Fifty Years After Stonewall, Queer Studies Matures





... Today the abbreviation LGBT (covering lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people) is commonplace. Things only become esoteric when people start adding Q (questioning) and I (intersex). And the scholarship keeps deepening. Six years ago, after publishing a brief survey of historical research on gay and lesbian life, I felt reasonably well-informed (at least for a rather unadventurous heteroetcetera). But having just read a new book by Sherry Wolf called Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket) a few days ago, I am trying to process the information that there were sex-change operations in Soviet Russia during the 1920s. (This was abolished, of course, once Stalinism charted its straight and narrow path to misery.) Who knew? Who, indeed, could even have imagined?

Well, not me, anyway. But the approaching anniversary of Stonewall seemed like a good occasion to consider what the future of LGBT scholarship might bring. I wrote to some well-informed sources to ask:

“By the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, what do you think (or hope) might have changed in scholarship on LGBT issues? Please construe this as broadly as you wish. Is there an incipient trend now that will come to fruition over the next few years? Do you see the exhaustion of some topic, or approach, or set of familiar questions? Or is it a matter of a change in the degree of institutional acceptance or normalization of research?”

The responses were few, alas -- but substantial and provocative. Here, then, in a partial glimpse at what may yet be on the agenda for LGBT studies.

Claire Potter is a professor of history at Wesleyan University. In 2008, she received the Audre Lorde Prize for “Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History,” an article appearing in Journal of the History of Sexuality.

One of the changes already underway in GLBTQ studies is, ironically, destabilizing the liberation narrative that begins with Stonewall in 1969 and ends with the right to equal protection in Romer v. Evans (1996). Part of what we know from the great burst of energy that constitutes the field is that the Stonewall Riot we celebrate as the beginning of the liberation movement is not such a watershed, nor is the affirmation of equal protection the end of the story.

For example, I begin the second half of my queer history survey with Susan Stryker’s “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Café” documenting a similar San Francisco rebellion in 1966, three years prior to Stonewall; I end with Senator Larry Craig being arrested in a Minneapolis men’s room. GLBTQ liberation is unfinished and becoming more complex as the research emerges that takes us on beyond Stonewall. But I would also add a caveat: Where are the transnational and comparative histories that are on the cutting edge in other fields, like ethnic studies, cultural studies, anthropology and women’s studies?...

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