LESBIAN AND GAY HISTORY:
DEFINING A FIELD CONFERENCE
[City University of New York, October 1995]
by Paul Halsall
The history department at the City University of New York held
a conference over the weekend, entitle "Lesbian and Gay History:
Defining a Field". I have some reports and comments on this,
with the particular point of view of a Medievalist.
It was a medievalist, John Boswell, who legitimated Lesbian and
Gay history asa field of study. Although, to say the least, very
many people disagreed with his conclusions, he did demonstrate
that a significant amount of source material existed. Since his Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality is has
also, I think, become increasingly clear that the study of sexuality
in the past is not only possible, but may also inform study of
a number of other aspects of medieval society.
Boswell, of course, is most famous for advancing the notion that
"gay people", at least within the world deriving from
ancient Mediterranean civilizations, always existed. Since then
a very different paradigm has come to the fore. This was summarized
at the Conference by Randolph Trumbach of Baruch College, with
important additions by Martha Vicinus.
The model now, according to Trumbach, although still with
some dissent is this: Homosexual behaviors in most societies,
and in European society until circa 1700 fell into two main patterns
[at least for men]. One was based on age dissonant sexual relations:
an older man [perhaps not that much older btw] would take a conventionally
"male" role in a sexual relationship with a younger
male, but would not, in doing so, be regarded as any different
from other "male" men in society. The second was based
on gender dissonant dominance; i.e. in a number of societies there
were "biological" males who lived as "non-males"
throughout their lives, and these people could also be the sexual
partners of "male" men without the "men" loosing
any status. The North-American 'berdache" is perhaps the
most famous example of a widespread phenomenon. Around about 1700,
the model continues, in Western Europe [and research has been
done in London, Paris, the Netherlands to confirm this], a change
took place. A subculture of effeminate men arose in major cities,
men who identified as "mollies" [in London at least],
and who, although they were prepared to have sex with "male"
men [aka "rough trade"] were also prepared to have sex
with each other. Trumbach wanted to call this phenomenon "the
emergence of a Third Gender". Since this is not the model
of modern homosexuality in the West, there has been a question,
for some time, of when the "modern homosexual" emerged.
For about 15 years the proposals of Jonathan Ned Katz, Jeffrey
Weeks and, from a side comment, Michel Foucault were widely accepted.
This was that the medicalization of homosexuality in the late
19th century resulted in the creation of a new creature - the
modern homosexual [and, as Katz has recently argued the "modern
heterosexual" - a somewhat later arrival though!]. For many
scholars this binary dichotomy is worrisome, especially as they
have the conviction that in such a binary as "homo/heterosexual"
there will never be equality for gay people.
The work of George Chauncey, in his recent Gay New York [one of the best book ever written on gay history] has called
into question the last part of this traditional four-stage formulation.
Chauncey argues that elite terminology and labels had no immediate
effect on the mass of working class New Yorkers. That although
there were, eventually, some self-identified "queers",
until about 1940 [!] it was common for working class men to have
"male role" sex with other men ["fairies"]
without in any way feeling that they were "homosexual".
What happened around 1940, the amended model says is that a: more
and more of the mass of the population began to identify as "heterosexual"
and see any homosexual behavior as transgressive, and among "queers"
a shift in desired sexual partner took place: - from preferring
"male" men, "queers" now began to prefer other
"queers" as sexual partners. Thus, in Trumbach's terms,
a shift from Third Gender to "sexual orientation" took
place. Trumbach left hanging the suggestion that "sexual
orientation" is just "third gender" under a different
Martha Vicinus added to this Trumbachian summary the observation,
perhaps first made a few years ago by Linda Alcoff in Signs,
that the implication of certain "social constructionist"
positions in the past, that before the modern binary of homo/hetero
division sexualities were more fluid is not really tenable: earlier
sexual constructions were just as constrained, but the constraints
were different. She also noted that although, theoretically, there
can be any number of sexual identities, two or three patterns
are recurring, and that rather on obsessing on "difference"
some consideration of "sameness" needed to be done.
The Conference was concerned, as indicated, with "defining"
a field, and so many of the sessions focused on discussing the
issues raised by the model I just tried to outline. There were
sessions, then on two major classic debates : the issue of "romantic
friendship" in Lesbian history [with both Caroll Smith-Rosenberg
and Lilian Faderman taking part in the session, along with younger
critics], and the whole issue of "gender and role" in
male homosexual historiography. There were also more technical
sessions on archiving, teaching LG history, and biography. Perhaps
the most explosive session was the debate the followed the showing
of an upcoming PBS documentary on the early LG movement in New
York 'Out Rage 69', a documentary which basically skewered the
Gay Activists Alliance as racist, classist and sexist: since many
of the original participants were in the room, along with the
various skewerers, all pretense at academic objectivity [not really
a big hit in post-pomo historiography in any case] was abandoned.
I have some real reservations about what went on at the conference,
reservations which question just what the conference was seeking
I. A huge amount of Lesbian and Gay history [or, if you accept
the model above, history of relevance to modern lesbians and gays]
has been in classical and medieval studies. Yet the conference
was overwhelmingly concerned with American history since 1930!
When I mentioned this to some other -Americanist - attendees they
said that of course older history had been looked at - after all,
one graduate student had spoken about his research in 1870s Paris!
There were a few later papers on Philippino [but contemporary
Philippino] history and a few comments from Trumbach, who has
a wonderful command of the entire field, that looked back before
1900, but the fact remains a conference which explicitly claimed
to be defining the field, failed completely to consider ancient
of medieval history. Not only is this a problem for medievalists,
but it is hard to see how even the Americanists can talk about
their theory issues when they have such a limited knowledge of
the past beyond living memory.
II. There is a big problem with the emotionality and political
positioning of many of the historians doing lesbian and gay history.
A Swedish colleague attending the conference was bowled over that
attendees booed and hissed speakers according to whether they
agreed with them politically. Clearly the field is emotionally
and politically involving, but some distance is required if productions
are to be anything other than academic solipsism.
II. For a conference on "defining a field" in history,
it was remarkable in not distinguishing clearly between history,
political science, anthropology and sociology. Perhaps too much
can be made of such distinctions, but, I argue, the methods of
each discipline are distinct even as they inform each other. But
there was no real discussion of historiography as such.