Does “lesbian” have a future? 

Why do you use the word lesbian? Couldn’t you just say queer?

I really hate the word lesbian. It has ugly sound. Couldn’t you just say gay?

Really?  Don’t you think lesbian is a little outdated? Couldn’t you talk about trans theory instead? Or crip theory? Or animal humanities? Or digital humanities? Or rhizomes? Or Afro-pessimism?[1]

As a matter of fact I do think many of these new fields have challenged us to refine and deepen our understandings of lesbian genders. And many of them draw on some of the key insights of more than forty years of lesbian, trans, and queer theory. But to drop “lesbian” as a term and tool from our analyses would be a crucial mistake. It seems to me that to evoke such consistent negative reactions across so many different contexts, this word must have a lot of power. And that makes me reluctant to let it go. All the more so since it’s a variation of the same warnings I’ve received since I first started working in lesbian studies in the mid-1980s. 

At that time, my supportive straight feminist dissertation director told me: I would love it if you could write a dissertation on lesbians in the eighteenth century, but you can’t, because of course there are just no sources. But I did manage to write a dissertation that described a Sapphic history of the eighteenth-century novel, in part by borrowing a mentor from the German department, Biddy Martin. Before she was the crusading anti-rape president of Amherst College, of course, she was one of the most important early queer theorists, an expert on psychoanalysis and feminism, that potent butch-femme couple that gave birth to queer theory. As far back as 1993, Martin wrote:  “some of our recent efforts to introduce desire into the definition of lesbianism and distance it from imperatives to identify with and as women have cast (feminine) gender as mere masquerade or as a constraint to be escaped, overridden, or left aside as the more radical work of queering the world proceeds.”[2] More than twenty years later, Susan Lanser writes that the problems Martin identified “have persisted despite a burgeoning scholarship on female homoeroticism” suggesting that “a tacit acceptance of the marginality of ‘lesbian’ in distinction to the…cachet of the term ‘queer’”[3] has far from disappeared. The observations of Martin and Lanser are animated by a critique of the pervasive sexism of academic disciplines, including and sometimes especially feminism and queer theory, and I share this auto-critique of our fields as only too willing, like the rest of our culture, to forget about lesbians. Queer and transgender theories are sometimes understood to have supplanted the analytic and cultural usefulness of the term lesbian. But in this essay I want to identify a tradition and history of intertwined lesbian, trans, and woman of color feminist work on gender that has deeply shaped current critical fields sometimes supposed to have supplanted the lesbian. It is in their interaction with “the lesbian,” variously understood, that these fields have broken new ground in gender theory. New understandings of gender, race, and the human, I would argue, actually make the term “lesbian” more useful and yes, sexier than ever.  In the second part of this essay, I turn to my own current research on the lesbian history of the sonnet to demonstrate the continued analytic vitality of lesbian genders.

Let me start with a familiar example, The Well of Loneliness, and a key insight of trans theory: that phenomena often described as “lesbian”—that is, as about sexuality—are often better described as “trans”—that is, about gender. As Martin was among the first to recognize, articulating this distinction between gender and sexuality was a central project of early lesbian and gay studies. In fact, I would argue that in addition to the extra-institutional efforts of trans activists, this analytic separation of gender and sexuality was an important precondition for the emergence of trans theory. As such, I see it as a powerful intervention in problematic critical tendencies in lesbian studies that we are now in a position to correct.  

Among the most memorable passages of the 1928 novel address protagonist Stephen Gordon’s gender: “She, Stephen…longed to be William Tell, or Nelson” (16);[4] Doesn’t Miss Stephen look exactly like a boy? I believe she must be a boy with them shoulders, and them funny gawky legs she’s got on her!”; “Yes, of course I’m a boy . . . I must be a boy, ‘cause I feel exactly like one…” (16); “…I’m going to learn fencing so as I can kill your brother-in-law who’s a beast to your sister, I’m going to fight duels for wives in distress, like men do in Paris…” (55). We have learned from trans theory that when people who have been hitherto read as female tell us they are boys, or men, what we do is simple: we believe them. According to this reading, Stephen is not lesbian, but trans, or even simply, a boy. Perhaps we can now more accurately refer to The Well of Loneliness as a “classic trans novel.”

Or perhaps not. What are we to make of the fact that throughout the novel, Stephen is referred to as “she”? There is plenty of literary precedent for referring to such a character with the masculine pronoun, from Charlotte Charke’s 1755 memoir about her life as “Mr. Brown” to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, protagonist of the novel that appeared the same year as The Well of Loneliness, who is referred to using “he” and “him.”[5] Radclyffe Hall herself—very much herself, despite the fact that her intimates knew her as John—wore masculine-tailored jackets with skirts, never pants, all her life, so as not to be mistaken for a man. Indeed, Judith Jack Halberstam notes that Hall had “a curious disdain for passing women.”[6] In a letter to her publisher, Hall referred to the notorious Victor, born Valerie, Barker, who was tried for perjury in 1929 for living as a man, “a mad pervert of the most undesirable type.”[7] Perhaps then it makes more sense to refer to Stephen as genderqueer or non-binary, terms that have gained currency of late to describe those who resist, exceed, or otherwise challenge the limitations of normative gender. Or, Halberstam’s important reading of The Well argues for the recovery of the term used in the novel itself, “invert,” as one of many historical female masculinities among which we must discriminate.[8] (Although Halberstam calls the method in Female Masculinities “perversely presentist,” this is actually a punctiliously historicist move.[9]) Such readings of The Well, though, overlook characters other than Stephen. There are other interesting representations of gender and desire in Hall’s novel. Is Stephen’s beloved Mary a lesbian? Is Valerie Seymour, long understood to be based on the doyenne of 1920s Sapphic Paris, Natalie Barney? These questions remind us that the articulation of multiple feminine genders is an equally important but—given the way sexism shapes our attention even as feminists—comparatively underexplored potential of the new understandings of gender made possible by trans theory.

Adopting the insights of trans theory for lesbian genders is not without its pitfalls, however. The painful history of lesbian-feminist attacks on trans people, communities, and ideas necessitates a sobering caveat to the project of a trans-informed theory of lesbian genders, which must both acknowledge and transcend this history. Foreshadowing the decades-long controversy over the exclusion of all but “women-born women” from the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival was the 1973 expulsion of Beth Elliot from the homophile organization Daughters of Bilitis and later, from the West Coast Lesbian Conference.[10] Susan Stryker identifies these events as the backdrop for one of the first and best-known lesbian-feminist attacks on trans people and ideas, Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979) in which Raymond wrote:

All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves. However, the transsexually- constructed lesbian-feminist violates women's sexuality and spirit, as well. Rape, although it is usually done by force, can also be accomplished by deception.[11]

Raymond’s term “transsexual empire” refers to the patriarchal medical establishment, which in her view perpetuates the oppression of women by trying to alter them surgically to become men or to make existing women disappear by altering men to become women. The fact that transgender people encounter more prejudice and experience more violence, including at the hands of the medical establishment, than even gays and lesbians cuts no ice with Raymond and her followers. Remarkably, this book was reprinted in 1994 and its ideas continue to circulate. The most powerful response remains Sandy Stone’s landmark 1987 essay, “The Empire Strikes Back.” In an early articulation of the idea of non-binary gender, Stone writes that transsexuals “currently occupy a position which is nowhere, which is outside the binary oppositions of gendered discourse.”[12] Influenced by the idea of women as cyborgs in Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” and by Gloria Anzaldúa’s idea of the mestiza as a new kind of human coming into consciousness, Stone posits trans not as a gender but as a genre of discourse, resolutely unanchored to bodies who are nonetheless subject to the violence of gender-normative systems. The work of Susan Stryker, Jacob Hale, Paisley Currah, and others has continued this productive strain of gender theorizing. 

Of course, trans people themselves were inventing new ways of living and writing genders in resistance to both the juggernaut of medicalization and the contempt of a newly-visible “gay and lesbian” movement inside and outside the academy in the 1980s. New attention to the performance and public speaking career of Christine Jorgenson or the diaries of gay-male-identified Lou Sullivan were powerful reformulations of gender unconnected either to academic lesbian and queer theory or to lesbian-feminist communities in which figures such as Jorgenson and Sullivan did not circulate and were not welcome.[13] Yet the agonistic relation between trans and lesbian—in both lived relationships and literary, artistic, and scholarly expression—often produced breakthroughs. For example, Leslie Feinberg’s autobiographical novel Stone Butch Blues, first published by lesbian-feminist Firebrand Press in 1993, provides a trenchant record of protagonist Jess’s painful and passionate engagements with feminists and lesbians. In the foreword to the book, Feinberg identifies “the butches, passing women, drag kings and drag queens, FTM brothers and MTF sisters—transsexual and transvestite” who “gave birth to the modern lesbian and gay movement.”[14] Feinberg’s close associations with queer femme writer and scholar Amber Hollibaugh and iconic lesbian feminist poet and theorist Minnie Bruce Pratt meant that Stone Butch Blues was read and absorbed by the lesbian communities whose violent exclusion toward trans men was documented in the book. Feinberg’s novel held a mirror up to lesbian transphobia that shifted the discourse considerably, providing a lived account of how trans and lesbian bodies and stories shaped one another’s experience of gender.

Alongside a history of phobic exclusion, then, emerged radical understandings of lesbian genders, theories that provided key insights for today’s trans theory. Monique Wittig’s assertion that “lesbians are not women” was among the first formulations to shake loose the braid between gender and sexuality that characterized much early lesbian theory, and her formulations remain challenging and productive. She writes:

What is woman? Panic, general alarm for an active defense. Frankly, it is a problem that the lesbians do not have because of a change of perspective, and it would be incorrect to say that lesbians associate, make love, live with women, for `woman’ has meaning only in heterosexual systems of thought and heterosexual economic systems. Lesbians are not women.[15]

Wittig’s fierce feminist critique of patriarchy as essentially a system for controlling who has access to women and defining those who do as men is profoundly anti-normative. Following this model, men and women have nothing to do with bodies. Women themselves must by definition not have access to their own bodies, since if they did we would have to define them as men. (The perilous status of our reproductive freedom, especially in my home state of Texas, bears this out painfully.) Wittig’s brilliant brain-twister underscores the status of gender as a system of power distinct from sexuality, desire, bodies, and identities, and is deeply informative of later thinking about transgender, for example in the work of Jacob Hale.[16] 

Women of color feminism from this same period also provides anti-normative lesbian models of gender. The Combahee River Collective Statement makes two influential moves that continue to shape lesbian thinking about gender. First, like Wittig, they offer a structural rather than essentialist understanding of what it is to be Black women. This is especially important to note in this text, which is often described as a foundational document of identity politics. A dismissive equation of identity politics with romantic essentialism and separatism, however, overlooks its origins in Marxist-influenced systemic analysis. The idea of Black women identifying their interests with those of other Black women, the collective writes, “is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves.”[17] Like Wittig, Combahee defines gender—in this case, the gender “Black woman”—structurally, as a way to produce the most oppressed class in society. A second influential move made in this text is the recognition of multiple genders, which are here understood not as a liberating rainbow of possibilities but as a series of catch-22 entrapments that pop up like whack-a-moles: “mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger.” They also mobilize a less familiar term identified in the collective’s consciousness-raising group, “smart-ugly.”[18] Smart-ugly: a pungent way of describing the mobility, perversity, and challenge of lesbian genders.

Another source in Black feminist theory for a proliferating understanding of genders comes from the mixed religious heritages of African-American culture. Audre Lorde explores the powers of these genders in a positive register, ending her memoir Zami with stories of her encounters on the streets of New York with half-human, half-divine beings such as “MawuLisa, thunder, sky, sun, the great mother of us all; and Afrekete, her youngest daughter, the mischievous linguist, trickster, best-beloved, whom we must all become.”[19] Like Anzaldúa’s Aztlan, Lorde’s lesbian future is brought into being imaginatively by a new woman-of-color consciousness, much like that later described by Paisley Currah as a “transgender imaginary.”[20] A spectacular recent exploration of Black lesbian genders in this imaginative register can be found in the work of Sharon Bridgforth. In the preface to her 2004 “performance novel” love conjure/blues, Bridgforth writes that the book “considers a range of possibilities of gender expression and sexuality within a rural/Black working class context.”[21] Bridgforth’s artistic method is one of both recovery and invention, as she peoples her pages with pronouns such as “himshe” and characters whose masculinity, femininity, and desires are readable from their self-identification and presentation, not from their bodies. In an early passage, the narrator introduces the fictional and in many ways fantasized community that gathers every night in the Louisiana juke joint at the center of the book:

see/bitty and peachy both what you call long nail girls. Each one primp and fuss over they hair outfits and lipstick nails and shoes shape and such and all and well/we thinking them two fluffing up for a trouser wom’n or a man or

both/but nobody figure they been giving      attention

to one the other.

after all


on earth

could two primpers

work out all the mirror timing necessary to start the day.

Well/I guess they proved our minds was real small not real smart at all.[22]

The category “woman” does not adequately describe these ultra-feminine characters, and Bridgforth also avoids the obvious term “femme.” Instead she invents terms such as “long-nail girls” and “primpers,” whose love objects are not the expected “trouser wom’n” (spelled both to insist on the term’s origins in Black vernacular and to distinguish it from normative understandings of woman) or “man,” a gender that in this context has no inevitable link to a particular body.

Much of the foundational trans work on lesbian genders (such as that of Sandy Stone and later Susan Stryker) comes from female-identified queer writers explicitly addressing a feminist and implicitly or explicitly lesbian audience, in large part because these writers claimed membership, however fraught, in lesbian communities. Trans scholar Riki Wilchins writes,

In the ’70s it seemed like to be transsexual was to be male-to-female. Even the doctors reported that they saw three or four MTFs for every FTM… But that turned out to be largely an artifact of surgery and history. The first tiny waves of trannies who came out as such—from the early, early Christine Jorgenson to the later but still early Jan Morris. And it is simply (and unfortunately) much more practical to do MTF “bottom surgery” than FTM. As the boundaries of transgender began to shift with new visibility and activism—and it became more acceptable to live as your correct sex with or without a complete surgical makeover—suddenly the numbers of FTMs skyrocketed.[23]

Since the early 2000s, a new generation of scholars including Paisley Currah, Jacob Hale, and Matt Richardson have brought male-identified trans voices to this audience, in many cases because they started their careers in queer studies by writing as lesbians. The emergence of female-to-male trans communities has been problematically identified as “butch loss.” The increased visibility of trans men who once identified as butches has produced some mournful narcissism: “Why are all the butches becoming men? Why can't they understand that gender is a social construct and that women don't have to conform to a feminine ideal? Isn't that what we were fighting for, a world in which women could wear tool belts and neckties and do anything we damn well please without the constraints of gender?”[24] For trans men, of course, what is of value—a more fully representative gender identity—has not been lost, but found. And for feminist understandings of gender, this work has been enormously productive. An important fuel for the “trans turn” in gender theory has been the friction generated by the often fraught relations between trans and lesbian writings and communities. With the recognition of “the intersectionality of sexism and transphobia,” drawing on new archives and re-reading existing ones “in the wake of both materialist feminist attention to voice and the poststructuralist feminist focus on discourse and power,” the critique of gender has blown up.[25]

If we take “lesbian” to mean a representation of love between women—and take seriously the understanding gleaned from lesbian theory’s historical engagement with trans and women of color thinkers that we cannot know in advance what a “woman” is—then many more cultural objects suddenly come under our scrutiny. In my own discipline of literary studies, contestation over the history and theory of the lyric has sometimes considered gender, and sometimes considered the queer, but rarely considered them together. In what follows I describe the outlines of my project on a lesbian history of the sonnet, in the hopes of providing one example of the explanatory power of lesbian genders. I argue that lesbian reading of the pleading, abject masculine speaker of the sonnet and the powerful she-lord whom he addresses make available butch and transgender subject positions, female masculinities that endow the sonnet with a queer anamorphism that disfigures rather than figures the norm. As is so often the case with queer appropriations of canonical cultural conventions, what starts out as a limit or exclusion is sometimes creatively and campily refigured as an aesthetic.

The circulation of Sapphic fragments of lyric verse in the early modern literary world is one way that stories of love between women installed themselves in the court cultures that produced the sonnet. In writing his 14th-century sonnets, Petrarch closely imitated the poems of Catullus, the first-century BC Roman poet whose manuscript was rediscovered during Petrarch’s lifetime.[26] Catullus’ translations of Sappho were to have a shaping influence on the tradition of the love lyric in Western literature. The reputation of Greek poet Sappho in Catullus’ Roman imperium seven hundred years later was associated not only with the highest lyric expression, but also with sexual impropriety and degeneracy.  Catullus addressed the female beloved of his own poems as “Lesbia”, explicitly referring to Sappho’s association with the Greek island of Lesbos.  Adopting this name offered Catullus a feminized rhetorical position that allowed for an implicit critique of the values of imperial Rome. The Lesbia of Catullus is associated with “the material and practical concerns of conventional Roman males” while the poems place the male speaker/lover in the “`un-masculine’ realm of “beauty, imagination, and the pursuit of erotic fulfillment, a realm that we may also associate with Sappho’s feminine poetic world” (Greene 136). Petrarch drew on the powers of this feminized masculine speaker as he mastered the version of the court sonnet that was to have so definitional an influence on English poetry that it would come to be known as “Petrarchanism.” In imitating Petrarch, English Renaissance sonneteers may thus have been repeating, obscuring and yet perpetuating lesbian erotics as the precursor and origin of the masculine and heterosexual norms that have been claimed for the form.

In addition to the rhetorical role of the speaker, discussions of gender, sexuality and power in the sonnet tradition have problematized the conventional figure of the Lady to whom the poet addresses his wooing in the courtly love tradition.[27] The speaker in the sonnets of the courtly love tradition, according to Phillis Levin, suffer “the contrary passions of a never-ending, unrequited love for an unattainable, unresponsive she-lord, whose regal being takes on a value formerly reserved for a divinity. Though such a concept of love has its roots in the troubadour tradition of Provencal love poetry, [in Dante and Petrarch it becomes]…a means to Christian salvation…and a reflection of divine love” (Levin xlv). My project argues, in contrast, that the authority of the sonnet Lady can also be seen as a kind of authorship, an exertion of feminine agency structuring a courtly love tradition that has never achieved a seamless, untroubled masculinism.

It is this sonnet tradition, I argue, that was revived by women writers at the end of the eighteenth century. When Wordsworth praised Milton’s sonnets as “manly and dignified compositions” he “is attempting to place some distance between himself and the female-dominated elegiac sonnet tradition of the late eighteenth century; and there is no doubt that part of his aim in returning to Milton was to `remasculinise’ the sonnet” (Phelan 12).  My project argues that in this effort of remasculinization, Wordsworth and other male Romantics were repressing and denying the roles of what might be called “the sonnet revival’s three mommies:”  Anna Seward, Charlotte Smith, and Mary Robinson. 

The story of Wordsworth’s admiration of Smith has been told, but Anna Seward may have been an even more important influence. Among late-century exemplars, Wordsworth “openly admired the sonnets of…Anna Seward in particular” (Wagner, 13); Seward’s sonnet “When life’s realities the soul perceives” has been read as an important precursor to Wordsworth’s interest in the consolatory function of the sonnet (Wagner 195 n. 5). Wordsworth’s famous ars sonnetta, “Scorn not the sonnet,” borrowed not just a theme but the central imagery of “the sonnet…troped as a musical instrument” from one of Seward’s best-known sonnets. (“To Mr. Henry Cary, on the Publication of his Sonnets.”)

Seward wrote a series of sonnets professing her love for and then mourning the marriage and estrangement of a young woman named Honora Sneyd, who had grown up as a ward of the Seward family. In Seward’s Honora sonnets we see how melancholic attachment to the experience of loss itself can be one way of insisting on the importance of, even the very existence of, the love relationship that is supposed to have been subsumed by the more important, adult, reproductive and sanctioned relationship of heterosexual marriage. And the sonnet, with non-marital sexuality rooted deep in its history, lends itself well to this melancholic anamorphism.

Seward’s last Honora sonnet reaches into this history.

[SLIDE—sonnet 33]

The poem adopts the trope of Milton’s Sonnet 23, “Methought I saw my late espoused Saint,” in which the blind poet dreams he sees his dead wife, never visible to him during life, but wakes, bereft, to darkness. Seward’s poem begins in sleep, the sighted person’s state of blindness:

Last night her form the hours of slumber bless’d

Whose eyes illumin’d all my youthful years.—

Spirit of dreams, at thy command appears

Each airy shape, that visiting our rest,

Dismays, perplexes, or delights the breast.

My pensive heart this kind indulgence cheers;

Bliss, in no waking moment now possess’d,

Bliss, ask’d of thee with memory’s thrilling tears.

Nightly I cry,--how oft, alas! in vain,--

Give, by thy powers, that airy shapes control,

HONORA to my visions!—ah! Ordain

Her beauteous lip may wear the smile that stole,

In years long fled, the sting from every pain!

Show her sweet face, ah show it to my soul!


Milton’s poem emphasizes the dual meanings of sight, vision and blindness in the famous lines, “I trust to have/full sight of her in Heaven.”  Adapting this trope, Seward remembers how Honora’s eyes were themselves lamps that “illumin’d all my youthful years.” Milton’s poem alludes to his blindness; Seward describes herself as unable to see through “Memory’s thrilling tears”, unable to see the beloved in dreams that most often fail to bring “HONORA to my visions.” The couplet reminds us that even waking, even sighted, even when Honora was alive, the experience of intimacy was one of loss, entailing the prayer, “show her sweet face, ah show it to my soul:” show it now, in dream or memory, in contrast to the ways in which I could not see it or had no access to it in life. Only in loss does the melancholic lesbian poet possess the beloved.

Charlotte Smith’s sonnets are famously unsexy. As one critic circumspectly observes, “Typically Smith’s sonnets emphasize not the sorrows of love, but her own multiple misfortunes” (376). Cranky Anna Seward complained that they were “a perpetual dun on pity” (Curran Smith xxv). What critics have failed to notice, though, is that when she addresses love sonnets to a woman, things heat up. Smith’s typical abstraction and personification, in which strong feeling and autobiographical material are expressed through apostrophes to and images of trees, rivers, wind, and weather, give way in her translations of Petrarch to a startlingly specific focus on a particular woman’s body.

For example, in Sonnet XIV, titled “From Petrarch,” Smith translates the 14th century poet’s Sonnet 90, “Her golden hair was loosed in the breeze.”

Loose to the wind her golden tresses stream’d,

Forming bright waves with amorous Zephyr’s sighs;

And tho’ averted now, her charming eyes

Then with warm love, and melting pity beam’d.

Was I deceived?—Ah! Surely, nymph divine!

That fine suffusion on thy cheek was love;

What wonder then those beauteous tints should move,

Should fire this heart, this tender heart of mine!

Thy soft melodious voice, thy air, thy shape,

Were of a goddess—not a mortal maid;

Yet tho’ thy charms, thy heavenly charms should fade,

My heart, my tender heart could not escape;

Nor cure for me in time or change be found:

The shaft extracted does not cure the wound!

Smith shows us a beautiful woman vividly imagined as desirable through the Petrarchan convention of the blazon or description of parts: her “golden tresses” and “charming eyes,” and the “beauteous tints” of her skin, her “soft melodious voice” and goddess-like “air” and “shape” create an “amorous” picture that affects the body of both the poet and the beloved. In typical Petrarchan fashion the speaker gazes obsessively at the beloved for hints of “warm love” and “melting pity,” reading much into averted eyes and a blush. The impact on the poet is dramatic. Smith’s skillful use of repetition in the poem creates a rhythmic effect of panting desire, speaking stumblingly of “this heart, this tender heart of mine,” “thy charms, thy heavenly charms” and once again “my heart, my tender heart.”  The final couplet also enacts what it describes, creating a phallic image so vivid as to startle like a spear-thrust:

Nor cure for me in time or change be found:

The shaft extracted does not cure the wound!

Smith’s version is in fact more phallic than Petrarch’s. The final line in Italian (piagha per allentar d’arco non sana) is usually translated something like: slackening the bow doesn’t cure the wound--no shaft penetrates an open orifice in the original. The poet’s ravished and penetrated body in Smith’s poem, focalized through a masculine speaker signed “Mrs Smith,” resembles the “lesbianized” Renaissance lyrics of Sidney, Donne and Shakespeare described by Catherine Bates in which “`he’ turns out to be as feminine, scattered, and `castrated’ as the body he admires” (Bates 24). The rhetorical structure and conventional imagery of courtly love creates a lesbian point of view that renders Smith’s imitations of Petrarch erotic in unexpected (and perhaps unintended) ways.

Mary Robinson, plucked from the stage at 21 by the Prince Regent to be his mistress, brings a more emphatic erotic sensibility to sonnet genders.  Let’s look at Sonnet 32, her version of Sappho’s Fragment 31, also the source of Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis.” In the poem, the female speaker is riveted with jealousy by the spectacle of a young man flirting with the girl she, too, has her eye on.

Blest as the Gods! Sicilian Maid is he,

The youth whose soul thy yielding graces charm;

Who bound, O! thralldom sweet! by beauty’s arm,

In idle dalliance fondly sports with thee!

Blest as the Gods! that iv’ry throne to see,

Throbbing with transports, tender, timid, warm!

While round thy fragrant lips light zephyrs swarm,

As op’ning buds attract the wand’ring Bee!

Yet, short is youthful passion’s fervid hour;

Soon, shall another clasp the beauteous boy;

Soon, shall a rival prove, in that gay bow’r,

The pleasing torture of excessive joy!

The Bee flies sicken’d from the sweetest flow’r;

The lightning’s shaft, but dazzles to destroy!

The “iv’ry throne” imagined here may be the forehead, the seat of reason. But as the quatrain proceeds this ambiguous body part gets sexier and sexier: “throbbing with transports, tender, timid, warm!” The last we see of the Sicilian maid is her “fragrant lips,” surely meant to invoke both upper and lower labia, alluring as “op’ning buds” to the “wand’ring Bee.” The erotic image of the bee buzzing its way into the fragrant, opening flower returns in the poem’s final lines, where Robinson adds some material not in the Sapphic original in which the youth is stolen away from the beautiful girl by a rival. The youth is imagined as a bee who “flies sicken’d from the sweetest flow’r.” In an echo of Smith’s sonnet, the image of love as a painful, phallic piercing ends the poem: “The lightning’s shaft, but dazzles to destroy!” This image floats from Smith’s poem to Robinson’s, even down to the similar use of the word “shaft” (here referring to lightning rather than an arrow).  “Shaft” is of course also an anatomical term for a part of the penis, and this figuring of the speaker as penetrated may be another convention in the lesbian history of the sonnet; for the feminized, porous, wounded body of the poetic speaker and the phallic, masculinized, dominant position of the beloved object cannot be reduced to the simple social identities of man and woman. In fact we might call the porous and penetrative fantasies of Robinson’s Petrarchan speaker here not phallic, but “dildonic,” that is, fantasies that revel in the portability of the piercing shaft and the capacity of all bodies to open to ecstatic revelation.In short, the queer and feminine history and structure of the sonnet reveals a multiplicity of selves and others, of desires and genders, of poetic personae and poetic objects.  Lesbian genders animate the form.

The concept of lesbian genders joins other critical tools to continue the radical projects of early lesbian and woman-of-color feminisms. In his recent book Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Alexander Weheliye cites the Combahee River Collective Statement and El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan as “credos” that “point to a political, poetic, and philosophical jurisdiction that has as its aim, to summon Hortense Spillers’s formulation, ‘trying to open the way to responsible freedom.’”[28] Weheliye’s Afro-pessimist critique of biopolitics, social death, bare life, and posthumanism attacks the idea that “we have now entered a stage in human development where all subjects have been granted equal access to western humanity and that this is, indeed, what we all want to overcome.”[29] He insists that Black feminist studies offers an intellectual, political, and artistic tradition that ushers in “different genres of the human.”[30] While he mentions queer theory in its Butlerian form, Weheliye pays scant attention to Black queer studies as a key engine of this project. Yet the critical unearthing and explosion of terms like “mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger” and “smart-ugly” in the Combahee Statement, Lorde’s goddess-tricksters, and Bridgforth’s long-nail girls, trouser wom’n, and himshes suggest that it is the queer edge of Black feminist studies that has been carving out this space most tenaciously, and that lesbian genders has been one of its sharpest tools.

Matt Richardson’s The Queer Limit of Black Memory: Black Lesbian Literature and Irresolution argues powerfully for this tradition. His chapter on Bridgforth, entitled “Mens Womens Some That is Both and Some that is Neither,” bites into the limits of Foucault, Agamben, Patterson and Mbmebe’s theories of the limits of the human, calling upon Black studies and Black communities to “grieve the queer.” The lives of murdered Black trans people, Richardson argues in a moving conclusion, are unrecognizable as human in critiques of violence against Black bodies, in which the lives of the young, the male, and the cisgender are the Black lives that matter. Richardson’s working-through of key lesbian literary texts uses the critical lens of Black trans theory and activism to expand and engage with feminist, lesbian, and Black Atlantic intellectual traditions.

Lesbian to smart-ugly to queer to trans to human. In this essay, I’ve explored one intellectual lineage of lesbian genders, but I think a similar archeology could be performed on disability studies, animal humanities, the rhizome, the digital. The smart-ugly money is on the future of lesbian genders.



A[1] These are actual comments I received when preparing to give some of this material as a talk.

[2] Biddy Martin, “Extraordinary Homosexuals and the Fear of Being Ordinary,” Femininity Played Straight: The Significance of Being Lesbian (New York: Routledge, 1996), 45.

[3] Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014), 5.

[4] Page references are to the Virago edition (London, 1982).

[5] I discuss Charke’s narrative in “She Was Too Fond of Her Mistaken Bargain: The Scandalous Relations of Gender and Sexuality in Feminist Theory,” diacritics 21/22 (Summer/Fall 1991): 89-101. On Orlando’s genders, see Pamela Caughie, “The Temporality of Modernist Life-Writing in the Era of Transsexualism: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Einar Wegener’s Man Into Woman,” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 59, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 501-525.

[6] Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 90.

[7] Quoted in Halberstam, 92.

[8] Halberstam, 96, 109.

[9] Halberstam, 110.

[10] Stryker, 2008.  Cited in Talia Bettcher, “Feminist Perspectives on Trans Issues,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Spring 2014).

[11] Boston: Beacon Press, 104.

[12] Stryker 2008, 105, 124–5, cited in Bettcher.

[13] See, for example, David Serlin, Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), with chapters on Gladys Bentley and Jorgensen; and David Schliefer, “Make Me Feel Mighty Real: Gay Female-to-Male Transgenderists Negotiating Sex, Gender and Sexuality,” Sexualities 9, no. 1 (February 2006).

[14] Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues: A Novel (Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Press, 1993), 3.

[15] Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 32.

[16] Jacob Hale, “Are Lesbians Women?” Hypatia 11, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 94-121.

[17] Combahee River Collective, “The Combahee River Collective Statement,” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983), 275.

[18] Combahee, 275, 276.

[19] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A Biomythography. (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1982), 255.

[20] Paisley Currah. "The Transgender Rights Imaginary," Feminist and Queer Legal Theory: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations, ed. Martha Albertson Fineman (Ashgate Press, 2009).

[21] Sharon Bridgforth, love conjure/blues (Washington, DC: Redbone Press, 2004), ii.

[22] Bridgforth, 3.

[23] Riki Wilchins, “Where Have All the Butches Gone?” Advocate, Jan. 14 2013. Accessed January 6 2016.

[24] Roey Thorpe, “Where Have All the Butches Gone?” Huff Post Gay Voices, Oct. 2 2013. Accessed Jan. 6 2016.

[25] Elspeth H. Brown, “Trans/Feminist Oral History: Current Projects,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 2, no. 4 (2015): 666, 669.

[26] According to Levin: “Catullus began his life as a poet by translating Sappho’s poems to Lesbia; he also imitated Sappho by giving the same fictional name—“Lesbia”—to his beloved” (Levin xliv). For a detailed account of the debate over whether Petrarch was working with an actual manuscript of Catullus (perhaps one he owned), or primarily from quotations and tags in other sources, see Thomson, pp. 27-28.

[27] See Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: Norton, 1980).

[28] Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 15. The term “Afro-pessimism” was coined by Frank B. Wilderson in his 2008 book, Icononegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid (Boston: South End Press), 2008.

[29] Weheliye, 10.

[30] Weheliye, 2-3.


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