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Interrelations of Gay and Lesbian Literature  
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Othello, for example, prefigures the familiar gendered split of public and private spheres whereby men came to dominate the public sphere and women the private one. This division invites the comparison of bonds within the different spheres (that is, friendships between members of the same sex) versus the heterosexual ones that bridge them.

Female friendship seems to be the only haven in the play from male power struggles. When Emilia gives Desdemona's handkerchief to Iago, her action seems not a sign of Desdemona's unfaithfulness to Othello, but of Emilia's to Desdemona.

Relations between men, in contrast, acquire the horrific fascination that relations between women held for Juvenal. Iago's devious seduction of Othello and Othello's abandonment of Desdemona for Iago combine to form the play's most erotically charged relationship.

Homosocial relationships between women appear nurturing and stable, whereas those between men are racked with deceit, suspicion, and destructive contests for power. Relations between women become more positive as they become more emotional, and relations between men become worse as do the same.

By the end of the eighteenth century in England, the possible interrelations of desire between men and desire between women had altered when the division of public and private had become routine for the British middle classes. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Between Men has argued that this division intensified anxiety about relations between men in the public sphere.


Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "Christabel" (ca 1798-1800) suggests that this anxiety may have been even more intense regarding women in the private sphere. The poem describes the possession of Christabel's spirit by the mysterious Geraldine. In a scene that some contemporaries interpreted as a representation of lesbian sexuality, Geraldine puts a spell on Christabel when, after the two have disrobed, she touches her with her bosom.

The poem's first part ends abruptly after Geraldine's curse on Christabel, so the activities between the two women in the bed are left to the reader's imagination. In the second part, Geraldine turns her attention to Christabel's father, Sir Leoline. She mesmerizes him by pretending to be the daughter of his long-lost friend, Lord Roland.

The poem's most famous passage describes the painful decay of the friendship between the two men; his love for his lost friend leads Sir Leoline to vow to help Geraldine. The poem ends abruptly after Christabel's futile attempts to stop their union.

Relations between men in this poem seem to follow Sedgwick's paradigm of a triangle in which a female figure (Geraldine) mediates homosocial desire between two men (Sir Leoline and Lord Roland). But the prior relations between daughters complicate this paradigm: Homosocial desire between men in this poem becomes apparent only because of a prior, far more dangerous coupling between women.

Although many of Coleridge's contemporaries greeted "Christabel" with incomprehension or disgust, it eventually became a cult poem for the Aesthetic movement in England. Walter Pater, for example, praised it highly and singled out the passage describing friendship between men for special praise.

If nineteenth-century male writers emphasized male friendship in "Christabel," twentieth-century women writers reappropriated the poem to emphasize its lesbian aspects. Rosamond Lehmann, for example, in Dusty Answer (1927), names the novel's lesbian seductress "Geraldine Manners." Likewise, in "The Gipsy's Baby" (1946), she describes the peculiar understandings and tensions that exist between a child, "Chrissy," and her nurse "Isabel."

Toni McNaron in her lesbian-feminist memoir I Dwell in Possibility describes how one stepping-stone on her way toward self-awareness of her lesbian identity occurred when, after reading "Christabel," she and her college roommate nicknamed one another "Chris" and "Gere."

Gay Men and Lesbians as Literary Codes for Each Other

By the end of the nineteenth century, sexual definitions had been codified to the extent that gay men and lesbians began to appear in literature as codes for one another. Sedgwick argues that Willa Cather in "Paul's Case" (1905) represented her own lesbian sexuality through the figure of an effeminate boy. Similarly, in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913-1927), the suspected lesbianism of Albertine functions partly as a code for Proust's own gay desires.

Such coding should not be taken to mean that gay male characters and lesbians simply became interchangeable, but that these two forms of sexuality were treated as more directly comparable than they had been in the past.

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