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The gender closet: lesbian disappearance under the sign "women."

Looking at women's studies from my Lesbian perspective and with my Lesbian feminist sensibility, what I see is that women's studies is heterosexual. The predominance of heterosexual perspectives, values, commitments, thought and vision is usually so complete and ubiquitous that it cannot be perceived, for lack of contrast.

Marilyn Frye

When Monique Wittig said at the Modern Languages Association Conference several years ago, "I am not a woman, I am a Lesbian," there was a gasp from the audience, but the statement made sense to me. Of course I am a woman, but I belong to another geography as well, and the two worlds are complicated and unique.

Joan Nestle

[I]t is first necessary to bring the lesbian subject out of the closet of feminist history.

Sue-Ellen Case

Can one theorize about lesbians within a feminist frame? If one simply assumes that because lesbians are women they can of course be theorized within feminism, then neither the "whether" nor the "how" of doing this theorizing can be problematized. One need not work out what it is in the feminist frame and what it is about lesbians that enables the former to be applied to the latter. I am not sanguine about a "yes" answer to my question. For me, feminist theorizing about lesbians is a problem.

Consider: Outside of literature whose specific topic is lesbianism, lesbians do not make an appearance in feminist writing except via an occasional linguistic bow in their direction executed through the words "lesbian," "sexual orientation," or "sexualities." Race and class do not similarly remain systematically in the ghostly closet of referring terms. In 1994, one might truthfully repeat Sue-Ellen Case's 1988 caustic observation about

the catechism of "working-class-women-of-color" feminist theorists feel impelled to invoke at the outset of their research. What's wrong with this picture? It does not include the lesbian position. In fact, the isolation of the social dynamics of race and class successfully relegates sexual preference to an attendant position, so that even if the lesbian were to appear, she would be as a bridesmaid and never the bride.(1)

The problem is not just the lesbian's bridesmaid status. Her complete absence from the wedding may also go unnoticed.(2)

It is of course possible that the feminist frame is fully adequate to representing lesbians but, for various reasons, simply has not been adequately deployed to that end; thus, the problem is simply one of unrealized potential. But - and it is this "but" that I intend to explore - it is also possible that the feminist frame itself operates in various ways to closet lesbians.

This may seem unlikely. The turn in feminism to an anti-essentialist, difference-sensitive frame promises to open whatever doors may formerly have been closed against lesbian inclusion. It is as a caution against automatic confidence in the power of this feminist frame to represent lesbian difference that I intend this essay. In the first part, I probe the constructed concept of difference, examining both what difference has come to mean and the kind of sociopolitical analysis that enables the representation of difference. I argue that anti-essentialism has in fact worked against theorizing lesbian difference, because the construct "difference" presupposes a disanalogy between sexual orientation and race, class, ethnicity. In the second part, I pursue the political boundaries around feminist representations of differences. There, using the lesbian feminist sex wars as a case in point, I argue that feminist values and goals have worked against representing lesbian difference. In the third part of this essay, I confront the underlying requirement of difference-sensitive feminism that lesbians be representable as different women. In Western culture, the lesbian as the bearer of a different, distinctive identity became thinkable, imaginable, largely by virtue of turn-of-the-century sexologists' construction of a nonbinary sex/gender system in which the lesbian was positioned as the third sex; or, as Monique Wittig describes her, "a not-woman, a not-man";(3) or as Judith Butler might describe her, as disruptively reconfiguring and redeploying the categories of sex.(4) If thinking the lesbian depends on thinking a position outside of "woman" and "man," then lesbian representation cannot be accomplished under the sign "women." Positioned in a lineup of womanly differences in race, class, and so forth, lesbian difference cannot appear. In short, "women" may operate as a lesbian closet.


Feminist theorizing has dramatically changed since 1980 when Marilyn Frye charged women's studies with thoroughgoing heterosexism and urged lesbians to refrain from supporting it.(5) In particular, feminist theorizing no longer makes the essentializing assumptions that "woman" signifies a set of universal commonalities, that all women share a common oppression, and, thus, that a single feminist agenda will equally address all women's needs. In an effort to combat the racism, classism, and other biases built into earlier feminist theorizing, "difference" has largely replaced "woman" as the category of analysis. "It would seem that dealing with the fact of differences is the project of women's studies today."(6) Dealing with differences promises an inclusiveness that would address both Marilyn Frye's charge of heterosexism in women's studies and Joan Nestle's conviction that lesbians inhabit a different geography. That promise, however, warrants scrutiny.

Lesbian Disappearance under "Difference." In her 1988 article on lesbian autobiography, Biddy Martin observes the potential political value for lesbians of focusing on lesbian difference from heterosexual women: "Claims to difference conceived in terms of different identities have operated and continue to operate as interventions in facile assumptions of 'sisterhood,' assumptions that have tended to mask the operation of white, middle-class, heterosexual, 'womanhood' as the hidden but hegemonic referent." Thus, "The isolation of lesbian autobiography . . . may have strategic political value, given the continued, or perhaps renewed, invisibility of lesbians even in feminist work." Autobiographical collections, such as The Lesbian Path, The Coming Out Stories, and The New Lesbians, challenge the assumption that women's normal trajectory is "toward adult heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood." They also challenge the presumed continuity between biological sex, gender identity, and sexuality.(7) Because both assumptions are often at work in feminist writing, lesbian autobiography helps to bring lesbian difference back into view.

Martin, however, is ultimately critical of lesbian anthologies like The Coming Out Stories. In her view, they do not instantiate a difference-sensitive feminism. What she means by "sensitivity to difference" emerges in her critique of lesbian autobiographical anthologies and her proposed alternative for lesbian autobiographical writing. It is, paradoxically, a definition of "difference" that implicitly excludes the representation of lesbian difference.

Published during the 1970s and 1980s, The Coming Out Stories, The Lesbian Path, and The New Lesbians narrate a lesbian identity heavily influenced by the emergence of lesbian feminism, particularly its view of the lesbian as the truly woman-identified woman. "Lesbianism, understood to be first and foremost about love for other women and for oneself as a woman, becomes a profoundly live-saving, self-loving, political resistance to patriarchal definitions and limitations in these narratives." In keeping with this portrayal of lesbians as women-identified women, "sexual desire is often attenuated and appears as 'love' in these narratives," and the desirability of looking or acting like men or of engaging in butch-femme role playing is denied?

Martin criticizes these narratives, first, for representing as an essential, true, discovered identity what was in fact the constructed, historical product of feminism itself. In her view, this essentializing, ahistorical, psychological approach to lesbian difference disqualifies these narratives from articulating a truly difference-sensitive perspective. "Difference sensitivity" requires that the identity in whose name difference is claimed be subject to historical and political investigation in a way that opens a space for agency between the subject and her identity. I agree.

Second, she criticizes these narratives for ultimately failing to represent lesbian difference. How do they go wrong? One might think (as I do, but Martin does not) that something has gone seriously wrong when lesbianism is desexualized. The woman-identified woman has no distinctive sexuality; one might say she has no sexuality at all. "In conventional terms, whatever is sexual about Political Lesbianism appears to be systematically attenuated: genitality will yield to an unspecified eroticism, eroticism to sensuality, sensuality to 'primary emotional intensity,' and emotional intensity to practical and political support."(9) When feminist woman loving replaces lesbian genital sexuality, lesbian identity disappears into feminist identity, and the sexual difference between heterosexual women and lesbians cannot be effectively represented. Moreover, when lesbian cross-dressing and role-playing are denied, a distinctively lesbian relation to (and I will argue, outside of) gender disappears into a feminist relation to gender. The woman-identified woman is incapable of either the femme's redeployment of femininity or the butch's gender crossing. As a result, the gender difference between heterosexual women and lesbians cannot be effectively represented, indeed is repressed, under her image.

Although Martin does observe that lesbian specificity cannot be represented via a desexualized woman-identified woman, it becomes clear that she does not take this as the problem to be solved. On the contrary, she appears to endorse the equation of lesbianism with "women's love for other women and for ourselves as women."(10) Lesbian desire remains desexualized as the desire for connection with other women. In short, representing lesbians' difference from heterosexual women is not, in her account, critical to successfully representing lesbians within a difference-sensitive frame.

If "difference" does not in part mean lesbian difference, what difference does matter in a difference-sensitive frame? - lesbians' difference from each other. In Martin's view - and she is not alone here - "difference sensitivity" requires that any representation of women must recognize the boundaries imposed between women by race, class, ethnicity, and nationality. What Martin admires in the autobiographical anthologies This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color and, to a lesser extent, Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology, is the way their narratives repeatedly insist that neither "woman" nor "lesbian" constitute a unified category. Unity, rather than being the result of shared identity, is something that must be achieved without erasing differences between women or between lesbians. Thus, Martin does not object to the woman-identified woman because it erases lesbian differences from heterosexual women. She objects because it erases race, class, ethnic, and national differences between women and between lesbians by implying that a mere consciousness of being women (or lesbians) together is sufficient to produce unity among women. "[T]he feminist dream of a new world of women simply reproduces the demand that women of color (and women more generally) abandon their histories, the histories of their communities, their complex locations and selves, in the name of a unity that barely masks its white, middle-class cultural reference/referent."(11)

Something is right and something is very wrong about this picture. It is surely right to deny that an essential lesbian identity can be distilled out from all other differences - in race, class, ethnicity, and nationality - and shared, in this pure form, by all lesbians. What Elizabeth V. Spelman called "tootsie roll metaphysics" or "pop-bead metaphysics" is simply wrong. It is not true that "each part of my identity is separable from every other part, and the significance of each part is unaffected by the other parts."(12) Nor can heterosexist oppression be cleanly isolated from gender, race, class, and ethnic oppressions. But it is surely equally wrong to eliminate lesbians and heterosexist oppression from the picture. And this is exactly what has happened. The one difference that is not allowed to appear as such is the difference between lesbians and heterosexual women. The one structural and institutional barrier between women that is not allowed to appear is institutionalized heterosexist oppression. Because of that, there are no lesbians in Martin's account of difference-sensitive lesbian narratives. What appears in the place of the woman-identified woman is, in effect, the difference-identified woman. In her words, but echoing Cherrie Moraga, lesbianism is

a desire that transgresses the boundaries imposed by structures of race, class, ethnicity, nationality; it figures not as a desire that can efface or ignore the effects of those boundaries but as a provocation to take responsibility for them out of the desire for different kinds of connections.

Almost immediately following this passage, it becomes clear that what really matters to lesbian autobiography is the desire to connect across difference, not lesbianism.

For a number of contributors, lesbian and not, the love of women, the pleasure in women's company, is said to sustain political analysis and struggle across divisions. This sense of a desire for connection, however partial and provisional, gives the pieces a particular force.(13)

"Lesbian" ceases to signify lesbians in their specific difference from heterosexual women. "Lesbian" now signifies a kind of ideal (feminist) woman, to whom differences matter, but whose own difference does not. It is tempting at this point to paraphrase Martin's critique of lesbian feminism quoted above. The difference-sensitive feminist dream of a new world of women negotiating unity across race, class, ethnic, and national differences simply reproduces the demand that lesbians abandon their histories, the histories of their communities, their complex locations and selves, in the name of an acknowledgment of difference.

I have spent a long time on Biddy Martin's article because it is an excellent piece of work in what I am calling the "difference-sensitive feminist frame." It is because this piece represents that frame so well that it so usefully illustrates why the anti-essentialist move to difference has worked against, rather than for, representing lesbian difference.(14) Feminism has moved straight from "There is no essential Woman identity" to "There is no essential Lesbian identity." In both cases, it is the appeal to race, class, ethnic, and national structures that enables the anti-essentialist point to be made. Missing is a crucial intermediate step: One reason why there is no essential Woman identity is because institutionalized heterosexist structures create critical differences (and barriers) between heterosexual and nonheterosexual women. Tarrying first over the contrast between heterosexual and nonheterosexual women would have made it clear why it makes sense, and why it is not necessarily essentializing, to speak categorically of "lesbians" in the same way it makes sense to speak categorically of "Black women" or "women of color." Because that did not happen, invoking the differences between lesbians has the effect of causing lesbians to disappear. A similar de-essentializing move performed on the identity Black woman would not have this effect. It would instead reveal the intersection of race with other structural difference, such as class. In the case of lesbians, however, given the absence of extensive sociopolitical analyses of institutionalized heterosexist oppression and of the socially constructed category "lesbian," there is nothing lesbian for structural differences of race, class, ethnicity, and nationality to intersect with.(15)


The disappearance of lesbians under "difference" is strikingly odd. After all, difference-sensitive feminism is predicated on the assumption that gender is not the sole determinant of woman's fate. Although historically the first demand was that "[r]ace and class oppression . . . be recognized as feminist issues with as much relevance as sexism,"(16) recognizing the oppression of lesbians (and gay men) seems a natural next step. Race and class constitute only two important factors with which gender must be integrated in a difference-sensitive analysis. The logical implication of any difference-sensitive feminism is that gender must also be integrated with sexuality analyses.

Elizabeth Spelman's construction of the difference-sensitive feminist frame brings the oddity of closeting lesbians under "difference" into particularly clear view. She argues that the most fruitful and accurate way of performing integrated analyses is to begin thinking in terms of multiple genders, that is, multiple kinds of women.(17) This has the advantage of short-circuiting the temptation to imagine that one's gender, or what it means to be a woman, is something that can be described independently of one's race, class, or one's sexual orientation. The image of different (woman-)genders also reminds us that feminism cannot be centrally about gender oppression unless it is at the same time centrally about racism, classism, and hetero-sexism.

Focusing on lesbians as a distinctive (woman-)gender produced at the intersection of gender and sexual orientation should have sparked reflection on lesbian difference in addition to the differences between lesbians. What I want to explore is the possibility that what Spelman calls the ampersand problem (for example, gender and race) may be a uniquely difficult problem when the ampersand conjoins gender with sexual orientation. In this section, I will examine feminist political motives for resisting the conjunction of "woman" with "sexual orientation." In the following section, I will question whether lesbians can be represented as a (woman-)gender at all.

Lesbian Disappearance under "Gender." Although largely antedating the emergence of difference-sensitive feminism, the sex wars over lesbian sadomasochism illuminate some of the political motives for not representing lesbian difference within a feminist frame. The sex wars constitute one of the few arenas in which lesbianism has been the explicit focus of feminist theorizing. Both opponents and proponents of lesbian sadomasochism claimed to speak from a feminist point of view.(18) Because both sides focused on the gender of lesbians as women in the context of rethinking lesbian sexuality, one might expect the entire debate to have been a concerted attempt to work out the ampersand conjoining gender with sexual orientation. It was not. One of the most remarkable features of the debate is the way that lesbian sexuality continuously disappears into women's sexuality.

Proponents of lesbian sadomasochism argued that, contrary to appearance, lesbian sadomasochism does not conflict with feminist goals, because it substantially differs from heterosexual male-dominant, female-subordinate sexual relations which also eroticize violence. Because lesbians belong to the same sexual caste, lesbian sadomasochism occurs outside of the larger frame of gender inegalitarian relations, and because the lesbian masochist consents to and controls the scene, she retains the right to determine what happens to her body. Moreover, lesbian sadomasochistic fantasies are clearly understood as just fantasies, and freedom to explore such fantasies and women's sexual pleasure is critical to women's liberation from repressive restrictions on women's sexuality. Finally, dominant-submissive scripts enable women safely to explore their own feelings about power relations and, possibly also, to explore an inevitable feature of haman relations.

Opponents responded with skepticism about the alleged disanalogy between inegalitarian heterosexual relations and lesbian sadomasochism. Lesbian sadomasochism is a product of the larger, heterosexual culture which constructs sexuality as naturally sadomasochistic by eroticizing violence and humiliation.(19) The attraction to sadomasochism is not natural but culturally produced; and lesbian sadomasochists, far from exploring a new, liberating sexuality, simply mirror the inegalitarian and sadomasochistic form that heterosexual relations take in a society where men are powerful and women powerless. To claim that, simply by virtue of its lesbian context, lesbian sadomasochism does not carry the connotations of male dominance over and violence against women is to indulge in objective idealism: the belief that the meaning of symbols and actions "can be amputated from their historical and social context" and made to mean whatever one likes.(20) Rather, lesbian sadomasochistic fantasies endorse and perpetuate the values and systems of oppression that feminists are committed to undermine. Moreover the masochist's claim to have given consent is suspect given that "[f]or women, love is structured as masochism. For women, sex is structured as masochism. None of us escapes this message, not even lesbian feminists.

What I find interesting about these debates is that they proceed curiously unencumbered by the thought that lesbianism might complicate the analysis of sadomasochism between women. Indeed, one could almost forget that lesbian sexuality is the issue. And for good reason. The entire debate takes place on the backdrop and avails itself of arguments used in debates about heterosexual women's sexuality. On the one hand is the (hetero)sexual revolution of the 1970s with its revolt against sexual repression and advocacy of unrestricted sexual experimentation. On the other hand is the anti-(heterosexual) pornography movement with its condemnation of (hetero)sexual objectification of and violence against women. At issue in both the larger pro- versus anti-sex debates and the smaller lesbian sadomasochism debates is the disposition of women's sexuality, with heterosexual women's sexuality setting the terms of the debate.

Opponents assumed that lesbian sadomasochism could be nothing but an imitation of the worst forms of heterosexuality. Proponents assumed that the value of sadomasochism for lesbians could be nothing but the sexually liberating value it had for women. Neither side in the sex wars imagined that lesbianism had much to do with the issue. Why should lesbianism have complicated the analysis of lesbian sadomasochism? And why might that complication have been resisted?

Imitation versus Solving Representational Problems. The idea that sadomasochism (and butch-femme roles, pornography, dildos, etc.) gets into lesbian relations simply via imitation warrants scrutiny. Imitation implies that what lesbians find erotic in sadomasochism, butch-femme, pornography, dildos, and so forth, is exactly what heterosexuals find erotic in these same things: violence, power differences, sexual objectification, penetration. Hence, opponents concluded that lesbian sadomasochism conflicts with feminist values. But why assume in the first place that sadomasochism has no meaning for lesbians beyond what it does for heterosexuals? Given that the taboo on lesbian sexuality is itself a source of erotic charge, one might ask what connection sadomasochism bears to the eroticism of the lesbian taboo. Does its attraction for lesbians lie not just in eroticized violence but more centrally in the power of sadomasochism to represent the lesbian taboo? Moreover, given that "lesbian" is a sexual identity, one might ask what connection sadomasochism bears to the representation of lesbian identity. Does its attraction for lesbians lie in its power to represent lesbian difference from heterosexual women?

B. Ruby Rich has suggested that one result of feminism was that the

lesbian moved from a position of outlaw to one of respectable citizen. Yet in the pre-Stonewall era prior to 1969, the lesbian was a far more criminal figure, her very sexuality criminalized in many laws, her desires unacceptable, and her clothing taboo (at least for the butch, who was the only visible lesbian in this period). . . . Thus, there was a very real sense of loss associated with the hard-won respectability: a loss of taboo and its eroticism.(22)

That respectability resulted partly from arguments to the effect that lesbians, from a feminist political point of view, are the truly woman-identified women. Partly it resulted from lesbian feminists cultivating (feminist) respectability by eschewing roles, conducting egalitarian relations, and practicing nonpenetrative sex. Partly it resulted from suggestions that lesbianism is natural to women, and heterosexuality is the cultural product of compulsory heterosexuality.(23) Thus, Gayle Rubin could say of her experience of seventies' feminism, "One could luxuriate in the knowledge that not only was one not a slimy pervert, but one's sexuality was especially blessed on political grounds. As a result, I never quite understood the experience of being gay in the face of unrelenting contempt."(24) But this blessing was mixed, and its price tag was the eroticism of the lesbian taboo. Reinvesting lesbianism with the eroticism of the taboo required importing tabooed practices into lesbianism. But where was a lesbian feminist to find a tabooed practice? In feminism itself-specifically, in the feminist prohibition of power-structured sexual practices. Hence, the particularly strong endorsement of sadomasochism by lesbian feminists.(25)

Feminist theorizing, however, did more than render lesbian sexuality respectable. It eroded the distinction between lesbians and (feminist) heterosexual women, thereby undermining the possibility for lesbian representation. The Radicalesbians, Charlotte Bunch, and Adrienne Rich all offered desexualized and politicized readings of lesbianism as a matter of emotional commitment to women and resistance to patriarchally structured personal relations between women and men. The lesbian is the woman-identified woman. Thus, the mark of the lesbian ceases to be her sexual outlaw status in heterosexual society and becomes her gender outlaw status in a patriarchal society. Economically, socially, emotionally, and sexually she refuses to behave like a woman in relation to men. But even (careful) heterosexual women can claim this gender outlaw status. As a result, lesbian difference becomes unrepresentable under the gender sign "woman-identified woman."

Feminist reconstructions of the erotic exacerbated the problem by eroding the line between heterosexual women's and lesbians' erotic relations to women. Aimed at distinguishing women's sexuality from men's, the new feminist eroticism stressed the deep satisfaction of acting on one's own needs for sharing and creativity, a passion for friends and shared work, and the quality of attention brought to both love and friendship.(26) On this conception of the erotic, heterosexual women and lesbians obviously can - and presumably should insofar as they are woman - identified - have the same erotic relations to women. The new feminist eroticism also equated heterosexuality with the male-identified and oppositionally positioned heterosexuality, not against homosexuality but against women's egalitarian, passionate, attentive, "erotic" relations. Thus, the contrast between heterosexuality and homosexuality, which is crucial to thinking about lesbian difference, disappeared from view.

Barred from using her desire for women to represent lesbian difference, how could a lesbian feminist represent lesbian difference and the difference of lesbian eroticism? - by deploying male-identified heterosexual forms in lesbian feminist sexual practices. She could then claim that what distinguishes the lesbian is her power to appropriate seemingly male-identified sexual forms and use them for woman-identified purposes-something heterosexual women cannot do.

The problem created for lesbian representation by "the woman-identified woman" and her nonsexual eroticism interestingly echoes the problem created for lesbian representation during the first decades of the twentieth century by the Victorian image of romantic friendships. In "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman," Esther Newton argues that Radclyffe Hall uses the mannish lesbian Stephen Gordon as the protagonist in The Well of Loneliness for the purpose of representing lesbian sexuality and that she could not have achieved this aim by using a less mannish figure. As Newton points out, Victorian wisdom held that women are not sexual beings. Thus, the first generation of New Women in the late 1800s who sought out romantic friendships with other women rather than marrying lacked a conceptual framework to envision their relations as sexual ones. "[W]hat 'pure' women did with each other, no matter how good it felt, could not be conceived as sexual within the terms of the nineteenth-century romantic discourse." Unlike the first generation who equated liberation with autonomy from family, the second generation of New Women, which included Radclyffe Hall, equated liberation with sexual freedom. But how was a lesbian to represent her sexuality given the construction of romantic friendships between women as asexual and the equation of sexual desire with male? - by deploying masculine gender images within her relation to women. Thus Newton concludes that "Hall and many other feminists like her embraced, sometimes with ambivalence, the image of the mannish lesbian and the discourse of the sexologists about inversion primarily because they desperately wanted to break out of the asexual model of romantic friendship."(27) Mannishness in the early 1900s and male-identified sexual forms in the 1970s and 1980s can, then, both be read as lesbian representational strategies, aimed at solving different problems of lesbian representation. For Radclyffe Hall, the problem was how to represent lesbian sexuality in a world that equated "sexual" with "male." For lesbian feminists, the problem was how to represent lesbian sexuality in a world of erotic woman bonding that includes both heterosexual women and lesbians.

The point of these observations is threefold. First, in the sex war debates, gender operated as a lesbian closet in spite of the debates' focus on lesbian sexual practice. Cast as a debate over women's sexuality, the arguments rendered invisible the problems posed by feminism for lesbian eroticism and lesbian representation. Second, feminist political investment in distinguishing women's sexuality from men's motivated the denial of sexual differences between heterosexual women and lesbians. Third, the distinctively lesbian deployment (even, or especially, within feminism) of male sexual roles and male-identified sexual forms suggests that any conjunction of "sexual orientation" with "woman" will be an uneasy one. Lesbian slippage between "woman" and "man" suggests that the lesbian is not just another (woman-)gender.


I have argued that, because "woman-identified woman" elides the difference between heterosexual women and lesbians, theorizing that takes as its subject the woman-identified woman is unlikely to represent lesbian difference effectively. If theorizing about lesbians is to be possible within a feminist frame, then we need to bring them into this frame as lesbians, not women-identified, or difference-identified, women. But what does bringing them in "as lesbians" mean?

One of the interesting features of lesbian history, as opposed to women's history, is the seemingly irresolvable ambiguity of the subject of lesbian history. That ambiguity is partly attributable to the fact that the lesbian (and the homosexual) as a distinct sort of person appear to have been the creation of late 1800s' medical and psychiatric discourse. As a culturally constructed subject, the lesbian does not exist prior to that time. Thus, of the women who cross-dressed, married other women, had sex with women, and formed intensely romantic but non-sexual friendships with women before the late 1800s, one may reasonably ask, "But were they lesbians?" Their ambiguous status reflects not only the relatively recent invention of the lesbian but also the absence today of consensus on any single definition of what it means to be a lesbian. Even the centrality of sexual desire to lesbianism can be called into question, as it was in the equation of lesbianism with woman identification.

We cannot, it would seem, get at lesbian difference by asking "Who is a lesbian?" Nor perhaps should we, since the "who is" question invites a set of troubling assumptions: that identity is an interior essence, that one is definitively and permanently either a lesbian or not a lesbian, and that real lesbians can never be correctly read for traces of heterosexuality (and vice versa). But perhaps we can get at lesbian difference, and do so without inviting these troubling assumptions, by instead asking "Who represents the lesbian?" Through what images does the lesbian become most thinkable? What images invite a lesbian reading?

Martha Vicinus opens her erudite essay on the history of lesbianism with the image of Rosa Bonheur, a woman who dressed like a man and lived with a woman and who wrote her sister in 1884, "It amuses me to see how puzzled the people are. They wonder to which sex I belong. The ladies especially lose themselves in conjectures about 'the little old man who looks so lively.'"(28) Vicinus introduces Bonheur in order to pose the problem of doing lesbian history: we know nothing of Bonheur's sexuality, only that she enjoyed her gender ambiguity and her passionate friendship with Nathalie Micas. What about Bonheur represents the lesbian and invites us to see her as a lesbian? On the one hand, there is her passionate friendship and devotion to another woman. She is one among many women in the second half of the nineteenth century who sustained a long-term, emotionally intense relation to another woman. But why choose Bonheur rather than Micas to pose the problem of doing lesbian history? Why ask whether the cross-dressed Bonheur is a lesbian as though she, but not Micas, were an especially tantalizing candidate?

Bonheur is one among many cross-dressing women who lived with, married, or had sexual affairs with women. In the eighteenth century, there are Mary East who passed as James How and had a wife for thirty-five years, the curious Ladies of Llangollen who lived together and attired themselves in a cross between women's and men's styles, and Catharina Margaretha Linck who passed as a man and was executed when her wife revealed that Linck was a woman.(29) In the nineteenth century, there are Rosa Bonheur, Louisa Lumsden, who although not crossed dressed was the "husband" of Constance Maynard in their Boston marriage, and the tie-and-top-hat-sporting George Sand. In the twentieth century there are Gertrude Stein, clad in a large overcoat, Greek sandals, loose skirts, and cropped hair, married to the more feminine Alice B. Toklas; and Radclyffe Hall, passing as "John"; and Hall's fictional creation, mannish Stephen Gordon, whose lover was the feminine Mary. And more recently, there are the butch lesbians of the forties and fifties with their femme cohorts.

Who among these women have the most power to represent, make thinkable, the lesbian - the feminine women (the wives) or the cross-dressed women (the husbands)? It would seem to be the latter. Bonheur, Stein, Gordon, and butches figure the lesbian in ways their more feminine counterparts can not. In their power to generate the question "To which sex does s/he belong?" they invite a reading of them as lesbians.

I am not here suggesting that the mannish lesbian, the butch, is a "real" lesbian in ways the feminine lesbian, the femme, is not. On the contrary, to take mannishness itself as the marker of the lesbian is to read literally what is merely symbolic.(30) It is to fail to see that mannishness figures the lesbian only because, and only so long as, it successfully raises the question "To which sex does s/he belong?" The more vigorously one attempts to read the cross-dressed or mannish female for signs that she is unambiguously a woman, the less powerful becomes cross-dressing and mannishness as symbols for the lesbian. Similarly the more vigorously one attempts to read femme lesbian sexuality for sex/gender ambiguity, the more powerfully femme sexuality figures the lesbian.(31)

What I am suggesting is that same-sex desire does not by itself represent the lesbian and make her thinkable, that sexuality must in some way raise for us the question of sex/gender categorization before it can effectively represent the lesbian. For example, as one lesbian observed,

When lesbians sponsor strip shows, or other fem erotic performances, it is very difficult to "code" it as lesbian, to make it feel queer. The result looks just like a heterosexual performance, and lesbian audiences don't respond to it as subversively sexual, specifically ours.(32)

Her sex performance for women fails to represent the lesbian, because it "looks just like a heterosexual performance." That is, she looks just like a heterosexual, about whom one would never ask "To which sex does s/he belong?"

Some lesbians have made use of the powerlessness of same-sex desire to represent the lesbian in their bid for heterosexual acceptance. In Celia Kitzinger's study of lesbian identity, some lesbians argued that they are just persons who happen to desire women sexually. Theft sexuality is a private, personal matter, constituting "only a small and relatively insignificant part of the 'whole person.'"(33) In this construction, sex takes place between people, and thus same-sex activity need not mark one out as different, a lesbian. The affirmation of same-sex desire can coexist with a denial of lesbian difference only because same-sex desire does not itself represent lesbian difference.(34)

The powerlessness of same-sex desire and activity by itself to figure the lesbian is perhaps most strikingly evidenced by one study of lesbian identity formation. A full 45 percent of the lesbians in this study did not conclude from their first sexual experiences with women that they were lesbians. The researchers explained this by suggesting that "a woman's first homosexual relationship . . . is seen as 'special' and she thinks of herself as a person who loves a particular woman, without that having any particular implications for identity."(35)

If it is not same-sex desire, but an ambiguous relation to the categories "woman" and "man" that most powerfully represents the lesbian, then the most common objection to the woman-identified woman - namely, that this image desexualizes lesbians - may be misplaced. The elision of lesbian difference may result less from desexualizing lesbian desire than from the firm insistence that lesbians are unambiguously women. Both the liberal stress on lesbians' personhood and the feminist stress on their authentic womanhood have much the same effect - the erasure of lesbian difference. Rosa Bonheur's sex/gender ambiguity disappears under the categories "person" and "woman."(36)

The Third Sex. The power of sex/gender ambiguity to represent the lesbian dates from Carl von Westphal's case study of the congenital invert published in 1869. Westphal's case brought the lesbian as a distinct kind of person into being and inaugurated an explosion of psychiatric studies of the "invert," the "third sex," the woman with "a touch of the hermaphrodite," the "male soul trapped in a female body," the "unsexed," the "semi-women." Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing were two of his more famous disciples.

Westphal, Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, and others transformed the act of sodomy which had long been criminalized into the sodomitical person. They created (or at least officialized) lesbian and homosexual difference. But as the above list of referring terms suggests, and as Michel Foucault warns,

[w]e must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was characterized . . . less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul.(37)

Ellis, for example, described the sexually inverted woman as someone in whom some trace of masculinity or boyishness is to be found. She elicits, often subtly, the thought, "she ought to have been a man." She has a masculine straightforwardness and sense of honor, wears male attire when practicable, has a penchant for cigarettes and cigars, is a good whistler (male inverts cannot whistle), likes athletics but not needlework, is aggressive (sometimes committing violent crimes like men), and may be both muscular and hairy.(38) Although obviously intrigued by lesbian sexual desire, Ellis makes sexual desire take a backseat to gender inversion. Indeed, sex and desire between women do not differentiate the invert from either the "normal" woman or the "class of women" to whom the sexual invert is attracted. Normal women may sexually interact when segregated from men in prisons, convents, girls' and women's schools, or harems; and, in Ellis's view, pubescent girls normally experience attractions to other girls. The class of women to whom inverts are attracted, although not quite normal, he thought, are typically "womanly" and not true inverts.

Krafft-Ebing, although not equating lesbianism with inverted gender style, did equate the most degenerate forms of lesbianism with an inverted gender style. In his view, lesbianism took four increasingly degenerate forms: psychical hermaphroditism, or what we might now call bisexuality; homo-sexuality, or, sexual desire oriented toward the same sex; viraginity, where lesbian desire is coupled with a preference for the masculine role; and gynandry, or "men-women," in which the body itself appears masculine (she "possesses of the feminine qualities only the genital organs"). In describing viraginity, Krafft-Ebing focuses on the women's tomboyish childhood; their preference for playing with soldiers; and their inclination for male garments, science, smoking, drinking, and imagining themselves men in relation to women. "The masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom," he remarks, "finds pleasure in the pursuit of manly sports and in manifestations of courage and bravado." He adds: "Uranism may nearly always be suspected in females wearing their hair short or who dress in the fashion of men, or pursue the sports and pasttimes of their male acquaintances."(39)

In his descriptions of "homo-sexuality," Krafft-Ebing, unlike Ellis, appears on the surface to conceptualize lesbian sexual desire independently of gender images, because gender crossing characterizes only the more degenerative stages. But this is only a surface appearance. In an effort to explain same-sex desire, Krafft-Ebing posits a psychosexual cerebral center which would normally develop homologous to the "sexual glands" but which in lesbians develops contrary to them. The result is a masculine psychosexual center in a feminine brain.(40) Thus, even if some lesbians are not masculine in character, they are nevertheless not fully women.

The Instability of Lesbian Representation. In returning to the sexological literature on lesbians, my aim is not to endorse its particular pathologizing, biologizing, and masculinizing descriptions. My point instead is that the lesbian became and remains conceivable, representable, by virtue of the creation of a new category of individuals who were outside of the sex/gender categories "woman" and "man."(41) If she has a sex or gender it is neither female nor male. As I read the sexologists, the lesbian is not constituted by her mannishness but more fundamentally by her externality to binary sex/gender categories. Magnus Hirschfeld's image of the male soul trapped in a female body, Ellis's image of the boyish woman, and Krafft-Ebing's image of the masculine psychosexual center in a feminine brain are multiple efforts to represent the possibility of being someone who is not-woman, not-man.

It is no surprise that in the wake of sexology's particular strategy for representing the not-woman, not-man, cross-dressing became the vehicle for articulating lesbian personhood. In 1920s' Paris, for instance, cigarette smoking, cropped hair, monocle-wearing, top hats and tails signaled lesbian "sexual difference within." Nor is it surprising that Radclyffe Hall chose mannish Stephen Gordon rather than womanly Mary to represent the lesbian. But as Marjorie Garber points out, gender-crossing strategies of lesbian representation are inherently unstable because they are perpetually open to being appropriated by and for heterosexual women. Smoking, which both Ellis and Krafft-Ebing associated with lesbianism, was by the 1940s taken over by heterosexual women.(42) And "[l]esbian styles of the 20s - men's formal dress, top hats and tails-popularized on stage by entertainers like Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, became high fashion statements, menswear for women resexualized as straight (as well as gay) style." According to Newton, Hall's cross-dressing and the cross-dressed figure of Stephen Gordon represented not only the lesbian inner self but also "the New Woman's rebellion against the male order" and was thus open to appropriation by heterosexual feminists who had their own interests in gender-deviant representational strategies.(43) Butch lesbian style of the 1940s and 1950s also proved unstable. In a somewhat toned-down form, lesbian butch style became, via feminist PC dress codes, the feminist style and the symbol for the authentic, non-male-identified woman.(44) Contemporary marketing strategies contribute to the instability of lesbian representation. Danae Clark, for example, argues that advertisers are now employing dual marketing strategies that offer to lesbian consumers styles and images that are coded "lesbian" but that heterosexual consumers will not detect.(45)

Cross-dressing, however, is not the only possible representational strategy. Monique Wittig argued that lesbians are not-women, not-men, because they, unlike members of the category "woman," are economically and socially independent of men.(46) She figures lesbians' position outside the binary gender system by means of their economic and social relations, not their cross-dress. But like earlier lesbian representational strategies, this one too proved unstable. Wittig's symbol of the lesbian becomes in later feminist work the symbol of the (straight) feminist, the liberated woman. This instability of lesbian representation is exactly what one would expect given the social construction of gender itself.

The Disappearance of the Lesbian under the De-essentialized Woman. We are now in a position to see why the de-essentializing of the category "woman" might endanger lesbian representation. So long as "woman" remains substantively filled in, lesbians can representationally position themselves outside of that category, although those representations will have to shift continually to accommodate shifts in the meaning of "woman." The de-essentialist, difference-sensitive turn in feminism presents a vastly new and more difficult challenge for lesbian representation. If "woman" has no essential meaning, but there are, instead, multiple and open-ended ways that women can be, how does one go about representing oneself outside "woman" rather than differently inside "woman"? After all, it seems that being the sort of person who sexually desires women is one of the ways a woman can be and so is being mannish, butch, using a dildo, engaging in sadomasochism, marrying a woman, and so on.

Judith Butler's particular de-essentializing strategy helps pose the problem in an acute form. "Woman," in her view, is something one can never fully be, because there are no natural women. The illusion of a natural binarism of gender categories into "woman" and "man" is the result of repetitive (and panicked) performances of a unity between body, gender, and (heterosexual) desire. One consequence of this view is that neither femininity nor masculinity naturally belong to a particular sex. The illusion that femininity belongs to women in a way masculinity does not is simply the result of the compulsoriness of that particular gender performance for women. But it is open to women to perform otherwise. The "mannish" lesbian is, on this reading, neither imitating a man (because there is no real or natural man to imitate) nor necessarily being unwomanly. Butler notes that "in acting in a masculine way, she changes the very meaning of what it is to be a woman; indeed, she expands the meaning of what it means to be a woman to include a cultural possibility that it previously excluded."(47)

Once "woman" is denaturalized and opened up in this way, the lesbian may well find herself in a hopeless representational position. Nothing she does may count as positioning her outside of the category "woman." Everything she does may be read simply as expanding the meaning of "woman." What was originally intended within feminism as a move away from a totalizing conception of "woman" that was incapable of admitting differences between women now becomes totalizing in a quite different way. Although virtually any self-representation may be permitted within the category "woman," and the meaning of "woman" remains perpetually open to contestation, the one thing that may not be possible is self-representation outside of that category.

Butler herself does not come to this conclusion. In her view "the effect of this carnival of gender [that becomes possible when the meanings of "masculine" and "feminine" become fluid] can be conceptualized in one of two ways, either as an internal expansion of existing gender categories or as a proliferation of gender itself beyond the usual two."(48) That is, the denaturalization of "woman" and "man" could facilitate lesbian representation by underscoring the plausibility of constructing a third (or fourth, etc.) sex. Rather than being perpetually accused of being a woman who imitates men, the lesbian could claim to be a distinct gender.

However, the imperative driving difference-sensitive feminism - to acknowledge differences between women and to frame a nonexclusionary feminist agenda-militates against this option. If feminists are to theorize the lesbian and include lesbian rights among feminist political goals, the lesbian must first be brought under the sign "woman." There, she may contest the meaning of woman. What she may not do is announce her defection from the category "woman" altogether. If this is in fact, as I think it is, the compulsory effect of a difference-sensitive feminist frame, then "gender" will operate within feminism as a lesbian closet. The lesbian becomes the lesbian woman. This means that we must read her sexuality much the way liberal defenders of lesbian and gay rights do: her sexuality constitutes only an accidental difference. Within liberalism, she is essentially a person; within difference-sensitive feminism, she is "essentially" a woman. Stripped of the monstrous image of the third sex-not-woman, not-man - lesbian sexuality becomes just sex, a woman's sexuality, and as such simply a set of acts or practices which cannot challenge the binarism of gender. In addition, having subsumed the lesbian under "women," it would seem that we must read heterosexist oppression as a set of penalties addressed to the lesbian for her failure to conform to an essentializing cultural definition of Woman. Within this feminist frame, we may not read heterosexist oppression as addressed to her failure to be a woman of any sort at all.


I have argued, in the first part of this article, that feminist theorizing has failed to capture lesbian difference, because it has not begun with a full-blown theory of heterosexist oppression fully parallel to race and class oppression. In order to theorize the lesbian within a feminist frame we would need an analysis of the distinctive material, social, legal, and ideological position of the lesbian under institutionalized heterosexist oppression. This would mean, among other things, examining the ways that heterosexuals and nonheterosexuals constitute opposing political classes.(49) Undertheorizing heterosexist oppression resulted in feminist constructions of lesbian identity that served more to obscure lesbian difference than to illuminate it: first, the woman-identified woman, then more recently, the difference-identified woman.

In the second part, I suggested that the problem runs deeper than simple undertheorizing. The feminist goals of emancipating women's sexuality from patriarchy and of specifying a distinctive (nongenital) women's eroticism necessitates blurring the distinction between lesbian and heterosexual women's sexuality. Thus, feminist political commitments may motivate suppressing lesbian difference.

In the third part, I have argued that even if the ampersand between gender and lesbianism were fully articulated, gender may continue operating as a lesbian closet. Lesbian difference was originally made conceivable and representable through the image of the third sex, the not-woman, not-man. To place lesbians within the category "woman" (or "women") is, then, in a real sense not to see lesbians but only women with a different sexuality. My point here is directly parallel to Marjorie Garber's critique of feminist reading of transvestites like Michael/Dorothy in Tootsie. To see him/her as just a man dressed in women's clothes (and so, for example, to criticize him for posturing as a better woman than "real" women are) is to fail to see the cross-dresser. Within a world populated solely by women and men, the cross-dresser as a cross-dresser disappears. "This tendency to erase the third term, to appropriate the cross-dresser 'as' one of the two sexes, is," Garber notes, "emblematic of a fairly consistent critical desire to look away from the transvestite as transvestite, not to see cross-dressing except as male or female manque. . . . And this tendency might be called an underestimation of the object."(50) To appropriate the lesbian as a woman similarly underestimates the lesbian.

Can one theorize the lesbian within a feminist frame? This, I think, depends on whether "woman" delimits the feminist frame. If feminism is about women, then lesbians cannot adequately be theorized within that frame.(51) If instead feminism is about women and the open space of possibilities signified by "the third sex," then lesbians can be theorized within a feminist frame. But the cost of opening the feminist frame this way is quite high. With the lesbian not-woman enter the gay man, the heterosexual and gay male transvestite, the male-to-female transsexual, the male lesbian and the like - this time not as men or imitation women but as the third term between gender binaries. In an opened frame, these male bodies could no longer be constructed as the Other to women. They would be fully feminist subjects. I suspect that this transformation of males into feminist subjects is a move many feminists would reject. If so, the lesbian will remain not only outside "woman" but outside feminism.


This essay develops the claim in my "Separating Lesbian Theory from Feminist Theory" (Ethics 104 [April 1994]: 558-81) that lesbians are not-women. I want to credit and thank Cheryl Hall for articulating such deep skepticism about my view that feminism has not and cannot deal adequately with lesbianism that I was motivated to write this essay and had a sense for where I needed to go with it. For those interested in what I take to be the practical and political implications of assigning lesbians not-woman status, I suggest "Separating Lesbian Theory from Feminist Theory." My focus there is on the difference and conflict between feminist politics and lesbian politics. Quotations at the beginning of this essay are from Marilyn Frye's "A Lesbian's Perspective on Women's Studies, 1980," in her volume Willful Virgin: Essays in Feminism, 1976-1992 (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1992), 51; Joan Nestle's "Butch-Femme Relationships: Sexual Courage in the 1950s," in her book, A Restricted Country (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books, 1987), 106; and Sue-Ellen Case's "Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin (New York: Routledge, 1993), 295.

1. See Case, 295.

2. Consider, for example, Susan Moller Okin's excellently researched Justice, Gender, and the Family (New York: Basic Books, 1989), which completely omits the justice issues regarding the family that lesbians find themselves up against.

3. Monique Wittig, "One Is Not Born a Woman," in her book, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

4. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York', Routledge, 1990). Havelock Ellis and Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Monique Wittig, and Judith Butler obviously differ substantially in their specific understandings of what it means for the lesbian to be outside the category "woman." In this essay, however, I want to take seriously the significance of their agreeing that she is "outside."

5. The specific change that Frye hoped for has not, however, come about. She asked that heterosexual feminists cease presenting heterosexuality as an inevitability to be "coped with" and that they defend the rationality of their own choice to continue to be heterosexual.

6. Christina Crosby, "Dealing with Differences," in Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992), 131.

7. Biddy Martin, "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s]," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 275, 278, 280.

8. Ibid., 280, 281.

9. Hilary Allen, "Political Lesbianism and Feminism-Space for a Sexual Politics?" quoted in Martin, "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s]," 280.

10. Martin, "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s]," 284.

11. Ibid., 283.

12. Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 136.

13. Martin, "Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s]," 284 (emphasis mine).

14. In a more recent piece ("Sexual Practice and Changing Lesbian Identities," in Destabilizing Theory: Contemporary Feminist Debates, ed. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992]), Biddy Martin takes a quite different approach to lesbian difference. Sensitive to race and class differences between lesbians as well as to the permeability of the lesbian-heterosexual opposition, Martin also focuses on lesbians' difference from heterosexuals. In particular, she follows Butler in understanding homosexual practices (particularly drag and butch-femme) as ones that reconfigure sex and gender.

15. An analogy may help clarify what I am looking for in looking for "something lesbian." Consider what Patricia Hill Collins has called "controlling images" of Black women - the mammy, the matriarch, the Jezebel, and the welfare mother (Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment [New York: Routledge, 1990]). Without invoking an essentialized definition of "woman," we can say a lot about what makes these images gendered images, how they are connected across racial lines to other gendered images, and how they function in a general pattern of women's subordination. Similarly, without invoking an essentialized definition of "Black," we can say a lot about what makes these images raced images, how they are connected across gender lines to other raced images, and how they function in a general pattern of racial subordination. Consider now the sexual practice of butch-femme relations. Feminists have commented (largely negatively) on the gendered character of butch-femme relations and their similarity across sexuality lines to heterosexual gender relations. We could also say why the preference of Black butches for "beautiful" white femmes is raced (this example is from Martin, "Sexual Practice and Changing Lesbian Identities"). But what about butch-femme codes it lesbian? If we can talk meaningfully about the gendered and raced character of a practice without invoking essential definitions, then we should be able to talk equally meaningfully about the lesbian character of a practice. In looking for "something lesbian" I am looking for something to say about what might code a practice lesbian other than the unhelpful fact that lesbians do it.

16. bell hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Boston: South End Press, 1984), 24, 25.

17. Spelman, 175.

18. For helpful articles within this debate and summaries of that debate, see Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis, ed. Robin Ruth Linden et al. (San Francisco: Frog in the Well, 1982); B. Ruby Rich, "Review Essay: Feminism and Sexuality in the 1980s," Feminist Studies 12 (fall 1986): 525-61; and Shane Phelan, "Sadomasochism and the Meaning of Feminism," in her Identity Politics: Lesbian Feminism and the Limits of Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989).

19. Heterosexual sadomasochism, in Sally Roesch Wagner's words, is not a "kinky" deviation from normal heterosexual behavior. Rather, it is the defining quality of the power relationship between men and women. Sadism is the logical extension of behavior that arises out of male power. Self-will, dominance, unbridled anger and cold rationality: these qualities, bought at the expense of gentleness and concern for others, define the classic sadist as the "real" man. Selflessness, submission, lack of will and unbridled emotionalism: these qualifies demanded of women, to the detriment of concern for self and independence, portray the classic masochist.

See her "Pornography and the Sexual Revolution: The Backlash of Sadomasochism," in Against Sadomasochism, 28.

20. Susan Leigh Star, "Swastikas: The Street and the University," in Against Sadomasochism, 133.

21. Wagner, 29.

22. B. Ruby Rich, 532.

23. I am thinking here of Adrienne Rich's interpretation of Nancy Chodorow in "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," in The Signs Reader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship, ed. Elizabeth Abel and Emily K. Abel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 139-68.

24. Gayle Rubin, "The Leather Menace," quoted in Phelan, 103.

25. This is a point Julia Creet stresses in "Daughter of the Movement: The Psycho-dynamics of Lesbian S/M Fantasy," Differences 3 (summer 1991): 135-59. Although more evidence on this point would be a good thing, the ability of a thesis to do much-needed explanatory work is itself a form of evidence. What needs to be explained is why the principal advocates of sadomasochism were both lesbian and feminist. Some have argued that lesbian feminist advocacy of sadomasochism, neo butch-femme, lesbian pornography, and public sex was a reaction to the sexually repressive prescriptivism of cultural feminism. (See, for example, Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America [New York: Penguin Books, 1992], chap. 10, and "A Return of Butch and Femme: A Phenomenon of Lesbian Sexuality of the 1980s and 1990s," Journal of the History of Sexuality 2, no. 4 [1992]: 578-96.) This "rebellion against repression" thesis, however, does not explain why it was specifically lesbians who rebelled. B. Ruby Rich's and Julia Creet's focus on the loss of the lesbian taboo does.

I do not mean to rule out alternative accounts of the lesbian-specific meaning of lesbian sadomasochism, butch-femme, and lesbian pornography. The truth may be that lesbian feminist advocacy of these sexual forms was overdetermined. For instance, Judith Butler, and following her, Biddy Martin, Terralee Bensinger, and I have argued that the reconfigurations of femininity and masculinity in lesbian sexual practices denaturalizes gender and challenges the assumption of a natural gender binarism that underlies heterosexual society, and all too often feminist theory as well. See Butler, Gender Trouble, and "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in Inside/Out, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1990); Martin, "Sexual Practice and Changing Lesbian Identities"; Terralee Bensinger, "Lesbian Pornography: The Re/Making of (a) Community," Discourse 15 (fall 1992): 69-93; and Calhoun, "Separating Lesbian Theory from Feminist Theory."

26. I am thinking particularly of Audre Lorde, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Freedom, Calif.: Crossing Press, 1984); Janice G. Raymond, A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986); and Sarah Lucia Hoagland, Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Value (Palo Alto: Institute of Lesbian Studies, 1988).

27. Esther Newton, "The Mythic Mannish Lesbian: Radclyffe Hall and the New Woman," Signs 9 (summer 1984): 561, 560.

28. Martha Vicinus, "'They Wonder to Which Sex I Belong': The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity," Feminist Studies 18 (fall 1992): 467 (reprinted in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 432).

29. All are mentioned by Vicinus. The history of cross-dressed women is also discussed by Lillian Faderman in Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1981); and by Marjorie Garber, in Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993).

30. An analogy may clarify the point. Suppose I present you with a picture of a person seated, reading in a library full of books and a picture of a person walking through a cornfield at dawn. I ask, "Which image more powerfully represents the scholar?" The library picture does. To infer from this that people in cornfields cannot be scholars or that everyone in libraries is a scholar would be a mistake - a mistake made possible by taking literally a symbolic image of the scholar.

31. Developing both Judith Butler's notion of "the logic of inversion," where what first appeared feminine in the femme inverts into the masculine ("Imitation and Gender Subordination") and Joan Nestle's descriptions of femme sexual power, Biddy Martin reads femme (and butch) sexuality as resisting categorization into the unambiguously feminine (or masculine). See Martin, "Sexual Practice and Changing Lesbian Identities."

32. Quoted in Garber, 153.

33. Celia Kitzinger, The Social Construction of Lesbianism (London: Sage Publications, 1987), 111.

34. Significantly, those same women adopted antifeminist stances, particularly toward what they perceived as the unfeminine appearance of feminists. As one woman observes of feminist lesbians, "Once they have 'become lesbians' they are relieved to think they will never again have to wear pretty clothes or curl their hair. Nonsense!" (ibid., 142). They secure their status as people, rather than lesbians, by presenting themselves as possessors of a nonambiguously womanly femininity. My guess is that they would equally resist being read as femmes, that is, as possessors of an ambiguously womanly femininity.

35. Ibid., 105.

36. I deliberately use "sex/gender" here. Lesbian gender ambiguity - her openness to readings as masculine and feminine - is intimately connected with lesbian sex ambiguity, that is, to questions about whether she is "really" female at all and to suspicions about her anatomy. Although I do not endorse biologizing lesbianism, I do want to claim that reading a person as lesbian involves reading her as ambiguously gendered and ambiguously sexed.

37. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 43.

38. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, vol. 2, Sexual Inversion (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Co., 1928). See especially chap. 4.

39. Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis: A Medico-Forensic Study (New York: Pioneer Publications, 1947), 399, 336, 300, 398.

40. Ibid., 348-49.

41. Does this mean that one cannot do lesbian history prior to the late 1800s? I have argued elsewhere ("Denaturalizing and Desexualizing Lesbian and Gay Identity," Virginia Law Review 79 [October 1993]: 1859-75) that lesbian and gay history is essentially political: it aims to reveal the nonuniversality of taboos on what we now consider to be lesbianism and homosexuality. To accomplish that aim, lesbian and gay history must take as its subjects persons who fit our concepts of "lesbian" and "gay." Thus, the absence of a concept of "lesbianism" or "homosexuality" at earlier historical points is not a bar to doing lesbian and gay history.

42. Garber, 155-57.

43. Newton, 570.

44. Faderman, "The Return of Butch and Femme."

45. Danae Clark, "Commodity Lesbianism," in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, 186-201.

46. Wittig.

47. Judith Butler, "Gendering the Body: Beauvoir's Philosophical Contribution," in Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, ed. Ann Garry and Marilyn Pearsall (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 260 (emphasis mine).

48. Ibid.

49. I have argued for this thesis in more detail in "Separating Lesbian Theory from Feminist Theory."

50. Garber, 10.

51. To be sure, lesbians are mistaken for women and oppressed as women. And as a "not-woman," the lesbian is conceptually linked to "woman." Thus, quite a lot, even if not everything, can be said about lesbians within a feminist frame.
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