questions of history and identities

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 — it’s actually a critical reading of gay and lesbian studies — 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 — 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.

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7 Responses to questions of history and identities

  1. Nels says:

    Oh, I didn’t know this book was out yet! I took a class with Thomas at Ohio State way, way, way back in 1994. Yikes! But I still have the course reader (it was a course on cultural studies and AIDS). By the way, he always pronounced his name with a German twist: Toe-MAS. I haven’t had contact with him in years.

  2. Michael says:

    Thanks, Nels. Good to know about his name pronunciation. Also, I bet his class was amazing. I love his book!

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks for mentioning this book… i’ll add it to my LGBTQ bib and check it out. I have those moments like you did with the guy on the balcony… it’s hard to “re-come out” over and over, but a part of life… *sigh* and they ask us why we have to “shove it in everyone’s faces.” Ugh. I’m glad you had fun in NOLA… and i hope we’ll see each other sooner than later. Again, i’m very happy for you, you’ve got a bright future! HUG

  4. Ira Socol says:

    The idea of Stonewall as “this beginning” betrays the modernist assumption of the progress of man. While your story of this “re-coming out” suggests – to me – a different concept of history. But that’s what lets people like us find stuff to talk about, right.

    Sounds like a great book and a great time. Thanks for your last reading recommendation. It has been great.

  5. Michael says:

    Ira, I don’t think seeing Stonewall as a “beginning” betrays the modernist conception of history, because it sees it as a beginning of a specific movement (the gay rights movement), and inserts it into the progress of narrative: before Stonewall, supposedly, there was little rights and liberation movement, whereas after Stonewall, it erupted (supposedly). The modernist perspective of history allows for ruptures that mark difference from a previous era and progress forward (the French Revolution and the American Revolution stick at as the most obvious examples). What queer theory (and deconstruction and postmodern approaches) allow is to ask how have we actually created Stonewall as an event that allows it to fit into the narrative, and then what does this narrative hide or make invisible.

  6. Ira Socol says:

    Michael, yes, I meant “betray” as in “exposing a modernist belief system” not, “betray” as “fight against.” I was unclear, you are, of course, saying what I was trying to say much more clearly.

  7. Michael says:

    Ah, Ira, I see your intended meaning now. Don’t you love those words like betray. Though I think if I were a more savvy reader, I would have caught your meaning the first time.

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