Writing Early Queer Lives: Authorial and Biographical Imperatives before 1900

AHA Session 199
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History 11
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Williford C (Hilton Chicago, Third Floor)
Richard Godbeer, Virginia Commonwealth University
Thomas J. Balcerski, Eastern Connecticut State University
Brian Martin, Williams College
Charles J. Upchurch, Florida State University
Amy Washburn, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York

Session Abstract

To end the twentieth century, biography had emerged as the dominant form of nonfiction writing. A growing interest in historical sex and sexuality had been central to the transformation. In his study of the history of the genre, the practicing biographer and historian Nigel Hamilton noted the “highly combustible chemical of suppressed human sexuality that, liberated at last, would refuel biographical curiosity and output…” In the field of LGBT history, likewise, the past forty years has witnessed a veritable outpouring of scholarship focused on the individual queer lives from the era before the classification of homosexuality as a deviant physical and mental condition. In the process, biography and LGBT history found a reached a comfortable, if unwitting, scholarly accord

At the same time, the period before 1900 demands particular attention in writing queer lives. In that era, 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. Following suit, scholars of the early queer past have addressed the many ambiguities, both theoretical and methodological, presented by the historical record. Gaps in the archival record, coded language, and purposeful erasures all complicate the evidentiary basis for historical claims. In this void, historians have quite often turned to the literary record for parallel examples of fictional characters in novels and short stories. In accounts historical and literary, then, scholars of the queer past turn to an expanded archival record.

Drawing on the annual meeting’s theme of “Loyalties” and in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the Committee on LGBT History, this panel explores the intersections of same-sex sexuality with theoretical and methodological concerns attendant to scholars whose primary focus is biographical. In addition, the co-location of the annual meets of the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association present an unprecedented opportunity to gather together scholars across traditional disciplinary divides. The panelists will discuss individual studies that address the methodological challenges of identifying, describing, and presenting same-sex intimacies, attractions, and identities among men and women from the early queer past.

Four panelists will contribute perspectives from their individual research to the roundtable discussion. Thomas Balcerski considers the intimate male friendship of nineteenth-century politicians as they relate to the coming of the U.S. Civil War. Charles Upchurch presents his research into same-sex relationships in England before the era of Oscar Wilde. Amy Washburn analyzes two separate relationships of women from the nineteenth century: Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake, two white working-class textile workers in the North, and Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, a Black domestic work and a white schoolteacher, in the South. Brian Martin reviews French nineteenth-century military memoirs and posits the presence of "bivouac buddies." Finally, Richard Godbeer, who is at work on a joint biography of Quakers Elizabeth and Henry Drinker of eighteenth-century Philadelphia, will chair the panel.

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