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Many discussions of sexual transgressions by women (both in a homosexual or heterosexual context) revolve around whether penetration is involved. This emphasis on penetrative sex as being more significant than other activities had a significant impact on what types of lesbian activity were stigmatized.

LHMP entry

In this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later.

Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.

Friedli provides an extensive examination of “passing women” -- defined as women (using current terminology, it might be better to say “persons assigned female at birth”, but Friedli uses “women” and I will follow that here) who live, work, and/or marry as men for some period during their lives. This is specifically distinguished from theatrical cross-dressing or overt cross-dressing as a sexual signal. While the phenomenon is far from confined to the 18th century, there seems to have been a fascination with it in England, beginning in the late 17th century.

This is Brown's initial discussion of the material published two years later as:

Brown, Judith, C.  1986.  Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.  Oxford University Press, New York.  ISBN 0-19-504225-5

The general topic of this chapter is the historic association of the clitoris with transgressive lesbian sex (as opposed to culturally-acceptable same-sex relationships). Traub begins by reviewing Freud's theory that vagina = heterosexual, clitoris = homosexual, and points out that this was not a new concept with him but merely the culmination of a long tradition.

In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

This article looks at the disconnect between Roman literary considerations of female homosexuality and their everyday reality. The period covered is the 2nd century BCE through the 2nd century CE. Various mythic origins were attributed to homosexual desire. One example is the story of how a drunken Prometheus , when creating humans from clay, attached sexual organs to the “wrong” bodies, thus creating individuals whose internal preferences were counter to their external organs.

I’ve been hoping to track down this article since it first came to my attention, and the historic individual documented here is even more intersectionally mind-blowing than I knew. If I had to sum up the story in click-bait style, it would be: “Sixteenth-century Spanish bi-racial ex-slave transman becomes classically trained surgeon and marries happily.” Alas, the ending isn’t quite as happy, though far from tragic.


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