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Looking for Lesbians in Early Modern Spain

Monday, August 28, 2017 - 07:00

Can you know a lesbian when you see one? What characteristics did people in early modern Spain think a lesbian would have? And what did that say about how they conceived of sexual orientation? The concluding chapter to Velasco's book covers an assortment of loosely-connected topics having to do with visual signifiers. It's interesting how old the trope of the "masculine-looking ugly lesbian" is. One aspect in this regard that I don't recall seeing addressed is the extent to which "feminine beauty" as a concept is actively and deliberately created rather than being a natural and spontaneous state. Is the mythical "ugly lesbian" simply the resting bitch face of sexuality? The trope also points out that the understanding of sexuality was still very much focused on an active/passive definition. Only the "active" desiring woman risked evoking the "ugly, masculine-looking" accusation.

As we come to the end of Velasco's book, I'd like to step back and once again marvel at how much material the author found to address her topic, and what that implies for many other historic cultures that have not yet had the benefit of a knowledgeable and interested researcher. I'll reitereate one of the main lessons I've gained from this project: the assumption that information is scarce and skimpy regarding the history of women's same-sex desires derives from a history of the field that often focused on types of data that were more relevant to men, and interpretations of the data that assumed "heterosexual unless clearly proven otherwise." Historians don't find things that they aren't looking for. Once you start looking, there is a greater wealth of data than we've been led to believe.

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 7: Looking Like a Lesbian

This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate. Accusations against specific women assumed general knowledge of homoerotic possibilities and expectations regarding types of homoerotic activity.

Probable intersex cases tested the understanding and judgement of same-sex activity. Beliefs about the possibility of spontaneous physical sex change problematized investigations into potential transgressive relations when physical sex was ambiguous or did not match gender performance. Medical opinions presumed that people had an innate sexual orientation, though they differed on the underlying cause.

When same-sex relationships were performed in public (for example, when the specifics of relationships came out in public arguments or lawsuits) the evidence suggests that individual fear of punishment for sexual transgression was not an absolute deterrent for entering those relationships. [Note: when has it ever been?] Within all this, what was the public expectation for being able to identify lesbians from their appearance? How could you know you were looking at one?

Catalina de Erauso was depicted in a portrait from life by Francisco Pacheco, and that portrait was further publicized by engravings based on it. Her features were interpreted differently depending on how people perceived her gender. Physiognomy--the pseudo-science of identifying innate characteristics based on facial features and physiology--was not only applied to Catalina during her lifetime, but was taken up by psychologists and sexologists in the early 20th century to “diagnose” her in terms of supposed psychological and medical abnormality.

Simple economics meant that homoerotic scenes of women in art were typically designed to cater to the male gaze for the purposes of titillation. One exception was depictions of lesbian erotics in genre scenes of witchcraft that often drew on male anxiety about powerful and dangerous women, conflating lesbian sexuality with anti-male magical activity. (That is, the scenes may still have been created for the male gaze, but not likely for titillation.)

In religious art, images of close emotional bonds betwen women were often depicted using physical gestures to indicate spiritual connections and conferral of authority. This appears in art showing Saint Teresa and her rival spiritual heirs in a sort of religious propaganda art staking claims to her legacy using imagery of closeness and inseparability.

Velasco includes a discussion of visual art associated with Nicholas Chorier’s pornographic Satyra Sotadica showing a frontispiece with a group of upper class Spanish women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as in a butcher’s shop. This seems to be included on the basis that Chorier’s work was alleged to be a translation of a dialogue by the 16th century Spanish poet and humanist Luisa Sigea. Sigea did write dialogues between women expressing passionate friendship. [Note: Velasco seems at first to treat the connection to Sigea as solidly evidenced but then appears to agree with other sources that the connection with Sigea is entirely fictitious and was, in part, intended to imply a genuine female authorship for Chorier’s female-voice dialogue.]

Beliefs in gender essentialism with regard to sexuality led to an emphasis in descriptions of women with same-sex desires as being masculine in appearance (or at least unfeminine). Contemporaries of María de Zayas suggest she may have been viewed as “manly” in appearance as well as in literary talent. Other writers compared her poetic talent to Sappho, possibly intending implications about her sexuality. Zayas herself excluded Sappho from her list of dedicatory “foremothers” possibly suggesting that she herself was anxious about what people would read into the comparison. There is some evidence that Zayas lived with a fellow female poet, Ana Caro, but the nature of their relationshp must be entirely speculative.

The Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (later 17th century) wrote poems to multiple women (including her patroness) that used amorous language and imagery, such as, “I love you with so much passion...My love for you was so strong I could see you in my soul and talk to you all day long...Let my love be ever doomed if guilty in its intent, for loving you is a crime of which I will never repent.” And in another work, “I aspire that your love and my good wine will draw you hither, and to tumble you to bed I can conspire.” Historians writing of Sor Juana and other examples of suggestive evidence between nuns often dismiss the possibility of same-sex desire out of hand on a presumption that they would have needed to learn about homoerotic love before being able to experience it, and that they were “too young” to understand the implication of such desires. [Some things never change.]

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