- What's Queer Got To Do With It?
In 2000-2001, Marc Stein, then chair of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History (CLGH), an affiliated society of the American Historical Association, conducted a survey of individuals who had completed or were completing dissertations on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer topics in history or history-related programs. He found that, with only two exceptions, U.S. history departments were not hiring such scholars.1 In March 2009, Marc complained to the editor of Reviews in American History that in the last ten years not a single book in the field of gay/lesbian/queer history had been reviewed in RAH.2 Obviously this is changing, as the first issue of 2009 (already in the pipeline when Stein registered his complaint) included a review by Craig Loftin of Daniel Hurewitz's Bohemian Los Angeles and of Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons' Gay L.A. Other reviews have been assigned, and I have been invited to contribute this field essay. But the point is this: both the failure of U.S. history departments to hire scholars of queer history and the long run of queer-history-less RAH issues suggest that there is a gay history ghetto. This situation reminds me of the early years of women's history, when scholars who wrote about women might be considered for positions in women's history, but not in, say, modern U.S. history or political history or some other field. That has changed dramatically over the years and is, I think, a sign that history departments have come to recognize that one can study women and have something to add to the dominant historical narrative, if there still is such a thing. That seems not to be the case with queer history.
So I approach the task of considering ten-plus years of scholarship on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer history by asking, with apologies to Tina Turner, what's queer got to do with it? How have works in this field engaged with and revised our understanding of U.S. history? I approach these questions not by reviewing the books discussed below in any depth, but by considering the connections they make outside the field of queer history.
On perhaps the most obvious level, queer history has dramatically changed our understanding of heterosexual history. Jonathan Ned Katz, a pioneer in the field of gay/lesbian history, made this point with his wonderfully titled The Invention of Heterosexuality, published in 1995. Who could imagine such a title without a history of homosexuality? Katz detailed the ways that emerging [End Page 189] conceptualizations of homosexuality also defined what it meant to be heterosexual, and how the meaning of the word changed over time.
One of the first ways that the history of same-sex love transformed conceptions of heterosexuality was through exploration of female romantic friendship, which showed us that quite a lot of love and physical affection between women coexisted with heterosexual married life from the late eighteenth into the early twentieth century. It became clear from research on men's romantic friendships that this was not just because society assumed that women lacked sexual desire. There was also plenty of evidence of women's sexual desire from both same-sex and other-sex sexual activity.3
Katz's book Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (2001) furthered our understanding of the relationship between love and lust in a nineteenth-century sexual system that did not neatly distinguish between homosexuality and heterosexuality. The stories Katz tells show individual men struggling to name and define feelings they had about other men. Using Walt Whitman as a centerpiece, Katz shows the ways that, over the course of the century, men managed, in his words, to "come to terms," "come together," and "go public" with their desires, which now merged love and lust. What Katz's stories tell us about heterosexuality is that "loving, friendly, intimate, affectionate relationships between men were already accepted" (p. 336). Perhaps most famously, we come to understand Abraham Lincoln's intimacy and bed-sharing with Joshua Speed and their mutual heterosexual anxieties in the...