A History of LGBT History

 

October is a beautiful month. My favorite bike trail smells like toast, crumbly apple crisp becomes a perfect midterm snack, and the trees are a rainbow of fire. When I walk past the striated maple on my way from class, I secretly like to think that maybe this is why October is LGBT history month.

I know the real history of LGBT history month, of course. First observed in 1994, these thirty-one days of celebration, reflection, and activism grew out of National Coming Out Day, which takes place every year on October 11. October 11 is itself the anniversary of the 1987 March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. LGBT history month itself, then, has an illustrious history.

Appropriately, one of the demands of the later 1993 March on Washington was for LGBT visibility in school curricula — a sort of collective “coming out” for LGBT history. To this end, a Missouri teacher named Rodney Wilson conceived of LGBT history month as a way to learn about gay and lesbian figures from our recent and distant past. Since then, schools and communities have expanded the scope of the month to include more gender and sexual minorities and more events like lectures, talent shows, and safer-spaces workshops. At its core, however, LGBT history month remains invested in its name: recovering and creating a history authored by and for sexual minorities.

In many ways, this is still important work for our present. In even recent history, sexual minorities had to live off the radar of mainstream, heteronormative society. This resulted in an occlusion of the rich history of sexual nonconformity, which its detractors took advantage of. As queer-studies scholar Elizabeth Freeman describes it, “since sexual identity emerged as a concept, gays and lesbians have been figured as having no past: no childhood, no origin or precedent in nature, no family traditions or legends, and, crucially, no history as a distinct people.”1 Erasure has been one of the key weapons that dominating forces has historically wielded against minorities of all kinds. This is one reason why the incorporation of LGBT history into school curricula remains controversial. Thus, rediscovering LGBT history — filling in the blanks that heteronormativity has generated by writing sexual minorities out of the general history — is an act of resistance and a reassertion of value.

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But there is reason for skepticism about LGBT history from within the queer community, too. The idea that we can have an LGBT “history,” in which we can trace queer “ancestors,” buys into a heteronormative concept of time — that is, linear, reproductive time. There is also the problem of identifying figures from centuries past as “gay” or “lesbian”: not only does doing so efface one’s right to self-determination and self-identification, but it also erases the variety of erotic desires that exist outside the LGBT acronym — modes of desire which pre-date the concept of homosexuality, and sexual identity itself.

Over the next few weeks, I will look at how we “do” LGBT and queer histories (and what’s the difference) from a literary perspective: in particular, what it means to (re)construct a queer history, and the advantages and pitfalls of identifying queer figures in literary history. My examples will come especially from English literary history, since that is where my doctoral research is focused, but I hope that this discussion will illuminate conversations in other literary and non-literary fields. I’ll also consider the ways in which we can locate queer histories within the past while remaining responsible to individual actors in that history.

By way of analogy, I know that my reading of LGBT history in the trees on campus is factually incorrect, not unlike calling Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe “gay” is factually incorrect — if only because to Marlowe “gay” described color, dress, joy, pleasure, and not homosexuality. But I wonder if there’s something in the seemingly queer aesthetic of certain literary texts — like my rainbow trees — that can help us appreciate the beautiful depths of LGBT history.

Next week: Recuperation as resistance


Notes

  1. Elizabeth Freeman, introduction to GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies13 (2-3) (2007): 162.

Ashley O’Mara is a first-year PhD student and University Fellow in the English department. She studies Ignatian imagination and representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern poetry. In her free time, she writes creative nonfiction and reads BBC Sherlock fanfic “for research.”

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