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Lesbian American history

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Lesbian American history addresses the history of women who are attracted to other women in the United States. A relatively new field of historical inquiry, the breadth of understanding and knowledge regarding lesbian American history has expanded significantly since the beginning of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement. Primary historical resources for lesbian American history are scant and, hence, this is a fledgling discipline ripe for investigation.

Difficulties in studyEdit

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Longstanding denial of the very existence of Lesbianism frustrates the exploration of Lesbian American history. As much of early American sensibilities were fashioned by Victorian English colonization, it is no coincidence that for a great while lesbianism was denied, and fringe discussion of the very possibility of lesbianism was tabled in both legislatures and academic circles. Hence, few resources exist making more detailed study of certain eras impossible. The study of lesbian American history might thus be described as embryonic. Certain resources have survived and are discussed below.

Attempts to criminalizeEdit

Two women were prosecuted for lewd conduct in 1649 in Plymouth Colony, and one of them was convicted. This may be the only conviction for lesbianism in American history.[1]

England's attempted criminalization of sexual acts between women paralleled the American attempts to amend sodomy codes to include lesbianism. During consideration of the Labouchere Amendment, brought before Parliament in 1885, whose language had already banned any male homosexual conduct as a capital crime. Attempts to include prohibition of intimacy between females were smothered, both by Queen Victoria's refusal to acknowledge the existence of lesbianism and the honest dread in the House of Lords that criminalization thereof would actually alert women to the possibility of female sexual relations and thus indirectly encourage lascivious behavior. Nearly forty years later, the House of Lords again blocked criminalization of lesbianism on the same premise.[2] Likewise, in the colony of Massachusetts, John Cotton's attempts to include lesbianism in the colony's original sodomy legislation was frustrated, the defeated definition as follows: "Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls[3]This version of the law was never adopted and scarcely considered. The statutes remained gender-specific.

Early historical recordsEdit

The earliest American historical records concerned with female homosexual conduct were not drawn from sources sympathetic to lesbians, or women in general. Although it is through early records of colonial legislatures and writings that clearly consider lesbians a social outgroup, the sparse material shows mainstream attitudes toward lesbianism, and the opposition to homosexual women during the years prior to the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement.

Some of the earliest published studies of female homosexual activity were written from observations of, and data gathered from, incarcerated women. Margaret Otis published "A Perversion Not Commonly Noted" in the 1913 Journal of American Psychology, coupling a decidedly Puritanical moral foundation with an almost revolutionary sympathy for lesbian relationships; her focus revolved more around her revulsion for sexual contact between those of different ethnic backgrounds, yet offered an almost radical tolerance of the lesbian relations themselves, as Otis noted "...sometimes the love [of one young woman for another] is very real and seems almost ennobling."[2] This document provided a rare view from a tightly controlled setting monitored by a corrections supervisor. Kate Richards O'Hare, imprisoned in 1917 for five years under the Espionage Act of 1917, published a firsthand account of the life of incarcerated women In Prison[4] complete with frightening accounts of lesbian sexual abuse among inmates. So wrote O'Hare: "...A thorough education in sex perversions is part of the educational system of most prisons, and for the most part the underkeepers [sic] and the stool pigeons are very efficient teachers..."

O'Hare then recounted a systematic induction of women into a cycle of forced prostitution to which authorities turned a blind eye: "...there seems to be considerable ground for the commonly accepted belief of the prison inmates that much of its graft and profits may percolate upward to the under officials...the...stool pigeon...handled the vices so rampant in the prison...she, in fact, held the power of life and death over us, by being able to secure endless punishments in the blind cell, she could and did compel indulgence in this vice in order that its profits might be secured."[2]

Though these both provided second-hand accounts from two very different perspectives, no locatable known lesbian first-hand accounts of life in a correctional institution are known to exist, leaving this area of study incomplete and ripe for further investigation.

Boston MarriagesEdit

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Main article: Boston marriage

In New EnglandEdit

Certain arrangements were permitted to varied extents between two women throughout communities in New England, and, while far from mainstream, these households offer a more substantial pool of primary sources from which to draw information on early lesbian behavior. Primarily being a product of the town, and having a literary origin, the arrangements have been dubbed Boston marriages.[2] These relationships vary in character and do not necessarily imply sexual intimacy.

In UtahEdit

Another unlikely enclave hosted an acceptance of Boston Marriage style arrangements. In Utah, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints granted identity to these women, with an Elder in the church noting: "some of the Sisters were engaged in conversing in tongues their countenances beaming with joy, clasped each other's hands and kissed in the most affectionate manner." Whether these relationships were sexual is uncertain, but the bonds of the relationship were real. Despite the comfort these women enjoyed, in 1952 the Mormon Church formally denounced lesbianism and these arrangements ended.[5]

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Early twentieth century: association and early activismEdit

The 20th century saw the birth of the earliest Lesbian rights organizations, most importantly of which was Heterodoxy, founded as a feminist luncheon club for "unorthodox women," in whose membership is included notable and prominent lesbians Katherine Anthony, Sara Josephine Baker, Helen Hull, and Elisabeth Irwin. Concurrently established in San Francisco, Mona's 440 club became the first recognized lesbian bar.[6] Emma Goldman, internationally known anarchist and social activist, once dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America" by J. Edgar Hoover, was also an outspoken advocated of the rights of gays and lesbians, perhaps for the first time in American history. Whether or not Goldman was involved in any lesbian relationships is uncertain, but her advocacy has resulted in some calling her the Mother of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement.

Birth of a movementEdit

Founded in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis was the first exclusively Lesbian organization in the United States. A year after their founding in San Francisco, DoB began publishing The Ladder (Magazine), the first widely-distributed Lesbian American periodical. Soon after, a chapter was formed in New York City, and held the first Lesbian American conference in 1960.[7] As the Women's Liberation Movement began, lesbians found an outlet to voice concerns shared with heterosexual women. In 1969 lesbian author and activist Rita Mae Brown joined the National Organization for Women and challenged homophobia within the organization: "I'm tired of hearing everyone moan about men. Say something good about women. I'll say something good. I love them. I'm a lesbian." One year later all lesbians were expelled from its ranks, and one year after that they were again admitted, with apologies from NOW's leadership.[8] The Metropolitan Community Church was founded in 1968, the first Christian assembly of gays and lesbians. In 1969, the church's founder, Rev. Troy D. Perry, performed the first known same-sex marriage in the United States.

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Gay liberationEdit

In the second half of the 1960s, LGBT activism spilled over into social protest and gay liberation. On the East Coast, beginning in 1965, homophile organizations picketed the White House, The Pentagon, the United Nations, and Independence Hall, demanding an end to anti-gay discrimination. The picketers were few in number, but received attention (generally unfavorable) in national news reports. More dramatically, transgendered people rioted in August 1966 at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco, the first time in history an organized group of LGBT people resisted arrest. In 1969, Rita Mae Brown, along with many other lesbians, took part in the Stonewall riots. This event, known as the birth of the modern Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement, began in response to a targeted effort by police to close known gay and lesbian establishments. [9]

The Kinsey Reports and their legacyEdit

In 1948, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey released a groundbreaking report on male sexuality, and followed it with Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953. Kinsey concluded that while only 2% of the female population would remain completely homosexual, 13% of all women will engage in some level of lesbian activity during their lives. Kinsey's studies offered scientific data to refute the idea of homosexuality as a medical condition, and subject to being cured. These findings helped to convince the psychiatric community to remove homosexuality from its catalog of psychological diseases.[10] At that point, with friends in both the religious and science communities, lesbians were able to make progress.

Radical lesbian ideologyEdit

RadicalesbiansEdit

Some lesbians were uninterested in heterosexual acceptance and instead sought life beyond interaction with men. Radical thinkers began alliances and published unprecedented lesbian separatist literature. While all of these organizations, including the Lesbian Separatist Movement, ONE, Radicalesbians, et al., differed slightly in ideology, examination of the Radicalesbians offers a representative sample of the separatist ideology. Essential to their beliefs is the perception of ubiquitous oppression by the Heteropatriarchy. Furthermore, gender and sexuality are constructs of the heterosexual male-controlled society, and must be circumvented to approach any semblance of equality for either homosexuals or women. The Radicalesbians produced a formal treatise that clarifies this perspective:

File:ValerieSolanasSCUMCover.gif
...it should first be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanize women by defining us as a supportive/serving caste in relation to the master caste of men, and emotionally cripple men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their... [proscribed] functions effectively."

This treatise, "The Woman-Identified Woman", is considered one of the founding works of lesbian feminism.[11]

Valerie SolanasEdit

Ideas for lesbian separatism ranged from the self-segregation of lesbian individuals into autonomous communities, to the most radical of all, proposed by Valerie Solanas, which was eradication of the male gender entirely. Though Solanas stopped short of advocating the execution of men, she contended that the male of the species was an accident spawned by an incomplete X chromosome. Her SCUM Manifesto remains a classic of both feminist and lesbian scholarship, calling for the asexual reproduction of the species and the genetic irregularity (i.e. men) to be discontinued.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. Bullough, Vern; Bullough, Bonnie (1977). "Lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s: A Newfound Study". Signs 2 (4): 895–904. doi:10.1086/493419. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Katz, Jonathan Ned (1992, 2nd ed.). Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.. New York: Meridian Books, 720. ISBN 0-4520-1092-6. 
  3. Whitmore, William Henry (February 1995). The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1660, With the Supplements to 1672 : Containing Also, the Body of Liberties of. Fred B. Rothman & Company. ISBN 0-8377-2053-2. 
  4. O'Hare, Kate Richards (1923). In prison. New York: A.A. Knopf. Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
  5. Jordan, Sara. Lesbian Mormon History. Retrieved on 2006-12-08.
  6. Duberman, Martin; Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (Editors) (1989). Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past. New York: Meridian. ISBN 0-4520-1067-5. 
  7. Cruikshank, Margaret (September 1992). The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement (Revolutionary Thought/Radical Movements Series). Routledge, 225. ISBN 0-4159-0647-4. 
  8. DiStephano, Blasé (January 1998). "Rita Mae Brown". OutSmart Magazine. 
  9. Amsel, Robert (September 15, 1987). "A Walk on the Wild Side of Stonewall". The Advocate. 
  10. Riggle, Ellen; Barry Tadlock (1999). Gays and Lesbians in the Democratic Process. Columbia University Press, 384. ISBN 0-2311-1585-7. 
  11. The Woman-Identified Woman. Radicalesbians. Pittsburgh: Know, Inc (c.1970). Retrieved on 2006-12-08.

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