Out in the Academy: Why Teach Queer History?

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This One's For You California (Wikimedia Commons)

Recent events at the American Historical Association’s annual conference in San Diego have raised questions about how we as historians consider homosexuality and LGBTQ issues, both in our own research and teaching as well as the professional as a whole. At the AHA, queer scholars, scholars of sexuality, allies, and other supporters expressed concerns about events taking place at the Manchester Grand Hyatt because of its association with Douglas Manchester, a prominent supporter of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Many observed a boycott of the hotel, finding accommodation elsewhere and avoiding panels at the Hyatt. Others participated in mini-conference sessions specifically addressing LGBTQ issues and histories.

This interest in contemporary gay and lesbian issues at our national conference also forces us to consider how we, as historians, address gay and lesbian histories on a smaller scale in our own work. After all, it is in the university with our students where many of us will have the greatest impact. This is not to say that we as historians should make it our mission to teach a particular politics in the classroom. Our students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, faiths, and political positions. We can respect these perspectives, and the positions of our students, even as we seek to explore questions of contemporary relevance that might be fraught with personal passions and politics.

At one AHA mini-conference session on Proposition 8, Jennifer Manion (Connecticut College) evaluated historians’ engagement with LGBTQ lives and histories. Even as queer history has grown as a subfield in the last two decades, and an increasing number of dissertations explore gay and lesbian questions, too often professors’ treatment of LGBTQ history is little more than neglect. Few textbooks incorporate more than a couple paragraphs on gay and lesbian lives. Arguably, for many professors, fitting queer topics into already full syllabi means dropping another subject in favor of what many colleagues, chairs, and tenure committees might see as only a relatively small, marginalized group. But, argues Manion, even ongoing interest in a few important or successful books like George Chauncey’s Gay New York has amounted to little more than tokenism, rather than a genuine reconceptualization of what and how we teach.

Which brings us back to the first question: Why teach queer history? Very often, history is in fact the study of the present. Our research and publications can inform heated questions that society must still deal with. Is this not also the case with same-sex marriage? And is it not incumbent upon us to include gay and lesbian histories in our courses, syllabi, and overall department catalogues? Opposition to issues like gay marriage might be based on personal values, faith, and other perspectives. It is not our job to “correct” these positions. But, opposition can also be based on false histories, lack of knowledge, and ahistorical arguments that deny the past. A reconceptualization of our teaching strategies that incorporates gay and lesbian histories into courses as part of the diversity of our nations and communities, rather than as a theme week or small graduate seminar, necessarily promotes understanding and sensitivity to difference in the past, and perhaps the present too.

For the AHA’s response see:

http://www.historians.org/press/2009_01_05_2010MeetingResolution.cfm

http://www.historians.org/members/emails/2009/September/SanDiegoStatement.cfm

For other responses to the AHA and the Hyatt boycott see:

http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2009/11/status-of-american-historical.html

http://www.historiann.com/2010/01/09/historiann-exclusive-classy-claude-at-the-aha-in-san-diego/

http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com/2010/01/guest-post-aha-blew-it.html

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4 Responses to “Out in the Academy: Why Teach Queer History?”

  1. Angela Sutton Says:

    “opposition can also be based on false histories, lack of knowledge, and ahistorical arguments that deny the past.”

    I think this is really the crucial issue when it comes to making the choice to actively teach in an LGBTQ-friendly way. It isn’t about taking sides or forcing socially conservative students to learn what they are not open to; rather it’s about reaching the students who have been misinformed and are ready to think about LGBTQ issues historically. It is definitely our responsibility to address omissions and misrepresentations in the record, all political or religious issues aside.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic!

  2. Jean Smith Says:

    I agree completely. In fact teaching in such a way as to demonstrate how history is misrepresented for political or indeed other purposes is indeed an appropriate and potentially powerful way for scholars to engage with controversial contemporary issues.

  3. Justin Bengry Says:

    Thank you both for your feedback! I think there’s so much tied into HOW these issues are misrepresented and how their histories are unwritten for particular political ends which needs further exploring. Recently there have been “History of the Present” courses appearing, for instance, at UC Santa Barbara. And while these have tended toward illuminating contemporary political issues and their histories for students, I believe they offer an excellent model too for teaching histories of gender and sexuality.

  4. The Contemporary Relevance of Historical Scholarship « History Compass Exchanges Says:

    [...] in those disciplines at his lecture, this kind of work is also important to historians. Just as Justin Bengry recently asserted the importance of teaching queer history, it is also important for historians to [...]

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