History of lesbianism

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Zoan Andrea (1464-1526), Two women. Italian Renaissance engraving.

Lesbianism is the sexual and romantic desire between females. There are far fewer historical mentions of lesbianism than male homosexuality, possibly due to many historical writings and records focusing primarily on men. An example of lesbianism being illegal comes from records of the late Middle Ages (1300-1500). Laws created during the Inquisition in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire specifically mention lesbianism (as well as male sodomy).[citation needed] England has never had any laws outlawing lesbianism, and at times (particularly the 17th-19th centuries) lesbianism has even been accepted.[citation needed]

Laws against lesbianism were suggested but usually not created or enforced in early American history. In 1636, John Cotton proposed a law for Massachusetts Bay making sex between two women (or two men) a capital offense, but the law was not enacted.[1] It would have read, "Unnatural filthiness, to be punished with death, whether sodomy, which is carnal fellowship of man with man, or woman with woman, or buggery, which is carnal fellowship of man or woman with beasts or fowls."[2] In 1655, the Connecticut Colony passed a law against sodomy between women (as well as between men), but nothing came of this either.[3] In 1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a law stating that, "Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, or sodomy with man or woman shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman, by cutting thro' the cartilage of her nose a hole of one half inch diameter at the least",[4][5][6] but this did not become law either. However, in 1649 in Plymouth Colony, Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon were prosecuted for "lewd behavior with each other upon a bed"; their trial documents are the only known record of sex between female English colonists in North America in the 17th century.[7] Hammon was only admonished, perhaps because she was younger than sixteen,[7] but in 1650 Norman was convicted and required to acknowledge publicly her "unchaste behavior" with Hammon, as well as warned against future offenses.[8] This may be the only conviction for lesbianism in American history.[9]

Ancient history[edit]

The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 BC) is widely considered to be the earliest known mention of lesbians in surviving historical documents. The code makes reference to women called the salzikrum (literal translation: "daughter-men"), women who were allowed to marry other women.[10] The code also contains the earliest mention of a transgender person.[citation needed]

Ancient Greece[edit]

Female homosexuality is hardly mentioned in surviving ancient Greek literature. It is briefly discussed alongside heterosexuality and male homosexuality in the Speech of Aristohanes, part of Plato's Symposium.[11] In Plutarch's biography of Lycurgus of Sparta, part of his Parallel Lives, the author claims that older Spartan women formed relationships with girls that were similar to the erastes/eromenos relationships that were common between older and younger male Greeks.[12]

An exceptionally rare depiction of sexual activity between women survives in the form of an Attic red figure vase in the collection of the Tarquinia National Museum in Italy. This shows a kneeling woman fingering the genitals of another woman.[12]


Sappho and sexual partners in a painting by eroticist Édouard-Henri Avril
Main article: Sappho

The word "lesbian" derives from Lesbos, the island where the ancient Greek poet Sappho was born; her name is also the origin of its nowadays less common synonym "sapphic".[13][14] The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) men and women have for both genders.

Roman Empire and early Christianity[edit]

The lesbian love story between Iphis and Ianthe, in Book IX of Ovid's the Metamorphoses, is most vivid. When Iphis' mother becomes pregnant, her husband declares that he will kill the child if it is a girl. She bears a girl and attempts to conceal her sex by giving her a name that is of ambiguous gender: Iphis. When the "son" is thirteen, the father chooses a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe as the "boy's" bride. The love of the two girls is written sympathetically:

They were of equal age, they both were lovely,

Had learned the ABC from the same teachers,
And so love came to both of them together
In simple innocence, and filled their hearts

With equal longing.

However, as the marriage draws ever closer, Iphis recoils, calling her love "monstrous and unheard of". The goddess Isis hears the girl's moans and turns her into a boy.

Female couple from a series of erotic paintings at the Suburban Baths, Pompeii

References to love between women are sparse. Phaedrus attempted to explain lesbianism through a myth of his own making: Prometheus, coming home drunk from a party, had mistakenly exchanged the genitals of some women and some men – "Lust now enjoys perverted pleasure."[15]

It is quite clear that paiderastia and lesbianism were not held in equally good light, possibly because of the violation of strict gender roles. Seneca the Elder mentions a husband who killed his wife and her female lover and implies that their crime was worse than that of adultery between a male and female. The Babyloniaca of Iamblichus describes an Egyptian princess named Berenice who loves and marries another woman. This novelist also states that such love is "wild and lawless".

Another example of the gender-sexual worldview of the times was documented in Lucian's Dialogue of the Courtesans, in which Megilla renames herself Megillus and wears a wig to cover her shaved head. She marries Demonassa of Corinth, although Megillus is from Lesbos. Her friend Leaena comments that "They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men". Megillus seduces Leaena, who feels that the experience is too disgusting to describe in detail. This is far from the sophisticated aestheticism of Sappho's group.[citation needed]

In another dialogue ascribed to Lucian, two men debate over which is better, male love or heterosexuality. One man protested that if male affairs were legitimized, then lesbianism would soon be condoned as well, an unthinkable notion.[16]

The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter describes the punishment of lesbians and gay men in Hell:[17]

And other men and women being cast down from a great rock fell to the bottom, and again were driven by them that were set over them, to go up upon the rock, and thence were cast down to the bottom and had no rest from this torment. And these were they that did defile their bodies behaving as women: and the women that were with them were they that lay with one another as a man with a woman.

The canonical New Testament usually mentions homosexuality in only general terms (i.e. mentioning both gays and lesbians) and both are equally convicted.[18] The only specific mention of Lesbianism is Romans 1:26, "For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature" (NKJV).

Early Middle Ages (476-1049 AD)[edit]

In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church took a stricter view of same-sex relations between women. Penitentials, developed by Celtic monks in Ireland, were unofficial guidebooks which became popular, especially in the British Isles. These books listed crimes and the penances that must be done for them. For example, "...he who commits the male crime of the Sodomites shall do penance for four years". The several versions of the Paenitentiale Theodori, attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, who became archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, make special references to lesbianism. The Paenitentiale states, "If a woman practices vice with a woman she shall do penance for three years". Penitentials soon spread from the British Isles to mainland Europe. From the 6th to the 11th centuries, there are thirty-one penitentials that punish male homosexuality and fourteen that punish lesbianism.[citation needed]

The Old French legal treatise Li livres de jostice et de plet (c. 1260) is the earliest reference to legal punishment for lesbianism akin to that for male homosexuality. It prescribed dismemberment on the first two offences and death by burning for the third: a near exact parallel to the penalty for a man, although what "dismemberment" could mean for a medieval woman is unknown.[19][20]:13 It is possible that it refers to the cutting off of a woman's breasts.[citation needed]

Later Middle Ages (1050-c. 1600 AD)[edit]

Between 1170 and 1180 Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbis in Jewish history, compiled his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah. It is the only Medieval-era work that details all of Jewish observance, and as regarding lesbianism states:[21]

For women to be mesollelot [women rubbing genitals against each other] with one another is forbidden, as this is the practice of Egypt, which we were warned against: "Like the practice of the land of Egypt ... you shall not do" (Leviticus 18:3). The Sages said [in the midrash of Sifra Aharei Mot 8:8–9], "What did they do? A man married a man, and a woman married a woman, and a woman married two men." Even though this practice is forbidden, one is not lashed [as for a Torah prohibition] on account of it, since there is no specific prohibition against it, and there is no real intercourse. Therefore, [one who does this] is not forbidden to the priesthood because of harlotry, and a woman is not prohibited to her husband by this, since it is not harlotry. But it is appropriate to administer to them lashings of rebellion [i.e., those given for violation of rabbinic prohibitions], since they did something forbidden. And a man should be strict with his wife in this matter, and should prevent women known to do this from coming to her or from her going to them.

In Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women was included in acts considered unnatural and punishable by burning to death, although few instances are recorded of this taking place.[citation needed] The earliest such female execution occurred in 1477 with the drowning of a girl "for lesbian love" in Speier, Germany.[20]:17 Forty days' penance was demanded of nuns who "rode" each other or were discovered to have touched each other's breasts. In Pescia, Italy, an abbess named Sister Benedetta Carlini was documented in inquests between 1619 and 1623 as having committed grave offences including a passionately erotic love affair with another nun when possessed by a Divine male spirit named "Splenditello"; declared the victim of a "diabolical obsession", she was placed in the convent's prison for the last 35 years of her life.[22] Female homoeroticism, however, was so common in English literature and theatre that historians[who?] suggest it was fashionable for a period during the Renaissance.[citation needed]

Later 20th and early 21st centuries (1969-present)[edit]

The Stonewall Riots were a series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by members of the gay (LGBT) community,[note 1] including lesbians, against a police raid that took place in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, located in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City. They are widely considered to constitute the single most important event leading to the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the United States.[23][24]

Political lesbianism originated in the late 1960s among second wave radical feminists as a way to fight sexism and compulsory heterosexuality. Sheila Jeffreys, a lesbian, helped to develop the concept when she co-wrote "Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism" [25] with the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group. They argued that women should abandon support of heterosexuality and stop sleeping with men, encouraging women to rid men "from your beds and your heads."[26] While the main idea of political lesbianism is to be separate from men, this does not necessarily mean that political lesbians have to sleep with women; some choose to be celibate or identify as asexual. The Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group definition of a political lesbian is "a woman identified woman who does not fuck men". They proclaimed men the enemy and women who were in relationships with them collaborators and complicit in their own oppression. Heterosexual behavior was seen as the basic unit of the patriarchy's political structure, with lesbians who reject heterosexual behavior therefore disrupting the established political system.[27] Lesbian women who have identified themselves as "political lesbians" include Ti-Grace Atkinson, Julie Bindel, Charlotte Bunch, Yvonne Rainer, and Sheila Jeffreys.

In 1974, Maureen Colquhoun came out as the first Lesbian MP for the Labour Party in the UK. When elected she was married in a heterosexual marriage.[28]

Lesbian feminism, which was most influential from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s (primarily in North America and Western Europe), encourages women to direct their energies toward other women rather than men, and often advocates lesbianism as the logical result of feminism.[29] Some key thinkers and activists in lesbian feminism are Charlotte Bunch, Rita Mae Brown, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Frye, Mary Daly, Sheila Jeffreys and Monique Wittig (although the latter is more commonly associated with the emergence of queer theory). As with Gay Liberation, the lesbian feminism understanding of the lesbian potential in all women was at odds with the minority-rights framework of the Gay Rights movement. Many women of the Gay Liberation movement felt frustrated at the domination of the movement by men and formed separate organisations; some who felt gender differences between men and women could not be resolved developed "lesbian separatism", influenced by writings such as Jill Johnston's 1973 book Lesbian Nation. Disagreements between different political philosophies were, at times, extremely heated, and became known as the lesbian sex wars,[30] clashing in particular over views on sadomasochism, prostitution and transsexuality.

The Lesbian Avengers began in New York City in 1992 as "a direct action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility." [31][32] Dozens of other chapters quickly emerged worldwide, a few expanding their mission to include questions of gender, race, and class. Newsweek reporter Eloise Salholz, covering the 1993 LGBT March on Washington, believed the Lesbian Avengers were so popular because they were founded at a moment when lesbians were increasingly tired of working on issues, like AIDS and abortion, while their own problems went unsolved.[33] Most importantly, lesbians were frustrated with invisibility in society at large, and invisibility and misogyny in the LGBT community.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ At the time, the term "gay" was commonly used to refer to all LGBT people.


  1. ^ Dorothy A. Mays Women in early America: struggle, survival, and freedom in a new world, ABC-CLIO, 2004 ISBN 1-85109-429-6 p. 232
  2. ^ Whitmore, William Henry (February 1995). The Colonial Laws of Massachusetts: Reprinted from the Edition of 1660, With the Supplements to 1672 : Containing Also, the Body of Liberties of. Fred B. Rothman &. ISBN 0-8377-2053-2. 
  3. ^ Foster, Thomas (2007). Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. New York University Press.
  4. ^ Amendment VIII: Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments. Press-pubs.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2010-11-30.
  5. ^ Abramson, HA (1980). "The historical and cultural spectra of homosexuality and their relationship to the fear of being a lesbian.". The Journal of asthma research 17 (4): 177–88. doi:10.3109/02770908009105669. PMID 7021523. 
  6. ^ "Timeline of Oppression". Geneseo.edu. 1969-06-27. Retrieved 2013-12-03. 
  7. ^ a b Kenneth Borris Same-sex desire in the English Renaissance: a sourcebook of texts, 1470–1650, Routledge, 2004 ISBN 0-8153-3626-8 p. 113
  8. ^ Legal case: Norman, Hammon; Plymouth, March 6, 1649. OutHistory (2008-07-15). Retrieved 2010-11-30.
  9. ^ Bullough, Vern; Bullough, Bonnie (1977). "Lesbianism in the 1920s and 1930s: A Newfound Study". Signs 2 (4): 895–904. doi:10.1086/493419. 
  10. ^ Zuffi, Stefano (2010). Love and the erotic in art. p. 235. 
  11. ^ Dover (1979), p. 172.
  12. ^ a b Dover (1979), p.173.
  13. ^ Douglas Harper (2001). "Lesbian". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2009-02-07. 
  14. ^ Douglas Harper (2001). "Sapphic". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2009-02-07. 
  15. ^ Sexual diversity and Catholicism: toward the development of moral theology By Patricia Beattie Jung, Joseph Andrew Coray. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  16. ^ Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a sourcebook of basic documents By Thomas K. Hubbard. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  17. ^ Wesley Center Online. "Apocalypse of Peter". The Apocryphal New Testament. Clarendon Press, 1924. Retrieved 7 August 2011. 
  18. ^ "Homosexuality in the Bible". Skepticsannotatedbible.com. Retrieved 2014-03-23. 
  19. ^ Boswell (1981), pp.289-290
  20. ^ a b Crompton, Louis. "The Myth of Lesbian Impunity. Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791". Journal of Homosexuality (The Haworth Press) 6 (1/2): 11–25. doi:10.1300/j082v06n01_03. Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  21. ^ "Issurei Bi'ah 21:8–9" (in Hebrew). Retrieved November 26, 2014. 
  22. ^ Randall, Frederika (19 January 1986). "Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions". The New York Times (New York). Retrieved 5 February 2014. 
  23. ^ National Park Service (2008). "Workforce Diversity: The Stonewall Inn, National Historic Landmark National Register Number: 99000562". US Department of Interior. Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  24. ^ "Obama inaugural speech references Stonewall gay-rights riots". North Jersey Media Group Inc. January 21, 2013. Retrieved January 21, 2013. 
  25. ^ Jeffreys, Sheila. "Love Your Enemy? The Debate Between Heterosexual Feminism and Political Lesbianism". 
  26. ^ Bindel, Julie (30 January 2009). "My sexual revolution". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 October 2012. 
  27. ^ Bunch, Charlotte. "Lesbians in Revolt". The Furies: Lesbian/Feminist Monthly. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  28. ^ "Where are they now: Maureen Colquhoun". 
  29. ^ Rich, A. (1980). "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence". Signs; 5, 631–660.
  30. ^ Lesbian Sex Wars, article by Elise Chenier from GLBTQ encyclopedia.
  31. ^ Lesbian Avenger Organizing Handbook Retrieved 2009-3-4.
  32. ^ "Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too". Archived from the original on March 26, 2010.  Editors Janet Baus, Su Friedrich. (1993)
  33. ^ a b 1993, Eloise Salholz, Newsweek, "The Power and the Pride."
  • Boswell, John (1981). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 289–90. ISBN 978-0226067117. 
  • Dover, Kenneth James (1978). Greek Homosexuality. Duckworth. ISBN 978-0-7156-1111-1. 

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