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LGBTQ+ History

‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

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Challenging Heterosexist Readings of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies

Charlotte Salomon

Some months ago my partner and I decided to put our flat on the market. Having seen the perfect house, I hurriedly began sending out emails to have our property valued. I was quickly inundated with calls from eager estate agents, desperate to clinch the sale. The first call came from a polite woman from a city centre office. “Are you the homeowner?” she asked. “No,” I responded. “The flat belongs to my partner.” “Okay, great. What’s his name?” I paused for a moment, unsure as to whether I was offended or mildly amused. “Her name is…”

As I hung up the phone, I felt troubled. Part of me had believed that, in 2019, such awkward conversations and the repeated need to ‘come out,’ were a thing of the past. I got to thinking about the countless presumptuous comments that I, as a queer woman, have been forced to engage with in my lifetime. “It’s just a phase.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” “You just haven’t met the right guy yet.” The list is inexhaustible.

More than anything, though, and transcending my personal struggles with such presumptions, I started to think about them in a historical context. As a Holocaust historian specialising in women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, I began to wonder how, and to what extent, heteronormativity may be responsible for global historical blind spots. Have deeply entrenched heterosexist presumptions enabled historical specificities to be overlooked? Or at the very least, have they shaped the way historians and academics have interpreted written narratives of the past? Undoubtedly so, given the fact that sexual relationships between women have long been an academic taboo, focused on only in the last four decades in the wake of the women’s movement.

If the assumption, even in the twenty-first century, is that to be straight is the norm, if queer sexualities are yet to become normalised sexual identities, then what might that tell us about decades of androcentric historical research? And how might we read history from a stance far removed from heteronormative presupposition, particularly when attempts to do so are often met with hostility, or when sexual relationships between women are often dismissed by scholars as acts of desperation?

Queer theorists, literary critics and historians of women’s history have been attempting to answer this question since the early-1980s. In 1981 women’s studies scholar, Bonnie Zimmerman, proposed a new critical stance with which to approach written texts. This stance, she explained, ‘involves peering into the shadows, into the spaces between words, into what has been unspoken and barely imagined. It is a perilous critical adventure with results that may violate accepted norms of traditional criticism, but which may also transform our notions of literary possibility.’[1]

In the 1990s, author R. Amy Elman echoed Zimmerman’s call for oppositional reading in an exploration of lesbians and the Holocaust. Elman acknowledged that, due to a reluctance among scholars to deal with the matter of women’s sexualities, their subjects may have felt the need to ‘conform and conceal their most intriguing thoughts and intimate feelings.’ This, she argued, is partly responsible for the dearth of women’s first-person narratives of the Holocaust that include clear-cut queer content. She explained that, ‘with little evidence, we are forced to, “read between the lines.” This does not mean that one discovers lesbians where none exists. Rather, […] one is especially careful to avoid presumptions of heterosexuality. After all, assertions of heterosexuality […] have frequently furnished many gays and lesbians with protection from identification, arrest and, sometimes, even death.’[2]

Elman’s reading of Anne Frank’s diary is particularly convincing. She pointed out that Anne was initially repulsed by the notion of befriending Peter van Daan, and before going into hiding, had expressed feeling attracted to some of her girlfriends. Despite this, Elman argued, ‘her relationship to Peter has not been dismissed as an adolescent act exacerbated by dire circumstances and the absence of female companionship.’ Yet, despite this, and in spite of the approaches put forward by the likes of Zimmerman, among others, historians and scholars remain reluctant to approach women’s Holocaust testimonies by ‘“reading between the lines.”’[3]

As recently as 2015, and in a book explicitly dedicated to women’s experiences under Nazism, for example, Beverley Chalmers devoted a mere three paragraphs to lesbian love. She felt it important to note that ‘conditions in camps […] facilitated lesbianism. Fear and loneliness, friendships, and the absence of men, led to women seeking comfort from other women.’[4] Yet, this seems a bold, outdated, and particularly heterosexist claim to make.

It  may, of course, be true that some women in concentration camps engaged in same-sex relationships because of a lack of access to men. But to presume that all did so, or to read all women’s memoirs from a heterosexual standpoint, overlooks the complexity of their narratives. Might there be something a little queer in some women’s descriptions of same-sex relationships? Might some personal, sexual anxieties exist in the documented accidental glances, the curiosity to watch, or the ambiguous responses to sex between women? If they’re of no significance, why have some women included such details in their published testimonies at all? And above all, what might we miss if we refuse to acknowledge the possible existence of a queer subtext? Perhaps 2019 is the time to make heterosexist historical readings history.

Rosie Ramsden is a second year doctoral candidate in the Department of Arts, Design and Social Sciences at Northumbria University. In 2017, she was awarded a three-year studentship to conduct further research into women’s experiences and representations of the Holocaust, following the work she carried out during my MA at the University of Leeds. The working title of her doctoral thesis is ‘Women’s Holocaust Testimony: Gender, Reception, and Canon-formation.’ She interested in women’s memoir and narration, gendered recall and gendered experience, and queer histories of the Holocaust.

Bibliography

Chalmers, Beverley. Birth, Sex and Abuse. Surrey: Grosvenor House, 2015.

Elman, Amy R. ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust.’ Women and the Holocaust: Narrative and Representation, ed. by Esther Fuchs, 9 – 17. Lanham: University of America Press.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. ‘What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism.’ Feminist Studies, 7:3. (Autumn, 1981): 451 – 475.

Endnotes

[1] Zimmerman, ‘What Has Never Been’, 460.

[2]Elman, ‘Lesbians and the Holocaust,’ 9 – 10.

[3]Ibid., 14 – 15.

[4]Chalmers, Birth, Sex and Abuse, 187.

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