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Latina butch/femme literatures and cultural productions are essential components of the lesbian, gender, queer, and ethnic literary canons of the late 20th century. While butch/femme—a term that references particular lesbian sexual cultures and queer female gender practices—emerged within working-class and lesbian-of-color communities roughly in the 1940s, Latina lesbians in the 1980s and 1990s began to use the anthology form to pronounce boldly how their lesbian sexualities, erotic desires, and alternative gender expressions mutually informed their racial, ethnic, and class-based identities. While anthologies created the space to engage butch/femme and its racialized class meanings of butch/femme, the growth in women of color feminist theories further catalyzed writers to contextualize their earlier provisional embrace of Latina butch/femme, which feminist, lesbian, and ethnic nationalist ideologues variously derided. Still, while Latina lesbian cultural production and literary output increased, engagements with butch/femme were veiled, with some accounts paralleling the larger social unease with what many believed enforced the reproduction of oppressive heterosexual dynamics. While photographic images indelibly document the ubiquity of butch/femme lived practice, the literary archive of explicitly imagined and referenced Latina butch/femme is limited, and its overall force lies in its suggestive discursive qualities and a late 20th century iconic set of authors with which it is associated. Key writers of the period tended to meditate extensively on Latina butch gender and sexuality concerns, while it was not until the turn of the 21st century that the Latina femme garnered the same in-depth critical treatment. The decoupling of butch/femme also enables an expansion of discrete critical and creative femme and butch offerings, while writers settle into unequivocally evoking the erotic grammars of butch/femme gender and sexuality in forms of poetry, novel, and film.

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Judith Roof

Inspired by women’s emotional and sexual desires, lesbian poetics offers a passionate and lyrical tradition of prose, poetry, experimental literatures, and critical analysis that both celebrate women’s relationships to women and consider the patriarchal, heteronormative pressures that have silenced lesbian art and expression in dominant cultures. As an aesthetics addressed to women by women, lesbian poetics combines art and politics as an aesthetic practice that expresses fervor, devotion, passion, resentment, and a sense of pushing back against oppressive institutions. Emerging during the second wave of feminist activism in the 1960s and 1970s, the work of such writers as Rita Mae Brown, Monique Wittig, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Nicole Brossard, Judy Grahn, Dionne Brand, Olga Broumas and others linked a specifically lesbian aesthetics of cultural critique simultaneously to the investments of the women’s movement and to a more overt declaration of the presence and power of lesbian desire. Inheriting a tradition of modernist lesbian expression from such writers as Natalie Barney, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Hall, and Violette Leduc, the lesbian writers from the latter part of the twentieth century more openly celebrated a specifically lesbian set of aesthetic and cultural concerns, extolling lesbian existence and developing modes of narrative, poetics, and criticism that combined lyricism, a consciousness of struggle, and an expansion of the possibilities of literary forms as a means for proclaiming lesbian intensity and liberation. Ever mindful of both the women’s community and the pleasures of broad connection, lesbian poetics avoided iterating the limiting binaries that sustained heteronormative ways of thinking, offering instead multiplicity, diversity, and a variety of new ways of thinking and expressing the ardent, erotic, and communal relations among women.