Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Research and Silence: Why the Torture of Lesbians is Invisible

 Susan Hawthorne [1]


Collected Papers and Presentations. Proceedings of Women’s Studies Association Conference (NZ), Massey University, Palmerston North: pp. 64-72. 2003.

… no training session prepared me for this intense pain …  my pain … the one I did not choose … all this alienation, this empty vacuum …, my body, my mind, my pain … this is not happening … I am a little speck in the universe … which universe? … the world is not anymore … I am … disintegrating … bit by bit … yell by yell … electrode by electrode … The pain … all this pain here and there, down there in my vagina … the agony … where am I? Where is my I? (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 655; italics and ellipses in the original[2])

Where is my I?

This question is central for any researcher looking at the evidence and reasons for the torture of lesbians. Where is my lesbian I? Where is the centrality of my lesbian being? Where is my experience as a lesbian recorded and recognised? Over the past thirty years feminist scholars have brought into the light many aspects of violence against women. But when I began to follow up on the torture of lesbians I was confronted by a severe lack of research.[3]

This paper looks at the research that has been conducted into the torture of lesbians – past and present which is extremely fragmentary and difficult to obtain. Even those organisations involved in the research feel a need to “disguise” the identities of lesbians who are tortured because of fears for their safety.

Research on the torture of lesbians tends to focus on well-known historical examples, including the fate of lesbians in Nazi Germany (and even here the research is scanty) rather than examinations of the experiences of contemporary lesbians still suffering torture under many regimes. Research on the torture of lesbians also tends to be conflated with and subsumed by research on the torture of gay men.

Researchers ask whether as activists we should be speaking out about the torture of lesbians, or whether the consequences of such speaking out will have enormously negative impacts on those who have been violated? On the other side of the coin is the eroticisation of torture as simply another sexual thrill. Searching for research on “lesbians and torture” on the internet brings up a massive amount of pornographic material rather than material that deals with violence against and torture of lesbians. So the serious researcher must ask, is sadomasochism creating acceptance of political torture? This last question is the subject of another paper.

And finally, how does one deal with the problem that the researcher needs to read between the lines of accounts of torture in order to find the raw data referring to the torture of lesbians? Who can afford to report her own torture when hatred of lesbians persists even in relatively open societies.

Sexuality, Secrecy and Silence

I started researching the subject of the torture of lesbians twelve months ago. When I began, I knew that I would have to sift through much research that doesn’t apply specifically to lesbians because lesbian existence tends to be confounded with the lives of gay men, or subsumed under the broad and unsatisfactory term of homosexuality, or of queer or LGBTI. All these terms are used to simultaneously contain and exclude lesbians. A more recent term – same-sex attracted – fails for the same reasons. Lesbians who are tortured disappear.

In the historical literature there are references to the torture of lesbians under the Inquisition. There are possible allusions to the torture of lesbians as witches during the so-called Renaissance – a very masculine affair. There is the case of Felipa de Souza living in the Portuguese colony of Brazil in 1592. Sentenced by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for the ''nefarious and abominable crime of sodomy'' after she had  admitted having sexual relations with other women, she was “condemned to exile and was viciously whipped while walking the streets of Salvador to serve as an example to others” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 10). There are also references to the killing of lesbians under the Nazi regime as “asocials”, a very flexible label which included prostitutes, criminals, the homeless, unemployed, Gypsies – including Roma and Sinti – as well as lesbians (Schoppmann 1996: 21). One thing is certain, however, lesbians were and are tortured. They are tortured under repressive political regimes of many kinds: in post-Communist Romania, in Chile after the 1973 coup, in Iran under the fundamentalist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, in the holiday islands of the Caribbean, in Zimbabwe and Uganda. The countries in which the torture of lesbians takes place adhere to very different political forms ranging from socialist to fascist, from secular to fundamentalist.

Lesbians are tortured simply for existing. In Victorian England parliament decided that the existence of lesbians was better ignored (Jeffreys 1997) and although this in itself does not constitute torture, it contributes through its denial of lesbian existence to the maintenance of secrecy surrounding lesbians. In Maoist China lesbians were defined out of existence, and yet as Anchee Min (1994) has shown through her autobiography, lesbian existence continued in spite of “re-education” in the Cultural Revolution’s labour camps where social and political conformity to a single ideal was at its height.[4]

One of the defining elements of lesbian existence in a patriarchy is its vulnerability to the demands of secrecy, silence and non-existence. Like other marginalised and oppressed groups, lesbians are often trapped in a “culture of silence” (Freire 1972: 48) and like individuals from other oppressed groups this repression sometimes turns inwards as violence to the self, extending in some instances to suicide. Externally, it might result in a diagnosis by the medical authorities of “being sick”, or inaccusations of acting against the will of God by religious authorities, or in corporal or mental punishment through torture extending to execution by state authorities.

Let me draw some parallels between lesbians and other groups who experience political denial. In Argentina where “the disappeared” became an integral part of the fabric of resistance, the ability of the government to define who did and did not exist was part of its strategy of fear (Partnoy 1986; Valenzuela 1985). In South Africa under Apartheid “black existence was against the law of the invader (Millett 1994: 117). In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women’s existence was similarly denied, tempered only by the burqa which not only hid women from men’s view, but reduced them to the status of a “thing”. Also, consider the way in which prostitutes are both vilified and yet are made an essential part of the masculine military machine (Enloe 1983: 18-45). Similarly, Indigenous Australians over many generations have suffered from being defined as non-persons (Atkinson 2002: 69). Indeed, Judy Atkinson argues that the result of this has been cultural genocide. By this she means internalised self-hatred and the pervasive sense of worthlessness is amplified to the point where that they become both persecutor and persecuted, and even executor[5] (Atkinson 2002: 72).

All the above political circumstances are relatively recognised in mainstream political analysis. But lesbians remain largely unrecognised when it comes to suffering the trauma of disappearance and denial. Under patriarchy, lesbian existence is denied, or made illegal. Lesbians appear when the political atmosphere is open, and disappear again during times of repression or backlash. Like indigenous peoples whose culture has been denied, and who through long political activism have built sustaining social myths and pride in their communities, lesbian feminist activists since the late 1960s have been engaged in a similar process. But I still hear people say there is no such thing as lesbian culture.[6] Like black existence under Apartheid, lesbian existence inside the enemy territory of patriarchy is an affront to the ideology of hypermasculinity. When conformity becomes the norm, when masculine power is entrenched, and when governments sanction human rights abuses or use torture, lesbians are always among the victims.

So why is it that lesbians are so rarely mentioned in the literature on torture? A clue lies in the following statement from a Peruvian lesbian:

When I speak of my right to my own culture and language as an indigenous woman, everyone agrees to my self-determination. But when I speak of my other identity, my lesbian identity, my right to love, to determine my own sexuality, no one wants to listen (ILIS Newsletter 1994:13).

It is this distancing of political support from others, who may well deem themselves progressive, that is a feature of lesbian existence. Lesbians have supported, fought for, with and alongside a host of other people for political rights, but when on the rare occasions lesbians ask for support we find that “Only other dykes are proud of dykes” (Hanscombe 1992). Such reactions have been evident after the recent announcement by Australia’s Uniting Church to officially allow out lesbian and gay ministers; likewise the consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in the Episcopal church of the USA. It has been extraordinary to watch ordinary people who in the main regard themselves as ethical come out with intensely hate-filled sentences. Views most would probably not express if it were an issue of race or culture or ethnicity or religion (to be sure, some would express such views).

My hope is that through talking about the torture of lesbians, and through naming and identifying the various strategies by which the torture of lesbians is silenced, at some time in the future we might see a campaign by Amnesty International which puts not children, not men, not women, not the blanket grouping GLBTIQ, but lesbians at its centre. I suggest this because Amnesty International is one of the few organisations that has conducted research into the torture of lesbians, although their research has the tendencies I have identified above: either lesbians who are tortured appear in small ways in between the research on gay men (also on bisexuals) and transsexuals (Breaking the Silence, 1997; Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence, Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity ACT 40/016/2001),[7] or lesbians are mentioned in even tinier ways in between the research on women (Broken bodies, shattered minds —Torture and ill-treatment of women, AI Index: ACT 40/001/2001)

The reluctance to speak openly about the torture of lesbians is given several justifications, some of which can be found in the neglect or the invisibility of the torture of lesbians. One reason put forward is that there will be further reprisals against the lesbian who is imprisoned or a victim of torture. Secondly, there is the issue of public sentiment. It is said to be difficult to drum up public sympathy for a lesbian who is tortured. But these arguments are well known to feminists who countered similar resistance to discussions around the sexual abuse of children. In the long run, public awareness is still better than a veil of silence. Kate Millett has said that “Torture is an index of unfreedom” (1994: 307). It appears we have a long way to go in creating freedom for lesbians. It is perhaps even the case that the practice of torture on lesbians is the litmus test of social freedom. While any lesbian is tortured, and no one really cares, society is implicated and complicit in this violence.

Amnesty International’s Crimes of Hate report concludes with the following statement “the struggle to protect the human rights of LGBT people should be one that is waged by all” (Crimes of Hate 2001:  28). I agree, but I believe it is time for a report that focuses specifically on lesbians.[8]

Silence, after silence, after silence[9]

The emphasis on silence cannot be overstated. Lesbians have long been subjected to silence, to denial, to non-existence within the dominant heterosexual discourse. Lesbians who are tortured face multiple layers of silence. First there is the silence surrounding lesbian existence. Second, in quite a few jurisdictions there is legal silence: punishment is not formally meted out but occurs on an informal basis instead, sometimes inflicted by the state, sometimes by members of the woman’s family or by the community. When this occurs it is often difficult to have the punishment recognised as a violation of the lesbian’s human rights and as an instance of torture. In such circumstances the torturer can continue with impunity because “no one will ever know, no one will ever hear you, no one will ever find out” (Millett 1994: 300).

The scream of the lesbian tortured in families, in prisons, in mental asylums remains unheard. She may call out to others in her pain, but she cannot be heard because no one is listening. Few dare to listen. Almost no one speaks out. And I would add that almost no one cares about her torture, because she dares to be a lesbian.

In the next section of this paper I want to break this silence and tell some stories of lesbians tortured in different countries around the world in the last thirty years. The breaking of the silencing of lesbians as a group has to be accompanied by stopping the silencing of lesbians who have been tortured physically and psychically, as well as socially and politically. These are short extracts, longer versions can be found in the references cited.

They locked me in a room and brought him everyday to rape me so I would fall pregnant and be forced to marry him. They did this to me until I was pregnant… (Machida 1996: 123).

Tina Machida is a Zimbabwean lesbian who now lives in Harare. Her rape took place at the hands of her parents in the mid-1980s, in an effort to “cure” her of her lesbian existence.

In nearby Uganda Christine and Norah were tortured by military police, along with three gay male activists in 1999. Uganda’s political colour is left, but President Yoweri Museveni, like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, has no time for homosexual rights. Indeed gays and lesbians are considered “less than human” (Crimes of Hate 2001:  6; also see Tiripano. 2000).  And in Namibia, the Home Affairs Minister, Jerry Ekandjo has urged police to ''eliminate'' gay men and lesbians ''from the face of Namibia'' (Crimes of Hate 2001: 6). In Zambia, activist organizations are illegal (Crimes of Hate 2001: 28).[10]

Christine said, They tied black cloths on our heads and led us to the cars.” And as was reported:

When they took the blindfold off, Christine found herself in a secret detention centre. She was stripped naked, beaten and threatened with rape by the soldiers holding her. She was then taken to another detention centre where she was interrogated about the human rights group the friends had set up and about her sexuality. ''They asked me why I was not married. I told them I was not interested in marriage. They asked me if I knew homosexuality was taboo in Africa. I kept quiet. They said it was a criminal offence and I could get a 10-year or life sentence. In the middle of that a policewoman came in and said 'I heard there was a lesbian here, can you do [to me] what you do to women?' I held my head high so she slapped me (Crimes of Hate 2001:  4).

She was later raped by three male detainees. As she remembers:

 Coming midnight, they said 'we want to show you something'. They took my clothes off and raped me. I remember being raped by two of them, then I passed out (Crimes of Hate 2001:  4).

Her friend Norah was taken to a different place, a military barracks. Of her ordeal she says:

I was kept in a small filthy room with bats in the ceiling. I was by myself in that room for about five hours, then three men came in and started interrogating me. These men were so cruel and intimidating, it was unbearable... I was also beaten, abused both sexually and physically. My clothes were ripped off. Nasty remarks were made that I should just be punished for denying men what is rightfully theirs, and that who do I think I am to do what the president feels to be wrong. They even suggested that they should show me what I am missing by taking turns on me (Crimes of Hate 2001:  5).

Africa, however, is not the only place where torture of lesbians has occurred and is still occurring. I want to emphasise the fact that torture against lesbians continues, because many individuals believe that lesbians no longer suffer the pain, humiliation and shame of systematic discrimination, let alone torture.


Mariana Cetiner was arrested in October 1995 for “attempting to seduce another woman”. In June 1996, she was convicted and sentenced under Article 200 of the Romanian Penal Code to three years' imprisonment.

 I was treated very badly by the prison guards, because in Romania there is no approval for those who have had relations between the same sex. And worse, the guards... beat me and insulted me. Criminals are better regarded than a relationship between two women… So because of this homosexual or lesbian thing… I was treated like the lowest of the low (Crimes of Hate 2001:  11).

During her imprisonment, after complaining about her treatment by prison authorities she was handcuffed to a radiator and made to stand for 11 hours “in a position like Jesus Christ” without food (Crimes of Hate 2001:  11).

And later still, after being rearrested to serve out her full sentence when a third court rejected her successful appeal of January 1997:

Mariana Cetiner was taken to another penitentiary where she was placed in a high security cell for violent detainees and was beaten both by guards and other inmates. She said that in one incident she was left with broken ribs. When she asked to see a doctor she was placed in solitary confinement for 10 days (Crimes of Hate 2001:  11).

Equating lesbian existence with psychiatric disorders is not new. The treatment of those deemed mad, unstable, unacceptable has been, and continues to be, a cause for not just reform, but overturning of the system and of the definitions that trap people into lives none of us would wish to be subjected to. The same fate awaits many lesbians in countries where lesbianism remains a mental disorder. It is a particular way in which families deal with unruly young women.

Alla Pitcherskaia, a lesbian from Russia, was charged with the crime of “hooliganism” (Crimes of Hate 2001:  20). Long-term forced institutionalisation can be the ultimate result for many young women,[11] and as in Alla Pitcherskaia’s case, her girlfriend was also “forcibly held in a psychiatric institution” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 20). Alla Pitcherskaia’s crime consisted of continuing to work with a lesbian youth organisation.

One of the common themes in the torture of lesbians is its use against activists. For the most part, it is not the lesbians who sit at home in domestic bliss, never naming their sexuality, but silenced by it, who are under threat of torture (although I would argue such silence is a psychic threat). It is those who protest the abuses against others, including lesbians. It is those who name their lesbian existence. It is those who break through fear and self-silencing. They are tortured on behalf of all the others who remain silent and hidden.

Western countries are not immune to such abuses occur. Female prisoners everywhere, no matter what the reason for their incarceration, are likely to be subjected to torture and abuse. Lesbian prisoners, especially those who find themselves in the same institutions as men or guarded by men, because they break the rules of how women should behave, are at an increased risk of torture and bad treatment. Indeed, lesbians are likely to be targeted simply because of their sexual orientation; because they/we are lesbians.

Robin Lucas jailed for credit card fraud in 1995 in California. As was reported:

One evening in September 1995, three male inmates unlocked the door of her cell, handcuffed her and raped her. Robin Lucas suffered severe injuries to her neck, arms, back and vaginal and anal areas. Her attackers told her to keep her mouth shut and threatened her with continued attacks if she kept complaining. Guards implicated in these abuses were simply transferred to another facility; no disciplinary action was taken. None of the guards or inmates involved was ever charged with a crime. A civil lawsuit for compensation was settled in Robin Lucas' favour in 1998. (Crimes of Hate 2001: 18).

There are many countries where being a lesbian carries an immediate jail sentence, places like Algeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, the Bahamas … Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Oman and Romania. Persecution, however, extends to countries where theoretically, to be a lesbian is not an infringement of the law, but in reality, it remains so. This is the case in Colombia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Brazil. In others, such as Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Chechen Republic, Sudan, Taiwan and Yemen, death is the penalty (Amnesty International 1997: 77-90). In Iran the methods of execution are cruel and painful “hanging, stoning, being thrown off a cliff or high building, or facing a firing squad” (Reinfelder 1996: 12). Other reports indicate that lesbians “have been beheaded or stoned to death” (ibid: 12). Under fundamentalist regimes the torture of lesbians can even be justifies on the basis that the man is doing his scared duty. It is also difficult to ascribe the word “torture” to heterosexual rape when it is regarded as so normal. In fact it is a quintessential form of torture used against lesbians.

In Lima, Peru, in 1994 seventy-five lesbians were arrested and beaten by the police. The author notes that prostitutes “get a very rough time in jail” (Amnesty International UK 1997: 24) but adds that.

the treatment of lesbians was even worse Lesbians were beaten up because, however degrading prostitution can be, it is still regarded as normal behaviour, whereas lesbianism is seen as too threatening for the status quo” (ibid: 24).

Fleeing Torture: Lesbian Refugees

At the 6th International Interdisciplinary World Women’s Conference in Kampala in 2002, I was speaking about lesbian issues in a session towards the end of the conference. A woman approached me and said that there were big problems for lesbians in Uganda, and that gaining recognition as refugees was particularly difficult for lesbians. This appears to be the case so often that some authors suggest there is no documentary evidence on lesbians (McGhee 2003; Magardie 2003).

This in spite of the case of two lesbians mentioned earlier – Christine and Norah – who were tortured in 1999. So fearful were they of their safety, they fled to a neighbouring country. There too, lesbian existence was criminalized and so they were unable to claim asylum. They “were forced to spend several months in hiding while they tried to find a way to get protection as refugees” (Crimes of Hate 2001:  5).

It seems therefore that the evidence exists, but is not seen.[12]

Alla Pitcherskaia from Russia who fled to the USA after threats to her liberty because of her alleged “hooliganism” and her activism, lodged an application for asylum. Initially it was rejected because “they claimed the motive for the forced institutionalization was the desire to ‘treat” or ‘cure’ and not to punish and therefore was not ‘persecution’ (Crimes of Hate 2001:  19).

Monika Reinfelder notes that in 1990 the German government granted asylum to an Iranian lesbian “who would have faced the death penalty had she been forced to return to Iran” (1996: 18).

There is a problem with the invisibility of lesbians as refugees. The cases are not numerous, but they do exist and must be made visible. Reinfelder comments that:

Many governments interpret vaguely worded legislation (e.g. sexual act against nature) as only applying to men. Not recognizing that they provide repressive contexts in which violations against lesbians are commonplace. This, as well as the hatred of lesbians in most countries, has prevented many persecuted lesbians from applying for refugee status on the basis of their sexual orientation” (Reinfelder 1996: 18).

Many lesbians therefore apply for asylum on the basis of political persecution. But this can result in a failure to prove their status as refugees since the worst abuses have occurred to them because they are lesbians If this cannot be revealed, the case is weakened.[13]

What is clear from these stories of torture is that the torture of lesbians occurs under regimes of all political persuasion and at all levels of society. Families can be responsible for the torture of daughters by repeated rape (Machida 1996) or in the incarceration of young women considered unruly, out of control, in mental asylums. Politicians may espouse left-wing political views and still torture lesbians; under fundamentalism torture becomes a sacred duty. Torture occurs when lesbians are violated by their fellow prisoners;  in other words, even among the outsiders lesbians are not safe. What remains a common feature is that lesbians are tortured either in settings where hypermasculinity determines the context (in the military, prisons or mental institutions where the distinctions in power are grossly separated). Alternatively, the torture represents an acquisition, a grab for power by men who have been deemed powerless and who revenge themselves on lesbians (fellow prisoners). The origins of torture are fascinating. And so-called “western civilisation” is replete with examples of torture used against those who were the most marginalised. Page du Bois has argued that torture is intimately connected with the history of slavery, and in the search for an elusive truth.

Torture, slavery, women and truth

A “curious device [was] … [s]haped like a pear, made of wood, but with metal attachments and pointed wood pieces set into it. The caption said that the torturer put it into a woman’s vagina and gradually expanded it inside her body until it broke (du Bois 1991: 3).

An artefact of European history it is reminder of just how long the hatred of women and practices around that hatred have persisted.

In Ancient Athens and in Renaissance Florence – two hallmark periods in western history of apparent flowering of “freedom”– torture was used as a means of evidence (du Bois 1991; Lapierre 2001) Torture was heralded as the best avenue to extract truth from witnesses. Slaves were the usual victims. I mention these things because it is important to recognise how violence against women, and the torture of women, is structured into the history of western culture, even – or perhaps especially – in its  “supposedly” highest moments of civilisation. It reminds us that torture is not what someone out there, different from “us” does to lesbians. It is a reminder that torture has happened – and continues to happen now – around the world in apparently civilised countries. It is a reminder that these apparently civilised countries are the trainers of torturers in countries steeped in conflict and war and civil unrest. How many Americans, how many British, how many French torturers have trained the violators in Chile, South Africa, Iran, Algeria? It is a reminder that women – and hence lesbians – who step outside the patriarchally and heterosexually normative modes of behaviour, will be punished. As du Bois argues, the logic of the western philosophical tradition “leads almost inevitably to conceiving of the body as the other as the site from which truth can be produced, and to using violence if necessary to extract that truth” (1991: 6). Lesbians epitomise the “other” in the western philosophical tradition, and the lesbian body is very clearly a world of “otherness”. As I have argued elsewhere (Hawthorne 2003) the non-existence and erasure of lesbians in heterosexual discourse is central to the normative structure of our society. Lesbians share with torture the denial of existence.

Denial is often not accorded much importance, but anyone who has been ostracised or has the experience of being a member of a despised group will testify to the pain which accompanies such a denial of existence, or denial of experience. Torture annihilates the victim. The prisoner cannot determine when torture will cease even by giving true and honest answers to the questions.

The lesbian in the everyday world in so-called “progressive” societies can suffer a similar, albeit milder, form of self-annihilation. This occurs through a daily whittling back of her identity – formally or informally – through the denial of existence, through illegality and punishment, and through secrecy. The range and intensity of self-annihilation will depend on the political and social circumstances in which the lesbian lives. In a country where lesbians face legal sanctions, the impact can be very deleterious, softened only be a sense of community experienced by those who are outcasts of the system. In more liberal communities, individuals might still experience considerable pain because of pressures of normalisation from family, work, religious and cultural affinities. Only in radical circles is the lesbian likely to experience affirmations of her identity, but even this is not guaranteed.

Psychic retreat is one of the outcomes of the denial of lesbian existence. Kate Millett calls this “ixile”. When public life becomes unendurable, retreat into an inner world is a place of refuge. Millett concludes that “in today’s ‘one world’ there is no place to go” (1994: 307).[14] This “one world” represented by patriarchy, has long had an impact on the lives of lesbians, defining them as degraded, as not real women, a sick and unnatural, as dangerous and antisocial elements and, at best, as renegades and rebels.[15]

The “relationship” between the torturer and prisoner is exemplified in the “dialogue” that occurs between the two. While the interrogator asks the questions with words, the prisoner answers with the body. Words are unnecessary – and not only unnecessary – they are impossible. Elaine Scarry writes about the way in which all-consuming pain blots out the world, unmakes the world, destroys language.

In the imagination of the lesbian fearful of punishment, ostracism or denial such interrogation can go on internally as imagined conversations with those whom she fears. Of particular importance are the internal interrogations that go on between former abusers and their now-lesbian victims, or between those who have indicated antipathy towards lesbians publicly in work, family, religious or community settings. Out of this emerges a profound silence.

Furthermore, because pain cannot be experienced by another person, even a person emotionally or physically close to the sufferer, it contains in it an unreality of its existence, an annihilation of the actuality of its importance to the person experiencing pain. In torture, writes Scarry, the dichotomy of existence and denial “is magnified”, it is “incontestably present … and yet it is simultaneously categorically denied” (1985: 56). Ontologically speaking, this is very like the experience of the lesbian whose existence is denied, even when it is “incontestably present” in the minds of all who know her.

The story of Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes, Chile 1970s

This story concerns events that took place nearly thirty years ago. It is a contemporary story informed by a history of political lesbian and feminist activism. The authors provide a unique insight into the experience, and as they state at the beginning, it is a performance rather than a testimony. It’s also important because it is framed to be read by those engaged in Women’s Studies. The article, co-authored by Consuelo Rivera Fuentes with her partner Linda Birke appeared in 2001 in Women’s Studies International Forum (24) 6: 653-668.

The article is written in part to ask why feminist scholarship with it emphasis on the body in recent years, has dealt so minimally with the body in pain, and in particular on torture. There are exceptions. Here are three that I have found thought provoking: Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985), Page du Bois’ Torture and Truth (1991), and Kate Millett’s The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment (1994).  I have noted a recent surge in interest about trauma among feminist scholars, and this may go some way toward looking at the issue of torture, although trauma studies tend instead to focus on psychological rather than physical pain and so the pain of the body remains unexamined. As Rivera-Fuentes and Birke put it:

The body remembers again and again … and again … The body remembers and pain becomes a part of our dreams and of our nightmares because we don’t have a valve to release them in any other way. The body wishes to be a body again, to have a mind … the body wants a soul (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 657; italics and ellipses in original).

Among the difficulties experienced by anyone subjected to torture is how to convey the experience of pain inside the body. Elaine Scarry argues that pain in itself “is language destroying” (1985: 19). For a lesbian this is doubly difficult because the heteronormative discourse of society is not open to understanding the utterances of lesbians. It is hard enough to get people to empathise with and understand a person from another culture, another political regime, an unknown country. Add to that the prospect of lesbian existence and lesbian culture and the difficulty of the task is amplified yet further. Here I am intentionally speaking as if the listener is a heterosexual. For the lesbian listener, the experience is likely to be very different.

Within heterosexual discourse the lesbian epitomises the body untrammelled. The lesbian body is a body out of control in a patriarchal sense, that is, it is ungoverned by patriarchal rules. For the torturer, the prisoner’s body has also become a body out of control and such lack of control is shown each time pain is inflicted.

… all wave after wave of electricity, no control … I am losing control of my/self … I can’t stop the shit, the piss, the tears, the jerks, the yells (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 655; italics and ellipses in original).

Elaine Scarry writes of the prisoner’s lack of control, and way that responsibility for it is deflected back to the prisoner:

Despite the fact that in reality he (sic) has been deprived of all control over, and therefore all responsibility for, his world, his words, and his body, he is to understand that his confession as it will be understood by others, is an act of self-betrayal (1985: 47).

There is an element here of just why it is that sexual orientation has been considered outside the ambit of UN Human Rights rules and why lesbian refugees struggle so hard to be recognised, heard and acknowledged as “genuine” refugees. It is about the self-betrayal of the body. If lesbian existence is a choice, so the argument goes, then the lesbian can just as easily choose not to be a lesbian. The problem is that her body betrays her. Her speech as a lesbian is taken to be a self-betrayal. It is read this way, rather than as a problem of patriarchy and oppressors. It is an instance of what Mary Daly names as “reversal”. The victim is the one at fault, not the perpetrator.

… what they will never understand is that I love you precisely because you are not a man (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 656; italics and ellipses in original).

The torturer through this process, dispenses all culpability, all responsibility for the pain inflicted on the tortured person. His conscience is clear. It is all her fault. If only she would do what is best for her. In fact, he will help her by raping her, by showing her just what a real man can do for her, just how what she needs is “a good fuck, from real men” (Rivera-Fuentes and Birke 2001: 656). This, I suggest, is the source of the proliferation of male sexual fantasy about the torture of lesbians. And if you have any doubt about this, type into the Google search engine the words “torture + lesbian” or “lesbian + torture” and you will be swamped by sites in which this fantasy is catered to. To this extent the real torture of lesbians can be diminished and denied, since from such sites it is clear that lesbians “enjoy” being tortured. The male fantasist has dispensed with his sense of culpability too, deflecting it onto the lesbian who is the object of his fantasies.

To summarise my argument: the prisoner of torture is considered out of control; the lesbian is considered out of control. The tortured lesbian is therefore doubly out of control (and in a society where lesbians are defined as mentally ill, triply out of control). Since she is so clearly out of control, anything that happens to her is her fault because if she chose to behave differently, she would not be tortured. The torturer/male sexual fantasist/pornographer is therefore able to abandon all sense of responsibility for his actions and for his beliefs about lesbians. It is in her interest that he torture her, rape her, show her just how good he is. Or, as Elaine Scarry writes, “Every weapon has two ends. In converting the other person’s pain into his own power, the torturer experiences the entire occurrence exclusively from the nonvulnerable end of the weapon” (1985: 59).

Patriarchal methodology

In conclusion, I would like to suggest that there is a patriarchal methodology and that this methodology consists of torture at its centre. In Athens of the Classical period it was used against the slave, usually a barbarian (barbaros in Greek). The slave to ancient Athenians represented the unknowable other. The slave represents a hidden truth. As Page du Bois notes:

… a hidden truth, one that eludes the subject, must be discovered, uncovered, unveiled, and can always be located in the dark, in the irrational, in the unknown, in the other. And that truth will continue to beckon the torturer, the sexual abuser, who will find in the other – slave, woman, revolutionary – silent or not, secret or not, the receding phantasm of a truth that must be hunted down extracted, torn out in torture (1991: 147).

The lesbian – slave, woman and revolutionary – represents to man the torturer the unimaginable,[16] an entirely secret existence, an existence that is unobtainable and inaccessible because it specifically excludes him – and excludes him in his primary area of dominance (in his framework) – sex and violence. Patriarchal methodology is used to maintain the institution of heterosexuality.[17] The lesbian represents the outcast, the refugee who cannot get a hearing because her “nation” does not exist, is not recognised, has no geographical boundaries, and has no history, no lineage.

Must lesbians conjure their existence out of thin air? Will other groups of people support the need for lesbian cultural pride? For the sheer naming of the existence of lesbians?

The issue here is the importance of means and ends. If lesbians remain outside the scope of social justice reform, then everyone’s civil and political rights remain in jeopardy. The most difficult political reforms to make are, in the long run, the most important because they give us a clue as to the limits of our preparedness to live an ethical existence. If one is unable to fear for the lives and well-being of those who are most different, then one is incapable of defending justice for all – even at the most basic level – such as freedom of association, freedom to love.


Amnesty International. 1997. Breaking the Silence: Human rights violations based on sexual orientation, London: Amnesty International United Kingdom.
Amnesty International. 2001. Crimes of hate, conspiracy of silence, Torture and ill-treatment based on sexual identity ACT 40/016/2001.
Amnesty International. 2001. Broken bodies, shattered minds —Torture and ill-treatment of women, AI Index: ACT 40/001/2001.
Atkinson, Judy. 2002. Trauma Trails, Recreating Song Lines: The transgenerational effect of trauma in indigenous Australia. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Cuomo, Chris. 2003. Lesbian and its Synonyms: (An essay for all feminists). In Cuomo, Chris. The Philosopher Queen: Feminist Essays on War, Love and Knowledge. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 105-125.
du Bois, Page. 1991. Torture and Truth. London: Routledge.
Enloe, Cynthia. 1983. Does Khaki Become You? The militarisation of women’s lives. London: Pluto Press.
Frank, Liz and Elizabeth Khaxas. 1996. Lesbians in Namibia. In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. London: Cassell: 109-17.
Graham, Dee. 1995. Loving to Survive: Sexual terror, men’s violence and women’s lives. New York: New York University Press.
Hanscombe, Gillian. 1992. Sybil: The Glide of Her Tongue. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2002a. Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity. Melbourne: Spinifex Press.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2002b. Fundamentalism, Violence and Disconnection. In Susan Hawthorne and Bronwyn Winter (eds,). September 11, 2001: Feminist Perspectives. Melbourne: Spinifex Press: 339-359.
Hawthorne, Susan. 2003. From The Lesbian Body to Same-Sex Attracted: The Depoliticising of Lesbian Culture. Australian Women’s Studies Association Conference. University of Queensland, Brisbane. 15 July.
ILIS Newsletter 15 (2) 1994.
Jardine, Alice A. 1985. Gynesis: Configurations of Woman and Modernity. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Lapierre, Alexandra. 2001. Artemisia: A novel. New York: Grove Press.
Machida, Tina. 1996. Sisters of Mercy. In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. London: Cassell: 118-129.
Magardie, Sheldon. 2003. ‘Is the applicant really gay?’ Legal responses to asylum claims based on persecution on account of sexual orientation. Agenda: Women, the Invisible Refugees (55): 81-87.
McGee, Derek. 2003. Queer Strangers: Lesbian and gay refugees. Feminist Review: Exile and Asylum  (73): 145-147.
Min, Anchee. 1994. Red Azalea. London: Victor Gollanz.
Millett, Kate. 1994. The Politics of Cruelty: An Essay on the Literature of Political Imprisonment. London: W.W. Norton.
Partnoy, Alicia. 1986. The Little School House: Tales of disappearance and survival in Argentina. San Francisco: Cleis Press.
Reinfelder, Monika. 1996. Persecution and Resistance. In Reinfelder, Monika (ed.) Amazon to Zami: Toward a global lesbian feminism. London: Cassell: 11-29.
Rivera-Fuentes, Consuelo and Linda Birke. 2001. Talking With/In Pain: Reflections on bodies under torture. Women’s Studies International Forum 24, (6): 653-668.
Scarry, Elaine. 1985. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schoppmann, Claudia. 1996. Days of Masquerade: Life stories of lesbians during the Third Reich. Translated by Allison Brown. New York: Columbia University Press.
Tiripano, Tsitsi. 2000. “Fighting for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Zimbabwe”. Off Our Backs. Vol. 30, No. 4. April. 1, 6-7.
Valenzuela, Luisa. 1985. Other Weapons. In Other Weapons. Hanover, NH: Ediciones del Norte: 103-135.


Appendix i
Guidelines for officials interviewing lesbian refugees[18]

•           It should not be assumed that women presenting for asylum are seeking asylum simply because their spouse or another male family member is doing so; they might need asylum in their own right, and for very different reasons, including persecution on the basis of their sexual orientation.
•           Some women may however be persecuted because of their association with men who are under threat. If they are lesbians, their level of risk may be increased.
•           It should not be assumed that a married woman cannot be a lesbian. In some countries marriage is the first level of protection a lesbian might seek.
•           Lesbians seeking asylum are likely to be politically active, but even lesbians who are not politically active come under threat in some countries.
•           Do not assume that because a woman does not use the word lesbian to describe herself, that she is not a lesbian. It may have been too dangerous for too long for her to be able to speak the word lesbian (or the equivalent in her language) out loud.
•           Do not assume that because there is no word for lesbian in any particular language that there are therefore no lesbians in that society or linguistic group.
•           Do not assume that if a woman comes from a country where it is not illegal to be a lesbian, that she is therefore not able to claim having been tortured or in danger of torture or other external harm to her self.
•           Do not assume that your interpreter is open to her experience. The interpreter may be hostile to her claim.
•           Lesbians who have been tortured will find it difficult to speak of their experience. Speaking to a stranger is difficult, speaking to a strange man might be impossible. Uniformed men may precipitate reliving the experience of torture.
•           As a result of trauma, some lesbians may be unable to relate the experience at all, or may appear detached and emotionless. This should not be read as evidence of fabrication.
•           Lesbians who are refugees might also be in danger from their families, in particular from the men in their families. Her confidential interview should not be shared by asking questions about her sexual orientation of other family members.

[1]           I am grateful to a lesbian in Uganda who may prefer to remain anonymous and who drew my attention to the injustices against lesbians in her country in 2002; to Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes and Lynda Birke (2001) whose article I stumbled across soon afterwards; to the anonymous researchers at Amnesty International whose reports on the torture of lesbians provide so much of the first hand material, and to Lara Fergus who sent me the Crimes of Hate document from Amnesty International; to Claudia Reinfelder whose book Amazon to Zami (1996) contains some of the other first hand accounts; and to an unnamed friend with whom I discussed at length her experience of torture. I thank her for her time and generosity in sharing what was an extremely painful experience.
[2]           Quotes from lesbians who have been tortured are distinguished by the use of italics throughout. In the case of Rivera-Fuentes and Birke, the original story told by Rivera-Fuentes is in italics. Quotations from other sources retain roman typeface.
[3]           For the purpose of this paper, I deal solely with the torture of lesbians. The paper does not focus on torture of gay men, bisexuals, transsexuals or intersexual people. While some of the issues overlap, because I am concerned with the disappearance of research on lesbians, that is where my focus lies.
[4]           In April 2001 the Chinese Psychiatric Association decided that homosexuality would be deleted from list of mental disorders in the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders Third Division (Crimes of Hate 2001: 20)
[5]           The high incidence of suicide, especially during adolescence, among lesbians and gays is an instance of hatred turned against the self. I do not discuss suicide at any length in this paper.
[6]           For a lengthy discussion of this, see Hawthorne 2003.
[7]           There is a significant shift in the balance of cases reported by Amnesty International between 1997 and 2001. This could be due to several factors 1) a greater willingness on the part of AI to look into torture of lesbians 2) an increase in the incidence of torture of lesbians 3) an increase in the reporting of the torture of lesbians 4) a combination of these and other factors.
[8]           I suggest that separate reports are required on the different groupings represented by the acronym LGBTI, as each faces different and specific causes. It is time to spell out some of the nuances rather than calling for blanket inclusiveness, a strategy which in the long run will be detrimental to each group, but particularly so for lesbians.
[9]           Cited in Rivera-Fuentes and Birke (2001: 656).
[10]         For more information on lesbians in Namibia see Frank and Khaxas (1996: 109-117).
[11]         Think about the lesbians you know who have been incarcerated and labelled as mad. Think about the “treatment” they have received. Was it electroconvulsive therapy? What is the difference between this and the shocks given to prisoners who are tortured? Was it the use of drugs? What is the difference between this and a host of other silencing techniques used by torturers? In most instances the difference is simply the name of the institution in which it occurs; in some instances there is also a difference in intensity, or in the fact that “patients” are given shock treatment while unconscious. See Millett (1994) for a discussion of the similarities. Rivera-Fuentes and Birke also discuss the role of doctors in places where torture is inflicted (2001: 658-660).
[12]         Another case of a lesbian seeking asylum is contained in the Crimes of Hate Report: “Irina, a Russian lesbian, claimed asylum in the USA on the grounds that she had been tortured or ill-treated by a range of people, including police, private investigators and her own family members. Irina described how in 1995 her sisters demanded she give up custody of her son and get psychiatric treatment to “cure” her of her homosexuality. Her mother threatened to disclose her sexual orientation to the authorities unless she gave up her son. Irina's parents hired two investigators to probe into her lifestyle. The investigators claimed to have a video tape of Irina having sex with her partner and threatened to report her to the police unless she paid a large sum of money. Irina and her lover went to the police to report this attempt to blackmail them; the officer responded by sexually harassing them. One day, the investigators abducted her at knife point and took her to an apartment. Together with another man, they raped Irina to “teach her a lesson” and “reorientate” her sexual identity. Irina decided not to report the rape to the police because of her past experience at their hands” (Crimes of Hate 2001: 22).
[13]         The Appendix contains some guidelines for how to treat lesbians applying for asylum on the basis of their sexual orientation.
[14]         I will not go into detail about the homogenising effect of globalisation and the increasing power of military-industrial complex, as I have written about this at length in Hawthorne (2002a; 2002b).
[15]         As antisocial elements under the Nazi regime, lesbians were forced to wear a black triangle along with those labelled as asocials: a very flexible label which included prostitutes, criminals, the homeless, unemployed, Gypsies – including Sinit and Roma – and lesbians (Schoppmann 1996: 21).
[16]         Alice Jardine in Gynesis positions “women at the margin of incomprehensibility”. If “women” as a group are incomprehensible, how much more so are lesbians? The incomprehensibility justifies the use of torture to gain access to the hidden truth. Chris Cuomo makes a passing reference to this aspect in her work, where she writes, “ Lesbians are truth-tellers about female bodies” (2003: 125).
[17]         The Stockholm Syndrome, in which a hostage begins to love her captor, is a useful model for normative heterosexuality and the compliance of large numbers of women within patriarchal society (Graham 1995).
[18]         The idea for this came from a similar list of guidelines contained in Agenda: Women, the Invisible Refugees (55).

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