Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer. (Part 2. Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories.)

Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer

Theme 1 – Sex, gender and sexuality as historical categories 

The idea of sex, gender and sexuality as concepts that are shaped by the societies in which they operate, and which therefore can be altered as societies change over time is one that can have a big impact on how you approach teaching these topics. Its consequences should lead you to be wary of taking certain approaches, but can also bring opportunities. 

Taking concepts like sex, gender and sexuality as historically changeable does make the approach of focusing on ‘great men’ (and some women) of queer history less meaningful. This is something that has caused controversy within the academic field. Early historians of homosexuality and activists for gay rights pointed to figures from the past who they identified as homosexual such as Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great to counter negative stereotypes about (primarily male) homosexuality. Similarly activists in the 1950’s and 60’s also sought to ‘reclaim’ figures from the past in order to counter reactionary historical narratives of the growing acceptance of homosexuality as symptomatic of the West’s social and moral decline. This approach was challenged from the 1970’s onwards on the grounds that social context was crucial in understanding sexuality and gender identity throughout time. Therefore a figure like Alexander the Great and one like Oscar Wilde, for example,  were living in societies that were so different that attempting to present their sexuality and gender identity as essentially the same was at best meaningless and at worst actively anachronistic. This has created a tension within the academic field between the necessity for a ‘usable’ past and the need to avoid anachronisms that will filter down into the classroom; as a general rule however, it does mean that care should be taken when discussing individuals living in very different societies or historical periods. 

Nevertheless, approaching sex, gender and sexuality as social categories that can change over time does allow for the possibility of studying the distinctive nature of how they operated within particular historical periods and for investigating why and how they changed. Historians like Carolyn Dinshaw have therefore engaged in research on contexts like the medieval world, exploring the complex set of codes and beliefs that governed expressions of sexuality and gender identity across different communities in ways that are far removed from modern preconceptions. Others have focused on periods of rupture and change, examining phenomena like the emergence of communities of homosexual and/or gender non-conforming people in London or other European cities in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here the focus has been on trying to uncover how the individuals involved saw themselves, but also on whether anything like a ‘modern’ understanding of homosexuality had emerged.  Notions that sex, gender and sexuality are changeable not only across time but also across cultures and geographical regions, alongside the adoption of postcolonial approaches, has also had a significant impact on current research. This has led to attempts to understand the role colonisation has played in shaping notions of sexuality and gender identity both in imperial centres and colonised regions and to study the history of gender and sexuality of different societies on their own terms. 

How could this work in the classroom? 

The first consequence for teaching queer history in the classroom relates to historical figures. They should be placed clearly within their context, which means that broad overviews of queer history that focus on timelines of key individuals should probably be avoided. This does not mean that rigorous and meaningful enquires can’t be developed with particular individuals at their heart, nor that people from different historical contexts can never be used to illustrate change over time, however it is crucial that things like differences in the way that people described and presented themselves, acted, the language they used and the ideas they invoked receive close attention. 

One of the chief opportunities that emerges from exploring sex, gender and sexuality as concepts, subject to change across time, is the prospect of exploring why and how these changes occurred. Enquiries tracking change and continuity across long periods of time, exploring how different models for understanding gender and sexuality influenced by religious beliefs, state intervention, the growth of communities, medical perspectives and the emergence of identities and political activism could be highly illuminating; similarly ones focusing on differing rates of persecution and acceptance. More focused enquiries on particular turning points such as the criminalisation and decriminalisation of homosexuality, the growth of communities in urban settings, the impact of medical developments, political conflicts and key legal changes all have significant potential. 

Likewise, exploring the distinctive ways in which sex, gender and sexuality were expressed in particular historical periods also opens up opportunities for enquiries focused around similarity and difference and historical evidence that could build up a richer and more nuanced picture of societies in the past. Focusing on evidence in particular could also raise questions of interpretation, opening up discussions about the challenges presented by historical evidence that was produced by individuals with very different ways of seeing the world to ours. 

The tension between avoiding contorting the people of the past to fit modern expectations of sex, gender and sexuality and not going so far in the other direction that it is impossible to talk about this topic at all can be resolved in part with careful planning. Another useful method for resolving this tension is to make some of the key disciplinary questions a focus within your lessons. One of the easiest ways of doing this is by highlighting the terminology you use. 

The next post in this series, on terminology – https://freshalarums.wordpress.com/?p=295

A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jkxI4X806RR92V4Halm4vmRLpUhpDw1n0XpMepeWehI/edit?usp=sharing

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