American Lesbian Short Stories

The historical record of lesbianism in the American short story has not received the same amount and depth of attention from historians and literary critics as has that of male homosexuality. Moreover, critics still disagree about what constitutes lesbian writing. Is the author a known lesbian? Is there evidence of a lesbian relationship within the text? If lesbianism is in disguise and relies on repetitious wordplay and double-entendre, as does Gertrude Steins “Miss Furr and Miss Skeene” (1923), can that text be read as “lesbian” if only a limited number of people understand it? These difficulties are complicated by the imprecision of defining lesbian relationships through history. Terms such as female friendships and Boston marriages, both commonly used in the 19th century to describe intimacy between women, were quickly discarded in the early decades of the 20th century when sexological theories about the “female invert” reduced woman-to-woman intimacies, emotional or physical, to aberrant sexuality. Today the difficulties remain, although they have changed in focus. No longer is sexual intimacy at issue; rather, many lesbian-feminists, disagreeing with writers of previous generations, argue that no form of sexual expression should be a forbidden subject in lesbian literature.

Perhaps the most inclusive, although by no means uncontroversial, standard by which to identify the lesbian in the American short story is to apply the idea in Adrienne Rich’s essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that woman-to-woman intimacies can be plotted along a “lesbian continuum.” If all attachments between women (emotional, physical, or both) are read as some degree of “lesbianism,” then contemporary readers can consider 19th-century stories that only vaguely suggest intimacy as “lesbian texts.”

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “Two Friends” (1887) is one of her many short stories that focus on New England “spinsters” who, despite opportunity to marry, preferred to remain with each other in a “Boston marriage.” Abby and Sarah, two friends in their 50s, have lived together happily for their entire adult lives in a small New England town. Thirty years previously, however, Abby’s aunt had given Abby permission to marry John Marshall, a message Sarah was supposed to relay to Abby but never did. When Sarah finally confesses, Abby laughingly tells her, “I wouldn’t have had John Marshall if he’d come on his knees after me all the way from Mexico!”

Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Martha’s Lady” (1897) details the relationship between a wealthy woman and her maid that is as intimate and permanent as Freeman’s portrayal. In “Tommy, the Unsentimental” (1899), Willa Cather presents a tomboyish woman whose gender ambiguity prompts her community to judge that “it was a bad sign when a rebellious girl like Tommy took to being sweet and gentle to one of her own sex, the worst sign in the world.” Yet Cather keeps Tommy within acceptable sexual behavior; she is even allowed to express some amused affection for men.

Yet as the 20th century approached, “suspicion” and outright rejection of lesbian relationships occurred as psychological and medical theories from men such as Havelock Ellis and Richard von KrafftEbing became more thoroughly disseminated and believed in American society. The lesbian in short fiction began to assume some of the “inverted” or “abnormal” qualities that science ascribed to her. Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Felipa” (1876) focuses on an androgynous, “dark-skinned” Felipa and her intense emotional attachment to the “tall, lissome” Christine. When Christine accepts a marriage proposal from Edward Bowne, however, Felipa’s love turns self-destructive; in her jealous rage, she stabs Edward. Felipa’s grandfather, unable to dismiss the passion as “nothing,” knowingly closes the story by judging that Felipa was in love with both Christine and Edward, but her violence against Edward shows the danger of lesbian attachments: “the stronger [love] thrust the knife.” Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, who less than ten years before provided a loving portrayal of Sarah and Abby, presents in 1895 “The Long Arm,” detective short fiction, in which the murderer is discovered to be a mannish woman, desperate and even demonically possessed. Phoebe Dole kills Martin Fairbanks in an attempt to maintain possession of Maria Woods, to whom Fairbanks was about to propose.

Characterization of the lesbian as an evil obstacle to heterosexual unions continued throughout the early decades of the 20th century. Catherine Wells’s “The Beautiful House” (1912) begins with a positive portrayal of a romantic attachment between Mary and Sylvia. But when the handsome Evan Hardie enters the story, the women’s relationship is torn apart for the more socially affirming heterosexual relationship between Evan and Sylvia, and Mary is left a heartbroken spinster. Helen Hull’s “The Fire” (1917) follows a similar plot. Cynthia is an art student of Miss Egert; it is clear that mutual emotional attraction, if not physical intimacy, exists between them. When Cynthia’s mother forbids her to see Miss Egert again for unspoken but easily inferred reasons, the literal bonfire that closes the story also metaphorically consumes the suggested lesbianism.

Although O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf” (1907) does not portray lesbianism as a hindrance or precursor to heterosexuality, the characterization of one of the two women friends as deathly ill and determined to die as soon as the last leaf falls from the ivy outside her window signals the unhealthiness of woman-to-woman intimacies, which was proposed as scientific fact in O. Henry’s time. Yet John Held, Jr.’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (1930), collected in Grim Youth, presents a stereotypical young woman who casually announces to the man seated next to her at her parents’ dinner party that she is a lesbian. Sherwood Anderson’s “That Sophistication” (1933) also provides a glimpse of lesbians as they interact among guests of all kinds at a party in Paris. Such nonchalant remarks would seem to suggest that by 1930 lesbianism, even if presented as the sexual novelty of the expatriate moment, was socially acceptable and even sophisticated. But “The Knife of the Times” (1932) by William Carlos Williams removes any pretense of acceptability; lesbianism is the violent “knife” that cuts through social decorum.

During the last decades of the 19th and early decades of the 20th centuries, a particular type of fiction arose that took as its setting, and often its subject, the activities unique to women’s colleges, which had only recently been founded. Often the plot focused on one of the seemingly innumerable “crushes” or “smashes” or “spoons” that developed between two female students, usually of different ages. The alternative sexual relationships between schoolgirls in these stories supports Havelock Ellis’s 1902 contention that women’s colleges were “the great breeding ground” of lesbianism. In “The SchoolFriendships of Girls,” Ellis suggests that lesbianism is an “abnormality” that affected any woman who had a “crush”; according to “authorities,” this entailed more than 60 percent of students at women’s colleges. Josephine Dodge Daskam’s collection of Smith College Stories (1900) contains 10 episodes of life at a women’s college, including “A Case of Interference,” which provide intimate glimpses into the excitement, embarrassment, and despair that accompanied female friendships.

Two stories published in popular periodicals examine liaisons within the girls’ school: “The Lass of the Silver Sword” by Mary Constance Dubois (published serially in St. Nicholas in 1908–1909) and Jeanette Lee’s “The Cat and the King” (published in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1919). Dubois’s story initially focuses on the boarding school adventures of two women, Carol Armstrong, 18 years old, and the younger Jean Lennox, who has fallen madly in love with Carol “at first sight.” But soon after Carol and Jean’s pledge of friendship, the story shifts to a summer camp where the girls spend their time plotting playful jokes against the neighboring boys’ camp and striking up socially acceptable friendships with the boys. By the end of the story, Carol and Jean still are friends, but the interest of each has shifted to a relationship that is heterosexual. “The Cat and the King” does not end with the same affirmation of heterosexuality, but it is clear that Flora Bailey’s crush on the older Annette Osler has been rightfully displaced by her even more passionate interest in science.

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the lesbian in American literature all but disappeared. When she did resurface in American fiction, it was in the pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Relying on the heterosexually modeled gender dichotomies of masculine and feminine, the lesbian was relegated to either a butch or femme role, a time Joan Nestle remembers in “Esther’s Story” (1987). If a lesbian character were able to escape such portrayals, she was most often turned into a sexual predator of vampiric proportions. During the 1970s, however, in the hands of women who were involved in the awakening politics of feminism, civil rights, and gay liberation, the lesbian in the American short story began to enjoy a more liberated existence; through the rise of feminist bookstores, journals, and publishing houses, she was given a space in which to thrive.

In 1970 the New York group Radicalesbians distributed a pamphlet that began with the question “What is a lesbian?” As answer they wrote, in part: “A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion. . . . She may not be fully conscious of the political implications of what for her began as personal necessity, but on the same level she has not been able to accept the limitations and oppression laid on her by the most basic role of her society—the female role.” In their short stories, writers began to dismantle the confusion of sex and gender and allow their characters the full range of gendered expression in their intimate relationships. Moreover, the lesbian in the American short story was offered roles that were traditionally portrayed by heterosexual women: mother, grieving lover, and emotionally and sexually fulfilled woman. Textually, positive images of love between women appeared in relationships that were open and unhidden. In addition, many of these fictional lesbians were the creations of women who proudly identified themselves as women-loving women.

The “romantic friendships” between women at the turn of the 20th century were seemingly benign compared to the defiant expressions of Radicalesbian love. The short stories of the last three decades occupied a far different place on Rich’s continuum as authors depicted not only the emotional attraction between women but also, often explicitly, the physical desire. Dorothy Allison’s “A Lesbian Appetite” (1988) and Sapphire’s “Eat” (1988) together link sexual satiation with the physical contentment that food brings. Allison’s protagonist dreams of throwing a dinner party and inviting all the women in her life: “Everybody is feeding each other, exclaiming over recipes and gravies, introducing themselves and telling stories about great meals they’ve eaten”; for the first time in her life, the narrator concludes, she is not hungry.

Joan Nestle’s “Liberties Not Taken” (1987) suggests that Jean, even though married and mother of three young children, enjoys intimacy with women. Told from the point of view of an adolescent girl who works as nanny for the children one summer, Nestle explores the girl’s awakening lesbian sexuality and her physical infatuation with Jean. The sexual awakenings of adolescents receive fictional attention by authors intent on exploring this pivotal time when sexual orientation is often ill-defined. Emma Perez in “Gulf Dreams” (1991) relates the story of a 15-year-old girl whose sexual passions are awakened by an older friend of her sister’s. A girls’ boarding school provides the setting for Rebecca Brown’s story “Bread” (1984), of a strong but unreciprocated adolescent love, told from the first-person point of view. When the narrator unintentionally usurps the authority of her beloved, her love turns ugly and distasteful.

Adolescent coming-of-age stories introduce the numerous accounts of adult women who struggle to maintain the pretense of heterosexuality or marriage despite their lesbian longings. Beth Nugent’s “City of Boys” (1992) tells of the passionless acts of heterosexual sex by the woman who dreams of passion with her woman lover. Jane Rule’s “His Nor Hers” (1985) examines the successful pretense of one woman who maintains the shell of a marriage so that she may continue her intimacies with women. When her husband requests a divorce, Gillian’s sexual appetites suddenly disappear as she realizes that since heterosexual cover no longer exists, “the illusion of freedom that he had given her” also has disappeared.

Confronted with a society that still often denies the lesbian’s very existence, authors have been careful to plot the REALISM of love and loss in the lesbian short story. The grieving process after the loss of a lover, either through a breakup, as in Leslie Lawrence’s “My Lesbian Imagination” (1987), or death, is poignantly explored in numerous short stories. Pearl, in Becky Birtha’s “In the Life” (1987), mourns her lover’s death and lives her remaining days remembering and longing for a reunion. In “A Life Speckled with Children” (1987), Sherri Paris poignantly details the double loss Sabra feels—unlucky in love but also unlucky because of the relationships with her lovers’ children she also loses as a result of the breakups. Interweaving a NATIVE AMERICAN past with the narrator’s present, Beth Brant explores the loss of children by force in “A Long Story” (1985). Likening the removal of Native American children from their families by the American government to the modern-day reality that sees children stripped from their lesbian mothers, Brant links cultures and generations within the lesbian present.

Some authors, however, prefer to imagine a future where the relationships between women are not only of primary importance but also exist in a world without men. The science fiction writer Joanna Russ, in “When It Changed” (1972), imagines the community of Whileaway where women pairs have children by merging ova and share child rearing and social governance. When “real Earth men” arrive in Whileaway, it is clear to the women that they will lose their way of life; they fear they will be relegated to the ancient inequalities that once existed between men and women—inequalities that are, of course, based on contemporary society. Sarah Schulman envisions a different change in women’s relationships; in “The Penis Story” (1986), Ann awakes one morning to fi nd that she has become a “lesbian with a penis.” Assumption of the phallus provides Ann with a power she has never felt before as well as awe from women who now want to sleep with her. Eventually, however, Ann desires “to be a whole woman again” by having her penis surgically removed, since, she reflects, “she never wanted to be mutilated again by being cut off from herself.” Russ’s and Schulman’s stories clearly challenge the heterosexual status quo. The visions they articulate, like the controversial sadomasochistic world of Pat Califia’s “The Finishing School” (in Macho Sluts 1988) and “The Vampire” (1988), broaden the range of the lesbian short story in the late 20th century, transgressing fictional boundaries in order to suggest a more fully articulated and inclusive, albeit conflicting, lesbian world.

In the early 21st century, as lesbian fiction has become more prolific and more diversified, publications devoted to it have been increasingly broken down by ethnicity (e.g., Latina and Chicana, AfricanAmerican, Asian) and genre (e.g., mystery, science fiction, nonfiction). LAMBDA, the major literary award specifically for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual (GLBT) writing, has responded similarly and now offers literary awards in 22 categories. Furthermore, a plethora of new magazines have entered the scene. In addition to Blithe House Quarterly, probably the oldest GLBT magazine, and Khimairal Ink Magazine, numerous electronic publications feature lesbian short stories, such as the Canadian A Room of Her Own: A Dynamic Anthology of Lesbian Fiction and Read These Lips, which features stories by such authors as British Nicola Griffith, Australian Susan Hawthorne, and American Ruthann Robson. Similarly, there are now many publishers of lesbian short fiction, including the two most preeminent lesbian book publishers, the American Bella Books and the Canadian Bold Strokes Books, as well as electronic downloading sites. Since the closing of New York’s historic Oscar Wilde bookstore, the largest lesbian and gay bookstore in North America is Toronto’s Glad Day.

Homosexuality in Literature

Gay/Lesbian Studies


Gay and Lesbian Novels and Novelists

Gay and Lesbian Theater

Feminism/Gender Studies

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Categories: Gay and Lesbian Novels, Gender Studies, Literature, Short Story, Young Adult Fiction

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