The appropriate engagement with queer history is a common flashpoint among both straight and queer audiences. This is reflected in the complete absences of queer history in the curriculums of 48 states, and the, in general, relegation of queer theory and history classes to the status of electives at universities, where students interested in these topics have to fit them into already packed schedules. But what I have learned from teaching courses ranging in topics from the queer film and literature of the 60s and 70s to the history and politics of the AIDS crisis is that these topics aren’t just important for young queer people to know about. These topics can also help queer students renegotiate their own identities, see themselves in new ways, and feel empowered to be who they are for the first time in their lives.
When I taught my first course on queer history – a course titled “AIDS: A History of a Generation” – I admittedly knew far less about my own community’s history than I thought I would. What I learned was that there were in fact debates and conversations going back decades within queer community concerning elements central to our experiences as queer. These debates centered along lines of monogamy, sexual practices, sexual health, and even questions of inclusivity. Immediately my millennial sense of novelty in which I believed my generation was mostly responsible for the integration of new progressive stances into queer politics and culture was immediately disrupted.
I began my course by teaching an essay written in 1987 – during the heart of the AIDS crisis – by a queer theorist names Leo Bersani. This piece, “Is the Rectum a Grave,” as equal part radical and sexy as the title would suggest, deals with the realities of how a public health crisis, that is the AIDS crisis, can be treated as a sexual threat to individuals. Bersani, in no short order, connects the general public’s refusal to help people with AIDS to a further, and more psychological homophobia, rooted in sexual practices that scare them. A point that seems moot to a reader with any connection to queer politics in 2017 was radical in 1987, homophobia and bigotry aren’t just institutional or legal – they are practical and are rooted in the very psyche of people in society.
This essay – and others such as “Thinking Sex” by Gayle Rubin and “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” by Douglas Crimp – gave my course a theoretical framework from which my students, and myself, were able to learn the basics of what happened during the AIDS crisis and how what happened during this crisis had real life social consequences that have reshaped our queer lives today, almost 25 years later.
And really this is the situation: queer history is important, in the first case, because what has happened before in our history has actually impacted how we live today. For example, one of the central debates played out within queer community during the AIDS crisis was regarding which of two options was the best way of fighting the spread of HIV: (1) practicing monogamy with a single partner or (2) safe sex practices, particularly the use of condoms. Historians of the crisis, such as Douglas Crimp, have argued that the monogamy camps won and their rhetoric, reflected by such columnists as New York Times writer Andrew Sullivan, have resulted in the narrowing down of central queer political issues and causes to only those that impact these monogamous practices: namely, marriage.
But studying queer history is not just about understanding the social narratives for how our political realities came to be. Rather, studying this history – as I saw happen as my own queer students encountered the history and theory behind their own experiences for the first time – can be an actual therapeutic experience for young queer people. What I mean by this in short is that reading someone put to words how you have felt, how you have experienced the world, for the first time makes you feel validated, understood.
This, of course, is the basic idea of why representation is so important in culture and media, but it is more than this as well. As we sat in class and processed these readings my students began to process many of the negative experiences they had growing up queer. They were able to put words to the experiences of homophobia they had encountered, and they were able to process and understand how these experiences actually did fit in with a long-standing social history of homophobia.
In other words, studying queer history allowed for them to renegotiate their own queer identities because it gave them the tools to discuss how their experiences fit in to a broader narrative. Their experiences of homophobia and their desires for a community of people that shared their experiences was not unique, and more significantly their own internal debates over their sexual health, sexual practices, and desire for relationships all became topics that they could develop their own conclusions about through reading history.
This was of particular importance in a course on the AIDS crisis, where many of my students had queer identities shaped by a socially instituted fear of HIV that resulted in many ways in a fear of queer sex, even 20 years after treatments that allowed for people with AIDS to live healthy lives came available. What studying queer theory and history, and particularly the history of the AIDS crisis, did for my students was give them a counter narrative that ran against the narrative the general public fed them. By this I mean that many of my queer students learned, for the first time, that there were ways to fight back against the stigmatization they felt both from society and internally from themselves.
And the transformative nature of studying queer theory and history couldn’t have been made more clear to me than when, months after finishing the course, sitting on a first date at, ironically enough, Julius’, considered to be the very first gay bar in Manhattan, a former student of mine ran into me. He explained how much he had enjoyed my class most specifically for what it meant to him as a young gay man who had no idea about the richness of history that he now felt connected to. To him, feeling connected to history wasn’t about obligation or about feeling a need to serve the ghosts of some long-gone past for which he had no need.
To him, the studies he took part in with me during that one semester, meant to him the opportunity to understand better: to understand his community, his history, and most importantly himself in whole new ways.