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The best books on Queer History

recommended by Benno Gammerl

Anders Fühlen by Benno Gammerl

Anders Fühlen
by Benno Gammerl


Queer history is not simply about exploring the historical incidence of non-heteronormative sexual desire and experience. It is also a way of looking at the past and of placing gender and sexuality at the heart of historical change. Here, Benno Gammerl, professor of Gender and Sexuality at the European University Institute, explains.

Interview by Benedict King

Anders Fühlen by Benno Gammerl

Anders Fühlen
by Benno Gammerl


Before we get into the books, can you just say, when we’re talking about queer history, are we talking about everything that lies outside the practice, behaviours and thinking of heteronormativity? Or is it possible to give it a bit more definition than that?

Well, it’s very broad. I wouldn’t even exclude heteronormativity. It’s more about a perspective on history that takes sexuality and gender and sexual diversity seriously, as a force and dimension of historical change across time. Heteronormativity is a part of that. So I would say it’s primarily a perspective. In terms of themes, it has a lot to do with topics across the sexual and gender spectrum, so gayness, homosexuality, lesbian history. Bisexuality is something I won’t talk a lot about here. But we will cover transgender history and histories of transsexuality.

Let’s start with Susan Stryker’s Transgender History. We previously interviewed Stryker on the best of trans literature. Why do you choose to recommend this book?

First of all because I think it’s an important book. And it’s a good kind of entrée into trans* history, in the United States in this case, post-World War II. This is a very recent strand of historical research and Susan Stryker offers a thoroughly researched monograph that provides an overview. That’s also why I think it’s a good starting point, because it talks about politics and about social movements, but it also talks about personal stories, and a really important aspect of trans* histories, namely the developments and discussions in the medical and psychiatric fields.

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But it also covers conflicts within the queer spectrum, within the LGBT field, the discussions about trans-exclusive feminism, and how the gay liberation movement in the 1970s at some point began to exclude gender non-binary figures, gender transgressive people, trans* people, and how they were then forced to form their own movement. So it’s a good overview of that whole history, which is a part of queer history that we still don’t know a lot about.

Transgender issues seem to be the most high profile at the moment in terms of political and social discussion. You mentioned that gender non-binary people were being excluded in the 1970s by the gay liberation movement. Are we having exactly the same debates as then, but with a much better organized, broader and more vocal trans movement, or has something changed?

I think that’s one of the interesting points of Stryker’s book, the story she’s telling is that there is a success story after the 1990s. She talks about the early moments in the 1950s and 1960s, early forms of organising. And then there is that catastrophe that she dates to 1973, one paradigmatic moment when Sylvia Rivera had to fight for her right to speak at a Christopher Street day gay pride parade. Sylvia Rivera was one of the people at the core of the Stonewall uprising. This moment that is so important for gay history was misremembered as a gay white event. And the trans* people of colour and all other kinds of groups who were actually crucial for the uprising itself, were excluded from the memory of the event. So this is the moment where—at least that’s Stryker’s analysis—the ways part of the trans* movement and the gay liberation movement, and also the lesbian feminist movement.

Later on, Stryker describes this moment in the 1990s, where things come together again, where queer theory with the contributions of Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler and Gayle Rubin plays a major part, where sex worker activism, sex-positive feminism, play a major part and where—and I find this very convincing—the internet plays a major part. All that contributes to new audiences across divides between trans*, gay, lesbian, and also white and people of colour activism. And there is a growing awareness and visibility of trans* people as well. All that comes together to form a more powerful movement.

History follows on the heels of that empowerment, with a growing body of literature on trans* history. But it’s also interesting because Stryker’s story follows that development right up to the present. It’s really an activist’s history. In all the books we’re going to talk about—and this is typical of queer history—there is a strong link between activism and research. Strykers book exemplifies that.

Let’s move onto your next book recommendation, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures of the Sexual Metropolis by Matt Houlbrook. Tell us about this one.

I picked this one, first of all, because it takes us away from America to Britain. It stands as an example of an approach to history that focuses on a very specific place or town. George Chauncey has written on ‘Gay New York‘, a city that has a whole literature built around it. Recently, there’s also been a book out on ‘Queer Budapest,’ by Anita Kurimay. I’ve chosen this book on London, which looks at the time, since the end of the First World War, into the 1950s. Matt Houlbrook finishes in 1957, the moment when the Wolfenden Report was published, when discussions about legal reform begin in the UK, which ultimately lead to the reform of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, and the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality.

But here we are talking about the period prior to that, when sex between men especially was criminalised, and also prosecuted. And it’s interesting, because this one takes the city and looks in great detail at the different geographies and spaces within London and thus affords a very specific and a very productive lens into queer history. So it talks about the police and prosecutions and how the police organised, surveyed and controlled space. But it also talks about how different groups of people used spaces in order to have sexual encounters and find some form of sociability among ‘queer’ men.

“He comes up with a panorama of different social groups of same-sex desiring men”

He talks about sex in public spaces, parks, bathhouses, and about an emerging commercial culture of gayness in the 1920s and ’30s, which affords more and more opportunities for people who could afford to access those spaces, like the bathhouses, but also cafes, and other places like that. And, of course, ultimately, also, domestic spaces and hotel rooms. In very revealing detail he follows and traces the whole range of public and private sexual interactions. He not only looks at how the police tried to control those spaces—how the police sent plain-clothes officers to entrap gay men, men looking for sex with other men in urinals and in parks—but also how same-sex desiring men forged new spaces for themselves.

He looks not only at those with money, but also at working class culture, hustler cultures. Houlbrook talks about things like the Lady Malcolm Servants Ball in the 1930s. Where he also shows that it was definitely not just Oscar Wilde-like aristocrats and definitely not just upper-middle class men who searched for spaces for same sex sociability and intimacy, but also working class people, hustlers. He talks about the Dilly boys who would spend their time in Piccadilly Circus in the West End. So he comes up with a panorama of different social groups of same-sex desiring men.

Did what you’re describing amount to some kind of unified queer culture in London prior to the partial legalisation of homosexuality in 1967?

This is where the book is particularly strong, because there is the question why ‘queer’ is in the title, which is a half-anachronistic term for the period from the 1920s into the 1950s. But what it does not do is to claim that there was a unified culture. It’s very precise about kind of hierarchies involved in those sexual encounters and those forms of sociability. It pays really close attention to the role of class and, for me, that’s the most instructive takeaway message from the book. British culture was very class-based in that period. And that is kind of reflected in the queer culture of the time as well. So there was an exploitative relationship between middle class homosexuals and working class or lower class hustlers. There is an ongoing discussion about respectable masculinity performed by some of the men involved in those scenes, and more vulnerable groups who were gender transgressive and performed femininity. Rank and file soldiers come in as a special social group as well that is often in need of making additional money.

Questions of ethnicity play a role. There’s a chapter on Britishness and how Britishness is redefined in very heteronormative terms in the 1950s, and how that then has a very specific effect on all the different groups involved in the constellations and scenes Houlbrook describes here. That also then leads to his conclusion, moving into discussions about the partial decriminalisation, where he talks about the successful attempt to establish something like a respectable middle-class homosexual, performing traditional masculinity, who needs to be protected from all those foreign, non-white, lower class hustlers and blackmailers, who threaten to undermine his class-based respectability. And that’s the way in which the book also explains why partial decriminalisation in 1967 in the UK came about in the way it did. It was in a very—and historically, I think, problematic—class-based fashion and in a fashion that also emphasised an exclusive notion of Britishness, and British masculinity.

Extraordinary that even the legalisation of homosexuality should be driven by issues of class in Britain, more than anything else. That makes a lot of sense.

Maybe not only in Britain, but there it was very obvious.

Was there any kind of movement for liberation within those communities prior to the 1960s, and was there any sense of that driving the 1967 reforms? Or was that not the case at all?

There were beginnings, I would say. There was a lot of what Houlbrook describes as ‘forcing space’ for one’s own community. So there was this kind of cultural activism. But there were discussions as well about law enforcement and how that might change. But I think that only came together as a forceful lobby in the 1950s. That had a lot to do with the trial against Peter Wildeblood and others. And this idea of the respectable masculine, middle class homosexual. Anything that happened before that was only emergent at best, but never reached the organized lobbying power that was behind the drive to decriminalize homosexuality later on.

We’re moving back over the Atlantic for the next book: Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis

This is a classic of lesbian history. I included this book because, again in terms of approach, it’s almost exclusively an oral history. Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis interviewed 45 women who lived in and around the lesbian community of Buffalo in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. And, based on those narrations, they came up with this book, which came out in 1993.

Again, we are coming back to the activist-researcher, specifically the position of queer historians, and how they intervened in the lesbian feminist debates of the 1990s. So this book is first trying to address the middle class bias of lesbian feminism, looking into a decidedly working class lesbian subculture. This book is trying to make good a white bias, because there are also Afro-American and Latina women among the interviewees and the culture that is described here is racially and ethnically diverse. And the authors also address the over-focus on big cities, and metropolises, by looking into Buffalo, which is upstate New York, a place with around 500,000 inhabitants. It was one of the first studies looking at such a setting.

Most importantly, the book wants to redeem the butch-femme way of structuring lesbian intimacy and sociability, the idea that women come together, performing specific gender roles, with one woman performing the more male role and the other women performing the more feminine role. This was absolutely discredited in lesbian feminism from the 1970s onwards, but this book tries to bring back and redeem this butch-femme kind of constellation, and those butch-femme practices, describing them as a kind of pre-political resistance. It was not only a way for same sex-desiring women to survive in the United States in that kind of medium-sized town setting in the ’40s ’50s, and ’60s, but also a way of making sure that they have spaces where they can meet, and are able to defend those spaces. There’s a lot about street violence in the book. It also allows those women to find a specific way in which they can organise their personal and intimate relationships.

Being an oral historian myself, I really like this book. It does so much with the interviews. It is also very attentive to respecting the individual narratives. And it deals with those narratives, interviews, and testimonies, in a very productive fashion, really allowing the reader a very detailed view of a specific place and subculture and the internal logic and dynamic of that subculture.

And are they describing that subculture, or is it also talking about how the women involved were persecuted and fought for their liberation—presumably their lives were completely legal?

I think that this question raises two issues. One is whether we look at queer history with that kind of pre- and post-Stonewall lens, where you focus on post-Stonewall liberation activism that primarily struggles for decriminalisation. And that brings us to the second issue you’ve raised, which is how we understand persecution.

These women in Buffalo were heavily persecuted, yet not directly because they had sex with women. They were actually persecuted by the state and by the police for all kinds of reasons, for being a public nuisance, for engaging in fights, and sometimes also for sexual offences, which in the ’40s and ’50s could still be very widely defined. But this is not the main point. The main point is stigmatisation and the difficulty of finding a space for oneself, the danger of losing your job, the danger of being ousted by your family, of losing your house, your apartment. So, I think it’s important—and I think that’s where queer history generally is moving now—to have a broader understanding of persecution, that goes beyond a fixation on the criminal law and the criminalisation of primarily male, same-sex desire.

“These women in Buffalo were heavily persecuted, yet not directly because they had sex with women”

During the ’50s and ’60s those women put up a fight when somebody tried to take the bars they were frequenting away from them, and when people tried to hinder them from being visible in public in their butch performing fashion and mannerism. It’s a liberation struggle, but it’s different from the kind we are more familiar with, that of organized lobby groups that use published magazines—or nowadays, online websites. But I think it would be wrong not to describe the earlier forms as a liberation struggle. I think that’s actually exactly what Kennedy and Davis mean when they talk about this pre-political form of resistance. There is a liberation struggle. There is actually an astonishing degree of visibility and power exercised by that lesbian subculture, although most of those women would not describe themselves as lesbians, but that’s a different point. There is an astonishing struggle going on. It may just be that, given the lenses we have now grown accustomed to, we find it a bit difficult to read it as a liberation struggle, but I think it definitely was.

Let’s go to the next book. Kevin Mumford’s Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis.

That is a book that I chose because it takes us to black gay history, and brings up the question of intersectionality between anti-racist struggles and anti-homophobic struggles. In terms of approach, this book really looks at individuals, important organizers and activists. So Bayard Rustin plays an important role, and James Baldwin in the early period. Also maybe less well known people like Grant-Michael Fitzgerald in the 1970s and ’80s. So it looks at those individuals and their biographies, building on very detailed archival research, looking at their personal papers and trying to reconstruct the biographies, sometimes in slightly redundant detail. But I think the book does definitely manage to come up with a very sophisticated view of black gay activism, and black gay activists, between what often has been described as the homophobia of civil rights activism… There was this kind of exclusion of homosexuals from the black civil rights movement. Bayard Rustin suffered from that and was never really able to disclose his same-sex desire while being a very prominent Civil Rights activist.

So on the one hand, there was this exclusion within the black community, and on the other side, also ongoing racism within the gay community. It was a long struggle from the 1970s, to move beyond the predominance of whiteness in the gay liberation movement. Black gay men are described here as being caught in that double bind, and the book describes how they tried to deal with that situation. In the beginning there was a lot of secrecy and hiding. And then there’s an ever-growing element of visibility, outness and a self-defined voice.

“There was this exclusion within the black community, and on the other side, also ongoing racism within the gay community”

I think Joseph Beam, a poet and cultural activist of the 1980s, is really interesting in that respect. He edited gay magazines and the black gay poetry anthology In the Life. He was in close contact with black lesbian feminists, people like Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith. This was an important moment that opened up new possibilities and new self-fashionings for black gay men. And here you can also see that one of the things these activists really struggled against was related to masculinity. On the one hand, there is this strong virile masculinity that Black Power was developing and performing. On the other side you have a white gay objectifying gaze that almost does the same thing, that imagines black gay bodies as hyper-virile sex machines with big penises. And people like Joseph Beam tried to forge a completely different view of black gay masculinity as sensitive as well, as possibly also feminine, and as complex and looking for community and sociability. And these are the kinds of struggles that are described in this book.

I’ll just add one more thing, because I think it’s also a fascinating aspect of this story, the role of religion. It’s not that religion didn’t play a role in Euro-American gay and lesbian movements. But I think it’s particularly important in a black gay context. And there are two chapters here on activism within the Catholic Church and within a Pentecostal setting, where it becomes clear that a sense of unity and sociability in a black gay context also necessitated forging a space within a religious setting for black gay identities and visibilities. And that is something this book describes in a lot of revealing detail.

Let’s turn to the final book, Carolyn Dinshaw’s How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers and the Queerness of Time. What is ‘the queerness of time’?

This book is a bit of an outlier. I chose it because the impossible task of this five-book conversation was to find five books about queer history tout court. Most of the books we’ve talked about so far, are focused on the 20th century. But there are books on the Renaissance and on ancient history, too. This one is primarily on medieval history. I really like it and find it particularly interesting. It’s good to end with this one because it brings us to very fundamental questions about history and time. It discusses the complexity of temporality, it is part of a whole debate around so-called queer temporalities. And Carolyn Dinshaw’s contribution is really the notion of the “expansive now”.

It enables a spatialisation of time that kind of collapses what historians in the conventional register would consider vast temporal distances. Her text reaches across centuries, links people from the 15th and the 20th centuries, and I think it does so in a very commendable fashion, because it’s not based on identity. With a lot of queer history, you’re always kind of haunted by the question, do you presuppose an identity with the actors 50, 100, or 200 years ago, by calling all of them queer, queer as we identify ourselves. Is that kind of breaching a temporal distance? Is that based on a false anachronistic identification, and prescribing a contemporary sense of queerness and projecting it on to the past? But that’s not what Dinshaw is doing. She has this notion of a queer touch across time, where difference is a precondition for such touching across time becoming possible. And I think that has a lot to do with her—admittedly complicated, but I think, inspiring—notion of queer temporality. It tries to move away from a linear understanding of time and to think of every kind of present as expanding in a spatial sense. And that kind of expansion then creates overlaps and encounters, enables touches that may seem impossible at first.

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There are a couple of chapters here about different amateur readers of medieval texts, about Geoffrey Chaucer and others, about King James I of Scotland, about John Mandeville and the imagination of British or Indian medieval pasts. There’s a post-colonial element as well. The first chapter looks at ‘monks, kings, sleepers and other time travellers.’

The chapter that I found most interesting and I want to say a little bit more about is on Margery Kempe who was a late medieval English mystic and writer, a female person, who is read as a queer person here, but not by assuming any kind of same sex desire on the part of Margery Kempe but by simply describing her as a woman who did not live up to, or lived outside of, the gendered expectations of her day. She was a married woman who, having given birth to quite a large number of children, requested that her husband relieve her of her marriage duties. She then enters a chaste life as a mystic, as a kind of a nun. So, as I was saying before, this is not queer in our contemporary understanding, but it is kind of a life beyond late medieval expectations and norms that allows Carolyn Dinshaw to reach across time to touch Margery Kempe and vice versa.

That’s what I really like about this chapter. The touching runs through one amateur reader of medieval texts, Hope Emily Allen, a medievalist in the ’20s and ’30s, and into the 1940s, who tried to write a magnum opus, a big book on Margery Kempe, and who was also involved in the first modern edition of The Book of Margery Kempe, the 15th century manuscript. And then there’s a moment in the text, where Carolyn Dinshaw, begins to realise that Hope Emily Allen, her medievalist precursor in the first half of the 20th century, could also be described in some sense, as queer. Again, not in our contemporary sense, but there is that inkling of not conforming with heteronormative expectations, a moment of recognition, a movement of desire that enables what is described here as a ‘queer touch’ across time. And I think it’s fundamental for queer history, in general, to acknowledge such queer touches across time, even if they reach as far back as, in this case, the late medieval period.

Excellent. And that is where you started, that queer history can include even hetero-normativity because it’s essentially a way of seeing or being as much as strictly about

a sexual orientation.

Yes, I would say there are two usages of the word ‘queer’. One is an umbrella term for the whole spectrum of LGBT. You can also say ‘queer’ is a synonym for that. And that is important, but I think not the most interesting aspect. The more interesting one is a specific perspective on present day politics as well as on the past that motivates our research. It looks at questions around sexuality and gender, sexual and gender diversity, and understands those as fundamental to history. It’s similar to when gender was proposed as a fundamental category of analysis by Joan Scott. So you can also say queer history is not just about adding aspects and groups of people to the histories we already have. But it is a way to really fundamentally change our understanding of history by claiming that you cannot fully understand any period and any historical development if you do not also take into account queerness.

Interview by Benedict King

May 27, 2022

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Benno Gammerl

Benno Gammerl

Benno Gammerl is Professor of History of Gender and Sexuality and the European University Institute in Florence. Before joining the Institute, he helped to establish the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London. He engages with postcolonial and feminist theories, queer approaches, oral history methods and the history of emotions.

Benno Gammerl

Benno Gammerl

Benno Gammerl is Professor of History of Gender and Sexuality and the European University Institute in Florence. Before joining the Institute, he helped to establish the Centre for Queer History at Goldsmiths, University of London. He engages with postcolonial and feminist theories, queer approaches, oral history methods and the history of emotions.