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Looking Like What You Are

Sexual Style, Race, and Lesbian Identity

Lisa Walker

Publication Year: 2001

Looks can be deceiving, and in a society where one's status and access to opportunity are largely attendant on physical appearance, the issue of how difference is constructed and interpreted, embraced or effaced, is of tremendous import.

Lisa Walker examines this issue with a focus on the questions of what it means to look like a lesbian, and what it means to be a lesbian but not to look like one. She analyzes the historical production of the lesbian body as marked, and studies how lesbians have used the frequent analogy between racial difference and sexual orientation to craft, emphasize, or deny physical difference. In particular, she explores the implications of a predominantly visible model of sexual identity for the feminine lesbian, who is both marked and unmarked, desired and disavowed.

Walker's textual analysis cuts across a variety of genres, including modernist fiction such as The Well of Loneliness and Wide Sargasso Sea, pulp fiction of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1950s and the 1960s, post-modern literature as Michelle Cliff's Abeng, and queer theory.

In the book's final chapter, "How to Recognize a Lesbian," Walker argues that strategies of visibility are at times deconstructed, at times reinscribed within contemporary lesbian-feminist theory.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xvii

Writing an academic book is a strange project. When people who do not work in the academy hear that I am writing a book, they usually think it is a novel. When I explain that it is not a novel, but a book about books, they look at me as if to say, “Why would anybody want to do that?” I often evade the issue by saying that I have to do it to keep my job. But the truth is that we...

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Introduction: In/visible Differences

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pp. 1-20

Demanding visibility has been one of the principles of late-twentieth- century identity politics, and flaunting visibility has become one of its tactics. If silence equals death, invisibility is nonexistence. To be invisible is to be seen but not heard, or to be erased entirely—to be absent from cultural consciousness. In the face...

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Chapter One: Martyred Butches and Impossible Femmes: Radclyffe Hall and the Modern Lesbian

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pp. 21-57

Since its publication in 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness has provoked praise and condemnation, identification and denial for generations of lesbian readers. Twenty years of feminist criticism have brought no resolution to questions about the novel’s status within the lesbian literary tradition....

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Chapter Two: Debutante in Harlem: Blair Niles’s Strange Brother

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pp. 58-102

Nightclubs, cabarets, chitterlings, the blues, the “real Harlem.” In the 1920s white people went to Harlem in search of the exotic and the primitive. The “soul” of black culture was an antidote to white society’s perception of itself as overcivilized. Strange Brother, a white-authored Harlem Renaissance novel published...

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Chapter Three: Lesbian Pulp in Black and White

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pp. 103-138

Though Strange Brother was one of many gay-themed novels to appear during the early 1930s, it was not until the mid-1950s that the exploding paperback industry made lesbian novels available to a large number of readers. Cover blurbs for titles such as Twilight Lovers (1964), Stranger on Lesbos (1960), and...

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Chapter Four: Strategies of Identification in Three Narratives of Female Development

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pp. 139-181

During the 1980s, lesbian criticism began to theorize diversity in earnest. In ground-breaking texts such as This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Writings by Women of Color (1981), Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (1983), Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in...

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Chapter Five: How to Recognize a Lesbian: The Cultural Politics of Looking Like What You Are

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pp. 182-210

In retrospect, my own entrance into the lesbian community was remarkable more for the sense of disorientation it produced than for a strong sense of identification. That would occur and recur later, and my identifications with other women are as fraught with issues of desire, idealization, and abjection as any one else’s...

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pp. 211-214

This book began with a conversation about the invisibility of the feminine lesbian. As I moved to closure on the project, I found myself having a slightly different conversation—a conversation about a term that has come into fairly common parlance, and that tells us something about the nature of the femme’s increased...


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pp. 215-249

Works Cited

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pp. 251-265


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pp. 267-279

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About the Author

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pp. 281

Lisa Walker is assistant professor of English at the University of...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814724064
E-ISBN-10: 081472406X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814793718
Print-ISBN-10: 0814793711

Page Count: 300
Publication Year: 2001