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LHMP #280 Rupp 2013 Thinking About ‘Lesbian History’

Full citation: 

Rupp, Leila J. 2013. "Thinking About 'Lesbian History'" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no 2 357-361.

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This is a very short article that introduces a roundtable discussion of “lesbian generations.” (Only one other article included in the roundtable was suitable for the LHMP.) The roundtable posed the following questions (paraphrased): Who is part of “lesbian history”? Has female same-sex sexuality changed over time/space in a way that creates identifiable “generations”? Does the term “lesbian” make sense in a global context? How do we approach global questions of sexuality? Has the practice of “lesbian history” changed over time and does it have “generations”? How do we address the intersection of sexuality and gender? Can we imagine new frameworks for thinking about sexuality and in particular lesbian historiography? How does lesbian history differ from gay or queer history?

Rupp discusses why she invented the word “sapphistries” for her global survey in order to avoid the complexities of applying “lesbian” in times and places where it might not apply. To the extent that “lesbian” defines an identity, it is not always available or chosen. But Rupp also wants to avoid the overly-encompassing approach of Rich’s “lesbian continuum” feeling that a focus defined by female same-sex desire, erotic love, and/or sexual acts is a necessary organizing principle.

She discusses the difficulties of tackling the lesbian/trans interface in a historic context, but notes that when historic societies had problems with female same-sex activity, it was the concept of two female bodies coming together that they considered relevant, not the question of self-identity or presentation. Therefore when studying such historic contexts, it is relevant to study the topic from both sides.

The question of self-identity becomes more salient and prominent when moving to a contemporary global understanding. Even people who have access to Western concepts of “lesbian” and “gay” may not choose those identities as reflecting their experience. And the current generation in Western culture is increasingly shifting to a multiplicity of identities where they might previously have used “lesbian”.

Both across history and across cultures, we see repeating but varied patterns of how same-sex sexuality is conceptualized, such as whether the image of similarity or of difference is emphasized, or whether same-sex desire is framed as physiological or psychological. Rupp argues against looking for binaries in these patterns and instead seeks how complex interactions play out.

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