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Interrelations of Gay and Lesbian Literature  
page: 1  2  3  

Lesbian and Gay Male Relationships as Models for Each Other

Thus far, I have discussed only interrelations between literary portrayals of desire between men and desire between women. The other side of this history involves actual writers and how they understood one another. Personal documents from the beginning of the nineteenth century suggest that male and female homosexuality had begun to function as codes for one another in life in a way that they did not until the end of the century in fiction.

Lord Byron, in writing of his love for the choirboy John Edlestone, compared it to the love of the ladies of Llangollen, a lesbian couple living in Wales who became famous as an example of "romantic friendship"; he boasted that he and Edlestone would outdo even the ladies. Later, after he had become a successful author, he sent his works to them. Although Byron scholars have rarely noted this fact, it suggests that he viewed their same-sex relationship as a model for his own.

Interestingly, just as lesbian relationships became a model for Byron's gay ones, so Byron's sexuality became a model for lesbians. Anne Lister, a lesbian whose diaries have recently been decoded and published, was an ardent fan of Byron's and contemplated using his poetry to further possible lesbian affairs.

When she visited the ladies of Llangollen, she chatted with one of them about Byron, Virgil, and Tasso. Each of these male writers represented either actual desire between males, as in Virgil's second eclogue, or cross-dressing that flirted with the possibility, as in the Tancredi and Clorinda episode of Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata and in the relations between Lara and Kaled in Byron's Lara.

Although Lister does not explicitly mention Byron's sexual relations with other males, her discussions of him hint that she either knew or intuited that Byron was no exemplar of normative masculinity. Furthermore, as Terry Castle has noted, the Byronic hero became an icon in the later lesbian tradition in the case of such writers as George Sand, Radclyffe Hall, and Vita Sackville-West.

By the twentieth century, the image of gay and lesbian artists as "odd couples" became more frequent. The Parisian circles associated with American high modernism contain several examples of such collaborations. Perhaps the most famous was the association between the author Gertrude Stein and the composer Virgil Thomson, which produced Four Saints in Three Acts (first performed 1934) and The Mother of Us All (first performed 1947).

In the entertainment industry, a series of "lavender" marriages and romances allowed homosexual artists to maintain a conventional cover for the edification of the public, as in the marriage of the actress Katherine Cornell and the director Guthrie McClintic. Similarly, gay men chose the lesbian Greta Garbo as one of their most prized cult images, whereas lesbians chose a gay man, James Dean, as a comparable figure.

Adrienne Rich's essay, cited earlier, was written in 1977 and warns lesbians about the dangers of losing a feminist identity in a larger gay liberation movement. Without endorsing a simple separatism, she argues eloquently for the need to maintain a distinctive lesbian feminist movement.

Possibilities for a Coalition Between Gay Men and Lesbians

A more recent work, Judy Grahn's updated Another Mother Tongue (1984), offers a more positive view of the possibilities for a coalition between gay men and lesbians. Grahn notes that the 1980s were an important time for such a coalition both because of AIDS and because lesbians involved in what mainstream feminism perceived to be "deviant" sexualities often found a more positive reception among gay men than among straight women.

Her inspiring account glosses over the tensions that Rich's essay reveals and that continue today (see Berlant and Freeman). These tensions partly reflect the discourse of the radical Right and the mainstream media, in which gays and lesbians are either paired as if they were interchangeable or lesbians are reduced to invisibility.

Given the perceptions that such discourse creates, it is all the more pressing to envision a history of the relations between gay men and lesbians that, instead of swamping one at the expense of the other or reducing them to an "odd couple," could provide a groundwork for future transformations.

Andrew Elfenbein

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literature >> Overview:  Modernism

Despite the widespread homophobia in the Modernist movement, several of its practitioners were homosexual; some of them wrote openly about homosexuality, and the groundwork was laid for the gay liberation movement.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Female

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, intimate, exclusive, and often erotic romantic friendships between women were largely perceived as normal and socially acceptable.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Cather, Willa

One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

arts >> Cornell, Katharine, (1893-1974) and Guthrie McClintic (1893-1961)

Actress Katharine Cornell and director Guthrie McClintic sustained one of the most celebrated partnerships in the American theater for forty years; although married and devoted to each other, both partners pursued same-sex relationships.

arts >> Dean, James

Although he spent only two years in Hollywood before his untimely death, James Dean became an enduring icon of American film, one whose brooding non-conformity helped challenge rigid notions of masculinity.

arts >> Garbo, Greta

Mysterious, aloof, occasionally androgynous, actress Greta Garbo ignited the passions of men and women alike.

literature >> Grahn, Judy

Judy Grahn has been an effective leader the gay rights movement, and her identity as a lesbian and a feminist has infused all of her works, in both prose and poetry.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Juvenal

The works of satirist Juvenal are crucial for exploring attitudes toward (homo)sexuality in ancient Rome.

literature >> Lister, Anne

Between 1817 and 1840, the diarist Anne Lister recorded in code her romantic and sexual relationships with several women.

literature >> Pater, Walter

The aesthetic of the important and influential Victorian critic Walter Pater reflected a homosexual sensibility.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

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

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 >> Sand, George

The bisexual writer Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin, better known as George Sand, is as infamous for her cigar-in-hand cross-dressing as she is famous for her eighty novels, twenty plays, and numerous political tracts.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

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 >> Thomson, Virgil

Critic and composer Virgil Thomson was a pioneer in creating a specifically American form of classical music that is at once "serious" yet whimsically sardonic.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.


Berlant, Lauren, and Elizabeth Freeman. "Queer Nationality." boundary 2 19 (1992): 149-180.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bowers, Jane. "The Writer in the Theater: Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts." Critical Essays on Gertrude Stein. Michael J. Hoffman, ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1988. 210-224.

Castle, Terry. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Updated and expanded edition. Boston: Beacon Press, 1984.

Rich, Adrienne. "The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have to Expand Constantly." On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978. New York and London: Norton, 1979. 223-230.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

_____. "Willa Cather and Others." Tendencies. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993. 167-176.

Traub, Valeria. "Desire and the Difference It Makes." The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Valerie Wayne, ed. New York: Harvester/Wheatsheaf, 1991. 81-114.


    Citation Information
    Author: Elfenbein, Andrew  
    Entry Title: Interrelations of Gay and Lesbian Literature  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 20, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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