Is Queer History, History with an Agenda? Sure.

tags: gay history, Vicki L. Eaklor

Ms. Eaklor is the author of Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century.

When I began writing Queer America: A GLBT History of the 20th Century a few years ago I did it to fulfill a need I have perceived in more than 25 years of teaching. Certainly in the last twenty years there has been an explosion of wonderful works in queer history and queer studies, but relatively few are addressed to readers not already part of the conversation. In attempting to present the variety of experiences of nonstraight Americans and their centrality to what we call "American history" I expect to be accused of having, and serving, an agenda. Guilty as charged.

It is a historical phenomenon in itself that historians and other academics are under this kind of scrutiny regarding our purposes. Since the advent of the new social history of the sixties and seventies we have been under attack for seeking to be more inclusive, to reinterpret the national story through additional eyes and (gasp!) even to redefine what "history" is, at least for our time. It is neither surprising nor accidental that some people involved in social and civil rights activism became historians, whether from outrage at the lies of omission or the hope provided by stories of individual courage and the (uneven but overall) movement towards genuine equality. Thus it is scholars identified with liberal and radical causes who have been perceived as having dangerous and unprecedented agendas.

Dangerous? Possibly, if learning additional versions of our past has the potential of aiding reform or revolution. To some, any change is to be feared, and certainly those brought about by civil rights workers, feminists, and others in the last four decades have encountered tremendous resistance. Opposition to the equality of women and nonwhite men, in fact, has been so great that the very idea that these groups--and groups within groups--even have histories is apparently as threatening as their demands for justice, and thus repeatedly subjected to ridicule and attack. Apparently the "new" groups to be feared, and concurrently denied a history, have been gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) people.

Unprecedented, though? Hardly. The idea that scholars on the left are the only ones to have agendas is as disingenuous as it is ironic. In the 19th century, U. S. history, the nation's self-image, and public schooling developed simultaneously and as part and parcel of each other. Stories of the 19th century, as we know, were about nations, not people, and what postmodernists call the Grand Narrative arose, developed by historians like George Bancroft. Its outlines are familiar: the United States had a mission, ordained by a Protestant God, to serve as an example that a republic devoted to liberty and equality could survive. The primary purpose of American history, in and out of the schools, was to ensure America's survival by creating good citizens; the acknowledged role of historians was to detail not only America's past (of which there wasn't much, once Natives were excluded) but especially just exactly what "America" was, and was to be, in the future. The nationalistic purposes of history defined history itself, and material was selected (or not) on the basis of its contribution to the Grand Narrative. By the end of the century the myth of objective history was gaining ground, perhaps due to the mania over all things scientific; if one could produce facts, one had a claim to truth--or Truth. With few dissenting voices (among them Henry Adams'), history became more the science of data than the art of interpretation, an art always practiced but now rarely acknowledged. In the 20th century U. S. history continued to evolve inseparably from a sense of mission on the world stage, leaving increasingly less rather than more room for criticism of our failures to live up to the rhetoric we broadcast abroad. If this isn't history with an (obviously political) agenda, what is?

Then came the sixties, still a touchstone for both supporters and opponents of the changes they represent. Histories of people and movements long ignored were recovered hand-in-hand with contemporary activism against racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia: having a knowable past energized reformers while the new or refashioned movements stimulated the search for precedents and, importantly, sources of pride. Just as the new histories accompanied new activism, so too did the notion that those seeking change, in history and life, possessed both "politics" and "agendas" while defenders of the status quo were supposedly free of such biases.

In this atmosphere those of us seeking to reclaim GLBT history have had our work cut out for us. Certainly we are not alone in defending our craft against the more general assault on liberal values in academia and attacks on any history clearly linked with social justice movements. In addition, though, we face the ongoing hysteria over a literal "homosexual agenda" (a term coined by New Right opponents trying to reverse gay/lesbian rights legislation), itself both cause and effect of pervasive homophobia--fear and hatred aimed not just at our history but at our very existence as queer people. Equally confining has been the unspoken acceptance of heterosexism, or the assumption that everyone, past and present, is heterosexual ("innocent") unless "proven" otherwise ("guilty"). This creates unique challenges for GLBT people, who must constantly come out to be visible, and for historians of GLBT people, who often must ask new questions in order to restore not just visibility to their subjects but also something of the richness and variety of the human experience. How would it change the way we think and write about history, for example, if we ask of a subject, "How do we know s/he was heterosexual?" What is proof, after all, of any sexuality? How do people in different times and situations define sexualities and why does anyone care about these definitions? Finally, we must ask whose agendas are served when we are discouraged from asking these questions.

Despite the obstacles there are many reasons to record and teach this history. They range from the simple quest for a more complete account, accomplished by restoring people and experiences previously excluded from the national story, to the possibility of combating homophobia by examining the origins of myths and stereotypes (including the myths that queer Americans were invisible and/or unorganized until the last few decades) and the interests they serve. Hopefully, my book fulfills these aims and much in between by showing that GLBT people are tightly interwoven into the American fabric and can no longer be ignored, either as Americans or as queers. Is Queer America history with an agenda? Yes it is. No less--and no more--than any history.

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Gary Ostrower - 7/6/2008

I'm reading my colleague Vicki Eaklor's book right now, so I can't resist commenting about one observation she makes in this article. I have no quarrel with Eaklor's central point: that we all have agendas while often not acknowledging them. But then she says:
"In the 20th century, U. S. history continued to evolve inseparably from a sense of mission on the world stage, leaving increasingly less rather than more room for criticism of our failures to live up to the rhetoric we broadcast abroad. If this isn't history with an (obviously political) agenda, what is?"
A political agenda? OK. But I don't buy her point about reducing the scope of criticism. As the US spread its imperial wings from NATO to Nicaragua after World War II, and as American failures became more visible, many historians turned not less critical but more critical of the American past. William Appleman Williams published The Tragedy of American Diplomacy around 1958 or 1959, after which a Niagara of historical criticism of American behavior followed--and not only in the sub-field of diplomatric history. In that sense, the boundries of historical criticism expanded alongside the growth of US influence.
Regardless of the anger expressed by historians on both sides of this debate, we all benefitted, for the post-1958 dialogue between the traditionalists and radicals has enriched our understanding of our past.
Eaklor's book, by focusing on GLBT history, expands this dialogue.
It's overdue. In a word, her book is first-rate (I guess that's two words). It deserves more attention than most academic presses usually give their authors.