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8 Things You Didn’t Know About Lesbian History

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Jul 20, 2022

8 Things You Didn’t Know About Lesbian History

Many strong women have led the fight for lesbians to have freedom and rights in the US. The history behind some of the biggest activist groups, publications, and movements shows how these women were on the front lines of making change.

While a lot of lesbian history and media may have been silenced or erased, it’s important to pay homage to the trailblazers who paved the way for lesbian people today.

The fight is ongoing, but these parts of history show how far it’s come. Here are the parts of lesbian history you may not know.

Where the Word “Lesbian” Originated From

Being a lesbian is like a badge of honor, but have you ever wondered where the term comes from?

The word lesbian has been around for many years, originating from the poet Sappho (read more about the sapphic meaning here). Lesbian has a literal translation of “a resident of the Isle of Lesbos, a Greek Island”.

The poet Sappho was the most famous resident of the island of Lesbos, after becoming known for her love poems to other women. An intellectual as well, her poems stirred a lot of controversy for the use of erotic writing and discussing love for women.

She was heavily criticized for speaking about her love for women erotically. Most of her poetry was destroyed, edited, or fragmented.

The Activist Symbol for the Lesbian Movement

In the present day, there are a few symbols that represent the lesbian movement, with more constantly being added. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones is the Greek symbol Lambda

This symbol came to represent the liberation movement which seeks balance in society and strives through enlightenment to secure equal rights for queer people. The queer community claimed it as a symbol of tribalization or unity together.

Breaking down the meaning of Lambda shows the important facets of the queer liberation movement. Scales represent balance, the nook at the bottom of the right leg represents the action needed to maintain balance and Lambda represents the necessary action to reach and maintain balance.

First Published Lesbian Poetry and Books in the US

These women courageously published books and poetry discussing their experiences during a time when being a lesbian came with silencing and alienation.

1923: On a Grey Thread– Elsa Gidlow

Gidlow published the first book of lesbian poetry to be published in the US. Born and living in the UK, the book was published during a time when lesbians were ousted in both the UK and US. It was radical to write candidly about having feelings for another woman, especially not under a pseudonym. She also was the first lesbian writer to write an autobiography under her real name.

1928: The Well of Loneliness

The first lesbian book published in the US is The Well of Loneliness, written by lesbian author Radclyffe Hall. From the beginning, the book was met with hostility, and attempts were made to ban the book. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice argued that the book violated the 1873 Comstock Law to root out lewd and absurd literature.

Attempts to ban the book were unsuccessful, though when American Publishers Attorney Morris Ernst argued in a New York court that lesbianism was neither obscene nor illegal, so the book shouldn’t be either. The court agreed and the case was ultimately dismissed.

The Black Triangle During World War II

Black and pink triangles were initially used to brand gay men and lesbians in Nazi concentration camps. Used to mark prisoners deemed as asocial, queer people were considered unacceptable in society. Gay people were persecuted during the Holocaust and SS guards tortured queer people in gruesome ways.

Although they have a dark past, queer activists reclaimed the triangles as a symbol that the past wouldn’t be repeated. Gay rights activists in Miami started wearing triangles as a symbol of solidarity with the victims of torture by SS guards in 1979. 

The triangles have also been used for HIV/AIDS awareness in the queer community. Aram Finklestein again reclaimed the use of the triangle, now right side up, as a symbol of the gay rights campaign. It was also used for HIV/AIDS patients to warn potential partners.

The First Openly Lesbian Senator in the US

Tammy Baldwin is the first open lesbian elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1999 and 2013. Her progressive views and support of Medicare for All, LGBTQ rights, and gun control have gained her support from both the queer community and organizations.

Baldwin is a democrat and is endorsed by Democracy for America, as well as getting campaign funding from EMILY’s List, Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, and LPAC.

When Being Lesbian Wasn’t Considered as a Mental Disorder

Part of the dark history of being a lesbian is it being considered a mental disorder. Medical establishments considered homosexuality a mental illness throughout most of the 20th century. Due to a lack of research, it was believed that being a lesbian or gay was correlated with mental instability.

Because of this propaganda, social institutions could discriminate against the queer community, and medical institutions could provide harmful traumatic therapy.

Psychologist Evelyn Hooker explored the correlation between the mental stability of straight and gay male populations and found that being gay did not affect mental stability. Hooker’s research and pressure from the queer community led the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973.

Vice Versa was the First Lesbian Magazine

Vice Versa is the first lesbian magazine published in June 1947. The publisher is publicly unknown, but she used the pseudonym “Lisa Ben”, which is an anagram for lesbian people. Ben was a 25-year-old secretarial assistant at RKO studios when she wrote the magazine as a response to media categorizing queer people as perverts. She only produced nine issues and ten copies of each issue due to limited resources.

The magazine broke boundaries for lesbian media by providing content for a diverse audience, including short stories, editorials, book reviews, and a letter column to entertain and inspire lesbian readers to support lesbian media and enjoy their lifestyle.

Though around for a short time, Vice Versa had a tremendous impact on lesbian content. It set the stage for The Ladder, the next lesbian magazine published by the activist group Daughters of Bilitis in 1955.

The First Civil and Political Rights Organization for Lesbians in the US

Daughters of Bilitis was the first civil and political rights organization in the US formed in San Francisco in 1955. Formed as a social alternative to lesbian bars that were facing constant raids and police harassment, they provided support to women afraid to come out. By educating these women about their rights and gay history, they empowered them to live in their truth. 

For 14 years, they became a pivotal resource for lesbians, gay men, researchers, and mental health professionals.

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Alexandra hails from Boston, MA but is currently living in the DC Area. She's passionate about social justice, self-care, spirituality, and watching documentaries. She's no stranger to telling her story through writing and has written for a variety of freelance publications. You can find her on Instagram at @lexlexlexlexlex__.

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