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LHMP #226 Garber 2005 Where in the World are the Lesbians?

Full citation: 

Garber, Linda. 2005. “Where in the World are the Lesbians?” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 14.1-2: 28-50.

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Garber details the thought process that went into developing an LGBTQ course for her university’s “global” core requirement, resulting in a course on Asian Gay and Lesbian Cultures. Garber’s academic focus was 20th century US lesbian writers so she worked in collaboration with a colleague with a focus on Asian history and literature.

Developing the curriculum ran into two major challenges: needing to use source material available in English (based on the target student body) and what Garber introduces as “the Woman Problem in Queer Studies”, that is the historic overwhelming focus on men and male issues in both academic and politically-oriented groups addressing issues of sexuality. This has regularly become a viscious circle where male domination of supposedly inclusive groups and fields has resulted in those interested in female topics branching off and forming separate, woman-focused groups, which only intensifies the tendency for the “general” field to be left to men’s issues (which then intensifies the impression that men's experiences are the "default" while women are a special case). These twin issues of participation and representation have shaped the nature of both academic queer studies and political activism.  The study of the history of homosexuality too often becomes the study of the history of male homosexuality, with women relegated to footnotes or ignored with a shrug as being a complication. (In the introduction to one author’s book on same-sex sexuality in Japan, he notes that “female-female sexuality in Japan demands a more thoroughgoing treatment than I am able to give it here.” after devoting an entire tome to male-male sexuality.)

This tendency has been recapitulated as queer studies and politics expand into a more global focus, even as many non-western cultures resist the hegemony of specifically western images and understandings of variant sexuality. What Garber found while developing her syllabus was that nearly all book-length studies about queer topics in Asia were written by and about men, and even anthologies favored men over women significantly. The connection between male authors and male topics is not solely one of personal interest: there are often social barriers to men doing sociological research among female homosexual communities.

The authors frequently excuse their exclusive focus by noting that the cultures they study did not view male and female homosexuality as having common factors (and therefore that it doesn't make sense to treat them together), or simply that material on women is scarce (which it is, when you're looking in male-oriented spaces). This last argument, made by Bret Hinsch in Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China is contradicted by the sources discussed by Sang Tze-lan in The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China.

Another hazard of the field is studying the ways in which non-western approaches to sexuality differ from western ones, as well as how the introduction of western medical and psychological theories changed those regional understandings. Thus, for example, the problem of interpreting Japanese discussions of women’s same-sex or cross-gender behavior without forcing it into English terminology. Another face of this problem is in using Foucault’s approach to the definition of homosexuality, which, when applied in a strict sense, excludes any consideration of sexuality prior to 1870 or outside the West. That is, if one defines the topic of one’s study as “homosexuality” and defines “homosexuality” as a concept of fixed personal orientation specific to post-1870 western culture, then it isn’t possible to research, for example, “homosexuality in pre-modern China.”

There are historic traditions of acceptance of same-sex love in China, Japan, and India, but in all cases these traditions were disrupted by the introduction of western pathologizing of homosexuality, enforced via colonialsm. Or, alternately, by a transfer of association of same-sex love to western influence, which erased the pre-existing tradition of tolerance. The “Foucauldian Orthodoxy” is being challenged by scholars of sexuality working within their own cultures and rediscovering those pre-existing historic traditions, such as work by Ruth Vanita and Gita Thadani on India.

Vanita points out that works such as the Kamasutra treat male and female sexuality in parallel, and work to develop a categorization of identities based on sexual behavior and desires. Other literary traditions from the subcontinent include medieval Perso-Urdu poems in the ghazal (love poem) genre (though usually involving love between men), or the use in Urdu poetry of the term chapti (clining or sticking together) for sex between woman and for women who engage in it.

Considerations of terminology and the categories they imply are central to any study of this type. Garber notes Judith Halberstram’s discussion in Female Masculinity about how to develop a framework for studying pre-modern cross-gender behavior in a way that doesn’t evaluate individuals against a modern template of the “lesbian”. Issues of anachronistic application of terminology are always present in historical studies, of course, even when working with more everyday concepts like “family, marriage, slave, master, law, woman, or man.”

This approach to historic subjectivity can come in conflict with modern social movements that see the claiming of international identity terms like “lesbian” as a refusal to accept a social tolerance that requires silence and anonymity. But at the same time, the development of a culturally-specific vocabulary for queer sexuality can founder on the rocks of a multitude of nuanced terms with no clear agreement on umbrella terms. (Examples are given from Japan and China.) The study of this vocabulary and its cultural context--even when it fails to align with western concepts of homosexuality--provides a path for the inclusion of women’s lives and voices in studies of sexuality.

Garber closes with a literature review of resources she considered for her syllabus. I’ve included the ones that look relevant and interesting to my readership below (as well as adding them to the “shopping list” for the Project). There is also a catalog of modern (20th century) writers who represented their own love for women in their work, such as Japanese poet Yosano Akiko, feminist Miyamoto Yuriko and her partner jounalist Yuasa Yoshiko. Authors from India include Kamala Das (writing in English and Malayalam), Urdu novelist Ismat Chughtai. Diasporic writers mentioned include Anchee Min’s memoir of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Gail Tsukiyama’s historic novels, and Margaret Topley’s historical essays.

Garber also discusses representations of same-sex love in modern television and cinema in Asia.

Readings mentioned that are of particular interest

Tze-Lan, Sang. 2003. The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China. Chicago. pp.44-45

Robertson, Jennifer. 1998. Takarazuka: Sexual Politics and Popular Culture in Modern Japan. Berkeley. p.68

Vanita, Ruth and Saleem Kidwai, eds. 2000. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. St. Martin’s, New York.

Vanita, Ruth (ed). 2002. Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society. New York.

Thadani, Giti.  1996.  Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India.  Cassell, London.  ISBN  0-304-33452-9

Ng, Vivien. 1997. “Looking for Lesbians in Chinese History” in Duberman, Martin (ed) A Queer World. New York.

Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. “Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan” in Signs 25, no. 1: 1-35.

Robertson, Jennifer (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Cultures and Sexualities. Malden MA.

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