Notches on Lesbian Erasure

There is a great blog post up on Notches, the history of sexuality website, today. It is by Rachel Hope Cleves who is at the University of Victoria, BC and was one of the organizers of the conference that Kevin and I attended earlier this year.

The subject of Rachel’s post is the erasure of lesbians in history. This comes about partly because of sexism (gay men are important, lesbians less so), partly because gay male sex has always been treated as much more dangerous, whereas lesbian has been more ignored, and partly because historians have an annoying habit of refusing to recognize that an idea or activity exists until it is named.

This is a problem for trans history too. The concept of a transsexual is clearly a 20th century invention. However, there is massive of evidence of people having cross-gender and third-gender identities in history, and even of medical intervention. Making a eunuch is, after all, both surgery and hormone therapy. And yet many historians refuse to admit that trans people existing prior to the 20th Century because the definitions we now use had not been invented.

So I have a lot of sympathy with the lesbians whose anger Rachel is reporting, at least thus far. Of course any tale of lesbian anger is not complete without intervention from the TERFs. As Rachel explains, the TERFs not only believe that lesbian history is being erased, they also maintain that the future of lesbianism is being erased, by trans people. They worry that in future there will be no lesbians, only trans men.

Part of this fear is based on the persistent lie that trans people are “really” homosexuals who are so ashamed of their desires that they “mutilate” their bodies so as to appear heterosexual. No trans person I know is like that. Indeed, the prevalence of post-transition trans folk who identify as gay and lesbian ought to be sufficient proof that the idea is daft. Nevertheless it is an idea that refuses to die.

There is also the fear that the medical establishment will force young lesbians through gender transition in order to “normalize” them. No trans person wants this. If we have an “agenda” at all it is to be left alone to live our lives the way we need to, not to be pushed into any particular course of action by doctors or social convention.

What is true is that there is a grey zone between butch lesbians and trans men. People do cross that boundary. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, and Feinberg’s own life, are classic examples of the quandary. But this only represents a fraction of trans male identities and, once again, the aim should be to allow people to find a place that they are comfortable with, not to force their choices.

It is, I suppose, possible that there are young female-identified-at-birth people in the non-binary community whose reason for being their is solely sexual attraction to women. But if there are then they are not really non-binary because being trans is not about sexuality. I find it hard to believe that any female-identified people would chose transition when they can be happy as lesbians. People who come up with these ideas have no idea how tough transition actually is.

Mostly, then, I think the fears expressed by the people Rachel encountered are spurious, based on false views of trans people, and what trans people want, spread by TERFs. I’d love to be able to reassure them. Trans people, and particularly trans women, have no desire for lesbians to be phased out of existence. After all, many of us identify as lesbians.

What really annoys me about this attitude, however, is that the prime culprits for erasure of trans people from history are not historians but TERFs. They like to claim that no one had a cross-gender identity before modern medicine invented the idea. That they should (falsely) claim that we are trying to erase them, while they are actively and openly trying to erase us, is a magnificent exercise in hypocrisy.

One thought on “Notches on Lesbian Erasure

  1. Within my circle of friends we have more of a concern that ‘lesbian’ will disappear under the weight of ‘queer’ rather than any trans concerns … but then, we are a bunch of dykes who battled with straight feminists in the 80’s for visibility too. 🙂

Comments are closed.