The Development of Lesbian and Queer Theory in America

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5th Jul 2018 Sociology Reference this

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An Examination of the Advancement of Lesbian Theory & Criticism – America: 1950’s-1990’s.

Introduction

Lesbianism in American society is a concept imbued with social, political, legal, aesthetic and literary codes and conventions, whether considered in 1950 or currently. In the past half century, lesbianism has not only expressed itself as specific articulations of sexuality and lifestyle, but also of ideology and political aspiration. Sexuality has remained essential to conceptualisations of lesbianism in this time span, with its political formulations, societal censures, and social accommodations anchored to the vicissitudes of feminist theory and practice. American social and political morays which have prescribed female functionality in post World War Two years, have cast mainstream female identity in terms of motherhood, wifeliness and domesticity, a formulation of personhood deeply challenged by advancing lesbian ideology and praxis.

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In this light, one of the significant threads of lesbian theory and criticism to be evaluated pertains to feminism’s examination of female identity in the past 50 years, and the status and reaction of lesbianism within this paradigm. This process encompasses events and issues pertaining to the biological, sexual and social validation of female gender, but also the intellectual development of modes of discourse pertaining to feminism and lesbianism, as a means of female empowerment, paralleled by considered or reactionary responses to wider societal trends.

So called second wave feminism, benchmarked by the Stonewall Riots at Greenwich Village in New York in 1969, targeted women’s liberation not only at the level of law, and concrete denotations of inequality and injustice, (akin to feminism’s first wave), but at the more visceral level of societal and political attitudes and values, including the ideological decoupling of female personhood from male sexuality.

Since the early 1990’s, the ideological and theoretical formulations of lesbianism have been advancing in disparate lines, at the bidding of post-structuralist or postmodernist discourses. Some of lesbianism’s intellectual impulses have focused upon notions of sexual and personal identity, and in spite of their intellectual sophistication have lost their momentum and coherence, collapsing into an “ambiguous polymorphy,”[1] whilst attempting to dispense with unhelpful binary oppositional definitions of gender or sexuality. Conversely, an intellectual strength of third wave feminism and post 1980’s lesbian criticism has been the attention to personhood, the integrity of the self and the integration of public and private moralities.

Chapter 1

Homosexuality after World War I was broadly viewed as “an offence against the family and social expectations about gender.”[2] A doctor’s post World War 1 contemporary observations noted that it was “improper to utter the word homosexuality, prurient to admit its existence and pornographic to discuss the subject.”[3] The same doctor reflects the radical difference between American and European cultural and sexual values, implying that while Europe was perceived by Americans as decadent, European novels could discuss homosexuality openly within a European setting, yet American novels could not, since “if it existed at all, (as) our soil is unfavourable, our climate prejudicial, our people too primitive, too pure.”[4] Furthermore, Fone contends that homosexuality had come to be seen as a “subversion of America itself.” [5] Fone also observes that since war is a “time of fear and upheaval-it produces a virulent, xenophobic strain of homophobia” tantamount to conceiving “sexual difference as a betrayal of American values”.[6]

Retrospectively implicit among these anecdotal pre World War II dismissals of homosexuality, is the notable silence concerning any distinction between male and female homosexuality, or gay and lesbian sexual phenomenon. The grip of patriarchy was so overarching that lesbianism did not even feature as a notable offence against social sensibilities.

Be that as it may. The social discourse regarding lesbianism in the 1950’s was in part a response to the repositioning of women due to World War II. As war demanded heightened US defences and reconstituted the nation’s labour force, women formed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and were seconded to non-traditional jobs, accounting for one third of the work force. According to Kennedy and Davis, “World War II… had a tremendous impact on lesbian life, by offering lesbians more opportunities for socialising and meeting other women.”[7] Since the war “gave more independence to all women… lesbians (were) more like other women and less easy to identify. Since all women were able to wear pants to work and to purchase them in stores off the rack, butches who only wore pants in the privacy of their home in the 1930s could now wear them on the streets.”[8] Furthermore, in Buffalo women gained access to better jobs since productivity was heightened by war manufacturing. Since the male population of Buffalo was denuded for military service, lesbians had greater liberty to meet in public and pursue active social lives beyond hearth and home. Extensive social life revolved around “the proliferation of gay bars”[9] and despite the “mere presence of homosexuals…interpreted by the State Liquor Authority as constituting disorderly conduct”,[10] raids on premises were minimal in the 1940’s due to the shrewdness of business owners.[11]

Concurrently, enlisted lesbians found a social space within the male world of military service since enrolment screening practices for lesbians entering the (WAC) were less stringent than for gay men.[12] In this example, the lack of status for women in the military prior to the war resulted in ill-defined screening procedures for women recruits, matched by a choice to not investigate the sexual lives of women, as the goal was to optimise the war effort.[13] The simplistic and binary designations of sexual orientation in the late 1940’s are noted by the comments from “a group of Marine Corps examiners at Camp LeJeune (who) advised their colleagues, “that women showing a masculine manner may be perfectly normal sexually and excellent military material.”[14] By the late 1940’s however, “purging of lesbians from the military became increasingly problematic. Many women were forced to deny knowing any of their friends or marry gay men to pass as heterosexual.”[15] Ominously, “mid 1950’s Navy officials secretly acknowledged that the homosexual discharge rate had become much higher for the female than the male.” [16]

When the end of the war brought a resumption of traditional family roles, there were no alternate social prescriptions for women apart from marriage, and enduring singleness subjected females to social disapproval, while the “aggressive harassment of lesbians and gays was connected to this glorification of the nuclear family and domestic sphere.Homophobia became a way of reinstituting male dominance and strict gender roles that had been disrupted by the war.”[17] The 1950’s remained a social and political milieu of “severe oppression,”[18] yet Roosevelt suggests the reduced harassment of gay bar culture and the desire of public lesbians to reach out to other lesbians, marked a “significant transformation in lesbian consciousness.” [19]

The emergence of tough butch lesbian sub-culture in the 1950’s, was, according to Roosevelt, a consequence of gay bar life and working class female job creation during World War II.[20] Nonetheless, “alcohol, insecurity, and repression, in combination with the tough butch image, made fights among tough and rough lesbians a prominent part of the 1950s landscape which increased concern and attention from the larger culture.” [21]

Furthermore, the prominence of lesbians and male homosexuals holding positions within the American government agencies in the 1950’s was a matter of growing consternation, in light of the neo-conservatism and right wing extremism of this period. The political tirade against ‘un-American activities typified by the McCarthy led Senate committee inquiries and public hearings, not only felt virtue was found in the purging of communist allegiances and sentiments, but also coupled homosexuality and lesbianism with such perceived political aberrations. Politically enshrined deviance was aligned with sexually defined deviance. The 1950 congressional record addressed homosexuals in government, with congressman Miller of Nebraska addressing the House of Representatives. In an excerpt, Miller stated,

“I would like to strip the fetid, stinking flesh off of this skeleton of homosexuality and tell my colleagues of the House some of the facts of nature… Recently the spotlight of publicity has been focused not only upon the State Department but upon the Department of Commerce because of homosexuals being employed in these and other departments of Government. Recently Mr. Peurifoy, of the State Department, said he had allowed 91 individuals in the State Department to resign because they were homosexuals. Now they are like birds of a feather, they flock together. Where did they go? You must know what a homosexual is. It is amazing that in the Capital City of Washington we are plagued with such a large group of those individuals. Washington attracts many lovely folks. The sex crimes in the city are many.”[22]

Miller went on to refer to the Sex Pervert Bill passed through Congress that he authored, exposing his jaundiced view of sexuality by alluding to the peril of homosexuals, as well as the ‘concession’ that “some of them are more to be pitied than condemned, because in many it is a pathological condition, very much like the kleptomaniac who must go out and steal.”[23]

In addition to the homophobic cringe mentality epitomising the 1950’s which also applied to lesbianism, viewing any form of non-heterosexual sex as non-normative and therefore aberrant, prior to 2003, homosexuality (and by extension lesbianism), was “considered a disease, a sin (and) a threat to public order.”[24] Further reasons why lesbianism was shunned by American mainstream society in the 1950’s concerns the belief that (in the absence of research to the contrary), sexual orientation was subject to change and able to be transferred.[25] As such, a threat or fear existed that there was the possibility of an epidemic conversion from heterosexual to, homosexual, yielding a perceived need to ‘protect’ heterosexuals. Since homosexuals and lesbians were perceived to be engaging in indulgent, wayward and aberrant sexual behaviour by choice, rather than by predisposition, the persecution and stigmatization they received was not viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. [26] Furthermore, another potent reason for the social and political aversion to lesbianism was the belief that heterosexual minors could become homosexual by way of seduction, justifying the protection of children and youth by means of criminal law.[27]

Amnesty International’s recent statement addressing the decriminalisation of homosexuality globally, demonstrates that third wave feminist ideological battles (discussed later) are far from won. The paper makes the observation that “far fewer countries explicitly criminalise lesbianism than male homosexuality… as there (already) exists a raft of legislation to limit, police and control women’s sexual autonomy. (The writers’ explanation that), lesbianism is not generally subject to legal sanctions may be attributed to the absence of women from the public sphere and the resulting absence of awareness of lesbianism.”[28] This “social invisibility”[29] of lesbianism leads to some lawmakers denying that it even exists.

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Miller’s attitudes not only exposed the entrenched criminalisation of homosexuality (and by association lesbianism), but the second social contrivance of lesbianism which coalesced in American culture in the 1950’s, namely its ‘medicalisation’, framing lesbianism as a social pathogen, rather than an issue of sexual difference and diversity, when compared with heterosexuality or monogamy. Such a pathological casting of lesbianism is foreseen in pre-1950’s homophobic stereotypes, where psychic differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals were fabricated – constructing the homosexual male as a deficit being without “will power, perseverance, and dogmatic energy.”[30] These social postulations of male effeminacy merely mirrored manifestations of female ‘masculinisation,’ such as the butch bar working class lesbian sub-culture, already identified. Instead of current societal emphasis upon diversity and difference, the 1950’s construction of lesbianism underscored deficit and deviance.

Roosevelt draws attention to psychiatrists Henry & Gay duplicitous motives. Whilst formulating a committee for the Study of Sex Variants in the 1940’s, compiling case histories of over 300 lesbians, producing ‘Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patters, with the pretext of decriminalising lesbianism, in actuality, the hidden agenda was to legitimise the psychiatry profession, and as a consequence, medicalise lesbianism, merely replacing one construct of deviance with another. [31] Lesbianism remained an immoral practice in the USA until Illinois led the change with its homosexuality decriminalisation law in 1961.[32] Prior to this time, “criminologists of the 1950’s depicted lesbian inmates as menacing social types which lead to a conflation between women’s prisons and lesbianism.”[33] The shift to greater surveillance of lesbianism in women’s prisons was reflected in “U.S. popular and political culture in magazines, pulp novels, and movies where the, previously, comic and benign lesbian gave way to the dangerously aggressive lesbian criminal. By the 1950’s the term ‘women’s prison’ was synonymous with lesbian aggression,”[34]casting sexuality as a potential signifier of membership of a “criminal underworld, losing class, race, and privilege.” [35]Such pulp novels as those published by Ann Weldy under the pseudonym Ann Bannon, included Odd Girl Out’, (1957); ‘I Am a Woman (In Love With a Woman Why Must Society Reject Me’?) (1959); ‘Women in The Shadows’, (1959);Journey to a Woman’ (1960) and ‘The Marriage’, (1960); and Beebo Brinker (1962), the prequel to the first four books.[36] The social limitations of same-gender sexuality identification are evident in the narrative outcomes of these early lesbian pulp fiction titles. “It was expected that the characters in a lesbian novel would never receive any satisfaction from a lesbian relationship. One or both usually ended up committing suicide, going insane, or leaving the relationship.” Describing the 1950’s as the hey-day of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, Bianco noted that while its boom was inspired mainly by publishers pitching successfully to straight males seeking titillation, oppressed lesbians found a private outlet and psychic survival through such writings denied them publicly by the censoriousness of 1950’s repressive American culture. Bianco noted the publicist’s irony, since while

“cover art of pulp novels always depicted ultra-feminine women, the ‘real’ lesbians in the stories were often tomboys or ‘bad girls’ who seduced innocent straight women. Reflecting psychological theories of the time, lesbian pulp writers often presented lesbianism as the result of a trauma, such as rape or incest. At the end, the innocent straight woman almost always returned to a ‘normal’ life with a man. If the lesbian protagonist wasn’t herself converted to heterosexuality, she usually became an alcoholic, lost her job, or committed suicide. Publishers insisted on these kinds of “moral” endings, condemning lesbian sexuality even while exploiting it. In this regard, lesbian pulps followed the formula of torment and sacrifice.”[37]

As such, lurid and socially shunned fictionalisations of alternate sexuality merely reinforced the ethical and moral mainstream fabric of neo-conservative American culture. Anne Bannon, as she was publicly known, reputedly led a double life, a wife and mother who frequented lesbian bars on weekends in Greenwich Village, and strikingly only disclosed her authorship of her lesbian pulp fiction novels in the 1980’s, over two decades after they were published. In the view of Bianco, her works made a significant contribution to lesbian identity in the decade prior to ‘Stonewall’.[38]

Theoretical perspectives on lesbian and alternate sexuality critical to the exploration of emerging critical paradigms of lesbianism in America in the second half of the twentieth century, do not merely address the enduring and at times overwhelming dialectical tension between mainstream heterosexual ideology and homosexual reaction; but the internal dialectic within the gay community and how it evolved and responded to dimensions of itself throughout this passage of social history. The butch/fem dialectic itself illustrates the politics of sex and psychology. An increase in sexual experimentation and practices, saw a sub-cultural practice emerge, whereby butch/ fem lesbian couples assumed strictly defined roles, the ‘stone butch untouchable’ finding sexual pleasure exclusively through giving pleasure to her fem, while the fem forbidden to reciprocate, was positioned within the codes of the relationship to only receive pleasure. While some critiqued this relational dynamic as a mere imitation of conventional masculine approaches to sex, others identified in butches “a discomfort of being (physically) touched rooted in their biology.There was also much importance placed on role distinction, an unwanted vulnerability involved in mutual lovemaking, the butch ego, and the butch’s ambivalence toward her female body. In the 1950s, Fems approached sexuality from a self-centred perspective…and lesbians who would not select a role, but changed roles,were derisively referred to as KiKis or AC/DC and were viewed with suspicion by other working-class lesbians.”[39] That Butches apparently disliked switching roles, imposed such rigid relational rules and maintained such static notions of sexual identity, indicated that the delineation of sexual identity within this specific lesbian subculture, was just as restrictive and jaundiced a stance as the homophobic predilections of the 1950’s heterosexual community in general. The paralyzing dialectic of shame and shamelessness which more contemporary feminists have used to identify heterosexual impediments in the slow march towards sexual liberation[40] is alive in the politics of sex and identity psychology played out in the binary relations of 1950’s butch/fem lesbianism.

While many look to the Stonewall Riots at Greenwich Village New York as the defining moment for the empowerment of the modern Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, others trace the serious beginnings to 1951 in Los Angeles. In the 1950’s gay protest remained largely “bland, apologetic, unassertive and defensive…(relying) upon ‘experts’- psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts, lawyers, theologians…who spoke about us, to us, and at us, but never with us.” [41] By 1961, the Homophile Movement, represented in the US by a mere half dozen organizations, yet by 1969, numbering fifty or sixty such proactive bodies.

The origins of the Stonewall Riots have their foundation in the “immigrant, working class neighbourhoods of New York…(where) gay sexuality was very much in and of the streets…due in part to the economic and spatial limitations of the tenements. Enclaves of lesbians interacted with their gay male counterparts, congregating in the speakeasies, tearooms and drag balls of Harlem and Greenwich Village during the 1920’s.”[42] Furthermore, Greenwich Village’s “bohemian life tolerated sexual experimentation which conferred upon the area an embryonic stature of erotica unbound…lesbian and gay clubs in the Village were founded on the ‘Personality Clubs’ of the bohemian intelligentsia.”[43] Writers commonly view Greenwich as a social space freed from the normal “social constraints” of modern life, a “sexual free- zone” and a homosexual Mecca for predominantly white homosexuals, as Harlem was for black people.[44] The anonymity of the city had become accessible to post war military linked Americans, and the semi public spaces of night café and bar cultures, served to straddle the psychological and spatial divide between the privacy, domesticity and intimacy of the home, and the disclosure and defiance of public morality played out in the Greenwich domain. As Munt suggests, this cultural transition captured in Lesbian Pulp fiction, tracked “the lesbian adventurer inhabiting a twilight world where sexual encounters were acts of romanticised outlawry initiated in some back street bar and consummated in the narrative penetration of the depths of maze-like apartment buildings.” [45]Munt views Bannon’s heroines as mythologizing the “eroticised urban explorer.” [46] The value of Stonewall’s mythologisation is viewed “as a constitutive moment, while admitting its cultural fiction.”[47]

Other signposts of lesbians claiming a small cultural space and some public domain in this ensuing decade indicated by Mathison & Fraher, included the formation of the ‘Mattachine Society’ in 1951 (founded to aid homosexuals in the process of chronicling their collective histories and mitigate against social persecution); the initial publication of ‘One’ Magazine in 1953; the foundation of the lesbian organisation ‘Daughters of Bilitis’ in 1955; and the subsequent publication of their first magazine titled ‘The Ladder’ in 1956. Additionally, the Kinsley Report published in 1957 claimed 10% of the population to predominantly homosexual, while in 1961 Illinois became the first US state to criminalise homosexual acts. The Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 were closely followed by a Gay Rally in Chicago in 1970.[48]

Chapter 2

Betty Friedan’s ground breaking book titled ‘The Feminine Mystique’, encapsulated the inexplicable toleration of millions of American women in the 1950’s and early 1960’s that had exclusively devoted themselves to the mutual socially prescribed roles of wife and mother. Friedan’s thesis was that this wholehearted devotion carried a contingent cost and sacrifice beyond the conscious level of comprehension of countless women, oblivious to the enormity of what they were surrendering in the process, as well as the significant parts of themselves they were denying as a result of idolising domesticity. Friedan herself in 1994 retrospectively explained the term ‘feminine mystique’ as when “women were defined only in sexual relation to men – man’s wife, sex object, mother, housewife- and never a person defining themselves by their own actions in society.”[49] She conceived of this conceptualisation of women as a stifling barrier to their wider participation within society and therefore as fully functioning human beings. It was the notion that this existential position of women was so unchallenged and so instinctively accepted that Friedan found to be so perplexing, provocatively couched by the feminist as a ‘feminine mystique’ to ridicule the notion that the socially contrived roles had acquired the status of an implacable genetic predisposition. Quidlen acclaims Friedan’s foresight in the book’s introduction, as she succeeded in scrutinising ways “women had been coaxed into selling out their intellect and their ambitions for the paltry price of a new washing machine…(seduced by) the development of labour saving appliances…(yet being) covered up in a kitchen conspiracy of denial.”[50] Friedan empowered women with confidence to reconceptualise their problems’ origins, lying beyond her marriage or herself.[51] Furthermore, Friedan was a keen observer of hypocrisy, contradiction and imbalance, with a caustic view concerning “a generation of educated housewives maniacally arranging the silverware and dressing to welcome their husbands’ home from work.”[52]

Friedan as many other feminists and indeed lesbians was a strident advocate of the wider participation of women in society. Typifying ways women were alienated from mainstream society and disenfranchised by males, were prevailing attitudes towards abortion, public censure or ambivalence about a woman’s right to choose; the invisibility of sexual abuse, the lack of acknowledgement of more subtle forms of sexual harassment, as well as the economic and social disempowerment with relation to exit strategies for women to leave bad marriages. Friedan observes the 1990’s obsession with defining and crystalising female identity,[53] explaining this as a logical extension of the break down of the feminine mystique and the empowerment of women. This obsession manifested itself through a surfeit of women’s identity literature and college courses in women’s studies. [54] By logical extension, feminism did provide leverage for the liberation of lesbians and the sexual politics associated with lesbianism, in spite of Friedan’s disconnect with lesbianism as a valid expression of women’s rights.

Friedan did identify menopause crises, sexual frigidity, promiscuity, pregnancy fears, child birth depression, passivity, the immaturity of American men, discrepancies between women’s tested childhood intellectual abilities and their adult achievements and the changing incidence of adult sexual orgasm in American women as issues pertaining to the emergence of a fuller identity and societal participation for women.[55]

It is clear that there was little room in the consciousness of women to process the notion of their sexuality prior to the 1960’s sexual revolution, since women drew neuroses was the energy needed to juggle the conflicting roles between motherhood, domestic duty and work beyond the home and manage the personal and societal guilt which emerged from this 9at times) impossible process.[56] The social and political discourse of the era lionized women who did not lose their man, and balanced service of males, children and home. The wider world was beyond their consciousness and matters of sexual identity were not part of the public domain. Friedan contends that femininity in the 1950’s was a social construction, which, if attended to faithfully, was the only means by which women could achieve contentment and fulfilment, having historically made the blunder of trying to imitate masculinity , instead of embodying femininity, which was deemed to be characterized by sexual passivity, nurturing maternal love and male domination.[57]

Furthermore, the classification of the political domain as a male intellectual and practical bastion did nothing to facilitate women re-evaluating sexual politics and notions of political disenfranchisement in the 1950’s. In 1960, Friedan recalled that “a perceptive social psychologist showed me some sad statistics which seemed to prove unmistakably that women under age 35 years were not interested in politics.”[58] Furthermore, a false dichotomy was embedded in American national consciousness regarding female sexuality, with no middle ground, namely, women were good who came to the pedestal and whores if they expressed physical sexual desire or sought such pleasure. This dichotomous paradigm disempowered women’s sexual liberation.[59]While the feminine mystique succeeded in precluding women from considering their own sense of personal identity – who they were alone from husband, children and home,[60] the former emphasis of genetic determinism shaped women’s outlook on the path of their lives- plainly, “the identity of woman is determined by her biology.”[61] (Ironically, the same conclusion regarding lesbianism was not reached by American society for decades, prior to the 1990’s, lesbianism being widely viewed as deviant sexual conduct determined by choice rather than orientation.)

Friedan counters the Freudian explanation for the desire of women to depart from the domestic centre, namely the motive of ‘penis envy’ propagated by Freud. [62]Instead, she presciently identified the objectification of women as a societal flaw, “she was, at that time, so completely defined as object by man, never herself as ‘I’, that she was not even expected to enjoy or participate in the act of sex.”[63] The gay and lesbian revolution gained momentum in the late 1960’s, infused the female with a sense of subjectivity, to counter this objectification, poignantly exemplified through the centring of the female orgasm, which emphatically declared that women were sexual beings, capable and entitled to experience sexual pleasure, rather than being victims of abuse or neutral ‘sideline observers’ of sexual activity while their husbands were actualising their virility through sex. While Friedan acknowledged that “Freudian thought became the ideological bulwark of American of the sexual counter-revolution in America”[64]…defining the sexual nature of women, conversely Friedan speculated that an insatiable female sexual desire existed due to the vacuum created by the absence of larger life goals for woman. [65] While she countered Freud with this ex

An Examination of the Advancement of Lesbian Theory & Criticism – America: 1950’s-1990’s.

Introduction

Lesbianism in American society is a concept imbued with social, political, legal, aesthetic and literary codes and conventions, whether considered in 1950 or currently. In the past half century, lesbianism has not only expressed itself as specific articulations of sexuality and lifestyle, but also of ideology and political aspiration. Sexuality has remained essential to conceptualisations of lesbianism in this time span, with its political formulations, societal censures, and social accommodations anchored to the vicissitudes of feminist theory and practice. American social and political morays which have prescribed female functionality in post World War Two years, have cast mainstream female identity in terms of motherhood, wifeliness and domesticity, a formulation of personhood deeply challenged by advancing lesbian ideology and praxis.

In this light, one of the significant threads of lesbian theory and criticism to be evaluated pertains to feminism’s examination of female identity in the past 50 years, and the status and reaction of lesbianism within this paradigm. This process encompasses events and issues pertaining to the biological, sexual and social validation of female gender, but also the intellectual development of modes of discourse pertaining to feminism and lesbianism, as a means of female empowerment, paralleled by considered or reactionary responses to wider societal trends.

So called second wave feminism, benchmarked by the Stonewall Riots at Greenwich Village in New York in 1969, targeted women’s liberation not only at the level of law, and concrete denotations of inequality and injustice, (akin to feminism’s first wave), but at the more visceral level of societal and political attitudes and values, including the ideological decoupling of female personhood from male sexuality.

Since the early 1990’s, the ideological and theoretical formulations of lesbianism have been advancing in disparate lines, at the bidding of post-structuralist or postmodernist discourses. Some of lesbianism’s intellectual impulses have focused upon notions of sexual and personal identity, and in spite of their intellectual sophistication have lost their momentum and coherence, collapsing into an “ambiguous polymorphy,”[1] whilst attempting to dispense with unhelpful binary oppositional definitions of gender or sexuality. Conversely, an intellectual strength of third wave feminism and post 1980’s lesbian criticism has been the attention to personhood, the integrity of the self and the integration of public and private moralities.

Chapter 1

Homosexuality after World War I was broadly viewed as “an offence against the family and social expectations about gender.”[2] A doctor’s post World War 1 contemporary observations noted that it was “improper to utter the word homosexuality, prurient to admit its existence and pornographic to discuss the subject.”[3] The same doctor reflects the radical difference between American and European cultural and sexual values, implying that while Europe was perceived by Americans as decadent, European novels could discuss homosexuality openly within a European setting, yet American novels could not, since “if it existed at all, (as) our soil is unfavourable, our climate prejudicial, our people too primitive, too pure.”[4] Furthermore, Fone contends that homosexuality had come to be seen as a “subversion of America itself.” [5] Fone also observes that since war is a “time of fear and upheaval-it produces a virulent, xenophobic strain of homophobia” tantamount to conceiving “sexual difference as a betrayal of American values”.[6]

Retrospectively implicit among these anecdotal pre World War II dismissals of homosexuality, is the notable silence concerning any distinction between male and female homosexuality, or gay and lesbian sexual phenomenon. The grip of patriarchy was so overarching that lesbianism did not even feature as a notable offence against social sensibilities.

Be that as it may. The social discourse regarding lesbianism in the 1950’s was in part a response to the repositioning of women due to World War II. As war demanded heightened US defences and reconstituted the nation’s labour force, women formed the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and were seconded to non-traditional jobs, accounting for one third of the work force. According to Kennedy and Davis, “World War II… had a tremendous impact on lesbian life, by offering lesbians more opportunities for socialising and meeting other women.”[7] Since the war “gave more independence to all women… lesbians (were) more like other women and less easy to identify. Since all women were able to wear pants to work and to purchase them in stores off the rack, butches who only wore pants in the privacy of their home in the 1930s could now wear them on the streets.”[8] Furthermore, in Buffalo women gained access to better jobs since productivity was heightened by war manufacturing. Since the male population of Buffalo was denuded for military service, lesbians had greater liberty to meet in public and pursue active social lives beyond hearth and home. Extensive social life revolved around “the proliferation of gay bars”[9] and despite the “mere presence of homosexuals…interpreted by the State Liquor Authority as constituting disorderly conduct”,[10] raids on premises were minimal in the 1940’s due to the shrewdness of business owners.[11]

Concurrently, enlisted lesbians found a social space within the male world of military service since enrolment screening practices for lesbians entering the (WAC) were less stringent than for gay men.[12] In this example, the lack of status for women in the military prior to the war resulted in ill-defined screening procedures for women recruits, matched by a choice to not investigate the sexual lives of women, as the goal was to optimise the war effort.[13] The simplistic and binary designations of sexual orientation in the late 1940’s are noted by the comments from “a group of Marine Corps examiners at Camp LeJeune (who) advised their colleagues, “that women showing a masculine manner may be perfectly normal sexually and excellent military material.”[14] By the late 1940’s however, “purging of lesbians from the military became increasingly problematic. Many women were forced to deny knowing any of their friends or marry gay men to pass as heterosexual.”[15] Ominously, “mid 1950’s Navy officials secretly acknowledged that the homosexual discharge rate had become much higher for the female than the male.” [16]

When the end of the war brought a resumption of traditional family roles, there were no alternate social prescriptions for women apart from marriage, and enduring singleness subjected females to social disapproval, while the “aggressive harassment of lesbians and gays was connected to this glorification of the nuclear family and domestic sphere.Homophobia became a way of reinstituting male dominance and strict gender roles that had been disrupted by the war.”[17] The 1950’s remained a social and political milieu of “severe oppression,”[18] yet Roosevelt suggests the reduced harassment of gay bar culture and the desire of public lesbians to reach out to other lesbians, marked a “significant transformation in lesbian consciousness.” [19]

The emergence of tough butch lesbian sub-culture in the 1950’s, was, according to Roosevelt, a consequence of gay bar life and working class female job creation during World War II.[20] Nonetheless, “alcohol, insecurity, and repression, in combination with the tough butch image, made fights among tough and rough lesbians a prominent part of the 1950s landscape which increased concern and attention from the larger culture.” [21]

Furthermore, the prominence of lesbians and male homosexuals holding positions within the American government agencies in the 1950’s was a matter of growing consternation, in light of the neo-conservatism and right wing extremism of this period. The political tirade against ‘un-American activities typified by the McCarthy led Senate committee inquiries and public hearings, not only felt virtue was found in the purging of communist allegiances and sentiments, but also coupled homosexuality and lesbianism with such perceived political aberrations. Politically enshrined deviance was aligned with sexually defined deviance. The 1950 congressional record addressed homosexuals in government, with congressman Miller of Nebraska addressing the House of Representatives. In an excerpt, Miller stated,

“I would like to strip the fetid, stinking flesh off of this skeleton of homosexuality and tell my colleagues of the House some of the facts of nature… Recently the spotlight of publicity has been focused not only upon the State Department but upon the Department of Commerce because of homosexuals being employed in these and other departments of Government. Recently Mr. Peurifoy, of the State Department, said he had allowed 91 individuals in the State Department to resign because they were homosexuals. Now they are like birds of a feather, they flock together. Where did they go? You must know what a homosexual is. It is amazing that in the Capital City of Washington we are plagued with such a large group of those individuals. Washington attracts many lovely folks. The sex crimes in the city are many.”[22]

Miller went on to refer to the Sex Pervert Bill passed through Congress that he authored, exposing his jaundiced view of sexuality by alluding to the peril of homosexuals, as well as the ‘concession’ that “some of them are more to be pitied than condemned, because in many it is a pathological condition, very much like the kleptomaniac who must go out and steal.”[23]

In addition to the homophobic cringe mentality epitomising the 1950’s which also applied to lesbianism, viewing any form of non-heterosexual sex as non-normative and therefore aberrant, prior to 2003, homosexuality (and by extension lesbianism), was “considered a disease, a sin (and) a threat to public order.”[24] Further reasons why lesbianism was shunned by American mainstream society in the 1950’s concerns the belief that (in the absence of research to the contrary), sexual orientation was subject to change and able to be transferred.[25] As such, a threat or fear existed that there was the possibility of an epidemic conversion from heterosexual to, homosexual, yielding a perceived need to ‘protect’ heterosexuals. Since homosexuals and lesbians were perceived to be engaging in indulgent, wayward and aberrant sexual behaviour by choice, rather than by predisposition, the persecution and stigmatization they received was not viewed as a breach of fundamental human rights. [26] Furthermore, another potent reason for the social and political aversion to lesbianism was the belief that heterosexual minors could become homosexual by way of seduction, justifying the protection of children and youth by means of criminal law.[27]

Amnesty International’s recent statement addressing the decriminalisation of homosexuality globally, demonstrates that third wave feminist ideological battles (discussed later) are far from won. The paper makes the observation that “far fewer countries explicitly criminalise lesbianism than male homosexuality… as there (already) exists a raft of legislation to limit, police and control women’s sexual autonomy. (The writers’ explanation that), lesbianism is not generally subject to legal sanctions may be attributed to the absence of women from the public sphere and the resulting absence of awareness of lesbianism.”[28] This “social invisibility”[29] of lesbianism leads to some lawmakers denying that it even exists.

Miller’s attitudes not only exposed the entrenched criminalisation of homosexuality (and by association lesbianism), but the second social contrivance of lesbianism which coalesced in American culture in the 1950’s, namely its ‘medicalisation’, framing lesbianism as a social pathogen, rather than an issue of sexual difference and diversity, when compared with heterosexuality or monogamy. Such a pathological casting of lesbianism is foreseen in pre-1950’s homophobic stereotypes, where psychic differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals were fabricated – constructing the homosexual male as a deficit being without “will power, perseverance, and dogmatic energy.”[30] These social postulations of male effeminacy merely mirrored manifestations of female ‘masculinisation,’ such as the butch bar working class lesbian sub-culture, already identified. Instead of current societal emphasis upon diversity and difference, the 1950’s construction of lesbianism underscored deficit and deviance.

Roosevelt draws attention to psychiatrists Henry & Gay duplicitous motives. Whilst formulating a committee for the Study of Sex Variants in the 1940’s, compiling case histories of over 300 lesbians, producing ‘Sex Variants: A Study of Homosexual Patters, with the pretext of decriminalising lesbianism, in actuality, the hidden agenda was to legitimise the psychiatry profession, and as a consequence, medicalise lesbianism, merely replacing one construct of deviance with another. [31] Lesbianism remained an immoral practice in the USA until Illinois led the change with its homosexuality decriminalisation law in 1961.[32] Prior to this time, “criminologists of the 1950’s depicted lesbian inmates as menacing social types which lead to a conflation between women’s prisons and lesbianism.”[33] The shift to greater surveillance of lesbianism in women’s prisons was reflected in “U.S. popular and political culture in magazines, pulp novels, and movies where the, previously, comic and benign lesbian gave way to the dangerously aggressive lesbian criminal. By the 1950’s the term ‘women’s prison’ was synonymous with lesbian aggression,”[34]casting sexuality as a potential signifier of membership of a “criminal underworld, losing class, race, and privilege.” [35]Such pulp novels as those published by Ann Weldy under the pseudonym Ann Bannon, included Odd Girl Out’, (1957); ‘I Am a Woman (In Love With a Woman Why Must Society Reject Me’?) (1959); ‘Women in The Shadows’, (1959);Journey to a Woman’ (1960) and ‘The Marriage’, (1960); and Beebo Brinker (1962), the prequel to the first four books.[36] The social limitations of same-gender sexuality identification are evident in the narrative outcomes of these early lesbian pulp fiction titles. “It was expected that the characters in a lesbian novel would never receive any satisfaction from a lesbian relationship. One or both usually ended up committing suicide, going insane, or leaving the relationship.” Describing the 1950’s as the hey-day of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, Bianco noted that while its boom was inspired mainly by publishers pitching successfully to straight males seeking titillation, oppressed lesbians found a private outlet and psychic survival through such writings denied them publicly by the censoriousness of 1950’s repressive American culture. Bianco noted the publicist’s irony, since while

“cover art of pulp novels always depicted ultra-feminine women, the ‘real’ lesbians in the stories were often tomboys or ‘bad girls’ who seduced innocent straight women. Reflecting psychological theories of the time, lesbian pulp writers often presented lesbianism as the result of a trauma, such as rape or incest. At the end, the innocent straight woman almost always returned to a ‘normal’ life with a man. If the lesbian protagonist wasn’t herself converted to heterosexuality, she usually became an alcoholic, lost her job, or committed suicide. Publishers insisted on these kinds of “moral” endings, condemning lesbian sexuality even while exploiting it. In this regard, lesbian pulps followed the formula of torment and sacrifice.”[37]

As such, lurid and socially shunned fictionalisations of alternate sexuality merely reinforced the ethical and moral mainstream fabric of neo-conservative American culture. Anne Bannon, as she was publicly known, reputedly led a double life, a wife and mother who frequented lesbian bars on weekends in Greenwich Village, and strikingly only disclosed her authorship of her lesbian pulp fiction novels in the 1980’s, over two decades after they were published. In the view of Bianco, her works made a significant contribution to lesbian identity in the decade prior to ‘Stonewall’.[38]

Theoretical perspectives on lesbian and alternate sexuality critical to the exploration of emerging critical paradigms of lesbianism in America in the second half of the twentieth century, do not merely address the enduring and at times overwhelming dialectical tension between mainstream heterosexual ideology and homosexual reaction; but the internal dialectic within the gay community and how it evolved and responded to dimensions of itself throughout this passage of social history. The butch/fem dialectic itself illustrates the politics of sex and psychology. An increase in sexual experimentation and practices, saw a sub-cultural practice emerge, whereby butch/ fem lesbian couples assumed strictly defined roles, the ‘stone butch untouchable’ finding sexual pleasure exclusively through giving pleasure to her fem, while the fem forbidden to reciprocate, was positioned within the codes of the relationship to only receive pleasure. While some critiqued this relational dynamic as a mere imitation of conventional masculine approaches to sex, others identified in butches “a discomfort of being (physically) touched rooted in their biology.There was also much importance placed on role distinction, an unwanted vulnerability involved in mutual lovemaking, the butch ego, and the butch’s ambivalence toward her female body. In the 1950s, Fems approached sexuality from a self-centred perspective…and lesbians who would not select a role, but changed roles,were derisively referred to as KiKis or AC/DC and were viewed with suspicion by other working-class lesbians.”[39] That Butches apparently disliked switching roles, imposed such rigid relational rules and maintained such static notions of sexual identity, indicated that the delineation of sexual identity within this specific lesbian subculture, was just as restrictive and jaundiced a stance as the homophobic predilections of the 1950’s heterosexual community in general. The paralyzing dialectic of shame and shamelessness which more contemporary feminists have used to identify heterosexual impediments in the slow march towards sexual liberation[40] is alive in the politics of sex and identity psychology played out in the binary relations of 1950’s butch/fem lesbianism.

While many look to the Stonewall Riots at Greenwich Village New York as the defining moment for the empowerment of the modern Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, others trace the serious beginnings to 1951 in Los Angeles. In the 1950’s gay protest remained largely “bland, apologetic, unassertive and defensive…(relying) upon ‘experts’- psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts, lawyers, theologians…who spoke about us, to us, and at us, but never with us.” [41] By 1961, the Homophile Movement, represented in the US by a mere half dozen organizations, yet by 1969, numbering fifty or sixty such proactive bodies.

The origins of the Stonewall Riots have their foundation in the “immigrant, working class neighbourhoods of New York…(where) gay sexuality was very much in and of the streets…due in part to the economic and spatial limitations of the tenements. Enclaves of lesbians interacted with their gay male counterparts, congregating in the speakeasies, tearooms and drag balls of Harlem and Greenwich Village during the 1920’s.”[42] Furthermore, Greenwich Village’s “bohemian life tolerated sexual experimentation which conferred upon the area an embryonic stature of erotica unbound…lesbian and gay clubs in the Village were founded on the ‘Personality Clubs’ of the bohemian intelligentsia.”[43] Writers commonly view Greenwich as a social space freed from the normal “social constraints” of modern life, a “sexual free- zone” and a homosexual Mecca for predominantly white homosexuals, as Harlem was for black people.[44] The anonymity of the city had become accessible to post war military linked Americans, and the semi public spaces of night café and bar cultures, served to straddle the psychological and spatial divide between the privacy, domesticity and intimacy of the home, and the disclosure and defiance of public morality played out in the Greenwich domain. As Munt suggests, this cultural transition captured in Lesbian Pulp fiction, tracked “the lesbian adventurer inhabiting a twilight world where sexual encounters were acts of romanticised outlawry initiated in some back street bar and consummated in the narrative penetration of the depths of maze-like apartment buildings.” [45]Munt views Bannon’s heroines as mythologizing the “eroticised urban explorer.” [46] The value of Stonewall’s mythologisation is viewed “as a constitutive moment, while admitting its cultural fiction.”[47]

Other signposts of lesbians claiming a small cultural space and some public domain in this ensuing decade indicated by Mathison & Fraher, included the formation of the ‘Mattachine Society’ in 1951 (founded to aid homosexuals in the process of chronicling their collective histories and mitigate against social persecution); the initial publication of ‘One’ Magazine in 1953; the foundation of the lesbian organisation ‘Daughters of Bilitis’ in 1955; and the subsequent publication of their first magazine titled ‘The Ladder’ in 1956. Additionally, the Kinsley Report published in 1957 claimed 10% of the population to predominantly homosexual, while in 1961 Illinois became the first US state to criminalise homosexual acts. The Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 were closely followed by a Gay Rally in Chicago in 1970.[48]

Chapter 2

Betty Friedan’s ground breaking book titled ‘The Feminine Mystique’, encapsulated the inexplicable toleration of millions of American women in the 1950’s and early 1960’s that had exclusively devoted themselves to the mutual socially prescribed roles of wife and mother. Friedan’s thesis was that this wholehearted devotion carried a contingent cost and sacrifice beyond the conscious level of comprehension of countless women, oblivious to the enormity of what they were surrendering in the process, as well as the significant parts of themselves they were denying as a result of idolising domesticity. Friedan herself in 1994 retrospectively explained the term ‘feminine mystique’ as when “women were defined only in sexual relation to men – man’s wife, sex object, mother, housewife- and never a person defining themselves by their own actions in society.”[49] She conceived of this conceptualisation of women as a stifling barrier to their wider participation within society and therefore as fully functioning human beings. It was the notion that this existential position of women was so unchallenged and so instinctively accepted that Friedan found to be so perplexing, provocatively couched by the feminist as a ‘feminine mystique’ to ridicule the notion that the socially contrived roles had acquired the status of an implacable genetic predisposition. Quidlen acclaims Friedan’s foresight in the book’s introduction, as she succeeded in scrutinising ways “women had been coaxed into selling out their intellect and their ambitions for the paltry price of a new washing machine…(seduced by) the development of labour saving appliances…(yet being) covered up in a kitchen conspiracy of denial.”[50] Friedan empowered women with confidence to reconceptualise their problems’ origins, lying beyond her marriage or herself.[51] Furthermore, Friedan was a keen observer of hypocrisy, contradiction and imbalance, with a caustic view concerning “a generation of educated housewives maniacally arranging the silverware and dressing to welcome their husbands’ home from work.”[52]

Friedan as many other feminists and indeed lesbians was a strident advocate of the wider participation of women in society. Typifying ways women were alienated from mainstream society and disenfranchised by males, were prevailing attitudes towards abortion, public censure or ambivalence about a woman’s right to choose; the invisibility of sexual abuse, the lack of acknowledgement of more subtle forms of sexual harassment, as well as the economic and social disempowerment with relation to exit strategies for women to leave bad marriages. Friedan observes the 1990’s obsession with defining and crystalising female identity,[53] explaining this as a logical extension of the break down of the feminine mystique and the empowerment of women. This obsession manifested itself through a surfeit of women’s identity literature and college courses in women’s studies. [54] By logical extension, feminism did provide leverage for the liberation of lesbians and the sexual politics associated with lesbianism, in spite of Friedan’s disconnect with lesbianism as a valid expression of women’s rights.

Friedan did identify menopause crises, sexual frigidity, promiscuity, pregnancy fears, child birth depression, passivity, the immaturity of American men, discrepancies between women’s tested childhood intellectual abilities and their adult achievements and the changing incidence of adult sexual orgasm in American women as issues pertaining to the emergence of a fuller identity and societal participation for women.[55]

It is clear that there was little room in the consciousness of women to process the notion of their sexuality prior to the 1960’s sexual revolution, since women drew neuroses was the energy needed to juggle the conflicting roles between motherhood, domestic duty and work beyond the home and manage the personal and societal guilt which emerged from this 9at times) impossible process.[56] The social and political discourse of the era lionized women who did not lose their man, and balanced service of males, children and home. The wider world was beyond their consciousness and matters of sexual identity were not part of the public domain. Friedan contends that femininity in the 1950’s was a social construction, which, if attended to faithfully, was the only means by which women could achieve contentment and fulfilment, having historically made the blunder of trying to imitate masculinity , instead of embodying femininity, which was deemed to be characterized by sexual passivity, nurturing maternal love and male domination.[57]

Furthermore, the classification of the political domain as a male intellectual and practical bastion did nothing to facilitate women re-evaluating sexual politics and notions of political disenfranchisement in the 1950’s. In 1960, Friedan recalled that “a perceptive social psychologist showed me some sad statistics which seemed to prove unmistakably that women under age 35 years were not interested in politics.”[58] Furthermore, a false dichotomy was embedded in American national consciousness regarding female sexuality, with no middle ground, namely, women were good who came to the pedestal and whores if they expressed physical sexual desire or sought such pleasure. This dichotomous paradigm disempowered women’s sexual liberation.[59]While the feminine mystique succeeded in precluding women from considering their own sense of personal identity – who they were alone from husband, children and home,[60] the former emphasis of genetic determinism shaped women’s outlook on the path of their lives- plainly, “the identity of woman is determined by her biology.”[61] (Ironically, the same conclusion regarding lesbianism was not reached by American society for decades, prior to the 1990’s, lesbianism being widely viewed as deviant sexual conduct determined by choice rather than orientation.)

Friedan counters the Freudian explanation for the desire of women to depart from the domestic centre, namely the motive of ‘penis envy’ propagated by Freud. [62]Instead, she presciently identified the objectification of women as a societal flaw, “she was, at that time, so completely defined as object by man, never herself as ‘I’, that she was not even expected to enjoy or participate in the act of sex.”[63] The gay and lesbian revolution gained momentum in the late 1960’s, infused the female with a sense of subjectivity, to counter this objectification, poignantly exemplified through the centring of the female orgasm, which emphatically declared that women were sexual beings, capable and entitled to experience sexual pleasure, rather than being victims of abuse or neutral ‘sideline observers’ of sexual activity while their husbands were actualising their virility through sex. While Friedan acknowledged that “Freudian thought became the ideological bulwark of American of the sexual counter-revolution in America”[64]…defining the sexual nature of women, conversely Friedan speculated that an insatiable female sexual desire existed due to the vacuum created by the absence of larger life goals for woman. [65] While she countered Freud with this ex

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