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My History, Queer Histories

1 Jun

Lesbian history made me a dyke. Or at least, that’s how it felt at the time.

I grew up in a small town on the central coast of California. There was nothing like a GSA at my high school during my time there in the mid ’90s. The first openly queer person I knew was classmate during my senior year. Ellen came out just over a month before I graduated, Will & Grace had yet to air, and Willow was still a few years from meeting Tara. All of this to say, the option of being gay was scarcely on my radar. I dismissed as general curiosity any queer feelings I had and left it at that.  In college I started to figure things out but had little idea what to do about it. Not until my last year did I have any queer friends and even then I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go to the campus LGBT center.

Not long after graduation I moved to Sacramento, my first time living in a city. One of the first things I did was look up local gay bars. As luck would have it the gay district (what we would come to call “the corner of gay and gayer”) was just blocks from my apartment. There was something exciting, reassuring, knowing they were there even when I found myself too timid to enter. Then I found it – the local LGBT bookstore. I remember vividly how conspicuous I felt walking in that first time. To my mind this was my first public demonstration of a new identity I was trying to understand. I felt bold and enthusiastic and terrified all at once. With only the cashier as witness, I embraced my lesbianism as I purchased a history of lesbians in the United States.  Ultimately, it was the support of a group of queer feminists that really helped me to know myself and come out but buying that book was a pivotal first step. That history book made me gay.

I speak often of how important the relationship between history and feminism has been to the path I’ve been on since college. But I don’t know that I’ve every told anyone the story of that first trip to an LGBT bookstore. It came to mind this week when the Obama administration announced a National Parks initiative to recognize sites of gay history, beginning with the Stonewall Inn. Stonewall was by no means the first site of queer protest but it marked a shift toward radical resistance and we now celebrate June Pride Month because of those early summer riots. As with other advances in queer visibility, I was left wondering what such news would have meant to a 22 year-old Chelsea trying to figure out how to come out. Here we have the federal government saying that queer lives matter and that we deserve to have our history made visible. There is nothing to be ashamed of; we have have the right live our lives openly and honestly.

Scanning through social media sights I found many posts celebrating this step forward in preserving queer histories. But almost as quickly I came across critiques that painted this initiative as an empty gesture. The LGBT activist group Get Equal initially responded with “No More Studies–give us freedom!”  They explained that “we know our history” and publicized a demonstration at Stonewall during the announcement of the initiative. The Committee on LGBT History quickly responded, explaining that pitting history against campaigns for liberation is counterproductive and divisive. Get Equal made a change with a new tagline, “Don’t stop at our history,” thus making their position less adversarial to the study of queer pasts.

I understand the position of Get Equal and other radical groups who critique the the pace of change and question the federal government’s priorities in addressing  some queer issues over others.  There is nothing I want more than full federal equality and rights protections for the LGBTQ community and I am grateful that there are activist organizations hold the Obama administration accountable. Is same-sex marriage or open military service or a recognition of gay histories enough? Certainly not. But attacking these advancements is counterproductive.

As a queer rights activist and lesbian historian I have grown incredibly comfortable with outing myself as I discuss all manner of queer issues. It is now so natural to me that I can scarcely remember that younger self afraid to enter a bar or bookstore. The longer we are out the easier it can become to forget those days of struggle and fear. And the more radical we become the easier it can be to lose sight of what can make a difference in queer lives.  Don’t get me wrong; I’m the first person to speak of the importance of radical activists pushing for sweeping transformation. Such work is crucial to creating change. But perspective is crucial too.

It seems as though I have this conversation every time there is a new development in the marriage equality struggle. Inevitably, I’ll see or hear dismissive comments from friends who believe movement priorities should be focused elsewhere. I don’t disagree. We ought to be exerting much more energy ensuring the everyday safety of the LGBTQ community–on the streets, in the workplace, in classrooms, at the doctor’s office, at the borders.   But it can be easy to overlook the fact that for a large portion of the country same-sex marriage is still a radical notion. That, as much as we might want disrupt a system in which legal rights are based on this heteronormative institution, the majority of LGBTQ folk want this right.  Or that, for people of all backgrounds, same-sex marriage offers very real benefits and protections. There are a whole host of issues at play in these types of debates, such as the roles class and race play in who benefits from which rights advancements and whether gays and lesbians will actually step up to support trans* rights. Critical reflection and honest dialogue are critical. But what possible benefit can we find in dismissing or attacking one another? And what can we possibly gain from dismissing the stories of our pasts?

As a queer historian I can tell you that we are only just beginning to know our history. Consider the myth-making that exists around Stonewall and this becomes quite clear. To date, very few people have access to our histories. It is rarely taught in primary and secondary education; several states even have laws banning discussion of LGBTQ histories and issues. At the the college level it is by no means a guaranteed part of history curriculum and universities continue to face backlash for the inclusion of LGBT instruction. Scholars who take up the work often do so with little institutional support, motivated by the belief that bringing our histories to light is a critical part of the queer liberation (for a statement on the work of queer scholars, see Don Romesburg’s response to Get Equal). At a time when LGBT bookstores are all but extinct (that neighborhood bookstore that was so pivotal to my journey closed long ago), the work of researching, documenting, preserving, and making visible queer pasts is more important than ever. One only has look at the stories of mid-century gay men and lesbians trying to find any tidbit of information about homosexuality to understand how transformative it can be to have ready access to  information that provides context for one’s own experiences. And the more ways we have to empower one another, the stronger we become. Surely we can embrace and celebrate these opportunities while also pushing for full equality.

Happy Pride Month, all. I’m off to celebrate with writing about lesbian history. If only I could tell 22 year-old me what was to come, because this dyke historian life is amazing.

Conference Take Two

23 Dec

I’d like to add my own thoughts on the WHA conference Chelsea, Jordan, and I attended in October and in particular the Roundtable “Women and the WHA at Fifty Years.”

But, before I get to that, you must know how fantastic were the presentations Jordan and Chelsea delivered. Sure, I’m biased, but only towards exciting and challenging scholarship. Jordan traced the travels and activism of Navajo artist R.C. Gorman and although you’ll not find one word about his sexual orientation in the avalanche of studies about his art, for much of his career he was openly gay and lived with his partner in San Francisco before they moved back to New Mexico and eventually split. And as I’m sure many of you know already, Chelsea raised important questions centered on the Daughters of Bilitis, a very early gay rights organization on the west coast and uncovers “gendered understandings of identity and rights that suggest feminist-like discourse and action well before the take-off of the second wave feminism.”†

It may seem like I am piling on the criticism Chelsea has already put forth, but my experience of this panel was equally disconcerting. In addition to many of the absurdities already mentioned, the “discussion” began with several of the panelists making it a point to mention that one of the truly important ways in which WHA conferences touched their lives was the fact that they met their husbands at the conference. Now, I’m all for romance and love. However, to illustrate the importance of the conference for women’s history, let’s just say it ranks pretty low from my perspective.

The discussion about engaging grad students was equally absurd. One audience member, in her attempt to illustrate the distance she would go to show support for our increased participation told the audience she actually sat in on a panel featuring graduate students. “It didn’t suck” was the gist of her assessment and why “it wouldn’t be a total waste of time” for more senior historians to show their support.

And what was to come of this collective brainstorm? Nothing really. Sure, not all ideas or questions need to turn into actionable items. But much like the rest of the discussion, there appeared to be no real intent to do anything with any of the ideas that were raised. Not even a subcommittee to look into the matter further was proposed, no “blueprint for the next fifty years.” And what many of the problems raised such as grad student involvement had to do with women and the WHA was also a bit of a mystery.

The questions this spectacle left in my mind relate to bigger questions I’ve been struggling with recently about whether women and gender and sexuality studies are best left as separate fields of inquiry or whether historians are conscious enough of their importance to incorporate them appropriately. Let’s just say I’m more firmly in the camp of segregation following this roundtable. But more on this in the near future.

Overall, I was left with the impression that while historically the conference has not been openly hostile to women and provides opportunities to present women and gender research, much work remains to be done before it can be said that we have achieved “gender”* equality. And it seems to me that several of the barriers to achieving that equality could have been found in that same hotel ballroom. As Chelsea also concludes, it was a wasted opportunity.

† Chelsea Del Rio, “A Freer Human Being: Finding Feminism in Lesbian’s Pursuit of Identity, Partnership, and Community” (paper presented at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association, Oakland, CA, October 15, 2011).

* Thank you, Joan Scott, for completely confusing me on whether I should be talking about biological or cultural differences or whether the critical use of “gender” and “sex” has become so conflated that they are interchangeable.  (Scott, Joan. “Some More Reflections on Gender and Politics.” In Gender and the Politics of History, 199-218. Rev. ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.)

Thoughts on a Conference

10 Dec

We three authors have been far too quiet for far too long.  Blame the joys of the third year – teaching and grading, language requirements, and of course, prelims/exams/quals reading.

A small part of that silence is due to the October weekend we spent together in Oakland, CA at the Western History Association Conference.  For the first time since we graduated from Sac State with our MAs over two years ago, we got to enjoy one another’s company and be supportive history nerd friends in person.  Jordan and I successfully presented papers together on a panel titled Negotiation of Identities in Alternative Communities: Hippies, Queers, and Lesbians in the U.S. West, 1950s-1970s.  Amidst all of the regular conference goings on we reconnected with old mentors, made new friends, talked each other through the most recent trials of Ph.D. school, toasted and cheered, and even speculated on the hair styles of certain well known historians.

Other than our post-presentation glow (thanks to suggestions of publication and comparisons to historian rock stars), what most preoccupied our late night chatting was the round table that examined women and the WHA at the 50 year mark.  The women of this round table engaged the audience in a conversation of women scholars and women’s scholarship throughout the organizations history.

The second generation of women historians critiqued WHAs record of including women, offending the first generation of the organizations’ female scholars who found home and acceptance there.  Eventually, both groups set about speculating how to encourage young scholars and graduate students to participate in WHA.  Not one person turned to those of us “youngsters” in the room to simply ask.  What could have been a fruitful and empowering dialogue devolved into far too much telling, accusing, and anger.  I have no way to speak to any experiences but my own at that moment, but I found in that room a lost opportunity.

This round table experience was reminiscent of so many feminist board meetings and gatherings.  I was struck once again of how divisive generational lines become among women (or even more broadly of diverse groups with shared concerns).  Why does the feminist ethic of common interest and cooperation so often falter with differences of age?  Perhaps part of this comes from the built-in professional dynamics of advisor/advisee relations that are commonly (though not always) distinguished by age.  Still, if we are to strengthen women’s role in the field of history and in professional associations, as well as furthering research about women, we must find ways to traverse generational gaps.

What we had hoped would be an empowering afternoon left us frustrated and disappointed.  I don’t have many answers other than encouraging genuine exchange and honest efforts to listen to each other; conversations that aren’t bound by traditional mentor/mentee power dynamics.

Fortunately, we history nerds were together to work out our thoughts on this and other ups and downs of the conference – a pretty great place for the conversation to begin.

What does a feminist historian look like?

16 Aug

Let’s get this party started, shall we.

I have a question: can a man be an historian of women?

On the face of it, and even under further scrutiny, the answer undoubtedly would be “heck yeah.” There are of course examples of very successful male historians of female history. And yet, I have moments of serious doubt. Interestingly, however, that doubt is based on very little empirical evidence or lived experience. I have maintained an interest in women’s history for most of my “career” and cannot recall but a single time when someone suggested my course of study was not a good idea. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate career I have taken many courses on the history of women in various fields and not once has an instructor or fellow student suggested that my presence was inappropriate. I have written graduate school statements of purpose, met with professors about my areas of interest and course of study, and visited libraries and archives with the express purpose of studying women in American history. Only once did someone raise a question about the propriety of my studying women in American history.

I recently joined the Western Association of Women Historians because (1) I am–well, all except the part about being a woman–and (2) I hope to attend if not present a paper at their annual conference (“Short Skirted Harpies: Sex and Gender in San Francisco’s 1892 Anti-Dive Campaign”) next May. I have avoided joining this illustrious organization for several years now because the thought of being a male among a group of primarily female historians makes me slightly uncomfortable. In my personal life, I have always been a bit of an outsider so I have learned to avoid situations where that feeling is easily exacerbated. But I joined in part to find out if that feeling of discomfort and the one time I was cautioned about my plans has merit.

I should like to clarify that I have a great deal of respect for the professor who cautioned me. He is a veteran of the profession to say the least and he made no mistake that he is primarily interested in my success and would not want to see me get stuck in a field that I will have a hard time finding it.

I suppose I could go on at great length about my own experiences and psychology (both of which are inextricable to the work of an historian) on the subject. In fact, as I write this post and attempt to organize the conflicting and deep-seated thoughts I have about the topic I am left with only the hope that this modest effort models and spurs the type of conversations this blog intends to provoke.

Can a man be an historian of women? I think so. I hope so. Because I do not have a back up plan or desire.