Speculation about a person’s sexuality does not sit well with me, but it is essentially what Queer History is all about. Before the Wom*n’s History movement was able to examine the experience and influence of women in History, it first had to uncover their existence. This is about the stage we are at with Queer History.
The victors write history, and there is no denying that the biggest winner of all has been heteronormativity. So the first task for the queer historian is to demonstrate that queer sexualities have existed through time. Due to the limited availability of sources providing insight into female sexuality and sexual agency (see: patriarchy), it is even more difficult, and unlikely, to uncover a Queer Wom*n’s History*.
Marie Antoinette is best known for saying, in the face of a French peasantry starved of bread, “let them eat cake.” The truth of the legend is doubtful. It is far more likely, however, that Marie was engaged in decadent, pastel-silked, high-femme embraces with the ladies at court. Her close and intimate relationships with certain ladies, particularly Madame de Polignac and Princess de Lamballe, were the subject of rumour and gossip throughout her lifetime. Marie’s lesbian inclinations have been hinted at in Radcylffe Hall’s 1928 lesbian classic The Well of Loneliess, and more recently in Farewell My Queen (2013), directed by Benoit Jacquot.
The Well of Loneliness (spoilers!) takes place as news of the Storming of the Bastille reaches Versailles, and follows the intimate relationship between Marie Antoinette and de Lamballe, who was the Queen’s favourite at the time. The film depicts de Lamballe’s escape from France before the Revolution and the overthrow of the monarchy. What the film does not depict is the gruesome death of de Polignac at the hands of the mob, involving a symbolic removal and display of her genitalia. The murder was a direct result of the rumoured lesbian love affair.
During her reign as Queen Marie Antoinette, Marie was often accused and depicted in pamphlets by her enemies as engaging in the “German Vice” (code: super dyke). These may, after all, have simply been rumours, as most heterosexual historians would argue. It is clear, though, that the rumours were based on the intimate, and perhaps suspicious relationships Marie cultivated with particular women. During the well known seven-year gap between their marriage and their first child, Marie gathered about her a tight-knit group of friends, including the de Lamballe and de Polignac, and retreated from court as much as possible to spend time with them. Prior to their intimate relationships with Marie, neither de Lamballe nor de Polignac was influential at court. De Polignac was named Superintendent to the Queen’s House, and de Lamballe Governess to France’s Children (the royal children), ensuring their continual, intimate access to the Queen.
The long, barren marital period has commonly been blamed on Louis XVI, who is frequently charged with impotence, disinterest, and awkwardness. What has not been explored, however, is the role that Marie played in delaying her marital obligations for as long as possible. Both de Polignac and de Lamballe were not without their marital problems either. There is a common argument that de Lamballe could not have been engaging in a sexual or emotionally romantic relationship with Marie because she was “prudish”, even with her husband. I don’t know about you, but she sounds super gay to me. So was Marie Antoinette a lesbian? Obviously substantial evidence is scarce, but if there is even the slightest chance that this femme dreamboat was one of us, I’m sure going to claim it.
*This author recognises that the Queer Histories of POC, Trans* and Intersex, the lower classes, and other oppressed persons are even more difficult to substantiate due to increased invisibilities.