Friday night, I’m sitting on the balcony of my New Orleans hotel room reading Thomas Piontek’s Queering Gay and Lesbian Studies, sections of which we are reading in Heather and my LGBT Studies course. A man walks up to smoke a cigarette, and asks what I’m reading. I answer, briefly, “A history book.” He asks me on what, and I answer that it’s on gay and lesbian movements.
He says, “Oh, that started in the 1970s, right?” I explain that yes, we commonly conceive of gay and lesbian movements as starting in 1969, but really, they’ve been going on for a good 100 years or so. This is, in a way, part of Piontek’s argument. He nods, and then asks me, “So are you bisexual or homosexual?” I simply state that “I don’t identify with either of those words. I identify as queer.”
The conversation pretty much stopped there, as his friends joined him and they started drinking and smoking on the balcony. I honestly feared for my safety for a bit, as these guys looked somewhat masculine, but I also felt a bit of safety in the one man’s general knowledge of gay history: that political movements started in the 70s. I wound up returning to my hotel room to write this after reading a few more pages.
It wasn’t accurate for me to call Piontek’s book a history book to this guy â€” it’s actually a critical reading of gay and lesbian studies â€” but it was a prudent move in order to help secure my safety and keep the conversation simple.
I’m finding Piontek’s book fairly compelling so far. In Chapter 1, he discusses the myth of Stonewall as a beginning, as a rupture from a prior non-history of gay and lesbian movements. Or rather, he questions the creation of Stonewall as a beginning, as a myth that serves to “kill the father” (16) of prior gay and lesbians, as a way to “authorize” the movements that follow Stonewall (14), and as an event used to assist in the multiculturalist mission of tacking on othered histories as part of an already told history â€” that is, of keeping the traditional historical narrative the same, but adding the voices of marginalized groups. This continues, Piontek claims, the grand narrative of history without questioning the way history is created and known.
We’re discussing Piontek’s Chapter 1 on Wednesday, and I’m really excited to see what my students say about it. Heather and I chose the excerpts without really having read it ourselves yet, which is risky. But I value the risk of reading something for the first time along with my students. I see that there are some words that we might have to define and discuss on Monday before our students read it, as the class is composed of students from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and years in school (from first-year students to graduate students). Words like modernist, postmodernist, and queer theory will probably have to be discussed. I imagine most of my students will already be aware of Stonewall, but if they’re not, the reading from Blumenfeld and Raymond’s text will cover that.
Piontek, Thomas. Queering Gay and Lesbian Studies. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2006.