Homophobic historians and proof of lesbianism

Homophobic historians and proof of lesbianism

no lgbtOver the years homophobic historians have tried to write gay people out of history: a decades-long, loving, same-sex relationship can be downgraded to ‘friendship’; while a stroll in the park with someone of the opposite sex is portrayed as a possible romance. This is exactly what happened to Esther Roper and Eva Gore Booth.

In the 1980s historian Gifford Lewis wrote a joint-biography of the couple. The author was intent on posthumously straightening out their relationship, denying they were romantically involved. She wrote to one of Eva’s relative exclaiming “you will be pleased to know that I could find not a trace of perverted sexuality” and the introduction to the biography states, “Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper never entered each other’s bedrooms except in illness”.

Dr Sonja Tiernan highlights how some historians can presume a possible heterosexual love tryst with a mere speck of evidence, but can turn a blind eye to substantial evidence pointing to a lesbian relationship:

Biographers and historians often demand proof of sexual activity in order to determine whether two women have been in a lesbian relationship. This issue has been addressed by Sheila Jeffreys in her aptly titled article, “Does It Matter if They Did It?” Jeffreys summarizes this sexual debate, noting that, “Women who have lived in the same house and slept in the same bed for thirty years have had their lesbianism strongly denied by historians. But men and women who simply take walks together are assumed to be involved in some sort of heterosexual relationship.” Jeffreys highlights that historians do not need proof of sexual activity in order to determine a relationship between a man and a woman to have been heterosexual. It is thus presumed that all people are heterosexual, unless there is substantial proof otherwise.

Eva’s relationship with Esther was intense, passionate, and uncompromising; their lives centered on each other. It is impossible to determine whether the two women engaged in a sexual relationship, but it appears that their relationship was all-encompassing. Emma Donoghue suggests that it does not matter whether Eva and Esther engaged in sexual relations, they’re still identifiable as lesbians:

If our ongoing debates on the meaning of sexuality are to make any sense, it is crucial that historians stop conflating the sexually active/celibate distinction with the lesbian/heterosexual one. Whether Eva and Esther were celibate and calm in their feelings, celibate but impassioned, occasionally sexual, sexual early on and then “transcending” it, or discreetly sexual right through their relationship, the fact of their lifelong lesbian partnership remains

Extract from ‘Challenging Presumptions of Heterosexuality Eva Gore Booth a biographical case study’ in Historical Reflections Reflexions Historiques, Vol 37 Issue 2 Summer 2011 pp. 58-71

For further discussion on homophobic historians writing lesbians out of history, see Britannia’s Glory, A History of Twentieth-Century Lesbians by Emily Hamer.