Queering Historical Scale, Part 3: Queering Femininity: Gender Normativity and Lesbian History

AHA Session 253
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 8
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Lauren Gutterman, University of Texas at Austin
Lauren Gutterman, University of Texas at Austin

Session Abstract

Historiographies of lesbian desires and subjectivities in the twentieth-century United States have cohered around female masculinity. While burgeoning definitions of sexual abnormality cast same-sex attraction as an inversion of one’s gender role, a shift in understandings had supposedly drained homosexuality of its gender inversion by the early-twentieth century, defining it instead by the sex of one’s desired partner. However, as scholars like Donna Penn and Jennifer Terry have demonstrated, this distinction was slow to take hold, and also incomplete. Medical and psychological professionals and lay people, including queers, continued to link gender and sexuality in characterizations of homosexuality, especially with respect to queer women. Esther Newton’s “mythic mannish lesbian” remains a dominant cultural figure even today, and fascination with her – and gendered transgressions more generally – permeate queer historiography. But what do we miss when the experiences of masculine lesbians stand in for those of others? What can we gain by engaging gender normativity, rather than nonconformity, in discussions of queerness?

Taking these questions as a starting point, this panel analyzes lesbian femininity in the twentieth-century United States. With papers that explore ideas about same-sex intimacy among “college girls” in the 1920s and 1930s, popular experts’ perceptions of “latent lesbianism” in the postwar period, and femme-identified women’s experiences and roles in lesbian communities, these presentations broaden the scale of queer history. Together, we demonstrate diverse problems that arise when same-sex sexualities align with normative constructions of gender, and the inventive ways that both queer and popular culture reconciled these seemingly disparate categories. In the process, we complicate the link between gender and queerness in the twentieth-century United States.

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