It’s hard to believe that we are celebrating one year of Notches! On 6 January 2014, with the support of the Raphael Samuel History Centre, we launched a new blog with the goal of getting folks inside and outside the academy to think critically about histories of sex and sexuality across theme, period and region. We are proud of what Notches has gone on to achieve in 2014. The quality, range, and significance of our contributors’ posts has exceeded our expectations, as has the response. It’s a testament to our fantastic contributors that we gained 3,500 subscribers and achieved a viewership of some 100,000 well in advance of our 1 year anniversary. Thank you!
But, if the year went by as quickly for you as it did for us, some wonderful posts may have escaped your notice. Some from the early days didn’t benefit from the same attention that came with our growing readership. Others are more recent interventions that warrant a second look. We present some of these below and we hope you enjoy each. We also hope that you continue to follow Notches for exciting new blog posts, dispatches and feature interviews coming in 2015!
In an excellent first year for Notches, I’m especially pleased that we have published some exciting pieces on pre-modern sexuality. Several powerful posts addressed distressing stories of individuals’ non-normative gender expression or sexual behaviours in early modern Europe. Marianna Muravyeva, for instance, explored intersex histories by examining the difficult lives of ‘hermaphrodites’ in early modern Russia. Such pieces make for difficult reading, but they also demonstrate the relevance of the history of sexuality to the modern world. The issues raised by many of our authors remain all too relevant today.
But our pre-modern posts have also highlighted the challenges facing those of us who study the sexuality of long-dead individuals. Kim Racon’s ‘Finding the Lesbian Premodern‘ took as its starting point a fifteenth-century memorial brass depicting two women, and asks whether we can identify these women as lesbians — or would this be a projection of modern models of sexuality onto the distant past? I’m also rather fond of my own first post for Notches (published a year ago today) on medieval depictions of the ‘Three Wise Men in a Bed‘, and the dangers of assuming that medieval people found the same innuendos in such images as modern onlookers have a tendency to see!
I’ve learned so much from our contributors in the last year, expanding my awareness of issues and scholarship in the history of sexuality. But I’ve been most excited by the political relevance of many of our posts. The history of sexuality isn’t an incidental part of academic research, but is often grounded in the real struggles of individuals in the past, some still with us today. Bob Cant was one of Notches’ founder bloggers and his personal reflection ‘Out in the Unions‘ appeared on our first day of publication. Bob’s other posts on trade union activism and LGBT politics should remind all of us to remember the diverse intersections of multiple positions, experiences, and values in the past (and indeed the present!). Many activists who engaged in queer politics were also active voices for equality in other areas, and sexual equality struggles blurred into advocacy for race, class and gender equality as well. As a voice from the trenches, Bob’s contributions have widened Notches’ perspective and value.
With LGBT History Month UK just around the corner in February, I’d also like to take a moment to reflect on our contributors’ thoughts on events last year. Claire Hayward values the work that LGBT History Month (and history months recognising other marginalised groups) does to raise awareness and promote discussion, but last February she asked: ‘Are We Celebrating or Relegating LGBT History?’ Hayward worries that ‘having a single month devoted to discussing such histories is actually regressive and results in tokenistic gestures’ further marginalising histories that ultimately remain largely ignored the rest of the year. Onni Gust offered another important reflection. Rightfully concerned that ‘By keeping silent about Empire, LGBT History Month offers a distorted imagining of British history,’ Gust speaks to the complicity of historians in marginalising some histories while promoting others. ‘Closets, like archives, harbor secrets’, Gust concludes: What should LGBT History Month say about Empire? Both posts speak to the important and fraught task of being a historian of sexuality, and the responsibilities we have to the past, and to the present.
It has been an exciting year on Notches, one that has seen an international and collaborative conversation about the history of sexuality. I have been especially pleased that Notches has become a venue for a robust discussion about the intertwined histories of religion and sexuality, a burgeoning subfield that promises to offer new angles of vision for our understanding of the past. Our contributors have helped bring into focus intersections among histories of colonialism, religion and sexuality. TJ Tallie’s “The Archbishop’s Argument: Anglicanism, Homosexuality, and Colonial Complexities” analyzed the ways in which religious institutions have colonial vestiges, continue to be transnational enterprises, and are active participants in a global sexual politics. The legacy of colonialism is also at play in Sean Brady’s timely article, “Ian Paisley (1926-2014) and the ‘Save Ulster From Sodomy!’ Campaign.” Here Brady foregrounded the ultranationalist Reverend Paisley’s role in leading anti-gay crusades in Northern Ireland during the mid-1970s. “Religion and sectarianism,” Brady avers, “more than any other phenomena, shaped the sexualities and lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.”
Far from simply a repressive apparatus, religion also engendered queer intimacies and sexual possibilities. Heather White’s incisive article, “Mainline Protestants and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage,” offered a fascinating counterpoint to Brady’s by exploring the historical precedents for mainline Protestant support for same-sex marriage in the United States. White traces a shift within Protestant churches from condemning and managing same-sex sexuality to condoning and supporting same-sex sexuality and marriage. Rachel Gordan meanwhile highlighted the ways in which the Kinsey Reports portrayed Judaism and how Orthodox Jews at mid-century responded to Kinsey. This dialogic process, she contends, reshaped the meanings of Jewish identity to a non-Jewish public while offering a platform for Orthodox Jews to articulate their own ideas about Judaism and sexuality.
Together, these pieces are a promising contribution to a much needed discussion of the histories of religion and sexuality. It is my hope that in the coming year we will see further pieces that explore the importance of race to the histories of religion and sexuality and to have discussions of a greater diversity of religious practices, identities and communities.
I am awed by the wide range of fascinating posts Notches published over the past year, as well as the incredible growth of its readership. Looking back at some of Notches’ earlier, less-trafficked pieces I was struck by two that together suggest how historians might think more about age, sex, and sexuality. Jen Baker’s piece on Shirley Temple — who passed away in 2014 — examines Temple’s disturbing on-screen sexual appeal. Baker points out that novelist Graham Greene was one of the few critics to allude to Temple’s sexuality in a controversial review of one of her films, Wee Willie Winkie, an episode in Temple’s career that was elided in her obituaries. After reading Baker’s post, Temple’s widespread appeal takes on much a darker meaning. I know I won’t be able to look at a picture of Shirley Temple again without recalling Baker’s comments.
And Ben Mechen’s post on ‘Ageing and the History of Sexuality‘, inspired by Lynne Segal’s recent book Out of Time, significantly calls on historians of sexuality to pay greater attention to the sexual desires of the aged. Old age, in fact, may be particularly productive grounds for queer theorists, he argues, bringing with it failures of memory and physical transformation. In paraphrasing Segal, Mechen asks, “Isn’t ageing…one of the queerest things we can do?” Mechen considers the way his own work could have employed ageing as an analytical category for understanding sexuality, thus inviting other scholars to do the same. He has certainly inspired me to do so. I hope to read much more about the history of sexuality across the human lifespan on Notches in 2015!
Notches has really exceeded my expectations in its first year, both in terms of its readership and in terms of the quality and breadth of its posts. Amongst all this excellent stuff, it’s difficult to find specific posts to highlight, but I’ve chosen two from our earlier days, which represent, in different ways, things I’d like to see more of on the site.
The first post is by Jen Baker, ‘A Filthy Brutish Offence: Child Sex Abuse and the Law in C17th England’, in which she points out how fundamentally important historical perspective is to explaining the concepts of ‘the child’ and ‘consent’ that form the basis of legal and cultural understandings of child sexual abuse in the present and in the past. This post didn’t attract a lot of hits, mostly because it appeared in our early days, but I think it’s also a subject that, even for historians of sexuality, is difficult to read about. Indeed, in scanning the balance of posts on Notches over this past year, there is far more material on sexual rights, sexual identity, sexual culture, and consensual sexual practises than there is on issues related to sexual violence, exploitation, and abuse. I don’t think this is particularly the fault of Notches: it is a reflection of the overall field. But we all recognize, I think, the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the past and the real need for more work on it. Jen Baker’s post, alongside several others on the site, was an important contribution to this still grievously underexplored side of the history of sex and sexuality.
The second post I’d like to highlight is a very early post by my co-founding editor Justin Bengry, the second post on the site in fact, in which he discussed whether the history of sexuality was Incoherent or Invigorated and concluded, ultimately, it was both, and that is its strength. A year in, Notches has gone on to confirm Bengry’s reasons for optimism: it covers a huge range of subjects across time periods and most regions around the world (although we, and the field, are still working on that!). Notches also deals with themes of interest to all historians of sexuality and, I would suggest, all historians. I do think, however, we still need more posts like this one, which take stock of this ever-changing, dynamic field.
NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at www.notchesblog.com.
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