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Interrelations of Gay and Lesbian Literature  
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Since the histories of gay men and lesbians are radically different, the challenge is to describe interrelations in the gay and lesbian literary heritages without blurring them into each other.

A history of interrelations in the gay and lesbian literary heritage has not yet appeared. The purpose of this entry is less to sketch it than to point to a few writers, from Juvenal to Judy Grahn, who can introduce a subject that has received limited attention.

Problems in Interrelating the Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage

The histories of gay men and lesbians are radically different, and the models used to describe one cannot be assumed to describe the other. I highlight what may be an obvious point because the pairing of "gay and lesbian" in terms like "gay and lesbian studies" implies that the two terms are directly comparable.

Nevertheless, although the two terms are often joined in titles of organizations or programs, they are rarely linked in most recent literary scholarship on homosexuality.

Patriarchal systems of oppression have continually troubled such interrelations. Adrienne Rich writes in "The Meaning of Our Love for Women Is What We Have Constantly to Expand" that "lesbians have never had the economic and cultural power of homosexual men." If gay men have been oppressed because of their sexuality, they have had opportunities in education and writing that have been systematically denied to lesbians as women.

Literary Texts Comparing Gay and Lesbian Erotic Relations

Although many might argue that the concept of a distinctively gay or lesbian identity is of relatively recent date, literary texts going back to the classics implicitly or explicitly compare erotic relations between women and erotic relations between men. Looking at these past episodes in the history of interrelations of gay and lesbian texts and authors is interesting in part because it suggests both origins for and possible alternatives to the "odd couple" model that now seems so unsatisfying.

In this history, two general areas can be distinguished: (1) representations of desire between men and desire between women; (2) biographical connections between male and female artists.

In terms of the first category, the paralleling of gays and lesbians might seem to go back to the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative in Genesis 18. In one interpretation of this narrative, Sodom is supposed to stand for male homosexuality; Gomorrah, for female.

Yet, although the association of Sodom with male homosexuality derives from the Christian fathers, it is difficult to find evidence of the association of lesbianism with Gomorrah before the nineteenth-century French poet Alfred de Vigny, whom Marcel Proust quotes in his epigraph to Cities of the Plain in Remembrances of Things Past.

This absence underscores that a history of male and female homosexuality cannot treat them as two versions of the same thing. For reasons that shift with time and culture, they have generally, though not always, been represented as radically different activities.

Juvenal and Ovid

This difference is evident as early as the writers of classical Rome. For both Juvenal and Ovid, sexual relations between males, usually the passion of an older man for a younger one, are so ordinary that they can be assumed to be normative.

Lesbian relations appear in contrast as far more dangerous or imaginatively intriguing as a mode of sexual behavior. Juvenal's misogynistic Satire VI sustains a tirade against the evils of women and includes a vivid portrayal of the sexual relations between two female characters, Maura and Tullia. Given what he perceives as the depraved status of women, Juvenal recommends that men find not a chaste and virtuous woman but a pretty boy. Although he considers lesbianism revolting, he suggests that male pederasty is the ideal.

Ovid at the end of Book IX of the Metamorphoses, however, gives a female character, Iphis, a searching speech describing her passion for another woman, Ianthe. Iphis at last mysteriously turns into a man so that she can marry her beloved.

Ovid does not condemn sexual relations between men, but he describes Jupiter's infatuation with Ganymede in only a few lines, as if it were far less imaginatively compelling than love between women. This distinction suggests that love between women is a more interesting poetic topic than love between men.


The English Renaissance offers a sharp contrast to these classical authors. Whereas William Shakespeare's comedies, such as As You Like It, notoriously flirt with same-sex desire both between men and between women (see Traub), his tragedies may be even more intriguing in contrasting bonds between men and those between women. Although these bonds are not overtly sexual, as in Juvenal and Ovid, more can hinge on them than on relations that are.

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