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The Present-Mindedness of History

BY ON November 5, 2014

7-14-Gay-History1Maybe because I’ve just retired, I find myself thinking a lot about what gets referred to as “The State of the Field.” How is LGBT history doing? What has it covered? Where has it come from? What’s being written now? What direction is LGBT history taking?

Answers to those questions require a lot more words than you find in a single blog post, and I won’t keep you here for that long a read. Instead, I will share the thought that keeps popping into my head as I ponder the state of the field: Though we say history is the study of the past, history is also profoundly and deeply about the present.

The first books and articles on LGBT history got their start in the 1970s and 1980s, by a generation deeply influenced by the birth of gay liberation and lesbian feminism. I’m thinking of books like my own Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities; Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’ study of lesbians in Buffalo, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold; Eric Garber’s work on the Harlem Renaissance; Allan Berube on gays, lesbians, and bisexuals during World War II; George Chauncey’s, Gay New York; and others as well. All of them were in one way or another about community and resistance. We found stories from the past that described how LGBT people had managed to find each other and create a public presence as well as recounting efforts to fight back against oppression. The history of the homophile movement was very different from much of the activism after Stonewall; the community created in Buffalo by working-class lesbians was different from what lesbian feminists built in the 1970s. But the era we were living through as we zoomed in upon our research topics was driven by an imperative to find and build community and mobilize against oppression. Whether consciously or not, that imperative followed us as we searched for historical topics to write about.

Then I think about much of the current work a newer generation of historians is producing: Daniel Rivers’ book, Radical Relations, on lesbian and gay parents and their children since World War II; Lauren Jae Gutterman’s dissertation, “The House on the Borderland,” about how lesbian desire found expression in the setting of heterosexual marriage and households in the generation after World War II; or Stephen Vider’s work on domesticity and how gays “queered” it. These topics would have been almost unimaginable a few decades earlier, yet today they, and other projects like them, are at the cutting edge of queer history. How to explain the shift? Is it because those of us who came before opened up such possibilities? I don’t think so. I think what we are impelled to seek and find has shifted with the times. So much has changed in the generation since the first LGBT histories were researched and written. Today, mainstream media assumes that gay and lesbian folks, at least, are everywhere; an Ellen and a Jason Collins and a Tim Cook make headlines; and all this is considered good and “normal” by so many. I think about how the marriage issue for the last decade has not only saturated the news but has become a common form through which gays and lesbians are presented in popular culture. Is it any wonder that the historical topics that seem compelling to many are topics that revolve around family, household, and the domestic sphere?

All this makes me want to live to a very old age so I get to see what the next generational shift in historical writing might bring, because such a shift will no doubt mean that much else has changed in the world around us.

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