“Plagued with Unconscious Homosexual Cravings”: Queer Femininities, Latent Lesbianism, and Postwar American Sexual Culture

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:50 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
Amanda H. Littauer, Northern Illinois University
By the 1950s, most authorities on the subject of homosexuality regarded sexual object choice rather than gender nonconformity as the definitive marker of psychological pathology. Within queer culture, gay men and lesbians expressed their gender in ways ranging from transgressive to normative; while female masculinity or male effeminacy raised the likelihood of homosexuality, female femininity and male masculinity did not at all foreclose it. In the literature and on the ground, then, it was possible that any woman could harbor lesbian desires, even if she was beautiful and feminine. Historians have explored how fears of invisible queerness fueled the lavender scare and military purges in the Cold War era, though few have discussed how experts crafted the concept of “latent lesbianism” to explain the threat posed by same-sex desiring feminine women to the heterosexual family. In this paper, I analyze the popular psychoanalytic claim that a flawed mother-daughter relationship might leave an otherwise feminine woman—even a wife and mother—with a buried sexual longing for a mother “replacement,” leading to marital dissatisfaction, heterosexual frigidity and infidelity, and sometimes lesbianism itself. I argue that the concept of latent lesbianism illustrates the perceived fragility of “mature” heterosexual womanhood in the eyes of postwar conservatives, whose vociferous attempts to protect and defend it would become increasingly unsuccessful.