How do lesbians read?

How do Lesbians Read?

© Nicki Hastie

Previously unpublished article written in 1994. This is a fun article I wrote while I was heavily embroiled in doctoral research on the subject of lesbian fiction and communities of readers. For a more scholarly approach, see sample files from that unfinished PhD.

If you are quoting from or printing parts of this page, please give full acknowledgement and reference as: Nicki Hastie (1994) How do Lesbians Read? [WWW] http://nickihastie.co.uk/my-writing/articles/how-do-lesbians-read (add date you visited this page)


You may think that an article about lesbians and our reading habits would ask “What do lesbians read?” I’m interested in this too, but just think for a minute – if you haven’t already asked yourself how you read, you may want to take a closer look at yourself (and others, perhaps) after reading this. And I’m not talking about how you learned your ABC…

Those who know me well are probably aware of my passion for libraries and bookshops. I’ll admit I can sometimes get a little carried away. Looking through The Pink Paper personals with my partner the other week, I cried out excitedly when I thought I’d found another dyke after my own heart, only to realise my mistake. I’d focused in on the word “reading” in the ad, but she meant she lived in Reading. No good. It’s quite possibly a fetish all this, but at least a very “serious pleasure”. And I am being reminded more and more frequently that it’s a pleasure closely allied with “dyke-spotting”.

I’m not alone in celebrating libraries and bookshops (as well as the books they house, of course) for their contribution to lesbian culture. Stories sometimes told by lesbians to explain our sense of development as lesbian include visits to the library to look up the “L”-word, or to seek out a particular book. Often this is Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. You probably have your own story. I’ve noticed similar journeys to libraries or bookshops repeated in fiction and film, so (hopefully) lesbians should now find a wide range of “L”-references on the shelves.

Recently, I wanted to gain some views on the range of lesbian material available and was lucky enough to interview a number of lesbians about their reading habits. You see, I don’t mind playing voyeur to someone else’s library and bookshop use once in a while. And that’s when I discovered that I don’t stand alone on this issue either. Subtle, and not-so-subtle allusions to that voyeuristic, but frequently reciprocal, practice of dyke-spotting (you spot while being spotted) began to creep into my research. Not content with “cruising” the aisles for literary lesbians, some women betrayed their interest in the more animate variety. One woman affirmed that the relatively new section of Virago books in her local library was an important development because “you often see other dykes looking for books around there.” And “Lesbian Sections” in bookshops, especially Silver Moon’s new “bigger-sized” “Lesbian Department”, were favoured, at least partly, for the potential accumulation of dykes at these sites.

Do these findings suggest that the bookshop has taken over from the bar as the dyke’s new “cruising-ground”? And what, then, are the implications? The phrase “going on a shopping expedition” has been given a whole new meaning for me. Perhaps lesbian fiction is even more commercial than some already believe it to be. There are certainly some questions to consider about relations between lesbians and consumer culture if, for example, lesbian romance fiction is not available on the shelves to be taken away and read at one’s leisure, but to be used then and there in the shop as an excuse, an aid to the “real thing”. When did you last enter a bookshop? And why? Will you be able to act so innocently next time you stand before the bookshelves? How do you perceive the range of “L”-material now?

The question “How do lesbians read?” is a pertinent one. We make many different “readings”, and uses, of cultural production. A lesbian doesn’t have to want to read (in the conventional sense of opening a book and turning its pages) the books in the lesbian sections in order to use them to help her engage in lesbian culture. She is a reader of signs, of cultural spaces. Sometimes the fact that she knows these literary or cultural reference points exist is enough to “spot” her, or for her to “spot” another.

Books(hops) encourage a multitude of social encounters.

Recent Posts

What does your love look like?

We stand with Orlando ribbonSo here I am – driven to leave my quiet-ish hiding place (of late) and send some comments out into the world. It’s hard to have anything new or powerful enough to say about the atrocity in Orlando, FL, USA this weekend, but I must register my voice of grief, outrage, solidarity and connection with LGBT+ communities and allies everywhere. My thoughts are with all those who have been affected directly through the loss and injury of loved ones, and through the weight of being witness.

Some facts are clear. A heavily-armed man murdered 49 people and wounded 53 others at the LGBT+ Pulse nightclub. This was an act of hatred and homophobia (also biphobia and transphobia), and the majority of those targeted were people of colour during a Latina/Latino/Latinx night. All believed themselves to be in a safe place of celebration during a month of worldwide Pride events.

Here are some other commentaries which say far more than I can:

Latinx LGBTQ community response from Isa Noyola interviewed on Democracy Now (warning – this video contains a shameful clip of Donald Trump taking advantage of the massacre to spread anti-Muslim hate speech).

Orlando is just the tip of the iceberg – a powerful article by Jane Czyzselska, editor of UK Diva Magazine for lesbian and bi women.

Statement from the British Psychological Society recognising that members of LGBT+ communities experience high levels of abuse, discrimination and psychological distress.

I’m sad and angry and confused. It seems to have been a default position of mine recently. But at least these emotions make sense in these circumstances, even if I will never be able to understand how someone can plan and carry out such an attack. I am unable to understand any crimes of hate, whoever is being abused and killed. I have empathy beyond the communities I specifically identify with. It’s important I say this because some despicable individuals are already using the Orlando shooting to encourage different marginalised communities to turn against each other. We must not let that happen.

News sites are reporting (surmising) today that Omar Mateen was most likely gay himself and therefore chose to kill people in a LGBTQ venue due to intense self-loathing. As if this somehow stops the attack being an act of homophobia! As if it’s suddenly explained and means all others in wider society need take no further responsibility and can file it in a tidy box which requires minimal scrutiny: Oh, that’s alright, then – it was just one queer of a certain faith we can’t be bothered to understand killing a load of other queers we can’t be bothered to understand. They only have themselves to blame!

Don’t you see? No person starts out hating themselves or others. It comes from years of indoctrination and prejudice, where instead of  being embraced and celebrated, difference and diversity are viewed as the enemy. When you think of love, what do you see? Who do you include?

On Sunday 12 June, I posted this on Facebook:

Fuck! Why do some of us care? And the rest are intent on destroying the whole world. You don’t have to understand me to not want to kill me. I’ve spent my whole life trying to hurt no-one but myself. I shouldn’t even want to hurt myself. If there was more empathy for diversity, far more of us may survive.

All of my Facebook friends are trying to comfort each other right now.

I understand something about self-hatred. I really do. The agonising attempt to explain to yourself why recognising you’re different from a so-called ‘norm’, and regularly being misunderstood, can make you feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with your whole being. That your very self is the problem. It’s sad enough when that personal inner struggle only destroys the individual experiencing it. But where does the destruction end when fear and hate is routinely justified? No-one decides to hate. It is taught and it is validated by legislation. The Orlando massacre comes after lawmakers in the US filed more than 200 anti-LGBT Bills.

This fear of difference goes way beyond sexuality. I have experienced this feeling of self-doubt, self-sabotage and insecurity around my mental health. Some of my close friends will know of a new journey of self-exploration I’m just embarking on. It’s not the time to talk about that but, ultimately, this will be positive for me, and I will write about it when I’m ready.

Actually, I’m not sure I have ever *hated* myself for being a lesbian. I just feel as if I’ve been bruised and punished a lot, and that is why the poem below refers to “being a lesbian / would be one / prompt apology.” I am who I am. I’m proud of that. I have not, do not, and I never will apologise. But I have always had to be ready to defend myself which can sometimes amount to the same thing.

It’s another blackout poem, taking words from an interview with author Emma Donoghue which appeared in the Observer Magazine on 8 May 2016. It makes a lot of sense to me, but I wish it didn’t mean so much. I wish I didn’t have to write about being sad, confused and fearful.

It was two weeks ago when I chose to highlight these words and create a new personal commentary. It doesn’t help much with understanding the atrocity in Orlando. But in light of the terribly sad events, perhaps I can ask you to read between the lines to find another space which invites connection, remembers to begin with love, and doesn’t have to end on hate.

Newspaper blackout poem from interview with Emma Donoghue

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