“Making an Exhibition of Ourselves: Desiring Bodies, Practices and Histories” was the title of a panel sponsored by the Committee for LGBT History at this year’s American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting in New York. One of thirteen panels dedicated to “Promiscuous Interdisciplinarity,” the issues that participants debated ranged from the situated dynamics of teenage bullies and their victims to the challenges arising from writing a National Historic Landmark nomination for an LGBTQ site, the Henry Gerber House in Chicago (of which I was a co-presenter) to the significance of different neighborhoods and their populations to the history of Seattle’s Gay Pride. The diversity of the topics, partly due to last-minute changes in the panel’s composition, did not affect the overall concerns of the presentations, however. They all addressed how archives, exhibitions and historical sites operate as spaces through which ideas about LGBTQ identity can be renegotiated. Panel chair Don Romesburg of Sonoma State University identified “scale, spectacle, and spectatorship” as the threads that connected all three papers.
Katelyn Dykstra Dykerman
On May 1, 2014, Dr Cary Gabriel Costello published a blog post entitled, “On Eugenic Abortion of the Intersex,” that discussed the contemporary choice for parents to terminate fetuses diagnosed with an intersex condition. His post provides a useful starting point for a discussion about the continued threat of eugenic science (or genetic science, under which eugenic practices have often been re-packaged) to queer folks, in particular those with intersex conditions.
A more comprehensive analysis of the issue Costello raises can be found in the September 2013 issue of The Journal of American Bioethics* which took up the practice of PGD (prenatal genetic diagnosis) in cases of intersex conditions. The focus article by Robert Sparrow explained that PGD can be used to “avoid the birth of an intersex child” (29). He explored the ethics of PGD for intersex conditions, hesitantly coming to the conclusion that, indeed, PGD is ethical in cases of intersex because people with intersex conditions are less likely to find community, sexual pleasure, and be able to reproduce. Thus, he places the responsibility on parents to consider whether they want to bring a child with genitals that may not be understood as “normal” into a hostile world. As responding authors pointed out, Sparrow’s analysis picks up eugenic rhetoric by asserting that there is a normal body to which all other bodies aspire. Any that do not fit into the ideal physical body, and resulting idealized life narrative, should be expunged — you know, for their own good. Ahem!
Interview by Justin Bengry
In Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (Palgrave, 2014), Matt Cook explores queer men’s experiences of home and homemaking in the metropolis. Peering into bedsits in Notting Hill and squats in Brixton, as well as luxurious abodes in the city’s more affluent districts, Cook offers a queer history nuanced by class and race. Cook’s study sensitively depicts the ways queer men experienced their identities, home, family life and communities across the twentieth century. An important and significant break with previous studies, including his own, that privileged public arenas in the formation of homosexual subcultures, Queer Domesticities instead illuminates how the personal and the private contributed to building interconnected relationships and communities. In a series of case studies, Cook focuses on various experiences of home life. The book draws from a remarkable archive of decades of oral testimony, to build a picture of urban queer life that simultaneously contextualizes and also undermines the stereotypes of queer men as arbiters of taste and style or gentrifiers of neighbourhoods.
By Sean Curran
Just a decade ago, the idea of an exhibition addressing LGBT themes in a National Trust house would likely have been dismissed. Today, however, the Trust is desperately trying to eschew its reputation as a stuffy and conservative organisation that, as writer George Monbiot notes, regurgitates a ‘sanitised, tea-towel history’. There have, in the last few years, been a number of initiatives that have begun to undo this reputation, including: the artist group ‘Unravelled’ and their work at Nymans House and Garden, former Tudor powerhouse The Vyne, and others; The National Trust London Project’s initiatives such as the Soho Stories App, a GPS sound tour ‘bringing 60 years of Bohemian Soho to life'; and the pop-up takeovers of the Big Brother House and studios in flat 130 of the brutalist former social housing block Balfron Tower.
My own research is based on the National Trust property Sutton House in Hackney. Built by statesman Ralph Sadleir in 1535, when Hackney was a quiet pastoral village escape from the bustle of London, Sutton House typifies a grand Tudor home. Sadleir left Sutton House in 1546 and sold it to merchant John Machell four years later, the first of many subsequent owners or occupiers who in turn painted their own distinct marks on what is now the oldest house in Hackney. I began volunteering at Sutton House in the summer of 2013, and after a few months suggested curating an exhibition to be held during LGBT History Month (February in the UK). The staff at Sutton House were keen to address LGBTQ audiences, as it would be a first for the house.
Notches’ Assistant Editor program recognizes and mentors promising graduate students who have an interest in digital humanities and public history and who are conducting cutting edge research on the history of sexuality. We are pleased to introduce our two Assistant Editors for 2015-2016, Agnes Arnold-Forster and Devin McGeehan Muchmore.
Agnes Arnold-Forster is a PhD candidate at King’s College London where she researches breast cancer in the nineteenth century. Her research focuses on both medical and cultural understandings of breast cancer from c. 1789 to c. 1914 in Britain and the United States, by exploring the gendered nature and implications of medicine in that period, the construction of the medical profession and its exclusion of non-conventional practices and practitioners, as well as representations of breast cancer and mastectomies in both visual art and literature. This research is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). Agnes is also working on a project on the history of feminist engagement with Female Genital Mutilation, which corresponds with the research work she does for the women’s health charity SafeHands for Mothers. She tweets from @agnesjuliet
Devin McGeehan Muchmore is a PhD candidate in the American Studies program at Yale University and a graduate student affiliate of the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities. He is currently writing a dissertation on commercial sex entrepreneurs’ grassroots organizing and cultural politics in the 1960s and 1970s United States, using their activism and business activities to illuminate popular debates about the meanings of sexual and economic freedom. Research for the project has been supported by the Mellon Foundation/Council on Library and Information Resources, UCLA Library Special Collections, the Phil Zwickler Charitable and Memorial Foundation, and the Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale.
Over the next year, Agnes and Devin will be assisting Notches’ editorial board with all aspects of our blog. They will participate in a number of projects including managing our social media presence (Facebook and Twitter), developing our Dispatches and Author Interviews features, expanding our geographic and chronological breadth, and copyediting our regular features. Their help will be invaluable as Notches continues to promote critical discussions of the history of sexuality within and outside of the academy.
Welcome Agnes and Devin!
When the singer and poet Rod McKuen died on January 29th at the age of 81, major publications including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post paid tribute to his numerous accomplishments. For many readers, these obituaries functioned as the final word on McKuen’s legacy; so what does it mean that the mainstream press all but erased McKuen’s queer past and gay activism?
As I surveyed the otherwise familiar Columbia quad on a fall afternoon in 2014, the mattresses caught my eye. At least ten students awkwardly lugged around standard-issue dormitory extra-long twins, some scrawled with denunciations of sexual violence and signatures of support. These students acted in solidarity with Emma Sulkowicz, a fourth-year student who had reported being “raped in her own bed” the first day of her sophomore year and who turned her senior project into a performance-art protest against both sexual violence and the university for its mishandling of her case. Amidst widespread media coverage, Sulkowicz has vowed to carry around her fifty-pound mattress until her alleged rapist, Jean-Paul Nungesser, named publicly by the Columbia Spectator, is expelled.
Exiting campus, I passed hulking St. Luke’s Hospital and remembered the several hours I had spent there during my own Columbia freshman orientation, back in 1996. I had awoken in the middle of the night pinned to my bunk bed by a man who breathed hotly on my face, and in what I will always recall as a uniquely menacing whisper, promised we would “do it again soon.” Disoriented, I somehow convinced him to leave. When I switched on the light, I saw he had removed the cords from my telephone, stolen my keys and brand-new student ID, and, most troublingly, left a pair of men’s shorts behind. So at the advice of my floor’s inexperienced Resident Advisor, I found myself at St. Luke’s, legs splayed open undergoing a rape kit. The nurse confirmed that “nothing had happened,” and I embarked on my freshman year on exactly that premise: NOTHING HAPPENED. I ignored the dean’s nervous voicemails inviting me to “chat over tea” and told no one on the Spectator, where I hoped to build recognition as a writer rather than a victim, especially as it reported on sexual violence more frequently.
I was accompanied on that stroll this fall by another alumna, whom I’ll call Rachel Cohen, who graduated from Barnard in 1969 (Columbia remained all-male until 1982), and who recalled her own experience of campus sexual violence, nearly fifty years before Sulkowicz became a cause célèbre. An activist, Cohen had hosted a dinner at her dorm and connected with one guest, “a soft-spoken” member of the radical, anti-establishment Students for a Democratic Society. This young man had invited her to visit him at his room on campus, where he overpowered her repeated refusals to have sex, then beseeched her “not to be angry.” Back in New York, Cohen located a gynecologist who administered emergency contraception. Shaken, Cohen returned to Barnard, where for a time she redefined her rapist as her boyfriend, “because,” she explained to me, “if we were dating, then what happened between us was OK. I was no longer a victim.” Cohen didn’t share her experience with friends or authorities, and only years later, after she became a feminist, recognized the act as rape and learned that the same man had attempted to coerce a close friend.
So what can the experiences of these three young women, which span over fifty years, teach us? The natural temptation is to assess “progress,” but the historian’s lens of change-over-time is more appropriate. As imperfect as any individual examples — especially those of three heterosexual women on an elite campus — are to assert grand conclusions, these instances help illuminate transformations and continuities in how Americans experience, think, and talk about sex and violence on campuses across the United States, where an estimated 20-25% of college women experience sexual assault. First, the legal and cultural definition of rape has expanded to encompass far more than forcible penetration by a stranger. Secondly, the sexual culture at large, as well as how students expect the institution to regulate it, has transformed. Finally, for all this change, the continuities are most instructive.