Queer women have appeared in the historical record for thousands of years, because they have literally always existed. Despite this, they are frequently overlooked or mentioned as an aside. This is due to a number of factors including arrest records (queer men were more likely to be arrested and therefore be found by researchers) and plain old misogyny. In the past few decades, however, books about queer women’s history have been published with increasing regularity, leading to the slow disabuse of the notion that queer women are a “new thing.” When Regency-era Anne Lister’s diaries were decoded by scholar Helena Whitbread and were discovered to be rife with her sexual escapades with other women, people spoke of hoaxes and forgeries, because it was thought that women hadn’t been exposed to the idea of relationships with other women at that time, and that those relationships were therefore impossible.
Below are a smattering of book selections focused on queer women’s history. They range in identity from queer to bi to lesbian and more. But they are all about women who love women and they all help expand our view of the world.
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective Edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
The Combahee River Collective was a group of radical Black lesbian feminists in 1960s and ’70s Boston who believed in intersectionality (before we had a word for it) and the idea that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free.” This book reprints the Combahee River Collective Statement, still impactful and relevant almost 50 years later, and editor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor interviews Combahee members.
Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman
While the title is a little off-putting (the book was written in the 1970s and published in 1980), Faderman’s depth of research is astounding as she turns up literary and historical evidence for romantic love between women dating back to the 16th century. She definitely leans on the idea of romantic friendship, and tends to downplay sexual relationships, but when I was newly coming out and soaking up all the lesbian history, I overall found this book fascinating.
Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women by Leila J. Rupp
Many books on queer women tend to be focused on particular nationalities, but if you’re looking for a more global approach, this goes from the eponymous Greek poet Sappho to tombois in modern day Indonesia. We start in 40,000 BCE (swiftly moving up to 1,200) and end looking at 1960 to the present. It’s more of an academic read, but a thoughtful and a relatively short one.
Queer There and Everywhere: 22 People Who Changed the World by Sarah Prager
Sometimes you just need a bunch of short biographies to find out who you’re interested in delving more into. While some of these should be taken with a grain of salt (there’s not that much evidence on Lincoln, but he’s included here), there’s also Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo, and more, all of whom have a documented spot in the pantheon of Great Queer Women.
Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society by Ruth Vanita
There are a number of books about queer history in India. This one looks at the culture as a whole, from pre- to post-colonial times, and focuses on everything from film to literature to historical and religious texts. In 2018, India’s Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality (a statute put in place by the British government), but marriage equality or even civil unions are not, as of mid-2020, legal. Despite this, India has a long history of queer culture, going back to ancient texts. To learn more, check out this book.
The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government by David K. Johnson
During the Eisenhower administration and the McCarthy era, Communists were not the only group being hunted out of the government. Gay men and women were subject to scrutiny of their private lives and subsequently lost their jobs and occasionally their whole careers and lives. This is an important but often overlooked part of our national history.
Outlaw Marriages: The Hidden Histories of Fifteen Extraordinary Same-Sex Couples by Rodger Streitmatter
Queer women in this book include Alice B. Toklas & Gertrude Stein, Greta Garbo & Mercedes de Acosta, and Frances Clayton and Audre Lorde, among others. Each chapter focuses on the story of a couple and how they lived in essentially “outlaw marriages” well before the striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legalization of marriage equality throughout the United States.
Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Birth of the Lesbian Rights Movement by Marcia M. Gallo
The story of queer people in the 20th century is one of persecution and fighting back. The Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955, was the first lesbian civil and political rights organization in the United States. It was formed as a reaction to police raids on gay and lesbian bars. The DOB was instrumental in the creation of certain aspects of lesbian culture in the U.S., strongly aided by its publication The Ladder. Gallo interviews many of the former members (the last chapter disbanded in 1995) and sheds light on this important chapter in the history of queer women in America.
Straight: The Surprisingly Short History Of Heterosexuality by Hanne Blank
I had to include this because how did heterosexuality become the norm? Its invention as a term dates to the mid-19th century, and its origin story is surprising. Historian Blank looks into how this word got twisted from its original intent and turned into a measuring stick used against queer people for decades.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman
This book looks at the lives of young Black women at the turn of the 20th century, focusing on those who lived outside the lines. Winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, Hartman looks at Philadelphia and New York City, telling the stories of major and mostly forgotten women of the time and how they lived, loved, and built community. Also, look at this cover. Gorgeous.
Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism by Hongwei Bao
Bao focuses on post-Mao contemporary China and how everything from online fan fiction (print literature is heavily censored) to drag shows and a “public performance” of a same-sex wedding (marriage equality is currently still illegal) represent queer Chinese culture. If you’re looking to break out of the Western mold and want something a little academic, this is for you. To read more about LGBT rights in China, go here.
Black. Queer. Southern. Women. An Oral History by E. Patrick Johnson
Do you love oral histories? You should, they are great. In this oral history, Johnson talks to more than 70 Black queer women about their lives in the American South, including Black lesbian communities. This is labeled as an example of performance ethnography, which is a form of research that collects group data and creates an accessible work, so here that equates to gathering all these oral histories into a greater narrative that tells a story of the region.
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