Friday, 16 July 2010

Queers and History

One of the things I miss about working at Borders is having to make themed displays of books. This is always a fun part of the job, because you get to indulge your creativity. You have to come up with a unifying theme, something that will allow you to pull together a bunch of disparate books from your department, and you have to design the layout of the books in the display in such a way that it's visually appealing to the reader. It helps to do this if you have a very strong, immediately-apparent theme, and if you can 'anchor' the display on a book with a powerful, arresting cover.

Someone at Washington Library clearly has much display-fu, because when I visited there this Thursday, I came across an excellent LGBT-themed display (possibly in anticipation of Newcastle Pride? ) which was anchored around this book, and its particularly-arresting cover:

Queers in History, by Keith Stern, claims to be, you'll observe, 'THE comprehensive encyclopedia of historical gays, lesbians and bisexuals'in that picture. Obviously somewhere between the publication of the first hardcover edition and the paperback my library had in stock, someone must have pointed out that Mr Stern had done the usual cis gay thing of completely forgetting the existence of trans people, and the paperback (and the Kindle edition on Amazon) have had the title altered so that it now boasts of being 'the comprehensive encyclopedia of historical gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.'

Now, first of all, I have something of an aesthetic problem with 'transgenders' being elided as one word and used as a single collective noun. I would no more refer to people as 'transgenders' than I would 'gays': I would say gay people, trans people etc. But I note that Stern is being equally reductionist about gays as well, by reducing them to their sexuality. So, meh, I thought, I'll give it a go. So I picked it up, checked it out, went home, read the harmless-enough foreword from Sir Ian Magnet-Gandalf, then moved onto Stern's own introduction. At which point my hackles began to rise, not - yet - because of cis-centrism and gaywashing, but because of something which appalls me on a pretty much equal basis: crappy scholarship.

On the second page of his 'comprehensive' history, Stern throws his suitability to helm such a project pretty massively into question, making the blanket assertion that:

'Most mainstream historians consider the sexuality of historical individuals to be meaningless, because the notion of a gay identity is a modern construct. They think if, in the past, two men or two women claimed to be united in a bond of love, they must have meant it in a friendly, non-sexual way. If those same-sex couples actually were having sex, historians would have us believe they didn't think of themselves as being romantically in love.'

Dem those dastardly 'mainstream historians!' Dem them! It needn't be said that actual historical research on sexuality is more complex than that, and that Stern is begging the question here to a pretty phenomenal extent. It isn't that historians are actively out to suppress the secret truth about gayness in history: it's that it is next to impossible to prove that same-sex love in past societies can be mapped exactly on to what we understand by 'gay' identity. The homosexual culture of ancient Greece, with its iron-clad distinction between the passive and the active roles, and the differing degree of respect accorded to each, is patently not identical to the more inclusive, egalitarian gay culture of today, any more than the medieval concept of dynastic inter-marriage explains the mooning mutual adoration of the Twilight saga's Bella and Edward.

Stern's project, though, is to convince us that being gay has meant the same thing at all points in history. And so Stern informs us that the medieval Saint Aethelred, who wrote tenderly of male 'companionship' was 'forced to choose between his love of God and his lust for boys' (this is far from Stern's cheesiest line, mind you: that honour must go to the entry on Alexander the Great, which begins 'Alexander conquered most of the known world. He also conquered the young eunuchs Bagoas and Medius.' Saucy!). Stern is able to provide a source for his assertion that Aethelred was gay, which is unusual in a book whose author openly admits to using Wikipedia for fact-checking in his acknowledgements (remember that: we'll come back to it later). Unfortunately the source he cites is problematic: John Boswell (and yes, I am using Wikipedia; it's late at night and I'm pushed for time), a lifelong catholic who really was torn between religious devotion and his own sexual desires, had a vested interest in proving the medieval church had tolerated homosexual desire, and this led him to the scholarly imposture of his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe, whose question-begging and misuse of sources were comprehensively outlined in  a devastating review by Daniel Mendelsohn - oddly, one famous gay man who isn't included in Stern's 'comprehensive' encyclopedia, perhaps because pointing people in Mendelsohn's direction might lead to some readers finding out that the 'controversy' which surrounded Boswell's book was more complex than simply yet more censorship from those nasty old 'mainstream historians.'

Mendlesohn's exclusion is surprising because, as a well-to-do caucasian cis gay man, he's pretty much Stern's target audience. What's less surprising is the glaring omission from this 'comprehensive' encyclopedia of many historically important trans people. You might think that, given his interest in queers and history, Stern might deign to mention trans historian Jan Morris, but you'd be wrong, Professor. Perhaps Lili Elbe, one of the first women to receive gender-reassignment surgery, might be worthy of a mention? Nope. What about the Chevalier D'Eon, whose gender was such a matter of dispute that a betting pool was ran about it on the London Stock Exchange? Surely the Chevalier deserves to be included in a 'comprehensive' list of historical 'transgenders'? What about Patrick Califia, Chaz Bono, Buck Angel - or indeed any trans men, for that matter? Even Brandon Teena doesn't get a mention, which means that Stern's 'comprehensive' history is less well-informed on the subject of trans men than most people with a Film Four subscription.

Or indeed, of a blogger who can be bothered to spend five minutes looking up names on Wikipedia. Ironically, Stern's words of praise for the online encyclopedia are proved more right by his own book than anything he says in his introduction. If you want a truly comprehensive database of queer people in history from across the gender spectrum, don't bother with this cissupremacist, biased, myopic, badly-researched gazeteer of gay: just get online.

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