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How Transgressive Must we be to be Queer?

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 07:00

One of the themes that I find really valuable in this collection of essays is poking at the question of whether and why it is important to find connections between historic modes of sexuality and the modes familiar to modern producers and consumers of historic research and theory. Given how prominent and foundational Lillian Faderman has been in the field of lesbian history, I always feel a bit guilty when I describe my winces at certain of her approaches, though in this essay I think she addresses the underlying premises of those winces fairly directly. One that is stated outright in this article is "can there be lesbian identity in the absence of sexual activity?" Faderman seems to argue for a negative answer both explicitly in this article and implicitly in much of the discussion in Surpassing the Love of Men, and the obvious reason that this position makes me wince is that it erases the concept of asexual lesbians. If one erases them in the historic record, the obvious implication is to erase them in the modern experience as well. I can understand the position that the complex prototypical model for lesbian identity includes erotic desires and activity between women, but any position that requires it as a necessary defining characteristic is a position that erases my own existence.

A second point the Faderman makes in this essay--one that I'm far more on board with--is that it's important not to get too fixated on lesbian identity as publicly transgressive of social norms. To allow for women who are outwardly conforming (or at least not outwardly non-conforming) but whose lives embody emotional and erotic experiences that can only be seen as lesbian. One of themes promoted in the modern lesbian community is that the state of being a woman who loves women is inherently and existentially transgressive, no matter how it is outwardly expressed. When applying this principle to women in history, we shouldn't overlook or dismiss lesbian lives simply because they were not engaged in a public confrontation with heterosexual expectations. This is a theme that has significant effects on lesbian historical fiction. Modern readers are deeply attached to characters who are outwardly transgressive: passing women, outlaws, women in male-coded professions. Our fiction should have room for stories about the more subtle rebellions of simply existence as well.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Faderman, Lillian. 2011. “A Useable Past?” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Faderman, Lillian. 2011. “A Useable Past?”

Faderman builds on Bauer’s discussion of how conventional historic approaches erase lesbian history, but adds that an abandonment of the concept of history as “what really happened” is a surrender to that erasure. She notes her own pursuit of lesbian history as an “unabashedly political project”--a pursuit of a “useable past” that offered the modern audience connection with history. Faderman has some possibly snide things to say about how the scarcity of premodern evidence for lesbians drives post-modern scholars to “all sorts of imaginative--and sometimes rather labored--devices.” On the other side, she notes how the longing for a “useable past” leads to ahistoricity (perhaps what is elsewhere called “search and rescue” missions). She asserts how the framework of Romantic Friendship allowed her to discuss intense loving relationships between women in the 18-19th centuries without anachronistically labeling them “lesbian”. This raises the question, if “lesbian” is an unstable concept, how is it possible to discuss lesbianism in history at all?

Faderman spends a while discussing how the strict scrutiny on the precise definition of “lesbian”--both within and outside the field of lesbian history--inevitably leads to erasing the realities of women who had primary emotional bonds with other women. But conversely, she probes at the question of whether “lesbian” has lost its most crucial meaning if it doesn’t refer to sexual relations. [Note: This is the theme that regularly bothers me in Faderman’s writing, that sex is the sine qua non of the word “lesbian”.] But she also notes that looking for “lesbian-like” data only in the context of social non-conformity excludes women whose lives were superficially conventional, despite strong evidence for female same-sex emotional or erotic relationships. “If our definition of ‘lesbian-like’ is limited to women who were openly outlaws, we’re in danger of losing much that is juicy and wonderful.” She notes the class divisions in responses to lesbian-like behavior and the promising evidence that knowledge and acceptance of female same-sex love was more widespread in premodern times than we often think.