Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 47d - Lesbian-Like History and Racial Othering - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/06/27 - listen here)
I regularly both lament and apologize for the Eurocentricity of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, it’s both a consequence of my own specific writing interests shaping the research I do, and of the ways that academic communities cluster around topics of interest. So when I follow up on sources mentioned by the books and articles I read, they tend to be about similar topics, written by people with similar backgrounds and interests.
That means that even when I happen across works on non-Western cultures, I often consider them of dubious value, if written from a Western anthropologist’s point of view, or if working from a position that Western models of gender and sexuality have some sort of universal status. Works written by historians who are cultural insiders and who can present the nuances of how variant sexualities work from within their own context are a treasure, but a rare one.
Those treasures include Samar Habib’s work on the history of female same-sex relations in the Islamicate world. Habib not only provides a detailed exploration and critique of Arabic texts that discuss female same-sex relations--dating from the 9th century up through the present--but speaks as an insider about the problem of resisting Western cultural frameworks both in a historic and modern context.
Another researcher doing fascinating insider research is Ruth Vanita, working on the interplay of many different cultural traditions within India, as well as the relationship of historic traditions to queer identities in modern India.
I have yet to find any good or reliable work on historic same-sex practices in sub-Saharan Africa, though there is some interesting contemporary ethnographic work being done on modern varieties of same-sex relations, such as Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africaedited by Ruth Morgan and Saskia Wierenga.
But what I do have in abundance within the Western historic sources that form the majority of my bibliography, is the ways in which those sources viewed, discussed, and interpreted the intersection of women’s same-sex relations and the racial “other”. This may seem an odd topic to focus on for an episode in support of racial justice and awareness, but one of the things that I can do, as a white author, is to be aware of the long history of that othering and be able to identify tropes and motifs that can be harmful when casually included in historic fiction. To that end, here are some themes to be aware of when reading or writing about queer women of color in the past.
They Do it Over There, not Here
The conflict in Western culture between a fascination with sex between women, and the condemnation of it, manifests in a repeating motif that such practices happen over there, not here; back then, not now. Just exactly where “over there” is has varied, but tends to be whatever cultures lie on the edges of awareness that can be safely classified as “not us.”
For writers in classical Rome, “not us” was Greece, conveniently represented by the figure of Sappho, as in Ovid’s Heroides. Women interested in sex with women--or those assigned as women, such Lucian’s Megillus--are described as being Greek, or are described with Greek names as with Martial’s Philaenis. Respectable Roman women, as Juvenal has one such say, do not fuck each other.
The idea of associating sex between women with foreign locations subsides somewhat during the medieval era, where the focus was more on individual practices than social patterns. But around the later 16th century we again see references to associations with specific cultures, and as a practice that might be imported or picked up by contagion. Blame might be placed on a close-by rival, as when the French writer Brantôme--in the midst of telling all manner of stories of what French ladies got up to--claims, “the fashion was imported from Italy by a certain lady of quality.”Though he acknowledges, “by what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such dames and Lesbian devotees, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places.”
We see in Brantôme’s list a hint of the rising association of female homosexuality with the Ottoman Empire, a topic that I’ll treat separately in a moment.
Geographic othering is often a companion to other motifs associated with sex between women. The idea that an enlarged clitoris was associated with same-sex activity arose in the late 16th century and continued to be popular for quite some time. It, too, rapidly picked up associations with foreignness, and especially with Middle Eastern and North African cultures. But this, too, I’ll expand on in a moment.
A refrain that Susan Lanser picks up on in her book The Sexuality of Historyis how, during the 16th and 17th centuries, writers throughout western Europe continually claimed that female same-sex desire was something “new” and “never seen before in our land”, sometimes with explicit reference to it being prevalent elsewhere, sometimes in contrast to classical references. The underlying purpose of these claims is to isolate expressions of love between “our” women as chaste and noble, while warning of the dangers of letting outside influences corrupt them. There is something of a contagion model, in contrast to the morality model that prevailed earlier.
This desperate defense of white western European women as somehow naturally innocent of homoerotic desires still features prominently in the late 19th century court case of Pirie versus Woods, in which the argument boiled down to “nice English women would never do such a thing, it must be a false accusation made up by an Anglo-Indian student because they do unnatural things like that in India.
They Especially Do it in Turkey
For Europeans of the 16th and 17th centuries the ultimate anxiety-provoking nearby Other was the Ottoman Empire. Even as Europeans were just beginning their own colonial enterprises overseas, the Ottomans, especially under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, expanded into Europe throughout the Balkans and to the gates of Vienna. Although multi-cultural in many ways, the official face of the Ottoman Empire was non-Christian, non-European, and non-white. European travelers and diplomats to Constantinople were deeply fascinated by the dynamics of a severely gender-segregated society and their imaginations ran rampant around the topic of what women might be doing together in the isolation of the harem and in the sensual environment of the Turkish bath houses.
In the late 16th century, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Flemish ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, wrote of women’s homoerotic encounters in the baths, inviting the reader to imagine “young maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all parts of the world, exposed naked to the view of other women, who thereupon fall in love with them.” Busbecq ascribes this behavior in part to the strict gender seclusion of the women that makes them “burn in love toward one another” and in part to the stimulation of shared nudity in the bath houses.
The French diplomat Nicolas de Nicolay, a contemporary of Busbec, similarly describes the habit of using the public baths as a social escape for women from domestic seclusion. This, as well as communal nudity and mutual washing led to “feminine wantonness.” Though one does wonder how all these male diplomats had such a detailed knowledge of the activities in the women’s baths.
In the mid 17th century, the travel writer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier acknowledges this difficulty, noting that he is passing on information supplied by one of the eunuchs who served in the women’s quarters. Tavernier specifically ascribes the prevalence of homosexual activity to a lack of access to men and goes on at some length about how superior the social dynamics back home are where women with unfulfilled sexual urges can just commit adultery with men.
Mary Whortley Montagu, whose husband was the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century, had more direct access to the lives of the women she wrote about. In contrast to the male authors, she provides very sensuous, but non-sexual descriptions of women in the baths. “Not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture...,” she writes, knowing what her audience has been primed to expect. However she describes being entertained at the baths by female dancers and notes “...I am very positive that the coldest and most rigid prude upon Earth could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of...”
But it was too late for milder eye-witness accounts to undermine the motif of rampant lesbianism among Turkish women. In the mid 18th century, an English religious tract against lesbianism refers to it being “practiced frequently in Turkey”.
Masculinizing Women of Color
But if Turkish travelogues called up sensual images of bath houses full of naked women fondling each other, the same era created a new sexual stereotype: the tribade who used an enlarged clitoris to perform penetrative sex with other women. And nearly as soon as this figure had been invented, she became strongly associated with women of color.
While a number of books refer to this era as seeing “the discovery of the clitoris” it had not actually been lost but merely ignored by medical writers for many centuries. Now, as part of a shift in understanding the relationship between female and male anatomy, it was recognized as an analogue of the penis in both structure and erotic function. And as an organ that had no use other than for sexual pleasure, that recognition provoked a lot of cultural anxiety. The heteronormative imagination saw this anatomical variant as inherently masculine, and expected masculine women to sexually desire other women.
One contributing factor to the association of an enlarged clitoris with Egypt and northern Africa was an awareness of the practice of female genital mutilation, which suggested to the European imagination that the enlargement of the organs must have been one reason for it, in addition to control of female sexuality.
The Spanish writer Rodrigo de Castro remarks on this practice in Egypt, though he does not suggest that there is any greater frequency of the condition there.
However Jane Sharp, writing in 1671, claims that clitoral enlargement is rare in England but common “in the Indies and Egypt” and specifically cites stories of “Negro women” with enlarged genitals. Egypt becomes a particular focus of the othering of tribade physiology.
English writers displaced various types of female homoeroticism into different locations: as decadence it is French or Italian, as a consequence of the frustrations of female seclusion it was Turkish or Persian, cross-dressing women might occur anywhere in western Europe, but the macro-clitoris was specifically assigned to India and Africa, especially Egypt. Thomas Gibson in 1682 extends this geographic othering by assigning it to the indigenous people of Florida and Virginia, as well as to Arabia and Ethiopia.
But the English were not alone in attributing anatomical masculinity to these locations. At the end of the 17th century, Italian author Ludovico SInistrari similarly attributed clitoral enlargement to the Middle East, citing as proof the practice of clitoridectomy there. Curiously all these authors were citing examples of the feature in their own countries while simultaneously claiming it was most characteristic of women of color in foreign lands.
At least one person used this belief to their own advantage. Eleno de Cespedes, born Elena and assigned female at birth, testified at his trial for gender impersonation that he had genuinely transformed into a physiological man for a period, and cited classical sources (and relying on the beliefs of his contemporaries) that this sort of transformation was more likely for someone of African heritage as he was.
But I begin to stray afield from the point of this essay.
In writing historical fiction featuring women of color, and in the reception we give the same as readers, it is important to examine the myths, tropes, and prejudices that have haunted the history of women loving women in order to avoid viewing the world through biased filters.
Do we write, or expect, characters of color to have systematic differences from white characters? Do we write or expect them to be more uninhibitedly sexual? To be the sexual aggressor? The social myth that black women are inherently more masculine, more aggressive, more stoic can be subtler than early modern myths about masculinized anatomy, but they come from a similar source. Have we examined those myths in our own thinking or swallowed them whole? Do we write or expect characters of Middle Eastern or Islamic heritage to walk out of an Orientalist fantasy of harems and bath-houses? To have an inherent predisposition to same-sex love because of the historic gender dynamics of Islamicate cultures? When writing or reading an f/f historical novel, what function do geography, ethnicity, and culture play in your expectations? Who do you see as Self and who do you see as Other.
Who do you see as deserving of a happy ending?
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