Why is it in for lesbians to be out? be out?

The new wave of lesbian chic looks suspiciously like old-style male sexual fantasy, says Joan Smith
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A COUPLE of years ago, the American magazine Vanity Fair came up with an unusually arresting cover image: a man in a barber's chair, eyes closed, enjoying the attentions of a beautiful woman. On closer inspection, the photograph revealed itself as pastiche, a playful deception whose effect depended on the reader's split-second delay in realising that the pinstriped "man" was actually the lesbian singer, k d lang.

The cover, and the accompanying profile of lang, were classic examples of lesbian chic, a phenomenon now running riot through all branches of the media. Lynda La Plante's television drama serial She's Out featured a lesbian love triangle while Channel 4 is offering a lesbian season in September called Dyke TV; from the television adaptation of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit to Roseanne Arnold's on-screen embrace with Mariel Hemingway, from Beth in Brookside to the lesbian love affair in Joanna Trollope's A Village Affair, gay women are everywhere - and, we're being told, they're the very height of fashion.

The London listings magazine Time Out, always on the look-out for a hot trend, has devoted 12 pages of the latest issue to what it describes as "lover girls". "What's going on?" the magazine demands, pointing out that this year's Gay Pride weekend has gone "visibly lesbian". Is it, the magazine wants to know, suddenly in to be "out"?

It's a neat question and an obvious and timely one. But it's also a rather superficial approach to the question of sexual orientation, adding a new twist to the old debate about whether homosexuals are made or born with the suggestion that, like hairstyles and hemlines, they're subject to the whims of something as frivolous as fashion.

Is it mostly media hype, another symptom of the craving for novelty in a culture already saturated with sexual images? Or are women really turning to same-sex liaisons in huge numbers because it's the glamorous thing to do? There is a mostly forgotten tradition of straight or bisexual women enjoying a flirtation with lesbianism at times in the past when it was briefly fashionable, notably in the 1920s.

Celebrities like Beatrice Lillie and Tallulah Bankhead flocked to Harlem nightclubs famous for their displays of unconventional sexuality and to listen to bisexual singers like Bessie Smith. Gladys Bentley, a male impersonator who appeared at the popular Clam House, wore a tuxedo for her "wedding" to another woman in New Jersey.

A more immediate explanation for today's outbreak of lesbian chic is that the relaxed sexual climate of the 1990s has persuaded women who would have denied their lesbian feelings in earlier decades finally to come out. But the type of media attention currently being paid to lesbianism, veering as it does between prurience and simple-minded categorisation - "can you tell your blazers from your leather brassieres?" asks Time Out over a handy illustrated guide to "dyke types and terms" - reveals a considerable degree of confusion about the audience it's aimed at.

If the fascination with lesbianism is an affirmation of gay identity and aimed at a gay audience, why the need for so much explanation - some of it nervously skirting the old question "what do they do in bed?" In her scholarly history of lesbians in the United States, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman argues against this obsession with taxonomy: "Not only are lesbians as diverse proportionally as the female heterosexual population, but if any generalisation can be made about large numbers of them at any given time, it is bound soon to change anyway ... The only constant truth about The Lesbian in America has been that she prefers women."

This leads to the question of whether lesbian chic is a convenient excuse for putting scantily dressed or naked women on magazine covers and on cinema screens, deflecting accusations of exploitation with the claim that the images are a celebration of a neglected minority. The bare-chested female on the cover of Time Out's lesbian issue, her breasts concealed by another woman's scarlet-nailed fingers, could just as easily appear in a men's magazine, representing as it does a fairly common male sexual fantasy. When the author Nancy Friday sorted through contributions from 3,000 American men for her book on the subject, she discovered that many of them admitted to a fascination with the idea of lesbian sex. "The image of women making love to women grips the male imagination," Friday wrote in Men in Love, "because it expresses one of the dominant themes of male fantasy: the sexually insatiable woman." Friday argued that the idea of lesbian sex absolved men from sexual guilt - women were doing it on their own, without a man present - but there was an interesting twist to her chapter about such fantasies. Several of her contributors imagined their wives having sex with another woman but always at some point the husbands were invited to take part.

An obvious explanation is that Western culture is so phallocentric that lesbian sex somehow doesn't count. But it seems likely that these fantasies also address male heterosexual anxiety in that the women try sex with each other, find it wanting and tacitly admit their own deficiencies when they invite a man to join in. Thus, in a rather devious way, men's fantasies about lesbianism can end by proving that the phallus is the sine qua non of real sex.

Although Friday's book was published in the early 1980s, there's evidence to suggest that the current media fascination with lesbianism continues to be a manifestation of sexual anxiety rather than an affirmation of gay identity. Vanity Fair, for example, nervously shifted responsibility for its k d lang cover on to the singer herself, revealing that she "came up with the idea of being shaved by a beautiful model, a playful fantasy realised in the photo shoot ... as a sort of modern twist on Norman Rockwell".

In fact, the image was far more subversive and anxiety-provoking than this semi-disclaimer admits. The "beautiful model" was Cindy Crawford, a celebrity whose own sexuality has fuelled many rumours.

Yet for the Vanity Fair shoot, Crawford and lang choose to embody two extreme lesbian stereotypes - femme and butch, the lipstick lesbian and the mannish dyke. Crawford also tapped into another, even more controversial stereotype by wielding a cut-throat razor next to lang's jugular, hinting at the role of killer lesbian which catapulted Sharon Stone to fame in the hit movie Basic Instinct.

Stone's co-star in that film was Michael Douglas, an actor whose CV reads like a balance-sheet of contemporary male insecurities: from Fatal Attraction to Disclosure to Basic Instinct, Douglas keeps on encountering beautiful, sexually voracious and ultimately destructive women. Stone is the most extreme example, a lesbian beautiful enough to "pass" as straight but adept at despatching men with an ice-pick - in other words, the classic "phallic woman".

Stone's role in Basic Instinct infuriated many women, gay and straight. The film, and other representations of lesbians as sexually voracious, could be dismissed as typical examples of fin-de-siecle decadence - the ends of centuries tend to be accompanied by a high degree of sexual experimentation.

Representations of lesbians in popular culture have multiplied at precisely the same time as the impact of Aids has made itself felt among gay men. The American novelist Edmund White argues that, as a result of the disease, homosexual men are no longer regarded as a sexual threat but as objects of pity - and that the role they used to play of embodying anarchic, disruptive sexuality has passed to single, sexually active women. If he is right, who is more to be feared than the lesbian, the woman who enjoys sex but can do entirely without men?

The fascination with lesbian chic, according to this view, is primarily an anxious response on the part of straight culture to the disruptive, dangerous aspects of sex per se. It validates voyeurism, reinforces stereotypes and ultimately tries to domesticate sex with its proposition that something as complex as desire is really just a question of fashion. There's something seductively simple and unthreatening about the idea that a girlfriend has merely replaced the Versace dress or Prada bag as the latest must- have accessory - and, given time, there's nothing quite as dead as last year's hot item.