, not so much the commitment that lesbian brings.

and that there maybe this is just a part of an ongoing conversation that is necessary to lesbian life.

[00:15:40] Maybe this is just a part of an ongoing conversation that is necessary to lesbian life. That is the hand-wringing about lesbian’s political commitment, its project, and what it is that lesbian imagines otherwise.

[00:15:50] Cathy Hannabach: I totally hear you on the hand-wringing thing. I think that definitely has not gone away. But I’m also wondering if that’s part of the pleasure of it, or that’s part of the critical ability that the identity, that the term, that the community, that the meaning has. It’s not one thing. It’s never been one thing. No one has ever agreed what it means—

[00:16:10] Mairead Sullivan: Right.

Cathy Hannabach: And that’s good.

Mairead Sullivan: 50 plus years of attempts.

[00:16:15] Cathy Hannabach: Exactly. Often that hand-wringing can come out in some pretty intense and sometimes very negative ways, but it’s also part of the living of the term and letting it change and morph and letting ourselves have really complicated relationships to it.

[00:16:32] Mairead Sullivan: Absolutely. Absolutely I’m really resistant to thinking about generations in a kind of chronological sense. Like, oh, you get older and then you understand things better or etc.

I think it’s actually often the opposite, right? But I think that there is something about having lived through the various iterations of this conversation that I think gives you a new sense to be able to say like, oh, we were worrying about this 25 years ago.

[00:16:54] And we’re going to keep worrying and maybe it’s not resisting the worrying, but actually leaning into it and as you point out, noting that that’s a lot of the pleasure.

[00:17:10] Cathy Hannabach: Can we talk about lesbian bars? This is your first case study in the book, and it is one that I think is very familiar for a lot of folks.

[00:17:18] Why do you think that that example continues to strike such a deep chord, even in mainstream pop culture and even with all of the transformations that have happened to lesbian bars over the decades?

[00:17:31] Mairead Sullivan: Yeah, my opening case study is the closing of the Lexington Bar in San Francisco. Even this question of the death of lesbian bars is an ongoing one.

[00:17:41] So, the Lex closes in 2015. There are numerous lesbian bars that close around that time, but the Lex really stands out as if San Francisco can’t keep a lesbian bar going, then we’re all doomed.

But Maud’s, another lesbian bar, closed in San Francisco in 1993, and the reaction was exactly the same.

I think it was the San Francisco Chronicle, maybe the Examiner, lamented, how can we have a San Francisco without a dedicated lesbian bar? And it was still four more years until the Lex opened.

[00:18:07] So, on the one hand, I do think that the question about lesbian bars is also a recurring question. But I think bars can be such a place to attach these conversations for two reasons, the first of which is that they’re hyper-local

[00:18:31] and so we experience the loss of our bars in a real day-to-day way, perhaps differently than how we might experience this sort of idea that no one’s identifying as a lesbian anymore, which again, is just not true.

But we might not experience it so directly as we do not being able to go to, you know, queeraoke on Thursday night. Anyone in Jamaica Plain knows that that’s actually still going, but it’s the first one that came to my mind.

[00:18:54] But, you know, Toast was the lesbian bar that closed when I was in Boston, but it was also the lesbian bar that opened when I was in Boston.

So even though it had had such a short life, it really did stand out for us as this evidence of the assault, if you will, on lesbian life, but really the evidence of lesbians’ failure too to reach that kind of economic stability that can keep a bar going.

[00:19:19] And what I point to in the book is that even that claim, that lesbian bars fail because lesbians don’t have enough money to spend there, fails to take into account the ways in which all bars are part of wider sociopolitical systems under capitalism and how businesses run in cities.

But I think also bars for lesbians have been such a place of community organizing.

[00:19:44] So many of us can look to these sorts of fomenting moments of our political life as lesbians or our lesbian political life, and it starts in bars. I mean, I can remember as a college student, organizing with other queer students on campus, not just lesbians, but we were a small school and a small Catholic school.

[00:20:04] And so we would rent a van to drive into Boston to go to the bars. And that was like sort of our first, for many of us, our first entry into queer life and into queer politics. And so, I think that bars become that first symptom because they’re so local. But also, bars are such a central part of our political life and political organizing that the loss of them is felt so much more.

[00:20:31] This is sort of a passing comment in the book, but we don’t have as much hand-wringing or worry or even lamenting over the disappearance of other spaces like women’s health centers, rape crisis centers, or even the corporatization of those spaces. And I think that that’s an interesting question as well, and one that, that I sort of pose in the book, but don’t actually have an answer for.

[00:21:01] Cathy Hannabach: Two of the big themes that I see across this project that you talk quite a lot about are ambivalence and nostalgia and how those things get wrapped up with each other in some really complex ways. What work do you see ambivalence and nostalgia doing culturally now around queer community building and politics?

[00:21:17] Mairead Sullivan: Yeah, this is a fun question. I think nostalgia is really important. I want to point readers to two other books that I think do a really great job of theorizing queer nostalgia in this moment: Cait McKinney’s book Information Activism and Marika Cifor’s book Viral Cultures, both of which think through what does it mean to feel an attachment to a political moment that you weren’t a part of that but that has been so informative to you and one that was marred by violence and harm and all of these things both internally to the movement and externally to the movement.

[00:21:51] But for me, ambivalence is really one of the animating stances that I take in the project. I’m pulling my use of ambivalence from psychoanalysis and specifically from Melanie Klein. We tend to think of ambivalence as this kind of like flippant dismissal or like, I don’t care, I’m ambivalent, I could go either way.

[00:22:13] In Klein, or in psychoanalysis but specifically in Klein, ambivalence really names a state of deep love and also hatred and the ways in which love and hate are bound together. In many ways, you can’t hate something unless you love it, that hate comes from a love and attachment, a need.

[00:22:36] I open the project by thinking through my own ambivalent stance to lesbian, both to lesbian identity but even to lesbian politics, to lesbian the word. And I do so to really mark that I am here because of lesbian. My personal life, my political life, my intellectual life is grounded in and informed by lesbian feminism.

[00:23:02] And, yet I find myself at odds with so much of what lesbian demands of me as an identity, as a politics and demands of my community. It would be easy to walk away from lesbian, seemingly.

What drives this project is that as much as I have historically disidentified with lesbian as an identity category, I’m so attached to lesbian politics.

[00:23:30] I’m so attached to lesbian histories. I’m so attached to the promise of lesbian world making. I see that not only for myself but in my peers, in my students, in my mentors, in the world around me.

And so, I felt this kind of dissonance with this wider claim that lesbian life is leaving, bars are closing, no one wants to be a lesbian anymore, lesbian is dead

[00:23:56] and simultaneously feeling that so many people in my life, so many communities that I’m a part of, were really claiming these lesbian histories and these lesbian politics.

To me, ambivalence is not like a sort of take it or leave it, but to be able to love something so much that you hate it or to be able to recognize that the thing that makes you so mad, the thing that makes you feel so bad is actually because you have this deep attachment.

[00:24:24] I wanted to explore what that attachment was for myself and for my communities, And I think that attachment is to this promise of lesbian worldmaking. In the words of Pat Parker, it’s not neat or pretty, and the revolution is not quick. But beneath the failures, beneath the complications, even beneath the real violences that have been enacted in the name of lesbian is something that we are all still holding onto.

[00:24:52] Cathy Hannabach: I think that’s a really nice dovetail into my final question, which really gets at why you do this kind of work and the commitments that guide it. So, in the spirit of imagining otherwise, what is that world that you’re working toward? What kind of world do you want?

[00:25:10] Mairead Sullivan: This one is the hardest question.

Cathy Hannabach: I know! It’s why it’s my favorite.

Mairead Sullivan: It seems like it should be the easiest, this is the question that you ask everyone on the podcast, so it’s the one that I’ve been trying to prepare for the most, and I’ve turned to all my favorite manifestos to try to find that nugget.

[00:25:29] At the root. I want a world that’s not governed by the logics of capitalism, and even as I say that I don’t know how to articulate what that looks like.

In the book I sort of argue that lesbian loses its political force in many ways because of the forces of capitalism. And that’s an argument that’s everywhere, right?

[00:25:46] Gay and lesbian life goes mainstream, and now we don’t have politics anymore. Or our politics are all just about access to white supremacist hegemony.

But also, part of what I’m tracing is that so much of the lesbian vision was about living outside of capitalism. And so, I want us to be in the dirty work of revolution.

[00:26:08] I want a lesbian feminism that, in the words of Cheryl Clarke, is the “transformation of all sociopolitical structures, systems and relationships that have been degraded and corrupted under centuries of male domination.”

But I guess if I had to say it simply, I would say I want a world where everyone has access to fresh, clean drinking water, to culturally salient foods, to healthcare that is people driven, not profit driven, and to recognize care as labor, but that this labor is not always commodified.

[00:26:41] I think in such a world we wouldn’t have a need for the nuclear family as an economic building block, and we’d be able to build many kinds of kinship formations across our lifespan.

And I think that that, in many ways, has always been the goal of lesbian feminism. As simple as it sounds, getting there is both the challenge and also, I think, the pleasure. Part of what lesbian feminism offers is a real pleasure is the fight for revolution and the fight for getting there.

[00:27:14] Cathy Hannabach: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing all of these amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.

[00:27:17] Mairead Sullivan: Yeah. Thank you. It’s been really fun to be here and great to get a chance to talk a little bit about this project.

[00:27:26] Cathy Hannabach: Thanks for joining me for this episode of Imagine Otherwise. A big thanks to Mairead as well for being here and for sharing these histories.

You can learn more about Mairead’s new book and other projects on our website at where you’ll also find a teaching guide for this episode as well as related books and resources.

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