Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 1. The Shape of the Discipline.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer 

Part 1 – The Shape of the Discipline. 

Sometimes, as a history teacher, you get lucky; realising that you want or need to include a particular historical subject in your curriculum, a quick google or consultation of the edutwitter grapevine yields rapid results. Into your lap falls a silver-bullet of a book, containing just the kind of material you’re looking for stitched into an exciting interpretation that you know the students can really get their teeth into. The enquiry takes shape in your mind’s eye before you’ve turned the final page. Sometimes however, your life is not going to be made quite that easy sometimes, there is no one miracle book. Or, if there is, while reading it you are struck with the nagging sensation that this is just one window into a complex disciplinary world, and in order to do justice to it, you must open more. 

This has been my experience when thinking about how to include queer history in my curriculum. Not only does the discipline contain a dizzying array of scholarship covering multiple time periods and locations, which is written with varying levels of accessibility, it has also been shaped by distinctive theoretical debates and by its own dramatic history as a field of study. When I have been asked therefore, about how to approach including queer history as a whole, or particular topics within it into a secondary history curriculum, my response has often resembled a lengthy reading list. 

This may have had its uses, but I am conscious that it’s not always the most helpful response considering the time-pressures we are all under. I am equally conscious that the topic-specific works that I have encountered and use might refer to particular questions, theories or debates that shape queer history, but do not always fully explain them to the uninitiated. I therefore set myself the task of condensing some of the things I have read into something like a primer, aimed at other history teachers. This  would set out a short history of the discipline and outline some of the key themes that emerged from that history that might have to be navigated when teaching this subject. Below is my attempt at doing so. It is not by any means a complete account, but I hope it might serve as a first stepping stone for those of you who have started thinking about queer history and how you might include it. 

A Very Brief History of Queer History: 

One of the key tools someone writing the history of a phenomenon needs is the language necessary to describe it. The modern language of gender and sexuality can be broadly said to date from the late 19th to the early 20th century; a development that allowed the first steps to be taken in exploring its history. 

Key individuals involved in this movement such as Krafft-Ebing, Karl Ulrichs, Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld would have primarily described themselves as ‘sexologists,’ participants in a field that sought to combine scientific and social enquiry into the topic of sexuality. However, as part of their work writers like Ellis and John Addington Symonds began to look to the past to find examples that they thought resembled the individuals and groups they were studying, or began to record the histories of the communities they were engaged with; in the case of Magnus Hirschfeld, compiling extensive archives in the process. These individuals however, were not operating with the working methods or aims with which a contemporary historian might approach this material. By and large these men thought that they were uncovering a ‘natural’ phenomenon that was rooted in human biology. As such, it was assumed that the categories of sexuality and gender that these writers developed out of the evidence in front of them might be subject to some historical change in their expression (the most historically aware writers like Symonds did emphasise the difference between their society and societies that they saw as having more accommodating or even celebratory attitudes towards certain forms of male homosexuality, especially Classical Greece), but in their essential characteristics they remained the same. Being homosexual in late Victorian Britain or in Weimar Berlin was therefore broadly the same as being homosexual in Renaissance Italy or Medieval England. 

They had their reasons for thinking this way, while these ideas still operated within a binary sense of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ expressions of sexuality, ideas of the ‘naturalness’ of homosexuality and variations in gender identity and a sense that these phenomena had existed throughout human history could also act as powerful weapons in the hands of activists. These could be deployed against the prevailing narratives of Church, State and medical establishment that homosexuality and variations in gender identity were unnatural perversions of normal, healthy human behaviour that had to be suppressed or cured. However, the presumption that variations in sexuality and gender identity were fixed natural phenomena also had the potential to turn any attempts to write a history of them into a dead end.

Increasingly savage persecution across Europe and in the United States put paid to most attempts to study gender and sexuality there during the early decades of the 20th century. It was only following the end of the Second World War that the situation improved enough for western scholars to look at the history of gender and sexuality anew. Yet new philosophies, social theories and historical methods had emerged in the meantime, and these made the perspectives of the historians returning to the history of gender and sexuality very different to those of the pioneering theorists of the late 19th and early 20th century. 

The first influence came via ‘history from below’. Interest in the histories of groups that had been neglected by a narrow focus on politics and social elites grew. This, combined with a new focus on the history of social structures and daily life meant that it was increasingly acceptable to conduct research into the experiences of ‘marginalised’ communities in the past, of which sexual minorities formed a part. Alongside this development within institutional historical study, people involved in the increasingly active movements for gay and trans rights in the 1960’s and 70’s began to record the histories of their communities as a way of preserving their past and asserting their identities and dignity, in the face of widespread indifference and hostility. The resources these groups would collect and the work they undertook would eventually go on to inform ‘formal’ historical research. 

The second influence was the emergence of social constructionism. Sociologists and sexologists began to reject the idea that gender and sexuality are ‘natural’ categories and are therefore broadly similar across human societies and throughout time. Instead, they argued that gender and sexuality were primarily shaped by their social context and that they could therefore vary hugely. This lit a fire under the study of the history of gender and sexuality as it opened up the possibility of exploring variations in how they were experienced and expressed within particular eras and also how they were subject to historical change.

As the conditions for conducting research on the history of gender and sexuality became more favourable, the theories underlying it and debates within the field became more sophisticated. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s controversy raged over whether gender and sexuality should be seen in natural ‘essentialist’ terms or as entirely socially constructed. From the 1990’s however, historians influenced by queer activism that rejected attempts to ‘assimilate’ into heterosexual norms and by poststructuralist theories, added new perspectives. ‘Queer studies’ or ‘queer history’ put the divisions that had organised much of the research that had gone before such as ‘natural’ and ‘social’, ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ and ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ under the microscope. The result was not only a sharp rise in the use of scare-quotes, but also a sense that ‘mainstream’ gender identities and sexualities could be objects of study as much as those that deviated from them, and an increasing focus on historical questions such as where the idea of binary gender and sexual identities had come from. Historians have also increasingly taken for granted the possibility of individuals and groups having multiple identities and have explored sex, gender and sexuality as social phenomena that are performed in different ways in different contexts. 

These trends have continued into research being conducted today, which has also borrowed heavily from intersectional theory, studying how sex, gender and sexuality sit alongside other categories like race and class. Postcolonial approaches have also been deployed more frequently, studying how gender and sexuality have been experienced across the world, but also how European colonialism and globalisation have affected this. 

What does this mean for my classroom? 

The history of queer history has led to the development of a complicated discipline, however these complications also bring opportunities. In the next three posts, I am going to outline three broad themes that emerge from, and shape this discipline and explore how you could navigate them in in your classroom.

Thanks very much to Dr Emily Rutherford for lending her expertise in response to several of my questions while writing this post, her help in clarifying several key points was hugely appreciated.

The next post in this series on sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=288

A fully referenced copy of this post can be found in the folder below:



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