The History of “Lesbian” and Other Things

As Dakota said in his post (“The Fun of Reading Fun Home”), Fun Home has been my favorite book we have read so far. I’m not sure if it is the illustrations and how the characters are drawn, or how the story is not a strictly linear progression, or maybe all of the literary references. Bechdel also seems to have a unique relationship to words, seeing as there are a few panels that are just close-ups of a dictionary definition of words. These words (“eighty-sixed” on p. 106, “lesbian” on p. 74, and “queer” on p. 57) all have to do with her (or her father’s) sexuality and the consequence that came with having a sexuality that did not fit in with the heteronormative world. Because of Bechdel’s obvious fascination with words, I decided to do a little research into one of the words she chose to highlight in the memoir: lesbian.

The first recorded use of the word lesbian was in 1609 to describe a building on the island Lesbos, found in the northern part of the Grecian archipelago. The first ever use of the term lesbian (as an adjective) to describe women who were sexually attracted to women was in 1890 by John Shaw Billings in The National Medical Dictionary. The first recorded use of lesbian being used as a noun for women that are sexually attracted to women was in 1925 in a letter from Aldous Huxley. This is surprising seeing as the word “gay” (referring to homosexuals) wasn’t coined as a term until 1922. I have always thought that the slang form of “gay” has been around for ages, but the word “lesbian” was coined about 30 years prior.

Here are a few questions I’ve been pondering (sorry they don’t relate at all to my post):

  1. From “It’s a Wonderful Life” to The Great Gatsby, there are constant literary and cultural allusions sprinkled throughout the frames of this book. How do these allusions affect the narrative as well as the audience’s perception of the story thus far?
  2. Just like in Zami, the story is told from the perspective of only one person, and a very biased person at that. Because of this, how close do you think the narrative is to Alison Bechdel’s life? Does this tragicomic fit into the genre of “biomythography”? 
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One thought on “The History of “Lesbian” and Other Things

  1. I think I also mentioned in class before I vanished off the face of the earth after I brought my cat with me after the election that this too was my favorite book! I read it ahead of time and was totally immersed in the story. I loved the literary references as well and the word definitions. I can’t remember the name of the website, but there was a pseudo dictionary that contained mostly slang on the internet? It’s not the same as an actual dictionary, but I found myself relating to Allison in that I discovered more about my own sexuality as a child by looking up the definitions of predominantly “queer” verbiage online and discovering I could also be defined by those words.

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