Lesbian History in the Digital Era: Appearance and Disappearance

The digital age places my generation of lesbian-identified activists, historians and scholars at a peculiar crossroads. The label lesbian has fallen into disfavor, overruled by the well-intentionally inclusive queer, in a semantic and political shift which effectively buries lesbian specificity and the context of lived lesbian experiences. The valorization of trans rights, which a necessary and dynamic revolution of gender, has in some quarters fostered the charge that lesbian are an outdated minority whose woman-only dating and socializing practices are not countercultural but outright transphobic, and thus we see lesbian authors and theorists being “deplatformed” and disappeared.

This backlash is felt most acutely by older/aging women whose coming out and political activism spanned the 1968-2008 years—the generations corresponding to second-wave feminism and Gay Liberation action after Stonewall, culminating in the rapid gains of LGBT legal rights across two Obama administrations.  For those  40 or 50, most of the physical sites and lavender spaces where we came out (into partnerships and activism) are now vanishing: women’s bars, bookstores, concert coffeehouses; women’s music festivals. Younger women who never knew a world in which lesbians could not marry, or serve in the military, or adopt children, or appear on television night and day, now meet and plot online.

This is both a political and technological generation gap, but too often is marked by distrust, rather than mutual effort toward understanding how lesbians lived and survived in the still-the recent past of homophobia and ambiguous legal status. My task as an historian and archivist of my own people involves collecting our survival stories.

How will those stories survive, in the digital age? Although there are more innovative and accessible tools than ever before for inscribing our narratives and interviews digitally, ensuring online data for future generations to learn from, disdain toward the aging “L” peer group throughout social media complicates the honoring of foremothers in struggle.

Having lived long enough to see the victory of gay marriage and other rights long fought for, lesbians are being stereotyped once again as mere man-haters; in modern parlance, as hateful “essentialists” whose desire for one another, for so long unspeakable, is unspeakable again if alliances with transwomen don’t extend to the bedroom. Thus it is increasingly difficult to gain a publishing platform or a conference workshop to address lesbian lives, for historical content (which lesbian activists did the work gain our LGBT victories?) is held hostage to gender politics (why is this presentation paying homage to the L and not including the GBT?) For the most part, we do not see gay men being held to these same standards in the publication or digital inscription of their activist histories.

In many of my writings (and a recent book, The Disappearing L), I argue that the variable standards of current LGBT journalism, coupled with a lack of editorial oversight online and the convenience of anonymous social media posts, will soon create a perfect storm of “disappearing” lesbian elders from history, even as states such as California (where I am employed) mandate the inclusion of LGBT history in high school curricula.  If lesbians now represent a group whose coming extinction is welcomed as somehow necessary to complete the gender revolution, there’s little hope of getting a more accurate range of voices represented.  But on the other side of this troubling coin, two generations of dynamic scholars and historians now have the training and the will to preserve recent lesbian history in digital archive format. One need look no further than the Sophia Smith collection and the women’s special collection of the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, both of which are institutions attracting and digitizing a breathtaking range of papers willed by lesbian icons, from Alison Bechdel to Adrienne Rich to Judith Casselberry and Alix Dobkin.  If social media has become a shelf often hostile to lesbian-identified narratives, museums and archives are very friendly to sifting through and electronically preserving the paper trail of lesbian survival. These issues of historic preservation—and how history is being shaped by our online debates over queer identity—are as intellectually fascinating as they are painful, to someone like me who risked everything to become a professor of women’s history after coming out as a lesbian teenager the year Ronald Reagan was elected.


Thank you for your post.   It made me think about the growing ecosystem of archives that are negotiating similar issues. Earlier archives such as  the Lesbian Herstory Archive and One Archive started with a focus on lesbian and gay history. Now the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) has launched positioning itself as supporting a broader acquistion policy than these previous archives. They specifically note the need to use new vocabularies (such as trans) to describe archival materials so that the material are more easily discoverable.  What I find really interseting is th DTA's  focus on pre-2000 materials. Their project seems to be one of re-labeling and revealing a trans history pre-2000, which is important work. This move also seems to align well with your concerns that Lesbian history might be effectively rendered invisible through these kinds of processes.  What also caused me to pause was the prioritized periodization of the archive, which seemed counterintuitive to me. One would think they would focus on the plethora of born-digital post-2000 materials considering how important the early 21st century is to trans history. Like the women's bars and bookstores that are vanishing, the platforms where queer online communities formed to forge networks of support and resistance are vanishing rapidly (or often occur in for-profit platforms run by multi-national corporations). It makes me wonder how we, historians, will tell the history of these gender and sexuality revolutions now and in the future.  What about the memories that are erased when a digital platform/ community is deleted? How dependent will be we be on the memories of individuals produced through oral histoires? It seems we have more work to do. 

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