LGBT history as a whole is difficult to study, with both its legal and societal condemnation historically and today. The first attempts to study the history of homosexuality were not started until the 19th century and these were largely hampered by source scarcity and societal opinion. It was not until the mid 20th century that as a study it became more popular, and until the 1970s that all identities under the LGBT umbrella were included. The last several decades have seen a massive increase in scholarship, especially in gay male history; however other identities have struggled much more. Trans historiography has been hampered by how to define trans historical figures, particularly so in the issue of whether people were trans or if they were passing as another gender for other reasons, such as avoiding being drafted into military service. Bisexual history has languished similarly due to the issue of how to consider historical figures who appeared to be bisexual – were they bisexual or were they gay and their opposite sex relationships a requirement of the society they lived in, or were such relationships genuine? This, of course, has implications for same-sex history: are historical figures being labelled as attracted only to the same sex or could they have been bisexual? While the lack of definitively knowing hampers any study of history, LGBT history particularly struggles.
Lesbian history has always struggled – even the term ‘lesbian’ to describe history has been considered by some to be a difficult descriptor. Some feel that lesbian refers to an identity that historically women would have not considered themselves to be. Sometimes the phrase ‘women who loved women’ has been used. Scholars such as Cook and Rich argued for the use of the term ‘lesbian’ to describe women who had relationships with other women. However other scholars prefer to avoid the term, arguing that lesbian as a concept did not exist, or that the term does not fit the historical reality of the women they are studying. Others have also argued that this term is too Western-centric. However, others have pointed out that terms such as queer are too broad and erase the specific experience of women. This issue on phrasing symbolises the difficulty that lesbian history has faced.
While there has been little debate about male homosexual history, lesbian history has been much more problematic. The existence of lesbian history has always been harder to find, just because as the history of women in general has been difficult to source because of the domination of men in the historical written word, lesbians have often been written out of history – even more so than heterosexual women who generally have been only featured when, relevant to men. Lesbian behaviour was less likely to be prosecuted than gay male behaviour (not that lesbians were not prosecuted but they were caught less often or in some cases the sheer idea of lesbianism was so alien that legislation did not exist) which also reduces the amount of source material available, although what does exist is important. Prior to the 19th century lesbian history is fragmented, although some lesbian historians, like Emma Donoghue, have criticised historians for failing to notice mentions of lesbians due their own heterocentrisim. Debates over whether female historical figures had romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other or whether they simply had close platonic friendships plague lesbian history. Many lesbian historians have pointed out that they themselves, and those that came before them who clearly were, and often identified, as lesbian have been described as ‘platonic’ yet that there are often signs of such romantic and/or sexual relationships. Anne Lister’s diaries are an example of this; when her diaries were originally deciphered some declared them a hoax because of their ‘explicitness’ and her frank understanding of her sexuality.
Most sources we do have on lesbian history focus predominantly on upper class women as they were the most able to record their own experiences. This can be frustrating for two reasons: women in the lower classes made up higher proportions of the general population and therefore are more likely to make up a significant proportion of lesbian women; and also that working class women traditionally had more opportunity to socialise with other women and without as much scrutiny. Upper class women were far more likely to have limited social circles and limited opportunity to be able to conduct affairs privately. Not only does this limit the amount of available knowledge it also means we miss out on knowing about working class lesbian subcultures and communities prior to the 19th and 20th centuries.
Oral history has been an important part of lesbian history and has provided a significant amount of source material, although this is mostly restricted to post 1920s, as lesbian oral history was not recorded until the 1970s and beyond. Along with sources such as zines and photography, archive groups in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to construct archives focused on the lesbian experience, such as the Lesbian Archive – now housed at the Glasgow Women’s Library–, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. Other regional archives exist as does archives holding either LGBT history as whole or feminist/women’s history.
So why is lesbian history so important to discover? Other than the general desire to uncover the past as much as possible, many lesbians find it important to connect to their forebearers and to demonstrate that their identity is legitimate and has existed for millennia. Lesbian erasure, historically and currently, is a major issue not just in society in general but also in the LGBT and feminist communities that claim to include and represent them. Erasure and ignorance of lesbian history helps exacerbate lesbian erasure. Many lesbians have been outspoken about society’s attempts to erase ‘lesbian’ as an identity, from claiming that ‘lesbian’ is exclusive or to that it doesn’t even exist – the tendency for some historians to deny lesbian history prior to the 19th century does just this.
LGBT history often focuses on gay men while feminist history often focuses on heterosexual women. The fact that lesbians have often been both at the forefront of social movements is often ignored, even within these movements, and despite their presence they have been later ostracised or written out of these histories. Therefore their lesbian identity has been paramount to them. This importance also highlights the need for lesbian history to be inclusive of all lesbians. Recent scholarship has aimed to not only focus on white middle-class women in western societies but to expand our knowledge of lesbian history and how the diversity of these women are how we can broaden our overall knowledge.