Identity and gender

Identity and gender

Reproduction of a German magazine cover with the title "Die Freundin" showing a nude woman sitting on a horse, looking behind her

Berlin’s thriving lesbian community in the 1920s published this magazine between 1924 and 1933.

Lesbian in Western cultures in particular often classify themselves as having an identity that defines their individual sexuality, as well as their membership to a group that shares common traits. Women in many cultures throughout history have had sexual relations with other women, but they rarely were designated as part of a group of people based on who they had physical relations with. As women have generally been political minorities in Western cultures, the added medical designation of homosexuality has been cause for the development of a subcultural identity.

Construction of lesbian identity

For some women, the realization that they participated in behavior or relationships that could be categorized as lesbian caused them deny or conceal it, such as professor Jeannette Marks at Mount Holyoke College, who lived with the college president, Mary Woolley for 36 years. Marks discouraged young women from “abnormal” friendships and insisted happiness could only be attained with a man. Other women, however, ebmraced the distinction and used their uniwueness to set themselves apart from heterosexual women and gay men. From the 1890s to the 1930s American heiress Natalie Clifford Barney held a weekly salon in Paris to which major artistic celebrities were invited and where lesbian topics were th focus. Combining Greek influences with contemporary French eroticism, she attempted to create an updated and idealized version of Lesbos in her salon. Her contemporaries included artist Romaine Brooksm who painted others in her circle; writers Colette, Djuna Barnes, social host Gertrude Stein, and novelist Radclyffe Hall.

Berlin had a vibrant homosexual culture in the 1920s: about 50 clubs catering to lesbian exixted, women had their own magazine titled Die Freundin (The Girlfriend) between 1924 and 1933, and another titled Garconne specifically for male transversites and lesbians. In 1928 a book titled The Lesbians of Berlin written by Ruth Margariye Rollig that further popularized the German capital as a center of lesbian activity. Clubs varid between large establishments so popular that they were tourist attractions to small neighbourhood cafes where only local women went to find other women. Das Lila Lied (“The Mauve Song”) served as an anthem to the lesbians of Berlin. Homosexuality was illegal in Germany, though sometimes tolerated, as some functions were allowed by the police who took the oppurtinity to register the names of homosexuals for future reference. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which promoted tolerance for homosexuals in Germany, welcomed lesbiab participation, ans a surge of lesbian-themed writing and political activism in the German feminist movement became evident.

Reproduction of a London newspaper, headline reading "A Book That Must Be Suppressed" and Radclyffe Hall's portrait: a woman wearing a suit jacket and bow tie with a black matching skirt. Her hair is slicked back, she wears no make-up, in one hand is a cigarette and her other hand is in her skirt pocket

Radclyffe Hall’s image appeared in many newspapers discussing the content of The Well of Loneliness.

In 1928 Radclyffe Hall, a British aristocrat, published a novel titled The Well of Loneliness. Its plot centers around Stephen Gordon, a woman who identifies herself as an invert after reading Krafft-Ebbing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, and lives within the homosexual subculture of Paris. The novel included a foreword by Havelock Ellis and was intended to be a call for tolerance for inverts by publicizing their disadvantages and accidents of being born inverted. Hall ascribed to Ellis and Krafft-Ebbing;s theories and rejected Freud’s theory that same sex attraction was caused by childhood trauma and was curable. The publicity Hall received was due to unintended consequences; the novel was tried for obscenity in London, a spectacularly scandalous event described as “the crystallizing moment in the construction of a visible modern English lesbian subculture” by professor Laura Doan.[19] Newspaper stories frankly divulged that the book’s content includes “sexual relations between Lesbian women”, and photographs of Hall often accompanied details about lesbians in most major print outlets within a span of six months.[20] Hall reflected the appearance of a “mannish” woman in the 1920s: short cropped hair, tailored suits (often with pants), and monocle that became widely recognized as a “uniform”. When British women participated in World War I, they became familiar with masculine clothing, and were considered patriotic for wearing uniforms and pants. However, postwar masculinization of women’s clothing became associated with lesbians.[21]

A publicity photo of a stout African American woman in white tuxedo with tails and top hat, carrying a cane and her signature in the lower right corner

Harlem resident Gladys Bentley was renowned for her blues songs about her affairs with women

In the United States, the 1920s was a decade of social experimentation, particularly with sex. This was heavily influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, who theorized that sexual desire would be sated unconsciously, despite an individual’s wish to ignore it. Freud’s theories were much more pervasive in the U.S. than in Europe. With the well-publicized notion that sexual acts were a part of lesbianism and their relationships, sexual experimentation was widespread. Large cities that provided a nightlife were immensely popular, and women began to seek out sexual adventure. Bisexuality became chic, particularly in America’s first gay neighborhoods.[22] No location saw more visitors for its possibilities of homosexual nightlife than Harlem, the predominantly African American section of New York City. White “slummers” enjoyed jazz, nightclubs, and anything else they wished. Blues singers Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Gladys Bentley sang about affairs with women to visitors such as Tallulah Bankhead, Beatrice Lillie, and the soon-to-be-named Joan Crawford.[23][24] Homosexuals began to draw comparisons between their newly recognized minority status and that of African Americans.[25] Among African American residents of Harlem, lesbian relationships were common and tolerated, though not overtly embraced. Some women staged lavish wedding ceremonies, even filing licenses using masculine names with New York City.[26] Most women, however, were married to men and participated in affairs with women regularly; bisexuality was more widely accepted than lesbianism.[27]

Across town, Greenwich Village also saw a growing homosexual community; both Harlem and Greenwich Village provided furnished rooms for single men and women, which was a major factor in their development as centers for homosexual communities.[28] The tenor was different in Greenwich Village than Harlem, however. Bohemians—intellectuals who rejected Victorian ideals—gathered in the Village. Homosexuals were predominantly male, although figures such as poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and social host Mabel Dodge were known for their affairs with women and promotion of tolerance of homosexuality.[29] Women in the U.S. who could not visit Harlem or live in Greenwich Village for the first time were able to visit saloons in the 1920s without being considered prostitutes. The existence of a public space for women to socialize in bars that were known to cater to lesbians “became the single most important public manifestation of the subculture for many decades”, according to historian Lillian Faderman.[30]

Great Depression

The primary component necessary to encourage lesbians to be public and seek other women was economic independence, which virtually disappeared in the 1930s with the Great Depression. Most women in the U.S. found it necessary to marry, to a “front” such as a gay man where both could pursue homosexual relationships with public discretion, or to a man who expected a traditional wife. Independent women in the 1930s were generally seen as holding jobs that men should have.[31] The social attitude made very small and close-knit communities in large cities that centered around bars, while simultaneously isolating women in other locales. Speaking of homosexuality in any context was socially forbidden, and women rarely discussed lesbianism even amongst themselves; they referred to openly gay people as “in the Life”.[32][note 4] Freudian psychoanalytic theory was pervasive in influencing doctors to consider homosexuality as a neurosis afflicting immature women. Homosexual subculture disappeared in Germany with the rise of the Nazis in 1933.[33]

World War II

A WWII-era photo of five women working at drill presses, all wearing pants, work shirts, hats, and aprons

Women’s experiences in the work force and the military during World War II gave them economic and social options that helped to shape lesbian subculture.

The onset of World War II caused a massive upheaval in people’s lives as military mobilization engaged millions of men. Women were also accepted into the military in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps (WACs) and U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Unlike processes to screen out male homosexuals, which had been in place since the creation of the American military, there were no methods to identify or screen for lesbians; they were put into place gradually during World War II. Despite common attitudes regarding women’s traditional roles in the 1930s, independent and masculine women were directly recruited by the military in the 1940s, and frailty discouraged. Some women were able to arrive at the recruiting station in a man’s suit, answer in the negative about if she had ever been in love with another woman, and get easily inducted.[34] Sexual activity, however, was forbidden, and blue discharge was almost certain if one identified oneself as a lesbian. As women found each other, they formed into tight groups on base, socialized at service clubs, and began to use code words. Historian Allan Bérubé documented that homosexuals in the armed forces either consciously or subconsciously refused to identify themselves as homosexual or lesbian, and also never spoke about others’ orientation.[35]

The most masculine women were not necessarily common, though they were visible so they tended to attract women interested in finding other lesbians. Women would have to broach the subject about their interest in other women carefully, sometimes taking days to develop a common understanding without asking or stating anything outright.[36] Women who did not enter the military were aggressively called upon to take industrial jobs left by men, in order to continue national productivity. The increased mobility, sophistication, and independence of many women during and after the war made it an option for women to live without husbands, something that would not have been possible under different economic and social circumstances, further shaping lesbian networks and environments.[37]

Postwar years

A drawn illustrated magazine cover of a woman in half shadow with short, wavy hair holding a harlequin mask under the title "The Ladder" and underneath "October 1957"

The first edition of The Ladder, mailed to hundreds of women in the San Francisco area, urged women to take off their masks.

Following World War II, there was a nationwide desire in the U.S. to return to pre-war society as quickly as possible.[38] When combined with the increasing national paranoia about communismblackmail, and the government purged its employment ranks of open homosexuals, beginning a widespread effort to gather intelligence about employees’ private lives.[39] State and local governments followed suit, arresting people for congregating in bars and parks, and enacting laws against cross-dressing for men and women.[40][41] In 1952 homosexuality was listed as a pathological emotional disturbance in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.[42] The view that homosexuality was a curable sickness was widely believed in the medical community, general population, and among many lesbians themselves.[43] Attitudes and practices to ferret out homosexuals in public service positions extended to Australia[44] and Canada;[45] lesbianism had been outlawed in the United Kingdom in 1921.[46] and psychoanalytic theory that had become pervasive in medical knowledge, in 1950 homosexuality became an undesired characteristic of employees working for the U.S. government. Homosexuals were thought to be vulnerable targets to The U.S. military and government conducted many interrogations, asking if women had ever had sexual relations with another woman and essentially equating even one-time experiences to a criminal identity, thereby severely delineating heterosexuals from homosexuals.

Very little information was available about homosexuality beyond medical and psychiatric texts. Community meeting places consisted of bars that were commonly raided by police once a month on average, with those arrested exposed in newspapers. In response, eight women in San FranciscoDaughters of Bilitis (DOB). The DOB began publishing a magazine titled The Ladder in 1956; inside the front cover of every issue was their mission statement, the first of which stated was “Education of the variant”, and was intended to provide women with knowledge about homosexuality—specifically relating to women, and famous lesbians in history. However, by 1956 the term “lesbian” had such a negative meaning that the DOB refused to use it as a descriptor, choosing “variant” instead.[47] The DOB spread to Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, and The Ladder was mailed to hundreds—eventually thousands—of DOB members discussing the nature of homosexuality, sometimes challenging the idea that it was a sickness, with readers offering their own reasons why they were lesbians, and suggesting ways to cope with the condition or society’s response to it.[43]Arena Three beginning in 1964, with a similar mission.[48] met in their living rooms in 1955 to socialize and have a place to dance. When they decided to make it a regular meeting, they became the first organization for lesbians in the U.S., titled the British lesbians followed with the publication of

A brightly painted book cover with the title "The Third Sex", showing a sultry blonde wearing a red outfit showing cleavage and midriff, seated on a sofa while a redhead with short hair places her hand on the blonde's shoulder and leans over her, also displaying cleavage by wearing a white blouse with rolled-up sleeves

Though marketed to heterosexual men, lesbian pulp fiction provided an identity to isolated women in the 1950s.

As a reflection of categories of sexuality so sharply defined by the government and society at large, lesbian subculture developed extremely rigid gender roles between women, particularly among the working class in the U.S. and Canada. Although many municipalities had enacted laws against cross-dressing, some women would socialize in bars as butches: dressed in men’s clothing and mirroring traditional masculine behavior. Others wore traditionally feminine clothing and assumed a more diminutive role as femmes. Butch and femme modes of socialization were so integral within lesbian bars that women who refused to choose between the two would be ignored, or at least unable to date anyone, and butch women becoming romantically involved with other butch women or femmes with other femmes was unacceptable.[49] Butch women were not a novelty in the 1950s; even in Harlem and Greenwich Village in the 1920s some women assumed these personae. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the roles were pervasive and not limited to North America: from 1940 to 1970, butch/femme bar culture flourished in Britain, though there were fewer class distinctions.[50] They further identified members of a group that had been marginalized; women who had been rejected by most of society had an inside view of an exclusive group of people that took a high amount of knowledge to function in.[51] Butch and femme were considered coarse by American lesbians of higher social standing during this period. Many wealthier women married to satisfy their familial obligations, and others escaped to Europe to live as expatriates.[52]

Regardless of the lack of information about homosexuality in scholarly texts, another forum for learning about lesbianism was growing. A paperback book titled Women’s Barracks describing a woman’s experiences in the Free French Forces was published in 1950. In it contained a lesbian relationship the author witnessed. It sold 4.5 million copies and was consequently named in the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials in 1952.[53] Its publisher, Gold Medal Books, followed with the novel Spring Fire in 1952, which sold 1.5 million copies. Gold Medal Books was overwhelmed with mail from women writing about the subject matter, and followed with more books, creating the genre of lesbian pulp fiction.[54] Between 1955 and 1969 over 2,000 books were published using lesbianism as a topic, and they were sold in corner drugstores, train stations, bus stops, and newsstands all over the U.S. and Canada. Most were written by, and almost all were marketed to heterosexual men. Coded words and images were used on the covers. Instead of “lesbian”, terms such as “strange”, “twilight”, “queer”, and “third sex”, were used in the titles, and cover art was invariably salacious.[55] A handful of lesbian pulp fiction authors were women writing for lesbians, including Ann Bannon, Valerie Taylor, Paula Christian, and Vin Packer/Ann Aldrich. Bannon, who also purchased lesbian pulp fiction, later stated that women identified the material iconically by the cover art.[56] Many of the books used cultural references: naming places, terms, describing modes of dress and other codes to isolated women. As a result, pulp fiction helped to proliferate a lesbian identity simultaneously to lesbians and heterosexual readers.[57]

Second wave feminism

The social rigidity of the 1950s and early 1960s encountered a backlash as social movements to improve the standing of African Americans, the poor, women, and gays all became prominent. Of the latter two, the gay rights movement and the feminist movement connected after a violent confrontation occurred in New York City in the 1969 Stonewall riots.[58] What followed was a movement characterized by a surge of gay activism and feminist consciousness that further transformed the definition of lesbian.

The sexual revolution in the 1970s introduced the differentiation between identity and sexual behavior for women. Many women took advantage of their new social freedom to try new experiences. Women who previously identified as heterosexual tried sleeping with women, though many maintained their heterosexual identification.[59] However, with the advent of second wave feminism, lesbian as a political identity grew to describe a social philosophy among women, often overshadowing sexual desire as a defining trait. A militant feminist organization named Radicalesbians published a manifesto in 1970 entitled “The Woman-Identified Woman” that declared “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion”.[60][note 5] Militant feminists expressed their disdain with an inherently sexist and patriarchal society, and concluded the most effective way to overcome sexism and attain the equality of women would be to deny men any power or pleasure from women, including sexually. For women who ascribed to this philosophy—dubbing themselves lesbian-feminists—lesbian was a term chosen by women to describe any woman who dedicated her approach to social interaction and political motivation to the welfare of women. Sexual desire was not the defining characteristic of a lesbian-feminist, but rather her focus on politics. Independence from men as oppressors was a central tenet of lesbian-feminism, and many believers strove to separate themselves physically and economically from traditional male-centered culture. In the ideal society, named Lesbian Nation, “woman” and “lesbian” were interchangeable.[61]

In 1980, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich expanded upon the political meaning of lesbian by proposing a continuum of lesbian existence based on “woman-identified experience”.[62] All relationships between women, Rich proposed, have some lesbian element, regardless if they claim a lesbian identity: mothers and daughters, women who work together, and women who nurse each other, for example. Such a perception of women relating to each other connects them through time and across cultures, and Rich considered heterosexuality a condition forced upon women by men.[62] Several years earlier, DOB founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon similarly relegated sexual acts as unnecessary in determining what a lesbian is, by providing their definition: “a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest is in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed”.[63]

Although lesbian-feminism was a significant shift, not all lesbians agreed with it. Lesbian-feminism was a youth-oriented movement: its members were primarily college educated, with experience in New Left and radical causes, but they had not seen any success in persuading radical organizations to take up women’s issues.[64] Many older lesbians who had acknowledged their sexuality in more conservative times felt maintaining their ways of coping in a homophobic world was more appropriate. The Daughters of Bilitis folded in 1970 over which direction to focus on: feminism or gay rights issues.[65] As equality was a priority for lesbian-feminists, disparity of roles between men and women or butch and femme were viewed as patriarchal. Lesbian-feminists eschewed gender role play that had been pervasive in bars, as well as the perceived chauvinism of gay men; many lesbian-feminists refused to work with gay men, or take up their causes.[66] However, lesbians who held a more essentialist view that they had been born homosexual and used the descriptor “lesbian” to define sexual attraction, often considered the separatist, angry opinions of lesbian-feminists to be detrimental to the cause of gay rights.[67]


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