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American Literature: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall  
 
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Politics is implicit in much of the lesbian literature that emerged in the years immediately following Stonewall. The "new," reactivated, women's movement had as much to do with the tone and character of lesbian writing during these years as the developing (largely male) gay liberation movement.

The 1970s: Lesbianism and Feminism

Kate Millett was an early fighter at the barricades, and her experience was a bellwether. Although her Sexual Politics (1970) was not explicitly lesbian in content, her indictment of the patriarchal system and her blueprint for change led the wave of new aggressive feminism, and this work, against all probability, became a best seller.

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However, under pressure from several lesbian groups to reveal her own bisexuality, she did, and the sales of Sexual Politics fell off almost immediately. Millett returned in 1974 with Flying, a rambling but vivid account of the entire affair, as well as of her politics, her professional life, and her struggles with her sexuality.

Millett's experience with Sexual Politics helped draw the battle lines between radical lesbian groups and more moderate feminist groups (which then included the National Organization for Women), and certainly between what remained of mainstream 1960s political activists (largely straight, white, and male) and the emerging body of new feminists--such as Charlotte Bunch, Julia Penelope, Robin Morgan, Karla Jay, Barbara Smith, and Martha Shelley--who challenged many of the concepts that had been fundamental to the politics of the 1960s.

As one might expect, lesbian literature from this period of rapid change reflects confusion, elation, and rage. Two important works that attempted to identify the issues of these early years were Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love's Sappho Was a Right-On Woman (1972), and Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon's Lesbian/Woman (1972).

Both defined the profound injustices of the status quo and attempted with courage and understanding to give fledgling lesbian-feminists a shove out of the nest and a glimpse of what a different future could hold. These were books that were desperately needed, and in the early 1970s they fell like rain onto parched earth. Lesbian/Woman has become a classic and was reprinted as recently as 1991.

Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah, a novel that also rode the cusp into the early 1970s, carried with it some of the softness and brave-new-world, just-the-two-of-us attitude that challenged the conventional characterization of fictional lesbians as sordid, suicidal creatures of the night, a view predominant in lesbian literature of the pre-Stonewall years, when "lesbian fiction"--even for many lesbians--meant either Ann Bannon or Radclyffe Hall.

Miller, who first published her novel privately as A Place For Us in 1969, reissued the work by a major press as Patience and Sarah in 1973. This sweet love story does not shirk from taking on issues of gender roles and sexuality between women in frontier America, and although the story reaches a happy conclusion, the protagonists must contend with many of the same issues of oppression that challenged their modern sisters in the early 1970s.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were also the calm, reflective novels of Jane Rule, whose best known work, Desert of the Heart, was published in 1965, before Stonewall; and the cautious ventures of May Sarton, who published two novels with discreet lesbian themes before Stonewall (The Small Room [1961] and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing [1965]). Sarton's journals, however, with their oblique female reference points, always seemed to have more of a lesbian sensibility.

Both writers now have a large body of work with lesbian themes, and neither has strayed far from the intelligent, reflective fictional characters with whom they obviously feel most comfortable. Both writers have also written about the lives and emotions of older lesbians with great insight, and Rule published Lesbian Images, a collection of essays on lesbian writers, in 1975.

The Fiction of Lesbian Nation

But the times were changing. Jill Johnston, Bertha Harris, and Rita Mae Brown, like a trio of stampeding horses, brought the fiction of Lesbian Nation into the 1970s with an infusion of energy that matched the increasingly dynamic rhetoric of the lesbian-feminist community. Jill Johnston in Lesbian Nation (1973) named the territory and defined the turf, Bertha Harris in Confessions of Cherubino (1972) and Lover (1976) brilliantly decorated the landscape, and Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle (1977) wreaked hysterical mayhem over the terrain.

Lesbian Nation, which evolved out of a series of outrageous pieces Johnston wrote for the Village Voice, describes the growth of her political consciousness in exhaustive and sometimes bizarre detail. Forthright and often very funny ("All women are lesbians except those who don't know it"), Lesbian Nation is a mix of intense political theory, journal entries, descriptions of sexual escapades, and movement gossip that twenty-odd years later still has the capacity to enlighten and entertain. Johnston continued her analysis in a somewhat calmer state of mind with Gullibles Travels in 1973.

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Tee Corinne (top) wrote elegantly and explicitly of sexual encounters between women in Dreams of the Woman Who Loved Sex (1987).
Leslie Feinberg (above) incorporated butch and femme characters in Stone Butch Blues (1993).

  
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