Saturday, October 30, 2010

BQH Conference Recap

The image you see here is a portion of a surviving manuscript from 1516 in which one Christopher Hewitson of Over Poppleton, England (near York) was accused of the “detestable sodomitical sin against human nature” with a number of men over a 14-year period. The manuscript is held by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. You can read more here about Hewitson, the people called to testify against him with regard to the sexual acts performed, and his penance, walking in procession around church during services wearing a sheet over his head. Hewitson’s case was discussed in detail and analyzed in the context of social history and sexual practices at the time by Derek Neal (Nipissing University) at the recent British Queer History Conference I attended at McGill University the weekend of October 14th. Aside from my ambivalence about Montreal itself, the conference did have some interesting presentations, the Hewitson case being one of the most informative.

The conference began with keynote speaker Jeffrey Weeks’s presentation “Queer(y)ing the ‘Modern Homosexual,’” which was a historiography of the evolution of gay and lesbian history and queer theory, with a particular emphasis on what he has labeled Queer 1 (pre-Stonewall), Queer 2 (queer theory), and Queer 3 (present-day conflated sexual identities). Weeks is a pioneer in the field of gay and lesbian history, and his book Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present (1977) was an excellent introduction when I read it more than a decade ago. What startled me, however, was that there were nearly 300 people in the room to hear his talk, and it made me realize how relevant and important this area of study still is for people.

Derek Neal’s talk I’ve already noted, but what was interesting to me was how a panel session on medieval Britain could turn out to be one of the most interesting. Nancy Partner (McGill) discussed the reception of John Boswell’s groundbreaking book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (1980), noting how the development of queer theory as a form of literary analysis actually relates to Boswell’s work, despite the criticism by social constructionists of his work as essentialist, because of his focus on textual analysis, and how this revised understanding of his work can help medieval scholars work on queer topics today. The third (provocative and hilarious) paper by Karma Lochrie (Indiana) dealt with pilgrimage badges from ca.1400 that showed sexual genitalia in anthropomorphic form, such as penises carrying a vaginal figure on a dais. She considered them as objects with both spiritual and satirical elements, comparing them to religious icons and rituals from this time.

Matt Cook (Birkbeck) spoke about the late Victorian Aesthetic couple Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts, and Morris B. Kaplan (SUNY Purchase) discussed Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse’s queer adventures in the Far East. Amy Tooth Murphy (Glasgow) gave a fascinating presentation on her work conducting oral histories of lesbians after World War II, playing some of the recordings of the women’s experiences during her talk. Will Fisher (Lehman) talked about the popularity of what he calls “thigh-sex” in 17th-century English literature. Katie Hindmarch-Watson (Johns Hopkins) spoke about the homosexual prostitution underworld of London telegraph boys in the 1870s. Finally, David Minto (Yale) discussed the global impact of the Wolfenden Report, which led to the nationwide decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK in 1967. There were plenty of other talks; you can see the whole program here.

As for the panel session I had organized, Carolyn Conroy unfortunately could not make the conference, so I read her paper for her on Simeon Solomon’s 1873 arrest for attempted sodomy. My own paper on John Gibson, the Duke of Devonshire, and queer art patronage seemed to be received well, although it seemed to be an area (art) in which many of those present were less familiar. Jongwoo Kim’s (Louisville) paper on Henry Scott Tuke and social realism, however, was very well received, I believe because of the modern implications of his work and the interest of the historians and sociologists in the room. All in all the conference was interesting and I am glad I went, but being there made me realize more than ever before that, while I have an interest in gay cultural history, I am nowhere near as committed to the debates surrounding the social construction of queer identities as these people are. They can argue those issues all they want. I prefer to focus on art.


Sherman Clarke said...

And then you didn't tag it for "art" or "gay art." I can really understand the part about finding the art the most important thing. Do you know if Jongwoo would share his Tuke paper? Or is it to be published? Or does he blog? I discovered that "Mary and Max" is already available at Netflix so I put it at the top.

bklynbiblio said...

Wow, you're right, Sherman -- duly noted and now corrected, 'art' now appears. Jongwoo has a book coming out, so I suspect some of this material will be in there. "Mary & Max" was great -- sad at times, but also very funny.