A lot of our conversations on what archives can provide are often focused on what they don’t. We spend much of our time lamenting lost resources and hypothesizing what it would mean to actually have those resources available to us. And rightfully so. Those of us who have been historically marginalized (and still are) want to connect with some deeper, older culture to help us feel less alone, situate where we are now, and help us stay motivated to keep fighting for a better future. For me, my journeys through the LGBTQ archives that are available locally have been invaluable to my work as an organizer. What I’ve found there has helped me feel less hopeless and a lot more capable of organizing and sustaining resistance work. Because of this, I’ve recently been more dedicated to helping these archives grow, and I’ve been trying to be more grateful for what we do have available to us in archives. We can’t find everything we want, but if we look hard enough, we can find so much.
After reading Amelia Possanza’s debut hybrid memoir, Lesbian Love Story, that resolve has only become stronger. After an encounter with a male teammate on the gay swim team she just joined where he failed to recognize Possanza as a lesbian, she writes, “I was furious. I had always found both solace and freedom in the water, like many queer people before, and I was surprised he did not see how we shared this. How much could I blame him, though? If I had yet to find role models who could show me how to live, where would he have seen a lesbian?wp_postsIt’s this moment that really gives Possanza pause. There was so much information missing regarding the lives of women who loved other women, even in Possanza’s own understanding of history.
The idea for Possanza’s research was born out of this realization: “I vowed […] to scour libraries and archives and the street stalls of the internet to put together a record of everything that has been said, thought, fancied, and sung of Lesbians. I was certain that if I uncovered enough lesbians in history, they would reveal a message or a lesson, a blueprint of how I might build my own life. Lesbians, I suspected, would have something to teach us all about love.wp_postsPossanza dedicated herself to the archive, and as a result, found much more than she expected to find.
Through the story of seven lesbians from different decades of the twentieth century and one ancient lesbian romance, Possanza documents the friendships, partnerships, and love lives of women who have seemingly been forgotten (or purposely obscured) in our historical narratives while also giving us glimpses into the story of her life as queer woman from when she first recognized her attraction to women to her life right now. Aside from the story of Sappho and her lover Anactoria and the story of how Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga conceived and put together their famous anthology This Bridge Called My Back, I think a lot of the stories Possanza uncovered for this book will be unfamiliar to people — both queer and not queer — and that is part of what makes reading it so enthralling.
Possanza takes us from the early twentieth century romance of Mary Casal and her lover Juno, two women who used the concept of “romantic friendshipwp_poststo their advantage by “marryingwp_postseach other, to Mabel Hampton and Lillian Foster, two Black women from the South who moved north to New York City during the Great Migration, to the mid-century sports love story of Babe Didrikson Zaharias and her good “friendwp_postsBetty Dodd, a relationship that lasted until Babe’s death in her early 40s. In one of the chapters that was most surprising to me, Possanza also introduces us to Rusty Brown, a woman who not only defied traditional conventions of sexuality but also defied gender expectations. Brown spent her life “impersonatingwp_postsmen in order to get jobs that were usually reserved for men in the 1940s and 1950s, and finds love in the most unexpected way: by working for the U.S. Navy. In the final chapter of the book (and perhaps my favorite chapter), Possanza reminds us of the solidarity that was established between gay men and lesbians during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s through the story of Amy Hoffman and her friend Mike. This isn’t a love story in the same vein as some of the others, but it is the story of a deep and dedicated friendship between two people who loved each other dearly and trusted each other implicitly. Reading about the relationship between Amy and Mike immediately brought me back to how Possanza started the book: “Lesbians, I suspected, would have something to teach us all about love.wp_postsWith all of the stories showcased in Lesbian Love Story, she proves that’s true over and over again.
As you’re reading through the narrative Possanza was able to piece together and, sometimes, creatively fill in the missing pieces of the lives of these people, she also expertly weaves in the stories of her own life that have some relation to the stories she’s unearthed for us. Through the stories of these other women, we learn about Possanza’s struggles and successes in coming out, creating and sustaining relationships, and grappling with her gender and gender expression. It creates an interesting reflective effect where we see how Possanza’s own life experiences connect to the lives of the people in the book while also making us contemplate the ways we’re connected, as well. It serves as an introspective reminder about how much we owe to the people who came before us and how much we can learn from their example.
Right now, LGBTQ people are experiencing the kind of public and legislative condemnation, oppression, and backlash we haven’t received in quite some time, and it can sometimes feel like we’re never going to move forward from this. At the end of the book, Possanza writes:
“The lesbians I met had something else to teach me. They are tied together by more than a shared sexuality, a shared identity, or even a shared vision of romantic love. They are also bound together by their ability to create safe havens in even the most hostile circumstances, buried projects that were a direct response to the systems that tried to trap and trade women.wp_posts
In the cases of all of the people Possanza discusses in the book, the deck was stacked against them even more than we could possibly imagine in this moment and, yet, they chose consistently to live the lives they wanted to live even if they often had to take some detours to get there. We should learn from them and from the work Possanza has done in Lesbian Love Story. It’s important for us to gather all of the stories of the people who came before us in order to help fuel our fight against the people who want to push us out of existence.