The Construction of the Lesbian Reader

The Construction of the Lesbian Reader

© Nicki Hastie

Research student report submitted in 1994, one year into my unfinished PhD

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This project aims to examine the construction of lesbians as readers in and through lesbian writing, especially in the post-1980 period. Texts (most often literary and fictional texts) have provided the major source of knowledge about lesbian desire and lesbian identity, while other cultural and public discourses have maintained a relative silence. Reading issues and practices thus have a special significance within and for lesbian culture.

Certain lesbian theorists have emphasised processes of re-reading when attempting to recover lesbian history and to address the marginalisation of lesbian experience within society, involving the reconstruction of particular texts and a familiarity with processes of encodement and appropriate decoding acts. However, there has been no sustained analysis of lesbian reader issues, either within reader-response criticism or lesbian criticism.

My project aims to present this sustained focus and to examine theories of reading and their value for lesbian criticism and actual lesbian readers. I use approaches drawn from reader-response theory, feminist theory and lesbian criticism to examine fictional intra-textual constructions of readers as well as actual reader responses. I argue that the expansion of lesbian cultural representation throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s has begun to situate lesbians as a viable consumer group, whereby the marketing of lesbian images and identities allows lesbians to read, and “lesbian” to be read in more places/positions than ever before.


Since I began work on this project in January 1993 I have completed relevant library and literature searches and compiled a detailed working bibliography. I have read a wide range of relevant theoretical material in the areas of reader-response theory, lesbian studies and cultural studies. I have also read fictional works in preparation for textual analyses.

In order to gain the views of actual readers’ around issues of “lesbian” texts and readings I devised a questionnaire as a framework for qualitative structured interview sessions. I conducted interviews with twenty lesbian readers and have since transcribed and begun to analyse this material. This material has been helpful in forming the basis for my decision to structure the dissertation into six main sections: definitions of “lesbian texts”; the author-function; marketing and publishing issues; reader identification issues and analyses of individual texts; lesbian criticism and awareness of the reader; quality and ethical issues relating to lesbian writing and publishing.

I have written drafts of sections of my dissertation around definitions of “lesbian texts”, constructions of the lesbian reader, and have begun written work on the reader and lesbian criticism. I have formed valuable contacts with lesbians working in publishing and bookselling throughout the year and conducted personal interviews.

Future Plans

I intend to conduct several more interviews with lesbians working in the book trade before producing a draft of the chapter on marketing issues. I have a number of dates arranged within the next two months. I intend to produce a completed draft of the lesbian criticism chapter within this time, and to plan appropriate analyses of intra-textual readers in fiction.

I view the following six to nine months as a period of more concentrated writing leading to the production of drafts of the six main sections of my dissertation. I believe I am on schedule for completion in January 1996.

A valuable project and one that I still have ideas and theories about. But ah, how time can mislead us and life can change us …

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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