Early Forms of Resistance
What is astonishing is that within this context there also developed a rich social discourse about lesbian sexuality that did reflect the lived experiences of some lesbians. It represented attempts to recapture the narrative from heterosexist forms and redefine women as sexually present and powerful when sexual with other women. Joan Nestle (1987, 1992) has been one of our primary documentarians of that period between World War II and the lesbian and gay liberation movements. The lesbian sexuality she documents, primarily that speaking to the tropes of butch and femme, is one in which dominant images have been turned backwards on themselves, a sort of trick or joke on the invisibilities or perversions presented to us in dominant discourses. Nestle describes the images of lesbian butch and femme in which the stereotypes of heterosexual masculinity and femininity were transformed by women into uniquely lesbian ways of relating that only appeared to imitate the dominant culture. Butch, as defined by lesbians, was not a mockery of macho, or an imitation of masculinity, but rather a way of expressing female strength and the ability and willingness to sexually and emotionally nurture another woman. The ultimate butch, the “passing woman,” who like Leslie Feinberg (1993) appeared to the world at large as a man, was intensely invested in the role of the nurturing gallant, and of the creator of powerful sexual experiences for her women lovers. The lesbian femme, in her turn, was not portraying passivity or defining her beauty in terms relevant to men, but instead stood for the power inherent in openness and vulnerability, and for the aesthetics of the rounded, full female body with its smells and hair and curves intact.
However, as pointed out by Grahn, these images and discourses of resistance were only at that point available to those lesbians who were able or willing to take part in the “outlaw” lesbian cultures of the 1950s and 1960s. Some of Adleman’s (1986) and Sang, Warshaw, and Smith’s (1991) older lesbian interviewees speak of how they never knew other lesbians beyond their own relationship until the liberation movements of the 1970s made them visible to one another. Nonurban lesbians, lesbians who felt estranged from the bar culture, lesbians who continued not to know that other lesbians existed—for all these women, the opportunity to be included in a shared social reality that included images of their ways of sexual relating continued to be absent.