Outing the Early American Past: Case Studies from Academic and Public History

AHA Session 17
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 1
Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Richard Godbeer, Virginia Commonwealth University
James T. Downs, Connecticut College

Session Abstract

The practice of outing figures from the early American past continues to be an important part of scholarly and public efforts to reclaim a usable queer history. In the past several decades, numerous studies have added nuanced understandings of same-sexuality among historical actors. We now understand, as one scholar has written of same-sex sexuality in the early American past, that discursively constructed categories in the period before the widespread definition of homosexuality helped to shape the possible articulations and practices of intimacy among men and women. Yet, outing the American past has not been without its critics. Both inside and outside of the academy, the debates surrounding such understandings of sexual identities have been numerous and bitterly fought. But in the middle of the debate between the so-called “essentialist” and “social constructionist” views of same-sex sexuality, less attention has been paid to the methodological considerations facing historians who work in the history of sexuality. In the case of early America, the terms and categories of analysis require particular attention to understand the possibilities for same-sex sexuality in an era of vastly different discursive practices, political challenges, and legal boundaries.

 Drawing on the annual meeting’s theme of “Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in Global Perspective,” this panel explores the intersections of same-sex sexuality with the categories of race, ethnicity, and the nation state. In early America, or the period approximately before 1900, men and women of different backgrounds crossed boundaries to create a new definition of same-sex sexuality, one which increasingly insisted on the overt sexualization of same-sex intimacy while still maintaining the pretense of the platonic definition of an earlier age. The papers of this panel will also trace the origins of these new definitions and practices, paying close attention to the borders at which they met.

 The three papers present case studies from within the academy and from public exhibitions that address the methodological challenges of identifying, describing, and presenting same-sex intimacies, attractions, and identities among men and women from the early American past. Thomas Balcerski considers the intimate male friendship of James Buchanan of Pennsylvania and William Rufus King of Alabama. Kate Culkin explores the same-sex relationships of her two primary research subjects, Harriet Hosmer and Ellen Tucker Emerson, respectively. Connie King discusses the conceptual and practical difficulties in mounting the Library Company of Philadelphia’s exhibit, “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America.” The chair, Richard Godbeer, an established scholar who has contributed greatly to this field, will provide essential criticism and insights for the presenters, as will the commentator Jim Downs, who has published widely on same-sexuality across the sweep of American history. In sum, these papers expand the possibilities of the methodological category of historical outing in the formative period before the discursive medicalization of homosexuality.

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