When it comes to a sweeping and multifaceted topic like “the history and future of gayness,” no single piece of writing can possibly cover everything. My new feature piece “What Was Gay?” which is live on Slate today, is no exception. There are many points upon which I’d love to dwell and caveat-strewn tangents down which I would have skipped if my editors had allowed it—but alas, even long-form has limits. However, there’s one omission in the article that can’t pass unaddressed: the lesbian experience. Female gayness is clearly a big part of this story—and one that is too often erased—so its absence here, though logistically necessary, is a problem. In lieu of the 9000 further words it would have taken to do justice to that unique history and perspective, I asked my colleague June Thomas, a noted lesbian, to read the piece and respond with her Sapphic sisters in mind. What she said was not only illuminating, but also crucial to a proper understanding what gayness has meant across the queer community.
What follows is an edited, condensed version of our conversation; if you’d rather listen to the gay and the lesbian gab out loud, consider joining Slate Plus, our membership program. Once a member you’ll have access to a number of extras related to my piece, including an audio version read by yours truly and a chat between my editor John Swansburg and myself about the making of the feature, as well as a regular stream of exciting Slatey goodies each week.
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J. Bryan Lowder: Part of the piece that I did really poorly on was covering the lesbian and female angle on gayness. I focused mainly on male gayness. So I really wanted to take the opportunity to have you, June, come in and school me a little bit on what I had left out.
June Thomas: You were so hard on yourself! You did what you did.
Lowder: As a gay man, I wrote about gay maleness, or male gayness. Obviously there is female gayness, and a rich history of it at that. So I definitely wanted to use this opportunity to fill that gap a little bit, because it’s definitely missing from the piece.
I thought a good place to start was this idea of transmission and introduction. How do young homosexuals become gay? And by that I mean culturally gay—initiated into these cultural practices. I know that you had a sort of interesting background on this: You dealt with gay men a little bit before you even dealt with lesbian culture as much. I wonder if you could talk about what that was like for you.
Thomas: When I was reading your piece—which I loved, by the way—I had this moment when I got to that section, where I had the feeling of almost imprinting. At least in theory, or the popular imagination, ducklings imprint on the first thing that they see. So it could be a car or it could be their mother, who knows. And I always feel that I came out around gay men. Which is to say that even though I knew lesbians, this is in kind of a pre-sexual era for me. This is more about finding culture, finding people who you could even say “I think I’m gay” to. A gay man played a really important role in that part of my formation. In fact, I have to say in the beautiful opening paragraphs where you talk about what makes a gay apartment, I was reminded that this gay man, who I’ll just call “Sprigs”—I actually lived in his beautiful house. Which was … well, you can imagine how it was decorated.
Lowder: Well done, I’m sure.
Thomas: Mmm, the color scheme was very striking. I also was swimming in that water of Ethel Merman, and show tunes, and Barbara Cook. And I could make bitchy comments about Barbara Cook … which of course I would never do, because she is a goddess. But, that’s part of the repertoire. And then, when I sort of shifted into more of a lesbian separatist setting, I never had an opportunity to use either of these hand gestures which I’m using now, but also to make catty comments about movie stars of the 1950s, or Barbara Stanwyck or whatever.
Lowder: Classic gay tropes, yeah. Did you encounter any resistance when those things popped up among the lesbian culture that you joined later?
Thomas: Not so much to that, although it was always sort of an indulgence that was given to me. But there wasn’t much of an opportunity to squeal over those things, as I might have done with a certain kind of gay man.
Lowder: Earlier you mentioned a few key mid-century gay tropes that your friend, your inductor, shared with you. That suggests to me this canon, which at least at that moment was important to know. And I think that does shift over time. But there is this sense of these various texts or objects or figures that you should be familiar with to be properly gay. Is there a similar canon for lesbians? In my piece I talk about Wilde as one of these ur-gay figures. What’s the equivalent in Lesbian Land?
Thomas: Well, it’s funny because there are figures who I think often are writers; but it’s not necessarily their writing that you connect with, but rather their image. So, I’ve read several biographies of Gertrude Stein, Radclyffe Hall, Gluck, a painter who was very butch and actually had fantastic fashion sense. (I think all of those people have been the subject of biographies by Diana Souhami, so maybe it’s just one person creating this industry.) And there’s a certain kind of—again, specific to my age and the places I’ve lived—women’s music, which now I think young people would reject. But for a time had a certain kind of significance, for some people. As we always say in any kind of gay setting, there are many, many versions of gayness, many different sub-communities. But in my particular community, that was quite a key thing.
I think comedians matter, too. It’s funny, this may be changing, but I think there’s always been a strong lesbian comedian-connection. There’s been a bunch of them, there’s a certain kind of humor. And also I think there’s another world, which is sports. I mean, your piece is about a certain kind (in many ways) of gay man, which to me is about the mind. This is an intellectual thing.
Lowder: And taste, and aesthetics.
Thomas: Right. And then, there’s a different kind of gay man, who maybe is concerned with different kinds of aesthetics, which is about specifically his body. His body is his project.
Lowder: Circuit queens.
Thomas: Circuit queens! And going to parties is their life. And they’re completely committed to that. Like, they know those parties like you know the work of David Halperin. Which is: Very well. And, we all have these little worlds, I guess.
Lowder: One of the key divisions that I try to deal with in my piece is people who embrace a sort of cultural definition of their gayness, and people who reject that, and even actively so—like, “I do not want to be associated with that.” Is there a similar division among lesbians that’s so clearly articulated?
Thomas: I’ve always been very tortured about butch/femme. It just makes me uncomfortable even talking about it! Because I think of the specific context when I was coming out, or coming up, or whatever. And again, now younger people have gone through bringing a whole new set of values and associations …
Lowder: Well, the rise of queerness—that sort of tries to dissolve a lot of this stuff I think.
Thomas: Exactly! But I do think there are female equivalents. And certainly there’s also a sort of rejection of “butch” by some people. There’s a reason that we don’t have any butch lesbians on television, or very few. So yeah I think there are definitely equivalents.
Lowder: One of the reasons I feel like this piece is lacking in this particular way is that the histories that have been written are largely focused on gay men as well. And so when I was in the archives and looking at this, it was much easier to find that narrative and reconstruct what I was interested in than it was to find the lesbian side. That’s not to say that there aren’t historians working on it, but it’s just that it’s easier to find that. The big books that one goes to are largely about gay men. And so I wondered if we could just talk a little about how sexism plays into that, and visibility. Why is this the case?
Thomas: I think it’s partly just that “gay and lesbian” can be a misleading pairing. We know why they’re put together, but we have different social lives, different cultural signifiers. And so I suspect that if you look in a gay collection, the archives have a certain bias, specifically for things from the 60s, 70s and 80s. There are lesbian archives, or feminist archives, or different collections. So I think it’s just that we are brought together as a group, but then when it comes to our collections and our history, we separate a little.
You know, Bryan, that actually reminds me of something. There’s a section of your piece where you talk about four key concepts that you’ve distilled as being the cornerstones of gay practices. As I was reading that, it happened every single time almost, that I would see a word—the word that you’d chosen to represent this concept—and I would always go, “Oh, but we don’t do that.” And then, “Oh, I see what you’re really using that to mean!” So “cruising”—at first I was like, oh, okay …
Lowder: Lesbians don’t cruise?
Thomas: Which of course is not true. We still know the signals, and we can still ID people. And on the point of drag, my first response was also, “Oh, well that’s different for us.” But, as you teased out what you really meant, I understood that no, that is relevant. However, it made me think of something that I do think is slightly different between women and men. Which is that there are certain gay men who are obviously gay, in any setting, spotted from a few yards away. But I would actually say that that’s relatively rare.
Whereas there’s a certain kind of lesbian, I think, who is far more easily readable, both within the community but more importantly without. And partly that’s because she’s probably chosen to dress in a certain way that enhances that. (I think I fall in this category myself.) You know: You don’t have earrings, you wear your hair a certain way, you always wear pants. And also, historically speaking, if you look at especially novels of the 50s, it was always a thing that the butch can’t pass. She can’t put on a dress. She has to have a job like working as an elevator operator, so she can wear pants.
Lowder: I know what you mean. I don’t know that I would agree that the most flamboyant queens (and I say that lovingly) can necessarily quiet that. Because a lot of that starts to become about speech patterns and just the way your body moves, and it’s not even about dress per se at that point. But I think the difference is that women are both more policed and less policed in certain ways in society. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but my read of this thing is that a gay man who is very flamboyant, obviously so, might be attacked or might be made fun of. But he still has a certain amount of male privilege. To some degree, if we wanted to balance the scales out, he’d have something.
The butch woman is going to basically be ignored. Because it’s so impossible to conceptualize in our really messed-up gender situation, she will be really excluded. And she’s included in those novels that you mentioned, but we don’t see those representations in most places. Like, Orange is the New Black is the only place I can think where there’s a butch lesbian. So yeah, I think you’re exactly right, that the concept of self-presentation is different. When I’m talking about drag, I’m really talking about self-presentation, and artifice, and how you construct your presentation to the world. That is experienced, must be experienced, differently. It has to be.
Thomas: I think that’s absolutely true. I’d say there’s a smaller range of representation in culture, but almost an easier and more frequent acceptance in real life—in the workplace for example—again because of gender privilege. That a masculine woman has some masculine … not privilege exactly, but there’s a higher tolerance for it.
Lowder: Maybe a place to end is to think about the part of the piece where I try to think about what the future looks like. We’ve gotten to a moment I think where both the rise of queerness as a model and the more conservative push for assimilation are really putting pressure on gayness as lifestyle or as a chosen way of being in the world. Right? And lesbianness, too—let’s expand it. It’s almost sort of passé to identify very strongly with those identities, and to really organize one’s life around that now, the way that I certainly do and that you do too a little bit. So, do we want these things to continue? Or is this whole thing misguided, and should I just be over it?
Thomas: Well, I don’t know if the great majority of gay people will just kind of blend, if it will just be another aspect of the great American melting pot, or the great Western world melting pot. I hope that we don’t. But I do think it will be much more of a choice, it’s maybe more optional. And also, I am sort of heartened by the Internet. It is easier to find information about former figures that we might want to …
Lowder: To do that self-education.
Thomas: Exactly! I guess the question that I’m not sure about is: How many people will be motivated to find it? I think there will still be some. Not everybody is going to be any one way. And I must say too that I’m very drawn to your concept of gayness being somewhat separate from homosexuality. They’re not the same thing.
Lowder: And that separation also helps make gayness accessible to people who are not homosexual, in fact, right? I already know people who are straight, and very gay. Like, very fluent in a lot of the practices that we’ve been talking about. And I think we all do. So, it would be nice to get to a place where we could include them in that, without imputing anything to their sexuality per se; it’s a cultural practice. That does seem like an exciting way forward.
Thomas: I’m already hearing the accusations of appropriation and all of that. But yes, I think it’s a very positive thing, and I look forward to having long discussions about 1980s lesbian novels with straight … or, I suppose I should say, what would the term be? “Straight-performing?” “Straight-practicing?”
Lowder: Right! Straight-behavioral gay people!
Thomas: Right, exactly. I look forward to discussing them with those people.
Lowder: Well, I want to join that reading circle. Let’s go out and evangelize for this. Thank you so much, June. This has been lovely.
Thomas: Thank you so much for this awesome piece!