Lesbian identity and community
This thesis is concerned with lesbian identity and community, with a specific focus on lesbians' own experiences, their accounts of the decision to identify as lesbian to themselves and possibly to other people, and their 'explanations'of their lesbianism. Studies of lesbians by feminist social scientists since the 1970s have provided a major corrective to the earlier medically-orientated literature which pathologised lesbianism. Challenging the demonisation of lesbians, they presented lesbianism as a politicised choice or as one of a range of equally valid sexual identities, and proposed typologies based on women's own accounts of their lives and experiences. However, as these studies were mostly based on a small number of informants,drawn from homogeneous social groups in terms of age, social class and education, their utility as generally applicable models or frameworks for understanding lesbians'experiences was compromised. Informed by feminist theory and methodology, this study seeks to test the validity or limitations of these earlier typologies, Focus groups were conducted with five groups of women in order to establish what lesbians themselves considered to be the key aspects of their identity. These topics were further explored in interviews with 65 self-identified lesbians from a wide range of backgrounds in terms of age, education, occupation and location,to examine the similarities and differences in the life-stories of women who wish to engage in relationships with other women, or who are doing so or have done so. Lesbians' accounts of their decisions about their 'sexual' identity and their own explanations of lesbianism demonstrate how both heterosexual hegemony and (ironically) also lesbian subcultural'norms' may restrict their choices in various aspects of their lives. The intention of this study was not only to provide an academic review of the accuracy and utility of earlier studies of lesbians' lives, but also to give lesbian women a voice, as a political act. It found that lesbians' accounts of their lives can indeed be classified into various categories on the basis of women's differing explanations of their lesbianism, as earlier studies had proposed. However, these studies were overly rigid and simplistic, doing scant justice to both the complexity of lesbians' experiences and their own explanations of their identity.