‘The Disappearing L’

March 17, 2017

From the March-April 2017 issue of News & Letters

Review: The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture, by Bonnie J. Morris

Disappearing LBonnie Morris sets out to solve the mystery of the disappearance of the groundbreaking lesbian culture of the 1970s-1990s. This culture was rooted in feminism and beneficial to women in general. It included women’s music, which allowed Lesbians to hear songs about their own experiences for the first time and helped many participate in the recording industry through feminist record companies. Women’s music festivals gave these musicians a chance to perform. Women were given a sense of confidence on seeing the technical and labor aspects of these festivals handled completely by women. Some festivals held workshops on topics important to feminism, including racism and classism.


The sense of safety and ability to meet other Lesbians at festivals was also provided by feminist bookstores. Many women, including Lesbians, had a fondness for the written word because they were finding their history and others like themselves. Before the second wave of feminism, few businesses would hire women, and schools and libraries would only hire them if they were single. Lesbians translated this into Lesbian and feminist literature of fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Feminist bookstores felt safe to women cautious of checking out books on Lesbianism from the library or being seen going into a Gay bookstore. Social ostracism and job loss were more common in the past than today.

Some reasons for the decline of these institutions included economics and new technology. Many bookstores have gone out of business due to the internet and big box bookstores. Morris also finds that Lesbian culture has a cyclical history of renewing itself in new forms after declining or being stamped out in times of repression.

Sexism also had a hand in the decline of the cultural institutions and loss of history of the second wave feminist generation of Lesbians. Part of this is an internalized sexism that pits women against each other. Morris writes that women who had taken radical steps of rejecting marriage and often motherhood to form all-female communities found themselves labeled stodgy and boring by the next generation. Conflicts over politics were overemphasized instead of celebrating the careful group processing of theory and policies at festivals and in political groups. Most members of the next two generations rejected the female focus and called themselves “Gay” or “Queer.”


Like mainstream culture, Morris states, the LGBTQ movement tends to be male-dominated and to ignore female accomplishments, culture, history, scholarship, ideas, and issues. The success of the LGBTQ movement, in turn, had caused it to blend in with mainstream culture rather than to critique its basis in patriarchy and capitalism. In spite of the activism and accomplishments of Lesbians, they are rarely included in mainstream history or museums.

Morris compares the loss of Lesbian businesses and community to the similar loss experienced by African Americans when segregation was abolished. In both cases, there have been important protections put in place by laws and more freedom to participate in mainstream culture. However, there is still danger from bigotry, as well as a danger of having one’s identity defined by mainstream culture.

Morris also draws strong comparisons with Jewish culture, especially since many leaders, thinkers and performers in lesbian culture have been Jewish. Both emphasize justice, learning and an identity as outsiders. She states that Jewish culture can provide a model for navigating issues of separatism and assimilation and for carrying the writings of the past generations into the future.

This book explains the importance of past Lesbian culture, in part through comments collected by the author from festival participants. It also explains the importance to all women of preserving one’s history.


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