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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 7.3 (2001) 391-399

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Male Lesbianism

Naomi Schor

Sexuality in nineteenth-century France is by now, some twenty-five years after Foucault's History of Sexuality: An Introduction, a well-plowed field. It is widely accepted that before the pivotal date of 1848 and the conservative, censorious imperial regime that it ushered in, sexualities still enjoyed the prelapsarian fluidity that Foucault, in Herculine Barbin, projects backward into the libertine eighteenth century. Indeed, the French Revolution, though it set the clock back for women, enshrined the sexual liberation of homosexuals. According to Gretchen Schultz, "Revolutionary penal codes did away with laws that had criminalized homosexuality, a reform that was maintained in the Napoleonic Code in 1804." But as Victoria Thompson writes, "While during the July Monarchy (1830-1848), a period of tremendous social upheaval, sexuality and gender often appeared as fluid, by the 1850s and 1860s sexuality and gender were increasingly organized into rigidly defined categories." 1 Following this familiar chronology, the stage of rigidification was inevitably succeeded or accompanied by a categorical shift, the invention of the homosexual, taken up at the end of the century in medical taxonomy, which proved remarkably stable and resilient, persisting until nearly the late 1990s.

I do not propose in what follows to contradict this account, to set forth another historical model, or even a radically different sexual model, but to enlarge when it is not to deflect the scope of our inquiry by focusing on what I will call, following Thaïs E. Morgan, male lesbianism, by which I mean not male fascination with female lesbianism but a more subtle, imaginary identification of nineteenth-century French male authors with lesbians. 2 I am concerned less with a male enlisting of lesbians as model modern subjects in revolt against normative sexuality and bourgeois morality--though this sapphophilia plays a crucial role in nineteenth-century art and literature--than with male identification with lesbians as subjects of passivity and withdrawal from the difficulties and strains of masculinity in an increasingly materialist and professionalized society. Or, to put matters [End Page 391] another way, I am interested less in arguing that male representations of lesbians provide a cover for unrepresentable homoeroticism--a means of, in Morgan's words, identifying "with both gender positions" (46) and thereby retaining male privilege, not to say reinscribing gynophobia, albeit in drag--than in the very process of identification that is so central to male lesbianism.

The lesbianism of certain nineteenth-century French male authors has not gone unnoticed by the critics; rather, it has been naturalized and rendered unproblematic. I will cite two examples of this untheorized male lesbianism. The first is from the passage in Barthes's study "Michelet's Lesbianism":

For Michelet, relations between man and woman are . . . not all based on the difference between the sexes. . . . in erotic terms, there is only a spectator and his spectacle; Michelet himself is no longer either man or woman, he is nothing but Gaze; his approach to women compels him to have no specifically virile characteristic. . . . In order to force his way into the gynaeceum more surely, not as a ravisher but as a spectator, the old lion puts on a skirt, attaches himself amorously to Woman by a veritable lesbianism, and finally conceives of marriage only as a kind of sororal couple.

The ideal movement of love is not, for Michelet, penetration but juxtaposition. 3

What we have here, albeit in an idiosyncratic mode, are the main features of a certain male lesbianism: the abolition of male penetration, with its valorization of depth, in favor of an adhesive mode of sexual relations, where the transvested male becomes, like Dejanira's tunic, a textile membrane stretched over the female body: male lesbianism as a second skin.

Second when it is not first. When in Tales of Love Julia Kristeva writes, "The Stendhalian lover is secretly a lesbian," she quotes a passage from Stendhal's autobiographical Life of Henri Brulard in which his identification with the female body is purely superficial, strictly epidermal: "My...


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