Queer in Public: Urban Space and Same-Sex Cultures in Europe, 1850–1930

AHA Session 143
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 7
Friday, January 5, 2018: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Washington Room 2 (Marriott Wardman Park, Exhibition Level)
Andrew Israel Ross, University of Southern Mississippi
Charles J. Upchurch, Florida State University

Session Abstract

Queer in Public: Urban Space and Same-Sex Cultures in Europe explores the history of queer urban milieus, policing, and surveillance in Berlin, Paris, and St. Petersburg from the 1850s to the 1930s. This panel seeks to better understand the experiences and challenges of queer men and women in forging new sexual identities during this period.

Queer history seeks to challenge the practices, theories, and normative assumptions that underlie traditional academic history. This approach requires interdisciplinary tools. Drawing from geography, history, and cultural studies, and looking at different geographical areas, this panel examines the broader concept of what being queer in public means. We pay attention to how queer men socialized in public spaces, such as streets and parks, and how same-sex relationships were shaped by the urban built environment. We focus on the active role of space in queer experiences by paying attention not only to physical urban spaces, but also to the imaginary, even literary, world of contemporary queer media, the written and visual “spaces” that constituted a queer public sphere. Our inquiry is driven by the following questions: How is space a socially constructed category in flux? How are queer spaces and bodies “read”? What constitutes a “public act” and what makes such acts decent or indecent? How do public acts produce queer identities, communities, and practices? How are such practices policed and criminalized?

In these three papers, we examine how same-sexuality was transformed into an identity in the context of public acts (from sex in public to the active participation in the public sphere through a vibrant homosexual press). These were spaces of policing, identity formation, community building, and contestation. It was through space that homosexuality became a more concrete identity, not only through medico-legal discourses that inscribed “deviant” sexuality onto bodies, but also through active engagement with public space. Olga Petri reconstructs the spatial histories of queer men in late imperial St. Petersburg, where urban planning not only facilitated surveillance, but also provided possibilities for the emergence of a queer milieu. Andrew Ross explores the regulation of male homosexuality in mid nineteenth-century Paris, when the significance of public “indecent” acts between men decreased once homosexuality could be identified through essential yet elusive features inscribed in the body. Javier Samper Vendrell argues that the homosexual movement’s press during the Weimar Republic became a space in which same-sex desiring men produced the normative contours of their sexual identity by distancing adult male same-sex acts from sex with minors in a desperate attempt to decriminalize homosexuality. Charles Upchurch will comment on these papers. Upchurch is an expert in the history of gender and sexuality in Europe. His work focuses on the policing and decriminalization of male same-sex acts in nineteenth-century Britain.

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