A special issue of Feminist Theory edited by Ilana Eloit and Clare Hemmings

This special issue was published in December 2019 and there will be a celebration launch at the Laboratoire d’Études de Genre et de Sexualité (CNRS / Paris 8 University / Paris Nanterre University) on May 14th 2020. Here we take extracts from our Introduction to give a sense of the themes in the issue and to make the brilliant ideas in the articles available to the broadest possible audience. Please link here for the special issue’s contents page.

As editors of this special issue, we wanted to argue that the absence of lesbian theory and politics at the centre of feminist theory can be considered an instance of feminist ‘haunting’, which Avery Gordon has characterised as the ‘something-to-be-done’ (2008: xvi). Attending to the vaporous thereness of ghosts, we also wanted to follow Gail Lewis in her strategy for ‘presencing’ the untold stories and subjects obscured by dominant histories both within and outside feminism.

The ghost here is not primarily a figment or partial erasure coming back to comment on the present, though she is certainly that; she is also an agent in the encounter between theory and politics. In that regard, when pioneering lesbian thinker Monique Wittig famously asserted in 1978 that ‘‘[l]esbians are not women’’ (1992: 32), she radically subverted the second-wave feminist ordering of things for which ‘[f]eminism [was] the theory; lesbianism […] the practice’1 by elevating lesbianism to the status of feminism’s theory. It is in the wake and spirit of this Wittigian intellectual gesture that we ask in this special issue what happens to the intellectual, social and political history of feminism when lesbianism becomes feminism’s theory rather than its practice. Starting from lesbianism as feminism’s theory, the ghost here is also a lingering presence who ‘demands [. . .] your attention’ (Gordon, 2008: xvi). Following Gordon, we wanted to trace the ways in which encounters with ghosts hold particular promise for a creative and political response to feminism’s myopias as well as its possibilities. Black feminist theorist Saidiya Hartman (2019) has recently done just that and more, weaving together fiction, theory and archival traces of black queer life to tell a different story about sexuality, gender and race in the twentieth century, one in which intimacy becomes the locus for challenging social norms and reimagining desire outside of the scripts ascribed to black bodies. It is in this spirit of openness to presencing the precluded, of providing ‘a home for the unhomely and unbeautiful’ (Khanna, 2003: 268), that we issued our call for papers.

The term ‘lesbian ghost’ itself has a double meaning for us. It points to the sombre or playful nature of the repressed or sidelined both in relationship to feminism and elsewhere and when. But it also points to the ghosts that haunt lesbian identity, community, politics and theory: the unacknowledged subjects, practices and histories that lurk behind, beside or beneath dominant lesbian meanings. A lesbian ghost story – in our minds, and in the imaginations of the authors in this special issue – keeps the category ‘lesbian’ perpetually open; it is a lever to pry open other histories, and it is subject as much to its own hauntings, its own macabre attachments to singular accounts of the past. So as well as trying to track the colonial histories of gender and sexual deviance, we are also interested in exploring ways in which a category like ‘lesbian’ reproduces or displaces those histories in the service of whiteness. How do questions of class, race and location inflect what ‘lesbian’ means in relation to feminist or other histories? Or following Cameron Awkward-Rich (2017), how is the category ‘lesbian’ inflected with and through post/colonial and trans* histories and erasures? How do these interrelated hauntings inflect the shifting lesbian archive, ‘her’ brief appearances, meanderings and traces? Who are we following, when we track our lesbian ghosts, or ask what or who ghosts ‘the lesbian’?

Picture of purple and yellow hands against a black background

Photo credit: SMITH, “Spectrographies”, 2013. Courtesy galerie les Filles du Calvaire, Paris.

Starting from lesbian ghosts rather than lesbian identities was thus a way for us to refuse the kinds of certainties that have constituted so much of identity politics’ history. Considering lesbianism as a ghost who has haunted modern Western (feminist) history rather than as a fixed sovereign subject, we wanted to conceive of the lesbian as that which can never be contained, as that which is likely to surprise and frighten us. We also wanted to start from lesbianism as a break in the social order that brought her to life and reclaim that trauma. It is because she reveals the unnaturalness of society’s sexual, heteronormative and racial order that the lesbian is so scary and why we need to reinvest in her as a politically productive figure. The lesbian has long been considered too anachronistic, too backward or too essentialist by some strands of queer feminist theorising, or in a transnational decolonial vein too much of a Western spectre of colonial imposition.

The tracking of ‘lesbian ghosts’ is never only a description, then, in part because ‘ghost’ is not only a noun or a phenomenon, but also a question of method and genre. If we start from ‘ghosting’ or ‘ghostliness’ as always at the heart of lesbian history and experience, we are doing something different in ethical as well as epistemological terms. We are certainly trying to honour ‘monstrous’ presence of all kinds; we are looking to the ghouls to guide us. But ghosts are not only compelling, they are also frightening, and so this reckoning requires political as well as intellectual and individual courage. What kinds of solidarities might emerge from brief or lasting encounters with the ghostly presences whose noisy bumps in the night we have been taught to ignore? And if ghosts are behind, beside or beneath us, our mode of encounter might need to shift as necessary. If ‘it’s behind you’, it enters the ghoulish failed camp of the pantomime; if uncannily beside all along, the realm is more noir or psychological thriller; if beneath, we are in the terrain of horror. The politics of visibility or recognition seem to have little to offer us as our ghouls shape shift even as we think we have them cornered, ready to capture on camera. As such, chasing ghosts calls for a reconsideration of traditional hierarchies between researchers and objects of study: ghosts will always be ahead of the researcher, beating the latter at their own game. Ghosts are elusive, dismissive, terribly smart and brave. And perhaps most importantly, they love playing around and laughing at us. Thus, the tools we might need to survive and even thrive in the face of our ghostly lesbian encounters might include touch, smell, paranoia, rumours, memory, access to the memories of others or their DNA, tall as well as short stories, destructive exits and a dash of the hyperbolic. We might need to sit and wait as well, or listen carefully to the (sub-atomic or spiritual) vibrations in the room.

Ghostly Interventions

Starting from the longstanding opposition between lesbian and trans* trajectories within lesbian theory and politics exemplified by the distribution of transphobic leaflets at the 2018 London Pride, Alyosxa Tudor’s article proposes to read dyke and trans* theories, politics and histories as co-constitutive rather than antagonistic. Tudor explains that we should think of lesbians as not women in ways that acknowledge that both heteronormativity and racialisation are key in the emergence of gender. Explaining that trans* and lesbian categories can only be thought of as mutually exclusive to the extent that they are imagined as white, they thus foreground the ways in which decolonising gender in feminist theory paves the way for a rich political and theoretical reconfiguration of dyke and trans* genealogies.

Ilana Eloit’s article is based on four years of archival and oral history research on the Women’s Liberation Movement’s negotiation of lesbianism in France in the 1970s and 1980s. Eloit’s compelling argument is that lesbianism (and its radical difference from feminism) was foundational to a feminism craving Republican recognition. For Eloit, that recognition reinforces sexual difference at the heart of the polity, naturalising heterosexuality as a worth- while and perpetual struggle, and is the model for other forms of foundational non-recognition of difference (racial, cultural or religious). Eloit demonstrates that the lesbian haunting of feminism is conceived in racialised terms: lesbian difference is primitive and pre-social. Insofar as that haunting is parallel to racial alterity, lesbianism itself is written into feminism (and to the resistance to its placement) as white.

Gail Lewis’ interview tells a history of black and anti-racist organising in 1970s and 1980s London from a lesbian feminist perspective. Lewis teases out the ways in which racism has always been and remains at the heart of her engagements with the world as she draws a careful thread that connects her questions as a child in her (matriarchal) kitchen to her thinking about class and welfare, and that brings together her experience of feminist contexts that subordinate anti-racist analysis with her own path to addressing the wounds of racism in psychoanalytic psychotherapy. The interview is of course also a haunting of another kind, in that it is an oral history that values Lewis’s knowledge over time, reminding us of the importance of bringing ghosts to life through our own practices (of connecting, recording and reproducing).

Samar Habib gives readers access to extracts from her unpublished novel The Greatest Story Ever Written, whose focus is on the embodied experience of the transgenerational inheritance of desire and loss. In her poignant and exquisite prose, Habib’s characters experience lesbian or queer desire as an opening onto and into traumatic memory: their own, or that of their elders. Their desire for one another is never separate from the haunting of sexual violence in conflict and the carrying of memories from one time and place to another. For Habib, as for her narrator, desire and identification meet or falter through their ability to witness violence (in Beirut or Sydney). Habib’s work provides a different understanding of temporality to theorise lesbian desire and its ghosts.

Allyson Mitchell has worked as a lesbian feminist artist as well as theorist for several decades, producing work such as Killjoy’s Kastle: A Lesbian Feminist Haunted House and Ladies Sasquatch. Her work never seeks to domesticate, but rather pushes at the boundaries of the tasteful and tasteless, working with rather than alleviating straight anxiety about lesbian ghosts in our midst. In this piece, Mitchell reflects on her own artistic practice, telling a story of changing politics and theory through reading several decades of installations/interventions, and asking the important and elusive question of what counts as lesbian artistic practice. In the process, Mitchell introduces us to ghouls in the forms of familiar figures (familiars) and stereotypes (monsters) that raise difficult questions of representation.

Laurie Mompelat’s article is interested in the colonial and heteronormative ghosts that haunt the contemporary London arts scene. Providing an ethnographic account of the ways in which the Cocoa Butter Club, an alternative cabaret for queer of colour performers founded in 2016, seeks to redress cultural unintelligibility, they argue that queer of colour performances constitute powerful means to expose, address and disrupt the violence of white and heteronormative supremacy. Through burlesque, drag or voguing shows, performers carve out spaces not only to denounce Western practices of othering and cultural appropriation, but also to make room for subjectivities that have been made unthinkable within a white European imaginary. Mompelat’s article can also be read as a beautiful homage to all those activists and artists who have tired themselves out to provide safe homes, safe spaces for people whose identities are made unrepresentable by the dominant scripts governing (white) queer communities and (heteronormative) communities of colour.

Photo of Ilana EloitIlana Eloit is a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Laboratoire d’Études de Genre et de Sexualité). She holds a PhD from the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Entitled Lesbian Trouble: Feminism, Heterosexuality and the French Nation (1970-1981), her thesis was supervised by Clare Hemmings, and examined by Judith Butler and Rahul Rao (awarded with no corrections). Using an innovative methodology that combines queer and postcolonial theories, deconstructive readings of the feminist archive, and critical analysis of oral interviews, her thesis examines the repression of lesbian difference in the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement as a way of investigating the heterosexual complicity between French feminism and the French nation. Her research is especially interested in retelling feminist histories from the standpoint of their “failed” or “unauthorized” subjects. She lectures at Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye and teaches at Sciences Po Paris.

Photo of Clare HemmingsClare Hemmings is Professor of Feminist Theory at the Dept of Gender Studies, LSE, where she has been teaching and supervising graduate students for 20 years. She works at the intersections of feminist theory, queer and postcolonial studies, and has a particular interest in how participants in these overlapping fields tell stories about their history and current form. She is particularly concerned with the ways in which ideas travel (or do not) across geographical and temporal borders, and shift when considered from a feminist, queer or post/decolonial perspective. Throughout her work she has been concerned with the relationship between nationalism, feminism and sexuality, and with form as well as theory. As an interdisciplinary scholar she uses multiple methodologies and methods to explore how knowledge is produced and how we might make it work. She has published Bisexual Spaces (2002); Why Stories Matter (2011) and Considering Emma Goldman (2018).


  1. The quote is attributed to Ti-Grace Atkinson (Koedt, 1971: 246). See Anne Koedt (1971): ‘Lesbianism and Feminism’. In: Koedt, Anne, Ellen Levine and Anita Rapone (eds) (1973) Radical Feminism. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., pp. 246–258.