Queer History – It’s Not Always Straight Forward!

By Katherine Hubbard

A significant portion of the letters, photographs and diaries which document queer history have historically been coded, burned or otherwise destroyed. Doing queer history can therefore be particularly challenging. However, it is precisely because of this challenge that queer histories are all the more important. The stigmatisation and pathologisation of sexual minorities in Psychology has significantly contributed to the removal, denial and obliteration of key aspects of queer history. In fact, queer history of Psychology is mainly one of homophobic pathologisation, and histories have often ignored the queer, opting for comfortable heteronormative stories. It is therefore important that historians of Psychology, and other sciences, continue to recognise the impact some disciplines had on queer people. We need to not shy away from difficult histories but should fully explore them. This not only presents transparent histories but also presents us with the opportunity to recognise how we can make up for past inequality and injustice in present practise.

Not only is queer history challenging because aspects of the archive have been erased, it is also difficult because of the shifting and historically situated understandings of sexuality itself. Certainly there have been queer people universally, in all cultures and times, but they did not identify themselves as ‘lesbian, ‘bisexual’, ‘pansexual’, or ‘queer’ in the ways individuals might do today. Even the concept of ‘sexuality’ and ‘sexual orientation’ are relatively recent constructions. People in the 18th century did not ‘come out’ in the ways that we might understand that process now. Social understandings of sexuality have altered rather dramatically and it is important to ensure we are careful when doing queer historical projects. A key point to consider is: can you identify someone as a ‘lesbian’ in a time when that word did not even exist? Such a misapplication could be evidence of presentism and can be considered anachronistic. Should you instead label them as a term that was in circulation at the time? What if that would have been incredibly insulting as it was used to pathologise queer people? The counter point to these concerns however is that without some application of ‘queer’ onto the past we continue to tell heteronormative stories which perpetuate the invisibility of queer lives.

Key challenges therefore include:

  1. Finding relevant queer materials
  2. Interpreting queerness in often heteronormative documents
  3. Choosing terms carefully and justifying their use
  4. Being reflexive in the perspectives and lenses through which you explore this history
  5. Considering who is the expert in telling certain stories in the event of contradictions in the varied materials under analysis

The need for queer history however means these challenges are well worth confronting. It is also possible to be rather confrontational in approaches to queer history. For example, Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt in their edited collection ‘The Lesbian Premodern’ describe their use of ‘lesbian’ as deliberately provocative. Similarly, I argue in History and Philosophy of Psychology that the fear of misidentifying someone as queer is misplaced. We do not have the same fear assuming someone is heterosexual when thinking historically– indeed this has been rampantly done many, many times. Of course it would be a shame to identify someone in such ways that they may have vehemently rejected, and indeed doing so would be bad historical practice. The descriptions of people’s lives have to be nuanced, careful, and well considered. But perhaps we can be somewhat less fearful in our uses of queer labels in order to recover and celebrate queer history.

An example of my own work where I have carefully considered how to describe women’s sexualities can be found in the special issue focusing on the ‘Histories of Women, Gender and Feminism in Psychology’. In this I outlined the lives of three central women involved in the British projective test movement. These women were identified as queer and the way in which I analysed their lives was through the work of a fourth women – June Hopkins. In her publications Hopkins used projective techniques to describe the lesbian personality and identified lesbian signs on the Rorschach ink blot test. Through her descriptions of lesbian women, I framed these women in the British projective test movement as distinctly matching this 1960s psychological description. I therefore used contextually relevant projective psychology to study psychologists themselves. Hopkins, later also came out as a lesbian herself, so I was able to use a queer perspective both in my interpretation and from the projective psychological work she developed. Hopkins’ objectives in two key papers was to demonstrate that lesbian women were not neurotic or pathological; she aimed to contribute to the arguments against the pathologisation of ‘homosexuality’.  The study of queer history can therefore also be concerned with the affirmative approaches of psychologists and the lives of queer people within Psychology, not just outside of it.

In doing nuanced and careful analysis of queer lives it is possible to continue to reverse the de-queering of history, but also celebrate queer lives. The women whose lives I explored not only lived in a social context of prejudice and discrimination, but also worked in a field which pathologised their lives. I argue their rebellious action to live their lives against social convention and expectation deserves historical attention and celebration.  Indeed, we owe it to the queer archives that do exist.

Author Note: This blog is based in part on the recent invited presentation ‘The British projective test movement: A queer feminist tale’ at Women in Psychology: From Invisibility to Influence, Stories of Psychology, marking the 30th anniversary of the BPS Psychology of Women Section. 19th October 2017, Senate Library, London.

Learn More

Clarke, V., & Hopkins, J. (2002). Victoria Clarke in conversation with June Hopkins. Lesbian & Gay Psychology Review3(2), 44-47.

Giffney, N., Sauer, M., & Watt, D. (Eds.). (2011). The Lesbian Premodern. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hopkins, J. H. (1969). The lesbian personality. The British Journal of Psychiatry115, 1433-1436.

Hopkins, J. H. (1970). Lesbian signs on the Rorschach. British Journal of Projective Psychology and Personality Study15(2), 7-14.

Hubbard, K. (in press). The British projective test movement: Reflections on a queer feminist tale. History and Philosophy of Psychology.

Hubbard, K. (2017). Queer Signs: The women of the British projective test movement. Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences, 53 (2), 265-285

Author Bio

Dr. Katherine Hubbard is a historian of the medical and social sciences with a particular interest in feminist and queer histories. Trained as a social psychologist, she adopts a particular critical, perspective in analysis of objects of psychological and sociological interest. She engages with questions surrounding the influences and loops on and from the social sciences, as well as those surrounding ‘truth’ within the philosophy of science. Her additional research interests are in sexuality, gender, essentialist beliefs and graphic novels and use quantitative, qualitative and historical methods.

4 thoughts on “Queer History – It’s Not Always Straight Forward!

  1. As we begin to tell queer histories, it’s also useful to pay heed to whose stories continue to get lost in the narratives that we tease out. I recently read this fascinating and important article by Syrus Ware which draws attention to the whiteness of queer archives, and looks at what archivists and historians, activists and researchers can do to write people of colour (particularly black people) back into historical narratives: https://read.dukeupress.edu/tsq/article/4/2/170/84689/All-Power-to-All-People-Black-LGBTTI2QQ-Activism.

    1. So very true – thanks so much for the link to Ware’s article. Great stuff to keep in mind as we continue work on queer histories!

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