But even as straight, white feminists were actively excluding lesbians, many white lesbian separatists were pulling the same shit with trans people, bisexual women, and women of color.
Alix Dobkin, the feminist folk singer photographed in the original “The Future Is Female” shirt, is one of them: In 2015, she co-authored an essay claiming that “transsexuals have leaped forward on the civil rights agenda and become the latest cause of the LGBTQ community, often to the detriment of Lesbians.” TERFs long for the days before the Michigan’s Womyn’s Festival was shut down because it excluded trans people, often citing their past sexual traumas as the reason they’d rather not fraternize with women who have, or may have once had, a penis.
According to TERFs — many but not all of whom are Gen X'ers or Baby Boomers, as well as second wave feminists — the growing acceptance of trans people is one of the primary reasons why lesbians are under attack, and supposedly in danger of finally going extinct.
Without them, lesbianism in the 21st century lacks a coherent cultural definition.
Many millennial lesbians, myself included, find ourselves in a strange historical moment: The heyday of radical lesbianism is behind us, and a seemingly label-free, sexually fluid future lies ahead.
Reverberations of separatist ideology are still causing rifts in today’s queer feminism.
TERFs, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, have long refused to recognize that trans women are, in fact, women.
“‘The Future is Female’ is not a slogan people were using before,” she said.
“It’s very strange and amazing and surprising to see it exist in the world in this way.” At one point, she turned to her partner and asked, “How many people do you think know this comes from a radical lesbian separatist history? Andi Ziesler, the co-founder of Bitch Media and author of We Were Feminists Once, a book about the commercialization of contemporary feminism, told me she had also seen plenty of “Future is Female” sloganeering the weekend of the women’s marches.
We’re grappling with how to preserve the best parts of cultural lesbian identity — centering and celebrating women; political organizing; reclaiming harsh, loud, fuck-you words like “dyke” and “queer”; in-jokes and lesbian signifiers and literature and art — without replicating some of lesbian history’s very real shortcomings.