Dan Healey, whether intentionally or not, articulates it perfectly in his article: “lesbianism was never considered a threat.” The vast, vast majority of historical literature, even those which specifically employ a queer lens, treat lesbian sexual relationships as at best non-threatening, typically as an afterthought, or they go entirely unmentioned. The literature we’ve explored this week, assessing fascist policies which policed notions of gender and sexuality, is no exception.
Even in general discussions about gender and sexuality, the sexual desires of women are portrayed as somehow different, and almost always as lesser, than those of men. Boundless literature explores male comradery, and the homoerotic undertones present in militaristic contexts, such a Kuhne in his analysis of Nazi-era masculinities. Little exists exploring the sex lives of women when those men departed for the front lines.
It seems natural to explore those notions of masculinity extensively, as both Kuhne and Healey do; all those men, spending day after day together, sharing these intimate moments – how else are they to satisfy the innate sexual urges men experience? Or so goes the narrative. Meanwhile, the sexual desires of women are constantly left unconsidered. There is an assumption of womanhood, especially historical womanhood, as sexually passive.
Lesbianism often remains an asterisk in the literature because we do not view women’s sexuality as equal to men’s, thus lesbian relationships are implicitly understood as less legitimate.
As Healey outlines, in Soviet Gulags and broader society lesbianism was determined to be a “psycho-neurological pathology,” and that lesbians were more susceptible to hysterics and neuroses. Thus, they must be treated “using psychiatry.”
While lesbianism was an innate deficiency, male homosexuality was criminal but understandable, a way for men to gratify base sexual desires.
Even the difference in the language that is used – sodomy, describing a base, purely physical act, while the term Healey prefers for woman-on-woman sex is “lesbian love.” It pedals a misogynistic narrative in which men are not responsible, nor able to control primal sexual desire, while women are only capable of desiring love and connection. Clearly women, Healey implies, are actually seeking to replicate familial dynamics, and it is rather a psychological ailment or defect rather than simply an itch that needs to be scratched.
Healey also depicts lesbianism as passive. He writes in a way which frames sex more broadly (men fighting for available women in the Gulags) and lesbianism specifically as something that happened to women, and by other women who had taken on male characteristics. The understanding is that men were choosing homosexuality as an outlet for those inevitable desires, especially in instances where women were separated from male prisoners. Yet somehow, lesbianism could not be a result of the same thing – the desire of women to satisfy sexual urges upon being segregated from men. Nor could it be the product of any authentic love or desire by women for other women.
And finally, while Healey at least devotes equal breath to the homosexual relationships of both men and women, lesbianism is too often treated as an asterisk. When we lack the sources at face value (though there is often a breadth of sources, and historians remain insistent that these proclamations of love and desire by women for other women are platonic in nature), incredibly concerted efforts are made to locate archival material detailing the experience of male homosexuality, such as Healey’s employment of Ann Laura Stoler’s tactic of reading against the archival grain. Too often that is deemed to be representative of the experience of all queer people, including queer women. Misogyny becomes permissible when we speak about historical queerness, and those discussions nearly always focus on the experiences of white cis-gendered gay men.