Lesbian erasure is a form of lesbophobia that involves the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or reexplain evidence of lesbian women or relationships in history, academia, the news media, and other primary sources.[1][2] Lesbian erasure also refers to instances wherein lesbian issues, activism, and identity is deemphasized or ignored within feminist groups[3] or the LGBT community.[1][2]

In history

Journalist and author Victoria Brownworth wrote that the erasure of lesbian sexuality from historical records "is similar to the erasure of all autonomous female sexuality: women's sexual desire has always been viewed, discussed and portrayed within the construct and purview of the male gaze."[4] At times, erasure of lesbians is enabled when LGBT organizations fail to recognize the contributions of lesbians, such as when, in 2018, a statement about the Stonewall riots by the U.S. National Center for Lesbian Rights did not acknowledge Stormé DeLarverie's involvement in the uprising.[5]

Many lesbians participated in the 1916 Easter Uprising against British rule of Ireland, including Kathleen Lynn, Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, Margaret Skinnider, Elizabeth O'Farrell and Julia Grenan. Their contributions and sexualities were long ignored or overlooked.[6][7][8] Mary McAuliffe of University College Dublin noted that for years, biographers were "resistan[t]" to the idea of describing Lynn and ffrench-Mullen as being a couple, in spite of evidence that this was the case.[9][10]

In the United States, Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay political candidate to win an election in 1974. However, this achievement in LGBT history was incorrectly ascribed to San Francisco politician Harvey Milk.[11][12]

In 1976, French lesbian feminist and cofounder of the Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF), Monique Wittig, left France for the United States.[3] This decision was motivated by the fierce resistance she faced from other feminists when she attempted to create lesbian groups within the MLF.[3] At the time, the word "lesbian" was deemed as being an "un-French" American import, and Wittig recalled other MLF members seeking to "paralyse and destroy lesbian groups."[3]

Janine E. Carlse of Stellenbosch University argues that black South African lesbians have faced, and continue to face, denial and erasure of their sexuality throughout the country's history. During the Apartheid era, Carlse writes, black lesbians faced a combined "double oppression" of both heteropatriarchy and racist segregation policies.[13] After Apartheid ended, they continue to face erasure from other South Africans who consider it "un-African," and are therefore (in the words of Thabo Msibi) "denied cultural recognition and are subject to shaming, harassment, discrimination and violence."[13][14]

In popular media

In literature

Some contemporary historians believe that American poet Emily Dickinson had an intimate relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, leading some academics to assert that she was a lesbian.[15] Dickinson experts Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith wrote that Gilbert was a muse to Dickinson, stating that "Emily's correspondence to Susan unequivocally acknowledges that their emotional, spiritual, and physical communion is vital to her creative insight and sensibilities."[16] However, the Emily Dickinson Museum is ambiguous when discussing Dickinson's sexuality.[17]

In music

Author and women's history scholar Bonnie J. Morris wrote that many lesbian singers and musicians are erased from music and its history. As an example, she discusses a time when she asked her students to name "five openly-lesbian role models" and none mentioned a musical artist; showing that the presence of lesbians in the music world is overlooked or ignored in media.[18]

In television

Lesbian characters in 1990's American television were often depicted as side characters with little to no definitive information on whether they were lesbians or not. If an episode portrayed two women kissing or some form of homoromantic interactions between female characters, there would be a parental advisory for that specific episode. This was seen with the series Roseanne, where some advertising companies requested that their commercials be excluded from the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" episode. There was also the issue of Ellen DeGeneres coming out on her show Ellen through her character Morgan in the "The Puppy Episode", which received considerable pushback and backlash because of heteronormative views and the heterocentric culture of television.[19]

In scholarship

While the traditional academic canon has recognized the contributions of gay men, those of lesbians have not received the same scrutiny.[20] Political theorist Anna Marie Smith stated that lesbianism has been erased from the "official discourse" in Britain because lesbians are viewed as "responsible homosexuals" in a dichotomy between that and "dangerous gayness". As a result, lesbian sexual practices were not criminalized in Britain in ways similar to the criminalization of gay male sexual activities. Smith also points to the exclusion of women from AIDS research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smith argues that these erasures result from sexism and suggests that these issues should be addressed directly by lesbian activism.[21]

In advertising

Marcie Bianco, of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, said that lesbian erasure occurs in advertising. Advertisers do not target lesbians when they are publicizing products to LGBT audiences. As an example, she cited the collapse of AfterEllen, which she says resulted from a lack of advertisers. The former Editor in Chief of AfterEllen, Karman Kregloe, stated that advertisers do not think of lesbians as women, and Trish Bendix observed that lesbians are assumed to like anything gay, even if it is male-focused.[22]

Lesbian identification

Some lesbian activists, such as Bonnie J. Morris, Robin Tyler[23] and Ashley Obinwanne, screenwriter and co-founder of the platform Lesbians Over Everything,[24] say the term queer, when used to describe lesbians, is a "disidentification" that contributes to lesbian invisibility.[25][26] In an interview about her 2016 novel Beyond the Screen Door, author Julia Diana Robertson discovered that her self-identification as a lesbian and her description of the novel's genre was changed to queer and queerness in the published quotes.[27][28]

Shannon Keating of BuzzFeed said that the increased acceptability of non-binary genders, the rise of LGBT diversity, and concerns about gender essentialism have contributed to (what she describes as) making the term "uncool," and that a reason for the fading of "lesbian" as a term is because usage has evolved towards more inclusive terminology.[29] Christina Cauterucci of Slate likewise attributed rejection of the term to inclusivity and wanting to use a broader term for spaces that were once traditionally labeled lesbian spaces.[30]

Mary Grace Lewis of The Advocate, arguing that lesbian is not a dirty word, stated that it "has been villainized in the media because [lesbians] serve no purpose to the people who control it." She said that lesbian stereotypes seen in the media are not representative of the term, and that women accepting that they are not sexually attracted to men should not fear acknowledging it or feel that it is limiting. She felt that the more the term is used, "the more girls and women [will] feel comfortable" using it and the less it can be weaponized.[31]

In relation to transgender people

See also: Feminist views on transgender topics

Butch lesbians and transgender men

In The Stranger, Katie Herzog states that some younger lesbians report having felt pressured to transition and later detransitioned, with some people using detransition stories to frame gender transition as a social contagion and an attempt to erase butch women.[32]

In 2017, Ruth Hunt, a butch lesbian and then-CEO of the LGBT charity Stonewall, wrote that transphobic groups present the advancement of trans rights as erasing the identities of younger butch lesbians, but argues that this claim is unsubstantiated.[33]

Writing for The Economist, trans author Charlie Kiss argued that the stereotype of trans men being "lesbians in denial" is "demeaning and wrong"; he said he "could not have tried harder or longer to be a "true lesbian" but that it never felt right.[34]

In relation to transgender women

The term lesbian erasure has been used by some radical feminists, such as members of the United Kingdom organization Get the L Out[35][36] (which focuses on excluding trans women from the lesbian community and "removing the already marginalised L",[37] arguing lesbians are "under huge pressure within their LGBT+ groups to accept trans women as sexual partners so as not to be labelled as trans-exclusionary radical feminists"),[36] to argue that the expansion of transgender rights erases lesbians, and that lesbians are encouraged to transition to straight men.[38][39][36] The group staged its first protest at the 2018 London Pride Parade and was condemned as transphobic or "anti-trans" by the organizers of Pride in London,[40][41][42] and by Owl Fisher in The Guardian.[43]

Many LGBT activists have opposed use of the term lesbian erasure with regard to transgender activism.[39] In a 2018 open letter opposing this use, twelve editors and publishers of eight lesbian publications stated, "We do not think supporting trans women erases our lesbian identities; rather we are enriched by trans friends and lovers, parents, children, colleagues and siblings."[44] Carrie Lyell, editor of DIVA magazine and creator of the letter, stated that "while there's no denying women are marginalised within the LGBT+ movement, this having anything to do with trans people, or trans issues, is news to me." She referred to the argument that trans women are pressuring lesbians to "accept them as sexual partners" as "scaremongering".[45] An August 2023 poll by YouGov found that among cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the United Kingdom, 75% had positive views towards transgender people, with 84% of cis lesbians saying that felt positively;[46] these views were markedly more positive than those held by the general public in Britain, where 39% said they held positive views of trans people.[47]

Shannon Keating of BuzzFeed argued that "though lesbians are by no means under attack by gains in trans acceptance, it's true that American attitudes about gender identity are evolving, which has started to impact the way many of us think about sexual orientation."[29] Abigail Curlew of Vice argued that noting that cisgender people may find themselves sexually attracted to a trans woman, especially if relaxing their "preconceived notions and stereotypes of transgender folks", is "very different than saying that if you're not attracted to trans women you are transphobic." She said she is not shaming people for their sexual orientation or stating that there is no biological influence, but is instead noting societal prejudice and asking them to "critically reflect on the factors that might shape [their] attractions."[48] Author Morgan Lev Edward Holleb argued that trans-exclusionary radical feminist lesbians "are absolutely horrified at the possibility of being attracted to a trans woman because it would undermine their status as the bastion of lesbian separatist feminists, being attracted to someone they incorrectly consider a 'man.'" Holleb added that transgender people "are acutely aware of the biological differences between [trans] and cis people" and that "trans people aren't trying to 'erase' biological differences, we're trying to secure our basic rights, and highlight shared struggles when we talk about activism and justice."[49]

Discord between cisgender lesbians and transgender women concerns the topic of sexual orientation and those who do and do not believe that trans women can be lesbians without erasing what it means to be a lesbian.[38][37][39] Gina Davidson of The Scotsman stated, "At its heart is the focus on trans rights by LGBT organisations, and resultant philosophical and biological questions around what defines a woman, and its impact on sexual orientation and therefore lesbianism." She commented, "Is lesbianism a sexual attraction only to female bodies or is it attraction to feminine identity? Can it involve trans women who still have male bodies?"[37] The disputes have resulted in discord at LGBT events.[38][37][39] New Zealand group Lesbian Rights Alliance Aotearoa was banned from marching in Wellington Pride because it was "'not being inclusive enough' of trans people",[38] while individual members of LRAA were still able to march.[50] At Vancouver, Canada's Dyke March, the group The Lesbians Collective was told to exclude certain symbols such as "XX" which march organizers said were exclusionary of trans women.[51] Such disputes have also occurred in the United States and in LGBT communities across the United Kingdom.[38][37][39]

See also


  1. ^ a b Wilton T (2002). Lesbian Studies: Setting an Agenda. Routledge. pp. 60–65. ISBN 1134883447.
  2. ^ a b Morris, Bonnie J. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture (1st ed.). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. pp. 1–203. ISBN 978-1438461779.
  3. ^ a b c d Eloit, Ilana (October 21, 2019). "American lesbians are not French women: heterosexual French feminism and the Americanisation of lesbianism in the 1970s". Feminist Theory. 20 (4): 381–404. doi:10.1177/1464700119871852. S2CID 210443044 – via SAGE Publishing.
  4. ^ Brownworth, Victoria A. (October 19, 2018). "Lesbian Erasure". Echo Magazine. Archived from the original on February 22, 2021. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
  5. ^ Heuchan, Claire (July 9, 2018). "We Need to Talk About Misogyny and the LGBT Community's Erasure of Black Lesbian History". AfterEllen. Archived from the original on July 9, 2018. Retrieved July 28, 2019.
  6. ^ McGrattan, Ciara (March 22, 2016). "The hidden histories of queer women of the Easter Rising". Gay Community News.
  7. ^ Rogers, Rosemary (May 23, 2015). "Wild Irish Women: Elizabeth O'Farrell – A Fearless Woman". Irish America.
  8. ^ McGreevy, Ronan (June 21, 2018). "The gay patriots who helped found the Irish State". Irish Times.
  9. ^ McGrath, Louisa (November 25, 2015). "It's Time to Acknowledge the Lesbians Who Fought in the Easter Rising (with Podcast)". Dublin Inquirer. Archived from the original on November 2, 2018.
  10. ^ Kelleher, Patrick (April 9, 2023). "How a lesbian couple's contribution to Ireland's Easter Rising was scrubbed from history". PinkNews.
  11. ^ Friess, Steve (December 11, 2015). "The First Openly Gay Person to Win an Election in America Was Not Harvey Milk". Bloomberg News. Retrieved April 3, 2020.
  12. ^ Compton, Julie (April 2, 2020). "Meet the lesbian who made political history years before Harvey Milk". NBC News. Retrieved April 3, 2020.
  13. ^ a b Carlse, Janine E. (July 2018). "Black lesbian identities in South Africa: confronting a history of denial". Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa (published May 26, 2020). 24 (1). doi:10.14426/ajgr.v24i1.39. hdl:10019.1/108964. ISSN 2707-2991.
  14. ^ Msibi, Thabo (2011). "The Lies We Have Been Told: On (Homo) Sexuality in Africa". Africa Today. Indiana University Press. 58 (1): 55–77. doi:10.2979/africatoday.58.1.55. JSTOR 10.2979/africatoday.58.1.55. S2CID 144208448 – via JSTOR.
  15. ^ Comment, Kristin M. (2009). ""Wasn't She a Lesbian?" Teaching Homoerotic Themes in Dickinson and Whitman". English Journal. 98 (4): 61–66. ISSN 0013-8274. LCCN 65059635. OCLC 1325886.
  16. ^ Hart, Ellen Louise; Smith, Martha Nell, eds. (1998). Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson (1st ed.). Middletown, Connecticut: Paris Press. ISBN 0963818376.
  17. ^ Bartram, Robin; Brown-Saracino, Japonica; Donovan, Holly (February 2021). "Uncertain Sexualities and the Unusual Woman: Depictions of Jane Addams and Emily Dickinson". Social Problems. 68 (1): 168–184. doi:10.1093/socpro/spz058. ISSN 0037-7791. OCLC 1667861.
  18. ^ Morris, Bonnie J. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture (1st ed.). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 24. ISBN 978-1438461779.
  19. ^ Price, Delana Janine (2021). Through Their Eyes: An Analysis of Misrepresentation in Popular Lesbian Television Narratives (M.A. thesis). Marshall University. Retrieved October 23, 2023.
  20. ^ Morris, Bonnie J. (2016). The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture (1st ed.). Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-1438461779.
  21. ^ Plummer, Ken, ed. (1992). "Resisting the Erasure of Lesbian Sexuality: A challenge for queer activism, by Anna Marie Smith". Modern Homosexualities: Fragments of Lesbian and Gay Experiences. London: Routledge. pp. 200–215. ISBN 978-0415064200.
  22. ^ Bianco, Marcie (October 6, 2016). "Lesbian culture is being erased because investors think only gay men (and straight people) have money". Quartz. Archived from the original on June 22, 2019. Retrieved June 16, 2019.
  23. ^ Faderman, Lillian (June 8, 2016). "Pioneer: Robin Tyler". The Pride LA. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  24. ^ Faraone, Juliette (April 4, 2016). "Talk to the Internet: Ashley Obinwanne (Lavender Collective/Lesbians Over Everything)". Screen Queens. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  25. ^ Morris, Bonnie J. (December 22, 2016). "Dyke Culture and the Disappearing L". Slate. Retrieved September 30, 2019.
  26. ^ * Tyler, Robin (June 5, 2018). "Don't call me 'queer'". Los Angeles Blade. Archived from the original on June 9, 2016. Retrieved October 1, 2019.
  27. ^ Robertson, Julia Diana (October 17, 2017). "Why didn't you say something sooner?—You're Asking The Wrong Question". HuffPost. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
  28. ^ Julia Diana Ghassan Robertson جوليا ديانا [@JuliaDRobertson] (September 23, 2017). "I always appreciate interviews, but it was unethical to change what was said w/out my approval or knowledge. Glad they have a new editor" (Tweet). Retrieved October 8, 2019 – via Twitter.
  29. ^ a b Keating, Shannon (February 11, 2017). "Can Lesbian Identity Survive The Gender Revolution?". BuzzFeed. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
  30. ^ Cauterucci, Christina (December 20, 2016). "For Many Young Queer Women, Lesbian Offers a Fraught Inheritance". Slate. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  31. ^ Lewis, Julia Diana (July 13, 2018). "'Lesbian' Isn't a Dirty Word and More Millennials Need to Use It". The Advocate. Retrieved January 7, 2020.
  32. ^ Herzog, Katie (June 28, 2017). "The Detransitioners: They Were Transgender, Until They Weren't". The Stranger. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
  33. ^ Hunt, Ruth (November 16, 2017). "When transphobic people try to pretend they're defending butch lesbians like me, I see the cynical tactic for what it is". The Independent. Archived from the original on October 13, 2020. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
  34. ^ Kiss, Charlie (July 3, 2018). "The idea that trans men are "lesbians in denial" is demeaning and wrong". The Economist. Retrieved December 19, 2019.
  35. ^ "About us". Get The L Out. 2018. Archived from the original on June 4, 2019. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  36. ^ a b c Wild, Angela (April 12, 2019). "OPINION: Lesbians need to get the L out of the LGBT+ community". Thomson Reuters News. Archived from the original on May 30, 2019. Retrieved June 22, 2019.
  37. ^ a b c d e Davidson, Gina (July 14, 2019). "Insight: How splits are emerging in LGBT movement over gender issues". The Scotsman. Archived from the original on July 16, 2019. Retrieved July 17, 2019.
  38. ^ a b c d e Greenhalgh, Hugo (March 15, 2019). "Trans debate rages around the world, pitting LGBT+ community against itself". Reuters. Archived from the original on March 16, 2019. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  39. ^ a b c d e Compton, Julie (January 14, 2019). "'Pro-lesbian' or 'trans-exclusionary'? Old animosities boil into public view". NBCNews.com. Archived from the original on June 19, 2019. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  40. ^ "Pride in London sorry after anti-trans protest". BBC News. July 8, 2018. Archived from the original on June 30, 2019. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  41. ^ "Statement from Pride in London regarding the 2018 protest group". Pride in London. July 7, 2018. Archived from the original on May 7, 2019. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  42. ^ Greenfield, Patrick (July 8, 2018). "Pride organisers say sorry after anti-trans group leads march". The Guardian. Archived from the original on June 9, 2019. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  43. ^ London Pride Parade:
  44. ^ Staff (December 19, 2018). "Not in our name". DIVA. Retrieved November 2, 2019.
  45. ^ Lyell, Carrie (July 15, 2019). "Trans people aren't 'erasing' lesbians like me – I'll fight for equality standing side-by-side with them". The Independent. Archived from the original on June 14, 2022. Retrieved November 2, 2019.
  46. ^ "What do lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Britons think the British public thinks of them?". YouGov. August 11, 2023. Archived from the original on August 12, 2023. Cisgender lesbians and bisexual women in particular are likely to have positive feelings towards trans people, at 84, including 66-68% who say 'very positive.' This mirrors national polling which shows that women are generally more likely to hold pro-trans views than men.
  47. ^ Billson, Chantelle (August 11, 2023). "Growing number of Brits view trans people negatively, YouGov study finds". PinkNews. Archived from the original on August 12, 2023.
  48. ^ Curlew, Abigail (February 23, 2018). "What's Wrong With the 'No Trans' Dating Preference Debate". Vice. Retrieved December 23, 2019.
  49. ^ Holleb ML (2019). The A-Z of Gender and Sexuality: From Ace to Ze. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. pp. 255–256. ISBN 978-1784506636.
  50. ^ "Wellington International Pride Parade 2019 Information, Guidelines and Rules". Wellington International Pride Parade. Archived from the original on January 25, 2019. Retrieved September 17, 2020.
  51. ^ Cormier, Danielle (August 13, 2018). "Lesbians are being excluded from the Vancouver Dyke March in the name of 'inclusivity'". Feminist Current. Retrieved October 21, 2019.

Further reading

Books and journals