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Why the time is right for the world’s first course on Queer History

Why the time is right for the world’s first course on Queer History

Playwright and novelist, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

There has been enormous progress over the last few decades in society’s attitude towards those of other sexual orientations.

In terms of legal rights, political representation and social and cultural acceptance, the 21st century is a much more hospitable place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) than in years gone by. At least, in much of the West.

But the direction of travel has not always been forward. There have been backlashes against progress, while many regions of the world were untouched by progress in the first place.

‘The terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were invented by Austro-Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in only 1869′

Certain forms of subcultural life that had developed over many years have eroded due to acceptance and integration into mainstream society. Social codes and slang such as polari, for example, that evolved to navigate a less accepting society, have waned.

That this gradual fading into history comes because of wider acceptance is to be welcomed, but it’s high time we did more to remember this rich cultural life and found new ways to write and record the pasts of same-sex desiring and loving – in a spirit of celebration of what was achieved through their political struggle, and critical analysis of its effects.

That’s why, while there are postgraduate programs in the history of gender and sexuality, Goldsmiths, University of London, has launched the world’s first master’s program in Queer History, devoted entirely to the history of the LGBT experience.

It’s important to examine how the polarized categories through which we have come to see sexual identity – male/female, heterosexuality/homosexuality, active/passive – have emerged, and how they came to be seen as ‘natural’.

For example, the terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ were invented by Austro-Hungarian journalist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in only 1869, and the history of the Hijra transgender women in India shows that these apparently irreducible natural categories are in fact anything but.

Looking into the past can have the effect of estranging – and empowering: we come upon ways of understanding and practicing sexuality that are so diverse and different that the ‘normal’ of today suddenly seems very relative.

There is now an established body of interdisciplinary thought known as queer theory which tries analyze and explain these aspects. But practical hands-on historical research is as important as theory, and researchers will be able to search what will become the National Queer Archive at Goldsmiths for important material, such as the personal literary estates of those who self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender in the past.

And London itself, a liberal, tolerant city and one of the queer capitals of the world, has its own fascinating, multi-faceted sexual history that should be examined and celebrated, especially with the opportunity to meet those who are still politically active.

A period that’s of particular interest to queer historians is the Modern and Early Modern periods from the 1500s onwards.

This includes the evolving nature of homosexuality in mid-Victorian Western society, including such figures as Oscar Wilde among others, and the later emancipatory movements such as those after the 1969 Stonewall Riots that galvanized political activism for LGBT rights.

‘”Queer” makes you think’

Of course queer history is also bound up with questions of power, including how sexual orientation and race throughout history have often become interlinked in asymmetrical, oppressive ways – a process known in queer theory as intersectionality.

As is often the case in discussing the lives of oppressed minorities, language is key. We settled on ‘queer history’ for several reasons.

First, ‘queer’ makes you think. Gay men, especially British gay men, who lived through the 1950s–1970s, remember it as one of the worst slurs.

But it is also an example of one of the most successful campaigns to co-opting the word: taking a hateful slur and attaching positive value to it, proclaiming ‘We’re queer, and we’re here’ – a chant associated with the Queer Nation group so often that the term loses its negative ring.

There is also the question of globalization. Arguably, the co-opting campaign was most successful in the US, and less so in the UK. Many other countries have adopted it in their languages without memory of the hurtful ring.

What does this tell us about global power relations? How immune is a emancipatory social movement like the gay rights movement to the asymmetries and entrenched hegemonies of power that characterize our world?

Will ‘queering’ this and that not gloss over, perhaps even destroy, very distinct, home-grown forms of sexuality and desire that developed outside the US and Europe?

Lastly, ‘queer’ in many quarters has gained acceptance as an umbrella term while ‘LGBT’ today already seems dated, as deepening identity politics adds more acronyms to the mix (LGBTQ, LGBTQI, LGBTQIA…).

So, this is history and culture that has evolved and shaped the way queer society sees itself and how it fought for its rights. It’s time for a concerted effort to give the histories of same-sex desiring and loving people their full academic due.

Professor Jan Plamper
Professor Jan Plamper