Lesbian, Contemporary

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Lesbian, Contemporary

This entry contains the following:

Emma Crandall

II. POST 1950
Emma Crandall

Emma Crandall


The term contemporary lesbian refers to a woman who sexually desires other women and who participates in, or is at least aware of, a larger lesbian community or subculture. As a phrase that notes both a temporal frame and a psychosocial subject position, contemporary lesbian posits the term lesbian as a cultural construction—an unstable identity category that holds different meanings in various times and places. This encyclopedic outline of lesbian subjects, representations, and cultures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries traces the general formation of the psychological type and identity group lesbian, while at the same time describing erotic, sexual, and social practices that have been associated with lesbians and that have been incorporated into contemporary lesbian histories.

Queer histories (called "queer" in order to contest sexual distinctions and absolute categories such as "homosexual" and "heterosexual") have generally observed a marked difference in the development of lesbian subcultures and gay male subcultures, the latter of which began with the London molly house raids of 1699. Women's subjugation—their domestic isolation, restricted freedoms, relative poverty, controlled sexuality, and lack of political power—impeded the development of recognizable lesbian subcultures. Only with social and economic advances did women begin to articulate their sexualities, acquire social and sexual freedom from men, and occupy public space as self-identified lesbians. Not surprisingly, lesbian subcultures did not develop until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, because women have had sexual and erotic liaisons with one another across time and cultures, the manifestation of the contemporary lesbian has allowed for and even demanded the production of histories that legitimize this behavior in the eyes of an intolerant public. Contemporary notions of lesbianism emerge from and elaborate on four main historical precedents from the nineteenth century on: romantic friendship, passing women, female inversion, and the bohemian lesbian circles of the 1920s.


Feminist scholarship in the 1980s began to explore women's friendships as a site of female homoeroticism and same-sex intimacy. Under the rubric of "romantic friendship," historians revealed a world of passionate female-female relationships that was validated and normalized in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Romantic friendships were often lifelong and involved sharing beds, maintaining an ardent correspondence, and pledging devotion and love to one another. These friendships were conducted alongside traditional heterosexual marriages and were accepted by the participants' husbands and families.

It is difficult to ascertain whether these proclamations of love and displays of physical intimacy were merely social conventions of friendship or whether they represent sexual desire and experience that later came to be understood as distinctly "lesbian" practices. The question of definitively detecting sexual activity or erotic attachment in these romantic friendships is highly problematic because of the "passionlessness" that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women were supposed to possess. Stereotypes about white female virtue and white feminine asexuality (the lack of sexual desire in women) made sexual relations between "proper" women almost inconceivable.

A case that illustrates the cultural implausibility of lesbian relations at the time is that of Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie, two mistresses of a school for girls in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1810 the friends were accused of "improper and criminal conduct" by a mother whose disobedient daughter had suggested the illicit behavior. The school went under, and Woods and Pirie lost their incomes. They successfully sued for libel. Their lawyers easily convinced the judges that the accusations were unfounded, largely because the judges were predisposed to believe that, for one thing, sex could not occur without a man present. As one judge asserted, "I do believe that the crime here alleged has no existence." The American playwright Lillian Hellman later used the scandal as the basis for her first play, The Children's Hour (1934), which was later (in 1961) turned into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

Scholars Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Lillian Faderman have explained how the strict gender segregation of Victorian society effectively divided the world into male and female homosocial spaces. In a climate that distanced women from men, women's affective bonds with one another provided emotional support as young girls embarked on the rituals of marriage and childbearing that structured their lives (Smith-Rosenberg 1983). Faderman's 1981 work, Surpassing the Love of Men, traces the development of romantic friendships from the Renaissance through the twentieth century and shows how changing theories of female sexuality impacted experiences and understandings of love between women. Once sexology legitimized female sexual desire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these friendships were increasingly called into question, and "lesbian" desire was eventually condemned.

The ideology of romantic friendship as outlined by Smith-Rosenberg and Faderman does not of course adequately describe all female-female relations and is most relevant to the middle-class white world from which they draw most of their evidence. The mid-nineteenth-century example of the freeborn African Americans Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus offers explicit evidence about the sexual nature of this particular friendship and reveals how expectations of women and friendship differed in an African-American context. Brown, a domestic worker, and Primus, a schoolteacher, shared a long, deeply passionate relationship though they lived in different East Coast towns. In her 1996 essay about this relationship, Karen V. Hansen stresses that the Brown-Primus friendship was overtly erotic and public rather than private: "It was highly visible and deeply enmeshed in the domestic networks of Hartford [Connecticut]'s African-American community" (p. 178). In reading their correspondence, Hansen explores what she terms "bosom sex" in Brown's descriptions of her sexual relationship with Primus. Hansen traces out a specific practice that, she suggests, may have been fairly universal to female friendships of the nineteenth century—that is, the expectation that one share access to one's bosom (one's sexuality) when sharing a bed with a friend.

A subset of romantic friendships, relations between women termed "Boston marriages," flourished in the nineteenth century in New England. Boston marriages were monogamous arrangements between usually professional, bourgeois women and involved sharing a household and encouraging one another in individual artistic, political, or reformist pursuits. Because they took the place of heterosexual marriage, foreclosed the possibility of childbearing, and were instrumental in feminist progress, Boston marriages were typically viewed critically in the public eye.


Another precedent for contemporary lesbianism is the phenomenon of passing women—female-born people who lived part or all of their lives as men. These women who "passed" as men have represented a more working-class counterpart to romantic friendships in lesbian histories and were a particularly pronounced phenomenon in the nineteenth century, when women first began to infiltrate the public sphere.

Although passing women usually claimed that their motivation to dress and live as men was to seek adventure or better economic opportunities, no doubt some of them wanted to pursue same-sex erotic relationships. A number of passing women courted and married women—some of whom knew the "true sex" of their husbands, but most of whom claimed they did not. As many historians point out, passing women contribute to transgender as well as lesbian history, and in the latter case provide an interesting historical overlay for what much later became familiar as tomboyhood, lesbian butch style, or female-to-male transgenderism.

Similar to the decline of socially accepted romantic friendships, with the influx of the twentieth century's new sexual knowledge, passing women went from social curiosities to social outcasts. The case of Lucy Ann Lobdell illustrates that emerging notions of female homosexuality redefined how passing women were understood in society. Born in New York state in 1829, she took up hunting and other "men's tasks" at a young age in order to compensate for her father's inability to work. She married and had a child with a man who became abusive and deserted them. In fact, she claimed, in her self-published Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell (1855), it was his announcement of a return that prompted her to dress as a man and seek a living on her own. As "Joe Lobdell," she married a woman who had been similarly deserted and claimed to have reached sexual satisfaction for the first time with this wife. Institutionalized in 1880 for ten years, probably until her death, Lobdell's doctor, P. M. Wise, classified her in terms of homosexuality and perversion, concepts that reconfigured understandings of female independence and feminist revolt.

In fact, passing women and the increasing suspicion around female friendships were both factors in the pathologizing of female-female intimacy, love, and desire that accompanied the advent of sexology and psychoanalysis around the end of the nineteenth century. European sexual scientists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Havelock Ellis (1859–1939), and Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) devised theories that classified sexual behavior and constructed sexual typologies, including the transvestite, the sadist, the masochist, the fetishist, and the homosexual (or "invert"). Specifically, Ellis's theory of sexual inversion sketched the lesbian prototype as a mannish woman. For the sexologists, all of the aforementioned women—passing women and those in romantic friendships or Boston marriages—were instantly understood as "inverts," whether the women had been conscious of same-sex desire or not.

Not surprisingly, these scientific articulations of female-female sexual desires—however pathologizing, condescending, or simplistic—resonated with many women who finally found their experience recognized and named. Among these was the British novelist Radclyffe Hall, who used Ellis's theory of inversion as the theoretical basis for her controversial apologia for homosexuality, The Well of Loneliness (1928). The novel centered on the coming-of-sexuality of protagonist Stephen Gordon, an aristocratic woman who possesses exceptional talent and intelligence as well as an inescapable desire for feminine women.

Heralded as the first lesbian novel, Hall's book has been in print since its publication and has had untold impacts on the emergence of a recognizable lesbian culture, the development of lesbian style, and the tone of queer resistance. Although it has been argued that Gordon—and even Hall, whose friends called her "John"—might embody a nascent articulation of transgender identity more than that of a mannish lesbian, Hall's lead character remains fixed in the lesbian imagination, both as a discomforting instance of lesbian self-denial and as a model of lesbian gallantry and integrity.


In The Well, Hall also provided a fictional description of the "gay life" that was booming in Paris in the 1920s. Like networks of self-identified lesbians in large cities such as Berlin, New York, and London, the Parisian lesbian scene revolved around artistic interest and expression. Painters, writers, poets, and heiresses—female expatriates such as Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein—inhabited Paris's Left Bank as artistic and sexual "moderns" alongside other famous modernists, such as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Man Ray, and Paul Cezanne. Exiles from their homophobic homelands, these women and their friends populated the fourteenth arrondissement known as Montparnasse.

The lesbian world of 1920s Paris was depicted in fictional form in Djuna Barnes's satirical roman-à-clef Ladies Almanack (1928) and her dark novel Nightwood (1936), which loosely chronicled her dramatic, real-life relationship with the sculptor and silverpoint artist Thelma Ellen Wood. The novel was published in the United States with a glowing introduction by the poet T. S. Eliot and has been recognized as one of literature's great works by such writers as Dylan Thomas, William S. Burroughs, and Anaïs Nin. Barnes also wrote the famous essay "How It Feels to Be Forcibly Fed" (1914), an indictment of the custom of force-feeding that was used on imprisoned suffragists who were on hunger strike.

A pioneering experimental writer and lesbian and modernist icon, Stein hosted a reputed literary salon in her Parisian home at 27, rue de Fleurus—first with her brother, Leo, and then with her partner of forty years, Alice B. Toklas, who, like Stein, was an American expatriate from California. Artists and writers flocked to see the avant-garde art that hung on Stein's studio walls—an assortment later referred to as the first modern art collection. Stein and Toklas's approach to lesbian life has been understood as old-fashioned and modern, cautious and radical, and is likewise representative of and exceptional among other lesbian relationships of the time. Their lesbianism was an "open secret" to their friends, but Stein and Toklas were extremely reserved when it came to the nature of their relationship. Their lives were structured by propriety, routine, and middle-class values, even in this age of debauchery and experimentation. For those not in the know, Toklas was Stein's companion or secretary, a friend in service to Stein's literary genius, and in many ways she was exactly that. She typed Stein's work, cooked their meals, and arranged their travels. Feminists have critiqued their relationship for its recapitulation of heterosexual roles (Stein as demanding husband and Toklas as subservient wife). Yet, scholars such as Catharine R. Stimpson (1984) have seen in the remarkable symbiosis of the Stein-Toklas relationship a more complicated role-playing that speaks to their creative assemblage of a highly productive life.

see also Butch/Femme; Dyke; Homosexuality, Contemporary: I. Overview; Homosexuality, Defined.


Barnes, Djuna. 1972. Ladies Almanack. New York: Harper and Row. (Orig. pub. 1928.)

Barnes, Djuna. 1995. Nightwood, ed. Cheryl J. Plumb. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press. (Orig. pub. 1936.)

Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow.

Hall, Radclyffe. 1990. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Anchor Books. (Orig. pub. 1928.)

Hansen, Karen V. 1996. "'No Kisses Is Like Youres': An Erotic Friendship between Two African-American Women during the Mid-Nineteenth Century." In Lesbian Subjects: A "Feminist Studies" Reader, ed. Martha Vicinus. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hellman, Lillian. 1981. The Children's Hour. New York: Dramatists Play Service. (Orig. pub. 1934.)

Lobdell, Lucy Ann. 1855. Narrative of Lucy Ann Lobdell, the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan Counties, N.Y. New York: The authoress.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1983. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." In The "Signs" Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship, ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stimpson, Catharine R. 1984. "Gertrice/Altrude: Stein, Toklas, and the Paradox of the Happy Marriage." In Mothering the Mind: Twelve Studies of Writers and Their Silent Partners, ed. Ruth Perry and Martine Watson Brownley. New York: Holmes and Meier.

                                            Emma Crandall

II. POST 1950

Since 1950 there has been an explosion of visible lesbian public cultures. As lesbian identity became a more recognizable subjectivity, stereotypes and experiences of lesbian sexuality shifted from an amorphous, "soft" sexuality to brazen sexual autonomy and pride, from sexual "impossibility" to overt commitments to loving, and seducing, women. Beginning with lesbian bar cultures of the 1950s through the lesbian feminist movement of the 1970s, lesbian self-presentation became a creative, politicized mode deeply tied to community-building. The diverse range of lesbian aesthetics, styles, and tastes—emerging within cultural, political, intellectual, and artistic discourse—is commemorated and displayed in the annals of contemporary lesbian scholarship, art, and literature.


Like Paris in the 1920s, New York City was home to a thriving underground that was instrumental in the codification and expression of gay and lesbian identities. Greenwich Village, Times Square, and Harlem became New York's "gay ghettos." During the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem in particular was home to a vibrant blues culture. With the presence of gay men's "pansy acts" and lesbian blues performers such as Gladys Bentley, elaborate drag balls, all-night "rent parties," and art salons hosted by New York's queer elites (including the heiress A'Lelia Walker and the novelist and photographer Carl Van Vechten), Harlem's world-renowned permissive sexual atmosphere was also notoriously queer.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, bars in major cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York in the United States) began to cater exclusively to lesbians, with some of the bars fielding lesbian sports teams that competed with rival gay bars and clubs. Gay life was conducted within an underground empire of gay and lesbian boardinghouses, public parks and streets, and bars and nightclubs. These gay haunts were scrutinized and raided by police, and in the 1940 and 1950s patrons were arrested at bars most effectively under a law that required people to wear at least three items of "gender-appropriate" clothing.

With the advent of World War II, the influx of GIs and sailors into port cities contributed to the development of a new type of gay public, one that was urban, young, and commercially driven. With men away at war, unaccompanied women who socialized together were less questionable, and in general the climate provided a "protective covering" for independent lesbians who lived a woman-focused life (Kennedy and Davis 1993).

While gay men cruised in public parks and streets, lesbians congregated in safer environments because of the dangers that faced women who went outdoors alone. This type of restriction established the lesbian bar as thecentral and primary locale for lesbian socializing, support, and acculturation. Lesbian bars facilitated the rise in public visibility of lesbians in the twentieth century, especially because butch-femme communities of the 1950s and early 1960s were rooted in bar life. Butches, observably "masculine women," and femmes, those projecting highly "feminine" characteristics, formed erotic and emotional attachments through their own intricate processes of courtship, seduction, and devotion. The working-class bars where this social life unfolded were dramatic stages for jealous brawls, butch and femme mentoring, refuge from homophobic violence, and the perfection of butch and femme social and physical styles. In the climate of the sexual revolution, lesbian feminists eventually critiqued the specific language and performance of lesbian sexuality represented by the butch-femme relationship on the grounds that it mimicked heterosexuality. Nevertheless, butch-femme relationships persisted, and expressions of these identities have evolved into new guises and new contexts (for example, in lesbian sadomasochism scenes and as theorized in queer theory). Aside from a number of butch-femme anthologies, the authors Joan Nestle (b. 1940), Esther Newton (b. 1940), and Sue-Ellen Case (b. 1942) have considered butch and femme identities and cultures in their writing.

Lesbian bars continue to exist throughout the world but are typically in a more precarious economic situation than gay male bars. More often, lesbian nights occur at gay male bars and clubs. In the 1990s, the lesbian bar cultivated the expansion of a vibrant, global drag king scene and began hosting bar viewing nights prompted by the inauguration of lesbian television shows. Famous examples of lesbian neighborhoods and towns are Park Slope in Brooklyn, Andersonville in Chicago, and Northampton, Massachusetts.


In 1955 partners Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon founded the first lesbian political organization in San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis. While the group derived its name from Pierre Louÿs's faux archaeological find, Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894; The songs of Bilitis), in order to sound innocuous, the group became increasingly political and focused on using education to change attitudes toward lesbianism. Chapters were soon founded in other U.S. cities, and the group published their own magazine, The Ladder.

As the homophile movement grew in the United States and Europe, it overlapped with the feminist and civil rights movements. Lesbian feminism responded to and critiqued sexism in the homophile movement, homophobia in the feminist movement, and antifeminism and homophobia in the civil rights movement, and was itself critiqued for internal racism and insensitivity to class issues. While lesbian feminism shares a history with nineteenth-century women who lived as independent, feminist women (including passing women, women in Boston marriages and romantic friendships, and female suffragists and Victorian female prostitutes who depended on one another for erotic and emotional attention), lesbian feminism is most closely tied to the second wave of women's liberation. Most simply, lesbian feminism represents both a cultural movement and a critical perspective that empowered lesbian women and promulgated a fierce, political analysis of heterosexism and misogyny that displayed the social construction of sex, gender, and sexuality.

The founding of the Radicalesbians in 1970 marks the beginning of formal lesbian feminist organizing. The group reconceptualized what "lesbian" meant, claiming that "A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion." Taken from their manifesto, titled "The Woman-Identified Woman," this phrase illustrates the group's desire to agitate for social change as well as to critique heterosexist, patriarchal institutions that harm women and do not affirm female-female relationships. In response to the feminist Betty Friedan's statement that lesbians, whom she dubbed the "lavender menace," threatened the feminist agenda, Radicalesbians dispersed their manifesto during a political "zap" of the 1970 Congress to Unite Women in New York City with which they argued that lesbian issues were central to the fight for women's rights.

Lesbian feminism was eventually seen as the ultimate embodiment of slogans such as "the personal is political" and "feminism is the theory, lesbianism is the practice." In addition to consciousness-raising, protests, and zap actions, lesbian feminist politics manifested in the context of linguistics, spirituality, and community living. Lesbian feminists took on woman-identified names and altered words to reflect antipatriarchal values. For instance, women became womyn or wimmin, and history became herstory—as in the Lesbian Herstory Archives, founded in New York City in 1973. Lesbian feminists also identified with ancient Amazonian female warriors and adopted their legendary weapon, the labrys (double-bladed ax), as a lesbian symbol. Many lesbian feminists explored versions of female-centered, pagan, and pre-Judeo-Christian religions, reclaiming the figures of goddesses and witches as symbols of female power. Spiritual lesbian groups continue to function as feminist spaces that encourage community involvement, female self-esteem, sexual expression, and gynocentric beliefs.

In the face of rampant sexism and homophobia, some lesbian feminists advocated lesbian separatism as the only way to escape the trappings of a deeply male-dominated society. Lesbian separatists viewed all heterosexual relationships as harmful to women and considered the discord between women and men to be irreparable. In both rural and urban locales, lesbians created cooperative living arrangements that were founded on egalitarian ethics, values, and activities. Like feminist consciousness-raising groups, these communities eschewed hierarchy of any kind and supported women-owned businesses.

By the late 1970s and 1980s, lesbian feminist activists and scholars split over the question of sex—its practices, representations, and power. With this conflict, what became known as the "lesbian sex wars" began. Many lesbian feminists had initially charged heterosexuality in its various incarnations as the primary root of women's oppression. Arguments specifically cited pornography as a "how-to" manual for women's sexual exploitation and disrespect, and some writers and activists (including Catharine A. MacKinnon [b. 1946] and Andrea Dworkin [1946–2005]), calling into question notions of consent, compared all heterosexual sex to rape. These "extreme" viewpoints were fetishized in the press and used as evidence for the "ridiculousness" of radical, lesbian feminism. In truth, a strong contingent of lesbian feminist writers, scholars, and activists, including Amber Hollibaugh (b. 1946), Patrick [formerly Pat] Califia (b. 1954), and Ann Snitow (b. 1943), were adamantly pro-sex and defended heterosexual desire. They also critiqued "vanilla" lesbian feminists for their conservative ideals about lesbian sex and openly discussed lesbian sadomasochism and other deviant behavior. Even lesbian bookstores banned pro-sex lesbian books dealing with such topics, including Califia's Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality (1980), the SAMOIS collective's Coming to Power (1981), and Del Lagrace Volcano's [formerly Della Grace] photography book Love Bites (1991).


Like most political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the lesbian feminist movement was fraught with internal conflict. Just as lesbians had protested homophobia in the feminist movement, lesbian women of color and working-class lesbian women faulted white lesbians for ignoring and speaking over racial and class-based issues. Two central texts that critiqued lesbian feminism for its privileged silencing are the Combahee River Collective's "Black Feminist Statement" (1979) and Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa's creative and critical anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981). Work by Paula Gunn Allen (b. 1939) and others called attention to the specific struggle of Native American lesbians, and Dorothy Allison (b. 1949) and Nestle addressed questions of class.

It is important to note that all of these women and those in their circles accomplished much for the plight of women in general, especially when it came to sexual expression, professional advancement, and, in the words of the era, "breaking the silence" on many previously taboo topics. On the question of separatism, these lesbian women of color refused to renounce men of color and proudly claimed them as their brothers because of their commonalities as racial minorities and their shared fight against white supremacy.

One of the most profound theoretical contributions of lesbians of color was their carving out of the "intersectional thesis"—that is, the claim that modes of social oppression do not function independently of one another. Intersectionality continues to be a useful concept for social service providers, social theorists, and activists—most of whom continue to explore the ways that race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, ability, and other markers of difference overlap to form specific experiences of oppression and identity.

In 1974 Latina and black New York lesbians founded Salsa Soul Sisters, an alternative place to congregate than the lesbian bars, which were sometimes discriminatory, alienating, and unsafe for discussions of racism or racial and ethnic pride. Chicana, Native American (sometimes called "two-spirited"), Indian, and Asian and Pacific Islander lesbians have theorized colonialism and imperialism from lesbian feminist perspectives, and, in the creation of "third world feminism," have illustrated the ways that capitalist, white supremacist, homophobic, and patriarchal government oppression are interconnected. Important activists and scholars in this decolonizing, feminist thought include Angela Y. Davis (b. 1944), Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004), Barbara Smith (b. 1946), Michelle Wallace, and Andrea Smith (Cherokee).


As this brief history of lesbian feminism demonstrates, scholarship and theory have played a central role in the theorization, performance, and politics of contemporary lesbianism. As indicated by the aforementioned contributions of black feminist thought, third world feminism, and pro- and anti-sex scholars, lesbianism's intellectual history is rich with diversity and methodologically innovative. Lesbian scholarship is closely related to feminist scholarship and has important origins in Continental poststructuralism.

One important thread of lesbian scholarship is French feminism, a style of intellectual inquiry influenced by Continental philosophers interested in semiotics, and one that critiqued phallogocentrism (the Western privileging of the "male" word). Julia Kristeva (b. 1941), Luce Irigaray (b. 1930), and Hélène Cixous (b. 1937) are key proponents of French feminism, although they define and address "feminism" in different ways. The three writers analyzed the relationship between sexuality and language and tied modes of communication to gendered and sexual oppression. Their theories of écriture féminine (literally, "women's writing") privileged experience over language and circularity (characterized as feminine) over linearity (characterized as masculine). In her famous 1975 essay, "La rire de la Méduse" ("The Laugh of the Medusa," 1976), Cixous challenged woman to "write her self" and analogized women's exile and alienation from their bodies with women's relative absence in literary and intellectual history. In her 1980 essay, "La pensée straight" ("The Straight Mind"), another French feminist, Monique Wittig (1935–2003), claimed that "lesbians are not women" on the basis of their rejection of the heterosexual social contract.

A seminal redefinition of lesbianism that has remained controversial in lesbian cultural studies is the 1980 essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," by the poet and writer Adrienne Rich (b. 1929). Arguing for the formation of a new vocabulary for women's relationships with one another, Rich claims that intimacy between women, whether erotic, sexual, or not, will become more and more commonplace and valued once it becomes more visible and nameable. Within this strident critique of heterosexuality as an institution, Rich suggests the term lesbian continuum to describe a wide range of woman-identified experiences.

Early gay and lesbian studies, feminist theory, and activism that responded to the HIV-AIDS crisis inspired new scholarship in the field of what became known as "queer theory." The scholars Gayle Rubin (b. 1949), Judith Butler (b. 1956), and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (b. 1950) made important theoretical progress in theorizing pleasure, the body, and sexual identity in relation to nonnormative subjectivities and practices.


Despite the relatively late cultural formation of explicitly lesbian social, erotic, and political identities in the twentieth century, there is a great deal of pre-Stonewall (that is, pre-1968) literature that has been canonized as "lesbian literature." This canon includes the poetry of the Restoration dramatist Aphra Behn (1640–1689), the first English woman to make authorship her livelihood; the poems of the Mexican nun and scholar Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695); the poems and letters of the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886); and the diaries of Anne Lister (1791–1840), a well-to-do English landowner. Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928), the story of the coming of age and failed love affairs of invert protagonist Stephen Gordon, is considered to be the first lesbian novel.

In the 1950s and 1960s, lesbian pulp novels were widely published and distributed. Most of these lurid novels were marketed to a male readership, and the tragic lesbian protagonists of the books reached their formulaic "bad end" among a variety of punishments for their transgressions—insanity or death if she did not recover to heterosexuality. Some pulp novels—notably the Beebo Brinker Chronicles by Ann Bannon (pseudonym of Ann Weldy)—allowed lesbian protagonists to escape these cruel fates and began to present a more positive view of lesbian relationships and identities, though not without dilemmas. Bannon's books were reissued in the 1980s and early twenty-first century by Naiad Press and Cleis Press, respectively, to the excitement of a large lesbian reading public that remembered these books as crucial to their coming out. Another exception to the depressing narrative arcs of early pulps is The Price of Salt (1952), by the American mystery/crime writer Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995).

The lesbian feminist publishing boom in the 1970s resulted in the distribution of magazines such as Lesbian Connection (East Lansing, Michigan), Lesbian Tide (Los Angeles), Amazon Quarterly (Oakland, California), and Azalea: A Magazine by and for Third World Lesbians (Brooklyn) as well as in the development of a number of women's presses, including Naiad, Diana Press, and Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. In 1973 Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944), one of the founders of Radicalesbians, wrote the first of several lesbian novels, Rubyfruit Jungle, a proud and recuperative coming-of-age tale that is somewhat autobiographical. Other influential writers associated with this era are the African-American poet and activist Audre Lorde (1934–1992), the Jewish-American poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980), the American poet and historian Judy Grahn (b. 1940), and the Native American poet Chrystos (b. 1946; Menominee tribe).


Brown, Rita Mae. 1988. Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam. (Orig. pub. 1973.)

Califia, Pat. 1988. Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad Press.

Cixous, Hélène. 1976. "The Laugh of the Medusa," trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1(4): 875-893.

Combahee River Collective. 1979. "A Black Feminist Statement." In Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism, ed. Zillah R. Eisenstein. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Grace, Della. 1991. Love Bites: Photographs. London: GMP.

Highsmith, Patricia. 2004. The Price of Salt. New York: Norton. (Orig. pub. 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan.)

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. 1993. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge.

Louÿs, Pierre. 1988. The Songs of Bilitis, trans. Alvah C. Bessie. (Orig. pub. 1894.)

Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa. 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown, MA: Persephone Press.

Rich, Adrienne. 1986. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." In Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985. New York: Norton.

SAMOIS. 1987. Coming to Power: Writings and Graphics on Lesbian S/M. 3rd edition. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Wittig, Monique. 1992. The Straight Mind, and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

                                           Emma Crandall


Lesbian music was central to the development of lesbian feminist communities in the 1970s through the 1990s. "Women's music" answered the categorical absence of women in the recording industry and spoke to the revolutionary moment by presenting music made by women, about women, and for women. Lesbian artists such as Ferron, Tret Fure, Alix Dobkin, and Ubaka Hill were important voices in the genre's founding. Cris Williamson's album The Changer and the Changed (1975) was the first album produced by Olivia Records, which was the first women's music label (founded in 1973 by a collective that included the musician Meg Christian). Christian's playful lesbian anthems, such as "Ode to a Gym Teacher" and "Leaping Lesbians," synthesized folk music with lesbian humor. While local lesbian activists across the United States and Europe organized concerts that showcased these performers and others, annual music festivals began to pop up that operated as weekend- or weeklong feminist "safe spaces" that fostered pride, arts and crafts, and sexual expression. Most festivals continue to function as communal spaces, and some require attendees to sign up for volunteer work shifts. Many lesbian performers have benefited directly from the women's music festival circuit or from the advances that can be credited to this history. Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, Melissa Etheridge, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello are among these.

The Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF) is the largest, longest-running, and most controversial of these festivals. MWMF's history illustrates how debates about inclusion, transgender identity, and difference in the lesbian community have evolved—most obviously in their exclusion of men and transgendered or transsexual women from the festival. Founded in 1976 by nineteen-year-old Lisa Vogel, MWMF did not formally institute its "womyn-born womyn" policy until an incident in 1991 in which a security guard banished a transsexual woman from the grounds. Since then, the festival has been boycotted and protested—most notably by the formation of the nearby Camp Trans, which is attended by transwomen, transmen, genderqueers, and their allies.

The lesbian feminist music world of the 1970s and 1980s merged with the American and European punk and post-punk rock cultures that included artists such as Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, and the Slits to produce the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s. Riot Grrrl culture has been important to young, urban articulations of lesbianism in contemporary times. A counterculture that emphasized do-it-yourself (DIY) attitudes and art activities (such as zine writing and publishing), Riot Grrrl promoted feminist issues and was for the most part lesbian-friendly or even lesbian-focused. The founding of Riot Grrrl conventions; the lesbo-queer record label Mr. Lady Records (now defunct); the international all-women Ladyfest music festivals; and slogans such as its famous "Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now," all indicate the influence of lesbian feminism on this movement, genre, and style of self-expression. Like 1970s lesbian feminism, Riot Grrrl has been critiqued for its inattention to racial issues and was simplified in coverage by the mainstream media. The "riot grrrl sensibility" nevertheless persists in contemporary queer electroclash music, queer activist direct-action groups, and national feminist magazines such as Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Bust, and Norway's Fett.

Lesbian visibility in the mainstream media has been further augmented by an emergent lesbian cinema. Films made by lesbians about lesbian issues became more accessible around the globe beginning in the 1990s, and classic lesbian films are remembered as instrumental to the "coming out" of many contemporary lesbians. Pre-Stonewall films such as Queen Christina (1933), Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), and the aforementioned Children's Hour (1961) are part of the lesbian cinematic canon, while lesbian classics such as Desert Hearts (1985, based on the novel by the lesbian author Jane Rule), Go Fish (1994), The Watermelon Women (1996), and Bound (1996) present lesbianism in explicit terms. Movies such as Mädchen in Uniform (1931, Germany), the first movie to address lesbianism; Lizzie Borden's Born in Flames (1983, United States); and Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996, India/Canada) reveal the diversity in lesbian cinema. Lesbian directors include Dorothy Arzner (1900–1979), who was the only female Hollywood director in the 1930s and 1940s; Barbara Hammer (b. 1939); and Rose Troche (b. 1964).

Lesbian art follows a similar trajectory as lesbian literature and in many cases was produced alongside the novels and poems that defined lesbianism in each generation. In expatriate Paris, well-known lesbian artists included the American portrait painter Romaine Brooks (1874–1970) and the British painter known as Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein; 1895–1978). Lesbian feminist artists include Joan Snyder (b. 1940), Tee A. Corinne (b. 1943), Fran Winant (b. 1943), and members of the Feminist Lesbian Art Collective. Lesbian photographers have a rich and influential history and include, among those already mentioned, Berenice Abbott (1898–1991), Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949), Catherine Opie (b. 1961), and Deborah Bright (b. 1950), who glued her own image onto classic Hollywood film stills in her project "Dream Girls" (1989–1990).

Lesbian theater and performance art held a particularly significant role in lesbian community building in the 1980s. The WOW Café Theater is an East Village (New York City) women's theater collective that has been an important house for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer (GLBTQ) theater since 1980. The lesbian theater companies Split Britches and Five Lesbian Brothers came out of the WOW Café and continue to perform across the globe. Comedic lesbian performance artists Carmelita Tropicana (Alina Troyano) and Holly Hughes (b. 1955) were also involved in the WOW Café's early days.


As a social and political identity with specific historical origins in Western cultures, lesbian is not a universal category. Even in Western contexts lesbian possesses varied meanings. According to the scholar Monika Reinfelder (1996a), terms used internationally to refer to "lesbian" practice and women who love women include lesbian, dyke, Zami, wicker, mati, khush, entendidas, sakhi, suhak, and jami. Many women who have sex with women do not identify as "lesbians"—a fact that has made mass organizing difficult across the globe and has contributed to a vast lesbian invisibility that reinforces heterosexism in developing nations. Victims of executions, beheadings, stoning deaths, imprisonment, institutionalization, forced marriages, and suicide in these countries, "lesbians" endure a global oppression that hinges on racist, sexist, homophobic, colonialist, and imperialist regimes. As Reinfelder writes, "In many countries the legacy of colonialism/neo-colonialism and the effects of continuing North/South inequalities have given priority to struggles around poverty, illiteracy, famine and national liberation. This has often rendered it impossible for women to engage in issues of sexuality" (1996b, p. 11). Homosexuality (and lesbianism) are made illegal, usually through sodomy laws, across the globe, and in some countries anyone advocating for gay rights is subject to arrest and possible imprisonment. GLBTQ people and their allies in countries such as Jamaica, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates have been especially persecuted, according to the U.S. State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005.

Specific laws against lesbian sexual acts are complex in terms of phrasing and enforcement, precisely because of the issues of implausibility and invisibility of female-female desire that have been previously addressed. A famous illustration of this matter is the legend (most likely apocryphal) of Queen Victoria's response to the clause about lesbianism proposed for the antigay Labouchere Amendment that was drawn up in 1885 in London. The amendment, under which Oscar Wilde was later prosecuted, referred only to male homosexuality because the queen reputedly did not believe sex between women to be possible.

Until the second half of the twentieth century in the United States and in contemporary times in other nations, lesbians underwent corrective therapy including psychiatric treatment, electroconvulsive therapy, or any number of medical procedures, such as hysterectomies, hormone injections, and clitoridectomies. Lesbian invisibility has been sustained through such terroristic threats and violence.

In developing nations, lesbianism and homosexuality have been considered products of the West that have been imported to their purely heterosexual cultures through the media, as an effect of global capitalism, or as a "white people's disease." To combat this mythology, women discover and write histories of lesbianism in their countries and build coalitions to battle the isolation that many lesbians feel. Another impediment to lesbian awareness and organizing in developing countries is linked to culture-specific senses of family duty, reputation, and honor. Often lesbians who travel, study, or work across international borders may live as heterosexuals in their home country and explore their lesbian desires while abroad.

The global AIDS pandemic has indirectly brought homosexuality into public discussion in such areas as Africa and India and in some cases has helped gay men and lesbians to mobilize together for gay rights. Working on AIDS issues in such countries can sometimes camouflage groups that also function as gay and lesbian assemblies.

By contrast, in some countries (such as South Africa), lesbian socializing is not uncommon or particularly difficult to come by (Fester 1996). Yet, lesbian solidarity has been and is fractured by apartheid, movements for national liberation, and poverty.

There is much overlap between global lesbian cultural practices, including the expression of butch and femme genders, though these go by many different names. In Malaysia, for instance, the term pengkid (from "punk kid") refers to working-class queer butches who bind their breasts, wear men's underwear, and are chivalrous and devoted to their girlfriends (Nur and A. R. 1996). Tens if not hundreds of other examples of alternative female genders legitimize this behavior as a cross-cultural practice and draw a suggestive link between queer cultures and gender diversity.

In some cultures, masculine women and/or lesbian relationships are not ridiculed, or at least were not until the Western gender system filtered into isolated villages and cultures. This is the case, for example, in parts of Indonesia and India and in some American Indian tribes. Nevertheless, in the face of the global marginalization of lesbians, these cases are anomalies. Because of the progressive narratives about sexual liberation in the West and a general ignorance about global human rights, many people are unaware of the extreme persecution of lesbians in other countries. Sister Namibia, El Closet de Sor Juana (Mexico), and Can't Live in the Closet (Philippines) are among the most well-known international lesbian groups. More information about GLBTQ international affairs can be found through the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (United States) or the International Lesbian Information Service (Netherlands).


Fester, Gertrude. 1996. "Lesbian Lobby: Apartheid's Closet." In Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism, ed. Monika Reinfelder. London: Cassell.

McGarry, Molly, and Fred Wasserman. 1998. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin Studio.

Morris, Bonnie J. 1999. Eden Built by Eves: The Culture of Women's Music Festivals. Los Angeles: Alyson Books.

Nur, Rais, and A. R. 1996. "Queering the State: Towards a Lesbian Movement in Malaysia." In Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism, ed. Monika Reinfelder. London: Cassell.

Reinfelder, Monika. 1996a. "Introduction: Weaving International Webs." In Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism, ed. Monika Reinfelder. London: Cassell.

Reinfelder, Monika. 1996b. "Persecution and Resistance." In Amazon to Zami: Towards a Global Lesbian Feminism, ed. Monika Reinfelder. London: Cassell.

U.S. Department of State. 2005. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2005. Available from http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2005/.

                                           Emma Crandall