Doing something a little different this time with queer history this month by reaching not only into the distant past, but also taking a look into the future. And I want to use this space at least the once to raise questions about how we think about our own history, who we include, exclude, what any of it means to us today.
One of the biggest difficulties in reaching back, as well as reaching outside contemporary American contexts, is the risk of appropriating certain people and events as representative of what we today call gender variance, homosexuality, or general queerness. For example, as a trans woman born in the United States, I doubt it’s fair or right to link my experience to that of an Indian Hijra. The Fact that wikipedia feels comfortable doing this by including a sidebar of “transgender” related topics is probably more a sign of cultural imperialism than it is accuracy.
On the other side of the appropriation/accuracy issue, there’s another question: Given our commonplace desire, as much as anyone else, to see reflections of ourselves in history, so that we might understand ourselves as other’s do, as part of a continuum of “people like us” and thus “valid” in the same way, can we do this without distorting history, or are any attempts to reach back more than a couple of generations for solidarity bound to be thwarted?
I don’t believe in an easy answer, but there’s one thing I think about when considering these issues which feels especially relevant in this context. Today’s religious right demands special privileges and rights in our society to make us all conform to models of “traditional” behavior that even a casual browser of world history knows to be anything but common throughout all time. I’m certain that, the more of us siding with those asking the serious questions and seeking answers, giving special privilege to no one, history will come closer to being the record of humanity growing more just and compassionate, whether or not we’ll ever be able to find “queer heroes” in other ages.
That said, this month in 1649 gives us the interesting case of Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon, two women in Plymouth County, prosecuted for “lewd behavior with each other upon a bed”. That there were women (teenagers no less) behaving “lewd” with each other over 300 years ago in what would become part of the United States isn’t all that remarkable. What is interesting is that Sarah’s conviction may be the only one that ever occurred here. Doubtless this matters little to the women who, in subsequent centuries, would not face conviction but rather forced commitments to asylums, forced marriages, “therapeutic rape” and other horrors for similar conduct. But it does say a great deal about how women’s sexuality was framed by institutions of power.
Of those far more famous, March 26th is an especially interesting day since it marks the death of Walt Whitman in 1892, as well as the birth of Tennesee Williams in 1911. Given Whitman’s attitudes and contemporaries, he would’ve at least entertained the thought that the coincidence signaled his own return to the world of American letters not as the bearded, nature loving butch that he wrote about so often and lived as, but as a metropolitan, more feminine figure. Who knows if the irony would’ve entertained or horrified him. Obviously we don’t think reincarnation holds a lot of water here, but he can believe what he chooses.
But I promised also talk of the future, and I’m more than a little surprised that I haven’t seen this get more attention elsewhere. Odds are I’ll be covering it again in some more detail, begging colleagues here to poke at it, and continuing to scour for as much reasonable, scientific, heavily skeptical perspectives on this news that I can find.
We should be clear that the specific work here, published just this month, will lead to what looks like prophylactic measures, things that can prevent the spread of HIV. Because it isn’t a “cure”, that may explain why I saw so little about this, the first thing that raised my suspicions. However, the same work carries serious implications for the treatment of cancer, and given how much more of the world has a stake in cancer “silver bullets”, I would’ve expected a good deal more coverage.
But… If it’s real and they can deliver this treatment in the ways they’re talking about, then in a few years, we may be able to prevent virtually ALL new HIV transmissions, even transmission from mother to new born child, without doing any harm to other cells in the body.
And that, that would be major history.