LESBIANS ARE old white ladies who hate trans people.

This is one of a handful of popular negative conceptions of lesbians that are rarely spoken so bluntly, but are remarkably durable in our culture. It’s a stereotype that divides lesbians, divides queer people, and has informed many straight people’s perceptions of lesbians over the past decade. It’s also one of the most pressing stereotypes that comes up in Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House, a large-scale performance and art installation created by the artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, an artwork that was mounted for the fourth time this October at Philadelphia’s Icebox Project and that has now been archived in a newly published book titled, Inside Killjoy’s Kastle: Dykey Ghosts, Feminist Monsters, and Other Lesbian Hauntings.

While this particular stereotype has cropped up in fictional settings, most memorably in the second season of the television show Transparent [1], the reality is that it is based on a number of events that have actually taken place. The most widely known example is the refusal of the leadership of the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, particularly co-founder and last producer standing Lisa Vogel, to heed the calls from countless festival attendees and protesters to explicitly open the festival to trans women. But there are also earlier histories of trans women being forced out of key roles at lesbian organizations such as Daughters of Bilitis [2] and Olivia Records [3], despite the desire of many within those organizations for the women to remain.

And perhaps most noteworthy in recent months, there is the alliance between self-identified “radical lesbian feminist” [4] Julia Beck and congressional Republicans in the United States seeking to quash both the Equality Act, a law that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected groups (among others) under the US Civil Rights Act, and the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which would have, had it not been successfully stymied, added protections for transgender individuals. Though Beck doesn’t fit the opening stereotype based on her age, she seems to gladly follow in the footsteps of many women before her who have been used by conservatives as tokens to prop up their relentless commitment to violently enforced patriarchy and white supremacy.

These are hardly the only fictional or real instances of white lesbians (or feminists) directly working against the safety, well-being, and humanity of trans women. Nor are they the only examples of a larger culture and society that continues to violently reject trans people [5], particularly trans women of color. And yet, the instances mentioned above have had their impact. The term “TERF,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminist, has officially entered the popular lexicon, appearing in articles and headlines from The New York Times to BuzzFeed to the conservative National Review. While TERF doesn’t refer exclusively to lesbians, nor did lesbians alone inspire its creation [6], because it came into popular consciousness during the debates surrounding the largely lesbian Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, it is cemented in many people’s minds as being associated with lesbians.

As with all stereotypes, this one relies on conflation, i.e., taking the behavior or perceived characteristics of a sample set within a group and applying that to the whole group, rendering them less human through caricature, thereby making it easier for people to think of them as monsters. And this conflation is also directly adjacent to a number of other negative beliefs, such as the idea that all feminists are man-hating dykes or the reliable old saw about women constantly needing or wanting to fight among themselves, not to mention the seemingly eternal hatred of women and femininity in general.

Negative stereotypes are everywhere. Every group has them. But when popular negative stereotypes are applied to groups that have historically lacked access to power and been maligned in the culture, it’s like a doubling down. This phenomenon is in no way exclusive to lesbians, but it’s not often discussed in relation to lesbians. Lesbians of all races, ethnicities, and political persuasions have generally never been popular or much lauded in the culture, pretty much since time immemorial — think witches being drowned and burned, ancient Greek men who were totally down to fuck each other but condemned the same idea among women, burnings during the Inquisition, so-called “corrective” rapes of lesbians across countless cultures that continue to this day, ongoing histories of murder, and on and on.

This doubling down can make people want to evade or avoid being associated with maligned identities. When I interviewed a small group of young people attending a women’s college for my film about LGBTQ women’s communities and spaces, I asked them if they used the term “lesbian” to describe themselves. All of them answered in the negative, most responding reflexively and some even making a face when they replied, saying they preferred the term queer. We talked a bit about why that was, but at some point, a friend of a couple people in the group who was sitting in on the conversation started laughing and pointed out that he heard them use the term lesbian all the time.

What was interesting in that moment was not that these young people were trying out different terms as they were engaged in the work of forming their identities — that’s something young people have done for generations. Instead, the interesting point is that that they didn’t want to admit to me, or more specifically to the camera, that they regularly used the term lesbian. They didn’t want it known publicly. I had a chance to actually see the editing process that so many people go through quietly and alone happen right in front of me.

These young people were not avoiding the term lesbian because of “queer theory” or because they felt pressured to alter their genders, as many trans-exclusionary lesbians would argue. Instead, they were avoiding the term because they were, in part, ashamed of being associated with trans-exclusionary lesbians, along with other negative stereotypes. And there is almost nothing so powerful in today’s culture as public shame.

Social media has made our lives utterly public. And when it comes to politics, at least in a US context, that means either performing political wokeness or performing a rejection of “political correctness.” Both are extremes divorced from the reality of our messy lives, and both place significant demands on us to live up to our public personas, to maintain the right attitudes, and to avoid being rejected by an online “community” that is always actively policing you (and themselves). Jeremy Bentham could never have dreamt up a more perfect Panopticon than social media.

All the more amazing, then, that the artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue, along with a copious cast of collaborators, attempted to explore this minefield of lesbian, feminist, and queer stereotypes in Killjoy’s Kastle, using humor as a pathway into these fraught topics.

Killjoy’s Kastle first took over a warehouse in Toronto, Canada, in 2013, then lived as a smaller scale installation during the 2014 British Film Institute’s Flare festival in London, returning to its large-scale performative format in 2015 in a warehouse in Los Angeles, and this October, it lived again in Philadelphia. Each iteration involved institutional collaboration and support: from the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, to BFI in London, to the ONE National Lesbian & Gay Archives in Los Angeles (incorporated into the University of Southern California Libraries in 2010), and now the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia.

The project is modeled on carnival fun houses, haunted houses, sideshows, as well as Christian hell houses that seek to frighten congregants into behaving as church leaders see fit by purporting to reenact, often in high camp and with wildly exaggerated effect, the evils of abortion, drugs and alcohol, same-sex intimacy, extramarital sex, and suicide. Killjoy’s Kastle seeks to frighten, amuse, provoke, and excite by playing with all manner of complex histories and the equally complex present, from the stereotype that opened this essay, to the histories that led to it, to the fun-house mirror that is social media, and so much more.

Thousands of audience members waited in line, sometimes for hours, to be led by “Demented Women’s Studies Professors” through a series of chambers from “The Hall of Warning Signs” to “The Terrifying Tunnel of Two Adult Women in Love” to rooms variously containing “Paranormal Consciousness Raisers,” “Polyamorous Vampiric Grannies,” and a “Straw Feminist Hall of Shame,” among so many others. And after wandering through this house of horrors, attendees were left to sit and talk it all over in the “Processing Room” with “Real-Life Lesbian Killjoys,” before getting a final reprieve and soothingly familiar opportunity to process through payments in “Ye Olde Lesbian Feminist Gift Shoppe.” All of it is intended to be over the top, but also to tease out the daily discomforts that many people who identify as lesbian, queer, trans, and/or feminist encounter.

As someone with a keen interest in how LGBTQ* women navigate the wider culture and also how the wider culture treats us, as soon as I read about the Kastle in 2013, I wanted to attend, but timing and funds have made it impossible for me to attend. So I never saw the Kastle in person. As Mitchell and scholar Cait McKinney, the editors of the newly published volume Inside Killjoy’s Kastle, note, the particular realities of lesbian feminist cultural production mean that “[i]f you missed it, it doesn’t exist, either because these works are by women, or lesbians, or queers or because they are so unsustainable in their ambitious scales and modest institutional supports that they only seem to be in the world for brief moments.”

Assuming I had missed the phantasmagoric boat, Killjoy’s Kastle itself became a bit of a ghost for me. As McKinney and Mitchell keenly observe: “So much of the lesbian-feminist history evoked here trades in stereotypes, hearsay, rumour, gossip, and legend.”

But then, this summer, I saw Mitchell post a photograph of the book on her Instagram account. Networks of queer cultural and artistic producers are notoriously small. I follow Mitchell because I tried to include her and Logue’s Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) in my film, though it never worked out. I know Cait McKinney because I met them while volunteering at an event at the Lesbian Herstory Archives back in 2013. I also know a handful of the people who have performed or collaborated on iterations of Killjoy’s Kastle, including Felice Shays, who originated the role of an undead Valerie Solanas, greeting those waiting in line to enter the Kastle, as well as L. J. Roberts, Sarah Schulman, and Macon Reed, among others. The Kastle represents a vast web of connections, flirtations, heartache, ambitions, and conflicts of interest for many of the people involved and the people who encounter it.

While Mitchell and McKinney’s book could never equal the visceral and overwhelming experience of walking through an immersive performance and installation, it offers a chance to consider the thousands of ideas and intersections that lead to the creation of Killjoy’s Kastle. Made up of more than 20 written contributions and over 80 photographs from the three iterations of the project thus far, the book offers readers numerous perspectives on the inception, realization, and afterlife of the project. The bulk of the texts have been written by scholars, and one text, Sara Ahmed’s brilliant essay “Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects)” is a reprint of an earlier scholarly publication. But there are also shorter texts and scripts from performers, activists, and artists interspersed throughout the book that offer a more direct gateway into the work.

Among other things, Inside Killjoy’s Kastle demonstrates how frequently queer women and trans people must do the work of contextualizing their own work. Mitchell and McKinney deliberately use the book to archive what might otherwise be considered largely un-preservable, and to add critical perspective to a work that received very little attention in the arts press. In the absence of an official record by the press, Mitchell and McKinney have created their own.

Perhaps part of the reason for that gap in the record is that Killjoy’s Kastle was the subject of debate, derision, and disgust, both inside and outside of queer communities. Within queer communities, it was criticized by some for being too white, too cisgender, too demanding for those working on it, too scary, and too focused on genitalia and essentialist ideas about genitalia and gender. Outside of queer communities, local conservative media in Toronto salivated at the opportunity to use the Kastle to ridicule all queer women and feminists, treating the haunted house as a representation of reality instead of the fun house that it was. Mitchell and McKinney incorporate these critiques into the book, accumulating commentary that not only contextualizes and celebrates the work, but also acknowledges and speaks to its shortcomings.

Those critiques also help to describe something that is, in my experience, altogether unique to queer spaces and communities, particularly those centered around queer women. As scholar S. Trimble notes at the end of her essay: “We come to the kastle with different hurts and different hopes.”

Queer people, particularly queer women, seem always to be searching for a community, for a space in which to find that hoped-for community. There are enough known and fictionalized histories of lesbian bars, cafés, bookstores, and landyke communities to whet the appetite of many generations of queer women. There’s just enough of that rumor and hearsay Mitchell and McKinney mention to drive a woman crazy seeking it out. And inevitably, at least with many of the women I have interviewed and spoken with, there is often a deep sense of disappointment when you actually get to the space you’ve sought out or been directed toward. The women are not the ones you dreamed of, there’s likely not as many as you thought there would be, or not enough of the ones you were looking for, they don’t readily interact with you, or you don’t have the courage to interact with them, and you may soon find that if you do interact with them, you don’t actually have much in common at all. Because, after all, being in a room with people who share only a sexual preference and/or a gender identity does not, particularly in today’s world, mean that you have much common ground to stand on.

The book mentions this deep sense of disappointment more than once, including in one of the opening essays, “Scaling Up and Sharing Out Dyke Culture: Killjoy’s Kastle’s Haunted Block Party” by the scholar Heather Love. Love begins by referencing artist and writer Ariel Goldberg’s book The Estrangement Principle, in which Goldberg explores the meaning, utility, and myriad uses of the term “queer,” particularly in reference to artworks. Love’s interest in Goldberg’s book is tied to the ways Goldberg expresses a longing for community. From Love: “Such fervent longings tend to go unaccommodated, their very intensity a sign that they can never be satisfied.” Love also points out in a footnote that Goldberg later acknowledged that their sense of disappointment, or alienation, was also a product of the life stage at which they found themselves, having not yet (quoting Goldberg directly) “been in one place long enough to contribute to various communities built around shared interests and experiences.”

What both Love and Goldberg seem to be pointing out is that disappointment with hoped-for community is, at least for some queer people, a stage of development. You buy into the optimistic myth that “queer” spaces or “lesbian” spaces will be welcoming to every kind of queer person or lesbian, that you will be perfectly helped and supported there, that you will not be responsible for the heavy lift involved in creating that space, but that you will be granted entry simply because you have done the work to identify yourself. Of course, life doesn’t work that way for anyone, let alone queer people.

Scholar Kyla Wazana Tompkins points to a similar idea in her contribution to the book: “When we dream of a totalizing politics, and when we dream of spaces that might manifest those totalized politics as whole and healing formations, we will always be disappointed.”

I was excited to see this discussion of disappointment because while I think it is often inevitable in community spaces of all kinds, I do not think it is a permanent state of being (something we don’t talk about enough), nor do I think it is a unique or original sin attached to lesbian and queer spaces. Men and straight people have not magically figured out how to create perfectly welcoming, inclusive, and everlasting communities. Building and sustaining communities is challenging work for everyone, period.

But the thing the book does better than anything else, is call attention to the role of discomfort in our lives, or more specifically, the ways in which discomfort, and the desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, plays out across our culture, particularly through our behavior and grooming of ourselves for display on social media.

And it does this, perhaps not in the way the editors intended. For me, it was incredibly telling that in a book that is trying to tease out the ways so many people are uncomfortable with the complexities and messiness of lesbian and feminist histories, there’s a knee-jerk totalizing reaction on the part of many contributors when it comes to one topic in particular — the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. More than once I noticed contributors conflating the refusal of the festival’s producer to explicitly welcome trans women with the festival as a whole in phrases like “the transphobic Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.” This feels like a desire to demonstrate that the writers of these sharp reactions were on the right side of history, or have the correct interpretation of history, which is the cultural demand that social media and today’s public culture makes of us. Like those students I interviewed who tried to avoid associating themselves with the term lesbian, this quick conflation feels like a desire to distance, to avoid association, as if to say, “I’m not one of them. I’m not a monster.”

The protests and debates surrounding the festival took up an enormous amount of psychic, social, and political space among lesbians and trans people in the past decade, though the issue was simmering there since the early 1990s. And because the protests and boycotts of the festival made an appearance in the popular, straight press, it led to lesbians having to face questioning and evocations of nasty stereotypes (not only about lesbians, but also about trans folks) from their non-lesbian friends, co-workers, and beyond. Lesbians felt forced to quickly and clearly flag which side of the debate they fell on, or obfuscate to avoid the topic altogether, and those reflexive reactions still reverberate today, even though the festival shuttered in 2015.

Only the writer and scholar Ann Cvetkovich resisted the easy temptation to distance — pointing out, not only in the book but also in her role as a “Real-Life Lesbian Killjoy” in the live performance, that she attended the festival in the past, working on one of the many volunteer crews that made it run.

By evoking readers’ and attendees’ discomfort and uncertainty about her role at the festival, Cvetkovich challenges our desire for quick and easy ways of navigating our discomfort. We’re forced to stay in it a bit longer, and hopefully it pushes us to look at why we want that easy approval or dismissal so badly. By asking people to engage directly with her instead of simply liking or blocking a post on Facebook, for instance, she pushes us to hold the parts of our history that we may not like or understand very well, which seems to be precisely the goal of Killjoy’s Kastle. The point is not to forgive or overlook bad behavior, oppressions, or violence, far from it. The point is to challenge thinking that reduces, regardless of where it comes from, to challenge simplicities, to challenge monoliths.

In fun houses, there are almost always mirrors that wildly distort our reflections, that directly mock and play with our own self-image. In hell houses, gory titillation excites the viewer who knows they should instead be repulsed, showing them just how fallible they are. And in haunted houses, we’re reminded how close we are to our fears. It’s not a mistake that these are houses; homes that flip cozy notions of comfort and familiarity by showing us the twisted and horrible realities that so often characterize our familiar worlds.

We humans are monsters. That’s not a question. The question raised by Killjoy’s Kastle, and this book about it, is how you respond to the monstrosities, both in our society at large and in yourself, how you wrestle with the desire to put the world’s monsters away, to contain them, to disassociate them from yourself, so they won’t pop out and haunt you in the night or in your own mirror.

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Alexis Clements is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. A regular contributor to Hyperallergic, her writing has also appeared in the GuardianSalon, Bitch MagazineAmerican TheatreThe Brooklyn Rail, and Nature, among others. She recently completed a documentary film titled All We’ve Got.

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[1] The episode, the ninth in the second season, was titled “Man on the Land” and depicted a fictionalized women’s music festival that drew some of its inspiration from the now-shuttered Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. The episode was originally released by Amazon Studios on December 11, 2015.

[2] Trans lesbian folk singer, writer, and activist Beth Elliott became involved in the San Francisco chapter of Daughters of Bilitis in the early 1970s and quickly rose to the role of vice president despite some initial opposition to her inclusion in the group. Unfortunately it was not long into her service in that role that a former friend accused her of sexual harassment and she was voted out of the group, though many supported her remaining, viewing the accusation as a smear campaign, and the editorial staff of the chapter’s newsletter left the group after Elliot was pushed out.

[3] Sandy Stone worked as a recording and sound engineer for Olivia Records in the 1970s. Olivia Records, the same company that now organizes Olivia Cruises, then focused on women’s music and was founded by a group of lesbian feminists. Around the same time Stone began to work at Olivia Records, Janice Raymond, then a PhD student who would go on to become a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, began working on a book titled The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, in which she personally attacked Stone, claiming Stone intended to destroy Olivia Records, despite the staff at Olivia telling Raymond that they had no problem with Stone working with them and that they welcomed her as a woman in the collective. Raymond’s ongoing and organized efforts to smear Stone, resulted in numerous threats on Stone’s life, including a group of women who showed up with guns to a concert organized by Olivia where Stone was present. Stone eventually decided to leave the collective because of the organized campaigns against her.

[4] See Beck’s bio in her opinion piece published December 10, 2018, on the site AfterEllen titled, “How I became the most hated lesbian in Baltimore,” https://www.afterellen.com/general-news/568221-how-i-became-the-most-hated-lesbian-in-baltimore#TwMRbTACsGDOrRcl.99

[5] To view a list of some of the known, recorded, and recognized murders of trans individuals, you can reference this article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_unlawfully_killed_transgender_people

[6] The writer Viv Smythe is credited with having coined the term, and you can read about her perspective on its origins and use in her November 2018 article for the Guardian titled “I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf’. Here’s how it happened.”