glbtq: an encyclopedia of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender & queer culture
social sciences
special features
about glbtq


   member name
   Forgot Your Password?  
Not a Member Yet?  

  Advertising Opportunities
  Permissions & Licensing
  Terms of Service
  Privacy Policy






Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

Autobiography, Lesbian  
page: 1  2  

Debating the Nature of Lesbian Narrative

Of course, the marked increase in autobiographical works also precipitated the debate of what actually constituted lesbian narrative. Writing on the subject in the early 1980s, Margaret Cruikshank, for example, grappled with whether or not to discuss the novelist May Sarton (1912-1996), whose journals The House by the Sea (1977) and Recovering (1980) quietly describe her love of women. The aura of privacy surrounding Sarton's presentation of her lesbianism led Cruikshank to begin her own essay on lesbian autobiographical writing with an apologia for not including Sarton in the discussion.

In a similar vein, Kate Millett (b. 1934) found that her autobiographical works Flying (1974) and Sita (1977) were negatively received because they did not offer "uplifting" versions of lesbian experience.

Such responses also point to another issue that emerged during this period: the privileging of flat or reductive self-presentations, overtly invested in a particular political standard, at the expense of more nuanced or layered accounts of personal exploration; or, in more general terms, the difficulty of adhering to a specific, often temporally and culturally bound, definition of lesbian writing. How, in effect, does one's social position determine one's status as lesbian?

The problems attending the development of this genre point to its complexity and range. Lesbian autobiographies from the mid-1970s, which, for the most part offered accounts of the lives of middle-class, university-educated, white lesbians, were not representative of the diversity of the lesbian population; nor could they be.

Autobiographies by Women of Color

As lesbians began to question the efficacy of a political movement that assumed their sameness, writings by women of color began to gain prominence. So, for example, Michelle Cliff (b. 1946) has examined her multiracial West Indian heritage in both her fiction and nonfiction. In Claiming an Identity They Taught Me to Despise (1980), in which she mixes poetry and prose, patois and standard English, she considers her position as a light-skinned lesbian, capable of passing as both white and heterosexual.

Similarly, poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) in her "biomythography," Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), foregrounds the tension between telling a story faithful to one's own experience and writing against the mythic structures or foundational "truths" of dominant social groups. In locating herself within "the very house of difference," Lorde offers a model for political alliance and autobiography based on the recognition of the complex interplay of various race, class, and gender positions and various literary genres in one's understanding of self.

The groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981) calls for a "theory in the flesh," or again, the lived experience of political praxis. Edited by Cherríe Moraga (b. 1952) and Gloria Anzaldúa (b. 1942), this important collection contains personal essays, poems, and interviews; its appearance has done much to further publication of other works that recount and theorize multicultural lesbian experience, including Anzaldúa's own Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987).

Lesbian Autobiographies of the 1990s: Exploring Complex and Mutable Identities

In the 1990s, lesbian autobiography has been shaped both by poststructuralism and queer theory, which speak of shifting positions rather than fixed, essentialist identities, and by the sex wars of the 1980s, which saw the upsurge of specifically erotic, as opposed to political, definitions of lesbianism. Dyke Life (1995) and Lesbian Erotics (1995), both edited by Karla Jay (b. 1947), include sex-positive autobiographical entries that question fixed notions of gender identity. Jay's most recent work is Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation (1999), which focuses on her political life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The autobiographically inflected essays and fiction of Dorothy E. Allison (b. 1949), in turn, often consider the growth of lesbian desire within the lives of white, Southern "trash," whereas the first-person narratives of Pat Califia (b. 1954) examine a range of topics from sadomasochistic practices to butch-femme relations to understandings of self.


In sum, lesbian autobiography has taken many forms. From the coding or obscuring strategies of early and mid-twentieth-century works to the truth-telling practices of the 1970s and 1980s to the current emphasis on complex and mutable lesbian identities, the subgenre has proven itself both wide ranging and contradictory in the stories that it tells.

Margaret Soenser Breen

  <previous page   page: 1  2    

Contact Us
Join the Discussion
Related Entries
More Entries by this contributor
A Bibliography on this Topic

Citation Information
More Entries about Literature

   Related Entries
literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969

American lesbian literature prior to Stonewall exploited the "outlaw" status of the lesbian as it moved from encrypted strategies of expression to overt political celebrations of woman-for-woman passion.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall

Since Stonewall various political agendas have dominated American lesbian literature.

literature >> Overview:  Autobiography, Gay Male

In its first century of existence, gay male autobiography has become increasingly more open, frank, and unapologetic.

literature >> Overview:  Autobiography, Transsexual

Transgendered individuals have published autobiographies not only to tell or to clarify the stories of their lives, but also to educate others in an effort to gain greater acceptance for transgender people.

literature >> Overview:  Coming Out Stories

The coming out experience is so important to gay men and lesbians that it is a primary focus of much of their literature.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  Identity

Although the question of homosexual identity is a complex one, it has polarized activists, theorists, and literary critics into two primary camps, essentialists and constructionists, both of which can contribute usefully to an understanding of the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Allison, Dorothy E.

South Carolina native Dorothy Allison refuses to write didactic or romantic illustrations of the lesbian experience, focusing instead on the sheer survival of her lesbian characters in the hostile environment of Southern working-class families.

literature >> Anderson, Margaret

Best known as editor of the early twentieth-century literary journal The Little Review, Margaret Anderson also published a frank lesbian novel and a three-volume autobiography.

literature >> Anzaldúa, Gloria

American Latina lesbian editor and writer Gloria Anzaldúa connected racism and homophobia to posit a political queerness that interconnects with all struggles against oppression.

literature >> Barnes, Djuna

American novelist Djuna Barnes sought new forms of self-representation of lesbians in the face of society's compulsory heterosexuality.

literature >> Brown, Rita Mae

Lesbian poet and novelist Rita Mae Brown, best known for the highly successful Rubyfruit Jungle, resists neat categorization.

social sciences >> Bunch, Charlotte

American activist and academic Charlotte Bunch is a key player in the movement for international human rights for women.

literature >> Califia, Patrick

Controversial for defending sadomasochism and pornography, gender outlaw and sexual anarchist Patrick Califia, who recently underwent gender reassignment, is widely admired as a defender of individual freedom.

literature >> Cliff, Michelle

Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff explores issues of race, class, and sexuality in her prose and poetry.

arts >> Dobkin, Alix

A lifelong progressive activist and a pioneer in women's music, Alix Dobkin not only helped create a new era of women's music in the 1970s but also paved the way for mainstsream lesbian musicians.

literature >> Erauso, Catalina de

Catalina de Erauso, a seventeenth-century Basque woman who led the rough-and-ready life of a soldier, has been the subject of plays, novels, and films, some of which deny or obscure her lesbianism, others of which celebrate it.

literature >> Flanner, Janet

An expatriate journalist, novelist, and translator, Janet Flanner spent most of her adult life in Paris with her lover Solita Solano.

literature >> Jansson, Tove

Best known for her series of children's books about the Moomin family of trolls, Tove Jansson, considered a national treasure in Finland, also wrote fiction for adults and was an accomplished artist and illustrator.

social sciences >> Lesbian Nation

Inspired by Jill Johnston's collection of essays of the same name, the term "lesbian nation" became a rallying cry for political lesbians of the 1970s.

literature >> Lorde, Audre

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lord was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

literature >> Meigs, Mary

An American-born painter who emigrated to Canada, the artist Mary Meigs is best known for her literary contributions and her feminist activism on behalf of elderly lesbians.

literature >> Moraga, Cherríe

In her own works, CherrĂ­e Moraga defines her experience as a Chicana lesbian; and in her capacity as editor/publisher, she provides a forum for traditionally silenced lesbians of color.

literature >> Pratt, Minnie Bruce

Award-winning author Minnie Bruce Pratt has written moving and erotic poems and stories that explore sex and gender issues, as well as powerful essays that decry bigotry in its many forms.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

literature >> Russ, Joanna

In both her science fiction and her criticism, Joanna Russ is outspokenly lesbian and feminist.

literature >> Sackville-West, Vita

Best known for her relationship with Virginia Woolf and for her scandalous love affairs, Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

literature >> Sarton, May

May Sarton, who gradually revealed her lesbianism in her writing, worked successfully in poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

arts >> Wood, Thelma Ellen

Although she is best known for her affair with Djuna Barnes, as depicted in Barne's classic novel Nightwood, Thelma Wood was herself an artist; originally a sculptor, she also practiced the obscure craft of silverpoint drawing.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Cruikshank, Margaret. "Notes on Recent Lesbian Autobiographical Writing." Journal of Homosexuality 8:2 (Fall 1982): 19-26.

Dunne, Linda. "Autobiography." Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Bonnie Zimmerman, ed. New York: Garland, 2000: 87-89.

Matrix, Sidney. "Coming Out Stories." Lesbian Histories and Cultures. Bonnie Zimmerman, ed. New York: Garland, 2000. 189-190.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. "The Politics of Transliteration: Lesbian Personal Narratives." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 9:4 (1984): 663-668.


    Citation Information
    Author: Breen, Margaret Soenser  
    Entry Title: Autobiography, Lesbian  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 25, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


This Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates is produced by glbtq, Inc., 1130 West Adams Street, Chicago, IL   60607 glbtq™ and its logo are trademarks of glbtq, Inc.
This site and its contents Copyright © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Your use of this site indicates that you accept its Terms of Service.