The New Lesbian Subtext

Sarah Fonseca
18 min readFeb 13, 2021

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All my experience concerning masturbation in little girls has related to the clitoris and not to the regions of the external genitalia that are important in later sexual functioning. I am even doubtful whether a female child can be led by the influence of seduction to anything other than clitoridal masturbation.

Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, Sigmund Freud, 1905

I.

What I ultimately want is something that a ledger bodaciously named “Lesbian Herstory Archives” cannot quite provide; something I crave more from a place of precariousness than privilege, though soliciting it always makes me sweat, as though I am asking for too much: I want a shared womanhood or a lesbianism that is not quite in full view; to others or even, at first glance, ourselves. A critical part of knowing myself is looking for the self I think I am; for seeking out a subject and observing whether or not she, they, or he will mold nicely to my body’s lens. If anything about me is unrelentingly ‘lesbian,’ it’s this discreet yet harried way of looking — I am Shirley MacLaine’s Martha Dobie stealing furtive glances at Audrey Hepburn’s Karen Wright in The Children’s Hour (dir. William Wyler, 1961), even as the boarding school ecosystem around them implodes. I am Shelley Winters’ Hollywood agent in Blake Edwards’ farce S.O.B. (1981), sizing women up one way by day and another by night. I am Leliani Sarelle’s Roxy “Rocky” Hardy in Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1992), dying tragically as I avenge my lover who never really needed saving.

All this to say, I stand a far better chance of locating my ancestors when they have not been predetermined for me. There is a private, psychic journey to which we are all entitled when daring to seek out family. It may entail prayer candles, an Ouija Board seance, tarot cards, a dead relative’s St. Christopher medallion, three shots of vodka and a dance floor, a leather mommy, a Google Search query at 3 AM, or eight consecutive hours spent in a repertory cinema. In simpler times, these territories that encouraged such movement were readily available.

II.

No one has probed the Lesbian Herstory Archives to helm a gripping vérité on Naomi Replansky and Eva Kollish, two centunigenarian New York writers with a thousand lives lived between them; nor has Anjelica Huston requested to adapt the unpublished Dorothy Allison’s manuscript hidden within; Gus Van Sant has yet to probe files on Beth Elliott, the trans woman who led a storied lesbian activist collective in San Francisco in the 1970s, for a new biopic. Though there are no concrete reasons for why the Archives have not informed the sculpting of culture, apart from sexism, homophobia, and the limitations of the archive with ‘lesbian’ in its name. And though those may be extremely valid causes, I have already seen the ugly forms that sexism and homophobia can take in cinema and beyond; likewise, much has already been written about the lesbian object of film and fetish. Inevitably, sexism and homophobia are ailments of the patriarchal, white supremacist society in which we now live; not lesbians themselves. Dismantling our political device requires more than these words. But the latter dilemma — that of labels and categorization — is of much greater interest. This one, at least, can be resolved with more immediacy.

III.

In her 2016 essay “Making Lesbian History Possible: A Proposal,” the author Sarah Schulman observes a parallel phenomenon: the lack of attention paid to women’s queerness in books that, by all accounts, were drafted with well-endowed institutional support. Accessing Lesbian Herstory Archives — with its come-as-you-are policy and community center ethos — should be an effortless endeavor; all the more reason for the anecdotes within the Archives to appear in such prominent biographies. But researchers seem wary of touching lesbian identity and its artifacts when their subjects did not, or refused to, self-proclaim themselves as such.

“The current cataloguing system has become obstructive,” Schulman writes matter-of-factly. “The focus on what categories mean, and why we do or do not want to be in them, has brought some essential documentation and grappling with historic events, emotions, and actions to a screeching halt. For lesbian history in particular, there are so many reasons to abandon ship.”

It is the halt of which Schulman writes that impacts my more or less lesbian body as sharply as it does arts and letters. At some point in young adulthood, after years of sharp change and pointed desire, there was suddenly nothing else to study about myself despite my interest in doing so — or rather, nothing that those who identified as lesbians seemed to be able to teach me. I plateaued. I am referring to sex as much as I am conversations that roar like bonfires. In part, this motivated my turn to film. At least when Lauren Bacall slinks across the screen to greet the artistic ingénue who has fallen under her femme fatale’s spell in Young Man with a Horn (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1950), my questions about being a dyke — and particularly the bleak ones — are readily indulged. “What is a girl to do when the world she best suits just doesn’t fit?” I ask. “She dons her Milo Anderson gown and flees to Paris with her lover,” Bacall’s Amy North responds slyly. Such off-screen dialogues have kept me intact.

While sensitively acknowledging the struggles that generations past have faced to openly self-categorize as lesbians, Schulman, herself a lesbian who proved her salt as a writer and activist during the AIDS crisis, does something remarkable. Stressing the importance of observing lesbianism not by how individuals identify or resist identification — but instead by how our bodies move in and out of proximity to other women — she offers a suggestion that would surely make Deb Edel and Joan Nestle’s hairs stand on end: put the lesbian to bed.

“I would like to make a radical proposal: that we temporarily forget about who calls themselves a lesbian; why, or why not. Instead, I propose that we look into the emotional, psychological, economic, political, intellectual, artistic, sexual, daily and lifelong experiences of women who allowed or refused the embrace,” Schulman writes, listing off a roster of rich interactions and suggested embodied biographical anecdotes for researchers to consider, including orgasms realized/failed/imagined/remembered.

IV.

In 2016, patronizing Lesbian Herstory Archive’s Winter Book Sale was as much of a commitment to community that I could muster. I was even fortunate to rise early enough to have my pick of the literature litter. Despite its chaos, its endless piles and files of unsorted lesbian effluvia, the Archives runs a tight ship in certain ways. While interning there in my twenties in a futile attempt to find home sweet home, I signed my own death certificate when a veteran Archivette discovered me cluelessly shoving a 30 year-old dyke separatist manifesto into a printer tray for copying. Likewise, the Winter Book Sale’s most-prized offerings — lesbian pulp novels from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s — are confined to a closely-guarded 1930s French peasant dining table in its central meeting area. In 1973, the founders purchased the potluck staple for $30 from a furniture store on Atlantic Avenue. In a recent email exchange with Joan Nestle, I inquired whether the table was purchased from the Attaras’ Clinton House Furniture. I explained that the family once lived in the brownstone that is now the Archives. The table is the portal between these worlds.

Joan could not say for certain, though she hoped that was the case.

“Let it be so!” she replied. In the wishful thinking, there was a glimmer of the imaginary, of shared lineage.

The day of the Book Sale, I was quietly appraised by elder Archivettes who, seated at that very table, were tasked with managing legal tender and preventing casual theft of the priceless. I ran my fingers over the pulps’ frail spines and eyed the colorful covers instead of the milky, bespectacled eyes that were boring into me; the Archivettes were more mothers with whom I would be unable to connect as well as I’d like. It pained me to accept this fate. It felt like self-abandonment; refutation of a bloodline that not only claimed me, but welcomed me with open arms.

I wondered whether the copies of Women Without Men (1957) and Carol in a Thousand Cities (1960) I selected for purchase originated from the Archivettes’ own shelves; pulled down in a pinch to keep the Archives modestly afloat. I thanked them for sharing as I paid. I really meant it. There was a tip jar on the table. I left my change.

V.

While two midcentury pulps for under $25 in New York City is quite the steal, the strange fantasy they propagated was not directly tied to them; something under wraps, invisible to everyone but myself. “Lesbians give each other meaning in private, and it is too easy to keep the secret,” Schulman writes. While I enjoy the labor of secret-finding and secret-keeping, I do not particularly fancy the burden of it all; the secret that I lack the ability to emit in a hushed whisper for lack of language. Or the secret that shouldn’t really even be a secret. Or, the biggest affront: the secret that is concealed so well that it is mistaken for assimilation into and effortless navigation of the mainstream. Even if I desired to be widely seen and heard, I would not be. There are too many rough edges and fluctuations within my own deviate body to ever bother pondering my mass appeal. Good riddens.

On the subway ride to my apartment from the Archives, I lost myself in Women Without Men’s purpled cover. Edited by Alex Austin, the collection contains critically-acclaimed musings on mad modern women and their vices — prostitution (check), avid nudity (check), sacrificing of one’s body on a pagan alter for love (close, but no check). The pocket-sized anthology includes shorts and excerpted works by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dorothy Parker, and John Steinbeck, among others. The first edition I held in my hands featured three versions of the same watercolor redhead, facing east, west, and forward. The woman that faced the reader, less hysterical than the rest, was foregrounded. Still, she remained fractured; a super ego with ego and id in tow. Good company. In this caricature of a woman in pieces, I found myself thinking about my cock. It was not the first time.

VI.

My problems began with Buck Angel. Several years earlier, with the help of Perfect Fit, a Florida-based sexual health aids and sex toys company, Angel had devised and patented the the Buck-Off Buck Angel FTM Stroker, a matte black silicone blend masturbator for tran guys. Gently contoured to resemble a penis, it features snug interior ridges for hugging one’s t-cock. The Fleshlight of porn magazine classifieds infamy had come home to roost in queer community. With a height of 2.5 inches and a diameter of 1.75, there was no way in hell I could use the thing. I did not feel slighted; I felt happy for friends who would be immediate beneficiaries of Angel’s persistent extroversion.

But then, that month, came the KissX.

A smaller variation on the Buck-Off, this newly-minted object was designed with trans men who hadn’t begun HRT (and those who were beginning it) in mind. “A smaller hole for people with smaller parts,” the marketing copy read. The box, following the same Axe-meets-Meineke style guide of the Buck-Off, employed shorthand: FTM/clitoral stimulator. Though I found the package grating, the package-in-the-package seemed enticing. A cock of one’s own! But I soon grew embittered. I could not comprehend how or why it took trans men to devise an simple erotic accessory for which I, a lesbian — one among billions that have roamed the earth on our knuckles like a figure in a Mary Oliver poem — have always yearned.

I became furious with our lack of imagination.

The subway cut an erratic path around Brooklyn, unlike its usual straight shot from Atlantic Avenue to 59th Street. Unknown to me at the time, Gary Ross’ schmaltzy Ocean’s 8 (2018) was being filmed along the line. Somewhere in the stalled train carriage causing so much transit grievance in Brooklyn sat the actresses Sarah Paulson and Cate Blanchett, reunited in the name of cinema for the first time since Haynes’ Carol (2015). Between Ocean’s 8 and forthcoming titles like Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman, it felt like Hollywood was really beginning to take a chance on women in action films again, regardless of how tame or untoward the end product. In the future, the girls would have glocks, lassos, and roundhouse kicks; a welcome mélange. They would get to make use of their bodies.

Life was imitating art. The self-indulgent epiphanies were following liberal feminist film trends. I soured, staring at my reflection in a window opposite me until my eyes perceived nothing.

After my silent tirade against lesbians, I lashed out at trans men a bit for not thinking of me, of us, of gay girls who might want to jerk off, Buck-Off, Kiss-off, or whatever it was. Why not betray the fallacious lines between the L, G, B, and T and bray, “Hey, the dykes love this shit, too!” I quieted down what was already muted when I found myself becoming annoyed by not being on the receiving end of such celebratory marketing, no matter how gauche. When would capitalism’s ho-hum pander to the one part of my body that I continue to feel is a red-blooded, tragically all-American cock?

It was too much belligerence. Even for me.

VII.

A toy is just a miniaturized version of the real thing; an object for a child who lacks one. That notwithstanding, I would still like the opportunity to play. Dolls, for example, are vague characters onto which, in our tenderest moments, we frequently thrust our deepest yearnings and newest learnings.

Dolls are important. What we ask of our dolls in childhood is important. Though inanimate, they can and do deliver on our silently-mouthed wishes. In spring 2020, a photo of a Serbian doll surfaced online, creating the usual stir among the reactionary parties strongly in favor of and opposed to transgender liberation. In her, I found a kindred spirit. I too am trapped between strict dualities of representation that do not apply to me. And I too inadvertently create a scandal when I humbly convey my existence. No more than five inches tall, the doll possesses a cherub’s smirk, blonde ponytail complete with bangs, holiday-tanned skin, and a dress that conjures the lyrics to Brian Hyland’s 1960 one-hit wonder, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.” As does what resides beneath it. The doll has a penis and scrotum; a far smaller package than a human clitoris. Swiftly labeled “the world’s first transgender doll,” the toy’s added features, though minor, became the focus of all commentary. An object, we learned, could be a replacement punching bag for those who, until very recent years, have been able to indiscriminately make trans people the targets of their might. “All they have to do is buy a medical tool kit and the kid can learn how to amputate,” one commenter on a tabloid site remarked.

Whether this person with a keyboard was referring to the presumed dysphoria of a trans child or the sadism of the cis child who has been prematurely corrupted by parenting is irrelevant; the amputation had already been done a year prior by Mattel. Presently floundering, the American company that made its initial fortune on the toys that define the department store gender gulag — American Girl, Hot Wheels, and Polly Pocket among them — released what would be touted as “the world’s first gender neutral doll.” The slippery slope of gender neutrality, when supported by capital, leads to sculptures like the Gay Liberation Monument on Christopher Street, its colorless, underdefined lesbian couple conversing like colleagues; films like Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019), where Kaitlyn Dever’s serious lesbian can’t find a worldy, slutty Harriet Sohmers Zwerling type to shut her up; musicals like Diablo Cody’s Jagged Little Pill, which somehow only succeeds in draining the angst from Alanis Morissette’s complex anthology of broken girl anthems that have healed so many. In the purview of gender neutrality, which presumes gender and genitals are both related and not, there is so little friction or culture.

Most of us, be we children or adults, cis or not, don’t want to be wholly void of genitalia. One simply wants theirs to work in their favor. Fortunately, there are many ways of meeting that need — and many which have yet to be, and must be, imagined.

Though replete with a wardrobe encompassing varying gender performances, this Barbie had a problem. The doll had no penis, scrotom, vulva, or any identifiable primary or secondary sex characteristics at all. Hence the classically beautiful androgyny and sartorial options that sufficiently distract consumers from the troubled ‘gender neutral’ designation. It seems, in the effort to preemptively avoid the sort of scandal that would befall the Serbian design one year later, the company opted to avoid the problem of genitals entirely. But genitals, for better or for worse, and with or without parental injunction, are something we furiously observe in childhood. We can love them, hate them, or find some other path through our uneasiness with them for which there is no common tongue. But it does not stop them from, in some divine form or another, existing.

VIII.

As for what truly constitutes a ‘first’ trans and/or gender neutral doll: there is no telling. Dolls predate this language, and language of dolls predates this language. Though in 1948, the doll historian Eleanor St. George offered a comforting reminder: always look back, and look back closely, first. In her chapter book The Dolls of Yesterday, St. George covers a wide swath of doll history, from the first rudimentary caricatures to the dolls of Dresden. She even makes an attempt at delineating dolls of color. What is meaningful here is not the language to which the author is limited to in the year that Truman defeated Dewey, but that she uses it and that we have it today. Rather, St. George’s grievances are almost pardonable because she is quick to own her ignorance.

In a chapter entirely devoted to such opaque places titled “Three Mystery Dolls,” she writes, “There is SO very much that we do not know about the history of old dolls and their makers, and which we have little means of discovering, that many types may remain subjects of conjecture only. To make positive statements about such dolls is only to give rise to further confusion.”

We do not know the origins of our peculiar cosmos. But we do know it is infinite. And we do know that our bodies, in some ceramic or polyvinyl chloride or flesh shape or another, have always been here.

IX.

In 1905, Sigmund Freud outlined his much-mocked and -critiqued penis envy theory in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. While the little boy presumes the little girl to have a penis of her own, Freud asserted, the little girl observes the little boy’s penis and struggles to accept the absence of her own; feminine neuroses ensue. What interests me more than whether penis envy exists is the tender, pre-Oedipal moment Freud alludes to — just before penis envy strikes — where there already exists a ‘contradiction’ between the name of the genital the girl imagines and the name of the genital present. Only the nudity of the opposite sex, he wrote, could shatter that phantasy. Before the age of six, in the throes of the phallic stage, I was permitted to have my penis. For a flash in the pan, the cigar really was just a cigar. “It is of little use to the child that the science of biology justifies his prejudice and has been obliged to recognize the female clitoris as a true substitute for the penis,” Freud wrote.

I too was, for a moment, blissfully ignorant.

This is the cruel joke often played upon the girl by the world. She is so confident in her body that she needn’t even think of it; yet this experience of being intact will be so fleeting, too swift to truly relish. The preconscious bellows and the unconscious goes silent; the superego represses and the id retreats. Per Freud, the girl rebels, taking her mother in her teeth and her father between her thighs in her mind. Then, exiting this Oedipal stage, she prioritizes her vagina and becomes a woman.

Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) begins with fragments of glass cascading across the screen. Sharon Stone plays Catherine Tramell, a bisexual suspense author whose parents and lover have died under grisly and mysterious circumstances, sets her sights on the leering Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) for a lethal game of cat-and-mouse. Catherine, presumably in throes of Oedipal girlhood, has made an object choice: an ice pick, long and sharp; the presumed murder weapon in her Tommy Lee Jones of a lover’s demise. “Stone has her willy-substitute, the ice-pick — her rage is driven by the worst case of penis envy,” quipped the gay entertainment critic John Lyttle in 1994.

In a favorite scene, Catherine toys with Nick, chipping ice cubes for cocktails in her glass house in the California hills. The detective observes her in the background, wary yet aroused. Her penis envy is his deadliest pleasure. By the film’s climax, Catherine and Nick tousle about in bed. As they fuck, just out of sight under the author’s bed frame rests her pick, her prick; ostensibly now discarded in favor of womanhood. Or not. It is quite possible that Catherine is just a latent pre-Oedipal girl. But Freud neither observed or addressed the pre-Oedipal girl who is slow to arrive, or fails to arrive, at womanhood; the ones of us who dig in our heels, fold our primate arms across our flat chests, and refuse to budge. The pre-Oedipal girl is a relative of the phallic mother of literary criticism, the “femme fatale-like figure” or “mythical character that has all of the gendered qualities of a beautiful woman and a powerful man.”

Despite the cultural memory of this neo-noir being largely based on an interrogation scene where Catherine crosses and uncrosses her legs sans panties in a room full of libidinous detectives, there has been so little looking. Her vulva isn’t all that we see; we also see her clitoris. It is substantive; “a true substitute for a penis.” In this space of weaponized femininity and manipulation, Catherine could’ve just as easily been flashing the dicks her cock. The gesture still says the same two words, no matter the reading: fuck you.

X.

I have always had a cock. What I’ve lacked is the space to talk about it; the closed eyes and familiar nod of understanding, so innate to lesbian connectivity, proves elusive. It was not that my vagina did not matter; it was merely a lady-in-waiting for whom I held little interest. I first achieved orgasm in my teens while atop a body pillow, hips kipping inward. I would repeat the gesture in the dead of night until my face and hands purpled. When I filmed myself masturbating at 21 with the intention of sending it to my first girlfriend, I blanched while rewatching: hair bundled up, breasts buried into my pillow object, pelvis bucking, and hands free, I — for lack of better language at the time, and not much better language now — resembled a boy.

Like the phallic woman, the latent pre-Oedipal girl frequently, in my experience, somewhat resembles a boy.

My failures became more evident when I began a dalliance with FtM pornography that conveniently coincided with its explosion. The pictures were grainy, often shot on film. Guys like Buck Angel, Billy Castro, and James Darling were confidently making unprecedented images in San Francisco apartments like it was the pre-AIDS glory days of Falcon Studios; their stage names could effortlessly blend into Falcon’s roster of gay porn icons like T.J. Hawke, Chase Hunter, and Eric Stone.

Despite the body being important — these male bodies that somewhat resembled mine below the ribs, whose owners often freely referred to them with the filthy language of womanhood (cunt, pussy) — what did me in was how they moved; how they touched themselves in a manner in which I had never been touched by another and was only just beginning to touch myself. If I did indeed develop penis envy, and if I did project it onto anyone, it was not the cis guys I’d seen nude time and time again: it was these generous men. If I was jealous of anything, it was not their phallic size, but their confidence in applying hand to body. Why hadn’t I been told this was possible? The stroking, thrusting, ruthless tugging. Some of those motions came naturally with time. Others I flee and return to, flee and return to, flee and return to, my country girl ego repressing my city girl id. To lick my fingers, grab myself, and pull still remains terrifying — I always fear pain, reprimand, the irrational thought of being walked in on — by whom? — while alone with myself.

Despite this tension, I remain a lesbian. Thus, the supporting stars of guerrilla and amateur FtM porn are just as enticing as their subjects. Here, there are girlfriends — cis, trans, pre-Oedipal — who delight in indulging in, at lightest, phantasy, and at most intense, gender affirmation and catharsis. In a video on PornHub possessing no identifying details, a trans man comes. But his lover is the one to moan the loudest, lips wrapped around him, cheeks concave as she draws him in a final time.

In PornHub user transman513’s smartphone video “Trans getting Head,” a woman hovers over a prone 513. Her hands, manicured long and red with golden accent nails, roam between his legs. First she rubs, revealing the bulge. She takes his wet length, between her thumb and index fingers, stroking. Apart from 513’s declaration that his girl has made him hard, she is the one who coordinates the corporeal scene: she ascertains the nexus of desire. When she, gradually, begins pushing to reveal his tip, she asks: Do you like it outside or on the inside better? He, perhaps not certain himself, doesn’t respond. Pull it back. Now you can see it hard. Pull it back and watch it pop out. It’s hard now. There’s your shaft under here. You feel that?

As with the Archives, I thanked them for sharing as I paid. I really meant it. There was a ‘tip’ button on transman513’s PornHub page. I left my change.

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Sarah Fonseca

Periodic diary-style musings on the arts, homosexual culture, & the outhouse poverty class. sarahfonseca.com.