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Literary Theory: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer  
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Lesbian Theory

Lesbian theory has the most difficult history to sketch, primarily because its development has been so intimately connected with the history of feminism. In the early feminist movement, the identification of the lesbian as the "woman-identified-woman" that surfaced in numerous pamphlets of the 1960s seemed to allow her to function as a metaphor for an identity entirely separate from the male economy of power.

Yet in feminist critical practice, this notion of separatism was frequently redirected to a consideration of relations between the sexes. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics (1969), arguably the most important early feminist tract, bears out this point.

Her literary analyses focus on the representation of women in the writings of four males: D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. Although the critique powerfully exposes the sexist assumptions that underpin the representation of women in these texts, it also silences the possibilities for the lesbian to emerge by necessarily grounding itself in a cross-gendered dynamic; which is to say, because the critique assumes the presence of the female subject and the male writer, the man-woman dichotomy that makes heterosexuality meaningful is always the precondition for analysis.

As feminism moved onward from Millett's groundbreaking work, it also moved into a more woman-identified space. Works such as Ellen Moer's Literary Women (1976), Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Sandra Gilbert's and Susan Gubar's The Madwoman in the Attic (1979) all examine writing by women from a woman's perspective.

This approach in many ways enables a privileging and decentering of the male gender, yet despite this move, it still does not allow the emergence of a lesbian practice. The primary assumption governing this second phase of feminist inquiry is a unity of gender experience, and as such, differences between women become effaced.

That is, by grouping literature around the category of "woman," this "gynocritics," as Showalter later called it, also ignores the axis of sexual difference that is necessary to define the lesbian as different from the heterosexual woman.

Lesbianism has emerged most forcefully as a theoretical dialogue in the work of several French feminists. In the late 1970s, a group of French feminists loosely aligned with the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) began to forge a theoretical practice around the notion of a féminité that opposed the masculine bias present in Western modes of thought.

Writers such as Luce Irigiray, Marguerite Duras, Claudia Hermann, and especially, Hélène Cixous created what has become known as l'écriture féminine, or writing from/of woman. In contradistinction to masculine writing, which champions a unitary vision of meaningful language structured by the phallus, woman's writing would, theoretically, break up that unity and provide a plural and fragmented vision based on the unboundedness of female desire.

Because the theoretical impulse behind l'écriture féminine is to articulate a system of meaning absolutely noncontingent on masculine parameters, the lesbian again provides a productive theoretical trope for these theorists.

Cixous, for example, in her manifesto "The Laugh of the Medusa," implores women to remember the early American feminist slogan that "we are all lesbians," which she interprets as meaning that women should not denigrate one another as they have been denigrated by men.

Although l'écriture féminine provides a more visible articulation of lesbianism than most other feminist practices, it again treats lesbianism as a metaphor or trope that can be strategically used to destabilize the relationship between the terms Man and Woman, which again places lesbianism within a program governed by a heterosexual gender division.

The vexed relationship between gender difference and sexual difference that erases the lesbian in these previous theories is precisely what separatist lesbian theory has reacted against in both the American and French critical scenes. In America, this resistance is perhaps best embodied in the pioneering work of poet Adrienne Rich.

Rich's essay "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" (1980) outlines two ideas central to lesbian theory: first, that lesbian desire exists as a continuum of desiring possibilities between women that range from friendship to sexual involvement; second, that culture presupposes heterosexuality as an inevitability, and hence the multiple manifestations of lesbian desire in culture become either erased or distorted.

For Rich, then, lesbianism exists as both a disrupter of male power and a genuine bond of meaning between women. It plays within the relations of gender difference but is also a distinct form of sexual difference.

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