doHi! My name’s Emma and I’m a Community Coordinator at the CCGSD, and a Master’s student in Public History studying 2SLGBTQ+ history, BIPOC community, and intersectional feminisms at Carleton University. I’m happy to share some educational booklets with you about women loving women in Canadian history!
Click the image below to read the full resource!
When studying queer history, I am still surprised by how rarely I encounter depictions of love. Historians, when looking backward, have to search far and wide for sources that mention queer and trans peoples. In a society working to exclude, erase, and marginalize queer and trans peoples, sources about their lives have not been as readily preserved.
Often the easiest sources to find are those that are institutional— maintained and archived by a new iteration of the same professional class that has been categorizing and labelling queer and trans peoples for centuries. The accessibility of institutional historical evidence—such as medical and legal records, newspapers, and magazines—has had a dual effect. On one hand, we have developed histories that situate queer peoples in an oppressive system and provide us with the knowledge to continue to combat this oppression today. I can easily find information about raids, riots, protests, and court cases. On the other hand, it is very difficult to find other queer and trans sources, and so the dominant language and narratives about queer and trans history have been defined by outsiders. This has perpetuated the quieting of self-defined, direct, and proud queer and trans voices. It has also resulted in the erasure of queer and trans love. This silence about queer experiences as more than just struggle is also compounded intersectionally. It is even more difficult to find these moments of love and intimacy for women, trans, racialized, and differently abled queer peoples. For those existing at multiple marginalized intersections, it is a complete rarity.
In an effort to present queer peoples as more than how they have been defined by the society they are working to reform, I created a collection of booklets about ‘romantic friendships.’ The booklet entitled, Romantic Friendships: Canadian 2SLGBTQ+ Women Loving Women,1880-1965, provides examples of women in Canada who might be considered part of the tradition and culture of ‘romantic friendships.’ Their letters, diaries, and photographs provide a rare look into the personal lives of queer women in the past. To this point, I relied heavily on Cameron Duder’s incredible book, Awfully Devoted Women: Lesbian Lives in Canada 1900-1965, that provides a roadmap of how to begin to understand the letters shared between women in the era of romantic friendships. In these letters, I found queer women in love. While their letters still employed and alluded to the language of psychology that policed queer peoples, I found that I was captivated by the small intimacies—from romantic, dramatic declarations of eternal love, to joyful, grateful moments of companionship, to implied sexual undertones—and I felt in some ways heard and represented.
Broadly, these booklets are about the ways queer women’s love has been (mis)labelled and (mis)understood throughout time. Even the term, ‘romantic friendships,’ demonstrates the dismissal of queer women’s love as friendship. Indeed, patriarchal and oppressive views of women believed them to be incapable of sexual desire and so queer women’s relationships were initially seen as innocent. During the early 20th century, when sexologists developed a lexicon to describe, pinpoint, and ultimately target queer and trans peoples, romantic friendships became heavily policed. Any mention of physical attraction and desire, or use of this psychological lexicon, could result in women being considered ‘afflicted,’ ‘ill,’ or ‘abnormal.’ In this era, queerness became pathological and threatening to a new degree, and queer women in love were increasingly seen as a menace to heteronormative and heterosexist society. Queer women’s relationships have been subject to voyeurism, dismissal, suppression, and as scholar Lilian Faderman describes, speculation about “the “true meaning” of a woman’s love for other [women].” These guessing games about past queer identity, and the reluctance to label past women as being in love, contributes to the erasure of their history.
Yet, when reading the letters shared, observing the moments photographed, and glimpsing just some of the overwhelming desire and emotion, I believe it is a greater leap to assume that these women were not in love.