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Publication: Becoming Sisters
© Emmie America

femmes and fotos

LESBIAN AND FEMME-BODIES IN QUEER HISTORY

Brianna Beckford
Brianna Beckford
+October 03, 2022
The intersection between queer history and media literacy has become more apparent in this era of the 2020s, and the difference to its previous iterations stands in huge contrast to our present day. Defining qualities can range anywhere from tone and brevity, to just the lack of clear exploitation. But a definite trait that has followed for decades has been the focus on men in queer history. This trait maligns the importance of women and femme-identifying persons in the movement, then and now. Not just because equality matters but having a well-rounded knowledge of this important history matters. And the voices shaping this history and serving as its oral and written narrators are not who we see everyday on television.

Often it has been found that the archivists who patiently sort and organise our memories are these femmes who function in a pristine, unique position of living in separate worlds. The patriarchal everyday and the more nebulous miasma that is the queer community. While both have their ways to oppress, femmes and lesbians have been rigorous in their documentation of a beautiful, multifaceted history that has struggled to be seen by the masses but is the backbone for much of what we see as LGBTQ+ history.

The Destruction of Queer History

"The morality police'' is a phrase that crops up on various tweets and Yotube comments, but it was very real for LGBTQ+ creators in what's now regarded as our modern world. Historians in the early 19th-century may get away with citing their destruction of art as a 'moral' response to so-called filth, and people in the following years certainly took note.

Much of queer history has fought to be known, and its creators likewise. Across cultures, from the Greeks to the Indians, lesbianism and homoerotic art prevailed as a testament to the "ancient world." A testament that many sought to destroy. And succeeded in doing so!

The surviving record is filled with work that focuses largely on homoeroticism and homosexuality, with the tales of 'sapphics' relegated to margins comparatively. Grecian plates and poems dedicated to descriptions of male-loving-male relationships, but even the more subtle hints towards femme deities being attracted to other women were snuffed out if not heavily censored. Hymns and tales have undergone extensive reconstruction through the translation process. While granting English speakers a new source to read, the specifics of language and context were often heavily modeled after a more 'moral' take on already salacious material coming from begone empires. Many scripts had this treatment, from the whole of Egypt to various materials uncovered at Mycenae.

Although resources exist that have a cumulative span of works illustrating one part of the LGBTQ+ community, it's not like there's a Columbia Anthology of lesbianism that doesn't include takes and tales from men. And many publications certainly struggle to extend as far back as citations surrounding The Epic of Gilgamesh.

It's simply said: in this Russian roulette game of survival, lesbian and femme-figures were often the losers.
FFU image
© Vic Lentaigne

The Complications of Lesbianism

History, as we are taught, is often written by men- and its consumption, conclusively, for men. In a movement largely known for freedom and expression, queer history can portray itself as being an always buoyant space that uplifted, encouraged, and celebrated each voice that made it what it was. However, the realities are very different.

Lesbians as confined to queer histories texts and images have had to suffer omission after omission, an elision that was worked at furiously to fight with very varying results. The interesting thing about the rejected underground culture becoming mainstream is that a new underground needed to be identified; if lesbians had the limelight in the 90s and early 2000s with shows like The L Word and movies adjacent to But I'm A Cheerleader, it's certainly found its early roots by becoming the much-less discussed aspect of the LGBTQ+ movement. Even then, many lesbian-focused properties mined cliches enough to seem like purely bad-faith products made for the viewing pleasure of a very cis-normative society.

Maybe this is because of the complications women and femmes find themselves, often reduced to objects for goggling even in their most private moments- especially in their most private moments.

Maybe this is because lesbianism has become as "normal" as we would have it be, that there is no need to highlight or underline the lesbian experience because they have become a part of our accepted understanding of sexuality.

Maybe this is because misogyny still permeates most things that are consumed.
FFU image
© Emmie America

Archiving as Activism

With the advent of the internet, we've proven that leaps in technology aren't enough. The transition from Web 1.0 to our current Web 2.0 and beyond proved that as countless websites, guides, and services have been lost to time, their only representations kept in the Wayback Machine or a long begotten screenshot on an old Wordpress blog.

In the legacy of targeted destruction the queer community have had to face, the proliferation of materials physically and digitally available do not lose any iota of importance.

Women like Sandi Hughes have been doing this work for decades, carefully and lovingly documenting her surroundings and fellows to represent what she knew of life. Documentary films and stills represent a catalogue delineating not only her identity as a mother, but the queer community around her, regionally and culturally.

Continuing in the scope of feminist photographers like Nan Goldin, artists and activists on platforms like Instagram and Tumblr are our new archivists. Not only are people publishing important pieces of the history around them, but contributing to a much longer tradition, adding their faces to the scope that we'll use to look back on when discussing identity and sexuality.

These femme-identifying archivists are still at the other end of the misogynist stick that chooses what kind of imagery can prevail, a stick that guides consumption in a patriarchal society.

Guidelines are strictly aimed at suppressing the suggestion of female-identified bodies, history can still be wantonly destroyed at the bat of an eye. Thankfully, something exists that defies all photo lab darkrooms, USB drives, and IP addresses.

And that- is the screenshot.

The screenshot has survived in many likenesses since history could be captured, but none was as secure as our present iteration. Alain Daniélou, friend of then Indian prime mister Jawaharlal Nehru, published "screenshots" in the 1950s: photographs of erotic and transgender-adjacent sculptures that were due to be eradicated or significantly altered in the Indian temples and monuments they'd been found. Photographs that were meant to be living proof that this culture had once existed.

So, it continues today!

There will always be rebellious figures in the queer community, but femmes have often only been championed after years of neglect- if at all. Relegated to the sidelines for centuries, there's certainly been a specific punk attitude of capturing the femme fantasy and the everyday woman in all corners of such a marginalised space.
Brianna Beckford
Brianna Beckford
essays

Brianna is a transdisciplinary artist based in Manchester, UK, whose work focuses on examining and s...

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