Monday, July 13, 2015

One More Time: Finally Finished Post on "What is Queer History Good for?'' A Public Talk at Hares and Hyenas, the Queer Bookstore here in Melbourne

With Lana Woolf, Lesbian progressive cultural worker extraordinaire

I am tired this morning and Cello has a bad cough, his chronic weakness of the lungs that grows worse as he enters deep old age. La Professoressa is off in Sydney doing her work at a conference on women and poverty as I did mine last night at the oh so rare these days, progressive queer bookstore here in Melbourne, Hares and Hyenas which under the guidance of Rowland and Crusader, welcomes all. Daniel Marshall, one of my oldest friends here, though he himself is still in his 30s, had put an evening together to discuss queer history work, taking advantage of the fact that Matt Cook, a professor of Modern History at Birbeck, University of London, and author of several books on London's queer past, was in Melbourne. We are in the grips of unusual cold and wet weather here, and last night poured rain. How tempted I was to stay home, but I thought of Daniel and could not let the dark night keep me from the event and how glad I was that I kept to Mabel Hampton's old phrase, "If I give you my word, I will be there."

My Living Bibliography, Held in My Arms
From the flyer for the event: What is queer history good for? How are we to live with the histories of sexuality and gender that we inherit? Might it be, as Joan Nestle suggested in 1982, 'that it is harder to live with a history than without one? Join us for a lively conversation about the legacies of queer history and the different ways queer history is--or might be--put to work in the present. (Daniel Marshall, July 13, 2015)

Matt spoke first and gave us a short history with a helpful PowerPoint of the how London Councils have come to support queer history projects. Daniel read from his essay in which he describes his lonely and embattled queer youth in Mount Gambia , how much it would have meant to him if there had been any references to queer history in these years. At one moment he stopped and looked into the darkened room and asked if anyone had been taught anything about queer history in their school years. Slowly murmurs of no, nothing, came back to him, to us. The lack was palpable. This is why I am working for a queer history month here in Melbourne, he said. Then it was my turn. Please turn on the lights.

As I always do, I used the opportunity of the talk to read texts that I felt would help my thinking, would expand the conversation, my living bibliography in a way, since I take these voices with me and for this night, it was even more living because two of the women authors of books I was cradling in my arms were sitting right there. Over 40 people had braved the weather and filled the bookshop, including Debolina and Oishik who kindly took the images I am using here. What follows is the closest I can come to what I said last night.

[What comes to me as I am working on reconstructing my talk is that this process, typing, cutting, pasting, carrying sacks of living books that I bring into public light, has always been an act of labor, physical labor, an act of construction, putting together the building blocks of my line of thought as they run through me, as  I say thank you to the authors who are the rivers and streams that let me sail free. At my age now, the process is calling on muscles of all kinds not to forget their strengths given so generously over our shared years. My pages are a geography of pasted down deltas of thought.]

First you will see that what I have to say is heavily American inflected. Secondly, for queer history to have meaning for me, I must add the world of feminist thinking to the word queer,  because only with each speaking to each can we get to the heart of the matter. Also, I speak from the position of an anti-Israel's occupation Jew, a position that informs all my thinking about history. Who stands before you tonight is a 75 year old lesbian fem feminist queer who came out so many years ago in our freak times, a history I cherish. Thank you all so much for coming out in this weather to share this night of public thinking.

From my first public discussion of lesbian history, the keynote speech for the 6th Amazon Autumn Lesbian-Feminist Conference in 1982 and reprinted in the long time out of print Canadian gay newspaper, Body Politic.

'We need to know that we are not accidental, that our culture has grown and changed with the currents of time, that we, like others, have a social history composed of individual lives, community struggles and customs of language, dress and behaviour--in short that we have the story of a people to tell. To live with history is to have a memory of not just of our own lives but the lives of others, people we never me but whose voices and actions connect us to our collective selves.

Having a history may be harder than not having one: this reality of continuity in time carries with it its own burdens. We lesbians in the 1980s will be in trouble if we act as if the 1950s or the 1920s never existed. Because of the work of grassroots national and international lesbian and gay historians, we have found patterns in both our oppression and in our responses. We can begin to watch the changes come. Having a history will certainly complicate the issues because simplistic positions will seldom do justice to it.'

One general thought that occurred to me--what interested so many of us in the early 70s, in the early days of the queer history movement was documenting how queers created lives from their culture of difference, the power of small acts of defiance like the young 1950s butch who sewed small pieces of lace onto her socks so she could keep from getting arrested for transvestism in the vice-squad policed bars, while today it seems our rush is to show how like every body else we are--the push for protected citizenship in a time of our endless wars? Another thought was how ironic it is that once some of us were accused of being gentrifiers of decaying neighborhoods and now we are truly gentrifiers of failing social institutions like marriage and military service, making them all shiny once again.

Daniel with mike, Matt with hand on chin and me
Here I start piling up the sources for my talk and introduce them to the gathered.
All the histories I needed to have with me.
1. Sara Helm's "If This Is Woman: Inside Ravensbruck: Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women" (2015, Little, Brown) --The whores and the lesbians, the gypsies, the Jeovah Witnesses, the trade unionists, the  teachers and leftists of all kinds, the disabled, the Jews, the French and Russian resistance fighters,struggling to form community, dedicated to "Those Who Refused"--refused to brutalize others at the price of their own deaths. Only 50 miles from Berlin but over  75 years from male scholarly interest. My friend Michelle says, "We all knew of the women of Ravensbruck, their courage." Feminism forces us to look for histories of resistance hidden in full sight.

2. Liz Ross' "Revolution is For Us: The Left and Gay Liberation in Australia" (2013, interventions)--Liz, a grassroots historian, in the audience, speaks after the presentations, the Marxism that is part of my understanding of things. Liz whom I see at every demonstration, the  thin older woman giving out the leaflets calling for a Marxist analysis.

3. Jordana Silverstein's "Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the 20th Century" (2015, Berghahn)--Jordy's new book and she is there as well so I can honor these feminist historians, expand the geography and gender of the evening. Our histories must make us anxious as they intersect with others, as we get closer to power. It is what we do with this anxiety that will be our legacies. Jordy has studied how Holocaust narratives were taught in the high schools both here and in New York, the role Israel was made to play for the diasporic Jews. As an anti-Occupation Jew, I see the parallels of what the state of Israel becomes in Jewish diasporic thinking and the gay marriage story in one of her chapter headings, "From the Utter Depth of Degradation to the Apogee of Bliss," the triumphalism of it all--and the invisible suffering of the Palestinian people.

4. Edward Said's "Representations of the Intellectual" (1994, Vintage)--Said's demand that public thinkers be steadfast in the their dissent in the face of threatened and real exiles. "And just because you represent the sufferings that your people lived through which you yourself might have lived through also, you are not relieved of the duty of revealing that your own people now may be visiting related crimes on others."  I use his thinking about the needed freedom of "amateurs" to range wide and free in their gathering of ideas, a freedom not available in many ways and for many reasons to "professionals."

5.Matt Cook's "Queer Domesticities" (2014, Palgrave)--To honor my co-presenter, I have read his historical portrait of queer men's domestic arrangements, their attempts to establish homes, in England from the end of the 19th century to the 20th--his championing of the queer domestic beginning with the description of his own domestic life with his husband and children. In the opening pages I meet Simeon Solomon, the homeless Jewish artist, arrested for having public sex with a guardsman in 1873, a bohemian who dies outside the grips of domestic security and then in his next chapter we meet one of the first prominent couples who will feature in this history, Charles Shannon (1863-1937) and Charles Rickets (1866-1937), describing their home in the keep of a castle, but it is hard for me to get by this passage where Cook tells us of Rickett's fear for the growing disregard for art and beauty and the decline of cultured men who would know its true value. Rickett's words: "We are all suffering from Democracy. I read every morning whatever news there is from Italy, re Mussolini and his incomparable Fascisti. Are they the counter revolutionary? Are they the sign of the world returning to order, duty, sense of real values, a return to constriction and to veneration for firm things?"  I say, here is one queer history that will make possible the death of another, the wandering Jew Simeon. I say that some high class lesbians of the 30s and 40s that we love to extol also fell under the spell of the Fascists. Is there a relationship between our love affair with domesticities and the exclusive nation states creating unity out of terror marked others?

6. Daniel Marshall's co edited special issue for Radical History Review on Queering the Archives (119-120, 2014):  Share with the gathered my other colleague's newly printed work, the co-edited two volume issues of Radical History Review, an out growth of a project Daniel and I started several years after the death of Alan Beruby--and that Daniel and others brought to fruition.

7. News article from Haaretz, "Can One Be Gay, Republican and pro-Israel in the U.S. (by Brian Schaefer, May 5, 2015)  I read from the words of the gay pro-Israel Jewish activist from the article; "I think that what we are seeing is that more and more LGBT people in general and LGBT Jews are stepping up to say--I can be a LGBT person and proud of Israel and those things are not in conflict...A gay Jewish Republican points out that the LGBT equality movement could learn something from the strategy of the pro-Israel lobbyists in terms of cultivating bipartisan support. If we are smart we'll follow the pro Israel community of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and then we'll have a more muscular durable bipartisan coalition that is very effective in addressing policy.'' Support for gay marriage is the main drawing card, the speaker goes on to say. I say, the marriage campaign carries us into very suspect histories and in this case, tragically ignores the white colonial settler history that is attempting to wipe out another people, the people of Palestine. Is this what queer muscularity means?

8. My final reportage:  News article from "The Age," 'US Lobbyist Points  Way to Marriage Equality" (by Matthew Hall,  July 11,  2015) The article tells of a meeting between Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, meeting with Australian same-sex marriage advocates in New York. "The visit is part of the U.S. government's International Visitor Leadership Program, an annual professional exchange program sponsored by the State Department." I bring back Said's words about co-opted professionalism. Then comes for me the final historical travesty. Ellis says, "In America, it really is about visibility. We used to have to walk into bars that were down an alley and that had little red lights...." Being one of those someones who walked those alleys and learned from them, I want to stop and read three historical voices from those times, but I must finish excerpting from the article. In the last paragraph, Ellis reveals tactics that worked. "One of the best practices we have learnt is that it really resonates when you talk about love and family more then equality and legal rights. One of the biggest campaigns we did in America is 'Love is Love'--that nobody should be denied the right to love who they love. When you have an emotional appeal, it moves hearts and minds in a more rapid way." Remember, I say, to the gathered, when we shouted, out of our bedrooms, off our bodies. Now we  make the State the protectors, the proclaimers of our Love. In a time of endless war and endless othering. In a time when there is a tsunami of death at policed national Western borders.

Then I read these voices from the bad old days. How quickly we can empty our histories of resistance when we want national respectabilities. Those of us who walked these streets will be leaving soon. Only our words, and your touching them, will keep the complexities of our history alivc and so it will be for your time too.

From a conversation around the Lesbian Herstory Archives dinner-work table, 1979:

The speaker, a Jewish woman in her 60s, says, 'I had a chance to read the Well of Loneliness  that had been translated into Polish before I was taken into the camps. I was a young girl at the time, around 12 or 13, and one of the ways I survived in the camp was by remembering that book. I wanted to live long enough to kiss a woman.'

From Liz Kennedy and Madeline Davis' "Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold," The voice of Matty, a working class butch lesbian of the 1950s:

'"Things back then were terrible, and I think because I fought like a man to survive, I made it somehow easier for the kids coming out today [spoken in 1993]. I did all their fighting for them. I'm not a rich person, I don't have a lot of money, I don't even have a little money. I would have nothing to leave nobody in this world but I have that I can leave to the kids who are coming out now, who will come out in the future, that I left them a better place to come out into. And that's all I have to offer, to leave them. but I wouldn't deny it; even though I was getting my brains beaten up, I would never stand up and say, 'No. Don't hit me, I'm not gay, I'm not gay. I wouldn't do that.'"

The voice of Mabel Hampton, friend and activist, speaking to me in her 80th year in 1981. "Joan, there are some women I can't touch because the desire burns my hand like a blue flame, those women, those women."

9. And, as I say, my old green hardcover of Walt Whitman's Leave of Grass because I need him with me. 

My time is running out and so I end with this 1968  poem by the lesbian Jewish progressive activist poet, Muriel Ruckeyser (1913-1980) who is mostly unknown in this part of the world. I end with her words calling on us to re imagine other ways to live, other ways to live with history, queer and otherwise.


I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane.
The newspapers would arrive with their careless  stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct piece, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other.
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.
I lived in the first century of these wars.

We left the warm lights of Hares and Hyenas and stepped out into a deep, cold Melbourne night with  rain still pelting down. Liz Ross kindly volunteered to give me a lift home. Another friend offered to help me with my bulging red sack of books. I had gathered my books as if they were my children to take them back home; many of them having come with me over a decade ago to this island so far away from my other island home. Crusader and Rowland gave me  pecks on the cheek. I took my leave of Oishik and Debolina and others who had come out into this rainy cold night. This is how we give warmth to each other. Cello greeted me as I came through the door and I whispered to La Professoressa in her absence, Darling, I await your arrival. 


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