Representation and the Politics of Visibility

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Lesbian Realities/Lesbian Fictions in Contemporary Spain


Many cultural productions clearly draw our attention to the marginal status of lesbians, the need for their heightened visibility in society, and the prejudices that facilitate economic, social, and political inequalities. Since the end of the Franco period, there have been textual and visual works that destabilize a tradition of silence and invisibility by depicting not only lesbians but also lesbians in the act of creating texts and images, shaping cultural imaginaries. But just what is the relation of visibility and speech to principles of equality? What is their relation of power? In saying what has been unspoken, uncovering what has been hidden, and critiquing the way that lesbians are spoken of and seen, lesbian representations address and deepen these questions.

Silence and invisibility can be linked to violence and oppression. Thus, a central aim of LGBT activist work is to increase visibility in society. In her critical essay on violence and mourning, Precarious Life, Judith Butler describes how speech and visibility are connected with political power: "The public sphere is constituted in part by what cannot be said and what cannot be shown. The limits of the sayable, the limits of what can appear, circumscribe the domain in which political speech operates and certain kinds of subjects appear as viable actors." Visibility and speech within the context of identity politics, however, are not sufficient for breaking the dialectic of margin to center. That is to say, visibility and speech are linked to the system of relations that maintain marginalization. I am not arguing against the importance of speech and visibility but rather emphasizing that being seen adn heard is a complex sociopolitical exchange that can both oppose and maintain exclusions. Understanding their effects requires a critical approach. Lesbian activist Beatriz Gimeno provides a case in point in her analysis of the continuance of lesbian invisibility within the increasingly visible "gay movement":

Es el momento de pararnos a reflexionar dónde han quedado las lesbianas en este asunto de la visibilidad y dónde están las lesbianas cuando decimos población lgtb u homosexual o, simplemente, gay-lesbiana. Miremos simplemente a nuestro alrededor: ¿dónde están las lesbianas políticas? ¿Dónde las lesbianas famosas, presentadoras de televisión, actrices? Si se habla constantemente del glamor gay ¿existe algo parecido asociado a las lesbianas?

[It is time to stop and reflect upon where lesbians have ended up in this topic of visibility and where are lesbians when we say lgtb population or homosexual or, simply, gay-lesbian. Simply looking around us: Where are the lesbian politicians? Where are the famous lesbians, television anchors, actresses? If they are always talking about gay glamor, does something similar associated with lesbians exist?]


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