Sunday, June 7, 2009

Harvard University's new endowed LGBT Studies Chair: a time to disagree with my friends

This issue puts me on the opposite side of the fence from Hube and Coyote, neither of whom see it as legitimate or desirable.

Let's start with some fact-checking here, as Coyote seems to think that this will end up as something else he has to subsidize as a taxpayer.

As the NYT reports, this is an endowed, visiting chair.

Chair in this sense is an individual professor's appointment, not chair of a department. Endowed means that some individual or group--in this case the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus--has made a sufficient donation to underwrite the position in perpetuity. It has been paid for; you don't need to subsidize it.

Now for the larger question about the legitimacy of LGBT Studies. Two issues here, and one piece of potential conflict of interest to reveal.

That one first: one year ago I taught the first-ever Seminar in American History in Gay and Lesbian History at Delaware State University. Seminar in American History is one of those course titles wherein different specialized topics can be taught one-shot without putting them into the rotation as a regular course. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the course was to determine for myself (as if by performance art) whether or not this was a fully legitimate field of inquiry; the other was to see whether students could deal with this as a course in historical evidence, analysis, and argument.

The issues about legitimacy of the topic:

1) There is an historiographical argument over whether there actually can be something called LGBT history or not. The argument goes (very briefly, obviously) as follows. Setting aside the question of nature or nurture in determination homosexual orientation, homosexual behavior has been observed in virtually every society that has been studied. But homosexual in a clinical psychological sense is different from gay or lesbian, which are specific cultural constructs of Western Civilization. Some historians therefore argue that you could only have gay/lesbian history in cultures that have constructed a social identity of gays and lesbians, regardless of whether or not there was homosexual behavior. For example, in many Native American tribes there is a term often referred to as berdache that is sometimes translated as the third sex, and refers to men who seem to have fulfilled women's social roles in Cherokee and other societies. This may or may not have included actually sexual activity between men, there simply is not sufficient evidence to know. But let's assume for a second that it did. The berdache who engaged in homosexual intercourse in Cherokee society would not be gay in any meaningful sense of the word, because the Cherokee had no equivalent concept of gay men. Therefore you could not write any meaningful LGBT history of Native Americans prior to European contact. Many LGBT historians advance a completely different theory of history, as you might suspect.

2) The question of LGBT Studies is also an academic question of the issue of studies versus history. We today have American History and American Studies; African-American History and Africana Studies; Indian History and Native American Studies. Historians (like me) generally see studies as being pretty intellectually mooshy; they deal in trans-disciplinary analysis, literary analysis, deconstructionism, and often post-modernism. I would have preferred Harvard to have endowed a chair in LGBT History.

But, that having been said, there is tremendous intellectual legitimacy at examining how societies--specifically our own society--constructs and uses definitions of sexuality. Five decades ago, the sex lives of the subjects of biographies were not considered fair game under almost any circumstances. But how could you write a legitimate biography of Jack Kennedy, Bill Clinton, or even J. Edgar Hoover without dealing with their sexuality, because in all three cases the choices they made about dealing with their sexuality impinged on their public lives.

Some of my colleagues piously intone that the sexual preferences of our biographical subjects should not matter.

Often, however, I have students who are also young parents, and who worry about what would happen should their children (real or imagined) have a gay or lesbian elementary school teacher. You know those queers and their recruiting tactics, don't you, Doc?

I usually deal with this by asking them about Jane Addams, the founder of the Settlement House movement and an arch-pacifist who opposed US entry into World War Two. I ask them if knowing Jane was either lesbian or bisexual (hard to determine from the remaining evidence) was germane to examining her accomplishments. They usually say it's not. Then I point out to them that it is Jane Addams, the stinking dyke, to whom we owe credit for the existence of school lunches in the public schools, and ask if this is the kind of killer lesbian they'd need to fear breaking out the spiked dildos in a second-grade classroom....

Lots of uncomfortable shuffling in the desks.

There is massive documentary evidence that many of our most famous historical figures had sexual leanings that are ... not quite explained through the lens of Protestant heterosexuality. There are amazingly frank letters floating about in archives across this country. I often hear my more conservative fellow historians spout the line that I'd rather be historically accurate than politically correct, folks who at the very same time are doing their dead-level best to make sure that serious historical treatments of these very revealing historical documents never get published in academic journals.

Did you ever even ask yourself where our concept of limp-wristed queers or cross-dressing queens comes from? Most of the best scholarship suggests now that the modern characterization of male homosexuals as gays, queens, or queers and of female homosexuals as lezzies and dykes is only about as old as the Shakespearian period, or the early settlement of Jamestown. That's right, folks, the concept of queerness in Western Civilizaton may actually come into being right as the American experiment is beginning. Before that, in England, it was highly unusual for adult men to have sex with each other--they generally preferred to have sex with pre-pubescent or barely pubescent boys. Most of these men were married, and did not consider it adultery to f**k boys, as there was no chance of pregnancy. Only around the early 1600s is there evidence of clubs for cross-dressing males beginning to exist, and of males actually courting other males.

Maybe it happened a bit earlier--the evidence is difficult to find.

But, frankly, Hube, Coyote, and everybody else, these are some relatively significant historical questions. Ultimately, history concerns itself with who we are and how we got this way. Well, who we are in terms of how we construct society's definitions of sexuality and its responses to variance from that, and how we got this way in terms of how our constructs of sexuality have changed are critical to that self-understanding.

It is, however, quite scarey for a lot of people to find out that what they have long assumed they knew about history, that men were always men unless there were willing sheep around, is not so well attested as they would like to believe.

So, yes, I am glad to see an endowed LGBT Chair at Harvard University. I hope it is the first of many.


Miko said...

Re berdache: This seems like a weak argument to me. Given that it is sometimes translated as "third sex," doesn't the choice not to translate it as "gay men" say as much about the translators as the culture, especially given the lack of knowledge of the full connotations of the term? It's eerily similar to the Manifest Destiny argument that the Native Americans couldn't have had any notion of property since they hadn't read Locke (and thus we were 'justified' in stealing their land).

Steve Newton said...

Granted: Any academic argument distilled down into three sentences is necessarily a weak argument.

Hube said...

Well Steve, my "objection," such that it is, is that I've seen, read about and participated in (via classes) too much academic nonsense masquerading as "studies." It's the main reason I'd never join the MLA, for what it's worth.

Honestly, though, I really could care less what a private university does with its course selections. Your points are all quite valid; I just hope the course(s) live up to your descriptions.

Waldo said...

Surely it's worth a course of study to find out why so many straight males are so scared of what they imagine a tiny minority to be up to in their spare time that they make it illegal and, from place to place, subject to torture and execution.

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