Lesbians in history have tended to be largely invisible (try naming five famous lesbians… or try naming five famous lesbians without mentioning Martina). Despite a heyday in the 1990s, we are once again disappearing - hence Lesbian Visibility Day. Let’s prepare for our day of celebration and visibility by looking at a selection of historical highlights.
Lesbian mythology includes gems like this: Ministers bringing legislation outlawing homosexuality to Queen Victoria for royal assent were too nervous to explain the intent to include women. Some say Victoria was told, but reacted with such disbelief that ladies would behave that way, that only men were outlawed! So in recent history, lesbians remained legally undescribed. This was handy if you didn’t want to be imprisoned, but unhelpful in terms of being understood.
Patriarchy was largely unbothered by lesbianism, unless there was any threat to male superiority. But there were economic reasons why women struggled to live independently from men. Love whom you like, so long as you can afford it.
Women living apart from men have always been treated with suspicion and had fewer life choices, for both economic and social reasons: wife, witch or nun, basically. Whether the concept of lesbianism as we know it today would have been understood prior to the 20th century is debatable, but it’s likely there have always been women desperate to avoid “traditional” gender roles.
The most famous lesbian, Sappho, lived on the Greek island of Lesbos around 630- 570 BC. This is how here we get the term “lesbian”. Sappho was a revered lyric poet, but most of her works are lost so we rely only on remaining fragments. Sappho was possibly the Melissa Etheridge of her day, writing songs that told of love between women - but like the C90 cassette compilation of my favourite songs, they are lost to us now.
Arabian writings about lesbianism from the medieval era include perhaps the first (written) lesbian love story, in a 10th century treatise called “The Encyclopaedia of Pleasure”. The Medieval Europeans were far more draconian in their views on homosexuality, with severe punishment (including torturous death) for men and banishment for women. By the time of the Spanish Inquisition, only the pure escaped punishment. Lesbians were therefore overly represented amongst witches and in female-only institutions like convents.
Later famous lesbians include the Ladies of Llangollen and Anne Lister. Thanks to her diaries and the recent successful TV drama, the legendary Anne Lister is well known for her love of the “fairer sex”, as well as the financial independence which enabled her to indulge it. She visited the Ladies in Llangollen, which begs the question of how they organised this in days of very slow media. I live in the super-speedy online world of the 21st century and it’s like herding cats getting a group of lesbians together in the same space.
The Salon culture of Paris and other European cities during the early 20th century was tailored to the rich, famous, or rising stars, but also provided previously unavailable social opportunities for lesbians. The Second World War provided untold chances for lesbians, as women worked beyond the home. Lesbian culture developed a strong underground vibe, hidden away from salacious eyes. Watch the film “The Killing of Sister George”, revealing the (literally underground) Gateways club in the 1960s. There were similar hideaways still available in 1980s Brighton!
Treatment for male homosexuality largely depended on class/ money, but there is little research or data regarding lesbians. Many lesbians ended up in mental hospitals, and some of them never left. Attempts to “cure” homosexuality are notoriously unsuccessful and mercifully some psychiatrists realised this. A lesbian treated by a female psychiatrist at the Tavistock clinic following a suicide attempt was told: “You must remember it is natural for you… People who are left-handed and who are forced to write with their right hand usually develop a stutter…and you are sexually left handed” (Sarah Carr & Helen Spandler, The Lancet April 2019).
The USA’s influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a mental disorder from 1968 until 1973, when it became a “sexual orientation disturbance”. But homosexuality only left the publication in 1987 – two years after I “came out” as lesbian.
“Lesbian” is falling out of fashion for some, in favour words like “queer” or “gay”, or sometimes replaced with the terms “bisexual” or “pansexual”. Theories for this suggest the word lesbian is considered to be old-fashioned or embarrassing. However, many of us remain happy and proud to call ourselves lesbians, as it is a distinctive and defining word for us as female homosexuals, separate from men’s words. Interestingly, male homosexuals are far less likely to have their terminology and culture challenged!
We know that women and girls throughout history (and still today in some parts of the world) have disguised themselves as males to get work, be educated, travel alone, escape marriage, or simply to try to keep safe from sexual attack. Some women will have done this to be free to have relationships with other women, but it’s hard to be sure because clear evidence like Anne Lister’s diaries is scarce. Women have always pursued close relationships with each other and lived together for many reasons, which won’t always have been romantic or sexual. Women’s solidarity and closeness is an historical constant, whether we are lesbian or not, and we should celebrate whatever form that takes.
If you do meet a lesbian in the wild today, rejoice, for we are in small numbers and often camouflaged, except that one day of the year when we celebrate…
Cover image: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library. Lavender Menace members hold signs reading “The women’s movement is a lesbian plot” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1970. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/ac5276a0-9f43-0137-d597-233b6d9ef0dd