Looking Further Behind Stonewall

—Leila J. Rupp

As celebrations for LGBTQ Pride month take off around the country and world, we often look back to Stonewall, but rarely much further. For me, the diversity of bodies, identities, desires, and performances that are represented in the most inclusive Pride celebrations recall much longer histories that we would do well to remember. In my book, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women (2009), I begin with imagined prehistories and do what I can to put between two covers all that we know about women who loved, desired, and made love to other women throughout time and around the globe. One of my favorite online comments about the book called it “lurid and steamy,” which I consider high praise indeed.

Such a history, far from pointing to lesbians in different times and places or making us proud about how far we have come, reminds us that there is no linear trajectory from the bad old days to the present. In fact, in the contemporary world, all the ways that women in the past found to express their desire and love—from finding one another in sex-segregated spaces to falling in love with co-wives to marrying one another legally to crossing the gender line to embracing masculine-feminine pairings to falling in love with their friends—coexist with meeting in a bar or online or at a Pride march.

So as we celebrate the newer possibilities of changing sex, of rejecting binary gender, of embracing pansexual or fluid identity, let us remember that there is a long history behind all these possibilities that is far more complicated than we might think. We have a lot to be proud about this Pride season, but we also need to be humble in recognition of all the different varieties of desire and love out there. Imagine celebrating with Amazons, with Sappho, with Walladah bint Al-Mustakfi (the “Arab Sappho”), with nuns and witches, with manly women and female husbands, with roaring girls and aristocratic tribades, with sworn sisters and sweet doganas, with schoolgirls in love, with Parisian salonnières, with German girlfriends, with African mummies and babies, with Thai toms and dees, with Indonesian tombois, with Afro-Surinamese mati.  And imagine what they all would, or would not, make of each other.

Leila J. Rupp is professor of feminist studies and associate dean of the division of social sciences at the University of California. She is the author of Sapphistries: A Global History of Love between Women, a 2011 NYU Press publication.

»»»  Happy Pride from NYU Press! Save 25% on Sapphistries and other LGBT Studies titles when you order via our website. Simply enter promo code DIVER12 online during check out or call 800.996.6987. Offer ends on July 1, 2012.

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