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LGBTIHQQBDSMXYZ History Month

In the UK, we have just concluded LGBT History Month. Ironically, if we can learn anything from this month – by doing some history – it is to take its name with a pinch of salt.

LGBT History started out with the G. That is, post-war narratives tend to centre on gay men: both negative attention and emancipatory activism, landmarked by the Stonewall riots in 1969, have mostly focused on male nightlife. As the gay liberation movement developed, gradually the L was added, for example in Lesbian and Gay History Month, celebrated in the USA since 1994. Later on, the ensemble was completed with a B and a T. Surely, this covers all bases, institutions like LGBT History Month seem to suggest.

But it would only be fair to continue adding letters: if we have a T for trans*-persons (transgenders, transexuals, cross-dressers…), why not add an I for intersex? After all, the T focuses on gender identity rather than sexual preference. If we include the lives and struggles of people who are crossing the gender binary, than surely we should include those of people who move somewhere in between? And why not also include a B, a D, an S and an M to include other kinds of marginalised practices? (see footnote 1) And how about the H that is sometimes included in southern Asia to represent hijras?

Hijra communities are in fact a good example of how culturally specific all these gender/sexual identities are. And because of their specificity, it is problematic to subsume them under the Euro-American post-Stonewall denominations used in global activism. Activists worldwide quite understandably employ these denominations in order to have a language to speak in, not least to reach financial donors in the west. But I fear that such names do not much help the cause of people suffering under post-colonial governments which picture, for example, homosexuality as an intrusive western ‘lifestyle’: see the new law that came into effect in Uganda only last week.

But nor are they always equally appropriate within ‘western’ history itself. In Plato’s Symposion, for example, two different characters describe men who love men as being more masculine (as well as being more intellectually creative) than men who love women. The latter are the androgynous ones. This differs markedly from popular perceptions about gay men nowadays. (footnote 2) A quite different example are the ‘sodomites’ we encounter in high-medieval penitentials. A ‘sodomite’ could be a man who had had anal sex with a woman, or with a man: method mattered more than gender. And how about the category of medieval mystics who, in their erotic poems, desired nothing more than a spiritual unity with Christ? If we want to take this cultural and historical diversity into account, we might end up with a whole lot of identity categories.

Some have rightly questioned this explosion of compartmentalised identifications and call themselves ‘queer’. Yet in many quarters this has only led to the addition of an extra letter to the alphabet. This leaves the English-speaking world with a host of LGBTIQQ societies. That last Q, of course, stands for ‘questioning’.

Which is perhaps what we should be doing. For to narrow down our adolescence to the choosing of a letter (including an S for ‘straight’) can surely not be the most rebellious thing.

And yet, I would not want LGBT History Month to go away.

A question that has occasionally been asked to me since becoming involved in this topic, is why gay people feel the need to flock together in special bars and parades – which implies the question: why is there a separate LGBT History Month?

The answer may be obvious to anyone with alternative tastes in anything: you need such places to find what you are looking for (in this case it may be anything from conversation to romance or sex) and feel normal (need I say: in a special way). It is the burden of the marginalised that their tastes are not taken for granted and need to be specially signaled. In that sense, a gay bar does not differ much from a Comic Con.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

Café ‘t Mandje in Amsterdam: meeting-place for same-sex lovers between 1927 and 2007; now reconstructed in the Amsterdam Museum, who provided the photo.

These places thus fulfil an important function, as does this History Month. But we should not forget that this function is largely political. By forming a group and setting themselves visibly apart, people command recognition for their existence. What is more, people find safety and comfort in group identities. However diverse sexual and gender behaviours and feelings may be, the fact that people classify themselves and others is only human. (footnote 3) These reasons make people identify as, for example, ‘Russian’ or ‘taxi-driver’, just as they may make them assume gender identities like ‘woman’ or ‘drag queen’; or sexual identities such as ‘dyke’ or ‘married’ – although soon this will no longer be an exclusively heterosexual identity in England, too: the first same-sex weddings are to take place in March.

The point, however, is that if we limit ourselves to such categories, we limit our imagination. These categories create antagonisms and make it harder to empathise with others. Let this History Month be an opportunity, not just for people who call themselves LGBT, but for everyone, to learn from historical diversity and reconsider their own names and alliances.

Footnotes

(1) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has raised the question why gender should be the decisive dimension of our sexual identities (Epistemology of the closet (Berkeley, 1990), 8-9). It may have something to do with the prominence western cultures give to romantic ties, I suspect.

(2) In more formal terms, ideas about what sexual morphologies go with what sexual subjectivities, are constantly changing. These terms are taken from David Halperin’s famous essay on “Forgetting Foucault” (in the journal Representations, 1998).

(3) The pre-modern existence of sexual identities was one of the conclusions of a piece of research I did a while ago. It contradicts the more usual interpretations of Foucault’s history of nineteenth-century sexuality as describing the origins of sexual identity per se. A recent manifestation of this misunderstanding occurred in a Volkskrant interview with a medical doctor. If the newspaper quotes him correctly, he thinks that something only exists if you have a word for it. What is more, he seems to be unfamiliar with any such words that do exist, but outside the western medical profession, which popularised the word ‘homosexuality’ in the nineteenth century – as the name of a disease. Everyday words that people use to describe themselves or their desires, are ignored. Thus, these people and their desires themselves are ignored. In a typical twist, the opinion of those in power, such as presidents, are taken to represent the ‘true’ culture and heritage of a country like Uganda. While pretending to a liberating cultural relativism, such texts actually silence those people that are at this moment in the greatest need of having their say.

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Black Pete

In the past, the argument has been made that the Black Pete issue is not really an issue since only ‘white lefties in Amsterdam’ can get upset over it. The widely read newspaper de Volkskrant recently published an article with that logic, interviewing people living in the Bijlmer suburb (‘Slaaf? Hij wordt niet geslagen’, 24 October). That it is an issue became abundantly clear during last Saturday’s demonstration (photos). Indeed, to suggest that those people who in this argument are called ‘black’, do not care, is an affront to those who have been questioning the Black-Pete phenomenon for a long time.

For a Dutch version see here. This column follows an earlier one on Zwarte Piet.

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Struggling towards a better university? Yes please. Picket-lines over pay? Not so sure.

Here I sit, at my desk, at work, Thursday, eleven o’clock. Everything’s normal, this is where I ought to be.
Or not ought to be. For I am feeling weirdly conflicted about being here.

I work at a university department. And outside my window, my colleagues are on strike.

Employees of European universities have good reasons to be angry.

The way the universities’ money is being divided between hand workers and brain workers, between women and men, en between brown people and pink people, is unequal and becoming even more unequal.

People are paid for only a proportion of the hours they are asked to spend on their work. For teaching, for example, too few hours are being counted by the universities’ managers. Teaching, preparing classes, marking exams, communicating with students, being a mentor: all these things take much more time in reality than what teachers’ bosses seem to think.

A third important problem is that researchers and teachers are being judged by numbers: the numbers of students they attract, the number of doctoral theses they ‘deliver’, the number of articles they publish. Too little value is placed on things that take time and subtlety: helping a student who has problems at home; giving your ideas on the future of education, or helping make your town a nice place to live (feeling that your place has a history and that you are part of it, are important for your well-being); doing more exciting stuff in your classes than ‘going through the literature’ or ‘giving an overview of the period’; coming up with really novel ideas, even if you are no native speaker of common-room English but happen to have been born in China or Cameroon, which makes your articles a little less ‘fun’ to read (English is rapidly becoming the only accepted language for ‘serious’ publications, even though that means many people who are no academics cannot read your research results); or taking the time to read what other researchers have been up to (to prevent that you will be doing the same work all over again!).

So, problems enough. And these problems do not just exist in the UK, where today’s strike is taking place: universities in various European countries, and no doubt elsewhere, face exactly the same issues.

The universities themselves are not always very responsive to these issues. To give just one example: instead of hiring more teachers, they organise ‘relax’ sessions for their existing pool of teachers. One vice chancellor even sent out an email to all his staff, insinuating that they don’t care about their students and that they will be social outcasts if they participate in the strike. This message was almost enough reason for me to join the strikers in front of our building.

But do not universities and their employees share a common goal? Where is the conversation between management and workers? (This is exactly what a colleague also said to me.) Are the managers only there to ensure that their institution has a financial future (and I do understand that that is hard enough). Or a human future as well?

In spite of these issues, The higher education unions of Britain have chosen to focus on the slogan ‘13% pay cut (in real terms) since 2008’.

2008. Precisely. The year the crisis began.
It would not surprise me if real-term pay have been lowered equally drastically across all European sectors, and not just at universities.

Now I need to add that I am new to this environment. I don’t know precisely how unions and strikes and contract negotiations work at universities, and particularly in the country where I work now. This makes my observations stronger, but weaker at the same time: I realise that.
I was quite surprised, for example, to be found guilty of officially crossing a ‘picket-line’ when all I thought I was doing was say hi to my colleagues on strike, go to work and do some writing for myself. I had no idea there was something like an ‘official picket’.

I am doing no teaching or other work for which my bosses could ‘miss’ me at the moment, so I thought there would be no point in me striking (except, perhaps, my presence in the crowd).
All I would harm would be myself. You could even consider that the university is actually doing me a favour at the moment by providing me with an office, internet, supporting staff and tea water. But then again, as the picketers pointed out to me, the very fact that I consider it this way, and that the university does not seem to be valuing sufficiently the enormous contributions of all those PhD-students who teach for little or no salary, short-term contract workers who need to move to a whole different city or even country every three year, and 0-hour-contract, associate and honorary staff, is not right.

There is something rotten here. Education and research need rethinking.

But what I don’t understand, is why unions focus on salary levels, and then send pretty-well-paid members to the streets.
Because where were the cleaners, the data-entrists, the PhD-students, the fixed-contract workers this morning? I spoke to a couple of them at work. They were either afraid of striking/missing out on their meagre income (but didn’t they invent funds and stakingskassen for those people?). Or they felt they owed it to themselves to do their work. Or replied that they were actually quite satisfied with what they are being paid at the moment.
Perhaps even more importantly, where were the professors? (That is to say: I did not see any. But there may have been a few that I have not yet met.) If anyone is in a strong position to speak for those without a steady contract – if anyone has a paternalist obligation towards their juniors, it is them. But perhaps the strike focused too much on salary-levels for them to feel they had reason to protest?

Another thing I don’t fully understand, is why some picketers (only some of them!) try to prevent colleagues and students from entering university buildings, sometimes in quite nasty ways. I read on the English wikipedia that this is a well-worn strategy: ‘harming the business through loss of customers and negative publicity’. But I seriously doubt whether making people dislike you creates any understanding of the issues workers at universities have to deal with – and of the questions about education and research that we all have to deal with, as members of a society.

But all of this calls for a large-scale demonstration by students, parents, teachers – in short: citizens – rather than an employees’ strike.

And here I am, sitting at my desk, at work, scared of running into colleagues on strike (with whom I sympathise very much! Only I don’t see the use of my not meeting a deadline today, and I don’t identify with the pay demand the union has printed on their banners). I’ve only just begun my work here, and I’ve already come out as a scab.

P.S. Look out for my related column on the ‘mad professor’, or the ‘secluded scholar’ (whichever name you prefer), and the problem of ‘public engagement’.

Note: this column was posted a few hours after it was written.