“Faithful amanuensis”: how the guise of friendship is used to erase lesbian relationships

“Nothing to see here folks. Just some gal pals drinking Baileys and chatting about Ryan Gosling’s abs.”

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“The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that by seeing nothing it might avoid Truth,” wrote Radclyffe Hall in the 1920s novel slash Lesbian Drama manifesto, The Well of Loneliness.

Hall, of course, was writing at a time when same-sex love was relegated to euphemism. Lesbianism was floral and secretive, like knickers made of William Morris wallpaper. In fact, “Oh you know Gladys; she sports the Morris drawers,” seems like the sort of thing that may have been murmured over crumpets while a gramophone wheezed out Al Jolson.

In the same vein, lesbian relationships were and, in some cases, continue to be brushed off as close friendships. From Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to Kristen Stewart and… various women, lesbian couples in the public eye have been “just friends” for a while. Those who hyperventilate at the idea of two women involved in anything cosier than a pillow fight, it seems, are allowed to set the agenda: “Nothing to see here folks. Just some gal pals drinking Baileys and chatting about Ryan Gosling’s abs.”

There’s a real tragic comedy to the euphemistic close female friendship. It’s like going to the zoo and watching a dad’s jaw drop when his five-year-old son asks him why one giraffe is trying to “climb” another.

“It’s a special cuddle,” the dad says, hastily steering Arthur towards the flamingo enclosure. “They’re best friends. Best giraffe friends.”

Not that I’m comparing Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas to two rutting giraffes. But maybe it was a metaphorical prudish dad who – even in Penguin’s most recently printed version of Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – referred to the couple as “friends” in the About the Author section. Toklas is also described as Stein’s “faithful amanuensis”. Which, to be fair, is hot.  And also the most William Morris wallpaper term for “girlfriend” I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I need to explain the comedy of  “faithful amanuensis” much further, but the tragedy of it is possibly less obvious.

When Stein died in 1946, she left a chunk of her estate to Toklas. But since a same-sex partnership had no legal validity, Stein’s family made a grab for, among other things, some Picassos that were part of the very collection Toklas had helped cultivate. Stein’s “faithful amanuensis” was left without a scrap of her rightful inheritance.

Close friendships between women, in and of themselves, are beautiful and essential. But when the guise of friendship is used to demote or even erase lesbian relationships, it takes on a whole new meaning. I don’t want to roll my eyes at certain women being described as “close friends”, but some of the world’s dustiest people have forced me to do just that.

Look at best buds Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Like Stein and Toklas, the real intensity of their relationship was unveiled posthumously and via thousands of discovered love letters. “Hick darling,” writes Roosevelt, “…Remember one thing always, no one is just what you are to me.” I’m going to take a mildly educated guess at “just what you are” not being a “faithful amanuensis”. And yet the nature of Roosevelt and Hickok’s relationship remains “controversial”. To quote Biz Markie:

“YOU, YOU GOT WHAT I NEED, BUT YOU SAY HE’S JUST A FRIEND, BUT YOU SAY HE’S JUST A FRIEND…”

Etc, etc. I’m not sure Biz meant for his 1989 hit, Just A Friend, to be read as a searing critique of the interpretation of lesbian love as “close friendship” espoused by a society that, in the tradition of Queen Victoria, cannot even begin to imagine two women doing anything more sexual than accidentally brushing hands beside a twilight-kissed pond. But, you know, reception theory.

So just how out did you have to be, back when homosexuality was still a crime in much of the western world, for your relationships not to be demoted to friendships? Joe Carstairs, born in 1900, was a cross-dressing, boat-racing heiress. Her relationships with both Marlene Dietrich and (I shit you not) Greta Garbo weren’t “friendships”, they were “affairs”. And they were public knowledge. It probably helped that Carstairs owned her own Bahama, Whale Cay, on which she was free to, err, motorboat to her heart’s content.

Understandably, not everyone was Joe Carstairs. While contributing to the erasure of loving and committed same-sex relationships that frankly deserve way more history book space than whatever posh fascist nonsense went on between Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson, the “close friendship” euphemism also projects a completely unfair salaciousness onto historic lesbian couples.

It’s all so eye-wateringly “the love that dare not speak its name”. The “just friends (wink)” trope is still so deeply lodged in the collective lesbian consciousness that if, as a queer woman, you haven’t been on three dates with someone and still had absolutely no clue whether you’re “more than friends…” you should teach a class. I’d be the first to show up to that.

“Finding you gal pals,” says gay/bi women’s dating app HER, as it locates singles in your area. There’s nothing like a wry nod to Sapphism’s secretive past in – of all things – the achingly millennial world of dating apps. I wonder which emojis would’ve been most prevalent in their messages, had Gertrude and Alice met on Tinder. Which one says, “Ours is a love like no other, for we sport the William Morris drawers”? The crying cat face, maybe.  

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist.