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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.

Is it problematic to identify with the history you study?

18 Aug

Last semester, in a graduate writing course, I worked on a paper about radical feminist group The Furies.  During peer review a colleague said he got the sense that I “really like” my subjects and accused me of glorifying them.  I make no secret of the fact that I too am a lesbian feminist.  While Tom ponders being a man doing women’s work, so to speak, I ponder the question, what does it mean to identify (too?) closely with my subjects?  To share their sexual identity and many of their political beliefs?

In this same course there were several other scholars studying people with whom they identified in some way: race, ethnicity, education, religion, region.  Not one of them had their credibility questioned in the way mine was on several occasions.  Ultimately, the critique ended with, “these were just 12 women living in a house together – how important can they really be?”  Aside from the fact that my analysis of their historical significance is in line with the other historians who have studied them in-depth, I explained the evidence of their influence every week.  Most of our classmates studied equally small groups or relatively unknown individuals and yet somehow their work registered as legitimate.  Lesbian history just wasn’t important enough to register.

The humorous part of an insult that implied my work is driven not by historical material but my own politics is that, it too, was politically motivated.  Clearly, this individual devalues lesbians to the point of historical insignificance while also singling out a lesbian feminist voice as somehow problematic and “other.”   The thing is, we are all political.  All historians are motivated in various ways by their identities and values.  And in some way, we all connect with the people in the narratives we construct.  A heterosexual man writing a history of the The Furies would not relate to the members as I did, but that does not mean he would not have opinions about the behavior, the politics they pursued, or the changes they were trying to create.  And I guarantee that as a man, such a scholar would consider and relate to the men from whom these women sought to separate.  The issue is not whether you identity with your subjects as I do, or question your place as a scholar of the subjects you choose,  as Tom does at times.  Rather, it is about the consciousness you bring to every step of the process.

Those who know me well understand that I am pretty self-reflective about how my personal identity relates to, supports, and yes, hinders the work that I do.  There were moments in my thesis writing a few years ago when my advisor stopped me and said, Chelsea, these sentences sound angry.  She was right.  It was a learning moment, and the start of a process in which I constantly engage in a dialogue with myself about the questions I am asking, that arguments I am making, the sources I am using, and so on.  Isnt’ that something we should ask and expect of all scholars?  And as much as this is a solitary process, it is a collective one too.  We share late night discussions in department hallways when a spark ignites a new perspective, we swap drafts of papers and chapters, we suggest books to read and scholars to engage, and we shoot off sleep-deprived and coffee-hazed emails in what seem to be moments of brilliance.  Ultimately, we learn to find our own voices by understanding those of others.  This includes the voices of the women I study.

Yes, I identify with the people I study.  With a critical eye I am the better for it, not simply because of our commonalities, but because it pushes me to engage in an honest, regular conversation with myself about who I am and the scholarship I produce.

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.