Stephen Vider

Can the home be queered, or has the home been queer all along? This was the question I posed last month as the organizer of The Queerness of Home: Intimacy, Normativity, Domesticity. The symposium, hosted by the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities, brought together three scholars for a public panel and discussion: Deborah Cohen, Peter B. Ritzma Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Northwestern University; Marlon M. Bailey, Associate Professor of Gender Studies and American Studies at Indiana University; and Lauren Gutterman, Postdoctoral Scholar in the Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.

The symposium grew out of my own research and reading about the ways ideals and practices of homemaking have historically structured conceptions of intimate and national belonging. Since the 1970s, scholars in history, American studies, women and gender, and queer studies have tended to understand domesticity in terms of constraint, as a site of assimilation, isolation, and oppression. This framing has been articulated most strongly in recent years in discussions of “homonormativity.” As Lisa Duggan defined it her 2003 book The Twilight of Equality?, homonormativity is “a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.” Duggan’s conceptualization of homonormativity built particularly on the work of Michael Warner, which critiqued expanding calls for lesbian and especially gay respectability, maturity, and conventionality—most notably in the form of same-sex marriage. For writers like Andrew Sullivan, and an expanding number of political activists from the 1990s onward, same-sex marriage appeared a vital step toward LGBT inclusion and equality. Warner, Duggan, and other scholars and activists who would follow them nonetheless pointed to the severe limitations of same-sex marriage as a movement and individual goal—for Duggan in particular, the privatizing and normalizing effects of domesticity. Perhaps nothing speaks as clearly to the prescience of Duggan’s critique as the appearance of a gay couple in the pages of the January 2013 Crate and Barrel catalogue.

Yet scholars in LGBT history, history of sexuality, and queer studies have also been too quick to dismiss the home as necessarily privatizing and normative—homo or hetero. That is to say, critics of domesticity are just as likely as its advocates to imagine and reinscribe the home as a space removed from public life, and to read private life as inherently apolitical. Duggan and Warner’s critiques, after all, emerged out of their own particular historical moment—a moment that we are, in many ways, still in. Looking to the past can help us to better understand how we came to this moment, how domesticity, intimacy, and normativity have intersected historically, and how they might, or might not, be remade and rethought in the future.

Questions about the meanings and practices of home and family weave through much of Deborah Cohen’s work. In her paper, she looked back at some of the history she traced in Household Gods: The British and Their Possessions, examining how members of the British middle class came to invest their homes with new personal meaning—in Cohen’s words, as “centers for their freedom of expression.” The new emphasis on style also led to heightened anxieties about taste, or its absence. A central irony for Cohen is that queer men were often the tastemakers. She pointed, for example, to 1920s interior designer Richard Fleming, one of the subjects of Matt Cook’s new book Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London. As Cohen argued, Fleming may have been a non-conformist, but he taught “an anxious middle class not to stand out.” Drawing on research in her latest book, Family Secrets: Shame and Privacy in Modern Britain, Cohen also pointed to the ways homosexual men found themselves on the “leading edge of privacy rights”—through demands by queer men, and sometimes, their families, to keep homosexuality out of the public—and police—eye. In 1957, for example, the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution recommended the state decriminalize consensual and private homosexual acts. It was no coincidence that Chairman John Wolfenden had a queer son—one who penned an arch defense of the “homosexual predicament” in the pages of The Isis, an Oxford student magazine, while the committee was preparing its report.

Lauren Gutterman drew on research from her book manuscript, “The House on the Borderland”: A History of Lesbian Desire Within Marriage to explore how married women of the 1950s and 60s developed sexual and romantic relationships with other women—sometimes within their family homes. As Gutterman explained, historians have often used the term “double lives” to describe the experiences of homosexual men who were married or otherwise passed as straight. Women’s experiences might better be understood in terms of a “sexual borderland, where heterosexual and lesbian worlds overlapped.” The gender and sexual norms of the postwar family, in fact, made possible their subversion—giving women the privacy to pursue lesbian relationships without raising the suspicion of their husbands. That began to shift in the 1970s, as divorce laws changed and lesbian lives became more visible, but while some experienced this as “liberation,” others felt forced to make a choice. Drawing on work by Sharon Marcus, Gutterman argued, in the end, the postwar nuclear household functioned as “an elastic institution”: it could accommodate queerness, but could as quickly “snap back into place.”

Finally, Marlon Bailey reflected on research from his recent book Butch Queens Up in Pumps, which examines the drag ball communities of Detroit. During six years of immersive ethnographic research, Bailey uncovered how various drag ball houses come to function as families for their members, many of whom are estranged from or pushed out by their families of origin. The ballroom houses typically do not occupy a permanent shared space, though they may sometimes gather at a house parent’s home. They are instead a social configuration played out through the labor of social support, what Bailey calls in his book “housework.” At the same time, the drag ball performances themselves enable house members to re-play and reconfigure gender through an elaborate system of categories, from “butch queens” to “femme queens” to “butches,” and more. The ballroom scene is, as Bailey calls it, “the practice of possibility.”

The three papers together begin to suggest the myriad ways homes may deviate from cultural norms, and yet remain, as ever, a powerful symbol and expression of belonging. One thread that ran throughout the three papers, highlighted by Cohen’s work, was the question of secrecy or how information is circulated and concealed. The ideal home is often prized for the privacy it enables, a space removed from the pressures of public life and surveillance. But domestic space is also flexible: every room is assigned a different degree of “privacy,” some more intimate than others. The term “secrecy” expands this sense of the home as a site of performance, and opens up new questions about the motivations and feelings behind the desire for privacy—about the shames and thrills of failing to fit the norm; about the strains of controlling information; about the intimacies, and pains, of sharing guarded knowledge; and the material spaces that make secrets possible and impossible.

In the questions that followed, Holly Jackson, Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Boston, brought our attention back to marriage: all three speakers had demonstrated the queerness of home, but was marriage still hopelessly normative, or as Jackson put it, “unqueerable”? For Bailey, the problem is not marriage, per se, but public affirmation and proclamation—after all there is a “lot going on underground.”

That is perhaps another way of saying that home is always at once fantastic and material. There is a gap between what is spoken and what is done, between the performative utterance and the performance. The home is a space where social norms are recognized and affirmed, but also resisted and failed. It is a site of contradiction, where the normal and the deviant meet. In the end, the queerness of home may be its most fundamental, and most open, secret.

Stephen Vider is the Cassius Marcellus Clay Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Sexuality at Yale University. He is currently working on a book manuscript, Interior Relations: Queering Domesticity and Belonging After World War II, which examines how American conceptions of home shaped gay identities, relationships, and politics from 1945 to the present.


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