LGBTQ+ Epistolary Rhetoric/Letter Writing
LGBTQ+ Epistolary Rhetoric/Letter Writing
- Pamela VanHaitsmaPamela VanHaitsmaCommunication Arts and Sciences; Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies; Pennsylvania State University
Approaching letter writing as a rhetorical practice—as epistolary rhetoric—is not an obvious priority for queer studies in communication. Yet the importance of letters to LGBTQ+ studies of rhetoric have come to the fore in two key ways. In a first approach, following the long-standing use of letters as evidence within interdisciplinary LGBTQ+ histories, letters serve as vital primary sources in histories of LGBTQ+ rhetoric. Letters act as evidence of LGBTQ+ romantic, erotic, and sexual relations within queer studies of public memory. Also, acting as so-called hidden transcripts, letters document other kinds of background information about rhetorical situations. In a second approach LGBTQ+ letters have been analyzed as rhetoric. Receiving the most attention are obviously public and political letters, such as those appearing in movement publications, the rhetoric of public officials and their political campaigns, and activist letter-writing campaigns. Especially in the case of LGBTQ+ life, however, letters often blur the lines between genres that are public and private, political and intimate. As such, even those letters considered most intimate, such as romantic and erotic letters, have been theorized as forms of epistolary rhetoric. Both approaches persist and are in productive tension with each other. Whether scholars underscore how LGBTQ+ letters are rhetoric or simply draw on them as records of information, letters are indispensable sources for the development of LGBTQ+ histories of rhetoric, studies of public memory, and research on communication.
- Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)
- Rhetorical Theory
In the early 21st-century terrain of Grindr—of Bumble, Chappy, Growlr, Her, Hornet, Jack’d, Lex, LGBTQutie, OkCupid, Scissr, Scruff, and Tinder—letters may seem like an obsolete form of communication, a romantic relic of the past. Romantic letters were indeed central forms of communication within relationships of the past, including and perhaps especially for people who participated in same-sex and other forms of queer, as in nonnormative, relations. Considering “the love that dare not speak its name” in the 19th-century West, for instance, the erotic letters that served as communication between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas became objects of blackmail and then evidence in court (Holland, 2003). As another example, letters exchanged between Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, both freeborn African American women, constituted their romantic and erotic relationship over the course of nine years while carving out space for discussions of labor and racial politics (Hansen, 1996). Continued interest in epistolary communication from the past is apparent in not only the work of historians but also the present-day media landscape. The 2018 film The Favourite, which was nominated for the most Academy Awards in the history of films that center queer stories between women, dramatized the intimate as well as political consequences of communication through same-sex letters (VanHaitsma, 2019b).
Approaching letter writing through the lens of rhetoric is not an obvious priority for queer studies in communication. Rhetorical scholars have centered instead on more clearly public forms of queer communication. Scholarly attention tends to focus on the representation of LGBTQ+ communities in the media, as well as the social movement rhetoric of gay liberation, lesbian feminists, HIV/AIDS activists, and so on. Yet, particularly through examination of the latter, the importance of letters has come to the fore in two important ways. A first approach in rhetorical studies mirrors that of interdisciplinary histories of LGBTQ+ life more broadly. In this approach, letters are recognized as vital primary sources of information in histories of LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
A second rhetorical approach involves understanding LGBTQ+ letter writing as a rhetorical practice. Scholars taking this approach have begun to analyze LGBTQ+ letters as rhetoric. These two approaches are in productive tension with each other. Realizing how LGBTQ+ letters are themselves rhetorical may be taken to undermine established scholarly practices of consulting letters as evidence of past romantic relationships and sexual identities. However, even among those scholars who argue that LGBTQ+ letters should be understood as a vein of epistolary rhetoric, they rely necessarily on letters as sources of information about the past in order to develop their approach. Rather than expecting that it will or should replace the first approach, the second approach is better understood as nuancing and refining how letters are read as evidence of the past and, at the same time, as opening up new analytical approaches and sources for the study of LGBTQ+ communication.
Letters in Studies of LGBTQ+ Rhetoric
The importance of letters as primary sources has been recognized since the earliest days of gay and lesbian history as an academic subfield. The need to examine letters is particularly pressing within histories of same-sex and other nonnormative relations because they are less likely to be acknowledged in public records that document life events like birth, marriage, and death. Moreover, same-sex and queer relations often have been deliberately “hidden” from public view, whether by the participants themselves, their families and kinship networks, or later historians (Duberman et al., 1989). As such, and because letters are associated with “secrets and sexuality,” scholars who are motivated to examine the LGBTQ+ past “investigate authentic letter correspondence for evidence of homoerotic and homosexual relationships” (Garlinger, 2005, p. ix). The investigation of such correspondence is by no means a straightforward question, and scholars often debate how to interpret letters (Smith-Rosenberg, 2000). Still, letters are crucial sources that document romantic, erotic, and sexual life. So too within histories of LGBTQ+ rhetoric. In this sense, rhetorical scholars approach letters as primary sources in studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric. Within such scholarship, letters are understood as evidence of gendered romantic, erotic, and sexual relations from the past. Letters also serve as evidence of other aspects of the rhetorical situations under study.
Evidence of Gendered Relations
In rhetorical scholarship on LGBTQ+ history, the turn to letters as primary sources requires what Charles E. Morris has characterized as a methodological “queering” of the discipline of rhetoric (2007a).1 Within early histories of rhetoric, the predominant focus on public address, at least as it was narrowly conceived, obscured the relevance of sexuality during periods prior to LGBTQ+ social movements and their public-facing activism. With this historiographic focus on great orators speaking from public platforms about issues deemed of grand historical significance, Morris explained, “it is easy to fathom the long absence of queer texts, especially the presumed void of discourse prior to the homophile movements of the 1950s and 1960s, prior to the ‘out’ culture and politics that emerged from the Stonewall ‘revolution’” (Morris, 2007a, p. 3). Not surprisingly, communication scholarship prior to Morris’s groundbreaking historical interventions tended to focus on “contemporary queer culture, media, and politics” (p. 5). To even study sexuality, historians of rhetoric needed to “queer . . . the objects, methods, and theories within this field of inquiry” (p. 5). Study of relations previously conceived of as private or intimate, especially as those relations are evidenced in letters, has played an important part in this methodological queering of rhetorical studies.
Approaching letters as both historians and rhetorical critics, scholars have recognized these primary sources as evidence of romantic, erotic, and/or sexual relations from the past and, at the same time, considered critically how letters are used to construct the public memory of historical figures in the present. This strand of scholarship tends to focus on well-known and relatively privileged public figures. For these figures, their significance is already presumed, yet there are contests of memory over whether they can be understood as having participated physically and sexually in same-sex relations. Scholars turn analytic attention to the ways that the correspondence of these historical figures is interpreted to justify (or not) the recovery of their roles in LGBTQ+ history. Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt are two such figures.
Conflicting interpretations of letters are at the heart of debates about how to remember Lincoln’s intimate friendship with Joshua Speed. Morris pointed to this centrality of correspondence in his analysis of the “homosexual panic” that followed when activist and author Larry Kramer “claimed to have new documentary evidence” of Lincoln and Speed’s relationship, including “letters and diary entries allegedly found buried beneath the floorboards of Speed’s old store and housed currently in a private, unnamed collection” (2007b, pp. 96, 102). “Kramer without qualification concluded that Lincoln and Speed were gay,” according to Morris, and “substantiated his interpretation in part by reference to extent correspondence” between the two men (p. 102). Even with respect to the extant letters, Lincoln scholars have interpreted the same texts differently, defending against any queer possibilities through what Morris theorized as “queer mnemonicide” (p. 103). One Lincoln scholar concluded, for example, that “Lincoln’s letters to Speed ‘are totally lacking in expressions of warm affection’” (p. 109). In critical analysis of the contest over Lincoln’s public memory, Morris too relied necessarily on his own interpretations of Lincoln’s “flurry of passionate correspondence to Speed in January and February of 1842” (p. 98). Whether a rhetorical critic examines letters for evidence of romantic, erotic, and sexual relations—or to analyze how others have leveraged letters as such evidence—it is clear that the epistolary genre serves an important evidentiary function when claiming historical figures for rhetoric’s LGBTQ+ public memory.
The epistolary genre plays a similar role within contests over the public memory of Eleanor Roosevelt and her intimate friend, Lorena Hickok. Dana Cloud (2007) has considered how the two women’s letters are interpreted within biographical debates about the nature of their relationship. “When, in 1978, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library opened eighteen cartons containing Eleanor’s correspondence with Hick,” Cloud explained, “the public was shocked to discover numerous erotic passages exchanged between them” (p. 26). Similar to the case of Lincoln, some have interpreted the letters as evidence of “a long-term, intimate, homosexual relationship,” whereas others insisted the relationship was “passionate” but “nonsexual” (pp. 26–27). Moreover, Cloud’s analysis emphasized the role of critics in bringing supposedly “private” texts like letters into considerations of rhetoric and public life, noting the critical possibilities of “outing” texts rather than individual historical figures.
Rather than claiming Roosevelt, we can queer her by pointing out how her private life, if brought by rhetorical criticism into public memory—which has sublimated, if not erased, this relationship—can trouble the assumptions of heteronormativity. We may out the texts of Eleanor Roosevelt, but we may not out Eleanor. (p. 39)
Here Cloud offered a crucial framing of epistolary texts that anticipated later scholarship on romantic letters as rhetoric.
Qwo-Li Driskill (2016) has demonstrated further the importance of letters to the construction of LGBTQ+ public memory. Whereas most work along these lines has focused on the public memory of privileged figures, examining letters written by them, Driskill’s scholarship on Cherokee story, history, and memory considered the role of letters written about Southeastern Indigenous and Two-Spirit people. Driskill’s research involved consulting, for example, the records of Spanish colonialists during the 16th century, which included expedition letters written by Fray Domingo and Fray Pedro about the bodies and genders of Indigenous people in Coosa.2 In one letter from Domingo,
we can see the process of a colonial gaze examining and classifying the bodies and genders of Indigenous people not only as a kind of exoticization of Indigenous bodies, but also in order to describe to Spanish powers Indigenous people as their obstacles, resources, or allies in colonization.(Driskill, 2016, p. 71)
Examining another letter from Pedro, Driskill observed, “his letter reveals more about sexual and gender violence than other accounts of Spanish invasions, as he argues for colonization” (p. 71). What Driskill’s analysis of these and other letters makes clear is how, as primary sources, the letters evidence the gendered and sexualized violence of settler colonialism. At the same time, s/he showed how the letters have been used to remember—and, in Driskill’s own work, to counter settler colonial memories of—Two-Spirit people. In recognizing how the letters constructed not only documentation but also arguments, hir work—like Cloud’s—gestured toward the second scholarly approach to letters as rhetoric. Before turning to that scholarship, it is necessary to consider other ways that letters function as evidence in studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Evidence of Rhetorical Situations
Studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric approach letters as evidence of not only sexuality and gender but also other aspects of rhetorical situations. Studies in the latter category usually focus on late-20th-century rhetors around whom there is less contest over their public memory with respect to belonging in LGBTQ+ history. These studies draw on letters as sources of background and behind-the-scenes information about the situations navigated by LGBTQ+ rhetors.
Along these lines, Isaac West’s (2014) study of transgender rhetors and their negotiations of citizenship and the law offered an instructive theorization of letters as “hidden transcripts” (p. 39).3 These hidden transcripts are in contrast with “public texts such as judicial decisions or legislative debates about statutes” (p. 38). West discussed hidden transcripts in his case study of “Debbie Mayne, a male-to-female transsexual” who was arrested in 1955 “for ‘masquerading as a woman’ and ‘outraging pubic decency’” (p. 37). The public transcripts in this case include “press reports and court documents,” while the hidden transcripts consist of her “correspondence with and between her friends and acquaintances” (p. 39). What makes this distinction so important is that, within the public transcripts, the legal case seems relatively straightforward, whereas the hidden transcripts “paint a different picture” through letter writing that “reveals a resistant rather than a passive subject, and one who actively sought a confrontation with the law” (p. 39). “Mayne’s correspondence,” West explained, “provides concrete evidence of the operation of agency in a world of constraints” (p. 39). Consider, for example, letters Mayne exchanged in 1953 with “Harry Benjamin, who was at that time one of the world’s only medical experts on transsexuality” (p. 46). As explicated by West, “in her letters to Benjamin, Mayne oftentimes presented a public transcript of deference while pursuing a hidden transcript of defiance and resistance” (p. 46). Part of what letters may reveal within studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric, as in West’s analysis of Mayne’s correspondence, is the rhetorical agency of LGBTQ+ rhetors who navigate constraints in ways that may not be visible through attention to more public transcripts alone.
Unpublished letters from LGBTQ+ readers to editors also function as hidden transcripts, offering critics and historians information about the rhetorical situations of publications and the broader social movements with which they are aligned. Consider, for example, Jean Bessette’s (2018) research on the lesbian homophile organization Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), and their curation of “an archive of lesbian experience” through anecdotes published in founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s 1972 book Lesbian/Woman. Letters are significant to the book in that its published anecdotes of experience were drawn “from hundreds of women the couple had corresponded with through their work with the DOB during the 1950s and 1960s” (Bessette, 2018, p. 25). Yet Bessette’s examination of the women’s letters in unpublished form is revealing of the rhetorical situation of Lesbian/Woman in other ways. Specifically, Bessette uncovered the effects of the book in relation to its audience. Letters written in response to the book’s publication show “how readers responded to and made use of its collections of anecdotes” (p. 26). These letters “evince the heuristic potential” of the book “to prompt a process of archival consciousness raising” (p. 27). At the same time, with the DOB primarily serving the interests of middle-class White women who subscribed to norms of femininity, study of unpublished letters allows for consideration of “more diverse lesbian readers” (p. 27). Bessette was able to show the “limits” of the book’s consciousness-raising potential for these readers through analysis of the letters they wrote to Lyon and Martin (p. 52). Such study of unpublished letters as “hidden transcripts” allows scholars to develop a fuller view of rhetorical situations, analyzing the interactions between published texts and their intended audiences and, at the same time, considering the perspectives of LGBTQ+ rhetors whose interests were not represented by movement organizations like the DOB.
Through consideration of those LGBTQ+ rhetors who were more likely to read and respond to, rather than create, movement publications, the “hidden transcripts” of letters offer an expanded view of social movement rhetoric itself. Elizabeth Groeneveld’s (2018) analysis of letters written to On Our Backs (OOB), points to this ability of letters to record information not available through study of “public transcripts” alone. “Letters provide documentation of social and political movements written not from the perspective of reporters, theorists, or social movement rock stars,” Groeneveld wrote, “but from people who felt compelled enough to respond to a story or an image” in a movement publication (p. 153). Within this enlarged view of participation, letters also document its emotional and affective dimensions. As Groeneveld characterized “the epistolary form of the letter to the editor,” it is “often motivated by strong feelings, like love, fury, or confusion” (2018, p. 157). These feelings, far from being a “private” concern beyond the domain of rhetorical studies, played an important role within lesbian counterpublics: “The letters to the editor section of OOB became . . . a forum for readers to express their feelings about the sex wars and to build a different kind of lesbian public culture, which they did in every issue of the magazine” (p. 157). The “hidden transcripts” of letters are rhetorically significant in offering a multidimensional view of specific rhetorical situations as well as LGBTQ+ social movements more broadly.
Letters serve as sources of background information in countless other ways as wide-ranging as LGBTQ+ rhetoric itself. A few additional examples suggest this range. One is John M. Sloop’s (2007) study of the historical discourse surrounding “the transformation of Lucy Lobdell into the Reverend Joseph Israel Lobdell,” as well as debate about whether Lobdell should be understood as “lesbian” and/or “transgender” (p. 149). Sloop’s analysis cites letters from the woman with whom Lobdell lived “as a married couple,” Marie Louise Perry (p. 151). Sloop recounted, “When Lobdell was arrested in 1876 and committed to jail . . . Perry is said to have written a letter beseeching authorities to release him” (p. 156). Her “ability to write such a beautiful note,” including her chirography and grammar, was interpreted by others as evidence of her “normal” femininity (p. 156). Another example is Erin J. Rand’s (2014) research on the late-20th-century rhetoric of Larry Kramer. Rand cited a 1990 letter from Kramer, an open letter in which he “reasserts his significance to ACT UP,” as evidence of his generally “contentious” role “as a provocateur” in the gay community (p. 69). Whether consulted for background information on interpretations of gender, or on conflicts within LGBTQ+ social movement groups, letters serve as crucial evidence.
These available sources of evidence take on additional significance in part because they are too often intentionally destroyed or simply absent (Freedman, 1998; Gladney, 1998). In Eric Darnell Pritchard’s (2017) research on Black queer literacy and rhetorical practices, they discussed a research participant who initially wrote notes to his high school boyfriend “‘because it was a way for us to express the feelings that we have for each other without the whole world having to know’” (p. 77). The writer quickly stopped, however, after the notes were discovered by his parents who confronted him about being gay. In this case, the epistolary record was foreclosed in anticipation of further unwanted discovery. In another example, in his study of queer public memory, Thomas R. Dunn (2016) described the experience of conducting archival research in the papers of Alexander Wood, a Toronto man who “excelled in his position [as a magistrate] until a scandalous incident in 1810 that would forever link the name Wood with molly” (p. 37). Dunn experienced “exhilaration” when first discovering that there were “several good-sized boxes” of Wood’s “letters and notes,” with the “letters . . . almost all dated,” only to learn that a folder for 1810, the year marked by scandal, was absent (p. 187). Dunn was left to speculate about who may have destroyed the letters from that single year and why, yet ultimately, “where an 1810 folder should have been, there was literally a gap in the records” (p. 188). While similar absences exist in all intimate archives, they are particularly common in documentation of LGBTQ+ lives—and most especially the lives of those multiply marginalized at the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and so on.
Working with these absences in the historical record of LGBTQ+ rhetors and rhetorical practices, scholars have invented creative, imaginative methods for reconstructing that which is not documented in extant letters. In Saidiya Hartman’s (2019) history of the “wayward lives” of early-20th-century Black women, including those who pursued “intimacy outside the institution of marriage, and queer and outlaw passions,” she posed crucial questions that also animate rhetorical scholarship that imaginatively navigates epistolary absences (p. xiv). Writing about Mattie Jackson née Nelson, who, though the “letters are missing from the case file,” was “punished” while incarcerated “for passing notes to a girl in another cottage,” Hartman asked: “What stories were shared in all the letters lost and disappeared, the things whispered, and never disclosed? Is it possible to conjure the sentences and paragraphs and poems contained in the lost archive?” (p. 75). Hartman’s scholarship has done just that, “conjur[ing]” a “lost archive” of queer Black women and their letters, “reconstructing the experience of the unknown and retrieving minor figures from oblivion” (Hartman, 2019, p. 31), including through a method she previously termed “critical fabulation” (Hartman, 2008, p. 11).
In rhetorical studies, scholars also have developed critical and creative methods for navigating the archival absences that mark LGBTQ+ letters as sources of information. For example, Pamela VanHaitsma (2016) theorized gossip as a method for speculating when the available evidence is replete with epistolary absences. Drawing on Jacqueline Jones Royster’s (2000) theorization of “critical imagination,” along with queer studies of gossip like Kwame Holmes’s (2015), VanHaitsma proposed “gossip as another rhetorical methodology that may desire to embrace rather than seek to revolve the uncertainties that define both history and sexuality,” particularly where letters are coded or simply absent (2016, p. 136). Ames Hawkins (2019) has offered another approach in a “genre-bending visual memoir and work of literary nonfiction” that creatively collects and speculates about the courtship letters written by their father to their mother before he later came out and was diagnosed with HIV.
In examining and speculating about letters as a source of information, rhetorical scholars have approached these texts as documentation of LGBTQ+ life. Consider, as a final example on this point, Julia M. Allen’s (2013) history of the loving partnership and shared political and rhetorical work of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins during the early 20th century. Allen considered the “expressions of devotion” in the women’s letters and notes to each other in order to understand the nature of their same-sex love and 45-year relationship (p. 1). In the same history, Allen also consulted as evidence a range of letters to and from other correspondents. These letters are revealing of the rhetorical situations and strategies engaged by Rochester and Hutchins as they “work[ed] to create a more egalitarian world” through involvement and leadership in Christian, feminist, and socialist groups (p. 1). Across LGBTQ+ rhetorical scholarship, as in Allen’s study, letters serve as evidence of both LGBTQ+ relations and the broader situations that LGBTQ+ rhetors navigate. Yet letters are not only evidence in studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric, they also have been approached as LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Letters as LGBTQ+ Rhetoric
From the start, LGBTQ+ rhetorical studies has approached letters as sources of information. More recent work continues to do so, relying on letters as primary evidence for investigating LGBTQ+ rhetoric. But these scholars nuance interpretations of such evidence by emphasizing how letters themselves serve as LGBTQ+ rhetoric. Rhetorical genre studies offers helpful frameworks for theorizing how LGBTQ+ letters amount to rhetoric. Rhetorical theorists have conceived of genres as rhetorical and social action that emerges through repeated responses to rhetorical situations that recur within broader cultural and historical contexts (Bawarshi & Reiff, 2010; Miller, 1984). Conceiving of the letter as a rhetorical genre—as a conventionalized or normative form of textual and social life—holds important implications for studies of LGBTQ+ letters that might otherwise be dismissed as merely private or individualized writing. Not surprisingly, obviously public and political letters have been most studied as LGBTQ+ rhetoric. Yet, especially in the case of LGBTQ+ life, such letters often blur the lines between genres that are public and intimate, political and romantic. As such, even intimate and romantic letters have been examined as a form of epistolary rhetoric.
Public and Political Letters
Examining clearly public and political LGBTQ+ letters as rhetoric follows in the Western rhetorical tradition of ars dictaminis, or the art of epistolary writing (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, pp. 492–495; Poster & Mitchell, 2007). In this tradition, well-known rhetorical theorists and rhetoricians have used the epistle form to address political rhetoric to public audiences. Feminist studies of rhetoric show how women especially have capitalized on the blurring of boundaries between public and private through the epistolary genre in order to advance arguments even in historical periods and cultural contexts where public participation was largely discouraged (Bizzell & Herzberg, 2001, pp. 9, 494). In studies of LGBTQ+ rhetoric, scholars consider individual rhetors who develop open letters that are made public through social movement publications and political campaigns, as well as organizations that advance their political agendas through letter-writing campaigns.
Whereas letters to the editor that are available mainly through archival holdings may serve as “hidden transcripts,” published letters to the editor function more like “public transcripts,” circulating as they do within movement publications (West, 2014). Along these lines, Lisbeth Lipari (2007) examined the epistolary rhetoric of Lorraine Hansberry in her 1957 letters to the Ladder, the first national lesbian periodical that was published in the United States by the already discussed homophile organization DOB. Lipari made clear the status of the letters as rhetoric. “A letter is a relational act of address,” she wrote,
to write a letter is to place oneself in a dialogue with an explicitly acknowledged addressee. To write a public letter is to situate oneself in relation to a public, a real or imagined community of auditors who share, at the very least, the experience of the address. (Lipari, 2007, p. 229)
Lipari’s approach reflects the move within rhetorical criticism to treat letters not simply as evidence of LGBTQ+ identities or relations, but as epistolary rhetoric. “Rather than undergo a search for evidence of Hansberry’s personal identity,” Lipari explained, she “instead explore[d] Hansberry’s publicly constructed rhetorical voice for its articulations of counterhegemonic perspectives on sexuality, race gender, and class” (p. 221). Specifically, Lipari’s analysis showed how Hansberry’s public letters developed and deployed a “rhetoric of intersectionality” decades before the Combahee River Collective’s statement and subsequent Black feminist theories of intersectionality (p. 221).4 Here Lipari’s analysis of Hansberry’s intersectional rhetoric parallels Bessette’s analysis of unpublished letters responding to Martin and Lyon’s Lesbian/Woman. Whether functioning as hidden or public transcripts, letters to the authors and editors of early LGBTQ+ movement publications were well positioned to offer the perspectives of more diverse readerships—and especially those perspectives that were critical of the lack of intersectional approaches in predominantly middle-class and White-edited and -authored publications.
In addition to public letters addressed to social movement publications, scholars consider the epistolary rhetoric of political campaigns and elected public officials. An example is the epistolary rhetoric of Harvey Milk, who was elected in 1977 as the first openly gay city supervisor in San Francisco. Jason Edward Black and Charles E. Morris’s (2013) edited collection of materials drawn from Milk’s archive of speeches and other writing includes more than 10 letters, the majority of which are open and/or public letters. Early in Milk’s political career, when he needed “to argue for a platform itself, to use rhetorical artistry in order to attract audiences,” Milk deployed public letters to such ends (Black & Morris, 2013, p. 75). One open letter (1973) put San Francisco’s “Mayor Joseph Alioto on the spot, for instance, rather melodramatically, regarding fundamental democratic principles of electioneering” (Black & Morris, 2013, p. 75). Another public letter (1974) decried “police harassment of gays” and “police brutality . . . against the homosexuals who are undesirables” through comparison to “Nazi Germany in the ’30s” (p. 93). Along with these early public letters, Black and Morris’s collection includes a campaign letter (1975) from Milk’s second bid for election (p. 117). Milk began, “Dear Friends, It probably comes as no surprise to most of you, but I am going to run for Supervisor again this year” (p. 118). After appealing to “the Gay vote” and “the straight community,” as well as insisting that he would not “be a ‘one issue’ candidate,” Milk commented on the limitations of the letter: “I regret that this is a form letter and not the individual one I would like it to be” (pp. 119–120).
Several of the letters collected by Black and Morris are from 1978, after Milk was elected on his third attempt. In a public letter, Milk countered the homophobic campaign by Senator John Briggs for California Proposition 6, which sought to “constitutionalize bigotry” by prohibiting gays and lesbians from serving as public school teachers (p. 234). In another from a couple months later, Milk, along with his friend and speechwriter Frank Robinson, “rearticulated the anti-Briggs arguments one last time on the morning of the referendum,” serving as “Milk’s last public, discursive push for [its] defeat” (p. 240). Like many public officials, Milk deployed epistolary rhetoric, and especially the open letter form, to build audiences, advance campaigns for his own election, and use his public platform to argue for legislative actions.
Scholars also have considered how LGBTQ+ advocacy groups utilize epistolary rhetoric through targeted letter-writing campaigns. Karma R. Chávez (2013) discussed two such campaigns within her study of coalitional rhetorics by the LGBTQ+ movement and migrant youth movement. The first letter-writing campaign was initiated in 2010 by “Citizen Orange, a global justice blog committed to supporting the pro-migrant movement in the United States” (Chávez, 2013, p. 79). The DREAM Now campaign “featured letters written to [President] Barack Obama by migrant youth who requested his support for the DREAM Act,” with Citizen Orange posting these public letters to its blog along with movement updates (pp. 79–80). As Chávez explained, DREAM Now was “modeled” after another letter-writing campaign: the 2010 OutServe-Service Members Legal Defense Network’s (SLDN) campaign. This second campaign “consisted of letters written to Obama each day by current and former gay, lesbian, and bisexual members of the US armed forces and their straight allies who requested the repeal” of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy (p. 79). Chávez characterized the “strategic decision” to model DREAM Now after the SLDN campaign (p. 80). As the founder of Citizen Orange observed, “‘any migrant youth leader will tell you, just as racism is inextricable from nativism, so is the LGBT movement inextricable from the migrant youth movement. A disproportionate number of migrant youth leaders identify as queer’” (qtd. in Chávez, 2013, p. 80). Whereas DREAM Now was modeled after the SLDN’s campaign, SLDN in turn “announced and backed DREAM Now,” as did other LGBTQ+ blogs (p. 80). These coalitional rhetorics of LGBTQ+ and migrant youth movements demonstrate the persistent role of activist letter-writing campaigns, even into the 21st century and conjoined with strategies of digital rhetoric.
The LGBTQ+ letters most familiar within the present-day media landscape are those circulated digitally. In one of the only studies of epistolary rhetoric to focus entirely on transgender letters, Joe Edward Hatfield (2019) considered digital suicide letters. Hatfield examined letters that were written by Leelah Alcorn in 2014 and Zander Mahaffey in 2015. The letters were auto-posted to Tumblr and then recirculated across digital networks in order to address the exigencies of transphobia and memorialize Alcorn and Mahaffey. Hatfield’s analysis of these “letters as an emergent rhetorical form I name the digital transgender suicide letter” demonstrates the potential for transgender epistolary studies to queer rhetorical theories of form, agency, kairos, circulation, and digitality (Hatfield, 2019, p. 27). A less common yet important kind of digital open letter is that written by scholars and published on various open access sites.5 Critical cultural communication scholar Shadee Abdi (2014) embedded such a letter, handwritten and addressed to her mom, within a narrative essay that included discussion of her identities and experiences as an Iranian-American lesbian (pp. 18–19). As Abdi (2020) explained in a later publication, “that letter . . . offered the reasons why I was unable to share my queer identity with my mother” (p. 51). Publication of the letter was accompanied by risks, especially because of Abdi’s “decision to publish in an open access journal” that is available to anyone who finds the essay or searches with Abdi’s name online (p. 51). Abdi’s mother has since read the letter (p. 52). Indeed, the nature of audiences primary and secondary, intended and not, varies in different forms of the open letter, whether published in print alone or circulated digitally. Across LGBTQ+ open letters, however, individuals and organizations use epistolary rhetoric to address publics and counterpublics about exigencies facing LGBTQ+ people.
Whereas open letters by definition call attention to their simultaneous address—as letters made available to the public even if addressed to an individual—most letters actually blur lines, in at least some ways, between communication that is public or interpersonal, political or intimate. Lipari (2007) pointed out how even Hansberry’s already discussed open letters crossed the boundaries between public and private epistolary rhetoric, in part because they were initially published anonymously (p. 220). Hansberry’s epistolary authorship was identified publicly by former Ladder editor Barbara Grier only after Hansberry had passed away—and then her place within LGBTQ+ history and literature became a subject of scholarly investigation (p. 220). Hansberry’s anonymous letters to the Ladder are “at once both public and private,” Lipari explained, and “thus occupy a liminal space—not quite public and not quite private, yet at the same time, both public and private” (p. 229). Although Lipari’s analysis hinges on the initial anonymity of Hansberry’s letters, a liminal status marks most epistolary rhetoric. As previously mentioned, feminist rhetorical scholars in particular have investigated this potential for the epistolary genre to be appropriated in variously public and private ways (Bordelon, 2018a; Bordelon, 2018c; Donawerth, 2002; Johnson, 2002; Gring-Pemble, 1998). Following this nuanced feminist understanding of epistolary rhetoric—as occupying a complex space that may traverse public and private domains—scholars have begun to consider how not only overtly public and political letters but also intimate and even romantic letters may be theorized as LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
Intimate and Romantic Letters
Current scholarship in LGBTQ+ rhetorical studies underscores how those letters understood as private—letters between friends, acquaintances, and lovers—are rhetorical in nature.6 These letters are rhetorically crafted by writers. In other words, letter writers address audiences within specific situations, deploying rhetorical strategies to accomplish their purposes. Of course, this rhetorical perspective often is not brought to bear with respect to specifically intimate letters. As Poster (2007) noted, these letters generally are perceived as developing “conviction . . . based primarily on relationships rather than argument” (p. 2). In the words of Hawkins (2019), who recognized “the love letter as a rhetorical genre,” the purpose of personal letters operates according to a different “logic”: “The goal is to reinforce or restructure a relationship; to offer an apology, condolences, thanks; to declare to a particular person, ‘I love you’” (pp. 56–57).
Yet a range of rhetorical strategies, including and beyond argumentative ones, may be utilized in tandem with intimate and romantic relationships in order to develop convictions, or for any purpose along the persuasive continuum. This understanding of intimate letters as epistolary rhetoric both presumes an expansive definition of rhetoric itself and pushes back on the presumption that argument may develop outside of the context of relationships between rhetors and audiences. E. Patrick Johnson’s (2019) oral history of Black Southern women who love women discussed, for instance, letters written by a research participant to her family and especially her mother in which the writer “did mention being lesbian” (p. 47). In doing so, she inserted into the epistolary conversations of those relationships a reality that her family members found difficult to acknowledge in person. In another example, the already mentioned analysis of Mayne’s correspondence with Benjamin, West (2014) discussed rhetorical strategies used within letters in the context of a relationship. West pointed out how Mayne “learned how to frame her actions in such a way that they conformed to Benjamin’s politics, such as portraying herself as a victim of police harassment” (p. 47). Her rhetorical crafting of letters to him also involved “performing an act of deference to Benjamin’s expertise.” West’s analysis makes clear that Mayne’s agency includes the rhetorical agency of crafting her letters in order to achieve her goals within the context of her relationships.
While letters are crafted by their writers, it is important to understand the agency of LGBTQ+ rhetors as a negotiation of heteronormative conventions for the epistolary genre. Informed by rhetorical genre theory, VanHaitsma’s (2014, 2019a) research on queer romantic epistolary rhetoric in the 19th-century United States has emphasized this simultaneous force of genre conventions and ingenuity of rhetors in navigating those conventions. Whereas romantic letters usually “are presumed to be natural and unstudied expressions of heartfelt love,” VanHaitsma argued the letters are “a rhetorically taught, learned, and crafted practice” (2019a, p. 14). With this attention to rhetorical teaching and learning, VanHaitsma examined popular letter-writing manuals, showing how they “taught not only the genre or form of the romantic letter but also heteronormative ends and even ways of being” (p. 10).7 More specifically, manual “instruction in genre conventions for epistolary address taught normatively gendered romantic coupling, instruction in conventions for the pacing of exchange taught normative restraint, and instruction in conventions for rhetorical practice taught a normative marriage telos” (p. 28). At the same time, letter-writing manuals taught invention strategies that rendered heteronormative genre conventions “prone to challenge through gender-crossing address, unrestrained outbreaks, and queer repurposing,” especially by letter writers participating in same-sex and other nonnormative romantic relationships (p. 37).
In crafting LGBTQ+ romantic letters that subvert the genre conventions taught by heteronormative forms of rhetorical education and cultural pedagogy, rhetors enact queer rhetorical practices. VanHaitsma defined as “queer” those “relational and rhetorical practices that were nonnormative within the context of 19th-century manual instruction in cultural norms and genre conventions” for the romantic letter, including epistolary “practices that were unconventional in their transgressions of generic boundaries while pursuing nonnormative romantic relations” (pp. 12–13). Thus situating queer epistolary practices in relation to heteronormative genre conventions, VanHaitsma analyzed the practices of rhetors who developed correspondence constitutive of same-sex and nonnormative romantic relations. She considered, for instance, the same-sex, cross-class romantic correspondence of the previously introduced Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus. These freeborn African American women exchanged well over a hundred extent romantic letters between 1859 and 1868. The letters suggest that the women “challenged the heteronormative gendering, pacing, and telos embedded within the genre instruction” of letter-writing manuals (p. 50). Rather than writing letters in pursuit of normative opposite-sex marriage, Brown and Primus developed a same-sex romantic and erotic relationship in which they used their epistolary exchange to discuss not only their relationship but also labor and racial politics.
Though archival collections of same-sex letters between 19th-century Black women are rare, Brown and Primus were by no means alone in developing epistolary rhetoric that queered cultural norms and genre conventions. Hawkins (2019) has observed how other women composed love letters in defiance of norms, considering “letters from Janet Flanner to Natalia Danesi Murray, from Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, from Emily Dickenson to Susan Huntington Dickinson, from Radclyffe Hall to Evguenia Souline, from Gertrude Stein to Alice B. Toklas” (p. 86). Hawkins interpreted these “letters as a practice of unmaking historical assumptions regarding sexuality and gender” (p. 87). Reading these historical letters alongside those by their father and even themself, Hawkins has envisioned “the love letter itself” as a genre “or form that always provides an aperture to the queer” (p. 144).
In recognizing LGBTQ+ romantic letters as a rhetorical genre, recent scholarship has made clear how love letters are not only evidence of LGBTQ+ rhetors, relations, and rhetorical situations, but also instances of LGBTQ+ rhetorical practice. Hawkins (2019) observed, for example, that they “learned the art of syntactical love making” through writing letters that were not “explicitly sexual” (p. 104). The rhetorical practice of writing was itself an act of love making, in other words, rather than mere documentation of whether or not sexual acts occurred outside the letters. In VanHaitsma’s (2019a) case, instead of offering an interpretation of Brown and Primus’s letters “that characterizes the nature of their romantic relations by trying to determine their erotic practices and what they did outside the letters,” she focused “on their rhetorical practices and what they did within the letters themselves” (p. 54). In these ways, scholars have shown how the most personal LGBTQ+ letters—intimate, romantic, and erotic letters—should be approached as rhetoric.8 Even at their most heartfelt or heated, LGBTQ+ letters must rhetorically navigate the generic conventions that recur within a culture and evolve over time, along with the social norms for gender and sexuality that are embedded in those conventions.
This rhetorical approach to LGBTQ+ letters has begun to inform studies of gender and sexuality with respect to opposite-sex romantic correspondence as well. Suzanne Bordelon (2018b) examined, for instance, the 19th-century “courtship-by-correspondence” of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe and Alexander Hill Everett (p. 296). Bordelon approached Clappe and Everett’s opposite-sex epistolary practices as rhetorically learned and crafted, as subject to genre conventions for the romantic letter (p. 304). In doing so, her analysis was able to show how both writers deployed generic conventions, and how Clappe in particular developed “the ability to directly and indirectly resist gendered expectations and the capacity to negotiate power and even benefit from it” (p. 318). Along similar lines, J. P. Hanly (2019) examined the courtship letters of another opposite-sex couple, Lucy Stone and Henry B. Blackwell. Hanly asked,
Did nineteenth-century romantic letters exchanged between women and men, like women’s letters to family and to female friends and lovers, serve as an important site for the sort of rhetorical work aimed at contesting the genre and gender conventions that VanHaitsma describes? (p. 286)
Hanly’s analysis of the Stone-Blackwell correspondence found that they “use[d] their letters to: explore their views on rhetoric; contest the genre and gender conventions being taught by manuals; and engender the possibility of forming a rhetorical alliance” (p. 285). Significantly, this alliance exceeded the heteronormative conception of marriage that was embedded in conventional courtship letters. Theirs was “a lifelong rhetorical and romantic alliance animated by shared aims and characterized by a commitment to thinking about and speaking on behalf of those aims together” (p. 293). As Hanly and Bordelon’s analyses of opposite-sex romantic letters have made clear, approaches developed for the study of LGBTQ+ letters as rhetoric have implications for understanding the rhetorical (re)gendering of romantic relations writ large.
Conclusions and Future Directions for Research
Informed by rhetorical genre theory, recent communication scholarship focused on queer intimate and romantic letters not only emphasizes the rhetorical dimensions of the genre but also informs studies of opposite-sex romantic epistolary rhetoric. Other scholarship typically is not focused on letters as a subject, yet considers correspondence as a hidden transcript relevant to understanding the rhetorical agency of LGBTQ+ people. Rhetorical scholarship more predictably concerned with overtly public and political communication considers the significance of letters to the editor, open letters, and letter-writing campaigns by LGBTQ+ communities and social movements. While all of these approaches treat LGBTQ+ letters as rhetoric, scholars have long examined letters as primary sources of information in histories of LGBTQ+ life and rhetoric. For this historical research, letters preserve and make available information about gendered relations from the past, while serving as key sites of contest over the queer public memory of historical figures. Letters also document a wide range of other kinds of background information about the rhetorical situations navigated by LGBTQ+ rhetors. In these ways, to repurpose the language of Angela G. Ray (2016) for queer rhetorical studies, a letter may be read “as a fragment of evidence, to support claims about historical context,” or “as a focal text” for “rhetorical analysis” (p. 55). Whether a LGBTQ+ letter functions as “context” or “text” depends “not on its physical or formal features but on the analytic purposes and processes of the scholar” (p. 43). Whether scholars underscore how LGBTQ+ letters are rhetoric, or simply draw on letters as records of information, letters are indispensable sources for the development of LGBTQ+ histories of rhetoric, studies of public memory, and research on communication.
Future studies of LGBTQ+ letters as rhetoric may address at last three underdeveloped areas of the extant scholarship. First, as in much LGBTQ+ scholarship, attention has gone mainly to lesbian, gay, and queer letter-writing practices. There have been few analyses of transgender epistolary rhetoric, though it is important to acknowledge the exception of work by Hatfield (2019), Sloop (2007), and West (2014), and virtually no analysis of bisexual, intersex, and Two-Spirit letter writing as such (VanHaitsma, 2021). Trans* coming out letters are an overlooked subgenre of LGBTQ+ epistolary rhetoric, to offer just one example, and other potential primary sources for analysis are included in the “Links to Digital Materials” and “Further Reading” sections. A second area for additional research involves LGBTQ+ epistolary rhetoric that is Indigenous, international, and/or written in languages other than English. Again, exceptional work by Abdi (2014, 2020), Chavéz (2013), and Driskill (2016) needs to be recognized, but studies of LGBTQ+ epistolary rhetoric, like much of rhetorical studies writ large, remain stubbornly North American and Eurocentric. The “Further Reading” section offers some resources for developing scholarship on Indigenous and international LGBTQ+ epistolary rhetoric in multiple languages. Doing so, however, will require challenging the colonialist and settler colonial conceptions of gender, sexuality, and rhetoric that undergird Western epistolary traditions (Driskill, 2016; VanHaitsma, 2019a, p. 106). Finally, building on Hatfield’s (2019) work, there is considerable room to expand the study of LGBTQ+ epistolary rhetoric through analyses of open letters that are circulated digitally. From social movement organizations and coalitions, to individuals coming out as various LGBTQ+ identities, people continue to harness the rhetorical power of the open letter form while capitalizing on the technical affordances of social media. These letters are published on organizational websites as well as circulated by social media accounts using hashtags that draw attention to the pressing exigencies that continue to face LGBTQ+ communities.
Links to Digital Materials
- LGBTQ Issues in Records, U.S. National Archives.
- ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives, USC Digital Library.
- Robinson, R. (2019). Dear my black, bisexual, freshman self: You are enough.
- Sexuality and Gender Identity History, U.K. National Archives.
- Szabo, S. (2013, March 8). “And I do mean all my life”: A trans* coming out letter. Autostraddle.
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- Griffin, F. J. (Ed.). (1999). Beloved sisters and loving friends: Letters from Rebecca Primus of Royal Oak, Maryland, and Addie Brown of Hartford, Connecticut, 1854–1868. Ballantine.
- Jones, C. (Ed.). (1997). The love of friends: An anthology of gay and lesbian letters to friends and lovers. Simon & Schuster.
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- Marchal, J. A. (2020). Appalling bodies: Queer figures before and after Paul’s letters. Oxford University Press.
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- VanHaitsma, P. (2018). African American rhetorical education and epistolary relations at the Holley School, 1868–1917. Advances in the History of Rhetoric, 21(3), 293–313.
- VanHaitsma, P. (2017). Romantic correspondence as queer extracurriculum: The self-education for racial uplift of Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus. College Composition and Communication, 69(2), 182–207.
- Abdi, S. (2014). Staying I(ra)n: Narrating queer identity from within the Persian closet. Liminalities, 10(2), 1–20.
- Abdi, S. (2020). Revisiting a letter for someday: Writing toward a queer Iranian diasporic potentiality. In S. Eguchi & B. M. Calafell (Eds.), Queer intercultural communication: The intersectional politics of belonging in and across differences (pp. 47–61). Rowman & Littlefield.
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- Bordelon, S. (2018a). “Courtship-by-correspondence”: Seduction through mentoring. Rhetorica, 36(3), 295–319.
- Bordelon, S. (2018b). Louise Clappe and The Shirley Letters: Indirect feminist rhetoric and the contradictions of domestic space. College English, 80(5), 449–470.
- Bordelon, S. (2018c). “Private letters” for public audiences: The complexities of ethos in Louise Clappe’s The Shirley Letters from the California mines, 1851–1852. Rhetoric Review, 37(1), 77–89.
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- Cloud, D. (2007). The first lady’s privates: Queering Eleanor Roosevelt for public address studies. In C. E. Morris (Ed.), Queering public address: Sexualities in American historical discourse (pp. 23–44). University of South Carolina Press.
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- Driskill, Q. (2016). Asegi stories: Cherokee queer and Two-Spirit memory. University of Arizona Press.
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- Gring-Pemble, L. M. (1998). Writing themselves into consciousness: Creating a rhetorical bridge between the public and private spheres. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 84(1), 41–61.
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- Hanly, J. P. (2019). “Then alone could the morning stars sing together for joy”: Engendering alliance in the Stone-Blackwell courtship correspondence. Rhetoric Review, 38(3), 285–296.
- Hansen, K. (1996). “No kisses is like yours”: An erotic friendship between two African-American women during the mid-nineteenth century. In M. Vicinus (Ed.), Lesbian subjects (pp. 178–207). Indiana University Press.
- Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in two acts. Small Axe, 16(2), 1–14.
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- Morris, C. E., III. (2007b). My old Kentucky homo: Abraham Lincoln, Larry Kramer, and the politics of queer memory. In C. E. Morris (Ed.), Queering public address: Sexualities in American historical discourse (pp. 93–120). University of South Carolina Press.
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- Poster, C., & Mitchell, L. C. (Eds.). (2007). Letter-writing manuals and instruction from antiquity to the present: Historical and bibliographic studies. University of South Carolina Press.
- Pritchard, E. D. (2017). Fashioning lives: Black queers and the politics of literacy. Southern Illinois University Press.
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- VanHaitsma, P. (2016). Gossip as rhetorical methodology for queer and feminist historiography. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 135–147.
- VanHaitsma, P. (2019a). Queering romantic engagement in the postal age: A rhetorical education. University of South Carolina Press.
- VanHaitsma, P. (2019b, February 22). What can “The Favourite” tell us about the rhetoric of queer letters? Citizen Critics.
- VanHaitsma, P. (2021) An archival framework for affirming Black women’s bisexual rhetorics in the Primus Collections. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 51(1), 27–41.
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4. The statement is reprinted and contextualized in Keeanga-Yamahtta (2017). Sources that consider the complexity of Black feminist theories of intersectionality and interlocking oppressions, while also accounting for questions of sexuality, include Olson (2012) and Cooper (2015).