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Lesbian Historic Motif Project FAQ

When I posted one of my periodic links to the LHMP on an e-mail list I frequent, it sparked a conversation with one of the other members there that seemed useful as a more detailed explanation of what I am -- and am not -- trying to do with this project. I have permission from the original questioner to include her side of the conversation but have snipped an introductory exchange that isn’t relevant. (And please understand that this was a civil and friendly conversation, even though the questions may come across as challenges.)

Question: I have a real bug about historical accuracy and a very short toleration span for people who try to interpret the past based on our current societal standards.  I've seen Black History Month devolve into people trying to give African Americans credit for everything and Women's History Month has people trying to prove that everything was done by women.

I've noticed that many of your resources come from the same people and that some of them base their research on other people in your list.

Answer: There's a very practical reason for that. A lot of my identifying and collecting of sources is based on following citations and bibliographies from one publication to the next.  So there's going to be a certain amount of working my way through scholarly networks of people who read each other’s work and cite each other. My current working database contains about 100 different authors and I'd estimate that I have in-house about 50 more authors who haven't made it into the database yet (much less into published blog entries). And a lot of those publications haven't been mined for their citations yet. It's a fairly cross-disciplinary group. Other than running across names and titles by pure chance (and, of course, following citation trails), the major places I discover new information to follow up on are papers given at the annual medieval studies conference at Kalamazoo (where I divide my time between gender/sexuality studies, historic textile studies, and whatever my current writing project makes interesting -- most recently alchemy) and the wealth of new and recent publications to be browsed through in the book-sales room at that conference.

This is very much an "in my spare time for fun" project. My own academic background is in rather different fields (biology and linguistics) so I haven't taken a very systematic approach. And the order in which I'm working through the sources that I do have currently is the next best thing to random, so again there's a fair amount of ordering things by proximity (in the file folder, on the bookshelf, in the same anthology) rather than trying for anything balanced. I have a tendency to get paralyzed by the desire to present a perfect and properly-contextualized product, and the chaotic nature of this blogging project is one of the only ways I've found to break through that paralysis.

Question: Since these are topics that people didn't write or speak about in the periods you're covering, how are you verifying that what they are saying is true?

Answer: I'm not certain whether you're asking about whether what the original source materials say is true, or whether the authors of the books/articles I'm reading are correctly presenting that information. Both are among the central concerns of historiography, as I'm sure you're aware. Within the literature I'm looking at, there have been several drastic swings in the interpretation of information on historic sexuality. So part of the task of evaluating the articles is to identify and filter (or at least point out) the writer's theoretical framework. For example, the gender/sexuality sessions at Kalamazoo have been depressingly swamped by "queer theory" post-modernism for entirely too long, most of which is completely irrelevant for my purposes. Apart from that, it tends to be fairly easy to tell if an author is taking an essentialist or social-constructionist approach and to read their work accordingly. (I tend to fall in a "both and neither" position with regard to the essentialist / constructionist debate, but then I tend to be fairly comfortable with interpretational ambiguity, given that my linguistics background is in cognitive theory.)

One of the misperceptions that I'd like this project to help dispel is the idea that people in history didn't write or speak about their sexual experiences or sexual identity. They may not have done it very often. They may not always have been completely honest. They may have done it obliquely. The frameworks in which they understood their experiences and identity may be difficult to retrieve. And the consequences for them doing so may not be particularly inspiring. But there isn't a complete void of information. And when the scope is expanded to what people in history thought they knew about (other people's) same-sex relationships and practices, the amount of material is even greater.

Question: It seems that LGBT people are being sucked into the same situation as other groups, trying to justify ourselves by showing what we've done in history.  A lot of it is a guessing game though, similar to guessing which movie stars were gay before they started coming out.  I've seen many sources that say, if a woman reached a certain age and wasn't married, WELL THEN, she was a lesbian.  Joan of Arc was 19 when she was killed and she had never married, so she MUST have been a lesbian.  No, she was leading an army for a couple of years and then was executed. I'm curious.  How are you keeping your work pure history and not conjecture?

Answer: The simplest answer is "I'm not" -- that is, there is no intent to confine this project only to verifiable, documentable cases of specific historic individuals who would fulfill some objective definition of "lesbian". I'm not actually interested in being able to assign labels to specific individuals. In part, that's because applying such a filter to the material would impose my own subjective definitions on the material I'm working with, but in part it's because that was never the intent of the project in the first place.

But to answer what I think may have been your underlying question here, the one thing I'm definitely NOT interested in including in the project is modern imaginative speculations on what history might have been like. That may be the intended end-product, but it's not the input. Many of the topics covered in my source material include imaginative material -- myth, legend, literature, poetry -- but it's the imaginative material produced by the people of the time, which can be used as a window on how historic people understood their world. And within the context of this project, it's not critical to be able to draw a clear line between absolute historic truth and what historic people believed to be true. Because, for example, when I look at the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, I'm not asking, "Is it a historic fact that a cross-dressing female knight married the daughter of the emperor who employed her?" (to which the answer is, of course, no) but rather "In what contexts could a medieval woman have been familiar with the story of Yde and Olive and how might it have provided a context and path for understanding her own romantic or sexual desire for a woman?"

At various times I've drafted up very long-winded explanations of what I'm trying to do with this project. (As anyone who knows me on mailing lists or facebook knows, when I get long-winded, I get very long-winded.) Going with the whole "break through the paralysis" thing, I decided it was better to give a very brief explanation (linked at the top of each blog post) and then plunge into the material. But maybe it makes more sense to get long-winded now, since there’s interest.

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project is not intended as historic research. It is not aimed at historians or those who want to study history (who presumably don't need me to point them to available research materials). It's aimed mostly at authors and other people doing creative work with lesbian themes who are interested in setting their work in history or in a historically-inspired setting (e.g., medieval-inspired fantasies, alternate 19th century steam-punk worlds, etc. etc.). My hope is to be able to give those people a short-cut to knowing about the wealth of information that exists that might inspire and inform them with regard to their chosen settings. Because of my own personal and professional interests, I've spent a fair amount of work tracking this stuff down, but I have connections to academic sources and networks that most people with only a casual interest don't have. One of the things I've learned in a variety of fields is that the biggest hurdle to learning things is simply knowing that the information exists. A lot of these publications are from obscure academic journals or academic press books. And the subject matter isn't always obvious just from the titles. So part of the intent of this project is to be an information conduit: to say, "Here is a publication you might find relevant and here's a summary of the information you might be interested in." I'm well aware that a lot of people aren't likely to take the step of going from my summary to tracking down the original publication (even when I strongly recommend it!) but it seems like a useful balance point.

Maybe it would be easier if I gave a concrete example. One of my I'll-get-back-to-this-sometime novels is set in 15th century Wales and involves a woman who is cross-dressing for certain practical and logistical purposes, but who attracts the romantic attention of another woman and comes to return it and look for a way they can form a lasting relationship. So I want to know a variety of things. What sorts of issues and practicalities were involved for a woman trying to pass as a man in the 15th century? How would this idea occur to her? Would she be familiar with other cases of women doing so? What would be the likely consequences of discovery? How would she feel about this? What sort of context would she have for understanding the possibility of a woman falling in love with another woman? What cultural models -- whether real-life or literary -- would she be familiar with? How would this affect the types of outcomes she could imagine for what she's feeling? How would it affect the actions she might take? What is the practical likelihood of her being able to carry it off? What are the possible reactions from the object of her affection when she realizes that the "man" she fell in love with is a woman? What are her models for how to feel about this and how to integrate her initial feelings with her new knowledge?

None of these questions necessarily require being able to find solidly documentable lesbians in 15th century Europe. They can be addressed by a wide variety of types of evidence that focus on specific motifs and behaviors, and that may be drawn from the art, literature, and folklore of the time as much as from the actual "real life" experiences of my fictional characters.

So what I'm interested in doing is casting this wider net: what is the variety of information that my fictional characters might be aware of that could shape the story I want to tell? Because, as a novelist -- even a historical novelist -- I'm writing for a modern readership who will find certain types of stories interesting and other types of stories not. And furthermore, as a writer, I'm always picking and choosing between the possible stories that can be told to suit my own interests and purposes.

Part of those interests I have as a writer is to write historic fiction that is -- as much as possible -- grounded in historic fact. I, too,  "have a bug about historical accuracy." I don't know whether your reaction extends to discounting the entire field of historical fiction or not. Mine doesn't. I love the genre, both as a reader and a writer. But I don't care for stories that stick modern liberated 21st century women into historic settings, or that create lesbian utopias in the middle of a time and place where they would be implausible. Instead I'm interested in trying to carve out a small empty space within the known historic context in which one particular lesbian story could have existed -- a "possible past" if you will. And given the amount of work I've done to try to know what that small empty space might look like in various times and places, I'm willing to go to the extra effort of provide a short-cut for other writers.

Most of my historic research projects have been largely a matter of cataloging. I take no credit at all for the content of the articles (though I take responsibility for any misunderstandings or misinterpretations contained in my summaries). Historians are my heroes. Even the ones who aren't perfect.