Tag Archives: queer

Suicide and Queer History

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The campaign, which originates in the United States, aims to raise awareness specifically about suicide prevention. However, it also speaks to broader efforts of activists who seek to de-stigmatize mental health issues and campaign against the taboo and silence that has historically surrounded them.

Suicide History

That suicide has a social dimension was first explored over the course of the nineteenth-century when a new band of psychiatrists and social researchers began to ask questions about what caused a person to take their own life. Writing in the 1840s Karl Marx, for instance, considered suicide part of the wider social struggle. In contrast, by the time Émile Durkheim published his study of Le Suicide (1897), the subject had already lost some of its revolutionary interest as scientists began to study it from a more clinical and social research perspectives.

One of the researchers who resisted the move towards a more apolitical science – even as he claimed that science would bring truth – was Magnus Hirschfeld. By his own account, the trained doctor was prompted to switch from general medical practice to sexology after the death of one of his patients, a young man who shot himself on the eve of his marriage and left Hirschfeld a note in which he explained that he was unable to speak about – and live with – his desire for other men.

The exact nature of the event is critically disputed, but what is clear is that Hirschfeld considered suicide a real, and potentially deadly, concern for women and men whose bodies and desires did not fit narrow social norms and expectations. Working at a time when the homosexual rights movement started to garner more widespread support, and when same-sex cultures were thriving in many urban centres, Hirschfeld realised that despite the social gains, could people feel their lives were unlivable because of same-sex attraction. In a bid to raise awareness and work towards what we would now call suicide prevention, Hirschfeld collected statistical data about homosexual women and men who killed themselves. He disseminated some of the insights gained via cultural activities such as a collaboration on Anders als die Andern [different from the others] (1919), a silent movie which problematizes the criminalization of homosexuality. The film’s main character kills himself as a result of the acts of a blackmailer.

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern (1919)

Conrad Veidt in Anders als die Andern (1919)

Ultimately, it might be impossible to explain why someone takes their life while someone else lives in circumstance that appear akin. But Hirschfeld’s suicide archive nevertheless suggests that a sense of unlivability can develop not only from persecution, but also from a sense that one’s desires and bodies are unspeakable, shameful and ostracized.

A Queer Concern

From out vantage point today, in an age of discursive explosions around difficult events and a new digital culture that has normalised the public expression of feelings, it can be easy to forget the pernicious nature of the ‘hidden’ silences in public discourse. If Hirschfeld’s archive poses certain critical difficulties, not least because of the danger that the accounts of despair and misery might feed pernicious anti-queer stereotyping, there is nevertheless still much to be learned from – and about – the history of queer suicide.

For better or worse suicide and queer existence have a shared history. Understanding what this might mean is part of the ongoing task of challenging the silencing of lives and feelings that are deemed difficult, embarrassing – or simply different from social norms and expectations.

For a fuller discussion see my chapter ‘Suicidal Subjects: Translation and the Affective Foundations of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexology, in Heike Bauer (ed.), Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (Temple University Press, 2015), pp. 233-252.

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.

 

 

 

24 March 2014. Mutual Friends and Queer Reading Communities

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The open access online journal, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, published by my colleagues at the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in autumn 2015. This date coincides with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. 

To mark both occasions, the people at 19 have set up a great experiment in virtual reading community building: between May 2014 and November 2015, they will publish Our Mutual Friend online in monthly installments that follow the rhythm of the original publication. The first part has already been published here. Comments and reflections from international scholars and students will follow in due course.

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This experiment in collective reading, which builds community around a text, speaks to a particular concern of my own research: the role of literature in forging queer communities across the modern world. Magnus Hirschfeld’s writings are peppered with literary references. They show that he was particularly interested in representations of same-sex love and desire, and, especially, in those queer books whose authors were also involved in some way in major political debates of their day – for instance, Oscar Wilde and Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws, and Emile Zola and anti-Semitism in France feature prominently in Hirschfeld’s work.

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While Dickens plays no significant role in Hirschfeld’s writings – which reflects Hirschfeld’s interest in overt rather than subtle representations of queer existence – I am nevertheless intrigued by the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment. For its emphasis on reading as a collective activity is a forceful reminder that books create ‘felt experiences’ and a sense of collectivity that reaches across time and space.

Follow the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project here: http://dickensourmutualfriend.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/first-monthly-instalment-may-1864/#comments

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