As I mention below, I’ve had the opportunity to talk and think about bit more about my teaching this academic year than is ordinary. I sometimes mention that I teach Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality to undergraduates without actually assigning The History of Sexuality, which is usually too difficult (but also too central) a text to treat as just another course reading. Now that I’ve shared my strategy and materials for doing so with a couple colleagues and friends, I thought I’d just put them here. As always, feel free to adapt and use with acknowledgment.

First, it’s worth noting that I have a very specific goal when I introduce Foucault: to help students understand sexuality as a social construction. I most recently used the lesson in my Gay and Lesbian History course, but I’ve also used it in advanced seminars that may have broader themes. But the goal remains focused on that single task, rather than a broader introduction to Foucault’s thought. Of course, getting at that central point requires some discussion of Foucault’s understanding of power (for instance), but his broader theoretical insights often fall out of the conversation. I’m not really trying to introduce Foucault, but rather a central idea by way of a key thinker in the field.

My strategy follows the goal. Rather than taking up the book as I whole, I choose four individual paragraphs that (step-by-step) take us through Foucault’s line of thought on that particular issue (if time, I also include a fifth, on “resistance” on the PowerPoint as well). Breaking apart the argument allows me to simplify the claim (overly simplify, perhaps): that Foucault wanted us to focus not on the ways that sexuality has been “repressed,” but rather how it was “produced.” I reduce this idea to a mantra that I repeat over and over: “production, not repression.” I emphasize the idea because of the ways we (not just students) can so often find ourselves sliding into analyses and interpretations that emphasize repression. When we see the police encountering men who sought sex with other men, for instance, we tend to move them into the boxes of oppressor and oppressed. That may be, in part, the case, but it doesn’t capture Foucault’s argument. (This is, it is worth emphasizing, how I get at some of Foucault’s notions of power without directly addressing it in class or bogging down our conversation).

The four chosen paragraphs (see the handout) emphasize four parts of the overall claim and proceed in order of the book (as well as, I believe, order of difficulty): The “Repressive Hypothesis,” the “Incitement to Discourse,” the “Multiplication of Perversions,” and the “Production of Sexuality.” After introducing Foucault’s basic biography and his contribution to the field (so to explain why we’re going to spend so much effort understanding him), I get students into groups with a single task: explain what one of these paragraphs mean. By removing the argument from the overall context of the book, students are able to better focus on the sentence-level argument being made, without worrying about not grasping the whole thing. That’s not to say that this is easy (it is definitely not). But it is easier to show students that they can break apart difficult texts, isolate the parts from the whole, and, only after understanding them on their own terms, bring them back together.

So, to take one example, the first paragraph lays out the “Repressive Hypothesis.” The paragraph lays out the idea that, beginning in the seventeenth century, the modern West laid out a series of “prohibitions” on how one could take about sex. The Victorian era in particular had an approach to sex could be defined by a single word: “Censorship” (17). For students who have encountered something of Victorian history, they get this on the basis of their vision of the period. For students without such a background, they get it on an intuitive level.

But then, we move to the next paragraph (which follows very closely in the book itself), which directly contradicts the point of the first. This paragraph usually requires more work. The language is more jargony (you have to be ready to define “discourse,” “power,” and other complexities) and the paragraph is constructed on the basis of rejecting the assumptions of the reader. Students need to learn how to read closely to catch the various signs of internal disagreement, of Foucault moving through the argument himself. Take the first sentence. The keyword “however” tells us that the prior point may not be correct. But then rather than telling the reader what he actually believes, Foucault introduces another statement that may be wrong (“I am thinking not so much of the probable increase in ‘illicit’ discourses…” [emphasis added]).  The final sentence, beginning with “But,” finally gets to the actual claim: That “an institutional incitement to speak” during the period contradicts the idea of “censorship” (lots of words to define here too). Lesson 1 then: Foucault believes that the “Repressive Hypothesis” is wrong and that in fact people were encouraged to speak about sex in “endlessly accumulated detail” (18). If students remember just that point, I am more successful than the first time I taught the book.

Breaking the book into simple(r) pieces and then breaking those pieces into smaller bits allows us to slowly scaffold a fuller understanding of the material. It took two class periods and change (so perhaps about 2.5-3 hours total) to go through all four paragraphs last time I did this. That length of time wouldn’t be necessary (or wouldn’t happen naturally) with a less talkative group, but the time is well worth it because of how well it builds a foundation to which we can constantly go back.

This semester, I participated in a couple roundtables on teaching the history of the sexuality. The first, unfortunately not recorded, took place in Memphis, TN and was sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Featuring historians working in both universities and elsewhere, the discussion took on the broad topic of “Approaching Difficult Topics in the Classroom.” The second was a roundtable at the annual meeting of the Western Society for French History entitled “Teaching Gender and Sexuality in French History” and was recorded. I’ve embedded the video of my part below; links to the other participants, as well as to the audience discussion portion, is available in the most recent edition of the H-France Salon.

All too often we struggle to just get the next class prepped, so I valued the opportunity to really just stop and think about my teaching. In both cases, I tried to consider how my specific experience teaching gender and sexuality at the University of Southern Mississippi not only tells us something about the deep south, but how we can integrate these topics more fully into our classrooms elsewhere as well. That my institutional context in some ways requires me to think more carefully about how I address sex in particular only heightens, I think, my own awareness of the necessity of developing clear strategies in doing so. At the same time, that sexuality studies is not as present here also reveals the sheer demand for such courses. One thing I have learned is that students have a deep desire to have these conversations. Its up to us to find ways to provide the space for them to do so.

Forrest County Courthouse and Confederate Monument located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A couple days ago, in my role as a member of the advisory board of the USM Center for Human Rights and Civil Liberties, I organized and moderated a forum on Confederate memorialization. The context of such an event is contentious, to say the least. For the past 102 weeks (they are counting), protestors have appeared every Sunday to demonstrate against the removal of the Mississippi state flag from campus, which occurred in the wake of Dylan Roof’s attack in Charleston, S.C. The Mississippi State flag is the final flag in the country to include the Confederate battle flag. Any discussion of memorialization connects immediately to the debate over the flag, which led the Sons of Confederate Veterans to advertise our event and ensure that some folks were present to represent their views. A few did show up, including one woman — wearing a shirt with a small Confederate flag — who decided to film the proceedings without asking permission and another who audibly moaned and called the panelists’ “idiots” under her breath. Coming face-to-face with right-wing internet culture was certainly an experience (the one who kept moaning called a grad student — who had said nothing during the proceedings — a “social justice warrior” after he expressed displeasure at her rudeness, which included calling an undergraduate a “shitface”).

They needn’t have worried as the views of the SVC would have been represented regardless, in some form at least. Confronted with the notion that the Confederacy cannot be distinguished from the cause for which it was fought (slavery, for the record, or, if you prefer, white supremacy), some audience members seemed bewildered, others launched canards and red herrings at the presenters. What seems to come up most often, both from proponents and opponents of the monuments, is the idea that one can abstract the Confederacy out of its specific historic context and instead stand it as an almost universalizing principle (honor, loyalty, defense of family, etc). One person stood up and said that it was impossible to know why many of the soldiers fought in the Civil War, so to memorialize them was not necessary to memorialize slavery or white supremacy. This is a red herring. It is true that we cannot know why many individual soldiers fought in the Civil War; but it is also true that we do not memorialize individual soldiers (beyond the commanders). The memorial in Hattiesburg, for instance, is dedicated to the Confederate soldiers who fought for “their country.” The memorial stands in for the soldiers as a group who, together, fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Whether or not any individual soldier did not agree with or did not even understand why the war was being fought is irrelevant to what the Confederacy stood for and to what these memorials in turn represent.

It is precisely the need to be clear as to the meaning of the Confederacy that complicates one of the first fallacies to come up at our panel: the slippery slope (combined with a bit of whataboutism). The idea that we cannot distinguish between a statue of George Washington — or even Thomas Jefferson — from someone like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis is absurd on its face. As Josh Marshall says, “the first question we should ask is: What is the person known for? How did they earn a place in our collective public remembrance?” If the answer is simply and only “the Confederacy” then we have a problem; if the answer is more complex, then we can have a good discussion. The only reason we remember either Lee or Davis is their association with the Confederacy. Washington and Jefferson, for all their very real faults, are remembered for more than their position as slave-holders (though we should do better at incorporating that into our memory of both).

As several of the students in the audience recognized, the case of the Nazi past is instructive. Although it elicited gasps from our neo-Confederate audience members, the comparison may not be exact, but it is apt. It is not worth outlining all the pros and cons of the comparison, except to note that both the Confederacy and Nazi Germany were regimes that fought in the name of white supremacy and the enslavement and murder of a specific group of people (even if the ultimate goal was not shared and the targets were different and — significantly — defined in very different ways). Generally speaking, Germany does not have memorials to the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. This absence is not because German families do not understand the sacrifice of the soldier. Indeed, historians have not shied away from asking, not only to what extent were ordinary soldiers perpetrators of the crimes of the Nazis, but to what extent they were — especially toward the end of the war — also victims. These questions are complex and the histories that emerge out of them are likewise complicated. But memorials do not lend themselves to complication; rather, they simplify, usually in the name of glorification. They stand for what we want, as a community, to represent “us.” They are, in this sense, active in the production of community. As Germany wrestled with and eventually came to terms with its own crimes, it decided that it would not recognize even the abstract values of the World War II soldier because to do so would be to bind it to the cause for which it fought. We should recognize the same with Confederate memorials.

We need more shame in this country. The resistance to acknowledging what the Confederacy was and what Confederate memorials represent is, in itself, a resistance to shame. Shame of our country; shame of our ancestors; shame of ourselves. But shame is a good thing for a community to acknowledge because it helps it recognize error; it helps us mature. Those who defend the monuments want to be proud of their ancestors; the urge is recognizable. But ultimately, it is fine to be ashamed of them. Their crimes only reflect upon you if you allow them to.

At the end of the event, a student asked if the German example offered any lessons for us today. Although I was serving as moderator, not as panelist, I took the question as the only Europeanist present. I explained a bit about how in some ways Denazification paralleled Reconstruction. If both ultimately failed, they did so for different reasons and, I argued, Denazification at least set the groundwork for a later re-appreciation of the Nazi past in the way that the end of Reconstruction and the urge to forgive and forget did not. In that regard, I said, the German experience of memorialization has only limited value as a lesson to us because we missed our opportunity; we will, I argued, have to find our own path.

And yet, thinking on it a bit more after the event, I considered that it took about two generations for Germany to reckon with its crimes. In part, this was due to outside forces (film, especially) that encouraged Germans to look at the Holocaust in new ways. In part, however, it was also due to the passage of time; the grandchildren of the perpetrators were more prepared than their parents to deal with the guilt. If we see today’s debate over memorialization as a fight not over the Civil War, but rather over Civil Rights, then we might have some reason to hope. The grandchildren of those who fought Civil Rights are and will continue to come of age. All snark about millennials aside, it may be up to them to reshape our culture of memory.

After the election, I began reading a bit more conservative media in order to get out of my so-called “bubble.” One of those publications is the American Conservative, which today published a post by Rod Dreher that surprised me. Enough that it got me to actually put something new up on this here blog. Dreher is responding to some data showing higher than expected numbers of young people claiming an lesbian, gay, or bisexual identity. In response, the post argues that this rise is due to a loosening of heterosexual, familial norms, encouraging young people to experiment and identify in ways that they otherwise would not have. What the post is not, however, is an argument for immutable heterosexuality; it rests, not on the apparently natural status of heterosexuality, but rather on its fragility:

It must be that there are young people who experience homosexual desires as teenagers, but who do not act on them for reasons of religious belief or social custom. Later in life — in their twenties, say — their sexual desire solidifies as heterosexual, allowing them to form a stable marital bond with someone of the opposite sex, and start a family. Had they had the opportunity to experiment with homosexuality as a teenager, they might have remained confused and unstable well into adulthood.

Social prohibition on homosexuality activity, therefore, is needed not because homosexuality betrays some fundamental truth of nature, but because without it more people will become homosexual. As he points out, quoting a “friend and reader of this blog,” sexuality is “polymorphous.” Therefore, according to Dreher, we need strong social norms in order to encourage the building of heterosexual families, equated with “stable homes.”

Two assumptions are thus put into play. On the one hand, in agreement with queer thinkers, sexuality is not innate, but is rather socially produced. Rather than invoking this notion, however, in order to really reckon with the myriad ways people behave and identify, he uses the claim to support the reimposition of strong norms in order to enforce heterosexuality. Instead of taking up the polymorphous nature of sexuality evidence of the contingency of heterosexuality, it remains only evidence of the threat represented by non-hetersesexual identities and acts. On the other hand, while he emphasizes the dangers of sexual fluidity, he fails to even acknowledge the contingent nature of his own definition of the “stable home.” Contra Dreher, research shows that having gay parents leads to the same different outcomes as having straight parents. Preserving, protecting, and shoring up heterosexuality therefore would do little to actually achieve the goal Dreher supposedly wants to pursue: protecting and supporting children. That the post uses the example of “broken homes” to illustrate the argument, rather than any actual cases of queer parenting, underscores the slippage here. The norm’s qualitative value is always simply assumed;

The equation of the so-called “broken home” with gay parenting, combined with his reading of data showing greater numbers of self-identified LGBT people as itself, by definition, evidence “against the normalization of LGBT” showcases the base homophobia that’s really at work. The “data” that Dreher points to in order to buttress his argument simply shows that more people identify as LGBT, not that such identification constitutes any actual harm to anyone else. Few real thinkers on the subject would disagree with his initial point that sexuality emerges from some combination of nature and nature. But his conclusion that we have an obligation to ensure that the nurture remains essentially regulatory — disciplinary, in other words — only highlights his ultimate fear: that heterosexuality isn’t so strong in the first place.

This is why his conclusion actually fails to uphold the initial idea of the post. He ends by claiming that young people who experiment with same-sex sexual desire may live to regret those “choices” because “you thought your true self was something else.” No thought that the reverse could be just as true. For Dreher, homosexuality may be a “choice,” but heterosexuality is “true.” He thus participates in producing the very fiction he claims to be undoing: that sexuality is inborn. Read this way, any apparent willingness to read “sexuality” as polymorphous and socially constituted only refers to non-normative forms.

This is not the first time I have seen references to social constructionism levied to these ends (I unfortunately can’t find the article from a few years back that I’m thinking of). Such claims underscore the sometimes ambivalent relationship between theory and activism. Dreher is certainly right, for instance, when he claims that the argument that LGBT people are “born that way” was more political than it was based in any real data. Queer theorists have long warned against these kinds of “minoritarian” claims, insofar as they essentialize a minority population. And yet, arguments such as Dreher’s illustrate the flip side of the coin. The emphasis on unstable identities opens us up to claims that homosexuality is contingent and thus changeable. Both kinds of arguments reduce vastly complex features of human existence to simplicity and, most importantly for this historian, ignore the ways that identities emerge out of long processes that cannot really be reduced to any combination of nature and nurture, let alone one or the other. Better, it seems to me, is to do precisely what Dreher so fears and provide as much space as possible for people to find themselves, in whatever mode that may be.

I just listened to On the Media’s interview with Cameron Okeke, the author of a recent article at Vox regarding the recent letter sent to incoming students at the University of Chicago regarding “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” Okeke argues that it is only by providing safe spaces in which minority students can have the opportunity to engage with one another without being imposed upon by members of the majority can universities be truly fulfill their supposed goals regarding diversity. His comments about the importance of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Chicago brought a rush of memories about my own experience with the Student Activities Office at Washington University in St. Louis. The irony of both Okeke’s and my own memories of these spaces is that they were precisely those in which we were most challenged. These were the spaces in which people you could assume were fundamentally allies could question your assumptions, push you to consider other people’s points of view, and learn about the variety of people’s life experiences. The Student Activities Office — and especially the “Spectrum Suite,” where the campus LGBTQ group met — was where I learned about the specific challenges that face transgender individuals, where people of faith and those without worked to understand why some LGBTQ folk still found value in the church or synagogue and others did not, and where I recall quite clearly being called out for an uncritical use of the word “queer” as a political stance. Despite all the various points of potential and actual conflict what was never in question was the assumption of one another’s value as not only a fellow human being, but as an LGBTQ person.

My current institution is in Mississippi, which obviously presents unique challenges to fostering a community space that values the diversity of the state that we are quite proud to reflect. A recent “Campus Climate Survey” did not provide much good news, for instance, regarding how LGBTQ and non-Christian students in particular feel about Southern Miss. In addition, like public universities throughout the country, we are in a constant state of budget-anxiety, which is not exactly conducive to advocating for the opening of new spaces for minority groups. I bring this up because, despite these challenges, the administration does seem committed to making some changes, including the constitution of an advisory committee for LGBTQ issues that would also take the lead in training community members who wish to indicate that their office is a “safe space.”  In a positive development, Southern Miss seems to committed to the creation, rather than the suppression, of at least some safe spaces.

I’ve decided to volunteer to be on this committee, but not without some ambivalence. Many people who went to college during the late 1990s and early 2000s will remember seeing little placards with a pink triangle outside faculty and dorm room doors indicating that that place was welcoming to LGBTQ people. The placards read to me too much of a period that I had thought we had moved beyond. Individual campus offices should not be “safe” because the entire campus must be; I should not have to indicate to my students that I am not a homophobe because all faculty and staff (to say nothing of the student body) should be against homophobia. The burden of the assumption seems to be misplaced in some ways. But even my last job, at a small liberal arts college in the north, where the idea of these placards would probably have been deemed passé, had a couple homophobic events during my time there (banners getting ripped down and that sort of thing). Reading and listening to Okeke and reflecting on these new initiatives reflect the continuing need for universities to take an active role in fostering the ability of their students to, basically, figure themselves out free from at least some of the constant burdens that may face in everyday life. Those who construct the straw man as a space free from intellectual or other kinds of conflict fundamentally misunderstand their purpose. It’s not to “coddle” students that such spaces are necessary, but rather to strengthen them. Perhaps that’s why those with power often seem to be so scared of them.

Mary Louise Roberts recently published a short article describing some of the results of the recently completed American Historical Association LGBTQ Task Force Report. The article brings our attention to a number of issues facing both LGBTQ academics and academics who research LGBTQ issues (note that these two categories do not necessarily coincide). Roberts’s piece made me reflect a bit on my own experience as someone who inhabits both categories and has been lucky enough to have found himself a tenure-track position in a supportive department.

First, Roberts is right to emphasize the need for all universities to include relevant language protecting both sexual orientation and gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. After a recent “religious freedom” law was passed in Mississippi, I was personally relieved when the president of USM reaffirmed our own non-discrimination policy. That said, universities also play a role in the broader community and have specific social missions; they should therefore actively promote the passage of legislation protecting their students and employees. It is not enough, in other words, for institutions to claim they do not discriminate when the actual law provides them with the opportunity to do so. In addition, universities are central players in local economies and they should fight the ability of businesses that rely on them for their very survival to discriminate against their students and employees.

Second, I think we tend to overestimate the impact of doing LGBTQ work on our success and failures on the job market. The examples Roberts provides of people feeling that their research on LGBTQ issues shaped their job market experience are largely anecdotal. So too, it is worth saying, are my own impressions, but I never felt that my specific research in the history of sexuality is what held me back in the four years I was on the market. Rather, I think it is more the case that people doing research in LGBTQ history or the history of sexuality run up against a much more general preference for “traditional” research interests within history departments. This preference reveals itself in many ways, sometimes in a desire for people doing particular kinds of history, sometimes for particular kinds of historians. This speaks to a broader traditionalism that has discriminatory effects on both the work that historians produce and the historians that get hired. Certainly, LGBTQ history has particular connotations and problems, but I see no reason to play oppression olympics with my friends and colleagues who have also struggled to find permanent employment. What we need is greater investment in the humanities and social sciences in order to enable departments to provide their students with a broad range of expertise, while also encouraging history departments to value new approaches and objects of study. I would argue, in fact, that these two issues are interdependent: the lack of resources is precisely what encourages departments to retrench and fear taking a chance on what they see as “new.”

But historians of sexuality also need to do more to showcase the importance of our research, even as we are often received with greater skepticism than is usually warranted. I hope to explore this issue more fully both here and in print, but put simply, I think that it is incumbent on historians of sexuality to begin moving beyond the kinds of identity-based histories we have become accustomed to completing. It was only, it seems to me, when many women’s historians moved to gender history that the field began being taken more seriously by the wider profession. This is not simply because this shift allowed for a wider range of inquiry, but because it also showed how gender is “a useful category of historical analysis.” We have to show that sexuality is as well. Doing so will gradually open space for departments to recognize that a specialist in sexuality is necessary to providing a well-rounded curriculum while also showcasing how the study of sexuality is actually necessary to understanding political, intellectual, and economic history (to name just three examples) as well.

Finally, Roberts reports on the unique frustrations of those who present differently or stand as the sole LGBTQ person in a department or even university. As a member of a department with significant lesbian and gay representation, I have not been as affected by this issue as my colleagues elsewhere (in fact, I am more unique for being Jewish than I am for being gay). That said, the two issues situate the struggles of LGBTQ folk in relation to the broader need for increasing the diversity of the professoriate and reshaping the culture of academia, which is more conservative than people on the outside tend to realize. I was particularly struck by the respondents who recognized the particular service roles that minority scholars end up playing, a phenomena that has been talked about in other contexts. The growing movement for social change in campuses around the country should be a source of empowerment for LGBTQ academics even as it is a call for us to engage in the broader range of issues affecting minorities in the professoriate. The AHA Task Force was hopefully a first step toward institutionalizing historians’ role in that process; as historians it is our responsibility to not only analyze change, but to enact it as well.

I’ve recently come across a couple of blog posts on the problems of “erasure” in modern queer historiography, focusing particularly on that of lesbians and transgender individuals. In the first, Rachel Hope Cleves describes the recent “Gay American History @ 40” conference in celebration of Jonathan Ned Katz’s Gay American History (1976), with an emphasis on an apparently quite fraught debate on lesbian identity, both historically and politically. In the second, Cheryl Morgan responds by emphasizing how the very debates over lesbianism can — sometimes purposefully — erase the historical existence of trans identity in turn. While some lesbian activists fear the elimination of their historical identity in the wake of trans, some trans activists argue that radical feminists and lesbians are trying to undo their own. This debate is obviously longstanding and I wasn’t driven to write a brief post by intervening in it. Rather, I found both responses to be good for thinking about my own approach to the historicization of sexuality and the ways in which I think it necessary to take the complexities of these debates and apply them to supposedly more “stable” or “dominant” subjects, in particular the study of male same-sex sexual activity in the past.

In her post, Cleves describes an “aggressive form of historicism directed by academics at the category of lesbians” that has not, she implies, really been applied to male homosexuality. If we have constantly and consistently asked whether women who lived with other women in the past were “actually” lesbians, we have have not seemed to have much trouble assuming the sexual nature of men who shared their bed with other men. While Cleves may be right to point out that these questions were initially raised as a way of “dismiss[ing]…the importance of women’s lives, lesbians’ lives, and trans lives too,” I think that rather than rejecting them, we should apply them to precisely those subjects of history we think we already know. What if, in other words, evidence of male same-sex sexual activity was not, ipso facto, evidence of male homosexuality or even its precursors? It is precisely historical work on women’s sexual relationships that has prodded my own critical approach to the existence of male homosexuality in the recent past (for example, Sharon Marcus’s Between Women and Laura Doan’s Disturbing Practices). In some ways this claim seems obvious in the wake of the debates over social construction, but it seems to me that it is not taken as seriously by scholars of men’s sexual relations as it should be. The “aggressive form of historicism” levied at lesbians should, in other words, be also directed at gay men.

This approach contrasts with Morgan’s call to recognize the existence of trans identity in the past. Both Morgan and Cleves recognize the ongoing desire of marginal sexual subjects to have a recognizable history and as Morgan points out “there is massive of evidence of people having cross-gender and third-gender identities in history, and even of medical intervention.” That evidence, however, does not by itself mean that trans identity itself existed prior to the twentieth century. Transgender identity itself is not a singular thing, but just as with other gender and sexual configurations — including heterosexuality and cis-identity (itself a creation in some measure of the emergence of trans) — relies on a specific social and cultural relationship attributable not just to modern science and medicine, but to broader discourses about the body, the individual, and desire. In any case, I would argue that the kind of historicization that some see as erasing certain forms of identity actually acknowledges a past that acknowledges the complexities of sexual identity. Perhaps there is no transhistorical trans subject to look for in the past (just as there is no lesbian or gay male one either), but there is a trans history, comprised of the multiple forms of cross-gender identification that existed in the past, ones that intersected uneasily as well with other kinds of sexual dissidence, such as same-sex sexual desire.

Resisting the stability of the sexual past, therefore, seems necessary to achieve the “opening [of] the past” that Cleves calls for at the end of her piece. Questioning rather than assuming the existence of our own identities in the past highlights other kinds of relationships that may have existed. The very kind of historicization deemed suspect in this debate may be precisely the tool we need to revitalize the connections that cross contemporary identity categories. In other words, breaking down contemporary modes of being or refusing to approach the past only to confirm those identities, may be precisely what is necessary to showcase the connections we have lost in the wake of modern sexual politics that always seems so ready to put us back into self-contained boxes.

It’s fairly rare that I feel that I have something to contribute to a controversy du jour, but I do think that something key is missing in the ongoing discussion of Meryl Streep promoting her new movie by wearing a shirt with an Emmaline Pankhurst quotation that reads “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” I admit that when I first saw the images, I did not know the origin of the quote and was, quite frankly, shocked. I immediately slotted the saying right into my current geographic context where a “rebel” has a certain Confederate connotation and “slave” an obviously real, living history. Knowing the quote’s origin only changes the degree to which I think its problematic, however. And no, the full quote doesn’t solve the problem:

Know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.

Time Out has defended the shirts by arguing that “The original quote was intended to rouse women to stand up against oppression – it is a rallying cry, and absolutely not intended to criticise those who have no choice but to submit to oppression, or to reference the Confederacy, as some people who saw the quote and photo out of context have surmised.” This defense not only fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between turn-of-the-century white feminists and questions of slavery and race, but also ignores the way that this metaphor has been historically deployed in the first place. The problem is not simply what the words mean now, but what they meant then.

Since at least the eighteenth century, people have used the metaphor of slavery to make claims for a set of political rights even as they ignored the ways race shaped the bodily politic for whom they claimed to speak. Political liberalism itself came out of resistance to people’s “enslavement” to the “tyranny” of monarchy even as it often refused to reckon with slavery itself. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out in Silencing the Past (1995),

‘Slavery’ was at that time [during the Enlightenment] an easy metaphor, accessible to a large public who knew that the word stood for a number of evils except perhaps the evil of itself. Slavery in the parlance of the philosophers could be whatever was wrong with European rule in Europe and elsewhere. To wit, the same Diderot applauded U.S. revolutionaries for having ‘burned their chains,’ for having ‘refused slavery.’ Never mind that some of them owned slaves. The Marseillaise was also a cry against ‘slavery.’ Mulatto slave owners from the Caribbean told the French Assembly that their status as second-class free men was equivalent to slavery. This metaphorical usage permeated the discourse of various nascent disciplines form philosophy to political economy up to Marx and beyond (85-86).

Trouillot places this usage in the context of the silencing of the Haitian Revolution, but it has a broader effect of erasing the particularities of racial hierarchy, violence, and domination in order to effectively produce a liberal subject that was by default white. Even as the anti-slave trade movement gathered speed, few made the claim that former-slaves deserved full equality or belonged to the same rung of humanity as Europeans. When Pankhurst argues that women were slaves and had to choose to “rebel,” she effaces the history of slavery and imperialism as well as the history of anti-slavery and anti-imperialism in order to advocate for her own admittance to a polity that was, by definition, premised on white supremacy. It makes the claim for gender equality at the expense of racial equality because if upper-class white British women were “slaves,” then what do we call those who actually were? The call to “rebel” in this context is premised on, not incidental to, an assumption about who deserves rights and who does not.

Pankhurst herself, it is worth pointing out, was a fierce advocate of the British Empire. But, then again, is anyone surprised that the promotional tour for a movie about the suffrage movement, written by someone who “didn’t want to make a feminist film” (despite the linked interview making pretty clear that she herself considers herself a feminist) and starring someone who refuses to call herself a feminist, would be clueless about this?