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The History of History

Monday, January 6, 2020 - 07:00

Articles that are not about history, but rather are about how we think about history don't have the same "zing" and "pop" as facts-on-the-ground articles, but especially once one gets past marveling at the incoherent wealth of primary evidence that historians are presenting to us, it becomes more and more important to think about how we think. This article is the sort of general talk that is typical of opening a conference roundtable. It doesn't have some of the deep digging into historiography that I enjoyed, for example, in the collection The Lesbian Premodern. But it does address ideas such how we "periodize" lesbian history and how we study world-wide related phenomena without shoehorning them into a Western historical framework. I think the idea of "generations," both of female same-sex experience and of the historical study of those experiences, is an intriguing one. Certainly across my own lifetime and even strictly within USA culture, there are multiple distinct and identifiable ways of experiencing lesbian-relevant desire, to say nothing of distinct and identifiable ways of relating to the word and concept "lesbian."

On twitter yesterday, someone posted a comment about "why are identities/labels like bi, gay, non-binary, and trans get to be 'umbrella terms' that are understood to encompass a collection of different identities and experiences, while some people feel it's 'dangerous' to suggest that 'lesbian' could have similarly varied application?" I contributed to the discussion by pointing out that, given the ways that the word "lesbian" has been used prior to the 20th century (and, in fact, prior to the later 20th century), most of the women to whom that word was applied in the past would not meet the strict and narrow definitions that a (small) group of exclusionists argue for today. But the definitional wars over the word "lesbian" are not unique to people who want to preserve it only for some small select "pure" core meaning. Challenges are also raised by people who feel that identifying a person or a relationship or an act as "lesbian" erases any other possible reading of that person, relationship, or act. This position, too, risks functionally erasing the word and concept "lesbian" from history. The introduction to The Lesbian Premodern challenges the tendency for this asymmetry of "umbrella terminology" function, where a male historical figure will be welcomed as "gay" for any trace of same-sex relations, while a female historical figure will be allowed the identity of "lesbian" only if and when she can be proven to have engaged in same-sex erotics and to have done so exclusively to any heterosexual interests.

My own personal position is that when you look at the historic usage of the term lesbian (apart from its geographic sense) one can either conclude that it has a broader meaning of "relating to any female same-sex relations" or one can conclude that no one in history was using the word correctly. My (very personal) belief is that the greatest risk from movements to push for a narrow, rigid, "pure" usage for "lesbian" is that it will result in us losing useful access to the word entirely. And that would be a historic and cultural tragedy.


Major category: 
Full citation: 

Rupp, Leila J. 2013. "Thinking About 'Lesbian History'" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no 2 357-361.

This is a very short article that introduces a roundtable discussion of “lesbian generations.” (Only one other article included in the roundtable was suitable for the LHMP.) The roundtable posed the following questions (paraphrased): Who is part of “lesbian history”? Has female same-sex sexuality changed over time/space in a way that creates identifiable “generations”? Does the term “lesbian” make sense in a global context? How do we approach global questions of sexuality? Has the practice of “lesbian history” changed over time and does it have “generations”? How do we address the intersection of sexuality and gender? Can we imagine new frameworks for thinking about sexuality and in particular lesbian historiography? How does lesbian history differ from gay or queer history?

Rupp discusses why she invented the word “sapphistries” for her global survey in order to avoid the complexities of applying “lesbian” in times and places where it might not apply. To the extent that “lesbian” defines an identity, it is not always available or chosen. But Rupp also wants to avoid the overly-encompassing approach of Rich’s “lesbian continuum” feeling that a focus defined by female same-sex desire, erotic love, and/or sexual acts is a necessary organizing principle.

She discusses the difficulties of tackling the lesbian/trans interface in a historic context, but notes that when historic societies had problems with female same-sex activity, it was the concept of two female bodies coming together that they considered relevant, not the question of self-identity or presentation. Therefore when studying such historic contexts, it is relevant to study the topic from both sides.

The question of self-identity becomes more salient and prominent when moving to a contemporary global understanding. Even people who have access to Western concepts of “lesbian” and “gay” may not choose those identities as reflecting their experience. And the current generation in Western culture is increasingly shifting to a multiplicity of identities where they might previously have used “lesbian”.

Both across history and across cultures, we see repeating but varied patterns of how same-sex sexuality is conceptualized, such as whether the image of similarity or of difference is emphasized, or whether same-sex desire is framed as physiological or psychological. Rupp argues against looking for binaries in these patterns and instead seeks how complex interactions play out.