"Just To Be Clear, Everyone Was A Little Bit Of A Lesbian Then": Contextualizing 19th-Century Lesbianism

I was reading a bit about the new lesbian Emily Dickinson movie, which sounds a little bit like one of Tracy Jordan’s fake movie projects on 30 Rock (the fact that Molly Shannon stars as Emily Dickinson doesn’t help) and was struck by the following quote:

In the 1970s, Lillian Faderman tried yet again to demonstrate the truth of Emily’s queerness and love for Susan, but, as Smith explains, “I think she got caught up in trying to concede the relationship between Emily and Susan in the context of ‘women’s relationships.’ And it’s true that many women’s relationships did lead to expressions of great affection in letters exchanged between women in the 19th century. But what separates Dickinson’s from other people’s is that Dickinson is very self-conscious about what she says to Susan.”

It made me realize how often I’ve heard some historical variation on “a rising lesbian tide lifts all lesbian boats,” and how I’ve never been able to figure out if I think it’s an attempt to sidestep something or not. I don’t mean to dispute that norms and trends about expressing platonic affection can change over time and across cultures – obviously they can, and do – it’s just that there’s a particular formula for almost-addressing nineteenth-century lesbianism and then swerving at the last second that I seem to run into a lot (it’s not just lesbians, but it’s often lesbians):

A POSSIBLY-COUCHED LESBIAN ASSERTION is offered, then met with

A PARTIAL LESBIAN CONCESSION THAT READS LIKE ASSENT BUT QUICKLY REVEALS ITSELF AS A FIREWALL, e.g.

“Well, yes, but the thing about Joshua Speed is that back in 1848 it was considered good manners for every resident of the state of Illinois to share a bed with any attorney who came to town, just in case they turned out to be Abraham Lincoln.”

“It was very fashionable to pretend to be a lesbian at the time, which means that it was very easy to cover one’s actual lesbianism with one’s assumed lesbianism, which meant that roughly 80% of the French court of the day was composed of lesbians loudly shouting ‘THIS IS PRETEND’ while falling violently in love with one another.”

“…and of course, the powerful clitoral imagery throughout the piece could have easily been a reference to the Galphin Affair and the subsequent dissolution of the Zachary Taylor cabinet.”

“What the scholar of the period must bear in mind is that, in those days, there was no meaningful distinction between lesbianism and friendship such as we might like to think exists today, so in a very real sense everyone was a lesbian. It’s equally true that no one was a lesbian. Most people existed in a constant, precarious state of paradox – the asymptote of lesbianism.”


“Enough of this shop talk,” you beg. “I’m but a simple lesbian filmmaker, and I want to make one movie about Emily Dickinson, lesbian poetess. I’ve got all the relevant permits and certificates. Have I the permission of the historian overclass to do so?”

HOW MUCH OF A LESBIAN ARE YOU TRYING TO MAKE OF HER?

“Some lesbian,” you answer. “Merely some lesbian. You see, it’s important to keep her in historical context, and at the time, so many people were a bit lesbian that it stopped counting as lesbian.”

GOOD….GOOD…the historical overclass rumbles. YOU MAY PROCEED.

“When everyone is doing a bit of lesbian, it stops counting as lesbianism,” you say. “Boston marriage. ‘Some women may have…’ Various forms of intimacy. Um, romantic language. Contemporary Western society, sexual acts and social categories, factories and the Industrial Revolution needed to use non-sexual physical affection to power their war-looms and this is why best friends over the age of 11 can’t hold hands in public nowadays. What we might call a ‘lesbian’ today might have been more readily understood by her contemporaries as simply a ‘well-known diarist,’ and what they might call ‘sex’ we would be quicker to call ‘the battle of the Dardanelles.’ Our modern definition of what the Dardanelles ‘are’ doesn’t really apply here…Interpretations…summers at Bryn Mawr…lost possibilities and summers that never were, answers foreclosed and forestalled…Annie Lennox is heterosexual, after all and somehow…a call from Lillian Faderman? Yes, of course I’ll hold…”