Spreading depths: lesbian and bisexual women in English Canada, 1910-1965




Duder, Karen

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Most women who desired women in the period 1910-1965 did not have the identity categories “lesbian” and “bisexual” available to them. Even in this linguistic vacuum, however, many were able to explore same-sex relationships, to engage in physical sexual activity with women, and even to form community on the basis of same-sex desire and behaviour. How were they able to understand themselves in relation to the homophobic world in which they lived? This dissertation examines the lives of lesbians and bisexual women in English Canada between 1910 and 1965, focusing particularly on the formation of subjectivity in relation to same-sex desires, relationships with partners and families of origin, sexual practices, and community. An analysis of oral testimonies, of journals, and of love letters shows that particular life events—the first awareness of same-sex attraction, physical exploration of that attraction, the finding of a language with which to describe same-sex desires and relationships, the first important same-sex relationship, and the finding of community—served as turning points in the formation of subjectivity. The story of that journey was later expressed as a linear and essentialist “coming out” narrative in which the individual triumphed over homophobia and ignorance and discovered her true self. That narrative structure is both understandable in the context of essentialist definitions of sexual orientation and a politically necessary one, given the need for a single identity category under which to campaign for legal and social recognition. The two dominant formulations of same-sex relationships between women before 1965—the “romantic friendship” and the “butch-femme relationship”— have obscured and made culturally unintelligible the lives of lower middle-class lesbians and bisexual women who were neither politically active nor fighting publicly for urban lesbian space. This dissertation analyses the lives of this neglected group of women and argues that their subjectivities were constructed not only in relation to sexual attraction, but also in relation to class. Middle-class ideas of respectability and an antagonism to bar culture resulted in the formation of class-specific lesbian subjectivities. This dissertation also suggests that women in same-sex relationships before the allegedly more liberal decades of the late twentieth century may actually have had slightly better relationships with families of origin than would later be the case. Greater adherence to notions of duty and obligation, fewer economic opportunities enabling women to live independently of family, the lack of a publicly available discourse of pathology with which families could define and reject their wayward daughters, and the lack of later notions of “alternative” lesbian families and community meant that many remained rather closer to their families than would lesbians after 1965.



Lesbians, Canada, personal histories