The Problematics of LGBT History
Writing and researching LGBT history is a problem, or at least presents certain problems. Writing history at all is far from unproblematic, of course, but little is more polemic and polarising these days than ‘the gay issue’. Byrne Fone has described homophobia as ‘the last acceptable prejudice’ in Western society in which an intolerance of intolerance has perhaps become the norm, apart from that intolerance of LGBT people. Although Fone wrote Homophobia: A History sixteen years ago, our current political climate may yet prove his point and that one which states that history is fated to repeat itself.
LGBT History Month, moreover, whilst laudable and necessary now more than ever (clearly more historical work needs to be done), nevertheless leaves room for an ‘othering’ that reminds us that ‘we’ are not quite integrated, to put it vulgarly, into ‘regular’ history, however troublesome a definition of the latter might be. And in the same way that cultural relativism is vital to LGBT history, such a month may not be lauded by all and not always for deplorable reasons. In France, no doubt, for example, un mois de l’Histoire LGBT would be anathema to republican doctrine and may well be considered discriminatory (or rather ‘inegalitarian’) even by those on the left of the political spectrum, including what might be described in the English-speaking world as an ‘LGBT historian’ (Frédéric Martel, for example).[i] Quite contrary to those bemusing naysayers in the UK and the US of ‘Why not a Straight History Month?’,[ii] the French might be more, tolerantly or otherwise, inclined to ask ‘Why an LGBT History Month as separate in the first place?’ This has all the beguiling pitfalls, tinged with historical revisionism and exclusion based on quintessentially French fears of ‘communitarianism’, that cannot be solved here, yet the French case may offer a different and, as some scholars have argued,[iii] a ‘queerer’ model to our ‘Anglo-Saxon’ one.
Of course, LGBT history is still in its infancy and this is also why we celebrate and promote it. Difficulties in finding source material on that horrible crime or sin not to be named among Christians may provide a problem, but academic changes such as the development of Lesbian & Gay Studies into Queer Studies (within some institutions at least) create problems of a different order. These transmutations represent both a positive move towards intersectionality and inclusivity, but also conflicts in and over terminology. ‘LGBT’ History is thus either incomplete – append the Q – or distinctly outmoded – substitute for ‘Queer’ entirely. Nevertheless, to write LGBT history is already to engage in dangerous anachronism. ‘LGBT(Q+…)’, at once a homogenous and heterogenous acronym – with all the political, cultural and social implications that it supposes – is an ever-expanding term (not least into the aforementioned queerer territories), and that firstly poses certain problems for any coherent historical narrative.
The more difficult problem that faces LGBT history, however, is that defining people of the past as such is to dubiously impose circa twentieth century understandings of sexuality onto those who viewed the world differently. The term ‘homosexuality’ itself was coined around 1869, and ‘heterosexuality’ shortly thereafter. Before (and indeed after that) we had inverts, pederasts, queers, sodomites, sapphists, bougres and bardaches. This not to mention the wealth of specific Greco-Roman terminology. The Greeks weren’t gay or even homosexual, however, and far from it. They might have engaged in same-sex practices, but the cultural implications were distinctly different to either the form or the function of any ‘sexual identity’. Following Foucault, the homosexual was a decidedly late nineteenth century invention with the arrival of the medico-legal discourse of the sexologists. To cite his most well-known phrase, ‘[t]he sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’ . The classificatory zeal of those sexologists ensured that little of one’s person escaped from the definition as ‘homosexual’. [See , for further reading]. The identity politics of the mid-to-late twentieth century then concretised these categories in the popular imagination. [See for further reading]. Homosexuality becomes a modern invention of discourse or a ‘social construct’ and it is this that poses the problem for historical analyses of other periods.
There is also the problem of teleology whereby the inexorable march of history is read as one towards tolerance and acceptance, or the end of homophobia/lesbophobia/biphobia/transphobia – or perhaps the ‘it gets better’ model. As we all know, things can get worse; rights and privileges can be removed and discrimination can increase. But even in queer utopia free of phobos – that is to say a hypothetical future lacking any form of discrimination or hatred against the LGBT community – history itself would become the bastion of LGBTphobia – ensuring its continuation. Queer kids of the future would need only to look to the textbook to know they are/were hated. And, of course, utopias exist no-place. Nevertheless, writing the history of how people feared rather than how people loved is perhaps more of a useful tool, if not a less dispiriting one. To my mind, this is because it removes the positive politics of ‘identity’ from the equation and focuses on how cultures responded to the acts of same-sex relations.
Where do we go from here? In a 2005 article, David Eng, Judith Halberstam and José Munoz asked ‘What’s queer about queer studies now?’ and replied ‘A lot’. The reply is certainly true in the scholarly sense, but asking the question itself almost certainly negates any potential positive response in the first place – otherwise the question would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, a decade or so later, queer seems as ubiquitous as ever, and the backlash to it in France, for example, is mounting. Far from problematic, the ultimate success of LGBT History Month, however, comes in its direct engagement with LGBT politics, which is something that, to my mind, queer studies struggles to achieve. This may seem in contradiction with a lot what I’ve written above, and perhaps I’ve not reached a satisfactory conclusion. This isn’t a problem either. The important thing is to hold the opposed ideas in the mind, and see if (LGBT) history itself retains the ability to function.
[i] His 2000 work Le Rose et le noir: les homosexuels en France depuis 1968, 2nd ed., Paris: Editions du seuil is a prime example of this mixing of (French) republicanism and ‘LGBT history’ (and ultimately the primacy of the republican model).
[ii] See, for example, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/noah-michelson/lgbt-media_b_2741373.html; http://vadamagazine.com/features/opinions/equality-is-unconditional; the comments section of the following article – http://www.theblaze.com/news/2012/09/23/groundbreaking-k-12-students-in-fl-encouraged-to-celebrate-lgbt-history-month-in-october/
[iii] Denis Provencher, Maxime Foerster, Cristina Johnston and so forth.