Thinking with Queer History

It has been just over two years now since I wrote a blog about teaching LGBTQ+ history on the cusp of our allotted ‘history month’. At the time I was mainly responding to my frustrations with some of my own practice as I had become ever more aware of the gulf between how I was talking about this history in my classroom and what people researching in the field were doing, and even more crucially, how they were thinking. 

I wasn’t really expecting for queer history to become one of my major curricular preoccupations, but soon people started (understandably) asking me questions about the things I had written and in order to feel qualified to keep pontificating I had to keep reading and thinking. (This became ever easier to do as I entered into lockdown with little else to distract me and absolutely no self-control when it comes to buying books online.) The upshot is that, while I stand by a lot of what I said in the blog I wrote back in 2018, there are a couple of ideas which I think could be pushed further, and some new pathways of thought upon which I’ve started tentatively walking. As time has gone by my interest in queer history has also begun to seep into my views about the curriculum as a whole in ways that haven’t quite resolved themselves in my mind yet. Therefore, the ideas discussed below represent something like a ‘difficult second album’; being a summary of the ways in which my thinking has developed over the past two years, without much of a clear resolution for many of the themes in sight. 

Sex, gender and sexuality as substantive concepts. 

Back in 2018 I was already thinking about terminology as a vexed question, alongside the related issue of the changeability of the concepts with which queer history deals such as sex, gender and sexuality, across time. The more I have read in this field, the more much of it seems to be characterised by a persistent grappling with language and the charting of how the terms and boundaries we are used to; heterosexual/homosexual, masculine/feminine, licit/illicit shift like sand dunes from century to century, from society to society and sometimes dissolve altogether. It can be hard to find a foothold in this landscape and as teachers, I think we have a role to play in the long-running debate within the field concerning how far absolute fidelity to the experiences of the people of the past should be compromised in the cause of being intelligible to a modern audience. 

One of the paths I think we might take is to treat not only the rich language of sex, gender and sexuality in past societies that is different to ours, (mollies, urnings, tribades, third sex) as substantive concepts, but to extend the same treatment to terminology that seems familiar to us. This involves using ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ in the same way we do terms like ‘peasant’ or ‘revolution’; approaching them as language that contains and expresses very different sets of assumptions across space and time, which were deployed by historical actors and are used by historians in very different ways. 

This is not that original an idea, various people engaged in thinking about how histories of empire, migration, and underrepresented groups have made a similar cases about the language of ‘race’, ‘culture’ and ‘nationality’. Additionally, it is not a line of thought I could have engaged with had I not dusted off my old MEd thesis, which mainly relied upon the rich discourse on substantive concepts undertaken by history teachers like Fordham and Hammond. 

In terms of the utility of using substantive concepts when teaching queer history specifically, I think that using ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’, (among others) in this way has the potential to act as a thread we can use to guide our students through the labyrinth. Making language that seems familiar to students strange again has the potential to give them a better idea of the specific beliefs of a particular period. Even more importantly, pursuing the language of sex, gender and sexuality through time and watching its meanings shift and change can offer the students a route in to the central questions with which queer historians engage, such as how and when identities and communities form and why persecution varies across time. I would also argue that following this thread even further, paying close attention to language in this context, also reveals something to students of how historians think, particularly those engaged in fields that are underrepresented in the curriculum such as social and cultural history. In this case, queer history can offer a route via which wider vistas of historical thought might be entered into. 

The importance of context and not burying your ‘bad gays’.  

One of the unfortunate effects of becoming more knowledgeable about a field is that looking back on your previous efforts to include it can make you wince. One such moment of chagrin I have experienced relates to my early attempts to include queer history when teaching Weimar and Nazi Germany at KS4. I’ll confess that I was working largely off the cuff at the time, so my inclusion of the topic amounted to little more than a few references made to Magnus Hirschfeld, and a mention of the sexuality of Ernst Rohm. The latter, in particular provoked a storm of questions from students, understandably confused as to how a gay man could hold a senior position within the Nazi Party. I can’t remember exactly what I said at the time, but it was probably little more than a platitude as my knowledge of the context in which both of these figures operated was seriously incomplete. 

Fast forward to 2020 when I decided to dig out my copy of Trouillot’s Silencing the Past. (This was largely down to the fact that his name has increasingly been popping up in conversations on history teacher twitter.) On re-reading, one of the key phrases of his that jumped out at me was the idea of ‘silences of resistance’. This immediately grabbed me as it tied in to something I had already identified as an issue back in 2018; the idea of queer history being characterised as a story of continual progress, but also to my increasing wariness of queer history being presented as an uncomplicatedly ‘heroic’ narrative. This, combined with my reading about Anne Lister, (whose thoughts on the Peterloo Massacre caused me to grimace), and to the very enjoyable ‘Bad Gays’ podcast, made me think about moments where I had unwittingly perpetuated this kind of ‘silence’. 

My consciousness of the limits of my knowledge of the period had led me to embark on a project of creating a set of resources for teaching the queer history of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany. This was a priority for me as it is a hugely rich period in queer history due to its place as one of the crucibles of modern queer identity, the vibrancy of the communities and campaigning organisations that were formed there and their role in the tragedy of the republic. One of the elements of my work that made me uncomfortably aware of the limitations of my previous teaching however, and especially of how I had previously navigated the question of Rohm, was the theme of the central dispute over the nature of homosexuality within Weimar Germany’s queer community.

I was familiar enough with Magnus Hirschfeld as a pioneer of the gay rights movement; a position he based (very broadly speaking) on an argument that homosexuality was an innate and natural phenomenon. I had no prior idea that in this he struggled not just against the homophobia of the German state and society but also against rival campaigners such as Adolf Brand and his ‘masculinist’ movement. This movement challenged Hirschfeld by seeking to present (male) homosexuality as a positive choice that would avert the ‘feminisation’ of German society and celebrated militarism and nationalism. Suddenly Rohm had a context which made it possible for him to exist as both a gay man and as the leader of the SA, and not necessarily to operate in a continual state of cognitive dissonance in doing so. 

I use this example as it brought home to me one of the key reasons why ‘adding in’ queer history to existing topics has to be something undertaken with care and attention to context. My lack of awareness of the range of opinion within the queer community of Weimar Germany made Rohm an unaccountable outlier; a misconception I then passed on to my students. By extension, therefore, one of the risks of treating queer history solely as a narrative of heroic struggle against oppression, (and also of focusing specifically on key individuals shorn of their broader communities and context) is that it presents a two dimensional view that fails to do justice to diversity within historical queer communities. It also crucially, fails to adequately deal with individuals and groups that don’t fit into this story, and thereby threatens to end one silence only to perpetuate another. 

Evidence and ‘ephemera’

Of all of the lines of thought that I have been exploring over the past couple of years, this last one is the least developed. It has emerged only recently from my awareness of the discussion going on around how suitable our standard approaches to historical evidence and enquiry in general are when encountering African history in particular. Following these discussions on Twitter and reading Mohamud and Whitburn’s latest article in Teaching History has provoked me into thinking about how some of these questions might relate to the distinctive nature of the evidence base for queer history. 

In many ways this ties into my preoccupation with language. Queer history, (along with many other disciplines like cultural, intellectual and emotional history) is frequently an exercise in ‘reading between the lines’. Of even greater interest to me at the moment however, is the nature of queer history in the modern era. Modern queer history, (alongside the histories of other marginalised groups) was constructed not primarily within institutions such as universities, but by communities struggling to preserve their pasts against general hostility and indifference. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this means that a large part of the evidence base involves ‘ephemeral’ artefacts that would not be habitually used as evidence in mainstream explorations of political or economic histories (in the classroom at least). One of the things I want to think about therefore, is not just how this evidence base might be approached with students, but also how it might be used to help them think about the choices that are made about what evidence should be preserved. It strikes me that an opportunity is presented here to help students think about the construction and interpretation of history not just in the context of academic study but also by communities and groups who tend to be seen as being on the margins of historical thinking. 

So two years down the line what do I have to show for my continued preoccupation with queer history? Well, a whole shelf dedicated to the books that I absolutely had to buy for one, quite a few pretty technical blog posts and the opportunity to have loads of interesting conversations. Primarily I have gained a whole set of new questions to explore. One of the things that strikes me is how far these questions have not just been prompted by reading within the discipline, but by conversations that have been had about the curriculum, with and by other history teachers, especially those engaged in trying to represent neglected histories within it. 

This leads me back to one of the thoughts with which I began this my changing ideas about queer history in the curriculum. It increasingly seems to me that the project of representing these histories, queer history amongst them, has the potential not just to expand the range of knowledge with which students can engage, but also potentially to alter the way the discipline is approached and constructed within schools.

(For those eagle-eyed Early Modernists among you, the title of this blog is indeed inspired by Stuart Clark’s Thinking with Demons, a book I read at a very impressionable age and from which I’ve never quite recovered.) 

All the resources I have created for teaching queer history so far are available to download from my Google Drive here.

The ‘Bad Gays’ podcast can be accessed here.