“Homosexual” describes both gay men and lesbians, but that usage may be deceptive for historians seeking to understand the emergence of homosexual identities. By the mid-twentieth century, most historians have argued that homosexuality becomes defined by the choice of sexual partner, replacing an older definition of homosexuality as gender disorder - the condition of the man, often effeminate in demeanor, who wanted to take the “woman’s part” in sex. In this essay Donna Penn suggests that lesbianism, more than male homosexuality, has been persistently defined in reference to gender. In “expert” opinion, popular culture, and lesbian subcultures alike, the “masculine” woman or the “butch” has been a crucial signifier of lesbianism.
Penn begins with a brief commentary on two historical models of homosexuality. Women’s historians have rejected sexual activity as the defining characteristic of lesbianism, instead emphasizing the significance of women’s emotional relationships and life choices (for example, not marrying, living with other women). Historians of homosexuality, by contrast, have relied more heavily on sexual behavior, especially choice of sexual partner, in defining homosexual practice and the emergence of homosexual identities.
Penn argues that we must consider both sexuality and gender as they shape the social construction of lesbianism. In medical and popular discourses, the representation of lesbianism focused on the lesbian’s refusal of heterosexual marriage and motherhood, her defiant social and sexual autonomy - that is, experts described the “pathology” of lesbianism not as a problem of abnormal sexuality, but of disordered gender. Lesbians themselves disagreed about proper gender roles and practiced butch/femme roles to varying degrees, but the “mannish” woman, or the butch, declareda difference that others could observe; the butch was thus crucial to the formation of lesbian subcultures and to the emergence of lesbian identities.