Velasco, Sherry. 2014. “How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
A collection of articles meant as a critical reference work on literature across time and space that might be considered “gay and lesbian literature.” Only articles with lesbian-relevant content will be blogged in detail.
Chapter 10 - How to Spot a Lesbian in the Early Modern Spanish World
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This chapter begins with a discussion of historic terminologies for women who loved women and the eternal problem of whether to use the label “lesbian”. Should the historian look for specific acts, or for evidence of emotional intimacy? And as a literary historian, should one distinguish between literary, artistic, or dramatic depictions, and “non-fictional” content in the fields of law, medicine, and theology?
An example of these themes colliding is in envisioning, a performance of Pérez de Montalbán’s 1626 play The Lieutenant Nun (based on the real-life story of Catalina de Erauso) portrayed on stage by popular actress Luisa de Robles. How would audiences have received and understood that performance in which a favorite actress openly flirted with women on stage, when depicting a woman known to have been attracted to women?
The historic record that contains unmistakable evidence of women desiring women is overlaid by the evidence of “attempts to suppress, destroy, or tamper” with that evidence.
The article then goes into a brief summary of documentary evidence from legal, medical, and theological texts. All these tended to approach the topic of lesbian sex from a heteronormative viewpoint, focusing on penetrative acts “like a man with a woman.” But other texts focused on romantic attachments, such as descriptions of — or concerns about — “special, friendships” in convents. Lesbians might be identified by a certain “look” (i.e., a masculine appearance), but also by how they “looked” at each other, betraying desire.
For all that discussions of lesbian desire in Spanish literature show discomfort or our framed humorously, they provide evidence that people could imagine such things, and were openly discussing the possibilities. The article concludes with cases where a person assigned female at birth framed their desire and actions in transgender terms, rather than same-sex ones, complicating the historic record.
[Note: for many more details on the content of this chapter see, Velasco’s book Lesbians in Early Modern Spain.]