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BOOKS Lillian Faderman: Trailblazer reflects on her legacy
by Liz Baudler
2017-08-02

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Lillian Faderman, a scholar of LGBTQ history best known for her work on lesbian culture, remembers what inspired her to begin writing about lesbian life through the ages.

"I think I wouldn't have had the courage to start if it hadn't been for the lesbian feminist movement," Faderman explained. "I think what really told me that I could do this, that I would be all right doing it. ... There was a women's bookstore that I wandered into in some big city, and there were all of these incredible newspapers and magazines that were put out by lesbian feminists. I found all of these publications, and then I started writing."

Faderman was recently named a "Trailblazer" by the Golden Crown Literary Society at its annual meeting, held this year in Chicago. The award is bestowed for lifetime achievement in recognition of the contributions made to the field of lesbian literature.

Faderman's contributions began when she was full professor at Fresno State University in 1975. She had tenure. She also had a partner and baby. Did writing about lesbians take bravery? Yes, her lesbian colleagues often lost their jobs. But Faderman saw it differently. Firing her after she had tenure would be a disgrace that her embattled college could not afford.

"There was an audience out there, as was proven by the women's bookstore, and so I started writing with great passion," said Faderman. "Between 1976 and 1978 I think I published 6 articles on lesbian literature and lesbian history. I wrote and wrote and wrote. My partner and I together had decided that we would have a child and our son was born in 1975. We'd put him to bed at 9 o'clock, and from 9 to midnight, I would write."

In those days, Faderman's work often appeared in obscure academic journals she was sure none of her colleagues would read. It felt safe, what she was doing. Then she got a sabbatical in 1978.

"In those days we all had to present to our colleagues what we did on sabbatical," Faderman recalled. "I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to do it, I'm just going to present the article I had published in the Journal of Popular Culture'. I had no idea what their response would be, and afterwards they came up to me and said, 'Wow, that was terrific. That was just the kind of original research that we all need to be doing.' And that was really fabulous."

Faderman said she credits her college's desire to be a liberal oasis in conservative central California with ensuring her success. And despite her academic training, once she began writing full-length books—Surpassing the Love of Men and Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers among her most renowned—Faderman kept an ideal audience in mind.

"I wanted my writing to have academic rigor, but I wanted to avoid academic language," she remembered. "I wanted to avoid jargonese. I tried to make my writing as clear and accessible and as interesting as possible. I used to write as if other academics chose to read my work, but I also had in mind the lesbian. I think most writers when they're writing, they're talking to someone. I would have given anything practically to have lesbian history when I first came out, and it didn't exist. Nobody was writing about it. I was writing to my younger self as a lesbian, or to younger lesbians who needed what I knew would have been so helpful to me. I was trained to do research, and I don't think it's that different to do research in literary history than to do research in lesbian history."

Faderman's work often focuses on the path of progress: how lesbian behavior changed by decade, how LGBTQ rights evolved in the span of 70 years. She credits her experience with coming of age in the repressive 1950s and having a whirlwind introduction to gay girl bar culture with influencing her outlook on the successive decades.

"From my perspective, coming at it from the 1950s, we were all scared and had reason to be scared," Faderman said. "We were so persecuted by the law, we were criminals in every state in the union in the 1950s. We were in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. And of course, if you worked for the government, you were considered a subversive. All the churches except maybe a couple Unitarian churches in big cities considered us all sinners in the 1950s. It was just the very worst time to be a homosexual or a lesbian. By the late '80s, when I wrote the bulk of Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, I had seen these incredible changes, and it seemed to me that the decades were so different from one another. The 1950s was a decade of absolute repression, and in the 1960s, all of these militant rights groups found their voice. And the 1970s was the rise of lesbian feminism, and it carried into the 80s, and in the early 80s the lesbian sex wars emerged. It's not as pat as "things change decade by decade" but for me, each decade really did seem to have an element that made it stand out. It seemed very plausible to present the history that way."

She would pinpoint the 1970s as a "golden age" of lesbians.

"There were probably more lesbians in the 1970s than there had ever been in history, because many women came out." Faderman said. "They began as feminists, and then they became radical feminists, and as many women were saying, if you take radical feminism to its logical conclusion, it leads to lesbian feminism. And so they became lesbian feminists, and many women remained lesbian.

"By the 1980s it was something like 140 women's bookstores, which were largely lesbian bookstores, around the country. And there were all these lesbian publishing houses, and there were all of these lesbian magazines and lesbian newspapers, and it was just a very heady time to be a lesbian. Quite wonderful, I think. And so you can imagine having come out in the 1950s, how absolutely delirious it was for me to see that lesbian was 'in' in the 1970s. It was OK, at least in some circles, to be a lesbian, in fact it was great in radical feminist circles to be a lesbian."

Faderman categorizes the dwindling use of the lesbian label as part of a larger historical pattern, although she admitted it makes her personally sad to see "lesbian" fall out of use.

"I write historically about women in the 18th century and the 19th century, and the early 20th century, and they would never have called themselves lesbian," Faderman explained. Terms like inverts and homosexual also had the wrong connotations, but in the 20th century, "lesbian" eventually became the dominant term, until recently, when "queer" gained purchase.

"The word 'queer' is as repellent to me as those words I mentioned were to late 19th century and early 20th century women in same-sex, long-term relationships," said Faderman. "It makes me sad, I think, that the word lesbian has kind of disappeared and young women prefer the word queer, and won't appreciate the battles of the 1970s to reclaim the word lesbian. I recognize that people have the right to define themselves however the hell they please. As a historian, I'm fascinated by it, and I'm interested in observing it, and interested in writing about it, but as an individual who sees herself as an out and proud lesbian, of course I think wow, these young queer women see us as antediluvian, or dinosaurs, and we saw ourselves as so revolutionary. But you know, that happens with every generation."

Even if the label changes, Faderman still sees an audience for her historical explorations and occasionally gets the thrill of knowing who she's inspired. Sarah Waters, author of Tipping the Velvet and other acclaimed lesbian faves, named "Surpassing the Love of Men" as one of her favorite queer books in a recent Guardian article.

"I feel that I have moved into the next generation in terms of influence, and I know that she will influence other young lesbians, and it goes on," Faderman said of Waters' nod. "That was absolutely wonderful to read that my favorite author was influenced by my earlier work."

To some degree, public recognition of her identity is still a surprise to the older author. "If I had thought in the 1950s that eventually we'd be able to get married, we'd be able to serve openly in the military, the NBA and the NFL would be supportive of our rights, I would have thought I'd been smoking too much pot or something," Faderman joked. "It would have been beyond my wildest dreams. That was the height of when we were criminals and crazies and subversives and sinners. I could never have imagined that we would become almost first class citizens. Could I have imagined in the 1950s and 1960s that I would have become a lesbian historian? No, of course not. I couldn't have imagined in the 1950s that we would ever get out of secrecy. We had to be secretive in order to survive."

And Faderman, who retired from teaching a decade ago, continues to both inspire and write: she's just finished a new biography of Harvey Milk. "I never felt that my research was burdensome in any way," said Faderman. "I did it not to advance academically. From the very beginning, from my early articles in the 1970s to this book, it's been my passion, and a labor of love."


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