Sapphic Link Love #11

From Ancient Rome to Judith Butler in this issue …

Cheryl Morgan blogs about the evidence for women loving women in Ancient Rome, Tribade Visibility Day

The Paris Review has a great piece on The Fabulous Forgotten Life of Vita Sackville West

them, 100 Years Ago, this Lesbian Doctor Helped Contain NYC’s Typhoid Epidemic

TIE Campaign podcast has episodes on Lesbians Against Section 28 and Anne Lister

A long and detailed article in Out History, A Tribute to Phyllis Lyon (1924 – 2020)

The Advocate, Netflix Doc Reveals the Queer Romance Behind A League of their Own

Interesting interview with Judith Butler about her latest thinking Judith Butler wants us to reshape our rage

A lovely blog from Torch, Women Retold: Eurydice and Portrait of a Lady on Fire

And a nice interview with the poet Jackie Kay, DIVA meets LGBTQI literature royalty, Jackie Kay MBE

Sapphic Link Love #10

Mary Dorcey, ‘Kindling’ (1982) #20BooksOfSummer

Kindling is the first collection of poetry published by Irish feminist poet, Mary Dorcey. It’s a short book which you can easily read in an afternoon.

Some of the poems do feel very much of their time, rooted in second wave lesbian feminist politics and culture. They fall into two (linked) groups, poems that challenge the oppression of women under patriarchy (‘the vicious bigotry of all the Pope’s boys’), and poems that explore relationships between women, especially as lovers, friends and mothers and daughters.

There are poems about the position of women in Ireland (‘coming Home’, pornography (‘Photographs’), women’s incarceration in prison (‘Night Protest’) and mental institutions (‘Rope’), and conflicts within feminism (‘Colonised Minds’). ‘In a Dublin Nursing Home’ a lesbian couple have to pretend to be relatives, an experience I’ve heard older lesbians and gay men describe.

They are ambitious, powerful poems, but overall, I preferred reading the more ambivalent, and perhaps messier poems about relationships between women, such as ‘Full Circle’, ‘The Quarrel’, ‘Night’ and ‘Friendship’. These are poems about the unruliness of desire and it’s rather consoling to see that ‘lesbian drama’ hasn’t changed that much in thirty years.

I will definitely look up more of Dorcey’s poetry and will be interested to see how she’s developed since 1982.  

You stretch your hand
to mine
and some ember of the me
that I was to you,
and and in silence,
recovers the power
of speech.

‘After Long Silence’

Must read: ‘You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?’

If you’re on social media, I’m sure you saw the photograph of the two women who experienced a homophobic/misogynist hate crime in London being circulated last week. One of the women, Chris, has written a brilliant, deeply intersectional, piece in the Guardian, challenging the media discourse that centres white, cisgender “victims” and demanding that we care about all forms of homophobia and oppression. What a way to turn an awful experience, and an unwanted platform, into something powerful.

A refrain I’ve heard ad nauseum is “I can’t believe this happened – it’s 2019”. I disagree. This attack and the ensuing media circus are par for the course in 2019. In both my native United States and here in the United Kingdom, it always has been and still is open season on the bodies of (in no specific order) people of colour, indigenous people, transgender people, disabled people, queer people, poor people, women and migrants. I have evaded much of the violence and oppression imposed on so many others by our capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system because of the privileges I enjoy by dint of my race, health, education, and conventional gender presentation. That has nothing to do with the merit of my character.

You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?

Dyke Camp

Dyke camp could also be an oversized basketball vest that hangs low over the armpit and reveals sideboob, or a stacked heel that adds to your height. A dyke camp vision is greedy: it asks for more not in the sense of adding endless details like camp might, but in making things bigger, blowing things up. Dyke camp is simultaneously self-conscious of and delighted by its own visibility.

Dyke camp doesn’t care what others think. It is not particularly interested in being palatable for or even attended to by straight people. As with camp, it’s more like blaring the Batsignal. Dyke camp is showy gestures, a certain hunch of the shoulder, a crooked grin, a beckoning hand, exaggeration, over-amplification, studied disinterest in clothes and very keen interest in everything else. A walk that looks like a dance.

The Outline, Notes on Dyke Camp

Sapphic Link Love #7

The Guardian, Pioneering Bollywood lesbian romance opens in India 

Duke University Press, Esther Newton, My Butch Career, A Memoir 

The Guardian, ‘It has made me want to live’: Public support for lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall over banned book revealed 

The Paris Review, Hunting for a lesbian canon 

Catapult Magazine, ‘I should hate forever to be a burden to you’: Lessons in love from Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West 

Lit Hub, The overlooked eroticism of Mary Oliver 

Sapphic Link round-up #5

Autostraddle, The 15 Best Lesbian and Bisexual Movies of 2018

them., Sarah Schulman Talks her new lesbian detective novel Maggie Terry

Lambda Literary, Looking for Lorraine: The Radical and Radiant Life of Lorraine Hansberry

Hannah Roche, The Outside Thing: Modernist Lesbian Romance 

New York Times Books, Alone with Elizabeth Bishop

Act Up Oral History Project

For World Aids Day on the 1st December, the Act Up Oral History Project 

A collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York.

The purpose of this project is to present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.

Sapphic Link Love #1

Some things I’ve found interesting recently

Anne Lister and a Theology of Naming Lesbians

Interview with a Queer Reader – Julie Rak Talks Women’s Bookstores, Gay Biker Books, Finding Your Own Queer History in Books, and More!

Remembering Beth Brant 

Why the UK’s biggest lesbian archive is so important

Public silence, private terror


Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be: if working class, an intellectual, upwardly mobile type who knows her place, or at least the virtues of gratitude; if a lesbian, an acceptable lesbian, not too forward about the details of her sexual practice; if a writer, a humble, consciously female one who understands her relationship to “real” writers and who is willing to listen to her editors. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself — the walls of fear, shame and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my mind […] I have learned through great sorrow that all systems of oppression feed on public silence and private terrorization. But few do so more forcefully than the systems of sexual oppression, and each of us is under enormous pressure to give in to their demands.

Dorothy Allison, ‘Public Silence, Private Terror, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 117

A short post about Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948)

Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) is pure Southern Gothic, so the question of whether or not you’ll enjoy it will probably depend on your feelings about that particular genre. You can usually expect an intense, overripe, lyrical style of writing, a cast of eccentric characters and a lush, but sinister landscape, of all which are present here.

Capote never allows himself to topple over the edge into overwriting, but he hovers around it, as if to let you know that he’s in control of his craft, which he took extremely seriously. This is his first novel.

After the death of his mother, thirteen year-old Joel is sent to live in a dilapidated mansion with his mysterious father, stepmother, Miss Amy, her decadent cousin Randolph and their black servants, 100 year-old Jesus Fever and his granddaughter Zoo.  As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that more than one inhabitant of the landing is mad and Joel is also haunted by the strange appearance of a ‘lady’ at one of the upper windows.

All of the characters are memorable and the children are particularly well-written. This is very much a post-Freudian tale of queer childhood.  In Joel and his friend, Idabel, I thought Capote really conveyed the painful confusion of children on the cusp of adolescence confronted with the secrets of an adult world they can’t quite understand, both resenting and desiring the inevitable loss of innocence that will come with that understanding.

Idabel is the most resistant, but as a (transgender?) tomboy who utterly rejects the requirements of adult femininity, she has the most to lose.  At the end, Joel seems to find some place for himself in his love for, and identification with, the effeminate Randolph, but Idabel, who has no such model, can only run away and disappear from the text.  In the openly homosexual and oddly nurturing figure of Randolph, Capote provides Joel with a kind of mentor, which is not to say Randoph is perfect. We don’t know how much of his story to believe and he seems to desire to control Joel and separate him from other people, but at the end there is also a feeling that Joel will gain the upper-hand in the relationship.

An important work in in the history of LGBT literature.

Reading – Two Books on the History of Sexuality

Andrew Elfenbein, Romantic Genius: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).

This is my book of the month.  It puts forward an exciting argument, is very well researched and gets extra points for being readable.  I’m reading it because I’m interested in tracing the different narratives which have gone into the making of modern homosexual identity as a category of knowledge.  According to Elfenbein, genius is one of those narratives and he sets out to explore the origins of this association:

‘The cult surrounding genius has created an analogy between the situation of the alienated, marginalized artist who rebels against social norms by shattering conventional gender categories and that of the homosexual man or woman in a homophobic world’ (7).

The first chapter looks at the way male geniuses became associated with excessive “feminine” characteristics (sensibility, imagination, passion) in the eighteenth century, an association which placed them in uncomfortably close representational relation to the contemporary construction of the sodomite: ‘There was always the lurking suspicion that the sublime excessiveness of genius might lead to less conventional sexual possibilities’ (32).  The second chapter is about the very queer eighteenth-century ‘genius,’ William Beckford, and the third is about William Cowper, an eighteenth-century poet who despite (or perhaps because of) his apparent queerness became popular as a model for domestic life in the Victorian period.  Elfenbein doesn’t leave female geniuses out of the picture and the next two chapters are on Anne Damer and Anne Bannerman, but I haven’t got to them yet.

Randolph Trumbach, ‘The Heterosexual Male in Eighteenth-Century London and his Queer Interactions,’ in Katherine O’ Donnell and Michael O’ Rourke (eds) Love, Sex, Intimacy and Friendship Between Men, 1550 – 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

This is a radically anti-essentialist account of sexual history.  Trumbach seems to have no truck with any notion of inherent sexual orientation – however that might have been conceived in the past – and puts across a view of sexual desire as entirely socially determined.  He argues that until 1700 in most of Europe (but especially the Mediterranean) it was perfectly normal for men to have sexual relations with both men and women.  According to Trumbach, sexual relations were not determined by gender, but rather by hierarchies of age and were structured in terms of active and passive roles.  It was acceptable for an adult man to have consensual sexual relations with an adolescent boy until the boy became an adult and took on an active role himself.  A small minority of men took on passive roles throughout their lives and they were held in profound contempt often working as male prostitutes.  This is all interesting, but the essay inadvertently draws attention to the way trans history has been appropriated and rendered invisible by lesbian and gay history, a trend which is very problematic in that it creates an impression that trans identities and subjectivities suddenly appeared in the twentieth century and have no real history before medical technologies became available.  Trumbach mentions male-bodied people who, in the early modern period, dressed constantly as women, took women’s names and in some cases even constructed artificial vaginas.  He appropriates this evidence to his argument about the development of sexuality, but what he’s talking about here sounds much closer to what we now consider transgendered identity to me.  Part of the essay also goes too far for me in terms of the kind of material it appropriates to the history of homosexuality.  Trumbach describes a case in which an adult male raped a boy of twelve.  The man behaved in a way very similar to what we associate with modern paedophiles, luring the boy to his rooms, abusing him, giving him money and trying to persuade him keep it a secret.  As far as I’m concerned this is a form of behaviour now known as paedophilia and needs to be considered as part of a different history.  Still, I found the essay stimulating.

I also carried on with my Bray and Haggerty from last week and re-read a chapter from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s book Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire.

Three Books on the History of Sexuality

Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (Gay Men’s Press, 1982).

This is a very influential social constructionist account and I’m currently re-reading the whole thing. Bray argued that homosexuality as a category of identity could not exist in the Renaissance because it wouldn’t have made any sense in the early modern period and ‘identity without a consciousness in time is impossible’ (11).

‘To talk of an individual in this period as being or not being ‘a homosexual’ is an anachronism and ruinously misleading.  The temptation to debauchery, from which homosexuality was not clearly distinguished, was accepted as part of the common lot, be it never so abhorred’ (16 – 17).

It still holds up as a fascinating read.

Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century (London: Cassell, 1994)

Sinfield is a hardline social constructionist when it comes to homosexuality and very readable and persuasive with it.  In this book he argues that effeminacy was not strongly linked to homosexuality until the trials of Oscar Wilde when the popular stereotype

He gives a summary of the social constructionist argument:

‘sexualities (heterosexual and homosexual) are not essential, but constructed within an array of prevailing social possibilities […] Sexual identity depends not on a deep-set self-hood (though it may feel otherwise), but on one’s particular situation within the framework of understanding that makes certain, diverse, possibilities available; which makes some ideas plausible and other not.  This is the ideological network that we use to explain our worlds. Ideology makes sense for us – of us – because it is already proceeding when we arrive in the world; we come to consciousness in its terms […] The constructionist argument is generally indebted to the work of Michel Foucault, who argues that the big shift in homosexual identity occurs when the person who engages in same-sex activity gets perceived as a personality type. So far from repressing sex, Foucault brilliantly observes, the Victorians went on about it all the time; it became a principal mode of social regulation. In the process of this discursive proliferation, the ‘homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology … The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’’ […] Hence the answer to the question that seems suddenly to have hit the agenda: ‘Was Shakespeare gay?’ He couldn’t have been, because lesbian and gay identities are modern developments: the early-modern organization of sex and gender boundaries, simply, was different from ours.  However, by the same token, he couldn’t have been straight either, so present-day heterosexism has no stronger claim upon him than homosexuality’ (11 – 13).

Charming as Sinfield is, as a writer, I’m not convinced that effeminacy was a de-coupled from ideas about sex between men (until Oscar) as he wants to prove in this book.  I’m enjoying reading about it though.

George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (1999)

I like reading Haggerty. He has a rambling style and is an interesting close reader. This book looks at masculinity as a contested concept in the eighteenth century and argues that a certain sexual sensibility emerges in this period (1 and 2).  A lot of people talk about sodomy but Haggerty wants to bring ‘love’ back into the picture:

‘The “love” that cannot be expressed – “dare not speak its name” – because that is what is really threatening. Two men having sex threatens no one. Two men in love: that begins to threaten the very foundations of heterosexist culture’ (20).

I think he’s a bit of a romantic too.