Monthly Archives: July 2014

29 July 2014. Hirschfeld’s Queer Soldiers, Colonialism and World War I

The commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I have turned fresh attention to this devastating event, which is commonly understood as one of the defining moments of the twentieth-century.

Scholarship on WW1 is changing. Kate McLoughlin’s recent Authoring War, for instance, which examines a long history of war writing, looks across national boundaries to identify shared themes and concerns which characterise how writers recorded war. Other scholarshiScreen Shot 2014-07-29 at 13.05.27p follows in the footsteps of feminist critics such as Sharon Ouditt (whose Fighting Forces explores women’s experiences during WWI) or Joanna Bourke (whose An Intimate History of Killing shows that war produces a pleasure in killing which helps to sustain the violent effort) specifically to turn attention to those people, events and contexts which for a long time remained sidelined in analyses of “The Great War”.

The AHRC-funded project “Whose Remembrance?” , for example, examines the contributions of people from the former colonies to WWI and WWII. It is prompted by the realisation that despite the vast numbers –  “in the region of one and a half million Indians served in the First World War of whom 80,000 lost their lives.  Over 15,000 men from the Caribbean served with the allied forces” – the experiences of these soldiers are neither fully understood nor remembered.

The recent scholarship provides a context for my own analysis of Magnus Hirschfeld‘s Screen Shot 2014-07-28 at 13.51.24contribution to WWI criticism. In 1915 he published a pamphlet, Warum Hassen uns die Völker? [why do peoples/nations hate us], which analyses the causes of war. Its uncharacteristically jingoistic tone has puzzled Hirschfeld scholars, who have tended to read the text’s nationalism as indicative of the extreme patriotism that underpinned the German war effort in the early years.

However, Hirschfeld’s nationalistic attitudes here were also more specifically connected to his attempts to support those people who were deemed unfit soldiers because of their gender or sexuality. Elena Mancini, in her study of Hirschfeld and The Quest for Sexual Freedom, has pointed out that he came to the aid of thousands of homosexual men and women, heterosexual women, and cross-dressers and other people whose gender identity challenged heteronormative ideals but who wanted to join the army. He helped them to “pass” as soldiers; and he also defended soldiers accused of homosexuality.

Hirschfeld’s “most difficult text” thus provides important insights into the contributions of homosexuals, trans* people and women to WWI, even as it testifies to the existence of a difficult history of queer allegiances with extreme nationalism and war.

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Yet it it equally important to understand that this “national queer history” is part of the colonial upheavals that so violently transformed the modern world. My own research has revealed that Hirschfeld’s initial response to WWI was shaped directly by his support of German colonialism. Warum Hassen uns die Völker?, which is couched in the languages of capitalism and psychoanalysis, argues that the war was started because England and other imperial powers were “jealous” of the economic success of the German colonial venture. In a key passage, Hirschfeld positively equates German colonialism with a new “importance in the world”, arguing that WWI was started to deny Germany its new wealth.

Warum Hassen uns die Völker? illustrates that colonialism, which is often neglected in the German historiography of sexuality, significantly shaped how Hirschfeld apprehended the war. The text allows glimpses at the impact on Hirschfeld of both the German war propaganda and the role of colonialism in public culture at the time.  While Hirschfeld would soon revise his views on war and in due course became a staunch critic of racism, it is noteworthy that he never fully addressed colonial suffering and its legacies of injustice.

In my project I explore this often “overlooked” history: the intersections between colonialism and the emerging homosexual rights movement as well as the contributions of queer soldiers to WWI. These neglected archives poignantly illustrate that scholarly recovery work is often fraught, subject to uncovering new injustices even as it seeks to address existing ones.

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24 July 2014. A New Institute of Sexology?

The Wellcome Collection has announced a forthcoming exhibition and series of events entitled “The Institute of Sexology”. It covers materials “from Alfred Kinsey’s complex questionnaires to the contemporary National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal)” and explores  “pathologies of perversion and contested ideas of normality” to show “how sex has been observed, analysed and questioned from the late 19th century to the present day.”

The exhibition coincides with my own current work on Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin. Founded in 1919 as the first of its kind, the Institute was a place for research and social reform. Its activities included next to homosexual rights activism for example demands for women’s equality and birth control. These wide-ranging reform efforts and the practical services provided by the Institute –which covered issues as diverse as councelling for queer and trans people to marital advice – attracted many visitors, both from Berlin’s and from placed around the world.

BBonfire05ut the success of these activities, together with the fact that the Institute was home to Jewish and homosexual practitioners such as Hirschfeld himself, was not well received by the conservative establishment and the National Socialists. In May 1933, it became the first target in a series of Nazi offensives that led to the infamous ‘book burnings’. These events, which are well documented in surviving texts, photographs and films from the time, show that in the early twentieth-century the business of sex research could be a dangerous undertaking.

We know today that the attempts of early sexologists to challenge narrow assumptions about how bodies should look like or how sexual desire should be expressed sometimes resulted in the production of damaging new norms. My project further turns attention to the attacks on both individual sex researchers and the emerging discipline of sexology. For these attacks show that real and symbolic violence played a crucial role in the emergence of contemporary sex research.

It will be interesting to see how the Wellcome sexology season engages with this complicated history.




It’s been a little while since the last blog post. I’ve been busy organising and hosting the AHRC-funded symposium IMG_2045Homophobia Rewritten: New Literary and Cultural Perspectives on Violence and Sexuality.

This one-day event brought together a wide range of speakers to examine literary and cultural representations of, and responses, to homophobia. It took the term homophobia to mean all kinds of denials of, and attacks on, queer existence including, for example, heteronormative practices as well as verbal and physical attacks. Some papers examined historical examples of homophobia and their legacies (e.g. how homophobia shaped modern state politics, questions about the emergence of homosexual visibility in Europe), while others examined 21-century examples of homophobia and anti-homophobia in and across different countries and regions such as India, China, Sub-Saharan Africa, Canada, the US, the UK, and, in the case of Alison Donnell’s exemplary keynote, the Caribbean.

The papers dealing with historical contexts explored the links between politics and sexuality as well as the creation of popular images and stereotypes about the body that sometimes supported and sometimes undermined queer existence. Here the discussions ranged from the influence of Carlyle’s homophobic writings on Frederick the Great to British dandyism, from suicide in fin de siecle fiction to the impact of Section 28 on young adult fiction in Britain.

Presentations on contemporary contexts in turn indicated the usefulness of historical and cultural perspectives for understanding present-day science and Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 16.23.09politics. Discussing topics as diverse as sub-Saharan presidential narratives, transsexual marriage legislation in China and Taiwan, femme representation in the UK, and and the role of graphic novels in popularising Anglophone psychological theories about homosexuality, these papers made clear that despite the advances in equality legislation in many countries, homophobia remains part of the everyday experience of people whose bodies and desire do not conform to particular sexual and social norms. For instance, next to interpersonal encounters homophobia is perpetuated vial cultural representations that insist on portraying queer existence in terms of inevitable suffering. Negative stereotyping also continues in scientific and political debates about same-sex intimacies in and about non-Western contexts, which frequently deploy a racist rhetoric and fail to address real concerns with how to end anti-queer violence.

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Some papers explored how queer subcultures police their own boundaries and are complicit in the creation of new norms (e.g. in relation to marriage, or gendered assumptions about what certain sexual identities should ‘look like’). Others discussed queer representations that explictly challenge social norms. The papers on First Nation fiction and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, for instance, turned to literature to explore the intersections between racial injustice and violence against women. Issues of violence against women also informed the discussion of the Canadian-Indian film Fire. It took the recent attacks on women in India and the reintroduction of Section 377 in the country as its prompt for re-examining the complex representational strategies by which Indian women-who-love-women challenge cultural, social and religious norms.

The day concluded with a keynote on queer Caribbean literature, which illustrated beautifully the importance of fiction Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 14.59.56and poetry for understanding and reshaping sexual politics. Shifting the focus from dancehall homophobia to a wide-ranging literary archive of desire, the keynote offered an affirmative reading of nonnormative intimacies in the region. In so doing, it also modelled the benefits of what we might call a ‘literary approach’ – an imaginative, archival, critical analysis – to sexual politics in the Caribbean and beyond.

My own investment in putting together Homophobia Rewritten is linked to my project on Magnus Hirschfeld, which tries to gain a better understanding of the violent shaping of queer modernity. When planning the symposium, I deliberately introduced the notion of  ‘rewriting’  to encourage contributions that record and critique homophobia in its different manifestation, and in so doing partake – perhaps willingly, perhaps not – in a project of transformative criticism. In its broadest ambition the symposium aimed to contribute to research that addresses what Judith Butler has called the question of ‘how to create a world in which those who understand their gender and their desire to be nonnormative can live and thrive not only without the threat of violence from the outside but without the pervasive sense of their own unreality’.

There are no easy answers or solutions to this question. But what emerged during Homophobia Rewritten, as the individual contributions looked across time and space and across disciplinary and generic contexts, was a sense of the importance of collective engagements with how to make lives liveable.