Outside Western cultures

Middle East

Female homosexual behavior may be present in every culture, although the concept of a lesbian as a woman who pairs exclusively with other women is not. Attitudes about female homosexual behavior are dependent upon women’s roles in each society, and each culture’s definition of sex. Women in the Middle East have been historically segregated from men. In the 7th and 8th centuries some extraordinary women dressed in male attire when gender roles were less strict, but the sexual roles that accompanied European women were not associated with Islamic women. The Caliphal court in Baghdad featured women who dressed as men, including false facial hair, but they competed with other women for the attentions of men.[112] Highly intelligent women, according to the 12th century writings of Sharif al-Idrisi, were more likely to be lesbians; their intellectual prowess put them on a more even par with men.[112] Relations between women who lived in harems, and fears of women being sexually intimate in Turkish baths were expressed in writings by men. Women, however, were mostly silent and men likewise rarely wrote about lesbian relationships. It is unclear to historians if the rare instances of lesbianism mentioned in literature is an accurate historical record or intended to serve as fantasy for men. A 1978 treatise about repression in Iran asserted that women were completely silenced: “In the whole of Iranian history, [no woman] has been allowed to speak out for such tendencies … To attest to lesbian desires would be an unforgivable crime.”[112] Although the authors of Islamic Homosexualities argued this did not mean women could not engage in lesbian relationships, a lesbian anthropologist in 1991 visited Yemen and reported that women in the town she visited were unable to comprehend her romantic relationship to another woman. Women in Pakistan are expected to marry men; those who do not are ostracized. Women, however, may have intimate relations with other women as long as their wifely duties are met, their private matters are kept quiet, and the woman with whom they are involved is somehow related by family or logical interest to her lover.[113]

Native North and South Americans

Indigenous people in North and South America conceptualized a third gender for men-women and women-men. These roles were recorded of the Coahuiltecan Indians in Texas, Timucuan in Florida, and Cueva in Panama. In Cree, the term for a man who took the role of a woman was ayekkwew; the Zuni word for a woman who took the role of a man was katsotse (boy-girl),[114] and the Mohave give women the term hwame.[115] The cross-gender roles have less to do with sexuality than with spirituality and occupation. A “two-spirit” woman who has a relationship with a non cross-gender woman is thought to be a “hetero-gender” relationship.[116]


Cross-gender roles and marriage between women has also been recorded in over 30 African societies.[117] Women may marry other women, raise their children, and be generally thought of as men in societies in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya. The Hausa people of Sudan have a term equivalent to lesbian, kifi, that may also be applied to males to mean “neither party insists on a particular sexual role”.[118] Near the Congo River a female who participates in strong emotional or sexual relationships with another female among the Nkundo people is known is yaikya bonsángo (a woman who presses against another woman). Lesbian relationships are also known in matrilineal societies in Ghana among the Akan people. In Lesotho, females engage in what is commonly considered sexual behavior to the Western world: they kiss, sleep together, rub genitals, participate in cunnilingus, and maintain their relationships with other females vigilantly. Since the people of Lesotho believe sex requires a penis, however, they do not consider their behavior sexual, nor label themselves lesbians.[119] Colonization of Africa resulted in a cultural shift; aboriginal sexuality was no longer seen as fluid and dynamic but binary and set for life. Some women who identified as lesbian following colonization have been submitted to the curative effort of rape in the mindset that sex with men can fix lesbianism.[120] Despite this paradigm shift, the government of South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.[121]


China before westernization was another society that segregated men from women. Historical Chinese culture has not recognized a concept of sexual orientation, or a framework to divide people based on their same sex or opposite sex attractions.[122] Although there was a significant culture surrounding homosexual men, there was none for women. Outside of their duties to bear sons to their husbands, women were perceived as having no sexuality at all.[123] This did not mean that women could not pursue sexual relationships with other women, but that such associations could not impose upon women’s relationships to men. Rare references to lesbianism were written by Ying Shao who identified same-sex relationships between women in imperial courts who behaved as husband and wife as dui shi(paired eating). “Golden Orchid Associations” in Southern China existed into the 20th century and promoted formal marriages between women who were then allowed to adopt children.[124] Westernization brought new ideas that all sexual behavior not resulting in reproduction was aberrant.[125] The liberty of being employed in silk factories starting in 1865 allowed some women to style themselves tzu-shu nii (never to marry) and live in communes with other women. Other Chinese called them sou-hei (self-combers) for adopting hairstyles of married women. These communes passed because of the Great Depression and were subsequently discouraged by the communist government for being a relic of feudal China.[126] In contemporary Chinese society, tongzhi (same goal or spirit) is the term used to refer to homosexuals; most Chinese are reluctant to divide this classification further to identify lesbians.[127]

In Japan during the 1920s, the term rezubian was used as an equivalent of lesbian. Westernization brought more independence for women and allowed some Japanese women to wear pants.[128] The cognate tomboy is used in the Philippines, and particularly in Manila, to denote women who are more masculine.[129] Virtuous women in Korea prioritize motherhood, chastity, and virginity; outside of this scope, very few women are free to express themselves through sexuality, although there is a growing organization for lesbians named Kkirikkiri.[130] The term pondan is used in Malaysia to refer to gay men, but since there is no historical context to reference lesbians, the term is used for female homosexuals as well.[131] As in many Asian countries, open homosexuality is discouraged in many social levels, so many Malaysians lead double lives.[132] A 14th century mention of a lesbian couple in Indian writings who were blessed with a child as a result of their lovemaking is an exception to the general silence about female homosexuality. This invisibility disappeared with the release of a film titled Fire in 1996, prompting some theaters in India to be attacked by extremists. Terms used to label homosexuals are often rejected by Indian activists for being the result of imperialist influence, but most discourse on homosexuality centers on men. Women’s rights groups in India continue to debate the legitimacy of including lesbian issues in their platforms, as lesbians and material focusing on female homosexuality are frequently suppressed.[133]


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