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Histories of People, Histories of Rupture

by | March 14, 2022

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. 



History has an ambivalent character, and has proven an unreliable servant for any political cause. Since the twentieth century, innumerable researchers have been drawn towards the question of gay history –  both what ‘our’ history looks like, and at what point ‘we’ became gays at all.

Let’s focus here on history as a set of research practices, rather than professional institutions. Considering history as a field, it will suffice to say that world historic breakthroughs around ‘acceptance’ in the rest of society have not always ensured clear pathways for those hoping to entrench themselves in history faculties. Those hoping to cultivate lasting careers are generally expected to position ‘LGBT history’ as one concern alongside a broader range of research interests. 

The result is that history shares with philosophy the status of a relatively respectable field within the humanities, especially in contrast to ‘area studies’ of any focus, or studies of the literary. But the reality is that its ‘rigour’ depends on a routinised downplaying of overt involvement in the stakes at hand. (Consider, for instance, the impact Gayle Salamon and Saidiya Hartman have had on the fields of philosophy and history respectively, without finding a natural place in those disciplines’ respective faculties.)

But let’s set aside history as an institutionally founded discipline, and focus instead on the double-edged character of historical practice as a way of thinking through political problems. This will cast some light on the unreliable character of history as a means of thinking through social change, and movements.

Let’s begin by setting out two overarching hopes gays (etc.) have for history.

  1. ‘A People With A History’: a commonplace exercise where LGBT people trace sexuality as a people (apparently equivalent to an ethnicity), which existed with varying degrees of institutional recognition and popular acceptance across time.
  2. Gay Genealogies: these approaches stress the discontinuous form taken by normative understandings of sex and sexuality, and as such the constantly shifting place of perceived ‘deviation’.

The first approach treats gay or LGBT people as a population to be identified across time. (The term ‘People With A History’ I draw from the dedicated sub-site of the Fordham Sourcebook’s Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans* History, run by John Halsall). An exemplary figure in this approach was the medievalist and Church historian John Boswell (known to his friends as ‘Jeb’), who enjoyed unique popular acclaim among pre-modern historians of his day.

In Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), Boswell re-examined the historical record of the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that it revealed an underappreciated legacy of tolerance. His follow up monograph, The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994), expanded Boswell’s study to include a pre-modern rite concerned with making unrelated men brothers (Adelphopoiesis). Boswell used the prevalence of this liturgical form to argue for a widely attested, ecclesiastically approved, and public validation of same-sex relationships.

But these claims attracted considerable controversy, and subsequent scholarship within specialist fields has largely contradicted Boswell’s provocative thesis. (A noble, if perhaps still not exhaustive, attempt to catalogue the furore around Boswell’s reading of Adelphopoiesis rites can be found in the Fordham Sourcebook’s Online Guide). At the time, however, Boswell’s work achieved a certain caché for two reasons: firstly, his standing as a Yale Professor and open affiliation with Catholicism made it difficult to dismiss him as either a fringe scholar or hostile voice. Secondly, the notion of ‘same-sex unions’ extending from pre-modernity presented not simply a picture of ‘homosexual tendencies’ and their repression as an ongoing site of social conflict; rather, it proposed a more settled and even normatively accepted framework for male-male relationships. Boswell’s work could therefore be accurately classed as an investigation into the ‘history of tolerance’ as the history of homosexuality.

Boswell’s historical claims were perfectly fitted to advancing what we might call the mainline liberal position for gay acceptance in the later twentieth century: that homosexuality was a minority of the population attested across historical eras; that institutional recognition had existed previously and could be fruitfully offered again; that homophobia was a political or ideological project that could never hope to suppress the trans-historical reality of homosexual impulses and companionship; and that hostile voices which asserted themselves as guardians of ‘tradition’ were in fact operating from a place of profound ignorance.

For decades this first (‘ethnicising’) approach to gay history has been criticised by both political and methodological radicals. They argue that these attempts to historicise gay life often amount to urbane wealthy homosexual guys turning their gaze across historical sources to find experiences that match their own. In the process, they efface particular positions that are less commensurate with today’s ‘scene life’.

As well as developing these critiques, literary historians including Carolyn Dinshaw (focusing on the medieval English canon) and Heather Love (in her work on the irresistible lure of miserable fiction) have brought into view not only historical communities, but the exercise of historical thinking that draws historians and other readers into contact with minorities they have no direct contact with. Dinshaw and Love stress trans-historical contact as something which has to be delicately attempted, rather than assumed: a people who become such through history, one might say.

Other historians have focused on gay history not as an exercise in uncovering a ‘people’ but a sensibility or aesthetic. (Robert Atkins’ 1966 essay ‘Goodbye Lesbian/Gay History, Hello Queer Sensibility: Meditating on Cultural Practice’ presents a critical take on this shift). Gay history is also defended by Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed’s book If Memory Serves: Gay Men, AIDS, and the Promise of the Queer Past (2011), in an approach best classified as ‘history of memory’.

Despite decades of skilled critiques levelled against it, the ‘ethnicising’ approach has resisted being dispensed with. There are two simple reasons for this: firstly, the rarity of coming to queer consciousness in a familial household means that familiarising oneself with gay life across previous eras will remain a neccessity. Secondly, popular phobias ensure that the public sphere will often be cluttered with confidently expressed claims that bear no relation to the historical record. In this context, ripostes and correctives become simple enough.

I recall here a recent episode where a British philosophy professor opined on social media that no transgender woman would have had the nerve to refer to herself as a lesbian prior to a decade ago. It was simple enough to find a strip from Dykes to Watch Out For (signed by its artist Alison Bechdel 1995, bottom right): the twenty-six-year-old strip refutes any notion of ’90s lesbian and trans culture being tidily separable, even as it attests to the longstanding resistance among some cis lesbians towards that de facto merger. (Though its hopeful ending suggests this could be overcome through acts of solidarity).

Shortly after her remarks, I did my best to bring this cartoon to the attention of the philosophy professor in question, but have not yet received a reply.

To prove that one has existed, and been recorded as being there, may be a remedial work from one view. Yet resisting these empty claims of novelty is work which often won’t do itself.

This response through the ‘power of pedantry’ is both important and ensures easy wins: those who aren’t members of a minority group have a weaker grasp of their history (for the most part). The most hateful might be prone to vague speculations based on popular stereotypes, and resulting embarrassment when their musings are compared to the harsh glare of the historical record. While social emancipation cannot be reduced to debaters’ back-and-forths alone, these moments may afford the historically informed with a certain advantage of position.

There are clear limits to how many political victories can be won through disputes over points-of-fact. But this ‘popular’ face of queer history does not seem likely to exhaust itself yet. Resisting political projects which seek to entrench phobic sentiments or keep civil rights stripped will often require rebutting historical claims considerably more crude and oblivious than the fine details of terminological breakthroughs which historical constructionists tend to concern themselves with.

Genealogical investigation into homosexuality is typically associated with Michel Foucault, who drew on Friedrich Nietzsche’s tendency to sort ideas by their pedigree. While an early admirer of Boswell’s work, Foucault’s account came to provide a new sketch of heterosexuality, which he presented as a novel normative order originating in the nineteenth century. 

The prominent place of gay genealogical investigation (otherwise known as historicist or constructionist accounts of homo/heterosexual identity) was ushered into the twenty-first century through the work of classicist David Halperin, who between his books One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and How To Do the History of Homosexuality advanced an increasingly refined, yet strictly orthodox Foucauldian perspective. In this view, prior eras drawn on by modern readers as instances of an ancient gay history (particularly ancient Greece) in fact operated according to incommensurate conceptions of sexuality and, indeed, had little overt comprehension of ‘sexuality’ as a concern at all.

Genealogical approaches are often at odds with efforts to trace trans-historical communities or movements, instead stressing the place of frameworks and conceptions specific to historical eras – both as decisive features of social life and continuously manipulated instruments of powerful institutions. As Thomas Moynihan’s Spinal Catastrophism: A Secret History (2019) has it, genealogy is a work of unveiling: 

[Genealogy] works to reveal that those beliefs that we think depend upon edifying reasons in fact depend upon contingent causes, unveiling unaccountabilities in the structure of belief. Thus one may be seen to hold a particular belief not on account of deliberative ratiocination, but as a result of some accident of background or upbringing.

In the gay context, geneaological historians not only stress contingency but also discontinuity: the ways in which figures who may appear easily recognisable at first glance upon closer inspection may be mutually incommensurate – far harder to comprehend than initial recognition may suggest.

For obvious reasons, this makes genealogy a tool as likely to be disruptive of appeals to gay history attempted for the sake of emancipatory politics as accounts which stress the novelty of LGBT life. This is a necessary sacrifice. Much of the analytic power of this approach comes exactly from setting aside immediate political terms. Historians of this orientation have a preference for grasping conflicts as they arose, and as recorded in archival sources, setting aside the immediate strategic concerns of contemporary movements (to a greater or lesser extent).

This brings us to Jules Gill-Peterson’s Histories of the Transgender Child (2018) and Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony (2020). In each case, these books benefit from a certain detachment that genealogy’s influence has afforded today’s queer(?) history.

We find in Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony a steadfast focus on ‘sodomites’, a moral term that became integrated into juridical statute and structure by early modernity. For instance, the Florentine police grandly titled the ‘Office of the Night’ was established with the suppression of sodomy as one of its primary concerns. 

While some of the urban forms-of-life Chitty helps uncover may seem familiar to contemporary readers, in others he is unflinching in identifying the power mismatches which these varieties of homosexual relationship existed between. The political ramifications of bracketing together convicts from earlier modernity with legislation that has been repealed within living memory (and, in much of the former British Empire, remains in full force) are set to one side by Sexual Hegemony. Rather than hoping to provide direct utility to emancipatory movements, Chitty’s agenda is grasping the tenuous integration which ‘sodomites’ as class actors seem to have deployed across time.

To put it another way, if John Boswell traced the unlikely history of pre-modern tolerance, Chitty’s approach provides precisely the opposite: a historical materialist account of why exactly ‘moral panics’ that led to the persecution of ‘sodomites’ occurred when they did. In short, what Chitty offers is an analysis of the situation of state suppression in the context of political economy. 

The genealogical mode attempts to shelve the utility of history as a guide to who we are, in favour of a closer focus on continuity of a different kind: rather than reconstructing a continuous people, it places the attention on the governing institutions (from states to professional bodies) which have made the oversight of sexuality simply one concern within a broader remit to tacitly dominate their subjects’ behaviour.

From this point of view, identity distinctions which have since been firmed up may disappear, as their origin point comes into better view. In Histories of the Transgender Child, Jules Gill-Peterson shows us how one intersex variation, Congenital Adrenal Hypoplasia (CAH), came to have broader ramifications not only for quite distinct intersex variations, but children attempting transition. While the medical profession has recently taken measures to relocate CAH outside of intersex variations proper, in the course of the twentieth century these variations coming to be fully understood disrupted earlier protocols for sorting male from female. 

In Gill-Peterson’s account, physicians’ attempts to come to terms with the conceptual pressure that the identification of CAH placed onto their clinical practice resulted in rearguard definitions and redefinitions relating to (perceived) gender deviance more generally. Rather than becoming more easily and analytically separable, intersex and trans children became shrouded in the same shadow.

Unlike Chitty’s work, Gill-Peterson’s monograph does attempt to verify the prior existence of a population now continuously cast as a novelty (transgender children). However, her primary concern is identifying an overarching governing principle developed by post-war sexuality: ‘the racialising plasticity of gender’. 

In a move that might surprise or even alarm many of today’s US progressives, Gill-Peterson seems unsatisfied with an account of ‘gender’ which extends only from 1990 to the present, instead returning to the work of New Zealander sexologist John Money (whom she presents as coining the term while fully immersed in the racial hierarchies of the post–War United States, where Money had moved as a white migrant in 1947.)

Clearly, this account is not one designed to be ‘useful’ in the immediate sense for contemporary political struggles, given today’s anti-trans voices are prone to referring to themselves as ‘gender critical’. Yet nevertheless, this approach provides a more thorough account of the efforts early gender clinics undertook to sustain an increasingly fragile order. If nothing else, Gill-Peterson’s Histories shows how empty any emancipatory hopes centred around timely access to physicians will be.

Between ‘ethnicising’ and unveiling, what mode of history seems likely to prevail in the coming years? Surely both.

Across the course of the whole of their careers as intellectuals, some ad hoc equivocation between each historical register outlined here should be expected. The ‘popular history of homosexuality’ is assured some place in emancipatory writing for as long as efforts continue to dehumanise LGBT people, or depict us as an unfortunate expression of novel ideologies. Meanwhile, genealogically informed work will often be required precisely to temper the overly exuberant (or misleadingly straightforward) accounts of historical conflicts spun by radicals and liberals alike. 

The role of historians will always be methodologically heterogenous – given the diverse range of forms historical sources take and the variety of pressing concerns in play. But a certain attachment to awkward details seems to appear in a range of guises. Moment by moment, differing registers may be required in response to the deviants of bygone eras being either smoothed into our own understandings, or effaced from the record altogether.



Jules Joanne Gleeson is a writer, comedian and salonnière from London, based in Vienna. She co-edited Transgender Marxism, and her own essays have been widely published. Her performances have included lectures delivered at festivals and retreats worldwide, and stand-up sets for Vienna’s Activist Comedy Against Bullshit, and Politically Correct Comedy Club. She’s currently working on a book about hermaphrodites, sexual indifference, and inferentialist logic.

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.