Queering Historical Scale, Part 2: Queer History beyond the City: Sexuality in 19th- and Early 20th-Century Rural America

AHA Session 223
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 7
Saturday, January 7, 2017: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center, Ballroom Level)
Colin R. Johnson, Indiana University Bloomington
Gabriel N. Rosenberg, Duke University

Session Abstract

How does our understanding of sexuality in American history change when we focus our scholarly lens beyond the city limits? Scholars of sexuality, no matter their period of study, have overwhelmingly remained within the boundaries of the urban, helping to create a false dichotomy that has the potential to remove sexuality from the rural. This dichotomy is a particular concern for LGBTQ identities and desires, which generally are seen as products of urban spaces while the rural becomes home to a natural, normal, and timeless monogamous heterosexuality. For over a decade, on the other hand, scholars such as Colin Johnson, John Howard, Brock Thompson, Scott Herring, Peter Boag, J. Halberstam, and Gabriel Rosenberg, among others, have illuminated the diverse understandings and experiences of sexuality in rural America over the past two hundred years, constituting the so-called “rural turn” in Queer Studies. The three papers of this panel contribute to this emergent line of inquiry, agreeing that the scale of the history of sexuality in America must go beyond urban locations and even question the idea of a divide between the urban and the rural.

            Although each paper is grounded in a rural location, they pose different questions of scale for the field of the history of sexuality and approaches to studying sexuality and queer lives in rural American history. Emily Skidmore, in her examination of lesbian Astrid Arnoldsen’s choice to live her adult life in 1920s rural Montana, asks how sexuality goes beyond just individual identity and can play a role in broader social projects like settler colonialism. In his exploration of two queer men in early twentieth-century Wisconsin, Christopher Hommerding challenges the rural as parochial or small, demonstrating how queer individuals in rural spaces could construct and maintain broad networks across generations and space. Finally, Kent Peacock asks what the scale of the history of sexuality should be, specifically whether it is just about proven human sexual behaviors, in his examination of sexual slander cases about human-animal sex in the early nineteenth-century Trans-Appalachian West. Together these papers span a scale of over 150 years of history and a variety of rural spaces to help reconstruct the sexual and gender diversity that could and did exist throughout rural America’s history. Collectively, this panel poses important questions about not only the history of sexuality and its relation to historical scale, but also about community, belonging, and possibility in U.S. history.

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