While reviewing and proof-reading the write-up for this article just prior to posting, the following phrase--though not the main point--struck me. "...premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis." When I brainstorm lesbian historic fiction, this is one of the concepts I keep constantly in mind. Whether or not my characters had access to an in-person familiarity with other women in same-sex relationships, what did they experience in the culture around them that could help them understand their feelings and desires? If they saw an allegorical painting of Jupiter-as-Diana making love to Callisto, if they watched a play where a character they knew to be female received the romantic advances of another woman while in male disguise, if they listened to a poem about Sappho enjoying the love of "Lesbian lasses", could those things shape their construction of their own sexuality every bit as much as real-life examples could?
The concept of queer identity as socially constructed (or at least the concept that the specific forms it takes is socially constructed) is something of a contentious point for those who feel their own desires to be innate and inherent (to say nothing of the potential political implications). But when looking at historic cultures where we find it difficult to find evidence for in-person lesbian subcultures, we shouldn't neglect the importance of how cultural expressions can create a meta-subculture every bit as important in grounding a person's understanding of sexuality as in-person interactions can be. (After all, consider how many women in recent decades first twigged to their interest in other women from watching Xena: Warrior Princess!)
Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
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.
Laskaya, Anne. 2011. “A ‘Wrangling Parliament’: Terminology and Audience in Medieval European Literary Studies and Lesbian Studies”
This article addresses the question of terminology for women who love women from three angles: literary-historical recovery of evidence of sexuality, queer disruptions of expected categories and readings of human desire across time, and scholarly talk-arounds such as “lesbian-like”. It points out the difficulty of retrieving historic language, given the biases and gaps in the historic record.
Laskaya considers the useful broad ambiguity of “queer” to be undermined by its tendency to be used more often in reference to men. This broadness of application can erase the specificity of “lesbian” and so to erase lesbian-specific concerns and readings. [Note: compare, for example, how "gay" is allegedly inclusive of women but defaults to being male-specific.] She looks for concrete evidence in the past and--specific to the current topic--the language used to identify and frame female same-sex desire. She examines the historicity of “lesbian” specifically.
Queer theory’s institutional prominence can undermine its disruptive potential in the academy. It becomes distanced from the specifics of identity politics and can be in conflict with the concerns of lesbian-feminism. Some approach “queer” as a reading/critical strategy rather than an identity, decoupling it from concepts such as “gay” or “lesbian”. [Note: This is why queer academics and queer identities are often incomprehensible to each other. Who owns the concepts of “queerness”?] Under this approach, “queer readings” disrupt homosexuality just as much as they disrupt heterosexuality.
Even as the concept "queer" undermines binaries, it stands in binary opposition to “not queer”. To the extent that “queer” gains power and status from its abstraction, it thus becomes congruent with conservative intellectual traditions that value abstraction over particularity. Is some of the current prominence of “queer” due to the permission it gives to larger numbers of people to lay claim to that abstraction-based status without engaging with particular embodied identities? [Note: This question comes perilously close to a suggestion that some people "aren't queer enough" to be queer. That is, as a critique of the term "queer" it feels awefully gatekeeperish.]
The concept of identities as socially constructed is widely accepted regardless of theoretical stance. Given this, to what extent are choices of language a way of creating and sustaining those social constructions? To what extent is the repetitious acknowledgement of social constructionism a way of creating and maintaining that concept? To what extent are the concepts of social constructs in conflict with individual agency? Without using that specific term, Laskaya points out that the “great man” theory of history requires an acceptance of the power of individual agency. And just as society is not monolithic, agency may affect specific social axes without changing all of them. This has relevance for lesbian studies because premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis. The potential homoerotic readings picked out by queer studies were available for experience and interpretation, as well as the ever-present potential for cross-gender identifications that “queer” the experience.