Queer Migrations, Part 2: Coming and Going: Traversing Borders and Crossing Boundaries of Sexuality, Race, and Class in the 20th-Century United States and Germany

AHA Session 136
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 5
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Crystal Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Amanda H. Littauer, Northern Illinois University

Session Abstract

“Travel, they say, improves the mind / An irritating platitude.” So quipped Noël Coward in his 1961 hit musical Sail Away. Despite its cynicism, Coward’s observation underlined a salient point about how travel, whether for business or leisure, is perceived to open new possibilities of exploration, edification, and self-discovery for the traveller. Leaving the confines of one location necessarily entails new experiences and challenges. But for individuals whose position in racial or sexual hierarchies is contested even from the comforts of home, travel offers additional possibilities for liberation as well as risks of oppression.

            This panel explores how the experience of travel shapes, and is shaped by, transgressions of social and political boundaries. It looks specifically at the experiences of LGBT people and African-Americans in the U.S. and Germany during the second and third quarters of the twentieth century. Through considerations of how the facilitation of physical movement through space produced both opportunities and dangers, this panel interrogates how travel is inextricably linked to discourses of race, sex, and power. 

            For LGBT people in the U.S. and Germany travel offered a potential to escape the homophobic strictures of daily life and fostered new identities outside of the everyday. As Dr. Jay Watkins explains in his paper, gay men flocking to the Florida Gulf Coast found opportunities for social and sexual contacts amid the burgeoning ‘family friendly’ commercial tourist trade. So too did German men develop patterns and networks of connections through the dissemination of travel information via men’s magazines in the 1970s, as explained in Svanur Pétursson’s paper. Chris Parkes’ paper emphasizes that the transitory and anonymous nature of travel encounters were an integral part of the experiences of men seeking same-sex contact in a hostile environment. In all three cases, the formation of gay male social networks occurred in spite of social opprobrium, but also took the forms they did because of that disapproval.

            The panel features the themes of oppression and subversion. Dr. Cara Rodway examines how discourses of respectability and domesticity informed the opposition to integrated travel accommodations on the roadsides of the mid-century American South. African-American families transgressing both geographic and racial boundaries was doubly fraught as it was a by-product of increasing black wealth and American consumerism, both signs of modernity that had vociferous critics. This intersectionality is echoed in the papers of Dr. Watkins and Chris Parkes, who show how the act of travelling itself demonstrated how racial and class boundaries overlapped with those of sexuality to create complex, difficult to navigate terrain for those seeking same-sex contacts.

            Travel is dislocating. It removes people from their quotidian lives and presents them with new challenges and adventures. For African-Americans and LGBT people in Germany and the United States, this experience was diverse and varied. For scholars interested in LGBT people, social history, and the intersection of race and sexuality, unpacking the distinct characteristics of this variety offers new insights into how identities are formed and changed by the sheer act of coming and going.

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