Teaching Innovations

Teaching Lesbian and Gay History

Michael S. Sherry, November 1993

"The subject is so politically and emotionally charged," lamented one student in an anonymous course evaluation, "that I yearn for objectivity, distance, and a little more freedom to discuss ideas on an intellectual level." United States gay and lesbian history, observed another student, is "anecdotal" and "makes leaps of faith that a historian should not feel comfortable with." Students fear "not being 'PC' [politically correct]," a third student noted, but "carefully phrasing comments merely makes you think a little more before saying something and forces people to be, God forbid, respectful of their audience." Those comments, offered in a lesbian and gay history course taught at Northwestern University since 1986 (first as a seminar, now to seventy-five undergraduates), point to the challenges the field presents.

No one can teach such a course or bring its substance into other classes without trying to meet those challenges. They are the starting point for discussion of how to teach the field. Among those, not surprisingly, are challenges to the very existence of the course. Is not the defining category itself artificial, parochial, and anachronistic? After all, as much scholarly literature suggests, homosexual identities themselves—and the very word "homosexual"—were late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century inventions which earlier Americans would not have recognized and later ones often rejected. It seems arbitrary indeed to label Willa Cather or Walt Whitman "gay," a word they did not claim. And do not group-oriented histories shatter the coherence of the American past and advance a political rather than an intellectual agenda? Nor are these criticisms confined to conservative critics; some radical historians still have difficulty accepting women's, gender, and gay history.

But these criticisms speak to problems endemic to the discipline rather than peculiar to this field. With varying explicitness and weight, political agendas impinge on all historical specialties, whose definitions are inevitably arbitrary. At issue is less their artificiality than their utility for helping us retrieve and rethink important but neglected aspects of the past. Judged by that standard—and by reactions of students, too easily ignored in the debate among grown-ups on these matters—lesbian and gay history works effectively.

On the face of it, the charge of disciplinary fragmentation is harder to refute. But new courses may display great range even though sharply different from "traditional" ones (themselves often recent inventions prompted by ideological mobilization during world war and cold war). However particular its angle of vision, a course in lesbian and gay history must span all the American experience, draw in the grand forces (industrialization, urbanization, militarization) shaping that experience, and attend to a host of related fields. Indeed, the process by which new specialties yield new syntheses is so familiar to historians that one wonders why the fuss about this field. Anyone acquainted with Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (1988), based in part on pioneering work in lesbian and gay history by John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, should recognize that new fields, far from shattering a synthetic view of history, offer fresh ways to make something whole of it. The fuss about this field, it seems, arises from discomfort with its subject more than its fragmenting tendencies.

In any event, the problem of fragmentation, like many others noted here, bothers professionals more than students, who are surprisingly adept at relating this specialty to others in and out of history. "By examining gay and lesbian history, I was able to refine my knowledge of American history in general," noted one student. To be sure, not all students respond in that fashion, nor should they—the course is legitimate on its own grounds, not just for casting light on "American history in general." But the comment does suggest that such a course need not isolate students from other currents of United States history. And tending more than an older generation to take lesbian and gay identities as a given in the past and present—even if a disturbing one for some—many students see little need to justify such a course.

The teacher faces not only these broad political and intellectual challenges, but a related one about how to frame the course. What is the relationship of lesbian and gay history to the allied fields of the history of gender and sexuality? Given the rich scholarship of those fields and the conceptual power of gender, is it not intellectually constricting to teach lesbian and gay history, to retain such a group focus? The example of women's history can be cited: many of its best practitioners now call themselves historians of gender and emphasize gender as a category of analysis rather than women as an object of study.

Both politics and scholarship justify the focus on lesbian and gay history. That focus encourages gay students to enroll in the course and empowers them within it, all the more so since I identify myself as gay, and there are no games about sneaking in their interests under the guise of something else like gender and sexuality, subjects far more often taught. But more than political empowerment is involved, since little in our discipline neatly separates politics, pedagogy, and intellectual substance: without sanction for gay and lesbian voices in the classroom, the substance of their historical experience usually gets lost. Moreover, bringing lesbian and gay history to the foreground demystifies the subject, making it about real persons (however difficult to define) with a knowable history, not just about abstractions like gender. That focus also grounds the course in social and political history, where the best scholarship may be emerging if, as I suspect, interest in gender theory and cultural studies soon passes its peak.

Once boundaries are set for the course, two themes internal to the field at this stage of development set much of its content. One is the intellectual debate between essentialists and social constructionists. In brief, essentialists argue for the enduring presence through history of gay and lesbian identities, although acknowledging that categories describing those identities have changed. Social constructionists see those identities as the product of discrete historical forces, especially modern urbanization and industrialization, and they find it misleading and anachronistic to speak of gays and lesbians in ancient Greece or colonial Virginia. This debate is ably captured in an important text, Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1989), edited by Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr.

Something of the heavy-breathing scholarship in this debate must be taught—it structures the field and recent history itself too much to be ignored. But it can make students yawn ("reading historians babble about their classifications kind of threw me," one noted), in part because it has become sterile and one-sided; as John Boswell once pointed out, "no one involved in it actually identifies himself or herself as an 'essentialist.'" The debate reaches a dead end for historians because their strengths self-evidently lie on the social constructionist side—we deal best with changing structures, conceptualizations, and relationships, not with the timeless sources or essence of womanhood, race, or sexual preference. Besides, the debate, inherently inconclusive anyway, has probably played itself out. The intriguing question is not which side will win, but what the field will look like once it is over.

What better defines a course in gay history is the second theme that has dominated the field—precisely those ambiguities of identity and experience that make some doubt there is even a discrete historical experience to study. Why did gay identities arise, what constructed them, how did they evolve? The core of such history is the constructed, contested, and changing nature of those identities. To be sure, any group's identity, we often say now, is a social construction. But many groups—men and women, people of color, the elderly—have borne obvious signs of that constructed identity, whereas gay people have lacked those signs, indeed any obvious social boundaries between them and other groups. True, powerful stereotypes have been deployed against (and sometimes by) gay men and lesbians: those of the effeminate male and the mannish lesbian, identified less by sexual preference than by adoption of opposite gender roles. But after 1940 those stereotypes were supplanted by emphasis on the invisibility, facelessness, and ordinariness of gay men and women, increasingly regarded as a lurking menace precisely because, like communists and other subversives, they could not be distinguished from the general population. They lacked, in a congressional committee's 1950 complaint, those "outward characteristics or physical traits that are positive as identifying marks of sex perversion." "The Sapphic lover," noted two journalists in 1952, "is seldom obvious," and "fairies" include not only "prancing nances" but "tough young kids, college football players, truck-drivers and weather-bitten servicemen." These changing notions are traced in much modern fiction (the lesbian pulp novel, Ann Bannon, Odd Girl Out [1957], for example) and in three scholarly works essential to students: Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (1991); Allan B,rub,, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (1990); John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (1983).

Such notions, far from marking boundaries, expressed anxiety about their absence. In turn, much popular, political and psychiatric literature dwelt on how to spot the invisible or at least locate the homosexual imaginatively, as in post–World War II efforts to link male homosexuality with Nazism or Communism, and later amid the panic over AIDS, in media attention to Rock Hudson's homosexuality, exposure of which was so sensational because it had seemed so invisible. Thus the ambiguity of identities gave the lesbian and gay historical experience much of its charged quality. It also made "coming out" important in the 1970s and after, for invisibility was no mere figment of homophobic imagination but also a reality isolating homosexuals from each other.

Because of the ambiguous and contested nature of lesbian and gay identities, teachers and students must focus on complex relationships between gay and straight individuals and cultures as well as the autonomous experience of lesbians and gay men. Moreover, in order to understand those relationships and the resulting identities, students must draw on related histories—of urbanization, industrialization, and militarization, of gender, women, and sexuality. Of course, like most new fields treating subordinate social groups, this one went through a phase of recovering and celebrating famous figures from the past—a sort of "great homos in history" approach. But even with those figures, the interesting questions usually involve the problematic nature of their identities and their relationships to "straight" culture. And this heroic phase did not go very far or last very long, nor does it interest many students, probably because most who take such a course already at some level regard homosexuality as "natural" or commonplace—they are curious about its past, but do not look to it for "causes" or validation.

Since the historical phenomenon under study—homosexual "persons"—lacks clear boundaries and definitions, the course itself may lack them, and it is a struggle to impose coherence on it. Compounding these problems, the histories of lesbians and gay men often have diverged sharply from each other; including both within one framework risks serious oversimplification and elicits more complaints from students than any other aspect of the course. And there are problems common to any new field: the patchy nature of available sources, for example.

Nor can one readily impose coherence by a familiar device, a focus on conflicting interpretations. Most group-oriented fields (African American history, for example) have struggled against historiographical traditions degrading to the group. But little historiography depicts homosexuals negatively because little historiography depicts them all. The teacher can hardly present opposing views of lesbian and gay history. There is no scholarly debate between "radical" and "conservative" historians, no reader (on the old Heath pamphlet model) on "Homosexuals in History: Revolution or Reaction?" Scholarship challenges silence, not existing interpretation. Historians in this field do disagree with each other, of course, but in the eyes of students, within a narrow range of ideological and methodological stances. A focus on debates within established literature yields little. Nor is this just a theoretical problem for teachers. Some students complain that the course lacks "balance"—omits some "other side of the story"—until someone points out that, among historians at least, there has been no other side.

All these challenges of politics, pedagogy, and boundary-definition make the course both exciting and vexing to teach. They inform the substance of the course—its syllabus, format, dynamics. Since many of those challenges emanate from mystifications about the field or about homosexuality itself, it makes sense to construct a course that demystifies both. Put another way: while I try to experiment in courses on a conventional subject, I try to be conventional in a course whose subject is novel and charged. Students get a familiar chronological structure and formal lectures—and since so much of this history is still inaccessible to students by other means and no adequate written survey stitches it all together for them, this course puts an unusual premium on this unsatisfying form of teaching. And they get the usual challenges of a history class: how to analyze documents, evaluate historians' arguments, synthesize their knowledge, and discern patterns of change and continuity. I give them conventional structures and methods not to mainstream the subject—not to make it like other history in every way but one—but to empower students: to let them know that even an atypical history is knowable, within their grasp.

The same challenges exist when lesbian and gay history is woven into other courses, but in those they may not surface starkly—students' discomfort about irrelevance and politicization instead gets vented in anonymous course evaluations, barely heard mutterings at the back of the room, or countenances of boredom and annoyance. And if they do surface, they rarely elicit a confident response from other students. Yet the same principle of teaching applies: to present gay and lesbian history as atypical in substance, but still just history—knowable through methods and formats familiar to students. There are good intellectual reasons for presenting it that way, but good tactical ones as well—since the teacher does not flag this history as somehow a "problem," the indignant student is given no easy platform to challenge it. More often than I thought possible a few years ago, the material then passes into students' lecture notes, essays, or exams without great strain, incorporated into their understanding of the American West, the Harlem Renaissance, McCarthyism—whatever the dominant framework may be.

The resort to the conventional also helps in dealing with the most fascinating and energy-consuming aspect of a gay history course: the volatile demographics and dynamics of the classroom, which reflect the problem of boundaries inherent in the subject itself. Students in the class at Northwestern are a diverse lot. They include gay men and women seeking a sense of their past and an intellectual basis for political or personal action; uncertain students seeking to clarify their sexual preference, though the class is hardly designed to meet that need; history majors looking for something atypical; students interested in women's history and women's studies; straight students with a personal investment because a friend or relative is gay or has AIDS; and theater, music, and advertising students whose motives are often professional, or simply baffling. Preparation for the course also varies greatly: from the major already steeped in American history, to the women's studies student already versed in Foucault and feminism, to the freshman taking a chance or the engineer who rarely takes a liberal arts class.

But these are overlapping, ever-shifting, and never wholly knowable categories, especially in a large class. And they vary wildly over time: suddenly this past year, straight-identified students soared to almost two-thirds of the class, self-identified bisexuals now appeared in substantial numbers, women abruptly outnumbered men two to one, and far more freshmen and sophomores sought out the class. (Racial identities are more constant—only a small though steady number of African Americans take the class.) Such abrupt shifts challenge the teacher, for they vitally affect students' preparation, expectations, and interactions with each other and with instructors. One year the gay-identified faction is noisy, only to turn cautious another, just as homophobic (or simply uninformed) voices may clamor one year and fall silent (or never enroll) the next. Moreover, the demographic splits and changes are easily misinterpreted or overinterpreted. In 1992, many straight students said they were intimidated by—or feared offending—a homosexual majority in the class, only to learn later that they were in the majority but led to think otherwise by the very subject of the class. Meanwhile, both students and I, focusing on the obvious division in such a class between the straight and gay, failed to appreciate that gender may be a deeper division—or that silence can be due to more garden-variety problems. ("I don't talk," one student wrote, "not because I'm straight, but because I am lazy and haven't done the reading.")

In the end, such divisions are notable not only for the problems and opportunities they present in a given year, but for their volatility from one year to another—the near impossibility of anticipating what form they will take, or of grasping them fully before it is too late in the term to address them. Other factors heighten that volatility. Even with stable demographics, students' expectations and styles change fast, reflecting abrupt changes in campus or national culture. Students in the mid-1980s, shaped by panic about AIDS, had quite different expectations from those now reacting to the politics of Queer Nation or to a Newsweek cover story (February 24, 1992) titled "Is This Child Gay?" More than in most classes, generational differences between teacher and student compound the challenge. The Stonewall Revolution of 1969 lies back in a mysterious past for today's twenty-year-old. Meanwhile, because lesbian and gay culture has evolved and expanded rapidly, students bring in cultural artifacts that baffle me. I am still trying to make sense of Madonna, while they quiz me about the latest lesbian detective novel and the historical meaning of vogueing. Even intellectual developments can sharply alter a course in a field thinly developed but rapidly changing. New sources shred old syllabi and rework the satisfactions and grievances of students. In sum, the major challenge in teaching gay history is not the sensitivity of the subject matter per se, but the unpredictable, fast-changing nature of the student body, classroom dynamics, national and campus culture, and relevant scholarship.

Of course, some attitudes, issues, and constituencies remain fairly constant over many years, but many change more unpredictably in this course than in ones with a more conventional focus. Teaching the New Deal or the Cold War, I can reliably predict students' demographics and attitudes, which change slowly and with few surprises. In lesbian and gay history, I never know what to expect. By the same token, repetition of the course diminishes its unpredictability for the teacher and its novelty among students, for whom taking it is no longer the daring act of a pioneering few. But students still worry about what parents or friends will think, make a considered decision to take the course, and in turn bring greater energy to it. To some extent, the same goes as well for the teacher, who at least occasionally will confront the visible discomfort or awkward silence of some colleagues about the course, or the hostility of some students. But therein lies the major pleasure in teaching the course: the energy and investment students and I must bring to it, the impossibility of regarding it as just another course.

What do the students get out of it? Probably a good deal not part of the formal agenda: empowerment for lesbian and gay students, new political and social relationships, a measure of tolerance of each other (though students quarrel over all the familiar issues). They learn from formal course content above all that there is a gay and lesbian history to be legitimately studied (for some, further in graduate work). They learn that language, stereotypes, and structures—homosexuality and homophobia themselves—that they once assumed to be timeless are historical constructions, or on the other hand that elements of today's culture they regard as novel have long-standing antecedents. To their surprise, for example, they discover that amid the Newport Scandal of 1919 people threw around words like "queer" and "straight," and that not all characters in lesbian novels of the 1950s had tragic endings. Moreover, these lessons are fresh not only to straight but to gay students, who often enter the class historically ignorant and learn that their identity will not give them privileged access to this history. If they also sense that the subject is "charged," defies "objectivity," involves "leaps of faith," raises issues of "political correctness," and exposes the professor's "biases" (though students disagree about what they are), then they have learned something applicable to any history course they take.

—Michael Sherry is professor of history, Northwestern University, and author of The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (1987). He thanks Lane Fenrich and Sarah Maza for their help with this essay.