Emily Dickinson, Lesbian?: Her Letter to Susan Gilbert, in June of 1852, Might Tell Us Less Than You Think

Was Emily Dickinson lesbian?

Some scholars think so. 

Below is a letter that Dickinson sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert.

It certainly sounds like a letter written by a lesbian.

But is this just an artifact of our being 21st century, post-Freudian readers?

Would the innuendos that, to us, seem to jump off the page, have jumped off the page to a 19th century reader?

If not, would we say that the lesbianism is present, but simply sublimated?

Although barely 150 years have passed, why is it that scholars cannot agree on the implications of this letter?

Is it politics? Homophobia? The shifting nature of language? And if we cannot agree on how this letter would have registered as a message to its first audience (Susan Gilbert), why are we so cocksure that we can readily interpret texts that are far older, such as the plays of Euripides or the Gospel of Mark?

Is a contemporary reading of an old piece of writing more a reading INTO something, rather than a reading OF something?

Or is this just too difficult a question to tackle? Should we just assume that our plain readings of old writings are what their authors would have intended us to have, and leave it at that?

By this reasoning, isn’t it obvious from the letter below that Emily Dickinson was a lesbian, or at least bisexual, and that Susan Gilbert would have read the letter as such?

But was she, really? Are you sure?

Here’s Dickinson’s letter, written June 11, 1852:


I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e’en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.

I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie — Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, don’t let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them! Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here — and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes. Three weeks — they can’t last always, for surely they must go with their little brothers and sisters to their long home in the west!

I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for till now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.

Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you — I at last say my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are — and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them — they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of something faithful which “never slumbers nor sleeps” — Keep them ‘neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the “blessed contrie”! You and I will have an hour with “Edward” and “Ellen Middleton”, sometime when you get home — we must find out if some things contained therein are true, and if they are, what you and me are coming to!

Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her’s, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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169 Responses to Emily Dickinson, Lesbian?: Her Letter to Susan Gilbert, in June of 1852, Might Tell Us Less Than You Think

  1. Anonymous says:

    That was beautiful and the ending was adorable.

  2. Sasha says:

    It does not matter if Dickson was lesbian or bisexual or straight all that matters is the amazing poetry she left us and indeed this letter is so beautiful, romantic and sincere. A kind of letter all of us would like to receive from our beloved ones.

    • In agreement with Sasha, though the question does arouse an intresting topic, with an answer that is indeed burnig to be opened like that of a present.
      I sort of do wish she was a lesian, seems more odd and adds more depth to her poetry.

      • Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

        sasha – there a millions of stright poets to find a lesbien poet can connect over lesbiens to her. Sayyy i was struggling to find the courage to tell people i was a homosexual woman reading her poetry might help aswell as a lesbian authored book might or a song. It brings an extra charater to emily turns her from a poet a hundred years ago to a human being just like me wanting to be heard. beautiful letters gives me butterflys 🙂

      • Lisa Green says:

        @Aisha_volcano-depths Why does she have to be lesbian to be a human being wanting to be heard? Surely she should be thought of as a beautiful human soul who wrote heartfelt poetry regardless of her sexuality?

        This isn’t a homophobic comment, and I agree that it might help others to connect to her if she were a lesbian, but whether she was or wasn’t won’t change the fact that she is ALREADY a relatable human being wanting to be heard. I take offence in you thinking that her being heterosexual automatically turns her in to a dismissible poet from a hundred years ago.

        (But I’m glad you found the courage in yourself 🙂 I wish you all the best)

    • Anonymous says:

      ur SOOOO Right!

    • Eliese Besemer says:

      Ah, but does it not? If she was, then seeing her writing through that lens sheds a whole new light on her work. If we look at the sociopolitical conditions of the time, the culture, the understanding of love, the nature of love, her writing about loneliness, or her writing about being kept out of heaven, might we not gain a tremendous insight into her mind, her life? Or at the very least, he work? Being a lesbian, in this instance, goes far beyond the politics of morality. You’re right that it doesn’t matter if she was or wasn’t. But that type of comment is a judgment about her worth as an artist, as a human being. What I’m talking about goes far beyond that, or perhaps, in a completely different direction. I’m not wondering about her worthiness, or her appropriateness; it’s not a judgment of any kind. What I am considering is the effect that discovering one’s affections are for one’s own sex, in a time when it was not understood to be an ‘identity,” yet still inappropriate, might have. If she were lesbian, how did it affect her writing? Her thinking? Her demeanor? Her attitude toward friends, particularly women friends? How did it affect her emotionally, and how did that affect her poetry? To understand the mindset, the emotional condition of the artist might give one a deeper insight into their art, or, perhaps, a completely different insight. And really, such poetry as Dickinson’s (anyone’s?) is a commentary on humanity, on human life, emotion, interaction, the desire’s of the heart and soul and mind.

      So, does it matter if she was a lesbian? In terms of her worthiness, in any sense, absolutely not. But, in terms of her art? Then yes, it most certainly does. For if she was, and we choose to ignore that fact because of social pressure, a warped sense of morality or because we simply disapprove, then we miss out on the real artist, the real Emily Dickinson. And then, what’s the point?

      • hardylyn says:

        I love your last paragraph above. Yes Emily is who she is and an artist expresses through or behind the veil of who she is afraid she needs to be, yet tells it slant to tell it true. Blessed be that she wrote and we can now read her. Yes, if we can’t be real and feel real and express real, what’s the point? Stll this world is the mess it is and slant is very often realer than straight.

    • Anonymous says:

      I love this response.

  3. santitafarella says:


    I agree in general terms that it doesn’t matter what sexual orientation Dickinson had, but in terms of thinking about language and interpretation, and crossing time and space to read authors, it is worth thinking about (as an intellectual exercise).


  4. nibblespps says:

    Yes,this is a very sweet letter.Without Susan’s response it is very difficult to know their feelings for each other.If this is a love letter it might only be one sided.Maybe knowing Emily,Susan just knew Emily put alot of feeling into her words.Women were very affectionate back then towards one another.I don’t blame Susan if they had an affair though,Emily was smart and a cuttie from seing that photo of her as a teen.

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  6. imgaytoo:) says:

    wow, as a fellow homosexual, i appreciate this letter and just wish that Susan had written a response so that we could investigate the true feelings…really cute though

    • Ruby Walker says:

      Emily’s sister Lavinia burned all her letters after she died, so we can’t know what Susie said in return. But like… C’mon.

      • ra says:

        tbh, that fact alone sort of implies that there was a reason to burn those letters. you don’t just say, “ah, my sister died, guess i’ll burn all the super emotional letters she and another woman shared, seems like the thing to do!”

  7. person says:

    To me it doesn’t sound as if she were lesbian. It wouldn’t matter of course if she was. The letter gave me the feeling that Emily and Susan had a beautiful childhood and friendship. and the kiss at the end could be interpreted many ways. Im Bi and I really didnt get a picture of ” omg i love her but im shy to tell her” it was more of a ” I miss you” kiss I would to if I hadn’t seen a friend or bf/gf in a long time but still lovely letter.

  8. Morgan says:

    I think That It doesnt Really Matter if your “Different” or not. But you can admit that in this, she does seem to be lesbian. She seems to be in love with Susie

  9. Jessica says:

    As A lesbian, Either way It doesnt matter if Emily was a lesbian, bi, or not (: But It would me alot to me if she was.. Concidering people put homosexuals down and to know that someone with that much talent could be like us.. then, it makes me happy.. but this truely is a wonderful letter and the writing and meaning was beautiful.

  10. holly says:

    she is a total lesbo and i have no problem with that

  11. hardforthem says:

    mmm that was hot i’ve got a real hard on now…. why did it have to stop when it was getting to the good part?

  12. Aynsley says:

    Knowing much of Dickinson’s writings, I would say that this letter exposes deep emotions of the heart akin to romantic love – not familial or friendly. Dickinson knows her heart, and she knows how she feels. It is, indeed, adorable in the way she exposes these feelings towards Susan, and in her coyness she comes off as young and friendly – perhaps her intention, lest Susan not reciprocate her feelings.
    However, this does not make her a lesbian. She has written of love for men before. Considering her poetry was not written for the public, it is to be considered that her writings are for herself and her emotions, and therefore she would be bisexual.
    It matters not to me her orientation, for her writing is the largest of all matters – it is simply brilliant and I am honored to be bathed with her words daily. Susan Gilbert was a lucky woman, whether she realized Dickinson’s attractions or not.

  13. santitafarella says:


    Nicely said.


    • Aynsley says:

      Thanks. Dickinson is probably the writer I have studied most – in school and on my personal time. To call her a passion of mine would be a bit of an understatement.

  14. santitafarella says:


    There is a great DVD documentary on Emily Dickinson titled “Loaded Gun.” It played on PBS a time or two, and one of my friends had a copy and I used to show the documentary to classes that I teach.

    I can’t seem to locate it at Amazon, but if you ever find this documentary, you should check it out.


  15. Aynsley says:

    Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll see if I can find it 🙂

  16. It’s of no real relevance to her poetry whatsoever whether she was straight, gay or bisexual, but from this letter I think it’s safe to assume that Emily Dickinson did have some form of same-sex attraction. The reference to violets seem to be a cryptic indication – Sappho was said to have garlanded her lovers in wreaths of violets, they’re a ‘lesbian’ flower (as much as a flower can ever have a sexual orientation!) and it seems strange for Dickinson to focus on the name of the flowers so explicitly unless there’s a reason for it.

    • Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

      flowers are gay arent they?? in some flower version anyway haha. dont you like someone more when you have some sort of bond? for her to be a lesbien and a pretty one makes me what to know more about her and her work rather than some one like i dont know T S elliot??

    • Mathilde says:

      Sappho mentioned more flowers. Only the lesbians of nowadays gave the violet this connotation.
      (…..). “all the violet tiaras,
      braided rosebuds, dill and
      crocus twined around your young neck

      “myrrh poured on your head (…..)

  17. Travis says:

    Emily’s romantic obsession with Susan was conducted safely through the mail, and appears to have remained within the realm of fantasy. It would be misleading to think of Dickinson as a lesbian, in the sense in which the word is used today, to denote not only sexual practice but also as identity. No such identity was possible for Dickinson. There was never any question of her stepping outside the family and social boundaries.

  18. Unknown says:

    Of course Emily is expressing passionate romantic love. I never once felt like that to my friends, but I sure did to my romantic love. Romantic love is biological, not social, and it always feels the same, no matter who the love object is! No matter whether the
    person feeling the love loves the same sex or the opposite sex.

  19. ♥Blayne♥ says:

    This is so beautiful. She has such a way with words. As everyone else has said, it doesnt matter what sexual orientation she is, we are just lucky she left behind all this beautiful poetry!♥

  20. GMG says:

    It is so easy for most to say “it does not matter” whether Emily was a lesbian, bisexual, or straight. But personally, it matters a great deal to me. I seek amazing people in history who see the world as I do–or at least similiarly. For so many years, my world was utter confusion so to read her early poems–it nearly sets my mind at ease. This is not just about her sexuality, but her religious beliefs as well. It’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter because we all know that we will never fully know the truth. However, I’d like to share one of her older poems written in 1877 (Emily was 47). It is poem 1401 for all you Dickinson fans.

    To own a Susan of my own
    Is of itself a Bliss–
    Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,
    Continue me in this!

    While it is often argued that friendships were unusually passionate in the 19th century and Emily’s affections for Susan were as such, this very brief poem seems to refute that argument. Why would Emily be willing to “forfeit a realm of Heaven” if her affections were purely friendship? This is a prayer for the woman she loves and a confession that she is willing to forgo eternity with God–for Susan’s love. Were the feeling reciprocated? This we do not know. But, how many people do you know that have held this kind of passion for over 30 years–without something on the other side. My opinion, of course.

    • Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

      Agreee Agree Agree!!! that is such a beautiful poem. i can imagin the pain and suffering she went through writting this and wanting the person she loved to be with her. no wonder she went slightly crazy it was a 30 year broken heart

    • Anonymous says:

      This is my opinion:
      No-one has mentioned yet that Emily and Susan knew one another well before Susan became Emily’s sister-in-law. And, isn’t it wonderful that all “art” is interpretive? If you wish to make “Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord” into heaven, it meets your needs just fine. Please though, exploring poetry is a personal journey, and every person is entitled to read “as they see.” It pleases me that you wrote, “My opinion,” at the end. It might have been more considerate of your readers to place it at the start of the paragraph. In that way you are not dictating how the poem ought to be understood!
      As for Emily, we all know that she had a way with words. In addition to people, she loved Nature in all glory (flowers, birds, bees, the weather) and, having such a lasting friendship with Susan was very meaningful to her. Emily clearly carries deep affection for Susan, though that does not mean it was played-out physically. I for one am happy to know her poetry, and I’d rather place my energy there, never knowing (or caring of) the truth.

  21. Tim says:

    This doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian. She could have been, but maybe she was a devoted friend? That could have been. The poor woman locked herself in her home and never left. That has to mess with your mind; maybe this Susie was her only friend.

    • Andre Fruge says:

      I agree. In my opinion, she was expressing her deep affection for her friend. It gets a little confusing when she mentions the kiss, however, i have to ask; would we say she was a lesbian if no one had ever mentioned it? The power of suggestion can be very strong and can easily change someones point of view and opinion. Why cant we just take the poem as is, enjoy it and label Emily as anything but a child of God, a great poet, artist and a human being.

      • frauposaune says:

        Some of us would likely say that she was expressing more than just platonic love for a friend without mention of the kiss, yes. I agree that we can simply enjoy the poem without labeling her as anything other than a poet. But, we also should not simply dismiss the possibility that she felt romantic love for this woman simply because we don’t want to consider it. Whatever the nature of her love, it is a beautiful thing, an incredible gift of human emotion. Personally, I believe that she is expressing romantic love here, but that doesn’t mean that you have to experience it the same way. That’s the beauty of art—it speaks to each of us in a language we can best u der stand or appreciate. Just enjoy it without telling someone else how to do the same. I think, perhaps, that is your point?

    • Mathilde says:

      She probably did not leave her home when she was older because she had a disease at her kidneys. Nephritis can cause the symptom of having to urinate very often and can give an odor of urine. This disease can have been the reason she always wore white clothing later in life. Because her clothes had to be washed often. Her kidney disease also might be the reason she did not want to see people she did not know very well later in life. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily-dickinson-and-death/

  22. Anonymous says:

    Look at it from a different angle – what if the 19th century was not an an age of devoted friendship but an age of subliminal homoeroticism? “The love that dare not speak its name” et cetera. Maybe this very letter is the result of a conflict between a culture that was very much about passion, feelings and individual expression on one side, and did not allow homosexuality on the other. Can a friendship of such devotion that is described in such a flowery way be free of erotic attraction, whether in the 19th, 20th or 21st century? I doubt it.
    I sometimes have the feeling that people become very nervous facing homosexuality even nowadays. If there is ever something like “may be or may be not”-homosexuality in the air, many people always state that to them it didn’t matter, seemingly out of reflex or out of fear that it could be turned against them if they ever defined a person by his or her sexuality. But I read a poem – not scientificly, but in private – very differently if it is by a woman for a man or by a woman for someone of her own sex.

    • katarzyna says:

      I think it doesnt matter it is lesbian or not. It is LOVE no matter hetero or homo. Friendship is LOVE. This is a great poetry. Genius is beyond sex. By the way what lesbianism really means?

  23. 000819*982 says:

    kute ❤

  24. carlos says:

    she like girls that is veryy mesup

  25. carlos says:

    u know what i am saying

  26. 000819*982 says:

    i dont ! i dont even know you !

  27. carlos says:

    yes u do i am right next to u

  28. carlos says:

    who in the world is tim

  29. carlos says:

    u are in the same class

  30. Anonymous says:

    no i am not !

  31. She wasnt a lesbian..if at all she was bisexual..because she was probably more so in love with men..but even if she was also somewhat interested in women too..she’d never tell you but her feelings would show through her writings like this letter here..doesnt mean she wanted to express this physically or in relationship wise..it could be that her love was very deep for her friends and childhood memories but not quite of the romantic love your talking about… If u understood emily through her poetry, you would know this(;

    • GMG says:

      Have you read her nearly 2000 poems as well as all her letters? A physical relationship is such a small part of love…especially between two women. I think to form a sound opinion, one would need to a) be female; and b) fall in love with a female friend. Not to mention actually read all her poems and letters…remaining open to possibility. Personally, I think labeling Emily is a mistake. I think labeling anyone is boxing them in and cutting off their wings. The bottom line is that we will never truly know an answer–there is no right or wrong. All we have is what she has tangled up in her amazing poetry and breath-taking letters. Opinions need facts and we have a few thousand to base our opinions on.

      • Ive read many of her poems…probably not as much as u..haha, but i know how she expresses her words, & your rite about labeling emily..shes one of a kind thats impossible(: & as for my opinion before..i am a female & ive fallen in love with a female friend twice.but i chose to keep it in my heart or through writing..such as emily..& its for no one to ask about!(: love your admiration for her..

      • Manly Man Joe says:

        “I think to form a sound opinion, one would need to a) be female; and b) fall in love with a female friend. ”

        No, and no. You don’t have to be a woman or a lesbian to form a sound opinion. When did people start believing that having a bias made your opinion more sound??? Its quite the opposite. .

    • Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

      but how boring if it were true… another great stright poet to the list
      GMG – whattttt i agree with your disagreement of labeling but cutting off her wings??? if anything its giving her wings!! being a lesbien is like being in a secret group an excitting journey no stright person would ever know. I love emily dickison because she didnt fit into sociating and because she may have been in our secret group. her poetry of loving another woman is so beautiful and i can relate to her feelings and emotions like i could never a stright poet. but thats just opinions

    • maria89 says:

      at the very least lady, the best that can be said would still be subjective.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure whether Emily was a lesbian/bi-sexual woman, but I know what it is like to miss your best friend, and it seems like she simply misses Susie. She may have had an attraction to Susie as well, but if you had not been informed that Emily “may have been” a lesbian, you might read this poem entirely differently. Of course, this was a private letter, so it very well could have been a love letter, but you have to consider that this was, after all, her sister-in-law. And besides, it’s really no one’s business anyways (:

    • Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

      susan was deleted from losts of emilys poems after her death so why do that if they are only friends? its our business because its an exciting lesbien love story and i for one would like to know more

  33. GMG says:

    The bond between women is definitely a strong one and yes, perhaps Emily’s and Susan’s bond was just friendship. However, it is impossible to simply read this letter and form a conclusion. It would be like taking one Psalm out of the Bible and basing your religion around it (though many people do this!). Scholars have studied Emily’s poems and letters to Susan for over a century and it does the curious soul justice to read more than just one! Martha Nell Smith, a well-known Dickinson scholar, has a couple of books out on the subject of Emily’s relationship with Susan… as well as numerous literary essays on this subject and more. Forming an opinion simply using this letter is like chosing a political candidate from only television ads. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”

    Oh and to those not aquainted with the three “Master letters” she wrote–obviously love letters… Emily hated conformity so don’t be fooled by her use of a very masculine name as “Master.” She often played with gender and she just may have written these three letters to the one who was a “Master” of her heart–the one who taught her so much…slightly less than Shakespeare (paraphrased from her letters).

  34. hot4emily@yahoo.com says:

    Emily was a babe. Susan would have been lucky to go down on that. I’d kiss her, she had some luscious lips. Yummy!

  35. Aisha_volcano-dephs says:

    I wish it were true, a lesbian love story, yet so much more. does anyone know the date she sort of locked herself away? maybe susan moved far away or told her she didnt love her or maybe susan died? im a lesbien but i’d still find a man attractive and i find it much more beautiful and sexual and sensual for to women to be cresing eachova and holding one another than a stright couple together. theres something very beautiful about it and i really see it in emilys writing eventhough she only talks of a womans breasts (maybe susans). i love her!

  36. Olivia says:

    Thats disgusting. God’s got a problem with that.

  37. Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe how beautiful and romantic that was. Love isn’t about the thin boundry of flesh that defines our birth sex, it transcends that.

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  39. avi says:

    its a mixture of friendship yet much more..especially in the very end of her letter..who knows..things were different back then..it was a beautiful letter never the less..quiete captivating

  40. rejectreality101 says:

    This is a truly thoughtful and beautiful letter, and it may have passed as just a letter between two friends if it wasn’t for the end. Either way, Emily Dickinson is a wonderful poet.

  41. william says:

    What modern 20th and 21st century people forget is the commonplace acceptance of “romantic” friendships, back in the earlier 18th and 19th centuries. It was not uncommon to see boyhood and girlhood friends, fully grown, holding one another’s hands or holding each other tenderly, especially in posed photographs, which usually required holding still for long periods of time. I believe there was no sexuality or sensuality implied in those embraces. Remember, public displays of affection between the opposite sexes was absolutely taboo back then. Among same sex, it was seen as just plain old friendly affection. Today, same sex displays of affection have an entirely different implication. Emily Dickinson was a passionate and romantic gal, for sure. She was probably on being playful, girlish with a long-time friend. But I highly doubt she was very self-aware of what we would call a sexual identity.

    • GMG1224 says:

      While I do agree about the differences in friendships, define “girlish.” Emily lived in her poems–through them. “To own a Susan of my own / is of itself a bliss / Whatever realm I forfeit, Lord / continue me in this.” If she and Susan were just friends, why would she be forfeiting a realm of Heaven? Emily was a complex woman and very insightful. I’m quite sure she was aware of sexuality. Read “Wild Nights, Wild Nights.”

  42. GMG1224 says:

    What has been socially constructed is sexual identity. I believe that Susan was the love of Emily’s life, but I do not really see it as “lesbian.” There were men in her life too (Judge), as would be expected.

  43. william says:

    girlish meaning not a mature sensuality.
    I still believe that sexuality was not acted upon or thought about in those days, in the same way it is now. It certainly wasn’t talked about…ever.

    • Steve says:

      In artistic circles (poets, painters, writers, sculptors,etc.) there were many well known lesbians at the end of the 19th century. And in some places there were relatively open. Paris most notably was well known as a city with many gay and lesbian artists.

      What complicates this a lot is the concept of romantic friendship. At that time it was hardly uncommon for women (and also men) who were very close friends to write each other what would be considered glowing and passionate love letters.

  44. Tennessee Coyote says:

    Well I hate to burst our romantic bubbles, but while it is conceivable that Emily was gay, this letter is unlikely the best evidence. Remember Susan Gilbert was her sister in law and once best friend. As Susan’s marriage imploded and fell apart with Emily’s brother Austin, she stopped her friendship with the entire Dickinson family, including Emily. Emily was crushed, as you can imagine, she had hardly any friends by then as she had walled herself off from most of the world, taking care of her invalid mother. Maybe she was a lesbian, or possibly bi, but more likely we are reading her words out of context. We certainly know that she had romantic feelings and longings for men, but if it helps us celebrate her work, with the obvious mystery of her sexuality and hermetic lifestyle, why not wonder if…

  45. william says:

    steve and tennessee. My point exactly. In this century, we are much more sexualized. People just didn’t think along the same lines as we do now, especially in New England, USA. Period…

  46. GMG1224 says:

    Tennessee Coyote–you are correct when you say that this letter (above) is not the “best evidence.” There is much better evidence in her poetry as well as other letters. Martha Nell Smith has two excellent books about on this subject (_Rowing in Eden_ and _Open Me Carefully_). This could be getting taken out of the context of 19th-century life, but I also believe (though this will probably irk some) that only a woman who has had feelings for another woman would be able to recognize it in text. Also, even though their friendship changed considerably when Susan married Austin, Emily continued to write to Susan through both her poetry and in letters. Susan even wrote Emily’s obituary. But I also agree that the mystery keeps people searching and that is always good when it comes to historical/rhetorical studies and critical thinking.

    And yes william, we are MUCH MUCH more sexualized today. People feel the inexhaustible need to put people–especially women–into specific boxes with big labels. It is very unfortunate that sensuality and sexuality isn’t private like it was back in Emily’s day.

    • william says:

      Masters, Johnson and Kinsey be damned! Another great American Writer, Gore Vidal lamented the need for modern folk to pigeon hole everyone’s sexuality. He considered sexuality to be like a pendulum, it moved back and forth throughout a person’s life. He also said “It’s not the person that is Homosexual, it is the act that is…” (paraphrasing). So my thing is. She’s a passionate romantic, who loved many, not JUST a lesbian.

    • william says:

      Here’s the authentic quote of Vidal’s: “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

  47. David says:

    I am not sure we will ever know the answer to this question; if we mere mortals ever could know or understand Emily Dickinson.

    Her verses continually surprise me. As I grow older I begin to see in them, insights that I have learned only with the passing of many years. For example, the poem that begins “Pain has an element of blank” says something that I did not learn until after I finished my medical training and was four years into practicing. Now, I approach the age that she was when she died and yet I suspect I will have to live another forty years to approach the wisdom she had.

    So I suppose I should agree with the recent comments, which say “lesbian” is too restrictive a label. Yet, none of the comments that have come before were wrong, really – even the humorous ones. Those who say the letter was cute; it was adorable; it was romantic; She was a lesbian; it doesn’t matter; she was bi; she was dreamy; she was hot; she was brilliant.

    I don’t express myself as well as Aynsley does (above). And, I do not have the knowledge
    Aynsley has. She said it the best. But, I would say, that for me, it is not so much that it doesn’t matter whether Emily Dickinson was lesbian–

    It matters some, at least. If a young woman encountering a brutal world could get strength from the fact that such a beautiful, brilliant, celebrated person was also a lesbian, that would be important, right?

    –it is not so much that it doesn’t matter as that we may never know. The love that Emily Dickinson was capable of, we may never understand.

    • Gina says:

      Very well said!

      • Anonymous says:

        Our modern lives have far too many distractions to keep us from the depth of thought and feeling a person such as Emily was capable of. Of all the things I know about Emily, the one thing that distresses me most was all the writings that of hers that was destroyed upon her death. She felt and wrote more deeply than I believe anyone in the 21st, and centuries beyond will ever be capable of. Whom and how she loved is insignificant and unimportant.

  48. Cat Wilson says:

    The ending gives it away, but it’s so sweet and adorable and I just adore her and her works and I hope whatever she did with her life she was happy.

  49. Very good post! We are linking to this great article on our site.
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  50. Emily'sfam says:

    As a descendant of Emily’s……our family never ponders her sexual orientation but rather we delight in the beautiful poems that were written by her. Hers’ is a legacy of beauty and love either way, that is a gift to all.

    • Mathilde says:

      In those days real warm friendships did exist. Between male friends, between female friends. Nowadays everything has to be sexualized. I hate this world. In my opinion Emily Dickinson was much much more in the spirit than in the body. Like i always was and still am and always will be. That is my true character.

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  52. Of course, of course. Now everything falls into place and we are privileged to see even further into the heart of our dear Provider of solace, celebration and joy!

  53. emily ate sloppy joannas says:

    Here is my theory: Emily and Sue were romantically involved but in a low key way. They obviously were physically intimate because Emily says so. She says things like kiss you “again” in other letters. Susan must have felt the same way or why would Emily keep writing these things to her. I think they both liked men as well though. Then I think Sue wanted to be serious and have a man take care of her so she married Emilys brother. I think this why the two women had a falling- out period. Emily loved Sue and felt like her brother took her.

  54. Aine says:

    This is not at all the letter of a lesbian or bisexual woman, but of a 19th century woman who deeply loved her friend and spoke endearingly to her, as women did easily in those days. Words written such as this were very common in that era, as was exchanging kisses and holding hands. It was their way of expressing genuine love and sisterly affection, and probably much more endearing and tender than that allowed today between heterosexual women who love each other as friends. Emily had many female friends, and “hoarded them” as she jokingly wrote. Also, as a woman who could quote the Bible at will and easily, who knew it so well that she could utilize verses from it fluidly throughout her work, she would never have dreamed of having a sexual relationship with a woman, which would have been profoundly against her professed and deeplly felt Christianity.

    • Pandora says:

      Well, how would a lesbian/bisexual/woman who is into girls have written in19th century? Even these days the people real romantic love as a friendship when it comes to be a relationship between girls.

  55. Max Armstrong says:

    Why must sex be a part of love? I dearly love my children, parents, siblings and some friends with a profound love. Never have I thought of having sex with them. Yet I love them dearly just the same.

  56. lullabyman says:

    In our homophobic society it is not surprising that so many would come to that conclusion. I’ve lived in societies (eastern) where it was common for grown straight men who were friends to hold hands in public. Similarly personal letters between women in the 1800’s were far more intimate and personal … unafraid to express appreciation and love in a way that today would definitely be interpreted in some sexual way today. It’s too bad that a sincere expression of deep pure love always has to take on a sexual form for some, worse that that they have to insist their interpretation is accurate and that all others are prudes.

  57. macsullivan says:

    Emily was lonely and self-absorbed. It may be the case that her sister-in-law was the only one whom she felt understood her and her love of words. Indeed, Emily sent poems to Susan and also read poem to her. They both seemed to enjoy this intellectual and emotional closeness. Susan too was lonely. Her husband appeared to be harsh and there was a distance between them. Its not obvious at all that Emily was in ANY WAY sexual. I agree with those who say it was a 19th century womanly friendship, though rendered more pressing and more intense by the emotional isolation of both women.

  58. satireknight says:

    Aside from the fact that people wrote gushy letters like that to platonic friends ALL THE TIME, why would you assume she was a lesbian? She had many passionate epistles to men as well, like Judge Otis Phillips Lord. Why wouldn’t you assume she may have been bisexual?

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  60. Amber says:

    This actually makes alot of sense to me because in her poem “That I did always love” she talks about loving someone and based on my interpretation she is talking about loving someone who doesn’t love her back,which would most likely be Susie beacause she was her sister-in-law. Emily also does not necessarily talk about any men in her poems from what I have read from her so she very well could have been a closeted lesbian.

  61. businessghost says:

    I would like to point out that violets are a symbol of sapphic love! And this symbol has been well-known since sappho herself gave them to women she wanted to woo (this being in ancient rome and not an invention of the modern LGBTQ+ movement). Interesting that Dickinson should send sapphic love symbols to Susie. Given the context of the rest of her letter, I’d say it was not a coincidence

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  64. Emily’s mindfully set forth words stand for themselves. Analysis or interpretation generally degrades them. Especially the compulsion to label people and phenomena “a” this or “a” that while missing the real beauty and complexity of what they actually are.

  65. Egbert Williams says:

    Why would she refer to a kiss that would have to take place in private if not for the fact that it was going to be a passionate kiss? Women friends kissing hello – even then – certainly didn’t require privacy. How can there be any doubt that the kiss she intended would be a lover’s kiss?

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  68. JadeG12 says:

    If you read her other loving letters, that are directed to men, you see that this one has a different tone. More open and honest, more freely expressive, probably because they were lifelong friends.
    The tendency to claim sexuality is behind hundred + year old words and acts is typical of our era — in their time such words were common. Read letters of the 1850s and see how everyone gushed with feelings.

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  70. Why do I love” You, Sir?
    The Wind does not require the Grass
    To answer—Wherefore when He pass
    She cannot keep Her place.

    Because He knows—and
    Do not You—
    And We know not—
    Enough for Us
    The Wisdom it be so—

    The Lightning—never asked an Eye
    Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
    Because He knows it cannot speak—
    And reasons not contained—
    —Of Talk—
    There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

    The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
    Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
    I love Thee—

    Emily Dickinson

  71. Gummy says:

    This is the gayest shit I’ve ever read

  72. magnificent submit, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector don’t understand this.
    You must continue your writing. I’m sure, you have a great readers’ base already!

  73. lgbtq autism says:

    i mean, duh! of course shes gay. her last name is literally dickinson


    pretty obvious if you ask me

  74. Yes She Was says:

    “But was she, really? Are you sure?”

    I’m quite sure. The last paragraph “seals the deal”.

  75. Liza Minnelli says:

    I didn’t read anything lesbian in this. But if I were Susie, the sister in law married to Emily’s brother I’d be feeling kinda sorry for her, because she was such a lonely soul. I’d probably have a lot of compassion for her accompanied by awe at the unique way she saw everything. My question is, are there other e.m. letters that have made scholars put forth this trendy query about her?

  76. v says:

    sure, there were just gal pals

  77. v says:

    sure, they were just gal pals

  78. Graduate Degree Seeker says:

    In Shakespeare’s day, we weren’t so hung up, judgemental, or compartmentalizing — Billy was no himself and incorporated homosexual acts into his writing. Othello is one of his best works!

    From this letter, we cannot know if Dickinson was expressing love for her closest friend, or writing a romantic love letter…either way, it is not ours to judge, simply enjoy and, if we must, give an internal interpretation of the literature.

    Enjoy, don’t judge.

    • Graduate Degree Seeker says:

      I was nabbed by a nosey spellchecker. It should read “…Billy was bi himself…” meaning bi-sexual.

  79. Anonymous says:

    sara gilbert is a lesbo that helps

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  86. prismpromise says:

    Oh I don’t think these words point so strongly, though accompanying attitudes within her literary pieces may serve that purpose well. Let the answer remain uncertain that her audiences not be sent away unhappily.

  87. Anonymous says:


  88. Larry says:

    Emily’s letter was not the letter written by the lover of a lesbian. This letter is the cry of a Child’s Heart. Its the artistic temperament….Its the “muse”, alive and well, sparkling and so gifted, being emoted.. Emily’s letter is deepest friendship revealed in all its glory and within all its wonder.

  89. Mathilde says:

    There are people able to really love without wanting sexual satisfying. Kisses can be on the cheek for pure love and admiration and human warmth. There even are many people who are a- sexual, like me. It is all in the eye of the reader. Some people say Lewis Carroll was a pedophile. I doubt it 150 % . There are many people who live in the soul and the ghost and not in in sexual desires.
    I think Emily did not want anybody to see the letter because of course it was very personal.

  90. Laurie says:

    The beauty of her poetry is her legacy regardless of her sexual orientation.
    If she was a lesbian, however, it
    certainly sheds light on her struggles
    as a person which she expressed in her
    Also, just knowing of her close relationship
    with Susan, whether it was a passionate
    friendship or a romantic relationship, changes
    my whole perspective on Emily as a lonely
    So very interesting to know of this relationship and to know that Emily was not as lonely as
    she had been portrayed in the past.
    Bottom line, we will never know everything about her personal life but we still have the greatest gift of her poetry!

  91. Grace says:

    Sorry but how can this be interpreted as not gay? No offense but how can language change so much that a secret kiss is still gals being pals.

    • Rhianna says:

      I want to start by saying I personally think she was in some way attracted to women. However I do understand how some people who have never had to hide their love for fear of being persecuted, could interpret this as just an innocent love between two friends. But from someone who has hidden who they loved, I relate to her using a letter to tell Susie. The modern day equivalent would be texting someone, a direct form of contact which still holds a risk of being found by someone unwanted but is the only way you can communicate your love in secret where you can see it later on. So by writing this letter, she is trying to communicate her yearning for Susie in a way that can be treasured because spoken words can be forgotten but a letter a material reminder. I’m not sure this makes sense I might have lost my way but I am very passionate about it.

  92. Carol Dickinson says:

    Ah… the Left is at it again. Changing history… for their immoral ideologies.
    Those writings were not from Emily Dickinson. They are not even her style. Not even close. They also use and older form of English… which makes her out to be living in an earlier time.

  93. bluebird says:

    I love this letter! I know I am a bit late to the post, but does anyone know what Dickinson is referring to when she says “Edward and Ellen Middleton?” I can’t find any information relating to it but I am just curious as to what she is alluding to there.

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