Rachel Hope Cleves

The fortieth-anniversary celebration of Jonathan Ned Katz’s classic document collection Gay American History convened Wednesday evening, May 4, at John Jay College in New York City, with a panel on lesbian history. Cheryl Clarke presided over comments by Caroll Smith-Rosenberg and Claire Potter to an audience that included many founders in the field including Esther Newton and Blanche Wiesen Cook. The presentations combined the personal and the historical, detailing the lesbian-feminist milieu of the 1970s that gave rise to their scholarship. The panelists’ memories of passionate sexual awakenings and agonized intellectual arguments elicited laughs of recognition and groans of commiseration. Finally, the session opened to questions from the audience. One of the first came from Jen Manion, who rose to ask, how do you define lesbian?

It wasn’t the first time this question has been asked and answered.

In fact, Smith-Rosenberg first addressed the question more than forty years ago, before the publication of Katz’s volume, in her classic 1975 article “The Female World of Love and Ritual.” And yet, despite the oceans of ink that have been spilled in answering this koan – including the works of many authors who were in attendance – Manion’s question provoked passionate, and often painful, disagreement. That disagreement did not finish with the close of the panel but continued through to the conference’s very end, and expressed itself along three related axes: anger about the historical erasure of lesbianism; distrust of the aggressive historicism applied to the category of lesbianism; and fear of the loss of lesbian identity within a trans futurity.


Each of these concerns has a long history, tracing back at least to the early 1970s. The conflicts were predictable; still, I was caught off guard by the level of emotion in the room. As a child of the 70s, my memories are more domestic than political. I recall playing with letter magnets, not using a letterpress to print manifestos. I’ve read accounts of the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality that catalyzed the Feminist sex wars, but by the time I attended Barnard, riot grrrls and third-wave feminism were the order of the day. Yet, if I have no memories of the super-heated feminist politics of the 70s and early 80s, I have had some experience with the ongoing unease around the category of lesbianism that agitated many conference-goers from different generations. I’ve repeatedly confronted it in the responses to my own work researching the lives of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, a same-sex couple in the early nineteenth century. I’ve experienced the “historical denial of lesbianism” first anatomized by Blanche Cook in comments from skeptical readers who refused to acknowledge that the women who shared a bed for forty-four years were any more than roommates, or that the reams of love poetry they wrote for each other really meant that they loved each other.

For some women attending the conference who have experienced the denial not only of their work but of their core identity, not for a decade but for forty years, the reasons for their strong feelings are clear. “We’re being erased! We’re being invisibilized” came the refrain from many older lesbian-feminists, often non-academics, angry that their own personal stories, or their own viewpoints on lesbian-feminism, are not reflected in the scholarship. The complaint has merit. Who can deny the disproportionate attention that LGBTQ history has given to gay men versus lesbians? Nor is the complaint limited to past erasures. A remark by Claire Potter that lesbian identity might prove anachronistic not simply before the twentieth century but after it as well, gestured to a truncating of the timeline of lesbianism at both ends. Notably, as John D’Emilio pointed out in a discussion following the panel, the category of gay men does not seem to be overshadowed by the same concern over looming extinction. A structural dynamic specific to women and to lesbians is at work.

That dynamic can be seen in the aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians. Again, my work has familiarized me with this pressure. Historicists have complained that it is anachronistic to use the word lesbian in reference to Bryant and Drake, since the word was not in circulation when they lived together. Even the notion of sexual identity categories, some say, is anachronistic to the project of writing about the two women’s lives. I wonder, as do many others, why writing about lesbianism in particular elicits such agonized concerns over historicism. I know from my discussions with non-academic audiences and readers that many lesbians, old and young, find meaning in connecting to historic predecessors. It hurts to hear that those women who forged lives together in the past, often at enormous cost, aren’t really yours to claim. That pain played a role in the tension at the conference.

The greatest tension, however, attached to a fear articulated by some older conference-goers that contemporary trans culture is erasing the category of lesbian. In 1977, Blanche Cook answered the question what is a lesbian with the answer that lesbians were women “who love women, [and] who choose women to nurture and support.” The destabilization of the category of woman within trans thought and practice makes such essentialist definitions untenable, causing profound distress to some women who fought for their right to define themselves that way, often at a high personal price. There were women in attendance who don’t only feel lost in the past, they feel lost in the present and the future. This antagonism to trans identity and thought was far from universal among the older generation, it was not even universal among the older non-academics. But once a few audience members gave voice to their unease, the sentiment seemed to drag on the conference like a riptide.

“The Woman Identified Woman” by Radicalesbians (1970), a key document in lesbian-feminist thought.

Historical accounts of conflicts between lesbian-feminists and trans people in the 1970s often focus on feminist critiques of trans women as misogynist appropriators who belittled femininity through campy performances. That critique was not absent in the tension at the conference. Not long after Susan Stryker, a trans woman and a founder of the field of trans studies, delivered the keynote address on Thursday morning, Jim Fouratt took the mic to attack her type of work – as he has done at past CLAGS events (recounted by Stryker in her essay “(De)Subjugated Knowledges”). Fourrat’s trolling of Stryker, however, was a sideshow to the main source of tension, directed by older lesbian-feminists against younger trans masculine people. By Thursday afternoon’s panel on early American histories, this tension had grown so palpable that Jen Manion introduced their paper with a heartfelt plea for mutual understanding. Manion, who identifies both as a lesbian-feminist and as trans, pointed to the possibility that such affinities might overlap, as they’ve written about previously in an article titled “Transbutch” for TSQ, the transgender studies quarterly co-edited by Stryker. The newest special issue of that journal, titled “Trans/Feminisms,” seeks to highlight “the many feminisms that are trans inclusive,” and one may hope it will have a healing impact on these longstanding conflicts.

Rather than end this dispatch with a simplistic rejection of the transphobia expressed by some members of an older generation, I think it’s important to place the unease over trans masculinity expressed at the conference within the context of the historical denials of lesbianism, and the historicist erasures of lesbian continuities, that have left many feeling under assault. For more than forty years, historians have asked the question, what do you mean by lesbian? The answers have been various, but those answers that have been limited only to those for whom we have genital “proofs”, or only to those who lived within a narrow span of decades, or only to those who claimed the name for themselves, have hurt many women who claim the name for themselves in the here and now. It isn’t trans history that threatens lesbian history; it’s the widespread dismissal of the importance of women’s lives, lesbians’ lives, and trans lives too. So instead of concluding with a scolding, I prefer to close with a plea for openness. Let us resist overly particularist demands to limit the use of the term lesbian to one single definition. As Amanda Littauer suggested during the Q&A after Friday morning’s panel celebrating the scholarship of Blanche Cook, there is no single answer to the question of what is meant by lesbian, nor does there need to be for queer history to flourish. The answer will always depend, on when, on where, on whom. By opening the past to a looser application of the term lesbian we might open the future as well.

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Rachel Hope Cleves is professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She specializes in early American history and has written about the history of same-sex marriage and about American reactions to the French Revolution. Her most recent book is Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is presently at work on a book project titled “Good Food, Bad Sex.” You can follow her on twitter @RachelCleves.

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