Lesbianism is not contagious. Seriously, you can share a friendship, work space, recreational activities, even a church pew with a lesbian or gay, bisexual or transgender person, and it will in no way effect your own personal gender identity or sexual orientation.

You don’t need a vaccine to prevent contamination, and you might even build up a natural immunity to homophobia by freely associating outside your own comfort zone and accepting the fact that love and its attractions are more than a political statement.

We recognize your possible fear that folks might define you by your association and think you are a lesbian too (gasp!), but we don’t buy that “birds of a feather” argument. If one so easily became who they associate with then we would all become one another and there would be no distinction.

Besides, we humans are supposed to be defined by so much more than our procreative genitalia. Not to mention that we could learn from one another.

"Women are still treated as second-class citizens, and lesbians are in third place."

***

Now if you are wondering what has us on such a rant, it’s simple -- we grow weary of discrimination in all its forms and rationalizations. And if you are someone who doesn’t personally experience unfair and unwarranted treatment it may not be so obvious to you that others of us do on a daily basis in one form or another.

Much discussion surrounds racism, sexism, homophobia, gender phobia and religious beliefs. But unless you really are a victim, much of the abuse may go unnoticed, even if you happen to be one of those individuals who cares and is sensitive to the mistreatment of others.

And many are convinced that some communities are enlightened to such a degree that no discrimination exists. These incidentally may prove to be the worst of environments because complaints are seen as the result of disgruntled personalities.

We hear comments such as, “There’s no pleasing some people,” or, “She’s just so uppity, always complaining even though women (fill in with black, gay, Jewish, Muslim, Latino or any that apply) have every opportunity now,” or, one of our favorites, “They are always unhappy regardless of what we do for them.”

"It’s important to note here that most workplace discrimination seems to be women against women."

***

Take for example a workplace in a Midwestern community. If you remain silent about your sexual orientation or gender identity, then folks are content and will treat you as “one of them” (unless, especially in the case of women, you have an assertive, outgoing personality, or “look different” -- meaning not quite straight or white -- or don’t always agree with everyone, which translates into having an independent streak -- nothing more dangerous than an independent thinker!).

In fact, we’ve known folks who have worked side-by-side for years with friendly colleagues until it becomes known that they are lesbians. Suddenly, colleagues begin distancing themselves and using avoidance tactics manifested as lame excuses for no longer getting together for lunch, or moving over slightly when passing in the hallway.

They may no longer be available for coffee breaks, and on-the-job cooperation begins to suffer. Suddenly, they seem to have lost the ability to converse, as if you now speak some rare foreign language. Familiarity becomes a threat, as if their new awareness of your orientation makes them somehow vulnerable to your attention.

Trust us here folks, we always knew we were lesbians. The new awareness is yours, not ours.

This new knowledge on your part, ladies, doesn’t mean that we are suddenly going to find you overwhelmingly attractive and behave in some inappropriate manner. And, aw, gee guys, just because you are now aware that we aren’t interested in you on a physical level can’t we still be friends and colleagues?

It’s important to note here that most workplace discrimination seems to be women against women. Is this an example of the victim attacking the victim? Women locked into lower-paid positions with little hope for improvement feeding upon one another? We wonder.

Of course, if you began the job as an out lesbian, or gay, or trans person (the assumption here being that you actually were hired in spite of this “difference”), it’s possible that you were never fully incorporated into the heart of the work arena but are treated more as a “special” employee.

Bosses and colleagues can smugly pride themselves on how open-minded they are, while being totally unaware of what separate-but-equal really feels like. Sometimes an individual may benefit from such special treatment (at the expense of other employees, which creates another reason for hostility on the part of colleagues), but more often they are overlooked for promotions, receive fewer or lower wage increases and are slighted in workplace interactions and socialization.

Such discrimination is especially difficult for lesbians, who receive a double whammy as women already suffering inequity in salary and less opportunity for advancement or promotion.

"It’s no coincidence that historically many of the feminist leaders have been lesbians."

***

Enough about work. Let’s move on to another aspect of daily life -- health care. Much research has shown that lesbians receive less and/or poorer health care than do straight women.

Once again we find the answer in the roots of discrimination. The health care field has been slow in incorporating diversity issues as a part of its training mission, and given that doctors, nurses, aides and office staff are human, they are just as vulnerable to personal bias and prejudice as anyone else.

The significant difference here is that they are responsible for, and make decisions relevant to, our very existence. It only makes sense that if a doctor or nurse doesn’t like lesbians or trans folks, or Asians for that matter, they might be less interested in their health and welfare.

This might also make them less aware in the hiring of office staff who handle patient records and serve as the central communication point between doctors and patients.

We personally know of instances where lesbians’ test results have not been relayed, X-rays “lost” or “misplaced,” follow-up exams delayed or not scheduled at all, and sometimes just simply rude or dismissive behavior on the part of caregivers.

We see this situation as critical, certainly a life-or-death issue and one that lesbians deal with all too frequently.

We are told that those lesbians who are seen as a bit more “masculine” suffer the most in this environment, and while we know that women who are viewed as more “feminine” may receive better treatment, they also might be viewed as less credible. You know, a woman can’t be attractive and smart too!

But our point is that if you don’t feel safe or comfortable being honest with your health care provider, then the choice is either to lie about one’s life or not seek care. Either way the lesbian loses.

"We’ve known folks who have worked side-by-side for years with friendly colleagues until it becomes known that they are lesbians."

***

Women are still treated as second-class citizens, and lesbians are in third place. And of course lesbians of color come in at fourth or fifth place.

A bigger issue is that women are still almost totally defined by their sexuality or gender representation rather than their experience, ability, education, talent and contributions to society.

Women are surely more than the sum of their parts. We had great hopes for women’s advancement 20 or so years ago when Title IX guaranteed equal access in sports participation and Roe v. Wade enabled us to make our own motherhood decisions.

Opportunities have risen in both the educational and business arenas. But we’ve noticed a massive re-emergence of men, in particular white men, in all areas of our society.

As they increasingly reassume the power positions in government, business, education, even in entertainment, there is less room for everyone else. Not to mention that they also control the money, pay scales and other financial opportunities.

What better way to stay in power than to control everything? We’ve read many reports of late that women are leaving the world of work and resuming the domestic roles that trapped them for decades. Is it because women can’t compete or because they are outnumbered and being forced out or, with decreasing choices, are giving up?

"Bosses and colleagues can smugly pride themselves on how open-minded they are, while being totally unaware of what separate-but-equal really feels like."

***

Well, our point here is that while women continue to discriminate against one another and especially target those who are lesbians, they are undermining their own unity. If straight women think that the men in power will help them out because they flirt with them and support them, well, think again.

And, please, don’t think that we are men haters and have failed at relationships with male family members and friends. Not the case, just not so. There are lots of wonderful guys out there. But it’s obvious that our society is one of patriarchy and out of balance.

All groups and individuals deserve equal opportunity and representation, and women, lesbians or not, have waited long enough. It’s no coincidence that historically many of the feminist leaders have been lesbians, and while they may not have been mothers or wives themselves, they were speaking up and fighting for the rights, health and welfare of wives, mothers and their children.

And we still are.

Helen Harrell and Carol Fischer can be reached at hharrell@indiana.edu and cafische@indiana.edu.