"I hereby claim these figures as lesbians. I refuse to join the historians who deny the legitimacy of their relationships because they failed to leave a map of where they touched each other.”
“Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives” by Amelia Possanza is proof that no one can legislate, pressure or punish queer lives away and that sapphic love is sacred, generations-long and more powerful than society’s “official” history reflects.
Possanza generously ties stories of her life to those of lesbians past; her struggles and questions are answered by the courageous, defiant lives lived generations ago. Through the magnificence of these lesbians (a term she uses expansively to include various gender expressions and identities), Possanza imagines a future that is truly liberated and equal for all.
Possanza has found lesbians in “out-of-print memoirs, in forgotten books relegated to the library storage rooms, in texts [she] was only allowed to read under the watchful eye of librarians and archivists.” And she breathes life into them with the clarity and tenderness that anyone would wish for their own stories. By giving these lesbians the gift of honoring their truths, the author also gives queer people of today the blessed hope of knowing that we are walking along a path they forged for us.
To Possanza, lesbians are “the ones who invent their own systems of love: Romantic love. Family love. Friend love.” She continues: “They love when there is nothing to gain—no kingdom, no castle, no seat in the official record books of history—and even when they are at risk of losing everything. It is an inventive and original kind of love, rarely the same story told twice.”
“Lesbian Love Story” is an extraordinary work of love for the community. The book is dedicated to “all the queers, ordinary and extraordinary, whose names have been destroyed by history, and to the rosy-fingered custodians of the queer archive” and is a reimagining of the lives of lesbians past — with the truth of their love stories at the forefront, no longer hidden or erased: In this book, being a lesbian is life-giving and movement-starting; it’s filled with roaring parties and fabulous outfits. Loving women is rebellious, and it’s righteous. Having a book where these expertly researched lives are vibrantly imagined makes queer history feel strong enough to hold onto with confidence.
Possanza inspires this energy by introducing lesbians throughout history; each chapter is dedicated to a different love story. In the chapter “On the Island of Lesbians: Sappho and Anactoria,” set in 595 BC, we learn that the ancient Greek poet Sappho — the most famous resident of the island of Lesbos, for whom lesbians are named, and whose poetry about loving women is the reason the term “sapphic” exists — never limited the gender of her lovers to only women, “and yet still she was a lesbian.” Sappho’s story helps the author navigate the spaces where modern stereotypes and her heart collide: “I didn’t have to renounce my boyfriend,” Possanza realizes, “to insist I never loved him, to claim the word as my own.”
“Lesbian Love Story” introduces readers to the original drag kings and legendary sportswomen alongside the author’s personal history as a lesbian, in which she invites us to experience the highs and lows of years spent on a queer swim team. Possanza’s investigation into why lesbian bars keep closing down uncovers no definitive answer but provides insight into some of the theories in circulation. Among them is the idea that the gender pay gap means women lack the economic power to fully support a bar thriving financially and the thought that modern lesbians prefer to congregate elsewhere — online and in sports leagues, for example — enjoying fellowship in other spaces. Possanza’s research also convincingly explores the theory that, since being afforded the legal rights to marriage and children, lesbians are no longer as interested in “sustaining bar culture” and would rather “settle down” with a partner.
“Lesbian Love Story” shares stories of the unintentional romance of women’s colleges, where young ladies were encouraged to court each other with flowers and letters as practice for their eventual marriages to men. Possanza’s writing allows readers to meet runaways and rebels — young people who escaped abuse, isolation and strict expectations, eventually creating lives as daring as their hearts. In these stories, Possanza evocatively highlights the destructive impact of the systems women dealt with throughout history and today by recounting with breath-taking clarity lesbians’ encounters with foster and psychiatric systems, the brutality of incarceration, the military as an extension of “institutions that tried to trap and reform lesbians” and violent policing on queer women (especially those of color). The author inspires a fierce compassion within her readers as she shows us how marginalized people are punished using the laws of the land and held back by the systemic injustices devised to suffocate their dignity and joy.
At its core, “Lesbian Love Story” is a plea to its readers to fight for fairness in every sphere of our society, where queer love represents freedom for all. Possanza provides unforgettable examples of the harms caused by discriminatory practices, as well as the bright hope built on times when people chose true kindness and love.
She asks her readers to consider, “Isn’t taking care of our friends the most radical thing we can do?” Part of that is hearing from Amy Hoffman, a woman who describes the grief and rage of caring for her friend during the AIDS crisis. It’s refreshing to read Possanza’s honesty about not being able to imagine the depth of Amy’s loss nor the height of her strength. She interrogates how society has honored those lesbians and how it has treated queer women since, providing staggering statistics about the drastically unequal gendered access to PrEP, despite the fact that a fifth of new HIV patients in the U.S. are women.
“There’s a rumor,” she writes, “that the L comes first in LGBT as a tribute to the lesbians who cared for people living with and dying of AIDS, but is it wrong to want more?”
Amidst her storytelling, Possanza supplies readers with an extensive list of films, historians, artists and newspaper articles to investigate the topics further. She gains her readers’ trust by informing us of her various privileges and admitting that she’s “a rotten historian, consumed to [her] core by selfish motives” as she finds herself falling in love with these women (and making us feel the same way!). The author becomes a trusted friend and a compatriot in queer life. She escorts readers through a past most of us can only imagine, and brings forward a future that welcomes everyone.
“It is important to fight, to demand a safety net for those who have been left in the dust by the engines of capitalism,” she writes, “but while we wait for change, what could be more radical, more threatening, than people giving their caretaking not because it is paid for or legally assigned or out of blood fidelity but freely, out of genuine love, a love flecked with annoyance and bitterness feebly expressed in words, out of a sense of community woven across the fractures?”
“Lesbian Love Story: A Memoir in Archives” shows that this kind of care is both romance and resistance.
Andrea Marks-Joseph is a South African freelance writer of color.
Read more of the June 21-27, 2023 issue.