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Lesbianism

LESBIANISM

LESBIANISM . The field of lesbian studies has burgeoned in the last two decades. In response to the social and political changes of the 1960s, as well as to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the legality of teaching about religion in public institutions of higher education, lesbian studies has emerged as a dynamic arena that engages questions of lesbian identities and religious experience, comparative religions, and religious studies at its broadest. Rooted historically in the medical discourses that defined homosexuality in the late nineteenth century, studies of lesbianism, or the homosexuality of women, have self-consciously grappled with definitions of the term and methodological implications, as well as more straightforward documentations of cases of "lesbianism" around the world and throughout history.

One of the most significant debates to shape the field is the relationship scholars have sought to articulate between the fields of lesbian studies and gay and, more recently, queer studies. In response to questions articulated by Mary Daly and others in the 1970s, scholars have asked whether lesbian studies share any part of their analysis with studies that do not seek to critique the larger framework of patriarchy. Studies of gay male sexuality and some queer theorists do not consistently engage critiques of patriarchy, and thus they have been called into question by scholars in lesbian studies. The central question in this conversation focuses on the nature of experiences of lesbians as women, and thus it embraces an analysis of the oppression of women across cultures and throughout history. In distinction to studies that focus primarily on lesbians, recognizing a necessary breadth of the term in relation to specific periods and places under examination, queer studies and queer theories seek to be more inclusive than lesbian or gay theories. The term queer includes bisexual and transgendered people; fundamentally, "queer" embraces anyone who falls outside of traditional heterosexual orientations.

Contemporary scholarship in lesbian studies and religious studies draws in part on two studies that stand at the foundation of studies of gay male experiences: Michael Foucault's History of Sexuality (1976) and John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980). Also in 1980, Adrienne Rich published her classic essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," arguing for a "lesbian continuum" that embraced women who were sexually attracted to other women as well as nonsexual friendships between women-identified women. Following Boswell's monumental survey and engaging Rich's methodological questions, Judith Brown's study of the life of Benedetta Carlini was published in 1986 as Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Critically drawing upon Foucault, Janice Raymond published A Passion for Friends in 1986 and called for women to document the genealogies of gyn/affection, or female friendship. These works were situated in the explosion of scholarship in lesbian studies outside the study of religion that emerged in the first half of the 1980s. Other works of this period that have been foundational for lesbian and religious studies include Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," which appeared in her book Sister Outsider (1984), and, of course, the works of Mary Daly. A good overview of the early decades of scholarship in the field may be found in the introduction of Bernadette Brooten's Love between Women (1996).

At the core of this generation of scholarship in lesbian studies and religion were questions of, first, biological essentialism or social construction, and second, the use of categories such as "homosexuality," "gay," or "lesbian" across vastly different cultural and historical periods. These issues have not abated in recent years. In stark contrast to popular assumptions about gay identity found in the press around the end of the twentieth century about how gay people are "born that way," scholarship that emerged in the 1980s staunchly argued for the social construction of lesbianism in clear historical and cultural contexts. Scholars such as Rich, Daly, and Raymond have since been classified by others as "cultural feminists" and have thus been labeled as biological essentialists. However, Tania Lienert (1996) demonstrates that these reinterpretations were rooted in different strategies for social change. Questions of essentialism have also been taken up by queer and postmodern theorists and have become inextricable from discussions of identity. Scholars who locate themselves within queer studies have sought to unravel different threads of this issue, examining assumptions about sexual identities, constructions of gender, and the significance of power with the tools of poststructural and postmodern approaches. Amanda Swarr and Richa Nagar (2003), for example, provide insightful critiques of the category of "lesbian" in relation to issues of class, cultural location, and heterosexism in India and South Africa, raising questions about the centrality of a woman's choice to identify as a lesbian. Though not explicitly focused on lesbians, one of the most useful anthologies that deliberately positions itself at the intersections of religious studies and lesbian/gay/queer studies and that engages the question of identity is the anthology Que(e)rying Religion (1997), edited by add Gary David Comstock and Susan E. Henking.

Arguments about what to call women who are attractedsexually or notto other women marked the early studies in the 1980s and continue to characterize scholarship today. For example, Marilyn Brown (1986) rejected Rich's notion of a "lesbian continuum" as ahistorical, but she still retained the category of "lesbian" as useful for studying the life of Renaissance nuns. This assertion, though, did not enter the field uncontested: Mary D'Angelo (1990) used Rich's notion of a lesbian continuum to explore women who appear partnered with other women in the New Testament. The relationship between scholarship on gay men and lesbians was also at stake in these terminology battles. John Boswell (1980) argued for the use of the term gay in contrast to homosexual on the grounds that gay had a richer history in the experiences of same-sex attractions than homosexuality and that it was broad enough to encompass the experiences of women. Despite Boswell's claims for his inclusive approach to the study of gay studies, he has been soundly critiqued for his lack of attention to gender and the experiences of women. In part as a response to both of Boswell's studies, Brooten chose the term "homoeroticism" to denote erotic attraction for members of the same sex, distinguishing between female and male homoeroticism when appropriate. She found this term to be broader than the term homosexual, and more useful than terms used by male authors in the early centuries of Christianity to describe homoerotically oriented women.

It is essential to note that some of the most striking contributions of lesbian studies have been to liberal theologies of different religious traditions, most notably Christianity and Judaism. The writings of such authors as Mary Daly and Carter Heyward have transformed feminist theologies in the United States. Similarly, recent books by Rebecca Alpert not only document the experiences of lesbian rabbis but offer new ways of looking at traditional Jewish theologies from lesbian-feminist points of view. Such theologians as Renita Weems, Kelly Douglas, and Renee Hill have taken up questions of homophobia within Womanist theologies. Each of these studies seeks to incorporate the experiences of lesbians/bisexual/gay/transgendered individuals into the traditionally proscribed territory of Christian theology, transforming Christianity in the process. Any search on the internet shows that Muslim lesbians are beginning to speak out in ways similar to Christian and Jewish lesbians; however, we have yet to see the beginnings of a Muslim lesbian theology emerge within the academic sphere. There is a plethora of resources from the point of view of lesbians within Hinduism and South Asian traditionsSouth Asian sources rarely make distinctions on the basis of religion. One of the earliest collections was edited by Rakesh Ratti, A Lotus of Another Color (1993), and one essay of note is a piece on the 1987 marriage of two policewomen in Bhopal, India.

There is hardly any tradition around the world that does not have first-person reflections from lesbian members of that culture available on the Internet. Will Roscoe has been particularly active in seeking out the voices of lesbian/bisexual/gay/transgendered individuals in different cultures. Roscoe (1988) has edited a volume on Native American two-spirit traditions and, with Stephen Murray (1997), he has also published volumes on homosexuality in Muslim cultures and in African traditions. In each of these collections, the authors provide material on lesbians, often critiquing the traditional category of lesbian. In almost all of these non-Anglo cultures, a critique of colonialism goes hand-in-hand with the need to identify the indigenous concepts of gender and sexuality that may or may not intersect with the familiar Western concepts. One of the most provocative findings to come out of many of the studies of lesbianism in indigenous traditions has been the challenge to the fixed system of two genders, as in the study of traditional women healers in South Africa conducted by Ruth Morgan and Graeme Reid (2003). Finally, since its inception in the 1970s, the study of same-sex relationships between women has suffered from "lesbian invisibility," a widely recognized phenomenon in the field that stems from both sexism and heterosexism. Religion, too, suffers a similar neglect: while there are increasing numbers of articles on lesbianism in specific cultures, religion is not often pursued as a line of analysis. Nonetheless, there is a growing body of research available to scholars of lesbianism and religion that may draw on the wealth of first-person narratives available online.

One of the advantages of studying lesbianism and male homosexuality in religious traditions is that there is usually a detailed enumeration of the type of same-sex identities or behaviors that are forbidden by a given religion. Setting aside indigenous religions, such as those in Africa and the Americas, every major religion prohibits homosexuality at the most explicit level. The Hebrew Bible is actually an exception, insofar as it makes no reference to same-sex sexual relationships between women. Hindu, Jain, Buddhist (from India to Japan), and Muslim sacred texts proscribe sexual practices between womenbut to widely varying degrees. Islamic jurisprudence rarely identifies sexual acts between women but does prohibit all homosexual activity insofar as it falls outside of the bounds of marriage. There are very few references to sexual activity between women contained in the juridical texts, but there are a few more in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian literature; Everett Rowson (1991) discusses the references found in Arabic literature, and Paul Sprachman (1997) focuses on Persian sources. Ironically, lesbianism in Turkish harems was one of the classic stereotypes about Islam at the height of colonialism, as Marilyn Brown (1987) has eloquently demonstrated. There are few studies of same-sex relationships between women within Islam; the references are scattered throughout studies of male homosexuality. In the South Asian arena, however, Ruth Vanita has recently emerged with a few excellent studies on same-sex relationships between women in Hinduism that draw on both local and Sanskrit myths, rituals, and linguistic analyses (in Vanita and Kidwai, 2000).

The normative standard in all Indian traditions is heterosexual intercourse. Almost all violations of the usual strictures incur a higher penalty than male-male sex, and the price for sexual acts between women falls even lower on the scale. Thus, in the Hindu śastra tradition, the Arthaśastra declares that women who have sex with each other are required to pay a lower fine than men who have sex with each other. In the Manusmriti, a woman who has sex with a virgin pays a much higher fine than two women who are no longer virgins are required to pay. The Kāmasūtra details a variety of sexual acts between women, and like other sources of the period, describes a type of "third gender" described as biologically male. Leonard Zwilling (1992) has written on the detailed taxonomies of sexual "identities" described within Indian texts, but he has not paid as close attention to terms for "women" as he has for "men." Within the Indian sphere, but from a different angle, Buddhist Vinaya texts go into detail on the kinds of sexual activity prohibited to monks and nuns; unlike the Hindu tradition, one's intent weighs more heavily than the actual act itself. Thus, the punishment for monks who willfully violate the prohibitions on sexual intercourse (maithuna ) with women is to be expelled from the sangha (order). However, the penalty for two nuns who engage in "patting each other" (i.e., mutual manual stimulation) falls into the category of minor offenses. Because the Buddhist Vinaya texts were carried along with Buddhism as it moved into China, Japan, and throughout Southeast Asia, the same descriptions of proscribed behaviors for nuns appear throughout Asian Buddhist traditions, though with some variations in how the terms are understood in the commentaries.

Sources for understanding same-sex relationships between women are relatively scarce in East Asia. There is one passage in the Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as The Story of the Stone ) that describes the attractions that a young actress has for other actresses with whom she worked. Hinsch also devoted an appendix to lesbianism in Passion of the Cut Sleeve (1990), but there are relatively few studies of lesbianism in Chinese literature. Some have argued that the strong affiliations between women at certain moments in Chinese history should be considered as same-sex affections, as in the case of Chinese marriage resisters. It may be that the relationships between women such as these should be considered in the same light as female friendships in the nineteenth century, in which the relationships are enduring, passionate, and stable but contain no references to sexual activity between the partners (Smith-Rosenberg, 1985; Raymond, 1986). Paul Schalow's article on Kukai and male love in Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender (1992) is a fascinating study. There is a growing literature on the lives of gay men and lesbians in contemporary Chinaknown collectively as tongzhi and Japanwhere the term for lesbian is rezubian, or rezu for short. One good guide to the literature by geographical area is the Reader's Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies, edited by Timothy F. Murphy (2000).

See Also

Gender and Religion, overview article; Gynocentrism; Homosexuality; Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Gender; Nuns, overview article; Patriarchy and Matriarchy.

Bibliography

Alpert, Rebecca. Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. New York, 1997.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, 1980.

Brooten, Bernadette J. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago, 1996.

Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. New York, 1986.

Brown, Marilyn R. "The Harem Dehistoricized: Ingres' Turkish Bath." Arts Magazine 61 (Summer 1987): 5868.

Cabezòn, José Ignacio, ed. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany, N.Y., 1992.

Cao Xuequin, and Gao E., trans. Story of the Stone, vol. 3, pp. 375, 551553. New York, 19731987.

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Chao, Antonia. "Global Metaphors and Local Strategies in the Construction of Taiwan's Lesbian Identities." Culture, Health and Sexuality 2, no. 4 (2000): 377390.

Comstock, Gary David, and Susan E. Henking, eds. Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology. New York, 1997.

Daly, Mary. Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. Boston, 1978.

D'Angelo, Mary Rose. "Women Partners in the New Testament." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 6, no. 1 (1990): 6586.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, vol. 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. French orig. 1976; New York, 1978.

Heyward, Carter. Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and Love of God. San Francisco, 1989.

Hinsch, Brett. Passion of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley, Calif., 1990.

Leyland, Winston, ed. Queer Dharma: Voices of Gay Buddhists. San Francisco, 1998.

Lienert, Tania. "On Who Is Calling Radical Feminists 'Cultural Feminists' and Other Historical Sleights of Hand." In Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited by Diane Bell and Renate Klein, pp. 155168. North Melbourne, Australia, 1996.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, N.Y., 1984.

Morgan, Ruth, and Graeme Reid. "'I've Got Two Men and One Woman': Ancestors, Sexuality and Identity among Same-Sex Identified Women Traditional Healers in South Africa." Culture, Health and Sexuality 5, no. 5 (2003): 375391.

Murphy, Timothy F., ed. Reader's Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies. Chicago, 2000.

Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe, eds. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature. New York, 1997.

Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe, eds. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York, 1998.

Ratti, Rakesh, ed. A Lotus of Another Color: An Unfolding of the South Asian Gay and Lesbian Experience. Boston, 1993.

Raymond, Janice. Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection. Boston, 1986.

Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5 (1980): 631660.

Roscoe, Will, ed. Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York, 1988.

Rowson, Everett K. "The Categorization of Gender and Sexual Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists." In Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity, edited by Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub, pp. 5079. New York, 1991.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carole. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth Century America." In Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America, pp. 5376. New York, 1985.

Sprachman, Paul. "Le beau garon sans merci : The Homoerotic Tale in Arabic and Persian." In Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature, edited by J. W. Wright and Everett K. Rowson, pp. 192109. New York, 1997.

Swarr, Amanda Lock, and Richa Nagar. "Dismantling Assumptions: Interrogating 'Lesbian' Struggles for Identity and Survival in India and South Africa." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29, no. 2 (2003): 491516.

Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia. "MaoriLesbianFeminist Radical." In Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, edited Diane Bell and Renate Klein, pp. 5561. North Melbourne, Australia, 1996.

Thomas, Wesley, and Sue-Ellen Jacobs. "' And We Are Still Here': From Berdache to Two-Spirit People." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 23, no. 2 (1999): 91107.

Vanita, Ruth, and Saleem Kidwai. Same Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History. New York, 2000.

Zwilling, Leonard. 1992. "Homosexuality as Seen in Indian Buddhist Texts." In Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender, edited by José Ignacio Cabezòn. Albany, N.Y., 1992

Carol S. Anderson (2005)

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