Queer History – A Teacher’s Primer
Theme 3 – Methods and Evidence
One consequence of the marginalisation of the queer community and its history throughout much of the 20th century has been the development of historical methods that draw on distinctive sources of evidence. The pre-modern history of sexuality can be explored through a similar range of sources that might be consulted by social historians, such as pamphlets, trial records, literary sources, eyewitness accounts etc, with all of the strengths and weaknesses these sources of evidence possess. However, the marginalised and officially proscribed nature of some expressions of sexuality and gender identity can lead to specific questions such as whether the presence of a particular group in historical records means that they are emerging at this point, or that they are a pre-existing community that has suddenly been subjected to increased official persecution.
As for the modern history of gender and sexuality, alongside other groups whose histories have been sidelined, many of the first historians of modern queer life operated in the context of their community rather than within formal institutions of historical study. The need to preserve this history has led to the development of substantial archives based on what might be described as ‘ephemera’, such as flyers, zines, articles of clothing and makeup which preserve aspects of the social, political and emotional lives of community members. Many of these archives have since been absorbed, at least in part, into established institutions of historical study, but their community origins have had a significant impact on what was preserved.
The other consequence of the marginal nature of the writing of queer history has been the prominence given to oral history. This is also linked to the practice of consciousness-raising in activist circles from the 1970’s and the community context in which much of the writing of modern queer history was initially conducted, which lent itself to the trust and dialogue which allowed historians to successfully record personal accounts. Whilst it is not free of specific disciplinary problems that historians have to navigate, the use of oral history by queer historians of the modern era has ensured that a wide range of voices and perspectives have been preserved
How could this work in the classroom?
As in the case of terminology, some of the distinctive disciplinary questions posed by the types of evidence queer historians use can present us with opportunities in the classroom. Interesting approaches linked to pre-modern evidence might include using them to try and partially reconstruct the attitudes and perceptions held by the people of a particular period. Sources such as trial records might also be fruitfully examined as negotiated texts, exploring how the different participants in the record view questions of gender and sexuality and whether those views clash or are resolved.
The hugely diverse range of evidence used in modern queer history has significant potential for interesting history teaching. Enquiries focused on ephemera could include questions such as ‘what can a t-shirt tell us?’ This would not only help the students explore the particular part of modern queer history that was the subject of the enquiry, but would also expand their perceptions of what historical evidence can be. Likewise, including oral testimony into lessons could serve to introduce voices that the students might not otherwise hear, but could also lead to interesting discussions about what this kind of evidence might reveal and how it might be shaped by the joint participation of speaker and interviewer.
Hopefully the above has given you a rough framework of the discipline of queer history, an outline of some of the key themes it includes as well as a few ideas! The best next step, when considering how best to include it in your curriculum, is to engage with some of the scholarship linked to particular periods or questions. I am happy to give specific recommendations and I have put a list of the books I used to write this primer below. I also have begun to put some of the resources I have developed into a folder on my google drive, which you can download, adapt or critique as the inclination takes you, and the link is below.
Barker and Scheele, Queer, A Graphic History (Icon Books, 2016)
Beachy, Robert, Gay Berlin, Birthplace of a Modern Identity (Vintage Books, 2014)
Beccalossi and Crozier ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Age of Empire (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Choma, Anne, Gentleman Jack, The Real Anne Lister (BBC Books, 2019)
Peakman ed. A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Enlightenment (Bloomsbury, 2015)
Symonds, J.A. A Problem in Greek Ethics (Project Gutenberg, 2010)
Weeks, Jeffrey What is Sexual History? (Polity Press, 2016).
A fully referenced copy of this post is available in the folder below.