on unstable grounds _ an essay about lesbian and queer identities I


February is LGBT history month here in the UK and I thought I would participate by sharing an essay about lesbian and queer identities with you. Today I will introduce you to the topic, give you a general overview of ideas about sexuality and identity in queer theory and about lesbian identities in the 20th century. I would like to open this to discussion, so please do not hesitate to use the comments to share your thoughts and questions. During the next few days I will publish the other part about lesbian identities around the millennium and contemporary queer politics.

thank you sarah for proofreading x

1 _ prelude

“I continue to hope for a coalition of sexual minorities that will transcend the simple categories of identity, that will refuse the erasure of bisexuality, that will counter and dissipate the violence imposed by restrictive bodily norms.” (Butler, 1999, p. xxvii)

In the preface to a new edition of “Gender Trouble” Judith Butler expresses her wishes for the future of social movements concerning questions of sexuality. Her work “Gender Trouble” (1990) withinothers changed dramatically the way we think about identity, gender and sex. This way of “queering” the framework had a great impact upon the academic discourse and also the way lesbian and gay communities question themselves. This essay will use parts of queer theory as the theoretical framework to question postmodern lesbian identities. Following post-structuralist thought, I consider identities to be constructed. They can only be understood in a specific context of the power-knowledge complexes formed through discourses (Foucault, 1998).

First I will speak a bit about queer theory and specifically Judith Butler’s thoughts to explore how identities are constructed and which is the specific context of sexual identities. Then I am going to give a few bits about lesbian identities in the 20th century. This will be the basis for answering my main questions;What does it mean to be a lesbian in these post-modern times? Is there a lesbian identity at all? To be lesbian seems more to be a lifestyle cultivated by the “L Word” and being a highly lucrative target. The big bubble of pink economy is still growing and it seems like to be lesbian raises a lot of specific desires instead of formerly strong political activism. On the other hand we can find people that are using queer theory to (de)construct identities and identity politics. This work explores the postmodern lesbian identities between these two poles by analysing different media material. My thesis is that lesbian identities are on one hand substituted with being an (empty) lifestyle category and on the other hand with a queer activism that deconstructs common understanding about lesbian identities and tries to work on unstable queer grounds.

2_ queer ideas about identity and sexuality

Thinking about sexuality is always linked to questions about identity. Michel Foucault (1998) explains how through Christian practices sexuality was formed as something that is supposed to reveal the truth about the identity of a person – “regimes of truth”. Even before the ideas of queer theory shacked the grounds of (sexual) identities thinking about sexuality lent to question sexual identities as stable and essentialized (Epstein, 1996, p. 147). Weeks (1996, p. 42) also argued in the 1970’s that “the various possibilities of same sex behaviour are variously constructed in different cultures as an aspect of wider gender and sexual regulation. The physical acts might be similar, but their social implications are often profoundly different.”

Queer theory understands identities as constructed trough discourses (Epstein, 1996, pp. 145-146). Sexual identities are contingent and shifting (Eves, 2004, p. 481). If we are talking about homosexual practices, we are talking about sexuality categories that have been marked as deviant (Weeks, 1996, p. 59). Within the discourses we can find the borders and the definitions of these sexualities. “Knowledge about sexuality can scarcely be a transparent window onto a separate realm of sexuality; rather it constitutes that sexuality itself.” (Stein and Plummer, 1996, p. 136) Homosexuality might be defined as deviant from heterosexuality, but that does not mean homosexuality is outside of the discourses and has therefore been a free space. Homosexuality itself is part of the regulating discourses about sexuality. Homosexuality and heterosexuality are defined by each other. (Stein and Plummer, 1996, p. 135; Namaste, 1996, p. 198) This opposition is part of a large set of binary oppositions formed during the 19th century like black/white and male/female. Furthermore it is necessary to mention: “In spite of many different forms of actual behaviour, lesbians, past and present, are assigned to a few readily recognizable types.” (Vicinus, 1996, p. 235) There are only limited scripts of sexualities offered in these discourses (Vicinus, 1996, p. 235).

If we try to understand the regulation of sexuality we have to look at the institution of heterosexuality and how it works. Following Butler (1999, pp. 1-46) the heterosexual matrix produces the cultural intelligibility through which genders, desires and bodies (sexes) are naturalized and produced. For Butler “identities” do not exist, rather they are produced within the heterosexual matrix through discourses (1999, p. 23). Within this matrix, desire is marked as heterosexual and it requires the oppositions between feminine and masculine. The two genders are linked to the bodies (sex) that are instituted by the cultural laws that regulatethe sexuality. The sexes are gendered categories themselves. The system of heterosexuality is without an embodied and naturalized fixation, therefore unstable and needs to be reproduced through performative actions all the time (Butler, 1999, pp. 185-193).

How does Butler access other sexual practices like lesbianism? “Consider not only that the ambiguities and incoherencies within and among heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual practices are suppressed and redescribed within reified framework of the disjunctive and asymmetrical binary of masculine/feminine, but that these cultural configurations of gender confusion operate as sites for intervention, exposure, and displacement of these reifications.” (Butler, 1991, p. 43) So on the one hand homosexuality is understood as restricted by the heteronormative matrix but at the same time subversive repetitions of gender roles question the originality of gender roles in general (Butler, 1999, p. 44). For example trough the butch and femme roles as historical identifies of lesbianism (Butler, 1999, pp. 43-44). Butch as the masculine gender role and femme as the feminine ascribed? lesbian gender role are clearly influenced by the heterosexual conventions, but this parodic repetition shows also the constructed status of the “original” and unmasks it as a copy itself.

3 _ a short exploration of lesbian identities in the 20th century

In contrast to male homosexuality that formed a recognizable modern identity by the end of the 19th century, a lesbian identity did not develop before the 1920’s (Weeks, 1996, pp. 56-58). Before there was not a clear definition of female homosexuality and also only a minimal lesbian subculture in such big European cities like Paris or Berlin, frequented mainly by the upper class and the literary. There are several reasons for this.. Firstly, the absence of any legal regulation of lesbian behaviour and also of public pillorying and scandals, but furthermore it relates to the assumptions made about male and female sexuality that were formed during the 19th century in the process of the polarisation of gender roles. Women were marked as passive, as mothers and housewives, leaving no space for the development of an autonomous sexuality. If lesbians were recognized then they would be defined as ‘mannish’ women. Lesbian sexuality also remained invisible because close relationships between women were usual. There was nearly no space for women to live an independent life outside of marriage. It needed the new professional and independent women of the 1920’s to develop a lesbian identity and achieve visibility in the public discourse. Forming a sexual identity meant to develop a new sexual language for themselves and also costumes, behaviour and gestures as well as explanations of lesbianism; it took until the 1950’s to fully form a public known lesbian identity, marked as the mannish lesbian (Vicinus, 1996, p. 250).

During the second half of the 20th century, the gay and lesbian community passed through complex transformations: “from a ‘deviant subculture’ to a ‘minority group,’ a ‘community,’ and a ‘movement’” (Epstein, 1996, p. 152). By the 1980’s we can see a quasi-ethnic self-understanding within the queer communities (Epstein, 1996, p. 152). In the 1960’s, along with the women’s liberation movement, bigger lesbian communities were formed. The Stonewall Riots in 1969 mark the historic moment of the beginning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement. The radical politics at the start of the movement were followed in the mid 1970’s by more assimilationist politics concentrating on equal rights and protection as minorities. The strong and quasi-ethnic communities developed their own traditions over time – one of them is the ‘coming out story’ – that helped to mark their own identity. (Roseneil, 2000; Epstein, 1996, pp. 150-152)

The word queer, previously a swear word, was adopted during the 1980’s by several political groups and academics and transformed into a new kind of category interwoven with a critical approach towards identity politics (Epstein, 1996, p. 145). Queer theorists criticize that lesbian and gay minority politics are only reproducing this dualisms and so also their marking as the “other” (Stein and Plummer, 1996, p. 134). From the very beginning, queer had two meanings: First, as a potential replacement for the term lesbian and gay politics and, as a new characterization of lesbian and gay politics, shifting away from the ethnic-understanding because “queer” can be anti-assimilationist, provocative and includes various sexual minorities (Epstein, 1996, pp. 152-153; Gamson, 1996, p. 396). Earlier in the 1970’s and 1980’s the critique by women of colour and later the feminist “sex wars” had made visible the rigid borders and the exclusions produced by the lesbian movement. The lesbian identity was a white-one that only problematised the “own” cultural values and reproduced the binary gender system and especial femininity (Seidman, 1996, pp. 10-11) “Queer” changed the lesbian and gay identity politics (Gamson, 1996, p. 395). The term itself resists a clear and explicit definition, so queer politics can also be constructionist politics “marked by a resistance to being labelled, a suspicion of constraining sexual categories, and a greater appreciation for the fluidity of sexual expression.” (Epstein, 1996, p. 154).


Butler, J. (1999) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge.

Epstein, S. (1996) ‘A Queer Encounter: Sociology and the Study of Sexuality’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 145-167.

Esterberg, K. (1996) ‘’A Certain Swagger When I Walk’: Performing Lesbian Identity’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 259-279.

Eves, A. (2004) ‘Queer Theory, Butch/Femme Identities and Lesbian Space’ in Sexualities, 7 (4), pp. 480-496.

Foucault, M. (1998) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Gamson, J. (1996) ‘Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?: A Queer Dilemma’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 395-420.

Namaste, K. (1996) ‘The Politics of Inside/Outside: Queer Theory, Poststructuralism, and a Sociological Approach to Sexuality, in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 194-212.

Roseneil, S. (2000) ‘Queer Frameworks and Queer Tendencies: Towards an Understanding of Postmodern Transformations of Sexuality’ in Sociological Research Online, 5 (3), Available at: http://www.socresonline.org.uk/5/3/roseneil.html (Accessed 20 November 2011).

Seidman, S. (1996) ‘Introduction’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 1-29.

Stein, A. and Plummer, K. (1996) ‘’I Can’t Even Think Straight’: ‘Queer’ Theory and the Missing Sexual Revolution in Sociology’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 129-144.

Stein, A (2010) ‘The Incredible Shrinking Lesbian World and other Queer Conundra’ in Sexualites, 13 (1), pp. 21-32.

Vicinus, M. (1996) ‘’They wonder to which sex I belong’: The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity’ in Vicinus, M. (ed.) Lesbian Subjects. A Feminist Studies Reader. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press,pp. 233-259.

Weeks, J. (1996) ‘The Construction of Homosexuality’ in Seidmann, S. (ed.) Queer Theory/Sociology. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 41-63.

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  1. […] can find part one here.  a very short introduction in queer theory and politics can be found […]

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