Murderous urges: degrees of homophobia in the late 19th and early 20th century

In my work on representations of lesbians, or women who desire women, in Italian texts, I often come across homophobic, negative, comments. I am analysing these, reflecting on the possible motivations for this negativity and prejudice. Sometimes, even murderous desires towards lesbians are expressed. Today, several different terms are in use to decribe hostile reactions to homosexuality/LGBTQ identities. Homophobia, meaning literally the fear of homosexuals, has been supplemented by other terms, including homonegativity, meaning a negative view of, or reaction to homosexuality.  Acts that are often called ‘homophobic’, such as violence towards gays and lesbians, may be motivated by both impulses–both by a violent hatred of homosexuality, and by a fear of being ‘contaminated’ in some way by this homosexuality. This fear sometimes comes from a recognition, whether conscious or unconscious, of latent same-sex attraction by the perpetrator of this violence, who stamps on the person who is recognisable as homosexual in a misguided attempt to crush feelings that he or she doesn’t know how to, or doesn’t want to cope with.

Italian sexological texts written by Cesare Lombroso and others, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, certainly condemned women who desired other women. Lombroso’s study ‘La donna delinquente, la prostituta e la donna normale’, was first published in Italian in 1893. The most recent English translation is  ‘Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman’ (Duke University Press, 2004). Lombroso believed that women were naturally inferior to men and that a ‘normal’ woman had little or no sex drive. Therefore, prostitutes and tribades/sapphists (see my post on 19th century representations for explanations of the terminology) were all considered to be depraved as a matter of course.  Lombroso also ordered and was involved in surgical procedures to ‘control’ this apparently wayward sexuality, such as cauterising the clitorises of women who desired women. Yet despite this horrific practice, he didn’t express murderous urges towards these women. He even seemed to express some sympathy for certain of his cases; for example, towards women who turned to other women for comfort having been abused by men. This is clearly not an excuse for the surgical interventions he recommended or for the psychological damage he and his brand of sexology caused. Moreover, his sympathies lay only with women who had been victimised by men, not with those who had chosen a long term female partner out of spontaneous desire, for example. While women who had been abused deserved every support, so too did other tribades/sapphist/lesbians. Lombroso’s homophobia often expressed itself via a fear that homosexuality would ‘contaminate’ healthy society. He writes in near panic of how many lesbians there are, in Paris (of course–see my post on 19th century representations). They are said to be teeming all over the streets, ‘infecting’ girls and women in schools and prisons. This is a fear of lesbian contagion, which is problematic in its assumptions that lesbianism is a kind of disease, but also intriguing in what it tacitly admits: lots of women want to be lesbians and will turn to each other for pleasure if not prevented by the imposition of compulsory heterosexuality.

Conversely, in an Italian novel written in 1901 by Ciro Alvi, called ‘La vita nuova. Il culto del futuro’ [New Life. The Cult of the Future], we see overtly murderous urges towards women who are involved in a loving, sexual relationship with each other. Elsa and Lucia, both married to ailing , older men, fall rapturously into each other’s arms, and discover one kind of ‘new life’. The novel presents this as an inevitable conclusion to their situation. Their husbands are not able to satisfy them and they are both young, sensuous and beautiful so it is logical, almost ‘natural’ that they should end up together. Yet things take a nasty turn when Giovanni, Elsa’s husband, rages about these new, emancipated women who are dispensing with men altogether. In his murderous opinion, they should be killed. This is both homophobia and homonegativity, although it is  different to Lombroso’s reactions. Giovanni is afraid of losing his status and position as a man/husband, and disgusted by what he considers to be ‘unnatural’ acts. In the end, both Lucia and Elsa die: Lucia is killed by a male friend of Giovanni’s, carrying out his murderous wish, and Elsa dies in a fire in a political riot. The new life that Alvi really wants to promote in his novel is not ‘lesbianism for all’, whch so alarms the male characters, but a return to the ‘moral’ values of the heteronormative family (that has a few murderous impulses on the side). The novel sank more or less without trace, although Alvi himself was criticised by commentators for his overall lack of morals. Ironically, for many journalists and critics at this time, writing about same-sex desire from a homophobic and homonegative position was considered just as ‘immoral’ as attempting to portray it in a favourable light.

This is the only novel so far in which I have come across such overt, murderous rage against lesbian desire; however, lesbian characters do continue to die off in alarmingly high numbers, even (especially?) in novels written by feminist women authors, largely through suicide or illness. This is true even in novels published in the last few years. They develop fatal illnesses, die in car accidents, or even blow themselves up, in one instance. An author’s decision to ‘kill off’ the lesbian character can of course be a metaphor for the perceived impossibility of living a lesbian life in a heteronormative world.  This continuing trend makes me want to question the impact of so many novels that seem to be saying that lesbians are still destined to a life of melancholy, and cannot survive long in a hetero-patriarchal world. This is of course a different issue to the murderous urges expressed in Alvi’s novel, but might be perceived as a lesser degree of homonegativity to some extent.

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About Charlotte Ross

I'm a lecturer and researcher at the University of Birmingham, UK. My main interests are contemporary Italian culture, and gender and sexuality. My current project explores the representation of lesbian identities and desire between women in Italian novels and media, from 1870 to the present day.
This entry was posted in 19th century, Homo/Lesbophobia, Posts in English, Same-sex desire and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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