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[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 name.

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 to do.

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.

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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 2 January 2020 [CV]