Monthly Archives: October 2014

Oscar Wilde’s (Prison) Friends

Oscar Wilde was born on 16 October 1854. On the 160th anniversary of his birth, mainstream and social media began to circulate a photograph of the man who is thought to be the ‘little dark-eyed chap’ whom Wilde befriended in Reading goal.

It is not known whether or not the man in the picture, Harry Bushnell, really was Wilde’s close friend in prison, let alone if he was Wilde’s lover. But the spotlight on their relationship suggests that Wilde’s tragic fate continues to have an affective hold in the twenty-first century.

Hirschfeld’s Wilde

Wilde died in November 1900 aged 46, not long after he was released from Reading gaol where he had served a sentence of two years hard labor following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1895. The writings of Magnus Hirschfeld reveal that Wilde’s imprisonment and premature death had considerable impact on homosexual men at the time.

Hirschfeld himself wrote about Wilde’s tragic fate to illustrate what he called the ‘hell’ experienced by those homosexual women and men who were socially ostracised and persecuted. He also described an encounter with a group of young male Cambridge students who shortly after Wilde’s death had gathered together to read aloud ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, further marking their allegiance to Wilde by attaching his prisoner’s number, J.3.3., to their shirts.

Hirschfeld’s moving account of the event indicates the emotional impact of Wilde’s fate on those who identified in some way with him. But it also provides hope amidst the sadness of the  occasion: Hirschfeld lingers on the image of a queer community that continues to flourish despite – and to some extent because of – death and persecution.

Wilde Affect

The current attention to Harry Bushnell carries some of the same emotional weight. Sensational revelatory impulse notwithstanding, it suggests an investment in making bearable Wilde’s suffering by imaging possibilities of intimacy in the harsh conditions of Reading gaol. Of course it would be tempting to dismiss outright such claims as hopelessly naive and sentimental. Yet imagining Wilde being loved, desired and cared for at that point in time when his life was being so cruelly denied is also a form of resistance to the attempted negotiation of his influence: it serves as a poignant reminder of Wilde’s role in the formation of affirmative modern queer subcultures.

24 October 2014.

 

Precious Critical Time: A Workshop on Violence in Queer & Trans Lives

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 12.59.37

 

As part of my AHRC Fellowship, I hosted a workshop yesterday on ‘Violence in Queer and Trans Lives: A Dialogue between the Humanities and Health Professions’. Following on from Homophobia Rewritten, a thought-provoking symposium I had organised earlier in the summer, this workshop brought into conversation diverse gender and sexuality scholars and professionals whose work focuses on the difficult, and frequently violent, experiences of people whose bodies and desires do not conform to narrow socio-cultural norms and expectations.

Unlike Homophobia Rewritten, which featured formal paper presentations on the literary and cultural representations of, and responses, to homophobia, the format of this workshop was more open. In line with the event’s main aim – to facilitate explorative conversations between experts who do not normally find themselves in dialogue with each other – the number of invited contributors was deliberately small.

Next to me – I’m a senior lecturer in English & Humanities at Birkbeck currently working on a project that explores how violence shaped the emergence of modern sexual identities and subcultures – the participants included: Monalesia Earle, a social worker and PhD student working with me on a thesis about contemporary queer women of colour representation; Peter Hegarty, professor of psycholoIMG_2656gy at the University of Surrey with special interests in gender and sexuality, and Katherine Hubbard, a PhD student working with Peter on a project about Rorschach tests and the ‘hidden’ homophobic history of psychology; Churnjeet Mahn, a literary scholar from Surrey’s English Department and former collaborator of mine on Transnational Lesbian Cultures, who is now working on an AHRC funded project with young queer refugees, and Vernon Rosario, a UCLA-based clinical psychiatrist  – and trained historian of medicine – with special interest in trans, intersex and issues of gender and sexuality more broadly.

Critical Conversations

It was a privilege to have Vernon in our middle. His experience with children and adolescents who feel in need of medical help because of their gender – or are send to him by parents who think that such help is needed – provided important insights into the everyday realties and difficulties faced by some of the young people whose bodies and desires may be the subject of much social and critical scrutiny, but who do not (yet) take part in these debates.

Much of our discussion focused on how ideas become truths and how to challenge rarefied misconceptions about what science knows about bodies. We argued about the relationship between ‘discourse’ and ‘experience’, ‘theory’ and ‘everyday reality’, and agreed, broadly, about the need for stronger links – new bridges of intelligibility – between the humanities, social sciences and medical practice.

I came away energised and full of new ideas, and with plans to build on the links forged during this event. But it also made me acutely aware of what a rare opportunity it has become in UK Higher Education to be able to engage in critical group conversations that neither revolve around the presentation of polished existing research nor work towards producing a specific new outcome. Yet such speculative debates, and dialogue across fields, are absolutely vital to academic work: for transformative research is never forged in isolation.

8 October 2014. Thanks to the AHRC for funding this event, and to the School of English and Languages at the University of Surrey for providing the venue.

2 Oct. 2014: Travels with Hirschfeld

Taking stock after a busy summer of writing, researching and travelling, I realised that since starting this project I have now been to quite a few of the many places Hirschfeld visited during his lifetime. My map of these places excludes those cities I visited in pursuit of Hirschfeld archives but which had not been visited by him during his lifetime (the Kinsey Library in Bloomington Indiana is one such example).

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 15.34.51

Of course is it well-known that Hirschfeld was an avid traveller. For most of his life, his journeys focused on Europe and North America. But in 1930, under increasing threat of attack from the rising Nazi party, he left Berlin to lecture in the United States. The trip formed the beginning of a journey that would lead Hirschfeld to circumvent the globe as he travelled across the US, Asia and the Middle East before returning Europe where he died in exile in Nice in 1935.

Hirschfeld published an account of this journey, entitled Die Weltreise eines Sexualforschers, which was translated into English by O.P. Green and published under the title Women East and West: Impressions of a Sex Expert in the U.K., while the title of the U.S. version stayed somewhat closer to the original with Men and Women: The World Journey of a Sexologist.

The book is of particular interest for me, not primarily for its depiction of foreign places, although I always make sure to read what he has to say about a city I’m about to visit. Instead I am intrigued by the evidence of Hirschfeld’s many international connections and friendships with reformers around the world. This material indicates the many links that existed in the 1920s and early 1930 between social reformers, medical researchers,  writers and artists from around the world.

My autumn task is to write-up research on Hirschfeld’s international links and what they reveal about the development and reception of his ideas at that moment in time before the events of World War II so brutally reconfigured the boundaries of intellectual exchange and collaboration. I aim aided in this task by a new, less violent, shift in scholarly boundaries: the insights gained from the work of scholars of sexuality in Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East.* Then and now, it seems, studies of the constructions and representations of sexuality, its politics and the everyday realities attached to sexual categories necessitate interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches that look across time and space to explore how bodies and desires are normalized and instrumentalized and well as collectively affirmed and celebrated in the name of ‘sexuality’.

* Click here for a special issue on ‘Transnational Lesbian Cultures’  I edited with Churnjeet Mahn for the Journal of Lesbian Studies. I also includes an article by me on books, difficult feelings and the graphic memoirs of Alison Bechdel.