women loving women p.1

What's in a name?

‘What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.’

-  William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.

Hello everyone! I hope you are all doing ok! It’s been a while since our last blog article in which we proudly presented our latest underwear collection named Fusion, but we have something quite special in store for you! We are so happy to launch a brand-new blog series called ‘Women loving women’ over the course of which we are going to touch upon different aspects of female homosexuality or lesbianism. In this first part, we begin by explaining the reasons behind this gesture of ours which might strike as odd or outdated to some of our readers in the current political climate. In addition, we will trace the history of the word ‘lesbian’ and we will learn how and when ‘lesbianism’ came to signify women loving women constructed as a specific sexual identity.   

The reason behind us dedicating a blog series to lesbians, cis or trans, is our firm belief that the cultural and linguistic dominance of both the terms queer and LGBTIQA+ has a shadow function that might ultimately not be in the best interest of the persons represented and this holds especially true in the case of lesbians. On the one hand, the pluralization of the letters of the acronym LGBTIQA+, its ever-expanding nature and adaptive character, and the evocation of the term queer as an umbrella term that promotes an anti-homonormative coalitional politics in its anti-identitarian gesture of erasing the particular gender and sexual identities are both a proof of a larger historical and societal change, namely the fact that the queer community itself gets -as time passes by- more inclusive, diverse, and accepting. On the other hand, these two terms seem to presuppose a homogenous experience of oppression and discrimination and an equally distributed representation, visibility, and recognition among the members of the LGBTIQA+ community. However, let’s face the fact that even the queer community itself is plagued by persistent forms of sexism, misogyny, and femmephobia that don’t seem to wither any time soon.

Unfortunately, lesbians are among these underrepresented groups. Just try to bring to mind the most recent LGBTIQA+ movies you’ve watched or books you’ve read. How many of them have a lesbian protagonist? I am pretty sure that the answer is not many. Stories about gay men, their histories, and their experiences are the most visible within the queer community. On top of that, the quintessential agonistic subject of queer politics seems to be the gay man, a queer hero who is nonetheless a cisgender man, for example, Harvey Milk. Lesbians’ fights and contributions to the gay liberation movements have received little to no recognition by most historical accounts. Sometimes the history of queer radicalism in the late 80s and the early 90s excludes the significant role lesbian women played during both the HIV pandemic as carers of gay men whose families disowned them and as fierce activists and writers that shaped the contours of queer politics. 

Let us also not forget that lesbians were among these groups of women, along with women of color, who voiced a critique against the exclusionary feminist politics of the second wave in the 70s and 80s, a feminism that was too straight and white. This way lesbians forced feminism to reflect upon itself, to resignify its political subject of reference, that is the woman, and to become more plural and inclusive. It was lesbians -among others- whose indispensable contributions forced a narrowly defined feminism to confront its internal limits and transform into the so-called third wave. To bring the matter home, Ecce Homo’s signature style is all about celebrating femininity as it is embodied by any-body whatsoever, a move that’s against the current of queer fashion which is overinvested in hegemonic masculinity.

Back to the basics! According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word lesbian has the following etymology

(a) classical Latin Lesbius of or belonging to Lesbos (especially with reference to Sappho and her poetry, to wine, and to architecture), or its etymon (b) ancient Greek Λέσβιος of or belonging to Lesbos (< Λέσβος, the name of the island of Lesbos +  ιος, suffix forming adjectives) +  an suffix. 

Regarding the meaning of the word in contemporary English, the word lesbian could mean one of the three following things: 

1.    A native or inhabitant of the Greek island of Lesbos. 

2.    Ancient History. Wine from the Greek island of Lesbos; Lesbian wine. Now rare. 

3.    A woman who engages in sexual activity with other women; a woman who is sexually or romantically attracted (esp. wholly or largely) to other women; a homosexual woman.

Please put in a little box at the back of your mind the reference to the Greek island of Lesvos as we are going to circle back to this in the last article of this blog series. For now, it is the last bit that is of interest to us here since the very word lesbian has its own history and genealogy testifying to the different contents people in different historical eras attributed to the word and the varying treatment these women faced throughout time. For this reason, the word lesbian is not the preferable term of identification by all women, cis or trans, who are sexually and romantically attracted to other women, cis or trans, exactly because of the heavy symbolic baggage and multiple associations the term carries. The term lesbian denoting a sexual orientation is more or less a medical and juridical category that has been historically constructed fairly recently, only in the late 19th and early 20th century alongside the birth of sexology, criminology, and psychiatry as disciplines responsible for categorizing human beings in different self-enclosed identities by defining their essential features as a measure of their normalcy. As is usually the case, the normative is not far from normal. This was a disciplinary mission since the woman who desires another woman now becomes a lesbian, a clearly defined type of person whose deviance colors her physiology and psychology, her entire personality. Being a lesbian stops being a contingent desire but rather solidifies into a permanent identity, the pathological other of the normal, the queer of the straight. It should be also noted that these famous sexologists, among whom Magnus Hirschfeld, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Havelock Ellis, did not consider being a lesbian a sexual orientation as we understand this term today but as a sexual inversion.

According to this pervasive theory that resonates even today through various lesbophobic stereotypes of the lesbian as a mannish woman, lesbians have the soul of a man trapped inside a female body. In other words, the contemporary distinction among sexual orientation, gender identity or identification, gender characteristics, and gender expression is not transhistorical and it does not apply to the abovementioned definition of lesbians as sexual inverts. This outdated theory of sexual inversion that defined as lesbians those women who did not adhere to the traditional gender role of women was far from innocuous since lesbians were considered and treated as mentally ill, women who needed to be corrected back to normal femininity in order for them to be feminine, marry and bear children. 

To be sure, lesbianism hasn’t presented a serious threat to the patriarchal status quo according to the logic of the all-male doctors who did not dedicate much time and energy to understanding lesbians. They treated lesbianism as a lesser threat than male homosexuality which has been subjected historically to more severe scrutiny, analysis, prosecution, and punishment. One should not read this relative indifference toward lesbianism as a sign of its exceptions from the disciplinary male gaze of the time. On the contrary, lesbianism’s relative invisibility testifies exactly to the value attached to womanhood as a merely human being who lacks, who is passive, and who is closer to nature than culture. Lesbians were women after all in the eyes of heteronormative law and as such they were inferior to men. But the story fortunately does not end there because lesbians fought back tooth and nail!