Be a lesbian for a year if you must – but what about lesbians for life?

Brooke Hemphill’s book Lesbian for a Year has stirred new conversations about what it means to be a lesbian today. Purple Sherbet/Flickr

I recently found myself at a bookshop at Sydney’s domestic airport with less than ten minutes until my plane boarded. Scanning around frantically for something to read, my eyes were immediately drawn to a new non-fiction book prominently placed at the shop’s entrance.

It wasn’t the splash of bright pink on the book’s cover that caught my attention. Rather, it was the book’s title: Lesbian for a Year.

The catchy title of journalist Brooke Hemphill’s book has resulted in a steady flow of publicity for the author since its release. Subsequent to my initial airport encounter with this book, I have heard radio segments discussing it and have also stumbled across a number of newspaper reviews exploring its premise.

The back cover of Lesbian for a Year sets out the book’s plot as follows:

What happens when a young heterosexual woman wakes up one morning with a splitting hangover and a naked woman wrapped around her?

It is Brooke Hemphill’s decision to embark on a year exclusively dating women that forms the core of her book.

It’s clear from the blurb that Hemphill’s book is not interested in unravelling the broader social and political implications of what it means to be a lesbian or bisexual. This is a shame because as I’ve written elsewhere, social attitudes towards homosexuality have undergone a remarkable transformation in Australia over the past few decades and such a publication would be timely.

The book is also not concerned with untangling the impact of homophobia, the process of “coming out” which marks the gay and lesbian experience for many, or the role of a gay and lesbian community in contemporary society. It also does not consider the existence of biphobia, a prejudice that minimises the experiences of bisexual people.

Instead, Hemphill’s book is a casually written autobiography, taking the reader through her dating history, including relationships with women. It would be easy to dismiss this book as a titillating attempt to profit from broader social fascination with lesbianism. And there is no question that such a fascination exists.

Lesbians are of course a mainstay of the pornography industry, while still being underrepresented in other forms of media.

I would suggest the publishers of Hemphill’s book are keen to take advantage of heterosexual curiosity about lesbianism. The title is unfortunate for the reason that many younger people coming out as lesbian (or gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) are treated as though their orientation is phase they are going through, rather than a meaningful and enduring form of sexuality.

A title suggesting the author’s lesbianism is a passing fancy surely will not help in challenging this prejudice.

The bright pink title on the front cover stresses only two elements of Hemphill’s recent history for the browsing reader. First, her exploration of lesbianism. Second, it implies there is a temporal limit on this exploration by the inclusion of the “for a year” phrase. The back blurb also makes it clear the same-sex encounter that sparked her year of lesbianism occurred under the influence of alcohol.

It could be argued that with this title, Hemphill has presented a non-threatening and socially acceptable form of lesbianism to the general reader. The author’s dating history, we learn, includes serious relationships with men, and the text emphasises her conventional attractiveness at a number of points. The author also ends up falling in love with a man at the book’s conclusion.

The title and blurb has sparked considerable debate across Twitter and other online forums over whether the book is a legitimate examination of the author’s sexual and romantic experiences or an attempt to profit off her “tourism” through lesbian culture.

Twitter user PearlandDragon tweeted: “I like the idea of dating a tidy, organised person (ie. A woman) but I don’t think a gay gap year is fair on the other person.”

Neil Way also expressed criticism of the book’s premise over Twitter, declaring: “I’m a proud gay man and I wouldn’t agree with the reverse of this. Not sure why straight males or females would either.”

It is difficult to gauge Hemphill’s intentions.

But the debate surrounding this book does serve at least two purposes. It provides a window into the way lesbianism is viewed by a contemporary Australian public; and it illustrates shifting views on sexual identity more broadly.

I don’t believe Hemphill’s manuscript would have been published in its current format a decade ago. Back in 2004, when John Howard amended the Marriage Act to prevent same-sex couples from marrying, it would have been very difficult to have imagined a book with the word “lesbian” in the title being prominently and nonchalantly displayed in airport bookstores.

Today, same-sex marriage has majority public support and television programmes such as Orange is the New Black, which shows a number of lesbian relationships, appear to be popular with viewers of all sexual orientations.

While it is not marketed as such, Hemphill’s book is also instructive because it shows the way a number of younger Australians are starting to think beyond the categories of “gay” and “straight”. While this seems to have eluded the publishers, who have prominently used the word “lesbian” to promote the book, Hemphill herself points out the complexity of human sexuality and her experiences seem to be somewhat emblematic of a “post-gay” world where categories of sexual identity are not necessary for some.

I have to confess to being ambivalent about this book. Perhaps the fact a book with the word “lesbian” in the title has received mainstream distribution is positive. I fear though, that the book is popular because it presents a particular, non-challenging (and indeed narrow) idea of what lesbianism is.

The next time I am at the airport, I would love to see a book exploring what it is like to be a lesbian for life, rather than a year.