On lesbian (in)existence

Is it better to be a visible gay man in a homophobic society, who risks being subject to verbal and physical homophobic abuse, or to be a lesbian, who is effectively culturally, socially and politically invisible? This is the question posed by the makers of this mini documentary, ‘Le lesbiche non esistono’ [Lesbians don’t exist], by Satoshidoc, available here:

http://vimeo.com/34962107 (Italian version)

http://vimeo.com/38275559 (English version)

The motivation for this short film is a conviction that lesbians are still more ‘invisible’ than gay men in contemporary Italy. I would tend to agree; on balance, in the western world, gay men have historically been more culturally visible than lesbians, for several reasons. One reason is the legislation concerning same-sex acts. There is far more legislation criminalising sexual acts between men than between women, perhaps because anal penetration, which is (problematically) taken as representative of gay male sex, provokes more outrage among homophobic, normative publics than the idea of women engaging in sexual acts. Sexual acts between women are often presumed to be, or framed as, a performance to titillate male spectators (as in much mainstream pornography), and as such are perceived as unthreatening to the heteronormative model. Obviously, this scenario entails a series of problematic tensions and complexities, some of which are explored by Sue Jackson in an illuminating article (2009). An alternative view of sexual acts between women is that they are not really possible, or don’t really happen.  In the UK, Queen Victoria is allegedly supposed to have declared that ‘Women don’t do such things’, as a result of which male homosexuality was criminalised but no legislation was passed on female homosexuality. It is more probable that this legislative situation came about because the minister proposing the bill simply did not think to include female homosexuality, resulting in a situation in which lesbians are less discriminated against by law, but are not recognised as being capable or desirous of engaging in sexual acts. In Italy, a similar form of legislation was in place between 1860 and 1887, during which time same-sex acts between men were considered criminal but there was no legislation on same-sex acts between women. After 1887, however, while there was no longer any specific legislation in Italy forbidding homosexuality, all same-sex acts were prosecuted under laws protecting ‘moral decency’.

Further reasons why gay men may be more culturally visible than lesbians include the ways in which they have tended to socialise, and the greater socio-cultural privileges afforded to men than to women. As a rule, gay men have higher salaries than  lesbians, occupy more positions of public authority, and socialise in public venues such as restaurants and clubs more than lesbians, who tend to spend more time in the private sphere, at home or in friends’ houses (Rothenberg 1995). It is important to remember that while these trends bear out at a general level, they obviously don’t reflect the variegated character of society and should not be taken as a ‘norm’. There are out lesbian politicians (Ruth Davidson in Scotland; Paola Concia in Italy); there are lesbians who go clubbing regularly and engage in casual sex, and gay men whose dream is to be a stay at home Dad. However, even if these ‘exceptions’ to the rule may exist, sometimes they are just not seen by those around them. For example, while I was researching lesbian visibility in Turin (N. Italy) in 2006, some of the lesbians I spoke to recounted anecdotes that chime with the idea behind the mini-documentary ‘Le lesbiche non esistono’ [Lesbians don’t exist]. Some women I interviewed told me that unlike gay male friends who had, unfortunately, suffered homophobic abuse while leaving gay clubs, they felt relatively confident walking down the street hand in hand because they were simply not perceived as ‘lesbians’, and therefore didn’t attract abuse. There is a kind of freedom in this relative ‘invisibility’ that may, on occasion, have positive consequences in the short term; i.e. it is preferable not to be recognised as a lesbian if this means evading homophobic violence. However, scholars have argued that in the long term, socio-cultural and political recognition is vital to individual well-being. In her influential books ‘Gender Trouble’ (Routledge 1990) and ‘Undoing Gender’ (Routledge 2004), Judith Butler, drawing on the work of philosophers such as Louis Althusser, argues that  in order for a life to be liveable, in order for a person to feel that they exist and are part of society, they need to be recognised  by those around them. They need to be able to express their identities as they experience them, and this self-expression needs to be received and acknowledged. Imagine that your sexuality, and your perspective on the world, is repeatedly marginalised, or is simply absent from media representation, from political debates and from general conversation. The reasons for this may be because of homophobic taboos or because it doesn’t occur to ‘normal’ people that a person might not be heterosexual–itself a form of heteronormative censure. The result, in many cases, is that it is much more difficult to achieve a positive sense of self.

From a human rights perspective, lesbians, like all sexual dissidents (that is, people who don’t conform to the prevailing heterosexual norm), should be recognised as citizens who have a right to be protected from discrimination, and to enjoy the same privileges as other citizens (e.g. to register a life partnership). This means that increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people should not mean exposing them to increased homophobic abuse, but rather should enable them to live their identities openly and safely. Increased LGBTQ visibility should improve  awareness of the existence and needs of LGBTQ people, as well as of the important contributions that they make to social and cultural life.  Increased visibility, if accompanied by productive, engaging educational campaigns and robust legislation, and by the emergence of positive role models in the public eye or in positions of authority, can change attitudes. It can effect a paradigm shift. The pop star Tiziano Ferro recently came out on national Italian tv, becoming an instant gay-icon and role model. This is a positive development; however there is no equivalent Italian lesbian role model….or not yet.


Butler, Judith (1990), Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and London: Routledge

———— (2004), Undoing Gender. London: Routledge

Jackson, Sue (2009), `Hot Lesbians’: Young People’s Talk About Representations of Lesbianism. Sexualities, vol. 12, no. 2: 199-224

Ross Charlotte (2012). Queering Space in Turin. In  ‘Public and Private Spaces in Italian Culture’, ed Simona Storchi. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (forthcoming)

Rothenberg, Tamar (1995), Lesbians Creating Urban Social Space. In David Bell and Gill Valentine (eds) Mapping Desire. Geographies of Sexualities. London : Routledge : 165-81

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 Contemporary Italy, Homo/Lesbophobia, Posts in English and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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