I just finished watching Gentleman Jack, and my overall view of the final episode is: cloying Hollywood ending is cloying. Without question the best part of this episode is Sofie Grabol as the Danish queen; second-best is how, in just a few brief well-chosen scenes, the first half of the episode efficiently and effectively conveys how lengthy and arduous all journeys were before trains. The split wedding scene itself was okay, using the language of the BCP to good effect to show how—as was the case generally—people were creative in adapting this familiar, powerful language to the rhythms of their own lives. (I don’t think I have actually ever heard the 1662 Eucharist ever in my life before? But in those pre-Oxford Movement days how did they just walk into a random church in York and find a communion service?)
Last week at the conference I had the somewhat heady pleasure of being welcomed into a lunch circle of queer women and trans senior scholars who had all devoured this series, most of whom know the text of Lister’s diaries much better than I do, and were talking animatedly about the whole phenomenon. For me, it was an extraordinary experience to be welcomed and included in this conversation, but I did fit in: pretty much none of us liked the presentist depiction of the Annes’ relationship or the way that Lister is represented as making born-this-way arguments about a sexual-object-choice-based identity, though we did think the series gets some things right about Lister’s gender identity and we all loved the estate management/Tory politics stuff. (People thought I was funny when I called it “Gay Poldark,” which I stand by.) On reflection, though, I am kind of struck by the gulf between this collective opinion and a wider one, perhaps, of the “can’t we just have this one thing?” variety, which sees in Lister the potential for an inspiring, exciting, sexy fictional character. As I write this, I apprehend something of how annoying people probably find it to be married to historians, always coming along to spoil a pleasant night hanging out on the sofa by nit-picking about television, which is always of course necessarily fiction. That those of us sitting on the grass outside the Birmingham history department on Friday were nit-picking about how you might act on screen the idea of, in 1832, defining your identity in terms of gender inversion and not sexual object choice—and not, like, the costumes (or, you know, what “death recorded” means)—is perhaps no less annoying to those who admit that the point of fiction is that it can convey something other than what actually happened in the past.
This has been an extraordinary few months for my own sense of identity and political belonging, with June fifty-years-since-Stonewall at its center. The work I did in preparation for our Sexuality & Erudition workshop at Princeton in mid-May brought me, slowly, back towards primary and secondary sources I hadn’t thought about in years, and the whole Naomi Wolf contretemps caused me to reread my senior thesis and remember how much I cared about Symonds and also why it mattered so much to me that both academic pasts and usable pasts get the queer past right—for I feel such great love for the queer past that I hate to see it manipulated or misconstrued, even when that’s in the interest of presenting a happier or a more accessible, less complicated story. The work I presented at the conference last week was kind of a confluence of the Sexuality & Erudition stuff and the axe I was grinding at Wolf—and while I wrote a dissertation chapter in the middle of all this too, about national politics and higher education policy in the 1900s-20s—it sure doesn’t feel as real or as pressing as the Sexuality & Erudition paper or the Wolf review or the paper for this conference or the job materials I have been worrying over wherein I pitch The Second Project.
On Thursday, when I had been sitting in classrooms listening to people speak about postwar British social history all day and was getting a little antsy, I spotted a Misuse of the Queer Past on Twitter and issued a snide and tetchy tweet about it, closely related to the paper I was about to give at 9 the next morning. This had a good reception on Twitter; my friends started making fun of me for bashing Stonewall (the organization); and then there was the paper and the heady queer lunch talking about Gentleman Jack. Somehow all of this caused me at some point, casually, to call myself a “professional queer,” words that I had not uttered in probably a decade. And that act of naming, in turn, unleashed a whole lot. I was still talking to my friends whom I get to see once or twice a year (another reason why this conference was to be cherished), and I heard as if someone else was speaking it the clarifying sentence—true, but strange to my ears—”I used to cover LGBT politics for a national DC-based magazine.” Was that really me? Yes, I know that I used to sing in an Oxford chapel choir—but Emily Rutherford, Dyke Reporter? In the days since, more scenes have flashed suddenly and vividly in my mind, some long forgotten. The time I, like every left-wing intern before or since, snuck into the CPAC conference and got thrown out. The time we carried a sign that said “Even Princeton” in the March for LGBT Equality in Washington. The time every student in Princeton woke up to my bowl-cut 12-year-old-boy head adorning a character-assassination piece in Princeton’s conservative magazine. But the one that stayed with me and kept me up late last night was in the spring semester of my freshman year when I met two women on campus, a professor and a senior administrator, who dressed like I did then, in men’s or men’s-type collared shirts and khakis. In those days I had worked in a cinema, as a theater electrician, and shelving books in the library, places where women regularly wear men’s clothes. But until I met that professor and administrator, I genuinely did not think that it would be possible to get a professional job, or one that involved any kind of public-facing work like lecturing, if you were gender-nonconforming. Thinking about Anne Lister, and about that extraordinary lunch on the grass on the Birmingham campus on Friday, what I get stuck on is the time in the spring of 2009 that I was sitting at a big table in a conference room during a committee meeting, and I turned to the person on my right, who was chairing the meeting, and realized she was dressed just like me. I feel a rush of emotion still, as I write this, many years since anyone has yelled at me for being in the wrong bathroom and so, so much older and more tired.
I have not been in a relationship in many years now—increasingly, and increasingly emphatically, by choice. For me, it in part follows from that state of affairs that I have felt more freedom to present as a woman without feeling that I have to get the illusion exactly right in order to keep the society of women from taking my woman card away. I remember being horrified when I was 14 and my mother suggested to me that I would not be socially ostracized for wearing a dress one day and jeans the next; fifteen years later, that is more or less exactly what my wardrobe looks like. On the other hand, as sex and relationships have faded farther from my purview, I have felt much vaguer about claiming any kind of sexual orientation, any kinship with others on the basis of sexual orientation. I have thrown myself into learning the wider field of British history, into travelling a lot and teaching my students, and into the minutiae of intramural politics at a few universities over a few decades in the past.
This has all, though, these last few months—the workshop in Princeton, and the intense and exciting collaborative experience of planning it with my co-conspirators; nominating myself on the internet as the guardian of John Addington Symonds’ legacy; that lunch on Friday—given me a yearning desire to belong to queer community again, to actually affirm that I am of my people instead of staying silent out of a kind of reticence or embarrassment or privacy (or just, like, dissociation from my body) and hoping people will assume the right thing. I am grateful to the queer communities who have accepted me through my implications rather than assertions up to this point, though I feel that I have to come clean that I am not, as I think many have sometimes assumed absent any kind of indication or clarification whatever on my part, a lesbian (but, you know, nor was Anne Lister, and she still gets a blue plaque saying she was, so).
In the past I have dated and been in relationships with men and women; the Kinsey Spectrum needle has fluctuated wildly and continues to do so on an almost-daily basis. I have, however, been single and celibate for nearly six years, and am increasingly affirmatively committed to celibacy as a concrete lifestyle choice and identity-political category. This does not mean I am asexual, but it does mean that I choose to organize my life around principles other than sex, dating, relationships, marriage, and children. This may change in the future, but it currently holds disproportionate significance for me given that I am nearly 30 and everyone is getting married these days, regardless of the gender of their spouses.
One of those women from college who wore button-up shirts said something beautiful once. We were at a professional dinner and another professor there asked her something about her wife. My mentor clarified that she and her partner are not married: “We’re old-fashioned gays, and we don’t believe in marriage for ourselves. But I’m so happy about marriage equality. There’s no use making a political statement to opt out of something unless there’s something there to opt out of.” I think the “born this way” narrative has led us to underrate the element of choice in queer lives, relationships, and communities. Queer people past and present do, all the time, make daily choices about whether and how to fit in or stand out, to break the law or not, to do so in secret or in the open. When we constantly walk the boundaries of what is acceptable, we know that every aspect of how we dress or how we walk or whom we look at is a choice fraught with meaning, sending a signal about cultural affinity both to those hostile to us and to those on our side. (I remember the electrifying cruising ground that the college dining hall could be, how expert I became at detecting a certain kind of gaze that one man would give another across the tables.) This is no less true in those places today where the medico-legal regulatory regime has been persistently and steadily domesticated to the point of collaboration with queer self-fashioning.
Which is all to say that I am still queer despite my celibacy, and furthermore that (I would contend) my celibacy is a kind of queerness, for all that it is a choice: something which positions me as just as at odds with homonormativity as with heteronormativity, a form of resistance to a kind of totalizing logic about what sex and sexual orientation has to do with one’s personhood. Which is all to say, phrased a different way, that Call the Midwife—and not Gentleman Jack or Fleabag or Killing Eve or The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones—is the most radical and remarkable show on television, and queerer than you might think.