By Kendra Sitton
Third-century martyr Saint Eugenia fled her family and disguised herself as a man to join a monastery in Rome in order to get an education. Going by Eugene, she moved up the ranks to become head of the monastery. However, she soon faced accusations of having a carnal relationship with a woman. At her trial, Eugenia showed her breasts and revealed her true identity. The monks did not think a carnal relationship between two women was possible. She got off.
“We can see the amusing doubledness,” SDSU professor emerita Bonnie Zimmerman said while sharing the saint’s story at Lesbians in History on March 28, hosted by the San Diego History Center.
“We look to the past for what validates our existence in the present,” Zimmerman said.
The lecture was part of the Balboa Park museum’s recognition of Women’s History Month and its current exhibit on LGBTQ+ history.
Curator of that exhibit and a long-time friend of Zimmerman, Lily Faderman, introduced her to the crowded room.
“We do it for the community, to introduce them to LGBT history, and this is a wonderful element. I think you can see how appreciated it was by the audience. We sold out and people were on the floor,” Faderman said.
Many of the women in the audience already knew her — they were former students during her decades-long career at SDSU where she pioneered the women’s studies program or had seen this same slideshow at other lesbian-centered events in San Diego.
Now a women’s studies professor herself at SDSU, Susan Cayleff praised Zimmerman for being an icon and pioneering the area of LGBT studies. She came to the event partially because the impact the slideshow has had in the community over the past decades in validating and honoring lesbian lives, and also for “the wonderful atmosphere in a lesbian-affirming space.”
“She’s [Zimmerman] really so much of San Diego history. She virtually started the lesbian studies at San Diego State. She came here in 1978 and she was in women’s studies, but she very bravely taught some of the first lesbian — some of the first courses in the United States in fact,” Faderman said. “That’s very special.”
Zimmerman spent years putting together the visual presentation that tracks how the modern lesbian identity was formed. She follows three strands throughout western cultures: sexual behavior between women, passionate or romantic love between women, and cross-gender behavior from women.
St. Eugene, or Eugenia, fell into at least two of these categories. Like many women in seeking freedom and safety in the medieval and early modern period, she went through life as a man. Her assumed maleness also allowed her to pursue relationships with women without repercussions.
Zimmerman noted historians kept better record of upper-class people, so many lower and middle-class women could have lived their whole lives as men with no record of them unless they were found out.
“If they did not get into trouble, we know nothing about them,” she said.
Another issue in the incomplete history of lesbians was due to censorship. According to Zimmerman, much of Sappho’s original poetry — which was explicitly erotic — was destroyed by Christians when they came to power. Still, the word “lesbian” is derived from the island where the Greek poetess resided.
This intentional erasure or denial of sexual attraction between women is part of what spurred Zimmerman’s work. She literally wrote the encyclopedia on it — the “Encyclopedia of Lesbian Histories and Cultures.”
While not a historian, Zimmerman uses what she described as an historical approach to modern lesbians.
“I am interested in how people and communities look to the past and things in history to validate who they are in the present,” she said. The women she shared about, according to Zimmerman, probably would not have called themselves lesbians or understood that identity. “But the choices they made are very recognizable. When we see them, we think that could’ve been me.”
Another issue in the historical record is that some erotic content was made for men’s gratification, more than as a validation of lesbian relationships, Zimmerman explained during a slide with an ancient tablet with two women touching.
“Is this for the male gaze? Maybe. But I’m a female and I’m gazing,” Zimmerman said to laughter from the audience.
She also detailed the passionate letters many prominent women in the U.S. sent to other women. Zimmerman said those romantic correspondences show poet Emily Dickinson and many women in the suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony, writing of their passionate love for other women.
Zimmerman said, “Women lived in sex-segregated worlds. Romantic love became a way to love each other free of the materialism of marriage.” They created tight bonds, and for many it was seen as the highest love you can have. “It makes you wonder how much lesbian sex was going on … I’d like to think that SBA [Susan B. Anthony] had a healthy sex life.”
For her final slide, Zimmerman showed a photo of her grandmother wearing men’s clothing and leaning against two other women. She said she did not know the photo existed until her grandmother died and now she wishes she had been able to ask her about who took the photo. Zimmerman urged the audience to find more lesbian history.
“It’s just wonderful to be a lesbian and to be here,” Zimmerman said.
— Reach Kendra Sitton at firstname.lastname@example.org.