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The Problem with a Unified Theory of the History of Homosexuality

Monday, January 8, 2018 - 07:00

One of the more biting criticisms in this collection of the popularity of a "queer history" approach of a "lesbian history" approach is that the study of the history of male homosexuality has often rested on inherently misogynistic bodies of work--not merely the historic misogyny that skewed the historic record toward the experiences and opinions of men, but just as often the modern misogyny of historians whose desire to validate and elevate male homoerotic relationships in history relies on a denigration of the presence and valuing of women in society. Post-modern theories of history recognize that the study of the past is a subjective, biased practice, but that doesn't mean that all post-modern historical theories acknowledge and account for their own subjective and biased attitudes towards women. The desire for a unified theory of historic homosexuality cannot help but fail if it builds its theories solely on the evidence and experiences of men, and fails to recognize that women and men lived entirely different lives, regardless of their sexual orientation.

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Full citation: 

Bauer, Heike. 2011. “Lesbian Time” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Bauer, Heike. 2011. “Lesbian Time”

Bauer looks at the concept of periodization as it applies to sexuality and how the limitations on lesbian self-representation affect and are shaped by concepts of historic periodization, for example, the extensive debate around Foucault’s division of history relative to an acts/identity divide. By centering the writings and experiences of pre-modern women who loved/desired women, this collection calls the existence that divide into question, as well as calling into question the study of it. If the very concept of periodization and “modernity” rests on traditions that excluded and erased women’s lives, how can its conclusions about lesbian history be valid? Under the rubric of “lesbian time”, Bauer examines shared conceptual spaces that cut across conventional periodization to challenge the gendered concepts underlying it. These questions occur in parallel with similar challenges to racialized periodization.

Historians of male homosexuality draw on a long tradition of evidence made available and prominent by the gendered imbalance of historic records. Similar approaches to female same-sex history must first build an archive of historic data in order to establish a similar antiquity and tradition. Within this, the very existence of the organizing topic “lesbian” is contested.

The cyclic model of historic change evolves from and then is used to support a heteronormative and anachronistically modern concept of “family” as the basic structure. A temporality that rejects a generational model of history allows for the inclusion or even centering of other modes of relating. This includes a challenge to the importance of Foucault’s periodization based on the 19th century “scientification of sex” and demands consideration of structures outside that cultural scope. A consideration of “lesbian time” raises the question of how and by whom our notions of lesbian sexuality were shaped and transmitted. Bauer discusses how the other papers in the collection address this.

Bauer revisits a Victorian “proto-sexological” text, A Problem in Greek Ethics by John Addington Symonds, that examined classical Greek male same-sex desire from a social and philosophical angle to determine how it benefitted its social context. The work set a pattern for 19th century works affirming male homosexuality in arguing for male same-sex bonds as the ideal form of citizenship and the driver of all civilization and progress. He then makes the circular argument that women’s exclusion from social prominence meant that female same-sex desire could not similarly drive progress and thus why lesbian desire was not similarly sanctioned and therefore disappeared. [!] Symonds then argues that a shift from elevating male same-sex love to a “romantic cult of woman” resulted in the decline of civilization from the classical ideal. Thus, he simultaneously dismisses the relevance of the middle ages and of women as a class.

Bauer concludes by calling for attention to the way in which acceptance of current models of periodization similarly erase lesbian history and sexuality.