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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  1. I’m curious why you refer to Jim Fouratt’s remarks as “trolling?” The link you provided to the Fouratt interview with Sarah Schulman shows Jim’s long, long history in Gay Liberation. He is an honorable forefather of the Gay Movement, and, in my opinion, should be treated with at least some dignity. You might not have agreed with his remarks – which you did not quote – but to call them “trolling” seems, to me, to be unfair without some kind of explanation.

    Thank you. Cheers, Liza Cowan

  2. Peter Carlson

    Thank you for this reflection, which helps me understand some of the concerns of my lesbian partners on the journey. Though I am a college professor, my initial response feels more pastoral than academic.

    What strikes me in this piece is the challenge that we face as queer folk (I’m going to use that problematic term as an umbrella, or placeholder, for now, covering the spectrum of “non-traditional” gender and sexual expression) about identity: we need to have our identities affirmed, even as we acknowledge that identity is a slippery thing, morphing under our very eyes, within our very experience, into shapes and qualities we’d never imagined. The destabilization of gender binaries, though it apparently threatens heterosexual men’s egos most (based on the current movement to police restrooms), actually seems to be a deeper threat to women, who have experienced the greatest oppression under that binary, and have had to work so hard for their equality. For lesbians, who experience yet another layer of oppression within the binary, and who are struggling to find their powerful identities within those constructs, it must be even more difficult. The claim to an identity as a woman who loves women is a fierce and glorious response to the power dynamics that society invests in the gender binary. It is no surprise that the trend toward erasing gender essentialism feels like one more example of erasing their identities.

    I have no answers, and as a gay male, I don’t think I should try to offer any; but I want to honor the pain that these women feel. I plan to create a section around this in my Queer Theology class, in hopes that my students, who are of a generation that sees categories such as “women” and “men” less essentially than ever before, will understand the roles that those categories have played in creating a lesbian identity. I would welcome insights about how this could be taught in the classroom. Thank you again.

  3. Teri Tiso

    “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.” – Rachel Hope Cleves.

    Ah, the “loaded language of Lesbian” — with a capital “L”.

    It is the door to the closet, the marker of decadent, the signifier of the other in the ole boys club in many professions. It is the chapter 8 in the sexuality studies texts, the sub title to the gender in sport studies research anthology, and the backdrop to the successful women pictorial in many media spreads. The (L)esbian is always present even when lesbians are not (self) acknowledged. It works to silence those of us who identify as lesbians and to marginalize our contributions to sport, scholarly activity, and professional advancements.

    Lesbianism has always been a queer project. Lesbians had found a voice and a love and a purpose to life outside the male imperative and many feared losing this small space of identity that was grounded in their education, friendships, political projects, sport, social places, writing. As we publicly cheered Ellen’s “Yep I’m Gay” Time Magazine 1997 cover, many women replied with an emphatic “Not I.”

    I lived and worked in these bifurcated lesbian worlds, worlds that differently included gay men, lesbians, straight, bisexual, white, non-white, trans people. We did not always use these signifiers but we were always there.

    Trans women have learned that only through queering the project will anyone be able to accrue any cultural capital “on their own terms.” It is a coming out, a declaration of freedom, of civil rights, of identity as a person of one’s own making or choice. This difficult process of “embodied declaration” needs the support of all the LGBTQ community, not only in word, but in deed.

    Kudos to all our lesbian, women, trans pioneers!

  4. jim fouratt

    A RESPONSE to : Rachel Hope Cleves’ report on the Gay History at 40 Conference that includes an attack against me that is not based in fact.
    Let me explain: I did not attack Susan Stryker.
    I asked a question about language use. I referenced Stryker’s keynote address, What I asked was about the appropriateness of layering language of today on the recounting of history. I thought at a conference of “queer” historians and academics it was an appropriate subject. I said that the gender language of today is being layered onto historical discourse, when the language being used did not exist in the historical moment under discussion. I also quoted William Burroughs saying “Language is toxic” and said it can have ever changing meaning. That context is important in communication. I was asking that historians respect the language of a period because of the historical context and shared meaning. eg I when Stryker gave a keynote centering around a band I knew personally, the New York Dolls (j. Jack Halberstam Stryker is not !) Stryker kept using “trans this and trans that” to describe gay men who were self admitted drag queens, or straight men wearing what is associated in “heteronormative” culture as female attire. V went so far as to call some of Andy Warhol ‘superstars” transsexuals. As someone who was a part of the Warhol world, and actually appeared in a Warhol film and knew the “superstars” personally, I know as fact that not one of them was a transsexual.

    While I was asking the question Nan Alamilla Boyd, who was chairing the panel, cut me off, and told to sit down when I brought up the name Stryker. After the session ended and after all the people who wanted to speak to her had finished, I went up to Nan Alamilla Boyd and attempted to engaged her. She refused to talk to me and turned her back on me. In her piece, Cleves accuses me of trolling. Trolling is an ugly, dismissive word and and, in this incident, not an accurate word choice. She chose it, I believe, to invalidate anything I had to say.

    I have found many incidents where Stryker lies or mis-identifies historical events to fit v own agenda. Because I have spoken up and challenged the accuracy of her statements, I have been labeled transphobic and of attacking v. I asked my questions respectfully and expected Stryker to respond in a respectful manner. Instead I have become a public target of Stryker. She has lied about me in print. I have tried in private to bring up these contradictions with Stryker with little success. I have never personally attacked Stryker in public or private. I have been critical of her work. There is a difference. Stryker has targeted me in a number of public events and in her published writing, making up stories and/or getting v facts wrong. My experience with the public Stryker has left me feeling I have been bullied.

    I am dismayed by Nan Alamilla Boyd’s behavior toward me, an older gay man who has played a historical role in making visible lesbians and gay men of all gender expressions, and who worked to create both visibility and a more safe world to come out in. By doing so, I lost most of my career, so that people like her could have the jobs they do today.

    I do not expect a person to have to agree with me. I have never in any public writing attacked any person who had made an informed choice about what to do with his or her body, It is essential to my feminist understanding of politics that a respectful dialectical discussion of ideas is the proper way to engage in debate, Rachel Hope Cleves’ polemic report is just one more example of how, in my experience, many queer theory academics are dismissive of people who are actual history makers like myself. We are either erased from history, or they refuse to engage us. Neither Rachel Hope Cleves or Nan Alamilla Boyd has ever engaged with me that I am aware of . I would welcome a private or public real time conversation.. Digital discourse on issues such as this do belong in face to face discussion. This discussion in real time can be used in the digital world
    Jim Fourat

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  5. Sarah Schulman

    Reposted from Facebook: True that these things happened, but for me, they were the predictable sidelines, and not the bulk of the conversation. I heard a really interesting conversation from historians about how “identity categories” are keeping history from being told. That disciplinary questions are obstructing research. I also heard a conversation begun by Smith-Rosenberg when she asked “What were we so angry about” as an opening to discussing the emotional lives that drove historic events. I heard a third conversation about the maintenance of male lens in new histories, and I heard a fourth conversation about Susan Stryker’s offering of a new way to think about trans/lesbian histories. And Rachel, I also enjoyed your presentation on James Beard. And the highlight was a too short but excellent panel on Gentrification.

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