Starting this month, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is expanding from monthly to weekly! Originally I was hesitant to try an expanded schedule because I didn't think I could produce enough new material to match that demand. The key was trying some new episode types. And it all ties in with promoting the general idea of lesbian historical fiction. Basically, I'll be adding author interviews, and people talking about their favorite lesbian historical fiction. And the first episode of every month (like this one) will be a hodge-podge I'm calling "On the Shelf", talking about the publications that I'm covering on the blog, announcing who the month's author guest will be, and having a listener Q&A and feedback segment I'm calling "Ask Sappho". This month's question asks for an overview of the legal status of lesbianism across the centuries.
Has the podcast only been going for a year? There were twelve numbered episodes under the monthly schedule, not including the cross-over October special episode I did with Susie Carr. I've learned a lot about recording and editing, and am beginning to get the hang of recording interviews via Skype. (Now I want to pick the brains of all the multi-person shows I listen to for more tips.)
At this point, I still have the freedom of doing pretty much any sort of show I want, because I don't get much feedback on what people would like to hear. (About the only solid piece of criticism that's been passed on is that I talk too fast! I'm working on it, believe me. Hey, did you know there's an editing effect in Audacity that will decrease the speed of your recording without affecting pitch? Ask me how I know.) But with the expanded format, I need more listener feedback. What sort of random questions would you like me to talk about in the "Ask Sappho" segment? Is there an author you'd like me to try to interview? (No promises, but suggestions are welcome.) Is there a topic you'd like to see in the long-form episodes? I keep a list of prompts to inspire me.
Keep in mind that "free" entertainment online still needs your support if it's going to continue. At the very least, leaving ratings and reviews on your podcast site of choice helps bump the show up in visibility. And if you especially like my history series, please say so, in your reviews or directly to the Lesbian Talk Show management. As in everything I do, my work is about 97 degrees out of sync with the field I'm operating in, so it's important to let people know that you like my work in particular, not just the show as a whole.
Now with added transcript!
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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 13a - On the Shelf August 2017 - transcript
(Originally aired 2017/08/05 - listen here)
Introducing new format
Welcome to the new, expanded schedule and format for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast! Starting this month, the podcast will air weekly on Saturdays, with a rotating series of features. But don’t worry, the historic essays that have been the heart of the podcast up to this point will still be the main event.
The first week of every month, we’ll start with an episode I’m calling “On the Shelf”. It includes a round-up of what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been covering recently, as well as what publications we’re planning to cover in the near future, plus a brief sketch of what you can expect from the podcast for the rest of the month. And I’m adding a feature I call “ask Sappho” for reader questions and feedback. So start thinking about the questions about lesbian history you’ve always wanted to ask.
The second week we’ll have an interview with an author who writes historically based fiction featuring lesbians or bi women. This can include historic fantasy as long as it’s rooted in an actual historic period. The same author is invited back in the third week to provide an appreciation of one or more historic stories by other authors that they’ve particularly enjoyed.
Then the fourth week is our usual in-depth historic essay. And if there’s a fifth Saturday in the month, we’ll have some sort of special feature.
Are you ready for the August On the Shelf episode?
On the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has spent July doing a feature on Catalina de Erauso, a 17th century Basque woman who ran away from the convent and lived as a man to go adventuring in the Spanish colonies of the New World. Last week’s podcast provided a summary of her life and excerpts from her memoirs.
The blog covered an English translation of those memoirs by Michele Stepto and Gabriel Stepto, a study by historian Sherry Velasco of how Catalina has been turned into a fictional character in popular media, starting during her own lifetime and continuing up through the present day. Her story has been featured in plays and novels, in sensational news tabloids, and in the twenties century in several movies and graphic novels.
Sherry Velasco is also the author of the book what fills out the rest of July and will continue on through August. This one is titled Lesbians in Early Modern Spain and looks at a wide variety of types of evidence for romantic and erotic relationships between women in the 16th and 17th centuries. There are chapters covering medical theories, prosecution records, religious institutions, literary images, and more.
As always, the blog posts for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project can be found at Alpennia.com or follow the link in the show notes. You can read the blog on the website or subscribe to the RSS feed.
This month’s author interview will be with Catherine Lundoff, who writes a wide variety of queer science fiction, fantasy, and historical stories. She will also be our Book Appreciation guest this month.
The August essay feature is a topic that may be a bit controversial. The title is: Beguines, Boston Marriages, and Bed Death - Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism. So look forward to learning more about that at the end of the month.
Ask Sappho: When was it legal and illegal to be a lesbian?
And now, let’s move on to the Ask Sappho feature. Our inaugural question comes from Sheena, our fearless leader here at the Lesbian Talk Show. She asks: “I would like a kind of breakdown of when it became illegal and legal to be lesbian. What I am finding interesting is that it wasn't always a big taboo what changed?”
This is a complicated question. I suspect that half my answers to the Ask Sappho questions are going to start that way! You’ll often find claims in English-language works on the history of lesbians that -- unlike for male homosesexuals -- lesbianism was never technically illegal. But usually this statement is made in a context that assumes we’re talking about English history, and even in that context the answer is complicated.
In the first place, it’s kind of difficult to have a law that says it’s illegal to “be” a lesbian. All that laws that we’re going to talk about are targeting some sort of action. But the actions they focused on don’t necessarily line up with our idea of what it means to be a lesbian. What we’re dealing with is a patchwork in time and space affecting specific acts and behaviors that differed not only across cultures but depending on the personal context of the individuals involved.
For example, take the question of specific sex acts. There were a number of times and places in European history when it was illegal to engage in what was classified as “female sodomy”, that is sodomy committed between two women. Frequently, conviction called for the death penalty, although even then it might be reduced due to mitigating factors. But legal experts varied greatly over exactly what constituted “female sodomy”. Some held the opinion that it was any sort of genital stimulation engaged in between women. A more narrow view held that only penetrative sex could be called sodomy. So often a woman’s life might depend on whether she’d used a dildo or not, regardless of what else she got up to.
A comprehensive look at laws covering lesbian sex acts in pre-modern Europe can be found in an article by historian Louis Crompton titled “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791.” I’ll have a link in the show notes to my summary of this and other articles I mention.
Sex acts that didn’t fall under secular law codes might still be punished with religious penance if a women confessed to them. Since pretty much any sexual activity that wasn’t penis-in-vagina sex in the context of marriage has been considered a sin at some point, these penalties weren’t really targeting lesbians as such, so it isn’t clear whether they count under the terms of the question.
To a large extent, the legal offence wasn’t that a woman loved a woman, but that a woman was usurping the privileges of a man, including the use of a penis. For the same reason, for a woman to pass as a man in order to have a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman was considered a much greater offence than if both partners presented themselves as women. Again, the crime isn’t being a lesbian, the crime is daring to try to be a man. I’m side-stepping the very complicated question of whether it’s possible to distinguish between a woman passing as a man and a trans man in pre-modern cultures. That’s another entire topic.
Even in cultures where “female sodomy” wasn’t in the law books, the law often pursued passing women who entered into same-sex domestic partnerships or even marriages as a type of fraud. Sometimes the question of fraud was raised because the femme partner claimed not to have known their partner was a woman. But there are cases in England of passing women being tried for fraud in same-sex marriages even when their partner didn’t bring a complaint.
Regardless of sexual orientation, there have sometimes been laws against wearing clothing associated with the other gender. This is one type of law used against lesbians in 20th century America. In pre-modern times in Europe, prohibitions against cross-dressing were more often enforced by social pressure than by law, although in times and places when religious authorities carried significant legal weight, Biblical prohibitions against wearing garments belonging to the opposite sex were often cited and enforced.
Let’s take a look at some specific examples of what women might be tried for and what the results were.
In 1477 in Germany a woman named Katerina Hetzeldorfer was tried, convicted, and executed for having sex with several women, while disguised as a man, and using an artificial penis. Katerina pretty much hit the trifecta in terms of offence: cross-dressing, performing penetrative sex, and apparently concealing her biological sex from at least some of her partners.
As a strong contrast in circumstances, less than half a century later, another German woman named Greta von Mösskirch was investigated for loving other women (though it’s unclear exactly what physical acts may have been involved) and appears to have received no penalty at all, but in this case there was no cross-dressing and no artificial instrument involved.
In 1295 in Italy, a woman named Bertolina was accused in court of having -- or at least boasting of having had -- sex with women using an artificial penis. But there was a complicating factor in that she was also accused of practicing magic, both to secure lovers and for fortune-telling and other purposes. But this wasn’t a criminal case, rather it was brought before the court as a civil accusation by a personal enemy. The outcome was that she was fined, although a parallel accusation of sodomy against a man would likely have resulted in the death penalty. Note that in this case there was no gender disguise involved.
In England, the motif of same-sex marriage where one partner was presenting as a man was so well fixed as a concept that it had its own name: a “female husband”. There are any number of law cases when female husbands were unmasked, but the nature of the charge was either fraud--that is, that they were deceiving their spouse about their gender, generally with the implication of monetary gain--or somewhat more confusingly, bigamy, in the event that the female husband had previously been married to a man. I say, confusingly, because a charge of bigamy indicates that the marriage between the two women was in some way considered valid, otherwise the question of bigamy wouldn’t apply. One of my previous podcasts talked about a marriage and lawsuit of this type between two English women in the 17th century.
Jumping around considerably to 19th century America, in 1857, a woman was arrested in San Francisco for cross-dressing as a man and successfully challenged the charge on the basis that there was no law against what she had done. The political authorities decided this lack clearly needed to be remedied and passed a law in 1863 against a person appearing in a public place “in a dress not belonging to his or her sex.” That San Francisco law was not removed from the books until 1974.
So the big take-home lesson regarding the law and lesbianism is that there is no clear progression or dividing line between legal and illegal. The question of whether you could be charged, arrested, convicted, and punished -- including everything up to execution -- for lesbian activities depended on where, when, and who you were, and on exactly how your sexuality was being expressed. Conditions swung back and forth from harsh penalties, to benign neglect, to carefully targeted gender policing, to a head-in-the -sand attitude of not wanting to admit that women might do something like that, to a determination that the law could find something to punish if it was bound and determined to do so.
If you have a question about lesbians in history, or a comment on one of these episodes, you can either e-mail me at the address in the show notes, or on my website and Alpennia.com, or you can bring it to my attention in the Lesbian Talk Show Chat Group on facebook.
I’m also interested in suggestions of authors to interview. I’m particularly interested in people working in eras earlier than the 20th century and cultures outside of America and England, and I’d love suggestions of authors of color to invite onto the show. Please send interview suggestions by e-mail.
I hope you like the show’s new format.
This following sources provide more information on the discussion topics: