A Poststructural Analysis of the Health and Wellbeing of Young Lesbian Identified Women in New Zealand

Palmer du Preez, Katie
Payne, Deborah
Giddings, Lynne
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

New Zealand is regarded internationally as a forerunner in the recognition of gay rights. Despite the wide circulation of discourses of gay rights and equality, research shows that young women who identify as lesbian continue to be marginalised by society, which constrains their health and wellbeing. This study was an inquiry into the health and wellbeing of young lesbians in New Zealand, from a poststructural feminist perspective. It posed the research question: what are the discourses in play in relation to the health and wellbeing of young lesbian identified women in New Zealand?

The methodology employed was a poststructural feminist discourse analysis, drawing on the philosopher Michel Foucault’s concepts of genealogy and the history of the present. Interviews with young lesbians were conducted in 2012 amid public debate around same-sex marriage. Historical data sources were the extant texts Broadsheet, a feminist periodical with strong health and wellbeing emphasis, and Hansard, a record of New Zealand parliamentary debate. Issues of these publications were selected from the early 1970s, during which the second wave feminist movement emerged, and the mid-1980s when the campaign for Homosexual Law Reform took place in New Zealand.

The discourse analysis made visible the production of multiple ‘truths’ of young lesbian health and wellbeing. Young lesbian participants were able to position themselves as legitimate subjects endorsed by psychological and biomedical scientific communities, and as lesbian wives and mothers. Queer discourse enabled the refutation of fixed modes of sexual and gender identity. The findings also showed that young lesbians continued to be subject to heteronormative and patriarchal discourses, which legitimised their marginalisation, exclusion, and victimisation, and restricted the spaces in which they could feel safe. Further, the ability of the participants to challenge the effects of heteronormative and patriarchal discourses on their wellbeing was limited by dominant psychological and healthy lifestyles discourses, which produced them as individualised subjects of neoliberal responsibility.

Findings also pointed to a restriction of possibilities for young lesbian health and wellbeing in New Zealand. The publically and legally sanctioned availability of lesbian marriage seemed to have pushed lesbian relationships further under the rubric of ‘the family’. Broadsheet magazine in the early 1970s, and mid-1980s was a surface of emergence for alternative discourses of lesbianism such as radical feminism to circulate. Radical feminist discourse problematised heterosexuality and its institutions of marriage and the family, and created space for lesbian community development and a political lesbianism to emerge. Through radical feminist discourse, compulsory heterosexuality could be articulated as a women’s health issue.

Addressing the issue of narrowing lesbian possibilities involves supporting young women to creatively expand the range of possible lesbian spaces and selves that are available to them. The rethinking of practices of radical lesbian space-making may facilitate the production and circulation of alternative discourses on lesbianism. Important possibilities for lesbian health may be found in societal health and wellbeing discourses which challenge the notion of individual responsibility, foregrounding analysis of heteropatriarchy, as well as governmental and social responsibility for effecting change.

Lesbian , Health , Young , Foucault , Feminism , Women , Poststructural , Genealogy , Discourse analysis , Gay rights , Heteronormativity , New Zealand
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