Geologies of queer studies: It’s Déjà Vu all over again

I thought I would use the occasion of this lecture to think about queer knowledges and the
conditions of their production. I want to use an experience I keep having with GLBTQ knowledges
to accentuate the continuing need to build stable institutional forms that can ensure the ongoing
development, preservation, and transmission of such knowledge. This is the déjà vu to which my title
refers: the more I explore these queer knowledges, the more I find out how much we have already
forgotten, rediscovered, and promptly forgotten again. I myself have attempted to reinvent the wheel
on several occasions. I want to think about why this has happened with such annoying regularity. A
major problem is that we still lack sufficient organizational resources to routinize the conservation of
previously attained knowledges and their conveyance to new generations.
So if you will indulge me, I’ll play Mr. Peabody and invite you into my personal Way Back Machine. It
is around 1970, and I am a brand new baby dyke. The first thing I want to do is to seduce the object of
my desire; the second is to read a good lesbian novel. Having little luck with the former project, I head
over to the graduate library at the University of Michigan and look up lesbianism in the card catalog
(this was before the advent of computerized catalogs). There were two entries under the subject
heading of “lesbian.” One was Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. The other was a book by Jess Stern
called The Grapevine, a semi-sensational account of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the San Franciscobased
lesbian rights organization founded in the early period of homophile activism in the mid-1950s. I
did not yet know that DOB had produced a small journal called The Ladder, nor that The Ladder was still
being published, albeit not by DOB.
Since the library at the University of Michigan was (and is) one of the greatest in North America, I
concluded that there was very little written on the topic or else there was a screaming need for a
lesbian bibliography. I decided to produce such a bibliography for my senior honors thesis, and spent
the next few months of my life consumed with trying to locate any and all written sources on
The first step was to inquire at the reference desk why there was so little listed on lesbianism and ask
if anyone had suggestions for finding more. I was met with blank stares. But over the next few weeks,
as I was working in the card catalog, I’d sense a presence at my shoulder. This would be some discreet
reference librarian quietly whispering that I might be interested in the section on women philanthropists,
or the books on women in prisons. The books on philanthropy were indeed full of accounts of
wealthy bisexual women romancing their way through the distaff side of the social register. The
literature on incarceration was full of reports of prison passion written by middle-class social workers
scandalized by the erotic lives of the mostly poor and working-class women under their supervision
(interracial liaisons provoking special consternation).
However, my big research breakthrough occurred accidentally on a visit to Boston. I stumbled across
a copy of The Ladder in a small bookshop near Harvard Square. I immediately wrote a letter to The
Ladder, explaining that I was working on a bibliography of lesbian literature and asking if anyone there
could help. The editor was one Gene Damon, who was of course Barbara Grier. She replied with a sharp
rebuke, informing me that such a bibliography already existed. This was The Lesbian in Literature, by
Gene Damon (Grier’s pseudonym) and Lee Stuart, published in 1967. I was also duly chastised for my
ignorance of Jeannette Foster’s even earlier book, Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956). Grier’s mighty
typewriter could have taken the hide off a rhino, and it certainly knocked some of the wind out of my
youthful enthusiasm. I am happy to report that after this initially testy encounter, Barbara relented,
generously sharing her extraordinarily detailed and vast knowledge of the hidden riches of lesbian texts.
However, the point of this tale is how difficult it was circa 1970 to find such publications. The work had
been done, but it was largely inaccessible without enough familiarity with lesbian culture to locate a
personal contact such as Grier. The mechanisms for systematic impartation and acquisition of lesbian
knowledge were at best rudimentary.
After hearing that there were existing lesbian bibliographies, I returned to the reference desk to see if
I could get them through interlibrary loan. A few days later, one of those probably queer reference
librarians led me to another gateway into the hidden world of queer scholarship. He suggested I go up
to Special Collections and ask for the Labadie Collection. Since the holdings of Labadie were cataloged
separately, they did not appear in the main catalog. But he thought some of the materials for which I
was searching were up with the rest of the rare books on the seventh floor. I followed this breadcrumb
trail upstairs to the desk of Ed Weber.
The Labadie Collection was founded in 1911 by a Detroit anarchist named Joseph Labadie. The
collection was initially focused on anarchist writings, but had gradually expanded to include social
protest literatures, especially those considered “extremist.” When Ed Weber was hired as curator in
1960, he began to collect homophile publications and gay materials. As a result, Labadie became one
of the most extensive repositories of homosexual publications in the country at a time when most
university and public libraries dismissed them as pornographic trash. It turned out that almost
everything for which I had been searching was indeed upstairs in Labadie, a wonderland of
homophile scholarship. The collection had it all: Damon and Stuart’s The Lesbian in Literature, Foster’s
Sex Variant Women in Literature, several early bibliographies compiled by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and
an almost complete run of The Ladder.
I pretty much moved into Labadie for the remainder of my undergraduate career in order to devour
these documents. It still astonishes me how much these women knew about lesbian history and how
difficult it was for me to find out what they knew. At the time I was fairly oblivious to gay male
publications, so I did not explore Labadie’s equally impressive collections of Mattachine Review, One,
and the One Institute Quarterly. But I discovered later, when my interests broadened, that these too
contained huge compilations of gay history, bibliography, social analysis, and political critique.
I was also unaware that my own interests were part of a large wave of scholarship emerging out of
the Gay Liberation movement. I have only understood in retrospect how much my cohort built on the
trails charted by our homophile predecessors, even as we often dismissed them for ostensibly lacking
theoretical sophistication or terminological precision. While I was preparing these remarks, I emailed
several of my old friends who were also doing gay research at the time to ask how they found
direction and source material. Everyone acknowledged significant debts to homophile scholarship,
organizational records, and individual collections.
It is not surprising that much of the material for John D’Emilio’s early book on the homophile
movement came from publications such as Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and the records of the New
York chapter of the Mattachine Society. But it is interesting where John found these periodicals and
other documentary evidence. Many of the records he consulted had been amassed and preserved by
individuals, mainly Jim Kepner in his Los Angeles apartment and Don Lucas in his San Francisco
garage. John also consulted the vertical files at the Kinsey Institute, and he visited Ann Arbor to utilize
Labadie’s collection of periodicals. For his magisterial Gay American History, Jonathan Ned Katz also
relied heavily on the bibliographic largesse produced by the early homophile press. When I queried
Jonathan about his treasure maps, he mentioned The Lesbian in
Literature, Mattachine Review, One, and several gay male
bibliographies, especially those of Noel Garde.
Jonathan’s email made me want to take a closer look at
Garde, and I had already decided in preparation for this lecture
to spend some time with the old homophile publications. I was
fortuitously back at Michigan and able to return to my
undergraduate haunt to try to squeeze out more insight from the
voices of queer scholars past. I had missed much of their significance
thirty years ago because of a lack of context. I read these
texts differently now, because I know so much more than I did
then, and can filter them through the lens of work such as that
of Jonathan Katz, John D’Emilio, Allan Berube, Jim Steakley,
Estelle Freedman, and William Eskridge (among others). There
are certain common themes and repetitive subjects. An individual
who read through The Ladder, One, Mattachine Review, and the
One Institute Quarterly would have had a pretty firm grasp of the
important issues, legal cases, government reports, and polemics
affecting gay life in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bibliography was a central shared obsession. In addition to
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s detailed and thoughtful review of
Jeannette Foster in the May 1957 issue, The Ladder featured a
regular bibliographic column called “Lesbiana.” Barbara Grier
eventually took on the “Lesbiana” column, the contents of which
provided much of the material for The Lesbian in Literature.
Similarly, in 1957 the Mattachine Review started a serial,
“Bibliography on Homosexual Subjects.” Noel Garde published
The Homosexual in Literature, billed as a “chronological
bibliography circa 700 BC-1958,” in 1959, and in 1964 Vantage
Press brought out his book From Jonathan to Gide: The
Homosexual in History. At the time of their publication, Garde and
Damon/Stuart were the state of the art in gay bibliography.
While my younger self would have critiqued this kind of work for
its failure to interrogate the category of “homosexual,” I now
understand such texts as a considerable achievement. Moreover,
such compilations made possible the application of the
theoretical armamentaria of late 1960s social history, cultural
anthropology, and urban sociology to GLBTQ subject matter.
But what were their sources? How did researchers such as
Garde and Grier find out what they knew? Both obviously were
passionate in their bibliographic zeal, and both also were able to
build on previous work. Grier and Bradley drew heavily on
Jeannette Foster. Foster, in turn, was a reference librarian by
trade who worked at the Kinsey Institute from 1948 to 1952. She
was thus able to utilize the incomparable collection amassed by
Kinsey. Foster followed many leads, but it is clear from her own
citations that she carefully mined the sexological texts of
Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, as well as the contemporaneous
writings of John Addington Symonds and Edward
Carpenter. In many respects, Foster’s book is a kind of hinge text,
linking the homophile generation to earlier accumulations of
queer knowledge from late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Similarly, Donald Webster Cory’s 1951 book The Homosexual in
America is a major conduit of literature produced before World
War I to the post World War II cohort of homophile intellectuals.
Noel Garde explicitly acknowledges Cory’s references, as well as
a bibliography produced by the New York chapter of the
Mattachine Society. The Homosexual in America has many
problematic aspects, but it also set an agenda for much of the
homophile scholarship it preceded and prefigured (Jeffrey
Escoffier first alerted me to the significance of Cory’s book). Cory
included every major U.S. government document pertaining to
homosexuality, including “The Employment of Homosexuals and
Other Sex Perverts in Government” and the Veterans
Administration regulations dealing with military personnel
dishonorably discharged for homosexuality. The Homosexual in
America also listed the legal statutes regulating homosexual
activities in what were then all 48 states. Cory’s own
bibliography and list of sources is still remarkable, and he
included as a special appendix a “Check List of Novels and
Dramas” pertaining to homosexuality. Foster too had read, used,
and cited Cory, and I suspect the bibliographies printed in
Mattachine Review began by updating Cory’s work.
Cory, in turn, drew a great deal of his material from another
of the great sedimentary layers of queer knowledge, the one that
accumulated in Britain and in continental Europe in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. I often call this layer “late 19th century
sexology,” but that shorthand does not do justice to the
complicated ways in which the medically credentialed
sexologists, the stigmatized homosexual intellectuals, and the
mostly anonymous but active members of the burgeoning queer
communities engaged in a complicated tango of communication
and publication (as detailed in Harry Oosterhuis’ brilliant work on
Richard von Krafft-Ebing). It might be better to think of this large
body of work as a fusion of medical texts with the writings of
homosexual (or invert) intellectuals who assembled polemical
resources with which to articulate early critiques of sexual
injustice and persecution. These resources included biographies
of famous homosexuals, material gleaned from the Greek and
Latin classics, personal testimony about the effects of blackmail
and sexual deprivation, ethnographic reports, data on animal
behavior, observations about homosexual community life, and
some of the earliest modern compilations of queer bibliography.
Taken as a whole, the body of work we call sexology is an
intensely collaborative enterprise between the doctors and the
perverts. It resulted in a massive consolidation of a major stratum
of queer knowledge – sometimes fruitfully mined, sometimes
ignored, dismissed, or forgotten. But one thing has become
abundantly clear: just as my Gay Liberation cohort built on the
publications and archival resources assembled by our immediate
predecessors, homophile era researchers drew on previous strata,
particularly the “sexological” one.
Among the most important sexologists were Richard von
Krafft-Ebing (Psychopathia Sexualis), Havelock Ellis (Sexual
Inversion), and Magnus Hirschfeld (The Homosexuality of Men and
Women, as well as his Journal of Intermediate Sexual Types). The
key polemics included the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs,
Edward Carpenter, and John Addington Symonds. Magnus
Hirschfeld was, like Ellis and Krafft-Ebing, a credentialed
physician. He was also a brilliant polemicist whose own
homosexuality was sometimes used to undermine his medical
authority. Ulrichs and Carpenter lacked medical credentials but
were heavily cited in the medical texts. Symonds’ role is
especially complex. His name was removed from Sexual Inversion
at the insistence of his estate, but he contributed a great deal of
the historical information and much of the analysis that we
attribute to Ellis (for an analysis of their respective contributions
to Sexual Inversion see Joseph Bristow’s essay in Doan and Bland’s
Sexology in Culture). Symonds’ own work contains incisive reviews
of the medical literature, in which he is cited in turn.
Magnus Hirschfeld’s 1000-page tome, The Homosexuality of
Men and Women (1914), is emblematic of the attainments of this
period. Hirschfeld intended a complete account of everything
known on the topic of homosexuality. He incorporated the work
of other medical sexologists, lay writers such as Symonds,
Carpenter, and Ulrichs, and his own primary research. The
second part of the book, called “The Homosexuality of Men and
Women as Sociological Occurrence,” is particularly compelling. It
includes the results of one of the first statistical surveys of
homosexuals as well as chapters on homosexuality at different
class levels and in different countries. Hirschfeld’s book also
contains an extraordinary report on urban gay life in the early
20th century. John Addington Symonds noted that homosexual
passion “throbs in our huge cities.” Hirschfeld proceeded to detail
the sociology of this heartbeat in the chapter on community life
and meeting places of homosexual men and women (mainly in
Berlin), including circles of friends, private clubs, political clubs,
sports clubs, and a complicated network of bars catering to
different subsets of the population. He documented the
homosexual use of public theaters, a group of homosexual
bathhouses, drag balls for both men and women, hotels and
guest houses favored by homosexuals, cruising in public parks
and toilets, and the use of personal advertisements to find
partners. And the significance of this city-based subculture is
shown, he noted, by the “many, who day after day have seldom
been able to remove their masks, and feel here as if liberated.
People have seen homosexuals from the provinces set foot in
such bars for the first time and burst into violently emotional
tears.” Hirschfeld also devoted considerable space to the legal
and social victimization, persecution, and prosecution of
homosexuals. He included a detailed history of the organized
movement against this persecution as well as a list of anti-gay
laws around the world.
Hirschfeld’s intellectual significance has often been underestimated
as a consequence of the paucity of reliable translations of
his magnificent oeuvre. A few excerpts of The Homosexuality of
Men and Women were translated by Henry Gerber and published
in the One Institute Quarterly in the early 1960s, but a complete
translation by Michael Lombardi-Nash has only been available
since 2000. I had not read The Homosexuality of Men and Women
when I first encountered The Homosexual in America. Now, having
read both, I can see their kinship. Cory had read Hirschfeld in the
German and was able to draw on Hirschfeld’s bibliographic
compilations, historical data, and rhetorical tactics. Cory discussed
what he called “the Hirschfeld movement” and the “Carpenter
movement” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lamenting
that there had been nothing similar since their decline. He
probably could not know that a major revival of such activism
was about to erupt, nor that his elaborations on the pre-World
War I corpus of knowledge would be further embellished by an
emerging group of homophile researchers.
The layer of queer knowledge generated from roughly the late
1880s to the 1920s, mostly in England and continental Europe,
has continued to inspire new work as scholars excavate its
resources in the service of more contemporary projects. For
example, Jeffrey Weeks’ early work, especially his 1977 Coming
Out: A History of Homosexual Politics in Britain, is in many ways an
extended meditation on Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and
John Addington Symonds, inflected with considerable knowledge
of Krafft-Ebing. Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume I is in large
part a brilliant reading of Krafft-Ebing and French late 19th
century French psychiatry. Lisa Duggan’s work on the Alice
Mitchell case and Harry Oosterhuis’ biography of Krafft-Ebing
make whole new readings of sexology possible. Nonetheless, I
believe both the sexological texts and the homophile corpus are
underutilized and could still launch a thousand dissertations.
It is this sense of queer knowledges in sedimented layers that I
hoped to convey with my title tonight. In the geologic record,
certain strata are fossil rich, partly because of the conditions that
produce luxuriant life forms and partly because of the conditions
that favor their preservation in fossil form. Similarly, there seem to
be periods in which social and political conditions have favored
abundant proliferation of queer knowledges, while other
conditions dictate their preservation or destruction. And it is up
to succeeding generations to ensure that such sedimentary
formations are identified, excavated, catalogued, and utilized to
produce new knowledge. Unfortunately, because of the lack of
durable structural mechanisms to secure the reliable transfer of
queer knowledges, they are often instead lost, buried, and
For example, it is difficult to teach material that is only
available in photocopied course packs or in special collections
with limited access. Most of the books to which I referred tonight
are out of print or hard to find. Many were briefly available in
reprint editions during the 1970s as a consequence of the 1975
Arno Press series Homosexuality: Lesbians and Gay Men in Society,
History, and Literature. These reprints of primary texts were one
of the most important achievements of the early wave of Gay
Liberation Scholarship. The series consisted of 54 books and two
periodicals, including the early homophile bibliographies by
Damon, Stuart, Bradley, and Garde; several key U.S. government
documents relating to homosexuality; reprints of important books
by Edward Carpenter, Xavier Mayne, Natalie Barney, Blair Niles,
and Donald Webster Cory; lesbian classics and pulp novels; texts
from the gay rights movement in Germany; and reprints of
complete runs of The Ladder and Mattachine Review. This extraordinary
series was three decades too early. Sadly, it too is now out
of print, and the Arno editions are almost as rare as the originals.
Both Krafft-Ebing’s Pychopathia Sexualis and Havelock Ellis’ Sexual
Inversion were recently re-released in cheap paperback editions,
but when I tried to order them as textbooks this year they were
already once again unobtainable.
I want to use this brief review of this material to make a few
points. The first is the prevalence of amnesia about the past of
Queer Studies. I am continually shocked at the assumption that
GLBTQ studies only got started sometime in the 1990s. I chose
the metaphor of geology because it helps us think about longer
time frames and pull our focus away from the present. In
geologic time, the present is a very short blip. Our sense of what
is important in queer scholarship should not be distorted by the
glitter of the current, the trendy, and the new. I want us to think
about longer processes that have shaped the present and in
which the present is deeply rooted. Any scholarly project can
benefit from an accumulation of knowledge that can be
evaluated, validated, criticized, updated, polished, improved, or
used to provide new trails to investigate. We need to be more
conscious about including the older material in the contemporary
canon of Queer Studies.
However, the causes of limited memory are more structural
than stylistic, and are produced less by curricular decisions than
by institutional impedimenta. My main point is that we need to
do more to overcome the institutional deficiencies that constrict
access to older knowledge. We must continue to develop organizational
structures to guarantee the conservation, transmission,
and development of queer knowledges. As a discipline, GLBTQ
studies is still very rudimentarily institutionalized in the universities,
and this is a challenge to its continued viability. Clearly,
there is much greater institutionalization now than there was
even a decade ago, as events such as this lecture series and the
existence of institutions such as CLAGS demonstrate. But the
number of departments of GLBTQ studies is minuscule in
comparison to the number of, for example, departments of
sociology or political science. The infrastructures of knowledge
require physical space and durable organizational structures –
offices, buildings, libraries, archives, departments, programs,
centers, faculty lines, staff positions, and paychecks. We must
work to accumulate more resources and build better bureaucracies.
Many of us instinctively recoil at the idea of bureaucratization
and consider it distasteful. Bureaucracy has many drawbacks,
including staleness, boredom, and petty bureaucrats.
Bureaucracies almost by nature lack excitement, glamour, or
charisma. We often live for fleeting intensities and charged
moments, and celebrate marginality as a kind of permanent
desideratum. But if bureaucracy and routinization have their costs,
so do marginality and charisma. Marginality and momentary
excitements are intrinsically fragile, evanescent, and unstable. Part
of the reason for our impaired memory of the older strata of
queer knowledges is that the institutions and organizations that
produced them are gone. Queer life is full of examples of fabulous
explosions that left little or no detectable trace, or whose
documentary and artifactual remains were never systematically
assembled or adequately conserved.
Those of you who know me will understand the ambivalence
with which I recall one such set of vanished institutions: the
“women’s community” that rose up out of feminism and radical
lesbianism in the 1970s. By the late 1970s, there were dozens of
feminist and lesbian newspapers, at least a dozen journals, several
thriving feminist presses, and a network of local communities with
significant public territory. In San Francisco, much of this women’s
territory was along Valencia Street, where there were lesbian bars,
feminist coffee houses, the women’s bookstore, and several
women’s collectives and businesses. There were similar
settlements in Western Massachusetts, in Iowa City, and across the
San Francisco Bay in Oakland. Today, there is almost nothing left
of that world. Most of the newspapers, journals, bookstores,
coffee houses, and businesses are gone, despite a few stubborn
survivors such as Lesbian Connection. There are complicated
reasons for the collapse of these communities, but one of them
was their infrastructural fragility. In San Francisco, for example,
most of the shops were in rented storefronts along a low-rent
business corridor. When commercial rents began to skyrocket,
these shops were driven out. The only remnant of this once
vibrant women’s neighborhood is the Women’s Building, and the
only reason it is still there is because it was purchased, not rented.
But the built environment is expensive and stability is resource
Queer populations have an overabundance of marginality and
an insufficiency of stability. Max Weber noted that bureaucracy,
once fully established, is among the hardest social structures to
destroy. That can be a curse. But we could use some of that
stability, and the resources required to sustain it, in Queer Studies.
New theoretical frameworks, new data, and new discoveries will
always force rethinking of our premises and assumptions. We
must count on periodic rebellions, reformations, and upheavals to
bring refreshment and renewal. But to paraphrase Marshall
Berman, all that seems solid can vanish in a heartbeat, and to
mangle Santayana, those who fail to secure the transmission of
their histories are doomed to forget them.

Gayle Rubin delivered the
12th annual David R.
Kessler Lecture on December
5, 2003. The event drew a
capacity crowd to CUNY
Graduate Center’s
Proshansky Auditorium that
evening despite a heavy
snowfall throughout the day.
Rubin is a professor of
anthropology at the
University of Michigan and
the author of several foundational
works in the field of
queer studies, including “The
Traffic in Women: Notes on
the `Political Economy’
of Sex” and “Thinking
Sex.” She was introduced
with warm testimonials from
Henry Abelove and Esther
Newton. We would like to
thank her for sharing this
excerpt from her lecture.