Introduction to the portal launch in November 2005:

"Lesbian desire is everywhere,
even as it may be nowhere"
(Martha Vicinus)

"Every social group needs access to its own history. Knowledge of our past gives us a cultural roots and a heritage with models and experiences to learn from and emulate or choose not to follow. Lesbians have been deprived of virtually all knowledge of our past. This is deliberate since it keeps us invisible, isolated and powerless. [...] the suppression of lesbianism extends beyond the control of contemporary images and information to include control of historical knowledge [...]."2

Contemporary urban LGBT/queer/transgender cultural practices prematurely evokes increased visibility and acceptance of lesbian lives but even today many lesbians live closeted lives, are invisible and isolated. Equally, contemporary visibility implies social knowledge of lesbian and transgender histories which is hardly existing. Histories of lesbians remain "patchy" – not only in German speaking areas. In addition, very few lesbians from history are represented on the internet despite various cyber-encyclopaedias.

Lesbian histories remain "unthinkable, silent, invisible" – as Valerie Traub has provocatively proposes as being a "critical cliché" about the "presence of lesbianism".3

With this online project we want to contribute to critically inscribing lesbians into history and making women-loving-women in history with their individual as well as collective life stories and contexts. The online project lesbian history aims to present historical and contemporary visibility and sees itself as part of the resistance against de-historicising lesbian existences and activities.

To us, the (de)construction of history is crucial to the culture of memorising, historical learning and the possibility, albeit not forced necessity, for positive historical identifications as well as departures. The title Lesbian History may be surprising to some: on the one hand, the term is disputed in the age of deconstructing identity categories such as "lesbian" and, on the other hand, the historical use of "lesbian" is contested originating, as the term does, in 1970s politics. There are justified concerns that the application of a term serves to consolidate identities, and thus ends up prescribing what a lesbian ‘is’ and consequently simplifies or distorts historical developments.

However, we do not presume that the application of the term lesbian necessitates lesbian identity, produces simple continuities, excludes historicism and developments, simply maps (post)modernity onto history, negates differentiated concepts of desire between women or in other ways not (re)constructs history in a differentiated way.4 Such a problematisation is part of a methodology and representation and not of the term itself.

We thus use the label lesbian history as a political tool to include non-heterosexual experiences and personal, but also political life choices of women (including passing women/transgender) in history. This seems continuously important as the writing of history, including feminist historicising not just mainstream, implicitly or explicitly assumes that women in history lived heterosexual lives.

We rely on the theorisation of "lesbian-like" (Judith M. Bennett), a construction which renders visible lesbians in history and, at the same time, destabilises the fixity of the category lesbian. Instabilities can be playfully and constructively used. Lesbian-like emphasises the activity rather than identity, the life style not the person. Lesbian-like does not exclusively denote sexuality but also behaviour, affection and singleness so that women's history can be reformed through this "shock therapy" in perspective and knowledge and enriched by lesbian-like history.5

The evidently incomplete list of denominations of lesbians in the introduction of this website and the connected debates illustrate merely one aspect of German-speaking lesbian history.

To begin with this (no budget!) online project we put the historical emphasis on biographical sketches of lesbian history in the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century in the geographical area of Germany. This focus can and will be extended on the website.

In particular we wish to present three women who were engaged in lesbian politics:

Johanna Elberskirchen (1864-1943), Theo Anna Sprüngli alias Anna Th. Rüling (1880-1953) and Emma (Külz-)Trosse (1863-1949). These three women/publishers were not only historically significant for Germany, but represent lesbian and generally homosexual emancipation in the context of sexual reform and sexology. The sexological construction of "the homosexual", which developed since the end of the nineteenth century in German speaking areas, was also widespread in other countries. Women participated in these discourses in the beginning of the twentieth century and thereby influenced (directly and indirectly) conceptions, political discussions and (often individual) struggles of lesbians in various regions and countries.

The live histories of these three white women should, however, not be presented without their partly ambivalent, contradictory and politically problematic thinking, publications and activities in the context of eugenics and racial hygiene, nationalism, militarism or colonialism. Aside from biographical sketches of individual women who lived or live in women-focused contexts and/or were active in lesbian/gay politics we have a second focus on the history of lesbians in German speaking films. A lesbian film chronicle, a film list as well as graphics on the quantity of lesbian-like in film can be found on the website.

In addition, further texts on local lesbian histories, documentation and images about remembering & commemorating of historical lesbians, chronicles for perusing and researching, literature lists for downloading and a collection of history-related links can be found on the web.

We are grateful to Claudia Schoppmann and Regula Schnurrenberger for having made available portraits of lesbian women and for their thoughtful comments.

Although we initially planned lesbianhistory.de to be accessible as we thought it to be politically important we couldn't find a web designer who would encode such a complex site without charge. It is important to us to eventually create easy access of the website, particularly for those readers who are already structurally excluded from conventional knowledge - so bear with us!

For visually impaired readers we offer the following at the moment: German and English texts can be sent to you as text documents and/or audio files upon demand. Should you be able to create easy access for this site and want to offer this please contact us.

We would like to thank the 28 women who until now – in solidarity and free of charge! – have translated the online project in eight different languages!

In addition, we want to issue a big thank you to all 13 sponsors from Bonn and Cologne who have helped to - at least partially - fund the webdesign and the provider costs of the website! We want to thank Nika Schwab (Pro-Me-Dia) for the tireless adoption of our wishes for the design and for her solidarity.

We want to welcome comments and suggestions, texts and translations, praise and critique by email to our contact or in the forum. We wish everyone an entertaining, captivating and inspirational read.

Lesbian-feminist greetings from Bonn and Berlin.

Ingeborg Boxhammer and Christiane Leidinger
Natalia Gerodetti (Translation, Genf/Lausanne/Leeds 2005)

© November 2005

[1] Vicinus, Martha: "They wonder to which sex I belong". The Historical Roots of the Modern Lesbian Identity. In: Feminist Studies 3/1992, 467-497, hier: 468. Übersetzt: "Lesbisches Begehren ist überall, selbst wenn es nirgendwo sichtbar wird".
[2] Lesbian History Group: ...und sie liebten sich doch. Lesbische Frauen in der Geschichte 1840-1985. Göttingen: Daphne 1991, 2f. [Orig.: Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History, 1840-1985. London: The Women's Press 1989].
[3] Traub, Valerie: The Rewards of Lesbian History (Review Essay). In: Feminist Studies 2/1999, 363-394, hier: 363.
[4] For a discussion see: Steidele, Angela: "Als wenn Du mein Geliebter wärest". Liebe und Begehren zwischen Frauen in der deutschsprachigen Literatur 1750-1850. Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler 2003, 22; Micheler, Stefan: Selbstbilder und Fremdbilder der 'Anderen'. Männer begehrende Männer in der Weimarer Republik und der NS-Zeit. Konstanz: UVK 2005, 49-51.
[5] Bennett, Judith M.: "Lesbian-Like" and Social History of Lesbianism. In: Journal of the History of Sexuality 1/2/2000, 1-24, see particularly p. 11f.; 13f.; 16f.; 24.