LESBIAN IDENTITY IN THE SUBCULTURE OF WOMEN'S BARS

NANCY L LISAGOR, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

The paper discusses if and how women's bars form a community or subcultural context for lesbian associations. The main thrust is a discussion of Berger's concept of identity construction where other's expectations of an individual's behavior informs the behavior he ultimately assumes. In the social construction theory, individuals and society interact dialectically to cause individuals to act in socially acceptable ways. These behaviors are reinforced by significant others with strong pressures toward conformity. Yet if an individual's "I" self acts in socially disapproved ways, society mobilizes to counteract the behavior through labeling. But taking Mead's assumption that the self is comprised of an "I" and a "me," an individual's self-labeling through the "me" can be as censorious as, if not more than the social disapproval or labeling by significant others. (Mead's "I" is comparable to the subjective perception of Berger and the existential identity of Warren.) The "me" can even negatively reinforce behavior that the "I" self merely thinks about. When, however, an individual rejects the "me" reinforcement of social mores and supports his "I" desire, he may construct a deviant life style characterized by secondary deviance. How do homosexuals internalize the deviant sexual identity label without condemning all other parts of their identity? Identity arises from an original subjective perception of the self, as indicated by the majority of lesbian respondents regarding "discovery" of their lesbianism, often before any other knowledge of sexuality is assimilated. If identity were based on situational behavior, why would a stigmatized and devalued identity be chosen? If one may create and accept a deviant identity for himself, how does he know what behavior will carry out the new deviant role? It is unscripted. Individuals acting in self-assertive ways has implications for social change because society seeks to have congruence between subjective and objective reality. If subjective reality varies with enough people, objective reality may be influenced so that social change occurs rather than a continual battle with a growing deviant subjective reality. Lesbian bars illustrate this process as they become more overt and elegant. They show lesbian refusal to accept negative evaluation and stereotyped ideas of behavior and appearance. At the bars peer socialization and role-modeling occur. They provide fellow lesbians with the parameters for new behavior. The research observations and interviews were conducted in five women's bars in New York City over the course of a year (July 1978-July 1979). The bars divided into two generations based on age of the bar, age of the clientele, and manifestations of lesbianism in appearance and demeanor. The older generation of both the bar and its clientele fit the stereotyped image of the lesbian, while the newer and younger generation was more like male homosexual or singles bars. The similarity was not in the emphasis on sexuality, but rather an increased specialization of individual roles and social objectives. In neither category were the bars found to be successful sexual meeting places, although many lesbians voiced desire that they should be. Rather they were found to be places for sociability, social bonding, and role-modeling for lesbian women.

Subject Area

Welfare

Recommended Citation

LISAGOR, NANCY L, "LESBIAN IDENTITY IN THE SUBCULTURE OF WOMEN'S BARS" (1980). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI8018574.
https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI8018574

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