Doing the History of Sexuality: A Post for Pride Month

When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of narratives and teleologies, of arcs of progress, of rights-driven activism at whose center was marriage equality. When I was first moved by Michael Robertson’s account of Symonds’ futile correspondence with Walt Whitman in his book about Whitman’s fans, I was the sort of person who organized protests against Proposition 8 and the National Organization for Marriage, who was there with my reporter’s notebook when Barney Frank introduced the 2009 version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House, who was in the Rayburn Room with my voice recorder to ask Jared Polis what it was like to be the first openly gay member of Congress to have been elected when he was already out, who never missed a Pride parade or a National Coming Out Day. When I first became fascinated by Symonds, it was in the context of a worldview grounded in a rights-based teleology, an understanding of queer history as a concentric layering of closets grounded in the Harvey Milk craze of a few years ago, a particularly identity-political form of convincing by one’s presence. When I decided to be a history major, it was with the assumption that I would do history as if it were politics, telling stories about modern LGBT identity that related closely to the world I was beginning to inhabit as a professional gay.

But as I began to be embedded more deeply in my discipline, things began to change. Learning a bit more about what history is as a discipline caused me to begin to believe that while history may inform and help us to understand the present, it is not the present, nor is it necessarily always a guide to the future. The more I learned about Symonds and his historical context, the more I became aware that the complete foreignness of the way he and others in his time constructed sexual identity was at the root of what I needed to say about him. I was getting suspicious: of historians who say that they are writing “gay” or “LGBT” history when they are talking about the nineteenth century or earlier, before such categories existed; of historians who claim they can “out” figures such as Lincoln, Whitman, or Wilde; of really any form of interpretation that linked the sexual identities of the past too closely to those of the present. I started to conceive of Symonds not so much as a figure of liberation, but rather as a figure who illustrates the distance of nineteenth-century sexual identity from its twenty-first-century counterpart. And I attracted a fair amount of confusion, and at times ire, on the Internet when I stubbornly insisted that Walt Whitman was not a gay poet, that Tchaikovsky was not a gay composer, that thinking of an “uncensored” edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray (based on Wilde’s first draft, without editorial changes) as something that can bring the famous homoerotic novel out of the closet is desperately misguided. And as I did this, I started to get tired of modern LGBT politics, and to unpin my interest in the history of gay culture from marches for marriage equality and Pride parades. I was looking back at some of my old journal entries last night, reliving months of blushing as I read Edmund White on the bus, learning Allen Ginsberg off by heart, and watching my aspirations of professional homosexuality shift from dreaming of having Kerry Eleveld‘s job to understanding myself as someone who steps back and reads, writes, watches, concludes and synthesizes. I proposed and discarded idea after idea for my independent work—and as I look over my journals from that time, a couple years ago, I can see myself becoming less and less certain not only of the veracity of the identity categories I had taken for granted when I was angry about Prop. 8, but also about their importance. In the fall, at Princeton, I became the girl with the dining-hall catchphrase “Remember to always be suspicious of binaries,” and over the course of that semester a couple friends and I painstakingly worked out a theoretical paradigm that allowed us to separate identity politics—and culture—from LGBTQ essentialism, distinguishing sexual orientation and gender identity from culture in a way that allowed us to make sense of politically and culturally conservative gay people, or the straight people in our community who are always welcome at the queer parties. We started to recognize the limits of a construction of identity in which orientation mapped one-to-one onto culture, and in which both putting one’s sexual orientation in a box and seeing it as one of the most integral characteristics of one identity remained central. We started to see that if homosexuality is not a choice, gay culture certainly is. And I started to question my identity as a professional gay in a serious way.

Yesterday, I turned in a junior paper that is as much about what I learned in the archives in the past several months, or in my classes before that, as it is about what I have learned about myself in the past three years of university. My JP makes an argument about Symonds’ intellectual sphere, about his own reading strategies and how his education and cultural milieu prepared him to synthesize material from all kinds of disciplines and outlooks into a cultural discourse within which it was possible to identify as “a homosexual man.” It’s a romp through the Oxford classical curriculum, the Aesthetic movement, Darwinism, scientific sexology and early pre-Freudian psychoanalysis, and the allure of democracy and other questions about the relationship to the individual to society. While I am aware that I am telling a story, like any historian is, I also try to take seriously (as Symonds himself did!) the traditional Rankean exhortation to “discover a sense of the past as it actually was.” I try to consider what it was like to think about homosexuality before you could think about homosexuality, when there literally were not English words to express issues of sexual identity and when, as teleological as nineteenth-century worldviews could be, no one would dream of a grand-scale teleology of “gay liberation” or a small-scale teleology of “coming out” (or, indeed, “it gets better”). And in so doing, I consider the mutability of ways to categorize identity, the importance of culture, the ways in which we can delude ourselves into thinking that a cultural framework signifies something essential when in reality it’s just another narrative we’ve constructed (as Symonds did when he misread Whitman). When I write in my JP that “the time is long past to consider [Symonds] an intellectual just as much as a homosexual,” it is because I have learned in the past three years that there is more than one route to identity politics, and also more than one route to self-bettering; and that to write about homosexuality is not always to adhere to the established expectations of the genre, or to consider one’s sexual orientation the most essential thing about oneself. Sometimes the orientation is the base, and the culture the superstructure. But sometimes—as when Symonds got from ancient Greece and the Renaissance and Whitman to a language of sexual object choice—sometimes it’s the other way round.

But lest I be accused of not being fair to a culture and a community I too claim as my own, or of ignoring what good the coming-out narrative and the essentializing of sexual identity can do for those who are struggling with it, I feel obliged to point out one more thing. As a scholar, a polemicist, and a very astutely introspective person, Symonds was always keen to have everything both ways, to make the impossible possible. Deconstruction hadn’t been invented yet, and rather than having neither one thing or the other, he was keen to have both. It was his relentless faith in dialectic that enabled him to construct an epistemological framework in which “ethical same-sex sexual behavior” was a conceivable idea, and so having it both ways is a strategy that I think is worth trying. If Symonds can be taken as a guide, it is to a strategy that can admit the refashioning of existing cultural elements into new identities—and that’s why I can have the greatest respect for Kerry Eleveld, and for Rachel Maddow, yet no longer want either of their jobs. Instead I am quite content to think that it is my funny old place in the world to read Edmund White on the bus, to memorize Housman like Robbie Ross did for Wilde when he was in Reading Gaol, to listen to the new Lady Gaga album all the way through the day it comes out, to have opinions on Facebook about “It Gets Better,” to go to Paris and make my pilgrimage to Wilde’s grave, to never miss a Pride parade. Symonds repurposed a Platonic understanding of virtue into something which made it possible to assert that, contra his teacher Benjamin Jowett’s belief to the contrary, the love of the Symposium was not “mainly a figure of speech.” I feel that I can repurpose his repurposing not into a coming-out narrative, but into a promise that we can understand our lives and our selves if we read closely enough, that even if we feel right now as if there are no words to describe our innermost longings, if we keep reading widely we will be able to pull some together. I don’t want to erase identity politics—but I want to suggest that, as I myself have discovered, their boundaries may be wider than we might at first imagine.

And so Symonds was an intellectual just as much as a homosexual, and so I do not need to be a professional gay to spend my days in the Bodleian, elbow-deep in the male side of the homoerotic literary tradition. And so it will be June, and like all the Junes since the June before I started university, I will celebrate Pride. But while I have the greatest respect for and sense of comradeship with those who celebrate with the minds on the present or the future, I will celebrate as a historian, with mine on the past: reminding merry-makers that Pride commemorates Stonewall; respecting our elders who were there when AIDS first hit thirty years ago, and remembering those who died in that first horrible wave and since; and asking myself what Symonds would have thought about flatbed trucks covered with the logos of corporations and filled with gyrating young men in very small underwear. Because I am an intellectual far more than I am a homosexual; because when orientation and culture are separate entities, assimilationism and political obligation alike become moot points; and because while the personal may frequently be political, it is often not quite in the ways that you’d expect.

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